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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 1 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from August — September 1999:

  1. Academic intelligence and life experience
  2. Proving the non-existence of God
  3. Why do philosophy?
  4. Where does thinking come from?
  5. The problem of evil
  6. Facts and objects
  7. Entropy and probability
  8. Boethius: 'The good are always powerful...'
  9. Knowledge of the past
  10. Science and free will
  11. How names refer
  12. Education should be fun
  13. The problem of reflexivity
  14. Do our passions lead us astray?
  15. What is a philosophical question?
  16. Intentionality and norms

Our first questioner, Melissa asked:

Do you feel that academic intelligence is better than life intelligence/experience? Also do you think that exams and tests truly show how intelligent one is given the way that some individuals react to different kinds of stress and pressure?

If your primary concern is living well then it would be generally agreed that proficiency in real life situations — wisdom in dealing with practical matters and social situations — is more important than being a good scholar. But they are both valuable things in themselves.

One of the reasons why university degrees now have a much higher component of 'continuous assessment' is that some students do not perform well in exams due to nerves. I am totally in favour of this. Some students, however, enjoy the challenge of exams and do their best work under pressure. That is why I would not like to see exams completely abolished.

Geoffrey Klempner


Miguel asked:

How can some philosophers prove that God doesn't exist?

Can you prove that God exists or can't we prove it?

It is harder to prove that God doesn't exist than it is to prove that God does exist. One argument for the non-existence of God is the 'Problem of Evil'. God is all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing by definition. God therefore has the power to eradicate all evil. Being all-good he wants to eradicate all evil, and being all-knowing no evil can escape his attention. Yet there IS evil in the world. Therefore 'God', as defined, does not exist. There are a number of loopholes in this argument, however.

There are three main types of argument for the existence of God. The teleological argument says that the universe has order and design, therefore it must have been the work of a 'Great Designer'. The cosmological argument says that every event has a cause, therefore following back the chain of causes and effects, there must have been a 'First Cause'. The ontological argument says that it is part of the definition of God to be 'Perfect'. But non-existence is an imperfection. Therefore God must exist.

All three arguments were criticised by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his book 'Critique of Pure Reason' (1781), though he liked the teleological argument the best. There are still philosophers today who think that a good case can be made for the existence of God. Richard Swinburne, for example.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jordan asked:

Often I am posed with the following question: why do you study philosophy -- what does it have to do with the real world and its problems? My question is: what kind of understanding of experience and of philosophy does this mentality come from? what does this kind of question reveal about society?

Quite simply, where the question comes from is the state of mind where one has not seen what there is in the problems of philosophy to be gripped by. The full and complete justification of philosophy is that its problems grip us. We feel them to be important. Some people who 'have not seen' can be helped to see. Others simply will not see. Their eyes are shut. What does that show about society? I don't think that this is a new problem. At the time of Socrates (as Aristophanes' comedy 'Clouds' amply testifies) many educated Greeks thought philosophers ridiculous, and their questions and theories absurd.

Geoffrey Klempner


Scott asked:

What is the source of human thought, where does it come from? Biologically caused thought does not make sense to me, the idea that ultimately a movement of molecules in the nervous system is what leads to human cognition seems absurd. Does that mean if I move enough objects around, in a complicated enough fashion that such a system thinks? In such a scenario I could possibly make musical chairs "think."

The example I use with my students is a skyscraper thousands, or maybe millions of miles high with clerks sitting at desks on every floor, writing symbols on pieces of paper and handing them to one another. Such a system could, in theory, 'run' the program of a human brain, supposing that the running of a human brain program — on any 'hardware' that will do the job — would be sufficient for conscious thought. Why does that seem crazy, when the idea of a silicon chip simulation of the functioning of a human brain inside a mechanical simulation of a human body — an 'android' — seems not quite so crazy?

Here's a thought experiment. A scientist takes you to his laboratory, carries out a number of tests, and successfully proves that you are an android. Would you say, 'I know I'm not an android because android 'brains' are just movements of molecules'? Or 'If I am an android then I know I can't be thinking'?? — Now, put the thousand mile high skyscraper inside a several thousand mile high 'mechanical simulation of a human body' and you have a very big android.

