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

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 14 (2nd series)

When referring to an answer on this page, please quote the page number followed by the answer number. The first answer on this page is 14/1.

The latest questions are distributed weekly to members of the Ask a Philosopher panel. If you would like to join the panel, please email askaphilosopher@fastmail.net, including a brief CV and statement of your academic qualifications.

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Kidoka asked:

Having read the answers to all your questions and of course knowing the answers to all my questions on philosophical matters; it strikes me that 'you', 'we', 'I' only go so far before meeting paradoxes that can't be addressed with any further deliberation.

For example I recently surmised that; "The Truth can not be found or defined through contemplation as The Truth was the catalyst for contemplation". The eventuality of what I am saying (as far as I can see anyway): for my theory to be true it must be false.

My conclusion immediately refutes my method which I used for reaching that conclusion, so the conclusion is also refuted, which then confirms my conclusion through admittance that my method pertained to nothing, which then obviously refutes my conclusion's validity yet again.

Do you have answer to this particular problem? Or if this problem is indeed just another debate that can't be settled with words then what helps you stop the contemplation when you find a "rabbit hole"?

============

Consider:

The statement below is true.

The statement above is false.

Yes... it is possible to set up paradoxes. And? What's the problem? All that setting up a paradox does is show the limitations of the particular system in which you're setting it up. Try this site:

http://members.aol.com/kiekeben/para.html

Steven Ravett Brown


(2) Murray asked:

I am posting this problem as a new thread because I have never gotten a direct response. Is my analogy faulty?

Does this come under the label of paradox? Is it so inane as to be ignored? Is it too difficult to answer? What?

"The first true experimenter in chaos was a meteorologist, named Edward Lorenz. In 1960, he was working on the problem of weather prediction. He had a computer set up, with a set of twelve equations to model the weather. One day in 1961, he wanted to see a particular sequence again. To save time, he started in the middle of the sequence, instead of the beginning. He entered the number off his printout and left to let it run. When he came back an hour later, the sequence had evolved differently. Instead of the same pattern as before, it diverged from the pattern, ending up wildly different from the original. Eventually he figured out what happened. The computer stored the numbers to six decimal places in its memory. To save paper, he only had it print out three decimal places.

"A scientist considers himself lucky if he can get measurements with accuracy to three decimal places. Surely the fourth and fifth, impossible to measure using reasonable methods, can't have a huge effect on the outcome of the experiment. Lorenz proved this idea wrong."

Apply this knowledge to how we understand the meaning of words and abstruse concepts, particularly to translations from other languages.

To how many decimal places can we reach a common understanding of the terms that we use? How often do we misunderstand each other in ordinary conversation let alone technical philosophical ideas. In post after post, the most common phrase used is, "Do I understand you correctly?"

============

I'll tell you what... go read the following article:

Reddy, M. 1993. The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In Metaphor and thought, edited by A. Ortony. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Then think about the above question.

Steven Ravett Brown


(3) Antonio asked:

First, I'm sorry for my poor English, since it's not my native language.

After reading Berkeley (Treatise) and Wittgenstein (Philosophischen Untersuchungen) I still have a doubt concerning abstract concepts. I can't see any meaning in concepts like "beauty", "justice", "good" or "The absolute". I can use those words in expressions like "this is a beautiful sunset", or "killing is bad". But "good" in itself, or "beauty" are concepts that doesn't seem to me having any possible definition.

But I imagine that if Socrates or Plato read this, they would smile and say: how can you discern that an action is good if you don't have the understanding of the meaning of "the good"? So, how do you think this problem (if there is one) can be resolved?

============

Your first statement is that you can't see any "meaning" in abstract concepts. Then you say that you don't know how to "define" abstract concepts. Then you say that Plato and Socrates would talk about "understanding the meaning". Well, these are three very very different criteria. Surely a concept could have a meaning, which could be very difficult or even impossible to define, yet easy to understand? Why not? One problem you're having is that you aren't clear on "meaning". Another problem you're having is that you're not clear on what "understanding" is. And then, you also need to think about what "definition" is. Then you might try putting all this together. For me to write a series of three essays on these very complex topics is simply way beyond the scope of this forum. You might do some reading, though:

Meaning, introduction:

Buchanan, L., and C. Westbury. 2001. Characterizing semantic space: Neighborhood effects in word recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 8 (3):531-544.

Gendlin, E. 1995. Words can say how they work. Synthesis Philosophia 10 (19-20):67-80.

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

Ogden, C. K., and I. A. Richards. 1968. The Meaning of Meaning. 8th ed. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. Original edition, 1923.

Piaget, J., and R. Garcia. 1991. Toward a logic of meanings. Translated by D. de Caprona and P. M. Davidson. Edited by P. M. Davidson and J. Easley. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Putnam, H. 1973. Meaning and reference. The Journal of Philosophy 70 (19):699-711.

Westmacott, R., and M. Moscovitch. 2001. Names and words without meaning: incidental postmorbid semantic learning in a person with extensive bilateral medial temporal damage. Neuropsychology 15 (4):586-596.

Understanding, introduction:

Baldwin, D.A., J.A. Baird, M.M. Saylor, and M.A. Clark. 2001. Infants Parse Dynamic Action. Child Development 72 (3):708-717.

Davidson, D. 1973. On the very idea of a conceptual scheme. Paper read at Presidential Address: Seventieth Annual Eastern Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, at Atlanta, GA.

Gibbs, R. W. Jr. 1995. The poetics of mind: figurative thought, language, and understanding. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. 2001. The presentation of self in everyday life. In Down to earth sociology: Introductory readings, edited by J. M. Henslin: Free Press.

Rips, L.J. 1995. The current status of research on concept combination. Mind & Language 10 (1/2):72-104.

Zelazo, P.D. 1999. Language, levels of consciousness, and the development of intentional action. In Developing theories of intention: social understanding and self-control, edited by P. D. Zelazo, J. W. Ostington and D. R. Olson. 2004. The development of conscious control in childhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (1):12-17.

Definition, introduction:

Fernandez-Duque, D., and M. Johnson. 1999. Attention Metaphors: How Metaphors Guide the Cognitive Psychology of Attention. Cognitive Science 23 (1):83-110.

Goffman, E. 1975. Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Mackey, G.W. 1963. The mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics. Edited by A. S. Wightman, the Mathematical Physics Monograph Series. New York, NY: W. A. Benjamin.

Rosch, E., C.B. Mervis, W.D. Gray, D.M. Johnson, and P. Boyes-Braem. 1976. Basic objects in natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 8 (3):382-439.

Russell, B. 1930. Introduction to mathematical philosophy. Edited by J. H. Muirhead, Library of Philosophy. London, Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.

