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

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 9 (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 9/1.

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) Bob asked:

To achieve as good an understanding as possible of the nature of reality, should one first study natural sciences (quantum mechanics) or philosophy?

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

In my very strong opinion, one should first study the natural sciences, then philosophy. The reason is that when studying philosophy, one is presented with numerous alternatives to the scientific worldview, the scientific method, and so forth, an in addition, at this point in time, science, in Western culture, is looked down on, and not particularly well-taught in schools. There is an anti-science bias, to put it briefly, throughout contemporary Western culture, including philosophy. The problem with this is that science works, and has provided innumerable benefits to humankind as well as the obvious problems; and the problem with that, for philosophy, is to explain this... which philosophy has not done well, in my opinion. Now, there are exceptions to the latter... e.g., the early philosophers such as Aristotle, and some few later ones such as,

Kitcher (Kitcher, P. 1992. The naturalists return. The Philosophical Review 101 (1):53-114.

---. 1993. The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

---. 2002. On the explanatory role of correspondence truth. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXIV (2):346-364.

Kitcher, P., and A. C. Varzi. 2000. Some Pictures are Worth 2^10 Sentences. Philosophy 75:377-381.)

I have not included classical philosophers of science here (e.g., Popper, Reichenbach, Feyerabend, even Quine) because I do not think that their conception of science is entirely accurate, and thus they need to be approached after one has done other reading, to put their viewpoints in perspective.

This is not to say that after one has some introduction to science, one should not study philosophy. On the contrary, I think that it is a major problem in science that most scientists have not studied philosophy. Scientific ethics, scientific bias, and scientific method would tremendously benefit from scientists studying philosophy, not to mention some psychology as well.

So the program would be: start with science for 2-3 years, then do both. Good luck finding such a program... I think you'll have to construct one yourself.

Steven Ravett Brown


(2) Christian asked:

Who is the first philosopher in the world?

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

Must have been the granny of Fred Flintstone asking herself: "Why on earth do I have this jolly bright offspring? I must have made a point when being nice to the shaman 50 years back!"

But no! What got the shaman to become a shaman in the first line? He must have had some second thoughts too? And what about his own granny? So this is really hard to answer! I just don't know. Nobody does.

Philosophy — as already Aristotle said — begins with wondering why things are as they are. Since you put the question you have proven as a philosopher.

Hubertus Fremerey


(3) Someone asked:

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

can any creature hear colours and see sounds?

Creatures without eyes can't see, and without ears can't hear. Just what do you mean by "creature"? If you mean: things with eyes, then as far as I know virtually all such "creatures" can see colors unless they are abnormal. There are of course color-blind creatures of all sorts, including humans. There are also deaf humans, etc. So your question seems a very strange one. Perhaps what you're really asking is: "Is other creatures experience of colors the same as humans?" If that's what you're asking, you might look at these papers:

Nagel, T. 1974. What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review 83 (4):435-450

Hacker, P.M.S. 2002. Is There Anything it is Like to be a Bat? Philosophy 77:157-174,

and some of the literature relating to them. The short and simple answer, by the way, is no, it is not.

Steven Ravett Brown


(4) Antonio Asked

Do you think that knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is about "things as they are" or is it confined to the "representation" of things allowed by the particular structure of our senses and brain?

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

It's both. Here's a very simple experiment you can do in the privacy of your bedroom: stand up, face the nearest wall, and walk toward it. You will find out quickly, if perhaps painfully, how accurate your representation of reality is. What is it that you've just walked into? Well... whatever it "really" is, it's such that whatever it is you see corresponds pretty well with how far and in what direction you can walk, and how you feel it, right? Now unless you're a complete, total solipsist, and either believe that you're a mind in a bottle, hallucinating absolutely everything, or indeed actually are in such a bottle, you have no choice but to admit that you've discovered something about reality. And you've just performed a rudimentary scientific experiment: you've verified, by two sensory modalities, the kinesthetic and tactile ones, what another sensory modality, the visual, tells you about reality. This is the beginning of the classical method of consensual validation. Just to make sure, of course, you need to repeat the experiment several times (haha).

Take a look at this book if you want to go into this in depth: Kitcher, P. 1993. The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Steven Ravett Brown


(5) David Asked:

What would be a good read in order to under the topic of ethics in post-structural philosophy/ theory. I find that many academics who take up post-structural theory are very concerned about topics that presuppose an ethic or at least suggest ethical questions e.g Racism, Sexism, Ethnocentrism, Hegemony, Ideology, Classism, Globalization, Biotechnology yet I do not see any obvious epistemological basis for this ethic nor any obvious deontological foundations. I have heard of some refer to its ethics as based on a form of pragmatism in someway derived from an appreciation for basic human rights. Certainly many post-structural theorists have written and engaged in deeply political and ethical issues. It is just as likely that many of them don't agree upon any explicit ethical system. What work has been done on this topic, I must say I am very curious.

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

Well you might take a look at some of these:

Audi, R. 1996. Intuitionism, pluralism, and the foundations of ethics. In Moral knowledge?: new readings in moral epistemology, edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beauchamp, T.L., and J.F. Childress. 1983. Principles of biomedical ethics. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. Original edition, 1979.

Edgerton, R. B. 1992. Sick societies: challenging the myth of primitive harmony. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press.

