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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 2 (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 2/1.

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) Emma asked:

Is the death penalty ever a legitimate punishment? Or is killing always wrong?


If the law of the state declares capital punishment to be the penalty for certain crimes, then the punishment is legitimate. Whether it is morally right or not is another question. There is a possibility that most civilized people consider killing to be a wrong. Most certainly, states claiming to establish justice based on the christian ethic ought to recognise and obey the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It follows that if this commandment can be disobeyed, then so can the other nine, faiths do not cater for selectivity. There is no proviso in the commandment which allows you to kill if you are a high court judge or a state executioner. However, legal systems based on some other faiths include the 'tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye and life for a life' concept.

To fully discuss the question of killing being always wrong would take us into the complexities of war. Is it more acceptable for the defender to kill the aggressor than it is for the aggressor to kill the defender?

Should a conscientious objector allow himself to be killed rather than kill his opponent? Is killing in self-defence always acceptable?

Finally, there is the delicate question as to whether killing perpetrated by the state as justice is actually revenge.

John Brandon

(2) Christopher asked:

In his question, Mike said that J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism could be expressed as, "An action can be considered morally correct if it brings the least amount of harm to the greatest number of people."

I thought J.S Mill said that an action was morally correct if it brought the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, not the least harm to the greatest number of people.


You are both right to some degree, and neither of you are wrong. Mill considered, along with most utilitarians, that happiness and suffering were on the same continuum, or, more simply, opposite and equal. This is evident from Mill's use of the phrase 'pleasure and absence from pain'. Pleasure (or happiness) is positive, and suffering is negative. If you were faced then with the situation where any action you took (including inaction) would cause suffering, the morally best action would indeed be the one which created the least harm.

A possible source of confusion in this area is that in On Liberty Mill did propose a principle which has come to be known as 'the Harm Principle'. This is the principle that governments and society may only interfere in the actions of an individual where their actions would otherwise cause harm to others - their own welfare, "whether physical or moral, is insufficient warrant".

Steve Bullock

(3) Ali asked:

Can robots and humans co-exist in peace?


The term robot comes from the Czechoslovakian word "robota" which means (slave) labour. A robot was seen as a tool to facilitate the life of humans, so from the start the concept of a robot implied a function: to assist in lowering the work load and/or improving efficiency. So at first sight there would be no problem of co-existence, since robots are only a tool, as any other mechanical device. We do not co-exist with tools, we use tools.

The problem of coexistence comes mainly from the influence of science fiction. Although the imagination of science fiction writers does come backed up somewhat from science facts from the likes of Artificial Intelligence research, neural networks and chaos theory. The image of a mechanical human is a strong one in western civilization, since there was a chance to see technology as field with almost infinite possibilities. We could take a pure tool, a the robot - remember that the most robot-inhabited places are still assembly lines - and power it with "intelligence" and even "feelings". We could argue that this vision comes from a Cartesian view of the world - of a man composed with body and soul, mechanical and spiritual. If we could so describe a human being, why was it not possible to eventually build one?

Early science fiction saw robots as promising but dangerous machines, that could take over the world. We see remains of that view in such recent movies as The Matrix. It's a deep rooted feeling of being threatened. Man, the unopposed ruler of the world, would not deal peacefully with someone that could threaten that rule.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was the first science fiction writer to challenge such doomsday views. In 1940 he formulated, alongside John W. Campbell, the laws of robotics. This laws foresaw a future of co-existence, since they are meant to protect humans from the menace of conscious robots: a robot must not harm a human, he must obey commands other than to kill or harm a human and must protect his own life except if that means killing or harming a human. So, a robot was made "in the image of man" but not as free as man, since he could not kill man. Two essential questions arise, in my view: programming and counter-programming. Three rules are not enough to embrace the complexity of the world, and dilemmas would arise, leading to moral, ethical, and practical problems. A programmed being would eventual be lead to fight it's programming, if he had enough "intelligence". So co-existence in such an environment would become increasingly difficult. We could see the programmed robot as a slave trying to be free of it's own programming-shackles. The 1985 Asimov's Zeroth law, which put humanity above any other individual interest, tried to deal with this problem. In trying to define in such a narrow way the behaviour of a conscious being, we would be playing god in the most horrible way. Maybe the best example is Steven Spielberg's AI. The child robot is created to fill the void of a missing son, but fast becomes an entity on his own and tries to fulfil it's own emotional needs.

It's not clear what intelligence is. I would be inclined to say it's a vastly complex neural network. Maybe at some point, a network becomes so complex that emotions begin to appear, and such complexity makes trying to repress emotions as fatal as trying to kill intelligence itself. It's a complex debate for sure. I would tend to say that the only way humans could peacefully co-exist with robots would be to understand that if they become conscious and emotional there is no way to repress such emotions without denying intelligence itself. So they could only co-exist as equals and not as "master" and "slave". You cannot enslave an emotional being, and human history as abundantly shown us. Maybe it would be a bold step for civilization if we in fact recognized the absolute lack of need to see another age of slavery. We could play god, but for all the good reasons.

(More on this subject can be found in this very interesting link:

Nuno Hipolito

(4) Francis asked:

How can a manager maximise the shareholders wealth without sacrificing the interests of other stakeholders?


I presume that by "other stakeholders" you mean employees, customers, suppliers and the local community. The only way to give someone - shareholders or whoever - a bigger slice of the economic pie is to increase the overall size of that pie. This is common sense. The "pie" in this case is corporate net profits (or corporate value in the longer term) and increasing the pie can only be achieved in two ways:

a) looking to reduce costs while maintaining quality/output. Carry out a "value analysis" of all you spend and cut out the inessential.

b) Increasing sales revenue by increasing prices (? but the effect on customers and sales might actually fall as a result) or increasing the number or volume of customers who buy the company's products (which may be impossible if you are working at capacity.

