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

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 32 (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 32/1.

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

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Patience asked:

'Man is free but everywhere in chains.' To what extend does the social contract theory liberate man from himself?

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

Liberation is a gradual process. You cannot say suddenly one fine morning that I am free. Since we have lots of barriers around us, social, political, family and above all our beliefs our prejudices. It is difficult to get rid of all these once for all. But if these barriers are not acceptable to me I must try to get rid of of these shackles. But as a student of philosophy you must know that all liberation is conditional. The notion of absolute freedom is a false or illusory concept. For example, If one wishes to fly like a bird because one has a freedom one is definitely going to fall. Kant says in his Critique of Pure Reason: 'The light dove cleaving the air in free flight might imagine that its flight would have been much easier in empty space.'

Madhu Kapoor


(2) Gagan asked:

This is not a philosophical question in the literal sense of the phrase, but I want to know, as a student of philosophy, what areas of jobs are available to me after my postgraduation, besides of course teaching. Can philosophy be made lucrative, and if so, then how?

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

Philosophy is the only subject that opens so many possibilities before us and provides lots of opportunity if we are sincere enough to pursue it. It provides us technique or strategy which can be applied in any field. If we are interested in journalism or literature or social sciences, It enhances our power of judgement which allows us to see better than an ordinary person. Our vision is sharpened with this tool. If one is a creative person, it gives one new ideas and an insight into the subject under consideration... So try it and you will be successful.

Madhu Kapoor


(3) Harvey asked::

I'm a discouraged student of philosophy for my intent in a classroom is pure discovery; however, it is completely impossible to communicate with Professors who have no experience outside of space and time. After all, to understand a philosophical argument, one should take such a position, much like an actor; whereas, ones attention actually shifts into that state of consciousness (first person view) in order to understand another's position. When I say outside space and time I mean the here and now or a good term is eternity. This birds eye view is a good common sense epistemological position with connectivity to the physics of, what looks like, the outer world.

This concept is not new or unique to me; yet it appears to be forbidden knowledge in the classroom or any setting of discussion regarding philosophy. And yes, I know it is impossible to understand the concept if you are unable to shift your view point to this lofty height. And yes, I'm sensitive enough not to insult those that can not. My question is the here now unexplored territory for the discipline of Philosophy? Please, if your answer is to sweep this ideology under a mystical/ religious rug or dump it into an abstract ashcan your answers will prove to be self refuting.

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

Yes you are quite right that one has to take an actor's position while studying philosophy. I never think that anyone can study philosophy without understanding the point of view of a philosopher. You have to live that philosophy in order to assimilate his philosophy. So sometimes it becomes very difficult to criticize. Unfortunately in our colleges it is taught like an informative study which clearly it is not. But then there is no way. Our institutions are academics and they have to follow certain rules and routine. There are so many minds and so many philosophies so there is an scope for unexplored territory which you are afraid to call mystical. Why? When you cross the limit of logic vis-a vis boundaries you will have such oceanic feeling which is a wonderful experience. Don't call it religious if you have prejudice for that simple word R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N. But I will suggest that shed off this conviction also. What is the harm if I say it is a religious experience. If all the mysteries of life would have been revealed, men would have nothing to search for.. Mystery drives us on and on and that is the charm of philosophy or any kind of study. Ultimately every serious pursuance leads to mystery zone. It is not 'fantastic'.Try to be blessed by this (divine?) experience.

Madhu Kapoor


(4) Anna asked:

Please, share with me your comments on the following statement: Which is more important: a question or an answer?

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

It is a very good question because people do not know when and how to ask a question. In seminars I have always found that scholars ask question for the sake of question. A relevant question is very important. Sometimes if a question is relevant, a teacher or anyone whatsoever can find a new way for exploration. It can change the course of research so to say of life as well. A good question suggests lot of possibilities.If your question is in the right direction you will get the answer by yourself. Go on questioning yourself and get the answer from within. This is a good intellectual exercise. Unfortunately our society has become a questioning society only we have no time to listen and ponder over the answer.

Madhu Kapoor


(5) Barbara asked:

What is the importance of a reliable understanding?

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

Philosophically speaking there is no absolute reliable understanding.The seed of skepticism cannot be rooted out. But it has a importance in our practical life. Practical life will be impossible if we go on doubting every time. As David Hume says, 'the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action, and speculation, with the philosopher of every other sect... when he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess that all his objections are amusement and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind.'

Madhu Kapoor


(6) Aloh asked:

Aristotle said It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness when only an approximation of the truth is possible.what was he speaking of and what does it mean?

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

So far as the theoretical wisdom is concerned there is no limit of it. We can go on for never ending precision and exactness. But our practical wisdom cannot go for never ending process. It demands a solution of a problem and so we have to remain satisfy with approximate truth and not the absolute truth which is unachievable in practical life. This is what Aristotle says here in these lines.

Madhu Kapoor


(7) Vicky asked:

Can faith and reason coexist? (Without using the religion aspect in this)

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

Yes faith and reason can coexist together. When I am walking on the street I have a faith that under my feet there is a earth to walk on. But I must walk carefully if there is any pit on the same road. So reason helps to work out that faith.

Madhu Kapoor


(8) Justin asked:

If we see the holes in the metaphysical world of deeper meanings and philosophy of why we have this odd reason we fight to live, is it to learn why we are really here instead of taking the easy way out either by suicide or by saying life is fallible and has no meaning? Or can we be here in a Descartes sort of matrix kind of way and we took the pill that keeps our ignorance our eternal bliss? How do we know we fall under the rules of a god's ultimate plan or do we wake up to find ourselves in a tube hooked up to a supercomputer? Will we wake up in a plutonic bed in a plutonic world to find out this world has been a dream? I'm sure some of this sounds a bit emo. but I have always thought of it as a relevant question to the meaning of existence.

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

After reading so many philosophies you are bit confused. Don't try to apply so many philosophies on yourself. Try to read them and assimilate them and find out your way. Just as an actor plays different roles on the stage but when he comes to himself he is no more that character, he is himself only. So try to find out yourself. Try to set your goal of life and pursue that, that will define your existence and fulfill you and will give meaning to your life.

As Buddha says: appadipo bhava, that is to say, 'light your own lamp.'

Madhu Kapoor


(9) Robin asked:

Are angles real?

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

'Angles' is a word. As a word, it functions as a way for us to understand something. That something was observed by our senses, and rationalized by our mind into a mathematical concept.

So you could say that 'angles' do exist in nature. You could even say that they have always existed, even before they were discovered and named as such.

The simple answer is that angles do exist. They exist as a human concept.

That long answer is that your question is impossible to answer. Are angles real? We don't really know, because no one can prove what 'real' is? Are we 'real'? If we are not real, angles are not real.

Nuno Hipolito


(10) Jessica asked:

A man asks another man if a dog has buddha nature. The second man turns to the first man and says, 'mu'. What is mu?

My friend asked me this question and won't go into to it at all. I don't even know if he knows. But it is bothering me, what is mu?

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

This is an old Zen Buddhist story. See this link to learn more about it:

http://www.io.com/~snewton/zen/mu.html

Nuno Hipolito


(11) Mysterious asked:

Who led Athens into it's Golden Age?

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

His name was Pericles. You can read more about him here:

http://www.thatsgreece.com/online/article.asp?returnPage=SECTION&group=4§ion=4&articleid=36

Nuno Hipolito


(12) Vicky asked:

Can faith and reason coexist? (Without using the religion aspect in this).

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

Can a scientist have faith? I think so. Often in our lives we trust in faith in order to succeed. It's not a religious faith, but a faith in us, or a faith in good luck. This is an irrational way of thinking, of course, that coexists with reason.

Nuno Hipolito


(13) Petros asked:

I recently read 'Dreams of a final theory' by Nobel prize winner in Physics Steven Weinberg. He describes Philosophy as 'useless and something that can act to slow down progress in science'. On a personal level I have always been inspired by philosophy and found many philosophies to be useful in my scientific and personal life. Should I be worried about the efficacy of philosophy as a discourse or intellectual discipline? Could Steven Weinberg be right or partially right about any drag or impedance that philosophy may have on the progress of science?

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

One word for Weinberg: Atomism.

Nuno Hipolito


(14) Melia asked:

Do you believe that we are judged by the sins of our family... all my life I have been ashamed and felt that I was judged negatively because my mother was an alcoholic and married 7 times... and now today, I have a child who ended up dropping out of highschool, moving to CA and becoming a gay porn star... this is so hard for me... and I crumble when I see or think I see the judgmental looks on peoples faces when I have to eventually tell them... and it is usually soon after this that that relationship ends... is this my imagination... how does one live amongst the sins of their parents and their children... little alone the guilt we lay upon ourselves for our own mistakes...

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

Melia, seems to me that your are judging yourself. Why is it bad that your son dropped out and became a porn star? Does that make him a 'bad person'? Why did you consider his behaviour as sinful? For that matter, why was your mother's behaviour sinful?

You are caught in other people's judgments and beginning to turn into them as well. My advice would be to find pride in your mother, despite of her actions. Do the same with your son. Be understanding, generous.

You are transferring your hatred to your mother and son. You feel guilty about other people's judgment of you and you blame your mother and your son. Meanwhile it's in your hands the decision to start anew. Be proud of your family, no matter how many mistakes they make. If they make mistakes, so do you, so do lots of people, even those who criticized you.

The worst thing you can do is to judge yourself. You should be supportive. Otherwise you can't criticize people for judging. You are judging too.

Nuno Hipolito


(15) Stacy asked:

What are some applicable theories to explain the sense of deja vu?

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

A common theory tells us that there is a small delay between the two hemispheres of the brain that explains deja vu. Read more about the theories here:

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

Nuno Hipolito


(16) Sam asked:

What is a mountain?

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

I liked this question a lot. What is in fact a mountain?

For me, a mountain is a natural phenomenon, caused either by erosion, lava deposits or by tectonic movements of the earth.

But it is also something that I cannot explain by words. Something beautiful.

Nuno Hipolito


(17) Erin asked:

What are the primary differences between a caste system and class based society?

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

The main difference, for me, is the fact that in a caste system you cannot change your social status. You can only marry within your caste. In a class based system you can either go up (by being richer, more educated, etc) or down (by bankruptcy, illness, etc.

Nuno Hipolito


(18) Justin asked:

I have been hearing a lot of people, fellow students at university and in the media, making the claim that emotions are chosen. This claim is made to support other claims such as 'You should not be angry', 'Don't get depressed', 'Stop being so jealous' etc. I fail to understand how anyone can claim that emotions are chosen. When I am angry, did I have choice? Recently on TV an 'expert' told parent off for getting angry in front of children they were driving in heavy traffic. They should have chosen a better time and place to get angry. The interviewer asked if they should have suppressed their anger. The expert replied, no. They should not have chosen to get angry.

This sounds completely bizarre to me. My question is, are emotions chosen? I have no trouble understanding that after the emotion is experienced one can chose to do many things, but surely one cannot help the occurrence of an emotion. I also understand that one can shape circumstances to cause an emotion, but this is not the point either. Any ideas?

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

You make a very valid point Justin. In this PC era, it seems we can't even be honest with our emotions anymore. In fact everything is turning into plastic, pre-fabricated what to do and what to say.

But your question is a difficult one. You can, at times, choose your emotions. You can choose to be angry or to contain your anger or even transform it into something else. Just remember that we live in society, so we can't always do what we think is natural. Sometimes you can't just scream at your boss, no matter how right you are and how wrong he is. Aren't you choosing your emotions then?

Nuno Hipolito


(19) Gertha asked:

People always say know thyself. I feel like knowing about myself isn't important, and just being would be better. But there's so many shackles from adolescence, and they're hard to shake.

But lately everyone tells me I do everything wrong, that I need to be fixed, that I don't open up. You don't know me, I don't want you to think you have to give me a personal answer. I just want to know, is it my responsibility to open up to strangers, is that showing that I care? Why can't I just be a listener. What if what I do isn't important to me. I don't get angry or upset, and for some reason that upsets people.

Lately, because of all these people (whether I know know them well or not) I constantly feel attacked, and its making me feel so low.

