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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 30 (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 30/1.

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

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(1) Tammy asked:

Is Philosophical Idealism the best response to the epistemological sceptic?



There may well be some good reasons for idealism about some things (for supposing that all there is to the existence of these kinds of things is the existence of some ideas of ours), but so long as we might wish to insist on the reality of anything at all (and I think we do!), It isn't a good strategy to begin by adopting a general response to the sceptic (be he epistemological, ontological, or what not) of 'oh alright then, it's all in the mind'. Some of the pitfalls involved in any strategy of universal idealism can be seen in the following interrogation:

A: It's all in the mind.

B: What can you possibly mean by 'mind' then? A: Ah... Um...

In general what we call 'Philosophical Idealism' only proves to be halfway comprehensible when conjoined with Philosophical Realism, and the point is that we are Idealists about some things only because we are Realists about others. For example, Plato appears to be a kind of Idealist about particular things, but a Realist about the universal intellectual objects which he thinks the particulars are constructed out of in our synthetic judgements - his being an idealist about one thing and a realist about the other gives content and meaning to both his idealism and his realism. This kind of contrast is essential and usual. The same thing happens in Hume and Wittgenstein more or less exactly the other way around: realism about particular impressions or facts tied to a kind of idealism about intellectual objects like 'equal'. For example, again, Berkeley's novel method of sustaining his high Idealism about a large class of things was to adopt realism about one important thing, namely God, in whose mind all the 'ideas' were to have their continuing being.

My point is that we can't keep retreating to idealism whenever the sceptic threatens, or we won't even get to keep our idealism. Idealism about this sort of thing has to go together with realism about that sort of thing, minimally, entities called 'minds' that need distinguishing from other sorts of things. So idealism can't be a general strategy for handling skepticism.

David Robjant

(2) Tom asked:

How to you justify something that you don't know for sure will happen? Eg. Justifying that the sun will surely rise tomorrow? Or that the next step you take will not drop you into a bottomless pit?


Where attempted, conversations in this vein sometimes end up with an odd kind of exasperation on all sides, with the sceptic raising his voice, or capitalizing his words, as in 'Yes, but you can't be CERTAIN that the Sun will rise tomorrow' or 'Yes, but you can't be SURE that we aren't about to drop into a bottomless pit'. One thing to say to the exasperator in question - though obviously I can't absolutely promise this to be effective in shutting him up - is that in raising his voice, in capitalizing CERTAINTY and so on, he is appealing to the existence of a idealised, rarified other-worldly grade of CERTAINTY that is in no way related to any life that anyone might actually live, or any practical action that one might ever take, and therefore perfectly meaningless.

The sun rising tomorrow case is (assuming we don't yet have much influence over the habits of the solar system) a fairly good instance of the meaninglessness, the emptiness, of a so-called 'doubt'. You may *say* that you now doubt the sun's rising tomorrow, but in what way is this claim related to any practical commitments? What are you going to do about it? Are you going to take any practical steps to prepare for, avert, or console yourself to the end of life on earth as we know it, or are you just going to continue talking drivel till midnight when people usually give in, or start snoring, and then fall asleep yourself in your special satisfied sceptical smugness, awaiting another bright sunny day of empty intellectual brilliance, as per usual?

And on the equally pressing falling into bottomless pits question, we can all be pretty certain that we are not going to fall into any bottomless pits any time soon, since pits, being pits, aren't bottomless. We'd be much better advised to worry about falling into pits that *do* have bottoms to them, nasty hard fatal bottoms with rocks and dark places and so on, in the hope that with the appropriate level of caution, and alertness to genuine live questions and advice such as 'stop dreaming you idiot and look where you are putting your feet!', We might live longer and talk less nonsense.

David Robjant

(3) Peng asked:

Can we say that we are coexisting on one space in infinite times per second?

For example, think of one person standing on a platform. The next microsecond, perhaps, another platform, with the exact same image, appears. But these two images are one microsecond apart, and cannot meet each other.

What I'm trying to say is that can we think of the element of time this way?

Like every tiny bit of time passes, you would be recreated with the exact same thing that you were doing. Sort of like how a 2D shape becomes 3D, because you require that additional "height or thickness"?

Can we think of that as a 3-dimensional space "transforming" into a platform for time?


The error in your set up is the supposition that time comes in bits. It is arguable that the 4 dimensional space-time image also depends upon this mistake, such that there could be a 'place' in time, or a 'point' in time, in just the sense that there are places and points in space. Something extensionless in space (the Euclidean point) is already an act of imagination departing from any real squiggles on paper in the direction of a purely intellectual world (geometry), where the extended and extensionless mathematically co-exist, but I fear that the further application of this style of abstraction to time ties us up into all kind of wholly unnecessary knots, such as are involved in your picture of a four-dimensional space-time where the temporal "height or thickness" of this four-D universe is given by the addition of an infinite number temporal layers so that "we say that we are coexisting on one space in infinite times per second".

In the case of Euclidean geometric points, I think we can allow the small departure from the ordinary thought that if it is not extended in good old space then it just doesn't exist, and we can allow it because we are familiar with things that have no spatial shape at all, and yet are nevertheless exist because they are extended in time - such as: music, love, etc. Euclid's geometrical point is a late entry to a large class here, tolerable through both usefulness, and good precedent. But when we now apply this to extensionless point idea to time, and start to picture temporally unextended 'snapshot' slices of the universe, as in the 4D 'block - universe' view, we are pretending to imagine something wholly without precedent, and, I say, unimaginable. In a way that does not equally apply to space, it is essential, absolutely essential, to our idea of something existing that when something exists it exists extended in time: it either was, is, or is going to be. No other relation to the verb 'to be' exists - but those who try to picture the maths of the physical sciences here are groping for some further tense of 'to be', a tense for what is in no way extended in time, the "infinite times per second" which, while we call them "times" are entirely unlike our familiar occasions, moments, and so forth, which all of them allow of, indeed insist upon, time's continuous and un-layer like flow within them.

When you say

Like every tiny bit of time passes, you would be recreated with the exact same thing that you were doing. Sort of like how a 2D shape becomes 3D, because you require that additional "height or thickness"?

I think you - together with many others - create mystery where none need exist. You create the mysterious relation of time T1 to time T2. Well, if the world really was built of "layers" in this fashion, there would indeed be such an implacable mystery. But it is not. Time flows. The universe is not a block. The "layer", the "bit" of time, the "millisecond": these are only so many abstractions and images, not the thing itself.

David Robjant

(4) Trent asked:

What did Nietzsche mean exactly by "downgoing" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra?


He meant exactly what he wrote: to come down the mountain.

Zarathustra lived on an island on a high mountain. There he looked down on the world, and in helicopter view saw antlike humans performing all kind of weird rituals. And that way perverting' progress.

At present he would for instance have seen US ants killing Iraqi ants by the hundreds.

And Muslim ants in Sudan killing starving non Muslim ants.

Zarathustra made it his goal to reintroduce real values again, to stop running in circles.

Henk Tuten

(5) Lili asked:

Why does Descartes introduce the evil demon, supremely powerful and clever into the First Meditation? What role is this figure assigned to play?


There are two reasons why Descartes introduces the evil demon hypothesis (he is not saying that there is an evil demon but only that it is possible that there is). The first is to illustrate how it is possible to cast doubt in areas we feel most certain such as when reflecting on mathematical and geometrical propositions or when thinking that the physical world exists as the cause of our thoughts and experiences. This is because it is possible that a deceiving demon could

a: Intervene in my thought process at any time and make me believe false thoughts.

B: Be the source of my creation and so have made me in such a way that my nature is defective and I regularly think false thoughts.

The idea here is that even though we may feel certain that there are physical objects with certain properties or that there are geometrical figures with certain properties we cannot logically deduce this from what we are immediately conscious of.

The second reason why Descartes introduces the evil demon hypothesis is because he wants to use it as a theatrical device to keep an element of drama and tension in the work. If we keep this image in mind it will remind us of the many things that can be doubted and which we cannot really be certain of. So it is used to undermine our confidence in things we feel certain about.

Notably Descartes did not use his theatrical device to call into doubt the thought that there was a cause of his thoughts and experiences.

Julian Bennett

(6) June asked:

Do angels exist?

And also:

When I was at school (some 20 years ago)! A teacher taking assembly said "death is something you cannot fully appreciate until you have experienced it". He was not speaking in terms of a relative dying. This has periodically re-entered and troubled my thoughts. Can you offer any insight or words of wisdom which might help to put this in perspective? Will I be able discern and appreciate that I have died when I am dead? What will happen to my consciousness? Will I just cease to be?


Although some may regard these questions as religious and so not philosophical, I do not. Both religion and philosophy set out to explain the world. Religious explanations tend not to keep pace with the advance of scientific knowledge while philosophy is able to dig itself into positions that maintain that such explanation is impossible.

Aristotle was able to argue his way up from the contingency of the world to the necessity of a First Cause, a God, but he was unable to reconcile the necessary perfection of the First Cause with the imperfection of the world. In Aristotle's time the world was regarded either as static or, if in process, a circular process on the biological model. The category of a linear process, aiming towards a purpose, had not been developed. This category resolves Aristotle's difficulty.

We can then argue:

1. The existence of a self-existent entity, a God, is the best explanation of the existence of the contingent cosmos.

2. The most appropriate motive for a self-existent entity to act is the production of another entity that is similar to itself.

3. The self-existent entity cannot create another entity that is self-existent. The best it can do is to initiate a process that can produce an entity with a well developed brain. Such an entity could then develop its cognitive capacity and eventually make itself similar to the self-existent entity in characteristics such as creativity and goodness.

4. The stages in the development of the Cosmos since the Big Bang show the self-organisation of matter, the evolutionary self-organisation of life that eventually produces Homo-sapiens some 160, 000 years ago, the development of Homo sapiens' cognitive abilities through various cultures, leading to the development of the capacity of some Homo sapiens to think critically and develop a moral sensibility. These capacities only began to be achieved within the last 3000 years. ( See "The Discovery of Mind" by Bruno Snell)

5. I argue in my Thesis "The Process of the Cosmos" (1998) that humans are involved in such a process of free self-creation, leading towards the possible production of a communal entity that is similar to the self-existent entity in both creativity and goodness.

6. If this is the case then there is no reason to suppose that our involvement in this process ends with our physical death. It is possible that we continue to be involved in some way and that this involvement is what gives rise to ideas of angels and devils.

Aristotle was not able to understand the world as humanity's "do-it-yourself kit". Thanks to his work and that of other thinkers and scientists, we can.

My Thesis and subsequent papers are available on my Web Page at

Tony Kelly

(7) 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.


Good question and one that many students face. First, the good news. You do not read heavy books from cover to cover. You actually plug away at them piece by piece thinking as you go. You cannot rush the process. You mention Wittgenstein. Get his Philosophical Investigations and read it, taking your time and thinking about every few lines. Expect this process to last a lifetime. Read Monk's book about Wittgenstein and that will motivate you and provide a vital introduction to PI. Another one to read in the original text is Heidegger, but do not start with Being and Time. What is a Thing would be a good first read. Take your time. You might like to use Julian Young's books as an introduction. Again, you will need to read them slowly. The study of philosophy is a way of life more than a student exercise. You cannot expect to advance yourself as a philosopher unless you do engage with key figures. You must form your own views on the real philosophers. Most of them are far more readable than you might expect. It is often more difficult to read the secondary literature than the original texts. Good luck.

Robert Shaw

(8) Janet asked:

J.S.Mill seems to think that one action could be right in one set of circumstances and wrong in the other. Could his theory be considered relativistic?


The more technical term would be "casuistic" (i.E. "Depending on the case at hand") in place of "relativistic". To evaluate the special conditions of the case under scrutiny is what jurists do in applying "casuistry" (see

Thus "one action" is not "one action" but is dependent on the context in the same way as "one word" is not "one word" but its "real meaning" is dependent on the context where it is put. To kill a person by accident is not the same as to kill a person by intent, and to kill for jealousy or hatred or fear is not the same as to kill for greed or for political reasons "in cold blood".

This sort of "differentiation by context" is central to the much debated question whether you are "a freedom fighter" or "a terrorist". Remember that even Socrates and Jesus have been put to death for "causing uproar", while Luther scarcely evaded this fate. If you are on the side of the winners, your killings are that of a hero, otherwise they are called "crimes".

