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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 6 (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 6/1.

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) Jason asked:

I have been told by numerous people that I critically analyse everything. All I want to know is what do they mean by this.

And is it a good thing or a bad thing.


Ah, Jason, by your critical analysis of everything, you will arrive at the "truth". The people who give you a hard time about this are morons who cant think at all. They have to be spoon fed their own thoughts. There is no good, there is no bad... you will live a lonely life if you sincerely seek the "truth" and critically evaluate that which others just gulp down whole. When you find it, you can decide for yourself if the journey was worth the traveling.

Brad Palmer

(2) Kathryn asked:

What is anti-realism and how can anti-realism offer a satisfactory answer to the verificationist and falsificationist challenges to religious language?


A verificationist like A.J. Ayer in the 1930's (Ayer Language Truth and Logic) would claim that such statements as 'God exists' or 'God is all-powerful' or 'God is good' are meaningless because there is no procedure which we can describe which would, ideally, or in principle verify them. ('Ideally' or 'in principle' because verificationists didn't want the conclusion that an unverifiable statement like, 'A tree stood on this spot 1000 years ago' or 'all brontosauruses are green' are meaningless.)

The same applies to falsificationism, when viewed as a criterion of meaningfulness. (Karl Popper is well known for proposing a version of falsificationism, but this was intended rather as a line of demarcation between 'science' and 'non-science'.)

On this account, all you need to resist the verificationist or falsificationist challenges to religious language is a simple realist account of truth and meaning. A realist will say, 'OK, we don't know how we could, even in principle, verify the statement "God exists" but we still grasp what it means to say that the statement is true!'

But how do we grasp this, exactly? Isn't it a bit worrying that anyone can come along and make a statement, and claim that they mean something by it, without fear of criticism or being required to explain what they mean?

The anti-realist (or 'global anti-realist') rejects all talk of 'truths' which obtain independently of our actually in a position to verify that they obtain. This applies even to 'A tree stood on this spot 1000 years ago' and 'Brontosauruses are green'. On the anti-realist account of meaning, our understanding of our language consists in our grasp of the actual rules of the language game, the rules which say when it is correct to make a statement of such-and-such a kind and when it is not correct. According to the anti-realist account of meaning, our grasp of language rules cannot be extrapolated to situations where where is no way of determining whether the rules are applied correctly or not.

Defenders of the validity of religious language will take comfort from anti-realism because we are no longer concerned with the 'truth conditions' for statements about God. When you learn your faith, you learn 'the rules for God-talk'. These rules describe when statements about God are being used correctly or incorrectly in a given situation. For example, if you are in danger and you say, 'God will help me' that is a correct use of God-talk. If you want to murder someone and say, 'God will help me' that is an incorrect use of God-talk.

Geoffrey Klempner

(3) Julie asked:

"How is truth obscured by language?"


Henk Tuten answered:

"Good question. Answer: it isn't" (page 5/ answer 7).

That's one answer, based upon the assumption that the grammar of "true" makes it applicable only to statements using words. The assumption is false.

HT appears to assume assumes that since all truths are english language or german language or such and such a language truths, it cannot be the case that language, as language, obscures the truth, but can only be the case that particular languages obscures truths in other languages, hence: "Language only 'obscures' truth in as far using English is taken for granted."

To repeat, we can see that HT's argument here assumes that the grammar of "true" makes it applicable only to statements using words, thus applicable only to verbalisations or written utterances in English and German and so on. This assumption is false. It is false because "True" and "False" can also be legitimately and intelligently applied in the instances of painting, sculpture, cabinet making, and metaphor. Indeed one might say that a certain literalistic approach to the use of words itself depends, crucially, upon the use of a very peculiar metaphor, namely: the metaphor of transparency where the word means what it means by "resting on" or "referring" or "pointing to" the thing. And in an instance of the wider fault, we can see that this particular metaphor is itself false or misleading (this has been commented upon from within widely differing traditions from Plato to Wittgenstein).

Thus in Plato and owing much to Heraclitus: "might not the same thing be born, retire and vanish while the word is still in our mouths?" (In the Cratylus, from memory) — In like tradition Bergson and Sartre.

Thus in Wittgenstein, the concern to show that the meaning is not the reference but the "use" of the words. — In parallel but quite distinct tradition the american pragmatists, like James... who held that the meaning was the "difference" the use of the word made.