When I read the book Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenters by Salinger, as Buddy he describes Seymour as someone who seems as though he is the world for everyone. To be someone who is never upset over another person, who only wishes them well and is made happy by failure and mediocrity, who does not feel pity or sadness, or anger. This just feels like the person to strive to be. But maybe I am going the wrong way about it all. I strive for nothing, really. But I do wish people would not get so upset with me. It's like those dumb people who are frustrated with their marriages, and who get upset about trivial things. They apply everything to themselves, and get upset at their partner, and complain about their sex lives a lot. I guess I'm asking, is it right for me to believe that the world accepts all people. That I do not need to change, all I need is to grow older and learn.

I'm not goodygoody, I guess I'm very negative at times. But I do want to be happy.

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

People don't like things that are different. Your attitude is different, so you become the target of people, who use you to get rid of their own insecurities.

My advice (as I am a different person myself) is: don't change. Over time those who matter accept you as you are. Those you don't accept you don't deserve your respect or attention. If inside you know you are a kind hearted person, who only wants the better for yourself and others, that's all that matters.

Sure it's hard to understand other people's reactions. If you feel lonely, you will probably find yourself more of a recluse, closing up to new friendships or new experiences. Try to fight that and be honest and open hearted. If others don't accept you, it's not your problem, it's theirs.

Seems like you feel a bit guilty about being yourself. And that's perfectly natural. Just don't be absorbed by that feeling, because it could drown you. Try to be happy doing the things you like the most. Sometimes dealing with difficulties makes us better humans, and better professionals.

Above all, pursue your happiness, not everyone else's. When you are old you will ask yourself if you did everything you could to be happy, and by then you should have no regrets you've done so. As long as you don't hurt others in the process.

Nuno Hipolito


(20) Howard asked:

I'm a non philosopher, but very interested in the subject.

I'd like to get a sense of how much regard/ respect there is for the ideas of Jacques Derrida.

From what I've seen, he seems to be a crackpot. His work is incomprehensible to me, at times contradictory. At least one friend of mine who is a philosopher told me 'we don't refer much to his ideas, which are considered outmoded.' Is there a general consensus among philosophers?

Thank you in advance for the answer, and for providing such an interesting, useful site!

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

I would recommend that Howard read a couple of interviews by Derrida (both published in his Points: Interviews 1974-1994, Stanford UP, 1995, pp. 399-454) and the 'Afterword' ('Toward an Ethic of Discussion') to his Limited Inc (Northwestern UP, 1988, pp. 111-154) in order to get Derrida's own response to the type of criticisms (though frankly, they don't quite qualify to be called that) which Shaun Williamson (31/1) here levels at him.

The interviews in Points (and also in Positions) are also as good as anything as introductions to Derrida's thought. (The essays in Writing and Difference are also a good 'way in'.) No-one pretends that Derrida is easy to read. Apart from anything else, his texts typically presuppose on the part of the reader a quite extensive engagement with the history of philosophy (Derrida's philosophical erudition was quite flabbergasting, perhaps even unparalleled), including such demanding thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Levinas.

Understanding Derrida unquestionably takes time, patience and discipline, and it's hard-going at times (though, obviously, like with anything that is technically demanding, this eases considerably with familiarity), but, in my humble opinion, it is one of the most rewarding intellectual experiences one can have. But don't take my word for it — and (especially) don't take the word of those (many) who denounce him without ever having read him. If you really want to know what Derrida is all about, there is no better way of finding out than actually reading some Derrida!

D Veal


(21) Lori asked:

There are three men on an island all with blue or red faces. They had a pact with one another that if any of the men found out the color of their face they would have to commit suicide at midnight. The next day a man came to the island and asked why one of them had a red face. The three men did not know which one had the red face because they were not able to see their own reflection. On the third day all men had committed suicide. Did they find out the color of their face? What or why did this happen?

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

This isn't a philosophical question. It is a simple logical question. The visitor asks 'Why does only ONE of you have a red face. The man who has a red face can see that the other two men have blue faces so he knows that he has the red face and kills himself. The other two men can see that he is the one with the red face so they realise that they both have blue faces and kill themselves.

Shaun Williamson


(22) Rhyse asked:

Can a 10 year old be an Australian detective?

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

No I don't think they can be. To be a successful detective you need to have a good understanding of adult human nature and motivation. There are lots of things about the world that even an exceptional 10 year old cannot really understand.

Wait until you are older.

Shaun Williamson


(23) Viviana asked:

Hi. I have a question concerning love.

It is said that I truly love another if my happiness is depends on his/ her happiness. i.e. I cannot be happy unless s/he is happy. My questions is, is this always true, or are there cases in which I cannot be said to love another truly even though my happiness depends on his/ her happiness?

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

If you love someone then of course you want them to be happy. However you are not responsible for their happiness, they are. If they are unhappy then this does not mean that you should be unhappy or that they should want you to be unhappy also.

If you love someone then you have to allow them the right to be unhappy at times and recognise that not everything in their life has anything to do with you or can be fixed by you.

Shaun Williamson


(24) Rhea asked:

Please answer my question! I really need the answer right now. Why do we need to philosophize?

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

Most people don't need to philosophize just as most people don't need to paint pictures or become musicians. However there will always be some people who are puzzled by the world around them and part of the world around them is the history of philosophy.

Shaun Williamson


(25) Tom asked:

I don't know if I'm right about this, but I often have the impression that philosophers have traditionally regarded the means of knowledge as some kind of obstacle to getting at reality in itself, as if the aim of scientific inquiry should be to somehow strip away the interferences of our own minds, bodies, perceptual capacities, language etc., in order to unveil the world in itself, free of all anthropomorphic colouring. Whenever in my life I have occasionally found time to give myself over to speculative musings (and I'm not sure if its been too often, or not nearly enough!), I have often been tempted by a different idea, only then to drop it again as scientifically suspect, if not straightforwardly mythical or mystical. However, I've often wanted to put it to a professional philosopher to see what he or she would make of it. I'm sure its not at all original, and perhaps you can tell me which historical philosophers have held a similar view, but I'm mainly interested in whether or not anyone would regard it (or something like it) as philosophically respectable nowadays, and what that would mean.

Basically, the idea would be that, instead of regarding the manifest, phenomenal world which we all experience as a lesser reality (as, e.g. mere appearance, mere phenomena etc.), as a kind of subjective shadow world in comparison with the objective reality of the world in itself (or, say, the colourless, odourless, silent world as described by physics), instead we reverse things and say that things attain their fullest degree of reality when they come to disclose themselves, with all their manifest properties, to human beings (or otherlyminded creatures). In other words, instead of setting up the external world in itself as the (more or less unobtainable) goal of perception and knowledge, why should we not view the manifest world of colour and light and tone and fragrance as itself a kind of goal on the part of nature, and our perceptual abilities, senses, language etc. as in some sense a means of bringing it to realization?

Like I say, I'm sure that such a view would be disregarded by most scientists and philosophers as being naively anthropocentric and teleological and thus as mythological at best, but I cant help finding something compelling about it, and I wonder on what grounds one can really claim that this picture is any more or less arbitrary than the more conventional one. Why, for example, should we regard sensation, language, knowledge, art etc. as means of more of less accurately representing or copying a reality in itself rather than as a means of disclosing it or of bringing it to appearance in some sense? My suspicion is that philosophers nowadays would regard these sorts of ideas as belonging to an obsolete Idealism or Romanticism, and perhaps its even the case that philosophers just don't address such large metaphysical matters nowadays (limiting themselves to conceptual analysis and such), but Id be very grateful for any responses.

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

Why, for example, should we regard sensation, language, knowledge, art etc. as means of more of less accurately representing or copying a reality in itself rather than as a means of disclosing it or of bringing it to appearance in some sense?

Well, offhand I can see several problems with that viewpoint. First, human beings, as a class, have limitations in their sensory apparatus. To take one very simple example, we can only see 3 or 4 colors. That is, we have only 4 photoreceptive pigments (actually it may be 5) in our eyes, which each respond primarily (their absorption curves are what is termed 'normal', more or less, but steep) to one frequency of electromagnetic (EM) radiation. All the millions of colors we see are combinations of those 4. Well, there are literally an infinite number of frequencies of EM radiation out there, ranging from very high energy x-rays and gamma rays way down to things like the radiation your household electric cords give off. We don't see any of that, but it's there. The same holds for sound (although we hear much more than the one octave that we can see, plus we hear chords, whereas we don't see anything like chords), smell, and so forth. So there is all this stuff out there, and we can't see it. That sounds more like the classical picture to me.

In addition, what we have to think with is about 3 square feet of cortex, 6 cells deep. That's it, and with that (and some help from the cerebellum) we make the patterns of EM radiation that we do see into objects, give them meanings, etc. Fine enough, but a dog's cortex, for example, is less than half the size of ours, and clearly (for the most part, haha) we're smarter than dogs. In other words, what I'm saying is that our capabilities for 'realization' are limited by our internal intellectual capacities, as well as by our sensory apparatus. How much richer the world of an entity with the equivalent of a 10-foot square cortex 20 cells deep would be, we literally cannot imagine, just as a dog cannot imagine the meanings we attach to symbols. Again, a support, I would say, for the classical view.

Now let's look at it in another way. It does seem to be true (although there are people who would deny this) that the world, the outside world, let's call it, is dead. That is, all that radiation, those objects, whatever's out there that we can only glimpse and comprehend very poorly, cannot at all 'see' or comprehend itself in any way. It's dead matter, except for us... we're made of that same matter, but somehow we have (in order, partly, to maximally increase entropy — which is what living things do, yes, pace Schrodinger) arisen with a structure which generates an internal 'viewpoint', whatever that is. We call it 'consciousness', but really that's just a label; we have no real idea of what's going on. But whatever, there it is. Now, does that 'bring nature' to 'realization'... whatever that means? Well, it certainly produces a viewpoint which is internal to matter, and we can regard that as good, in order to further that viewpoint. And indeed if we do not do so, we'll disappear... a good enough reason for a naturalized ethics, wouldn't you say? But aside from that conscocentric viewpoint, so to speak, I myself see no 'extra' reality, no 'fullest degree', in matter's having that internal viewpoint. Real is real, and we like being conscious because if we don't, then we won't be for long... and so the only conscious entities left are the ones who want to be conscious: a Darwinian slant on naturalized ethics, if you will.

But on the other hand, we (living things) are the only things that 'want'. We're part of nature, so 'nature's goals' are, ipso facto, our goals. There is no other part of nature which can have a goal; we're it, the buck stops here, etc., etc. So if we decide that nature's goal is to be conscious, then, hey, that's it, because the rest of nature is dead; it can't have goals; it can't make that kind of decision (or any other). You get it? 'Nature's' goals are our goals, by default. Whatever we create, impose, build in, is what's there, on top of the blind processes which have given rise to our peculiar configuration. Does that make you feel better? It should, at least if you can accept that kind of ultimate responsibility. If you want a big daddy in the sky (or on earth, if it comes to that) to make that decision for you, well... as far as I'm concerned, you're abrogating a great deal of what separates you from the dead (i.e., not conscious) stuff you've arisen from.

So what it comes down to, then, is that you're both wrong and right. We don't see much of what's really there; we simply aren't smart enough and well-equipped enough. But the act of seeing, so to speak, while it doesn't 'disclose' much of the world, does add something which would not be there otherwise, which is, by fiat, the most valuable characteristic of the world.

Steven Ravett Brown


(26) Richard asked:

Is it not true that in order to discuss a subject rationally it is necessary to categorise the subject in the same terms as the questions being asked. If we are to discuss the virtue of religion, or a religion, it is first necessary to categorise that religion, or some content, in terms of fundamental ethical values. The virtue of or in a religion cannot be determined on the basis of its belief in 'God', or a personality, until we know what that signifies in ethical terms.

Richard also asked:

There are many people who base what they believe is virtue on their religion. Any criticism of the virtue in their religion is therefore absurd. Does this not categorise that religion, or particular belief, in ethical terms. Such that in the degree that a person is a bigot he cannot be an altruist, or a libertarian. His 'altruism' will be a straitjacket.

