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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 20 (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 20/1.

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.

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) David asked:

I have had some trouble with understanding a key step in the following argument for the existence of God (from Plantinga) and which runs as follows:

1. A being has maximal greatness if and only if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.

2. It is possible that something is maximally great But this is simply to say.

3. There is a possible world in which some thing is maximally great.

But something can have maximal greatness only if it exists in every possible world since maximal greatness is defined as being maximally excellent in every possible world and, if it exists in every possible world, clearly it exists in this world. So we can say:

4. In this world there is something which is maximally great.

But from this and (1) it at once follows that:

5. In this world there exists a being of maximal excellence.

This in turn implies:

6. In this world there exists a being who is omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect and this implies:

7. God exists.

Now my problem is steps 2 and 3. I just don't see why just because it is possible that something is maximally great OR that there is a POSSIBLE world in which something is maximally great, that something exists which IS maximally great.

Or, to put it another way, if we allow that such a being is possible, why does that mean that this being exists in at least one possible world? After all, I might say that it is possible that a little green man from Mars exists (in the sense that it is not a logical contradiction), but surely that does not mean that there IS a world in which the little green man exists?!

I sent this question to the author of the book who very kindly replied, but I'm afraid this still bothers me! I just don't see how we get from the possibility that it exists, to it existing in at least one possible world.

Can you help a confused amateur?


This is the same old logically flawed argument to prove the existence of God that has been around for centuries. The problem is not with the possible worlds bit since one way in which logicians analyse sentences like 'It is possible that X exists' is as saying that there is at least one possible world in which X exists. However a possible world isn't a real world so don't worry about that. The defect and trick in the whole argument (in this version at least) lies in the statement 'But something can have maximal greatness only if it exists in every possible world since maximal greatness is defined as being maximally excellent in every possible world and, if it exists in every possible world, clearly it exists in this world.' Accepting this statement is the same as accepting 'It is possible that something exists which MUST exist' and then concluding that therefore this something does exist. But the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise and there is no reason to believe that it is true. The whole argument is like a conjuring trick, it starts by getting you to accept an innocent looking statement then redefines the meaning of the statement in the middle of the argument. Its nonsense but confusing nonsense. It amounts to no more than saying that if God exists then God necessarily exists but it doesn't prove anything.

Shaun Williamson

(2) Nuno asked:

If philosophy of language tells us that we can only answer those things that can be put in a coherent question, can we develop or take advantage of "special languages" to ask specific questions? How can poetry, for instance, be useful to answer the "un-askable" questions and how would its answer be analysed?


Well I don't believe in the philosophy of language but I do believe in asking coherent questions instead of incoherent ones. I don't believe that there are any un-askable questions but there are sensible questions and non-sensical questions. We do use special languages to ask special questions already, the language of mathematics for example is asked to ask and answer mathematical questions. I believe that the poet also has a duty to be coherent and precise and clear in the use of language although poetry is very different to mathematics so its coherency and clarity is of a different sort. But you should remember that we can ask questions to which we don't have the answer and may never have the answer.

Shaun Williamson

(3) Niek asked:

Today I spoke to a person who is incapable to smell. She is born that way. She told me there are a priori smells, two to be exact. The smell of rotten meat and fire are the smells people born like that are supposed to be able to recognize. What are your thoughts on this one?


I also know people who were born without a sense of smell and they can smell nothing. There are no a priori smells.

Shaun Williamson

(4) Gordon asked:

What is infinity, in terms we can understand?


This is very difficult to answer since I don't know who this 'we' is and what sort of explanation would be simple enough. Try this. The series of positive numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7.. And so on is an infinite series of numbers since it has no end. There is no largest positive number. That is a simple mathematical use of the word infinite and it means 'without end'.

Shaun Williamson

(5) Someone asked:

What is Aristotle's full name?


Zowie. You know, as far as I can tell, it was "Aristotle"... In Greek, of course. Look here: http://sio.Midco.Net/dansmapstamps/greece.Htm

He's also called "Aristotle the Stagirite", because of his place of birth.

Steven Ravett Brown

(6) Emanuel asked:

What can be the reasons why Dostoevsky is very agile at describing the thoughts going through a murderer's mind in his novel Crime and Punishment?


And how do you know that he is? How many murderers have read Dostoevsky, and said, "yes, this is just what was going through my mind"? Have you ever seen this actually confirmed by an actual murderer? I don't know of any such confirmation... But then this isn't my area of expertise.

Steven Ravett Brown

(7) Gordon asked:

Why are we? Why is there there, and not here? I'm trying to pose a question that I cant quite understand how to ask. I hope you get what I'm trying to say.


No, sorry Gordon I don't understand what you are puzzled about. It may be that your question is not a real one. There are some questions like 'How long is a metre?' Which don't have sensible answers since they are questions about the system of measurement itself. Similarly your there might be my here and your here might be my there. This isn't really puzzling is it? Here and there are just words which have a use, sometimes a sensible use and sometimes a nonsensical use.

Shaun Williamson

(8) Trina asked:

Why do the effects of siblings being teased result in fantasizing about the fears? I am doing a report about this. When I was a child my brother would lie to me and tell me horrifying things. He would say, "The knights are gonna eat you!" I would feel the knights getting ready to eat me! Why do children do this? What are the effects? I cant find any resources to support my paper. I can only find information on abuse. I have tried reality vs. Fiction/myth. Any suggestions on topics to support my paper?


Try reading some of the literature on territoriality, and dominance-submission. You could start here:

Ardrey, R. The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co., 1972.

Steven Ravett Brown

(9) Gordon asked:

What is infinity, in terms we can understand?

Well that makes it hard... Since I have no idea what you can understand. But here goes... One way to think of it is like this: suppose there was a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and they were all full. All of them, ok? Now, you come up to the desk and ask whether you can have a room. What does the clerk say? The clerk says, "yes, of course." And puts the guest in room 1 into room 2, the one in room 2 into room 3... And on and on... And of course since there are an infinite number of rooms the moving never stops, but who cares? Anyway, you now have room 1, and everyone else still has a room, even the last guest. That's one way to think of it (and by the way I didn't think that example up). That example is the same as saying, pretty much, that you can take any whole number (any "integer"), add one, and always get another integer. You never run out... Because there are an infinite number of possible integers... Whichever one you think is biggest, just add one to it (or any other number you'd like to add) and you get another integer.

Here's another one... Suppose you line up all the whole positive numbers, the positive integers... 1, 2, 3... On and on and on. Ok? In a looong line. Now, suppose you take all the fractions like 1/1, 1/2, 1/3... Then start with 2/2, 2/3, 2/4... And go through all of them, and line them up. Well, it turns out that you can always find a whole number, an integer, to match any fraction. Because there are the same number of whole numbers and fractions. And that number is infinity (actually, it's the smallest infinity, called "aleph null", and the only one that's countable... Because you can count the integers).

So one way to think of the concept of infinity is to think of a set of things which are the same type of things, but which never runs out of those things... No matter how many you use up, there are always more.

Try this: Cantor, G. Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers. Translated by P.E.B. Jourdain. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1915.

And there's always George Gamow's old book: 'One, Two, Three... Infinity'.

Steven Ravett Brown

(10) Gordon asked:

What is the distinction between love and attraction? And, What is love?


This is a philosophical forum, so I'll start with a philosophical sort of answer... Go here: http://www.Perseus.Tufts.Edu/ and look up the (Greek) words "agape" and "eros". That will get you started. You now have 2500 years of philosophy, psychology, and literature to catch up on. Have fun!

Steven Ravett Brown

(11) Gordon asked:

Why are we? Why is there there, and not here? I'm trying to pose a question that I cant quite understand how to ask. I hope you get what I'm trying to say.