Geoffrey Klempner


Yonas asked:

Is there going to be a serious problem regarding the presence of evil and the rationality belief in God? Where can I get more information regarding this issue problem of evil?

You are talking about the 'Problem of Evil' which has been much discussed by theologians and philosophers. The problem arises in the following way. God, as traditionally conceived is all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing. Because he is all-knowing he cannot be ignorant of any evil that occurs in the world. Because he is all-good, he cannot prefer a world with evil to a world without evil. Because he is all-powerful, he is capable of eradicating any evil that occurs. Yet surely there are evils in the world. Natural evils — flood, famine, and other natural disasters. And moral evils, such as rape, torture, enslavement. It follows that God, as defined above, cannot exist.

There are a number of different strategies for attempting to defeat this argument. I think the weakest link in the argument is the idea that being 'all powerful' means being able to do anything WE imagine to be possible. We imagine a world where there is 'no evil'. Yet that is a world where many valuable things that exist in this world would be missing: courage in the face of adversity, for example, or the moral virtue in resisting the temptation to evil. If you take something valuable away from the world then surely that too is an 'evil'. Some form of 'evil' cannot be avoided either way. I also think that the very idea that you could create intelligent creatures who were capable of doing right or wrong but who always and without exception chose to do right is itself very close to being a logical absurdity.

Two books you might look for are M.M. Adams and R.M. Adams collection of philosophical readings entitled 'The Problem of Evil' (Oxford 1990) and Richard Swinburne's book 'The Existence of God' (Oxford 1979).

Geoffrey Klempner


Alexander asked:

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus there are objects and facts. Facts are "states of affairs" where objects relate to one another. Wittgenstein also states that there are no objects just facts. If there are no objects then what is there to relate to one another?

Wittgenstein says in the 'Tractatus' that 'The world is the totality of facts, not of things.' That is not quite the same as saying that 'there are no objects'. Rather, there is no access to objects other than through language, and the mode of access is the proposition. Names only have meaning in the context of a proposition.

There is therefore nothing more to the 'properties of an object', according to Wittgenstein, than the totality of true atomic propositions in which the object is referred to by name. It is important to grasp that 'naming' is not a separate act from referring. There is no mechanism in the 'Tractatus' for giving objects names. How language is first 'given' its meaning is a question Wittgenstein consigned to psychology. It is not part of logic.

Few, if any, analytic philosophers would now wish to defend the metaphysics of the 'Tractatus', according to which each 'simple object' exists in all logically possible worlds. However, many would now agree with the claim that when you have stated all the truths there are to state — all the 'facts' — you have accounted for every object in the world. There is nothing left over.

This is something I find deeply problematic. One consequence of this view that the meaning of any statement is exhausted by its 'truth conditions' is that the terms 'now' and 'I' have a purely relative meaning, defined by the context of their utterance. So when I say, 'I am GK' or 'The time is now 9.22 am on 12.8.99', the meaning is exactly the same for me or for anyone else, or now or at any time in the past or future. In other words, there is no 'subject', and temporality is an illusion.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sue asked:

How may entropy be reversed?

Your question would be better directed to a physicist! However, the following is my understanding of the concept of entropy:

The so-called 'law of entropy' is not a physical law but rather a mathematical theorem derived a priori from probability theory. If you spill a bag of sugar on the floor it is possible, but extremely improbable, that the crystals will spell your name. Randomly scattered crystals are in a lower 'state of entropy' than crystals that spell out your name, or indeed crystals neatly packed together in a bag.

In the case of two bodies in contact which start off at different temperatures, there are immeasurably many more ways in which the speeds of the random motions of molecules might even out compared to ways in which the difference in the speed of motions might possibly increase. Hence, 'You can't pass heat from a cooler body to a hotter body'. Not necessarily true, but rather a statement of probability.

How might entropy be reversed? The assumption of the law of entropy is that we are dealing with random processes. As soon as you introduce purposiveness or intentionality, the law no longer applies. Every deliberate human action — even deliberately destructive actions — involves a reversal of entropy. Order is created. Letters are formed on a page, spelling out meaningful words, or a stone is aimed and thrown (with the result in this case that entropy is decreased somewhere else — a shattered window).

