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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 19 (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 19/1.

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

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(1) Dave asked:

I find other questions and answers unsatisfactory on this subject, so I hope you don't think I'm going over a topic already dealt with.

Whenever I hear a debate about freewill, it always starts in the middle of the debate. The first thing I would like clarified is what exactly people mean by 'freewill'. I am aware that until I scrutinized it, I believed that it made sense for someone (if one accepts the idea of some kind of spiritual moral authority) to be judged on their decisions. This was due to the fact that we are free to make these decisions and thusly accountable for them. This seemed obvious.

If the universe is completely causal - then we are being judged according to a chain of causality. Every single occurrence that has been part of the chain of occurrences was dependent on every link in the chain. In other words, my actions might be dependent on a raindrop 700 billion years ago. I would be judged on this.

If the universe is not at all causal, it is a completely random event and I am judged according to nothing and my actions/hopes/life are meaningless.

If it's a mixture of the two then I am being judged either according to actions dependent on a finite chain of causes (until the chain is broken by a random occurrence) or judged according to a spontaneous, uncaused event.

My question is, how can anyone possibly refute this?


Yes this is the essence of it. I know of no way to refute it, except for one possibility: to question our conception of causality. Remember that according to Kant, at least (and I believe him to be correct), we *impose* structure on the world, and part of that structure is the notion of (and inference to) causality. His response to the problem of free will took the three Critiques to elaborate, and it was pretty much this: that there is no way to know if we have free will, because "free will" implies that we somehow are *not* constrained by causal laws *and* that we are *not* behaving (thinking, etc.) randomly. Well, what can that possibly mean? All that Kant could come up with, and I think no one has done better, is that our behavior is governed by, in effect, something like "metaphor" in the most general sense, i.e. a structural matching with the universe which is nonetheless not rule-governed (see the sections on the "genius" in the 3rd Critique). That is, our thinking and acting can *correspond*, in rare cases, to the structure of the world without being explicitly governed or constrained by that structure. He could go no further than that in explaining the insights of the "genius" (and I'm using quotes because it's a technical term in Kant referring to a certain rare type of person and insight, and doesn't mean whatever vague meanings it has commonly today), and I can't either... and no one else, as I say, that I'm aware of has been able to either. This is, if we are being optimistic, a limitation on our ability to conceive of the structure of the world. I hope that's correct, because if it isn't, then your argument above *does* describe the situation exactly.

You might look at some of these:

Haggard, P., Clark, S., and Kalogeras, J. Voluntary Action and Conscious Awareness [WWW]. Nature Publishing Group, 2002 [cited March 2002]. Available from

Kane, R.H., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Libet, B. "Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action." The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8 (1985): 529-66.

---- "The Timing of Mental Events: Libet's Experimental Findings and Their Implications." Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002): 291-99.

Libet, B., Freeman, A., and Sutherland, K., eds. The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will. Edited by Goguen, J.A. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic, 1999.

Searle, J. R. "Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain." Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, no. 10 (2000): 3-22.

---- "Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology." Philosophy 76 (2001): 491-514.

Wegner, D. M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

Wheeler, R.H. "Theories of the Will and Kinesthetic Sensations." Psychological Review 27 (1920): 351-60.

Brown, S.R. "On the Mechanism of the Generation of Aesthetic Ideas in Kant's Critique of Judgment." British Journal for the History of Philosophy 12, no. 3 (2004): 487-99.

Crawford, D. W. "Kant's Theory of Creative Imagination." edited by Cohen, T. and Guyer, P., 151-78. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Gammon, M. ""Exemplary Originality": Kant on Genius and Imitation." Journal of the History of Philosophy XXXV, no. 4 (1997): 563-92.

Johnson, M. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Pluhar, W.S.T. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

---- Critique of Judgment. Translated by Pluhar, W. S. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1987.

---- Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Pluhar, W.S.T. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

Kitcher, P. "The Naturalists Return." The Philosophical Review 101, no. 1 (1992): 53-114.

Steven Ravett Brown

(2) Nimrod asked:

I'm looking for the article of Levinas- useless suffering from the book of M. Larrimore, "The problem of evil" , where can I find it?


Here's the only source for it that I can find:

Title: "Useless Suffering" In "The Provocation Of Levinas", Bernasconi, Robert (Ed), 156- 167. Cohen, Richard Trans. Routledge: London, 1988

Steven Ravett Brown

(3) Mrs Gray asked:

On Protocol: (Please refrain from snickering until AFTER reading the query, thank you).

What is the appropriate title, when one graduates as a Philosophy major and writes and works 'doing' philosophical thinking? Is "Philosopher" printed on the business card? Or, is "Philosopher" a title bequeathed by one's peers? And come to think of it, How and why would a philosopher regard the very ideas of "appropriate" and "protocol?" Thank you in advance for your insights. Sincerely, Mrs. Rachel Gray, Philosophy Major...

P.S. My husband and I listen to a radio commentator the press calls a "Public Intellectual," but he speaks more like a "Village Idiot".


Would I snicker? Never. Actually, I was faced with the same problem, myself (while a PhD student). But when you say "works 'doing' philosophical thinking" what do you mean, precisely? Works where? Doing what... sitting, writing, advising people... in what area of philosophy, exactly? What I did was be more precise, and put the area of my interest: "Consciousness Studies" on my card. That way you can avoid saying you're a philosopher, since no one knows what that means anyway, including myself and lots of other philosophers (haha). But slightly more seriously (and yes I *did* put that on my card), I consider it entirely appropriate to call oneself a "philosopher" if one has both of a) publications in peer-reviewed philosophy journals, and b) one gets paid for "doing" (i.e., teaching, writing, advising) philosophy. I do *not* consider someone a serious philosopher without a), although it is possible without b). Why am I so strict about a)? Well, just go down to your local drugstore or card shop and look at what's called "philosophy" there. People are getting paid for that, too, right?

Steven Ravett Brown

(4) Bill asked:

How does one explain the Frege-Geach Problem in lay terms?

Wow, good one. Here's the best I came up with:


Quasi-Realism, Negation and the Frege-Geach Problem

Author: Unwin, N

Source: The Philosophical Quarterly, July 1999, vol. 49, no. 196, pp. 337-352(16)

Publisher: Blackwell Publishing

The first two pages really do the best job that I've found:

"A central difficulty here is the 'Frege-Geach problem' of unasserted contexts, also known as the 'embedding problem'. The problem is that sentences that express moral judgments can form parts of semantically complex sentences in a way that an expressivist cannot easily explain. For example (from Geach), the sentence 'Telling lies is wrong' has the same meaning regardless of whether it occurs on its own or as the antecedent of 'If telling lies is wrong, then getting your little brother to tell lies is also wrong'. This must be so, since we may derive 'Telling your little brother to tell lies is wrong' from them both by modus ponens without any fallacy of equivocation. Yet nothing is expressed (in the relevant sense) by 'Telling lies is wrong' when it forms the antecedent of the conditional, since the antecedent is not itself asserted, and so its meaning (regardless of where it occurs) apparently cannot be explained by an expressivist analysis. Analogous problems occur with other types of embedded context."

What this is saying, so far as I understand it (and I hasten to add that this is not my area of expertise), is that if you think that making a moral statement or judgment is just a matter of expressing a feeling (i.e., you're an "expressivist"), then you run into a problem, because a sentence that looks like it just expresses a feeling in *one* context (the simple moral judgment) can't possibly be just expressing a feeling in *another* context (when it's embedded in another sentence so that it's just a statement of fact). So the expressivist position has to somehow account for what seems to be a *change* of meaning of the *same* sentence in different contexts. I'm not an expressivist myself, so this is a non-problem for me.

Steven Ravett Brown

(5) Ramesh asked:

I am struggling from long time to search the meaning of life? Is life of has any meaning? What is real purpose for me in this world? I am seventy years old and tried my best in different field but every where I found out illusion. Can you guide me?


