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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 10 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from February 2001 — March 2001:

  1. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
  2. Can we be prosecuted for criticizing the European Union?
  3. Phillipa Foot on euthanasia
  4. Emmanuel Levinas and 'the face'
  5. The aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas
  6. Do morals come from religion or not?
  7. Difference between the right and the good
  8. Donald Davidson's paper 'Mental Events'
  9. Jehovah's Witnesses right to refuse transfusion for his/her child
  10. Non-cognitivism and subjectivism
  11. Psychological foundations of religion
  12. Definition of a 'civilized society'
  13. Different views on assisted suicide
  14. 'What is philosophy?' in 500 words or less
  15. How honest can I be?
  16. A.J. Ayer's verification principle
  17. Which knowledge is of most worth?
  18. When did the world begin and when will it end?
  19. How we should treat others
  20. I have no religion. Can philosophy help me?
  21. Aquinas on why God cannot make a stone He cannot lift
  22. Possibility of time travel
  23. I'm too undisciplined to study philosophy
  24. Why a stone is not called a 'refrigerator'
  25. What is a person?
  26. Russell on physics, perception and reality
  27. How our bodies affect our philosophy
  28. Why Plato disapproved of art
  29. How reliable is my knowledge of the things I like?
  30. Logical necessity and natural necessity
  31. Who is Martha Nussbaum?
  32. Tolstoy's 'Death of Ivan Illych'
  33. Why 'I don't know' is not an acceptable answer
  34. Differences between philosophy and scientific theory
  35. Which major religion is the most philosophically credible?
  36. Bryan Magee's answer of solipsism
  37. How 'ought' can be derived from 'is'
  38. What is a community?
  39. Christianity as a mystical religion
  40. Definition of a logical argument
  41. Effect of an alien visit on the world's religions
  42. Why God permits evil
  43. Is there a paramount value?
  44. Nature of political obligation
  45. Love and chemistry
  46. Could we be living in Sophie's World?
  47. Does the history of the 20th century prove Marx wrong?
  48. John Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education
  49. Is knowledge of any kind possible?
  50. Western moral obligation towards the Third World
  51. Richard Dawkins on genes and memes
  52. How did religion evolve?
  53. Counterfactuals and common sense reasoning
  54. I'm 17 and I want to be a philosopher
  55. Teleological and deontological ethics and political philosophy
  56. Social contract and political philosophy
  57. How Kant's categorical imperative supports relativism
  58. Is there a contradiction in Fletcher's situationist ethics?
  59. How do you rate Ayn Rand?
  60. Definition of ethical egoism
  61. Differences between Taoism and Confucianism
  62. Knowing and being, and the aims of metaphysics
  63. Ethics of 'human shields'
  64. Albert Camus The Outsider and existentialism
  65. Is it possible to visualize aesthetic?
  66. Relevance of Wittgenstein's methods to linguistic research
  67. Does a falling tree make a noise if no-one hears it?
  68. Experience as a source of knowledge
  69. How one can be lonely in a crowd
  70. Who goes to Heaven and what is it like there?
  71. Is atheism provable?
  72. What weight should animals have in our moral calculations?
  73. Different ways to justify a knowledge claim
  74. Hume and Skinner on free will
  75. Does philosophy explain psychology or vice versa?
  76. Why should we avoid contradicting ourselves?
  77. What is love?
  78. Relation between knowledge and belief
  79. Why aren't philosophers funnier?
  80. Hume's argument that the world might have grown like a vegetable
  81. Forms, essences and the problem of universals
  82. How perception relates to external reality
  83. Philosophical problems of gravity and magnetism
  84. Can belief in miracles be justified?
  85. Where Plato said, 'The Soul came into being with the Heavens'
  86. What is truth?
  87. Quine's contribution to philosophy
  88. Effect of the community on our beliefs
  89. Do Pagans have a philosophy?
  90. How literature and psychology explain human behaviour
  91. What makes an image absurd?
  92. The seven categories of ambiguity
  93. How can we have free will if God knows everything?
  94. Differences between internal and external freedom
  95. How can we know what is conscious and what isn't?
  96. Rabindranath Tagore (1861—1941)
  97. How do we know if our behavior is ethical?
  98. What does a metaphysicist do exactly?

Ashley asked:

Which came first: The chicken or the egg?

This is a factual, rather than a philosophical question. However, it is a legitimate task for philosophy to analyse the conditions under which it would be correct to say that the chicken came first, as well as the conditions under which it would be correct to say that the egg came first.

If the theory of Creationism is true, then God could have created the first chicken, which hatched the first egg, or He could have created the first egg, from which the first chicken hatched. Either task would have been equally easy (or difficult). Unfortunately, the information which would enable us to answer this question is missing from the Book of Genesis.

If Darwin's theory of evolution is true, then we can say that the 'trick' of producing a soup of proteins and fats enclosed in a hard casing, inside which an embryo is protected and nourished, was developed by the prehistoric creatures from which chickens evolved. We know that dinosaurs laid eggs. Dinosaurs are reptiles. The accepted view is that birds evolved from reptiles. So in that sense it would be true to say that the egg came before the chicken.

But what about that first chicken? What kind of egg did it hatch from?

If we had the power to go back in time to follow every line back of each one of the millions of generations that led up to the chicken that supplied your breakfast egg this morning, it would be impossible to identify the first chicken. There is no single characteristic, so far as I understand it, which separates a real chicken from a bird which is ever so much like a chicken, but is not a real chicken. However, supposing there is some unique, new feature, a crucial genetic mutation which separates chickens from non-chickens, it logically follows that the first bird to possess that new feature was hatched from an egg which was laid by a bird which did not possess that feature.

Geoffrey Klempner


Andy asked:

Without going over the top, may I ask you if there are any implications for authors of essays and/or papers submitted for marking for the Philosophical Society Diploma or publication in The Philosopher, or interactive dialogs by e-mail, of the European Union Court of Justice ruling:

"...that the Commission could restrict criticism that damaged the 'the institution's image and reputation' ...resorting to a legal device...The protection of the rights of others...

...the door could soon be open for the ECJ to start ruling on free speech cases involving ordinary EU citizens, or indeed involving Euro-sceptic newspapers..."

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Daily Telegraph, 10th March 2001, page 21

...where the material submitted may include, or require for philosophical completeness, explicit or implied criticism of the EU?

I assume from the quotation (i.e. two "could"s) that there is no law yet in force which restricts criticism of the EU. You don't say what device would be used, but criticism of the EU may be some form of defamation which, in current English law, is damage to reputation and must be malicious. The defence to defamation in current English law is that it is not malicious, but well-founded and constitutes fair comment. The same sort of defence may well be available at the ECJ. Otherwise, writing about the EU would become a ludicrous exercise. The EU cannot want to block all published comment.

It is highly unlikely that you would be taken to court for comments in an e-mail or a Diploma paper and, in any case, minimal damage would be caused to the EU if only one or two people see what you have written, and compensation or a fine would reflect this.

Rachel Browne


Farhad asked:

I've been studying Phillipa Foot's article on euthanasia, but I am not able to understand her views very well. Could you tell me when Foot thinks euthanasia is morally permissible? What are her arguments for her views on morality?

Foot's conclusion is that active non-voluntary euthanasia is impermissible, but that other forms of euthanasia, namely passive non-voluntary, active voluntary and passive voluntary are sometimes justified.

Her paper is divided into two parts, the first is concerned with the issue of what it means to say that life is a good. She argues that it is not just the fact that a person is in the state of being merely alive that constitutes a good. But rather that the life must reflect some standards of normality and that when these standards are absent life is no longer a good.

She then asks in the second part of the paper whether it is ever justified to choose the death of another on the grounds that life is not a good and that death will be a benefit to that person. imagine a case where killing someone would be a benefit to that person, then killing them would be more humane than to let then live or striving to keep them alive. On the grounds that it would be more humane, you may think that we would be justified in killing them. Foot disagrees at least in one kind of case. Foot argues that an act which is more humane or charitable can be morally objectionable on other grounds. These other grounds are the persons right to life or more generally the demands of justice.

Her argument can be represented like this: 1. each person has rights, including the right to life. 2. for each right a person has there are corresponding duties others have. 3. The right to life has the corresponding duty of non-interference 4. Therefore killing someone against there will is unjustified.

According to Foot, if a person wishes to be kept alive even when they are in distress and agony then others must not interfere with this wish, even if all things considered it would be best for them to die, because life is no longer a good tor them. And so active non-voluntary euthanasia is prohibited. Passive non-voluntary euthanasia is also prohibited if (i) the person expresses the desire to live, and (ii) the person and the doctor have entered into some kind of contract specifying that every thing possible will be done in order to keep that person alive (although Foot admits it is difficult to identify any such contract or even specify what the content of such a contract would be).

Foot also argues, on the grounds of the right to life, that voluntary euthanasia is justified. Foot see nothing wrong in foregoing ones right to life, just as one can give up other rights. So if a person expresses the genuine wish to die, and that this would be a benefit to him, we would be justified in actively helping him.

As I have presented it Foot's position can be objected to on various grounds. Foot would need to give an account of what counts as a person, who has a right to life? She does discuss severely mentally retarded children toward the end of the paper, and she puts forward the possibility that in extreme cases the basic existence such children share may not be the life for which the right to life refers. many people I suspect would disagree with Foot. There is also the problem of identifying a person's "genuine wish for death" as opposed to a depressive exhaustion with life, or an in genuine wish for death because that person does not want to burden others for example.

Another point of debate is Foot's claim that one can give up ones right to life. Perhaps we can't, but even if we can would this mean that others would be justified in actively helping someone die, or is this too close to actual murder to count as morally permissible? These issues would trade on a conception of what morality consists in, which would need to be agreed upon by Foot and her objectors. And on these meta-ethical issues Foot has some interesting things to say. For more you should take a look at her paper, "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives".

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Valerie asked:

I have to write a paper on Emmanuel Levinas. I am reading his book Entre Nous and I am having a hard time with it. I have been searching the net for a review of this book in order to get a better understanding of it and I have yet to find a site that has one. If you could possibly tell me a little about the book so I can understand it better it would be greatly appreciated.

Entre Nous is a late collection of essays by Levinas and some interviews with him. It is not a book of which one can say, "it is about this." The essays have various themes and topics (suffering, love, religion, culture, justice, human rights) — all driven, of course, by Levinasian themes.

The best thing to do would be to look into an introduction to Levinas in order to get a handle on his questions and their contexts. Terry Veling, a professor with a good knowledge of Levinas, has recently written a straight-forward and authoritative article entitled "Facing Me" for the Melbourne Age. Here is an extract:

According to Levinas, we experience the transcendence of life primarily in the face of the human person. Every face we encounter is a face of otherness. Every face says, "I am other to you." Every face says, "I am not you." Every face says: "Don't kill me, don't absorb me into your world, don't obliterate me by making me the same as you. I am other. I am different. I am not you."

The face of the other breaks into my world and calls out to me. I am not an I unto myself, but an I standing before the other. The other calls forth my response, commands my attention, refuses to be ignored, makes a claim on my existence, tells me I am responsible. And this always. I will never be freed from the face of the other. So much so, that we are never released from the other's speaking to us and calling forth our response. As the haunting phrase of Matthew's gospel says, "the poor you will always have with you" (26:11). And as Levinas says, "it is impossible to evade the appeal of the neighbour, to move away." The human person "faces" me, and this "toward me" is both a profound appeal against my indifference to your naked vulnerability, and an accusation that prohibits my violence toward you.

"Being faced" means finding ourselves faced by a continual requirement of responsibility to and for the other. Even a casual reflection on our lives will reveal how bound we are to others, how constantly we are beset by the demands of obligation and the requirements of love — to family and friends, to those we work with, to neighbours and strangers, to those in our society whom we do not know yet whose claim on our lives we feel nevertheless.

This is a simple and yet increasingly stunning thought for me. The face of the human person, those that I encounter every single waking day of my life — on buses and trains, in the streets, at work, on television — everywhere, everyday, the "other" is before me, facing me. Perhaps this is what is meant when the biblical tradition says that humanity is made in the "image of God"...

Matthew Del Nevo


Erin asked:

While reading Gulliver's Travels, I found myself questioning the theories of perception and aesthetics. In particular, could you explain Thomas Aquinas' theories of aesthetics?

I haven't read Gulliver's Travels and so don't know what connection Aquinas on aesthetics might have. The following is a basic summary. There is book called About Beauty by Armand A. Maurer which will provide you with more detail.

For Aquinas, beauty is essentially related to existence. What we perceive to exist is what is given to experience and then conceptualised as a determinate form. When a form i.e. a thing perceived as something, such as a flower has perfection, harmony and radiance, we perceive it as beautiful. The Thomist view is a realist, objective account of beauty since it is not by means of evaluation that we hold something to be beautiful, but because of a thing's actual radiance and harmony, that we do perceive it as beautiful.

Kant has held that an aesthetic judgement is subjective and he laid down the conditions he believed necessary for making a true judgement of beauty, so an aesthetic judgement for Kant bears essential reference to the subject. For Aquinas, such a judgement is essentially related to the way the world is. Beauty is not conceptual where bringing something under a concept is a means of understanding as when we recognise something as a flower as opposed to a weed. But it is cognitive in the sense of being a true judgement about something which exists. The way in which things exist is beautiful, so when the judgement is made the mind has perceived the actuality of existence.

So there are three ways in which existence, as well as perception, is relevant to something's being beautiful, or aesthetically appreciated. In its existence as the form of a flower there is intrinsic perfection, firstly, in terms of its proportion, and secondly in terms of its harmony which are real features of the flower, as perceived. Thirdly, it is not because of our appreciative response that we say something is beautiful, but because it has a radiance which we perceive. Everything that exists is beautiful when it exists fully in these ways. Ugliness, by contrast, is a falling short in terms of the fullness of being. There is no modern day distinction here between primary and secondary qualities and evaluative qualities.

The beauty of the object provides the mind with an aesthetic experience. To perceive aesthetically requires the adoption of an aesthetic attitude which, is to gaze at something beautiful with pleasure. But according to Aquinas we don't say something is beautiful because of this response, which is more of a Kantian or Humean subjectivist approach.

Natural beauty is distinguished from created art in terms of different cause and end but art is also found beautiful in terms of how it exists.

Rachel Browne


Leonard asked:

I am a student in my second philosophy class, which is ethical theory. We are now debating whether morals come from religion or if not were do they come from. I am in the clouds and would appreciate your guidance.

If your question is does morality issue from the word of God, then the answer is no.

Religion claims that one should X because God wills that one should X (where X is a moral action). But from statements of fact e.g. God wills that X, we cannot derive statements of value e.g. One should X.

Therefore just because God wills something this does not mean that we should must or ought do it.

What is needed is some prior reason to do what God wills. But what could this reason be?

It cannot be that God wills that we should do what God wills because this only pushes the question back. So it must be a reason independent of God's will. There could still be a role for God and religion once we have this reason, but now God would be merely a reporter of morality rather than the author. Then the reason we do what God wills is that we see that what God wills is the right thing to do and this is the reason why he wills it.

If morality does not come from God and religion is the vehicle of God's will then religion cannot come from religion either. So where does it come from? Perhaps morality is a natural feature of the world. Aristotle for example thought that humans have a final end, or 'telos' in nature towards which we strive toward. This end is live 'the good life' as a virtuous person. under this conception morality just is a product of our being a part of the world and having a certain constitution. Or take Hume, he thought that acts were right when they evoked a sentiment of approval in most people. Some philosophers have thought that morality could be established by the faculty of reason, that morality is a rational requirement.

The point is that not a great deal rests on whether God can tell us which actions are moral, because we would need some independent reason to believe what God said anyway. The status of morality is not undermined because it cannot issue from God's will.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Glouisel asked:

Could you explain the difference between the right and the good to me, please?

In particular,

  1. does it have anything to do with the public/private distinction?
  2. liberals claim to advance a theory of the right, but can there be non-liberal theories of the right?
  3. is the distinction used differently in ethics and political theory?
  4. how does the distinction bear upon the force of moral statements?
  5. how does it bear upon the possibility of pluralism of values?
  6. does it relate to the difference between imperfect and perfect duties?

I can answer part. The distinction seems to have been most strongly made (as far as I know, first made in this way) by Kant, and the right/good distinction is strong in the Kantian tradition. The right is that which Reason, through the Categorical Imperative, can tell us that a perfect being (the Holy Will) must do. The good is that which we seek in response to a Hypothetic Imperative. In other words, it is not morally incumbent on everyone to seek the good — just those for whom it aligns with their goals. The right is universal in its demands.

Jurgen Habermas (following Kant) claims that there can be a sharp cut between the right and the good. On his account, the right encompasses all those moral rules which would be agreed to by all, if they were to sit down and discuss the issues fully in the (impossible in practice) Ideal Speech Situation. The good covers all those things that everyone could not agree to, because they depend on individual preferences. The right is aligned with Justice.

  1. So, it does have to do with the public/private distinction — the right can be enforced in public policy, the good is a matter for individuals to seek, because it is not the same for everyone (public policy may attempt to create the conditions that allow individuals to do so).

  2. Pass. I would guess there could be if there was a Kantian non-liberal theory — but is there such a thing?

  3. I'm no expert here, but I think it is used in broadly the same way in both.

  4. Only statements about the right are moral — statements about the good are prudential. This follows from the equation of morality with justice (see Rawls A Theory of Justice).

  5. Pluralism of values is possible in matters of the good, but not in matters of the right.

  6. Pass. I can never remember what the difference is!

Tim Sprod


Glouisel also asked:

I am struggling rather with Davidson's paper "Mental Events". I wonder if you could suggest a chapter/article I could read that give a simplified exposition and summarise the central criticisms of it?

My problem is understanding what more there is to the argument for anomalism of the mental than an indeterminacy thesis. Davidson's indeterminacy goes further than Quine's, beyond translation of another's utterances into the mental states — beliefs etc. — behind them. So there is no single set of mental predicates true of me, but rather several equally eligible ones. Although this indeterminacy does not condemn psychological laws, it makes psychophysical ones look impossible. For, how can we hope for laws when its unclear even what events they are supposed to hold between? Indeed, why doesn't indeterminacy similarly jeopardise identity between token mental and physical events? There must be something I have misunderstood.

Also why does Davidson need to show there are no psychological laws too? Davidson is arguing that there are no such laws and not that we could never know them because there is an infinite amount of information to adjust for, isn't he?

Davidson's argument is that the mind causally interacts with the body, and where there is causal interaction there are strict causal laws. Davidson claims that there can be no strict psycho-physical laws (describing causal relations between the mental and physical), and no strict psychological laws. These claims are based on Davidson's assumption that laws must be exceptionless like the laws of physics rather than generalisations of psychology. So if there is a strict law governing causal relations it must be a physical law which governs both the mental and the physical. So if the mental is involved in causal interactions, any mental event must also be a physical event. However, mental description cannot be reduced to the physical description.

There is indeterminacy in the generalisations of psychology because of the possibility of misinterpretation. In "Mental Events" Davidson's examples of the mental are propositional attitudes or the intentional states which constitute 'folk psychology', which is our way of explaining behaviour and understanding others. This form of psychological explanation is not lawlike but is a form of generalisation bearing essential reference to the notion of rationality. For instance, I desire a drink, I believe there is something to drink in the fridge, so I form the intention to go to look in the fridge. The contents of the desire, belief and intention are logically related, rational and are dispositional rather than causal. There is no necessity that I form the intention to look in the fridge however thirsty I am. Should I do so there will be a strict causal explanation at the physical level. This psychological explanation of behaviour uses the mental predicates of propositional attitudes, i.e. desire, belief and intention and these may be true of you because there will be a fact about you which makes it true that you have particular desires and beliefs when someone interprets your behaviour.

The reason for claiming there are no psychological laws is that Davidson takes laws as strict, causal and exceptionless and holds that this sort of a law is a physical law. He understands the mental as dispositional. The dispositional is not strictly causal and so there can be no psychological laws. There can be no psychophysical laws either because of this difference in the nature of the physical and the mental. Davidson claims the mental is not reducible through "law or definition". The mental cannot be defined in terms of the physical, or we would not be talking about what we take ourselves to be talking when we describe and understand behaviour by reference to propositional attitudes. We would, as Davidson says, be "changing the subject". Patterns of belief are essentially understood by in terms of rationality and consistency.

As to your questions, basically, mental predicates can be true of you when an interpretation of your beliefs is born out by your actually having those beliefs. You know what your beliefs are and can predicate them of yourself without indeterminacy. Indeterminacy of interpretative psychology doesn't jeopardise the identity of a mental and physical event. There is simply one event with a mental description, where the true description will be determinate, and a description in physical terms. Psychological laws are not rejected on the basis that we could never know them, because we do indeed understand folk psychology. If we give up this form of normative description we are not explaining the mental.

Jaegwon Kim has argued that Davidson cannot maintain that the mental is dependent on the physical and deny psycho-physical laws in his paper "Supervenience and Nomological Incommensurables" (in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 15, 2, April 1978). Before getting on to this, it is probably a good idea to read more of Davidson's Essays. There is an article on Davidson by McLaughlin in McLaughlin and Lapore's Philosophy of Psychology which be of some help.

Rachel Browne


Neil asked:

Does a Jehovah's witness have the right to refuse a blood transfusion for his/her sick baby?

Many physicians would be prepared to concede to the parent's refusal to allow their child a blood transfusion, provided that the life of the infant was not in imminent danger. This implies recognition of the principle that in virtue of a religious objection which the parent holds, but the infant is too young to hold, one may withhold treatment from the infant which would, were it to be applied, be of positive benefit. In other words, the infant does not have the absolute moral right to the best treatment on offer, irrespective of the religious views of the parent.

However, the line would be drawn in cases where the infant would almost certainly perish if the treatment was not given. The parent does not have the right to let their child die for the sake of his or her religious beliefs.

This is the default position, the common sense view. It acknowledges that a person's religious views are something to be respected, and in that sense valued, even if we do not hold those views ourselves. It also acknowledges that human life is a pre-eminent value. I believe that the onus of proof is firmly on the person who rejects this default position, for example, by asserting the Jehovah's Witnesses right to allow their child to die.

How would the argument go? One might raise the question whether absolutely anything would be permitted, that did not itself involve harming another human being, in order to save a child's life. Those of us who are not Jehovah's Witnesses do not see what is wrong with giving a blood transfusion. However, there may be other things which would arouse our moral repugnance — for example, putting a human heart or brain in the liquidiser and feeding it to the infant in a bottle — to the point where we would be prepared to prohibit such a form of treatment being given, even to save a life. Anyone who is convinced by this example owes the Jehovah's Witness an explanation of why the repugnance against cannibalism has any more right to respect than the Jehovah's Witnesses repugnance against 'partaking of blood'.

On the other hand, if we bite the bullet and accept that, under certain circumstances, cannibalism would be justified on medical grounds, that makes the Jehovah's Witnesses position look rather stronger. We started off defending blood transfusions, and ended up defending cannibalism! As one who is prepared to bite the bullet, however, I am not embarrassed by having to make this admission.

Geoffrey Klempner


Stephen asked:

Critically discuss non-cognitivism/ subjectivism.

The first thing to make clear is that non-cognitivism and subjectivism are not synonymous. They are not the same, they say two different things.

In our lives we come across various beliefs or assertions and statements people make. We can ask of these beliefs, 'are they truth-evaluable?', can we say whether the belief 'that X is Y' is true or false? Non-cognitivism would say no in the case of ethical beliefs because they think that when we say for example that 'stealing is wrong', we are not really asserting or stating anything at all. Therefore there can be no question of whether the statement is true or false.

The non-cognitivist has two reasons for saying this, one positive and the other negative.

The basis of the negative reason is a rejection of cognitivism. This involves an account of the workings of human psychology: Usually philosophers (following David Hume) have distinguished between two main kinds of psychological state; beliefs and desires. Actions are produced by a combination of the two. Roughly our beliefs tell us what the world is like and what we need to do in order to change it into what our desires say the world should be like. So it seems to follow that when a person has a certain belief, it is always a separate issue whether they have any desire to generate action.

Desires have no rational content and so cannot be rationally criticised: in other words they have no truth value. Let me give an example to show what this means. Our moral language tells us how the world should be, it expresses our desires. And since beliefs and desires are logically separate we have the desire independent of any belief about what the world is actually like. Therefore, our moral judgements must be generated by desire. So when I say that stealing is wrong, I am not reporting some fact about the world, but rather my desire that people should not steal. For non-cognitivists, moral language does not express any fact about right and wrong, though it may express our desires emotions or commands (depending on which version of non-cognitivism you subscribe to).

The positive argument, follows on from this. Non-cognitivists say that the reason there is no question of truth or falsity about many of our assertions is that these assertions do not contain any kind of predicate which could be truth evaluable. For example the (pseudo-) assertion 'stealing is wrong' looks like it contains the predicate 'is wrong' but according to the non-cognitivist it really doesn't. There is no such property of wrongness that states of affairs can have (the reason they say this is a bit to detailed to go into here, but it mainly consists of a rejection of naturalism).

Non-cognitivists are often criticised on this second argument. For example, as I said earlier, non-cognitivism holds that there are no moral facts, but they also think that we do not need moral facts to make sense of moral language and practices, because our moral judgements simply express our desires about what we think people should and should not be doing. Ayer says that when we engage in ethical debate we attempt to get the other person to adopt the same moral attitude as we do. The problem for the non-cognitivist is to explain why we should want to persuade others to change their attitudes. Why would we do this unless we think that other people actually have the wrong desire? But this is just to reintroduce cognitivism, the view that there is some matter of fact about what is right or wrong.

There are other problems for the non-cognitivist. C. Wellman in an article "Emotivism and Ethical Objectivity" lists about a dozen, but all these are concerned with hitting back against the non-cognitivist's claims. If we can show that the non-cognitivist doesn't even have a corner to fight from because they cannot discard cognitivism, then the rest of the objections are superfluous. If the above objection works, then non-cognitivism never even gets of the ground.

But suppose everyone agreed that our moral beliefs are truth-evaluable. We have to ask, "Are they in fact true?" Error theorists answer, No (e.g. J.L. Mackie in Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong). According to the error theorist, all our moral beliefs are false! Other philosophers would accept that our moral beliefs are true. But now we have to ask, What is it that makes them true? Here we come at last to subjectivism, which says that what makes the assertion 'stealing is wrong' true is merely some mind-dependent fact, which highlights my relation to stealing, such as my taking a certain attitude (disagreement) to stealing.

There are many common objections to subjectivism e.g. it cannot explain why people engage in debate, or disagree, since really there is nothing to disagree about. That it leads to intolerable permissibility.

Then there are the objectivists who say that there are mind-independent facts and this is what makes some thing wrong regardless of some one's opinion of the matter. However, one would first have to give some account of these mind-independent facts. Another way to argue against subjectivism would be to employ the strategy we used against non-cognitivism. If it can be shown that there is no way to avoid claims of objectivity, in the same way that non-cognitivists cannot avoid ultimately appealing to actual facts, then subjectivism is undermined. For such a line of argument see Nagel's "The Last word".

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Alexa asked:

Hello, I came upon your site looking for information that I could use in a philosophy research paper. Maybe you can help me. My topic is the psychological foundations of religion. My idea is that I would be looking for the psychological reasons for religion. At this point in time I have some thoughts from Freud and Nietzsche. Any suggestions? Thank you.

A most interesting question, Alexa. Now, I'm not going to write up your paper for you, but you might care to look up these chaps:

You really must include Karl Jung. I can heartily recommend his Man and his Symbols as one of the best written works there is (and very nicely illustrated too). Broadly, his thesis is that people can only interact to form society, through interchange facilitated by shared symbolism, and that this collectivity of symbols forms what is, in effect, a 'collective unconscious' which permeates all our thoughts. This symbolic system is the basis of religion.

As an interesting contrast, you might like to include Lucien Febvre, the French historian; he also developed an idea of 'collective mentality' that went beyond individual thinkers, but, whereas Jung largely argues that religion grows out of our need for symbolism, Febvre (in The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century) argues that for writers like Rabelais, it was rather that atheism was impossible, because the mentality required (which Jung would see as the system of symbolism) for disbelief simply didn't exist then. He's closely associated with the philosopher Levy-Bruhl, whose (thoroughly non-PC) How Natives Think rather suggests that unbelief is impossible before people have developed a system of logic.

Another must is probably William James, the American pioneer of experimental psychology. His The Varieties of Religious Experience is one of the most-quoted texts on the subject, and has the added bonus of being almost readable.

There are two recent developments which you'll probably find very interesting. One is the work of Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene is a disturbingly persuasive essay arguing that living things are just corporal vessels impelled to heed the primal dictates of selfish genes hellbent on their own replication, rather like the philosopher Samuel Butler observing that a chicken is just the egg's way to make another egg. Taking that idea even further, Dawkins proposed that ideas can be looked on as competing, self-replicating, entities he called 'memes.' Religion just happens to be a particularly efficient 'meme'. This has sparked extraordinary controversy, and at least one book about its implications for faith; Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.

Finally, you can hardly consider yourself up-to-date with psychology without throwing in a bit of neuroscience, and the neuroscience of God is specially interesting. This is the discovery that religious experience seems to be associated with a part of the brain's temporal lobes, and that, astonishingly, mystical experiences can be induced by stimulation of that area. This has opened up a fascinating debate as to whether this 'god-spot' proves that God doesn't exist, but is created out of our own minds or that God must exist, or why would we be built with a special religious area of our brains? There's a good overview of this at:


And you might care to search out V.S. Ramachandran's essay "God and the Temporal Lobes of the Brain."

Good luck! (Though, of course, if Dawkins is right, luck doesn't come into it)

Glyn Hughes


Lynda asked:

A recent discussion on the death penalty proffered the argument that such a penalty had no place in a civilized nation, yet many different opinions were offered as to what constitutes a civilized nation or society. My own opinion is that "civilized" denotes a process completed, which in my mind is false. Rather, it should be viewed as a continual process, that we are always striving to be civilized. So I am interested in knowing what is the definition or the criterion used to determine a "civilized society".

From the dictionary I see that a society is civilised when it has moved from barbarism to become a lawful state. Having become a lawful state is a "process completed" but this still allows for change and progress. Sometimes this may mean going back to the way things were in the past, which may constitute progress, if it results from seeing how we have gone wrong. For instance, we may be about to give up intensive farming!