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

I'm not really sure what you're asking here, but you seem to be edging into the field termed 'meta-ethics'. This is a very large and well-worked out field, and it asks (and tries to answer) questions like: 'what criteria are there for choosing between different ethical systems?'; 'what kind of criteria do we need to make that kind of choice?'; 'are the concepts/ objects/ acts we term 'criteria' and 'choice' the same within ethical systems as they are between those systems?'; and so forth. Well, first, I'll answer your question in an entirely unsatisfactory way, for a philosopher: yes. Next, I'll do what I'd really prefer, i.e., give you the opportunity to get some background so that you can do your own answering. Look here, keeping in mind that these barely scratch the surface of these issues (the Sommers book, or something comparable, might be a nice place to start):

Annis, D. B. 'A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification.' American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1978): 213-19.

Audi, R. 'Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics.' In Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology, edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 101-36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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

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

Edgerton, R. B. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

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

Gintis, H. 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms.' Journal of Theoretical Biology 220, no. 4 (2003): 407-18.

Greene, J.D., R.B. Sommerville, L.E. Nystrom, J.M. Darley, and J. D. Cohen. 'An Fmri Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.' Science 293, no. 5537 (2001): 2105-08.

Greenspan, P. 'Emotional Strategies and Rationality.' Ethics 110 (2000): 469-87.

Hare, R. M. 'Foundationalism and Coherentism in Ethics.' edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 190-99. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Held, V. 'Whose Agenda? Ethics Versus Cognitive Science.' edited by L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark, 69-87. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.

Henderson, D. K. 'Epistemic Competence and Contextualist Epistemology: Why Contextualism Is Not Just the Poor Person's Coherentism.' The Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 12 (1994): 627-49.

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

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

MacIntyre, A. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1st ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Pettit, P. 'Consequentialism and Moral Psychology.' international Journal of Philosophical Studies 2, no. 1 (1994): 1-17.

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. 21st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Schiffer, S. 'Contextualist Solutions to Scepticism.' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96 (1996): 317-33.

Solomon, D. 'Internal Objections to Virtue Ethics.' edited by P. A. French, T. E. Jr. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein, 428-41. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

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

Williams, B. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Steven Ravett Brown


(27) Hassan asked:

Hello, my question is simple. What is Pythagorean philosophy.

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Pythagoras of Samos was the founder of the well-known School of Pythagoreans, which combined mysticism with numerology, mathematics and philosophy.

The main characteristic of the Pythagoreans was their study of numbers and mathematics, for they believed that the substance of the beings were the numbers. Since the numbers cannot be perceived through the senses but can only be grasped through the intellect, therefore the essence and the first principles of the universe must be intelligible and abstract. The study then of the numbers can lead one to the knowledge and understanding the first principles and laws of the universe.

Apart from the study of mathematics, due to which they discovered many theorems, the Pythagoreans developed the metaphysical numerology according to which each number expresses a certain cosmic principle or ethical symbol. We quote epigrammatically some of the symbols of the numbers.

The unit (1) symbolizes energy, aither, intellect (nous), the universal generative force (unlimited spirit). The number two (2) is the symbol of matter, fertility, woman, knowledge (episteme). Number three (3) symbolizes time, opinion (doxa), plane. Number four (4) is the symbol of cosmic order, space, senses. Number five (5) symbolizes the five elements (earth, water, air, fire and aither), the pentahedron from which the universe has been created, as also Plato mentions in the 'Timaeus', as well as justice, marriage etc. Number six (6) is the symbol of the living beings and resurrection. Number seven (7) symbolizes the seven planets, evolution and the harmony of the universe. Number eight (8) the eight notes of the music scale, number nine (9) the nine cosmic spaces and number ten (10) the universe.

Significant is also the table of ten pairs of opposites, which the Pythagoreans regarded as the principles of all things. These are: Limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. Some of them we find in Plato's Dialogues, such as Odd and Even (e.g. Phaedon), One and Plurality, Rest and Change (e.g. Sophist), Limited and Unlimited (e.g. Philebus).

Apart from the numbers there were eleven Pythagorean tetrads, the first one of these is the well-known Tetractys, on which the Pythagoreans used to swear. It consists of the sum of the first four numbers: 1+2+3+4 = 10, which is considered to be the number of the universe and the harmony of Sirens who rotate the universe. Other significant tetrads are: The one of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire), of the four polyhedrons (tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron and cube), which is also mentioned in Plato's Timaeus. Apart from these, is the tetrad of knowledge: 1: intellect, 2: knowledge, 3: opinion, 4: sense, the tetrad of the parts of the soul: 1: rational part, 2: spirited part (emotional), 3: appetitive part (desires), 4: body as a dwelling place of the soul, and the one of the human age: 1: childhood, 2: puberty, 3: manhood, 4: old age.

Furthermore, the Pythagoreans represented geometrically all the numbers by the use of gnomon, namely the right angle, and they also believed that each number is expressed through a geometrical symbol. For example: one (1) is referring to point, two (2) to straight line, three (3) to flat and four (4) to volume. They invented many theorems, just as that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, the well-known Pythagorean theorem, the similarity of geometrical patterns, the hyperbola, parabola, ellipse, even and odd numbers.

Concerning the geometrical patterns, each one of them had a certain symbol, for example: a straight line symbolizes the knowledge since it can be intersected and extended to the infinite, a circle symbolizes the reflecting being, an equilateral triangle the pure soul, a square the deity, an obtuse angle the excess, an acute angle the deficiency and the right angle the virtue.

Since they invented the arithmetical and geometrical proportions, as well as the harmonies, they applied this knowledge to the theory of music.

The doctrine of the 'harmony of the spheres', in which the Pythagoreans believed, was referring to the sounds that the heavenly spheres produce while rotating, which are proportional to their distance, and also proportional to the spaces of musical scale. These sounds compose an excellent harmony, which Plato mentions also in the 'Republic' as a harmony of Sirens. Men cannot hear it, since they hear it from the first moment of their birth, just as they cannot perceive the air that they breathe.

The centre of universe according to the Pythagoreans was the fire (pyr), which they called 'hearth of the world' (hestian tou pantos), from where started the expansion of the universe through its 'breath'.

As 'respiration' of the universe is considered to be the mixture of the universal generative force (apeiron pneuma: unlimited spirit) with the void, which results in its expansion and the separation and distinguishing of the things and the beings.

This Pythagorean belief that fire is in the centre of the universe, led Copernicus to discover the heliocentric system, since the Pythagoreans believed that the earth turns around itself and the sun.

The world is divided into the visible and intelligible one, the latter is immortal and therefore the soul belongs to this world, since it is a spark of the universal fire, namely of the universal and divine soul, and it is imprisoned in the human body. It possesses the faculty of self-motion and after the death of the body passes into another body.

However, the soul, which has lived pure and virtuous life, goes to the intelligible world and joins the universal deity. On the other hand, the soul, which is not pure, reincarnates many times in order to have the possibility to be purified. Otherwise is led to the Tartara to be punished and purified. Everything is determined by the Divine Law, which works according to the necessity and reward, the so-called hemarmene, namely fate or destiny. Man cannot change this law, therefore he must bear it with patience, for this can help him to develop himself, possess the virtues and resemble god.

In order one to possess virtues it requires daily practice and training, therefore one had to be initiated into the Pythagorean teaching. On this basis have been created all the Pythagorean Schools, having as a pattern the School of Pythagoras in Croton (omakoeion), and were all characterized by their mystic nature.

Pythagorean mysticism

The prospective disciple of Pythagoreanism, according to the regulation of the School, had to be tested for his courage (e.g. he had to stay all night long in a cave, where there were rumors that lived evil spirits). Afterwards, he was received as an external disciple without belonging to the brotherhood. This stage lasted five years, the pupil had to attend lectures without being able to see the face of his master, and he was bound to secrecy.

After that stage, he could become an intimate disciple and member of the brotherhood, which was called hetaireia. The form of the brotherhood was twofold. One group were called the 'Mathematicians' (mathematikoi) and the other one the 'Acousmatics' (acousmatikoi). The 'Acousmatics' dealt with the moral and religious part of Pythagoras' teaching (regulation, rituals and interpretation of his sayings), while the 'Mathematicians' learnt the elaborated knowledge and made a scientific research.

There were strict regulations in the Pythagorean brotherhood, which included gymnastics, certain nutrition and diet, collective prayer and personal retrospective account of the disciple's deeds. The latter was referring to the duty that each intimate disciple had every evening before going to bed, so tom say to pass in review all the day, therefore he had to recall retrospectively all the events of the day, in order to find out 'wherein had he done amiss, what had he done, what he had neglected'. This practice was essential for the disciple, since it helped him to improve himself and possess gradually the virtues of moderation, prudence, courage and justice, which were considered to be the main virtues of a man, according to the Pythagoreans. Because of all the above mentioned regulations as we can realize the 'Pythagorean life' (pythagoreios vios) was a byword for pure, frugal and austere way of life.

The first Pythagorean brotherhood, which was founded by Pythagoras in Croton, Southern Italy as we said, was called 'omakoeion' from the Greek words 'omou' (together) and 'acouo' (hear), since the teaching that all the disciples used to hear, as they were gathered all together, was mainly verbal. For Pythagoras loyal to his mysticism never left any writings but only under a pseudonym. We quote some of the symbols and 'acousmata' (things heard), which were parts of Pythagorean teaching: 'What are the isles of the blessed? Sun and moon', 'What is the oracle at Delphi? The tetractys, which is the harmony in which the Sirens sing', 'What is the most just thing? To sacrifice', 'What is the wisest? Number', 'What is the most powerful? Knowledge', 'What is the best? Happiness' etc. (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 82).

The members of Pythagorean brotherhood were bound together with intimate friendship and solidarity, loyal to Pythagoras' saying: 'philotes — isotes': friendship — equality. Justice, the most significant virtue of the Pythagoreans, according to which all their communities functioned, was based upon equality of their members, therefore each member had to deposit all his wealth in the treasury of the brotherhood, since according to Pythagoras 'what belongs to friends is a common property' (koina ta ton philon).

The members of the brotherhood were bound to secrecy and used to swear on the name of Tetractys. As a sign of mutual recognition they used the pentagram, a five-pointed star (pentagrammon).

Excerpts are from my book Handbook of Greek Philosophy.

Nikolaos Bakalis


(28) April asked:

Who is the philosopher that believed the substance from which everything is made is water?

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Thales of Miletus (Asia Minor) was the one who believed the substance from which everything is made is water. He was one of the seven wise men of the Greek Antiquity and founder of the Milesian school of philosophy.

Thales was the first one who tried to explain rationally the natural phenomena, as he went beyond the religious beliefs with regard to cosmology. With Thales begins to make an appearance the first scientific philosophical thought, when a man is not content with mythology, and tries to discover the laws and the principles, which govern the universe.

He was the first one who searched for the principle (arche) in the form of matter (staff) of all things, and which is beyond all the material forms. He concluded that this 'principle' is the water (hydor) and that the rest of the elements arise from that.

The rest then of the four elements come into being from water through solidification, mingling etc. Apart from Aristotle's interpretation we could say that perhaps Thales, from seeing that water is the life-force and the essential constituent of the world, drew this conclusion. On the basis of this conclusion, he tried to explain the earthquakes, since the earth, according to him, rides like a ship on the water and therefore it is moving in accordance with the water's movement.

Thales studied the movement of planets, and through this study on Astronomy he discovered the cause of eclipses, the nature of sun, the solstices etc.

With regard to the soul, he held the view that the soul is mixed with matter and is the prime mover of the perpetual change, just like the Magnesian stone (magnet), which moves the iron. As all things in sum are pervaded by this life-principle with its kinetic power, therefore he said that all things are full of gods.

Excerpts are from my book Handbook of Greek Philosophy.

Nikolaos Bakalis


(29) Gagan asked:

This is not a philosophical question in the literal sense of the phrase, but I want to know, as a student of philosophy, what areas of jobs are available to me after my postgraduation, besides of course teaching. Can philosophy be made lucrative, and if so, then how?

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Philosophy does not specifically train you for any particular job. If you want a specific vocational degree, I would suggest trying something else.

That said, philosophy does teach you to think in methodical way. I've met philosophy graduates working in translation and in information technology, and what they studied certainly helped them there, although they had to do further vocational study before working. Other fields I suspect people find philosophical training particularly useful would be law and journalism.

Seriously, if you main aim in your degree, is 'Will it prepare me for a specific well-paid vocation?' then I would suggest that you do a vocational degree. If you are interested in philosophical questions, 'What really exists?', 'How can we say we know things?', 'Why should we do or not do anything?' then you will not regret the time spent studying philosophy.

