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

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 28 (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 28/1.

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

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Tim asked:

What is the meaning of life?

and Kristin asked:

How shall I determine my purpose in life? Once determined, how do I understand it? Do we all know our "purpose"; should we all know our "purpose"? What if we never know our "purpose"? Are we then failures as human beings? Or have we just "missed out" on something?

and Gary asked:

My 4 year old daughter asks "why do we live?" Any suggestions to an outwitted father?

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

Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one — especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, one will quickly discover that one has to be more specific about just what one means by "meaning" or "purpose", "life", and "meaning/purpose of life". It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret this seemingly very simple question.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended.

(i) What is "life"? In the sense of how or why is "life" different from "non-life"?

(ii) What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of "why does life exist at all?

(iii) What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?

(iv) What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human species?

(v) What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?

(vi) What is the meaning/ purpose (or function or intent) of my life? A much more specifically intended question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.

(vii) What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically intended question, posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by "Science". (We each are one of six billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe. How insignificant can you get?)

I am going to try to provide a brief answer to your question from the point of view of (vi) above. And along the way hopefully approach a response to some of the other possible interpretations of your question.

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist/materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor. I am sure you will have no problem finding a suitable representative of whatever religious faith appeals to you (or that you happen to stumble across). And they will tell you that your purpose in life is to unselfishly and altruistically dedicate your existence to the glorification of whatever notion of God they propose. You will have to take their word for it, of course.

On the other hand, if you are seeking an answer that you can check out for yourself, then you are seeking a materialist answer where science and evidence have a meaningful role to play. The answer I provide here will not be met with agreement by many. It does, however, have the advantage of being consistent with all that we currently know about biology, evolution, and psychology.

The first step in answering your question from this perspective is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you. (I refer you to any of the numerous works on evolutionary biology for further argument on this point). The argument goes like this: Life is Action. "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move — "act" — through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy. Life's Actions are Teleological (Goal Oriented). At a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

The second step is to acknowledge that the "thing" that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother's ovum and your father's sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins for further argument on this point.) The argument goes like this: The Gene is the Unit of Life. It is that (not necessarily contiguous) stretch of the DNA (or RNA) molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates — continuation of which is the goal of Life's Actions. The actually observed behaviour of all living creatures, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival. As an example of life, as an example of the species Homo sapiens, and as an individual consciousness, our purpose is to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes. To be "Good" at anything is to do a quality job at fulfilling the purpose of that thing. A good Human Being is efficient and effective, and fulfils with quality, the purpose for which the Human Being was built — to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes. To ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes is a never ending struggle. There is never enough assurance that the job is complete. There is always something extra that can be done, some marginal increase of assurance that can be found.

And Finally, the struggle continues whether or not the individual is consciously aware of why they are striving, or what they are striving for. Even if they are striving under misconceptions, misinformation, or mistaken assumptions, the human animal is built to strive. The best situation is to be consciously aware of why you are striving, and employ the best of your intellectual abilities to make conscious rational choices of what to strive for. Happiness comes from knowing you are doing a good job.

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation. The point of it all is the welfare of your genetic descendants (over the long run, of course). Go to school or to work because it is the best means available to you at this time, and in this place, to prepare you to do well by your children. You are not here to be good for society. You are not here to become whatever God might have intended. You wake up every morning and tackle the day because you have a function to perform. Friends, family, and society matter only to the extent that they can contribute to your ultimate purpose in life.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers and of course anyone with a religious/spiritual bent. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are gifted with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals you may choose to consider, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. You are here to ask the question you asked because your parents (and their parents, and their parents, etc.) were good at their job. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors are here and now successful at this evolutionary purpose. Are you going to be an ancestor, or a dead end?

Most people (the vastly overwhelming majority) are much too focussed on the immediate problems of making it through the day to be concerned with these philosophical issues. But evolution does not need to rely on our conscious attention to its operation in order to achieve its results. We have evolved powerful behavioural instincts that ensure that most of us pursue our evolutionary purpose without conscious attention — more or less successfully. And of course, natural selection — differential replicative success — operates on the differences between more and less successful.

Finally, I offer some advice provided by John Brandon earlier in these questions — "My advise to a person who finds no meaning in life is to become a philosopher and share in the excitement of trying to discover what the world and what life is all about. We can either be depressed with our shallow view of the world, or we can be stimulated by seeking the deeper reasons for what we perceive around us. And be warned, the concepts we form in life constitute the world we live in." Amen!

Stuart Burns


(2) Anon asked:

What does the word "good" mean?

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

From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992) we get the dictionary definition:

"Good — (adjective) 1. Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor. 2 a. Having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a particular thing. b. Serving the desired purpose or end; suitable 3 a. Not spoiled or ruined. b. In excellent condition; sound. 4 a. Superior to the average; satisfactory. b. Used formerly to refer to the U.S. Government grade of meat higher than standard and lower than choice. 5 a. Of high quality. b. Discriminating. 6. Worthy of respect; honourable. 7. Attractive; handsome. 8. Beneficial to health. 9. Competent; skilled. 10. Complete; thorough. 11 a. Reliable; sure. b. Valid or true. c. Genuine; real. 12 a. In effect; operative. b. Able to continue in a specified activity. 13 a. Able to pay or contribute. b. Able to elicit a specified reaction. 14 a. Ample; substantial b. Bountiful. 15. Full. 16 a. Pleasant; enjoyable. b. Propitious; favorable. 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright. b. Benevolent; kind. c. Loyal; staunch. 18 a. Well-behaved; obedient. b. Socially correct; proper. 19. (Sports) Having landed within bounds or within a particular area of a court."

And,

"Good — (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. b. A good, valuable, or useful part or aspect. 2. Welfare; benefit. 3. Goodness; virtue."

In case you didn't notice, if you disregard the circular definitions, there are 36 separately identified shadings of meaning here for the word "Good". All but a single one of these definitions (17a — Of moral excellence; upright.) will generate little philosophical disagreement as to what it means, and to what examples in Reality it refers to.

It is interesting to note that all but this single "moral" meaning of the word can be considered to be evaluations of how well some subject being judged fulfills its intended purpose. Look at the key words used in the definitions as "quasi-synonyms" — positive, desirable, distinguishing, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine. They all can be interpreted as an evaluation of how well the subject of the judgment measures up on the standard of fulfilling its purpose. You might say that there is a "functional" meaning of "good" that is usual, and a "moral" meaning of "good" that is the exceptional case. The "functional" meanings are by far the easiest to understand, the easiest to provide concrete examples of, and the bulk of the various shades of meaning. The "functional" meanings of "good" can be understood in terms of — "An X is a good X, if it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what an X is supposed to do."

Which leaves us with the single moral/ ethical meaning — "Good — (adjective) 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright. (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. 3. Goodness; virtue."

Lets add to this mix the dictionary definitions of "moral" and "virtue", since these words appear key to understanding the moral meaning of "good". Again from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992) we get the dictionary definitions —

"Moral — (adjective) 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character. 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior. 3. Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous. 4. Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong. 5. Having psychological rather than physical or tangible effects. 6. Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence." And

"Virtue — (noun) 1 a. Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness. b. An example or kind of moral excellence. 2. Chastity, especially in a girl or woman. 3. A particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality; advantage. 4. Effective force or power."

The problem with these two additional dictionary definitions is that they are, as you can see from the above, completely circular. A "good" (in the moral rather than functional sense) thing, choice, action or alternative is one that which is "morally good" or "morally excellent". And one that is "moral" is one that is judged "good". Relying on the dictionary meanings of "good" and "moral" provides absolutely no intelligible foundation from which to suggest that anyone's particular belief about what is "good" is in any way not correct and valid and proper. So the dictionary does not really supply us with much of a practical guide to morals.

Unfortunately, a dictionary tries to be a documentation of how people use a particular word. It is not trying to be a guide as to how words really ought to be used. Which means, in practical day-to-day application by most people — "good" in a moral sense is whatever I choose to believe is good. And this is the essence of "Subjectivist" Ethics.

Unlike normal social discourse, in the realms of philosophical discussion, ethical alternatives cannot be publicly labelled as more or less desirable without some form of justification stronger than "Because I say so!" It is perfectly acceptable to say, in the privacy of your own thoughts, "The moral good is whatever I choose to believe is the moral good." But it is almost always unacceptable to those with whom you deal in society to say to them that "The moral good is whatever I choose to believe is the moral good." To do so raises the probability that someone else will reply "I don't agree!" or "So what?" or "Who are you to tell me what to do?"

Unless, that is, all concerned are willing to relax the generally accepted philosophers belief that the practice of philosophy is more than merely the expression of personal opinion. Suppose we do change this, and accept as a starting position that the moral good is so just because someone says so. Since such a system of morality is based on the presumed validity of each person's subjective opinion, there is no logically valid rebuttal to another person's opinion. There is no basis upon which to found a claim that one person's opinion is any more accurate or correct or valid than another's.

If this is, in fact, an acceptable starting foundation, then the resulting system of morality will be useful and valid only for those who agree with some one particular individual's personal opinion that this moral good is indeed more desirable in some way than that. The ethical system that results from such a starting axiom is not likely to be consistent or logically coherent. There is nothing to require that the accepted opinion on any related subjects be consistent or logical. Adherents of such a system would not be able to converse on ethical topics with anyone who did not agree with the accepted judgments as to what is morally good. And, more importantly, there is only one avenue open to adherents of such a Code of Morality if they wish to indulge in any social interactions with people who do not agree with the judgments about what constitutes the moral good. The only practical alternative is — "Agree with us/me — or else!"

Of course, merely because Subjectivist Ethics appears to produce undesirable side-effects for some people, is not a legitimate argument against its validity. A rationale of "I don't like the results" is just as empty as a rationale of "Because I say so!". Once again, unless you are willing to stop all philosophical discussion with the rebuttal of "I don't agree!", persuasion and argument must extend into realms where both parties can agree with the ground rules. To successfully convince people that your opinions about what is morally good are correct and appropriate the discussion, argument, and persuasion must begin from a foundation that is mutually agreed upon. It is here where most systems of ethics have foundered, because the only alternative to voluntary agreement with someone else's unjustified opinion is "or else".

How are you going to convince me that the side-effects are undesirable? And how are you going to convince me that, even if they are undesirable, these side-effects are, in general or in particular, "Bad"? Appeals to the "Intuitively Obvious" suffer from the same deficiency as do the "Because I say so!" arguments discussed above. If I disagree with the obviousness of the statement, the argument founders.