Each civilised state will have different laws because nationalities differ in beliefs, attitudes and religions. This is also within society, which is one reason why change occurs.

Rachel Browne


Gloria asked:

I have to write a term paper on assisted suicide being permissible under certain given conditions. From the following philosophies, which one(s)would support the proposition and which one(s) would not support the proposition: Social Contract Theory; Kantianism; Utilitarianism; or Virtue Theory? Why?

You should write your own essay or you won't come to understand philosophy, because writing forces you to think things out.

But since you ask, briefly, social contract theory is social and political rather than moral — at least, on my view — so that if assisted suicide is regarded as wrong socially and legally, it is not permissible. The question, however, is whether it is morally permissible.

Kant would hold that assisted suicide is always wrong because you should always treat people with respect as rational beings and it is not rational to want to die nor is respectful to help someone die. This is highly disputable. Why is it not rational not to want to die, especially if you are in pain? Why is it disrespectful to help a person in such a condition die? Perhaps this action is more like killing than assisted suicide, and killing is not a universalisable action./P>

On a utilitarian view, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number may condone assisted suicide. The person wants to die and I will only help if I think it is a good thing, so this is good for us both. But whether this is right depends on others and how upset they may be by the assisted suicide. How do we know what their being upset consists in? Are they upset as an immediate reaction to the death and its means and will feel it is acceptable later, or not?

On virtue theory, it may be a kindness to help someone to die. But a person who does this will have his conscience to reckon with and so it is questionable whether this is a permissible moral action if it leads to remorse and guilt.

Think about these things for yourself and how you feel.

Rachel Browne


Michael asked:

I am taking a introductory philosophy course. I have to write a essay on "What is philosophy" explaining it to someone who has never studied it. The essay is to be 500 words or less. I would like to start the essay with the Greek meaning "philo and sophia" and then lead into history applying Socrates. I'm having difficulties starting the paper. Any suggestions?

Although you could start by mentioning that the term "philosophy" does derive from the Greek terms for "love of wisdom," I don't think that you can base much on this. After all, this is only about word derivation, and doesn't tell you much about what philosophy is. Any way, once you mention "love" and "wisdom" you will still be faced with the very same problem about "wisdom" you had with "philosophy." (Furthermore, everyone else who writes on the topic, will start that way!) Another thing is the question is "What is Philosophy?" This isn't an historical question, so I don't support your plan to answer it by "starting with Socrates." If you do "start with Socrates," where will you end. The history of philosophy is more that two thousand years old.

"What is philosophy?" is a philosophical question. So it is unlike "What is history?" or "What is music?" which are not historical questions. Philosophers ask questions like, "What is knowledge?" "What is morality?" "What is a scientific explanation?" These are often called "conceptual questions" because they are about concepts or ideas. That is one important thing to note. Although the scientist attempts to find explanations for what happens in the world, for instance, explain why objects fall (gravity); philosophers, as I have just mentioned, try to understand what scientific explanation is; they try to understand and analyse the concept of "scientific explanation." Or to take another example: although you and I and philosophers too (philosophers are people!) make moral judgements about what is right or wrong ("Don't lie, lying is wrong!") philosophers will ask the question, "What makes an action wrong?" That is, the philosopher will, just as in the case of "scientific explanation" will try to analyse and understand the concept of "right" or of "wrong."

So, what am I saying? I am saying that philosophy consists in trying to understand and analyse the fundamental concepts in terms of which human beings think and understand the world. People use these basic concepts like "knowledge" ("I know that London is the capital of the U.K.".) Philosophers investigate the meanings of these concepts that are so fundamental to human thought. So, philosophy can be understood as an investigation of fundamental concepts, or a "conceptual investigation."

I hope I have given you enough to go on. By the way, this site has a lot of information on the concept of "philosophy," which is, of course, another conceptual investigation into the concept of "philosophy."

Kenneth Stern


Christelle asked:

How honest can I be?

"Honesty is the best policy"! This means absolute honesty but honest comment should never extend to personal criticism of others which is always unwanted and unnecessary.

There are grades of honesty. You can hint at or imply something which can easily be withdrawn. This is better than outright honesty in cases of doubt!

What you can be honest about is to an extent socially determined. If someone asks if you think they're too fat it is not acceptable to honestly say they are because that's not the answer they want. No-one would dare to say "Goodness, aren't you fat!" Socially, this doesn't apply to thinness but it should do — it is an unwanted and unnecessary comment.

Rachel Browne


Jennifer asked:

I'm writing a paper agreeing with A.J. Ayer. I need to show why statements that can't be proven true or false are nonsensical. Please help!

You are, I think, talking about the "verifiability principle of meaning." That is the theory that a non-tautologous statement is meaningful if and only if it is verifiable in principle. This is the theory that Ayer advances, and you should notice that it is not about proving a statement true or false, but about the statement's verifiability. That's different and important. A statement can be "verifiable" and not be "verified" or proved. For instance, the statement that Julius Caesar sneezed before he crossed the Rubicon cannot be verified (proved) because we have no records or other information that would tell us whether it was, in fact, true, and besides, it may be actually false. But true or false, it is "verifiable in principle," in that we can certainly think of ways in which we might be able to verify (or falsify) it. For instance, we might find a diary written by a Roman soldier which has the entry, "We are just about to cross the Rubicon and Caesar sneezed!" So, even if it is impossible — in fact — to verify or prove that statement, it is verifiable in principle, and therefore, by the verifiability principle of meaning, meaningful or not nonsense.

But now we have cleared that up, your question arises. Your question really is, why should we accept the verifiability principle of meaning(fulness)? Consider the statement, "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." Do you know what it means? To anyone who does not know much biology, it looks like meaningless nonsense. It isn't. Biologists know what it means. (I won't tell you here, though.) The verifiability theory tries to explain why that statement (despite appearances to the contrary) is meaningful. It is meaningful because biologists, at any rate, know what kind of sense experiences it would take to confirm that statement, or alternatively, disconfirm it. It is, in other words, testable in terms of experience.

But now consider a famous example make up by the philosopher, Bertrand Russell: "Quadruplicity drinks Procrastination." Notice that statement is made up of English words each of which is meaningful (we can find their meanings in a dictionary) But that whole statement is meaningless nonsense. Why? Ayer's explanation is that it is unverifiable even in principle because we cannot think of any sense experiences which would give us reason to believe that statement is true or false. The reason is, of course, that the "statement" made up by Russell is not really a statement at all. It is neither true nor false. It is a meaningless collection of meaningful terms which only appears to be meaningful. It is very different from the biological statement I mentioned before. That statement may look meaningless, and may be "meaningless to you," just because you don't know what it would take to decide whether it was true or false, or even likely to be true or likely to be false. But biologists know, and therefore that statement is meaningful.

We might summarize all this by saying that Ayer believes that the meaning of a (non-tautologous) sentence is, or consists in the method of its verification; the way we would try to determine whether or not it was true or false. So, if it is impossible to verify or falsify such a sentence, even in theory or principle, that sentence is meaningless nonsense.

Let me end by noting three things:

First: The terms "meaningless" and "nonsense" are technical terms. They strictly mean unverifiable in experience. They do not mean, "unimportant" or "insignificant." To take one example: on the verifiability principle, the sentence "Please close the door," is unverifiable in principle because it is a request, and not meant to be a statement at all. It is not nonsense in the ordinary sense of the word "nonsense." But it is unverifiable, and so, "meaningless" in that sense. Ayer would also say that the sentence, "God exists," is unverifiable and nonsense. Clearly, that sentence is importantly meaningful in many ways to many people, although it is, unverifiable in principle, and therefore, by the verifiability principle of meaning, nonsense. Important nonsense, but nonsense all the same.

Second, we should really talk about sentences and not statement as meaningless or not. A statement is a sentence that is true or false, and so, when we call say that a sentence is a statement we have already decided it is meaningful. There can be no nonsensical statements, but there can be nonsensical sentences.

Third: As I indicated in the beginning, the verifiability principle of meaning does not apply to "tautologies" like "All dogs are dogs," or "All husbands are males." Those are not verifiable or unverifiable, since they are true or false because of the meanings of their constituent terms.

Kenneth Stern


Kimricky asked:

I am writing a paper about what knowledge is of most worth and I was wondering if you had any ideas on the topic.

The most fundamental form of knowledge is empirical knowledge, or experience and understanding of things in the world. It is when we come to distinguish objects and then come to use them that we become intelligent people. The other fundamental form of knowledge is psychological understanding of oneself and other people. This enables us to function in society. Because these forms of knowledge are essential for survival in the world and society, they are of the most worth.

The third most important form of knowledge is vegetable growing. Anything might happen, but if you can grow your own vegetables you'll be OK!

Beyond these three fundamentals you can choose between practical knowledge and skills that enable societies to advance to civilisation, and knowledge of arts (it has been argued that a full appreciation of the arts requires background knowledge), philosophy and religion (being religious is a matter of faith, but you have to know the doctrines) which are for the benefit of the soul.

Rachel Browne

The most valuable kind of knowledge may not be knowledge at all. We must always be prepared to admit to ourselves that we do not know. Knowing when to say this is most valuable. Admitting ignorance is better than arrogantly feigning knowledge.

Once we get to this stage then we can agree with Rachel Browne's first two items on her list of most valuable kinds of knowledge. I personally would replace knowledge of vegetable growing with a good grasp of the fundamentals of fishing (though I guess you could take your pick of these). And I would also add that it is always good to know someone who knows.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield

Fishing cannot be an essential kind of knowledge. It will not provide food for vegetarians, and, furthermore, the seas are poisoned and the supply of fish may dry up or not provide a good nutritional source of food. With vegetables you start from the beginning and I suggest that you keep with you a good supply of seeds.

Rachel Browne


Maral asked:

I want to know where is the start of the world! and when will it end? ...How can I find the truth?! Where is it? :(  I got confused with lots of questions and answers, can you help me??!

Socrates once said, that the unexamined life is not worth leading; he might also have said, and he acted that way, that the unexamined question is not worth asking.

What has a start and what has an end is an event. Question, is the world an event? Is it something that happened? The world is something that can be said to consist of events. But just because it consists of events, that doesn't mean that it itself is an event that had a beginning and will have an end. (I suppose you are talking about what the philosopher Kant called, "the totality." and not just Earth or even the Solar System, but the Universe.) So unless we have a reason to think the Universe is an event in time and in space, your question, which supposes that, makes no literal sense.

Einstein's theory of Special Relativity implies that both time and space are a part of the universe, the world. If that is true, then there was (literally) no time "before" the world existed, because there was no "before," and the world is literally in no place, since there was literally no place before the world existed. Einstein's theory of Special Relativity has replaced Sir Isaac Newton's "empty bucket" theory of space and time. Newton understood both space and time as absolute, and the picture of creation is rather like the picture presented in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Empty space, empty time, and the world suddenly appears at a particular time and particular place. But,if you come to think about it, in empty space there is not particular place: where would that be? And in empty time there is no particular moment: when would that be?

That "empty bucket" picture, and that is what it is, a picture, has now been superseded by Relativity theory, but most people have not caught up with it yet, since it is comparatively recent. Think of the old idea that the Earth is flat and that people might fall off the Earth in case they went too far. They would ask the question, why don't people who go beyond the horizon fall off the earth? After science discarded that view, many people still held on to that view for a long time. But now, no educated person asks why people do not fall off the Earth when they go beyond the horizon. That question assumed something that was false, so the question itself was wrong. Now most people have caught up to the round Earth view and discarded the flat Earth view. I am pretty sure that people will catch up to Relativity too, although it may take a little longer.

To summarize: your question supposes a certain view of things: empty space and empty time. But, science has now replaced that view. Therefore, your question is wrong, and that's the only answer to it. Re-examine your question.

Kenneth Stern


Lisa asked:

Is there such a thing as a standard of acceptable treatment, one human to another?

Treat others as you would have them treat you is a good principle, but it needs to be fleshed out with further standards of what is correct and proper. One person may want to be treated with great delicacy, another may be a masochist.

Given Kant's theory that we should treat others with respect as rational beings, we can argue that the masochist cannot use the "treat others' principle". It is not rational to treat others cruelly and if a being is rational he won't want to be treated so. You cannot be rational and demand more respect than you are entitled to. You should not desire to be treated with great delicacy because this will be on account of sensitivity which is a feeling. The rational person should be in control of their feelings and should not act upon emotion and impulse, nor should he desire to be treated with great delicacy because this will be on account of sensitivity which is a feeling.

Whilst we don't act rationally much of the time, and a lot of treatment of others is based on sympathy, which is a feeling, the rational standard can be seen as an ideal to aim for.

You might want to look at Cicero's On Law Book 1 for a theory of natural law which bases morality in similarities between persons and their values.

Rachel Browne


Maral asked:

How can I answer my question? I have no religion. I'm absolutely confused with lots of questions in my mind, what do I do with them? And I'm looking for a teacher. Can you help me with that?

It is a positive step to admit that you are confused, that there are questions which grip you but which you cannot answer.

For someone who has no religion, the sustenance offered by philosophy is harder, harsher, because we have burned our boats and put all our hope in our capacity for reason. Unfortunately, human beings are fallible creatures, and reason can sometimes let us down. Philosophy is an unsuitable substitute for religion. Better to have no god at all, than to make a god out of philosophy.

Philosophy as a raison d'être has its limitations. As a potential student of philosophy, you would have additional limitations to contend with. It is possible that the best that you could hope for would be to be an average student. In that case, I believe philosophy would still be something worth striving for. But can you accept that? Would you be prepared to trade your present state of fuzzy and ill-defined confusion for not only greater uncertainty, but also a keener sense of your limitations?

In view of the pessimistic picture I have painted, you might be surprised at the large numbers of students from all walks of life who have enrolled on Pathways programs. Judges and priests, power station engineers and nurses. Musicians, physicians, company directors, accountants, postal workers, teachers, school students and housewives. Many of my students have expressed to me their view that there is nothing better than philosophy. Few of them are likely to make a lasting contribution to the subject. Yet they are enthusiasts, as indeed I am myself.

Try philosophy. You might like it!

Geoffrey Klempner

In their philosophy religions have one thing in common, that they seek peace on earth. Only the ways they talk about this are different. Jewish emphasis is on justice and mercy. The Jews have the promises of God and the Law of Moses given on Mount Sinai. If you follow the Ten Commandments they will transform your life according to God's will. 'God' is the Creator of all that is. If everyone lived according to His will the world would be a place in which, even if there were a natural disaster, so much human love and caring would be unleashed that disaster itself would be transformed. The Christian emphasis is on the moral quality of love. Christians believe if a person lives a life of self-sacrifice and forgiveness and inclusiveness like Jesus, the person will be transformed and her spirit will never die though her body shall. The idea is that first the individual is transformed, then the family, then the community and one day the world. But the work starts for any religion with the human heart and mind and change within. According to Islam Earth can be raised to Heaven by the Five Pillars of Islamic religious practice. Buddhist emphasis is on balance and harmony. The Four Noble truths are the core of their teaching.

There are variants of each world religion that accord with different national and personal temperaments. There are cults and sects which look like religions, but which are not, like Scientology and Jehovah's witnesses and Mormons. A lot of these cults tend to come from the United States.

Religion and culture go together. You may convert to a religion but you can't convert culture. There is something to be said for those Christians and Buddhists who advise you to follow the religion of your culture, whatever that is, whether you like it or not. If you pick up teachings from another religion, let it go to enrich the religion of the culture you are born into, which your language and your surname suggest. If you are culturally 'Christian' I advise you to read the four Gospels in the Contemporary English Version of the New Testament and speak to a priest (Catholic), minister or pastor (Protestant) depending on which is more local. If you are culturally Jewish or Islamic contact your local community. If you are drawn toward Buddhism have a look at The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh (Random House 1998). It is subtitled: 'Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation'. Sounds like what you need to me.

Matthew Del Nevo


Zachary asked:

A friend of mine claimed to have the proof that God cannot be omnipotent. I said fine. Lay it on me.

He asked the question, "Can God create a stone he himself cannot lift?"

That was several years ago. I've thought about it. I think the question plays not on omnipotence, but rather our inability to physically comprehend infinity (i.e. picture a universe without end). I know you've had this question before. But what I'm interested in is the answers given in the past. At the time the question was posed, this friend of mine expounded upon several answers given by the Vatican, and if you could dig up a bit of history on this, I would be grateful.

The supposition that there is such a stone so heavy God cannot lift it, implies a contradiction, since it implies both that God can and cannot make such a stone.

St. Thomas Aquinas gave the standard answer to this ancient conundrum: It is that God's omnipotence does not imply that God can do what is logically impossible to do because the "action" of doing what is logically impossible is really not an action at all, since it describes nothing in just the way the phrase "four-sided triangle" describes nothing. Mortals are not omnipotent because they cannot do whatever can be done, such as, for instance, moving a star from one galaxy to another. God is omnipotent because he can do whatever can be done. even (supposedly) shifting a star, since doing that does not imply a logical contradiction. But that God cannot do what cannot be done, namely a logical contradiction, "does not detract from his omnipotence," as Aquinas put it.

Kenneth Stern


Rick asked:

I was reading Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, as there was something in it that had me in a fog for a week. Mr. Philosopher, please, could you tell me about the existence of time travel?

It seems to me that there is one very strong argument against time travel. It is that if there were such a thing we would have had tourists both from the past and from the future by this time. But we know of no such tourists. So, it seems to me that time travel is unlikely.

Kenneth Stern


Jose asked:

I get a little frustrated at times because in philosophy there are so many words I don't understand. The worst part is that I lack discipline when it comes to studying. Sometimes I think that maybe philosophy is not for me. Can you give me some advice?

I have sympathy with you because I used to be a lousy student. Lazy and undisciplined, it took a final essay deadline, or the imminent threat of exams to get me off my back-side. Even now, I have to psych myself up to read an article or a book. I don't find academic study a 'natural' thing to do.

Your impatience and frustration seems to indicate that you are trying to tackle too much, too quickly. Scale down the task. If your teacher gives you a book to read, read one chapter. If they give you a chapter, read a section. If they give you a section, read a page. And if your teacher gives you one page to read — well, you can read a page, can't you?

Buy a good philosophical encyclopaedia. Three that I recommend to my Pathways students are the Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi, and the Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, which is based on the eight volume Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy edited by Edward Craig. Take your pick.

The encyclopaedia will help you with philosophical terms, or names of philosophers that you have not encountered before. But don't make the mistake of thinking that all difficulties of understanding can be traced to unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of philosophy. It is a lot harder work reading a piece of philosophy than it is reading just about any other subject. That is why you should expect to encounter difficulties, and not bite off more than you can chew.

I don't know whether or not philosophy for you. If you genuinely feel a need for philosophy, then philosophy is for you. There will be times when a piece of assigned reading, or an essay, defeats you. Expect that to happen. It happens to us all! Try again, or scale down the task, or put that topic on hold while you look for a more accessible point to grapple with the subject. Persist, and your persistence will pay off.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lynn asked:

Why do they call a shoe, a shoe, and not a refrigerator?

There is a story of some woman who once asked an astronomer, "How did astronomers know that the planet Jupiter was called "Jupiter?" What is the answer to that question? It is, I think, that they didn't know. They just called Jupiter by the name "Jupiter."

Of course, there were historical reasons. For example, Jupiter was the chief of the Roman Gods, and Jupiter was the largest of the planets. (One of Mozart's symphonies was called "Jupiter" for a similar reason.)

What is important is to distinguish between language and what language is about, the world. Language is conventional. That is to say it is a (tacit) agreement among the users of the language to call things by certain terms. We call a shoe by the term "shoe." But the French call shoes, "soliers" (male shoes) and "chaussures" (female shoes) (And, if you are really interested, the French word for refrigerator is "re'frigerateur.") But there is nothing about shoes that call for their being called "shoes," although there are causes which are discovered by etymologists who trace the history of words. A very interesting subject.

Important question.

Kenneth Stern

We could have called a refrigerator a shoe because names are arbitrary, although a lot of our language is based upon or derived from Latin, and to this extent it is shaped historically.

A name is arbitrary because it is simply a symbol which acquires cultural currency. Most names stand for things and concepts. Names for things can change. For instance, we used to use the word refrigerator but now we tend to shorten it to fridge and there is no reason why this might not change completely to something such as "cooler". We often adopt American terms for objects and give up the English ones. Names for things can change and this is, in part, because they refer to objects so they stand for something with a determinate description. But when we think of concepts, which are abstract, such as red or good, it is difficult to imagine this sort of change. When we describe something as "good" in a non-moral sense, we might use the Americanism "ace" but we don't give up "good" and "ace" is already dropping out of usage. Refrigerator is a descriptive name, as is cooler, so it might be that we can change the name by using a term with a like meaning and there is no like meaning for "red" and "good".

Alternatively, this could be explained by means of reference and determinacy. A name picks out objects of a particular sort so we can use more than one name to refer to an object because what the object is like provides a determinate definition. If I adopt the term "cooler" for a fridge, I can explain what I'm doing without using the word "fridge" by describing the object. It is explanatory to say that I'm now using the word "cooler" for the thing we use to keep our food cool. We don't have determinate definitions of concepts. If I use different terms for red or good, the only way to explain this is by saying that by "rue", for instance, I mean red. Theories of meaning aim to explain what we mean when we use a word. In the light of your question, it seems to me to be a good starting point to sort out types of word rather than focusing on the meaning of "meaning" or what it is to mean something by a whole proposition. This is what Aristotle was doing in the Categories.

Rachel Browne


Nathan asked:

What is a person? That is the bottom line of my question. For most people use the term "person" and yet can not necessarily define what they mean.

In the same line of thought as John Macmurray (The Self as Agent, Persons in Relation) it appears that personhood must be defined in relation to others, and simply not autonomous. What then are the implications of such an approach? Who and what then are persons? Animals, people, God, non-living objects? (try not to address the peripheral issue of what is non-living or has not life.) I have given away a few of my presuppositions, but the bottom line question is, "What is the definition of a person?"

Person is a complicated and ancient notion. It is a concept which definition kills, because it has an axis of meaning, as I shall endeavour to explain.

Our word person comes from the Latin persona. We use the word 'persona' in English in the sense of someone playing a part, or putting on an act. We distinguish the persona from the real person. In Latin persona is related to other concepts we have in English such as personal (personalis) and personality (personalitas), both of which refer to what we would ordinarily think of as the real person, rather than as an act they are putting on. Already in the Latin word from which we gain our word there is an ambiguity between the real person and the 'persona' we wear. The ambiguity about the meaning of person in English harks back to the ambiguity that was already there in Latin.

Of course we can see a person as a thing, as merely an object, but we tend not to. There seems to be more to a person than object behaviour. Today we talk about the dignity of a person and their fundamental human rights. To speak of a person like this is to recognize that a person is not just a thing. Heidegger summed it like this: "Man (a person) is the being for whom being is an issue." The legacy of understanding which our language carries says that a person is different from an animal, even different from some people's zoological description of him or her as a "primate". We call ourselves "primate animals" because our being is an issue for us and we are trying to understand it. "Know Thyself", the Socratic dictum, shows that our being is an issue, that although we are, we don't know what we are. Your question, asks about the same thing, "What is a person?" The ambiguity and difficulty of knowing what a person is, is compounded by the task of being one.

This ambiguity and difficulty was first thought by Greek speaking Christian philosophers in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era and we are still in the sway of that thought. The Latin persona was a translation of the Greek prosopon. The Greek word means 'face'. But to designate what a person is these Greek Christian philosophers used the word hypostasis, which means both 'existence' and 'existent' depending upon the usage, a bit like 'man' in English may refer equivocally to particular man and to mankind. The concept of hypostasis was synonymous in Greek with ousia or in English, 'essence'. Our modern understanding of the concept 'person' still carries the influence of these Christian philosophers. A person is an essence, a universal, but also and at the same time absolutely particular. In other words, a person is different from every other, but also of the same nature. The modern notion of the dignity of each person goes right back to this definitive thinking in the fifth century, although the seeds are of course much more ancient. What a person is belongs to this universality of the self, rather than to the 'individualism' of the self, which is the other pole.

Matthew Del Nevo

Our concept of a person, or a human being, should exclude anything that looks like and seems to be a person but is, say, robotic. Our concept of a person or human being is that it is a conscious biological organism, ideally rational and a language speaker. We discount animals as persons since they are not rational and they are not language speakers. It is true that many persons may not be rational or language speakers, for one reason or another, so the idea of a person as a biological organism is paramount. In some cases, a person may not be conscious, if there is impairment to brain function, so consciousness also takes second place to the biological nature and origin of the organism. The origin of a being determines the type of organism an individual is. If a being comes to fruition through the fertilization of a human egg by human sperm, this is a person. If we adopt this view of origin we can reject proposals that a robot can ever be a human being just because it looks like a human being and behaves as such. This is an objective view.

The subjective view, the acquisition of the concept of oneself, as "I" must be defined in relation to others. One account of why this is so is Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language. Language is rule-governed, and a person cannot be held to be following a rule alone because he can be mistaken on the criteria for application. On this argument, if I am the only person in the world, I would not possess the concept of myself as a "person" or an "I". However, if I am the only person in a world with other objects, I will learn to distinguish myself as one object amongst others by perceptual means and will naturally possess a subjective view and self-awareness which I don't have to refer to any concept such as "I". The Cartesian "I" is no longer taken to be related to a thought content or experience. I will still be a person even if I don't know it.

Rachel Browne


Peter asked:

I have been doing some reading in scientific thought. I would greatly appreciate some direction and or thoughts on the following two points:

  1. If a science such as physics tries to base its conclusions on the "truths" of the universe, even though scientists try hold to the ideal that their conclusions are not a naive view of what is really true by not depending directly on their perceptions via the senses, are not all of their theories derived at some point and founded on the percepts derived from the very senses from which they do not trust?

  2. Since science operates empirically on induction is it not much more than a leap of faith that even a million experiments is too small a sample to conclude within a reasonable confidence limit, since all the possible experiments that could be done far exceeds those that ever will be done...so much so that those that are done add up to a number approaching zero as those that could be done approach infinity?

1. Your first question reminded me of Bertrand Russell. A quick internet search unearthed the following famous, or infamous quote:

Physics assures us that the occurrences which we call "perceiving" objects, are not likely to resemble the objects except, at best, in certain very abstract ways. We all start from "naive realism", i.e., the doctrine that things are what they seem. We think that the grass is green, that stones are hard, that the snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of a stone upon himself. Thus science seems to be at war with itself: when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will...

And now the famous bit:

...Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true is false; therefore it is false".

Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 15, 1950. Unwin Paperbacks, London.

Do we have to accept that physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false? And if we do, does it matter? I used to think that physics does show that naive realism is false, but that it doesn't matter. That's what Russell seems to be saying. Physics can still be true, so to hell with our common sense beliefs about the world of our sense perception.

I now think that Russell is far too quick to concede the sceptical argument against the common sense or naive view of perception. Just because a chain of physical causes and effects is involved in human perception, it doesn't follow that when I seem to perceive a chair, what I really 'perceive' is Russellian sense data, or the product of processes going on in my own brain.

However, so far as your question is concerned, what I think isn't important. Either way, physics is still true.

2. Your worry about induction seems at first sight very plausible. Once again I am reminded of Russell. (I won't quote him this time.) Picture this. Each day, as the sun goes down, the farmyard chicken says, 'I wasn't slaughtered today.' So, each day, the inductive evidence in favour of the proposition, 'I won't be slaughtered tomorrow' increases. — Are we really in a better position than Russell's chicken?

The chicken's problem is that it lacks the bigger picture. That is always a worry. You thought all swans were white, but you have never visited New Zealand. There is always a doubt whether or not we have selected a representative sample. Even if we put aside that worry, however, there still seems to be a huge discrepancy between the small number of cases examined, and the number of cases that have not been examined, so small, in fact as to make the number of examined cases diminish to an infinitesimal fraction as we increase the angle of view to take in the whole universe.

The worry is groundless. To see this, imagine the following case. There is a large barrel in the cupboard with boiled sweets. The barrel is too big to move, and there is no light in the cupboard. So you fish around, right to the bottom, grab several handfulls of sweets, and examine them in the light of day. Every single one of the sweets is red. Provided the sweets are picked at random so that you have a representative sample, that is excellent evidence that the large majority of sweets in the barrel are red, even if your sample is only a small fraction of the whole. This is what common sense tells us, and what the mathematics of probability theory confirms.

Of course, you can't use this method to prove that every single sweet in the barrel is red. You can't prove that there isn't one blue sweet down there somewhere. The point to make here is that the example of the jam barrel differs in one crucial respect from gathering evidence for scientific theories: the generalizations we seek to gather inductive evidence for in science are lawlike. If there is a contrary instance somewhere, then we shall look for, and can expect to find a relevant difference that explains it.

Geoffrey Klempner


Edward asked:

Is the very nature of philosophy influenced by the fact that we are clothed in material bodies?

I think it is incorrect to say that we are clothed in material bodies, or at the very least it is highly misleading. It seems to imply that what we are is not the material bodies at all but something else entirely; that the material body is inessential to what we really are. And i think that this is certainly not true. Although it is perfectly normal to talk about 'my body' and 'your body' in the same way as we talk about 'my car' and 'your car', we shouldn't be mislead by the similarity in surface form. It is correct to say 'I have a body', but we should not take this as implying that a body is something I own or possess. It is also correct to say 'I have a bus to catch', and this doesn't imply that I own anything.

And also, without a material body it would be difficult to write things down.

Will Greenwood


Ziomara asked:

I have been given the following essay question: "Explain the relation of Art and Virtue in the Platonic Philosophy. Does this relation explain Socrates' attitude towards Ion?"

Plato disapproved of art because he saw it as appealing to the emotions rather than to reason. You can read his views on this in the Republic Book X. Plato thought that all artists imitate reality and what we understand "reality" to be is, for Plato, simply the empirical world which is the world of appearances. So the artist, by imitating what is only appearance is very far removed from Platonic reality which is the intellectual realm of reasoning and understanding. Virtue lies in the opposite direction to art because it is a Form which relates to the Form Good. We only know what it is by understanding, which we achieve by trying to clarify the concept. In pursuit of an understanding of virtue, we use our intellectual faculties.