Schwartz, B.L., D.M. Travis, A.M. Castro, and S. M. Smith. 2000. The phenomenology of real and illusory tip-of-the-tongue states. Memory & Cognition 28 (1):18-27.

Have fun!

Steven Ravett Brown


(4) Roz asked:

Is Plato's theory of forms simple escapism? Evaluate.

============

No. Further evaluation to follow: No. Other strategies for answering this daft question would have to include: a) defining and supporting the alternative vision of reality you think Plato's theory of forms escapes (ie by developing your own contrary epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics), and b) demonstrating that Plato came up with his theory in order to escape from your peculiar vision. Of these two, a) is pretty challenging even if we make allowances for the level of training and competence of those answering the question, and b) is simply impossible.

David Robjant


(5) Mel asked:

Predictability is is knowing what is going to happen before it actually does, be it through experience, knowledge or experimentation. If this is true then surely there is no such thing as free will?

Everyone knows the sure certs like "I will die someday" or "if I jump out of a plane I will fall to the ground as long as the earth has gravity." These are however broad complex processes all grouped into one prediction which is based on experimentation, experience, and passed on knowledge.

To understand my way of thinking , you have to start at the lowest possible predictable denomination I will use the atom for now although these are undoubtedly made up of smaller things like quarks and strings or something of which I am not knowledgeable.

When single atoms interact or react for example there is a computer which picks up the result and can then determine the outcome the next time, assuming the conditions are exactly the same. Now when a group of atoms react with another group of atoms them again if pre testing has taken place the the outcome is again predictable. Now it won't take very long before the computer is no longer powerful enough to cope with measuring and predicting how millions of atoms will react with each other although the theory is still there. It can be predicted! Now say you had a computer with capabilities beyond your wildest imagination that could determine the outcome of all interactions and reactions of every atom on the planet. Then surely everything is predictable does this mean we have no free will, every thought we have and react upon is conditioned by a previous experience. As the powerful computer will predict what atoms are going to work next in my brain cells it will be able to predict when I will finish typing.

Have I missed anything?

============

Yes. You have missed out on the fact that it is conceptually impossible to have the perfect measurements upon which any perfect prediction would have to depend.

David Robjant


(6) Ben asked:

Does this make sense?

A. Everything we feel and see and think are just our brain

interpreting chemical and electrical signals.

B. The concept of good and evil exists in our brains.

C. Drugs can alter what we feel and see and think.

D. Drugs can alter good and evil.

Does good and evil really exist?

This is a tree falling in the woods question.

Assuming "A" is true, if everyone on earth died right now, would god

exist?

============

Although proposition A. makes sense (can be understood), it is patently inaccurate. Yes there are chemical and electrical signals in the brain. Yes our brain interprets stuff. But no, our brain does not interpret chemical and electrical signals. We interpret traffic signs, trees, faces, books on philosophy and the like. Now, obviously, there must be some relationship between the interpreting that we do and the chemical stuff in our brains. But self-regarding persons often get carried away by the thought that they already understand what this relationship is, and it just ain't so: the exact relationship of meaning to chemicals in the brain is as opaque to us now as it was to American Indians. Despite what people may appear to claim about present knowledge when they are actually making wild quasi-religious promises about a future perfect science, just now we haven't really progressed beyond noting that if you bang your head somewhere or take peyote the world goes a bit funny. So, as I said, A can be understood, but is inaccurate. Consequently your claim to derive 'B. The concept of good and evil exists in our brains.' from A is somewhat unimpressive. I can't see what entailment you are thinking of, and in any case the first claim is false.

David Robjant


(7) Antonio asked:

First, I'm sorry for my poor English, since it's not my native language. After reading Berkeley (Treatise) and Wittgenstein (Philosophischen Untersuchungen) I still have a doubt concerning abstract concepts. I can't see any meaning in concepts like "beauty", "justice", "good" or "The absolute". I can use those words in expressions like "this is a beautiful sunset", or "killing is bad". But "good" in itself, or "beauty" are concepts that doesn't seem to me having any possible definition. But I imagine that if Socrates or Plato read this, they would smile and say: how can you discern that an action is good if you don't have the understanding of the meaning of "the good"? So, how do you think this problem (if there is one) can be resolved?

============

The identification of the problematic, in philosophy, often has to do with one's (often unthinking) assumptions about what is held to be unproblematic. A key part of the so-called 'problem of universals' is the thought that particulars, in and of themselves, are unproblematically particular. You've obviously been attracted to this thought, and that's why you think that there may be a problem, by comparison, with universals like 'good'. A key word which betrays that this is your conception is your use of the term 'abstract'. The picture this word conveys is that there are lots of plain unproblematic clear-referencing words for plain unproblematic particulars, and that the general or universal idea has then to be abstracted from one's previous and unproblematic appreciation of pre-existing particulars.

It is important that Plato's forms are not abstract ideas. It would be more accurate to his way of thinking to speak of Plato's' abstract particulars. Plato's thought here, is yours reversed. For Plato (largely because of his treatment of the ideas of Heraclitus about the flux — see Iris Murdoch's use of 'flux' in her Platonic approach to Sartre 'Sartre: Romantic Rationalist') the particular is specially problematic. It is to solve this problem of how there can be particularity in a world where sensory experience is best imagined as a continuous unbroken watery flow, that Plato invokes the Forms as the universal ideas without which, as Parmenides remarks in the dialogue of that name 'there could be no thought'. Plato's picture is that we have this kit bag of intellectual resources, universal ideas, and that it is our wielding of these ideas and the combining of them in different arrangements which permits our identification of particulars. For Plato particulars are not given but made, and because of this need to construct the particular it is essential that the universal be given. Compare the anglo-saxon 'problem of universals' where it is held that the particular is given (as in Hume's sense-impressions), and that the universal is constructed.

As to resolving the problem, if by this we mean making our choice between what Iris Murdoch calls 'two ways of beginning philosophy', this has to rest on our 1) realising that the point at issue comes down to the accuracy of two rival pictures of what is given in sense-experience (flux or particulars), and 2) making up our own minds about which description of what it is like comes nearer to the truth. In sum, the game is:

Murdoch: there is no brute data, but the imagination is immediately and continuously at work in our experience [of the particular]. To which view we can recruit Plato and Bergson and even William James and Sartre.

versus:

Hume, Russell, Wittgenstein et al, with the claim that that there are brute facts of various particular kinds, and that the general is to be understood through those particulars, whether sense-impressions or linguistic facts.

David Robjant


(8) Dennis asked:

This is a question put by one of my students. Plato did not list negatives like death, disease or evil among his forms. But what about nothingness? Is there a form for that, given we never actually observe nothingness, yet still have a conception of it? If there is not a form for nothingness, how would Plato say we could conceive of it? The same could be said for absolute evil.