Hubertus Fremerey

(9) Tara asked:

Do all humans see the same color when looking at the same object? How can we know? Could not two people both be looking at a banana and see a different color but have learnt to call the color of the banana yellow? For example Bob and Bruce are both 1 year old boys. Both their mums are teaching them to talk. Both mums point to a banana and say "this banana is yellow." Despite the fact that the two boys MIGHT be seeing different colours when looking at the banana but are just taught to call it yellow, how could we know, because you cant describe colours, you cant say blue is heavy, or red is rough etc.. So every time Bob or Bruce look at a picture of the sun they will say that the colour of the sun in the picture is yellow, even though they maybe seeing different colours. Hmmm


All children's pictures I know of have painted the sky blue. But we all know from experience, that the sky is seldom blue, but can be yellow or pink or green or grey in different shades at times. This effect is well known to the historians of art : Artists never are painting what they see, they paint in a traditional way according to what they have learnt from other artists of their time and culture. Only a physical device like a camera will truly "depict what is seen." But of course even in the camera the picture is dependent on the optical system, so you can use a fish-eye-camera to see things in a very unusual way. This is in essence what Kant was telling us : Our thinking is not showing the world "as it is" but as it looks like through a certain conceptual lens. Then Hegel added, that this conceptual lens is changed during history and from cultural traditions, and later on Heidegger and Gadamer stressed the importance of "the situation" and of "understanding the situation" and "modes of cultural interpretation" to understand what is seen and depicted.

But now back to yellow bananas. There are weapons called cruise missiles (see the opening scenes of the James Bond movie "Never say never again"). Those are "looking at things" like we do. The optical systems don't even know what "yellow" means, but they are looking for light of a certain wavelength that appears to human eyes as "yellow". Under the (plausible) assumption, that all humans see colours in the same way, since those colours affect the molecules in the human retina in the same way, we can safely assume that Bob and Bruce see the banana in the same way, save one of them is colour-blind, i.E., Having some irregularity in the chemistry of his retina or in his brain.

There is another interesting point: The images we see are not generated in the eye, but in the back parts of the brain. Because of this, even if the light is shaded or changed, we still see the banana as yellow, because we see it relatively to all other objects of a scene. But "objectively" the colour of the banana may be very different from the usual yellow if directly "measured". You may check this by selecting a little spot from the picture of a banana on your computer-screen and enlarge the spot to full screen size. Then you cannot compare to the other colours of the picture and thus the colour of the banana may be very different from yellow. If you look up the RGB-table of your graphics software you will see how every tiny pixel has a different mix of colours, and nearly no single pixel is true yellow. Thus even the meaning of yellow is much dependent on context.

Hubertus Fremerey

(10) Jg asked:

what is the branch of physics that deals with the phenomena of extreme cold temperature?


Formally this is thermo-dynamics, the physics of phenomena related to heat and cold. "Heat" today is understood on the one hand as only a subjective "physiological" impression of the kinetic energy of atoms and molecules, but the thermodynamics of extreme cold objects is mainly a matter of certain branches of quantum-physics of solid and fluid bodies. Thus you would look up "quantum thermodynamics of solids" f.I.. But it is not all solid, but "strange matter" as f.I. "Einstein-Bose-condensate" or "supra-conductivity" etc., Where the concept of kinetic energy of atoms and molecules becomes meaningless and has to be replaced by something (much) more difficult.


Hubertus Fremerey

(11) Daniel asked:

What is the difference between lacking a belief that x and believing that not x?


'I don't believe in God'

'I believe that there is no God'

Or is there even a difference at all? I'm not sure there is but others think that there is.


There surely is a difference of whether you don't believe that the HIV-pandemic is natural or you believe that it is NOT natural but caused unintentionally or even intentionally by some lab run by the CIA. It is not the same whether you are "not convinced that A" or are "convinced that not A". The difference may be that of a mere sceptic and of a follower of some conspiracy theory and this may result in different actions or at least in different political or other options to support.

Hubertus Fremerey

(12) Catherine asked:

What are some of the philosophical issues surrounding Nazism?


This of course is a very complex theme. Social Darwinism is only part of the answer, another is "lebensphilosophie" in certain aspects, meaning the cult of "blood and soil". The idea was: Humans feel and get their real strength when defending their homeland and "their own". Because of this, the Jews were driven out or killed, because they were seen as people with no natural rooting in the German blood and soil but "aliens" without any true understanding of the German soul. Thus the Jews were depicted and treated like the Aliens in some horror-movies, as "different from us", and by this "unreliable" and "deceptive". Many famous theologians and philosophers, not only Heidegger, got deceived by the Nazis, at least for a time, because they too fell to this idea of the nation verbally a "community of the same descent" getting strength from the common blood and soil and tradition of the ancestors. On this look up "nationalism" in Wikipedia (

Such longing for purity and cleansing or purges is typical of societies in transition. It happened many times before and after the Nazis, f.E. In Spain shortly before 1500 or in the Balkans during the 1990s or in Indonesia during the 1960s and in the "Red Scare" of the MacCarthy years during the 1950s in the USA. The cause is always a loss of self-esteem by some failure or defeat or felt danger. Thus the "Red Scare" was caused by the "Iron Curtain" separating the German and the Koreas while the USA could not much do to stop it. Rapid modernization is one important cause of such feelings, because the traditional values and goals and the elites defending them, by such a defeat or failure are put into question as outdated and incompetent, and then try to blame "aliens" instead.

Perhaps the most famous "purge" of this sort was the "witch-hunt" of the some 300 years from c1450 to c1750. It is no coincidence that in exactly these same years Europe rose to "modernity" in science and philosophy. Somebody aptly put it this way : "Before 1450 the witches were taken for granted, seen as a natural part of Gods creation. After 1750 they were called a nonsense and superstition and non-existent." But this transition from the premodern to the modern world was full of insecurity and fear which was the main cause of those many burning stakes of those years.

Fundamentally the ideology of the Nazis was rubbish. But the Germans after the war and the fall of the Kaiser and the "Great Crash" of 1929/30 were very insecure and disoriented, so they could fall to the nonsense of Hitler, even trying to escape the nonsense of the Stalinists. Hitler had simple explanations and likewise simple measures, and he succeeded by this up to the end of 1941, when the USA entered the war. Simple explanations and simple measures together with success are very convincing for most people. The second thoughts come afterwards if ever.

See Klaus Vondung: The Apocalypse in Germany. Transl. From the German by Stephen D. Ricks

ISBN 0-8262-1292-1, 448 pages ( )

Another good book on the origins of Nazi-thinking is Fritz Stern : The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology. See

And see George Mosse : The Crisis of German Ideology : Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich

And see http://www.Informationclearinghouse.Info/article7643.htm and

A very good story on the mechanisms involved is : "The Wave" by Morton Rhue, first published in 1981 on an experiment at an USA-high school.

And see and

Hubertus Fremerey

(13) Helier asked:

Is it true that in science 'theoretical' means 'non-empirical'? If so, are theoretical entities radically imperceptible? That is, although we can perceive the effects of theoretical entities, we can never perceive the entities themselves. For example, theoretical temperature is average kinetic energy of molecules, which we cannot perceive, but we can perceive its effects as thermometer readings and sensations of hot and cold; or mass is imperceptible but we can perceive its effects as forces of weight and inertia.


While there have been put two good answers to this question before (see 29/1 and 29/27), I would like to stress one aspect, not given its due. What we call 'empirical' very often is only an artifact of 'theory'. Thus we have problems of "God's grace" or of "Oedipus Complex" or of "Class Struggle" etc., But those problems arise in the theories derived from the Bible and from Freud or Marx only and are unknown to people who do not subscribe to those theories. For any good Marxist the "Class Struggle" is "empirical", as is "God's grace" for any good Christian or "Oedipus Complex" for any good follower of Freud. If you don't subscribe to those theories, those "empirical facts" just do not exist.

What theorists even in physics do is most often to "invent" some "model" to fit the data and then try to give meaning either to the data or to the model. It's like Sherlock Holmes trying out some scheme to give meaning to the known facts. Generally the facts allow for many different interpretations, and by the process of "falsification" one tries to prune the number of possible models. This was the concern of Popper : Any good theory should be able to predict some very special outcome by which the theory could be tested. A theory which is unspecific and because of this cannot be tested is worthless. We won't give a damn on a weather report telling us that "tomorrow either the sun shines or it's raining". But many "theories" are of this "ultrastable" character, which is right always and just because of this without worth. There are countless "facts" around which heavily depend on the theories highlighting them. Thus what we are looking for are "significant facts" and only a theory will tell us what to look for. Whether you are looking for "Gods grace" or for "dark matter" or for the hidden message on an old pergament (see the movie "National Treasure" ) you always need some theory giving weight to some data while dismissing at the same time countless other data as irrelevant. A theory is a key in search of the treasure chest.

Hubertus Fremerey

(14) 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!


What do you expect? If this chemical brain enables you to enjoy the world around and to hear good music and read good novels and go out to know the wonders of nature (see "Our Blue Planet" on this, ) you should be happy. What is wrong with "my whole existence to reality is just a bunch of cells, synapses and neurons"? If you could boast of an everlasting soul, what would you gain by this? What is it, that makes a piano important : The stuff from which it is built, or the music that can be played on it Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or ragtime or boogie-woogie?

See yourself as an instrument made "of cells, synapses and neurons" on which you can play all those wonderful things, including math and physics and novels and love and dancing etc.Etc. - Even religion and philosophy.

Hubertus Fremerey

(15) Louise asked:

What is reality?


A fascinating question! The simplest and simplistic answer would be : "Reality is what is real", i.E. (In the famous opening words of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, see "The world is everything that is the case." But of course this "definition" is "true but void".

From the beginning of humankind humans have tried "to make sense of it", i.E., To arrange meaningless facts into meaningful stories and theories and by this create a mind-map to know the world we live in. Now you may see a lion or a fish or an aquarius or a virgin in some assembly of stars, and this is what the astrologers did when naming the signs of the zodiac. Thus we have and take much freedom of interpreting "reality". In this way we take the freedom of building religions out of "religious feelings" and "experiences of mana". It has been said that man could be defined as the animal that first made (or felt?) The difference between "normal" water and "holy" water.

Now there truly are experiences of "mana", of some magical forces, in most children's and even grown up people's lives. How do we know that this is caused by "reality"? We may call these feelings "superstitious", but they sometimes are experiences as "real" as experiences with the normal senses are. Only they are not those "clear and distinct" experiences Descartes called for, and we cannot connect them to physical measurements at least not this time and with our current physical theories and experiments. What about the possibility that the brain is a sensor sensitive to stimuli that miss our physical instruments?

Whatever those "mana-experiences" may be, they do not justify any special religion. But any religion creates a certain "experienced reality" by itself, i.E., The "reality" of a Christian is different from that of the agnostic and from that of the Muslim, or from that of the Buddhist etc.. "Reality" in this sense is a scheme of interpreting the world so that what is "good" or "bad" can be defined. Nature itself does not define much. Nature only tells us of dangers and food and other "natural" things, including beautiful landscapes and thunderstorms etc.. But human "reality" consists of much more than only those "natural" experiences. The world animals live in is defined by their instincts, so that even the birds with their little brains can know how to build nests and how to grow a family and how to get at food and to avoid enemies etc.. But the world of man is not defined in this way by instincts, but has to be "created" by man himself, by his philosophies and theologies and scientific models and by literature.

And even the theories of the scientists are "creating" realities. The reality of the galaxies and the stars today is defined by the theories of Einstein and Hawking and many others, while the reality of the atoms and the solid and fluid bodies is defined by the theories of Quantum Mechanics and of high energy physics etc.. If reality is something we respect as guiding our goals and plans and designs, our human reality does not consist so much in trees and boulders and brooks etc., But in theories of all sorts, from physics and astrophysics to theology and astrology and "superstition".

To paraphrase Wittgenstein I would say : "Reality for humans is everything that humans think is the case." But this is only a first approximation. The great thinkers of all times tried to get down to the hard facts and to the solid core of those countless assumptions. The problem is : In the end this hard core may be trivial and useless. To say that everything is made from atoms or from energy according to some laws of physics doesn't tell us much of use. Thus we are approaching the original statement of Wittgenstein again full circle.

But what do we gain if, say, we call a Beethoven sonata a sequence of sounds? The more fundamental, the more "scientific" we try to be, the more the world looks void and meaningless. Thus we cannot spare all those colourful "stories" and "religions" and "superstitions" that make up our imagination of what this "reality" we live in is like. A house where to live in is not made of "stones". It is made of the ideas of the architect defining rooms and interiors and using stones for creating the walls and ceilings etc. According to his plans. By this, ideas and imaginations are a very important part of our reality.

Hubertus Fremerey

(16) Robbert asked:

I am an Aerospace student from Holland and I saw a quiz in a student magazine about the discussion on 'free will'. I did some research myself but I hope that you would like to give your opinion on it. The question is the following:

Which argument was used at the end of the Middle Ages in the discussion about 'free will'?

A) that a donkey (ass) between 2 haystacks will never starve B) that a soul who leaves the body keeps its identity C) that 'unfree will' cannot be 'will'.

The question is obviously about the Buridan's Ass story, in which an ass stands between 2 identical haystacks and was not able to choose and therefore starved to death. But to me this is in contrast with answer A. B doesn't make any sense, which would lead me to answer C. But I don't exactly know what that would mean with respect to the Buridan's Ass story. I would like to know what your answer to this question would be.


I would answer A. Rather than addressing the free-will problem, I think it would be more helpful to clarify some confusion from the quiz in the magazine.

