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

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 34 (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 34/1.

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) Joanna asked:

Should you treat your inability to answer skeptical arguments as merely a philosophical puzzle? Or should you allow that inability to alter how you actually live day to day? In other words, what is the value of skepticism?

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I think it is impossible to live day to day as though scepticism were true. However it would be nice to see some of the philosophers who claim that scepticism cannot be solved, at least make the effort to be consistent and follow their sceptical principles in everyday life. It would also be amusing for the rest of us to observe.

However I believe there is a complete answer to scepticism so for me it's not a problem.

Shaun Williamson


(2) Philip asked:

Is it possible to be a Christian and a Philosopher?

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Absolutely. Several of the most influential philosophers have been Christian. Descartes and Thomas Aquinas were Christian and made significant contributions to areas other than philosophy of religion.

Eric Zwickler


(3) Shan asked:

Is it true that we lose our energy after releasing sperm?

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Just as much as we tire from any physical activity; the more activity, the more tiring. Also, there are a variety of hormones released during sex and orgasm. Some energize you, some relax you. We don't 'lose energy' in any profound sense, like losing blood, no. Mostly, for human beings, sex is in the mind; what you think it will be, it pretty much is.

Steven Ravett Brown


(4) Khizar asked:

As a law student, it seems to me (and many would agree) that quite paradoxically (when looking at what the purported aims of secularism are) minorities even as old as thousands of years ago had more freedom than they have today. When Cirus conquered Babylon and invited the Jews back to their homeland, he allowed them to practice their own laws without any interference and without making any 'judgments' about their laws. I'm only citing instances which I've come across during my own study so historically you may find it goes back further than that. Then, we know that generally a lot of minorities of even the Roman World Order were allowed to practice their own laws including sometimes even their own criminal laws. Then, when Muslims came upon the scene, we know that the Jews were allowed to practice their law to the fullest extent so that the Jews had their own judges to deal with laws relating to Jews only and while there certainly was discrimination against the Jews, they were allowed to carry on their own legal systems. Jewish communities today even laud the earlier Muslim rulers but maintain that it was beneficial to them also since it decreased the workload of Muslim jurists!

My question is: Why are judgments passed today if a religious minority demands that it be given 'the basic human right' of conducting their personal laws by themselves. We've studied some cases of where the Muslim minority in Europe have demanded that right and they've been refused because 'we can't imagine applying primitive laws today' or because they're quite obviously 'cruel laws'. Firstly, Muslims are not demanding the application of state criminal laws but only personal laws; and secondly, even if they are doing just that, how do we know these laws are cruel? To 'you' they might be cruel but not to the minority demanding it. Every religious system has it's own reasoning and many Muslim jurists argue that only by looking at the facts we can tell that these supposedly cruel laws are more effective and humane.

But I think even 'defending' that is quite irrelevant.. Either we accept that minorities in the past had more freedoms or we allow for any law that a minority community would want. Now 'you' may raise issues as whether the majority of the minority wants it or the 'whole' of minority. I'd be happy for the answer putting the condition 'the whole minority wants it' in this case even though the question isn't justified since we ourselves make our laws by looking at the majority. I'm really, quite honestly, confused by what I see as this modern judgmental stance on everything. It's like there is this modern secularist extremist who jeers and mocks at anything and everything opposed to his own outlook and passes sweeping judgments. Now, please don't get charged up and don't try to guess whether I'm a Muslim, a Hindu or a minority community member and please, be a philosopher!

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

An interesting question, Khizar. No, we don't have to guess what your ethnicity is, but the question deserves a serious answer.

Generally, in the periods of history you cite, few people had any political rights, and for the most part were subject nations with a fixed physical area in a large empire. In this, some local autonomy made a lot of sense. The European imperial powers followed fairly similar principles in practice in most areas of their rule. For an empire or a ruling elite that is interested largely in getting tax revenue so that it can support a military class, such a distant approach makes a lot of sense.

The change came when societies began to give political rights to the community as a whole — including the rights to select their leaders, to sit on juries, and so on. In the early stages, in the middle ages and the early modern period, these rights were restricted to those a particular ethnic group or religion, as ethnicity and religion were seen to be as important in a person's identification as their nation. For example, Spinoza ran into problems here: as a Jew he had only limited political rights in Amsterdam, and once he was excommunicated, he lost his rights in the Jewish community as well. At this time there was only a limited class of electors in Amsterdam, and Jews and Catholics did not have full political rights, although they had full duties, including military service.

With the creation of modern nation states after the revolutions in England, the USA and France, the nation became more important in determining a person's identity. This caused some conflict, especially in France. Some insisted that certain areas, in particular education and marriage, needed to be regulated by the Church, but others wished to allow the state, and perhaps only the state, to regulate these things. It also led to questions as to whether those of a different religion could be members of the nation, leading to crises such as the Dreyfuss affair, and perhaps the Nazis too. It would be fair to say that the 'religious' states were often prone to genocides, persecutions and pogroms, and even as the nation took over from the religion as the source of identity, some of these events continued to occur.

In general, people were permitted their own religion, but were sometimes expected to conform in their education and certain other aspects of their culture, if they were to be part of the nation, and to have the political rights of other citizens. This social change has occurred as much in the Middle East as in Europe. Take for example, Alexandria, in which until Egyptian independence Arabs were a minority. However, within a few years of independence, the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and others had emigrated, not always voluntarily, and the Copts very quickly assimilated in all ways except their religious practices.

Modern states developed a resolution to this conflict. The problem was resolved, in the nations where it was resolved, by agreeing that the state would be 'secular' in the sense that it would be impartial between religious and ethnic groups. This is the principle, acknowledged more or less by all liberal democracies in the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa. The main reason for the spread of this kind of state is the spectacular economic and military success they have had, as well as the internal peace they enjoy, not just in Europe and America, but in Asia as well.

It's interesting that minorities campaigned for the rights of citizens, and saw gaining them as a liberation. If you consider what precisely has really changed, it is easy to see why. The only sense in which the minority has 'lost rights' in a secular, multi-ethnic liberal-democratic state, is that it the religious or ethnic leaders have lost the automatic right to impose their authority on individuals. Properly considered, individualism, rather than secularism, is what has been introduced.

A family, if it wishes, may make its own decision on inheritance, and have it enforced by agreeing in a contract to enforce it. In my own family, my parents' and grandparents' generation made such a contract. People may make pre-nuptial agreements covering property and divorce. If two people have a disagreement, they may agree to an adjudication by a non-state authority, and agree in advance by contract to accept any judgement handed down. I have come across cases of American Jews agreeing to such a thing in cases of tort and breach of contract. By moving to a secular state, the members of a minority do not lose any rights, except for any leaders whose authority does not rely on the consent of those they wish to govern. In a 'secular' state, the only substantive change is that people become members of a community through personal choice, and are free to join or leave religious or ethnic or other communities as they see fit.

I think that the reason why your question may have got a strong emotional response, is that it could be interpreted as meaning 'Surely it is right for me to make laws for you, and to enjoy the benefits as an equal in your community, but wrong for you to make laws for me, or expect me to contribute as an equal in your community.' I assume that you did not mean it in that way. Also, this is not a question that multiple 'communities' are asking for. In the states where many of your respondents are writing from, the argument is often posed with violence on those who have chosen to leave a community. 'Honour killings' are the most extreme and obvious example. Some reactions occur in the light of this.

You raise an interesting question, and one that deserves a serious discussion, which is probably not easily addressed in a one-shot question-and-answer format.

Roger Williams


(5) Navin asked:

I am a guy and have a very close friend whom I love a lot. I know he also loves me a lot. Sometimes I become very possessive for him which he does not like, he likes to mix with everyone and enjoy life where as I only want him to be with me. Recently we have been arguing over things and I feel very bad. Please suggest me a way out... I don't want to lose him.

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

Possessive love can be very destructive: if you cannot accept the terms on which he is going to have a relationship with you, then you might have to find another relationship. Hard but true. But ask yourself a question first: in what way would you like to be loved?

Consider Blake's poem 'The Clod and the Pebble'

http://www.online-literature.com/blake/614/

Roger Williams


(6) Mark asked:

First, thank you for providing this valuable service! My question is this this: Is it plausible to think of morality as constituting a system of deductive logic analogous to geometry? Specifically, is it plausible to regard morality as a deductive system whose conclusions depend for their validity, like geometry, on the truth of certain specified axioms or postulates? In metaethics there appears to be much discussion regarding whether morality is 'objective' or 'subjective', 'absolute' or 'relative,' yet it strikes me that this may be a sterile debate. It seems clear that morality is 'subjective' in that its existence depends on the presence of a human (or humanlike) mind. In a universe populated only with insects, it would be absurd to speak of morality. On the other hand, it seems obvious (at least to me) that statements like 'Hitler was an evil man' cannot be subject to debate by rational persons. Yet, while obvious, there seems no way to 'prove' this statement so as to remove it from the realm of the 'subjective' or 'relative.' Nazis and neo-Nazis (and certain Muslims) would deny that Hitler was 'evil.'

Accordingly, one possible way out of the debate regarding whether moral propositions are objective/ subjective, or absolute/ relative, is to view them as we do geometric theorems. In other words, they are 'absolutely' true (not subject to debate), if we accept the truth of certain underlying assumptions. So, I would consider morality as 'subjective,' like geometry, in that it has no existence apart from the humanlike mind, but it is 'absolutely' true given a certain set of axioms. This is an outcome I could live with.

I am sure there is something wrong, probably horribly wrong, with this idea, but I would like your feedback. Thanks!

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

Well, I'm afraid you're right. There is something, actually a few somethings, rather horribly wrong with this idea. First, it doesn't solve the problem you set out to solve by going to a formal system. You wanted to get out of the 'sterile debate' about various types of morality, but all you've done, really, is place that debate onto the selection of your assumptions. But that's exactly what meta-ethics is about anyway. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) wants their morality to be a system which generates provable 'oughts', given some simple and easily accepted assumptions. Haha, right. The debate about those assumptions: what kind of assumptions they are, then what precisely they are, has been going on for several thousand years, give or take. But let's say that you do, somehow, solve this problem which has stymied people for millennia. You've got your assumptions, and you can prove moral theorems. Now, what about Godel's proof? That shows that in formal systems, there will always be true statements, i.e., true moral theorems in this case, which cannot be proven, given any finite set of assumptions. Whoops. Now, how do you know — when you've run into something which seems obviously moral (or not), but which you cannot, despite all your attempts, justify (i.e., prove) given your assumptions, whether this statement is provable within your system (but just very hard to prove, so you haven't found the proof but you might), or simply not provable, but true? Or not provable because not true? These are the fundamental problems with wanting nice, neat, provable systems. And I'm simply not going to go into the problems you get (i.e., the ones still being debated) once you've fixed on the idea that this is the kind of morality you want, anyway.

So, what's the answer? Well... um. How about this? First, abandon the idea of making morality a formal system coming out of nice, obvious, hypotheses. Bye-bye, simplicity. Hello, complexity... it's going to have to be something which is reasonably clear, but not formally clear. Something which uses, at least to a reasonable extent, reason... because all you have to do is look at history to see the awful, horrifying effects of using emotions to guide morality, or, contrariwise, of attempting to use 'pure reason' (which always is dependent on assumptions, which in turn are always biased...) for the same thing. Something which is flexible enough to keep changing with one's knowledge (of the world, of the results of applying ethical principles... etc.), so that one doesn't get locked into assumptions. Sounds very empirical, doesn't it? And difficult; one might actually have to think, rather than just following rules. You might look into what's termed 'naturalized' ethics for ideas like this... for example:

Clark, A. 'Connectionism, Moral Cognition, and Collaborative Problem Solving.' edited by L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark, 109-28. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.