Darwin's theory of evolution is a theory designed to explain how mechanically random processes can give rise to structures which serve as entropy-decreasers.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cuti asked:

Boethius in 'The Consolation of Philosophy', Book IV, Prose I, wrote: "...the good are always powerful and the evil always weak and futile, that vice never goes unpunished nor virtue unrewarded, that the good prosper and the evil suffer misfortune..." Who has the power, reward, and prosperity -- the good or the wicked?

There is no necessary connection — in this world — between 'the good' and power, nor indeed between 'the evil' and power. Nor is virtue always rewarded or vice always punished.

I fancy Boethius knew this.

There are two responses to this challenge to virtue:

1. The Christian response: In the world to come, all injustices will be put right. The virtuous will be rewarded and the evil punished.

2. The philosophical response: Socrates said, 'It is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.' He meant, better for your soul. This view comes closer to Buddhist philosophy. Virtue gives you inner 'strength'. The vicious are inwardly 'weak'.

My main objection to response 1. is not that the existence of a 'world to come' is doubtful, but rather that it reduces moral virtue to prudent self-interest. I prefer response 2. although I am not altogether happy with the Socratic doctrine of the 'unity of the virtues' which it implies. According to Socrates, it is impossible for an evil man to possess the virtue of courage. That is a difficult claim to defend.

- So what does one say when one looks around at a world where 'the evil' rejoice in their material rewards and prosperity? I say let them have it. The good should by all means do their utmost to pursue power, otherwise evil stands unopposed. It is my sincere belief, however, that the good have a better life.

Geoffrey Klempner


Deepti asked:

Without a knowledge of the past, we would have no knowledge at all. Well..what do you think?..agree? disagree?

Knowledge of any object beyond pure surface appearances (if there are such things) involves knowledge of what it will do in such-and-such circumstances. This knowledge is based on past experience. Therefore, with no knowledge of the past, there would be little, or possibly no knowledge at all.

In my online philosophical notebook for 21 August I look at a view which I once held according to which a statement about the past only 'has' a truth value if it can be verified. This 'anti-realist' view of the past is consistent with the belief that we do have knowledge of those 'bits' of the past that we can remember or have evidence for. Arguably, the alternative, 'realist' view of the past makes it easier to hold a sceptical view, because there will always be a gap between the verifications we can carry out and the truth that is 'out there' beyond our reach.

Geoffrey Klempner


Simon asked:

I recently got in a discussion with a friend who took the position that there was no such thing as free will and human beings were merely electro-chemical reaction systems. He stated that this was known thing from science.

We decided not to argue the state of science on this topic but instead I took the line of asking him how he "knew" what he knew and that his knowledge need not be a reflection of reality.

I wonder if a "better" approach would be to argue somehow that humans have the illusion of free will and an illusion of freewill for a self-aware being is the same thing as actual free-will. However I can't find a reasonable argument to support this other than it feels right. Has this idea got legs?

Your idea is promising. A similar line is taken by Thomas Nagel in 'The View from Nowhere' OUP p126 ff. where he talks about our necessary 'blind spot' concerning the physical springs of our actions. The problem is that assuming it can be shown that we must necessarily think of ourselves as 'free', that isn't the same as being free. It doesn't give us what we want. (Of course, one could raise the philosophical question, Just what do we want from 'free will'?) Perhaps one way for you to investigate this problem further would be to draw up a list of different examples of 'necessary illusions'. When, if ever, is a proof that it is impossible — for whatever reason — not to believe in X tantamount to a proof of X?

The line you actually took in your discussion has the serious drawback that it appears to assume that we are not 'free' only because we are determined to act by our electro-chemical nature. If that assumption were correct, then you would have every right to retort, 'Yes, but how do you know determinism is true?' However, the assumption turns out to be incorrect. Assume that there is an element of indeterminism in the physical processes that lead to human action. Instead of thinking of myself as a calculating machine, I think of myself as a calculating machine with a randomising device attached. That gives me no more right to 'take the credit' for actions I do than I had before. Whether I choose to go right or left is a matter of the luck of the dice.