Gintis, H., S. Bowles, R. Boyd, and E. Fehr. 2003. Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 24:153-172.

Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. 2000. Culture matters: how values shape human progress. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Held, V. 1998. Whose agenda? Ethics versus cognitive science, edited by L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Johnson, M. 1993. Moral imagination: implications of cognitive science for ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

MacIntyre, A. 1984. After virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

May, L., M. Friedman, and A. Eds. Clark. 1998. Mind and morals: essays on cognitive science and ethics. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nelson, J. L., and H. L. Nelson. 1999. Meaning and medicine: a reader in the philosophy of health care. Edited by J. L. Nelson and H. L. Nelson, Reflective Bioethics. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nussbaum, M. C. 1988. Non-relative virtues: an Aristotelian approach, edited by P. A. French, T. E. J. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Nussbaum, M.C. 1989. Recoiling from reason. The New York Review (December, 7, 1989):36-41.

Rawls, J. 1995. A theory of justice. 21st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schiffer, S. 1996. Contextualist solutions to scepticism. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96:317-333.

Solomon, D. 1988. Internal objections to virtue ethics, edited by P. A. French, T. E. J. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Williams, B. 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Steven Ravett Brown


(6) Novices asked:

What do it mean when a philosopher says that plans too have memory?

Secondly what does it mean when a philosopher say that nature thinks?

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

It means nothing. At most these are poetical ways of speaking. Literally saying nature thinks is nonsense. It means as much as saying 'Nature shops at Tescos and as for plans having memory, I've never even met a plan that could remember its own name. These aren't philosophical questions so you can't expect a philosopher to answer them.

Poetry is very important but it isn't philosophy.

Shaun Williamson


(7) Someone asked:

Can any creature hear colours and see sounds?

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

Yes some humans can. I forget what this syndrome is called but some people experience sounds as colours and visual sensations as sounds. There are also more extreme forms of this disorder caused by a lack of certain chemicals in the brain which means that the protective coating around nerve fibres is absent. This can cause serious developmental disorders in some children. They are unable to make sense of the world because of crosstalk between nerve fibres.

Shaun Williamson


(8) Jenny asked:

What is happening on me? I THINK I am having a crush with the same sex AS ME AS in girl to girl... but I am definitely not a lesbian.. I am falling for my teacher.. I am a high school student... I have no email address.. please answer my question as soon as possible... coz I really don't know what is happening with me.. I just keep it to myself.. I am afraid that somebody will criticize me.. and that I would lose my dignity in this situation.. this is not the first time I have experience something like this.. please help me....

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

Well you don't say what age you are but I don't think you need to worry too much about this. It is very common for a teenagers first intense emotional feelings to be directed towards someone of the same sex. This often takes the form of an intense admiration for someone that they would like to be like. So don't worry. Just relax. Adolescence is a very emotionally intense time and there is no easy way through it. So just try and go with the flow. What you are feeling is perfectly normal.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Jean Pierre asked:

I'm busy developing a concept of "motion" as a cornerstone of a (new) way of thinking about life, human beings and psychology.

I wonder how in Greek philosophy one has thought about this concept: what is motion, what are processes, dynamics and energy, how do they relate, and so on. Is there anyone who could give me a clue? Thanks.

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

How can you possibly consider your's a "new way of thinking about life" when you have no idea what others before you have thunk? Don't worry, perhaps, about a 'unique' vision for it's own sake, instead, search for 'truth' and the 'reality' it reveals to you. 'Unique' is mostly irrelevant in that context, as somewhere on that path, 'self' must be discarded. Ego. But feel free to do the 'research', keep a 'critical' eye out and exercise your thought processes and who knows... I might be studying 'your' book of thoughts!

Brad Palmer


(10) Blankenship asked:

Can 'surrender' be achieved as a willful, self-directed act, or must it be forced by external stresses that take the person outside of his ability to cope?

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

Good question! I have found, in my experience, that one can 'torture' someone to 'achieve' a form of 'surrender', i.e. divulging a secret, but they won't like you!

On the other hand, 'deliberate, willful 'surrender' as lovers do, as a 'love slave' does, as a religious follower does, can be very deep and profound. There is no sacrifice greater than the willing, loving subjugation of the 'ego' to the 'beloved'.

Brad Palmer


(11) Jenny asked:

What is happening on me? I THINK I am having a crush with the same sex AS ME AS in girl to girl... but I am definitely not a lesbian.. I am falling for my teacher.. I am a high school student... I have no email address.. please answer my question as soon as possible... coz I really don't know what is happening with me.. I just keep it to myself.. I am afraid that somebody will criticize me.. and that I would lose my dignity in this situation.. this is not the first time I have experience something like this.. please help me....

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

Don't worry about 'labelling' yourself. If you 'like' gals, that's fine! If you 'like' guys, that's fine. If you like 'both', that too is fine. Be honest and true TO YOURSELF! If you lie about your 'true self' you will not respect yourself, be miserable and learn to despise yourself. Your ability to love ANYONE at all, is an improvement on the miserable world situation. Never make excuses for loving someone. Be a lesbian! Be 'gay'! Be Bi-.. Be straight... Whatever, ...just be honest and let the 'chips fall where they may'! What do you really care what a bunch of freakish bigots think anyway. Live LARGE baby! You only play this game once! Give 'em Hell!!