One popular version of Subjectivist Ethics is more commonly called "Social Consensus Ethics". It has a wide following, especially among those of a more "liberal democrat" nature, because of the "democratic" consequence that the consensus of popular opinion is the determinant of what is morally good. "Good" (in its moral sense) becomes semantically equivalent to "Socially Blessed". From this perspective, Laws are the legal embodiment of the opinions of the consensus as to what is good. And the coercive powers of the police are the physical embodiment of the "or else".

Perhaps a more familiar kind of Subjectivist Ethics is "Absolute Rule Ethics" more commonly called "Religious Ethics". In this version the opinion of some accepted Authority figure — a God, or a Prophet, or a Wise-Man — is taken as the determinant of what is morally good. "Good" (in its moral sense) becomes semantically equivalent to "Authority Blessed/Commanded". From this perspective, the Word of Authority is the final and unchallengeable arbiter as to what is morally good. And the coercive power of the anger of the Authority (the "Wrath of God") is the physical embodiment of the "or else".

The alternative to basing a Code of Morality on personal opinion, is basing it on something in Reality that everyone can see, and independently examine. With this foundation as a starting point, when some philosopher proclaims what is morally good, a doubter can go out and form his own opinion based on the facts of Reality.

Many western philosophers have used the word "happiness" to define what constitutes the moral good. Their approach is based on the universally accepted observation that it is better to be happier than not (other things being equal). Any doubter can always make a personal evaluation of the happiness that will likely result from any alternatives. And the doubter can discuss with others their own experiences and appraisals of happiness.

The various "happiness" philosophies differ, of course, in their exact definition of what they mean by the word "happiness". The Hedonists, as one example, defined happiness to mean primarily physical pleasures. Others have defined it to mean spiritual contentment, or intellectual satisfaction. And different philosophers establish different realms where-in the individual reaps the reward of "happiness" for achieving the moral "good". In some, the "happiness" is achieved immediately, upon the execution of some act or thought that is "good" by their definition. In others, the reward is postponed to some form of after-life, or is experienced in some form of "other-life" that is separate and distinct from a Reality as usually understood.

But regardless of their particular definitions of what constitutes "good" versus "bad", or how the individual will reap the rewards for choosing the "good" over the "bad", their universal approach to justifying their approach and definitions is that the "good life" is purported to be better than the "bad life", and better than anything in between because the "good" delivers "happiness" and everybody is in universal agreement that "happiness" is better than "unhappiness". In other words, "happiness" philosophies transform the moral sense of "good" into a functional one. A morally "good" thing, choice, action or alternative is "good" because it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what a ethical choice is supposed to do — deliver happiness."

This functional "transformation" results from the fact that all of the various "happiness" philosophies are based on the moral premise that the goal of human behaviour, and all ethical choices and judgments, is to increase in the amount of "happiness". With, of course, critical differences resulting from the different ways that these philosophies define "happiness", and different realms in which that "happiness" is to be realized.

Stuart Burns


(3) Eric asked:

What is "free will"? Do we have a free will? Is it possible to have a free will? Even though most philosophers argued that we humans have no free will whatsoever and they are just illusions, I still believe that we have our own free will to choose one thing over the other.

and Camila asked:

Do we have free will? Evaluate the central arguments of free will and determinism. It is the theory of compatibilism nonsense?

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

I would argue that the notions of "free will" and "determinism" (which is the position that free will is an illusion) come from different realms of discourse — different "levels" of understanding. And that it is improper to contrast them, or use the understanding at the level of determinism to defeat our understanding at the level of free will. This is an essentially compatibilist argument. If you would like a more detailed answer to this question, I would recommend my essay on "Free Will versus Determinism" located on the web at http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0208.htm

Stuart Burns


(4) Riel asked:

What is the relevance of philosophy to the contemporary scene?

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

When viewing the contemporary scene, we all make value judgements about alternatives. We do this all the time, at all scales from the immediate and local (like whether to have coffee or orange juice or both for breakfast) to the distant and global (like what to do about global warming, if anything). We cannot look at any issue, question, alternative, or simple factual event without making value judgements about whether this or that is preferable.

Philosophy is the business and practice of investigating, identifying, questioning, and challenging the underlying assumptions upon which we base those value judgements.

The vast majority of people make their value judgements without ever realizing what underlying premises their judgements are based on. The vast majority of people never ponder the question of whether or not those underlying premises are reasonable or consistent (or what "reasonable" and "consistent" might mean in this context). The vast majority of people will assume that if you disagree with my value judgements, then there is something wrong with you. Something that needs to be corrected — by force if necessary. They never wonder why we disagree, or from what underlying difference in premises the disagreement arises.

By identifying and challenging those underlying premises, philosophy and philosophers bring to people's attention (when they care to pay attention) the more fundamental issues that underlie the superficial disagreements over value judgements. And it is only through attention to those underlying differences in premises that differences in value judgements can be resolved without resort to force.

So you think that global warming, abortion, capital punishment, Republicans, Democrats, the war in Iraq, George Bush, Islam's treatment of women, the West's disrespect of women and family, Western decadent culture, pornography, the local zoning regulations, the tax rate, this TV show, that restaurant, this book, that girl/boy is "good" or "bad"? Why do you think so? Against what standard of measure do you proclaim that this or that is "good" or "bad"? What do you actually mean by "good" and "bad"? If such value judgements are simply a matter of personal opinion, then there can never be any reasonable justification for employing force to impose one set of opinions on others. The powerful can impose their value judgements on those they will simply because they can. But if such value judgements are more than simply personal subjective opinions, then it must be the case that some of those conflicting judgements must be wrong, and can be corrected by education rather than by force.

Look at the extent of the differences in value judgements in the contemporary scene — such wide differences, over so many issues, at so many different scales of relevance to individuals. And look at the extent to which force is being employed to "correct" what are perceived to be other people's wrong headed value judgements. Don't you think that some careful attention to the underlying premises that generate these differences might be worth the effort?

Personally, I feel that philosophy has greater relevance to the modern scene than it has ever had before — if only because the issues over which we disagree are so all encompassing and important for our future. It is unfortunate that so few in positions of public influence pay any attention to philosophy.

Stuart Burns


(5) Mike asked:

I argue that there are no definite answers to philosophical issues. Questions posed are often debated for centuries do not necessarily give one studying the issue definite understanding. Though I see that you said might, but here is a new question: Can you accurately say that philosophy gives one a better understanding of "mysteries", or is it that individuals shape their understanding in a self fulfilling way that then can become a more complicated mystery way?

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

No, the aim of philosophy is complete clarity and complete understanding. The fact that philosophers have failed to agree on the answer to any philosophical problem is valuable information because it can show you that 1. There are no answers to philosophical problems 2. You might start to think about why this is so. 3. You might realise that you need to think about philosophical problems in a completely different way. There is a definite solution to philosophical issues. The only question is are you going to get to that state of understanding that removes all the mysteries and how important is it to you to reach that goal. Here is a quotation from my favourite non philosopher Wittgenstein; 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language'.

Shaun Williamson


(6) Peter asked:

Aristotle argues that the dramatist should choose "a persuasive impossibility over an unpersuasive possibility".

Does he mean that it's better to tell a compelling story than a boring one, even if it is untrue? Do you think he would encourage us to alter facts of a "true account" if it served the story?

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

The compelling factor of a story has nothing to do with the persuasive impossibility. What is important for the persuasive impossibility is that the structure of the story and the details suit the story you are trying to create. In other word, make the impossible come to life through the use of logic. You cannot have monkeys fly in space ships, because they are monkeys. However, if they have a civilization, and science and whatnot then it would not be impossible for them to reach the advancement of space flight. The unpersuasive possibility is the possible that cannot be established through a coherent strategy of development. For example, if you were to have flying cars but not set forth the reasoning behind the flying cars, just say, well my car flies, but everyone else's car does not, then you have a problem. However, if the car was "magical" or whatever then it would be feasible.

Juan Cadena


(7) George asked:

I have read several books by Willard Quine. I keep reading from secondary sources that he has come up with something in the area of logic that is philosophically significant. Quite honestly, I do not "get" the point Quine makes. Will someone please explain what Quine came up with in logic that makes him so interesting to philosophers. By the way, I have studied other analytical philosophers and symbolic logic. I confess that I find the whole movement difficult, and maybe my obtuseness in relation to Quine is part of that overall lack of comprehension.

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

Quine is probably the most important and influential 20th century analytic philosopher. There is a good discussion of why this is so in 'Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy' by P.M. Hacker.

The most important view that he held about logic concerns Modal Logic. Modal logics deal with the logics of possibility and necessity but also there are many other sorts of modal logics. Quine held that modal logics were not really logical systems. The reason why he held this view was that he claimed that the principle of equality and equality substitution doesn't hold in modal logics. I will try to explain this. If you have a logical argument in ordinary propositional or predicate logic and you also have a true statement 'a=b' then you can substitute a for b in your valid argument and the argument will still be valid. Quine held the view that this is not true for valid arguments in modal logic and he described some paradoxes which show that this is not so.

So there are some important questions here for logicians; 1. Are Quine's claims true?

2. If they are true do they destroy the validity of modal logic?

It has never been clear to me that Quine's paradoxes are real paradoxes or simply something that relies upon verbal ambiguity i.e part of the problem of translating ordinary statements into logical form.

Shaun Williamson


(8) Petros asked:

Hi, I stumbled on some work by the philosopher "Wittgenstein" recently and was challenged by an idea he put forward regarding the practise of philosophy. Wittgenstein claims that one cannot tackle and solve any problems in philosophy as he believes them to be merely linguistic riddles. That is to say a game with words and once the linguistic puzzle is solved then the problem is solved. I found this very interesting and not surprised that Wittgenstein was isolated by many of his fellow philosophers. My question is if Wittgenstein is correct then what is a philosopher and should we be really referring to philosophers as "word puzzle experts" or "linguistic riddlers"? thanks

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

It is true that Wittgenstein in his later work (from 'Philosophical Investigations' onwards) held the view that there are no real philosophical problems and no interesting philosophical truths. However he didn't think that philosophical problems are merely linguistic riddles. He regarded philosophical problems as the deepest puzzles that the human mind can create. However since they are not real problems he held that that they do not have solutions and that the task of the philosopher is to dissolve philosophical problems not to find a solution to them. The way to dissolve a philosophical problem and to free ourselves from the need to philosophise is by reminding ourselves of how language really works rather than believing the philosophers' fantasies about language.

