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pathways (ask a philosopher)

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 8 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from October — November 2000:

  1. 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it'
  2. What is empiricism?
  3. Confucius on 'Friends from afar'
  4. How, and by whom was Kant outlived?
  5. Kripke on rules and private language
  6. Why have philosophers ignored aesthetics?
  7. Where do we get the idea of 'free will' from?
  8. What is nothingness?
  9. Strategies for dealing with skepticism
  10. The European Union and the nation state
  11. Why didn't Socrates take the chance to escape?
  12. Alternatives to eating meat
  13. Relevance of Stoicism in the world today
  14. Contrary-to-fact conditionals
  15. I think philosophy is just a bunch of bull
  16. Do we have to think scientifically in order to find the truth?
  17. The pragmatic approach to counselling
  18. Jacques Derrida on religion
  19. Is Atheism logically untenable?
  20. V.N. Voloshinov and Russian philosophy
  21. Deciding the sex of an unborn child
  22. Determinism, free will and responsibility
  23. Difference between Heidegger and Sartre
  24. Kant's view of space and time as products of the mind
  25. Why Marx thought Communism would supplant Capitalism
  26. My family are pushing me to get married
  27. Living the real present
  28. Difference between good and bad logic
  29. Problem of change in Ancient Greek philosophy
  30. Peter Singer on the moral rights of animals
  31. Striving for personal goals vs. interacting with others
  32. Can you help me dislodge the dustbin of my mind?
  33. Nietzsche on the Will to Power and altruism
  34. How far can we know an object?
  35. Living a beautiful lie
  36. Dilemma of a modern Dr Faustus
  37. Up equals 'good', down equals 'bad'
  38. Definition of 'materialism'
  39. Does happiness really exist?
  40. Has metaphysics been overcome?
  41. Buddha's Noble Truths
  42. The Absolute, love, and evil
  43. Existentialism and metaphysics
  44. What hedonists are after
  45. Including religion in philosophy
  46. The first thinker to use the term philosophia
  47. Applying philosophy in practice
  48. Ethics of compulsory caesarean operation
  49. Wittgenstein on language and publicity
  50. Our responsibility for the actions of others
  51. Is humble pie comfort food?
  52. Wittgenstein and Nietzsche on morality
  53. Pragmatists and phenomenologists
  54. Challenge to metaphysics
  55. Can God make a rock bigger than He can lift?
  56. How could Nostradamus have seen the future?
  57. Questions we can't ask, because the answers cannot be known
  58. Mill and Bentham on nature of pleasure
  59. Christianity and Hinduism: one way or many ways?
  60. Golden Rule and Kant's Categorical Imperative
  61. Is philosophy just a matter of tearing things apart?
  62. A difficult passage
  63. If I can't know anything for sure, how can I know God exists?
  64. What does it mean to have 'existential doubts'?
  65. How to attain true happiness
  66. The meaning of a spoon
  67. Friendship, love and the existence of God
  68. Socrates' method of doing philosophy
  69. Anti-realism, meaning and truth
  70. Eliminative materialism
  71. Non-consequentialist theory of morality
  72. 'I think, therefore I am'
  73. Ivan Karamazov's attitude to God
  74. Is God unfair?
  75. 'When there is a motive to be virtuous, there is no virtue'
  76. Kant and Utilitarianism
  77. Why it is immoral to make false promises
  78. God is guilty, because he created Satan
  79. Heidegger's 'Question Concerning Technology'
  80. Cosmological argument
  81. Plato's allegory of The Cave
  82. Plato's account of perception
  83. Why doesn't God stop the suffering in the world?
  84. How can God be omniscient? Is the ontological argument valid?
  85. Christian exclusivism and the pluralist society
  86. Are there unforgiven acts?

Ask a question Answer a question

Emily asked:

Looking at all of the various questions on this site is quite dizzying. Though I find philosophy to be an interesting and worthwhile subject, I can't seem to understand why or how people can ponder such unsettling questions. Sure thinking about these questions takes no small mind and is quite intellectually stimulating, but when you consider the subjectiveness and ambiguity of everything involved in philosophy, doesn't it seem a little wasteful? Anyways, the questions that I really wanted to ask, (which I am afraid to ask my philosophy teacher) is, what is your response to this quote by Karl Marx?:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it.

I'm only a graduate student, but I could imagine spending my working life doing philosophy, so the question you ask is a pressing one for me. I don't have an answer, but the Marx quote you mention indicates where I'm looking. You have to ask, change what? Interpretation and bringing about change shouldn't be two separate things. But how to put that into practice...

Steve Butterfill
University of Oxford

What is wasted? And what makes efficiency a supreme edict? Surely many forms of "culture" can be regarded as superfluous, but often superfluity and abundance seem desirable.

Moreover, the fact that there are subjective elements in philosophy doesn't mean that is it merely subjective. There is a subjective aspect to running 100 metres in 9.8 seconds; but this doesn't detract from the achievement.

Karl Marx says that's the point of philosophy. Maybe he's wrong. Why not think of philosophy as a way of changing yourself, and the way the world seems to you, and then deciding whether or not you think there's more to be changed.

Andrew Inkpin
Friedrich Schiller University
Jena, Germany

(A) Not everything in philosophy is subjective and ambiguous. Some is, some isn't. To find out which is which, you have to pursue the issues! And by the way, what counts as "wasteful"? That's a philosophical question, and if you naively assume that you know the answer . . . is it wasteful to ponder what is worth doing in life, and why? What if you assume that the answer is "just subjective," but you're wrong? Think (that is, philosophize) about it!

(B) A philosopher's answer to Marx: "the point of philosophy is to understand the world, not to change it." If you wish to enter the political area and try to change the world, it is advisable that you first understand it! Which will probably take a while. And then figure out which changes would be good, and which bad, and which means are more likely to result in changes for the better instead of for the worse. In fairness to Marx, he did (perhaps contrary to what that isolated quote suggests) spend a good long time trying to understand the world. (Maybe not long enough, since it now looks like he misjudged a thing or two.) And only then did he try to change it, or at least he (in the Communist Manifesto) tried to inspire others to change it, which a good many — Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et al. — (for better or for worse??) did.

Frank Williams
Philosophy and Religion Department
Eastern Kentucky University

The point of what? Of doing philosophy? Of life generally?

The world is certainly imperfect and it is, I believe, our duty to work to change it for the better. However unless we make some headway in "interpreting" it we are not going to be in a very good position to understand how it ought to be changed or how to work effectively for change.

Moreover, as I understand it the goal of change is to free people from the necessity of spending all their time scraping to get the necessities for survival, to minimize drudgery, and to give more people the opportunity to spend more time enjoying themselves by engaging in "wasteful" but pleasurable activities--like doing philosophy.

Harriet Baber
Department of Philosophy
University of San Diego

We expect politicians to change the world, and perhaps Marx was more of a politician. Philosophers are not as interested in economic and social change as they are in truth, personal identity, the concepts of morality, the nature of language, of mind and its relation to body — and I could go on. I don't think this is "wasteful" because I wouldn't like to live in a world where such thinking didn't go on. It's not any worse than literary criticism, art history or film theory. What if economic and social change were the only things we could think about?

Why should philosophers try — or even want — to change things? Philosophy has no social, scientific or political obligation.

Of course, it is "intellectually stimulating", but if you have a very dry sense of humour, it can be funny too.

Rachel Browne

— I attempt to answer this question on page 78 of my philosophical notebook at the Glass House Philosopher

Geoffrey Klempner


Giselle asked:

What is empiricism?

It ās about time this question was asked. There is no empirical answer to the question, what is empiricism? That is a good thing. If there were we could find the answer by weighing or measuring something or by performing an experiment or solving an equation. But we can't. We could always go to a dictionary or to an encyclopedia but that would be easier than asking a philosopher.

Take stuff. For an empiricist, stuff is the sort of stuff you can kick or bite or taste or smell or see 'that sort of thing' and the world is mostly made of it. Or appears to be. Other sorts of stuff, meanings, beliefs, intentions you cannot really do that with. And there is another kind of stuff, even more remote than meanings and beliefs, etc., that you cannot bite or kick either and this is made up of things-in-themselves (ultimately real things, where our questions stop). Kant called these noumena and contrasted them with phenomena which we are able to rub up against or which manifest themselves directly through our sensory mechanisms.

If you try to see beyond the surface of a thing (by scraping the paint off, for example) you just run up against another surface, this time unpainted, which also refracts light which impinges on your retinas, optic nerve, cortex, and much more, but āt doesn't get you any closer to the real stuff, because the light refracted by the paint did the very same thing and you are no farther along. The real stuff cannot be got at by scraping the paint or peeling the banana. So you might as well have stopped there unless you want to eat the banana. Then it should be peeled.

Plato thought this was a bad thing. He derided sense experience as providing us with only bad copies of real stuff, the Platonic forms or eide. These you can't see or bite, etc. They are unchanging and timeless. Mere stuff, stuff in the world, depends on them. The world is constructed top down. In empiricism it is constructed bottom up, starting with sense data, or sense experience, and ending, perhaps, in abstract concepts, such as humanity, by a route that has yet to be convincingly explained.

Paul Trevor


Georgina asked:

I was wondering if you could help me with my homework. I need to find the quote written by Confucius, I am not sure of the exact wording but it I think that it starts with "Friends from afar...". The quote implies that long distance friends are the best friends that you can have.

Please, please help me and tell me the exact wording of this quote. Thank you for your time.

A very quick search of the web has yielded these translations of the Confucius quote:

"How can I not be happy when there are friends come from afar?"

"What a great joy to receive friends from afar."

"I feel very happy when I have friends coming from afar."

"It's a greater joy to receive friends from afar."

"Isn't it a pleasure to have friends coming from afar?"

"When friends come from afar, is it not indeed a pleasure?"

"We are only overjoyed to receive friends from afar."

Robert Martin
Philosophy Department
Dalhousie University>
Halifax, Canada

I can answer Georgina's question. She is evidently thinking of Confucius Analects I/i which contains the saying that translates roughly:

"Is it not delightful when friends visit from distant places?"

Jimmy Lenman
Department of Philosophy
University of Glasgow
British Society for Ethical Theory


David asked:

How was Immanuel Kant exactly outlived? NOT by whom, but rather why and how...Thanks.

1. Kant saw the categories (cause and effect, space and time, quality and quantity etc.) as either objective or subjective. He said the categories belonged to the spontaneity of our thought. They were not objective. Therefore they were subjective. But Kant called them objective because they were universal and necessary. The subjective is the merely felt, he thought. "Thoughts, according to Kant, although universal and necessary categories, are only our thoughts, separated by an impassable gulf from the thing, as it exists apart from our knowledge" (Hegel, Logic 41). The problem with Kant was that he reduced ontology (the question of being) to epistemology. "The world of sense is a scene of mutual exclusion: its being is outside of itself" (Hegel, Logic 42).

2. "Fichte called attention to the need for exhibiting the necessity of these categories and giving a genuine deduction of them" (Hegel, Logic 42). If the categories are specialized 'forms' of the 'I', how do we get at them?

3. Given this reductio, for Kant, the ego becomes an absolute. "The 'I' is as it were the crucible and fire which consumes the loose plurality of sense and reduces it to unity" (Hegel, Logic 42). This is what Kant calls "pure apperception", the process by which disparate things become 'mine'. This 'unity' is a category too. But the absolute ego is at odds with the natural mind and our everyday sense of "out there". "Though the categories, such as unity, or cause and effect, are strictly the property of thought, it by no means follows that they must be our merely and not also characteristics of the objects." The absolute ego needs to be deconstructed by ontology. Hegel performs this deconstruction in the Logic on the Kantian 'soul', on the antinomies' and on the existence of the divine.

(a) In each case Hegel agrees with Kant to a certain extent. Kant is right that the old fashioned idea of the soul-substance confused experiential fact with intellectual formulation of them (paralogism). But that does not put pay to the soul idea, Hegel goes on, it merely shows that "this style of abstract terms is not good enough for the soul, which is very much more...".

(b) Hegel says yes to the antinomies. But goes on to say that it is ridiculous to limit their number to the special cases enumerated by Kant. Antinomies abound "in all objects of every kind, in all conceptions, notions and ideas".

(c)The divine or God. The point here is that while Hegel says yes to Kant' s idea of the transcendental, he argues that this does not make the transcendent merely transcendental. The 'rising' if thought is its transcendent quality — or in ancient terms, its capacity for ecstasy, to 'stand outside itself.' This is what Hegel argues, except not in terms of ancient metaphysics. "The rise of thought beyond the world of sense, its passage from the finite to the infinite, the leap into the super-sensible which it takes when it snaps asunder the chain of sense, all this transition is thought and nothing but thought." This talent for "exaltation" is what makes us more than just animals. The ontology of Dasein starts here.

4. In this way, Hegel tries to redress the balance and antinomy which must exist between ontology and epistemology, but without reverting to traditional metaphysical thinking, which takes its oppositions very literalistically as 'real'. "Phenomena [are so] not for us only, but in their own nature" (Hegel Logic 45).

Matthew Del Nevo


Adam asked:

Can you give me a thumbnail version of Kripke's interpretation of the Private Language Argument? What is Wittgenstein's skeptical conclusion? Is Kripke on to something important about Wittgenstein?

Kripke claims that Wittgenstein's skeptical conclusion, following from Paras 201—202 of Philosophical Investigations is that nobody can ever be proven to follow a given rule, since what has so far looked like following that rule can evolve into irregularity.

For example, someone who has used a '+' sign the way it's normally used can suddenly start using it the way the '-' sign is normally used, and claim that he was following a rule according to which the meaning of the '+' sign is first normal, but then changes at a given point in time.

Kripke is not on to anything important about Wittgenstein, since he ignores Wittgenstein's key point that following a rule is typically something that happens among a community of people, and a community of people provides a standard of what it means to follow a given rule that is independent of any one person. It's generally accepted that Wittgenstein is actually fighting the position Kripke takes him to be arguing for.

T.P. Uschanov
University of Helsinki


Jeff asked:

Why does aesthetics receive so little treatment by modern philosophers? So much of life's pleasure and meaning derive from ideas of beauty. Even computer programmers and mathematicians use aesthetic terms like "elegant" and "pretty" to describe their work. Aesthetic arguments pervade discussions about environmentalism. Why is something so fundamental, so ignored?

It's at least partly because aesthetics has become a separate academic subject during the past fifty years. It's no longer conceived as a part of philosophy in the sense in which logic, ethics, theory of knowledge, etc., are conceived. It is mainly the separate profession of aestheticians who take aesthetics seriously nowadays, not philosophers. (Which is a pity, in my opinion.)

University of Helsinki

It seems to me that you are concerned that in the world today we are giving aesthetic value to objects which we feel should not have such value, but there isn't any real shift in objects taken to be beautiful.

A term such as "elegant" is applied appropriately within the parameters of the concept. For instance, elegance implies some dignity and may be applied to Doric pillars but not sheds. To use an evaluative term of a computer or a mathematical formula is to claim that it has aesthetic features, but this is not to claim it is a work of art. While there is a sense in which I can see that my computer can be seen as elegant this is only comparatively with big cumbersome computers of the past. There is no sense in which I would claim it was beautiful or a work of art.

The institutional theory of what a work of art is would, however, allow that a computer can be a work of art. Duchamps' Urinal and Tracey Emin's Bed have become works of art simply by being admitted to galleries. But to display something in a gallery cannot make it beautiful, or even pretty or elegant. These problems are not ignored by philosophers and aesthetics is still studied in philosophy departments, at least in the University of London.

Rachel Browne


Jim asked:

If, as many claim, we are not free, where do you suppose we even get the idea of "freedom" from? (I asked a former philosophy teacher this, and he just said he didn't know.)

This is a harder question than it looks. When asked by a philosopher, "What makes you think you have free will?", we are tempted to stage a demonstration: "See? I moved my arm. No-one made me do it. I did it all by myself!"

Let's look at this. First, it's not clear what is meant by 'the idea of freedom'. You could be asking, Why is it that we believe that we have free will? Or you could be asking, Why is it that when we act it appears to us that we have free will? On the face of it, those are two different questions.

When someone makes a claim about the way things appear, one has to ask, How would things appear otherwise? Consider the following thought experiment. Alice is looking at her reflection in the looking glass.

"Did you know," we say to Alice, "that there is really another world on the other side of the glass, where everything is topsy-turvy and back to front?"

"No, really? Can I go through?"

"Just try. Push the glass as hard as you can."

"When I push, Alice in the Looking Glass world pushes just as hard against me!"

"Exactly. But have you thought of this. When moved your hand, it was because Looking Glass Alice moved her hand. When you had the thought, 'I'll try to move my hand,' it was because Looking Glass Alice had the thought, 'I'll try to move my hand'."

"I don't believe you! You've got it all wrong! When I move my hand, that causes Alice in the Looking Glass world to move her hand. When I have the thought, 'I'll try to move my hand' that causes Alice in the Looking Glass world to have the thought, 'I'll try to move my hand'...."

We know what to say to Alice:

"How would it appear to you if Looking Glass Alice's actions were the cause of your actions, or if Looking Glass Alice's thoughts were the cause of your thoughts?"

There is no answer to that, because there is no difference in the appearances. In other words, it does not appear to us that we have free will. But surely, even if it does not appear to us that we have free will, we believe that we have free will?

If I believe that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden, then even if it is part of my belief that the fairies will never appear — let's say that they are invisible fairies — then at any rate I must be able to point to something in the world that would not have been there, had there not been any fairies. (Say, the fairies help with little gardening chores, deftly picking out weeds, protecting the roses from green fly.)

But there is nothing in the world that I can point to, that would be different, depending on whether or not I had free will. That is the force of the classic, Humean dilemma posed by opponents of free will: 'If determinism holds, then your actions are not free because they are determined. If determinism fails to hold, then your actions are not free because they are not determined.' In the light of this, one doesn't know what it would mean to say that we believe that we have free will.

That's not the end of the argument. But I would venture the speculation that if we could give a coherent account of 'where the idea of free will comes from', that would go a long way towards resisting the classical argument against freedom of the will.

Geoffrey Klempner


Tania asked:

I am asking this question in regard to the complex idea of nothingness. If I have nothing, do I still have something? What is nothingness?

Nobody is my friend. And I saw nobody in the street. Does this mean that I saw my friend in the street? Of course it doesn't.

