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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 15 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from January 2002 — February 2002:

  1. Prostitution and ethics
  2. Marx's socio-political theory
  3. Hume On the Standards of Taste
  4. 'A belief is what we accept as truth' (1)
  5. The philosophy of Heraclitus
  6. Philosophy of pain
  7. Patristic philosophy
  8. The defenders of consciousness
  9. Philosophy of punishment
  10. Why do we ask, 'Why?'?
  11. The notion of 'qualia'
  12. Why did we come to the world?
  13. Kant on analytic/synthetic, a priori/a posteriori
  14. H.L.A. Hart on political freedom
  15. Capitalist and materialist values
  16. Plato's forms and the unfairness of life
  17. Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God
  18. Wittgenstein's Poker
  19. Difference between knowledge and true belief
  20. Euthyphro's dilemma
  21. If God exists why do bad things happen to good people?
  22. Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
  23. Descartes on why God is not a deceiver
  24. Socrates the midwife
  25. Religious relativism and religious absolutism
  26. Darwin or Genesis?
  27. Epicurus and animal suffering
  28. I want to choose a religion
  29. What is a philosopher?
  30. Berkeley on reality and fantasy
  31. Which came first, the question or the idea?
  32. Nazism and European philosophy
  33. 'A belief is what we accept as truth' (2)
  34. Aristotle's six elements of tragedy
  35. What makes one's words 'philosophical'?
  36. Why am I in the human condition?
  37. How Descartes 'I think therefore I am' proves God
  38. Looking for a topic in Descartes' Meditations
  39. Is marriage necessary for spiritual completeness?
  40. How can you tell if you are homosexual?
  41. 'Doctors' and 'nurses'
  42. Can God make a world he cannot control?
  43. Truth and wisdom
  44. Studying mathematics with philosophy
  45. Why are we here?
  46. Measuring intelligence
  47. Testing ethical subjectivism
  48. How personality affects one's philosophy
  49. Copleston's argument from contingency
  50. I was never asked if I wanted to live
  51. Why be philosophical?
  52. Is true happiness finding your one true love?
  53. Who is Eric Hoffer?
  54. Psychology and common sense
  55. Logic as a tool for decision making
  56. I have an itch to do something, but I don't know what it is
  57. Wittgenstein on truth and human agreement
  58. How can we know when we are right?
  59. Descartes and Hume on the external world
  60. 'Induction is rational if nature is regular.' Discuss
  61. Education and society
  62. Why do we cry?
  63. Descartes on the intellect and the will
  64. What makes rugby league better than rugby union?
  65. Why Plato thought art should be censored
  66. An amazing question
  67. What is fate?
  68. Empirical view of cosmological arguments
  69. Nudism and philosophy
  70. Tae Kwon Do and the meaning of 'respect'
  71. Can all counter-arguments be anticipated?
  72. Were Spencer and Marx utilitarians?
  73. How to tell if a theory of truth is 'true'
  74. Remembering when we were very young
  75. Identical twins and the concept of free will
  76. Inductive and deductive reasoning
  77. Why Aristotle thought metaphysics the most 'excellent' science
  78. Cynicism as a school of philosophical thought
  79. Plato's allegory of the cave
  80. What does 'happy' mean?
  81. Definition of 'being'
  82. Reality and altered mental states
  83. Wittgenstein on belief and knowledge
  84. Why Plato thought philosophers should be kings
  85. Philosophy vs. living for the moment
  86. Historical evidence for the truth of scripture
  87. Evidence that life is not predetermined
  88. Who is 'me'?

Holly asked:

What are some ethical issues surrounding Prostitution. Is it OK?

Here's another of these questions fraught with political implications, which are nonetheless interesting. Ok... what is prostitution? That term has been employed for everything from being a housewife to doing art for the "wrong" reasons, to taking money for sex. I'm going to be very simplistic and define it, for the purpose of this discussion, and a bit of brevity, as the last: taking (receiving, asking for) money for sex: selling sex. (Notice that this very restricted definition eliminates, for example, temple prostitution, where a priestess took a donation for a temple in exchange for sex. Some religions in the ancient world did this.) Usually it's a woman who is paid by a man, but that's certainly not universal, as we all know.

Is a housewife (-husband) a prostitute by this definition? No. Is an artist a prostitute? No (unless perhaps their art involves sex... then it gets more complicated than I want to deal with here). What about a person who simply marries for money? Well, my off-the-cuff answer would be that if they could refuse sex, they weren't prostitutes (again, by my restricted definition above)... if not, and sex was even implicitly part of the deal, they were. In other words, there is a contract involved here, one which implies an exchange of one valuable item: sex, for another: money.

Ok. Sex for money. Now... you want "ethical issues". But what does that mean? Are you asking whether selling sex is (im)moral? Whether it, even if moral, can result in immoral actions? How people feel about or during prostitution? Buying or selling? Why or whether they should do it? "Ethical issues" is just too broad a term for me to deal with here... "issues" can be just about anything. So again I'm going to simplify. First, I'm going to say that ethical or moral issues revolve around, generally and vaguely, enhancing human life. I'm going to neglect animals (they don't sell sex anyway, as far as I know — yes I know about bonobos), and I'm just simply going to refuse to get more specific about what I mean. Enough is enough. So... first, can prostitution be an immoral act, i.e., can it result in immoral effects, i.e., can it result in the quality of people's lives declining? Yes. Is it more likely to have that result than not? Well, clearly, the practical, empirical answer to this is a resounding "yes". Just look around you. This isn't even an issue. Prostitution results in all sorts of outright evils.

But the big question is whether prostitution is intrinsically immoral, right? That is, need prostitution result in immorality, viz., in the decline of the quality of human life? It's clear that a great deal of the immorality resulting from and associated with prostitution is a result of our (and other) culture's attitudes toward it. For one thing, people want sex enough to pay for it, others will sell it, and those actions are illegal; but that illegality will not stop it — an obvious conclusion if you just look at history; it certainly never has in the past. A classic recipe for crime, then, right off the bat. But let's simplify yet again, and try to take an ideal case, inasmuch as we can, where we do not consider society as a whole, but merely a relationship between persons našve in these matters.

When two people are in a relationship, a good relationship, sex is given, fairly freely, as a gift, and enjoyed as an intrinsic pleasure of the relationship. Sorry, all you anti-sex people out there, but that's my opinion, for what it's worth. If that is not true, if sex is not freely given nor enjoyed as a fairly necessary (all other things equal) aspect, on a par with respect, (other manifestations of) affection, communication, etc., in a relationship, then where does it come from? It is, in that latter case, something that one person must request of another, and that request is the beginning of an obligation, a contract, is it not? So what must be done to balance the sex given only (or mainly, in some cases) upon request, is something else given back, to meet or fulfill the obligation... and we're going down the path to money for sex, aren't we. But is that bad, i.e., immoral? My take on this is that in an ideal (or even a very good) relationship it is immoral, to varying extents, since, as I say, sex, among other things, should be given and taken freely, for pleasure, intimacy, and so forth (and having children... but how much of sex is for that, really?). Why? First, with less gift-giving, and the more bargaining that goes on and the more explicit it is, the more there is possibility for resentment, in implicit and explicit contracts perceived as unequally unfulfilled. Second, more importantly, the less gift-giving, the less trust there is. That's the purpose of a contract, isn't it, to compensate for a lack of trust in others' generosity, mutual goodwill, and so forth. What about a less than ideal relationship? Who knows? Evaluate your own relationship and ask yourself that.

Next, what about prostitution outside of a relationship? A single person (one in no intimate relationship) goes and pays someone else for sex (I assume no social restrictions: no illegality, no disapproval, etc., I also assume that there's no coercion, and that the prostitute is such purely by choice. A lot of ifs here, but I'm trying to get at the ideal case.). Is this immoral? My inclination is to say yes, moderately (in this ideal case), for the following reasons. First, and not too relevantly, it would certainly be better if that former person had a good relationship, so they didn't have to have sex this way, given the reasoning above. But that isn't the situation, we're assuming. The argument, I believe, for prostitution's immorality (again, in this ideal case) is one based on habit or learning. That is, once someone engages in this kind of behavior, there will be some greater tendency, in some cases, to view sexual relationships in terms of bargaining. In such cases, the person's other relationships (if there are or will be any) will, I would think, tend to suffer (given the reasoning in the above paragraph), just because of the human tendency to generalize. That is, given some sexual relationships conducted as bargaining, others that should not be will tend to be understood in the same (or similar) way. So even in this very ideal case, there is a tendency, I think, for prostitution to be somewhat immoral. And given that the reasoning in this paragraph is correct, if someone who is in an intimate relationship goes and pays a third person for sex, that behavior again will tend to be immoral, even in some ideal world where both people in the relationship agree to, even enjoy, the prostitution.

But you know, we're not talking about stealing here, nor murder, nor violence. In this ideal and unrealistic case, prostitution, as far as I can see, is about as immoral as, say, children watching too many violent movies. There is, after all, no overt violence performed on another, since we are assuming that everyone is acting voluntarily. A tendency is set up towards seeing people similar (in appearance, etc.) to the prostitute as similar in other respects; a tendency is set up to seeing sexual relationships in that light. This is not good, but it's not, to my mind, as bad as, say, a group of men whistling at a passing woman, which is subjecting her to something against her will (and setting up tendencies towards that kind of mind-set and behavior).

Well, that's all very fine, but in the real world things are a lot worse. Drugs, crime, violence, poverty... we all know this, don't we. So in the real world, prostitution is immoral, period. Let me, however, given the above reasoning, propose a way to move prostitution towards less (not none, mind you) immorality: legalize it, with government control. Oooh... I can hear the screams. But cite me one culture in all history without prostitution (I'm of course including male as well as female prostitution). If you can do that, I'll retract my suggestion and revise it to recommend we (attempt to) change our culture to that one (and please don't tell me we should all become stone-age hunter-gatherers in little villages... how many billions would we have to kill to realize that? how much disease and suffering does living like that entail?). That's an even less practical suggestion, though, isn't it. Given that prostitution is universal and unavoidable, clearly if we make it criminal, we merely push it underground, with additional problems, right? I won't bother to outline the causative scenarios, you can do that for yourselves, or just read the newspapers.

Steven Ravett Brown


Sara asked:

Can you please explain Marx's social-political theory? I am really confused!

To explain all of Marx's social and political theory in any way that would do it justice is well beyond the scope of any short reply on this web site. What I will do is give an account of what I see as the main defining features of Marxism in the hope that this will provide a helpful introduction.

One of Karl Marx's famous sayings involves a claim that the job of philosophy is not to be content with interpreting the world, but to change it. Marx was a revolutionary socialist and his ideas must always be seen in this context. He philosophised so that he could provide an understanding of the world that involved a guide to changing it.

Marx viewed society as one holistic entity. Society, as a human construct, contains many features that, at first sight, may seem to exist independently of one another. For example, religion, politics, education, the legal system and economics may all seem to exist entirely independently of one another. Marx believed, however, that these apparently discrete human phenomena are connected at a much more fundamental level. They interact with each other and change each other in this interaction. Society can be viewed as the dynamic process where by different, apparently discrete, phenomena constantly influence one another through their interaction.

In this dynamic process of interaction, not all the components have an equal weighting. Marx viewed that the mode of production, the way in which society created and distributed its economic goods was of fundamental importance in influencing the other components. The particular mode of production of any society would play a pivotal role in influencing the form of the other components in the system.

The mode of production in any society would therefore play a very significant role in the way that the society educated its members, the manner in which politics was conducted, the aspirations and beliefs of its members and so on. For this reason, Marx is sometimes described as an economic determinist. It is economics that dictates the specific manner in which a society operates. In actual fact, the term economic determinist is on oversimplification. Marx understood that, although not pivotal, the other features in society could have an impact both on each other and back on to the mode of production. Marx's insight was that the mode of production was more significant in determining the nature of a society than the other features.

With this view of the significance of the mode of production, Marx draws his primary attention to the specific nature of the mode of production, both in capitalist society and in pre-capitalist societies. Marx saw that what typified the mode of production in both capitalist and pre-capitalist society was the division into economic classes. In any society there existed a class of individuals who owned and controlled the means of production (the land, resources, technology) and those who didn't. When the mode of production is characterised by a division into economic classes, the whole of society is structured around this division. Societies change when one class replaces another as that which owns the means of production. Such change only arises as the result of physical struggle between various classes.

In capitalist society, Marx saw that there were two fundamental classes. There is the bourgeoisie (or ruling class) who own the means of production and make profit from this ownership, and the proletariat (or working class) who own no means of production and are forced to sell their labour power (to work) for the bourgeoisie in order to survive. The two classes have opposing interests. If the bourgeoisie want to make more profit they have to pay the workers less or make them work longer. If the proletariat want better working conditions or higher pay, the bourgeoisie will be forced to cut down their profits. Because the bourgeoisie are in competition with one another (competition for share of market etc), it is not in their self-interest to give such concessions to their workers. Thus Marx saw the mode of production in capitalist society as typified by a conflict between these two fundamental classes. Whilst capitalist society is in existence, the bourgeoisie are the dominant class.

All other features of capitalist society can, according to Marx, be seen as representing and reinforcing the dominance of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The education system in capitalist society, for example, perpetuates such class rule. It teaches working class children the values of conformity and obedience to authority. It tells them that if they work hard enough they will be successful, and tells them nothing of the vast inequality of power between the two classes. Religion, as another classic example, preaches to the working class that earthly suffering is inevitable, that liberation from oppressive conditions comes only in the after life. The media portrays economic inequality as natural and, by dictating the political agenda, circumvents any radical critique of society. The military, police and legal system all operate to maintain the dominance of the bourgeoisie.

For Marx, economics and politics are inseparable. The class nature of capitalist society determines the range of political discourse, the means by which political decision-making is carried out, and, to a large extent, the individual political beliefs and aspirations of people living in that society.

Marx wrote an extensive critique of the exploitation at the heart of the capitalism and predicted that such an economic system was inherently unstable and would never be capable of satisfying even the very basic needs of humanity. Even in Marx's day, capitalism had achieved remarkable technological achievements and yet was unable to use these to make a more humane world for the mass of ordinary people. Modern Marxists will point to the seemingly inherent contradiction at the heart of the capitalist economy — the fact that incredible technological advancement exists alongside economic stability, mass poverty and misery for a large percentage of the global population. This contradiction, they argue, provides the proof that capitalism is an inherently inefficient and inhumane economic system. The alternative to this economic system is a mode of production based on a classless society where production is collectively owned. This system is socialism or communism. Marx did not believe that a revolutionary change from capitalist society to socialism was inevitable. He did, however, believe that the potential for socialism was created by capitalism. Capitalism brings vast numbers of people into workplaces where they are forced to work alongside each other. The proletariat grows as capitalism progresses. At the same time, the competition within the bourgeoisie becomes more intense. Marx believed that social change would only occur if the proletariat recognised itself as a class, organised itself effectively and seized the means of production from the bourgeoisie. In seizing power it would effectively become the dominant class. For the first time in human history the mass of people would collectively own the means of production. They would be able to control production and direct it towards the human needs neglected by the bourgeoisie's drive for profit. This would be the socialist revolution. Marx wrote very little about the specific nature of any future socialist society. It would be safe to say, however, that once the mode of production has been transformed, there would be a corresponding shift in the other components of society. Education, media, the legal system etc. would all be affected dramatically.

Simon Drew


VM asked:

What is Hume's position on relativism in aesthetic judgements?

In his essay "On the Standards of Taste", Hume describes an aesthetic judgement as not really a judgement at all, but a matter of sentiment based upon something's being agreeable or pleasurable. Sentiment has reference to nothing beyond itself, so we are not making judgements about the quality of a thing. We cannot find real beauty in a work and different sentiments give rise to different opinions, so it looks as if this is a theory of aesthetic relativism.

Hume answers this relativism in terms of the standard of taste. The various opinions of the masses do not give rise to this standard. When we make a judgement that is a work is to our taste, which is to find it pleasurable, we are still prepared to defer to the critic on the matter of quality. Although mankind has a common nature, the critic who sets standards is a person of refined taste and experience. The critic will have the sort of taste which enables him to pick out works that we can say are of quality even if the quality of beauty is not something we can point to as real.

Relativism can still arise in two ways. Firstly, works of art belonging to different genres and periods might appeal to one critic but not another. If one critic champions the glories of abstract art whilst another finds quality only in Impressionism, there is no criteria upon which to say either one is right without making reference to taste. Secondly, there are cultural differences so that Japanese critics, say, will have different taste and experience from those in the West, so standards become culturally relative.

However, the critic need not be seen as an actual critic. If the critic is taken to be an ideal critic, a person we imagine as not embodied in the institution of art and immersed in a culture, we are supposing that such a person — who is possible but not actual — might determine which works are works of quality in light of different human tastes and cultures. The ideal critic will determine which tastes pick out real quality and which works in different cultures are worthy of appreciation.

Rachel Browne


Sara asked:

This is about "A belief is what we accept as truth" which was discussed on these pages.

One example I have come up with is that hundreds of years ago people believed the world was flat, in fact they knew it was flat and believed it to be true as they knew nothing else. However, later it was discovered that the world was round and so now we KNOW that it is in fact round. Before this discovery was made, the truth was that the world was flat and one could fall off it if they travelled too far out to sea.

What if we believe in something that isn't actually true? The hijackers of the planes in the States may have believed in something that they thought to be true, but that was disputed by most of the western population.

"One example I have come up with is that hundreds of years ago people believed the world was flat..."

Whoa! Hold on a bit. What you begin with is right, hundreds of years ago (some) people believed the earth was flat. But then you go on to say, "in fact [,] they knew it was flat...but they knew no such thing since (unless you believe that the earth has changed shape between then and now, do you?)the earth was then round. So how could they have possibly have known it was flat when it was false that it was flat. Can you know something which is false? I don't think so. The next thing you say may explain what is going on. You say "they believed it to be true [that the earth was flat]" and, again, you are right. They did believe it to be true. But since the earth was not flat but round, what they believed to be true was false. They had a false belief, which is to say, they made a mistake. In other words, they believed that they knew that the earth was flat. But believing you know something is one thing; actually knowing that thing is something else again. People often believe they know things, but find out later that they only believed they knew these things, but didn't because what they believed they knew turned out to be false as in the case you give. A necessary condition of knowing something is that what you know be false. That is different from claiming or believing you know something. For your claim may or may not be true, and your belief may or may not be true. I claimed to know, just a short time ago, the the United Constitution said that a person can be accused of treason only in time of war. Upon reading Article 3 of the Constitution, I found out that I was mistaken about that. I thought I knew something that I didn't know at all. Thinking you know something, and actually knowing it, are very different.

"However, later it was discovered that the world was round and so now we KNOW that it is in fact round..."

But, as I just pointed out, unless you believe that the earth changed shape in the meantime, it was not true that the earth was flat, not then, not now, not ever. It was always round. However (some) people thought or believed it was flat. And of course, it turns out they were wrong, and they were also wrong in what they inferred from their belief that the world was flat.

"What if we believe in something that isn't actually true? The hijackers of the planes in the States may have believed in something that they thought to be true..."

We often believe things that aren't true. After all, we are only fallible human beings, and liable to make mistakes. But with diligence and careful investigation, we can often greatly lower the probability that we are wrong, although not eliminate it altogether. The growth of science that helped this along greatly. The scientific method is the best way of decreasing the possibility that our beliefs are mistaken.

The terrorists probably did believe in what they did. But it still remains a good possibility that their beliefs were distorted by emotion and by certain views which weren't true. And it is also possible that they might have been crazy. After all, they did commit suicide, and cause the deaths of many who were innocent and had done them no harm. So, even if they thought they were doing what was right, nevertheless, in view of what they actually did and intended to do, we can safely say that they were mistaken in thinking they were right. The fact that people believe they are right is no evidence at all that they are in fact right.

Ken Stern


Sakir asked:

Could you please provide me information about Herakletos, the Philosopher, the son of Ephesus King?

Only little is reported of Heraclitus' life. His own writings make it plain that he had nothing but scorn for the popular mass "For what thought or wisdom have they? They follow the poets and take the crowd as their teacher, knowing not that there are many bad and few good. For even the best of them choose one thing above all others, immortal glory among mortals, while most of them are glutted like beasts" (frag 111), for political leaders, and for most previous writers on philosophy and religion including Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras and Xenophanes: "Much learning does not teach understanding — otherwise it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus" (frag 16).

Heraclitus' writings, like those of most pre-Socratics, have survived only in small fragments cited by other classical authors. These fragments are often dense and paradoxical — therefore Heraclitus is characterized in the history of philosophy as the obscure philosopher: While Aristotle complained of his word order, Socrates said it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of his work. In the following I will relate to the writings of Aristotle.

Aristotle tells us about three of Heraclitus' ideas. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle mentions Heraclitus with his Milesian predecessors in one breath, saying Heraclitus assumes another single source of natural substances: fire. But if you take for example, fragment 30, where Heraclitus says "The world, an entity out of everything, was created by neither gods nor men, but was, is and will be eternally living fire, regularly becoming ignited and regularly becoming extinguished.", fire doesn't sound to be the arche here, but a symbol for the eternal change.

Explanation: The point is, that Heraclitus was concerned to improve the Milesian monists Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, who had attempted to explain the world in terms of one underlying stuff (water, "apeiron", air) and not just to suggest another material source. Heraclitus might have asked: If everything is really one stuff, how do we make sense of the fact that we observe a multiplicity of things in the world? And if all these many things are really made of the same stuff, how can we explain that some things change into other things? That's why Heraclitus declares just change as the underlying principle. Most famous is this fragment (91), also expressing the primacy of eternal change: "You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."

The problem now is, that change, in Heraclitus' philosophy, must imply that reality is riddled with contradictions, and this is the second of Heraclitus' ideas. For example, "arguing Aristotelean", if a seed grows into a tree, the seed is not what it was. It was a seed, now it's a tree. However, we must say that it still is the same thing: we didn't destroy the seed and then bring in a whole new and different tree. It is still what it was, but then again, it is not what it was. Therefore the tree is and is not the seed, which violates the law of non-contradiction. Aristotle concludes, "The doctrine of Heraclitus, which says that everything is and is not, seems to make all things true" (1012a). A more charitable reading can be found in W. K. Guthrie's A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 1, where Guthrie recognizes three distinct ways that Heraclitus identifies opposites. Very briefly, Heraclitus argues, that without contraries the world wouldn't even exist: how could there be a day without a night? Or winter without summer?

The third idea follows from the doctrine of radical flux: the impossibility to have knowledge of the sensible world. This impossibility caused others (namely, Plato) to develop a "theory of forms" to justify the possibility of knowledge. The theory of Forms occurred to those who enunciated it because they were convinced as to the true nature of reality by the doctrine of Heraclitus, [...]" (Met., 1078b) Heraclitus influenced not only Plato, but also had a keen follower, Cratylus, who took his teacher very seriously. He stopped talking all together on the grounds that there is literally nothing to talk about, and it is improper for a man to utter noise.According to Heraclitus we should listen to the logos, the principle of order and knowledge, which is common to all, but, and here we've come back to the point we've started from, the many remain ignorant of it, just like sleepwalkers unaware of the reality around them. You will find more detailed information about Heraclitus in an article of the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:


and a collection of Heraclitus' fragments at:


Simone Klein


Elaine asked:

How to lead a philosophical life when we try to go through pain?

If this question is a practical one from someone who is currently experiencing physical or emotional pain then I think the correct initial response would be to advise the questioner to seek methods of pain control from an appropriate qualified medical practitioner. If the questioner is asking a more general question independently of their current experience or in conjunction with it concerning the capacity of philosophical analysis to offer something to the current situation then I think consideration of what it is to be philosophical or adopt a philosophical disposition has something to add that might be of benefit in general and possibly medically if there is merit in believing in Psycho-immunolgy (The Body At War John Dwyer p.239).

We can express the essence of a practical philosophical attitude in the slogan or maxim:

'Don't personalise, generalise'.

Supposing I am not feeling too well, I might begin by expressing my feeling unanalytically by announcing that I am taking to my bed and not going to work. I might be advised later that the source of my malaise is viral cold. How might I understand this information from a philosophical viewpoint whilst resting in bed? From the initial sentences describing my condition: 'Neil has a viral cold' I could construct the extension; ' Neil is being acted against by a virus'. By now I have forgotten how miserable I am feeling and beginning to enjoy the opportunity to indulge myself in some philosophical game playing and in fact I am quite grateful to my viral friend for giving me this time out.

I have begun to see that I can take this game to a new level by extracting some of the particulars out of the last sentence to derive an even more general sentence form: 'something did some act against someone'. I have now begun to see that I can zoom out from this sentence even more by constructing a sort of pseudo-sentence in list form where the names are place markers for other names that could take their place to make the sentence pattern become a sentence like the one we originally began with. My pseudo-sentence now takes the following shape:

(Person, time, place, act, value, order)

and looks remarkably like a very cryptic form of the pattern of questions that we teach children to use when analysing or constructing stories, i.e:

(Who, When, Where, What, Why?)

The slight addition comes in the last position with the introduction of a marker for 'order' by which I am thinking of What lead to, or What follows from?

If we now add a new list of generalising marker words in front of this list in the form of (every, some,) then we can begin to really start to play some interesting philosophical games once we add the final marker that kicks the game into play and this has the general form of a question mark (?).

So our philosophical attitude can now be expressed in the sentence generating pattern:

(?)(Every, some)(Person,time, place,act, value, order)

from which we can construct sentences like:

Does everyone, always experience every pain in the same way?
Do some pains have some purpose?
Can I locate my pain in some particular place?
Where does pain go when I do not notice it?
Is my pain something that exists somewhere at sometime?
If pain is a real thing that acts against me can I imagine a real thing that acts for me and against my pain?

Again, to reiterate I am sure that it is not the place of philosophy to give advice that would prevent the seeking of medical opinion, but in the realms of self help I think philosophy can offer some practical techniques to help in the management of everyday experiences.

Neil Buckland


Christian asked:

What are three characteristics of the Patristic period?

I take it that you mean the characteristics of the thought of the patristic period. There are lots of characteristics. I will give you here the three most general and most underlying.

1. Absolute spirit
Looking at Christian religion philosophically, Christianism is the ism of the absolute universal spirit. The 'holy spirit' is the Spirit that created all that is in the beginning with God, it is God this period said. The spirit governs the universe and time, and 'lives' in history through the concrete acts of men and women. The thought of the absolute universal spirit is the first moment of the thought of this period.

2. Athens and Jerusalem.
Tertullian (160-220) asked the rhetorical question, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' at the outset of the period in question. By it he meant, What have the false Greek gods to do with the living God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob? What has polytheism to do with monotheism? What has superstition to do with truth? What has the wisdom of the world to do with the wisdom of God (cf. 1. Cor. 1)? and so on... Athens and Jerusalem are to be understood symbolically as Greek and Jew. Unfortunately for Tertullian, the patristic period is one in which the two had everything to do with one another, in which they met and married, in which the semitic root religion really became embroiled in the thought of the world and changed that thought forever. This marks the Patristic period, hence the talk from Western commentators down the centuries about 'Platonism' in Christianity, as if this were an agenda or a corruption; it is merely the effect of 'Athens' having so much to do with 'Jerusalem'.

3. Church and State.
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" Jesus had said. This reflects the difference between the Kingdom of David and the Kingdoms of the world, sacred and profane, divine and secular. Church and state can be taken in the concrete sense as characteristic of the thought of the period, or as ciphers for the origin of the whole problem of universals. Anything less than what is ultimate (for which G-d is the signifier, but not the word) is an idol unworthy of ruling and not universal. It is relative, but that which is 'rendered to God' is the whole self (Shema Israel! Deut.6:4f) which is universal. The question of universals got philosophically trivialised and lost under the thumb of Scholasticism.

None of these three moments of thought have been overcome. They persist today.

Matthew Del Nevo


Marko asked:

What are the defenders of consciousness talking about? I often get stuck in philosophy of mind when reading an essay "defending" consciousness, saying it is out of reach for SCIENTIFIC explanations etc. The Turing Test may be insufficient, but why? Because it does not take consciousness and/ or understanding into consideration? But what is it that the Turing Test doesn't take into consideration? That may be the hard problem, yes, but are there any straightforward philosophical essays or scientific research that have accomplished a good explanation of WHAT they're talking about? Could you help me find it (tip me of some philosopher...) or perhaps give me some material or answers of your own?

I assume that by "defenders of consciousness" you do not mean people who maintain that we are conscious, nor people who maintain that it is useful to study consciousness, but instead you mean something like people who maintain that consciousness is a "thing" that is "beyond" "scientific" explanation or understanding. Well. It sounds to me as if you are reading rather haphazardly in an area in which haphazard reading is very dangerous. You can easily get sucked into some school, etc.... and the issue of consciousness is one fraught with very extreme feelings, since it touches not merely on science, but religion, mysticism, and so forth.

I'm somewhat at a disadvantage here, because this is an area in which I'm extremely interested, and I've done so much reading in it, that without knowing your background better, I feel at a real loss as to what to recommend you to read. So first, take a look at a very good site, Dave Chalmers': http://www.u.arizona.edu/~chalmers/. Second, realize that his position on consciousness vis-a-vis science is a very particular one, which many people (including me) disagree with. But he's very knowledgeable in this area (and, actually, very approachable).

Meanwhile, the Turing Test has this general problem: what if everyone else but you, or, say, half the people walking around, are "zombies"? That is, what is there, if anything, about consciousness that necessarily changes behavior? What if you can have creatures perfectly simulating the behavior of conscious entities, without themselves being conscious? So far, we cannot prove that there cannot be such creatures. Well, if not, we're sort of stuck, aren't we, insofar, at the very least, as evaluating the necessity for and effectiveness of the Turing Test? Think about it. If consciousness does not change behavior, then a non-conscious person could behave exactly the way we do (including, of course, talking about being conscious), just without having phenomenal experiences. This is the "zombie problem", and there's lots of literature on it.

The "hard problem" is something else, more or less (although they're interrelated). That is, how do you go from the physical to the mental? More specifically, given some neural circuit that we know is involved in, say, color vision, all we've got there is neurons firing, right? Where's the color? Neurons aren't colored (well, they are, but you know what I mean); neural discharges aren't colored; there's no little man in our heads sitting watching the neurons firing and seeing colors... so where do the colors come from? All there are, are just neurons reacting to other neurons. And of course we can ask the same question about all qualia, all conscious experiences: smell, touch, taste... anger (an angry neuron?), fear... the meaning of an equation... and on and on. Nasty, right? And so far unsolved (and according to Chalmers, unsolvable with science as presently conceived, which is where I — and others — disagree with him). There are also people who do not recognize this as a problem; they claim that colors (etc.) are "real", i.e., really and actually out there in the world, and that we have "direct" access to them (I'm putting that in quotes because I don't really understand how it could possibly work). They are a rather small minority.