So a simple answer is to look to cut costs.

Andrew Browne

(5) Chazha asked:

What is the level of credibility at which shareholders, stakeholders and other related parties place on the final accounts of an enterprise considering the fact that the phrase "true and fair view" of accounts contains subjective elements?


That is a good question and one that a number of holders of (now) worthless shares are asking themselves. The problem is that laws, or in this case accounting standards, need words and words don't have determinate meanings.

Let me give a specific example. Accounting standards require a firm to charge things to its profit and loss account if there has been a "permanent diminution in value of its assets". Say the value of a company's property fell in a falling market. If this is only a "temporary" diminution this is not necessary. But, what does permanent and necessary mean? If permanent implies something subsisting forever, then you could always argue that at some time in the next millennia or two the value will bounce back. So do you take that view or do you push the onus onto management to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that value will bounce back and is in fact "temporary"? This is impossible to prove. So, in practice, you fuss around in between these extremes and come out with a sensible view as agreed by a firm of auditors who are experts in this field and police accounting standards.

This is just one example of things that accountants and auditors wrestle with every time they prepare a set of accounts.

You are right to question the credibility. Accounts are subjective as they require a translation of words into concrete numbers and that is an art not a science. The words "true and fair view" are hallowed terms for auditors who take them seriously, but a healthy degree of scepticism should always be applied to corporate final accounts.

Andrew Browne

(6) David asked:

I was born a homosexual and now am age 72. I do not have a partner and all though my autumn years are lonely I find it ok.

My question is 'If God made me this way what was his purpose?'

To be Gay is like living as an alien in this world. For instance while socializing in everyday life, I have to remain in a defensive role. I must not reveal that I am gay on first meetings until I am sure I will be accepted, though I do not purposely ever reveal my orientation. A women can mix freely with a group of strangers and even harmlessly flirt with a man not her husband. I can not. I do not wish to have sex with every man I meet but would like to feel free to 'flirt' and 'communicate' as she does. On going to a dinner party I am always placed with another woman (people have to have the norm, alway two) at these occasions. What I am trying to say is I am not free. I am on guard every second of my life.

I have no wish to frequent Gay clubs or mix with the Gay fraternity. I am very masculine in appearance and I know people have no idea I am a homosexual even now there is no suspicion unless the fact I am not married may hint at the chance for gossip, but I don't expose my past.

I find plays, films and literature about heterosexual people tiresome. It is reading their views, problems and situations that have nothing to do with me, I am an alien!

I would loved to have been born normal, had a wife, children and my own family, with all the trails and tribulations. My life, I feel has had no purpose there has been no joy or extreme happiness that straight people have had in some quarters. I would have loved to have had the chance to do it. I have had a great many relationships with women but have not married because my life would have been dishonest and a lie.

I was born dammed. I can not understand the reason for my existence.


I cannot say what God's purpose would be since I don't believe in God or purpose. But perhaps he was testing your honesty and you failed the test. Perhaps he was testing your strength and you might have passed. However, perhaps "coming out" would have shown greater strength.

It is quite funny that you say that if you had married you would have been living a lie. You have been doing so! Really, nearly everyone accepts gays and those who don't are people you wouldn't want to know anyway I'd have thought. Most heterosexuals are against this prejudice too.

Lots of people feel alienated for many different reasons. That you might feel more alienated than most doesn't make you an "alien". You are a person with the same desire for love and happiness that we all have. Many, many people fail to find this. Some find it but go on to suffer the terrible loss of it.

Joy and happiness have nothing to do with sexual orientation. It is a matter of personality. I have known very joyous (gay) gays.

You haven't been damned. None of us are "free". Everyone struggles in their different ways. You seem to have your health. You haven't complained about you working life. Since you are 72 perhaps it is time to be brave and make up for lost time.

Rachel Browne

(7) Teresa asked:

What is the thesis of determinism?


Determinism is the theory of nature that says that all events are governed by laws and nothing happens by chance. It can be a metaphysical theory if it is the view that all events are determined by God. But again nothing happens by chance. If we are governed by natural laws things could not be different from how they are and if we knew the preceding events, we would be able to predict what will happen. It has been claimed that there are no strict psychological laws and that exceptionless laws are the laws of physics (Donald Davidson, Action and Events). Another reason for saying laws must be physical is that if they are not they are mental and subjective and not the stuff that moves around the world changing things.

Given that most of what we do is driven unconsciously, or by brain states of which we are not subjectively aware, which is to say that they are physical states, determinism looks true. It certainly seems true for basic actions. We are not aware of how we move our legs as we walk, but there are physical or objective facts about us that make this possible and these are causal.

But also, today, with knowledge of genes and the effect of upbringing and society, people are using the term determinism in a much weaker sense. Facts about upbringing and social influence are not reducible to scientific laws Ai as far as I know.

Strong determinism has major consequences for the mental. It means that there is no free will and that it only seems to us subjectively that there is. Objectively we are determined by prior physical law-like causes. Determinism typically says that we could not do otherwise than those acts which we actually perform. This seems counter-intuitive. Also, although there may be brain states underlying my reasons for acting it is not clear that they fall under strict causal laws. Robert Kane ("Some Neglected Pathways in the Free Will Labyrinth" in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will) suggests that the brain is in a chaotic state when in a state of decision making and one motivational set or desire wins out and activates a particular behaviour. Presumably a chaotic state is not an event with a determinate outcome although probability might increase as the state moves towards activation.

We need some notion of a cause if behaviour is not to be taken as totally arbitrary. Robert Nozick (Philosophical Explanations) suggests that we don't need to take causality as law-like in the sense that are predictable laws. Rather, there could be sufficient physical causal conditions. These don't need to be in a causal chain. He also holds that it is we, or the self, who assigns weights to reasons, so you could have done otherwise. But assignment of greater weight to one set of reasons over another is seen in what you do when you actually do it, which is a physical event. There is no need for a mental cause.