For Wittgenstein philosophical problems arise when we become entangled in our own language and the task of philosophy is to free us from this entanglement.

For him philosophy is not about arguments or reaching conclusions, it is about examining a philosophical problem in a perspicuous way that enables us to reach a clarity where the problem disappears.

There are many reasons why Wittgenstein has failed to have any real influence on Western Analytic philosophy. Obviously one of the implications of his work is that philosophy is an illusion and this idea in itself is an uncomfortable one for philosophers. Philosophers interpret his work in a way that fits in with their own preoccupations. So Wittgenstein is one of the most quoted and most ignored philosophers of the 20th century.

Besides Wittgenstein's writings a good discussion about his views is contained in 'Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy' by P.M. Hacker. To understand Wittgenstein's work you need at least the following; 1. A good knowledge of western philosophical problems. 2. A reasonable knowledge of the history of western philosophy 3. You need to find philosophy puzzling. Wittgenstein is not easy to understand so be prepared for some hard work.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Michael asked:

This is more of a 'theory' than a question, yet I need an answer... My claim: I'm omniscient.

Taken from Merriam-Webster dictionary (http://www.m-w.com/home.htm):

Omniscient: having infinite awareness.

Infinite: immeasurably or inconceivably great or extensive. Awareness: having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge.

Using Rene Descartes' Cogito, I think therefore I am; I know that I exist. Because of this knowledge, I must know that I know that I exist. Also that I know, that I know, that I exist... ad infinitum. This sequence of knowledge (awareness) is infinite, thus I have infinite awareness.

It is important to note that "knowing everything", a common definition/ description of omniscience is different from having infinite awareness, (used in my dictionary reference), which is knowledge an infinity of things.

Now the questions: On who lays the Burden of Proof? I cannot possibly prove, beyond reasonable doubt that I exist, as Descartes said...

What errors are there in my line of reasoning?

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1) There are degrees of infinity. For example in mathematics, if a = the quantity of rational numbers between 0 and 1, and b = the quantity of all rational numbers, a and b are both infinite, but b is a larger order infinity than a. Therefore, you could theoretically claim to know an infinite number of things without knowing all things, but I think the "infinite awareness" in the typical usage of the word "omniscient" refers to a larger degree of infinity which does include all possible knowledges.

2) You don't have infinite awareness because ad infinitum does not equal infinity. It's tenable, and I in fact believe, that the limit to human knowledge is infinite, and that the human mind is capable of learning to eternity, nevertheless, until eternity is "reached" you have not acquired an infinite amount of knowledges. The series you referred to is infinite, like saying I know an infinite number of numbers (1, 2, 3, 4...), but that is just a process of learning about an infinite number of numbers. I can only learn them at some finite rate. Thus as long as we are bound by time and/or cause and effect, which makes us learn things sequentially, and not all at once, we can not acquire an infinite amount of knowledge. Therefore the quality of omniscience can only be attributed, either not at all, or only to such that is outside the limits of time, and cause and effect. So whoever is omniscient must also be eternal and self-existent (uncreated).

3) Proof is whatever you want it to be. Mathematical proof is deduction, which is the unequivocal — given A and B, then C must also be true and there's no rational way to question it (other than by questioning A or B). That's what Descartes was trying to do, and as far as he got was to prove that he existed. I think his proof meets the "unequivocal" test, although you appear not to. Less rigorous proofs include scientific proof, the criteria of proof described by the scientific method, which as applied historically tends to be trustworthy about half the time; and the degrees of proof used in law, such as "beyond a reasonable doubt" which you mentioned, which is rigorous, yet obviously subjective, and "by a preponderance of the evidence," which is probably less subjective, yet obviously not rigorous.

I think that most intellectual minds seek at some point to acquire knowledge solely through mathematical proof. But in reality deduction can only be a tool for learning the effects of what you already know, thus to find effects from causes, and perhaps to find the causes from their prior causes, but not to induce causes from their effects. And yet our intellectual starting point is merely sensory input from a vast array of effects. So how do we find the causes? Science uses imagination and testing. As long as the deduced effects of the imagined cause match the effects perceived by the senses, then the imagined cause is presumed to be the true cause. This works ok, but only on things closely causally linked to the testable, and leaves the rest, the higher causes, totally unexplorable.

Swedenborg suggested that there existed a way to those causes, which worked best with the highest causes (as opposed to the scientific method which works best with the lowest) which he called "common perception." For example when we talk about mathematical proof, how do we prove the laws of deduction? We can't prove them by deduction, as that is circular logic. And if you look at my definition, it only states that there is no rational way to question it. It can still be questioned irrationally. So how are we supposed to "just know" the laws of deduction and what is rational and irrational. The idea of common perception is that there is a continuous influx into the human mind from the infinite (from God), which is spiritual light, which is rationality. The reception of this rationality, is what enables us to "perceive" the laws of deduction and other elements of reason. Or rather, it doesn't make those laws spring to mind, but when we here those laws, it enables us to inwardly acknowledge, "yes, this is true." To me that is as strong a proof as the mathematical proof. In other words, I believe, based upon common perception that the rules of deduction are true, just as strongly as I believe that the things proven by the rules of deduction are true — as does everyone since the rules of deduction are a given in every deductive proof. The perceptive proof can further be used to identify the truth or the falsity of higher causes, in fact the higher the cause, the stronger the perception often is.

For example, if I make the statement, "There is such a thing as morality, and morality should be practiced." You probably immediately perceive "yes, that is true." And if you're solely scientific-minded you probably proceed to think, "and I know this because, um, in evolution, them apes had to not kill each other or else they'd all be extinct." But the real reason you know it is because of perception, and the most perfect mathematical deduction proving otherwise probably couldn't dissuade you. Therefore, though not given much attention, I believe this is the most significant and powerful form of proof used by mankind both now, and through the ages. Though it's not often used directly in science (and probably can't be), it is used extensively in religion, as it is what enables people to identify various forms of divine revelation as such, after which they rely on those forms to deduce further causes (not scientific causes but higher causes which relate to matters of morality). How do you distinguish this proof from blind, unthinking belief? In another person you cannot, but in yourself difference is obvious. The unfortunate consequence for the scientific-minded is that the prior rule — that what was provable to one's self is equally provable to others — no longer holds.

Erik Martin


(10) Shirley asked:

From a philosophical viewpoint -- how does one decide who regulates science? Do we put the brakes on cloning a human being or do we let scientists do what they do -- discover!

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The philosophy of determining what actions ought to be permissible in a given society is the philosophy of government. The decision of who regulates is the decision of which form of government will govern the society. Based on that decision, the governor(s) of the society decide what is permissible by power and whatever philosophical underpinnings are provided by that form of government. When it comes the scientist, just as with all other individuals, this will typically mean limits on what can be inflicted upon other humans and (sometimes) animals. Of course, within this framework there can be, and often are, voluntary societies for scientists (or other professions) which provide additional rules more particular to the profession, which essentially set a standard of conduct that must for inclusion in the society. However, the only power to place an absolute limit on any certain kind of activity, (i.e. the power to make criminal law) is by definition exclusively in the government.

Erik Martin


(11) Sonny asked:

Is there a philosophy or development of thought that deals with there having to be an opposite? Does there have to be contrast for something to be known? Can you know good without knowing any evil? Dark without light? Cold without hot? Life without death? etc.

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This is a common theme among many Christian philosophers, notably Emanuel Swedenborg. He suggests that everything good corresponds to its opposite which is evil. And that every natural thing derives its existence and its quality from a spiritual thing and its opposite. E.g. that water is the natural form of true knowledge in the "genuine" sense, and the form of false knowledge in the "opposite sense," that heat from the sun is the form of love of/from God in the genuine sense, and hatred of others/ love of self in the opposite sense. Also he says that God permits evil to happen in the world, because the human race must be able to see it and know it in order to be free to choose good over evil. And many, many other concepts dealing with opposites and their necessity.

Erik Martin


(12) Thomas asked:

Should I study philosophy or is it just a complete waste of time?

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It isn't a waste of time but it is not something that is right for everyone. You may study philosophy for years and not get anything from it. When I was young, by accident, I read a book that raised some philosophical problems. After that I felt compelled to study philosophy. You should be aware that philosophy is not like science. There are no agreed answers to questions and philosophers don't even agree that the questions make sense.Only study it if you feel compelled to do so.

Shaun Williamson


(13) Samantha asked:

I asked a question about a month ago and i still haven't received an answer about how long does it take to get a response?

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Not all questions get a response because the people who answer questions may not feel qualified to answer your question. Remember that this site is mainly for questions of a philosophical kind so asking questions which are about facts or psychology or emotions may not get a response. Post your question again and I will try to answer it or at least tell you why it is not getting an answer.

Shaun Williamson


(14) Sam asked:

While considering the Semantic Paradoxes and some possible solutions for an essay, I came across A.N. Prior's suggestion that the Strengthened Liar Paradox can be solved by postulating that every sentence asserts it's own truth and so the Strengthened Liar Sentence:

This sentence is not true.

is a hidden conjunction:

This sentence is not true and this is true.

The paradox is then implicitly a contradiction and we can say that it is false with out fear of contradiction by the liar derivation. However I was wondering if this same approach could be used to solve some of the other semantic paradoxes especially:

The next sentence is true.

The previous sentence is false.

It seems clear that each of them won't be contradictions because they are not self referential, however taken together do they create an implicit contradiction such that we can disregard them like we can with the liar paradox? I'm afraid that my logic is no where near good enough to come up with anything concrete.

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Well to start with, as long as you've got a language which can't make a meta-statement about a sentence in that language (i.e., a statement which refers to a statement as one of its elements), then at whatever level that ability stops you're going to have the possibility of paradox through self-referentiality. As for Prior's suggestion, it's not an argument I'm too familiar with, but offhand it seems inadequate to me. Since one can construct sentences in any finite logic which are not true in that logic, it hardly seems reasonable to say that such sentences are implicitly and simultaneously making a meta-statement (a meta- meta-statement, in the above case) to the effect that they are true, especially if the sentence is in a system which cannot have meta-sentences. Thus at the very least Prior's claim cannot be universally true, and the class of systems for which it isn't true are just those for which paradoxes can most easily be constructed. Taking the above at face value, as a statement in a system which can have meta-statements, then what you actually have is the word "this" with two meanings. One refers to the sentence generically, i.e., as a demonstrative adjective modifying the word "sentence", and the other refers to the statement "this sentence is not true". That is, you have "this [only this one] sentence is not true and 'this sentence is not true' is true", when you expand it. That is not equivalent to "this [only this one] sentence is not true". How Prior could claim that every sentence implicitly contains or implies a meta-sentence asserting its truth-value is beyond me... if nothing else, he's got himself into a nasty regress there (because now that assertion has to assert the same thing about itself, right?).

