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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 13 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from September 2001 — October 2001:

  1. Philosophy for journalists
  2. Ethics of war
  3. Philosophical alchemy
  4. What existentialists mean by 'authenticity'
  5. Is existence a predicate?
  6. Descartes on the senses
  7. Defining knowledge
  8. If God exists the world would not be the way it is
  9. Full truth and half truth
  10. Philosophy as therapy
  11. Hell in the modern world
  12. I am having trouble thinking abstractly
  13. Scholastic philosophy
  14. Kant on beauty
  15. Sartre vs. Merleau-Ponty
  16. Mayor Giuliani on 'moral equivalence'
  17. Splitting the mind and slitting the body
  18. Sartre on 'What is Literature?'
  19. 'Pleasure is the greatest good, pain the greatest evil'
  20. Yoruba philosophy and Ancient Egypt
  21. Douglas Hofstadter on reflexivity
  22. Should people be allowed to gamble?
  23. Does conversation measure intelligence?
  24. Idea of an enduring self
  25. Formal definition of 'proof'
  26. Can anyone be a philosopher?
  27. Plotinus and the Hellenistic matrix
  28. Limits to tolerance in multicultural society
  29. Animal consciousness
  30. Personal identity and the subjective standpoint
  31. Why husbands and wives should quarrel
  32. Krishnamurti and quantum mechanics
  33. Criticizing theories of personal identity
  34. I don't want to learn anything else but philosophy
  35. Is philosophy a science?
  36. Market capitalism and third world poverty
  37. Flaws in relativism and empiricism
  38. My clone and I
  39. Neoplatonism vs. Christianity on nature of sin
  40. Art as mere imitation
  41. Forcing a truth telling machine to tell a lie
  42. Plato vs. Aristotle on the soul
  43. Lost truths and the opacity of the universe
  44. When two people dream the same dream about each other
  45. Don't read Nostradamus
  46. Genesis of religion
  47. 'In every evil there is something good'
  48. Embodiment and sexuality
  49. Truth and research
  50. How can intelligent people believe in religion?
  51. What is intelligence?
  52. Feedback and reflexivity in economics
  53. Who put us here, and why?
  54. An introductory book on existentialism
  55. Applying utilitarianism to future generations
  56. First philosopher to say, 'All mean are created equal'
  57. Job opportunities in philosophy
  58. Philosophy of martial arts
  59. Philosophies of mathematics
  60. Memetics as a theory of knowledge
  61. I'm 17 and I'm giving a presentation on philosophy
  62. Does goodness require the strength to be bad?
  63. J.L. Austin and Jurgen Habermas
  64. Political philosophers on why we should obey the law
  65. Why did God need six days to create the universe?
  66. Language games and the problem of translation
  67. All philosophical truth is relative
  68. How do I know I am not just part of someone else's dream?
  69. Problem of the 'neighbour' and the 'apartment'
  70. Explaining philosophy to a 5- or 10-year old
  71. Metaphysical definitions of a 'thing'
  72. Why blue is called 'blue'
  73. Can there be a utopia?
  74. Beauty as a property of objects
  75. Were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle gay?
  76. Why we seek an absolute
  77. '150 philosophers, no philosophy'
  78. Happiness and Aristotle on eudaimonia
  79. Readings on happiness
  80. Reality of the laws of nature
  81. Reflections on transhumanism
  82. I am a 17 year-old Christian mystic
  83. Explaining severe depression and suicide
  84. Problem of evil and the free-will defence
  85. Marxism, socialism and existentialism
  86. Life as paradox
  87. Relational and substance-grounded notions of self
  88. Greatest good for the greatest number
  89. Who and what we are
  90. Ethics of using embryos
  91. Stoic logic
  92. Who in the Church has the most authority
  93. The reproductive urge
  94. Quantum mechanics and free will
  95. Learning about paradoxes
  96. Why people think differently
  97. The subject of geography
  98. How we can talk about one another's experiences
  99. Ukroni and possible worlds
  100. What philosophers do
  101. What happens to the moon when no-one is looking?
  102. Is philosophy significant to anyone else but a philosopher?

Cher asked:

This may not be a philosophical question but it is in regards to philosophy. I am currently facing the difficult task of having to fill in my university applications. I live in Ireland but wish to study in England. I want to study drama in the combined honors scheme with classical studies or philosophy. If drama does not work out, I wish to do journalism. Would philosophy be useful for journalism and how is one to know if philosophy is something that they may enjoy?

If you live in Ireland, then you will know about the Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan, who was brutally murdered on Friday evening, 28th September, in front of his own home, as he returned from the local bar with his wife Marie. I have written about the terrible incident in my Glass House notebook page for 30th September and also in Pathways News Issue 16.

You may not know that Martin O'Hagan studied philosophy: in fact, for three years he had been working towards the Philosophical Society Associate Award under my supervision (although we did not, in fact, correspond very much over that time). Martin O'Hagan did contribute a superb essay to the Pathways web site, Philosophical Considerations on Discourse/ Praxis. The essay recounts the turbulent stages that led him eventually to the discovery of the philosophy of the Stoics. "I went in search of meaning and discovered a potential for morality and inner peace."

I think it is a good question to ask, why a journalist should be interested in philosophy, or what use is philosophy to the journalist. Martin O'Hagan's life provides an admirable example.

You say that you intend to do journalism "if drama does not work out". I appreciate your honesty, and your pragmatism. I am sure that many journalists see themselves as merely plying a trade, which requires certain skills, such as a talent for words. In his essay on the Pathways web site, Martin O'Hagan candidly admits that for him getting a job on a tabloid newspaper meant in the first place a regular source of income. Yet he also had — or discovered along the way — something else, a sense of mission and purpose. That mission, to tell the truth about the troubles in Northern Ireland, led him into a personal war with the Protestant paramilitaries. The pen and typewriter were his weapons.

Where philosophy and the best journalism intersect is in the idea of the pursuit of truth. I say the best journalism, because so much journalism seems to be little more than entertainment. You pick up a newspaper or magazine in your coffee break. Writing does not need to be true in order to be entertaining. The sad truth is that it is possible to be a successful journalist and yet care little for the truth, or its pursuit.

So I would go a lot further than say that philosophy might be useful for journalism.

Geoffrey Klempner


Daniel asked:

The Ethics of War: Can war be just?

This is the question I am currently trying to tackle. At the moment I have tried to approach it from three different angles. I have viewed the realist argument, the pacifist's argument and also looked over much of the contemporary work I have found written on just war theory. I would be grateful for any ideas on how you would tackle this question!

On the eve of World War II, the playwright Berthold Brecht made the statement that war is like love; it always finds a way.

Quincy Wright, in his Study of War, defines war as: a legal condition, which equally permits two or more hostile groups to carry on a conflict by armed force. The key to this definition is the word 'legal'. Used in this context, it is implied that war is acceptable and will receive societal approval.

With regard to the general idea of war, most poets and theologians view the concept as a calamity, while many politicians and statesmen accept it as a necessary evil. If one were in the military, one would tend to see it as his trade. Over time, war has been seen as a legitimate instrument of national policy. In most cases, domestic law has had little impact on controlling war. The Roman historian Livy felt that to those to whom war is necessary it becomes just. Others, like the seventeenth century philosopher Hugo Grotius, compiled a very impressive list of ancient acts of violence committed against enemies without regard to their civilian status during acts of war. In Grotius' opinion, these acts were deemed as just if the war they were supporting was for a just cause.

Konrad Lorenz said that it was the unreasonable and unreasoning human nature that caused nations to compete. According to Lorenz, despite the similarities in overall ideologies, even minor differences in political or religious beliefs between countries will result in bloodshed. Lorenz supported the theory of innate aggressive human nature. Many anthropologists would disagree with these beliefs, and instead argue that human aggression is separated from war. Karl Deutsch has stated that war is considered an acceptable and necessary means to an end, or at least a normal acceptable part of humanity. War has developed into an institution and has served many of man's needs. War has provided security, excitement, fellowship in a general cause, and developed unity. If war is indeed seen in this way, then as long as it serves human needs (even if those needs are viewed as counter productive) it will continue.

John Eberts


Fawwaaz asked:

Can I get detailed information on philosophical alchemy?

From our modern scientific point of view, "alchemy addresses concerns of practical metallurgy" (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy). From a less condescending attitude alchemy has it's very foundations just like modern science. Alchemistic research is based on theories of (ancient) natural philosophy (consider, that Geniuses like Paracelsus and Newton were "natural philosophers" or "alchemists"; of course there were also charlatans). Some of the main ideas/theories are:

1. Alchemy is based on the early Greek theory, that all of the different substances are only different outward appearance of one and the same primary matter. Therefore it must be possible to:

  • Purify
  • Change
  • Create (in terms of "with new properties")

2. The idea that all matter on Earth was made from a mixture of four basic 'elements' air, earth, fire and water, dates back to Empedocles out of which Aristotle formulated the theory of elements and their mixtures. Alchemists believed that if they could discover the proportions in which those elements were mixed, they would be able to change them, and by that, they would alter the nature of matter.

3. Another main concept of alchemy is that of analogy. The most famous formulation in the time of the alchemists is the one awarded to Hermes Trismegistos: "It is true, certain, and without falsehood, that whatever is below is like that which is above; and that which is above is like that which is below: to accomplish the one wonderful work" (philosophical alchemy knows altogether seven hermetical principles).

4. Another very important source is Book VII of Plato's Republic, for the analogy of the divided line plays a central role in philosophical alchemy. The four ways of knowing our world (image thinking, believing, understanding, and knowing) and their uses, can all be found in the divided line model. This analogy works to help us, as Plato says, understand dialectic, the heart of philosophy, by learning the perfect model of the Good. The analogy prepares to understand the principles of philosophical alchemy.

5. Jung's interpretation of alchemy shows close parallels to Platonic thought, and remarkably close similarities to the divided line analogy. He explains how throughout most of the Christian era in Europe, Platonic philosophy survived hidden within the strange, arcane tradition of philosophical alchemy, a tradition filled with hidden meanings and elaborately coded messages, for example the Philosopher's Stone was said to produce "immortality", meaning spiritual perfection. You will find a very thorough treatise on philosophical alchemy in C.G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis (Trade Paperback, 1977). Jung's last work of book length, centers on the problems of philosophical alchemy, and in particular the synthesis of opposites.

Also very interesting: The Forge and the Crucible: Origins and Structures of Alchemy by Mircea Eliade, Paperback, 1979) There's also an online collection of texts on philosophical alchemy at: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/texts.html.

Simone Klein


Stephanie asked:

I am in a Philosophy class right now, and we have to write a paper on a topic our teacher has provided us. My question is "What is the existentialist meaning of authenticity? and what moral value, if any, does it have?" The first thing I did was look up what existentialism is. Basically it is a movement that concentrates on personal choice and freedom. I have done much research on it, but I would like another person's point of view.

There isn't a general 'existentialist' meaning of 'authenticity' and if you have found it written somewhere that there is, your suspicion should be aroused. There are different views of philosophers about the meaning of 'authenticity'. This word became jargon among philosophers who are associated (usually by others) with existentialism. Heidegger has his view of authenticity and Sartre has his. These are two of the most well known. Heidegger's view is based on the ontological difference between Being (Sein) in its verbal sonority and beings (Seiendes) or things that are. Essential for human Being (Dasein), according to Heidegger, is Being-toward-death (Sein sum Tode). In terms of this absolute each of us derive what is our 'ownmost' (eigenst). While quite technical-sounding in his early work, Heidegger's idea of all this became increasingly fluid, fluent and poetic. The usual criticism of Heidegger is to ask where ethics fits into all this. Heidegger's thinking seems to render ethics superfluous. The rejoinder is that Heidegger is not thinking about ethics, nor is he thinking about system, he is thinking about Being, and if you are thinking about that, this is how it goes.

Sartre's view highlights what Heidegger would regard as an inauthentically human. Sartre starts with the fact of human freedom, as you say, the freedom of the ego essentially, and he say, "Man makes himself. He isn't ready made to begin with. By choosing his ethics, he makes himself, and the force of circumstances is such that he cannot abstain from choosing one..." (Existentialism is a Humanism). So for Sartre, ethics is there to begin with. His philosophy, and idea of authenticity is always already ethical. However, it is also political and the problem with Sartre, in his life as in his work is that the ethical gets submerged in the political and the political becomes the horizon of the ethical. His ethics ends (like Mathieu) foundering upon his politics.

Matthew Del Nevo


Emma asked:

I am currently trying to work out what on earth existence is. Not in a Descartes kinda way, but more 'is existence a predicate' or in other words why is 'John is bald' any different to 'John exists'? Surely existence is necessary for John to be bald. If I follow this through, can things which to not exist have properties? Is it just a problem of defining existence (if this can be done) because things that are not and have never been physical can have attached qualities (e.g. imaginary friends, unicorns, aliens).

Any ideas?

I agree with your sense of bafflement. I do not see any difference between saying that John is bald, and saying that John is (something or other). To be, is to be something or other, to have some property, to be an object thought about, or talked about, or believed in, or imagined. Why do philosophers insist on saying that existence itself cannot be a property?

There are historical reasons, to do with Kant's objections to the ontological argument for the existence of God. Then there is the groundbreaking work in mathematical logic around the turn of the nineteenth century by Gottlob Frege, who defined a second-order existence 'quantifier' as a property, not of objects, but of concepts. But this is all a red herring, so far we are concerned.

Let me define a property 'Q' in the following way:

If any object x has a property F, then it has Q.

What is it to be Q? We can think of Q as the property of being something or other. Every object, by definition, has Q. You and I have Q. imaginary friends, unicorns and aliens have Q. You'd think that this is hardly news, to told that some thing has property Q, and you would be right. For the message has already been gotten across when we used whatever referring expression we used to talk about the thing in question.

The definition I have just given of 'Q' is a definition which does perfectly well for 'exists'. Philosophers of language can argue about whether in ordinary language when we say that something exists, what we 'mean' is the existence property, or the Fregean second-order quantifier. I would argue that there is no fact of the matter here.

However, if we agree to talk about existence as a property of objects, we have to guard against a fallacy. For we are tempted to reason as follows. "Things can go into or come out of existence. We can think that a thing exists, and then it turns out that it doesn't exist, or think that a thing doesn't exist, and then it turns out that it does exist. When we use 'exist' in this context, we must mean something different from the mere property of 'being' something-or-other, which anything can have whether it really exists, or not. It follows that there must be another property, real existence which some 'existing' things possess and others do not."

This is nonsense.

If I say, "King Charles I" no longer exists, the object of my reference is not some shadowy entity, the idea of King Charles in this or that person's mind, but the actual King Charles who was King of England. One and the same object cannot at one time be solid and real and at another time insubstantial and unreal. There are ideas in people's minds, and there are physical things in the world, just as there are fictional characters, mythical creatures, numbers and anything else one cares to name. It is no less absurd to suppose that a 'real' King Charles could become an 'unreal' idea or memory or concept of King Charles, than it is to suppose that the 'real' King Charles could become a fictional character, or a mythical creature, or a number.

Geoffrey Klempner


Shirly asked:

What is Descartes's thesis regarding senses?

As a philosopher, Descartes sought a true foundation for empirical knowledge which is knowledge of the world received through sense experience. As a philosopher, he suggested that it is unwise to trust the senses, since if they have deceived us once, they may do so again. However, as an ordinary man, he thought that it is madness to doubt one's senses and as a philosopher he recognised that although you can sometimes be wrong about sense experience it doesn't follow that you always are. So the real problem of scepticism about knowledge of the external world is posed when Descartes considers that he has dreamt in the past that he has been sitting by the fire with a paper in his hand and he finds that "there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep". So it is not that we can doubt our senses generally because they have deceived us once, but that in any particular case we do not know whether or not we are dreaming. There is nothing essentially qualitative in our experience that we can point to as proof that we are not dreaming. For this reason, in any particular case we do not know whether we possess empirical knowledge.

The general problem of scepticism, ie whether or not empirical knowledge is possible or whether we are always dreaming, is answered by Descartes' arguments for the proof of the existence of God. If we are not constantly being deceived by an evil demon, and if Descartes' argument for a benevolent God is accepted, we can be sure that there is an empirical world and that our senses do not in general deceive us. The argument lends support to the ordinary man's confidence in his senses, and the philosophical position that even if we doubt our senses once, this doesn't mean we should doubt the senses in general. So although Descartes argues that we can generally be confident in our sense experience because of a benevolent God, and it is madness in a particular case to doubt our sense experience, he does not solve this particular sceptical problem about how we know we are awake. We do normally know this and it is only a practical problem if we are insane, but it remains a philosophical problem of how we are to account for it.

Rachel Browne


Ben asked:

What is knowledge?

Justified true belief is a standard and reasonably widely (but not universally) accepted definition for knowledge — there are some problems with it. Before I go into that, though, I need to clear up what is meant by saying that knowledge is a particular type of belief — one which is both justified and true. Remember, it is a definition of 'knowledge', not of 'truth'.

Belief: For me to be said to know something, I need to believe it. If I don't believe that snow is white, I can't be said to know that snow is white.

True: It is not enough for something to be knowledge just because it is believed. It also has to be true, independent of any belief I have. It has to actually be a fact, in the world. So if I believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and (see next condition) I have very solid grounds for believing it (lots of books say so etc), but it turns out that Bacon wrote it instead, then I never knew that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. I just, mistakenly, thought that I knew it.

Justified: However, even if I believe something that is also true, if my justification for that belief is not adequate (and we can question what counts as adequate justification), then I can't be said to know it. Say I claim to know that you were eating a ham sandwich as you asked your question, and say that it turns out that you were, in fact, eating a ham sandwich as you sent it. But if I am asked 'how did you know?' and I say 'because I am eating a ham sandwich as I write the reply', then we would say that this was not a justification for believing you were eating one as you wrote, and that my "knowledge" was no more than a lucky guess, or a coincidence. Knowledge can't turn out to be true just by accident — there must be a good reason for holding it.

One thing to emphasise (on this account) is the distinction between knowledge and truth. Knowledge is something that depends on people and their beliefs, whereas truth seems to be something that does not depend on people at all, just on what really is. This is often referred to as the distinction between epistemology (what is known) and ontology (what is). Things can be true without us being able to say they are true, and we can say they are true without them being true. This takes care of the case where there is disagreement about truth: if people disagree about what is true, then there is a matter of fact (independent of belief or justification) about what is true — and only the person whose belief (with justification) aligns with truth has knowledge — the other has a justified but false belief (unless both are wrong!).

Example: 'I believe Father Christmas exists' is a statement of belief, not of knowledge. On the "justified true belief" account, it is also knowledge if and only if (a) it can be justified and (b) it is (independently) also true.

Some people (me included) think that there are problems with the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. One reason (the one I share) is the problem about what is true. We don't seem to have any way of checking whether something is true, apart from the methods of forming justified beliefs. So, if we can never independently determine what actually is true (as distinguished from what we think is true), then we can never be sure we know anything (the problem of scepticism). Yet we do claim to know lots of things — surely we do in fact know lots of things. So knowledge might better be thought of as properly justified belief, and we can therefore know things that might, in theory, turn out to have been wrong (a fallibilist view of knowledge). Of course, some people don't like this last statement — they would say that if it turns out to have been wrong, we didn't know it at all.

Of course, there is disagreement about types of justification and how good each is — all knowledge does seem to depend on lots of other things we know, ways we go about finding things out, our beliefs about how the world works, what counts as justification and so on. So, many people think that knowledge has to do with fitting in with all these other things — not just in ourselves, but in the community we move in — these are coherence and consensus models of knowledge, and it is a version of this that I would defend. But that is not to say that this is an easy account of knowledge to defend — in fact, I am still working away at it.

Tim Sprod

The branch of philosophy dealing with this question is called epistemology. There are many theories of knowledge, among them the coherence theory and the pragmatic theory. I'll try to explain one of the "classical approaches" here, the justification theory of knowledge.

Knowledge must primarily be based on reason and evidence, rather than feeling or intuition.

Knowledge further requires:
1. Belief: I can only know that London is the capital of the UK if I (at least) believe that it is.
2. Truth: I also could believe something false: "Paris is the capital of the UK".

So, knowledge needs true belief based on evidence. Still this is not necessarily knowledge. An example: in ancient Greece a few people were heliocentrists. They believed, that the earth revolves around the sun (which turned out to be a true belief), they had reasons for their belief, but not enough evidence to know that the earth went around the sun: at that time it seemed more evident, that the sun revolved around the earth.

It was thought that justification, when added to true belief, yields a necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge. Its sufficiency, however, was refuted by Edmund Gettier. He showed that having a justified true belief still might be insufficient for knowledge.

An example: Suppose that Helen, one of my sisters, tells me that she is pregnant, on the grounds that her pregnancy test at the clinic was positive. So I believe that one of my sisters is pregnant for a good reason: my belief is justified. Further suppose that my belief is true, but not because Helen is pregnant. There was a mix up at the clinic and not she is pregnant, but my other sister, Christine. My belief was true and justified, but there was no knowledge.

Then, what more than justified true belief is required for knowledge? One answer is this. A belief counts as knowledge only if it was acquired by a reliable method. A method for acquiring beliefs is reliable just if it leads one to acquire beliefs which are true and does not lead one to acquire beliefs which are false. Trusting hospital pregnancy tests is an example of what may seem, in most contexts, a reliable method for acquiring beliefs. But in the above example, the context of the mix-up at the hospital meant that it was not a reliable method. And this is why my true justified belief that one of my sisters is pregnant does not count as knowledge. For a belief counts as knowledge only if it was acquired by a method that was, in the context, reliable.

What, then, is knowledge? One answer is this: knowledge is true justified belief that was acquired by a method that was, in the context, reliable. A subject's belief counts as knowledge when they have good reason to have that belief, the belief is true, and it was acquired by a method that was, in the context, reliable. That's a lot of conditions, isn't it?

That's why some people are dissatisfied with (these variations of) the justification theory of knowledge, they say "If that's what knowledge is, then we have very little of it, if any!"

According to another approach to the question of knowledge, the causal theory of knowledge, we can know something without personally having a proof or even justification of it. We have knowledge that something is the case whenever our belief is caused in the right way: A subject's belief counts as knowledge if and only if it is caused by that which makes it true. I know that it is raining if and only if my belief that it is raining is caused by that which makes it true — its raining.

Simone Klein


Marina asked:

If God exists and is anything like what He is said to be by traditional religion, then the world could not be the way it is. Therefore, does God not exist or is the traditional view of religion incorrect?

The idea that God exists, though engendered by Scholasticism in the Middle Ages, belongs more to modern deism, which is conceptualistic, than to traditional religion. In the Jewish and Christian religions, God does not exist as such, as a being among beings or as the Being of beings. God is outside being. God is not a noun, rather a 'black hole' in language. This is not to say, at a more populist level of religion, we can't speak of a God who 'is', rather than 'is not' or act likewise. But for the philosophers of religion in tradition, the words of Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-395) are typical, "Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend and circumscribe the divine nature can only succeed in fashioning an idol, not in making God known" (Life of Moses). And yet, 'God' is no mystery, in that the Jewish Bible expresses the absolute of thought about 'Him' and the New Testament, is that — a testament to 'Him'. There is a reason for this, but that is another question.

Matthew Del Nevo


Niki asked:

How far can we know what is true? Because as I see it there is no half truth, we either know our world or we are living a lie.

There is no such thing as half-truth, but there is such a thing as knowing, or saying something which is less than the whole truth. Courts of law are familiar with the concept of the whole truth: hence the oath which requires the witness to state, "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." You can say things which are true, but by your omissions, or by your choice of emphasis, lead your listeners to conclude things which are not true. You have not said anything false, yet the effect is just the same as if you had.

From the point of view of logic, a statement is either true or it isn't. To take the logician Tarski's famous example, "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white. If I tell you that snow is white, or if I tell you that "Snow is white" is true, I have conveyed exactly the same information. Generations of students, meanwhile, have wondered how on earth one can make such a sweeping statement as, "Snow is white" when everyone who has ever seen snow knows that it can be a multitude of shades! There is no precisely defined point where something ceases to be white and becomes cream, or grey, or indeed where snow ceases to be snow and becomes sleet, or slush.

Is it then not true to say that snow is white, but only truer to say that snow is white than to say it isn't? What colour is snow, if not white? The thing to say here is that our language, with all its vagueness, does precisely the job that it is designed to do. We could not convey to one another what our senses told us, if we were only permitted to use concepts with precise definitions. On the whole, our senses are reliable witnesses, even though they fail to deliver scientific precision.

This case can be generalised. What I have said applies not only to knowledge gained by sense perception, where we make judgements that such and such is 'large' or 'small', or 'white' or 'cream', or a 'heap' or a 'pile', but also to knowledge which expresses a theory about the things we perceive, a theory which perhaps works only as a first or second approximation. Human or 'folk' psychology, which talks of beliefs, desires, intentions is held by some philosophers of mind to be only approximately true, and by others to be false, though useful. But the same thing applies here as in the case of vagueness. Take away folk psychology, and whatever 'scientific' account can be given of processes going in the brain will never be an adequate substitute.

There is much more knowledge about the world to be had than the knowledge we possess, or even seek. The world is a world of illusion only for those who mistakenly believe that all they know is all there is to be known.

Geoffrey Klempner


Henry asked:

Psychology claims to have a direct link to the emotional in terms of mental ailments such as eating disorders, exhaustion states etc. People often live in a state of denial about their true feelings and a trained therapist is able to read and identify the patient's true feelings and, in theory, with time help or even cure the person of their problem. Do you think that philosophy too may have its own direct route to the emotional, that here too a person may be in complete denial of that which a philosopher may be able to shed some light upon? What I suppose I am asking is, do you think philosophy has emotional significance, a world within the human being to answer unto itself with direct connotations to our lives and sicknesses?