============

The key text here is Plato's Sophist. There Plato claims that problems like this are transformed when one realises that the meaning of 'not' is never quite the void which some take it to be, that such a wrong conception leads to all kinds of problems in language and metaphysics such as those encountered by Parmenides (and which result in his absurd monism: Parmenides appears to argue (plato's reading) that since to mean is to refer 'not' must be meaningless, and all negation meaningless, whence it follows that no limitation or qualification is meaningful, when it follows that everything is one thing, and so on — Plato argues that 'not' does refer, but, in an argument reminiscent of early wittgenstein, takes it that the negation here is really referring to the different, not the void). Plato thought that always the meaning of 'not' or any negation is to say that something is other than something else, with every 'other' to be qualified specifically by some specific thing that it is other than. Thus there could be something that was nothing pear-shaped, but there couldn't be nothing, as such. In sum, I think Plato took the view that there was no such thing as nothing, and consequently that no form for it would be required.

But these are murky waters, waters of ancient philosophy of language which are no more or less murky than with modern philosophers of language that touch on such issues, such as Meinong.

'Nothing? Why, nothing will come of nothing'

Nothing? Why, nothing is nothing.

David Robjant


(9) Sajita asked:

I desire, I dream and when my goals/dreams are accomplished, the question reverberating in my mind is 'Now What? ( What's next?)". I don't understand why I am in a hurry to live life and experience everything that life has to offer. I am in a hurry to live and finally finish with it (life). I am perfectly normal but there is a constant restlessness within me which I am unable to discuss/convince my most loved one. Why does this happen?

============

J Gregory Jones answered (13/5):

I fail to see how anyone can accuse another of "hurrying" through life when it passes by at a constant rate and you cannot make it go any faster or slower, though we do wish it was more malleable. [...]

In this answer JGJ has, intriguingly, committed a mistake about time rather like the one he means to attribute to Sajita. There is generally thought to be a conceptual problem about describing the passage of time (which JGJ appears to think of as in some relevant sense the same thing as life — well, at least our experience is essentially temporal) as 'quick' or 'slow'. The core of the problem is that since we measure things against time to determine whether they are quick or slow, time itself (the thought goes) cannot meaningfully be described in terms of speed (just as the metric system is itself neither small nor large, neither heavy nor light). That's all well and good, as far as it goes, but the first point is that if this conceptual difficulty (that time itself cannot be temporally qualified) rules out descriptions of life and time like "dragging" and "hurrying", then it just as effectively rules out expressions like "passes by at a constant rate". The thought that life or time plods on reliably is just as conceptually flawed as that life "hurries". Time can't have a speed, since it is part of the measuring apparatus for speed. In that case "constant speed" does not have some special exemption: it's out as well.

But just how far does this this kind of thought, invited by JGJ's treatment of Sajita's question in terms of what is and isn't possible for our concept of time, take us? Doesn't it ignore everything that's interesting about Sajita's question? After all, when Sajita says:

I am in a hurry to live... I am perfectly normal but there is a constant restlessness within me... the question reverberating in my mind is 'Now What? ( What's next?)'

don't we all of us know exactly what is meant? Certainly not: 'I take a stopwatch and time time, and I see that it goes fast'. More like: 'My mind or attention is always somewhere else, somewhen else, with the next and the next, chasing something that disappears: I can't get satisfaction'. When one asks 'why does this happen?' a helpful answer might not be 'it doesn't happen' but rather:

Many philosophers have talked about this phenomenon, what one might call the human condition, and have had a variety of diagnosis of this malaise ranging from 'that's just human nature' (philosophical shrug) through to 'that's a lack of mindfulness borne out of an error about what's real' (Buddhist metaphysics, Simone Weil, Murdochian Platonism). Since the answer to the phenomenon — if by 'answer' we mean a way of dealing with it and minimizing it's sometimes harmful effects — has largely to do with the cultivation of good habits, it is a moot point whether this is a philosophical, or a religious, or even a purely practical question. If the question is 'why do I...', then the answer has to be about something that you could actually do or get hold of in order not to be that way. (Then the answer to 'why do I x?' is 'because you needed to y if you wanted not to x'.) Only very rarely is the answer in that case 'go and read these books'. Maybe it could help. You definitely could read about Buddhists: they certainly talk at length, and helpfully, about just this phenomenon, which they think is a very general condition indeed — there's a very good book 'Buddhism' by Steve Hagan (slim volume, plain words, to the point). And you could read about Existentialists like Sartre — though they are a bit less, how shall I put this, positive about the situation. Regarding positive, avoid Germans for the time being (people who actually benefit from reading Schopenhauer are few and far between). You could possibly read books by Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, if you want your situation, your worries about the quality of your desires and their fulfillments, tackled by a modern 'philosopher' (how sad it is that I can't give a longer list!). And Weil and Murdoch have the added attraction of spending much of their time discussing and evaluating various rival attitudes to your problem, such as the existentialist and the religious.

Reading these sorts of books might help at least with having somewhere to discuss 'constant restlessness', and feeling that this thing is recognised, if a feeling of mute alienation is part of the problem. And reading books is always the sort of action which might suggest itself if you conceive of your problem as being a struggle to 'understand' your situation. But understanding comes in various shapes. There's also the shape where you just practice sitting quietly for a while. And besides this, things we sometimes dismiss as 'hobbies' or 'interests' are often disguised forms of self-administered moral training. People become what their loves (and hates) make them. I don't mean to follow Plato in suggesting full time study in Higher Mathematics, but just that worries that come across as being about the 'soul' or 'constant restlessness' may have practical kinds of answer, in how we spend our time.

David Robjant


(10) Clyde asked:

Why is the history of philosophy best studied by philosophers? other histories are studied by special historians of art, science, mathematics, but for the history of philosophy, we need a philosopher to study it? I will be most grateful for any help offered to understand this.

============

Pirsig (Author of 'Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance') invented a word of the sort of person who writes and teaches about philosophers in order to distinguish this sort of person from a philosopher — the word is "philosophologist". I like it. The distinction is useful. Plato, he's clearly both, because he not only writes about other philosophers intelligently, but also has one or two intelligent things to say of his own. Wittgenstein is clearly a philosopher, having invented not one but two philosophies of his own. But on any claims to his being a philosophologist he's on slightly weaker ground: there are some doubts about how much philosophy the man had actually read. Pirsig, again, is himself clearly a kind of philosopher, doing something rather intriguing and novel in his drawing together of inspirations from William James, Buddhism, and Plato — but wanted to insist that, having no connection with a teaching establishment and never having published an exegetical paper, he wasn't a philosophologist.

So, as to "Why is the history of philosophy best studied by philosophers?", I'm not sure that it is. Clearly, a largish proportion of the people who study and talk effectively about the history of philosophy would like to claim that they are themselves philosophers, but as to whether the thought and deed are one here, one might have some doubts.

