1st series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]  2nd series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49]

  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 14 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from November 2001 — December 2001:

  1. Perception is reality
  2. Our knowledge of death
  3. How mind interacts with body
  4. A society based on metaphysics
  5. What is earth?
  6. Do animals suffer? and can they be evil?
  7. the mystery of human existence
  8. How different knowledge claims are justified
  9. Idealism and empiricism
  10. Should I give in to my animal urges?
  11. Is only one religion correct?
  12. Women in philosophy
  13. Definition of a "right"
  14. Peter Singer and cruelty to animals
  15. The Book of Enoch
  16. The three doctrines of Gorgias
  17. Plato on age and experience
  18. Why philosophers have a problem with God
  19. Attack on the World Trade Center
  20. Why demons possess people
  21. How we form concepts
  22. Here is my definition of "love"
  23. When you're dead, you're dead
  24. Socrates vs. Martin Luther King on obeying the law
  25. Which is prior: metaphysics or epistemology?
  26. Are human rights universal?
  27. Modernism, structuralism, post-modernism and post-structuralism
  28. Existentialist view of cloning
  29. Pascal on hedonism
  30. A belief is what you believe is the truth
  31. Why is there something rather than nothing?
  32. The main project of contemporary philosophy
  33. Why we like to escape from reality
  34. Origins of philosophy
  35. Functions of the state in Marxism-Leninism
  36. Taking an objective view of reality
  37. Advice to a 56 year old
  38. God and the Holocaust
  39. Christianity, Judaism and Greek philosophy
  40. Karl Popper's view of truth
  41. Ethics of cloning
  42. What is thinking? do animals think?
  43. Bertrand Russell vs. Father Copleston
  44. The contradiction at the core of all ideas
  45. Meanings of "determinism"
  46. Jean-Paul Sartre on freedom
  47. Schopenhauer on world will and human will
  48. Why wisdom can't be taught
  49. Necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia and incest
  50. Artificial intelligence
  51. Question about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  52. Source of "when pigs fly"
  53. Playing the Art game
  54. Has technology surpassed human intelligence?
  55. Free will vs. determinism
  56. God and good
  57. Belief in reincarnation
  58. Atman and brahman in the Upanishads
  59. Utilitarianism vs. deontology
  60. When an idea becomes dangerous
  61. Physics and the tree in the wood
  62. Am I really in love?
  63. Can the mind be split the way a body can?
  64. Do we have a duty to volunteer?
  65. What it means to be gifted
  66. Classic theories of personal identity
  67. Why we are fascinated by violence
  68. What would be an empirical proof of God's existence?
  69. Plotinus on soul and intellect
  70. How to achieve self-knowledge
  71. Seeking the highest level of understanding
  72. In what sense MUST water be H2O?
  73. Immediate knowledge
  74. Berkeley and the world of the blind
  75. Definition of "existentialism"
  76. The relativism of Protagoras
  77. Why we like to anthropomorphize
  78. Paradox of the Heap
  79. Definitions of "logic" and "paradigm"
  80. Philosophy in a few words
  81. I'm fed up waiting for an answer
  82. Plato on different kinds of soul
  83. Early Greek philosophy and the Renaissance
  84. Empiricist and rationalist views of dreaming
  85. Arguments for God's existence
  86. Why can't God make a perfect world?
  87. Using logic to solve problems
  88. When Samuel Johnson kicked the stone
  89. Aesthetics of nature
  90. Language and intelligence
  91. Role of opinion in philosophy
  92. Philosophy and parapsychology
  93. When someone overuses exclamation marks
  94. Too many questions and not enough answers
  95. Didactic teaching and empirical learning
  96. Conflicting views of philosophers
  97. I have killed my baby
  98. I am struggling with Schopenhauer
  99. What is a number?
  100. Job opportunities for Philosophy PhDs
  101. Kripke on proper names
  102. Science vs. mysticism
  103. Schroedinger's cat
  104. Problems with the verification principle
  105. Meaningfulness of religious language
  106. Explaining the Gestalt theory
  107. Physicalism and narrow scientism
  108. How can gravity and magnetism be physical?
  109. History of mind, spirit and soul
  110. Why can't philosophers give concrete answers?
  111. The meaning of love
  112. Challenging children beyond their immediate capabilities
  113. Positivist view of art and feeling
  114. What time is it now?

Richard asked:

More and more I keep hearing the phrase "perception is reality." On the surface this is an interesting thought. In a very shallow way it may even have some validity. I have argued that if this statement is true then a pencil really does bend when placed in a glass of water. I have noticed many of my students are starting to act as if this statement is valid. Would you offer some thoughts or ideas on to counter this statement.

Firstly, it seems that your students have very grand ideas of themselves if they think that the world consists of what they can perceive. Already Bishop Berkeley thought of this problem when he asked if a noise in a forest existed if there was no one there to here it. You could ask your students if they think that the world does not exist when they are asleep? Or if they donÇt think anything beyond the horizon exists.

At another level there are ideal objects like the numbers. Take the number two for instance. How can any one perceive it? Sure we can look at two dogs or two houses, but where is the two itself? For some people with 'discalculi' this is a real problem. The same goes for objects like democracy or constitution. A really mind-boggling concept is the concept of "me". I am convinced it exists, but what is it?

Fredrik Robinson

A simple visual perception can't amount to knowledge, without tactile experience from which we come to know that a pencil is not made of the sort of stuff that bends in water. Our perceptions allow us to function in what we regard as the real physical world. Visual perception alone is not functionally sufficient for physical interaction with what seems to be external.

Even Berkeley, who thought that visual and tactile ideas were non-identical, wouldn't say that that is all that is needed for reality.

I wonder what sort of things your students are doing.

Rachel Browne


Brian asked:

If knowledge is based on experience, how can any living person have knowledge of death?

A living person can experience death in the world, other people die all the time. We can see the work of death, the misery it causes. Of course this is only death as experienced from the outside. What would it be to know death from the Inside? I guess this is what you are asking; What is death like for me, What can I know about death Itself?

The short answer is Nothing — death itself as you point out is a something 1 will never experience. At the most I can experience only the process of dying. But death itself is an Experiential blank. Even if we argue that knowledge is not based in experience only, but by rational inquiry also that doesn't help: death is the limit of thinking, a kind of border on reality that we push up against And that doesn't make any sense. You should probably take a look here at my (non) answer to Giles, in this set of answers — I'll wait 'till you get back.

Okay, If death is a true mystery, unthinkable in itself, what else can we say? (As philosophers we shouldn't give up when we find things getting a bit rough, this is the place that we should make our home.)

What is at stake in our attempts to push up against these borders we find? I have said in the past that what is at stake is our relation to the world, the kind of existence we are subject to, this is important, but death seems to turn this upside-down. How can something that we have no relation to make a difference to my understanding of my existence in the world?

I hinted in my answer to Giles that Heidegger and Levinas say interesting things at this point, but of course that takes us away from talking about death itself and on to talking about what death turns us towards in turning us away from itself. Of death itself we can only say that it is an enigma, an aporia, a stalling point in thinking.

Brian Tee

There are cases of people being clinically dead and claiming to have "experienced" dying before being resuscitated and although it might be said death is the absolute end and there can be no experience, in a survey it was held that more than half of the people experienced "positive emotions". What do we say? Deny that what doctor's call clinical death is what we mean by the concept of death as the end, and claim we know what death is regardless of the experiences of others? That is conceptual belief which is not based on experience and may turn out to be false.

Rachel Browne


Julian asked:

Is the mind physically real?

and Brandon asked:

If a non-physical entity, such as the wind and a solid object, a tree, interact, wouldn't this go against the criticism that the 'soul', being non-physical cannot interact with body?

Seizing on your tree example, lets try a thought experiment. The process of photosynthesis requires chlorophyll found in the leaves of trees in order to occur. A chemist can distil chlorophyll quite easily and put it in a test tube for tests. But ask a chemist to distil photosynthesis and he would just look at you blankly. Clearly one should not conclude from this that photosynthesis is non-physical however.

Most philosophers and scientists hold that the mind depends on physical processes in the brain in order for there to be thoughts. So there are causal relations between physical states and mental states, even if some physical state is not logically identical with some mental state. Just because minds (like photosynthesis) cannot be plucked out and isolated from their physical supports is not an argument for showing that minds (and photosynthesis) are non physical, and are thus separable from bodies. It just shows that we're asking the wrong kinds of questions.

A. Gatward

I assume, Brandon, that you do know that the wind is physical, that is to say, that it is composed of material entities, molecules of oxygen, nitrogen etc. whose rapid movement accounts for the pressure that we feel when the wind blows in our face. (I might conceivably be wrong about this assumption. It is possible that you missed out on science in school. This is nothing to be ashamed about. The best remedy is go to a library or bookshop and learn up on some elementary physics.)

Given that you do know what wind is, I take it that what you are saying is, 'Why can't the soul be like the wind?' You cannot touch or catch the soul, just as you cannot touch or catch the wind, but it nevertheless is able to bring about effects on more massive objects such as trees or people.

This is a view which was apparently held by the Ancient Greek materialist, Democritus, who first proposed a version of the atomic theory:

Some say that the soul moves the body in which it is found in the same way as it moves itself, Democritus, for example, whose view is similar to what we find in Philippos the comic poet. He says that Daedalus made the wooden statue of Aphrodite move by pouring quicksilver into it. Democritus speaks similarly, since he says that moving spherical atoms, whose nature is never to stay still, draw the entire body along with them and move it. But we will ask if these same things also produce rest. How they will do so is difficult or impossible to state. In general, the soul does not appear to move the body in this way, but through choice of some kind and through thought.

Richard McKirahan Jr. Philosophy Before Socrates 1994 § 16.46, p.330.

Aristotle's sneering criticism of Democritus which McKirahan quotes seems less than convincing. Granted that the soul moves the body 'through thought and choice', the question is whether thought and choice might be, in their underlying nature, perpetually moving atoms. Nor are we convinced by the argument that moving atoms could not bring about a state of rest. A glider can hover, motionless, on an updraft of air.

However, this completely misses the target so far as the mind-body interactionism of Descartes is concerned. Descartes made it quite clear in the Meditations that the soul as he understood it was not 'a wind or vapour'. The essence of the soul is completely different from the essence of matter. The soul has no material properties: no mass, no size, no location in space. I have discussed elsewhere on these pages how Descartes attempted to account for mind-body interaction. The example of the wind and the tree is not one that he would have found helpful.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jacob asked:

If it is true that we have a body — that is proven — then have we not based our whole society, reality, and economy around material things? Would it not be possible to base all of these things around a metaphysical nature?

A society based on metaphysics? — we tried that and look where it got us: right up the creek.

A society with the idea of a soul or spiritual world at its base won't work, in fact the same problems would arise, selfishness, greed etc., for example, each person would be interested in gaining their own spiritual enlightenment or a place in heaven, if this means helping others, that's good but helping others is not primary, it is a means to an end. Just as for example helping others may be beneficial for fame and fortune in this world. One could be spiritually greedy, monopolising all opportunities to help others, so that no one else gets the chance. you would be the only saint amongst the sinners.

Okay, that may seem a little cynical, but that doesn't mean I have no hope in the possibility of a good society. I just think that we need a different basis for it, an Ethical basis, where what I do, I do fundamentally for the other person.

Brian Tee


Osama asked:

What is earth ? By earth I mean all the things which are included between the skies and down to the all levels of earth surface.

Earth is that place whereby the experience of being-in-and-on-the earth is engaged in, in a vast exciting, adventurous project called human existence. Earth is the locus for involvement in every aspect of human living: cultural, intellectual, social, religious, creative etc. It becomes the place for development and growth, for coming to understand, if not the meaning of life, then at least the joy, hurts, happiness and pain of life. Earth is our environment for engaging in the movement towards coming to understand their splendour of all life. And it is this life arena which, unfortunately, has so often become the arena for so much death and destruction.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Gary asked:

Is there such a thing as animal suffering?

If there is, could animals be evil like humans?

If we judge that an animal suffers based on its behaviour, then perhaps the answer is yes. They can shudder and cry out. But this could be a purely physical reaction to external circumstances or damage to the body. We can't be sure that there is an internal conscious phenomenon such as a pain. How could we even come to think this when we shape our beliefs so strongly on perceived cause and effect? The cold makes a biological organism shudder, but that doesn't mean that the organism feels anything unpleasant. Even on the supposition that the animal is at a least a conscious being, animals can't say "I am in pain", so can we be sure they suffer on the basis of behaviour? Could we be really sure even if they could speak? Perhaps the animal would just be seeking better treatment. — This is the philosophical problem of scepticism about other minds. Analytical philosophers question whether we can know whether other people are in pain on the basis of both behaviour and speech, since there is always the possibility of pretending in any particular case. We have no criteria by means of which to pick a case in which we can really know that someone is suffering.

Since we disregard this philosophical problem for all practical purposes in regard to humans, I can see no reason why we shouldn't do so for animals. But where do we draw the line? For practical purposes, I never treat spiders as if they suffer. They are horrible alien evil looking things. Either we regard an animal as having the ability to suffer when we perceive it as like us, or we think it suffers because it is conscious. I go for the former. Spiders may be conscious.

I don't think that evil is determined by an ability to suffer, but by the ability to be deliberately destructive where this is due to psychological imbalance. I'm inclined to believe that evil should be equated with insanity — an idea that might be extended to the animal world. When animals are destructive, this could also be because there is a normatively determined correct way of being from which they deviate. Perhaps their behaviour doesn't cohere with genetically programmed behaviour with the function of procuring the survival of a species. So sometimes animals act according to behaviour which is evolutionary natural for them and we needn't say they are evil. But if a dog, which is naturally a pack animal, behaves viciously to another dog, we could say it was evil.

However, this doesn't ring true.

There is something extremely frightening about evil specifically related to our thoughts about the state of mind of someone who performs an evil deed. It is shocking that a human being could do certain things. We also have the concept of evil embodied in our idea of demons and the devil. Perhaps demons and the devil are anthropomorphic even if we have pictures of the devil looking like an animal. The concept of malignant beings could have originated in fear of dangerous animals but could have its root in our experience of the evil side of man's nature. Whatever the origin, it may be that man has the capacity to know what he is doing under a moral description. A person who performs an evil deed may know he is killing, for example, but would not see it as "evil" or "malignant" and what is frightening is a person's failure to see what a psychologically balanced person sees.

Rachel Browne

To answer yes in the case of your first question does not entail yes to your second. The fact that a thing can suffer does not mean it is a moral agent. In The Brothers Karamazov, someone tells a story about a group of children who push pins into pieces of bread and feed the bread to a dog. This causes the dog immense suffering because it inflicts pain on the dog. Now suppose the dog turned round on them and attacked them. Would the dog be responsible for the children's suffering in the way that the children are responsible for cruelty? I should say not, because a dog cannot reason. The actions of the children are actions appropriate for moral evaluation because torture was something they chose to do. The reaction of the dog, or the predatory instincts of lions for that matter, are not appropriate for moral evaluation because it makes no sense to ascribe duties and responsibilities to animals. The fact that some animals exhibit an appearance of 'care' towards their young should not be confused with a moral quality in the sense of an obligation.

Human beings are moral agents because they can reason and therefore take responsibility for actions. I think it follows that animals have rights — even if they do not have responsibilities — because it makes sense for us to talk about having duties towards animals. Since we can reason that pain is bad, we have a duty not to inflict pain on other things.

A. Gatward


Patsy asked:

"Discuss the claim that Human existence is a mystery."

So far I've looked at the question in a subjective way. My existence is not a mystery — I know I was conceived, and am living (this is a bit Darwinian). Can we know why we exist? Is there an answer? Do we look to a religious interpretation or go the rational route?

I think that from your suggestions there is a confusion between two questions; One, "the claim that Human existence is a mystery" and two, the additional problem, the weirdness of my own existence, the fact that I exist, rather than someone else existing in my place.

As to the first one we can partially answer it with appeal to scientific theories, evolution, cosmology.. The Anthropic principle even tells us that we shouldn't be surprised that something like us exists — given the state of the universe it was bound to happen. Of course we are still a long way off from answering the question of why the universe exits at all rather than not existing, perhaps a religious answer can help here (although see answers to Stephen's question about 'the why').

Regardless of the answer to these questions, they do not touch on the second question we have asked; Why do I exist? the problem can arise in two ways:

First, we can ask Why was it ME that was conceived, rather someone just like me? Surely it is possible that my parents could have conceived a different pair of cells, that could have developed, my parents could even called this child Brian — but it might not have this Brian, Me. What is it that explains why I am me rather than someone else? Second we have to play the odds, Given the extremely unlikely event that my parents actually each other, let alone got on with one another enough to have a kid and then the unlikely event that their parents met and their parents parents met and so on, my grasp on existence is tenuous at best. If anything went astray somewhere along the line I would not be here — even though some one like me may be.

To explain why it is that I have my own little vantage point on the world, that's the mystery and no account of atoms colliding, slugs crawling out of the sea, or people falling in love will answer it for me. As for the religious route, (thanks to Geoff) I doubt even God could tell me why I exist rather than someone just like me (check out Geoff's book Naive Metaphysics).

Brian Tee


Youssouf asked:

"Tell a man that there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he'll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he'll have to touch to be sure."

What does this suggest about the way different types of knowledge are justified?

What is it to believe that there are 300 billion stars in the universe? What's the difference between merely considering the proposition, or supposing that there might be 300 billion stars in the universe and really believing it? This is a question which has been intriguing me.

Your two examples involve a particular aspect of knowledge/ belief, where we acquire our beliefs via testimony. A vast amount of the beliefs we acquire about the world arise from testimony, from what others have told us, from what we learned in school, or from what we have read, or seen on TV etc.

It could be said that the wet paint example is a special one, because of the simple fact that paint dries. Paint that was wet 30 minutes ago, might not be wet now. This is a piece of empirical knowledge coming under the heading of 'stuff we know but we can't remember where we first learned it'. Suppose instead that we were told that the bench was liable to collapse, or that it had a sign on it saying, 'Warning: unstable'. You might take it on trust that this was the case without testing first — especially since the only way to really test the claim is to put your full weight on the bench!

However, it remains the fact that some of the beliefs we acquire via testimony are directly testable while others are not.

We put a great deal of faith in 'experts', but in many cases even they cannot claim to have provided the definitive 'test' of a claim, but only given the best explanation for given data. So, for example, if an astronomer reports the discovery of a new kind of star, it is understood that this is merely intended as the simplest, most economical explanation of the data from observation of the heavens. You can't test the claim by going over to the star to touch it.

However, the belief that there are billions of stars is not like that. The evidence is so overwhelming that you would have to be a crackpot to believe otherwise. The same is true of the belief that the earth is round. If you did seriously doubt that there were billions of stars or that the Earth was round rather than flat then there would be no way to persuade you otherwise.

And this takes us to the issue that interests me. Since ancient times, the threat of scepticism has been seen as a philosophical problem. Suppose an individual who doubts all the things that we accept without question — for, example, my belief that I am awake and not being caused to 'dream' that I am sitting at a desk, looking out of the window etc. — how could we prove that the sceptic's hypothesis is false? The answer is, we can't. In that case, how can we justify our claim to knowledge?

It is possible to believe that the earth is flat. I once knew someone who not only sincerely believed that the earth was flat, but had all sorts of explanations of how it is that 'the scientists' are able to pull the wool over our eyes. What is interesting about this case is that in order to disbelieve the claim that the earth is round, you have to believe all sorts of other things (conspiracy theories and the like). Whereas the philosophical sceptic seriously questions whether any belief is justified.

Geoffrey Klempner


Glenn asked:

How is it possible for George Berkeley to be a subjective idealist yet be considered one of the great British Empiricists? How can you be both an Empiricist and idealist at the same time? Or, how can an idealist be an Empiricist?

Several kinds of Idealism are distinguished in philosophy. Idealism, very basically, is a belief that the world we see around us is somehow created by our mind.

Berkeleian Idealism (sometimes called Immaterialism) says that what we call a 'material object' is really just a collection of ideas (in a very broad, non-technical sense of the word 'idea'). Berkeley would not normally be called a subjective idealist, because he added that the ideas that make up 'material objects' exist permanently in the mind of God — which gives them an existence independent of perceiving subjects.

Berkeley was arguing against the notion of 'material substance' which John Locke made use of in his Essay concerning Human Understanding. Influenced by developments in science, Locke claimed that some qualities of objects (e.g. colour, smell) only exist when we observe them, but that other qualities (e.g. shape) are really part of the objects, whether anyone is observing them or not. Berkeley reacted to this by arguing that all qualities can equally be said to arise only when we perceive them. Things can only be described in terms of our perceptions of them — their texture, smell, sound, taste or appearance.

Two other kinds of Idealism are commonly distinguished:

  1. Kant's Transcendental Idealism — the view that the things we perceive as existing in space and time are appearances shaped by the structure of our sense-organs and brain. This is called subjective idealism because the perceiving subject influences what is perceived. Kant also claimed there must be things 'as they are in themselves' (noumena), which are the source of our perceptions — even though we can never know anything about these.
  2. Absolute or Objective Idealism — the view of Bradley and Hegel, among others, says that only one thing really exists; a kind of Universal Mind/ Spirit ('the Absolute').

As for Empiricism; along with Locke and Hume, Berkeley maintains that all our knowledge is ultimately derived from what we have taken in through our senses. This is true even though he talks so much about ideas: those 'ideas' include perceptions (sights, smells, sounds etc.)

Katharine Hunt

This is a good question. Empiricists think that all knowledge comes from sense experiences alone, experiences called 'ideas' according to Locke and Berkeley or 'impressions' according to Hume. This gave the empiricists a huge problem, believe it or not, concerning the existence of 'substance' or 'matter'. If all human knowledge proceeds from the 'ideas' received through the senses, then do we ever sense matter? Here is a postcard version of what Berkeley says in the Principles of Human Knowledge:

  1. All we perceive are ideas.
  2. We perceive objects.
  3. Therefore, objects are ideas.

Berkeley thinks that the non-existence of material objects is consistent with what we are aware of, that matter itself would not explain our ideas without a causal account of how they act on our minds. So Berkeley thought that matter is 'unintelligible' for the reason that trying to imagine matter apart from the qualitiesthat it possesses (shape, colour, hardness etc) results in you thinking about nothing at all. Locke — certainly a materialist among the empiricists — held that substance is a 'know not what' support of the qualities we pick up through perception. Materialists think that matter lacks all visible qualities; so Berkeley, following ruthless logic, simply says that imagining matter is impossible, as invisible and propertyless stuff is just too austere and remote from the world of experience. Berkeley's position is motivated by epistemological considerations, and is surprisingly intended to defeat skepticism. A full version of his argument can be found in the Principles of Human Knowledge §18 ff.

  1. How could you know matter exists?
  2. It must be by sense or by reason.
  3. Everyone agrees that it is not by sense, so it must be by reason.
  4. It is conceivable that we should have the same ideas without the existence of matter.
  5. Therefore there is no good argument of reason for the existence of matter.

The materialist response is that our ideas are best explained by supposing them to be cause by material objects. Berkeley replies by saying that materialists have no explanation of how bodies act on minds, so if there were bodies, it is impossible that we should know it.

This argument illustrates one of the skeptical conclusions of empiricism, that if all our knowledge is via the senses and there is no sensory impression of matter, it must be true that we know nothing about matter. It follows furthermore, that it must be imaginary that there is such a thing as matter, and it must also be superfluous when we try to make sense of the world. This is common sense, Berkeley argues. Why suppose that something you don't know anything about is the best explanation for way things seem. Berkeley's position, most interestingly of all, is an attempt to avoid the skepticism about the world in which the logic of empiricism results. Talking about that would be the answer to another question, but see if you can begin to think through why Berkeley claimed his position avoids the skeptical results of full throttled empiricism!

A. Gatward


Sean asked:

Do I deny myself the rightful, pleasurable act of procreation just to prove a point? Do I suffer in my own anti-societal beliefs? Or do I give into my animal urges like every other trained monkey out there?

Well, let's start with the assumption that you're heterosexual (since you speak of "procreation", and Sean being primarily a masculine name). So, you're looking for a relationship with a woman, and you think that necessarily involves sex. Really? What gives you that idea? If, because you're sexually frustrated, you just go out and have sex, then, as you so accurately imply, what you get is a) "proving" the point that you can, and/or b) just being an animal, i.e, not having a relationship much beyond the physical, or c) not either of those, and simply suffering. You are implying that you want something other than those alternatives, from the tone of your questions. (After all, there are people, both men and women, who are satisfied with just physical relationships... and maybe for them that is enough and is moral; I certainly see no reason to say flatly that it is immoral, as long as everyone is honest about it — since we're doing the "ask a philosopher" thing here.)

Well, here's some advice, since that's what you're asking for. First, masturbation is just fine to take the edge off your frustration. Not ultimately satisfying (to most), but better than nothing, and contrary to myth, it's good for you. Second, you make friends with a woman. If you can't do that, at first, with a person with whom there is the possibility of sex, hang out with some lesbians and make friends, yes, real friends, with them. No possibility of sex there, just a straightforward relationship with another (female) person. Learn that women can be related to as friends, and how to do that. Then decide, slowly and carefully. what you want in a relationship. Look for that kind of woman. Make friends with her, and if you (or she) can't do that (and many women have the same problem in reverse, for a variety of reasons), start over, because believe me, 5—10 years down the road, you want a friend.

Does the above sound difficult? Unconventional? You're right. But I assume that given your rather unconventional approach in writing to this particular group, you want something a little different. The above is the best course of action I know; I took it myself and it worked, after many failures (for whatever that's worth).

Steven Ravett Brown


Robert asked:

Is there any reason to assume one religion is "correct," and others "incorrect"?

The Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu etc., would say 'Yes there is, ours.' Religion is that way of our being in the world whereby we seek to develop and come to the fulness of human growth through our involvement and encounter with our own concept and experience of the Divine.

But the concept and experience of the divine is also culturally and historically situated. That one religion claims a veracity of its own existence and doctrines is part of the experience of being a person who has a religious faith. With most religions go a value system, either a moral and ethical value system, or a value system linked to and depending on its doctrinal and dogmatic system.

It is such values systems derived from their initial religious belief which assists the believer in their way through the world and life. As a Christian I have a faith belief which I would claim demonstrates the truth of its own belief claim. Yet, there must be a mutual and tolerant respect for all faiths and all religions. In this way the value systems of any religious truth claim become not just claims, but lived realities. It is the living reality of a person's religious faith that is most important rather than the divisions or differences of doctrine, dogma, or faith.

I believe that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God and Saviour of the world, others do not believe that. On the one hand that is a subjective belief for me because it is mine and it is personal, on the other it is also the belied of hundreds of millions of other people, so there is a community and corporate element to it which unites me to others. Yet such subjectivity and such unity is true for every other believer of every other faith.

So yes, there are reasons to assume that one religion is more 'correct' but only in so far as it is correct for that body of believers. What is not correct is the imposition of that belief on others and the methods used to impose that belief. This is what we learned, or at least, should have learned from the Crusades; unfortunately as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and other parts of the world too tragically testify, it seems that we have learned nothing — and most certainly not from our God(s).

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Nina asked:

Are women always associated with passivity in philosophy? I have checked your previous questions page and there are questions on why there are few women philosophers but not on their role in philosophy.

I don't know where women are associated with passivity in philosophy. In feminist ethics, women are described as loving, nurturing and supportive. This is the ideal of woman as mother, but it isn't necessarily passive, since part of the mother's role is to be protective, a concept not especially associated with passivity. If the ideal of woman is based on her sexual nature, rather than on her role as mother, passivity might come from the nature of woman as receiving.

There is such a thing as feminist metaphysics, which you might be interested in. My feeling was that passivity based on sexuality can have very little to do with metaphysics, so I was driven by your question to find out a bit about it and it turns out that women are and always have been oppressed and subordinated, which might be what you mean. Because there have been so few women philosophers in the history of the subject, philosophical concepts and theories have been shaped and dominated by men. This means that fear of rape and unwanted pregnancies have had little impact on epistemology, or our consciousness of ourselves. Hence feminist theorists, who are normally characterised as "active" rather than passive, seek to redress the balance. A woman's role in philosophy is to approach metaphysics and epistemology from a non-gender-oriented stance so that our theories of knowledge and the world can be freed from male-biased ways of thinking. However, given the long history of suppression and gender-determination by society, which is basically by men, it is unclear whether women are yet able to think properly and because all our social and philosophical concepts have been developed by men there will be a struggle to be understood.

The role of women who are not feminists is the same as that of men.

Rachel Browne

I'm having a hard time understanding your question. "Associated" how? What do you mean by "passivity"? Usually, passivity means a lack of action; a passive person is one who either does not act or one who just reacts to things without initiating actions themselves. Now, how does this relate to women as "associated" with philosophy? Do you mean women philosophers? Well, they're definitely not passive. Women, as written about by philosophers? It's certainly true that when some, indeed most, male philosophers from cultures which regard (or have regarded) women as inferior or the "weaker" sex have written about women, they have portrayed women in that manner. And some (few) haven't. If that's what you mean by "associated" with passivity, you're pretty much right. Until the last, roughly, 50—75 years or so, until women have been allowed, and been educated that they can, start participating more in academia, they have not, by and large, been taken seriously as philosophers.

Lately, however, this is not true. There are now many women philosophers, some quite well-known, for example, Martha Nussbaum, to just pick a name out of the air. So as far as that goes, what one finds is that philosophers do not, by and large (with some exceptions), succeed in overcoming their various personal and cultural biases. Sad but true. And I'm talking quite generally about any gender (since we're talking about gender, but you can use any category you want) of philosophers here, just pick your biases to fit.

As for their "role" in philosophy, again, I'm not sure I understand your question. Women philosophers are just philosophers, concerned, usually, with the issues that any philosopher is concerned with. They teach, write, edit journals, and so forth. However, perhaps you are referring to a number of women (and some men) who are attempting to create a field termed "gender studies". This field, as far as I can tell (and I'm no expert) seems to be a blend of philosophical and sociological issues involving various interactions between men and women, varying in its emphasis from "pure" philosophy to "pure" sociology (scare quotes because no one can really define what "pure" anything is). If you want to know more about it, just do a web search for "gender studies".

Steven Ravett Brown


John asked:

Please give me a definition of a "right".

Please start the definition with: "A right is ......", and do not use the word "right" after the verb.

Some human rights are universal, and some are not. If one has a right solely by virtue of being human, then that right is universal: it applies universally, that is, to all members of the class of beings called "human." For example, one has the right to live unmolested by others just because one is a human being. It is a universal human right. We may also call it a "negative" right because having the right confers no benefit on the rights-bearer. Also, we meet our obligation to respect each other's universal human rights at no cost to ourselves.

There are some rights, however, which one subset of human beings has while other subsets do not. They are rights particular to those subsets. For example, the right to cast one's vote for a candidate for the Presidency of the United States (or any elected office of any country) is a particular human right. Being human is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of having the right to vote: there are other conditions that one must also satisfy (e.g., being a citizen of a certain country, being of a certain age, legal status, etc.).

Another example is the right to receive payment for goods or services. When people voluntarily undertake to exchange certain goods or services (either for money or for other goods or services), each party gains rights in what the other offered in exchange. These particular rights may be called "positive" because they confer benefits on those who have them. Also, positive rights are honored at a cost, either voluntarily assumed (as in economic exchange, e.g., I owe you money and you owe me goods or services) or involuntarily imposed (as in a governmental electoral system that is paid for by taxes).

A right is not an observable property of the being that has it, but the correlative of a moral prohibition: "Do not do this to (or, do not refrain from doing this for) this being." A right is a moral boundary line. A physical boundary line either can or cannot be crossed. A moral boundary line, however, can but may not be crossed. Human (and other) beings are values that morally limit the kinds of actions that human beings, who are capable of appreciating those values, may take. Justifying this (or any other) theory of right, however, would require working out a general theory of value, which we obviously cannot do here.

Tony Flood


Rocio asked:

What are some of the common responses to the Utilitarian analysis of animal cruelty? (e.g. Peter Singer's classic Animal Liberation). If it is an undeniable fact that animals suffer, and eating animals is unnecessary (at least for developed nations) then why would anyone be justified ethically to eat meat?

As far as I understand them, Peter Singer's arguments against eating meat are based on the utilitarian principle that ethical actions are those which create the most utility (pleasure, happiness etc.). Since the wholesale slaughter of animals obviously does not increase the sum total of happiness in the world, then this practice is unethical. Singer may also be understood as working from a negative utilitarian position. In other words, the morally correct action is that which reduces the total amount of suffering in the world. Again, abolishing the slaughter of millions of animals would, from this perspective, seem like the moral course of action. Suffering and distress are real phenomena which all sentient beings are capable of experiencing. To claim that human suffering is more real or should be given more consideration in making moral decisions is, according to Singer, 'speciesist'.

The main challenges to Singer's ideas come from a variety of positions. Some are general arguments used by opponents of utilitarianism as an ethical theory, and some are specifically aimed at Singer's ideas. I will examine both types here:

General criticisms of utilitarianism as an ethical theory

Can utility be measured? One major problem with utilitarianism is that moral agents (those who carry out moral or immoral acts) are required to calculate the total amount of utility produced with each action. When we take into consideration just how difficult this calculation/ prediction really is, utilitarianism ceases to be a practical ethical approach. And now that Singer has made us aware that the sensations of non-human animals are to be included in this calculation, the job gets several times more complicated. Of course, Singer could respond by admitting that we can perhaps never calculate the exact amount of utility produced, but that it is also fairly obvious that the mass slaughter of animals does cause real distress of a scale that outweighs any happiness produced from the eating of the meat.

Could utilitarianism sanction "unjust" actions? A very common argument levelled against the utilitarian approach is that its insistence on looking only to the total amount of utility produced endorses all kinds of actions that seem intuitively to be unethical. For example, homeless people with no family or friends could be secretly snatched from the street, killed and their organs donated to save the lives of ten people who are in desperate need of new organs. On a strictly utilitarian basis this type of action is morally justified. The loss of one unit capable of experiencing happiness (the homeless person) is outweighed by the happiness gained by the ten ill people and their families as the spare organs become available. Our "common sense" morality tells us that there is something wrong with this type of action. Because of these unattractive possibilities, utilitarianism seems to be inadequate as a guide to morality. If this is the case, then Singer cannot use utilitarianism as a guide to our interaction with non-human animals.

What about rights and duties? The above criticism can be used to suggest that there are some other moral principles that are more acceptable than utilitarianism. Because of the problems with looking to the consequences and viewing utility as the only important consequence, other thinkers have argued that humans have duties towards each other (and perhaps the natural world) or that humans (and some animals) have rights. Such ideas have the advantage of avoiding the difficulties of utilitarianism. It would be possible to claim that humans have a duty to treat animals with respect and so claim that eating meat is morally wrong. It may also be claimed that animals have a right not to be eaten. The main problems that face these ideas are in the attempt to rationally justify them. Why should animals be treated with respect? Why should animals have rights? Which animals?

Specific criticisms of Singer's ideas

One specific criticism against Singer's ideas comes from what can be very loosely described as the "Deep Ecology" movement. This philosophical position is one that attempts to locate intrinsic value in nature. In other words, deep ecology wants to show that nature (including non-human animals) is morally valuable in its own right. A leopard is valuable not because humans find it very beautiful to look at, not because it is an endangered species, but simply because it is a leopard. Its value exists independently of any pleasure or benefit it provides to humans and, perhaps more controversially, its value exists even in the absence of a human to value it. This perspective sees Singer's utilitarianism as a philosophy that ignores the intrinsic value of animals. It only deals with those beings physically capable of suffering. All non-sentient creatures are disregarded. Non-human animals have a moral relevance only if they are capable of suffering. It is also worth noting that Singer's utilitarianism would sanction the suffering of a small number of non-human animals if the overall total of utility were increased. For deep ecologists, this is simply not good enough. They argue that Singer's utilitarianism, because of its failure to recognise the intrinsic value of non-human animals, perpetuates the very same human-centred worldview that encourages the exploitation and degradation of the non-human world.