Rachel Browne

(8) Stephen asked:

Although I have come from a very conservative background, I have recently thought myself much more open-minded.

That is, until lately.

A girl I know confided in me that she had had sex when she was 11. Her first partner was 17; others were much younger. She also told me that her sister had been having one-night stands every night since she was 12. Although she said she regretted her early loss of virginity, she certainly doesn't see anything wrong with it, or her sister's behaviour, and says that there shouldn't be an age of consent (which at the moment is 16 in the UK). She said that 12 would still be too restrictive.

Are there any rational moral objections to such behaviour and/ or attitudes regarding sexuality?

I certainly would not (personally) want my children to be experimenting with sex during their pre-teen years. Would such a subjective view be appropriate, or should such a rule apply universally?

The question also arises as to whether parents of children that age should be allowed to put such age restrictions on them (or if it would be right NOT to restrict them, as the case may be).

I personally feel that there may not be a 'right answer' that fits all, so a rigid, Kantian-style approach to such an utterly personal moral dilemma may not be appropriate.

However, I have objections to such young teens and pre-teens having sexual relationships, on the grounds that they may not be emotionally ready for them (despite being ready physically, and despite believing themselves to be more than ready!), and so may end up damaging either their own emotions, or those of their partner, especially if such intimate contact is involved.

Or is this merely old-fashioned, and should adolescent humans be allowed to freely express their blossoming sexuality like any other mammal would naturally do?

(To keep the issue simple, I would prefer not to raise such side issues as pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections, and instead merely consider the morality of sexuality in itself under these circumstances. I would also like to ignore any religions or theological (especially fundamentalist) views on this topic).


Yes, I agree with you... and I think very little of religious "ethics". The reasons I agree are fairly simple, actually. Sex is a very powerful and dangerous set of activities. Aside, as you say, from the obvious problems with disease, pregnancy, etc... there are the emotional and power issues. The former relate, roughly speaking, to issues of jealousy, motivation, and intimacy. The latter relate to issues of dominance/submission and to freedom of choice.

If we take a very basic ethical position re freedom, and hold that freedom of choice is a good thing, then sex between children is iffy, at best: they are working out dominance/submission issues; their decisions are not usually balanced or conscious. Sex between children and adults is simply immoral.

If we take the position that children do not know how to handle intimacy well, then we must conclude that the most intense and enforced intimacy, i.e., sex, will also not be handled well in that context.

And so forth. Basically, my position is a simple one: that children dealing with sex are very similar to children dealing with anything dangerous: learning should take place slowly, under adult supervision, until the children can deal with the emotional and physical dangers. This position does lead to rather unconventional conclusions, I guess: that children should have sex education as early as they can handle it, and indeed that they can have sex at any age, as long as they have had that sex education and "passed", whatever that means, by criteria that have yet to be determined... but those should be criteria set up by adults. My intuition is that sex between pre-teens, sanctioned by adult criteria, would be rare.

But the implications for society as it is are that children should be protected from sex, because there are no societies that I know of which handle it well enough, generally speaking, that children can be exposed to it.

Steven Ravett Brown

(9) Anna asked:

Is any act permissible if its done in private?


I certainly hope that you mean: "done in private between consenting adults"??? There is a lot of murder and torture going on at this exact moment, in private, somewhere, involving reluctant victims.

Well... is torture, murder, etc., between consenting adults, in private, "permissible"? By "permissible", I assume you mean "moral", right? Because we could also define "permissible" as "legal", and then the question is answered pretty simply, isn't it. But I'll assume you mean "moral". How about the recent case of someone in Germany volunteering to be killed and eaten? I'm not kidding, it was in the news, and the trial is going on now, I believe. What this seems to come down to is the relative value of freedom of choice between persons we assume are competent, mature, etc., versus the value of pain or its lack and/or life and death. Of course we could simply maintain that anyone wanting to be tortured, killed, and so forth cannot by that fact be competent, and then the question is again simply answered.

But let's assume, and I'm really a bit doubtful about this, that a competent person could want, for some reason I can't conceive of, to be tortured, killed, eaten, or whatever we can think of that we would virtually always consider immoral. Ok... is that moral? Would it be moral, permissible, for someone else to carry out the desire of that first person (if the act involved someone else)? What if the first person changed their mind in the middle; would that be a valid choice, or should the second person continue torturing them in accordance with their original wishes?

My ethics are based, roughly speaking, on the principle of enhancing aliveness. I'm not going to go into more detail about that here... but given that, I do not think that it would be moral, in most circumstances, to aid someone, or for someone themselves, to torture themselves, kill themselves, etc., etc. But I can conceive of circumstances in which, for example, killing someone would be moral, or in which assisted suicide would be moral, and circumstances in which I would understand someone making that decision as competent. In other words, I am saying, first, that I can only decide this issue on the basis of the ethics I consider valid; second, that circumstances alter cases, and actions that in one set of circumstances would be moral, might be immoral in other circumstances; and third, similarly, that a decision to act in some manner would in some circumstances be one that I would consider competent and not in others.

So this is not a cut-and-dry situation, and one would, as with virtually all moral decisions, have to think it through and take into account the context. But let's take the most extremely general question, something like: "Is there any act which is immoral in every possible circumstance?" In other words, is there some action for which we do not have to take context into account in order to know that it's immoral? I've got to say that I can't think of one... if one holds, for example, that the suicide bombings going on now are moral, or that there could be situations in which such bombings are moral, then one is claiming that there are circumstances in which live human sacrifice and the slaughter of innocents is moral. And so forth. Volunteering to be killed and eaten seems tame beside that, doesn't it.