As to your two sentences, I see no way that these do not set up a paradox. One thing that Prior's attempt shows is that logic is not necessarily atemporal. That is, one might consider that any single sentence should, somehow, be read and understood simultaneously: it is ultimately a single statement of logic. If we say "A+B=C", then we do not take the process of addition into account, we are merely stating the result, no matter how long one might take to add A and B. But the situation is a little different when we get to recursive processes. Given an equation, e.g., "y = (x+1) - y", we may either consider this to merely be a simple equation in algebra which reduces to a single value for x. However, if we are operating in a recursive system, what the equation actually says is "y(2) = (x+1) - y(1)", where "y(2)" names the second value of y which is computed from x and the first value of y, termed "y(1)". We cannot, in this type of system, say what y will "come out" as, because it never does. Instead, the equation provides us with an infinite set of values, which we might graph, to see what that set "does" in what is sometimes termed its "phase space".

Why am I going on about this? Because I think that the two-sentence example above is an instance of this type of process, where there can be no "solution" in the sense of a resolution of the sort: "this is a contradictory set of sentences", i.e., a resolution within the system, for the reason that these sentences cannot ever have atemporal values, that is, values which are "at rest": outside the process of ascertaining them. One can say "these sentences form a paradox" (looking into the system from outside, so to speak), just as one can say "the equation above is recursive". But what a paradox is, in this (and perhaps all) case, is the same kind of set that we saw as the result of the recursive equation: an infinite set of results as the values keep being substituted into the sentences. In this case the set is very simple; an oscillation between two values for each. But the key term here is the temporal one: "oscillation".

Steven Ravett Brown


(15) Jeremiah asked:

What does this statement really mean:

''The greatest happiness you can have is knowing you do not necessarily require happiness.''

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Two potential interpretations of this spring to mind. The first is that if you do nothing but actively pursue happiness itself, trying to eke out the maximum happiness from each and every situation, then you are unlikely to enjoy life very much. This is an idea put forward explicitly by J.J.C. Smart, and also by Robert Adams and, I think, Bernard Williams. I can give you a personal example. I am a guitar obsessive, and use most of my disposable income for purchasing different guitars. I have realised that, in fact, the guitar I have had the longest, and which I am most comfortable with, gives me by far the most pleasure. In this case, I have realised that, instead of buying more and more guitars (buying guitars=happiness), simply appreciating better what I have makes me more happy. Some may think that this leads to the conclusion that therefore not buying guitars=happiness to me, but this is probably not quite right. The point is rather that simply acting explicitly to maximize happiness, and devoting your mind to this, may not be a very good way to achieve happiness.

This also picks up on the rather old theory in economics of diminishing marginal utility. That is the theory that, for anything you like, the happiness (utility/pleasure/welfare/satisfaction) you gain from each additional one decreases. So, if I have a cookie, it is likely that the second will not be as good, the third less so etc. This may not happen immediately, but it will happen eventually.

This leads to the second interpretation, which is linked, and similar, but not identical. This is that happiness is more likely to be found when you are not really looking. Epicurus thought that happiness was ataraxia, or "Serenity of soul". This kind of well-being is obviously not to be found in the pursuit of physical pleasure, but in a rather more complex 'living a good and happy life' kind of way. In this interpretation, the quote is referring to moments such as those when you are with family, or friends, or having a good time somewhere just being, and you suddenly realize that you are happy. i.e., it happened when you were not looking.

Not a definitive answer I know, but perhaps some ideas to be thinking about.

Steve Bullock


(16) Colin asked:

I've been thinking about time and have a question, if I may. Has 'the past' (or 'the future') ever been proven to exist? As I think about the subject I keep on coming back to a series of questions I can't get away from.

Q. Does the past exist? Yes.

Q. When did the past exist? When it was the present. Q. So has there ever been a 'past'? Hmmm.

Same with the future. I can't help but wonder if the present is all that has and will exist and it is only human traits like perception and memory that fudge the issue. When you actually stop and look at the world, the view that you are surfing on a constant plain of 'present' fits nicely. Further, if that was the case — does time actually exist at all or is it that another confusion born of those pesky Swiss watch manufacturers?

What are you guys and girls thoughts on time? (It should only take a minute.)

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Yes the past does exist and your tax inspector will soon remind you of this when he requires you to fill in a tax return for the past year and fines you 100 if you don't do this.

So surf away but the tax inspector of the landlord of the mortgage company will catch up with you. And if only the present exists then why do you expect to find food in the fridge since you have never been shopping.

Shaun Williamson


(17) Elahe asked:

Is there death?

I think we never die. We must live.

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Yes death does exist. I have many good friends who have died and I will never see them again. My parents and my sister died. But you can learn to cope with death no matter how painful it is and you can also learn to cope with your own death but don't let that distract you from learning how to live.

Shaun Williamson


(18) Richard asked:

Is Logic based upon Induction?

I was reading the 'Problems of Philosophy' by Bertrand Russell, and I came across the 'Laws of Thought'. Russell claims that these are self-evident laws, and that things act in accordance with them.

If the world as we knew it were to change, and in this new world 'Whatever is, is not.' became true, the Laws themselves would have to change, and with it, our logic. This would mean that, like science, our logic and these 'Laws' are based upon the inductive belief that the "real world" would stay consistently the same. Does this mean that these 'Laws of Thought' are nothing but theories, just like all other inductive theories?

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No logic isn't based upon induction and is not effected by what is true or what is false. Logic explicates our ideas about what constitutes 'a valid argument'. This is an internal linguistic concept. In this sense logic is like mathematics.

If the world changed so that counting or measurement was no longer possible then we might decide that mathematics was no longer useful but we would not conclude that our system of mathematics was false.

Imagine that you existed in a world where playing cards kept changing their value randomly. In such a world you couldn't really play poker. However the rules of poker would still be valid since they presuppose a world where playing cards don't change at random.

If the world no longer follows the laws of logic then language itself would become useless.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Ann asked:

In researching various ethical theories, I am having great difficulty in finding one that coincides with my beliefs. Are there any ethical theories that are not based on religion? The Categorical Imperative is appealing, but it seems that free will is required. Kant explains humans as being causally determined and self-determining at the same time. If determinism holds true, would the categorical imperative be of any help as a basis for moral order?

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No ethical theory can be based upon religion. We first have to judge if God is good or bad before we decide to worship him (if you believe in god) so morality always precedes religion.

Don't try to find an ethical theory that coincides with your beliefs. Try to decide what is true and false and mould your actions in accordance with that. Philosophy is not about designer living i.e lets find the philosophy that seems the most attractive, cool, goes with my clothes etc.. Free will vs determinism is a philosophical problem and you might have find a solution to that if it really disturbs you. However finding a solution to philosophical problems requires a lot of commitment and hard work.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Mickey asked:

If anything is possible, why can't anyone touch the shy?

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Anyone can touch shy people although they probably don't like to be touched. No one can touch the sky, so anything isn't possible. You can't fly either so don't leap off a tall building and flap you arms. It won't work.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Travis asked:

If god created everything, how did god come to be?

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When it is said that God created everything, it means God created every created thing, God being self-existent, not created. Both Time and Creation began some 15 Billion years ago. That is a fact requiring explanation if we are to understand the world.

The best explanation of that beginning is that it was the work of a self-existent entity, a God. If a better explanation is ever offered we should accept it, but meantime it is rational to accept the present best explanation.

The more interesting questions are why everything began the way it did, why it has developed the way it has, and where it is heading. I consider these questions in "The Process of the Cosmos".

Tony Kelly


(22) Kjie asked:

If God is good then why evil?

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The question assumes that a good God should not allow freedom in his creation. Clearly there is freedom in every stage of the cosmic process, the development of matter, the evolution of life, and human freedom to do good or to do evil. Leibniz argued that this had to be the best of all possible worlds. I argue that this is the best of all possible worlds because it is the only world that could make possible the free self-creation of a community that is similar to God in goodness, creativity and self-creativity, and as such an entity that would be appropriate for God to love. The world is our do-it yourself kit.

Tony Kelly


(23) Ron asked:

While staring at a square candle burning, I noticed the side facing me melted faster than the others. I turned the candle and the side facing me melted faster. My question is this: Is fire/light attracted to man as man is to fire/light.

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You were "staring" at the candle, My theory is your breath probably was probably making the side facing you burn faster, because you exhale oxygen, as well as other gases, and oxygen makes fire burn faster. Man has been attracted to fire since cave times, but that's mainly because "fire" remains a pretty amazing thing, even though we do have lots of technology nowadays.

Nuno Hipolito


(24) Nicholas asked:

Why are humans cruel. You see I have been observing other humans and humans like to make people feel bad, you see an animal when they with themselves if the other animal gets badly hurt the animals put him out of his misery but humans must keep hurting, killing burning so my question is why are humans cruel?

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Humans don't just like to make "you feel bad" as such. Humans are complex animals, with a huge brain and a lot of time on their hands, since we don't need to worry so much about surviving.

Being cruel is more of a social behaviour than an animal behaviour. That is because cruelty these days comes from having to deal with other people in our lives. Since we developed psychology, we understand better why we do certain things. At first glance, if you see someone being cruel to another person, you assume there is something wrong with them, or that they are just "evil", "bad". That comes from looking at the surface of things. Actually I believe — as does psychology — that many behaviours, specially aggressive ones, come from inner lackings, such as low self-esteem or traumatic experiences from childhood. I know it seems weird that someone would be cruel because they feel bad about themselves, but just think about it: what's the easy way to feel better? Make someone else feel inferior to you, make someone else feel even worse.

I don't think "man" is evil, or cruel. "Man" is a social animal, as is involved in complex social structures, which make it inevitable for cruel behaviours to arise, from time to time. Humans are cruel because of that, and not because they want to be cruel. You must also understand that most humans don't realize the origin of their behaviours, because most people don't think too much about why they do certain things, or they can't really see it, or they deny it.

Nuno Hipolito


(25) Raquel asked:

what are the characteristics of a good probation officer? what makes a good probation officer? does probation work?

what is probation work?

why do you think anyone would want to become a probation officer?

