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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 5 (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 5/1.

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

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Jerry asked:

I am reading Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics and doing a book report as I read. I am in book X, just about done :-), and Aristotle is talking about Pleasure perfecting Working, but I can't for the life of me figure out what his meaning of Working is.

In Nichomachean Ethics, Dover Publications, starting on page 186 and moving forward, Aristotle makes SEVERAL references to Pleasure and Working.

If someone could decipher what he is meaning by "Working", it would be greatly appreciated. I have looked in several online Philosophy Dictionaries, but none so far have it listed.


Well first of all, the absolute best place to go look for ancient texts and translations is here:

Now, think about it this way: suppose that you absolutely loved your work. You're a woodcarver, or a boat maker, or a computer programmer, or hey, even a philosopher (and, haha, you get paid for doing it). So what are you going to do as you work? Well, you love what you're doing, and so what you're doing gives you pleasure, right? And in addition, you want to be the absolute best you can at it; the better you do your woodcarving, say, the more pleasure you get. So there you are.

Now, generalize the concept of "working" to everything you do, in fact, to being yourself... and you've more-or-less got Aristotle's concept.

In addition, think about what this implies, today, for people and their jobs.

Steven Ravett Brown

(2) Joe asked:

In many times in life you have to draw or the line is drawn. In any time in life instant the line drawn. I.E Abortion, even though any answer and explanation is idealistic. I'm not looking for the end all question of abortion for that is a debate to any answer. In a philosophy where is the line drawn at any moment in life even how specific you go. It must Define ever possible thing if the line is drawn in stone which it is. Concluding — How do you draw the line or find what the line is.


It is a fundamental error to suppose that a clear concept of something implies a definition which 'draws the line' between every instance of that concept and every non-instance.

Most of the concepts which we use to describe the world around us have more or less a degree of vagueness. When does an elephant become a large elephant? When exactly does a man who is losing his hair become bald?

There is an argument against abortion which trades on the problem of 'drawing the line'. Suppose we agree that it is definitely wrong to 'abort' a foetus after eight and a half months. If it is wrong to abort a foetus after any given time, T, then aborting the foetus one day sooner would not have made any difference. It would still have been wrong. It follows that it is wrong to carry out an abortion one week after conception.

Whatever we may think about abortion, this particular argument is fallacious. It is fully consistent for someone to hold that abortion is wrong when T = eight and a half months but OK when T = one week. Of course, there will be difficult cases in between these two times, just as it can be difficult in some cases to decide whether an elephant really is a large elephant or only medium to large, or whether a man is really bald or only on the way to becoming bald.

Geoffrey Klempner

(3) Emily asked:

Can hedgehogs climb trees? Can you drown a fish?


I don't know, but I doubt it, without help (a little escalator?).

Yes. By having it swim in water in which the concentration of oxygen dissolved is too low. This happens to fish in some rapid alage blooms [harmful algae].

Steven Ravett Brown

(4) Natalie asked:

I have noticed that most, if not all, of the answers on this site show a certain degree of skepticism towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. Are religious faith and intellectual philosophy mutually exclusive? If so, why? If not, why is this skeptical standpoint so common?


Well, first, why Christianity? Why not Islam? Why not Buddhism? Why not Taoism? Why not Zoroastrianism? Why not Judaism? Why not Mormonism? Why not Swedenborgianism? Why not Norse gods? Why not the old Greek gods? Why not a naturalistic pantheism like Voodoo? Why not the old Egyptian gods? Why not one of the American Indian religions? Why not Hinduism? Should I go on? And on? And on...? Hey, there are still Pacific Islanders, I understand, who belong to some of the cargo cults; you've probably never even heard of those, have you. Why not that? And I haven't even begun to touch the number and variety of religions people have held. Christianity? Come on. And you know what? Pretty much all those religions believe in different origins for the world, have different ideas of an afterlife (and some don't)... and so forth, ad nauseam.

Why are philosophers skeptical? I'll tell you what... you tell me which day of the year I should believe in which religion; I could try that. I'd run out of days before I ran out of religions.