Steven Ravett Brown

(10) Cosimo asked:

"Prove that an object exists in the real world, independent of our perception of it."

This is a question that I have received as a challange from my 10th grade philosophy teacher. I have a limited knowledge of philosophy. I have read some of your info on your website. Does my answer make any sense at all? Here is what I wrote:

The question is: Does Emmy really exist? Does an object really exist? Can it be proven that what you see is what is in the objective world? When I do not see something how do I know that it exists?

Berkeley said all that we know of the physical world is known through perception. The physical world exists essentially of ideas in our minds.

That is ""esse est percipi" for material objects, to be is to be perceived.

This is to say that the individual's experience of objects is through the individual's use of perception and creation of "ideas"

The question is "Does the object exist outside of the individual's mind?"

- Berkeley himself says that the "mind independence of an object" or the ability of an object to exist outside of an individual's perception of an object is not "absolute" but it is "relative."

- The existence of a physical object is not dependent on the perception of one individual person, and in this sense it is mind independent.

- The physical world consists of those patterns of experience that are available to all.

Note: This is how the real world of objects distinguishes itself from hallucinations or dreams. A hallucination or dream is not a pattern of experience that is available to all. It is available only to the one person who is hallucinating or dreaming.

Thus, the existence of an object is mind independent ( at least it is mind independent of the single individual because Berkeley denies that anything can exist outside of all minds taken together.

From this I conclude that an object does exist if it is a pattern of experience that is available to all minds.

Now the question is can an object exist outside of the collective perception of all minds?

My answer is, yes. Humans are limited as to what they can perceive in that their "perception machinery" limits them. For example, our eyes are not sharp enough to let us perceive tiny cells.

- Sometimes we can create machines that enhance our perception. Such would be the case of a microscope.

- Sometimes we can use our ideas (what we can perceive) and our logic to perceive things that can only be perceived as concepts. Such was the case of how we mathematically figured out the existence of some planets before we had the machinery to see these planets.

My conclusion, just because we cannot perceive something does not mean that that something does not exist. For what lies beyond our communal/group/human perception and logic, we can neither prove existence nor inexistence.

We are limited and our knowledge of the truth of reality is limited.

This leads me to a basic question which regards metaphysics or our understanding of the concept of truth:

Not all questions which have answers are questions that we can answer. Answers can exist, but they may be beyond our grasp.

Final conclusion: Does the object really exist? Yes it does if is can be perceived as a pattern of similar perceptions for many minds. At least it exists within our human world.


Neato stuff, especially from a 10th grader. But here's a problem: look at your first statement, the statement of the "problem". It contains the supposition that there is a "real" world. Now, what must that imply? Well, anything that's real (i.e., that's part of a "real world") and that can be differentiated from anything else that's real is, by that fact, a "real object". That's what an object is: something differentiated from other things. So either you've got to restate your question as: "is reality uniform and undifferentiated, or is it nonuniform and differentiated?", which seems a rather silly question, actually... or you've assumed what you need to prove. I suppose that you could take "real" to mean: whatever we apprehend. But that's an odd definition, because then what does "unreal" or "illusory" mean? We apprehend illusions, don't we? Think about optical illusions, for example (which, by the way, are observer-independent, in the sense that virtually all observers will experience the same illusion in the same circumstances... it takes exceptional circumstances, or plan logic, to unmask some illusions; go look them up). So really, you need to ask: "Do objects exist independent of our apprehensions of them?", don't you think? And that's more the classical way of putting it.

Now, there are some problems with your understanding of Berkeley. You say, "Berkeley said all that we know of the physical world is known through perception. The physical world exists essentially of ideas in our minds." No, that's wrong. Berkeley said that the physical world consists of ideas in the mind of "God", meaning, of course, the Christian god (well, some variant of the "normal" Christian god, really). And that way he could get the (human) observer-independence he needed. If God falls asleep, we've got problems, but hey.... And so you see that either the statement "The existence of a physical object is not dependent on the perception of one individual person, and in this sense it is mind independent." means that the "persons" or "minds" which the physical world is independent of are human minds, but not the God-mind (whatever that is); or alternatively, that statement could simply be a restatement of the original conditions of the problem, as I say above, i.e., "there is a 'real world'".

Further, your hedge in the last few statements, e.g., "At least it exists within our human world.", needs to be clarified. Really, it opens the whole question up again. What does "exist" or "human world" mean in that statement, in a way that answers the original question? I don't see, given your last phrase, that you've really accomplished anything. Is the "human world" the "real world"? Well, we can't tell from all your reasoning, can we. And that's why Berkeley brought in his God... because assuming that being or thing or whatever it is, does let him answer the question. Whether you accept that answer is something else; at least you've got an answer. Unless what you're saying is, "you cannot prove or disprove the independence of objects". If that's what you're saying, and indeed it seems to be... then just say it, and have done. And argue for that, instead of going around and around a question that you're not really addressing, at least in the form you present it.

I'd actually recommend your reading Kant... but that's another matter entirely. Your next assignment should be to read Hume, as a nice astringent after Berkeley's rather cloying sweetness...

Steven Ravett Brown

(11) Mark asked:

I am presently attempting to teach myself philosophy. The main way I am doing this is by reading, but unfortunately I am having quite a lot of trouble interpreting what is being said.

Is it possible to teach yourself philosophy? Is a philosophical dictionary essential? Are there some books I could read to help me interpret philosophy?