Brad Palmer


(12) Lydia asked:

I am currently doing my action research and the topic is "RESPONDING APPROPRIATELY TO LEARNERS DURING QUESTIONING AND ANSWERING SESSIONS". I am not sure as to how to collect data that will be beneficial to me.

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

Yes, well, you're asking in the wrong forum. That's a question about how to do empirical, social research, and books and lists on that are where you need to go. Try asking here: Helveticacogling@ucsd.edu; that's a cognitive linguistics group, a bit off the mark, but a good group.

There's these:

Schwartz, H., and J. Jacobs. 1979. Qualitative sociology: a method to the madness. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Sudman, S., and N.M Bradburn. 1982. Asking questions: a practical guide to questionnaire design. Edited by D. W. Fiske, The Jossey-Bass Series in Social and Behavioral Sciences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

and you can take a look at these, mostly for their references rather than their contents; they might help:

Goffman, E. 2001. The presentation of self in everyday life. In Down to earth sociology: Introductory readings, edited by J. M. Henslin: Free Press.

Greenspan, P. 2000. Emotional Strategies and Rationality. Ethics 110:469-487.

Hickling, A.K., and H.M. Wellman. 2001. The Emergence of Children's Causal Explanations and Theories: Evidence From Everyday Conversation. Developmental Psychology 37 (5):668-683.

Kappas, A., U. Hess, and K.R. Scherer. 1991. Voice and emotion. In Fundamentals of nonverbal behavior, edited by R. S. Feldman and B. Rime. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Scherer, K.R. 1986. Vocal Affect Expression: A Review and a Model for Future Research. Psychological Bulletin 99 (2):143-165.

Steven Ravett Brown


(13) Geoffrey asked:

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

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

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

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

Shaun Williamson offered an answer (8/13), and about his answer I have some comments.

SW: "The walking, talking human being is our standard of what consciousness is."

This is a good start from SW: after all, to begin to deal adequately with the alleged possibilities 1. and 2. , we will have to have some idea about what consciousness is. At least, we will need to be able to identify instances of it. And SW's proposal addresses itself to this need. However, SW's claim has problems:

i) one might think that the domestic cat is equally a standard of consciousness. If not, why not? In short, exactly what is being alleged with this word "standard"? What kind of authority is being appealed to here?

ii) does SW mean that some other walking, talking human being is our standard of what consciousness is, or rather that we ourselves being a conscious walking talking human being are our own standard of what consciousness is?

On the one hand, if we are our own standard of what consciousness is, the consciousness of others might (on certain further assumptions about what there is in "immediate" experience, for example on the assumption that what is immediately presented is sense impressions or sense data) appear to be something mysterious. If what we mean by "consciousness" is a certain quality of my inner experience, then it might be thought that in order to attribute this quality of inner experience to others I would have to infer their conscious inner experience from an analogy between (my sense impressions of) their outward appearance and behaviour and (my sense impressions of) my own outward appearance and behaviour (rather odd).

On the other hand, if our strategy for avoiding the "problem of other minds" is declaring that others are our "standard" of what consciousness is, then our own consciousness might appear to become something mysterious. If what we mean by "consciousness" is a certain public fact about other human beings observed walking and talking and so forth, then it might be thought that in order to attribute this fact to myself I would have to infer my consciousness from the testimony or behaviour of others (rather odd).

SW, I take it, has a view on this quandary of the internal versus the external character of consciousness. He seems to be an externalist. To precisify his claim, I think he takes the view that other human beings are our standard of what consciousness is and what 'conscious' means. It would seem to be on this kind of reasoning that:

"The first possibility [that there might have existed someone physically (outwardly) just like me, who did not possess consciousness] is nonsense..."

For otherwise, that is if consciousness were something accessible only internally from a first person perspective, the idea of something being outwardly similar but inwardly quite different need not be nonsense at all. So SW takes the view that what is publically viewable as my consciousness is my consciousness. Nothing is hidden. So for SW "consciousness" is not a special inner quality of experience additional to the "physical" appearance of a bodily human being behaving and appearing like a human being: but rather the specialness is (in some sense) in the particular physical appearance and behaviour that human beings display.

I have two difficulties with the SW position (and with the views bearing a family resemblance to it).

The first is that the supposed other-minds problem with internalism, from which externalism derives many of it;s attractions, rests on a whole set of shaky foundations in an empiricist characterisation of experience. I think that immediate experience is not data but that, in Iris Murdoch's words, the imagination is immediately and continuously at work in all our experience. Consequently I don't have to think that the consciousness of another has to be a different category of thing to the other reports of our senses. So I can say that the fact that another is conscious is immediately and non-inferentially evident to me in exactly the same way that the redness of a dress is, and I do not need the paraphernalia of SW's externalism to solve or avoid any "problem of other minds". I can maintain a kind of internalism about consciousness, believing that there is an inner life and that our understanding of the word "consciousness", particularly when we come to think about the colour or the quality of consciousness, is importantly linked to this experience, without this automatically translating into a global scepticism about the fact of another's being conscious (my position, Murdoch's position, resemble's Sartre's here, but not Wittgenstein's).