Well, here's the way that was answered by James Blish (and others)... The universe is a long hiss of noise, randomness, broken by a bit of Bach, which just spontaneously happens... Then breaks up into noise again. Over and over.

Steven Ravett Brown

(12) Niek asked:

Today I spoke to a person who is incapable to smell. She is born that way. She told me there are a priori smells, two to be exact. The smell of rotten meat and fire are the smells people born like that are supposed to be able to recognize. What are your thoughts on this one?


Smell is a very strange and complex sensation. Taste does seem to have "basic" or if you wish "a priori" elements, five or six of them as I recall. But smell is different. As far as we know at this point, there are no basic elements of smell, rather, smells are made of very complex combinations of excitations. You might look at:

Djordjevic, J., Et al. (2005). Functional neuroimaging of odor imagery. NeuroImage #24, pp. 791-801

For more information and other places to look.

Steven Ravett Brown

(13) Crystal asked:

What Is an Idealist?


Philosophically, Idealists hold that Mind, Intellect or Nous plays a role of varying degrees [depending on the philosopher concerned] in the constituting or constitution of what is real. The Idealism of George Berkeley holds that reality is immaterial. To be, is to be is to be perceived [esse est percipi]. When not directly perceived by a human mind or spirit, ideas or the furniture of the world, are sustained by the infinite mind of God. Critical / Transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant maintains that we do not perceive reality or noumena directly. The world humans intuit is a phenomenal one created by transcendental categories, concepts. These are inherent in us and, they condition, shape and determine what we perceive. Absolute Idealism is associated with the names of Johanne Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel. Generally, they maintain that reality is a process of Mind recovering itself from the external world by the realisation that it itself creates it. Hence subjective mind reconciles itself dialectically with objective Mind to create the Absolute.

Martin Jenkins

(14) Aubree asked:

If God, as in the Bible's version of God, says that God has a plan for everyone, how does an individual have free will?


The orthodox [Biblical] God of Western theology is one who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. If so, I would argue this is irreconcilable with human Free will. At the beginning of created time, God knew when and where I would be typing this answer. If I were not typing this answer on this day, at this time, God would be wrong. God cannot be wrong. Therefore I had no choice in the matter.

For a discussion on this and suggested further reading I highly recommend:

Anthony Kenny. The God of the Philosophers. Oxford Clarendon Press.

Martin Jenkins

(15) Jessica asked:

How can one learn to be happy?


Well this is difficult but question to answer it can be done. You need to try to ignore your feelings and ask yourself some difficult questions like 1. What do I want to do with my life 2. What sort of people do I love. 3. What sort of people do I admire. 4. What sort of person do I want to be. Being happy is not the same as being content

Shaun Williamson

(16) Nuno asked::

If philosophy of language tells us that we can only answer those things that can be put in a coherent question, can we develop or take advantage of "special languages" to ask specific questions? How can poetry, for instance, be useful to answer the "un-askable" questions and how would its answer be analysed?


I'm not sure that "philosophy of language" tells us that. Just what does "coherent" mean, anyway? But the general question of whether different languages provide different insights into the world, or different resources for thinking, goes back at least to Benjamin Whorf (and I'm sure one could find earlier versions of the same claim, e.G., By his teacher, Sapir), whose "Wharfian Hypothesis" (or the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis") was that they do. However, experiments have not, by and large, borne this out.

On the other hand, one must ask the point of developing and using languages such as the varieties of mathematics, for example, if that was not true. Certainly we could write English equivalents of equations, so why don't we? A Dane, Frank Kjorup, has just written a book (which he's now translating from Danish) in which he argues that the rhythmic and aural aspects of poetry, since they do not play a part in most normal languages, are thus virtually untranslatable to such languages, and carry meaning that normal language cannot. This is an interesting point, since such modulations are additions to the syntax, phonology, even the usual expressive elements (like pitch changes, for example) in normal spoken language, and if we want to argue that those normal elements carry meaning which is not redundant, then we must hold that these additional modifications do also, it seems to me.

But that's not the Wharfian argument, that's an argument similar to one from information theory involving dimensions of a signal. Surely if you could find ways to add expressive dimensions to languages you could, simply put, express more by them. However, perhaps an argument against that are the tonal languages... If the meanings expressed by the pitch variations in Chinese, for example, can indeed be translated into non-tonal languages, then the additional dimensions in poetry should also be able to be translated, I would think. But I have never seen a study of tonal vs. Non-tonal languages with this orientation, viz., Whether more actual information is being carried by the additional dimension (which doesn't mean there isn't one - this isn't my field).

You could look at these; perhaps they'll help:

Whorf, B.L. Language, Thought, and Reality; Selected Writings. Edited by Carroll, J.B. Cambridge, MA: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956.

Bailenson, J.N., Shum, M.S., Atran, S., Medin, D.L., And Coley, J.D. "A Bird's Eye View: Biological Categorization and Reasoning within and across Cultures." Cognition 84 (2002): 1-53.

Levinson, S.C., Kita, S., Haun, D.B.M., And Rasch, B.H. "Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning." Cognition 84 (2002): 155-88.

Li, P., And Gleitman, L. "Turning the Tables: Language and Spatial Reasoning." Cognition 83 (2002): 265-94.

Lidz, J., Gleitman, H., And Gleitman, L. "Understanding How Input Matters: Verb Learning and the Footprint of Universal Grammar." Cognition 87 (2003): 151-78.

Papafragou, A., Massey, C., And Gleitman, L. "Shake, Rattle, 'N' Roll: The Representation of Motion in Language and Cognition." Cognition 84 (2002): 189-219.

Zheng, M., And Goldin-Meadow, S. "Thought before Language: How Deaf and Hearing Children Express Motion Events across Cultures." Cognition 85 (2002): 145-75.

Steven Ravett Brown

(17) Emanuel asked:

Is there any justification for murder? Is there a scientific explanation why a murderer commits such crimes? Is a a trait that can be inherited?


It seems to me that what you need to do is ask just precisely what murder is. Are wars justified? Is the killing in a war "murder"? Is killing in clear-cut cases of self-defense (for example, someone has just started deliberately firing a gun at you and your children) murder? Let's put it this way: if there is justified killing, and indeed there do seem to be situations in which there is, viz., Self-defense or defense of others, then is "murder" simply a word meaning "non-justified killing"? If that's the case, then of course, by definition, murder cannot be justified.

Now if I'm wrong, and there is never any justified killing, then "murder" must have some other meaning. What would that be? Premeditated killing? Killing with intent to cause suffering? Killing which happens to be against the law of whatever culture one is currently inhabiting? What? And if murder means the latter, for example, then one might respond that in cases where the law of one's culture is immoral or wrong in some way, then "murder" in those cases may be justified, because what the culture is calling illegal (and by implication immoral) may be in fact moral, and "murder" in those cases is thus merely illegal, and not immoral. But there are a lot of "ifs" in that argument, aren't there, and I haven't even begun to cover the other alternatives above, which are hardly a complete list.

Steven Ravett Brown

(18) Alex asked:

Do guinea pigs smell bad?


Not if you're one yourself.

Steven Ravett Brown

(19) John asked:

Did Socrates ever get horny?


He was married and had children, so I'd say it was likely, wouldn't you?

Steven Ravett Brown

(20) Ariane asked:

Is Philosophy exclusive to man?


Well by man I take that you mean men and women. There are no known animal or vegetable philosophers so we have to accept that only humans philosophise.

Shaun Williamson

(21) Ariane asked:

Do all men philosophize?


No. Very few people philosophize.