A psycho-therapist is normally quite dynamic and tries to change behavioural traits in a patient (or so I believe), but the philosophically influenced existentialist therapist won't try to bring about specific behavioural changes, as would be necessary in the case of someone with an eating disorder. You might look at my answer to Carlos (Answers 13) to see the dangers of applying existential philosophy to specific psychological problems, but this is only one example and involves the application of a particular existential theory, namely Heidegger's, to a particular psychological problem.

But philosophy does have a root to the emotional life in a quite general way and can also be used in therapy and its aim is not to heal a type of sickness, but to make a man more human. Martin Buber asks "Shall a man who is called upon to help another in a specific manner merely give the help for which is summoned?" — a particular problem with modern Western medicine! Buber has heavily influenced existential therapy with his account of our relationship with others which he calls the "I-Thou" relationship. His claim is that man does not grow by relation to himself, but within the I-Thou relationship which is not just a relationship to others, but to nature and to God. Applying Buber's account of man at the level of therapy, the therapist aims to show a patient his own subjectivity through engaging him in an intimate relationship in which he transcends his own concerns to enter into a full human relationship which loosens the patient's feeling of separateness. When a feeling of separateness grows it becomes more and more difficult to overcome and a patient takes refuge in his own world and the world of objects.

The therapist influenced by Buber's philosophy is open and genuine, allowing the patient to trust him and by entering into a relationship as a partner is able to liberate the patient from harmful emotions which lead to sickness. By means of seeing and understanding the very nature of the partner and what gives rise to his behaviour, the therapist can uncover the limitations and lack of full humanity in a patient's life. Through genuine dialogue which loosens the patient from the limitations of his lack of humanity and his refuge in objects, the patient is on the path to more expansive I-Thou relationships with other people than the therapist, with animals and trees, and perhaps with God. Because this sort of philosophy is a guide to what therapy should be like, it can have an effect of curing some mental ailments but only those which respond to therapy, which possibly excludes psychosis and eating disorders, but might help with exhaustion which can result from over-involvement with the world of objects. You might want to look at Buber's book "The Knowledge of Man".

Other existentialist philosophers try to address man's ailments, but are less optimistic about man's condition. For instance, Heidegger's dread and Sartre's fear are likely to make us more ill if taken too seriously!

Rachel Browne

I'm going to put my usual disclaimer here, and preface this by stating that what I'll say below is not what everyone thinks, by any means. Now, as far as therapy goes... Speaking as someone who a) has known therapists, b) worked in a couple of mental hospitals, c) done a teeny bit of crisis counseling, and d) studied experimental (not clinical, mind you) psychology, my general take on therapists is that about 85% have studied it to help themselves with their own problems, and that "schools" of therapy are mostly useful in providing education into some aspects of the human condition and problems, not as a means of teaching one to do therapy. One is an effective therapist if one listens sympathetically to another and supports that other person's own efforts to work through their problems, if they are enough in touch with reality to be capable of that; if not, probably nothing aside from drugs will help, at least to start. Boy, I'm glad I'm not standing in front of an audience of therapists and saying that; I'd be covered in tomatoes by now. Although, to be fair, I recently had a conversation with a couple of friends — a psychiatrist and a counselor — and they agreed with the above. I'm not just speaking off the cuff here, there have been studies of the relative effectiveness of various schools, and they conclude about the same thing. And when people talk about spending decades on a couch, under therapy, my feeling is that there's a problem there. It shouldn't take that long (sorry, Freudians).

So, in answer to your question as far as philosophy: yes, sure, as much as anything. But what does "direct route" mean? No therapist, or philosopher, is a mind reader. If you look at Being and Time, for example, you find bunches of insights into the "human condition". Are they correct? Lots of people think so. Death, fear, alienation... curiosity, "thrownness," "falling"... and why not, it's not bad stuff, especially for its time. There are libraries of that kind of thing, starting, more or less, with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, through Freud, the existentialists, and on and on. When you ask whether philosophy has "emotional significance"... how could it not? It has whatever emotional significance you read into it. And there are lots of people who have read all those volumes and are still just as screwed up (ooh... more tomatoes) and unhappy as when they started... with maybe a bit more insight into why (or maybe not).

Now Buddhism is an interesting approach; they don't focus on people with problems so much as attempt to adjust relatively normal people to what they see as a painful and chaotic world, more or less. You're enlightened when you just don't care much any more (more tomatoes thrown at me — "serenely accept" sounds better, but I'm not sure what distinction is being made). But it's not easy learning to be a Buddhist, either.

The point I'm trying to make here is that if you want help, the absolute best you can get is someone to listen carefully, and give you some emotional support and a few signposts for your own difficult, painful, incomplete, unsatisfying efforts. There are no instant miracle cures or personality makeovers, whether you're pursuing philosophy, psychology, or religious revelation. It's just hard, constant work, and no guarantee of results.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jana asked:

If god forgives people, then why is there a hell?

Normally if we are talking of the God of Jews and Christians who can forgive, we write it with a capital to distinguish from 'the gods' of the pagans. Is there a hell? is the question you might have asked first, rather than 'why' is there one. For Jews and Christians, the truth is that it is man who must forgive. Men and women are free beings, God cannot forgive for them or on their behalf. I am speaking here as a modern philosopher of religion, not just regurgitating old doctrinal language and thereby evoking the misunderstandings that have accrued round it. God doesn't forgive man does. As a result of man's lack of forgiveness, there is Hell. Where? Hell is a state people are in in every city, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and rejected, the homeless and alienated, the lost and hopeless are all in Hell. True forgiveness is a Christlike (godlike) act because by way of it we assume responsibility for those in Hell. That's what the words in the Lord's Prayer, for instance, really mean.

Matthew Del Nevo


Lisa asked:

I am having trouble thinking abstractly. Arguing for the sake of arguing seems like begging the question/ circular reasoning to me. Can we or should we come to conclusions in philosophy or not? If most of philosophy is subjective than how does anyone come to a conclusion? Even if you could prove objective truth there are people who would still disbelieve just for the sake of argument. I find it enormously confusing, even though it is fascinating.

Don't worry about abstract thinking. If you are student, just try to understand. I agree that arguing for the sake of it is pretty pointless and it has meant that recent academic philosophy hasn't progressed very far.

However, things might still change in relation to the subjective and objective. I think that this distinction may become set aside in favour of greater investigation into the nature of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity.

However, retaining the distinction, the subjective may be understood as opinion rather than knowledge. If truth is understood as logical truth then it is difficult for a philosopher to disagree with it and there can be conclusions. A philosopher would be forced to change his opinion if faced with anything undeniable. On the other hand, if objective truth is the supposed fact of the matter, for example that material objects exist, then it is possible for philosophers to deny it — on logical grounds. If we just give up the idea of objectivity in favour of inter-subjectivity, then we can aim to find things we agree upon, such as that material objects exist and there is such a thing as morality and this is not to do away with philosophical investigation, but to take a subjective, phenomenological approach rather than a logical one. In the light of my recent answers on personal identity, it seems that this is one area in which a different approach would be of benefit.

Rachel Browne


Jacqui asked:

I was wondering could you tell me what exactly is scholastic philosophy, and the difference between it and philosophy per se?

I keep getting asked this question but don't have any real plausible answer to give, my lecturers were very vague when I studied it.

Scholastic philosophy is the religious philosophy of the Middle Ages. Now we would really call it theology, but as theology, it is particularly philosophical and rational. Scholastic philosophy is a theology that eschews the mystical for the most part. Some mystics in and after the Middle Ages (Meister Ekhart, St. John of the Cross for instance) had Scholastic training and still used the language of the Scholastics. Thomas Aquinas and John Scotus were the most famous Scholastics.

As for "philosophy per se" I'm not sure there is such a thing. There are those who believe in it (along the lines of 'pure reason'), but since Hegel, philosophy appears historical, as do we to ourselves.

Matthew Del Nevo


Josh asked:

Hi, I need to know what a Philosopher thinks about beauty.

You might want to read Kant's account of beauty in The Critique of Judgement which is excellent. I have summarised it in these pages before so, briefly, Kant's view is that a judgement that something is beautiful is a subjective response to the form of an object and this response is universalisable, not in the sense that we think others would find the object beautiful, but that they ought to do so. The response is to the form of an object rather than what it is: We do not respond to paint on canvas or the subject matter of a picture, but to its form or "finality". When we respond to something we find perfect and flawless we pay no attention to factual detail, or what something is, but we are thrown back into the pleasure of our own response to the end-product which gives rise to imaginative pleasure which cannot be accounted for merely by the facts about the painting. If our pleasure were simply in something we have a taste for rather than something we find beautiful we might suppose that others would find it pleasurable, but in the case of beauty it is implicit in the judgement that others ought to find the object beautiful. To justify this, Kant needs to rely on an assumption that appreciation of beauty is of moral or intellectual benefit. And you probably don't want to go that far into it.

Kant's was a theory of his time: His was an era of great art and the term "beautiful", appropriated by aesthetic theory, was purged of connotations of mere sensory taste to lend this appreciative term adequate value. Hume also thought that beauty referred to a subjective response and called it "taste" but held that only an expert with refined taste and experience could truly determine what is beautiful. Lessing thought that beauty was of such purity that a sculpture of the ugly face of a man in pain could not be beautiful, even if it was great art. So these three thinkers found an essential purity in beauty.

In latter times, the idea of beauty is even further purified to the extent that it is analysed in geometrical or mathematical terms but this is to analyse artistic excellence without reference to imaginative pleasure which Kant thought essential to a judgement of beauty.

Rachel Browne


Sarah asked:

"We are condemned to freedom," announced French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. What did he have in mind?

"We are condemned to meaning," said his associate Maurice Merleau-Ponty. What is his point?

Sartre meant that if we scrape off the accretion of bourgeois convention we find our essence in our freedom to do. We are free for. But to discover what we are free for we have to rebel against convention and get free from. Existence (by which he means authentic existence) condemns us to this freedom for.

Merleau-Ponty means that meaning is more basic than freedom. Our essence is not so much freedom as an absolute or ideal. It is meaning. Essence and existence are both matters of meaning. It is meaning to which we are condemned above all else.

Matthew Del Nevo


Michael asked:

What is a working definition of ""moral equivalence?"

As an example, I just read the following:

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Thursday rejected a Saudi prince's 10 million Dollar donation for victims of the World Trade Center after the prince criticized U.S. policy in the Middle East. "Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek.''

"There is no moral equivalent to this attack. One of the reasons I think this happened is because they were engaged in moral equivalency in not understanding the difference between liberal democracies like the United States, like Israel, and terrorist states and those who condone terrorists,'' he said.

Maybe there is such a thing as moral equivalence, or so it is suggested in the bible: "An eye for an eye" is morally equivalent action. However, moral equivalence focuses purely on the action and cannot take into account intentions or consequences since no two events are likely to be the same in this respect. Actions are morally evaluated in terms of intentions and it is assumed that the moral agent takes consequences into account. It is not simply a question of what is done. Although this is disputable, as far as intentions are concerned I don't think actions performed from revenge are justifiable. You suffer, you integrate it into your life and you become stronger. You suffer, you take revenge, or act on the eye for an eye principle and the world becomes a worse place. Aiming at moral equivalence is not morally worthy.

Rachel Browne


Brian asked:

This is a question about dualism. Can the mind be split like a physical part of the body can? If you remove certain parts of the brain will certain parts of the mind no longer exist, and can they be relearned without the necessary parts of the brain?

This is a very good insight into the mind-body problem, and one which has always prompted me to exhort that philosophers study neurology. In answer to your first question: yes. In answer to your second: for the most part, no.

Now, what are the implications? Suppose the mind is a "nonmaterial substance", whatever that might be, which is not generated by the brain, but is somehow associated with it, so that when we physically die, that mind just floats off somewhere. Why then, given the enormous variety of brain damage in the literature, do we see the extremely specific, long-lasting (i.e., largely irreversible) effects that we do in fact see? Well, one possibility is that the mind, the "nonmaterial" substance, could also be destroyed by the damage. But that seems to contradict the whole point of mind/brain independence. Another alternative is that the mind is still there, but it's lost some sort of connection to the brain. Well, in that case, why don't we see an effect like that of static on the radio: the program is still broadcasting, but we just can't receive it properly? But that is not what we see in brain damage; we see fundamental problems generating or constructing the mental events or acts that are associated with the affected area of the brain: the program is not being broadcast (i.e., constructed, in this case). But how can that be, if the mind is basically independent of the brain? Well, I don't have the slightest idea. The concept of dependence is precisely what we see being realized in this kind of phenomenon: if something (M) is dependent on something else (B), then if M is damaged, B is not necessarily affected, but if B is damaged, M is necessarily affected. Well, that's the case with the mind (M) vs. the brain (B).

Now, if you still want to insist that the mind is another substance from the brain, but concede that it is affected by brain damage, fine. I don't see what distinction is being made here, though. You're going to live after you die physically? Um... live how? If the brain is completely destroyed, with organic death, and the mind, whatever it is, is dependent on the brain, then all your memories are gone (hypothalamus/cortex, mostly), all your capacity for rational thought (cortex and prefrontal lobes, mostly), all your capacity for emotions (thalamus, mostly), and in fact your consciousness... gone. So whatever floats away surely isn't you; you — your memories, thoughts, feelings — are all destroyed with your brain. Everything I've listed here (and this is a very minimal list, but come up with a mental function, and a neuroanatomist, at this point, can pretty much tell you where it's located) is associated with various parts of the brain, including consciousness (that latter is dependent on what is known as the "extended reticular activating system"; when that is destroyed, you go into irreversible coma). Creativity? Prefrontal/cortical function, mostly. Look at the literature on Nicholas Gage, for example, or at Damasio's book, "Descartes' Error", which addresses this topic, mostly as it relates to emotion, in great detail.

Steven Ravett Brown


Raymond asked:

Sartre claims that the writer and reader together produce the work of literature (in "What is Literature?"). Is "freedom" essential in this process?

The reader is an "agent" who subjectively engages in a work, animating it and providing it with objectivity, which is freedom as the use of will. Such imaginative participation is active and creative. Sartre contrasts it with paintings in which everything is there before the eyes to be seen. It is a bit mysterious that Sartre says that we are free to see what we like in a painting, that it is up to us to choose, since this suggests freedom is also constitutive of appreciation of visual art too, so we must be dealing with two different senses of freedom. It would be absurd for Sartre to say that visual art cannot ever present us with facts about the human condition but it is does not provide us with the freedom to engage subjectively with the work, as when we hate police magistrates because Raskolnikov does. So it is not freedom as choice, but the freedom to create and come to know about the human condition from our own activities. This is real freedom in the world since when we animate the work we take it to be objective and truths about mankind are objective whether presented in fiction or not. We don't live through and animate a picture like this. So the reader uses his freedom however closely he is guided by what the writer presents.

The writer's freedom is also an act of freedom action and truth because he uses words and reveals the world to readers.

The connection between freedom and truth may be essential to the creation of great works of art but Sartre talks of "prose" generally and when words are used not to reveal man to man, but to persuade or arouse emotion, as in journalism, the reader only has the freedom to disagree. Sartre would probably find that rather a banal sense of freedom and not worth writing about.

Rachel Browne


Chris asked:

The greatest good is pleasure and the highest evil is pain. Agree or Disagree?

Disagree. Panayot Butchvarov has pointed that if you take pleasure as the greatest good then you either deny that virtue, honour and money are as good or you count them as pleasures. Neither position is easily defensible, so Butchvarov (Skepticism in Ethics) suggests that we admit that pleasure is a good and that virtue, honour and money are also good but not pleasures.

When we judge something to be good we don't mean pleasurable, although this is one thing that we can mean. Pleasure can just be "nice" or "fun" and sometimes pleasure is incompatible with the moral sense of the term good. Good is abstract and irreducible, and good is the greatest good and evil is the greatest evil would probably be a better, more Platonic, way of trying to understand what good is.

Rachel Browne


Richard asked:

In what ways can the ideas of the Akan, Bantu, and Yoruba be traced back to Ancient Egyptian philosophy?

I can give a partial answer to this question.

In a search for the roots of the Yoruba religion one can look to the Egyptians. One has to remember that religion and philosophy are very difficult to separate in some of these early civilizations. What can be deduced from archeological and historic records the Yoruba people migrated from east to west. J. Olumide Lucas in his book The Religion of the Yorubas traces their history as a civilization back to Egypt. "A chain of evidence leads to the conclusion that they must have settled for many years in that part of the continent known as Ancient Egypt." (Cook, 1974, p. 184) In his work Lucas shows that there were similarities in language, religion and customs between these two groups of people.

"Abundant proof of intimate connection between ancient Egyptians and the Yoruba may be produced under this head. Most of the principle gods were well known, at one time, to the Yoruba. Among these gods are Osiris, Isis, Horus, Shu, Sut, Troth, Khepera, Amon, Anu, Khonsu, Khnum, Khopri, Hathor, Sokaris, Ra, Seb, the elemental deities and others. Most of the gods survive in name or in attributes or in both" (Lucas, 1948, p.21).

In comparing the religions, we find that the Yoruba had a moon deity known as Osu (moon) which is the Egyptian lunar god Khonsu. To find the conclusive proof of this similarity one has to look at the etymological development of the Yoruba language. In the Yoruba language Kh does not exist. By following the consonant—vowel rules in Yoruba the vowel is dropped and you are left with the word Osu from Khonsu. If we follow this etymological analysis we find that "Amon exists in Yoruba with the same meaning it has in ancient Egyptian: hidden. The god Amon is one of the first deities known by the Yoruba and the words Mon and Mimon (holy and sacred) are probably derived from the name of that god, according to Lucas. Troth would become To in Yoruba" (Cook, 1974, p. 185).

Following this lead we can see that the development of a monotheistic religion had it roots in the land of Egypt. Although many have claimed that the religion of the Egyptians was polytheistic in fact it was not. Moses even went so far as to declare that Yahweh, like the God of Egypt, was one (Deut. vi.4). To the Egyptians Path was a spirit self created having no beginning or end. Path was the intelligence of the universe and it was his thoughts that produced the material world and everything in it. Path had power in the words that resided in his mouth. This idea was pointed out by Jablonski where he connected it with the Hebrew idea of how the world was created by their God. The idea of an all powerful god was developed in Egypt and spread with the migration of the Yoruba people. This spiritual conception of god and the universe was begun in the Nile valley 4000 years before the Christian era. Later we see Amen of Thebes be declared as having the same power and nature as Path. "...Lucas recalls that all the ontological notions of the ancient Egyptians, such as the Ka, Akhu, Khu, Sahu, and Ba are found in the Yoruba" (Cook. 1974, p. 186). We see in the Egyptian Ka transformed into the Guarding spirit of the Yoruba. The final cement for an Egyptian and Yoruba connection is the existence of Yoruba hieroglyphics. "To conclude, let us note that Pedrals mentions, on page 107, the Kuso Hill near Ife and the existence of a Kuso Hill in Nubia, near ancient Meroe, west of the Nile 'in the heart of the land of Kush'" (Cook, 1974, p. 187). From this we can thus consider that a historical connection of facts joins the Egyptian and the Yoruba civilizations together.

The labyrinth of religious development is long and complex from its root beginnings at the dawn of civilization to its numerous forms in the present day. Its importance for the peoples of Africa was to keep them secure through out their long history. Whether as rulers of great civilizations or as slaves in foreign countries the Yoruba maintained their identity and life blood throughout their religious convictions and heritage.

Selected Bibliography
Cook, M. (1974) The African Origin of Civilization Chicago
Lucas, J. O. (1948) The Religion of the Yorubas Lagos

Mbiti J.S. (1975) Introduction to African Religion New York
Noss, J. B. (1949) Man's Religion New York: Macmillan
Wippler, G. M. (1989) Santeria The Religion New York
Wippler, G. M. (1994) Legends of Santeria Minn.

John Eberts


Kevin asked:

I received an answer from Steven Ravett Brown about how to understand Reflexivity. I understand the answer that was given, but it was something that was unrelated to what I was referring to, which is cool.

I am trying to complete Douglas R. Hofstadter Gödel, Escher, Bach Metamagical Themas, Section 1, 'Snags and Snarls'. Can you explain his concept of Reflexivity? where can I find out more about it?

The title of this section conveys the image of problematical twistiness. The twist dealt with here are those whereby a system (sentence, picture, organism, society, government, mathematical structure, computer program etc.) twists back on itself and closes a loop. A very general name for this is Reflexivity. When realized in different ways, this abstraction becomes a concrete phenomenon. Examples are : self reference, self description, self documentation, self contradiction, self questioning,ęself creation, self replication, self modification self amendment, self limitation, self extension, self application, self self scheduling, and on and on. In the following four chapters, these strange phenomena are illustrated in sentences and stories that talk about themselves, ideas that propagate themselves from mind to mind, machines that replicate themselves, and games that modify their own rules. The variety of these loopy tangles is quite remarkable, and the subject is far from being exhausted. Furthermore, although their connection with paradox may make reflexive systems seem no more than intellectual playthings, study of them is of great importance in understanding many mathematical and scientific developments of this century, and is becoming ever more a central of theories of intelligence and consciousness, whether natural of artificial.

Douglas R. Hofstadter Gödel, Escher, Bach

Whoops, sorry... but you weren't specific. "Reflexivity" in this sense refers to what might be termed recursion, in the most general sense. He seems to be talking about any kind of referring back to a starting point, an original position, a beginning state. So the "loop" he's talking about is a loop in the time course of an action, where that action goes "out" to something, then comes "back" to oneself. Self-reference is the act, let us say, of paying attention being "bent" back towards the self that is paying attention. Self-description is the act of description being directed back toward the person actually doing the description. You see? The "loop" structure he's talking about is from you, your "self", back into or towards your self. He refers, ultimately, to the idea of the "reflex arc", which is a structural phenomenon in the nervous system in which a sensation like a pain activates spinal nerves, which feed back, in an immediate reflex, to the muscles near the pain, to withdraw the limb. You can read about that in texts about the nervous system.

Now, there is no place you can find more about the general concept of "reflexivity", as far as I know, as a single unitary concept (except perhaps in other writings of Hofstadter), because "reflexivity" is a word coined by him. You can find out about the various subsets of that concept. There are, for example, lots of places you can look at kinds of self-description, mainly in the literature of clinical psychology, and in art, in, for example, self-portraits. If you want a neat story that talks about itself, read Sophie's World, by Gaardner. If you want to learn generally about recursion, finish Hofstadter's book, and then you have, I'm afraid, to learn some math. You might also look at the literature and pictures of fractals, a relatively simple and interesting case of recursion.

Steven Ravett Brown


Alison asked:

Should people be allowed to gamble?

An interesting question which I see as a specific example of a more general question — whether paternalism is justified. By paternalism I mean the idea that those in authority are justified in forbidding those under them from doing some action that will harm the 'underlings' themselves (or requiring they do something that will do them good). The word arises from 'pater' = father: we can see that it is the sort of thing fathers (and mothers of course) do to their children.

People seek to justify paternalism on the grounds that it is good for the 'underling'. Others say it is not justified because it contravenes the underling's autonomy — their right to choose for themselves, even if it potentially leads to self harm.

We clearly allow that paternalism is justified in some cases. Nobody seriously argues that a father should allow his child to choose to stick a knife in a power point. In other cases we clearly disallow it. Few would seriously argue that a government may ban adults from rock climbing or football — activities which demonstrably have a potential for harm.

So your question boils down to this: is gambling more like power-point-knife-sticking, or more like football? Is the potential for harm great enough, and the ability of the gamblers to choose wisely weak enough, to justify paternalism?

Tim Sprod


Jay asked:

This is a question that came up on the language forum at http://www.a-i.com and is still under debate on both sides: Does conversation measure intelligence? Can a being that cannot communicate be said to be intelligent? Or does the responsibility lie in the being that is receiving the information?

This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, the association between language and thought, and second, the measurement or data problem. First, assuming that "conversation" means the use of natural, verbal language to communicate with another person, we have an interesting history on that. For ancient man, and not just the Greeks, the difference between man and animals was language, period. For the Greeks, the term "logos" encapsulated, in a word, humanness, and it also meant, literally, speech. Logos was thought, and thought was speech, and if you didn't have the latter you didn't have the former. In fact, most ancient peoples went so far as to regard any foreign language as non-language, just a kind of stammering, and if you didn't speak their language you were an animal, or at the least a lesser variety of man. As recently as the 19th century, and certainly into the 18th, deaf people were considered retarded because they couldn't speak, and only when the French (I believe they were the first) started teaching and learning sign language was it recognized that this wasn't true.

But what person, really and totally, does not have speech? You can, after all, be deaf and be aware that language is all around you, learn to read, and so forth. So you have to look for examples in very strange situations: feral children, children born deaf and blind. The former, from the very little data we have, never master language. They can learn a kind of simplified version, at best, of a natural language; D. Bickerton has some theories about this. But he's coming from a particular point of view (which is not to say he's incorrect, of course). What about Helen Keller? Well, she's an ambiguous case. She did have some exposure to language, to some extent, as a very young child, then became deaf and blind as a result, I think, of scarlet fever. She lost her language, but to what extent? From her description of her mental life pre- and post- language it is very unclear as to what exactly was going on. There's a lot of debate on that point, and besides, she's just one person. It's very hard, if not impossible, to find people with no ability to learn speech who really are not retarded; it's not really my field, but offhand I can't think of any examples of this. But that says only that speech is related to intelligence, but not how.

We do have many examples of people who have lost the ability, through some sort of brain damage, to have speech in one form or another, and they are usually pretty intact cognitively — an argument for modularity and against the intimate relation of speech and intelligence. These people are much easier to find, and they, I think, demonstrate that speech, or at least subclasses of language functions (and it seems to be virtually any subclass) are independent of intelligence, if that latter is considered apart from specific language skills, i.e., as general problem solving, the understanding of abstractions, the ability to solve visual puzzles, and so forth. Of course if someone has lost the ability to read you're not going to test their intelligence through a written test, right?

