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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.wordpress.com
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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 41 (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 41/1.

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) Paul asked:

Recent feelings of deja vu have got me thinking about a theory of mine and subsequent questions. If the universe was circular and so was time (or that the universe recollapsed into a big crunch and the big bang then occurred over and over) then everything should occur exactly the same way that it did every time. (asteroids, planets all fly the same direction at the same velocity at the same time) Once life began, would it also act the same way every time? More specifically, would intelligent life choose a different path given exactly the same information?

Why would it? If the answer is no, then you would do the exact same thing as every other time, as the information given to your brain to make the decision would be the same. If this is the case then: Do we really have any control of our own destiny or our actions? Are we really any different from a rather slow computer which has a huge mass of software?

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

At the end of the 2001 movie K-PAX, there is a voice over by the humanoid alien Prot (played by Kevin Spacey) who has been under the care of psychiatrist Dr Powell (Jeff Bridges). The universe will come to an end, and then it will start up again, and everything that happened will happen exactly the same way as it did before, and so on to infinity.

Prot has now returned to his home planet K-PAX, leaving Dr Powell to act on the alien's sage advice: to contact the son with whom he had fallen out. We hear Prot's voice as Dr Powell and his son embrace at the train station.

'Whatever mistakes you make in this life you will live through in the next pass, every mistake you make you will live through again, and again, and again, for ever.'

This is a neat take on Nietzsche's theory of the eternal recurrence. Far from being the playthings of fate who have no control over our destiny, we have immense responsibility for each and every one of our actions.

Milos Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being expresses the same idea. The choice between 'lightness' and 'heaviness' is not so easy to make. If lightness — the thought that individual actions are momentary events which disappear into the past and are gone forever — is unbearable, it can be just as painful to bear the thought that all the things we've done of which we are ashamed, no less than the things of which we are proud, are an indelible part of the fabric of eternity.

Geoffrey Klempner


(2) Charlene asked:

When writing an essay on Freud would it be inappropriate to talk about all his theories first?

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

In a short essay you want to get to the point. Anything under about 5 pages can only address a very specific aspect of Freud's thought if you want to be thorough (and get a good grade). If you are writing an essay on say, Civilization and its Discontents, you will have to choose a specific topic such as 'Religion in Civilization and Discontents'. A good format is to write a brief summary of the issue you are going to cover, discuss both sides of the issue, or the ideas of philosophical importance, pick a side, and write a conclusion.

You can always ask your teacher. They like talking philosophy!

Eric Zwicker


(3) Tammy asked:

Describe how ethical egoism might be used to justify eliminating welfare programs.

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

Ethical egoism states that I should act in my own self-interest; that is, I am morally right in doing so.

Since I am not on welfare right now, I could argue that welfare is hurting me more than it is helping me. That is reason enough for the ethical egoist to justify eliminating welfare programs. A more interesting question might be 'How can ethical egoism be used to support welfare programs?'

Eric Zwicker


(4) Sophie asked:

I would like to pose this question to a Christian philosopher. How does God/ Christianity justify the death of an innocent child? Would the answer question vary depending on whether the child was Christian or nonreligious?

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

There is not one great answer that all Christian philosophers would give. This is a problem that the greatest minds of all faiths have struggled with for millennia.

Almost every Christian philosopher I have met acknowledges that this is a huge problem that challenges their understanding of God's benevolence.

There are different ways to address the problem: St. Augustine's concept of original sin can deal with this problem to some extent. Since we are all born sinners, no one is ever 'innocent'. While the death of a child is tragic, perhaps we should not think of it as God (who is good) killing an innocent child.

Another way to address the problem is to say that this is perfectly just, but we as mere mortals cannot understand True Justice. Another might point out that God can often be a wrathful God, and perhaps this is a purposeful. Another philosopher might argue that due to God's gift of free will, things like this are bound to happen. God cannot intervene at every moment (or we wouldn't have free will).

You are right that a child's religion might change the outcome of the answer, for right or wrong. Actually, I should say the child's parents' religion, because how can a child really be one religion and not another?

If you are interested in this topic I encourage you to read further about the Problem of Evil. I know there is a lot of information on this site about this question.

Eric Zwicker


(5) Miles asked:

This question refers to fatalism:

'Whatever will be, will be' seems a common sense tautology. If you accept that statements about the future can be true or false (before the 'truth makers'[*] actually exist) then you must accept that there is not an open possibility that something can occur, if it won't, in fact, occur.

So it seems that fatalism is stating the obvious: Even if events are not causally linked (as determinism suggests), but are actually completely random ('free') with regard to which outcome will occur, only one outcome can and will occur in any given circumstance.

My question is; how does this apply to possible worlds? Would a fatalist hold that all possible worlds are identical to the actual world, since the truths about the actual world are 'necessary truths'?

(With a determinist position, this seems reasonable, if all occurrences are caused and none are random, then like causes could produce like results.) But the fatalist does not rely on causation. If some events are truly random ('free'), surely in one possible world the outcome is A while in another the outcome is B. Presumably that means that A and B are contingent, not necessary. How would a fatalist maintain that all truths are necessary without adopting a determinist stance also? (Or would they have to reject the use of 'possible worlds' as a reasoning tool?)

[*those conditions in reality which the proposition refers to]

Thanks a lot for your time. You guys are great.

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

I find the things you say confused and confusing. The difference between necessary and contingent propositions is a logical distinction and as such is not effected by the truth or falsity of fatalism or determinism.

The use of possible worlds in logical theory is also quite different from the science fiction idea of possible worlds or the use that is sometimes made of this concept in physics. Again the use of the idea of possible worlds in logic is not effected by the truth of fatalism or determinism.

Consider the propositions 'It is raining' and 'It is not raining'. Both these propositions are described as 'contingent propositions' not because they ARE true or false but because they CAN BE true or false. So to say a proposition is contingent is to talk about its possible truth values not about whether it is true or false. Even if I look out of the window and see that it is raining, this can in no way effect the truth that 'It is not raining' is a contingent proposition.

In the same way 'It is raining or it is not raining' is a necessary proposition because it only has one possible truth value.

In general I think arguments for fatalism usually seem to rely on confusions between concepts that apply to propositions and contingent events. So we can say things like the truth or falsity of the sentence 'At 10 o'clock tomorrow it will be raining' has already ready been decided. However that should not lead you to imagine that that in any way determines the weather. If we take 'Whatever will be, will be' seriously then presumably we should give up trying to cure cancer or make lunch. After all, whether these things will happen, has already been decided, hasn't it?

Shaun Williamson


(6) Jeme asked:

How do you convince a non-believer in the existence of God that God truly exists?

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

Jeme this isn't a Christian website. It is for people who want to ask questions about philosophy. Many philosophers don't believe in God. I don't know if God exists, so how can I tell you how to convince a non believer that God exists? Why do you want to convince non-believers that God exists?

Stop trying to force your beliefs on other people. Leave us non believers alone. Go away!

Shaun Williamson


(7) Anthony asked:

Does God control your fate in war or is it all just casual coincidence?

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

Just as countries go to war believing that 'God is on our side' so an individual soldier can do this too. (You may assume that I am an atheist, although it would not be possible to tell from my answer whether I am a believer or not.)

What must one believe if one believes that 'God controls my fate'? If God knows what the future holds for me, then this is something that was decided at the moment of Creation. But this doesn't sound much like 'control'. Everything is already decided, the battle is won or lost, I survive or don't survive and nothing I do now can possible make any difference.

However, if you believe in a personal God, existing in time and not just outside of time (and what other kind of 'God' is worthy of being loved and worshipped?) a God who listens to one's prayers and responds, then you have to believe that God is perfectly capable of changing what would have been the future. God can bring it about that the bullet or piece of shrapnel that would have killed me misses, or only causes me injury. The future is not decided until God decides it.

This seems relatively uncontroversial. If you are not a fatalist, then you believe that the future is open anyway, God or no God. What is more controversial is that if you really believe that God is capable of answering your prayers, then he can also answer the prayer, 'Let there not be a booby-trap behind this door.'

In order for there not to be a booby-trap behind this door, God has to change the past. He has to bring it about that the booby trap which was placed behind the door was not placed there.

And what must time be like, of God can do this? On this picture, I can't see any sense in which we can talk of there 'being' a future or a past. Reality is plastic, God is free to shape it in any way he likes, free to change the past or future as he sees fit.

Geoffrey Klempner


(8) Ella asked:

Hello,

Recently I came to a conclusion. Our lives are so insignificant and once we are gone there is no point of our life. We cease to exist. How can I fulfill a meaningful life and what does my life compare to any of the millions of other people walking this earth?

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

Ella you came to a conclusion but you don't say how you came to that conclusion.

Meaning is a word in a human language so it is up to you to give meaning to your life. You could choose to be a coward and a liar or you could choose to be something else. It is up to you. Forget about the billions of other people. Concentrate on your own life. You are and you become what you do.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Hadi asked:

I want to learn philosophy as I love to think and doubt everything that's around me and I've just found out about 6 Pathway Program which I thought is a great program to start off and have already planning one.

But my big problem was most of the great philosophy works were wrote or translated into English (my first language is Malay) and I had a problem to understand well on most of the topics that's written. To understand well is by mean to really immerse into what has been written or said by those great philosopher.

Is a language should be a problem for me to understand philosophy?

By judging on this post only, will I ever write a decent essay on philosophy?

I was much into Ludwig Wittgenstein as I had this feeling that I admire his works even I've never get my hand on any of his books before. Of course I did some research on what he did in a world of philosophy. That's alone has already spark my desire to further pursue my understanding on his works.

But then, can I just pick only him and ignore others contribution in order to be a philosopher?

Is it possible?

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

Your written English seems to be reasonably good and it will improve with use so I think it is quite possible that you will be able to understand philosophical works written in English and that you will be able to write a reasonable essay.

With regard to Wittgenstein who wrote in German although he taught in England, it is not possible to understand his writings without a good knowledge of the history of Western philosophy and a good knowledge of philosophical problems. Wittgenstein said very clearly that his work cannot be understood in isolation and that it does not contain any philosophical truths or philosophical theories.

Shaun Williamson


(10) Cheryl asked:

Do you think philosophers should ignore their history and start afresh each generation? Why or why not?

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

Should we ask scientists to ignore their history and start afresh each generation? Should we ask mapmakers to forget their history and start afresh each generation? Should we ask mathematicians to forget their history and start afresh each generation? Should we ask historians to start afresh each generation and forget their history?

Why should philosophy be any different from any other subject? What gain could there possibly be in such an absurd suggestion. A good chess player should be able to hold all of the history of chess in his mind and still come up with his own original creative ideas. The same is true for any good mathematician or scientist or philosopher.

A blank mind wouldn't make philosophers more creative, it would just lead to an endless rehashing of the same old tired ideas.

Shaun Williamson


(11) Niall asked:

Hi, I have always been a very happy person. My philosophy is 'kiss' keep it simple simon, sense of humour about life and always winking at situations good and bad. I find it hard to believe in anything up there or down, but I do believe in being good (just in case) eg, do you think we should dive deep into the reality of life or kiss?

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

There is nothing wrong with being happy unless your happiness is simply based on ignorance. If you are happy being a turkey who doesn't know about Christmas then by all means carry on and hope that, for you, Christmas never comes.

I imagine that like most people you live in a world of technology that has been created by people who were dissatisfied with the world and wanted to change it.

Only a very fortunate western person who has never really had to face a bad situation can wink at situations, good or bad. Next time you buy a pair of shoes, think about the 9 year old girl in Malaysia who made them for you. She might not find life as comfortable as you do and might not always wink at situations.

Shaun Williamson


(12) Adnan asked:

You know that mass can be converted into energy and similarly energy can be converted in to mass, but I have to ask that what is in between these two forms or alternatively what is in between light and energy?

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

Why do you assume that there is something in between these two things? Study Relativity and Quantum mechanics and you will find the answer you need and perhaps won't be tempted to assume that your question makes sense. Light is a form of energy and light particles and light particles (photons) have no rest mass.

Shaun Williamson


(13) Hadi asked:

Does Socrates really exist? Can we just accept that Socrates exist is true based on the dialogue in Plato's works?

Is there any proof that Socrates really exist beside Plato's work?

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

Xenophon also wrote a Life of Socrates which contrasts in interesting ways with Plato's portrait. It is less philosophically acute, but contains details which are not in Plato's dialogues. If the two accounts had been very similar, then a sceptic might have argued that Xenophon gained his information second hand from Plato, or maybe even vice versa.

That said, your question is very odd. It would seem almost inconceivable to any scholar of Ancient Greek history that Socrates was invented and not a real person. Of course, you can be sceptical about many of the individuals described in history. The question is, given the available evidence, how plausible such scepticism is.

In the case of Socrates, I would say that such scepticism is very implausible. In the case of Homer, on the other hand, there is room for genuine doubt as to whether there existed a single individual by that name who wrote all the 'works of Homer'.

Geoffrey Klempner


(14) Heather asked:

If something is created through sin and evil surely the thing will itself be sin and evil? and if it were to die would go to hell?

Please email back cause I will lose this sight to check the answer.

thankyou x

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

Only people can go to hell (If you believe in hell), so what you seem to be asking is 'If a person (baby) is created through sin and evil then this person (baby) will itself be evil and will go to hell'.

This is nonsense. Children aren't responsible for the sins of their parents and to think that they are is itself an evil idea which is simply untrue.

Shaun Williamson


(15) Tina asked:

Is it true that when a black man is elected president in the USA will it be the end of the world?

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

No it isn't. How can you ask such a pathetic racist question?

What is true is that no white American will be allowed into heaven until they learn to love their black neighbour as much as they love themselves. Read the Bible, read the parable of the good Samaritan and learn what it means. Since you talk so glibly about the end of the world I assume you are a Christian but like most Christians you seem to be completely ignorant of the teachings of Christ. Perhaps you think Christ was a racist. Perhaps you think Christ looked like a white European. He didn't.

Shaun Williamson


(16) Sarah asked:

I am wondering if Fichte's realm of objects, which the subject creates in order to realize the urge to act, is the same as Kant's noumena or or equivalent to Kant's phenomena?

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

Its not really equivalent to either. For Kant the noumena is the world as it really is and is unknowable. Fichte talks of the realm of objects as being created. So presumably they are created by us from the phenomena (the world of appearances) and we take them to be the real world i.e. objects.

Of course all this assumes that you think that Kant or Fichte are talking sense. I think they are both talking nonsense.

Shaun Williamson


(17) Gabriel asked:

My question has two parts. 1) How is it that humans can make mistakes, and in general would any finite being be fallible? For a simple example, doing a sum wrong or typing a wrong letter. Or, it always puzzled me in high school that even people who studied hard could rarely get a 100 score on math tests, since mathematics and logic facts are knowable with rigorous certainty. A friend told me that Plato would say you can't ever 'really' make a mistake like getting a wrong sum because your internal intention was to get the right sum, but that sounds wrong.

2) Traditionally in computer programming people seem to have thought that you should design a program carefully by writing down everything it's supposed to do and then meticulously crafting it, like making a chair or a house, and the result would then be good. Yet in practice most of computer programming seems to involve 'debugging', the process of identifying and fixing mistakes. I don't have an exact number, but it's something like spend 10 minutes crafting the program then spend 2 hours tinkering with it to ascertain why it won't work correctly. Given that this is how things really are, why is it so tempting to believe the traditional view that programs, like a chair or house, can be crafted with care and certainty to 'just work'?

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

Your question is very wide ranging and you make some assumptions that I think are questionable. However since I am a computer programmer I will try to answer it as best as I can.

How is it that humans make mistakes? This is really a question for psychology to answer and a lot of work has already been done on lapses in concentration and personality types etc. In general the human brain has been designed by human evolution to enable human survival. This means that it is incredibly good at some things such as remembering and distinguishing known faces from unknown ones and not so good at other things like complex arithmetical calculations. If our survival depended upon being good at mental arithmetic then people who had this gift would be more likely to survive and would come to dominate the human race. However we have now invented the electronic calculator so this is unlikely to ever happen.