My second problem with SW's thinking here is that in expressing his own kind of externalism about consciousness SW nevertheless oscillates between his official doctrine, that of regarding consciousness as a characterisation of other human beings, and something more uncouth. His ways of speaking still show traces of the persistently attractive but supposedly suspect notion of consciousness as some deep reality whose full nature lies beyond the physical appearances. He wants to say that consciousness does not need to be inferred — and I agree that far at least. He wants to say after Wittgenstein that nothing is hidden — and here we part, as outlined in the previous objection. The complaint I now add here is that for all his declarations and best intentions, he still wants to treat judgement about "consciousness" as something which may be mistaken. The connection between the public judgement and the fact of consciousness is thus supposed by SW to be simultaneously direct and indirect. Thus:

"the philosopher may argue that our contingent, provisional real world ways of identifying individuals are imperfect but they are not, they are the real thing and philosophical notions of identity are phantasy"

If, as SW wants to say, the 'philosophical notion' of personal identity residing in a unique inner consciousness is a "phantasy", while "real world ways of identifying individuals... are the real thing" then on what count are "real world ways of identifying conscious individuals" to be described as "contingent, provisional"? Isn't a certain kind of public agreement precisely supposed to be, for this kind of externalist, both immediate and final — the very meaning of 'conscious'?

I don't deny that SW can say things to reconcile these points — much of which will doubtless have to do with noting the grammar. But what he might have to say deserves careful scrutiny on our part and skillful handling on his.

What then do I think to GK's question:

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

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

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

I think the difference is that 1. may be made sense of, but that 2. is by contrast impossible to make sense of.

1. can be made sense of in two ways. One might think of consciousness qualitatively, so that not possessing consciousness comes out as not being aware of the world. Here it is clear that someone "physically" just like me might be unaware in a way that someone else just like me is aware — well enough proven by the fact that my own degree of consciousness varies. Or alternatively one can treat "consciousness" as a certain kind of irreducible capability fact about even those with impaired or bad consciousness. In this case "physically just like me" would have to be precisified to mean "quantified by science to be just like me". This allegation 1. will then allow for the small possibility that science may not, in all cases, have found a way to adequately capture and follow what may be immediately and non-inferentially evident to me, the fact of this or that being conscious or not. I guess that this is exactly where we are with physicists, all though I dare say physicians have more sense.

2. by contrast, when we try to imagine someone whose consciousness was just exactly like mine but who was not me, we ignore the links between the quality of a consciousness, a history of the quality and states of that consciousness, and the construction of a person. For 'person' is not wholly an external gift from the judgements of others, but also connected with our own telling of our experiences in a tale, and there are connections between the idea of autobiography and the merely legal concept of a person, namely that the legal personality is someone capable of presenting opinion and testimony and judgement and so on.

In hard cases, say of doppelgangers or separated twins who, meeting each other late in life find that they have similar faces and opinions and histories and so on, I would simply find myself pointing to all the residual differences. The idea of their being no such differences in their conscious experiences and history, but of their being nevertheless two separate people, I just can't follow. I can't imagine it. I would need to be told in what sense they were two people. Doubtless some wit would comment that they were in separate 'universes'. Ah well, I might say with widening eyes, there you have me.

David Robjant


(14) Lauri asked:

"Hindus see life as constant suffering caused by person's craving for things he/ she can`t have. Should those desires be suppressed?..."

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

Steven Ravett Brown answered (8/10):

"...I cannot claim to be an expert on Hinduism, so this is probably not too well-grounded. But... first, look at the culture in which this viewpoint arose. Extremely high population density, low technology; a rigid class structure, with no possibility of bettering one's position in the world. Combine that with a religion claiming endless rebirth, with the odds being in favor of being born in a lower social class than where one dies, even reborn as an animal. It's no wonder that most Hindus saw this as constant and hopeless suffering, is it....[...]. If you can't kill yourself physically to escape because you'll just be reborn in a lower form, then, hey, kill yourself mentally, so you don't care anyway. Seems reasonable to me..."

The question and the answer share a mistake: these religious traditions talk of transforming desires into steadily better and more satisfying ones, and not of 'suppressing' them. The difference is important, and I suppose that there is the danger of christian puritanism infecting modern Hindu or Buddhist thinking with the 'suppressing' idea, or (which is somewhat more likely) the danger of those brought up in the puritan traditions of anglo saxon christianity misreading indian traditions through the prism of their inherited and unexamined ideas about the religious.

Acknowledged, there is the picture that the most satisfying objects of desire are not objects at all in the ordinary sense of 'object'. But to call this picture of moral progress up through various levels the "suppression" of desire is like calling the process of training of a fruit tree against a wall the "suppression" of the tree.

The answer adds some confusions and audacious factual inaccuracies of it's own to that first mistake shared with the questioner. For someone who "cannot claim to be an expert on Hinduism" the historicism of the answer is audacious to the point of comedy:

"... look at the culture in which this viewpoint arose. Extremely high population density, low technology; a rigid class structure, with no possibility of bettering one's position in the world."