I could go on and on. Some intro books:

Old book: Ornstein: The Psychology of Consciousness.
Very old, very good book: Ashby: Design for a Brain.
Good and controversial: Dreyfus: What Computers Still Can't Do.
Also controversial: Searle: The Mystery of Consciousness.
Very good but one-sided: Baars: A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness.
Computer-oriented: Churchland: Matter and Consciousness
and Dennett: Consciousness Explained (which he doesn't).
Some anthologies: Metzinger: Conscious Experience; Farthing: The Psychology of Consciousness; Cohen: Scientific Approaches to Consciousness.

Then there are Clarke, Flanagan, Edelman, Lycan, Dretske, Varela, Chalmers... and on and on and on. And I'm not even considering conventional philosophy of mind nor phenomenology here. Chalmers' site also probably has good intro books; I haven't seen it in a while.

This is a huge area. Do not expect easy or quick answers.

Steven Ravett Brown


Osama asked:

Please can somebody send me all they know about philosophy of punishment.

Basically punishment is a sanction against violating the law which is an instrument for the protection of society and there are three main theories of punishment which seek to answer the general question of what justifies punishment, but they also need to account for the more specific questions of who we can punish, and how severely. In most countries, there are defences available to someone who has violated the law, such as duress or provocation. So a theory needs to be able to support an account of when it is appropriate not to punish.

One theory of what justifies punishment is utilitarian, the main proponent being Jeremy Bentham. Punishment protects the majority of law-abiding citizens. Firstly, it is in the interests of the majority that a minority who are causing harm should be punished: this can mean they are taken out of society by imprisonment. Secondly, the establishment of a system of punishment means that the majority do not need to take the law into their own hands. Such a theory has difficulty answering questions about how severely we can punish and but has available theoretical grounds for saying that there are cases when we need not punish, for instance when it is clear that someone won't re-offend because they acted under duress.

The second kind of theory sees punishment as having a moral basis (see J L Austin and R Dworkin). Such a theorist can hold that a person who acts wrongly, and could have done otherwise, gets what he deserves, or he might simply hold that law is founded in moral principles. A theory, based on moral considerations is more able to support an account of how severely we can punish. It could be suggested that the punishment meet the harm done. This could give support to the death penalty for murderers. Again there are grounds to support cases where punishment is not appropriate, such as when a person could not have done otherwise because he acted under duress or was insane.

Thirdly, there are non-retributive theories which hold that punishment acts as a deterrence. Bentham held that punishment was a deterrent, as well as having utilitarian value, but the main modern-day proponent of this approach is H L A Hart. Punishment will deter an offender from re-offending and also deter those who might consider committing an offence from doing so. We have the freedom to offend or not, the more severe the punishment the greater the deterrence, and the overall characterisation of law as a deterrent allows room for theorising about excuse, mitigation and defence.

These theories take punishment for granted. The Platonic view is that there should be no need for punishment. We should strive to notice those people who have criminal tendencies and try to re-educate or cure them, so that they will naturally behave in a way which is socially acceptable. Although punishment might seem like a violation of the freedom, really it offers a greater freedom than the Platonic view. Where there is law and punishment, we have the freedom to offend and accept punishment or, if we are lucky, get away with it. In a Platonic state, there is no freedom to offend or follow one's criminal tendencies. So while punishment is that which everyone but a masochist or someone who feels safest in prison seeks to avoid, it has a positive aspect.

Rachel Browne


Michael asked:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?...just kidding.

I see a lot of questions that ask mainly about the meaning of life. Experiences, feelings, thinking, loving, right or wrong, etc. I've always wondered what life meant as well. I also wonder why things even exist at all. At what point was the mere concept of "being" established? why is there anything? why is anything else besides the black of the universe? what is that black? why is it black? do we really live in a huge nothing? or is the whole universe one giant living organism? why is the universe so complex that we can't fathom it's endless reach?

So my question is really....WHY DO WE EVEN ASK WHY? and if you can answer that...why can you answer it? there is no end to why. Could it be that "why?" is the only thing more complex than the universe? why?

and Annie asked:

I'm a year 8 philosophy student and I would like to know why we keep asking why?

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?...just kidding."

Why just kidding? It is a serious question that has an answer. The answer is, the chicken came first. The chicken evolved from a lower species, reptiles, I believe, and when it evolved and was a chicken, it laid an egg.

"I see a lot of questions that ask mainly about the meaning of life..."

As for the question, what is the meaning of life, I don't think there is an answer to that general question. But I think that there is an answer to the question, what is the meaning of a particular life, for instance, yours. The answer to that is the meaning, or significance that you yourself give to your life. The lives of people are meaningful or not depending on what individual persons do with their lives and how they conduct themselves throughout their lives. Clearly, the life of Mother Theresa or of Albert Einstein were meaningful and important. But what of the life of Princess Diane? That is questionable, for she did very little to make her life meaningful. My point is that you should not expect, as apparently some people do expect, for the significance of their live to come somehow from external sources, God or whatever. The meaning of one's life in internal. And the question, what is the meaning of life (in general) has no answer, for it is a little like asking the question, what is the meaning of eating mashed potatoes? It is too general to admit of a sensible answer.

"And if you can answer that...why can you answer it? there is no end to why..."

"I would like to know why we keep asking why?"

As in the above case, the reason your general question seems to have no answer is that it is too general and lacks a context. The answer to "why do we ask why?" is that in the context in which we ask, we are asking for an answer to a particular question. The question, "Why does water freeze at a temperature of 0 degrees centigrade?" certainly does have an answer, and there are obvious reasons for asking that question. But all questions need a context. The English philosopher used to talk about the fallacy of asking about nothing in particular. You just might be committing that fallacy.

Ken Stern

I have never wondered about the meaning of life because the question "why" doesn't seem applicable to life. Things just are. When we ask "why?" we are looking for a reason or explanation and we have to be justified in doing this. We are not justified in asking why if the question doesn't fall within the realm of the explanatory.

Meaning is the significance something has. The relevant question concerning meaning or significance is "what?". We can ask about the significance of love and feelings and the answer is probably functional, or evolutionary because our explanation and reasons have a causal nature. We can also ask "why" do we love and have feelings and the answer will be in the same terms because explanations in terms of functionality and evolution are of a causal nature. Our notions of function and evolution are based on the way the world actually seems to us, and we are justified in thinking in this way because we cannot think otherwise. We can come up with weird mystical explanatory theories, but these are speculative and we'll have problems getting others to accept them as true.

There is no point in asking "what is the meaning of life?". Firstly this is because it is not an analysable concept, or something that picks out a state of affairs, but another way of putting the question "why are we here?" Secondly, if there is a reason we are here it is not causal or functional in the sense of physical explanation, and the only form of explanation is metaphysical. And, whereas physical explanation has a point in that it helps us to understand the workings of the world and we cannot help but think in causal explanatory terms, metaphysical explanation is of no use and only functions to satisfy religious feelings in mankind. Metaphysical commitments are relative. Some people don't believe that there is anything beyond that which can be understood in physical causal terms.

I agree that metaphysical questions are interesting, but only when we asking the "what?" question. What is the nature of consciousness and what is the nature of our ethical relations are interesting questions. Here we are looking at the nature of mankind rather than why he is, and the latter question seems ridiculous. The person with a yen for the religious or the mystical thinks that "why are we here?" falls within the realm of explanation but he is wrong.

Of course, sometimes we don't have an explanation because we haven't yet the ability to understand and explain. So we do often ask "why?", seeking an explanation, but as I say this is only justified if it is the sort of question which is answerable in terms of our natural capacity for explanation. Otherwise, you can go on asking "why, why, why" as a child does but sometimes the parent has to answer "well, that's just the way it is". Basically, asking "why" when there isn't an answer is really an age and personality related thing.

Rachel Browne


Zeli asked:

Can you clarify qualia for me?

I understand qualia to be the subjective qualities of conscious experience but is 'qualia' only representative of 'something we sense'? All the examples I have read to date seem to be along the lines of a sensory experience.

Can the feeling of love, hope, being frightened be described as qualia? We have conscious experiences of these things and I assume we can experience these things in different ways. Can we say the quality of fear I feel is different to the quality of fear you feel? If these things cannot be described in terms of qualia — can you clarify why?

This is a very good question — I'm impressed. It's also a very controversial issue. It is indeed true that the term "qualia" (or the singular, "quale"), is usually taken to refer to those aspects of phenomenal experience usually considered sensory. There isn't too much problem with emotions here also; one of the classic qualities to analyze in philosophy of mind is the feeling of pain, for example; that feeling is something Dennett and many others work with as an example. The problem comes with what might be termed "attitudes", "propositions", "abstractions", and suchlike. Is our attitude towards something a phenomenal experience? What about our understanding of a sentence, or a mathematical expression? These latter, as expressed, i.e., as symbols, are certainly propositions, but what of their mental expressions, their meanings... what do we experience as we read a sentence, an equation, etc.? The classical answer to this is that we "have" mental "propositions". I have always thought this absurd, myself, and the tide is starting to turn around somewhat, as people begin to study consciousness. That is, it is one thing to represent our phenomenal experiences as propositions, it is entirely another to claim that those experiences are literally propositions. The former seems very reasonable, given human limitations on representation, the latter, to me, if not to legions of analytic philosophers, clearly untrue. But if it is untrue that we experience propositions as such, what do we experience when we read a sentence, understand an equation, and so forth? I'm actually working in just this area, and because of that, I don't know how to give you a short answer... it would be easier if this weren't a major interest of mine. Twenty-five words or less: we experience gestalts (in a very broad sense of that word), i.e., unified complexes, of sensory, emotional, and abstract qualities, in a variety of modalities, encompassing verbal and non-verbal qualia (whoops... 30).

Let me just step back a bit... you ask whether feelings can be "described in terms of qualia"... what does that mean? If a feeling is a quale, then any description of feelings, employing feelings, is one in terms of qualia. Or you could be a behaviorist and describe fear in terms of bodily responses, but then you'd be a behaviorist. Or, perhaps, a Jamesian (James-Lange theory of emotions), or even a Wittgensteinian (given a broad conception of "body"). You could describe fear in terms of neural discharges in the amygdala (and other areas)... but then you'd be describing neural discharges. You could describe fear in terms of its social causes and consequences, but then you'd be a sociologist (or maybe some sort of post-modernist, post-Heideggerian type), describing social interactions. I actually don't think that the above, in my opinion, inaccurately termed "reductionist" approaches to describing feelings (in terms of other entities) are either correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. In other words, there are situations, contexts, in which a neural description of fear, or a sociological, is in fact the best description, and anyone, in my opinion, who wants to be able to understand and describe the mind, our phenomenal experiences, our interactions with the world, must of necessity be familiar with the totality of these approaches. It is just the restriction to one such viewpoint which limits investigation and description. I'm just dipping my toes into the ocean of literature and controversy here; there's no way to summarize it in this context.

As for referring you to the literature... the mind reels. D. Ihde: Experimental Phenomenology. James: Principles of Psychology, V1. Wittgenstein: Blue & Brown Books. Nagel: What is it like to be a bat? (an article). Metzinger: Conscious Experience (an anthology). Tye: Ten Problems of Consciousness. Flanagan: Consciousness Reconsidered. Go on the web and look up the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness for an enormous list of readings and sources.

Steven Ravett Brown


Gladys asked:

Why did we come to the world?

When we ask a question like this we should not be expecting a simple or quick answer. These kinds of questions are more an invitation to conduct a thought experiment or investigation, even if or especially if the question stands alone from any context or it is generated as part of a complex situation.

As a guide for conducting such an experiment, we can learn from the way we teach children how to conduct scientific investigations. Here we can begin with a very general and superficially simple question like," Why do candles go out" or "Why do elephants throw water over themselves"? The ensuing discussion should lead to the generation of ideas suggesting causes that can be tested through simple experiments.

An implicit technique we can transfer from scientific investigations to practical philosophical investigations is that of 'gardening', which may not on the face of it seem to have much to do with either, but by which I mean the process of growing a tree that pictures the meanings and interconnections we have 'grown' from investigative dialogue or monologue. From such trees we can recognise interconnections, coherences, compatabilities, comfort or discomfort amongst the idea we have hanging from the branches.

So, if the question, "Why did we come to the world" which probably intends to take us on an expedition into the confusing jungles of metaphysics, is the root of the tree, what questions will encourage its growth? There is some experimental value in initially taking the question literally rather than metaphorically with the intention of seeing what characteristics of the metaphorical interpretation of the original question can be generated. If we can answer well enough on a literal interpretation we may be content to say there is no need to embark on a metaphorical or metaphysical interpretation. We could then understand the question to be asking about a journey in much the way that we could ask of a holiday companion; "why did we come to this beach?" Within this supposition we already have some concrete and ordinary ideas hidden in the shadow of the attention grabbing metaphor. In particular we can identify the following:

I. a travelling companion: why we came
II. a questioner expressing doubt or uncertainty about the reason for the journey: what did we expect from the journey?
III. a questioner expressing doubt or uncertainty about the particular destination of the journey: why here and not elsewhere?
IV. a questioner expressing doubt or uncertainty about the specific membership of the travelling party: why us and not them? Or why you and not them?

There is also a presupposition that the agents involved had some choice in their destination: we came and were not sent, there may be no sender.

All of these questions are answerable in concrete terms, the answers to which may be interesting in themselves but if we were asked the original question in the context of a philosophical counseling dialogue would we be doing justice to the originator of the question if we now advised that the original question was simply a metaphorical chimera, a non-question that had no more substance than a mirage? Probably not, mainly because we have not yet examined what critical step turns very ordinary questions into metaphorical ones. Part of the answer resides in the replacement of a very specific destination like 'the beach' with an abstract one like 'world'. This term seems to take us on a giddy high-speed ride into the stratosphere and beyond before we have had a chance to consider the possibility that it may not be so abstract and general as it seems to want to be. We can bring the dialogue focus and entailed tree generation back down to ground by identifying the scope questioner explicitly or implicitly attributed to the term 'world'. What worlds does the questioner inhabit? Where by worlds we can include, families, culture, education, job and so on.

If it turns out that the level of generality was intended to transcend all particular worlds then we can close this phase of the investigation and open up a new one by referring back to the generalisations constructed from the concrete questions and asking:

V. In what sense are we travelling?
VI. Do we travel alone?
VII. Is there a purpose to our journey?
VIII. What should we expect from our journey?
IX. Is there a sender?
X. Where were we before we were sent?
XI.Is there an endpoint to our journey?

I began by suggesting that philosophical investigations can borrow some techniques from the way we teach children to conduct scientific investigations. We can further borrow the idea that such investigations are part of a learning process not simply of specific facts and results but of technique. This particular investigation offers the participants a model for the non-destructive analysis of metaphorical ideas in terms of their concrete 'earth-twins' so that should the philosophical traveler want to close the investigation at that point they can, but should they want to continue the game they can do that as well by generating a new set of abstractions synthesised from the assertions implicit in and drawn out from the original question. And so they may continue moving between the two approaches until they decide they want to rest, take another direction or give up travelling.

Neil Buckland


Floris asked:

I have a question concerning Kant's epistemology. I have been very confused about the different pairs of expressions analytic/ synthetic and a priori/ a posteriori.

In short, my teacher has taught me that, according to Kant, an analytic statement is one for which no empirical experience is required, while a synthetic statement involves empirical knowledge. The difference between a priori and a posteriori is, so she said, that a priori sentences are sentences in which the predicate is contained in the concept of the subject, while in a posteriori sentences this is not the case.

Now I am very confused having read her definition of a posteriori/ a priori being in my view identical to the definition of synthetic/analytic as described in Thomas Mautner's Dictionary of Philosophy (page 19). Her definition of synthetic/analytic was furthermore identical to Mautner's definition of a priori/a posteriori (page 33).

As I asked her about this, she said I must have misunderstood what Mautner wanted to say, and, to my grief, she refused to continue our conversation until I had read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or at least Prolegomena Then I would see why, she said.

Now I have read the first half of the Prolegomena, but still I can't think but that Mautner's definition is compatible with Kant's text and hers is not, which, moreover, makes Kant's expressions seem rather empty (like his questions about the synthetic a priori would be quite useless in my view, if we apply my teacher's definition to them).

Is the philosophical community not unanimous as to what the exact definition of the two pairs of expressions (synthetic/ analytic and a priori/a posteriori) is? If not, why is that so?

Your teacher is confused. The distinction between analytic and synthetic is a distinction about sentences (Kant would have said "judgements." It is a logical distinction. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is a distinction about how we know a sentence is true (or false) It is an epistemological distinction.

Kant said that an analytic sentence or judgement is one whose "predicate is contained in its subject." For instance, "all dogs are animals." A synthetic sentence is one whose predicate is not "contained in its subject. For instance,"all dogs are carnivores (eat meat)" A different way of talking about the analytic-synthetic distinction is to say that analytic sentences are true in virtue of the meanings of their terms, and synthetic sentences are not true in virtue of the meanings of their terms. On the other hand, a sentence that is known a priori is not known empirically or on the basis of sense-evidence. It is known independently of sense-evidence.But a sentence known a posteriori (or empirically) is known on the basis of (dependently on) sense-evidence.

Kant says that it is clear that all analytic sentences are known to be true a priori, since they are true in virtue of the meanings of their terms. But,now, what about synthetic sentences? According to Kant, although some synthetic sentences are know a posteriori or empirically on the basis of sense evidence,this is not true of all synthetic sentences. It is true, for example, of all dogs are carnivores. We could not know that unless we observed dogs and what they eat. But what about a sentence like, Whatever is red is colored? Kant denies that the concept of color is contained in the term red. But he asserts that although we know this sentence is true, we do not know it is true on the basis of sense evidence, a posteriori. Kant insists we know it a priori, that is, independently of sense-evidence. Another, and more famous example that Kant gives is the sentence "Every event has some cause" (The law of universal causation). Again, Kant says of this sentence that although it is synthetic, it is known independently of sense-experience,and so, is known a priori. So, according to Kant, although all analytic sentences are known a priori, it is false that all a priori sentences are analytic.Some sentences known a priori are synthetic. After these distinctions are made, and Kant establishes that there are synthetic sentences known a priori, Kant asks his seminal question: How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?It is this question to which the entire Critique of Pure Reason is devoted to answering.

Some philosophers, in opposition to Kant, have held that the term "analytic"is co-extensive with the term, "a priori" and the term, "synthetic" is co-extensive with the term "a posteriori." That is to say, these philosophers hold that all synthetic sentences are also known a posteriori, and all sentences known a posteriori are synthetic and that all analytic sentence are known a priori,and all sentences knows a priori are analytic sentences. Your teacher seems to be one of these. This is a possible and respectable position, and has engendered much controversy in philosophy since it denies Kant's claim that some synthetic sentences are know a priori. But where your teacher is confused is in thinking that the terms "synthetic" and "a posteriori" mean the same thing (are synonomous); and that the terms "analytic" and "a priori" mean the same thing (are synonomous) and that is simply false, since, as I pointed out when I began, the analytic-synthetic distinction is a logical distinction,whereas the a priori -a posteriori distinction is an epistemological distinction about how we know.

Besides, to maintain that these pairs of terms are synonomous is simply to rule out Kant's question, "How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible"by definition, since it would make it a self-contradictory question. And this would be unfair and somewhat silly.

Ken Stern

I have not read the book by Mautner you mention. It would probably be better for you to forget it, if its confusing. It seems to me that it is incorrect to define a priori as meaning the same thing as analytic and a posteriori as synthetic. A priori, literally, means 'without prior experience', a posteriori means 'with experience'.

It is tempting to do what the positivists did and identify tautologies (analytic propositions) with a priori ones. Surely the only things you know without 'synthetic' experience of the world are trivial logical facts, such as 'A=A' or 'something can't both be and not be at the same time'. You don't need experiences to know that these trivial tautologies are analytically true,

Kant's point in the Critique of Pure Reason is that some non-trivial facts are known without experience (a priori) but are not simply 'analytic' tautologies. For example, the proposition 'there is space' is not analytic on your teacher's definition (it isn't a tautology), but according to Kant you cannot find out the truth of the proposition 'there is space' by looking at your experiences. What he is saying is that space is pre-supposed (i.e. it is an a priori concept) in order for there to be experiences at all.

Unfortunately, Kant is one of the worst writers to have ever tried writing philosophy. In particular, his Transcendental Deduction is amazingly badly written for such a powerful argument. This tends to disguise the importance and brilliance of what he actually argues. The main thing to grasp with the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason is how you can have 'a priori synthetic' propositions: i.e. sentences that are not tautologies but whose truth is not derived from synthetic experiences of the world. Understanding this requires you to ask the Kantian question: what needs to be the case about the world in order for this experience to be thus and so.

You could also read Quine's essay 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' in which he questions whether these distinctions are even right (after all, defining an analytic proposition as 'one in which the predicate is contained within the concept of the subject' isn't amazingly helpful) My experience was that a few hours worth of serious thought was the best way to grasping Kant on the analytic-synthetic/ a priori-a posteriori issue.

A. Gatward


Paul asked:

I am doing a presentation in a few weeks time on Hart's argument from political freedom, as found in his Punishment and Responsibility (Oxford edition). I still don't capture the exact bearing of this argument. Could you help me?

Hart's position on politics is that it only determines what the law when there is social warrant. The law is, for Hart, founded in social considerations. Law enforcement and punishment, in fact the very existence of the law have the function of maintaining a peaceful society.

The sort of social warrant for government action that Hart uses as an example in Chapter III is social opinion which comes to light in the formation of associations, such as those for the abolition of the death penalty. In response to these associations, select committees are set up and investigations are made by the Royal Commission and Gallup polls are taken. While a poll will not reflect party politics, the select committees do because they reflect the number of seats each party has in the Commons. However, as you will see in footnote 3, recommendations can go ahead even if one party completely withdraws from the committee, and in this particular case it was the majority political party. So the Government's own consideration would not figure in the recommendation. So this is one way in which statutory law is free from Government control. Also, the nature of the considerations which resulted in the Homicide Act, were not political but moral.

Another reason the Homicide Act may be taken to be non-political is that it didn't come about as a result of members of Parliament acting as delegates for the people who voted for them, but rather as a result of personal inclinations of the members of Parliament. Although the initial warrant for Government action was social opinion, it was the relaxation of party loyalty that led to a vote in favour of the abolition of the death penalty. So the Act is free from party politics. Social warrant is only needed to justify the Government taking action. There is no claim that statutory law need reflect public opinion.

Although in the particular case of the death penalty, party discipline was relaxed, so that members of the Commons could vote freely, Hart can't and doesn't claim that this is always the case with statutory law, so this isn't sufficient to conclude that the law is always free from party politics. However, Hart's position is not that the law is completely free from political intervention.

However, the theme of the book is that law is influenced by non-political considerations. The idea of intention is influenced by philosophical debate on the nature of action. Responsibility and mens rea are considered in the light of psychological theory. Conceptual analysis, rather than politics, is shown to have more influence when the courts are assessing individual cases.

Further, Hart claims that judges are able to make their own law, as in the case of the McNaughton Rules which were made by judges, and even though the Mental Health Act provides different criteria for a defence of insanity, the McNaughton Rules can still be used. The Mental Health Act has ousted the Rules from effect. Again it is in the particular case that statutory law might not be used.

Rachel Browne


Kathryn asked:

I worry about what appears to be the increasing rate of spread of capitalist and materialist values, yet all around me I hear people saying they do not want to live like that. How can something so outrageously against all that is best in mankind be so inexorable especially when the majority neither want nor understand it? Is something driving history? Will we get through this (evolve?) to better forms of society?

When the Constitution was written, a graduated income tax provision was expected to maintain a fairly level playing field for we, the people. However that has been ineffective and we are now controlled by money interests that control the working masses. We are all forced under the work for money and security at survival levels as ordained by the big operators who need us to produce so they can reap the rewards.

There is an answer. The Vote. We have the majority vote — if there is a relevant issue to vote upon. An amendment based on limiting individual wealth to a percentage of our national wealth and affected by contributions of individuals or families — has been sketched out. It needs to find a distribution program to spread the word.

Dan Emerson


Sunil asked:

Plato's philosophy in my view lacks proof. Plato talks about the world of forms but I do not understand where he could have gotten this knowledge from and furthermore what proof is there for the forms.

Plato also talks about objective truths such as justice , beauty , truth , love which in my view are subjective.

My question is can you enlighten me as to how did Plato arrive at these ideas and how could he prove these ideas. Besides, why should someone believe in the forms and objective truth (which seem to be subjective). I do not understand how could Plato justify his invisible philosophy./P>

Sunil also asked:

Is life fair and just or not? I know that from the appearance of life as it is, life seems inherently unfair. However are there any views that life is fair?

What are the arguments for life being fair? I know one is karma but karma cannot be proven and there are so many problems with the theory of karma.

I am from Trinidad, West Indies.

When you say that Plato's philosophy lacks "proof", you are partly right. Plato's belief in the existence of a world of forms certainly lacks the type of proof we would expect to see in a thoroughly scientific work. There are no experiments we could perform to test his idea. And, because these forms can only be accessed via the mind, there is no way that we can ever observe them. It does seem, on a strictly scientific definition of proof, that Plato's theory is unsustainable.

An empiricist philosopher such as David Hume, for example, would argue that because we can never experience this world of forms, we cannot claim to have any knowledge of its existence and, as such, should reject the idea altogether.

The problem with this type of criticism is that it fails to address the method by which Plato justified his ideas — a method not based on empirical observation. Plato was confronted by a number of problems. The only rational solution to these problems, according to Plato, is to postulate the existence of a separate realm of existence such as the realm of the forms. This method of using reason to deduce facts about the world is now described as rationalism.

For example, matter does not seem to be organised in a random chaotic way. Human beings are born and they all, without exception, share some feature which makes them recognisable as a human. How can this be so? Its no good resorting to phenomena like DNA and genetics and so on for this would still beg the question — why is it that matter is organised in such a way that it creates DNA which creates humans etc. Why did the matter form into the shape of the human and not something else? To use Jostein Gaarder's example from Sophie's World, why do we have an elephant and a crocodile, but not a crocophant?

Plato's answer to such problems of identity is that there must exist, somewhere, a blueprint or "mould" of the perfect or ideal or archetypal human being/ elephant/ crocodile etc. This mould is the form of the human/ crocodile/ elephant. It is the plan that determines the organisation of matter. Hopefully, you can see how postulating a world of forms solves a problem. Although we cannot observe this world of forms we know (or at least Plato does) that it exists. If it did not exist, we could not solve the problem of identity outlined above.

It is the same with concepts that appear as subjective to the modern thinker. The concepts of beauty and justice are good examples. How can we say that something is objectively beautiful? Plato's answer is that the beauty of an object is determined by how closely it resembles the ideal form of beauty. To say that something is unjust is to say that it has properties that do not resemble the ideal form of justice. Because justice and beauty cannot be observed, the philosopher must use her or his reason to access this world of the forms and find the objective answer.

Plato believed that the world he experienced through the senses was an unstable pattern of change and decay. Nothing we observe stays constant forever. Sooner or later things decay. Truth, by definition according to Plato, must be unchanging. It must be constant. Because of the constant change (describe by philosophers as flux) experienced by the senses, Plato believed that the senses could not be used to find truth. Truth must be found in a realm of reality to which the senses have no access. For Plato, this meant that only the mind, governed by reason, could access these eternal truths.

These ideas are not, perhaps, as far-fetched as they might initially seem. Ask yourself how you know if a drawing that claims to be a circle is actually a circle. Have you ever seen a perfect circle? Could you ever see one in the real world? Wouldn't the ink/pencil mark/paper decay, even at the microscopic level, the moment the circle was drawn? How, then, do you know it's a circle? Perhaps you have an idea of a perfect circle — an idea of one that you cannot see/ touch/ hear/ smell, but one that only exists in your mind and that can only be comprehended through the use of reason. Perhaps it is a mathematical definition of a circle. The point is that this idea serves as the blueprint you can use to draw a circle yourself and the yardstick by which you can judge the "circleness" of those drawings that claim to be of circles. Substitute world of forms for mind and you're not that far from Plato's position!

Simon Drew

Plato: you're absolutely right. Plato's position lacks proof. He was making a metaphysical assumption based on reasoning something like this: where do our notions of categories and abstractions come from? When we see, for example, squares, we see all sorts of things that we call "square", but none of them really are... so where do we get that idea? Well, his answer, which he never proved, but just thought up from wherever it is that we think up answers, was that there is an ideal square somewhere that is the example, the paradigm, the ideal model, for all the imperfect squares we see, draw, imagine, etc. That perfect square, and the perfect triangle, and so forth, are the Forms. Now, does this perfect square "exist", in some sense? Plato thought so, since, after all, everyone seems to have access to it. It all sounds plausible, doesn't it? So where are the perfect squares, perfect triangles, circles, trees, colors, love, justice, etc., etc.? They're off in some part of the universe that we can only access partially and indirectly, through (rational) mental effort. Now, who believes in this stuff today? Pretty much no one... except mostly mathematicians. Think about this: does the number 2 exist? Why not? Isn't it something that relates directly to the world, something that is independent of human beings (and animals, etc.), something that will always be the same, will always have the same relationship to two things, to the number 3, etc., etc.? That seems pretty solid, doesn't it? Take the example of a country. Does a country, like Trinidad, exist? If not, why not? If it does, why not the number 2?

Well, you can see the can of worms opened here. Have fun... you've got another 2000 years of debate ahead of you to read about.

Life: is it fair. My take on this question is that asking it so generally it is like asking what a triangle tastes like, or whether a rock is fair. You've mixed categories that can't be mixed. Fairness, as a descriptive category, does not apply generally to life, the totality of the stream of events surrounding us. Fairness applies to human acts and judgments. That is, the term "fair" relates to issues of ethics and morality. You can ask whether some aspects of life are fair, namely those aspects which relate to moral judgments. You can't ask whether getting hit on the head by a falling tree in a storm is fair, it just happens. Unless you are one of those who believe that there is a god, or spirits, who cause everything and employ moral judgments in all their acts, in which case you must indeed believe that life is, or is not, fair, there are many many events that have no moral or ethical components in their causes. For example, can you ask whether coming down with typhoid fever is fair? Now, if you're in a city, and if the typhoid was (in part) the result of bad water which was (in part) the result of sewage in the water, which was (in part) the result of poor maintenance on the sewers which was (in part) the result of lack of money for maintenance, which was (in part) the result of corruption in the government... then you can ask about the fairness of the distribution of money, and so, to some extent, about the fairness of the typhoid, which was partially caused by that inequity, but also by many other factors, like the presence of the bacteria, its virulence, etc., etc. But what if you were in the wilderness somewhere, drank some water, and came down with typhoid? Was "life" unfair, because the bacteria just happened to be there? Were the bacteria unfair? The water? Your drinking it? I don't think so; I think that you were just unlucky, and that the category "fairness" did not apply in that case.