Roger Williams


(30) Robin asked:

Are angles real?

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A good question, assuming that you are not asking 'Are angels real?' and just have a slippery keyboard.

Of course, the physical angles on the corner of the roof of your house, exist, in so far as any attribute of any physical object exists. However, in mathematics, we do not always use physical objects, such as marks on paper, we measure and calculate ideal constructs that only exist in our minds. The lines that form any ideal mathematical angle are of zero width and depth, obviously impossible for an object in the physical world.

For this reason some philosophers, perhaps most, have argued that the objects of mathematics are not real, but merely figments of our imagination that we discuss. If we can say that they exist, we cannot mean that they exist independently of our thinking about them, unlike for example, the tree in the forest. Remember the famous question 'If the tree fell in the forest, and nobody was there to hear it, did it make a sound?' The 'Realist' philosophers give a robust 'Yes' to this kind of question. For them, the physical objects exist, and the angles we discuss in equations are merely in our heads, and not part of physical reality 'out there'. Once we stop thinking of the equations that describe the angles, the angles no longer have any existence at all, and perhaps never had.

Others, like Plato, argued that the ideal world in our minds was in fact the ultimate reality, and the individual physical objects in the world were merely reflections or shadows of the ideal. Platonists feel that the mathematical objects are very 'real', and that physical things that we perceive merely approximate to the ideal reality in our minds. These people are called the 'idealists'. So for them, the angles on a mathematical shape are very real: not so much the angles drawn in a diagram, but the angles we calculate and discuss with mathematical equations.

Many mathematicians argue something close to a 'Platonist' position. They argue that the objects they discuss are 'real' and exist independently of mathematicians talking about them. For them, mathematicians 'discover' objective necessary truths about the world. The mathematical 'facts' such as 'the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees' are facts about the world that were true even before anyone thought about them. When someone discovers a new law of mathematics, they are making a new discovery about the world that exists independently of us.

Probably more popular among philosophers, is the viewpoint that 'the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees' is only 'true' as each word refers to the others. The definitions of the words 'triangle', 'angle', a 'degree' and so on, all have to refer to each other. A 'triangle' only makes sense when we have considered the definition of an 'angle' and the idea that the 'angles equal 180 degrees' depends on the definitions we have given to 'angle' and 'degree'. Therefore, in a real sense, when we say 'the angles of a triangle add up to exactly 180 degrees,' we are not saying something about the physical world, but something about how our definitions of our terms fit together. Our terms are interdependent, and mathematics and logic, are simply describing how our terms depend on each other.

Pedantically, the 'realists' are probably more correct. However, our personal experience of mathematics is much more like the 'idealist' description. Many mathematical laws do feel like great discoveries when we learn of them. Many of them we do not know. For example, is there an odd number which equals the sum of its divisors? (This is called a 'perfect number'. So far we've only found even ones.)

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/PerfectNumber.html

See here for more unsolved problems:

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/UnsolvedProblems.html


(31) Jessica asked:

A man asks another man if a dog has buddha nature. The second man turns to the first man and says, 'mu'. What is mu?

My friend asked me this question and won't go into to it at all. I don't even know if he knows. But it is bothering me, what is mu?

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According to stories I read as a teenager, by Arthur Waley and so on, this was a question asked to a Zen Buddhist patriarch. According to the stories, 'mu' was a Japanese word, which at the time meant, 'Your question makes an incorrect assumption.' For example, a loaded question such as 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' cannot be answered 'Yes' or 'No' by a man who has never beaten his wife. I can't remember the relevance of the answer in response to that question about the dog and the Buddha nature, sorry.

Later, I lived in Japan for many years, and worked as a translator there. I have never in reality heard someone use the word 'mu' in this way. 'Mu' is only normally used as a prefix to negate certain words, rather like the English 'un-' or 'dis-'. I don't know if the original story is apocryphal, or not. If you are interested in Zen, or Buddhism, this is not the best site to ask for information. A random Google search makes me suggest:

http://www.digitalzendo.com/main/library.cfm?library&step=28

http://groups.msn.com/BuddhasDharma/emptinessdetachment.msnw

That said, it would be useful to have a word that negated the assumptions behind a question, instead of the proposition posed in the question itself.

Roger Williams


(32) Jason asked:

Natural language statements have quantifiers such as, most, many, few, and only. How could ordinary first order predicate logic with identity (hereafter, FOPL) treat statements containing these vague quantifiers? It seems that FOPL, with only the existential and universal quantifiers at its disposal, is insufficient. I read somewhere that restricted quantification notation can ameliorate such problems. Is this true, or are there difficulties with the restricted quantification treatment of vague quantifiers?

What are some of the inference rules for restricted quantification notation? For example, in FOPL you have the existential instantiation and universal instantiation inference rules. Are there analogue inference rules for the quantifiers, 'many', most and few? Can you recommend any books or articles that outline, critique or defend restricted quantification?

I also read that there are issues with FOPL regarding symbolizing adverbs and events from natural language. Is this true or just a superficial problem?

Another complaint about FOPL, (especially Russell's treatment of statements in the form of 'The so and so...'), is that, often there are no obvious correspondences between the grammatical structure of the natural language and its logical notation counterpart. For example, in the English statement, All men are mortal to the logical notation, (x)(Mx-->Rx), there seems to be no obvious correspondence to the connective --> from anything in its natural language grammatical structure. In other words, the logical notation seems too contrived. What is the common response to this complaint if any?

These seem to be grave problems for the applicability and effectiveness of FOPL to natural language arguments. (I am not referring to the limits of FOPL where extensions such as modal, tense, or second order logic might accommodate the richer parts of natural language, but rather to the apparent inability of any logic(s) dealing with these problems.)

Note: Much of these concerns I have come from an article I read by Kent Bach in 'A Companion to Philosophical Logic' by Blackwell Publishing.

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There are papers on restricted quantification here:

http://philosophy.syr.edu/PDFs/Chap1-508.pdf

http://www.qub.ac.uk/phil-old-2sep2004/Is%20it%20too%20much%20to%20ask.pdf

You are getting into some pretty heavy territory, however, and I have not studied this myself. As far as I understand it, most current logicians restrict their quantification to a specific domain, stating that the possible range of the objects in a formal logical statement is limited to, say 'people' or 'dogs' or 'natural numbers' and so on. You can run into immense difficulties if you don't.

You are right that there is no one-to-one correspondence between logical languages and natural languages. Some people do see this as a problem, but Russell argued that his notation clarified natural language and avoided its ambiguities.

I'd add a more relevant point: why would you want a logical language that only did what a natural language did? We've got thousands of natural languages. The only reason, beside perversity, to create a logical language, is to do something different with it. Much of natural language simply isn't logical. If you created a logical language that did exactly what a specific natural language did, you would only have another method of notation for that natural language. This would not necessarily be a help.

There are significant limits to the currently existing logical languages, and there are oodles of logicians who are keen to extend it in different ways. I am a bit leery of most of these methods, as they normally just create a symbol for a specific word, phrase, or point of grammar of a natural language and add it into the logical notation. This simply creates more symbolic notation for natural languages. It doesn't actually extend logic itself. More useful would be to develop rules for using the existing logical languages to cover new uses, areas and meanings. This would actually do something to expose the logical form that underlies natural language: or at worst, expose its lack of logical form.

Examples:

1. Most philosophers study logic.

(x)(y) (((Px & Lx) & (Py & ~Ly)) —> Cxy)

Domain: University students. P = is a philosopher; L = studies logic; C x is more commonly found than y.

2. Many mathematicians like logic.

(Ex) (Mx & Lx & Cx)

Domain: University students. M = is a mathematician; L = likes logic; C = is a more commonly found example than you might expect.

3. Few philosophers like logic.

(Ex) (Px & Lx & ~Cx)

Domain: University students. P = is a philosopher; L = likes logic; C = is a more commonly found example than you might expect.

4. Mary only likes men.

(x) (Lmx —> Mx)

Domain = people; m = Mary; L = x likes y; M = men.

5. There is (at least) one philosopher whom only Mary loves.

(Ex)(y) ((Px & Lyx) y=m)

Domain = people; m = Mary; L = x loves y; P = philosophers.

The last two examples are respectively copied from, and adapted from, L.T.F. Gamut 'Language, Logic and Meaning' Volume 1, Chicago University Press 1991.

Some further thought might enable some people to develop better ways of expressing the ideas of most, many, few and only.

Roger Williams


(33) Kelly asked:

What are the importance of logic to society?

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It has many applications in computing, mathematics, technology and business. For example, it's used in the automation of business activities and the control of complex technical systems. It's probably the most useful area of philosophy.

Roger Williams


(34) Stacy asked:

What are some applicable theories to explain the sense of deja vu?

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Some psychologists postulate deja vu occurs when you for some reason have ignored the original stimulus, but have subconsciously allowed it to be stored in memory, and then a fraction of a moment later, you suddenly are aware of the memory and the stimulus. I notice I get it a lot more when I'm tired.

Roger Williams


(35) Ruth asked:

Please send me a brief essay on any philosophy that displays critical and creative thinking.

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Have a look at the Philosophy Pathways magazine on this site.

Roger Williams


(36) Michelle asked:

I am having trouble with a question I have to answer for my Ideals in Conflict class. The question is asking what Kant means by 'absolute worth'. Our book has an excerpt from Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals the excerpt is titled The Ultimate Worth of Persons. I am having a terrible time understanding his philosophy. I took absolute worth as meaning valuing humanity above objects. Am I way off base with this? I have to write a one page reflective paper on this, but I can't do that without really understanding...I hope you can put it in layman's terms for me.

Thank you in advance for your help.

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I think you must be looking at the passage here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0430#hd_lf0212.head.007 in section 56. (Page 428 of volume 4 of the German Academy's edition of Kant's complete works.)

As far as I understand it, Kant is asking why we do anything at all. We need something of worth to us, to create a motive for acting. We have certain natural inclinations towards action, but although these make us act, they are things we would, if it were possible, make ourselves free of. But if our inclinations are not the ultimate reasons for action, or as he puts it, things with 'absolute worth', what are our reasons for action, what ultimately has worth for us?

Inanimate objects in the world are not in themselves motives for action, but things we act on. Rational objects, in other words other people, are things which exist as ends in themselves, not as the means to another end. Therefore, they are in themselves things with worth, and are reasons for action. In fact, they are the only things with 'absolute worth' to us.

That is a very brief description. Kant is never simple.

Roger Williams


(37) Justin asked:

I have been hearing a lot of people, fellow students at university and in the media, making the claim that emotions are chosen. This claim is made to support other claims such as 'You should not be angry', 'Don't get depressed', 'Stop being so jealous' etc. I fail to understand how anyone can claim that emotions are chosen. When I am angry, did I have choice? Recently on TV an 'expert' told parent off for getting angry in front of children they were driving in heavy traffic. They should have chosen a better time and place to get angry. The interviewer asked if they should have suppressed their anger. The expert replied, no. They should not have chosen to get angry.

This sounds completely bizarre to me. My question is, are emotions chosen? I have no trouble understanding that after the emotion is experienced one can chose to do many things, but surely one cannot help the occurrence of an emotion. I also understand that one can shape circumstances to cause an emotion, but this is not the point either. Any ideas?

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I see your point. Emotions feel like they happen to you, and your actions feel like they are under your control. Just because you feel this way does not necessarily mean that it is so. There may be a sense in which nothing in your mind, emotion or decision, is something actually in your control, but merely the result of a long chain of circumstances.

Not all people react the same in the same situations. Therefore, the emotion does not only depend on the situation, but also on the make-up of the person in the situation.

You can train yourself not to feel certain emotions in certain situations, if those feelings are going to be negative and harmful for you. You need to recognize in what kinds of situations you are going to feel the emotion. Then, you can train yourself to perceive the situation differently, or to have a different instinctive reaction to it. You can also train yourself, if you prefer, to feel certain emotions in certain situations.

We could get into a difficult and possibly unanswerable discussion as to whether these emotions are then 'real', but most of our emotional lives have been taught to us in some way or other in the first place.

A lot of Buddhist practices and meditation techniques are designed to improve one's ability to control one's emotional make-up, and how one feels in particular situations. Much cognitive psychotherapy aims directly at training people to control their emotional responses and automatic thoughts in particular situations.

