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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 4 (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 4/1.

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

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(1) Will asked:

I'm an ex-philosopher turned english (EFL) teacher. I have been trying to find some interesting philosophical texts that I could use with my students, but have failed to find anything suitable so far. Obviously the most important thing is clear and simple language, but containing interesting ideas (they are all intelligent post-grad students). I hope you can help! thanks.


One simple and clear language philosophical author would be Plato. Granted, in the 'middle' dialogues the layers of imagery take some handling, and in the 'later' dialogues some of the argument eludes even some scholars, but uniquely for a first rank philosopher nowhere in Plato is the language anything but clear and simple, and there's certainly nothing of his that fails to contain interesting ideas. Plato has some quasi-technical terms it must be admitted, but you's be hard put to find a philosopher with fewer. An objection, for your purposes, may be that Plato is not an english language philosopher. Well, since one would not object to teaching english with reference to the King James Bible (I hope), perhaps teaching english with reference to the Jowett translation of Plato may be equally possible, or there are other good translations. Try the Apology. Or Protagoras, Meno, Gorgias.

An alternative might be William James - it was said that his brother wrote novels as if they were philosophical texts, and that he wrote philosophical texts as if they were novels. William's sentences are better than Henry's, I'd venture. For the most part, and like Plato, James philosophises with the language as it is, unencumbered by any need to impress with technicality, and with references to forbears both clear and brief. But I find it harder to think of just one work that would fit the bill. There are some classic short essays to choose from, esp. in the Thayer edited collection helpfully called "Pragmatism: the classic writings". Let us plump for the section in "Principles of Psychology" called "The Stream of Thought". First sentence "Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up into bits."

David Robjant

(2) Ronie asked:

On Zeno's paradox, explain why it does not work?


Whether something works or not depends on what job it is intended to do. Well then, what job do you think the paradoxes are designed to do? And are you sure?

In the literature about this you may detect a disagreement between those who think that the point is to prove that there is no motion (or that the hare can't catch the tortoise), and those who think that the point is to prove that on certain false assumptions about what motion is there is no motion. Aristotle himself, the first commentator and the source of much of what we know about the paradoxes, is ambiguous on this point. Usually he talks as if the paradoxes are intended to prove that there is no motion (and we have only the word of Plato in the Parmenides to gainsay him). But occasionally he makes references to the assumptions that underlie the idea of motion which the paradoxes attack, eg, "this follows on the assumption that time is composed of 'nows'" etc

David Robjant

(3) Bryan asked:

After reading through the current answers section of this website I have noticed a trend toward agnosticism among nearly all of the respondents. It would seem to me that a belief in God supposes the intangible, which is therefore perceived by most high thinkers as illogical and therefore not a valid factor in any philosophical equation. Is agnosticism a prerequisite to being a logical thinker? I have to do something taboo and place an interesting Biblical reference here: 1 Corinthians 1:20.


Agnosticism is not "a prerequisite to being a logical thinker", as the large number of good Catholic philosophers attests, and you have a wrong idea of "logic" if you think that it has anything simple to say about whether there is or is not "the intangible".

You may be confusing "logic" with "logical positivism". Logical positivism is the view that meaningful statements either

(1) state empirical facts (ie in one way or another the tangible),


(2) state logical truths, ie truths about our way of speaking, truths constraining our statements of empirical facts, such as that 2+2=4

Accordingly if you are a logical positivist you aren't left much room for the intangible. Indeed one might say that the point of logical positivism is to exclude the intangible (although some have claimed to detect it in what these people end up saying, against their better judgement as it were, about language - these are murky waters).

But in any case, to be 'logical' is not to be a 'logical positivist', since to be 'logical' might simply mean to observe grammar and meaning in english as in maths, and the 'logical positivist' has philosophical theses beyond those observations.

Note that logical positivism is fantastically unpopular amongst academic philosophers today, and that in a tradition which begins with Plato and contains Bradley, philosophical thought can hardly be characterised as the organised persecution of the intangible. If you get a stink of logical positivism in these pages then either (a) you are getting the wrong end of the stick, or (b) the answers that grab your attention are unrepresentative, or (c) both of the above.