It's possible, but difficult. Philosophy is not easy. You need to learn both how to think and what to think about. Probably the best way to start is at the beginning, with Plato: the Socratic dialogues and the Republic. Get yourself a modern translation which is full of annotations, and read the annotations. I recommend one by a guy named, yes, Apostle. You might also get something like the Cliff Notes on it and read that as you read the text. Then, reread the whole thing, and make notes - in the margins, on your computer, whatever - about what you're reading. Then move on to Aristotle; again I recommend the Apostle translation... and definitely some commentary, because he's much harder than Plato. Then do the same: go back and make notes on what you've read. Does this sound difficult? Tedious? Well, that's what you do in philosophy courses, and that's what people do who are really interested in it. So if that's too much, then I recommend you go into something else.

Anyway, after Aristotle there's a big hiatus in Western thought (although there are the "Presocratic" philosophers, who are, some of them, quite interesting), occupied mainly with people attempting to rationalize Christianity. You could play around a bit with Aquinas, if you want, haha. The next ones to get to are Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, and a few more around that time. Then Kant. When you've gotten through all that, going slowly, grinding through the material, thinking about it, reading commentaries, writing your own commentaries... yes, the whole bit, then you're ready to get serious about it. Because all that, which should take about 2, maybe 3, years, is just an introduction, to get you prepared to think and to read what's really going on right now. There are, of course, many more I could recommend... but when you get to that point, you'll know about them also.

Steven Ravett Brown

(12) John asked:

My history of psychology list recently mentioned the belief that Socrates had Schizophrenia. I have never heard this. Can you offer any explanation?


I have never heard the theory that Socrates was schizophrenic either and it strikes me as an unfortunately reductionist way to view him. However, some medical weight (rather than philosophical insight) can be lent by Socrates' frequent admission that he was in possession of a 'Daemon' who told him what not to do, which occurs in a number of Platonic dialogs. Therefore by his own admission, Socrates heard and was guided by a voice that he believed was an entity separate from himself.

Also, Plato's Symposium concludes with Alcibiades giving a rather vivid description of how unusual a person Socrates was. Of particular interest from the point of view of possible schizophrenia, is Alcibiades claim that Socrates was prone to trance like states, once spending an entire night glued to one spot and completely lost in thought to the point of being oblivious to cold, and hunger and the fact that soldiers had gathered to watch the spectacle.

I prefer to think of this as perfectly healthy behaviour in one driven to puzzle through a problem, though I suppose that a modern mental health professional might find it otherwise.

L. Garvie

(13) Libby asked:

I am struggling to understand Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic. I would be very grateful for an explanation of the key ideas and a suggested reading list.


The trans Aesthetic is foundational to both Kant's metaphysics and his epistemology, but it's easier to think about it in terms of the latter. So here we're talking about what we can KNOW.

Space and time are concepts that both allow for and limit the potential of human knowledge. Neither on Kant's view are absolutes in themselves (or if they were, we wouldn't know this). But both make our experiences (what we see, and sense is true of our experience) possible. So space isn't a real thing or place, or even a real relation between things. Instead, the condition of space is necessary for our understanding of objects. In order to think of one thing next to another thing (to think of them as separate and distinct) we think of them as things in space. By itself, that's not such a big deal (though it is a disagreement with Newton). The big deal, and key to understanding Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic, is that for Kant this 'understanding' of space is prior to our actual experience of it. Indeed, the only reason that we are aware of space, or anything, is because we come hard wired (or what Kant calls a "formal condition of the subject", the subject in this case being you or me) to encounter reality this way. So according to the Transcendental Deduction of Space, space is the precondition of outer sense.

Similarly, time is not an absolute reality. It is a necessary precondition for inner sense, in that it makes thought possible. The Transcendental Deduction of Time asserts that time is nothing but the subjective condition for thought. We need to be able to separate moments and thoughts in time. In Kant's analogy, if every note of a symphony was played in an instant, we'd only hear noise, not meaningful music.

So neither space nor time are things that we discover IN or through experience, they are preconditions (or pre-programing) that allow for human experience. That is, they might not be 'real' in any sense outside of the human standpoint.

Luckily, they are real enough for our purposes since we all share very similar experiences of space and time as real parts of our daily lives. So they are empirically real. They are definitely on Kant's view real enough to allow for the sciences of physics and geometry.

Pretty neat huh? The best way to think of it is to think of your own sensory apparatus, your eyes, your ears and nose etc as equipment that you share with most other members of your species. Think of space and time as the shared principles according to which incoming data from your senses gets processed by your mind into meaningful experience.

As for other sources, I think that you'll be best off just wrestling with Kant himself. Just read carefully (and probably more than once) A19 through B73 in Critique of Pure Reason.

Good luck with the struggle

L. Garvie

(14) Tara asked:

Why would humans want to live without certainty?


Why would humans want to live in a world with certainty? What's so great about certainty? All it means is that everything is fixed, that we know just what's going to happen, how, where, when... boring, boring. That's what you want?

Here's another problem... the world "without certainty" happens to be the real world. Since we can't know everything, and indeed since the best of our mathematics and physics right now tells us that this is literally impossible, then wanting to live without certainty is the same as wanting to live in reality. Now, doesn't that sound like a reasonable thing to want?

Steven Ravett Brown

(15) Leen asked:

I would like to know if your body and soul are separated?

Is it your soul who feels and thinks? Is it possible that we reincarnate and keep our soul? Is it possible that we keep our wisdom in our soul and when we go to a sort of heaven when we're perfect? I mean with 'perfect', when we are one with everybody and have all wisdom, I don't mean knowledge.


Let me put it this way. Suppose that there was a soul, either in this universe or another, and it was connected to the brain. Now, there are three alternatives. First, either the soul is two-way causally connected to the brain, or, second, it is one-way causally connected. Think about it. Either the soul affects the brain which affects the soul... or the soul affects the brain, which does not affect the soul. The only other alternative (which believe it or not some people have taken seriously) is that they don't affect each other but somehow run in parallel. Well, I'll forget that one (and actually my argument below covers it also). Now, let's take option one. What you get then is that when you have brain damage, you have soul damage, right? In other words, if the soul is affected by the brain, it's affected by physical reality, and the soul is actually a part of physical reality. Well, most soul people don't like that alternative, because what happens when you die? Whoops.