The deep ecologists do have a point here. Singer's utilitarian approach, based on the assumption that suffering is to be avoided, doesn't necessarily have to lead to vegetarianism. Imagine a slaughterhouse where all the animals were unaware of their imminent death (and so were not distressed), and where death was completely pain free (assuming this could be proven). It would be very difficult for Singer to condemn this.

Some deep ecologists also question Singer's (and others) idea that animal liberation is a good idea. Most deep ecologists view the stability, diversity and beauty of the ecosystem as the goal of ethics. Humans ought to act in ways that promote this goal. Releasing all the captive farm animals and abolishing the practice of eating meat would almost certainly upset the fragile balance of an already damaged ecosystem. For these thinkers, mass animal liberation is unethical.

There is also an extreme position with the very impressive title of biocentric egalitarianism. This position states that anything that is alive should be treated with equal moral consideration. In its extreme and perhaps somewhat caricatured form, this position would argue that a blade of grass should be given the same moral consideration as a leopard or a human. From this perspective, Singer's ideas are not radical enough.

Simon Drew


Ross asked:

Sir, What do you think of The Book of Enoch? I am a Christian with many questions. I am wandering why it was left out of the Bible. Should it be read as a book of fact or a book fiction?

I think with religious writings it highly depends on the way of reading and comprehension, whether someone regards this work to be fact or fiction. For example to a logical positivist religious writing often is contradictory in itself and it's assertions are not empirically provable and therefore religious writing is worthless fiction. On the other hand to a truly believing person the same writing is fact, because it is inspired by if not directly the word of God.

Your other question, why the Book of Enoch was left out of the Bible, is easier to answer straightly: The Book of Enoch, also known as Ethiopic Enoch, fell into disfavour among powerful theologians because of its controversial descriptions of the nature and deeds of the fallen angels. That's why the Enochian writings (among many others) were omitted from the Bible.

But once he Book of Enoch was considered to be among the biblical apocryphal writings and was highly appreciated by the early church fathers, among them St. Augustine, and so there might be much more profane reasons for later banning writings like the Book of Enoch from the biblical canon.

Apocryphal is derived from the Greek and means "hidden" or "secret." Originally it had a positive meaning, and was applied to sacred books with contents considered to be too exalted to be made available to the general public.

Little by little the idea was accepted that such books were left to be read by the wise. Therefore, the term "apocrypha" began taking on a negative meaning to the orthodoxy, who felt being kept in the dark by not being told the teachings of these books. The clergy that was not admitted into these esoteric circles, because they were thought not to be enlightened, soon banned apocryphal material heretical, which meant: forbidden to read for all. As a result the book was lost for a thousand years. But the Book of Enoch eventually reappeared. It was brought to England by the explorer James Bruce, who found three copies of the Book of Enoch during an expedition to Ethiopia. Later it was translated by Dr. Richard Laurence, an Oxford Hebrew professor, that gave the modern world its first glimpse of the Enochian mysteries.

It might be interesting for you, that there is some proof that Christ Himself approved of the Book of Enoch. Over a hundred phrases in the New Testament find precedents in the Book of Enoch. Two of these phrase are in the Book of Jude: vs. 14 tells us that "Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied..." Jude also, in vs. 15, makes a direct reference to the Book of Enoch (2:1), where he writes, "to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly..." The time difference between Enoch and Jude is approximately 3400 years. Therefore, Jude's reference to the Enochian prophesies shows, that these written prophecies were available to him at that time.

Simone Klein


Catherine asked:

What are the limitations of, and errors in the three doctrines of Gorgias?

In examining Gorgias summary of his book, On Being or On Nature, the reader is presented with only surviving fragments recorded by Sextus Empiricus. In these fragments, Gorgias presents his Rhetorical paradox. First, that nothing exists, second, that if anything exists it is incomprehensible, and third, that even if anything is comprehensive it is incommunicable.

Although these statements have been classified by some of his critics as satirical, the work of Tim Rohrer offers a more interesting interpretation. Given Gorgias's preoccupation with rhetoric, Rohrer states that Gorgias could be hinting that rhetoric is simply not all it is made up to be. It may not be the argument that should decide an argument — why not look at the process of inquiry. Whether Gorgias was a true Sophist or not, he displayed their attitude of doubting the possibility of discovering anything that was really true. If as the Sophists advocated, that knowledge is in the strict sense unattainable, then Gorgias may be suggesting that the individual must consider that reason itself and logic are but human ways of thinking. This demonstrates for Gorgias that the individual may or may not have any objective validity concerning reality. One can conclude that there is no valid way of discerning that rational is better or truer than irrational thinking in proving one's conclusion. It is experience, that which is derived by the sense, that organizes the principles of our minds.

This organization then is the result of our thinking experience. One needs to go beyond the boundaries placed by rhetoric and reason to the essence of the ideas of reality. That essence is revealed by the senses where there are no fixed conclusions, but only inquiry. Inquiry, which cannot decipher the externally existing objects by words or language. Since no one thinks the same as another, language cannot communicate to another. What Gorgias sees is a conflict between the limitations of words and the expression of reality. This position resembles the deconstructionism applied to literary criticism, that the work in question should not be considered for its objective worth, but for what it represents in human thought to the perceiver. Gorgias was dealing with Epistemic Rhetoric, which according to Covino, maintains that truth is not conveyed by either the text nor is it conveyed by the individual. Truth is born in the transaction between the mediums, whether this is the reader, speaker, writer or listener. In the final analysis, it is the communication that constructs the truth and therefore Knowledge. To bring this to fruition, the what and why of Knowledge must be known to the individuals. This knowledge is subjective, developed through the construction of knowledge through the interaction of the individuals in their use of language. In modern terms, this can lead to a deconstruction or complete subjectivism, leaving no way of assessing the truth except by the agreement of individuals in a given exchange of language. Yet even in this agreement, there is no way of confirming the validity of the statements.

The major flaw of the doctrines that one would need to address is, if nothing exists then why go to the length to set out a series of doctrines which have no meaning to begin with.

John Eberts


Maria asked:

I am writing a paper on the concept or relationship between Plato's theory of age and experience. Plato suggests that no one can become king until they have gone through a series of training. I need to find out what is the concept between age and experience? Is the concept suggesting that experience is more important than age or vice versa?

Socrates: There can be no doubt that the elder must rule the younger?
Glaucon: Clearly.
Scorates: And that the best of these must rule?
Glaucon: That is also clear.

Plato, The Republic

The rulers of Plato's ideal city are to be chosen when they are over 50 years old, afterĉa long process of education and progressive selection — at the end of each stage of their education, only the best students are allowed to progress to the next stage.

Education of the people to produce good citizens and rulers is to start in childhood, when people are most easily influenced. Plato approves the use of a kind of censorship to ensure that the influences on children are good. They should be exposed only to beautiful and graceful sights and sounds (Republic, Book 3). Selected kinds of music and literature would then be taught, along with physical education. A balanced mixture of these is to be used, to avoid the danger of the student becoming either too aggressive (from too much physical education), or too soft and weak (from too much music and literature). The students are to be observed, to see which of them excel in all the things they have learnt so far, then, when they are 20 years old, the best students are to be selected and given further education, in which mathematics plays a large part. At 30 years old, a selection is to be made again, and the selected students taught 'dialectic' (the philosophical method of questioning and discussion). Plato mentions that students must not be taught dialectic any younger, or they will be inclined to argue just for fun, rather than discussing things in order to learn.

After a 5 year course in dialectic, students are to be required to do a job for 15 years, to gain experience of life, and they are to be monitored to see how they cope in difficult situations.

...and when they have reached fifty years of age, then let those who still survive and have distinguished themselves in every action of their lives and in every branch of knowledge...(make) philosophy their chief pursuit, but, when their turn comes, toiling also at politics and ruling for the public good.

Republic Book 7

It seems to me that this long experience and education would be more important than age for Plato, when he selected his rulers. The only reason the rulers are to be over 50 is that it takes a long time to go through the education Plato prescribes, and gain the required experience of life. Plato would not allow a 50 year old without the required education and experience to become a ruler.

However, there is something else equally important to Plato that you haven't mentioned — the nature or character of those chosen to rule. Plato isn't going to waste this special education on just anybody!

Selection of those of good character can be regarded as beginning even before birth, for Plato suggests that only the best people should be allowed to have children. 'Inferior' babies are to be left exposed outdoors to dieĉ— not an unusual practice in Ancient Greece.

Plato has Socrates and Glaucon agree that the rulers of the ideal city will "require natural aptitude", and that they will have to try to select such people. (Republic, Book 2) Among the qualities they are looking for in potential rulers are bravery, ability to learn, and industriousness. To find out whether people have these qualities, Plato proposes putting them through various tests of character and seeing how they behave. Can they cope with hard work? Are they easily frightened?

And he who at every age, as boy and youth and in mature life, has come out of the trial victorious and pure, shall be appointed a ruler and guardian of the State...But him who fails, we must reject.

Republic Book 3

For Plato, a person must have a good character in the first place, to make it worth giving them a good education. (Republic Book 4).

To work out your own views on this, you might think about the following. Do you think experience, or age, or perhaps character, is most important in those who govern your city/ state /country? How about if you were choosing who should be in charge — do you agree with Plato's methods of selection and education?

Katharine Hunt


Mike asked:

Why do so many philosophers have such a problem with the existence of a God?

If we look back at the ancients, such as Plato, Aristotle and others, as well as those who come slightly later, Plotinus and move forward to the Enlightenment as look at people such as Descartes, we will see that they do no not have a problem with the existence of God.

Philosophy seeks to detect errors in thought, or at least to construct a methodology for a 'right way' of engaging with the great human problems. Some philosophers see the existence of God as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Others see God as being the source of philosophy in so far as they accept the notion that God creates at every level including the cognitively reflective, and the ability even to question the existence of God is a gift from God.

Philosophy further seeks to encounter and analyse that which can be demonstrated. God cannot be demonstrated empirically, and thus we must move into the realm of faith and belief. While this faith and belief can be supported philosophically, as well as theologically, some philosophers would question the first proposition of a philosophical approach to God in that they would wish the criteria 'God exists' to be demonstrated.

The famous 'ontological proofs' of Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus make certain metaphysical presumptions e.g. that there is such a thing as Being, that there is existence, that being and existence are co-terminus and from this certain conclusions can be made concerning the nature of being and existence inasmuch as all being takes its being from the primal source of Being as being-in-itself. Duns Scotus said that this was the primary object of metaphysics.

Philosophers who do have a problem with the existence of God do so because their ideas, thought, reflections have led them to that conclusion. At the same time, since the existence of God cannot be empirically demonstrated, the non-existence of God cannot be empirically demonstrated either. In the end we are all to a certain degree faced with which side of Pascal's Wager we take.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Bridget asked:

The WTC Attack in the US has shocked the world. I have a question: should US solve the problem by law OR by war ? How can Professor HLA Hart's system of rules and concept of punishment be analyzed in the WTC attack incident?

I don't know what Hart had to say, if anything, about war. Hart's principles that punishment should be a deterrent and rehabilitating are violated by the war response. Such a response may act as a deterrent, but it could be a provocation. Also, war doesn't have the aim of rehabilitating even if this is now going to be attempted. There is also the principle that punishment should only affect the offender, but in war the innocent get killed.

The attack can be treated as a crime if the US has laws against terrorism which have been violated. As a deterrent, punishment should discourage the offenders and others from repetition of the crime and need not be proportional to the offence, so killing terrorists may be acceptable. For sure, this will stop the offenders from repeating their offence. However, once again it is not rehabilitating.

Hart's principles don't support the way terrorists are treated.

Rachel Browne


Menschenfresser asked:

Granted that demons exist and that they do possess people, I am wondering, from the framework of what I assume to be a vast amount of literature that is out there on the subject, both religious and not, why would a demon want to possess a human being?

I admit, this may be a question better suited for the "Ask a Catholic Cardinal" site, but I can't seem to find its url.

Ok, this question does beg for the definition of what demons are, what they want, their motives, etc, but so what....let it beg. — Any ideas?

This question might be better directed to James Randi, the American skeptic who offers a million dollars to any individual that can prove something about the supernatural in a 'controlled setting'. I suppose this prize would go for demoniacs and exorcisms too. Since this is a philosophical site, I'm going to tell you what a philosopher might pick up on.

I take it that a demon is an evil spirit of some sort that would want to possess a human being to bring evil into the world or to steal their soul. I'm not sure I have demons in my ontology, as I have never found much evidence for demons in my everyday experiences of things. Demons are not a necessary postulate in order to make better sense of the world, or to live more coherently with the way the world appears — even when people appear to be possessed by demons! So attributing certain types of behaviour to demonic possession would be enormously question begging for a philosopher. It would violate the principle of Occam's Razor, which effectively states that simpler explanations are usually better. What this means is that even if some behaviour were difficult to explain. an explanation in terms of demonic possession would not be economical. It would require an enormous amount of extra work to be done in order to show that demons could be real and could possess people. A reasonable man would therefore choose a simpler explanation. In ancient writings such as the Bible, cases of demonic possession are generally explained as likely cases of epilepsy, which had not yet been diagnosed or understood (see Luke 4, 31ff and Mark 1, 21ff).

There is a school of thought in philosophy that 'inner' motives and desires in a mental theatre are not the type of thing one refers to in explaining actions or in attributing attitudes to people. This would apply to demons too. Rather, we apply mental concepts like desire and intention to others against a background of received practises, experiences and language. Since demons play no role in our everyday lives — and hence no part in our background experience and received practises — there is nothing we can really say to answer your question about what might motivate a demon. 'Pure evil' is as good a guess as any!

A. Gatward


Alan asked:

What is the best way to argue for how we form concepts?

Is abstraction tenable at all according to the modern viewpoint?

As the question of how we form concepts has been a focal point of interest since Plato, and has been approached from several angles by some of the greatest minds in philosophy, including Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Russell and Ayer, to decide on which is the best way leaves us spoilt for choice.

The term 'concept' is a development of the term 'idea' used by ancient Greek and early Western Philosophers. As ideas/ concepts have through the ages been linked with epistemology (theory of knowledge) based on a changing succession of paradigms and world views, you will appreciate the difficulty in answering your initial question.

I find a general consensus, though sometimes with significant variation, amongst philosophers, that sense data are at the foundation of our concepts. We take in information through the senses and, some philosophers would claim, we have the mental facility to work upon the sensory information and manipulate it into ideas/ concepts. Rationalists believe that our mental make-up has something to add to the sensory data, we not only have the facility to manipulate but there is also an 'inner world' from which we are able to contribute additional information.

I confess to being a Kantian, and if you have ventured to dip into his Critique of Pure Reason you will have noted that the first sentence in the Introduction claims "That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt." He goes on to say, "But, though all our knowledge begins with experience it by no means follows, that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself." Kant came to believe that a knowledge existed which was altogether independent of experience, and even of all sensuous impressions, he called it a priori knowledge. This is knowledge which is intrinsic within us, which has not been supplied empirically, he actually called it "Pure knowledge a priori." This pure knowledge we ourselves contribute to the world. For example, ideas of absolute space and absolute time did not arrive throughĉour senses, we ourselves contribute knowledge like this to the world. We might say that these are concepts in the true sense of the word. The sense impressions received are manipulated, categorized and eventually presented to ourselves within the bounds of these great intrinsic concepts, i.e. we fit things within our awareness of space and time. From this manipulation of sensory data within our intrinsic a priori knowledge arise our basic concepts/ideas.

So far as I can make out, G E Moore seems to accept intrinsic concepts, he refers to them as objectively real and necessary for combining propositions to form the only things that are real. Two of these major concepts he accepts are existence and truth.

A J Ayer talks about receiving sensations from objects, these sensations he calls 'effects,' our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole conception of the object.

Along with the change in terminology from idea to concept has become an awareness that the latter is more intimately bound up with language. Innumerable concepts lie quite beyond the attainment of a languageless creature. A J Ayer points out that language is in addition to our underlying abilities, notably those of a broadly recognitional or discriminatory character, which give substance to the use of words.

Using the structure of our native languages we set out to dissect nature, the world is presented to us in a startling complexity of impressions which has to be organized by our minds, and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds, we cut nature up and organize it into concepts.

With regard to your question on abstraction; in my humble opinion it has run its course and seems to have been demolished by the arguments of A J Ayer and P E Geach. The view of Geach (Mental Acts Routledge, London) is that abstractionism is wholly mistaken; that no concept at all is acquired by the supposed process of abstraction. He claims that the limitations of abstractionism .are fully exposed when considering logical concepts, particularly the concept of negation. How do we come to the concept 'not red' ? This has to be derived not from abstracted particulars but from the prior concept of 'red' and an awareness of the concept of 'negation,' to say nothing of the concept 'colour.' We cannot learn any one of our concepts without calling another network of concepts into play.

The idea of abstraction seems very shallow, perhaps exposed by a child repeating names of colours and shapes without any understanding of the use of the words. Also, we can hardly associate mathematical concepts with abstraction. The evidence points to the abstractionist having to be selective, forced into admission that certain concepts lie outside the notion of abstraction the case is destroyed.

John Brandon


Rob asked:

Your scientific definition of love (Answers 10) didn't satisfy me because, among other reasons, brains differ and our scientific understanding of neurochemical reactions are more a generalization across 97% of the population (or less!) than they're a roadmap to our thought processes. Presumably the capacity to love is available to every consciousness in the world.

Working off of a variety of sources (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Plato's Symposium et al.) I've concluded several qualities which any definition of love should require. A lover should aim to please the object of the love. Love necessitates an active interest in the wellbeing of the object and love is the want of something. Love is a feeling, not just an emotion, but still it is grounded in the physical world. Also the concept of love itself should be able to be broken down in subcategories.

My problem is that none of these criteria seem to be exclusive to the feeling commonly known as "love". I don't know how restrictive the definition should be but if love required nothing more than transient friendliness it would be synonymous with "like". Intuitively, it seems to me that the criteria for "love" should be restrictive proportionate to the criteria for "hate" since they're opposites more or less comparable in their extremes. Therefore any definition of the two has to make it as easy to love the entire world as it does hate the world.

Do you think there's anything I'm missing in my definition, or is the intersection of all the above traits really all it takes to consider a feeling that of love?

The scientific answer was really a description of what occurs chemically within the body of a person who is in love. Presumably it was not meant to be a complete definition. Being in love is different from loving since it involves the cloud nine feeling.

Definitions always seem to be subject to counter-examples and there are so many different types of love. In regard to your definition, for instance, I love my mother and sister but don't aim to please them anymore than I think they aim to please me. Also, if it is possible to love the entire world it still wouldn't be possible to try to please it.

Perhaps the term should be restricted to human relationships. Perhaps we don't love chocolate or a piece of music but find them delicious or delightful and use the term "love" in a metaphorical sense. On the other hand, love may something we can't fully achieve and may emanate from something greater than a relationship with someone or something. Consider the following:

Freud defined it [eros] as a push from behind, a force coming out of "chaotic, undifferentiated, instinctive energy-sources along predictable and prescribable paths toward mature life and only partially, painfully civilized love". Whereas for Plato, eros is entirely bound up with the possibilities ahead which "pull" one; it is the yearning for union, the capacity to relate to new forms of human experience. It is "wholly telic, goal-directed, and moves toward the more-than-nature" (Rollo May, Love and Will).

Should we define love in terms of what we think it is on the basis of experience without looking at the source love? Trying to please someone, wanting something from them and caring about their welfare seems to lack depth. The same is true of comparing it with hate. Is it not possible that there could be love without hate? In which case, why should hate be relevant to the definition?

Some helpful hints I hope!

Rachel Browne

Firstly, I don't think that any answer referring solely to brain states can be given to questions to do with concepts, beliefs, emotions and other mental states. This is because the same mental states can be supervenient on differing brain states (as I take it that you are pointing out in your opening remarks).

Secondly, I think that trying to define concepts/emotions/feelings like 'love' in terms of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions (as it seems you try to do in your second paragraph) is bound to fail. Here, I agree with the analysis given by Wittgenstein of the nature of concepts, when he discusses the example of 'games'. He says that there is no single definition that covers all games, but that different games are all games because they share a family resemblance — sharing some features with other examples, but not sharing all. Further, there are not sharp boundaries between concepts, so there is no point at which 'like' suddenly becomes 'love', as one new criterion kicks in.

Nevertheless, I think your set of criteria do seem to capture 'love' reasonably well.

Tim Sprod

Rob, yes you are missing something: the point! Let me stage an answer (with apologies to T.S Eliot, but your predicament calls him to mind. The work of love?) If you could look at love as science does, with eyes that fix it in a formulated phrase, and when it is formulated and sprawling on a pin, when it is pinned and wriggling on the wall, how should you begin, how should you presume? Wouldn't you look at love and say, "That is not it at all, that is not what I meant at all.'? I think you would. For looked at like that, love will not sing to thee. Shouldn't you, instead of this charade, have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas? Love is untotalisable by definition because it is infinite. It is transcendent, that is the point.

Foundational to Western culture are the lines (lines which are more than mere words) that Paul writes about love in his first letter to the Church at Corinth (1 Cor. 13). All of these things are existential and as soon as they are abstracted they become what they are not. As well as the fact that, lived, they are never what they are. You need a feel for the transcendent in the old fashioned sense (not of Kant) of beyond being, beyond that which is and otherwise than it. Love is an ethic.

You presume — talk about missing the point — that the word 'love' refers to a 'thing' called love. This Augustinian theory of language is not where language theory is at these days, after the deluge. When I (used to) talk about love, as was my duty, with my Year 12 girls at school, (trying not to fall into it. Love lays traps!). I would tell them that the notion is not reducible to a thing: philos, agape, eros, storge. These four ideas mean 'love'. No wonder we are confused by the English, when the English word is loaded with four Greek philosophical concepts and inextricable from them, and meaningless beside them. And that is before we have even dipped into the literary tradition that grounds love in meaning and signification in Western cultural terms, starting with Plato and Aristotle — through Paul, Augustine, the Latin lyric — a defining moment for 'love' — Dante, Goethe and so on and so forth.

I didn't see the last answer you got — I can imagine from what you reply — but good on you for not resting satisfied with answers, as if in expectation that thereby you will find it. This is a pointer rather than an 'answer'. Another perspective on love of course is to be in it. What that means is an interesting question in itself. But consider the difference between a phenomenon and a thing and that will help you on your way I think.

Matthew Del Nevo


Giles asked:

'When you are dead, you are dead!' This is a question on the spirit. I would be very grateful for a response.

"When you are dead, you are dead" I would agree with that. But as ever, its a bit more complicated.

Just what does it mean to die? is it the separation of the spirit from the body? if so you are not dead. you are the spirit. It is the body that is dead. you have just swapped an earthly existence for a spiritual one.

Perhaps then, one day your spirit gets ill and fails to work properly so God decides to wipe out your spirit and move you into another one. are you dead then? No, it seems that swapping spirits is logically equivalent to swapping one body for another or swapping a body for a spirit. So this is not a question about the spirit.

What then is the question about?

"When your dead your dead". Its a question about my subjectivity. What is it for there no longer to be Me in the world? How is it possible for me to die. (I will own up now, This question boarders on the impenetrable for me, it is hard even to make sense of this issue) There is one immediate problem that gets me here, namely that even though there will be a time when I will no longer be around, when exactly will this time be?

Lying on my deathbed, I can await death coming, even up to the very second of my death , but when it gets here, when I die I am gone, I never experience death, it is not something that belongs to me, death is not mine. So when does My death happen how does it come about that I don't experience my death? Does it make sense to say that I die Before I die? AAHH.

Epicurus writes "Where death is not I am, where death is I am not", I agree with this too but Epicurus wanted to show us that we should not fear death. For me it has the opposite effect; it shows me how utterly mysterious death is, death is always over the horizon of my understanding.Always beyond understanding.

Just what is going on with My death? What does it mean for me to die? Heidegger though it meant the end of the world my death is the end of all my projects all my possibilities all my relations with others. Levinas on the other hand thought that death was the opening up of the world, an enigma that provides a way out of solipsism, a way to be connected with other people. My death shows me that there is something other than my subjectivity.

That's all okay because we need to know that stuff, but death itself, is something that cannot be understood, even if it points us to the understanding other things.

What does it mean for me to die? I don't know but I know a lot rests on the answer.

Brian Tee


Suzanne asked:

In the Crito, it looks as though Plato and King disagree (Martin Luther King From Birmingham Jail). I would like to know if there is a theory that explains the root cause of their disagreement. What basic principle do they differ upon? Any insight you can offer will be of great help.

I certainly agree that Plato (or Socrates, for Plato is supposed to be reporting Socrates' view) and Martin Luther King disagree. Socrates is offered the chance to escape from the death sentence — a sentence that he and his friends all think has been legally passed but is morally wrong. Socrates argues that respect for the law and for the good of society requires that we obey the law even if it is morally wrong. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, argues that it is our moral duty to disobey the law if it is morally wrong.

For Socrates/Plato, the law is binding on all those in a society. We can argue against it, but we cannot (morally) break it. The clergymen to whom Martin Luther King is writing from Birmingham Jail have also argued in an identical manner. King however says that there is a higher law — for him, the moral law of god — which we must obey first.

This is certainly an important philosophical point, for on it rests the legitimacy of civil disobedience and resistance. If, like Plato and King, you believe that there is an objective morality (the Form of the Good, and God's Law respectively), then the possibility of disobeying the law for a higher good is obviously open to you. If you don't believe in an objective morality, this becomes much harder to argue (although not impossible). It is, in fact, related to the questions about the status of human rights that Vangelis and Cleo ask elsewhere on this page.

Tim Sprod


Carl asked:

What do philosophers call the process of reversing the order of priority of metaphysics and epistemology?

I'm going to write something here out of a kind of perversity. I keep looking at this question and wondering what it means. I'm certainly not an expert on the history of philosophy, but I've never heard of the "priority" of metaphysics over epistemology, and so I don't have the slightest idea of what reversing it could mean... but I'll make something up for you. Here we go: if metaphysics is concerned with the most fundamental questions of existence, then, because of that term "most", we might accord it "priority" over epistemology, which is "merely" concerned with how we know. Usually, we have some sort of metaphysics worked out before we do epistemology, since in the latter we are asking questions like how we know we've arrived at truth or meaning, and in the former we ask how we know there are such things, or why we even bother, anyway. Or who the "we" is that's bothering. Or the whatever of whatever.

Now let's try reversing that... first we determine how we know, then we think about what it is we know, or why bother? Well, that does seem a little strange, doesn't it. On the other hand, we can just say that we're not too interested in metaphysics, and let's just get on with the important questions, like how to do science, or the difference between science and religion. I suppose that would be something like the positivist stance or a kind of pragmatist position. So maybe that's what philosophers call reversing that order: being pragmatic. But Dewey actually did do some metaphysics... as did James, at least in his later stuff (Radical Empiricism)... so I'm not really sure that anyone actually has done this reversal, except maybe the positivists... who did actually do some metaphysics, if only to get it out of the way. And Russell, for example, certainly did metaphysics. So all in all, I'm not sure that anyone, really, has reversed that order. And I do not know what that reversal is called (if it actually is called something).

Steven Ravett Brown


Vangelis asked:

Are Human Rights universal? What is the philosophical approach to this question?

and Cleo asked:

Are human rights the rights that human beings have because they are human beings?

If human rights are universal, then there has to be a universal justification for them — they have to be equally valid no matter which society you come from. What is this justification? John Locke, who is largely responsible for human rights talk, thought that they came from god. The writers of the American Constitution agreed with him. [It has been argued that we still accept universal human rights even though we have done away with the theological underpinning for them and have not found a replacement for it.]

Immanuel Kant thought that they come from Reason, via the Categorical Imperative. It is common nowadays to claim (as Cleo indicates) that they come from the nature of a human being, though the details of how they so arise differ between many authors. Is it merely the concept of a human (or more commonly, a person) — and if so, which features of that concept? Is it our rationality (cf Kant), our special status granted by god (cf Locke), our immersion in community, our ability to empathise, our ability to have moral views, or some thing else?

If you believe that morality is relative — that what's right for me (or for us) may not be right for you, then it is difficult to see how you can support universal human rights at all. One account of rights is that they are granted by governments or rulers. If this is the case, then they differ from one society to another, and cannot then be universal.

Tim Sprod


Vasu asked:

How are 'post-modernism' and 'post-structuralism' different from 'modernism' and 'structuralism'?

I'm not sure how clear-cut this can be made to be, but basically, structuralism was started by Saussure who developed a theory of codes in language, taking it as an independent system. The idea of an independent rule-governed system was extended to other areas of study such as sociology and anthropology. Explanation and analysis of phenomena in terms of an independent system identified by its structure constituted an alternative to previous historical explanations. It also contrasts with phenomenology and existentialism which also have a stronghold in continental philosophy, since structuralist analysis identifies rules and structures which are taken to be facts, or objective, in contrast to the subjectivity which is essential to existentialism and phenomenology.

Post-structuralism is a return to subjectivity and a movement away from determinate explanations in terms of structures. Likewise, post-modernists reject logic and truth in favour of multiple interpretations.

Modernism refers to modern philosophy especially anglo-saxon philosophy, whereas structuralism was more sociological and the primary structuralists were continental. However, like structuralism, modernism was ruled by the application of reason and logic and sought foundations for knowledge, explanations of truth and presupposed the determinacy of meaning. Post-modernism, on the other hand, is a rejection, systems of knowledge, rules, principles, and structures, so it is also post-structuralist.

Rachel Browne


Laura asked:

What would an existentialist believe about cloning? Obviously, there would be no religious objection. But how would an existentialist view the concept morally, socially, or metaphysically?

I'm not sure it is so obvious that an existentialist would not have religious objections. Although Sartre was an atheistic existentialist, not all existentialists are atheist. See, for example, Kierkegaard. As for the other questions, I am not sure — it depends on their version of existentialism, I suspect, or their other intellectual commitments. I cannot see any obvious way existentialism in general would come down in this case.

Tim Sprod


Nathan asked:

Are we all hedonistic at heart? I tend to agree with Pascal but would like some input regarding the following questions:

According to Pascal, all humans seek happiness, this is without exception. He wrote that even the one who commits suicide does so for the end result of finding happiness. This would then include those who have no belief or concept of an afterlife. Having fallen into this category, even though they have no expectation, the assumption of their actions is that whatever lies ahead must be better than the present situation. Hence, the desire to find any way out of the situation. If this were not the case, the question that it seems should be asked is, "Why would a person desire to change their present situation if it were not to better it in some manner?" Do we ever act consciously in a manner that will assure us to be ultimately in a state or place that is worse than the one in which we presently exist? If so, please give an example?

This is almost an irrefutable position, because it is so vague. Pascal is not the only one to argue this way; there is a whole branch of ethics based on this premise. How do you refute it? I don't know if it can be done purely rationally. That is, one can always think up some reason, however indirect, that any action is based, ultimately, on seeking happiness, to the point, in my opinion, of complete absurdity. So how do we get out of this rational dilemma, where we are able always to find or create some connection to any action and happiness (and remember, that term, "happiness", is also vague, so we can stretch it to just about whatever we want).

In order to investigate this claim, we can go to the animal kingdom, where we find creatures that a) cannot rationalize, b) may not even be able to feel happiness or anything else, for that matter, and ask whether we find behavior which in a human being would indicate altruism, in the sense of acting for another creature (to the point of sacrificing life) without expectation of personal return. Do we find this in nature? Well, the answer seems to be that we do. In social insects, individuals will sacrifice themselves for others with greater likelihood depending on their degree of genetic relationship to those others. The more closely related genetically, the more likely an insect like a bee or ant will sacrifice itself for another bee or ant (and thus for the colony as a whole). Now here we have an example of a creature which, as far as I know, cannot even feel emotion, much less pleasure, much less happiness (a step beyond pleasure), much less reflect on those feelings, if it had them. Yet it behaves "altruistically". Why? Surely it is clear that if a worker ant sacrifices itself for the good of the colony, first, the colony will be more likely to survive, and second, that ant's genes will continue to be propagated (since the queen is being protected). This is, roughly, Dawkins' position, and the origin (in part) of the catch-phrase, "the selfish gene". But genes do not feel pleasure (or anything else), they're just strings of DNA.

So if we can find this kind of example, although we can still argue that in humans, altruism is hedonistic, I think that argument is weakened to the point that it is now the burden of the hedonists to show decisively that their viewpoint is the most likely one. We do not know that we act out of "instinct" in some cases of altruistic behavior, but we do know that humans have instincts, and that in the animal realm (which we are a part of) there are animals that do so act (and there are other examples I could give, in higher animals). In addition, we can always find examples of mothers sacrificing themselves, etc., and now we have a concrete reason for giving an alternate answer to the hedonistic one for such actions.

Steven Ravett Brown


Cord asked:

I have to write an essay which counts a considerable amount of my final mark on "A belief is what you think is the truth".

Unfortunately I have not only problems with the English language but also with this question as I have no idea how to tackle it. I would be extremely grateful if you could help me with giving me some basics/ initial ideas.

I'm guessing that you are a Theory of Knowledge student in the International Baccalaureate (I teach ToK). I also have problems with this question, I have to admit. It isn't obvious to me how to go about writing a good answer, though I guess I could have a stab if I had to. If you are an IB student, then since you have a list of ten topics to choose from, why not choose one that you like better?

Tim Sprod

I will have a go at answering the question.

A belief is something which has content. What that means is that to have a belief is always to believe that so-and-so. The content of a belief is given by a sentence which can be true or false, depending on how things are. For example, the content of John's belief that it is dark now, is given by the sentence, 'It is dark now.' His belief can be true or it can be false, depending on whether or not it is, in fact, dark.

I am using the words 'true' and 'false' in the ordinary sense. Someone says something you agree with, and you say, 'That's true.' Someone says something you disagree with, and you say, 'that's false'. In other words, truth with a small 't'.

Another point about usage: In ordinary conversation, 'think' is used in two ways. You can say 'I think...' where you have definitely made up your mind. But you can also use 'I think...' to imply that you are not sure. 'Is it true what I heard on the radio, that the match is cancelled?' 'I think it is true.' To convey the sense of our question, it would be better to say, 'A belief is what you hold to be the truth,' or, 'A belief is what you hold to be true.' I will take the question in this sense.

Not all attitudes with content are what you hold to be true. Hope is another example of an attitude with content. Mary's hope that it is sunny in Perth has the content, 'It is sunny in Perth'. The sentence, 'It is sunny in Perth' can be true or false, just like the sentence, 'It is dark now.' But the sentence, 'It is sunny in Perth,' is not something that Mary holds to be true. As Mary looks out on the Sheffield night sky, she doesn't have any idea whether it is sunny in Perth or not. She hopes that it is, for her friends who are on holiday there.

A third group of attitudes with content are used when you know that the sentence which gives the content is definitely false. For example, if Mary wishes that she was in Perth, this implies that she is not in Perth. Wishing is not always like this. You can wish for things in the future, and then it is like hoping. In wishing that I will win the National Lottery, I don't know whether the sentence, 'I will win the National Lottery' will turn out to be true, or not.

So what? What follows from that?

There are several things that follow from this, but one issue stands out. One often hears people say, 'Everyone is entitled to their own belief. In expressing my belief, I don't mean to imply that your belief is false. My belief is true for me, yours is true for you. Let's agree to differ.' — Of course, people who are unable to resolve their argument have to agree to differ. No-one is disputing that. But one thing the logic of belief forces you to say is that if John believes that XYZ, and Mary believes that not XYZ, then Mary must believe that John's belief is false, otherwise she is contradicting herself, and John must believe that Mary's belief is false, otherwise he is contradicting himself. There can be differing beliefs, but what they aim at is one and the same truth.

Geoffrey Klempner


Stephen asked:

What is your response to the ultimate 'Why?' question?

(I mean the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? the fundamental question of metaphysics — M. Heidegger.)