Around the end of the middle ages, most western philosophy was influenced by Christianity. Now, if you, Robert, needed hay to live, God could put hay all around you so you'd "be free" to choose which stack of hay to eat. Or if you were in the desert and needed water to live, God could make it rain so that there would be water everywhere. What would you do in this situation? Almost everyone would freely choose to drink the water.

The paradox of Buridian's ass came a little later, after the middle ages were over. A rational ass will starve to death in between two equal stacks of hay. The rational ass will analyze indefinitely, because there is no difference between the two choices. Rational beings need reasons to make rational-choices.[Buridian never uses this example in his writings, it is uncertain why his name is associated with it.]

Eric Zwickler

(17) Gerald asked:

What are the differences and similarities between society and culture? Are they interchangeable words? Are they concepts that have no boundaries but are enmeshed?


Overall your second suggestion is right : Society and culture are "concepts that have no boundaries but are enmeshed".

What is a society? That depends. A family is a small "society", but mankind - "the family of man" is a very large society too. The defining idea in both cases is a feeling of mutuality, of mutual similarity and responsibility and a felt relation. By this standard we can even speak (and do so) of "ant societies" and "animal societies" (see and esp. The interactions of the members of a society are guided by special rules. F.I., The cubs in a group of lions are generally not beaten or eaten by the members of the lion's group, even while the cubs are small and weak. A man or an antelope will be eaten as a prey or as an enemy.

In the case of human societies the rules of mutuality are part of the culture, since morals and customs and the law and political and social institutions are not "naturally given by instincts" but are "created by humans." Man is the cultural animal. It's culture that defines what an enemy is or what "honour" is or shame or what values to defend etc.. The meaning of good and evil is much more than only a matter of liking and sympathy. By cultural standards much of what is un-natural is highly valued, as f.I. Chastity and humility, while much of what is natural is condemned as evil, as f.I. Rape or polygamy and other expressions of "the selfish gene" (see Dawkins: This was one of the main problems of Nietzsche. The "seven deadly sins" (see and ) are just unacceptably strong expressions of otherwise "natural" drives. By this culture tries "to keep our apish nature in check" and make us "good humans". But this is a sloppy wording. "Culture" is no subject, it's only a means of "the society" to make us "good members of the society". Culture is a set of rules and standards guiding our thinking and behaviour in such a way that an acceptably good society becomes possible.

Thus the behaviour of "a society of two" is guided by culture (shared values and 'cultural standards', a language, forms of politeness etc.), But the same is true of "humankind", i.E., Even the General Secretary of the UNO or some head of state has to comply with "international standards of decent conduct".

And don't forget : No society is homogeneous, not even a family! An "open society" is always a system of sub-societies structured by sub-cultures. Only totalitarian societies try (and fail) to become homogeneous and for this define a unit-culture and ideology to be subscribed to by every member. On this see Popper "The open society and its enemies" as of 1945. (See

Hubertus Fremerey

(18) Ugenia asked:

I am very interested in studying philosophy but I am 27.When is it too late to begin something new? When is it too late for new beginnings in life?


When you are unable to seriously ask this question, and unwilling to devote the time and energy necessary to learn new things.

Steven Ravett Brown

(19) Diana asked:

i am interested in the physical body, its form as medium through which an organism experiences the world. What i'd like to ask is why is it that we need space? Why do we feel more relaxed alone in a field than cramped on the subway? Why do we need more physical living space than the amount our bodies take up? Is it for biological reasons such as requiring free flow of oxygen, or is it more for our intellectual identities to expand? Ultimately if the human being is contained inside its own skin, why then do we constantly seek to spread ourselves outside of it into negative invisible space?


You might read The Territorial Imperative, by Robert Ardrey, on this one, and perhaps On Aggression, by Konrad Lorenz.

Steven Ravett Brown

(20) Emily asked:

You may think this question is as irrelevant as all of the people I have asked already. However: is there any evidence you can think of to support the notion that perhaps we do not exist, at all, in any form?

I tend to believe that I cannot truly know anything, but knowledge of the existence of...Self, the universe, whatever, is something I cannot seem to find the smallest, most ridiculous shred of evidence to suggest otherwise. I am not saying that I would *believe* that I do not exist, I was just shocked to find a question which does not even have the most absurd of answers. There simply does not seem to be a way to argue that we do not exist. If you could send me an email, I would be very happy to hear what you have to say on this.


1) No. Not as the term "evidence" is usually employed. According to that usage, there are all sorts of evidence that you do exist, and none that you do not.

2) You want "true knowledge"? Whatever does that mean? A *feeling* of certainty? If not that, then what? You certainly can have true and absolute knowledge. If you start, for example, with the normal assumptions about what a number is, and what addition is, then, following from those, you can have absolute certainty that 1 + 1 = 2, etc.

As for the Cartesian question, and answer, i.E., How do I know that, first, I exist, and second, that anything else does... Well, Descartes' "I think therefore I am" is not evidence, but the expression of an intuition. Whether you "feel" that intuition is true is another issue.

But underlying all this are two things. First, there's a definite possibility that the reasons you're asking this are motivated not, at base, by an intellectual curiosity, but by an emotional disturbance. You might consider this carefully. I would recommend your talking this over with a friend, or even a counselor. To be so engrossed in this question, without reading the absolutely enormous literature on it, may indicate that something else is going on. However, if you are determined that is not the case, then, secondly, I'd simply recommend your starting a systematic education in philosophy, starting with the classical readings in Plato and Aristotle so that you might seriously approach this question, which, after all, many others have addressed.

Steven Ravett Brown

(21) Daniel asked:

What is the difference between lacking a belief that x and believing that not x?


'I don't believe in God.'

'I believe that there is no God.'

Or is there even a difference at all? I'm not sure there is but others think that there is.


What you ask points to the limits in that style of philosophy which aims at uncovering the 'logical form' of certain sentences, and treating that form as holding independently of what referents may happen to appear in those sentences, who may be speaking and with what aim, and so forth.

It seems to me that your two questions may point us in two entirely different directions. I mean, it may be one matter as to whether your two statements about God come to the same thing, and quite another as to whether the 'logical form' of 'I don't believe in [the existence of] x' differs from the 'logical form' of 'I believe that there is no x'.

As far as logical form goes, those two sentences clearly do mean quite different things. For instance, if I am asked, in complete ignorance of asian geography 20th century political name changes, whether I believe in [the existence of] the country of Myanmar, I would have to answer honestly (in my ignorance) that no, no such belief enters my head, since I have never heard of the place. So it would be true for me then to say: 'I do not now believe in the existence of Myanmar'. Such a statement reports my body of beliefs accurately, since that body of beliefs contains nothing referring to Myanmar. However, it would be a step beyond plain report to say 'I believe there is no Myanmar'. If I were very confident, or very arrogant, about my geographical competence, I might *infer* from the fact that I had never heard of the place that no such place existed. This would be an inference from one statement (I do not believe that x exists) to another (I believe that x does not exist) by means of an additional premise (I know every country and Myanmar is not among them). The fact that it takes an inference of this kind to connect one statement with the other suffices to show that the statements are different. That is, the 'Logical form' of 'I don't believe in [the existence of] x' differs from the 'logical form' of 'I believe that there is no x', at least when 'x' is filled in with 'the country of Myanmar'.

When 'x' is filled in with 'God', however, things seem to pan out rather differently, and this might, as we shall see, be troublesome for the very idea of 'logical form'. If I ask you directly 'Do you believe in God?', And you answer 'No', there is in our culture simply no possibility of my taking this as a report that you have never heard of God and have, in all your body of beliefs, nothing referring to that object. In this case, the only possibility open to me is to conclude that you do have a belief referring to God, and that the form of this belief is 'God does not exist'. This is why we do not usually feel tempted to acknowledge a difference, 'logical' or otherwise, between 'I don't believe in God' and 'I believe that there is no God'. There is a surrounding context to my asking you 'Do you believe in God?' (Churches, hymns, Dawkins on the telly, Suicide Bombers etc), such that it may be taken for granted that complete ignorance of the concept 'God' is impossible and not something expressible in response to 'Do you believe in God'. This constrains our understanding of 'No, I don't believe in God' in a way that the picture of a 'logical form' to this statement does not capture (this context constraint has been referred to as 'conversational implicature', and there are other philosophical pictures for this kind of influence of the mundane upon meaning, eg in Wittgenstein's later philosophy).

Clearly, in the God case, 'I don't believe in x' and 'I believe that there is no x' *do* mean the same thing, for all that they mean quite different things in the Myanmar case. It is an open question, in the light of this, whether there is really, as philosophers might like to imagine, a logical space in which 'x' can range everywhere and stand for anything. I do not say that the intellectual tool of replacing various referents with logical place holders (x's) is unavailable to us, but that we ought to take seriously that it's effectiveness, and the worth of the conclusions derived from this style of linguistic analysis, may possibly be flawed. Is there really such a thing as 'logical form' underlying english sentences? Or is there only, and rather prosaically, just those sentences?

We might decide that we 'believe in logical form', thereby undertaking to work around, or ignore, or re-analyse further, any bits of data that might suggest the non-existence of logical form - such as the Myanmar/God Contrast. This shows up how claims which appear purely ontological ('God exists', 'logical form exists') may in fact amount to all kinds of promises and undertakings. In the logical form case, the name for this kind of promise is: a blank cheque, a commitment to be followed though at the cost of.... We know not what.

David Robjant

(22) 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).


What should we do? For the painter it is not the same tree as it is for the garden-architect or for the carpenter or for the biologist or the ecologist etc.. They all only are interested in some aspects of the tree, never in "the whole thing itself." Why should they? I think to ask for the "true nature of things" is only a widespread misconception. Our questioning is always "interested" and by this is "perspectivist". We are asking from a certain point of view that is defined by some interest, by some special problem we try to solve. Thus a tree is so many things to so many interested questioners even to the countless different animals living on the tree : Birds and caterpillars and wasps etc..

A possible approach to avoid at least a part of these difficulties could be to say : "Well, the tree is what grows from it's sprout." But this would be as misleading as to say that a human is what grows from the fertilized egg in the womb. It would by just wrong, since part of any human "being" is its life-history, which is not defined by the genes. Same with the tree. Thus we could say "the tree is what is in its sprout together with the life-history of the tree." But what would we gain by this? I think it would be a "true but void" statement without any use.

So neither image nor mental representation nor name nor description will give us much of worth, as you rightly say. But then think of how many books can be (and have been) written about trees. So there is very much to say about trees after all. Only that the contents of those books are "interested", they are studying and describing the many "interesting" aspects of the tree, but never "the tree itself", because this would be not only an impossible, but even a meaningless task. "The tree itself" is much more than "everything that is or can be known" about the tree. This is not by lack of information. Even if you know every single atom of the tree, you would miss the whole thing. Because the totality of the atoms is not what anybody really wants to know. It would be a vast lot of true but meaningless information.

Perhaps see it thus : To know a statue, which is three-dimensional, you have to go around the statue and build up some image of it in your head. There is no single point of view from which to grasp and experience the whole thing. This is because our brain and visual apparatus is made like this. Perhaps one time there will be intelligent being, much more intelligent than we humans are, that are able to see the whole statue in one view. Likewise there may be intelligent beings some time that know everything about the tree at the same time. But this is idle speculation that doesn't get us anywhere.

Our knowledge is a matter of interest and perspective and interpretation. Even if you have seen a movie ten times, you cannot be sure whether you have got every aspect of it. Well, you will know all the details of what happened. But you probably will have missed many little hints and symbolic meanings the director had in mind. You may even have missed the gist of it all, the intended message of the movie. This often happens. This problem of "knowing everything but understanding not much" is the special concern of hermeneutics. And hermeneutics was much stimulated by the work of Heidegger who stressed the importance of a certain interest on the side of the beholder in some aspect of a thing to become aware of it. We usually only "know" but don't "see", because we are not interested but take our daily environment for granted and make use of it unthinking or absent-minded.

Thus even if you think you "know" a thing, what do you call "knowing a thing" after all?

Hubertus Fremerey

(23) Bob asks:

What's so rational about self-interest? In the prisoners dilemma, one sees the optimal solution, but the logic of self-interest prevents one from reaching it. How is this not a proof by reductio ad absurdum that self-interest is not rational Game theory is a branch of mathematics after all? On the face of it, in order to play this sort of game, I have to accept that the other has desires and fears on a par with my own, and then to disregard them in my own calculations Who started this idea of rational self-interest, and is anyone else questioning it? There's a ton of stuff on game theory and related ethics

Rawls, and Binmore for example, but they all seem to start as if the idea itself is unquestionable. Im trying to write something about this, and Im worried I might have got the wrong end of a long stick, and misunderstood something totally obvious help, please!


The questions you raise are perfect questions for your term paper. For those who have not heard of the prisoner's dilemma, I will briefly summarize it: Two people are caught committing a crime together. They are taken to separate interrogation rooms and are faced with the following options: (the important part to remember is that the prisoners cannot talk to each other about their options):

1) If they both confess (or both blame each other), they each get 5 years.