David Robjant

(4) Luke asked:

Do you think that everything that we see and all that exists (physical things and ideas) are just states of mind? Do you think that there really isn't good and bad, but only our ideas of good and bad, that is something is only bad if we believe it is, and that this only depends on our instincts of survival? And that our senses create the objects around us, because without senses nothing would exist as we couldn't see, think, feel, hear, smell or taste anything?



"Do you think that everything that we see and all that exists (physical things and ideas) are just states of mind?"

no, I don't. If one was to attempt to believe such a thing, one would take away the kind of contrast between what is mental and non-mental that gives the word 'mind' it's content, and thus end up believing something meaningless.


"Do you think that there really isn't good and bad, but only our ideas of good and bad, that is something is only bad if we believe it is,"

no, I don't. We cannot help seeing some things as good, and your talk of determining what is good by our 'ideas' and what we 'believe' introduces a picture of choice and will in the matter which is wholly inaccurate. You do this, presumably, because you think of concepts such as choice and will as somehow plainer than (and thus prior to) good. They are not.


"this only depends on our instincts of survival"

the compulsory aspect of the idea of an 'instinct' is in contradiction with the voluntary aspect of the idea of 'belief' in your earlier clause. And we have instincts, sure enough. Whether these are automatically instincts for survival is not at all clear. The darwinism you may be thinking of only holds that the DNA has a kind of ruthless directedness at survival (selfish genes). Nor is it transparently obvious how to identify 'instinct' as opposed to, say, an 'inclination'.


And that our senses create the objects around us, because without senses nothing would exist as we couldn't see, think, feel, hear, smell or taste anything?"

it is hard to understand how a "sense" can create anything, since it is part of the picture of a "sense" that it is a way of receiving experience or information or data or whatever. On the other hand a larger concept like 'cognition' might be able to do something like the creative job you imagine for the senses, provided that you are careful not to imagine that before you came into the world your mother didn't exist.

David Robjant

(5) Sarah asked:

I cannot accept the god theory due to what I know. However the god theory is so much easier than what I see before my eyes and the way everything relates this drives me mad. Can you help me organise my thoughts on this.


Well your second sentence is very interesting in the light of recent studies about children's beliefs in a god. It looks very likely that children, from very early ages, work out how to interact with the world in some part by 1) empathy, i.e., by imputing their own characteristics to animals, plants, etc.... and in some part by 2) holding simple "theories", i.e., intuitive predictions and conceptions, about the world. This latter position is called the "theory theory" in cognitive development circles. An example of 1) would be to think that flowers felt pain when they were cut because I feel pain when I'm cut. An example of 2) would be to think that flowers felt pain because I do, other people say they do, animals seem to by their behavior... and so living things do. This last one sounds too complex for a child, but you can get the concepts going into it simple enough for it to work. There's a lot of literature on that (see below). Well, an experiment was done recently to determine if children's beliefs in a god were due to empathy or to a theory, and what was found, fairly clearly, was that they could not be due to empathy. What that implies, then, is that belief in a god is a very simple and easy thing to acquire, in part because the idea of a god comes from the idea of a father, and in part comes from taking simple concepts about knowledge, perception, etc., (that is, god "sees everything" and "knows everything") and just assigning them to some entity. You can't do that with animals and people; how they see, know, etc., is much more complex. So getting the idea of a god is easy. Horrifying thought, isn't it. And it implies that our educational system is backwards; we need to disabuse children of such simple conceptions as they mature.


Barrett, J.L., R.A. Richert, and A. Driesenga. 2001. God's Beliefs versus Mother's: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts. Child Development 72 (1):50-65.


Alper, M. 2001. The "God" part of the brain: a scientific interpretation of human spirituality and god. Brooklyn, NY: Rogue Press.

Azari, N.P., J. Nickel, G. Wunderlich, M. Niedeggen, H. Hefter, L. Tellmann, H. Herzog, P. Stoerig, D. Birnbacher, and R.J. Seitz. 2001. Neural correlates of religious experience. European Journal of Neuroscience 13:1649-1652.

Boyer, P. 2000. Natural epistemology or evolved metaphysics? Developmental evidence for early-developed, intuitive, category-specific, incomplete, and stubborn metaphysical presumptions. Philosophical Psychology 13 (3):277-297.