Which brings us to the data aspect. Just how do you get evidence of intelligence? Um... through speech, right? What else? Suppose dolphins were intelligent... well, they don't have hands, so they can't be tested with little blocks or mazes, their eyes aren't all that good, so there's a problem trying to teach them to read (not to mention being wet all the time)... now what? Look at elephants... now there's a strange case. Elephants have passed the mirror test, i.e., they can look at a mirror, like no animals except us and the higher apes (hard to test this with cetaceans), and know that the reflection is themselves, and not just an anonymous elephant. But now what? They have no vocal chords (capable of speech), no hands, who knows what goes on in their minds? But it is almost certain, from the little we can tell, that they and the higher apes (like gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans) are conscious, self-conscious, even. Are they "intelligent"? Well, there is the classic chimpanzee, cited in the literature for quite a while, who put a couple of sticks together to reach for a banana outside its cage. Was that intelligence? You tell me. There's the couple of gorillas who can put little symbols together to make simple messages. It may not be "language", but it seems to be intelligence. What else would you call it?

There is also the case of non-verbal problem solving and thinking in humans. This is really my interest in all this. I think that the emphasis on verbal thinking is due to the fact that virtually all psychologists and philosophers are highly verbal people; that's how they think. But what about painters, musicians, dancers, laborers? Take a simple example: you can tell time by adding, say 30 minutes to the current time to find the time in half an hour, right? But you can also visualize an analog clockface and visually flip the hand half around, then read the time from your internal picture. I can, at least. So that's visual thinking. Arnheim has a book on it, so did Kepes. But there's not much on it, because to be an academic, you have to be highly verbally skilled, so that's your bias. Now, all IQ tests have visual components, and so I'm really puzzled that when people talk about "intelligence" they don't just automatically take this into account. Makers of intelligence tests certainly do... why? It's clear to me, at any rate, that one can use virtually any kind of sensory internalization to think, and also it is not clear to me that mathematical and logical operations, for example, normally considered (one would hope!) thinking, are verbal operations. Do mathematicians think in "language"? Well mathematics is definitely not a natural language in the sense that English, Russian, etc. are, and what little (again, hardly anyone has studied this!) evidence we have (e.g., a letter by Einstein) indicates that mathematics can be done, at least in part, through kinesthetic (internalized body movements and feelings) thinking. I also do that kind of thinking, to some extent.

Given all the above, it seems fairly absurd to me to equate language and intelligence. They are clearly related in the senses a) that linguistic skills are an aspect of intelligence, and b) that loss of one is correlated with some loss of the other. But correlation is not equivalence.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jessica asked:

Is there an enduring self?

If there is to be any sense of self, there must be endurance. As you probably know, the logical analysis of personal identity normally reduces the self to I-Now. If a person loses all memory, he would not be enduring, but there is no reason that he would not be a person and have available to him the subjective awareness of "I-Now". However, this is a logical analysis of the self, an analysis of something which already exists, and this atomistic notion of the self depends on the idea of the enduring self. Only once we have the concept of an enduring self can we strip away the essentials to the I-Now. The reason for this dependence is that to gain a notion of the self as I-Now in the first place, we have to distinguish ourselves from objects. This is a process and so it requires endurance. A visual sensation is not sufficient to distinguish an object as spatial; one has to go on to identify its tactile identity in space. This is a temporal process which is a necessary starting pointing in providing us with an identity as a self as distinct from something else. However, if we had the experience of only one object, we would not acquire the idea of a world outside us, or the notion of space in which more than one thing exists, which is necessary for us to understand the singular thing (eg oneself). Sufficient endurance to experience enough objects such that one acquires an idea of external space, oneself as in external space, and as distinct from other objects is required for the idea of the self.

There are two senses of time involving endurance. Firstly, there is 4-dimensional space-time in which we are finding out about objective space, moving in it and distinguishing objects. Secondly, there is subjective or psychic time, the sense of duration in which thought moves. This second sense differs from the first in that it cannot be measured in 4-dimensional time and it is private. In the mind, there is no distinct contiguity — ie, when we think, we also perceive and act and cannot determine temporal relations within this complexity of activity. In terms of the purely mental, when we close our eyes and do not perceive, duration is not measurable in terms which are relative to space. An enduring mental self would endure purely temporally. (see Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will. This is not a modern book but I think that it is compatible with modern neuroscientifiic theory of mind. However, the self is only such if it is initially spatio-temporal and acquires concepts from the world and others.

The self must persist in both senses of endurance before we analyse it and this isn't normally acknowledged by those who seek to define personal identity in terms of what is logically necessary after the self exists.

Rachel Browne


Harish asked:

I would be extremely grateful, if you could define or place into words so that I could explain the question below to my children: What is the concept of 'proof'?

The above question is difficult to explain.

You're right about that!

It is a long time since I put my nose in a text book of symbolic logic, but as a first, rough pass it might say something like this. A 'proof' in the formal sense is a series of strings of symbols, each of which results from applying a particular rule to a previous string of symbols, or strings of symbols, such that each string of symbols in the series is:

Either given as a 'premiss' or starting point,

Or derived from previous strings of symbols,

Or an assumption which will be 'discharged'. (For example, in a proof which takes the simple form, 'Suppose A. Then it follows that B. But not-B. Therefore not-A', the assumption A is discharged.)

The last string of symbols is the conclusion of the proof.

One vital piece of information is missing, however. And that is that each string of symbols is interpreted as making, or standing for something that makes a statement, capable of truth or falsity. It is perfectly possible to investigate formal aspects of proofs in symbolic logic while completely ignoring this aspect. However, that is what makes the difference between a proof and a mere game with meaningless symbols manipulated according to rules.

All I have said above is just a preliminary. For even when we distinguish between the purely formal aspect of proof and its interpretation, we still have not said the most important thing about what makes something a proof.

It is this. The aim of proof is rational persuasion. We seek to persuade someone to accept a proposition, starting from an agreed basis. So that if you and I agree that A, and I can show that if you accept A then you have to accept B, that amounts to a proof of B.

'Having to accept' in this context means bringing you recognize that it is impossible for A to be true while B is false. So if you accept A, you have to accept B.

That still does not answer the question of what a proof looks like. What is this 'recognizing'? How is it brought about?

Each step of the proof takes the the idea of 'having to accept' to the most basic level. For example, if I have succeeded in getting you to accept the truth of C, and also succeeded in getting you to accept that it is not the case that (C and D), then you have to see that as a consequence of those two steps, D cannot be true. It is simply self-evident that not-D.

In text books of symbolic logic, however, the idea of a correct step is defined in terms of a given set of axioms and/or rules of inference. So, for example, in the case I have just given, one might be using a system of logic where there is no rule of inference, 'From X and not-(X and Y) infer not-Y'. In that case, in order to meet the requirements of a valid proof in the formal sense, additional steps have to be inserted.

Now, there is an ancient rule called 'Reductio ad absurdum' which says that if you can derive a contradiction from an assumption A, then that counts as a proof of not-A. We can use this rule to 'prove' that from premiss C, taken together with the premiss not-(C and D), entails not-D:

(1) Assume D
(2) From premiss C and the assumption D: (C & D)
(3) From premiss not-(C & D) and (2): (C & D) & not-(C & D).
(4) Contradiction! By Reductio ad absurdum, we can reject assumption (1). Hence, not-D.

This an example of what I referred to above as 'a provisional assumption which is discharged'. D is assumed as the first step in this mini-proof, but it is not one of the 'premisses' or starting points of the proof.

No system of logic completely coincides with our intuitive sense of what is 'self-evident'. That is why logic text books so often seem to be stating the obvious, such as in the proof above. A formal 'proof' is defined relative to a given system of formal logic. The idea of proof as such, however, does not invoke any given set of rules or axioms. People argued logically before Aristotle invented the subject called 'logic'.

Thus: A proof, in the informal sense, takes you from agreed premisses via a series of self-evident steps to a conclusion which cannot be false, if the premisses are true.

Geoffrey Klempner


Michael asked:

Please tell me, can any individual be a philosopher?

I don't know, what's a philosopher? Here's my take on it, for what it's worth. "Philosopher" is derived from Greek "philo", love (that's rough, actually it's better translated as something like "interest" or "non-erotic desire" or "have great inclination toward", more or less...) and "sophia", meaning, again roughly, "wisdom" or perhaps "learning", or something in-between those. My own feeling is that anyone who wants to think can learn to, to greater or lesser degrees. The problem is that thinking well is hard work and so is learning to do it. (Now, just why is that true? No one really knows.)

So a great deal of being a "philosopher" has to do with the motivation to keep trying to learn to think, to evaluate, to be critical of one's own thinking and others'. In addition, if one really gets into it, first, you get so self-critical that you have real problems with self-image. Are you a 'real' philosopher? One needs a tremendously strong self-image, ego, whatever you want to call it, just to keep going. That's why so many philosophers are such egomaniacs; they have to get motivation from somewhere. That's not the only way, but it's a common one. I mean, imagine being in a profession where everyone else in it is as critical as you, and usually attacks your ideas, and in addition, you spend incredible amounts of time refining them, writing them down, then sending them to be published, and waiting sometimes years to get an article read, revised and published. What do you do in the meantime? Write another? And go through the same thing? Is that first article any good? Well, you just don't really know, for a long time, and even then, who's going to tell you, your fans? Right, name me a couple of famous living philosophers, then name me one of those with fans. In the meantime, do you think you're making much money? Well, I made lots more as a computer programmer than I ever will as a philosopher.

So while practically anyone can be a philosopher, with great effort, why would anyone want to be? I can only answer for myself. I love to think, particularly about abstractions, and I like to believe that what I think about is in some sense important, if I do it well. The interesting thing about philosophy is that the ideas, rather than influencing society from the ground up, so to speak, like technology, for example, influence society from the top down: general ideas become more and more specific until they are realized, finally, in some actual or practical fashion (we like to believe). Technology is the opposite, pretty much: inventions like the computer start with specific applications and broaden out, usually. So I can hope that at some point in the indefinite future my ideas will have trickled down to make a difference in some real-world situations. Of course the problem there is that I'll probably never know; the process is usually pretty slow. Meanwhile one grinds away at a few abstract problems (which get broken down into smaller abstract problems — and there the issue is to not lose sight of the forest for the trees) rather than solving lots of little concrete ones.

Steven Ravett Brown


Tim asked:

What is the Hellenistic matrix from Plotinus's view point?

The Hellenistic period is seen as a period of self-confident independence, conscious originality and, although original in some respects, it also adapted ideas from its predecessors. Philosophy tends to separate itself from the field of science during this period. In Alexandria, Ptolemy's hostility to Greek learning accelerated the decay of scientific inquiry. The shift is toward a concentration on ethics and practical morality as one enters the Greco-Roman world. Philosophy during this time gained a recognized position, becoming more popular and lending itself to simplified moral teachings. With the spread of Hellenism, the idea of a common humanity — a community — with a corresponding increased awareness of the individual develops. The common humanity is supported by an increase in mobility and the spread of a common Greek language. The Greco-Roman world was also one of a variety of religious cults. It was into this world that Plotinus was born.

Plotinus perceived a world of ruin and misery propagated by development in Hellenistic philosophy. He attacked the materialism of the Stoics and atomists. He also declared that the Epicureans were unable to deal with an instinctual superstitious belief, making philosophy irrelevant.

Concerning the Hellenistic Matrix, one needs first to make a distinction as to what this Matrix really is. Since a Matrix is considered to be the situation in which something originates or develops, the womb of ideas so to speak, then the Hellenistic Matrix would consist of the philosophy of the Classics: Plato, Aristotle, the Skeptics, and the Pythagoreans. It is in this context that Plotinus perceived the Hellenistic Matrix, a Matrix born from the womb of Classical philosophy.

Plotinus attempted a reconstruction of Greek philosophy. The end result was Neo-Platonism, a framework of philosophy with a religious core. In Plotinus's philosophy you find agreement with the Skeptics in that he concluded that Knowledge was required to comprehend. Plotinus relied on the Platonic Forms, Forms from beyond physical heaven, to address the source of Knowledge. Humans have Knowledge, Plotinus concluded, and the soul must transcend the physical realm to perceive these Forms. He based his conclusions on the theory of Ideas. These Archetypal Ideas linked a Supreme Deity and the world of matter. This other worldliness of Plato played no part in Hellenistic philosophy. It was not till the close of the period and the revival of Pythagoreanism, which brought in a new age thought, that this was reconsidered.

The idea of a transcendent God, or a human soul exiled, as considered by Plato, was alien to the Stoics and Epicureans. Hellenistic thought was dogmatic; it led to skepticism and a decline in rationalism. It was in this milieu that Plotinus came to the forefront, producing a philosophical system based on religion.

What Plotinus develops is a system that drew from the Classical period, his Hellenistic Matrix. His system was also a system that had a Greco-Egyptian influence attached to it. This can be seen in the formulation of Plotinus's emanationalism, which had its roots in Egyptian theology. It is from here that you get the development of a monistic theology.

Plotinus drew heavily on Plato's Dialogues. He ignored the contradictions between the Dialogues and saw them as a unified whole. His concept of the mind was that of a self-conscious autonomous spiritual substance. He developed a monistic mysticism where reality is a divine ground — the ineffable One. His mysticism transcends the categories of monism as well as the categories of metaphysics. Plotinus developed a knowledge of being 'one with God' as a direct experience in intuition. From the classical period, Plotinus developed a spiritualistic theory of mind. The mind or soul had a unique and irreducible existence on its own — which began in Platonic Idealism.

John Eberts


Nico asked:

Is it possible to implement the doctrine of liberty as well as to achieve social justice in multicultural societies? how do we determine the limit of toleration in this global order? should we confront illiberalism and illiberal practices?

Liberty (the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions about what is good for them) and social justice (the idea that we should make life as good as possible for everyone) are in inherent tension and conflict within any society, homogeneous or multi-cultural. To increase freedom, we must allow that some people can make decisions and do things that will make them better off than others (e.g. accumulate wealth). To increase social justice, we must take actions that force people to give up some things so that others can live better (e.g. impose taxes).

Multi-cultural societies simply have more difficulty in balancing these, because some people in such a society are likely to believe that certain actions are good — and are personal decisions (such as foot-binding, or wearing high heels) — while others believe that these actions are harmful to certain members of the society (e.g. to women) and should be banned. [Note that this matter is related to my answer to Alison on gambling.]

The limits to tolerance: a difficult one. There surely must be some limits to tolerance (that is, some illiberalism in the name of social justice), and some confronting of illiberal practices (that is, some insistence that people be allowed to do what they want, even if we think it causes harm or inequality). The trouble is that it is always easier to see the harm in practices that are not part of our culture. Which is more socially unjust: bringing up women to hide their faces behind veils; or bringing up little girls to flaunt their sexuality at pre-pubescent ages? Americans are more likely to say the first, Muslims the second. So I am very unclear about how exactly we are to set justified limits to tolerance — it seems to me to require a great deal of dialogue and understanding of each other.

Tim Sprod


Reuben asked:

I've recently been debating consciousness with someone who believes that consciousness is a luxury enjoyed exclusively by Homo Sapiens. The last time we spoke, he said, "The sky is blue. Arguing that the sky is NOT blue...is a waste of time."

We know that the sky is NOT blue from the cat or dog's point of view. The sky is blue from the point of view of an able human being. Does our own perception of the sky make the statement "The sky is blue" true? What happens when the next evolutionary twig of humanity perceives the sky as a colour which does not exist in our spectrum? How true will our statement be then?

I ask this question because, if we can understand how some 'truths' are essentially a matter of perspective, perhaps the statement, "Tiny life forms do not possess consciousness" might be explained better in terms of perspective rather than truth.

As far as animal consciousness goes, until we can teach one to speak, we probably won't know for sure; but to maintain that animals are not conscious and only humans are seems extremely unreasonable to me. Let us assume that consciousness, whether we are materialists or not, is at least generated by the brain. The other alternative, that there is a consciousness "stuff" floating in some other universe, somehow connected to our brain, has so many problems that I won't even consider it here. So, given either a strong or weaker materialist assumption, that the brain is the cause of consciousness in some as-yet unknown manner, what do we see in animals? We see, in the higher apes, virtually identical genetics and neuroanatomy to the human. All the structures are there, and there is even strong debate about whether apes have some sort of language.

Do you know about the mirror test? If you paint a spot on the head of a chimpanzee and put it in front of a mirror, what will it do? If it has had any experience with mirrors, it will reach for its own head. So will gorillas and orangutans. So, oddly enough, will elephants (I don't remember about dolphins). Monkeys, no matter their experience with mirrors, attack the image. What do we conclude from this? Well, monkeys don't see themselves with a spot, they see another monkey, so if they have self-consciousness, it is very primitive. But I just don't see another explanation for the phenomenon with apes and elephants except that they're self-conscious, especially given the results with monkeys. It's clear that they see and recognize that there is another animal's image, and the apes can make the jump to self — the monkeys cannot. The apes (and elephant) have enough of all the neuroanatomy in all the right places. So it's a function of both structure and amount, it seems.

What then do we say about monkeys, dogs, rats, etc.? They've got the neural structures, but they won't pass the mirror test. Are they a) conscious, b) self-conscious? The problem with asking and attempting to answer this question is that we're just not clear as to what those terms would mean at that level. Let's ask instead, "Do they have mind?", leaving out the question of consciousness for the time being (but there are philosophers who deny that one can have the former without the latter — Searle, for example — and he has some good arguments on this point). Well, how do we determine this? They have, or seem to exhibit, emotions, feelings. They remember, they plan, to some extent, and recently some lab stuck electrodes in rats' brains and saw the same kinds of discharges in the same places when they were asleep as when they were awake and running mazes. Were they dreaming about the mazes? Given all this and the same basic neural structures that we have, just a lot smaller, it seems to me very hard to deny mind in mammals, at least. They can internalize and internally manipulate representations of the environment; that seems like the rudiments of mind to me, at any rate. I won't even touch comparing this with computers, all right? I think there are differences, and AI people would deny it, and I don't want to write another essay about it.

What about insects, worms, plants, amoebas, etc.? Well, sorry, but I just don't think they've got it. Not enough, and not the right structures. I think (for reasons I just won't elaborate on here) that mind goes down to somewhere in the birds, then stops. Where consciousness stops, I won't even speculate (but I'll say certainly not lower than that); let's just assume for the sake of argument that they're coexistent, but that consciousness is not always self-consciousness. Yes, that leaves the rest of the animal (and plant) kingdoms as very complex machines... well, where would you have the machines start? Do you think that amoebas have mind? Based on what principles?

Now to the second part of your question. I'm sure you can see the outline of my answer at this point. Do apes see the sky as blue? Well, it seems virtually certain that they see it, i.e., they're conscious of it. Blue? First, given the rest of this, what does that matter, so long as we are reasonably certain that they see? Second, given similar neuroanatomy, receptor composition and structure, etc., yes, they see the sky as blue — or, more accurately, they see whatever they understand the sky to be (not "sky" as we understand it) as blue. Do dogs see the sky as blue? Well, given that they have a primitive consciousness, they see the sky. Dogs, as I recall, don't have as many cones as we do, and how they're distributed I don't know, so I don't know if they see blue. But I think it's likely that they see the sky, but they don't see our sky, they see a dog's sky. What's that? I don't know; when we put in the genes for big enough brains and ask (and you think we won't?), we'll know something about it. but still not what stupid dogs see. You might take a look at the classic article by Nagel "What is it like to be a bat?" (1974).

When you start talking of "truths" as a matter of perspective, you get into very tricky ground. Is it true that we see the sky as blue? Yes, whether you're a man, an alien, or whatever, it's true (normally) that humans see the sky as blue. Is the sky blue? The problem with asking that is not merely that it is unclear what you mean by "is", but, I think, that the question is just not formulated well. But there's a lot of debate on this point. You might look at "Epiphenomenal qualia" by Jackson (1982) and the (still ongoing!) debate about Mary, raised in a black and white world, who knows everything about color, and the question whether she gets to know anything else when she steps into a colored world. A nasty problem. But when you make a statement like, "amoebas don't possess consciousness" you are (I believe) asking a question like "do humans see?", and the answer is, I'm claiming, ultimately available, given more science than we know at this point (I'm certainly not claiming my argument above is decisive). That is, I do not think that question involves perspective, as asking about what kind of sky a stupid dog sees does, although the former question may be unanswerable. You're getting into some very complicated epistemological issues, which I just can't do justice to here, but the above is the condensed version.

Steven Ravett Brown


Marlon asked:

What do you understand by Personal Identity?

I assume that you have read all about personal identity and find the literature lacking. Firstly, see my answer to Jessica.

You will have read of the logical possibility of fission and fusion of the self, that survival matters rather than identity, that the body and memories do not determine identity because your brain — or your experiences — could pass to some other subject, that you, as a subject could come to possess someone else's experiences and body, etc or you could become an amnesiac.

A question is whether a reduced atomistic subject can think I "am" before the thought is whisked away from him as the moment "now" passes and he is simply "now" again. The "am" reaches beyond the "now" in the sense that subject becomes something. Initially, perhaps, it might be suggested that what it becomes is a Cartesian thinking thing — but what kind of thing is that? The answer is any thinking thing. For a specific thinking thing, the unique 'I', the notion of the person, what is required is either a set of memories or a body. Either could be duplicated, but one set of memories or one body will give the 'I' a singularity, duplicated elsewhere or not. From a subjective point of view it doesn't matter if someone else has the same experiences: We can't, after all, share them. Each of us are individuals because our internal lives are subjectively lived by us.

So what I understand by personal identity is something subjectively accessible which provides me with a sense of identity over time, though perhaps a very short time. For a prolonged sense of self, this could be mental in terms of memories which only I can access subjectively. Even if someone else could access the same events in their memory, the other person's memories are still not mine because they lack the quality of being mine, and remembered by me. On the other hand, the subjective could be the awareness of physical body. Someone else may have a replica body, but he wouldn't feel my feelings in this body. I assume personal identity in this sense is available to an amnesiac. Both body and memories are relative to me and subjective. I access them immediately without any wilful attempt — if another wanted to access them another form of will would be required, such as telepathy, for instance, and this is not a natural relationship with the self, but with another.

Rachel Browne


Tasmia asked:

I am a student of economics. I have never taken a course on philosophy. I am writing a research paper for my composition and writing class on the therapeutic effects of quarreling in marriages.

I would like to know how the therapeutic effects of quarreling in marriages can be explained through philosophy.

I do think that philosophy has something to say about this. But we have to be careful. It is a matter for empirical research, which things do, or do not have a therapeutic effect in a marriage. What the philosopher can do is give reasons why, other things being equal, one would expect quarreling in a marriage to have a therapeutic effect, or not, as the case may be.

I am married, and my wife and I sometimes quarrel. In the heat of the exchange it is hard to think that this has any therapeutic effect at all. One might imagine, 'If only we didn't quarrel, things might be so much better.' However, the fact that this thought seems to me to be true, does not prove that it is true. The fallacy here is that that in our imagination we take away the quarreling and suppose hat everything else would be just the same as it is now. But what right does one have to make that assumption? On what evidence is it based? No two relationships are ever exactly the same, so it would be very difficult to come up with reliable evidence from one's own experience alone.

Why should quarreling be therapeutic? The starting assumption is that we are dealing with real people who have their own views which do not always coincide. Now, the philosopher Hegel has something to say about this. One of the most fundamental issues in human relationships is the dialectic of 'master and slave'. It would be possible to avoid quarrels if one of the partners always gives in, but such a strategy must be ultimately destructive of the relationship, making one into the 'master' and the other into the 'slave'.

Nor will it do any good to come to an arrangement whereby whenever there is a difference of opinion or disagreement about what is to be done, each party takes it in turn to concede the point. There are logical reasons why it would be impossible this arrangement work. Imagine the following exchange:

"Honey, will you answer the telephone?"

"It's your turn, I answered the telephone last time."

"No you didn't.

"I say I did, and you have to concede my point, because I conceded your point about who was to do the washing up. So it is your turn to concede."

"But I distinctly remember picking up the telephone..."

The logical point is that what motivates two people to argue is that each holds a different belief about the situation. For the sake of peace and quiet, it is OK to hold one's tongue. But each still believes what they believe. In a trivial case such as this, it might not hurt to concede. However, as soon as the stakes are raised — let's say, we are arguing about which school to send our children to — the matter is far too serious to say, "It's your turn to concede."

In my answer to Clara (Eighth page of questions and answers) I talked about the ethics of dialogue in the context of relationship. In simple, stark terms, unless we agree to disengage — which we have seen is not an option — then the alternatives are dialogue or war. If it were for the threat of war, there would be no need for the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle game theory of moral dialogue, the negotiation, the haggling, the give and take, the hard choices, the aggravated feelings. When two persons feel strongly about their views, and those views do not coincide, then if they are being honest with one another they have to express their feelings: and honesty is one of the basic requirements of moral dialogue. If you choose not to be honest, then all you are doing is playing games with the other person, using them for your own ends.

The idea that quarreling is therapeutic in marriage goes further than this, however. It seems to imply that two persons who were of one mind, who never disagreed — or who disagreed only about small things and then only rarely — would have something wrong with their relationship. But suppose they really were the ideal couple, perfect soul mates? It seems to me that this is such a rare occurrence that for practical purposes, it can be ignored. If two persons say that they never, ever quarrel in their relationship or marriage, then it is a fair bet that either they are lying, or there is something wrong and they need help.

Geoffrey Klempner


Gonzalo asked:

David Bohm as I understand is an advocate of the Copenhagen school of quantum physics interpretation. He mentioned that he found himself surprised when Jiddu Krishnamurti stated, in on of his books, that the observer is the observed. Now, Bohm says that in quantum physics he has witnessed this phenomena. Could you please explain how this (the observer is the observed) might translate into quantum physics and how this ties in with Krishnamurti's statement? Also, in Lee Smolin's book The Life of the Cosmos he says that in order to understand Quantum Physics and Relativity one needs to appreciate the influence of Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm on them in this regard. Could you please tell me how he influenced the way we look at science today?