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

Dewey, J. Human Nature and Conduct, 1922. Edited by J. A. Boydston. 2nd ed. Vol. 14, The Middle Works of John Dewey: 1899-1924, Volume 14. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

May, L., M. Friedman, and A. Eds. Clark. Mind and Morals: Essays on Cognitive Science and Ethics. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.

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

Matthews, G.B. 'Concept Formation and Moral Development.' In Philosophical Perspectives on Developmental Psychology, edited by J. Russell, 175-90. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1987.

Boyd, R. 'Finite Beings, Finite Goods: The Semantics, Metaphysics and Ethics of Naturalist Consequentialism, Part Ii .' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXVII, no. 1 (2003): 24-47.

And there's this literature:

Gintis, H., S. Bowles, R. Boyd, and E. Fehr. 'Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans.' Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003): 153-72.

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.

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

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

Piaget, J. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Translated by M. Cabain. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Alexander, J.M. 'Random Boolean Networks and Evolutionary Game Theory.' Philosophy of Science 70 (2003): 1289-304.

Doebeli, M., C. Hauert, and T. Killinback. 'The Evolutionary Origin of Cooperators and Defectors.' Science 306 (2004): 859-62.

Hamilton, I.M., and M. Taborsky. 'Contingent Movement and Cooperation Evolve under Generalized Reciprocity.' Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272 (2005): 2259-67.

Steven Ravett Brown


(7) Nicole asked:

What is the opposite of time?

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

Why do you think that the word 'time' must have an opposite? Does the word 'coat' have one?

Nuno Hipolito


(8) Riley asked:

What is the purpose to life? I don't agree with Aristotle that it is to be happy.

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

I think that the meaning of life is not a thing you can generalize to a point that becomes something universal and suits everyone. The meaning of life is really the 'meaning of your life', it must be what makes sense to you.

Being happy is a generalisation. You can strife to be happy, but you must underline other smaller objectives in order to feel happy with your life. These underlining objectives become your 'meaning of life'.

Nuno Hipolito


(9) Chris asked:

Who made God?

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

First of all it is not clear that God even exists. But if we consider the premise that He does, the most logical answer to your question is: no one. If God is a perfect being, he is, by definition, uncreated. This means that He always existed, and for Him there is no before and after, but only an infinite continuum of perpetual existence.

Nuno Hipolito


(10) D asked:

Is it worth leaving all you have i.e. wife, kids and house to pursue a beautiful woman you don't know yet?

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

Just think that your impulse to pursue that woman has deeper roots than your sexual attraction to her. Sure, we are all animals, and we all feel urges, but we are also intelligent enough to fight those irrational urges.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't leave your family. If you feel unhappy in your marriage, not prepared for that responsibility, you should probably sit down and said that to your wife (preferably with the kids not nearby). Solve your problems in house, before chasing futile impulses. If you decide to leave, that should be an answer to your problems that will better your life and the life of those around you, not a quick escape.

Nuno Hipolito


(11) Stephen asked:

First of all, I am a Freshman in High school. I am told almost every day of school that I need to be making up my mind about what I want to do with my life. Why would my school system allow me to make such a drastic decision? After all, I am only a Freshman, and my mind is not fully developed yet. At least that's what they say.

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

Well I doubt that you're being told that so frequently. I think you're feeling anxiety about school, and that's spilling over into this question. Also, what does it mean? 'What you want to do with your life'? Does that mean you plan the rest of your life out, day by day? No, I don't think so. Does it mean you decide that you're going to be a surgeon, car mechanic, or whatever, and by the gods, that's it, forever, you've made the decision and now you have to pursue it, grimly and single-mindedly? Um... no. Believe it or not, you can even change your mind at ages like... 20, 40, 60, even. Yes, really. I did that myself, if it comes to that.

That's all very fine, but there's another side to this... which is that it would be good if you tried to figure out something, some direction, even a vague notion, of what you might want to do. Take a year or so and think about it... because it will make a difference in what you do, at least for the next few years (which seems like a short time to me, and a long time to you). If you like art, for example, you can start taking courses in that, say, next year. If you like science... the same, and depending on what you choose in the next year or so, you'll find out about yourself and what you might want. Read different kinds of books and see what you like... make friends with different kinds of people and see who you like. Then maybe you can focus, a bit, as time goes on.

Steven Ravett Brown


(12) Pauline asked:

There are no rules. This said by an intelligent man who doesn't rate society and has turned to alcoholism. Are all rules purely man made or intrinsic?

And if there are no rules what is the alternative? He does not offer any.

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

Of course there are rules. Try jumping out of a window and flying; I think you'll find there are rules. Try not eating; that's another set of rules. Anyone who claims 'there are no rules' is either an idiot or a fool, and clearly this person is the latter. And of course some rules are made by culture and are arbitrary, and some aren't. For example, we have rules that people can't just wander around and kill anyone they want to (except for governments, apparently, these days). Is this arbitrary? Yes, because it's humans imposing rules on themselves. No, because if it happened too much there'd be no societies, just little tribes ruled by force. Look at what's happening in the world today if you doubt that. I'd say your best course would be to go find someone else to talk to, who isn't trying to rationalize their own weakness and negativity by trying to claim that their behavior doesn't matter because no behavior matters.

Steven Ravett Brown


(13) John asked:

I will ask 3 different questions:

1. I am a Catholic and we believe that abortion is bad, evil, because to take a life is not right (this is the stand of the church). Science proves that life begins at conception. If I am living in a third world country (which coincidentally I am), and I cannot afford to support a child, and even my parents cannot support me for valid and heavy reasons, then is it justified to abort a child? What is your stand in abortion?

2. The purpose of life is to be happy as Aristotle said. I am a married and I am happy with my wife. I recently committed a grave wrong against our marriage, which I really did not plan. Or let's just say it was an accident and I am still holding that information and did not tell my wife yet. As statistics shows that 80 percent of successful marriages are based on lies, and I want my marriage to be saved, then is it safe to say that I really need to lie so that I can save my marriage and stay happy? Is it ok to lie? Is lying justifiable in some sense just to save my family and kids? I don't want to break up our happy family. Should I just shut my mouth and not tell my wife? Which is more important? If I tell the truth to my wife, then she will surely leave me and my kids will find it hard to live their broken family lives. Should I just tell one lie to her and save the happy family?

3. Two people, when they were still young, started out the same as poor people. They had they same dream — to become rich and help their families. Person A studied hard and worked hard and later on became a teacher by profession (average income in our country). Person B on the other hand just lived his life as it came, did not finish school, just helped his mom in selling fish (earning a poor income). But later in life the fish business got big and he became the fish king of the place (which earned him millions). My question is: is the life of a person dictated by his own choice or is it governed by destiny? Is it possible that all that we do here in this world is already predestined? Like the example above — no matter how hard Person A works, he is still not rich. Person B, on the other hand, while not working as hard as A to become rich, actually got rich. Is it destiny or choice? Here's another example on health. Person A and Person B are neighbors. Person A took good care of his health. He ate the right foods, did not smoke, exercised everyday. While person B drank a lot of alcohol, smoked and ate fatty foods. On one fateful night while both of them are sleeping, an airplane crashes on the house of person A, the healthy person. He died instantly, while person b was safe. Is it destiny that A died? What about all his efforts to prolong his life? If 'destiny' is true then the world is unfair. Is the world fair?

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

You have asked three very good questions, and have managed thereby to tweak my interest. So I will attempt to provide answers from my own way of viewing things. I don't pretend that these answers are the 'right' ones. They are just the ones from my own philosophical point of view.

It is interesting that you describe yourself as a Catholic, yet still wonder whether the events commanded by God's will are 'fair', or whether there are circumstances that might justify an abortion, or lying. Clearly, while you may be a practicing Catholic, you do not completely adhere to the Church's teachings.

(1) Your first question is about the moral status of abortion. If you are indeed a practicing Catholic, then the Pope's word on the matter is an 'ex cathedra' proclamation. Officially, Catholics assume that the Pope is speaking the infallible and indubitable 'words of God' when speaking ex cathedra. In other words, if you wish to be a 'good' Catholic (by the Church's official definition of that label) you should not be able to doubt that abortion is bad, evil, sinful, and something that should never be done under any circumstances.

Of course, the Catholic Church permits the granting of absolution for sins. So it is presumably acceptable for a Catholic to commit a sin, and then seek absolution from their priest during confession. Not being a Catholic myself, I have no idea whether having (or promoting) an abortion is a sin that could qualify for such absolution. But I have not heard of a Catholic being ex-communicated for committing such a sin. Given the number of abortions performed on or by or advocated by Catholics, the world must surely be well populated by Catholics who could not be considered 'good' according to the official definition of that label. Yet they (and presumably you) still consider themselves proper and practicing Catholics. So it really comes down to how strictly you wish to adhere to the dictates of the Catholic Church.

If you are willing to entertain the possibility that the morality of abortion is not dependent on the dictates of the Catholic Church, then you have to seek out some independent standard of morality. Over the ages, philosophers have offered numerous alternatives, including Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Kant's Categorical Imperative, Aristotle's Eudaimonia, and many more.

Since your question specifically inquired about my own stand on abortion, I will provide the reasoning of Evolutionary Ethics. The fundamental premise of Evolutionary Ethics is that the survival and flourishing of one's own genetic legacy is the highest moral good. With such a foundation, the question of whether abortion is justified or not becomes a question about the best means under the circumstances of ensuring that the subject's genetic legacy survives and flourishes over the long term. Abortion becomes merely one more tactical option in the struggle to ensure the best possible future for one's genetic legacy. So it is the individual's particular circumstances that will determine whether an abortion this time is justified. The moral judgements of Evolutionary Ethics are circumstantial, never absolute.

(2) Your second question is about the moral status of lying. You start off the query by observing that Aristotle maintained that the purpose of life is to be happy. That is not strictly correct. The Greek word that Aristotle used to describe the highest moral good was 'Eudaimonia'. Although in popular usage the term 'happiness' (referring to a state of mind related to joy or pleasure) is the generally accepted translation, the Ancient Greek usage of 'eudaimonia' rarely described a state of mind. The less subjective 'human flourishing' is therefore the more strictly correct translation for philosophical discourse. Of course, that leaves open to discussion the meaning of 'human flourishing'.

The Commandments of Christianity, and the moral dictates of the Catholic Church, are behaviour specific — some behaviours are demanded, some behaviours are prohibited, regardless of circumstances. Unlike the Absolutist moral dictates of the Catholic Church, the moral prescriptions of Aristotle's eudaimonia (or of Evolutionary Ethics) are situational and consequentialist. In contrast to the Church's action oriented moral rules, they are goal oriented. They leave the choice of behaviour in pursuit of that goal up to the individual.