In Plato's dialogue Ion, Ion is not using his intellectual faculties but attempting to arouse emotions, which Plato held to be the enemies of reason because emotions are irrational. Because Ion can only talk about Homer, Socrates claims that he is not even skilled, but caught up in the frenzy created by the inspiration and possession of one poet. Whilst Socrates is highly critical of the poet who is possessed by a divine inspiration, he is even more critical of the rhapsode who is possessed by the poet. The rhapsode is one step beyond the irrationality of the poet himself.

Socrates attitude to Ion reflects Plato's respect for rationality and the value of the search for knowledge such as the nature of virtue. Plato does have some respect for skills. Rational knowledge and skills are both valuable since in the acquisition of these, there are no irrational emotional elements.

Rachel Browne


Matt asked:

There's things I know rationally, like if I drop a ball it will fall to the ground. And there's things I know otherwise — not rationally — such as my favorite color, or who I love. As the latter category of knowledge isn't subject to demonstrable and repeatable experiment, how may I have confidence in it?

Some people are confident about their favourite colour and others not. I suppose I fall into the latter category, because if someone asked me my favourite colour, I wouldn't know whether to say blue, or green. I might even on occasion say red. But if we take a person who confidently asserts, 'Red is my favourite colour', and we notice that they never choose clothes, or home colour schemes, or cars which are red or have red in them, then that is pretty good prima facie evidence that they don't know their own mind. All the same, there is room for doubt. Perhaps the person whose favourite colour is red is too self-conscious to wear a red shirt, or paint their front door red, or drive a red car, opting instead for what they see as a 'safer' colour.

Notice, however, that what is going on here is has a parallel with regularities in the physical world. If I drop a football, I can be confident that it will fall to the ground. But that's provided someone standing close by doesn't get the boot in first, or provided that it isn't attached to the ceiling by invisible elastic string, and so on.

Or consider the question, Who is it that I love? Love is not just a preference that we feel strongly. Love is put to the test. I may feel ever so strongly that I love a particular person, yet when put to the test, when required to do an action that someone who genuinely loved that person would do, my resolve fails. Yet, following the example of colour preferences, there is always the possibility that my resolve failed because the genuine love that was there was thwarted by cowardice, or because at the last moment I doubted my decision concerning which action I ought to do for my loved one's sake.

There is, however, an important difference between knowledge of the physical world, and such cases of self-knowledge. I don't think it is correct, as I hope I have made clear, to explain the difference by saying that the former type of knowledge is rational, while the latter is irrational. We know our own minds without first having to make observations of our behaviour, that is the crucial difference. It doesn't follow, however, that our confidence in our self-knowledge is immune to experimental evidence.

Geoffrey Klempner


Helena asked:

As a novice to all things Philosophical I'm struggling to write an essay on the question "How would you distinguish logical and natural necessity?". Any help would be greatly appreciated, especially a reading list.

A wonderful question that is very complicated and to which I am not at all sure of the answer. But I'll give you the standard answer anyway.

Logical necessity such as what you get in logic and mathematics (and, just maybe, in philosophy) is that a true logically necessary proposition is a proposition whose negation is a self-contradiction. E.g., "All dogs are animals" is a necessary truth because "Some dogs are not animals" is self-contradictory.

The standard answer to the question, what is natural necessity? is that propositions that express natural necessities are general propositions that support counterfactuals, or 'contrary to fact' conditional statements. (This is the answer given by the American philosopher, Nelson Goodman)

For example: the natural necessity "All metals expand when they are heated," implies the counterfactual, "If this book were a piece of metal (which it is not), then, it would expand when heated." Contrast this with, "All the coins in my pocket are pennies." This universal general statement does NOT imply, "If this coin (which is a nickel) were in my pocket, then it would be a penny."

Kenneth Stern

As an introduction you could read A.C. Grayling's An Introduction to Philosophical Logic which will guide you to further reading.

Basically, a proposition is logically necessary if it could not be otherwise, such as the truths of mathematics and the principles of logic such as the law of non-contradiction, as well as Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles. One way in which a logically necessary truth has been defined is to say that it cannot be denied. However, Quine has argued against this "unrevisability" thesis, claiming that any truth might be revised and there are no such things as necessary truths.

However, if you don't accept Quine's argument, and allow that a logical necessity is something we cannot deny, a naturally necessary truth can be defined as a truth we might conceivably come to deny. It is naturally necessary that all dogs have four legs, because the concept of a dog is of an animal with four legs. But nature could change so that all dogs have six legs.

Alvin Plantinga rejects this on a different basis to Quine, claiming that there are non-necessary propositions we take as true and won't give up despite evidence to the contrary, such as "Willard is an exceedingly fine fellow".

Quine's argument can be found in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (in From a Logical Point of View) and Plantinga's in The Nature of Necessity.

Rachel Browne

Some philosophers have argued, Hume most notoriously, that there are no logical relations between 'matters of fact', but only between what Hume calls 'relations of ideas', such as the definitions found in Euclid, perhaps. A matter of fact might be that there is a tree in the wood and another might be that there is a bird on a branch of the tree. To say there is no logical relation between these two facts, or states of affairs, is to say that 'There is a tree in the wood but there is no bird on any of its branches' is not self-contradictory. As we move towards relationships in the natural world that strike us as somehow 'necessary,' for example, 'This water is heated to 100 degrees C, and this water is boiling', it becomes tempting to say that 'This water is heated to 100 degrees C, but it isn't boiling,' is self contradictory.

Nevertheless, while this might need explaining, it isn't, strictly speaking, a contradiction. If it were, scientific laws would be true by definition and no possible experience would count against them. So, Hume makes a very strong point here.

Here's another way of looking at necessity. Aristotle (in de Interpretatione, Book IX), asks us to consider the proposition 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow.' Now, according to the Law of the Excluded Middle, either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there won't be. Call this proposition 'T.' Clearly T is necessarily true, for the Law of the Excluded Middle expresses a logical truth.

Imagine then, that tomorrow comes, and there is a sea battle. Since it was necessarily true yesterday that there would either be a sea battle or there wouldn't, it might seem that the sea battle occurred 'of necessity,' and that yesterday it was 'necessary' that today there would be a sea battle. Apparently logical necessity has necessitated some event in the world!

What has gone wrong is that what philosophers call necessity de dicto (applied to logical relations between statements), has been confused with necessity de re (applied to things or events in the world). So, you should notice that in proposition T ('Either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there won't'), the necessity attaches to the entire proposition: T is necessarily true.

However, this is not equivalent to 'Necessarily, there will be a sea battle, or necessarily, there won't be a sea battle.' In the former case, the necessity attaches to the whole of T. In the latter it attaches individually to the propositions conjoined by 'or'. And you can see, I believe, that 'Necessarily this or necessarily that' isn't equivalent to, and can't be derived from 'Necessarily this or that.'

Something to think about: if the Second Law of Thermodynamics 'describes,' or is true of the world, it must be possible to say, without contradiction, 'Heat can be transferred by means of some self-sustaining process from a cooler body to a hotter one.' We may not see how it can be possible for the world to behave that way; but to say that the Second Law can't be denied amounts to saying that it is true by definition and thereby trivial. It is only propositions which express logical necessity, e.g., 'Either it is raining or it isn't,' that cannot be denied without contradiction. And, although they are necessarily true, they are uninformative.

Paul Trevor


Jana asked:

Could you please explain to me, what is a Nussbaumian philosophy or a Nussbaumian dictatorship? I would appreciate your answer to be rather simple, I need it for my translation work and can`t find it anywhere. Thank you.

Martha C Nussbaum is Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is an Aristotle scholar and so her 'Nussbaumian philosophy' or 'dictatorship' are probably glosses or expositions of what Aristotle taught about democracy and dictatorship. It would be helpful if you could offer a broader context of the text you are translating so thatæmore specific help might be given.

Peter B Ball
London, United Kingdom


Shannon asked:

I am writing a paper for university on Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illyich" and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how Tolstoy attacks society and its hypocrisy.

It is certainly true that Tolstoy does attack society and its hypocrisy. In philosophical terms the crux of Tostoy's 'critique' arises from the distinction made between being and appearance. For Tolstoy, society is a superficial place of glamour, appearances and illusion, where one loses oneself in the reflections of other people and in other people's reflections. Finding oneself is a matter of the soul, not so much of soul-searching, but of allowing for a soulfulness, which Tolstoy defined along fairly strict ascetical lines. In the background is the influence of Schopenhauer, but this had waned by the time of Ivan Ilyich.

Influencing this work is Tolstoy's love-hate relationship with Russian Orthodoxy. He was especially taken by the devotion and piety of the Old Believers and the staretz movement that had revitalised monasticism at that time. While these two movements are not complimentary, they are both anti-social. They are intent to "render unto God" rather than Caesar, and for them, as for Jesus in the second temptation, when Satan takes him up a mountain to see the kingdoms of the world and extent of the power that could be his, the Realm of the Spirit and the Realm of Caesar are at odds. To find oneself, one needs to seek the realm of the Spirit. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world if he is to lose his very soul? — as the rhetorical question in the Gospels has it.

The story is a parable and a wake up call. It still functions just as powerfully in this regard today.

Through Ivan we are shown the vanity of the social world, constituted, governed and soaked as it is by inauthenticity. Illness is the event that turns Ivan back to his soul-self and makes him wonder what it is to live (section ix). This had been so obvious before he had never stopped to ask it, nor had anyone else, nor, most likely has Tolstoy's reader, hence the parable. Reality as Ivan had known it was "as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up." Illness leading to death is the first authentic thing that happens in the life of Ivan Illych. But, even more darkly, an authentic relation to oneself in the world is yet to happen to those whom he leaves behind; which is the reader's own realm, so that the story points directly at us as well, to make us question ourselves (the parable again, typical of late Tolstoy). By contrast, authentic living (like that of Ivan's serf, who supports his foot) is that which takes account of our mortality. The story doubles (hence its tremendous power) as contemporary a meditation on death. It is one of the great modern meditations on death, if not the greatest.

Tolstoy doesn't tell us how to live, or how to die. But he presents us in the most graphic terms imaginable with the fact that these are the questions. And anything we do must begin with them.

Matthew Del Nevo


Gary asked:

A co-worker once told me 'I don't know isn't an acceptable answer'. I seem to remember from a college philosophy class that Socrates (or a contemporary?) said 'I don't know IS an acceptable answer. Someone asks you a question. You think about it, but you don't know. Therefore, 'I don't know' is a completely acceptable answer. What is your opinion on this?

It's not important what Socrates said, or is thought to have said. In the real world, 'I don't know' is never an acceptable answer. 'I don't know, but I know a man who does', or 'I don't know, but my best guess is...', or, 'I don't know, but I'll try to find out for you', those are acceptable answers. We're not talking epistemology here, we're talking manners.

You raised your question in the context of 'what a co-worker once told me'. That is significant. It was not just anyone who told you, but someone who works with you, someone who depends on your input. Not just as a source of factual information, but as a member of a team prepared to pull his weight in contributing to a positive atmosphere of trust and co-operation. Work can be hell when the fragile understanding between co-workers breaks down, and it's every person for him or herself.

Of course, it doesn't help anyone to pretend to know when you don't know. You've got to be honest. But there's all the difference in the world between admitting when you don't know, and giving someone the brush-off.

Geoffrey Klempner


Alabbas asked:

What are the epistemology schools?
What is the difference between theory and philosophy?
What is the difference between epistemological theories and theories of science?

Epistemology is the thjeory of knowledge: It tries to find the answers to the following three questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? What are the sources of knowledge?

Historically, the two main theories of epistemology have been Rationalism and Empiricism. What divides them is the place of reason in of knowledge. Rationalism (as the name implies) says that reason is central to knowledge, and downplays the role of sense-observation. Empiricism thinks that what is central to knowledge is sense-observation, and gives reason an subordinate role.

Philosophy is the study of the central concepts in terms of which human beings understand the world like "existence" "truth" and, as you have just seem, "knowledge." Theory is one of the central concepts in science and is another one studied by philosophy. Theories are explanations of what happens. They explain why what happens, happens. For instance, the theory of gravity explains, among other things: why objects fall; why there are tides; and why planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun.

The philosophy of science is an important part of epistemology since science is our main way (perhaps our only way) of acquiring reliable knowledge. Some contemporary philosophers have argued that science is the model for all of epistemology, and that "science is the mainland and epistemology the peninsular."

Kenneth Stern


Paul asked:

Which of the major religions is the most philosophically credible?

I don't think it is as simple as asking which one of the worlds religions is the most credible. The real problem is this: Either none or all of the world's religions have philosophical credibility. Lets see what this means.

For any system to count as credible it must satisfy some pretty basic requirements. Among them are the need for coherence, consistency with other systems, non contradiction, and explanatory powers. (Note however that it does not have to be true, that is a separate question. Though it must be plausible, and plausibility requires that there is at the possibility that it is true.)

Now none of the world's religions even come close to satisfying these requirements, either in theory or practice. And never mind the big issues such as the compatibility of an all powerful and loving God with the existence of evil. Even in everyday matters religion fails to make sense. For example, the current pope of the Roman Catholic Church has decreed that the Sanctity of Life makes abortion wrong, but old John Paul also says that capital punishment is OK. Now what the h... is that all about?

Or to take a problem common to all religions, the question of authority. if I ask "what should I believe ?" a believer will say "you should believe what is written in The Book of X (The Book of X will vary depending on who you ask, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc.). If I then ask "why should I believe what is written in The Book of X ?", the believer will say "you should believe what is written in the Book of X because it is written in the book of X that you should believe what is written in the Book of X". But them we are just going around in circles. What is needed is some independent reason to believe what he says in the first place.

Perhaps those religions that promote a personal "coming to the Truth" would not be subject to this problem, but I suspect that there would be other kinds of incoherence to be found. The believer of any religion is unlikely to be phased howeve by these objections, because they may not even be concerned about their status as philosophically credible systems. Claiming instead that religion and philosophy are concerned with different things. That philosophy shouldn't even concern itself with evaluating religion or religious belief, because this is a matter of faith which has nothing to do with credibility or coherence, but with a way of life.

The philosopher may agree here and leave it at that but there is also the danger of agreeing with the religious believer and then dismissing him as a fruitcake or head case who is off in his own world. And this may be uncalled for because there is a case to be made for the claim that while religion and philosophy are incompatible, religion could still be philosophically credible. Now before you dismiss this as an incoherence on my part and brand me a head case let me explain.

This is the other side of the claim that either none or all religions are philosophically credible. The view is derived from a philosophical approach called Pragmatism and especially from the works of William James. In his paper "The Will to Believe" James argues that a person is entitled to, is justified in believing something independently of reason. But this works only in special circumstances. James is not saying that any belief whatsoever may be simply chose at will. Rather he argues that if one is faced with a "genuine option", namely one that is unique in ones life, that is 'momentous' (where something valuable and important is at stake), then the factors contributing to a belief will be wider than any rational, i.e. philosophical requirements.

if James is right about this and if religious belief constitutes a genuine option (as James thinks it does) then religion is just as credible as philosophical or scientific belief. It will add to the prospects of an individual's life being fulfilled.

It should be noted that James is not offering a general defence of religious belief, for some people it will never be a live option. And for others it will not be a live option whether to be a Jew or a witch doctor, though it will be an option to be an orthodox Jew or a liberal Jew.

If that is the case then for those for whom it is a live option whatever religion they do follow will be on James's view equally justified. Of course there are problems with James's philosophy that might lead us to reject his account, also this approach does not answer the question I posed earlier about the internal coherence of a religious system, but it may be the best defence any religion has.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Tony asked:

A question I have concerns solipsism, which seems much discussed hereabouts. How would people respond to the following reply to solipsism, which I came across in Bryan Magee's excellent book on Schopenhauer? To anyone who claims they are a solipsist, the retort is to ask how they came to write the complete works of Shakespeare and all nine of Beethoven's symphonies.

While this does not refute solipsism, it does question its value as a philosophical standpoint. It does ask of what interest it can be, how does it work, what can it tell us that is new. To justify a belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, the early physicists had to explain how come we don't feel the Earth moving. It was the latter that lead to much that is great in physics, more so than the original assertion. Likewise, a solipsist must explain their bounteous creativity, for solipsism to become both tenable and worth pursuing further. It seems to me there is a lack of imagination present in the solipsist attitude, and this is reason enough to reject it, at least until something inspirational ever comes of it. But is this reason enough? It leads us to question why we philosophise. As a search for absolute truth? Or just to stretch the imagination?

You're missing something rather important here. Solipsism isn't a hypothesis, put forward in the spirit of, 'Let's see whether the solipsist theory proves useful.' The solipsist, or anyone who as ever felt the grip of solipsism, has an argument, which says, in effect, 'It is completely irrelevant whether you like being a solipsist or not, or whether or not solipsism is a useful thing to believe. These are the facts, and when you look at the facts without prejudice you will see that there is no alternative but to embrace solipsism.' (I'm not going to rehearse the argument now, or possible responses to it. The important thing is that Magee's 'refutation' of solipsism is not such a response.)

As a solipsist, as one who believes that reality is co-extensive with 'the world of my possible experience' I have to acknowledge that my experience (to date!) does not include writing, or remembering having written Hamlet. The character William Shakespeare and the Hamlet experience are simply features-to-be-encountered, part of the stuff and furniture of my world. Without me they would be nothing. But that is not a reason for saying that I must be the author of Hamlet any more than it is for saying that I must be the father (or inventor?) of Shakespeare.

As a solipsist, I can raise the question, 'Why all this? Where does it come from?' There is no answer except to say, 'It's just there.' But then exactly the same thing can be said about the world of the non-solipsist! In the world that you and I supposedly share, there is Hamlet and the playwright Shakespeare who wrote the play. Why? Why was there a Shakespeare? Why did he write Hamlet? Every explanation you give will just refer to more facts, which might have been otherwise. Why, indeed, is there anything, rather than nothing?

Whether you are a non-solipsist or a solipsist, whether you think that Shakespeare and Beethoven were 'real people' (whatever that means!) or just 'characters in the story of my world' (whatever that means!) you have to accept that things are the way they are. Things might have been otherwise than they are, There might have been no Shakespeare and his plays, or no Beethoven and his symphonies, but there is and that's just a brute fact which is no more embarrassing to the solipsist than it is to the non-solipsist.

Geoffrey Klempner


Peter asked:

I understand that there is a contemporary refutation of the Humean is/ought 'naturalistic fallacy' which incorporates ideas from philosophical logic. Could someone please outline simply how it is suggested that 'ought' can, after all, be derived from 'is'? Thanks.

You are probably alluding to a well-known article published, I think, In The Philosophical Review called "How to Derive an 'Ought' from an 'Is.'" by the University of California philosopher, John Searle. I read it some time ago, so I don't recall the details. Whether you believe it is a refutation of Hume's view really depends on whether you think it is a successful rebuttal of that view. I don't remember finding it persuasive myself, and I don't think many other philosopher have either. Hume thinks that to derive an "ought" conclusion from any premises, those premises must contain at least one "ought" premise. On the general principle that in a valid deductive argument, there can be nothing in the conclusion not contained in the premises, I would say that there can be no refutation of the naturalistic fallacy, although there have been, and may yet be, many rebuttals.

Kenneth Stern

Hume's point that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" is not the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is a logical problem described by G.E. Moore aiming to refute arguments that good is a natural property.

I didn't know that there was a logical way to derive an "ought" from an "is" so I looked in An Introduction to Ethics by Geoffrey Thomas and there it was! You would probably find this book helpful generally. The argument comes from an article by A.N. Prior called "The Autonomy of Ethics" in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy 38 and is probably presented more plausibly than it is here.

The argument is based on material implication. Any proposition 'P' implies the truth of 'P v Q' ('v' is the logical connective which represents 'or' in the inclusive sense, i.e. 'either P, or Q, or both') because if 'P' is true one disjunct is true. Whenever 'P' is true, 'P v Q' can never be false. Call this the 'v-introduction rule'. If you have 'P v Q' and you add the premise ¬P ('not P') then that logically implies Q. This is the 'v-elimination rule' or material implication.

Now take a factual descriptive "is" statement, Thomas's example being "she is old and lonely" the negation of which is also factual and descriptive, i.e. "it is not the case that she is old and lonely". Call these F and ¬F. Then formulate a normative "ought" statement such as "you ought to help her". Call this N.

Here is the formalised argument:

  1. F (premise)
  2. F v N (v-introduction rule)
  3. ¬F (premise)
  4. So N< (v-elimination rule = material implication)

Or in English:

  1. She is old and lonely (premise)
  2. She is old and lonely or You ought to help (v-introduction rule)
  3. It is not the case that she is old and lonely (premise)
  4. So you ought to help her (v-elimination rule = material implication)

This looks absurd and one reason for this is the logical rule that a self-contradictory statement implies any other statement. However, the point is that because F is a descriptive statement, F v N must also be a descriptive statement despite the fact that F contains an "ought". This is because only a descriptive statement can imply another descriptive statement. N, "You ought to help her" is no longer a normative value statement expressing an attitude or imperative. So "ought" becomes a matter of fact.

Rachel Browne


Roger asked:

What is a community?

A community may be a group of people identified in terms of their commitment to a particular way of life, or a set of people who hold to something in common, and is a subset of society. Being a member of a community requires a positive commitment. Society is something we cannot help being involved in unless we rebel against society, such as New Age travellers did. Commitment is important if a community such as the gay community can properly be regarded as such. To be a member of the gay community is to openly declare oneself as gay and to take an interest in gay causes and issues. To be privately gay, taking no interest in the gay community is not to be a member.

A neighbourhood may constitute a community if the residents regard it as such and treat it so. If there is no sense of neighbourliness then there is no community.

Neighbourhood communities and ethnic communities are based upon being in a particular locality, and because we say "there is a large gay community in Sydney" I assume this is also true of the gay community as such.

Rachel Browne


Emma asked:

I am taking A-level Philosophy of Religion and am lacking in information on Christian religious experience, namely conversion and mysticism. I would be grateful for any information on this topic.

"Christianity is in the first place and oriental religion and it is a mystical religion." (Olivier Clément). Modern Bible Christians tend never to know this. This is strange, because the beatitudes are hardly common sense, let alone the sayings of Jesus in John, or the interpretations of Paul. Paul in fact boasts of the "folly of the cross." Orthodox and Catholic traditions have remembered and transmitted the mystical nature of Christianity from age to age, for better or for worse.

The term 'mysticism' is a modern modern non-believer's concept. The mystical is not properly mystical if it is an 'ism'. The proper term is 'the mystical life'. This is a comparative term. The mystical life is that in which God's action predominates, by contrast with the ascetic life in which human action predominates. Mystical life requires some passivity, like a sail which needs to catch the wind. Therefore, at its extreme it is contemplative (e.g. monastic). Too much human action can obstruct the will of God, as we see so often. A mystic is one who is 'acted upon' rather than one who acts.

Conversion means "change of mind" (metanoia). The task is to come back from the corrupt state of sin in which one is estranged from God, living in such a way as to disallow his acting upon one, to a pure or primitive state of mind, for it is presupposed that each of us is the image and likeness of God as our human nature.

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (OUP) by Andrew Louth of Durham University is excellent on 'mysticism'.

Matthew Del Nevo


Jacinto asked:

"An argument is based on the principle of inferential necessity." Discuss.

The first question you have to ask is what are arguments for. An argument is not just a structure made of sentences or strings of symbols. We make use of these structures. They have a point. Text books on logic often forget this rather elementary observation. They tend to assume — or at least give the reader the impression — that we all know what an argument is for, and the only question is what is the difference between a good argument and a bad one.

We have to narrow this discussion somewhat. It is not true that all 'arguments' are based on the principle of inferential necessity. Some arguments are probabilistic, representing the conclusion as the most plausible inference to draw, rather than an inference that one cannot fail to acknowledge when it's pointed out to you, on pain of irrationality.

The purpose of an argument is to persuade. Persuading someone involves finding something that they accept, or are prepared to accept, and then showing that, if they accept that, then they have no choice but to accept the thing you want them to accept. There's the 'necessity'.

I can be wrong in thinking that the conclusion follows from the premisses. In that case, I was wrong to allow myself to be persuaded. I made an error of judgement. The argument was invalid. To deliberately use an argument which looks valid but you know is invalid in order to persuade someone is sophistry.

In terms of logic, a valid argument is one where it is impossible for the premisses to be true and the conclusion false. If you are the person doing the persuading, you don't have to believe the premisses. Or you might be unsure whether the premisses are true or not. (It is perfectly acceptable to point out to someone the logical consequences of their beliefs, even if you do not hold those beliefs yourself.) The only thing that matters is that anyone who does believe those premisses has got to accept the conclusion. In every possible world in which the premisses are true, the conclusion is also true. If, on the other hand, you are the person looking to be persuaded, it is still valuable information to know what you would be committed to believing, if you ever came to believe the truth of the premisses.

That is only half of it. The question to raise now is how a string of sentences or symbols can possibly perform this seemingly magical feat. In order for it to be the case that 'every possible world in which the premisses are true, the conclusion is also true', there must be something that accounts for this, either in the structure of the argument or the content of the propositions expressed. Logic text books will tell you all about the structure of logically valid arguments. A logically valid argument is valid in virtue of its form alone. No matter what terms you substitute consistenly for the non-logical parts, you will never get a case where the premisses are true but the conclusion is false. Arguments which are valid in virtue of content are more problematic. This is where you will find virtually all of the arguments of philosophy.

Geoffrey Klempner


Allan and Pia asked:

What do you think the influence of an alien visit would be on the worlds religions?

The physicist Enrico Fermi once suggested that "If aliens exist they would be here!" Given that alien life is more than likely we have to ask why aren't they here?

One reason may be religion. Many sci-fi writers suggest one answer to the so called Fermi paradox, in which the advanced alien community has cordoned off the earth in a galactic nursery, until the time that we have reached an adequate stage, ready for contact.

Religion could be one of the factors holding us back and when we nave outgrown this childish world view, the ban on visiting earth will be lifted. If so then the effect on religion would be zero, there would be no religions when aliens land. Of course this doesn't really get to the heart of your question, what you really want to know I guess, is what the implications of alien life would be for, the world's religions. There are a number of issues here and I will deal with only a few.

1. Some religions think that god was an alien, so perhaps an alien visit would be seen as fulfilment of prophecy.

2. On a more general level the very fact that alien life exists would mean that we are riot the centre of the universe. While most religions now recognise that the earth is just a lump of rock, they still believe that WE human beings are the most important thing in creation, that we occupy a special place in God's plan. The existence of aliens would seem to make this implausible especially if they are more advanced than we are (on all levels, intellectually, spiritually) This would mean that God has acted in the development of the aliens in a way he did not act in ours, which in turn would mean that we do not occupy the paramount role in God's creation, which as I said is a fundamental idea in religions.

3. For Christianity, Judaism and !slam the existence of aliens is especially problematic. All these religions are based on the idea of a covenant between us and God. Now consider two possibilities; (i) the aliens do not believe in God and do not share the idea of a fall from grace by man (or I guess created beings) and a promise between God and man of a way to return to grace and the forgiveness of sin. Perhaps they have a different religious belief of their own. (ii) the aliens do believe in these things and even have a Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed of their own.

Possibility (i) would mean that these aliens would be in need of conversion and salvation, and of course it would be up to the faithful to lead the way. I can't help but think this would lead to a new level of arrogance and self righteousness than they have had in the past. It may not lead to a holy war, but I doubt that the religious will adopt a policy of non interference concerning the aliens beliefs.

Possibility (ii) is more interesting. For Christians the covenant was fulfilled in the sacrifice of JC. Now if aliens had there own incarnation this would undermine the covenant we share with God and our personal saviour, 'God made man', Christ. It would have all kinds of problems for the doctrine of resurrection (do aliens and humans share the same kind of spirit, will humans get resurrected in alien bodies?), the Eucharist (would the body and blood be alien Jesus' body and blood, if not do the aliens partake of a different sacrament?) These of course are doctrinal issues and though they are not trivial, especially for the Christian, the existence of aliens would have the more fundamental effect on these monotheistic faiths of calling into question mans very relationship with, God and the rest of creation. (It is interesting to note that the Vatican has a research program devoted to evaluating the implications of alien life for the Christian faith, I'm not sure if they have published any conclusions yet, but I bet it would be interesting!)

4. Perhaps other non-monotheistic religions would fair better, these would not be concerned with salvation or redemption, but with a universal spirit, or some such corresponding idea the existence of aliens may be seen as just another manifestation of this universal life force. if aliens landed tomorrow I am sure that religions of all kinds would have to change, but I bet that they would fight against it, they would after all be fighting for their survival. For the long run I can't help but feel pessimistic.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Rochelle asked:

If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all good, then how does evil exist? I am taking a free will approach, but it is proving difficult to defend. I do believe God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, I am just not too sure how to defend it. I believe God could have made us to always choose good, but simply chose to let us make up our minds.

I would simply repeat Hume (in a different context) in which he talks about philosophers who create a problem where there is only a difficulty. If I were to ask you, how could there be a plane figure which is a triangle, but does not have three sides? I would suggest that the answer is, there can't be such a plane figure. No problem. Similarly, there can't be such a Being and there still be evil. But, you won't, I know, be happy with such a reply. There have been a lot of attempts to (as Hume also says) mount a rescue operation. A celebrated attempt is Leibniz' which is to argue that: (a) All evils are necessary evils. (b) These evils are necessary for goods which more than compensate for the evils necessary for them. Both (a) and (b) are, of course, questionable if not implausible.

The free will defense says that evil is a consequence of man's misuse of his free-will. A glaring problem with that is that it would explain (if it explained anything) only man-made evil. But there are also "natural evils" (earthquakes, famines, cancer, etc.) which could not be explained as due to man or his free-will.

But the objection to even the free-will defence is strong. There are, even Christians will admit, people who have chosen only the good, namely saints. Mother Theresa, or Francis of Assisi. If God could make such persons who choose only the good, and not deprive them of their free-will, why could He have not done that with us all?

Kenneth Stern


Josiah asked:

What is the most paramount value (freedom, life, etc.) and why is this value the most paramount?

There may be no single paramount value, simply because there is no single standpoint from which we can judge. Roughly we can see the world in two ways, from our personal or subjective point of view and from the impersonal or objective point of view. The problem is that each of these makes different demands on us. For example from my subjective point of view my freedom, say, is the most important value, moreover for each person their freedom is most important to them. But from the objective standpoint equality is one of the most important values. We would feel hard done by if either of these is subsumed over the other, that one is given priority. Somewhere an injustice would have been done. But how then are we to combine the two values into a complementary account?