If not only words but also images can be true or false, it might easily be the case that our words embodied a false image, and thus that language lead astray. Only if truth and falsity are constricted to languages can one confidently assert that a language, as a language, cannot obscure the truth, except by displacing another language.

It may be argued against my view that there is a "language" of metaphor. I think the simile goes to far: languages have grammars, while metaphors merely attract with accuracy and repel with inaptness.

David Robjant

(4) Michael asked:

If one understands that there is no free will (as Nietzsche and Spinoza did) than what is the use of ethics and philosophy? What conscious reason could one give to justify any endeavor to preach how one should choose to live their life if there is no choice?


Believing that fire burns, you will not put your hand in a fire. This simultaneously illustrates a truth about belief and also about the will. It is axiomatic that we will always choose the option which appears, all things considered, the 'best'.

Reading a philosophy book (for example, it could be a book by Nietzsche or Spinoza) you form the belief that a certain kind of life would be the 'best' life to lead. And so you make your choices accordingly.

When Nietzsche or Spinoza wrote those books — or when you came along and read them — the motivation was a desire for knowledge. Desiring knowledge, you did not have a choice not to follow the arguments wherever they lead, or not to choose according to your 'best' judgement. So it would be true to say, in a sense, that you have no 'free will' about this. However, there is just as much truth in the definition, or re-definition which Spinoza offers of 'free will': an act is free when it is determined by reason.

Your worry is this. You imagine that you are standing outside the context in which an agent is deliberating what to do, based on what he or she knows or can find out. Your question is, 'Why bother to find out? I'm going to do what I'm going to do anyway.' But no-one is ever in this position.

Geoffrey Klempner

(5) Kirstsy asked:

What can you do if someone is getting abused in their home and it is because of alcohol? Help me.


If UK, call:

Refuge domestic violence helpline 0870 599 5443

Alcoholics Anonymous family groups 020 7403 0888

Samaritans 08457 90 90 90

David Robjant

(6) Ronie asked:

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


Rod Smith answered (page 5/ answer 20):

"It would work in a universe where you could have absolutes such as a point with no dimension i.e. an absolute position a 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."

I'll admit to having heard something a bit similar in the past, but could you precisify and explain your claim here? I don't follow. How does "graininess" make it possible for infinities to be traversed?

I detect a reading of Sorabji, and I think your answer depends upon a particular account (an account amongst rivals) of how the paradoxes are supposed to be paradoxical. Could you, to help Ronie and myself, restate for us in more than a sentence what in your view makes the paradoxes problematic — then we might understand and evaluate the "graininess" solution.

Recall, and take into account in your clarification, that according to Aristotle "graininess" of a kind was supposed to precisely the assumption that made the motion of the arrow problematic in the first place: that the arrow is both moving and not moving is what "follows if time is composed of 'nows'".

David Robjant

(7) 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?"


Brad Palmer answered "believing in anything, makes it real for YOU and no one else.... Use beliefs as a tool." (5/4)

While Steven Ravett Brown answered (5/8):

"[...] 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... "

Regarding SRB: There are always and everywhere claims that cannot be defended by argument, that are beyond justification — whether one characterises these claims as 'stopping points' or 'starting points'. SRB is correct that it is a key dogma of a certain kind of Philosopher that 'in principle' (whatever that means) everything is up for grabs. In practice it turns out to be impossible for everything to be questioned at once (how could you formulate the question?), and lately philosophers have taken the view that this impossibility is a kind of logical impossibility. Wittgenstein: the doubt must turn upon a hinge. What the hinge is may change over time — but that is not to say that their are no dogmas, only that dogmas can evolve, compete, replace one another.

SRB's short account of the difference between Philosophy and Religion can be neatly reduced to it's proper absurdity as follows:

1) Philosophical reasoning has no starting points (or "stopping points") 2) Arguments have starting points (or "stopping points")


3) There are no arguments in philosophy

Which, needless to say, is false.

My claim would be that what people do in Religion is the same activity as what they do in Philosophy, and that the claim of superiority made by secular philosophers would simply amount to the thought that they do this kind of activity (reflecting about the way the world is — thinking in closely examined metaphors with the goal of accuracy) better than the religious thinkers. Defrocked of the 'no-dogma' dogma, Philosophers are thus exposed as braggarts about their own special talents at the general game. But that, of course, doesn't exclude that they might have something to brag about. We should pay close attention to their arguments in order to discover whether this or that braggart is also mistaken.