Giovannoli, J. 2000. The Biology of belief: how our biology biases our beliefs and perceptions: Rosetta Press, Inc.

Langdon, R., and M. Coltheart. 2000. The cognitive neuropsychology of delusions. Mind & Language 15 (1):184-218.

On theory theory:

Gopnik, A., and A.N. Meltzoff. 1998. Words, thoughts, and theories. Edited by L. Gleitman, S. Carey, E. Newport and E. Spekle, Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gopnik, A., and D.M. Sobel. 2000. Detecting Blickets: How Young Children Use Information about Novel Causal Powers in Categorization and Induction. Child Development 71 (5):1205-1222.

Gregory, R. 1980. Perceptions as hypotheses. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences 290:181-197.

Steven Ravett Brown

(6) Geoffrey asked:

What is the difference between the following two (alleged) possibilities?

1. There might have existed someone physically just like me, who did not possess consciousness.

2. There might have existed someone physically just like me who possessed a consciousness just like mine WHO WAS NOT ME.


Surely you're aware of the huge literature on the "zombie" problem, right? Chalmers' website has tons of refs on that.

As to #2, I don't know what you mean by "WHO WAS NOT ME". Physically different? But that's implied in the question. Mentally different? But then what does "just like me" mean? Or do you mean that we could have, say, a clone, who was having absolutely identical thoughts to us (actually as you'll realize with a bit of reflection this is impossible after, say, 500 msec or so)? So in that case the difference is between a zombie and a conscious individual, right? Or are you asking about the possibility of such a difference? Well, given materialism, the answer's pretty clear, right? So the question is, where are you with souls and the spirit world? If you like souls, then you have to think about the origin of a soul, and the origin of the duplicate, it seems to me. Thus, some traditions hold that souls are put into babies after they're born... in that case, I'd say 1 & 2 were different people having the same thoughts. If lab-grown clones don't get souls, then one's a person and one's a zombie, right? It's all in how you think about souls. But as a materialist, I don't see any real problem here. The answers would be: 1: impossible, since mind would come from (be generated or realized by) the same material configuration (and I'm not a property dualist like Chalmers, and I don't agree with his position on counterfactuals); 2: see above: different people, both conscious, both with identical thoughts for some very short time (which, if you think about it, is certainly a possibility with any two people with reasonably similar neural configurations).

Steven Ravett Brown

(7) Kiersten asked:

What's the economic and global importance of the Phylum Porifera?


Put "Phylum Porifera" into the Google search engine. Sponges are ubiquitous.

Steven Ravett Brown

(8) Will asked:

I'm an ex-philosopher turned english (EFL) teacher. I have been trying to find some interesting philosophical texts that I could use with my students, but have failed to find anything suitable so far. Obviously the most important thing is clear and simple language, but containing interesting ideas (they are all intelligent post-grad students). I hope you can help! thanks.


Well there's always Sophie's World... but I actually found quite a bit for a child by simply going to Google and searching on "philosophy" and "children", and I'm sure you can think of other search criteria.

Steven Ravett Brown

(9) Will asked:

I'm an ex-philosopher turned English (EFL) teacher. I have been trying to find some interesting philosophical texts that I could use with my students, but have failed to find anything suitable so far. Obviously the most important thing is clear and simple language, but containing interesting ideas (they are all intelligent post-grad students). I hope you can help! Thanks.


Given that you are teaching ESL, I would suggest "Culture Matters" by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P Huntington. It contains a number of philosophically interesting articles that you can cherry-pick through. In a similar vein, you might consider "Paradigms Lost" by John Casti. It also contains a number of shorter articles from which you can choose. For more intensive reading, I would recommend either "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, or "Darwin's Ghost" by Steve Jones. For a literary selection, you can do no better than "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand - an easily readable story with a philosophical message sure to generate lots of discussion.

Stuart Burns

(10) Geoffrey asked:

What is the difference between the following two (alleged) possibilities?

1. There might have existed someone physically just like me, who did not possess consciousness.

2. There might have existed someone physically just like me who possessed a consciousness just like mine WHO WAS NOT ME.


From the perspective of a realist/materialist, the very statement of the possibilities in question raises a key additional question. Just what does it mean to be "physically just like me"?