So the answer to your question, assuming that you choose to pursue either Aristotle's eudaimonia or the prescriptions of Evolutionary Ethics, depends on your circumstances. You should lie (or tell the truth) if that alternative, in your most careful evaluation, will most likely lead to 'human flourishing'. Likewise, the moral prescription of Evolutionary Ethics is that you should lie (or tell the truth) if that alternative, in your most careful evaluation, will most likely lead to the survival and flourishing of your genetic legacy over the long term. The moral dilemma, of course, arises when we realize that we are not well equipped to understand all the consequences of the lie (or the truth).

Experience teaches us that as a general rule of thumb, lying is a dangerous practice. One can get into a lot of trouble (as you point out in the example you cite in your question) if the lie is discovered. If you lose the reputation for veracity, then you will find it difficult to entice people to trade with you — whether it be in a work environment or a marriage environment. Trust is an important element of any human relationship, and a discovered lie can destroy trust very quickly. So, is it OK to lie? Yes, if your best evaluation of the long term cost/ benefit (risk/ reward) trade-off suggests that it is worth the risks. But remember the down-side — your evaluation of the risks and rewards might be faulty, you are no omniscient. So be prepared for the worst, and don't bitch if you should blow it.

(3) Your third question involves two separate philosophical issues: 'Is whatever happens predestined (destiny, fate, deterministic)?' and 'Is the universe 'fair''?

There are two different ways of looking at determinism (predestination/ destiny/ fate). One is logical, and one contains a logical flaw. The logical view of determinism considers the Universe like a Newtonian clockwork. Assumption 1: The Universe contains a finite number of particles. (Note that this is not strictly necessary. A looser version requires only that there be a finite number of particles within the requisite time horizon.) Assumption 2: Each particle has a specific position, course, and speed. Assumptions 3: All particles interact with other particles in known ways. Conclusion — given the position, course, and speed of all the particles extant at some specified instant, it is possible to compute the position, course, and speed of all particles that would exist at any future instant. In other words, given the state of the Universe at any given instant, the future is totally predictable. The doctrine of Determinism merely asserts that nothing happens without a cause, that every state of affairs is the outcome of a preceding state of affairs. Without this assumption all prediction would be impossible and all reasoning would be futile. The doctrine of Determinism asserts that the past was (in one sense) inevitable, given the physical, social, and individual forces, actions, choices, and decisions that actually took place. It also asserts that the future will be determined in the same way.

But Determinism does not assert that the future can necessarily be known in advance. There is an enormous difference between 'knowable in principle' and 'knowable in practice'. More importantly, Determinism does not assert that a given future will unfold regardless of what you or I may do to promote or prevent it. Yet this is the assumption implicit in your questions about the role of 'destiny'. If determinism is right, then it was predetermined that Person A would become a teacher and earn an average income, while Person B lucks out and becomes wealthy. But that is only because it was also predetermined that both Person A and Person B, as well as everyone else, would make the choices they did. To maintain, as you more or less imply, that Person A perhaps need not have worked and studied hard because it was predetermined that he would become a teacher and earn what he earns is to make the logical error of counting some consequences as deterministically caused while counting others as uncaused.

Now, is it fair that Person B lucks out and becomes wealthy without effort? Or that Person A works hard to stay healthy but dies early of an accident, while Person B does not attend his health but lives to a ripe old age? Of course not. The concepts of 'fairness' and 'justice' demand that each person reap the reward that they have earned by their actions and choices. Clearly, the lucky (wealthy) Person B and unlucky (dead) Person A in your question are the beneficiaries of unforeseeable events (we must assume that these events were unforeseen, or else credit those involved with the just rewards of valuable foresight). But to put matters succinctly — 'Shit Happens!' The Universe is blind and has no emotions with which to care about the justice or fairness of events. Shit Happens. And the best we can do is learn as much as we can in order to prepare as best we can to deal with the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune throws in our path. Most often that approach works better than any other. Sometimes it doesn't. But you can't tell in advance whether it will or not. So it is always best to play the percentages and work at successful 'human flourishing'.

Stuart Burns


(14) Helena asked:

I would like to ask you your opinion on EVP's. I am absolutely certain that I have heard voices on my mobile video recorder which are being picked up by myself. They are personal and do have a meaning only to me. I have enhanced the video on my laptop and I can say that the voice or message is definitely there!

Do you think it is possible for our dearly departed to contact us in this way?

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No, I absolutely do not. I think that you need to go and talk to a therapist about this. There are two points you should consider. First, if dead relatives were really out there wanting to talk with you, and if they could do it through video machines, then surely they could find easier and more direct means, like writing clear messages.

Second, if you look at history, you find that people hear and see absolutely anything they want to, if they want it badly enough. Anything. It sounds to me as if you want this very badly, and so you, yourself, are making it happen. This is very dangerous, to you and to those around you, and you need to bring it under control. Go see a professional, now.

Steven Ravett Brown


(15) William asked:

Hi, I'm beginning work on a dissertation and was wondering if anyone might be able to suggest any films which contain themes similar to those of Colin Wilson's 'New Existentialism'.

I am also interested in hearing any critique or observations on Wilson's philosophies.

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I'm not a film expert, so I can't really answer the first question... maybe something like 'Closely Watched Trains'? And as for the second, I have only read his fiction, for this reason: that I have no interest in the 'occult' in the way that Wilson does, nor any belief whatsoever, as he does, that ghosties and other things that go boomp in the night are real. That being said, I find his extended exploration of the induction and maintenance of intensity quite fascinating. I assume that you have seen how, in his fiction, he fairly systematically explores a variety of ways to attain this: violence, sex, drugs, sensory deprivation, concentration exercises, and coercion by superior beings (which comes down to religious conversion). This is, as I'm sure you realize, his solution to something like Sartre's nausea, etc. Given his later writings, I do not believe that he applied any of this successfully to his own life, but of course I may be wrong in this. I have been somewhat surprised at his neglect of classical Eastern methods in this area, and perhaps that could be a direction you might pursue in your own research. Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown


(16) Deborah asked:

Is morality an objective or subjective concept? That is, can we say that certain things are always right or wrong (objectively applicable to everyone) or are they relative (subjective — people see things differently) and there is no objectively true moral statement?

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Your question as asked presents a false dichotomy based on two conflations of moral categories that are not properly equivalent. An 'objective' moral system is not necessarily 'absolute' as your question assumes. And a 'relative' moral system is not necessarily a 'subjective' moral system, as your question also assumes. (And vice versa in each case, of course.) 'Subjective' means that the morally correct thing to do is in the eye (or the opinion) of the beholder — people can see things differently. 'Relative' means that the morally correct thing to do is relative to the moral agent involved — change the agent, and the answer may change. 'Objective' means that the moral system provides the same answer for any inquirer. 'Absolute' means that the moral system provides the same answer under all circumstances. Hence, by conflating objective and absolute on the one hand, and subjective and relative on the other, you have artificially divided the Universe of possible answers in such a way as to leave no room for what I feel are very viable alternatives. In particular, your false dichotomy prohibits the possibility that morality is both objective and relative.

For example, Utilitarianism would maintain that the morally correct thing to do is whatever would most likely deliver the greatest 'utility' to the greatest number. Evolutionary Ethics would maintain that the morally correct thing to do is whatever would most likely promote the survival and flourishing of one's own genetic legacy. But these calculations are both objective and relative. They are objective because, given any particular set of circumstances, the correct answer will always be the same for any inquirer — you, me, or Uncle Joe. But it is also relative because Utilitarianism and Evolutionary Ethics are both situational and circumstantial — the particular set of circumstances to which the inquiry is addressed is critical to the answer. Consider the moral question — 'Should I tell a lie?' Each of these moral systems (among others) would answer that it depends on the circumstances. Some lies are morally recommended, and some are morally reprehensible. But given some particular specified set of circumstances, it is objectively determinable whether this particular lie, under these particular circumstances, would most likely deliver the greatest 'utility' to the greatest number or promote the survival and flourishing of the agent's genetic legacy.

Stuart Burns


(17) Deborah asked:

How can you justify a moral statement to someone who does not share your belief set (experiential, religious, or philosophical perspective)?

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Only a Subjectivist about moral judgements would maintain that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I am not a moral Subjectivist. I am a moral Objectivist (meant here as a category opposite to Subjectivism, not as a reference to Randian Objectivism). Hence, I firmly believe that moral answers (although relative to the circumstances) are the same for all inquirers. If someone else does not share my judgement of the circumstances involved, then one of us is simply wrong — regardless of the other person's belief set. If, in my evaluation, the other person holds a belief set that results in erroneous moral judgements, I consider it generally in my own best long term interests to attempt to correct that person's false beliefs.

Stuart Burns


(18) Sylethia asked:

What is the biggest fallacy in Psychological Egoism?

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An extract from the Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia {Psychological egoism. (2006, October 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:17, October 22, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_egoism

'Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It can be contrasted both with ethical egoism, which is the view that the individual always ought to be motivated by self-interest and disregard the interests of the community, and rational egoism, which asserts that the rational thing to do in all situations is that which furthers the actor's interests the most. Psychological egoism is controversial, since many see it as an over-simplified interpretation of behavior, and it cannot rule out altruism without being contradicted by evidence. Rather, it claims that when sane people choose to help others, it is because of the personal benefits they themselves obtain or expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so.'

The biggest fallacy in psychological egoism is its claim to explain anything. As a psychological theory it is unfalsifiable and hence not a useful theory at all. As a philosophical position it can be neither verified nor refuted. And as a theory of human behaviour it can be used to predict nothing. It offers no insight into the rationales that people employ to justify their own behaviour to themselves or others. A reasonable sounding self-interest based justification for any human behaviour can always be provided. Instead of proposing that all behaviour can be interpreted as self-serving, the question should rather be whether the individual involved believes that his/her choice of behaviour is justified by self-interest or other concerns. If one attempts to take such a deeper interpretation of Psychological Egoism, however, it is obvious that the evidence contradicts its central tenet. Many people act for what they consider is 'the greater good', or 'to please others' rather than what they themselves consider their own self-interest. So even if Psychological Egoism is in fact the right explanation of behaviour, it adds nothing to our understanding of, or ability to predict, that behaviour.

Stuart Burns


(19) Seung Mi Cho asked:

Can literature 'tell the truth' better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

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Literature can tell the truth with an intensity that cannot be matched by other arts but this only applies to certain truths not to all truths. Within literature prose and poetry can only deal with different truths. They cannot substitute for each other. The visual arts and music can deal with truths that literature cannot deal with and so can science and philosophy.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Helen asked:

Are the referees for philosophy journals paid? That is, when they receive an article to say 'yes' or 'no' to, are they given a fee per paper? per hour for their effort? And how much would that be? Do they solicit to read?

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No. It's all voluntary. That's one reason the system works reasonably well.

Steven Ravett Brown


(21) Seung Mi Cho asked:

Can literature 'tell the truth' better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

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What does 'tell the truth' mean when you put it in quotes like that? Here's an example of truth: try building a spaceship, or a car, for that matter, using truths from literature. Um... And so, what do you mean by ' ' tell the truth' '? My answer would be: absolutely not, in general. The major point of literature, or any art, is not to tell the truth. If that were the case, then painters could only be realistic photographers, and writers would only write biographies, histories, or news, and similarly for the other arts. Clearly that's not the case. One might, conceivably, claim that a goal of the arts, sometimes, is to stimulate one to see some aspects of the truth about... something... but that's not the same as 'telling' it, is it.