2) If one confesses and the other does not, the confessor gets 20 years and the other gets off free.

3) If both prisoners keep silent, they both get 6 months in jail. If I am caught in this situation I will either get no time, 6 months, 5 years, or 20 years. The best option for me is to get no jail time; the best option for both of us together is 6 months each. If we are both solely concerned with our own self-interest, we will act in a way so that we will either receive 5 years or 20 years -- the two worst results. If I was ever in a real-life situation similar to this (and solely concerned with what happens to me), I don't necessarily believe that commits be to an answer yet. Why? First, I haven't told you anything about my thoughts and desires. Perhaps I am a gambling man, so I will take the all or nothing approach, and try to get of with no time served. Or, perhaps I am concerned about my long-term self-interest. Would that "allow" the purely self-interested man to say nothing, and receive, at most, 6 months? Why wouldn't that be acting purely out of self-interest? It sounds intelligent to me. If you are interested in pursuing this line of thought I would encourage you to start with Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons.

Eric Zwickler

(24) Ryan asked:

I am writing a critical discussion paper on Ayer's verifiability.

I am having trouble finding resources. Can you help me with some resources I can use and from which I can draw a clear understanding of the subject?


Ayer's theory of verifiability was at the heart of the movement called Logical Positivism. It was THE theory in the 1930s. Logical positivism is no longer considered a viable theory, however Ayer is an important part of the analytic tradition. Ayer used the term "verifiability" to analyze meaning in language. Statements are either analytical, that is, true by definition: (e.G. A square has four equal squares), or statements require the use of the senses to have meaning (e.G. I live in a green house). Ayer argued that for the statement "I live in a green house" to have meaning, I must be able to verify if it is true. Since all of us can imagine how to verify the truth of the statement "I live in a green house", the statement is meaningful. "God is good" or "God is bad" are problematic statements, as I am not certain how to verify this claim. Thus, Ayer said these statements are meaningless. It turns out that most metaphysical claims turn out to be meaningless, according to Ayer. This is one of the few times that a philosophical theory was completely abandoned, because of universally acknowledged flaw. (For those who don't know the answer, you can think about it, the answer is at the end of the article).

Karl Popper used the word "falsifiability" rather than "verifiability" but the idea is the same. Popper was interested in statements about science. They were contemporaries. They were both inspired by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, who was inspired by Russell, who was inspired by Frege. There are thousands of books on these thinkers.

P.S. Why is the verifiability thesis flawed? Because it is a statement that cannot be verified!

Eric Zwickler

(25) Ugenia asked:

I am very interested in studying philosophy but I am 27. When is it too late to begin something new? When is it too late for new beginnings in life?


Are you talking about studying philosophy in order to make a career out of it? If that is the case, I would advise against it. The reality is that you have to study philosophy for at least four years to get a job in philosophy (in America, anyways). More likely eight to ten years. If you are interested in studying philosophy for your own enjoyment, I can think of no reason to dissuade you. You may be surprised to find out how much philosophy you already know. Interestingly, Plato didn't think anyone should begin his/ her study of philosophy until age 40.

Eric Zwickler

(26) Emily asked:

you may think this question is as irrelevant as all of the people I have asked already. However: is there any evidence you can think of to support the notion that perhaps we do not exist, at all, in any form?

I tend to believe that I cannot truly know anything, but knowledge of the existence of...Self, the universe, whatever, is something I cannot seem to find the smallest, most ridiculous shred of evidence to suggest otherwise. I am not saying that I would *believe* that I do not exist, I was just shocked to find a question which does not even have the most absurd of answers. There simply does not seem to be a way to argue that we do not exist. If you could send me an email, I would be very happy to hear what you have to say on this.


I am glad you asked this question, as I had these "weird" thoughts when I younger, and most people think you're crazy. It turns out I was just a philosopher (it sounds a lot more respectable than "crazy"). Asking questions such as "How do I know this?", And "What is the difference between knowledge and belief?, "Can I really know anything?" Are important questions in philosophy. This field of philosophy is called epistemology. In philosophy, these questions are just as common as questions about God's existence.

The word associated with your position is called "skepticism". The most famous skeptic is David Hume. Descartes is also important in this area, though he ultimately rejects skepticism. Hume stated that one can never be certain that the chair I see is really not an illusion. However, I am still going to go sit down in it, and not worry about falling through it. Why? One, it would be impossible to live life that way. Two, experience has taught me to believe that if I sit down the chair will support me.

These writers are fairly advanced so I might recommend reading some encyclopedia articles about them before diving in. Good Luck.

Eric Zwickler

(27) Jonathan asked:

Robert Nozick's "Experience Machine" is often raised as an objection to psychological as well as ethical Hedonism. Regarding this thought experiment as an argument against Psychological Hedonism, has there been any significant objections raised against the argument?


Nozick's "Experience Machine" is accessible, short (3 pages) and philosophically important -- a very rare combination. I highly recommend it.

Nozick asks the reader to imagine a machine that can stimulate the brain to feel as if it is experiencing anything that you program it to do. While you are attached to the machine you won't know the difference between the fake experiences and real experience. (You might even be in one now!) Given the chance, would you hook yourself up? Nozick says that he would not because there is something valuable about genuine life experience and authenticity.

There are many "significant objections" Nozick's answer. Even if I value authenticity (my word not Nozick's) quite highly, it is only one value. I am highly suspicious of any moral/psychological theories that do not include pleasure/pain in some capacity. For example, imagine I had a choice between a life of authentic poverty, torture and misery, or a life of inauthentic bliss. Does authenticity seem important now? Perhaps Nozick's article is an attempt to show that authenticity is a value, in addition to pleasure and pain that is important in moral evaluation. The committed hedonist would be able to refute this assertion too. The hedonist could argue that authenticity is only valuable because it usually brings me pleasure.

Eric Zwickler

(28) Jericho asked:

I'm writing a story for my English Lit class and the theme I have chosen for it is Spiritual Consciousness.

Its main characters are two females, one Muslim and one Catholic and they are slowly losing their faith.

Now, my problem is Im having difficulty creating moral dilemmas and personal issues for all the characters, which have all got to be linked with the story's main theme.

The overall goal is that everyone finds personal enlightenment of some sort by the end of the story. BUT, what personal dilemmas can be associated with spiritual consciousness? I don't want to give this up, but it's a pity I don't know how to tell it.


I can't help you to determine what is creatively interesting, but I can help you with some thoughts on these themes. I am not clear if by "spiritual consciousness" you mean something different than religious belief. For example, some people say they are "spiritual" but not "religious". Many people become disenchanted with organized religion, but still believe in a higher being. Personal relationships often create problems with people's religious beliefs. For example, say I am in love with someone, but my religion says that (s)he is going to hell. That must create a bizarre feeling.

Tragic death challenges people's beliefs as well. You will often hear people say that they no longer believe in god because of the horrible things that happen in the world. When an innocent child dies, or a good person suffers, people's faith is challenged. When religious people do "bad things", and atheists do "good things" that might challenge one's faith. Similarly, when I witness the good works of a religious group that my faith hates, I might question the teaching of my faith.

Hope this helps.

Eric Zwickler

(29) Tara asked:

Do all humans see the same color when looking at the same object? How can we know? Could not two people both be looking at a banana and see a different color but have learnt to call the color of the banana yellow. For example Bob and Bruce are both 1 year old boys. Both their mums are teaching them to talk. Both mums point to a banana and say yellow this banana is yellow. Despite the fact that the two boys MIGHT be seeing different colours when looking at the banana but are just taught to call it yellow, how could we know, because you cant describe colours, you cant say blue is heavy, or red is rough etc. So every time bob or bruce look at a picture of the sun they will say that the colour of the sun in the picture is yellow, even though they maybe seeing different colours.


If we ignore things like colour blindness then by definition they are seeing the same colour i.E. The colour yellow. Of course the idea that they might perceive the colour differently disturbs us but this is an indescribable difference and what is the difference between an indescribable difference and no difference at all.

Its always possible that I have an invisible, intangible football floating two feet above my head but this isn't a possibility worth considering. There is no one thing that is called the experience of the colour yellow except by defining it in terms of looking at an object that we both agree is yellow.

In other ways we can experience colours differently. I might really like the colour yellow, you might hate it. In China white might be the colour of mourning, in England black is the colour of mourning. So we can have different emotional reactions to colours and in this sense we could be said to experience them differently.

However the idea that I might experience yellow as 'red' while you experience it as 'blue' is difficult to make sense of. Here is a quotation from Wittgenstein: 'Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday'. We are inclined to think that there are two things here 1. Yellow objects 2. The yellow experience and it is not clear to us how these two things are connected.

Shaun Williamson

(30) Darren asked:

I am married with a 1 yr old son. My issue is I married my wife because I got her pregnant while we were dating. Furthermore, at the latter stages of our relationship I wanted to end our relationship however I found out she was pregnant. Due to my parents and my wife's parents strong Catholic/ Christian beliefs I was pressured into marriage. I did not want to get married and I feel that I am doing something very monumental that I did not want to participate in.

A year and almost a half later I almost daily yearn for the single life. I love my wife but am not in love with her. I love my son and will support and be part of his life regardless of the circumstances. Additionally, if I had no son the marriage would have never materialized. Should I stay in a marriage that I did not volunteer to for the sake of my child and hope one day to fall in love with my wife or seek a divorce and risk my child's future. I believe raising a child is the most successful when its done by two parents. What is your opinion?


Darren there is no way that we can tell you what to do in this situation. If you are very unhappy then probably sooner or later you will leave.

Its good to see that you are still prepared to support and take part in your sons life since all the evidence we have suggests that children with two parents have fewer difficulties in life than children with one parent.

You might find it useful to talk over your situation with a marriage guidance advisor.

Shaun Williamson

(31) Charlotte asked:

Can an unborn child smell smells whilst in the womb.


Probably not since smell usually involves the movement of molecules through the air and into the nose. However this is a scientific question and not one that philosophers are qualified to answer.

Shaun Williamson

(32) Lili asked:

Why does Descartes introduce the evil demon, supremely powerful and clever into the First Meditation? What role is this figure assigned to play?


The object of Descartes' method of hyperbolical doubt is to discover indubitable truth. ('Hyperbole' means exaggeration) This kind of doubt is quite different from sceptical doubt, as found in, for example, David Hume. By doubting everything he could, what was left should be indubitable -- except that there was the possibility that strong conviction could be confused with indubitability; so Descartes introduced his evil demon that was supposedly deceiving him in every way possible, so that the indubitable excluded all possible deceptions. He concluded that since he had to exist in order to think (and, in particular, to doubt) he could not be deceived about his own existence. Not that hyperbolical doubt is only temporary doubt, used to reach this conclusion, as opposed to sceptical doubt, which is believed by the doubter.

Helier Robinson

(33) Tom asked:

How to you justify something that you don't know for sure will happen? Eg. Justifying that the sun will surely rise tomorrow? or that the next step you take will not drop you into a bottomless pit?


This is the problem of induction. It has never been satisfactorily solved.

Helier Robinson

(34) Ugenia asked:

I am very interested in studying philosophy but I am 27.When is it too late to begin something new? When is it too late for new beginnings in life?


Plato thought that no one should even begin studying philosophy until the age of forty. In answer to your question, it is never too late to begin something new.

Helier Robinson

(35) Emily asked:

You may think this question is as irrelevant as all of the people I have asked already. However: is there any evidence you can think of to support the notion that perhaps we do not exist, at all, in any form?

I tend to believe that I cannot truly know anything, but knowledge of the existence of...Self, the universe, whatever, is something I cannot seem to find the smallest, most ridiculous shred of evidence to suggest otherwise. I am not saying that I would *believe* that I do not exist, I was just shocked to find a question which does not even have the most absurd of answers. There simply does not seem to be a way to argue that we do not exist. If you could send me an email, I would be very happy to hear what you have to say on this.

Descartes gave the answer with his cogito ergo sum -- I think therefore I am. You cannot doubt your own existence; and since you indubitably exist it is impossible to prove that you do not exist.

Helier Robinson

(36) Gerald asked:

We all have heard notions such as 'love is blind, etc.'Is love rational? Can it be rational? Can people love rationally? Does healthy equate rational?


No, love is not rational; nor is health. The rational is logical. This does not mean that love is bad, or that health is bad -- they just are not logical.

Helier Robinson

(37) June asked:

When I was at school (some 20 years ago)! A teacher taking assembly said "death is something you cannot fully appreciate until you have experienced it". He was not speaking in terms of a relative dying. This has periodically reentered and troubled my thoughts. Can you offer any insight or words of wisdom which might help to put this in perspective? Will I be able discern and appreciate that I have died when I am dead? What will happen to my consciousness? WWll I just cease to be?


Nobody knows. Lots of people claim to know, but they don't know, they only believe.