Geoffrey Klempner


Richa asked:

I have just started my research on philosophy of language. My basic query will be how words refer, mental content is in the social circle or in the head. I'm reading Kripke, Putnam, Tyler Burge, Wittgenstein and Schiffer etc. I want to argue that mental content lies also in the social circle and we are not aware of our mental content. Please help me in making my questions sharp. How should I proceed and what should I look for as my research topic?

A good way to focus the question about content is to look at proper names. John McDowell's seminal paper on the sense and reference of proper names is one you should read. Gareth Evans' book on Reference is also a must.

Let's say you have met someone introduced to you as 'Foster'. It's Greg Foster, a second year PhD. Unknown to you, Greg has a twin brother Charles, who also happens to be doing a PhD. According to the view that mental content is 'outside the head', when you use the name 'Foster' you succeed in referring to Greg. The content of your thoughts consists in thoughts about Greg, not Charles. Yet so far as your capacity to identify Greg Foster is concerned, you could not tell Greg and Charles apart.

How can that be?

Wittgenstein puts the point graphically when he says that if God could look into your mind, He would not see whom you were referring to.

This idea should strike you as deeply paradoxical. Too often, I have heard students talk as if it is the plainest common sense. If you are going to tackle this topic successfully, you need to be aware of the power of the temptation think that meaning must be in the head, that God must be able to read the content of my thoughts by looking into my mind.

Geoffrey Klempner


Marie asked:

I am having a difficult time putting into words a statement of educational philosophy. I feel education should be fun, full of new experiences, have an atmosphere of high energy and diverse teaching techniques.

Please help me!

I mentioned your question to an ex-student of mine who has just started a post-graduate program in education. Her subject is mathematics. She just said 'social constructivism'. I don't know if that term means anything to you!

In the UK, the educational philosophy you describe is now widespread in primary schools (up to age 11). In secondary schools there is still a fierce battle going on between the progressive view, and the back-to-basics 'chalk and talk' approach that gained renewed impetus in the Margaret Thatcher years.

I have a couple of comments on what you have said. In Japanese schools, there is intense pressure of competition, with students swotting long hours to pass the required exams. That is obviously not the 'high energy' you are talking about. You mean that students should be filled with enthusiasm for the subject of their study, and that it is the job of the teacher to generate that enthusiasm.

'Diverse teaching techniques' looks to me like a description of the means, rather than the end. Suppose that we found that one particular teaching technique worked superbly well in generating enthusiasm and filling the students with new experiences. Wouldn't it be right to concentrate on that technique rather than alternate between different methods, some of which were inferior?

My primary aim in teaching philosophy has always been to generate enthusiasm for the subject. I have always thought that this was because of the nature of philosophy. It is impossible to teach philosophy to those who are not gripped by its problems.

Geoffrey Klempner


David asked:

From Russel/Whitehead, Frege, Gilbert, Godel, Wittgenstein et. al., there has been a concern for the reflexivity of a system that expresses a thought pattern which can't escape (i.e., explain) its own self-validation.

To your knowledge, has anyone solved the problem with respect to "expressions of thoughts" such as this very question? That is, can the question be raised so that it is not 'paradoxical' or 'biased' in any way?

The reflexivity of philosophical inquiry is an exceedingly difficult problem to grapple with.

My question to you would be, Why is it so important that you should be able to raise your question from a completely neutral, 'unbiased' standpoint?

It is an error to think that because a question has presuppositions, it is impossible to investigate those presuppositions. What you do instead is formulate a new question (yes, with new presuppositions!) which investigates the presuppositions of the first question.

In other words, when faced with the impossibility of 'starting from nowhere', one adopts a dialectical approach. The resulting inquiry will necessarily be open-ended, but that is not an objection to undertaking the inquiry in the first place.

It's worth looking at Hegel's 'Science of Logic' for the most impressive attempt ever made to solve the problem of beginnings in philosophy. Little of it is believable, but it is nevertheless highly instructive to follow the determined efforts of a philosopher who was very much aware of the problem you describe.

Geoffrey Klempner


Marianne asked:

I have to do my first essay for my philosophy class (Baccalaureat level) on the question, "Do our passions lead us astray?" but find that I don't know how to approach the question. I would be grateful for any help you could give me to orientate my answer.