Shaun Williamson

(22) Mina asked:

My question about how Ayer is guilty of Metaphysics that I sent in just a while ago....I have some insight on how he may have been accused but I'm not sure....I think that since he is talking about language in such a way that is above and beyond what he experiences, he may being running into a problem of metaphysics, and the fact that he refers to it in such a high certitude...Like god once again, this lean to metaphysics because god is an emotive thing in his view where ethics are meaningless yet he sort of lean towards it...Im not sure if this is correct, please e-mail me soon..Thanks for the help!


The basic problem with 'Language Truth and Logic' is that it depends entirely on what is called the 'Verification Principle'. This states that a statement is meaningful if it can be verified by observation or if it is an analytic truth (truths of logic and mathematics). However the verification principle is a statement so we can ask if is it a meaningful statement. It doesn't seem to be an analytic truth nor can it be verified by observation. So the basic principle that Ayer depends on in 'Language Truth and Logic' is according to Ayer meaningless. An alternative view would be that the Verification Principle is a metaphysical truth but for Ayer there are no metaphysical truths.

Shaun Williamson

(23) Kresten asked:

What does Elizabeth Spelman mean by "Somatophobia" and how does it relate to body/mind problem?


I may be out by a mile here, but looking at the greek, isn't that something like fear of sleep? Does one cease to exist in falling asleep? Does it matter?

David Robjant

(24) Ariane asked:

1. What makes a question philosophical?

2. Do all men philosophize?

3. Are the questionings from children philosophical?

4. Characteristics of a true philosophical.

5. Why is the search of truth personal and communal at the same time?

6. Why is there a need for a dialogue in philosophy?

6. What is transcendental and abstract truth. Give example.

7. Why is philosophizing always an experience of the truth of the tension between a sense of knowledge and a sense of ignorance?

8. Relate the story of Sysiphus to the philosopher's search for truth.

9.Significance of philosophy in the society.

10. As a nursing student, why is there a need to study philosophy?

11. Explain the connection between love and justice.

12. Explain "Philosophy requires justice" and "Justice needs philosophy".

13.Explain Marcel's notion of truth as a value.

14. What makes an act fair or unfair?

15. Why do we need to study history? What is history?

16. What was there before philosophy?

17. Differentiate Logos from Mythos.

18. When did Medieval period start?

19. Describe the today's world.

25. What is love?

21. What is the essence of love?

22. Why is the giving of oneself is disinterested?

23. How come when I give myself to someone I love, I don't lose myself?

24. Is love eternal and rational? Explain.

25. Relation between love and death.

26. Is love a choice or destiny? Explain.

27. Are children capable of loving?

28. Can animals love?

29. Is love important to man?

30. Importance of love.

31. Is love a happy experience or is it a painful experience?

32. Is death an Experience? Explain.

33. Is death really an end of man? Explain.

34. Does death guarantee fulfilment? Explain.

35. Is there life after death? Explain.

36. What is the essence of death?

37. Is death something good? Explain.

37. If it is good why some people are afraid of death?

38. Which is powerful, love or death? Explain briefly.

39. What is existentialism?

40. What is the essence of existence?

41. Which comes firs, essence or existence?

42. What is the reason for the birth if existentialism?

43. Are you an existentialist, in what way you become one?

44. What is man?

45. What is the essence of man?

46. What makes a man man?

47. Is man determined or incarnate?

48. Explain "I am my body" and "I have my body".

49. Is there a soul?

50. Define incarnate subjectivity.

Thanks for answering all of my questions.God bless us all!


If you want more than yes or no answers it may be useful for you to think about which of your questions is most important to you, and then ask that one. Even the genie of the lamp only gave three wishes.

David Robjant

(25) Matthew asked:

I have a really good answer as to how solipsism is developed and has developed in my head. You only use 10% of your brain in which the other 90% of the brain has been used to create your world. Now, in order to have solipsism be true nothing could really exist except for your mind. The reason why you don't remember your birth up until age 3 or whenever your memory starts, so to say, is because during that time your brain had to form all of which is what around you?

Give me your opinion on my theory.


I have no idea what a brain percentile looks like or how you can tell what someone is using it for. Neither do you. Neither, when they are honest, do brain scientists, who are not priests in white but experimenters on the edge of a vast area of ignorance. So I have no idea what you are talking about with this 10% / 90% stuff. Neither do you.

Additionally, your solipsism is in contradiction with all the odd claims you happen to make about brains, since solipsism is precisely the denial of any external material world, and brains are material objects extended in space and time. In particular, in the context of the claim that your brain made everything, what are we to make of the thought that this brain was three years old before it had finally accomplished this? Your brain makes space and time and matter and is three years old at that point?! What?!! You might as well claim that the entire world is balanced on the back of a turtle.

What's more intriguing is the motivation behind this materialist/non materialist solipsist/non solipsist nonsense. Am I to understand that, swimming against the tide of your every waking moment, you are trying find some way to prove that Solipsism is true? Why would you want to do that? Should you be seeking psychiatric help? Or will this phase pass?

David Robjant

(26) Howard asked:

Is there any way of determining current thinking of philosophers of science on the usefulness, "correctness", general applicability, etc. Of Popper's notion of falsification?

As a layman who has some familiarity with it, who's reasonably literate about science, etc., It seems to me that falsification is a superb tool for general, every-day use, as well as a foundation of science. But a friend who is a psychiatrist, and who has done advanced study in physics, claims that philosophers are turning their back on falsification, or have done so. That strikes me as absurd, but I don't know of a good way to learn current views of philosophers about falsification.


You mix your metaphors here. It cannot both be a tool and a foundation: I cannot think of something both as useful only in so far as it happens to serve my project of enquiry (tool) and as something without which I could conceive no project of inquiry (foundation). Regarded in the former light, as a tool, I can't think of any philosopher who would deny the obvious usefulness of being able to observe:

'lo, a black swan, therefore: the thesis "all swans are white" is false'

So the sphere for philosophical disagreement would seem to surround the aptness of the "foundation of science" image. And there are various thoughts and claims that this image might be taken to embody. One extreme claim is that there is a 'fundamental' connection between the meaning of a sentence and that state of affairs which would make it false. IE:

'sentences are meaningless except where it might be possible to discover them to be false'

Something like this is claimed in Wittgenstein's Tractatus. And this is certainly a claim from which Philosophers have, thankfully, retreated - lots of philosophers having thought that it was nonsense all along of course. And being nonsense was exactly what any such claim accuses itself of being. What would it be like to discover that the sentence

'sentences are meaningless except where it might be possible to discover them to be false'

is false?

A better image than 'foundation' here is 'hinge'. In order for the door to turn some hinge must remain stationary, in order for something to be doubted or inquired into something else must be taken for granted. But this does not preclude the possibility that we might want to do something else than open this particular door. This metaphor comes from Wittgenstein, who had earlier led the dogmatic connection of meaning to truth and falsehood, and later 'led' a move in the opposite direction - see his book 'On Certainty'.

Further reading which I would particularly recommend: Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific revolutions.

David Robjant

(27) Amir asked:

What is scientific term for the current stage of mankind?

A) Homer Simpson B) Homo Sapiens C) Neanderthal D) Homo Floresiensis


It ought to be A - ought with such a fraught oughtness of ought that I am obliged finally and suffering the great pain of truth to admit, dear reader, yes (and how had we hoped to deny this?), It is. Pretenders to the misapproved aptness of B) must here concede: Homer Simpson is indeed the right, the proper, the only adequate nomenclature for the hominid fauna of our world.

But no Amir, Homer is not an evolutionary throwback evincing the decadence of a decrepit morality, but a new mountain of humanity in the shadow of which Einstein is a tick. I fear you may take me awry, miss my point, and generally fail to follow. Amir, any society which can produce art of such concentrated truth and compassion cannot be all bad. By their works shall ye know them. The Simpson's would be called 'satire' but for the streak of compassion in it which imagines each and all of us aright - not just US but us. We humans must love in order to know, and that love is in the Simpsons. Except for the last series (Doh!).