Regarding Brad Palmer: One cannot "Use beliefs as a tool". One may well believe what one believes because it works (what you meant to say), but that is not the same as using a belief. Where one is using a claim, that is not the same as believing it.

David Robjant

(8) O asked:

How important is truth?

Julie asked:

How is truth obscured by language?


I hold the view that the importance of truth is paramount. However, we should first establish what is meant by truth. Personally, I subscribe to the views of Bertrand Russell when considering the philosophy of truth and knowledge, in which case I follow his recommendation that when considering truth we must take account of its opposite, 'falsehood'. This caters for the fact that much of our thought and much of what we refer to as knowledge is actually 'belief'. Belief lends itself to either being true or false. On the other hand, things with which we are acquainted — have personal knowledge of — can be considered to be true, and the notion of falsehood does not enter into it. Although truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs, they are properties dependent upon the relations of beliefs to other things. It follows from this that truth consists in some form of correspondence between belief and fact.

Thus a belief is true when it corresponds to a fact and false when it does not. This leads into a very complex discussion exercising several controversial views in the philosophy of knowledge and far too extensive to enter into here. The use of language when expressing truths is obviously of great importance. Misuse of language can have far reaching consequences on the interpretation of statements, and in some cases may convert an attempted truthful statement into a falsehood, and vice versa. How often have we heard the appeal — "Look! That is not what I intended to say!" An appeal often, alas, too late.

John Brandon

(9) Rodman asked:

Does Transcendental Idealism offer any significant improvement on modern rationalism, empiricism?


Yes. Transcendental Idealism in the works of Immanuel Kant provides apodictic certainty in our judgements about what we human beings can and cannot know. What we perceive are synthetic creations of raw intuitions and transcendental categories. This synthesis provides the epistemological foundation for human knowledge. I never perceive time, space, cause and effect although my experience of the world occurs and is made possible by means of space, time and causality. I never perceive my Self, yet there must be something there to experience things and to make the point that ‘I never experience my Self. So where do these conditions from human knowledge come from? They come from the Transcendental Categories of the human understanding. Categories are the conditions for the possibility of human knowledge.

Empiricism can never guarantee a secure foundation for human knowledge. It never perceives a self, time, space, causality. As such, it leads to scepticism about the human ability to know anything certainly.

Empiricism is subject to the problem of induction. It assumes that what has occurred in the past, what has occurred today will likewise be the same in the future. But where is the guarantee? On empiricisms own criteria that experience provides knowledge, I never perceive such a guarantee. So knowledge based on experience is dubious and precarious – it could all change tomorrow, could all change in the next five minutes!!

Rationalism where a-priori concepts are analysed, analysed and analysed then constructed into metaphysical structures are a tribute to human reasoning but tell us very little about the world and life. Moreover, there are so many competing versions of metaphysical theories based on a-priori reasoning that the very method itself as a source of true knowledge is questionable. So yes Rodman, I can categorically state the Transcendental Idealism is a significant improvement of empiricism and rationalism.

Martin Jenkins

(10) Ubon asked:

'The question "What is philosophy?" is itself a philosophical question.' — Analyse this statement.


You could start by making two lists. On the left, put all the statements of the form, 'The question "What is XYZ?" is itself an XYZ-ical question,' which are true, on the right, put all the statements of the form, 'The question "What is XYZ?" is itself an XYZ-ical question' which are are false.

E.g. 'The question "What is history?" is itself a historical question.' Of course, it is not just a historical question. It is also a philosophical question. But it is historical, insofar as conceptions of the nature of history and historical inquiry have changed over time. So this statement goes on the left.

On the other hand, 'The question "What is mathematics?" is a mathematical question' is false. Of course, mathematicians themselves ask this question from time to time, when when they do, they are asking a philosophical, not a mathematical question. So this statement goes on the right.

What about 'The question "What is philosophy?" is a philosophical question'? Well, just as in the case of history, it is not just a philosophical question. It is also a historical question. Maybe as some believe there's a way of seeing it as a psychological question. And so on.

I'm not going to answer this for you. What is characteristic about the approach of philosophy, as contrasted with history, or mathematics, or psychology...?