There is of course a difference between philosophy and history here, in as much as to properly understand a philosophy is to make some attempt to inhabit it, to imagine new criticisms and to articulate the resources of the view in response, which is done better the better one is as a philosopher, whereas, at least at some levels of historical thought, understanding Napoleon's campaigns does not particularly imply talent as a general. But on the whole I think the situations are parallel, in that there is the academic activity of 'discussing' philosophy, and then there is the thing itself. It is perhaps a difference in spirit like that between the barrister whose object is his fee (or the enjoyment he derives from the game), and one genuinely committed to the case. The difference is often marked in the kinds of essays one receives from students. Certainly it is marked in the kinds of questions sent into this site.

David Robjant


(11) John asked:

Hello, I want to know more deeper but simply about Kuhn's invisibility of revolutions... — What does invisibility means in "Invisibility of Revolution"? Is it literally not seen by our naked eye? — Also... Why is it that the revolution, according. To Kuhn, is invisible..? "Because paradigm shifts are generally viewed not as revolutions but as additions to scientific knowledge, and because the history of the field is represented in the new textbooks that accompany a new paradigm, a scientific revolution seems invisible." This is the reason, right? I want to fully understand this in layman's term... — Are there some practical examples that could explain this invisibility of revolutions? — Also, I want to know what constitutes the invisibility of revolutions...what are those? And, what are the factors that would constitute the invisibility of revolutions? Because of the "existence" of invisibility of revolutions, what could be the effect?

============

As I recall, all of these questions are dealt with in Kuhn's Book 'the structure of scientific revolutions' — he is particularly strong on examples, for a book of philosophy.

David Robjant


(12) Joanne asked:

I was just wandering which university would be the best for studying philosophy, I am currently considering Lampeter university in Wales? I would really appreciate some advice as I have heard that where you get your degree etc can effect your chances of becoming employed, I want to be the best, as it is in my nature, please help thankyou.

============

I should declare an interest: I'm at Lampeter and have taken the occasional Undergraduate seminar here on Plato and the Presocratics — so I'm likely to think that the quality of teaching here is excellent, and to wax lyrical about the sense of community, the wonderfully animated and well attended weekly colloquia I have helped to organize, the magnificent countryside for Rousseauian philosophical walks and talks, the low living costs, and about what a nice chap my supervisor Professor Cockburn is.

But it might appear that none of that directly addresses your concern about employment. To begin with, one is tempted to point out that, if employment prospects are really your very first concern in selecting a course in higher education, you might profitably consider studying Law or Accountancy rather than philosophy. Although of course this won't do you any good if, after starting your course, you find that you hate the thing and fail to complete your course. The same thing applies with your choice of venue — which is why, of course, your decision about that will seem a difficult one. There is on the one hand the prestige of a particular institution for employers, and, additionally, the likelihood of your flourishing in a particular environment so that you turn into the sort of person that can impress. The best thing, in that case, I, in addition to taking note of various sources on the quality of the institution, to visit the various places you may be thinking of, talk to people, staff and students, and see if the feel you get of the place gives you the impression of somewhere you could flourish.

David Robjant


(13) Clifford asked:

Is there viscosity in space??

============

Yes. In a manner of speaking. In a gravitational field, light travels at the same speed, but it's "redshifted"... dragged back by the gravity, in effect, and loses energy as it escapes the field... like everything else, really. So gravity provides something like viscosity in space.

Steven Ravett Brown


(14) Kevin asked:

If I use Descartes method of doubting everything which can be doubted (but not doing as he did and assuming that which is doubtable is false), which means I cannot rely on my external senses for true information. Then if I'm sitting across from a person who says "1+1=3", how can I know that is incorrect? I obviously cannot count things in reality since it might be a deception. In my imagination I can imagine one apple, then counting another and getting two apples, but Descartes never doubts his own sanity. Perhaps the only reason I think 1+1=2 is true is because I am insane or that my logical reasoning is completely wrong, or I have been deluded by the sensory deception for so long that it's ingrained into my brain, or that logic itself isn't a consistent method of determining truth. Which leads to all sorts of circular arguments, (If logic isn't consistent, then I can't prove it's not consistent using logic), but it really doesn't eliminate any doubts.

============

This is a very good and interesting question. What is the basis of mathematical truth? Well, the quick and dirty answer is that we know what the operation of addition is, and we know what numbers are, so instead of adding (after all, what if your question was about 15 to the 11th power, or whatever?) we know how to apply the operation to numbers, we do so, and we get the answer. What we're relying on here isn't even our memory (because we could claim that what "+" used to stand for was multiplication, say), but on our understanding of operations, numbers, and how to apply one to another. Now, one could argue that we must know that the operation of, say, multiplication is based on addition, and so we must know how to add... but adding, really, is just counting, isn't it. So if we have an idea of what a number is and what the operation of counting is, then we can always add by just counting, over and over and over... and do the same with multiplying... really, this is just how computers do it, and they aren't troubled by Cartesian questions, are they.

So what you have to doubt here is something like your moment-to-moment memory of what counting is and what the last number you counted was. That's really pushing it, don't you think? But nonetheless you could go that far, if you wanted. After all, a computer can have errors in just those operations. But notice that this isn't, strictly speaking, Cartesian doubt; we're not doubting anything sensory here. It's more profound than that; we're doubting our memories, and worse, not merely our memories, but our recent, online memories, not something like our memory of last year or whatever. But why not? I mean, just as we must build computers with redundant operations to check just this kind of error, so we may doubt even these moment-to-moment memories. Is there any way around this? Um... no. We're all stuck, I'm afraid. It's really the same problem as with solipsism... there's no way, really, to conclusively demonstrate that the world exists, or that we're not brains in vats stimulated by wires, etc., etc., ad nauseam. And similarly, that we accurately remember what operations are, how we're using them, what counting is, etc.

Now, we could say that whatever our memories are, we do know that counting, as we remember it in this instant, is a particular operation, and numbers, as we remember them in the same instant, are certain entities, and so, given what we remember in this instant, 1+1 = 2. And further, that whenever we remember numbers and counting the same way we do in this instant, then 1+1 will = 2. So that if we do manage to reconstruct those entities and operations, by chance, luck, memory, or whatever, in the same way as we construct them right now, then in those similar reconstructions, 1+1 will always = 2. But given our intense skepticism, we can never know if we've managed to do that reconstruction just as we did a minute ago... although it seems that we do, because 1+1=2, now... and we remember that it did before... maybe...

Steven Ravett Brown


(15) Nikki asked:

Does goodness require the strength to be bad?

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Shaun Williamson replied (13/23):

Goodness requires a lot more strength than that. The idea that goodness is weak and badness is strong is the exact opposite of the truth. Don't confuse goodness with niceness.