Steven Ravett Brown


Felix asked:

St.Thomas Aquinas justified God's existence by five arguments. This can't be taken literally, there has to be more for his thoughts and my question is; What interpretations followed other philosophers about Aquinas arguments in his justification for the existence of God? I'm interested on critics and other thoughts. The concept of God can be interpreted in INFINITE ways, just like Aquinas arguments.

Well, yes. It can be taken quite literally. The famous Five Ways appears in St. Thomas' Summa Theologica and you can find it there. The fact that there may be several interpretations (I doubt very much that the number is infinite, don't you?) of these arguments in no way shows that there are not just five. Aquinas was, of course, talking about the concept of God of traditional Christianity and Judaism, and, again, although there may be several ways of understanding that concept, these are not infinite either. Aquinas was simply giving arguments which he thought showed that this particular concept had a referent-referred to something which had the features or properties included in the concept.

There have certainly been critics of his arguments. Probably, the two most famous critics were the English philosopher, David Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion and Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.

Ken Stern


Berty asked:

According to Wittgenstein, should philosophy speak about reality?

Try the recently published book, Wittgenstein's Poker: the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers by D. Edmonds and J. Eidinow.

Steven Ravett Brown


Kristen asked:

I'm a student in the U.S. I am currently doing a paper on the difference between knowledge and true belief. I've developed a bit of writer's block/ mass confusion. Could you give me your view on the difference (if any) between the two? I'm taking the stance that a true belief is a form of knowledge, that you need a belief in order to reach a place of knowledge. What are your thoughts on this? Just a brief synopsis would be greatly appreciated.

Well I might just guess that Whirlaway would win a certain race and even bet a lot of money. So that if someone asked me whether I believe Whirlaway would win I would sincerely reply, "Yes, I do." Well now, let's suppose I am right and Whirlaway does win, so I win all that money. But now, let's suppose that someone says to me, "How did you know that Whirlaway would win? The odds makers thought she would not." I might reply, well, I didn't know at all. I just guessed and I turned out to be right. I guess I was just lucky!" So, I had no reasons or justification for my belief, but nevertheless I was right, my belief was true. So I did not know. But I had a true belief.

Knowledge needs adequate reasons in addition to being a true belief.

Ken Stern


Lisa asked:

How can moral monotheism be proven wrong through the following premises:

  1. an action is right if, and only if, God commands us to perform it.
  2. God is the ultimate moral author.
  3. Which actions are right is not arbitrary, but objectively valid.

By what means can I prove this wrong and state there is no God?

There is a philosopher's problem called the Euthyphro dilemma which is about this. Either of the following must be right:

1. x is good because it is loved by the gods
2. the gods love x, because x is good

So you conclude that either the good is commanded by the arbitrary whims of the gods, or else the good is external to whatever desires and proclivities the gods may have.

I don't think the Euthyphro dilemma amounts to either a proof or disproof of whether or not there is a god. But it does lead to certain conclusions about the nature of God. For example, if what's good is decided arbitrarily — or if the gods simply decides what should be good — then this leads us to think that we can morally assess the gods. Surely if the gods decide that pain and suffering are good then we can morally assess whether this is right, and morally judge the gods.

On the other hand, some people think that there could only be an objective morality if there were a god to dictate what is right and wrong. If this is the case, then there is a problem with the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma; if the gods have to measure up to a standard of goodness external to their whims, then why introduce the gods as a guarantor of objective morality?

From this, you kind of conclude that the gods must decide what is morally right, but at the same time conclude that the gods can act in an immoral way. It seems to me that theists who try to ground an objective moral system on religious belief are in something of a cleft stick here; either there is no need to postulate god because morality is external to his whims, or you have to accept that prima facie immoral activities are alright because God decided they would be.

At the very least therefore, the dilemma might make you suspicious about grounding morality in religious belief. Of course, you might respond as Descartes does and say that by definition God could never fail to be perfectly good, and avoid the dilemma. But that is much too close to cheating for my taste.

A. Gatward


Carmen asked:

If God really exists why do bad things happen to good people?

I certainly don't know, but here is one answer that has been given, on the supposition that God exists, of course:

It is that certain bad things that happen, what are often called evils, are necessary evils. That means that without these evils certain good things could not exist, and that these good things are worth these evils so that it is better for these good things to exist even if the evil things also exist, than for the good things (and of course the evil things) not to exist.

You know how sometimes you are willing to accept a necessary evil because you believe that only that way can you have a good thing whose goodness is worth the bad thing? For instance, suppose your dentist tells you that you need a root canal procedure. Not a pleasant thing. But you have it done anyway because unless you do you will have greater trouble. So you have this unpleasant procedure for the sake of a healthy mouth. You accept an evil because it is a necessary evil. Now, let's apply this to your question. We all believe (I think) that compassion for people in trouble or in need is a good thing, don't we? On the other hand, isn't it true that for there to be compassion, there have to be people in trouble, perhaps very ill? You could not be compassionate about nothing! So, according to this answer, certain kinds of evils exist for the sake of the compassion which is good.

Now there are problems with this answer. But maybe you just want to think about it before you think about any difficulties with it.

Ken Stern


Dawn asked:

In the arguments which take place between Philonous and Hylas in the first of the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Can Hylas' notion of material substance be defended against Philonous' criticisms?

The first thing we must take into consideration is the fact that in the actual dialogue, Berkeley has biased the entire argument in favour of Philonous, in order to support his notion that the existence of matter cannot be proved. Berkeley's constant concern was for the fate of common-sense beliefs and religious truths , in an age when scepticism, atheism, and doubts about religion overall were coming into the ascendancy of intellectualism. He believed that they could all be refuted together, and that the key to their common refutation lay in the rejection of matter as a real entity. To achieve his objectives Berkeley had to show that there is no material substance 'out there.' To know our own ideas is to have a perfectly evident and sure grasp upon the real world ; that of sensible things or ideas of sense. To show that the world of sensible bodies is a world of mind-dependent ideas, based ultimately upon the infinite spirit, thus the grounds of atheism are removed.

In the dialogue, Philonous is enabled to push the objective beyond the attempts of Hylas to refute the argument. For most of the argument Hylas is confined to agreeing with Philonous. There are some attempts to make a case for 'external objects,' but they lack conviction and are easily shown to be untenable by Philonous. Having made positive affirmation about matter, Hylas finds himself struggling with the burden of proof laid on him. The notion that material substance can be known as a supporter of qualities, is easily disposed of by his rival. To hold that ordinary secondary qualities have only a subjective reality, is to concede the point that they exist only in ideas, or objects-in-perception. All that remains is to show that there is no essential difference between primary and secondary qualities. Hence the former must be considered just as mind — dependent as the latter.

Hylas' best course would have been to offer a direct rebuttal of the argument, as Kant actually did. Kant claimed that Berkeley's immaterialism destroys the objective world. He alleged that Berkeley reduces material things to subjective states and eventually to sheer illusion.

Hume also made Berkeley struggle to overcome his objection that, if the existence of ideas is one with their being perceived, then the sensible world ceases to exist whenever the acts of perception themselves cease. This would lead to a doctrine of intermittent existence and a consequent denial of the permanence of sense things. The criticism forced Berkeley to appeal to the distinction between God's mind and our own. Sensible things depend essentially and constantly upon the divine mind, which always actually wills and perceives them. If Hylas had used Hume's argument then Philonous would have been made to struggle, in so much that he would have to find proof , first for the existence of God, and second to confirm that the divine mind was structured and functioned in the way claimed by Berkeley.

John Brandon


May asked:

What is Descartes's argument to show that God is not a deceiver?

In Meditation 4 Descartes describes the role of "understanding" and "will" in human judgements, in an argument to show that God cannot be blamed for our mistakes. But I'm having trouble understanding the two roles.

"What is Descartes's argument to show that God is not a deceiver?"

I don't think that Descartes actually argues that God is not a deceiver since he just takes it for granted that an infinitely good God would not deceive. But it might seem that God is a deceiver because we may not have made the effort to achieve the clear and distinct ideas which God then guarantees are true. But if we do our part in achieving knowledge, God will do his part, for he cannot deceive. But see my reply to the second part of your question.

"In Meditation 4 Descartes describes the role of "understanding" and "will" in human judgements..."

According to Descartes, we persons are both similar to and also dissimilar to God.

We are similar to God in that our wills are as free as His is. This means that we have complete freedom to assent or to dissent concerning our ideas. We are free, that is to say that an idea is true of the world (assent); or that an idea is false (dissent). But we are dissimilar to God in that although his understanding or intellect is infinite, ours is finite or limited. Thus, Descartes says, our wills are wider than our intellect.

This combination of an infinitely free will, and a finite intellect leads to the possibility, and sometimes the actuality of our making mistakes. For we can (and sometimes, do) assent to ideas when we have not been able to make clear and distinct, or dissent from ideas that are in fact clear and distinct. If we gave our assent to all and only our clear and distinct idea, we would never make any mistakes. But we sometimes believe we know more than we actually do, or less than we actually do, so that we make mistakes. So, for example, to us one of Descartes' examples, if I have a pain in my arm, I may believe that the cause of the pain is also in my arm, but that goes beyond what I actually know, and so, I may be mistaken because of the phenomenon of referred pain when damage elsewhere in my body (a pinched nerve) may cause the pain in my arm. My will, my ability to assent to the proposition that there is damage in my arm, went further than what I actually knew (how my physiology works) So my mistake is my fault, and not God's. God gives me the ability to know the truth if I exactly proportion my will to my intellect; but in my human pride, I do not do this.

Ken Stern


Chad asked:

"Discuss Socrates' claim to be a midwife of ideas. How does this fit with what Socrates does in other passages from the Theaetetus (the relativism passage, and the passage on virtues as 'becoming like God'?"

I'm afraid I can't help you with the specific passages from Theaetetus but when Socrates describes himself as a midwife of ideas, he is describing his basic method — known as the Socratic method.

In the early Plato dialogues we don't find Socrates explicitly stating what he believes to be the case. Rather, we find him questioning people about their own ideas. Once a person has explained his opinion on a particular issue Socrates attempts to show that the position they have described contradicts something that they have stated previously, or that the position they hold has consequences which the individual finds undesirable. That person, faced with the contradictory nature of his or her own opinion, is then forced to come out with an alternative, more consistent, view.

In this way, Socrates hopes to find knowledge. Through the constant questioning and refinement of people's ideas Socrates hopes, ultimately, to find a consistent (and therefore true) answer.

He describes himself as a midwife of ideas because, although he does not actually state his own opinion, he is there when others do. He is present when the person he is questioning "gives birth" to a new idea. And, just as the midwife does at a human birth, Socrates sees his job as one of testing to see whether the "newborn" idea is "stillborn" or "viable". In other words, is the new idea capable of surviving the challenges presented to it by Socrates, or is it rationally unsustainable?

As far as answering the question above is concerned, it really is nothing more than examining the arguments in the passages you list, and describing the method by which Socrates "delivers" the new ideas from the people he is questioning and tests them for viability.

Simon Drew


Kim asked:

How do I argue the virtues of Religious Relativism to a Religious Absolutist?

You can use an argument David Hume used in his Natural History of Religion for the superiority of polytheism over monotheism. The argument was just that polytheism promoted more tolerance of the religious beliefs of others. The same seems to be true of religious relativism.

Ken Stern


Erica asked:

What should I believe: Darwin or Genesis?

I take "believe" to mean something close to "accept without questioning" or "accept as an assumption". In that case, my position is that one should believe neither Darwin nor Genesis. What one should do is look at the logic behind the position, and at the evidence for (or against) it.

What is the logic and evidence for the Judeo-Christian creation myth being true? Is there more reason for that particular creation myth to be the case than for, say, the Hindu creation myth? The Buddhist? What about the creation myths of the American Indians? If you want, you can probably find literally dozens of creation myths... just because you have been raised in the tradition of one doesn't give that one particular priority, does it?

Thus, one of the (many!) problems with what is termed the "creationist" position is that it takes the Judeo-Christian myth as the truth, neglecting all the others. "Intelligent design" (which is thinly disguised creationism) neglects the many myths that have a god which creates the world fairly spontaneously and then pretty much sits back and lets it run — like Buddhism or Hinduism (if I understand them correctly). In fact, in at least some forms of Buddhism (a more widespread religion than Christianity, by the way), the universe just is a kind of universal mind which just sort of thinks us up for no particular reason. A nice idea, in my opinion, if you must have a religion.

So, then, how do you choose? On what basis? Well, how about the strange, radical, recent idea of looking at evidence? Bizarre, right?

Now, there are lots of people around right now who are trashing Darwinism, for one reason or another... mostly religious. Let's look at the basic logic of the evolutionary thesis.

1) It has been established that the basis for cellular functioning and structures in both individual cells and in organisms is their DNA.

That's the "master code", so to speak (of course there's other stuff, RNA, various cellular structures, mitochondria... but DNA is the necessary basis.). When DNA is changed, the organism changes (although there are some changes to DNA that are insignificant for the organism... but when there is a permanent change, it's ultimately due to a change in DNA — I mean, car accidents will change our bodies too, but clearly that's not the kind of change I'm talking about.). Ok... DNA is what maintains and can change our body shapes and functions. Us and virtually all life on earth (there are some viruses which might be minor exceptions — they rely on RNA). I don't think anyone except the most fanatic (and ignorant) religious bigots will deny the above.

2) DNA is what passes those physical characteristics to offspring (I don't need to justify this also, do I?).

3) DNA is a chemical, a big complex molecule, and like any chemical, it can be changed accidentally through a variety of random factors, including radiation, chemicals, even physical force.

4) by 1), above, at least some of those changes will result in changes in the organism, at some level. Just totally randomly; we're not talking anything profound here, just garbage getting into the system.

5) Meanwhile, we're living in a dangerous, rather chaotic world. All sorts of things going on outside: we need food, there are accidents, animals and bacteria and whatever out to kill us, etc., etc.

6) So those garbage changes in 3) are probably going to screw something up and kill us.

7) But what if we get lucky, and one of them makes us stronger, faster, just a little warmer at night, because our hair is longer; our beak is a little longer so we can get further into a seed pod, or something like that, which, just by chance, helps? Well, we do a little better than anyone else who wants that same seed (etc.), right? Or the opposite might happen: we get unlucky and do a little worse. (What if some big change happens as a result of a little change in DNA? Like growing an extra foot taller, or becoming severely retarded? The logic is the same.)

8) So if we have a little better chance at coping, we'll also have a little better chance at having offspring, right? If we have less chance of coping, we'll have worse chance at having offspring, or maybe we just move somewhere where the extra height (or whatever) actually helps.

9) And since it's the DNA which has changed, and which is what passes on those changes to offspring, those latter will have, if they get that change passed to them, the same teeny (or whatever) advantage.

10) Then we just go back to step 4, and repeat the process. Over and over (and over and over and...). And maybe you think that it's difficult to get changes into DNA? No way, it's just the opposite, there are mutations happening all the time; we've got very elaborate repair mechanisms that fix most of them. But not all.

And there you are. The horror of Darwinism, in 10 easy steps.

Is there evidence that the above has happened? Well, there are libraries full of it; museums full of it; laboratories busy observing evolution in bacteria, in flies... in thingies that grow and multiply fast, so we can see it happening. How about much more detailed theory than the general outline above? Yes, there's evidence, by the truckload. I'm not even going to begin to give you references, there are too many. Just go on the web to pretty much anywhere studying evolution of any sort, and you'll get sick of all the evidence. And the next time someone says that some piece of "crucial" evidence is missing... just remember, first, that there will never be proof of any theory in science. Newton's "laws" of gravity are not proven, and indeed were shown to be approximations. Science deals (at base) in induction not deduction... you never know for certain; certainty is for people who want religion. Second, remember the logic above. Where's the flaw? You find it; I can't.

Steven Ravett Brown

The simple answer to the question is BOTH!! But then you might also want to believe contemporary cosmologists, and cosmogonists. It is not a question of science seeking to destroy faith, or faith seeking to assert its superiority over science. It is rather that both are legitimate visions of the world. It is unfair to assume that all scientists are not without faith or that they seek to destroy it through rational explanations of the origins of the world, witness, for example, the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Genesis does not claim to be a scientific explanation of the origins but a religio-mythopoetic explanation. For the authors of Genesis it was as real as the 'Big Bang' is for those who propose it. But then so to were the myths of Babylon, Sumeria, Egypt, Greece and the East. Darwin sought to offer a thesis for origins based on the phenomena he observed, but, as with the Genesis authors, he was bound by the confines of his time, culture, language and available scientific knowledge. Darwin is a theory, as is the 'Big Bang', it may be the most plausible theory, but one is not unreasonable in accepting Darwin, the Big Bang, or Genesis. A faith position is as much a reasonable position as the sceptically scientific, or the philosophically rational. Believe both, or believe neither — each position is plausibly acceptable.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM

Generally Darwin and Genesis are considered as personifications of two contradictory views of the Universe. Darwin symbolises an evolutionary and naturalistic view of the universe from which God is (or at least can be) excluded. Genesis symbolises a world-view where everything is created by the direct creative act of God, from which science is excluded, or at least is not necessary.

If Darwin is taken seriously then Genesis is ignored and God is squeezed out of existence. Some do just that, the Oxford Zoologist Richard Dawkins, for example.

If Genesis is taken seriously, then Darwin and all his works are seen to be fundamentally flawed, and a Creationist position is adopted, in which not only Evolution is rejected, but so are the findings of Geology and Astronomy, and the age of earth is held to be a mere 10,000 years. Darwinists and Creationists behave like cats and dogs and there seems no way out of this dilemma.

Why not try a smoother decision?Rather than to force a choice of EITHER Darwin OR Genesis, let's try to say that Darwin and Genesis are a case of BOTH/AND, which means being complimentary because they (try to) answer totally different questions.

Darwinism holds, that biological species evolve primarily by means of chance variation and natural selection. This is at first sight contradictory to the Gen 1, 20-25. But only if read literally and assuming that scientifically spoken, God created the different kinds of animals just as the mood took Him. But didn't we apply double standards?

First: Genesis 1 and 2 concentrate in praise on Who did the Creation ("And God said" occurs nine times as an introductory formula for God's creativity!) while Darwin concentrates empirically on How it was done.

Even if the Theory of Evolution has answered the puzzling questions of how life began, and also how we arrived at this point in time, it must be noted that it does not explain the beginning of the universe. It also does not explain: Why all that?

Second, I cannot see why the arguments in favour Evolution:

  1. The Evidence of the Fossil Record
  2. "Mutual Affinities"
  3. Geographical Distribution

should contradict the Bible, for the same reason. By the way, in Genesis God creates living beings roughly one after another, which is in essence the idea of evolution.

Third: People having had a divine vision, are very unlikely to write their exceptional experience in scientific "protocol statements", rather they will try to come up to their experience in a stylistic appropriate way, and one is simply praise.

If expressions in sentences differ, then contents will as well. Therefore it's impossible to simply translate sentences of the Bible in scientific sentences. Perhaps it's possible to transform them.

Attempting to tie the Genesis in to scientific discovery fails for another reason, as the Bible was "written" 3000 years before the rise of Geology.

As a conclusion I would suggest, taking Creation seriously as a mature Christian is an affirmation that God is the Creator of all that is, with a realisation that the Bible gives no scientific explanation. Science will enlarge our understanding of Creation, but not overthrow it.

Comment: You might be interested in reading books by Ken Wilber, who is one of the authors who pleads for reintegration of science, religion and philosophy. Integral Philosophy holds that there are three complimentary ways of knowledge each of them gaining knowledge using appropriate methods:

  • empirical knowledge using scientific methods and instruments
  • rational knowledge using logical instruments
  • mystical knowledge using meditative techniques

Claims or Theories in each of these epistemological "modes" can be examined, confirmed or refuted only by using the same method it was established.

Simone Klein

What or who you believe is entirely up to you. You have to ask yourself which idea/ notion/ theory has for yourself the greatest appeal. You will, of course, have to consider the evidence available for each case. After some deliberation you may come to the conclusion, like many thinkers, that there is not much going for either concept and set out to seek a third option.

The problem with both these theories is that neither can be put to a scientific test. Karl Popper's view is that a true science is one in which experiments can be derived which could refute the theory under consideration. In a pseudo-science, no experiment which would finally refute a theory can be made. For example, a theory regarding the relationship between heat and temperature can be tested in any laboratory at any time and can, therefore, be classed as scientific. On the other hand, no experiment on evolution or biblical creation can be carried out, these must then be classed as pseudo-science. All that can be done, so far as evolution is concerned, is to study such subjects as paleontology and geology and offer an interpretation.

Unfortunately the geological record is not very supportive of evolution; it never shows one species changing into another. What it does reveal are progressive changes in some organisms to adapt to changing environmental conditions, this is called 'adaptation' not evolution. If the organism has not been able to adapt owing to environmental changes coming too rapidly, it has been overwhelmed and become extinct, it does not escape environmental pressures by changing into something else. Throughout the geological column we find extinction after extinction, never do we find one species changing into another. Darwin himself was aware of this and perceived it as a problem in his theory: where are the missing links, the intermediates, he asked himself. This may sound rather naive, but the objective of a beetle is to become a good, well adapted, beetle, not to become a mouse.

Progress in genetics has not helped the evolution notion, the accidental progression claimed in evolution is thought to be brought about by chance mutations in the genome. Unfortunately we find that mutations are usually detrimental to the organism or lethal, and rather than 'selecting' the mutant as the 'fittest' usually wipes it out. (The fittest, by the way, means the best reproducers not the physically strongest, that is where Adolf Hitler got it wrong.) Also a complex organ like an eye is controlled by several genes, to produce an eye accidentally several very fortuitous accidental events in the genome would be necessary: this defies mathematical credulity, and compared to this you would stand a much better chance of winning the lottery.

The evidence for the evolution of man is very tenuous and very unreliable. For over one hundred years enormous efforts have been made to discover the missing links between man and the apes. The results, however, are a small collection of unconvincing fossil bones. Science should try to fit the theory to the facts, sadly, in the case of evolution the desperation to prove the theory has resulted in the reverse taking place. Reconstructions from the fragments of bone discovered seem to have been manipulated to indicate a progressive sequence from ape to man. Artists have been inspired by the inferred evidence to allow their imaginations to run riot, hence the drawings of hairy half-wits running around with clubs threatening each other, and where the women in particular seem to be in constant danger of being knocked unconscious for sexual gratification. It is interesting to see that some of the hairy creations are inclined to an ape-like appearance, whilst others seem to incline to a more human aspect, to indicate the, so far, unproven succession. Over the years the attempt to press home the theory as fact is found to be contaminated by hoaxes and, worse still, alleged suppressed evidence which would go some way to disproving the theory.

Creationists fair little better, although, unlike evolutionists, they do attempt to go back to the origin of the world and the origin of man. Evolutionists start half-way up the ladder. Creationists are favoured by the fact that life seemed to burst upon the scene at the beginning of the Cambrian Period some five hundred million years ago. Pprior to this, in the Precambrian, very little, if any, even basic life is in evidence. The fascinating thing about this Cambrian life explosion is the incredible diversity of life forms which suddenly appear, seemingly from nowhere. Old fashioned creationists, by the way, would not accept the geological time scale, to them the world is only a few hundred years old. For any other support the creationist depends on ancient writings which are a confusion of myth, allegory, and alleged historical facts. However, they read into this hotch potch of literature a genuine attempt by the ancients to solve the mystery of origins.

The theory of evolution was developed by Thomas Huxley not Darwin himself. Huxley was an anatomist who was trying to reach a position of power in the English scientific establishment. After reading Darwin he saw his chance to leap onto the bandwagon. Unfortunately for posterity his effort to use evolution to discredit the view of the church regarding creation was premature, and has left evolutionists still struggling to find the evidence he himself failed to produce over one hundred years ago.

We shall always be hampered in discovering the origin of the world/ universe whilst we are bogged down with the 'matter' myth. Starting with a complete vacuum where did the first atom come from? To reduce it further, where did the first atomic particle come from? A further reduction would compel us to ask where light came from. I have always been of the opinion that philosophy can get nearer to the truth than science, with its necessary attachment to the fundamental concept of matter as a solid substance. Get rid of the matter myth and we might find a way through by a revival of idealism. Berkeley could be nearer to the truth than science! Even physicists themselves have been surprised to discover the tenuousness of matter and have noted the reduction from molecule to atom to atomic particle to light. This has compelled them to refer to matter as rest mass energy. It seems as though light is the basic constituent of the universe. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." I wonder if he was a better physicist than we give him credit for! Or, then again, did he know something we don' t?

I would recommend you read Origin of Species Abridged and introduced by Richard E Leakey, Faber and Faber, and The Rise of the Evolution Fraud, M Bowden, Sovereign Publications.

John Brandon


Jean (Mr) asked:

I' m considering to join one of Dr. Klempner 's programs and I just read your Pathways Postcard:

"Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering" (Epicurus).

Of course. But, may I ask, what about animal suffering? Who should relieve animal suffering? Or, maybe, this suffering should not matter for the philosopher?

I cited Epicurus in the English standard translation using the term suffering, which would mean Leiden in German, where Leiden is something that just happens to me, being imposed upon me.

In contrast the German translation of Epicurus normally uses the term Leidenschaft, being an active human quality, meaning passion or emotion in English. I must admit I felt a difference between these translations, but didn't very thoroughly think about it and animal suffering didn't even come to my mind citing Epicurus.

Well, I'll try to explain, why:

As I learned from Merriam-Webster, etymologically speaking, suffering and passion do have the same roots in the Latin passio, meaning suffering, being acted upon, from Latin pati to suffer. But the problem is, that the term passion besides it's original sense is equivocally used in some other senses, which sound typical human to me:


1. as emotions: "his ruling passion is greed" (plural the emotions as distinguished from reason
2. an outbreak of anger
3. ardent affection
4. a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept
5. sexual desire
6. an object of desire or deep interest

(This of course doesn't mean, that animals can't have emotions, or desires.)

If Epicurus had used passion in the sense of passive suffering, you would be right asking "What about the suffering of animals?" and in this sense animal suffering does matter to philosophers, as (passive) suffering applies to both humans and animals.

But I think, Epicurus meant the typical human active "worldly passions" of for example desire and greed, which Epicurus considers as diseases of our souls and puts these in contrast to physical diseases. In this case it is the task of philosophy to cure that human disease by severing the ties of worldly passion which is the sole cause of suffering. As these "worldly passions" do not apply to animals, suffering in this second sense applies only to humans.

By the way, Epicurus is often cited in "philosophical counselling" which is seen by some of its supporters as a complement to psychotherapy, and as this complementary philosophy is definitely back in the business of relieving human suffering.

Simone Klein


Nancy asked:

How does one go about selecting a religion? Even though I attend a Methodist church, I do not feel it is right for me. I am looking at some of the non-christian alternatives — pagan, gnostic, wicca, new age and scientology. I was hoping there would be a quiz or survey that you could take to show in what direction your beliefs ran and then match a religion based on that result.

I have never heard of a quiz or survey that could help you select a religion to follow, but you could ask yourself the following questions:

What do you dislike about Methodism? Are there also things you like about it?

Are religions the kind of thing you can just pick and choose to suit your taste, like sweeties? Not everyone would think so. Some people think it is worth going to war to uphold the one true religion. Your answer to this will depend on whether you think all religions ultimately have the same aim, whether you think all religions ultimately venerate the same deity/ power, and whether you think a religion tells you the truth about the world, or is just a way of living your life in a good way.

What would make a religion 'right' for you? If you enjoyed taking part in its practices? If it made you feel peaceful and happy? Or if it challenged your thinking and beliefs?

It's interesting that, among the alternatives to Christianity, you do not include any other major world religions. Why not? Would you not consider Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism?

It sounds to me as though you are more in search of a 'personal spiritual quest' — that is, trying to find your own individual way to spiritual truths — rather than looking for an organized religion. The personal spiritual journey need not take place within any one religion. If you are interested in comparing different religions, perhaps philosophy would suit your purpose just as well! You are unlikely to find any one religion that you like in all its aspects. Have a look at www.comparativereligion.com which has a lot of information about this sort of thing.

Katharine Hunt

Want a quiz to choose a religion? There is a rather ingenious on-line one in the engagingly-titled 'Belief-O-Matic' at http://www.beliefnet.com/ story/76/story_7665_1.html. It tells me that I'm 70 per cent Unitarian, which is probably about right, so I hope it will be useful for you.

But is that the way to go about choosing a religion? Most people, it seems, don't actually choose a religion, but have one thrust on them from infancy. And why? Not usually from their parent's having carefully weighed up the rights and the wrongs of the faith. More often because their great-great-great grandparents were told by some ancient grandee that they'd jolly well better follow His religion, unless they want to be at least out of a job, or dead. And so they pretend to believe, and pretend to their children and they to theirs, and so on. This doesn't sound a very reasoned way to get into a religion does it?

But, hold on a moment. Like it or not, humans are pack animals. It is mandated on us that we belong to groups, and to think of ourselves as part of the gang. Religions are gangs, and they are, in many ways, gangs just like the sporting club or the school or the family. Religions have to be, are in their definition, not so much groups of ideas but groups of people. Like other groups they are defined as much by being 'not the other lot' as by anything they themselves are. After all, a religion of one person would not be a religion, it would be an opinion. There is no shame in this, it is the way we are, and the way we must be.

So, Nancy, I do hope you won't just look for a religion just by analysing what it says, but by who it is made of. Whichever religious group you settle on, you're going to have to bite your lip over a good few of their pronouncements anyway, so what does it matter if you dispute one tenet or a thousand? Go to the mosque and the temple and the church. Ask and listen, you will grow in understanding and, perhaps, you will find the right people for you. It is the people who matter.

Glyn Hughes


Fredrina asked:

What is a philosopher?

This question isn't as easy to answer as you may at first suspect. Philosophers themselves struggle when trying to capture the essence of Philosophy. (See Geoffrey Klempner's article, Can Philosophy Be Taught?) Etymologically, philosophy means 'love of wisdom,' so a philosopher, just like a historian or a scientist, is intent on reaching the truth. Philosophers ask fundamental questions about the world and our place within it. They critically examine arguments and challenge any assumptions on which they rest. The scientist begins his enquiry by conducting experiments to find out the nature of the world, but in doing this he leaves unquestioned our ability to know anything at all, and is assuming that the world exists independently of us. These assumptions are the types of problems with which the philosopher starts. As Bryan Magee notes, "...philosophy is a quest for rational understanding of the most fundamental kind." In this sense philosophy can be seen as a foundation for all other forms of inquiry. For philosophers deal with the most basic issues which are usually taken for granted, but if false, could alter the whole way in which we think. So in Ethics the philosopher is not just concerned to know whether this or that particular action is right but wants to know what constitutes a right action and asks are there any objective moral values? Philosophy does not have a distinctive subject matter as such, more a distinctive approach. Philosophers and scientists are both interested in the nature of the world. The main difference between them is where they begin their inquiry and the methods that they adopt.