I do not know if any finite being will always be fallible. You would have to define fallible more exactly.

Plato's idea that can can never really get it wrong is as you suspect nonsense. The fact that we intended to get the right answer means we should get A for effort but F for achievement (since we got the wrong answer).

Mathematics can be known with rigorous certainty — what does that mean? Suppose you are given a large column of figures to add up. There is only one correct answer to this problem but there is no way to guarantee that you will ever get to the right answer. Write down a thousand figures and then try adding them up repeatedly and see how many times you get the same answer. This will give you some practical experience in making mistakes in the exact science of mathematics.

Let us consider a simple mathematical proof — there is no greatest prime number. A proof of this fact has been known for over 2000 years. The proof is short and can easily be understood, it takes less than a sheet of A5 paper to write it down.

Now a complex mathematical proof. Fermat's last theorem is a simple equation about powers of numbers. However mathematicians struggled for over 150 years to find a proof for it. When a proof was finally found it involved many pages of complex mathematics that cannot be understood by non mathematicians. After a while a mathematician pointed out that there was a mistake in the proof. It made an assumption in the middle of the proof that itself had never been proven. In fact it later turned out that this assumption was false. The author of the proof, the English mathematician Andrew Wiles went back to work, his original incorrect proof had taken seven years and after a further two years he came up with a corrected proof that has, as far as we know, no defects.

I am telling you all of the above so that you will see that the fact that mathematics and logic represent certain knowledge doesn't mean that they are easy or can ever be free of mistakes.

Now let us turn to computer programming. The task that any complex computer program has to achieve is often ill defined and exists only in an unsystematic way in the brains of the people commissioning the program. Consider for example a computer program to automate the accountancy procedures of an insurance company. All the people in the company the clerks, the underwriters and the accountants know how to do their jobs but they are not experts in communicating this knowledge in clear unambiguous language to the programmers. In their turn the programmers know very little about the inner workings of an insurance company.

The resulting computer system may contain many programs that have to interact and may contain millions of lines of code. Because companies often want their programs quickly the system may be written by programmers who are working long hours and are under pressure to complete the task in less than the ideal time. The scope for misunderstandings and coding mistakes is enormous.

Although computer languages are clearly specified the implementations of the languages are not. Just look at the vast volume of documentation from Microsoft cataloguing the errors and emissions in their C++ compiler. To make matters worse the languages that programmers are forced to use are not ideal, I think C and C++ are particularly bad and inherently insecure, they tempt programmers to make mistakes.

The Windows operating system contains more than 30 million lines of code. Think of how many errors there will be in that.

Finally the human brain has certain weaknesses that make it ill suited for computer programming. We are very good at forming positive hypotheses about our experience and very bad at forming negative hypotheses. In computer programming as in life, the most important thing is knowing exactly what you don't know. This is far more important than knowing anything else.

Contrary to what you believe, specifying and coding programs takes far more time than debugging code. Well designed code will contain defects but they will be defects that are easy to find and repair.

The things that really go wrong with computer programming are organisational. Let me give you an example. Company A engages company B to write a computer program and draws up a specification. Company B writes the program and delivers it (but company B keeps the source code). Company A now finds that the program does not implement what it thought was in the specification. Company B argues that it does.

Both companies are left wondering if they should resolve the matter in court. Meanwhile none of the code defects get fixed because company A is unwilling to deal with company B and they have the source code so they are the only ones able to fix the defects.

Finally just as there is a shortage of really good mathematicians, so there is also a shortage of really good computer programmers. In the end you only get what you pay for.

Shaun Williamson


(18) Marty asked:

There is a philosophy espoused by some educators and parents that goes like this: If you believe it or can conceive it, you can achieve it. I believe this is misleading and sometimes even cruel or impossible. For instance, a child who is physically handicapped (or to be politically correct, 'physically challenged') should not strive to become a star athlete except in the Special Olympics, and one whose IQ is less than stellar will not become a brain surgeon. Encouraging young people to reach their full potential is good; offering false hope is not. I think this falls under the realm of concept vs. precept and that some children's and adults' egos are so overly inflated that they are unable to remain objective about themselves and the world around them. What do you think?

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

We all have talents and defects that we are born with and there is no harm in trying to make the best of your talents. However being realistic is a major part of maximising your talents. There are also the obstacles that society puts in your way. Its much easier to become a doctor if your father is a doctor.

Not everyone can become president of the U.S.A. It really helps if you are born into a really wealthy family. Arthur Miller's play 'Death of a Salesman' is an interesting reflection on the defects in the American dream and its idea that anyone can become whatever they want to be.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Brian asked:

Why should the law insist we wear seat belts (or crash helmets)? After all isn't this a matter of mature choice, and we (potentially) hurt only ourselves.

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

The first point to consider is that there are several cases where you don't only hurt yourself — back seat passengers can crush and kill front seat occupants in the event of a crash. There is also the issue of children, who are not capable of mature thought and would invariably choose not to wear a seat belt. In this case, an argument could be made that the adult driver has a duty of care to ensure that child occupants are as safe as reasonably practicable, and that means wearing a seat belt.

So the actual question could more accurately be framed as 'Why should the law insist front seat occupying adults wear seat belts?' One effect of the law is to provide a simple answer to the above problem of protecting those unable to make a mature decision — 'because it's the law' is an easy answer for a parent to give. But 'protecting the children' is often a convenient excuse — so what other reasons are there?

The obvious one is that many people are prone to making poor judgements and society often protects them. In the case of seat belts, the actual cost of wearing a seat belt is very low (maybe slightly less comfortable?) but the benefit should a crash occur is obvious. However, without a law, people (especially teenagers) would be prone to poor reasoning (eg. peer pressure to look cool), and would choose not to pay the small cost, which would lead to an increase in the severity of road accidents — and given that young people are most likely to be involved in accidents, this would significantly increase the overall death and injury rate. There is a financial cost to be paid by society for this, both directly in emergency services and medical care, and indirectly, through needlessly losing people who would otherwise have become productive members of society — their years of education and other 'investments' society has made are wasted.

It should be noted that protecting people from themselves is common in most, if not all, societies. We outlaw blatant lies in marketing, because in the past people bought worthless 'tonics' as medical treatments. Most countries outlaw euthanasia. We regulate the safety of fairground rides — in effect preventing people from making the poor choice of riding in unsafe equipment. We also outlaw selling your kidneys and other body parts. It's a balancing act and not all societies are the same; after all, you can still drive without a seat belt on your own land, you can legally be killed by euthanasia in Switzerland, and you legally sell your kidney in Iran.

Chris Bainbridge


(20) Miles asked:

This question refers to fatalism:

'Whatever will be, will be' seems a common sense tautology. If you accept that statements about the future can be true or false (before the 'truth makers'[*] actually exist) then you must accept that there is not an open possibility that something can occur, if it won't, in fact, occur.

So it seems that fatalism is stating the obvious: Even if events are not causally linked (as determinism suggests), but are actually completely random ('free') with regard to which outcome will occur, only one outcome can and will occur in any given circumstance.

My question is; how does this apply to possible worlds? Would a fatalist hold that all possible worlds are identical to the actual world, since the truths about the actual world are 'necessary truths'?

(With a determinist position, this seems reasonable, if all occurrences are caused and none are random, then like causes could produce like results.) But the fatalist does not rely on causation. If some events are truly random ('free'), surely in one possible world the outcome is A while in another the outcome is B. Presumably that means that A and B are contingent, not necessary. How would a fatalist maintain that all truths are necessary without adopting a determinist stance also? (Or would they have to reject the use of 'possible worlds' as a reasoning tool?)

[*those conditions in reality which the proposition refers to]

Thanks a lot for your time. You guys are great.

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

There are fatalist views according to which this world is the only logically possible world. Spinoza's monism would be one.

However, there is no inconsistency in being a fatalist — who as you say is unconcerned about the truth or falsity of determinism — and holding that the difference between the actual world and other logically possible worlds is merely one of local perspective, as e.g. in David Lewises realist view of possible worlds.

It is true that possible worlds have been used to express the theory of 'future contingency' which Aristotle held. To use Aristotle's famous example, relative to the actual present, there is a possible future world (or, rather, range of worlds) where a sea battle occurs tomorrow, and a possible world (range of worlds) where a sea battle does not take place tomorrow. Possible worlds branch off from the present.

In relation to this picture, a fatalist must hold by contrast that each possible 'world line' is independent of the others. Whichever world is 'actual' for you, is such that the future and the past are fixed, by virtue of past and future 'facts'. A 'world' in this sense is 'the totality of facts', past, present — and future.

Geoffrey Klempner


(21) Saffron asked:

Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I no longer 'believe in science'. Many people have found this hard to understand, and I myself am struggling with the concept. Is it even possible to disregard something which so many hold in such high esteem?

I feel that the basis for my beliefs, or lack thereof, lies with the question of infallibility. Upon broaching the topic with friends from my philosophy class, I was told that not believing in science was simply not an option. I had to believe in it, because it was all around me. My counter argument was that science was elitist, something for the select few, in that there are very few people who actually 'know the truth'. One friend in particular pointed out that I had to believe in gravity, as it was acting on me all the time, and that the clothes I was wearing and the dye I use in my hair were all products of science. I remain unconvinced though, as neither my friend, nor anyone I know, can actually prove these beliefs they regard so highly. Has no one considered the possibility that science is simply an invention to 'fob off' the masses about the world in which we live? I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist; I am simply looking to understand why or if we should all believe in science and what the implications are if we are all wrong?

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

The real topic of this question is to ask what we mean when we say we 'believe' in something. Science is a methodology, not a religion — it doesn't require your belief. It is merely a way of reasoning about the world, and formulating experiments to verify those hypotheses. Saying that you 'believe' in science when it comes to asking questions about the world is like saying that you 'believe' in bricks and mortar when it comes to building a house. Sure, there are other ways to build a house, just as there are other ways to think about the world. What makes the scientific method special is that it seems to work very well — in our modern life practically every useful thing is the product of science, such as medicines, computers, telephones, electricity, lighting, and the intensive agriculture necessary to sustain a population of millions.

If you can't appreciate science, then ask yourself what life was like before it became accepted? Before modern surgical techniques, blood transfusions, and medicines, one third of women would die in childbirth. Before the electric light bulb the streets were either dark or dimly lit by burning oil and were havens for crime. Before we learnt about bacteria, people lived and ate in a disgustingly unhygenic way and illness was rife. Before we learned diversified intensive agricultural methods, we had events like the Irish potato famine that wiped out 25% of the Irish population. Surely what we have now is better than all that?

Chris Bainbridge


(22) Jamie asked:

The age old saying of 'If a tree falls in a woods and nobody is there to hear it does it make a sound?'

Now in my understanding sound is the pressure waves hitting the eardrum and thus creating sound... so if no ear drum is around is there sound or just pressure waves of air?

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As in most philosophical questions, the answer depends on just what you mean — in this case, just what you mean by 'sound'. The word has different meanings to different people, and in different contexts.

According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary — 'sound (noun): 1 vibrations which travel through the air or another medium and are sensed by the ear. 2 a thing that can be heard.' You'll notice the emphasis on 'can be heard.' Which most would interpret to mean may not necessarily be heard.

And from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition — 'sound: any disturbance that travels through an elastic medium such as air, ground, or water to be heard by the human ear. When a body vibrates, or moves back and forth (see vibration), the oscillation causes a periodic disturbance of the surrounding air or other medium that radiates outward in straight lines in the form of a pressure wave. The effect these waves produce upon the ear is perceived as sound. From the point of view of physics, sound is considered to be the waves of vibratory motion themselves, whether or not they are heard by the human ear.' You'll note the narrower meaning within the context of physics.

So whether or not the falling tree makes a 'sound' if no one is there to hear it, depends on just exactly what you mean by 'a sound'.

Stuart Burns


(23) Adnan asked:

You know that mass can be converted into energy and similarly energy can be converted in to mass, but I have to ask that what is in between these two forms or alternatively what is in between light and energy?

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There is nothing 'between' matter and energy. The meanings of the words 'matter' and 'energy' are such that they bifurcate the field. If it is not matter then it is energy, and vice versa. To ask what is between them is to commit a frame error. It would be like asking for what is 'between' on and off.

Since light (electromagnetic radiation) is energy, there can be nothing 'between' them.

Stuart Burns


(24) Gary asked:

If '0' means nothing and infinity means beyond understanding. doe that disagree with the thought that creation means the beginning and Heaven is the equivalent of infinity.

Is there a conflict of terms between the religious and the scientific communities or is it jus ta a matter of the words used?

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Your first question fails of meaning because one of your initial premises is wrong. Infinity does not mean 'beyond understanding'. And since there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence or nature of Heaven (except within the words of prophets or shamans who have never been there), one can be as imaginative as one pleases about Heaven without disagreeing with anything.

And there is a fundamental conflict of basic premise between the religious and the scientific communities. Religious communities maintain that reality is in some fashion beyond the understanding of Man (eg. God is incomprehensible), and there are influences (causes of events) that are beyond the rule of natural law (eg. God can and does interfere in the affairs of Man at will, and how He wills, without regard to the 'rules' identified by the scientists — hence 'miracles'). Science, on the other hand, is based on the fundamental premise that reality is in all respects comprehensible (in principle, if not necessarily at the moment), and that all influences (causes of events) obey and are explicable by natural laws. Hence, on almost any subject, the two communities cannot communicate in anything more that general pleasantries.

Stuart Burns


(25) Hadi asked:

I want to learn philosophy as I love to think and doubt everything that's around me and I've just found out about six Pathways which I thought is a great program to start off and have already planning one.

But my big problem was most of the great philosophy works were wrote or translated into English (my first language is Malay) and I had a problem to understand well on most of the topics that's written. To understand well is by mean to really immerse into what has been written or said by those great philosopher.

Is a language should be a problem for me to understand philosophy?

By judging on this post only, will I ever write a decent essay on philosophy?

I was much into Ludwig Wittgenstein as I had this feeling that I admire his works even I've never get my hand on any of his books before. Of course I did some research on what he did in a world of philosophy. That's alone has already spark my desire to further pursue my understanding on his works.

But then, can I just pick only him and ignore others contribution in order to be a philosopher?

Is it possible?

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

It is interesting that you have picked Wittgenstein because according to various reports, including the beautiful Memoir by Norman Malcolm, he was not much interested in reading the works of other philosophers.

I don't know whether or not the reports are true. In his youth, Wittgenstein immersed himself in the work of Schopenhauer, then later as a student under Russell, the German mathematician and philosopher Frege.

The question of language has been raised, for English speaking philosophers by works which are difficult to translate. Heidegger's Being and Time is one notable example. Is it really possible to grasp the essence of Heidegger's thought if one does not understand German?

Thought is not encrusted or imprinted in language. A better metaphor would be to think of language as a window which we look through. Even if the window is dirty or scratched you can still clearly see what is there to be seen, the thought expressed. When someone stammers, you try all the harder to grasp their meaning.

I have students whose English is not that good, who nevertheless succeed in turning out excellent essays. There are enough clues, in what they have put down in black and white, to enable me to see what their idea is, to follow the argument that they are presenting and to make a fair assessment of the quality of their work.

Geoffrey Klempner


(26) Alan asked:

I have seen people starving in Africa. Should I sell everything I own to help save some people from starvation?

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No! Your knee jerk charitable reaction will help a few African's not to starve for a short time. after that money runs out they will continue to starve and it will be as though you never existed. If you really want to help people think about what you could do that would be really useful.

Shaun Williamson


(27) Pop asked:

What does energy look like?

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Energy is an abstract concept. It isn't a physical thing and it isn't a ghostly thing either. You can see the effects of energy i.e a fire burning is the release of energy due to the chemical reaction of rapid oxidation. It makes no sense to ask what does energy look like or to ask what colour is energy.

Light is pure energy and you can see light. However heat and radio waves are also both forms of pure energy and you can't see them i.e they don't look like anything.