My personal answer is that it is just a brute fact. I don't think there is an answer to that question. There might just as well be nothing (though in a strange way, there actually being nothing is an idea which seems impossible to comprehend).

Tim Sprod

The word "something" needs clarification. We ordinarily use "something" to refer to an unidentified particular in a general way (e.g., "I just heard something; what was that?"). The question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," however, seems to ask in a general way about the totality of things.

The grammatical form of a question can be misleading. "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is grammatically similar to "Why is there salt in the soup rather than pepper?" or "Why are there swallows in Capistrano rather than bald eagles?," but they are logically quite different from our question. The other questions can be answered by investigating other parts of the world (culinary practice and the nature of certain birds, respectively). The explanation in each case lies outside the thing to be explained. But the question, "Why is there everything ['something'] rather than nothing at all?," logically does not permit any such investigation. There is nothing "outside" everything that could yield an explanation.

In The Mystery of Existence (which I highly recommend) Milton K. Munitz argues that, unlike "Why is there something rather than nothing?," the question "Why does the observed world exist?" is well-framed, but unanswerable. (A genuine mystery, according to Munitz, is a question that can be neither dismissed nor answered.) He rejects the theistic answer, i.e., the observed world exists because God created it, but that rejection does not affect what we have said above. The mystery of existence is neutral with respect to theism. Whether or not God exists, there is nothing outside the totality of existing things (including or excluding a God) and therefore nothing that can yield an explanation for its existence. That is, whether the totality equals "just the observed world" or "God plus the observed world," there is — there can be — nothing outside that totality which explains it. Even when, according to theism, God was all that existed, there was no explanation for that fact, for there were no other facts than his existence to which possible explanatory appeal could be made.

As Paul Edwards put it in his (also highly recommended) essay, "Why?," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ". . . the word 'why' loses its meaning when it becomes logically impossible to go beyond what one is trying to explain. This is a matter on which there need not be any disagreement between atheists and theists or between rationalists and empiricists."

Tony Flood

Heidegger's particular way (denkweg) of asking becomes hymnal (dankweg) as it returns to the primal wonder of the beings for whom Being is an issue, to Being itself: that there is. We see in his later lectures his thinking become thanking or thanksgiving. He has come under the sway of language itself, he would say, as revealed in acts of language ie. the poems of Holderlin, Trakl and Rilke (we shouldn't underestimate the influence of the latter because Heidegger is less than complimentary to him). The 'philosophy' of Rilke is crucial to Heidegger I would argue, his Holderlin is Rilkean. But the result, in any case, is that Heidegger has become wondrous before Being. Wonderful for him, but perhaps for us, somewhat Germanly romantic.

As for my response, I must hide it behind the wonder of Levinas — but his response is worth hearing. He says in his winter 1975 lecture course at the Sorbonne that Heidegger follows the Aristotelian interpretation of wonder as the recognition of ignorance by itself "thereby making knowledge (savoir) proceed from the love of knowledge (savoir). In so doing he denies to knowledge any origin in the practical difficulties of life, in the difficulties of people who do not manage to communicate with one another. The origin of knowledge is not in need but in knowledge itself." Hence Heidegger's originary question: why are there things that are rather than nothing? But for Levinas this question is predetermined by the Aristotelian interpretation of wonder, which Heidegger's originary question makes unquestionable.

Matthew Del Nevo


Nathan asked:

In this present age, is there one overall philosophic project being undertaken that can be traced through contemporary philosophy? And if so, what is it?

In many ways, I think the answer to your question is 'No, there isn't'. Philosophy at the moment seems to be pursuing a huge diversity of areas.

And yet, perhaps I'll stick my neck out and say that, given the presumed death of metaphysics (or at least, the grave difficulties in which even the possibility of metaphysics finds itself), then a key question running through much contemporary philosophy concerns the possibilities of knowledge. To me, epistemology has become the central problem of philosophy, replacing metaphysics. You can see worries about this question shot through present day ethics, logic, aesthetics and so on. I stand prepared to be shot down in flames on this one by my fellow answerers, however.

Tim Sprod


Martin asked:

My name is Martin Benderson. I am a student from Sweden. At present I am working on a project concerning novelty seekers. At the moment I am trying to gather different opinions from various groups of people about the subject. I would be very pleased if you could help me to answer some questions.

  1. Why do you think we have a need to escape from reality?
  2. Do you think the civilised society increases our need to escape from reality?
  3. Do you think people find hope by escaping from reality?

1. I don't think we need or want to escape from reality entirely unless we are trying to lose consciousness. We seek to escape particular aspects of reality that we don't like or can't cope with. Any sort of heavy involvement with something, such as being a workaholic, is an escape. But then simply reading a novel or a magazine can be an escape from the moment or surrounding state of affairs. In the case of novelty seekers, are you sure they seeking to escape something? Avoiding boredom, or seeking thrills seems more positive than anything implied by the notion of escape. Avoidance of boredom is different from trying to escape aspects of reality. Boredom is a psychological state and while real it is not an aspect of external reality.

2. Probably. We live in very rational and easy times which may give rise to feelings of boredom. But, as I said, we don't always seek to escape from external reality. So do we seek to escape "civilisation"? In some ways, sometimes. But novelty seekers don't essentially seek to escape civilisation. Presumably some novelties are high-tech and/or social.

3. Hope, I suppose, is optimism about the future. So, no. It would be better to try to change aspects of life you don't like than try to escape from them if hope is to be well-founded: This applies to the person who escapes through drink, drugs or over-work. If the novelty seeker wants to avoid boredom he will constantly need to find new novelties which might be frustrating rather than giving rise to hope.

— Thinking of novelty-seekers brings to mind travellers who are really trying to get away from themselves, but won't be able to do so by moving on. Moving on provides short-term hope. So with novelty seekers, possibly. They are not trying to escape external reality or civilisation, but something within themselves like boredom, but activity isn't the answer. I think the drive is internal rather than to do with the way the world is and so internal change would need to be made.

Rachel Browne


Jody asked:

I am doing my mid-term paper on the origins of philosophy. Could you please help me get started.

Two possibilities present themselves to me.

1. Get a good dictionary of philosophy and look up the pre-Socratics. That should give you something to get started with.

2. Start from Aristotle's remark (Plato said something very similar) that 'philosophy begins in wonder'. Then look at what it is that people wonder about. Why do people wonder? What are the different sorts of questions that can be wondered about? How can we deal with the situation when there seem to be several plausible answers to our wonders, but we cannot see any clear way to be certain about which is right? That, for me, is the source of philosophy.

Tim Sprod


Jana asked:

What were the various functions of the State in Marxist-Leninism?

I think it would be very wise from the outset to make a distinction between the "Marxist-Leninism" of the so-called former communist countries and the political theory and revolutionary strategy advocated by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. What I will do here is focus on the ideas of Lenin and explain how he perceived the state and how his understanding of the function of the state guided the political practice of the Bolshevik Party. With an understanding of these ideas, you can then offer your own interpretation/explanation for the failings of the Communist system in Russia and elsewhere.

The way I understand Lenin is as a thinker and political activist who attempted to implement the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx in the Russia of the 20th Century. It was Marx who theorised about the antagonistic relationship between that class which owns the means of production (factories, land, machines etc.) — the ruling class or bourgeoisie, and that class which owns nothing other than its ability to sell its labour power (its ability to work) to the ruling class — namely the working class or proletariat. It was Marx who believed that the conflict between these classes was an integral feature of all capitalist societies. It was Marx who believed that this conflict would intensify as capitalism developed, and it was Marx who hoped that a victory by the working class in this conflict with the ruling class would lead to a radically different society i.e. a communist one.

It is within this context of the antagonistic relation between these two classes, a relationship where the ruling class exploits the working class and imprisons its members in a perpetual cycle of poverty, that Lenin theorised about the state. The state, first and foremost, comprises all those institutions that perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class over the working class. There are two ways in which the state can maintain this dominance. Firstly, it can, if it must, dominate the working class through physical force- this is what the army and police force do. Secondly, it can maintain this dominance through ideological means — through the education system, through the judicial system and, to an extent, through the Church. The important point that Lenin grasped was that the state's primary purpose was (and still is according to modern Marxists) to ensure that the ruling class could continue its exploitation of the working class. The state is an instrument of class rule. It is not, as some theorists claim, a "neutral" arbiter between the two classes. It's apparent neutrality, its presentation of itself as a body outside of class relations is an ideological smokescreen that conceals its true nature.

Because the purpose of the state is to maintain the dominance of one class over another, it would be redundant in any future classless (communist) society. The state exists primarily as instrument of class domination. Take away the class domination and there is simply no need for a state.

Back to political strategy. Marx had envisaged a situation when the oppressed working class, finally conscious of itself as a class, rose up against the ruling class, overthrowing both them and their capitalist economic system and established a communist society. Lenin realised that before a truly communist society was established the working class would have to become the physically dominant class. They would have to physically seize the means of production from the ruling class and be prepared to defend their gains from attack. Lenin, quite correctly, predicted that the ruling class would not give up their wealth/factories etc. without a fight. Whilst the risk of a counter attack from the ruling class exists, the working class will effectively have to function as a dominant class. It will, in the interests of the survival of the revolution, have to ruthlessly defend its gains from those members of the ruling class and their representatives who refuse to accept their loss. The working class will have to use every means at its disposal to defend the revolution.

Now, because the state is an extremely effective tool of class domination (that's its primary function after all), it would make sense for the working class to take over the state and use its apparatus to dominate the old ruling class. So long as the threat from the ruling class exists, there will be a need for the working class to use the repressive state apparatus to defend the gains of the revolution. The state, once the instrument for subduing the working class becomes, in the hands of the working class, the tool by which the old ruling class are prevented from organising a counter-revolution and are finally defeated.

It is in this context that the working class political party (the Bolsheviks for Lenin) takes control of the state. Not, as some anarchist and right wing commentators believe, because they are power crazed or dictatorial, but to defend the hard won gains of the revolution from those who wish to destroy it. Theoretically, once the threat of counter-revolution has subsided there should be no need for the state to exist.

Of course, this is not what happened in practice. The Bolshevik Party retained control of the state and used it for its own ultimately repressive ends. Various thinkers and historians have offered their explanations of this failure. A very common sense idea is that power simply corrupts and the Bolsheviks, once in control of state power, simply didn't want to let it go. This argument has the appeal of seeming intuitively correct but there are other explanations. Perhaps the danger of counter-revolution was always present and the repressive state was necessary to protect the revolution. These are two very simple explanations and there are many others. Perhaps the best person to read on the failure of this system is Leon Trotsky and there is, of course, always Lenin's classic, State and Revolution, available online at:


Simon Drew


Zoe asked:

My question is how is it possible to be objective about the world we live in, in relation to philosophical and scientific approaches to human understanding? This is one which has puzzled me — I would be interested in your response.

How to understand 'objective' — that is the really difficult part. If you mean 'the view from nowhere' (as Thomas Nagel puts it), I don't think it is possible. Nietzsche argued (in as much as Nietzsche actually argues for any of his views) that we always see things from a perspective. There seems to be truth in this — we cannot escape our situatedness.

However, this does not imply that we must always have a view that is radically different from anybody else's. Because we come to be a person in a community, and because we continue to communicate as we learn, we can (indeed, must) build intersubjectivity — more objective than individual subjectivity, but not free of connection and positioning in the world.

Tim Sprod


Richard asked:

My question is not a new one by any means. I just turned 56 and I am very aware of the fact even with good health and a brain and bladder that continue to function the most I can hope for is another good fifteen to twenty years of life. Can you recommend readings or books that would be a general guide on how to best use these last few years in the most beneficial way? I realize that the final answer to this question is one that no one can answer for me. I would find it very helpful to have some guidance on what or who to read on this subject.

I think the answer depends quite a bit on your present beliefs and commitments. You might find anything I recommend so at odds with these that you would not get anything out of it. Having said that, I would recommend reading Peter Singer. It's not that I agree with him — I think that his philosophical basis in utilitarianism is quite flawed, and I don't even go along with all his conclusions. Nevertheless, he has some extremely interesting things to say, and he is sure to get you thinking.

Tim Sprod

It's good to have intimations of our mortality, don't you think? I, as a 56-year old, see that as just another aspect of learning about ourselves. I'm not going to answer your question as you seem to wish. First, these days, you can look forward, with reasonable genetics, to more than 15-20 years... more like 30. Now, the issue is not your new and clear realization that you're going to die; that was always true, wasn't it, and whether you have 20 or 50 years to live, it's all too short, right? If you think about what you did in your first 30 years, where life has no clear horizon, you find them filled mostly with trivia and learning, don't you. So now you have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 applying what you have learned, rather than wasting time learning the basics: how to find sex, have a relationship, play checkers, put on your shoes, etc., etc., etc. (notice I'm not saying that having sex, relationships, checkers, etc., are wastes... just that learning them takes lots of time and that time is now available for something else). I think about the total amount of time I spent playing table tennis... (sigh). But it was fun.

Ok, so you want reading? Well, one way to go would be to read homilies about ageing... "grow old along with me, the best is yet to be..." right. There's lots of those, and I think they're garbage. New-age bookstores are filled with that stuff, as I'm sure you know. My recommendation, for what it's worth, is to look at examples. Read, if you must, biographies of people you admire, and find out how they aged... or how they should have aged. Look around you at older people living the kind of life you want to live at their age, see what they're doing, how, why. Look at older people who aren't doing that. Then be the example. Configure your life, now that you've learned the basics, into what you think your life should be. Just do it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Mark asked:

Is it still possible to believe in God after the Holocaust?

Certainly it is — plenty of people do, so as a matter of fact, it must be possible. But your question is a particular example of a broader philosophical question: is it reasonable or rational to still believe in god in the face of evil in the world? In other word, does the Argument from Evil prove that god doesn't exist. In my view, it does work to rule out a god with certain characteristics — omniscience (knowing everything), omnipotence (all-powerful) and all good. See my answer to Robb Answers 13.

Tim Sprod

Yes, of course it is. Millions of people do.

Your question is an expression of the so-called 'Problem of Evil' — basically, the thought that if there is a good God up there controlling things, why does he allow good people to get hurt? You can read more about the way different religions have addressed this problem at:

www.comparative religion.com/evil.html

Katharine Hunt

It is possible to believe that the Earth is flat. The evidence for this is that there are persons (one of them was a student of mine, but that's another story) who do believe that the Earth is flat. However, when someone asks the question, 'Is it possible to believe the Earth is flat?' what they mean is, In view of the evidence, is it possible to rationally defend the view that the Earth is flat. The answer to this is, No, it is not possible to rationally defend the view that the Earth is flat. The same holds for the question about the existence of God. What the questioner is asking is, Is the evidence of the Holocaust sufficient to show that it is not possible to rationally defend belief in the existence of God?

Geoffrey Klempner

The real question is, can one speak of an absolute commandment after Auschwitz? Can we speak of morality after the failure of morality?

Emmanuel Levinas The Paradox of Morality

The question of the Holocaust has been troubling me recently. By way of trying to answer your question let me give an account of the thinking of one of the most important philosophers to think what the Holocaust means: Emmanuel Levinas.

Levinas begins with a consideration of another philosopher: Heidegger. Heidegger was concerned throughout his philosophy with the question of the meaning of Being, Being as it is, with what it means TO BE. Levinas, however saw this priority to Ontology as unethical and leading to violence. In fact Levinas saw Heidegger as the culmination of a philosophy (a philosophy that defines itself with the quest TO KNOW, to seek the Truth) that was directly responsible for the conditions that gave rise to the "trauma" of the Holocaust. A philosophy concerned with Being and the comprehension of being would see ethics as one more way to comprehend that being. People would be just one thing among the things in the world. The comprehension of being would lead to the loss of subjectivity. It would be the beginnings of the dehumanisation of people. Even if we built ethical considerations into our philosophy as a necessary feature. e.g. a respect for being in all its forms, this respect is at the service of and suppliant to the comprehension of being and so Levinas sees it as insufficiently respectful and always containing the potential for violence. Philosophy then in Levinas's view was not only helpless to prevent the Holocaust but may have even underwritten and partially caused it.

This is the century that in thirty years has known two world wars, the totalitarianisms of the right and left, Hitlerism and Stalinism, Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the genocides of Auschwitz and Cambodia. This is a century that is drawing to a close in the obsessive fear of the return of everything these barbaric names stood for: suffering and evil inflicted deliberately, but in a manner no reason has set limits to, in the exasperation of a reason became political and detached from all ethics.

Among these events the Holocaust of the Jewish people under the reign of Hitler seems to me to be the paradigm of gratuitous human suffering, in which evil appears in its diabolical horror. This is perhaps not a subjective feeling. The disproportion between suffering and every theodicy was shown at Auschwitz with a glaring obvious clarity ... Did not Nietzsche's saying about the death of God take on in the extermination camps, the meaning of a quasi-empirical fact?

Levinas "Useless Suffering" in Entre Nous thinking-of-the-other

If Levinas is right we need urgently to ask: How is it possible to think through and after the Holocaust? What philosophy can be done after Shoah?

Can we even then think of the Holocaust? What can we say? What was the Shoah? Was it just another event in history, or was it unique "something we must not forget". To even think about it in these terms would seem to be a return to the philosophical thinking that Levinas thinks caused the issue, it is to treat the Holocaust as part of Being: something to be understood, something that has meaning, yet in the quote above Levinas tells us it was completely devoid of meaning, of significance. It was useless, so we cannot 'think' think about it. And yet not to think about it seems somehow to avoid our responsibility to the other, when we think about the Holocaust we need to think differently: thinking-of-the-Other; thinking ethically. Levinas as we have seen before says we need to give priority to ethics rather than ontology or epistemology, to recognise the Good as more important than and sovereign over the search for knowledge.

This also applies to God. God as conceived by the philosophical/ theistic tradition is understood as the supreme Being, who does stuff (creates and takes part in the history of the world) and as possessing certain qualities (all powerful, loving). And yet at the Holocaust God let the Nazis do what they wanted. Attempts to reconcile these two facts are called 'theodicies' our attempts to make meaningful and bearable human suffering. Explanations that have been given include ones in terms of Gods will, or divine punishment or a test of faith. (You can get background to the problem of evil by doing a search of the PhiloSophos Knowledge Base.)

However, the sheer excessiveness of evil during the period of the Holocaust seems to stop us in our tracks. The Holocaust is the end of theodicy. The suffering here exceeds any and every attempts to make it meaningful. Levinas suggests therefore that we need to think about God outside of the realm of ontology and faith. We need a different kind of thinking about God after the Holocaust One that does not privilege the traditional philosophical concepts. Levinas argues this is an ethical thinking, where I exist for the other. Then God is conceived in ethical terms through the face of the person suffering (for Levinas ethics occurs strictly between two people talking to each other). After the Holocaust we can no longer talk of God as acting in the world but must rather place God beyond Being, what's left in the world is the 'Trace of God', God as never having been present in the world. This trace is tied up with Levinas's theory of time, which is another question.

The point is that the Holocaust is the greatest challenge to philosophy. If we agree with Levinas it forces us to rethink entirely what it means to exist, what belief in God amounts to.

I realise this is no answer to your question. At most it is the first formulation the real problem you have hit on. At the worse, it is just my ramblings. Either way, I hope what I have pointed towards is useful.

Brian Tee


Demosthenes asked:

I can't fathom the claims that Christianity and the Ancient Greek Thinking somehow converged? or that somehow Jewish beliefs of obedience were bridged through Christian love to freedom?

From it's very early development Christianity quickly moved from being a local religious sect (based in 1st Century Palestine) to moving into the world surrounding. This world was not just the physical world, but also the world of ideas and concepts. Part of this world was the world of Hellenic philosophy.

When Christianity encountered Hellenic philosophy it quickly found that it had a 'ready made' philosophical language with which to frame its religious ideas, or faith belief. Notions of 'the One' from the Neoplatonists, the 'Logos' were easily merged with the profound religious ideas for the Christian God, Jesus, the Trinity. Thus in the opening of the Gospel of John, Jesus becomes the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos of Stoic/Platonic philosophy. The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, become the Three Hypostases, and one Ousia.

The language and idea of Ancient Greek Thought, particularly as it was used by the Hellenic educated early thinkers of the Church e.g. Origen of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo etc., quickly became the language of Christian theology.

There was a merging of ideas and experiences, and an existent form of language was used to give shape and 'flesh' to a primitive religion experience i.e. Jesus becomes more than a 1st century itinerant preacher who did good things, to the enfleshment of the the Second Hypostasis of the Trinity and is himself understood by the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century to be TWO PHUSIS and ONE PROPOSPON.

The interaction between the language of philosophy and the world/experience of faith is something that has been been constant throughout Christianity. There was certainly a merging and inter/intra action between Hellenic philosophy and Christianity. This heavily influenced the ideas and concepts of both these experiences and changed them dramatically. In the same way at the practical level, Christianity's engagement with Roman structuralism, and law dramatically reshaped it into something more than a local religious sect. The work of the Medieval Christian Scholastics is testament to the impact of Ancient Greek Philosophy on Christian thought. The arrival of Aristotle through the work of the Islamic philosophers, especially, Averroes and Avicenna, again gave Christianity a new, vibrant language fro giving expressing to what essentially cannot be articulated -the experience of faith.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Emma asked:

I have a question that I am having difficulty with. It is: What role does truth play in Popper's philosophy?

If you could give me some guidelines and outline some of the key concepts that would be great!

Popper was concerned with scientific truth — more specifically, the truth of scientific theories. His main claim is that we can never prove the truth of a theory — only disprove it. Put simply, this is because we would have to look at an infinite number of cases to see they all happen as the scientific theory predicts, while a single failure to happen as predicted falsifies the theory. This account of science as falsifiability is very influential. Although it has some problems and is not widely accepted now, I think it would be fair to say that most modern philosophy of science is based in developments from Popper's ideas.

Tim Sprod

According to Popper, what demarcates scientific claims from non-scientific claims is that scientific claims are falsifiable. This is a point about justification. The scientist makes conjectures, which may be based on little or no evidence. These conjectures can be experimentally tested, that is the only justification the scientist needs for making them. However, Popper is a realist about truth. The scientist can make a conjecture, and in the absence of any decisive experiment they may never know whether their conjecture is in fact true, or in fact false.

Michael Dummett, in his writings on the clash between realism and anti-realism, describes a 'falsifiability conditions' theory of meaning by analogy with a 'verification conditions' theory of meaning (see Truth and Other Enigmas Duckworth 1980). Both theories as Dummett conceives them are anti-realist, in that they deny that the notion of the 'truth out there' plays any role in our understanding of the language in which we make statements about how things are, or might be. This is emphatically not Popper's view.

Geoffrey Klempner


Charlene asked:

I am a Maltese student, and at the College I attend, me and my friends are doing a magazine on cloning. Obviously, one cannot talk about cloning without looking at the ethical point of view of the subject. So, I decided to ask you, dear sir/ madam, about the ethical point of view on cloning. I thank you in anticipation for your information.

Remember Socrates: "know thyself"? And many others, who said the same? Let us say, then, that knowing how to clone is good, if self-knowledge is good. Then we ask, is acting on this knowledge good? But how is that question answered? One cannot answer, generally, the question of when knowledge should be applied.

Is any self-knowledge intrinsically bad or evil? I suppose that if one knew nothing except how to kill, and that particular knowledge could only be applied to that end (and I actually do not know any such — even weapons programs have implications in other realms), then that knowledge would be intrinsically evil. But cloning is not in this category (look at animal husbandry, below).

Well, then, we're left with the typical dilemma of any knowledge that could be applied for good or for evil, aren't we. We then ask how cloning should be applied. Can it be applied for good? It would seem reasonable that as far as animal husbandry goes, for example, cloning the most successful animal of a given type would eliminate much of the genetic roulette of breeding programs. So cloning of animals could have great beneficial effects, and probably not too many deleterious effects (and I'm assuming that we've got the technology down, so that the animals don't start dropping dead, breeding monsters, etc.... those are clearly not necessary implications of cloning). So cloning could be applied for good.

What about cloning of humans? First, is it intrinsically bad? Well, we now have artificial insemination for a variety of reasons, and that is not regarded as bad, so if we take that attitude to be a correct judgment, the "artificial" aspect is not intrinsically bad. Is a clone the "same" person as the original? Obviously not, no more than an identical twin is. To object that the rich could clone themselves is to neglect the fact that the rich can also have multitudes of children (and do) if they wish. Could cloning be used to generate thousands of identical soldiers? Yes, perhaps. Would that be bad? If soldiers are necessary for a country, then it is good to have them. To raise someone, from birth, however, without letting them choose, as anything in particular is almost certainly bad, because of the lack of choice, assuming that it is good to let someone choose their own life. Could cloning be used to generate the twin of a great scientist or artist (philosopher, even) who died too soon? Yes, and that might be good; at least, the world would have another with the same potential.

The emotional issue seems to be that "test tube production" of people is bad. But if we look at that, we find that it is not actually the "test tube" aspect, as we have seen above, but the "production" aspect that is abhorrent. But what's the difference between that and having thousands of women, even as volunteers, producing babies for any set purpose? The problem is the lack of choice and dignity, which could result from any type of human breeding program.

Steven Ravett Brown


Natasha asked:

Do animals think? I personally believe that they do, but it is really hard to back it up. What is thinking like? and lastly, What is thinking?

I would recommend starting with the last question. Philosophers such as Wilfred Sellars define thinking in such a way that animals can't. To my mind, they are wrong, because they equate thinking solely with conceptual thinking. Nevertheless, whether and to what extent animals think clearly depends on what thinking actually is.

If you do have a definition of thinking that is broad enough to allow that animals do think, then I would think that it has to be accepted that animals are not capable of thinking in all the ways humans can. They are not (with the possible exception of a few individual higher apes and, possibly, an African Grey Parrot called Alex) capable of the sort of thought that depends on having language. So much human thought depends on language, and/or is colored so strongly by linguistic thought, that it is nigh on impossible for us to have any conception of what animal thought is actually like. See Thomas Nagel's influential article 'What's it like to be a bat?'

Tim Sprod

Dogs certainly think. Well, at least big ones do. If you take thinking as the computational use of linguistically defined concepts, then an animal cannot think because he doesn't possess a language. But we can say that animals have practical reason, an example being the ape who picked up a stick to knock down something out of its reach. An objection may be that the animal didn't consciously think "Ah! This will do the trick", but then humans don't operate like either. The basic folk psychological example of practical reasoning is that we have a desire and a belief, come to form an intention and then act upon it. So if I desire a drink and believe there is something in the fridge, I form an intention to go and get something from the fridge. But we don't consciously think "Ah, I desire a drink and believe there is something in the fridge". It is more plausible to suggest that in the mind's eye we visualise that carton of orange juice. There is no reason why an animal can't do this, and there seems no other explanation for what would cause a dog to rise up and go outside to dig for a bone he buried weeks ago. Of course, abstract thinking is different, but we don't believe that animals have the capacity for abstract thinking. Their thoughts are environmentally and socially related.

It is held that animals don't decide or form intentions, but simply respond to environmental stimulations and act on instinct. On this view, the dog instinctively gets up with a desire for a bone and is environmentally stimulated by a bone buried a foot beneath the earth 100 yards away. To support this stance, it has to be held that the dog can smell the bone. This seems unlikely and, although it could be true, it is not the case. Our gardener once dug up and threw away our dog's bone, but the dog still goes to search the spot from time to time because he remembers, indeed he knows, that he buried a bone in this particular place. Not being an abstract thinker the dog can't entertain states of affairs he hasn't encountered such the possibility of someone taking the bone away.

This is to deny that language is needed for thinking and knowledge, which is a difficult position to defend, partly because concepts are now thought to fall within a conceptual scheme of beliefs, so that to possess the concept of "red" is to possess the concept of "colour", of objects and externality etc, the complexity of which seems to require language because of the involvement of definitional relations. Secondly, a thought is held to be propositional, and it is from the proposition that we make inferences and so the proposition needs the same logical structure as that of sentence and the user of the proposition must be able to make inferences. You probably know all this and that these are reasons why we do not ascribe thought to animals.

Language is held to be rule-governed and it is supposed that the use of concepts is also rule governed so you can't think, or use concepts, without a language. Philosophy of language, heavily influenced by logical considerations, has a strong hold in recent philosophy but if we look at times past, those of the British Empiricists, for instance, a concept was an idea and not tied to language and so it is necessary to return to this way of thinking if we are to claim that animals can think. Language may be necessary for abstract thinking, for the freedom of thought, but not for thought directed at states of affairs which are present or absent states of affairs which can be remembered.

The ideational description of thought doesn't just support the position that animals think, but seems sufficient for the very basic practical reasoning of humans. The Wittgensteinian point that you cannot follow a language alone doesn't apply to ideational concepts because these are not governed by rules but by memory and association. There is room for error and false belief. When my dog sees a person with a stick, he thinks it is someone well known to him, but as he gets nearer to sniff them, he finds he is wrong. This is a first order form of thought. The dog is not aware that he is wrong, but he changes his beliefs in accordance with the facts. Those who support thought as language would question what sort of inferential relations would take place between pictures in the mind. Although I can't answer this, such relations might take place in fact. I came across something written by an autistic woman who claims she has no language and thinks pictorially. Though how she could have written this or communicated what she wanted to say to the person who did write it, again I don't know.

Rachel Browne

Let us begin with one of the earliest views on this issue. Descartes believed that animals are machines and since, for Descartes, machines are not conscious, animals cannot think. Perhaps, we would now regard this to be an extreme viewpoint and generally ignore it. But consider Leibniz and his theory of Monads. He wouldn't say, like Descartes did, that animals are not conscious beings. For Leibniz, everything is spiritual or mental. So, everything must have some sort of consciousness or thought. Yet, he arranges monads into a hierarchical structure with man's soul at the highest level (of course, after God), followed by the lower forms of life and down to stones, wooden things and the like. So, even though Leibniz is willing to grant animals some sort of consciousness, he doesn't allow them the capacity for thought quite in the same sense as humans. Leibniz is not alone in thinking like this. The so-called modern (or rather, post-modern) society holds on to the same kind of belief — the belief that animals do not have thought or do not have thought as developed as that of humans.

But that is the darker side of the picture. There is a brighter side for animal lovers like me (and perhaps you?). Take, for example, the controversial claims of Peter Singer. Even though we may not wish to agree with his assumptions or even with some of his conclusions, I personally like his idea that even animals other than humans (like chimps, dolphins, cats and dogs) might be given the status of a person — a thinking, self-conscious being. Of course, we must first decide what a person is. As you have correctly emphasised, we need to know what thinking is. Do we know what it is? Well, I would hesitate to say yes. The study of thought and consciousness is an inter-disciplinary one. Scientists, philosophers, sociologists and others are putting their heads together to try and understand the greatest mystery of all times — conscious thinking. At the personal level, we all understand what it is to think. But at the theoretical level, it is extremely difficult to characterise this peculiar capacity. And until and unless we know what thinking is like, how can we jump into any conclusions about thinking animals?

However, I wouldn't hesitate to put my gut feeling before you — I believe like you, that animals can and do think. Understanding animals depends on how we connect with them, how caring our attitude is, whether we are willing to pay attention to the tiniest signals they send us through their own peculiar expressions. Being with animals has taught me to appreciate this truth. Other types of proof may be at hand soon. After all, if philosophers are willing to even consider the idea of thinking machines (meaning, specialised computers), how long can they disregard the existence of thinking animals? In the end, it's all a power-game. Humans beings are more powerful, so they twist and turn stories in such a way that they appear in the lead roles. Animals are always left with the side roles. What do you say?

Maushumi Guha


Heather asked:

Can you please explain Copleston's contingency argument and moral argument for the existence of God. I also need to know Russell's views on the subject.

and Danny asked:

I was just wondering, who won the Russell—Copleston debate?

Copleston describes a 'contingent' being as, "a being which has not in itself the complete reason for its existence." e.g. The existence of any human being cannot be explained without reference to their parents, and, of course, food and air. A 'necessary being,' on the other hand, means "a being that must and cannot not — exist." The validity of his argument rests on the truth or falsity of these two premises.

We know then that there are at least some beings in the world which do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence. Copleston goes on to describe the world as "simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason for their existence." He claims that this collection of objects constitutes the world and that it is a fallacy to think of the collection of objects and ' the world' as two separate entities, just as the human race is not something separate from its members. He concludes that as no known object contains within itself the reason for its own existence, the totality of objects must have a reason external to itself. That reason must be an existent being. This being is either itself the reason for its own existence or it is not. If it is not then we go into an infinite regress, i.e. a series of beings each dependent for its existence on a previous being — a series that goes on for ever. In order to avoid this, Copleston claims, we must conceive of a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, "which cannot not — exist."

Copleston made use of Leibnitz's argument from contingent to necessary being, based on the argument for sufficient reason, simply because it seemed to him a brief and clear formulation of what is the fundamental metaphysical argument for God's existence. Take the proposition, "If there is a contingent being then there is a necessary being." He considered that the proposition hypothetically expressed is a necessary proposition. But claimed that the proposition is a necessary proposition only on the supposition that there is a contingent being. If there is a contingent being it follows of necessity that there is a necessary being. The necessary being is God.

Copleston goes on to claim that cause is a kind of sufficient reason: only contingent beings can have cause, God is his own sufficient reason; and he is not cause of himself. By sufficient reason in the full sense, Copleston proposes an explanation adequate for the existence of some particular being. He concludes that an adequate explanation is a total explanation to which nothing further can be added.

He goes on to say, "what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God." "Why shouldn't one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?" "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Seeking the support of scientific investigation, Copleston asserts that experiments are conducted on the assumption of intelligibility and order in nature. The physicist presupposes that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the causes of events. The metaphysician is as justified as the physicist when he seeks reasons and causes of phenomena. It all seems to assume an ordered and intelligible universe.

In the 'moral argument,' Copleston expresses the belief that all goodness reflects God in some way and proceeds from Him, so that, in a sense, the man who loves what is truly good, loves God, even if he does not refer to God. He understands that the question of God's existence could be approached by way of consideration of moral obligation. He makes the assertion that, " The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong." The vast majority seems to have some concept, some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. Copleston held the opinion that "the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law." He understands that if there is a moral order bearing upon the human conscience, it would be unintelligible apart from the existence of God.

The possibility of criticising accepted moral codes in society presupposes that there is an objective standard, "that there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself." Copleston believes that the recognition of this ideal moral order is part of the recognition of contingency. "It implies the existence of a real foundation of God."

He presses the point that moral values are intrinsic, he thought it impossible to pass on true morality from one person to another, e,g. parents to children, as there are no words to convey intrinsic moral feelings. He states that a person has a consciousness of obligation and of moral values. He concludes that "it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man's moral experience and of religious experience."

Russell's views are in direct opposition to Copleston's. He does not accept the connotations associated with the word 'contingent.' He also does not accept the notion of a 'necessary being.' He claims that the word 'necessary' is a useless word, except as applied to analytical propositions. He questions the meaning of 'existence,' He claims that a subject named can never be significantly said to exist, but only a subject described. He considers the word 'universe' is a handy word in some connections, but does not think it stands for anything that has a meaning.

Russell also considers that there is no reason to claim that there is an overall cause for all things. "The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things." He considers that the universe, whatever it is, is just there and that's all; according to him there are no grounds whatsoever for believing the world has a cause.

His consideration of morals is also out of line with that of Copleston. He believes that account must be taken of the probable effects of any actions in considering what is right. There is no way in which he could attribute Divine origin to the matter of moral obligation, in view of the extensive variation of moral understanding throughout the world. Some moral acceptance he deemed as abominable, e.g. the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people, which they believed to be morally sustainable.

John Brandon


Cole asked:

This passing season has brought my lines of thought (which seem to flow towards an end of a ball of yarn which never reveals itself to light) to an almost unbearable predicament. I have confronted, it appears, that stark contradiction at the core of all ideas (the dichotomy, hypocrisy of thought at it's bone) and this encounter has rendered me unable to define, describe, justify anything (whether it be an event, an impression, or a comparison of labels). What do you make of this situation? Is it a path towards a greater understanding, or, is it, on the contrary, a waterwell I have found that I have begun to sink in?