Helier Robinson

(38) Angel asked:

As a contingent being who am I in relation to necessary being;

AS a substance how do I resolve a seeming paradox of me my being a substance and of my being as a contingent being?


How do you know that you are a contingent being? How do you know that you are a substance? If there is a necessary being -- God -- and everything is according to His design, then you are not contingent, you are necessary. And substance is an outdated concept, due to Aristotle; in speculating about the nature of reality he assumed that it had to be rational, which meant that it had to conform to logic. This logic (which Aristotle himself formulated) is a subject-predicate logic, and Aristotle postulated substances corresponding to subjects and attributes of substances corresponding to predicates. But modern scientific thought has no use for these metaphysical ideas, although the word substance is loosely used for various kinds of stuff. So you may bot be contingent and you are not a substance.

Helier Robinson

(39) Abby asked:

What is self-refutation?


Self-refutation is a property of a proposition that proves itself wrong. For example, the relativist claim that "All truth is relative" must, according to this claim, be only relatively true; and if it is only relatively true, then there must be some truths that are absolutely true, in which case not all truth is relative. So "All truth is relative" refutes itself.

Helier Robinson

(40) Tom asked:

What do you think? Is there a difference between appearance and reality? I just can't seem to get my head around it!!


Your are far from being the only one who can't get his head around it. Illusions are unreal yet outside our heads and public. Generally we agree that what is outside our heads and public is real, as opposed to images of reality, which are inside our heads and private. So by this criterion illusions are real. But illusions are unreal because they involve contradictions: for example, the half immersed stick is bent to the sight and not bent to the touch; and the railway lines that meet in the (public) distance do not meet for people who are at that distance. So we generally agree that illusions are images of reality, inside our heads: distorted images -- the distortion constituting the illusion. But there is no intrinsic difference between illusions and non-illusions, from which it follows that either everything we perceive is reality or else everything we perceive is images of reality. Philosophers who believe we perceive reality are called realists, or even, sometimes, naive realists; and philosophers who we see images of reality are variously idealists or rationalists. This conflict was resolved by Leibniz, and again by Bertrand Russell, but their solution, although logically simple, is psychologically very difficult. I cannot give it here, but if you want to know more see my book "Belief Shock", freely down-loadable from www.Sharebooks.Ca.

Helier Robinson

(41) Charlotte asked:

Can an unborn child smell smells whilst in the womb?


No. You need to breathe in order to smell, and a fetus does not breathe.

Helier Robinson

(42) Mark asked:

Hi philosophers,

How's life? I'm currently pursuing a degree in philosophy at the University of Toronto. I'm very interested in philosophy that pertains to living well, and have found that different areas of philosophy pertain moreso than others in this regard.

My opinion so far is that existentialism, virtue ethics, and eudemonism are the most suited to answering the question of how to live well, and perhaps even philosophical literature (tolstoy, dostoevsky, camus), though I acknowledge that all disciplines and subdisciplines have something to say about this topic.

Russell's The Conquest of Happiness, and Nozick's The Examined Life seem to deal with the subject matter I'm talking about.

Any ideas as to which philosophical areas/ texts I might benefit from in my search?


Plato, probably the greatest philosopher of all time, argued that the best way to live is to pursue wisdom. Philosophy (love of wisdom) is the means to this end. Try his "Republic". (Hope you are enjoying U of T -- I got my philosophical training there myself.)

Helier Robinson

(43) James asked:

My question is about the relationship between God, determinism and ethics.

In my opinion if there is no God, then it looks like people do not have any nonphysical "soul". I think most people would agree with this, partly because people usually reject God in favour of a naturalistic worldview in which the soul similarly has no place.

But if people do not have any "soul" then that must mean that that people do not have free will, because they are entirely physical.

But if people do not have free will then I don't understand how any ethics could exist, because ethics surely requires that people can choose.

So, if this is correct, then if you want to argue for some kind of ethics, then you have to accept the existence of God. But there is clearly an endless amount of Philosophers who don't believe in God and do argue for some kind of ethics, such as David Hume or Bertrand Russell. But how can they do this?

What I think you will say is that maybe ethics can exist even without free will. But surely this is ridiculous because moral responsibility cannot exist if people cannot choose.


Whoa there!

From the top, slowly:

"In my opinion if there is no God, then it looks like people do not have any nonphysical "soul"."

Why on earth not? The mere fact that the soul is mentioned by theists shows nothing whatsoever about whether atheists can believe in souls. Plato talks about the soul, his main subject. He's an atheist who believes in the souls relationship to The Good in much the way that theists believe in the souls relationship to God (go read: Iris Murdoch "On 'God' and 'Good'", also "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts", both in recent collection "Existentialists and Mystics"). In fact you haven't said anything very specific to explain why you think believing in souls and believing in God should be linked.

I would guess, from a certain familiar tenor of your remarks, that the anxiety underlying your linkage of atheism and soullessness here is that you find the pull towards reductionist materialism (the idea that all there is is physical objects and physical causation) very strong, and yet you think this a dangerous current that will sweep you and all ordinary human relations completely from their foundations, and deposit you far down stream, in some God-forsaken place, you know not where, without soul or freewill or moral responsibility.

Hm. Opinions differ on this, but for myself, I do think you may, on some level, be right about that, about the dangers, if not the attractions. I return to this matter later, to clarify.

But your response to this current of materialism is, it would seem, to grab a tight hold of the first bit of contradicting story that comes to hand, namely (Christian?) Theology. There are some drawbacks to this hasty fearful approach, this flailing out at anything, as by the drowning. Not the least of which drawbacks is that declaring yourself a follower of Christ largely because of who Christ *isn't*, i.E. That he isn't Darwin or Dawkins or Pinker, isn't much of a person relationship with God. Just as voting labour because you hate or fear the Tories doesn't make you much of a socialist. The political principle 'mine enemies enemy is my friend' isn't a terribly good guide to the spiritual life. The sincerity and durability of the allegiance in both cases, political and spiritual, is highly dubious. If you declare your faith and the priest says 'Welcome my son, and tell me, what were your experiences of confirmation/conversion, how did you come to your attested belief in God?' The answer 'Because I was afraid that materialism might be true', isn't going to impress. Or at least, I would hope not. I would imagine that it might worry. Systematic self deception isn't a perfect beginning to a life of moral discipline, or to a relation of confessional humility before God. There are other starting places, other reasons for religious faith, I would say better ones, should that be your path.

So instead of clutching desperately at branches and twigs and straws whilst being swept downstream, I suggest some thought be given to not falling into the river of reductive materialism in the first place.

In this cause, begin by calmly noting that atoms and strings and what have you are parts of *explanatory pictures*. You do not meet atoms or shake their hands. You suppose they exist because our explanatory pictures make use of them, and because these pictures are, over large areas, hugely successful. Hence the 747, the moon landings, heart bypasses, etc. And noting these successes, the natural step is to say that these pictures are *true*. But be calm yet, and remember that this natural step can be conceived of, philosophically, in two very different ways.

There is all the difference in the world between saying that an explanation is successful because it is true, and saying that an explanation is true because it is successful. The former approach would have you conceive of scientific truths on the correspondence model of truth: this truth is true because it mirrors, or corresponds to, nature. Such a conception of scientific truth is essential to the "naturalistic worldview" which you object to and fear, and yet find dangerously magnetic. I do not find it magnetic at all, and that is because I recognise scientific truths for what they are: a set of assumptions that are infinitely revisable and falsifiable, but which have proven useful when confronting a large, but tightly defined, range of practical questions (e.G. How is it possible to make something fly?). It is not necessary to explain their success by reference to some extra thing ("nature") to which they correspond. Indeed, an explanation for their success is outside not only what we need, but also outside what we can possibly have: all the explanation that we can ever have access to lies in precisely this, that some pictures work helpfully at making life liveable and predictable, and others do not. An explanation for the possibility of successful explanation would therefore be like a dog chasing it's tail, pretending to itself that it could both eat itself, and be itself. I say that we should regard the explanation which the "naturalistic worldview" gives for the moderate success of some our pictures, namely that there is here correspondence with 'nature', not as some further picture subject to experimental falsification or verification - which it is not, but rather as a metaphysical article of faith. It is an ecclesiastical ornament added to scientific enquiry for the purpose of setting up scientists as the new priests (e.G. Dawkins). It is not in the least 'scientific'. It is philosophy, and duff philosophy to boot.

As duff philosophy the "naturalistic worldview" does about as much to *really* undermine ordinary notions of soul and moral responsibility as the ancient Parmenides' daft philosophical conclusion that there is only The One. In a way, yes, these daft notions are corrosive to ordinary habits and beliefs - but only in so far as you may give them any credence. Let a man once *believe* in ghouls and demons and there shall be such. Dismiss the threatening magnetism of reductionist materialism with true insight and - pouf - it is gone. No more drowning and flailing. No more grasping at straws. Grasp at religion if you will, yes, but not as a saving straw in a reductionist rapid. It will not save you from this peril. And moreover this peril is real only because you imagine it to be real. Fight no more dreams with dreams, as they say. Wake up!

I should add, by the by, that the described alternative to the "naturalistic worldview", namely that the thought that these pictures of atoms and such are true in the sense that they are moderately successful and in no further sense, has been called both "instrumentalism" and "pragmatism" and is, in fact, something of a philosophical mainstream, when one counts together all the various schools holding such views. The philosophical mainstream, that is, allows of a difference between the sense in which 'there are electrons' is true and, say, the sense in which 'you are responsible for that lovely cake' is true. And of these two 'true' statements the latter, with its reference to the evident facts of ordinary life, is closer to the pristine unimagined kind of truth with which 2+2=4. Determinism, atoms and the like: that's all *conjecture*, when you compare it with the clear hard truths of 'father is a good cook' and '2+2=4'. Truths about ordinary objects and particular people trump truths about atoms, if I may put it that way. Any reversal of this order depends on journalists (who do, I suppose, have much to be modest about) setting up scientists as white coated priests with special access to the secret order of the world. They are not such. They are the audacious engineers of our day, builders and inventors of remarkable intellectual gadgets. These gadgets sometimes work effectively for a while, sometimes for more than one lifetime. That is all. They are not a competing religious order.

Forgive my exasperation at the world. I feel, here, the insensitive ignorance of a vast beast, unmoved by vast clouds of gadflies buzzing ceaselessly and unheeded about their pin prick toil.

David Robjant

(44) Clive asked:

Further to SRBs response to question to 29/1, and taking account of the view that he has expressed before that religion is unlike Philosophy due (in part at least) to it's experiential nature (eg 7/1), is God theoretical?

If so, does it follow that seeking to know more of God is a philosophical enquiry? If not does that imply that God is an empirical entity to be known and experienced?

Either way, do we not find a convergence between philosophers and theologians?


Well, first, I'm not sure what you mean by "experiential" nature, and which is supposed to have it. Religion? Philosophy? Both have experiential nature, in the sense that they involve experiences, so I'm not clear on what you're getting at here. If I recall what I said correctly, it was probably that my interest in religion is that of an anthropologist, surely an empirical area rather than a purely experiential or theoretical one. My problem with religion as philosophy is that philosophy, as practiced in the Western tradition, from the Greeks, implies that one's questioning has no inherent limitations. You might read the three Platonic Dialogues involving the trial and death of Socrates on this position; they are what established it. To summarize, Socrates died for the principle that one can pursue one's questioning to the roots of religion and beyond. Whereas, within the context of any religion, one cannot pursue questioning of it's basic principles, because then one becomes an apostate: outside that religion. One can, as Aquinas and many others have, attempt to *justify* the roots of one's religion, but one cannot doubt it to the same degree that one doubts the bases of *other* religions, because, as I say, that places one outside of all religions. One is, in that latter case, not pursuing religion, but philosophy. This is one, at least (and in my opinion the most important), difference between the two pursuits (and yes, it implies that I do not consider Aquinas, for example, a philosopher, but a theologian).

Further, seeking to know more of "God" implies that one has accepted a particular set of conceptions of that putative entity (to take just one example, there are variants of Buddhism in which one cannot know god in the sense we usually employ the term "know"), and one is thus not pursuing philosophy, but religion. If you *assume* that your particular god exists, then of course it follows from that assumption that knowing god is in some sense (although not a scientific one) empirical... But this all turns on accepting that assumption, which a philosopher cannot, as a philosopher in the Socratic tradition, do. I suppose that philosopher could do it as a person, outside of philosophy, but not as a philosopher, because that shuts down questioning in that arena, which ipso facto shuts down philosophizing as well (and thus in that area they would not *be* philosophers - which opens the question as to whether they are at all philosophers - which I won't take on here).

And so, in my very strong opinion, we do *not* find a convergence between philosophers and theologians, despite what theologians would like to believe, and would have us believe. On the contrary, we find *divergence*, as they approach investigating the bases of their thinking.

Steven Ravett Brown

(45) Charlotte asked:

Can an unborn child smell smells whilst in the womb?