Of course I'll guide you. Here's rule #1, and that one is the only one you need: Never, never let yourself be guided by anyone except yourself, if at all possible.

Let's assume that the world has "meaning" or "purpose". Now, first, just what exactly do those terms mean? Well, from what you say, it seems that what they must imply is that you want "the world" to have been created and arranged by some entity, and for you to play some part in that structure, a part which also has been created by that entity.

When I see something like this, my first reaction is, "what gives this entity any authority?" That it created the world? Well, so what? That it created us? Again, so what? Because, at base, here's the scenario. There's an entity, some sort of creature, floating in nothingness or whatever, which then decides to create the world. Um... well, I guess I can't blame it, I'd want some company myself in that situation. Ok, it creates the world, and there it goes, running along... and now what? Well, it either runs along little tracks, metaphorically speaking, to some end, like little trains running around until they reach the little station, with the entity having a good time watching it, we assume... or it was just built to run by itself in order to provide some surprises for this poor bored being. Ok, fine. And we're part of that scene; little actors moving around according to some more or less structured plan. Well, you may like that picture and find it fulfilling, but I certainly don't. Why should we play our parts? Well, it could be the threat of removal from the game... doesn't seem like much of a threat to me, actually. I mean, who cares? It's all to alleviate the boredom of this creature, or to give it some illusion of companionship, or a surprise... or whatever. I guess you could say that the end of the scenario, the little train pulling into the station, or whatever, is the "goal" or "meaning" of life, etc... well, hooray for that. I'll create my own goals, thank you... and on my own scale they'll be just as fulfilling; more, really, since I have the whole created (I'm assuming for the sake of this discussion) world to understand, not to mention what's outside it (ugh. One bored creature sitting in a void somewhere?). You like this picture? Really? Suppose that this entity believed passionately that creating this little world was really meaningful, for whatever reason... a dedicated hobbyist. Ok... and so what? Some people like stamp collecting, and some people like building model trains. Does that make the model trains intrinsically good? What justifies all this? Where's the authority? The basis?

Now let's take it from another starting point. Suppose that there is *no* "purpose", that we're not sitting in some creatures dollhouse being dressed up, fed, or whatever. We're just here. Ok, how is that any worse than if we were that creature I've been talking about? It has to get *its* purpose from somewhere just as arbitrary as *we* do in this latter case, right?

The bottom line here is that who- or whatever is sitting on top of this pile, whether it's us or some "higher" intelligence, has exactly the same problem. There's no way around it. You make *your own* purpose, like it or not, and structure the universe according to that purpose. Sorry, but that's it. And if you decide that you want something *else's* purpose to supersede your own, then you've given up whatever bit of choice you're capable of having; you've tried to turn yourself into a prop in someone else's model railroad. So the best "advice" I can give you, as I said, is not to look to me or anyone for advice, and to go figure out and then realize your *own* purpose, meaning, and/or goal. You're no worse off, then, than whatever hypothetical entity has thought this particular game up anyway, assuming that there is such an entity (which I for one find *extremely* unlikely). And yes, maybe you're 70 and will die in ten years or less... well, we're all in *that* boat too, relative to any reasonable time scale.

Steven Ravett Brown

Lena asked:

"What is your opinion of covering law model? Do you believe it doesn't illuminate the nature of explanation? For example, if someone wants to know why x happened under conditions y, it's not illuminating to be told that x is the sort of thing that always happens under y conditions. Would you agree?"

The laws we are talking about are not simply codifications of the observed facts, but rather pictures of a deeper necessity which accounts for the facts. And the questioner rather neatly puts her finger on this distinction when she says "if someone wants to know why x happened under conditions y, it's not illuminating to be told that x is the sort of thing that always happens under y conditions." Quite. It is one thing to be told that apples usually fall to earth, and quite another to be told that they fall to earth because of a force of attraction holding between any two masses, so that as the apple falls to earth, so, to a tiny extent, the earth falls towards the apple. The insight or picture of necessity that is contained in the latter claim permits all kinds of evaluative evidence to be taken into consideration in it's support, but it is not the case that the idea of gravity as a force between masses pops naturally out of the fact that apples fall to earth and the earth goes round the sun. All that follows from the fact that all apples fall to earth is that all apples fall to earth. All that follows from the fact that the earth goes round the sun is that the earth goes round the sun. All that follows from the fact that apples fall to earth and the earth goes round the sun is that apples fall to earth and the earth goes round the sun. And if we want to know *why* apples fall to earth or why the earth goes round the sun no amount of statistics will produce insight. The questioner is quite right: "if someone wants to know why x happened under conditions y, it's not illuminating to be told that x is the sort of thing that always happens under y conditions." Newton does illuminate here because he is able to point to a condition z explaining why x happens under y conditions, z being: the attraction of masses (not just the earth, but also an apple, the sun, etc). The explanation does not go all the way down as it were, but it is at least a kind of explanation - it is better than "all apples fall to earth because all apples fall to earth". The limits of the newtonian explanation become clear if instead of "why do apples fall to earth?" we now ask a different question such as "why do masses attract?" - physicists have been set this bit of homework for a few hundred years now without result. But if some result does come, it won't come by collecting data on lots of different cases of mass attracting mass. It will come by a leap of imagination: a new way to picture necessity.

David Robjant

(6) Mehdi asked:

This is in response to Shaun Williamson's answer to my previous question about paedophilia. I would first like to thank him for the response. You gave an example about a 9 year old girl with a 40 year old man (and that the 40 year old should be asking himself why he wants sex with a 9 year old). In my opinion it is very unlikely that a 9 year old will be sexually attracted to a 40 year old. Let's narrow down the gap; how about a 14 year old with a 23 year old? Agreed that laws should be there. But if the 23 year old and 14 year old have safe consensual (illegal) sex then should you consider it a morally bad thing? Will you (personally you) view the 23 year old any differently because he/she had sex with a 14 year? (granted you will view him/her differently 'cos he/she broke the law). I don't want to get into the issue that breaking the law is wrong (and a crime). My issue is, are people justified in negatively judging paedophiles (a psychologist's legal term) even if the situation is "harmless" for both the minor (14 year) and the major (23 year)? You remarked... "If you can't have sex with people who are over the age of legal consent then you have a psychological problem so don't try to pretend that it is a philosophical problem." Are you implying that if someone doesn't agree with the legal limits then he/she has a psychological problem? Surely, laws have a certain degree of rationalism, but they certainly don't apply to each and every case. I would like you to explain how it is a psychological problem for either partner if a 23 year old and a 13/14 year old love each other (and have safe sex). If you claim that a 14 year old cannot be sexually attracted to a 23 year old then I rest my case. On a different note, will you (personally you) have a negative opinion if someone sexually cuddles a baby (without harming or having sex)? Granted that statistically such people are prone to sexual misconducts on other occasions, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he/she IS a "perverted" person, does it? (It is not a custom so society labels it as a perversion based on statistics; but I didn't ask society, I am asking you.) Thanks again for your response.


No this has nothing to do with prejudice or social custom etc. It is about morality. Historically the attitudes of western societies towards sexuality have been influenced by Christianity. For some Christians only sex within marriage (without the use of contraceptives) is permissible and moral. Other Christians have a rather more relaxed view of things. Since the 1960s in Britain both the legal and moral of idea what is permissible has been influenced by what I will call the 'Consenting Adults' view of things.

This is the idea that any sexual activity between two or more adults is permissible unless there is any other reason to disallow it (perhaps certain sado-masochistic practices that cause physical harm might not be allowed.).

Now I am not a Christian and I firmly believe in the 'Consenting adults' idea as providing the best framework for both morality and legal rules.