Roger Williams


(38) Angela asked:

Is being causally possible a sufficient condition for being logically possible?

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I assume you mean 'causally possible'. I would say that if you feel that something is not logically possible, but it appears from you experience to be causally possible, then something has to give. One of two statements has to be false.

Roger Williams


(39) Lee asked:

What is the 'immaterial' and the 'supernatural'.

If something exists then it has substance and properties. If something exists in the universe it is also 'natural'.

Are those words not just semantic nonsense? To say something is immaterial is to say it does not exist. To say that the immaterial exists is to say that the nonexistent exists!

As for 'supernatural', if angels, demons and God all exist then they are NATURAL. Super is just an adjective use to denote the grandiose. An airplane to a caveman is 'supernatural' but to us with knowledge of modern aviation it is quite natural.

It seems to me that theists are arguing for the MATERIAL existence of a NATURE that science has no proof of currently.

It seems to me that 'immaterial' and 'supernatural' just denote a type of material and type of nature that are drastically different than what we are aware of.

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Yes. It is much as you say, if things are to make any sense at all.

Try reading Hume's essay 'On Miracles'.

http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0337#hd_lf0222.head.021

Roger Williams


(40) Nina asked:

How does Holbach argue against the idea of free will?

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Holbach firstly attempts to prove that all the activity of the 'soul' or mind is dependent on the continued existence of the body, and events that affect the body, also affect the soul. Therefore, he argues that the soul is subject to the same rules of nature and cause and effect as the body. This is a very brief account.

See http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/holbach/volume1.pdf Chapter XI in particular, for more.

Roger Williams


(41) Liz asked:

Why do you respond to certain questions and not to others? I'm curious, because I've posted several questions and they have not been answered. I wonder why you continue to respond to questions such as 'what is the meaning of life?' and those of a similar nature and tone, and ignore more original ones. Some of my questions have referred to specific living philosophers whose writings and opinions I'm sure the panel knows incomparably better than I do. Shall I resubmit them or give up?

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There could be several reasons.

Firstly, some people post their essay questions up with no sign that they have even thought about them. This can be pretty demotivating for someone thinking of giving them a response. Some indication of what they are thinking makes a big difference. I haven't been able to find any specific questions in the previous lists of questions that I can be sure apply to you, so I can't say if this is relevant to you personally or not.

Secondly, you could possible have a very complicated question, that would take a lot of research to find a good answer to. We are doing this for fun, and unless your question is interesting, you might not a response.

Thirdly, we are only human, and perhaps nobody here does know the answer for sure.

You could try posting the questions again, with what you have thought about the question, and if someone knows something about it, they'll probably respond.

Roger Williams


(42) Carlos asked:

I am researching for a class presentation the ethics of 'Survival of the Fittest' (or 'Might makes Right') versus 'Protection of the Weak, Ill, and Injured', and I am fairly uneducated in philosophical writings (except what I have been exposed to so far in my elementary ethics class — Bentham, Mill, Epicurus, Plato, Kant). So far, I have found more statements by well known philosophers (whom I must refer to in my group's presentation) in favor of the former. Would you have any suggestions of who I might look at to support the ethics of protecting the weak? I have only found brief quotes by Mill and Bentham on an animal protection website so far. Thank you for considering my request.

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Controversially, I could possibly suggest Darwin, although Darwin was not writing moral philosophy, nor arguing against it. The 'survival of the fittest' theory, as Darwin originally postulated it, said that the species that fitted into their environment better, would be selected by nature, and produce more surviving offspring. He did not think that it was a question of 'might makes right', and at least for him, the rule applied to species and not to individuals.

It could just be that we have an innate instinct to protect the ill, weak and injured, acquired by natural selection and survival of the fittest. We might have this instinct, and feel that it is right to act on it, even when it is against our personal interest and the interests of our species. Natural selection may not make us perfectly fit for all circumstances, but only well enough for the circumstances that we evolved in.

Also, natural selection is not a battle of 'all against all', it is only a battle against extinction. The survival of one species, or even one individual, does not imply the death or defeat of others.

Roger Williams


(43) Traci asked:

Nietzsche says that Ultimately, no one can extract from things, books included, more than he already knows and, in the end, the text disappears beneath the interpretations. What does he mean?

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This is one of the most interesting questions that I have seen on this website because this remark by Nietzsche has been responsible for some of the most tedious philosophical works ever written i.e those of some of the deconstructionist philosophers such as Derrida.

What Nietzsche says here is partly true but also partly false. For example consider a novel such as 'Madame Bovary'. We would not expect a ten year old child to fully understand this novel. They have not had the life experience or experienced the feelings and emotions that would enable them to understand this book.

Of course there are also different interpretations of books and everyone interprets what an author is saying in light of his own experience and knowledge of the world. So we could say that any text ceases to exist and is replaced by the many different interpretations of it.

However Nietzsche is also completely mistaken. If for example if I read a book on origami (the art of paper folding) or a mathematics textbook then it is not so clear that there is room for different interpretations as opposed to correct and wrong interpretations of the text.

The problem with Nietzsche remark is that it blurs the boundary between the wrong interpretations of a text and valid different interpretations of a text and some deconstructionist philosophers e.g. Derrida have adopted this mistaken idea.

The child's interpretation of 'Madame Bovary' is not simply a valid alternative interpretation of the text. It is not a valid interpretation at all. There is no room for alternative interpretations of mathematics text books although there are disagreements in mathematics.

Shaun Williamson


(44) Vanessa asked:

What are the different philosophical concept of BEAUTY according to:

1. pragmatism

2. existentialism

3. realism

4. idealism

5. naturalism

6. religious view

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Vanessa your question is one that could only be answered by writing a book. So don't be surprised if you don't get many answers to it. You are going to have to do some reading yourself.

Shaun Williamson


(45) Sam asked:

If you could do anything, could you build a door that wouldn't open?

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I can't do everything but I did once manage to build a door that wouldn't open. However I managed to fix it.

Shaun Williamson


(46) Jamshed asked:

If I understand it correctly, Kurt Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that ANY conceivable system of mathematics (at least as complex as arithmetic) will never ever be complete . I believe he also proved that NO mathematics can ever be free of internal contradictions. What is the consensus (if any) among philosophers as to the philosophical implications of Goedel's work?

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That not quite correct so let me try and explain it in a different way. Towards the end of the 19th century it was known that all branches of mathematics could be expressed or reduced to theorems of arithmetic.

The Italian mathematician Peano had provided a set of axioms for arithmetic. Then in 1900 at a conference the mathematician Hilbert proposed a series of problems to be solved over the next century. One of these was to find a mathematical proof for the consistency and completeness of mathematics.

Then in 1931 Kurt Godel managed to prove that we couldn't do both of these with his proof of the Incompleteness Theorem.

The idea of consistency requires that we have a set of axioms for mathematics that are powerful enough to let us express all of modern mathematics and that we can prove that we will never be able to derive a contradiction from these axioms. This is fairly easy to do.

The idea of completeness requires that we are able to prove that all true mathematical theorems can be derived from our set of axioms. Godel in his ingenious proof was able to show that no matter what consistent set of axioms we use for our mathematics there will always be at least one true theorem of mathematics that cannot be deduced from our chosen set of axioms.

So its not that our system of mathematics is inconsistent. Its just that we can never prove that it isn't because we can never come up with a complete set of axioms that would let us do that.

Godel's proof is one the most elegant proofs in modern mathematics. It is based on a 2000 year old Greek paradox. Alan Turing the English mathematician in his work on computability and Turing machines found an alternative proof of incompleteness. Church the American logician found a third way of proving the same thing. I think Godel's proof is the most beautiful of the three.

So our system of mathematics may be free of inconsistency but we have no way of proving that it is. We could of course make our system provably complete and consistent by limiting it in various ways but then it would not be our system of mathematics.

Shaun Williamson


(47) Richard asked:

Can nature, or what is natural, be considered any kind of guide to what is virtuous or even tolerable? We often hear it said that 'it is natural for some people to be homosexual.' But then it is presumably equally natural for some people to be colour blind, to be aggressive, to be attracted by children. It may be natural for animals to behave as they do, but barely desirable for humans to behave like animals. But then natural human behaviour is superior ethically, we may believe. However, if that is so it is only by some external standard that we can judge human nature to be superior. In that case, it is the standard that has to apply, and not nature. How do we know that Jesus of Nazareth was virtuous, other than by some external standard?

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I agree with you that natural is such a vague word that on its own it cannot be used to show that something is virtuous. However the idea that homosexuality is natural and does no harm between consenting adults and can have positive qualities such as being an expression of love are more important. The same can be said for heterosexual behaviour between consenting adults. When you talk about external ethical standards then I'm not so sure that I agree. Morality and moral standards are an intrinsic part of our human nature and we must judge God and Jesus in terms of our human moral standards. How can we worship a God or Jesus unless we first judge that God and Jesus are good and not evil.

Shaun Williamson


(48) Claudia asked:

How far back in history does the concept of right and wrong go? Did cavemen believe in a right or wrong?

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We don't really know since they had no system of writing. However since morality and the creation of art and language are related, it is likely that morality is as old as language itself.

Shaun Williamson


(49) Claudia asked:

How far back in history does the concept of right and wrong go? Did cavemen believe in a right or wrong?

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Well, you see, the problem with this question is that you're assuming that 'right' and 'wrong' have some definite meanings (not to mention 'concept'). For example, they've just found out that approximately 10%, as I recall, of neolithic people ('cavemen') have skull injuries which had to result, basically, from being bashed on the head with a club. Well, if you're a caveman, would you consider it 'right' that someone comes up and bashes you in the head? I don't think so. But that opens the question up entirely, doesn't it. Do monkeys have a similar concept of 'right'? Well, perhaps. So really the only way to answer this is either to take some fairly definite meaning of 'right' and attempt to go with that, or merely to say that any being capable of having 'concepts' (um... and what, do you think, does 'concept' mean?) has some sort of concept (whatever that is) of right and wrong.

Steven Ravett Brown


(50) Billy asked:

This is a question related to an online soccer management game, and it is causing some heated debate in the chat forums. The question is 'What's the difference between 'If Losing' and 'If 1+ goals down'. These are two choices related to choosing when to alter tactics at certain times in the game. Some people in the forum argue that there is no difference between the two, whilst others believe that there is a difference related to the degree of specificity.

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Eric Zwickler answered this question perfectly well (31/14), and he is right that it doesn't apply just to soccer. But there are a couple of further considerations.

A team may be a goal down but playing better than the other, so that you expect them eventually still to win. If they attack like a tank and the team who are a goal up can only just hang on, then (depending on how many minutes still to play) you could be justified in saying, they're a goal down but winning. This goes also when a heavy-weight team like Brazil meets minnows like Liechtenstein and unexpectedly go down a goal. You would not normally say they are losing, unless it's the last minute before the end.

Or consider that rarity (which still occurs from time to time) that there is a goal feast: the score is 4-4 and Team A scores with 20 minutes to go. Then B is a goal down but hardly losing.

Finally, if the scores are 0-0, you could still say that one team is losing if they're running around like headless chooks in the face of concentrated attacks by the other. I like the lovely story of a chess player in this context, who was asked once how come he always won when he was saddled with a huge disadvantage? He replied, 'I nurse it along until the other fellow gets overconfident, or cranky because the win doesn't fall out of the sky, and then they often dig their own grave.' So he never thought he was losing until the moment when the game ENDED.

Jurgen Lawrenz


(51) Andrew asked:

I have a theory that free will is an illusion, but I don't think it is predestined by god or anything like that. If all we are is a combination of our genes, experience and current circumstance. Then maybe our reaction to events are determined by these three variables, and we are always going to react in a certain way. e.g. Tom calls Fred a bad name, Fred will react in a way that is the sum of all these events. On a larger scale pick out any moment in time, if everyone in the world are all going to do something based on the unescapable programming in their personality, and they had no choice, or had no choice but to make the choice they did at that moment then the following moment everyone has no choice but to react in a certain way based on the three variables and so on... Or maybe there is something I am not accounting for.