By the by, Amir, if you are looking for a TV character who exemplifies the evolutionary decline of a dead end society, both in the character and in the heartless desiccants who find sneering at such putrefaction funny, I suggest someone this side of the pond, Berkshire, Slough, that bloke off The Office. All those awards. What for?

David Robjant

(28) Luciano asked:

Why does the Roman Catholic church sell off priceless items to help feed the hunger and shelter the poor? Apparently they are a quite wealthy organization?


Only the Roman Catholic church can answer this question. Ask them.

Shaun Williamson

(29) Gage asked:

What is the major philosophical problem with materialism? I know of the mind-brain issue and the lack of accounting for the supernatural. Is there anything else I should touch on?


How about the minor topic of freewill and moral responsibility?

David Robjant

(30) Angelito asked:

Can you give me a philosophy?


No. But if you have a duff philosophy I can help remove it.

David Robjant

(31) Emane asked:

Do you think that advertising lessens the free will that a person has to make their own choices as to whether or not to buy a product, or are the marketing strategies along with psychological techniques too overpowering? Is this different for children?


Q1: No. Q2. No. Q3. Yes.

Having freewill is not like having a strong arm. Freewill cannot be lessened. It is a fact, or, if you are a philosopher with a contrary view, it is not a fact. But fact or no, it doesn'y come in little quanta of freewill that can be lost down a cathode ray tube.

If advertising works it works either because it attaches to areas of life where one through laziness or bad habits fails to exercise one's innate freewill (unexamined longings for sex or esteem), or because it presents one with choices which on the proper exercise of one's freewill lead to consumption, or because it's consumers are stupid, or, like as not, all three in varying proportions.

The difference for children is that we should be training them in the habit of exercising their innate freewill, of learning to make choices that are their own rather than merely those of the society around them. While advertising of itself will not prevent the proper development of these good habits, a combination of constant advertising plus imperfect parenting will. Dealing with the world we inhabit, there is thus an argument for making life a bit easier for parents by curtailing certain kinds of advertising, but it has to be said that such advertising only exists because of the way parents behave, and that, having freewill, they do not have to behave that way.

David Robjant

(32) Pat asked:

I have two questions for you that you will find a bit quirky I am sure but I am very interested to here what you think:

1. What is logically wrong with having infinite regress in an argument?

2. Why is Ockham's Razor used? (Don't know if I spelled that correctly?)

My own thoughts on both of these is that they are aesthetic arguments and serve no logical function? I do stand to be corrected on this and if I am wrong could you please correct me immediately!


1. Sometimes, nothing. Sometimes, everything. It depends what you promised. You may find examples of this distinction between vicious and non-vicious infinite regresses in a dictionary of philosophy.

2. It is quasi-aesthetic (in that 'do not multiply without need' may without intolerable loss be reworded as 'simple is beautiful'), but you may be wrong to think of logical and aesthetic functions as exclusive. Symbolic logic can itself be seen as an aesthetic revolt against mud, much as geometry. Architecture and philosophy are not altogether unconnected. 'Let us have clarity!' But why? 'I prefer it, that's why - it is more beautiful.' It is useful too of course, but one wonders whether we would have ever had the opportunity to discover the occasional utility of the clear and simple had we not been pursuing it anyway, let us say pursuing it for its beauty.

David Robjant

(33) Naima asked:

Can you explain to me what Heraclitus fragments 2 and 123 means?


Fragment 2 "Although the logos is common most people live as though they had their own private understanding". This strikes me as a bit of Heraclitus's habitual lamentation - how eccentric and stupid people are!

More deeply, there is a thought here which is brought out by Simone Weil - while truth (logos - an account, the word) is eternal and universal, error is always personal. To amplify this... Weil talks about the way failure to understand results from intruding ones personality and fantasy into the matter at hand - this is a current interest of mine in relation to Wittgenstein's example of the child and the +2 rule. Weil might be read as saying that Heraclitus has a contribution on rule following in fragment 2.

123 "Nature loves to hide." Hm. I feel unsure, but wouldn't you think there was something of an injunction to really look here? IE - you won't understand anything on first sight, appearances are deceptive etc. By the by, this translation (from McKirahan) might be problematic because the way we understand the english word 'nature' is undergoing a pretty rapid three poled shift just now, for 'everything that is' to 'what we investigate in science' to 'stuff we're trying to conserve'. I'm pretty sure Heraclitus doesn't mean the last two in anything he says.

David Robjant

(34) Alex asked:

If an all-knowing entity can theoretically predict everything, every choice humans make can we still have free will?


Even an all-knowing entity can only only know what can be known. I know of no current theory in the physical sciences which holds that everything can be known about even the present attributes of the physical world (a la Newton), neither on a macro nor a micro scale. Your appreciation of science is roughly 300 years out of date.

David Robjant

(35) Stevie asked:

What are the following:

*white solipsism
*Erasure of Black women
*Additive analysis
*Metaphysical identity and ethical identity
*Bargaining And challenging
*black power
*civil rights movement

Please define.


These are a list of terms used by sociologists, so they may mean anything or nothing at all. You can tell this from the first entry. No philosopher would refer to "white solipsism". It is a category mistake. Solipsism can't have a colour because it is a theory, and groups cannot be solipsist because of the sort of theory that solipsism is: ie that nothing and no-one exists but me. Look up solipsism in a philosophical dictionary. You may be the first sociologist ever to do so.

David Robjant

(36) Alex asked:

Do guinea pigs smell bad?


Well I don't think they do but smells are often a matter of taste. Some people think that French cheeses such as Brie smell really bad but other people love this sort of smell.

Shaun Williamson

(37) Pfungwa asked:

What is the basis of ethics and is ethics possible without religion?


The basis of ethics is that it is natural to humans to judge that certain things are good and other things are bad. Ethics are logically prior to religious belief because if you believe that God exists then you still have to decide if God is good or evil. If you don't believe in God then you still have to make judgements about what is good and what is not good.

Shaun Williamson

(38) Timothy asked:

I have this theory about Wittgenstein's definition of a object, in which a object is anything which cannot be described in terms of something else, i.E qualia, the dimensions of space and change. Has anyone else had this idea?


I don't understand this at all. Are you talking about Wittgenstein's early ideas (as in Tractatus ..) Or his later ideas ( as in Philosophical Investigations)? Your idea seems to be most applicable to Tractatus. 'Objects are what is unalterable and subsistent...' He was never able to decide what sort of things objects were. In his later work Wittgenstein completely abandoned the ideas expressed in Tractatus.

Shaun Williamson

(39) John asked:

Did Socrates ever get horny?


Yes. He wasn't a virgin when he died.

Shaun Williamson

(40) Michael asked:

if you were in a vehicle traveling at the speed of light and a torch was shined at you would you be able to see the light?


According to Einstein's theory of relativity light always travels towards an observer at the speed of light. So you would be able to see the light from the torch. If Einstein's theory is correct and most scientists believe that it is.

Shaun Williamson

(41) Kirk asked:

Does philosophy count as a subject because it seems like a mixture of all subjects but mostly english as philosophers often question the English words that people made e. G. What is life, do ghosts exist or not when they don't even know the meaning of all the words in the question. Philosophical questions include what came first the chicken or the egg, isn't that biology? Others are how was matter created, isn't that astrophysics? So if you just think about possible answers to questions which may seem difficult to answer and just question the question all the time, how can anybody teach students answers or methods of answering philosophical questions? Without this surely philosophy is not a subject but is common sense isn't it?


I am not quite sure where to start with this jumble of sceptic comment! To try to put it into some sort of of logical structure I offer the following.

1. Philosophy has some concern with the English language.

2. Philosophers purport to answer questions even when they are ignorant of the meaning of the words forming the question.