We use the word 'nothing', on the surface, in the same way we use words for objects. (I might saw that I have money in my pocket, or that I have nothing in my pocket.) And this is the start of the confusion. But rather than being the name of a particularly 'complex' something, it means the absence of something. To say that there is nothing in my pocket is to say that I don't have any objects in my pocket. To say that I have nothing is to say that there exist no objects which it would be true to say that I have.

Will Greenwood


Adam asked:

I read that there are two ways of trying to deal with skepticism — to prove it false or to refute the reasoning leading to it. What would be examples of each and which is the best strategy for dealing with skeptical arguments?

The situation is a little more complicated than that.

One kind of sceptical move considers the class of statements which are taken to provide evidence for a claim, and argues that no statement from that class or set of statements, however large, is capable of supporting that claim. An example would be the claim that there exists a world of objects outside us, which is taken to be supported by the evidence of our senses. In his first Meditation, Descartes argues that it is consistent with all the experiences I have enjoyed up to the present moment in time, that there is no world of objects outside me, and that I am merely being fooled by an Evil Demon into thinking that an external world exists.

Another, more subtle, kind of sceptical move takes the kinds of everyday things we take ourselves to know and points out that we would withdraw our claim to knowledge if we were asked questions that we had not previously considered. For example, I would declare without hesitation that I know that Tony Blair is Prime Minister of England. But if I were asked, 'Do you know that Tony Blair has not resigned in the last hour?' I would have to answer, No. I haven't been listening to the News, so obviously I cannot say whether, during the last hour, he has resigned or not. In that case, I cannot say that I know that Tony Blair is Prime Minister. If we try to restrict our knowledge claims to take account of such questions, we find that we are able to claim less and less. If I don't' know everything — if I can't rule out the various possibilities that would undermine the knowledge claims that I would normally make, then I don't, in fact, know anything.

Descartes solution to scepticism with regard to an external world — the first kind of scepticism — was famously to argue for the existence of a God who is not a deceiver. That is your first alternative: a proof that scepticism with regard to an external world is false. It is false because I do know that an external world exists. I know this because I can prove that God exists, a God would not allow me to be deceived into believing in the existence of an external world, if there did not in fact exist an external world.

Your alternative, of 'refuting the reasoning that leads to scepticism' splits up into two different strategies. If we stick with the external world, one strategy would be to argue dialectically that if we did not have knowledge of an external world, in which we were one object — one conscious subject — amongst others, then we could not have knowledge of our own experiences. This is the basic structure of Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' and also Wittgenstein's argument against a 'private language'. (Following Kant, these are sometimes called 'transcendental arguments'.) However, it is always open to the sceptic to accept the suicidal conclusion that I don't have any knowledge even of my own experiences, or of my own existence as a subject of experience.

The second strategy would be the kind of move that Berkeley makes with regard to belief in an external world. It is this kind of move that Kripke in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language calls a 'sceptical solution to a sceptical challenge.' (Kripke gives the example of Hume on causation.) Berkeley effectively concedes Descartes' Evil Demon hypothesis, but argues that all we can possibly mean when we make statements about objects in the world is that we have certain kinds of experiences. There is nothing to be sceptical about. — However, agreeing with the sceptic is a pretty desperate strategy.

Which of the three alternatives is the best way to resist scepticism concerning an external world? Take your pick.

It is what I called the 'second, more subtle sceptical move' that makes us begin to realize how elastic is our concept of knowledge. Sometimes it seems right to say you know, or that she knows, and sometimes it doesn't. Cases shade into one another. Sometimes, you kind-of know. It is because the concept of knowledge is so difficult to pin down, so elastic, that 'the problem of scepticism' figures quite low down on the list of major philosophical problems, and also why it is so hard to get students to take it seriously.

Geoffrey Klempner


Amy asked:

I have to devise a question and answer it on the European union and its legal-philosophical foundations, along the lines of the basis of European law and the role of the nation state. Any help on a possible focus would be great.

The general aims of the EU set out in the EC Treaty are to establish a common market and economic and monetary union and a "convergence of economic performance, a high level of employment and of social protection, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion and solidarity among member states." The Treaty also commits member states to "lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe" by "pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty".

You could formulate a question along the lines of how the idea of the solidarity of the EU can be maintained along with the recognised sovereignty of each member state.

Each member state is a sovereign entity insofar as it should have freedom to choose whether to implement policies. The Government of each state is answerable to the people of the state and its sovereignty lies in its constitution which in the UK is the Houses of Parliament. The Houses of Parliament have the power to enact and repeal any Act even if this is contrary to European policy. The very notion of the sovereignty of the state is challenged by the idea of European Union and yet each State retains its individual constitutional powers. There is a basic incompatibility between freedom and union.

At the level of Community decision making the freedom of each member state is compromised in several ways. For instance, the EC Treaty allowed the creation of autonomous bodies able to develop policies independently of member states. The European Court of Justice stands as a higher court of appeal which can make pronouncements upon national law. The Maastricht Treaty allowed that the European Community could act beyond its powers relating to free movement of goods, persons and services where a proposed action "cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states". There is also the issue of "qualified majority voting" whereby each state carries a different number of votes which means large states can outvote small states. The first three points are ways in which the freedom of member states is challenged, and the final point challenges "solidarity".

Rachel Browne


Magdalena asked:

I have to write an essay for my philosophy class and I would like to receive some input. It is as follows: As far as the Platonic Socrates is concerned, it is often alleged that the views he expresses in the Crito on a citizen's obligation to obey the law are in conflict with the defiant stand to Athenian law/court he takes in the Apology. Do you agree/disagree with this view?

Now, I don't agree with some aspects and agree with others. I don't agree that Socrates does not obey the laws of Athens. He is expressing his views and not forcing anyone to follow him (as to corrupting the youth). I do however believe that the laws are not very well defined and Socrates understands that and believes in taking responsibility for his actions (that is what he states in the Crito).

I would appreciate help to better understand the position of Socrates.

In the Apology, Socrates is defiant as anyone would be, who was convinced of their innocence. In his own eyes, he has done nothing wrong. If, according to the laws of Athens, he has committed any crime, then the laws are wrong — or at least, as you say, badly formulated. In fact, the charges raised against him by his accusers are lies. In pursuing his vocation as a philosopher, he has created enemies, who have sought to destroy him by bringing this false charge. Finally, after the Guilty verdict has been pronounced, Socrates turns on his accusers, asserting that they, and the Athenian Court, in convicting him, have committed a great wrong.

In the Crito Socrates, in prison awaiting his execution, is offered the chance to escape, but turns it down, arguing that such an action would 'harm the Laws of Athens'. Why should he care? The verdict of the court was unjust, he does not deserve to die. His answer is very simple. The fact that a wrong has been done to him does not make the action of escaping justice right. This is readily understandable, in the light of the principle which Socrates lived by: 'It is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.'

Geoffrey Klempner


Holly asked:

Hi my name is Holly. Usually when I have written to various people with this question none of them ever reply so I am hoping that you might. I am doing a project for school that is due very soon and I am desperate to find an answer! Can people survive without eating meat? If they can, what do they eat instead of meat to get all of their protein?

People can certainly survive without eating meat. Meat eating was only connected to survival in the early days of mankind before he had developed skills for growing things like wheat and vegetables. Now it is not necessary and doesn't have much nutritional value since protein is found in other foods such as eggs, cheese and nuts. In any case, carbohydrates (bread/potatoes/rice) and vegetables are sufficient for survival. The reason people eat meat now is that they like it, or it is easily available.

For your project, you could look at religions which forbid the eating of meat, as well as national foods which don't involve meat such as rice and pulses in India and fish in Japan.

Rachel Browne


Sam asked:

I would like to know how relevant is the Stoic approach to life, in the world today?

The Stoic approach to life is as relevant as it ever was. Early Stoics took virtues such as endurance, self-reliance and simple habits as duties by which man can overcome pain. This is difficult to live by because it doesn't take account of man's emotional nature and his frailty.

The later Stoic, Seneca, accepted human frailty and if you read his letters you will find them dense with words of wisdom on death, pain and sickness, friendship and pleasure. He didn't preach fortitude but saw philosophy as a way of consolation and his letters are full of advice. An example is that you will suffer personal pain if you live only for yourself, but if you live for others and their friendship you will not have personal setbacks. On death and the loss of friends he says "Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still".

Philosophy as wisdom and consolation doesn't have a place in philosophy today, and Seneca wouldn't like analytical philosophy. He thought logic was "childish fatuity" and wrote scornfully that "one is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind and reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim for and what one should avoid."

Rachel Browne


A.V. Ravishankar asked:

Why are philosophers interested in problems related to counterfactual conditionals? How can we formalize counterfactual reasoning?

A counterfactual is formalised as a conditional. The main issue raised by counterfactuals are connected to the problem that a counterfactual conditional is contrary to fact.

Counterfactuals pose a difficulty for referential theories of meaning which hold that to understand a statement is to grasp conditions under which a statement is true by virtue of a determinate state of affairs.

Take the common example "If Oswald hadn't killed Kennedy, someone else would have". For the counterfactual to be true some supporting assumption needs to be made, such as Oswald's being party to a conspiracy so he was not acting alone. It is also possible that some other state of affairs might make the counterfactual true, such as Kennedy being such a lousy person that anyone would want to kill him.

The theory of possible worlds offers an answer to this problem even though the nature of possible worlds is controversial. One possible world approach, that of David Lewis in his book Counterfactuals, has it that because truth is determinate and we suppose a counterfactual refers to ways in which the actual world could be different, then the truth of a counterfactual depends on how things stand in possible worlds 'closest' or most 'similar' to the actual world. The problem is that this has the immediate consequence that if in this world Kennedy was killed, then the most similar possible world in which Oswald didn't kill him is the world where someone else did.

Rachel Browne


Lindsay asked:

It seems to me that philosophy is just a bunch of bull. I don't see why someone would want to study questions when you know you will never get any answers. It doesn't make sense to me, so my question is:

What is the point of philosophy?

I can't speak for all of my colleagues, but I am in it for the answers. Obviously, that means I dispute your claim that I know I will never get the answers. Most philosophical questions are very hard, and I don't expect 100 per cent agreement among all philosophers, but I see no reason to think that the questions are not answerable.

I'll add that even if I don't get to the right answers, I think that there is considerable value in the effort itself. However, if, like you, I was sure that I would never get answers, I would quit.

Scott R. Sehon
Dept of Philosophy
Bowdoin College
Brunswick, Minnesota

I suppose Lindsay means something like "definitive, clear, obviously true answers," because in philosophy (as in most other fields) you get plenty of answers to the questions. The problem (as in most other fields) is finding which answers are the best ones. What distinguishes philosophy from many other areas of inquiry is that in philosophy it quickly becomes obvious that there are conflicting answers and there is no easy way to ascertain which ones are the best ones. That's also true of most other fields but in those other fields you usually don't realize it until you get into advanced studies, which most people never do.

The (well, at least a main) point of philosophy is to find (not to "get," as if some authority is going to provide them for you) the best answers to the questions. And (as in any other field) if you're not interested in the questions, you probably won't be very interested in seeking the best answers.

Frank Williams
Philosophy and Religion Department
Eastern Kentucky University


Nick asked:

I have and essay to write for my theory of knowledge lesson and I am having some difficulties, so I would like to ask your help for some ideas, or an example. The topic is: Do we have to think scientifically in order to find the truth?

This is an excellent question.

When are we thinking scientifically? You don't have to put on a white coat. We are thinking scientifically whenever we break down a problem into its components; whenever we do a systematic survey of, or search for evidence; whenever we put forward possible solutions or explanations and test them.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gives an account — totally convincing to someone like me who has never brought a screwdriver near a car or motorcycle or TV set — that the only reliable way of solving problems with your bike is the scientific way, using reason and logical analysis. Sure, sometimes the problem sorts itself out with a good thump (it works for my TV, anyway). But it's not a reliable way. You can do more harm than good. And even if you do good, you'll never know the truth about that bad connection or loose wire or whatever it was that caused the problem. The second time around, thumping might not work so well.

The way of science increases your chances of finding the truth. It also gives you a more reliable way of checking whether or not the thing you have found really is the truth it purports to be.

As readers of his book will know, Pirsig argues that the scientific approach is not enough if you have the wrong attitudes, if you are not on the Quality track. You will never be a good mechanic if you ears are deaf to subtle differences in the sound that the engine makes, or if you have no feel for the right force to apply when screwing a nut. However, our question was not about whether thinking scientifically is sufficient on its own, but whether it is necessary. Are there any cases where the best way to get to the truth is to abandon the scientific approach?

You are a teacher who has begun to suspect that a child is being bullied at school. You want to get to 'the truth' of the matter. You can adopt the scientific methods of the detective: Interview all the children concerned, cross check their stories, speak to the parents, look at past school reports. Then you can put forward your 'hypothesis'. But you could still be wrong. In a court of law, the evidence would not be sufficient to secure a conviction. The only reliable method is to secure the confidence of those involved, and get them to talk. In other words, the route to truth is through personal relationship, the meeting of I and thou.

For those who believe that there are truths revealed in religion, it will of course be no surprise that not all truths are revealed by science. What is interesting is the close similarity between the kinds of thing theologians say when they are talking about faith and what I have just said about the I-thou relationship.

The best thing to read on this is Martin Buber I and Thou, which along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance should be on every introduction to epistemology reading list.

Geoffrey Klempner


Pam asked:

I am a student at Gateway Community Tech. in New Haven Connecticut. I am taking a course in Methods and Theories. A question I have is stumping me, it is "What is the Pragmatic Approach to Counseling?" I have found some information but am unable to find very much. I am studying William James and C.S. Peirce. Could you help?

At first it would seem there are two answers to this question depending on whether the term is used being used in the lay sense or philosophically/ psychologically. However, they are really one and the same. Philosophically you are in the right area with William James, C.S. Peirce and I would certainly add John Dewey. If one takes Peirce's view of truth as one of experimental knowledge i.e. when one knows how a thing responds to experimental manipulation then one knows the object, then one answer to what is the pragmatic approach to counselling begins to emerge. Namely that if the counsellor has a clear idea of the intervention they are applying and is clear of the effect on the person being counseled, than a pragmatic approach to counselling could be said to be in operation.

I suspect when counsellors talk about a pragmatic approach to counselling this is what they mean, although they would in all probability put it in simpler terms and talk about using interventions that are known to work irrespective of their own theoretical orientation or biases. In this way pragmatic counselling belongs to a broad spectrum of interventions that used to be labeled 'eclectic' and are now termed 'integrative.'

However, it should be noted that Peirce had in mind invariable natural laws in mind when he talked of a pragmatic theory of truth and it is debatable whether this can be strictly applied to counselling the individual.

James was of course more interested in the individual and talked about the distinctively concrete, the individual, the particular and effective as opposed to the abstract, general and inert. Thus, James talks of 'pragmatic meaning' and was subsequently criticized by Russell and Moore for suggesting a thoroughly relativistic approach to truth. This raises a profound question in relation to counselling about where meaning is to be located. Does it belong to the privileged consciousness of the counselee or does it assume at a minimum some level of shared meaning between counsellor and counselee? Such debates tend nowadays to be couched in terms of debates about the relative merits of the hypothetico-deductive position, (Peirce's view) and social constructionism (James' view), with a recognition by philosophers, psychologists and sociologists on the way in which meaning is socially constructed. Social construction is viewed as occurring through the panoply of social and cultural forces and the discourses that are used both to support and challenge this. Moreover, within some conceptualizations, discourses are seen as constituting this socially constructed self.

The hypothetico-deductive method and social constructionism offer two very different and opposing views of the world. There is a middle ground however, provided by those who adopt a 'critical realist' position. Taking their cue from Kant, 'critical realists' acknowledge the material reality of the world (the realist view) but argue that our knowledge of it is always mediated by individual and social processes, e,g, the counseling process itself.

It may also be helpful to consider the difference between pragmatism and the pragmatist. The former is suggestive of a theoretical/philosophical model, the latter of the activity, without necessarily a well worked out theory behind it. A. O. Lovejoy examines this distinction in an essay entitled 'Pragmatism Versus the Pragmatist' in the Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays.

Dr Robert Hill
South London and Maudsley
National Health Service Trust


Aaron asked:

I have a question concerning the role of religion in modern thought. I am having trouble understanding the stance of Jacques Derrida on religion but more importantly, how his stance compared to the treatment 'religion' got in modern academic thought during and just prior to the publication of his work.

All the lefty academics of universities in America and Britain right up to the time of Gorbychev and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, thought of religion as basically a lack of 'consciousness'. With the collapse of Communism and Socialism as intellectual fashions the brown leather jacketed brigade were left looking pretty silly. About this time Derrida started getting explicit about religion. Read Gayatri Spivak's influential and paradigmatic Introduction to her translation of Of Grammatology. There she claims how, thanks to Derrida and Deconstruction, any thought which in any way may be regarded as even faintly 'religious' is to be spurned as in need of deconstruction, and once deconstructed is revealed as meaningless anyway.

Derrida rose to prominence in deeply Catholic France. He was a Jew from underprivileged French North Africa. His early thought is influenced by Husserl (another philosophical Jew) and Heidegger (a thinker in the tradition of Hegel who saw philosophy addressing the same Sache as religion, specifically, theology). Derrida's voice in those early works, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, The Margins of Philosophy is already distinctively his own; and the whole timbre of his thought is already marked by his mentor Levinas and another Jew from North Africa, Edmond Jabes. Given his background and intellectual context it was natural that Derrida would teach and write about ethics, death and the relation of philosophy to theology sooner or later. Spivak and all that she represents (secularized 'academic discourse' masquerading as philosophy according to the fashion of the day) misinterpreted Derrida and misrepresented him. Derrida did not disturb them in their fools paradise. Wise of him.

But given that Derrida now writes about religious things (death, ethics, theology etc) and has defined deconstruction as an ethical activity according to old fashioned religious recipes for ethics, what is his actual stance? Derrideans are split between those who think of him as a religious writer (Handelman, Caputo) and those who don't (Culler, Bennington). There is a definitive quote from Derrida about his stance with regard to religion (i.e. as he puts it, being mystical). It is too long to type out so see for yourself at and click Derrida. He says the religious interpreters of him are 'wrong', whether in the US or Germany, and about his spiritual 'Jewishness'. He is a rationalist in the Cartesian tradition. Bennington is probably the one who knows Derrida's own stance on religion best and there isn't one as such. As Plato's Eleatic Stranger said, "the Sophist loves to hide".