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Look at Shaun Williamson's answer (31/32) which gives you the ethical dimension of the issue. You should understand from this that we feel ourselves to be free and therefore take responsibility (some of the time!) for our actions. To assume that everything we do is determined is in any case a highly ambiguous point of view, because there is also a difference between plain determinism and pre-determinism (fatalism). What you are asking seems to me a question on the latter, to which the answer is plain 'no', because in spite of innumerable variables conspiring to produce certain behaviour, the sheer number of variables involved precludes absence of choice.

Writers on this or the other determinism always choose their examples well, to prejudice you, the reader, in favour of their theory. But this is already presuming that behind all events there is a guiding principle which we just have not discovered. What could this possibly mean? Consider also that if everything was determined in this way, then we (as pretty smart creatures) would sooner or later discover a clear pattern in events: we would begin to KNOW what is going to happen in specific circumstances. I think we should take comfort in the thought that basically we know almost nothing, that all our science is just the tinkering of an overgrown chimpanzee with a tiny cupful of genuine knowledge, of which the best aspect is that it leaves us FREE to philosophise until the cows come home. But just which minute they come, and in which order, we still don't know!

Jurgen Lawrenz


(52) Paul asked,

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 state 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 the 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?

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Your first statement is correct: it is absolutely impossible to prove the existence of God. But that's not the issue in any case. Because when you wrote this, you did not enlighten me about what you understand by 'God'. To ask of science to do something about this issue is, therefore, pretty useless from the outset. Before science can answer any question, it must have a comprehensive theory and/or description of the problem; but 'God' has a million different shades of meaning and none of these is in any way scientific. Moreover, if you asked a (e.g.) Buddhist or a Confucian, what would they say? In short, the very idea of God is already, before you even start asking, preloaded and prejudiced. God is a religious notion, and I dare say your God is a Christian as well, maybe even a Protestant?

Therefore, if you want a scientific answer, you must produce at least a chart of all those attributes which 'God' is supposed to have and then put them to the test. Likewise, if you want a philosophical answer, although the chart will then look a little different. But ultimately you must be clear about an issue that Leibniz was the first to raise: namely, whatever your concept of God may be, make sure before you ask that it is compatible with the universe as we know it, i.e. that introducing such a God will not disturb its perceived order and structure. Only if you've done all this spadework up front are you in a position to ask the question. (You should get a sense from this that 'God' is, as you noted, an article of faith, and therefore necessarily differs from one religion or sect to another. He is not a person or thing that is amenable to a quick summary. Many people spend their entire lives thinking about it. But for a quick answer, any dictionary should do).

Jurgen Lawrenz


(53) Viviana asked:

Hi. I have a question concerning love.

It is said that I truly love another if my happiness is depends on his/her happiness. i.e. I cannot be happy unless s/he is happy. My questions is, is this always true, or are there cases in which I cannot be said to love another truly even though my happiness depends on his/her happiness?

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Viviana, I would suggest that your happiness depending on another's is a necessary but not sufficient condition for 'love'. What I mean by this is that while I think it would not be proper to say that you 'love' someone if your own happiness is not dependent to some extent on the happiness of that other person, I think 'love' involves much more than that.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Microsoft Bookshelf Basics), 'love' is 'a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness.'

Here are some of the generally accepted common denominators of love according to some of the 'Relationship Self-Help' books I have encountered:

Love is Accepting. — Acceptance is labelling someone as 'okay' and having no particular desire to change them. Who they are is perfectly fine with you. You pose no condition on whether you will love them or not. This is called unconditional love. When your love IS conditional, the moment they step outside your set of conditions, love evaporates.

Love is Appreciating. — Appreciation is one step beyond acceptance. It's when your focus is on what you like about another. We look at them and feel this sweeping appreciation for who they are, their joy, their insights, their humour, their companionship, etc. When someone says they are 'in love' with another, they mean their appreciation is so enormous for this person that it consumes their every thought.

Love is Wanting Another to Feel Good. — We want those we love to be happy, safe, healthy, and fulfilled. We want them to feel good in all ways, physically, mentally and emotionally. This is the part that you identified when you said that your happiness is dependent on the happiness of the one you love.

Love is Attention. — Love expressed is when you give your attention, your time, your focus to someone. Webster defines attention as 'the giving of one's mind to something.' We don't always express our love. Love is a feeling and the expression of that feeling is separate. It's an action. There's a practical reason we don't always express our love for another. It's an issue of TIME. We only have 24 hours in a day (if you make it up that way). If the expression of love was a core ingredient to love, we would have to be stingy with who we loved, because there simply wouldn't be enough time to love everyone! If you see the distinction between the feeling and the expression, you can then love endless numbers of people. There are many ways in which we give our attention to another. We use our five senses. Our ears to listen — being completely present with the one who is speaking. Our eyes to see — watching another with undivided attention. Tasting/smelling — (I'll let you figure that one out as an exercise for the reader). Touching — giving a hug, holding a hand, a caress, or sexual expression (an aspect often given less credit that it deserves). And remembering — remembering the little things to show you are paying attention, and remembering the big things to show that you know where your priorities lie.

Love is Selfish. — When you are with the person you love, accept, appreciate, want, and devote attention to that person, because they make you happy. Of course you desire to make them happy too, but that is the result of the fact that you love them. If love were a sacrifice, it would be a sacrifice to spend time with the person. But if you love someone, you enjoy spending time with them, therefore, it is selfish. The person you choose to love represents the things you value most in yourself. You do not love someone you consider worthless, but one who embodies values you consider to be of great worth. The values you consider to be of great worth are the values you strive to achieve in yourself.

And finally, here's a quote from Ayn Rand (I don't remember the source):

'Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one's own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one's own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns, and derives from love.'

Stuart Burns


(54) Pete asked:

What's with solipsism? I have a friend who believes that the world well and truly revolves around him. He is the creator and that's that. It seems logically impossible to overcome that kind of thinking since it is non-falsifiable. Is there any way to reason around solipsism?

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As a philosophical position, Solipsism has the advantage (if you can all it that) if being logically consistent. Therefore, it would appear to be impossible to reason around your friend's Solipsism — assuming that your friend is being a logically consistent Solipsist (which I admit is rather hard to imagine).

On the other hand, it also appears to be impossible for your friend the Solipsist to declare in any meaningful way that he is the only valid consciousness — because anyone he tells it to (like you) will automatically disbelieve it. While that may be acceptable to your friend, it presents a major problem for a philosopher. It makes Solipsism workable only as a completely private belief. Which doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true, of course. It just means that if it is true, then none of the 'people' that a Solipsist identifies in his experiences will agree that it is true. If two Solipsists happen to meet, neither will accept the possibility that the other is right or even 'real' (in the non-Solipsist sense). Each will insist that 'I am the only existent', and the other is therefore necessarily wrong. After all, the other person — even if also an avowed Solipsist — is nothing more than a particularly interesting pattern in the experiences of the Solipsist.

So even if your friend thinks the logic dictates that he should believe in Solipsism — and it is hard to deny the persuasiveness of the logical arguments following from the premises of Subjectivism — he will never find any like minds who will agree with him. And he will find it ultimately to his advantage (in terms of pleasure and pain) to actually believe that Solipsism is false. Which sort of sounds contradictory, even if logically it is not.

There is also a less immediate difficulty faced by the Solipsist. The Solipsist concept of 'the world' is based on the observation that there are quite obviously patterns in my experiences that are more or less constant, persistent, consistent, coherent, drawing the focus of my attention, amenable to inquiry, and responsive to my reactions. But the logically impermissible question is — Why are there patterns rather than random noise? What, if anything, causes the patterns? What, if anything, causes the patterns to be constant, consistent, etc.? To these sorts of questions the Solipsist has no possible answer. The patterns simply are. And to the extent that they are constant, consistent, etc. they are self-sustaining. Further inquiry is illegitimate. And again, while that answer may satisfy your friend, that sort of answer is simply unacceptable to philosophers. Metaphysics, after all, is supposed to question everything.

So far as I can determine, no professional philosopher likes the Solipsist conclusion to the premises of Subjectivism. But if you don't like the consequences of a logically valid argument, you have only one real choice. And that is to adopt different premises.

If you would like a more detailed exploration of Solipsism, try this page:

http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0220.htm

Stuart Burns


(55) Richard asked:

Is it not true that those who are amoral can proclaim themselves to be highly moral and beyond reproach by saying that tolerance is the primary definition of morality. Whose standards are being applied to label them as 'amoral' in the first place?

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An amoral person is someone without moral standards, someone who is not concerned with right and wrong. An immoral person, on the other hand, is someone who defies (or at least behaves in contravention of) some moral standard.

Someone who maintains the moral position that 'tolerance is the primary definition of morality' does have a set of moral standards. If that person does attempt to practice (to some extent at least — no one is perfect) the tolerance that he preaches, then by those standards he cannot be labelled an 'amoral' person. Of course, if that person does not even attempt to practice what he preaches then he is at least being immoral by his own standards. Whether he is also being amoral would depend on whether his preaching the morality of tolerance is pure hypocrisy or not.

On the other hand, if it is your standards that you are applying to label this person as 'amoral', then it is your standard of morality that applies. For the other person to claim that 'tolerance is the primary definition of morality' is irrelevant. All that matters (to you) is whether that other person has a moral standard according to your definition of such a thing, and whether he displays behaviour consistent with not being concerned with right and wrong, according to your definition of those terms.

Mind you, if it is your moral standards you are applying here, you have to address the question of why anyone else should give a hoot about your opinions on this matter. But that gets you into all sorts of meta-ethical issues about the basis of morals. Not a topic for this sort of forum.

Stuart Burns


(56) Tal asked:

What is the point in philosophy if we don't know the answer to the basic most questions — like the reasons we are here, or what is this world?

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The point of philosophy is to understand just what you mean by these questions. It is not trivially obvious what these questions mean, or what the answers would mean if we had them. Philosophy is, among other things, the examination of just what the questions mean and just what the answers would mean if we could discover them.

For example — What is a 'reason'? What kind of answer would provide a reason we are here? What do you mean by 'here'? Do you mean the geographic location you currently occupy? Or do you mean to refer to the fact that we human beings exist? And what do you mean by 'exist'? And so forth.

How could we recognize an answer to one of these 'most basic questions' if we do not know what we mean by the question? And then again, how do you know that we do not already have answers to these questions? They have occupied philosophers for thousands of years. Many philosophers have written weighty volumes in their attempts to address only parts of the answers. Would you be able to recognize that one of these philosophers has actually hit upon the 'right' answer?

To study philosophy is to study the implications of these more fundamental questions.

Stuart Burns


(57) Chris asked:

Could god create a statement that is both true and false?

Did god create the rules of logic or is he subservient to them?

And if so what are the ramifications?

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'Could God create a statement that is both true and false?' — Before I can answer that you are first going to have to provide some definition of what you mean by 'God' and by 'true'. There are many different conceptions of 'God'. Some of which include an absolutely unconstrained omnipotence, and some of which include logical constraints on His omnipotence. If you conceive of a God who can create a square circle, then surely God can create a false truth (Hmmm. Possible example — 'This statement is false'?). On the other hand, even if God's omnipotence is constrained by logical limits, there are many different conceptions of what constitutes 'truth'. So even under the constraints of logic, it may be possible for God to create a statement that is both true and false. One theory of truth, for example is 'Emotivism' — that maintains that 'true' and 'false' are but linguistic labels for our approval or disapproval of some statement. In that event it would be trivially easy to create a statement that some consider 'true' and others consider 'false'.

'Did God create the rules of logic?' No, God did not create the rules of Logic — Man did. All of logic and mathematics are the reasoned consequences of a defined set of axioms. While those axioms, and the resulting body of mathematical and logical reasoning, are designed and intended to describe reality, they are Man-defined not God-given. On the other hand, it might be argued that while God did not create the rules of logic, He at least created the reality that those rules are intended to describe. It is presumed that God created reality. So if our God-created reality is indeed logically consistent (something not provable), and the Man-created defined axioms of logic and mathematics are in fact good descriptions of that reality (also something that cannot be proved), then credit should be shared between God and Man.

'Is God subservient to the rules of logic?' Well that depends too much on your conception of 'God'. Most people will grant that God is omnipotent within the constraints of logic — He can't create a square circle, for example. In that case, one would have to say that He is subservient to the rules of logic. But others would insist that God is strictly omnipotent, and unconstrained by the rules of logic. In the complete absence of any evidence on either side, you are free to believe what you wish.