My particular concern is this difficulty I have with the comparison of labels (or, any fixed ideas). The contradiction in any comparison I attempt to make seems to spoil my mind (whichever decision I choose!) Within virtually anything — this question not withstanding — I am stricken with this dichotomy of doubt and indefinability.

This question might be clarified: How might I find the tools to communicate a contrast of any two ideas in the most understandable perspective? I do realize, that this core of misunderstanding that contains me might very well live in my veins until my death ...... but for the purpose of social relations, where can thought be best expressed and sacrificed in speech for an optimal conveyance of meaning to another person? (without having to ramble such as THIS??)

Well, you know, I don't think there's any way out of it, when you come right down to it. You can look at Socrates and Plato on the idea of dialog for a dynamic kind of working out of this sort of dualism. You can look at Hegel's idea of the dynamic of thesis, counterthesis, and synthesis... not a bad verbal description of mental (particularly cognitive, in Hegel's case) feedback effects, but I don't much like the rest of Hegel, myself.

But your dilemma is really more profound than that, and the only people who even begin to address it are existentialists and phenomenologists... inasmuch as they do. The whole convoluted metaphorical morass of postmodernism celebrates your dilemma... just take a look at Derrida, for example. I actually have a sneaking liking for his idea of "difference"... the idea that there are cracks, so to speak, in between meanings, however precise we make them, which we can't help but fall into. Neato... but where does it get you, finally, except to emphasize the realization of the ultimate imprecision of language of any sort? Then what?

I mean... it's true, to an extent. You, and the rest of us, are stuck. That's not to say we can't communicate, mind you... but precision? Forget it. But what do you want, telepathy? We do the best we can with what we've got. We have the same problem externally that we do internally... how do we know the world? Well, we fumble, right? And gradually work towards something. And that's it... the final, the ultimate... is just our fumbling around. But without infinite knowledge, without telepathy, that is it, for anyone or anything. There will always be veils, internally and externally, because the separation that allows thought, modeling of the world and ourselves, also prevents contact, internal as well as external. But if we did not do that modeling, we would be rocks: the unseeing, unfeeling, unthinking part of the noumenon. I'd rather be a somewhat (but not always) unhappy, fumbling, moderately (but not always) dissatisfied consciousness — dasein, if you will — than a rock. But there are those who disagree, and they're hot after samadhi, satori, or whatever. That's pretty much the choice, as I see it. Relax, keep fumbling, and don't think you're alone in that, because you aren't. There's a lot of good art done to work around that sort of thing, and although it never succeeds in breaking the barrier — and that's a good thing, if you think of this in terms of finding out — it does succeed in presenting it in an interesting variety of perspectives.

Steven Ravett Brown


Kris asked:

I don't understand determinism. I know that it is basically that we are all predetermined but I don't understand the rest.

Determinism is the doctrine that we could not have chosen to do other that what we did. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, to understand this, we have to understand what it means to say that 'we could have done otherwise'. In his view (a view often called soft determinism), this phrase must mean 'we would have done otherwise if we had wanted to' — but this also implies that we would have done exactly the same if we had had just the same wants. His book 'Elbow Room' deals with this question, and is quite easy to read (as is most of his stuff).

Determinism has been commented on before on these pages — do a search on the PhiloSophos knowledge base to find more.

Tim Sprod

Determinism makes the ideological point that our actions and thought are determined by some universal basis. This universal basis can be language (Bakhtin talks about linguistic determinism), class ideology (Marx talks about determinism of class-consciousness), will (Nietzsche said that everything is determined by will), writing (Derrida says that everything is writing) and so on.

For example, according to linguistic determinism: if one's native language is English one thinks with the help of language as well as one thinks in this language. Language belongs to one as well as one belongs to language. Everything we say in English is contained in the English language. That is why the writer just expresses the structures which are contained in the language to which he belongs.

Language is the tool of thinking, according to Wittgenstein. But it is not a tool like a hammer. So, one can lose one's hammer and yet hit the nail without a hammer. But one can think nothing without language. Really language is the way of thinking. If one's native language is English, you think as Englishman, you have the logic and world outlook of English culture.

Every language, in my mind, creates its own would outlook, its own culture therefore its own thinking. For example, what colour do you associate with happiness? It might be pink or yellow, perhaps? But for the Chinese, black is the symbol of happiness and laughter. Another example, with what do you associate the flower chrysanthemum? For the Japanese, the chrysanthemum is the symbol of death as well as symbol of Emperor.

So, there is linguistic determinism: we can think nothing without language. Everything we think belongs to our world outlook (this is ideological determinism too) and to native language (this is linguistic determinism). Every word we think, say or write belongs to our native language, therefore our thinking, saying and writing is determined by our language.

The basis of determinism, in my mind, is the human aspiration to understand the underlying nature of the person. Freud says that a subsection of the person is sexual appetite, therefore he creates the determinism of sexuality. The basis of the person (Ego) is his mind is Id, which embraces all sexual wants and instincts. I think that the philosopher creates determinism to understand and to describe the nature of the human person and to build his own system of philosophical ideology.

Dmitry Olshansky


Jordan asked:

How does Sartre justify his view on freedom as the only objective value? (He provides some refutations of specific objective values in Existentialism as a Humanism, but I'm looking for an argument...)

Out of all philosophers I find Sartre to be the hardest to read, which translates into "I find Sartre to be the easiest to misunderstand".

Saying that I don't think Sartre was stupid, so he was unlikely to have made the mistake of saying that there are no objective values except mine. So I don't think we should read him as saying that freedom is the only objective value.

Nor are we to read him as saying that it is only freedom that is itself intrinsically valuable and that's why we place it at the centre of our philosophy.

Rather freedom for Sartre is inescapable and unavoidable, "We are condemned to be free". We just are free ! We can choose to say that freedom is good or bad, something to be valued or not, but this comes later, after the fact that we recognise to be a person is to be free, there is no getting away from it.

Everything we do is a result of our freedom, our choosing . We should therefore understand freedom not as the ultimate value , but as that which makes values possible. It is the condition (rather than the 'best of' values.

Sartre sees these values as being underwritten by a 'fundamental choice' which ultimately is Absurd (Sartre's description not mine, but see my response to Mario, Answers 12 for an explanation of this concept).

Brian Tee


Max asked:

Hey, ok I'm not a college student or even in a philosophy class, the subject intrigues me. Here is my question:

I've been thinking about Schopenhauer's notion of the will and how all of history and all human and natural action can be determined by this will. This seems like a natural will to survive which animals and plants obviously contain. Plants grow through the will and animals eat and reproduce because of it. OK.

But I cannot figure where humans fit into the will. The will to truth and beauty and knowledge are not contained in a will to survival such as plants and animals contain, so this universal will that drives everything is different in humans than anything less, but I don't understand how it could be different for one species of living things and not another. Why is our will different and more specialized than any other will, and is this theory viable?

I'm not going to answer your question in a way you'd like, but it's the best way I can think of to address your concerns. You start by saying that you're not in college or in a philosophy class, and then talk about Schopenhauer. Ok. You're smart, you've done a lot of reading on your own... that's good. Excellent. The pitfall that you get into with that kind of thing, unfortunately, is that it is very difficult to get a good balance of ideas. One tends, in isolation, to stick to one subject or person, and to try to work everything out in those limited terms. The field of philosophy, however, is extremely old and extremely varied. Not only that, but if you think in terms of population increase, you can see that the exponential increase in population has resulted, in the 20th century, in many more intelligent and educated people than lived in Schopenhauer's time or earlier. It's just a simple matter of number. So what I am getting at should be clear, if unpleasant, by now. You are using the term "will" in a very restricted sense, and asking a very general question employing that sense of the term. It is not applicable. You can use "will" in Schopenhauer's sense to think about Schopenhauer's position on will, even to compare his to others' use of the term. But you cannot use the term as you do in your question. For example, when you say, "This seems like a natural will to survive which animals and plants obviously contain", you are using "will" from one very restricted context, that of Schopenhauer's writings, and generalizing to all conceptual contexts. That is, perhaps it is true that for Schopenhauer — given his particular conception of will — it is "obvious" that animals and plants "contain" will. But from no (or very few) other context(s) is this obvious or even true — Aristotle has a teleology vaguely similar to this, but I don't know of any modern (main-stream philosophical) writers who talk this way (Teilhard de Chardin, I think, did... but he was a Catholic theologian, and Aquinas held Aristotle as the supreme philosopher).

You need to broaden and systematize your knowledge. 1) go back to school; alternatively, 2) contact a philosopher you admire at a good school and ask for a reading list leading to, then from Schopenhauer, if you are truly interested in him particularly, including critical readings (but Schopenhauer is not read much today, actually); or, 3) there used to be a book called "College on Your Own" which gave such lists; I'm not sure it's still in print, but it was good.

I told you that you wouldn't like my answer.

Steven Ravett Brown


Barry asked:

If wisdom is a combination of knowledge and good judgement, why is it so hard to acquire and why can't it be taught?

I think that it is hard to acquire because it needs a lot of knowledge, particularly knowledge of how context makes a difference, and because good judgement is honed in the making of many judgements (again, in many different but similar contexts). Thus, I believe that it can be taught — or, at least, the bases needed for knowledge and for judgement can be taught. Two of the things that get taught, of course, are how to gain further knowledge in the absence of a teacher, and how to turn judgement itself on our judgements, so that we become better at making judgements.

My account implies a version of teaching that is not merely the passing on of facts, and of judgement that is not purely rationalistic, or decontextualized. I have written a book about how moral wisdom can be taught.

Tim Sprod

I suppose that wisdom is achieved by being in a certain way, such as possessing an open mind in an attempt to understand rather than being blinkered by opinion and blinded by presuppositions. Experience is also involved, which is why it can't be taught and it is not easily acquired. Questioning is probably the route to wisdom rather than being taught, but when does questioning end and when is wisdom achieved?

Rachel Browne


Joshua asked:

Most people think that some sexual taboos (i.e. necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia, incest) are not morally permissible. However, it seems to me that under certain circumstances all of the above examples are permissible. Could you please elaborate on this?

Your question is about the nature of morality. Are there rules of morality that strict and exceptionless (Kant holds something like this view), or are moral rules more like rules of thumb, to be applied according to the context and circumstances (Aristotle holds something like this view).

Tim Sprod

Sexual taboos might exist because we find certain practices distasteful, especially necrophilia, but distaste is not regarded a well-substantiated moral ground. The legal position is based on the moral principle that sexual practices are impermissible where there is no consent. Paedophilia remains morally unacceptable because we do not suppose that children are able to give their full assent or we don't suppose they really know what they are doing: Are we saying they don't know they're involved in what we take as a perversion, or are we saying that they don't know that they should not indulge a paedophile even if they enjoy it too? The notion of perversion is socially determined, but we could claim a child should not indulge a paedophile because the child doesn't know the consequences of gratifying a person whose habits can cause great harm to himself and others. If we mean the latter and suppose that the child can't think in these terms, we can say his consent is not fully informed.

In the case of animals and dead bodies consent isn't really possible. That the animal or dead body don't object isn't to be regarded as positive concurrence with the activity.

I can't think of any circumstances which would justify these practices since being overcome by intensity of desire is not a justification. Justification should appeal to principles.

Rachel Browne

The general question here is: what is the basis of morality. The debate on how, specifically, to answer that question has been going on for centuries. But generally, there is agreement on this issue. First, in general (and this is just the first of many controversial claims I will make in this essay) no one who has read and thought broadly on this subject maintains that morality is the following of specific commands, that is, that there is an authority who can dictate specifics of morality to us. That eliminates fundamentalist religions and similar creeds, who take one or another bible and/or set of commandments, because their god, prophet, or "master" of one sort or another has spoken to them, as literal guidelines for behavior and thinking.

What that leaves, then, are general guidelines. When these are boiled down, they amount to either a kind of hedonism, i.e., do what makes you (and others) happy, or a kind of life-enhancement, i.e., do what improves your (and others) lot, quality of life, and so forth. Of course, depending on interpretation, those two can come very close. What makes people unhappy with the former is that a) defining "happiness" is not easy, b) happiness, however defined, seems a rather short-term and narrow goal. What makes people unhappy with the latter is that "quality of life" is even more vague.

Now, in my opinion, in ascertaining the basis for ethics, one must take what is termed a "naturalistic" or "naturalized" stance. That is, one cannot use only pure reason to figure it out; one must take the nature of human beings, as determined empirically — and that's why it's termed "naturalized" — into account. That means we have to pay attention to the studies showing a) territoriality, b) dominance/submission behavior and hierarchies c) types of emotions involved in relationships (as well as rationality), d) various aspects of aggression.

I will take the position that what is moral is what is life-enhancing, and not go into more specifics. I think that by reversing one's perspective on this, one can arrive at reasonable, rough, answers to the more obvious questions. We ask, then: what is not life-enhancing? Generally, causes which produce negative effects on someone's actual or potential life-enhancement. Thus, whatever prevents an individual from living fully and from realizing their potential to do so, speaking very roughly. What would do that? Unsolicited violence and humiliation — in general, unsolicited dominance behaviors, causing submissive behaviors, and behaviors and feelings imposed on someone — would seem to be implicated there, as a start (I'm starting with the obvious; solicited violence is not a good place to start this analysis; and of course this is an incomplete, not a comprehensive list). This imposition, at the very least, prevents the victim from choosing behaviors which they regard as the best (the most life-enhancing, however they formulate that for themselves) in the circumstances. Given that, what do we say about sex? Sex which is motivated by and/or results in control, dominance, humiliation, and/or other suffering, with someone who has no or little choice in the matter is, I will claim, by all reasonable standards, immoral. That would include those weaker, physically and/or emotionally, than another person. Where would we find that? The clearest categories of sex which would be immoral would be rape (and I'm using that term broadly to include emotional as well as physical force, even though that fades into a gray area) and sex with children. Why the latter? Because in a sexual relationship with a child, dominance is imposed, therefore choice is eliminated, and the relationship is violent (see below also). What about S&M? By the reasoning above, another gray area. Are the partners willing? Is the dominance/submission under control and voluntary? With all else equal (not easy to determine, mind you), I am still somewhat uncomfortable with the reinforcing of behaviors which usually imply lack of choice, but I can accept that in some cases S&M does not involve this, and so can be moral (insofar as our rough analysis allows).

What about your cases ("necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia, incest")? Zowie. Pedophilia: definitely, without doubt, immoral. Children are not competent to decide whether they are willing or not, and are naturally inclined (and I actually believe this is instinctive) to be submissive to adults (aside from simply being physically weaker, smaller, and so easily intimidated). Aside from that, even if one thinks that everything is happy and fun, there is no way to know, since the child is not competent to evaluate and decide. Sex between adult and child is forced, one way or another, and the adult is on a power trip. Period. I just don't see any situation in which this could be gotten around. Now sex between children is a different matter, and much harder, in my opinion, to decide as far as morality goes. Is childhood "experimentation" immoral? Probably not, but one would have to look case-by-case to determine. And of course childhood pregnancy is almost certainly bad, for a variety of reasons, and how can one have birth control for children without negative hormonal effects or the necessity for vigilance probably beyond a child's capacity? Tie your little girl's tubes? Offhand I'd say that the lack of choice, i.e., the violence, are inevitable and immoral. But, repressing my feelings of repugnance, suppose that one could, with no side effects and with guaranteed reversibility (and of course no suffering), create infertility in a child until they themselves chose (as adults) to become fertile. Would that enforced infertility be immoral? My inclination would be to say no, but with reservations. I'd have to think about it more. Would sex between children, in that case, be immoral (if it was without dominance/submission)? We've reached the end of what I've thought about, with that question. I don't know what to say about that one.

Necrophilia: Yuk. I don't see, however, that it is highly immoral, just insane (but see below). If someone is so crippled emotionally that they can only have a relationship with a corpse, then it seems to me that they're either saying something about their own self-worth, or they're screwed up in some other major way. In addition, it's the ultimate power trip, isn't it? A corpse can't resist. But you can't prevent the life-enhancement of a corpse, just of the person committing the act. An interesting question, as to whether doing that hurts someone emotionally in some way, but my inclination is to say that they have to be pretty badly damaged to initiate it in the first place. What kind of person needs the feeling of power, sex, and a "relationship" that badly? But we should ask: is there a difference between necrophilia and sex with a life-sized plastic doll? Yes. We do not see (comprehend) a corpse as we see a doll. Not that I'm recommending the latter, mind you, just that I'm saying it's probably the better of the two alternatives, if you've got to choose. When you think about it that way, the symbolic intimacy with death does make necrophilia seem possibly immoral, because of the further implications of that "intimacy" for the behavior (and thoughts/feelings) of that person toward themselves and others.

Bestiality: similar in some ways to necrophilia, in my opinion. A power trip over an animal who can't possibly resist, only perhaps not immoral (just very borderline in terms of sanity) because the animal cannot (probably) comprehend any implications beyond the moment (and, we assume, it isn't suffering). At least there might be some actual emotional involvement, say, if someone very isolated and neurotic had sex with their pet dog, and there's no (I wouldn't think) symbolic involvement with death. So is it immoral, or just very screwed up? My inclination is to say the latter, but again, it's hard to say what effects that behavior could have on the person initiating it. Forced (either way) bestiality: immoral, covered above.

Incest: the most borderline of your list, as far as morality goes, in my opinion. Genetically, a bad deal: the reinforcement of (usually) masked recessives, and the problems that European royalty and other inbred groups have had with this, in general, demonstrate this. But today we have birth control. Given that, why not? As long as we're not talking about pedophilia again (fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or comparable), and the people don't have children (or have themselves carefully genetically screened beforehand), I can't see any immorality here.

Steven Ravett Brown

If we take the view that acts of sex are physical acts like any other physical act then there is no intrinsic feature of sex that makes it a moral issue. This means there is no sexual perversity.

There may be external factors however that make sexual acts wrong, but these will be derived from general moral rules which. govern other aspects of our lives.

So while eating for example is not a moral issue, if we steal a the last piece of bread from a mother and child just because we fancy a snack we have done something wrong.

Similarly while sex is not a moral issue it does place us in situations where moral rules apply. So rape, paedophilia, necrophilia will be wrong, not because they are sexual but because they are violations of moral rules prohibiting against harming others. Not just physical harming, the necrophiliac does not physically harm anyone (there is no one to harm in a corpse) but I suspect that few people would be happy to know that their granny's corpse had been interfered with.

Bestiality is a tough one, it is probably a bit strong to say that it is wrong unless we argue for full blown animal rights (no pun intended).

Brian Tee


Maria asked:

This is a research I'm doing for a project:

How is philosophy connected to artificial intelligence? There are many connections I know. But apart from the religious connection that we are partly playing god when trying to create a human mind, I don't quite understand the philosophical issue on cognition and intelligence.

One very interesting story about philosophy and AI is this. In the 1970s, many AI researchers were making grand claims about how AI would within a few years lead to computers that were smarter than humans, and which would be able to do virtually anything a human could do — especially in things like understanding natural language, recognizing people, diagnosing diseases and so on.

Bert Dreyfus, an American philosopher, wrote a book at the time that drew on Heidegger's account of what it is to live in the world to claim that computers which followed the methods of AI at the time (and which are still being used a good deal) would never be able to become as intelligent as human beings. The book was called What computers can't do. He was derided for this view — a mere philosopher trying to tell the experts their own job. He turns out to be right, and had the satisfaction of publishing an updated version of the book called What computers still can't do about 20 years later. The moral of the story is that, if we want to make artificial intelligence, we had better sort out what natural intelligence is like first, and that is at least in part a philosophical task.

Tim Sprod


Afsoon asked:

I am an English Literature student in Iran. I am doing a research on Beckett's novels. In doing the research I have ended up somewhere in the philosophic ideas. My question concerns the nature of relativism in Pre-Socratic times and in Zen Buddhism:

In Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Phaedrus came out with the conclusion that the Sophists believed in relativism of truth, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle believed in absolutism and tried to systematize the Truth. Therefore they came out with ideas such as subject-object. Yet they were like Sophists in using rhetoric, but according to 'conventional knowledge' (according to the definition given by Alan Watts).

On the other hand we know that relativism in the Pre-Socratic era had the worst consequences — there are some who call it a crisis. They had some saying like, 'The wise man is the perfectly unjust man'. Now how is it that the Sophists, went astray (if it is going astray and, if not, why?) yet Zen has been known as the way of liberation for a long time? What is the difference between them? Do they both believe in Dharma and relativism in the same way, and if they do why did such things happen in Sophism?

You know, I've seen your question, off and on, for a while, and it never made any sense to me. But I think I may understand what's going on. It seems to me that you're assuming that because Pirsig used "Zen" in his title, that he is implying that there is a direct relationship to the philosophies he's talking about and Zen. But that isn't true. There is, I believe, an indirect relationship, which I'll briefly discuss below, but there are no such direct interrelations as you speak of.

Now, however, and otherwise, you could say that what the title is referring to is a kind of non-rational, wholistic approach to life and tasks (like motorcycle repair) that are usually considered and described in rational, reductionistic terms; in terms of explicit directions and lists. What Pirsig is saying is that Socrates, Plato, and that gang started the trend towards that kind of rationality, and the Sophists were trying to counter that trend (or actually, Plato was trying to counter the holism of the Sophists). Pirsig wanted to bring aesthetics, emotion, a wholistic approach into a rationality that he saw as the usual stereotype of that: cold, bloodless, list-making and rule-following. So forget the Dharma stuff, except very indirectly... the relation to Zen is not that specific.

So the Sophists went astray in the same way that all the wholistic approaches have gone astray: they have not found a way to use the techniques of rational thought, which work very effectively in chopping up the world, analyzing the little bits, and reassembling them (with, usually, some pieces missing), and still remaining holistically oriented. It's those missing pieces that the holists object to, and sure, they've got a point. But they haven't come up with a viable alternative, which allows, say, medicine to develop vaccines without using rational thought. I like vaccines, myself... and my car, and warm synthetic clothes. All products of cold, analytic rationality, I'm afraid.

Of course I could now go into my anti-anti-science rant, but I won't. I'll just say that given that we don't want to live like primitive hunter-gatherers (which I, for one, don't — not to mention that the world doesn't have the resources to support everyone living that way, without major population reduction), we're going to use the methods and products of rationality... and the holists have yet to figure out how to do both that and holism.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ray asked:

I remember at one time knowing the source of the quote, "When pigs fly" and that it was not from Alice in Wonderland (or Through the Looking Glass). If anyone can help me I would appreciate it.

Peace and all good,

Father Ray Goodman (member, 'Phi Sigma Tau')

Well you sent me on a merry chase. Here it is:

What's the origin of the phrase "WHEN PIGS FLY"?

Here's an attempt to satisfy the teenaged heir to the legacy of Mr Lucky, Mak Dolnick. The Makster wants to know the origin of the phrase, "When pigs fly":

To the Oxford English Dictionary we return, where the aeronautic properties of swine are first cited in Clerk's Withal Dict. Eng & Lat. The year is 1616 when he reports the observation, "Pigs fly in the aire with their tailes forward." This same statement, identified now as a proverb, appears in a couple of other 17th century tomes. Mr Lucky is unsure of exactly what bit of practical wisdom is idealized in this expression.

The proverb has evolved by 1860 to, "Pigs may fly; but they are very unlikely birds." Who among us can argue with this sapient observation?

Then, in 1865, the mathematician Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson writes, "I've a right to think," said Alice sharply..."Just about as much right," said the Duchess, "as pigs have to fly." Of course, you probably know the author as Lewis Carroll. The cited book is Alice In Wonderland. This usage is the first that explicitly implies the meaning 'never' to the notion of pigs flying.

Source: Mark Dolnick http://home.netcom.com/~mrlucky/pig.html

Steven Ravett Brown


Nikki asked:

Mind boggling questions for me...

Here goes. "The public affects taste, theory, and artistic outlook in literature, music, and drama, even though courtly elites hang on somewhat desperately in each field. The same has never been true in art. The public...are merely tourists, autography seekers, gawkers, parade watchers, so far as the game of Success in Art is concerned" Wolfe (26-27).

My question is that I have to pick two aestheticians and argue why they think this idea is wrong or why it is right. Does the public really have a say in art? or are they simply bystanders?

I'm afraid that this is mind-boggling for me too. As far as I know, no-one argues specifically against the view put forward in the quote, probably because it is not clear what it means since it raises so many issues. I suppose by "art" Wolfe means pictorial art, but you can distinguish literature/music/drama which we take to be art in the sense that it has aesthetic value from that we take to be pure entertainment. Do look at my recent answer to Lima on Answers 13 on the difference between taste and aesthetic value. If the distinction made there is correct, the public don't have a say in determining which works have aesthetic value based on their taste: Taste is distinct from what people find valuable and to this extent the public are gawkers whatever the art-form. I don't see why pictorial art should differ. There is still valuable art and popular art.

Wolfe claims theory as well as taste determines the body of art which is literature, music and drama. Does literary theory have a say, or is it the critic, who combines a knowledge of theory with personal taste? This view is put forward by Hume in On Standards of Taste a paper to be found in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, but Hume doesn't distinguish between art forms. The idea that it is the critic whose knowledge and taste defines what art is disputes Wolfe because the critic is distinct from the general public. He is the person the public look to as someone who knows.

It has been argued that valuable art should stand the test of time. For this approach to artistic value, see The Test of Time by Antony Savile. Savile argues that part of what makes a work valuable is that it possesses qualities which make it worthy of being appreciated over a period of time. This can be used against Wolfe, since it is not taste or theory, but quality which makes a work successful and this can again be held to apply to all art-forms.

Rachel Browne


Laura asked:

Has technology surpassed human intelligence?

I did a search and found something along the lines of my question. But I was wondering if you had anything else because it wasn't really on the same lines — the answer I found was to the question "Will the human mind surpass technology?" (Answers 9).

Technology has surpassed man's capacities for calculation and deduction. The computer which beat Kasparov at chess will have been programmed by several people, so it would be making use of the deductive ability of several minds. The computer's ability could, in theory, be matched by an extremely intelligent human. It is unlikely though. A computer could be programmed to translate English into every other language and perform without error, but this would not be expected of a person.

A computer functions purely deductively without the interference of instincts and emotions, so it is more likely to be error free. On the other hand, it is not going to come up with novel ideas unless these are computed from information programmed in.

Rachel Browne


Curtis asked:

How is your life shaped? Is it destiny, laid out for you? Does it come from within (what you make of it)? Or is it shaped by your surroundings?

You ask a very interesting question. The question is known in philosophy as the debate between free will and determinism. I will now attempt to answer your question by explaining these terms and looking at the ideas of some philosophers and psychologists who have voiced their views on this issue.

Free will

This is the belief that human beings are free to determine their actions. The future is not pre-determined. Human beings (well, at least some of them) have the capacity to consciously control their actions. As such, they are responsible for the choices they make and they perform. An extreme view would be one that stated that human beings have an absolute freedom to make choices and act on them. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre held a similar position to this. He maintained that humans are "condemned" to be free. In other words, humans have an absolute freedom to determine their actions (or at least their attitudes) regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

Other 20th Century existentialist thinkers have held similar attitudes (notably Victor Frankl — a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust). An example might illustrate these ideas more clearly. Even in the middle of immense suffering and cruelty, such as that experienced in a Nazi concentration camp, the individual is still free, if not to physically escape from their environment, but to at least change her attitude towards her predicament. She is still capable of making a choice.

It should be clear from this example why people who subscribe to this position often view freedom as a burden. If we are totally free in the way they suggest, then it follows that we are ultimately responsible for the situations we find ourselves in. To blame others for our situation is "bad faith" — it is a denial of our true, free, human nature.


The view that opposes free will is known as determinism. In its extreme form it claims that free will is impossible. When we humans feel that we are acting freely, it is merely an illusion. Everything that has happened in the past, everything that is happening now, and everything that will happen in the future was/is always destined to happen in the way it did/will. You were always going to send your question to this website. I was always going to answer it in the way I am and, hopefully, you were always going to read and understand the answer.

The arguments for determinism are plentiful and I will concentrate on a few of the major ones here.

One very influential form of determinism, at least until the early 20th Century, finds its origins in the science of Isaac Newton and is known as causal or physical determinism. The argument is based on the view of the world presented by science. The scientific worldview is one based on causal relationships governed by universal (i.e. applicable to all things) laws. That is, science views the world in terms of cause, effect and laws.

For example, I drop my dinner plate on the kitchen floor. The force with which the plate hits the ground causes the plate to break into 3 pieces. In addition to causing the plate to break, the contact between the plate and the floor causes a vibration of air particles that causes a crashing sound to be registered on some form of detector. Because these causes are governed by universal laws (in this case, Newton's laws of motion and the law of conservation of energy), the consequences are predictable. If I knew the height from which the plate was dropped, the material from which the plate and floor were made, the precise angle of the plate as it was dropped etc, I should, in theory, be able to predict how many pieces the plate would break into and the precise character of the sound produced.

Using this view of causation, one version of causal determinism argues that if we knew every physical fact about one particular moment in time, we should be able to predict the future. We could calculate the effects of this moment on the next, and of that next moment on the one after and so on to infinity. Such a view was proposed by the French thinker Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827) in 1814. And because human beings are part of the physical world (we are made ultimately of particles which obey certain laws), then our actions are entirely determined in advance.

This view was challenged, though not entirely refuted, by the discoveries of quantum physics in the early 20th Century that suggested that events at the microscopic level are not governed by the same laws as those that apply to larger objects.

Psychology has also made its contribution to this debate. Sigmund Freud argued for a belief described now as psychic determinism. At the risk of oversimplification, he claimed that human actions were determined by an unconscious drive for sex and an unconscious drive for aggression, themselves determined, via evolutionary processes, by basic life and death instincts. Humans cannot freely control their actions as their drives influence and, in some cases, override their conscious wishes.

The famous psychologist, B F Skinner, writing in the 20th Century, subscribed to what is known as environmental determinism. All human actions are determined by the particular features of the environment in which the human operates. Again, at the risk of oversimplification, Skinner demonstrated through extensive research (mainly on non-human animals) that if the environment rewards an organism for performing a particular action, then that organism is more likely to perform that action again in the future — regardless of any conscious thought processes which the organism experiences.

Determinism raises many interesting issues. One that I find particularly intriguing is its impact on moral philosophy. If all a person's actions are determined in advance then that person is surely not responsible for any action she performs. Why punish a wrongdoer if she is not responsible? Or was it always pre-determined that she would be punished? And so on...

Simon Drew


Kathy asked:

In a philosophy class, the professor asked us to discuss whether the laws given to us by God (i.e. the ten commandments) are good because He said they were good (implying good is arbitrary based on God's choice), or did he give us these laws because they are good, implying that the idea of "good" is independent of God. The argument was that God could just as easily have told us to hate our neighbor, or to kill freely, and then these things would be good by definition (directed by God). My question is this: since God is by definition omnipotent and omniscient, could neither of these choices be correct, or both choices simultaneously? Perhaps in imperfect, human logic, doesn't omnipotence contradict omniscience? Can a paradox exist for God?

God him/herself is Paradox, and the paradox of God is that He/She understands him/her self to be that which he/she is and can be nothing more or nothing less since lessening diminishes and changes and God cannot change and the same with more. Thus, the paradox of God is that while He/She is creator and sustainer of everything that exists at every level physically, conceptually and ideally, he/she cannot be create that which is greater than He/She/ Anselm's famous 'Ontological Proof for the Existence of God' i.e 'God is that of which nothing greater can be said to be' relies on the assumption that Being is contingent upon God as the supreme being and that such being derives its existence from God (it is what Duns Scotus would later call the doctrine of Univocity of Being').

The paradox of God limited to his own greatness and God-ness is precisely that: since God cannot be anything less or greater than that which He/She is then he is limited to his/her own experience of his/her own being as being in itself. Thus the ultimate paradox of God is the limitlessness of his limitation since God is that of which nothing greater can be said to be, then He/She cannot be the cause of his/her own non-existence which that which greater than God existing would be since there would be something greater than that of which nothing greater can be said to be and thus He/She would cease to exist. If God ceased to exist then that which was greater than God would be the supreme being in the the universe, and thus would find itself in the same position.

Thus the paradox of God in Him/Herself is that his/her omnipotence, omniscience does not in fact exist as a contingency in God but rather God as God is omnipotent, God as God is omniscient, God as God in Being God is all these and none. The ultimate paradox is: God exists as God and cannot exist as anything other than that.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Pablo asked:

Why do some people believe in reincarnation? because if it exists what is the purpose of living, having experiences if you're going to forget them anyway?

Speaking as someone who doesn't believe in reincarnation, I think people believe in it for the same reason others believe in heaven and hell — to allow themselves to believe that somehow, someday, life will turn out to be fair. People want to believe that everyone will, one day, get the reward or punishment they deserve.

This world is unfair. Good people sometimes have miserable lives, and bad people sometimes escape punishment. Rather than accept this, people believe that reward / punishment will come in another life (or in the afterlife). And of course, this can never be disproved.

What I find interesting is that I still feel a responsibility to be a good person, even though I believe I will never be rewarded. I wonder about where this 'moral conscience' comes from. Is it simply that I was brought up by parents who expected me to be good, and that I absorbed their attitudes at such a young age that it has become part of my personality?

You can read more about reincarnation at:

www.comparative religion.com/reincarnation.html

Katharine Hunt


Betsy asked:

Explain the terms Atman and brahman. Why do the Upanishads assert that, while the self is everywhere and within ourselves, it cannot be known as an object?

I believe that this question can be best answered from the Advaita Vedanta perspective of Shankaracharya. First, what is Advaita Vedanta? Indian systems of Philosophy are divided into two categories — the orthodox (astika) and the unorthodox (nastika). There are six systems under the first head (orthodox), namely, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Samkhya and Yoga. The Vedanta system can be further classified into two, of which Advaita Vedanta is one. The term 'Vedanta' [Veda (the scriptures) + anta (end) = Vedanta (the last part of the Vedas)] refers to the Upanishads (The Upanishads form the last part of the Vedas). The Vedanta, therefore, has the best of the Upanishads. The term 'Advaita' [a (negation) + dvaita (dual) = advaita (non-dual)] means 'singular' or 'unified' or 'non-dual'. So, Advaita Vedanta is a monistic system, which confers absolute unchallenged existence on the Brahman [The word 'Brahman' comes from the root 'briha' to which the suffix 'mana' has been added. 'Briha' means 'pervasive' and 'mana' means 'most'. So, 'Brahman' means 'that which is all-pervasive']. The Brahman is, therefore, the Ultimate Reality.

What about the world that we live in? What about the variety, the multiplicity that we perceive around us? As is expected, the Advaitins believe that the world is unreal [asat = a (negation) + sat (real)]. But to say that the world is unreal is not to say that it is non-existent. For whatever appears to us in our experience must have some kind of existence. The distinction between a non-existent entity (aleeka) and an unreal entity (asat) can be understood with the help of the following example. To talk about 'the horns of a rabbit' is to talk about a non-existent entity. The world and its objects are not non-existent in that sense. That's because the world and its objects appear to us in our experiences in some form of the other.

To explain this further, the Advaitins distinguish between three levels of existence. The Brahman obviously belongs to the highest of these levels and is called the 'Paramarthika sat'. The world belongs to the second of these three levels — to the phenomenal level — and is called the 'Vyavaharika sat'. The characteristic feature of things belonging to the phenomenal realm (viz., of things that exist in this world) is that they are obliterated with the dawn of the knowledge of the Ultimate Reality. This can be better understood with reference to things belonging to the lowest level of existence, namely, illusory things (called 'Pratibhasika sat'). A common example of illusion found in Indian systems of Philosophy is the rope-snake illusion. While walking down a half-lit corridor, you see a long, twisted something lying in front of you and for one dark moment you think it's a snake! When you flash your pocket light on it, you find it's only a rope. What's real here is the rope, not the snake, because the existence of the snake is obliterated as soon as the existence of the rope is known. Similarly, the existence of the world is obliterated with knowledge of the Highest Reality. That is why, some writers on Advaita Vedanta refer to the world as a 'cosmic illusion'.