If what is intended is simple exterior physical appearance, then there is nothing strange about either possibility. Possibility (1) refers to somebody who might possibly have existed, who closely resembles me, and who is considered to be dead. And possibility (2) refers to somebody who might possibly have existed, who closely resembles me, and who is considered to be alive. This distinction is so mundane, that it is probable that the question is meant in a more difficult sense.

In this more difficult sense, the meaning of "physically just like me" is taken to refer to the totality of the physical existence of me. And from this interpretation of "physically just like me", there is no difference between the two propositions. Neither is logically possible. It is not logically possible that there exists someone physically just like me that does not possess consciousness. To a materialist like myself, consciousness is a physical aspect of my physical existence. To be "physically just like me" therefore implies "possessed of a consciousness just like mine". Even in the "possible worlds" interpretation of "possibilities", therefore, it would not be logically possible for my doppelganger to exist both exactly physically like me, and not invested with consciousness. Even more strongly, it would not be logically possible for my doppelganger to exist exactly physically like me, and not be possessed of a consciousness exactly like mine. Which means that it would not be logically possible for my doppelganger to exist without being me. To a materialist, all that "I" am is the physical characteristics of matter that is my consciousness.

Finally, it is always possible the "tweak" the intended meaning of "physically just like me" to logically permit the existence of any desired variation between the mundane and the difficult. There are so many potential variations on this theme, that a more detailed specification of meaning would be necessary to permit further exploration of the intended question. For example, what does the questioner mean by "did not possess" consciousness. Is the intended doppelganger imagined to lack a consciousness at the time of consideration, or is the doppelganger imagined to never have had a consciousness?

Of course, if the questioner does not like the materialist answer, then the next obvious question is - just what does it mean to be "me"?

Stuart Burns

(11) Lily asked:

What is the meaning of life?

And Espen asked:

What is the meaning of life from your perspective?


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

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

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. By "What is the meaning of life?" do you mean -

1.. What is "life"? In the sense of how or why is "life" different from "non-life"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist / materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor.

The first step in answering your question, is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you.

The second step is to acknowledge that the "thing" that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilized cell that was the result of the union of your mother's ovum and your father's sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins for further argument on this point.)

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation.

This is a general principle of all life. So the general answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" is quite simply - for each individual organism to ensure that the genes that are encapsulated in each organism get transmitted to the next generation. Or, in a more general wording - the meaning of life is to ensure that life continues.

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

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.

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

Stuart Burns

(12) Bryan asked:

After reading through the current answers section of this website I have noticed a trend toward agnosticism among nearly all of the respondents. It would seem to me that a belief in God supposes the intangible, which is therefore perceived by most high thinkers as illogical and therefore not a valid factor in any philosophical equation. Is agnosticism a prerequisite to being a logical thinker? I have to do something taboo and place an interesting Biblical reference here: 1 Corinthians 1:20.


You are not going to like this answer, but I would suggest that the consequence (not the prerequisite) of being a logical thinker is at least agnosticism if not atheism. Logical thinking demands that one examine one's premises. And challenge them for reasonableness and justification. A belief in God demands that one accepts the premise that God exists without question or challenge. Justification is an illegitimate issue. Unless one maintains a strict mental separation between one's religious thinking, and one's logical thinking, one cannot help but begin to question one's religious premises.

Stuart Burns

(13) Ron asked:

How is it possible hat science keeps putting a theory forward about evolutionary biology when it doesn't seem to make sense? etc. etc.


In the past if there has been disagreement with my answers in these pages I have made no response, in the view that contributors are entitled to their opinions and offer an alternative answer for questioners to consider. In this case, however, I find Stuart Burns' argument on the previous answers page so flawed and so prone to the deceptions of the Darwinian Evolution lobby that I feel obliged to defend my position. Despite this I concede that Stuart is entitled to his views and at liberty to present his argument to the questioner, and I leave it to the questioner to make up his own mind on the alternative views presented.