3. Philosophy claims to answer questions which are really the subjects of science, such as the biological question: Which comes first the chicken or the egg? The creation of matter is to do with astrophysics.

4. Philosophy does not provide answers to questions but questions the questions. Which implies that philosophers cannot provide answers or even teach students methods of answering philosophical questions.

5. It seems philosophy does not count as a unique subject, in fact it is straightforward common sense.

Perhaps the best way to tackle this is to address each point separately.

1. Philosophy is not confined to the English language but is discussed in virtually every language in the world. Perhaps your implication is hinting at the notion that philosophy is very much language dependent. There is no doubt that language plays an important part in all topics of philosophy, and particularly in the knowledge and truth debate, and, of course, its importance in logic is without question.

2. A feature of philosophy, unlike many other subjects, is to ensure a detailed analysis of the terminology of statements, propositions and questions. Your own question is a case in point! Again, unlike many other schools of thought, philosophers will usually point out anomalies in terminology and will make it clear when the use of certain words is ambiguous. Unlike other schools of thought, philosophy incorporates logic within its overall structure. Hence the opposite of your accusation is usually the case, and the meanings of words are usually determined before any attempt to answer questions is undertaken. Anyway, the philosopher is more concerned with the way a word is used rather than what it means.

3. Philosophy investigates the truth of scientific assertions. The chicken and egg question is metaphysical, which extends beyond the investigations of biology. Biology is confined to describing chickens and eggs, which it is very good at. The creation of matter is embedded even deeper in metaphysics. Some philosophers might claim that such questions are well beyond the scope of science. Others would claim that science is simply a branch of philosophy concerned with materialism and realism, and is, in a way, blinkered by its restricted approach to metaphysical questions. Philosophy on the other hand is more diverse and extensive in its investigations in search of 'truth'.

4. One of the responsibilities associated with philosophy is to analyse questions. Questions put together in haste are sometimes spurious and likely to generate meaningless answers. As opposed to your allegation that philosophers cannot supply answers to questions, it is an established fact that philosophy raises awareness of the possibility of a choice of answers to several important questions in science, ethics and religion; answers never even dreamt of by other involved schools of thought. The depth and extension of philosophical investigation knows no bounds. Philosophers are amongst the greatest lateral thinkers in the world. Philosophy has also produced some of the greatest teachers. In philosophy the end of a teaching session is more likely to conclude with: "What do you think about that?" Rather than "This is the answer to the question".

5. Oddly enough, the purpose of philosophy is to challenge common sense views.

I trust your complex question has been answered, and that my analysis of what you seem to be alleging is somewhere near the mark.

John Brandon

(42) Steven asked:

I'm writing a research paper for my intro to religion class and im having trouble with this particular question. The question is What is the purpose or meaning of life and is it achievable and how?


This is probably the most important philosophical question. I approached an answer in my thesis "The Process of the Cosmos". For a short introduction to my approach you could put the title of my recent paper "Jesus, the Big Bang and the Process of Emergence" into your search engine.

Tony Kelly

(43) Howard asked:

Is there any way of determining current thinking of philosophers of science on the usefulness, "correctness", general applicability, etc. Of Popper's notion of falsification?


As a layman who has some familiarity with it, who's reasonably literate about science, etc., It seems to me that falsification is a superb tool for general, every-day use, as well as a foundation of science. But a friend who is a psychiatrist, and who has done advanced study in physics, claims that philosophers are turning their back on falsification, or have done so. That strikes me as absurd, but I don't know of a good way to learn current views of philosophers about falsification. Thank you.

Answer: I have not read anything that would suggest that your friend's idea is true. Perhaps you could get him to give some sources or names to back this up. What is true is that there are some scientific theories such as string theory in physics where we cannot yet say what would verify or falsify them. Perhaps we will be able to do this at some time in the future. In the meantime this prevents some scientists from taking such theories seriously.

Shaun Williamson

(44) Sam asked:

Is Descartes' "I am a thinking thing" logical?


I'm not sure that 'logical' is the correct way to look at it. If I am a human being and not a parrot then every syntactically correct sentence I utter can be the expression of a thought. So if I utter the sentence 'I am not a thinking thing' then this could be looked on as a contradiction. However if someone says 'I don't like thinking about things' then this would probably be acceptable and informative in a way that 'I am a thinking thing' never can be. 'I am a thinking thing' is a factual but trivial truth rather like 'This sentence has five words'

Shaun Williamson

(45) Someone asked:

Hume, the philosopher believed that there is no sure way of knowing that we exist. We can be a part of someone's imagination.

We could be characters of a book living out our lives according to the Big Brother.

Ever thought about this? What is reality? How do we know for certain that we are real? Through our perceptions, ideas, feelings.

But then how do we not know that the brain is not playing tricks with us?


No I don't agree with any of this. You are just very confused. Hume was correct when he said we can't be sure that we exist but what he failed to notice is that we can't sensibly doubt that we exist either. There are situations where you can prove that you exist (legally for example) but it makes no sense to talk about proving to yourself that you exist. What would such a proof look like? Why would you need it. As to the idea that we can be part of someone's imagination then that is nonsense. There is no way in which I could just be part of someone's imagination and no way in which another person could just be part of my imagination. Only fictional characters can be part of someone else's imagination and to be a fictional character I would have to exist only in a book and what is the name of this book? How can a character in a book send questions to Ask a Philosopher since characters in a book don't have arms and hands? When the Inland Revenue sends me a tax bill they would never accept it as a reason for not paying that I claim to be just part of someone else's imagination.

Shaun Williamson

(46) Ashley asked:

How is a philosopher similar to a child


Children don't have much money and neither do philosophers. In all other respects children and philosophers are completely different.

Shaun Williamson

(47) Danielle asked:

I am currently taking an introductory Philosophical Problems class at a University. We are discussing Descartes and if there is such thing as external existence outside of ones own thought, and also the question of the existence of a higher being. My question to you is: If the only thing one can ever know for certain is that I exist, and that there may not be any existence outside of our own thought, why would one even bother to try to uncover truth about the world around them.? Wouldn't any other truth be impossible to find if we cant even know if a reality exists outside of ourselves? Thank you for your time.


Well you are probably right if the only thing we can be certain of is that I exist. However most philosophers don't accept that Descartes was right. He confused being certain with being logically guaranteed. In any case I think it is nonsense to think 'I am certain that I exist'. In general you can't claim to be certain of something you cannot sensibly doubt.

Shaun Williamson

(48) Angela asked:

Did Thatcher have a speech therapist?


I believe Margaret Thatcher had voice coaching at one time because her political advisors felt that her natural voice was too harsh and sounded unsympathetic. However voice coaching is not the same as speech therapy. It is more akin to the sort of training actors get.

Shaun Williamson

(49) Emane asked:

Do you think that advertising lessens the free will that a person has to make their own choices as to whether or not to buy a product, or are the marketing strategies along with psychological techniques too overpowering?Is this different for children?


This isn't a question best answered by philosophers. Psychologists who have studied the effects of advertising might be better qualified but I will try to answer it. Advertising can make consumers aware of a product and can try to make a product attractive to them. In this sense it acts as a means of persuasion and human's can be open to persuasion.

However there are strict limits to this. No amount of advertising is going to persuade me to buy products that contain large amounts of sugar for example and I can't think of any amount of advertising that would persuade most children to eat sprouts. Added to this you have to remember that most advertising while it seems to be aimed at consumers is really aimed at the supermarkets. To get shelf space in a supermarket a product has to qualify as being 'a leading brand' and being a leading brand involves being nationally advertised on television. So in this sense advertising can affect us by limiting the choice of products available in shops and making it more difficult for smaller producers who can't afford to advertise to enter the market.