Matthew Del Nevo


Steve asked:

Is Atheism logically untenable?

Given that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God then is it not untenable and illogical to take an atheistic stance?

Must we keep an open mind about God, even those of us who are sceptical about the grounds for theism?

Let me first give some examples of things I personally do not feel I need to keep an open mind about. You may or may not agree:

I do not need to keep an open mind about whether it is possible for someone to predict events that will happen in my life by observing the movements of the planets and stars, or reading the lines on my palm.

I do not need to keep an open mind about the claims of Scientology.

I do not need to keep an open mind about Hitler's responsibility for the Holocaust.

Isn't it irrational of me to be dogmatic, when there are people who believe in astrology and palmistry, or in Scientology, or in Hitler's innocence? — Just because people believe something — perhaps lots of people — just because the available evidence does not logically rule out the possibility that their belief is true, is not in itself sufficient reason for suspending judgement. My argument is if you allowed that such considerations were sufficient for suspending judgement, "just think what the consequences would be".

As someone who in his youth proudly professed Atheism, I would argue that theistic belief does not (as I once thought) fall into this category. Beliefs about Astrology, Palmistry, Scientology or Hitler are mundane beliefs, concerning things or events in the world. Theism is an attitude, a stance to the world as a totality.

When it comes to the question of the ultimate ground of our existence, we are all profoundly ignorant. All that is left is the practical decision — the existential choice — whether to live in fear of God. However, existential choice still leaves us with three possibilities: we can choose to embrace theism; we can postpone the choice and profess agnosticism; or we can choose to embrace atheism.

In these terms, I would argue, the atheist option is neither untenable nor illogical. What the atheist has and the agnostic lacks, is something akin to religious faith. For those who find such faith supporting and life enhancing, that is sufficient ground for belief.

Geoffrey Klempner


Brian asked:

I am presently studying a sociology degree at Portsmouth university! I am having several problems with finding relevant material in order to answer a question related to V.N. Voloshinov. I need to analyse his extract on 'What is Language'.

Can you help? Any ideas would be greatly received!

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John asked:

A certain philosopher used a device to determine the sex of an unborn child. Who was this person and what device did they use? Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated.

and Jeff asked:

A philosopher had a theory that determined the best time to conceive a child of a certain sex. Who was the philosopher and what was the device used to determine the proper time to conceive?

Girls are more likely to be conceived than boys when the moon is on the wane according to Aristotle, or at least the Aristotle of 'Aristotle's Masterpiece'.

'Aristotle's Masterpiece' is a sort of handbook to midwifery composed in the late seventeenth century; there is a good discussion of it in Ch. 2 of Roy Porter & Lesley Hall's The Facts of Life (Yale, 1995). It was a popular work for many years, but it has confused and obscure origins: it is unclear when it was written, by whom it was written and even in what language it was written. But we do know that it had little or nothing to do with Aristotle. He might have actually said something along these lines, perhaps in his De Generatione Animalium, but I wouldn't attribute the view to him without further checking.

Andrew Aberdein
Dept of Logic and Metaphysics
University of St Andrews
Fife, Scotland.

St. Augustine, in the City of God, has a discussion of the Roman practice of timing conception to determine the attributes of offspring. He considers the practice, which was linked to astrological beliefs, to be without any factual foundation. However, since the differential motility of male and female sperm means that the timing of intercourse relative to ovulation does have at least a statistical influence on the sex of offspring, such a belief may not be entirely without foundation.

Martha Sherwood
Ecology and Evolution Program
University of Oregon


Jhenifer asked:

Why is it that when people are asked whether they believe that one's response is either determined or a product of one's own free will the majority will lean on the side of determinism, but when those same people are asked if they believe that one should be held totally responsible for everything one does, the majority leans on the side of agreement? Isn't that contradictory, and what might account for this?

One easy fix to the free will problem, which enjoys continued popularity amongst the more hard headed (and generally clean shaven) analytic philosophers is the view that the attribution of responsibility is fully consistent with the belief that our actions are the product of our physical state at the moment of our birth, and all the things we have experienced and that have happened to us since that time. I chose to respond to your letter today, but my choice was already on the cards — barring an inexplicable lapse in the laws of physics — 49 years ago as I lay bawling in my hospital cot, alongside the couple of dozen or so other infants that had been produced by the baby factory that week. What kind of choice is that? And how can I be praised, or blamed, for making it?

Here's how the answer goes:

Rewarding people for actions which we approve of, or punishing people for actions which we disapprove of has a useful function. But reward and punishment do not always work. The promise of a reward is not going to deter the bank clerk from handing over the money when there is a gun pointed at her head. The threat of punishment sadly does not deter the kleptomaniac. Every human action is the effect of prior causes, but not all causes are the same. Only if the cause of an action is an agent's own choice, unconstrained by factors impeding their ability to make a rational choice, are we justified in calling them 'responsible' for that action, and treating them accordingly.

The best refutation of this picture is F.H. Bradley's example (in Ethical Studies 1876, Essay 1) of the master of hounds who gives his dogs a good thrashing before they go out on a hunt, just to show who's boss. If punishment is something that either works or doesn't work, if it is simply a matter of pressing levers to encourage good behaviour, then there would be nothing wrong in 'punishing' an innocent person if we thought it would cause them to behave in the future in the way we wanted them to behave. — What's missing from this picture is the idea that punishment should only be given to those who deserve it. The problem is that if every action we do is the result of causes going back to our birth, then it seems that no punishment (and no reward either) is ever deserved.

You can look for more subtle ways of sorting out suitable cases for praise or punishment. So long as the talk is about selecting from different varieties of 'cause and effect', such moves seem pointless and futile.

The obvious alternative is not much better. If my decision to answer this question today was not determined by my prior states, then it is hard to see why that should deserve praise. To adapt another example from Bradley, say a friend offers to let you use an A-graded essay she wrote two years ago at another College to hand in as your own work. You refuse. She expresses surprise. You respond angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!' Knowing your upright character, she ought to have predicted that you would act in the way that you did.

My response would be to escape this dichotomy altogether by refusing to see the relationship of person to person in cause and effect terms. The human world, the world of persons in relation, is not the world of physics, even though what you and I are ultimately made of is nothing but physical stuff. When we engage with one another as persons we are interacting on an altogether different level, where one talks of reason and justification, right and wrong, freedom and responsibility. To see the world in these terms is part of what it means to be human, to inhabit the human world.

Geoffrey Klempner


Matthew asked:

What are the main differences between what Heidegger and Sartre believe is the most fundamental aspect of human existence? Which is more plausible?

Sartre starts from the experience of man — from the cogito. "Outside the Cartesian cogito all views are only probable." he writes in Existentialism is a Humanism. Sartre's subjectivism means, in his own words, on the one hand "that an individual chooses and makes himself" and on the other hand "that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity." Heidegger starts from the Hegelian and neo-Kantian position that "nothing can be more harmful and unworthy of a philosopher than the vulgar appeal to an experience." (Intro to section 3 of The Science of Logic). Instead, like Hegel, Heidegger starts from logic, or more properly the philosophical logos. (Taking logos philosophically, not literalistically, we find in these two thinkers no reduction of logic to semantics, mechanics and algebra, which reduces philosophy, as Wittgenstein rightly saw, to a game.)

The most fundamental aspect of human existence for Sartre is the cogito, and for Heidegger, Being. Heidegger criticizes the cogito of Descartes. Descartes said "I think therefore I am" as if the one follows from the other, but my 'am-ness' (Being) comes first. I always already "am" to begin with, but the question of what this that I am is, has never been properly raised. Being and Time (1927) attempts a preliminary investigation of the question of Being.

In old fashioned onto-theological terms, Heidegger starts 'from above' and Sartre 'from below'. Sartre says existentialism is a humanism. Heidegger thinks humanism is an ontology which 'forgets' the question of Being (Seinsvergessenheit). As usual in this kind of philosophy, these are not questions or stances which one can look at as 'mere ideas', or from the outside as 'the philosophy of Sartre or Heidegger'. The point, as Heidegger says somewhere else, is not 'is what I am saying plausible?' The point is to follow the movement of the showing.

Matthew Del Nevo


James asked:

Kant, as I understand him, claims that time does not necessarily exist as a thing independent of the mind, but rather as a property of the mind itself and its way of apprehending the world.

It seems quite obvious to me that for mind to exist, a state of change must first exist. Whether mind is material or spiritual, it must have form of some kind (only the metaphysical nature of the substance of mind seems to be in question as far as the idealism versus materialism, monism versus dualism debate is concerned). Thinking, as a process, requires a continual change in form. If time stopped, the form of the mind would necessarily cease changing, which suggests that mind would cease to exist, or at least all thinking as we know it would cease. Since time seems to be a necessarily pre-existing condition for the existence of mind, it must be more metaphysically fundamental than mind, and also independent of it. Mind exists in time, not the reverse.

For form of any kind to exist, space must exist. For change to occur, time must exist. Mind has form and is continually changing, therefore the existence of mind requires the existence of space and time, and mind is metaphysically less fundamental than space and time.

Does this refute the Kantian view of time? Or am I misunderstanding Kant?

Kant would accept that if time ceased to exist the mind would cease to exist not because time is metaphysically prior, simply because time is a way of apprehending the world. The end of time means the end of mind.

Any changes prior to the existence of mind would occur in the noumenal world of which we have no knowledge. Presumably, in the noumenal world there are conditions for change which we could not understand.

The form of the mind is not spatial. The mind is directed at the world, and space is a way in which we apprehend the world but is possible for the mind to exist without a body that occupies space: A non-spatial being like a ghost could have a mind.

To refute Kant you simply hold that time and space are not ways in which we understand the world but are actually out there, and this is proven by physicists. However, consciousness is outside the realm of physical space and time. There is space and time that physicists know, and how it appears to us.

Rachel Browne


Hana asked:

Why does Marx think communism will ultimately supplant capitalism?

It is my question. Please answer me, Philosopher.

Marx thought that capitalism bore the seeds of its own destruction within it. This was the inequality within it that would lead the oppressed to rise up and revolutionize it and replace it for an economic system in which each would receive their due according to a system of equity and justice for all. Marx's communism was the vision of an anti-class society in which people would be valued for who they were not how much they earned or consumed or inherited.

Marx had a dialectical theory of history, as it is called. That means an economic interpretation of history which saw economics in political terms of relationships between people, commodities, labour and exchange. What marks a period of history is its economy. When the economy changes, Marx thought, (e.g. the change from feudal society to mercantile or bourgeois society), culture, religion, philosophy and everything else necessarily follows suit.

Economy for Marx had to do with power. New economies come in when new powers rise up. The Feudal society of Medieval Europe was overthrown and the power of the Church with it, by the new merchants from the new worlds (the Americas, Australia, the colonies) based on the new technology. History is not conservative, Marx thought, it advances. But he was less of a determinist than an idealist or utopian, because he thought the injustices of the Europe of his day could not be borne for long. Working men, women and children, whose labour was commodified, who had been turned into 'things' by their economic relationships, would (given the encouragement and education by intellectuals) rise up and take charge of the means of production and change things for the good of the many, not the preservation and gratification of the few.

Matthew Del Nevo


Clara asked:

My family is pushing me to get married arguing that I'm old and I should find someone. Is there any philosophical solution to this problem?

I once wrote:

Commitment to moral dialogue binds us together as social, moral beings. Nothing, finally, exhibits that fact more starkly than the custom of two individuals solemnly agreeing to share the rest of their lives together, 'for better or for worse'. Between the partners of a marriage there is no accepted buffer zone of 'tolerant' indifference; arguably, an essential ingredient in the cement of human society at large.

I have to be prepared to justify each and any of my actions to you — at least, those which impinge on you or the children, which is near about all — as you have to be prepared to justify each and any of your actions to me. More than that, each of us must answer to what has become of our life — the life we planned, or dreamed, dreams brought to fruition or which we sorrowfully failed to bring to fruition, a life racked and riven by painful adjustments and renunciations on both sides, coloured by the resentment over lost hopes and opportunities, periodically and continually thrown into question as if we were free to start with a blank sheet when in truth there seems precious little room for anything but the occasional marginal scribble. Yet for all that, you are my truest 'thou' (in the popular phrase, my 'significant other') and to break off our dialogue now, after all that has gone before, would be to choose a spiritual death. — Is a form of human society conceivable that did not have choice of relationship at its core? Would it be possible for all moral dialogue to be conducted 'safely', at arms length? — Such a society would surely be a society without a centre at all.

Pathways Program E. Moral Philosophy Reason, Values and Conduct Unit 10

Must we choose relationship? And, if we must, must that choice entail marriage?

It is a question I have agonized about. There was a time when I seemed to be heading for confirmed, contented batcherlorhood. My mother and father, my sister the Rabbi and my other sister the psychotherapist persistently, gently and not so gently, kept up the pressure. It would be wrong to say I caved in. I came to see that I was not so content with my self-sufficient life as I had thought. I met someone, and I chose relationship.

I am talking as if marriage (I include same-sex marriages) is the only possible form of relationship choice. But it is not. There are many parents who are glad that their grown up children continue to live with them, and that is a choice of relationship that can be positive and valuable for both sides. Yet there remains the very real fear on the parents' side of what will happen to their offspring after they have gone. If you have chosen to live with your parents, you still have to look to the future.

I have a number of students, male and female, who have made the firm decision not to marry. They have full lives. (They have a lot more time for activities outside work, which seems to account for the large proportion who have time to study philosophy!) They enjoy romantic relationships, but not permanent ones. In my heart of hearts, I cannot find fault with that solution.

Kierkegaard's advice, in Either-Or, to a young man contemplating marriage is, 'If you marry, you will regret it. If you do not marry, you will regret it.' If one is so inclined, one will always find cause for regret. The thing to do is decide, one way or another, with the determination never to look back.

Geoffrey Klempner


Delacour asked:

Que pensez vous de la façon de vivre le prèsent?

What do you think about living the real present? (Blaise Pascal)

Living the real present is what other Brother Lawrence famously described as the practice of the presence of God. (1699). It was what St Paul meant by saying, "Not I, but Christ in me". Basically every great Christian writer has expressed it in one way or another. What it means is living in such a way that the Kingdom of God comes to us. The Lord's prayer says, "Thy Kingdom come". The Kingdom is not somewhere we go (after life or whenever), but something which comes to us in certain circumstances. Christian "forgiveness" means that we are reconciled to ourselves and others. In short there is peace and goodwill within us. Living the real present is much the same as really living in the present. That is, being mindful of it and centred by it, rather than by our self, our ego. Deep mindfulness is the practice of the presence of God. But this mindfulness is not achieved overnight. Hence most of those who know most about it and can teach it were monks, and perhaps, still are.

Matthew Del Nevo


Sandra asked:

How may I be know if something that is logical for me is true?

and Carolina asked:

Is logic the same in all people, I mean; is it an established point of view? Does it develop through time? Is it an authentic feeling?

and Pablo asked:

How can we distinguish between good and bad logic?

Deductive logic lays out the principles of reasoning and provides laws for thought. It is true for you if you are not irrational.

Take the Aristotelian syllogism:

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
So Socrates is mortal

If you agree with the first two premises, it is inconsistent to disagree with the conclusion. This is a paradigm of reasoning. The fact that men are mortal is known empirically because we know about death. If we believed in afterlife, we could substitute "immortal" for "mortal" and the argument would remain logically valid. This is because legitimate inferences are independent of subject matter. To deny the argument's validity on the basis of subject matter you need to prove the falsity of a premises, e.g. to say that it is not true that all men are immortal.

An argument which claims to be logical, but where it is not inconsistent to disagree with the conclusion if you agree with the premisses, would be an example of 'bad' logic.

One principle of reasoning is that you cannot believe a contradiction. We cannot believe that an object is both round and square, so it is logically necessary that something cannot be both round and square. This must be true for you.

Logical principles or the principles of logical argument don't change over time, but the content which is the facts or premises we use and infer from do (e.g. beliefs about mortality).

The above principles are stated in formal logic which shows the structure underlying sentences. Formal logic is a mechanical calculus which has enabled us to simulate thought processes in computers. The most basic logic, propositional calculus, consists in the rules of inference governing connectives which we use in language such as 'and', 'or', 'not', 'if...then...'. Predicate calculus is more complex since it has introduced more symbols, such as one for existence, as well as variables. This enables sentences such as those in the Aristotelian syllogism to be translated into formal language.

The extension of propositional calculus was a development rather than a change. However there can be change. Susan Haack in Deviant Logic distinguishes between systems that extend classical logic and those which deviate from it. Classical logic holds that all our propositions are either true or false. To take one example, there is a system of logic which introduces a third, indeterminate truth value taken to be necessary to accommodate quantum theory.

Logic is not a feeling.

Rachel Browne


Joanne asked:

I am doing a paper in school and the focus is on metaphysical and epistemological issues inherent in the problem of change as it was formulated by Ancient Greek natural philosophical schools. I also need to relate this to a modern scientific explanation of change. Any help would be appreciated.

This is too big an issue to attempt a comprehensive answer here. What I shall do is focus on one question that is of particular relevance to contemporary physics, the stand-off between the atomist theory of the Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus and Aristotle's theory of matter and form.

What happens when water freezes? The atomists proposed a theory brilliant in its simplicity, which in its essentials is still accepted today. Water, and ice each have a microscopic structure. The change from water to ice, or from ice to water does not involve any change in the elements of which the structure is composed, the 'atoms' of water, or what we now identify as molecules of H20. Rather, what changes is the structure, the arrangement of the atoms.

Relying purely on philosophical argument for the atomic hypothesis, without any empirical basis for their claims, the atomists drew the pessimistic conclusion that we can know nothing at all about the real world, the world of atoms moving in the void. Such knowledge as we have of our world is based on sense perception. Yet the qualities that appear to sense perception, according to the atomic hypothesis, are illusory. In reality, nothing is hot or cold, wet or dry, there are no colours, tastes, sounds or smells.

Aristotle could not be persuaded to give up the fundamental epistemological principle that human perception and reason are adequate for knowledge of the real world. Explanations that posit imperceptible microstructures are nothing more than unverifiable guesses. We have no way of telling whether or not they are true. Moreover, he saw an alternative way of explaining change that remained fully within the bounds of human knowledge.