I do not intend to dissect Stuart's argument to the factor, but to focus on the more general controversy. His claim that "evolution is a proved material fact" is, of course, nonsense; I believe that many evolutionists themselves would support this view. Evolution is, like the Creationist notion, a theory, it is something that may have happened, but there is no real proof for it. despite what Stuart claims, the general understanding of the term 'theory' is, 'an idea or explanation which has not yet been proved, a conjecture'. There is a glaring contradiction where Stuart claims that, "evolution is a theory. It is also a fact". Sorry Stuart, it is one or the other, to accept one of them is to eliminate the other. When a theory becomes a fact, i.e. when it is established by material proof, we drop the term 'theory', to retain it implies that the notion is still not a proven fact. This is why Darwin's notion is still a theory after over one hundred years since it was mooted!!

Another statement completely new to me is -- "Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts". I have always understood theories to be concepts put forward as possible explanations to a situation or event, which requires empirical observation and/or organized experiment to provide proof in order that it can be established as a fact, or, on the other hand, proved to be untenable. Science is littered with discarded theories denounced by empirical proof. Darwinian evolution is proving to be just another example of a theory which has so far failed to provide unquestionable proof suitable to convert theory to fact. Over one hundred years is a long time to be looking for missing links which, so far, only appear in the imagination and not in proven fact. The missing link is a conceptual factor within the theory of evolution, it has no empirical authenticity outside the theory.

Enormous efforts have been made to discover the missing link between Man and the apes. The results, however, are a small collection of unconvincing fossil bones. It is amazing how artist's impressions have duped the public for years. Drawings by various artists based on the same skull are completely different, proving that they are figments of imagination. The drawings are of course biased by the theory. If the theory is true then there would be steady progression from ape to Man, hence the range of fictitious hairy monstrosities, some nearer to apes than men, some nearer to men than apes, which appear on our cinema and television screens, and indoctrinate our children by inclusion in their text books. There is not one item of empirical evidence in the geological sequence to support any of it. If ever there has been a case for mass indoctrination it is this. A theory lacking proof of authenticity has become accepted as a fact within the public domain. During my time as a full-time lecturer I positively cringed at some of the rubbish I was forced into teaching by the curriculum which purported to support Darwinian Evolution. Simple adaptation by organisms was supposed to exhibit the mechanism of evolution, along with other stupid ideas depicting the progression of fish to mammal in the womb. There were, of course, no empirical examples demonstrating the changing of one species into another. As I used to tell my students, the objective of a beetle is to become a good, well adapted beetle, not to change into a mouse!!

Another mistake which Stuart unwittingly makes is to imply that I am a Creationist, I suppose linking me with Genesis. I can assure him that he could not be further from the truth. He is here guilty of expressing the fallacy of 'undistributed middle' - If I am not a Darwinian Evolutionist then I am a Creationist!! Are these the only options? Perhaps Stuart should look more closely at modern quantum physics. Despite the fact that most of my scientific commitment has been to Biology and Geology, I believe that if we ever obtain an answer to problems concerning origins by way of science, it will come through quantum physics. However my faith still lies within the more wide ranging attributes of philosophy.

I am sorry Stuart, but I must reiterate my statement. Darwin's theory does depend on "accidental progress by chance genetic mutation" - evolutionists do not accept a guiding hand. Darwin himself was, of course, not aware of this, he considered advantageous physical changes. I am afraid that Stuart's numbers argument is one of the desperate arguments that Darwinians fall back on, seeing there is little else to point to, but it has little meaning in view of the lottery of random mutational variations, most of which are debilitating or fatal. The odd mutation is likely to be disastrous, usually involving one nucleic acid in a single allele. it would be difficult to envisage the number of alleles involved in a single metabolic pathway, yet it only requires one mutated nucleic acid in the genome to produce one misplaced amino acid in one enzyme to impede the entire metabolic pathway. This is more likely to happen than is the production of an entire series of fortuitous enzymes to produce an eye just at the moment it is required!! Unhappily for Stuart, modern genetics has done more harm to the Darwinian theory than good.

I am well aware of the restricted amount of alleged organic material in Precambrian rocks, and have been since 1950, though most of my work was in the Lower Carboniferous. Much of the alleged organic material in the Precambrian turned out to be inorganic mineral constructions, metamorphism in these ancient rocks is obviously very extensive, not surprising since the Precambrian represents more than 80% of the recorded history of our planet. However, more evidence of 'life' would be expected just prior to the Cambrian boundary if the Darwinian notion was to be supported. The Cambrian Explosion remains an unexplained phenomenon.