Well, a fetus can hear, taste, and see to some extent, at 2-3 months:

"Your baby measures 5 to 5.6 Inches from crown to rump and weighs about 5.25 Ounces. The rapid growth spurt is tapering off, but reflexes are kicking in. It can yawn, stretch and make facial expressions, even frown. Taste buds are beginning to develop and can distinguish sweet from bitter tastes. The baby will suck if its lips are stroked and it can swallow, and even get the hiccups. The retinas have become sensitive to light, so if a bright light is shined on your abdomen, baby will probably move to shield its eyes."

Go here:

So it seems likely that it can smell around then also. It's an open question as to whether a fetus is more conscious than an animal, at this point, however: i.e., Self-conscious. Babies, and even young (before age 2, say) children, seem to have very limited self-consciousness. So while a fetus can probably smell odors (in the amniotic fluid), it is probably not aware *that* it smells.

Steven Ravett Brown

(46) Oline asked:

Hi there!

I'm a 17 year old girl from Kalmar in Sweden.

I'm writing an essay about existence.

How do we know that we exist?

Do we need confirmation to know that we are existing?

If a tree falls in the wood, and no one hears it, do the sound exist?

If there is some form of materia out in space, that doesn't effect its environment or getting noticed by anything (but itself) does it exist?

Now, Im reading a little Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche...

What more do you recomend me to read?

What should I search for?

Have a nice day!


You know that you exist because you have to exist in order to ask this question. (Tis is Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum". So if you know for sure that you exist then you do not need confirmation that you exist. The tree that falls in the forest makes a sound in the sense of acoustical vibrations in the air, but in the sense of an aural sensation: the word 'sound' has two meanings. If some completely imperceptible material exists out in space then it exists -- we just cannot know about it. Try reading Bertrand Russell's "The Problems of Philosophy".

Helier Robinson

(47) Kirk asked:

Which way is up? If up is a direction how can it exist in our universe?


"Up" is the direction over one's head; depending upon one's perspective, "up" points a different way. If a person in the United States looks up and sees the sun, a person in China will look up in the opposite direction. However, that does not mean "up" is a meaningless term or non-existent.

If you are interested in exploring this subject in depth, start with Russell's work on Descriptions or early-Wittgenstein.

Eric Zwickler

(48) Brendan asked:

I am a theology student who came to theology through Stoic moral philosophy.

I was sitting in my lecture recently when the following question occurred to me:

Given that the present human species (homo sapiens) will eventually become extinct whether because we evolve into a different species of human or we otherwise destroy ourselves what claim can there be that "humans" (given that people tend to think of "humans" exclusively in their present for of homo sapiens) have a particular and especial relationship with God?

I appreciate that some may argue that this is a theological, not philosophical, question, but I would appreciate a philosophical perspective on this matter.


Yes this is a theological question. However here is an outline of why you might argue that man has a special relationship with God and earthworms don't.

Homo sapiens it the first species of which it can be said:

1. They are capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong.

2. They are capable of understanding the consequences of their own actions.

Shaun Williamson

(49) Daniel asked:

What is the difference between lacking a belief that x and believing that not x?


'I don't believe in God.'

'I believe that there is no God.'

Or is there even a difference at all? I'm not sure there is but others think that there is.

How about "I don't believe that there are potatoes" versus "I believe that potatoes have never existed". That's one way to differentiate these; I assume you can see some differences now; for example, that potatoes may have existed in the past. But actually, an agnostic will usually claim something like: "I find no justification in a belief in God", or "God may or may not exist; I don't know", or "It is not possible to know whether God exists". The atheist, on the other hand, will make a stronger claim, something like the claim you yourself might make about believing in the existence of Santa Claus or in unicorns: that you simply do not believe they do or can exist except as ideas.

Steven Ravett Brown

(50) Tom asked:

How do you justify something that you don't know for sure will happen? E.G. Justifying that the sun will surely rise tomorrow? Or that the next step you take will not drop you into a bottomless pit?


The short answer is that there is no guarantee of what will happen in the next instant of our lives. We live within a varying level of probabilities, which is as near as we can get to prediction or truth in foresight: truth is obviously something established in hindsight, 'we shall know the truth later' sounds more convincing than, 'we may get to know the truth'.

Though the world seems to be established on cause and effect we are never in a position to claim with certainty that Y will follow X on every occasion. As you imply, the sun has risen every morning during your lifetime, however there is no guarantee it will rise tomorrow, within the rule of probability it most likely will. Science and history though lending support to the probability can have no influence on future events, both are good at explaining happenings and pointing to probabilities for the future, but neither can guarantee to predict correctly.

John Brandon

(51) Vard asked:

What is the meaning of life?


What have you done with your life up to now? What are your ambitions, what do you wish to achieve? The answer to these questions indicate the meaning of life for yourself. With regard to the meaning of life for the human race, I wish I knew! Perhaps the meaning rests with each individual and there is no collective meaning as such.

John Brandon

(52) Ugenia asked:

I am very interested in studying philosophy but I am 27. When is it too late to begin something new? When is it too late for new beginnings in life?


I am staggered to find that someone at the age of 27 might believe that there learning days are over. This is the prime of life when one could benefit from new ventures. It is rather old-fashioned to believe that age is a barrier to academic progress. I agree it used to be, but that was a long time ago. The opportunities to take up new ventures and studies are now numerous for any age group; people in their eighties are studying for university degrees. I had people in their seventies studying in my evening classes and achieving standards well beyond their wildest dreams; A-level philosophy had just been introduced, many of the older students passed at the A to C level: many read philosophy just for the joy of it.

Keeping the mind active is a sure way of staving off the feelings of old age, learning new things is the antidote to dementia. Perhaps you would like to contact our Director of studies, Dr Klempner, to seek advice on taking up one of our Pathways courses in philosophy. Before you do make sure that this is where your interest lies, because it is a well known fact that interest is the bedrock of memory, no interest = no learning.

John Brandon

(53) Dennis asked:

When clocks are set forward an hour for day light savings time, do we lose that hour of our life. Ex. Switching the clock from 12 to 1 during the night.


No. It is not time that is being changed, only the naming of times. You don't change something by changing its name.

Helier Robinson

(54) Sara asked:

How would you describe, in clear language, what love and hate are?


Love and hate are both strong feelings. Love is a willingness to give to the beloved, unconditionally. Hate is a desire to destroy the hated person or group.

Helier Robinson

(55) Olivia asked:

Compare and contrast Hume's utilitarianism of moral feeling with Kant's categorical imperative of moral reason. What is the nature of morals as conditional benefit for Hume and unconditional (a priori) for Kant?


Hume's principle is empirical, because he cares for the individual Instances. Moral cases should be handled with experience and for experience and by experience. Whereas Kant kept moral principle away from circumstances, that is experience, and founded on Rational will. That is to say "Act only on the maxim which I can will to become a universal law". For example If I want that people should not break their promises, I should not also break promises. Then only it becomes universal law. But then you can say there are always exception to the rule. Yes, for that we have to search for rule of the emergency (Apad dharma as it is called in Indian Dharma sastra).

Madhu Kapoor

(56) Denis asked:

How would you explain what philosophy is to someone who did not already know?


I will first ask his problem, then from that problem the root of philosophical problem can be brought out. And you will find yourself in the philosophical forest searching for the truth.

Madhu Kapoor

(57) Jericho asked:

I'm writing a story for my English Lit class and the theme I have chosen for it is Spiritual Consciousness. Its main characters are two females, one Muslim and one Catholic and they are slowly losing their faith. Now, my problem is Im having difficulty creating moral dilemmas and personal issues for all the characters, which have all got to be linked with the story's main theme.The overall goal is that everyone finds personal enlightenment of some sort by the end of the story. BUT, what personal dilemmas can be associated with spiritual consciousness?I don't want to give this up, but it's a pity I don't know how to tell it.


Personal dilemma is related to spiritual consciousness. For example, In the great Indian epic Mahabharata when Arjun is under moral dilemma whether I should fight with my relatives and elderly persons Lord Krishna instructed him to do your duties without thinking of the consequences. Gradually he was persuaded to go for war. This insight come from once you will be clear of your confused mind. Thus the dilemma will vanish and the Spiritual consciousness will arise. It comes from true knowledge and selfless motive.

Madhu Kapoor

(58) Rob asked:

Why should I go to my midterms next week if the sun is going to die out in a billion years and end everything I've accomplished on earth? Or damn black holes sucking the meaning out of my existence.


In spite of all the hazards coming to my life I have to stand up and make my life fulfilled. Even if it is for a minute I will make it meaningful keeping my target to be achieved. The whole world may collapsed including myself but I will go with satisfaction that I have finished my job.

Madhu Kapoor

(59) Donna asked:

I am writing an essay on the works of Frege and am required to explain how Frege comes to make the claim that identity is a relation not between objects, but between the signs which refer to them. I was thinking of going along the lines of we need to acquire new information and this cannot be done by simply looking at the objects alone as they refer to the same object, but would appreciate any other angles which the question can be looked at from.


Your question reminds me of a Indian school of Nyaya as it is called where the same kind of problem Is dealt. An object can be apprehended from two points of view but then they have two different illuminator what we call in sanskrit language 'Avacchedaka'. You may call this Avacchedaka sense in Frege's terminology. So for Nyaya there cannot be an identity relationship between two senses. The object may be same but when they are looked from two angles they are different.

Madhu Kapoor

(60) Bongani asked:

Is it important for an individual to live a liberated life? I mean to live in a way that one wants to live and never care about any other humankind one lives with?


How can you live a liberated life without others? We are social Beings. We have to depend on others for our need so we have to care for others by cutting our demand of liberated life. Make yourself clear over the concept of liberty.

Madhu Kapoor

(61) Ian asked:

What's the difference between western and eastern philosophers?


In fact there is no difference in content. The difference is in their Methodology. The western philosophy explores through given material and continues on and on. Whereas eastern and specially Indian starts with given and when the terminating point is not seen it accepts its limitation. That unknown area may be designated as spiritual, mystical or whatever want to say. When one reaches the limit one realizes the unavailability of something that hankering is a natural disposition as Kant calls. So there are all kinds of philosophy in east and west the difference is that of approach.

Madhu Kapoor

(62) Jess asked:

What is the point of philosophical scepticism if the infinite regress of doubt can lead us nowhere in our pursuit of knowledge?


At least it enriches us. It makes our journey pleasant.

Madhu Kapoor

(63) Vard asked:

What is the meaning of life?


The meaning of life is not given to any one. Everyone has to find out. It is a continuous evolving process. We are searching our own meanings. No two persons can have the same meaning of life. Make it worth living. You well get it.

Madhu Kapoor

(64) 1ugenia asked:

I am very interested in studying philosophy but I am 27.When is it too late to begin something new? When is it too late fir new beginnings in life?


27 is nothing. Plato says philosophy should be studied at the age of 35. I myself feel that philosophy needs a mature mind which is possible only at the age of 35. So go ahead.

Madhu Kapoor

(65) Justin asked:

Protagoras says that no ones beliefs are more true than another persons, but he claims that he still has something to teach because his beliefs are more beneficial than those of others. Can he make sense of his notion of more beneficial without appealing to truth? Does Socrates successfully show that he cannot?


As Plato examines in the 'Theaetetus' the definition of knowledge through Socrates, he tries to refute the first proposal of definition by Theaetetus 'Knowledge is a perception' (Theaetetus 151d-e), therefore he needs to refute the claim of Protagoras 'man is the measure of all things', which implies that 'all perceptions are true'.

The first objection to that is: if all perceptions are true, then it follows that there is no reason to think that animal perceptions are inferior to the human ones (161d). However, since the Protagorean view could mean that 'the opinion or the judgement formed on the basis of perception is true', he objects that this implies that no one is wiser than anyone, which means even Protagoras himself. The third objection which follows is that the human perceptions should not be inferior to the gods' as well, which is also absurd (Theaetetus 161a-162d).

Then Socrates sketches the response of Protagoras to his objections, which is focused on Protagoras' therapeutic model of teaching as follows: There are no true and false beliefs, but only different judgements, and what the wiser man (Protagoras) does is to change by the use of arguments ' just like the good doctor by the use of drugs ' the state of the pupil's soul, in which 'bad things are and appear', into the one in which 'good things are and appear'. For while all beliefs are true, some are more beneficial (better) (Theaetetus 167 a-c).

The response of Socrates to this objection is the well-known 'peritrope' (table-turning) argument as follows: Protagoras admits that 'his opinion is true' and also that 'the contrary opinion' that the other people might have 'is also true'.

'And in conceding the truth of the opinion of those who think him wrong, he is really admitting the falsity of his own opinion' (Plato Theaetetus 171b).

In other words, 'all beliefs are true' is true, and 'not all beliefs are true' is also true. In this way, according to Plato, Protagoras contradicts himself by refuting his own argument, therefore he cannot claim that his beliefs are more beneficial than the others'.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(66) Ho wen asked:

Explain why the bundle theory, i.e., The theory according to which objects are mere bundles of properties, is committed to the identity of indiscernibles, the principle according to which qualitative identity is sufficient for numerical identity.