Before I tell you what the Aristotle's theory is, I will just say that to appreciate the theory, one has to suppress one's natural reaction — informed largely by our knowledge of contemporary science — that the explanations it offers are empty and trivial.

Here is the theory, applied to the case of water. Water is a substance, a natural kind, which possesses a characteristic form. The unique form of water determines its perceptible properties, its powers and potentialities. Water freezes, because freezing is one of the things that water has the potential to do. When your finger touches the ice, your finger gets cold because making things cold is what ice has the power to do. That is the ultimate explanation, there is nothing more to say.

As Frijof Capra notes in the Tao of Physics contemporary particle physics has become a search for the Holy Grail of a fundamental atom-like particle which is the indestructible ingredient of every physical structure. But why should there be any such particle? As the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus argued, if you posit the Logos, physical law as the fundamental thing, there is no need to posit fundamental stuff. Or as Capra argues, an alternative explanation of the photographs of particles smashing into ever smaller bits is that all that is constant is the repeated and repeatable pattern: in Aristotle's terms, the form.

Geoffrey Klempner


Stephanie asked:

Is Peter Singer's extension of moral rights to animals compatible with A view like Kant's deontological position? How could Singer's position be defended against a Kantian position?

To argue that animals have rights because they have moral interests as individuals and have a basic right to freedom from pain does not mean we have a Kantian duty to recognise such rights. Kant held that we have a duty to humanity as rational beings. Rational beings act on will rather than instinct and have the capacity to act in conformity with duty. If we can't extend these capacities to animals then we can't have an unconditional moral duty towards them.

It would not be sufficient to claim that animals are actually rational and do act on instinct. Animals do display behavioural characteristics indicative of practical reason, but this is not Kantian "pure reason". He says "When reason is able to determine the will only by means of some further object of desire . . . then it takes only a mediate interest in the action". While such empirical reason may be ascribed to animals, we cannot claim they have an interest in the moral law. Animals cannot act on duty so cannot be moral.

If animals are not part of our moral community, Kant would allow that we can treat them as means and inflict pain upon them. If we don't do this it is because we don't have the desire to do so and Kant would not regard it as moral if we are simply motivated to treat animals well because they suffer pain, or because we can see them as individuals.

Singer's position is based upon moral feelings which are subjective. He argues from facts about cruelty and this appeals to our conscience which is one way to morally ground the otherwise social or political notions of justice and rights. The Kantian notion of duty doesn't have much hold these days in competition with the idea of moral feeling. Also in defence of Singer you can argue for moral relativity based upon cultural difference. Kant wanted an objective non-metaphysical basis for morality which is not of concern to us today. Animals rights are important to us today, but weren't an issue in Kant's time.

Rachel Browne


Craig asked:

Is the meaning of life simply to have a purpose, and to try to reach your own personal goals, or is it to interact with other human lives, and experience things? These are two good reasons for living, but I can't decide which is more important. Thoreau said that the former was more important. I am not so sure.

Having a purpose and trying to reach your own personal goals need not exclude interaction with other human lives and experiencing things unless your goal involves seclusion from the world.

Rachel Browne


Diedra asked:

Can you help me dislodge the dustbin of my mind? I remember from school reading a short paragraph in which the writer laments the old days when youth were respectful of their elders. He decried the youths' unkept appearance and shameful hedonistic ways, on and on he went. The surprising source I believe was one of our more famous ancient philosophers. Can you help me locate this passage?

You're thinking of a statement often attributed to Socrates, perhaps in the following form:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

However, this supposed quotation is completely bogus. There is no record of Socrates ever having said anything of the kind. For a discussion of how this mythical quote arose, see:

Torkel Franzen

One possibility is Plato's Republic Book 4, 425b. Here Socrates, speaking of things people in his "Ideal" society will find out, and which he seems to think have been generally neglected, says:

I mean such things as these: — when the young are to be silent before their elders; how they are to show respect to them by standing and making them sit; what honour is due to parents; what garments or shoes are to be worn; the mode of dressing the hair; deportment and manners in general. You would agree with me? — Yes.

Frank Williams
Philosophy and Religion Department
Eastern Kentucky University


Jack asked:

What is a logical relationship between Nietzsche's "Will to Power" and altruistic inclinations?

It follows from the nature of the will to power that altruism can only be understood as self-interested. The will to power is egoistic and there is no such thing as the disinterested act, i.e. an act simply for others. Nietzsche allows there are acts we describe as altruistic, but on his view they are not done for the other but for the self. Such acts only seem altruistic because we deceive ourselves.

Logically, altruism as self-interested or prudent altruism, is inferred from the nature of the will as seeking power and freedom. If we act badly towards others, they will not allow us to dominate them so easily. They may turn against us. This will interfere with our will to dominate as well as our freedom because the way others treat us will not be with the respect and subjugation that we want.

Rachel Browne


Chris asked:

When is there enough evidence to believe something is true? Why is further evidence not required? Where do we draw the line on something of which we have no idea? That is, how can we limit the method of approaching or arriving at the truth without begging the question at issue?

Consider object A, we have evidence that it has properties Xy does this mean we know object A? Yet given temporal, technological and other advancements it turns out that object A actually has properties Xyz. What connotations do the concepts 'the real' and 'actually' imply? Continue this process ad infinitum and the object changes with ever increasing rapidity. What is the object? Do we know it apart from our multifarious observations of it? other words, where can the thing-in-itself be found?

Evidence is sufficient for the belief that something is true when it is convincing and this does not beg any questions as long as we understand what we take to be true to be what we are sure of.

Physicists continue to investigate the world and come up with findings which dispute evidence we have and we adjust our knowledge of the world accordingly. If it was thought that objects changed with ever increasing rapidity this would be pointless. So it is supposed that there is a way things are in themselves which is stable and that we can further our knowledge. This is not to say that there is hope that we gain an absolute, non-perspectival knowledge of the way things are because this is impossible. It may be that things change constantly and there is no stability in the way things are beyond our perceptual abilities but what we take to be true has to be what we can know and this must be within human capacities and perspective. Human beings cannot transcend their conceptual scheme and the truth and knowledge belong within this.

Rachel Browne


Mauricio asked:

To live a Beautiful lie, is that better than to live an awful truth?

If to live a "beautiful lie" is to pretend to be what you are not, then it is actually an awful truth unless you deceive yourself as well. To know that you are pretending is to be constantly in fear of being caught out. If you can deceive yourself as well as others, this might be better in terms of ease.

In trivial everyday ways, everyone pretends to be what they are not (e.g. happy, confident, responsible) without deceiving themselves and in recognition of reality. In this normal state, which is not to be totally self-deceived there are possibilities for knowing oneself and others. You can only get real satisfaction from what genuinely makes you happy and you can only take real pleasure in what you are really good at. Love and friendship are reciprocal and pretence or self-deception are restraints upon genuine interaction.

An intermediate state of "indifference" might be ideal, since this is to ignore suffering which is all around us.

Rachel Browne


Peter asked:

Dr Faustus sold his soul to Lucifer for all the scientific knowledge of the time — for the secrets of the universe and for 25 years of power to do as he wished.

His initial dilemma was to choose between good or evil, God or Lucifer. Can this be equated with a modern dilemma of helping society/people or helping yourself and rising above society? If Dr Faustus were alive today what would be his dilemma?

Why did Dr. Faustus sell his soul, after all? In order to perpetrate evil on the world? To further Lucifer's evil project? Not really. He wanted knowledge and power to further his own interests, which were not in themselves necessarily evil. In other words, he was choosing, as your dichotomy offers, to help himself as opposed to helping society.

Traditionally, most philosophers have agreed that morality, or choosing good over evil, is not simply doing what furthers one's own interests, but balancing one's interests against other important considerations like the interests of others, say, or of society as a whole, for example.

Dr. Faustus is as relevant to day as ever. Consider the American film of a few years ago, It Could Happen to You. Upon winning a lottery a man had to decide whether to keep all the money himself or live up to a promise he made to a stranger that he would split the winnings with her should he win, someone who was not in a position to know whether he had indeed won. The choice here is between self-interest and living up to one's promise.

What about modern physicians who receive medical training, to one degree or another, at public expense who, upon graduation, choose to specialize in lucrative cosmetic surgery as opposed to offering their services to those more in need of medical help?

Reflecting on the choices of Dr. Faustus is as relevant today as it ever was.

Ben Mulvey, PhD
Associate Professor/Director, Liberal Arts
Nova Southeastern University
Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA


Bob asked:

Why is it that everything associated with "up" is good and everything associated with "down" is bad?

But is it? It is better to be 'down to earth' than 'up in the air'. It is better to get 'down to work' than 'up to no good'. And one shouldn't be too 'uppity'.

Colin Cheyne (Dr)
Department of Philosophy
University of Otago, New Zealand

I wonder if it does not originate with sun worship. The sun is, quite literally, the giver of life on this planet. In northern latitudes, it is at its most beneficient when it is at its height, at midsummer. Primitive and not so primitive peoples also envisioned night=darkness as being a condition when the sun was at its lowest, underneath the earth. The height or lowness of the sun is very much tied to human welfare.

Another possible explanation comes from warfare before the invention of the airplane. Height in this case equated with safety: one built ones fortresses on a height, and, in battle, selected the high ground to defend. This image is present in the phrase 'the moral high ground' referring to a position difficult to assail from a moral or ethical perspective.

Martha Sherwood
Ecology and Evolution Program
University of Oregon


Javier asked:

What is materialism?

and Artemio asked:

I know that in materalism people believe only in things made of matter, but I would like to have a more complex definition.

The only things that exist for a materialist are described by physics. Entities which fall under the science of physics are atomic structures, time, space and forces. At our level of perception we take objects such as tables and chairs as uncontroversial existents. These are macroscopic objects to the physicist, since what he sees are bundles of atomic structures. The materialist can admit that tables do really exist as matter, since the atomic particles are responsible for the nature of the table. Otherwise put, the table is determined by physical particles and exists because these fall under the laws of physics.

So there is something which is a table, but the problem is that what determines our concept is not the microscopic properties of physics, but the way the table looks to us, as a large, brown, wooden thing. As long as the table appears like this, its microscopic structure could be quite lawless. Further, although micro-physical structures might determine the fact that the table is large and wooden, the descriptions "large" and "wooden" do not belong to the language of the laws of physics. For these reasons, the materialist has to hold that it is not the appearance which determines our concept of a table, but properties which fall under the laws of physics. What causes us to perceive the table is its micro-structural properties.

This has consequences for mental states and concepts. The way in which the object looks to us is phenomenological. Seeing is a subjective sensational state, and this cannot exist because it does not fall under the laws of physics. What can exist is a physical brain state. This means that what enables us to perceive the table, and hence form the concept of the table, is a relational state between the brain and an external physicist's description of the object. This means that we should be able to perceive objects by sight without any phenomenology.

It is uncontroversial that a perception is a relation between the brain and the world of matter, but if appearances don't exist then we don't learn about physical objects from the way they look to us as everyday perceivers. Furthermore, lots of our concepts are not of physical things: God, the soul, ghosts, fictional characters, beauty, good and evil. Given that these are unreal, values or based upon faith it might seem reasonable for the materialist to say that there is obviously no relational state between the brain and the world in these cases because these things don't actually exist as material. However, a person needs to acquire the capacity to be in a brain state in which he thinks about God or beauty, and if it is from the world it is from the world of other people, of sound, words and meanings. This is to return to the initial problem — words and meanings do not fall under the science of physics.

Rachel Browne


Antonio asked:

What do you think happiness means? Does it really exist? How can we get to it? Why does it last such a short time?

Because happiness is a psychological state of a person, I take a psychological view of what it is. However, I shall summarize two philosophical viewpoints. These views see happiness as states rather than as short-term emotions, so this may not be what you are asking about since you are concerned that happiness does not last.

Firstly, Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that happiness was the end towards which all other things were means. Happiness is not a means to anything further, but it is what makes life desirable. Aristotle thought that because happiness is "living and faring well" then it is a form of excellence. Excellence is a state rather than a passion (passions are emotions, which include joy), and it is a state that is essentially temperate. This means that a happy person aims for moderate rather than excessive pleasures. To pursue this sort of happiness is to have no desire for intense pleasure, and involves the avoidance of pain. To me, this is not so much happiness as a sort of pleasurable calm, and is similar to the Stoical view of Seneca. I believe that from happiness stems not just the ability to be joyful, but a propensity for joy. For Aristotle, joy was a passion, and not a part! of a state of excellence, since it is not moderate.

Seneca thought that true happiness was to be found in tranquility of mind. Joys, he thought, were "uneasy" because not properly grounded. Short-term happiness, i.e. enjoyment, is to move from one means of pleasure or excitement to another. Underneath this lies discontent. We constantly pursue different types of enjoyment in order to turn our minds from our real state of misery. Even a more stable form of happiness, like the feeling of great fortune goes with anxiety because such blessings can be lost. So Seneca thought true happiness was tranquility of mind and this should include diversity of pleasure: Solitude and society, a moderate amount of play, wine, dance, relaxation and outdoor activity, together with an intellectual life. The essential part of tranquility of mind is to take pleasure in oneself rather to rely on external trappings of wealth, and to be aware of the! likelihood of ill health and death which will enable you to appreciate the moment.

Psychologically, we are happy when we feel lucky, fortunate, blessed, enthusiastic about our lives and are for the most part in good spirits. Such feelings can be quite immoderate in terms of intensity, though not necessarily exaggerated. Seneca's view is that this goes with anxiety because of possible loss by change and Aristotle would think it irrational. I don't think happiness is irrational if based on self-knowledge, and the happy person would think that even if things were to change, it is good to have experienced being this way for at least some time.

The opposite of happiness is sadness or depression. I see this as a sliding scale, and it is possible to move from sadness to happiness and back again through changes in circumstances of life. The destructive force against happiness is bitterness. In this state you hold a grudge, and believe happiness to be impossible. This is not an emotional state you slide out of but an attitude to life. To "get at" happiness you must at least believe it is possible, and also know what makes you happy.

Rachel Browne


Wilton asked:

Has metaphysics been overcome?

No. In a play on words, the pas au-delà (step beyond) is the pas au-delà (not beyond). In other words, the idea of 'beyond metaphysics' is itself a metaphysical matter.

Matthew Del Nevo


Alberto asked:

Buddha offered humanity an analysis for what he called the "sickness of living". The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that, for all of us, life is suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that we suffer for something we desire, which can be finding a special person, or staying young. My question is: How do these Noble Truths relate to time and space? I mean, does the epoch change the way of looking at life? How are Buddhists so convinced that people suffer?

Their 'nobility' lies in the fact that they are not relative to time and place. It doesn't matter what 'epoch' you live in: you get ill, you get old, and you die. This is what dukkha (badly translated as 'suffering') means. Old age, sickness and death and do not belong to the Pure Land, which is where the Buddhas and Bodhissatvas (potentially all beings) belong.

Matthew Del Nevo


Katy asked:

Is anything absolute? and is man inherently evil? and does love have a biological component?

An absolute is a value. That which has absolute value is of value in itself and as itself. This differs from that which is simply intrinsically valuable.

We know what good is and, in virtue of this, particular things are thought good. We cannot say more about it. As Iris Murdoch says in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals "good is good". This differs from happiness, which appears to have absolute value since it is good in itself, but this is as an end in itself or as intrinsically valuable. Intrinsic value is to be contrasted with extrinsic value which is instrumental. Wealth can be said to have extrinsic value if it leads to happiness. Happiness is not instrumental and so has intrinsic value. It cannot be of absolute value because its value lies in the fact that it is good.

Evil is absolute. Evil is not evil for any reason other than it is evil in and of itself.

Evil is inherent in man as a capacity. Recognition of good as good, reason and sanity are needed to keep it at bay.

Love can have a biological component. The love between a parent and child is a paradigm of love. There is also a biological tie, genetically, between siblings. Not all love is grounded in a biological tie, but it is the cases of unconditional biological love which — if we are lucky — teach us what love is, and how to love properly.

Rachel Browne


Cindy asked:

What is the difference between existentialism and metaphysics?

Metaphysics is the inquiry into the nature of things — which has tended to mean their 'first principles'. The result of this inquiry has tended to be abstract and rationalistic. Existentialism is a movement with its origins in Christian philosophy, although it is best epitomised (and normally characterised) by twentieth century atheist philosophers like Sartre and Camus. Existentialism is not just a 'movement' of philosophy, but a timeless tendency to bring thinkers back to the conditions of existence. The inquiry into the nature of things — their whatness — traditionally led to talk of their essence. For example, humans have a 'nature' and humans partake of their nature, which is their essence, because it is common to all: a materiality and certain form, capacity for freedom, and good, language, immortality, mortality etc. Discussion of these 'essential' matters find their balance in the existential tendency which reminds philosophers that I cannot experience myself as an essence. In thinking about what I am, lets not forget that I am.

Matthew Del Nevo


Timmijay asked:

What is the main aim of Hedonism besides pleasure? What kind of pleasure are they after and what exactly to the followers believe?

The aim of the early hedonists was simply pleasure as maximum enjoyment to be found through the senses and intellect. Epicurus rejected enjoyment for the more lasting pleasure of happiness as peace of mind. Peace of mind was to be found primarily through friendship and leading a simple life.

Epicurus founded a school which provided an exemplar of what he saw as the simple life. He sought to teach moral perfection through sympathy compassion and honesty. The moral life was part of the philosophical life of those times, in that it moulded the personality and regulated conduct. Presumably the sort of personality moulded by Epicurus was required for the sort of pleasure he had in mind which was peace, freedom from cares, desires, and fears. This is not pleasure as joy, but as calm and wise. Seneca quotes Epicurus as saying "to win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy" which includes moral perfection as well as intellectual interest.

The importance Epicurus put upon friendship leads to the criticism that his philosophy was insular and selfish rather than public-spirited. The lack of social orientation also stems from his beliefs. Epicurus thought that belief in the Gods was superstitious and that the religion of the time instilled a fear of death with its threats of eternal torment. He thought that death should not be feared because when we are dead we no longer care since we are not here. Since men are, to an extent, spurred to social activity through religious and nationalistic spirit rather than friendship the criticism does have some ground. It did not bother Epicurus that not everyone was inclined towards happiness through friendship and a simple moral life so long as his follower were.