Shaun Williamson


(28) Ash asked:

How can we change our futures? Is it mental attitude?

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Partly it is mental attitude but also it is a question of thinking what you want to be, setting yourself realistic goals and working towards them. There is no magic answer.

Shaun Williamson


(29) Gabriel asked:

My question has two parts. 1) How is it that humans can make mistakes, and in general would any finite being be fallible? For a simple example, doing a sum wrong or typing a wrong letter. Or, it always puzzled me in high school that even people who studied hard could rarely get a 100 score on math tests, since mathematics and logic facts are knowable with rigorous certainty. A friend told me that Plato would say you can't ever "really" make a mistake like getting a wrong sum because your internal intention was to get the right sum, but that sounds wrong.

2) Traditionally in computer programming people seem to have thought that you should design a program carefully by writing down everything it's supposed to do and then meticulously crafting it, like making a chair or a house, and the result would then be good. Yet in practice most of computer programming seems to involve "debugging", the process of identifying and fixing mistakes. I don't have an exact number, but it's something like spend 10 minutes crafting the program then spend 2 hours tinkering with it to ascertain why it won't work correctly. Given that this is how things really are, why is it so tempting to believe the traditional view that programs, like a chair or house, can be crafted with care and certainty to "just work"?

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It may seem strange to those who are not familiar with computer programming, but I have been reliably told that there is always an element of 'trial and error'. Despite the time taken in debugging, it is still far more economical in terms of time to make a program which looks as though it ought to work, then iron out the bugs, than to proceed on the principle that you have to be absolutely certain, at every single step, that the code you are writing has not introduced a bug.

The principle is not totally dissimilar to the simple case where you are adding up a long column of figures. You could go very, very slowly, checking the result at every stage but this would be wasteful. If you've added the column twice or three times and each time come to the same result then you can be pretty sure (although not certain) that you have not slipped up.

It is true, that in programming, it would probably be impossible to anticipate all the things that might go wrong, there are simply too many variables. That is where the analogy with adding up a column of figures breaks down.

There is a deeper philosophical question, however, about the nature of human fallibility. What would we have to be like, if we were incapable of making errors in judgement? Or, are there things concerning which errors of judgement are impossible?

I would argue that the very nature of judgement involves a gap between between the thing you believe — the perception, the calculation — and the facts. There has to be a possibility, in principle of being wrong if we are to speak of truth as something which we achieve. Making judgements which cannot be false would be like shooting arrows at a target, where the target is attached to the arrow so that it unfurls wherever the arrow happens to land.

It follows (somewhat more controversially) that there is something fundamentally wrong with Descartes' project of building foundations of human knowledge on an individual's 'indubitable' thoughts and perceptions.

Geoffrey Klempner


(30) Jan asked:

Why is the moon round?

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All bodies generate their own gravitational field. If a body is large enough then its gravitational field will be strong enough to squeeze the material it is made out of into a sphere.

You may have noticed that all the major planets and the sun are also spheres, not perfect spheres but close enough. However there are rocks in space which are not round. They are too small so that their gravitational field isn't strong enough to squeeze the material into a sphere. The sphere is the natural shape taken by any body with a strong enough gravitational field.

Shaun Williamson


(31) Benny asked:

In one of his answers, Shaun Williamson said: 'This is an accident of history but history is full of accidents.' Can he explain what he means by this? Or is it just a figure of speech?

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Well it would have been better if you had quoted the full answer. Without it he is struggling.

Some things in history seem to be the result of bad planning. For example it seems to me to have been inevitable for all sorts of reasons that Hitler would lose the second world war. He was someone who was always able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It also seems inevitable that Napoleon would be defeated simply because he would go on waging war until he lost.

Other things like the fact that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo seem to be more a question of fortunate accidents. If the Prussian army hadn't arrived on the battlefield when it did then its possible that Napoleon would have won.

Consider also the fact that Hitler's anti-semitism got rid of the very scientists who might have been able to give Germany the atom bomb. They went to America and gave them the atom bomb instead. I regard that as a fortunate accident

So I think that some historical events were the direct result of good of bad planning but others were simply the result of fortunate or unfortunate accident.

Shaun Williamson


(32) Chrissy asked:

Below is an extract of a reply given to a similar question I have had on my mind for a long time relative to the orthodox Christian God concept. My simple question is that if He knows everything we are going to experience from existence to death (somewhere in the Bible it says something like 'not one feather shall fall without my knowing it.') thereby suggesting knowledge of a future unknown by us mere mortals and clearly states, therefore, that we do not have free will as we are obviously preprogrammed to simply follow a predestined path with noway out and we can change nothing nor have an effect on anything.

If this is the case, are there then some 7 billion humanoid robots on this earth (including astronauts above of course) with no real purpose?

What is the point of our existence under this concept and how does it then impact on 'I think therefore I am' ?

I am now who or what??

The traditional, orthodox Christian God is almighty, all-powerful, omnipotent. Applied to knowledge, the omnipotent God must necessarily be omniscient: God knows everything. Knowing what happened in the past, happens in the present and especially what will happen in the future, His foreknowledge can not be contradicted. If contradicted God would be wrong and this is impossible. So if God knew in 2000 that I would answer this question in 2007, I could not have acted otherwise. I have no freedom to choose. If Existentialism is the philosophy of freedom then it is irreconcilable with a belief in God, the Orthodox Christian God at the very least. God prevents the freedom that is essential for the human freedom propounded by Existentialism. Without the sufficient condition of atheism which guarantee's freedom by denying the existence of God humans cannot be free. (Answers 39/40 2nd series)

Clearly, as you can no doubt tell, I'm no philosopher just a confused existential robot (lol)

Many thanks for your time. Regards ... Chrissy

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

Let me start by saying that I am an agnostic. God exists outside of time so you can't in any real sense say that God knows the future. God's knowledge of everything in no way determines what you do so it cannot contradict your freedom. Past and future are concepts that apply to humans not to God. God has knowledge not foreknowledge. Only a being who exists in time can have foreknowledge.

Shaun Williamson


(33) Chrissy asked:

Below is an extract of a reply given to a similar question I have had on my mind for a long time relative to the orthodox Christian God concept. My simple question is that if He knows everything we are going to experience from existence to death (somewhere in the Bible it says something like 'not one feather shall fall without my knowing it.') thereby suggesting knowledge of a future unknown by us mere mortals and clearly states, therefore, that we do not have free will as we are obviously preprogrammed to simply follow a predestined path with noway out and we can change nothing nor have an effect on anything.

If this is the case, are there then some 7 billion humanoid robots on this earth (including astronauts above of course) with no real purpose?

What is the point of our existence under this concept and how does it then impact on 'I think therefore I am' ?

I am now who or what??

The traditional, orthodox Christian God is almighty, all-powerful omnipotent. Applied to knowledge, the omnipotent God must necessarily be omniscient: God knows everything. Knowing what happened in the past, happens in the present and especially what will happen in the future, His foreknowledge can not be contradicted. If contradicted God would be wrong and this is impossible. So if God knew in 2000 that I would answer this question in 2007, I could not have acted otherwise. I have no freedom to choose. If Existentialism is the philosophy of freedom then it is irreconcilable with a belief in God the Orthodox Christian God at the very least. God prevents the freedom that is essential for the human freedom propounded by Existentialism. Without the sufficient condition of atheism which guarantee's freedom by denying the existence of God humans cannot be free. (Answers 39/40 2nd series)

Clearly, as you can no doubt tell, I'm no philosopher just a confused existential robot (lol)

Many thanks for your time. Regards ... Chrissy

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

The characteristics that have been posited for the Christian God (all Gods, actually) are logically contradictory.

Hence, a belief in the Christian God must necessarily have an emotional basis rather than a rational one.

Which means that it is 'improper' (a 'frame error') to use rational analysis to explore the consequences of the logically contradictory characteristics of God. Any such analysis will inevitably lead to a logical contradiction. You have identified one of the more obvious ones. If God is omniscient, then he knows everything. If He is omnipotent, nothing happens but that He wills that it happens. Hence for a human to commit sin, or to act contrary to the will of God is logically impossible. There are many more such logical paradoxes within standard Christian belief.

If you choose to believe in God, then you must suspend all rational exploration of the consequences of that belief.

(Regrettably, that suspension of rational thought in the face of religious contradictions has a strong tendency to become a suspension of rational thought in general — leading to such absurdities as suicide bombers and creationism.)

Stuart Burns


(34) Andrea asked:

Am I going to lose my job in the next 12 months?

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Whether or not you keep your job is not the most important thing in life. You will survive, either way. What is more important is the kind of life you choose to live, which is in your hands and no-one else's.

Take a philosophy course. It will help you put things in a better perspective.

Geoffrey Klempner


(35) Michael asked:

Has Zeno's paradox, according to which Achilles will never overtake the Tortoise, has ever been resolved? By whom and how has it been resolved? Is my resolution below valid?

Zeno's model of the race Achilles vs. the Tortoise is wrong, because it looks at ever decreasing time intervals that never will approach the point in time, where Achilles really reaches and then overtakes the Tortoise. A model more in harmony with what we perceive as reality would look at time intervals of the same length and would be able to state precisely, at which point in time Achilles will overtake the Tortoise. This model is that of elementary kinetics taught in 10th grade secondary school.

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Unfortunately, all we have of Zeno's paradox is a very brief description of it by Aristotle. So we don't really know what premises and logical reasoning Zeno applied to reach his conclusion.

The 'solution' that Aristotle offered was to suggest that time is as infinitely divisible as is space. Hence, he reasoned, Achilles will close the one unit of distance between himself and the tortoise in one unit of time. Of course, Aristotle did not have available the mathematics of infinite series developed in the nineteen century, so he could not prove that the sum of the infinite series of halving fractions is one.

But on some interpretations of Zeno's paradox, the solution offered by Aristotle misses the point. This interpretation would reason that Achilles could never actually catch the tortoise since there is, by definition, no 'last' fraction in that infinite series that has the tortoise's position as an end point. Achilles can merely get as close to the tortoise as one might wish, but never actually catch the tortoise. On this interpretation, no one has ever provided an adequate solution to the paradox.

The paradox is a logical exercise of deduction from premises. If the conclusion of the reasoning is seen as problematic (as most would see it), then the challenge is not to offer a different way of viewing the race (as you suggest), the challenge is to find and resolve the logical error in the reasoning. Assuming that the deductive reasoning is valid (since Aristotle did not fault Zeno's reasoning), what premise is being employed that is actually false?

Stuart Burns


(36) Saffron asked:

Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I no longer 'believe in science'. Many people have found this hard to understand, and I myself am struggling with the concept. Is it even possible to disregard something which so many hold in such high esteem?

I feel that the basis for my beliefs, or lack thereof, lies with the question of infallibility. Upon broaching the topic with friends from my philosophy class, I was told that not believing in science was simply not an option. I had to believe in it, because it was all around me. My counter argument was that science was elitist, something for the select few, in that there are very few people who actually 'know the truth'. One friend in particular pointed out that I had to believe in gravity, as it was acting on me all the time, and that the clothes I was wearing and the dye I use in my hair were all products of science. I remain unconvinced though, as neither my friend, nor anyone I know, can actually prove these beliefs they regard so highly. Has no one considered the possibility that science is simply an invention to 'fob off' the masses about the world in which we live? I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist; I am simply looking to understand why or if we should all believe in science and what the implications are if we are all wrong?

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I find the thinking behind this question difficult to understand. Science is simply acquired knowledge (as distinct from speculation) about us and the universe we live in. Anyone is entitled to say they don't believe in knowledge, but this would not be a particularly smart thing to say, since it appears to reduce the whole weight of human knowledge to the same level as Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. This would seem to be a remarkably superficial approach to something as omni-present and all-embracing as Science. (Does Saffron, for example, think doctors and surgeons are charlatans because their everyday work is founded upon medical science/knowledge?)

Scientific knowledge has been acquired and consolidated through a rigorous process of experimentation and observation which has been developed over centuries by many of the finest brains the human race has produced. Their insights have been framed as theories, which can be proven over and over again by calculation or experiment and are constantly open to any fresh insight which improves on them or demonstrates them to be unreliable.

Knowledge acquired in this painstaking manner, which grows by building on firm foundations and constantly testing its own strength,is the most certain knowledge we humans are capable of possessing. Eating forbidden fruit, making giant leaps of faith, or subscribing wholeheartedly to unfounded conspiracy theories( or indeed any theory before it has been properly substantiated and developed into a law)is no substitute, and never will be. If you are seeking honest answers to your questions (i.e. not bending your enquiries to suit a case you wish to argue) then science and the scientific method are the best friends you can have.

The compelling nature of knowledge acquired in this way is why there has always been such a strong reaction, often savagely violent, against science among those who would prefer us to remain ignorant and indoctrinated with their supposed 'truths', but are incapable of refuting its findings. For example, without scientific knowledge we would still have only the established religious views to enlighten us on such matters as the layout of our solar system and the 'creation story'.Many people prefer to continue to believe in what has been shown to be no more than fanciful speculation: that is a choice for them, of course, but it is not one which can be justified by anyone who understands the distinction between belief and knowledge. Those who originated the story of Adam and Eve and believed from what they saw that the Sun and stars rotate around the Earth are not to be blamed or condemned: they were doing the best they could with the tools available to them at the time.It is those who denounce the demonstrably more correct scientific interpretations of these events and observations which have since been developed on the back of hard and indisputable knowledge who do mankind the greatest disservice. (Not to mention those who propose that we should now, for some reason,discard our massive body of hard-won knowledge and revert to the intellectual status of our primitive predecessors.)

Saffron does not 'wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist'. Unfortunately, his?/her? language and thought processes do betray the mentality of the conspiracy theorist through and through. While it is possible to verify the chronology of man's discoveries about, for example, the evolution of life on earth, this does require a certain degree of application — involving perhaps, for example,some study of historical documents and treatises in museums and libraries, it is obviously not only 'possible to disregard' this body of scientific work, but indeed far easier to do so. Avoiding having to work to verify the gradual accumulation of this body of knowledge frees one up totally to embrace instead views gleaned from one's circle of (equally well-informed) friends. Thus liberated from the shackles of knowledge, it is then a small step to conclude that, somehow, these men and women, working in different geographic locations and often centuries apart from each other, managed to conspire together to try and dupe twenty-first century philosophy students and others into believing — get this! — that the earth isn't actually flat; that the sun and stars actually do not revolve around it; that woman wasn't fashioned from a spare body part in an afternoon, but rather developed along with man in a tortuous process which took billions of years; and that bleeding with leeches may not in fact be the best cure for all ailments!Who on earth were they trying to fool!

Science is a body of verifiable knowledge, developing over time, which is also open to falsifiability(i.e. new discoveries can modify or disprove existing beliefs — in which case knowledge moves on and grows).There is, of course,'good science' and 'bad science': 'knowledge' acquired through a process which lacks the proper rigour or ignores new evidence is likely to be flawed. However, the baby is far too valuable to throw out with the bathwater. So we must be on our guard and weed out the pseudo-knowledge of 'science imposters' ( for example religious factions which embrace scientific knowledge selectively to support their beliefs,but disregard knowledge which contradicts and disproves them.)

Like good science, Good Philosophy also demands a degree of intellectual rigour, and casual debate is no substitute for knowledge-based thinking.Turning the wording of Saffron's question on its head, I would suggest as an exercise in enlightenment the exploration of the proposition that science (i.e. structured, verified knowledge) is the best antidote we have against all those who would seek to fob off the masses about the world we live in.

Philip Coulson


(37) Cher asked:

What is more likely to bring happiness a life with a partner that I love and deeply respect but with no prospect of having a child and therefore will die childless, or a life with someone else who I do not love, or love less but with whom I can have a child, whom I will deeply love?

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Cher you really can't expect us to answer this question for you. We don't know you or your partner or your individual circumstances. In any case life isn't only about obtaining the maximum happiness for yourself. Nor is it true that you can only love one person in life.