This whole area is a very controversial one, so keep in mind that any definite answer I give you will be agreed with by some and disputed by others. That being said, first, the Copenhagen school may have been Bohm's early position but I do not think it was his later one. That school was a very cautious one in interpreting QM, and basically took a very positivist attitude. That is, Bohr was very careful never to commit himself to definite statements going beyond the observed results of experiments: electrons, photons, wave-functions, etc., were what was observed in the lab, and the rest was speculation. But one problem was with the phenomenon of instantaneous action at a distance, that is, when "entangled" particles become disentangled; another related problem was with the phenomenon of decoherence, the collapse of the wave-function. The Copenhagen school was content (by and large) to note the events. Bohm wanted to explain them, and in doing so, he conceived a brilliant theory which accounts for action at a distance, at the price of hypothesizing a kind of carrier wave for it, which has never been observed. No one really knows what to do with this theory; it works but it effectively violates Occam's Razor. As far as I know it's pretty much ignored today.

The stuff about Krishnamurti relates to the phenomenon of decoherence. When a coherent system is observed, it collapses from an indefinite state which is the superposition of a number of possible states, into one state. So everyone for a long time was asking just what "observation" was, and many people (including Bohm) felt that since observation requires an observer, that implied that mind or consciousness was intimately bound up with the universe, forcing it, in effect, to become definite. Well, zowie, right? The death-knell of that idea happened quite recently, actually, when people started fooling around with quantum computing, and noticed that when they tried to build computers that needed superposed states to calculate, they went and decohered all by themselves... annoying, you went out for a cup of tea and wanted to come back to find some huge problem solved and the thing had just collapsed on its own, no observer necessary. Ugh. Well, it turned out that a physicist (among others) named Mulhauser ("The End of a Quantum Romance") had predicted that decoherence didn't really require an observer, just any sort of interaction from the outside onto the coherent state, and it would go poof. So much for mind as integral to the universe, Krishnamurti, etc., we're back to the old uncaring physical world. Now the above might be how (and I haven't read that particular book) Smolin was referring to Leibniz (aside from the fact that he invented calculus independently of and simultaneously with Newton). Leibniz' monads were a kind of mental substance supposedly underlying matter. But as I say, that viewpoint is now outdated.

Actually, as I understand it, the contemporary picture of decoherence is more complex. Consider that any state is a wave-function, then the question becomes not only why a wave-function collapses, but why most wave-functions collapse into one (or a few) rather more definite wave-functions. What's special about the state we normally look around and see, and call the real world, which is, after all, just one set of wave-functions that is selected by that collapse? Why that set? I don't know the answer to that, offhand, but I think that it has to do with just settling on the state with maximum probability... but that's just speculation on my part. Then we might ask, why collapse at all? I don't know the answer to that either. However, there have been some extremely interesting experiments, very recently, in which it turns out that there is a fine structure to the wave-function well beyond what people thought was possible, which may indicate some kind of dynamic events there that we're just beginning to understand. Perhaps collapse has to do with interference effects and what we call the stable state is a kind of interference pattern. All speculation on my part, don't get excited; I'm probably wrong. Anyway, that's my viewpoint, in an extremely small nutshell, but you'll still find lots of wrangling about what it all means and how consciousness fits into it all.

Steven Ravett Brown

I could only answer the question about Leibnitz, and then I am speculating somewhat as I haven't read Smolin. I can see two possible influences. Firstly, Leibnitz invented (co-invented with Newton?) the calculus. Probably more important, though, was Leibnitz's Principle of Sufficient Cause, which QM seems to violate, but which also seems to be a necessary presupposition of science. It says (from memory) that every event has a cause sufficient to explain it. Some quantum events don't. Yet it is hard to see what science is, if it is not the search for the (generalised) causes of all events.

Tim Sprod


Roger asked:

What does Personal Identity mean? and do the Identity Theorists advance our understanding of the problem?

Another question on personal identity! Once again, I assume that you have read the literature. Personal identity is what makes me "me".

I don't think that identity theorists have contributed much to the problem. What makes me "me" in a particular body, is based on conscious feelings in relation to, or determined by, my body, and an identity theorist who was an eliminative materialist would deny that there is more to being me than my body: There is supposedly nothing other, nothing irreducible to body. What makes me is my body, whether I am conscious or not.

An identity theorist who admits that consciousness is determined by physical body would still have to hold that I am identical with my body since when my body ceases to exist, so does my consciousness. While it is logically possible to exist without a body it is difficult to think of coming into existence without one. On the importance of spatial body, see my answer to Jessica.

Rachel Browne


Chris asked:

Is there a high school for us? A few people in my school are awake and don't understand why we have to go to school.

I don't want to learn anything else but Philosophy. What do I do?

Yes, a dilemma. I assume that you're in a high school or middle school (if you're in the States — or the equivalent)? And not in either college or a school for gifted kids? Alternative one: get into the latter. Alternative two: if you can't do that, grit your teeth and keep going. Stay in school, do well, so that the next school you can pick very carefully.

Now, as to philosophy, and school. Yes, sure, you want to do philosophy... but the question is, what is philosophy, that is, what is required to do it? Just sitting in an armchair and deciding what's correct? Surely you can see that just can't be sufficient; the world is too complex. To put it another way, in the far past, the 'philosopher' knew all knowledge. In the more recent past, this wasn't so true; there was so much philosophy to learn. Now, however, we are in a very different situation. Science has, like it or not, gotten to the point where it is relevant to philosophy. You just cannot do philosophy of mind, for example, without knowing a) neurology, b) artificial intelligence, c) cognitive science, d) some linguistics, to mention a few. Sorry, but you can't.

You want to do pure metaphysics — without knowing physics? Forget it. How do you think metaphysics got started, anyway? Physics is just the modern experimental branch of it. Do you have any idea of the debates still going on about quantum mechanics, as it relates to a) the many-worlds problem, b) consciousness (to name just two areas)? (There was recently a fantastic article in Nature which pushes physics further down into the quantum realm than anyone thought it could go.) You want to do epistemology without knowing cognition? Ridiculous. Cognition is the 'data' end of how we know. You have to have it. You want to think about logic without knowing formal logic and math (not to mention computer programming)? Absurd. You see what I mean? Are you still sure you want to do philosophy (and yes, I do know a something in most of those areas)?

So, you can do one of two things. First, drop out and educate yourself. Hey, why not, I almost did it myself. Here's what stopped me: I knew that I would never know whether I knew what everybody else knew, if I didn't get some sort of "standard" education. So I went to grad school. Second, stay in school, and be very careful that you get what you need for what you're interested in. And while you're in school, don't forget what you're there for (after you have constructed a very clear idea of what that is).

Steven Ravett Brown


Milad asked:

Do you think philosophy is a science, or useful science?

It seems more likely to me that science is a philosophy. After all, science started out life called 'natural philosophy', and has gradually hived itself off from philosophy ever since. Nevertheless, science as an endeavour rests on a series of philosophical assumptions (see my answer to Gonzalo for an example), and unless we can justify these presuppositions, we can have little faith in science.

Tim Sprod


Royce asked:

Can market capitalism by defended on moral grounds given the fact that so much poverty exists in Western countries?

Economics isn't really my field, but I'd like to ask you a question: can any type of economy be defended on moral grounds, given the fact that so much poverty exists (and has always existed) in the a) Far East, b) Middle East c) anywhere else in the world? And I don't mean poverty in the sense that the rich in one society are poor relative to the rich in some other, I mean in the sense that there are people with insufficient (relative to the rich in their society) to eat, insufficient shelter, etc.

If you're going to attack capitalism, fine, but there's poverty everywhere, with the possible exception of Scandinavia, and those countries are basically capitalist with some socialism, aren't they? So given that, should we blame capitalism for the world's ills? To put it another way, before capitalism, why was there so much poverty in the world? Look at human history and find a place or time in which all societies did not have a poor (in the above relative sense) segment. I can't think of any, offhand, except perhaps some very small hunter-gatherer tribes living in a very rich environment... they at least had sufficient to eat, if not much else material.

It's all very fine to say that in some hypothetical ideal society there would be no poverty; my response, a very non-philosophical one, would be to say: ok, now prove it; set up the society, let it run, and see what happens. There have been no successes by that criterion yet. Not in the West nor in the East. Perhaps, just perhaps, you might cite the Iroquois Nation just around or before the arrival of the Europeans. That was a fairly large society, but first, not really that large, second, they lived in an extremely rich environment, third, they were constantly at war with other tribes, and fourth, how do we know that they did not have poverty? As far as I know there are no records. But that's the only case I can think of where a reasonably-sized society might not have had poverty: hunter-gatherers living in a rich environment. So if there were some way to cut down the world's population to a fraction of what it is today, and move everyone left to a very lush area, perhaps it would work... but I doubt it, given human history.

Steven Ravett Brown


Debbie asked:

What are some proven flaws in the theory of Relativism?

What are some proven flaws in the theory of Empiricism?

Well, I don't know about the word 'proven' here. If I substitute the words 'commonly alleged', then I'll give one of each:

To say "Everything is relative" is to say that no statement can be taken as absolutely true. Does this apply to the statement itself? If so, then it cannot be taken as absolutely true. Therefore it is not necessarily true that everything is relative. In other words, relativism is self-defeating.

Empiricists say that all knowledge enters through the senses. However, sense data is unorganised, and does not seem to have the ability to organise itself. We do that. So we cannot be (as Locke famously asserted) a "tabula rasa" or a blank slate. This was Kant's (equally famous) assertion, 'Intuitions without concepts are blind' — that our minds must have the ability to organise sense data as it arrives, and that we have this prior to experiencing anything.

Tim Sprod


Amy asked:

Does a clone have 'knowledge' as it only has its original's experiences?

A biological clone of a human being would not have any knowledge or experience, because the clone only reproduces the genetic information carried in the body cells. The brain state of the individual who is cloned is not included in that information. However, we can imagine a science fiction scenario where it was possible to scan a person's body and create a perfect replica, so that brain states were replicated along with bodily structure.

First we need to find a suitable subject to experiment on. Suppose we put Einstein in the replicating machine. As the switch is pulled, a second 'Einstein' materializes in the empty booth alongside the booth where Einstein is sitting. At the moment when the second Einstein has fully materialized, all his experiences, or rather, all that he remembers of his experiences derives from the original Einstein. From that moment onwards, however, the replica Einstein is capable of having his own experiences which are different from the experiences had by the original Einstein.

Now, if we ask the Einstein replica questions about physics or mathematics, we can be certain that the answer he gives will be as good as those that the original Einstein would give. Pretty hard, then, to argue that the replica Einstein does not have 'knowledge' of tensor calculus or relativity theory!

Now suppose we ask the Einstein replica, "What were you doing last Sunday lunchtime?" The replica replies, "I had lunch with my good friend Niels Bohr at the Bistro d'Agran." We know that this cannot be true. The replica Einstein did not exist last Sunday, and therefore his belief that he had lunch with Niels Bohr is most certainly false.

However, even though the replica Einstein has this false belief, we still feel tempted to say that he knows what was on the special menu at the Bistro d'Agran last Sunday lunchtime. If we ask him, he will give exactly the same answer as the one given by the original Einstein.

But does he really know this? The difference between this case and the questions about mathematics and physics, is that here we are dealing with knowledge of particulars, that is to say, facts concerning things that exist at specific places and times. The replica Einstein has a belief about the menu at a Bistro somewhere and somewhen but there is nothing to logically link the replica Einstein's belief to the actual Bistro, existing at a specific time and place, corresponding to the actual historical path that connects Albert sipping Borscht with his friend Neil, and the nervous subject in the booth awaiting the throw of the switch. That is why philosophers of language would argue (it must be admitted, against one's untutored intuitions) that the replica Einstein does not know what was on the special menu at the Bistro d'Agran last Sunday lunchtime, even though the answer he gives appears to be correct.

Geoffrey Klempner


Joseph asked:

Is there a difference between the Neoplatonists who viewed humans as falling from the ideal through ignorance, and the Christians thought of humans as sinners who willfully reject God's commands?

Neoplatonism was developed by Plotinus. In essence, it combined elements of Aristotelianism, Pythagoreans, and Stoicism and developed into a religious philosophy. Reality was essentially spiritual in nature for Plotinus. Plotinus developed three different forms of reality which he designated as Soul, Intelligence, and The One. In answer to your question we need to look at Intelligence first. For Plotinus, Intelligence corresponded to the realm of Forms or Ideas as put forth by Plato. These Ideas are God's Ideas, and these thoughts don't exist outside the Intelligence.

The Soul is a central part of Plotinus's philosophy; it is here that we delineate the status and potential of the individual within reality as a whole. The One is the ultimate reality within the system. It is the One that embraces all Intelligible forms and is thought. The One is above the Soul and it contemplates the Intellectual. One needs to remember that for Plotinus, the Soul is responsible for sensation, perception, and knowledge.

The individual most develop a harmony that allows the Souls to guide the body. When the Soul achieves harmony, a state of union with reality in totality becomes possible. It is through this harmony and union that the individual goes beyond good and evil. Plotinus felt it was possible to achieve perfection, as for the less perfect to achieve perfection according to his nature. If the individual wanted to reach this Ideal state it was through contemplation and intellectual understanding of reality.

In Greek, the word "hamartia" was used to signify sin. It means "missing the mark". This was equated with ignorance. In effect, an individual would not sin if he understood what he was doing. It may be true that some sins are due to ignorance, but it does not follow the Christian concept of deliberate sin.

According to Christine Doctrine, sin is turning away from God. Adam sinned by disobeying God. In doing this, Adam diminished his intellect with ignorance. This sin was transmitted so all men after Adam had a defective nature. Although man had Free Will, the ability not to sin was not an option. Only by God's grace can man be saved and no longer sin. Sin comes about by the way people choose and act.

In Neoplatonism the true self consists of thoughts. It can realize itself by turning to thought, and through this contemplative nature, to God. This is the Ideal and is possible only on rare occasion. In Christian thought, when Adam disobeyed God, he lost his divine gifts. It then became impossible for man not to sin. Man went into sin free and came out unfree. In Neoplatonism it is an act of contemplation that frees man. In Christian thought one can't achieve grace by free will, but only by grace — grace from God.

John Eberts


Steve asked:

Should art be criticized as Socrates does for being a mere imitation? Is the truth associated with poetry and myth superior to the truth associated with a practical knowledge of the world around us?

Art is representational or imitative and so it is obviously removed from factual truth and is not governed by reason, but this is its nature, and I don't think this provides a ground for criticism. Plato thought that tragedies gave rise to inappropriate emotions such as explicit displays of grief, when tragedy is correctly met with quiet fortitude. An alternative view is that art, especially tragedy, is cathartic and, in any case, our reactions to drama don't necessarily determine our reactions to personal or real life tragedies.

Reason and practical knowledge of the world around us are not sufficient for the well-rounded growth of a human being. Myth gives us a sense of the eternal nature of mankind and is a guide to moral principles. In both psychology and religion, the way we understand ourselves is determined and explained by mythology. Freud admits that his Oedipal analysis, for example, is a mythology, but it is a working mythology: It is not assumed to be true. The stories the devil and of Adam and Eve, likewise, can be understood as mythologies and it doesn't matter if they are true or false, because they stand as human constructions which incorporate and reinforce the reality of evil and the need for us struggle if good is to triumph. These two examples of mythology are disparate, but both have a purpose. The former shows how a person grows and can change and latter tells us about human nature. We need mythology in the same way as we need family to provide us with a sense of our background, history, and truths about ourselves, which allow us to know and place ourselves. Myths provide cultural cohesion and deeply ground morality and values with themes which are not contemporary and social but rather universal and eternal.

Of course, some myths are relative to culture. Vladimir Propp has examined the structure of mythology in his book Morphology of the Folk Tale and identifies features common to all (Russian!) myths, so while it may not matter whether a the story line itself is true, the truth of the elements of the myth, symbolising what we fear, hope and strive for, do matter since they reflect the human condition, and as truths, these are things we should aim to know. In the Republic Socrates argues that moral feeling should grow from rational thought and would deny that myth can teach us anything, but myths are based on the truths about man. Socrates claims that often poets don't fully understand what they are writing about, but even if writers of mythological poems do not fully understand the meaning of what they are writing, where they manage to express the universal (or cultural) conscious and unconscious, their writings are recognisable as great works we can learn from.

Those outside mythology, those who reject their cultural mythologies, are isolated individuals (Rollo May The Cry for Myth). To accept the truths of mythology is to acknowledge moral values and a common nature — and in a sense this is practical knowledge. Those who have no interest in poetry are not isolated, since poetry is one art amongst others and is often of contemporary value. However, the images, emotions and truths that poetry evokes through metaphor cannot be expressed otherwise, and are important for personal development, if not, perhaps, as important as the truths of practical knowledge and mythology.

Really, there is no point in identifying superior and inferior truth. All truths are important and the more truths we come to know, the better off we are.

Rachel Browne


Nicholas asked:

If you had a machine that could only answer truthfully to any question asked, what question would you give it in order for the machine to answer incorrectly?

Come on, you're not serious, are you? The easy and obvious answer is: "Is the statement: 'This statement is false' true or false?" You just set up a paradox. Think about it. Of course, you have to make sure you do it in the highest meta-language the machine can handle, otherwise it will just say, "That is a paradox in the object-language" in the next-highest meta-language it has available. The question is, what about a language like a natural language such as English in which there is no highest meta-language? Then what? In that case, I do not see how to ask such a question as a formal question... but my feeling is, that given a machine that could speak such a language fluently (which does not exist), you could trip it up the same way you can now trip up a person, because it would have to handle language the way a human handles it. But that's another, long, discussion.

But my question to you is, what's the point? Why do you ask this question? Just to trip us up, or because you really are interested in paradoxes? If the latter is true, take a look at the references we gave to Paul's question, below.

Steven Ravett Brown


Nicola asked:

Please could you tell me Aristotle's and Plato's view on the soul. Could you please tell me the main differences that they had. Also if possible any quotes from either of them on this topic.

Since there doesn't seem to be a material difference between an organism in the last moments of its life and the organism's newly dead body, Plato (and other philosophers) have claimed that the soul is an immaterial component of an organism. Since only material things are observed to be subject to dissolution, Plato took the soul's immateriality as grounds for its immortality. Immortality to Plato is the soul's chief characteristic.

While in the Apology Socrates had been portrayed as agnostic on the immortality of the soul, in the Phaedo he is convinced of it, and the dialogue is as a whole a sustained argument for that claim.

Further arguments for the immortality of the soul can be found in Republic Book 10 and in the Phaedrus, but in those dialogues there is also a more complex view of what the soul is. Whereas the early dialogues had been content with a simple opposition between soul and body, in Republic Book 4 the soul itself is divided into three 'parts', which roughly correspond to reason, emotion, and desire, of which reason as the superior quality is like a charioteer to control the inferior qualities emotion and desire. An explicit motive for this division is to allow for conflict within the soul, and one consequence of this is that Plato is no longer tempted by the Socratic claim that all virtue is knowledge, and its associated paradoxes. He does retain the early view that virtue is a condition of the soul, but wisdom is now viewed as a virtue of the reasoning part, whereas courage is a virtue of the spirited part, and justice is explained as a suitable 'harmony' between all three parts. Another consequence of the threefold division of the soul is that Plato seems to have become uncertain how much of the soul is immortal. (Republic 10, 611-12 is deliberately evasive; Phaedrus 245-9 clearly claims that the team of all three parts is immortal; Timaeus 69-72 is equally clear in its claim that only the reasoning part is immortal.) Plato thinks of the immortal soul as subject to reincarnation from one life to another. Those who live virtuous lives will be somehow rewarded, but the detail differs from one treatment to another.

Further Plato argued that knowledge could have been acquired only by our immortal souls' acquaintance with the Forms before our birth and not through sense-experience. 'Learning' is therefore anamnesis. As a (little convincing) proof, in Meno, Socrates elicits geometrical knowledge from a slave-boy (84a — 85).

In contrast to Plato's partly mythical attempt, Aristotle approached the concept of the soul from an essentially scientific perspective, employing elements of biology and metaphysics that encompassed everything from the concepts of substance, form, and matter, to those of potentiality and actuality.

In On the Soul (De Anima) Book II,1 Aristotle describes the soul as the first actuality (entelecheia) of a natural body that has life potentiality (412a) and as the cause and the first principle of the living body (415b). Metaphysicians before Aristotle discussed the soul abstractly without any regard to the bodily environment, which, Aristotle believes, was a mistake.

In characterizing the soul and body in these ways, Aristotle applies the concept of hylemorphism, a framework which underlies virtually all of his theorizing.

According to Aristotle the soul is the efficient cause (it initiates change and movement), the final cause (as the body's goal) and the formal cause (as the organizing principle) at the same time.

There are three 'kinds' of souls, which correspond with the stages of biological development: the vegetative soul of plants, the sensitive souls of animals and the rational soul of humans, which adds to all the powers of the 'lower' souls the ability to reason theoretically (414a, b). Therefore, according to Aristotle, the human soul is a reward based on the sum total of our biological nature and our unique capacities as humans to think and feel.

Summary and Comparison:

Neither Plato nor Aristotle thought that only humans had souls: Aristotle ascribed souls to animals and plants since they all exhibited some living functions. Unlike Plato, Aristotle denied the transmigration of souls from one species to another after death. He was also more skeptical about whether souls could exist without a body. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle thought of the soul not so much as an entity, but more as a life principle — the aspect of the person that provides the powers or attributes characteristic of the human being. While Plato's soul sees the Forms in an immaterial world (a priori), Aristotle's soul has capacity to abstract the stable and universal nature of material things (a posteriori).

Simone Klein


Jorge asked:

Do the answers to questions about things that have no way to be proved actually exist? If so, can we say that it is a lost truth?

Your question relates to the clash between realism and anti-realism which has appeared in these pages on previous occasions. (There are too many references to list here: check the indexes to the previous 'Answers' pages.) However, your way of formulating the question raises issues that have not been discussed before.

I first came across the idea of 'loss' and 'insides' as philosophical concepts or categories in a book by Douglas Browning Act and Agent (University of Miami Press 1964):

The universe is opaque in the respect that it allows objects to close themselves off from others by hiding insides. In fact all objects in the world necessarily have insides. However, the tendency to objecthood admits of degrees. Some objects close half-heartedly, some thoroughly. The point is that closure is natural. The process of the universe tends to knot into objects which are facts of turning away from the world as well as turning a face to the world...

The fact of loss presents a similar picture. What is lost is always a particular, a particular situation or a particular person. Universals are never lost...The universe has a way of closing itself off from others, and time is one of its most marvelous mechanisms of opacity (p. 113).

(At the end of his concluding 'Acknowledgements', p. 131, Douglas Browning mentions the work of Paul Weiss, who also discusses the question of insides.)

One example of 'insides' would be the way things are subjectively for me, or for you. I have come round to the idea that there is a category of knowledge, which I call 'subjective knowledge' which is not knowledge of facts, and therefore not capable, even in principle of being communicated, or uncovered from the outside (Truth and Subjective Knowledge). The inner state of an organism, for that organism, is one factor in the attunement between that organism and its surroundings which cannot be extracted by any external inquiry, however searching that inquiry might be.

Browning would argue that within this realm of objective inaccessibility, there remains a further distinction of level between the insides of a mere organism that behaves and an agent who acts. I am not sure of this, however. I am more inclined to say that an agent, in giving reasons for his/ her actions, is able to make his/ her subjective states accessible to others in a way that brute animals are not able to do. The behaviour of animals is an indecipherable enigma. However, once we are in realm of language and reason, we are no longer talking about that inaccessible core of the subject's experiences which I have called subjective knowledge.

Now, the really startling fact is that you can be an anti-realist — in other words, you can hold the view that it makes no sense to talk of an unprovable or 'undecidable' question's having an answer in reality — while fully accepting that the world is so constituted as to allow entities to have 'insides' or to allow possibilities of knowledge to be lost with the passage of time. The phenomena of loss and insides are natural facts about the universe, and the anti-realist does not make any claim that can be tested by appeal to natural facts. According to the anti-realist, whenever we are faced with a question which cannot be answered, all one can say is that there are such-and-such possibilities. Any attempt to convey the idea that the real answer or the actual possibility which we can never know is 'out there', is to utter sounds without meaning.

I would like to see a refutation of that shocking claim, but I have not yet come across one.

Geoffrey Klempner


MIchelle asked:

What does it mean when two people have the same dream but about each other?

There is no reason why philosophers should know about dreams, especially as they see dream analysis as on a par with drawing up horoscopes. All there is here is supposition. Rather pedantically, one might say that you cannot have the same dream but about another person, since each of you are dreaming about someone else. If those who feature in the dream are different, the dreams cannot be the same. However, you can dream about the same events, but only if you belong to the same culture and have the same concepts otherwise the analysis of imagery, which brings the symbolic down to the level of ordinary conceptual understanding, would differ in translation and so what each of you dreams would not be the same.

Freud thought that dreams have a physical cause, a cause in real life and that they constitute a wish-fulfilment. The physical cause could be an actual desire to be with, or to be, the person you dream about, the real life cause that you have recently been together or have thought about each other so this person is in your mind, and the wish-fulfilment you will have to think yourself on the basis of the nature of the events.

Rachel Browne


Mariajane asked:

Who is Nastradomas? where could I get more information on him?

Nostradamus was a "seer", i.e., someone who, for whatever reason, thought that he could know the future. He wrote "prophesies" which lots of people think predict all sorts of future events.

Look, before you get into that, please, PLEASE read the books:

Shermer, M. (1997) Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time New York, W. H. Freeman and Co

Hines, T. (1988) Pseudoscience and the paranormal: a critical examination of the evidence Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books

"Prophets" of this sort have been around for millennia. People have "found" numerical "codes" in the Christian bible which purportedly tell the future. Elves and goblins, pots of gold at rainbows' ends... where do you draw the line, once you start on this?

Look at the books above, which talk about evidence. These claims have been investigated, and when they are, they evaporate.

Think of it this way: wouldn't you like to be a god, seeing all, knowing all... or at least read the books of a god? Hey, wouldn't we all? But wanting something and having it be true are two very different things, I'm afraid.

Steven Ravett Brown


Sofia asked:

Are religions the product of human necessities of believing in something greater than they are? Did religion originate in the incomprehension of universe? What if Jesus never existed?

What is greater than human necessity, and who defines what the necessities of the human are? Religion has been with us as long as the world itself, even if the human project is only late in the developmental evolutionary line. Those humans who have a religious belief have always understood that there is something greater than themselves and sought ways in which to engage with it, understand it, an ultimately come to know it.

Hence the vital importance of myth. Myth is primordial and primeval in the human psyche and is the ultimate creative human truth. All else flows from our 'world experiential psyche' that is our residual 'religious' memory from time immemorial.

Thus, religion does result from an incomprehension of the universe but from the desire to comprehend the incomprehensible which even its its incomprehensibility can nevertheless be 'known' in a religious manner. Thus all world religions, all faiths, all theistic beliefs have an understanding of the mystical, or the numinous — those moments in the human project where the Unknowable, Incomprehensible, God can be intuited rather than known. Intuition is more truthful epistemological knowing or the knowing of mathematics because God cannot be known per se, but only intuited. Thus the universe is comprehensible in the ancient psychic mythologies which predate the empirical sciences of philosophy etc. because such myths are residual in the 'world memory' of mystical encounter and psychic enlightenment.

What if Jesus never existed — then this question could neither be asked nor answered. If he did not exist, then he would have had to have been invented really, or conceptually, or even literarily. This is because he represents for those who believe him to be the Incarnate Word the perfection of all human endeavours, thus if he did exist, then we would have to find another way of manifesting or personalising what perfection and goodness we believe to be inherent in humanity. So that Jesus would then become the sum total of everything that we ourselves would like to be and like our world to be. However, the same question asked about Jesus can be asked of the Buddha, Muhammad (Peace Be On Him), Confucius and other great religious and ethical teachers. We need to feel that there is something more within us and to which we can attain, and which we can reach other than evil, suffering, hurt and pain. Jesus and the other great teachers give expression to these longings. So, if he had not existed he would have had to invent him!

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Howard asked:

In every evil there is something good.

Do you agree or disagree with that proverb?

Now, just as a reporter might stop you on the street and ask your opinion about something, this e-mail is performing a similar function. And just as you are free to walk away from the reporter, you also free to walk away from that question by hitting the Delete button.

If you're still with me, what I'm looking for are comments on that proverb -- NOT the kind that sound as though they were ripped out of a holy book, or a philosophy textbook, or some group's operating manual, or a family's code of values. Just plain, honest thinking. And I'm looking for true stories that either help prove or disprove that proverb.

Tell you what. I'll swap your proverb for these two:

Proverb 1

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Proverb 2

'Tis an ill wind that blows no-one any good.

Though you seem hostile to the idea that any progress might be made with your question through philosophical analysis, I think you will find that my two proverbs reveal two very different meanings in your proverb. That is one of the things that philosophy does. It clarifies questions which were originally confused.

Proverb 1 says that what we take to be a misfortune can later reveal positive benefits for us. Proverb 2 says that events which a misfortune for some persons, will be a cause for celebration for others. Difficult to disagree with either claim. Unfortunately, as proverbs do, they over-simplify. Proverb 1 implies that you will always find a benefit. Proverb 2 makes a similar claim to universality, but by means of a rhetorical device. The literal meaning is: 'No wind is so evil that there is not a single individual who benefits from it.

Most of us can think of things that might happen to us which would have no positive benefit whatsoever for ourselves. Similarly, there are ill winds — like a nuclear holocaust that kills all life on the planet — which would benefit no-one. It follows that both proverbs are false. However, each contains a sufficient portion of truth to be a useful guide to life.

Geoffrey Klempner


Dennis asked:

How to explain embodiment? By embodiment I mean a state of being that is the very basic present experience of a sense of separateness and unity amidst an unfathomable multiplicity of components and whose most distinguishing feature is manifest as the very real experience of maleness as separate from femaleness, man from woman.

Are we doomed to cast a blind eye to the problem of this very real experience? What is the justification for considering this experience of embodiment, this separation of male and female, to be primary?

By contrast, consider the possibility that male and female are experienced as one. Isn't there a potential for this since we are the manifestation of sperm and egg? Wouldn't embodiment necessarily be replaced with another state of being if the perceiver experienced male and female as one and not separate? Are we not taking embodiment for granted and ignoring the possibility of another state of being where male and female are one given our unfathomable multiplicity of components of both male and female origin?

I would think that gender identity has very little bearing on our sense of embodiment insofar as it affects unity or separateness from others. Gender difference is based on physical and hormonal dissimilarities, but types of emotions, or psychological states caused by hormones, are states common to each gender. The causes may be different but the range of emotional and psychological states available to men and women doesn't differ in any way we can talk about meaningfully. I don't think the primary experience is of being a man or a woman but, rather, it is being a person or simply bodied, hence separate. This has been a theoretical problem. Freud and Lacan have had difficulties dealing with women within their mythology of the development of the character, but the Freudian Melanie Klein used different imagery and managed to evade this.

If the experience of being male or female differs only in respect of physical facts, then if the male and female were experienced as one, there would be no male or female, but something else: Not male or female, but an amalgam, as you say, and I don't see why we should aspire to such a condition. What is the problem of the two separate genders, physically different, but psychically the same?

Rachel Browne


Marvin asked:

What is the relationship between the truth and research?

I'm going to assume, first, that your question assumes a particular context, that of science. That's the context in which we usually use the term "research". So the question then becomes whether science can reveal, or investigate, or perhaps create, truth. Second, I'm going to assume that we understand that "truth" means something like an accurate correspondence between concepts and reality, as in, "we have a true picture of the world". The philosopher of science I most admire is Philip Kitcher, and here's how he puts it, "We explain and predict the differential successes of our fellows in coping with the world by supposing that there are relations between the elements of their representations and independent objects." (The Advancement of Science 1993, p. 131).

Now, that's just the start, really, of a 400 page book which goes into extravagant detail on your question above. That relationship encompasses the nature of theory, of problem-solving methods, of consensus, of culture, acceptance or questioning of authority, and many more aspects of research. His conclusion is that we can advance in our knowledge, but not in any simple way. He is attempting to "naturalize" epistemology, i.e., roughly speaking, to take into account, in our understanding of how we find out about the world, human cognitive and social structures. That's a horrific oversimplification of a really excellent book, and I'll mangle it even more by saying that the simple answer to your question is that we stumble along and do make (all-in-all) progress partly because of fortunate social/cultural circumstances that enable people interested in truth to evaluate each other's theories and experimental results reasonably honestly, by and large.

We can take a grossly oversimplified example, like repairing an auto. There's a strange sound, so what do you do? You open the hood, look around, listen, apply your experience of similar sounds, ask other mechanics what they think... an older, experienced mechanic has had a lot of bad carburetors lately, and you listen to that person and form a theory: it's the carburetor. You then go look at the carburetor, and nothing's wrong. You go and take another look around, listen, ask someone... maybe it's the valves. You look at the valves, and yes, they're bad. Well, you've done research, haven't you? And you've finally found "the" answer, a correspondence between your conception of what was wrong and what actually was wrong: the truth.

And even in this extremely oversimplified example, where there was a definite answer drawn from a small set of possibilities, you have had to perform a huge variety, not merely a huge amount, of physical and cognitive and social operations, necessitating a vast knowledge of human relations, tools, autos, and so forth. You made a mistake, due at least in part to social norms (acceptance of authority), and corrected it. Should making a mistake, formulating the wrong theory, mean that you couldn't make progress, do research, arrive at the truth? Obviously not. You followed procedures very painfully worked out for correcting mistakes (better than slamming the hood down and kicking the car, right?), and, in this simple and artificial case, they worked. Well, the thesis, defended in the above book, is that they do in the complex and real-world realms of science, also. Enough of the time, at any rate, to make progress.

Steven Ravett Brown


Arslan asked:

I am just very confused on a fact that we human beings are so intelligent but still we entertain the notion of religion? Isn't it too contradictory as per human intelligence? I mean all I can think of religion is a pure fiction and nothing else! Then why this talk about religion all the time? Why don't we humans just move on? Why does religion still hold such an important part in humans life in most parts of this planet?

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that many religious people accept as historically true some very strange stories, it is a mistake to equate the practice of religion straightforwardly with belief in those stories. Consider, for example, that huge body of literature, the Bible. Within the Jewish and Christian communities there can be found a wide range of attitudes to the Bible from, at one end of the spectrum, those who would claim to accept it as true in its entirety to, at the other end, those who adopt a sceptical attitude to much or even all of it. And it is important to recognise that to be sceptical of the historical or literal truth of the ancient stories is not necessarily to dismiss them as having no lasting value. Just as the greatest literature of the modern period conveys important truths and insights in fiction, so also the ancient literature regarded as sacred within the faith communities, conveys insights which we would be the poorer for neglecting.

Religion rests not only upon attitudes to sacred stories but also includes ritual, ethics and social aspects which may be, or become, independent of the ancient founding documents. So if we are to ask why religion persists in human society, we need to consider not only what religious people do with their sacred stories, but also what value they derive from all other aspects of religion.

A footnote to this very brief response to your question: When studying religion and philosophy, you are always liable to encounter belief systems and theories which may seem far-fetched, bizarre, or just plain crazy. Whenever you do come across such strange beliefs, it is a good discipline to ask why those beliefs should have seemed reasonable to those who held them. Sometimes they turn out to be not quite so crazy as at first they appeared. Some, of course, are irretrievably silly and you will have to draw the line somewhere. But discovering where to draw that line can be great fun.

Robert Crompton


Pai asked:

What is intelligence?

Intelligence is generally thought to be tied to concept use and language. Without language we would not have concepts, and without concepts we could not think. This is a commitment we have taken up since Wittgenstein's private language argument which is basically that we cannot follow rules alone, so we could not apply concepts alone. Donald Davidson has put it that we need a standard against which to check our concept use and also that it is integral to intelligence that we can explain our usage of our concepts and we can do this because they fall within a whole conceptual scheme or shared theory. The approach from language excludes animals from intelligent thought.

Another reason for intelligence being based on concepts is that these are what, in thought, are manipulated or used so that we can have an infinite number of thoughts, even though the number of words and concepts we use is limited. Use of words and concepts is manipulated in a logical way by means of truth functional connectives. This line of thought takes intelligence to be computational and finds support in artificial intelligence research. However, it follows from Davidson's social approach to the nature of language that a machine cannot possess intelligence since it is not really a language user unless it can have false beliefs where these arise from the nature of the way we are, i.e. conscious beings like us. A human being can say something "seemed to be the case" or "it looked as if . .", but on closer inspection or on having something pointed out us, we can adjust our beliefs, but a machine does not distinguish true from false beliefs on the basis of changed consciousness: There is no evidence that machines are conscious at all. So on this view intelligence is social.

Another view of intelligence, which allows animals in, is that it is the ability for practical reason. Richard Sorabji holds that animals are rational and it is difficult to dispute that animals have practical reason in the face of his example of some kind of ape who wanted to reach up to something in a high place out of his natural reach, so he picked up a cane and knocked the object down. Animals have a level of intelligence which is practical, but their intelligence is limited due to a lack of linguistic knowledge. Animals do have a behaviouristic way of communicating with one another but without language and concept possession there is no clear means of achieving higher levels of intelligence such as abstract thought or the ability to invent and imagine.

Rachel Browne


Kevin asked:

How would an individual, without having earlier experience, go about learning by themselves, the theory of reflexivity? Does reflexivity require an earlier understanding?

Take a look at this website:


I assume by the above that you are referring to Soros' theory of economics. What he is saying, if I understand him correctly, is that there are feedback effects in economics. When people know something about the market, that knowledge affects their interactions with the market and changes it. Seems reasonable to me, but he admits that he's no mathematician, and without a mathematical theory there's not a lot you can do past some very vague generalizations. Now, I have also read that recently there has been a great deal of time and money put by a couple of firms into extremely sophisticated computer simulations of the market, and that those are starting to work fairly well, although it's really too early to tell. That sort of thing, however, is what is needed to check out a theory like this, and I'm sure those simulations include just that feedback, i.e., where knowledge of the market influences the market, which influences knowledge of the market... etc.

So the question is, just what do you want out of this? If you really want to learn this kind of thing you have to learn economics, and enough about artificial intelligence to evaluate what's being done in that field, and in addition, some of the mathematics of recursive functions. Not a trivial set of subjects. If you just want a nodding acquaintance with this, then take a look at Gleick's book Chaos (I think that's the name), the article above, and some basic writings in economics and perhaps game theory.

Steven Ravett Brown


Felix, Bernardo, Gustavo, and Eugenio asked:

Even though we haven't accomplished our goal of discovering if there exists life in other planets, all of us have the same doubt.

If we are alone or not on the universe, there is something or someone that put us here, what is that and why does he, she or it put us here and for what purpose?

Let's take the question, "for what purpose are we here?" and change it very subtly to, "what is my purpose in life?" Most people, I suspect, can begin to answer this question without too much difficulty. My purpose in life might be to care for my family, give my son a good education, pursue my chosen career and so on. When I have given as complete an answer as possible along these lines, is there something yet remaining that I have not begun to address? If there is a creator who has put us here, does it follow that this creator has a purpose for us which we must discover and pursue? And does it follow that such a purpose would be something which we would recognise as being somehow "higher" or worthier or more spiritual than the particular purposes we set for ourselves?

Suppose we were able to meet the creator and ask what is the purpose for which we were put here. Imagine the following possible answers from the creator:

"I put you here to stop the beetles from overrunning the earth."
"I put you here to spend your lives trying to find me and worship me."
"I put you here to decide for yourselves what your own purposes would be."
"I didn't put you here for any particular purpose except that I enjoy creating things."

We could generate a long list of such possible answers and some would be more plausible than others but are any of them actually impossible? And now the question arises, how would we decide which possible purpose was really what the creator had determined? Could this be decided by philosophising about it or would we be dependent upon direct revelation from the creator? If it is logically possible for a creator have any one of a number of purposes for the creation, then unless we are privy to the thinking of the creator we will only ever be able to say what we think the range of possibilities might be.

Robert Crompton


Trevor asked:

I have a request that seems like it should be easily filled, but in actuality has frustrated me for quite some time. I'm immensely interested in existentialism, but other than a few of Sartre's essays, I'm unable to find anything substantial about it. (Suffice it to say our library system here leaves much to be desired...namely, books.) Any and all information regarding existentialism and existentialists would be greatly appreciated.

A book recently recommended to me is Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre by Walter Kaufmann. This is an excellent introduction to the diversity of existentialist thought and is also contains short selected works.

Rachel Browne


Anne asked:

I am looking at how the utilitarian formula of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' applies to future generations, and I don't really understand the difference between 'total utility' and 'average utility'. Can you help me?

You're not dealing with philosophy here, just with simple math. A total is the sum of all the individuals: (1+1+1)=3. An average is the sum, divided by the number of the individuals making up the sum: (1+1+1) / 3 = 1.

Now if you want to get into philosophy, you have to ask on what grounds you can justify a) turning happiness into a number, and b) doing mathematical manipulations on those numbers. Is the happiness you feel on eating a good meal something that can be a) turned into a number, and b) added to the happiness you feel (also turned into a number) on getting an "A" in a philosophy paper?

Steven Ravett Brown


Matt asked:

I want to know who was the first philosopher to say, "All men are created equal."

As far as I'm concerned, it was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States, also a philosopher, who first exactly formulated as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] self evident, that all men are created equal and independent.

As he said men, it's interesting to note, that by 'men' Jefferson probably didn't mean all human beings, but only (white) male humans.

The idea of (even if incomplete) equality is older: For example, John Locke's view of the state of nature is a state of being where all men are created equal, and all men have the right to protect their life, freedom, and possessions.

Simone Klein


Chris asked:

I'm a third year philosophy student. I am considering a PhD in philosophy. Are there any good job opportunities in my future?

Well, the stats I've heard are that 2/3 of new PhD philosophers get academic jobs. If you want money, take up something else. But here's a good site:


And a site with job listings in the UK:


Steven Ravett Brown


Geoffrey asked:

Recently, I came across the term 'martial arts philosophy'. What is the philosophy of martial arts? are there different martial arts philosophies?

The question about martial arts philosophy is complex. There is a sense in which the martial arts are axiomatic: they are the 'arts' of war. Yet, it would be unfair and a disservice simply to see war as the engaging of an enemy with acts of violence or aggression. In the martial arts philosophy and in the philosophy of martial arts the primary focus is on the development of the human person. This may at first seem strange, but Ginchin Funokoshi, the founder of modern karate said in the first of his Twenty Precepts that the reason why karate exists is for the development of the human person. The martial arts, therefore, primarily do not exist in themselves to train for war, or aggression, or any kind of violence, but rather to engage the human person in the search for the answer to the question: what is the meaning of human life? The ancient wisdom of the East will tell us many things about the 'path' towards this knowledge, but ultimately, the philosophy of martial arts is the search for understanding and enlightenment through engagement in the human project.

There is no 'school' of philosophy specifically, as in e.g. Platonism, Aristotelianism, Utilitarianism, Logical Positivism etc. There is simply the 'do' (pronounced 'dough') the Way.

This is interesting for me as a Christian and a priest since early Christianity was also called 'The Way', while we found this on a specific person in history, and not just his teachings, martial arts may look to Lau Tsu, Zen, the Buddha but ultimately the search is for 'satori' in all of us. As a Christian and a Franciscan who stands, philosophically, in the Plotinian-Augustinian tradition, I would speak about a 'divine illumination', the martial artist will also seek for this enlightenment which may come through physical training, development of character and temperament, contemplation and meditation. Ultimately, the primary tenet of the philosophy of martial arts is the literal translation of philosophy, 'lover of wisdom'. It is the search for this wisdom which constitutes the do of the martial arts. And it is this, which as a martial artist and a priest, fascinates me in relation to the engagement of dialogue between Western philosophical preoccupations and the East — where the philosopher is not too concerned about issues of matter and form, realism and idealism etc.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Jessica asked:

What is mathematics? Is it our minds quantifying phenomena? Is it something within the world itself? Where could I start reading to learn more on the subject?

While The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines with certainty mathematics as the "abstract deductive science of number, quantity, arrangement, and space" a comprehensive philosophical definition of mathematics is not really possible. The common quadripartition of the views into Platonism, Intuitionism, Logicism and Formalism is not always clear, therefore I try to strike the problem at the roots.

Mathematics appears to be different from other types of investigation because of it's apparently high degree of certainty. Theorems like '2 + 2 = 4' or 'There are infinitely many prime numbers', are often taken as necessary truths and a priori knowledge.

The most basic entities in mathematics are probably numbers. What exactly are they? Are they synthetic, i.e. man-made, or objective — existing in reality? If they are real, then where or what are they?

In the view of realism, all mathematical objects (like numbers, triangles, theorems, etc.) have an objective existence independent of human consciousness. They don't exist in our physical universe (Have you ever seen an actual number?) but in a separate realm of mathematical entities, thus raising mathematics to the level of metaphysics. It follows that mathematics is a process of discovery not invention.

This position was reiterated by Kant, particularly with respect to Euclidean geometry. Unfortunately, the almost immediate discovery of non-Euclidean geometry put paid to any such idea, because it showed that the axioms on which Euclidean geometry was based are not all necessarily true.

Alternatives to realism fall into two groups:

1. Those who agree that mathematics has a subject-matter, but hold that mathematical objects are not independent of the mind, conventions, or language of the mathematician. The most common views in this camp take mathematical objects to be mental constructions, and so are varieties of idealism. Within this group, there are two possibilities.

  1. mathematics is subjective, so each person has his own mathematics. A problem with this subjective idealism, then, is to account for the intersubjectivity of mathematical assertions and the apparent objectivity of mathematics.
  2. mathematics is both mind-dependent and objective, following Kant in asserting that mathematics deals with structures common to human minds. This variation accounts for the necessity and apriority of our subject by holding that mathematics represents ways we must think, perceive, and apprehend.

2. The other alternative to realism is to deny the subject-matter of mathematical objects. To avoid general scepticism, the burden is to give an account of mathematics, and its role in the intellectual enterprise that does not presuppose an ontology. One common manoeuvre in this direction is to reconstruct mathematical assertions in modal terms. For example, instead of asserting that there is a natural number with a given property, one asserts that there might be a system that exemplifies the natural-number structure in which there would be a number with the property, or one asserts that it is possible to construct a certain item with a certain property.

Another alternative is to construe mathematics as fiction, much like what we read in novels. At least at first sight, fictional discourse does not invoke any ontological commitments. But this theorist might then try to give an account of the role of fictional mathematics in presumably non-fictional discourses, like science!

Yet another alternative in this area is to construe mathematical truths as analytic, true in virtue of the meanings of their terms. Again, such a view may not involve an ontology, and it does account for the necessity and apriority of mathematics. The necessity of mathematics is semantic, or linguistic, and mathematical knowledge therefore is knowledge of meaning. The problem, however, is to square this view with mathematics as practised. One needs to give an explication of the meanings of mathematical terminology according to which every mathematical truth is analytic!

Finally, Wittgenstein's attempt is to accommodate mathematics in terms of the normative social practice inherent in a linguistic community. This denies that mathematics is necessary and a priori, but it does account for the perceived necessity of mathematics. We simply have to accept the basic mathematic principles because we cannot imagine living any other way.

Here's a small list of books, which hopefully will help you getting more familiar with this fascinating subject:

Philip J. Davis, Reuben Hersh: The mathematical experience New ed. Publ. by: Mariner Book, Boston, 1998

Douglas R. Hofstadter: Gūdel, Escher, Bach. an eternal golden braid20th-anniversary ed. Publ. By Penguin, London, 2000

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1956) Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics Oxford: Blackwell

Bertrand Russell Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy London: George Allen & Unwin; New York: The Macmillan Company New Ed. By Dover Publications

Paul Benacerraf and Hilary Putnam (eds.), Philosophy of Mathematics 2nd edn. (Cambridge, 1983).

Simone Klein


Robert asked:

I would be most interested in your opinion on Memetics (Dawkins, Heylighen) as an epistemological theory. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach? And in which philosophical context should this approach be placed? (Successor to the Rationalistic, Cognitivistic approach or perhaps as yet another attempt to overcome the Cartesian split?)

I'll take a stab at this; I found the idea interesting at one point, but now I find it rather limited. A "meme", as I understand the term, refers to an idea or concept of some sort which must be 1) communicable, and 2) replicable. Then the theory goes on to claim that "ideas" like religion, or say, some specific religion, act analogously to genes. They are communicated between people, they replicate (in one's head, so to speak) by being thought about, and then are communicated again, etc. And somewhere in here is the idea that the ideas themselves, the "memes", are doing the job themselves, analogously to DNA.

Well, there are holes in this that you can drive a truck through. What is an "idea", anyway? Patterns of neural firing? If so, do patterns of firing shoot from head to head? No. So ideas aren't communicated like DNA, which does shoot from cell to cell, in effect. Is an idea the "information"? Um... what's that? Patterns of neural firing? Whoops, we just did that. Is it the words, say, in which an "idea" is communicated? So words are replicating themselves? No.

Ok, let's try something else. A meme "replicates" itself in our head, or our mind, whatever you'd prefer. Now what exactly does that mean? We hear someone talking, ok, then... an idea shoots from their head to ours? No. We reconstruct it from the communication? Ok, not unreasonable, but why is this analogous to an organism replicating? What's happened, according to this theory, is that the "meaning", the "information", which is communicated by the words is taking pieces from the various concepts we have in our minds and building a copy of itself, like an organism. But how is this different from any act of understanding, and in fact any act of sensing the world at all? That's what we always do whenever we hear, speak, see. Is everything a "meme", then? But then the concept is empty. If everything we understand or sense is a meme, all we've done is use the word "meme" instead of "concept" or "phenomenon".

Do you see what I mean about the problems? Let's go further. Let's say, giving the meme people lots of slack, that there are some ideas that are more attractive, that "spread" in some meaningful sense, from person to person. Ok, now what? How do we differentiate those from other ideas, which do not? What is the test, the theory, the experiment to determine whether an idea is a "meme" or just an ordinary run-of-the-mill idea, and further, how successful it will be? Do we just look at ideas and see the one's that have spread? Now what would those be, exactly? Is the religion of one person the same as the religion of another, even if they go to the same church? The "same" in what sense? And if we're merely defining the "memes" by taking some ideas that we think are widespread, and saying, "Those ideas are widespread, therefore I will call them 'memes'", just how have we avoided a vicious circle? A meme is some idea that's widespread because memes are ideas that spread themselves widely? Well, that just won't do. You need an independent criterion. With DNA, we have all sorts of chemical characteristics, the four amino acids, etc., etc. There's nothing like that for memes, no basic little meme-component we can test for in ideas so that we could say, "yes, that's got the 'meme amino acids', so there it is!"

So, as far as I can tell, it's one of those sort of interesting ideas that just fizzle out for lack of concrete support. A shame, really, but without something to test for and without the ability to make predictions, there's just rhetoric.

Steven Ravett Brown


Cornelia asked:

Hello. My name is Cornelia Privitera, I'm 17 years old and living in Austria. My problem is the following: At my school, I'm obliged to teach my school mates for 2 weeks about any topic I like! As I am a philosophy lover I would like to give my schoolmates an insight into philosophy. I want to light their interest in philosophy and make them wonder about every day things!

My problem is that I don't know how to teach them! All I know for certain is that I don't want to tell them about the Greek philosophers or the history of philosophy, as it might not be of great interest for a bunch of 16 year old students!