However the the sort of sexual practices that can never be allowed under this idea are non consensual sex and this includes things like rape and all paedophile sex. In fact I believe all paedophile sex is the same as rape because it always involves a sexual assault on a child. But just as it is difficult or impossible to get most rapists to see and accept the nature of what they are doing so it is with paedophiles. There is no harmless paedophile activity since children can never consent to such sex and it does harm them. Certainly there can be much hysteria surrounding the public attitudes to paedophiles but you should not let this blind you to the facts. Paedophiles are adults who sexually assault children. With regard to the age of consent and sex between 14 year olds and 25 year old adults then each case has to be judged (morally) on its merits. But many of the men who enter into such relationships are paedophiles who have not yet been able to admit this to themselves. The law in such cases is clear and I have no argument with it and see no good reason to change.

Shaun Williamson

(7) Kevin asked:

Is there a formula for courage? I have come up with this so far. Courage is proportional to the amount of personal Assets involved and the risk to those assets plus the amount of uncertainty that the risk entails minus the combined amount of potential personal gain and negative intensions. (Asset? the thing, material or immaterial being risked.) (Risk - probability of loss.) (Uncertainty? the amount of ignorance in regards to what is being risked and the probability of loss.) (Gain - the thing, material or immaterial that is obtained from the outcome, except internal rewards.) (Negative Intensions? the desire to lose or ambivalence toward your assets.) Courage = (Asset + Risk + Uncertainty)? (Gain + negative intensions)


No there is no formula although your idea is a very ingenious one. Sometimes courage involves losing everything including your life with no gain to yourself.

Courage is a moral quality and cannot be captured by a formula. If you really want to understand courage read poetry or study higher mathematics. These cannot be captured in a formula either. They are both creative things that involve a leap into the unknown as does courage.

Shaun Williamson

(8) Roman asked:

how much money does a philosopher make?


If you can get a job at a university teaching philosophy then you will earn as much as any other university lecturer. Otherwise philosophy is a general arts degree which will enable you to apply for other jobs.

Shaun Williamson

(9) Greg asked:

Are affirmative action programmes racist?


No they are not. They may or may not be desirable for other reasons but to qualify as racist something has to be based on the belief that one race is in some way superior to another and I can't see how affirmative action programmes could fall within this definition. Favouring one race over another in an attempt to make up for the results of racial discrimination does not mean that you believe one race is superior to another.

Shaun Williamson

(10) Craig asked::

Why does life not bring things that people need, when it is needed?


There is no answer to this question. Life isn't a person who dispenses gifts. Humans didn't make the world. We are born into it and have to accept it as it is because there is no alternative. Sometimes our parents give us things, sometimes we have to get things for ourselves. That is how things are. If all our wishes could be satisfied just because we wish for them then that would be nice but that isn't how things are and I don't know who to complain to about that.

Shaun Williamson

(11) Christian asked:

Are colors universal? If you and I were to look at the exact same picture, would you see to same colors that I see? You may say yes, because we both see the same "colors". Or do we? Are we just taught to claim to see the same things when our brains really perceive them differently?


Well what do you mean by different here? I may like the colour yellow, you may not and that would be a difference. But maybe you mean that when we are both looking at a colour that we both agree is yellow that there might be some inexpressible difference in our perception. But if it can't be said is it real? There might be an invisible football hovering six inches above your head.

Does this possibility bother you? What would the world be like if we all accepted that we may not be seeing the same "colour". Would it make any difference when someone asks me to hand them the green book? Perhaps I would hesitate whereas now I don't, I just hand them the book.

Shaun Williamson

(12) Samantha asked:

Why was Martin Luther King assassinated? I don't know why because he was an effective leader although some things did not work out well such as Albany 1961-62.


Martin Luther King was assassinated by a white racist and to understand why this happened you need to understand the history of slavery in the United States and the legacy it left of racial segregation and hatred. He led black people in their struggle for civil rights and was always aware that he might pay for this with his life. Like all leaders he wasn't infallible but he was a courageous man who deserves our admiration because he did what he thought was right no matter what the cost. In his case it cost him his life.

Shaun Williamson

(13) Stephen asked::

Is analytical philosophy anything more than intellectual masturbation?


Yes it is more than that. But you will have to study it and decide for yourself.

Shaun Williamson

(14) Mariane asked:

What are the non-christian's view on homosexuality?


Well I am a non-christian and I hold to the 'consenting adults' view of sexual morality. By that I mean that any sexual activity is ok as long as the people involved are consenting adults and there is no other reason to ban it (certain extreme sado-masochistic activities which result in physical harm may be excluded). So I have no problem with homosexuality. I am a heterosexual but I don't know why and I accept that other people are homosexual and I don't understand that either.

Shaun Williamson

(15) Zoltan asked::

First of all. I am an empiricist, so all this rationalistic mumbo jumbo is hog wash to me. I can't doubt my existence because doubting my existence presupposes it and thus affirms it. Yes I am also a determinist, and I believe people should not be punished but rehabilitated, and if they can't be, then they should be sent back (like any defective product) to me, life is simple; we are the anomaly that has sprung from it (like any other in the universe). As long as we continue to follow (as Charles Sanders Peirce puts it) the scientific non-human centered system of inquiry, we will eventually discover everything for ourselves. Even though we will have to wait till the end to know that we have (discovered it all) it will come. Although, it might not. We all never really know. As for time: it as just another one of those quirky human inventions that are a by-product of our nature to conjure an anthropocentric view of everything we come in contact with. Do we really think our stupid little quantification of atimea matters to the universe? Come now!

In the end, we might find that our journey of inquiry took the long way around.

Your pantheist, pragmatist, Pythagoras philosopher friend, Zoltanin Canada


Well this isn't really a question so I can't answer it but what you say seems to be full of contradictions. If you really are a determinist then the idea of rehabilitation doesn't make sense. If you really believe in empiricism then you have fallen prey to the same rationalistic mumbo-jumbo you claim to reject.

Shaun Williamson

(16) Gonzalo asked:

Who have higher IQ, people taking up engineering or people taking up philosophy in college? Do you have any studies of the IQ of contemporary philosophers and people writing on philosophy, as compared to other people like engineers and doctors, businessmen, artists, etc. Gonzalo Cruz

============ I don't know of any studies in this field but I have no reason to imagine that there are any differences between good philosophers and good engineers. Artists may not need a high I.Q. but they need a high degree of creativity which is a different psychological trait from I.Q.

Ph.D students at British universities have an average I.Q. of 145 and that is all I can tell you.

Shaun Williamson

(17) Zoltan asked:

What is today the meaning of the term "materialism"?


Philosophical materialism is the view that all that exists is material or is wholly dependent upon matter for its existence. The view asserts that there is only one fundamental kind of reality and that this is material. It also asserts that human beings and other living creatures are not dual beings composed of a material body and an immaterial soul, but are fundamentally body in nature.

Modern physics and chemistry alleges to have proved beyond doubt that, developed from the particle theory, the world is a composite of solid material and energy, interchangeable according to obtaining conditions. This is supported by materialist philosophers but refuted by idealist philosophers and some rationalists. There is still a dispute between those who conceive reality to be based on 'matter stuff' and those who believe reality to be founded on 'mind stuff'.

There are modern references to materialistic views of the world which allege a desire by many for material gain, in terms of property, finance and influence. Greed and power are commonly associated with the term. Also an obsessive interest in 'things' and 'owning things' becomes the fundamental purpose of life. There is a view that the more materialistic a society becomes, the less recognition there is of spiritual values, ethics and morality. The "never mind you I'm alright Jack" mentality is alleged to prevail.

John Brandon

(18) Christine asked:

Something my lecturer mentioned has been puzzling me (in a good way) for a very long time. It is sort of linked to a question posed by Jeremy (no. 18) but hopefully is a little more detailed. Which one is the philosophical question: How many fairies can you fit on to the head of a pin? or Did Adam (in the biblical Christian sense of the term) have a belly button?

My lecturer assures me that as time goes by the difference between those two questions will become more and more obvious, and he is right, my philosophical learning grows by the day. I can often spot where a philosophical explanation ends and a scientific one begins.