Going by your name I assume you are a woman. For women the major decision of their lives is whether to have children or not. If you get this decision wrong then your life may be unhappy and full of regret. It seems to me that you need expert help so you should consult a qualified counsellor or therapist. There may be other solutions to your problem such as adoption or artificial insemination. However since you don't explain why you can't have a child with your present partner, it is impossible to advise you.

Shaun Williamson.


(38) Alan asked:

As a carer for people with learning difficulties the question of sex arises from time to time should I encourage clients to have intercourse or forbid it. Who has the right to decide?

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The idea that people with learning difficulties — including those who require special care — should not be allowed to have loving relationships and to express their feelings physically is something that many would find repugnant.

There are however two serious problems with promoting this view, one practical and one ethical. The practical problem is ensuring sufficient privacy. This problem is exacerbated if the parties concerned have difficulty in judging the borderline between proper and improper behaviour when in company with others.

The second problem concerns issues around responsibility, freedom and exploitation. The most serious is the danger that sexually active clients will be unfairly taken advantage of or abused, either by staff or by other clients.

Something which adults would normally be trusted to judge for themselves becomes a matter of concern when we are not fully confident that the parties are able to make this judgement.

There are no easy answers. To the extent that you have taken on the duty of care, you have not only the right but the duty to decide. That is not to say that the individuals concerned do not have any freedom of choice, or that their views do not count.

I would argue for a relaxed but vigilant regime which is open-minded and tolerant, but also goes to sufficient lengths to ensure that abuses do not occur. As always, this kind of advice translates into extra resources — extra staff, better arrangements for privacy — and that is probably the biggest practical obstacle.

Geoffrey Klempner


(39) Kaitlin asked:

Should we be neural chauvinists and deny that machines and martians could have mental states?

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It's strange that we only use phrases like 'mental states' in philosophy and rarely in real life.

Suppose you have a party and you invite me to it. However I can't go, so I send a friend of mine instead. The next day I ask her about the party and she tells me about it. The conversations she had with people we both know etc. She tells me the jokes she heard at the party what sort of music was played. Could it be possible that although she can describe the party and what happened and what she thought and felt, she doesn't have mental states?

Now suppose instead that I send my machine or martian to the party and the next day they tell me what it was like. Should I now say that they don't have mental states and what could I possibly mean by this if I did?

What is the difference between someone who goes to a party and has mental states and someone who goes to a party and doesn't have mental states? Of course I don't know any machines or Martians who go to parties. So how am I supposed to decide whether they have mental states of not?

Shaun Williamson


(40) Amanda asked:

How can you argue against against the view that Rousseau's General Will increases Moral Liberty?

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Increases Moral Liberty

Participation in the formulation of the General Will engages each Citizen in recognising and facilitating the best interests of the Community. This maintains both individual freedom [that existed before the Community was established by means of the Social Contract] and the collective freedom of all as both are involved in formulating and instantiating in the General Will. In obeying the General Will which s/he has formulated — albeit with others — the citizen is obeying his/her own will. In so obeying the General Will, the individual follows a discipline in suppressing his/ her appetites, desires and passions. This removes the human being away from the dictates of the passions characteristic of brutes to become a Citizen who follows reasons and reasoned argument as established in the General Will. In so practicing this reasoned autonomy, moral liberty is established and followed. Further, Justice [as opposed to arbitrary acts] follows upon moral liberty and is only possible by it.

Decreases Moral Liberty

Some commentators see the origins of totalitarianism in The Social Contract. For if the General Will is Sovereign then what it decrees cannot be opposed. If opposed, the General Will is not Sovereign. If not Sovereign, the 'mind' of the Body Politic is impaired failing the existence of a legitimate body politic. So for the Body Politic to function, the General Will must be Sovereign. This interpretation of Sovereignty is totalitarian. As totalitarian, there are no limits to what the General Will can do. It will control laws, the existence of private property, it can censor what is permitted or not permitted on the grounds of the best interests of the state. Liberty demands limits [negative rights] to the power of authority. Subjects of the General Will cannot have any individual liberty against it. For according to Rousseau, as the General Will is the best interest of the citizens who make it, it cannot be opposed to them. As it cannot be opposed there is no need for any guarantee against the actions of the General Will. This allows what John Stuart Mill termed 'the tyranny of the majority'.

Martin Jenkins


(41) Deenie asked:

I'm thinking of exploring 'faith and intuition as sources of religious knowledge, the validity of these sources and thus the validity of religious knowledge' for a research paper. Could you share some thoughts on this?

Also, are faith and intuition good sources that lead to religious knowledge or would instinct and causality be more significant?

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Proofs for the existence of God are either Theologia Rationalis [based on reason and reasoned argument] of Theologia Revelata [based on revelation or religious experience]. Many theologians will maintain that knowledge of God and belief in Him is beyond the limits of analytic human reasoning as practiced in Theologia Rationalis. In The Idea of the Holy Rudolph Otto proposed that the Holy [Heilig] is experienced in the numinous. This is a felt presence of something bigger, greater, more. By experience of the numinous, a person knows the Holy or God.

Revelation

The proof for the existence of God by means of experience or revelation throws up problems. Firstly, revelation as source of knowing God opens up the equal claim to revelations of other deities — not just the Christian. For if revelation is a source of knowing the existence of a supernatural, transcendental, a greater being — then it holds for deities beyond one religion. It might be retorted that these supposed many deities are paths towards the one true God. But which god? Further, deities are so qualitatively different they are exclusive from others and cannot be conflated. Norse warrior gods are distinct from the New Testament Christian God of love and forgiveness. The latter is distinct from the wrathful, imperious Yahweh of the Old Testament and so on. Secondly, the knowledge claim of revelation is a tautology. If asked how a revaluate is certain the experience was of God, the invariable reply in my experience is 'I know, it was God' But how do you know, how are you certain? 'I know that I know'. This merely repeats a statement creating an unvirtuous circle without providing an external proof. If this unvirtuous circle of reasoning is permitted, any claim will qualify: 'I am the King of China — I know because I know'. Knowledge claims will collapse into a situation where anything goes.

However, revelatory experiences are so powerful they possess a certainty. Just as I subjectively know with certainty I am in pain, or know that I am happy — I know with certainty I am experiencing God.

Language Games

It is argued [most notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein] that such subjective certainty can only arise from external nomination or demarcation, which arises, by mean of the use of language. In other words, the experience is only articulated as a revelatory one because the person is speaking within a Language Game pertaining to a particular culture and form of life in which God and Revelation exist. In another culture it could be Allah or Yahweh or Dionysus and so on.

The previous passage maintains that language is the dominant factor in epistemology. But language doesn't have the absolute power to create from nothing — it can't make humans fly, it can't make them live without vital organs, neither can it explain away pain as culturally relative or dependent on language for its existence. Some things are irremovably essential such as the experience of pain; and, if pain is experienced despite language then so is the revelation of God. Whilst agreeing that some things are essential how they are articulated is another matter. Pain in a baby manifests crying and screaming. As it grows the child is taught to replace crying by means of language and behaviour. It is taught that pain is not always avoidable [being hungry, doing things one does not want to do, first day at school, child birth] that experiencing it is good [in physical education, writing essays]. So how a pain is articulated and understood depends on cultural constructs. It does not always exist in splendid purity but is subject to development, sublimation and re-description. Likewise certain experiences are subsequently articulated in cultural values and attributed as revelations of God etc. Moreover, pain might be more readily a shared essentialist experience than an experience articulated as Revelatory thus accounting for the questioning associated with its alleged experience.

Faith

Laterally, one reply to the above response to essentialism uses the basis of Language Games. It is possible for several people to share a Language Game about Revelatory experiences; so between them, they claim to know they have experienced God. The experiences are enduring from Saul to Julian of

Norwich to today. These could emerge from common dispositions in the human constitution for 'the transcendent', 'the spiritual', or from human qualities transferred to the transcendent [see the writings of Don Cuppitt, Ludwig Feuerbach]. Or, they could arise from the actions of a God.

As read, in the latter case, the proof seems so subjective as too invite intelligent scepticism. Against scepticism, faith or belief that the experience was of God can be employed. This avoids the problems of making a knowledge claim. It keeps open the possibility of being wrong as it keeps open the possibility of being right. [see Blaise Pascal 'Pensees #233'] Just as a person may believe or have faith that his/her friends will help in a time of crisis, so the person who undergoes religious experience can believe it was of a revelation of a god, God, goddess.

Martin Jenkins


(42) Tammy asked:

Describe how ethical egoism might be used to justify eliminating welfare programmes.

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Ethical Egoism generally holds that the Ego is Sovereign. Because the Ego is Rational it affords Autonomy. Autonomy is free, conscious decision making and this qualifies the Ego as Sovereign. The only legitimate social bonds arise from the decisions made between Sovereign Egos.

Welfare programmes are legitimate only if they arise from the voluntary consent and giving of autonomous, rational egos [i.e. are Charity]. The ethical egoist can choose to give or not to give money, donations, time and energy to Charities of his/her choice. This is ethical according to Egoism. Voluntary Consent is not sought by the State when it taxes individuals. The autonomy of the ego is violated by compulsory taxation. So taxation revenue — some of which may be spent and directed to Welfare programmes — is illegitimately gained.

To right this wrong, compulsory taxation ought to end. Monies can only be given by consent. If Welfare programmes arise from philanthropy, from voluntary giving or creation of such programmes — they are legitimate and ethical. If Welfare programmes arise from state funding which is financed by compulsory taxation then yes, they are illegitimate and unethical. So from the moral position of Ethical Egoism, state funded Welfare programmes ought to be eliminated.

Martin Jenkins


(43) John asked:

Time travel proof that time travel backwards is and will be impossible , assuming an infinite future of beings.

Assumption The future is infinite . Therefore if in the future time travel backwards is possible then would we not have by now stumbled across at least one of an infinite number of beings who came back in time ? We have seen noone. Would every single being from an infinite future who travelled back in time have been so careful ? I think not . Thereby proving either time travel backwards is impossible or , sadly , the future of all beings is finite!!!!

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The idea that given infinite future time, everything that might possibly happen logically must happen is fallacious. There is no logical contradiction in the hypothesis that time travellers from infinite future times have visited every planet in the universe except earth.

We don't need to invent some 'reason' why the time travellers would not visit earth. Let it be just a cosmic accident.

Having said that, it could be argued that on these assumptions a non-visit is infinitesimally probable. On the assumption that time travel is possible, any increase in the total age of the universe increases the probability that time travellers will visit earth. Therefore, increasing the age to infinity increases the probability to certainty.

I find this a strange conundrum. On the one hand, I am pretty well convinced by the arguments that time travel is logically impossible, and so no further argument needs to be given. Yet, here too there seems to be a tiny fringe of uncertainty. Maybe we've missed something, some clever way for time travel to take place that no-one has ever considered.

Then again, we know pretty well from cosmology and physics that the universe is finite in time as well as space. Given what we know of physics and cosmology, the universe can't go on forever. And yet, can we be absolutely sure? isn't there a tiny fringe of uncertainty here too?

And wouldn't you want to say that there is at least room for the speculation that we might be wrong in both cases? But apparently not! Ah!

Geoffrey Klempner


(44) Ken asked:

Is it important to have a philosophy in life ?

What is the goal of philosophising ?

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Everyone actually does have a philosophy of life — because everyone makes choices they consider the 'right' ones. However, most people adopt their philosophy of life from others — friends, parents, teachers, heroes, etc. — they choose what they think other people would tell them to choose. As a result, most people's philosophy of life is a self-contradictory hodge-podge of trite sayings that other people have found expedient to spout. Very few people care to inquire into their philosophy of life — whether it makes sense, where it came from, what are its consequences, whether it is consistent or self-contradictory, and so forth. Those few of us who do are the philosophers.

There are many goals to philosophizing. Philosophizing is the art of rationally thinking about questions — any questions. So philosophizing is, among many other things, rationally inquiring into one's philosophy of life, seeing where it takes you if you rely strictly on rational thought rather than emotions, and seeing if it makes any sense or could be improved.

If you want to start, ask yourself how you go about choosing the 'right thing to do'? I don't mean asking about what it the right thing, but rather how you go about choosing (what ever you choose) that option you consider 'righter' than any of the alternatives.

Stuart Burns


(45) Alec asked:

Say there is an alien behind me right now. but every time I turn to look at it, it disappears. how can I be sure that there isn't such a thing behind me right now? and how can I be sure that something exists when it is not in my view?

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Use a video camera. If your alien doesn't show up on that then it must be one of the those well known invisible aliens.

Shaun Williamson


(46) Susan asked:

This week I cut into an avocado which I was preparing to go into a salad, after one vertical cut I found it was not ripe so I put it back into a bag with two small tomatoes.

Three days later when preparing a salad I brought out the avocado again, and found to my horror it had self healed.

My thought was this avocado is alive, so I began stroking it to bring it some warmth. I suggested to my sister that maybe I should plant it and let it thrive, but she thought by doing so I would be burying it alive. We did think of taking it back to Tesco from where it came, but sister suggested this would be passing the buck. Is this avocado alive and who is responsible for it's well being? At this time the avocado is wrapped warm in a little napkin alongside an unblemished partner for company. Should it still be with the tomatoes?

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Of course plants are alive, didn't you know that? However plants have no brain or nervous system. They can't feel anything so just eat it! It won't care. The tomatoes are alive as well.

Shaun Williamson


(47) Eric asked:

I have a dilemma. I am a reasonably attractive, middle aged man who has had many successful relationships, including marital, with the opposite sex. I am also very good company for myself and have coped without problem (for long periods) with celibacy.

I am now trying internet dating and have found the results to be disappointing. It is becoming a bit like a treadmill.

What are the merits of 'kissing as many frogs as I can in the hope of finding my princess' over giving up on trying too hard and trusting to fate to drop my ideal mate into my lap (or indeed of living out my time in a reasonably stable single life)?

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

Something about the tone of this question jars. I don't believe you are happy being 'good company for myself'. I also suspect that the reason dating has become a 'treadmill' is your anxiety over finding a partner which increases each time you are disappointed.

Now, you propose to solve the anxiety by giving up on the search. Saying that 'fate will lend a hand' is just throwing a sop to the lonely individual nursing their disappointment. You would love to find someone. This isn't going to happen unless you continue to make an effort. There must be better alternatives than the internet. How many have you tried?

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the single life. You can have deep and profound experiences as a hermit living in a cave. All lives are possible, and most are liveable, at a stretch. But how happy are you with yours?

Uncertainty and anxiety are part of living. You can't always make things easy for yourself. Take the effort and you will be rewarded.

Geoffrey Klempner


(48) Alec asked:

Say there is an alien behind me right now. But every time I turn to look at it, it disappears. How can I be sure that there isn't such a thing behind me right now?

And how can I be sure that something exists when it is not in my view?

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

You have asked two separate questions that have completely different answers.

(1) How can you be sure that there isn't an invisible alien looking over your shoulder? Well, on an absolute scale, you can't be sure at all. Despite the improbability of the suggestion relative to the other things we think we know, even the impossibility relative to all that we currently know of physics, it is still remotely possible that we are wrong about these things, and you do have an alien peering over your shoulder.

However, you need to ask yourself the Pragmatist's Question — what difference would it make? If the alien watcher is doing things that you can detect, then you can observe the alien through the consequences of his/her/its actions. If the alien is careful not to do anything that you can detect, then the presence or absence of the alien will never make any difference to you. So, assuming you do not detect any such alien interference with things, apply Ockham's Razor and rule that there is no necessity to posit the presence of an undetectable alien. (On the other hand, if you do detect the interference of your own personal 'Harvey', then we would have to have a different discussion!)