Steven Ravett Brown


(22) Diory asked:

Is the assumption that the principle of noncontradiction is self-evident epistemically circular? Is epistemic circularity vicious?

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You go play with the first question... go to Google and look up 'epistemic circularity' if you want to have fun. As for the second, that's an interesting distinction you have implied, between 'vicious' and 'non-vicious' circularity. It does not seem to me, looking rather superficially at the literature on this, that there's actually much of a distinction here. 'Circular' arguments are, in any source I can find, the same as 'viciously circular' arguments, and so that would seem to imply that there is no distinction to be made, because we have absorbed, so to speak, the viciousness into the circularity. Yet some people think that there is non-vicious circularity, by which they mean, so far as I can tell, that references may include original terms or meanings within complexes of meanings or terms, so long as the complex within which the repeating term or meaning occurs does not itself repeat. I don't really have a problem with this, except that calling it 'circularity' at all seems to push the definition quite far from the original logical source. So, in answer to your second question, yes, it is, as long as it's the kind of circularity usually meant by 'epistemic circularity', and not the second rather bloogy kind (which is usually explicitly termed 'non-vicious') above.

Steven Ravett Brown


(23) Mark asked:

First, thank you for providing this valuable service!

My question is this this: Is it plausible to think of morality as constituting a system of deductive logic analogous to geometry? Specifically, is it plausible to regard morality as a deductive system whose conclusions depend for their validity, like geometry, on the truth of certain specified axioms or postulates?

In metaethics there appears to be much discussion regarding whether morality is 'objective' or 'subjective', 'absolute' or 'relative,' yet it strikes me that this may be a sterile debate. It seems clear that morality is 'subjective' in that its existence depends on the presence of a human (or humanlike) mind. In a universe populated only with insects, it would be absurd to speak of morality. On the other hand, it seems obvious (at least to me) that statements like 'Hitler was an evil man' cannot be subject to debate by rational persons. Yet, while obvious, there seems no way to 'prove' this statement so as to remove it from the realm of the 'subjective' or 'relative.' Nazis and neo-Nazis (and certain Muslims) would deny that Hitler was 'evil.'

Accordingly, one possible way out of the debate regarding whether moral propositions are objective/subjective, or absolute/relative, is to view them as we do geometric theorems. In other words, they are 'absolutely' true (not subject to debate), if we accept the truth of certain underlying assumptions. So, I would consider morality as 'subjective,' like geometry, in that it has no existence apart from the humanlike mind, but it is 'absolutely' true given a certain set of axioms. This is an outcome I could live with.

I am sure there is something wrong, probably horribly wrong, with this idea, but I would like your feedback. Thanks!

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There is something wrong with this idea. Firstly, 'absolutely true given a certain set of axioms' comes to the same thing as 'not absolutely true'. For something 'horribly wrong' we need to take a look at your axioms.

You make some interesting connections between geometry and morality, but the wrong ones. I would deny your contentions a) that 'geometry... has no existence apart from the humanlike mind', and b) that geometry is 'a deductive system whose conclusions depend for their validity on the truth of certain specified axioms or postulates'. True, the history of thought about the measurement of shapes and angles contains 'a deductive system whose conclusions depend for their validity on the truth of certain specified axioms or postulates' — and you will be thinking of Euclid here. But in attributing this systematic axiomatic nature to geometry itself you confuse thoughts with what the thoughts claim to be about (there is a continuing tradition of this sort of confusion in the philosophy of mathematics, so you are hardly alone here).

Obviously, if you confuse geometry and geometrical thought, your conclusion that 'geometry... has no existence apart from the humanlike mind' immediately follows. Quite unsurprising, this is, that thoughts only exist in minds. But I should draw your attention to the ways in which the relationships between shapes and angles are not thoughts. That the internal angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees is, I say, an important fact about the world, something depended on by joiners and roofers. Where a joiner makes a mistake, that is where geometry obstructs his will, the geometry cannot be unthought or unassumed, as a mere thought may be unthought or unassumed. In this characteristic geometry is not itself simply a system of assumed axioms. It is rather how the world is, which may be described axiomatically. There is an important difference, here, between being describable systematically, and being just a system of description. You overlook this.

Plato, taking up the opposite point of view to your own, took it that in studying mathematics and geometry we were confronted with something wholly outside our will. This he thought to be beneficial, morally, in training young minds to a state where they are able to entertain the idea of a reality outside of themselves — and a less dangerous method than that of falling in love. Other areas of study, particularly Rhetoric (poetry, politics, etc) were morally dangerous in that they allowed, indeed facilitated, a practically unlimited arena for all kinds of self-indulgence and fantasy. But if you want to build a house, you do have to know about shapes and angles.

I think Plato has something here you might attend to. Geometry isn't a 'system' but, which is an entirely different thing, an encounter with realities which we may, in this case, picture systematically. The parallel to be drawn between geometry and morality is not that morality is also a 'system' of axioms which may be rejected as the wrong axioms (which the Nazis did, adopting axioms of their own). Rather, in Geometry we encounter realities beyond ourselves which are important and valuable precisely because they are beyond ourselves, much as we do in Morality. Half the struggle is to understand that things other than those which conspire to meet our immediate demands are real and good. This truth is taught in geometry, and rather valuable in our dealings with other people.

David Robjant


(24) Philip asked:

Is it possible to be a Christian and a Philosopher?

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Why should it not be possible?! Christian doctrine can be, and in fact is by some, regarded as a branch of philosophy. The major concerns of Christianity, including God, truth, morals, ethics, creation, life and death, love and hatred, are very much the basic concerns of philosophy.

Some of the most famous philosophers were Christian, including Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham; they argued the case for Christianity from a strong philosophical and logical base. The British empirical idealist, George Berkeley, was a Bishop who saw the necessity for the presence of God in every aspect of our lives.

I would have been less surprised to find your question asking whether it was possible to be a Christian and a scientist; though taking science as a branch of philosophy the answer would be the same, many scientists are Christians. When we reach the ultimate in thought many resort to seeking answers within the confines of religious knowledge.

John Brandon


(25) Isaac asked:

What is the purpose of human existence?

Why do we exist? or what role do we play the universe?

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What you want, and everyone else who asks this question, is to be told what to do. Why? Suppose you were a god... pick a god, any god... Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Krishna... the list goes on and on (or you can pick superior aliens from dimension K, if you want). Ok? Now, there you are, a god (or whatever)... and you're sitting out there in nothingness, or on a mountain, or in dimension K, and... guess what you're asking yourself? Yes, you guessed it: 'why do I exist?', and: 'what role do I (and the other gods, if you've picked a polytheism like Hinduism) play in the universe?'. Well, gee gosh, it's whatever role you want to play isn't it. And, similarly, you and I are in just the same position. Unless a god holds a gun (which is what the various hells are, aren't they) to our heads, forcing us to play its game, or unless this god (or gods, or superior aliens) can really demonstrate to us that a) it's out there, and b) it's got better answers than we do... well, then, we're all in the same boat, aren't we.

Well. As for the demonstration it's out there... right now we've got at least 5 or 6 major (and lots of minor — in terms of number of believers) religions all claiming to have the ultimate answer to that, and all having different answers. And that's not considering the history of religions. After all, if you are, say, a Christian, you'd have to claim that even if all Christians were dead, the religion expunged from the books, and all memory of it lost (as has no doubt happened with many religions), it still was the one, true, faith, right? So, given that, we're left with all possible religions as candidates for the 'true' religion, from the dawn of time until whenever, no matter how many, or how few, have believed in them. Have fun with that one...

As for having better answers, oh, right. Just go read a newspaper. Or a history book, to see how religions have worked. The only one that barely manages to pass that test, as far as I know, are some few variants of Buddhism, and maybe Jainism...

Look here:

Harris, S. The End of Faith. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third ed. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1951.

Barrett, J.L., R.A. Richert, and A. Driesenga. 'God's Beliefs Versus Mother's: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts.' Child Development 72, no. 1 (2001): 50-65.

Lawson, E.T., and R.N. McCauley. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Blanke, O., and S. Arzy. 'The Out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction.' The Neuroscientist 11, no. 1 (2005): 16-24.

Koestler, A. The Lotus and the Robot. London, England: Hutchinson, 1966.

Steven Ravett Brown


(26) Vid asked:

This question is about existence:

1. What is the difference between existence and truth?

2. One of our old epics says of the definition of soul 'Nonexistence of existence is nonexistence' How to interpret its meaning?

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Simply put, the difference between 'existence' and 'truth' is that one is a predicate of ontology, while the other is a predicate of epistemology.

Ontology is that branch of philosophy that ponders the question of what there is. Obviously, there are many different manners in which thing can 'exist'. My Chevy Cavalier out there in the drive way exists in a world of physical objects. Unicorns exist in a world of conceptual constructs. Sherlock Holmes exists in a world of fictional characters. And so forth. In each 'universe of discourse', for something to exist is to possess other predicable qualities relevant to that universe of discourse. To say that something does not exist in some particular universe of discourse, is to say that its predicable qualities belong to some other universe of discourse. Hence, unicorns and Sherlock Holmes do not exist in the world of physical objects. And I do not exist in the world of fictional characters (I hope!). Interestingly, you cannot say of something that it does not exist 'absolutely'. For something to be named or otherwise identified, it must exist at least in the world of concepts — it must have predicable qualities relevant to conceptual ideas — in order for you to contemplate its possible non existence. To posit that something exists (or does not exist), therefore, is it posit that it has (or does not have) predicable qualities in some particular universe of discourse. With this brief introduction, I will leave to the student the challenge of interpreting your old epic.

Epistemology, on the other hand, is that branch of philosophy that ponders the question of the nature of knowledge. Part of that realm of inquiry is the question of the nature of truth. 'Truth' is generally accepted as a predicate of propositions, sentences, or utterances. Personally, I prefer the application of 'truth' to propositions. But other philosophers have proposed many different kinds of 'truth bearers'. All of which, however, are seen as different forms by which we predicate a quality of something. Truth, therefore, is a predicate that belongs to a particular universe of discourse. And within that particular universe there must exist entities (such as propositions) of which truth can be predicated.

Stuart Burns


(27) Fliss asked:

What, if anything, is wrong with the criminal law enforcing morality? Should the State intervene in our lives to prevent or limit individual choices that might make us sick, injure us, or even kill us? Where does the so-called harm principle come into the debate?

And sara asked:

Should the law interrupt acts of private immorality (such as homosexuality)? Do these acts actually do any harm to society?

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It is difficult to provide a simple and straight forward answer to this question because any answer that might be attempted depends on so many underlying premises. In particular, how you might approach an answer would depend intimately on what your underlying assumptions are about the nature of 'morality'. Applying your fundamental moral premises to the role of the state also depends intimately on how you conceive of the role of the state.

For example, 'collectivists' maintain a utilitarian concept of morality that stipulates that the guiding principle of morality is 'the greatest good/utility for the greatest number'. And they view the state as the means for determining just what that is. Therefore, to a collectivist, it makes perfect sense for the state to employ the criminal law to enforce morality, and to intervene as necessary in the lives of individuals. After all, the reasoning goes, any individual behaviour that might fall afoul of these actions of the state would not achieve 'the greatest good for the greatest number'.