What do Advaitins mean by 'knowledge of the Ultimate Reality or Brahman'? It is the knowledge that the individual self (atma) is the same as the Brahman. It is the knowledge of the identity between the atma and the Brahman. Life, i.e., the cycle of birth and death, is bondage. Liberation is to know that I am not the physical body or the senses or the mind; it is to know that I am the pure self, the conscious principle, the Brahman. It is to understand that my self, the atma, is one with the Absolute Self, the Brahman. This is the principle lesson of the Upanishads — Tat tvam asi, You are that — where, 'tvam' or 'you' refers to the individual self (atma) and 'tat' or 'that' refers to the Ultimate Reality (Brahman).

So what is the Brahman? The Brahman is pure existence (sat svaroopa), pure consciousness (chit svaroopa) and pure bliss (ananda svaroopa). There is no existence above that of the Brahman; there's nothing more conscious than the Brahman and nothing that gives more happiness than the Brahman. The Brahman is the epitome of existence, consciousness and bliss — these three are not properties of the Brahman. The Brahman is of the very nature of existence, consciousness and bliss. So is the individual self, the atma. But we do not realise this unity of the atma and the Brahman. When we do, we are released from the bondage of life and death.

It is because the self and the Brahman are essentially the same, the Advaitins say that the Ultimate Reality cannot be known objectively, as something that is external to us. In a monistic system, there is only one thing that exists and the only way that thing can be known is in itself, by itself. So, the only possible kind of knowledge in Advaita Vedanta is self-knowledge. This is the reason why there is so much emphasis on self-realisation in most systems of Indian Philosophy. Knowledge of the Ultimate Reality or Brahman is the knowledge by the self of its own nature. So "the Upanishads assert that, while the self is everywhere and within us, it cannot be known as an object."

Maushumi Guha


Maggie asked:

Is there anything wrong with parents deciding that their children have the same characteristics that they have judging by a utilitarian or deontology approach?

Do utilitarianism and deontology lead to different ethical conclusions about the issue?

What is the difference between utilitarianism and deontology?

I think it would be easier if I were to answer your questions in reverse order and begin with the difference between utilitarian and deontological ethical theories. What they share in common is that they both attempt to provide answers to moral dilemmas. Where they differ, however, is in the method used to answer these dilemmas. Utilitarianism is the name given to the ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. It proposes that an action can be judged to be morally correct (i.e. the right thing to do) if, and only if, that action produces more happiness or pleasure than any alternative course of action that may be performed. A "good" action is simply one that brings about the greatest total happiness. This is described as the Principle of Utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle. When faced with a moral dilemma the utilitarian a) examines all the possible options available to her, b) calculates the total happiness produced by each possibility, and c) acts in the way which produces the greatest total amount of happiness.

Because utilitarianism looks to the consequences of any action that is performed it is often referred to as a consequentialist theory. It might help if you took some time to think of how a utilitarian might answer the following moral dilemmas:

  1. A judge deciding whether or not to sentence a convicted murderer to death
  2. A student deciding whether or not to lie to her tutor and claim that her assignment was really eaten by a dog

Deontological ethics, on the other hand, approaches moral decisions from a very different perspective. Deontological ethics, sometimes called duty based ethics, state that humans have a duty (or duties) to act in certain ways,regardless of the amount of happiness produced or indeed any other consequences. For example, it may be argued that humans have a duty to always tell the truth. In this situation, lying would always be an unacceptable course of action, even if it made billions of people happy.The duty overrides any possible consequences. The main problem faced by proponents of deontological ethics is identifying which duties are those we should follow, and then attempting to justify them. Some Christians, for example, may choose to look to the Bible and use the Ten Commandments. Other thinkers may attempt to prove that certain duties exist by using their reason alone, as did the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

First two questions now!

It is entirely possible that deontological and utilitarian thinkers may agree on what is the right way to act regarding the issue you describe — parents passing on their characteristics to their children. But it is equally possible that they will disagree.

The utilitarian thinker would simply have to follow the procedure outlined above and calculate the amount of happiness produced by such an act. For example, would the parents' happiness increase? Would the children be happier inheriting their parents' characteristics than they would have been without them? Would society as a whole feel happier if parents were allowed to "interfere" with the natural process of reproduction? Each case would have to be viewed individually and if, in some situations, it could be safely predicted that parents passing on their characteristics to their children would increase the total amount of happiness, then it would be the moral thing to do.

The deontological thinker would first have to decide which duties were regarded as correct and make their decision on the basis of this. For example, the deontological thinker may be able to claim that humans have a duty not to interfere with natural processes (because, perhaps, its against the will of God) and conclude that it would be immoral for parents to pass their characteristics on to their children. It should be clear now that if the deontological thinker decided to claim that a different duty was important, a different conclusion may be reached. The important point to remember is that deontological thinkers will not look to the consequences of an action in order to determine its worthiness.

Simon Drew


Gonzalo asked:

When is an idea dangerous? It seems to me that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism all seem to be oriented to the improvement of human kind. Something happens though when these ideas are turned into doctrines or dogmas. How can we as human beings protect ourselves from doctrines? What is the ground we should stand on, in order to get the best out of an religious or spiritual idea? Why and how do "healthy" ideas become destructive to human beings (not only religious ones, but also philosophical ones as well). When does doubt become an obstacle in the search for truth? I guess there is no limit in what and how one can question things, but are we not falling into a trap the same way Zeno did with his mathematical paradoxes? One can question until the end of time, and not find or discover anything. I hope you find this question more provocative, worthy or interesting than the previous ones. Good luck.

"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea. When it is the only one you have."
— Emile Chartier

The question is an interesting one, and I can see that you already appreciate its complexity from the length of your question.

Essentially you have already answered the question, by your concern about both the problem of holding one idea too strongly (dogmas and doctrines), and about holding no ideas (doubt and questioning). Exactly — there are problems with both these extremes, and my inclination is to try to find a balance between them, some kind of middle ground. We need a balance between universal doubt and blind faith.

The quote above suggests that 'having only one idea' is dangerous. Anyone who thinks they have got "The Truth" is going to be extremely resistant to revising or questioning their ideas. And they may become very dangerous indeed if they are prepared to use force (and not just physical violence; brainwashing might be considered a form of 'intellectual force') to get other people to accept their ideas, or to punish anyone who doesn't accept their ideas.

But questioning and doubt can equally become self-destructive when only proof that an idea is necessarily true — that is, true in the way that "4+3=7" or "a banana is a banana" are true — will persuade you to accept it. In philosophy, the most extreme forms of doubt are solipsism (the view that everything you see is just the product of your own mind), and radical scepticism (which goes further and claims that the only thing you can know for sure is the present contents of your own mind). There are various philosophical arguments against these views, but none of them are entirely satisfactory, and the fact is that if you really believed in either of them you would be considered insane. Philosophers can also fall into a different kind of doubt; they spend so much time learning about other people's different points of view, and their respective merits and demerits, that they can become unable to decide which point of view they agree with! I found this a problem when I was in my first year of studying philosophy at University, when I was reading so many commentators's criticisms of classic texts, that I began to feel I had no ideas of my own! What I did was to concentrate on reading the texts themselves, and avoid the works of academic commentators as far as possible — this helped.

You already know how to protect yourself from doctrines! By doing philosophy, of course — you are already doing it by asking your question in the first place! If you are prepared to apply questioning, discussion and reflection — which I take to be basic methods of philosophizing — to any idea, then you are unlikely to be in danger of accepting any one idea as "The Truth". Of course, you may conclude that some ideas are more or less right or true than others, but without ever believing that any one of them on its own holds the complete truth — or even that humans will ever grasp the complete truth. The truth about the world may be too complex to be captured in any one idea — or too wide-ranging to be fully grasped by human understanding, perception or theories.

There's one more important way you can protect yourself from doctrines. In the midst of all this serious discussion — don't forget your sense of humour!

Katharine Hunt


Reuben asked:

As far as I can see, an event in space/ time does not rely upon the existence of an observer in order to occur. Why can't the age-old "tree falling in the woods" question be answered with a simple Yes?

Well, there's the Cartesian doubt... you can, after all, doubt pretty much anything you want, and the only certainty, according to Descartes, at any rate, are your own experiences (and not whether they relate to "reality"). Of course, Dennett has something to say about that in "Quining Qualia", where he casts doubt on pretty much anything which is purely mental — any "feels" — except perhaps for immediate experience... and how, after all, do you know what that is except through the memory of the last instant? But then, Dennett has his own program. Even in Zen Buddhism (according to one school, at any rate) there is doubt cast on the existence of the world when it is not observed. After all, if our memories are doubtful (which is in fact the basis of Wittgenstein's private language argument, and a lot of Dennett's objections to the classical understanding of qualia), then we have only others' testimony to rely on. Now, what Dennett doesn't say is that we also can't trust written history and others' testimony, for the same reasons... the history could either a) be misrecalled by the historians and written incorrectly, or b) the historical texts themselves could have been altered unbeknownst to anyone; and as far as others go, their memories are just as faulty as ours, right? So how do we know that the tree is still there when we aren't? You can assume, à la Berkeley, that it's in the mind of god... but then you have to believe in a god.

Or, to put it another way, when you say, "an event in space/time", just what do you mean by "space/time", anyway? Those are constructs, especially the space/time of the physicists, and even the space/time of our perceptions, at least according to Kant. But if that's true, then how, ultimately, can we rely on those constructs? Perhaps our memories are all that are backing them up. That is, we get back to the inductive problem, and Hume's critique of it.

But I do seem to remember that the last time I tried walking through a wall, I bumped myself on it. Perhaps I should try it again? But then I'd have to remember it — with all the attendant problems with that — for the next time... unless I videotape it... but, there we are again, assuming that we can trust the video not to have been tampered with, or just to have spontaneously acquired a sequence showing me hitting a wall. Further, we still have the problem of induction: just because I couldn't do it last time, so what?

Assumptions, assumptions. They all sound ridiculous, don't they. But try to refute them in any sense stronger than "common" sense, and you'll find yourself in a bizarre tangle of philosophical positions going back several thousand years, with no firm resolution in sight. Everyone from Descartes to Dennett, Heidegger to Goodman, has had something to say (sometimes quite a bit) on this set of questions. If all you want is common sense, why ask them? But if you want to go further than that, you've got a few years of reading ahead of you.

Steven Ravett Brown

I'm not sure that the question is only about the existence of objects independent of their perception — though it depends on how the age old question is phrased. It is often put as something like: "If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?" In this version, we can grant realism, and the independent existence of the tree, and still answer 'no'. This is because it depends on how we define the word 'sound'. We can grant that the falling tree creates compression/rarefaction waves in the air, but claim that a sound is not identical to these waves (though causally linked to them). Rather, sound is the subjective experience caused by these waves in a conscious being — the qualia, to use the technical word. If no-one is there to experience the qualia, then the sound doesn't exist.

Tim Sprod


Autumn Rose asked:

Ever since I was a little girl, I've always pondered the thought of "the complete understanding of what it means to be in-love" and how it is you know you are in-love. I am currently in the most serious relationship of my very young life and i would be relieved to finally know... am I in love? I have experienced infatuation, obsession, lust, and all the other feelings involved with "love". They say you know when it happens. but do you really? For this man I would sacrifice my own feelings of happiness if I thought it brought him more. I fall into complete satisfaction when I'm with him, we read each other's thoughts (sometimes literally), and living in the moment has become living each day on cloud nine. Physically and sexually, I've never been so comfortable with anyone. I could go on and on about this fulfilling relationship, but I still question myself... am I truly in-love?

I feel inclined to say that you don't know when you are in love and that love is infatuation. But there is a difference that lies not in the ways you describe the relationship because insofar as reading each others' minds, the sex and being on cloud nine goes, love and infatuation don't differ. That is accounted for by the chemistry thing (see Glyn Hughes' answer to Luke at Answers 10). The question is whether the chemical state you in are affects your ability to think. If you are able to think, I'd say that you can know the difference if "you've got your head screwed on properly", as they say. You have to know whether the qualities of the person are ones you admire and really suit you. If so, you are not simply being foolish, and you can consider yourself in love. Your regard will deepen, and you can even fall in and out with the person over the years, as well as becoming infatuated with other people on the side. Wonderful!

The problem is that you may believe you know the qualities which suit you and which you admire, but you can be wrong. Hopefully, if you can think about this clearly you can come to a correct conclusion. I really believe that is possible to work this out, and that it is nonsense for people to claim they know they're in love simply on the basis of feelings. It is so common for people to "fall in love" and then find the person isn't right for them. That is infatuation, because it is foolish and not based on knowledge of oneself and the other.

This is a letting your head rule your heart approach to love but, given that you have written in to ask this question, you already seem to have adopted this approach.

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?

These questions are complex. We are pushed beyond the vexed question of trying to decide what goes on at the interface between mind and body and presented with an intriguing notion about fragmentation of the mind. The latter part of the second question is rather obscure, I am not quite sure what is meant by 'can they be re-learned'. Perhaps I am wrong, but the implication seems to be that memories or knowledge or both are constituents of the mind, which would be lost in the circumstances described.

As you will be aware, Dualism is a massive topic, so the problem is, where do we start? Since Descartes (1596 —1650) convinced himself, and others, that the world is made up of mind stuff and matter stuff , and presented us with the mind — body problem, the topic has branched off into into many different directions and presented many interesting facets. I think we had better stick to the basic ideas of Descartes.

Descartes uses the terms consciousness, mind and soul interchangeably, presuming they are one and the same thing. However, in modern discussion they are sometimes claimed to be different concepts. In some religious circles a tripartite idea suggests that the mind/consciousness is somehow part of the brain — a sort of emanation, the soul presides over this complex and survives death.

Malebranche (1638 —1715) confused the issue further by introducing God into the equation. He said, "It is clear that, in the union of soul and body, there is no other bond than the efficiency of divine and immutable decrees." He saw the union of mind and body as simply another of God's natural laws.

I have no problem with the statement that bodies are extensions of ' matter' in space, but where is the 'mind' stuff? We can point to bodies, and most of us have a notion that we know what we mean by matter/ physical material. We know something about the states of matter, gas, liquid and solid. Unfortunately, we cannot discuss mind in the same way. The substitutions of consciousness and soul don't seem to help. You probably know that Descartes thought the soul was in the pineal gland: this is a small gland so Descartes must have been under the impression that the soul could somehow be condensed into it: but how can a substance that has no material properties be condensed? Also, there does not seem to be any passage in Descartes work in which he explains what he refers to as a "natural connection" of happenings in what he holds to be two distinct substances. Since Descartes science has vastly improved our knowledge of the human body, and particularly the brain. Unfortunately, the mind remains a great mystery.

To come to the idea about 'splitting' the mind. First, we understand that bodies are solid, extended in space, observable, flexible, can be perceived to move, and (after death, hopefully) can be dismembered, dissected, and so on. However, we don' t seem able to say the same things about minds, which are not solid, not extended in space. Does it then follow that because the mind does not have these properties it cannot be split? I can only think of solid things being split. In fact, and this may seem trivial, we would have our work cut out to split a gas or a liquid with a knife or even an axe! Admitted we could partition them, but this is not 'splitting' in the sense posed by the question. To be a liquid or gas, however, the mind would have to be constructed of particles, and as these are material entities that is out of the question. Perhaps the mind is more like a 'force field', say, in my ignorance of other possibilities, magnetism or gravity. I can't see these being split in the way envisaged, we could insulate against magnetism but not against gravity. Another interesting point is, we cannot see these things but we can see their effects. Is mind an unseen entity where only the effects of its actions are observable? More of this and we shall be into Behaviourism!

Experience informs us that there is a link between thought and mechanical action, the problem is again at the interface between mind and body. How does a thought depolarise a nerve fibre?! By taking thought, say deciding to raise my arm, a sort of electrical charge is 'caused' to run down a nerve fibre and effect muscle contraction. A thought has somehow had an effect on a nerve cell membrane to bring about the exchange of ions that produces the electric current. To complicate it further, I 'decide' to play a game of chess. Is it my brain that makes the decision or is it, as Descartes would say, 'I'? There is certainly some difficulty in envisaging a brain that carries out mechanical things making such a decision, I always get the feeling that the brain is doing as it is told, like picking up the phone and dialling so that I may enquire if my friend is available to play chess. Speaking to my friend the brain is wagging my tongue, moving my mandible, flexing my vocal cords, etc., but it seems that 'I' am deciding what to say, and it seems that 'I' am interpreting my friends reply presented to me by the brain's mechanical action of hearing.

Advances in science have not helped by making it evident that the brain is more like a complex gland, a 'wet' thing, rather than the 'dry' electrical thing formerly accepted. We now find that much of the activity in the brain derives from hormone — like substances and chemical transmitters it produces itself. Unfortunately, the science is of no help to the philosophy, the mind and its contact with the brain remains a mystery.

The question bears the implied notion that somehow the mind is sectioned to relate to existing sections of the brain i.e. there is a section of mind over the temporal lobe, a section of mind over the visual cortex, etc.. This does not seem to fit into any dualist concept so far as I am aware. This would involve dividing the mind up or splitting it into sections, as we have discussed, a rather difficult thing to do with a non-material substance. Those who support Dualism usually talk about a complete, 'self-contained' entity, and, so far as the soul is concerned, capable of surviving after death of the body/ brain.

The business about re-learning, as I indicated previously, is difficult to deal with because I am not clear in my ' mind ' what is meant. I must dip into my imagination (imagination! where does that come from?) Let us pursue the idea that mind is a complete entity, not capable of being divided or broken because it is not matter stuff. Let us further consider a person who is obviously showing physical signs of brain damage and with obvious memory loss. All the afflictions seem to be centred on the inability of parts of the brain to work properly, there is no indication that the mind is also impaired; even the signs of memory loss have to be revealed physically, we are able to observe that the person is unable to remember things, but nothing is revealed about the mind. From the dualist point of view no damage can be done to a substance devoid of physical properties.

Here is a very over-simplified analogy. A very skilled joiner arriving to do a job discovers that he has forgotten to bring his screwdriver. The customer lends him an old screwdriver which is bent and has a piece broken off the end. The joiner, a superb craftsman, is seen by the customer to be making a terrible mess of trying to put a screw in a hinge. Do you get my point, there is nothing wrong concerning the skill of the joiner but the tool he is trying to use is not adequate te reveal his skill. Could this be the case when the mind is trying to use a damaged brain? Yes, I would agree that brains have to re-learn things, or as a dualist might say, the damaged parts would have to be re-constituted so that the mind could use them properly.Would there then be a learning process involving the re-co-ordination of mind and brain? It seems there would have to be. Following from this, when the body dies there is not much point in the mind/ soul hanging around. Now we are getting around to reincarnation: I had better finish.

John Brandon

Descartes did hold that the soul interacts with the body via the pineal gland. There, in some mysterious way, the soul effects the motions of the 'animal spirits' passing through, and is affected by them. But if pressed on the question, I don't think Descartes would have said that the soul is 'condensed in' the pineal gland. To be located is an essential property of extended substance. Thinking substance cannot possess any of the essential properties of extended substance. Therefore, thinking substance cannot be located at a point in space.

One is led to the idea that the soul must be located in the pineal gland, by the assumption that all causal connection is 'local' in the sense that the cause and effect must be in contact with one another. Descartes would surely reject this assumption, at least with regard to mind-body interaction, on the ground that 'being contact' is a property that only physical things can have. The alternative, then, is to hold that the soul exerts a local effect although it is not itself located.

Geoffrey Klempner


Rachel asked:

Is it a duty of a human being to volunteer or is it something each individual can do if they want?

I take it that a duty is something we are required to do, or to put it in the jargon, a duty is the practical content of a moral obligation. According to Kant, an action can only have moral worth if it is done from duty. Therefore actions motivated by self-interest (doing something because you like it) or actions motivated by inclination (doing it because you want to) are not morally good. A duty is something you must do irrespective of whether or not you want to. Kant would go so far as to say that if you did a moral deed because you wanted to and not because it was your duty to do so then you would not really be acting morally.

Figuring out whether something is a duty or not — and hence morally good and obligatory — for Kant — involves a kind of calculus. According to one version of the calculus, an action is a duty if and only if you could 'at the same time will that this action should become a universal moral law for all subjects'. In the case of volunteering, I suppose it would depend on what you were volunteering to do. Volunteering to go to war for an unjust cause would not be a duty as it would fail the Kantian calculus for example. In general however, I am inclined to think that acts of voluntary charity, voluntary defence of one's country for a just cause and so on are examples of duties. It would be irrational not to do these things, because if everybody stopped volunteering to do these things, then there would be no charity and our country would be invaded!

Does it follow that you are not morally good if you only did these things because you were inclined to? You might think that wanting to act in a good way is sufficient for you to be doing a good deed or being a good person. So a good question for a Kantian is to ask whether impersonal moral grounds are at all sufficient to explain actions. David Hume for example thought that only a desire can motivate you to act, that the source of moral action lies in the presence of unmotivated desires. On this basis, you would be incapable of volunteering unless you wanted to, because you could always say to yourself 'I see that this is a duty, but I just don't feel like doing that today'. The Kantian who said to himself 'I don't like helping people but I do it because I am rationally required to do so' also seems to lack a moral quality — that of sympathy.

Is Hume right about this? According to Warren Quinn, if one regards ones basic motives simply as desires one happens to have, then these do not give one reasons to act. Reasons of the kind we want are different from rational ones to make sense of our actions. One can ask of one's basic motives whether acting on such desires is good or not. We actually need an affirmative answer to this question if those desires are to provide us with reasons for action. This amounts to saying that our desires are not the type of thing which can give us reason to act, since they do not tell us what we should do. It seems to me that we lose our grip on what we have reason to do if we attempt to begin our account with desires we happen to have. Thus there is no Humean starting point as long as we take ourselves to have reasons to act in a given way. I have racked my brains for a long time as to whether this is an adequate response to Hume.

A. Gatward

Your question is about what are referred to as 'supererogatory acts'. Kant has discussed this in some detail. Briefly, there are some things — duties — that we must do, in order to be moral. Mostly, these are in the nature of negative acts — we must not harm others, or must not tell a lie, for example. However, it may seem that we ought to go beyond this and do positive good for others. While it is morally desirable that we do such things, it doesn't seem that we are required to do them (and note an important difference: while we can refrain from telling lies to all humans, we cannot personally feed all the starving). We do these positive actions voluntarily. While we can be called more highly moral if we do them, it does not seem that we can be called immoral if we don't. Thoughtless or uncaring, maybe, but not immoral. In the light of this, the answer to your question would be: it is not a duty to volunteer.

Tim Sprod


Sherry asked:

A very dear friend of mine has the need to inflict her brightness upon everyone she meets. She does this with me as well. Another friend of ours is also in pursuit of being classified as being "gifted". I do not know every word in the dictionary, but I am continuously learning from my experiences and finding reason for my place in the environments around me. Does my pursuit of a full-felt self not make me gifted, or is being gifted simply discussing philosophical topics on a regular basis and getting exceptional grades?

Does anyone have the right to be classified as gifted?

This is a question fraught with political/ social implications, and my answer here must be taken as simply my own opinion, which no doubt will be unsatisfactory to lots of people... which is the case for any opinion in this arena. So, here goes.

You have two questions here, which are not the same. What does "gifted" mean? Usually it is taken to mean something like: "having an intrinsic ability much greater than the norm in some area". So, given that definition, you are born either gifted or with the potential to be gifted. So that's the start of the controversy; the first question is, what is an "ability", that is, what is it correct to say one is gifted "in"? Well, the classics are things like "intelligence", "creativity", "musical ability", "verbal ability", "athletics". We've started touching on the politically incorrect here... because many people want to say that there is no such singular "thing" or "entity" as, say, "intelligence", or "musical ability", and indeed these are a very hard traits to define, much less to measure. But, and here's my opinion, it is not impossible, nor is it meaningless, to define and measure them, and other abilities, even at very early ages. What supports my opinion? Lots and lots of reading. But, you can object, the people who object to that point of view also have done lots and lots of reading. True, true. And there you are. If you want to evaluate this issue, you yourself will just have to do the reading.

So, let's just move on to the next question, i.e., how dependent on genetics is outstanding ability? The answer to that, politically incorrect as it is, is that there seems to be a strong genetic component to this (from 30% up). Now... contrariwise... it seems possible, with hard work, to literally rewire your brain to dramatically increase your intellectual abilities, for example, in areas for which you have reasonable potential. There are certainly intrinsic limits to human abilities, including intelligence, dictated, if by nothing else, the size of the head, and the number of neurons (and their metabolic efficiency, etc.) that can fit into it. It's like weightlifting... some people pick up a weight and put on muscle, others have to work like crazy, but they all converge, more or less, on the human maximum. But a 6' 6" man will always be stronger, given maximal development, than a 5' man or a 5' woman... for no other reason than there is more muscle mass on a larger frame. Analogously (and very politically incorrectly), if your genetic potential will stop you growing neurons (and by the way, there is very recent work showing strong correlation between amount of gray matter — neural cell bodies — and intelligence — but there is no data on how much this number can be increased by use) before most others, you just won't be able to develop comparable intelligence, like it or not.

Now, however, we have to ask, how do you know, given that you're reasonably intelligent, what those limits are? You don't, if you never push yourself... and I mean push. You will get improvement, if you really, seriously, challenge yourself. But for that you need extremely high motivation, and most people don't have that, for one reason or another. And here is an area which is an open question as to "ability" — how much can we train our motivation to train? That's a really difficult one, and I don't even know of studies in this area, important as it is. Interesting, isn't it? There are all sorts of educational programs, motivational programs, etc., but no one, that I know of, has asked about the genetic basis of motivation, and how, and how much that interacts with learned motivation.

So there's a kind of minimal background in this area... now, your first question, in two parts. First, "Does my pursuit of a full-felt self not make me gifted?" The conventional answer would be no, it does not. The unconventional answer, taking into account what I am saying above about motivation, might be that you are motivationally gifted, if indeed you pursue self-development intensely. Second, "or is being gifted simply discussing philosophical topics on a regular basis and getting exceptional grades?" Clearly this is not the case. The person you're talking about does seem, aside (from what you've said — and that's all I can judge by in this context) from being rather stuck on herself, indeed to be gifted verbally and probably with intelligence also...

Now, all that being said, I'm a bit cynical on this issue; I've known lots of very bright coffee-house failures who regard themselves as "geniuses" on the basis of a good IQ score, being reasonably good at chess or whatever, and who work as carpenters or janitors. I've come to a very pragmatic viewpoint on this... if you do "gifted" work, then you're gifted. Period. So, good grades are nice (depending on how good your school is)... but the real test is whether, if one does philosophy or mathematics or art, one produces good philosophy or mathematics or art, not whether one gets grades, passes tests, scores high on IQ exams, or does outstandingly on whatever measure of "potential" there is, even if that measure is accurate in the sense that it correlates with the achievement of people who do produce. To put it overly simply, you can have a high IQ and do nothing, but you can't do good work without the ability that a high IQ measures (or ideally should measure) and effort. BUT, as I say above, with great motivation and hard work, you can quite literally create ability in yourself, intelligence included.

Your third question, "Does anyone have the right to be classified as gifted?" hits to the heart of the political issues. The current thinking is, as far as I can tell, mostly "no". I disagree. I think that we have a crisis in education, brought about, in part, by grade inflation due to not wanting to hurt students' feelings, being sympathetic to their getting jobs based on grades, etc.... all of which are very nice but destroy the purpose of education. This is a very unpopular position right now, and I'll probably get hate mail for saying it. But it's my opinion, for whatever that's worth. To not be aware of, to not educate on the basis of, to not take advantage of peoples varying abilities and lacks is merely to be and to encourage ignorance. That being said, there are better and worse ways to go about it... and that latter debate is one I do not have anything like space for here.

So, keep on trucking... it sounds like you just need some good friends.

Steven Ravett Brown

No-one has a "right" to be classified as gifted, even if they are. If you are so classified, you do need to be highly talented in some area, or maybe get overall excellent grades. Why don't you read my answer to Fred on Answers 12, it might make you feel better about not being regarded as gifted. You will see that Feyerabend, a philosopher of science, prefers a well-rounded person to one who decides to achieve excellence at the expense of balanced development.

If you are at school, there are bound to be others who are regarded as gifted. Once you're out in the world, you'll find that being gifted isn't a very important quality.

Rachel Browne

How to define "gifted" is not an easy question to answer. Different programs for the gifted define the word in different ways. Is it a measure of some sort of general superiority (e.g. of intelligence), or are we looking for those who are gifted in one area while not being gifted in others? How much better than the 'norm' does one have to be in order to be labelled gifted? Is everyone gifted in some way? I don't know the answer to these questions.

As for your second question, I'm not sure that I like the way you have phrased it. The right to be classified as gifted doesn't look anything like a right to me. [I think that in Western society, things that people want or desire get turned into rights, whereas rights require a stronger justification.] I would rather ask whether we ought to label some people as gifted.

Assuming we have found a satisfactory definition of "gifted", this question becomes one of discrimination. The word 'discrimination' is often taken these days to refer to something bad, but that can't be right. Humans discriminate all the time — we have to. That is, we note that certain things are different from one another, and therefore we treat them differently. Sometimes this different treatment is justified (as when we punish bank robbers, but don't punish people who don't rob banks), sometimes it is not (as when we employ whites but not blacks).

The question then is, should we discriminate in regard to those who are gifted? The answer is that we often are, but we often aren't. Sports teams choose gifted athletes? For professional teams, this seems fair enough, but for school physical education classes, it doesn't. Universities choose gifted students? Might be OK, as long as those who are not gifted but are nevertheless capable of doing the course also get a chance. Schools students who are gifted get different classes? I don't know — I think it depends greatly on the circumstances. Perhaps it also depends on whether the different treatments are (in the phrase sullied by the Apartheid regime) 'different but equal' (that is, each group is treated in the way that is best for them) or different and favouring one group.

I must end by referring to a newspaper article I saw recently (sorry — can't remember the reference) which reported a study that showed that labelling children as gifted often did more harm than good, by singling them out and placing a burden of expectation on them. I personally am very cautious about gifted programs.

Tim Sprod


Stephen asked:

First off I'm a member of the USAF National Guard, employed full time and a part time college student working on my AA degree in general studies in order to move into a Business program. But first I have to pass my Philosophy class. Our class essay has me stumped, I'm not trying to fool you into thinking that I understand Philosophy at all but I do need to pass the class, and am willing to work hard to do so. Here is the topic.

Compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of the following four theories of personal identity. Defend the theory that you think is closest to the truth, and explain which theory you think is farthest from it:

  1. (Descartes, Reid) The self is an indivisible spiritual (immaterial) atom.
  2. (Locke) The self is a stream of conscious memories.
  3. (Hume) The self is a constantly changing bundle of ideas and impressions.
  4. (Kant) The self is the organizing principle of our experiences.

— I don't even know where to begin. The essay is due in three weeks. All I'm asking for is a friendly voice with some friendly advice. All I get from my teacher is criticism and negativity. Any specific readings that you could suggest would also be greatly appreciated.

SRA Stephen M. Libertini, USAF

At first, this looks a very difficult question to give to General Studies students, looking for detailed knowledge of the philosophies of Descartes, Reid, Locke, Hume and Kant. In fact, it is possible to contrast the different philosophers' views in a simple and graphic way.

The way to approach this question is dialectically, not in the Marxist but in the Socratic sense: what we are looking for are the specific points at which Locke, Hume and Kant disagree with the Cartesian view of the soul.

Locke, Hume and Kant each describe a vivid thought experimentwhere Descartes' view of the self as an 'immaterial substance' is put to the test, and rejected:

Locke imagines the following possibility. Suppose that, during the night, the soul of a beggar was interchanged with the soul of a Prince. The beggar's soul is put 'in' the Prince's body and the Prince's soul is put 'in' the beggar's body. But suppose that the mischievous demon who engineers the soul swap also transfers the beggar's memories into the Princes' old soul, which is now in the body of the beggar, and the Prince's memories into the beggar's old soul, which is now in the body of the Prince. The result is, that when the beggar and the Prince wake up, neither they, nor anyone else will ever know that anything has happened. Locke concludes that the self or person cannot be identical with a 'soul substance' which could be swapped about in this way without anyone knowing the difference. The criterion for the 'same self' or 'same person' is continuity of memory. not continuity of unknowable soul substance. This is Locke's theory of the self.

Hume proposes an experiment which he says he has tried on himself and which he invites the reader to undertake. The experiment is to try to catch sight of the self, through introspection. The result is that when you inspect the inside of your mind, you do not see a self as such but only individual thoughts, feelings and sensations: "I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception" (Treatise On Human Nature Book I, pt. iv, sect vi). This leads to Hume's radical proposal that the self is just a compound of those same thoughts, feelings and perceptions, a mere 'bundle of ideas'.

Kant's theory also arises from a thought experiment which criticizes Descartes, but his is the most mind-blowing of the three. In the wonderfully titled 'Paralogisms of Pure Reason' in the Second Part of his Critique of Pure Reason Kant imagines the following scenario. Let's say that as I type these words, my soul substance is totally annihilated, but at the very moment that it is destroyed another soul substance is created and given all of the first soul substance's mental properties. The same process is repeated from moment to moment, so that my mental states are passed from one soul substance to another like the motion in a line of colliding billiard (or 'pool') balls. Kant explains the illusion or 'paralogism' of belief in a soul substance in the following way: we wrongly interpreting the necessary unity of consciousness as the consciousness of unity. Kant's theory is that for experience to be possible at all, experiences must be capable of being strung together to make a coherent account of a unitary subject occupying a single point of view moving about in a world of objects. The identity of the self is the organizing principle that turns a barrage of impressions into a world.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ulrika asked:

Hi, I am a Swedish student working on a project in English concerning violence, and the psychological aspect of this topic. My work is based upon the question why people find violence entertaining or fascinating.

Many films include scenes with the purpose to make the spectator feel disgust or fear, and many films even have got violence as their main theme. A considerable part of the spectators want to watch horror and repulsive scenes. What makes us thrilled by violence? Do we actually enjoy being scared and feel disgust, or why do we voluntarily watch repulsive and horrifying scenes?

I need as much information and opinions as possible to be able to develop and answer the question what it is within fictitious violence that makes it entertaining; why it seems to be a fascinating theme and why people are interested in watching violent movies at all.

You ought to read the introduction to Violence and American Cinema edited by J David Slocum to get some background on the place of violence in society and the meaning or representational nature of violence in film. For instance, film is a new medium in an increasingly impersonal society and perhaps provides a new outlet for aggressive feelings. As far as representation goes, are we simply watching violence, or something more deeply historical and ritualistic such as sacrifice and massacre, actions which have their roots in man's search for social cohesion? This approach might go some way to explaining our fascination with violence.

Of course, man is a violent creature and his aggressive instinct is no less strong than his instinct for love, as the Freudians have told us, so it is not surprising that violence should be entertaining or cathartic and you might look at Hollywood: The Dream Factory by Hortense Powdermaker who found violence to be a main theme in cinema.

While the Freudian analysis focuses on the notions of aggression and catharsis, the existential account of our enjoyment of frightening scenes is that they in some way legitimise the fear and dread that is part of everyone's life. Terror provides some relief from our constant unease. I find this less plausible than the Freudian account of aggression and catharsis, but you might want to find out more from G Leonard's Reading "Dubliners" Again: A Freudian Perspective and a paper by him in P. Vorderer's Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses and Empirical Explorations. As you will notice, these writings belong to film theory, but film theory draws heavily on philosophical and psychoanalytical ideas.