Hm. What is known about population density in 1000-800 BC India? Very little. What is known about their technology as compared to that of Egypt or Ancient Greece? Very little. And as to what this supposedly second rate society was producing intellectually? Hindu philosophers were discussing materialism a hundred years before the greeks. The flourishing of thought contemporaneous with the greeks is of like depth and breadth, except that most of the chief philosophical protagonists from the indian materialists to Buddha are all dated circa 600 BC, ie 100 years before classical Greece. Classical Athens was a rigidly segregated slave based society that didn't stop socrates thinking or arguing, and there appears to be not one shred of evidence available for the relationship SRB hypothesises between class structure and Hinduism. Ie, he claims that the caste system predated the religion which was erected so as to endorse it whereas an alternative view reeking rather less of dialectic materialism would be that the caste system was the product of the religion's account of moral progress and reincarnation. Moreover, in mounting a general attack on Buddhism and Hinduism together SRB manages to overlook the salient fact that so far from caste being a pre-religious status quo which Buddhism existed to justify, a rejection of caste was a key part and product of Buddhist thinking. I liked SRB's introductory modesty, but not what followed.

David Robjant


Larry asked:

"I'm a very partisan Liberal, and hate everything Bush, my problem is that therefore I want the terrible misadventure in Iraq to fail, so what do I feel about GI deaths there, etc.?..."

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

Kenneth Stern answered (8/1):

"One way to lessen your confusion is to lessen your emotions... [...] Knowledge should have nothing much to do with feelings. Feelings are not a way of knowing."

I disagree. I agree that Larry shouldn't be mastered by misplaced or unexamined emotions. But I don't agree that "Knowledge should have nothing much to do with feelings." Since human life is pretty much mostly feelings of one kind or another, this injunction against the meeting of knowledge and feeling is a recipe either for a impoverished life, or for an ignorant life, or for both together. I also disagree with the claim "Feelings are not a way of knowing." The best partners know each other through love, and without nursing a love of geometry it is very hard to come to know anything of that either.

David Robjant


(15) Avnet asked:

I was wondering if a person becomes egoist/ altruistic when he is born?

The reason I am asking this is because I am someone who sacrifices a lot for people and feel very good with it, but I wanted to know if I am a 'good' person when I do good deeds while others don't or am I just doing what I was 'programed' to do?

In short, are egoist people to blame that they are egoist?

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

In short, yes. No one can free you of vanity but yourself. You can start today. Therefore, egoists are to blame for the fact that they are egoist.

On the other hand yes, babies are natural born egoists, so at least some degree. Hopefully, if not damaged along the way, they grow up.

The stuff about being 'programmed' is just hooey. Computers are programmed. You are not a computer. Some scientists think that imagining that people are arrays of on/ off switches will help them to understand people better. That tells you what they know about people.

Try to distinguish the perfect understanding of a mechanically determined universe which some dogmatic people believe science to be capable of, one day, in the far off imagined future, from the occasionally useful but messy mass of disconnected theories and undigested facts that it actually is, now. The discovery of DNA is no more the discovery they you are genetically programmed to be an egoist than the discovery of water is the discovery of america.

P.S. Pride is a form of egoism.

David Robjant


(16) Blankenship asked:

Can 'surrender' be achieved as a willful, self-directed act, or must it be forced by external stresses that take the person outside of his ability to cope?

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

[I assume here that you speak of a religious notion, islamic, with echoes in Buddhism and Christianity]

No, it cannot be achieved by external stresses that take the person outside his ability to cope. This makes proper surrender less possible, not more. Affliction can damage the soul in ways which prevent the surrender of the self, and embed damaging patterns of thought. The reading I particularly suggest on this point is Simone Weil, 'Waiting for God', the essay 'The love of God and Affliction'.

Weil is espousing a Platonic view here. Plato, who points out, simply enough, that we do not make people better by damaging them.

I think your thought here may be based on an unfortunate (and extremely dangerous) confusion of the concept of surrender to the will of god, on the one hand, and the concept to surrender to the will of a powerful person or force, on the other. God is not a person or a force, and surrender to him is not like surrender to a torturer. Surrender to God is the gift of god, 'grace' in Weil's terminology. Surrender of the other kind may, in some circumstances, be the polar opposite. I think here of the evils of charismatic persons and cults, Crowley, Stalin, etc, and also of the dangerous fatalism before natural forces that sometimes derives from mistaken theology and which prevents the proper piety of mercy and compassion.

David Robjant


(17) Jean Pierre asked:

I'm busy developing a concept of "motion" as a cornerstone of a (new) way of thinking about life, human beings and psychology.

I wonder how in Greek philosophy one has thought about this concept: what is motion, what are processes, dynamics and energy, how do they relate, and so on. Is there anyone who could give me a clue? Thanks.

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

You will need to read about Heraclitus and Zeno, with a side order of Parmenides.

In one corner we have the idea that motion is a form of change (namely change of distance over time.) This makes motion expressible in maths, with some obvious practical advantages, but with some unexpected conceptual dangers when the mathematical device embeds itself into our understanding of motion, of position, and of time: these difficulties are well explored in Zeno's paradoxes and the vast literature surrounding them. Beware any easily expressed summation of the import and argument and even the conclusion to be derived from those paradoxes. It's is even disputed as to what Zeno is aiming at there. But my own view is that Zeno is arguing against the conception of space and time as composed of units, and against the idea that motion to be understood in terms of change.

In another corner we have the Heraclitean image of the river. While there is an almost equal degree of controversy about heraclitus as about zeno, I'll say that what's being stressed in this metaphor is an anti-mathematical continuity of motion, the contrast between the understanding of the world that comes from laying some sort of grid or net over it (maths), and the way the world really is. Broadly, my interpretation of Heraclitus and Zeno has them in accord in their opposition to the picture of motion that has it as a form of change. Alteration is from one state to another. Motion, properly speaking, is precisely the absence of state.