As another example, religious fundamentalists maintain a concept of morality that views moral rules as absolutes, and any transgression as morally abhorrent, more or less regardless of circumstances. To a religious fundamentalist, therefore, it also makes sense for the state to employ the criminal law to enforce morality, and intervene as necessary in the lives of individuals. After all, the reasoning goes, any individual behaviour that might fall afoul of these actions of the state would not be consistent with the moral dictates of God.

In comparison with these popular justifications for state paternalism, is the position of the 'individualist'. Individualists view morality as relative to the circumstances or situations of the agents involved. With such a view of morality, the morally correct thing to do can never be considered independently of the particular circumstances of a particular agent. Because moral decisions are necessarily agent specific, individualism also implies a much stronger emphasis on personal responsibility. To an individualist, therefore, it is impossible for the state to establish general criteria with which to identify immoral or 'bad' behaviour.

On the other hand, even the individualist will admit that one of the roles of the state is to internalize economic externalities. In economics, consequences of human interactions that cannot be quantified and included in trade negotiations are called 'economic externalities'. If you want to build a house, for example, you can negotiate to buy the land, labour, and materials. But you cannot negotiate with your neighbours over the interference you plan on putting into their view of the landscape. Unless you have a state play the role of 'zoning board' to enforce certain rules about how you interfere with your neighbours view. There are similar considerations with individual choices that might make us sick, injure us, or even kill us. Each such choice will likely have 'economic externalities' — consequences to other people that they would like to influence. For example, it would be in my own best interest to pay you not to catch the avian flu virus and bring it back to my locale. Since it is organizationally impossible for all those who feel as I do to negotiate personally with you over your behaviour, we arrange that the state enact the necessary limitations on your behaviour. The state then becomes our 'union negotiator' — enacting 'work rules' that we collectively find in our own best interests. At least, that is the individualist view of the role of the state in limiting individual choices. You'll notice that the 'harm principle' only comes into the debate when the role of the state is viewed from the individualist perspective.

The attitude of most people in the 'Anglo-American' world these days is a rather confused amalgam of 'religious fundamentalism' and 'individualism'. On the one hand, our liberal democratic civilizations were born on the ideas of John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the English Individualists. On the other hand, the moral attitude of the collectivists (socialists and communists) and religious fundamentalists has dominated the Twentieth Century.

Stuart Burns


(28) Nawid asked:

What is 'empiriocriticism' and why it is called so?

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'Empiriocriticism' is a long word (that no one uses anymore) that refers to a fairly simple idea. In the nineteenth Century, two philosophers named their philosophy 'empiriocriticism': Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. Empiriocriticism states that science is nothing but a description of facts; 'facts' are really sensations.

Imagine I want to communicate the idea of gravity to you. There are two ways: I could present you with data from objects dropped from every place (height) on earth, or I could tell you Newton's formulas for falling bodies. Both would tell you the same thing: what happens when you drop an item at a specific height. Mach says the only reason we prefer Newton's formulas is because they are much more economical. We only have to know one equation rather than have computers filled with data.

Now here is where the bickering starts. Many people do not believe that a complete list of facts constitutes 'real' science. 'Real' science involves explaining why things act the way they do. A list of data is not the same as Newton's formulas, which explain gravity. Thus, Newton's formulas are superior in two ways: it explains the phenomena around us, and it is economical. However, the empiriocriticist would respond that (s)he doesn't think scientific laws and theories (as opposed to data) should or can contain metaphysics.

Eric Zwickler


(29) Caitlyn asked:

In Nietzsche's essay, 'Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense', Nietzsche says that humans simulate a world where they are the center of all things out of vanity, arrogance, and self-preservation.

This could be so. It could be so that mankind is so greedy and self-centered and more important to himself than anything else. Nietzsche questions that if men are so greedy and selfish and are based around nothing but self preservation and self importance, then where does the desire and urge for truth come from? How can such a greedy selfish being desire for an ultimate good such as truth? Are humans seeking truth because they long to become such good?

This leads me to the ultimate question: How and why do we desire for truth? Truth is such a universal idea and good, and it seems as if all philosophers put truth as their first and foremost value. It appears to me that philosophers search for truth and develop rational ways of thinking to find truth, but they rarely question how and why they seek truth. It makes sense that if one understands the purpose for something and how he or she will meet that purpose, then the purpose if better met, and the objective is better understood.

How and why do we desire for truth? Why do we seek truth that we know may never be fully attained?

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

One thing you pointed out is that philosophers have a desire and urge for truth. I think I would start here. Just because someone desires something 'good' doesn't mean (s)he has more control over his/her desires than someone who desire something bad. Also the desire for the Good has nothing to do with the desire to be good. Well, it depends who you ask, but you asked me. Just realize that they are referring to different things.

Finally, why do we seek truth that may never be attained? If you think of it in terms of desire again it might be helpful. There is this phenomenon called the desire paradox that states that once you obtain what you desire you don't desire it anymore, and that will bring unhappiness. Perhaps the search for Truth is the philosopher's opiate.

Eric Zwickler


(30) Derek asked:

'All that look at this picture will die!'

Is this statement true?

Can it be falsified?

If yes, then how?

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Assuming you're not religious or spiritual: The statement is true. It cannot be falsified.

Eric Zwickler


(31) Ian asked:

I think the nearest thing to Plato's Forms is Maths. It seems to me to be really 'out there' as a given pre-existent to the universe itself and not reducible to anything else. Would you agree?

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Absolutely. Most mathematicians believe that numbers actually exist, and most mathematicians who become philosophers become Platonists. G&oumml;del and Husserl are prime 20th century examples, and there are many more. For a radically dissenting view (with which I mostly agree), look at:

Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nunez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Nunez, R.E. 'Conceptual Metaphor and the Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics: Actual Infinity and Human Imagination.' In Metaphor and Contemporary Science, edited by B. Baaquie and P. Pang, 49-72. Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2003.

Steven Ravett Brown


(32) Chris asked:

I am studying William James Principles of Psychology, in particular the part on why humans do and other animals do not speak.

I am trying to make clear his argument of (1) what thoughts and desires are attributed to preverbal humans and (2) what thoughts and desires do animals lack?

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To the first question it seems to be a matter of signs the preverbal human attempts to learn. The child begins to attribute signs to certain things before fully understanding what they are, but as time goes on is able to learn what the sign entails.

Such as in the case of animals, children attribute signs to things they desire only thinking they want to satisfy their need not knowing what it is they are doing, but doing it for the sake of receiving.

James also talks about the need for humans to attribute a sign to everything and I think it applies for children some how from this reading.

To the second question there seems to be a difference in animals being okay with not attributing a sign to everything. Their signs only go as far as fulfilling a need and they learn the sign through repetition. If they can not fill a sign for a need James says that it is fine with them. I think that James is trying to say something about their mental capacity, but I am not completely sure.

Well, first, I'm not going to do your schoolwork for you. But this is an intriguing question, i.e., the difference between symbols and language in humans and other animals, and there are enormous debates about it in contemporary research. James comes up with a particular theory, which is incorrect. I think perhaps the following passage makes his point:

'Why, yelp and beg, in spite of all their unlikeness, are yet alike in this: that they are actions, signs, which lead to important boons. Other boons, any boons, may then be got by other signs!' This reflection made, the gulf is passed. Animals probably never make it, because the bond of similarity is not delicate enough.' (p. 551). And the bottom of that page pretty much restates this.

Unfortunately, James predated virtually all of the research done on language and its structure and origins. A difference in 'delicacy' between 'bonds of similarity' just isn't sufficient to explain the differences between how most animals and humans deal with language and symbols. I'm afraid you'll need, basically, at least 5 years of study in this field to even begin to really grapple with the issues here. If you really, really, want to get involved in this morass, you could take a look at the following books. The one by Bickerton is most directly related to your question; the one by Grandin is easier to understand. Bickerton comes to the issue with a particular viewpoint with which I have some problems, but nonetheless it's a very nice book.

Bickerton, D. Language and Species. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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

Steven Ravett Brown


(33) Paul asked:

Primal selection = the 'just naturally so' result of interaction between force and the nonorganic. The shape of clouds, solar systems.

Natural selection = Darwin's shoulders.

Intelligent selection = The Sound positive outward application of human intelligence.

The single chain of evolution as with biological evolution lacks direction. It is only when you ask the question of how you came to exist do you see the positive chain of cause and effect and the overriding movement from basic to complex. By observing this movement one is forced look where the cutting edge of each phase lies.

Primordial evolution = our solar system.

Biological evolution = intelligent life.

Intelligent evolution? One can only measure from minimum to maximum when broaching the question of intelligent evolution's maxim. Given an eternity one may choose to see God.

Clearly those who understand only biological evolution are not playing with a full deck.Would you say?

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First, let's define our terms, ok? What does 'selection' mean? Well, roughly, it means that there are, as far as we can tell, alternatives, different paths that a system might take in situations that are as identical as we can make or observe them. Otherwise there's nothing to 'select', there is just a straight linear causal path, right?

1) So what you're calling 'primal selection' doesn't exist. Those are processes equivalent to billiard balls hitting each other. When billiard balls hit each other, is something being 'selected'? No, there's just a straight causal path.

2) No, you're wrong about this lacking direction. Darwinian selection does not happen randomly. There are two independent dynamics in Darwinian selection, one mostly random: genetic mutation or alteration. The other: environmental selection, is not random because organisms do not exist in random environments, and so they are selected to match their particular environment. This dual factor is what most people naive about Darwinism neglect, thinking that purely random processes couldn't possibly have given rise to organisms. Of course they couldn't have, in any conceivable length of time. But the processes aren't purely random. Organisms are selected to survive in environments resulting from the first set of processes above, which are themselves not random, since they're the direct working-out of physical dynamics.

3) Um... what? You mean the putative results of future genetic engineering? Yes, hopefully we'll use that wisely rather than breeding soldiers and workers (haha, right, history is really with us on that one...).

Steven Ravett Brown


(34) Joshua asked:

This (set of) question(s) is addressed to Dr. Steven Ravett Brown (if that is permissible) as a follow up question to the answer that you offered regarding whether a 'higher purpose' as described in virtue ethics is a basis for making decisions on Answers page 33.

If I understood correctly, your answer was that the teleological approach of virtue ethics merely pushes up the answer to our most important questions in life to a higher being that might be called 'God.' Perhaps, this might be interpreted as shifting away responsibility from ourselves as human beings.

My question is as follows: Is it possible for human beings to survive without consideration of the universal significance of what we encounter in momentary circumstances of our daily lives?

Surely regarding ourselves as human beings as parts of a complex and interrelated universal entity must be considered in order for our decisions to be (a) meaningful or (b) objectively good, rather than only from a subjective standpoint?

Then: Does this necessarily entail a theological God of any sort?

Is this not the basis for human rights without referring to God?

In other words, can a selfish decision ever in fact be a correct one?

One last point on this topic: MacIntyre wrote his theory of virtue ethics in reference mainly to Aristotle. Yet, there is a tradition going back through Spinoza, the Stoics and the Platonists of a harmony in the universe with which our lives must correspond if we are to live as reasonable and serene human beings. The empirical philosophers dismissed this and Kant regarded this as unknowable. Yet have we not become diminished as human beings as we increasingly have come to regard the world as instrumental to our purposes without regarding it as necessary to understand substantively and live in harmony with the world and our fellow human beings? For example, how is it possible to tackle the problem of the environment without understanding our integral relationship to the environment?