To make the situation even more difficult: there appears to be no third standpoint from which we can say that the personal or the impersonal is most important. Both the personal and the impersonal make equally forceful demands of us.

So in actual fact there may be a plurality of values. Would this mean that there would be circumstances where the multiple, but fundamental values come into conflict? As the example above shows this is certainly possible and perhaps also common.

But it is hard to take comfort in this. If we are in a situation where whatever we do we cannot avoid wrong doing it is no use saying to ourselves "well this is just an unavoidable consequence of my world view, So I'd do well to sit back and hope for the best". So what should we do?

If you are not happy with idea of the multiplicity of value, then perhaps you may think we have to change our world view, or at least our ethical conceptions. Each of these options would however involve a radical reorientation in our thinking. Lets consider them.

The above description is one heavily influenced by modern analysis of ethics (by modern I mean over the last 400 years). The ancient Greeks had a different conception. Aristotle for example thought of the paramount value in terms of a human being excelling in the particularly human activities, what he called eudaimonia but which can be read as fulfilment or living well. The ethical life would then be one aimed towards living the good life. More recently (I mean around 1960) the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that we need to progress in our thinking, to move beyond the accounts offered by Plato and Aristotle. For Levinas the subjective/ Objective divide is one that originates in a conception of Totality, an attempt to account for everything in the world in one all-encompassing theory. Opposed to this Levinas offers an account of Infinity, that which could never be accounted for in a theory. Levinas thinks (roughly) that other people constitute the Infinite. Other people are transcendent of the personal/impersonal distinction I described earlier. In a sense for Levinas other people are the paramount value.

1 am not sure that we can actually overcome the world view that incorporates the subjective and objective description in these ways, or even at all! And if we can't then we may have to accept that there is no paramount value, this would mean that we would have to rethink the way we approach ethical situations, how we need to rethink this is the pressing demand.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Amenda asked:

What do we mean by "political obligation"?

All, except Anarchists would agree we have some political obligation. The extent of this obligation mainly concerns the question of civil disobedience; the most prevalent theory of the justification of political oblication is "contractarianism" which is that govenment and citizens have some kind of (implied) contract where the "consideration" of the government is the protection of the citizen and the provision of conditions for a civilized society; and the "consideration" of the citizen is obedience to the government. A great deal of this is questionable, of course.

Kenneth Stern


Dian asked:

Someone there gave a great definition of "love" based on chemistry..I'd like to ask why all these unconscious chemical processes of the brain are initiated in association with one particular person. Can we stop them, how? Should we? It's Valentine's day, why spoil it for romantic daydreamers who need to believe in..Cupid?!

The definition you were given based on chemistry and brain processes made no distinction between love for family and sexual love. Yet there must be different physical causes for each because the effect is different. I agree that the scientific answer doesn't seem adequate and, as you point out, it contains no explanation of why one person rather another becomes the object of love. However, we love a variety of people so no account would be able to bear upon the reasons why we love one particular person.

Since you mention romance and Valentine's day, you are probably interested in sexual love, and perhaps you want an ordinary common sense, or factual and non-scientific, answer. As you know, even at a non-scientific level, we speak of "chemistry". A chemical interaction involves two elements. If you have feelings for someone who has no interest in you, there is no chemistry so this would be infatuation rather than love.

Sexual love is reciprocal and there must be a chemical or physical element which causes mutual attraction at the conscious level. There must be an element beyond the merely physical, some psychic attraction, to distinguish love from lust.

Being "in love" may be seen as functional insofar as it leads, if it is successful in its outcome, to a deeper loving relationship involving exceptional knowledge of each other. More might be said about this, but all relationships are different since all individuals are.

You can experience sexual chemistry with many people, so there is the possibility of falling in love with a variety of people. You can be in love with two people at the same time. These are the facts and unfortunately this approach is beginning to look no more romantic than the previous answer you were given.

Where there is sexual chemistry, you can only stop it by not seeing the person, otherwise the feeling may become more intense.

If you have moved beyond being "in love" to a deeper loving relationship, you can't stop loving by simply not seeing the person. Only something which changes the relationship, such as a violation of trust, will allow you to stop loving.

Why should want to stop anyway? Even if its only infatuation, its fun. There is no "should" about it. Its not a moral issue unless you're annoying someone or you're becoming obsessed to your own detriment.

Rachel Browne

Doesn't the chemical definition explain why it is that love is for one particular person? The vasopressin-like chemicals involved strongly enhance the laying down of memory, so that the image of the loved one becomes stronger than other mental images. And no, you can't stop it. The only cure for love is; another love.

When I gave the chemical explanation of love, I was (teasingly) addressing only one aspect. But that won't do as an answer, will it? I had presented a type of what is called 'category error', where the information expected to be applicable to one area of understanding is presented as relevant to a different area. Have a look at these passages...

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Matthew 6:28

Herb of the genus Lilium, family Liliaceae (Linaeus), most with showy, trumpet-shaped flowers growing from bulbs. Family includes hyacinths, tulips, asparagus, and plants of the genus onion.
Hutchinson Encyclopedia

Perhaps the most gorgeous of all bulbs hardy in the British Isles. It likes a warm position to give of its best and a position, say, at the foot of a south-facing wall is recommended. In the wild it blooms exceptionally well after fire but we would not suggest attempting the method here! Expect some breathtaking seedlings!
Chiltern Seeds

Leaves broadly lenceolate, parallel-veined with entire margins. Eight to twelve stalked bell-flowers with six stamens. Rhizome cylindrical, slender, internodes bearing slender rootlets.
Potters Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs

Source of cardioactive glycosides; the cardenolides convallotoxin, convaloside, glycosides of bipindogenin, sarmentosigenin-A. Contains convallamaroside, which has antifungal and antibiotic activity but the effect is not therapeutically useful since it forms a complex body with cholesterol.

These are all responses to the question "what are lilies?" But these answers, from religious allegory, botany, horticulture, morphology and pharmacology, are very different. So which is the right one? If, at a formal botany lecture, you asked the professor of botany "what is a rose?" and they replied "That which never blows so red / but where some buried Caesar bled", you wouldn't be inclined to take them seriously as a botanist, would you? You would have asked a question in the 'botany' category and got an answer from the 'poetry' category. And even if we put all answers together, would it ever be as real as experiencing the flower?

So which is the real answer to "What is love?". It could be the answer from psychology, or from poetry, or anthropology, or music, or emotion, or, indeed from chemistry. Love is all these. Each of these areas of understanding constitute knowledge, but not even all of them together could be said to make up a certainty. I gave the answer from chemistry for a particular reason...

Surely, knowing more about the chemistry doesn't make the magic any less. Doesn't it rather add an extra layer to the majesty and the mystery? If I know that the cinema film is frames of silver salts running through a projector, does that make the story any less fascinating? If I know that water is di-hydrogen oxide, does that make the waterfall any the less glorious? Doesn't it add to the wonder, to know that this awesome torrent is made from an agglomerate of gases which, under other circumstances, would be dangerously explosive? This awe at our place in a structure completely personal and at the same time so completely beyond us is, perhaps, one of the many elements of humanity and one of the main elements of love.

Love can tell and love alone,
Whence the million stars are strewn,
Why each atom knows its own. (Robert Bridges "My Delight")

There is a beautiful essay by that old romantic Jacob Bronowski called Knowledge or Certainty (do look it up on the web, there's lots), which may well explain things better. As he puts it: "There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect, we have to treat it with humility...We have to touch people."

Glyn Hughes


Soheil asked:

I want to ask you a question about our living...

Is it possible that we were in a story that an author is writing?

When I read Sophie's World I thought about it for several weeks and I realized that it is possible. But after some days of talking about it with my friends, I understood that it's not important.

It sounds to me as though your friends are less philosophical than you are. You shouldn't be so easily swayed!

In unit 2 of the Pathways Metaphysics program The Ultimate Nature of Things I use a thought experiment similar to the plot line of Jostein Gaarder's novel Sophie's World in order to test the "Reality Principle" (see my answer to Alarik, below).

The reality principle is a notion that comes from Freud: at some point in its early development, the infant learns the difference between reality and fantasy. Freud took this to be a matter of great significance. In metaphysics, what the reality principle states is that judgements about the way things are can be wrong. When a judgement is 'wrong', what that means is that what we took to be real, or the way things are in reality, is not real, or is not the way things are in reality. In other words, there is always more to being real than what we think is real.

With me so far?

Here is my thought experiment:

I find to my horror that I am not whom I thought I was .... but a character in a novel that someone else is writing. In despair and rage at this discovery, I make various attempts to spoil the story, by doing things deliberately against what I perceive to be the author's intentions, but every plan of action I undertake, to my complete surprise, turns out to be cleverly incorporated into the plot. All I am free to do is argue with the author about how the story ought to go. But can we argue about matters of fact? Is it possible for me — or for the author, for that matter — to have false beliefs about the world depicted in the novel? Is the situation we have just described a coherent description of a reality, a world?

Let's not worry about how I found out that I was a character in a novel. The important thing is that I am convinced. Imagine that every so often, I hear a woman's voice in my head — the voice of the author — and we discuss various ways in which the plot might develop. This sounds like a description of madness! The idea we are considering in our thought experiment, however, is that this is not a case of madness but the literal truth. The philosophical question is whether this idea makes any sense.

First let's look at this from the author's point of view.

Novelists talk about the worlds they describe as seeming 'real' to them. What they mean is that the can vividly imagine the things that go on in those worlds. The characters seem to take a life of their own. But suppose now you asked a question about one of the characters, 'What really happened to GK after his late-night drinking session?' If the novelist hasn't decided what happens to GK — for example, if what happens to GK isn't written down in a notebook, or in the draft version of Chapter 3 — then the question has no determinate answer. However, so long as the question is about words written down somewhere, then according to the reality principle we are dealing with a kind of reality, even though it is not physical reality. I have no objections to talking this way. If what happens to GK is described at the end of Chapter 3, for example, then if you or the author thought something different happened, then you'd be wrong.

Now let's look at this from my point of view, as a character inside the novel.

Let's say that on the night in question, I seem to remember drinking in the pub with Ian, Dave and Sonya. As I picture the scene to myself, I hear the voice in my head:

"How could Sonya have been there. You split up the day before, don't you remember?"

"I don't believe you. I distinctly remember Sonya was wearing a tartan skirt and the green mohair sweater I bought for her last Christmas!"

"She couldn't have been wearing that, because she gave it to the thrift store after it shrunk in the wash."

"Then it must have been another green mohair sweater."

"Look, she was at her younger sister's twenty-first birthday party. What's more, you were supposed to go with her!"

"Who said anything about a sister? Sonya doesn't have a sister!"

"Who's writing this novel, you or me?"

"Say what you like, I know Sonya was there and I'm not discussing it any more!"

What this imaginary dialogue shows is that, on the hypothesis that I am a character in a novel, it is impossible for me to be wrong about whether Sonya really was at the pub or not. Nothing obliges me to accept the authority of the author's claims against my own memory and judgement. Of course, I can change my mind about what I seem to remember. But changing my mind about what I seem to remember is not the same as discovering that the way things really happened is different from the way I remembered it.

The conclusion is that the 'hypothesis', our imagined scenario of discovering you are a character in a novel, is incoherent, logically absurd. It doesn't add up. According to the reality principle, we are not dealing with any kind of reality or world here, physical or otherwise.

So the answer to your question is, No, it is not possible that you, or I, are in a story that an author is writing. If you think about the route we took to get here, I don't think that the answer we have arrived at is either trivial or unimportant.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ono asked:

Why does not the history of the 20th century prove Marx wrong? What speaks in favor of, and what speaks against, the likelihood of a Marxist revolution in the future?

Well, of course it does show it is wrong. But that does not prevent Marxism's advocates from "mounting a rescue operation" as David Hume might have called it. The most prevalent of the "rescue operations" has been to state that where Communism failed, even in the Soviet Union, and in East Europe, "true" Communism was never "really" tried. The rescuers present a number of reasons for that, but it doesn't matter since so far as they are concerned, when Marxism fails, the only explanation is, that it wasn't Marxism that failed but some (perhaps) reasonable facsimile. It is very reminiscent of the old ditty: "Treason never prospers: what's the reason? If it prospers, none dare call it 'treason'.'" Only, of course it is in Marxism this time: "Marxism never fails. What's the reason? If it fails no Marxist calls it 'Marxism'.

Kenneth Stern


Jonathan asked:

Would you tell me a philosophical approach to the issue of discipline in an educational environment? Do current ideas promoting the use of corporal punishment and/or religion in schools hold weight against the philosophies of the master minds in the past?

How about John Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education (London, 1693), §§47—52:

§47. The usual lazy and short Way by Chastisement and the Rod, which is the only Instrument of Government that Tutors generally know, or ever think of, is the most unfit of any to be us'd in Education, because it tends to both those Mischiefs; which, as we have shewn, are the Scylla and Charybdis, which on the one hand or the other ruin all that miscarry.

§48. 1. This Kind of Punishment contributes not at all to the Mastery of our natural Propensity to indulge corporal and present Pleasure, and to avoid Pain at any rate, but rather encourages it, and thereby strengthens that in us, which is the Root from whence spring all vicious Actions, and the Irregularities of Life. For what other Motive but of sensual Pleasure and Pain, does a Child act by, who drudges at his Book against his Inclination, or abstains from eating unwholesome Fruit, that he takes Pleasure in, only out of Fear of Whipping? He in this only prefers the greater corporal Pleasure, or avoids the greater corporal Pain. And what is it, to govern his Actions, and direct his Conduct by such Motives as these? What is it, I say, but to cherish that Principle in him, which it is our Business to root out and destroy? And therefore I cannot think any Correction useful to a Child, where the shame of suffering for having done amiss, does not work more upon him than the Pain.

§49. 2. This Sort of Correction naturally breeds an Aversion to that which 'tis the Tutor's Business to create a Liking to. How obvious is it to observe, that Children come to hate Things which were at first acceptable to them, when they find themselves whipp'd and chid and teas'd about them? And it is not to be wondered at in them, when grown Men would not be able to be reconcil'd to any Thing by such Ways. Who is there that would not be disgusted with any innocent Recreation, in itself indifferent to him, if he should with Blows or ill Language be haled to it, when he had no Mind? Or be constantly so treated, for some Circumstances in his Application to it? This is natural to be so. Offensive Circumstances ordinarily infect innocent Things which they are join'd with; and the very Sight of a Cup wherein any one uses to take nauseous Physick, turns his Stomach, so that nothing will relish well out of it, tho' the Cup be never so clean and well-shap'd, and of the richest Materials.

§50. 3. Such a sort of slavish Discipline makes a slavish Temper. The Child submits, and dissembles Obedience, whilst the Fear of the Rod hangs over him; but when that is remov'd, and by being out of Sight, he can promise himself Impunity, he gives the greater Scope to his natural Inclination; which by this Way is not at all alter'd, but, on the contrary, heighten'd and increas'd in him; and after such restraint, breaks out usually with the more Violence; or,

§51. 4. If Severity carry'd to the highest Pitch does prevail, and works a Cure upon the present unruly Distemper, it often brings in the room of it a worse and more dangerous Disease, by breaking the Mind; and then in the Place of a disorderly young Fellow, you have a low spirited moap'd Creature, who, however with his unnatural Sobriety he may please silly People, who commend tame unactive Children, because they make no Noise, nor give them any Trouble; yet at last, will probably prove as uncomfortable a Thing to his Friends, as he will be all his Life an useless Thing to himself and others.

§52. Beating them, and all other Sorts of slavish and corporal Punishments, are not the Discipline fit to be used in the Education of those we would have wise, good and ingenuous Men; and therefore very rarely to be apply'd, and that only in great Occasions, and Cases of Extremity.

Locke's arguments — that corporal punishment encourages simple-minded hedonism, that it gives malign associations to education and that it either provokes worse misbehaviour or produces a servile, broken spirit — all have their echoes in contemporary debate. Incidentally, in the UK, 'current ideas' do not promote corporal punishment at all — it has been forbidden in the state sector for twenty years, and more recently has been made illegal in all schools.

Andrew Aberdein
Dept of Logic and Metaphysics
St Andrews University, Scotland


Teresa asked:

Is knowledge of any kind possible?

What is the connection, if any, between epistemological truths and moral truths?
I'm failing to see how moral truths come from epistemological truths.

1. I don't understand why you think that "knowledge of any kind" might not be possible. I think I know a lot of things, for example that Nevada is a State in the United States, or that the sun is quite distant from the earth, or that water is composed of one part hydrogen and two parts oxygen, and even that 5+7=12. I wonder why do you not think I know these and such things, and that you do not either. Perhaps, and I am only guessing, it is that you think that you might be mistaken about anything, and if you know, then it should not be possible for you to be mistaken. I think that is a wrong theory of knowing, and I think that knowledge does not imply the impossibility of mistake, but the inactuality of mistake. But, since I am only guessing (and do not know) why you think that knowledge might be impossible I will wait until I hear from you again.

2. Again I don't know what you mean by an "epistemological truth." Do you, perhaps mean, a scientific truth or, perhaps, any truth except a moral truth? The Scottish 18th century philosopher, David Hume, did argue that no moral truths about how things ought to be could be supported by truths about how things are. Is that what you mean?

Kenneth Stern


Jennifer asked:

Do nations of the Western, developed world have any moral obligation to help or even share their wealth with poorer people of the Third World? Should we be doing more as a nation in Britain?

A friend once gave me a fortune cookie, the little slip of paper inside read: "Food first, then ethics". Writing this answer I have that little slip of paper mounted in front of me on my desk. I keep it there to remind me of what I take to be a very important point: that people cannot think on an empty stomach and that ethics is a relation possible only for 'satisfied' people. The rich nations are satisfied and are in a position to realise that the poor are not. So yes, individuals and the western world have an obligation. it is established immediately once we realise that they need our help (but only realise this once we have satisfied our own needs).

This sounds like a selfish philosophy, it sounds like we first look after ourselves, get our own house in order and then see what other people are up to. This is not what I mean, rather mine is a description of a full human life. We each have a dual existence: a personal and an impersonal life both of which make demands on us. The point is we get outside of the personal once we have dealt with the demands, by getting food, though I don't think this is an all or nothing affair, we do not have to satisfy all personal demands before we recognise other people and In fact some of my personal demands are nullified by the demands of other people. Or more accurately If I fulfil my personal demands in favour of the other person I an acting unethically

This is of course not an argument but a position to argue from: before we enter in to the ethical relation we need first to generate the conditions where the ethical relation is possible. This I guess is vaguely reminiscent of Aristotle's approach. He says that we "need to be brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things" Nicomachean Ethics book I chap 4, although I don't want to suggest that I advocate an Aristotelian answer to ethics). If some one approached Aristotle and asked him if it were wrong to kill babies, he would look at them 'gone out'. if they don't already know that they should not kill babies, there is no rational argument that will serve to get them to understand.

Similarly if someone doesn't see that allowing people starve to death is wrong this is because they have not entered into the ethical relation in the first place. Further no rational argument would persuade them to enter into ethics. It is not that kind of matter.

I am sorry is this is a little wishy-washy, but I wanted to give you a different account of why we should help others from the typical talk of entitlements, lifeboat ethics (proposed by a fella called Garrett Hardin) and the distinction between killing and letting die.

Of course these do have an important part to play, but they apply to the different question as to what form the help to deprived countries should take. For important discussion of these issues see Peter Singer Practical Ethics and his How are we to Live?

Should we, as you suggest share our wealth with the poor? The answer will depend on what you take the aim of the help to poor countries is. Is it to relieve poverty, develop the economy, if so it is not clear that such actions will be successful (at least in the long term). Perhaps we should be more concerned with the emancipation of the people in the poor countries, if so then we need to change many of the current institutions, e.g. governments, banks and multinationals. As well as the policies and activities: high interest debts, the exploitation of the natural resources of the countries by greedy business often based in the developed countries. In which case perhaps we need to take more action in our own nations, in order to fight for changes against the injustices of the system.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Nick asked:

I recently had a discussion with someone who is a big advocate to the theory of the meme. I have since ordered the book [by Richard Dawkins] in which he was reading about it, but my initial reaction is one of extreme scepticism. I feel 'meme' is merely an exercise in evaluating the cause of ones actions through psychology etc. What are your thoughts? If this theory is true, surely we would still be in the dark ages imitating our forefathers?

The meme theory is beautifully simple — and also deeply shocking. A meme can be any thought or idea, or any way of doing something, in fact any recognizable pattern in the things that human beings do, or say, or produce. New memes are coming into existence all the time, sometimes as the result of focused creative effort, at other times purely by accident. However, we needn't worry about analysing 'human creativity' because the meme theory will explain this.

Just as in biology genes brought into existence by the process of random mutation are replicated or fail to be replicated through successive generations, so memes are replicated or fail to be replicated between one individual who comes under the influence of an idea and another who comes in contact with that idea. An idea may appear briefly, only to be extinguished and never seen again, or it can gain such a hold on the human imagination that it lasts for centuries, or millennia.

In genetics, the mechanism that determines whether a gene is replicated is its contribution to the physical capacity of an organism which possesses it to survive and reproduce. Where sharper teeth confer increased chances of survival, a gene for sharper teeth will be more likely to be replicated. Even opponents of orthodox Darwinian theory accept that the influence of the environment can bring about changes in the physical characteristics of members of a species, and that these changes have a genetic basis: for example, the longer necks of turtles on the Galapagos Islands, a feature which so impressed Darwin.

In the case of memes, the mechanism of replication is not sexual choice and reproduction, but imitation. Give a troupe of chimpanzees a tin lid and a few sticks to bash it with, and pretty soon they're all beating the tin lid with a frenzy. One chimp gets the idea — creates the meme — then the others copy it. A similar thing applies to human fashions, for example, the first person who had the idea of wearing a baseball cap back to front.

The key point of the meme theory — and this is the part that is so shocking — is that whatever it is about memes that gives them greater or less chance of being reproduced has nothing to do with truth, value, utility, beauty or any of the attributes that human beings confer on them. Such explanations are always post hoc: a lad might think wearing a baseball cap back to front is 'cool'. But the reason it's cool is not that it is cool. Nothing, in physical reality is either 'cool' or 'uncool' except that we make it so by our natural propensity to imitate.

Some memes can be bad for us, despite their capacity to replicate themselves. An example cited by Dawkins is the belief that you will go to Hell if you do not indoctrinate your children in the religious views about Hell and damnation that your parents indoctrinated you with.


I don't think, Nick, that your objection holds water, that if the meme theory was true, “we would still be in the dark ages imitating our forefathers.” The continuous random creation of new memes sees to that. I do think, however, that the theory is massively, grotesquely wrong.

One useful dialectical move is to see how a theory applies to itself. The famous case is that of the theory of philosophical scepticism. You ask the sceptic if he knows that his theory is true, and he has to say he doesn't. Now, the meme theory is undoubtedly widely known, as the result of the success of Dawkins' books, a success due in large part to Dawkins' great gifts as an expositor. When Dawkins appears on chat shows, or gives public lectures, new converts are made to the meme theory. — According to the meme theory, 'the meme theory' is itself an idea, in competition with other ideas. The extent to which the meme theory succeeds in making headway against the competition, therefore, depends upon its capacity to copy itself, from one human mind to another.

On one level of generality, this must be true. But something is being missed out of this explanation — something rather important, I would guess, for Dawkins. What Dawkins would like to say is that the reason why the meme-theory meme is so successful in copying itself is that it is the best explanation of the phenomena. He would be shocked and perturbed if the real reason for its success was his dashing good looks, or, worse, that his exposition was so sloppy that the theory had been completely misunderstood with the result that the majority of the people who said they believed it, in fact believed a quite different theory.

At the other extreme, exactly the same thing can be said about the baseball cap (another of Dawkins' examples, incidentally). The reason youngsters think it is cool to wear baseball caps back to front is that it is cool. It's a fact. To understand fashion you have to understand that wearing certain kinds of garment, or wearing clothes or accessories in a certain way makes a statement. We can get things wrong. We can end up making the wrong statement, and so making fools of ourselves. Some people (myself included) do not worry too much about fashion. But only people who are severely mentally disturbed do not care at all how they look, how the way they dress is perceived by others.

I said this was at the 'extreme' because imitation does indeed play a highly significant role in fashion. But not in the reductive, mechanical way that Dawkins understands that notion.

In between the search for scientific explanation, and following the fashions of the day lie all the products of human culture, and the dialogue of evaluation and criticism. Just as scientists debate the relative merits of rival theories, or fashion pundits argue over this autumn's colour, so we debate the merits of painting, literature, architecture — or the soccer season's best goals. Dawkins is deaf to the significance of that dialogue.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jon asked:

How did religion evolve? Is it a product of natural selection?

Good question. There are many theories which try to explain why there is religion. Freud presented one in The Future of an Illusion where he understands it as a kind of universal psychosis. Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life tried to understand it as performing the function of uniting a community. Karl Marx understood is as "the opiate of the masses." He argued that the ruling class provides it to the working class to keep them subservient. I think that, at least in part, religion developed as an attempt to explain natural phenomena (earthquakes, thunder, etc.) a kind of primitive science. The easiest explanation for anything is always that "someone did it." (That is the origin of conspiracy theories.) Of course, the rise of science has tended to pull the explanatory rug out from under religion since what science can explain, religion doesn't have to. It is because of that there is an important conflict between religion and science, that some (mistakenly, in my opinion) tend to downplay.

I tend to doubt that religion is the result of natural selection because with some exceptions, because what is naturally selected has survival value.

Kenneth Stern


A.V. Ravishankar asked:

Our daily linguistic usage and our communication is a form common sense reasoning. If it is so how can we formalize common sense? How is common sense reasoning used in explaining counterfactuals used in daily linguistic discourse?

You cannot formalize common sense. We know what makes sense to us but logical formalizations sometimes come up with nonsense. Logical validity is not the same as validity in ordinary language. Even connectives such as "and" and "or" are not translatable between logic and English such that they always make sense. Mark Sainsbury (you should read his book Logical Form) has used the following example of a logically valid argument using conditionals which is not valid in ordinary language:

(1) If Smith dies before the election, Jones will win.
(2) If Jones wins, Smith will retire from public life after the election.
(3) So, if Smith dies before the election, he will retire from public life after the election.

We can think of grounds for the premises (1) and (2) but the conclusion (3) is absurd. There are theories which aim to provide an account of what needs to be added to logical formulations so that they reflect ordinary language usage, but these fail to account for the above example. H.P. Grice argues that a conditional should have assertibility. The conditional "If Ice is denser than water, it floats in water" is true as a logical formulation because the consequent is true, but it is not a reflection of common sense and it is not assertable. Grice's suggestion works for the ice example, but the Smith and Jones example can't be explained by the non-assertibility of the conclusion because it is a problem of connectives being non-translatable.

In the example "If Oswald didn't kill Kennedy, then someone else did" we have the evidence that Kennedy was killed, and so this is highly assertable. For an ordinary conditional we need reason to believe in the antecedent.

Counterfactuals are further from common sense. "If Oswald hadn't killed Kennedy, someone else would have" requires additional assumptions if it is true. Sometimes there are no assumptions which we can make, such as in the case of Michael Dummett's example: Suppose Jones is now dead and never faced danger in his life. We have no evidence or grounds to suppose anything about the truth of the counterfactual "If Jones had faced danger he would have acted bravely". We have no knowledge of the counterfactual person Jones and what he might have done. On Dummett's view we know what would make this true, i.e. that Jones was in fact brave. However, it is possible that he was not. The talk here is of possibilities rather than good reasons for making the statement, or assertibility as Grice would have it. There are two possible worlds which determine the truth-value of this counterfactual and a possible world is an imagined state of affairs, at least on some accounts. On any account it has nothing to with common sense. Read David Lewis.

Rachel Browne


Jason asked:

I'm very interested in philosophy and I want to learn how to comprehend theory in the same way as other intellectuals. I'm only 17 and I've purchased Plato's Republic and it seems very interesting to me. Is there anything you can tell me about becoming a philosopher in a figurative sense? I often observe my peers at school and I write things down about their actions and my predictions as to why they act in the ways they do. I find it very interesting, as well as challenging, to find out why they are behaving this way. Is there more there to teach me advanced ways to go about searching? Where can I find this information?

First I think you may be confusing philosophy with psychology. Psychology is the science that investigates why people behave as they do, not philosophy.

So I think that the first step you have to take to become a philosopher in any sense is to decide that philosophy is, and not confuse it with something else, since if you do, you may find that you want to become something else and not a philosopher at all.

This site has information on what philosophers do, and there are many of the sites on the Internet that do this too. Go, for instance to Epistemelinks.com. Or go to Askme.com and register and ask a question.

Why do you want to become a philosopher in the figurative sense, anyway? Perhaps you mean that although you don't want to become a professional philosopher, you want to be an amateur philosopher: think about philosophy without getting paid to think about philosophy.

But, as I have already said, if you don't know what philosophy is, and what philosophers do, you are going to find it difficult to decide whether you want to be a philosopher at all, never mind the "sense."

Kenneth Stern


Gab asked:

How have Teleological and Deontological ethics influenced major political philosophies of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries? What countries represent such ethics?

Can you explain to me the origins of Social Contract Philosophy?

1. One interesting case of deontological ethics influencing political developments, is the idea of natural rights: that every one has certain rights that are inviolable such as the right to life liberty and property. This idea, advocated by John Locke, is adapted in the American Constitution, 1787 and the Bill Of Rights. (Many historians and political analysts would say that such influence started with the Enlightenment and the French revolution, But this is controversial.)

Probably the most common sited example of consequentialist ethics influencing politics is Utilitarianism, which was embraced by conflicting political opponents, including both liberal reformist positions and the conservative "laissez faire" economic ideology (although utilitarians themselves were divided on the question of government intervention in the free-market economy of Victorian England).

The 20th century can be seen as a mixture of both deontological and teleological influences. This probably reflects the distinction J.S. Mill makes between the private and public life. On the one hand there is the need by governments to protect the rights of the individual and on the other hand there is the need to provide the good for society as a whole.

Combining these two aims into a successful and functioning political philosophy is perhaps the aim of the 21st century.