The relationship between advertising and consumer choice is so complex that it is true to say that we still know very little about its affects but what we do know is that watching a tv commercial is not like having a gun held to your head. Everyone seems to think that they are immune to advertising and that everyone else is unduly influenced by advertising. The most extreme form of this anxiety is the idea that children are particularly at risk from advertising but there is no real evidence that this is true. Children are undemanding and fickle consumers who don't have their own supply of money. So in a sense they are least likely to be a victim of advertising.

Shaun Williamson

(50) Terry asked:

Explain the position of each camp on the subject of truth and reality.


There are so many camps that I wouldn't know where to begin. You will have to ask a more specific question or read an encyclopaedia.

Shaun Williamson

(51) Alex asked:

If an all-knowing entity can theoretically predict everything, every choice humans make can we still have free will?


This is not a clear question. Humans can theoretically predict everything (that is what physics is all about) but practically we can't predict everything. An all knowing entity such as God exists outside of time and doesn't need to predict things. It is not clear that either of these options are incompatible with free will. But you will need to study philosophy to find the answer to these questions. No one else can give you the answer and if they did why would you believe them? By thinking that this might be a problem you have already begun to study philosophy.

Shaun Williamson

(52) Matthew asked:

I have a really good answer as to how solipsism is developed and has developed in my head. You only use 10% of your brain in which the other 90% of the brain has been used to create your world. Now, in order to have solipsism be true nothing could really exist except for your mind. The reason why you don't remember your birth up until age 3 or whenever your memory starts, so to say, is because during that time your brain had to form all of which is what around you?

Give me your opinion on my theory.


It may be true that at any one time we are only using 10% of our brain but we are using a different 10% at different times. There is no surplus brain. All of it gets used. The brain consumes a quarter of all the food we eat. Evolution doesn't allow for any surplus unused brain. Of course you can't remember your birth because when you are busy being born you have no idea what birth is or what anything else is. Now you can say that as the brain matures it constructs the world or you could say that as it matures it becomes aware of the world. What a difference a choice of words can make.

Shaun Williamson

(53) Jane asked:

Why is it wrong to abort a foetus?


This is such a complex question that you cannot expect a short answer to it. Let us start with the idea that it is wrong to murder a child. Then the question is 'Is a foetus a child?'. There are really deep disagreements about the answer to this question. However I think everybody agrees that abortion is not a good thing although many people think in some circumstances it is the best choice. Given that there are such deep disagreements about this in the end each woman will have to make her own decision.

Shaun Williamson

(54) Bethuel asked:

Why would you consider a computer a stupid machine with regard to how it operates? Please include examples. The guide I was given is that it cannot operate without human input and the phrase garbage in garbage out.


Humans can be stupid or clever. A clock can't be described as stupid or clever and neither can a computer. A good computer like a good clock is one that operates just as it was designed to operate.

Shaun Williamson

(55) Albert asked:

What is the drug hemicholiumium?


Look it up on the Internet or ask a pharmacist. This isn't a philosophical question.

Shaun Williamson

(56) Ed asked:

Explain the main arguments in the 1948 radio debate between Copleston and Russell?


Most philosophers who are around now weren't listening to the radio in 1948 and have no reason to study old radio debates. Copleston was a jesuit priest who was a Thomist (a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas's Aristotelian philosophy). Russell was a logician and Empiricist philosopher so I imagine they had lots of disagreements. If you study both these philosophers then you will understand the arguments but no one can explain them to you until you have done the groundwork. I can't explain transcendental numbers to you either until you have studied higher mathematics.

Shaun Williamson

(57) Prabhath asked:

How can the ordinary teacher be transformed to become a Montessori Directoress?


As a secondary school teacher, who also trained as an early childhood teacher and then trained as a Montessori Directoress it is possible to provide some anecdotal insight into this question.

The values held as a teacher may remain - the inherent value of the child, the importance of meeting each child's needs, developing each child across all areas of development, providing a positive learning environment etc.

The framework through which these values are met must be released or 'unlearned' in order to successfully move from one methodology to Montessori.

Many approach the education with the importance of 'teacher as entertainer' as a hallmark. The lessons must be presented in such a way that the child's attention will be captivated by the words, physical 'presence' and the props of the teacher. Teacher as the centre of attention. A great deal of personal satisfaction can be gained from a successful lesson presented this way. In Montessori, however, it is the materials, their presentation and the beauty and order of the room environment which is intended to captivate the child's attention. A teacher must be prepared to gain satisfaction from the development observed in the child and by their 'wonder' and discovery. The need for 'applause' must be lost. The ability to play second-fiddle to the materials and the environment is a pre-requisite.

As with regular Early Childhood teaching, the observing of children is incredibly important. This is how a wise Directoress determines which materials should be presented next. It is also possible to trust a child's fascination with particular materials as a possible indicator. Competency with earlier materials is also an indicator. What is important is the mind-set of the Directoress. If a child is inadvertently provided with an activity and it is discovered that the readiness was not there, the Directoress must accept that the failure was on his or her part - not the child's. The child must be treated with dignity and offered something 'better'. In the coming weeks, the earlier materials can be re-explored and the activity re-introduced.

Vicki Ward

(58) Roland asked:

I am a pantheist, so I believe that after death there is nothing, you're gone. Of course it is very difficult to imagine yourself not existing, but the closest analogy you could come to that some people have experienced is being unconscious or in a coma, or even in non-REM sleep. Time passes without you having any awareness of it. The only difference between that "experience" and death is that in death it goes on forever, whereas in these experiences you eventually "wake up".

This is VERY difficult to explain, but I'll try. Imagine YOU in capitals marks means yourself, your memories, feelings, personality etc. ... And "you" in quotation marks means just the experience of self-awareness, as divorced from YOU. So, say YOU die, an infinite amount of time passes without you having any awareness of it. But what if "you" then become aware, as someone else? After all, if "you" no longer exists, then "you" would not be aware of it. But what if "you" is then transferred to some other person, who would have no knowledge that they were once YOU. I mean, YOU are on your deathbed, and instantly "you" are someone else being born?

Or what if "your" consciousness then begins again at YOUR birth? If the universe exists as a series of "instants" put together, then every instant of your life already exists and your consciousness might as well just reverse back to the beginning.

I know this probably sounds a little dumb, but what it all boils down to is this: in a funny way, perhaps you will always be aware, always exist, "live forever" (since while you are not aware you will have know idea of your own non-existence). Just like when you go to sleep or get knocked up by a bouncer, the next instant you experience is your next instance of consciousness, likewise you will always be aware of your own existence because without your own existence there would be nothing to be aware of, hence you wouldn't be thinking about this.


Yes. Is identity dependent on memory, or can "pure" self-awareness (if there could be such a thing) have identity, and/or survive as such? Most people answer that identity is dependent on memory, and I agree. You might look at Sartre's argument against Husserl's concept of the "transcendent ego" for one approach to this (Sartre, J.P. The Transcendence of the Ego. 7Th ed. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957). There is a lot written on the concept of identity, and particularly recently there has been quite a bit of debate on this. The major arguments, if you consider them such, in favor of the "pure" ego existing without memory, are of course due to the Buddhists, who hold (if I'm understanding them correctly) that one can escape the wheel of karma by essentially eliminating everything from one's identity except the "pure ego", without memories, feelings, etc., Etc... And sort of go floating off to join the universal mind. I've never understood how this is different from a rather sophisticated form of suicide, myself... But then I'm not a Buddhist. You might look into that area for more discussion of that idea.

This is not an area in which I read much, so I'm afraid my references are very limited:

Brandom, R.B. "The Pragmatist Enlightenment (and Its Problematic Semantics)." European Journal of Philosophy 12, no. 1 (2004): 1-16.