I am genuinely interested in your response and I apologize in advance if the questions seem in any way rhetorical. Though, i do hope that the questions are in some way challenging.

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1) That's right; that's how I interpret it.

2) Belief in a god and 'consideration of universal significance' are not the same thing. Think about it this way. In order to follow some religion, to accept some particular religion as being true, you have to a) reject all other religions as false, and b) have some justification for accepting the one you do. Now, most people do that merely because from childhood they've been what amounts to brainwashed to believe in the particular religion their particular subculture follows. Some people, attempting to go a bit further, embrace some other religion in the more general culture around them... and there are varying degrees of generalization, abstraction, and/or rebellion which can follow that. But none of these involve really stepping back and asking where all that comes from, what justifies any of it, and what purpose(s) it serves, in the broadest context.

You are asking about the purpose of religion in terms of the fairly classical existentialist stance taken in the early and middle 20th century; there's a great deal of literature on that stance, if you want to pursue it. My point of view is more general yet: where does religion come from, considered as a phenomenon within the whole sweep of human history and psychology and anthropology? How can that question even be investigated? Clearly it cannot be investigated solely within the purview only of any particular religion, or of comparative religion, or even within philosophy generally. It must be investigated as a phenomenon characteristic of humanity, in as broad a context as we are able. And further, what does 'investigate' mean? It cannot mean merely speculating, based on the speculations of others, ad infinitum, back to the speculations of the Greeks or further. This must be grounded in the nearest to real truth we can actually find: consensually validated data, i.e., inferences and observations which have been made as precise, and checked multiply, by investigators who are NOT invested in particular results. How do we do this? By following the one track which has, up to this point, enabled us to discover and infer that kind of truth: empirical investigation. Now, it's certainly possible to criticize that latter on various grounds, and there's been lots of that. Fine. But it remains, still, the best avenue we have, for reasons I won't go into further... see the readings below.

To regard ourselves as 'parts of... a universal' implies that we know something about what a 'part' is, and what a 'universal' is. Further, you imply that the alternative is a 'subjective' standpoint. Well, we don't know what, or whether, there is a 'universal entity', aside from the obvious physical universe of which we're a part. Next, we don't know, even if we did know that there was a universal (by which I assume you mean a god of some sort), whether we should be a part of it. Or, if we are, whether we should break away, join, or dance a boogie with it. You see my point?

If the 'universal' you're talking about is the environment, then hey go for it. That's certainly something we can know truths about.

But you're missing one of my points. You contrast a 'subjective standpoint' with a 'meaningful' standpoint. Why? You implicitly contrast a 'non-universal' (subjective) standpoint with one derived from a 'theological God'. Why? What makes 'god's' standpoint less subjective than ours? God, or gods, are creatures, no matter how smart they are. No matter whether they created the physical universe. Their standpoint, from THEIR point of view, is subjective. That was my original point, in part. It's all relative. Why choose one subjectivity over another? Because the aliens are smarter than we are? Well... ok, but if you want to take on faith that they're smarter, more idealistic, have better goals which we can understand and be part of, you go buy their Brooklyn Bridge, march into their spaceship, or burn sacrifices on their altars, on the say-so of human beings who tell you what they're like... if that's what you want. I'll go look at them first, very carefully and closely, myself.

Look at these. I particularly recommend Harris as specifically relating to your questions above, and the Kitcher on empiricism.

Alper, M. The 'God' Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. Brooklyn, NY: Rogue Press, 2001.

Azari, N.P., J. Nickel, G. Wunderlich, M. Niedeggen, H. Hefter, L. Tellmann, H. Herzog, P. Stoerig, D. Birnbacher, and R.J. Seitz. 'Neural Correlates of Religious Experience.' European Journal of Neuroscience 13 (2001): 1649-52.

Barrett, J.L., R.A. Richert, and A. Driesenga. 'God's Beliefs Versus Mother's: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts.' Child Development 72, no. 1 (2001): 50-65.

Blanke, O., and S. Arzy. 'The out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction.' The Neuroscientist 11, no. 1 (2005): 16-24.

Dupre, L. Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection: Excursions in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by W.R. Trask, The Cloister Library. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1961.

Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third ed. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1951.

Harris, S. The End of Faith. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Kitcher, P. The Advancement of Science; Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Koestler, A. The Lotus and the Robot. London, England: Hutchinson, 1966.

Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1996.

and these:

Blasi, A. 'Bridging Moral Cognition and Moral Action: A Critical Review of the Literature.' Psychological Bulletin 88, no. 1 (1980): 1-45.

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

------. 'Emotions and Moral Motivation.' Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 29, no. 1 (1999): 1-19.

Doebeli, M., C. Hauert, and T. Killinback. 'The Evolutionary Origin of Cooperators and Defectors.' Science 306 (2004): 859-62.

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., S. Bowles, R. Boyd, and E. Fehr. 'Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans.' Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003): 153-72.

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

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

Haselhuhn, M.P., and B.A. Mellers. 'Emotions and Cooperation in Economic Games.' Cognitive Brain Research 23 (2005): 24-33.

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

Rachels, J. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Solomon, R.C., and C.W. Martin. Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through Classical Sources. Fourth ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

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

Take a look at Blasi and Gintis, at least, for a broader outlook on morality.

Steven Ravett Brown


(35) Johnathan asked:

I have been devoting a lot of thought to a concept which I hope to provide as an argument against the concept that the laws governing our universe could not have arisen by chance alone or that it might have need for some supernatural instantiation of these laws (I have come across many 'non-thinkers' who have tried (unsuccessfully) to argue this as evidence for a divine creator).

The concept reads as follows...

If one experiences a reaction such as an apple falling from a tree (Newtons own little chunk of elaborate public misconception) one would expect it to follow certain set laws governing its decent toward the ground and indeed the very fact that it does so (either Newtons laws of gravitation or further complicated physics by Einstein and others). My argument attempts to explain

that these laws are merely offer a way for the human mind to understand via physics and mathematics how and why the apple might react in the way that it does, when dislodged from the tree. These laws do not however exist as describable entities but are based solely on our observations concerning such an event.

It follows that the laws do not exist at all (in a philosophical sense). All that they are intended as a prediction of what we can expect to happen (very precisely indeed) should such an event reoccur.

Basically I am trying to bring about a concept explaining that the laws governing our universe are not in fact 'governing' the universe, they are merely explaining how the universe operates based on observations leading to laws that accurately predict the outcomes of instances such as our conceptual apple.

The laws are not in fact existent but conceptual, they exist nowhere other than in the human mind (I feel the need to explain further, but I think you'll get the picture).

It follows that one cannot argue that these laws require some designer, one cannot even argue that they require any form of existence other than a metaphysical existence (metaphysics used as the term for the study of the nature of the universe).

I should very much appreciate your thoughts on the concept and any form of criticism that you feel should accompany these thoughts.

I would like to have some sort of rational and logical opinion concerning this concept, and perhaps some arguments that might render it falsifiable.

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Ok, physical laws don't exist, as such. I don't have any problem with that. But that still leaves physical properties, from which we infer the laws. If anything physical exists, then it has properties, right? Mass, momentum, relationships between mass and momentum, etc., etc.... ad nauseam. So if you don't want laws governing the universe, then you've got the results of the interactions of 'things', due to their 'properties'. Electrons repel each other because they have negative charges, and 'negative charge' is our term for a set of properties of the electron, which are... blah, blah, and which imply certain interactions... blah, blah. You see? So you haven't really gotten anywhere, except made a nice epistemological point. You can't argue pro or con about gods from this one, I'm afraid. Maybe Brahman instantiated physical things and their particular properties, maybe Jahweh did, and maybe they got together and hashed it out over breakfast... or maybe it's all chance (but that has problems also, if you think about it, and well, so do Brahman and Jahweh...)... there's no way to know some of those answers, and we don't know enough to even speculate, really.

I mean, hey, believe it or not, there are still things we don't know. Here's a nice one: there's something called the 'Pauli Exclusion Principle' (PEP, let's say). Named after Wolfgang Pauli, a now-dead physicist. Well, what he noticed was that the universe was made of electrons orbiting around protons (mostly), and, oddly enough, protons attract electrons. Think about it. What keeps them from falling in? Um... gee gosh, we don't know. And we call it the PEP, well, because... that's a nice label. So there's the universe, just sitting there, while it should actually have ended a long time ago in a big flash of gamma rays, as all the electrons fell into all the nuclei they were orbiting, after some very small fraction of a second. Whoops... so, hey, maybe a continuous thought in the mind of, say, Zeus, or Allah, is keeping them from falling in... or maybe not.

Steven Ravett Brown


(36) Steve asked:

I have been trying to figure out the various ways to assess an argument as having the form of modus ponens. I am having some difficulty distinguishing this from a constructive dilemma with a longer argument. In doing some exercises, I got stuck on this one:

Line 1 (If P then Q) amp; (If R then S)

Line 2 Q or S

Line 3, conclusion P or R.

The answer for this is modus ponens, but I don't understand how this could be, rather than a constructive dilemma. If this were MP, wouldn't the argument need to be: (If P then Q) amp; (If R then S); P or R; therefore Q or S ? Thank you!

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The argument: [(If P then Q) & (If R then S); Q or S; therefore P or R] is neither MP nor constructive dilemma; it is simply invalid. To give it a name, it might be called fallacy of affirmation of the consequent dilemma. Try testing it with a truth-table. Your improved version is valid, but it is not MP, it is constructive dilemma, which is in a sense, a double MP.

Helier Robinson


(37) Lyidia asked:

What is the importance of knowing the principle of non-contradiction?

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Its importance lies in the fact that it is a means of weeding out some of the false in any set of statements, since a contradiction cannot be true.

Helier Robinson


(38) Ian asked:

I think the nearest thing to Plato's Forms is Maths it seems to me to be really 'out there' as a given pre existent to the universe itself and not reducible to anything else. Would you agree?

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Yes, to both.

Helier Robinson


(39) Philip asked:

am i cool

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If you have to ask then no, you're not. Compare this with the statement: you are not a man until you no longer need to prove it.

Helier Robinson


(40) Godfred asked:

Can rationalism be plausibly epistemological universal?

Can you kindly explain the hyperbolical doubt for me.

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I don't know what you mean by 'plausibly epistemological universal.' Hyperbolical doubt is an exercise in doubting as much as you can in order to discover what cannot be doubted. It's like a sieve: everything dubitable goes through and what's left is indubitable. This quite different from sceptical doubt, which is simply disbelief

Helier Robinson


(41) Maggie asked:

What does the Principle of NonContradiction say?

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Aristotle, in his 'Metaphysics' Book (IV) Gamma 1005 b, he argues that there is a science that takes being as its genus (first philosophy), and that the principles of this science should be the first principles of all, therefore he identifies one of its first principles as the most certain of all principles, the principle of non-contradiction (PNC), which says:

'It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not belong simultaneously to the same thing in the same respect.'

This means that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect, e.g. the premises 'Socrates is a man' and 'Socrates is not a man' cannot be valid at the same time, one of these two must be false. This is not a hypothesis, therefore he does not attempt to prove it, since it presupposes all the other proofs. One must accept the PNC, according to Aristotle, otherwise when one thinks about something and asserts without accepting this, it would have been also possible to think, that he agrees with the contrary of it as well.