(2) How can you be sure that things remain in existence when you look the other way? Well, like for the previous answer, you can't really be totally sure. But again, like with the previous answer, if you can't tell the difference between a reality that stays while you are not looking, and a reality that reappears only when you look at it, then choose the simpler alternative. Positing that things 'appear' only when you look, demands a complicated process of something (I don't say 'someone') remembering the way things looked the last time you looked so that it can reappear looking unchanged, and something regenerating whatever it was you last saw the next time you looked. On a movie or TV set, where 'reality' does indeed disappear when the cameras are turned off, it takes a number of people to photograph and then carefully reset the 'reality' for each new 'take' so that the audience never notices. (Instances where these people goof frequently show up on Blooper reels.) If you posit that your own reality disappears when you look away, then you need to also posit some process that can 'reset' things when you look back. Isn't it much simpler to posit that everything exists independently of your awareness of it?

You can gain some support for this reasoning by watching the behavior of other people (as long as you assume, of course, that 'other people' are more or less just like you). If reality does not disappear while they are not looking, why should it disappear while you are not looking. This argument doesn't work, of course, if you posit that reality only disappears when no one is looking. But that only makes the job of 'resetting' things when someone decides to look all the more complicated, doesn't it??

George Berkeley had a philosophy somewhat like this — his 'resetter' was God. Omnipotence and omniscience makes that process a little easier, I suppose. If you are interested, you can find out more about his philosophy on the Web (you can start here — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Berkeley).

Stuart Burns


(49) Farhad asked:

Does darkness exist? or it's just the absence of light that we presume as darkness?

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The absence of light is what we call darkness and yes darkness does exist.

Poverty is the absence of money and poverty does exist. Illness is the absence of health and illness exists. Light is the absence of darkness and darkness exists.

Shaun Williamson


(50) Ron asked:

I was delighted to see the entry about 'belief in science' and your answer about belief being equivalent to acting AS IF a certain proposition was true. What about 'faith?' What is it? How does it differ, if at all, from 'belief?'

Certainly, in a grammatical sense, they appear to be different. For example, we don't have a verb form for faith (to faith?) as we do for belief (to believe.)

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

I don't think any simple formula for a word like belief can sum it up completely. It is possible to believe that something is true but not to act as if it were true.

I think you shouldn't expect grammatical forms to have any real significance. We do have a verb 'to have faith in' which is comparable to 'to believe in' although the two are not always identical. In general faith is used to refer to more important matters, God, friendship etc. while belief can often be trivial but there is a large overlap between the two.

When people say things like 'I believe in science' or 'I don't believe' in science' then I always think that they are talking nonsense since you can only sincerely say either of these things if you don't know what science is. If you don't know what science is, then how can you believe in it. If you do know what science is then you would know that it is not a matter of belief or disbelief.

Shaun Williamson


(51) Bob asked:

Answers 4/11 2nd Series

There is one question which has always annoyed me. What is the meaning and/or purpose life.

Stuart Burns said:

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.

My only quibble is that in place of 'meaning' substitute 'purpose'. Richard Dawkins theory is elegant and the best example of Occam's razor in a long time. As to 'meaning' I don't think life has one nor is one necessary. Words have meaning, actions have meaning, natural events and states of matter (let's add life and death to plasma, gas, liquid and solid, why not) have consequences but not meaning. Rocks have no meaning other than the description in the dictionary. if a meaning for life and death is really necessary how about the meaning of death is the dead object cannot move itself, for the living object this is possible. Although these are really the consequences of the two states of being but hey throw a poor dog a bone. Is there any validity to my argument

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

Well OK as far as it goes. It is natural for humans who are aware of life, death and the history of the universe to wonder about why it is all here and knowing the theory of evolution doesn't necessarily provide an answer. Read some poetry, read Dylan Thomas's poem for his dying father, 'Do not go gentle into that Good Night'. When you understand poetry then you will understand why people try to find a meaning for life.

By the way you might like to note that plants are alive but cannot move before or after death.

Shaun Williamson


(52) Osman asked:

If I say (I am the self that I am aware of). Wont that mean that I am using the term 'I' in two different senses? This is because the later needs to be aware of the former. And thus, the term 'I' should have more than one significance?

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Let us ban the use of the words 'I' and 'self' which are just a grammatical convenience.

Then you could say Osman is the Osman that Osman is aware of. Would this mean that Osman would have more than one significance.

Shaun Williamson


(53) Mike asked:

When is a hill a mountain?

When is a boat a ship?

When is the sea an ocean?

When is a Laptop a notebook?

Have you got any more?

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These are all examples of the ancient paradox of a heap ('When is a collection of grains a heap?') also known as Wang's paradox, after the mathematician Hao Wang who amusingly gives the example of adding one ounce at a time to a one ounce elephant. At what point does an elephant which is not large (for an elephant) turn into a large elephant?

Have you asked yourself how it is that we are able to get on perfectly well with the terms, 'hill', 'mountain', 'sea', 'ocean', 'hirsute', bald' etc. etc.? Why doesn't it matter that you can't draw a precise line? and would you want to?

There is further discussion of this in one of the old pages from my online philosophy notebook 'Glass House Philosopher'. To save repeating what I said there here is the URL:

http://sophist.co.uk/glasshouse/notebook/page46.html

Geoffrey Klempner


(54) RVN asked:

Initiation of force is immoral... do you have any opinion on this?

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Yes, I do!

I totally agree that any initiation of force, in the free association of peoples, is immoral.

Of course, whether anyone is going to agree with that assessment will depend on their own particular standards of morality. Regrettably (to me at least), few would agree with the principle that an initiation of force is immoral.

A believer in the 'Might makes Right' standard of morality (and there are lots of them — they are called bullies, thugs, terrorists, etc., etc., ad nauseam) would strongly disagree.

A believer in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic standard of morality (and there are lots of them too, but fewer than you would suspect — lots of people say they believe, but act more consistently with the 'Might makes Right' standard of morality) would also disagree. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic standard of morality is based on the principle of obeying the Commands of God. If God should command the initiation of force (as He has many times, according to the Old Testament), then the obedient/devout will initiate whatever force is commanded by God, and consider it a moral duty to do so.

The Utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham is another example of a moral standard that would also disagree. To achieve the 'greatest good for the greatest number', or 'the maximized sum of utility over all impacted', any action is morally warranted. If torturing your grandmother to death would add a small amount of 'utility' to a sufficiently large number of others, then that initiation of force is morally recommended. (There are versions of Utilitarianism that avoid this counter-intuitive evaluation.)

A believer in Evolutionary Ethics, on the other hand, will among the few who agree with the principle. Voluntary cooperation between individuals in the pursuit of mutually agreeable goals is the most efficient and productive means of achieving the greatest advantages for the cooperating individuals. The history of the human species has demonstrated this fact over and over again. Initiation of force is deemed immoral because it interferes with (and usually negates) that voluntary cooperation.

There are many other standards of morality, of course. You will have to make your own evaluation of those that interest you. These have been just a few examples.

Stuart Burns


(55) Edyson asked:

Rights are obsolete. . . is this true?

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

I don't think so!

There are two kinds of rights that can be discussed — legal rights and moral rights.

Legal rights are tightly defined — they are the privileges granted under the law. To the extent that the law is clear, those rights are unambiguous. And they exist (to a greater or lesser extent) under any legal jurisdiction. More particularly, legal rights are granted to citizens of any nation ruled by law (as opposed to fiat). One claims a legal right by invoking the legal statute that purports to grant the privilege in question. Since most nations on Earth at the moment at least pretend to be ruled by law rather than fiat, legal rights are important for most citizens. And hence few would agree that legal rights are obsolete (even where they are in fact being ignored).

Moral rights, on the other hand, are not well defined at all. They are the privileges granted under a moral code. And moral codes are notorious for being ambiguous under interpretation. One claims a moral right by claiming that the moral code involved grants the privilege in question. Unfortunately, there are many different moral codes that people espouse. And many different moral codes can coexist within a given legal jurisdiction. So you can get the common phenomenon of neighbours disagreeing about the 'correctness' of a claim to a moral right.

One of the more visible examples of this is the disagreement between the 'Right to Life' opponents of abortion, and the 'Right to Choose' proponents of it. The disagreement arises because the two groups approach the issue from different moral codes. Each of which is claimed to grant a different moral privilege to different parties with conflicting interests. So while the two groups would disagree with each other at the top of their respective lungs, they would both agree that rights are not obsolete!

Stuart Burns


(56) Doris asked:

What does Warburton mean when he says my freedom to swing my fists ends where your face begins?

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Nigel Warburton is giving colourful expression to John Stuart Mill's Principle of Liberty, as explained in his essay, On Liberty.

Simply put, the Liberty Principle states that one should be free to do whatever one likes, provided that one's action does not cause harm to another person.

If I want to swing my fists, then I should be allowed to be free to swing my fists. If my fist makes contact with your face, on the other hand, then I done something wrong.

Obviously, Warburton is not saying that it would normally be OK to swing one's fists within an inch of someone's face, since you can harm someone — by scaring them or threatening them — without actually touching them.

The philosophical point, however, is how one defines 'harm'. If your neighbour likes to exercise in the nude in his back garden how does that harm you? How is it different from playing a radio too loud? If someone is offended by a person's behaviour, when is the sense of 'offence' justified and when is it not justified? who decides?

These are thorny problems which you might like to think about.

Geoffrey Klempner


(57) Richard asked:

Is there such a thing as a more enjoyable life as compared to other lives? Or do all lives (of all creatures great and small) contain the same amount of pain and pleasure?

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It seems extremely unlikely that any two lives would contain the same amount of pleasure and pain, even the lives of identical twins.

Some people seem more prepared to enjoy life than others but I don't know how we could accurately measure such things. If for example you inherit a tendency to depression then it is unlikely that you will find life as enjoyable as the natural optimist.

Shaun Williamson


(58) Ron asked:

I was delighted to see the entry about 'belief in science' and your answer about belief being equivalent to acting AS IF a certain proposition was true.

What about 'faith?' What is it? How does it differ, if at all, from 'belief?'

Certainly, in a grammatical sense, they appear to be different. For example, we don't have a verb form for faith (to faith?) as we do for belief (to believe).

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

The word 'faith' is used in two separate (albeit related) senses.

On the one hand, 'faith' is most commonly used in a religious connotation to mean 'strong belief in the truth of something in the absence of evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence'. Thus we have from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, (http://www.merriam-webster.com) 'faith' — '2a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God. (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion. b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof.' From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, (http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed), we have 'faith' -'2 strong belief in a religion. 3 a system of religious belief.' And from the Encarta World English Dictionary (http://encarta.msn.com) 'faith' — '1. belief or trust: belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof. 2. religion or religious group: a system of religious belief, or the group of people who adhere to it. 3. trust in God: belief in and devotion to God.'

On the other hand, 'faith' is occasionally used in common discourse to mean 'confidence in the truth of something due to the preponderance of confirming evidence, and the absence of defeater evidence'. So we see in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, 'faith' — '3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction.' From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 'faith' — '1 complete trust or confidence.' And from the Encarta World English Dictionary, 'faith' — '4. set of beliefs: a strongly held set of beliefs or principles.' You'll notice that the dictionary entries are somewhat ambiguous about what kind of 'trust' and 'confidence' are involved here. The dictionary entries can be interpreted as equally applicable to the kind of unfounded trust and confidence as would characterize the religious beliefs denoted by the first sense of 'faith' — especially since the other entries for 'faith' are specifically religious in connotation. But in the non-religious common-sense interpretation, trust and confidence are not freely granted. They must be earned on the basis of experience and evidence. Hence, the alternate common sense interpretation of 'faith' denotes a confidence and trust in the truth of one's beliefs because they are supported by proper evidence.

Employing the common-sense meaning, we would say such things as 'I have faith that Suzie will do the right thing', or 'I have faith in the principles of physics', or 'She has no faith in modern medicine', or 'You'll cope — I have great faith in you', or 'After the trial, his family said they had lost all faith in the judicial system', or 'Ministers must start keeping their promises if they want to restore faith in the government'. In the religious sense, we would say such things as 'I have faith in the presence of God', or 'Even in the bad times she never lost her faith', or 'Her faith in God was shattered when her baby died', or 'It's my faith that keeps me going', or simply 'I have faith'.

Those of a religious persuasion who wish to challenge the philosophy of science, often confuse the two senses of 'faith' — either out of ignorance of the different senses (easy to have because of the ambiguity of the dictionary entries), or deliberately in an attempt to confound the opposition. In this way, we get such nonsensical statements as 'Both religion and science are based on faith, hence there is no real difference between a religious outlook and a scientific outlook.' Once one recognizes the critical difference in the two senses of 'faith', one realizes that this statement is simply false. (It commits the fallacy of equivocation on the meaning of 'faith'.)

Stuart Burns


(59) Amanda asked:

How can I develop argument on my belief about creation and the history of life and earth? What will be some of the arguments that I could form? What are the scientific evidence for them?

For example: How do I know God created the earth in six days? that is one of my arguments but I have not found any scientific data and theories to support my theories. Could you help me please?

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

Try doing a Google Searches for 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'. You should find enough material for your purposes.

But be warned! 'Creation Science' is not science. And 'Intelligent Design' is not an hypothesis that is anywhere nearly as well confirmed as is 'Evolution'. Both depend on a prior commitment to the literal truth of the Christian Bible (King James Version, specifically). And both view the scientific evidence through a narrow religious filter — selecting items that can be interpreted to support their pre-conceived theory, and ignoring anything that conflicts with it.

If you want a balanced view of these issues, you should also do a Google Search for 'debunk creation science' and 'debunk pseudoscience'. They will provide you with lots of material on just how 'creation science' abuses the label, standards, and practices of real science.

Good Luck with whichever approach you choose.

Stuart Burns


(60) Amanda asked:

How can I develop argument on my belief about creation and the history of life and earth? What will be some of the arguments that I could form? What are the scientific evidence for them?

For example: How do I know God created the earth in six days? that is one of my arguments but I have not found any scientific data and theories to support my theories. Could you help me please?

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

You will not find any evidence or data that will support the idea that God created the earth and all the things on it in seven days because such evidence doesn't exist. All the evidence that has been discovered by chemists, physicists and geographers supports the idea that the earth is 4 billion years old and that life has evolved on the earth for many hundreds of millions of years.

There simply is no evidence to support seven day creationist theories so its not surprising that you can't find it.

It is of course possible to believe that God has deliberately deceived us by falsifying all the evidence but why would God do that?

The vast majority of Christians in the world recognise that the Biblical account of creation is not to be taken literally. God doesn't take half an hour to eat his breakfast and he doesn't take seven days to create the earth. The Biblical account of creation is based on Egyptian creation myths. The essential truth that it is trying to express is that there is a God and he holds the universe in existence, not at a particular moment in time because God exists outside of time and so does his creation of the universe and his creation of time itself.

Shaun Williamson


(61) Alec asked:

Say there is an alien behind me right now. but every time I turn to look at it, it disappears. how can I be sure that there isn't such a thing behind me right now? and how can I be sure that something exists when it is not in my view?

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

The questions, 'How can I be sure that there is not an alien behind me?' and 'How can I be sure that my desk exists when I am not looking at it?' seem similar but they are not.

The first question is about a matter of fact. Either there is an alien behind me or not. Some matters of fact are very difficult to find out. 'How many dust mites are in this room?' for example. However, it is possible to rack up the example to the point where investigation would be pointless because it is written in as part of the hypothesis that one can never find out.

Your question about the alien is an example of such a hypothesis. There is a discredited philosophical theory, the so-called 'verification principle' according to which hypotheses which are by definition empirically untestable are meaningless. I would prefer to say that they are simply pointless. We all understand perfectly well what the statement, 'There are undetectable aliens in this room' says. We understand the words, and the result of putting them together. It is just that there is no point in ever saying it.

The question, 'How can I be sure that my desk exists when I am not looking at it?' could be understood along similar lines. Maybe my desk has the magical property of disappearing for no reason and appearing again. However, in philosophy this question is normally associated with idealist theories of perception, and in particular the famous 'immaterialist' theory of Bishop Berkeley.

Berkeley's point is not that we can never be sure whether the desk is there or not, but rather that the only thing we will ever know, now and forever more, is our perceptions. The entire story of your life told from your point of view is a story about perceptions. There is simply no room for the notion of a 'something out there' which is not explained or accounted for in terms of possible perceptions.