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In my country (Portugal) there are no probation officers, but I see a lot of American movies, so I'll try to answer this one as best as I can.

Seems to me that probation is a way of believing that someone that was convicted can be trusted, because they are being release before time. In order to be eligible for probation you must behave well in prison and show signs of regeneration.

A probation officer must be, first of all, a kind of mix between a psychologist, a teacher, a cop and a father figure. At least they should be.

Does probation work? Well, that's a very subjective question. Depends on the person on probation, what kind of life he/she has on the outside, does he/she have family support, etc... In order to get back into society, these are all important factors. Probation only works if the ex-criminal wants it to work, and if someone helps him out a bit.

Probation is a very valid concept, because it shows that the State believes in those who are incarcerated for their crimes. It gives someone a second chance at life, if they behave well, and show a willingness to change.

Nuno Hipolito


(26) Graham asked:

At what price victory?

What would be your response to a football team that's been taken over by a ego maniac who will brush all before him, fire anyone and divide the fans,but might bring victory at the end of the season? Would success justify the actions?

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You're not a Chelsea fan are you?

Coaches are — at least the good ones — ego maniacs. An egomaniac is someone who has very high self-esteem, to a degree that it prevents him or her from seeing his or hers errors, or listening to anyone else. Being stubborn is a good thing, if your ideas are working out, but if they are not...

Anyway, you asked about success being justified by any actions.

Let me put things into perspective for you. Just imagine if this was a Fortune 50 company, and not a football team. Enter a egomaniacal CEO that starts downsizing, reshuffling, optimizing... workers are disgruntle, the media wants his neck, working there becomes working inside a pressure cooker, people are constantly afraid of losing their jobs and must perform... BUT, and it's a proverbial BIG BUT: the stock prices are at an all time high. Shareholders love the guy and give him big bonuses. The best employees get bonuses as well, and all the others know that the company isn't going down under any time soon, so their jobs are a little bit safer, if they perform well.

Let me ask you: would you fire this CEO?

Nuno Hipolito


(27) Christi asked:

What is Carpe Diem? and why is it such an important philosophy?

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Carpe diem comes from a poem from the Roman poet Horace ( 65 — 8 BC).

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero

(pluck the moment, never trust the next)

Read this article to know more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpe_diem

It's not so much a philosophy de per se, but more of a saying, a principle of life.

It means that you should not waste time when you can take advantage of the present time and opportunities. It's important mainly because of that, it makes you understand, in a poetic and simple way, the importance of living your life to it's full potential.

Nuno Hipolito


Erin asked:

What is knowledge?

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Philosophers tell us that knowledge is "a way, or technique, of verifying an object". I won't go into deep details about this, because you would probably fall asleep, (but if you are interested in deep details, check out a good philosophy dictionary — Nicola Abbagnano's — under the word "knowledge").

An easy way to look at knowledge is from an utilitarian point of view. You need knowledge because it's useful, because it makes you understand an object, it's function or meaning. Some say that knowledge is power, because knowledge makes you stand a step ahead of someone who does not know what you know.

Just be aware that, sometimes, you can reach a point where you know too much for your own good. This happens mostly in spy movies, where beautiful women and fast cars also come into play.

Nuno Hipolito


(28) Teresa asked:

What is the essential nature of truth for Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche?

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For Plato (idealist) truth comes from the world of ideas, the forms. For Descartes (rationalist) the first truth is in the self, the cogito, for Nietzsche (existentialist) truth is what makes you stronger in this life.

Nuno Hipolito


(29) Travis asked:

If god created everything, how did god come to be?

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God, is, by essence un-created and immortal.

You point out, and very well, that such a God could not create anything, because if He did, He would Himself be a material creation of some sort. Guess what, Kant also saw that one coming a mile away, and that was one of his antinomies of reason, namely the forth one.

For Kant, we should not want to know about such things like God, and the Soul. He considered such things to out of reach for reason to understand.

There is, in my opinion, a way around this conflict. You could say that God could not created everything and be Himself un-created. But God could create a stepping stone, something that created for him. An intermediate.

Nuno Hipolito


(30) Brian asked:

Do trees have rights?

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By law, yes, if they are endangered. But the aim of the regulations is not to protect them as entities, but to protect our natural environment. All laws have human scopes, and are not design to protect non-rational things.

If you want to speak of-the-record, yes, I would grant trees rights, as well as other living things, such as animals, and even ecosystems. But we are, obviously, a very long time away from that.

Nuno Hipolito


(31) Michael asked:

Children are impressionable. Is it right to teach children religious beliefs before they have the opportunity learn how to use good reasoning?

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Why do you think people teach religious beliefs to children? If they weren't impressionable they probably wouldn't.

Anyway, children grow up and they can always dispute things that are taught to them as absolute truths. And believe me, they often do. It's called rebelling.

But you are probably right. And many parents now decide not to teach they children religious beliefs until they are old enough to understand them, and make their own decisions.

Nuno Hipolito


(32) Petros asked:

I stumbled on some work by the philosopher "Wittgenstein" recently and was challenged by an idea he put forward regarding the practise of philosophy. Wittgenstein claims that one cannot tackle and solve any problems in philosophy as he believes them to be merely linguistic riddles. That is to say a game with words and once the linguistic puzzle is solved then the problem is solved. I found this very interesting and not surprised that Wittgenstein was isolated by many of his fellow philosophers. My question is if Wittgenstein is correct then what is a philosopher and should we be really referring to philosophers as "word puzzle experts" or "linguistic riddlers"? thanks

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First thing: Isn't Wittgenstein a philosopher? Yes, he is.

Second thing: Philosophy of language was a great breakthrough for philosophy, not a setback. Philosophy of language told us that we should look more carefully at the way we pose questions. It didn't tell us not to stop posing questions, just not using language as if it had no context to be used in.

Nuno Hipolito


(33) Emily asked:

Does the idea of rebirth make any sense? How do we prove that it does or does not?

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By "making sense" do you want to know if it's true? Well, no one really knows. That's because rebirth goes beyond death, and we don't really know what happens when we die, other than our brain flat lines and we stop wanting to go shopping.

Some religions/religious beliefs try to prove rebirth. Of course the most famous one is the Tibetan monks, which practice a form of Buddhism (check this out for a full history of Buddhism in Tibet: http://buddhism.kalachakranet.org/tibet.html).

They believe we reincarnate and this is a common belief in Buddhism. But they go a bit further when they try to prove that someone has reincarnated in to a new body, by trying to recognize the "original soul".

This happens for example when the Dalai Lama dies. The current Dalai Lama, His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was recognized at the age of two, in his village, in the North of Tibet. According to tradition, some special objects are brought for the child to recognize, holly and profane ones. Then the reactions of the child are analysed, seeking proof.

You can read the fascinating process of a recognition, following this link: http://www.tibet.com/PL/june15d.html.

Nuno Hipolito


(34) Vash asked:

If the Universe is all that is encompassing how can there by other Universes? And if there are other Universes, as stated above, would that mean that there, too, are other One and only God(s)? And if the answer is yes to both the above question, who created them-God?

Seriously, I am not asking this as a joke, If I were a robot, my logic circuits would have been fried by now. I have been dealing with this Macro-question for nearly eight years now.

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Some physicists propose the parallel universe theory. These universes don't exists in our own universe, but in parallel dimensions, that go beyond the 4 dimensions we know of.

In theory, these universes were created along side our own, at the time of the Big Bang, and in all probability they will also collapse at some time.

If you believe in God, and believe that God created everything, God might have created the Big Bang universes, all at the same time.

Check out these links on "Multiverse" or "Many Worlds" theories :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everett_many-worlds_interpretation

http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/multiverse.html.

Nuno Hipolito


(35) Thomas asked:

I know love is just chemical reactions inside you, but my question, is it worth listening to, or will it just screw me over? Thanks.

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It will screw you over Thomas, but damn it's worth every penny of suffering.

Nuno Hipolito


(36) Ripu asked:

Why do we meet some people in life, who have no meaning for us; while we end up running into the same person, again and again, even tho we might avoid them initially.

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If you believe in destiny you look at things that happen to you in a different light. People appear in your life for a reason. Maybe they want to tell you something or maybe you have unresolved issues with them.

Many schools of thought, specially western ones, believe that the body, as the universe is ruled by energy. Energies in you search for a balance, and sometimes that search requires you to do things and receive or get rid of others.

That person who you are avoiding probably has something to tell you. Or you might learn something just from the fact that you feel annoyed from it's presence. Are you being selfish? Maybe you should pay more attention to the importance of that person in your life.

Nuno Hipolito


(37) Nuno Hipolito


Julie asked:

Should all disabled people be treated the same as able bodied people?

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If you break both legs should you be treated as an "able bodied person"?

Nuno Hipolito


(38) Pedro asked:

What would an existentialist philosopher such as Sartre have to say about love? What is the position of existentialism on the idea of romantic love? Also, could you please refer me to some texts or readings that address existentialist takes on romantic love?

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Sartre said a lot of things about love. Most of them in his major work: Being and Nothingness.

He fundamentally defended a "profane love", which means that love, to Sartre, was an attempt to realize the unity of the "self" with the "other". This implied that, the "self" demands to be "everything" for the "other". To be "infinite" to the "other", to be the absolute meaning of everything, and so go beyond the limitations of our own existence, and system of morals. But the "other" must want, by its own free will, to accept this. In this acceptation is the most wonderful and mysterious part of love and, at the same time, what makes love a contradiction, because — as Sartre says — if both the "self" and the "other" search that infinite condition in each other, they can't be infinite at the same time, to love and be loved as such, to be "subjective-infinite" and "objective-finite".

There is an underlining irony in Sartre's analysis of love. Wanted to be infinite to another is like trying to be God. And one cannot be God and believe in God, without being frustrated by that belief, for both infinites exclude themselves. Although this is a romantic view of love, it is also a pessimist view of love.

Existentialists are often viewed as pessimist, so no surprise here.

Nuno Hipolito


(39) Ali asked:

What is the view of Nietzsche about Death?

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If you go by Sartre, death does not belong to our existence, and is, therefore, insignificant, a pure event, equivalent to birth, exterior to us, and not belonging to our life.

Nietzsche was also an existentialist but he was more of a poet.