If you follow your investigations thus far, you next topic will be Leibniz and calculus.

The side-order of Parmenides: he took the view that there was no motion. he seems to have thought of motion as change, and his reasons for thinking that there was no change are interesting, but another question.

David Robjant


(18) Carly asked:

Which philosophers on the subject of Art do you think are the most worthwhile? Which theories?

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I prefer a theory which leaves well alone the hoary old diversion of "is it art?" and directs our modest powers at understanding the important and pressing matter of "is it any good?".

Iris Murdoch's work scores pretty well here.

David Robjant


(19) Dinesh asked:

If there was noone to look at the moon, would the moon exist?

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Well some philosophers have suggested that the answer to this is no and in a brief email reply it is difficult to give a complete rebuttal of these views. If you find questions like this fascinating then study philosophy and discover the answer for yourself.

In general when we ask questions about whether this or that exists we don't mean 'Is this or that being observed?' or even 'Has this or that been observed?'. So I have good evidence and reason to believe that dinosaurs existed even though I have never seen one and neither has any other human being. When we say things like "The earth is 4 billion years old", we certainly don't mean that 4 billion years ago someone was looking at the earth.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Rhodora asked:

How much assimilation do you think has really taken place in our society? what factors have encouraged assimilation? what factors have worked against it?

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Firstly these are my own ideas and I can't say how accurate they are since they are not based on any research but merely on my own experience of English society. I grew up in the 1950's in an area which was one of the first to have a growing population of immigrants both from Asia and the Caribbean. Even as a child I was conscious of racial prejudice because I came from an Irish family. I remember seeing notices in shop windows saying things like 'Room to let — No Irish need apply'. This wasn't illegal then as it is now. Later the notices would say 'Room to let — no Irish or Blacks' and even later 'Room to let — no blacks'.

I think that assimilation is probably the wrong word and that perhaps blending is more accurate because as an immigrant group takes on the identity of the society around it they also change the society. As examples of this consider the influence of an Anglicised Indian cuisine, the influence of black music and slang on all teenagers, the interest in Bollywood films and music etc.. So to get to the point at last.

The main factors that lead to blending are children who go to school together. All children want to be normal i.e.they don't want to be different or to stand out from the crowd. They adopt what they see as the main values of the society around them although this may be filtered through the values that they have already acquired from their family.

The main factor that opposes blending is the perception amongst children from immigrant groups of racial prejudice. If children feel rejected by a society and feel that they will never be accepted then they will often adopt a defensive culture i.e they will cling to their parents culture but often in an extreme form. So that Asian Muslim teenagers in Blackburn may find it easier to express sympathy with terrorists. Their parents may have very different and less extreme views.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Avnet asked:

I was wondering if a person becomes egoist/ altruistic when he is born?

The reason I am asking this is because I am someone who sacrifices a lot for people and feel very good with it, but I wanted to know if I am a 'good' person when I do good deeds while others don't or am I just doing what I was 'programed' to do?

In short, are egoist people to blame that they are egoist?

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I think this is the wrong way to think about things. Since these are questions we will never be able to answer.

What you need to keep in mind is this.

Everybody admires the brave man. Nobody admires a coward although we may forgive someone for being a coward because we know how difficult it is to be brave.

The liar doesn't want other people to lie to him.

The cheat and fraud doesn't want other people to cheat and defraud him.

The murderer doesn't want to be murdered.

The thief doesn't want other people to steal from him.

The egoist may not be to blame for what he is but even he doesn't admire egoists although he may pretend that he does.

Shaun Williamson


(22) Avnet asked:

I was wondering if a person becomes egoist/ altruistic when he is born?

The reason I am asking this is because I am someone who sacrifices a lot for people and feel very good with it, but I wanted to know if I am a 'good' person when I do good deeds while others don't or am I just doing what I was 'programed' to do?

In short, are egoist people to blame that they are egoist?

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"When it comes to social behaviour, it's difficult to say if you really are to blame for anything you do. It all comes to the debate over the pre and post-conceptions. Some argue that we are born with pre-built behaviour patterns, engraved in our genes, and that we cannot escape this destiny. Others say the environment in which we grow is the most important factor in our social development.

If I was to directly answer your question, I would say that of course you are not born an egoist, but if you become one, you can wonder what happened in between — did your genes kick in or did your environment changed the way you behaved? I don't think anyone can give a final answer on this, and it's more than likely that both your genes and the environment surrounding your growth contributed to your present "condition".

But you also ask if you can be "good" if you are just following your genes. You raise an interesting question here. If you accept the "gene theory", then you don't have an option, you tend to act that way, so you don't make a real choice. You can still be "good" in the eyes of others, but being that way is not your real moral choice. You also mention that you sacrificed yourself a lot (in bold) but in good will. I think the simple fact you mention this, shows you feel unappreciated, and that can only mean that you feel that it was somewhat against your nature to be that way (at least to the extend you did it). Maybe you feel you are more selfish that you really feel in liberty to be — and in this way, maybe your environment is conditioning your natural (gene) programmed behaviour."

Nuno Hipolito


(23) Dinesh asked:

If there was no-one to look at the moon, would the moon exist?

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The "Moon" would not, but a natural celestial body, a satellite to a nearby larger planet would.