Is this verificationism? I would argue that it is not, because Berkeley is attacking a philosophical concept — the concept of 'matter' — and not claiming that any proposition which cannot be verified is meaningless.

Berkeley was aware of how paradoxical it might seem to believe that the desk 'only exists when I perceive it'. But that was not his view. There are no 'gaps' in reality because everything that exists is a perception in the mind of God.

I can recommend Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous which is one of the great classics of philosophy, and very readable too.

Geoffrey Klempner


(62) Amanda asked:

I am taking a philosophy class. I was wondering how do I go about answering essay questions and give strong arguments to support biological/ paleontological evidence that I have studied in my class. For example: a questions says : Contrast how George McReady Price and Harold Clark differed in their explanation fossil progression.

Anything suggestions or advice that you could give me would be nice.

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

What sort of philosophy course are you taking? George McReady Price and Harold Willard Clark are not philosophers. They are Seventh Day Adventists who denied the truths of chemistry, physics, geography and paleontology and instead insisted that the Bible's account that the world was created in seven days must be taken literally although there is no evidence to support this idea and neither of them ever found any evidence to support this idea. They never had any sensible ideas to explain the fossil progression.

Many creationists think that you can deny that evolution is true but still accept the rest of science. That simply isn't true. The theory of evolution depends upon the rest of science and to reject one is to reject all the other sciences as well.

If you want to find out about the views of Price and Clark (Clark was one of Price's students) do an Internet search for their names.

You can be a Christian and believe that God created the universe without believing the primitive literalism of the creationists.

Shaun Williamson


(63) Saj asked:

I've recently become very interested in Philosophy. I'm not in a position to buy any books or anything though :(

I was attracted by existentialism at first, but I don't know what the best way to get into it is. Could you recommend anything for me please?

Thanks.

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

You can really only study philosophy by reading books. So if you can't afford to buy them, then you need to find a library were you can go to read them. The French existentialists such as Camus and Sartre were also novelists so you could start by reading their novels. If you have access to the internet search for articles about them and start by reading any material you can find. Do a search for 'existentialism' also.

Shaun Williamson


(64) Richard asked:

A news report says that an recent experiment has the result that subjects were subconsciously 'deciding' which of two buttons to press before they knew it consciously. Thus we have no free will!I

Perhaps this only proves Ockham's Razor. The efficiency of our minds in keeping conscious decisions for matters of consequence.

If there is no consequence, for the subject, which button he presses, the mind can decide by autopilot.

That is to say, if we are playing a tennis match, our decision to win is made prior to the match. During the match our actions can mostly be subconscious reactions.

If there was a consequence of significance to the subject, which button was pressed, it would have to be made by the conscious mind.

Even then, if the alternatives were equal, or appeared to be, only a mental throw of the dice would be needed.

If consequences, moral so to say, were positive for one button, then the subject would decide accordingly by virtue of his moral prejudices, or for mere survival perhaps.

Is that not the real answer to the experiment?

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

Actually, Not Necessarily!

Although you offer an interesting interpretation of 'automatic pilot' modes of decision making, the experimental results you report also support an alternative interpretation.

Daniel C. Dennett posits a 'Multiple Drafts' model of consciousness. In this model, Consciousness is actually a 'current memory' rather than a super-process. What becomes the current content of consciousness is but the most 'noisy' (exact meaning undefined) of multiple parallel sub-conscious analysis, response, and decision making processes. From this perspective, what the evidence you report shows is that the actual work of decision making happens before that particular process makes it to the 'scratch pad' of current consciousness. This is consistent with an interpretation of Consciousness as but the story that gets written onto the 'scratch pad' of current consciousness, and into memory as the ongoing story of conscious self-awareness. The constant selection and recording of but one of what actually consists of multiple parallel analysis and decision processes within the brain.

Nor does this model of consciousness infringe on the notion of free will. That is a completely different discussion. For 'free will' need not be inconsistent with deterministic brain processes. (For a lengthy discussion of this point, see http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0407.htm.)

Stuart Burns


(65) Micheal asked:

There are strong if not certain possibilities for extraterrestrial life. I am aware of these reasons, but my question is why somebody would be inclined not to believe in them? Please inform me of only scientific data, for I do not wish to use religious material, for study reasons only.

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Do a Google Search for 'Drake Equation'. In particular, check out the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation. It gives you an excellent summary.

The (scientific) reasons why someone might not believe in the presence of extraterrestrial life have to do with their judgements of the probabilities involved in Drake's Equation.

Some of the factors in Drakes Equation are not open to much debate. The scientific evidence is such that, while the exact numbers may not be known, the range of most reasonable estimates is relatively narrow. If your question relates to extraterrestrial life in general, rather than intelligent extraterrestrial life, then most people who consider the matter agree that there is almost certainly life out there. The relevant factors of the Drake Equation are known with enough assurance to almost certainly guarantee it. To not believe in the presence of life out there is almost certainly the result of ignorance of the relevant science. (Putting aside the religious arguments.)

But if your question is specific to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, then other factors in the Drake Equation are very much open to debate. Consider the last three of Drakes parameters — (a) the fraction of life bearing planets that develop intelligent life. (b) the fraction of intelligences that develop a technological society. and (c) the length of time such technological civilizations survive.

It is entirely possible, completely consistent with all known science, that the product of these three factors is indistinguishable from zero. For these three factors, we simply do not have enough information to make anything more confident than a SWAG ( a 'Silly Wild Assed Guess'). Human civilization has been technological for only 250 years (from about 1750). And it is entirely possible that our civilization's life-span may be less than 1000 years — either because we will self-destruct, or because we develop 'homo electronicus' (robots) to replace us.

It quite debatable just how probable intelligent life is. We are, after all, the product of a rather unique set of environmental accidents. Homo sapiens has been an identifiable species for more than 200,000 years. But the Dinosaurs rules this planet for 100 million years without developing intelligence. If not for that asteroid impact, the dinosaurs might still rule the Earth. What makes you think that intelligence is inevitable? And what makes you think that intelligence will survive for a geologically meaningful time?

Perhaps, when you combine these last three factors, the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life might be sufficiently close to zero to make thinking about it not worth the effort. Certainly, the product cannot be very high at best. Otherwise, given the number of likely life-bearing planets out there, we would have had visitors before now.

Personally, I sit on the fence. I believe that there are extra-terrestrial intelligences out there. But I also don't think we've had visitors. A little inconsistent, perhaps. But, hey, that's personal opinion, not an informed judgement!

Stuart Burns


(66) Susan asked:

This week I cut into an avocado which I was preparing to go into a salad, after one vertical cut I found it was not ripe so I put it back into a bag with two small tomatoes.

Three days later when preparing a salad I brought out the avocado again, and found to my horror it had self healed.

My thought was this avocado is alive, so I began stroking it to bring it some warmth. I suggested to my sister that maybe I should plant it and let it thrive, but she thought by doing so I would be burying it alive. We did think of taking it back to Tesco from where it came, but sister suggested this would be passing the buck. Is this avocado alive and who is responsible for it's well being? At this time the avocado is wrapped warm in a little napkin alongside an unblemished partner for company. Should it still be with the tomatoes?

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

The point of your culinary example, I take it, is to raise the question whether we have an ethical responsibility to an entity, just in virtue of the fact that it is 'alive'.

If I thought my computer was alive, I wouldn't kick it when it crashes but rather take care not to hurt it. But then again, why not? what is so special about life that we are required to take special 'care' with it?

There are really two questions here. The first question concerns the definition of life. I have a screen saver based on the 'life' program which gives a rather remarkable impression of an ever changing 'population' of coloured shapes on the screen, resulting from the application of a finite set of rules. Knowing what the rules are, doesn't take away from the sense of wonderment that this looks so much like life. How can something so complex have such a simple explanation?

Is all 'life' biological? By whose definition? In the nineteenth century, the synthesis of the organic chemical compound urea from inorganic compounds finally put to rest the vitalist theory that there is some non-physical 'life principle' which explains the difference between living and non-living things. We now know that the difference is only a matter of complexity. It is a borderline question, for example, whether you count very simple viruses as an example of 'life'.

On the other hand, there is every prospect that before too long we will have succeeded in creating structures out of metal, plastic and silicon which count as 'alive'.

The second question is why we ought to take special care with something if it is 'alive'. I don't believe your story about the avocado — or, at least, I hope you are joking — but then again I don't know a lot about avocados and maybe they are the duckbill platypus of the vegetable world, possessing remarkable properties which no other fruit or vegetable has. But so what? Why should that effect the way we behave towards them?

I guess the answer is that if an avocado really can 'heal itself' then we ought to look twice at it to discover whether it really is what it seems. Maybe some avocados are aliens in disguise.

Geoffrey Klempner


(67) Petros asked:

Was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein correct when he said '...there are no philosophical problems just linguistic riddles'.

Is the discipline of philosophy just a game of words and phrases where an apparent philosophical problem totally collapses once the linguistic riddle is solved?

If Wittgenstein is correct then what exactly is the purpose of this web site?

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

Still a matter of opinion, but very unlikely that he was correct. For the latter half of the last century linguistic analysts, believing this aphorism, struggled to solve philosophical problems by analysing the language in which they were stated. But they did not succeed. And linguistic analysis has gone out of fashion.

Helier Robinson


(68) Geoff asked:

I just want to be clear about necessary and sufficient conditions, particularly with respect to truth. As I understand it, a necessary condition is one of the set of conditions that must hold in order for some thing to be classified as a member of set 'S'. A sufficient condition is one that, apart from any other condition, gives us enough information to conclude that some thing is a member of set 'S'. Is this an accurate depiction?

I am asking because I recently was told that 'logical consistency', although not a necessary condition for truth, is a sufficient condition for truth. But I am not sure what the difference might be here: Leaving aside the question of whether we or not have a viable definition of 'truth', what would the difference be between viewing logical consistency as a necessary condition vs. viewing it as a sufficient condition?

Thanks.

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

What you were told is backwards: logical consistency, although not a sufficient condition for truth, is a necessary condition for truth. Think of it this way: truth is determined by reality and reality does not contain any contradictions (i.e. is logically consistent) therefore truth must be logically consistent — which makes logical consistency a necessary condition for truth. But there are many systems that are logically consistent, but not all are true; so logical consistency is not a sufficient condition for truth. Your depiction by means of 'S' is correct but a little vague. Better to say that set S is a subset of set N; then being a member of S is a sufficient condition for being a member of N, but being a member of N is only a necessary condition for being a member of S. That is, if an S then an N, but if an N then maybe an S. Concrete examples help, also: being pregnant is a sufficient for being female, but being female is only a necessary condition for being pregnant.

Helier Robinson


(69) Ariel asked:

I know I think, I've got consciousness etc...but how can I prove (know) that other people do?

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

You cannot prove it, you can only believe it. Your belief is highly probable, but no more than that. Imagine a situation in which the human race is dying out and robots are taking over. The robots, not wanting humans to grieve over their situation, make human-like robots to keep the remaining people happy. Eventually there is only one person left: you. Every person you meet is really a robot, run by a computer and not having a mind. This could be true, and you could not know it.

Helier Robinson


(70) Fahad asked:

Does darkness exist? or it's just the absence of light that we presume as darkness?

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

The lightbulb breaks and now the room is in darkness. We can say the light has gone. Can't we also just as easily say that darkness has come? If light exists, then doesn't darkness exist as well?

A similar question can be raised about holes. I mean the kind of thing like a hole in my jeans. The hole in the left knee of my jeans definitely exists, for all to see. But what is the hole other than the absence of jean?

From a philosophical perspective one might raise the question whether there is a danger that in admitting darkness and holes into our ontology we are overpopulating reality, or rather, counting things twice? (e.g. my jeans with the hole as one item, and the hole as a second item).

This kind of worry seems to me to be spurious. Who said that you could count everything in the world without ever 'counting twice'? and why should you want to?

The point is that the concepts of 'darkness' and 'hole' have utility. We don't need to posit a 'darkness-substance' in order to explain why there is darkness. Absence of light is a much simpler scientific explanation. There exists a possible world where there are both 'light waves' which cause light and 'dark waves' which cause dark, but that world is not our world.

Geoffrey Klempner


(71) Jasmine asked:

What do you make of empiricism's claim that all of our knowledge is based on the use of our senses? What areas of knowledge do you think support this theory?

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

The biggest problem for empiricists is the problem of induction: how can you justify the move from many similar observed instances to a general truth about such instances? This is a problem for them because a general truth (such as a scientific law) cannot be known through the senses. One might go as far as saying that this falsifies empiricism, in which case it does not really matter what areas of knowledge support this theory. Putting this another way, we obviously get a great deal of knowledge through our senses, but to claim that all our knowledge is gained this way is to make an inductive step that cannot be empirically justified.

Helier Robinson


(72) Ian asked:

Could any of you please explain to me the main differences (or perhaps relationship if there is any)between philosophy, psychology and neurology? I know they differ in many ways, but I also feel they are very closely correlated. How do I differentiate them?

Thank you very much! :) I hope my question is not too silly...

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

Philosophy is rational thought seeking to solve so far unsolved problems. Psychology is the branch of science that deals with mind and/or behaviour. Neurology is the anatomical and physiological study of nerves.

Helier Robinson


(73) Amanda asked:

Premise one: if two decisions have exactly the same effect, then one is just as bad as the other.

Premise two:

Conclusion: so deciding to let Kate waste her money is just as bad as deciding to steal it from her.

What would premise two be?

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

Deciding to let Kate waste her money has exactly the same effect as deciding to steal it from her.

Helier Robinson


(74) Jeme asked:

How do you convince a nonbeliever in the existence of God that God truly exists?

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

First of all, why would you want to? Your non-believer has as much right to his belief as you have to yours. Second, maybe his belief is true and yours false: can you prove otherwise? And to answer your actual question, there is no way to do it: you cannot convince him, only he can convince himself.

Helier Robinson


(75) Ron asked:

I was delighted to see the entry about 'belief in science' and your answer about belief being equivalent to acting AS IF a certain proposition was true. What about 'faith?' What is it? How does it differ, if at all, from 'belief?'

Certainly, in a grammatical sense, they appear to be different. For example, we don't have a verb form for faith (to faith?) as we do for belief (to believe.)

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

I wouldn't put a lot of weight on the linguistic fact that we don't say, 'I faith that there exists an afterlife.' This could just be a quirk of English.

A more revealing difference between the way we talk about belief and faith is that we can criticize a person with whom we have been on a close relationship for being 'faithless', or else for 'not having faith in me'.

Lack of belief, where belief is required or advised is imprudence. If I don't believe that smoking cigarettes can give me lung cancer in the face of the evidence, you can criticise me for not taking care to acquire sufficient knowledge of the facts, and thereby displaying a deficiency in my capacity for practical reason.

By contrast, lack of faith implies an ethical criticism. That is why in many religions the faithful are rewarded and those who lack faith are punished.

We admire people who have faith for the strength of their faith, even if we do not believe (or have faith in) what they believe, but we do not admire people who have strong beliefs, just on that account. There is nothing admirable about having strong beliefs when the beliefs in question are false, or, worse, when they are (or we perceive them to be) irrational.

The traditional view is that the capacity for faith, or having faith is a virtue, like courage, temperance, generosity. To be faithful you need a certain degree of courage, as well as the other virtues — perhaps all the other virtues.

None of this implies that there is anything especially admirable about having religious faith. I would argue that the belief of the scientist in science is a faith, and an admirable faith. As is the faith of the philosopher in the power of reasoned argument.

Geoffrey Klempner


(76) Jack asked:

What prevents the Scientist from knowing the reasons for observed phenomena with absolute certainty?