Nikolaos Bakalis


(42) Jason asked:

Was Anaxagoras a monist?

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According to Anaxagoras, everything in the universe consists of the 'homoeomerous, which are small things with like parts, infinite in number and their size is infinitely small. In his Cosmogony, he considers the rotational motion as the originating cause of the world, since through this rotation the homoeomerous come together, and as a result all the existing material forms come into being or perish. The whole rotation is controlled by 'Nous' or else 'Intellect' (mind) which is separated off, all alone by itself, self-ruled, infinite and not mixed with the homoeomerous.

Apart from 'homoeomerous' then, Anaxagoras introduces a second 'principle', which is the primary principle and originating cause of the rotation. This supernatural Being initiated the rotation, which separated off all the homoeomerous, and led to the cosmogony. The ability of 'Intellect' to control all things and their motion, is due to the fact that it is alone, unmixed, unmoved and unaffected. Although it is corporeal, owes its power to its purity and fineness. He defines two qualities of the 'Intellect', the knowledge and the motion, since it has all knowledge about everything and it can also initiate the motion, therefore it can control the coming to be, the passing away, and maintain the order in the universe.

With regard to the things where the 'Nous' is to be found, Anaxagoras considers that throughout the living beings is distributed discontinuously a part of the universal Intellect, therefore the man has the capability of knowledge, since he shares a portion of the Intellect within. Following those principles, we can say that Anaxagoras is a Dualist (dualism of matter in the form of homoeomerous, and pure Intellect).

Nikolaos Bakalis


(43) Adam asked:

Einstein said that the closer you accelerate to the speed of light your relative time slows down. my altered idea is that if object A and object B begin at the same speed, whatever speed it may be, if object b accelerates its relative time is slower than object a. now a jump: the basic definition of travel is to move from one point to another, willing, by choice or not. So we are all traveling in time, but we all move at basically the same the rate. So, with the idea that if you move at a much higher rate, at a controlled speed relative to object A (for my example the speed of earth), you are in fact time travelling at a controlled rate by accelerating and decelerating to slow or fasten your relative speed to earth. So doesn't this say time travel is possible, but only in a one way direction using this single idea? Did Einstein not give the basis for a simple time travel method?

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First: there is no difference between constant speed and 'no' speed. Velocity is relative to the observer. That's what 'relativity' means. So of course if one object accelerates relative to another, whatever their initial speed, that accelerating object (B), relative to the other (A), will be observed (by A) as experiencing slowed time. But B won't experience that; B will see everything else as speeding up.

Second: we are not traveling in time. 'Movement', or 'travel', or 'velocity', is a change in distance over a time interval. How then can anything move 'in' time, since it is time which establishes movement? Think about it. To 'travel in time' would imply that there was another time dimension outside of our time dimension, and that we used that second one to establish movement in the first one. And on, and on, and...

Third: yes. When you get back to earth, after accelerating to a distant star, then decelerating, turning around, accelerating, decelerating... you will not have aged as much as the people you left behind. There is an absolutely enormous literature in science fiction based on this. I can't even tell you where to start if you want to read it, it's so large.

Fourth: as for this being 'time travel'... well. The same thing would happen if you went into hibernation or were frozen for, say, a decade, and awoken unchanged while the rest of the world had aged 10 years. If you want to call that time travel, fine. But it's not the usual meaning of the word.

If you've thought of this on your own, congratulations; you've done well. Now go do some more reading: read some sci-fi, and learn math. You can't really learn this stuff without math.

Steven Ravett Brown


(44) Cristopher asked:

One last question, a question that bothers me all the time, Is this reality? Are all the things we see is true or just merely illusion of what our eyes see?

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Are we butterflies dreaming that we're people, or people wondering if we're really butterflies? An old question. Or maybe we're brains in vats, with the world being fed directly into our cortexes by machines using our bodies' electricity for power... you did see the movie, didn't you?

Steven Ravett Brown


(45) Jay asked:

Two related questions, please.

1. Is it possible to justify (philosophically speaking) the act of giving, say, 1,000 for the lifesaving medical treatment of a child you know, if that 1,000 could save the lives of hundreds of children you've never met in a poorer country?

2. What books/ articles are the must reads in order to have a well rounded understanding of applied ethics?

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1) Yes. It's possible to justify anything. The question is, how to determine whether your justification is correct.

2) I don't know about 'must reads' (aside from Apostle's translation of Aristotle, below), but here are a few, a very few, readings:

Introductions:

Solomon, R.C., and C.W. Martin. Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through Classical Sources. Fourth ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

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

Others:

Apostle, H. G. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Grinnell, IA: The Peripatetic Press, 1984.

Beauchamp, T.L., and J.F. Childress. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Blasi, A. 'Bridging Moral Cognition and Moral Action: A Critical Review of the Literature.' Psychological Bulletin 88, no. 1 (1980): 1-45. ------. 'Kohlberg's Theory and Moral Motivation.' New Directions for Child Development 47 (1990): 51-57.

BonJour, L. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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

De Neys, W. 'Dual Processing in Reasoning: Two Systems but One Reasoner.' Psychological Science 17, no. 5 (2006): 428-33.

Dewey, J. Human Nature and Conduct, 1922. Edited by J. A. Boydston. 2nd ed. Vol. 14, The Middle Works of John Dewey: 1899-1924, Volume 14. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Doebeli, M., C. Hauert, and T. Killinback. 'The Evolutionary Origin of Cooperators and Defectors.' Science 306 (2004): 859-62.

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.

Greenspan, P. 'Emotions, Rationality, and Mind/Body.' Philosophy 52, no. Supp (2003): 113-25.

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.

Haselhuhn, M.P., and B.A. Mellers. 'Emotions and Cooperation in Economic Games.' Cognitive Brain Research 23 (2005): 24-33.

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.

Mele, A.R. 'Is Akratic Action Unfree?' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 46, no. 4 (1986): 673-79.

Nussbaum, M. C. 'Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach.' edited by P. A. French, T. E. Jr. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein, 32-53. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Piaget, J. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Translated by M. Cabain. New York: Free Press, 1997.

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

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and M. Timmons. Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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.

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

That should keep you busy for a while.

Steven Ravett Brown


(46) Christophe asked:

Can intersubjectivity exist for living elements having no self-consciousness nor phenomenal consciousness?

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No. Phenomenal consciousness is subjectivity... more or less (actually I'd say that the latter implies the former but not vice versa). Do bacteria have intersubjectivity? Um... are you really seriously asking this?

Steven Ravett Brown


(47) Zak asked:

Someone give me a convincing argument against the reasoning that humans have 'free will'. I've heard the argument that if you could calculate everything at a certain moment you could predict the future. But that doesn't mean we don't have free will, it just means we can predict the future. I think that a lot of philosophers take the 'everything has been determined' standpoint because they are pretentious.

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Much of the free will debate focuses on whether or not free will is compatible with determinism — which states that the past determines the future, in the sense that at any instant exactly one future is physically possible. A good argument for why the two can't be compatible is given by Peter Van Inwagen (Van Inwagen, P. 1983. An Essay on Free Will, New York. Oxford: University Press), who claims that:

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us. (1983, p.16)

You should check it out but basically the argument (known as the Consequence Argument) goes as follows:

Say a man (Mr X) is walking through a park, when a suddenly a football rolls into his path. Looking around he spots a group of nearby teenagers making signs for him to kick it back. After a short moment of deliberation, Mr X decides against kicking the ball back, steps over it, and continues on his way.

According to Van Inwagen, if determinism is true then Mr X could not have done anything other than what he actually did, and thus has no free will. His reasoning is as follows.

I'll use the following symbols:

'X' will indicate Mr X. 'T' will indicate the time at which Mr X refrained from returning the ball 'P(o)' will indicate a proposition that expresses the state of the world at some instant prior to Mr X's birth (basically means the physical make up of the world at a particular point in time — position of every atom etc). 'P' will indicate a proposition that express the state of the world at T (again — position/ speed/ trajectory of all atoms/ quarks whatever). 'L' will indicate the conjunction of the laws of nature.

Van Inwagen's argument basically goes:

(1) If determinism is true, then the conjunction of P(o) and L entails P.

(2). It is not possible that X have kicked the ball back at T and P be true.

(3) If (2) is true, then if X could have kicked the ball back at T, X could have rendered P false.

(4) If X could have rendered P false, and if the conjunction of P(o) and L entails P, then X could have rendered the conjunction of P(o) and L false.

(5) If X could have rendered the conjunction of P(o) and L false, then X could have rendered either L or P(o) false, or both.

(6) X could not have rendered L false.

(7) X could not have rendered P(o) false.

(8) If determinism is true, X could not have kicked the ball back at T.

That Mr X did not kick back the ball at T, means the conjunction of the state of the world at some point prior to Mr X's birth and the laws of nature entailed that the world at T was in such a state as to ensure that Mr X was not able to do anything but not kick back the ball. Thus, for him to have returned the ball, would have required him to defy this state; either by changing the state of the world prior to his birth, or altering the laws of nature. It is clearly not possible for Mr X to affect anything that happened before he was born, and by definition it is not possible for him to have altered a law of nature so, if determinism is true, he could not have kicked back the ball at T — so does not have free will.

Samuel Michaelides


(48) Geoff asked:

What does Husserl mean when he says that all being is 'constituted in consciousness', or when he claims that 'the existence of nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness, since nature itself turns out be a correlate of consciousness'? It seems to me that this is either blatantly false or utterly trivial: EITHER he means that our concepts of nature are necessarily correlated with (and thus 'constituted' in terms of) our means of conceptualization (in which case it's platitudinous, if not tautological); OR he means that nature itself does not exist without consciousness (which is false: consciousness, if there is any such thing, is a very recent product of evolution). Can anything be said in favour of Husserl's position, or is he simply making the elementary error of confusing our concepts of things with the things themselves? Since he is often rated as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, I find it hard to believe the latter, but then what can be said in his defence? After all, the idea that all being is 'of essential necessity' something 'constituted in consciousness' is the very core of his transcendental phenomenology. But in what sense are (say) black holes, the Big Bang or, for that matter, insects, haircuts or digestive systems something 'constituted in consciousness'?

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Yes, um, well... it's like this. There have been a lot of mathematicians turned philosopher throughout history, Husserl among them. The thing about mathematicians is, that they are all (as far as I know) Platonists. That is, they think that numbers are real entities, like Platonic Ideals. It's a reasonably logical thought, until you start thinking about things like the N-body problem and how math can't solve it (And please, people out there, don't tell me that we can 'approximate' it — yes we can. But we can solve the 2-body problem. Period. Doesn't this make anyone think that maybe, just maybe, there's a problem with our conception of mathematics itself? What about nonlinear recursive systems? When you start thinking that math is a result of our human cognitive processes and perceptions, then Platonism of that sort becomes a bit more problematic. Or so I hold, and a few others — see below.), and other problems. At any rate, the result is that we have people from Pythagoras through Leibniz, and on and on through Husserl, and now Penrose and Wolfram, thinking that if we just apply the right kind of mathematical thinking to reality, hey, we're done.