These two questions both seem philosophical to me. The answer is: How many fairies can you fit on the head of a pina is the philosophical question you need to think, do fairies have matter, how much matter do they have etc etc etc. But surely Did Adam have a belly button provides equal amounts of philosophical thought? ============

Sorry Christine but both of these questions seem to me to be scientific ones. If fairies do exist then we need to know what size they are and what is the size of the pin. If Adam did exist then we need to do a post mortem to see if he had a belly button. Neither of them have anything to do with philosophy.

Shaun Williamson

(19) Dave asked:

find other questions and answers unsatisfactory on this subject, so I hope you don't think I'm going over a topic already dealt with.

Whenever I hear a debate about freewill, it always starts in the middle of the debate. The first thing I would like clarified is what exactly people mean by 'freewill'. I am aware that until I scrutinized it, I believed that it made sense for someone (if one accepts the idea of some kind of spiritual moral authority) to be judged on their decisions. This was due to the fact that we are free to make these decisions and thusly accountable for them. This seemed obvious.

If the universe is completely causal - then we are being judged according to a chain of causality. Every single occurrence that has been part of the chain of occurrences was dependent on every link in the chain. In other words, my actions might be dependent on a raindrop 700 billion years ago. I would be judged on this.

If the universe is not at all causal, it is a completely random event and I am judged according to nothing and my actions/hopes/life are meaningless.

If it's a mixture of the two then I am being judged either according to actions dependent on a finite chain of causes (until the chain is broken by a random occurrence) or judged according to a spontaneous, uncaused event.

My question is, how can anyone possibly refute this?


Well ok Dave you have a good understanding of HALF the problem of freewill vs determinism. When you understand the other half you will know what a real philosophical problem is about. So I will try to start you off on the other half.

Suppose everything is determined in advance by a causal chain. Then if I come into your house and kill you and your family it makes no sense to blame me or punish me for my actions because I have no control over what I do. I am simply composed of atoms following the laws of physics.

Suppose you have a math exam next week then you might think that it would help you if you revise. But if determinism is true then it has already been decided whether you will pass or fail the exam so you might as well watch TV and forget about the revision. In fact you are not even free to decide if determinism is true or false because everything you believe is just the result of a causal chain and is completely outside your control. You are not free to decide about believing that determinism is true or believing that determinism is false. I meet many philosophers who claim to believe in determinism but when they take off their philosopher's hats and step out into the real world then they all act as though we are free to choose our actions, they praise and blame others, they encourage their children to work hard at school. But none of these things make sense unless we are free to choose and the things that will happen have not already been decided by the unravelling of the causal chain.

Think about the implications of determinism and then maybe you will come to see that it is impossible to believe in freewill and it is impossible to believe in determinism. Then you will understand what a philosophical problem is and maybe you will have a reason to study philosophy.

Shaun Williamson

(20) Marcin asked:

I'm writing an article on Wittgenstein's doctrine of family resemblances. My question is as follows: Why is it that, in spite of the fact that the idea of resemblance was known and discussed by other scholars before L. W., it was L. W. that receives all the credit for it. In other words why is Wittgenstein's exposition famous and not, say J.S. Mill's or William James' (the idea is present in their writings)?


There is no doctrine of family resemblances in Wittgenstein's work. This is a complete misinterpretation of Wittgenstein's ideas. There is a discussion of family resemblances in Philosophical Investigations but Wittgenstein was not seeking to advance or propound any doctrines. Philosophical Investigations is simply a discussion of philosophical problems. Most of the expositions are incorrect. Read 'Wittgenstein's Place in 20th Century Philosophy' by P.M.S. Hacker to get an accurate idea of the complexities of Wittgenstein's thought.

Shaun Williamson

(21) Pappy asked:

Is it possible to step out of linear time?


And what would "non-linear" time be, exactly? The short answer to your question is that until you can describe what you mean more precisely, your question can't even be answered. But there's a longer answer... when we think of causality, we think of chains, i.e., a causes b causes c... and so forth. We might become more complex and say that "a" in that last sentence actually consists of a complex dynamic, and similarly with the others, so that there is actually a matrix of causes to any "single" event. But it's one thing to *say* all that, and it's another to be able to *think* in those terms, and indeed quite another to be able to *analyze* complex nonlinear dynamical systems. So another short answer is "no". It's not possible for human beings to do that; we're not structured that way. We can't even create a mathematics that will do it; we have to "solve" such systems by running emulations of them on our computers and just sitting back and watching those emulations go by, then studying them later as best we can. Outside of some interesting science fiction (Dickson's Genetic General comes to mind, for example... and some struggles by Laumer and a few others. Hoyle's attempt to describe temporality fails due to the paradox below), I know of no attempt, even, to seriously describe what "stepping out" of linear time would be like. Notice, in fact, that I'm taking your word "stepping" to refer to *mental* acts rather than to physical ones... we certainly cannot literally physically step out of temporal progression; that act itself involves such progression. As for physically having time become "non-linear"... the only theory that might even conceivably come close is Everett's "many-world's" theory. But that, as I understand it, actually involves multiple time-tracks rather than one multiply-dimensioned time track. Not the same thing. No, I'm afraid that you're going to have to explain much more clearly what you mean before I, at least, can attempt a more thorough answer.

Steven Ravett Brown

(22) Darren asked:

I contend that reason can only confirm the reality of the Self, since everything else is experienced within and by that Self. Existence is what we are and what we experience within. Why do philosophers spend so much time pondering realities beyond themselves when nobody can know anything beyond itself? Isn't a belief in material reality a philosophical crime in the sense that philosophy should be devoid of leaps-of-faith?


You need to read the Meditations, by Rene Descartes. I think you'll find a soulmate there. Just be aware that since he wrote that (and you will find out just how long ago that was) there have been many many responses to it.

Steven Ravett Brown

(23) Pete asked:

how should one deal with knowing there is no escape from death? how can you enjoy life with it in mind?


One of the tragedies of being self-conscious is the knowledge that at some point you will cease to exist. There's no escape from this, and a huge literature on it. You might look at the Existentialists for extensive commentary here. Of course there are many *attempts* to escape from this knowledge, of which organized religion is the most obvious. Suicide and drugs are the other fairly usual and rather boring alternatives; hey, religion is at least exciting, right? My own choice is to avoid escapism on this point... but most people don't agree with that choice. As for consolations/ enjoyment... well, why *not* enjoy life while you've got it? Also you might reflect that *everything*: people, alien races, stars, galaxies, etc., will end, sooner or later. Why? Because there's always *something* that can happen, in an infinite time-span. You aren't alone here. Now, as for me, I think that we should at least be able to *choose* when to die, and that a reasonable life-span is probably on the order of millions of years; but we're not at that level of technology, yet. So... you do what you can in the time you have, right?

Steven Ravett Brown

(24) Emily asked:

I am very interested in finding out about philosophical discussions of pregnancy which are not focussed on ethical issues (most discussions appear to be based around the problem of abortion). I am most interested in the more metaphysical problems of identity/changing identity of a pregnant woman and her baby, the coming into being of a new life and possibly views on self-perception or what it is to be a parent. I have been unable to find much relevant information or advice so far, and would be greatly appreciative if you could direct me to any texts, articles or even philosophers who might be of any help.


I think you're looking in the wrong place. Try the clinical literature, especially the psychology of pregnancy. I'd recommend Melanie Klein, except I'm not a Freudian... but I suspect there is an enormous literature on this in various obstetric/gynecological databases.

Steven Ravett Brown

(25) Nguyen asked:

I am taking "aesthetic philosophy" right now. But I am still confuse something in my subject. So can you kindly answer these questions for me. The question like this: 1. What is art? 2. How art is? 3. What is the theory of the "nature of art"? I am looking forward to hear from you.


Well, Vinh, you read the stuff below, then if you still want to know, write again. To put it another way, there are *no* simple answers to these questions; there are in fact *libraries* that have been written on each of them. The works below will hopefully start you off on being able to understand them and some different perspectives on the nature of art.

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

---- New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

Barwell, I. "How Does Art Express Emotion?" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45, no. 2 (1986): 175-81.