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

The reasons for observed (empirical) phenomena are theoretical, which means non-empirical. No theoretical entity can be observed, only evidence for it can be observed. For example, mass is a theoretical entity which cannot be observed, although its effects can be, in the form of weight and inertial forces; and electricity cannot be observed although its effects can be, in the form of shocks. Theoretical science is speculative, like theology and metaphysics, only far more tightly disciplined than the latter two; it has to be speculative because it is dealing with things that cannot be observed: namely, 'underlying' causes of phenomena. To describe causes is to explain effects, so theoretical science explains empirical science. I leave it to you to figure out what 'underlying' means,

Helier Robinson


(77) Marty asked:

There is a philosophy espoused by some educators and parents that goes like this: If you believe it or can conceive it, you can achieve it. I believe this is misleading and sometimes even cruel or impossible. For instance, a child who is physically handicapped (or to be politically correct, 'physically challenged') should not strive to become a star athlete except in the Special Olympics, and one whose IQ is less than stellar will not become a brain surgeon. Encouraging young people to reach their full potential is good; offering false hope is not. I think this falls under the realm of concept vs. precept and that some children's and adults' egos are so overly inflated that they are unable to remain objective about themselves and the world around them. What do you think?

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

I agree with you. 'If you believe it or can conceive it, you can achieve it' is simply false. You can believe in levitation, and conceive it, but you cannot achieve it. Ditto making yourself invisible, or a wizard.

Helier Robinson


(78) David asked:

Why are motorists so selfish?

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

Because they cannot make eye-contact with other drivers.

Helier Robinson


(79) Michael asked:

Is whistleblowing a breach of moral obligations such as trust and loyalty? Furthermore, what implications does your answer have for questions about the degree to which there ought to be legal protection for whistleblowers?

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

The short answer to your question is that whistleblowing can be a breach of trust, but the the demands of loyalty and trust stretch only so far. Loyalty and trust demand that you do everything you can to put your concerns to your own organization and try to achieve change through persuasion.

However, prudence obviously comes in here too. If I discover that my company is trading with the Russian mafia it would be exceedingly foolhardy to let on to my superiors. I would be better off going straight to the police.

There ought to be some legal protection for whistleblowers. Companies should not have the power to silence potential whistleblowers but there are limits to how far such protection can be extended. If you lose your job because you blew the whistle, what did you expect? You did a morally worthy action which had a cost, and you were prepared to pay that cost.

If the law compensated employees who blew the whistle on every minor infraction, trust would be destroyed and an organization simply could not function. So again, there has to be a balance. You are not really suggesting that if I discover that my boss has been massaging his tax returns, I should immediately inform the tax inspector. Are we all going to become snoops?

What I would really like to see are incentives to companies who encourage whistle blowing, on the grounds that it is in their own interests to foster a climate of openness. The law should be used with caution.

Geoffrey Klempner


(80) Pop asked:

What does energy look like?

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

It does not have any looks at all — or smell, taste, sound or any other sensation. It is a theoretical entity, not an empirical one, so cannot be observed.

Helier Robinson


(81) Mark asked:

if I go to a forest I can see trees. if I close my eyes, how do I know if the forest is still there?

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

You don't, you can only believe that it is still there. (It's quite a reasonable belief, of course.) Bishop Berkeley claimed that esse est percipi — to be is to be perceived — and no one has ever proved him wrong. In his favour you may note that everything that we perceive is made up of sensations, which exist only for as long as they are perceived.

Helier Robinson


(82) Cher asked:

What is more likely to bring happiness a life with a partner that I love and deeply respect but with no prospect of having a child and therefore will die childless, or a life with someone else who I do not love, or love less but with whom I can have a child, whom I will deeply love?

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

The two are not mutually exclusive. You could live with your love and have a child by another man.

Helier Robinson


(83) Alec asked:

Say there is an alien behind me right now. but every time I turn to look at it, it disappears. how can I be sure that there isn't such a thing behind me right now? and how can I be sure that something exists when it is not in my view?

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

You cannot be sure. The belief that all that exists is only what I am conscious of now is called solipsism (from the Latin, sole ipse, alone I am), which has never been conclusively disproved.

Helier Robinson


(84) Paul asked:

Is there a name for a type of paradox like the following:

"Generalities are usually wrong."

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

Superficially, your question might seem similar to paradoxes of self-reference (is that the term you were looking for?) such as the Liar paradox, 'All Cretans are liars' as said by a Cretan. Or, more simply, 'This sentence is false.'

However, what you have stated is not paradoxical. 'Generalities are usually wrong. But what I have just stated is an exception.'

Geoffrey Klempner


(85) Osman asked:

If I say (I am the self that I am aware of). Wont that mean that I am using the term 'I' in two different senses? This is because the later needs to be aware of the former. And thus, the term 'I' should have more than one significance?

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

Yes: 'I' as ego, as in 'I am conscious' and I as body, as in 'I fell head over heels.'

Helier Robinson


(86) Jesse asked:

is there such a thing as nothing?

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

Yes there is. Someone says 'How much did you give him'. Someone else answers 'I gave him nothing'. What could be more natural than that. Nothing is a useful word. However if you start to imagine 'nothing' as a ghostly thing then you are falling prey to a philosophical superstition. The advanced stages of this superstition are shown when you start to use words like 'nothingness'.

Shaun Williamson


(87) Jesse asked:

what is reality?

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

Since you are an English speaker you already know what reality is. Perhaps you think there is some special sort of philosophical answer to this question. There isn't.

Shaun Williamson


(88) Asd asked:

is thinking rationally always the best way to think? is the scientific answer to a question always the most true?

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

Thinking rationally is the only way to think, anyone who thinks otherwise probably has a false idea of what rational means. Thinking irrationally is of no use to anyone. Rationality isn't a straitjacket, it is what sets our thoughts free from incoherence.

Science answers scientific questions, there are many questions that are not scientific where some other sort of answer is called for. You seem to have the idea that all questions have a scientific answer and one or more non scientific ones, I don't think this is true.

However what I do reject is the idea that scientific questions can have non scientific answers. If I want to know what the weather will be like next week then I will read the weather forecast even thought it is often wrong. I won't go to a witch doctor, a fortune teller or a crystal ball gazer.

If I want to cure diphtheria I will put my trust in western scientific medicine (but not necessarily in drug companies). I won't put any trust in aromatherapy, or crystals or homeopathy or any other brand of mumbo jumbo for which there is no evidence.

Confusion arises because in our world there are many people pretending to have scientific answers to questions. There are scientists who cheat, i.e. pretend to do science but true honest science is the best way to answer all scientific questions.

Shaun Williamson


(89) Jenny asked:

Can you have knowledge of God from intuition?

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

Intuition is too vague a word. Does it mean random guesswork or informed guesswork. Intuition may suggest the answer to a question but it does not justify it as a true answer.

Suppose I say to you 'There is no greatest prime number'. You say 'How do you know that?', I answer 'By intuition'. Not very satisfactory is it?

If I can have knowledge of God by intuition then why can't I have knowledge of the telephone directory by intuition?

Shaun Williamson


(90) Richard asked:

What is the definition of a Good Philosopher?

To consider something that is obviously true. Question it.

And find new truths?

Was Einstein a philosopher?

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

We should all strive to be good philosophers. Someone who hasn't tasted philosophy or doesn't really know what it is about hasn't really grown up, is still an adolescent intellectually speaking. To care about truth, in the way that philosophers do, is a sign of intellectual maturity and that is something we should all want.

It is no less true that talent for philosophy expresses itself as a childlike wonder, the capacity to find things puzzling which others are too busy or distracted, take for granted.

Einstein demonstrated both capacities in abundance, even though we know him as first and foremost a physicist. He showed intellectual courage in questioning the certainties of his day, as well as the capacity to wonder an ask the simplest but most profound questions.

Geoffrey Klempner


(91) Jenny asked:

Can you have knowledge of God from experience?

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

Experience is not a clearly defined word. Does it include experiences I have while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Are dreams experiences?

God cannot be perceived directly since he isn't a physical object, so he can't be experienced in the way that ice cream can be experienced.

Shaun Williamson


(92)

Brendan asked:

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

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

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

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

(Answers 31/4 2nd Series)

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

Relationship with God is personal. Humans may have one or another social, cultural, belief system... periods of pious or godless societies, but in all those times, relationship with God is on individual basis. On a larger scale, it becomes a cult. From cult there is culture. The question may as well be 'what claim can be made that my family have a relationship with God?' The answer is that some members of my family may have that relationship.

The reason why I actually write this is that the given answer caught my eye. I wish if there is a way that person who answered, Dr. Tony Kelly, read the following and see if his answer should be modified, enhanced or whatever.

Dr. Tony Kelly:

God can do anything that is not self-contradictory, so God cannot create another self-existent entity like God. But God can establish a process that can produce an entity with sufficient intelligence to enable it to begin the process of making itself similar to God.

My comment: Creating another God is not self-contradictory. In fact that is an old idea from India, described here: http://isopanisad.com/invocation/en1 This text is invocation of Isha Upanishada which says that whatever God creates is a Complete Whole, but regardless how many such creations He produce, He remains a complete balance. So this idea of cornu copiae is one way to define God. Another thing is that 'establishing a process' is nothing but an act of creation. Direct or indirect creation, it is the same, the idea of establishing a process seems like an escapism.

The point is that God is a special case and many facts about God should be taken for granted. One of these facts is that God is eternal, He has no beginning. So another God can not be created by God, not even by establishing a process, simply because it is self-contradictory — God Has no beginning. But Indian philosophy again gives a solution — term used is not creation, but emanation. God emanates enumerable expansions from Himself and they are all eternal and equal to Him. Illustration given for this idea is a candle, if God is a candle then His emanations are the same candles. The only difference is that one candle lit all the others.

Dr. Tony Kelly:

Matter is Energy plus Information. Life is Matter plus Information.

My comment: Not so. Matter was created, life was never created. Life comes from life, as it is our daily experience. There is not even a theory or a line of thought, a first logical step (known to me) for the claim that life can be created. In fact, the very 'information' in the quote above should be life. Life is what animates the matter, what gives the information for matter to organize in such a qualitatively new way.

Miodrag Milosavljevic


(93) Matt asked:

I would like to know your thoughts on happiness. Everyone is looking for happiness, presumably because it is our instinct to do so, and the things that aid survival make us happy (until we started making things full of sugar and what not). Do you think that people ever reach a state of happiness, or could it be that happiness is a sort of instinctive idea to make us continually strive,

And do you think that all lives have the same happiness/ sadness ratio (for want of a better word), because we get used to our situation over time? Also, would continual happiness be possible, or would it be hampered by a lack of comparative sadness? As you can probably this is something I've been thinking about and it has confused me quite a bit!

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I agree that happiness is our 'instinct' — I would say that quest for happiness is immanent to a living being. Things that aid survival may give us pleasure, but even pleasure does not guarantee happiness. I think there are people who are happy, but that state is and should not be everlasting. Constant happiness produces a flat line, there is no dynamics and that means that life stopped — that itself leads to misery. So happiness may be taken as an individual feeling about general life — 'Yes, I reached happiness' — but if happiness tends to become constant, in all times, it becomes a kind of idiocy, a separation from life and reality. Regarding happiness/sadness ratio — first it should be defined what happiness is. There is no same ratio since the feeling of happiness does not depend merely on being alive, but on consciousness that every individual has, on how that life is experienced.

I do not quite agree with 'Happiness lies in self preservation' from Mr. Madhu Kapoor. If one does not care for self preservation, if one is suicidal, than he is not happy. But this follows automatically, that being depressive means there is no happiness, and this is not the best way to define happiness. Even if we say 'happiness is when there is no frustration' — when our self preservation is not questioned — this still does not mean that we are happy. If we say that frustration is a negative feeling and happiness is a positive feeling, then no frustration is merely a neutral, peaceful feeling. Nor minus, nor plus, but zero. I would say that happiness is when one does not need anything. The Indian term for this is atmarama — 'self-satisfied'.

Miodrag Milosavljevic


(94) Krissy asked:

Lets say that we have mastered brain transplant and some guy gets hit by a bus that day, and his body is totaled but his mind survives... and another guy has a stroke and his brain dies but his body is fine... so they take the brain from the first guy and puts it in the body of the other man so one can live.... this new person is it the FIRST guy? Or is it the SECOND guy?

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First, is a 'guy' a person? This is not a joke, first we must agree what person is. If once you were a little child and then your body changed, then your child body does not exist anymore. Biology says that our bodies are completely changed every 7 years. But you are still the same person as when you were a child. So, personality continues and is independent from bodily changes.

Next, let's call guy a human. If we say that human is union of body and soul, we are opening new problems. Where the soul rests, is it in brain? Is soul a person, is that what is conscious? Regarding body and soul concept, imagine that you, a person, drive a car. If you change a car, you are the same person. Even if your new car is more powerful and you start to drive more aggressively and your character changes, you are still the same person. The same soul within a different body, with a different character etc.

Now imagine that your brain is a computer. And a person uses a computer, but is different from computer. Brain transplant problem would mean that we still do not have method to switch users between computers — you are stuck with the one you were born with. And to answer your question, which personality survives, first, second or third ( a combination ) it would take to know all about interaction between soul and body and how soul departs from body — only than we would know if one person died and if another survived. I would say that it is now impossible to answer your question. First we have to see it happen, and then we will ask that guy: 'Who are you?'

Miodrag Milosavljevic


(95) Paul asked:

Is there a name for a type of paradox like the following:

'Generalities are usually wrong.'

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I think they are called self referential paradoxes although your example should be changed to 'Generalities are always false' to make it truly paradoxical. The prototype example of a self referential paradox is 'This sentence is false'.

Shaun Williamson


(96) Amy asked:

Does knowledge require certainty?

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Yes I think it does. Saying I know that the last rain leaves at 11.30 and I am certain that the last train leaves at 11.30 are usually the same. It makes no sense to say 'I know that it is raining but I'm not certain' or 'I'm certain that its raining but I don't know if it is'.

Shaun Williamson


(97) Doreen asked:

is theology a fit subject for philosophical analysis?

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Well your question seems to imply that there is only one sort of thing called theology and only one sort of thing called philosophical analysis, neither of these things is true.

In fact theology varies from the extremely detailed and philosophical thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas to the rantings of fundamentalist cult leaders and fundamentalist Islamists etc.

If you are asking can all these things be examined rationally then of course they can, anything can be examined and commented upon.

Shaun Williamson


(98) Michelle asked:

What are your views on reality?

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In general I don't like reality in winter but sometimes in summer, when the sun is shining, I like it. Beyond that I don't have any views on reality except that I am a little bit annoyed about the fact that I have to die someday.

Shaun Williamson


(99) Agyemang asked:

A person is sitting for an exam and knows he has studied enough and as the only way to pass is to cheat. As a moral dilemma, what theories would you use to resolve this issue and how do you go about its presentation.

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You don't pass an exam by cheating you just become a cheat i.e. someone who pretends they have passed an exam.

If an exam can only be passed by cheating then it's not a real exam and not worth passing. Find some real exams that can be passed by studying and pass them instead.

There are no moral dilemmas here and no need for theories. Cheating is cheating and passing an exam is passing an exam. No amount of fancy talk will change one into the other.

Shaun Williamson


(100) Jason asked:

Describe how error arises in Descartes' world. According to Descartes what is the value of doubt? Can you please answer these for me, I am having the hardest time. Me and my friends are having an argument and I think that I am right and they think that they are right. Please help us. I am going crazy.

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Describe how error arises in Descartes' world? By 'Descartes' world' I assume you mean the world that Descartes discovers by following the Method of Doubt. Descartes would hold that no error can arise in his world, for his world is founded on certainty. That said, there are aspects of his later arguments that suggest that he steps away from the method of doubt as his arguments progressed. This question relates to the links between epistemology (the study of knowledge) and ontology (the study of what it is 'to be'). In other words, what can we know and what there is. So I will provide a review. Ontology can be described as having four parts (Hofweber 2005):

(1) the study of ontological commitment, i.e. what we or others are committed to,

(2) the study of what there is,

(3) the study of the most general features of what there is, and how the things there are relate to each other in the metaphysically most general ways,

(4) the study of meta-ontology, i.e. saying what task the discipline of ontology should aim to accomplish, how the question it aims to answer should be understood, and with what methodology they can be answered.

According to Hofweber:

(4) will have to say how the other three are supposed to be understood. If (1) has the result that the beliefs we share commit us to a certain kind of entity then this requires us either to accept an answer to a question about what there is in the sense of (2) or to revise our beliefs. If we accept that there is such an entity in (2) then this invites questions in (3) about its nature and the general relations it has to other things we also accept.

Ontology: a Cartesian interpretation.

To the Cartesian meditator (the Meditator) ontology is very much simplified in its early stages. The Meditator is committed (1) to accept into the ontology all and only that which is beyond or transcendent of doubt. Initially there is (2) only that which is indefeasible that might be admitted into the ontology, namely the Meditator alone. However, the Meditator is obliged under the Method of Doubt to place all that might be, including the presenting physical world, into a possible ontology (as described by Fine 1991) meaning an ontology that contains all ontologies that might be. A 'possible ontology' is just a construct in which all that might be admitted is quarantined for consideration, which is congruent with the Method of Doubt.

No ontological commitment is given, either for or against, any of what might be other than the meta-ontology itself--the method of construction itself, which is validated by the method of doubt in that the only elements that are carried into the actual ontology are those that are transcendent of doubt. Being obliged to accept that which is indefeasible, one is also obliged to accept that which is implied by that which is indefeasible. Where initially all the objects of the world have a dubious existence, Descartes makes a big jump from a world occupied only by the Meditator and his thoughts, to a world fully populated with the objects of our ordinary perceptions when he invokes an argument that God is not a deceiving God. If God is not a deceiving God (i.e. presents the world to us as it actually is), then we can trust that about which we have a clear and distinct impression (e.g. the objects of our world). He argues for the existence of God, but the argument does not seem to bridge the gap to an indefeasible argument. So this might be regarded as the source of error in Descartes' world.

According to Descartes what is the value of doubt?

Descartes wanted to establish something lasting in the sciences. As a natural consequence of this, one must first hold unshakable convictions about one's beliefs. Merely entering a state of belief (as dogma) is insufficient. To achieve certainty one must first sieve out all that which could later be found to be wrong or undecidable. Doubt is that sieve. His conviction has been borne out, because not a year goes by without our scientific theories undergoing change. Descartes saw the root of this change being in our inability to know the objects of the world. While we form ideas about how the world is, our thoughts do not reach out and 'touch' the objects of our thoughts. In this way the world of empiricism is inherently untrustworthy. A note:

A doubt here is not merely an act of belief. One ought not doubt something because it seems odd or doesn't fit with other beliefs, except where such beliefs can be demonstrated to be themselves immune to doubt. That is, to doubt, one must have a clear reason to doubt, even if such doubt are hyperbolic. For example, one might be dreaming, so the objects that we perceive may not exist at all in any concrete sense. By doubt, Descartes does not mean, as Gassendi suggested, that one should regard anything that may be doubted as being, strictly speaking, false. Rather, one should neither judge for nor against any proposition until it is found to be patently false, or indefeasibly true. This is similar to Pyrrhonian scepticism.

Steve Anastasi


(101) Lisa asked:

'How did the greatest contribution of Descartes affect the 18th & 19th century? How did it influence Spinoza and Leibniz?'

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Firstly, Descartes established substance dualism between Mind and Body. The dualism allowed philosophical space for the existence of the Soul to be perpetuated. The debate on the relation between Mind and Body continued with Spinoza. Here, each physical, extended object is also an idea in the mind of God as conceived by human beings. Spinoza influenced the German Idealists of the 17th & 18th centuries where mind/ spirit/ God constituted the world we see and its historical development. The debate on the relation between Mind and Body continues today.

Secondly, Descartes emphasised the importance of A-Priori Reasoning as the Rationalist approach to obtaining indubitable and certain knowledge as opposed to the contingent vagaries of empirical sense evidence. This marked the distinction between metaphysics and empiricism. The latter maintaining — from Hume to the Logical Positivists — that experience alone is the source of human knowledge. The former finding this problematic proposed that there need to be innate organising principles [such as logic], which guarantee certainty as opposed to unreliable transient experience providing only contingent conclusions. Leibniz employs the a-priori principle of Sufficient Reason to conclude that despite its observed absurdity the world is the best of all possible worlds as created by God. Being restricted to the evidence and compound ideas of the senses, empiricism would not have been capable of so enlightened a conclusion.

Thirdly, Descartes included God as essential to the newly developing Natural Philosophy contrary to its materialist tendencies. Whereas the materialist tendencies in Natural Philosophy were edging God out of the universe, Descartes regards God as essential to guaranteeing knowledge and existence of the world of objects. Spinoza develops this so that an immanent not transcendental God is the world of objects; knowledge of the world yields the intellectual love of God. Leibniz maintains God is the transcendental cause of the universe no cause can be found within it. In sum, Descartes contributed the concepts, categories — the intellectual terrain — in which Leibniz, Spinoza and others thought and created. The philosophical problematics of the Mind-Body problem and, the competing approaches of both Empiricism and Rationalism were established by Descartes.

Martin Jenkins


(102) Grant asked:

It's been suggested that consciousness (AKA awareness, and others) is also possessed by some lower animals. Could it be taken down further to microbes, nonliving compounds, subatomic particles, and beyond? Might consciousness be the basic substance, and might existence be a timeless, spaceless, mindless, 'versatile' 'glob' within which all that we 'know' is inadvertently derived?

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In the absence of a clear definition of 'consciousness', one is free to posit what ever one wishes. If you seriously (as opposed to whimsically) wish to entertain the idea that consciousness is possessed by other entities besides Homo sapiens, then you need first to establish the criteria by which you would identify it if was so possessed.

For example, if consciousness is defined as self-awareness, then it is clear from their behavior that chimpanzees and gorillas are self-aware. It is also clear that non-living things are not self-aware. Where in between you draw the line becomes a matter of empirical investigation.

If you wish to establish a definition of 'consciousness' that can be tested for, then we can pursue your question further. If you wish to define 'consciousness' in a way that cannot be tested for, then you may posit whatever you wish, and there is no opening for further discussion.

Stuart Burns


(103) Grant asked:

It's been suggested that consciousness (AKA awareness, and others) is also possessed by some lower animals. Could it be taken down further to microbes, nonliving compounds, subatomic particles, and beyond? Might consciousness be the basic substance, and might existence be a timeless, spaceless, mindless, 'versatile' 'glob' within which all that we 'know' is inadvertently derived?

Note: Forty years back, I had a physics course, but have never studied philosophy.

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Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy arises when language goes on holiday and by this he meant that when we are just thinking about things without any context to guide our thoughts then all sorts of wonderful things seem possible. Here we have a prime example of that, consciousness roaming the universe, attaching itself to all sorts of things, maybe to a microbe, maybe to a stone or my television set.

Lets get back to the real world and ask what humans use the word 'conscious' to talk about. Suppose I go to the computer science lab at MIT and in the corridor I see lots of robots scampering around (not an unusual sight at MIT). Someone points to one of the robots and says 'That robot is conscious'. What does this mean? How do I expect this robot to be different to the others? I have to confess that I really don't know how to answer this question.

Now suppose you go to a party.Your host shows you into the main room where there are lots of people talking, dancing and listening to music. He points to one of these people and says 'That man is conscious'. Doesn't this seem ridiculous or some sort of joke and if so, why is that?

Suppose you had to explain the meaning of the words conscious or consciousness to a Russian who was learning English, would you show him some microbes through a microscope and say 'Here are some conscious beings'? What would he learn from this?

Human beings can see, hear, smell and talk about what they see, hear and smell. My dog has eyes and ears and a nose so it seems natural to assume that in some sense he is conscious, although his consciousness may be very different to mine. I can be made unconscious by a blow on the head and so could my dog. How do you make a microbe unconscious? Where are their heads?

A triangle is a three sided figure but maybe a square is really just a triangle with a spare side. Language goes on holiday when we just think about things without a context.

Shaun Williamson


(104) Roman asked:

Does truth follow reality or does reality follow truth? I don't believe they are synonyms as we can have truths (e.g. mathematical truths) that have no existence in reality.

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You have to realize that truth is an epistemological concept, while reality is a metaphysical concept.

Reality is that which metaphysically exists. And you can have different kinds of reality, depending on your metaphysical assumptions. For example, metaphysical realism creates a reality that is objectively independent of how we think about it. Metaphysical idealism creates a reality that exists only in someone's (or something's) mind. And there are many variations in between.

Truth is a property (if indeed it is a property — some debate about that) of 'truth carriers' — sentences, thoughts, propositions, ideas, thoughts, or whatever you like. So there is no necessary connection between truth and reality. Any connection that develops, is a consequence of one's metaphysical and epistemological assumptions.

The common-sense metaphysics is that reality is objectively independent — in technical words — metaphysical realism. The common-sense epistemology is that truth is evidence transcendent — in technical words — truth realism. Given these assumptions, then truth follows reality. Sentences are true just in case they reflect the way that reality really is — in technical words — a correspondence theory of truth.

But there are lots of alternatives to this 'common-sense' position. Personally, I don't buy any of them. But, hey, I am just one philosopher among many.

And, by the way, the manner in which you refer to the truths of mathematics entails a particular metaphysical view of reality, and a particular epistemological view of truth. What do you mean by 'truth'? And what do you mean by 'reality'? Have you considered the consequences of your position?

Stuart Burns


(105) Chrissy asked:

Below is an extract of a reply given to a similar question I have had on my mind for a long time relative to the orthodox Christian God concept. My simple question is that if He knows everything we are going to experience from existence to death (somewhere in the Bible it says something like — 'not one feather shall fall without my knowing it.') — thereby suggesting knowledge of a future unknown by us mere mortals and clearly states, therefore, that we do not have free will as we are obviously pre-programmed to simply follow a pre-destined path with no-way out and we can change nothing nor have an effect on anything. If this is the case, are there then some 7 billion humanoid robots on this earth (including astronauts above of course) with no real purpose? What is the point of our existence under this concept and how does it then impact on 'I think therefore I am' ? I am now who or what??

The traditional, orthodox Christian God is almighty, all-powerful — omnipotent. Applied to knowledge, the omnipotent God must necessarily be omniscient: God knows everything. Knowing what happened in the past, happens in the present and especially what will happen in the future, His foreknowledge can not be contradicted. If contradicted God would be wrong and this is impossible. So if God knew in 2000 that I would answer this question in 2007, I could not have acted otherwise. I have no freedom to choose. If Existentialism is the philosophy of freedom then it is irreconcilable with a belief in God — the Orthodox Christian God at the very least. God prevents the freedom that is essential for the human freedom propounded by Existentialism. Without the sufficient condition of atheism — which guarantee's freedom by denying the existence of God — humans cannot be free. (Answers 39/40 2nd series)

Clearly, as you can no doubt tell, I'm no philosopher just a confused existential robot (lol) Many thanks for your time. Regards ... Chrissy

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My short answer (as an atheist) is that the question, 'Does God's foreknowledge preclude free-will?' was debated over centuries by the ablest philosophers of the time, people who did accept the traditional view of God. You may find this incredible. I do, to some extent. But I would ask you to consider the possibility that there may be aspects of the question you haven't considered. Robots do whatever they are programmed to do. A God who set out to create beings with free will can't (despite being all-powerful) choose the world that these free beings will create for themselves, despite being able to predict (being all-knowing) what that world will be in every detail. Whatever brushstrokes he makes, the painting rearranges itself according to the free (albeit predictable) choices made by human beings. It is as if the brush had a mind of its own. The result is, in an important sense, out of God's hands. This is also part of an answer to the problem of Evil — but that's another topic.

Geoffrey Klempner


(106) Richard asked:

What is the definition of a Good Philosopher?

To consider something that is obviously true. Question it.

And find new truths?

Was Einstein a philosopher?

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No, Einstein was a physicist. A philosopher deals with philosophy, a physicist deals with physics and an economist deals with economics. Of course to be good at anything you have to be prepared to question accepted truths but that by itself doesn't make you a philosopher. I suggest you read some history of philosophy, you will see that it is very different from physics. For example philosophers don't do experiments.

Shaun Williamson


(107) John asked:

Should recreational 'drugs' be allowed (decriminalized) in society?, looking at from a philosophical angle. The main reasons given as for making cannabis illegal is because they cause psychological problems. But can we take these findings at face value?. Not sure what philosophers have said on this topic. Is it a case of not being able to go back that keeps us moving forward?.

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Well I don't think this is a question that calls for any particular philosophical expertise. It's a question for everyone to think about and if we are going to think about it then we need unbiased accurate information. Unfortunately many of the scientific studies are biased because they start out by asking negative questions i.e. what are the bad things that this drug can do. Almost all drugs have negative effects including many legal ones (e.g. alcohol, sleeping pills, tranquillizers etc.)

There are also other problems. In countries where drugs such as cannabis are illegal, the quality of the drug that is available is often more harmful than it would be if the drug were legal or at least tolerated.

Then there is the political dimension. The U.K. will never legalise cannabis because treaties between us and the U.S. prevent us from doing this.

Then there is the least harm argument. All drugs are harmful, we are stuck with alcohol and cigarettes but we shouldn't add to this by making other harmful drugs legal if we don't have to.

There is also the bad law argument i.e. you should not make a law that the majority of the population will ignore. Prohibition in the U.S. in the 1930s is a prime example of this. In the U.K. it is estimated that over 50 percent of the population have used cannabis. All the policemen I have known have all tried it, so have many politicians. Bad laws bring the law into disrepute.

Its not an easy problem when you really think about it.

Shaun Williamson


(108) Fred asked:

What is human suffering? The reason I am asking this perplexing question, is that I do not think the crucifixion symbol, psychology or medicine come close to addressing this experience.

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For humans real suffering is only caused by loss of love. For a child the loss of or failure to gain a parents love is a devastating blow that they may never recover from. For a parent the loss of a loved child can be unbearable. Then the loss of the love of a loved partner either because they die or they no longer return your love. Other things can make us unhappy but they never approach the power that love has to hurt us.

Shaun Williamson


(109) Francesca asked:

I have been reading about mind-reading modules, and was wondering if Autism was due to a damaged mind reading module?

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I don't know what a mind reading module is. No one is absolutely sure what causes Autism but one of the symptoms can be a failure to understand what is going on in the minds of others. So autistic people can't deal with pretence or deception.

The more we study the brain the more we find out how specialised it can be. For example the recognition of human faces is carried out by a specific area of the brain quite different from the areas that are used to recognise other things. So damage to this small area can leave people unable to recognise their families even though they can still recognise everything else.

It may turn out that Autism is also caused by damage or a developmental failure in a relatively small area of the brain.

However at present the causes are a mystery.

Shaun Williamson


(110) Glen asked:

On Tuesday (6th May) I asked a friend if he was away 'this'Friday (9th May)or away, a week later, Friday (16th May)? My friend replied that he was going away 'next Friday'. Intuitively I thought he meant the 9th May (the date being the next Friday to come) and I told him that the 9th was what I thought he meant. My friend replied that I was a fool because I should have known that by the term 'next Friday' meant the 16th May. According to my friend, an obvious fact. Not obvious to me. I believe that this is a philosophical question, to do with whether a logical error has occurred? Has an error occurred and who is at fault?

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This is a problem of context. If I ask someone 'Are you going away this Friday?' and he answers 'No I'm going away next Friday' then I would take him to mean that he was going away a week after this Friday.

The phrase 'this Friday' is unambiguous. It refers to the first Friday to occur in the calendar. However if today is Friday then it becomes slightly ambiguous.

The phrase 'next Friday' is always ambiguous unless the context makes clear that it is not being used to refer to this Friday. Many people use 'next Friday' to refer to this Friday and it is use that matters since with language our overriding aim is to understand each other not to follow the correct grammatical rules. So many people use 'lend' instead of 'borrow' and you need to be aware of that to progress in life.

Shaun Williamson