The bundle theory is not committed to the principle of indiscernibles: there is no reason why you could not have two bundles of exactly similar properties -- unless each possible property could only occur once in the entire universe, which is ridiculous. Note also that a "bundle" is a relation: it relates all of the properties into a whole; but, again, there is no reason why you cannot have two relations which are exactly similar.

Helier Robinson

(67) Imran asked:

I want to understand what Aristotle's philosophy was about I have no background in philosophy

I tried to read a downloads of his work CATEGORIES and ETHICS but it was not easy

Is there any commentary of his work for dummies? What's THE best of way of understanding his works?


I always use the same method when I begin to study a new thinker. If I wanted to learn about Aristotle, I would begin with summaries of Aristotle's work in an encyclopedia of philosophy, or even an idiot's guide (if it is way outside my area of expertise). After that I might read a text on Aristotle written by another philosopher (i.e. A secondary source). I wouldn't necessarily read the whole book, just enough to feel confident that I have the background to read the primary text. Only then would I jump into reading something heavy like Aristotle for the first time.

Eric Zwickler

(68) Meg asked:

Can athletics/ sports be considered a form of art?


Well, if learning how to kill and maim can be (as in: martial "arts"), then pretty much anything can be, wouldn't you say? So what we need here are some *criteria*. The question is, what is "art"? Haha, you want agreement for that, I'll just wish you good luck and bow out. But here's my take on it, for what it's worth. An "art" is different from a "craft" in that an art is intended to *express* - usually a feeling, although metaphor may be employed fairly generally. If we agree on that, then, first, sports are not art, they are crafts, by and large. A sport which might be considered "art" would be ballet, and perhaps, just perhaps, gymnastics, and of course there's ice skating. But usually, no. The "martial arts" should be called "martial crafts": they are skills learned, but express nothing (unless they are incorporated into dance). And so forth. But there are many other viewpoints here, obviously. If you really want to get into this, the reading list is huge... Here are a very, very few:

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

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

C. Brower, 'A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning', Journal of Music Theory, 44 (2000), 323-79.

E. T. Cone, The Composer's Voice. Vol. 6 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974).

S. Davies, 'Musical Understanding and Musical Kinds', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52 (1994), 69-81.

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

A. Goldman, 'Emotions in Music (a Postscript)', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53 (1995), 59-69.

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

P. Herzog, 'Music Criticism and Musical Meaning', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53 (1995), 299-312.

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

P. Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook. 8th edn (New York: Polyglot Press, 1977).

C.L. Krumhansl, 'Music: A Link between Cognition and Emotion', Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11 (2002), 45-50.

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

S. Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York, NY: Picador USA, 1990).

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

Steven Ravett Brown

(69) Justin asked:

Socrates rejects Theaetetus account of knowledge as perception on the grounds that certain elements that are essential to knowledge do not come to us through perception. Is this argument a fair refutation (a) of the definition? (B) of an empirical approach to knowledge? Explain your answer.


The final refutation of Theaetetus' account of knowledge as a perception follows after the refutation of Protagoras' and Heraclitus' account of knowledge in the 'Theaetetus' 184b-187a of Plato with the 'Wooden Horse' argument. The argument is as follows: If the partial perceptions were sitting inside us as if we were a Wooden Horse, without existing a single form (soul) to which all converse, we would have not been able to perceive what we perceive as a whole. Apart from that, the mind uses many concepts, which do not operate through senses e.G. 'being', 'sameness', 'difference' etc., Which means that there is a part of knowledge that does not deal with the senses, therefore knowledge cannot be a perception. To be more specific, the mind can perceive the common feature that they share in common different things, which means that possesses the knowledge of the 'sameness'. As well as it can realize the difference between two artificially similar objects, which means possesses the knowledge of the 'difference'. And certainly it can grasp what is (being) and what is not.

Therefore he states:

'Through what does that which is percipient in us perceive all of them?

'You mean being and not-being, likeness and unlikeness, same and different, also one and any number applied to them'. (Plato's Theaetetus 185c-d)

The argument then of refutation is based upon the known list of Forms of Plato mentioned also in his previous Dialogue 'Parmenides', namely sameness, difference, one, multitude etc. In this case the argument is a refutation of the simple empirical approach to knowledge that considers knowledge as a whole of the partial perceptions.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(70) Omar asked:

I would like you to ask you that what is the definition of and duration of present? The harder I try to figure out the answer the more clear it becomes that the present is just the most resent imprint of our senses on our consciousness. In a moment this imprint is transferred into our memories and it fads away. This gradual fading away of imprints from our senses gives us a feeling that time is passing. I think that the feel of time is a function of the fading process of our imprint on our memory. That is why in different situations we feel differently about the passage of time.

I think there is no duration of present. Future is directly converted into past. Some part of our consciousness is in future and some of it is in past.


There's actually quite a large literature on this question, most of it agreeing with you, except for the existence of the present. Your concept of "gradual fading away" may be very close to that of Husserl's "running off", which is itself a response to Brentano's position on this subject. I highly recommend you read:

Husserl, E. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time. Translated by J.B. Brough. Edited by R. Bernet. Vol. IV, Edmund Husserl: Collected Works. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

You will find it difficult, but worthwhile. Other reading:

Brentano, F. "Descriptive Psychology." edited by Benito Mueller. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1995.

Capek, M. The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Company, 1961.

Cowan, N., S. Saults, and L. Nugent. "The Ravages of Absolute and Relative Amounts of Time on Memory." In The Nature of Remembering: Essays in Honor of Robert G. Crowder, edited by H.L. Roediger, III and J.S. Nairne, 315-30. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001.

Dartnall, T. "Does the World Leak into the Mind? Active Externalism, "Internalism" and Epistemology." Cognitive Science 29 (2005): 135-43.

Dummett, M. "Is Time a Continuum of Instants?" Philosophy 75 (2000): 497-515.

Gallagher, S. "Suggestions Towards a Revision of Husserl's Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness." Man and World 12 (1979): 445-64.

------. "Sync-Ing in the Stream of Experience: Time-Consciousness in Broad, Husserl, and Dainton." Psyche 90, no. 10 (2003).

Gelven, M. A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Gentner, D., M. Imai, and L Boroditsky. "As Time Goes By: Evidence for Two Systems in Processing Space->Time Metaphors." Language and Cognitive Processes 17, no. 5 (2002): 537-65.

Glicksohn, J. "Temporal Cognition and the Phenomenology of Time: A Multiplicative Function for Apparent Duration." Consciousness and Cognition 10 (2001): 1-25.

Johnson, J.E., and T.P. Petzel. "Temporal Orientation and Time Estimation in Chronic Schizophrenics." Journal of Clinical Psychology 27, no. 2 (1971): 194-96.

Kepes, G., ed. The Nature and Art of Motion. 3 vols. Vol. 3, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965.

Lehmann, H.E. "Time and Psychopathology." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 138, no. 2 (1967): 798-821.

McAllister, L.L., ed. The Philosophy of Brentano. London: Duckworth, 1976.

Muller, M.M., P. Mallnowski, T. Gruber, and S.A. Hillyard. "Sustained Division of the Attentional Spotlight." Nature 424 (2003): 309-12.

Niedeggen, M., P. Wichmann, and P. Stoerig. "Change Blindness and Time to Consciousness." European Journal of Neuroscience 14 (2001): 1719-26.

Read, R. "Is 'What Is Time?' a Good Question to Ask?" Philosophy 77 (2002): 193-210.

Reichenbach, H. The Philosophy of Space and Time. Translated by M. Reichenbach and J. Freund. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1958.

Ricoeur, P. Time and Narrative. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sokolowski, R. "Immanent Constitution in Husserl's Lectures on Time." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24 (1964): 530-51.

Trevethan, C.T., and A. Sahraie. "Spatial and Temporal Processing in a Subject with Cortical Blindness Following Occipital Surgery." Neuropsychologia 41 (2003): 1296-306.

Varela, F. J. "Present-Time Consciousness." Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, no. Feb/Mar (1999): 111-40.

Zelazo, P.D., and J.A. Sommerville. "Levels of Consciousness of the Self in Time." In The Self in Time: Developmental Perspectives, edited by C. Moore and K. Lemmon, 229-52. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Steven Ravett Brown

(71) Youngston asked:

What is the religious perspective in the analysis of the origins of man?How is it different from the evolutionary and the scientific view and analysis of the origins of man? Which among them offers the strongest argument and how?

My view is that evolution theory is the most absurd because if it were through evolution that man originated we would still experience the evolution of man from chimpanzees even today.


Your view is incorrect, I'm afraid. If you want a thorough exposition of this basically rather simple issue (despite all the hype), you might go here: and here:

The problem is not that the issues are particularly complex. The problem is that to understand evolution - what it is, what evolutionists actually say and mean, what Darwin said, and the actual biological, chemical, and historical bases of this viewpoint (which is *extremely* well-supported by evidence) - one must have a fairly good basic grounding in biology, some in anthropology, some in paleontology, and also in the history of this issue, and most people simply do not. I hope the above helps.

Steven Ravett Brown

(72) Chris asked:

Can "something" come from "nothing"? In wrestling with the problem of what existed prior to the Big Bang I have run into this philosophical head scratcher: the universe itself cannot have had a "before" state which was devoid of any and all matter if it constitutes all existence. In other words, if the original state of all existence/reality was a void then nothing could have ever changed that original matterless state. The only possible way a totally empty "before universe" could exist is if a separate universe existed that did have matter and somehow entered into our matterless void universe. That would explain, somewhat, how a matterless universe suddenly achieved matter. The "something" from "nothing" would be explained easily by saying that it all came from an outside source.

That neatly solves how our before and after universe came about but then we're stuck with where that alternate universes matter came from. Ultimately at some point in the chain "something" will have to emerge from "nothing."

Is this possible? And can it work in reverse? Can "something" turn totally into "nothing." Could our universe erase itself utterly to the point where nothing exists? And if so, where would that matter and energy go?


Part of the answer to your question lies in knowing what was created in the Big Bang. If causation came into existence with the Big Bang then the Big Bang cannot have been caused; and if time came into existence with it, then there cannot have been a time before the Big Bang -- as Steven Hawkings said, asking about the time before the Big Bang is like asking what is north of the North Pole. A possible answer is that time is circular: the Universe "ends" with the Big Crunch, having started with the Big Bang, but the Crunch and the Bang are one and the same event. Time here is not passage of time, but a dimension; so it would be wrong to describe the Universe as cycling endlessly around this loop; rather is it a static loop, like a circle that has no beginning or end. This would answer your last question.

Another point to consider is that the phrase "intrinsic necessary existence" may be meaningful, so that among every possible universe one at least must possess it and so exist necessarily. This world would exist because it cannot not exist. This might mean that it has existed for infinite time, and so had no beginning, so that your question about something emerging out of nothing does not arise. The traditional answer that the Universe was created by God has the same problem that you raise: who or what created God? One reply to this is that God was self-caused, and so always existed -- which is to say that God has intrinsic necessary existence! You might find my book "Belief Shock" helpful; it can be downloaded free from www.Sharebooks.Ca.

Helier Robinson

(73) Gill asked:

Why did Plato believe that the Form of the Good was the highest of the forms? I know that he thought it would "illuminate" all all the other forms, but why can't the form of justice or truth fulfil this role just as well?

Could you explain the 'third man' argument with regards to this theory?


Plato believed that the form of the 'Good' behaves in much the same way that our sun behaves on Earth. Plato thought that the form of the good 'casts light' on to all the other forms both informing their existence -- for example something that is both beautiful and good -- and also allowing the observation of their existence. Truth and justice do not work for this example because the forms of truth and justice are subject to being good, since there exists unpleasant truth and harsh justice. In essence, 'Good' is a meta-form that allows for the knowledge of other forms.

Aristotle's third man argument basically argues that the definitions of Plato's forms create an infinite loop. Plato defines the forms as being 1) the perfection of any object, 2) an instantiation of that object, and 3) the link describing the traits in common with any two or more objects.

The problem arises thus: Given two chairs, we say (because of definition two) that there must be a form Chair to link these two, since they are similar. This form Chair must be a chair (because of definition two), in fact, it is the perfect chair (def. One). Now there's a problem, we have our two chairs and we have our form Chair, all of which are chairs. Definition three says that when there are two or more of anything, there is a form between them. This means that there's a form Chair for our two chairs plus our *original* form Chair. We'll call this form Chair^1. Now form Chair^1 is also a chair because of definition two, and now we're off on infinite loop.

The problem with Plato's definition of the forms is that definitions two and three are aggregate. Definition three says that there's a form for all things in this world of which there are multiple instances of that thing (chairs is a famous philosophy class example). Definition two says that the form of that thing *is* that thing, essentially adding another object to the set under scrutiny. Definitions two and three repeat *ad infinitum* and are thus invalid.