Brower, C. "A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning." Journal of Music Theory 44, no. 2 (2000): 323-79.

Budd, M. "Music and the Communication of Emotion." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47, no. 2 (1989): 129-38.

Davidson, R. J. "Darwin and the Neural Bases of Emotion and Affective Style." Annals of the New York Academy of Science 1000 (2003): 316-36.

Davies, S. "Kivy on Auditors' Emotions." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 2 (1994): 235-36.

Dempster, D. "How Does Debussy's Sea Crash? How Can Jimi's Rocket Red Glare? Kivy's Account of Representation in Music." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 4 (1994): 415-28.

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

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

Guck, M. A. "Two Types of Metaphoric Transference." In Music and Meaning, edited by J. Robinson, 201-14. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Hanslick, E. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution Towards the Revision of the Aesthetics of Music. Translated by G. Payzant. 8th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1986.

Herz, R.S. "An Examination of Objective and Subjective Measures of Experience Associated to Odors, Music, and Paintings." Empirical Studies of the Arts 16, no. 2 (1998): 137-52.

Herzog, P. "Music Criticism and Musical Meaning." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53, no. 3 (1995): 299-312.

Jackendoff, R. S. "Musical Parsing and Musical Affect." Music Perception 9, no. 2 (1991): 199-230.

Kepes, G., ed. Education of Vision. 3 vols. Vol. 1, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965.

---- ed. Structure in Art and in Science. 3 vols. Vol. 2, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965.

Klee, P. Pedagogical Sketchbook. 8th ed. New York: Polyglot Press, 1977.

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

Krumhansl, C.L. "Music: A Link between Cognition and Emotion." Current Directions in Psychological Science 11, no. 2 (2002): 45-50.

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

Maus, F. E. "Music as Drama." In Music and Meaning, edited by J. Robinson, 105-30. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Raffman, D. Language, Music, and Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Ridley, A. "Musical Sympathies: The Experience of Expressive Music." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53, no. 1 (1995): 49-57.

Robinson, J. "Musical Meaning and Expression." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, no. 3 (1996): 307-09.

Saslaw, J.K. "Life Forces: Conceptual Structures in Schenker 'S Free Composition and Schoenberg's the Musical Idea." Theory and Practice 22-23 (1997-1998): 17-33.

Scherer, K.R., M.R. Zentner, and A. Schacht. "Emotional States Generated by Music: An Exploratory Study of Music Experts." Musicae Scientiae Spec Issue (2002): 149-71.

Scruton, R. "Analytical Philosophy and the Meaning of Music." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (1987): 169-76.

Sloboda, J.A. "Musical Performance and Emotion: Issues and Developments." In Music, Mind, and Science, edited by S.W. Yi, 220-38.

Seoul, Korea: Seoul National University Press, 1999.

Smith, L.D., and R.N. Williams. "Children's Artistic Responses to Musical Intervals." American Journal of Psychology 112, no. 3 (1999): 383.

Sparshott, F. "Music and Feeling." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 1 (1994): 23-35.

Tanizaki, J. In Praise of Shadows. Translated by T. J. Harper. New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, Inc., 1977.

Tervaniemi, M., and E. Brattico. "From Sounds to Music: Towards Understanding the Neurocognition of Musical Sound Perception." Journal of Consciousness Studies 11, no. 3-4 (2004): 9-27.

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

Turner, M., and G. Fauconnier. "A Mechanism of Creativity." Poetics Today 20, no. 3 (1999): 397-418.

Wollheim, R. "Art and Illusion." British Journal of Aesthetics 3 (1963): 15-37.

Steven Ravett Brown

(26) Catherine asked:

I am in AP Statistics in my high school, and I was wondering if you knew what the probability is, that the groundhog will see his/her shadow on Ground Hog day. But if not, thanks anyway!


That's a simple one. It's exactly the same as the probability that there will be 6 more weeks of winter. Alternatively, it's exactly the same as the probability that the groundhog is *looking at* his/her shadow... depending on what you want to assume about groundhogs, and of course assuming that you are normalizing for healthy (and are excluding blind) groundhogs.

Steven Ravett Brown

(27) Kirk asked:

If there are two parallel lines next to each other can they ever meet? Or would they always go on for ever?


It depends on what you mean by "parallel", and what you put the parallel lines on. If you mean that they're always the same distance apart, a finite distance, then, no, they'll never meet. If you mean that if you put a line at a right angle to one line, and that always makes a right angle with the second line, then there are surfaces you can put them on where they'll meet. For example, think about the lines on a globe of the earth that run from one pole (which, really, can be any point at all) to the other. Ok? Those lines running through the poles on a sphere meet at the poles, but lines at right angles to them (the *latitudes*) are at right angles to *all* of them. So on a sphere parallel lines meet, if that's how you define "parallel", but they won't meet on a plane.

Steven Ravett Brown

(28) Megan asked:

we have been studying the universe in physics, and I was wondering whether it was possible that nothing does not exist, because if nothing isn't anything, then how can it exist? or could nothing be god? please help!


Stop and look at your question. What do you mean by the word "nothing"? In one sentence you give it at least two meanings, and you are confusing those meanings. If you say something like, "nothing isn't anything", then why does that imply that nothing is a **substance** of some sort? It's because of the way you confuse the notion of "substance" or "stuff" or "thingness", i.e., solid objects in space-time, with their absence. But their absence *isn't* another kind of *thing*, it's the *absence* of *any* thing. There's not anything there, which is *not* the same as there being a "substance" which we call "nothing" there. You see the confusion? If you cut a hole in a piece of paper, can you say that there's a type of paper, "un-paper", in the hole? No----.. there's just simply no paper. Well... there you go. If there's no thing, then there isn't a kind of thing called "no-thing". There's simply nothing.

Steven Ravett Brown

Kirk asked:

Do ghosts exist?



Alper, M. The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. Brooklyn, NY: Rogue Press, 2001.

Azari, N.P., Nickel, J., Wunderlich, G., Niedeggen, M., Hefter, H., Tellmann, L., Herzog, H., Stoerig, P., Birnbacher, D., and Seitz, R.J. "Neural Correlates of Religious Experience." European Journal of Neuroscience 13 (2001): 1649-52.

Barrett, J.L., Richert, R.A., and Driesenga, A. "God's Beliefs Versus Mother's: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts." Child Development 72, no. 1 (2001): 50-65.

Blanke, O., and Arzy, S. "The out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction." The Neuroscientist 11, no. 1 (2005): 16-24.

Blanke, O., Mohr, C., Michel, C.M., Pascual-Leone, A., Brugger, P., Seeck, M., Landis, T., and Thut, G. "Linking out-of-Body Experience and Self Processing to Mental Own-Body Imagery at the Temporoparietal Junction." The Journal of Neuroscience 25, no. 3 (2005): 550-57.

Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third ed. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1951.

Giovannoli, J. The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions: Rosetta Press, Inc., 2000.

Hines, T. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Langdon, R., and Coltheart, M. "The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Delusions." Mind & Language 15, no. 1 (2000): 184-218.

Laski, M. Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

Russell, B. Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays. Totowa, JN: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.

Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1996.

Schick, T., Jr., and Vaughn, L. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995.

Shermer, M. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1997.

Young, A.W. "Wondrous Strange: The Neuropsychology of Abnormal Beliefs." Mind & Language 15, no. 1 (2000): 47-73.

Steven Ravett Brown

(29) Kenny asked:

How do you relate atheism to business and professional ethics? are atheism and realism related?