Nuno Hipolito


(24) Jenny asked:

What is happening on me? I THINK I am having a crush with the same sex AS ME AS in girl to girl... but I am definitely not a lesbian.. I am falling for my teacher.. I am a high school student... I have no email address.. please answer my question as soon as possible... coz I really don't know what is happening with me.. I just keep it to myself.. I am afraid that somebody will criticize me.. and that I would lose my dignity in this situation.. this is not the first time I have experience something like this.. please help me....

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Having a crush on someone of same sex doesn't mean you are a lesbian. Just think of what you admire in that person, is it her personality, her beauty, her happiness, her intelligence...? My advice would be to don't be afraid of what you are feeling, possibly taking some time alone to think about what you admire in your teacher. Don't dismiss the possibility you are lesbian, just because it sounds too scary, but consider other possibilities also. You are a young girl (I think) and it's only natural having doubts or questions about your sexuality right now. It's called growing up.

Nuno Hipolito


(25) Dinesh asked:

If there were no-one to look at the moon, would the moon exist?

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Very unlikely. If there was no one to look at the moon the universe would be totally different, or possibly not in existence at all. Some present day astronomers and cosmologists have revived the argument from design in what is called the 'anthropic principle'. In short, it argues that we see the universe as we do because we would not be here to observe it if it were different.

If you are asking the more simple question: Can things exist without some human or other animal observing them? The answer seems to beg the question; Why not?! Unless you support the Empirical Idealism of Berkeley, which puts forward the notion that to exist things must be perceived. The concept alleges that things do not go out of existence when not observed by humans, because all things are constantly observed by God. However, to accept this view we have to surrender to the notion that the world is constructed of 'mind stuff' rather than 'matter stuff'.

John Brandon


(26) Bob asked:

To achieve as good an understanding as possible of the nature of reality, should one first study natural sciences (quantum mechanics) or philosophy?

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When dealing with questions about 'reality' the first question to ask is: What do we mean by reality? During every day life everything available to what we call the 'mind' is, in a sense 'real'. Problems about reality are compounded by our attempts at analysis and description, if we could accept the pragmatic view that our lives are made up of different interlocking facets of reality, each necessary to our overall vision of life, questions of the type you ask would be unnecessary. However, the human mind is essentially a questioning mind, and passive acceptance of things around us is unacceptable to most.

Reality can be divided broadly into 'objective reality' and 'subjective reality'. If you are concerned with research into objective reality, i.e. an alleged material/ physical structure of the world, then the natural sciences offer a good approach. If on the other hand your interest lies chiefly in a subjective world view, and the possibility that mind generates our knowledge of the world, and indeed plays the major role in its construction, then philosophy would seem to be the way forward to an understanding of reality.

However, the simple divisions you suggest have their regions of overlap, making the overall study of reality far more complex than such simple divisions afford. For instance, the philosophical approach to the study of materialism is quite different to the scientific approach, whilst the science — some say pseudo-science — of psychology can be seen to be quite a contrast to the philosophical approach. As for quantum physics, recent advances in this direction alongside a revival of metaphysics, has made it virtually impossible to separate science and philosophy at this junction. Consider for example theories about a superstring foundation for matter, and the notion of parallel universes: are we concerned with philosophy or science?

The fundamental answer to your question, then, is to take the course which you find most appealing and which fits best into your world view; the problem is a subjective one.

John Brandon


(27) Bob asked:

To achieve as good an understanding as possible of the nature of reality, should one first study natural sciences (quantum mechanics) or philosophy?

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You need to study and understand both of these things. Then you need to study history and poetry and logic and mathematics and everything else. Understanding the nature of reality is really difficult and it will make your brain hurt but then you didn't really think it would be easy, did you?

Shaun Williamson


(28) Larry asked:

I'm a very partisan Liberal, and hate everything Bush, my problem is that therefore I want the terrible misadventure in Iraq to fail, so what do I feel about GI deaths there, etc..?

I'm an anti-Bush patriot(even now hate that word now!), so what do I do/ feel,as I know that prevailing in the Mideast-terrorist struggle is best for the U.S. VERY CONFUSED.

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You really need to get some sort of historical perspective on this. Firstly there is no Mideast-terrorist struggle. Certain extremist Islamic groups have identified America and the American government as the great Satan (or enemy). In the same way some fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S. also identify the U.S. government as the great Satan etc.. (the Oklahoma bomber for example). The extreme Islamic groups are very much influenced by the support which America gives to Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians. All of these are difficult and complex situations to which there are probably no easy answers.

Saddam, a sadist and psychopath rose to the top of a divided and tribal society in Iraq because it was an artificial county created by the U.K. and the U.S. The U.S. and U.K. armed Saddam because they saw him as a useful ally against Iran. In the same way they armed and supported Al-Queida in Afghanistan because they were fighting the Soviet Union. Now when Saddam invaded Kuwait (another artificial country set up by the U.K. and the U.S.) the U.S. and the U.K. had to realise that here they had a psychopath who was out of control. Since that first Iraq war the U.K. and the U.S. have had to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq to prevent Saddam from attacking his own people. I have never heard the U.N. or France etc.. suggest that the U.S. should not do this or offer to help with the expense incurred so in one sense it seems to me that it is permissible for the U.S. to decide that it would be cheaper to remove Saddam.