So let's take alternative two. Ok, the soul is like a kind of radio station, broadcasting to the brain, which receives but can't broadcast back. But think about brain damage again. When we have brain damage, if alternative two were correct, we would be in a position similar to that of a damaged radio attempting to receive a station... lots of static, etc... but the same broadcast is going out. We've made that a condition, right? Because the soul is independent of physical causes going back to it. But that is not what we get in brain damage. What we get is that the "broadcast", if you want to put it that way, is also damaged. Brain-damaged people don't think the same way, but with lots of static. Their intelligence decreases, and/or they can't function in other areas, and/or their personality changes. There's a lot of literature on the effects of brain damage; if you don't believe me, just go look it up. The radio station has changed. But this can't be the case if causality was just one-way. So it isn't.

So, are your body and soul separate? No. Which means that a "soul" is just a metaphor, doesn't it.

Steven Ravett Brown

(16) Gerald asked:

Is philosophy only for the intellectual elite? Therefore, I wonder can philosophy cause class boundaries (even class warfare)?


Philosophy, in the West, has been around for approximately 3000 years. So you tell me: what are the historical examples of philosophy causing class boundaries and/or warfare? I can't think of any, offhand, unless you consider religion to be philosophy... which I don't. I suppose that you could consider Marxism a philosophy and thus that acts of violence in its name were warfare caused by philosophy... but I have problems with Marxism as philosophy, because there are so many Marxists who will not investigate it's bases, which makes those bases, for them, dogma, and therefore Marxism, for them, a religion. And yes, I do see that as the fundamental difference between philosophy and religion. Now, you can probably find cases of individuals committing acts of violence based on some philosophy... but that's not what you're asking.

Now, in the East, there are, believe it or not, philosophical differences which have caused wars, if you consider Buddhism a philosophy and not a religion.

But let's address your first question. What could possibly make you imagine that philosophy is for an intellectual elite? Because you have to be able to get to a library and read books? Well, yes, if that's your criterion, sure... but then so is most anything, except trades where you learn by apprenticeship, for the "intellectual elite". But that's a problem for society to solve, not for philosophy... which, if you look into it, you will find embraces reasoned discussion by anyone, so long as they've got the basics to hold that discussion. Now, those basics are difficult to "get"... but not in the sense of being unavailable; they're in every library, virtually... but in the sense of simply being both difficult to understand and being vast in scope. But then mathematics is also for the "intellectual elite", right? Or do you mean that such studies are only possible to a leisure class? Well... I doubt it. Look up Eric Hoffer, for example. Think about the people, right now, who are getting degrees on-line, in their spare time after work.

Steven Ravett Brown

(17) Maria asked:

"We are all participants as well as spectators." Does this cause problems in the social sciences?


Well, sure. It causes problems everywhere, from quantum physics on up. The presence of an observer always perturbs a system. But there are actually two effects in the social sciences, running each way. First, the observer affects the subjects, of course. Second, however, there's the "sociological fallacy", which is the result of the system's complexity: someone observing a social dynamic can get so much data that they can find support for just about any hypothesis they want to. This is a very very nasty problem, which necessitates strict controls... except you can't have strict controls, because that makes the first problem more severe. And there you go, round and round. This is why postmodern "theorists" can say just about anything they want, and pull some support for it from society; there's just so much there that it's hard to know what should and what shouldn't be used in what contexts. There is hope, however... theorists are beginning to work out how to deal with the complexities, and how to use the right kind (i.e., Bayesian) of statistics to evaluate them.

Steven Ravett Brown

(18) Jay asked:

What are the potential benefits for researchers (say in Accounting and Finance) to study the philosophical underpinnings of the different research methodologies they choose to use? Or is this a complete waste of time in that they should go straight on to do some useful research instead of wasting time pondering about philosophical underpinnings?


There are two classes of benefits. One has to do with the social impact of one's work, and really, this is a pretty obvious one, isn't it? Especially since Hiroshima, and now with global warming, etc. I'm not even going to bother talking about that one... you can go look up an enormous amount of this for yourself.

The second one has to do with the nature of bias. The "ideal" of science is that it is rational, based on principles which do not involve feelings, emotions, valences of whatever sort except those having to do with arriving at truth and accuracy. Unfortunately, this ideal is not merely unobtainable, it is literally impossible. Why is that? Well... the answer is very complex, and you'll have to take my word for a lot of it, until you do the necessary reading (see below). But what it amounts to is, a) evidence from neurology that, first, we cannot make guided decisions without built-in biases, second, that we cannot learn efficiently without incorporating biases into our learning, and third, that our neuroanatomy is such that our prefrontal functions and emotional functions (prefrontal cortex and amygdala) are inextricably intertwined. B) Evidence from developmental studies of the ubiquity and necessity of biases in learning both cognitive skills and social, including ethical, reasoning skills. C) Evidence from several studies of researchers that biases influence their work, even when they are utterly unaware of them.

Read some of these:


Anderson, A.K., and E. A. Phelps. 2000. Expression Without Recognition: Contributions of the Human Amygdala to Emotional Communication. Psychological Science 11 (2):106-111.

Bechara, A., H. Damasio, and A.R. Damasio. 2003. Role of the Amygdala in Decision-Making. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 985:356-369.

Dolan, R.J., and P. Vuilleumier. 2003. Amygdala Automaticity in Emotional Processing. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 985:384-355.

LeDoux, J.E. 2000. Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience 23:155-184.

Miller, E.K., and J. D. Cohen. 2001. An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function. Annual Review of Neuroscience 24:167-202.