Another phenomenon which defies the fortuitous accidents of the Darwinian notion is 'mimicry' - living things pretending to look or behave like something else. Some edible butterflies, for instance, resemble inedible ones in order to deceive predatory birds. Conversely deception may benefit the predator: the angler fish dangles a lure in front of its mouth which looks like a worm. Such deception, or mimicry, is also practised by plants, as with the orchid that resembles a female bee so that a male bee will alight on it and effect pollination. Fortuitous accidents?!! I doubt it!! This is again something that the mechanical concepts of Darwinian science is unable to cater for.

It is possible to go on to complete a book on the refutation of the Theory of Evolution, perhaps one day I shall. However, suffice it to say that these are a few points for Stuart to ponder. He accuses me of having the "attitude of science backward", presuming that science is content to hammer away at old chestnuts looking for hypothetical missing links that they are very unlikely to find, rather than shifting the focus of their attention on to other possibilities. So far as Darwinian science is concerned that is the case. It is just because Darwinian evolution is not a proven fact that those involved should change tack. If this had not happened in the past we would still have been revelling in the glories of the flat earth, and the sun would still be going around our planet. We have moved into a new paradigm, it is time to put Victorian science to bed. Including the Newtonian physics Stuart refers to. They are stepping stones to something far more complex. I repeat, modern physics is indicating something going on, which up to now, we have failed to grasp.This is why one famous physicist refers to the universe as being more like a great thought than a great machine.

"Could random processes have constructed an evolutionary sequence of which even a basic element, such as a protein or a gene, is complex beyond human capacities. can one account statistically for the chance emergence of systems of truly great complexity, such as the mammalian brain when, if specifically organized, just one percent of the connections in such a brain would be larger than the connections of the world's entire communication network?" (Michael Denton).

Sorry Stuart, but you do not inspire me to change my views.

John Brandon

(14) Gerard asked:

The following is a quote from David Hume: "For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never observe anything but the perception." Hume's conclusion was, therefore: "what we call the mind is nothing but a heap or bundle of different perceptions united together by certain relations." Who, or what, is this "I", the "stumbler"?


This constitutes one of the biggest problems in the Philosophy of Mind. Several leading philosophers have attempted to resolve the problem, producing a very interesting debate but, so far as I am aware, we still await the final conclusion.

Like many other areas of philosophy, religion has an input, and supporters of certain persuasions, where 'soul' is separated from 'mind' as an independent entity, might regard the soul as the 'I' or the 'self', which observes the activities of the mind. In this case, activities of the mind could be described as emanations from the brain, capable of being observed by the soul or spiritual element in man. This view is, of course, not available where the term 'soul' and the term 'mind' are considered to be interchangeable.

The Hume quotation you refer to is of course attacking the view that "we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call OUR SELF". Hume was an empiricist, that is, someone who believes that all our ideas are derived from experience. He says, "It must be some one impression that gives rise to every real idea". Hume gives his reason for saying that there is no such idea as that of the self as - we have no empirical impression of a 'self'. The self is supposed to "continue invariably the same thro' the whole course of our lives". But we have no impressions that continue invariably the same.

Throughout Hume's philosophy we often find him a little careless in discussion, raising ambiguities he fails to explain or address in any detail. He was heavily committed to empiricism, hence, in spite of having recognised that "self or person is... that to which our several impressions and ideas are suppos'd to have a reference", he nevertheless treats the question 'Is there a self?' as though it were a question about something to be observed. "I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception", he says - as though he had half - expected to observe something he would want to call his self. Which of course raises the question you ask and adds the further complication: How can an 'I' observe a 'self' - are they two different things? Ostensibly we would say not. The confusion comes from Hume's treatment of the subject and his unwillingness to relax his empirical views.All this forces us into a rather silly infinite regress with the 'soul' watching the 'I' watching the 'self' watching the 'mind' etc. etc.

In The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes:

"We have spoken of acquaintance with the contents of our minds as self - consciousness, but it is not, of course, consciousness of our self: it is consciousness of particular thoughts and feelings. The question whether we are also acquainted with our bare selves, as opposed to particular thoughts and feelings, is a very difficult one, upon which it would be rash to speak positively. When we try to look into ourselves we always seem to come upon some particular thought or feeling, and not upon the 'I' which has the thought or feeling. Nevertheless there are some reasons for thinking that we are acquainted with the 'I', though the acquaintance is hard to disentangle from other things.