Why are "business and professional" ethics in a different category than any other ethics? Why not just ask about atheism's relationship to ethics? Let me put it this way. You may have, or have had, a pet dog or cat sometime in your life, or you've probably read about animal training, correct? Suppose you want to train your dog not to make messes on the floor, or your cat not to jump on the kitchen table... or whatever. Well, what do you do, generally? If the dog, say, does something "bad", something you don't want it to do, you punish it, either by spanking it in some way or by speaking to it harshly... right? And if it does something you *do* want it to do, something "good", then you reward it, with food, petting, or whatever. Right? That's how animals are trained. Ok... As I understand most of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, people learn that if they behave "correctly" they will be rewarded, eventually, with "heaven", described as a pleasurable environment. Conversely, if people behave "badly" they will be punished by some form of "hell", which is described as a physically and psychically painful environment. Do we see similarities here...?

Now, once an animal is trained, is it "ethical"? "Moral"? Is it behaving "ethically"? Thinking that would be odd, wouldn't it. But *people*, in these religious traditions, are trained in *exactly* the same way that animals are (although the putative rewards and punishments are delayed rather than immediate, as is usually the case with animals - although there is an enormous literature on "delayed reinforcement" in animal training). So then, mustn't we ask whether *people* in these religious traditions are *also* ethical? Behaving morally? What's the difference? I must admit that I see none, myself. And so, as far as I can tell, people raised in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition are no more moral, if the basis of their behavior is fear of hell and desire for heaven, than their pet dogs or cats. Does this offend anyone out there? Oh, dear. Well, please, go ahead and refute the above argument. One might claim that people have more *choice*, in obeying or disobeying (although those people obviously have never had a pet cat)... even so, does that constitute the basis for calling the results of training identical to animal training "morality"?

Ok, then, what *does* constitute morality? Ethics? Clearly, given the above, it means that despite the fact that one must *start* with the kind of training I'm describing, with children, we must expect that at some point an adult *transcends* that training. How is that accomplished? Clearly, one must *question* it and *reason* about it. If that is not done, one remains trained... not ethical. Is this a radical, new, idea? Um... well, people, it's only about 2500 years old, going back to Aristotle. All I've done is indicated that one can support Aristotle with hard data, no more.

What then does atheism have to do with ethics? Well, not a lot, actually. Once one starts actually *thinking* about ethics, one realizes that whatever advanced alien races (or single creatures) there are out there, whether they've "created" the "universe" or not, we're all in the same boat, insofar as justifying our behavior. They may be able to send a fleet of spaceships to destroy the earth - or destroy us by thinking about it ("hell"), or give us technologies and/or philosophies to create a paradise here ("heaven")... maybe they know about some sort of "afterlife" too, however bizarre and unlikely that seems. Hey, who knows? But would we, should we, obey them just because they can destroy us? Well... that might be a *good* decision, just as obeying someone with a gun to your head might be a good decision. But it wouldn't be the *basis* for an ethics or a morality, would it.

I highly recommend the following:


Apostle, H. G. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Grinnell, IA: The Peripatetic Press, 1984.

Blasi, A. "Bridging Moral Cognition and Moral Action: A Critical Review of the Literature." Psychological Bulletin 88, no. 1 (1980): 1-45.

---- "Kohlberg's Theory and Moral Motivation." New Directions for Child Development 47 (1990): 51-57.

Dawson, T.L. "New Tools, New Insights: Kohlberg's Moral Judgement Stages Revisited." International Journal of Behavioral Development 26, no. 2 (2002): 154-66.

Flanagan, Owen. Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., and Fehr, E. "Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans." Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003): 153-72.

Johnson, M. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Kohlberg, L., and Hersh, R.H. "Moral Development: A Review of the Theory." Theory Into Practice 16, no. 2 (1977): 53-59.

Piaget, J. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Translated by Cabain, M. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Sommers, C., and Sommers, F. Vice & Virtue in Everyday Life; Introductory Readings in Ethics. 4th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985.


Pavlov, I.P. Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Translated by Anrep, G.V. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.

Rolls, E.T. "The Orbitofrontal Cortex and Reward." Cerebral Cortex 10 (2000): 284--94.

Skinner, B.F. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. Edited by Elliott, R.M., The Century Psychology Series. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Corfts, Inc., 1966.

Wilson, F.A.W., and Ma, Y-Y. "Reinforcement-Related Neurons in the Primate Basal Forebrain Respond to the Learned Significance of Task Events Rather Than to the Hedonic Attributes of Reward." Cognitive Brain Research 19 (2004): 74-81.

Steven Ravett Brown

(30) Kirk asked:

I've always wondered why brown is not a colour in the rainbow do you know why?


There are many colors which are not in the rainbow. But first, do you know what a rainbow *is*? If you don't, I'm wasting my answer here... and you should go to:


or here:

or even here:

and find out what they are.

In addition, I don't actually know which of two possible explanations is the correct one. First, the only way that you're going to see colors in the rainbow which are not single wavelengths, i.e. "pure", are if they're right next to each other, so that the eye can combine them. You could get a bit of green because it's a combination of blue and yellow, and those are more-or-less next to each other in a rainbow. Brown is a combination of several colors, and you just can't get that kind of combination in light in which the colors have been separated in the first place. Second, brown may (and I'm not sure of this) not actually be a *positive*, but a *negative* color, i.e., the result not of adding, but of *subtracting* colors from white light. If that's the case, then brown is the result of a filtering process, and a rainbow is just the opposite of what you need to get it. Go do some reading.

Steven Ravett Brown

(31) Ralph asked:

Is there a truth-functional rendering of [S]:

[S] "He was brave, if not foolish"

The natural language interpretation of [S] seems ambiguous. In other words, it might be taken to mean (one could use it to say), relative to some action, that:

[A] What he did was brave, not foolish [B] What he did was foolish, not brave

I suspect that sentences like [S] challenge the completeness of truth-functional analyses of sentential operators.

I'm aware that the truth-functional analyses apply to logical operators (&, ~, V, ->, &c.) rather than to their natural language counterparts. But this, qua response to my question, seems like a fudge. The ideal was for the former to provide an unambiguous semantics for the latter.

Thank you for helping to clear this up.


Yes, I agree that the natural language formulation of this is ambiguous. I think that a formalist (and I'm not one) would respond that sure, there are lots of ways to mess up the language, and all that means is that the goal of an "unambiguous semantics" is a good one because of this high possibility for error and ambiguity in natural languages. You've just found one of an infinite number of ambiguities, i.e., of reasons that natural languages need a formal semantics to analyze them.

Well. And the above is just why I'm not a formalist; I think the above rationale is a fudge, but not for the reason you seem to want. What I'm understanding from your question is that you *want* formal languages to be able to provide unambiguous analyses... and *my* response to that is: forget it. Natural languages are *not* formal languages, and the goal of the formalists is a futile one. First, it's not merely that ambiguous sentences challenge the *completeness* of formal analyses; they do challenge that, but in addition, they (and other types of expressions, e.g., metaphorical ones) challenge the very *idea* of how a formal system, which generates strings through working out a finite set of well-defined operations on a finite set of well-defined elements, starting with a finite set of well-defined axioms, *corresponds* to how the brain, and natural languages, work. It's not a matter of Godel; it's a matter of apples and oranges.

Why do I say all this? Look, I'm sorry but I just simply can't write the book here. You might look at Searle's rationale for the "background" as an example of a formalist's attempt (the "apples", let's say) to deal with this:

Searle, J. R. The Rediscovery of the Mind. 5th ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.

But here are some of the "oranges", instead of the "apples", take on this:

Johnson, M. The Body in the Mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lakoff, G. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. 1st ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.

Coulson, S., and Oakley, T. "Blending Basics." Cognitive Linguistics 11, no. 3/4 (2000): 175-96.

Fauconnier, G., and Sweetser, E. Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar. Edited by Fouconnier, G., Lakoff, G. and Sweetser, E. 1st ed. Vol. 2, Cognitive Theory of Language and Culture. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Sweetser, E. "Blended Spaces and Performativity." Cognitive Linguistics 11, no. 3/4 (2000): 305-33.

Turner, M., and Fauconnier, G. "A Mechanism of Creativity." Poetics Today 20, no. 3 (1999): 397-418.

Some more:

Baddeley, A. "Working Memory and Language: An Overview." Journal of Communication Disorders 36 (2003): 189-203.