The difference between philosophy and religion is that philosophy has no dogmas. There is nothing which must be accepted, except perhaps that principle (and, really, that can be questioned also), as a basis for a philosophical system. To be religious you have to come to a stopping point, somewhere. You have to hold a "belief", a "dogma", which you cannot question. Because if you do question it, really seriously question it, in the sense of truly being prepared not to believe it, then you're not a member of the religion, are you, because you can't really be prepared not to believe in something you believe in. Belief doesn't work that way. At best, you're thinking about joining it or believing it. I mean, if you don't believe in Christ as the Saviour, then you can't be a Christian, right? If you don't believe that Mohammed was divinely inspired, then you're not a Muslim. That's what being a Christian, or Muslim, etc., is. You can question it to a certain extent... but if you are really, seriously, all-out questioning it, totally prepared to abandon it, then you don't really believe it, do you... and you're not a Christian, etc.

So, despite all the people who term themselves "philosophers" and Christians, or Muslims, or whatever... I do not consider them philosophers. Because they aren't prepared to do philosophy, that is, to follow investigation wherever it leads, but merely to find arguments to support their beliefs. I realize that this is a controversial position... oh yes indeed. But that's why you're finding skepticism here on a philosophy site. Because for the most part the questions are being answered by philosophers.

Steven Ravett Brown

(5) Naseer asked:

How can one get wisdom?


Start by ignoring anyone who claims to have it.

David Robjant

(6) Jourdan asked:

Why is it that the principle of non-contradiction can not be refuted, what proof could I give in my paper to prove the pnc?


Consider the following 'proof' of the principle of non-contradiction:

1. Suppose that the principle of non-contradiction is false.

2. It follows that there is some proposition P, such that P, and also not-P.

3. But whatever we make P, the result is absurd. E.g. Jourdan asked 'Why is it that the principle of non-contradiction can not be refuted, what proof could I give in my paper to prove the pnc?' and it is not the case that Jourdan asked, 'Why is it that the principle of non-contradiction can not be refuted, what proof could I give in my paper to prove the pnc?'

4. Therefore, the principle of non-contradiction is not false but true.

The obvious objection to raise against this 'proof' is that steps 3/4 rely on the principle of non-contradiction. To assert that P and not-P is absurd because it is contradictory.

What we can say, however, is that the principle of non-contradiction is assumed whenever we carry out any logical deduction. The principle is a necessary presupposition for doing logic. That is a 'proof' in a weaker sense than a logical proof, more of an explanation of the importance of the principle.

There is an important assumption here. Consider the difficult teenager. 'Is your room tidy?' 'It is, and it isn't'. 'Have you finished your homework?' 'I have, and I haven't'. The answer is to be more specific with your question. What the principle of non-contradiction assumes is that we are considering precise statements, something which is more often not the case in ordinary life.

Geoffrey Klempner

(7) Julie asked:

How is truth obscured by language?


Good question. Answer: it isn't.

But probably that is not the answer that you want. Language doesn't change 'truth', it only gives it another shape. For some that might make it more difficult to find any message, for others it's all message.

Take for instance the (Christian) rational notion terrorist. That notion depends on what one learned to see as terror. It became Christian to see as 'terror' any violence aimed at (in the first place) Christians. Defending such a view by means of force is what most Muslims consider 'terror'. What is 'truth'?

Both cultures give a different explanation to the notion 'terror'.

The view on death in Islam is quite different from the one current in the Christian World. In Islam dying for a good goal can be honorable. And killing for that goal might be necessary.

Language only 'obscures' truth in as far using English is taken for granted. English became a key language but it's relative use on internet is blatantly exaggerated. French people in 99 per cent use the language French on internet, and Germans German. That is only for a tiny part measured because for that they mostly use 'weird' own browsers of many types. And Spanish speaking people world wide on internet use in 99 per cent of the cases Spanish, as well as Chinese people Chinese.

They don't even read your English truth. That 90 per cent of internet use in English language is a very relative truth. It only means that 90 per cent of the measured web traffic is in English. That is an obscured truth but not caused by language

Henk Tuten

(8) Natalie asked:

I have noticed that most, if not all, of the answers on this site show a certain degree of skepticism towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. Are religious faith and intellectual philosophy mutually exclusive? If so, why? If not, why is this skeptical standpoint so common?


It is not an intellectual thing to believe in something for which there is no evidence other than in your own mind. Believing that folks come back from the dead, walk on water, born of virgins, etc.... Is mindless foolishness, mere credulity... Will Durant said, "The great snare of thought is the uncritical acceptance of irrational assumptions." Lastly, believing in anything, makes it real for YOU and no one else. Real in YOUR world. There IS NO 'the' world.

So yes, Christian beliefs are not rational of intelligent. So what? If it works for you and gets you what you want, knock yourself out! BUT, if your belief does NOT get you what you want, and you maintain that belief, you are a fool. Use beliefs as a tool. That is a hint.

Brad Palmer

(9) Mari asked:

How does a Buddhist celebrate death?


A Buddhist does not celebrate anything. Not an enlightened one. Maybe the present moment might be fully enjoyed by one who is enlightened. Death does not exist beyond your own imagination, like life. Celebrating anything, is one step removed from the direct experience. The enlightened do not celebrate.

Brad Palmer

(10) Leo asked:

How old is the earth since before christ was born?

I mean in an amount of years!


Go here:

You will find that the earth is 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. I think that if you subtract the 2000 or so years since the birth of Christ, you'll get a number pretty much the same, percentage-wise.

Steven Ravett Brown

(11) Maisha asked:

I am having difficulty with a year 6 girl. Although she has had problems with mathematics especially with the more abstract concepts, she has now been refusing to take part in physical education classes. When asked whether she has problems in certain areas she would say 'no'. When asked why she won't comply and would say something like 'its boring' or 'what for?' or 'it doesn't make any sense'. Her disinterest and non-compliant behaviour are beginning to have a negative effect on the other children in the class, in that those who want to work cooperatively are starting to shun her and making it clear that they don't want her in their group. As a result, she is becoming slowly but surely isolated from the rest of the class members. She appears to want to be involved while at the same time shows ambivalence regarding her work, her teachers, and others in the class.


The young lady is obviously too intelligent for your 'one size fits all' educational system. Perhaps a ...'special' school. How can an intelligent person NOT get bored in public school?

Brad Palmer

(12) Sohail asked:

How we can define friendship


Doesn't Ambrose Bierce, in his "Devil's Dictionary" define friendship as a "ship that carries two in fine weather and only one in foul!"

Brad Palmer

(13) Someone asked:

How important is truth?


I'll tell you...

Well.... Uh... do you want the truth?

Brad Palmer

(14) J asked:

I have noticed what to me seems to be a big flaw in materialism. They say that everything is physical. That then seems like 'everything' and 'physical' mean the same thing. Or something, anything. So you can say. Everything is made out of something. On the other hand, if physical means something specific (specific means something different than other things) then that means there are things not physical. If wrong, could someone please explain?


A traditional mind-body dualist (or, 'substance dualist') says that things are 'made of' two different kinds of stuff, physical stuff and non-physical stuff. A materialist, or 'physicalist' says that things are made of only one kind of stuff, physical stuff.

Of course, that answer raises another question: what do we mean by 'physical'?

Here are two definitions of 'physical':

1. An entity or stuff is physical if it is subject to the laws of physics.

2. An entity or stuff is physical if it has spatial properties, i.e. is located in space, occupies a spatial volume.

Given either of these two definitions, the statement, 'Everything is physical' makes a substantial claim which is inconsistent with belief in mind-body dualism.

Geoffrey Klempner

(15) Ja asked:

How is Aristotle's approach to philosophy very different from Plato's?


Raphael's picture "The School of Athens" in Rome (widely viewable on the internet) expresses a succinct view of this multi-faceted difference. Plato is pictured with one finger pointing skyward to the the heavens (the handling of the clouds said to be inspired by the nearby sistine chapel), while besides him a younger Aristotle has a hand out-stretched with all fingers splayed to front, as if surveying the earth, or even patting it, either with love or as a reliable foundation.

What might be meant by this pictorial summing up is that Aristotle's attention is pluralist, directed at the many details of the world from which in his view all thinking must begin, while Plato is a kind of monist in the tendency of his thinking, in that he remarks a heavenly unity under which all these many details of the world must be understood.

(In platonic terms that powerful unity is The Sun, and another heavenly symbol of this high reality is geometry as of the stars, but in the Vatican context of this picture which may appear to recruit the ancients for Catholicism — the picture stands opposite a representation of the Church — the place of The Sun is presumably taken by God, with both the clouds and the stars imagined as a world of angels)

The kind of contrast that Raphael seems to be getting at in understanding these two ancient philosophers as representing two approaches to his own Catholic reality is like the contrast between Zoology and Chemistry (the accumulation and categorisation of facts), and Physics or Metaphysics (both the pursuit of unifying law and system). Zoology and Chemistry (in the person of Aristotle) point at the plurality of the world. Metaphysics and (the vatican would hope) Theology (in the person of Plato) point at some unity in the sky.

Connected with this is the choice made of books to put into the other arms of the pointing pair. Plato holds the Timaeus — definitely a metaphysical text, a book on 'Higher' matters. Aristotle holds his Ethics — a book on practical and 'Worldly' matters.

This is the sort of difference which someone (Whitehead was it? Someone please correct me) was picking out when they said that philosophers, and indeed humanity in general, are all born either little Platonists or little Aristotelians. Categorising this difference as an aristotelian, one might say that platonists are dreamers in a land of metaphor. Categorising this difference as a platonist, one might say that aristotelians can't see the wood for the trees.

Thus far, such a popular understanding of Raphael's picture importantly underestimates the degree to which Aristotle himself is a Platonist. Aristotle certainly disagrees with Plato about Universals, but it would be impossible to imagine Aristotle's thought without the precedent of Plato. Aristotle argues, on the basis of arguments closely resembling some rehearsed by Plato himself in the dialogue 'Parmenides' and which I take Plato to have adequate responses to, that Plato wrongly gives universal forms (such as forms for equal, for one, for good) an independent or 'separate' existence from the things which are equal, or unitary, or good. Aristotle holds that universals and their particulars (things that are equal, or one, or good) must be interdependent, that universals only exist in and through their instantiations. For Plato, our encounters with instances of equality and so on must depend on an understanding of equality itself, which universal in itself must be prior, in knowledge, in being, in language or thought, and (in what is arguably a picture of the three former kinds of priority) even historically, as in the thought that we have a heavenly acquaintance with the forms prior to our birth in this world.

This again is point related to the iconography of Raphael: Plato points up to a kind of elsewhere, a reality which transcends and conditions this world — Aristotle thinks of his realities as worldly, holds his hand down flat to them as if grasping this earth, or, perhaps, holding it down so as to any prevent ascent on the wind of Plato's finger.

Socrates, at the right hand of the Plato, uses his fingers more practically: to count off points in an argument. Heraclitus, solitary, below, uses his to write poetry.

David Robjant

(16) Bryan asked:

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


Stuart Burns answered (Page 4/ 12):

"...[1] Logical thinking demands that one examine one's premises... [and] challenge them for reasonableness and justification... [2] [but] belief in God demands that one accepts the premise that God exists without question or challenge..."

Just to say that both claims are false.

1) While I do not believe in God and will agree that only the examined life is worth living, Stuart's definition of 'logical thinking' here implies that there thinking is only 'logical' if it continues, in the manner of a five year old child, to continue asking 'why?' ad infinitum. Infinities being incompletable, no kind of thinking will satisfy his criteria here. Justification must come to an end somewhere. There are plenty of facts and pictures which will serve as premises in 'logical' argument, which for all that are neither reasonable nor justified. Justification must come to an end, and very often it comes to an end unreasonably, in absurdities. EG: Humans suffer. EG: My ear hurts.

What Stuart is looking for is some criteria for adequately differentiating starting points which are unjustified and unreasonable and bad starting points, from starting points which are unjustified and unreasonable and good starting points. "Reasonableness are justification" will not suffice for this purpose.

Instead of "Reasonableness", Stuart might have used the word "plausibility". If he had done that he would have missed out on one opportunity to recruit the word 'reason' for his view, and, in the process, explicitly stated that his non-belief in god is a premise for his argument that belief in God is 'illogical', rather than the conclusion of it. I suppose that's why he picked on "reasonableness".

2) The second claim is empirically false, as the biography of any number of significant religious figures will amply demonstrate.

David Robjant

(17) Natalie asked:

I have noticed that most, if not all, of the answers on this site show a certain degree of skepticism towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. Are religious faith and intellectual philosophy mutually exclusive? If so, why? If not, why is this skeptical standpoint so common?


Religious faith and academic philosophy are to an extent mutually exclusive. You can believe in God and be an academic philosopher. However, Kant has argued that you can argue logically for and against God. The extra element you need would be faith, whatever that is. But faith cannot be part of an argument or part of academic philosophy. An academic philosopher can enquire into the nature of faith, but cannot offer his own faith as something intellectually or rationally persuasive. Faith is faith, and you can't reason towards it or explain it so it isn't philosophically useful.

I don't think that this site is particularly against Christianity. To my knowledge, there are two Catholic theologians who have been answering questions. However, it would not be philosophical of them to put forward Catholicism as a truth. A vast number of those who believe in God, or who are religious, are not Catholics and, of course, theologians are aware of this. If a theologian gets involved in philosophy, he takes a non-denominational stance and doesn't argue for religion but in the light of it.

Rachel Browne

(18) Natalie asked:

I am reading Philippa Foot, 1978, "Morality as a system of Hypothetical Imperatives", in Virtues and Vices. I have to answer a question that I have had incredible trouble doing:

"What does Philippa Foot mean when she suggests that Kant's view of "ought" is relying on an illusion as if trying to give the moral ought a magical force?"

Please help me — I am a business student and have never tackled anything like this — I have read the reading at least 20 times and have an understanding of Kant's Categorical Imperative, but have no idea what Foot means. Please Help?


Of course I don't want to answer your essay but this answer isn't nearly long enough for an essay but I hope it helps you understand.

Foot is analysing what we mean by a moral 'ought' by means of the function it has in our language. Her argument is based upon comparisons with other senses/uses of 'ought' and she concludes that there is no sense to or use of this term such that it can ground a moral imperative. To suppose that there is to be under an illusion.

When 'ought' is used in a Kantian hypothetical non-moral sense you can go on to say why you ought. If you can't do this, as in the Kantian moral case, and there is nothing more to say, the 'ought' lacks content. The thought that there are unavoidable duties cannot be elucidated or further understood through language, thought and reason so Foot argues that we merely 'feel' that there are these duties and this is the result of our education. If we merely feel there are moral duties, and this is due to our education, then we are subject to an illusion. There is no external imperative or command on us.

Foot makes two specific claims about the failure of the moral ought. Firstly, she says that if we say that someone 'ought' to do something, language and thought stops right there. We can give no further reasons in support of the proposition if the reply is 'why?' We fail to supply reasons because there are no further reasons which can give rise to the 'ought', other than we just do happen to make such claims. If there are no reasons on which the moral ought is based, then it is easy to reject the moral ought without necessarily being irrational. If one wants to follow one's own self-interested reasons, then the person who supports the idea that the moral ought has hold is left floundering. Foot believes in this paper that irrationality is acting in such a way as 'to defeat one's own purpose'. Behaving morally rather than in one's own self-interest may well do this.

Of course, what is rational or irrational can be defined in other ways. It could be said that the rational is that which is expected by society. Though since society is made up of individuals this leads to problems.

Foot's second point is to say that moral judgements or the moral 'ought' might imply necessity and the unavoidability of doing what we 'must' do. We take it that moral demands have binding force. However, no sense can be given to this in terms of the meaning of moral language which needs to provide us with a reason why we ought to do something or be moral. Again there is nothing further to be said. All we can do is to use synonyms: Unavoidability, necessity, binding force, inescapability. But we still cannot say WHY.

Because we cannot expand upon the 'ought' with reasons that function in language, such that we can tell someone WHY they 'ought' then there is no binding force or inescapability in morality. If we go on to say it is necessary, this can again be questioned.

'Ought' is empty of content as a term and only SEEMS to be binding, so it is really an illusion.

Rachel Browne

(19) Natalie asked:

If Christians believe there is only one God, then why do they also believe in the existence of the Holy Trinity, i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If they are all part of one omnipresent God, why bother dividing God into three distinct entities? Does this not equate to worshipping multiple gods?


The Trinity is just a way of describing the three ways in which the One God is apparent to us. As the maker and creator (Father), as God apparent on the earth (Son) and as the inner feeling and knowledge within us (Spirit).

Glyn Hughes

(20) Ronie asked:

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


It would work in a universe where you could have absolutes such as a point with no dimension i.e. an absolute position — which would mean the boundary edge of the tortoise/arrow etc was infinitely small and thus unreachable. However, our physical universe apparently has a "graininess" which determines the minimum size that something may be and something of finite size can be reached.

Rod Smith