Goodness is not a concept that can exist solely. Imagine, if you can, that you have lived so long in a state of happiness that you've completely forgotten the concept of unhappiness. In this state, how can you continue to define your current state as happiness — what is happiness, then? Without unhappiness or "bad feeling" to contrast against, how exactly does one explain what happiness is?

In this way, happiness can become neutrality and simply status-quo — and when this happens, what we originally thought of as happiness might become limiting, old-hat, and simply undesired. So in this way, we eventually cease to desire happiness when in a state of constant happiness.

Now let's say that goodness is applied happiness — that is, the application or gift of happiness to others is how we define goodness. This concept likewise evaporates, eventually, without an equivalent concept of badness to act as a contrast.

So — a person must have a concept of badness to experience or be capable of goodness. However, this does not require that the person actually have the capacity for badness; Conceivably, you could have two separate groups, one good and one bad, each with an understanding of what the other group does without being capable of it themselves.

In this way, goodness would not require the strength to be bad — it only requires that badness exist in some understandable and visible form.

Megan Fox


(16) Dennis asked:

This is a question put by one of my students. Plato did not list negatives like death, disease or evil among his forms. But what about nothingness? Is there a form for that, given we never actually observe nothingness, yet still have a conception of it? If there is not a form for nothingness, how would Plato say we could conceive of it? The same could be said for absolute evil.

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Well, the same could be said for anything, once you start that game, including death, disease, or torture, if it comes to that. It's almost an interesting question, I guess, what precisely the Forms were. Certainly, they included mathematical abstractions, and things like "absolute good". Plato basically wanted to say that the Forms inspired goodness, or at least happiness. But I think you're correct, that once you start down that road you've got to be consistent, and that Plato simply either overlooked that implication or didn't want to write about it. One might claim that all you need is the idea or Form of negation; then you could take any of the "true" Forms, all of good things or whatever, and just use or add the negation Form to get their opposite... and I imagine this is what he'd have wanted to say. Given that, he could say that there were no "bad" Forms, only combinations of "good" Forms and negation. But should those combinations actually be considered Forms? Um... well... I'm not a Platonist, or indeed even much of an essentialist, so I'm not really too interested in working out the implications of his ideas, especially when it's actually rather easy to parse through the various Dialogues, etc., and find inconsistencies, bad logic, etc.

Steven Ravett Brown


(17) David asked:

I have two Questions.

Sometimes when i'm a sleep and dreaming, I know that i'm asleep. I know this because I can't move when I try too. My questions are Can a person explore or influence their dream? And if it is possible to explore a dream then what are you exploring?

============

What you're asking about is called, technically, "lucid dreaming". Here is a site to get you started reading about it:

http://www.dreamviews.com/whatislucid.php

and you might look at this paper:

Cicogna, PierCarla; Bosinelli, Marino. 'Consciousness during dreams.' Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal. Vol 10(1) Mar 2001, 26-41. Elsevier Science, United Kingdom

Beware the traps here: all the people who claim lucid dreaming gives one special powers, insights, etc., etc.... this is a field full of charlatans, and you have to be very careful with that. Dreaming is another state of consciousness, and that we can do it, at times, knowing that we do it, does most emphatically not confer any psychic powers, mysterious entities, doorways into other universes, or whatever, to a natural phenomenon.

Steven Ravett Brown


(18) Toby asked:

I have two questions:

1) I've been doing some reading on realism (Devitt 'Realism and Truth', etc.) after years away from philosophy, and it seems there may have been a backlash against language analysis as the primary method for addressing core philosophical questions. This would be a backlash within the analytic tradition, not the continental or elsewhere. Is it too much to say this has become a movement, and do you think it constitutes a step backward, for better or worse?

2) I have a friend who discovered postmodernism a few years back. By now he can regurgitate Rorty ad infinitum. We've know each other for a long time, but lately we don't talk often, because I find his antirationalist logorrhea exhausting. It is getting in the way of our banter. How do professional philosophers staunch the flow of unreason whilst maintaining friendly relations with others?

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1) Well I most sincerely hope it's become a movement, one inspired by empiricism. That is, in my very strong opinion, it borders on the absurd that anyone could consider that one could do philosophy of mind, for example, without knowing and making use of the last 50-100 years of empirical research into the mind, cognition, etc., etc. And the mistakes made by those who do philosophy in ignorance of those studies are either hilarious or pitiful, depending on one's viewpoint. Of course, you might extend "language analysis" to include knowing where, how well supported, etc., various meanings of terms are... which is something that no philosopher that I know of who did or does pure "language analysis" bothered to find out. To put this another way, doing language analysis necessitates well thought-out analysis, which merely includes things like logic, reasonably precise definitions, and the other traditional techniques. Well thought-out analyses must be in part empirical analyses of language use and meanings, and not merely a nod to that by casual inquiries of one's colleagues or graduate students. Therefore, language analysis must include empirical/sociological studies of language meanings. But in fact this cannot be sufficient, unless the term "language meaning" is extended enormously, to include, as I mention above, the results of, e.g., studies of attention, perception, cognition, emotion, and on and on... those fields relating to the mind.

2) They talk about their kids, their cats, hiking trips... I mean, you're faced with a classical world-view divide here... anyone who manages to convince themselves that postmodern anti-rationalism, as you so nicely put it (and I'm not being sarcastic... I agree with you), has anything serious to say is in a different cognitive universe, as far as I'm concerned... and I have no idea as to how to communicate with such people, except to gently point out that lightbulbs work no matter the beliefs or "culture" of those flipping the switch, as do atomic reactors, airplanes, etc...

Steven Ravett Brown


(19) Raymond asked:

How does one determine that one knows something?

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'Knowledge' is not a precise conception: it merges into probable opinion. Although we may seek a precise definition we can never be quite sure that we are not misled. Knowledge must entail the concept of 'truth', we cannot claim to know something which is in fact not true. Although our knowledge is somehow associated with what we refer to as 'reality' we can never be certain that our interpretations of reality are in fact true. Hence, some philosophers claim that we can never get beyond 'probability'. For instance, I understand that the tree outside my window is a lime tree, it looks like other lime trees that have been pointed out to me, I have read about lime trees in books written by qualified botanists, and compared my alleged lime tree with diagrams and pictures in such books. Yet, though I feel convinced that there is a lime tree outside my window, it remains a case of probability, though, as probability covers a range from improbability to highly likely, I would claim that from the supporting evidence it is highly likely that my tree is a lime. However, should the local park's gardener come round tomorrow and start a conversation by saying: "You know that tree outside your window which you claim to be a lime, well, I have a surprise for you ..." Believe me, it would be no surprise!! I hope this makes the point that much of what we claim to be knowledge is like this, never 100% certain, though in many cases highly likely.