Rachel Browne


Malena asked

What do you think about religion in philosophy, should it be included?

It depends what kind of religion and what kind of philosophy. More scientific and logical philosophy has little truck with religion. More metaphysical philosophy, treating of essence and existence, can scarcely avoid philosophy in the Western tradition given that the Most High defined Himself to our basic Lawgiver, Moses, as "I am Who I am" (Exodus 3:14). Henceforth if we are thinking in the realm of ontology (and if we are not, are we really thinking, except in a weak sense?) then we are bound also to be thinking about God. This of course includes atheism. Thinking about the absence of God, or in the absence of God, is no less religious — as the greatest atheistic thinkers have (despite themselves) proven.

Matthew Del Nevo


Gabriel asked:

I'm looking for the exact reference (Aristotle?) about Pythagoras being the first philosopher to use the term philosophia.

Try Aristotle's discussion of Pythagoras in Metaphysics I.5.

Matthew Del Nevo


José asked:

How can I know if your theories are true, if in philosophy there is no way to practice it, like for example medicine? Where and when do you practice your philosophy?

For any theory, if there is no way (in principle) of finding out whether it is true, then it really isn't a theory. Theories make predictions, and there must be some criteria for deciding whether or not the prediction is correct. There is actually very little theory making in philosophy; theories belong more or less by definition to science. And philosophy is not a science. The little theory making that there is in philosophy is metaphysics. And as you seem to be hinting in the question, there are good reasons for doubting the validity of such speculation. Metaphysics has had a hard time of it this century, thanks mainly to the influence of Wittgenstein, and of the logical positivists. Many people have concluded that metaphysics is just nonsense, or at best the expression of a certain attitude to life.

Instead of making predictions about the ultimate nature of reality, philosophers have concentrated much more on language. Wittgenstein said that all philosophy is just 'a critique of language'. Philosophical problems are, from this perspective, problems not about things but about grammar, and there solution comes not from a greater knowledge of the world but from a greater understanding of how language can trick us into confusion.

The time and place philosophy is practiced is in a philosophy class. Because this is the only time when purely philosophical problems arise. In everyday life, there are no philosophical problems, in building a wall for example. Philosophical problems arise when 'language goes on holiday'.

Will Greenwood


Tony asked:

I am looking at the case of a pregnant Nigerian woman who had recently emigrated to the UK. She was advised that she would need a Caesarean operation. Unfortunately the woman concerned could not comply with this as this was against her religious beliefs and replied supposedly, "If it is the will of Allah that the child lives, so be it. If it is the will of Allah that the child dies, then alas, so be it."

Unfortunately the doctor did not see it this way, and applied under the British Mental Health Act to have the woman declared mentally ill, and so was able to carry out the Caesarean operation against her wishes.

Can you please explain to me how the Court of Appeal, when judging the merits of this woman's case, might have gone about reviewing who had the right to life, or the right to see their beliefs not questioned? But what of providing a voice of advocacy for the unborn child, who unless brought forth via a Caesarean operation would not have come into the world?

There is no denying that a foetus has a moral claim. If it didn't, then there would be nothing wrong with a woman changing her mind about her pregnancy at the last minute, and demanding that the foetus be removed and disposed of.

The foetus has a claim. But it is not a claim that is strong enough to prevent, for example, the emergency destruction a foetus in circumstances where the mother's life is in grave danger, where medical complications prevent the removal of the foetus while it is still alive (rare as such a case might be). Most would agree that the mother has a stronger claim to life than her unborn foetus.

But what about a case where we are balancing the right to life of the foetus, not with the mother's right to life, but with other very important rights, like the right not to be operated upon without her consent?

The first point to make is that, in the present case, there is no question but that the doctor was wrong to have the Nigerian woman 'Sectioned' under the Mental Health Act. He broke the law. The purpose of Section 3 of the Mental Health Act is to put under restraint people who because of mental illness are incapable of looking after their own affairs. To 'Section' a patient, two doctor's signatures are required. The doctors who signed the order to detain the Nigerian woman lied. They declared that the woman was mentally ill, when she wasn't.

The doctor knew he would be breaking the law if he simply had the woman anaesthatized and opened up, without telling her what he was intending to do. Instead, he not only broke the law but abused it.

Sometimes one can be morally justified in breaking the law. So let's put aside that question and consider simply whether it was morally right to operate on the Nigerian woman without her consent, whether the moral claim of the foetus was stronger than that of the mother.

I find that proposition simply incredible. Even if the woman did not have strong religious objections, but merely disliked the idea of being operated on and preferred to take the chance of a normal delivery, there could have been no justification for coercion. Even if the circumstances had been such — which they were not — that we could have said that she was morally wrong to refuse an operation, it was still her decision and no-one else's.

Geoffrey Klempner


Adam asked:

Do you think it correct, as Scruton suggests in his discussion of Kant (1982), that the "publicity of language guarantees the objectivity of its reference"? Scruton thinks that Wittgenstein's private language argument shares the premises and the conclusion of Kant's transcendental deduction (i.e. Wittgenstein's argument is transcendental in that there can be no knowledge of experience which does not presuppose reference to a public world). The thought seems to be that I know my experience immediately only because I apply to it concepts which gain their sense from public use.

My view is that this makes a great deal of sense, but my acquaintance with the primary texts is something I am ashamed of!

It was Roger Scruton who as a lecturer first introduced me to the Private Language Argument, while I was an undergraduate student at Birkbeck College, London in the early 70's. I thought at the time, and still think that it is a devastating argument.

To see why, consider the familiar idea (which I recall first thinking about when I was 9 or 10) 'How do I know that when we both look up at the sky, the blue in your mind is the same colour as the blue in my mind?' Nagel has a great take on this (in his short OUP book What Does It All Mean?). If I could lick your brain while you were eating chocolate, and it tasted of chocolate, that still wouldn't prove that the taste of chocolate is the same for you as it is for me.

'Blue', 'chocolate' have established uses in our shared language. When I talk about 'my incommunicable experience of the way blue is for me' or 'the incommunicable taste that chocolate has for me', on the other hand, what I mean is something that I don't have a name for, something essentially private, incapable of being communicated.

Wittgenstein says, Give your inner something a name. You can do that, can't you?

It turns out that you can't. The reason is that you are the only person who is in a position to say whether the name you have invented for your incommunicable experience is being used correctly or not:

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part I, para 258.

Here's how Wittgenstein proposes to 'get rid of the idea of the private object':

assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.

ibid. Part II, p. 207.

I can't think of the number of times I've racked my brains trying to imagine the thing Wittgenstein asks us to 'assume', that the inexpressible quality blue has for me constantly changes etc. etc. It took me a long time to realize that it's all wasted effort.

Well, we can argue about that. We can argue about whether Wittgenstein is right in claiming that in order to have meaning, it is necessary that the meaning a term be capable of being communicated to others, that it should have a meaning in our 'public language'. Scruton's claim is that it is sufficient for a term to have what he terms 'objective reference' that it should have a recognized use in a public language. And I think he could be wrong about this.

The fact that people agree, or a capable of reaching agreement doesn't prove anything. We can all agree about something , and still be wrong. Or our seeming agreement can be the result of pure accident. For a term to have genuine, objective meaning, and not merely a name we pass around, thinking we all mean the same thing by it, something more is needed, something to do with the way we are connected with the world: the fact that we do not spend all our lives merely talking to one another but use language for a purpose. This is something the pragmatists clearly saw.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lee asked:

My lecturer asked the question "What does Sam do if he is told by Matthew that if Sam doesn't kill Sarah then Matthew will kill 20 people?"

I have an essay to write and I think that I shall argue along these lines: Sam has no responsibility for the actions of Matthew. Sam has a responsibility to Sarah because he has direct control over that situation. Sam does have a moral responsibility to the other 20 but as Matthew is the one who is making the decision over the 20 Matthew has ultimate liability for his own action. I do not believe that Sam should be held responsible for the choices of Matthew. Sam should carry out his choice over Sarah independently of Matthew's choice over the 20.

I would also argue that this is because: Sarah should not be treated as a means to Sam's end (i.e. as a way of saving the lives of the 20). Sam should not be treated as a means to Matthew's ends (as a way of Matthew getting his desired result). Sam can only be responsible for his own action and thus if he killed Sarah he would be immoral. If Sam refuses to act then he is being moral; he would have made his made his moral decision not to kill Sarah and should let Matthew take responsibility for his moral decision.

Is this okay? Does it make sense? I will describe utilitarianism as well but this problem still worries me. I cant help feeling that Sam's omission to act means that Sam is neglecting his responsibility to the 20. However I think that Sam's main priority is to Sarah and Matthew's decision must be made about the 20 on its own. AAarrgghhh!!!! However this still bugs me! Is this an acceptable position? Does Sam's oblique responsibility to the 20 over ride his responsibility to Sarah simply because there are more of them? I can't decide. I think I have a good solution but I don't know if that is really what I'd do. I know that is what I would like to do. Would I be merely making a false justification to myself if that was the case?

Firstly, we should be clearer on responsibility. Although Sam will not have caused the deaths of the 20, because it will ultimately come about by Matthew's decision, he is responsible in the sense that he could have stopped their deaths. Bernard Williams calls this 'negative responsibility', a notion implicit in utilitarian theory which holds that moral responsibility is for consequences.

However, to think in terms of "responsibility" and whether one duty "overrides" another can be seen as morally shallow. If you really cannot kill a human being, the thought that it is an overriding duty isn't going to make it easier. It seems even more shallow to say, "Sarah should not be treated as a means to Sam's end." You need to distinguish killing from murder. In certain circumstances, killing can be a means to an end, for example in wartime. Killing is not morally assessable in the same way as murder.

You should say that you know the solution, but don't know whether this is what you would do. It is a question of moral virtue. If Sam makes his own personal decision not to act, he is neglecting a social duty. This can be viewed as a lack of courage. Yet it could also be seen as moral fortitude, in that there are some things he will not do under any circumstances.

Rachel Browne


Xantor asked:

While I pondered weak and weary this question, this query just came calling to me... and I don't know if it's even answerable:

Is humble pie comfort food?

If to eat humble pie means to feel humiliated, then it is never a comfortable state to be in. If it is simply to feel apologetic, then some comfort can be found. To feel apologetic is to recognize that you were wrong in some way, and at the same time this is to see what is right. To recognize something as right, or to come to see a value is always a comfort.

Rachel Browne

I see the question as being about whether there are times when we have eaten humble pie when the right thing to do was carry on the fight. Then we are eating 'comfort food' in a bad sense. It is comforting to absolve oneself of responsibility, to feel sorry for oneself, to pass the buck on to others.

Geoffrey Klempner


Matthew asked:

Do either Wittgenstein or Nietzsche offer us ways to elude the philosophical problem of morality?

Wittgenstein took the view in his early and late works that there can be no talk about ethical values and whether they exist, or how we should define "good", but this does not mean there is no ethics. In the Tractatus he says that value "must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case". The only things we can talk about with our propositions are states of affairs in the world which are facts, and ethics lies beyond this. He thinks that the best approach to ethics is to say nothing about it. Of course, we do make value judgements and moral statements all the time, but these are false propositions. Moral understanding cannot be put into words, but makes itself "manifest".

How morality makes itself manifest becomes clearer in his later work, Philosophical Investigations. When we are moved by someone who cries out, we are moved by more than the cry . Wittgenstein says "a cry, which cannot be called a description, which is more primitive than any description, for all that serves as a description of inner life." It is because we have an attitude towards others as more than merely behavioural beings that we are able to have a moral attitude. One might think this could be put into the proposition that "I believe that he is a feeling creature and there is emotion behind the behavioural cry", but Wittgenstein would say this is not so. We do not "believe" that someone is suffering pain, for instance. We can't be brought to see it, or persuaded any more than we can be brought to see or persuaded that a human is not a robot. Wittgenstein says "I am not of the opinion that he has a soul".

So when Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus that "When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words" he seems to think that we cannot formulate or answer problems of morality. Of course, moral philosophy is all about raising and answering questions, but this is simply not to see morality as he does. If we have the right attitude to others, we supposedly don't need to talk of principles and values.

Nietzsche also leaves moral discussions standing much as they always have.

Iris Murdoch in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals has described Nietzsche as "demonic" as if he was completely outside morality but he was not a nihilist and didn't want to destroy morality. The idea of the Superman, a person outside the "herd morality", gives rise to the view that Nietzsche saw the ideal moral man as beyond ordinary moral values, but this is the sort of person he thought was needed to initiate a new morality by creating new values.

Nietzsche hated traditional moral values such as rational Kantianism and religion. To live within the bounds of rational principles, or to live this life with the afterlife in view as regulating one's behaviour is not to have a will to that which is life-preserving and life-advancing. Nietzsche was passionate about morality and he wanted it to be grounded in the will and drives of humanity (examples being domination and power). He didn't attempt to elude the problems of morality, but tried to establish the view that morality should be subjective — "man posits the realm of goodness" — rather than based upon prescribed principles. This does dispute the notion that there can be objective moral truths, but Nietzsche thought our relationship to the world cannot be separated from our "desires and passions".

This is not an answer to moral problems, since desires, passions and the will are not necessarily altruistic. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche names the virtues as "courage, insight, sympathy, solitude" and this can't be the last word on virtues!

Rachel Browne


Martin asked:

What are the impacts of German phenomenology on US pragmatical philosophy as found in James and Dewey? What are the impacts of US pragmatical philosophy on modern German phenomenology as found in Heidegger and Wittgenstein?

In the first case, you don't have a big thing, but I will try to look into it more, ok? But in second case we know that Wittgenstein in his "second phase" knew about James and he asked about how there could be "pragmatist solution".

Now, about Heidegger and American Philosophers, you will find things with Rorty and neopragmatism. Pay attention: Rorty is more like Sartre than we can be thinking about. Now, Heidegger didn't like American Pragmatism, of course. But, Rorty has Heidegger like a partner because Heidegger puts good questions about language, the end of Humanism and postmodernism — and these are things that Rorty needs to talk about. Why? Because Rorty can put a conversation with the World, putting the American Philosophy and the game again. Rorty crossing Atlantic Wall and now Italy (and others) want know Davidson, Putnam and others because of Rorty.

(Note: In the Introduction of Murphy's book about Pragmatism From Peirce to Davidson, Rorty presents a good approach to Heidegger and American Philosophy. It is funny!)

Paulo Ghiraldelli Jr.
University of State of São Paulo


Yves asked:

Metaphysics can be defined as the science that tries to get to the truth behind things as they appear (Cf. F.H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality). But whatever lies behind appearances must be known by inferences from those appearances. Now in any deduction, it seems there must be both a universal proposition and a particular proposition. The particular proposition would be one taken from the appearances of things.

What would the universal proposition be? And why? It looks like metaphysics is a very problematic science posing as something very certain. In fact, there's hardly anything philosophers differ so much on than metaphysics.

The proposition, 'whatever lies behind appearances must be known by inferences from those appearances' is a fair characterization of scientific knowledge. Typically, the scientist puts forward a hypothesis, in the form of a universal proposition from which statements about 'appearances' — i.e. predicted experimental results — can be derived. If the actual results conflict with the prediction, then the hypothesis is rejected.

The problem with metaphysics is that conflicting metaphysical theories agree in all the experimental predictions that can be derived from them. Whether you are a Berkeleian idealist or a realist, two masses attract one another with a force inversely proportion to the square of their distance.

Here are two strategies that one could adopt in response to this challenge: The first is to seek a purely logical derivation of universal metaphysical propositions that does not require any additional premise concerning empirical appearances. The Presocratic philosopher Parmenides is the first recorded example of an attempt to follow that method, in arguing for his theory of 'the One'. In the 20th century, The metaphysician John McTaggart used this approach in his treatise The Nature of Existence.

The second strategy is to seek to uncover an incoherence or 'contradiction' inherent in the world of appearances, or the way in which we think about appearances. The Presocratic Philosopher Zeno sought to undermine belief in change and plurality by showing how our beliefs about the world of appearances lead to insoluble paradoxes. In his treatise Appearance and Reality F.H. Bradley argued that appearances are inherently 'self-contradictory', and that therefore there must exist an 'Absolute', where these contradictions are resolved.

These alternatives do not exhaust all the options. A third possibility would be to view 'metaphysics' as involving an investigation into the conceptual framework which we apply to our familiar world, either with a view to its improvement, or to lay bare aspects that had previously been hidden. In very contrasting ways, Whitehead in Process and Reality and Heidegger in Being and Time both adopt this general approach. The Oxford philosopher P.F. Strawson in his book Individuals (1959) contrasted his own 'descriptive' exploration of our conceptual framework with the 'revisionary' views of metaphysicians such as Berkeley or Whitehead.

I think that all metaphysics can ultimately be is a way of directing our attention to aspects of our world that we had not noticed before. For example, the nature of the subjective viewpoint, or our experience of the passage of time. I am sceptical about the possibility of there being such a thing as a metaphysical 'theory'. Simply to describe what we see when we look at the world in this way is still a tremendously difficult task.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jack asked:

I am serious about the following question: Can God make a rock bigger than he can lift? My answer is yes. What do you think?

God could make a stone heavier than he could lift, but if he ever did, he would be able to lift it. — What you have stumbled upon is a kind of paradox in the whole notion of omnipotence.

We see that some people have more power than others. This leads us to believe, quite rightly, that there is a scale of 'powerfulness'. We then infer that this scale has absolute limits, i.e. powerlessness and omnipotence.

But omnipotence is not a coherent concept. This is so despite the genius of Aquinas and the other theologians who have tried to show that it is. In the same way that Plato saw horses and concluded that there must be something that is 'horseness', theologians have seen power being weilded and have concluded that there must be omnipotence. Both rest on a confusion.

Reason is a powerful tool. But we should see to it that it does not blind us from the obvious.

'Power' can be explained by giving examples of things that have power. But there are no examples of things that are omnipotent, except of course God. This might work if it weren't necessary to define God by his omnipotence. Seeing as though it is, we are trapped in a vicious circle.

I was told by a Christian that arguing about the attributes of God (what God can and can't do), is like blind men arguing about the colour of the sunset. Leaving aside the literary merit of this analogy, I think her point was that we should either have faith, or leave it all alone. It is not the place of science or logic to define what God can do and what He can't do. Faith must be blind. And where there is faith, there can be no philosophy.