Bundgaard, P.F. "The Ideal Scaffolding of Language: Husserl's Fourth Logical Investigation in the Light of Cognitive Linguistics." Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3 (2004): 49-80.

Cariani, P. "On the Design of Devices with Emergent Semantic Functions." State University of New York, 1989.

Christiansen, M.H., and Chater, N. "Toward a Connectionist Model of Recursion in Human Linguistic Performance." Cognitive Science 23, no. 2 (1999): 157-205.

Gentner, D., and Markman, A.B. "Structure Mapping in Analogy and Similarity." American Psychologist 52, no. 1 (1997): 45-56.

Gentner, D. "Structure-Mapping: A Theoretical Framework for Analogy." Cognitive Science 7 (1983): 155-70.

Langacker, R. W. "Constituency, Dependency, and Conceptual Grouping." Cognitive Linguistics 8, no. 1 (1997): 1-32.

Mandelblit, N. "The Grammatical Marking of Conceptual Integration: >From Syntax to Morphology." Cognitive Linguistics 11, no. 3/4 (2000): 197-251.

Millikan, R. G. Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories: New Foundations for Realism. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991.

Sloman, S. A., and Malt, B.C. "Artifacts Are Not Ascribed Essences, nor Are They Treated as Belonging to Kinds." (in press) Language and Cognitive Processes (2003).

Taylor, J.R. Cognitive Grammar. Edited by Brown, K., Clark, E.V., McMahon, A., Miller, J. and Milroy, L., Oxford Textbooks in Linguistics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ullman, M.T. "Contributions of Memory Circuits to Language: The Declarative/Procedural Model." Cognition 92 (2004): 231-70.

Van Gelder, T. "What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation?" The Journal of Philosophy 92, no. 7 (1995): 345-81.

Wilson, M.W. "The Case for Sensorimotor Coding in Working Memory." Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 8, no. 1 (2001): 44-57.

More, neurally oriented:

Agera y Arcas, B., Fairhall, A.L., and Bialek, W. "Computation in a Single Neuron: Hodgkin and Huxley Revisited." Neural Computation 15 (2003): 1715-49.

Carpenter, G.A., and Grossberg, S. "Adaptive Resonance Theory." In The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks, Second Edition, edited by Arbib, M.A. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

deCharms, R.C., and Zador, A. "Neural Representation and the Cortical Code." Annual Review of Neuroscience 23 (2000): 613-47.

Harrison, R. R. and Koch, C. "A Silicon Implementation of the Fly's Optomotor Control System." Neural Computation 12 (2000): 2291-304.

Mead, C. Analog Vlsi and Neural Systems. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1988.

Schwartz, G.E.R. "Individual Differences in Subtle Awareness and Levels of Awareness: Olfaction as a Model System." In Individual Differences in Conscious Experience. Advances in Consciousness Research, Vol. 20, edited by Kunzendorf, R.G and Wallace, B., 209-25. New York, NY: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2000.

Siegelmann, H. T. Neural Networks and Analog Computation: Beyond the Turing Limit. Edited by Book, R. V. 1st ed, Progress in Theoretical Computer Science. Boston, MA: Birkhauser Boston, 1999.

Steven Ravett Brown

(32) Sumaira asked:

How is the Novel is different from other forms of fiction?


If you compare a novel with any other kind of fiction work, a novel would be a 5,000 piece puzzle and any other would not be any bigger than 500 pieces strong. A novel is a complex work of literature, which encompasses a full blown use of all literary techniques, all combined in the right amounts. In my view, however, a novel distinguishes itself from other forms of fiction on it's requirement on the use of character development. In a novel characters have a more complex life and must acquire individual behaviours and tastes. The work of a novelist is indeed the work of someone who build a world in his or hers imagination, and brings that world to life only using the those immaterial building blocks.

Nuno Hipolito

(33) Kirk asked:

I've always wondered why brown is not a colour in the rainbow do you know why?


Basically brown is not a colour but a combination of colours, and does not appear in the rainbow, because the rainbow is the breakup of the colours that exist in the colour white. You can see a more detailed answer at:

Nuno Hipolito

(34) Kirk asked:

What are the two possible answers for the question "what came first the chicken or the egg"?


Let's try to put up arguments to defend both.

First the egg: chickens are oviparous, and that means that a chicken is born from an egg, and no chicken is born without using this procreation method. So, it's not logical to defend that a chicken could have been born without an egg being part of the process.

Second the chicken: chickens must have evolved from other kind of animals, not sure which one, but some ancient land bird, who could not fly. In midst this evolutionary process, some birds appeared, between the original ancestor of the chicken and the chicken itself. If those ancestors, any of them, were not oviparous, than you could defend that there was a chicken born without an egg, in some point in history.

Nuno Hipolito

(35) Kirk asked:

Why? (there is an answer because it is a question)


This is a very clever way of observing how we are involved in the processes of language, how we depend on it to live our lives, starting at very basic level. The answer to your question would be, using the philosophy of language approach: any given answer, depending on the context that your why is placed upon. A simple why? cannot obtain a simple answer, deprived of a context, other than a non-sense context. In a non-sense context, the answer to the question why? would be because.

Nuno Hipolito

(36) K.J. asked:

I am the president of a non-profit youth serving agency whose mission is for the health and well being of kids ages 6-18.

Ethically I don't think as an organization we should have alcohol on site either for our fundraising events or even if other groups rent our facilities. What ethical theory backs up my thoughts? Second, I'm inclined though, to accept funds from alcohol companies - we'd use the money to run our prevention programs. What theory backs up that second thought process. Does it seem if I'm willing (or not) to do the first, the same should hold true for the second? I'm looking for a succinct argument/talking points as this is going to the Board of Directors for a vote.


I'm not sure why you want names of renowned schools of thought to defend your acts. It's quite obvious you have a dilemma in your hands. You need the money, but you are afraid that accepting it would send the wrong message to your kids. There are two ways to solve a dilemma: 1) take the ethical way out and do not accept money from alcohol companies, because only a blind man would not see that your action would send the wrong message to the kids you take care of. 2) take hypocritical way out and take the money, even at the risk of sending the wrong message to your kids. Of course in a real-life situation, you cannot have luxury of always taking the ethical way out, and that is understandable, if you cannot find any other way of raising that money, and you need it urgently, of feel it would solve more problems that those it would cause. Just imagine a tobacco company that gives money to lung cancer research. It seems that it's the wrong thing to do, to accept money from those who cause the disease in the first place, but if you don't take the money, the research could be slow down, and even more people would be harmed. For me, it could come down to weighing the pros and cons of such a decision, and forget the pure, theoretical analysis. Go for straight facts: if the money helps more than it damages, accept it, because in the end of the day, you'll be doing more good than evil.

Nuno Hipolito

(37) Kirk asked:

I used to think philosophy was a subject in which you get answers but instead you end up with a question for your answer or get told that the answer is what ever you believe such as "is there a life after death and if so what is it like". Would philosophy give the answer to this question or would you only get the answer for this question in another subject like science?


Philosophy is not like science. The questions philosophers deal with are not ones that can be answered by scientific means. If they were then they wouldn't be philosophical questions. Also there are no agreed answers to any philosophical question. In fact it is possible to believe that there are no meaningful philosophical questions. In philosophy there is just endless debate.

However your two questions about life after death are factual scientific ones and the answers are:

1. We don't know if there is life after death 2. We don't know what life after death is like.

Shaun Williamson

(38) Ralph asked:

Is there a truth-functional rendering of [S]

[S] "He was brave, if not foolish"

The natural language interpretation of [S] seems ambiguous. In other words, it might be taken to mean (one could use it to say), relative to some action, that:

[A] What he did was brave, not foolish [B] What he did was foolish, not brave

I suspect that sentences like [S] challenge the completeness of truth-functional analyses of sentential operators.