Nietzsche sang the songs of life. He was a "defender of all that was life", as opposed to things "that defend death", such as established religions. He was adamant in defending the vitality of the human life, of a man that fights for what he wants and decides his own fate, that is not afraid of being sinful just because he can be punished later on, in an theoretical afterlife. He considered that those who praised God, who considered man to be essential a creature of sin, wanted to control and imprison mankind in the shackles of morals and religion. He said that those attitudes went a long way to make man weaker and submissive.

Just read his Zarathustra:

"There are preachers of death, and the Earth is filled with those to whom we should preach that they would disappear from the Earth" (The Preachers of Death); "I have in me an invulnerable force , capable of leaping over mountains; it's called my will (...) Yes, I salute you the destroyer of all graves. I praise you, my will! For only where there are graves there are resurrections!" (The chant of the Sepulchre).

Nuno Hipolito


(40) Mike asked:

Can you accurately say that philosophy gives one a better understanding of "mysteries", or is it that individuals shape their understanding in a self fulfilling way that then can become a more complicated mystery way?

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Different school of philosophy have different attitudes to what is truth and to what extend absolute truth is possible at all. The more serious forms of philosophy know and show their limitations in this matter. They don't act as if they are oracles. (I noticed that a lot of questions on this forum are phrased as if philosophers were oracles. That is an image that most don't even want to live up to)

To give a concrete, practical and surprising example of understanding mysteries: Wittgenstein argues that many 'philosophical issues are just misconceptions and semantic constructions. He was convinced that that insight solved a lot of great mysteries. Many great philosophical and scientific problems are solved by realising that the questions were wrong.

Another thing is that philosophic tools can detect inconsistencies in arguments. That is very useful because absolute truth may be hard to find, but absolute nonsense is definitely around.

About the second part of your question: pleasant and comforting forms of truth should be distrusted. If truth exists, it may well be very disappointing.

Rhonald Blommestijn


(41) Judy asked,

Are roses red in the dark?

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Like all other objects, roses have no colour in the dark. Colour is a function of the brain and requires light. In very simple terms, when light strikes an object some is absorbed, the rest is reflected. hence we are dependent on reflected light to see objects. White light is made up of several wavelengths of radiation, our awareness of colour depends on the wavelengths of light reflected by objects. Take for example the green leaf of a tree; we could simply say that all wavelengths are absorbed by the leaf except one, which is reflected and which the brain interprets as green. The red roses to which you refer will absorb all wavelengths except the one it rejects or, as we say, reflects, and which the brain interprets as red.

This explanation is very simple and objects often reflect more than one wavelength, giving combinations which the brain converts to shades of colour. Hence we observe many shades of red, green, blue, etc.. Colour science is very intricate and those involved in producing fabric dyes and paint pigments are expert in producing the correct chemical mix to reflect the desired wavelengths of light, or to put it in laymen's terms, the required colours. You will gather from this the philosophical and scientific conclusion that the world has no colour, that colour is subject to the individual observer. We can also extend this to sound, scent, taste and touch, which are all products of the brain and interpretations of their respective neuronal stimulation. Black objects absorb all the radiation striking them, whilst white objects reject/reflect all radiation. Hence it is better to wear white trousers on sunny days rather than black if you wish to prevent your legs from becoming overheated.

John Brandon


(42) Rodney asked:

I have a question that has bothered me for many years. I am not even sure if it can be answered. I always wanted to know what came first. Language or thought. You cannot have a thought without language nor can you have language without thought.

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Well, actually, you're quite wrong. There's no doubt at all that one can have thought without language. First, apes think, if in simple, concrete terms. Second, there's a huge literature on non-linguistic thinking. Look here, to start:

Allen, C., and M. Bekoff. Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.

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

Bermudez, J.L. Thinking without Words. Edited by D. J. Chalmers, Philosophy of Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Grandin, T. Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995.

Knauff, M., T. Fangmeier, C.C. Ruff, and P. N. Johnson-Laird. "Reasoning, Models, and Images: Behavioral Measures and Cortical Activity." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 15, no. 4 (2003): 559-73.

McNeill, D., ed. Language and Gesture. Edited by S.C. Levinson, Language, Culture and Cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wallentin, M., S. Ostergaard, T.E. Lund, L. Ostergaard, and A. Roepstorff. "Concrete Spatial Language: See What I Mean?" Brain and Language 92 (2005): 221-33.

If you want a very simple example of thinking with images, just visualize an analog clockface with the time at, say, 3:00, then figure out what the time will be in half an hour. One way to do this is by adding 30 minutes, of course. Another is to visualize the minute hand rotated (or rotating) down to the 30-minute position. If you do the latter, you've solved a problem non-linguistically, thinking by manipulating images.

Steven Ravett Brown


(43) Ram asked:

Could you please explain Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic judgements a priori?

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As Kant argues in his Critique of Pure Reason all the judgements, which contain the idea of necessity in its concept are a priori.

For example the judgement all bodies are extended is a priori, since it involves necessity and universality (therefore a priori), and not empirical because if we take away from our conceptions all that can be referred to sensuous experience (colour, hardness, softness, weight etc.), all the rest vanishes but the space which the body occupies remains. Finally it is analytical, since the predicate of extension is contained in the subject bodies, therefore is analytical for I need not to go out of and beyond the conception of body but merely analyze the conception.

On the other hand in the judgements, which are synthetic, the predicate is not contained in the subject and I need to go out of and beyond the subject. For example the judgement every change has a cause, the predicate cause is not contained in the subject changes, therefore I need to go beyond the subject changes to the concept of cause and effect, which contain necessity (a priori) and does not come from experience (not empirical). Judgements synthetic a priori are the mathematical ones e.g. a straight line between two points is the shortest or the principles in physics e.g. in all communications of motion action and reaction must be always equal.

However a priori synthetic judgements are distinguished from the empirical synthetic judgements, since the empirical ones are assumed by inductive through experience. For example the judgement all bodies are heavy is a synthetic since I go beyond the subject body and I find the weight, which is from my experience (empirical) always connected with the body. (Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction I-V).

Nicolaos Bakalis


(44) Ann asked:

In researching various ethical theories, I am having great difficulty in finding one that coincides with my beliefs. Are there any ethical theories that are not based on religion? The Categorical Imperative is appealing, but it seems that free will is required. Kant explains humans as being causally determined and self-determining at the same time. If determinism holds true, would the categorical imperative be of any help as a basis for moral order?

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As to your first question, you seem to have already identified one — Kant's theory. I can think of two more off the top of my head (there are undoubtedly more). Try Googling "Utilitarianism" or "Evolutionary Ethics".

As to your second question, it can be argued that if determinism is true, then the entire concept of morality collapses. The very notion of morality is based on the concept of free agency. If you have no choice in the matter, you cannot be held morally accountable. But is determinism true? You might want to take a look at http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0208.htm for a suggestion on how to marry free will and determinism.

Stuart Burns


(45) Luke asked:

Is it morally acceptable for employers to read employee's e-mail?

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Yes!

Assuming, of course, that the e-mail in question was composed on, transmitted by, or stored in the computer hardware owned and operated by the employer. If you are playing with the employer's toys, the employer has the right (as owner of the toys) to set the rules of the game.

Stuart Burns


(46) Neve asked:

Im studying Ancient Philosophy, Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics in particular at the moment, and I don't't understand why he believes the best life to be one of contemplation. What is he defining contemplation as and how could that be the best way of life?? Please help!

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As Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics the activity of the best part in us, namely the intellect (nous), is the contemplation, therefore the life in accordance with this contemplative activity of the intellect (theorein) is the happiest. This intellectual contemplation of the truth aims at comprehension and grasping the first principles.

Since the intellect is the divine element within us, the life according to intellect is divine, therefore intellect is the only element that can make ourselves immortal so as to become like gods. And as the proper thing to man by nature is the intellect, then the life according to intellect (kata noun bios) will be in accordance with his nature, therefore the best and the most pleasant, namely the happiest.

If pure intellect (nous) is divine, then in comparison with man, life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X, 1177 b, 30).

For this activity is the best, since not only is intellect the best, but the objects of intellect are the best of knowable objects; and secondly it is the most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X, 1177 a, 10-23).

If then the state by which we have truth and are never deceived about things that cannot or can be otherwise knowledge (episteme), practical wisdom (phronesis:prudence), philosophic wisdom (sophia) and comprehension (nous: intellect) and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. prudence, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is pure intellect (nous) that grasps the first principles. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VI, 1141 a, 2-8).

And pure intellect (nous:comprehension) is concerned with the ultimates in both directions; for both the primary definitions and the ultimates are the objects of comprehension and not of argument, and in demonstrations the pure intellect (nous) grasps the unchangeable and primary definitions.. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VI, 1143 b 1).

As you can see nous in some parts of Aristotles work has been translated as comprehension, intellect, pure intellect etc. therefore I quote the Greek word .

In association now with Aristotles teleology, we can say that knowledge (episteme) and intellectual contemplation (theorein) are the actualities (entelecheia) of the soul, therefore when a being fulfills its end (telos) then it becomes the happiest.

Hence soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is actuality of a body as above characterized. Now there are two kinds of actuality corresponding to knowledge (episteme) and to contemplating (theorein). (Aristotle, On the Soul II, 412 a, 20-25).

All the a\m feedbacks are parts from my book Handbook of Greek Philosophy

Nicolaos Bakalis


(47) Ruth asked:

Suppose that:

Material substance may or may not exist — something IS or IS NOT but is unverifiable ie. Earth, God, Things etc. (and for the purposes of this I clump God (possible real existence) with Earth (material existence) -there is no Meaning outside of a thinking mind -Meaning consists of thoughts, ideas, impressions, sensory input etc. -Meaning is our subjective knowable reality... -I am excited by the extent to which creativity can inform Meaning and thus affect life and living. I have an Honours BA in philosophy but as you can tell from my awkward wording, that was a long time ago. Can you direct me to which philosophers I might read to better understand and consider the relationship between creativity and meaning. I am particularly excited by the idea that we are co-creators of our own spirituality and of God too.

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Well, I'd recommend you read John Dewey. He's known as a philosopher of education, but he actually had a lot to say about creativity and meaning.

Steven Ravett Brown


(48) Besart asked:

I need help how to composing an essay, three pages for the theme: What is the intellectual? From Jean Pol Sartre. Please help me.

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Gee gosh, you want us to help you do your essay? For free? Come on, if you want us to help you plagiarize at least offer us money... I'll refuse, but hey, I'll feel more virtuous, you know?