The statement, 'Our passions lead us astray' implies that when we make a decision, there is something which reason tells us is the right thing to do, either because it is what we morally ought to do, or because it is in our best self-interest to do it. However, in some cases our decision is swayed because of the influence of our emotions, our 'passions'. The result is that we make the wrong decision.

The best way to approach this question is to think of some good examples. Think of cases where one might talk of being led astray morally by our emotions, and also of cases where we fail to do what's best for us because of the influence of our emotions.

However, it is not always true that reason is the thing that tells us what is right, and passion is the thing that leads us astray. It is our passions, in the form of our capacity for sympathy for the suffering of others, which in many cases shows us what is the right thing to do. Sometimes, too, when we do something wrong, it is not because we are led astray by our passions but because our reasoning is at fault.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ian asked:

What is a philosophical question (what would necessarily never be either a philosopheme or a rogatory thereto?) What theorist first distinguished philosophy and/or its questionable referent from any other judgment? What school of philosophy holds that proper question (rather than response?) is the first order apophatic to logic? Within ethnophilosophy or anthropology of thought are there any studies about the importance of question in the community maieutic (as in Maori?).

What would be a genuine philosophical question? That is as difficult as asking, What is philosophy? I don't know of a satisfactory general answer. I would simply give examples: 'This and this is a philosophical question, but not that.' Socrates, who was always demanding general definitions of concepts, would not have approved. But Socrates didn't know everything.

The Presocratic philosopher Thales is said to be the first 'philosopher', but from the evidence, he and his immediate successors did not distinguish between physics and philosophy. Aristotle, however, in his 'Metaphysics' defines 'first philosophy' as the study of being qua being. In doing so, however, Aristotle was following the example of the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides, who called the theories of the Greek 'physikoi' — including his own physical theory — the 'Way of Opinion', by contrast with the 'Way of Truth' which consists of the logical consequences of the proposition, 'It is'. — But metaphysics is only part of philosophy, not the whole of it.

The British philosopher R.G. Collingwood, in his 'Essay on Metaphysics' and 'Autobiography' describes a fascinating theory which defines truth as an answer to a question. A question always has presuppositions, some of which can vary with historical circumstances. Although condemned by other philosophers as excessively historicist, I think that Collingwood's theory of questions and presuppositions has a lot going for it.

I am unable to answer your fourth question. It is news to me that 'the question' has special importance in Maori society.

Geoffrey Klempner


Andy asked:

I am interested in what 'norms' are. I have read Daniel Dennett's stuff quite closely and he seems to me to say that norms are something like 'what we ought or would expect to find here' (say when doing artefact hermeneutics). On the other hand the Oxford Companion to Philosophy entry for 'normative' says 'standard or rule, principle used to judge or direct human conduct as something to be complied with. Dennett seems to use the word in a special way — something like using previous knowledge or context to judge what this unknown object is for or what this text really means. What do you think?

Dennett must mean something more by the notion of 'norms' than merely 'what we would expect to find' or 'what we know from previous knowledge'. He is concerned with a special class of objects to which what he terms the 'intentional stance' is appropriate. Objects of this kind exhibit goal directedness of some sort or another.

A human being is goal directed, so is an ant, so is the humble thermostat. The essence of goal directedness is the capacity to represent some aspect of the world, and the ability to respond appropriately to what is so represented. Some goal directed objects are designed by human beings, others (such as ourselves) are designed by evolution.

The interpretation of human behaviour is governed by norms of rationality. In order to be able to make sense of a person's actions, it is necessary to assume that they are fairly rational, for example in the way they form beliefs. In 'interpreting' the behaviour of an ant, we have to assume that the ant is fulfilling its role in the ant colony. So one can speak of 'norms' of ant behaviour. But there is a 'norm' too for thermostats. The thermostat has to respond appropriately to the changes in temperature which it detects.

Language use gives a special meaning to the concept of normativity, I would argue, which is absent when the concept is applied to non-language speaking animals and to artefacts. It is this richer sense of normativity that the Oxford Companion article is talking about.

Geoffrey Klempner