Will Greenwood

I don't believe that this question shows that omnipotence is an incoherent concept. Here's why. Omnipotence implies the power to do everything that it is logically possible to do. It is not a threat to God's omnipotence that He cannot make a perfectly round triangle, or a surface that is red and green all over.

The condition, 'x can lift a stone that is too heavy for x to lift' is one that cannot logically be satisfied, whatever one substitutes for x. In particular, the condition cannot logically be satisfied even x is God. Therefore it is no limit to God's omnipotence that He cannot lift a stone that is too heavy for Him to lift.

But can God make a stone that He cannot lift? The two conditions (a) No stone is too heavy for x to lift, and (b) x can make a stone that x cannot lift, cannot both logically be satisfied, whatever one substitutes for x. So, by the same reasoning as before, the two conditions cannot logically be satisfied, even if x is an omnipotent God.

Geoffrey Klempner


Carlos asked:

I have a question concerning Hume's philosophical account of causes and effects. He says that causes and effects are based on experience, but what would Hume say about Nostradamus' vision of the future when he predicted the symbol of the Nazi party? Nostradamus never experienced that, did he?

What you really are asking is whether there can be knowledge of the future which is not grounded on observation and memory. If Nostradamus genuinely foresaw events that were to happen in the future — that is to say, if he possessed the power of clairvoyance — what we are saying is that his state of belief was caused directly by something happening in the future, rather than by events preceding the formation of that state of belief. In other words, for his state of belief to be anything other than a lucky guess, a cause would have to occur after its effect.

You don't have to go along with Hume's analysis of causation, or his account of belief, in order to find the concept of 'clairvoyance' problematic, on the grounds that we simply cannot understand what it would mean for a cause to occur after its effect. Suppose I discovered that whenever I say 'Humpty Dumpty' three times as the postman is walking up the road towards my house, I receive a letter containing a five pound note. But when I fail to say 'Humpty Dumpty' no such letter arrives. Then it looks as though, by some mysterious process, saying 'Humpty Dumpty' three times brings it about that yesterday someone put five pounds in an envelope and posted it to me. Isn't that weird? How could that possibly happen?

One answer would be, 'We just don't know how a cause can occur after it's effect, but still we can — for example, in the Humpty Dumpty case — know that it does.' I am very unhappy with that answer.

Your example could be disputed. It seems to me more than likely that the Nazi who first decided to reverse the Christian symbol of the swastika to use it as an emblem of the National Socialists had read Nostradamus' prediction. However, that is not the point. The point is that we seem to understand the idea of a capacity to see the future. The question, which I leave open for discussion, is whether any sense at all can be made of that idea.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

How might it be the case that we could not ask a question, the answer to which could not be known? And, what kind of question is the above?

Can you suggest any pertinent reading material that might help me with it?

The question you are asking is a question of metaphysics, which concerns our understanding of the concept of truth. If a question can be asked, one of the things which follows from that is that we can grasp what it would mean for that question to have an answer. Of course, not all questions which have answers, are questions we can answer. For example, most people would agree that the question how many times I clicked the mouse today has an answer, but if I am not running a program on my computer which counts mouse clicks, then barring total recall there is no way I can discover what that answer is. I can ask the question, but I cannot answer it.

But now consider the question, Has there ever been, in the history of the universe, a period of time during which absolutely nothing happened? In other words, can there be such a thing as an empty time? If you allow that there might, sometimes, occur periods of empty time, then it follows that it is logically possible that in between each key tap as I write these words, the universe stops still for a million years. There is a case for saying that because we cannot conceive of what it would be to 'know' that an empty time has ever occurred, that is one question we cannot even ask.

There is an interesting discussion of this question in Richard Swinburne's book Space and Time. Swinburne devises a clever thought experiment which shows how we could, indirectly, have evidence for an empty time. Suppose the universe is divided into three regions, A, B and C. All processes in region A stop for one year out of every two years. All processes in region B stop for one year out of every three years. And all processes in region C stop for one year out of every four years. Then a quick calculation shows that the three periods of total inactivity will coincide every twelfth year.

The only problem is that Swinburne's example cheats, in assuming that the periods during which all processes in the universe come to a stop are predictable. It does not help to explain how it could happen that all processes in the universe stopped unpredictably, as in the case of a million years passing in between each key tap.

Geoffrey Klempner


Hiromi asked:

Could you explain how Bentham and Mill differ with respect to comparing pleasures?

Bentham and Mill agree that pleasure alone is valuable, as only that which is experienced directly can be of value.

Bentham is described as an "ethical hedonist" because he claims pleasure is what we ought to pursue, and a "psychological hedonist" because pleasure is the only thing we can pursue. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham lists pleasures as those of the sense, wealth, skill, amity, good name, piety, memory, imagination etc. Such pleasures are supposedly available to all men, for which reason Bentham is described as more egalitarian than Mill.

Mill's view is that man has a greater choice of pleasures, and he distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. Mill thought some kinds of pleasure (the higher ones) were more desirable than others and that man is capable of coming to desire more rational and imaginative pleasures than those on Bentham's list such as intoxication and sex which are pleasures of the senses. For Bentham imaginative pleasure was merely memory of past pleasure and thoughts of future pleasure. This was not Mill's idea of imaginative pleasure at all — poetry (which Bentham disliked) is an example of a higher pleasure of the imagination. Mill thought that fostering the capacity for higher pleasures would increase the mental well-being of mankind.

Rachel Browne


Gabriel asked:

I have a friend who is a Hindu. Recently, we were discussing on the topic of religion. In short, the question is this:

In Christianity, we believe in only one way. In Hinduism, they believe in all ways which is essentially one, appearing in different forms. If someone says that there is only one way and the other says that there are many ways, under any circumstance, can we be correct at the same time?

No, I cannot think of a circumstance in which you can both be correct at the same time. Your Hindu friend can be correct. She can think that exclusivism is just another form of salvation that suits some dispositions. But if the Christian holds to one way (and not all Christians do), other ways must be inferior and in some sense wrong. My own view is that each religion (and denomination) has something to learn from others. What Hinduism has to teach other religions is tolerance.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mari asked:

Why is it wrong to think that the Categorical Imperative is a version of the Golden Rule?

I hope you haven't been led astray by my reply to Hiromi in which I said the categorical imperative is often formulated as "Do unto others..". If so, I apologize. Even if the categorical imperative is so formulated, it cannot be abstracted from Kant's complete theory, so the Golden Rule can't be compared with the categorical imperative. The simple principle "Treat others as you would have them treat you" doesn't mention motive. It might be in your own interests to treat others so and therefore it's a matter of prudence, or if it rests upon the principle of "Love your neighbour" it requires the sort of subjective commitment which Kant rejects. To act in accordance with the categorical imperative is to act with a good will which is to recognise a moral duty as good in itself.

"Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law" is an objective principle based upon what a rational person would do. For Kant, the will is a rational faculty that can overcome inclinations and feelings, including sympathy. Sympathy for others, or an inclination to do the right thing can fail us, especially in times of pressure. So we ought to obey the categorical imperative for its own sake in virtue of our ability to act rationally and do our duty whatever our inclinations. Natural sympathy does not have the moral value of performing duties for their own sake. Moral feelings, such as love and sympathy depend upon the emotional character of a person and cannot be commanded. The duty expressed in the categorical imperative can be commanded since it applies universally for all rational agents.

The Golden Rule makes no appeal to rationality or universality and cannot establish itself as a law. Even if it were the case that everyone was simply obedient to such a rule, it still admits of actions that Kant would regard as immoral. Sometimes a lie can be an act of kindness to save others' anxiety and many would like to be so treated and think it right to treat others so. For Kant, acting for the sake of duty rules out the desire to obtain particular results such as saving someone from anxiety. It is a duty never to lie as we cannot will that this should be law.

The categorical imperative has its origin in the will, which is rational and, as such, able to make universally valid law. The individual's will is subordinate to this law. A rule that does not have its origin in the will is a hypothetical imperative: "I ought to obey the Golden Rule because it says so in the Bible, and I want to perform my Christian duty". This doesn't impose an unconditional obligation.

Rachel Browne


Nancy asked:

I am in an introductory course of philosophy and am having a very hard time understanding the process of philosophy. I was always under the impression that philosophy was simply asking questions and discussing different ideas in response to the questions, with the sole intention being to learn other people's ideas and thoughts, without having to prove or disprove anything.

Now I'm finding that philosophy can only be considered a process if an argument is stated and the premises and conclusion torn apart and examined in fine detail, as if the professor has the right answer and the students must accept that answer. Is it true that there is a right or wrong answer to philosophical questions or is there never going to be a known and accepted truth? I'm not trying to be snide, I am truly confused about what philosophy and the philosophical process really are.

Philosophy is about learning to see things differently. It is also about arguments. As a student of philosophy, you are learning to expand and increase your powers of vision — your philosophical imagination — as well as developing your logical and argumentative skills.

It is perhaps true that there will never be a definitive answer to any of the perennial questions of philosophy. However, when looking at a particular example of argument, it is sometimes — not always! — possible to be a lot more certain. This is often the frustrating thing for a student. Your professor thinks that some argument is wrong, but the error might not at first be obvious, and maybe you don't see it. What then? Do you say, 'Everyone is entitled to their own view, I'm keeping to mine?'

One of the things I tell my students is, be prepared to consider the possibility that you might be wrong. I apply this rule to myself as well. Some times I find that I have been mistaken, even about things I thought I was certain about. You could be mistaken too, about whether the argument you were looking at is good or not. Some arguments are just bad arguments, and this could be one of them.

Geoffrey Klempner

Your teacher has given you an impression of philosophy as "tearing apart" and "examination in fine detail" of various parts of propositions. Your teacher obviously has considerable analytical prowess, but unfortunately the exercise of this talent is not the same as doing philosophy and you have been given a bad or wrong impression. The object of philosophy is the truth of what is and the process is what is called thinking. The truth of what is cannot be confronted head on because that assumes that the truth of what is is a 'thing', and if it is a thing it is one thing among others — but these are the kinds of things philosophy wants to examine in the first place — and so the truth is allowed to emerge, obliquely, from dialogue. Dialogue is one process, which although found in written from, most notably in Plato, is essentially oral. Even Aristotle's philosophy is originally oral. It is not simply to be found in propositions in his books. The notion that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato (Whitehead) shows the truth of another process: that philosophy is the exegesis of a few essential texts. Exegesis is the vehicle of truth, in this case. Much of the history of philosophy is about exegesis.

Philosophy is not about knowing the truth, but as the word philosophia suggests, being on the way to it. "We learn to think by giving our mind to what there is to think about" Heidegger says. Philosophers think about that which is most thought-provoking. But the question then is, what is most thought-provoking? The thought-provoking comes first: it appeals to us to think about it, to turn in its direction.

Hegel said that "Truth consists in knowledge" and therefore an individual only knows the truth as a function of reflection, that is, of thought. There are basic human questions about the nature of ourselves and the world which are what appeal to us to think, and what philosophy seeks to know, in order to know the truth. What is truth? is one of the basic questions. That these questions have never been answered means that they have a transcendent quality, something which in itself is thought-worthy, both in terms of ourselves and our world. What kind of persons are we that these questions are ever before us? What kind of world is it that gives rise to such questions without answer? At the same time, our philosophy — our yearning after truth — draws humanity on and redefines our place in the world as well as our perception of it.

Jaspers gives a succinct definition of philosophy and its process: "Philosophy is the principle of concentration through which man becomes himself, by partaking of reality." Analysis of propositions has its place in this process but philosophy is in no way reducible to it.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mark asked:

I read a book (Carl Wellman Morals and Ethics Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1988) and I do not understand why "one cannot be obliged or constrained by one's own will". I have quoted the following passage:

Every law creates a duty, but only relative duties have correlative rights. A duty is relative when it is a duty to some assignable or identifiable person or persons; it is then a duty relative to one or more particular persons to whom performance is due. This definition fits passive rights admirably. "The creditor has a right to repayment" simply means that the debtor has a duty to the creditor to repay the loan. Not every duty is a relative duty, a duty to some right-holder. One also has absolute duties, such as the duties to pay one's taxes or to refrain from suicide. The former is not a relative duty because it is due to the public at large and not to any assignable individual or individuals; the latter is not a relative duty because one cannot be obliged or constrained by one's own will.

I think it means that, if the duty to refrain from suicide is a relative duty, It implies that you can claim this against yourself. But to demand something from yourself is simply to will to do that thing. But to will is different from to oblige for it allows you to make choice. Is that right? But what is it that, when you will yourself to do something, you allow yourself to make choice?

I am confused and think I get it all wrong. I am really at a loss. Could you help me please?

Suppose Tom, Dick, Jane and Sue club together to make me a loan. Then the money that I owe, I owe to Tom, to Dick, to Jane and to Sue. These are the individuals to whom the right to repayment of the loan is 'assigned'. Would it be so absurd to say that I owe my taxes to each and every individual person living in the UK? Tom, Dick, Jane and Sue each contributed a specific amount to the pot, and so I owe each of them that amount. But there is no specific proportion of my taxes that I 'owe' my next door neighbour, for example.

It is quite hard at first to see how the principle established here, the difference between relative and absolute duties, transfers to the case of the supposed duty to refrain from suicide. But consider a different case. A doctor discovers a treatment for a previously incurable disease. However, this treatment is potentially so hazardous, that she believes it would be wrong for her to test it on another person, even with their informed consent. So the doctor tests the drug on herself.

It seems to me that the idea that a duty to oneself is 'absolute' whereas a duty to another person is 'relative' could be used to explain the intuition that there is a significant difference between testing a dangerous drug on another person, even with their full, informed consent, and testing that same drug on oneself. The danger may be such that I have no right to ask another person to take that high risk. But I don't have to 'ask' myself. It's entirely up to me.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sam asked:

I have a BA in Philosophy and my question is, How do I accept the belief of God existing if I don't have the ability to know anything. I can only know what I see from my eyes and there is even no proof that this reality is really existing or just a part of my mind. This reality could just be a dream that seems real to us but is just an illusion. How and why am I here existing on this planet if it really is a planet? Why was I brought into this world with no answers? Did God create me and he knows all the answers? is it that simple? What is your take on this?

This question is primarily concerning solipsism, derived mainly from Descartes. The assumption that drives such scepticism is that to know a proposition it must be immune from doubt, or indubitable. Subjective appearances seem to satisfy this criteria, i.e. 'this appears to me to be such and such'. But the sceptic denies that we can move from this to propositions about mind-independent things, i.e.'This is such and such'. I could be dreaming. We have no reason to believe that there is a world at all. The hypothesis that the world is an invention of my mind explains the facts just as well as the hypothesis that the world exists as it appears to.

An initial response might be to try to diffuse the argument completely, before it even starts. We might say, following Heidegger, that the 'scandal of philosophy' is not, as Kant had said, that there has never been a proof of the external world, but rather that such proofs are attempted again and again. Heidegger's view was that the question itself arises from a confused metaphysic, that sees man as something separate and distinct from the physical world. A correct understanding of man as dasein (literally translated as 'there-being') would undermine the thinking behind the question. This approach has much going for it, but it would be more attractive to defeat the sceptic directly; to solve rather than bury the problem.

Much is made of the dreaming argument, that we can never tell whether what we think is the world is a dream or not. But good arguments have been given to show that we do have very good reasons for supposing that we are not now asleep, or at least to show that it is not true to say 'I am now asleep'.

If I ask myself the question 'Am I awake?' I will answer affirmatively. A sceptic might respond that I have to prove this, and challenge me to point to something that would count as proof. But this ignores the fact that I can only be challenged if I am awake, otherwise I will have only dreamt that I was challenged. As Wittgenstein says (On Certainty para. 383) 'The argument "I may be dreaming" is senseless.. if I am dreaming, this remark is being dreamed as well — and indeed it is being dreamed that these words have any meaning.' If the world is a dream then so is this argument, and so is my belief that the words in it mean anything at all. And It makes no sense to doubt whether we understand our language: a claim like 'I cannot know what these words mean' can never be true.

Arguments such as these try to make the solipsism advocated in the question incoherent. And this shouldn't be too difficult. Apparently Bertrand Russell received a letter from a man who said that he was a solipsist, and couldn't understand why everyone else wasn't as well. This may not be true, but it is true that philosophers argue about the question, presumably someone arguing the case for the non-existence of the world. This situation clearly is absurd, and it seems right that Heidegger should call it a scandal.

As Wittgenstein remarked, should someone stumble upon a group of philosophers arguing this question, we should have to assure them that they were philosophers and not insane. But perhaps we shouldn't be so lenient.

(N.B. The question, 'Why was I brought into the world with no answers?' is no more troubling than the question, 'Why was I brought into the world with no wings?' We'd all like answers, but then again, most of us would like to have wings more.)

Will Greenwood


Thi asked:

What does it mean to have "existential doubts"?

Existentialists do not have 'doubts'. They suffer from psychologically more interesting conditions like anxiety, vertigo, nausea.

Unlike these other, philosophically more subversive concepts, existential doubt does not disclose anything about the nature of ultimate reality, or the ground of our being, or lack of it. Existential doubt is an ubiquitous, cliché-ridden theme of popular culture. Like the bored executive on the thirty-third floor who wakes up one day to the realization that he 'could have been more'. Or the teenager sitting up all night staring at their fish tank. Or...well, I won't bore you.

It is a tragedy when someone who's life is perfectly all right, who has no reason to succumb to existential doubts, falls victim to the gnawing worry, 'Why am I doing this? What's the point of it all?' When a person whom we think really ought to feel doubts about their life doesn't, it is a comedy.

Existential doubt is just one particular example of the dialectic of scepticism, doubt and certainty. The point has often been made in discussions of the problem of philosophical scepticism that progress in human knowledge depends upon our willingness to doubt and question, to explore alternatives, to demand justifications. There are also times where doubt is merely pathological. The same pair of alternatives applies to the case of so-called existential doubt.

Geoffrey Klempner


Perps asked:

What is true happiness? Can it be attained?