"When I am acquainted with 'my seeing the sun', it seems plain that I am acquainted with two different things in relation to each other. On the one hand there is the sense-datum which represents the sun to me, on the other hand there is that which sees this sense-datum. All acquaintance, such as my acquaintance with the sense-datum which represents the sun, seems obviously a relation between the person acquainted and the object with which the person is acquainted. When a case of acquaintance is one with which I can be acquainted (as I am acquainted with my acquaintance with the sense-datum representing the sun), it is plain that the person acquainted is myself. Thus, when I am acquainted with my seeing the sun, the whole fact with which I am acquainted is 'Self-acquainted-with-sense-datum'.

"Further, we know the truth 'I am acquainted with this sense-datum'. It is hard to see how we could know this truth, or even understand what is meant by it, unless we were acquainted with something which we call 'I'. It does not seem necessary to suppose that we are acquainted with a more or less permanent person, the same today as yesterday, but it does seem as though we must be acquainted with that thing , whatever its nature, which sees the sun and has acquaintance with sense-data. Thus, in some sense it would seem we must be acquainted with our Selves as opposed to our particular experiences. But the question is difficult, and complicated arguments can be adduced on either side. Hence, although acquaintance with ourselves seems probably to occur, it is not wise to assert that it undoubtedly does occur."

John Brandon

(15) Crystal asked:

What was Socrates meaning when he said "It is worse to do wrong than to suffer it"? I'm a first timer in PHI and I really just don't understand.


At first I had difficulty understanding your question. It might seem that what Socrates meant when he said "It is worse to do wrong than to suffer it" was, well, that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.

Then I realised that what you didn't understand wasn't the meaning of this sentence, but rather it's justification. You don't understand why anyone would say such a thing.

Perhaps you think there must be some mistake. You think that it's obviously wrong. You think that it's incredible that anyone in their right mind could really mean that - that's the "meaning" you speak of, the meaning that you don't understand. You think, I surmise, that it's obviously better to do wrong than to suffer it.

Well now. One might say that Book 1 of the Republic, in which Socrates argues against Thrasymachus, constitutes an argument against this particular 'obviously', or at least an introductory argument for 'not proven'. The rest of the Republic, I say, is where you will find Plato's more positive reasons for thinking that "It is worse to do wrong than to suffer it".

The Republic is only partly a dialogue about the state. It is primarily (I say, and at one point Plato says) a dialogue about the soul, for which the state is only an image ("the soul... writ large"). The dialogue is an attempt to understand the soul and picture the "Good [which] is what every soul pursues and for which it ventures everything, intuiting what it is, yet baffled and unable fully to apprehend its nature."

There are a variety of things which have been taken as the good, the good for which a soul might venture everything. There are, I mean, a variety of things which have been thought, at one time or another, by somebody or other, to represent that good which, if they only had possession of it, would make them happy. Namely: power, bodily pleasures, honour, helen of troy, money, material goods and so on.

Plato argues persuasively that when people do wrong, they do so because they are pursuing these supposed goods, power, pleasure, honour, land, etc. In this, he contends no more than the policeman, who always looks for motive. Was it for the Power? For the Money? For the Girl?

But going beyond the policeman's credo, Plato holds that if one were instead pursuing the one true good, as Plato pictures it, then one would never have any motivation for crime, not even for the simplest kinds of selfishness.

His central thought is that none of the supposed goods for which people usually compete will fit the bill: none of these various pursuits of power, pleasure, wealth and so on will lead to happiness. Instead, these supposed goods are in some sense illusory, for the pursuit of them leads to unhappiness, even to madness. Those who pursue them "fill with unrealities a part of themselves which is itself unreal", a spectacularly unfulfilling enterprise. Like trying to live on hologram popcorn.

Since (policemen agree) it is the pursuers of these supposed goods that do the wrongs in the world, then if as Plato thinks pursuing these supposed goods is an unfulfilling road towards misery and madness, it must follow that wrongdoers are a spectacularly unfortunate group of people. They are to be pitied as suffering the torments of their unfulfilling pursuits in this moment, and also, yet more pitiable, as being ignorant of their predicament and unable to free themselves from it. Thus, it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.