If our direct knowing of objects is considered only likely to be highly probable, then what of things not immediately available to the senses, such as historical events, scientific theories, religious experiences, political assertions, etc.? Some philosophers believe that some of our claims to knowledge must be capable of being justified. But in what ways can we justify them? In what would the processes of justifying them consist?

A quote from William Kneale -- Knowledge, Opinion and Probability, supports my comments. "Probability may be described as the substitute with which we try to make good the shortcomings of our knowledge. It does not fill the gap entirely,for there are many questions about which we cannot even form opinions; but it often enables us to act rationally when without it we should be reduced to helplessness, and it gives at least some satisfaction to our curiosity.... Sometimes we speak of the balance of chances. At other times such words as 'likely', 'reliable', 'trustworthy' seem more appropriate. And we must admit on reflection that in many cases in which we do not ordinarily use the word 'probable' or any equivalent expression it would be wiser to do so if there were any danger of misunderstanding.

Perhaps we should bear in mind Bishop Butler's famous remark: "To us probability is the very guide of life".

John Brandon


(20) Cameron asked:

What did Sartre mean when he said that consciousness is nothingness and therefore free?

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Consciousness is always conscious of something. Reflecting upon the future I posit myself as e-mailing this reply as I presently write it. I am not the person I will be in the future. Between the projected future act of my e-mailing and my present self as typing, is a break in time and being. Nothingness seeps into that gap. It seeps in, as Being is nihilated whilst the projected possibilities are reflected on. Nothingness qua Nothing is not hindered by anything — it is free of hindrance. It is Freedom. So I am free to post the e-mail, to not post the e-mail, to delete it, to destroy it and so on. As the consciousness of Being is the Being of Consciousness, consciousness of this Freedom is Nothingness and Nothingness is the Freedom of consciousness. We are condemned to be free by the structure of our consciousness.

See Chapters 1 and 2, The Problem of Nothingness. Jean Paul Sartre Being And Nothingness. Methuen. 1984.

Martin Jenkins


(21) Geoffrey asked:

Will the quality of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher improve?

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We should more closely identify the threat to the quality questions. I think this threat comes in two forms. They are slightly distinct. Form 1 is where students with no real interest in philosophy find to their horror that they have been set an essay question, desire to avoid all reading/ work, and discover to their joy by word from their allows that there is this site where you can send your teacher's nasty question, and maybe, just maybe, someone will unsuspectingly answer it for you, and you won't have to do any thinking: this is a threat which may grow exponentially as a vast untapped demand from human laziness wakes up to our existence. Form 2, on the other hand, while may be equally difficult for us, may show more promise for the intellectual development of the correspondent: a question from someone who is simply annoyed by a question. They would like the question to go away and are looking for someone to provide them with a means of making matters lie safely abed, which is a demerit to their question and may annoy us, because it means that in a sense they aren't really questing, but on the other hand they are genuinely bothered by something which, in comparison to the lazy student, makes them the best dialogue material going.

I don't think we can or should try to do anything general about the bad questions that come in form 2: people start of with bad questions and, if properly helped in each case, get to have better ones. But on the bad questions of form 1, I think we should take, if possible, serious action. What to do?

What may be needed is:

(a) A computer programme which scans all questions for those disheartening words 'explain' 'compare' and 'discuss', and deletes all questions containing them on sight.

(b) A submissions mechanism which changes subtly from time to time so as to make life difficult for the lazy and the automatic, for those who only seek an 'answer' because they do not want to tackle questions: do not laugh — Plato's dialogues are in that form for precisely that purpose and that has not diminished their renown amongst those who can benefit from them. I am thinking, more precisely, of avoiding a situation where classmates inform each other of an email address or website where they can all submit their essay questions en masse. I am thinking of a submission form which you get to by a different URL route on different dates (perhaps via an intro page or pages explaining policy) and where questioners have to enter something or other in more than one entry box (making paste and forget more difficult). I am thinking of a box for full name and address (not just hotmail details) and educational institution with a proviso that the administrator will of course not publish or use those details unless, this should scare them, he thinks that the questioner's teacher ought to know about the student's essay research technique. Obviously not foolproof security by any means, but discouraging, a selection procedure for the committed.

(c) A notice at the submission site explaining the nature and purpose of an editorial policy in which bad questions may not be published or passed on to the panel: this latter part of the warning need not, in fact, be true, in order to have the effect. i.e: beware of the dog.

Now, some of these suggestions may sound a little too discouraging. But note how they in every case are more specifically discouraging to those with the lower grade motives for their submissions. They would not, for instance, discourage a student who while addressing a set essay question identifies a connected or subsidiary question which he expresses in his own words and in which he now has an intelligent interest, nor would they discourage someone who comes to the question page via the larger site it is embedded in. It's OK to research your essay by talking to others about Plato, the thing to discourage is 'researching' for your essay question by sending it to someone else.

It is in fact possible that if we diminish our attractiveness to those with bad questions form 1, we will also get fewer form 2 questions — but this would be a secondary effect. And if these proposals were to be carried out, the way to do it would be to be maximally discouraging to start off with, and then loosen up bit by bit if it were found that the effects were excessive.

David Robjant


(22) Hayley asked:

Why was Plato's theory of forms seriously flawed?

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If this is an essay question, it is typical of the way the process of setting and answering essay questions can, if not carefully handled, close down genuine thought. Note the way what is supposed to be an assisted reading of the texts turns into low church call and response with the text (or rather the internet) as led witness. See how the question contains a statement and then a question, ie: 'Plato's theory of forms was seriously flawed (teacher says). Now tell me, (like I told you in class) why?'

This of course is not an answer to your question.

Ask a better one.

(What supposed problems are there? What features of the theory do these problems attach to? Are these problems in the theory or in an understanding of it? If there is a problem with the theory what resources has Plato for tackling them? etc)

David Robjant


(23) Sarah asked:

How could Plato's ideas about human reason be criticised?

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Reason with an capital R is an 17th-18th century concept (it has a lot to do with Descartes and Kant) and it's anachronistic use in our floundering attempts to understand and translate Plato's Republic is one of Philosophy's great injustices. In Plato's tripartite analysis of the soul there is something we speak of as the 'rational element', but the principle of division here is not the more modern notion of 'faculties' or anything like that but rather a distinction of kind amongst the various objects of love: sense objects, status objects, intellectual objects. For Plato we love to know geometry: this unpossessive love of beauty and harmony and understanding is the 'rational element' of which Plato speaks. The 'rule' of the 'rational element' is not (as we have often anachronistically presented it) the victory of one dry camp over another more passionate ones, but rather displacement of some particular loves by another love which Plato (for various reasons) thinks more fulfilling. Plato speaks of the flowing of the 'stream' of a man's passion in various directions, but for him that there is only this stream: there is not something besides and outside the stream called 'Reason'. That's Kant, not Plato.