However Bush and Cheney's reasons for invading Iraq probably have more to do with their own peculiar ideas of what the world is like and economic calculations about oil supplies etc.

Now if you join the army you probably do so for two reasons:

1. You are poor and it is the only job available.

2. You have dreams of glory and fighting for your country.

If you fall under 2. then dying in Iraq is possibly what you want. However in the end any death in war is sad and a waste of a life since all wars fail to achieve any permanent result.

In the end defeating Bush depends upon voters realising what he really believes and turning out in sufficient numbers to get rid of him. It has very little to do with what happens in Iraq.

Shaun Williamson


(29) Lynne asked:

Where is the future stored? It is there somewhere, but where? what about the past. Where does it go?

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Philosophers are divided over the 'reality' of the past and the future. Aristotle argued that when we ask whether or not there is going to be a sea battle tomorrow, there is no actual answer, unknown to us, at the time when we ask the question. The statement, 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow' does not have a determinate truth value. When tomorrow comes, will will find out, one way or another. When the sea battle occurs — or does not occur — the statement will acquire a truth value, true or false — a truth value which it will keep for all future time.

In other words, Aristotle embraces realism about the past, but rejects realism (or 'fatalism') about the future.

Let's take someone who is a realist about the future. What do they believe? To use your words, do they believe that the future is 'stored' somewhere? Here's one way that this might seem to be the case. There is a very big book buried somewhere where we will never find it, which contains true predictions of everything that will ever happen. But what makes those predictions true? The only way the predictions can be true is by the events it describes happening in the future. Something which is 'stored' somewhere exists here, now. But the future isn't here and now because it hasn't happened yet. So the idea that the future is 'stored' somewhere isn't adequate to express realism about the future.

Similar things can be said about the reality/ unreality of the past. Suppose there is a very big book buried somewhere which contains an accurate record of everything that has ever occurred. What makes the statements in the book true is the fact that the events it describes happened in the past. The idea that the future is 'stored' somewhere isn't adequate to express realism about the past.

Geoffrey Klempner


(30) Jazmin asked:

What would exist if the world and the entire universe didn't?

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Let's look at some of the candidates for 'things that might exist in the absence of a physical universe':

Space. Newton held that space is the 'sensorium of God'. Space and time exist by themselves, independently of objects existing in space and time. It follows that if the world and the entire universe didn't exist, there would still be space. However, In a correspondence with Newton's disciple Samuel Clarke, Leibniz argued for a 'relational' view of space. Space cannot exist or be real if there are no objects in space. This seems to be the view that has prevailed at the present time.

Laws. A reality where nothing exists, not even empty space has a certain potential nonetheless. Something might happen to bring physical objects into existence. If you are not relying on God, the cause might be the eternally existing laws of physics which decree that such an event (a 'singularity') has a certain non-zero probability of occurring.

Sets. There are no planets. Therefore the set defined as the 'set of all planets' is empty. Sets are abstract, rather than concrete objects. And they multiply beautifully. There is the set containing the empty set (which has one member), the set containing the set containing the empty set, together with the empty set (which has two members), the set containing the first two sets, plus the empty set...

Numbers. The natural numbers can be defined in terms of the series of larger and larger sets, as just described. In that case, if sets exist independently of the existence of a physical universe, so do numbers. Not all philosophers agree with this. Some think sets are OK provided they have something real in them (like the set containing my laptop, Big Ben and the Moon), but object to the idea of the 'existence' of an empty set, or the existence of numbers as pure abstract objects. Using Russell's definition of the number n as 'the set of all n-membered sets', there would be numbers, as semi-abstract objects, in a world where physical objects existed, but no numbers in an empty universe.

Values. If I make the value judgement that it is better that the universe, imperfect as it is, does exist than if nothing had ever existed, some philosophers (Plato, for example) would take this to imply that the values would exist even if no physical things existed.

Geoffrey Klempner


(31) Sharon asked:

Is there a contemporary philosopher who sees inconsistency as a positive or useful thing?

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Yes. See the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's essay, 'In Praise of Inconsistency' (in Toward a Marxist Humanism New York: Grove Press 1968). Here's a quote:

The race of those who vacillate and are soft, the inconsistent people, precisely those who happily eat steak for dinner but are totally incapable of slaughtering a chicken; those who do not wish to contravene the laws of the land yet do not denounce others to the secret police; those who go to war but in a hopeless situation surrender as prisoners rather than die in a last-ditch fight; those who prize frankness but cannot bring themselves to tell a famous painter that his work is terrible, nervously uttering words of praise which they do not mean — in short, the race of inconsistent people — continues to be one of the greatest sources of hope that possibly the human species will somehow manage to survive. For this is the race of which part believes in God and the superiority of eternal salvation over temporal well-being, yet does not demand that heretics be converted at the stake; while the other part, not believing in God, espouses revolutionary changes in social conditions yet rejects methods purporting to bring about these changes which openly contradict a certain moral tradition in which these people were raised.

Leszek Kolakowski Toward a Marxist Humanism, p. 213

Geoffrey Klempner


(32) Christian asked:

Who is the first philosopher in the world?

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For some reason this question keeps popping up... I guess it's a standard question in some intro course. Well, it's silly. Don't answer it; just tell your instructor to ask a better question. Or here, say this: the first philosopher is any baby with their first question. Or better, ask the instructor what the point of this question is, OK?

Steven Ravett Brown