Philosophical questions arise in contexts in which there is uncertainty about what we know. Thus Wittgenstein claims, 'A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about"' (Philosophical Investigations para. 123). A philosopher will proceed in this situation by putting forward and critically assessing arguments for and against a particular conclusion. A good philosopher is able to identify a good argument and expose the flaws in a weak one. She is aware that the way in which a question is asked is as important as the answer given to it. For an unfairly biased question will directly determine the answer reached, and if we persist in asking unclear questions then we cannot hope to formulate the illuminating answers that we seek. Philosophers often draw fine distinctions in an attempt to clarify our ideas

Bertrand Russell claims that,

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge that it aims at is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.

The Problems of Philosophy, page 90

The idea of creating a systematic and coherent account of the world and the self and the relation between the two is central to the philosophical enterprise. Hegel goes so far as to assert that Philosophy only begins when we make a claim to totality. The answer that we give to one philosophical question will have a direct impact on the answers that we can consistently give to others, as many of the main problems are inter-related.

Philosophers often engage in dialogue. By discussing issues with others new ideas and different ways of approaching problems often come to light. Being aware that you have a critical audience often makes you think more carefully before you put forward a point! Socrates engaged in numerous philosophical dialogues but never wrote any of his ideas down. Even a philosopher working in isolation often ends up having a dialogue with himself, as he critically assesses his own ideas. So Philosophy is an activity, and as such it's perhaps best understood by doing it.

Samantha Solomons


Pasqal asked:

How does Berkeley make the distinction between reality and fantasy? How would Hume react and criticize this distinction? does he agree/ disagree?

Berkeley doesn't distinguish reality from fantasy from the outside, but rather in terms of the nature of the activity. Ontologically, or empirically speaking, all thoughts or ideas are on the same level: "There is no impression nor idea of any kind, of which we have any consciousness or memory, that is not conceived as existent" and it is from this that idea of "being is derived". But the idea of being is prior to fantasy. The impressions which give rise to the idea of "being" entail judgement. Fantasy doesn't entail the judgement that ideas are external, or coherent with what we judge to be external. Before we make abstract distinctions between the external and fantasy, we could not tell the difference. But as we experience more, we learn to make judgements, and the source of judgements is reason. We can judge whether we are solely responsible for our ideas or not.

Hume would not agree with this, although he too can make the distinction in terms of what is going on in the subject. For Hume, the imagination allows us to believe in independently existing objects, but we don't always project a belief in the external world onto our impressions and this is the case with fantasy.

So there is no agreement here, since for Berkeley reality is determined by judgement which is an act of reason and for Hume it is a matter of projection or fictionalization since it is determined by the activity of the imagination. For Hume, reason couldn't tell us whether there was an external reality or not. Reason gives rise to sceptical arguments: We can reason in favour of the existence of an external world and we can reason against it. It is the imagination, which is creative, which forms the external world for us.

Rachel Browne


Dave asked:

Which came first, the question or the idea?

We must always have an idea before we can ask a meaningful question. For any question consists of ideas, and therefore the question cannot be posed before we have acquired the ideas out of which it is composed. For example, before Dave could formulate the question that I'm answering, he had to have the concept of a question, an idea and the notion of coming first.

Perhaps a more fundamental philosophical question is where do our ideas come from? Plato's famous Theory of the Forms is one attempt to answer this. He argued that we were acquainted with Forms, such as justice itself, beauty, and the good, prior to birth. The ontological status that Plato ascribed to the Forms is hotly disputed, but it is evident from his theory of recollection, as put forward in both the Meno and the Phaedo, that the Forms are postulated as the source of the ideas that we have in this life. Was Plato right about this?

Samantha Solomons


Susannah asked:

I am trying to research the impact of European philosophy on the development of totalitarian states. For example, the influence of Nietzsche, Social Darwinism on fascism, Welpolitik. I know a little about philosophy but have to carry out research for my A-level studies. I'm sure this site is intended for 'why are we here' questions and I apologize but I should appreciate anything. Can you think of any German philosopher, like Fichte, that could have influenced the development of Nazism? Or the philosophical basis for Stalinism?

I have tried to find a basic encyclopedia of philosophy but am failing, may I'm just not asking the right questions?...

No need to apologise. You can, as people do, ask anything on this site. Have a look at some of the questions and answers and you'll see that it is not just about "why we are here".

As far as I know, only Nietzsche can be held to have influenced Nazism, but I don't think he'd like to hear of it. That he has had influence can be defended by reference to "master morality" or a "higher morality" and his belief that God is dead and new values need to be found. You can try that but it would be to falsify Nietzsche's ethics since he wouldn't have found the slaughter of a race to be of any moral value at all. The fact that the herd adhere to sentimental values, and that this is not true morality, doesn't lead to the position that they ought to adhere to evil. The master/ slave moral ideology doesn't mean that anyone with idiosyncratic values can come and impose them on the masses. Nietzsche actually hopes for a real and substantial morality which will show the masses true moral value, which would hardly be Nazism. So you can't really use Nietzsche if you want to remain true to his philosophy.

But if you are to research the development of totalitarian states, and if this means government controlled states, then you can look at the impact of philosophy on communism, which might be more fruitful, because then you could look at Hegel who has been held to be an influence on neo-Marxism.

Otherwise, I have flipped through my own newly acquired dictionary — what a wonderful thing — and see there is someone called Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher who wrote during World War II , and it might be a good idea to see if he has anything to say on Nazism and possible influences.

Best wishes for your research.

Rachel Browne

Try this book, just out:

Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse

By Richard Wolin
Illustrated. 276 pp. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press

From the NY Times review:

A provocative and erudite study of the affinities between the Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger and his Jewish philosophy students... As Wolin presents it, all of the ''children'' tended to view the worst features of 20th-century life — the bureaucratic administration of death camps, the environmental threats of technology, mass social conformity — as the natural extensions of modern democratic ideals.

Steven Ravett Brown


Yohanna asked:

I'm wondering about the claim "a belief is what we accept as truth" by J.W. Apps, and how truth and belief are really connected to each other.

I'm thinking that this has a very individual answer, as what we believe becomes true in our own eyes. I'd really like some help straightening out all my question marks about this!

At least under one interpretation what Apps says is false. Someone might believe something and not accept it as true. A mother might believe her son is a criminal, and still not accept such a terrible thing as true.

But Apps might just mean that to believe some statement is the same as believing that statement is true. If he means that, he is right. Believing something is just elliptical for believing that something is true.

Of course, at the same time, you must remember that people sometimes make mistakes. So although someone might believe something is true, that something might still be false, nevertheless. I am sure you have believed things and later you found out you were wrong.

And this leads to a paradox pointed out by the American philosopher, C.S. Peirce. He pointed out that although, of course, whenever we believe anything, we believe it is true (as I pointed out above) nevertheless, we also believe that some of what we believe is wrong (unless we believe we are infallible). So we are all in this predicament that although we believe that whatever we believe is true (since otherwise, we would not believe it!) we believe, even know that some of our beliefs are false, but we do not know which of our beliefs are false, since if we knew that, of course, we would not have those beliefs in the first place. Strange, isn't it? Think that Mr. Apps thought of that?

Ken Stern


Joyce asked:

I know the six elements of a tragedy used by Aristotle, but I don't know his explanation for putting them in a priority.

Aristotle identified six elements necessary to drama. In his order of importance, these are:

1. Plot
2. Character
3. Thought (i.e. the inner life of the character and his/her struggles)
4. Diction (i.e. dialog, or what is said)
5. Spectacle (i.e. the visual aspect of the play)
6. Music

The last four elements are the least important, but Aristotle felt they still must be done well for the play to succeed.

Music and Spectacle are accessories. Music and Spectacle have an emotional attraction of their own, but, of all the parts, they are the least artistic, because connected least with the art of poetry.

Diction is the actual composition of the lines that are recited. Thought deals with what is said, and diction deals with how it is said. There are many ways to say something. A good playwright composes lines that say something extremely well.

Now, practically spoken, music, spectacle and diction are least important, because a tragedy can also be read.

Thought is the power of saying whatever can be said and should be said at each moment of the plot. What should be said must come before how it is said, therefore thought is prior to diction.

Character is the second most important element of tragedy, because in a perfect tragedy, character will directly support the plot: personal motivations will be connected to the cause-and-effect chain of actions in a complicated way, producing pity and fear in the audience. And the goal of a tragedy is to raise these emotions of pity and fear in order to purge away their excess, to reduce these passions to a healthy, balanced proportion at last.

And finally there is the plot: Aristotle felt that the action as the structure of the incidents of the play (its plot) was the most important of the six elements. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. He said, "All human happiness or misery takes the form of action. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions — what we do — that we are happy or miserable." In Aristotle's philosophical account of the nature of poetry, the poet imitates not what actually happens, but what might happen, what is probable, and would befit a particular type of individual. The dramatist is not a historian, but a creative artist. He arranges events in an order that is likely, credible or inevitable. The poet therefore imitates ideal truth, the universal and typical. Hence "poetry is something more philosophical and of graver import than history." Therefore again, plot, not verse form, must be the heart of tragedy.

Simone Klein


Margaret asked:

I have just begun an exciting journey in the study of philosophy and the philosophy of religion (God and the person).

I have been doing an extensive amount of reading, and I often find my self confused with the total definition of philosophy.

What makes one's words philosophical and what make the one who speaks these words a philosopher?

Margaret also asked:

Are the following philosophical questions and if so how can they be approached for answers.

1) Do humans have a soul?

2) Is religion the answer to ones need for answer, or is it an excuse or a self-con, so that there is no need to continue asking?

3) Is intuition a topic that can be discussed and researched philosophically?

Well, I'm just not going to answer this the way it seems you want. But I just want to correct what seem to be some misapprehensions on your part. Yes, philosophy is exciting... it certainly is to me, anyway, and that puts both of us in the minority, doesn't it. But there is no "total" or, what you really mean, I think, "general" or "most abstract" definition of philosophy. I don't even know if anyone bothers to define it at this point... and I can't imagine why they should. Philosophy is so wide in scope, so old, that defining it is really pointless. What makes one's words "philosophical"? I don't have the slightest idea, and I don't care. If you read stuff, and it's written by "philosophers", then you're reading philosophy. I guess maybe you could say that philosophy deals with entities that are a level of abstraction beyond "data", but, hey, I'd even hesitate at that one. Interest in "ultimate" questions? Um... what's an ultimate question? So just go do what you like, ok? And don't worry what it's called.

To your next set of questions: First: yes and no. Second: with difficulty, if at all; carefully. 1) No one knows. What's a "soul", anyway? Come up with a clear answer to that and maybe the question can be answered, maybe not, depending on your answer. 2) Not clearly put. The way you've put it, the answer is: "yes and no". Do some more reading. 3) What's "intuition"? From my point of view, the answer is "no, go look at psychology". Other people might answer "yes", and refer you to some of the Continental philosophers. Of course, in the most general sense of "discussed" the answer is "yes".

One characteristic of philosophy I can tell you, is that philosophers are trained in three general things: thinking clearly, questioning everything, and arguing with each other. The first involves verbal and conceptual analysis, to start. You need to get better at that. The second involves not starting with assumptions about gods, souls, religions, or for that matter about philosophy. The third follows from the first two, and has been, in my opinion, overdone. Philosophers need to collaborate more... but they're trained to find weaknesses and problems in arguments, so they do. I mean, really and literally trained that way. You sit in a graduate philosophy seminar, and everyone's hammering away at each other, very politely, of course, and the teachers are the worst, doing their damnedest to destroy everyone's arguments right and left. Or the best, depending on your point of view. It does train one to be clear and careful, both essential in this field. And at least that stops them, the good ones, from relying too much on memorized answers, but it also creates a field full of testy individualists. Now, of course, there is no one, really, who, first, "thinks clearly", nor who, second, "questions everything"... these are things you just have to keep working at. And the third becomes too easy and too habitual, as I say. So concentrate more on clarity, for now, and less on finding ultimate truths... just postpone that latter for a while; you have plenty of time to get back to it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jayson asked:

What does it mean to "be"? And what "am" I/ Why am I in the human condition?

"To be or not to be" is, of course, a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet and a question about whether to live or die. Strictly philosophically, "to be" does not mean to be alive or dead since one can still "be" in the mind of others after death. So questions are raised about the nature of the mind, of intentionality.

As to the "meaning of life", this doesn't make sense. Meaning is something words have and the essential meaning of life is biological. You can ask if there is a point to life but I don't know the answer. I do think, though, that it would horrible if there were a point to life: We might miss it! But if there is a point to life, it has got to be here and now, and not be a point to an afterlife.

What is man to the universe? A speck. Rather, what is the universe to man. It is magnificence and infinity, bringing a sense of smallness, humility, irrelevance and proportion to the ultimate triviality of one human life in the vast scheme of things.

Rachel Browne


Jason asked:

How does Descartes' theory "I think, therefore I am" prove the existence of God?

...from the mere fact that I exist, and the idea of a sovereignly perfect being, that is to say of God, is in me, the existence of God is very clearly demonstrated.

Descartes, 'Meditation III'

Descartes' famous argument, 'I think, therefore I am,' forms the basis from which all the other arguments in the Meditations proceed. In the first Meditation he raises the logical possibility that we are being deceived by an evil demon, and as such we cannot be sure of even our most basic assumptions, for the demon may trick us into believing that things are true, when in fact they are not. We have made errors in the past or been mistaken about things that we thought we were most certain of. Perhaps I am dreaming that I am writing this reply now and I'm not really sitting here in front of my computer at all! In order to overcome the most radical sceptic who causes us to question the existence of the external world, we need an indubitable starting point that can be used as the foundation for further enquiry. Descartes' takes his argument, 'I think, therefore I am,' as that starting point and attempts to move via a series of logical inferences from that proof to the conclusion that God must exist.

Even if there is an evil demon attempting to deceive us about all our beliefs then there is at least one truth that he cannot prevent us from knowing. If I am considering whether there is an external world, or whether there is an evil demon or not, then there is an 'I' that is doing the thinking. Every thought must have a thinker. So from the fact that I am thinking it is possible to infer that I exist. If I am in the process of doubting what I can know then I must exist in order to do the doubting. Once one truth has been established we can use this to ascertain a reliable method for further inquiry. Descartes surmises that we can trust things that we conceive clearly and distinctly. Thus Descartes uses his first principle, 'I think, therefore I am,' to derive a method which can be used in his attempts to prove the existence of God.

In the third Meditation Descartes puts forward his first main argument for the existence of God. It can be set out as follows:

1. I exist and have the idea of a God who is sovereign, eternal, infinite, unchangeable, all knowing, all powerful and universal creator of all things.

2. I am an imperfect being.

3. Something which is more perfect, or that which in itself contains more reality, cannot be a consequence and dependent on the less perfect.

4. Therefore the idea of God is too great for me to have been its cause (from 1. and 2.).

5. Only a perfect being could have given me the idea of God that he possesses.

6. So God must exist.

The argument rests on the claim that it is impossible for Descartes to have acquired the idea of God if God does not exist. Descartes argues that as a finite being he wouldn't have the idea of an infinite substance, such as God, unless the idea had been put into him by some substance that is truly infinite. So as Descartes exists (derived from 'I think therefore I am') and he has an idea of God which he could only have got from God himself, God must exist too.

However, the above argument has a fundamental weakness which is revealed if we consider the move from point 5. to 6. above. Even if it is conceded that an imperfect being, such as a human being, cannot have acquired the idea of God with his infinite attributes alone, the possibility of a being with more power than us but less power than God giving us this idea is still left open. Descartes' Cartesian demon would be a good example of a being that could perhaps give us the idea of God even if God does not exist. Perhaps this is part of his grand plan of deception! Since there is another means by which we could acquire the idea of God that does not entail the existence of God, Descartes' argument here fails to establish its conclusion. Do we have to be acquainted with infinity in order to have the concept of an infinite substance? Are all our ideas acquired through experience or acquaintance? If not, then another flaw in Descartes' argument has been identified.

In the fifth Meditation Descartes offers another argument for the existence of God, yet again taking 'I think, therefore I am' as the main premise from which the argument proceeds. This is well known as the ontological argument for the existence of God.

1. I find the idea of God, a supremely perfect being, in me.

2. Existence is a perfection.

3. A supremely perfect being is perfect in every way by definition.

4. It is a contradiction to suppose that God does not exist, as this would involve him lacking a particular perfection, namely existence. (from 1.—3.)

5. So God necessarily exists.

Descartes makes this point, stating that, "...existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the fact that the sum of its three angles is equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle or than the idea of a mountain can be separated from the idea of a valley." So once again Descartes' argument moves from the fact that he exists and possesses the idea of God, to the conclusion that God must exist. Has Descartes succeeded in proving the existence of God this time? The ontological argument is discussed at length in Brain Davies book, Philosophy of Religion offers a convincing criticism of the ontological argument, which is discussed in Davies' book. So can the ontological argument withstand these criticisms?

Samantha Solomons


Tony asked:

I have a five page paper to write something on Descartes Meditations. "What" to write is up to me. Do you have any suggestions? The course in "Argument and Writing."

Well, you have what is called "an embarrassment of riches." Descartes "Meditations" is all argument (and, of course, writing) Let me see: How about Descartes' argument to show he is certain that he exists in the Second Meditation; Or his arguments in the First Meditation to show that we cannot know anything for certain about the world around us if we rely only on our senses for information; Or you might pick only one of his arguments in the First Meditation, the one from dreaming? Or, in the Third Meditation, Descartes' argument for the existence of God? Or, in the Fifth Meditation another famous argument for the existence of God? There is a lot to choose from; the only question is which appeals to you the most. Good luck.

Ken Stern


Zackery asked:

People are social creatures, can somebody still feel spiritually complete without ever getting married?

I can't believe I'm reading this! Zackery, please, tell me you don't seriously believe that:

a) marriage is the only way of relating socially to someone else!

b) everyone who gets married finds spiritual fulfilment in their marriage!!

And yet this question was asked perfectly seriously in the past. I've just been reading a biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Of course she never married, but people were genuinely concerned that this would affect her health. Alison Weir, the biographer, writes: "...it was seen as unhealthy for a woman to remain unwed: marriage could provide her with the emotional and sexual satisfaction that brought physical and mental fulfilment. It was acknowledged that women who remained single were sexually frustrated, given to fantasies and lusts, and had unstable minds." — Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen.

I am not married — or in a personal relationship for that matter. At present there is no prospect of my getting married, although I would be happy to do so if circumstances went that way. Am I then doomed to a life of spiritual incompleteness if I never have the opportunity to marry? How about if a couple lived together and brought up a family, remained faithful to one another all their lives, and in fact in all respects lived as if they were married — but were not married. Would you regard them as spiritually incomplete? And if so, what is missing from their relationship that would be there if they had gone through a marriage ceremony?

Considering attitudes towards personal relationships as they are today, I think it would be more interesting and challenging to ask whether somebody can feel spiritually/ physically/ emotionally/ mentally complete without ever having sex. But that's another question!

Katharine Hunt

Several questions posted ask what it is to be philosophical? I hope to demonstrate that I think that one way of being philosophical is to adopt an approach to discussing interesting practical questions using informal analytical techniques which initially involve looking at the way the key terms of a question may have been used to produce unusual or 'illicit' meanings and therefore what have been called pseudo-questions that is, sentences that sound like questions but in fact have a hollow center.

One way we can understand the question concerning spirituality and marriage is to understand it as a claim or belief that marriage can in some way guarantee the gift or loan of something abstract from one person to the other that will introduce or increase the spirituality content of one or both parties and thereby bring about a change for the better.

My initial interest is not with the idea that those undertaking marriage should expect the kind of transformation suggested rather it is with the practical detail associated with the concept of 'completeness' and therefore tacitly, incompleteness. The idea of 'completeness' when applied to people suggests to me an image of individuals as static agents living in a static world. If the receptacles into which the suggested transformations are poured and stored are our identities, then it is much more likely, given for example that parents can recognise their own children as they grow and change rapidly that our identities change dynamically even if imperceptibly as we experience a dynamic world.

If this is the case, the idea of identity has incompleteness built into it, and while a good marriage may add something to each persons identity, to expect it to add the right amount of the right kind of satisfaction so that no more satisfaction could possibly or ever be added is setting the individuals up for disappointment and at the same time shutting them off to the possibilities of new satisfactions that may arise from new situations they may experience, not the least of which are likely to arise from the birth of children. If parents are complete prior to the development of their own family how could they extend their satisfaction to include their children and if they could not would that not be a source of dissatisfaction within the family not to say bad parenting?

There is also something puzzling concerning the detail of the achievement of completion. When precisely could complete spiritual satisfaction take place? Could it be before the couple were married but knew that they wanted to marry? In which case, what would marriage have to offer? Would it be sometime after marriage? In which case there would be a period of incompleteness and dissatisfaction while they were married, until knowledge of completeness set in.

Several further aspects of the idea intrigue me. Do both parties have to experience completeness at the same time, to the same degree, in the same way to avoid spiritual dissatisfaction?

A further source of philosophical interest comes about from the conjunction, 'spiritual completeness'. Without eliciting more of the meaning of 'spirituality' than it is a special kind of inner experience the essence of which could never be communicated, how can we be sure that we have achieved the state of unchanging and unchangeable saturation given that inner experiences can be misleading and what we sincerely believed was the real thing was in fact not because we later we feel spiritually incomplete.

Would we be right to feel that our partner had delivered us a false or empty promise, or should we conclude that the notion of spiritual completeness from marriage is false or even that the concept of spiritual completeness is empty? And what if sadly we lose or separate from our partner, do we then become spiritually incomplete and dissatisfied? In which case should we conclude that the feeling of completeness could only be a happy illusion and also only a loan that we will have to pay back at some time?

A second source of philosophical interest stems from the juxtaposition of the two concepts of spirituality and completeness as if they belonged to the same category of thing. Arguably they are as different as a shadow from the sundial that casts it. Using the term 'complete' as an indicator of degree, quantity or exchange is not unusual when we apply it to bags of sand, cups of tea or jigsaw puzzles but applying the concept of completion to that of spirituality gives spirituality a feeling of a material receptacle into which something can be poured from one receptacle to another until it is full to the brim. Yet this is equivalent to thinking that the shadow is the material holder of shadowness and the sundial pours shadowness from the sun into the receptacle and by extension, in the context of this discussion that marriage brings about an exchange of the abstract fluid, 'spirituality' from one person to the other.

In summary, the placing of a term used in ordinary practical contexts next to a term used in abstract contexts has extended a halo of meaning from the concrete ordinary use over the abstract term and in so doing has given the abstract term the respectability only afforded to terms susceptible to simple truth tests.

We can tell when it is true that a cup is completely full or when it is false that it is completely full and by sheltering under its neighbours umbrella, the term spirituality has borrowed the same respectability so that it seems to be possible to say meaningfully that we can tell when it is true that someone is spiritually complete or when it is false that they are spiritually complete. This I would suggest is a question that has a hollow center but is nonetheless interesting because of the philosophical journey it has taken us on.

Neil Buckland

I feel like saying that you don't really need the institution of marriage for spiritual purposes and that cohabitation or a love would be sufficient, but at the same time I don't believe that. A bachelor friend once said that he didn't want to get married as it killed something of one's independent spirit. But what did he really mean? Perhaps for him, "spiritually complete" meant self-contained. If so, marriage is really a good thing.

I'm not sure what being "spiritually complete" is, but it doesn't sound like a good aim. Is complacency a good value to aim at? Should spiritual growth have an end? Should such growth not always be open to the possibility of something more? Surely it is better to always be open to change, compromise and growth and this is one function of marriage. The initial commitment is that you will stay together, changing and growing, through good and bad. Love and cohabitation doesn't entail this commitment. I agree that man is social, but more fundamentally he is communicative, and the communicative value of marriage is greater than mere social interactions. If you come to have deep knowledge of one other person, and realise the value of that person's knowledge of you, then you have a basis on which to know every person.

Rachel Browne


Tarren asked:

How do you know if you are a homo?

Um. You're a guy, right? And you want to know whether or not you're homosexual. First, take a look at my response, in answers 13, number 75, ok? What I'm trying to say there is that whatever it is to be "homosexual" is not simple, and it's very culturally relative. Just go look at it.

Now, I could ask, "So what, what difference does it make?" I mean, from a moral perspective, as far as I'm concerned (and I'm not alone in thinking this), you're on neutral ground pretty much whatever your sexual orientation is... although if you are a pedophile, for example, and act on those feelings, you are, in my opinion, being immoral through your actions.

But in your case, I'm going to assume that you are just wondering very simply whether you are more attracted to men or women, and that this question is important to you, probably for the bad (in my opinion) reason that you have been educated to think that being homosexual is bad or immoral, and perhaps for the good (in my opinion) reasons that you are worried about society's reactions, how to find a relationship, and so forth, if you are homosexual. I mean, like it or not, it's not easy being homosexual in cultures that condemn it, and that's most cultures, I'm sorry to say.

Well... to the question. It's pretty simple, really. If you're primarily attracted to men, you're homosexual. If the erotic dreams you wake up to at night are about men; if when you walk down the street and find that it's men's bodies that tend to turn you on; if men smell sexy. That's how heterosexual men feel about women, and vice versa, and that's how homosexual men feel about men, and women about women. That's what sexual attraction is, after all.

But perhaps what you're really asking is, "now what... what do I do about it?" You know, I could give you all sorts of advice here. But this isn't an advice column; there are lots of those; there are friends, there's counseling, there's all sorts of resources for talking about and dealing with your sexuality, whatever that is. Find one near to you and use it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ruth asked:

I need to know if this a philosophical question....I'm a nurse taking a philosophy course in which I have to give a presentation regarding a philosophical issue that arises in a nursing context. I will then use a philosopher to give some direction to its resolution. Please advise.

Q: What is nursing care? or, What is care?

I will use Heidegger and Russell to give direction and resolution. Thank you for your input.

What a fascinating subject! And so important at the moment too. If you do manage to find a clear way of defining what constitutes 'nursing care', then, among many others, I think the Scottish Government would very much like to hear from you- it has been a major topic of debate there of late, and one with significant financial implications too.

It has all become rather confusing, hasn't it? The traditional differentiation between the medical doctor as diagnostician and the nurse as the deliverer of treatment is no longer at all clear. For instance — and this is a very real example — if I were to break my leg today and be taken to the accident and emergency department of my local hospital, then diagnosis would be made, not by a physician or a surgeon, but by a nurse. Treatment would then very likely be given, not by a nurse, but by a specialist HCA who, though highly skilled and experienced in orthopedics, has no nursing qualifications and is not permitted the title of 'nurse'. Yet he is allocated a nursing grade and paid a staff nurses' salary. All very odd. Even odder that, I could, in England, be sufficiently qualified in nursing care to be legally permitted to be in charge of a care home, clinically supervising and directing nurses, but, if I had trained through an entirely practical route, the Royal College would decline recognise me as a nurse.

I presume that in Heidegger you are looking to his 'phenomenological reduction' and in Russell some part of the theory of descriptions, but may I suggest either an alternative or an addition? I'm sorry if that just adds extra confusion, but, then, what are philosophers for?

I do think that we so often in the west forget the contributions of the east, and there we can find something very valuable, which might just suit your purpose. Confucius, like our own Socrates, was very much concerned with defining a philosophy for the administration of the State. When Tsze-lu asked the master how he would begin to organise an administration, Confucius replied that the very first thing was be certain about how names were to be applied to official positions. Isn't this odd? Confucius didn't begin with training or with organising a hierarchy or defining goals, but with names. And he was very, very serious about it...

If we cannot apply clear names, we live public lies. If we live public lies, the system of administration is a sham. When the administration is a sham, civil order and refinement deteriorate. When civil order and refinement deteriorate, injustice multiplies. When injustice multiples, the whole of society is at risk.

This is what is called the "Doctrine of the Rectification of Names" (cheng ming), and is considered one of the central planks of Confucian ideas. I throw it in because, it strikes me, this is precisely the situation with nursing. It is clear that, whatever 'nursing care' is, it is something that nurses do, but it is far from clear at the present time (as my couple of examples show) what constitutes a 'nurse'. Without clear usage of names perhaps the system of administration does indeed become a sham. Whether the health care system has yet reached the point where injustice is ready to multiply, you will probably be better placed to judge than I. But I do think it could well do with having some of its names rectified.

Is it a philosophical question? Yes, of course it is. Every question is a philosophical question, for philosophy is not a set of answers but a way of approaching questions.

(You might care to glance at the article 'Delegation Dilemmas' in Nursing Standard December 1999)

Glyn Hughes


Leila asked:

Can God make a world He cannot control?

I suppose my answer would take the form of a question: why would He wish to make a world He can control? He does not control this one!! What is observable as 'universe' at the moment (prescinding from whether it is infinitely expanding and if Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is applicable in the light of cosmological discoveries today) is what happens when God creates. It is not the 'best of all possible worlds' of Plato's Demiurge in the Timaeus. This is God's creative activity visible to us, and which is there for us to interpret whether we use the rules of physics, relativity, complexity consciousness, theology, philosophy or any other 'osophy' which may assist us in interpreting the meaning of the universe in which we live. God creates the universe with its own freedoms, laws, physics. Science discovers nothing new in the strict sense — only that which was always present in its own reality with the potential to be 'dis-covered'. What science does is to illuminate what is already present and explain its rationality.

Given that, and the fact that God does not control this world, He cannot make a world He could not control for the simple reason he cannot act contrary to His own nature. Since God is freedom, predicated as an absolute — then He cannot act contrary to that freedom (since potency and act in God are the same). Thus, God has no reason to make a world He could not control a) because He would not wish to make such a world b) because this universe is already existent as the act of God expressed through the freedom of its own origins c) God cannot act contrary to his existent nature to do so would render Him contrary and contrariness in God is non-existence. Thus He cannot be the author of His own non-existence.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Jay asked:

What is the difference between truth and wisdom?

While truth simply stated means the conformity of a proposition to the way things are, wisdom is an understanding of the highest principles of things as a guide for living a truly exemplary human life. Wisdom then is good judgment with respect to abstract truth or theoretical matters and stands in contrast to prudence in concrete, practical affairs. Here are some more differences: While truth is an expression of mere facts, specifying what is in fact the case, a wise judgement involves not only facts, but also the knowledge of the origin, meaning and goal of our lives. Truth is purposeless, while wisdom always pursues an object. Truth is a quality and wisdom a virtue. Making truth claims requires formal education, wisdom in addition requires living, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.

There are many theories about the philosophical question "What is truth?" (for example the theory of correspondence, the one of coherence, the pragmatic theory, ...), but interestingly the notion of wisdom has remained unchanged since Aristotle introduced the distinction between theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). And finally, I think, modern science would be better off chasing less after truth but more after wisdom.