Shaw, P., E. Lawrence, S. Baron-Cohen, and A.S. David. 2003. Role of the Amygdala in Social Sensitivity. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 985:508-510.

General Neuroanatomy:

Anderson, A.K., and E. A. Phelps. 2000. Expression Without Recognition: Contributions of the Human Amygdala to Emotional Communication. Psychological Science 11 (2):106-111.

Damasio, A.R. 1994. Descartes' error; emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: Avon Books.

Giovannoli, J. 2000. The Biology of belief: how our biology biases our beliefs and perceptions: Rosetta Press, Inc.

Holmes, A., P. Vuilleumier, and M. Eimer. 2003. The processing of emotional facial expression is gated by spatial attention: evidence from event-related brain potentials. Cognitive Brain Research 16:174-184.

Pessoa, L., S. Kastner, and L.G. Ungerleider. 2003. Neuroimaging Studies of Attention: From Modulation of Sensory Processing to Top-Down Control. The Journal of Neuroscience 23 (10):3990-3998.

Pratt, J., and B. Hommel. 2003. Symbolic Control of Visual Attention: The Role of Working Memory and Attentional Control Settings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 29 (5):835-845.

Bias in Science and Reasoning:

Boyer, P. 2000. Natural epistemology or evolved metaphysics? Developmental evidence for early-developed, intuitive, category-specific, incomplete, and stubborn metaphysical presumptions. Philosophical Psychology 13 (3):277-297.

Evans, J. St. B. T. 1989. Bias in human reasoning: Causes and consequences. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.

Gilovich, T., D. Griffin, and D. Kahneman, eds. 2002. Heuristics and biases: the psychology of intuitive judgment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Giovannoli, J. 2000. The Biology of belief: how our biology biases our beliefs and perceptions: Rosetta Press, Inc.

Langdon, R., and M. Coltheart. 2000. The cognitive neuropsychology of delusions. Mind & Language 15 (1):184-218.

Lynn, F. M. 1986. The interplay of science and values in assessing and regulating environmental risks. Science Technology & Human Values 11 (1, Spring):40-50.

Rhodes, M.G., and C.M. Kelley. 2003. The ring of familiarity: False familiarity due to rhyming primes in item and associative recognition. Journal of Memory and Language 48:581-595.

Schroyens, W., W. Schaeken, and G. d'Ydewalle. 1999. Error and bias in meta-propositional reasoning: A case of the mental models theory. Thinking and Reasoning 5 (1):29-65.

Shaffer, N.E. 1996. Understanding bias in scientific practice. Paper read at Philosophy of Science Association: proceedings of the biennial meeting.


Blasi, A. 1980. Bridging Moral Cognition and Moral Action: A Critical Review of the Literature. Psychological Bulletin 88 (1):1-45.

Edgerton, R. B. 1992. Sick societies: challenging the myth of primitive harmony. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press.

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

Greenspan, P. 2000. Emotional Strategies and Rationality. Ethics 110:469-487.

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

Held, V. 1998. Whose agenda? Ethics versus cognitive science, edited by L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Johnson, M. 1993. Moral imagination: implications of cognitive science for ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kohlberg, L., and R.H. Hersh. 1977. Moral development: a review of the theory. Theory Into Practice 16 (2):53-59.

Matthews, G.B. 1987. Concept formation and moral development. In Philosophical perspectives on developmental psychology, edited by J. Russell. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

May, L., M. Friedman, and A. Eds. Clark. 1998. Mind and morals: essays on cognitive science and ethics. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Piaget, J. 1997. The moral judgement of the child. Translated by M. Cabain. New York: Free Press. Original edition, 1965.

There are more... much more. You can find the literature from the references in these papers.

Steven Ravett Brown

(19) Tim asked:

I am a published author, and my most recent work in progress has resulted in at least two major philosophical entanglements:

1) How likely is it for AI to develop meaningful programs that will allow "social" dialogue that might lead to emergent consciousness between machine systems, or will AI most likely remain defined by syntax (versus semantics) and stay purely computational?;

2) In predictive analysis, are there likely to be sufficient Bayesian models to decide how likely it is for a person to do something at a given point, if enough information is known about that person (profile)? And, can such models predict at a decision point, which way the person might decide given just two points (e.g. Should I do this or that)? Finally, what role (if any) might this have in quantum many world hypotheses?


1) Oboy, right. If AI can't answer this, and I assume you know enough about that to know that there are at least 3-4 major approaches to "intelligence" in AI, then how can philosophers? But here's my answer, for what it's worth: The way that AI will produce conscious machines is to build digital/analog machines. The analog part will be the conscious part. For an unsatisfactory beginning to an approach, see:

Lehar, S. 2002. The world in your head: a gestalt view of the mechanism of conscious experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

----. 2003. Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of Subjective Conscious Experience: A Gestalt Bubble Model. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

No, I do not think that Lehar has solved the problem... but he's pointing in the right direction, in my very biased opinion. For the best (in my opinion, of course) digital model approach (and he's explicitly doing analog approximations), see:

Grossberg, S. 1976. Adaptive pattern classification and universal recoding: I. Parallel development and coding of neural feature detectors. Biological Cybernetics 23:121-134.

----. 1980. How does a brain build a cognitive code? Psychological Review 87:1-51.

----. 1994. 3-D vision and figure-ground separation by visual cortex. Perception & Psychophysics 55 (1):48-120.

----. 1997. Cortical dynamics of three-dimensional figure-ground perception of two-dimensional pictures. Psychological Review 104 (3):618-658.

----. 1999. How does the cerebral cortex work? Learning, attention, and grouping by the laminar circuits of visual cortex. Spatial Vision 12 (2):163-185.

----. 1999. The link between brain learning, attention, and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition 8:1-44.