Gopnik, A., And A. Meltzoff. "The Development of Categorization in the Second Year and Its Relation to Other Cognitive and Linguistic Developments." Child Development 58 (1987): 1523-31.

Gurwitsch, A. "A Non-Egological Conception of Consciousness." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1, no. 3 (1941): 325-38.

Johnson, M., And G. Lakoff. "Why Cognitive Linguistics Requires Embodied Realism." Cognitive Linguistics 13, no. 3 (2002): 245-63.

Kripke, S.A. "The Identity Thesis." In The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates, edited by N. Block, O. Flanagan and G. Gzeldere, 445-50. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.

McGeer, V. "Is "Self-Knowledge" an Empirical Problem? Renegotiating the Space of Philosophical Explanation." The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 10 (1996): 483-515.

Nazzi, T., And A. Gopnik. "Linguistic and Cognitive Abilities in Infancy: When Does Language Become a Tool for Categorization?" Cognition 80 (2001): B11-B20.

Spiegelberg, H. "Gurwitsch's Case against Husserl's Pure Ego." Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 12, no. 2 (1981): 104-14.

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

Blanke, O., C. Mohr, C.M. Michel, A. Pascual-Leone, P. Brugger, M. Seeck, T. Landis, and G. Thut. "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.

Derrida, J. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Translated by P-A. Brault and M. Naas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Gallagher, S. "Self-Reference and Schizophrenia: A Cognitive Model of Immunity to Error through Misidentification." In Exploring the Self: Philosophical and Psychopathological Perspectives on Self-Experience, edited by D. Zahavi, 203-39. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2000.

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

Luu, P., And D. M. Tucker. "Self-Regulation and the Executive Functions: Electrophysiological Clues." In The Cognitive Electrophysiology of Mind and Brain, edited by A. Zani and A.M. Proverbio, 199-223. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002.

Zelazo, P.D. "Language, Levels of Consciousness, and the Development of Intentional Action." In Developing Theories of Intention: Social Understanding and Self-Control, edited by P.D. Zelazo, J.W. Ostington and D.R. Olson, 95-117, 1999.

----. "Self-Reflection and the Development of Consciously Controlled Processing." In Children's Reasoning and the Mind, edited by P. Mitchell and K. Riggs, 169-89. Hove, England: Psychology Press, Ltd., 2000.

Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. Tokyo, Japan: Toppan Printing Co., 1990.

Ross, N.W., Ed. The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology. New York: Random House, 1960.

Watts, A.W. The Way of Zen. New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1964.

Steven Ravett Brown

(59) Angela asked:

Did Thatcher have a speech therapist?


Yes, indeed she did. The intention was to lower the pitch, and slow the diction of her voice. It was though that this would give her more gravitas (which it did). If you compare party conference speeches from the early 70s and the late 70s, you can very clearly hear the movement from shrill to deep, and from quick to slow. At the same time, she changed her hair and image to the frankly bizarre bouffant that we know from her days as PM.

Other famous political makeovers include Harold Wilson, who had a great deal of dental work done, and Tony Blair's rimless spectacles.

Steven Bullock



(60) Matthew asked:

I am not precisely sure how to explain what I am feeling. I think my question mainly revolves around consciousness of my own being/existence. Basically, I often feel I am comprised of two parts: my physical body and then my actual thoughts/consciousness. They seem to have no relation to one another, like the two forms are completely separate from each other. It is almost as if I am able to witness myself from outside of my body to the point where my physical existence appears foreign to me. I feel like nothing more than a floating vessel of incorporeal thoughts.

I am wondering how you would explain these feelings in a philosophical sense and how can I come to make sense of them? It all seems complex.


The feelings you experience are by no means uncommon. From a philosophical point of view you are, in a way, supporting the notion of dualism, where body and mind are considered to be separate entities, which somehow work as a co-ordinated whole.

Many instances of out of body experiences are well documented. Such experiences come in different forms, including several strong claims by patients undergoing surgery that they have witnessed the events taking place despite being under anaesthetic. Proof has been provided when the patient has repeated comments and conversation overheard during the operation. Further evidence has been produced by description of the surgery taking place, which the patient could only have observed from parts of the theatre other than the operating table. Astral travel is also claimed where the mind/soul is claimed to have left the body to travel to some distant location.

To gain some insight into your experiences and feelings, I would recommend that you consider some of the ideas of the psychologist, Carl Jung. Jung believed that there was far more to the notion of mind and soul than the then ideas of Freud. In fact, it was Jung's mystic approach to psychoanalysis that brought about the break-up of their partnership, and, indeed, their friendship. Jung actually put his beliefs into practice, with no mean degree of success.

The author Colin Wilson, by no means under-rated as a philosopher, has also been deeply involved in paranormal research and is well worth some consideration. I suggest you take a look at Jung for Beginners, Maggie Hyde and Michael McGuinness, Icon Books ISBN 1 874166 05 6. And Beyond the Occult, Colin Wilson, Bantam Press ISBN 0-593-01174-0.

John Brandon

(61) Charlotte asked:

What's the difference between wisdom and knowledge? How are they related?


With regard to wisdom the dictionary says; "It is the ability to make right use of knowledge, the capacity to judge rightly in matters relating to life and conduct, sound judgement, especially in practical affairs." The implication, then, is that wisdom is a practical virtue, it deals directly with matters relating to life and conduct, with practical affairs. We could say that there is also a creative element about it. Wisdom often involves penetrative insight, the ability to see beyond the superficial.

Wisdom has a place within the study of psychology, where it is seen as the ability to weigh advice, to consider how to deal with other people, seeking information for decision making. There is an empirical content in the notion that we can identify wise people by their behaviour, in the way they are able to make wise judgements involving fairness, giving advice, seeing into the future to make predictions, having the ability to anticipate events, and many other attributes that you may be able to identify for yourself.

Wisdom is also to do with flexibility of mind, wise people are not rigid in their views, and are willing to change their opinions as experience dictates. This enables wise people to handle complex problems. Mystic qualities have been applied to the wise person, there is a sense in which they might be seen to stand back to observe what is going on, an ability to 'withdraw'. Objectivity rather than subjectivity is the order of the day for the wise person. There is a notion that schools and universities purporting to teach 'certainties' militates against wisdom and encourages stereotyping and intolerance.

In the philosophy of mind and in psychology, wisdom is to do with the subconscious element of mind, and not the conscious, which is engaged in the tangled complexities of everyday life.

Knowledge, in contrast to wisdom, is concerned with understanding, with available information, and has an association with belief. Wisdom is applied in the understanding that knowledge is always incomplete, that knowledge itself is essentially unsure, equivocal, open to question and reinterpretation.

Sensory perception is a ground from which knowledge may spring. But sensory perception is not enough in itself. It must be supplemented by a good deal of background learning and prior knowledge, together with additional knowledge of surrounding circumstances. Consequently it seems clear that it is necessary to have some existing stock of knowledge in order that perception may yield further knowledge.

Can we say, then. That wisdom is intrinsic, within the person, whilst knowledge is extrinsic, and in the 'world'. In which case we might say that knowledge is a 'tool' of wisdom. Wisdom is that which understands, knowledge is that which is understood.

John Brandon

(62) Nuno asked:

If philosophy of language tells us that we can only answer those things that can be put in a coherent question, can we develop or take advantage of "special languages" to ask specific questions? How can poetry, for instance, be useful to answer the "un-askable" questions and how would its answer be analysed?


Well take the question "What is a desire for God to take over your life like?" . We cannot easily describe our experiences such as to have the effect of truly moving others. Poetry does it easily because it says little and yet inspires imagination and thought.

Take Donne. He doesn't ask, but answers, yet at the same time he poses this question:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o-erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new."