Stuart Burns


(58) Lee asked:

Assuming for sake of argument that God is the original energy source that created the universe, then what materials did he use to create with? If only God alone existed then wouldn't it stand to reason that the only materials he had in order to create with was his own essence, energy etc.? Would this mean that pantheism or monism is a more logical form of theism? Otherwise you must posit creation ex nihilo which simply seems to me to be an appeal to authority at best and an appeal to magic at its worst.

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We have, of course, absolutely no evidence at all with which to constrain our speculations as to how God created the Universe — if in fact He did. Actually, that statement can be made even stronger. We have absolutely no evidence at all with which to constrain our speculations as to how the Universe got created. We do, on the other hand, have plenty of evidence that constrains the nature of the Universe that was created, however it was created. But in the absence of evidence constraining the creation of the Universe, we are free to speculate pretty much at will, in which ever way amuses us.

So one speculation is that God created our 'positive' Universe at the same instant He created a 'negative' Universe — a sort of universe-sized quantum fluctuation. All of the 'materials' (read 'positive energy') He used to create our 'positive' Universe were balanced by the creation of the 'negative' Universe. This would be just exactly like the spontaneous appearance of a positron and an electron out of the vacuum of space. The energy of the positron exactly balances the energy of the electron, yielding a net zero effect on the Universe. This speculation has the advantage of being totally consistent with all of our current physical evidence and theories. And the added advantage of being neither an appeal to authority, nor an appeal to magic.

Stuart Burns


(59) Richard asked:

Could you please tell me the dates of birth and death of Ralph W. Church, the Hume philosopher who completed a D.Phil. at Oxford in the mid 1920s?

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This is a site for asking questions about philosophy not a site for asking questions about your ancestors.

Ralph W. Church failed to make it into the philosophy history books. Ask the University about him. So many people complete a D.Phil at Oxford that it would take years to count them.

Shaun Williamson


(60) Richard asked:

Can nature, or what is natural, be considered any kind of guide to what is virtuous or even tolerable? We often hear it said that 'it is natural for some people to be homosexual.' But then it is presumably equally natural for some people to be colour blind, to be aggressive, to be attracted by children. It may be natural for animals to behave as they do, but barely desirable for humans to behave like animals. But then natural human behaviour is superior ethically, we may believe. However, if that is so it is only by some external standard that we can judge human nature to be superior. In that case, it is the standard that has to apply, and not nature. How do we know that Jesus of Nazareth was virtuous, other than by some external standard?

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Ah! But the challenge is — from where comes this 'external' standard, and why is it an acceptable (appropriate?, necessary?, best?, only?) standard?

More particularly, we would have to arrive at some meaningful context for the concept of 'external' — external from what? External from the person being appraised? Or external from all human behaviour? Or external from the natural environment? Or perhaps you mean here 'external' as in the dictates provided by a 'supernatural' God?

While I think it reasonable to posit a standard that is necessarily external to the person we are appraising, I don't think it is necessary that the standard be necessarily external to all human behaviour. Utilitarianism, for example, posits that the standard is 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. This is certainly 'internal' to the naturalness of human behaviour.

Stuart Burns


(61) Timothy asked:

I love to study philosophy and Ludwig Wittgenstein is the most profound thinker I have encountered in this field of thought. Not only to read him directly, (Philosophical Investigations is much like eastern ZEN) but also what other thinkers write about him (such as the book by Avrum Stroll, 'Wittgenstein').

Let me comment about his SAYING and SHOWING and state an example of my understanding of it. I can SAY my body... the one that is typing this question, but I can only SHOW the 'self' that is thinking about this question. My body is in the world, but 'myself' is not. I'm I 'getting' it? In any case, would you write something about saying/ showing, what are it's implication in human thought?

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Well I can write something about this but it will probably not be what you want to hear and you are not getting it. The doctrine of saying and showing belongs to Wittgenstein's early work 'Tractatus'. In his later work from 'Philosophical Investigations' onwards, Wittgenstein disowned his earlier ideas as 'containing grave mistakes'.

However even when he was writing Tractatus Wittgenstein was not writing a mystical work of the sort that you seem to think he was. And 'saying/ showing' has no mystical implications although some people who do not understand Wittgenstein may try to interpret it in this way.

Sorry to sound so dismissive but if you would like to discuss these things further please post again. For Wittgenstein, your body is in the world and so are you and so are you as 'myself'.

Now I agree with you that Wittgenstein was a profound thinker but none of the things he wrote are profound. They have no hidden depths or hidden meanings. For Wittgenstein the work of the philosopher was to clarify things and 'anything that can be said can be said clearly'. If you read any of Wittgenstein's writings and think 'This is really deep' then that is a sure sign that you do not understand what he is saying.

Shaun Williamson


(62) Timothy asked:

I'm going to apply Aristotle's Principle of NonContradiction to religion. Both Christianity and Islam claim to have the 'true' God. The Principle of NonContradiction (which Aristotle calls the rules of thought) states both can't be true... it can't be raining and not raining at the same time, (you can't answer my question and at the same time deny you read my question) and you can't have two 'true' Gods. Only one can be true (if you believe in God). There are about one billion Moslems on this planet, (Christianity about two billion) and if both can't be true, at least one billion people are deceiving themselves.

So I think one religion HAS to be wrong... is my argument sound?

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You are not thinking clearly here. Why does the Islamic idea of god contradict the Christian idea of god? You need to make that clear first before you can say that they are contradictory ideas.

In any case both could be false. Forget about Aristotle, you need to understand the principle of non-contradiction for yourself. After all Aristotle could be wrong? Why is the principle of non-contradiction one of the rules of thought?

Shaun Williamson


(63) Richard asked:

Is there not a popular tendency to equate evil with immorality? If we assume morality is concern for human and animal welfare, then it is clear that to kill is an evil in isolation. However, in an imperfect world, it was probably a morally justifiable decision for Britain to declare war in 1939. It may also be morally justifiable to cull animals, or to conduct some medical experiments on them. Morality is often a choice between greater and lesser evils, for the sake of future good although this utilitarian principle can be made too much like arithmetic, and should not justify extreme present evil.

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The reason that there is a general 'tendency' to equate evil with immorality is because 'evil' is by definition that which is immoral or wrong. Morality is all about standards of conduct that are accepted as right or proper or wrong and improper. Hence 'evil' is just another word for 'immoral'.

'If we assume morality is concern for human and animal welfare, then it is clear that to kill is an evil in isolation.' Except that you have here just demonstrated that it is not evil 'in isolation'. You first had to establish the premise that morality is concern for human and animal welfare.

All moral evaluations are ultimately founded on some fundamental premise as to what constitutes the appropriate standards of right or good behaviour. You have established one here (concern for human and animal welfare). Other philosophers have offered other alternatives. Each alternative fundamental moral premise will result in (more or less) different judgements as to what is moral and immoral behaviour.

For example, the individualist moral premise holds that the individual is more important than the state. And by many moral codes within that class, the Nazi's were evil and war was moral. The collectivist moral premise holds that the community is more important than the individual. And by many moral codes within that class, the Nazi's were doing the moral thing, and England was the evil empire. After all, it was not the intent of the Nazi's to do evil. By their moral standards, they were doing the right thing. It is just that their moral standards were not consistent with the individualist moral standards of the winning side (the writers of the history texts).

Even Utilitarianism can generate some 'counter-intuitive' moral recommendations — at least for those who believe in an individualistic moral code. Utilitarianism will, for example, recommend that torturing one individual is morally acceptable if as a consequence the happiness of enough others is raised sufficiently. Hence it is acceptable to a Utilitarian that torture is practiced by the police and security forces on the premise that the continued welfare of the community is sufficiently important to the happiness of the general population that the 'utility' balances out.

Stuart Burns


(64) Kevin asked:

How do the channelled works of philosophers like Margaret Birkin and Desiree Jestico sit with the Philosophical establishment? The meaning of life itself, the journey of the soul and why we incarnate are all answered. Metaphysical knowledge is available to everyone and is no longer a logical or intellectual exercise. Both books open up a completely new philosophical avenue of thought. Do philosophers welcome this intrusion or not?

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Kevin I don't know either of the two people you mention but from your description of their work all I can say is that it sounds like first class nonsense. I am not really interested in the fact that metaphysical knowledge is now to be available without any effort. Can these two thinkers do something really useful like making mathematical knowledge available to everyone without us having to make the effort to study mathematics? It's not an 'intrusion' just the usual sort of nonsense peddling which philosophers will ignore. All that is available to people when they don't make some sort of intellectual effort is ignorance and fraud. These are always available for free.

Shaun Williamson


(65) Dave asked:

1972-75 I was a philosophy undergrad at Sussex University. I was taught one particular module by a Prof Roy Edgley. A truly impressive teacher. I have more recently seen him described in his 'Radical Philosophy' obituary as an analytical marxist. I am obviously aware of both the respective schools of analytical philosophy and marxist philosophy, but I don't understand the suggestion that in Edgley's work the two can be married together.

Any suggestions?

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Yes I have some suggestions. The word analytical always has the same meaning but has many different uses. Saying that Roy Edgley was an analytical Marxist is in no way the same as saying that 'Roy Edgley was a Marxist philosopher AND Roy Edgley was an analytical philosopher'.

Compare for example 'This is good ice cream' and 'Fred is a good man'. What different pictures these sentences conjure up but there is a connection between these different uses of the word good.

Analytic Marxists can be compared with non analytic Marxists but not with Analytic philosophers (but there is a connection), the tendency to analyse things.

Shaun Williamson


(66) Lori asked:

There are three men on an island all with blue or red faces. They had a pact with one another that if any of the men found out the color of their face they would have to commit suicide at midnight. The next day a man came to the island and asked why one of them had a red face. The three men did not know which one had the red face because they were not able to see their own reflection. On the third day all men had committed suicide. Did they find out the color of their face? What or why did this happen?

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The visitor said that ONE of them had a red face — so the other two must have had blue faces; and the red faced one could see those two blue faces, so knew that his face was red. The two blue faced men could each see one blue face and one red face, and knowing that only one face was red, each knew that his own face had to be blue. So all three discovered the color of their face.

Helier Robinson


(67) Rhea asked:

Please answer my question! I really need the answer right now. Why do we need to philosophize?

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We need to philosophise about reality because we experience illusions, which are false perceptions — and we want to correct that falsity. We need to philosophise about morality and the good because people disagree about these so much that they are will to go to war over them. We need to philosophise about existence, justice, beauty, etc. because we seem to be unable to say what they are. We need to philosophise about God because we cannot prove whether He exists or not, or prove what His nature is. In short, there is so much ignorance and error in life that we need to philosophise in order to try to correct this.

Helier Robinson


(68) Sam asked:

If you could do anything, could you build a door that wouldn't open?

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This is a variant of the old problem: if God is omnipotent, could He create a stone that he could not lift? Presumably your version is intended to mean: can you build a door that you yourself cannot open? Then if you can then you cannot open the door, in which case there is something that you cannot do; and if you cannot build such a door then there is something else that you cannot do. Either way there is something that you cannot do. The key point is that if you could do anything, then this 'anything' has to be limited to the logically possible, since the logically impossible cannot be, and to build a door that you cannot open is not logically possible — if it's a genuine door it has to open.

Helier Robinson


(69) Pete asked:

What's with solipsism? I have a friend who believes that the world well and truly revolves around him. He is the creator and that's that. It seems logically impossible to overcome that kind of thinking since it is non-falsifiable. Is there any way to reason around solipsism?

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In principle there are two possible ways to prove solipsism false. One is to show that solipsism implies a contradiction and the other is to prove that something exists outside the solipsist's present consciousness. Good luck! (If you want a more detailed discussion, try my 'Belief Shock', available in pdf format at http://www.sharebooks.ca).

Helier Robinson


(70) Ireju asked:

How can logic help in attainment of truth?

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Philosophers and scientists assume that truth cannot be illogical. So examining claims to truth to see if they are logical or not helps in attaining truth.

Helier Robinson


(71) Christophe asked:

Could you explain why philosophy of mind takes as very important the capability for a system to misrepresent? If we consider that a representation is the outcome of an information processing system, a disfunctioning in the system can produce a misrepresentation. In other words, information processing problem produce misrepresentations. This is for me a simple statement on quite obvious a fact which should not deserve much attention. But most of the papers I have read on philosophy of mind consider a priori that misrepresentation is something very important to take into account. Could you tell me what I am missing?