2. The idea of the social contract can be traced to Plato (see his dialogue Crito and the Republic Book 2). Plato discusses the contract as a defence against harm and suffering. While Plato does not accept this idea, a similar view was developed by Hobbes in his Leviathan. The idea has also been discussed by Locke and Rousseau.

The common thought to all these philosophers is that humans pre-socially are in a State of Nature and because of the conditions of this state of nature come together to form a society. For Hobbes the state of nature was one of constant fear of attack and death, a war of all against all. This fear of death leads to the formation of a state which would ensure an individuals safety.

The Social contract has survived into present day, and takes two basic forms. One following Hobbes stresses the of physical powers of individuals and the advantages of cooperating in a society in order to preserve each others interests. The other is a Kantian idea based on the recognition of equal moral worth and status, in which each persons welfare is a matter of impersonal concern. This account has found its most famous and detailed defence in Rawls's A Theory Of Justice.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Gwyn asked:

Is the notion of a social contract a useful device for the solution of problems in political philosophy?

Typically issues that political philosophy deals with are the questions of what makes a society just, of how we can reconcile liberty and equality and why we should be obliged to obey governments. The notion of a social contract seems to offer a viable answer to these questions: a just society is one where the individuals come together and agree to a form of government in order to ensure security for themselves. Some degree of liberty may have to be traded for equality but this is compensated for within the terms of the contract.

Now there are various forms the social contract can take and various problems associated with them, however there are two particularly interesting and important objections against social contract theories, which I think show that social contract's do not play a very useful role in dealing with political problems.

The idea behind the first argument is that the social contract theory presents a picture of individuals as basically selfish and egocentric. Here the social contract is an opportunity to bargain for their best situation for oneself to promote one's interests and security. (Even in Rawls' system which is based on the Kantian idea of a person as an end in themselves where an individual has intrinsic moral worth, the principles of justice that are chosen in the Original Position — Rawls version of the contract — reflect the fact that in the original position I do not know which person I will be in the world or what my social situation will be like. In choosing I had therefore, better chose principles that will provide the best possible situation for everyone.) The first objection to social contract then is that I think this selfish attitude is implausible. I do not think that it is a accurate picture of human motivation.

Certainly we have personal motives, requirements and interests, but at the same time as we think about these, we also recognise the motives and requirements of others. These motives of the others form the basis of our moral lives and do not need to be imposed on us by society or government. (Or to be more specific, the recognition of others claims does not need to be imposed on us.) One may think that even so the solution needs to imposed on us and this is where social contract's come in, I don't think this is right. The solution does not need to be imposed on us, political institutions do not generate the solutions to the impasse between the personal and the impersonal, but are the results of proposed solutions.

Even if a view of social contract could be formulated so that this objection was overcome there is a second objection which is that any social contract would presuppose and therefore could not generate an idea of justice. And if a social contract could not generate or justify principles of justice then it could not help in solving political problems. For example Rawls admits that if individuals in the original position are disposed to gamble or take risks, then they may propose principles of justice other than those Rawls suggests would be chosen. They may chose Utilitarian rather than maxi/min principles, for example. (See A Theory of Justice Sec. 20)

But if different theories offer different principles then we would have to decide prior to entering into the contract situation which theory we accept. The social contract would then be either trivial or redundant.

Hume may have had a similar point in mind when he criticised the social contract tradition. Social contract theorists say we need to obey governments because we have promised to, but Hume asks, Why should we keep our promises? (see Of The Original Contract).

The social contract theorist cannot give an answer without giving a prior justification for keeping our promises, other than to say that we have promised to do so.

It seems then that social contract requires a system of justice and morality before they be of any use, but then what use would we have for social contracts if we already know the basic principle of justice?

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield

Since there was no historical event of establishing a contract, the question comes to whether the notion is a useful model for understanding relations between a society and its members. It is like trying to understand the eye on the model of a camera, or the human brain on the model of a computer. A model is an analogy: and analogies come in two kinds: illustrative and argumentative. An illustrative analogy attempts to make the unfamiliar understandable in terms of the familiar (camera-eye, for example). It is, if a good analogy, supposed to be an illuminating teaching device. An argumentative analogy is an attempt to argue from the fact that two things are alike in certain ways, that they are likely to be alike in further ways. It is a predictive device. The Social contract is used in the first way, not usually in the second. How illuminating is it? That depends on how close the analogy is.

It has also been believed that the notion of the social contract is a kind of explanation or justification of the relations between the citizen and the society. In this respect, as David Hume argued, it seems to be a failure. Hume pointed out that contracts already assume a society, and therefore cannot explain a society. A contract is a kind of promise, and promises suppose obligations since it is an obligation, thus it cannot be the justification of obligations.

It is interesting that despite Hume's criticisms, "contractarianism" ("contractism" is my choice) has attained a great deal of currency recently, especially through the writings of John Rawls, although I have never seen an adequate reply to Hume.

Kenneth Stern


Larry asked:

Kant is said to be a strong opponent of the ethical relativist position. But his Categorical Imperative seems to me to be pretty supportive of ethical relativism, and here's why. I think that reasonable/rational people can disagree on "hard case" issues . These same people would also be willing to make their decision into a universal law. It seems to me that the Categorical Imperative, therefore, is really a restating of the relativist position, and could not be used to, say, settle an argument about medical ethics. Am I missing some subtle philosophical point here, or is the Categorical Imperative only universal from the point of view of my being willing to impose my ideas on everybody, and subjective from the various points of view held by various people?

Perhaps another way to state my question is this: does the Categorical Imperative aim only to help individuals make a decision that is right for them, or does it aim to give a formula by which all reasonable people would come to the same conclusion regarding some of the "hard cases" we hear so much about in philosophy? Please help, my textbook has me going around in circles on this one! Cheers!

You have done an excellent job of laying out the problem facing Kant's Categorical Imperative. I have heard the criticism voiced that any action whatsoever can be interpreted in such a way as to satisfy the Categorical Imperative, e.g. 'Only fifty year old philosophers who live in Woodseats, Sheffield and wear bottle green V-neck jumpers are permitted to rob banks.' I can quite happily will that rule as a universal law, it is claimed, secure in the knowledge that I am, in fact, the only individual who falls under the description. — Kant would have no difficulty brushing aside such a specious objection.

When it comes to genuine 'hard cases', things are quite different. For example, the pro-abortion and the anti-abortion campaigners would each like to see their view of abortion made a law for all.

It is clear from this example why it won't do to regard the Categorical Imperative as a way of making a decision that is 'right for you'. In the eyes of the anti-abortionist, abortion is equivalent to murder. To say, 'I would never seek an abortion, but I do not object if other women do' is like saying, 'I would never commit a murder, but I do not object if others do.'

There are two ways you can go. Richard Hare, author of The Language of Morals (1952), Freedom and Reason (1963), and, more recently, Moral Thinking (1981) has argued that a necessary defining characteristic of a moral judgement or 'prescription' is its universalizability. However, as we have seen in the case of abortion, many of our moral beliefs that pass the universalizability test still fail to meet the requirements of a universal moral principle. Hare calls the beliefs that fail fanatical. The pro- and anti-abortionist are 'fanatics' in this technical sense because each wishes to impose their view on everyone, regardless of their views. Can any moral principle be non-fanatical? Hare thinks so. The principle, Choose the action which leads to the maximum satisfaction of individual preferences is the only principle which would be acceptable to all those individuals who were not fanatical.

Notoriously, Hare's advocacy of preference utilitarianism leads him to embrace the conclusion that in a society of Nazis sufficiently 'heroic' in their hatred of Jews, the former might under certain circumstances be morally justified in exterminating the latter ('Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism', in Contemporary British Philosophy H.D Lewis Ed. Unwin 1976, cf. pp. 121—2). Hare's defence of this seemingly outrageous claim is that such a situation would be extremely unlikely to arise in the real world. Likely or not, it goes without saying that Kant would have regarded such a notion with the contempt that it deserves.

In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant takes an alternative route. His successive formulations of the categorical imperative reveal an increasingly teleological element. So that, 'Act only on that maxim that you would will to be a universal law' becomes, 'Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in others or in your own person, as an end in itself and not merely a means', which in turn becomes, 'Act as a law-making member of the Kingdom of Ends'. (The Kingdom of Ends is an ideal community of rational beings who are end-in-themselves for the very reason that they are, each and every one, the authors of the moral law.) Kant's strategy is the same as Hare's: to develop the notion of universalizability to the point where it would no longer be capable of sanctioning rival moral principles.

No-one can fail to be impressed by the nobility of Kant's vision. Making moral law, making a society in which we can all exist in harmony with one another as moral law makers, is our ultimate goal in life. It is a vision that blinds by its very lucidity. If we cannot all agree about how to live, that can only be because of a failure of rationality. For we ourselves are the reason why reason exists in the first place! — Here Aristotle's idea of the Good Life as the life fit for rational beings to live is brought to its logical conclusion.

You might look at a later work, The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue where Kant tries much harder to give convincing derivations of specific moral rules from his Categorical Imperative, by comparison with the relatively perfunctory examples given in the Groundwork. I also think you should look at criticisms of Kant's strategy from a Hegelian perspective, for example, the very readable chapter on 'Duty for Duty's Sake' in F.H. Bradley's brilliant Ethical Studies (2nd Edn 1927).

Geoffrey Klempner

When we are engaged in moral practical reasoning we might be willing to make our decision into a universal law but the rational principle is that we should all be able to will the maxim such that it has the binding force of law. Based in rationality, as it is, the categorical imperative, rules against relativism. Habermas holds that the Categorical Imperative is a principle of justification which can be used to discriminate morally valid from morally invalid principles. It constitutes a norm against which to test whether our principles are relativistic or not, asking us to reflect upon whether our moral principle is rooted in cultural facts about ourselves.

As to moral differences and disagreements, when these occur, there will be non-rational reasons. We might take euthanasia as a medical ethical example. Euthanasia may be regarded as moral in one country and not in another. In the former case the ground would be to minimise suffering, in the latter that any form of killing is wrong. You cannot universalise a principle that we should kill someone to minimise suffering since this is not a decision that we would all take as having the binding force of law because it is based on differing inclinations between persons. If a principle makes reference to anything subjective such as your ideas or point of view it cannot become a universal principle.

It is true that the Categorical Imperative is not very helpful. It does seem as though there is not much that we can universalise as a law. Normally in practical reasoning we have to take account of the circumstances and we are also guided by moral inclinations, such as feelings of consideration for others. Kant argued that to be moral is to be guided by duty rather than inclination and made no allowance for circumstances. He held that you should never kill and never lie. He once asserted that even when a man who wants to kill your friend asks you where your friend is you shouldn't lie about this!

However, Kant's ethics is essentially a theoretical account of morality, and so necessarily abstracts from everyday practical issues. General principles cannot contain all the rules for application or provide answers to hard cases. Take the "hard case" of whether to kill one to save twenty. You can't universalise a law that we should always kill one to save twenty (put aside, for the moment, that according to the Categorical Imperative you shouldn't kill at all) because of possible circumstances such as the one being a decent person and the twenty being evil. If you were to apply the Categorical Imperative to this particular case in the sense of using it as a guide to behaviour or reason for action, you come up with the supposedly moral imperative that you "should" kill a person. So the Categorical Imperative should rather be used to sort out the moral from non-moral principle in terms of it ability to pick out principles which are based on cultural prejudice, as mentioned above, and also as determining whether our principles are based upon emotion, such as in the medical ethics case. It should be understood as a higher ethical principle rather than a principle of practical reason.

The one or twenty case is used to test our moral inclinations. Kant doesn't deny that we have inclinations. We might, as Bernard Williams suggests, simply be too "squeamish" to kill one. Testing our moral inclinations might lead to some moral insights into our nature, but cannot produce a theory of justification for moral principles as Kant attempts to do.

Kant's ethical theory reflects our idea that as rational beings we have duties to others and can act upon those duties and if we can shape our inclinations such that they don't conflict with duty, there is the possibility of a truly moral action. It also reflects the rigidity of a moral attitude, that there are some things we must not do because they are simply not moral, like hurting and killing others. The Categorical Imperative encapsulates our idea that a good man abides by certain rules of justice. Morality is not about imposing your ideas on others.

Rachel Browne


Ben asked:

The situation ethics of Fletcher is most widely understood as a Christian ethic, based fundamentally upon the principle of 'agape' — or unconditional love for the neighbour. Situation ethics on the other hand is contextual, and the morally permissible action must be understood in terms of the situation itself. How valid is it to criticize situation ethics as a conditional theory which rests on an unconditional principle? Are these theoretical characteristics not incompatible and contradictory?

Fletcher's basic principle is that there is nothing which is universally prohibited, there are no rules to tell us what to do and what not to do. However, there is something (for Fletcher one thing and one thing only) that is intrinsically valuable and good that can prescribe action. This is agape. So long as we act out of love we are acting morally. But it is a separate question what it is to act from the principle of agape. Perhaps Situation ethics can be summed up in a quote, "There is only one ultimate and invariable duty and its formula is, 'Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself'. How to do this is another question, but this is the whole of the moral duty" (V. Temple).

This kind of structure is not uncommon in ethical theory. For example Utilitarianism has a concept of a unconditional good, namely happiness. For the Utilitarian any action that is considered moral must be one that promotes the greatest degree of happiness (for the greatest number). But what actually constitutes promoting happiness, how this is to be achieved is a different issue. And will be answered differently on different occasions. Similarly for the principle of agape. While we must always act from and in accordance with the motive unconditional love, what concrete actions we do take will be determined by the situation (and not just physical aspects of the situation such as time and place, but also psychological aspects i.e. what beliefs we have and what abilities we have). In this respect Situation ethics is no more controversial than Utilitarianism (though this does not let situation ethics of lightly, for utilitarianism is very controversial!)

The point is that the two theoretical characteristics are not contradictory, they be even be complementary. To see this, try to imagine either of them on it's own and see if it is successful in generating moral behaviour:

First the fundamental principle to love your neighbour or to promote the greatest happiness. On it's own this is empty, it tells us nothing about what to do. Second, the situation itself. Suppose I am in a burning building which happens to contain my disabled father and a doctor with a cure for a killer disease. What am I going to do? Nothing in the situation will tell me, perhaps even no rule based ethic could resolve the issue, such as the rule 'Never kill any one'. What ever I do, someone will die. But now if we put the two together we get an answer. The Utilitarian would say, save the one which will lead to the most happiness. Fletcher would say, save the one which would be in accordance with acting from love. I can't say which one because I am not in that situation. Which is the whole point of situation ethics. Fletcher does not say that the structure of situation ethics is like this; "if you are in a burning building, then this action X is the one that you should perform because X is the one that conforms with the principle of agape".

We might find Situation ethics unsatisfactory as an account of what it is to be moral, but that is a defect of Fletcher's arguments and assumptions in his account of what agape is, and not I think, an inconsistency in the general structure of this type of ethical theory.

Though of course it is possible to reject this structural feature. Subjectivist and relativist ethics reject this framework in favour of some single permissive principle such as, "Whatever the situation, do whatever is necessary achieve what you want". Other non-consequentialist, non-subjectivist ethical theories reject the above structure in favour of a rule, or set of rules intended to guide actions regardless of the situation. Which one we should accept is a separate question.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Charles asked:

I recently started looking at some works by Ayn Rand and at the "official" website of the Ayn Rand Institute (http://www.aynrand.org ). I am wondering if someone could put her philosophy in perspective for me. This is a big question and I am not asking for a complete analysis of all her thought. Rather, I find that her approach is different from most other philosophy I have read. It seems more paternalistic or chauvinistic or perhaps even condescending (especially the website). However, I can't seem to put my finger on it. Here are my questions:

  1. Am I right about my feeling toward her philosophy or have I missed something. If no, please explain what I have missed. If yes, could you help clarify my thoughts so that I can express them better when describing her philosophy to others.

  2. Why are her philosophy/ novels not studied in mainstream university philosophy departments or programs? Is it because she is a woman philosopher?

I think your intuitions about Rand's work are right. She is, to say the least, a bad philosopher. She is confused, and she is an advocate rather than an investigator. That is why she is not taught in reputable academic institutions. It has nothing to do with her being a woman. There are a number of philosophers who are women whose writings are taught and discussed. Her writings are just not worth teaching. And, by the way, I have managed to struggle (almost) through two of her novels. As someone said of another book, they are books you cannot put down: you have to throw them down!

If you are interested in philosophy, then read real philosophers.

Kenneth Stern


Jhenifer asked:

What is (if there is one) a complete and accurate definition of Ethical Egoism? James Rachels and some philosophical dictionaries define it using the terminology of the "promotion" of one's self interest whereas Ayn Rand claims that it relies on the "achievement" of one's self interest. This distinction is very important when evaluating the arguments because one places emphasis on the process and the other on the conclusion or result.

There is, indeed, a big difference between the two formulations of ethical egoism.

It seems to me that Rachels is right and Rand is (as usual) wrong and confused. First, I don't understand what Rand means. Does she mean that unless you get what you want you are not an ethical egoist, or does she mean that if you get what you want you are an ethical egoist, or both. That is, is achievement of one's self-interest a necessary condition, or a sufficient condition or both, of being an ethical egoist?

Let's consider the first, that it is a necessary condition. That means if you strive to get something, but happen to fail though bad luck (you have an accident) then that means you are not an ethical egoist. That's peculiar don't you think? It means that something that is an accident could prevent you from being an ethical egoist. Let's go to the second formulation: that is, if you get what you want you are an ethical egoist. Again, the same objection: suppose you get what you want purely by accident. A rich uncle dies and leaves you a great deal of money, and you want to be rich. That alone makes you an ethical egoist. I don't think so.

What Rachels would say is that it is the motive, not the achievement, which makes you an ethical egoist. If you think that the promotion of only your self-interest is a good thing, then whether or not you succeed or fail to get satisfy your self-interest which, as we saw, may be only a matter of luck, you are still an ethical egoist. So, Rachels is right, and Rand, as usual, wrong.

Kenneth Stern


Molly asked:

Can you please tell me the major differences between Taoism and Confucianism?

and Manny asked:

What was Lao Tzu's view of life and what was Confucius' view?

Taoism and Confucianism are two major theories on Chinese culture. The major views of Confucianism are:

  1. Encourage learning; urge school attendance, learning and thought are all important, learning without thought is labor lost.

  2. Eclecticism of social relation, the golden mean (of the Confucian school), the doctrine of the mean.

  3. Stick up for social class; abide by the law and behave oneself; act proper to one's status; behave discreetly; know one's place.

The major views of Taoism are:

  1. The meaning Tao is a great law of universe, is a fundamental law of nature.

  2. Pay attention to the rule and methodology of the movement and change of things. Such as the theory of Yin and yang, the two opposing principles in nature, the former feminine and negative and the latter masculine and positive; the theory of five elements; five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

  3. Nothingness (nihility or chaos) is fontal, is important, make something out of nothing; be purely fabricated.

Taoism and Confucianism are similar in that the purpose of both these theories is the outlook on life. They are both for a kind of social class and social relation. The purpose is to make a kind of social structure of agriculture. The purpose is not on nature, not science.

As a theory of outlook on life, outlook on society, Confucianism pays more attention to ethics, but Taoism pays attention to world outlook and methodology. Confucianism does not have the universal outlook. Confucianism is more popular in common people. In Chinese feudalism, a tradition has been formed, that is, a kind of theory of social ethic to replace religion. Taoism is more popular amongst monarchs and intellectuals. Taoism and Confucianism are usually united, and used to govern those common people. On the view of life, Confucianism is more conservative. But Taoism is propitious for one who competes with others, or one who rules others. Both Taoism and Confucianism are very pragmatic. They are all not environmentalist.

On the side of positive (forward-looking), the theory of Confucianism is good for the cooperation of oneself with others, the theory of Taoism is a kind of intelligence of the superman. On the side of negative, a Chinese thinker Lu Xun said, Chinese traditional theory means two words, "eat human".

I don't know whether you enjoy my explanation.

Chen Ping
Philosophy Times

It's not at all certain whether the traditional master of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, whose name means something like 'Ancient-Sage' ever existed or not. If he did, it was some time around 570 BC though the text of his magnum opus the Tao Te Ching very likely dates from the third century BC. Its 81 chapters of sublime proverbs and commentary attempt to describe the characteristics of the Tao, a term which is sometimes translated as 'The Way' but is more properly not translated at all, as its primary characteristic is that it is not describable. It is the essence of the creative harmony which underlies the universe:

The Tao is hidden, and has no name; but it is the Tao which has skill to make all things complete (41:3).

In order to come to an understanding of Tao and so to live a harmonious life, the eager scholar must try to unweave themselves from their assumptions and social conditioning:

Pursuing learning, something is acquired every day. Pursuing Tao, it is dropped (48:1).

In this way the Lao-Tzu's view is essentially hedonistic, directed at improving the individual rather than society, at gaining personal understanding of one's place in the universe.

Confucius (don't forget to point out to everyone that 'Confucius' is a shoddy western version of his name. In real China he is 'Kung-Tzu', Kung-the-Sage) is rather a more substantial figure, both in person and in his philosophy. He was born in 551 BC in what is now the Shangdong province, of a modest family, and worked as a minor government official, then as a teacher. Firstly, by editing and formalizing the ancient Chinese books of ritual and wisdom (the Spring and Summer Annals, the Book of Songs etc.) he has come to be seen by later generations as the author of those books and, as such, the founder of the Eastern way of thinking. Secondly, and more importantly here, his own philosophy is remarkable for its ingenuity and for its influence on the whole development of the Chinese State.

Confucius — sorry, I mean Kung-Tzu — may be said to have solved ethics. He defined 'right behaviour' not as an answer to the question 'what should I do', but in terms of 'who do I owe a duty to', mediated through minute observance of established manners and ritual (Li). Once you know who you owe duty to, right behaviour is simply to do what the-person-you-owe-duty-to wants. Who this is, is defined in the 'Five Relationships'; Ruler—Subject, Parent—Child, Husband—Wife, Older Sibling—Younger Sibling, and Friend—Friend. When dilemmas arise, reciprocal consideration (Shu), loyalty (Chung) and the all-encompassing goodness (Jen) of a right-minded government can find the proper route. For more than 2,000 years Chinese political administration, social organization, and individual conduct was officially shaped by Confucian principles, until 1912 when Confucian philosophy, as a basis for government, was dropped by the state.

Lao-Tzu is concerned principally with the individual, whereas Confucius directs his attention to the relationships between one person and the next and to the perfecting of society. Taoism is also characterised by a strong strand of mystical metaphysics and is thoroughly opposed to conventional learning, whereas Confucianism is distinctly agnostic and strongly in favour of education, especially in the Chinese classics. Lao-Tzu's understanding is open to everyone, but imperious Confucius thought only the gentleman-philosopher is able to understand. But this does not mean that the two traditions are in opposition. The one "within society" and the other "beyond society" are generally considered to complement and balance each other, in the same way that the interplay of the two opposing central principles, Yin and Yang (to which both traditions subscribe) are necessary for all action. It is sometimes said that China is Confucian in public and Taoist in private.

The fact that there are temples devoted to Confucius and to Taoism shouldn't lead the westerner to think that they are religions in the sense that we use the term in Europe. No-one in China 'worships' Kung-Tzu, or Lao-Tzu, (or their own ancestors for that matter) in the Western way of falling down before an omniscient being and doing absolute homage. The ancient sages are formally remembered with reverence, but they are not worshipped.

There was a brief, and rather half-hearted anti-Confucius campaign in China from 1974 to 1976. But, though Marx and Mao may have supplanted Kung-Tzu as the official state philosopher, Confucius remains the sage known and quoted by young and old alike, while Lao-Tzu's exposition of the way to the Tao is the glue that holds together the mish-mash of folk beliefs which constitute Chinese religion.

Glyn Hughes

Taoism is based more on being in harmony with nature, while Confucianism stresses a harmony with society and family.

An ultimate goal for Confucianism is something like heaven. A goal for Taoists is finding the Tao, which is like the essence of all things or the origin of all things.

Taoists are concerned with attaining immortality, physically and spiritually. Confucianists find contentment in living a moral and prosperous life.

Taoists have no real religious institutions while the Confucian religion has institutions like the government, family, and school.

Laurie Stiegemeyer


Alarik asked:

I have been reading page 89 of Geoffrey Klempner's Glass House Philosopher.

I have a question that I have been asking for a very long time; indeed, I am now feeling pretty long in the tooth and, more to the point, while I have read a lot, I've forgotten it all.

My question is: What is the relationship between knowing and being, between epistemology and ontology. Is the relationship causal, coincidental, does the former create the latter? imitate the latter? Or does the latter occasion the former? Etc. "Knowing and being are one and the same," said the ancient.

I'm familiar with the ancient answers, and I made a kind of study of some medieval answers. Klempner, you'd enjoy Bernard Sylvestris's and Alain de Lille's allegories of cosmogony; all about the mediation of language and the problems therein.

But, on K's last page, toward the end, the question I ask here surely comes up: What is the relation between knowing and being?

(For sure, as an atheist, I know that I am always near god when I worry about this; and, no joke, I worry about it a lot. Silly.)

One of my favourite quotes on metaphysics comes from the Hegel's Inaugural Address, delivered at Heidelberg on 28th October 1816 which serves as a Preface to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Haldane and Simpson trs. Routledge):

But in the first place, I can ask nothing of you but to bring with you, above all, a trust in science and a trust in yourselves. The love of truth, faith in the power of mind, is the first condition in Philosophy. Man, because he is Mind, should and must deem himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think too highly of the greatness and the power of his mind, and, with this belief, nothing will be so difficult and hard that it will not reveal itself to him. The Being of the universe, at first hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.

Here is my respectful, but sceptical response, from Unit One of Pathways Program F. Metaphysics The Ultimate Nature of Things:

The essential move of metaphysics — the thing that sets it apart from every other form of knowledge or inquiry — lies in an attitude of radical doubt or bewilderment in the face of the very existence of the world. The infant's desperate cry for its mother thus already contains the seed of doubt that will eventually put the world itself into question. That primordial, temporary but necessary separation from what nurtures and protects us is what first allows room for the fatal question mark to slip silently into human consciousness, a question that is no mere abstract idea, but something that will prove urgent and practical: our very sense of what is real. The metaphysical attitude is indeed no mere trick or habit we pick up from pursuing the academic study of philosophy; it is in our nature. One of the first lessons we learn is how to be metaphysicians (§7).

The hard lesson to be learned is the essential difference between fantasy and reality. A fantasized breast is not an actual breast, even though the fantasy image may provide its own temporary satisfaction. For the fantasy image, its existence consists wholly in its being perceived or enjoyed: the breast overflows with milk because that is what the child desires above all else. The real breast, by contrast, stubbornly remains the physical organ that it is in reality — perhaps dry and barren, or beyond reach — irrespective of the infant's desires. Such a scenario might be thought of as more relevant to analytic psychology than to philosophy. Yet its philosophical importance — which transcends the biological peculiarities of the human race — is unmistakable. The Reality Principle, the idea that there is such a thing as the way things are irrespective of how we would like them to be, is indeed a sublime, opaque, baffling notion. There is something that is there, something that is that: a harder-than-diamond hardness that our will cannot scratch or move, a blankness at the very heart of things that (pace Hegel) the intellect can never enter into and appropriate (§15).

This looks for all the world like countering one dogmatic statement with another, equally dogmatic statement. As one of my students recently complained, “I'm still not quite sure what the reality principle is. If all it says is that 'not all our beliefs are true', it seems not a principle at all, but a bare assertion. How can it be useful? What is it for? Surely, like all other assertions, it must be explained and argued for, before it can be used as a tool of reasoning of any kind.”

There is no proof of the Reality Principle, for any argument that one might put forward in metaphysics presupposes it. Hegel would of course say that his gloriously optimistic statement of the prospect for metaphysics does not contravene the Reality Principle. That which is, is knowable. “The rational is the real.”

There is no mistaking the sexual imagery of Hegel's declaration. Ultimate reality lies waiting to be ravaged, penetrated to its very depths. As various strands of idealist thought (Kant and Schopenhauer are heroic exceptions) have discovered, there are various ways to make this task easier. The general recipe is to reduce the conception of ultimate reality to fit the requirements of human knowledge. (Kant's 'empirical realism' — his 'Copernican Revolution' in epistemology — is founded on the proposition that 'the object must conform to our knowledge', but this must be understood against the background of his distinction between the knowable world of phenomena and the unknowable world of noumena or things-in-themselves.)

The question, however, is whether in taking the idealist route, one has conquered ultimate reality or merely laped into fantasy. This is how I would understand Berkeley's immaterialist metaphysic, and also the more recent interest amongst analytic philosophers in anti-realist theories of truth and meaning. (The metaphysics of logical positivism reveals the fantasy in its most blatant form.)

In my view there is no getting over the this, the gritty fact that there is something here now, a world that spreads out from this unique act of indexical self-reference. Equally, there is no getting past the that, the stony heart of reality, the sheer indexical fact that this world is actual, while all other words are merely possible. It follows that there is no way to conceive of ultimate reality as a totality. If we must speak of a 'world', then there is not one world but two, the subjective and the objective, which stand in perpetual, mutual contradiction.

Geoffrey Klempner


Willow asked:

In war, innocent civilians have sometimes been used as "human shields" offering protection for military forces from enemy attackers. To what extent would Kantians and Act Utilitarians condone this behaviour?

Kant would not condone this behavior. That is because he opposes using persons as means or tools for some end. Kant holds that persons have to be treated as "ends in themselves." This is one of the versions of the Categorical Imperative.

An Act Utilitarian holds that actions are justified or condemned by their consequences. Will they produce the greatest good for the greatest number of those affected by the action is the central issue.

I think that in the end, the Utilitarians would conclude that such behavior was wrong, although for very different reasons than would Kantians, since they would argue that the consequences for good for the greatest number affected would not justify such an action, but rather condemn it.

Kenneth Stern


Thi asked:

Is Albert Camus' novel, The Outsider an existential piece of work and if so what does this mean? In the book, the protagonist can't/won't grieve for his dead mother, has a meaningless affair, and then murders a man (but blames his actions on the sun). He never repents or feels any remorse, what are we meant to make of all this?