I would like to teach them about ethics, religion...things they face every day! But how can I do that? Are there any philosophical games we could do in class room!? Do you have any tips on how I can introduce them to the topic?

My recommendation is to try to get hold of Martin Cohen's book 101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge) and to pick one or more that you like. Then ask your classmates to ask questions about the problem you have chosen. Once you have their questions, invite the class to try to answer them. If you can't get the book, pick out a couple of philosophical problems you like and try the same method (Gyges' Ring in Plato's The Republic is a good one).

There is a whole movement of teachers and philosophers who want to get school students discussing philosophy. In Austria, one of the leaders of this movement is Daniella Camhy, in Graz (e-mail me if you want contact details, or to discuss this further).

Tim Sprod


Alex asked:

Not really a question, just something I found that I thought was amusing but I don't necessarily agree with... still, it at least sounds philosophical and is good food for thought:

"No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has the strength of character to be wicked. All other goodness is generally nothing but indolence or impotence of will" — Anonymous.

The statement that you quote is false, the claim it makes is absurd, but it contains an uncomfortable nugget of truth. For many of us, most of the time, what passes for moral 'goodness' — kindness and consideration for others, honesty, respect for the law — is the easiest option. For many of us most of the time, it costs nothing to be moral. Yet amongst those whose normal behaviour passes all the tests for moral goodness are persons who would be quite capable of unspeakable acts of evil and wickedness, if the occasion arose. Model citizens, good husbands and fathers joined the Waffen SS.

In other words, one cannot judge moral goodness on a superficial inspection. This is clear enough in the case of others. But the tragic fact is that we cannot even be sure of our own selves. We cannot be totally certain that we would acquit ourselves honourably were the test ever to come. If the man in the suit made me an offer that I could not refuse, would I refuse?

As Socrates saw, courage is inseparable from moral virtue.

That is the nugget of truth. What is false and absurd is the idea that the capacity for wickedness is a part of courage, or necessary condition for strength of moral character. A 'capacity for wickedness' means preparedness to carry out a wicked act given the appropriate inducements or it means nothing. It is a contradiction in terms to say that an individual was prepared to carry out a wicked act, yet would never carry out a wicked act under any circumstances. Yet surely the incapacity to carry out a wicked act under any circumstances is just what we admire in the person of strong moral character.

Geoffrey Klempner


Robert asked:

Of those who have produced scholarship on J.L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words. please inform me of any who have elaborated "speech situation".

Jurgen Habermas uses the speech situation quite a lot in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981, Boston: Beacon Press).

Tim Sprod


Antonio asked:

After writing a dissertation on why we obey the law at university I have become infatuated with this subject. This constant infatuation has let me to want to write a book. Although I am well aware of the mainstream theories (e.g. the Consent theory) I would like this book to examine the less well known theories. For example, I believe that one answer to this question is that it is simply in our self interest to obey the law.

Despite this desire I have found it difficult to find these kind of sources. I would be eternally grateful to you if you could provide any suggestions for sources on this whole issue. Many thanks.

Classical philosophers who hold that it is in our self-interest to obey the law are Hobbes, Locke and Kant. Recently in this century, John Rawls. This is "contractarianism"and you might want to search for literature under this heading, because this is not the end of the matter and there is much more literature on this. However, there is also an issue about how law reflects morality, a specific concern in the philosophy of law. We only obey the law if we are moral! For this, you might look at the writings of John Austin and Jeremy Bentham (a couple of centuries ago, but still important) and more recently H L A Hart and Joseph Raz. Each of these will have references which will lead you to further research.

Best of luck with the book!

Rachel Browne


Mauro and Glenda asked:

Why did god need time to make the universe? If he is so powerful, why did he spent 6 days to create it?

If one follows the precepts of St. Augustine, it was God that created time. There was no time before its creation. God existed before time and after time as we know it ceases to exist. God is outside time. God created all that exists including time and space ex nihilo, "out of nothing".

Augustine stated that in the mind of God there is no before or after: there is only the now. Individuals experience time in the form of the present, past and future, but God is omnipresent and therefore is not limited by the concept of time. There are not two types of time only one. Individuals are in time God is timeless. Therefore, the six days is a concept that man has created to explain the process of creation.

John Eberts

The Book of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 tell the story of creation. The book of Genesis is a literary work and not a scientific work. The whole of the bible, but particularly the Old Testament is not strictly speaking, history in the understood manner of the term. It certainly contains historical data, but also contains myths, legends, sagas, etc. In other words, the writers of the Book of Genesis were not really interested in the science of cosmology.

For them the religious truth was that the world had a beginning and that beginning was the creative activity of God. The fact that science and contemporary cosmology can give us some theoretical insights, such as the Big Bang into the beginnings of the universe does not negate the truth of the creation as it is given in the Book of Genesis.

But, it is crucial to understand that it is a theological work. The writers are seeking to understand the beginnings of the world and for them that beginning is the deity. It is not strictly in keeping with the literary dimensions of the book of Genesis to see the so-called 6 Days of Creation in strictly temporal or chronological terms. It is best to see the story of the creation in the Book of Genesis not as a temporal or chronological history but as a story of origins which has similarities with all other myths of beginnings and which are endemic to all primitive cultures.

So God did not take 6 days to make the world. Rather, the universe has evolved over thousands of millions of years, but the actual literary story as it given in Genesis is the reflection of a people who are trying to understand what we are all trying to understand: where did we come from, what are we doing here, what si the meaning of life, why is there evil in the world, and where are we going. It may take the same creativity for us to answer these questions as it took the writers of the Book of Genesis.

Fr Seamus Mulholland


Ruk asked:

How can we apply the concept of 'language game' to a problem of translating texts from one language to another?

The concept of language as being a "game" originated, as far as I know, with the later Wittgenstein, after he repudiated the Tractatus and wrote the Blue and Brown books. One of the problems I have with answering the above is that I cannot tell whether you have read these or about these, so I'll have to assume you haven't. But that entails my giving you a short course on Wittgenstein, which I simply don't have space for. So I'll give a very brief and superficial summary.

Here goes: language is a "game" in the senses a) that it (i.e., its rules and its members) is arbitrary, b) that the "goal" of language (perhaps to explicate truth — or describe the world — and you play with whether those are the same) is arbitrary, in the sense that we only know it through language, and c) that what supports language, what holds it together, so to speak, is no more than our mutual agreement to maintain it. But that agreement is tacit, i.e., we aren't usually aware of it, and no one is aware of all of it, so what it amounts to is that we are and must be constantly interacting with each other and with various linguistic constructs, like books, dictionaries, etc., to maintain language's stability, so to speak. So language is a "game" that we all play; we agree to the rules, use them to describe what we think and see, and all that we can know of the latter is through language... so there's a kind of inherent circularity to the whole system. Wittgenstein sort of broke that circularity by claiming that we have knowledge other than language, but that latter is basically ineffable so it's just not part of the system we can grasp hold of, manipulate, communicate, etc. A rather black and white analysis, I've always thought, but there you are.

So, to your question. When we're translating, we're translating the rules of one game into the rules of another. Can this be done? Sure, as long as we've got commonalities to use for rule translation. One of the strange things about this conception, to me, at any rate, is that since there is nothing, really, except these games, there's not too much problem dealing within one system as between systems. It's all arbitrary rules, and we just have to get them down through observation and agreement. That's one very general meaning of your term "apply". If you want to know whether someone has worked out translation rules on Wittgensteinian principles... an interesting question. I would very much doubt that anyone has done this explicitly and in detail. However, think about computer translations. Machines are very good at treating things like "games", using rules, etc. and I think that a comparison of the principles of machine translation to Wittgensteinian ideas is quite apt. In fact, Daniel Dennett is quite a proponent of a kind of general approach to Wittgensteinian/ machine synthesis; you might read Consciousness Explained for more ideas along these lines.

Steven Ravett Brown


Alfredo asked:

Why do philosophers continue with their work, that is philosophy, when they know that most of their questions are never gonna be answered or that most of the answers that they find out are gonna be questionated and probably denied by many people because of the relative truth that everyone has?

Which is the real truth: relative or absolute?

Second question first. If anybody claims that the real truth is relative, they are claiming that it is true that what is true varies from person to person. Another person can then say "Well, that's your truth, not mine". So then it is not really true that what is true varies for different persons. Therefore, relativism is self-defeating. This is the paradox of relativism. Anybody who wants to put forward a relativist view has to show how that paradox is mistaken.

First question: my view is that philosophers continue because they believe that there are answers to difficult questions. That is, straightforward relativism is false. However, straightforward absolutism must also be false, because otherwise we would all have recognized the answers long ago. So, there must be a middle ground. That is what philosophers are looking for.

Tim Sprod

Here's another way of looking at it. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're right, that "real" answers are hidden or just not there. But there is another kind of knowledge that philosophers do have, and that is knowledge of how to think. That kind of knowledge, knowing how to do something, may not result in an answer, or a clear answer. But it's a lot better than just stumbling around. In addition, knowing how to think is applicable to other fields, not just philosophy. So a partial answer to your question is that philosophers like to think, and want to be able to do it well, and that's one reason for studying philosophy.

Now, in fact, you are not right, and there are answers to some questions. Not to all, and not, perhaps, to the deepest and most interesting. But there are some questions that can be answered by philosophy... but one of the frustrating things (to philosophers) is that as soon as a question is answered, that answer, and its implications, are suddenly turned into a field of "knowledge", and it's not considered philosophy any more. Physics, for example, used to be a branch of philosophy... until we started getting answers. Now if you do it, you're a "physicist". Philosophy of mind used to include what we now call "psychology"... but not any more, now that latter field is a sort of junior-grade (and getting better all the time) science. So, there you go.

In addition, there are answers to some questions in philosophy. Some ideas have been thoroughly discredited, and are now just historical relics... there are very few people, for example, who take Plato's theory of Forms seriously (at least as he set it out). There's a lot of Medieval Scholastic philosophy which is only of interest to historians at this point. Schopenhauer and the evolution of societies has become both discredited and/or a branch of economics and political theory (philosophy appropriated again). So again, some questions are indeed answered.

As far as the "real" truth goes... about what? How about this: if you look in front of you and see a wall, and close your eyes and walk straight ahead, what will happen? That's about as absolute as you can get, right?

Steven Ravett Brown


Diana asked:

How do we know that we really exist and we are not just someone else's dream or something like that?

"How do I know that I am not part of someone else's dream?" puts a peculiar twist on Descartes' story of the Evil Demon.

In the First Meditation, Descartes imagines that there is an evil demon deceiving him into thinking that he is awake, in contact with a world of physical objects around him, when in reality he is only dreaming. Yet even if an evil demon deceives me, argues Descartes, there is a "me" being deceived. Deceived about the existence of an external world or not, either way I must exist.

What would it mean to exist merely as part of another person's dream? At the end of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland Alice asks her pet cat:

"Now Kitty, let's consider who dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that— as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was a part of his dream too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, you ought to know — Oh Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw can wait!" But the provoking cat only started on the other paw, and pretended it hadn't heard the question.

Carroll, or, rather Ludwig Dodgson, was fully aware of the absurdity of this question. If it was Kitty in the role of the Red Queen, not Alice, who dreamed the dream about Wonderland, then Alice's adventures existed only in Kitty's mind, not in the mind of Alice. Take away the real Alice — awake, sound asleep or dreaming her own dreams, whatever they may be — and we are left with an 'Alice' that is not self-aware, that does not see or hear or think, but merely appears, in Kitty's dream world, to do such things.

We cannot accuse Descartes of overlooking the possibility of 'existing in someone else's dream' in Lewis Carroll's sense, for it is not a scenario in which there is any trace of me, the subject. Yet it could be argued that there is a possibility that Descartes does not consider. He assumes that as an existing subject, in a dream world or a real world, I make judgements about my experiences, perform inferences, ask questions, consider doubts. These are actions, albeit mental actions. But what if I did not exist as a subject capable of actions, physical or mental? What if all these thoughts passing through my mind are merely experiences being fed to me? This is a scenario that should not be unfamiliar to readers of science fiction: the idea that one might exist inside the circuits of a supercomputer as a character following the script generated by a virtual reality program.

I do not know whether that hypothesis ultimately makes sense — I suspect that it does not — but that is the closest one can get to the idea that my reality as a conscious subject is illusory. In reality, there is no "I" that sees, hears or thinks, even though there seems to be.

Geoffrey Klempner


Junya asked:

Hello. I'm looking for a philosophy which could combine the problem of the balance between body and mind (or head) and the problem of the Neighbor. I once have attended to a lecture of Phenomenology, and I remember that lecture time to time in everyday life in my apartment. (The lecturer professor said he had a project to relate Phenomenology to everyday life phenomena.) By the way, I have an estimation that the monastic philosophy or theology has very much to do with the problem of the apartment, although I have read that type of writings very little.

You can read about the problem of oneself (body and mind) and the other in Martin Buber's book Between Man and Man and also in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence by Emmanuel Levinas.

Rachel Browne


Gait asked:

How do you explain philosophy to a 5 year-old or 10 year-old child?

Gareth Matthews has written a couple of wonderful books on how you explore (not explain) philosophy with (not to) young children. See especially: Matthews, G. (1980) Philosophy and the Young Child Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tim Sprod


Eve asked:

What is a thing?

Martin Heidegger opposed 'thing' with 'object'. There are different translations of his terms Vorhandenhut and Zuhandenhut. So, I think that his term Zuhandenhut (means 'adjutant') can be aligned with the term of 'thing' while Vorhandenhut (means 'available') is restricted to term of 'object'. Zuhandenhut applies to the things which are used by man everyday, which are perceived by man as inseparable from him, which exist close to his body. Zuhandenhut applies to things which comprise the wider context of human activity.

For example, clothes are Zuhandenhut for all the people, excepting designers for whom clothing is the object of activity. Most of people do not perceive their clothes as a separate thing. Our clothes become part of our body. Like other things which we use everyday, we would not fancy our life without them: shower, glasses, shaver, chair, table, paper, etc.

Another example of Zuhandenhut is that thing which we make. Painting a picture we do not perceive the thing before us as the product of art. We perceive the canvas as the matter of our work. It exists with respect to our work.

Vorhandenhut refers to those things which remain aloof from us, which are perceived by man as independent from our activity and out body objects. Vorhandenhut is an object which has its own existence, which detaches itself from everyday life.

For example, an exhibit is the Vorhandenhut. An exhibit is detached from the person's everyday life. Exhibits are not to be touched. A shaver which becomes an exhibit will never used everyday to shave the face, the glasses which become an exhibit will never rest on one's nose.

The product of our working is Vorhandenhut too, because when we have made it, it becomes an independent object from us. Finishing the picture we alienate it from our body, from our activity and our creative power. The accomplished work becomes an object for a master.

Zuhandenhut can become Vorhandenhut just as Vorhandenhut can become Zuhandenhut. These models are interchangeable. So, when examining our familiar glasses we can find some peculiarities, which we have never noticed before. And we can marvel at these peculiarities of the familiar thing (Zuhandenhut) so that it becomes the object (Vorhandenhut) of our aesthetic feeling.

Contrariwise, the object can become the thing then we appropriate the external object. For example, when we correct the spelling in a student's essay, we appropriate the student's work and perceive it as material for our correcting. Or when we buy a relic we can start to use it, touch it, even though before this relic was a museum exhibit. Alienating, we transform a thing (Zuhandenhut) into an object (Vorhandenhut), and arrogating we transform an object (Vorhandenhut) into a thing (Zuhandenhut).

I think that this Heideggerian alienation of author from his creation is close to Roland Barthes idea of the author's death. This idea of alienation was previously envisaged in the works of Hegel and Marx.

So, in answer to your question: a thing is dependent on us. It belongs to the context of our everyday life and does not exist out of this context.

Dmitry Olshansky
Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation

Oooh... I just can't resist this one. You have asked one of the most horrendous questions that can be asked, and one of the most important. The problem is that answering this touches virtually every school of philosophy, and no one (except their founders) has been happy with the answers. You won't be happy with mine.

How's this: short answer 1: a thing is not a person. Short answer 2: a thing is what has substance. Short answer 3: a thing is what a person experiences through their senses. Short answer 4: a thing is what is intended through the act of conscious reference, i.e., roughly, a thing is what we are conscious of. Very short answer 5: a thing is not an entity which has concern for its being as one of its aspects (it's not a "dasein"). Short answer 6: a thing is what lies behind its sensory presentations. Short answer 7: a thing is an idea in (some) god's mind. Short answer 8: a thing is what all sensory presentations have in common. Short answer 9: a thing is an abstraction on which we perform experiments in order to clarify its properties.

I could go on... an on... and each of these short answers are sort of vague approximations to answers that have libraries of arguments for, against, around, under... Are you happy? No? Well, that's all right, no one else is either. What philosophers do, usually, with this (and the other really horrendous questions) is postpone them... the idea is that we'll do some reading, learn some of the schools, the viewpoints, the arguments, and then, when we're real grown up philosophers, we'll either be arrogant and write 'the' book explaining it all, or we'll be humble and keep on with the more tractable issues. I haven't made up my mind yet which route to go... but if you want to get into this, you'll really have to start from scratch, so to speak, and just plow into philosophy from the beginning, being careful not to get seduced by some particular answer on the way through it all.

Steven Ravett Brown


Maru asked:

I have had this question for several years:

  • Who determined that blue is blue and not pink? or
  • Who said that red was named red and not car?

In my view, this is purely convention. Any particular sound or letter combination is attached to an idea quite arbitrarily (with the possible exceptions of onomatopoetic words (like "hiss" and "bang", which imitate what they name). So the answer: just a few people who once said "OK, that sound will do for that (pointing to it) color".

Tim Sprod


Rob asked:

Is a "utopia" or "El Dorado" possible? I have thought of this for some time now, and I have come up with the following. That if a "utopia" is to exist, it will be the people that make it possible not the physical attributes. Next, for these people to be able to make this "utopia" exist they must be enlightened, or they must have lost their ego and know themselves, know what who they are. From this point a "utopia" can be created. My question is, Can people really be in this enlightened state forever, or is it fleeting? I know that one can attain this feeling or state of enlightenment more and more easily, but can one be in this state forever? My professor has told me that we can do this using inductive reasoning, look at Plato, or Walt Whitman even. He says these people are enlightened and are in this state forever, yet I feel that this is impossible! I believe that it is fleeting. What is your view of this?

Utopia is not naturally possible because of human nature. There is no way you can become enlightened by inductive reasoning! Inductive reasoning is purely logical and enlightenment isn't possible without emotional freedom. Emotional freedom requires clear thought, but clear thought requires balanced emotions.

Since some people do claim to be enlightened, this looks like a practical problem, but enlightenment is an end and a value which it is possible to reject and utopia is only an ideal to some people.

Rachel Browne


Nick asked:

I have two questions regarding aesthetics, and I wanted to ask your help. I am trying to work out whether beauty may be said to be a property of an entity, much like colour, texture etc, or whether an aesthetic judgement must always involve a degree of subjective interpretation. If the latter, then why does there appear to be some consensus about a group of things which are beautiful (sunrises, or example, or flowers)?

I have a feeling this may be one of those intractable questions, but any suggestions would be very gratefully received!

Another question, if I may, about something that nearly drove me to despair when I first encountered it. If everything we use to rationalise the world is essentially mimetic (language, concepts, perception etc), then what is there in the centre? What can we say is only itself, and not representative of anything?

Two great questions! On the first, I'm not sure that color is a property of an entity at all (is a green box green under a red light?). That aside, in my view all aesthetic judgements do always involve a degree of subjective interpretation, but this interpretation is always guided by criteria which are largely communally established (and/ or rooted in the way we perceive the world, which has a genetic basis), so it is hardly surprising there is some consensus. For there not to be, you have to believe that humans are radically separate (and quite a few philosophers have!), but this seems wrong to me.

On the second, there is no center. We weave a web of language, concepts etc, and if this sufficiently parallels experience, it will do. No one place in the web is the anchor on which everything else rests (this view owes much to Pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey).

Tim Sprod

Aesthetic qualities are generally thought to be tertiary qualities, secondary qualities being colour and smell, for instance, and a primary quality being shape. While colour is a relation between a perceiver and an object and can be described in scientific terms, tertiary qualities essentially refer to the perceiver and cannot be picked out or pointed to. A piece of music, or a picture, is beautiful as a whole and beauty cannot be reduced to particular elements of the work. Kant's definition of a judgement of beauty lay in the nature of the response which should be universalisable subjective pleasure in the form which gives rise to the free play of the imagination. If our response meets a certain criterion, we are making a judgement that something is beautiful. This is a formal definition of the nature of a judgement and doesn't determine what sort of things we do or ought to find beautiful. However, Kant does generalise about beautiful objects when he says that the form of nature is beautiful in a different way from art since it gives rise to the feeling that nature was made, or designed, for us to find beautiful and since the judgement of beauty is made by a human beings with like responses, there is no reason why there should not be consensus. It is more surprising that some people don't respond to flowers and sunsets! But because we share a human response we can bring others to see beauty by suggesting that some things can be responded to as beautiful.

Our language, concepts and perceptions are representational insofar as they are relative to us, but reality is not representational. Rather, reality is such that it can be represented in different ways to different kinds of beings.

Rachel Browne


Jose asked:

I recently got in an argument with a professor about the subject of homosexuality. She told me at the end of the discussion that Socrates, Aristotle were gay. I told her that I've studied about them and that was something I did not believe. This is on the teachings I've studied. I asked her if she had any proof and she said she did. Can we really determine their lifestyle on their teachings or is there some truth to what this professor told me?

You are asking, from the point of view of modern culture and ideas about sexuality, about a culture 3000 years in the past and their ideas about sexuality, and you want their ideas translated into modern ideas. Oboy. "Gay" is a word we use now to describe certain types of male homosexuality, right? Well, what is male homosexuality? Is it the case that if a male person has one sexual experience, sometime in his life, with another male, he is homosexual? Well, what if he has two... three... what would you take as a dividing line? What if a male desires other males, but not usually as much as he desires females, and never has a sexual encounter with another male; is he homosexual? What if he desires other males more than females, but never has a sexual encounter with another male? What if is desires other males less than females, but lives in a culture in which male-male sex is preferred, and has that kind of sex; is he homosexual? You can create a few more combinations here and puzzle over them if you want.

The latter case was, as far as we know, more-or-less the case in ancient Athens. Male/male sex was considered preferable to male/female sex as being an encounter between equals (you see the viewpoint on women there), and sex between an older man and a younger man was the most preferred, for a variety of reasons. Were the ancient Greeks homosexuals? From what we see in the Dialogues, Socrates actually seems, relatively, pretty "hetero", in that in at least one or two cases he refused offers of sex with other men. But there's no indication that he always refused it. He was married and had children, but that was the obligation they all had, otherwise the state would disappear.

As far as Aristotle goes, he and Plato probably had a lot of sex with men... were they "gay"? "Homosexual"? By their standards, our terms would have made no sense. Their culture preferred the opposite of what our culture prefers; how do you compare them, then? If you're evaluating it in terms of personal preferences, we have no idea at all of those; but we do know that one's preferences are due to some degree on one's culture and upbringing... but not entirely... so we're back to ground zero in terms of saying what, sexually, Plato and Aristotle, for example, "were" by modern standards. They were almost certainly men who had sex primarily with other men and probably preferred it that way, for some reasons quite dissimilar to, and probably other reasons quite similar to, the reasons men today have sex with other men.

Steven Ravett Brown

I have never heard of this before and would be very pleased if you could let me know what proof your teacher has. To an extent, and although I don't know for sure, I think that ancient Greeks were inclined to bisexuality — at least they didn't find homosexuality wrong or unnatural as it is thought to be today. But Aristotle! I wouldn't have thought he was gay in any sense of the word!

However, your teacher may be right. I do think that you can infer a lot about a person from his teachings. In Aristotle's case I would be more inclined to believe that he was a repressed gay than actually so! This is so interesting. It is thought that Kant's deontological ethics is caused by the fact that his mother was very strict and moral and instilled a sense of duty in him. I have read that his mother was very much against lying, and surely only this could cause him to claim something so absurd as that a person should not lie to a murderer who wants to kill your friend and asks his whereabouts! Reason or ethical sense couldn't lead you to such a conclusion. Then there is Kierkegaard who couldn't cope with relationships and so turned to God in real life, and his philosophy reflects his inability to deal with daily life. There is Nietzsche who was not a fully developed personality, hence his childish "will to power". The fact that his personality was not fully developed and that he could not cope with reality is evidenced by the fact that he went mad when he saw a horse being flogged.

A further question is whether it is just content, and not style, which is indicative of what a writer is like. Kant was a well-liked, sociable person, but rigid in his habits. The content of Kant's works easily bring us to believe that he was rigid in his habits: He wouldn't otherwise be able to make time to give us the deep analyses of thought which he has. We might suppose from the style of his writing, also, that he was the sort to stick to a schedule, but we cannot determine from his style that he was sociable and likeable. Intuitively, we suppose the contrary: Someone who is so intellectual, we suppose, cannot be very sociable. What we see here is that writings can show us what a person's lifestyle is like, or his work schedule, but his actual persona as happy, sociable or gay is not necessarily apparent.

However, with Nietzsche, the case is different. We can tell from the content of his writings that he was not happy and sociable and we can also tell that he was not a very mature sort of person. His writings are very often very wise, but as often as not he sounds like a rebellious and troubled teenager — this is apparent in his style, not just content. I have always supposed that Nietzsche was gay, and now wonder if Kant was? Please let me know how we determine this. Perhaps, as a mature character, Kant was able to keep from expressing his personality in his writing since personality is irrelevant to philosophy, but Nietzsche didn't have that maturity. But, then, if Kant hadn't been able to develop a different morality than that imposed by his mother, was he a mature personality either?