For a look at the specific nature of the psychological state of enjoying violence, rather than the more general psychological requirement for it, an excellent book is Kendall Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe. Walton wonders how psychological enjoyment of violence actually is. While we might feel scared and disgusted, these are not the same psychological states we have towards to non-fictional scenes, since they don't cause us to run away. Perhaps we experience physical sensations associated with being scared or disgusted, but do not really experience these emotions. It would be absurd to experience these emotions properly when we know that what we are seeing is not true, but simply acted. Walton argues that we are "fictionally" disgusted and that when we engage with fiction we are participating in a game of make-believe. This line of thought leads again to psychoanalytical notions, such as the instructive and cathartic functions of play.

If you take up the idea that engagement in fiction is a game, or play, you can hardly fail to notice that in general girls don't play violent games but boys do and violent films may be enjoyed more by men than women. Personally, I find it difficult to see anything enjoyable in violence itself but there is a brilliant scene in Reservoir Dogs where one of the one of the gangsters is dancing around to "Stuck in the Middle with You" and then suddenly stops and cuts off the ear of another gangster who is strapped to a chair. It is not the violence in itself that makes the scene amazing, but the contrast between the expectations which are set up by this particular song, its rhythm and the tone of the singer's voice, and the lazy bopping around with the sudden reality of the situation. This contrast does make the violence quite thrilling but I don't think it is distasteful. The scene arouses a very particular response to the artistic nature of the film itself and the psychological nature of this response is better described in terms of expectation and appreciation, rather than relief and catharsis.

So you might want to distinguish two types of attitude: Firstly, there is the aesthetic response where the psychological states of expectation, suspense and relief are fully determined by the artistry of the film-maker and, secondly, the more general response, which is fascination with violence in itself and this may have its roots in man's existential nature or modern society, or it might be reliant on gender type.

Good luck with you project: I'm sure it'll be really interesting.

Rachel Browne

My view is that you are (as you hint) asking a psychological question rather than a philosophical one, so that to find an answer would require empirical research rather than asking philosophers. Of course, there is some overlap with philosophy. One might ask what we ought to do about violence and violent films if we believe that finding violence entertaining is morally (and practically) a bad thing. On this one, my view is that it is a bad thing that we find violence entertaining, and that therefore we ought not to support the industries that cash in on it by going to see violent films, no matter how good they might be said to be in other ways. This raises another interesting question for me: can art be good (aesthetically) if it is not good (morally) — or at least morally neutral. That one really puzzles me.

Tim Sprod


Jack asked:

Has anyone come up with a set of criteria that, if satisfied, would prove that god existed? For instance if all the radio stations in the world simultaneously were interrupted with the message in their native tongue saying that god exists, while at the same time the stars and sun blinked on and off for ten minutes, would this be proof?

Would any experiment be free from suspicion or logical flaws?

Well, the first question I would ask is, to which god you are referring? I think that it would be easy to prove that Thor exists, for example... you see someone who looks like Thor should look, riding through the sky pulled by a hammer, who causes lightning and thunder when he throws it. Then you get him to take you to Valhalla over the bridge Bifrost, and so forth. That would do it, wouldn't you think? What about Krishna? We could go through the various characteristics of that god and find some that would go beyond human capabilities and would fit his, and if he exhibited them that would be, if not absolute proof, pretty good evidence, I would say. Baron Samedi? Well, pretty much the same.

The Christian god? Um... which one? The one who makes the Pope infallible, or the one who saves anyone who repents and bathes in a river in a suitable religious ceremony... or perhaps you're referring to the one who sent the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith? And certainly we shouldn't forget the Islamic god(s)... there are at least two major sects there also, if I recall correctly, and they can't both be right... just like one Christian god can't both make and not make the Pope infallible, etc., etc. Then there's Judaism, and on... and on...

Well. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that there's some creature ("god") we hypothesize as being infinitely powerful, ignore all the paradoxes that result from the term "infinite", and ask what evidence we need to ascertain that creature's infinite power. That would require infinitely great effects, right? So something as trivial as, say, blinking the sun — or even the galaxy — on and off just isn't big enough; that could just as well be caused by some alien race... we've got to think big here... perhaps the whole universe blinking on and off? But then the problem is, how could we teeny finite creatures know that infinite changes were being made? So we've got two kinds of problems with ascertaining the existence of an infinitely powerful creature: 1) getting it to manifest something infinite, and 2) ascertaining that manifestation's infinite extent... difficult for finite entities like ourselves, I would say.

Now, I suppose that if we died and found ourselves in, say, the Islamic paradise (or actually, for those of us who are infidels, the Islamic hell)... and we could determine that we had actually died and weren't hallucinating or the victims of an elaborate deception of some sort, and the hell fit all the parameters of Islam's hell as described in the Koran... well, then that would pretty much do it. Unfortunately for that kind of very strong evidence (not, given the above meditation on infinity, proof, mind you... it might be that Islam — or whatever religion you want to fill in the blank with here — is mistaken about its god but correct about its hell, for example), you have to die. So not only is there a repeat of the "infinite" problem, above, but there's another little problem with consensual validation here... viz., communicating reliably with the living to let them know.

So that leaves blind faith, which would certainly indicate why religions are so strong on it. However, as you can probably see from the tone of my answer, I'm not too enthusiastic about the "blind" aspect of faith; I'm an empiricist, myself.

Steven Ravett Brown

There are arguments that effect the likelihood of there being a god. For example, the existence of this kind of world makes the existence of god more likely than it would have been if this kind of world did not exist. In other words, some types of evidence raise the probability that there is a god, while other 'atheological' arguments reduce that likelihood. However, there is an important distinction here: you want an argument that would make the existence of god more likely than not. This is different from simply raising that likelihood. There is a kind of inductive threshold then which one must cross before this kind of argument becomes convincing.

How likely is the claim that there is a god? Not that likely, given the kinds of supernatural properties and abilities he is supposed to have and our everyday experience of the world. God's abilities and properties differ hugely from our everyday experience. While this does not prove that there isn't a god, it seems to me that the more unlikely a claim sounds, given what else we know and given our background experience, the greater the burden of proof is upon the person who makes such a claim to start with. In the case of god this places a huge burden of proof on someone who claims that there is a supernatural being who has the properties that god is thought to possess. This is a general suspicion behind any argument or experiment designed to show that there is a god.

A. Gatward

No, no, and no. A being that had the power to perform all the feats you describe would have our undivided attention, but not an incontestable claim to divinity.

Maybe the God-affirming radio pirate knew about the blinking stars in advance and simply exploited it as a dramatic backdrop to his propaganda. We would be justified in regarding the source of "God exists" and its non-English equivalents as an intelligent (but not a divine) being who is attempting to communicate with other intelligent beings. A physical event by itself, however, no matter how astounding (like the celestial light show), is not necessarily evidence of personal activity.

Your second question does not make clear whether the interruptions are in the languages regularly heard on those stations or whether each listener hears the message in his or her own language, regardless of his or her location. The former would involve fantastic mechanical control, but the latter would involve even more astonishing mental telepathy.

But even a being who had such telepathic and star-manipulating power could not logically compel us to accept that being's broadcast messages as true solely on the warrant of that great power. Such a being would be godlike, but does that imply that he or she would be God, i.e., the creator and sustainer of the cosmos? No.

Your questions imply that finding out whether God exists is like finding out whether there is, for example, yet another planet in our solar system. An experiment with repeatable, sensory evidence is irrelevant in the former case, as it would be in deciding whom to marry or what career to pursue. A method appropriate to one area of experience is not necessarily appropriate to others. Even in the case of finding out about heavenly bodies, the evidence is always short of "proof" in the sense of "an argument that one is compelled to accept on pain of self-contradiction." Outside of math and logic, there are no such proofs.

If that is so, then there are no successful proofs for the existence of God. There are, however, philosophers who claim that the hypothesis of God's existence explains better than its rivals the harmony of various orders of our existence: atomic, chemical, biological, logical, psychological, intellectual, moral, and religious. There are, of course, philosophers ready to challenge such a claim, but this, and not the search for the right experiment, is in my opinion that proper approach to the question of God's existence.

Tony Flood

Your question looks, to me, like a specific example of a much broader question: what level of evidence is required to prove facts about the world — scientific, experimental facts, if you like. Asking for a proof of god's existence in the sorts of terms that you use (and not on the basis of faith, for example), is to ask for an empirical (or scientific) proof of god.

As such, we can look towards the philosophy of science literature on the nature of proof. Currently, I would say, the consensus is that no amount of evidence conclusively proves a scientific theory about the state of the world (such as, in your example, that god is a scientific fact). It is always possible to appeal to other possible explanations of the phenomena, although these may start to look very far fetched in the face of certain events (such as those you describe) and most people might switch to the alternative explanation if it looks simpler and more elegant. So, atheists might give up their current world view and become believers if your events occurred (although they might start believing in cosmic practical jokers instead).

Tim Sprod


Emily asked:

How satisfactorily does Plotinus distinguish between intellect and soul?

Plotinus developed a system of 3 hierarchies, which are referred to as hypostases. This triad consists of the One, the Nous (which is mind or intellectual principle), and the All Soul (World Soul Human Soul). In his hypostases, the One is an eternal principle from which the Intellect (Nous) proceeds and which in turn produces the All Soul. The two hypostases which concern us are the Intellect and the All Soul.

There is a clear distinction between these two emanations. The Intellect corresponds to the World of Ideas first expressed by Plato. In Plotinus' system, the Intellect goes beyond the Platonic Idea in that it is organic and not just a mathematical structure. For the individual, the Intellect becomes intuitive thought, which does not require discursive reasoning. Its essence is more than rational thought, it is being, that which comprehends all. Plotinus goes on to show that the Intellect contains no reflective logical thought. From this hypostases, the Soul evolves as a product of the Intellect.

It is the Soul which then becomes responsible for reflective or contemplative thought. The Soul becomes the link between the intelligible world and the phenomenal world. Although both the Intellect and the Soul contain images of the Idea, they are distinct. The reason for this distinction results from the premise that through the process of emanation, you move from one stage to another, a process of devolution. It becomes a procession from an eternal principle. The procession flows from the One to the Nous to the All Soul. Each partakes of the whole (One), yet remains distinct.

John Eberts

According to Plotinus, Intelligence (nous) is the first emanation of "the One" and from intelligence in its turn emanates the Soul (psyche). Plotinus considers these emanations to be necessary and timeless. This means there is a logical dependence between the emanations, but being different levels of emanation, Intellect and Soul are well distinguished from each other in their function in the whole: the emanation of intelligence is similar to Plato's world of Forms (structure and essence of a thing contrasted with its matter), while the Soul can be conceived as the active principle, that imposes the rational structure of Intelligence on the world of matter, which is the emanation of the Soul. It is hard to say, whether this distinction can be bindingly "satisfactory". It is at least to Neoplatonists.

Simone Klein


Gonzalo asked:

What questions should we ask ourselves in order to know ourselves. How do we accomplish this goal?

Probably you can only really get to know yourself from experience. Of course you can have lots of experiences without becoming self-aware, so you need to be self-reflective. Yet that being said, man's capacity for self-deception is enormous and we don't really want to know unpleasant things about ourselves. But to know ourselves properly, we have to try to face up to what we find unacceptable — or settle for the belief that it's best not to know ourselves too well.

The best question to ask yourself is "why?"

Rachel Browne

According to Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, they are:

What can I know?
What ought I to do?
What may I hope?

That is, they are the core questions of epistemology, ethics and theology. The answer for him is to study pure reason.

According to me, it is probably something like "How is it that I can come to be a knowing subject?" The answer lies in a holistic investigation of growing up in a community, taking account of philosophy, psychology, science, ethics, communications and many other fields.

Tim Sprod


Do Xuan asked:

All the ancient oriental studies seem to find way to one highest level of understanding and mixing well up with the universe. Is there a theory like that in western community?

There are many theories like this in Western philosophy. You might even say that Plato advocates this. But there are several questions I have about your question and your implicit position. First, you say "highest level of understanding". I assume you mean something like enlightenment in Zen, the removal from the wheel of karma in Hinduism, and so forth. That is, that there is a "highest" state of being which enables one to transcend, in some manner, the world. You find this kind of thing mostly in the writings of religious mystics in the West, and, inasmuch as I understand them, the same is true in the Eastern traditions. So if you want to read this sort of thing in the Western tradition, take a look at Jakob Boheme, the Jewish Kabbala, Kierkegaard, and so forth. That is, those "theories", as you put it, are religiously motivated, in that they 1) involve some sort of transcendence of normal, "worldly" existence, and 2) are taken as dogma.

And that last point is the sticking point for me. That is, as a philosopher, it is the point which I have intense dislike for. Why? Because questioning, active investigation, stops with the dogma. Let's look at this. Why, first, is there the assumption that the world can be transcended? Usually, those acts of transcendence are specific to the religion. That is, in Zen there is one kind of enlightenment, in Hinduism another, in Christian mysticism yet another, and so forth, and this great variety of religious traditions argues against the actuality of any of these, since there are so many contradictory claims. Second, recent work in neurophysiology has begun to uncover the neural basis of the feeling of transcendence. Now, one can claim that there is a conscious state which corresponds to, or is associated with "enlightenment". I have no quarrel with this. My quarrel is with the assumption that because we are in some mental state, that state makes some coherent reference to actuality: that it refers to something real. We have many examples of states which have no basis in or relation to reality. So feeling as if we have special knowledge of, or have transcended reality, is just that: a feeling. And, as I say, given that this feeling is, for the most part, connected to very specific dogmas about the existence of some particular god, or about the structure of the universe; and given that those dogmas are all contradictory, we are left with just the feeling.

The question to ask, I think, is, "what function, generally, does this feeling serve?" That is, why have we evolved this feeling; what advantage does it confer on those who have it... is it a holdover from times when man needed something like this to bond in groups, or merely to alleviate boredom?

These questions are, finally, starting to be asked. We are now in a culture where we can investigate religious claims, and religious feelings, without being burned at the stake or imprisoned, like Galileo. We are told, of course, that such investigations are "scientific", i.e., that they turn people into objects, that they are blasphemous, or simply that scientists are sadly out of touch with "reality", meaning that they do not hold the particular dogma they are investigating; that, since they are attempting to be impartial, they are disqualified from their search. A very nice source for this kind of thing is Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World. You might take a look at that. It's a kind of metaphysical cold shower.

But I'm not saying that looking at all of this is meaningless or invalid. As cultural studies, as studies of the human condition, of how we cope with reality, these are extremely valuable and important. I am, however, advocating a rather unpopular position, that of taking a certain stance toward those "theories", including those of your own culture, which entails a distancing, to prevent oneself from making the assumption they are to any extent correct. This is not the same as assuming that they are not useful, and certainly not the same as assuming that they do not play important parts in cultures.

Steven Ravett Brown


Nat asked:

In what sense MUST water be H2O?

This is a natural necessity which needs support from the doctrine of essentialism, and you might want to look at Kripke's book Naming and Necessity on this. On Kripke's view, if we imagine a world in which there is something which looks identical to water and is used for the exactly the same purposes for which we use water, but has a different constitution such as XYZ rather than H2O, we wouldn't say that the stuff was water. Kripke thinks there can be "fool's water" as there can be "fool's gold" and this would be water which is not H2O. On the other hand, if we found H2O had different identifying marks than those we use to identify water at the moment, that would still be water. Natural kinds are identified and defined by their molecular structure, so water is and must be H2O. This differs from tables and chairs, for instance, since these could be wooden or metal. That water must be H2O relies on the essentialism since we can only hold this if we take it that water necessarily has the property of being H2O.

An alternative view would be that water is the stuff in the sea and rivers which we wash with and drink regardless of its chemical constitution, and even if its constitution changed, we would regard it as water. Of course, before it was known that water is H2O people had beliefs about it and referred to it, so the problem that arises is how they could have had the true belief that the "water level in the river is high this year".

The essentialist statement that water must be H2O is a "de re" proposition and an a posteriori truth. Necessity in such propositions relates to the property of a thing and this is in contrast to "de dicto" propositions where a whole statement is taken to be necessarily true in the sense that it cannot be false. It could be false that water is H2O in that it could have had a different constitution, so it is not a de dicto necessity.

Necessity is also defined as truth in all possible worlds, which is again to claim that a proposition could not be false, but "water is H2O" can be true in this sense depending on what we take a possible world to be. For Kripke, when we talk about water in another possible world, we mean our water which is H2O since water is identified with its molecular structure, but for other philosophers we mean the stuff in the sea and rivers, whatever its constitution.

Rachel Browne

There's no reason at all that water must be H2O. In fact, there is a great deal of water that is not. It contains salt (NaCl) and various other compounds and ions. We call this complex "water", do we not? Now, if you start by defining "water" as H2O, then, in order to be consistent with this definition, you must use the term "water" or "pure water" to refer to that compound. On the other hand, if, in the question above, you are referring to the same compound by two terms, and have explicitly said that beforehand, then, again, in order to be consistent with your use of those terms, water and H2O must refer to the same existent substance.

But both of these are contingent on your use, definitions and suppositions. There are no "musts" about language. The problem here is that one is caught in a kind of ambiguity between language and substance, sense and reference, if you will. In order to compare two substances to see if they are the same, do we use their names? Not originally, nor should we. We should make physical tests of their characteristics, and if they match (closely enough), we know they are the same substances (i.e., exemplars, tokens, of the same physical types). Thus, if what we're calling water is a substance in a bottle, and what we're calling H2O is one in another, and we compare those substances, then, yes, water is H2O, and if that identity is fundamental enough (the same molecular structure), we say, assuming consistent laws of chemistry, etc., that water must be H2O. But then we have a problem with the next bottle, with the lake outside the room, etc. We have to assume, based on appearance, that what seems to be water (or what seems to be H2O) in those locations actually is... and since we have independently determined that water is H2O, we also assume that those substances are also H2O (or water), given constant laws of chemistry, etc. But now we have the general problem of induction and the more specific problem(s) of identifying similar substances (the lake might be a mirage, glass, or it might be alcohol), where the latter is a more classical empirical problem.

You have touched here on several very complex issues, in language and in induction, and the meta-problem of distinguishing (inasmuch as possible) those issues. I can't possibly do justice to this question here; in order to have reasonable background for this you need to read analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, and about the actual practice of science. Then there are the counter-arguments to the analytic position... and on and on. Putnam has a lot to say about this issue (e.g., Putnam, H. (1994). "Sense, nonsense, and the senses: an inquiry into the powers of the human mind." The Journal of Philosophy 91(9): 445-517; also, Putnam, H. (1973). "Meaning and reference." The Journal of Philosophy 70 (19): 699-711).

Steven Ravett Brown

If we embrace scientific realism, and we discover that the underlying reality of that wet, colorless, odorless, neutral, thirst quenching liquid we call 'water' is that it is constructed of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms bonded in just this way, then in that sense, water must be H2O.

Tim Sprod


Sarah asked:

What does the term immediate knowledge mean?

If I understand your question, you may be referring to what is termed "apodictic" knowledge by Husserl and others. This is knowledge which, according to phenomenologists (and others) is immediate and absolutely certain. Examples that they give are things like: you see the red color on a house and it is certain that you are experiencing red. Not unreasonable on the face of it, but the problems come up when you start thinking about what it is, really, that you know apart from anything else. That is, you can question your memory of seeing red 30 seconds ago, perhaps you're misremembering that it was red, or that you saw it at all, or even that it was called "red". And that brings us to the next problem, viz., that whatever you are experiencing, even in the moment, in order to be identified at all, must call on memory. To know that the color red is not the smell of roses means we remember, at least, that we have had smells and roughly what they "feel" like. But can we rely on that? Why? Dennett, in "Quining Qualia" has an essay bringing up problems with this, and Levin, in Reason and Evidence in Husserl's Phenomenology (a difficult, but very good book) does even better. The problem with Dennett, which he glosses over, is that his critique is not applied widely enough. When it is, his own thesis (which basically says that consensual empirical evidence is not subject to the same doubts) is also undermined.

Anyway, it's an interesting position, that we have such certain, immediate knowledge, and it seems that it should be true, but it's extremely hard to pin down just where that happens.

Steven Ravett Brown


Sue asked:

Berkeley suggests that material things do not exist unless they are perceived. What then, by Berkeley's definition, exists in the world of a blind man?

The fallacy revealed in your question is to draw the conclusion that perception only refers to seeing. Berkeley, like Locke and Hume, was an empiricist, like them he believed that knowledge of the world came through the senses: a blind man, therefore, deprived of one sense would rely on the rest of his senses to provide an awareness of the world. The same mistake is often made about memory, we often struggle to visualise a past event when it is in some cases more easily accessible through taste, scent, sound or feel.

Berkeley, though an empiricist, differed from Locke and Hume in so much as he was an empirical idealist, as opposed to their 'material ' empiricism, an acknowledgement of substances in an 'outside world.' which could generate sensations. The world to Berkeley was made up of ideas derived from information accessed through the senses. He never denied that we could smell things, taste things, feel things or hear things. However, everything stemmed from the will of the person: he ingeniously formulated a denial of causality from the supposed outside world by claiming that the thing which Locke, for instance, claimed to be matter would be, in a way, stagnant and unable to cause anything. To cause is to act and nothing is genuinely active but the will of an intelligent being. We interpret sensations from which we subsequently form ideas; which is somehow a reversal of the notion that things ' out there ' impose themselves upon us.

Berkeley would claim that an apple is a collection of ideas composed of colour, shape, texture, aroma, taste. There is no need to postulate that all this is somehow attached to an inaccessible material thing in some sort of external world. In line with Berkeley's notion of reality a blind man would have no difficulty in identifying an apple.

John Brandon

Berkeley did not suggest but rather argued for the view that to be is to be perceived: things can be analyzed without remainder into their qualities (e.g., shape, color, texture, smell, etc.) and that a quality could exist apart from a subject who is experiencing it is absurd. What exists in the world of the blind is exactly what exists in the world of those with sight, for that same world is sustained by God's perception of it.

Tony Flood

Everything that he perceives (touches, smells, hears, tastes) — perception can be through any of the senses. But don't forget that Berkeley thought that god perceived everything in the universe all the time, so that the existence of things doesn't depend on their perception by individual humans.

Tim Sprod


Colin asked:

What is a clear and concise definition of existentialism? All of the definitions I have read up to this point have only left me confused. I had a professor in college, Harvey Rabbin, who said that squirrels can not have existential thoughts because they do not contemplate their own deaths. I have just started the first Philosophy class to be offered at my high school, and I have found that high-school students are very receptive to philosophy. Is Philosophy offered in secondary school in England?

Existentialism can be defined by no means as a school of thought. For it has no confirmed students save Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition, it cannot be confined into a philosophy of it's own, but instead a tenet of thinking that many "philosophers" have shared in a period of time. Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Sartre, Heidegger, the poet Rilke, Albert Camus, Ortega, and arguably, Husserl are the major thinkers who share existentialist ideas — though fragments of ideas in regard to existentialism can be traced throughout the history of all philosophy.

One definite characteristic of existentialist ideas revolves around the need to reform philosophy and either abandon the Greek foundations, or denounce the past two millennium's movements of Greek philosophical progression. My definition of existentialism (in its most clear and concise approach) is:

'A movement of ideas beginning in the 19th Century which sought to severe thought from dependence on the traditional Greek modes of thinking and acknowledged a possibility of the existence of all things preceding the essence of all things. The movement was, significantly expressed, unlike other philosophical patterns, through the arts (primarily poetry, fiction, and painting).'

Cole Lejean


Michael asked:

I am currently writing an essay on Protagorean Relativism. I am to provide my opinion on the subject. Take for example, one ill and one healthy man. They both drink the same orange juice, however it is sweet to the healthy man and sour to the sick man. In Protagorean Relativity is the orange juice unchanging or always changing according to who perceives it?

As far as Protagorean relativism goes, there's a nice little exposition of it at: http://www.arts.ubc.ca/philos/russellj/100lec00.htm. And I'm sure there are many others. As I understand it, it depends on what you mean by the "orange juice", whether that refers to the "actual" juice lying "behind" (so to speak) one's sensory impressions, or the juice considered strictly as one sees, tastes, etc., it. The latter, as the source of "truth", if I understand that position correctly, is the Protagorean thesis. In that vein, you might also look at various writings by Bernard Williams, who is very concerned with truth (I only cite one ref below).

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

Steven Ravett Brown


Suzanne asked:

I want to know why humans anthropomorphize rocks, like Mount Rushmore, Easter Island, ancient Egypt, ancient Mexico etc. Why do we see reflections of ourselves in clouds, cliff faces, tree stumps etc.?

I'm going to give you one very one-sided, non-philosophical explanation for this. Recently, some neurologists have discovered that there are neurons, in the brains of monkeys and probably of man, which they term "mirror neurons" (see for example Rizzolatti, G., L. Fadiga, et al. (1996). "Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions." Cognitive Brain Research 3 131-141.). Exactly the same neurons (in this particular location) fire both when monkeys see other monkeys make particular gestures (like grasping at food) and when the original monkeys make the same gestures. So there seems to be a kind of recognition of similarity between ourselves and others which is built into the nervous system. The speculation is that this is the basis for some aspects, at least, of empathy. If we extrapolate from this, then, anthropomorphizing is a consequence of abstracting from this function. We see resemblances in action and appearance because, presumably, we are hard-wired to do so (and it's certainly easy to adduce evolutionary functions of this)... but this can function well or poorly, in suitable and unsuitable circumstances, like all of our capacities. Thus, clouds and toys as people, robots as having feelings, etc.

It is, after all, surprising that very young children, in play, impute feelings to their toys, even very crude toys, is it not? And not only to anthropomorphic toys. There are of course animals and machines (e.g., "the little engine that could") similarly given human characteristics, if they act at all human. It seems to me that all these are more or less the same kind of mental acts as seeing faces in rocks. We haven't taught children to do this; it could be argued that they learn, willy-nilly, from seeing their parents, etc., to generalize to crude toys... but then why do non-human toys, especially the machines, elicit the same attributions of feelings in children? The mirror neuron findings, above, provide, I believe, at least part of the answer to this.

Steven Ravett Brown

I don't know that this is a philosophical question so much as a psychological or neuro-physiological one. I think the answer is that we are hard-wired to see patterns in things, particularly patterns of faces. See any good book on child development for more detail.

Tim Sprod


Mark asked:

Many moons ago, I heard a story about a philosopher (Greek, I think) who was wrestling with the question of when kernels of corn, dropped on a table, cease to be individual kernels and become a pile. His answer was, 'turn around!'

I've been looking for the name of this philosopher (and a reference to the tale) for some time, but haven't had any luck: does anyone who this philosopher was?

The story you are thinking of is known as the 'paradox of the heap'. I searched for this at http://www.raging.com and came up with the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy's reference to this paradox. Look at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sorites-paradox/ and I think you will find all the information you want.

Katharine Hunt

Sorry, I don't. But the paradox you refer to (a heap of corn never stops being a heap as you keep taking off single kernels, since taking one kernel off a heap always still leaves a heap) is known as the Sorites Paradox. So looking this up in reference books may find you the answer.

Tim Sprod


Francisco asked:

What is logic? What are paradigms?

I'm not going to answer your first question; that's just too big a topic. However, in answer to your second, you might say that a paradigm is a viewpoint, a reasonably coherent viewpoint based on, hopefully, fact. In other words, there are multiple ways of interpreting a given set of facts. Think of the story of the blind men and the elephant. What the elephant is depends on your interpretation of the facts you're presented with, roughly speaking. That interpretation, that viewpoint, is your paradigm. Now, if another blind person, or deaf person, comes along and says, "you're wrong, this is what an elephant really is", what do you do? First, you disagree. Then as they become more persuasive, you either keep arguing, or you say, "ok, I was wrong; you're right", or the other person says that; or, even better, the two of you say, "wow, we both have something to say about what an elephant is, let's come up with some really good idea between us".

Now, conceivably, we could take the same story, and let all the blind people feel their way around the whole elephant, ask them what an elephant was, and still get three (or more) different versions... one with a trunk, say, interpreted as a weapon as well as a nose, one interpreting the feet as good for stomping enemies while another sees them as just good for standing on... and so forth. Which of those are held to be true, and what further data would be needed to confirm one viewpoint over another is the kind of thing that supports or changes paradigms.

Take a look at:

Kuhn, T. S. (1996) The structure of scientific revolutions Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press

and, Kitcher, P. (1993) The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions New York, NY, Oxford University Press

Steven Ravett Brown

If you look up "logic" in for example the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy you will among many other entries be referred to combinatory logic, deontic logic, epistemic logic, intensional logic and modal logic, but the dictionary refuses any concise answer to the question "What is logic?" Though it is indeed impossible to give a brief explanation of what logic is, a few general remarks may help to give an idea of what (elementary) logic is about.

Logic as discipline dates back to the ancient Greeks and was part of philosophy in these days. Today it's a science on it's own and is a link between mathematics and philosophy. As an everyday definition logic can be said to be the art of correct reasoning (not all thinking is reasoning). More academically logic can be defined as the study of consistent sets of beliefs. Some people prefer to define logic as the study of validity of arguments.

We express our beliefs in sentences. Only sentences, which can be said to be true or false are objects of logical investigation. Such sentences are called statements or propositions. Logic then has to do with analysis of statements. More statements form arguments, when one of the statements, called the conclusion, is claimed to follow (indicated by words like "so" or "therefore") from the others (called the premisses). Logic has to do with the analysis of the structure of arguments. Another important branch of logic is that of definitions. One of the aims here is to weed out ambiguity.

There seem to be elementary laws of reasoning. For example no-one would doubt that a sentence like "I'm awake and I'm asleep" is illogical, as it is contradictory. Logic itself builds on these elementary laws of reasoning.

As arguments in natural language often are vague, one of the aims of logic from the beginning was to formalize arguments in a way that the structure of the argument is a guarantee for the soundness of the argument, or in other words that conclusions follow necessarily as true, as long as the premisses are true. The oldest version of formal logic goes back to Aristotle and is called syllogism. The modern embodiment is called formal or symbolic logic. Formal languages are only fragments of natural language. The bigger one wants this fragment to have, the more complicated a formal language will be. The result is a vast field of branches of logic (see above).

"The best way to find out what logic is, is to do some", E. J. Lemmon states in the introduction to the Propositional Calculus in his book Beginning Logic. So if you are interested in doing some logic, there are two introductory books I can recommend:

Wilfrid Hodges Logic — An introduction to elementary logic Penguin books

E. J. Lemmon: Beginning Logic Hackett Publ. Comp.

Now to your second question: The term paradigm was made popular by Thomas Kuhn (first used by G. C. Lichtenberg) and is connected with scientific progress. While in the previous centuries science was believed to be an ongoing smooth and cumulative process and to be the custodian of rationality, it becomes more and more apparent that these assumptions are perhaps no more than superstitions.

As an overall judgement Kuhn says "A paradigm is common to the members of an academic community and reverse an academic community consists of members sharing that paradigm". What is meant here, is that academic theories are not only a result of academic research, but also a result of the cultural environment with it's framework of ideas and presuppositions, in that researchers live.

According to Kuhn, once a theory is established, it becomes a paradigm (greek: paradeigma example). As much as possible is tried to be integrated in this paradigm (the linear and cumulative stage). Further, if still successful, this paradigm becomes part of academic teaching and serves as model. Kuhn sees this as the stage of "normal science", a more or less conservative and ideological activity. And once a theory has reached this level, it is as difficult to challenge as any other prejudice, even if much of the theory is already empirically falsified. Therefore a new theory, also empirically tested but not compatible to the old one, cannot simply supply the "old paradigm", but has to replace it: the fight of the experts begins. Normal science has reached a crisis, suffers a breakdown and the community undergoes a shift of vision, or change of paradigm. This paradigm change involves not only scientific arguments, but also propaganda, persuasion and opinions of authorities, which are all irrational elements.

Simone Klein


Sailesh asked:

I want to know the meaning of philosophy, but in few lines.

So do I. But here's a sound-bite for you: philosophy is theattitude in which we attempt to actively investigateanything, where "anything" includes the assumptions we employ in our investigation.

Another: philosophy is the activity of thinking as clearly as possible, and the investigation of the attainment of that activity. Another: philosophy is the rational pursuit of any sort of knowledge. Another: philosophy is the investigation of meaning, including the investigation of the meaning of the investigation of meaning.

If you want to do philosophy, in my very strong opinion, you must be prepared to be extremely upset, dismayed, anxious... because you will be — and should be — investigating, among other things,your own assumptions about everything. If doing philosophy does not upset you at least part of the time, you're not doing it properly. Further, if you do not, as a result of your investigations, change most, if not all, of those assumptions, you have not done it properly.

Steven Ravett Brown

The word says what it means: love (as in friendship) of wisdom (which is not the same as knowledge, but a discernment (Greek: diorasis) in terms of it.)

Matthew Del Nevo

I once said in a radio interview (off the top of my head) "Philosophy is the use of reason and logic to determine the nature of reality — but whether that can be done is itself a question of philosophy!"

According to my former student Brian Tee, in his Introduction to Philosophy class which I have been attending this term, "Philosophy investigates the problems that arise when we think about our relation to the world." Give it a while to sink in, and I think you will find that's a pretty powerful definition of philosophy.

Geoffrey Klempner


Gonzalo asked:

Well you guys have certainly taken long enough. I have not received an answer to my questions yet. Anyways, here is one you might feel more comfortable with, or, more willing to answer...

Hey! I have answered one of your questions. Sorry, though, this time your series of questions just struck me as too big to tackle.

However, I did think that I might clarify (from my own perspective) who the answerers are, and how I choose which questions to answer. All of us answerers are, as far as I know, unpaid volunteers who fit this in around our other commitments — a full time job in my case.

Basically, I scan through the questions looking for three things: questions that interest me; questions about which I think I have something interesting to say; and questions which seem to come from someone who has thought a bit about the problem and has tried to work it out for themselves.

The sort of question I avoid like the plague is one that is clearly a set essay topic which has just been plonked straight on the web in the hope that someone else will do the hard work of thinking things through. I know that you, Gonzalo, don't ask these sort of questions, but if anyone is reading this who does, this is my advice. Look at your question, work out a sort of plan of attack on it, and ask a question about one of the more puzzling parts of that plan. Or identify just what part of the question it is that is causing you problems, do a bit of reading about it, and try to put that concern in your own words. If your question strikes me as one that has some thought behind it, I am much more likely to answer.

Tim Sprod


Unsure asked:

Did Plato propose in the Republic that all people are born with equal souls so they have an equal chance of ruling OR men and women with the correct mix of metal in their soul can rule? I tend to think it is the correct mix of metal.

Let's see what Plato has to say here:

'We shall,' [Socrates] said, 'tell our citizens the following tale:

"You are, all of you in this community, brothers. But when god fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those of you who are qualified to be Rulers (which is why their prestige is greatest); he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and other workers. Now since you are all of the same stock, though your children will commonly resemble their parents, occasionally a silver child will be born of golden parents, or a golden child of silver parents, and so on. Therefore the first and most important of god's commandments to the Rulers is that in the exercise of their function as Guardians their principal care must be to watch the mixture of metals in the characters of their children. If one of their own children has traces of bronze or iron in its make-up, they must harden their hearts, assign it its proper value, and degrade it to the ranks of the industrial and agricultural class where it properly belongs: similarly, if a child of this class is born with gold or silver in its nature, they will promote it appropriately to be a Guardian or an Auxiliary. And this they must do because there is a prophecy that the State will be ruined when it has Guardians of silver or bronze."

Republic 415a-c, Lee translation

So you suspect correctly: Plato believes that different people are born with differently composed souls, and only those with the right sort of soul can become rulers. In modern parlance, he believes in equality of opportunity, but not in equality of outcome.

But this passage should not be taken out of context. The Republic is a work of great literary sophistication: at the very least, Socrates's tale is a story within a story. He is relating a myth (story 1) which is not supposed to be taken as literally or even metaphorically true, but rather as a pragmatic device to persuade the hypothetical citizens of the ideal republic which he is describing to Glaucon (story 2) to follow the rules laid down for their benefit. And even story 2 is not just an exercise in political speculation, for Plato also maintains a running analogy between the constitution of the state and that of the individual: everything that he has to say about the one is intended to throw light on the other and vice versa.