Camus' novel The Outsider is definitely an existential piece of work. Such a description doesn't explain much however! Existentialism is a philosophy which has often found expression in literary works: I think there is probably a reason why this type of philosophy is particularly suited to literature. Existentialist philosophy stresses the primacy of the existence of the individual over and above any supposed natural essence of what it is to be human. The fact that one exists entails one's absolute freedom to makes oneself into whatever one wants. We also have the terrible burden and responsibility of having to use that freedom in a responsible manner however. At the same time, one must not live in 'bad faith' as the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, which seems to mean deceiving oneself into what is appropriate because of conventional morality, or one's conditioning or received rules. Another important strand (which is especially important in Camus' novel) is that existentialists think that life is meaningless or absurd. Reality is indifferent to the hopes and projects of human beings and seeing this nauseating absurdity is inevitable once you try and face up to the indifference of things.

I'm not a literary critic but here is my take on the book. The reader is meant to create her own meanings for Meursault's actions. Meursault, without much of a memory or any imagination at all, refuses to spend time connecting events and contemplating essences. It is up to the reader to do this for herself. This perhaps brings out a crucial existentialist point: the confrontation between our demands for rationality and justice and the indifference to rationality of the world itself. So I suppose that Camus is trying to create a character in The Outsider who is utterly innocent, even though he has violated most of the moral conventions of society. The idea of the absurdity of things is best exemplified by Camus' own portrayal of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to the eternal and futile task of rolling a rock up a hill only to watch it fall down the other side. Camus' Sisyphus is happy because he accepts his pointless existence and because he is rebelling by scorning the gods. In The Stranger, by contrast, the protagonist has simply accepted the absurdity of life. So I suppose that if the book seems pointless then that is probably the point of it.

In reading the novel we are required to try to make sense of the protagonists actions and leave with exactly the question you ask. Many people (though I am not one of them) think that this makes the reader question his own relationship with society. So perhaps that was the point of what Camus was up to when he wrote it!

A. Gatward


Ali asked:

What is aesthetic if there is not a form on for hand?

Is it possible to visualize aesthetic? Is there a method, philosophically, for contemporary art and aesthetic?

I am from Norway, writing my final BA in Art, Ceramics.

It is difficult to understand precisely what you mean, especially by the words "form on for hand". I assume by "visual aesthetic" you are asking whether we can see artistic features of a work and that with regard to "method" you want to know if there is an account of how artistic features of a work are produced. Ceramics is interesting in these respects because it is not essentially an art.

R. G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art distinguishes between art and craft. A craft, Collingwood holds, is a specialized skill and a person with such a skill can produce artefacts which are considered to have aesthetic qualities, or held to be works of art, but need not do so. The ordinary craftsman works with a raw material, e.g. clay, which he plans to make into an end product, and he has a precise idea in mind of how the product is to end up. It is essential to the craftsman that he has an idea in mind of what it is he wants to actually make before he begins because he is working to make something for which there is some demand: He is not, as the artist is, essentially driven by a creative urge.

Like a craftsman or ordinary potter, you possess a taught technique of skill but it doesn't follow that you are simply a craftsman. With ceramics, you may or may not be planning for your work to be used. If you have an urge to create because of an innate talent, you may take it that you are, at least potentially, an artist. If you want to create something which is beautiful, which you want to be contemplated as such by others, as opposed to an artefact which is to be used, then you have the approach of an artist. However, you are only an artist if you successfully create an object worthy of contemplation and appreciation. For an object to be a work of art it must have aesthetic features.

Unfortunately, the aesthetic features of a work of art which cannot be described. This is simply because they are aesthetic, i.e. ineffable, elusive qualities which require an aesthetic attitude, an ability or the imagination, to be appreciated. Although we cannot pick out aesthetic features this doesn't mean that they are not seen. If we couldn't see them, they wouldn't be visual features of the object. But it is generally thought that beauty is something which is seen even if this is described as an "impression" in response to the work of art.

You ask about "form" and "the hand".

Firstly, on form, it is peculiar to the craft that an object is made out of the particular matter, clay, and the craftsman gives this the form of a vase. But the form of a vase is not sufficient in itself to produce the artistic features. There must be a further aesthetic quality which you, as the artist produce and by means of which you can distinguish yourself from the craftsman.

As to the fact that you use your hands, you can still create art. Modern art allows all manner of techniques. You might create a work of art by painting with your hands.

Finally, there is not a "method", as such, for the creation of art. As above, it is assumed that there should be an artistic creative drive, as opposed to a desire to create a useful object, in addition to excellent technique. There must also be ultimate success in producing an object worthy of aesthetic appreciation. To know if you have achieved this, there needs to be some criterion of evaluation. There are approaches in philosophy which try to say what it is to appreciate a work of art, or what makes something a work of art. Some accounts have it that simply to display something as a work of art, or to hold it up to be contemplated by others, makes it art. Other philosophers hold that a work of art falls within a history of art and to know the place of an object within the world of art is to be able to appreciate it properly. I expect you can find some introductory books which summarize these approaches to help with your work.

Rachel Browne


Alice asked:

Wittgenstein tells us that in order to understand what is around us, we need to look carefully, or from a different angle, and simply describe what we see, because everything is in front of our eyes. Moreover, we shouldn't try to explain. If this approach is applied to spoken language research, it appears to advocate qualitative/ethnographic research methods, rather than quantitative (empirical) methods.

However, Wittgenstein's approach does not square with the Ph.D. research requirement to provide (in most cases) more than a description of the phenomenon under investigation. My thesis provides both qualitative and quantitative analyses of naturally occurring spoken language, and alternative explanations of the findings. Nevertheless, I feel that there is a tension between Wittgenstein's approach, which makes sense to me, and the imposed Ph.D requirement demanding explanations. What are your views on the matter?

I would ask you to consider the possibility that you have misread Wittgenstein. His concern is always with philosophy, even when, on a superficial reading, he seems to be conducting linguistic 'research' based on his own experience, and that of his students and readers.

'My task is to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to a piece of manifest nonsense.' The problems of philosophy arise 'when language goes on holiday'. We fall into philosophical illusions because we misunderstand the logic, the 'grammar' of our own language. — The Philosophical Investigations is full of methodological observations such as these, which leave the reader in no doubt that the practice of philosophy, as Wittgenstein conceives it, is a strenuous meditation on the ways in which, outside of philosophy, we use the words and concepts that trip us up so easily once we begin to philosophize. Wittgenstein's method is to assemble a serious of 'reminders for a particular purpose'. His aim is to tackle the deep problems of philosophy by revealing the illusions that lie in wait to entrap us, or which we have already become entrapped by. It is, as he himself describes, a process akin to therapy.

Ask yourself, What is the purpose of investigating 'naturally occurring spoken language'? You are gathering empirical data. To what end? The aim can only be to discover meaningful patterns, regularities. That doesn't mean you have to be looking for some 'grand theory'. Perhaps there is no grand theory to be had. But surely some principle, or set of principles will emerge as providing the best way to organize, classify the results of your linguistic research. It is indeed unlikely that only one such set of principles will emerge. There will be different ways of looking at the data, different views on which things are more or less important. There is no reason why these issues should necessarily be expressed in quantitative terms — which was one of your worries — however, it seems difficult to see how they would be resolved without admitting that the task is more than purely descriptive. To classify is already to explain. The notion of things that belong together — a 'natural kind' — involves the idea of theory, even if only implicit.

If, as you say, your thesis 'provides both qualitative and quantitative analyses of naturally occurring spoken language, and alternative explanations of the findings' then I don't see that you have anything to worry about. If the concern is that there is not enough explanation, that is something which is itself difficult to quantify. My suggestion would be to look to contemporary philosophy of science, rather than to Wittgenstein's philosophy, for models that would enable you to defend the view that the best approach to the kinds of question in linguistics that you are interested in is one that sticks close to the empirical phenomena.

Geoffrey Klempner


Tony asked:

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one around does it make any noise?

There are a number of circumstances that might prevent a tree from making a noise when it falls, but that no one is around to hear it would not be one of them. For instance, if someone had created a vacuum all of a sudden in the area, the tree would not make a noise because sound waves require a medium in which to travel, so there would be no noise to hear. Or, if someone had but a great pile of feathers beneath the tree, the tree would, at best, make a thud.

Part of the problem here is confusion between the two questions: would anyone would hear the noise or know about the noise? and would there would be a noise? Unless there was a noise, no one would hear it nor know of it, but not conversely. Lot's of things occur that no one knows about, or hears.

Another part of problem is caused by failing to understand that what people hear are sounds, and sounds are waves in the air. Sounds are not the private and internal occurrences which are the perceptions of sounds, but not the sounds themselves. We don't hear the perceptions of sounds, but we hear sounds because we have the perceptions.

Kenneth Stern


Lena asked:

If we cannot depend on our experience to tell us what something really tastes like, what color it is, or what it sounds like, what other way is there?

It depends on how you construe experience. Kant made an important distinction between raw sensory input — as in what happens when you first open your eyes in the morning before you recognise anything — and when it seems to make sense to say 'I know what this tastes like' or 'I recognise that colour'. I want to understand 'experience' in that latter way — in other words that our every day experiences (perceptions, tastes etc) already have something conceptual attached to them by which we come to makes sense of raw inputs.

There is one sense in which we are immediately acquainted with what things look and taste like — we just see and taste them and they appear to us a certain way. In this sense experience is the only way to taste things, see colours and hear sounds. The problem for empiricism comes when you start to move from the subjective world and wonder whether the tastes and colours I taste and see in objects are real properties of the objects in the sense that they 'belong' to the objects as I see and taste them. What is the reality of colours and tastes beyond one's perception of them? Do you see colours as I see them?

You can rack your brains as to whether there could be a perspectiveless account of the world where things would appear as they really are, or what the world might look and taste like for other people. I think it is those questions which cause the difficulty. You can wonder about how things are in themselves, but once you free everything from some perspective or other, no more can be said. If I crawled inside your head and looked out at what you see, things would appear to me as they appear to me now. Perhaps this is where the argument stops.

The experience of tasting chocolate, seeing a blue thing, hearing a pattern of notes etc. is not the whole story when you think about the actual nature of sound and colour etc. — their wavelengths and measurable properties. We certainly cannot know about wavelengths etc. very readily from a simple experience yet if you ask a physicist what sound really is and he will certainly tell you that it is some kind of wave. So there is a possible way in which you can find out what sounds are really like, but it doesn't really correspond to much you can identify with.

There are thus metaphysical issues (what is the independent reality of the things I sense) as well as epistemological ones (how do I know that things I see resemble things as they are) which are not readily answerable on empirical grounds. Experience doesn't tell you the answer.

You might however think that the senses are the best things you have to go on. After all, what else can tell us what chocolate tastes like? This is a perfectly good intuition. The problem with empiricism is slightly different however — try asking yourself whether you can point to anything in the chocolate itself that is the taste, before you pop it in your mouth. A possible answer to this is that the chocolate has the power to produce taste in us by virtue of its micro-structural parts and material constitution. And you know what chocolate tastes like by knowing a language.

What about colour? Here are some options. A realist might say that when you say:

"X is red"

then this refers simply to the nature of X (I call this simple objectivism) — you see things as they are. A Hume-type answer which points to the inadequacy of that response would be that X being 'red' means whatever seems red to a normally sighted observer in normal light conditions (call this simple subjectivism).

But I think we want to say more than this if we can. I like a view that David Wiggins names 'sensible subjectivism'. One cannot say what is red without some reference to what seems red to a normal observer in normal conditions, but we cannot say what seems red to a normal observer in normal conditions without some reference to the red object. Just because it is wrong to try to capture 'redness' etc. entirely independently of us doesn't mean skeptical disaster in other words.

A. Gatward


Dian asked:

How is it possible for somebody to be "lonely in a crowd" — not anonymous but a crowd of "friends"? One tells others what they expect, want, need or should hear. Can't we truly communicate, exchange feelings, beliefs, opinions without — willingly or unwillingly — offending others and breaking the unwritten rules of socialising? It's almost like an interaction of pretenders; all express one thing verbally and a completely different thing with their actions. Where's consistency? Can't our souls make contact at all? This makes one "frozen" inside like he belongs nowhere, everything seems hollow. Is this a weird form of anxiety, normal at the modern civilization or an unusual psychological situation revealing a "disturbed" personality? People can understand each other; can't they?

If this what you feel then it is a psychological problem but not necessarily anxiety or a personality disorder. It could just issue from your age and circumstances. It is not at all uncommon. I expect that a lot of people would know what you are talking about. However, normally it would be the case that a person may feel alienated within a particular group of a certain type of people and yet still be able to feel rapport with someone in that group.

Your current friends may well be "consistent" and not pretending at all. How do you know what they're like inside? They may truly not be interested in the beliefs and opinions of others.

Hopefully, you will meet different people with whom you can find a rapport, people who speak the same language as you, from "inside", as it were. These are the people whom you will find "consistent". When you meet such people you won't feel that there is any pretence. In fact, you may meet people who seem to know you so well, you may wish there were social barriers. If souls make contact, you can't pretend!

The unwritten rules of socialising are there to protect us. You will know when you can break them: You will be with people you get on with.

Of course, this isn't the case at the moment, but it is very much to your credit that you don't blame your friends.

Rachel Browne


Yamilette asked:

My question is what is the meaning of 'Heaven'. Where is Heaven? Who goes to Heaven? Can I say that Heaven is right here wherever I am, this is Heaven to me. I am in Peace, I have God in my Life today. God is on me. Please help me with more insights.

Who can find the height of heaven?
And the breadth of the earth, and the deep?
And who can find true wisdom?
(Book of Sirach 1:3)

As you may well have noticed, life is sometimes good, and sometimes it's bad. It is no more than stating the obvious to say that we like the good bits and we hate the bad bits. Perhaps this unites us with the rest of brute creation, but there is a strange capability within the human species which marks us out as different and special among all animals.

When the athlete takes a pose on the starting-blocks he is already, in imagination, running the race. Before he even begins, he is seeing with the mind's eye the view from the winner's podium, the acclamation of the crowd and the glint of gold. This is very special skill, to look always from the dull necessity of the corporeal present to a future perfected. It may well be the one great skill which has made humanity so outstanding. In asking this question, haven't you, Yamilette, already seen the possibility of the perfect answer? And I in answering it, however poor the answer may turn out to be, already have a vision of the supremely well-turned phrase and the ideal of arguments. Such is the fate of homo sapiens, the thinking being. We know from bitter practice that the flawless life is not here, but we cannot do else but imagine that it ought to exist somewhere, in some imagined world. So where is it?

The original usage of the English term 'heaven' was simply the domed vault of the sky, the domain of the stars and the clouds. The all-powerful source of our warmth and our life-giving water, forever beyond our paltry reach. We still talk about 'the heavens opening' when it rains and say that someone is 'looking into the heavens' as they stare into the sky. As long as the skies remained beyond our comprehension, it seemed that they should be the place where the gods ought to live. And as long as we suffer from the desperate need to imagine the possibility of a flawless future, we can try to map some substance onto that place.

The Revelation of St John the Divine imagines a heaven which is satisfyingly dry, as well a writer from the island states of old Greece might. The Koran (Sura 16:31, 18:31, 19:60 etc.) sees heaven as a bountiful well-watered garden, a fitting paradise for those in lands where rain is scarce and farming difficult. For the Buddha Amitabha, the Pure Land is one where the weather has unfailing constancy, for who in the storm-ravaged lands of the Pacific Rim could wish for better? The Norse Valhalla is a warm and welcoming great hall of abundant food and drink, a heaven for warriors from a cold land. We need not even dream that it is in some otherworld, perhaps our heaven is here on earth? For the people of old Russia it was Mykelegore. To Tibetans it has been Shangri-La, for others El Dorado. There is even a vision of heaven for vegetarian analytic philosophers at www.paradise-engineering.com/heaven.htm.

But is this a real place, or a mere aspiration? Or is it some state of mind, or some mystical state of being for which we have no proper words? That, I cannot say, for wherever heaven is, it is not here. And whatever heaven is, it is not of this earth. Perhaps, if you are of religious mind, the sages and the prophets might have some insight for you. But they seem a little uncertain themselves.

The Torah usually sees heaven as merely the skies (Genesis 8:2, 15:5, Deuteronomy 1:10), but sometimes also as the abode of God (Genesis 28:12). It is far from clear whether the next world, called Olam Haba in Hebrew, is the same place as heaven, whether it is the abode of those who have died in faith, or some future world better and brighter than the one we know. Judaism does not have much dogma about this, preferring to leave plenty of room for personal opinion. It is possible to believe that the souls of the righteous go to a wonderful place, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah to be resurrected, and still be an Orthodox Jew. You might care to look at the writings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan to find out more.

Arising, as it did, out of a mixture of Jewish and Roman traditions, Christianity seems firmer. Those who have faith in Christ's divinity will go to a heaven to live forever with him (John 3:36 etc). But how should we know who that is, or when, or where? What of good people, who through no fault, have never heard of Christ? With the self-assurance for which she is either famous or infamous, the church has tried hard to define this place. The Council of Lyons in 1274 determined that our long-dead bodies would be actually reconstructed in the heaven to come, which is strangely contrary to St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:42). It was the Council of Florence in 1439 that tried to tackle the tricky problem of who goes to heaven, and ended up with the complex series of different heavens which had famously been expressed in Dante's La Divina Commedia. But this sounds like an over-technical wonderland, in any case, with expanding knowledge of the skies it became impossible to fit a godly paradise in between the stars, so that most divines today simply assert the existence of a future state, and leave it at that.

Who goes to heaven? I do not know, for I have been granted no position on the celestial tribunal. Can you be in heaven now? Well, I think that if you are quite certain that you have achieved a state of absolute perfection, you have already arrived.

Does heaven, then, exist? If you would like to know more, there is a wonderful anthology of writings, poetical, mystical, religious and philosophical in Carol and Philip Zaleski's The Book of Heaven (Oxford). You will never be blamed for concluding that heaven is no substantial place, but if you resolve to hold true to the necessity of unblemished perfection somewhere, you have no choice but to at least try to believe. As Robert Browning put it:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

Glyn Hughes


GSA asked:

Atheism? Is it provable?

Surely this involves 'proving' that some 'thing' does not exist — not possible? If, for instance, I say that the problem of evil is an undeniable basis for atheism, might someone not point out that it is my conception of God, and not God 'itself', which has been shown to be fallacious?

Or if I state that God does not exist because no-one has seen him? Surely this is an extremely poor argument.

Is there any way of 'proving' some 'thing' does not exist?

That is a good question because it raises the question of who has the burden of proof, the theist or the atheist? It would seem reasonable that since it is the theist who is making the claim, it should be up to him to provide reasons for accepting his claim. The atheist does not, it seems to me, have to prove anything. There is an old saying: "Great claims require great proof." The more unlikely the claim, given what else we know, the greater the burden of proof is upon the person who makes the claim. This would seem to me to place an extraordinary burden of proof on someone who claimed there was a supernatural being who had the properties God is supposed to have.

I agree with you that many things are believed to exist although no one has ever seen them. Electrons, Quarks, and many other "unobservables" that scientists claim exist. But these are believed to exist, because other phenomena have been observed which scientists believe (on good grounds) would not have been observed unless these unobservables existed.

The same sort of argument has been offered for God, namely, that God explains the existence of the world which would not exist unless God existed; but that argument is a lot weaker than the scientific arguments I just mentioned for various reasons I don't have space to go into here.

You also asked whether there is there any way of proving something does not exist. A lot will depend on your standard of proof, of course. And what you are trying to prove doesn't exist. But specifically about God: there are atheological arguments. The most famous of these is, perhaps, the argument from the existence of evil. Isn't the existence of evil (e.g. hurricanes or mosquitoes) strong evidence against the existence of an all-good and all-powerful being. If he is all-good and all-powerful why is there evil?

Kenneth Stern

First we need to ask whether atheism needs to be proven. In his nice little essay "The Presumption of Atheism" the distinguished philosopher Anthony Flew makes the point that the atheist is not necessarily the person who positively denies the existence of God, but someone who simply is not a theist. According to Flew the position of atheism is on par with the principle of innocent until proven guilty, if this is so then the burden of proof is on the theist to provide good reasons for believing.

The problem for the theist is that it is not clear what would count as a good reason. Certainly none of the reasons so far provided (e.g. the traditional arguments for the existence of God) would persuade anyone. But perhaps this only points to the inappropriateness of reasons for belief, in which case the believers need to give an account of what is appropriate for belief.

Perhaps the atheist's position could be strengthened by a positive argument: It may be that very idea of God is incoherent, just as the idea of a square circle is incoherent. We know from the concepts of a square and a circle that there could never be a square-circle, it is logically impossible. We can prove on the basis of logical necessity that some states of affairs could never be the case.

If arguing for the existence of God is like trying to square the circle then we can say that it is just as hopeless. Nothing like the idea of God could exist it is a logically incoherent idea. If something is God then it has to be Omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good, worthy of worship and the rest, anything less would not be God, but just some powerful alien entity the likes of which we see on Star trek each week. I would say that the idea of God is fundamentally and intrinsically incoherent, how can a being be wholly good and omnipotent, omniscient and yet allow evil? Many attempts have been made to solve this riddle none are successful. I am not sure however that this permits the stronger claim that God as a logical necessity could not exist.

Lets get back now to the theist's case. I said earlier that what counts against the believer is that it is unclear what would count as a reason for believing in God, the situation is made more problematic because many (although not all) theists themselves would agree that the traditional arguments for God's existence fail to work. Nevertheless they would argue that God can be known by revelation or through the works faith which do not need any rational defence.

However, the theists don't get off so easily, because it is not obviously the case that revelation counts in favour of God's existence. As Hobbes points out "To say that He (God) has spoken to him (the believer) in a dream is no more than to say that he has dreamed that God has spoken to him" (Hobbes Leviathan). This would also apply to visions, voices in the head and other kinds of revelation, how do we tell the difference between God talking to us in a vision and having a vision of God talking to us? Clearly the latter does not count as a good reason for believing in God.

One last point: If God did exist and he clearly revealed himself to us what would we make of it? Not I think what the theists would want us to. It would be better if we rebelled again against Him rather than submit to his will. The point is that even if God does exist he can make no significant difference to our lives, but he would have a lot of explaining to do!

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Sara asked:

What weight should animals have in our moral calculations?

Kant, and more latterly Roger Scruton in his new book on animal rights, would hold that we need not recognise animals in our moral calculations at all, since they are not members of our moral community. We might act morally towards animals, but they cannot act morally towards us. We take account of the feelings of pets to a large extent because we take them into our homes and regard them as part of our community insofar as we love them and expect to abide by certain rules. But there is nothing particularly moral about this. We want to do it because it gives us pleasure.

However, an alternative view is that we should take a moral approach to animals because we do, in fact, and by and large, care about them. Hence we have animal rights movements, anti-fox hunting campaigns and laws, vegetarians, rescue centres for pets, etc. But the people behind these movements are individuals with a cause and there are any number of reasons for supporting these sorts of causes which are not moral at all. Furthermore, it is easy enough to take a moral attitude towards dogs, cats and horses because we regard them as tame. We can care about the conditions of cows, sheep and lambs because they enhance our countryside and we want to eat healthy animals. Wild and vicious animals are not easy to care about. We might not want certain species to die out, but we want them to be contained in manageable places like wild-life parks. Given the nature of mankind, we will never produce any reason to include animals in general into our moral calculations such that they can be properly called moral. Some people don't care, some do, but even then we are species-ist about it.

Of course, if we are trying to find a ground for why we "should" be moral towards animals, we need a principle. The principle cannot be underpinned by Kantian notions of rationality or duty where this involves reciprocity. Animals are not rational and have no sense of duty. Peter Singer's approach, that we should treat animals morally because they feel pleasure and pain, seems more promising. The problem is people just can't get concerned about this. A moral principle will only work if we receive some benefit from it. If we do our duty to others, we presume they will reciprocate and this is for the benefit of society. Unfortunately, it seems to be to the benefit of humanity that many species are destroyed, others are treated badly, and others are used for our own ends.

Rachel Browne


Pablo asked:

I have to do an essay on the following phrase: "Consider the meaning of justification in different areas of knowledge. Is any one kind of justification more compelling than any other?" I will appreciate and consider your opinion about this phrase.

You have asked my opinion about the quoted statement. But I believe that you already know the answer to this question. You just don't know that you know it.

How do I know? What is my justification for making that claim? Because each of us, every day, has to think about questions concerning when a claim is justified or unjustified. So it will be an excellent way to start work on your essay to list all the kinds of questions of justification you can think of, and how they have been resolved, or might have been resolved.

Make two lists. In the first list, write down all the different kinds of thing that people might make claims about. If that seems too difficult, start by writing down all the things that you have said that you believe or know, or heard people say they believe or know in the last week — people you have met, conversations you have overheard, or things you've seen on TV or heard on the radio.

In the second list, write down all the different ways in which beliefs might be challenged, and how one might respond to that challenge. If that seems to difficult, start by writing down all the ways in which you have justified your claims in response to a challenge, or heard people justify their claims in response to a challenge.

Once you've got your two lists, then you can start thinking about the different basic kinds of challenge and justification in different areas of knowledge. Look for similarities. Look for contrasts. Which are the easy cases? Which are the hard cases? When can we be certain? When do we have to say, 'I'm not sure'? Why?

If you get that far, then you will be well on the way to producing your essay. The main problem will be knowing where to stop!

Geoffrey Klempner


Peter asked:

I am doing an essay on free will and am taking the side that there is such a thing as free will and I need two philosophers. I have St. Augustine. I also need someone else who believes in it. Do you have any ideas?

For the other side, I have Hobbes and Hume or Skinner. And for the middle I have Kant. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I think you should re-examine your assumption that Hume, for instance, does not believe there is free-will. He does. That is because he believes that free will is compatible with determinism. On the other hand, Skinner believes that there is no free will because he believes that determinism and free will are incompatible. So the difference between Hume and Skinner really rests on whether determinism (that every event has a cause) is, or is not compatible with free will. It is because they cannot agree on that, that they appear to disagree on whether there is free will. So, the question is not so much as whether there is free will, but whether free will and determinism are compatible, and that has to be settled first. Kant believes that free will and determinism are incompatible, but he also thinks there is a part of Man that is somehow exempt from determinism, and is therefore, free. I would not say that Kant is "in the middle." The issue is not so much whether human beings have free will as why some philosophers think they do, and other philosophers think they do not.

Kenneth Stern


Glenn asked:

I am unable to reach a satisfying conclusion on which more accurately explains man's consciousness, philosophy or psychology. You are probably aware of the concept of psychologism, in the context of presenting claims that all philosophical endeavors can ultimately be reduced to some form of psychological foundation and origin.

However, is there a philosophical counterpart to psychologism, any sort of claims that philosophical concepts form the basis of/for much of the study of psychology?

It appears to me to be a sort of "chicken/egg" dilemma that can lead one to the following questions, and thus dilemma:

Do philosophers philosophize because of psychological needs? That is, is psychology really at the base of all philosophy?


Do psychologists "psychologize" because of philosophical needs? That is, is philosophy really the base of all psychology?

It is perhaps likely that the complexity of the human condition does not allow for the distillation of such a simplified concept. To be sure, no simplified answer will cover all entities and conditions. Nevertheless, can one or the other be given the nod as to its "general dominance"?

Whether or not philosophers philosophize because of psychological needs, or psychologist practice psychology because of philosophical needs, neither would make the one the "base" of the other, although it would make them the cause, or a cause of the other. But it is clearly a truism that I philosophize because of "psychological needs", just as it is a truism that I go to the films because of "psychological needs." I do both, and lots of other things because I want to. The term "psychological need" is really too vague to determine whether what you suggest is true.

The same goes for the term "philosophical need." In fact, I am not clear what a philosophical need would be.

Kenneth Stern


Faruk asked:

Why should we avoid contradicting ourselves?

Asking why we should avoid contradictions sounds like asking why we should avoid venomous snakes, or asking why we should avoid stealing. But contradictions aren't dangerous, and they aren't immoral. If the question is taken to mean 'why is it dangerous to contradict oneself', then the answer can only be 'it isn't always'. And if the question is taken to mean 'why is it morally wrong to contradict oneself', then the answer is 'it isn't ever'.

But when we say that we should avoid contradictions, what is usually meant is 'in rational argument, we should avoid contradictions'. And this is true, because what we mean by 'rational argument' is (something like) 'being logically consistent', and what we mean by contradiction is (something like) 'being logically inconsistent'. And so the answer is, IF we want to engage in rational argument, then we should avoid contradictions.

Will Greenwood


Luke asked:

What is love?

Love is an obsessive-compulsive affection state characterised by euphoria brought about by the release in the brain of dopamine and a chemical called phenylethylamine. These most likely affect the reward pathways leading from the limbic system at the base of the brain, where desires are generated, and the cerebral cortex, where they are registered into consciousness. The close bonding association (both between lovers and between parent and child) is probably associated with the hormone oxytocin, which is manufactured in the hypothalamus and is released in response to stimulation of the genitals. This stimulation need not be physical, but can be initiated in lovers by the chemical signallers called pheromones being exchanged between the two. Oxytocin produces the well-known warm, other-worldly feeling, and, being chemically similar to vasopressin, a chemical known to have the ability to enhance the forging of new memories, it may be the case that the mental impression of the person who initiates oxytocin release may be especially strong and lasting. Oxytocin is also similar to the opium-like endorphins and, like them, is capable of causing an addictive response, so that the lover may feel distressed when separated from the object of their affection and its associated 'fix' of oxytocin.

The reason you are unaware of this chemical cacophony, is twofold. Firstly, it is all initiated in the lower, unconscious, part of the brain. Secondly, it is a chemical effect, not an electrical one, and as such floods virtually all of the brain 'clouding out' other thoughts and leaving the unfortunate sufferer famously unable to concentrate, and equally famously unable to make any reasoned assessment of the suitability of the loved one. To use the old analogy, 'when your heart's on fire, smoke gets in your eyes'; and also into your amygdala, cerebral cortex and prefrontal lobes.

Is that the answer you were expecting? If not, then I wonder what sort of an answer you did want? Happy Valentine's day.

Glyn Hughes


sOyUNiquE asked:

What is knowledge? and what is belief? in what way are they related and how are the different?

1. Knowledge is a kind of belief (according to Plato) or, at least implies belief. What you believe and what you know are the same, namely propositions. That is how they are related.