Geoffrey Klempner

(11) Kirstsy asked:

What can you do if someone is getting abused in their home and it is because of alcohol? Help me.


My answer: You need to go to a shelter, immediately. Find a women's shelter, a shelter for battered or abused women by either: asking at a clinic for women; asking at your church; asking at your local hospital; asking the police. Ask for a shelter for battered women. Use that phrase: "battered women". They should be able to direct you to a place which will not reveal your location and which will help and counsel you.

Steven Ravett Brown

(12) Jackie asked:

I just finished my sixth course in philosophy. I've studied Sartre, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Levinas,Derrida to date. None of them even mention dreaming as a way of communicating with the inner soul of a subject who is in physical form temporarily. Wouldn't it seem likely that the subject experienced some form of transcendence while in the dreaming state? All that seems to matter thus far in my classes is the experience of death. It doesn't seen logical that we would dream, leave our normal consciousness, and go no where except to stay in our brains and dream about nonsensical things. What's your opinion?


My opinion is that 1) you're reading the wrong literature, and 2) you are making all sorts of unjustified metaphysical assumptions.

First, if you want to learn about dreaming, you need to read psychology, not philosophy, and further, not the psychology which Levinas and Derrida like, namely, Freudian-derived psychology, but the kind they don't like, namely cognitive-derived psychology.

Second, you are assuming that there is an "inner soul" which is somehow independent of the body, and indeed of an "outer soul"; you are assuming that there is a "transcendent" state of some sort which has metaphysical, rather than merely psychological, implications; you are assuming that "leaving" normal consciousness is a metaphor which maps the meaning of physically leaving literally onto the mind; you are assuming that dreams are "nonsensical". All of these assumptions seem patently absurd to me.

You might look at these:

Abramson, H. A. 1951. Problems of consciousness: transactions of the first conference. New York, NY: Corlies, Macy, & Company.

Farthing, G. W. 1992. The psychology of consciousness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Steven Ravett Brown

(13) Gerard asked:

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


It appears that Mr. Hume has never practiced meditation or other methods designed to transcend the superficial illusion of body centered consciousness. Imagine consciousness as encompassing a vast panorama. Now, like with a microscope, you focus down, further, and further, until all else is blocked out and the focus is on the tiniest bit that might be called 'your body'. Not seeing the 'whole picture', you identify with your body, feel isolated from all else, egotistically 'unique'. You ask 'who' is 'self'? I cannot tell you that, nor can anyone. You must do the 'work' of the 'journey' for yourself and find your own 'truth' about 'self'. Hume was unenlightened, you don't have to remain so.

Brad Palmer

(14) Luke asked:

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


Absolutely! Don't fear all that responsibility.

You are a god.

Brad Palmer

(15) Jasmine

Are not god (any religion) and santa (in any form) one and the same. a creation of man, in order to get people to behave with the promise of some reward in the future?


God like Santa is the creation of man, meaning of his imagination. But this does not mean that He does not exist outside man's imagination. On the other hand we can't prove either that He does exist, not to the satisfaction of skeptics.

Just believe in the God of your imagination and I hope your imagination is a humane one.

For practical living, pick a religion that is already available and is good for your emotional sanity and cheerfulness. And absolutely deep intact your mental and moral autonomy. Use your reason and exercise your choices in accordance with your best reason..

First rule in life with others: Above all do no harm.


(16) Hina asked:

What is philosophy about?


The search, intellectually, for 'ultimate, unchangeable, unchanging truth'.

Brad Palmer

(17) Raphael asked:

'Artificial intelligence enthusiasts believe that the computers are more intelligent than man.' Discuss


First, if we understand intelligence as IQ which is measured by IQ tests, then the conclusion is unavoidable that artificial intelligence is more intelligent than man. The truth of the matter is that machines are creatures of man, but also they are the evolutionary products or developments of man, not endomorphic but exomorphic. An example of exomorphic evolution is the simple pair of eyeglasses that enable us to see clearly when our eyesight deteriorates as its endomorphic evolution has destined it to suffer in the course of time.