Steven Ravett Brown


(49) Ralph asked:

As I grow older, I have less short term memory it seems and memories from long ago seem to haunt me. Is this part of normal evolution just for humans? If so, what survival advantage does it bestow on us? I can see that it might be some extra wisdom that could be used in social groups yet on an individual level, I see no advantage.

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Some of the problems with speculating about the evolutionary significance of something are that a) it's very difficult, sometimes, to find a "thing" which is actually a "trait". Take your "trait"... 1) a loss of short-term memory, 2) resurfacing of "long ago" memories. How many things are actually or possibly involved here? It's pretty much impossible to say. Just looking at 1), we might speculate about the decay of memories, the replacement and/or loss of neurons, the inhibition of newer, more painful memories in favor of older, more pleasurable memories... and on and on. What, precisely, is or might be selected for here? In addition, aging makes any evolutionary question very difficult, because evolution is only involved with reproduction. That is, a trait or set of traits is selected for because it makes an organism more likely to reproduce. After all, if a trait can't affect reproduction, then it makes no difference how beneficial, or detrimental, it is.

So if we all became extremely stupid at age, say, 50, or alternatively, we all became very wise at the same age... well, so what? Because we don't, by and large, have children after age 25-30 or so. So whatever was happening would be incidental, and maybe due to other traits that were reproductively significant at or before age 25-30. Or maybe not, maybe something pretty much universal to all aging mammals would be happening, because something has to happen, and that's what's left over, so to speak, after everything which actually is selected for is done functioning. You see what I mean? All in all, then, it's just about impossible to say anything about this. There has been speculation along the lines of the "grandmother theory", i.e., that wise grandmothers help raise children, so those children are more likely to survive and carry the family trait of becoming a wise grandmother, and thus indirectly aid in the maintenance of the trait of aging gracefully, or whatever... but that's just sheer speculation at this point. You might check out the Yahoo group: Evolutionary Psychology, for some of that speculation.

Steven Ravett Brown


(50) Hymnset asked:

Why is it that certain Genes are Recessive, and others are Dominant?

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An interesting question. First, you might go here: http://www.hbes.com/search.htm and look around.

But this is more to the point:

http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/bio99/bio99691.htm

And so is this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominant_gene

What it seems to amount to, is that "dominant" and "recessive" are not black and white categories dependent on types of genes, but are categories that relate to the relative functioning of similar genes.

Steven Ravett Brown


(51) Kieran asked:

If the name of a thing is not the thing itself, and the description of a thing is not the thing itself, and the image or mental representation of a thing is not the thing itself, and even the knowledge of a thing is not the thing itself then can the thing be considered/discussed/known with any degree of reality? If all things in this way are beyond their name, description, image and knowledge, is this evidence that all things are one? (Owing to the fact that they all essentially lack attributes in a very identical way).

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You've touched on one of the most horrible problems in philosophy, one which people have been debating for the last 2-3000 years. Any "answer" I (or anyone else) might give you would immediately be questioned by half a dozen other schools of thought. I don't even know how to get you started on this one, except to recommend you start from the beginning, by reading Plato, and just keep going through the area in philosophy usually termed "metaphysics".

As for your very last question, the answer is no, it's not. Um, according to, well, most of the schools of thought on this matter.

Go do some reading on this... for about 5 years (no, I'm dead serious). Then you might have an idea of how this question has been addressed.

Steven Ravett Brown


(52) Richard asked:

Does freewill have less meaning than has been supposed. All actions may be measured in ethical terms. Many actions will be to satisfy normal everyday needs of life, being ethically neutral, with automatic responses to needs. Other actions will be ethically neutral but have alternatives, and whichever way is taken may be the result of a mental throw of a dice. Where 'decision' is required, it must be assumed that an altruistic person must take the course that appears most altruistic. For if he did not do so he would not be altruistic, which is absurd. If two alternatives are equally valid, again a throw of the mental dice will be needed. If an altruistic person is subject to some kind of duress, he may well take a course that belies his nature, but his action will be the result of the sum of forces acting upon him.

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Your question is the first sentence, right? "Less meaning than supposed"? What kind of question is that?? "Less" than what? "Supposed" by whom? Is the rest of this an answer or a clarification? Here, try some of these:

Brown, J.W. "The Nature of Voluntary Action." Brain and Cognition 10, no. 1 (1989): 105-20.

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

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

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

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

Pockett, S. "On Subjective Back-Referral and How Long It Takes to Become Conscious of a Stimulus: A Reinterpretation of Libet's Data." Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002): 144-61.

------. "The Great Subjective Back-Referral Debate: Do Neural Responses Increase During a Train of Stimuli?" Consciousness and Cognition In Press (2005).

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

Velmans, M. "Making Sense of Causal Interactions between Consciousness and Brain." Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, no. 11 (2002): 69-95.

Wegner, D. M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Wheeler, R.H. "Theories of the Will and Kinesthetic Sensations." Psychological Review 27 (1920): 351-60.

These will dip your toes into this debate.

Steven Ravett Brown


(53) Jusuf asked:

I have been ill since 1993 so much so that I now have 20 documented medical disorders including depression, psychosis and schizophrenia. But, the past 12 months have been truly horrible. I almost died twice out of acute renal failure and digestive system functioning. I was hospitalized 5 times. I am consuming 26 tablets per day, plus weekly hormone injections. I am in severe and extreme pain 24 hours per day. Since I cannot eat what I want to eat, cannot do what I want to do and cannot go where I want to go, is euthanasia justified in my particular case, Thank you.

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There's no way I, or probably anyone, can answer this for you. My position on euthanasia is that there are circumstances in which it is justified, but they're pretty extreme. If we should "own" anything, have control over anything, it should at least be our own lives. However, you have to make this decision. For example, I have no idea as to your age. If you're 90, then I'd be more inclined to agree with euthanasia in your case than if you're 30. And that's just one example of the many problems in evaluating this. Generally, I'd say that if there is reasonable hope for improvement in your case, euthanasia is not justified... but that's such a vague statement that I don't see how it could be any help. If there are people who care for you or are emotionally dependent on you then that's a reason for living... and so forth. I just can't see how anyone can make this decision for you; you have to make it yourself, as best you can, and then have the courage to carry it out, whether carrying it out is living with the pain or is ending your life. Think about this, though: as long as there are possibilities open, there is the chance that things can change. When you're dead there are no more possibilities.

Steven Ravett Brown


(54) Fonzi asked:

What are the guidelines in constructing philosophical writings? it's not for any form of cheating or anything, i would really like to know because in one way or another i can't grasp what the demands of philosophy are. if you could answer my question, i strongly believe that it would improve my attitude towards philosophy, and in turn, help me in my studies. specifically in my greek philosophy course, the teacher crushes me with remarks i know not of, because i have yet to take the subject of philosophical writing. i need your help, i know not where else to run.

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Here's one comment:

http://www.cofc.edu/~portmord/tips.htm

But this is more focused, perhaps:

http://www.cofc.edu/~portmord/tips.htm

Steven Ravett Brown


(55) Nicola asked:

What is death?

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Knowing about death or infinity is not possible intellectually. Knowledge, which is the basis of philosophy, depends on memory and mechanical thought, and these are too slow to keep up with truth, which involves concepts like infinity. Truth moves very quickly, faster than the past, present or future, and therefore cannot be held in the mind. Therefore, although truth can be realized, it can never be uttered. A quieting of the mental processes can approach these metaphysical questions, which is quite surprising and unexpected, and unbelievable to those who trust only their minds.

Raymond Rock


(56) Jack asked:

How does Aristotles method of doing philosophy differ from Plato's method?

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There are many differences between Plato and Aristotle's views, but the main one is that Aristotle considered that the main object of study, for a philosopher, should be Nature.

In fact, Aristotle said that there is nothing in Nature, no matter how small, that does not deserve to be studied. This is because he defended that, in every case, the true object of our research is "the substance of things".

Plato, on the other hand, teaches that the value of questions regarding Nature is significantly lower, when compared with questions regarding the "world of ideas". Plato studied "ideas" and Aristotle studied "Nature".

Nuno Hipolito


(57) Melissa asked:

Does the Bhagavad-Gita allow for humans to be free? Is the doctrine of karma a moral doctrine?

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The Gita is a religious book, as precious as the Bible or the Koran. Of course, it was design to teach, and by teaching, influence people who read it.

This book, however, differs from other religious books, because it teaches a "spiritual way" to self-realization. Although self-realization in a divinity framework, because to find the inner self, you must find the "love of god" in yourself.

Your question about freedom is a complex one. When is one really free? If you must read a book to be free, are you truly free? Of course any religion can tell you it brings personal enlightenment and freedom, but every one of them also tells you that you must believe in its conceptions in order to be free. So is the Gita any different? I'm afraid not. If you don't believe in Krishna, you might as well not believe you can be free in the love of Krishna...

Karma is in principle, an amoral concept, with moral implications. You do something bad, and get something bad back. But you can't conduct yourself morally by this principle, because you wouldn't be making moral decisions, if you only wanted to avoid bad things happening to you. Saying that something is bad is not the same as saying that something will bring something bad to you. Morality is all about choices.

Nuno Hipolito


(58) Ramon asked:

Ok here is the situation...I have studied many philosophical problems, specially that of the analytic tradition but I still haven't read any major text of a certain philosopher, lets say..Wittgenstein, I always get a basic (general idea) of the book but never really gotten to read it all. The thing is that im currently writing some of my ideas and propositions for further elaboration in the future. It is my believe that reading other philosopher's ideas dulls the creativity, one gets contaminated by other peoples thought and originality goes out the window. But I am desperate for advice, because I don't know if to read some major philosophical works or to go on as I was. Should I read more philosophy?

PS: My work is based on the idea of concepts, conceptual analysis, ontology and philosophy of language.

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When I read your question, I immediately identified with what you are saying.

When I started writing my philosophical thoughts, I also thought I should not read other authors, because I wanted to be original, untainted, uncontaminated by any other ideas.

I found this to be essentially true, but only to some degree. I advise you to work alone, uncontaminated, in your first works, first book or two. But at some time you should seek more knowledge, more opinions, more views that will help you to improve your own, by comparison, contradiction, etc.

Reading other authors is always precious, because we can get new insights, new questions, new perspectives, that often we cannot get alone. So read more philosophical works, when you feel secure you have written down your main, "original" ones, and you feel ready to develop your ideas, and take them out into the world.