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If I'm understanding what you mean by 'misrepresentation', you are actually conflating two kinds of misrepresentation. First, a system 'represents', let us say, the world. Now, in the first place, that statement alone will get you in trouble with many philosophers of mind, who will maintain that there's no representation going on at all, since that would start a regress (think about it... a representation has to be interpreted: understood, right? So, what interprets the representation, and is that interpretation another representation? And what interprets that one?).

But let's say we can get around that little problem. Then you have to consider the difference between representing the external world (no, I won't go further into that one) versus representing the internal dynamics of the system. We might be Kantian and say that of course there are errors, indeed perhaps fatal errors, in representing and interpreting the external world. But what about our internal representations? How can we claim, for example, that we don't feel anger when we're feeling anger? How can that possibly be in error, since the feeling is the criteria for the representation's accuracy? That is, we might claim that we feel anger for some strange reason, not a good one, but we can't, so the argument goes, claim in error that we feel the anger. We feel it or we don't, right? Well, maybe. You might read Dennett on this one... he's good at getting people to rethink old claims. Check out:

Dennett, D. C. Consciousness Explained. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.

------. 'Quining Qualia.' In Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, 42-77. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., 1994.

Steven Ravett Brown


(72) Joshua asked:

Can someone learn philosophy even without education?

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It depends on what you mean by 'education'. If you can read then you can read lots of philosophy books and learn about it in this way without any formal education. The problem is that you might miss something important without any guidance as to what you should read. However thinking that you can do philosophy just by thinking about things and that you don't need to know the history of philosophy is a mistake.

The most important thing is to have a good knowledge of the history of philosophy. Then you can develop your own thoughts without repeating what has already been done.

Shaun Williamson


(73) Orange asked:

What is the best way to solve the Epicurean Paradox? How can you reconcile the existence of evil with an all good all powerful God?

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Your question immediately raises the response — against what standard are you going to measure 'best'? In the absence of any guidance on this score, I am going to provide the sort of answer that I think is best. You will have to judge for yourself how it measures on your own scale of 'best'.

The dictionary tells us that a 'paradox' is a statement, proposition, or situation that seems absurd or contradictory, but is presumed to be none-the-less true. But in logic, a self-contradictory situation, a statement or proposition that contradicts itself, is a reductio ad absurdum proof that at least one of the premises that leads to the contradiction is false in some way. Therefore, in order to 'solve' the Epicurean Paradox, one must examine the premises that lead to the apparent contradiction, and question whether they are in fact really true.

The one premise that seems to me to be most easily questioned — because it lacks any independent evidential support what so ever — is the premise that an 'all good, all powerful God' actually exists. After all, the only evidence that leads us to accept such a premise is that God tells us (in the Bible) that He is all good and all powerful. This is circular reasoning — the only evidentiary support for the truth of the premise is evidence only if the premise is assumed to be true.

To solve the paradox, then, all that is needed is to relax this rather strong premise somewhat. Perhaps God does not exist (my own choice). Or if you choose to believe that God exists (your choice, presumably, given the nature of your question), perhaps He is not all good, or perhaps He is not all powerful. Either of these latter two alternatives would resolve the apparent contradiction just as well as the first.

If God is not all powerful, then He might be powerless to prevent the machinations of the Devil. Or perhaps God is indeed omnipotent, but merely chooses to limit His exercise of that omnipotence. However, addressing the question of why He might so choose gets us into the issue of the goodness of God.

So the other option is to consider the possibility that God is not all good. This is a favourite alternative of some Christian Fundamentalists — although they would, of course, be the last to admit it. What they actually do is redefine the meaning of the word 'good' so that it includes everything that God does, even those things that we poor uncomprehending and undeserving penitents mistakenly call 'evil'. Hence the paradox is only apparent because we apply mistaken understandings of 'good' and 'evil'. The things that we mistakenly call 'evil' are still the acts of an all good God, and are therefore necessarily 'good'. It is just that we poor servants in His service do not fully understand His goodness.

But of course, in the absence of any evidence to constrain our speculations, we can we can amuse ourselves endlessly with variations on these themes — as religious philosophers have done for thousands of years.

Stuart Burns


(74) Gianelli asked:

Why are people not thinking?

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Good question! I have often wondered that myself. I have often even wondered that of myself — when I have discovered that I have done something particularly dumb!

The only answer I have been able to come up with that seems to fit the situation is that people are just plain lazy.

Thinking is actually pretty hard work. After all, to actually think about things, to make conscious and considered choices about things, you have to be actually paying attention to things. Most people seem to stay so intently focussed on their immediate goals (driving the car, finding the next meal,), that they spare no effort to notice that there are alternatives and opportunities passing them by. To notice these alternatives and opportunities, you have to approach your daily activities with an open mind. Most people seem to find it much easier to keep a closed mind, and ignore the possibilities. After all, doing something different, taking a chance on something not 'proven' is risky. And most people are uncomfortable with risk.

Taking effective advantage of the alternatives demands sufficient knowledge of how the world works to be able to predict consequences with reasonable accuracy. Most people seem to prefer to stay in their own little rut, and avoid the effort of learning how the world outside that rut actually works. That is why most people find change uncomfortable, and new things risky.

Forming thoughtful opinions on any matter means that you have to actually consider the alternatives, identify possibilities, and extrapolate consequences. It takes much less effort to adopt the opinions of someone else. Most people, most of the time, seem to let other people do their thinking for them. They manage their lives on the basis of instinct, habit, and the opinions of others.

The only reason I can think of to explain this avoidance of effort, is that most people, most of the time are inherently lazy. And I include myself in that generalization!

Stuart Burns


(75) Kate asked:

'What did Sartre mean by his assertion (in response to Heidegger) that existentialism was a humanism?'

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Sartre's Existentialism is not a humanism if humanism is defined as the ethical or political conditions for the realisation of a definite human nature. Sartre denied there was such a human nature writing that existence precedes essence. There is the universality of the human condition — freedom and the sincerity of recognising this. In existing I am free whether I'm aware of it or not. The choices I make create my existence. But I am always free not to be the existence I have become, as I do not have to be the person I am. Freedom is possible because of the ontology of the Nothing described by Sartre in Being and Nothingness.

Heidegger described Sartre along with Marx and Nietzsche as operating within the confines of metaphysical 'philosophy'. This philosophy which has dominated the West, has buried the receptiveness of human beings to the hidden disclosure of Being. Institutionalising Thinking within the confines of the problematics of Reality/ Appearance (Plato and Christianity), Subject/ Object (Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, Hegel, Marx), which has dominated for two thousand years,

Sartre still bases himself on an objectification of the human subject as the starting point of philosophy and ethics. (i.e., we have a definition of what being human is before us and we act according to its dictates). Accordingly, Heidegger describes him as a Humanist. In emphasising the subjectivity of freedom, he begins with the Subject (otherwise termed Ego Cogito, Ego, Soul) and has to objectify the phenomena of existence so it can be incorporated into this knowing Subject. This hermetically seals Thinking from the disclosure of unconcealed Being. Sartre does not examine the disclosure of Being as Heidegger argues genuine thinkers ought to.

Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism and Humanism. Methuen.

Martin Heidegger Letter on Humanism. Basic Writings. Routledge 1992.

Martin Jenkins


(76) Maria asked:

'How does Dialectical Materialism deal with the concept of Ethics?'

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Attributed to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's, most notably in the book Anti Duhring, Dialectical materialism hold the ontological view that what is, is Material and not Supernatural of Idealist. The material changes Dialectically. Whether the Dialectic is a methodology applied to both natural (nature) and non-natural (social) phenomena or just social phenomena alone and whether, the dialectic it is an ontology — mirroring how reality is in itself — or a methodology as a guide to political practice is a contentious issue amongst Marxist thinkers. There is much literature on this subject.

Historical Materialism

Your question asks of the relation of dialectical materialism to ethics. Applied to society and history in order to explain social-political-historical dynamics, Historical Materialism is the result. Historical materialism seeks to account for social dynamics as arising from the Productive relations that constitute the material base of society. That is, the relations the Ruling Class (that owns or controls of the means of production, distribution and exchange) has to the working class (owns nothing save its ability to labour). This relation is antagonistic and is the Class struggle which is the dynamic of all existing societies past and present. Historical materialism does not begin from isolated abstract ideas, the singular lives of great individuals. It puts these in relational context of the material class struggle,

In the course of this struggle, the Ruling Class dominates the institutions of society and promotes the domination and regulation of its own interests, ideas and ethics (for example, the concept of the sovereign individual, its corresponding concept of Freedom as right to individual life, liberty and property against violation from without) In turn; the working class develops its own consciousness, ideas, values and ethics. The value and ethics of solidarity, of equality, and their systematic ideological manifestation in socialism arise from the material conditions experienced by the working class. Material conditions that exist in tension (or contradiction) to those of the Ruling Class. Hence the Dialectical categories of Thesis and Antithesis exist. Socialism is their synthesis. Common interests, ideas, ethics, arise from common material conditions experienced by the labouring class. Material conditions such as collective production working together in factories, living together having common interests involving mutual, collective solutions and codification of such approaches in socialistic ethics. Material circumstances condition ideas and ethics.

Dialectical Materialism

Marx and Engels first proposed historical materialism in the 1840's in Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology. Years later, in works such as the Anti-Duhring, this dialectical method is transposed into non-social areas such as chemistry, physiology and natural science to become Dialectical Materialism. This provokes philosophical issues as to whether dialectical materialism if applicable to explaining the behaviour of non-conscious matter is also applicable to explaining the behaviour of conscious living beings. Whether the determinism inherent in dialectical materialism in micro level material phenomena can be applied to living, conscious, human beings at the macro and social level.

Dialectically, the negation of heat to water cannot but involve the synthesis of steam. Likewise, does the negation of poverty engender people to create revolution with the same degree of necessity and certainty? If it does, what consequences to human freedom? If it does not, what of the explanatory power of Dialectical materialism? Does a scientific theory — a title Dialectical Materialism makes claims to — mirror the actions of things-in-themselves or is it a hypothesis that seeks to explain their dynamics? If the latter, theory, including dialectical materialism, is fallible and can be modified or replaced. If the former, how can it ever be known that a theory mirrors the nature of reality-in-itself? Can a materialist theory can account for thought, feeling and the meanings derived thereof — including ethics. A dialectical materialist account of the brain might account for the firing of neurons but can it account for the meaning(s) the human attributes to the situation that so stimulates those neurons — meanings that could constitute an ethics?

Martin Jenkins


(77) Patience asked:

'Man is free but is everywhere in chains. To what extent does the Social Contract theory liberate man from himself?'

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The Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau removes the chains from people in two ways.

Firstly, he addresses the problem of the loss of liberty suffered by individuals once they enter the Political society of other men. In non-political society, individuals can obey their own will without hindrance from other men. In political society, the interests of other individuals hinder and extinguish the pursuit of the individual's interests. Rousseau overcomes this in his theory of the General Will. Considering the best interests of the state, individuals participate in the formulation of the General Will — generalised policy making. In abiding by decisions s/he makes with others expressed in the General Will, each citizen obeys themselves and others. Hence their liberty is protected (as they are freely making decisions) and enshrined corporately (their individual decision is combined with others in a collective agreement). Enshrined corporately, my decision is yours and yours is mine — we do not hinder or limit each other. In obeying the General Will, I am obeying myself. (see Ch VI, Book 1 The Social Contract).

Secondly, Rousseau values Freedom and the free man is the virtuous man. The virtuous man is not seduced by the tyranny of his passions or appetites. In so controlling his passions and acting from consideration, the virtuous man is liberated from the dictates of his passions. He is transformed from a brute into a moral man and Citizen. (See Ch VII. Op cite). The un-virtuous man is a prisoner of his passions putting instant gratification before his duties as a free man, citizen (in formulating the General Will) and subject (in obeying the General Will). Such a particular will threatens the body politic of the State founded on the Social Contract. Accordingly, this type of man must be forced to be free. What application this would have in contemporary consumerist society where individual gratification is prioritised and profitable!

Martin Jenkins