Grossberg, S., and P.D.L. Howe. 2003. A laminar cortical model of stereopsis and three-dimensional surface perception. Vision Research 43:801-829.

Grossberg, S., and M. Kuperstein. 1989. Neural dynamics of adaptive sensory-motor control: expanded edition, Neural Networks: Research and Applications. New York, NY: Pergamon Press.

Grossberg, S., and E. Mingolla. 1987. The role of illusory contours in visual segmentation, edited by S. Petry and G. E. Meyer. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Grossberg, S., E. Mingolla, and W.D. Ross. 1994. A neural theory of attentive visual search: interactions of boundary, surface, spatial, and object representations. Psychological Review 101 (3):470-489.

----. 1997. Visual brain and visual perception: how does the cortex do perceptual grouping? Trends in Neurosciences 20 (3):106-111.

Grossberg, S., and R.D.S. Raizada. 2000. Contrast-sensitive perceptual grouping and object-based attention in the laminar circuits of primary visual cortex. Vision Research 40:1413-1432.

Um... a bit overwhelming, yes. Nonetheless... he's it. And Lehar was his student.

2) No. You forget about deterministic chaos, i.e., the nonlinear dynamics of neural (and other!) systems. Bayesianism isn't going to get you around that. As for many world hypotheses... ugh, I'm no fan of that particular branch of physics... but for what it's worth, as long as you're doing linear approximations in your QM stuff, you can use Bayesianism, I would think... but again, once you get nonlinear, you're into the realm of chaos theory, and I don't think it will do you much good. I guess you might do it by using Bayesian methods to chart the contours of the state-space, now that I think of it... and the proportionate size and depth of the first few attractor basins might give you the biases you need... you'll have to ask a specialist on that one, though. It seems to me that the current methodology of computer-based generation of the surfaces is at least as good... and that those biases would not help. But I'm out of my area at this point.

Steven Ravett Brown

(20) Nicole asked:

What would be Aristotle's stand point on same sex marriages?


I highly recommend you pick up a book on the culture of the ancient Greeks. First, our notion of "marriage" is extremely different from theirs; second, our notion of "sex" is extremely different; third, our notion of "homosexuality" is extremely different. It's even a problem asking the question you ask, in their terms; I'm not sure they would have easily understood it. But to answer it, sort of: the Greeks of 2500-3000 years ago, in the "Classical Period", as far as we know, regarded male-male homosexuality as the epitome of sexual relationships, and preferably between older men and younger men, what we would now term teens or pre-teens. Socrates was regarded (given very incomplete information from one of the Dialogues) as a bit odd because he was not particularly homosexual. Plato and Aristotle were totally, as far as we know, acclimated to that cultural norm. But as far as same-sex marriage was concerned... they would probably have been very puzzled, because "marriage" was an institution for having children, having a wife to take care of one's home, and that sort of thing. The notion we have of "love", "romance", etc., was pretty much reserved (with some exceptions for those deviant men and women who fell in love with the opposite sex) for homosexual relationships... as far as we can gather from very incomplete information about what things were like almost 3000 years ago.

Steven Ravett Brown

(21) Justin asked:

I am curious o I notice a lot of the typical philosophical questions are here, but I wanted to ask a practical question, outside the usual arguments. Philosophers like William James, writers like Stevenson and Freud published papers or articles about drugs. But though use was and is widespread, I don't see much current literature (academic, and more specifically, philosophic) outside of figures like Leary from the 60s era discuss seriously drugs and their roles, impact, usefulness for learning, etc.


That's because you're looking in the wrong places. There is an enormous amount of literature in the academic journals about the effects of drugs. Perhaps the difference between now and then is that back in the 60s, people just tossed drugs around, experimented on themselves, their friends, etc., etc... It's a bit more controlled now, and the experimentation is much more cautious. We know too much about the harmful effects of drugs to want to administer them casually; and we know far too much about the irregularities and inaccuracies in case studies, casual reports, and personal narratives to use them any more. So if you want serious studies of the effects of drugs, go look up journals like:

Verdana Annals of Neurology

Verdana Annual Review of Neuroscience

Verdana BMC Neurology

Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences

Cognitive Neuropsychology

Critical Reviews in Neurobiology

Current Opinion in Neurology

European Journal of Neurology

European Journal of Neuroscience

International Journal of Neuroscience


Well, I'm just going down alphabetically... you get the point, I assume. I count roughly 50 journals, only looking up those with "neuro" in their names... and there are many many more dealing with this, whose name does not include that prefix.

Steven Ravett Brown

(22) James asked:

I have an essay to write considering the philosophical implications of the change made in science of Louis Pasteur's discoveries. Would you be able to offer any advice as to how to start answering the question?


Yes, indeed. Go read these:

Kitcher, P. 1993. The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, T. S. 1996. The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Original edition, 1962.

Steven Ravett Brown

(23) Joy asked:

Why are so many philosophers conceited, is it because they are intellectually superior to most humans? Or is it all just folly?


Conceit is a human failing not strictly pertinent to philosophers. there are conceited scientists, conceited artists, conceited engineers, conceited judges, etc. etc.. I have personally met more than one conceited vicar. Your implication is that there are on average more conceited people interested in philosophy than there are in any other profession or following. You do not supply any proof for this notion therefore it is open to refutation.

Conceit has nothing to do with intellectual ability, but has a lot to do with one's self opinions. If a person believes he/she is more important than anyone else that is conceit, and there is no logical link to intellect or academic prowess. It is also nothing to do with social status, the conceited peasant is as equally convinced of his own importance as anyone who presumes to call themselves 'royal'.

Perhaps you are mistaking intellectual ability for conceit. You could be in danger of drawing the same mistaken conclusion about scientists or other intellectuals.

John Brandon