This is only to state the main points under the headline, and you will see how this kind of view resembles both Buddhist thought on the one hand, and some elements of Judeo-Christian morality on the other (There are also connections with the idea of the Greater Struggle in Islam). If it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it, then Christ is the model to be imitated - otherwise one might think of Pilate as the better model. For this reason, in pious days gone by, the idea that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it used not to be met with blank incomprehension and incredulity but instead with sage nods and quotations from the Bible. Quotations such as that from Ecclesiastes dismissing worldly goods: "vanity, vanity, all is vanity". Anyway, I should also say something about the story under the headline, about why those supposed goods are held by Plato to be unfulfilling and unreal and in vain.

Plato's arguments here fall into two kinds, an observational kind which occupies a tiny superficial proportion of his thinking and a more telling, complex, analytical kind that go to the core of Plato's picture of reality and of the soul.

There are, in the first category, a range of observations which tackle each kind of supposed good in turn, and observe case by case the kinds of unhappiness which result from or accompany the pursuit of this or that supposed good. Thus the powerful are forever in fear of threats to their power, hedonists become addicted to and are mastered by their pleasures, the status obsessed are forever unhappy at some comparison, the wealthy have an unrewarding relationship with cold metal, and so on. This kind of observational argument is persuasive up to a point. In some presentations it is even a mainstay of some less than convincing clergymen ('God, you see, is really far more satisfying than sex...'). But unfortunately there will always be suckers to say 'all those other weak people were turned into abject slaves by their overmastering pursuit of power /sex /cocaine /pride /money /Ferraris, but I'm made of stronger stuff! Addiction happens to other people, not me!' Luckily Plato has further and deeper strands to his thought here, which I have only time to introduce in outline.

In one line of argument Plato argues that the first requirement of happiness is mental health, or the harmony of all the parts of the soul into one cohesive unity. This, he argues, can only be done under the 'rule of reason', or more precisely under the rule of that part of the soul which loves the goods of reason, the goods of contemplation rather than of possession. He argues that the other loves will, without this guiding and unifying rule of the rational element, begin to form a competing mass of impulses pulling powerfully in a range of incompatible directions, towards self destructive behaviour, towards an inability to see the real world, even towards madness. If you want to get a handle on this kind of thought, observe how effectively jealousy drives people round the bend.

In one dominant, important, epistemological aspect to his moral thought, Plato considers the relationship of universals to particulars and argues that the only the universal forms are fully knowable or real. What we can contemplate with hope of satisfaction are not the dependent, synthetic, fleeting and unreal particulars for which crimes are committed, wars fought and so on, but rather the eternal and the real. This is part of the background to the thought that pleasure seekers of various kinds (those who can be motivated to do what is selfish) "fill with unrealities a part of themselves which is itself unreal".

In another line of analysis in the Republic Plato talks about what pleasure really is. If, as is arguably the case, what we usually mean by a 'pleasure' is a cessation of a felt pain, then, by definition, all such pleasures will be bound up with pains. Better then to pursue the good through some strategy for avoiding pain in the first place, rather than to pursue pleasure, rather than to go after what we want. For to pursue pleasure is to commit oneself to pain. The good and most pleasant state is enjoyed through detaching oneself from the pattern of thinking with which pain and pleasure are alike associated, rather than by pursuing pleasure itself. The true good will be experienced, in Plato's chosen metaphor, as in the enjoyment of a startlingly scented flower encountered by surprise, with no pains of anticipation proceeding and no moment of regret - this true good being a "true" as contrasted with a pursued pleasure. This line of thought again bears, in all respects, a very strong resemblance to those offered by Buddhists.

(It also harks back to Heraclitus: "It is not better for humans to get what they want. Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest")

All these introductory pointers are offshore views of a vast continent, and there is much more to be said both about the structure and the soundness of Plato's thinking here. For a rather better exposition of Plato's insights but in a similar spirit, then, as you read the Republic and the many other important dialogues, you might also seek out some work by Iris Murdoch. Some of the best is in "Existentialists and Mystics".

David Robjant