Simone Klein

A very interesting question which seems ostensibly to require a straightforward answer from the theory of knowledge. However, providing an answer is not as straightforward as it might seem, because we are at once confronted with defining both what truth is and what wisdom is. A comparison of the two definitions should reveal the answer to the question. Unfortunately, like all philosophical questions, we require to go a little deeper than a shallow comparison of definitions. Asking what truth is is asking one of the central questions of philosophy; the problem of truth is a main issue in the philosophy of logic, but it also concerns the philosophy of language, the theory of meaning, the problem of knowledge and the philosophy of mind and ethics. Scientists, poets and mystics also require to delve into the question of truth. Also, we cannot leave out politics and religion.

We have to ask whether in all this interest and search for truth a unifying thread can be found, and how much is relevant to the specifically philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth. You will see at once that to attempt this here is far too big a task. I must, therefore, confine the definition to a much narrower concept of truth, namely, as an attribute of sentences. What does it mean to say that a sentence/statement is true? A sentence/statement is true if and only if what it says corresponds to the facts, or to reality.: or, to say a sentence/statement is true is to say that it is not false. Nothing can be both true and false at the same time. Such sentences/statements are related to what is going on in the world.

Now, what about wisdom? The dictionary says, ' it is the ability to make right use of knowledge; the capacity to judge rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; sound judgement, especially in practical affairs.' But does this go far enough? What does it mean to 'judge rightly,' or to have ' sound judgement'? Who is to decide what is right or sound? What sort of knowledge does one need, and how does one learn how to make good use of it? Again, like the matter of truth, I must confine the concept to a much narrower field.

Above all, wisdom is practical, dealing directly with matters relating to life and conduct, with practical affairs. We could say that there is also a creative element about it. Wisdom often involves seeing through the apparent issue to the real issue that underlies it. There is little empirical research on wisdom itself; but there is some information about what people consider wisdom to be. This leads us into the realms of psychology, rather than philosophy. In this context wisdom is to do with weighing advice, dealing with different people, seeking information for decision making. There is an empirical content in the notion that we can identify wise people in the way they are able to make wise judgements involving fairness. If you have read the Bible you will know of the wisdom of Solomon and the wise decision he made when he threatened to cut a baby in half to settle the dispute of ownership between two alleged mothers, the real mother was revealed when she pleaded that the baby be given to the other woman rather than let it die.

Wisdom is also to do with flexibility of mind, wise people are not rigid in their views, and are willing to change their views as experience dictates. This enables wise people to handle complex problems. Wisdom is applied in the understanding that knowledge is always incomplete, that knowledge itself is essentially unsure, equivocal, open to question and reinterpretation. This may sound mystical, but the really wise person seems to withdraw from the world , seems to stand back to observe what is going on. Objectivity rather than subjectivity is the order of the day for the wise person. There is a notion that schools and universities purporting to teach ' certainties ' militates against wisdom and encourages stereotyping and intolerance. In the philosophy of mind, and in psychology, wisdom is to do with the subconscious element of mind, and not the conscious, which is engaged in the tangled complexities of everyday life.

Your question has touched on a fascinating area of philosophy and, as I said at the beginning, involves several facets, as well as the philosophy of truth, it invades the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and could be seen to have a metaphysical content in mysticism. The philosophy of religion involves religious truths within the parameters of religion, and, of course, religious wisdom, for example, the wisdom of God, the wisdom of Jesus, and, as we have seen, the wisdom of Solomon (which came from the inner self, i.e. from God). Moral philosophy must of necessity be involved in the search for truth through wise contemplation.

We might say then, that truth seems to be about what is going on in the world at large, whilst wisdom seems to be very much to do with minds that observe the world at large and decide upon its truths.

John Brandon

Without embarking on a full exploration of the interconnection between truth and wisdom we can go on quite an interesting fishing trip by looking at only one aspect of the relationship and examining what is trawled up in the net. The aspect I have in mind is one that has a central role in the discussion about the role of modern philosophy in application or use in professional and personal lives. At present this discussion seems to be focussing on philosophical counseling, philosophy for children, and critical thinking, although we could also include, knowledge management and knowledge engineering as more technically disposed cousins of the family.

Rather than going into those areas though we can usefully look in detail at some aspects the logic underlying the issue. These can be explored in terms of the relationship between truth and value as a tacit element of wisdom in as much that we expect that having truths always leads to wanting truths or more simply that we expect truth to lead to satisfaction, in parallel to the way that we expect truth to be integrally associated with wisdom.

The evolution of scientific truths is perhaps a strong example of a corpus of truths the application of which can lead to more truth wisdom or satisfaction, dissatisfaction or both.

Medical science sits squarely as an example from which we can generalise concerning the development of truths that are both self-satisfying for the medical research community and satisfying for the individuals who's health benefits from their application.

The same corpus of truths can equally lead in application to dissatisfaction for a great many individuals whilst leading to strong immediate satisfaction for the producers. In particular I was thinking of the case where pharmaceutical companies have effective treatments for diseases affecting millions that are too expensive for some countries to afford. Here is, I feel a good example in which truth is owned but unwisely applied as its application leads to particular dissatisfaction for those who cannot receive the treatment and general and possibly permanent dissatisfaction in public perception of the pharmaceutical industry, applied medical science and possibly scientific truth itself.

At a more individual scale we can understand a doctor who has truths about a patient that may lead to dissatisfaction for themselves in terms of the aim of promoting the patients return to health should these truths be revealed and dissatisfaction for the patient in that their health may deteriorate once they also have those truths. Again a situation in which it would not be wise to either reveal or have particular kinds of truth.

So far from these examples we could reasonably argue that the connection between wisdom and truth has something to do with having truth and consideration of the production of satisfaction or dissatisfaction from either applying those truths or revealing them. We can I think therefore argue quite strongly that having truths does not guarantee wanting truths and is some cases can lead to not wanting them. Having truth then does not guarantee having wisdom in the sense that having wisdom seems to require knowledge of the values attached to the consequences of applying those truths. I would further argue that to have knowledge of the values attached to truths and their consequences is to have wisdom.

What can this argument contribute to the discussion concerning applied philosophy in the form of philosophical counseling in particular? It suggests strongly I think that we can systematically evaluate practical problematic situations that individuals find themselves in, in terms of the satisfactions and dissatisfactions that attach to their world. We can further argue that these values have both a propositional and value content susceptible to logical and therefore philosophical analysis. The practice of philosophy in this form would I think, be coextensive with the application and getting of true wisdom.

Neil Buckland


Jens asked:

I am a student from Berlin, Germany. I am now studying pure mathematics and I am doing well. The only problem is, I want to combine that subject with another subject. NOT basic science or engineering!

What about philosophy or political science? Which one might be better, huh? I tried history but the two types of thinking were too much for me. Theology should be the same... I was the best in school at social subjects, because of my big knowledge. But history at university is much different! Hope you can help me!

My guess would be that if you didn't do well at history, you wouldn't do well at political science... but that's just a guess. If you like the kind of thinking you do in pure math, I'd recommend either philosophy with an emphasis on logic, or, if you want to do something related to social systems, you might try economics. There's lots of math in economics. The other thing that occurs to me is some social science with lots of statistics: theories of measurement, testing, that sort of thing. You can move from pure math to applied, with statistics, pretty easily. Best of luck.

Steven Ravett Brown


Joanne asked:

Why are we here?

But where else should we be? That sounds like a flip answer, but it really isn't. Your question has a scientific answer if you are asking how did human beings evolve from the great apes and the lower animals? Is that the sort of answer you are looking for?

Or were you asking another question, perhaps, what is the purpose of human life? The trouble with that question is that it assumes something that might not be true, namely, that human beings have a purpose. It is a little like that old lawyer's question: have you stopped beating your wife. But what if you don't have a wife; and what if even you have a wife you never beat her in the first place. So, before you ask that question about the purpose of human beings, you have to have some reason to believe that human beings have a purpose in the first place. Do you?

Ken Stern

Suppose that you had the opportunity to ask God, 'Why are we here?' And suppose God gave you the answer, and it was a perfect answer, which explained every aspect of the question why God put each of us here, and for what purpose. Would that be enough?

You might smile at such a childish idea, but actually I don't think it is childish. I think it is perfectly reasonable to want to know, if there is a reason why we're here, what that reason is. And if there is no reason why we are here, that too would be an answer to the question, albeit a disappointing answer. And, in fact, if you look around you will find plenty of people who think they know the reason why we are here, and there are also people (probably more) who are quite certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is no reason why we are here.

But that's all irrelevant, anyway.

Because the deeper question isn't about a reason for a given fact, but rather understanding what kind of fact it can possibly be — I mean, the fact that 'We are here', or, rather, that I am here: for each of us must ask this question of him- or herself. ('Why are there human beings on this planet?' is not the question.)

My challenge to theism is that no answer issuing from a God-on-high could logically satisfy the requirements for answering that question. In your case, God could explain to you why Joanne is here — why the universe would not have been as God wished it without the flick of a brush stroke which is the individual, Joanne — but never why I am Joanne.

One philosopher who has notably taken this, not as a challenge to religious belief but as a starting point for philosophy is Ian Ramsey ('On the Possibility and Purpose of a Metaphysical Theology' in Prospect for Metaphysics Ramsey Ed. London, Allen and Unwin 1961). I am mentioning this because, along with the work of the French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas, it is thinkers like these with a theological interest who have come closest to appreciating what is, I humbly submit, the fundamental stumbling block to metaphysics.

Geoffrey Klempner


Anselm asked:

How do we measure intelligence?

Is the brain already set at a certain parameter for each individual or does everyone possess the same potential maximum ability?

As an analogy...the size of the processor and hard drive are an indication of a computers potential ability to perform the task required and the maximum amount of data that can be held. A less powerful processor may take longer to process the information required or may produce an image with less clarity than a more powerful processor, but the outcome is ultimately the same. A very large hard drive that has most of its capacity filled with numerous applications and programs, will play a significant part in slowing down the processor, like-wise a less powerful processor only dealing with a couple of applications will display to the user properties equal to that of a more powerful processor.

Anselm also asked:

When we listen to someone speak, does the grammar they use provide evidence to their intellect?

My girlfriend was in conversation in a local pub with a middle aged man about social class and Marxism, my girlfriend who has recently started a BA in Social Science then went on to describe the man to her friends as 'very clever'. I argued the point that he only sounded clever as he used unfamiliar words to her and because he was more versed than her in that particular subject.

Well, one of the problems here is that we don't really have a good idea as to what intelligence is. Since the brain is not, and does not at all resemble, a digital computer, either functionally or structurally, that metaphor: the brain as computer, is not a good one, despite its popularity. Yes, I know, everyone uses it these days, believe me, I know... it's one of my pet peeves. Initially it was a very useful metaphor; it has now, in my very strong opinion, outlived its usefulness (Dennett, Minsky, et al notwithstanding). It's another question entirely to ask whether a digital computer can simulate a brain. The answer to that is probably yes, given computers many orders of magnitude larger than what we currently have (I'm not going to go into why I'm saying that, except to refer you to the details of the dynamics of single neurons, to understand the nature and complexity of their processing — but even that's questionable, in my opinion, given possible extensions to Turing theory: various topologies of Turing machines, continuous tapes, or whatever, and the relationship between that and the flexible analog structure and dynamics of the neuron).

But let's say that intelligence has to do with adaptability and with problem solving... whatever those are (adapting to what? social situations? physical situations? emotional crises? — solving what? math problems? directional problems? verbal problems? problems in getting along with others? problems in learning sports?)... I'll just be conventional here and say it relates to doing well in school, just for the sake of saying something. Yes we can measure that... by how well someone does in school. Well, what about IQ tests, you ask. Yes, they correlate pretty well with performance in school, everything else being equal, which it isn't always. Well, here I am being cynical... isn't there anything to the intelligence thing? Yes. We just don't really know what it is, except in pretty vague and general ways. Take your example above, of someone speaking "cleverly". Ok, how well do they do in math? What about the great poet who has no math ability... is that person intelligent? What about the inarticulate mathematician (of which there are many)? Let's see. Abstractions... what about abstract ideas? Yes, fine... in what area? Math, literature, philosophy, art?

In Britain, as I understand that culture, verbal ability is highly prized. One's social status is abstracted from their accent, one's "cleverness" from their articulateness, and so forth, am I correct? Well, in general, abilities in one area do correlate with abilities in others. Generally, a highly verbal person can learn math, and vice versa. This correlation has given rise to the conception of "general" intelligence. Alternatively, the modern picture of the brain as modular has supported the idea of intelligence as consisting of disparate abilities, tools for different situations, as it were, depending on separate brain areas. The above correlation is seen as fortuitous, no more. Which picture is correct? Do we have to choose? Maybe they're both correct, to some extent, which varies among people.

Is intelligence fixed? Nobody knows, really. Recently some people seem to have found a correlation between intelligence and the amount of grey matter (number of cell bodies) in the brain. Not unreasonable... can that be increased? Can the efficiency of neural processing be increased? It seems that by dint of tremendous effort we can do that, to a certain extent. But remember, what we have to work with is the human skull, the cortex with its 6 layers of cells... there's a limit to size and efficiency. Of course there are people with different intelligences, it would be silly to claim otherwise, just as it would be silly to claim that everyone has the same physical capacities. The distribution of intelligence follows a classical bell curve, pretty much like everything else. What that means is that when you get to the outside ranges, differences become small. We converge to the human maximum (and minimum). In the middle of the curve, differences are large.

So I've gone from being doubtful and cynical to being gung ho in favor of intelligence, etc., right? But you see, both are correct. There's something there, but it's not clear what it is. This is just not a simple question, and it cuts to the heart of lots of controversies in philosophy, in cognition, in social sciences. So, how do we "measure" intelligence? Carefully. Dubiously. Tentatively.

Steven Ravett Brown


Felicia asked:

"Subjectivism is when a person says that something is morally good or bad and it means that this person approves or disapproves of that thing."

Keeping in mind this definition of subjectivism, do you think Ethical Subjectivism is a strong ethical theory or a weak one?

In approaching this question we could look at the problems related to the modeling in logic of the relationships between the concept of a good act or bad act and the concept of a right act or a wrong act. For example does every good act imply that the act is automatically approved, does every approved act imply that the act is necessarily a good act? Can there never be a good disapproved act or a bad approved act? However I thought it might be interesting to look at what may be one root of concern with this way of channeling thinking and that is its inherent egocentricity.

We could imagine our thought strands flow in channels much in the way that felled logs are sent down a river from the logging site. The logs are flagged once with a yellow or green representing good or bad as a measure of log quality and flagged secondly with a second coloured marker to represent the type of tree from which it came, say red and blue. A sorter is employed upstream from the mill to switch the flow of logs, by means of clever technology into the appropriate channel. So when the mill and the logger are coordinated they could get logs marked red- yellow or blue -yellow and know that they are the best quality of that type or red -green and blue -green and know that they are the worst quality of that type. The problem with the system is that the sorters decisions are based on whether he likes Yellow or Green that particular day or even that moment. He may even decide that he doesn't like the log names and switch them around. So the mill could be in the position of never being sure if the factual part of the sorting was correct and would be faced with the problem of deciding if the right kind of logs been sent to the right department and secondly they could never be sure if the value attached to a log from one decision will be the same as the value attached to a log at the next decision. The problem becomes even more fraught with difficulties if our internal thought flow system has another demon logger at the initiating end of the flow. If we have such difficulties with the internal coherence of subjective valuations how can we hope to have external coherence between two like-minded individuals let alone a whole society?

Given that ethical problems have both a factual and a value content, subjectivism implies on this analogy that our ethical decisions could not be relied upon to be consistent in matters of fact and truth or matters of value and if this is the case how could ethical generalisations be formulated to produce codes or standards of behaviour for individuals or countries as exemplified in the Universal Declaration Human Rights.

Ethical Subjectivism may not be seen as completely wrong however if considered as a theory of how people actually do behave sometimes or as a theory of how children learn ethical codes. Children and young adults need the approval of parents and peers for a long time and guide their behaviour to keep in line with these sources until they begin to question their basis. Similarly on a larger scale, states, which do not have mechanisms for moderating the dominance of individuals or parties, can err towards egocentricity in their law making.

Whilst ethical subjectivism may a reasonably accurate model of how families and young peoples actually do sometimes behave and therefore could be taken as a strong partial theory in this respect, it is not a model of how good governments behave and it could considered as a weak complete theory of ethics in this respect.

The original question does raise the further interesting question of how should philosophy incorporate the work undertaken in games and decision theory as exemplified by Henry Hamburger Games as Models of Social Phenomena Freeman 1979, Richard Jeffrey The Logic of Decision Chicago 1996), S Brams Theory of Moves Cambridge, 1996. The general thrust of such analysis is to follow thorough patterns of inference and abstract the properties developed from them based on a hybrid concept formed from fusing together the disparate bedfellows of what we 'Have', the propositional content, with what we 'Want', the value content and quantifying them. While I am not suggesting that question of ethics and morality should be analysed mathematically by philosophers as do game theorist what I do think is that a qualitative version of the same hybrid fusion can make sense of the ninety degree difference between subjectivism on one axis and objectivism on the other axis where by objectivism we mean that moral judgements have a propositional content and are susceptible to modeling in logic or variant logics.

It is possible I believe, to develop a framework for the analysis of practical situations based at root on the concept of 'qualitative expectation' as I hope to show in future answers to posted questions.

Neil Buckland


Rupert asked:

How do Philosophies and personalities converge? If it is true that you need certain qualities in life to be happy, for example, does that not also have to do with the personality? In other words, is personality a limiter on all forms of philosophy? Can logic overcome personality or does philosophy belong to a personality? Okay, so it's not well put but I think you might follow me. I hope so.

I have considered what I think are similar questions in the past. On holiday in the beautiful Wildschoenau valley in the Austrian Tirol last summer, I asked myself: "Can philosophy only appeal to certain temperaments?" I am keen on the idea that philosophy should be made accessible to as many people as possible, but in the Gatwick departure hall, my parents and I sat and watched a group of people eating McDonalds food and drinking beer for breakfast, and smoking in the non-smoking area. "So," I declared; "can we introduce philosophy to all these people?" "I shouldn't think so!" retorted my mum. Interestingly enough, the people at the Gate waiting for the flight to Salzburg looked more likely to be converted to philosophy than the general mass of humanity in the departures hall. Tongue-in-cheek, I wrote that I thought this was because "They look quieter and more educated!"

I certainly believe that philosophy does in fact only appeal to certain kinds of people. It is harder to say exactly what personal qualities might dispose you towards philosophy, but I think you have to have a reasonable level of intelligence and be interested in educating yourself. Some people appear to think that learning is boring or unfashionable, and it is hard to see how they could ever become interested in philosophizing.

It's good that you are expressing your thoughts about philosophy, even though you feel you haven't done it well. Putting your thoughts, feelings and ideas into words takes practice. It helps if you can discuss your ideas with another person face-to-face; then it's much easier to check with them whether they have understood what you were trying to express. They may put their understanding of what you said into their own words — and you can see if you still recognize it!

Still on the subject of character and philosophy, I am still trying to get through a book that Geoffrey Klempner recommended to me several years ago. It is quite long, and has very small print, but tells about the lives of some famous philosophers, and suggests how their life and character influenced what they thought. The book: The Philosophers — their lives and the nature of their thought by Ben-Ami Scharfstein, published by Oxford University Press.

Katharine Hunt

If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that, for example, if you are an optimist, you are not going to produce a pessimistic philosophy; if you are a pessimist, you are not going to produce an optimistic philosophy — and so on.

The metaphysician F.H. Bradley sums this up nicely in the Preface his treatise Appearance and Reality (1893):

Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.

Well, that just about scuttles the philosophical enterprise! You're never going to get at the truth because on this view, what 'the truth' is for you depends upon your 'instincts', your gut feelings, your emotional outlook, your personality. Whatever reasons you put forward will be 'bad' reasons: not only will they not be your real reasons, but they will be less persuasive reasons than the reasons you already have, prior to doing any philosophy, for holding the belief in question.

So, why bother?

It is a paradox. I believe that my philosophical theory is the true theory, and that the other theories are false. I believe that my arguments are good arguments, valid arguments, and that the arguments for the other opposing theories are invalid arguments. — But, being me, I would believe that, wouldn't I?

How can I believe that and also believe my own theory?

Geoffrey Klempner

This is a very interesting question, and one which I'm not going to answer philosophically, really. There is a lot of work going on right now on the interactions between the emotions and our reasoning processes. Damasio's book, Descartes's Error, was one of the catalysts for that work, and I highly recommend it. This area, really, is best answered by looking at studies of this sort, in the field of cognitive science, I believe. It turns out that when someone has prefrontal lobe damage, one can, if the damage is slight enough, score basically as well on IQ tests as previously, yet be unable to cope with life. Why? Because one has lost one's emotional biases in guiding one's decisions and actions. In other words, we can function like computers, using logic, reason, etc., but in doing so, we reach decision points where choices must be made on the basis of what are really emotional biases. In Damasio's studies, he found people who worked extremely hard at absolutely trivial, very difficult, tasks, who were unable to tell the difference between trivial and important work because our judgment of "importance" is relevant to context, to society, to our beliefs, to all those emotional biases that we take as background but which are absolutely essential in making decisions about general courses of action.

The way we see the world, the amount and type of interest we take in our surroundings, other people, various intellectual interests, has almost nothing to do with rationality... and this is, in my opinion, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the human condition. Colin Wilson was very concerned with this also; you might look at some of his early books. The question is, why can't we just will our emotions to change; why can't we just decide to become interested in, say, baseball, or philosophy, or home decorating, or just decide, as Wilson puts it, to always have the attitude we have when we are "on holiday", and take interest in — delight in — what we would usually consider the most absurd trivia; and then have our emotions follow our decision? The science-fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote an early book, Brain Wave, about the same kind of thing. What if we suddenly had the ability to shape, to tailor, our personalities as we wished? What kind of person would you want to be if you could shape your personality as easily as you decided which direction to look or to walk? Why can't we just decide to be continually motivated to learn, or to do sports, or write poetry, and then, just as we turn our heads when we decide to perform that action, "turn" our emotions, interest, motivation, to those ends? But we can't, at least not without tremendous effort, and this is, in my very strong opinion, one of our great tragedies, and Wilson concurs.

Consider, also, the effects of drugs and mood swings. This is what antidepressants do, to a certain extent; and why people who are manic-depressive do not want to be cured. Because when the drugs are working, or when the person is in the manic phase, everything is interesting, fascinating, delightful. Unfortunately, it's quite a general effect; drugs won't allow us to change details, nor sculpt specifics of our personalities... and even more unfortunately, there are virtually no drugs of this sort that do not have fairly severe long-term side effects. Prozac (fluoxetine), for example, seems to be strongly addictive if given long-term; "ecstasy" (whose actual name I forget offhand) destroys much of our serotonin systems after one or two large doses; the damaging long-term effects of the antipsychotics are well-known; and so forth. Caffeine seems the most innocuous physically, and it is also extremely non-specific.

In addition, as we age, our brain chemistry changes, usually for the worse. We are not as motivated, not as enthusiastic... I'm speaking on the average, of course. And these changes are due, in large part, to factors like the degeneration of the serotonin system, which is involved very strongly with emotions, enthusiasm, pleasure, and thus motivation. Can we compensate? Again, to a limited extent. I just had an encounter, a few weeks ago, with a women in her 60s who, in order to help her stop smoking, was put on mild antidepressants. From a person whom I was not too friendly with, and found not to pleasant to interact with, she changed virtually overnight into an interesting, lively, fun person with whom I enjoyed chatting for a couple of hours. Amazing, right? What changed, aside from her attitudes toward life and other people? Why couldn't she, alone, without drugs, have made those changes? Well, perhaps she could have... but given what one sees normally, this does not seem likely. At any rate, I'm not advocating drugs nor insanity... the opposite, in fact. The way to go, I think, is through a combination of sheer force of will and behavior modification, but that force, and the formation of new habits, needs to be tremendous and fairly long-term to effect significant changes.

This kind of motivational boost, is, in my opinion, what makes religion so attractive to so many. People are "given" a reason to live, to work, etc.... but why do we need to be given that? Why can't we create it for ourselves, motivate ourselves, generate from within our directions, goals, and impetus for actions? Well, some people can. But no one, that I know of, can direct that generation with any facility. We need to be made aware of that, and to work to change it, and that is extremely difficult. The "self-help" books one finds more or less work toward that end, similarly to religion. But they suffer from the same problems; they tend to be extremely superficial, "cookbook" remedies, and in addition do not question themselves. In other words, one is exhorted to follow a particular guru, system, or whatever, without question, in order to effect a change... but one is not taught to be flexible and to be able to self-generate one's own changes and directions; or to be able to change those motivations further. to something radically different, if necessary or desirable.

You see what I mean? We just don't, by and large, have this kind of control over ourselves, and that's unfortunate because it limits our flexibility and adaptability, our interests, the depth and kind of our investment in life. When such changes can be made, and I believe they can to some extent, it is with great difficulty and over time. So our "philosophies", as you put it, are indeed limited, and severely and tragically so, in my opinion, by our personalities.

Steven Ravett Brown


Elaine asked:

Could you explain F.C. Copleston's argument from contingency?

You will find an acceptable answer to this question at Answers 14, number 43

John Brandon


Selenne asked:

My intuition. Giving life is the same as killing someone. Meaning, the power to bring someone new to this world involves as much violence as taking someone's life. I was never asked if I wanted to live — that is the idea.

I have read some of Nietzsche's considerations, but from the suicide point of view. Here, my concern is to fundament or not my belief.

My take on this question, and this issue, is first, that you are confusing two things, violence, i.e., roughly speaking, negative, usually harmful, actions taken on a person without their consent, and obligation, i.e., what someone does or does not owe another for an (un)asked favor or hurt. Is an unasked-for, but (purely beneficial, for the sake of simplification at this point) beneficial, action violent? I do not think this is a normal or useful conception of violence, given what violence can be. Thus, I do not think that — only and simply — your being conceived, and even being born, is the same as violence toward you, because, first, you did not exist (before conception, certainly — and I'm not going to get into the debate here as to when afterward you start to exist) to have action taken on you, second, I am going to take it as given in my discussion that your life is something of value. That is, you benefited from being conceived, carried to term, and born.

But the question of whether you are under obligation, or the reverse, whether your parents are under obligation to you, for your being conceived, then for being carried to term and born, and then for being raised, is quite another issue, and a very interesting one. The usual take is that a child is under obligation to their parents. This is pretty much universal cross-culturally, as far as I know. But what is its justification? Well, the rationale is that you owe them your life, in some sense of the term "owe", i.e., you wouldn't exist without their act of conception, and your existence is a "thing" or state, of value, which they have "given" you without (at that point) your giving anything in return.

Another way to ask this is to ask what an obligation is, and why it has force, and what kind of force it has. It's easy enough to see that, in general, where contracts are concerned; with contractual obligations both parties agree to something under some conditions, and the honoring of that contract is an ethical "ought" because keeping a promise is more ethical than breaking it, all other things being equal, and second, because the loss incurred by one party in fulfilling their end of a contract is compensated by their gain when the other party fulfills their respective end, all other things being equal. Straightforward stuff, in this general sense. But is there such a thing as a non-contractual obligation? There are certainly non-contractual "oughts", ethical actions which need to be done in particular situations: not stealing when the opportunity presents itself, stopping violence, if possible, etc. Are those therefore "obligations"? Perhaps so, but not in the former sense of the term. The gray area concerns actions benefiting someone which were not incurred through contract. Let us categorize those.

If someone acts through (what they understand to be) an ethical imperative, an "ought", and that action benefits another, does that other owe the first a return, in effect a contractual return, although there was no contract? What of the case in which the other, although they did not initiate the action, could have refused it? In this case I believe that an argument could be made for an implicit contract, an implicit obligation, since if refusal was possible, then the recipient of the benefit, even by not acting, took an action, in effect. By not taking the action of refusing the benefit, they effectively took the action of accepting it, one might argue.

Next, let us consider the case in which refusal is impossible. A person takes an action which benefits another, and that second person not only does not enter into a contract with the first, but is not able to refuse the benefit (e.g., a child is conceived and born). That second person, then, cannot act on any contract, implicit or explicit. Although they might have refused the benefit, they could not; they did not have that choice available to them.

Does a person receiving this type of benefit have any ethical obligation at all toward their benefactor? Suppose that you fell into a river, became unconscious, then were rescued by someone. Do you have an obligation towards that person? Usually, we feel that if, for example, someone rescued in that manner did not at least thank their benefactor (a type of repayment), then they are remiss; they "owe" them at least an expression of gratitude. But why? Suppose it cost the benefactor nothing to perform the rescue; you fell into their fishing net that they were hauling up at the time anyway, or something like that. We could still argue that the benefactor could have let you drown... but that rescue, we are assuming, cost them nothing; either letting you drown or not was identical in terms of effort, time, cost, etc. In that case, would we feel we owed them gratitude? Given absolutely no extra effort on the part of the benefactor, I do not think that anyone would assume they owed that benefactor anything; they were rescued by chance, as it were. Both you and your rescuer would perhaps breathe a sigh of relief, wonder at your luck, and feel good; but there would be no debt. So again the sense of "owing" or "gratitude owed" is, in effect, contractual: the benefactor, in other cases, expended effort in rescuing you, and you are obligated toward them and repay them, with thanks and gratitude, at least, for that effort expended, but not in the case where they expended no effort at all.

What if your benefactor were forced to rescue you, even though it cost them resources? Someone stood over them with a gun and commanded them to fish you out of the water, even though they didn't want to... do you owe them anything? I do not believe so; you might feel sorry for them, but not grateful if they truly had no choice. The debt here would be toward the person who forced them to perform the rescue, if that action incurred a cost to that latter person.

Obligation, then, seems to be effectively contractual. Do you owe your parents anything for nothing more than being conceived and born? Given the above, to evaluate that question you would have to look at them and their circumstances. Was getting pregnant involuntary or voluntary? If voluntary, then they made a choice, independently of you, to pay a certain price, and for that, you owe them nothing. Did they want to, and was it feasible for them to abort you? If so, then your mother's carrying you to term cost her the effort of pregnancy. If they were so poor or disadvantaged in some way that abortion was not an option, then that cost was not a decision they could make; they expended no effort in keeping you that was not purely a consequence of her getting pregnant.

Do you see what I'm doing? Going through (thinking about going through, actually) every step from conception to birth and attempting to note where choices were voluntary; where those voluntary choices cost your parents; and what the motivations of that cost were. If there was no choice, then you are not obligated to them: to borrow from the analogy above, they had to rescue you, whether they wanted to or not. If there was choice, how much did it cost them? Were their motivations purely selfish: did they rescue you (going back to the above) in expectation of reward? That is, did they have a child strongly expecting that child would take care of them in old age, help them in their business, etc.? This is not a simple issue.