The problem with this in relation to the good is similar to our problem with chairs. Let's say we have two 'good' things, kittens and puppies. We see the form of good between them and must say that the form good exists (definition three). Form good must *be* Good (definition two) and must exist (def. Three), thus beginning the infinite loop. Plato's definition of the forms contradicts his original intention -- to explain how we know and understand the commonalities we see instanced in the world -- since his explanation results in an infinite loop and is thus invalid as a tool for knowledge.

Greg Muller

(74) Edgardo asked:

Does every culture have a moral obligation to care only for its own?


No. No culture has a moral obligation to care only for it's own, even if caring only for it's own is the norm in that culture. What *is* the case about inherited behaviour and what *ought* to be are quite separate questions. This can be brought out by reference to the Nazis. The Nazis established a cultural norm by which millions of people where excluded from this 'culture' and then murdered. Cultural norms notwithstanding, it is still wrong to murder.

David Robjant

(75) Peter asked:

How and why can two brothers, brought up in the same house, by the same parents, and by the some rules be so different?


Popular answers are 1. DNA, 2. Reincarnation, and 3. They must have been treated slightly differently. The truth is: nobody really knows.

David Robjant

(76) Oline asked:

Hi there!

Im a 17 year old girl from Kalmar in Sweden.

I'm writing an essay about existence.

How do we know that we exist?

Do we need confirmation to know that we are existing?

If a tree falls in the wood, and no one hears it, does the sound exist?

If there is some form of material out in space, that doesn't effect its environment or getting noticed by anything (but itself) does it exist?

Now, Im reading a little Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche...

What more do you recomend me to read?

What should I search for?

Have a nice day!


Let's take those one by one.

'How do we know that we exist?'

Any evidence for any claim about anything at all (that the sky is blue, that 2+2=4 and so on) will presume a range of prior certainties (that the colour of a thing is, in ordinary circumstances, how it appears to the eye, that the meaning of '2' and the meaning of '4' are such that 2+2=4, and so on). Amongst these prior certainties it would seem 'I exist' is included, since if we ask who has the eyes that see the answer will have to be 'me', and if we ask whose meaning of '2', the answer will have to be 'mine'. So I would say that 'I exist' is one of a number of certainties without which the sorts of doubts that we can have could not arise. It is on the hinge of such certainties that real doubt can turn, in Wittgenstein's image.

Now, whether this special hinge kind of certainty that 'I exist' has makes it the case that I *know* that I exist, rather depends upon how you define 'knowledge'. Were one to say that knowledge is justified true belief, one would have to concede that I do not know that I exist, since there is nothing prior or more certain to which I may refer in order to justify my claim to exist. Well, so much the worse for that definition of knowledge, I say. I know that I exist, in the sense that everything in my life confirms it and nothing could contradict it. Therefore, knowledge is not justified true belief (It may however be true belief with an account, namely an account of the relation of that true belief to other true beliefs and of the difference of the the referent from other referents - the bit of Plato that got mistranslated as 'justified' true belief).

'Do we need confirmation to know that we are existing?'

According to some, yes: we need confirmation in the behaviour and testimony of others. For myself, I think this circuitous, since my trust in such third party evidence is part of my trust in my own existence. I would say that we would only need confirmation if one managed to doubt that one existed, and I don't have any clear idea of what that would be like.

'If a tree falls in the wood, and no one hears it, does the sound exist?'

Depends what you mean by 'sound'. Clearly the stuff that the scientists refer to (pressure waves in the air) will still exist (the world has these objective aspects). But what we ordinarily mean and what musicians mean by 'sound' is something with a subjective component at least, perhaps even something essentially subjective. A sound in this sense is not a 'pressure wave', but something that one hears. The difference is important and can be brought out by scientific expressions like 'ultra-sound' for a kind of pressure wave that we cannot hear, in just the way that 'infra-red' is a kind of 'light frequency' that we cannot see. Is 'infra-red' a colour? I would say not: it is a region on a frequency chart. In just the same way I would say that ultra-sound isn't a sound but a region on a frequency chart.

Things become tricky when we have to deal with elephants and bats, two animals who can detect and react to frequencies we cannot detect. What should we say, that they can hear sounds we cannot, or that they have a sense we do not have, which is not a sense for sound as we understand it, but more like radar, or sonar? The difficulty there is that we are tempted to take the meaning of 'sound' away from the central examples in which it arises, namely that of human beings listening for a picture of their environment or for communication or whatever. Whether our categories apply well to bats is not clear, and various thoughts pull in opposite directions. But perhaps we can circumvent that difficulty in answering your question by specifying that no sentient being, no human, dog, cat, elephant or bat, hears the tree fall. In that case I am tempted to say, no matter the existence of 'pressure waves', no sound occurs. By the way, Berkeley answers this question differently, by saying that no matter that the pressure wave was not encountered by a human being or elephant there was still a sound, because God heard it. That's a whole new problem.

'If there is some form of material out in space, that doesn't effect its environment or getting noticed by anything (but itself) does it exist?'

Given modern science, the idea of there being more than one lump of matter in the universe, but there being no effect of the first on the second or vice versa, is simply inconceivable. Gravity, for instance, is one relatively weak force that nevertheless operates over any distance whatsoever. So your question, in principle, couldn't arise.

'Now, Im reading a little Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche... What more do you recomend me to read?'

It sounds like you might have the sort of mind, and the sort of questions, that might benefit from the better sort of teaching and writing about physics, which is very rare. There is one book, 'the character of physical law' by Richard Feynman, which is very worthwhile. I do not know if it is translated into swedish, but it deserves to be. Otherwise, I note that the philosophers you mention are notable for two features, not unrelated to each other, shared by all three: popularity and obscurity. There is a tendency for humans to praise most what it is easiest for them to feign knowledge of, and it is never easier to pretend to knowledge of something than when it is obscure what that something is.

May I suggest that it might be profitable to examine some neglected stretches of clear water. Plato is worth a read. Begin with what the over-confident insist on calling the 'early dialogues', for instance Protagoras, Gorgias, etc. If you are still tempted to read Sartre I suggest you stick to Nausea (La Nausee), which in addition to being Sartre's most accessible writing, also says, really, everything that Sartre has to say. There is a very good short book 'Sartre: Romantic Rationalist' by Iris Murdoch which makes intelligent use of this condensation of Sartre's thought in Nausea, and will help you to see Sartre as part not only of a modern tradition called 'existentialist', but also the inheritor of an ancient, Heraclitean and Platonic thought-world.

Good Luck.

David Robjant

(77) Matt asked:

I find the concept of belief and intentional states of mind in general quite puzzling. We can at least say the theory of intentional states has been very useful in describing minds. However whether the theory of intentional states is accurate is a different matter. I have a suspicion that if/when we get the full scientific of the mind we will find that mental states are much more complicated then the intentional states we currently use to describe them. Can you recommend some reading on this matter and perhaps give your own view if you like? I understand that there is much written on this in philosophy of the mind, however my interest in more related to epistemology where I feel the concept of belief is often thrown around too loosely.

PS. If you are able to offer a response to my question could you please email it too me, I've had trouble in the past trying to find my answered question on the answers page.


It is hard for me to quite recover from the remarks "I find the concept of belief and intentional states of mind in general quite puzzling... I have a suspicion that if/when we get the full scientific of the mind we will find that mental states are much more complicated then the intentional states we currently use to describe them." Which one might be likely to take as a statement of the view that there are no such things as beliefs or intentional states, which view you think will be confirmed by scientific investigations in the fullness of time. I find it difficult to see exactly what your question is, since it is hard to take such a statement as a question, and this may have something to do with the inadequate response you have received so far. You invite us to state a view on the matter. Well alright then, there are beliefs.

I am at a loss to suggest reading on this since I am unable to isolate a selection of titles which holds this thesis as a matter of controversy. I mean, of course there are beliefs! What could possibly prompt someone to examine and reject the contrary possibility? What contrary possibility is there? It might help if you could explain *why* you find yourself "puzzled" by belief. I have the impression that the more accurate way to put it is to say that you are sceptical about the possibility of an "intentional state". But scepticism and puzzlement are not at all the same thing, and in the case of scepticism you certainly need a motive, a rational. EG, some sceptics have raised the possibility of scepticism about whether there are moral qualities by asking how it would look to a rat. But you have done nothing to indicate this new perspective from which it is apparently no difficulty about dispensing with intentional states. If you were to do so I might be able to give a response.

David Robjant

(78) Yadira

What is so wrong with being a relativist?


For instance the fact that once you have made the truth relative to you, you will no longer have a concept of truth.

We need a concept of truth, or we will be forever puzzled by the failure of reality to conform to our dull fantasies. That is, until we eventually hit upon a fantasy that is fatal to the holder, of which there are two many to list. The belief that one can walk off a tall building and fly is one such. If you really are a relativist, believing that the 'truth' is simply whatever is 'true for you', you will have a short life full of unresolved puzzlement, followed by a messy death.

With modern technology and civilization, there is perhaps the third possibility, that you will never have any encounter with reality, saving death itself, which can me made a matter of painless sleep.

Perhaps the fact that the historical rise of relativism matches that of safety and civilization is not wholly surprising. There are inadequate opportunities for misadventure, leading to a dangerous belief in the *impossibility* of misadventure, the impossibility of reality smacking you in the face. Reality was rather threatening, but has now had all the visibly sharp edges nicely sanded down and covered in expended rubber foam - giving rise to the dimwitted inference that reality had no sharp edges in the first place. Popular as it is for the x-box generation, you didn't get Sioux or Mohicans questioning the existence of a reality outside themselves.

David Robjant

(79) Omar asked:

I would like you to ask you that what is the definition of and duration of present? The harder I try to figure out the answer the more clear it becomes that the present is just the most resent imprint of our senses on our consciousness. In a moment this imprint is transferred into our memories and it fads away. This gradual fading away of imprints from our senses gives us a feeling that time is passing. I think that the feel of time is a function of the fading process of our imprint on our memory. That is why in different situations we feel differently about the passage of time.

I think there is no duration of present. Future is directly converted into past. Some part of our consciousness is in future and some of it is in past.

Please comment on my thought


What you have given us here is very modern, and very ancient. It is what Plato calls the 'wax impression' picture of consciousness. You will find it discussed by him in the dialogue 'Theaetetus'.

I should point out that it is necessary for our 'present' to be extended in time in order that we should be able to form sentences. Our experience of time is not staccato in the way that a ticking of a wind up clock is, nor does one 'present' instantaneously replace itself with another, as with the figures on the face of a digital watch. Time flows. It is the extension of our present consciousness in time which makes possible an appreciation of this directionality and continuity. We are not wax tablets. Now are we movie goers in a cave of coloured noise, the images thrown by a succession of static pictures. The arrow is not stopped while it is moving. It flies.

Things with no duration do not exist. They never have existed, never will exist, and do not presently exist. (Though extensionless points in space are conceivable for the purposes of Euclidean geometry, this does not carry over to time.)

I should also point out that in various contexts, 'the present' may be used to refer to a second, an hour, a day, or the last fifty years of anglo-saxon philosophy (e.G. As in 'present philosophy treats the ancient Greeks as one wheel short of a philosophical analysis go-cart'). There is also an eternal 'now'. None of these 'nows' prints itself on us.

David Robjant

(80) Paul asked:

hello...In my opinion the existence or otherwise of God cannot be proven.It is a matter of faith.It is also a comment on the nature of western society that the absence of categorical scientific proof tends to discredit the possibility for many people.Validity of a viewpoint hinges on scientific support for the argument.Yet science is only right for as long as it takes for someone else to come along with evidence that disproves an earlier theory.Newton was right until he was shown to be wrong.More recently scientists have had to recast their theory of how comets are formed following the successful colliding of a satellite with a comet.Given that science is fallible should scientists not issue a health warning alongside their theories so that people can retain an open mind and not close it with the view that a scientist said it so it must be right?


I think you are in danger here of adopting an untrue and misleading idea of science. Newton has not been shown to be wrong. Einstein's theory of relativity is a refinement of Newton's ideas and so is Quantum mechanics.

Scientists did not really have a theory of how comets were formed, only a hypothesis that lacked real experimental evidence. Now that we have landed on a comet and obtained some real physical evidence we can start to formulate a real theory about how comets are formed. As long as you understand how science works there is no need to issue health warnings about its status.

However the important thing about science is that it is a way of trying to obtain knowledge about the physical world. Instead of guessing about how things work we propose theories and test them by means of experiment. Look at the achievements that science has given us, electricity, computers, antibiotics, surgery etc..

Of course scientists make mistakes and there is a lot of false science around. Science like everything else can be perverted by people anxious to make a quick profit. However it still remains true that the scientific quest for knowledge is the most successful enterprise that mankind has devised.

How does all this tie up with your concerns about God and the existence of God? The fact is that it doesn't. Science can only give us knowledge of how the physical world works. It cannot explain why the world exists nor does it aim to do that. Science cannot confirm or deny the existence of God.

Shaun Williamson