2. How are they different?

  1. You cannot know what is false (although you can know that some proposition is false). Knowledge implies truth.

  2. You can believe what is false as well as believe what is true.

  3. You can believe without any evidence (although perhaps you should not do so). But unless your evidence justifies your claim to know, you do not know.

Kenneth Stern


George asked:

Wittgenstein said that he wished he could write a philosophic text entirely in jokes, but sadly, he was not very funny. My question: Why aren't philosophers funnier? (Russell would seem an exception — can you cite others?) I'm aware that Plato and Socrates would have severely regulated laughter — did they set philosophy on a somber course?

I didn't know Wittgenstein said that — Wittgenstein himself can actually be pretty funny too. For example there was a remark of his posted on these pages a while ago to the tune that he once heard about a Frenchman who said that French was the best language to speak, because the words come in the order in which you think them. If you know anything about Wittgenstein's later philosophy then that comment is certainly amusing. Also, a bit of Wittgensteinian thinking inspires the philosophers' gag about the solipsist who couldn't understand why other people refused to accept his arguments as valid. And so on. These kinds of joke aren't quite funny in the normal sense however. Monty Python's Meaning of Life contains a very funny scene about philosophers who have the letter 's' in their name. At the very least, the subject can generate a bit of humour.

Philosopher Ted Cohen has written a book called Jokes in which he tries to explore why jokes are funny. Quite sensibly, he offers "no comprehensive theory of jokes,'' contented rather to remark about how some jokes work and `what their existence may show about those of us who love them.' He claims that a joke is a particular kind of contrivance, but suggests that sometimes a joke "embodies some profound understanding of things".

I suspect that it is the subject matter of philosophy that can be the problem. It is often hard to generate humour from philosophy, certainly not because jokes would 'trivialise' the issues on hand, but because the issues themselves that philosophers concern themselves with just aren't very funny to start with. It is very hard to think of a good punchline to the Problem of Universals, or a funny solution to what you'd get if you crossed a Hegelian with an anomalous monist. Some philosophers — Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel etc. — also come across as rather serious and a bit gloomy. I think continental philosophy has given the subject a bad name in that sense.

On the other hand, Gilbert Ryle is very enjoyable to read because his prose is so crisp and humorous, likewise Russell — as you mentioned. Simon Blackburn has written some immensely funny reviews of Heidegger and Umberto Eco for The New Republic's website...the list goes on! So the image of philosophers as gloomy and in need of cheering up is not quite right.

Aristotle thought that comedy could be as cathartic as tragedy; I don't think his approach would have set philosophy on a sombre course. His approach is not as severe as that of Plato, whom I am sure would have thought that humour reflected reality at quite a few stages removed from the eternal and immutable reality of the forms. But Plato's dialogues, ironically, can be funny — just as some of them can be dramatic or wistful.

I think it is a good question to have asked us: philosophy can come across as very dour and dry, when it really need not, once you are interested in the questions it poses and if you have a light hearted disposition. It is not inconsistent to like philosophy and to be light hearted! And it seems to me far better to answer questions in an approachable way that does not detract from the seriousness of the issues then to write papers in which the footnotes are longer than the text.

A. Gatward

As Lord Russell said, "The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it." And that type of work doesn't get laughs. I really don't think you can look on philosophy as being unusually un-funny, or blame its founders. Analytic-type stuff just isn't amusing. Are mathematicians or theologians or physicists or gardeners any funnier? Do you find cosmologists throwing witty one-liners in the middle of their formulae? Ever come across a chemist telling you that this molecule is like his mother-in-law? I rather think not.

Having said that, there is elephantine merit in the argument that comedy is the one great thing that separates humans from animals, and so it should be the proper subject of philosophical enquiry. Unfortunately the philosopher who most famously chose to take up the challenge was Henri Bergson, whose Le Rire sits very comfortably in the top ten of most boring and unfunny books ever written. Seth Bernardete's more recent The Tragedy and Comedy of Life is better, it would probably only make it into the top twenty.

So, as philosophers, how should we attack the question "is philosophy funny?". I would suggest taking a logical-positivist approach and looking to whether the proposition "philosophy is funny" can be verified by reference to actual experience. Well, here you go:


...and, especially for you, there's Wittgenstein at...


Glyn Hughes

Of course, what is funny lies in the funny-bone of the beholder, as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. And also, to find what a philosopher says funny you have to know something about what he is cracking about. But I think J.L. Austin was quite funny:

  1. 1. "Existence is not like breathing only quieter." (But you have to know something to understand why this is funny.)

  2. "Truth is more important than importance."

— And lots of others, but I can't remember them.

Kenneth Stern


Kelly asked:

I have been studying the Argument From Design as outlined by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. When compared to his Argument From Vegetation, which would you say is more plausible and why?

Hume's argument that we have as much reason to believe that the universe grew like a vegetable as we have to believe that the universe was designed by God is an ad hominem argument (from the Latin 'against the man'). As students are often thrown by ad hominem arguments, your question is very instructive.

At first sight, it seems an appalling lapse on Hume's part to overlook the possibility that the process of growing from acorn into an oak tree itself requires explanation in terms of a hidden, highly intricate design (an explanation we should now give in terms of genetics and developmental biology). A theist would say that this was a perfect example of the kind of thing that can only be explained by the handiwork of God. You have to be pretty thick not to be amazed at the way such an insignificant seeming object as an acorn can take on such an impressive form as an oak.

As an explanation of how there can exist a universe with all the characteristic marks of design, the Vegetation theory begs the very question at issue.

However, I do not believe for one minute that Hume thought the Vegetation theory explained how there comes to be design in the universe. He is arguing ad hominem. The 'man' in this case is William Paley who claimed that if we found a watch lying on the ground, it would be absurd to suppose that the intricate structure came together by accident. The only creditable explanation is that the watch was made by a skilled craftsman. The universe itself can be compared to a giant watch, which exhibits far greater order and intricacy of structure. So it too must have been designed by an intelligent Creator, whose power exceeds that of a human watch maker to the same degree as the order and intricacy of the universe exceeds that of a watch.

Hume's response is to say, in effect: “If you are going by experience, then just as experience teaches us that watches are made by watch makers, so it teaches us that acorns grow naturally from oaks. On the basis of experience, therefore, we have just as much ground for believing that the universe grew like an oak, as we have for believing that it was designed by a great Watch Maker.”

This does not refute the belief that the universe could only have come into being by design. It refutes one particular version — or, perhaps not even that, but rather one particular interpretation of one version — of the Argument from Design.

Geoffrey Klempner


Frank asked:

For the past few years I have been occupied with trying to determine whether a form has its own unique essence. For example, I have tried to determine whether a geometric form, say a cube, has its own particular essence without which it ceases to be a "cube." Here, I am not referring to "attributes," or "characteristics" of the form. Rather, I am trying to find out if FORM, any form (known or unknown), has its own unique essence that is not the, or a form's attribute. If you should have any insight about this, (a target reading list would be welcomed), please be in touch.

Thanks from the USA!

Philosophically this problem goes back a long way Frank, back at least as far as I know to Plato who referred to it as the "one over many problem". The approach I take to this is generally a scientific one so when we talk about 'essence' I'm asking the question what might 'essence' be. This problem has commonly been termed the problem of universals, the essence in something (like cubes) being called a 'universal'.

I think we could generally accept that no two things are literally (or numerically) identical, certainly not at least in a spatio-temporal sense. Surely any objects a and b that are spatio-temporally identical would be one and the same thing. Nevertheless, putting spatio-temporal continuity aside, within our everyday language we describe certain things as being "identical with" other things. I suggest when these words are uttered we are using identical in the weak or folk sense of the word. Consequently we might say "almost identical with". Additionally the utterance "these objects have something in common" can be heard, that "something" we often take to be the (weakly) identical property. And so this applies also to properties and relations of the particular "some thing" in question. This leads David Armstrong (a leading commentator in this area of philosophy) to say "Apparently, there can be something identical in things which are not identical". (Universals and Scientific Realism 1978) In your example obviously this is 'cube-likeness'. We might have two cubes of different sizes or colours for example but the fact that they are 'cubes' makes them somehow identical, certainly in geometry.

Lets look briefly at both sides of this argument:

The Realist Stance
Armstrong is a realist about universals although he tends to avoid the word 'essence' (it seems to conjure up metaphysical questions and Armstrong takes a scientific approach). Armstrong says these things ('cube-likeness' or 'redness' in the case of red objects for example) are really there in the world. His view is that sameness of type is a Moorean fact. The philosopher G.E. Moore gave the example of his having two hands being an undeniable fact, "we can argue about the philosophical account which ought to be given of material object...but not whether one should deny that there are such things".

Consider the following statement:

a and b have the same property (are of the same type) F.

The realist about universals wants to say there is such an entity F. F or F-ness is the essence or the "universal" contained in both a and b. However it seems clear (to me at least) that to commit to the existence of F in the above sentence means our best scientific theories must confirm as true the existence of F.

The Nominalist Stance
W.V.O. Quine has perhaps most famously been charged with being a Nominalist. This is essentially the opposing view to the realist view, the view that there doesn't really exist anything like 'essence' at all. It has been generally thought that Quine rejects the notion that we need to postulate such an abstract entity as a universal or 'the essence' in like kind objects. I don't think the general view about Quine here is quite correct.

Quine's most famous paper on this topic is called "On What There Is" (1951). Early in this paper Quine criticises usage of the word "exists". Some things are simply not spatio-temporal kinds of things, for example the square root of 567 is 24, a square root of 567 then exists, it is 24 but it does not exist in a spatio-temporal sense. The ontological acceptance of these types of things Quine suggests is in principle similar to our acceptance of a scientific theory. This follows from Quine's naturalism. The things we take to exist are defined within a simple conceptual scheme into which the fragments and experiences of the theory can be fitted and arranged.

Interestingly Quine doesn't consider himself a nominalist. The commitment for Quine isn't to the actual existence of 'cube-likeness' or 'redness' but to what he terms the bound variable. There is "something" that all cubes (or all roses, or all red houses, Quine's examples) have in common, but only in so far as there are cubes and roses and red houses. It seems Quine withdraws to a semantic or theoretical level. These are useful theoretical entities (universals or essences) within a conceptual scheme (a theory) and as far as that goes we can tentatively accept them as existing, in the same way as we can accept abstract mathematical entities such as prime numbers and square roots etc.

A famous exchange regarding these issues occurred between two Australian philosophers, and Quine (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 61, 1980). Against Quine, the realists David Armstrong wrote "Against Ostrich Nominalism", and Michael Devitt wrote "Ostrich Nominalism or Mirage Realism". Quine replied with "Soft Impeachment Disowned". Quine said "I have argued that there is no blinking these ontological assumptions; they are as integral to the physical theory that uses them as are the atoms, electrons, the sticks for that matter, and the stones". Last year (2000) Rodriguez-Pereyra published an article in Mind entitled "What is the Problem of Universals?" Rodriguez-Pereyra represents some new direction. He looks at the truth values of sentences which postulate universals. In 1989 Armstrong published a very good little book on the topic Universals: An Opinionated Introduction this would serve as a great bibliography.

Steve McKinlay


David asked:

To what extent does our internal reality affect our perception of the external one?

Who do I read to argue that our perceptions of the world bear any relation to actuality at all?

The British empiricist John Locke deals with perception in some detail and inspired a lot of literature on the subject. Locke thought that our perceptions of the world bear relation to actuality. He holds that we perceive things if and only if we have mental ideas of them. An idea is an object with properties — colour, shape etc. — of its own and can mean a perception, a sensation or a thought (Locke is careless with his terminology). We see our perceptual 'sensory' ideas as possessing various visible properties (e.g. I see my coffee mug as yellow and mug-shaped) These visible properties I see 'resemble' those of the external object itself and which I see by means of ideas. This is my 'internal reality' on Locke's grounds.

This position is known as indirect realism and is open to several objections: the first surrounds the idea that we must see a mental image in order to see a physical object. By the same token, it seems that one would need another visual image to see the first image (if ideas have the same ontological status as objects — as 'pictures in the head'). Therefore we have an infinite regress. A possible 'fix' to this objection is that it would be like saying that we can use infa-red to see in the dark; we don't need a second set of infa-red images in order to see the first set of infra red images.

A more fundamental problem is that external objects, the indirect realist must claim, can only be seen indirectly, through a 'veil of ideas'; how do we know that our perceptions of our ideas do bear relation to the world? We are subject to illusion over external objects but never about ideas.

The thought here is that representation of the world is achieved by the fact that there is a resemblance between the properties we perceive in our ideas and the properties of external objects. This fails to answer the question of what it means to perceive an object.

You can hold a resemblance theory without being committed to the view that ideas are objects however by denying the incoherence of cross-category predication: 'ideas' and 'objects' cannot share properties.

Some predicates, namely logico-mathematical ones, are structural descriptions, the point being that structures from different domains can be isomorphic.

For example:

  1. We use the structure 1, 2, 3, n to represent days of the month.
  2. There is a structural isomorphism between the combination of zeros and ones on a CD, the sound when it is played, and the musical patterns of notation (cf. Wittgenstein Tractatus 4.04).

It is at least a coherent claim that there is a structural isomorphism between the properties we perceive by means of ideas and properties of objects themselves. The best qualities to use as candidates for resemblance with our sensory ideas are geometric ones, properties involving description in terms of logic and mathematics and which correspond to what Locke calls 'primary qualities'.

Kant has a different approach; roughly, raw intuitions (which correspond to sensory impressions in Locke) must be given to us through the mode of space and time. Space and time are a priori in that we bring them to experience from within rather than grasping them from without. This is because space and time are presupposed in there being any experience at all.

Empiricists assume all concepts are derived from or are reducible to sensory intuitions. There can be no concept without a corresponding sensory stimulus — the meaning of concepts is given in terms of this synthesis. Kant argues that this is a confusion of experiences and sensations. Experience provides the grounds for the application of concepts because it already contains concepts. Sensation or intuition contains no such concept. All sensation is without structure until transformed by mental activity. Therefore sensation provides no grounds for belief. If we understand our experiences, this is because they already contain concepts which we supposedly derive from them. These concepts come from the structure of understanding itself. Thus there are also concepts not given in experience because they are presupposed in it. They are involved in every apprehension of the world; not to have them is not to have experience but mere intuition, from which no knowledge can be derived.

Kant calls these fundamental concepts 'categories'. Substance is one such category — it is that which is able to exist independently and which supports the properties which depend on it and which we see. 'Coffee mug' is a specification of the a priori concept 'substance' and can only be grasped when you have grasped the a priori nature of substance. Causality is another category which we bring to our perceptions. Any knowledge at all must come from the application of the categories to our intuitions.

A. Gatward

You could read John Locke, and Rene Descartes to get two very different views concerning the relation between our perceptions and reality. In recent philosophy read The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and Sense and Sensibilia by J. L. Austin.

It seems clear that the data we receive from "external reality" is filtered through our mental apparatus and our sense faculties, like our eyes and ears. Our ability to see colors, for instance, depends on the fact that our eyes have rods and cones. Dogs, who do not, are color blind.

There is a lot of dispute as to what extent what we receive from our senses matches reality. But consider this: physicists tell us that the world is really made up of unobservables, electrons, neutrons, and so on. In that case, although there is an external material world, it is nothing like what it appears to us in "commonsense." This view is sometimes called "scientific realism."

Kenneth Stern


Mark asked:

How have immaterial forces like gravity, electro-magnetic force and atomic force been categorized in philosophy? Are they considered as "extended in space"? What kind of reality do they have? Where do they fit in a world composed of phenomena that can only be mental or physical in nature? I suppose they would fit squarely on the physical side. What serious philosophers have questioned this categorization? Are these forces a "third thing"? Forgive the scatter-shot approach, and many thanks for your reply.

Forces such as gravity and magnetism would undoubtedly be classified as physical. However, the recognition of the existence of such forces (which, arguably, goes back to the first of the Presocratic philosopher/ physicists Thales who invoked the examples of the magnet and rubbed amber as proof that the power of 'the gods' resides in all things) poses a tricky problem.

When a magnet attracts iron filings, or when rubbed amber attracts cotton fibres, the filings, or the fibres are caused to move. The concept of cause and effect is fundamental in making sense of our experience. Without the 'cement' of causation, there would be no world, no universe. Kant argued that there would not even be such a thing as 'experience'.

One central feature of causation, as it figures in our ordinary experience, is that object A can cause a change in object B only through contact. The hammer strikes the nail, the stone shatters the glass. Where there is a spatial gap, we look for some hidden structure that physically connects cause and effect. When you hear a car backfire, the vibrations of air molecules carry the sound to your ear. There can be no 'action at a distance'.

In that case, what are we to say about the apparent causal effects of the magnet and the rubbed amber? These phenomena present a dilemma for the philosopher seeking to understand the nature of causation:

  1. Allow action at a distance. Reject the belief that a cause must be contiguous with its effect. One can perhaps make some headway with the claim that this belief merely reflects our own anthropomorphic prejudices. Experience teaches us that we can bring about changes in things only through contact: it is the hallmark of irrationalism — 'magical thinking' — to suppose that you can bring about changes in the world by reciting a spell or sticking a pin in a doll. But our experience is limited. If we went purely by our experience, and not knowing the physical explanation for the transmission of sound, we ought to regard it as 'magical' that anyone can hear us when we speak.

  2. Retain the principle that a cause must be contiguous with its effect, and posit that the force of gravity between two masses, or the force between a magnet and a piece of iron exists as a field whose nature can be known only through its effects. The iron filings which are attracted to the magnet are constantly in contact with the 'magnetic field' which the magnet creates around it. The problem with this alternative is that there is no way you can see gravitational or magnetic fields. Their existence is purely hypothetical.

It is fair to say that this dilemma does not really exist for the contemporary physicist. There is no credible alternative, the physicist will say, to the belief in the existence of fields. The choice is between explanation and no explanation. Fields are indispensable as theoretical posits. The question of how realist a view one may take of such intrinsically unobservable entities remains one for the philosopher.

Geoffrey Klempner

I think you have to be clearer about the terms you use. You talk as if physical and material mean the same thing. Physical objects like chair and tables need not be material objects. For instance, George Berkeley, the great 18th century Idealist who believe everything was mind-dependent (that is what Idealism means) still believed there were chairs and tables (physical objects) but that they were immaterial. Physical, for him, meant studied by physics, but he did not believe that physics was committed to materialism. Quite the contrary, since he did not believe there were material objects but did think there were physical objects (chairs and tables). He also thought that space was "ideal" i.e. immaterial, (as, by the way, did Einstein).

What is mental might also be material. If the mind is (really) the brain, or the central nervous system, then the mind is material because the brain or central nervous system is material. It depends on you concept of mind. If, again, you are a behaviorist, then you think that the mind is understandable in terms of actual and potential behavior. And the behavior is the behavior of a material thing, namely the body.

What about electro-magnetic forces and the like? Well, they are certainly physical, for they are studied by physics. But whether they are material is a different matter, if matter at all.

I used to know, but I don't recall who said "What is matter? Never mind. What is mind? Doesn't matter." But it should be noted that possibly the foremost philosophical journal in Britain, "Mind" is entered in the post office as "second class matter".

Kenneth Stern


Melanie asked:

I need help with this question:

A. Identify one philosopher and examine his/her understanding of the term miracle.

B. Examine the arguments which can be used to discredit belief in miracles. In what respects do you consider belief in miracles to be strong in spite of these criticisms?

The classic philosopher's text about miracles is by David Hume. It can be found in section 10 of Part II of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is a classic example of his skeptical approach to philosophical questions; for a good approach to understanding it more fully, I recommend J.L. Mackie's chapter on miracles in his book The Miracle of Theism. But here is my response to Part I of Hume's approach as it is more difficult than the secondary arguments he offers later.

A miracle is a 'violation of the laws of nature' according to Hume. We shall look at this notion a bit more carefully later. But for now I want to look at his testimony argument step by step.

  1. Weaker evidence can never destroy stronger evidence.
  2. A wise person proportions her belief to the evidence.
  3. Some things in our experience happen invariably (e.g. that people die) These invariable experiences constitute certainties and form the basis of 'laws of nature' — "a firm unalterable [past] experience has established these laws" as Hume puts it.
  4. Other things occur less than invariably in our experience (e.g. that people survive cancer). These variable experiences are probabilities which range in degree from strong (almost always happens) to weak (very seldom happens).
  5. The reliability of a human testimony is, from experience, usually strongly probable and as such amounts to a proof that what is reported really happened. But sometimes this reliability is strongly improbable (as is always the case in the case of miracles because by definition they are violations of the laws of nature).
  6. Therefore (from 3 and 4), when testimony is given from what is different from our invariable experience, a probability, weak or strong, is opposing a certainty. So, (from I and 2) the wise person should believe the certainty.
  7. A miracle is a 'transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity'; therefore there must be uniform experience against any miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that definition. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct full proof, ipso facto, against the existence of any miracle.

What, in effect, Hume is saying is that only if a testimony were so strong that its falsehood would itself be more miraculous than the supposed miracle should we be convinced of the miracle's occurrence.

Questions to ask of this account include:

  1. What is a 'law of nature'? Is there a difference between an event which shows the law to be an inaccurate description of the world, and an event which results from a suspension of a law or an intrusion into the natural world by an agent such as god or invisible spirit?
  2. Is Hume's definition of a miracle in need of supplementation particular by the qualification of "religious significance" so those mere freaks of nature are not called miraculous?
  3. Can a Humean give adequate content to the notion of a physically impossible event? (On that score, does Hume have a strong enough line on causation?)
  4. With what justification can we use the exceptional nature of an event as grounds for rejecting testimony that the alleged event took place?
  5. Basing probability on past experience is the wrong way to understand probability — think about coin tossing!

Question (iv) is the crucial one in assessing and understanding Hume's position, as the argument is addressed to reports about miracles not to our witnessing them.

I think Hume's argument is a very accurate formal representation of the rationality that we apply in assessing things people report to us (U.F.O's and all that). When applied to the miracles which he selects (i.e. biblical reports of miracles and the resurrection) the argument successfully shows these reports should be rejected in my view. Note that the argument cleverly does not show that miracles are impossible. It establishes that it would never be reasonable on the basis of reported evidence to accept a testimony. But if you grant that he and I have never experienced an event so clearly at variance with what we call laws of nature, the effective practical difference between 'never reasonable to accept' and 'impossible' is small.

Note that some philosophers and scientists regard the 'laws of nature' as probabilistic. 'Laws' describe regularities not rules. If this is the right view, then the idea of a violation of a law of nature is more difficult to defend. Perhaps everything that happens is natural by definition of the fact that it has happened. Those are some questions to consider.

A. Gatward


John asked:

I am looking for the reference in Plato about "Soul came into being with the heavens."

The following quote is a possibility, found in Plato's Laws, Book X, 896.

The soul is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has become, or will be, and their contraries.

The trouble is that translations are often very different. I would advise you to read the section starting around 892 which is the beginning of the discussion between Clinias and the Athenian Stranger about the nature of the soul and its relation to motion.

A. Gatward


Fonzie asked:

What is Truth?

I recall an amusing incident when my uncle Jack from America visited me while I was a graduate student at Oxford back in 1978. At less than half an inch, the slimmest book on my bookshelf was a volume entitled What is Truth? by C.J.F. Williams. Jack thought this extremely funny. “I can't wait to tell the folks back home!”

Here is the whole truth about truth:

  1. If you say something, and I say, 'That's true' then I am agreeing with what you said. If you say lots of things, and I agree with all of what you say, then 'That's true' saves a lot of wasted breath.

  2. Ditto for statements I agree with which I read in a book.

  3. The most notorious case: 'Snow is white' is true if, and only if snow is white. Truth is the predicate of disquotation. — Why is that interesting?

Because the words '...is true' (or the equivalent) are the only words that will do the trick for every sentence. It doesn't matter what you substitute for 'Snow is white', it doesn't matter whether you substitute a true sentence or a false sentence, the resulting bi-conditional statement is still true. For example, 'Snow is black' is true if, and only if snow is black.

The words, '...is grammatical' obviously won't do it. Think of a sentence which is grammatical, but false. The words, '...is poetic' won't do it. Think of a sentence which is poetic, but false. But nor will, '...is believed by the majority', nor '...is believed by everyone', nor '...has been verified by rigorous and exhaustive tests', nor '...has never been found to be wrong in 2,000 years'. All these descriptions can correctly apply to a quoted statement which is in fact (unknown to us) false.

When people ask, What is truth? more often than not the question which worries them is how can we ever know that a statement is true. In other words, they are looking for a criterion of truth. The answer is that there is no certain criterion of truth. As the above examples show, human knowledge is fallible.

I believe that what these observations teach us is that apart from the problem of knowledge, there is a deep metaphysical problem of how we are to conceive of whatever-it-is that all true statements have in common, irrespective of whether we can ever come to know their truth or not. (Philosophers of an anti-realist bent will have problems in accepting my naive formulation, but that's another story.) To say that truth is indefinable, that there is no clever formula that can take the place of the simple words, '...is true' doesn't get philosophy off the hook. — I don't really think that C.J.F. Williams really thought that, either.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cameron asked:

I recently heard that the American philosopher Quine died.

Could you summarize his views and relate his position to other philosophers of the 20th century?

This is a particularly tricky question. The reason I say that is because it seems the more I read of Quine the more of an enigma he seems to become. Additionally Quine's bibliography is vast and broad. I shall do my best to cover Quine's most prominent areas of thought.

Willard Van Orman Quine (1908) — known as Van to his colleagues and friends — most certainly was one of, if not the most influential analytic philosophers of the 20th century. His interests were in the philosophies of science, mind, language, epistemology, metaphysics, mathematics and logic. And although these areas within philosophy appear quite diverse, Quine approached them with a rare 'across the board' consistency. The glue, if you like, that underpins his ideas is the thesis of naturalism, that is Quine rejects foundationalism — everything we know, Quine argues, we know via sense experience and there is no 'first philosophy' upon which science or anything else is founded. It is from science itself that we will know what there is in the world and how we know what there is. These are the primary questions Quine (and philosophy in general) is interested in, ontology and epistemology respectively. "What ever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence ... and all inculcation of meanings and words must rest ultimately on sensory evidence" (Quine, 'Epistemology Naturalized' 1969).

The obvious choice of philosophers to contrast Quine with and also perhaps of most influence to Quine I expect would be Rudolf Carnap. In 1940 Quine, Tarski, Russell and Carnap were all at Harvard, an exciting time in philosophy. Carnap had written his Introduction to Semantics and during a presentation Quine (and Tarksi) famously took issue with Carnap in regard to the concept of 'analyticity'. This was a significant turning point for Quine which led him to write his perhaps most well read and controversial paper 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (1951).

In 'Two Dogmas' Quine rejected the two foundation stones of positivist empiricism, that is, the kind of empiricism that Carnap, Popper, Schlick, Reichenbach and many other philosophers of science in the first half of the 20th century took almost for granted. The two dogmas were the analytic/synthetic distinction and reductionism. Briefly, Kant proposed a distinction between truths of an analytic nature, these are truths by definition, or truths known a priori (without experience) for example, 'no bachelor is married'. Synthetic truths by contrast were said to be contingent or accidental, or in philosophical terms a posteriori (empirical). Quine's example in 'Two Dogmas' of what we would usually consider a synthetic statement is 'Brutus killed Caesar'. This statement we know is true. However, if the world had been different in certain ways it may have turned out to be false. It is a matter of empirical fact that Brutus killed Caesar.

The reasons Quine offers for rejecting this distinction are not easy to grasp especially for a beginner to philosophy (and even to myself who has been studying for some years). Perhaps the easiest way to explain is to let Quine do the talking, he says:

Thus one is tempted to suppose in general the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems reasonable that in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are analytic statements. ... That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith.
'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', 1951

The reductionism Quine rejects is the idea that the individual sentences that form a scientific theory can be confirmed or disconfirmed (or "falsified" à la Karl Popper). This was also extremely influential stuff from Quine. It led on to what is known as the Quine-Duhem thesis, the idea that scientific statements 'face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but as a corporate body'. What Quine started here was the philosophical doctrine known as Holism. The popular thought prior to Quine's holism was that induction could be justified through empirical facts, that is the regularities of the world (and universe) make up what we know as the laws of nature. Quine argued however that scientific experiment (particularly in physics) was so theory-laden that it was impossible to isolate which part of them belonged to the theory and which to the empirical 'facts'.

There is a lot more to be said about Quine's holism as well as his naturalism but Quine's writings are so vast and broad, he has written at least 20 books and something like a couple of hundred published journal articles. Since we are doing a brief and readable summary of Quine there is one more large and controversial area of Quine that needs to be mentioned.

Tarski was perhaps first philosopher to suggest that semantic consistency couldn't exist for a universal language. What does this mean? Basically the impossibility of a consistency of meaning across languages. Quine took on board Tarski's ideas and developed what is known as the indeterminacy of translation thesis. This idea is developed in chapter two of Quine's famous book Word and Object. What Quine does here is argue that we attribute meaning "holophrastically" — for example, we might argue that to understand what 'dog' means you need to understand stuff about 'fur', 'barks', 'chases cats', etc. Put simply, I think the idea Quine is getting at with indeterminacy of translation is that there are great number of central beliefs about most every "concept" with no general rules as to how we decide which belief content fits into a particular contextual situation. We would be hard pushed to disambiguate between what a word literally means and what its contextual implications are in any systematic way. Quine seems to want to say that translation is not determined empirically or by the totality of facts nor by the totality of truths about nature. To quote Quine, "There is no fact of the matter".

Cameron, thank you for your question, it certainly challenged me, Quine's ideas are difficult at the best of times but for anyone who loves philosophy Quine is an interesting, enigmatic and provocative character. I genuinely felt sad at his passing on Christmas day last year. If you'd like to read some Quine, Word and Object is perhaps his 'opus', From a Logical Point of View is a great collection of essays which includes 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism'. if you are a beginner to philosophy The Web of Belief is a great easier read covering a variety of topics and touching on some classic "Quinian" thought.

Steve McKinlay


Fro asked:

To what extent does community effect that which the people believe to be true?