Further, I have not yet considered their raising you (which I assume they did). That cost them a great deal of resources; children are very expensive, in all senses of that term. Why did they do that? How? Were they forced to? This is a possibility, certainly... after all, in the West, killing and/or selling children is illegal... although giving them up is not, under certain circumstances. Did they raise you in expectation of reward or return (as above, where, for example, children are raised to work on farms or in the strong expectation that they will care for their parents in their old age), or because they wanted, even in part, to benefit you? Again, these are very complex issues that may not be possible to disentangle and analyze; I'm taking a pretty clear case when I consider someone drowning, after all. Did they put extra effort, beyond the absolute minimum, into raising you? If so, then they did, probably, go beyond what they were forced to do or what they considered their return would be. And so forth.

All in all, given normal circumstances, you probably do owe your parents something. It's unlikely that they were genuinely, totally, forced to have you, and that they raised you purely in expectation of reward, or for other purely selfish reasons, and/or that they did nothing more than the absolute minimum that society forced them to, in raising you. Human motivations are complex, usually. Of course, if you have been mistreated, then there has been cost to you, perhaps enough to compensate for their cost in raising you, perhaps not. I certainly can make no judgment about you personally. You must do your best to evaluate that, and to take, as best you can, the complexities of your particular situation into account when thinking about this whole issue.

Steven Ravett Brown

None of us asked to live, but we can make the best of it. You can't make the best of killing or being killed. Giving birth isn't an act of violence, nor is violence intended. Entry into consciousness and the realisation that you are needy and dependent is sometimes described as a violence, but that is simply one metaphor applied to coming to be by some continental philosophers and could simply mean "shock" and, in any case, doubts can be raised about its applicability.

This is different from killing someone. Levinas said "Thou shalt not kill" is not a commandment, but reflects man's phenomenological nature. When you come to the point of killing, you cannot kill, because you have lost the concept of a person. Sheer violence and an evil drive are all that there is. Others will call it killing, but it is not killing for the one who performs the act.

Rachel Browne


Nicole asked:

Why be philosophical?

Why not?

Sometimes, to be philosophical means to be detached and calm about personal problems. To view these problems with a sense of proportion. This comes from, I think, the philosophy of the Stoics who preached such an attitude toward life, which they called "apatheia." Lot's of people think that being philosophical in this way prevents ulcers and high blood pressure.

In another sense, to be philosophical is to attempt to deal with philosophical problems in some way. For instance: what is knowledge? What is morality? Does God exist? and so on. Why deal with these problems. Well, as Hilary said of Mount. Everest when asked why he climbed it, "Because [they are] there."

Ken Stern


Kara asked:

Is true happiness finding your one true love?

It is important to realize that different people may mean quite different things by 'true happiness' and 'true love'; such notions are notoriously difficult to pin down, which has led many philosophers to refuse to talk about them at all. One of my lecturers at Uni once said, "I never use love as an example because I don't understand it." If you want to answer the question for personal rather than theoretical reasons, what you decide will depend on what you think true happiness and true love really are.

My answer to the question would be that I do not believe true happiness can possibly consist in finding your one true love, because I do not accept that, for every person born into the world, there is one person out there — and one person only — who they could truly love, if only they could find them. I regard love as a much more haphazard business, in which the best meetings often happen by chance rather than design. The idea that my true love already exists somewhere strikes me as ridiculously deterministic. It is also a dangerously idealistic notion, setting people up with unrealistic expectations of their lover, only to be disappointed ("They weren't my true love after all...") On the other hand, lasting love and affection between two people can bring them very great happiness, and perhaps you could understand the question as being no more than an expression of this.

To answer the question more fully you could think about some of the following aspects of it:

What is 'true happiness'?
Are there other kinds of happiness that are not 'true'?
Does 'finding' imply you should actively go looking for your one true love?
Does everyone have only one true love?
Does everyone have someone to love?
Does anyone really have a true love?
What is 'true love'?
Are there other kinds of love?
Do some people have a true love somewhere in the world, but never find them?
How would you know whether this was true?
How would someone know whether they had found their true love, or attained true happiness?
Can you think of an example of someone who has found their one true love?

Katharine Hunt

I find this is an interesting question in several ways. Not the least of which is that it raises several other questions in response to it rather than definitive answers and this possibly is one of the key features that distinguishes philosophical questions from other kinds of questions.

One aspect that I find particularly interesting is consideration of whether we can happily pair up 'truth' and 'value' expressions to form phrases like; 'true happiness' and 'true love' or if in fact by pairing them we introduce expressions that confuse meaning from one area of thought with another, i.e. science and mathematics with the complexity and richness of ordinary life and in this way mislead and take us down confusing byways or possibly to fields of thought as yet to be systematically explored. 'Truth' and 'false hood' are terms of evaluation that have relatively clear rules for use in science, mathematics and logic which stems from their association with matters of fact and definition. A simple definition of truth allows to us to recognise a statement as true if the object to which it applies exists. 'It is true that there is a pencil on the table providing that there is a pencil on the table and it is false if there is not a pencil on the table.' We can also assure the checker we have employed that they will not find anything that could be both a pencil and not a pencil at the same time. It is less clear how we could apply the terms true and false to happiness and love under the same rules of meaning.

If I say, it is true that I am in-love or have love-for someone or something we could devise rules by which my claim could be checked and shown to be true or false under the contemporary meaning of 'love' or 'happiness' but we could not attach the same degree of certainty, finality and well marked out borders to the object to which our claim applies. We can easily tell the difference between an object on the table that has all the features of a pencil and those that do not, so that we could tell the person we are sending in to check our claim about pencils how to tell the difference between objects that are pencils and objects that are not. It is less easy to give someone a clear set of rules or guidelines for finding 'object's they would recognise as 'love' or 'happiness' and never be confused about what it is they have found so that they are never left with the question; is this 'love', 'not-love', some of both or neither, is this happiness, not-happiness, some of both or neither?'Love' behaviour and 'happiness' behaviour could be characterised by time, place and role e.g. current perceptions of 'parental love of children in contemporary Britain' but not so that there is never any confusion about what it is we are witnessing or experiencing. We can experience and witness examples of behaviour that we could characterise as both love and not-love, happiness and not-happiness, many examples of which are produced by the manner in which differences of opinion or disagreement are expressed. So if we think that phrases like 'true happiness' and 'true love' will guarantee us freedom from confusion in the same way that we think we can be free from confusion in science and mathematics, the nature of the 'objects' to which the terms 'true' and 'false' apply applies guarantees that we will not.

We can of course ask the question without stretching the boundaries of normal meaning 'is this a true pencil' if, some cunning technologist has come up with bananas that children can write with the same desirable features that a graphite pencil has for them but with the added advantage for parents of encouraging them to eat fruit, though I think brussel sprout-pencils would be pushing the bounds of the possible too far. Similarly, as society and behaviour shifts and changes and we experience the cycles of gain and loss, loss and gain of both love and happiness we are likely to be forced at some time in our lives to ask the question' was this true love or true happiness?' when confronted by experiences or behaviour outside the normal range of our individual or societies knowledge. It is at this point that the true function of mismatched expressions like 'true love' and 'true happiness' comes into play as both an indicator of fusion, change and confusion in the production or generation of new concepts and meanings.

Neil Buckland


Dawn asked:

Besides authoring The True Believer, who is Eric Hoffer? When searching the Internet all I receive is quotes from the book. I would like to know who he was, his background. Perhaps an autobiography?

The American social philosopher Eric Hoffer was the son of German immigrants, and by the age of five, could read in both German and English. At age seven, for unknown reasons, Hoffer went blind. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was fifteen. Fearing he would again go blind, he seized upon the opportunity to read as much as he could for as long as he could. His eyesight remained, but Hoffer never abandoned his habit of insatiable reading. He was completely self-educated.

Throughout his twenties and thirties, he did manual labor. He was working as a longshoreman when he started to write. His work was not only original, it was totally out of step with dominant academic trends. In particular, it was completely non-Freudian, at a time when almost all American psychology was confined to the Freudian paradigm. In avoiding the academic mainstream, Hoffer managed to avoid the straightjacket of established thought. Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem to psychological well-being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. He finds in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity the roots of fanaticism and self-righteousness. He finds that a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life.

You will find much more detailed background information in 'Eric Hoffer's Message for Our Time' by Larry Barnhart at:


Simone Klein


Michael asked:

Does psychology have anything else to teach us than common sense?

I'm fairly certain that the thousands of people who work within the field of Psychology would answer your question with a definite yes! Many regard Psychology as a science that is continually providing humanity with newer and more accurate explanations of the human condition. And just as the natural sciences, such as Physics, sometimes challenge our common sense ideas about the world, so too does Psychology. What I will do here is list two examples of when Psychology, throughout its very brief history, has challenged what we might describe as common sense.

Psychology can be defined as the scientific study of mind and behaviour. It is generally accepted that it began life as a modern academic discipline in its own right in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt created the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. Since that time, various "schools" have dominated the subject, each with their own assumptions and methods for studying humans.

The Psychodynamic school, with Sigmund Freud as its seminal figure, attempted to understand human behaviour by looking to the unconscious layer of the mind. By accessing that part of the mind that remained closed to the individual, Freud and his followers believed that they could reveal the "real" causes of human behaviour. Using techniques such as dream analysis and free association (asking patients to speak the first words that come to mind), the psychodynamic psychologists believed that they could access this hidden unconscious world of their patients and find the cause of their problematic behaviour.

The followers of this school viewed their task as analogous to that of natural scientists. Just as the physicist or chemist looks to the hidden world of the atom in order to explain the behaviour of matter, so the psychologist digs deep beyond the world of appearance and consciousness to reveal the reality lying hidden in the unconscious.

The explanations for various problems offered by this approach challenged the prevailing views at that time. In 1909, Freud treated a boy called Hans. The boy was scared of horses, and was particularly concerned that horses might bite his finger off. Far from explaining this in any common sense way, Freud believed that Hans' problem lay in his unconscious desire to have sex with his mother. His fear of horses was actually an external representation of the boy's unconscious fear and jealousy of his father. His fear of having his finger bitten off was, according to Freud, a hidden expression of his castration anxiety — his fear that the rival for his mother's affection, his father, would cut his penis off! Hardly common sense.

Another school of Psychology that dominated the field for a large part of the 20th Century was the Behaviourist approach. Its rejection of the "unscientific" assumptions of the Psychodynamic school entailed a rejection of any concept that could not be measured in any accurate way. Because such a vague concept as "the mind" could not be measured and quantified (put into numerical form), it was excluded from any account of human behaviour. Radical Behaviourists made the bold step of claiming that the mind did not play a causal role in determining human behaviour. The particular features of an organism's environment were what determined the manner in which it behaved. Any explanation of human behaviour which attributed any causal role to a thought or a feeling was dismissed. To claim that a thought caused a specific behaviour was to invoke an "explanatory fiction". Radical Behaviourism made its name by rejecting many ideas that were, at the time, regarded as common sense.

To be fair, there are some theories and explanations in Psychology that do, at first glance, appear to be little more than refined common sense. The same can be said, however, about some of the findings in natural sciences like Physics. These cases perhaps say less about the limitations of Psychology or Physics but instead more about how, sometimes, common sense can be very insightful. The point I am making here is that good Psychology is not necessarily a refinement of common sense. Good psychologists, like good natural scientists, are prepared, when necessary, to challenge common sense ideas for the purpose of gaining accurate knowledge.

Simon Drew


Jay asked:

I want to learn more about logic and how to apply it to my decision making in daily life. What would you suggest that I read in order to accomplish that goal?

and Felicia asked:

How might reasoning as applied to ethical problems result in "better" conclusions than those derived from feelings, customs, rhetoric or prejudice?

In response to Jay: first, I don't think that reading texts on pure logic will be the best course. Something more applied would be best, I think. Try: Science and Unreason (1982), by Radner and Radner; How to think about weird things (1995), by T. Schick; Logic and contemporary rhetoric (1980) by H. Kahane. There's also Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1994), Inevitable illusions: how mistakes of reason rule our minds; and I highly recommend: Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors we live by. Then you could just start in on Plato, and read him with an eye for contradiction and inconsistency.

In response to Felicia: I would definitely not put the term "better" in scare quotes. Take a look at some of the above readings. What reasoning teaches is the ability to find contradictions, inconsistencies, poorly formulated definitions and conclusions that do not follow from them. Feelings, customs, rhetoric, and prejudice teach the opposite, and following them has lead, in my opinion, to the worst abuses of humanity. Suppose that your feelings led you to want to exterminate Jews? Or blacks, or Native Americans, or Muslims? Should you follow them? Suppose the customs of your country or culture led you to the same actions? Should you follow them? Why not? But asking "why not" is the beginning of applying reason to those questions. In asking that question, is the appropriate answer, "because another group says not"? But then why pick the second group over the first? They are both going by their feelings, right? Do we just pick the group we happen to live with, or happen to like best? But all these questions are the beginnings of applying reason to ethics, an absolutely necessary activity, in my opinion (and one in which I am not alone). So, first, we learn to reason; second, we consider ethical problems in the light of reason, inasmuch as we are able.

Steven Ravett Brown

I think Jay's question goes straight to the heart of a current debate concerning a possible new stage in the evolution of logic. Historically, formal logic has been both an engine for intellectual liberation and development and at other times it has held freedom of thought to ransom. This has been true of ancient logic as well as its modern forms. There is a hot discussion, being lead to some degree in this country by Alec Fisher concerning the Logic of Real Arguments, continuing the work begun in his joint book with Michael Scriven, Critical Thinking.

The thrust of the argument is that that formal or mathematical logic can be taught to mathematicians and logicians so that they obtain good degrees but many of them fail to apply the skills and techniques they have acquired to their personal or professional lives. Secondly, many successful people reason well and understand complex and lengthy arguments without ever having their minds troubled by an education in logic. So what is it that exactly that knowledge of logic allows you to do? Alec Fisher, like myself believes that logic is a powerful thinking tool, but not everyone has a mental frame of mind that allows them to spot these particular abstract patterns among the flow of everyday thought. If you will excuse the personal anecdote, logic was for me the 'mental wheel' as Simon Papert calls it in his account of the learning power of the imagery he believed existed in the visual logic, 'Logo'. Such wheels, he believed, can become 'central organising tools' around which many aspects of intellectual knowledge can be organised and in my own case, I am convinced that my own formal learning did not kick itself into life until I stumbled across 'Symbolic Logic' as it was then called.

What puzzled me then and intrigues me still is how much thinking in personal and professional contexts can not easily be understood in terms of the strict forms of modern logic, yet patterns of thought and speech that contain logic-like structures are recognisable in such fields.

Engineers have never had a problem with finding practical ways to make physical systems behave through the development of cunning control and switching devices as if they are systems of logic. The objects of the real world are then made behave as if they are objects of the logical world. However he objects of practical reasoning are not objects in the physical world but objects of thought and more often than not cannot be made to behave as though they are objects in a logical world without completely misrepresenting their meaning or force. Further more to assume that they can is to presume that the engineers version of logic will be understood by all and to bad for those it leaves cold.

So in terms of the question asked, it seems to me that how much logic, as it exists and in what form should be learned for practical purposes depends on the practical purpose held in mind. If the practical purpose is to obtain a formal education in science, mathematics, engineering, programming, philosophy, politics or the law then varying degrees of an education in formal logic ranging from the skills of abstract thought at one end of the spectrum to the skills of debate and argument at the other, with real world modeling in between, seem to me fit the bill. If on the other hand the practical purpose of learning logic is to provide a tool with which to analyse the objects of thought and experience that have at least as much emotional or value content as propositional or factual content then it is less easy to give a definitive answer.

One approach that might be taken to get around the chicken and get a glimpse of the egg would be to read some of the texts being produce for adults who are teaching children how to learn to think. Robert Fisher's books in this area are a particularly fruitful source inviting ideas for the novice child and adult alike. I would further suggest to the novitiate logician that they undertake to prepare to teach in practice or in imagination a topic or skill of their choice because in preparing to teach something you are forced to think 'about' the subject and in so doing you elicit for yourself the rules, rules of thumb, strategies and permissible or prohibited lines of thought and meanings associated with the field of thought, skill or activity.

Preparing to teach always involves asking questions like, What does the learner need to know? Why should I tell them this and not that? We could in fact consider such questions as an informal version of some of the structures of formal logic and in this respect the novice already knows quite a bit of logic.

Neil Buckland


Alex asked:

I have been having an itch to do something in my life recently. I can't seem to figure out what it is. I've tried doing the things I love, play music, write poetry, but none of it is fulfilling the itch. Furthermore, I'm perfectly happy in a serious relationship right now, so that can't be it. How would I be able to find out what it is I need to be doing?

It's probably more of a need than an itch, but then you can't figure out either type of thing. Certainly doing what you currently love isn't going to fulfil a new need or itch since that's just sticking with past means of fulfilment. Although you won't be able to figure it out, you can look around at what you could do. This should be something you haven't ever conceived of doing before. If you haven't got one, you probably need a dog, but if you can't realise this then look at new jobs, college courses, safaris in Africa, mountain walks in India, having a baby. It's outside there somewhere.

Rachel Browne


Tarhan asked:

What is the connection between human agreement and truth in Wittgenstein's philosophy?

Wittgenstein was not a solipsist. He understood that there was a world at large which contained other humans. He did however show some sympathy for the solipsistic view, in so much as he was aware of the difficulties involved in making direct contact with other minds, hence 'actual' proof of the existence of other minds is not forthcoming. We can never be acquainted with other people's experiences, though most of us are inclined to believe that others experience the same sorts of things that we do ourselves.

Wittgenstein approaches a solution by way of language; language itself is essentially social, it may be necessary for cognition purposes, i.e. thinking, judging, making decisions, etc., but it is essential for communication between minds. Without language humanity would be confined to drawing conclusions about other minds and mental states by dependence on, what has been called, "a dodgy inference from behaviour."

When discussing truth in Wittgenstein's philosophy we are immediately confined within the bounds of his world view. Problems arise from his insistence that the world is the totality of facts, not of things. Herein lies the importance of language in Wittgenstein's philosophy. For example, a tree is a 'thing' to be observed and to be pointed at, on the other hand a boy climbing a tree is a fact which can only be stated or asserted in language. Pointing at a boy climbing a tree could not make us aware of the intention. Description of 'meaning' is required, and this can only come through language.

I believe that Wittgenstein would agree that truth could be discussed within the context of his language games: in fact he would probably adhere to the general view that a sentence/ statement is true if and only if what it says corresponds to the facts, or to reality. ( However we must bear in mind what Wittgenstein means by facts and reality .) The essential point about this definition is that whether or not sentences/ statements are true depends in some way or other on the world.

Can we be certain about things in the world? Wittgenstein says, "I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own." Again he is pointing out that he cannot claim certainty for others, nor can others claim certainty for him; it is, therefore, in cases like this that we must bring in the notion of agreement. Agreement can be reached by playing a language game. If we are using language, i.e. making statements, posing propositions, etc.,we must be referring to facts. However, within the parameters laid down by Wittgenstein, when I express certainty about something in the world, or state what I am certain is the truth, my statement must not only correspond with the fact but to be in agreement it must also correspond with statements made by others.

As we would expect with a complex philosophy like that of Wittgenstein, the simple description of 'agreement' I have outlined is only exposing the tip of the iceberg. Complications arise when discussing alleged historical truths, alleged scientific truths, and so on. Perhaps the following statement by Wittgenstein sums up what I mean. 'If everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it, is it objectively certain? One can call it that. But does it necessarily agree with the world of facts? At the very best it shows us what "agreement " means. We find it difficult to imagine it to be false, but also difficult to make use of it. What does this agreement consist in, if not in the fact that what is evidence in these language games speaks for our proposition.'

Quotes from On Certainty Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Basil Blackwell . Oxford)

John Brandon


Pete asked:

How do you know if you are "right" about anything? On an absolute basis? In that process, how would you define "right?"

The question you are asking is not about 'right' and 'wrong' in the sense of, 'She did the right thing', 'His action was wrong' but rather in the sense of, 'What she said was right', 'He was wrong to imply that'. In other words, we are concerned with the meaning of 'right' as applied to statements.

The definition is surprisingly easy:

X's statement (or judgement, implication etc.) that P is right if, and only if P.

For example, Tony Blair's statement that the UK economy has successfully escaped the world recession is right if and only if the UK economy has successfully escaped the world recession. Economists and political analysts might wrangle about the state of the UK economy, or the success of Blair's economic policies. It may be very difficult to decide with certainty whether Blair is right on this particular question. But that is another matter. What being right about something means is that you say, or think such-and-such and you're right: it is such-and-such.

This is hardly news. The definition I have just given is the same definition that one would give for the predicate, 'is true':

X's statement (or judgement, implication etc.) that P is true if and only if P.

The hard question is how we can every know 'the truth' about anything. Indeed, are we ever justified in asserting something as true? Or, in your terms, are we ever justified in claiming to be right?

On my Glass House Philosopher notebook page 130 I give four arguments for scepticism any one of which, if valid, would suffice to show that we are never justified in claiming to be right. I leave it to you to decide whether any of those arguments are convincing, or, if so, whether one could escape the grip of the sceptical conclusion by saying, 'I think such-and-such, but I'm not saying I'm right!'

Geoffrey Klempner


Hannah asked:

Compare and contrast the contribution of Descartes and Hume to our understanding of the nature of the external world.

Here are a few pointers. It's important to understand these philosophers if you are going to understand the significance of skepticism. Descartes and Hume's arguments encourage one to take the problems of skepticism very seriously. It seems to me that this is where their contribution to understanding the nature of the external world lies.

I want to distinguish two kinds of skepticism for you to think about:

  1. A skepticism that says knowledge about the external world is very hard to find.

  2. A skepticism that says knowledge about the external world is impossible.

I'll talk a little bit about each philosopher's arguments, and I then want you to think about which kind of skepticism applies to each philosopher. I hope this will help you compare and contrast their positions.

Descartes argues throughout his Meditations that we can't find out much about the external world via the senses alone because the senses can be mistaken. Imagine you're walking through a field, he says, and you see a square tower on the horizon. As you get closer however, you realise that you were tricked by your position, and the tower is actually round. So you're senses cannot provide you with certainties about the external world to the same degree that your reason can provide you with certainties about geometry and the existence of yourself. Descartes model of certainty, of course, is the claim that its impossible to doubt that you exist because doubting equals thinking and thinking means you must exist for that to be so.

Then Descartes does something else however. He asks us to consider whether a malicious demon is deceiving us into thinking that the truths of reason are universally true. Would we know if he were? Even if we cannot conceive of ourselves thinking but not existing because that seems to make no sense, perhaps it is possible because the laws of reason are not as we think them to be. So perhaps even reason cannot yield truths about our world. At this stage, Descartes attempts to prove the existence of God in order to show that God would not do that sort of thing to his creation because God is good. So our reason is able to find truths about the world because we know that God wouldn't ever deceive us. Some philosophers have thought this argument viciously circular because Descartes uses a rational argument for God to validate the authority of reason.

Roughly, Hume thinks that all knowledge comes from sensory experience however. He argues in a variety of ways that sensory experience is not sufficient to ground our beliefs in the existence of causation, matter and what he calls 'continued and distinct existences'. On the basis of what we perceive, for example, we never see one thing cause something else. We just see events constantly followed by other events, and have to infer that the prior event causes the later one. He thinks that on the basis of what we perceive, we are not entitled to make that inference, however lazily we slip back into our familiar patterns of thinking later. So neither the senses nor reason can allow us to discover certainties about the external world according to Hume. Likewise with matter, the only thing we see and touch are the qualities of objects, not the property-less stuff of which they are supposed to be made. So why think that matter and causation are features of the universe when you can never see or know them?

Descartes and Hume both raise troubling skeptical issues. Hume takes skepticism about the ability of our senses to discover certainties to its logical conclusion, while Descartes' skepticism about the malicious demon casts doubt even on the power of our reason to find out about our world. It might be helpful for you to pursue your comparison by relating the two kinds of skepticism I mentioned to the arguments that these philosophers raise.

A. Gatward


Leon asked:

"Induction is rational if nature is regular." Is that a fair statement?

In short, the answer to your question has to be no. Whilst a very useful way of allowing humans to function in the world, inductive reasoning is flawed as a means of determining any logically valid conclusions and making predictions.

Inductive reasoning is the type of reasoning that makes predictions and generalisations on the basis of experience. An example of this type of reasoning could be as follows:

It has snowed every day for the past five years. (Premise from experience)
Therefore, it will snow tomorrow. (Conclusion — prediction/generalisation).

This type of reasoning is flawed because the conclusion does not necessarily have to follow from the premise. There is no logically compelling reason why it must snow tomorrow. This point can be made clearer if inductive reasoning is compared with another form of reasoning called deductive reasoning.

In a deductive argument, the conclusion must necessarily follow from the premises. Take this, for example:

All cats are black. (Premise)
"Sooty" is a cat. (Premise)
Therefore "Sooty" is black. (Conclusion)

If the premises are true (i.e. all cats are black, and "Sooty" is a cat), then the conclusion must also be true. The conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. Of course one can question the premises — some cats may indeed be white — but the argument itself is still valid.

The conclusions reached by inductive reasoning lack the logical certainty that those reached by deductive reasoning possess.

Arguing for the validity of conclusions reached by inductive reasoning, one might be tempted to respond that inductive reasoning has always worked in the past and that the conclusions reached have always, without exception, proved to be correct. But this too would be logically invalid. It would be to use a process of inductive reasoning to justify the process of inductive reasoning! The fact that the conclusions reached through inductive reasoning have always turned out to be truthful (experience) tells us nothing about the conclusions to be reached by inductive reasoning in the future, or the status of inductive reasoning in general (prediction/generalisation).

If nature is regular, as your question states, then it might, at first glance, seem that induction is indeed a logically valid form of reasoning. Predictions can safely be made on the basis of past experience because we are certain that nature obeys certain laws that compel it to act in predetermined ways.

This way of thinking would, however, be mistaken. The structure of any inductive argument ensures that the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. Issues concerning nature's regularity have no relevance here. Any past experience, no matter how many times it has been experienced, tells us nothing about what must necessarily happen in the future.

Of course, one might be tempted to argue:

At sea level, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. (Premise arising from nature's regularity)
I am at sea level. (Premise)
I am heating water. (Premise)
Therefore, this water that I am heating will boil at 100 degrees Celsius. (Conclusion)

This would be a perfectly valid conclusion to make. The argument would, however, be a deductive argument!

There is always a problem in determining the validity of any premise in a deductive argument. In this case, how could we ever know that nature is regular? We might say that in the past nature has always behaved in a regular way. To decide on the basis of this experience that nature is regular would, unfortunately, be to use inductive reasoning!

Simon Drew


Gazette asked:

Has anyone ever attempted to use educationalism as the main vehicle of society (like capitalism, industrialism, religion)? Isn't one of our root problems in society the fact that people's lives are dictated more by their finances, then their education/ skill level?

The only two philosophers I know of who really focused on this (and I know that there are other philosophers of education, it's just not my area) are Socrates and John Dewey. You might read the latter.

Studies have found (remember, these are only averages, there are always exceptions): a) educational level in our society is correlated with income, b) in other societies, educational levels are also correlated with income, c) educational levels of women are inversely correlated with number of children (i.e., as women in third-world — and other — cultures learn about birth control, they use it), d) general level of health is correlated with education, e) longevity is correlated with education. I don't know whether mental health, happiness, etc., is correlated with education. I don't know whether social status is correlated with education, but I would think so.

Umm... yes, why doesn't someone use education as a main structural parameter of sociological analysis? I guess because it is seen as secondary, i.e., the result of other factors. But I actually don't know what those might be. I mean, there doesn't seem to me to be a necessary relationship between economic factors, say, and education. A Marxian analysis in terms of how communistic a society is would not, insofar as I am aware, really pay much attention to educational level. A classical capitalist analysis, like Adam Smith, wouldn't either. Those people were concerned with what they saw as fundamental: everyone getting food, shelter... that sort of thing. But given the above correlations, perhaps they had it backwards. Religious analyses? No, unless you count being familiar with the precepts of some particular religion as education... there's no denying that it is, in a very narrow sense. Reading any particular book, bible or whatever, is that much more education. But I am taking "education" in a much broader sense than that of being very familiar with one book and its commentators.

And in fact, if one is only familiar with one book or author, then one's conceptual set, i.e., the tools with which one thinks, are mainly limited to the ideas of that book, aren't they? And one of the primary goals of education is to enlarge that conceptual set. So there is a sense in which the reading of one book and no other, especially if a great deal of time is spent on that one book, may be worse than reading none at all; at least in that latter state one may possibly be broadened by experience.

Steven Ravett Brown


Sailesh asked:

Why do people cry, what benefits us if we cry?

Is life a software generated by GOD, Whatever we view is saved in our life and one day it comes out in the same way we had fed in? I have realised Life is a mirror, whatever we see in others is our own introduction. Life is a reflection of the past.

I am a Siddha Samadhi Yoga meditator past six years I have realised lot of new things in Life, like how Life works. Should we believe in God. How much power is in the prayers of God. I will say I have realised God and he is always with me taking care of me, satisfying each and every moment of my Life.

But sometimes I feel I am not able to express these things. One thing in my Life is I feel something missing in me and I am not able to realise it and feel like crying but not able to cry and my head starts paining please Guide me for the same.

Crying is a behavioural release from sorrow. The physical aspect is that the act of crying rids a person of emotional pain which can turn into physical pain: You experience this yourself when your head starts hurting.

Crying might also be seen as a form of life: Only a human being weeps. Because the human being cries he is able to recognise in others depth of feeling which could otherwise be hidden. But crying is what Martin Buber (Knowledge of Man) might call a "spontaneous utterance" which is a "reflection of a personal life of a certain kind.

I'm afraid I don't believe in God, but agree that what we see in others is our introduction to God. One man alone in the world would have no such concept. It is difficult not to criticise your religion, so with respect, perhaps you could think of God as being present in mankind and you might find that interactions with others are more satisfying than the solitary act of meditation. You might find the expression of your thoughts in the thoughts of others. Since I don't know your religion I cannot recommend reading but hope you find what you are looking for.

Rachel Browne


Frog asked:

In Descartes 'Fourth Meditation' is he saying that both human will and human intellect are perfect, even though intellect is limited?

I agree, there does, on the face of it, seem to be a contradiction here, however, I believe this is brought about by the rather haphazard way in which the meditation is being pursued; where Descartes flits easily between discussing the perfection of God and his own limited understanding. In this meditation the movement is from mind to God, and from God to things. In the 'Third Meditation' God has been established as the wholly perfect being and the source of all perfection. Since he is also all powerful, this naturally raises the question of the existence of evil, discussed here in the shape of one aspect of evil, namely error. Within the ethical discussion contained in THE 'Fourth Meditation' Descartes discloses the basic elements of his psychological theory, and again reveals his reliance upon the doctrine of the supremacy of the will.