Artificial intelligent is more intelligent than man just as the tractor is stronger than man; because not being bound to biological limits and built-in weaknesses, they can continue longer and reach further and dive deeper and rise higher than biological man can ever aspire after -- except with machines. And that is why I say that machines are the exomorphic evolutionary developments of man. The ultimate destiny of biological man is machine man or robotized man, human but not biological: a human machine but human just the same. Science and technology is the way and means of our exomorphic evolution, not the stumbling trial and error manner of biological nature, taking millennia to evolve a useful feature of biological man.


(18) Luke asked:

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


You are expressing the views of an empiricist, namely, that all knowledge comes to us through the senses. In this case you are referring to the very special type of empiricism visualised by Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley was an 18th, century empirical idealist who challenged the popular concept that there was a material world in existence independent of the mind. In short, he claimed that the only knowledge we possess is that provided by the senses, but that there was no way in which we could connect these sense impressions to any 'external' source. Thus the world is somehow generated by the senses. All our concepts and ideas, therefore, arise from our manipulation of the sense data (sensa) available to us.

According to Berkeley, then, the world exists as a 'mind construct' and anything we do and everything we are aware of, including the moral notions you mention, exist totally within the mind. Berkeley does not deny that the sense data we commonly take as evidence of things outside us are not in some way independent of us, but he does deny that this something is non — mental. He admits that there is something that exists even when we are not observing it, but only because God holds it within His own constant observation of all things. God is the creator of the pattern of life, including sense data, imposed on our minds. God does not need actual 'matter' to bring about creation, He needs only to impress a sort of 'illusion' — for want of a better name — of a physical world on the mind of the observer, a world controlled by an imposed 'natural law'. Berkeley, unlike those with non — religious views, would find no problem with this notion, being, as he was, a Bishop and devoutly religious. However, it must not be assumed that all 'Idealists' are religious. Though not convinced of the idea of a material world some Idealists presume that such an 'illusory' notion could be imposed upon us in some other way, by some sort of as yet undiscovered creative force, for instance.

Probably the majority of philosophers and possibly all scientists subscribe to the idea of a physical world existing independently of the mind. The problem is to prove it, when all our knowledge of such a possible world relies solely on the empirical sensory impressions available to us, all we can claim to be really aware of is sensory data, which is really giving us direct knowledge of how our senses work rather than where the data is coming from. Whether we are Idealists, Materialists, Rationalists or anything else, our reliance for proof of our notion of 'reality' lies within the interpretation of the sense data we receive, whether it be from an unknown external source or some sort of mind construct: sense data and the senses themselves seem to be the only confirmable objects of reality. That is not to say that they actually are.

Even science has to admit that all our objective knowledge of the world is actually in the brain/mind. Our eyes convert reflected light into electrical impulses to the brain, where they are translated into shapes and colours, indicating that there is no actual colour in the world — does the brain also construct the shapes from the received electrical information? In the ear air — pressure frequencies are converted into electrical impulses and passed to the brain where they are converted to sound, indicating a silent world! Taste is the conversion of chemical stimulation to electrical input to the brain, which produces the sensation of taste. Scenting things follows a similar pattern of chemical stimulus converted to electrical input to the brain which interprets the charge and provides the relevant smell, much to the delight of the perfume industry!! A pain in the end of the finger is not in the finger at all, it is at the end of the electrical impulse which is stimulating the sensory area in the brain which represents that particular finger, even when we rub the painful area we are rubbing the bit of brain where the finger is represented. So you see, Berkeley may have a point!!

John Brandon

(19) Kirstsy asked:

What can you do if someone is getting abused in their home and it is because of alcohol? Help me.


This is not a philosophical question, but it is a hard one to find a good answer to. It could be broken down into an issue of what a "right" action is, what "ought" to be done. It could also be looked at from a rights perspective, about what individuals are entitled to do. But I don't think that's what you're after...

Basically, help is needed;help for the person being abused and help for the person misusing alcohol. A good place to start may be your GP, or look in the phone book for details of the nearest alcohol treatment agency. If the person experiencing the abuse is under 18 then school, Connexions or the Children's Locality Team (Social Services) may be able to help.

Of course, there is also the Police as well...if the scenario you are describing involves law breaking then they should be able to help, but it leaves unanswered questions about what happens next: can these people go on living together?

Perhaps someone at your local church may be able to help. Do you know where the vicar lives? Do you have anyone locally who you can share the precise nature of the problem with?

I hope this answer proves useful to you, Kirsty, and you are able to find a worthwhile solution to the problem you described.

Clive Hogger