Which is a roundabout way of stressing that Plato doesn't really think that souls contain mixtures of metals, but only that individuals have innate capabilities and limitations which disqualify all but a few of them for rulership.

Andrew Aberdein


Arzu and Ienke asked:

What was the influence of the early Greek philosophers on the philosophy in the Renaissance?

In the transition period between the medieval period and the Renaissance, dissolution of the synthesis between Christianity and the Philosophy of Aristotle takes place. Within this framework, a revival of Classical Learning and Greek philosophy became available to the intellectual strata of society. A resurgence of Stoicism and its influence is seen in the writing of Michel Montaigne. The development of employing Sextus Empiricus skepticism in dealing with religion was now employed rather than Scholastic reason.

The human aspect of life so prided by the Greeks begins to gain ground as philosophy moves away from religion. Philosophers look at nature with a renewed sense of 'awe' that had once existed in many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. This development should not be seen as a separation or rejection of religious principles, but rather as a means of affirming man's humanity. What develops is a fresh look at Greek philosophy through new Western translations rather that through the eyes of Moslem Arabian thinkers, rather than attempting to Christianize the Greeks so that they would be acceptable to Christians, such as was attempted by Augustine, Aquinas and other theologians. The Renaissance thinkers sought to exalt nature and man (Humanism) and Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism and Stoicism were all employed for this purpose.

The unearthing of ancient Greek and Roman literature helped encourage this movement. Out of this unsystematic development of philosophical thought, one finds the writings of Michel Montaigne. Montaigne brings a new intellectualism to the atmosphere of the Renaissance, an atmosphere that would analyze the structure of nature. Montaigne brought the skepticism to bear on the human side of life. Note must be taken to remember that Classical skepticism (Empiricus and Pyrrho) was a method of inquiring, the purpose of which was to determine what one truly knows and then combine it with living an exemplary life.

Another example of Greek influence can be seen in the works of Erasmus. The enthusiasm he displayed for Classical learning had a major impact during his lifetime. He both edited and translated Greek literature. With the development of the printing press, Erasmus envisioned the popularization and affordable access to ancient Greek knowledge to all intelligent readers.

The Greek influence can be seen in the arts and letters of the Renaissance period. Patrons such as Cosimo de' Medici founded the Academy in Florence where Plato's philosophy took center stage. In 1440, with the Medici's Florentine Academy the entire body of Plato's works was for the first time made available to scholars in the west. Plato was to be the rival of Aristotelian through the works of Pletho who compared their philosophies.

In the works of Boccaccio, Michelangelo, and De Vinci, the beauty, sensual and minute subtleties of the Greek depiction of the body reemerge. The Renaissance was a reemergence and emancipation of the mind and spirit imbued with the passion that was once Greece. It must be emphasized that the main means of philosophical inquiry remained Aristotelian. Even with the break from an Scholastic tradition, Aristotle was still employed. As mentioned before, the difference was that Aristotelianism was now based directly on the original Greek texts rather than on Arabic or Latin commentators.

John Eberts


Damian asked:

When I dream, is that considered knowledge? Would the Empiricist or the Rationalist think so and why?

There are several reasons why we might claim that the contents of dreams are not knowledge and I think that the best one is that no-one else can know what happens in our dreams, so no-one else can verify or confirm the events. We might remember our own dreams but memory is not a ground of knowledge because once again, it cannot be confirmed. This is why there is scepticism about the past. So, firstly, reidentification by oneself or others, or at least the possibility of this, is missing. Another reason is that, if you take perception either as causal, or as reliant upon a certain state of affairs such as a being's having sense organs in a world of objects and events, dreaming doesn't occur in the right circumstances.

If we go by the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief it might be held that dreaming is not true nor is it a state in which you are justified and dream events do not constitute beliefs. We can only say dreaming is not true or justified on the assumption that we are not dreaming, but if we are dreaming we might say that any beliefs about events going are not coherent with waking beliefs or what we would take to be true if awake.

On the other hand, the psycho-analytical view is that dreams provide knowledge of ourselves, our unconscious desires and wishes, so dreaming can bring forth hidden subjective knowledge.

As to the second part of your question, Descartes held that we cannot know anything if we are dreaming since this was the ground for his doubt of the senses. For Locke, we do not possess or use knowledge when we dream because he thought knowledge was direct awareness of some fact. Hume held that knowledge was "assurance arising from comparison of ideas" and that "the sciences of quantity and number" are the only "proper objects of knowledge", and so he might have held that dreaming about pure geometry was to use knowledge, but if geometry was applied so that it involved empirical impressions, this would not be using knowledge since there can be no comparison between empirical impressions because all our impressions are distinct and different from one another. Berkeley held that dreaming was more akin to imagining or thought rather than perception, so dreaming is to make use of perceptual ideas but is not knowledge any more than imagining is. When thought occurs in a dream, if logical, it might be knowledge, although Berkeley did not say this. Kant may say that even if we make a judgement that something is true in a dream it is not so because dreaming falls outside causality seen as succession in time: No relevant causal representation occurs prior to the beginning of a dream sequence so we could not understand a dream as objective cognition of phenomena.

Rachel Browne


Matt asked:

Outline the philosophical arguments that try to prove the existence of God. What are their faults? Is there any one 'plausible' theory?

Since God's existence can't be proved by observation or experiment, most arguments for the existence of God are based on the principle of sufficient reason, which makes all of them only more or less plausible.

By "God" we normally have and use the concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good and supernatural creator. Just because from having that concept it of course doesn't necessarily follow that God exists. So several attempts have been made by philosophers and theologians to proof God's existence, which fall into three groups:

  1. rationalist proofs from the concept of God itself (a priori or purely conceptual arguments)
  2. empirical proofs based on the existence of the world/the universe
  3. pragmatic and moral proofs (based on the demands of morality, the existence of beauty, the normativity of human rationality, religious experience, etc.), which will not be discussed here in detail, as they do not offer proofs in the narrower sense.

The various versions of the ontological argument constitute the first group. They have the advantage of concluding straightforwardly to a necessary existence of God. The earliest and most famous version of the ontological argument by Anselm of Canterbury (chapter 2 of his Proslogion) can be summarised as follows:

  1. We understand God to be something than which nothing greater can be conceived
  2. Because of having this concept, God at least exists in our minds
  3. Either God exists in our minds alone or both in the mind and in the extra-mental reality
  4. What exists is greater than what does not exist
  5. If God existed only in our mind, then we could conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived that also existed in extra-mental reality
  6. If God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived and what exists is greater than what does not exist, it follows that God exists.

As a classical critique to this Immanuel Kant argued that existence is not a real predicate: To say that something falls under a concept does not add to the content of that concept, it is therefore analytic and the result is a tautological argument. Kant compared the argument with the following: There is no difference between the concept of a hundred real and a hundred imaginary pounds. Whether they actually exist cannot be deduced from the concept of a hundred pounds.

Consequently Kant himself made no attempt to prove God's existence, but thought the idea of God to be necessary, because without it morality would be impossible (So Kant's argument belongs to group (c).)

In the group (b) belong the cosmological arguments appealing to general features of the world, and teleological arguments based on more special features.

The cosmological argument rests in the observation, that one thing is always caused by another and this in turn by something else prior to it. We then argue, that since there cannot be an infinite regress, there must be an unconditioned First Cause or God. It was Thomas Aquinas, who presented the cosmological argument from three standpoints in his Summa Theologiae:

  1. Whatever is in motion must have been moved by something else. It follows, that without the First Mover there would be no motion.
  2. In the world of sense there is an order of efficient causes. If there was no First Cause, there couldn't be intermediate or ultimate causes
  3. The world could also have not been. Therefore the world is not self-explanatory. To explain it's existence we have to go beyond the world to a force, who has it's own necessity (otherwise it could also have not existed) and has the knowledge and power to create a world.

Among the many objections that have been made against the cosmological argument, are the following:

  1. The postulation of a First Cause is either self contradictory or arbitrary: If it is claimed, there are no uncaused causes, how can there be then a First Cause?
  2. Why should there not be an infinite regress? It is possible, that our present (expanding) universe emerged from the collapse of a previous (contracting) universe, and so on ad infinitum.

The teleological arguments for the existence of God centre on the design of the universe (therefore often called the argument from design). Before the concept of evolution, the universe was seen as a perfect mechanism designed by God the Creator. The most famous version is known as 'Paley's Watch' after William Paley. He argued that the existence of a clockwork demanded the existence of a watchmaker. Paley reasoned by analogy, that the universe with it's immensity, complexity, and orderliness needed an extremely intelligent and powerful designer. As teleological arguments focus more on orderliness of the parts and processes of the world and on the purposiveness of the many things in nature, than a certain prove for a (individual) God, perhaps these are the most plausible arguments for the existence of God in the end.

Simone Klein


Rodrigo asked:

Seeing it from the religious point of view, If God wants only good things for us, why we can't have a perfect world without wars and problems?

The short answer is that world without wars and problems would be a world without freedom and personal growth and so wouldn't be a perfect world. A world in which God nipped every incipient evil in the bud would be morally, if not also physically, unrecognizable.

The regularities we discern in nature are preconditions of our moral life: we couldn't achieve any of our goals without relying on those regularities, and the inability to achieve goals would itself be a great evil. We would hardly understand what caused what, however, if every time the operation of a natural law were about to collide violently with a fragile human body, God intervened to save the day. (And if he didn't do it every time, he could be charged with being capricious.) If in such a world suffering did not exceed that of a stubbed toe, we could ask why we have to suffer even that. If human beings are the source of the unpleasantness, well, then: whose bodies should God restrain? Whose minds should he invade and control?

It is better for God to have created a universe with persons other than himself than not to have done so. But if there are persons, then there is freedom. A world in which there is creative freedom is better than a world in which there isn't. It would be incoherent for God to create persons and then prevent them from understanding by experience the consequences of their actions and those of things in nature. Creative freedom would be effectively absent (even if essentially present) were God to frustrate every evil motivation.

The universe is an arena of growth for persons, not a safe-haven from trials and tribulations. Were God to "protect us from all anxiety," as many believers pray on Sunday, our problem-solving capabilities would have never developed. What would get us out of bed each morning, what art would we create, what songs would we sing or stories would we tell, if the tension that is human living, that bears within it the possibility of evil breaking out at any moment, were absent?

We assume that God knows more about any situation than any of us do. We'll further assume that whenever we suffered because someone we loved was harmed or worse, something we value was weakened or destroyed, or our attempt to realize value was frustrated, that suffering was sometimes a means to our enjoyment of greater value — and God knew that, too. In the literature such evils are called "disciplinary." That is, they are opportunities for persons to learn and thereby grow. Personal growth, all things being equal, is a good thing.

But there are some evils that cannot reasonably be called disciplinary. Some losses of real value and some frustrations of real-value realization bring with them suffering that is so excruciating that there is nothing to learn from it. You can think of many candidates for such nondisciplinary evil; my favorite, if that's the right word, is a child's dying painfully. What is there to be learned from such suffering, either by the child or those who love him or her? Assuming an answer is forthcoming, was the good of the learning proportionate to the suffering that paid for it? In far too many cases, it was not.

The problem of evil for believers in God is the problem of excessive, nondisciplinary evil, evil out of which no overriding or compensating good could conceivably come, evil that is disproportionate to any good that might occasion the aftermath of the evil, evil that God arguably could have prevented.

There is no refuge in agnosticism: if one says that we don't know what future good might come out of present evil — which would revise our judgment that it is an irredeemable evil — the ready reply is that we also don't know what future evil might have its roots in some present good. Are we equally ready to revise on such hypothetical grounds our judgments of what is good?

If one believes that one has sufficient reason for believing that there is a cosmic person who cares about his creation in general and created persons in particular — a question we cannot go into here — the existence or occurrence of evil need not overthrow such belief provided one's idea of God is not loaded with indefensible metaphysical attributes.

In the effort to square the existence of God with that of nondisciplinary evil, E. S. Brightman and, following him, Peter A. Bertocci have suggested that God's control over his creation is not unlimited, that there is an obstacle within God's own nature that impedes his effort to reduce the amount of evil that mars his creation. If you wish to explore this proposed solution, I would suggest tracking down Bertocci's Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Prentice-Hall, 1951. To challenge or pursue anything I've said above, please feel free to write me.

Tony Flood

From a religious point of view, don't forget it is freedom God gives us. This is the basic good. Problems go with sovereign freedom. The solutions are in our hands. To help us God revealed laws, which are not 'natural' as such, although from different premises one could also argue that they are natural. Law operates within reason. Some would say a law-abiding world would be a good one. History shows that sometimes we have to fight for justice and that can lead to war. Conversely, pacificism can lead to oppression and injustice (invariably it does). Jesus' point was that law-abiding was not enough, that the spirit of the law, which is not reducible to legalities, must not be lost and in fact must be understood. Again, such understanding is a demand made upon reason.

Matthew Del Nevo


Robert asked:

Is logic the best way of solving problems or is it limited?
If it is limited, then what would be a better way of solving problems?

Logic, on its own, cannot solve problems. Logic is merely a way of ensuring that we do not lose truth as we reason (i.e. if we start with true statements, and we follow the rules of logic, we can guarantee that we finish with true statements).

By far the trickiest bit of solving problems, therefore, is ensuring that we start with true statements, and that any further statements we introduce (rather than deduce by following the rules of logic) in the course of solving the problem are also true. Logic cannot help us here.

Furthermore, problems are problems because they worry us. Without that worry (or curiosity or some other emotion), there is no problem and no drive to solve it. Problems arise in contexts, so we must be guided in our solution by what is appropriate to that context, and by the situational constraints and supports. Problems often require going beyond the obvious, through the use of creativity and intuition. Emotion, context, creativity are all other factors that work with logic to help solve problems.

So, logic is essential to much problem-solving (otherwise you cannot ensure that the truth of what you are saying is preserved), but on its own it is useless. A better way is not (to my mind) a non-logical way, but a way that appropriately blends logic, emotion, context and creativity in embodied humans.

Tim Sprod


Sitar asked:

I read Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.

I would just like to know what do you feel. When asked how to refute Berkeley, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and said, "I refute him thus." Was this really a refutation of Berkeley? Why, or why not?

Also what is the difference between Berkeley's idealism and Epicurus' materialism?

Berkeley's metaphysics has the great merit of being effectively summed up in three words, albeit three words of Latin: Esse est percipi, or 'To be is to be perceived'. By this he meant to deny that the objects of the external world have any material existence; they exist only as ideas, the same ideas which we have of them when we perceive them. Because only ideas are taken to exist this view is called idealism.

The mistake which is attributed to Johnson in this famous anecdote is to confuse perception with sight alone. Had Berkeley supposed (absurdly) that physical objects existed only in our visual perceptions of them, then apprehending an object in a non-visual way (kicking it, for instance) would have sufficed to refute him. However, perception includes touch, and kicking is just a rough sort of touching. So Johnson's stubbed toe is not a refutation of idealism.

Reflection on the 'virtual reality' of science fiction (and to some extent science fact) may help you to understand how Berkeley's account of the world was supposed to work. Participants in a virtual environment perceive apparently material objects which are actually just subroutines of the computer program maintaining the environment. Moreover, were sufficiently strong artificial intelligence available, the participants themselves could merely be extraordinarily sophisticated subroutines. The world which they experienced could be as rich as ours, although it need not contain anything 'material'. The only external reality is the program itself, and the computer it runs on: in Berkeley's metaphysics this role is played by God.

Where Berkeley sought to reduce the material to the mental, Epicurus attempted the exact opposite. In his metaphysics all mental experiences are ultimately to be explained as the result of physical interactions between material objects. The key similarity between the two systems is that they both avoid the fundamental problem of a more intuitive dualism (in which both the mental and the material are irreducible): explaining how the two modes of reality affect each other. An important difference is that God is an essential and central feature of Berkeley's metaphysics, a feature which Epicurus explicitly disavows. However, it is possible to reconstruct both systems as independent of the existence of God.

Andrew Aberdein


Lima asked:

What makes people appreciate the aesthetic aspect of nature? What are its basic characteristics?

Many of us possess aesthetic values. Can this be used to benefit nature or the environment? Can this have a counter influence and actually damage the environment? How?

Is aesthetic value something intrinsic to a person or can this be modified? What factors (education, culture, religion etc.) might influence the formulation and evolution of aesthetic values of a person?

If aesthetic appreciation is that which delights the senses, then the characteristics of nature which we value relate to the senses, but aesthetic experience is more than purely sensual: I'm not sure we want to include eating and sex as aesthetic. To exclude these it could be suggested that aesthetic value involves externality of that which is appreciated together with its ability to cause prolonged contemplation and also that such value is only given to that which culture determines as art although on an institutional definition of art, nature would be excluded.

Kant thought that we appreciate nature as beautiful because it looks as if it is designed for our appreciation. This is an artistic approach to nature. I think that the artistic and purely visual approach may not ultimately be beneficial since it is not to appreciate the environment for simply being. At a certain level of development man is in a position to create something other than nature. Two of the arts, architecture and landscape gardening, can enhance the environment, but the further from the joy of being in nature people get and the more sophisticated and civilised they become, the more damage is done, ie there is not so much nature around to appreciate. I think that the pleasure of being or existing in the world is the sort of appreciation that is needed if we are to care about protecting the environment. To care about, love and enjoy nature as wonderful in itself, not simply visually, includes appreciation of the less than perfect, eg the smells, the dirt, the danger, the pure reality of nature and the sense of timelessness it evokes. This is aesthetic insofar as the senses are roused to contemplation — it is more than perception — but this is not aesthetic in the sense of the term in which it only applies to art.

Although you might be able to bring someone to appreciate art and nature, what we appreciate is probably based on taste which depends upon our psychological type. In 1995 Leicester University did a survey asking people to list the art they thought "best" and the art they "loved best". Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings were thought "best", but not "best loved" because people didn't want such things decorating their homes. Education, culture and religion will probably influence what we take to be "best", or of greatest aesthetic value, as it did in this Western survey since most of those involved probably had little knowledge of Japanese art, for instance. What they actually like, and choose to hang on their walls, may be mass-produced Japanese art though. I don't think that taste can be modified much and, in any case, according to the survey the formulation of aesthetic value of art doesn't depend on taste but on recognition of quality. It seems that taste is intrinsic to a person but when we ascribe aesthetic value we seem to take a more objective stance. There may be no such thing as "taste" in a purely artistic evaluative sense. It may be that people find Michelangelo's paintings too grand or serious and like something they feel comfortable with on their walls, and likewise, it may be that those who appreciate nature feel comfortable in it. But this is good. There will always be people who appreciate aspects of nature and these people will be among those who protect the environment.

Rachel Browne


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? (From Answers page 13.)

I have another slant on this. I don't think that it could be fairly said that conversation measures intelligence, for there are many sorts of intelligence (see for example Howard Gardner's book "Multiple Intelligences"), and verbal intelligence is only one of them. Here I agree with Steven Ravett Brown, who gives some nice examples of other intelligences.

However, I think that there is good evidence that thought and language are more closely tied than his answer might imply. Firstly, though, we have to look a little at what we mean by language. Conversation as verbal interaction clearly does not capture all of language, as the examples of sign language, written language and body language all attest.

Mary Midgley (in a number of books — e.g. "The Ethical Primate", "Utopias, Dolphins and Computers") maintains, correctly I think, that the most intelligent animals are those (including humans) that have highly developed social structures, and that having such structures are crucial to the development of intelligence. These social structures are clearly implicated in the development of languages — it is hard to see how solitary animals could possibly develop language. Whether you can call the sorts of communications in which the more intelligent non-human animals engage languages is a moot point — I'm inclined to say not — but they are necessary precursors. Intelligence and social (especially linguistic) interaction seem to go hand-in-hand.

Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, in his "Thought and Language", maintained that it is in the engagement in conversation with more experienced others that the ability to think well develops, and there have been a raft of studies to back him up. The sort of ability to use intelligence that humans manifest, especially but by no means exclusively in the logico-linguistic domain, seems to me to be highly dependent on language. In fact, to tie this to your AI example, I cannot see how a robot could possibly become intelligent in anything like the human sense (including having morals and probably emotions) if it did not 'grow up' in a community of language users.

P.S. to Steven's comments: I believe that studies have shown that dolphins have self-recognition, and also that they have the concept that another can have false beliefs — a characteristic hitherto only seen in humans above the age of about 4, and some of the higher apes.

Tim Sprod


Frank asked:

What is the rightful place of opinion in the practice of philosophy?

The problem I have with your question is that I'm not sure what you mean by "opinion". Do you contrast that with certainty? With logic? Is an opinion a judgment based solely on feeling, or is it one based on incomplete reasoning, a kind of likelihood?

I think that philosophy, inasmuch as possible, should utilize sound reasoning, and verified data. But what dothose mean? Let's start with logic. That's all very fine, but logical reasoning and systems must have assumptions. What is the basis of those assumptions? Perhaps the basis should be experimental results. That's also fine, but then, except for clear cases, one must ask just what an experiment encompasses. Are "thought experiments" experiments? If experimentation implies consensus and inter-subjective agreement, have we, through those, eliminated opinion? You might read Kitcher's book "The advancement of science" on this, but that's about science, not philosophy, right? Is there a difference? What is it? His conclusion, however, is that through various feedback processes, science does advance, mostly. But science, according to him (and I agree), is about finding "truth", i.e., a correspondence between our ideas and concepts and reality. Thus, we must ask whether philosophy does the same. What is the nature of "philosophical truth", assuming we're even interested in that?

But my take on that question is that there is indeed something like a philosophical truth, and that is, at the least, first, clear, accurate, and reproducible thinking, which, second, leads (after revision and rethinking) to a correspondence between one person's conclusions and those of other persons, with the addition, third, when possible, of verification based on "the world", i.e., on experimentation. Thus, if your question amounts to, "Is armchair speculation opinion?" then I would have to answer that it is, mostly. When I say that, I am condemning people whose work is rarely if ever questioned and revised to the trashcan, more or less, it seems. And why not? Are the conclusions that one person, however intelligent, has reached through their own personal observation and thinking merely their opinions? Yes, I think that unless those conclusions have been refined and revised through interaction with others and with the world, they are opinion. Why do I think this? Because science, whichdoes advance, explicitly incorporates just such feedback processes, and when it does not, or does so poorly, it doesnot advance, in the main. So philosophy, then, must be practiced as a kind of science, in that one's conclusions must be bounced off of others (and the world) and revised based on those others' (and the world's) feedback. If they are not revised, but only defended, are they mere opinion? Probably yes.

So, then, does opinion, i.e., unverified and unrevised thinking and conclusions, have a place in philosophy? Why, yes... as thebeginning of a philosophical investigation. But no more than that.

Steven Ravett Brown

Opinion: interesting word. I'll sound like a real philosopher and say 'it all depends how you are using the word "opinion"'. It is commonly used to mean a view that someone holds more or less as a matter of taste. "Well, that's just my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion".

Yet, it is hard to say that opinions are (or ought to be) just like tastes. It doesn't make much sense to critique tastes (at least, tastes such as food flavor preferences). If I like strawberry ice cream and you like chocolate, it doesn't seem to make sense for me to say that I am right and you are wrong. It may make sense to talk about the causes of our tastes (my taste buds have this different structure to yours, or my parents always said yum to strawberry and yuck to chocolate), but this is to explain and not to criticise them.

Opinions, on the other hand, do seem to stand in need of justification, not just explanation. If I say that I think that asylum seekers ought to be thrown out of Australia, I need to give reasons why that is a sensible thing to believe. To say that my parents didn't like the foreigners who lived down the street when I was a child just doesn't seem to cut the mustard.

So here's my opinion on opinions: the rightful place of opinions in philosophy is that they be held as reflective and justified beliefs that can be defended with sound reasons against attacks on them, and that will be changed in the face of good reasons for doing so.

Tim Sprod


Dian asked:

Is there a link between philosophy and parapsychology? Has any philosopher written about paranormal phenomena without doing metaphysics? What's the meaning of "hyperlogic" and why isn't it the same as "absurd"?

Parapsychology, unlike philosophy, is an empirical enquiry: it seeks by observation and experiment to confirm or disconfirm certain anecdotally reported mental phenomena: chiefly, extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis and the survival of consciousness after death. However, both the methods and results of parapsychology should be of interest to philosophers.

Parapsychologists have had considerable difficulty producing results which satisfy prevailing standards of scientific credibility. One response has been methodological innovation: arguing for novel ways of judging the data which they produce. These innovations range from comparatively modest devices such as meta-analysis, a statistical technique for extrapolating general results from large quantities of independently produced, low-grade data, which has also found controversial applications in medical research, to extreme positions challenging the universality of scientific method. All such developments raise important questions for the philosophy of science.

If parapsychology should confirm some of its more startling hypotheses, this might be supposed to have profound consequences for the philosophy of mind. In particular, evidence that the mind could exist separately from the body, for example through 'astral projection' or by surviving death, would suggest that physicalism, a popular thesis in the philosophy of mind which postulates the reduction of all mind events to brain events, must be false. However, in the absence of any specific account of the way such paranormal phenomena might work, it would seem premature to rule out their compatibility with a sufficiently ingenious reduction of the mental to the physical.

Philosophers have written about paranormal phenomena throughout the history of the discipline. Plato, for example, discusses divination in the Phaedrus (244-245) and Timaeus (71b-72c), and elsewhere. Of course, the category of paranormal phenomena is a modern one, bounded as it is by the explanatory capacities of modern science. Amongst twentieth century philosophers C. D. Broad is a conspicuous figure — as Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge and President of the Society for Psychical Research he had a foot firmly planted in both disciplines, and published widely on their connexions. For an introduction to more recent work you could consult the articles 'Paranormal phenomena' by Stephen E. Braude and 'Parapsychology' by Allen Stairs in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy or its abridgement.

I'm not sure if I understand your 'without doing metaphysics' proviso. I wonder whether you intend 'metaphysics' in the sense in which some booksellers use it, as a genteel euphemism for occult, 'new age' and suchlike material, with which parapsychological works are typically shelved. Within philosophy, 'metaphysics' refers to the more respectable (pace any surviving logical positivists), if formidable, activity of seeking to determine the ultimate constituents of reality. This sort of enquiry is typical conducted at too high a level of abstraction to be influenced by the findings of any empirical science, parapsychology included.

As for 'hyperlogic', the term seems to have been popularized by the Australian cultural theorist Darren Tofts to describe the radically non-linear or non-naturalistic techniques of twentieth century artists and writers such as James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett. (It's also the name of a Californian software company, but I assume that you weren't referring to them.)

Tofts construes 'hyperlogic' by analogy with 'hypertext', in which complex cross-referencing allows for multiple, open-ended readings, and which, as the HT in HTML and HTTP, is the guiding principle behind the web. 'It is a form of thinking based on association, on accident, on suggestion. It is exactly the kind of logic usually implied by the term brainstorming.' [Darren Tofts 'Where are we at all? and whenabouts in the name of space' athttp://www.themodernword.com/joyce/joyce_paper_tofts.html, see also his Parallax: Essays on Art, Culture and Technology (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2000)] 'Logic' is here understood not as it typically is in (analytic) philosophy, as a systematic theory of inference, but in the much looser sense it carries in critical theory, as a general kind of narrative or structural rationale. So, in transcending some of these looser constraints, 'hyperlogic' need not be absurd, or at least not in a pejorative sense of 'absurd'.

Andrew Aberdein


Stacy asked:

What does it mean, or say about a person who over uses the exclamation point when writing? Not a story or novel, but everyday correspondence with someone.

This is a question for a writer, I think. In his recent novel Atonement, Ian McEwan has described the exclamation mark as the first resort for those who shout to make themselves clearer. I'd be inclined to say that a person who over-uses the exclamation mark is dramatic, but know from experience that this is not necessarily the case. Of course, McEwan notes that the exclamation mark does signify something. Sometimes it indicates a joke, but normally it is short form a phrase like "isn't that amazing" or some other such exclamation. If it is over-used, the person probably uses it as a short-form for many different things and can't be bothered to express himself fully or simply doesn't want to spell everything out.

Rachel Browne


Mike asked:

I need these answers. I've tried to get them but I can't. Can you help me out?

-What are Hobbes definitions of good, evil and felicity?
-What does deliberation involve according to to Hobbes?
-Why does he claim animals deliberate?
-What does Hobbes mean by power?
-Why do all humans have a desire for power?
-Why does Hobbes claim that wars of everyone against everyone is the natural consequence of having no common authority or state?
-What are the causes of conflict?
-What is the general reason between a right of nature and the law of nature in Hobbes?
-What is the right of nature?
-What is Hobbes' first law of nature?
-What is Hobbes second law of nature?
-According to Hobbes, what are social contrast and how do they follow from the first two laws of nature?
-According to Hobbes, what binds people to keep their contracts and promises?
-According to Hobbes, what rights are inalienable and why?

Mike also asked:

-What are Aristotle's three conditions for a virtuous action?
-What a final end is in general in light of some of the possible candidates Aristotle surveys? Why does Aristotle claim happiness is our final end?
-According to Aristotle, what in general are ethical virtues and vices? How can they be gained?
-What are the various parts of Aristotle's model of the human soul?
-What is Aristotle's definition of happiness?
-What is Aristotle' definition of an ethical virtue?
-In Aristotle's opinion why isn't ethics an exact science?
-In Aristotle's opinion are all good actions praiseworthy or blameworthy? Why or Why not?
-What is Aristotle's notion of prudence or practical wisdom and how can this virtue be gained?
-What is Aristotle's notion of wisdom? Is it our highest virtue? Why or Why not?
-According to Aristotle are degrees of happiness attainable?

To me, these lists of questions look like comprehension questions for (respectively) some part of Leviathan and the first book or two of Nicomachean Ethics. They don't seem to require much interpretation. To answer them, I would read those parts of those books carefully, and write down the answers that those authors give. My guess is that this is what your lecturer wants you to do.

Tim Sprod


Anselm asked:

Can you please explain exactly the following two terms:

  1. didactic teaching
  2. empirical learning

The problem with explaining something so general "exactly" is that so many people have theories about education. Whatever I or anyone says about versions of teaching is bound to be contradicted by someone else. But here's my take on this issue. "Didactic" refers, usually, to the verbal explication of some point(s). Thus, didactic teaching includes lecturing, memorizing... anything which is explicitly verbal, logical, having to do with words and memory. This can of course include mathematics, as when we learn addition tables, formulas, etc. Butunderstanding what is presented requires thinking (at the least) about it, which requires mental operations corresponding to experimentation, which ties into the empirical.

"Empirical" refers to the verification of principles or hypotheses through experiment and observation. So this kind of teaching emphasizes learning by "doing". But what does "doing" refer to? Lab work, experiments, field observations... yes, but also the attempted solution of problems in math, say, which werenot on the list of problems in the homework. Merely thinking through problems and situations is also a form of experimentation, although one which fails to take the unexpected (by definition!) into account. Also, it is necessary to learnhow to do experiments and observations properly, which ties into the didactic part.

Which is better? Neither. Thorough education requires both.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stephanie asked:

As a philosopher, do you struggle with the different ideas presented to you by so many different philosophers of the past? Take for example, is there a God or are we just organisms that have evolved from a primitive state? Is what we perceive to be real actually reality or is the mind perceiving what it wants to see? There are so many different views that you study every day, does this make you question which one is right and which one is wrong?

Well, yes, of course. It is the struggle with ideas that makes being a philosopher fun. The most intriguing questions for me are those for which there seem to be solid reasons for believing both one answer and an apparently incompatible other answer. For example, the success of science seems to imply that determinism is true, whereas our experience of making choices seems to imply that it can't be.

Another fun part of being a philosopher is seeing when apparently contradictory answers are not, in fact, contradictory at all. Your first example will do here. There is no reason why it can't be true both that there is a God, and that we are organisms that have evolved from a primitive state. God might have created the world such that we would evolve over time. Or God may be eternal — that is, outside of time — so that He does not and cannot take actions within the world, even though he may in some sense be responsible for it. Some philosophers believe that they can show that determinism and free-will are also not contradictory.

Tim Sprod


( ) said:

I have killed my baby.

Oh dear. Hopefully, you were suffering from an abnormality of mind that impaired your mental responsibility. If this is so, you will fare better legally: In England, you may get away with probation or a hospital order. Whether you will suffer remorse or regret will depend upon the type of mental impairment you suffer from.

Rachel Browne


Daniel asked:

I have been studying the book The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Bryan Magee) for the last three months and I'm about one quarter of the way through. I'm 53 years old, one year University, well-read and reasonably literate, but this book is very hard for me to read because of the author's vocabulary. This is a library book in a community of 60,000 and it's been read 6 times in the last 10 years. I admit that Schopenhauer is not that popular a subject in the general population, but for one like me who is interested, this is a major stumbling block. Ideally, I need a big dictionary beside me (not convenient in bed).

My question is this: what would you recommend to someone like me as an alternative text on Schopenhauer? I'm also interested in Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, so a combined book would also be o.k.

I don't know that I'm going to be a lot of help here, I am afraid. Bryan Magee is one of the clearer writers on philosophy. You have chosen a difficult group of philosophers, so it is not easy for any author to make them too clear.

However, there are several series that try to present the key ideas of philosophers in simple language. There are three series I know about. The first, called "X in 90 Minutes" has a title on Schopenhauer. The second and third, called "X for Beginners" and "Introducing X" — do not seem to have one about Schopenhauer, but do feature some of the others your mentioned.

Oxford University Press has also recently put out a Very Short Introduction series written by well known philosophers (though I haven't read any of them and can't comment about how readable they are). There are titles on Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. In what appears to be a part of the series where several philosophers are bundled, there is a title called "German Philosophers" which has separate sections by different authors on Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In my opinion, knowing what Kant and Hegel's concerns were is important to understanding Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, because the latter wrote in reaction to the former, to a large degree.

Tim Sprod



I would like to know the philosophical explanation of what is a number.

A very fascinating and difficult question, and I like the way you put it: the "explanation" of what is a number. Now, in logic, we might take Russell's (in the Principia) definition, which is, I believe: "the class of all classes similar to the given class". If you think about it, he's saying that if we abstract from everything that is similar to groups of, say, two members, we get the number two. Of course the sticker here is the word "similar", which you have to define in terms of numerical correspondence. I've never seen, really, how you get out of a kind of circularity there, unless you're just concerned with a concatenation, in effect, of particular numbers. But enough of that.

I actually do not think that theexplanation of number is a philosophical question, but a cognitive, i.e., a psychological, one. That is, we can show, for example, that animals are aware of numerical differences between groups of things, up to two or three objects. Are they therefore aware of "number"? Well, no. But it's a start. George Gamov wrote a book a while back titled "One, two, three, infinity" in which he talks about our human comprehension of number, and that we cannot actually comprehend more than three entities simultaneously, although we can talk about any number, in the abstract. If you're really interested in this issue, that's a good place to start. In the paper, "The magical number seven", Miller gets this up to 5-7 objects, but recently, Nelson Cowan seems to show that it actually is three.

So the question then becomes, what is the nature of the abstraction process by which wesymbolize entities that we do not fully comprehend? That is, how is it that we can speak of, write down, and meaningfully manipulate numbers like 10003 and 10011, which we cannot possibly understand as totalities in the way that wecan understand the numbers 2 and 3? No one knows. This is the general problem of the nature of the abstractive and symbolic processes, and the nearest we've come to solving them is knowing the neural basis for some types of sensory abstractions. That is, wedo know how it is we abstract rectangles, for example, from lines meeting at various angles on the retina. Now, this isnot the same as knowing how wesee those as rectangles, mind you, merely how (to a reasonable extent — we don't know all there is to know about it by any means) the CNS codes them as neural firings. If you're interested, there's amassive literature on that; any intro cognitive science book will start you on it ("The mind's new science" by Gardner is good).

When you think about it, whydo we have any concept of number at all; why not just be aware of differences between groups with different numbers? I mean, we're aware of separate colors, but not as groupings, really, like numbers. We're aware of sound, in some sense, as groups, i.e., chords; we're aware of shapes, as I said, as groups. But those latter things arethings, which we encounter as objects, bonk ourselves on, fall over, etc.; we don't fall over 3s and 4s. An interesting question, isn't it? We seem to have evolved this capability almost accidentally, perhaps as a consequence of our evolution of linguistic abstractions. Lakoff and Nunez have a similar explanation in "Where mathematics comes from", an interesting but poorly reviewed book.

So you've touched on a huge, difficult, and unsolved problem, and there are literally volumes on its various aspects, from perceptual to linguistic to numerical.

Steven Ravett Brown


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? (From Answers page 13.)

I can take a more philosophical approach than Steven. It all depends on what you mean by "good job".

If you mean, " a job where I get to do what I enjoy a lot, and I really enjoy doing philosophy", then the answer is an unequivocal yes, provided that you are good enough at philosophy.

If you mean "a job where people will value the fact that I can think, analyse, understand, synthesise etc, a wide range of things, not all directly philosophical", then the answer is also yes — because these are abilities that are widely valued, and studying philosophy helps develop them. Many of these jobs are not directly in philosophy, however. Don't forget, though, that most people nowadays will be engaged in a number of different career areas throughout their life.

If you mean "a job where I am guaranteed to make lots of money", forget it.

So, look at your own motivations. Do you want to do the PhD because you love thinking and philosophy, and you aim in the end for a job that will let you do those things? Then go ahead. Do you want a job that offers external rewards? Think again.

Tim Sprod


Sara asked:

I have to write an essay for my philosophic logic course on Kripke on names. How does Kripke attack the 'Frege — Russell' theory of names? Do Kripke's objections work? Also what is the relevance of Kripke's claim that all proper names are 'rigid designators'? Finally what is the causal theory of reference?

I have written about Kripke in these pages before so you could look at my answer to Ravi on Answers page 11.

Assuming you have read that, then you can do you own further work for your essay. Doubts about Kripke's theory can be found in Gareth Evans book The Varieties of Reference p. 75.

J.S. Mill in A System of Logic put forward a causal theory of reference. On this approach to reference a name is attached to a person and used as a device for direct reference free of descriptive attachment. In Naming and Necessity, Kripke also mentioned the "historical chain of communication" but I'm not sure how strictly causal these theories are, since a chain of communication is only really causal in conjunction with a physicalist theory of mind.

Rachel Browne


Philip asked:

There seems to be an apparent conflict between the world of the mystics and the world of the scientists. Yet both worlds are shared by the same homo sapiens. If true philosophy is a rational synthesis of human experiences which enables him to understand himself, the universe and its purpose, can it undermine and side track the importance of mystical experiences and traditions?

I would think that there is just the world, in which all homo sapiens live. Scientists interpret that world (or at least parts of it) in a certain way — by assuming that everything has a cause, and that those causes are, in theory, open to understanding. Mystics interpret the world (or parts of it) in another way — as being shot through with wonder and mystery. Philosophers interpret the world in a myriad of different ways, depending on the philosopher. So it is a big statement to say that "true" philosophy is any particular thing. Even if we grant that it is a rational synthesis, what do we mean by rational? I would certainly agree that some sorts of philosophy (e.g. logical positivism) would undermine mysticism, but there are many other philosophical approaches which would not.

Tim Sprod


Goran asked:

Please describe and explain if Schroedinger's cat is an adequate model to describe quantum effects?

First, look at my reply to "Gonzalo", on the last "answer" page of this site. That responds to most of your question, I think. But in addition, I'm not sure what your question is, because "Schroedinger's cat" (SC) is not a "model", but a thought experiment intended to illustrate and clarify a point. And in fact that particular point is only one very small aspect of quantum effects. SC could not possibly explain other quantum effects. And actually, given my response to the other question (which I will not repeat here), the SC experiment is rather a red herring, although an interesting one.

A few other aspects and implications of QM: "quantum foam", "vacuum energy", "action at a distance", "many-worlds hypothesis", "Pauli exclusion principle"... and on and on. You might read Herbert's book, "Quantum Reality" for a good introduction.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stu asked:

Is there any way that Ayer could escape the problem that the verification principle cannot itself be verified? Ayer claims that it should be considered a 'definition' and therefore analytic but does not demonstrate how it is analytic. Does Ayer just define 'literally meaningful' as 'verifiable' and therefore get around the problem by playing with words?

I don't believe Ayer can escape this problem. As I understand it (and I am not an expert here), Ayer himself came to accept this, after some efforts — such as you describe — to escape it. In the end, his attempts do come down to a definition by fiat of the sort you mention. If you don't accept that the meaning of "meaningful" is contained in "verifiable", then there is no reason to accept his principle of verification. I have heard logical positivism described as 'the only philosophical position that has ever been conclusively debunked', and I agree.

Tim Sprod


Niki asked:

To what extent is religious language meaningful? most importantly to what extent can religious statements be verified?

Religious language is meaningful within the context of religion. A religion is a system of beliefs and practices connected with a spiritual world, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Christian Science, and so on. Each religion establishes its views and laws within its own accepted world view. Christianity in particular has fixed views on the origin of the world, the origin of life, and especially firm beliefs concerned with the special creation of the first human beings.

From a philosophical perspective the basis of great religions is metaphysical and usually contains a mystic dimension. The focus of the mystic element is usually a supernatural being or god. There is often a claim that the existence of the supernatural being is proved by alleged evidence of direct contact with such a being afforded to certain privileged individuals, in the Judaeo/Christian religion we find Jacob, Moses and the Prophets and the special case of Jesus Christ; in the Muslim religion Mohammed. Krishna is the Hindu God in human form.

It may be seen then that a religion which has established its laws and doctrine within fixed parameters has of necessity created a language of its own which is meaningful and, hopefully, logical within these parameters. Outside the parameters the language is exposed to highly critical arguments both in science and philosophy, and rests uneasily alongside the language of an increasingly secular world.

Outside the confines of an established religion arguments accepted by the faithful as proven are often found to be circular. I remember many years ago asking a man how he knew he had been saved (in the Christian sense):

"Because God has told me so," he replied.
"But how can you be so sure there is a God?"
He smiled and shook his head as he looked at me with some disdain, "Because the Bible tells me so."
"But how can you be so certain that you can believe the Bible?"
He smiled again at my ignorance, "Because God wrote it !"
"And I suppose the Bible tells you that God wrote it?"
"Of course!" he shouted triumphantly.

To what extent can religious statements be verified? Not the easiest question to be confronted with. Religious people themselves might say that that some statements may be easier to verify than others. Some scientists and some philosophers might say that no religious statement could be verified. Religious persons with unshakeable faith would feel that they could verify every statement, and no doubt could within the confines of their own world view and within the restrictions of their own language. Is it possible to step outside the religious paradigm and prove that fundamental religious beliefs are true? I would say "No." Religions are constructed on beliefs which are matters of faith; they would not be matters of faith if they could be shown to be true.

Experiences within the faith are personal and the problem for 'outsiders' is how to refute what are essentially subjective arguments. Scientists who attempt to describe everything in religion as mythological tend to find that they are running into some very large obstacles. How does one deny that someone has enjoyed a religious experience, received a spiritual message, conversed with an angel? Within a world of faith and passive acceptance of declared doctrine religious believers do not have to prove anything, the doctrine allows for the possibility of any event within the accepted paradigm. Even the Devils Advocates employed by the Catholic Church to test the claims for canonization do not deny the possibility of mystic or spiritual experiences , but seek to determine whether or not the claimant actually did experience what is claimed.

Do religious claims make sense? It depends how far a person of faith is willing to go in development of the argument. Religions usually have a moral content the tenets of which are deceptively easy to accept. I can see sense in simple statements like, "We ought to love our neighbours," We ought to be good," "We ought to honour our parents," and so on. Problems arise when the arguments are developed into extended statements like, "We ought to love our neighbours because God says so," "We ought to do good because it is right to do so," etc. Religious persons have no problem with extended arguments confirming why we ought to do things because a major belief within the religious domain is that we are born with an intrinsic sense of moral behaviour. Justification must begin from matters of established fact. There are a number of moral arguments but it is difficult to think of one which starts from an established fact. Commonly however they are deductive in character.

Religious arguments rely on the power of persuasion, not by way of conclusions following from true premises but by an appeal to an alleged necessary situation which claims that there must be some governing power responsible for our existence. This is supported by a strong appeal to design and purpose in nature, and the awesome wonder of the universe. Incidentally, science is in no position to refute these notions by attempts to offer alternative solutions to these intriguing questions. The Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang are both unproven theories and could be equally as far away from the truth as the so-called creation myths of religion. Neither can be subjected to experimental conditions to afford a chance to disprove the basic claims.

The so-called consensus gentium argument — the argument from general consent — starts from the unjustified claim that there is some religious belief shared by the generality of mankind and, in addition, take this fact (as it is supposed to be) to justify the belief. Belief in ghosts is widespread but it would come as no real surprise to discover that there were no ghosts.

John Brandon

Making claims about God is in so far problematic, as everyday concepts are applied to what we think of to be a supernatural being: In the Christian context God is addressed as "Father", referred to as a "ruler" of a "kingdom" and has qualities like "perfect goodness", "omniscience" and "omnipotence".

In his Summa contra Gentiles Thomas Aquinas tried to settle the problem like this: when speaking about God we admittedly use human language as there is nothing else available to us. Yet when we speak about God we neither use terms univocally, as this would mean that if I were speaking about the 'hand of God' I would be saying God had a physical hand, nor are we using terms equivocally, as total different meanings applied to both God and finite beings would mean no-one would understand anything about God making any God-claim meaningless in the end. Aquinas concluded, when speaking of God, we are using terms analogous, which means that we use them in a similar or related sense with others: if we talked about the 'hand of God' we could make reference to human notions of giving someone a 'helping hand' (or other related ideas).

There is another problem: Are we talking about that which exists beyond this physical realm or that which resides solely within our own thoughts (a projection theory of religion)?

In his Language, Truth and Logic A. J. Ayer says quite sharply-worded "The theist, like the moralist, may believe that his experiences are cognitive experiences, but unless he can formulate his knowledge in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure that he is deceiving himself".

The Logical Positivists believed that for a statement to be meaningful it had to be verified either by analysing the content of the statement on the basis of empirical knowledge (analytic) or by assessing it against empirical data (synthetic). Thus the statement 'All mares are horses' is analytic whilst 'It was raining on Tuesday' is synthetic. The truth of the former lies in the context of the statement (you cannot have 'All mares are cats') whilst the latter is true only if one can verify that it was indeed raining on that Tuesday. Applying these verification criteria to religious statements the Logical Positivists concluded that these cannot be verified and therefore are meaningless. The statement God exists cannot be verified because God lies beyond the sense-based realm. However, one needs to ask whether direct sense-based verification is the only means of assessing the truthfulness of a statement. For instance, I might say 'The wind is strong' though I can only see the effects of the wind on trees and clouds and feel it on my face, but I cannot see the wind itself. Possibly similar applies to religious statements.

Ludwig Wittgenstein offers an understanding of language that is probably the most widely accepted in discussing the main issues concerning religious language. While in his early work Wittgenstein had believed that language stated 'facts' about reality, in his later work he began to view language as something socially constructed. This means the use of words is ore important than their actual meaning. From this he developed the notion of 'language games' (the rules for using a word) and 'forms of life' (the context in which a word is used). Thus, according to Wittgenstein, religious language needs to be discussed from an insider's perspective. To debate whether human goodness is the same as God's goodness (or whether we can even know God's goodness), is to miss the point. Language is given meaning and constructed by communities. To speak of God's goodness is to speak of a community.

Critiques of Wittgenstein have argued that he promotes a kind of 'Wittgensteinian Fideism' and merely states his case rather than allow appeal to an external criteria. Thus, according to Wittgenstein, to say 'God exists' is (still) not open to verification but merely expresses the belief of the religious community that believes it. Certainly Wittgenstein has pointed the way in recognising that religious language is set within a specific context and that this context should be taken into account when seeking to verify religious statements. However, religious language seems also to require a form of correlation with non-religious language in order to have any meaning (see Aquinas' analogous use of religious language). The debate concerning the relationship between these two is still far from settled.

Simone Klein


Henry asked:

Is there a simple definition to explain the Gestalt Theory philosophically?

Gestalt theory is not, strictly speaking, a philosophical theory. It was started, basically, by two psychologists, Kohler and Koffka, in the 1920s or 30s, as I recall, and was intended as a response to the prevailing positivistic psychologies (Wundt, Titchener, etc.). The problem with the latter is that they are atomistic, i.e., they hold that mental contents (and acts, etc.) are comprised of elements that are more-or-less additively combined to produce complex contents. When this is applied to experiments, you get a kind of introspectionism which holds that one can separate color from shape, and appearance from meaning, for example, with no loss or change of any of these. That is, you can, if you are a positivist psychologist, claim that one can, with practice, see a house, for example, as just a colored shape, without any of the meaning that goes with it: the functions of doors and windows, that you live in it, etc, etc. This got Titchener into a lot of trouble, and keeps getting positivism (and analytic philosophy) in trouble to this day (in my opinion).

Now a gestalt, in contrast, is a unified complex, originally conceived in terms of sensations, which is not merely a whole from which the removal or alteration of a component changes the other components, but which has a kind of emergent existence. That is, to take a very simple example, we can see three dots, spaced around a central point, and if they are close enough, we also see them as the vertices of a triangle. But there is no triangle, except what we have created: the unification of the dots produces a phenomena which exists as a kind of abstraction: a gestalt. That whole, the triangle, is destroyed if the dots are altered too much, moved too far apart, etc., etc.

So when you look at introspection from this point of view, Titchener and the positivists seem absurd. There are no "elements" in the sense of independent entities which add to complexes, there are components which, as they interact, give rise to complex wholes, which can radically change with minor changes in the components. A melody is another example.

Philosophically, the gestalt concept has so far played, as far as I know, a very minor part in modern philosophy, which is a shame. One of the problems underlying classical (Husserlian) phenomenology is that he assumes a kind of additivity (relating to both what he terms the "epoché" and the "method of variation"), which creates, in my opinion, huge problems for his program. Another philosopher, Gurwitsch, tried to explicitly employ gestalt concepts to partially revise Husserl, with mixed success (take a look at "The Field of Consciousness" if you're interested in that sort of thing).

Steven Ravett Brown


Mishka asked:

  1. Carefully discuss physicalism as a philosophical theory
  2. How is it different from a scientific theory?
  3. Comment on the scientistic metaphysic that underlies the physicalist philosophy.

Physicalism is a group of philosophical theories and as a variety of materialism based on the general metaphysical thesis that the real world contains nothing but matter (and recently energy; according to Einstein E=mc2), and that these physical objects have only physical properties, such as spatio-temporal position, mass, size, shape, motion, hardness, electrical charge, magnetism, and gravity. The view is associated with Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Holbach, T. H. Huxley, J. B. Watson, Carnap, Neurath, Quine, and Smart.

The guiding principle of a physicalist can be formulated as "What I see, is what I believe". Therefore Physicalism stands very close to the science of physics. But while the method of physics is instrumental investigation of nature, the method of physicalism is the investigation by means of logic. For physicalists there is no soul, no "ideas", no God. And also just the elements of the physicalist's favourite language, mathematics, are excluded from his own theory! That's why exceptions are sometimes made for abstract entities such as numbers, sets, and propositions (Which is an indication to me, that there's something wrong with the concept of Physicalism, as with tolerating these exceptions physicalism is no longer a closed and coherent theory).

The principal argument in favour of physicalism is the success of physics. Physicists have been able to describe a large and diverse range of phenomena in terms of a few fundamental physical laws. The principle that the properties of larger objects are determined by those of their physical parts seems confirmed daily. But isn't the whole always more than the sum of it's parts? For example: Water (H2O) has properties, that cannot be explained by the properties of it's parts H2 (hydrogen) and O2 (oxygen).

However, to physicalists the physical basis of celestial phenomena was proved in the seventeenth century, that of chemistry in the eighteenth, and of biology in the nineteenth. Currently the neurophysiological basis of psychology is debated. Even if brain activities can be measured, for example by means of EEG, and these activities somehow correlate to thoughts and emotions, it never can be said exactly what thought or emotion caused the measured activity.

If physicalism were true, one of the consequences be our determination in action: as all spatio-temporal processes are determined by physical laws there is no freedom of action.

Physicalism in terms of the logical empiricists (Vienna Circle) refers to the thesis, that whatever exists or occurs can completely described in the vocabulary of physics. The goal was to create a scientific language valid for all sciences (key word: "unity of science"), containing logical and physical expressions. Nothing else. That means this language operates with expressions of properties of objects rather than expressions of the world of sense perception (phenomenalism). The result would be a language of mathematical structures. It was thought that even psychological statements could be translated into behavioral statements, mainly hypothetical conditionals, these again expressible in a physical vocabulary.

The problem here is, that such strictly extensional languages don't make sense (intensional content) unless they are interpreted which again requires everyday language. Mathematical structures are able to describe but are unable to explain. But isn't exactly explaining the world the most ambitious enterprise of philosophical theories?

Altogether Physicalism is an inadmissible attempt to reduce the problems of philosophy to solely physical phenomenons. It therefore is called a reductionistic theory. Physicalism wanted to exclude metaphysics from sciences as in the eyes of physicalists it produces only senseless sentences. But on the other hand physicalism itself grounds on a metaphysical and therefore senseless assertion.

Simone Klein


Nikki asked:

The mind-body problem states that metaphysical entities cannot interact with physical entities. I don't understand the problem because gravity interacts with all physical entities and gravity is not physical. Or is it? The same with magnetism. These are non physical substances.

and Katie asked:

Is it impossible for a nonphysical thing to interact with a physical thing?

Now this is an intriguing question that has long fascinated me. What do we mean by physical? I asked the noted central-state materialist David Armstrong this very question a few years ago, and he said that is it anything that appears in Physics. So, I said, if souls appear in some future physics theory, then would souls be physical? Yes, they would. [Note: I'll use 'soul' here free of any religious connotation — you may substitute 'thoughts' in most cases without major damage to the account.]

I think that there is often a confusion between the material and the physical. Material things are often thought about in billiard ball terms — atoms and the void, as Democritus would put it. Physical entities have long been thought to go beyond this, to include such things as gravity and magnetism — force fields.

Isaac Newton himself did not like the idea of action-at-a-distance, a key attribute of his gravitational theory. He thought things ought to touch to interact — that the physical should be material. We are much more comfortable with forces as physics, and it takes a rare mind like Nikki's to see the emperor's clothing here.

Indeed, some modern physicists who dislike action-at-a-distance claim that all field interactions must be due to the constant swapping of yet more hard-to-put-your-finger-on particles between those particles which are interacting (so they invent gluons and gravitons and other things that, as far as I am aware, nobody has ever seen). This may be plausible for nuclear forces, but it seems extraordinarily far-fetched to me for gravitational interactions, which happen between all the masses in the universe.

So when we say that metaphysical entities cannot interact with physical entities, I think we are saying that there is no known way for things like the soul, or thoughts, to enter into the well known chain of physical causes and effects (including gravitational and magnetic causes). Descartes (writing, remember, at about the time of Newton's birth) did think of all matter/physical substance as having mass, extension and location. For him, with a billiard ball model, how something lacking mass and extension could affect anything that did have these properties was a problem.

Fields have extension but no mass. They are not matter, but they seem to be physical. They are still mysterious, though, in that their nature is mysterious. Their effects, on the other hand, are well understood. [I would, though, hesitate to call them substances — substance talk is not very fashionable now.]

So, if we grant fields affect matter, where does that leave us? Are souls like fields? Do souls have to lack extension or location as Descartes claimed (if they do, it makes it hard to explain why my soul is mine, not yours)? Is it true that they can't affect the material, as fields do? Roger Penrose has a theory that thoughts do affect the collapse of quantum waves within the brain in such a way as to affect the material world. There is a lot more to Nikki and Katie's questions than introductory philosophy books let on.

[Disclaimer: none of the above means that I am a dualist. I go more for the double-aspect theory, though I will freely admit that mind-body is a difficult problem. A double-aspect theory claims that a physical description is only describing a part of the totality of that reality, and that a mental description can capture another aspect of the same reality.]

Tim Sprod


Jennifer asked:

In my philosophy class we are given a question to write an essay about and I am completely stumped. If you can give me any information, it will be greatly appreciated.

My question: "Trace the conceptual history of the mind, spirit, and soul."

I'm afraid I don't know that complete history of the mind, spirit and soul, but it would probably be sufficient for your essay if you started with Plato who thought the soul was immortal and that the mental participated in the eternal (look at Phaedo, Phaedrus and the Republic), moved on to Aristotle who thought the mind and soul was dependent on the biological functions although he hinted at immortality (On the Soul) and then leapt forward to Descartes (Meditations) who also thought that the mind was separate from body. You could then look at modern materialist theories of mind which deny the existence of soul.

Rachel Browne


Kristina asked:

Why is it that there are no concrete answers? Nothing seems to be answered and that is so annoying. You know math would be a total contradiction to you philosophers. They give you answers. They say that's the answer. We should never be wrong if there are no answers, right?

and Jacob asked:

I have often wondered if the questions in philosophy are even answerable. Would you agree with me if I said that the only way to solve some areas of philosophy is in the absence of a physical reality?

To start with Jacob: if you wonder about the "answerability" of questions in philosophy, you're a true philosopher! To ask whether a question is answerable is to take a step up from the ordinary in thinking. Philosophical questions are ordinary questions pursued with more than ordinary stamina and with an eye toward their possible "togetherness" (so that at least they are all consistent with, if not also supportive of, each other). Everyone knows how to use words like "knowledge," "existence," and "value," but philosophers want to understand by those words something that not only resonates with their experience of knowing, existing, and valuing, but is also consistent with what they understand by the other two words.

But Jacob is onto something. One feature common to all philosophical questions is that they're still asked and their proposed answers are vigorously debated. That's not all there is to a philosophical question, of course: nonphilosophical questions like "What is the greatest movie ever made?" may also be debated until the end of time. It is true, however, that if we found a question about which no one disagreed as to its answer, it would probably not be a philosophical question. For example, I can't imagine someone in a campus bookstore in the year, say, 2050, flipping through an introductory philosophy textbook and exclaiming, "Hey! Where's the section on the existence of God?," and hearing his fellow customer reply, "Where've you been? They stopped debating that twenty years ago!"

As long as an unrestricted desire to know animates our minds, we will ask philosophical questions, i.e., questions about what really exists, about what we know, about what's worthwhile about existing and knowing, and about how we ought to act when we have answers to those questions. Depending on an individual's interest and conditions, he or she will pursue answers to them to the bitter end, and will lock philosophical horns with other questors after truth. We can no more responsibly evade them than we can jump out of our skins. Any attempt to artificially suppress them will backfire on the would-be suppressor. Disagreement over answers doesn't devalue the questions. What might make for some progress in philosophy is not "the absence of a physical reality" (I'm not sure what Jacob was getting at there), but a method for settling the very "decidability" of questions, if not the answers themselves. Perhaps we could then avoid a lot of what looks like "spinning wheels."

Kristina admires the "concrete answers" that mathematicians give, by which I presume she means definite answers. Ideally, a question should have one definite answer that unambiguously rules out all competitors! This is not true in philosophy, Kristina notes, and she finds that "annoying." But since she took the time to express her annoyance — which is more than most people would do — with a little help it may tip over into philosophical wonder.

We may purchase a great deal of definiteness if we are willing to tolerate a corresponding amount of abstraction. When one goes about proving a mathematical theorem, for example, there's no messing around with particularity — "concreteness" as Kristina would say — as there is in, say, social studies. In math, as in logic, we abstract from time and place: just tell me what the terms mean and what rules govern their relations, and the rest will be a matter of how intelligently I can (or in my case, probably cannot) do the relating. Two plus two is four, be they apples or oranges.

When we ask a philosophical question, however, we usually have to grapple with several questions and keep all of our provisional answers before us so we don't unintentionally contradict ourselves. There's a complication built into the task. Let's take an example is not mathematical but bears on mathematics: "Are numbers real?" Immediately two other questions surface: "What is a number?" and "What does it mean to be real?"

When we hear the word "numbers," we may first think of the numerals we learned to draw when we were children, i.e., Arabic numerals. But we also know that the Romans used a different system of numerals to express the same numbers. The number "one" is that to which the Arabic "1" and the Roman "I" refer. So the question "Are numbers real?" cannot be settled by looking at an advertisement and noting all the instances of Arabic numerals.

As for "What does it mean to be real?," we may, again at first, think of bodies, that is, things that have some palpability, things we can perceive in the broad daylight when we're not dreaming, things that move about in certain ways and interact with each other with some regularity. We contrast the real with the illusory. We also regard as real bodies that we cannot directly perceive but to which we infer a causal connection to the things we can directly perceive, e.g., distant galaxies and atomic particles.

It is necessarily true that A = A, regardless of what "A" stands for. If that equation holds not only for thinking, however, but also for the bodies we unhesitatingly take to be real, then the self-identity that the equation expresses is as real as bodies. It seems perverse to deny that the laws of logic are real just because they are not bodies. It also seems incoherent to suggest that perhaps a particular horse may or may not be that horse, just because logically A is A. Mathematical theorems might be real in the way that logical laws are. Perhaps that would be reason enough to affirm that numbers are real. We might even argue for this generalization: the real is what is affirmed in any true judgment, regardless of whether its subject matter is physical, mental, mathematical, grammatical, logical, or divine.

I would ask Kristina to consider this before rejecting philosophers as merely annoying: If we cannot responsibly suppress the question, "Are numbers real?" (a question that no mathematician may be interested in asking or answering, although a philosopher might), if "Who cares what's real!?" is merely a bad attitude masquerading as a question, then there's no avoiding the hard thinking needed to answer that and a great number of other questions that our minds spontaneously ask when we're reflective.

Tony Flood

I am not of the opinion that philosophical questions have no answers, concrete or not. Read any philosophical work (as opposed to a textbook), and you will see that the author usually offers answers to every question s/he raises. Indeed, the problem seems to be that there are too many answers, rather than none. What is lacking is a clinching argument that will convince all other philosophers that this particular answer is correct.

This takes care of Kristina's assertion that 'we should never be wrong'. There are, in the history of philosophy, many wrong answers. We don't see much of them any more, because, well... they're wrong! Somebody has come up with the convincing counter-argument. It is somewhat easier to disprove an argument than to prove one. The surviving competing answers survive because they seem to have both powerful arguments for them, and strong but not conclusive counter-arguments. Their supporters believe that a more subtle version will be able to overcome the objections.

In any case, I don't understand the demand that all questions should have simple, knockdown answers. Why should we believe that life, the universe and everything is that way? Maybe some things in the universe are just complex. Maybe, if the universe were simple enough for us to understand, it would be too simple for us to come into being. As a school teacher myself, I often wonder if schools are guilty of teaching students to believe that answers are simple, known things, so that later exposure to philosophy and the real complexity of things comes as a great surprise — and many try to retreat to simple certainties.

As for the contention that maths would be a total contradiction to philosophers, this ignores the fact that many great philosophers were mathematicians (and vice versa), from Pythagoras through Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, La Place, Frege, Russell and Godel onwards. I am sure that many cutting edge mathematicians would be surprised to learn that mathematicians just give you answers, too. Research maths is not like that, and many philosophical questions have to be addressed, and philosophical assumptions made, in solving these problems.

So, maybe there are some philosophical problems that will never be answered — maybe we just aren't smart enough, or maybe the universe isn't totally understandable. Maybe a few millennia more work will do the trick. Maybe, as Jacob suggests, some are only answerable in the absence of a physical reality — though that answer itself seems to me to raise other, even more intractable, problems.

It's fun trying to answer them, though.

Tim Sprod

What is an "answer"? Why do you want "answers"? Do you want to be told what to do, in detail, in every possible situation, and not have to think about anything? Do you want to be told the "meaning of life"? Why?

Here's a non-mathematical answer: no, you can't walk through walls. Another: no, you cannot move objects by merely thinking about moving them. Another: yes, there will be problems you cannot solve.

Does math give answers? What kind? What do mathematical answers depend on? Is mathematics always the best way of asking and answering questions?

Do you want answers to questions like, "should I shoot up heroin"? That's an easy one, and non-mathematical. How about, "should I put on clothes when I go out?" Another easy one, most of the time. "Should I learn to drive a car?" Pretty easy, I'd say. "Is it better to be healthy than sick?" A no-brainer, right?

So, what are you looking for? Whatkind of question is upsetting you, and more importantly, why, exactly? There are certainly questions for which we have no answers, and indeed questions that we don't even really know how to ask properly (example: "what is mind?"). Isn't that nice? I think it's really exciting that there are unanswered questions. Perhaps one of the best questions is why one should be upset about this situation.

Steven Ravett Brown

Kristina: you could still be wrong if there are no answers, but not 'wrong' in the maths sense. Rather, just because you can't see what I am pointing at across the bay doesn't mean I can't see it (I am wrong), but that you are short of sight and need to train your eyes. Just because you can't hear the sounds from the other room doesn't mean there is not another room (I am wrong) but you are deaf. In philosophy we to try to 'see' or 'hear', as it were, what the world gives us to see and hear. And by 'the world' I do not mean the world you watch on World News or The World About Us on TV, but language, which is the question of the world as it is the affirmation of itself.

Jacob: if the questions of philosophy were answerable they would not be properly philosophical. Scientific questions are either answerable or are non-questions in the sense of being of no concern. Philosophical questions are not in search of a solution, but of the truth. Truth, in the philosophical sense, does not mean the same as 'valid'. Truth is not an answer that puts an end to the question, but is a human disposition in the world responsible for reason and justice, that is, for one's fellow person, who is the face of the world. As Heidegger said, philosophy is always already in the truth, just as we are always already in the world. Philosophy presupposes the truth, as it must, in its questioning, which seeks to be more and more open to the truth, or to open truth more and more.

Matthew Del Nevo


Jimmy asked:

What is the meaning of love? Which categories would you put it under? Also, Which philosopher would you recommend with the topic of the meaning of love? The reason I seek these answers is because I have to find a philosopher to discuss for my paper but don't know which philosopher to use.

I think love would fall under the category of emotion although I think Plato thought it was a form of madness. Plato would be a good person to use. Look at the Symposium and Phaedrus.

Rachel Browne


Emily asked:

My thesis statement for my teaching philosophy is that "children learn best when they are challenged beyond their immediate capabilities". I was wondering if someone could help me find a famous philosopher that had the same idea.

I'm not sure that I can supply a philosopher, but the famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky certainly had this idea. He calls the space beyond their immediate capabilities the Zone of Proximal Development. He claims that children enter the ZPD when they are engaged in discussion with other more competent persons. Here's a couple of quotes: "What the child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow." (104); "Verbal intercourse with adults [is] a powerful factor in the development of a child's concepts." (69). From: Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language Cambridge: MIT Press.

Amongst quite a few others, Jerome Bruner has written on Vygotsky, and may be both more available and more accessible. See his "Actual Minds, Possible Worlds".

Do we call George Herbert Mead a philosopher? Probably. He has the same idea around about the same time as Vygotsky, though he develops it somewhat differently.

The philosopher Matthew Lipman has built on these sorts of ideas in developing his 'Philosophy for Children' program. He is well worth reading for practical classroom implications and practices. I have also written about Vygotsky in the educational context — email me for further details.

Tim Sprod

And to add to Tim's list of philosophers, you might try Dewey, who has written quite a bit on education, had a great influence, and tried to promote, as I recall, the same sort of philosophy as yours above.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ed asked:

I am an M.D. writing a book titled, Physicians: Artists and Science. One chapter is devoted to the cascade of thinking which lead to positivism. Until the last decade, most medical school teachers were interested in teaching their students only science. We were taught to treat the objective disease state of the patient. Subjective feelings were considered difficult to deal with and to use Wittgenstein's phrase, we "ignored them."

What did the logical positivists think about the value of the arts and feelings? If only science could get at truth, were feelings and the arts relegated to the side lines?

A new breed of positivist is EO Wilson, who makes a plea for science to explain feelings via neurobiology but at the same time to honor feelings and the arts for the vital role they play for humans.

I keep hesitating about answering your question, for two reasons. First, positivism is not really one of my interests, and it is pretty dead these days anyway. Second, I'm not sure that your teachings were "positivist". But I feel that your concerns need to be addressed by someone not a positivist who nonetheless highly values science, because so many people view science as "only science", as "ignoring" the subjective. Look at e. e. cummings' poem, ending something like "scientists who teach 10000 stars how not to dance". I think that this is a terrible attitude towards science, and utterly inaccurate as an explanation and depiction of the motivations of scientists and indeed the content of science. We are so inundated by Frankensteins... in literature, the movies, etc... that most people grow up at least suspicious of science and scientists.

Ok, enough rant. First, as far as positivism goes, Frege, Carnap, et al did not of course dismiss the emotions. They were German intellectuals, highly educated in the arts. They were reacting against what they saw as poor science and philosophy, which was, they thought (probably correctly) anti-science, anti-rational thinking (you might read some Husserl on science sometime... I like Husserl, by and large, as a psychologist, but as a philosopher... he does not consider science a valid means of reaching truths — "scientific" truths are not ultimate for him) and which resulted, in the case of the introspectionists, in overly relying on subjectivity and intuition, so that differences could not be resolved except by, effectively, shouting-matches between opponents. What the early positivists were doing was an attempt to counter this. Unfortunately, in the persons of, say, Watson and Skinner in this country, it got taken too far. There are, certainly, still people who regard "behavior" as the only means of obtaining data... all I can say is that they are sadly out of touch with current thinking. Chomsky killed Skinner (in part by showing that the latter's notion of behavior was extremely limited), and at this point, the problem, in my opinion, is that too much post-modernism has actually swung the pendulum back to before the positivists (I shudder at Rorty's position, for example — truth is relative (although he is, by all accounts, exemplary as a person)).

So when you say that teachers taught "only science" and that students were taught to ignore feelings, all I can say is that those teachers had a profound misconception of science. My favorite philosopher of science right now is P. Kitcher, and in "The advancement of science" you will find a much broader conception of science both as praxis and as content than what you were taught was science. In fact, he refers to that latter conception as "The Legend", and it went out in the early part of the last century. I guess they didn't hear about that in med school. I'm not going to write another essay on "what is science", but researching feelings, employing introspection, even using feelings, are all definitely within science's compass.

Now, it is certainly easier to ignore feelings, and to teach "just the facts" (whatever that means) — the facts, I guess, as limited to medical texts and lectures — sure. And also, while (and I'd like to emphasize this) there is quite a bit of research into feelings, how to deal with them, what they are, etc., etc., a lot of that is in what is called "clinical psychology", and this is, because of holdovers from positivism and behaviorism, especially in this country, regarded as "fuzzy" data. Well, a great deal of it is. But all I can say is that the stuff is there, libraries of it, available to anyone who wants to dive into it, and yes a lot of it is poorly researched, and a lot is not... and gee gosh, more work is needed, surprise, surprise. But it is most emphatically not the case that science has neglected this area, although medical schools may, unfortunately.

And so, by and large, I'm surprised you term Wilson a "positivist". Does he think of himself in those terms? I doubt it. Again Frankenstein rears his head... just because he employs data in genetics and biology to talk about human beings, and about feelings, does that mean one should, or that he advocates, "reducing" feelings to that, or neglecting feelings? Of course not. The question of what "explanation" means here is a critical one. To "explain" feelings as having arisen through various adaptations to our environments is not to reduce them to behavior.

I think, on the contrary, that any information whatsoever that enriches our knowledge of ourselves, from whatever source, even if that source, in the case of evolutionary biology, for example, seems odious to some, is valuable. In fact the very nature of our strong reaction to it, and that this type of knowledge causes us to question our most cherished beliefs, makes it, to my mind, the more valuable and important.

Steven Ravett Brown