A story might illustrate the answer to this question. It is from the Memoirs of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-73). He is flying Air India in the late fifties with friend Jorge and Zelia Amado:

The Indian planes were always crammed with turbaned passengers, covered with colours and loaded with baskets. It seemed impossible to squeeze so many people into an airplane. A crowd got off at the first airport and another got on to take their place. We had to go on beyond Madras to Calcutta. The plane shuddered under the tropical storms. A day like night, darker than true night, suddenly covered us, and then left to make room for a glaring sky. The plane began staggering again; lightning and thunder illuminated the sudden darkness. I watched Jorge Amado's face go from white to yellow and from yellow to green. And he saw the same mutation of colour produced in my own face by the terror that gripped our throats. It started to rain inside the plane. The water came in in heavy drops that reminded me of my house in Temuco during winter. But ten thousand meters up the leaks did not amuse me. The amusing thing though, was a Buddhist monk sitting beside us. He opened an umbrella and with Oriental serenity went on reading the texts of ancient wisdom.
(p.231 Penguin edn.).

Matthew Del Nevo


Steve asked:

The Meaning of simple things:

People ask, 'What is the meaning of life?' but can philosophers answer something as simple as, 'What is the meaning of a spoon?'

Philosophers are not interested in "The Meaning of Life", but they are interested in the meaning of life, and no less the spoon.

"Spoon" might have a functional meaning: A utensil which has the function of enabling us to take liquids (and cereal!) from a bowl instead of having to sip, as with a cup. Spoons do have other uses and you may use your spoon to heat up heroin. However, this can be understood as a secondary function, and need not negate is socially determined function as an eating utensil.

If the meaning of a spoon is determined by its social function, then what a spoon is is culturally relative. Imagine that mankind is wiped out in a freak dry-cleaning accident and Martians move in. They find the spoons and use them to pick worms out of the lawn (the Martians eat with their fingers). They may, but are unlikely to, use the word "spoon", but it will have a different function and be a different sort of thing.

On the hand, a spoon could be a class of things made of silver, stainless steel or wood, of a certain shape. When we use the word "spoon" we refer to the class of things under this description, but what we mean by it — its sense — is something we use to eat with or serve with or heat up heroin with. Even if you don't use a spoon in these normal senses, and just use it for worms, you can still use the common notion of a spoon so long as you refer to the silver thing. Its just that you don't fully understand what a spoon is for.

Given your interest in this, an excellent summary of theories of meaning is given by A.C. Grayling in Introduction to Philosophical Logic.

Rachel Browne


Dian asked:

What is friendship? What is love? Does God exist?

There is a foundational discussion of friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In Symposium Plato presents the nature of love through the speeches of his interlocutors, especially Aristophanes' speech on one's 'seeking one's other half' and Diotima's speech at the end about Porus and Penia. Love is not just eros, but agape, philos and storge as well — see C. S Lewis' The Four Loves for an overview and Pavel Florovsky, The Pillar and Ground of Truth for a philosophical account.

Does God exist? Not like a existent among existents. The traditional theological account definitive for orthodox thinking on this question is in The Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius (in print in the Classics of Western Spirituality series by Paulist Press). One of the most famous accounts of this question is that of Thomas Aquinas; see the Oxford World Classics edition of Aquinas's Selected Philosophical Writings, passage 20. Anselm's so-called ontological argument for the existence of God, to be found in his Proslogion has been criticised by all major philosophers from Descartes onward. All these critiques of Anselm can be found in the Introduction to the Open Court Classics edition of Anselm's Basic Writings.

Matthew Del Nevo


Joanna asked:

Does the Socrates of Plato's early dialogues have a distinct method of philosophising? Does he establish any positive philosophical conclusion?

What is most notable about the characters forced to submit to Socrates relentless questioning in Plato's early dialogues is their lack of doubt. Such as the General in Laches who wants his son to acquire 'courage', who has never questioned what courage is, or the young man in Euthyphro convinced that it is 'piety' that demands he prosecute his own father for the murder of a servant.

The early dialogues all follow the same basic formula. Various attempts are made to define the moral concept in question, but none is deemed satisfactory, and the participants go away disappointed.

I used to go along with the idea that Socrates' aim in these dialogues is not to arrive at a definition of courage, or piety, or temperance, or virtue that covers all possible cases, every example that we can think of, but rather to appreciate the need for constant re-examination of our moral beliefs, and our ideas about what constitutes a human 'virtue'. Somehow, that no longer seems to ring true.

Looking at the dialogues now, it seems to me more likely that Socrates — the historical Socrates whose practice we must assume is more or less faithfully recorded in Plato's early dialogues — really did think that definitions of the virtues could, in principle, be found. But these would not be definitions that you would find in any dictionary, taking up just one or two lines, like 'Courage is standing fast and not running away in the face of the enemy'. Socrates, who was convinced that human beings were capable of moral knowledge, that philosophical inquiry could reveal the basis of this knowledge, tried and, to his disappointment, failed.

I therefore do not accept the popular view that Socrates was merely being ironic in claiming that he 'knew nothing'. To be sure, it may have been only very rarely that a respondent ambushed him with a new idea, or a definition he had not already thought of and rejected. But he really did think that there was something out there to be known, and that one day might be known. — And, for what it's worth, so do I.

Geoffrey Klempner


Joanna also asked:

What is anti-realism?

Sometimes, we ask questions when we are confident that we can find the answer. Sometimes, it's hit or miss whether we will stumble across an answer or not. And sometimes — and not nearly as infrequently as you might think — we have cast iron reasons for thinking that the answer to our question will never be found.

If you want to construct a simple machine for generating questions that can never be answered, simply put a coin in a sealed box, shake the box and wait for the coin to land, then shake it again. 'Was the result of the first shake heads or tails?' is just such a question.

An anti-realist response to this experiment would be to cast doubt on our confidence that we know what it means to say that the question, 'Was the result of the first shake heads or tails?' has a determinate answer.

Anti-realism is nothing like classical idealism. It is not the view that when we talk about 'material things' we are really talking about ideas in some mind. Berkeley's idealism is thoroughly realist in its assumption that every 'material object' in the universe, whether perceived by finite beings or not, exists eternally in the mind of God.

As the experiment with the coin shows, it is statements about the past which most clearly illustrate the challenge of anti-realist view, to explain, in the words of the metaphysical poet John Donne, 'Where all past Yeares are.' The realization that memory gives only limited access to the past leads to the metaphysical anxiety that maybe there is nothing really there, that what we term 'the past' only as a concept, a name we give to statements based on memory or on inference from evidential traces that past events leave behind. In the absence of a Recording Angel, there are no immutable past 'facts'. When the answer to a question about the past cannot be found, there is no answer there in reality.

This kind of anti-realism is pretty hard to defeat. There is extensive material on this question in the writings of Michael Dummett (see, for example 'The Reality of the Past' in his collection of papers Truth and other Enigmas Duckworth 1978) and Crispin Wright (see, for example, his book Truth and Objectivity Harvard 1992).

In my view, these philosophers are barking up the wrong tree in trying to tie the dispute between realism and anti-realism to the philosophy of language, and the question, 'What would be the correct form of a theory of meaning?' Or at least so I argued in my doctoral thesis, and still believe. But that is another story.

Geoffrey Klempner


Joanna also asked:

Is it possible that Eliminative Materialism may turn out to be correct?

Eliminative materialists believe that in a theoretically adequate description of the 'mental life' of a human being, it would not be necessary to make reference to such things as thoughts, feelings, sensations. These items would be eliminated in favour of a description of the physical processes going on in a person's body and brain when they utter sounds which we would interpret as a statement such as, 'I am thinking of Paris', or 'I have a pain in my elbow.' The thought about Paris, the elbow pain, do not exist. We merely talk about such things under the erroneous belief that they do exist, the way people talk about witches and UFO's.

Some will find that a totally incredible theory. The same criticism has been applied to it as was once levelled at behaviourism, that it is only possible to believe it by 'feigning anesthesia'.

How could such a theory conceivably be correct? How could it turn out that we were wrong in thinking that our thoughts, feelings and sensations are real?

The continued interest in the 'I know I'm different from a zombie' argument (see my response to Jason's question in the previous set of questions and answers) shows that there are those who reject point blank the idea that eliminative materialism could turn out to be correct. Nothing, they say, could ever make us accept a conclusion that so patently clashes with our actual experience.

I am no friend of eliminative materialism, but I fear that such protests are nothing more than empty rhetoric. There are lots of things we cannot imagine because our imaginations are not up to the task. We think we have exhausted all the possibilities, but we haven't. Our minds are fixed on a picture, a certain way of seeing things, but that picture turns out to be simply wrong.

Geoffrey Klempner

Eliminative materialism is much championed at the moment and it is thought probable that it is true, but it does have problems. The first problem is how will we know it is true. Even if scientists find brain states purporting to be sufficient for a mental state, the sceptical problem of other minds arises. If scientists were able to programme a brain with cognitive functions and computational ability, we could not assume even on the basis of behaviour that this was sufficient for phenomenological states which are the subjective view we have of the world. This is an epistemological problem, but points to the second problem which is that the eliminative materialist is not able to say anything about consciousness. The concept of the mental is that it is essentially conscious and consciousness is non-physical, and so for an eliminative materialist, consciousness may as well not exist.

The third problem is the representational content of intentional states. Intentional states, such as beliefs and desires, are defined in relation to ways in which the world is. World-relatedness is necessary if beliefs are to perform their function of guiding behaviour by disposing us to behave appropriately in the world. Possession of beliefs also dispose us to form new beliefs, but if these are not related to the world, they will fail to perform their function. If beliefs are stored in a subject's brain and identified with physical states, they may not represent the world at all. It is true that the brain has cognitive functions, but concepts and intentional states are essentially related to what is in the world. Take perception: Just look around you. Is a brain state sufficient for this?

Rachel Browne


Joan asked:

This is about ethics. Could you please explain to me the non-consequentialist theory of morality? Thank you.

There is not just one non-consequentialist theory of morality but many. A consequentialist theory holds that the moral value of an action is determined by its results. The main example is utilitarianism.

The theories of Aristotle and Kant are non-consequentialist since for both philosophers moral value lies in the condition of the agent. For Aristotle ethical value lies in the well-being of the moral agent, a condition called "eudaimonia". To be in this condition is to possess certain virtues, such as courage and truthfulness, and to be able to act without deficiency or excess, which is to exercise self-control. Aristotle does not state any general principles for action, such as "love they neighbour", but claims that a virtuous action must be voluntary, performed with pleasure and done for its own sake by a person of stable character (intellectual wisdom should regulate emotions and desires). As far as a particular situation is concerned, such a person needs to look at possible consequences, but the moral value depends upon character and the way in which the action is performed.

Kant holds that a moral action is done from duty rather than inclination. To act according to duty is to act in accordance with the categorical imperative which states that you should only act on a principle which you can at the same will as universal law. Since we cannot will that all persons should make false promises, a false promise is ruled out as immoral whatever the consequences. Kant specifically states that "the moral worth of an action does not depend on the result expected from it". The condition of the subject is also essential to a moral action. A rational subject who is able to act without regard for his own interests and inclinations is the moral man. Kant calls such a man "holy" since he has "good will" in as much as his inclinations do not conflict with what he knows he ought to do. The ordinary man, who is not holy, might think there are cases when making a false promise is the right thing do. He might formulate a principle with references to circumstances, such that to kill the mass murderer will save ten persons. Kant would think that this is immoral since it is to use the man who is a mass murderer as a means to the end of saving others, and it is not treat him with the respect he is due as a human being.

In Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, Raimond Gaita puts forward a positively anti-consequentialist account of what it is to be moral. This again focuses on the moral agent, in particular his moral understanding. The claim is that a consequentialist does not have any understanding of good and evil. Such understanding requires moral seriousness, which can be seen in pity and remorse. Concern should not just be over what we have done when we do wrong, but the fact that we did it. Gaita claims this to be a reading of Socrates' claim in Plato's Gorgias that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, because the evil-doer is miserable and pitiable.

Rachel Browne


Danny asked:

We are studying Descartes in my philosophy class, and we are constantly being troubled by the infamous statement, 'I think, therefore I am.' We argue as to whether or not the argument is SOUND, and have yet to truly decide what the answer is... What are your thoughts on this?

There two questions to ask here, which often get confused. The first question is, 'Does Descartes' appeal to the indubitable presence of mental acts prove anything at all?' The second question is, 'Does Descartes' appeal to the indubitable presence of mental acts prove what he thinks it proves?'

The second question is relatively easy to answer. Descartes thought that what he had proved was the existence of his 'I' as an immaterial substance with a past, present and potentially a future, the continuing subject of mental predicates, the non-physical agent responsible for the mental acts of thinking, feeling, desiring, perceiving. Kant decisively refuted this claim with a thought experiment about a line of colliding billiard balls. Imagine that there is not one 'I', but a series of 'I's each lasting only a short period of time, each communicating its total state to the next. In other words, there is no logical basis for counting mental substances, as defined by Descartes. 'I think' proves only that something thinks now. Or perhaps, as some would claim, only that there is a thinking happening now.

Many more readers of Descartes would give a positive answer to the first question, whether his appeal to the indubitable presence of mental acts and events proves anything at all.

The 'I know I'm different a zombie' argument which I mentioned above, is one such example. In my response to Jason's question I claimed that this argument is not convincing, because a zombie who was my exact double in every physical respect would 'say' exactly the same thing.

But here is an argument I find much harder to refute. It seems to me, reflecting on the sheer contingency of my existence, that there might not have been me, but instead someone exactly like me, writing these words, thinking these thoughts. Not a zombie, this time, but someone who physically and mentally had all that I had. What every act of thinking, feeling, perceiving shows is that there is 'I' where there might not have been 'I'. — Just what that means is something I have puzzled over for a long time.

Geoffrey Klempner


Hiromi asked:

Why is Ivan Karamazov so upset considering his apparent belief in God?

Because God allows the innocent to suffer. Ivan tries (rather successfully Dostoyevsky's literary and philosophical posterity have thought) to take the moral high-ground on God. God may allow children to be tortured and butchered, but Ivan says No to it, and therefore to God.

Matthew Del Nevo


Jack asked:

I am working on a viewpoint called "The Fairness of Uncertainty" which tries to make a case that one of God's attributes is fairness to humans of the past present and future. Within that framework I believe that it is more fair to humans that no proof of God's existence exists and no proof could exist because it would violate the "fairness principle."

Belief in God, Gods, spirit or whatever is best and fairest left to individual viewpoints and experiences.

Is there any philosophical thought along this line?

If God is to be fair He must be fair from beginning to end. Certain attributes of God's character impose certain conditions on how God can act. If fairness is one of these attributes then God should create a world where everyone has the same inclinations and experiences and motivations to find out if God exists. For it would be unfair to create a world where some people have experiences that lead them to believe in God while others have no such experiences or motivation. It would then be a matter of constitutive luck that certain persons have the experiences or inclinations to believe, and constitutive luck cannot, I think, be considered fair, especially if along with belief in God comes the belief that we gain insight into the proper moral way to behave. In this case it would be pure luck that some people were considered moral and this would be unfair since as Kant also thought morality should be open to every one, not just those with the inclination or means to carry out the requirements of morality.

Since God has not created such an equal world he is not fair. In fact such a condition could be ultimately self-defeating. For if God did create such a world then according to this line of thought this world would itself be proof of God's existence.

So we have a dilemma: If God is fair he would have created a world of where people share equal status, but if he created such a world this would lead to a proof that he exists and so violate your fairness of uncertainty principle. But if he does not create such a world then he cannot be considered fair.

Secondly, in terms of other typical theistic beliefs about God, if fairness is a attribute of God then we would have to rethink issues such as life after death, divine rewards and punishment, forgiveness and redemption. If God does exist, and decides it fairer that he does not provide any proof of his existence, then to be consistent He must not be able to punish non believers or reward the faithful. To do so would be unfair, since it is only a matter of luck that some believe and others do not. So there could be no haven or hell or else He would have to let everyone posses eternal life.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Sedat asked:

What did the Chinese philosopher Lie Zi mean when he said "When there is a motive to be virtuous, there is no virtue"?

He meant that real virtue is dispassionate. Where there is a motive to virtue there is spiritual pride and vanity. Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18) says the same thing. The Greeks called this dispassion apatheia and the Latins humilitas. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) who founded Western monasticism speaks with wisdom and at some length on this matter in his Rule Ch. VII — the so-called twelve steps of humility on the ladder of virtue. Monastic obedience was one of the three vows which protected the monk from vainglory.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mari asked:

Why does Kant think that we must think of ourselves as subject to the categorical imperative?

How does a utilitarian decide how to act?

Kant argues firstly that all men are subject to the categorical imperative as rational beings, and secondly that it has validity for all men in virtue of the freedom of the will.

The categorical imperative is a moral law which holds for all persons as an objective principle which is universally valid and unconditional. An objective law says what ought to happen regardless of subjective impulses and inclinations.

The law is unconditional insofar as it applies to every person as a rational being. It is derived from the general concept of a rational being so that moral obligation need not depend on the idea of a human being as a feeling creature, since as such we are liable to be corrupted. Kant claims that every person rationally believes that he ought to treat others as he would be treated himself. We know this is what we ought to do, so the imperative is categorical, representing a duty which we cannot rationally deny.

We are not just subject to this law, but make it ourselves. This is the second aspect of the categorical imperative. The law is universally valid because it represents the will of every person. This is because it is not based on any interest. We conceive of ourselves as having a free will with which to act, and in practical reasoning, the will has the ability to overcome subjective motives. This is so for every rational being. As we can overcome subjective motives, and we rationally recognise what we ought to do, we are able to will that this duty become universal law, valid for us and others.

It is not that we "must" think of ourselves as subject to the categorical imperative. We just are subject to it in that it is what we "ought" to do and "would" do if we acted with reason rather than inclination. For the truly good "holy man" there is no duty. The categorical imperative is an objective duty for all people who fail to act upon it.

On utilitarianism: It is the main drawback of utilitarianism that there is a practical difficulty in trying to assess amounts of happiness or welfare consequent upon an action. The intended consequences will not necessarily be the actual ones, and not all consequences are foreseeable. Whereas a number of outcomes of an action might be foreseen, the probabilities of each outcome can't. Even if it could, how many people understand probability theory? Rule utilitarianism supposedly answers this problem in that it considers the utility of a rule, such as "always repay your debts". However, this can conflict with act utilitarianism. It might not be act utilitarian to repay your debt to your uncle with three children when you have just discovered his drug/gambling habit. So at the level of actual practical reasoning, rule utilitarianism must be reduced to act utilitarianism with its unsolved problems.