If the above question is an essay question then the use of the phrase 'human reason' suggests that your teacher is in the grip of the general mistake, in which case you may possibly be marked down for trying to point this out. However, if you read the Republic with proper diligent attention to detail, and find the quotes to which, in order not to do you work for you I only hint, you will be able to make this more difficult for him.

David Robjant


(24) Humera asked:

What are some comparisons and contrasts between Plato's Republic and Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto?

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This is a good example of Bad Question Form 1 indicated in my answer to Geoffrey.

David Robjant


(25) Rebekah asked:

What [is] Plato's [quote] "...isn't anyone with a true but unthinking opinion like a blind man on a right road?" about?

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Is this so hard? Compare: 'a stopped clock is right twice a day'.

David Robjant


(26) Geoffrey asked:

'Will the quality of questions submitted to ask a philosopher improve'?

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One would certainly hope so!! Whether or not questions about the kinetic energy of cyclists constitutes a philosophical question is debatable. It would seem to me that if we engaged in a process of determining what we mean by 'cyclist' and whether one's idea of cyclist corresponded to my idea of cyclist and then we went on to debate whether this a Platonic Form of cyclist, or if we have abstracted cyclist from a universal and thereby can say that we are cyclist realists, well this would be an interesting philosophical debate. However, it would seem that this question belongs to a physics class, rather than a philosophical exploration.

When a questioner makes it clear that 'Nothing to do with philosophy, but I am trying to track down Simon...'then why is the question posted at all? Unless of course, the editor of the Ask A Philosopher site is seeking to demonstrate something about the uselessness and irrelevancy of certain questions submitted to the site!! The latter enquiry would best be made to the Salvation Army.

It seems to me, as a teacher of Philosophy, that many of the questions submitted are essay/ exam/ assignment questions from students who are seeking to get a 'handle' on some aspect of their module/ course.

In itself this is fine, why should students not use the 'experts' to at least get them started? But then we would have to sit down and explore issues related to intellectual property rights, intellectual plagiarism and the ethical issues involved in a student using 'our' answers and incorporating them into a essay assignment unsourced, and uncited!! So, there is room there for an interesting philosophical ethics debate.

Some of the questions are indeed excellent and Ask A Philosopher does cover a wide range of areas and historical periods. The endeavour is not only to improve the quality of questions, but to improve the methodology for asking the questions and the process of what is happening when the question is being asked (regardless of its ultimate motivation and purpose).

So, to any submitter of a question to Ask A Philosopher, I have a few questions:

When you ask a question of the 'experts' is that a real question because you are asking it, or is that question merely a tool for you to achieve a good grade average in your philosophy module?

If it is the latter, then what are your moral reflections on using the expertise of others, the hard work of others, the years of study and research of others, to have your philosophy module questions answered for you?

And finally, how do I know that the person who sends the question to the web site is actually the person who asked the question? If this question is an assignment/essay/exam question on a college syllabus, then does that question belong to the prof/lecturer/teacher or to the student who asks it on the site?

Some of the questions may be rubbish, ill formed, badly conceived and constructed but those of us who are serious about the philosophical endeavour, can, at least, demonstrate in our answers to these questions that we are serious.

When I did my degree, post grad studies and post post grad studies I did not have a web site — just a date for submission, an old Corona typewriter, and those pre-web things called books — remember those?

Fr. Seamus Mulholland OFM


(27) Antonio asked:

After reading Berkeley (Treatise) and Wittgenstein (Philosophischen Untersuchungen) I still have a doubt concerning abstract concepts. I can't see any meaning in concepts like "beauty", "justice", "good" or "The absolute". I can use those words in expressions like "this is a beautiful sunset", or "killing is bad". But "good" in itself, or "beauty" are concepts that doesn't seem to me having any possible definition.

But I imagine that if Socrates or Plato read this, they would smile and say: how can you discern that an action is good if you don't have the understanding of the meaning of "the good"?

So how do you think this problem (if there is one) can be resolved?

And

Dennis asked:

This is a question put by one of my students. Plato did not list negatives like death, disease or evil among his forms. But what about nothingness? Is there a form for that, given we never actually observe nothingness, yet still have a conception of it? If there is not a form for nothingness, how would Plato say we could conceive of it? The same could be said for absolute evil.

============

To understand the notion of absolute concepts we have to come to terms with Plato's 'Theory of Forms', or as it is sometimes better known, his 'Theory of Ideas'. The arguments for and against this theory are numerous and complex. However, there are those who would argue that the theory plays an important role in the theory of knowledge (epistemology). Plato's use of the term 'idea' is quite different to our everyday use of the term, Plato's ideas are not in the mind but are included amongst the 'real' things in the world, hence the use of the term 'form' in place of 'idea' makes the position less confusing.

Though the forms are, in essence, abstract, I e, we cannot touch them or observe a 'solid' presence, however, they play their part in the world by adding something to a physical entity. Thus, their reality is confirmed when we are made aware of their presence in certain things or conditions. Beauty is revealed in beautiful things, justice in just actions, goodness in doing good, etc..The claim is that the form 'beauty' would exist whether or not there were beautiful things. The difficulty arises when we try to understand how we link these abstract forms to particulars; Plato talked about things 'sharing' or 'participating' in the forms. The other major problem is their location, it would seem that we cannot consider forms as entities to be located somewhere, as we would a physical thing. It is a bit like trying to locate heaven.

In more recent times philosophers have discussed 'universals' rather than forms. However, the theory is still Plato's despite the modifications imposed. There has been a move towards considering how things are related to each other and considering linking indicators as universals, and there is a claim by Bertrand Russell that, "All a priori knowledge deals exclusively with the relations of universals." Thus linking the difficulties of a priori knowledge to the concept of universals. Considering that a priori knowledge is claimed to be innate knowledge available to us as part of our makeup, and not derived empirically, it falls, like universals, into the realms of abstraction, but, like universals, is considered real. Universals, then, could be considered to be included within our a priori knowledge.

So far as relations are concerned, to give simple examples, 'he (particular) is (universal) in (universal) the house (particular)'. 'it (partic) is (univ) on (univ) the wardrobe (partic)', So we become aware of universals in our everyday conversation, universals which are abstract entities providing relationships between particulars, abstract though very real in our world view. However, there are those who claim that we are simply dealing with a language problem and the view carries no metaphysical content.

With regard to negatives, there is no reason why forms such as death, disease and evil etc. should not be as real as any other. After all, we are fully aware that we live in a world made up of good and evil things and conditions, according to Plato's theory the form of evil must participate in evil things.

With regard to the question on 'nothingness', I can conceive of a thing disappearing into nothingness, but find it difficult to conceive of a thing sharing or participating in nothingness. It could fall into the range of 'nonbeing' things, a range of things for which there are conceptions but no substantives to represent them, like centaurs and unicorns. As the questioner says, we have a 'conception' of nothingness, but as we have just discussed, a conception is not a 'form', hence a form of nothingness cannot arise from a conception, neither can a unicorn.