I am presented not with an ordinary language description or an assertion, but as I read the words I feel the full force of such a desire. And the question is implicit in what he says. Ordinary language can be suggestive but poetry is intensely so.

Of course it is possible to coherently ask what a desire for God to take over one's life is like, but I doubt that non-metaphorical language would provide a satisfying answer as it arouses the understanding rather than the imagination. A reply in ordinary descriptive language might tell us something that we try to grasp intellectually, but we won't experience the answer. Poetry allows us to enter into the emotion expressed.

In this particular sonnet about god, Donne uses sexual language, as in the words

Except you'entrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.

The use of sexual language to describe the need for God, as well as the demands for force in "Batter my heart", "o-erthrow mee" and "bend Your force" bring in metaphorical associations that we don't normally go with the idea of God and so the effect is to show us something that we wouldn't get in an ordinary language answer. If you translated this into ordinary language directly, by summing up Donne's use of metaphor, as the need for God as "sexual and masochistic" it would sound false and perverted, so metaphors can't be translated in any simple way. But if you want analysis here, you would need to analyse metaphor so I can't answer fully but surely it is central to traditional literary theory? Maybe a grasp of metaphor is intuitive and associational but in some way beyond analysis.

So one way of saying what poetic language is is to say that it makes use of metaphor in such a way that we can experience something that, if given in ordinary language, would not have the same impact upon us. It can answer questions but we don't know precisely how. If we did there would be no need for poets because computers could ream it off.

Not all poetry uses metaphor. But the essence of poetry is that the language is always evocative and the imagination comes into play leading to us to something more than is precisely said.

There is no metaphor in the following by Philip Larkin:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.

"What are days for?" Would be taken as an incoherent question to a philosopher. We don't think to pose the question. We don't think there is an answer so we don't ask (this question hasn't even arisen yet on Ask a Philosopher! But maybe it's a question of time). There is nothing about days that make us think they might be FOR something. But this question can occur in a poem and it focuses our mind on days in some way that we can't further elucidate. It is an example of the "un-askable" and doesn't guide you to think of an answer, but just makes you dwell upon days. The un-askable question is answered by our merely dwelling on days, and I doubt that this can be analysed at all.

Just a couple of examples, but I think the poet (Larkin) can ask the "un-askable" and we respond imaginatively, or he can answer questions more fully (Donne) and in the latter case there might be analysis, but I doubt philosophy of language has covered it in any detail. Both require imagination from the reader.

Rachel Browne

(63) Ashley asked:

How is a philosopher similar to a child?


The English Literature professor, Frank Kermode, once said that philosophers are like eternal children in that they continue to ask questions that most children stop asking at the age of 5. I don't have the exact quote or reference.

This might be true if you are focussing on the form of the question as being always "how" and "why" but if you look at the content it cannot be. 'Does the logical conditional reflect ordinary language?', Or "What is reference?', Are not questions I've heard from the mouths of children. And philosophers, being adults,can quite easily distinguish cows and sheep. Even geese and swans!

Rachel Browne

(64) Farhan asked:

Recently in the course of work on my paper, I read "Manifesto of the Communist Party", but I came across the following passage beyond my understanding:

Under the title of German or "True" Socialism, we read: "It is well known how the monks wrote silly lives of Catholic saints over the manuscripts on which classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote "Alienation of Humanity," and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois State, they wrote "Dethronement of the Category of General," and so forth. The introduction of these philosophical phrases at the back of the French historical criticism they dubbed "Philosophy of Action," "True Socialism,"...and so on."

How the words "over" in italic, "beneath" and "back" could be understood here? Why do Marx and Engels use the word "over" for one and "beneath" and "back" for the other? Also if possible please describe briefly the terms mentioned by them in quotation marks. Would be great if you kindly help me.


In early writings such as The Holy Family, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and The German Ideology, Marx and Engels of the 1840's are settling their accounts with Philosophy i.e., German Idealist Philosophy. German Philosophy [in the guise of radical followers of Hegel or The Young Hegelians] maintained that the source of social change is purely intellectual. The most advanced section of human collective consciousness - the Philosopher critics - prescribed the progress needed in Germany. Social, material and economic change issued from previous thinking about change.

Marx and Engels disagreed. Social change arises not from Philosopher's thinking about it. It arises from outside the dreamy heads of the philosophers in real, material factors. Particularly the material factors of the means of production and the social relations involved with these. If the Germans thought about implementing social change it was perhaps to catch up with other industrialised nations such as Britain and France and not because of changes in Thought, collective consciousness and the like.

Changes in the economic structure of society has effects in varying degrees upon the way people live their lives, what and how they think, their beliefs, existing ideologies and philosophies. It is this real origin of social change and not the illusory one proposed by the Young Hegelian philosophers that Marx and Engels advocate.

Just as the Christian Monks wrote over the manuscripts of pre-Christian writers to give a Christian reading to pre-Christian works; so the German Philosophers/literati wrote beneath French writings on economic theory and Politics to give economics/politics a Philosophical justification. How dare this vulgar politics and economics try to account for change without the deeper philosophical reasons that lie beneath!!

Marx and Engels argued that the Philosophical justifications wrote beneath politics and economics, the retrospective accounting [back] for the real processes of social change in philosophical terminology are superfluous and pretentious. Just like the young Hegelian Idealists who pronounce them.

Martin Jenkins

(65) Ahaq asked:

Compare and contrast the views of Descartes and Hume on the existence of knowledge of a world external to our experience.


Rene Descartes

Following the subjection of everything he formally believed to be true to a radical doubting, Descartes concludes there is one thing he cannot doubt. This is that he exists when doubting or thinking. To refute this would be to commit a contradiction between the concepts used. By employing the same 'clear and distinct', a-priori reasoning characteristic of Rationalist thinkers, he concludes further that he can conceive a most perfect being and that therefore, God exists. As God is superlatively good, He cannot deceive or lie. God has created the world. So He cannot deceive Descartes into imagining that he and the world exist. It really does. So a world external to and existing independently beyond the subjective self exists.

David Hume

Knowledge is acquired empirically by the sense experiencing of impressions [matters of fact] that can lead to the having of ideas [connections between ideas]. The latter are derived from the former and are 'less forceful and vivacious'. Impressions and Ideas are connected by Resemblance, Contiguity and Causality. Resemblance: I think of one human it brings to mind other humans. Contiguity: I think of a window and I immediately think of it as being situated in a building. Causality: I see a written letter [effect] and I associate an author [cause].

Contrasts/ Comparisons

Hume cannot find any justification as to why we employ these connections in our experience other than Custom. On the basis of empirical custom, there can be no guarantee that the connections will continue to operate into the future. Just because the external world has been customarily experienced, as being suchlike many times in the past provides no indubitable guarantee that they will be so the next time or further in the future. They might end tomorrow - they might end in the next five minutes. Our knowledge of the external world is conditional and contingent. This is the problem of induction.

Again, using Hume's own criteria, there cannot be causal relations between the person and the world 'external' to him/her: only constant conjunction. So it is possible that I wake up tomorrow and finds that I can have no causal influence on the world. Indeed, just because there has been customarily in the past a world greeting me when I wake up, is no guarantee that it will be so the next time.

Descartes derives knowledge of an external world from the logical analyses and implication of the concepts he employs. This analytic, a-priori method brings indubitable conclusions as opposed to the unreliable, ever changing senses. Conclusions can only be rejected on pain of contradiction. The subjective self certain of its own existence would encounter solipsism if Descartes did not have the concept of God. The nature of God ensures an independent world exists beyond the subjective self. In addition, if we use clear and distinct reasoning correctly, we can acquire knowledge of the world [the example of the wax] going beyond the superficial appearances of the senses. These are self-evident implications / conclusions drawn from the terms used.

Martin Jenkins