Nuno Hipolito


(59) Jusuf asked:

In the past 13 months I almost lost my life twice. I was hospitalized 5 times and consume 26 tablets per day, plus weekly hormone injection. I am in severe and extreme pain 24 hours per day. I also feel sick 24 hours per day. There are times I cannot get up without outside help. My question is:Shall I endeavour to end my life? It seems to be pointless to live anymore.

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First of all, I'm very sorry to hear about your pain Jusuf, and I would like you to know your text touched me deep in my heart, as I am sure it will touch everyone that reads you.

I won't try to defend any side on the difficult question of euthanasia, because I feel that is the most personal decision one can make.

I would, on the other hand, like to ask you if you feel depressed.

Often depression brings thoughts of suicide, because we feel that it would be easier to stop fighting, than to continue at such great cost. Of course I don't pretend to understand the pain you are in, or the circumstances of your present life, just give you a different perspective.

I would like you to ask yourself another simple question. It is a question first posed by Buddha:

What is the source of your suffering?

While you pose yourself this question, imagine yourself stepping outside of your own body, and seeing your present self, your present life. You will see that you are not your suffering. Your pain is exterior to your own self.

You will continue to feel pain, but when you feel desperate, ask yourself the question again. You are not the pain in which you live, you are yourself above that pain.

I hope I helped in any way, and I which you all the best.

Nuno Hipolito


(60) Lola asked:

I've got an essay to write. it is titled "in what ways is individualism central to liberalism. I'm stuck on the title, could you help?

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Liberalism is, essentially the practice that defends the realization and defence of liberty on the political aspect of life. In the XVIII century, liberalism was marked by heavy individualism.

This brings about, in that century, more individual rights and the notion that society is based on a contract between individuals, which brought a economical view that says that the State must not intervene in the economical process, thus later combating any absolutist governments.

If you want to learn more, follow this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism

Please be advised that, later on, in the XIX century, liberalism gained, with Burke, Hegel and Rousseau, an anti-bourgeois perspective, because this authors believed the "citizen" and not a particular social class, should be the focal point.

Nuno Hipolito


(61) Talha asked:

"A God who intervenes miraculously in the world cannot be benevolent." I'd like conclusion for that please.

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A miracle is now considered a thing of exception to the natural order of nature.

Do you mean to say that a God who intervened though miracles is a god who is random with its acts of kindness towards humans?

Spinoza said that a miracle is something that escaped human understanding. I agree with him, and I tend not to see miracles like things that might reveal the intentions of God in any other way that the way in which we analyse them.

Nuno Hipolito


(62) Lavell asked:

Does the weight of a car effect its gas mileage.

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Yes. Because the engine pulls the weight. A lighter car spends less fuel, because there is less strain in the engine, and because it takes less power to pull a lighter car, than an heavier car.

So next time, think twice when your friends ask for a ride.

Nuno Hipolito


(63) Jade asked:

Why is man a person, thus, unique?

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Some call it "the soul", others call it "life experience", but one thing's for sure, individuality comes down to very intimate and personal factors. A human is an individual when he distinguishes himself from others, in a similar social environment. This distinction often occurs when one gains certain knowledge and acts upon this knowledge in a certain way, thus expressing one's individuality.

Essentially what makes you "you" is that no one else can live "your life". Even if you had a clone, it's impossible to condition someone to have the same visual, social, intellectual, stimuli, thus individuality is born, as a particular view of reality.

Nuno Hipolito


(64) Fred asked:

Am I just a chemical brain? For years I have been fighting within myself to accept something and I am still fighting over this. Everything we do, say or think comes from our brain of chemicals so what am I supposed to accept, that my whole existence to reality is just a bunch of cells, synapses and neurons??

I would really love to have someone ease my suffering on this matter as it has driven to wits end. I have been told there are no answers to my questions but I cannot accept that I am just this chemical brain and it creates my thoughts and is my consciousness... Please help!!

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Stop worrying about being a chemical brain already, jeez.

On a serious note: you are a chemical brain, embrace it. That doesn't necessarily mean you are just a chemical brain. First of all, you are an individual, and the more you focus your attention on analysing yourself, the less you can obtain out of life, because there is such a thing as over-analysing one's self.

Actually, how do you know that what you call "you" comes out of organized neurons and chemicals? It's not that simple. Artificial intelligence scientists know that it's not a matter of organizing cells, memory, and primitive senses, in order to obtain intelligence — life.

I think that at some level, the brain becomes so complex, that something is born out of that complexity which is no longer "just the brain". The sum of all neurons, individually are not the same as the complex web they represent together.

Nuno Hipolito


(65) Nancy asked:

My daughter's philosophy teacher (high school) asked the class to solve this "riddle" of sorts.

You're in a box. You cannot see or touch the walls, but you know they are there. Your goal is to get out of the box and explain how you did it.

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Did you try thinking this out with your daughter? That's the point, you know...

This isn't really a riddle, only a way for your daughter to ask herself if she: 1) believes there is a box, therefore questioning the validation of reality around her; 2) would use her senses, and rely on them when they seem to be useless; 3) would find a way to exit the box, by out smarting the principles of the "riddle", thus using creative (out-of-the-box) thinking.

Nuno Hipolito


(66) Ty asked:

Which is the philosopher that taught by asking questions?

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That would be Socrates. The use of questions is called the Socratic method.

You can read more following this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates.

Nuno Hipolito


(67) Samantha asked:

Why do we judge others? I have a persuasive speech due on the 18 of this month (January). I would like to know before this time. Yours questioningly, Samantha.

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90% of the time we judge others to feel better about ourselves.

Nuno Hipolito


(68) Patricia asked:

I am doing an essay on the question "Is murder wrong? Why?" and am not sure where to begin! Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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Begin by writing down what you can say about this question. Consider that there are many implications, in different fields: morality, sociology, law, philosophy, etc.

What does your teacher wants to be your main focus? A philosophical focus would lead you to talk about the value of life, the moral implications of taking life and the possibility of murder being justified (philosophy of law).

Nuno Hipolito


(69) Abdul Rahman asked:

Imagine that there were two persons: X and Y. X lived a short but happy and healthy life, while Y lived a long but sad and miserable life. Which one do you consider to be luckier? In other words, Which is more important: the quality of your life or the number of years you live? Why is it so important to keep living regardless of how do you live? What is the big deal if someone dies now, since he/she is going to die sooner or later? Why is it wrong to commit suicide?

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A lot of big questions here.

Let's start with the importance of life. Life is the most important thing we have, because it is the basis for everything else we experience. You wouldn't be able to laugh, cry, invent, reproduce, etc, if you weren't alive. Life is a necessary condition to experience being human.

The Mayan people used to practice human sacrifices to the Sun (mainly to the Sun), and several historians called the Maya a primitive people. Now we now that they sacrificed human life because they view it so highly. It was the most precious thing they could give to their gods.

I don't think you can compare how two lives are, putting them side to side, to see who lead the happier one. Just imagine the immense quantity of artists that lead very troubled, often suicidal, lives, and those are probably the most productive human beings. All life is precious, be it a short one, or a long one. You could have very little human experience and still feel alive and happy, or you could travel the world and feel unhappy, unfulfilled. It comes down to the individual expectations, and personality.

So, it's not so important the years you live, but what you get to experience that fulfils your needs and desires. You could be happy with a small job and a family, or you need to travel to China, or you could just want to see the Ocean for the first time... I think it has more to do with dreams, with experiences, than with years or life, money, or power.

I think you can get an idea now of the reason suicide is a usually a bad thing. Society should protect people against suicidal ideas, because you don't necessarily need to lead a very happy life to be alive. A lot of people lead dull or even miserable lives, but still find something to hold on, and feel alive. And, if you let go of life, who knows what you get... you could get just a big void, and not being is not better than being, is it?

Nuno Hipolito


(70) Rhea asked:

What are the distinction between matter and form?

What is the concept of change? How does change takes place?

What are the distinction between Act and Potency?

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As I can see from your questions you are studying the Metaphysics of Aristotle. I will try to answer the three of them together, since they are associated. As Aristotle examines the concept of substance (ousia) in his Metaphysics, Book VII, he concludes that the particular substance is a combination of both matter and form. As he proceeds to the book VIII, he concludes that the matter of the substance is the substratum or the stuff it is composed of e.g. the matter of the house are the bricks, stones, timbers etc., or whatever constitutes the potential house. While the form of the substance is the actual house, namely covering for bodies and chattels or any other differentia. The formula that gives the components is the account of the matter, and the formula that gives the differentia is the account of the form (Metaphysics VIII, 1043a 10-30).

With regard to the change (kinesis) and its causes now, as he defines in his Physics and On Generation and Corruption 319b-320a, he distinguishes the coming to be from a. growth and diminution, which is change in quantity b. locomotion, which change in space and c. alteration, which is change in quality. The coming to be is a change where nothing persists of which the resultant is property. In this particular change he introduces the concept of potentiality (dynamis) and actuality (entelecheia) in association with the matter and the form.

Referring to potentiality, is what a thing is capable of doing, or being acted upon, if it is not prevented from something else. For example, a seed of a plant in the soil is potentially (dynamei) plant, and if is not prevented from something, it will become a plant. Potentially beings can either act (poiein) or be acted upon (paschein), as well as can be either innate, for example the eyes possess the potentiality of sight (innate — being acted upon), or come by practice or learning, e.g. the capability of playing the flute, which can be possessed by learning (exercise — acting).

Referring now to actuality, this is the fulfillment of the end of the potentiality. Because the end (telos) is the principle of every change, and for the sake of the end exists potentiality, therefore actuality is the end. Referring then to our previous example, we could say that actuality is when the seed of the plant becomes a plant (Parts from my book Handbook of Greek Philosophy).

For that for the sake of which a thing is, is its principle, and the becoming is for the sake of the end; and the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this that the potentiality is acquired. For animals do not see in order that they may have sight, but they have sight that they may see. (Aristotle, Metaphysics IX 1050a 5-10)

In conclusion, the matter of the house is its potentiality and the form is its actuality. The formal cause (aitia) then of that change from potential to actual house, is the house builders reason (logos) and the final cause is the end, namely the house. Then he proceeds and concludes that the actuality is prior to potentiality in formula, in time and in substantiality.

With this definition of the particular substance (matter and form) Aristotle tries to solve the problem of the unity of the beings e.g what is that makes the man one? Since, according to Plato there are e.g. two Ideas: animal and biped, how then the man is a unity? However, according to him the potential being (matter) and the actual one (form) are one and the same thing. (Aristotle, Metaphysics VIII 1045a-b).

Nicolaos Bakalis