I think there are three ways of looking at this question. Firstly there is what I call a 'surface' answer which a lot of liberal arts students espouse and it goes like this. It is quite tempting to think that we passively imbibe some of out moral and metaphysical beliefs from our conditioning. For example, perhaps my deep hatred of credit cards owes to the fact that I was brought up in an anti-credit card holding family, and I was always told that they were an evil (I actually hate credit cards because I think using them is irrational, which my family never suggested.) Or perhaps many people find moral subjectivism distasteful because of the Christian heritage we passively imbibe at school and on television teaches that there are ethical absolutes. Perhaps some of Christianity's fundamental commitments came about because early Christians were influenced by the works of Plato — and so on.

This approach only goes so far. Anybody with even a small amount of intellectual independence can think themselves out of their conditioning or out of the vulgar and dominant beliefs in their time. I suppose there is a sort of truth in the generalisation that people uncritically believe what their community or upbringing teaches, but I suspect the issue is usually a lot more complex than that.

The next approach surrounds the notion of the paradigm shift. Roughly, scientific method works by holding some hypothesis to be true until a new hypotheses shows it cannot be true. So there will be a number of fundamental scientific commitments (belief in quarks, say) which most of the community believe to be true for the duration that the hypothesis is useful. The discovery that some scientific beliefs are not 'true' in the sense of 'indubitably certain' should not mean that we must abandon those beliefs, only that we abandon a belief about science.

I think there is another sense to your question which is more interesting and it touches on a number of important philosophical issues: solipsism, meaning and certainty among them. This approach originated with the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein. I wonder whether this is what you were getting at?

Wittgenstein's idea, roughly, is that language is an irreducibly public form of life which is only encountered in social contexts; every natural language contains an indefinitely large number of 'language games', each governed by rules which, though conventional, are not arbitrary personal fiats; the meanings of words are their publicly accessible usage in the language; to wonder, to be certain and to doubt — perhaps even to think — is to utilise language in a particular way, to play a particular kind of public language-game. You couldn't do this without a community from which you learned the language. It is impossible to invent a logically private language for yourself.

So the solipsist's proposition 'I am the only mind', say, makes sense only to the extent that it is expressible in a public language, and the existence of this language — with its conventions for picking out objects, naming them and picking out their qualities implies the existence of a social context. Hence the silliness of the solipsist who wondered why so many philosophers argue against solipsism! A non-linguistic solipsism is inconceivable, and a conceivable solipsism is necessarily linguistically based. In fact solipsism presupposes the thing it to denies: the very fact that solipsistic thoughts are thinkable in the first instance implies the existence of the public, shared, intersubjective world — the community — which solipsism purports to doubt.

There are a number of interesting conclusions one can draw out from this line (if it is right). Perhaps you would like to give them some thought!

A. Gatward


Meic asked:

I'm a practising Pagan and am interested in the Classical Pagan Philosophers.

Problem : When trying to discuss Paganism with people I'm somewhat at a loss to give a definitive statement of Paganism. I've tried formulating a Philosophical position to make this easier. I call it Mono-Pluralism and present it as a form of (Pythagorean/Platonic) Dualism.

There is one ultimate reality which manifests itself in a diversity/ plurality of forms and may be approached through a diversity of paths. (Many paths, one goal.) Goal and path (Deity and Devotee) being the Duality. I hold to both the identity and distinction of the one and many as a form of dualism.

Am I thinking clearly, or has my proximity to the subject compromised my objectivity?

I hope you will be happy if I divide my answers into three parts. First, if I understand correctly, you are asking how to define yourself as a Pagan. Secondly, you are interested to know about modern and ancient paganisms, and thirdly, you'd like to know how your philosophical approach stands up and how you might develop it.

To begin, defining oneself is difficult for everyone, defining yourself as a Pagan is going to be especially difficult. Let me explain...

It is difficult to define who you are, if only because we each know such a huge amount about ourselves that trying to condense it into an adroit set of axioms is going to a monumental task. A task made all the more difficult because your final definition of who you are will then become an extra part of what you are, which will in turn mean that your definition of who you are will need changing to accommodate it. And then the new definition will need... and so on, in what is called a 'set-of-sets' problem.

A more seductive route is to try to define yourself by who you are not. This is much easier, probably because, knowing little about the people who aren't you, you can the more readily categorize them. This is very plausibly why those who identify themselves with, say, political parties, will be much more ready to do down the beliefs of the other party than to explain their own. Likewise, religious people are often more ready to denounce other beliefs than to proclaim their own. The extreme example of such anti-definition is, perhaps, found in those who hold allegiance to sports clubs. Their devotion can be powerful indeed, yet it consists of little other than a certainty that we are not whoever-our-rival-clubs are. Anti-definition is very easy, very strong, and history shows it to be very dangerous. I'm sure I need not remind you of the horrors which ensue when a whole people start defining themselves, not as who they are, but as the fact that they are not 'Yids', 'Niggers', 'Gippos' etc.

The term 'Pagan' (which comes, incidentally, from the Latin 'Paganus', meaning 'someone who lives outside the town') was originally used to mean 'anyone who doesn't follow the true (i.e. 'our') religion, in just the same 'anti' way as the deliberately offensive racial terms I've mentioned above. At least until the sixteenth century in England, it included Jews, Moslems and Buddhists. 'Pagan' meant 'the religion we are not'; it meant 'them (bad) people' as opposed to 'us (good) people'. It was not the title of a particular religion, so a whole range of spiritualities have come to be lumped together in the Western mind as 'Pagan'.

Now, to the association between modern and ancient paganism. You write in excellent English, and refer to yourself as a 'practicing Pagan', so I assume (forgive me if I am wrong) that you belong to the Gallic tradition of the Druids, the English Wicca or the Italian Strega. This is rather different from the spiritual tradition of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Druid tradition is closely connected with personifications of aspects of the earth and picks its festivals to match the cycles of the planet, while the Greeks and Romans tended to personify aspects of human ability and had rather a variable set of festivals. The Druid deans were both philosophers and spiritual leaders while in Greece and Rome the two positions were quite separate and often in conflict (as Socrates discovered, to his cost).

There is very little written material about the Gallic tradition which can be relied on. There are some references in the Irish sagas Tuatha De Danann and Cuchulain, and do have a look at Caesar's Gallic Wars (Book VI ). But, unfortunately most of the more recent works weave mere specks of fact around a lot of shoddy guesswork, I have no hesitation in accusing James Frazer, among others, of downright charlatanism. There is the same problem with Pythagoreanism. You'll find more-or-less all there is of any merit on Pythagoras at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/presoc/pythagor.htm, and I would especially warn against giving any credence to either The Golden Verses or The Commentaries of Hierocles which are certainly later inventions.

As to Plato's spiritual views, his Phaedrus and Phaedo are both available on-line at http://promo.net/pg/index.html. There used to be an excellent overview of modern interpretations of ancient spiritual paths in John Lash's The Seeker's Handbook: The Complete Guide to Spiritual Pathfinding, but the sensational seems to have ousted the reasoned, and it is no longer in print, but very well worth seeking out a copy.

Now, to your philosophical position. As a spiritually-minded person, it is probably necessary to hold that there is One Ultimate Reality, and as a Pagan it is appropriate to think that this reality is accessible to humans, and the routes by which it can be comprehended are many and varied. I suspect that your difficulty arises in trying to frame a stance which determines which parts of your thesis are to be monist, dualist and pluralist, for plainly, they can't all be. I suggest, and it is only a suggestion, that you consider doing three things:

(1) Decide how to split up your fields of knowledge. You may decide, for instance, that there is, first, the realm of the inner mind, then there is the perceptible realm of ordinary things, there is the realm of the classes of things (for which, as a Pagan, you would have particular personifications), and that, ultimately, there is the realm of the absolute or Ultimate Reality.

(2) Decide which of these realms is monist, dualist or pluralist. There are several possibilities. Here you might possibly consider saying that the inner mind is dualist in that it is capable only of determining the two states of 'match' and 'not-match' and that the Ultimate Reality is monist in that it is the one, single and only thing on which all the others rely. Alternatively you might take the view that the inner mind is just one thing and that its aim is to reach the all-embracing multiplicity of the Ultimate Reality. There are several other possibilities.

(3) As you see your goal as being to have access to the One Ultimate Reality, try to give some clearer substance to what this is. You have chosen to take a mystical approach, so you should not be too concerned whether your description of it is logically sound but instead be quite willing to use allegory, poetry and allusion in an attempt to give an impression of that Reality with a view to inspiring others to the joy of the search for it. One way you might do this is to give Ultimate Reality a name. The later Greeks and the Romans sometimes adapted the name Cronus (the Lord of time-itself), while Christians have used the word Logos.

I will leave you with this majestic task: go and find what 'Logos' means, and then use it. May the Great Goddess inspire your journey.

Glyn Hughes


Amy asked:

I have been set a question in my theory of knowledge class which has to be answered in the form of an essay. I need a starting point to begin the essay, and would be very grateful if you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding the topic. The question is:

"Compare and evaluate the ways in which literature on the one hand and the human sciences on the other may help us to know and understand human behaviour."

Human science looks at a person from the outside, as he is in relation to his environment. Psychologists formulate and test theories based upon externally describable behaviour of subjects. Accounts of conditions which cause motivation or stress, for example, are based upon the reactions of subjects given external stimuli, i.e. questions and particular situations which are manufactured in order to elicit responses. Responses and behaviour become the data for theories. This helps us to "know and understand" human behaviour as it directly relates to the outside world. However, human beings are extremely complex and a great deal of our internal life is not testable in a scientific environment.

Doubts can be raised about whether psychology provides us with "knowledge" because the data upon which theories are based is limited, and the data is also the evidence. Nevertheless, philosophers recognise that psychology is an account, if not a science, of human behaviour.

Literature helps to know and understand human behaviour differently, because we are given access to it from the inside. Although we are reading about fictional rather than real characters, a great writer can show us the workings of the mind, which we can often know to be true simply because we are moved by them. Literature can provide us with both a deep knowledge of the internal moral struggles of mankind and insights into the inner nature of man and how he comes to know things.

There is a passage in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina which illustrates the subjective states of recognition, the coming to know the truth about another person and how this can adjust one's knowledge of oneself.

In the passage, Anna Karenina is dangerously ill. Her husband, Karenin, and her lover, Vronsky, are both at her bedside. Karenin has not previously acknowledged that Vronsky is his wife's lover, but now does so simply by allowing his presence at the bedside. Vronksy has always believed Karenin to be cold and unloving and that Anna needed his, Vronksy's, love. Vronsky's views of Karenin seem to be born out by the picture: Karenin stands coolly at the bedside, Vronsky weeps passionately over Anna. But suddenly Vronsky looks up at Karenin and his eyes are opened, he sees the truth. Karenin appears to him in a new light, as strong, kind, and dignified. Karenin is allowing Vronsky to weep over his wife which he would only have the strength to do if he possessed a true love for Anna, and his superiority to Vronsky is apparent — to us and to Vronsky himself — in his ability to detach himself from his feelings and simply watch Vronsky's passion. I adore this passage! /P>

What we learn from this scene is that Vronsky has made a false moral assessment of Karenin, and he comes to know this in a real life situation although not simply on the basis of Karenin's behaviour. On the basis of Karenin's standing calmly by, Vronsky could continue to believe that Karenin was cold and unloving. But he recognised, in Karenin, and in contrast to himself, something which was great. Vronsky will, at the same time, have changed his knowledge of his own nature. How this knowledge and understanding comes about cannot be described scientifically, and it is not the sort of experience which could be achieved under observational conditions used by psychologists. Of course, Tolstoy cannot describe it himself, but he can show us and provide us with an understanding of how others operate, and can change, internally. We achieve a greater understanding and knowledge of human weakness, the place of passion in love, and we see what a moral change can be. Here, the moral change is the un-self centred recognition of the true nature of another person.

There are particular facets of human nature that we can learn from literature and even if we don't undergo many of the experiences which literature can show us, to come to know of them is to have an increased, expanded, deepened knowledge of mankind.

Rachel Browne


Susanne asked:

What makes an image absurd?

What is the difference between absurdity and nonsense?

Consulting my intuitions, it seems to me that a piece of writing can be either absurd or nonsensical. An image cannot be nonsensical. Chomsky's famous “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is nonsensical rather than absurd, while the nursery rhyme,

Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
is absurd rather than nonsensical.

Chomsky's example is nonsensical because the words simply don't fit together to make a thought. Behind the surface appearance of a grammatical sentence, there is no content to latch onto. Nothing is said. The nursery rhyme does have content, yet there is something about what is said that does not compute. The moon is too high for cows to jump over. Dishes don't have legs, nor do they have any particular feelings towards spoons.

I cannot think of a pictorial analogue of Chomsky's sentence, i.e. an image which goes wrong in the way that “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” goes wrong. So I don't know what a nonsensical image would be.

Again, consulting my intuitions, an absurd image is not the same as an image that is ridiculous, nor the same as an image that would be described as paradoxical. A ridiculous image would be, say, a photograph of George W. Bush in a leotard (any colour). Escher has cornered the market in paradoxical images: for example the staircase that keeps going up yet mysteriously returns each time to the starting point.

An absurd image? How about a nun wearing a cowboy hat; or, a more extreme example, a man holding a parrot in his hand and sucking its tail, as if he were smoking a pipe. There are Terry Gilliam's gleeful illustrations for Monty Python — although an image can be comic without being absurd. Or the works of Magritte and Dali — although an image can be surreal without being absurd.

So much for intuitions. There does seem to be something in the 'does not compute' idea. An image of a man slipping on a banana skin is comic rather than absurd, because the mind doesn't get stuck trying to process it. A nun wearing a beekeeping mask is neither comic nor absurd, because keeping bees is one of the activities which one can imagine nuns doing. Whereas the thought of a nun in a nun's habit rounding up cattle on horseback is absurd because the design of a nun's habit is totally inappropriate for this kind of activity. Add this to the functionality of a cowboy hat and you have an absurd image.

Geoffrey Klempner


Frank asked:

What are the Seven Categories of Ambiguity? Who is it that created the construct, and when? Does the concept still have validity today?

I take it that you are talking about ambiguity in the sense of ambiguous strings of words. In this sense, ambiguity is where a given string can be understood as a meaningful one in more than one way. I have never come across the seven categories of ambiguity, but Wilfred Hodges sets out three types of ambiguity which might interest you and which sum up the issue:

  1. Lexical ambiguities — where a single word in a sentence can be understood in more than one way (as in the tailor who boasted that his suits would always give you a fit).

  2. Structural ambiguities are said to occur when words in a sentence can be differently grouped (as in "the chap I heard about at Oriel College" — i.e. did I hear about him while I was at Oriel or did I hear about him when he was at Oriel?).

  3. The Ambiguity of Cross Reference occurs when a word or phrase in a sentence refers back to something mentioned earlier in the sentence (or somewhere else for that matter), but where it is unclear exactly what it refers back to. (e.g. "As he uttered the crucial word, he lowered his voice, but I just managed to catch it").

It is worth adding to Hodges that there can be combinations of the above types of ambiguity (e.g. the electrical store which claimed its microwave prices were very low and that they were guaranteed to give you a shock).

Note that one can talk about ambiguity in different ways: in the sense that a string of words represents two different sentences or in the sense that one sentence has two different meanings.

A. Gatward

I believe that this is a reference to Sir William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (London, 1930). Together with I. A. Richards's Practical Criticism (London, 1929), this is one of the defining works of the so-called 'New Criticism'. The New Criticism differed from earlier approaches in placing less emphasis on the historical or biographical context of a work's composition, and more on the elucidation of its thematic structure through a close reading.

For Empson an ambiguity is 'any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language'. His seven types are to be understood as 'stages of advancing logical [or grammatical] disorder' that may be exhibited in a text.

  1. The first type arises when a passage may be understood in more than one way, as in the Hodges examples above. Actually, Hodges's attention is restricted to differences in what words mean, whereas Empson is concerned with differences in what their author meant. Moreover, Empson includes in this type a greater diversity of sources of ambiguity, including matters which transcend simple logical analysis, such as metaphor and rhythm.

  2. In second-type ambiguities the different meanings work together, and the reader may resolve them into a single sense.

  3. Third-type ambiguities simultaneously convey two or more apparently unconnected meanings, as in puns or, to a more protracted extent, allegory.

  4. Fourth-type ambiguities work at a less superficial, and less conscious level: the distinct meanings exhibit a complexity in the author's state of mind.

  5. In the fifth type the ambiguity arises because the author has changed his mind or developed his ideas in the course of composing the passage.

  6. Sixth-type ambiguities appear to be meaningless, because contradictory, tautologous or irrelevant, and the reader is left to deduce what must have been intended. The ambiguity, such as it is, is between the different possible meanings which the reader may attribute to the passage.

  7. Finally, the seventh type is also contradictory, carrying opposite meanings simultaneously, both of which are in some respect intended by the author.

Is the concept still valid? Well, paperback editions of Seven Types are in print on both sides of the Atlantic, so somebody is still reading (or at least buying) the book. My understanding is that while the techniques of close reading which Richards and Empson pioneered have stood the test of time, Empson's attempt to work his method up into a full aesthetics of poetry has little contemporary support. As a philosopher, I'm disposed to be suspicious of subtle distinctions which rely heavily on readers' interpretive sensibilities, although I'm also reluctant to second-guess the opinions of literature departments. Is there an 'Ask a Literary Critic' site?

Andrew Aberdein
Dept of Logic and Metaphysics
St Andrews University, Scotland


Duncan asked:

According to the Christian faith, God knows everything and we as humans have free-will. Now, more than likely I have looked over a simple point and I am simply being stupid, but I can't understand how God can know everything while we have free will!

If God knows all, he knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening and everything that will happen, and if he knows everything that will happen our lives must be preordained. If he only knows the possibilities that could happen to us in our lives, then he does not know everything, as I as well as anyone know the possible outcomes of a football match for a team, it can either draw, win or loose or the match could be abandoned etc. However, although I know these possibilities this does not mean I know the outcome. I know I have asked this question in a very long winded and unscientific way but I hope you get the gist. Please explain away my confusion away.

How can I tell you more Duncan? You have found one of the apparent logical contradictions within Christianity, and you seem to have thought it through very well. So, can I get rid of your confusion?

St Augustine's solution (in his City of God) is that God exists outside of time altogether, so questions about the past, the future and what happens when are quite irrelevant. John Scotus Eriugena had a more ingenious answer. He took the line that God does indeed know everything there is to know, but that future events aren't an 'is'. Our future actions don't exist; they are not beings — not yet. On this view, while omniscience is compatible with free will, omniscience does not entail foreknowledge of future events. Yet another view is taken by Dr. Niclas Berggren (at http://hem.passagen.se/nicb/Theodicy.htm) that, strictly interpreted, Christianity doesn't say that we have free will at all. There are other attempts at solutions, and you'll find a good selection of them at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm.

But are these answers any good? Augustine is probably just playing with words, while Eriugena seems to have invented a very much downgraded version of the word 'omniscience'. I'll leave you to judge Dr Berggren and the rest for yourself.

The problem, to use your football analogy, is trying to play by Australian and Irish rules at the same time. They are very different games. Christianity says "X", while logical reasoning says "not X". But Christianity is not, and has never claimed to be, based on logical reasoning. Christianity is based on faith. The problems of free-will, and natural evil, and a host of others happen when you try to judge Christianity by other than its own methods. You will have to use your free-will to decide which set of rules is the one to follow.

Glyn Hughes


Alicia asked:

What are the major differences between internal and external freedom? Why is it sometimes hard to differentiate between the two?

Internally, we have the freedom of thought and reason, the freedom to deliberate and decide. However, there are restrictions on decisions, choices and desires which come from external facts so we are not always free to act as we want.

Although our desires and choices are internal in the sense that they issue from us and no-one can desire or choose for us, the satisfaction of desires can prove difficult or impossible when the means are not available. Desires may arise freely internally but we do not have the freedom to satisfy them whenever we want to so the ability to satisfy our desires cannot be regarded as entirely free. The same is true for choices. There may be a range of choices, but what we really want may not be an available option. An example of lack of freedom of choice is the "money or your life" situation. You cannot choose that the person making the threat should take your life and keep the money, because if he kills you he gets the money anyway. But while external circumstances limit your choice in this situation, there is still a sense in which you choose. The person who makes the threat may be understood as forcing the obvious choice upon you, but it is still you who chooses.

Internal freedom is freedom as a power which belongs to you and which you exercise even when compelled. You may hand over your money unwillingly in the sense that you don't want to, but you have to do it from choice or free will in another sense because the action is performed by you.

However, there are other external factors which affect freedom of choice and desire. If we understand by external factors those forces which limit or restrict freedom, there exists facts about your background and character, as well as unconscious forces. These facts are internal in the sense that they are facts about your person but because they have an affect on, or determine, the nature of your desires and the kind of choices you make, these facts also restrain inner freedom. Some things you cannot choose.

So we are free sometimes and in some ways. Internal freedom is the power to choose and the ability to desire, in addition to the power to be able to think.

Rachel Browne


Peter asked:

If you consider that it is the individuals' concept of the Universe that creates and governs their behaviour, clearly true at least for humans, then it would seem that no judgement about the presence of conciousness behind any behaviour can be made where that concept is not understood. In other words we can not judge the conciousness of any action without understanding the conceptual model that motivates that action.

The question thus arises — Is it in principle possible to show that a anything 'living' or 'non-living' is not conscious, does not maintain a concept of the world which creates its behaviour? This is a deceptively simple question that I suspect can only be answered with a no. The challenge is to produce a reasoned answer rather than references to the literature.

Do flowers feel? How do you know? (This is a question I was once asked in a Philosophy test. I said, “The answer lies in the soil” which didn't go down too well.)

Flowers respond to stimulus. Many flowers open their petals and leaves to take in the sunlight then fold them up again when its dark. The Venus fly-trap snaps shut when a fly lands on its sensitive pads. In the late 60's (when else?) experiments were done connecting flowers to sensitive electrical circuits, which played the flowers' amplified 'scream' when uprooted or cut. What would you say — that if flowers form the conscious intention to grow towards the sun, or get depressed and sad when the sky is overcast, we can never tell this from their behaviour? Are the minds of flowers destined to remain an enigma?

To interpret the actions of any entity, animate or inanimate from its behaviour, whether seemingly intentional or non-intentional, involves a leap of inference. We always know less than the entity itself 'knows'. There is a problem here which goes much wider than the problem of psychological interpretation, a problem which some metaphysicians have labelled the problem of insides.. It is a fundamental fact about reality that things have insides. People, dogs, flowers, car engines, atoms, stars. From the visible appearance of the sun, from electromagnetic radiation emitted in the non-visible wavebands, astronomers infer what is going on deep inside. When the cat claws at the door, we infer that it wants to go outside. Yet in some ways, the inside of a cat is more deeply hidden than the inside of the sun. Without wishing to beg the question which you have raised, I would say that the cat has a point of view, whereas the sun does not. There is nothing it is like to be the sun.

I like the way you have phrased your question in terms of an entity's 'concept of the world which creates its behaviour'. You are not tempted by the thought that, for all we could ever know, a teacup might be enjoying the warmth of the tea — or for that matter thinking about philosophy. After all, I know what 'thinking about philosophy' is like in me, so all I have to do is imagine that going on in the teacup! The starting point of our discussion is the patent absurdity of that idea. (For anyone who is not totally convinced, ask yourself what it would mean for the teacup's philosophical thoughts to occur 'in' the teacup itself, rather than, say, 'in' the saucer, or in the space outside it.)

Let us start with human beings. Asking a person what they are about provides the best way of getting at what is going on 'inside'. Yet, even when our subject is scrupulously honest and attentive, they cannot tell us all that they 'know', all that is functionally relevant to guiding their behaviour. Subjective knowledge is outside the realm of truth of statements that can be asserted, that can be evaluated as true or false.

I am not talking about the alleged introspective knowledge that 'I know how blue looks to me in a way no-one else can'. That kind of 'logical privacy' goes the same way as the teacup's thoughts about philosophy.

A homely example of the kind of thing I mean would be the expert welder doing his craft, while commenting on his own actions to a young apprentice. "I do it like this." The word 'this', the movements that go with it, cannot convey the awareness, the sensitivity to the actual perceived situation developed over years of practice. It is that refined sensitivity, which comes before language (the sensitivity which I am employing now in choosing which words best express my thoughts) which remains private to the subject.

If you wanted this expressed in materialist terms, I would say that the human brain encrypts information in a way that is in principle inaccessible to any subject other than the subject whose brain it is. However, this accessibility is not accessibility to the subject's introspection as such. To say that would be to ignore the crucial link — which we are both agreed on — between subjective view and outward behaviour.

In the absence of a shared language, animal behaviour must remain an enigma to us. Even to talk of 'beliefs' and 'desires' (as we do) is already making the first step into fantasy. There are no words for what the cat 'wants' that latch on to its point of view on a world of things desirable and undesirable. The words we use are ours, not the cat's. Explaining cat behaviour is a game of let's pretend which has certain practical uses, that is all.

But what about that flower?

If you have followed me so far, then you will agree that even though we cannot share another entity's subjective awareness, its unique point of view that governs its behaviour, there are important differences between cases where talk of states of awareness or 'what it is like' makes sense, and cases (such as the sun, or an atom, or a car engine) where such talk is empty. I'll leave you to decide what to say about the flower.

Geoffrey Klempner


Shinuna asked:

I am looking into the background to Tagore.

To which school of thought does he belong? What are his fundamental principles?What are the aims and purpose of education advocated by Tagore? What are his principles of education in curriculum content, teaching and learning strategies, instructional material and environment, the process of curriculum development, discipline and control, freedom and democracy in the classroom, in school and in society?

Rabindranath Tagore (1861—1941) was the most important and popular author of the colonial era (he wrote poetry, short stories, novels, and plays but not philosophy to my knowledge). His fundamental commitments as an educator appear to have been to a harmonisation of the views of East and West, but he was certainly not a political figure.

He also argued for the abandonment of child marriages (although he married off his daughters at the ages of thirteen and ten-and-a-half respectively) and as an educator founded a school, the purpose of which was to provide a blend of traditional ashram and Western education and to teach a combination of Eastern and Western philosophies. Some of his teachers were Christians, but his ideals were just simplicity of living and the cultivation of beauty — admirable teaching principles and a nice sort of philosophy in my view.

A. Gatward


Alyssa asked:

How do we know, if at all, that our behavior is ethical?

Because there are diverse ideas on what an ethical attitude actually is, it is difficult to set out guidelines for how you know whether your behaviour is ethical. However, behaviour is what you do and this can be distinguished from the motives behind it and you can be said to be aware of your motives.

On the Kantian theory you must perform your moral duty for its own sake. You may perform a good deed — behave in a certain way — but this will not in itself determine whether you are being moral. Your attitude is essential. In performing the good deed it may be simply for its own sake, but you could perform the same deed for self-interested, prudent motives which might be that a favour will be returned, or others will see you in a favourable light. If you subscribe to this idea of ethics then you will know whether you are being ethical because you know what your motives are.

However, it is easy to deceive yourself. If, in doing your duty, this leads to a later self-congratulatory thought that you are good, then whether or not you actually sought this ego-enhancing end at the time, you may have actually acted for self-interested reasons. You might not, at the time, have been aware of your inner need to glorify yourself as good, but this may have been a hidden motive which you didn't face up to at the time and would constitute evidence against the act as ethical. You could not be judged to be a truly ethical person. So if you perform a good deed, you know it is ethical on this account because you recognise at the time and in retrospect that you did it because it was your duty.

Another theory of ethical behaviour holds that moral actions issue from sympathy, empathy, and care for others. If you possessed a self-awareness of yourself as behaving "ethically" you would be detached from your feelings towards others, and could not be acting or reacting with authentic moral feeling. On this account of the ethical you should not know that you are acting morally. If your assessment of what you are doing is rational, based on your knowledge of what the morally correct action is, you are not emotionally behind your actions. You are then acting from duty.

Rachel Browne


Molly asked:

What does metaphysics imply? What does a metaphysicist do exactly?

There is no logical reason why a person who does metaphysics should not be called a 'metaphysicist' rather than a metaphysician, the word generally used. Perhaps physicists would be called 'physicians' were it not for the fact that that word has already been appropriated by medical practitioners.

Having written a book of metaphysics (Naive Metaphysics 1994) I suppose that qualifies me as a member of the exclusive club of metaphysicians. What is it exactly that we do?

Ever since Socrates, philosophers have asked 'What is...?' questions. For example, 'What is knowledge?', 'What is meaning?', 'What is free will?', 'What is a person?', 'What is causation?', 'What is time?', 'What is truth?'

Metaphysicians ask some of these questions too, but they do so as part of the project of answering the question, What is reality? Aristotle wrote about investigating 'being qua being', or the various ways or senses in which different kinds of thing we might talk about — material objects, qualities, actions, times — might be said to 'be'.

Because every branch of knowledge investigates reality in one form or another, metaphysicians sometimes talk about ultimate reality. For ordinary practical purposes, we get along with a distinction between appearance and reality: a person's appearance and how they really feel, or the photo in the holiday brochure compared with the real thing. One question raised traditionally by metaphysicians — most famously by Bishop Berkeley when he declared that everything that exists is either an immaterial soul, or an idea in the mind of God — is whether the things we take to be real (in Berkeley's case, material objects) might not be appearances of some deeper, underlying reality. According to Berkeley, when we look out into the world, we are looking at the inside of God's mind. That's metaphysics.

If Berkeley seems too weird and wonderful for your taste, consider a metaphysical question which the poet John Donne expressed in the lines of his song, “Tell me where all past yeares are” (see my answer to Rute and Alan on the Ninth page of questions and answers). Let's say you are happy to call yourself a materialist. You don't see any problem, say, with accounting for the relation between mind and body. But consider this: what kind of entity is a fact? Or, more particularly, What kind of entity is a fact about the past?

If you say that everything that has ever happened in the world has a reality which is independent of human memory, or the traces that events leave behind, then a metaphysician of Donne's persuasion would say that you owe an explanation of what it is for a truth about the past or a past fact to 'exist', in the absence of a God or a recording angel. Realism about the past seems a surprising thing to hold for one who believes in the hard, gritty reality of the here and now.

For a metaphysician, belief in the existence of God is not obligatory. With one or two notable exceptions, metaphysicians have given up trying to prove the existence of God. However, to quote F.H. Bradley's words, “...with certain persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principal way of thus experiencing the Deity. No one, probably, who has not felt this, however differently he might describe it, has ever cared much for metaphysics” (Appearance and Reality Introduction).

Geoffrey Klempner