Freud has written a paper called "Jensen's Gradiva" in his volume on art in which he shows how Jensen's unconscious produces the type of story which can be the subject of psychoanalysis. Jensen, we presume, doesn't know that what he is writing issues from unconscious symbolism and imagery, but Freud's understanding of such symbolism and imagery allows him give a deep analysis of Jensen's story. Since I first heard of Aristotle, only this paper has had such a profound affect on me! And, as never before, it now seems that you can find out a lot about a person from what he writes.

Rachel Browne

Well, we have to believe that what they wrote is the truth (or close to it), but if you read Plato's Symposium, there isn't a great deal of doubt about Socrates, at least. I don't know about the evidence concerning Aristotle, but homosexuality was widely accepted in ancient Greece.

I don't see that it matters much, in any case. Lots of good thinkers were gay, lots were straight. What matters is if they are good thinkers.

Tim Sprod


Eliza asked:

Why do people reject anything that has a cause? They seek something absolute, infinite, unborn. If there was such a being, wouldn't philosophy be worthless? If we needed faith and dogma, we'd choose theology. We can't regard God's existence as a philosophical hypothesis, this means accepting the possibility of it's falsity and doubts of this kind are inconsistent with faith (if faith is blind acceptance). So we're all faithless; otherwise we're not doing philosophy, we are just using it to make our certainties seem more appealing.

Even if there was something absolute and infinite, philosophy would not be worthless because we can only come to understand mankind, his concepts and the world as the finite beings that we are regardless of whether God exists. As Kant has shown, God cannot be disproved, so He can be a philosophical hypothesis, hence the philosophy of religion. Faith is not the same as dogma and you cannot throw them together as you do. Faith is what you need to believe in God, and dogma is a body of authoritative doctrine established by a church. You can have faith without dogma. Faith is not "blind acceptance" but a commitment to another sort of reality than the empirical, but this does not entail a denial of empirical reality or logical thought.

Rachel Browne


Peter asked:

Karl Popper was heard to complain "150 philosophers, no philosophy". This neatly summarizes my objections to academic philosophy. It's treated as if it doesn't matter what we believe in, as if beliefs have no consequences. Surely philosophers have a duty to put forward systems of belief that make sense and in which they believe. However this rarely happens. (At least Descartes had a good shot at it.) Why is this? What do philosophers actually believe? Do none of them have a logical and complete philosophy? If so one has to wonder what they do all day, and the purpose of their musings — at least physicists aim for a theory of everything.

Start with the last claim. Physicists do talk about a theory of everything, but they don't mean a theory of everything at all. They mean a theory out of which will pop all the basic particles and forces. It is a long way from there to a theory which explains why strawberry ice cream tasted better than chocolate ice cream (or why some people with no taste disagree with me about that)!

I think that many philosophers do have theories which they think are widely applicable to many questions. This isn't always apparent in the articles of analytic philosophers, because they tend to concentrate on the particular problem in hand. And postmodern philosophers are notoriously wary of "meta-narratives", although they, too, seem to think that their general answers to particular problems have wide applicability. As for having 'a logical and complete philosophy', I think reality is far too complex to claim that one could write such a philosophy in any but the crudest outline — and philosophers shy away from crude outlines.

Tim Sprod

Philosophers don't have a duty to put forward a system of belief since philosophy is about bringing to the fore and examining all manner of beliefs. Most philosophers are inclined to adopt a particular set of beliefs because of an intuitive stance or a conviction or a logical commitment and philosophers will differ in their inclinations as all people do.

Philosophers may well muse, but they also teach and write. I'm not sure what is wrong with musing! Physicists might, although I don't think they do, aim for a theory of everything, but will they find out why philosophers muse, for instance? Will they account for infinity, our internal sense of time, God or the nature of aesthetic appreciation or moral evaluation or consciousness?

Rachel Browne


Carlo asked:

How did Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia influence the development of the concept of happiness in the philosophy of succeeding generations?

As the greek eudaimonia is often translated as "happiness", rather than "flourishing", it might be useful to explain the nuances of the meaning of "eudaimonia" in contrast to the English, "happiness".

(a) "Happiness" in English
Our everyday use of the word "happiness" in English seems to refer to a psychological state, a way one might be feeling at a given moment: in English, happiness is a feeling, like sadness or tiredness; I can be happy for a short period of time; periods of happiness come and go.

(b) "Eudaimonia" in Greek
Literally 'having a good guardian spirit', the Greek term "eudaimonia" has a much more objective meaning. To be eudaimon is to be successful, to have what is most desirable, to flourish. There is some disagreement about what sort of life is most flourishing. Some say it is a life of pleasure, others of honor, some a wealthy life, others a virtuous one.

The classic account of eudaimonia is given by Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics I, Ch 6). He emphasizes that it has to do with the quality of one's life as a whole: "...this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly a brief period of 'happiness' does not make a man supremely blessed and happy." For Aristotle, happiness is the fulfilment of our distinctively human potentialities. It is our reason, that reveals happiness to be the supreme, complete, final human good: all goods other than happiness are good by virtue of being part of happiness or a means to it.

Aristotle can be seen as ancestor of the conceptions of "happiness" up to today's (psychological) ones of "fulfilment" and "self-realization", though many of the contemporary concepts dissociated themselves from the ancient original objectivity, moving towards subjective notions of happiness. Here are just a few examples of Aristotle's influence on succeeding generations of moral philosophers:

Thomas Aquinas reasoned that since it is our nature to seek happiness, we cannot not seek happiness. In his Treatise on Happiness, Thomas Aquinas expresses that in statements like, "Man cannot not will to be happy", "Every man necessarily desires happiness" and "The will tends to happiness naturally and necessarily".

Blaise Pascal, influenced by both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, in his Pensées wrote: "All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves."

Aristotle had also great influence on the Utilitarians. While Bentham's definition of happiness was simply pleasure and the absence of pain, introducing a mathematical concept of "The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation", Mill at least distinguished between different types of pleasure. According to Mill, there are higher and lower types of pleasure. For example, "it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool".

Though Mill differentiated between pleasures, making the higher pleasures more valuable, Mill still looked at the short term when it came to happiness. Good actions were those which created the greatest higher pleasure. By contrast, Aristotle looked at the bigger picture. Pleasure, for Aristotle was nothing more than a temporary, animal emotion, felt by even the most simple minded. Feeling superficial pleasure was not a true realisation of humanity, and he therefore separated happiness and pleasure completely. Or as George Santayana later put it: "Pleasure is the aim of impulse, happiness is the aim of reason".

Of course not all philosophers agree that happiness is the supreme human good. For example Nietzsche stated that happiness was something for British shopkeepers, while Einstein thought happiness was something for swine. In John Dewey's opinion, however, those rejecting the supremacy of happiness do not reject the supremacy but a specific conception of the means to happiness: Nietzsche seems to have attacked the "comfort and security above all" mentality, while Einstein rejected the "happiness through sensuality" lifestyle. As Dewey noted in his Reconstruction in Philosophy, "Happiness has often been made the object of the moralists' contempt. Yet the most ascetic moralist has usually restored the idea of happiness under some other name, such as bliss". If Aristotle, Aquinas and Dewey are correct about the nature of human beings, then we cannot differ about our supreme goal, but only about the means to that goal.

Simone Klein


Jessie asked:

I'm writing a paper on happiness and I just need a few more ideas. I have the philosophical excerpts from Augustine's Confessions and Plato's Republic.

Look at Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, especially the early books.

Tim Sprod


Sorin asked:

I am very much interested in Platonism and Mathematics. I am very glad that despite my previous preconceived idea — that the English are very much empiricists — I find that a lot of the best scientists-philosophers are Platonists, from John D. Barrow to Roger Penrose.

There is one thing which bothers me. All these people who try to argue in favour of the universe apparently being ordered by mathematical laws only because we see it through our own mathematical mind are obviously wrong. Can someone tell me were is situated, in which realm, Newton's law of gravity?

Because obviously it works and it's not a construct of the human mind. Isn't it logical to think that all these laws are actually mathematical laws which exist because of the Creator's Will? Maybe they are his will or his actions, thoughts, etc. After all, Newton was right when he conceived the universe as being put into motion by the Divine clockmaker. The one obvious thing is the Universe works, and we didn't push it with our minds (whatever quantum mechanics tells us or the idea of a participatory Universe). So, again, can one point to me where is Newton' law?

I think you need to make a distinction between Newton's Law, and the action of gravity itself. Newton's Law only came into existence when he wrote it down, and we can point to it in many books. Gravity is a fact about the universe, which is there whether Newton figured out the law or not. It does not depend on the existence of mathematical terms or conventions. It could be just a raw fact about the universe, about the way things are. It may be that we invented mathematics — a sort of symbolism that can describe the world — merely because that it the way the world is, and we are creatures that evolved in that world. There need not be any Platonic truths that underpin it (on the other hand, there might!).

Tim Sprod


Jeff asked:

I've been looking into Transhumanist ideology lately, and while some of it seems a bit "out there", it brings a few questions to mind:

1. Transhumanists advocate the use of drugs and genetic engineering to eliminate all negative aspects of the human condition, and replacing it with a certain kind of self-regulated happiness. It seems to me that constant happiness would be boring, and that there's more to life than just being happy, although I'm not sure what, exactly. What's your philosophical perspective on the issue?

2. Transhumanists also advocate the idea of immortality. Not only does that seem like it could be boring, but it carries a certain ethical dilemma along with it, not the least of which being our responsibility to future generations. What do you think about this?

3. Regarding life-extension and immortality, if immortality is morally questionable, why isn't medical life extension?

I'm not sure who or what group of people you are referring to as "transhumanist". But here's my brief take on some of these issues:

1) I'm not sure what you mean by "drugs"; we all use drugs, from aspirin to antibiotics to caffeine. I'm also not sure what you mean by "self-regulated", or indeed by "happiness". There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with self-control to me, if that's what you mean; indeed, by many standards, including the ancient Greeks, self-control and self-knowledge are almost supreme virtues. If you mean that they advocate implanting electrodes into one's pleasure centers so that at the push of a button one could experience intense pleasure — a perfectly realizable technology at this point, by the way (and Niven's "tasp"), I think you'll find virtually universal condemnation of this as destructive to most of what are considered human virtues. If by drugs you mean psychedelics... it's pretty well established that those don't do what they were thought to do in the 60s, i.e., reproduce enlightenment. Their biochemical effects are pretty well known at this point, and as far as being enlightened, it's a bit like hitting you over the head to go to sleep: it looks the same, but it's not the same at all. There's lots of literature on this by now, just look it up.

Is there more to life than being happy? You mean, than feeling the emotion of happiness? Well, we could all be put into tanks, tended by robots, and have constant stimulation of our pleasure centers — not within present technology, but reasonably soon. That's the ultimate realization of constantly feeling happy, right? And I think virtually everyone, certainly everyone considered sane, would condemn this, for pretty obvious reasons. Do you mean, doing something that makes you happy, as in contented, fulfilled, joyful? Like being an artist because that's what you really want to do? Do I really need to comment on that?

2) Well. I've always thought that the human lifespan is absurdly short... consider, for example, the timescale of the galactic rotation, of which there have been, I believe, about 10 since the galaxy was formed several billion years ago. Consider even local (on Earth) geological timescales: the formation of continents, ice ages, etc. My feeling has always been that a lifespan of about 100,000 years is the absolute minimum reasonable length, although by astronomical standards that's ridiculously brief. I'm serious about this. Do you think that living, say, 100,000 years would be boring? How do you know? What I've found is that the more I learn (now at 56 years), the more the horizons open up for things unlearned and undone. As for immortality, i.e., living infinitely long, that's impossible, because there is a finite probability that, to take just one example, a meteor will hit you on the head, and in an infinite amount of time any finite probability will come to pass. So something will eventually kill you. If by immortality you mean that we're all going to heaven and sing hosannas for eternity, yes, that's about as boring as it could get. I'd think most people would get pretty sick of that after only 10,000 years or so, wouldn't you? And infinity means that any finite amount of time is basically the same relative to the total span.

There is a moderately interesting ethical question here, which I think most people do not think clearly about. Suppose we were going to live (including "life after death") for an infinitely long time. Now, why would we have any obligation at all to future generations after any finite time? Any decision we make we could postpone as long as we want; what's a few millennia more or less? Whereas, if we're only going to live for, say, 1000 years, or for the flicker that we live now, I would say we have extremely strong obligations to make that tick of the clock count; it's all we've got. Who knows what effects a simple comment to a child, or a student, for example, or a single beautiful poem, will have, down the years? Maybe the effects go on for a bit then die out, and maybe they multiply... who knows? Either could happen, right? The ethical thing, then, is to a) try for actions with effects that look, as best we can tell, as if they might last, and b) try for actions whose effects will be positive.

3) Why is immortality morally questionable, especially since, as I say above, it's impossible? I would say that extending life as long as possible is moral; so much is lost when, to take just a couple of examples, an educated person dies, or when a wise — educated or not — person dies, don't you think?

Steven Ravett Brown


Shawn asked:

I am a 17 year old male from Ohio, I practice Christian Mysticism and I was wondering what your opinion on energies is. Also keep in mind energy can not be made nor destroyed therefore whatever energy you hold within you has been here since the beginning of time.

It seems to me that the word 'energy' in the scientific statement that energy cannot be created or destroyed is a quite different word from the one used to describe mystical practice (this is not to say that either is any more or less real than the other — that's a different question). Bearing this in mind, it seems to me that your inference commits the fallacy of equivocation (using one word to mean to different things at different places in an argument).

Tim Sprod


Carlos asked:

I would like to know philosophical explanations of severe depression and suicide.

Philosophers write about suicide and whether it is ethical not, but have not considered suicide as it relates to severe depression, since this is a psychological problem. However, existential psychoanalysts make use of existential philosophy, which describes the nature of man's existence in the world. The existentialist philosopher, Heidegger, held that we are cast into the world and cannot escape the dread of our solitariness. We face others as impersonal beings, a faceless crowd, and everything in our lives is contingent and meaningless and to exist authentically is to face death, which stabilizes our lives. This is what Heidegger believes existence to be like, but other philosophers, such as Buber and Levinas, take the opposite view that we gain meaning in our lives from others, and are not trapped in solitary dread.

The danger of applying existentialism to psychological states like severe depression is that there is no consensus about the nature of existence. Existentialists do not agree with one another so while there may be elements of truth in existentialism, no existentialist can claim to be right and harm can result from theory that isn't true. The danger of applying philosophy to psychological states is described by E K Lederman in Mental Health and Human Conscience. Lederman describes a psychiatric patient who was not depressed but schizophrenic with a morbid dread of becoming fat. The psychiatrist applied Heideggerian philosophy and held that the patient's existence had become "ripe for death" since she was filled with dread and through her suicide she did "find herself and choose herself". The same could be said of someone severely depressed and so what we should conclude is that while philosophers may be of use in assessing the ethics of suicide, severe depression should be regarded as a psychological problem and be treated with drugs!

Rachel Browne


Robb asked:

Could you please explain how the notion of free-will is used as a way of solving the philosophical problem of God and evil. Do you think it is an acceptable solution to the problem?

The problem arises because God is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good. If there were any evil, he must (if all the above are true) know about it, be able to stop it and want to stop it. But there continues to be evil in the world. Therefore God cannot be all of the above (and if he needs to be all three to be God, then he doesn't exist).

The free will solution to the Problem of Evil says that God allows humans to decide whether to do good or evil. If he just stopped all evil, we would not have free will and would not be human.

Quite apart from questions as to why a supremely good being needs create creatures with free will at all, if they are only going to bring about evil, this defence does nothing to explain the existence of natural evil — i.e. evil that arises from sources other than the free decisions of humans (earthquakes, diseases etc). So, I don't think it works. Note that the Problem of Evil does not prove there is no god, either — just that any god cannot be simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good.

Tim Sprod


Rachel asked:

How do Marxism and socialism differ? To me, they seem to be the same.

Can Marxism and Existentialism be allied?

I'll pass on the second. On the first, I would say that Marxism is a very particular form of socialism. Or several forms — are we talking of Marxism as Marx wrote it, or as others have interpreted it (and continue to interpret it)? Remember, Marx explicitly said that he was "not a Marxist".

Socialism is the view that we should cooperate in society in some (variously specified) way. We should look after each other, and allocate goods in some sort of equitable way. How we are to interpret 'equality' is a vexed question that underlies many of the doctrinal differences between socialist factions.

Marxism (to simplify greatly!) claims that the way to this end is to hand over the means of production (factories, capital etc) to the workers — the proletariat.

Tim Sprod


Marc asked:

Couldn't life be defined as a Paradox? In other words, balanced between certainty and uncertainty, etc.

Not really a paradox. A paradox is a statement which looks like a contradiction, but it is founded on truth. We seem to be certain of many things, such as the past, other minds, the nature of reality but the more we investigate our beliefs the more uncertain we become.

Rachel Browne


Chris asked:

Is a relational notion of the Self more feasible than a substance-grounded notion of the self?

If so, where does this leave a culture which has been grounded on a substance-orientated notion of the self and how damaging is this to the viability of related concepts/beliefs which are built upon the edifice of such a particular construct e.g. ideas of freedom and responsibility?

I think it is. I don't think that it leaves the substance-oriented culture worse off, because such an understanding has been built relationally anyway. For it to change requires relationally based concepts to change gradually under the insights of a relational view. Concepts such as autonomy, freedom etc have to be rebuilt. Isn't that what is happening in our culture (western — I'm making an assumption that you and I share it here) right now?

Tim Sprod


Pajno asked:

Is it possible to have the "greatest good for the greatest number"?

In my view, no. It is a nice theory, but it assumes that you can actually measure "good" (or pleasure, or whatever) and then add it all up — not just for one possible sequence of events, but for all possible outcomes. This is a nonsense, and it is an even greater nonsense to base a theory of ethics on it. This is not to say that we should not try to anticipate the outcomes of our actions, nor that consequences are of no moral value.

Tim Sprod


Paloma and Priscilla asked:

Is there a true answer about who we are?

Who we are is certainly a question for philosophy, at least, when that question is understood in a particular sense which I shall explain in a moment. An answer given to that question might be true — if any philosophical answer can be true. I am not sufficiently confident to say that I know the true answer. But here are some of the lines I would explore.

We are human beings, members of the genus homo sapiens, the only intelligent animals to inhabit the Earth (so far as we know). These are matters of verifiable fact, not philosophy. If there is a philosophical answer to the question who we are, it must concern those aspects of what it is to be us that are not merely matters of fact, but in some sense necessary. In saying this, I am already entering into a highly disputable area. The name sometimes associated with this inquiry is 'philosophical anthropology'.

On the traditional, Cartesian view, the fact that I am a human being, a man and not a woman, the fact that I had a childhood, that I was born and will die — these are all accidental, contingent features of my true 'I'. Essentially, I am a substance that thinks and has experiences. There is no logical necessity that such a thinking substance should possess a physical body, let alone a body of a particular kind.

Descartes was led to this view by powerful arguments. There is not the space to dispute those arguments here. Suffice it to say that they can be disputed. I would argue that it is essential, not accidental that I have a physical body, which is capable of physical agency. Many philosophers have now come round to this view. More contentiously, I would argue that it is an essential fact about who we are that we were all once infants, that we went through a period of helpless dependence on another being or beings who cared for us — in the many cases, but not necessarily, our parents. It is an essential fact about who we are that we grew up, acquiring a character and personality that is unique to each one of us.

I would recommend that you read John Macmurray's Gifford Lectures 1953—4, published as The Self as Agent (Faber, 1957) and Persons in Relation (Faber, 1961). The work of Macmurray, who has been called the 'English existentialist', is not as widely known as it should be.

Most importantly, our lives are finite, they have a beginning and an end. These are facts everyone knows, yet when viewed from the perspective of philosophy they acquire a special significance. One philosopher famous for raising the question of what it is to be a subject who faces death as an inevitable end is Heidegger, in Being and Time. The deepest exploration of these issues that I know of, however, which takes in such aspects as love and sexuality, the family, and our contribution, through our offspring, to the unending sequence of generations is Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity (Alphonso Lignis tr. Nijhoff 1979), without doubt one of the half dozen greatest works of twentieth century metaphysics.

It is not a surprise to learn 'who we are'. It is the consequences of those facts, the philosophical interpretation placed upon them, that makes that question so significant.

Geoffrey Klempner


Greg asked:

I was watching TV and a news magazine did a story about a little girl who had leukemia and she was dying. So the parents used a new type of technology to treat her by using cells from another baby which the parents conceived. Many fertilized eggs were scanned, and the helpful one was her new baby brother, and others destroyed. Is this against Kantian ethics because they are using a human as a means to an end, even though the girl was saved by this procedure?

Kant would have found the use of cells from one body to save another's life morally acceptable. Taking cells from a baby's body is treating the baby with disrespect since he has not given his consent, and this is treating him purely as a means to an end.

In the Groundwork Kant talks of persons mainly as rational beings as ends-in-themselves, but in Lectures on Ethics, he speaks of persons as opposed to things and of the essential ends of "humanity". Man, Kant says, is "a person, not a thing and therefore not a means" and we must revere humanity. We have human duties towards ourselves, of self-preservation and self-esteem and "we may treat our body as we please, provided our motives are those of self-preservation". Passing cells from one person to another is not motivated by self-preservation, but in an adult person who knows what he is doing the ends of reverence for humanity and self-esteem are present, and so long as the loss of cells does not cause harm, there is no violation of the self-preservation principle.

In the case of the baby, it seems to be a case of treating him as a "thing" and a mere means. Furthermore, Kant says that humanity, honour and the moral life are more important than life itself. It would seem that if life is not to be prized in itself then it shouldn't matter if the little girl dies of leukaemia! But on the assumption that the little girl is honourable, or "worthy to live", and only if she is worthy does she have a duty of self-preservation, then it is her moral duty to receive the cells. The answer is probably that consent is not necessary when taking cells from a baby if this is not harmful as long as we are sure that if the baby could give his consent he would do so. As a moral person he would not let his sister die, but would consent. If he was willing to let his sister die when he could help, he would not be a worthy person and could be treated as such and his cells could be taken without his consent.

Further support that Kant would find this acceptable is his comment "a person can serve as a means for others (e.g. by his work) but only in a way whereby he does not cease to be a person and an end." While the baby is not a worker, he does not cease to be a person in the sense that he loses no honour through this donation because he has done no wrong.

Rachel Browne

I think that your analysis is right, provided that fertilized eggs are regarded as humans. In this case, not one but many humans were used as means to an end.

However, a Kantian might not have to agree with this. For Kant, humans were special solely because they are (finite) rational beings. Animals do not receive protection under this version of the Categorical Imperative because they are not rational beings. If you say that a fertilized egg is also not a rational being (as it is as yet incapable of rationality), then you can escape the analysis you put forward.

Tim Sprod


Karnpo asked:

What is the relation between Stoic logic and symbolic logic?

As in modern propositional logic, the patterns of reasoning described by Stoic logic are the patterns of interconnection between propositions.

The Stoics examined a number of ways in which two propositions can be combined to give a third, more complicated proposition.

The key idea behind the Stoics' approach to logic was that you do not (have to) know what the constituent propositions are about, or even whether each constituent proposition is true or false. All that you know is that any proposition must be either true or false. When the Stoics came to analyze the combining of two propositions by one of the connectives, they did so by looking at the pattern of truth and falsity.

For example, in the case of 'and', the pattern is straightforward:

If both p and q are true, then the proposition 'p and q' will be true; if one or both of p and q are false, then 'p and q' will be false.

It is of interest to note that at no time did the Stoics hit upon the idea of using algebraic notation, with letters denoting arbitrary propositions and symbols denoting connectives. They wrote everything out in ordinary language. This often resulted in their having to write down long and complicated sentences that are difficult to follow, and that almost certainly hampered their possible progress in logic.

The Stoics expressed the truth pattern for 'p and q' in the following cumbersome fashion:

If the first and if the second, then the first and the second. If not the first, then not the first and the second. If not the second, then not the first and the second.

Present-day logicians bring out the abstract pattern of connectives such as 'and' by using algebraic notation. The letters p, q, r are generally used to denote arbitrary propositions, and a symbol such as & is used to abbreviate the word 'and'. Thus, [p&q] denotes the proposition [p and q]. Modern logicians generally display such a 'pattern of truth' in a tabular form, using a truth table, a nineteenth century device not available to the Stoics. These innovations led to modern formal or symbolic logic.

The Stoics formulated five rules of inference. Expressed in modern-day algebraic notation (with the word 'aut' denoting 'or' in the exclusive sense, the symbol -> expressing 'if...then...' and the symbol ~ expressing 'not'), they are:

From [p -> q] and p deduce q.

From [p -> q] and ~q deduce ~p.

From ~[p & q] and p deduce ~q.

From [p aut q] and p deduce ~q.

From [p aut q] and ~q deduce p.

The first of these rules is the modern-day logical inference rule of 'modus ponens'. Here is how the Stoics themselves expressed this rule:

If the first then the second, and if the first, then the second.

Starting with their five inference rules, the Stoics were able to deduce a number of other patterns of reasoning. For example, they showed that the following deduction is valid:

From [p -> [p -> q]] and p deduce q.

Using the Stoics' own terminology, this was expressed like this:

If the first then if the first then the second, and if the first, then the second.

Given algebraic notation and the modern technique of truth tables, much of Stoic logic reduces to some simple algebraic manipulations together with the filling-in of truth-values in a table. However, it took over two thousand years for Mankind to reach that stage. Not having access to such modern tools, the Stoics had a much harder time establishing their results. But still they established them.

Together with Aristotelean logic, Stoic Logic paved the way for all subsequent work in logic, right up to the present day, and led to much of twentieth century logic and computer science.

Simone Klein


Bishop Carl Robinson asked:

Who is the church leader with the most authority over the church under Jesus? Is it the Apostle or the Office of Bishop?

I can answer you by words of Fiodor Dostoyevsky. One chapter of Brothers Karamazov names the Legend about Great Inquisitor. Dmitry Karamazov tells his brother this story about dialogue between the Great Inquisitor and Jesus.

This event happened in the Middle ages in Spain. One man was arrested and brought to the Great Inquisitor. In the course of the event Great Inquisitor learns that this man is Jesus, who came to the land for the second time. And they spoke about the problem of your question. I can retell their dialogue:

"Why you do not perform a miracle?" the Great Inquisitor asks, "Why you do not prove people that you are Jesus? You are only returning, but you do not rescue the world."

"People must trust in me," Jesus answers, "The real trust is that trust, which is not buttressed by the facts. If I will do a miracle everyone will trust me, but the real believer trusts me without miracles.

"But this is the more difficult way to Christianize people. You give them only the expectation, but I give them the real symbol — Church."

So, for a lot of people it is more pellucid to visit the church and follow all the traditions and rituals, but it is too difficult to live with idea of God everyday. I think for a lot of people in Russia the Office of Bishop and Temple have more authority than the Bible and the Apostle's words. One of my friends (he is a Bishop of Anglican Church) said "people are more likely to be converted to a deep faith from a nominal faith than from no faith whatsoever. The sincere, committed, serious Christians are the depths; the large numbers of nominal believers are the surface."

Temple is real and concrete that is why it has more authority for a lot of people. The Apostle's words are demands reflection. To visit Church and perform the rituals is more simple therefore more popular then thinking and living in God. It is known that man always longs for simplicity, especially in our atomic epoch, when knowledge and diversity grows each day.

And now, a lot of people visit the temples, because it came into fashion. They consider that visiting church every Sunday they save their soul. "Everyone who visits temples will get to Heaven, those who do not visit the temple will go to the hell" — this is the trivial, but too commonly held logic. Many people come to divine service, but a lot of them have no ideas about the sense of divine service.

You see I live in Russia and describe the concrete situation. But I know that perhaps 7 per cent of people go to church in England regularly, and most of them are not Anglican. I think that a few sincerely believing parishioners are better than mass of unbelievers. I do not think that religion must be popular. It is better to have one man who believes in the Apostle's authority than a hundred who take for gospel the words of the Bishop. Unfortunately, many people prefer words of Bishop.

I am, Sir, yours cordially,

Dmitry Olshansky
Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation

I assume from the question, and the way in which you style yourself, that you are associated with the Latter-Day Saints. If I am correct in this, you will doubtless know of the various splits which have occurred in the church over the years on this very question. This is, as we will see, hardly surprising.

First, I think it is important to distinguish between power and authority. I have power over someone when I am in a position to direct their actions, irrespective of their own wishes. I would have power over someone if I had them in an arm-lock. Likewise, a street thief may well have power over his victim, but he would scarcely be said to have legitimate authority, for authority is not something which can be taken. Rather, authority is something granted by those who willingly submit to it when they transfer a part of their own potential for freedom of action to someone else. There are many reasons why someone might do this — out of sympathy for tradition, because they recognise the other person as having greater skill than them, or in return for some similar gift of control over the other. Whatever the reason, it is vital to understand that authority is granted only by those who are subject to it. Genuine authority cannot be taken by force, or demanded, nor can it ever be made necessary by historical precedents. Even if you, say, decide so submit to the authority of bishops because you are persuaded by certain historical and scriptural explanations, it was still you who made the decision to submit. No matter that you might argue that the reasons given on behalf of the bishops were absolutely irrefutable, it was still you who was convinced by them.

So, back to you I'm afraid! Authority is legitimate only when it is freely chosen, and as you are the one who is going to be subject to it, it is you who will have to decide.

Glyn Hughes


Alvaro asked:

1. Reproduction... 2. Offspring... 3. Mating... 4.Having babies... A) Why do most people have the "urge" to reproduce? B) Do we have "the right" to bring "human beings" to life? C) What could I answer to my not-yet-born-child when he/ she asks the reason of his/ her "existence" and "production"... [e.g. Why did you have me...?] D) Is reproduction a deep-down self-regarding action? E) Would I have "the right" to ask my parents for their reasons for conceiving me? F) Is there any "rational excuse" to reproducing ourselves? G) Any books or articles on the subject? Thank you.

I have never seriously thought about your question before, but I would like to explore it with the help of a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where the tale about storks and babies was true. Do you know the tale? Young children were told that when a new baby arrived it was brought by a stork who flew in through the window and left the infant in the arms of its grateful new parents. (Or was the baby was left on the doorstep? I can't remember.) As a small boy I was told the stork story and I believed it. But I was less philosophical then than I am now. When you think about it even a little, there are all sorts of awkward questions which the stork theory does not answer!

Let's not worry about those questions. In our imaginary world, parents were not in any way responsible for bringing new life into the world. Every new child came as an unexpected gift.

But then one day the storks ceased to arrive, and everyone was very sad. Until one day a childless couple discovered how to make babies.

Unless you were an extreme pessimist who thought it best that all human life be allowed to be extinguished, you cannot deny that it was a good thing that the secret of making babies was discovered in the nick of time. But that does not answer your question.

Why were people sad when the storks went away? It wasn't just that the human race faced certain extinction. Many couples who could no longer have children mourned the fact for their own sakes, for the loss of the joys of parenthood. But that raises the question, why do people want children? Is it just a biological urge, or is there a more rational explanation? I know several couples who have successfully resisted the urge, and seem to be very happy in their childless state. What, if anything, are they missing?

Let us allow that it is a good thing in general that new human life comes into being. However, for reasons which should be familiar, it is not a good thing in every case. Can it be right to bring children into the world, for example, when the mother and father know that their offspring will be born with a severe genetic deformity? Can it be right to bring children into the world, when the parents live in severe poverty and can barely feed themselves? Can it be right when the parents know that the children will face a life of emotional deprivation, unwanted and unloved?

I fear that your questions may only be touching the tip of the iceberg. In a very short while, it will be possible to choose, not only whether to conceive or not conceive, but many of the child's physical and mental attributes. We could be on the verge of entering a world which is as different from the world we know, as the stork world is from ours.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

Is reason ultimately powerless without free will?

It seems to me that indeterminism (as in quantum mechanics) is as much a lack of choice as determinism (as in Newtonian mechanics). Without something between these two dichotomies, it seems we are all ultimately powerless to choose our own destinies.

I understand the argument that reason allows us to execute "right" actions based on conditions, so that we can "decide" what to do. But for me, this is still unsatisfying. It says I am a programmable computer, but someone or something else is doing the programming. So reason is still just a "reflex" mechanism and I have no "control".

Is it possible that self-observing quantum mechanical systems begin to open the door to self-controlled determinism?

Yes, a good set of questions. One way of avoiding answering them is to question what you mean by "free will". Many modern philosophers have either avoided this or hedged as to what this means, and for good reason. Just what does it mean? What is "free"? Uncaused? Ok... what's that? Random? Well, as you have intuited, that doesn't help the problem, because then you're not "willing" anything, you're just generating random numbers or flipping coins, in effect. How about free as "uncaused by physical causes". Well, what does that mean? "Mental" causes? What are they? Suppose that one thought (let's say for the purpose of argument that we've determined that thoughts are non-physical) causes another... so now where's free will, anyway? We've just created a "mental" realm in which causality works with "mental" objects instead of "physical" objects. No help there. So the big problem here, which I personally have not nor have I seen a satisfactory answer to, is, what is neither caused nor random? I have no idea.

Now, you can talk about quantum mechanics (QM) all you want, but it doesn't help. First, QM is about physical systems. Second, while there are things that happen in QM which are "uncaused", they are probable, to some degree, i.e., we can in theory at least compute and assign probability functions and/ or distributions to them. Well, what's a probability, such that it is beyond the category of causality? A probability distribution (or, really, its square root, the wave function) is just matter spread out in space-time. It interacts with other matter with certain probabilities. But all we've done here is to say that causality is not 100%... and the rest is randomness. No help there for free will, any more than flipping a coin would help.

You want self-observing? Well, what that does (i.e., what you get with recursive systems: nonlinear dynamics) is make the systems extremely complicated and resistant to analysis, i.e., we get "chaotic" (a misnomer, really) systems. It's taken the advent of "super" computers to even approximate solutions to the simplest of these (and if you don't believe me about simple, go look at the equations generating some of them... they're disgustingly simple), and as for the complex ones, forget it, for now, at least. Walter Freeman likes chaotic neural circuits in the brain, and there seem to be some. But they're just physical systems, subject to physical laws. Where's "free will" in that? You can get out of it that an infinitesimal initial perturbation can cause a finite change to the state of the system, but all that's saying is that the causative factor is infinitesimal, not that there is none. A huge difference.

Now if you want to call free will "self-controlled determinism", fine... an interesting way of putting it, but what does it actually mean? The problem is that no one really knows what the meaning of "free will" should be, unless you're a theologian, like Aquinas, and then you can talk about free will as an aspect of the divine (of course, you've just pushed the problem back to determining what "the divine" is, but there usually the theist throws in the towel).

No, this is a real problem... but no one knows what the problem is, really. Strange, isn't it? Until you can come up with some sensible formulation of what "free will" is, i.e., one that relates reasonably and coherently to something else we actually do know, you're stuck. Something not caused and not random, subject to non-physical determination which isn't really determination because you can "change your mind". Whoopee. Well, I don't understand what that could be, and since I'm not a theist I don't have a religious answer handy.

The best I can come up with is this hedge: how are we analyzing the universe, we human beings? Through mathematics and philosophy, to some vague extent, with the feeble resources we can muster (i.e., our cortex, spread out, is 6 layers of neurons deep and about a square yard — yes, that's all we've got to think with, believe it or not). If there is a solution, it is either yet to be discovered in some other way of formulating our descriptions of the universe (and maybe Wolfram does have one... who knows — you'll see what I'm referring to shortly), or, we just don't have the mental resources to do it, and won't until we engineer ourselves smarter, one way or another. Or, there is none, and we are indeed systems subject to physical causality, like everything else we are (so far) aware of.

Ok, now what? Well, I think that we might as well go on acting as we have, since we a) don't know what's going to happen, b) don't know that our analysis of the universe as causally functioning is correct. That is, as far as we're concerned, we do have free will, or near enough as to make no difference. There's no computer big enough to predict what we're determined to do (assuming we are), nor will there be in any conceivable future. So, the problem is in that sense mute: determined or not, we'll never know what it is we're determined to do, and there's randomness involved (because of QM, at least), and we do have the feeling, at least, of willing, a feeling that we cannot avoid, which may, in some way we do not at this point understand, be accurate. Given all the various uncertainties, theoretical and practical, I think the best (i.e., the most ethical) course is to proceed as if our feelings (of willing) have some basis, until proven otherwise. If we're right, we've acted ethically; if we're wrong, it didn't matter anyway.

Steven Ravett Brown

For me, the problem you identify is one reason why the free-will/ determinism debate is so intractable — and so interesting. The other reason is that we have such an overwhelming experience of freedom of choice at times that it seems to me we cannot just dismiss it. Of course, we want these choices to be for good reasons, under our control, and hence the choice can seems to be determined by these previously existing good reasons — and we are back on the merry-go-round again.

I'm not sure I like your metaphor of the programmed computer — this implies for me a programmer and some sort of deliberate guidance. It seems likely to me that, if we do lack free-will, it is a result of chance prior circumstances (including chance collapses of QM wave functions).

As to your last suggestion, it is possible (though I don't see how the details work out). Your idea seems to me to be a version of 'emergence', where unexpected properties (free-will) emerge from seemingly different circumstances (a deterministic world), and cannot be explained at the level of that world. I can't help thinking that some sort of emergence theory is the solution to this problem. I cannot see how it is done, though — and I've been thinking about it for years.

Tim Sprod

If there is indeterminism there is no free choice because the implication is that we choose at random. But we can choose and we do this freely because of the complete and complex individuals we are rather than because of physical determination, and there is nothing entirely random about actions issuing from a complex individual, it is just that there is no possibility of reductive explanation.

You are right that reason is powerless without free will. Reason does allow us to make decisions, but we can act against our reasoning and do not always know what we are going to do until we do it. Reason enables us to make decisions and allows us to think, but we can choose to do whatever we desire or will regardless of reasons and in most cases we act without any deliberation at all. Our choices then look like a "reflex". Reason itself is not a reflex, but neither is it causal; it is a description of the way in which the mind thinks. The mind is a reasoning thing because it uses language and language abstracts and simplifies from the real complexity of ourselves and from the reality of what it is to be a willing and free individual.

Explanation and conscious deliberation are linguistic and rational (sometimes irrational — which just means your inferences or values are off course), but conscious states are highly complex and not reducible to language and reason (and language includes all concepts, including the emotional and evaluative). In a recent answer, I mentioned that the neuroscientist Edelman has said that the brain can never be in two like states. For instance, I see a particular state of affairs which I have seen before. But that was in the past and now I have new associations so there is a different background to the experience in this new instance. This holds for brain states, which underlie complex mental states in which not all elements are present to consciousness. At the level of self-consciousness or of mental explanation, it can seem that we act on reflex, but there will be relevant motivation of some kind. But this does not mean determinism is true: Nothing is repeatable: Exact brain states do not recur. If this is so, then if we could be self-observing, we could not predict anything. If no brain states is ever the same, how could we know what any particular state determines? Furthermore, since rational deliberation alone is not sufficient for action and we cannot know in advance what we are going to do because the will is will-in-action, or a force only manifested as action, prediction is not possible.

Causal laws of nature, which are needed for determinism, are between determinate states. This is like rational thinking: A particular content determines the next. In both cases, there is simplistic reconstruction of what takes place. In reality, the brain and the mind are never in a determinate state but constantly moving in a creative process. The brain is in such a complex dynamic interaction of movement, with so much input and output, it could move any way. At a conscious level, this is also true: We don't necessarily know what we are going to do until we do it: there are many things we could do, all manner of considerations and motivations. Determinism relies on the regularity of causality which is the way we understand our experience of the world and is the framework in which scientists and psychologists work. But the brain and the mind don't have to abide by such law. Causal understanding applies to the world of objects. Linguistic thought and reason pin down and make determinate our conscious mental life, but the dynamic facts about our brains and minds are incommensurable with the determinacy of causal states.

There may seem to be a sequence of pure rational thought at the conscious or psychological level but rational content abstracts from the total complex informational interconnectivity of the brain states that underlie the mental. At the brain level, there is no such thing as a "content". Content is theoretical. On the psychological level, or the level of being a self with free-will, there is no such thing as being caused to act by rational deliberations or a sequence of contentful thought. So you cannot be like a computer at all. As an individual self or personality, you are driven by your current beliefs, desires, motivations etc and the will acts on one set of beliefs and motivations or another and there is no need for the notion of cause for us to make sense of this. This does not mean we're determined and have no free will. We are not caused to act by the laws of nature, but we act because of the sort of person we are. And this does not mean that historical facts about us determine what we do because by means of free will we are able to change.

Rachel Browne


Paul asked:

I heard a riddle once:

What if this isn't a rhetorical question?

I was impressed and after some thought, I decided that the word 'this' is the problem. E.g. the question, 'Is this alive?' Answer: 1. 'A sentence is not alive.' 2. 'Is what alive!?'

Then I thought, isn't 'Is this a question?' getting closer to the point? And now I've remembered an urban myth about a young exam student answering 'Yes, if this is an answer' to that.

Assuming 'Is this a question?' is more 'sharp' than 'What if this isn't a rhetorical question?', Is this a question? And where can I read more on this?

You know, I feel a little odd responding to this, because it doesn't really make sense. But what I think is good about the above is your sense of inquiry, and the fact that you enjoy thinking. Now the problem, as I see it, is that you aren't thinking about much that's useful if all you've got is the above. What you're intrigued by are paradoxes, plays with language and logic, which is good... but why don't you try to get at the root of why they're paradoxes, that is, just what is a paradox, what is a meaningful paradox, and what is just nonsense? The above, for example, is nonsense.

My problem is that I don't know your background. You might start, at any rate, where I always advise someone who I assume has virtually none to start, with Plato: the Socratic dialogues. You'll find some interesting paradoxes and plays on logic there to start you off. Most of them have been resolved by now, but you can puzzle over them for a bit. If you find that it isn't verbal paradoxes you like, try logic. Look at some books of logic puzzles. If you don't like that, try an introduction to cognitive science (e.g., Gardner (1985) The mind's new science, then Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1994) Inevitable illusions: how mistakes of reason rule our minds New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and from there you can get further into cognitive science, visual illusions, etc. You might also try Shermer's book Why people believe weird things (1997) WH Freeman & Co. That should start you off, at any rate.

Steven Ravett Brown

I would recommend Mark Sainsbury's book Paradoxes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1st ed. 1988), and W.V.O. Quine's essay "The Ways of Paradox" (in The Ways of Paradox and other Essays Random House 1966) where Quine distinguishes between 'falsidical' or illusory paradoxes and 'veridical' paradoxes which are the genuine article.

Geoffrey Klempner


Liliana asked:

Why do people think different?

Do they?

One one level, they clearly do. People have different thoughts and come to different conclusions.

On another level, people must think (largely) alike — they must use the same tools of thinking (for two reasons: brains are put together in the same way; people learn to think from thinking in community and hence pick up the same ways of thinking). All this when they are thinking well, I add.

The first level differences arises, in my view, because these similar thinking tools are used on different content in different contexts by people who differ in interests (and so on).

Tim Sprod


Kondwani asked:

Do you agree and on what grounds that Geography is not a form of knowledge?

If geography is a field of knowledge, can it then be thought of as an integrated subject eminently suitable for the modern curriculum?

Yes indeed it can. Look at the reference below:



Society for Philosophy and Geography invites papers on discussions of space, place, environment, geography, urban planning, and other related topics. Works may include environmental ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, aesthetics, ecological studies, and other explorations at the intersection of geography and philosophical analyses. Submissions will be considered for publication in the journal Philosophy and Geography. Please send a full paper or a substantial abstract of up to 500 words to arisaka@usfca.edu (electronic submission preferred) or to Yoko Arisaka, Philosophy Department, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton St. San Francisco, CA 94117 (please include your email address), by October 15.

Steven Ravett Brown

Geography is a form of empirical or factual knowledge and although it might not be lawlike, as physics is, or logical, as maths is, it enables to know more about the world around us and is certainly suitable for the modern curriculum.

Rachel Browne


Diana, Carolina, Ana and David asked:

Until now, most of the people believe and accept several standards of classification and distinction among everything that surrounds us. For example, we classify colors, figures, objects and even sensations. Nevertheless, philosophy has questioned how equanimous is the actual appreciation each one of us has about things. For instance, it is known that red is red because it emits a certain kind of light, but how do we know that two or more different persons conceive or appreciate in the same way such color? Or maybe two persons can say they feel "happy", but it could happen that they are experiencing totally different sensations. Then, is there a way for measuring the appreciation or sensations (emotions) of a person to compare them with someone else's?

We don't and cannot know purely subjective facts about others' sensations and experiences so we could not measure them. It is logically possible that sensations differ but unlikely that they differ much in fact. Although we cannot measure or compare sensations or even know what it would be to do this, we change can another's sensation. Often you can look at a colour, for instance, and call it green and when another person points out that it is blue, your qualia changes as you come to see it as blue. Another such case is when a colour blind person sees two taps as completely grey and then sees a red dot on top of one when he finds the water is hot.

The same is true for happiness. One can question a person's claim to be happy through dialogue by looking at definitions of happiness, joyousness, pleasure, contentment etc through which is possible to change someone's own assessment of their state as well as their actual sensation. Because of our shared physical nature and language, the objective or social enters into, defines or categorises subjective sense experience, but conceptual knowledge by means of which we define sensations is not the qualia itself.

If we were to try to measure and compare sense experiences, falsification would arise because the terms of measurement will always be conceptual and physical rather than psychical. Physical measurement requires a specific quantity, but there is no point at which my green qualia changes to blue because this is a process rather than a quantitative objectively assessable item.

Rachel Browne

I don't believe there is any way to measure the way different people experience things (these are, by the way, known as "qualia" in technical philosophical terms). However, if we believe that science gives us a reasonably good explanation of the way the world works, and we believe that it is necessary to grow up in a community of humans in order to become a human person (and I think there are good reasons for believing both), then we can use an argument to the best explanation to say that others are like me in how they work, so they are (most likely) experiencing qualia just as I am. This is short of a proof, but I think that we just have to accept it.

Tim Sprod


Eleni asked:

I would like to know something about the term ukroni: the origin and the meaning.

The word 'uchronie' was coined by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier as the title of his 1876 essay on the conception of imaginary worlds. It is used to refer to the whole business of analysing imagined universes and societies, especially as presented in science fiction, utopian philosophies and fantasy stories. Taken from the Greek 'kronos' for time, with the negative 'u' prefix, in English it is usually rendered as 'uchronia', while the 'ukronia' you give is, I think, the Swedish version. You'll find an interesting essay about it in Paul K. Alkon's 'Origins of Futuristic Fiction' and a whole website at http://www.uchronia.net

Sounds to me like you might be ready for the Pathways to Philosophy Possible World Machine programme!

Glyn Hughes


Lauren asked:

What do philosophers do daily in their job?

and Ana asked:

What does a philosopher do??

I am not really the best person to answer this question, since my day to day existence is very different from that of the majority of so-called 'philosophers'. However, I hope that you will find my answer instructive. The job of philosopher is unlike any other. It is a pity, therefore, that more philosophers — I mean, more academic philosophers, the kind you're most likely to meet — don't realize this.

But first, I do a lot of things that don't have a great deal to do with philosophy. A large proportion of my time is spent maintaining the Pathways web pages, like this one. I get my turn to answer some questions after I have edited, spell checked, and posted all the new questions, and then edited spell checked and posted the answers from the other contributors. That's a few hours work. Other days, you might find me answering inquiries from prospective students, or printing up Pathways course units to send off in the post.

But you don't want to hear about all that!

I guess most of the time when I am philosophizing, rather than doing donkey work, I am answering questions. Philosophy is all about questions. The very fact that I exist puzzles me. The passage of time I find totally paradoxical. To me, the world itself just doesn't add up. What do you do, when you feel besieged by these seeming unanswerable questions? Maybe it is, as some have claimed, a kind of pathology to chose the vocation of philosopher. For my part, I find it easier, less oppressive, to spend more time listening and responding to the questions of others, for example, my students, or the questions on this site. It's good mental exercise, it keeps the philosopher in me from getting too obsessed by any one problem.

Being a philosopher, choosing philosophy as a vocation as opposed to merely taking a course in the subject, is an extreme thing to do. You'd never guess that if you visited the average university philosophy department. Philosophy isn't just another academic subject, as much as they'd like to turn it into one.

Geoffrey Klempner


Heidi asked:

Do you know where I can find the article called, "Is the moon there when no one is looking?"?

According to Tonyo Gary from Physics Today:

That article appeared in the April 1985 issue of Physics Today on pages 38-47.

Simone Klein


Bob asked:

Is philosophy significant to anyone else but a philosopher?

Since you came to the page and asked a question, you at least admit philosophy is interesting, if not significant.

Frank Kermode has said that philosophers are fascinated by problems which most people gave up bothering about at the age of six or seven when they realised they were unanswerable and a lot of people probably agree with this. But dwelling upon unanswerable questions — which is only an aspect of philosophy — involves philosophical activity which is the search for the truth, the desire to understand, clarify and unearth assumptions and presuppositions. This activity leads to free thinking which is why philosophers get engaged in public moral and social problems.

Philosophy is also important to other subjects. Film theorists and literary theorists find philosophy highly significant and are drawing more and more on the work of philosophers, not just when considering the nature of aesthetic value, but in an attempt to characterise the logics of narrative, the nature of fictionality in contrast to the philosophical notion of possibility, fictional identity in contrast to actual identity and the nature of truth in fiction. Fiction is a major part of everyone's life and philosophical concepts are enabling us to elucidate what it is and if we want to determine the nature of fiction, we cannot ignore the problems of truth and reality which concern philosophy.

Because philosophy is an intellectually free subject it provides overviews of other subjects, such as the sciences. As Feyerabend said, "the scientist finds himself in a complex historical situation", inheriting methods and procedures. The philosopher of science stands outside scientific method enabling him to assess the historical patterns and the methodology. The sciences are essentially narrow: Those in the grip of artificial intelligence research are convinced that the mind is computational, yet neurologists see the mind as biological. Philosophy, in its search for the truth, assesses evidence from all sides.

Rachel Browne

Yes, I think it is widely significant. There are two main reasons I think this. Firstly, everybody, when they try to think a little more deeply abut their beliefs and the assumptions they rest upon (or even better, discuss this with friends) is to that extent a philosopher. And this can have some quite profound effects on people.

Secondly, philosophical ideas produced by 'real philosophers' (whatever they are) can have effects far beyond their recognized reach. It is true that many philosophers are read only by other philosophers — or people who are close to philosophy. The views of these people are affected. They then can write about other matters — political, ethical, whatever, in a way that is affected by the philosophical views they have read. Others read this, and in turn write or speak. In this way, philosophical views spread and influence many facets of our lives.

Let me give some examples. The ideas of John Locke about how to run a state affected the writings of many, notably the American founding fathers. The US Constitution is organized in accordance with them. This has had pretty wide effects, I think you would agree.

Or another: Peter Singer wrote a book called Animal Liberation. Our attitudes to animals, and our treatment of them, is quite different now from before the book was written.

Or a couple of others. Immanuel Kant's writings on Reason heavily influences the Enlightenment — ideas that progress is inevitable and that objective reasoning leads to better actions. Friedrich Nietzsche's criticisms of this approach have led to a world in which such objective thinking and central planning, based on the belief that there is one right answer to every problem, is now widely mistrusted.

I probably don't need to expand on the influence of Karl Marx — basically a philosopher of sorts — who said (I quote from memory): "Philosophers have previously interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it." Anybody who sets out to change the world, however, must first have interpreted it, and although they may not recognize it explicitly, that interpretation is likely to have been influenced by the positions of philosophers.

Tim Sprod