John Brandon


(28) Michael asked:

What makes man successful?

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Modest ambitions.

David Robjant


(29) Igor asked:

Why can't there be an acceptance of the fact that for deists there is only one God with a different name such as Jehova Jesus Alah and among the naturalists nihilist new agers and buddhists there must be an obvious connection and that is that they strive for deity so by denying gods presence they are in fact confirming it? If I'm not mistaken values are imprinted in our very essence of being so there is no need analyzing them or there origin. Morality isn't something that needs to be taught, cause we can feel if something is wrong or good. My question would be why do we still need ethics, why do we need organized religious groups misleading the masses and when and who made the choice that we take progress and stress over serenity and natural growth.

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I encounter the "by denying gods presence they are in fact confirming it" argument occasionally. It is so breathtakingly fantastical as to remove my capacity for response, usually. On this occasion let me point out that the claim "there must be an obvious connection and that is that they strive for deity" is false in both elements: no there need not be anything in common amongst atheists apart from atheism, and no they are not striving for deity.

David Robjant


(30) Sherri asked:

What exactly does a philosopher do and do you know who Socrates, Plato, Kant and Aristotle are?

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A) think

B) yes

David Robjant


(31) Noelle asked:

My boss remembers her philosophy teacher speaking of 3 philosophers walking by a flower. One smells the flower, appreciates it and walks away, another picks it, and the last ignores it. Who were the philosophers? She would like to read up on the first one that just smelled the flower. Thanks

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This will have to be wild guesswork, since I do not know how that teacher used that image in his/ her teaching, however:

In the Republic Plato speaks about true pleasures as like the pleasures of smell, which are not preceded by the pain of anticipation or desire nor (he claims) followed by the pain of withdrawal. The thing he talks about smelling, unexpectedly and with joy, is a flower. Presumably he means like the honeysuckle in the lane on a june night, rather than like the garden flowers we sweat over.

There are parallels with Buddhist thought in what Plato has to say here. I wonder who it is that picks the flower and who ignores it? Aristotle is the categorising botanist, so maybe he picks it for a collection? Then I suppose we have the range of dotty philosophers expressing scepticism about value — they do the ignoring. But which one to pick on? I don't know what your teacher had in mind.

David Robjant


(32) Geoffrey asked:

Will the quality of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher improve?

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Yes, if and when we realise the utter stupidity of having philosophy as a high school "subject" and drop it from the school curriculum. In fact the quality of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher is the complete and living proof (if such were ever needed) of the complete non-sense of wasting school time and taxpayers money on this subject. And the fact that so many of these fatuous questions are so evidently school homework gives cause for the utmost concern. It is a total lie that philosophy "teaches" rational and critical thinking and if such allegedly desirable things cannot be taught in the normal course of studying our language and its literature, history, geography, sciences, mathematics, etc., then there is not a snowball's chance in hell of teaching such things buy wasting high-school time on philosophy, time that would far better be spent on thorough and proper study of the aforementioned. There is no royal road to rationality and wisdom and high-school philosophy is most certainly not it.

Rob de Villiers


(33) Murray asked:

I am posting this problem as a new thread because I have never gotten a direct response. Is my analogy faulty?

Does this come under the label of paradox? Is it so inane as to be ignored? Is it too difficult to answer? What?

"The first true experimenter in chaos was a meteorologist, named Edward Lorenz. In 1960, he was working on the problem of weather prediction. He had a computer set up, with a set of twelve equations to model the weather. One day in 1961, he wanted to see a particular sequence again. To save time, he started in the middle of the sequence, instead of the beginning. He entered the number off his printout and left to let it run. When he came back an hour later, the sequence had evolved differently. Instead of the same pattern as before, it diverged from the pattern, ending up wildly different from the original. Eventually he figured out what happened. The computer stored the numbers to six decimal places in its memory. To save paper, he only had it print out three decimal places.

"A scientist considers himself lucky if he can get measurements with accuracy to three decimal places. Surely the fourth and fifth, impossible to measure using reasonable methods, can't have a huge effect on the outcome of the experiment. Lorenz proved this idea wrong."

Apply this knowledge to how we understand the meaning of words and abstruse concepts, particularly to translations from other languages.

To how many decimal places can we reach a common understanding of the terms that we use? How often do we misunderstand each other in ordinary conversation let alone technical philosophical ideas. In post after post, the most common phrase used is, "Do I understand you correctly?"

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I won't. Because one can't. Vagueness and accuracy in most concepts has NOTHING TO DO WITH decimal points. You've got hold of a point here which is extremely important and interesting within the philosophy of science: it is an important consideration against determinism (because prediction is only as perfect as the measurement). But not all concepts are scientific concepts, and your demand that we take seriously a point in matters to which it has no relevance is bound to be met with incomprehension or worse. Perhaps you mean the revolutionary significance of your observation to be simply this — that not all concepts are scientific concepts. I think the problem you have experienced in gaining a satisfactory response to your point here is to do with the fact that we're way ahead of you on that one. If the idea that all concepts are fundamentally related to numerically expressible kinds of accuracy never attracted us in the first place, a fairly obvious reason for rejecting that unlikely view will not strike us as revolutionary.

David Robjant


(34) Melvin asked:

My question concerns the notion of intellectual property. How is it possible that "products" of the intellect can be conceived of as "property"? And under this notion, to what extent can one claim that "he owns..." an idea since at the moment of "speaking" or "writing", the idea is set free "into" a community of ideas where nobody can "regulate" its "activity"? Is it possible, at least within the history of western philosophy, of such a notion as "intellectual property" to exist in pre-socratic or socratic philosophy?

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Property here is a legal notion and there is nothing more odd about conceiving of intellectual products as property than there is about conceiving of food and lodging as property. If there is oddness, it is because property itself is a very odd notion: something to do with what we do, rather than a feature of the world. In point of fact we do have mechanisms for regulating ideas that we send free into a community, eg patents and copyright. Patent and copyright play similar roles, with regard to intellectual property, as do land registration and squatters rights with regard to real estate. If either is odd, both are. But life as we know it would be impossible without this oddness, and some, eg Simone Weil ('the need for roots'), have paid attention to the moral and spiritual benefits of this kind of regulation.

David Robjant


(35) Laurian asked:

I am confused about the distinction between knowing that p is true and knowing that p. Which of them is stronger (ie it is implied by the other but not vice versa?). Why and how can 'p' denote a proposition rather than a sentence in 'p is true?" Please recommend me basic texts.

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You may be confused about this distinction for the simple reason that there is none. Look up 'Redundancy theory of truth' in a dictionary of philosophy.

David Robjant