The act utilitarian can only act as any other agent using practical reasoning. We never know what all the consequences of an action are, whether it is a moral action or not. But as a moral agent whose duty it is to maximize happiness or welfare, weight might properly be given not to the agent's own welfare but the welfare of others.

Rachel Browne


Hiromi asked:

What is the categorical imperative? Why, according to the categorical imperative, is it immoral to make a false promise?

The categorical imperative is stated as "Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". This is an objective duty, valid for all rational beings, stating how they ought to act. It is contrasted with a hypothetical imperative which is conditional upon such things, as "if you want to look kind..." or "if you want to avoid reproach..." etc. It is a formal principle and doesn't prescribe any particular actions. It is often formulated along the lines of "Treat others as they would treat you" and has application to any particular action with regard to others, as well as to the self. Suicide is immoral because we cannot will that suicide become a universal law.

We cannot will as a universal law that promises should be broken because we cannot lie and at the same time will that everyone makes deceitful promises, as it is a contradiction. If all promises were deceitful, we could not even promise. Otherwise put, we would not have others break their promises to us. To break a promise is to act upon a hypothetical imperative: "If I want to extricate myself from my present difficulties then...". Kant suggests that a "greater inconvenience" may come from breaking a promise on this basis because we cannot see the consequences, so it is not even prudent. But lying or promise breaking is not wrong just because the consequences could lead to greater evil. It is categorically prohibited, or against the moral law as stated by the categorical imperative. One should not ask oneself what advantage a false promise would bring to oneself. One should ask "is it right" or "could I will that anyone can make a false promise if it is to his personal advantage?"

The moral law also prescribes that we treat all human beings similarly "as an end": When we act upon a hypothetical imperative we might use a person as a means to an end, and an example is making a false promise. To use someone for one's own purposes is to use him as a means and this, too, violates the categorical imperative. We cannot will that it is a universal law that everyone should use another person as a means to an end, or for one's personal advantage.

Rachel Browne


Gregory asked:

If God is the creator of all things then he created Satan. He created him with the capacity to do evil, therefore God must know evil, indeed he must be its creator. God created both good and evil, to give us choice between the two. We do not however need to be subjected to so much evil to achieve this choice, to understand the difference. God therefore stands guilty of being the creator of evil and suffering on a huge scale because he put no limit on the evil and suffering of the human race and our fellow creatures. Much of this suffering and evil is aimed at the weak and impoverished, there is no justification for this amount of unreconcilable evil.

Therefore God cannot be wholly good, all loving, he is not even concerned in keeping suffering to a minimum. Conclusion: God is to be held responsible for evil from the beginning of creation, or God is not totally good as we are asked to believe. It leads one to ask is there a God at all.

The first thing to say is that God has set a limit to the amount of evil and suffering we can endure namely death. There is only so much suffering we can experience without either passing out or dying. If God did allow us to suffer forever clearly he could not be considered wholly good, but since He does not allow such continued suffering the evil that does exist may be justified.

This may sound crazy for one may consider death itself an evil, but this view does have its defenders, most notable Richard Swinburne (see his The Existence of God.)

There are various ways of trying to justify the evil that does exist, Swinburne argues that God allows the amount of evil He does of the greater good that results from it. This greater good is conceived in terms of human's ability to become better moral agents in the face of evil, for if there were no evil or suffering, so the argument goes, we would not have the opportunities for making free choices, to act virtuously, or to take responsibility for our actions. Essentially evil is necessary in order to be moral.

The question is then, does the greater good "adsorb" the evil that exists or does the amount of evil outweigh any good consequences that follow from God allowing evil? Even the answer is that evil cannot be justified it does not follow from this alone that God does not exist rather the most we can conclude is the more qualified assertion that no omnipotent, wholly good being exists. For if God is either not wholly good or not omnipotent then we have an explanation for evil: either God wants evil in the world, or He cannot get rid of it. This of course leads to a big mess of blues for theists.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Francis asked:

What would be the relevance of Martin Heidegger's notion of the Question Concerning Technology to Oswald Jünger's idea of Technology?

I take it you mean Ernst Jünger not Oswald. Jünger had published a treatise in 1932 entitled The Worker. This was a follow on from his 1930 publication Total Mobilization. These were typically politically correct works in a Germany veering toward Nazism. Heidegger, not a philosopher renowned for his political smartness, read Jünger against the background of his massive and historic interpretation of Nietzsche. Jünger was a man of his time, while Heidegger was (in a phrase of Nietzsche) an untimely philosopher. Heidegger's explanations tend to be more brilliant than that which he is explaining. This is true of Nietzsche and is even truer of Jünger, who has no legacy as a thinker that I am aware of, except by courtesy of Heidegger. Heidegger was only on a par with great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel.

Heidegger's idea of technology issues from his Seinsfrage (question of Being). 'Being' here is a question of being-as-such and as a whole. Not this or that being but the being of beings, their 'is-ness'. The question of technology is a question of the 'destiny of Being'. For Heidegger, the rise of technology (whence the question) means that man as a collective entity is behaving in a mimetic fashion. Man is imitating Being itself. What is essential to Being-as-such and as a whole is its quality of pervasiveness and overpoweringness. Everything partakes of Being. Not just every entity but every idea 'is'. Everything imaginable is in some way or other. Being overpowers beings. Technology is a mimesis of this, for it is man's attempt to overpower all beings. Technology is the name under which this usurpation of Being by beings is attempted. Heidegger's so-called 'pessimism' stems from the understanding that this overpowering of the Being of beings by man can never succeed. It is a deluded but grandiose attempt that must fall flat on its face in the end because man has not understood the Seinsfrage to begin with; essentially, the question of himself. Such understanding is the job of philosophy alone and above all. Unfortunately, technology as a will to power has cut itself off from philosophy.

Heidegger speculates that because technology (reduced to the essence of what it really is) does not will Being-as-such and as a whole, but wills to usurp Being with its own commanding power, it is nihilistic. Not to will Being is to will nothing. Technology reveals the nihilism of modern man and culture. Heidegger thought Jünger a kindred spirit with regard to this kind of thinking of Being and time.

Heidegger is probably wrong (which philosopher isn't?) but those pages on the Rhine in his essay on technology are fabulous. Trying to explain the meaning of Heidegger is like trying to explain the meaning of a poem, the explanation always says much less than is shown by the original.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mari asked:

Could you explain one version of the cosmological argument and one possible objection to it?

One version of the Cosmological argument (based on Leibniz's version) starts from the contingent fact that the world exists. After all the world did not have to exist, there could easily have been nothingness instead of the something that we experience today. So we can ask why there .is something rather than nothing.

To begin the argument we need to see that whatever does exist in the world depends on something else — the reason why X exists is dependent on the existence of Y. But this itself is contingent Y did not have to exist, and so Y is dependent on something else Z. So the world as a whole set of thing (X, Y, Z) only exists contingently and so may not have existed.

The reason why the world exists then must be due to something outside the contingencies of the world, a thing that contains its own reason for existing i.e. a necessary reason. Such a necessary reason is taken to be God.

The major objection to such an argument is to do with the idea of a necessary being. Is the idea of necessary existing being coherent or even plausible? and if so why should God be such a being? Hume for example thought that matter was just as likely a candidate for existing necessarily.

Kant claimed that the cosmological argument rested upon the Ontological proof and since he thought that the ontological tails so too does the cosmological argument. Another problem is how does idea of a necessary being help us answer the question why there is something rather than nothing. God may be the reason for his own existence, but he could still have chosen not to create the universe. So we need more premises about the nature of God (that He would want to create the world, that He is able to create the world for example). Something the cosmological argument on its own does not provide.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield

St. Thomas Aquinas famously gave five ways to prove the existence of God, of which the first three are forms of the cosmological argument. It is however the third form, and variations on it that are nowadays known as the cosmological argument. It is also known as the argument from contingency.

The argument starts from the assumption that all things in the universe are contingent, which is to say that they need not have existed, or have existed in the way that they do. This is true, and can been seen by considering the fact that all things at one time did not exist, and depended for there existence on other things. My computer exists thanks to the computer shop putting it together, who had the parts thanks to the manufacturer, who made them from materials from someone else, etc. etc. Everything points beyond itself to other things. Someone might copy this for an essay, and i might have copied it from a book, and the author might have copied it from someone else. But this chain must have an end. It is impossible that the essay came from nowhere: at the end of the chain there must be someone who didn't copy from anyone else, who wrote it. The argument is that in order for there to be a contingent world, there also needs to be a non contingent foundation, something that does not depend on anything else for its existence. Without this, there would be an infinite regress. The non-contingent grounding, or 'necessary being' is what we call God.

There are different ways of objecting to the argument: one way would be to question the notion of causality that is used. For example, Hume argued that causal connections are just observed sequences, and that we have no justification for the belief that all events must have a cause. Although this objection may well be valid, it seems a little to 'philosophical', a little far fetched. A much simpler tack is possible: we can accept that the argument is valid, yet still reject the conclusion that God exists.

The conclusion of the argument is presented as a dilemma: either God exists or the universe is ultimately unintelligible. The problem is that there is no reason for us to reject the second horn. That the universe is ultimately unintelligible is precisely the sceptic's position. The cosmological argument can be seen as simply demonstrating the logical implications of an intelligible universe, i.e. if the universe has an ultimate meaning, then there must be a God. But the reasons that would lead one to reject the idea that the universe has a meaning are precisely the reasons that would lead one to reject that there is a God. We are asked to assume from the start that there is a foundation and meaning to the universe, but this is tantamount to asking us to assume that there is a God. The cosmological argument does not operate as a proof to the sceptic, and the sceptic is the only one who asks for a proof. It would seem that the cosmological argument is no more than philosophical preaching to the converted.

Will Greenwood


Laura asked:

To make the intellectual world of thought-objects and of the forms easier to grasp, Plato took the normal world of our experience underground in his Allegory of the Cave. Could you explain what this accomplished and what the Allegory was intended to teach us?

In Plato's underground cave there are people chained and shackled so that they can only see one wall. Behind. them is a fire casting it's light upon the wall. Between the fire and the people is a roadway through which other people travel carrying all kinds of objects which cast shadows on the wall.

The chained people take these shadows to be realities. However if one of them were to be released and allowed to look around or even to leave the cave (via a rough assent) into the clear light of day lie would realise that in fact the shadows were not reality.

I think the allegory of the cave is meant to be more than just a way of saying that if we rely on our sense perception we will never attain knowledge, but always be subject to the world of appearance. Rather there is a stronger message that through our intellectual capacities and philosophy in particular we can break the chains that "fetter us" we can aim for the light we can be enlightened. In other words by becoming philosophers we can be free!

There is as well a second part to the allegory. The freed person returns to the cave and is subject to ridicule and danger. Clearly he would not be happy with this situation. But one of the things we learn to see outside the cave, in fact the highest source of knowledge is that of Goodness. In. the larger context of The Republic (from which the allegory is taken) Plato wishes to describe the ideal state for mankind, Plato thinks that knowledge of Goodness is required in order to run such an ideal community, However those with such knowledge, like the man sent back to the cave are reluctant to go. Bizarre or brilliantly depending on how one views Plato it is those who least want power and responsibility that should have it.

The allegory of the cave is not meant so much to explain our understanding of the Forms, Plato needs to say much more about how we have the beginnings of such concepts than simply that we cannot trust our senses to show us reality. But rather the message of the story is that in our intellectual capacities lies the ways in which we can free ourselves from this world.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Jess asked:

What is perception according to Plato?

The Latin perceptio, 'perception' translates the Greek aesthesis. The key term in Plato is not aesthesis, but nous — often translated as mind or reason. Nous is 'what is best in the soul' and 'the soul's pilot', the faculty which is contact with the divine (Phaedrus 247c; Timaeus 51d). Orthodox Christianity equated (and still equates) the 'image of God' in man with the nous. Aesthesis is one of the parts of the soul, but nous is the unifying and commanding principle. The nous (or intelligence) is awakened by that which is intelligible. Hence, it is essentially a contemplative faculty. Any 'perception' is controlled by nous.

Matthew Del Nevo


Meg asked:

I have recently started a Philosophy A-level course and have been set a course work task. I was wondering if you had any additional information about the problem of evil and suffering. If God is supposed to be omnipotent why doesn't he stop the suffering in the world? I realise a Christian would say the God gave us free will, we need suffering to indicate to us when we are ill in order to try and recover, i.e. seek medical attention, I also realise its linked to what's known as the FALL — Adam tempted, going against God's commands to not eat from the tree. I would appreciate some more arguments from a Christian aspect.

Secondly, do you have any information on the arguments for and against after-life, reincarnation, rebirth, resurrection, immortality of the soul?

One reason why God allows suffering and evil is that He wants to!. i.e. God is not wholly good. Sure this is not very acceptable to many Christians, but it would solve the problem! Another response made by the Christian Scientists is to deny the existence of evil — it is simply an illusion, But if there is no evil why did Jesus Christ come to redeem all our sins?

Responses to the problem of evil are called theodices, the Christian strategy is to argue that God does will evil , not for it's own sake, but tor some supposed supreme good or "summum bonum". 'The Augustinian theodicy (St.Augustine's response ) argues that evil is necessary in order for us to recognise the goodness that God has created, just as we could not recognise the difference between colours if all we saw was blue (evil is also explained as mankind's disobeying God's will an act of divine punishment). However why would we need to tell the difference at all if we only experienced goodness?

The Irenian theodicy explains evil as necessary for the perfect. development of human beings. According to Swinburne (A defender of this position) evil provides an opportunity for people to grow intellectually and morally. For example, without. evils such as stealing there could not be such good states as forgiveness. But is it simply begging the question to say this? because if there were no stealing there would be no need for forgiveness and surely a world free of forgiveness is better, than one where old women get beaten up.

The free will defence although more plausible is no good either if one accepts that God being omnipotent could have created a world of free beings who always chose the right thing to do (see Mackie's The Miracle of Theism.) Further the free will defence cannot explain natural evils. Anyway, moving on. There are two basic conceptual forms of argument for life after death. One is that humans possess an immortal spirit that can exist separate from the body. For, the classical arguments for this see Plato's Phaedo and Descartes' Meditations. The second form of argument is that life after death continues in a bodily form. This view is expressed in the traditional Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Both these arguments depend on an important issue of personal identity: What is it that makes a person the same person through time? the first says it is my soul, the second my body.

But there is another way we can conceive of life after death. What if all I am is a set of memories and psychological traits? If so then we could write a "blue print" of the Brian Tee program load it into a computer network and live forever! Of course separate from these considerations of whether life after death is possible is the question of whether it is desirable. (For a good general discussion see B. Davis: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.)

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Rosa asked:

What challenge results from the typical theist's attribution of omniscience to God? How can a theist revise this attribution to avoid the challenge without undermining what matters most in her or his conception of God?

Also, what is Anselm's version of the ontological argument? and what is Kant's objection to the ontological argument?

The most common objection to God's omniscience is that it conflicts with human freedom. What omniscience means is that for any statement God knows whether it is true or false. So for example take the statement, "Tomorrow, I will either go to the pub or stay at home". God to be omniscient knows already, today, which option 1 will do tomorrow. He knows whether it is true that I will go to the pub. And if God knows that it is true that I will go to the pub then I will go to the pub. But if it is true today that 1 will go to the pub tomorrow where is my "free will to choose what to do"?

Here's the other side of the problem, If 1 an free then I can make it the case that God does not know what I will do. Therefore God is not omniscient.

Of course the problem could be solved by denying human freedom. However most proposed solutions to this problem tend to concentrate on another aspect of God, namely that He is eternal., or exists outside of time.

If God does not exist in time, but rather sees everything all at once or timelessly them since He is outside of time he does not have foreknowledge. God does know what free action 1 will take, but my freedom is not undermined because the truth of me going to the pub tomorrow does not depend on God knowing whether it is true today.

Another way to evade the problem is to deny the reality of the future. If the future does not exist then there are no facts to be known. God cannot know what will be true in the future, therefore both our freedom and God's omniscience is preserved. Our freedom because God does not know what we will choose. And God's omniscience because there is nothing for God to know. God cannot know X if there is nothing to know about X. There are many problems here about the nature of time and what it means to say that God exists eternally. For a good discussion see Time, Change and Freedom by Smith & Oaklander.

Anselm's Ontological argument is basically this: When we think of God we think of a being with perfect attributes or in his words "something than which nothing greater can be conceived".

To conceive of God as being only an intellectual object is to say that God is not the greatest thing which we can think of. Because we can also think of Him as existing in. reality. Anselm thinks that it is a better state of affairs to actually exist than to be merely imagined. So tor God to be the greatest thing we can conceive of we must conceive of him as really existing. If we do not think of Him in this way He is not a being with perfect attributes.

Kant had about four objections to the Ontological Argument. The most famous one is to deny that existence is a perfection. In fact existence is not a quality or attribute (perfect or other wise) of any concept at all. Because the word "existence" or "exists" does not add any property to any concept, in the way that "big" or "round" adds to our concept of the London Eye.

This is because once we have learnt a concept (in this case God or the London Eye) there is a further question whether anything in the world actually corresponds to our concept, there may not be. We have to go outside the definition of the concept and check independently of all our reasoning about the features of a thing whether there actually is one. And this is an empirical matter that can turn out either way. It is not one that can be settled a priori as a matter of definition.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Huse said:

I have an essay to do: "An acceptance of the exclusivists' claims about Christianity as made by some scholars may be incompatible with the concept of a pluralistic society."

I have to discuss this and I have got no idea.

A pluralist society is one which embraces a plurality of religious claims to truth about God and the human condition. Exclusivist Christians claim that only the truth that we proclaim about God and the human condition is really true. All the other claims are bogus. Now the problem arises when these exclusivist Christians, driven by their self-righteousness, take over the government — perhaps through the appropriate democratic channels. Then their exclusive claim to knowing God's will and human duty is incompatible with the government of a society which is open to an assortment of different claims. This problem never occurs in Western society because exclusivist Christians can never command a popular vote that would bring them political power. However, the Islamic world knows this problem as a political and religious reality.

Matthew Del Nevo


Findlay asked:

Are there unforgiven acts?

I write from France and I am really in need of some help. I hope you can help me out a little, for I have to hand this paper in for Saturday, 7th of October. Thanks a lot!

I'm sorry not to have been able to reply on time. Yes, there are unforgiven acts if they are deliberate and unrepented.

Matthew Del Nevo