I'm aware that the truth-functional analyses apply to logical operators (&, ~, V, ->, &c.) rather than to their natural language counterparts. But this, qua response to my question, seems like a fudge. The ideal was for the former to provide an unambiguous semantics for the latter.

Thank you for helping to clear this up.


I have great difficulty in making any sense of sentences like 'He was brave, if not foolish'. So it does not surprise me that it is difficult to find a satisfactory logical analysis for them. However I have no problem with 'He was brave but foolish' or 'He was brave but foolhardy'. Is 'He was brave, if not foolish' a syntactically correct sentence in English?

If you take a suggested analysis like 'What he did was brave not foolish' then surely this should read 'What he did was brave AND not foolish. Foolish is not the opposite to brave. An action can be brave and foolish.

Shaun Williamson

(39) Kirk asked:

We know how small life can be but how big can it be (in the whole universe)? I know there are many factors affecting height of life such as gravity,pressure and volume of planets but I was wondering whether it is possible for humans to see giants maybe 100ft tall or more


This is really a scientific question and is not one that philosophers are qualified to answer. It may be possible that on a different planet with weaker gravity, human like beings 100 feet tall could exist but so many other things would have to be different as well including the speed of transmission of nerve impulses etc. that any answer is highly speculative. Ask a scientist.

Shaun Williamson

(40) Kirk asked:

I've always wondered why brown is not a colour in the rainbow do you know why?


All the visible wavelengths of light are present in a rainbow so of course brown must be present even if it does not seem to be so. But if you think of brown as being the darker shades of orange then this will give you some clue as to why we do not see brown in a rainbow. In the same way a rainbow contains blue but not dark blue.

You might also like to reflect upon the fact that there are yellow flames, blue flames, red flames, orange flames etc. but no grey flames or brown flames.

The subject of colour perception and colour language is complex and has sparked philosophical debate. See for example 'On Colour' by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Shaun Williamson

(41) Adam asked:

Should philosophy be a part of a person's formal education?


No I don't think it should. Philosophy is not like other subjects. There are no agreed answers to philosophical questions. There is no fixed body of knowledge that can be taught or examined except for the history of philosophy (and that is history not philosophy). There is even no agreement that there are any real philosophical questions to be answered. I do not think anyone should be encouraged to study philosophy unless they feel the need to do so.

Shaun Williamson

(42) Kirk asked,

Do ghosts exist?


Perhaps we should first define what is meant by the term 'exist'. Usually to exist means to have a presence in the world as we understand it. The general and naive idea seems to be that things which stimulate our senses exist. Trees exist because I can 'see' them, as do houses and people and hosts of other things. Scents exist because I can 'smell' them. Sounds exist because I can 'hear' them. The tastes of food exist because I can 'taste' them. My touch sensors tell me that things exist because I can 'feel' them. Do ghosts exist? Thousands of people say they do because they have seen them, heard them and smelled them. Taste and touch to my knowledge do not feature, however that is not to say that such evidence has not been experienced. There is evidence that where psychic phenomena are involved there are nearly always measurable temperature changes that can be distinctly sensed; usually a fall in temperature seems to indicate that heat energy is being transferred to other purposes.

Because psychic phenomena seem to defy the scientific world view the general approach to the subject is sceptical. Those who have experienced such phenomena are usually considered to be hallucinating, mistaken in their observations, charlatans, liars, on the verge of lunacy, leg pullers or jokers. If this is the case it follows logically that the population of Britain must contain the greatest number of nut-cases, practical jokers, charlatans and liars in the world; there are more ghosts seen, reported and accepted in the British Isles than anywhere else on earth.

John Brandon

(43) Bob asked:

Do you belive in the bible.Do you read the bible. Do you under stand the book of rev. Like rev 21 v3-to 7


Well, it's really impossible to answer this question because there are so many bibles. Let's see... there's the Tibetan Book of the Dead; the Chinese Sayings of Confucius, and the writings on the Tao; there are many texts in Japan on Zen, and there's the Amida Buddha bible, which you can find next to the Christian bible in most Japanese hotel rooms (yes, that's where I got my copy from); there's the Bhavagad Gita and the Upanishads in India; there's Islam's Koran; the Jewish Torah.... And I haven't even finished listing them all... for example, there's the Edda, the collection of Norse myths, and, well, on and on... but of course you mean the Christian bible, the *mainstream* Christian bible (I assume you don't include, say, the Book of Mormon?), don't you?

So, do I believe in the bible? Um... well... I guess I could believe in one per day, and sort of switch around... I mean, that's only fair, right? Why should any one of those and the many others I haven't even mentioned (Native American, South American...) take precedence over any other? So I guess, all in all, I have to admit that I don't. I wouldn't know where to start, you know?

Have I read the bible? Yes. All the above and others.

Do I understand... the Book of Revelation? As well as I understand any of them, I guess. Is there something special about it, more so, for example, than the wonderful part of the Bhavagad Gita where the gods debate philosophy before a battle, or some of the very interesting stories from the Amida bible?

Steven Ravett Brown

(44) Thaddaeus asked:

Is it true that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were all involved in pedophilia?



Shaun Williamson

(45) Bob asked

Do you belive in the bible.Do you read the bible. Do you under stand the book of rev. Like rev 21 v3-to 7?


I have read the Bible many times and I think I understand it. I am not a Christian and I don't believe that it is true.

Shaun Williamson

(46) Kirk asked:

What evidence is there for life after death?


The major claims are reincarnation, ghosts, poltergeists and delineations. Reincarnation has its largest support in certain Asian countries. Ghosts seem to be a worldwide phenomenon, as do poltergeists. Delineation is a feature associated with mediums and spiritualism.

Reincarnation is supported by a great deal of alleged documentary evidence, and largely unsupported anecdotal claims. However, there are those who claim that their personal experiences are beyond any threat from the arguments of sceptics and alleged scientific claims of impossibility. Ghosts and poltergeists are reported in their thousands, some claims are poorly supported, and many have alternative explanations. The desire to believe often masks observations that might cast doubt on described phenomena. However, there are still many events of a mysterious nature which defy explanation within the common world view. Delineations by mediums are largely delivered to grieving friends and relatives vulnerable to persuasions that loved ones are still in contact with them from the 'other side'. However, here again, there seem to be instances of proof which lie beyond the arguments of sceptics, and appear to have no conventional rational answers.

I am of the opinion that only personal experience can offer the opportunity to determine whether or not alleged evidence for life after death has any value. No matter how honest observers may be in presenting their evidence, there is always a lurking doubt that a mistake has been made, or that we are listening to or reading something that the story teller desperately wishes to believe. My interest in the philosophy of mind has engaged me in hundreds of seances, I have listened to hundreds of delineations, visited many sites of alleged ghostly hauntings and taken part in many psychic experiments; the only results which have had any real meaning are those which affected me personally, I could not vouch for others just as others could not vouch for me. I am left with an open mind, but reflecting on some of my experiences I still find the hairs standing up on the back of my head!!

John Brandon

(47) Pete asked:

How should one deal with knowing there is no escape from death? How can you enjoy life with it in mind?


We all seem to be equipped with the ability to cope with this pessimistic attitude; we learn from an early age that death is an intrinsic part of the 'life' concept. All living things commence to die at birth. As we are not party to the reason why birth takes place, so we are not party to the reason why death takes place. As we do not understand the meaning behind the sequence birth, life, death we are no more in a position to fear it than we are to be courageous and optimistic about it.

Any knowledge that a living person has about death is of necessity superficial seeing, so far as we know, that a living person has never experienced death: although there are those who would dispute this. Of course, anyone professing to be a Christian is obliged through their faith and belief to be assured of a life hereafter. This also applies to those religions which base their beliefs on reincarnation. I would suggest that far more people world wide believe that life entails far more than this brief material existence, and that relatively few believe that life is snuffed out at death. Perhaps if the event had a name other than 'death', with all its accrued connotations, fears might be allayed. Anyone going through life fearing death as the end of all things must agree that it is also the end of fear.

John Brandon