Ok, enough of that rant. But the interesting thing about Husserl was that he actually had moments when he doubted this, recanted Platonism and the kind of thinking you're criticizing (quite rightly, in my opinion) above. So he goes back and forth, and Husserl scholars will be scornful of you if you say he was a Platonist. In his saner moments he was an Aristotelian, sort of... in a strange backwards kind of way. So one way to read 'constituted' is very similar to the way cognitive scientists read it: in a sense similar to Kant, where we restructure and add to and subtract from what we get from 'out there' in order to make a coherent picture of it. Husserl, though, would have us say that while this is true, you can't investigate that restructuring except through introspection, because empirical science itself ultimately relies on a viewpoint which is itself a restructuring, which only phenomenology can investigate, since science is unconscious of it, and phenomenology isn't. Well, that's pure garbage nowadays, but a reasonably accurate estimation of the psychological science of Husserl's day. So you have to read Husserl in the context of his time, or he becomes even worse. As to what's left aside from a bit of philosophical history after you get past all that... I think that Husserl did some wonderful analyses of our mental life, particularly his analysis of time-consciousness, for example.

You might look at these. I particularly recommend Levin, Mirvish and Piaget on the Husserl, and Nunez on math:

Belousek, D. W. 'Husserl on Scientific Method and Conceptual Change: A Realist Appraisal.' Synthese 115, no. 1 (1998): 71-98.

Brown, S.R. Structural Phenomenology: An Empirically-Based Model of Consciousness. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2005.

D'Amico, R. 'Husserl on the Foundational Structures of Natural and Cultural Sciences.' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 42 (1981): 5-22.

Gurwitsch, A. The Field of Consciousness. Edited by A. van Kaam, Duquesne Studies: Psychological Series. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1964.

Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nunez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Levin, D. M. Reason and Evidence in Husserl's Phenomenology. Edited by J. Wild, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Marbach, E. 'Two Directions of Epistemology: Husserl and Piaget.' Revue Internationale de Philosophie 36 (1982): 435-69.

Mirvish, A. 'The Presuppositions of Husserl's Presuppositionless Philosophy.' Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 26, no. 2 (1995): 147-70.

Nunez, R.E. 'Conceptual Metaphor and the Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics: Actual Infinity and Human Imagination.' In Metaphor and Contemporary Science, edited by B. Baaquie and P. Pang, 49-72. Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2003.

Petitot, J., F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy. Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Edited by T. Lenoir and H. U. Gumbrecht, Writing Science. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Piaget, J. Insights and Illusions of Philosophy. Translated by W. Mays. New York, NY: The World Publishing Co., 1971.

Sokolowski, R. 'Husserl and Frege.' The Journal of Philosophy 84, no. 10 (1987): 521-28.

Toadvine, T. 'Naturalizing Phenomenology.' Philosophy Today 43, Supplement (1999): 124-31. ------. 'Phenomenological Method in Merleau-Ponty's Critique of Gurwitsch.' Husserl Studies 17, no. 3 (2001): 195-205.

Zahavi, D. 'Constitution and Ontology: Some Remarks on Husserl's Ontological Position in the Logical Investigations.' Husserl Studies 9 (1992): 111-24. ------. 'Beyond Realism and Idealism: Husserl's Late Concept of Constitution.' Danish Yearbook of Philosophy 29 (1994): 44-62.

Zaner, R. M. 'Examples and Possibles: A Criticism of Husserl's Theory of Free-Phantasy Variation.' Research in Phenomenology 3 (1973): 29-43. ------. 'The Art of Free Phantasy in Rigorous Phenomenological Science.' In Phenomenology: Continuation and Criticism: Essays in Honor of Dorion Cairns, edited by F. Kersten and R. M. Zaner, 192-219. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.

Steven Ravett Brown


(49) James asked:

If eyes had never evolved, would LIGHT still exist (or: be manifest)? By this I do not mean: would there still be electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of wavelengths (there would, of course). Rather, I mean: in the absence of eyes, would there still be brightness, luminance, illumination (i.e. what we ordinarily call 'light')?

I am aware, of course, that, according to physics, light simply IS electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of frequencies. However, does this mean that things are, so to speak, illuminated 'in themselves'? Or, contrariwise, is it the case that, in order to get what we ORDINARILY call 'light' (brightness, luminance etc., as opposed to Maxwell's equations), we must also take into account the way that electromagnetic waves excite our rods and cones etc.?

In other words, without eyes and, therefore, without VISIBILITY would the entire universe remain 'in the dark'? Does it indeed make any sense to speak of the universe being either 'dark' or 'illuminated' in the absence of vision and visibility? Or to speak more generally would there be any 'phenomena' (i.e. would anything be 'manifest'), without a subject or dative TO WHOM they appear/manifest themselves?

Any suggestions for reading on this issue especially scientifically informed literature would be greatly appreciated.

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However, does this matter? Does a tree falling unheard make a sound? Do we care? Ok, look. If you're asking whether there would be a consciousness of light: luminance or visibility, in the absence of consciousness, then by gosh the answer is no, isn't it; you've specified that at the beginning. If you're asking whether primitive organisms like plants or bacteria, which I will claim (for the sake of argument here; although I also think it's true) aren't conscious, would react to light, then hey, the answer is yes, isn't it. So now you have to decide what you're asking. If you're asking the last question above, which seems to imply a contradiction to me, then my answer would be that without a subject, i.e., without subjectivity, there's no sound if a tree falls in a forest, merely vibrations in the air. Think about it: the only way Berkeley got sound out of it was to postulate a god who couldn't help but be there all the time. As for readings... this isn't an issue I'm particularly interested in. There's always Bishop Berkeley, if you want the theistic viewpoint.

There's these:

Ghoneim, M.M., and R.I. Block. 'Learning and Consciousness During General Anesthesia.' Anesthesiology 76 (1992): 279-305.

Wilson, M. 'Six Views of Embodied Cognition.' Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9, no. 4 (2002): 625-36.

But I think they might be a bit off the subject.

Steven Ravett Brown


(50) Adam asked:

I'm tired of the ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for the existence of God. Are there any fresh arguments concerning God's existence?

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There are other arguments for the existence of God, but the ones you mentioned are the most popular. Many people have experienced god's presence via revelation. Revelation always seems to be the strongest proof to the person who experiences it, but it usually offers little proof to others.

I believe that the pragmatic argument for the existence of God is interesting and of all the arguments, it is the most convincing to me. It is attributed to William James. Here is my colloquial interpretation: Perhaps my life would be a lot better if I just believed. Since 99% of the world believes in God I would have a lot more friends. Think of all the networking potential I miss by not going to church (or temple, whatever). Since God's existence cannot be proven by rational argument (and I have never had a personal encounter with Him), if God's existence is useful to me, then I should believe in Him.

Eric Zwickler


(51) Alexander asked:

Is there a theory of the universe expanding due to there being a parameter of mass surrounding the known universe, insinuating that there is only open space in the middle of this infinite amount of mass? The idea is that the mass would provide enough density that it would have a pull strong enough to contract the universe to the inside wall causing our known universe to expand within the open space until we reach the inner wall.

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The short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: You're missing the point here. When physicists talk about 'the universe', they mean all of it. So 'mass surrounding the known universe' is either a contradiction or meaningless. Um... there's no 'wall' around the universe, known or unknown. Think about creatures living on the surface of a sphere... they're confined, but in an unbounded universe, right? Now make that sphere 4-dimensional (well, eleven, according to string theory... sort of) and you've got us.

Another version: Go look up 'dark matter'. You'll find it (as far as current knowledge goes) exerts a repulsive force on 'normal' (which isn't really all that normal, since lots of the universe seems to be the 'dark' kind) matter. So what happens if you mingle matter that attracts with more of another matter that repels?

'As the expansion of space carried matter farther apart, gravity became less effective at slowing the expansion. Meanwhile, dark energy--manifested as a self repulsion within the fabric of space itself-- grew dominant.' 20 JUNE 2003 VOL 300 SCIENCE, p. 1895

Steven Ravett Brown


(52) Diory asked:

I am inclined to think that logic is not the same as how foundationalists view knowledge a building with self-evident basic principles as its foundation. As I see it, foundationalism only provides a linear justification of principles of logic. I am more inclined to view logic as a coherent system just like how coherentists (coherence theory of justification) view knowledge. My view implies that logic isn't an axiomatic system and that its principles do not actually have hierarchy as in foundationalism (where self-evident axioms/ basic principles have paramount certainty than the others). I think of logic as a system where each principle is justified be each other in the whole system. However, I do not have that much knowledge in logic to defend such view. Are there theories similar to mine?

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Well, logic is an axiomatic system. But that's not the whole story by any means. Take a look here:

Quine, W. V. O. 'Main Trends in Recent Philosophy: Two Dogmas of Empiricism.' The Philosophical Review 60, no. 1 (1951): 20-43.

------. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1960.

and read about the 'indeterminacy of translation'. And of course there are innumerable commentaries on his thesis.

There's also: Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nunez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Steven Ravett Brown


(53) James asked:

If eyes had never evolved, would LIGHT still exist (or: be manifest)? By this I do not mean: would there still be electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of wavelengths (there would, of course). Rather, I mean: in the absence of eyes, would there still be brightness, luminance, illumination (i.e. what we ordinarily call 'light')?

I am aware, of course, that, according to physics, light simply IS electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of frequencies. However, does this mean that things are, so to speak, illuminated 'in themselves'? Or, contrariwise, is it the case that, in order to get what we ORDINARILY call 'light' (brightness, luminance etc., as opposed to Maxwell's equations), we must also take into account the way that electromagnetic waves excite our rods and cones etc.?

In other words, without eyes and, therefore, without VISIBILITY would the entire universe remain 'in the dark'? Does it indeed make any sense to speak of the universe being either 'dark' or 'illuminated' in the absence of vision and visibility? Or to speak more generally would there be any 'phenomena' (i.e. would anything be 'manifest'), without a subject or dative TO WHOM they appear/manifest themselves?

Any suggestions for reading on this issue especially scientifically informed literature would be greatly appreciated.

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'Light' has two meanings: electromagnetic radiation in the so called visible spectrum, and our personal experience of light, as given to us by our eyes — what you call brightness etc. But they are not the same thing: the first causes the second, and cause and effect are two, not one. Without eyes there would still be phenomena, via the other senses, but no visible phenomena. But you should think in personal terms: if you had no eyes, your would be dark; but other people's worlds would have light (if they had eyes). It can be very puzzling to think of a separate world for each person, but less so if you think of each world being an image of reality, rather than reality itself. You've already made the distinction in a way, by separating electromagnetic radiation from phenomenal brightness. You might try my book Belief Shock, available in electronic format from http://www.sharebooks.com.


(54) Mayra asked:

Explain why all S are P and No S are P are not contradictory, from the Square of opposition.

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All S are P (SaP) and No S are P (SeP) are called contraries because although they cannot both be true, they can both be false; whereas contradictories cannot both be true and also cannot both be false. For example, 'All people are women' and 'No people are women' are both false, while 'All women are people' is true and 'No women are people' is false.

Helier Robinson


(55) Moji Job asked:

My lecturer asked us the other day why do women now wear trousers? and why do men no longer fancy women? What do you have to say about this?

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The same thing I have to say to anyone who wants me to do their homework for them: what I have to say is irrelevant; go do your own homework.

Steven Ravett Brown