Since the function of the intellect is to receive ideas, innate and adventitious, it is passive in knowledge, and so an active principle is required in the mind to activate the judgment to form factitious ideas. Furthermore, if the mind were wholly passive in relation to God, then the existence of evil must entail some limitations upon either God's perfect goodness, or upon his absolute power, or upon both. Since this is inconceivable, it follows that there must be some independent activating principle in the mind of each human being. This principle is the will.

Descartes, then, concedes that his errors alone argue imperfection in him, he observes that they depend on two concurrent causes; on his faculty of cognition, and his faculty of choice or free will, that is, on the intellect and at the same time on the will. The intellect, he claims, does no more than perceive the ideas that are matter for judgment, and precisely so regarded contains no error. He understands that there may be many things of which he has no idea, but he does not consider that he is deprived of this extended knowledge, he can put forward no reason to show that God ought to have given him a greater power of knowledge than he did; he seems to harbour a notion that no one should be given all the perfections, but that they should be shared out. This might lead to the implication that shared out knowledge provides the diversity of talent and ability found in the human race.

I may be wrong, but I understand your question to be aimed at this idea of limitation of afforded knowledge to the intellect. The human intellect is perfect within the bounds set by God, but knowledge itself is limited to each individual, which ostensibly limits the perfect intellect in what it can achieve. If I wished to take it further I could tentatively suggest that adding together all the members of the human race we would have made manifest the whole perfect intellect gifted by God to humanity.

With regard to the will, Descartes believes that it is neither restricted or imperfect, hence there is unrestricted freedom of human volition, he is "aware of no bounds upon its scope. Nothing else in me is so perfect or so great but that I understand the possibility of something still more perfect, still greater" (Meditation 1V, Descartes Philosophical Writings, Nelson). He concludes that it is in this regard above all that he bears the image of God.

John Brandon


Johnee asked:

Is their any objective truth that Rugby league is far more entertaining than Rugby Union, or is it simply a matter of boredom thresholds (ie.Are Union fans entertainment masochists)?

What makes any version of a given sport better, or more entertaining than another version? What makes this such an interesting question is that clearly involves considerations of aesthetics, but also something that goes beyond mere aesthetics. It would be possible to argue that 'good game' is a sui generis notion which cannot be reduced to 'aesthetically pleasing game'. A good game has got to be good from the point of view of the participants as well as from the point of view of the onlookers. Indeed, the game is pleasing to the onlookers because of their informed appreciation of what makes it a good game to play.

An inventor of a game is free to dictate any rules they like. But whether one ought to have this or that rule, given the nature of the particular game in question, is far from being an arbitrary question. To take an obvious example: how wide should the goal be in soccer? If the goal is too narrow, it will be too difficult to score; if it is too wide, it will be too easy. The underlying idea is that scoring a goal should be the reward for resourceful and inspired play. The final score should as much as possible reflect which team played better on the day.

I am not an expert, but I would surmise from your parenthetical comment that from the point of view of a Rugby League fan, the problem with Rugby Union is that the rules allow too many occasions for interrupting the flow of play. A Rugby Union fan, however, might reply the purpose of the rules is precisely to give the maximum opportunity for teams to succeed through skill rather than mere brawn. (If you are a keen Rugby League fan, I wouldn't wish you to take offence: as I said, I'm not an expert.) This is an interesting case where a dispute about which set of rules is objectively 'better' has lead to two separate sets of rules. (It is interesting to note that some rugby players play for both Rugby League and Rugby Union.)

So, in some cases, it is very difficult to reach agreement on whether one version of a game is better or more entertaining than another because different parties to the dispute do not necessarily have the same priorities. That does not mean that it can never be an objective question whether one game is better than another. To revert to the soccer example, a version of soccer where the goal mouth was only slightly greater than width as the ball would be a pretty obvious waste of the players' skill and the spectators' time.

Geoffrey Klempner


Stephen asked:

Why does Plato propose such strict censorship of the arts? can his view be justified?

To understand Plato's aesthetics fully you need to understand his metaphysics as set out in The Republic. But there is an earlier dialogue Ion in which he also expresses doubts about the arts without the metaphysical baggage of The Republic.

According to the outcome of Socrates' argument in Ion, artists must possess, according to Plato, the skill of mimesis or 'imitation'. They do not, significantly for Plato's general philosophical position, possess understanding or knowledge. Just because a poet knows how to write a character who is a great soldier, for example, does not mean that the poet would make a good soldier himself. So possessing the skill of mimesis is not to possess true understanding. It is just a skill which allows the artists to imitate or emulate realistically certain aspects of life.

Plato takes this further in The Republic (Books II and X) All art, qua mimesis, is criticised because it is the creation of mere appearances that fall short even of sensible reality, thus twice removed from the transcendent truth of the plane of the Forms posited by Plato's metaphysics. Yet art is insidious because it has the power to bewitch the soul and compel strong and decadent emotions from those whom it affects. On Plato's model of the soul, art is to be analysed as the subversion of the control of reason by the arousal of the passions. Therefore art must be censored because Plato's ideal city could not function in the way he wants if the rational faculties of its citizens were to be so subverted.

The arts appeal to the lower, inferior part of the soul. While susceptibility to illusion is a natural human weakness, imitations are at the furthest remove from objects of knowledge (forms), They also distance us from the faculty by which we come to know those objects (reason). However, Plato is ultimately ambivalent in his attitude to art, not least by the evidence of Plato's own activity as an artist and writer of dialogues which attest to the persuasive power of narrative and imagery.

Iris Murdoch's The Fire and the Sun is a more detailed account of Plato's position which you should read. On the question of justification, we need to consider the relationship between art and ethics. If you believe that art should only exist to make us morally better (as Plato certainly thought) then this would be a justification for censorship. Plato's view was that virtue can only proceed from the understanding, so the glorification of the tragic hero by a poet would not be conducive to moral improvement. The thought that art is at a third removed from the reality of the forms, as Plato's metaphysics suggest, puts Plato's position in hot water in my view. If you don't go along with his metaphysics, it's difficult to maintain his view that art should be censored merely because it doesn't have anything to say about the real world. But morally questioning the value and importance of art is, I think, important for anybody with an interest in aesthetics.

A. Gatward


George asked:

Is god isomorphic with the null set?

An amazing question. I'll put one to you: is a goldfish the size of the solar system swimming through space isomorphic with the null set?

Steven Ravett Brown


ACebrian asked:

What's fate?

Does it is predestinated or we control it?

And if it is predestinated, who does it?

Fate, or destiny, is one's true path. It is that to which you are destined, the person you will become. We cannot choose our fate, or our true path and may not be able to recognise what it is. Of course you already have to be a fatalist to believe what I'm saying. The odd thing about fate is that it can be known in advance. You can tell what will and what will never happen to you, intuitively, yet we have no knowledge of future causal events.

Fate should be distinguished from the causal idea that we are pre-destined rather than free. If fate was equivalent to causal pre-destination, being a fatalist would be impossible. We can't just sit back and let life take its course because things will happen anyway. We have to participate in life. But you can be a fatalist. This means believing that there is a true path for you. Fatalism implies freedom: You can participate in your fate or you can be influenced by the wrong experiences. Causal pre-destination, on the other hand, implies that you participate, but don't choose because what will happen is pre-determined.

The concept of fate, then, cannot be reduced to the idea of causal pre-destination which is that the times in which we live, our genetic make-up and the life-circumstances which determine our psychological make-up and choices constitute a causal force pushing us towards a destiny. On the pre-destination view, we are not free and cannot really choose, but if fate is our true path, then it is possible to make choices that will not lead us down the path which is right for us. Sometimes, for instance, a choice influenced by social values to which you don't genuinely adhere can lead you from your true path.

Fatalism implies acceptance of what life brings, but this is not simply to lack will, nor is it negative. Acceptance of what has happened in the past, integration rather than rejection and bitterness, is a fatalistic but successful attitude. Acceptance of circumstances which might be deemed unfortunate, sad or unlucky is to come to recognise that there are advantages in every situation. Fatalism is an attitude founded in the belief in true destiny which enables us to deal with and make the best of a bad lot.

Fatalism admits of another sort of freedom, not just the freedom to choose. This is a freedom from being bound to the world of choice, a rising above the causal pushes and pulls of external circumstances and the impingement of social values upon one's own system of evaluation, as one pursues one's unique destination.

Rachel Browne


Naser asked:

Where can I find articles/websites about Cosmological Arguments, in the context of empiricism?

You should read the chapter called 'Cosmological Arguments' in The Miracle of Theism by J.L. Mackie (OUP, 1980) Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian is available online to read at Amazon.com if you want to read something a bit simpler. Both of these articles provide good models of empirical reasoning to the problem.

A. Gatward


Kolese asked:

I'm curious to know whether there is philosophical basic for naturism or the nudist "style of life". Were there any prominent philosophers who discussed the idea of naturism/ nudism?

Modern Western naturism/ nudism originated in late nineteenth century German "Freikorperkultur" (Free body culture). This movement certainly sought a philosophical, or at least intellectual, basis for its activities. I understand that its key texts were Nacktkultur (Naked Culture) by Heinrich Pudor (1865-1943) and Richard Ungewritter's Die Nacktheit (Nakedness). Although Pudor was a professor of social science, I do not know how far either work may be regarded as philosophical.

However, some notable philosophers have discussed the idea of nudism, or at least have questioned why we should always wear clothes. For example, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) uses the topic to advance the moral and cultural relativism that characterizes his Essays:

Whatever I shall say upon this subject, I am of necessity to invade some of the bounds of custom, so careful has she been to shut up all the avenues. I was disputing with myself in this shivering season, whether the fashion of going naked in those nations lately discover'd, is imposed upon them, by the hot temperature of the air, as we say of, the Moors and Indians, or whether it be the original fashion of mankind; men of understanding, forasmuch as all things under the sun, as the holy writ declares, are subject to the same laws, were wont in such considerations as these, where we are to distinguish the natural laws from those have been impos'd by man's invention, to have recourse to the general polity of the world, where there can be nothing counterfeited. Now all other creatures being sufficiently furnish'd with all things necessary for the support of their being, it is not to be imagined that we only should be brought into the world in a defective and indigent condition, and in such an estate as cannot subsist without foreign assistance; and therefore it is, that I believe, that as plants, trees, and animals, and all things that have life, are seen to be by nature sufficiently cloathed and cover'd, to defend them from the injuries of weather:

Proptereaque fere res omnes, aut corio sunt, Aut seta, aut conchis, aut callo, aut cortice tectae —L Lucret. l. 4.

Moreover all things, or with skin, or hair, Or shell, or bark, or Callus cloathed are. so were we: but as those who by artificial light put out that of the day, so we by borrowed forms and fashions have destroy'd our own. And 'tis plain enough to be seen, that 'tis custom only which renders that impossible, that otherwise is nothing so; for of those nations who have no manner of knowledge of cloathing, some are situated under the same temperature that we are, and some in colder climates. Had we been born with a necessity upon us of wearing petticoats and breeches, there is no doubt, but nature would have fortified those parts she intended should be exposed to the fury of the seasons, with a thicker skin, as she has done the finger ends, and the soles of the feet.

From 'Of the custom of wearing cloaths' (Essay XXVII), Cotton translation.

A more protracted philosophical treatment of nudism may be found in Thomas Carlyle's (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus. This eccentric, but at one time very popular, book purports to be a commentary on the life and work of the fictitious 'Diogenes Teufelsdrockh', supposedly the originator of an extensive philosophy of clothing. This satirical device permits Carlyle to simultaneously advance a case for the revolutionary social effects of nudism ("adamitism", as he calls it) in the arguments of his alter ego, while he, as 'editor', affects to be shocked by such conclusions. The following gives a flavour of Carlyle's argument, and of his style:

Much also we shall omit about confusion of Ranks, and Joan and My Lady, and how it would be everywhere "Hail fellow well met," and Chaos were come again: all which to any one that has once fairly pictured-out the grand mother-idea, Society in a state of Nakedness, will spontaneously suggest itself. Should some sceptical individual still entertain doubts whether in a world without Clothes, the smallest Politeness, Polity, or even Police, could exist, let him turn to the original Volume, and view there the boundless Serbonian Bog of Sansculottism, stretching sour and pestilential: over which we have lightly flown; where not only whole armies but whole nations might sink! If indeed the following argument, in its brief riveting emphasis, be not of itself incontrovertible and final:

"Are we Opossums; have we natural Pouches, like the Kangaroo? Or how, without Clothes, could we possess the master-organ, soul's seat, and true pineal gland of the Body Social: I mean, a PURSE?"

Nevertheless it is impossible to hate Professor Teufelsdrockh; at worst, one knows not whether to hate or to love him.

From Sartor Resartus, Book 1, Chapter X.

For more contemporary academic readings on nudism you might try Cec Cinder, The Nudist Idea (1998); Aileen Goodson, Therapy, Nudity & Joy (1991) or William E. Hartman, et al, Nudist Society (1991).

Andrew Aberdein


Audrey asked:

My children (ages 131/2 and 9) are studying Tae Kwon Do, and several of the "Codes of Conduct" relate to respect. Now, I'm not sure if this would fall under philosophy, but in searching the Net, I have been unable to come up with an "age appropriate" definition for them to understand. When using the dictionary, I have discovered, that they must look up works that are used in the definition — which is becoming frustrating — and hence, they are losing interest. Can you help? Or at least direct me to where I might find the answer to this question?

How about the Golden Rule, "treat others as you want to be treated"? That's my direct response to your question.

Now I'm going to give you my indirect response, which you probably won't like. Speaking as the step-grandfather of a 10-year old who is being raised to enjoy karate, I find myself in the position of strongly disapproving of this practice, as it is taught in this culture, while approving of it by other criteria. Let me elaborate. Boxing, karate, savate, and so forth are martial skills ( not arts) which train people in the techniques of killing, maiming, and inflicting pain. Our culture glorifies this type of activity, romanticizing the "warrior", the "samurai", to an extent that the Japanese, for example, find horrifying. When one obtains a black belt in one of these forms of skill in Japan, one must register their hands and feet as lethal weapons. The Japanese know what they are teaching. In this country, most educated persons regard owning firearms as equally dangerous, and do not let their children learn to shoot a pistol, for example, without very strict supervision and warnings. But they are willing to let them learn to kill with their hands and feet because that is somehow seen as less dangerous and more romantic. The rationale for this escapes me; I see no difference in saying that accumulating bombs and weapons will end war on the one hand, and that teaching people to kill will end killing, on the other.

On the other hand, we do need armies, weapons, the police... and by that reasoning, it is quite logical and rational to teach children to fight. We live in a dangerous world, and fighting, shooting guns, and probably learning to handle automatic weapons are skills that we all should have some familiarity with. If that was the rationale for teaching kids to learn the dirty, dangerous, brutal skills of killing, I would applaud it, or at the least acknowledge the correctness of the logic. But it isn't. We are taught that martial skills teach discipline, coordination, strength, and so forth. True enough. But so do acrobatics, tumbling, weightlifting, swimming, basketball, tennis, ballet, modern dance... shall I go on? But the latter do not teach the infliction of pain and injury, as do the martial skills.

So my indirect response is: isn't there some other way to train children to treat others with respect than teaching them to fight? I would hope so.

Steven Ravett Brown


Nathan asked:

What is your stance on the following statement:

"No-one, including philosophers, can anticipate every possible counter-argument to their argument. If it were possible, philosophy would have ended long ago. The sense in which all the major problems of philosophy still go unanswered today is the result of our inability to make arguments without possible criticism. i.e. We are cognitively unable to formulate "hard-edged" answers to questions that fall outside the fields of pure math and logic."

As soon as I read this quote, I thought to myself, "That doesn't sound right"; but it is much harder to say what might be wrong with it.

Firstly, the four statements made in the quote don't all say the same thing. I thought about each one in turn.

No-one can anticipate every possible counter-argument to their argument. I want to say, "Well, obviously not!" There could be an indefinite number of counter-arguments; although we would normally take into account that some counter-arguments are much more effective and problematic criticisms of the original argument than others.

If it were possible to anticipate every possible counter-argument to our arguments, philosophy would have ended long ago. I'm not sure it would've got started in the first place if that'd been the case! Wouldn't dialogue have been completely unnecessary, as a single philosopher could put forward their argument and then proceed to answer all the counter-arguments? On the other hand, just because you could anticipate every possible counter-argument, it doesn't follow that you could answer all of them.

The major problems of philosophy have never been solved because we can't make arguments which can't be criticized. Not everyone would agree about what 'the major problems of philosophy' are. I imagine the writer of the quote is thinking about questions such as "Does God exist?", "What is the basis of morality?", "What is justice?", and I would agree that a single correct answer to these questions has not been agreed on, and in that sense they have not been solved. But what about areas of study that were once part of philosophy, but which have now become separate sciences? Are these problems of philosophy that have been solved? For example, has physics answered the question "What is the universe really made of?", a question which was considered by several Ancient Greek philosophers? Is philosophy the only field of study in which the major problems have never been solved? Have the major problems of science been solved? What about the major problems of pure maths? And is it true, as the statement suggests, that the reason the major problems of philosophy have never been solved is because we can't make arguments which can't be criticized?

What about the final sentence of the quote? The way our minds work makes it impossible for us to formulate 'hard-edged' answers to questions that fall outside pure maths and logic. Notice that the quote has moved from talking about 'arguments' to talking about 'answers' — they don't sound like the same kind of thing to me. And what is meant here by 'hard-edged' — a metaphorical term?

I think the whole quote is an expression of the way that certainty of knowledge, in philosophy, has sometimes been taken to be, or to be exemplified by, the logical necessity of answers in pure maths and logic. It is indeed impossible for us to formulate logically necessary answers to questions that fall outside pure maths and logic. But you shouldn't be surprised by this! I think it has more to do with the way the world works than the way our minds work. The logical necessity of answers in maths and logic is written into the system when its rules are formulated. But the world of experience is incredibly complex. We don't have precisely defined words to talk about it with; and the reason we don't have precisely defined words is that we are not talking about precisely defined things, but abstractions, qualities, feelings and so on. We can feel incredibly certain about matters of experience (the example often given being that we feel certain the sun will rise tomorrow); but they are still not logically necessary (i.e. it would not be self-contradictory if the sun did not rise tomorrow).

Despite the complexity of the quote, it is unclear whether the writer thinks it is a good thing or a bad thing, that philosophy continues. I would argue that it is inevitable that philosophy continues, because of the nature of the world we live in; but I also think it is a good thing. I'm glad we live in a world that is interesting enough to have room in it for philosophy.

But if the ardent seeker after truth is not content with that, if he is only interested in answers that are right or wrong, if he wants final, conclusive certainty he must go elsewhere — to the study, for example, of pure mathematics. As he does so he will be shutting with a clang the door that leads to the world of 'it all depends'. And this will be a pity for it is the world in which we live.

E.R Emmet Learning to Philosophize

Katharine Hunt

That seems an odd quote to me; I must confess I haven't seen it. But it's clearly wrong. First, the only sense in which we can formulate answers to questions in math is if we accept and understand the assumptions, terms and operations of the system. When those are clear and restricted enough we can sometimes formulate "hard-edged" answers to problems, but a) they're not all clear enough for that, b) they're not all solvable, even theoretically. Second, take something like the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, or better, the Four-Color Theorem. Those questions were put and answered in a hard-edged manner, but only because computers were available to evaluate, and in the case of the Four-Color Theorem, create (through iteration) those answers. So there's a sense in which some questions and answers in math cannot be cognitively formulated either.

But most important, I think, is the point about philosophy "ending". If questions and answers being hard-edged is the property responsible for that, then why haven't math and logic themselves, the paradigms for the quote, ended long ago? There seems to be a problem with that, doesn't there? Whether or not "every possible counter-argument" is anticipated or not, there will always be further questions and developments of the various points of view, and new systems to work out, just as there have been in math. When the author speaks of "all major problems", how can he (I assume it's a man) know that they would have been solved? All major problems (and I'm not even sure what that phrase means) in math haven't been solved, by a long shot. Now all that aside, I agree with some of what is behind the statement; a great deal of philosophy is the result of confusion and ambiguity in ideas and statements of ideas. Oh well, the best we can do is keep working on that, isn't it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Noah asked:

Who is a utilitarian thinker and what is a utilitarian theory of action? Specifically, i want to know why Spencer and Marx were argued to be utilitarian thinkers.

1. There are many utilitarian thinkers. Epicurus and Aristotle had utilitarian elements in their thought, but the real beginning of utilitarianism is to be found in the Enlightenment. There is a little controversy as to who can be called a utilitarian thinker, but Claude Helvetius, Chastellux, Priestly, Hutcheson, Godwin and Hume are all utilitarians in one form or another. The best place to start though is with Bentham and J.S. Mill, Especially Mill's Classic statement of the theory, Utilitarianism. In the Twentieth Century, the most notable utilitarians have been Henry Sidgwick, R.M. Hare, J.J.C. Smart and Peter Singer. There is an excellent short introductory work Utilitarianism For and Against by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, which outlines a system of utilitarian ethics, and then provides criticism of utilitarianism. Also, Geoffrey Scarre's Utilitarianism (Routledge, 1996) is an excellent introduction, which is especially useful on the history of the idea.

2. The most basic definition of utilitarianism is given by J.S. Mill in Utilitarianism: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. However, Bentham used 'pleasure' instead of 'happiness', and others argue that utility can mean 'welfare' or 'satisfaction' A simple utilitarian theory of action would therefore be: :Act so as maximize happiness (or pleasure or welfare) and minimize harm." However, some argue that this is unrealistic, so we have rule-utilitarianism: "Act according to a set of rules which are formulated so as to generally maximize happiness".

3. I'm afraid I can't help you with Spencer, but you might have a look at Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (George Allen & Unwin, 1957) It could be argued that Marx was a utilitarian because he viewed capitalism as benefiting the few, rather than the many (the proletariat). More welfare could be produced overall if a system which benefited all was introduced. However, it would take a great deal of argument to show that Marx was fundamentally a utilitarian thinker, and this is not a view which, as far as I know, is widely held.

Hope this is of help

Steve Bullock
Dept. of Politics
University of Stirling


Nathan also asked:

How is it possible to evaluate the relative "importance" of theories of truth without assuming one in the act of evaluating? Don't epistemological biases (even the sorts epistemologists have) make thorough analysis of truth theories problematic? Are we able only to decide the correctness of logical form in truth theories? — Does that get us anywhere?

I think you may be mistaking theory and meta-theory. That is, a theory about truth theories is not necessarily evaluated by the same criteria as a theory about truth. If, for example, you ask whether we should prefer a correspondence theory of truth vs. a coherency theory, we cannot use the criterion that one is more true than another; we have to speak of our metaphysical biases: the universe is knowable or it is not, etc. To put it another way, you are asking about the ultimate foundation of theories of knowledge, and that debate has been going on for quite a while, with foundationalists of one sort or another lined up against coherentists of one sort or another, and all of those pitted against the relativists.

I do not know of any justification for those fundamentals, really. Most philosophers either gloss over them or just assume they're obvious. There is a fairly large literature, which I'm only vaguely familiar with, on the coherentist vs. foundationalist debate, especially in metaethics. For an introduction to that you might take a look at BonJour, L. (1985) The structure of empirical knowledge. But no one that I know of has satisfactorily resolved the question of bringing a coherent system down to earth vs. justifying the foundations of a foundationalist system.

Steven Ravett Brown


Rey asked:

Why is it that we as humans cannot remember the past as toddlers but can remember the past as children? Is there a turning point that is unknown? Can someone really remember their first birthday?

I trained in Montessori teaching, and Maria Montessori believed that the reason we can't remember much from when we were very small is because of the kind of learning that is taking place then. In her book The Absorbent Mind published in 1949, she wrote:

The child has a different relation to his environment from ours. Adults admire their environment; they can remember it and think about it; but the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul. He incarnates in himself all in the world about him that his eyes see and his ears hear. In us the same things produce no change, but the child is transformed by them.

So, rather than being remembered, what a child learns and experiences between birth and about 3 years old becomes incorporated into their character and personality. It becomes part of the way they think and behave. Montessori thought that between 3 and 6 years old (approx), a child gradually becomes more self-conscious (i.e. conscious of themself as an individual, separate from other people and their surroundings), their ability to absorb information and experiences decreases, and they begin to be able to remember and recall things like adults do.

I don't know whether or not modern child psychology supports Montessori's view on this. Perhaps another contributor can answer that?

Katharine Hunt


Vernon asked:

What does the study of identical twins, who were raised in different circumstances, say about the concept of free will? It seems psychologists, with their talk about nature and nurture being the factors that affect behavior, imply that they don't believe in "free will". I used to, but there was something in my genes or my environment which caused me to rethink this belief. I'm also thinking, that this would be an actual, real world, experiment with which philosophers could do a scientific study.

Since 'identical' twins aren't, it wouldn't say anything, because the experiment you're envisioning would require that two people be identical down to the molecular level, then see whether they behaved differently in the same environment. But there are no two people with identical neural nets; we don't have enough genetic information to determine dendritic connections between all our neurons, much less details like the configuration of presynaptic membranes. No way.

But let's assume that we could do it, i.e., create, and determine that we have created, two identical people. Further, let's assume that we could create identical environments for those two people (an impossible job in itself, but never mind). Then, we assume, given identical inputs, i.e., sensations, that we would have identical outputs (including thoughts). Here's the problem with that. Given that our neural nets are complex enough so that neural dynamics are chaotic (a reasonable assumption, for which Walter Freeman, for example, has presented evidence), then in a chaotic system, we have points at which the system can move to two or more states from some initial state, with infinitesimal perturbations determining the different path. That is, something literally so small or faint that we could not even in theory measure it could change the neural dynamics of the two systems (the peoples' brains) in different ways, so that the two people would then be and behave differently. We would then be in the position of having to ask whether such an undetectable event occurred, not something a scientist likes to contemplate.

Here's the other problem. As far as I know, there is no empirical way to decide the question of free will. First, no one knows what it is. I mean, think about it. Just what does "free" mean? Free to do what you decide to do? Free of physical laws? Free to decide? Well, we have the first and third, as far as we can tell, don't we? Why aren't we free to decide, even if our decisions are determined by physical laws? Let's look at that point in a bit more detail. On the one hand, we want our decisions free of physical determination. On the other hand, unless we want randomness, our decisions have to be determined by something. Mental laws? Wouldn't we be just as "unfree" if our decisions were determined by mental laws (whatever those might be) as physical?

So we seem to want something which is neither determined nor random (and the latter includes, of course, weighed chance, like dice or quantum uncertainties). Now, what could that possibly be? I have no idea. We seem caught between random decisions and decisions thoroughly caused by some kind of antecedents which, ultimately (if we want to avoid regress), we have no control over. These are the concepts we work with at this point; maybe there are others we will discover. Thus, can we claim to know all physical laws? There might be some which give us "free will", even though we don't know what that is, might there not? My point is that our feeling of free decision may or may not be an illusion; we simply do not know, so we might as well act as if it is not. If we do not act that way, we avoid responsibility for consequences that we may well be responsible for; if we do act that way, we assume such responsibility, and that assumption would seem to be the most ethical default position.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jay asked:

What is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning? Would you give an example of each?

A deductive argument's premises strictly entail its conclusion: that conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. In the case of an inductive argument, however, the conclusion is only probable in the light of the premises: the conclusion might be false even if the premises are true.

Here's an example of a deductive argument:

Premise 1: All human beings are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates was a human being
Conclusion: Socrates was mortal.

Socrates cannot — logically cannot — be immortal if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. To deny the conclusion while affirming the premises would be to contradict oneself. But how might we know whether Premises 1 and 2 are true?

Unfortunately (at least for those insist that deductive arguments alone are the royal road to knowledge), only inductive arguments can incline us to accept those premises. The reader, for all any one knows, may never die, which would falsify Premise 1. Future historical research may undermine the historicity of Socrates, thereby falsifying Premise 2. Both "mays," however, are only "theoretical," not sufficient reasons to doubt the premises, let alone regard them as false.

"The sun has always arisen in the past, therefore it will rise tomorrow," expresses an inductive argument: the conclusion does not strictly follow from the premise, but the premise inclines one strongly in favor of the conclusion. By the norms of deductive reasoning, an inductive argument is a fallacy. ("Attempts to justify inductive reasoning by deductive norms have failed in the past; therefore, so will future such attempts," is also an inductive argument. Perhaps the reader will succeed where others have failed.)

In courts of law, juries are required to arrive at verdicts that they believe the evidence warrants "beyond a reasonable doubt," but not beyond theoretical doubt. To deny a jury verdict while affirming the evidence that jury assessed would not be to contradict oneself. The history of overturned verdicts is not a history of formal contradictions. Juries may deduce their verdicts unerringly, but the evidence from which they deduce them is arrived at only inductively.

Tony Flood

An interesting question. Some regard this as an unbridgeable gulf, others regard one as derivative from the other.

Deduction, classically, is the process of analysis, in which one finds properties that are inherent in something. If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then we deduce that Socrates must be mortal. Induction, classically, is the process of synthesis or extrapolation, in which one infers properties of things one has not encountered. Thus, if the first three crows you see are black, then you induce that all crows are black.

C.S. Peirce analyzed logical thought this way:

Roughly speaking, according to Peirce (e.g., Peirce, 1992, pp. 188-189; Peirce, 1998, p. 95), there are three basic types of logic, derived from the three-part syllogism. This syllogism consists of R, a rule: (the beans in this bag are white), C, a case of the rule: (these particular beans are from the bag), E, a result: (these beans are white)

By altering the order of the elements in this expression, Peirce realized that one could symbolize entirely different types of thinking. Thus, deduction consists of statements in the above order: (1) R, C, E; induction in the order (2) C, E, R; and hypothesis construction (also termed "abduction"), the order (3) R, E, C.

Peirce, C. S. (1992). "Deduction, induction, and hypothesis" in N. Houser & C. Kloesel (Eds.), The essential Peirce: selected philosophical writings (Vol. I, pp. 186-199). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Peirce, C. S. (1998) "On the logic of drawing history from ancient documents, especially from testimonies" in N. Houser & A. De Tienne & J. R. Eller & C. L. Clark & A. C. Lewis & D. B. Davis (Eds.), The essential Peirce: selected philosophical writings (Vol. II, pp. 75-114). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Steven Ravett Brown

Inductive reasoning involves inferring from a number of previously observed cases that the next case will follow the same general pattern. For example, all the bread I've eaten in the past has been nutritious and not poisonous. So when I buy another loaf of bread in Sainsbury's I assume that this loaf of bread is nutritious and not poisonous! So inductive inferences usually have the following form:

All, or most, observed Fs are Gs
This is an F
Therefore this must be a G

We can substitute different variables for F and G to form many different inductive arguments. So in the example given above, F is a loaf of bread, and G is nutritious, not poisonous. Bernard Williams gives an example of inductive inference made by a chicken! The chicken has observed on a number of occasions that when the farmer's wife comes out in the morning, she feeds him. So when the chicken sees the farmer's wife come out again it assumes that it will be fed. However, this time it is killed instead. This example shows that inductive arguments can only give you conclusions that are probably true. Inductive arguments can provide good evidence for a conclusion but this is not enough to provide us with certainty.

In contrast, deductive reasoning can provide us with valid arguments that logically entail the truth of their conclusions i.e. they enable us to prove that something must be the case. An argument is deductively valid if and only if it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false i.e. an argument is valid if it is inconsistent to assert the premises and to deny the conclusion, as the conclusion is a logical consequence of the premises. An example of a simple deductive argument can be given as follows:

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal

If Socrates is a man then he must be mortal because all men are mortal.

So the main difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that valid deductive arguments give us conclusions that must be true, whilst inductive arguments give us conclusions that are probably true. However, this does not mean that inductive arguments are the only good ones. In everyday life we rely heavily on inductive inferences, as the example of the loaf of bread given above indicates!

Samantha Solomons


Alex asked:

Aristotle says, "Although all other sciences are more necessary than metaphysics, none is more excellent."

My question is. what considerations lead him to praise metaphysics in this way?

According to Aristotle all levels of knowledge are measured as to the degree of wisdom they include: either they inform us only that something is so and so or they give us the reason and the cause why it is so. This leads to a hierarchical concept of knowledge, starting with our sensual experience as a necessary condition of knowledge. Aristotle gives us an example: "If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail to cure; for it is the individual that is to be cured." Aristotle also regarded some social basics needs and therefore arts as necessary: "for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began" This sounds quite similar to Maslow's modern "Hierarchy of Needs", doesn't it?

Aristotle continues: "For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the 'why' and the cause. Hence we think also that the master workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers, because they know the causes of the things that are done".

And then "but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake."

Aristotle summarizes these main features of those who are considered to be the wisest: 1. The wise person knows everything (universal knowledge). 2. The wise person knows difficult things (known only by intellect). 3. The wise person is accurate (basic knowledge out of fewer principles). 4. The wise person is a better teacher than others (transferable knowledge). 5. The wise person studies for the sake of knowing (intrinsic interest). 6. The wise person gives and does not take orders (superior knowledge).

There could be only one science that manifests all these 6 features and it must deal with the first causes and principles: metaphysics. It is a theoretical and divine science in a double sense: it is about divine things and the gods are expected to possess it more than anyone else. Humans can only strive at it and if they do they start to philosophize and this is only possible with above necessary conditions. That's why "All other sciences are more necessary than this one, but none is better."

Simone Klein


Philip asked:

Is cynicism alive and well as a school of philosophical thought?

'Cynicism' is one of those philosophical terms which has acquired a popular meaning at variance with its original sense. The ancient cynics rejected popular values not because they believed in nothing, but because they saw popular values as a distraction from true virtue. However, even amongst their contemporaries the name of the school became associated with an attitude of empty sneering and contempt. That sense is probably too firmly established for the original usage to be recaptured: no contemporary school of thought has adopted the name.

This being said, the ideas behind cynicism are still influential. The uncompromising rejection of popular pieties as obstructions to the acknowledgement of some higher virtue is a familiar feature of modern protest movements: the more radical sort of environmentalism, for example. The irony is that such people are, if anything, more likely to be thought insufficiently cynical — that is, too naive — rather than too cynical.

For an introduction to the cynic school see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article at http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/c/cynics.htm. A longer introduction which attempts to connect the cynics with the modern world may be found in Luciano de Crescenzo The History of Greek Philosophy Volume II: Socrates and Beyond (Picador, 1990). An important collection of contemporary research into the cynics and their influence is R Bracht Branham & Marie-Odile Goulet-Caze, Eds. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and its Legacy (California University Press, 1996).

Andrew Aberdein


Louise asked:

Can you please explain Plato's use of the metaphor of shadows in the allegory of the cave in the Republic? I am slightly confused.

In order to answer your question it is important to clarify what exactly Plato intended to demonstrate in his allegory of the cave. With an understanding of his intentions, it should be possible to understand the role of the shadow metaphor.

Plato comments that in presenting his description of the cave he intends to, "..picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition..." One purpose of his description is thus to demonstrate the differing ways in which humans understand the nature of reality. Specifically, Plato wants to demonstrate that there is a fundamental difference between the everyday opinions of people and true philosophical knowledge. Crucial to Plato's ideas is the distinction between non-philosophical and philosophical understanding.

Layers of existence

Plato claimed that there are four "layers" of existence and that for each layer there is a corresponding mode of knowing. By mode of knowing, I mean that in order to comprehend existence at each level, certain tools and techniques of thought have to be utilized. These tools and techniques vary according to the layer of existence they attempt to comprehend. I will refer to the layers of existence as A, B, C and D. It would help if you were to visualise these placed in a vertical line with A at the top and D at the bottom.

The layers are not equal in status. The layer of existence that contains images is considered to be the most inferior. We can give this layer the label D. Images are completely dependent on material objects for their existence and as such have a low status. The mode of knowledge that corresponds to this layer (i.e. that mode of knowledge which contemplates images) is considered by Plato to have a correspondingly low status.

The layer of existence that has a status above that of images is that layer which contains the world of things. We can give this layer the label C. Plato is describing here the material world. It is the messy, complicated and constantly changing world that we experience with our senses. The mode of knowledge with which we comprehend this world has a higher status than that which comprehends images but is still not the highest (and most true) way in which things can be known.

Plato makes a radical move and claims the existence of two other layers of existence (A and B), neither of which is contained in the world of material things. Both these layers contain objects of thought, and the modes of knowledge that apprehend them are purely mental (i.e. they have no dependence on things in the material world). For layer B, the mode of thought that corresponds to it is primarily mathematical reasoning, i.e. the use of inference and logic to create theorems from fundamental axioms or starting points.

The highest and most perfect layer (A) contains what Plato describes as Ideals or Forms. These are abstract concepts or ideas that, unlike the objects in the material world, do not change with time. These ideas are, for Plato, the ultimate truths, untainted by exposure to the constantly changing material world of layers C and D. Amongst many other things, this layer contains the perfect (and true) idea of justice, along with the perfect (and true) idea/ design of a human being. Plato believes that when we use a concept like justice in the material world (layers C and D), we are using an imperfect copy of the perfect idea of justice that resides in layer A. When we identify an object as a human being in the material world, we do so because it bears some resemblance to the perfect idea of a human being that resides in layer A.

Layer A, more commonly known as the realm of the forms is contemplated by the highest mode of knowledge. This highest form of knowledge is philosophy. The job of philosophers is to use their minds to contemplate this realm and describe its contents accurately.

Plato believes that most people (non-philosophers) only ever use the modes of knowledge that correspond to the two lower layers (C and D). In other words, most people have an understanding of reality that is severely limited. What upset Plato was the fact that most people do not even realise that there is another "higher" level of reality and that there is a correspondingly "higher" (more true) mode of thought to accompany it. They spend their lives convinced that the type of knowledge they have is the best, and are even prepared to defend this limited understanding in the face of challenges from philosophy.

The Cave

In the cave, Plato describes the prisoners who, fastened so that they can only look at the back of the cave, see shadows moving on the wall. Because these prisoners have spent their entire lives looking at these shadows, they mistakenly assume that reality consists of these shadows. It is also perfectly reasonable to assume that these people will have some form of knowledge that can explain and possibly predict the movement of the shadows on the wall.

What the prisoners don't realise is that there is a world outside of the cave, a world of real objects, and that the shadows represent these real objects in a very crude way. What they don't realise is that if they were to free themselves from the cave and go into the world outside, their mode of knowledge which comprehended the world of shadows would be utterly unsuitable as a guide. Any ideas they held about the nature of the shadows would seem completely inadequate and trivial when it came to dealing with the source of the shadows. Some of the prisoners may even deny the existence of a world outside the cave and challenge anyone who claimed otherwise.

Hopefully it should be clearer now what the shadows in the cave represent. They represent the reality experienced at levels C and D of reality. The knowledge that the prisoners create in order to understand the movements of the shadows represents the limited mode of knowledge utilized (and cherished) by those who do not accept the existence of a higher layer of reality. And just as the prisoners mistake the world of the shadows as the truest form of reality, so do the non-philosophers when they deny the existence of any layers of reality above C and D.

The world outside of the cave, where the real objects that create the shadows exist, represents layer A. And just as the prisoners, upon leaving the cave, will be forced to abandon their old ways of understanding their world, so will the person who realizes the existence of layers A and B. They will be forced to think philosophically.

Simon Drew


Artu asked:

What does happy mean? does the word have any sense?

After Wittgenstein, it is widely held that terms for inner states have their meanings determined by conditions for use. Use changes. According to my dictionary happiness is an adjective synonymous with lucky and prosperous etc., but my dictionary is ancient. It could have come to mean the state a person is when they are lucky and prosperous. But what about "money doesn't bring happiness"? The definition seems no longer true at all.

We seem to know perfectly well when we're happy, but it is not always clear how it differs from contentment, pleasure or joy. So how do we know and what are we going on? It seems there is a need for a sense. This need not distinguish happiness from joyousness if we cannot clarify the difference in definitional terms, where I understand this as necessary and sufficient conditions for usage. All we really have are senses.

The Fregean notion of sense is a description, a mode of presentation, or something we need to grasp if we are to use a term or have a belief about a thing. A sense can be true or false of its object. If a sense is taken to be a way of getting at what something is then the sense of happiness could be any condition of use of the term, such as buoyant behaviour. We don't have to know everything. We don't have to know what happiness feels like, for instance, to have beliefs about it. Yet awareness of the feeling itself is a sense, or a way of getting at what happiness is.

Wittgenstein didn't think that the model of sense and reference applied to emotions because emotion terms don't designate or refer to inner states. If the term for a feeling has a sense, there is no implication that the term refers to an inner state. Where sense picks out a complex state, rather than designates an object, the notion of reference doesn't apply.

As I said, a sense can be true or false of its object. It is a belief we can be wrong about. Once I looked up "serious" in a dictionary since I wasn't sure what it was or whether I was serious. On reading the definition I still wasn't sure. Someone said, "Why couldn't see the seriousness in yourself as you crossed the room to get the dictionary?", and then I could see it. I thought that you can see things in yourself and know when they apply without understanding or knowing the definition. Definitions falsify which is why they give rise to counterexamples.

But then I thought, was that really seriousness? Could it have been self-concern? Wittgenstein said it is not significant to ask whether or not we are in pain, which is a sensation, but this isn't true of states or attitudes such as happiness or seriousness. We can have a false belief. To know the state we are in we need a good grasp of a sense. But a complete set of senses amounts to a definition and that is too much to ask.

Rachel Browne


James asked:

Please define Being in simple terms.

and Simplico asked:

What is to be?

Grammatically spoken, "Being" is simply the nominalized infinitive of "to be", but to the chagrin of human beings has a cluster of meanings, including:

the quality or state of having existence

something conceivable as existing

something that actually exists

the totality of existing things

conscious existence: life

the qualities that constitute an existent thing : essence; especially : personality

living thing; especially : person

The study of Being is subject of metaphysics, more accurately subject of ontology. This term was introduced by the German philosopher Christian Wolff, intended to denote the branch of philosophy, which deals with the "theory of being". Depending on the point of view, this can mean a theory of what really exists in contrast with what only seems to exist, of what permanently exists in contrast with what only temporarily exists, and of what exists independently and unconditionally in contrast with what exists dependently and conditionally: As metaphysical questions go beyond any merely empirical considerations, all of above meanings of Being have their role in ontology and Being doesn't only refer to (material) existence, but also to properties and relations.

Summarized it can be said, that according to the long philosophical tradition, there are kinds and modes of being. The kinds of being may be subdivided in various ways: for instance, into universals and particulars and into concrete beings and abstract beings. Another term for 'being' in this sense is 'entity' or 'thing'. In a second sense, being is what all real entities possess. Being in this second sense has various modes. Thus the being of concrete physical objects is spatio-temporal while that of abstract mathematical entities like numbers is eternal and non-spatial.

Perhaps the most puzzling metaphysical problem concerning Being is why anything should exist at all — why isn't there rather nothing? One response is to say that the question is absurd, because it presupposes that we can make sense of the idea of absolute nothingness as a genuine alternative to the existence of at least something. While it may indeed be impossible to imagine a world in which nothing exists, the notion of a wholly empty world is not obviously incoherent. But isn't coherence again a sort of Being?

One attempt to escape this bewildering situation is given in Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre holds that the world is constructed of both being and nothingness. Hence the title of his book. Sartre distinguishes: Being = being in-itself = mind-independent reality. Nothingness = any aspect of the world we experience and act in which does not have it's own being = that which depends on my consciousness and activity. World = that which we experience and act in. Made up of being in-itself, plus instrumental and moral values.

Simone Klein


Amber asked:

In your Questions and Answers 10, question number 82 intrigued me. To further explore this, how does philosophy deal with altered perceptions and realties? For example, drug addicts, people with psychological problems, etc?

Both views mentioned in the answer you refer to — the Lockean theory that concepts are gained from sensory ideas and the alternative Kantian position that mental activity rather than sensations are the ground of belief — seem to be compatible with our understanding of drug addicts and people with psychological problems.

Suppose that what we see are mental images which resemble reality and we thereby form concepts about the empirical world, then drug addicts and people with psychological problems need not differ in this respect: They speak our language and possess the same concepts. While under the influence of drugs, perceptions may not resemble reality and understanding may be temporarily impaired but that doesn't affect a theory about how concepts are acquired. If someone was fed LSD from birth their sensory experiences would probably diminish in robustness as time passed making the acquisition of concepts impossible, which Locke would predict. As with drug addicts, people with psychological problems normally have conceptual understanding. I don't think psychological problems which affect sensory experiences emerge in young children so it would be possible to acquire concepts in the way empiricists describe. Apparently, schizophrenia is an adult illness so a person could acquire concepts as a child. But as Locke would predict, if it were the case that a person was born with schizophrenia, not all of their sensory experiences would resemble reality.

As for the Kantian approach, we don't suppose the baby fed LSD or the schizophrenic baby are going to develop differently structured understanding leading to some different sort of mental activity. If there are abnormal sensory experiences, these will be beyond understanding, but they do not change what understanding is. Some psychological problems do involve mental activities which interfere with the understanding of others, such as the use of defence mechanisms, but these activities are not conceptual but emotional. Fear and anxiety have been held to lead to the defence mechanism of destructive behaviour but the activity in the mind that leads to destructive behaviour and is responsible for fear or the feeling of being persecuted is driven by emotional forces. Understanding and conceptual development are rational rather than emotional and are structures which can be interfered with by emotional imbalance, but the means by which we understand the empirical world doesn't change.

Rachel Browne


Lindsay asked:

What did Ludwig Wittgenstein say about belief and knowledge? How would he have responded to statements such as:

"I believe I am sitting in this chair vs. I know I am sitting on this chair."

Wittgenstein had quite a lot to say about belief and knowledge; as would be expected from a thinker who fundamentally changed the course of modern philosophy. Though influential, Wittgenstein can be described as a baffling thinker, very much a philosopher's philosopher. His theory of knowledge and belief is deep and intricate, and, like much of his philosophy can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. My first reading as a student was something of a culture shock.

Wittgenstein regards the concept 'I know' as personal, and in the 'mental world' of the person expressing it. Hence he might respond to "I know I am sitting in this chair" by saying, "To me that is a meaningless statement." Meaningless in the sense that he cannot be aware of your sensory experience and what sitting in a chair means in your perspective. He in turn might say, "I observe an event — or a state of affairs," which, on reflection, he confirms to be a person sitting in a chair. To 'know' there is a person sitting in a chair mental acts would have to be performed involving memory and association of things like chairs, and events like sitting etc. before he could say "I know there is a person sitting in a chair — I am certain of it." He might say that he has acquired a personal knowledge of someone sitting in a chair, which he finds he is, on past experience, unable to deny. However, his knowledge of someone sitting in a chair and your knowledge of experiencing sitting in a chair are still two separate pieces of knowledge. In his writing, Wittgenstein, stresses this point "We just do not see how very specialised the use of 'I know' is." He goes on to say, "For 'I know' seems to describe a state of affairs which guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact." We can always be doubtful of the utterance "I know" when uttered by someone else, but can infer "It is so" when we ourselves utter "I know."

Wittgenstein asserts that when we or anyone else claim to know anything we require to prove the fact objectively. We display evidence in the world ' outside ' to prove or support the knowledge contained in our 'mental/ inner' world. Much of this evidence is made available by our ability to use language. He claims that we share knowledge by engaging in ' language games.' It is always important to describe how we know something. This helps us to accept or challenge knowledge claimed by others.

To return to your question and the utterance, "I believe I am sitting in this chair." I think that Wittgenstein would find this to be rather strange. He might say that you can believe that you might be sitting in this chair tomorrow, but to be actually doing something at this point in time, and stating that you only believe you are doing it, seems ostensibly nonsensical. Wittgenstein regarded, 'to know something' as being certain of something, but to believe something he understood to be not certain, belief seems to suggest an element of doubt. To be sitting in a chair and at the same time not being certain of doing so raises questions about the mental state of the person asserting the belief. Is it not strange to doubt our immediate experiences? Or could the person be using the concept 'belief' in a way understood to him/ herself, but not understood by the observer? Again, Wittgenstein might say, another person cannot know what your belief is, your beliefs are confined to yourself — subjective. He also might say that the person sitting in the chair is not playing the language game properly, i e not playing to the rules.

We must appreciate that when Wittgenstein discusses facts he is referring to their location in 'logical space.' That a person is sitting in a chair is a fact, a chair, on the other hand, is not a fact but a thing. To him the world is the totality of facts, not of things. Coming to terms with Wittgenstein's world view presents us with huge problems when trying to discuss his concepts of knowledge and belief.

Quotes are from 'On Certainty Ludwig Wittgenstein (Basil Blackwell, Oxford).

John Brandon


Ramon asked:

Why does Plato think that philosophers should be kings?

The definition of a philosopher and the characteristics required of the philosopher-ruler are subject of part VII and VIII of the dialogue Republic. Summarized it can be said that, according to Plato, human beings may reside in two worlds: the lower world of Belief and the higher world of Knowledge. While governance by non-philosophers would mean to be caught in the sensual world and therefore governed by mere opinions, beliefs and self-interest, the philosopher ruler will in contrast govern with virtue and justice without self-interest because of his/ her special education in knowledge of absolute virtue, justice and other qualities.

They should rule "who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life", and those having had "an education as will enable them to attain the greatest skill in asking and answering questions" Plato says. Both are definitely qualities of true philosophers. Those, only "poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good...will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State."

As true philosophy means gaining the above qualities, philosophers are the only possible rulers. It is important to make a distinction between the acquisition of knowledge and the acquisition of truth, because knowledge is not necessarily the final truth. So philosophers of course can make mistakes, but will be ready (and hopefully able) to correct their views towards more truth.

Simone Klein


Sean asked:

Do I conform to the life, the path, I know I must follow...my calling should I say...or do I enjoy life while it is here? Do I accept myself as a philosopher and put off the little "kicks" that life has to offer in order to grow, know, and do, or do I do what I know is right in my heart? My world is split right now. I see a major fork in the road that went unnoticed until now. My car is about to crash because I can't keep swerving back and forth, I know the asphalt is going to run out soon. I already know which path I need to follow, but I get stuck in my head and end up partying to cope. There is no such thing as meeting halfway here, I either accept my place in the world as a Philosopher, a dream I have, or I keep living in the mainstream, pop culture, sex, drugs, alcohol, idiocy of world that I know all too well. Perhaps I'm ranting here, perhaps I'm venting and making up my mind while I type, but I need input.

It sounds as if you throw yourself into philosophy too deeply and then party too heavily. Surely being a philosopher need not exclude partying and kicks in moderation. You need to find out why you drive yourself so hard in extreme directions.

You say partying is a way of "coping", but it is not. It's not dealing with the problem of "getting stuck in your head" (whatever that may be) but trying to get away from it and it isn't working.

Perhaps philosophy isn't the right thing for you if it causes problems with your head.

Rachel Browne

I am mainly going to echo Rachel's response, but I disagree quite strongly with her suggestion that maybe philosophy isn't the right thing for you. There are a lot of questions I would like to ask you to understand where you're coming from a little clearer, so forgive me if you feel I am not answering your question.

Maybe you don't need to separate the two so harshly. As Rachel has already commented you seem to be yo-yoing between the two extremes. I disagree with you that there is no such thing as meeting halfway. Surely one of the uses of philosophy is to offer a reconciliation that allows us to accept two things that seem on the surface to contradict one another. And what real use is there in a philosopher that excludes himself from the 'mainstream' of society? What kind of philosophy are you going to be doing? How can you expect people to apply philosophy if it has no connection to their lives?

I can understand your frustration with the pop culture, the 'idiocy' that sometimes seems to permeate our society but don't let this lead you to a philosophical life as a moral high ground. Both sides can learn from the other. What is the point of doing philosophy if you feel that you have to cut yourself off from the things you enjoy doing? On the other had what is the point of indulging so deeply in the moment when it is clearly offering you no long term satisfaction?

What kind of a life do you envision yourself having as a philosopher? Why do you have to live it inside a box? Why does it have to be devoid of 'kicks'? There is no point denying aspects of yourself in this way.

It is very easy to get stuck in your head — and that isn't helping you at all. But there are other ways of pulling yourself out of it without rejecting it entirely. Take a step back rather than a leap over the fence. Philosophy is never going to be straightforward and it isn't necessarily going to offer you any easy solutions. But maybe you're not thinking about it right. I know how frustrating it can be but you cannot allow yourself to get bogged down with it all. That's not the point.

You are having problems choosing your road — why choose at all? Why can't you forge your own?

Sarah Taylor


Osama asked:

Does Philosophy accept the existence of God? If not, then how would philosophers justify the existence of all the Prophets who came, and some of gave their scriptures too? If philosophy denies all this then how would it explain the ruined remains of the buildings and historic mounts still present which were discussed in the scriptures?

I think your initial question has to be re-phrased before I can offer an answer. There are of course areas of philosophy which are involved with religion and the existence of God. Some philosophers who are interested in these areas support the idea of God's existence, others do not. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, "Do philosophers accept the existence of God?" I could then answer, "some do."

For those who support the idea of the existence of God your reference to scriptures, prophets, ruined temples, mounts, etc.would present no problem, all these things are included in the language of the Christian religion, which is the religion I presume you are referring to. However, it is unlikely that a philosopher would use such historical references in an argument presented in support of the existence of God. These arguments are usually metaphysical in nature, often with a strict adherence to logical correctness. Some would refer to design in nature, the existence of physical laws, the notion that man is not an inventor but a discoverer, he discovers things that are already there, supplied by God. Admittedly he uses the fruits of discovery for the benefit of mankind or, in some cases, to the detriment of mankind.

Those not supportive of the concept of a God offer strong rebuttals to the metaphysical arguments and they would most certainly not be impressed with your proffered reasons for a proof of God's existence. The general opposition would be levelled at your notion that historical evidence of a past culture, whether material or myth, constitutes acceptable proof for the existence of God. Your notion seems to imply an attempt at an empirical proof of the existence of God. Unfortunately historical factors do not supply such proof. In fact we have to ask whether it is humanly possible to establish that there is a God by means of an empirical proof. Firstly, not only are there not established procedures for putting such a statement as "There is a god " to the test, but it is not clear what those procedures would be. Secondly, even if there might be, it would be impossible to engage in such a test without the tacit consent of the god concerned.

An argument for the existence of God will only serve as a proof if it is deductive in character, if, that is to say, its conclusion is put forward as following strictly from certain premisses. there are, indeed only two sorts of argument which begin from premisses firm enough to merit consideration as possible proofs of the existence of a god. In the one kind of case, all the premisses are allegedly established a priori whereas in the other at least one premiss is based upon experience, is, that is to say, a posteriori. Arguments of the first kind will be versions of what is called 'the Ontological Argument'. Arguments of the second kind will be versions of what is known as 'the Cosmological Argument'.

These arguments are rather elaborate and detailed and cannot be entered into here without taking up a lot of time and space. [These arguments have been discussed in these pages before: do a search for 'ontological argument' and 'cosmological argument' in the Questions archive at http://philosophos.org/knowledge_base.] However, I suggest you try to obtain a copy of, The Existence of God, edited by John Hick, Collier — Macmillan, 1964. This is a very interesting anthology which presents good examples of the arguments indicated above.

John Brandon

Although individual philosophers will and have been prepared to argue for or against the existence of God, the topic is highly controversial and a consensus amongst philosophers has not yet been reached. Thus Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century, Descartes, in the seventeenth century and Richard Swinburne in modern times are all philosophers who have put forward arguments for the existence of God. However, these arguments have been heavily criticized and other philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Don Cuppitt have put forward arguments for atheism, which in turn have been criticized.

This highlights the nature of Philosophy as an activity that aims to encourage critical thinking and the development of analytical skills. Philosophy does not consist of a fixed body of knowledge that can be used to provide definite answers to fundamental questions. It encourages us to think about issues for ourselves and teaches us how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, encouraging us not to just accept received opinions on important matters. No wonder there has been disagreement! So will Philosophy ever be able to give us an answer to the question, does God exist? Some theists assert that our minds are too limited to be able to prove the existence of God and we should base our belief in God on faith and not on rational, philosophical arguments as these are bound to be inconclusive. It is very difficult to refute the fideist (someone who holds that belief in God should be based on faith alone) from the philosophical standpoint because fideists consider faith to be more important than rational argument and therefore will not be swayed by logic, which is the philosophers' tool.

To answer the second part of your question, the scriptures do not provide conclusive evidence for the existence of God. It is possible to argue that the scriptures are not divinely inspired but merely the works of human beings. The existence of the scriptures could be due to our need believe in a divine being to give meaning and purpose to our lives. Since this alternative explanation can be given, the scriptures cannot be used to provide conclusive evidence for the existence of God. Ruined remains of buildings that are mentioned in the scriptures provide some evidence for the historical accuracy of the scriptures but this alone is not enough to prove the existence of God. After all, there are a number of historically accurate secular books that are written by human beings alone.

Samantha Solomons


Jim asked:

What evidence do we have that life is not totally predetermined?

I will assume that by "life" is meant ongoing history, the history we're all making every day through billions of actions. I will also assume that by "totally predetermined" is meant that, given all the causal agents (personal and impersonal) that are "in play" at any given time, the state of the universe at a later time (the interval is irrelevant) could not have been other that what it is.

We human actors are aware of competing, incompatible possibilities for future realization. We can envision ourselves realizing one possibility while letting others remain unrealized and working vigorously to prevent the realization of still others. Those several possible futures exert on us varying "pulls" or "repulsions." We deliberate upon those competing possibilities in the light of the future we want to help bring about (or avert) and our scales of competing values. (I invite readers to verify in themselves that these activities occur.)

Between deliberation and action there is the decision to honor one of those values. Now that decision may not be the best that we know: we may choose a short-term over a long-term good (e.g., enjoying "just one more" cigarette even though one knows that one must quit smoking). Or we may indeed choose the best that we know, even if the attraction of the lesser good is more psychologically compelling (e.g., quitting cigarettes "cold turkey," foregoing "just one more" puff despite the relief the latter would bring). Either way, we exercise our freedom to will one or another possible future.

This teleological or end-oriented dynamism (in which personal agents envision alternative futures, deliberate upon them, decide among them, and act to realize the one decided upon) is the stuff of "life," the ongoing history we're all making. This dynamism, which is active even in the formation of individual scales of value that guide future decision-making, does not "fit" in a universe of total predetermination. The idea of this dynamism does not cohere with the idea of a universe characterized exclusively by efficient ("push from behind") causality.

The evidence delivered by our experience of the world with ourselves in it suggests that life is not "totally predetermined" in the stipulated sense. The intellectually safer bet is on a world view that includes determination by envisioned possible futures. The envisionings are not efficient causal agents or operators that make things happen, but lures that evoke free responses.

Tony Flood


Steph asked:

Who is "me"?

I've been puzzling over how to define myself. I understand what separates humans from animals, but is there a way to separate myself from other humans other than my likes/ dislikes and talents? Or are these things a few of the things that actually make up my mental "self"?

Self-knowledge. On the entrance of the temple of the Delphian Oracle there was written: "know yourself". That question of self-cognition was the basic point of Socrates' philosophical dialogue in the Athenian market place. It is a serious philosophical theme. I consider this theme as one of the most laboured for philosophical consciousness. Not only because of the difficulty of self-cognition, but because there is not just one way of self-cognition for all people. Everyone should accomplish this knowledge self-sufficiently.

What can we learn from our life experience? What can one know about one's self? Selfhood seems to be the most clear matter. Everyone knows oneself best of all things. Also, only wo/man it seems can know her/his self. One really knows oneself before all other knowledge. A newborn infant knows nothing, but is first noticed to recognize her/ himself at the age of three or four. A lot of children of that age use time and again the word "I". I am, I can, I want, and I do and so on. Self-consciousness appears at that age and it becomes a wo/man's first and deepest knowledge. Before that age, a child does not separate her/ himself from the world around her/ him. Therefore, we can not affirm the existence of consciousness before self-consciousness. The first phenomenon and first manifestation of one's consciousness becomes one's self-consciousness.

But what do we really know about ourselves? Semen Frank begins his book Reality and Man with the same question. We can know only the fact that we exist, but we cannot know the manner of our existence. Trying to define oneself, one always comes to a full stop, because all knowledge about one's personality, which one receives, belongs to the same person. So, self-knowledge is like jumping over one's own head: everything we know is not enough, because the subject of cognition coincides with the object. Therefore cognition is impossible. So, we can not cognize ourselves completely. But that does not mean that we should not try. We should, but we should not make this cognition the purpose of life.

St Augustine wrote that no-one knows one's real nature. "There is something in a man, which is man's spirit, which lives inside, and does not know. You, God, who created him, know all about him." Tu enim, domine, diiudicas me, quia etsi nemo scit hominum, quae sunt hominis, nisi spiritus hominis, qui in ipso est, tamen est aliquid hominis, quod nec ipse scit spiritus hominis, qui in ipso est, tu autem, domine, scis eius omnia, qui fecisti eum (Augustine Confessions Book X, Chapter V).

There is a deep basis of our personality. It is assurance and belief in our existence. That is everything that we can know. I do not mean belief in God. To believe in God's existence one should first believe in one's own existence.

Of course, this answer is my own answer and not the ultimate truth. As I said, everyone should answer this question and only one's individual answer should be the basis of living. As well as believing in our existence, to live one should be-lieve.

Dmitry Olshansky
Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation