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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 18 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from August 2002 — October 2002:

  1. Torturing terrorists for information
  2. Torture and justice
  3. Does poverty diminish human dignity?
  4. Analysing human life
  5. Cebes' objections in the Phaedo
  6. What every cobbler knows
  7. Buddhism as religion, philosophy and lifestyle
  8. Can the notion of 'truth' be eliminated?
  9. Where time goes
  10. Philosophy of automobile repairs
  11. Philosophy students and science students
  12. Loving your cat too much
  13. Searching for the soul
  14. Can the God question ever be answered?
  15. Killing non-human animals for fun
  16. Effect of women on Nietzsche's philosophy
  17. How Eastern and Western philosophies diverge
  18. Education and maximizing welfare
  19. What is a just distribution of resources?
  20. Kant's Critique of Judgement
  21. Descartes on cloning
  22. Idea that nothing in nature is 'random'
  23. Why corrupt people are corrupt
  24. God as a rock
  25. Logic, clear thinking and learning philosophy
  26. Views on fox hunting
  27. Philosophy at the movies
  28. Epistemological relativism
  29. Human beings as clever animals
  30. Logical and ontological distinctness
  31. On enthusiasm
  32. Why we ask 'why'
  33. Why a computer can never be a philosopher
  34. Plato and Aristotle on 'bodyguards'
  35. Greatest Black philosopher
  36. Deciding the onus of proof
  37. Why we need metaphysics
  38. Are colours real?
  39. Why Bible study is not a 'liberal art'
  40. The real Jesus Christ
  41. Impossibility of knowing how religion began
  42. The ultimate philosophical theory
  43. Understanding God's ways
  44. Philosophy of education
  45. Definition of a 'thing'
  46. When we may break the law
  47. Philosophy as chicken soup for the soul
  48. Knowledge of timeless certainties
  49. Novels to read on Catholicism and philosophy
  50. Branches of philosophy
  51. A person's sense of identity
  52. Eric Voegelin as a 'philosopher'
  53. Utilitarianism and justice
  54. The price of truth
  55. Philosophy and the hearing impaired
  56. Looking for the total truth
  57. Kant's moral law
  58. Is the universe really as big as people say?
  59. Buddha and the 'four corners'
  60. Homework on weekends
  61. What 'meaning of life' means
  62. Could I be dreaming that I exist?
  63. Was Hume an atheist or an agnostic?
  64. Information on Lady Victoria Welby
  65. Reincarnation in the Bible
  66. Science, values and philosophy
  67. Information on how galaxies evolved
  68. Why we exist
  69. Why aren't skeptics skeptical about their own arguments?
  70. Feeling another person's emotions
  71. What questions are
  72. Brains versus beauty
  73. Criticizing Nazi 'justice'
  74. I don't know what my philosophy is
  75. Translating Lebensphilosophie
  76. How to better one's thought processes
  77. Paradoxes of time travel
  78. When can an institution call itself a 'university'?
  79. Philosophy of the Buddha
  80. Philosophy as a mind game
  81. Logic without the law of excluded middle
  82. How determinism might fail to be true
  83. Stealing to save your life
  84. Free will and determinism
  85. Kripke on the essence of water
  86. War toys
  87. Definition of an 'inference'
  88. Questioning the universality of reason
  89. Showing affection in public
  90. Question about syllogistic logic
  91. Knowledge, values and feelings
  92. Might the Earth stop spinning?
  93. Is civilization civilized?
  94. What blind people dream of
  95. Can we change our destiny?
  96. Measuring levels of happiness
  97. How emotions influence reasoning
  98. Matthew Lipman and Philosophy for Children
  99. Bivalence and law of excluded middle
  100. Futility in the face of death
  101. G.E. Moore on the 'naturalistic fallacy'
  102. Learning about humans in the laboratory
  103. The One of Plotinus and the One of Parmenides
  104. Why mind-body problem is philosophical
  105. Natural language and machine translation
  106. My third cousin's wife and I want to marry
  107. Why we value human life more highly than other life
  108. Can non-human animals be moral? (contd.)
  109. Examination paradox revisited
  110. Ontological necessity
  111. Helping those who've made wrong decisions in life (contd.)
  112. Plato on equality
  113. Ideas for a philosophical field trip
  114. Hume on the standard of taste
  115. My buddy won't argue fairly with me
  116. Tips for an essay on deontology and utilitarianism
  117. Why animals are not unfeeling machines
  118. How to deal with intimidation at work
  119. 'Organic foods are bad, pesticides are good'
  120. Quine's gavagai and the viability of metaphysics
  121. Looking for a loophole in Hume's empiricism
  122. What comes first, object or idea?
  123. Other minds and the solipsist (contd.)
  124. Furore over Derrida's Cambridge Degree
  125. Bin Laden and Plato's Allegory of the Cave
  126. Views on marriage
  127. Kant on the foundation of morals
  128. Davidson on the distinction between scheme and content
  129. Religion without fear
  130. Puzzles about time and infinity
  131. Best time of day to be creative
  132. Other minds and the after life
  133. How age affects memory
  134. Infalsifiability and arguments for scepticism
  135. Feelings, experience and knowledge
  136. To be or not to be

Jean Maria asked:

I am a social psychologist preparing an assessment of the popularly proposed program of torture interrogation of terrorists to present to the Joint [Military] Services Conference on Professional Ethics. Advocates of torture interrogation usually run a utilitarian argument starting from the "ticking bomb" scenario. I want to say that unintended effects of a program may be morally acceptable when reasoning from something like virtue ethics or duty, but a utilitarian argument must also attempt to account for all foreseeable effects in its cost-benefits analysis.

My questions: (1) What is the proper philosophical language for making this assertion? (2) Is the principle of double effect relevant when the intended good effect is clearly dwarfed by unintended disastrous effects?

From the perspective of policy studies, I then describe the necessary institutional effects of implementation of an official program of torture interrogation of terrorist suspects. The social breakdown of institutions and the difficulty of social repair then constitute something of a counterargument, I believe, to the simple utilitarian argument based on the "ticking bomb" scenario. However, these unintended effects, e.g., loss of citizen trust of government and compromise of the judiciary, will be minimized if the program operates under a pretense of decency or is chiefly covert. For example, during the dirty war in Argentina military police had a policy of submitting only unimportant interrogees to regular judicial procedures.

My questions: (3) Can utilitarians responsibly argue for a secret or deceptive course of action? That is: "publicly I argue for program X, intending all the while to create program Y under the authorization for X so as to minimize unintended effects." (4) Further, how much exploration of consequences can the utilitarian be required to make? (5) And is it fair to hold utilitarians responsible for a plan of repair or restitution for unavoidable bad effects of the proposed utilitarian program? (6) Or must a better alternative be proposed?

Thank you for helping me out of this muddle. I could send you a draft of my paper, "Torture Interrogation of Terrorists — An Impractical Program," but this is probably more than you want to read.

The obvious utilitarian objection to torture is that once you allow it as a practice it is very unlikely that it will be confined to the very small number of cases where it might be justified and that it will become a more or less standard practice — human nature, and especially official nature, being what it is, and given how much brutality there is when it's supposedly illegal. This is apart from intrinsic objections, of course. Ought a decent person to get involved in this at all? Also, do we have any evidence that it's effective as a reliable method of interrogation?

Harry Lesser

I would like to answer Jean Maria Arrigo's question with a question. Why should we automatically assume that the only utilitarian benefit gained from torturing a "ticking bomb" terrorist is the short-term avoidance of a particular terror attack, and that all of the long-term societal consequences will be bad? I don't think that is true in all societies and historical situations. Here's an extreme example: Suppose the police catch a well-known terrorist who proudly announces his knowledge of impending terror attacks that will kill hundreds of people. Let us say that the person in question has been found guilty of managing a terrorist organization by a properly conducted court of law, and that a democratically elected legislature has already passed a law that specifically allows for the supervised use of torture as a method of interrogation in precisely such circumstances. Would the use of torture in such a case really lead to "social breakdown of institutions"? It might be argued that in such circumstances, a refusal to torture would lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the government involved — especially if many citizens were to die in preventable attacks. Angry citizens would demand to know why the state hadn't done everything in its power to protect them. Wouldn't such a government need to torture the terrorist in order to protect the institutions of society (as well as in order to thwart terror attacks)?

Berel Dov Lerner

I realise you asked people to respond to this question on the appropriate website, but reading the question I think it points to all that is wrong with moral theory and the attempt to apply moral theory. Would anyone with any feeling/ compassion for humanity, seriously bother to defend the torture of another human being, regardless of who they were and what names e.g. 'terrorist' we assigned to them? Do people really care if torture can be justified under a virtue ethics rather than utilitarianism etc? Doesn't this just all miss the point of human cruelty and anthropocentrism? Well, it does to me.

Eccy de Jonge

I found it difficult to answer what could have been a straightforward question about the ethical status of torture. I attribute my difficulty and Mr. Arrigo's "muddle" to the complex political and sociological context within which he chose to frame his questions. As a philosopher, I cannot take seriously the pretensions to ethical concern expressed by either the contemporary statesman or his terroristic alter ego. I simply cannot work up interest in how a given policy of interrogation may adversely affect the mystique of a modern state (its "legitimacy" in the popular mind). Modern governments and terrorist organizations are fatefully (and perhaps fatally) linked to each other; leaders of both types of organization seem to have few qualms about sacrificing innocents for "the greater good" as they see it. What qualms they may have about any bloody business are limited to the public relations downside of a misstep. Events in Moscow during the last weekend in October illustrated that rather neatly. ("If the terrorists blow up the theater, everybody dies; but if we gas the theater before storming it, maybe we cut that number in half." "Well, then, obviously we gas the theater!" "Not so fast, tovarisch. Theoretically, we can pull out of Chechnya, you know. After all, we've been oppressing Chechens for two centuries, and for what? Why not cut our losses?" "Because then the terrorists will have won, you idiot!")

As for utilitarianism and torture, we need to distinguish. According to act utilitarianism, an act of harming one or more individuals by torturing them may be morally acceptable if that act benefits more people than it harms, and cannot if it doesn't. According to rule utilitarianism, the act must be brought under a rule: an act of harming one or more individuals by torturing them may be morally acceptable only if we know that, as a rule, torturing leads to a greater number of beneficial than harmful consequences.

The problem with either form is that it presupposes the commensurability of interpersonal benefits and harms. That is, it presupposes that benefits and harms to a great number of persons are translatable into a common unit of measurement (much the way international currencies can be translated into American dollars or Euros). The advertised benefit of this translation is that we can then reckon whether a proposed course of action is likely to result in more of one kind of "stuff" than another (i.e., either more benefits than harms, or more harms than benefits). This fallaciously aggregates benefits and harms while ignoring the concrete persons to whom they accrue. Utilitarianism's inability to tote up all consequences of a proposed course of action (or to non-arbitrarily demarcate a cut-off point for considering further consequences) are side issues compared with utilitarianism's basic fallacy. The principle of double effect stipulates that the undesirable consequences are not intended (not just left unmentioned), not the means to the desired consequences, and not more evil than the intended effect is good. So, for instance, an airline representative has the right to evict a stowaway from one of its passenger planes, but not eject him at 30,000 feet, even if his certain death is not the intended consequence.

Mr. Arrigo asks: "Can utilitarians responsibly argue for a secret or deceptive course of action? That is: 'publicly I argue for program X, intending all the while to create program Y under the authorization for X so as to minimize unintended effects.'" I don't see how such subterfuge minimizes unintended effects, although it might minimize their accurate attribution. Where is even the slightest trace of moral justification?

Mr. Arrigo's question reminds me of another widespread pretext concocted to rationalize the inflicting of harm, namely, the invocation of the principle of double effect to justify abortion. Now, please note, some abortions are not homicides (no homines are at mortal risk in the very early stages of pregnancy). Furthermore, some homicides are justifiable (I'm no pacifist). What is offensive to the moral point of view, however, is the deceptive language. A woman may state that she wishes only to end her state of pregnancy, suggesting that the death of her viable fetus (when it is viable) is a possible secondary effect to which she would be indifferent. The test of her veracity, of course, would be her reaction to the placement in her arms of her healthy baby after the successful abortion, that is, the termination of her pregnancy. Due to advances in medical knowledge and technology, the pregnant woman can be relieved of her unwanted pregnancy without prejudice to the fetus. But her claim that she does not also intend the death of her fetus, in addition to no longer being pregnant, is simply not credible. To use Mr. Arrigo's formula, she is publicly invoking the right to control her body while privately intending also to destroy the living body of another. It may be that she has the right to do the latter. She should make the case. Lying only discredits any case she might have.

As for Arrigo's fifth question, a person is reasonably held responsible for what his freely undertaken actions cause, with his state of mind (e.g., coerced, depressed, etc.) being a possibly a mitigating factor. Whether or not he is a utilitarian or a Kantian is irrelevant to the issue of assigning accountability.

Deliberately to inflict excruciating suffering on a human being in the hope (it is by no means a certainty) that he will prefer to reveal certain information than to continue to suffer is to aggravate the offense of utilitarianism. Instead of merely treating him as collateral damage on the way to securing a desirable end, the torturer degrades his captive, treating him as less than human, as an egg that must be broken if it is to yield an omelet. Even if the victim of torture himself would inflict suffering on innocents, he is still a person, a self-transcender and seeker after a good life, however criminally mistaken he may be. To torture in order to extract information is to create one unit of the very horror that the terrorist threatens, thereby rendering meaningless one's own anti-terrorism. How we treat him reflects well or poorly on our own handling of the task our natures have set for us, namely, to realize a great diversity of values regularly and harmoniously, that is, to create good lives for ourselves. There is no good life without respect for persons as such. That drive to actualize the good life is a priori, if you will, prior to, underpinning, and penetrating any particular good we may seek. It is the source of duty, which ultimately is justified by certain consequences: lives worth living, but not reducible or restricted to a particular consequence or type of consequence. The prospect of the good life, however explicitly or implicitly grasped, is the intelligible unity of all our different desires that we must sort out, rank, and attempt to achieve. It is the standard by which we do those things. The achievement of any other values, however, is a function of the appreciation of the value of truth. Only he who can deceive himself about the nature of another human being can implement a policy of torture.

Tony Flood

Around 1974—5 during my penultimate year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College, London University, I had the honour, as President of the Philosophical Society, of entertaining the philosopher H.J. McCloskey who had been invited to read a paper to the assembled staff and students. McCloskey, author of John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study is well known as a writer on utilitarianism.

Over dinner at a local Italian restaurant, McCloskey told me that he had recently completed a lecture tour in Chile, one of few academic philosophers — or possibly the only academic philosopher — to be invited during the reign of the military Junta. Surprised at first by the invitation, he was disquieted to learn during his visit that the Junta were keenly interested in the question whether utilitarian moral theory could be used to justify torture.

Not very long after this meeting, I saw a film about Chile, which included the brief image of an electrode being applied to a woman's nipple. The film makers knew their craft. To this day, whenever I think of torture, that image irresistibly obtrudes.

On that memorable evening, as my guest and I twirled our spaghetti, I pictured McCloskey sitting round a dinner table with the Chilean Generals and their clinking medals, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine. 'A toast to John Stuart Mill!'

I would like to ask who are going to be the torturers. Is it going to be like the doctors trained in the correct surgical procedures for removing the hand, as prescribed by Islamic Law as a punishment for theft? The charge on the electrode is to be 2000 volts, not a volt more. Enough to produce excruciating pain, but not enough to cause permanent injury. Perhaps scientific research will lead to new, ever more efficient methods of torture which effect the mind, but not the body. Suitably chastened, but in the best of physical health, the terrorist (or criminal) can return to a worthwhile job and be a productive member of society.

Geoffrey Klempner

It seems as though the questions asked by the author of this letter strike at some of the classic objections to Utilitarianism:

2)How can we be sure that the "effects" we observe are effects of one particular act or another?

3)Consider the classic example, a man who acts from a desire to kill a religious leader misfires his rifle, and instead strikes oil (an unlikely example, but one used in objection to Utilitarianism); whereas a man who intends no evil misfires his rifle and wounds or kills a religious leader. In the first case, the man clearly intended evil, but good resulted from his action. In the second case, the man intended no evil, but--nevertheless evil did result. Can we fail to hold the first man responsible for his actions? May we condemn the second man? Clearly (some have argued) our intentions figure into the normative status of our actions.

I would also like to ask whether the author of the original letter is asking about act or rule Utilitarianism, or both. This, it seems to me, would alter a possible response.

Gerald Marsh

To begin with a game-theoretical scenario, we have two parties fighting for some conflicting goals. Then the natural question for each party will be, if the means it uses are effective and where to stop if the costs become unbearable.

The terrorist is no lamb. Even if we concede that his aims are just (as he claims always of course), he is bringing much suffering on the victims of his "ticking bomb". If he is faced with torture he has a choice. He could tell how to find and de-activate the bomb. If he decides not to, this is his decision for killing other people for his cause. In this respect a suicide-terrorist is at least honest setting value against value. From this derives a right of the offended to use torture as a means for defence. It's a game.

War is war and terrorism is war of a special sort but not principally different. From a philosophical point of view most if not all arguments to justify war are invalid. But the churches always have up to this day justified war, e.g. on communism or on islam. I will not enter this extended discussion now, since it is not asked for. I only mention it.

The admonition of Jesus to love your enemy, and the conclusion of Socrates 400 years before that suffering injustice is better than committing it, are meant for personal conduct, not for policy. Even Socrates was an active soldier when required to be one by the laws of Athens. Jesus nowhere condemned the soldier as such.

One main question of the questioner is, if procedures of torture interrogation cause bad side-effects to the defender itself. Argentina under the junta in the 70s is cited here. But I remember another example : There was a fascinating film (of 1971) that showed protesters against the Vietnam war in the USA fighting against "upright citizens" that found the war against communism justified and took the "peace people" as traitors to a just cause. The film was made by a protester and presented the supporters of the war as being either neurotics or uninformed or mislead or as misleading fascists. But the "upright citizens" had an argument : The presidents leading the USA into the Vietnam war were no Hitlers or Saddams but they were the Democrats Kennedy and Johnson elected by due democratic procedures — which not even the opposition ever denied. Thus to follow up and supporting the war could justly be seen as a patriotic duty as long as there were no proven lies and hidden interests showing up.

Everybody has a right to oppose, but opposing an evidently undemocratic regime as that of Videla in Argentina or of Castro in Cuba or of Saddam in Iraq is not the same as opposing a democratic regime as that of the USA today — at least as long as you cannot prove a misuse of power or to be lied to. Thus one has to request democratic procedures and the functioning of the institutions of "checks and balance", but one cannot request from a democratically installed and controlled government to lay open all its measures to everybody. You cannot top a democratic process and order by some super-democratic process and order of your own choice. Where will you stop then? There will always be different opinions on any topic. Democracy is a compromise. Even if Colin Powell or Kofi Annan or Nelson Mandela were presidents of the USA today, there would be some people around to hate them or to call them stupids and madmen. Thus is the nature of the world.

Thus my verdict: As long as results come up and strict and controlled procedures are observed, and freedom of the press and the judiciary is not endangered, there may be torture interrogations. The danger that "loss of citizen trust of government and compromise of the judiciary" may ensue has to be seen in relation to the danger inherent in a fundamental distrust against a government functioning by due process of law. Even the GW Bush Government is not a Hitler- or Videla- or Saddam-Government and should not be taken to be one without the greatest offence to the American voters and political institutions.

A final word on question Nr. 5 : "Is it fair to hold utilitarians responsible for a plan of repair or restitution for unavoidable bad effects of the proposed utilitarian program?"

How should that be? The whole American People had to bear the consequences of the Vietnam war, not only "the utilitarians". But as I said above : The Vietnam War was NOT brought about by some supervillains or madmen but by two Democratic Presidents correctly elected. We simply have to accept this unavoidable rest of tragedy in all human endeavors.

Hubertus Fremerey

The following remarks are meant as a backdrop against which to orient your ideas. The argument against torture is already half lost, in my view, because you argue your case on the opposition's grounds, that makes your case all the more hard to win.

To the question 'Can torture be justified?' the answer is yes — even with the best will in the world. We can exemplify this from history e.g. the Inquisition. The discussion needs to be carried on within the question of whether torture should be justified. And the answer is no. The reason being that torture is perverse. Justification for torture, therefore, in this context, is perverse, and as such, contrary to reason. If we abstract torture from this context, we are left with open-ended or closed arguments for or against torture, but the presupposition is the same on both sides, namely, that perversity (torture) can be a rational starting place for arguments (for or against it) or a rationally coherent object of thought; this latter assumes that torture, in itself, is no more or less perverse than our arguments contrive to make it. Your questions to Ask a Philosopher show you already subscribe to this in principle, if not in fact. Whether one is 'for' or 'against' the instrumental argument for torture, there is tacit agreement between both sides that torture is itself neutral, like an object in the natural world. The arguments then become tortured on both sides of the equation.

The death penalty may seem an analogous case, but it is not, because death in itself is natural, death is not something that happens to one person (the condemned) and no-one else. Death belongs to the human condition, and in the case of the death penalty, those conditions are severely straitened for a greater good (atonement for despicable crimes, safety of others, freedom from fear etc.). This is not to justify the death penalty, but to say that you cannot argue about torture as if the presuppositions are the same.

It may be objected that there are different kinds of torture — that imprisonment is a torture, that solitary confinement is. But convention rules that they are punishments in lieu of something worse (the death penalty, historically). Real torture in the context of common law and convention (of 'should', again) is a perverting of these things, and as we would say, of justice.

Matthew Del Nevo

I wonder how much there is of philosophical interest in this question. It seems trivially true that the course of action suggested, like any pretty much any other course of action whose description doesn't itself imply net utility loss, might be utility-maximizing. It then remains to be asked how this implication is to be applied. (I don't see the relevance of double effect in a utilitarian context.)

Here I would suggest that state programs, as opposed to personal actions, rarely remain concealed; too many people know about them. Sooner or later the truth comes out. Even if it is later, we don't know how much later, and bad spinoff effects are likely. (Admittedly, so is the good spinoff effect of revulsion.)

Moreover, I question how often torture is needed to extract information. The problem is not the usual question about whether such information is reliable, but rather the question of whether it is needed at all. Put it this way: either you're torturing for fairly insubstantial reasons, or you're not. If you are, then certainly the fear of discovery and the spinoff effects, to say nothing of the direct effects, have great negative utility. If you're not, then consider the post-mortem analysis of 911, which indicates that the US government already had plenty of relevant information: they just didn't know how to use it or correlate it. This is a very common difficulty with intelligence services. Given such background conditions, it seems likely that, if you're know enough to have substantial reasons for torturing somebody, the information you want is very likely obtainable through a combination of the information already in your possession and other, less drastic means. These background conditions also make it unlikely that torturing for light reasons will be utility-maximizing.

Michael Neumann

For what it's worth, I would answer these questions as follows:

1. The language already used is quite properly philosophical, although any plausible theory of virtue ethics or deontological (duty) ethics would surely require agents to try to foresee unintended consequences and take these into consideration. An agent who did not do so would lack the virtues of prudence and wisdom, and would be failing in her duty to promote the well-being of others and respect their rights, etc..

2. I think the principle of double effect is always worth bearing in mind (although Jonathan Glover gives good reason to have reservations about in in his book "Humanity"). This principle says that you should not do an act the disastrousness of whose unintended but foreseeable effects dwarfs the intended good effects. On this the principle strikes me as being quite right.

3. Not publicly, since this would give the game away. It might be responsible to intend such deception privately, but the consequences of such deception would have to be taken into account. Politicians and military leaders might have to lie sometimes, but their doing so is hardly likely to strengthen public faith in democracy or their own private commitment to doing the right thing (virtue).

4. This depends on how easy it is to do so and how serious the consequences are likely to be. The consequences of many acts are easy to predict, but of course the future is obscure to us and what might happen if we start routinely torturing people is hard to predict. Again I think Glover is good on this, as he traces the spread of torture from Nazi Germany to a host of other countries as the Nazi torturers moved around the world and passed on their techniques. Torture is hard to keep isolated and under control (in the hands of 'good' regimes, for instance). Given the horror of it, I would think you would have to be very sure of yourself to recommend using torture, even in a ticking bomb case. Bear in mind also, of course, the high chance of the torture victim lying to end the torture.

5. If it's practicable it seems fair that everyone responsible should repair the damage they have done. I would not hold utilitarians in general responsible for the consequences of utilitarian policies, but government advisers, for instance, might be held responsible for the consequences of any policy they explicitly and directly advised.

6. I would think so, but the whole point of imaginary ticking bomb scenarios and some real life terrorist acts is to thwart our attempts to make sense of them and respond rationally. It is hard, if not impossible, to predict and solve these riddles in advance or in general.

Duncan Richter

It might be worth noting that, abstract theoretical commitments aside, nobody takes the doctrine of double effect at all seriously — that is — it is never applied consistently, but only in an ad hoc fashion concerning otherwise embarrassing or tricky issues. Peter Singer gives the nice illustration of Catholic Theologians who invoke double-effect in order to justify abortions in those cases where the mother's life is endangered by pregnancy. The death of the fetus is claimed to be an unintended side-effect of the (laudable) action that is saving the life of the mother. But, as I say, these same theologians would flinch if a double-effect justification was attempted elsewhere: If a company dumps toxic waste into a city's water supply, it is no excuse for them to say "we too believe in the doctrine of double-effect — our intention was to get rid of this awful toxic waste (again laudable), and an unintended side-effect of this was poisoning the water." Likewise it might be convenient for authorities to invoke double-effect in regards to torturing people, but nobody would take that logic seriously as a principle of right-conduct in general.

In short, double-effect seems to leave the non-Utilitarian in a very uncomfortable position. For the utilitarian, the doctrine of double-effect seems indefensible, if not incoherent: it is the consequences, after all, that matter and not whether or not they were intended. Consequences that are merely likely to follow from a course of action can indeed be used to evaluate the act's rightness or wrongness.

Question (3) is more difficult. In theory the "act" or "critical" Utilitarian can countenance secret violations of rules which generally enhance happiness, but in practice this will be very difficult to pull off.

Besides the risk of the secret getting out and leading to a climate of anxiety and fear is the risk that the government will more readily set aside civil liberties the next time. A temporary restrained policy might, given time and excuses, be expanded in terms of its scope or permanence by officials who see the suspension of civil liberties as instrumentally useful. One needs to remember that the policy will not be a secret to the authorities who are party to the deception: there is a very great risk that THEIR respect for autonomy and individual security will be eroded by the experiment. Is it wise to encourage those officials to see themselves as living outside of the moral constraints expected of everybody else? This suggests a very powerful argument for never allowing civil liberties to be compromised. As it happens, the torture victim, unless silenced by death, will presumably ensure that her treatment does not remain a secret forever. Again, this could lead to fear, mistrust, and perhaps even panic.

Notice finally that the reasoning behind these compromises is exactly parallel to the logic of terrorism itself: we should do horrendous things in order to fulfill some greater objective. But perhaps amongst the greater objectives worth defending just are civil liberties.

Prof. Sean Allen-Hermanson
Oklahoma University

This question really highlights some of utilitarianism's trickiest problems. Some of your questions I can help with, but 'answers' are hard to come by in this area. Anyway, here goes: 1. "I want to say that unintended effects of a program may be morally acceptable when reasoning from something like virtue ethics or duty, but a utilitarian argument must also attempt to account for all foreseeable effects in its cost-benefits analysis. My questions:(1) What is the proper philosophical language for making this assertion?"

Perhaps something like this: "While virtue ethics, and Kantian theories based on duty, may be able to exclude unintended consequences on the grounds that morality must be based upon intentions, consequentialist theories such as utilitarianism make judgements based upon states of affairs. Therefore, an action which was intended to be good, is nonetheless the wrong action where it produces worse consequences (i.e. a worse state of affairs) than another possible action. In this way, all consequences must be taken into account when making utilitarian judgements, no matter what the intentions."

However, it is useful to note that Robert Adams has argued that utilitarianism can be used to judge motives, as the best motives are those which are likely to produce the most utility. See, Robert Adams, 'Motive Utilitarianism', in, The Journal of Philosophy, LXXII, 14, (12th August, 1976).

2. Is the principle of double effect relevant when the intended good is clearly dwarfed by unintended disastrous effects?

In principle, the utilitarian must answer 'no' to this question — it is the consequences of an act which are important, not the intentions. However, we should perhaps make a distinction between making an assessment of whether an act will be, or has turned out to be, a good one, and blaming those who have committed bad acts from good motives. As a great deal of the evidence we have for assessing the future consequences of an action is either in short supply, or based upon probabilistic judgements, it is difficult to see how we can blame someone for consequences they could not foresee. Note that this is very different from claiming that we should not blame someone for consequences they did not intend. For the utilitarian, if you can see that there is a reasonable chance of bad consequence x following from action y, then you are as responsible for this as you are for the intended consequence. If you could not reasonable foresee this, or if there was only a very slim probability of such a consequence occurring at the time of making the decision, then blame is perhaps inappropriate. In this way you can commit an act which has bad consequences, and this will be judged to be a bad act, but this does not necessarily imply that you should be blamed for what you have caused. You can imagine lots of 'domino-effect' examples of this occurring.

Before your next questions, I should say a bit about the ticking bomb example you use. This is a common example, and one which has massive intuitive appeal — in such a situation, the loss of one life seems to be preferable to the loss of many lives. Deontologists (rule-based theorists) such as Rawls argue though that the person sacrificed does not get some overriding benefit, and to aggregate good and bad interpersonally is to fail to take account of the "separateness of persons" (See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 5) You might make a distinction here between act- and rule-utilitarianism. J.J.C. Smart makes the distinction as follows: "Act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or the wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself. Rule-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the goodness and badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform the action in like circumstances." (J.J.C. Smart, 'An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics', in, J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against. 1963 [Cambridge University Press, 1993] p.9) If it is accepted that this is a reasonable distinction, then we move from arguing about individual acts of torture, to arguing about the general practice of torture. From the rule utilitarian perspective, it is far easier to argue that torture as a practice should be outlawed, even though it may have good consequences in certain cases. In effect then, the price of torture becoming an accepted and legally ratified form of interrogation is so great that it is worth refusing to use it even in the few cases where it may be justifiable. This is an especially compelling argument in political terms, as politics is to some degree 'about' making rules, rather than adjudicating in specific circumstances.

3. Can utilitarians responsibly argue for a secret or deceptive course of action? That is: "publicly I argue for program X, intending all the while to create program Y under the authorization for X so as to minimize unintended effects."

This is one of the trickiest problems for utilitarianism as a political theory. The simple answer to the first question is that it appears that they could argue for a deceptive course of action on the grounds that it will produce better consequences overall. Lying is not the taboo for utilitarians that it is for Kantians. Rawls argues that principles must be "publicly accepted and followed as the fundamental charter of society "('the publicity condition') and therefore that elite cannot attempt to maximise utilitarian consequences by promoting non-utilitarian principles. (See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 29)

On the other hand, perhaps it could be argued that the consequences overall (and we are talking in the largest sense here) of having deceit at the heart of law-making could be catastrophic. Law itself could be utterly undermined. The other tack the utilitarian can take here is to argue that there could never be sufficient guarantees that the deceit would not be broken. Although the chances may be slim, the consequences could be so awful that any possibility of them happening would be sufficient to rule out the deceit as a viable option.

There are however more benign examples where the deceit is sanctioned, or required by utilitarians — suppose a recession, or a run on the currency is forecast by a government. Surely it is irresponsible to publicise this and thus intensify the problem? Once we admit exceptions though, the idea of rule-utilitarianism appears to collapse, as R.M. Hare has argued, into act-utilitarianism. If one case merits an act-utilitarian consideration to override rule-utilitarian considerations, why don't we just go back to judging all acts individually? The rule is undermined anyway.

1.How much exploration of consequences can the utilitarian be required to make? Difficult to say. In terms of assessing past actions, we can go as far as the chain of causality allows. In terms of individuals when they make the decision, they can only act upon the information that they have. If we could never act without full information regarding consequences, then we could never act. Perhaps then, you can formulate the answer to this question as "as much exploration of reasonably likely consequences as we reasonably can make." Unfortunately, this is a bit of a fudge. Obviously, my lighting a cigarette now could lead, through a complex chain of causality, to the downfall of a government, but it is extremely unlikely. The definition of 'reasonable' is always a problem for philosophers.

5 & 6. See answer to question 2 above

A final thought — Some utilitarians (possibly including myself) would argue that genuine suffering is worthy of far greater moral consideration than 'mere' happiness. Also, the needs of someone suffering outweigh the needs of someone not suffering. The later might want our help, but he does not need it in the same way as the sufferer. I would therefore argue against torture in the following way. The consequences for a person being tortured are so bad that virtually no potential, uncertain, future good for others could justify them. Torture to prevent further ills may be justifiable, but due to the extreme horror of torture, there must be an extremely high degree of certainty that this will occur. Furthermore, the onus would be on the torturer to demonstrate this. Upon reflection, it is clear that this would certainly eliminate torture as a legally sanctioned practice, as the instances in which the necessary level of consequential certainty existed would be extremely rare.

I should warn you though, that this form of 'negative utilitarianism' has met severe criticisms, and is not widely accepted. However, the idea that the elimination of bad is more important than the promotion of good has something going for it.

Perhaps your best route is, after all, to argue that the bad consequences of torture overall outweigh the benefits? This is by no means a reliable argument though.

Incidentally, have you looked at, Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) This has an excellent account of the consequences of torture.

Steve Bullock


Lisa asked:

Should the Ticking Bomb terrorist be tortured?

Firstly, is torture ever just? By what rules am I making my judgement (strong, weak, none). If it is just, how are we to determine when and to what point we can establish that it's OK to torture? In other words, is it possible for man to establish a universal law stating an "it depends on the case" law about torture? Finally, what does Justice prevent us from doing if we allow torture? Does it prevent anything?

Arguably one response could be: To act justly is to maximise the benefit for the greatest possible number. The moral agent firstly decides to torture the terrorist in order to obtain the information that allows to disarm the ticking bomb, thus saving thousands of people. Secondly the moral agent asks for a trial, pleads guilty to torture (and if the terrorist died also guilty of man-slaughter or murder depending on the circumstances ) and accepts the full punishment of the law for his case, thus saving the community from the idea that torture is acceptable.

Helene Dumitriu


Alex asked:

Does poverty diminish human dignity?

The short answer to your question is yes. Poverty has always been regarded by the public at large, and particularly the 'well-off', as a condition afflicting the lowly, the lazy, the careless, the uneducated, the undignified and the petty criminal. It has rarely been regarded that these conditions are the effects of poverty, but are usually considered to be the causes.

Although very young at the time I have retained vivid memories of what it was like to be poor throughout the 'slump period' of the 1930's. Although there were vain attempts to retain dignity, often by pretending that things were not as bad as they seemed, it was found that poverty was not a condition that could be successfully hidden, the facade was easily penetrated, particularly by the 'better-off'. Attempting toretain dignity was often carried to extremes, where some were willing to die rather than accept charity. A silly and futile sacrifice when the importance of dignity depended not on subjective feeling and emotion, but on objective perception by the public at large. Dignity is not an obvious attribute shown by someone standing in a long dole queue without overcoat in freezing cold or pouring rain. Neither is it plainly revealed by someone standing for hours in similar conditions outside a factory, hoping to be chosen to do a job for less than the going rate, and probably less than they would get on the dole. There was no great sense of dignity felt by children at school who stood with their backs to the wall in the playground, so that no-one would see the large patch or hole in the seat of their trousers. Down-at-heel shoes, or shoes that pinched because they were now too small, hardly allowed a dignified walk across a class room or a school stage.

However dignified the poor try to be their efforts are always under-mined by their perceived condition. Attempts to overcome this have usually been by way of cleanliness. In the 1930's, and indeed later, regular attention was devoted to scrubbing doorsteps and flags outside their homes, windows sparkled, there was a rigid adherence to the weekly wash day, if people dressed in rags they were proud to declare that they were clean rags. Homes, though sparsely furnished were often spotless and reeked of disinfectant. In contrast to this, however, there were those who had sunk so low with despair that they did not give a damn what their homes looked like or what they wore; these were the ones who usually found solace in the local pub and often became the stereotypes of the poverty stricken, having abandoned the futile effort to maintain a sense of dignity.

Whilst nations insist that capitalism is the utilitarian objective in this world then there will always be poverty, rich people gain their wealth at the expense of others, in a capitalist system there must always be an upper and a lower class, it could not work otherwise.

John Brandon


Gonzalo asked:

I would like to know if you find the following question interesting enough, or deserving enough of an answer. To what extent are human beings analytical in nature? Can we reduce, or explain, all aspects of human and non-human life through analytical explorations or analysis? What are or could be the limits (of what they can explain) of such analysis? Also, why is it so difficult for some of us to accept analysis final or absolute?

There are several questions her, but I get the impression that it would be appropriate to talk about how analysis might lead to 'Truth', or perhaps knowledge, or at least certainty.

You might first ask, 'What is analysis?'

I might set out with a definition of 'analysis' but I suppose this would be begging the question! There is no agreement about exactly what 'analysis' is, but there a few things you might consider, not least: is analysis about the clarification of complex terms or concepts? You might say that 'analysis' amounts to the rational and systematic approach to the contents of ones mind and one's experiences, and that this includes the reduction of complex ideas to simpler constituent parts. It might also involve an examination of the relation between parts and whole, or how ideas fit together, including assumptions or inferences that lie behind certain claims or inconsistencies in people's arguments.

Once you have some sense of what analysis is, you could ask what use is it and why do people do it? Of course, each of these are potentially huge topics, but you might want to think whether analysis as you understand it brings you closer to what you might regard as truth, or helps you recognise truth when confronted with it. Alternatively, assuming the absence of such a weighty standard, you might think of analysis as simply helping to achieve contingent and changeable goals and desires, however incomplete or incoherent such projects might be.

What is the value of analysis?

Some would say that analysis reveals to us some underlying order or structure to the world, something that is perhaps not obvious in our everyday existence or unexamined experiences. Scientific analysis is an example of this.

Or analysis could be presented as an activity with pragmatic value, even if not revealing truth as such

One thing that I think might be of interest to you, is the relationship between introspective analysis and certainty- a claim that knowledge is partly based on careful introspection of our internal states. This would be in contrast to, say, organised religion, where private introspection is considered feeble when measured against orthodox teachings. A lot of liberal ideas, influential in ethics and political philosophy, flow from this idea that an individual's careful consideration of his own states leads to a certainty that is almost foundational. If you're interested in this aspect of analysis you might want to read some of Charles Taylor's work. The Ethics of Authenticity is an easy start. Or try his Philosophical Arguments.

If analysis is this kind of thinking, is it inherent to human beings? What of a life without such analysis? If reading all this and reflecting on it is just wearing you out, you could look at how other traditions have addressed these issues, looking for the 'pure contemplation of truth, independent of written signs', as someone put it. This includes, for example, Indian accounts of the direct experience of reality.

The East Asian perspective, as presented by Zhuangzi in the 'Inner Chapters', suggests that rational analysis cannot be used to find truth. Zhuangzi makes some comical attacks on the idea of thinking and discussing one's way to solutions; he portrays the brain as just another organ of the body, and highlights conventions of language that limit such exchanges. His brand of Daoism is illustrated by a Butcher who carves up cows; the butcher develops from a thinking individual who takes much time to carve up the cow, to one whose work is unthinking, faster and more fluent. This intuitive doing, without the intermediate step of thinking, could be called 'following the Dao'.

Andy Lambert


Shirley asked:

In Phaedo what are Cebes' objections to Socrates' statements about death?

Together with Cebes, the Pythagorean philosopher, I say, "I will tell you":

One of the chief topics for discussion in the Phaedo is the immortality of the soul, proposed by Socrates. Cebes objects this immortality twice: in 69e-70c and in 86e-88b.

While Cebes is willing to admit that the soul is more lasting than the body, that "the existence of the soul before entering into the bodily form has been very ingeniously, and, as I may be allowed to say, quite sufficiently proven [86a], he objects the existence of the soul after death, which "is still, in my judgment, unproven.", as Cebes says.

The main point of Cebes' objection is, that the more lasting nature of the soul does not prove her immortality, for after having worn out many bodies in a single life, and many more in successive births and deaths, she may at last perish, or, as Socrates afterwards restates the objection, the very act of birth may be the beginning of her death, and her last body may survive her, just as the coat of an old weaver is left behind him after he is dead, although a man is more lasting than his coat. And he who would prove the immortality of the soul, must prove not only that the soul outlives one or many bodies, but that she outlives them all.

If you are interested in the structure and narrative outline of the Phaedo, you will find useful information at http://www.webster.edu/~evansja/guides/plato/phaedo.html. And for further studies I recommend the virtual learning environment "Exploring Plato's Dialogues" at http://plato.evansville.edu/.

Simone Klein
Virtuelle Schule Österreich
Department Philosophie & Psychologie


Jason asked:

I am a grad student and am having trouble with these questions:

1. At Theaetetus 147b Socrates leads Theaetetus to agree to the following: "Then a man who is ignorant of what knowledge is will not understand what cobbling is, or any other craft." At first blush this seems outrageous. Surely a person could know how to make shoes without ever having thought about the nature of knowledge. How can we interpret this passage so that it is plausible?

2. From Theaetetus 149a to 151c Socrates develops an analogy between his own practice as a teacher of philosophy and what midwives do. Explain the points of the analogy and how the analogy enlightens us about the nature of philosophy and of education.

Of course a person can make shoes without ever having thought about the nature of knowledge, but shoe making is a skill. The cobbler might say that he "knows how to make shoes" but he is not taking "knowledge" in the sense Socrates means, which is "knowing knowledge" and unless you know what knowledge is you cannot claim to know. Socrates thinks knowledge cannot be defined in terms of what it is "of". In the case of the cobbler all he has is the skill, or what knowledge is of, without any knowledge of what knowledge is. So this cannot be knowledge.

Socrates cannot define knowledge, but can illustrate learning, which he does throughout his dialogues, by getting people to think and helping them rid themselves of false beliefs, but the midwife metaphor is particularly related to bringing out the truth: it must be successful, not a miscarriage. A particular example of this is to be found in the Meno when Socrates draws geometrical knowledge from a slave-boy.

The idea of drawing the truth out of by people getting them to think is, or at least should be, a part of education. It cannot be all. In our education we need to acquire a lot of what Socrates would regard as opinion.

Rachel Browne


Karen asked:

I am writing a research paper on whether or not Buddhism should be considered a religion or philosophy of a lifestyle, I was wondering what you thought it was?

Is Dogen's Ts'ao-tung Zen a religion? Is Nagarjuna's Madhyamika school a religion? Is Tibetan Buddhism a philosophy of life style?

Again the division of Buddhism in several traditions, schools, and sects means that there could not be a single point of view. Personally I think that Gautama Siddharta's original teaching should be considered a philosophy (a philosophy of life style, if you prefer) and that Buddhism in general could be considered both a religion and a philosophy.

However, be careful in your research. There are voices who claim that philosophy and religion are only Western categories. That the Orient (when and where is not influenced by Western culture) speaks still in terms of "tradition". Have a look, all the same, at Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's Hindouism and Bouddhism.

Jean Nakos


Lindsay asked:

I am trying to find a case where the notion of truth arguably cannot be eliminated (and hence it would appear that there remains a "problem" of truth).

I'm not clear on your question. What does "arguably cannot be eliminated" mean? You might look at Kitcher's book The Advancement of Science, and also Bernard Williams' latest (and other) writings on truth. Both believe that there is truth to be found, and both approach it somewhat differently. As far as I'm concerned, when you try to fly by flapping your arms and cannot, or try to walk through a wall and cannot, you have had an encounter with truth which arguably cannot be ignored, at any rate. Is that what you mean? Also, what about mathematical truths? Given particular definitions of numbers and operations on numbers, it is true that 2+2=4. Is that a problem? Why?

Steven Ravett Brown

Your question is about a view which goes back to Frank Ramsay's 'Redundancy Theory' of truth. Truth is a 'redundant' concept, because when I say, 'It is true that it is raining', or '"It is raining" is true', my statement is equivalent to 'It is raining'. In other words, the phrases, 'It is true that...' and '...is true' can, in principle, be eliminated from language without any loss of power to express factual content, making it (apparently) unnecessary to ask the metaphysical question, 'What is truth?'. More recently, C.J.F. Williams (in his book Truth) and Paul Horwich (in a more recent book also entitled Truth) have argued for more sophisticated versions of Ramsay's view.

The eliminative strategy is no easy option. Suppose (I realize this is far fetched) you wanted to say all of the things that GK says on this page are true. That requires a lot less words than reporting every single thing that GK says on this page (assuming that one could agree on a way of counting how many separate statements GK has made) and then stating each assertion as something you agree with. E.g. GK said, 'The eliminative strategy is no easy option', and the eliminative strategy is no easy option, GK said, '...' and... etc.

But that's only the beginning. You might not remember any particular thing GK said, but only that you were convinced at the time. So you say, 'GK said something true'. You cannot remember a statement to quote. So you have to say instead:

There is a statement X that GK made, and X.

The technical term for this is 'propositional quantification'. This idea raises a number of difficult logical issues, including the one I just mentioned of deciding on a way to count statements. Another problem is that, unlike predicate calculus, which 'quantifies' over objects, the statements or 'propositions' which form the class or domain of things quantified over include propositions which themselves quantify over propositions. For example, remembering what you said about what GK said, a third person might say:

There is a statement Y that Lindsay made, and Y.

Amongst the propositions which the variable Y ranges over, is the statement, 'There is a statement X that GK made, and X.' A fourth person might want to report what the third person said, and so on, leading to a potentially infinite hierarchy of more and more complex statements/ propositions. This is a state of affairs ripe for generating logical paradoxes.

Is there any clear example where truth cannot be eliminated by propositional quantification? Consider the statement, 'England will win the football match with Slovenia tomorrow.' There are just two possibilities: Either England will win, or England will not win (i.e. Slovenia wins, or the match is a draw, or the match is cancelled or etc.). The Fatalist is not happy, however, with merely stating the obvious, 'Either England will win or not.' In terms of propositional quantification:

There is a proposition Z such that Z='England will win' or Z='England will not win', and Z.

The fatalist wants to say more. We are not merely describing different possible futures. One of these two alternatives is actually true. Here, arguably, is a case where 'truth' is used in a metaphysical sense which cannot be reduced to a mere logical/ grammatical convenience. (The proponent of the redundancy theory will, of course, say that this shows what is wrong with fatalism, and other similar metaphysical views about truth.)

Geoffrey Klempner


Becca asked:

Where does time "go"? Time seems to be a physical thing and yet many people turn it into a metaphysical concept, is it really metaphysical, or is it both?

Time is a thing that has intrigued philosophers for a long time. Kant for example thought that "time" is an a priori intuition, the "form" that our mind imposes on sense data. He thought it is empirically real (available to us i.e. multiple observers) but transcendentally ideal, by which he meant that since it is a way we experience things, we can never access "things-in-themselves" and can never grasp how they are (if at all) related to each other. One intriguing fact we know now is that matter "warps" space-time. The ability to interact suggests that space-time may in some way be a only a different "form" of mass-energy i.e. that matter is really mass-energy-space-time.

Helene Dumitriu


Susan asked:

What would you say if you were asked in an interview, 'What is your philosophy of automobile repairs?'

The philosophy of automobile repairs is really a methodology. It firstly involves ignoring the ethical virtues of sincerity and honesty. At the very beginning you must adopt a Socratic approach to automobile repairs and declare to as many people as possible that you know nothing about such things, whether this is true or not. But then you must switch to a non-Socratic stance and accept that there is someone who does know about them. You make friends with this person whether or not you like them and shift the responsibility for looking after your car on to them.

This is utilitarian. The person who comes to bear responsibility for the repair and maintenance of your car has a new friend and admirer, which will make him happy. You will never need to take your car garage because your friend will do it, and while this isn't really sufficient for happiness, it minimizes aggravation.

Rachel Browne

You know, at first this seemed a rather trivial question. But in fact, Neville Shute wrote a novel about, basically, this very subject, called Round the Bend. It's very good; I highly recommend it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stephen asked:

What skills are necessary to be a good scientist?
What skills are necessary to be a good philosopher?
—And in what way do they differ?

I have often wondered about this. I have heard that philosophy is the best subject for training people to think — yet some philosophy students struggle with 'scientific' subjects.

I would also like to know how a student used to scientific subjects (as I am) can do good philosophy.

Could the rigorous way of thinking adopted in scientific studies be used to enhance a student's philosophy study (and perhaps help in finding more 'concrete' answers), or is this more likely to be a hindrance?

This question is not so much about whether philosophy could be made more "scientific", as to whether a so-called "scientific mind" could be an advantage in philosophy (in contrast to a typical mind of arts students), in areas other than pure formal logic at least.

For natural sciences (exact sciences) I would say the most important criteria are curiosity, imagination, accuracy, keeping an open mind and a sense of humour: You need to want to find out about things, to understand how things work (curiosity). You need to be able to form a hypothesis (a model, possible explanation) based on the facts available to you (imagination). You need to plan and execute and document your experiments carefully to avoid error and to allow others to duplicate and check your work (accuracy). You need to be open to facts that do not fit your hypothesis and alternative explanations (open mind). You must not fall too much in love with your hypothesis, if it after careful examination does not fit the facts, revise the hypothesis or chuck it out, do not throw out the facts (if they are facts) — do not take yourself to seriously (that's where the sense of humour comes in). Another way of putting it — you need an idea to start with but from there on it is lots of hard work. Also you need to know what others have worked out before to avoid making the same mistakes or re-inventing the wheel. And if you are truly a great scientist you definitely have to be able to think outside the box and be able to challenge traditionally accepted "truths".

In my view the same applies for philosophy.

The major difference is that natural sciences deals with the physical world only, whereas philosophy can deal with ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics etc. Historically one aspect after the other has "dropped" out of philosophy into "science", in my view it is only a question of time until there will be a "firm" basis for medicine, psychology and sociology.... so that gap is gradually diminishing. However every science has it's philosophy i.e. a theory about epistemology and methodology applicable in that science, this is a necessary and important part of science and will remain. (On average scientists that are not working on cutting edge topics in their field pretty much accept this stuff for granted and do not think about it a lot, but it is really important that someone does: Example: Why is infalsifiability a bad thing? (Popper — look it up). A difference is certainly that the philosopher does not conduct real experiments but "thought experiments", this means you have to be extra careful.

Just start with your own question i.e. what intrigues you. How do you define "skill"? What does it mean to have a skill? Is it a talent you are born with, an inclination enhanced by training, acquired? Is it knowledge? What does "good" mean? good for whom, in what respect? Why do you think some philosophy students struggle with science? (Why do some science students struggle with philosophy?) What is according to you "a typical mind of arts students"? What is it to be "a philosopher"?

Helene Dumitriu


Andree asked:

Is it possible to love your cat too much?

The cat can probably take an enormous amount of love. I recently met a woman who had adopted her sister's cat because the sister had been told by her doctor that for own good it would be better not to have a cat. She loved it to the point of obsession and it was ruining her life.

Rachel Browne

If you mean whether is it possible to love a cat very much, the answer should be, yes, of course. Another answer could be given in the form of a question: Why not?

Jean Nakos


Saab asked:

I am having problems finding arguments and enough information on the existence of a soul.

Hey, that's great! I've always had the same problem, myself. I certainly have never found any arguments supporting the existence of a soul, and that's not even addressing the question of what a soul is... just what is a soul, anyway? Lets see... we know from studies of brain traumas, lesions, etc., that we can eliminate memory by physical damage to the brain, so a soul can't have any memories, right? We know that we can eliminate intelligence, i.e., the ability to think and solve problems, with brain injury, right? So the soul can't have intelligence. We know that we can eliminate sensations the same way. And there are also emotional centers in the brain controlling pleasure, fear, anger... and so forth. So when the body dies, all these have to go away, since that's sort of the ultimate brain damage, isn't it. What else? How about consciousness? No... a simple blow to the head eliminates that, not to mention damage to the parietal lobes and/or reticular activating system. Whoops, what's left?

Well, let's have another go at it... suppose that there was a "soul" somewhere in another universe, broadcasting to our brain, like a radio station. Aside from the lack of any theories covering how that might occur, what would the effect of damage to the receiver, that is, the brain, be? Well, what if we damage a radio, what happens? The programs stay the same, right? They're just full of static, noise, whatever. But with brain damage, the programs do not stay the same. We can reduce intelligence with brain damage; it's not a matter of a damaged receiver trying to pick up the same program; the program is different when the brain changes, whether it's due to injury, drugs, or whatever. Well, so much for that theory. Perhaps you can think of another; I can't.

Steven Ravett Brown


James asked:

In philosophy we pose many questions that concern the existence of God. Why do we concern ourselves with such questions when it is clearly evident that they can never be answered?

Is it really the case that such questions can never be answered? Even if it was the case that such questions could not be answered to everyone's satisfaction, is it not an important question? Should we not attempt to answer important questions? Is this not why wepursue philosophy?

Perhaps the problem is that there are too many answers that are no longer convincing. What changes in these answers is theidea of God. As we gain greater knowledge of reality, and as our mental capacities improve, we should be able to arrive at a better answer.

Many of the answers that have been given about God have their origin in mythology. Aristotle proposed a rational answer, based on the contingency of reality, but then he could not connect his idea of God to that reality. The problem was that he did not have the categories of process available to use in his explanation. He did not understand the world as the result of a process that extended over billions of years.

We now know that the cosmos and time were initiated in the Big Bang. We can trace the process that led from the Big Bang to the present. What we see is the self-organization of matter that ultimately produces a life-friendly planet, Earth. Then life begins, with a DNA program that enables it to mutate to fill all available ecological niches. Homo sapiens evolves and begins to form cultures. Human cultures are processes of self-creation. People make cultures and cultures make people. Humans develop in their intellectual capacities, and begin to perceive the Platonic moral oughts, forming moral cultures. Humans develop in creativity and goodness, becoming more like some aspects of their concepts of God.

So there appears to be a quite complex process, that began with the Big Bang. It appears to be a process of ever increasing freedom, from the determinism of the laws of physics to the total freedom of humans in relation to the moral law, which commands but cannot compel, as Nicolai Hartmann noted. It is also a process of ever increasing complexity. The Big Bang did not just happen. It had to be caused. By whom and for what purpose? Consider the evidence. A self-existent entity, a God, could be the key to understanding what is going on.

Tony Kelly


Jean asked:

After Andy Lambert's answer to Jenny's question about fox hunting, I would like to ask the following:

Do human beings have the moral right to kill other living "non-human" beings only and merely for their pleasure and amusement?

Your question presupposes that there are "moral rights", you may want to think about that. Think about answering the questions: What is a "moral right"? What makes it so? Who decides what it is? Where would the authority come from? Who is bound by it? Why should people respect such rights? Only then you'd have a chance to tackle your question...

Helene Dumitriu

Firstly, you might want to think about a basis for any discrimination between human and non human life. You might think about the expanding moral circle, which once encompassed only educated white males but — if you're into deep ecology, for example — might now have a place for the entire ecosystem. Much contemporary debate has focused on the application of utilitarian and contractualist theory to this issue — see Peter Singer's writings on utilitarianism or Peter Carruthers The Animals Issue — but this depends on accepting the premisses of those theories. Contractualists would say that only rational humans could make a moral contract. For more on this, you could read the article on the philosophos.org webpage, describing some of the features and consequences of rationality, called Dehumanisation of Humanity: Zero Ground, by Munayem Mayenin. Utilitarians, however, would suggest that there isn't much intrinsic difference between humans and animals — only the quantity of suffering, perhaps.

I'd say there's something unconvincing about the utilitarian position: how it relates pain with unhappiness (or lower utility) and, subsequently, the connection to a world that could scientifically figure all such things out. I think questions of the worthwhileness of suffering and pain need thoughtful interpretation! Especially concerning the possible difference in 'interpretation' of pain by animals and humans. Also, the idea of the 'blanket' avoiding of discomfort seems sometimes linked to a separate agenda of conflict-free consumer life.

To come back to your question about killing for amusement, I'd say look beyond one particular culture's positing of rights for animals and at a wider picture which presents many groups that hold respect for nature as paramount, while killing animals for food and daily life. I'd imagine they get some pleasure when killing, but don't kill for pleasure. You might want to think about the character of the one doing the killing. Even if the animals themselves don't have moral significance, our treatment of them does. Alternatively, teacher of mine once said, 'Never eat anything that knew its mother'.

Andy Lambert


Zaxos asked:

What would be Nietzsche's philosophy like, if he was not raised in this abnormal environment all consisting of women in his house?

I didn't know this. Nietzsche might have recognised the Word of the Father if there had been a man in the house and have accepted the moral community as it is and the idea of moral principle. So without a dislike of the ethics of his day, he might not have become a philosopher at all.

Rachel Browne


Jayson asked:

Where and why do Eastern and Western schools of thought diverge?

Well I'm not sure what you mean by "schools of thought". Religion? Philosophy? Social thought? Politics? But let's take philosophy. Roughly speaking, in the West, the tradition, really from Socrates on (with some problems in the Middle Ages) has been to question pretty much everything. Socrates sacrificed his life to start that tradition, and it has more-or-less stuck. That is, the Western traditions of philosophy, leading to the scientific revolution, have fairly explicitly included the idea that one must not take any explanation, nor it's assumptions, for granted. Overthrowing schools of thought, replacing them with syntheses, with deeper analyses, or with simply radically different schools is, overtly at least, encouraged. One can claim that this is actually discouraged in the "academy", or that this is not done effectively, and so forth... but that is one of philosophy's basic tenets in the West, however successfully it is followed.

This, in the main, is not true in traditional Eastern thought. That latter is for the most part religiously motivated, in the following sense. While various schools of "philosophy" may elaborate greatly on some tradition, questioning the bases of that tradition is almost always forbidden. Thus one may work within a particular school of Buddhism, try to understand and elaborate on it, but to attempt to go to its roots with the idea of altering, improving, destroying, or in any way radically changing them is just not (traditionally) done. There is almost always a "dogma", a set of underlying assumptions, which practitioners of a particular school must follow, or they are cast out, apostate, and have to operate, if they can, as such. And that is why I put "philosophy" in quotes above. Since I follow the Western tradition, and indeed believe it is better, in that sense at least, I do not consider traditions which discourage that type of ultimate questioning as philosophy, but as dogmas, usually religious. Inasmuch as that is changing, and allowing that kind of questioning, as it is in many places, it is indeed philosophy. Now if you want the difference there between Eastern and Western thinking, I would be much harder put to characterize it, except to say that much of Eastern philosophy is heavily influenced by the religious roots it now questions. Thus, in Japan, for example, phenomenology is extremely popular, because of its natural fit with Zen practices and the Japanese meditative traditions. Inasmuch as it may question those traditions, it is philosophy. Inasmuch as it is adapted only to further those traditions, it is not, in my opinion, philosophy.

Steven Ravett Brown


Uninibile asked:

"The aim of education should be to maximize the welfare of individuals." Discuss.

You might start with the question "what is the welfare of an individual": In particular what is "welfare," what is "an individual", what is "welfare of an individual". Is that which is "welfare" for one individual maybe something bad for another individual? (Example: Some Christians believe it is a bad thing to teach evolution in school. Most people in the Western hemisphere think you'd deprive pupils if you did not tell them about evolution in school. Which attitude maximises the welfare of the children?)

Another avenue: Could there be cases where there is a difference between the welfare of the individual and that of the community/the state? — Another approach is to ask "what is education"? Can the aim of education really be the welfare of individuals? Many societies aimed education at producing "good citizens", "useful members of society", or teaching skills required in order that the individual could earn its living. Is that the same as welfare of the individual or not? — Another approach: Assume there is limited money and time for education: Which subjects should be taught to individuals? What if you had to decide between music and maths? Between sports and a foreign language and so on? What are the criteria you would use to make the decision? What choice should the individual have in the matter? Does the individual know what is good for it?

Helene Dumitriu


Denise asked:

What is a just distribution of resources, such as wealth, education, welfare and opportunities?

I don't think there is such a thing as a just distribution of resources. You can't have equal distribution because people aren't equal to begin with and they differ in capacities. We can't measure what extra help every individual might need. Surely you don't think that every individual in a community can be assessed for needs at particular intervals?

Some people don't care for wealth and opportunities, others do. It's the same with education. It is the general view that people ought to care about education, wealth and opportunities. But not everyone does. But what is it with "welfare"? If there were some kind of equality in the distribution of wealth and opportunities, why should need welfare?

You might want to compare John Rawls (Justice as Fairness) who believes in the possibility of distributive justice and Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia) who upholds the rights of individuals against interference from the state.

Rachel Browne


David asked:

Does Kant's Critique of Judgment complete his "critical philosophy" as he claims it did?

Suppose you were in this situation: you have analyzed processes of thought to the extent that everything seems determined by rules, but you do not know how to relate those rules to truth; they are internal rules, rules of the mind. Yet you are faced with the undeniable fact that humans seem to be able to determine truth. Not only that, but humans seem to be able to find new truths. The world is unknowable, the mind works through knowable and deterministic rules, yet we find truths; indeed, we discover new truths about the world. Now what? All one can say, it seems, is that somehow, the occasional genius, because of some unanalyzable connection to reality, is able to grasp truth, and that grasping cannot be through those rules; indeed, if it is a new truth, it must alter some of them, at least some of the more superficial. Does that answer complete the Critical Philosophy? You tell me. Because that's Kant's answer in the Critique of Judgment.

Steven Ravett Brown


Aravis asked:

What would Descartes's opinion on cloning be?

Difficult question because obviously one can only speculate. I think actually that it would not present an explanatory problem for him (or mind-body dualism) at all. Descartes thought the body is only a kind of machine, so probably for him cloning would not be really different from, say, identical twins. The important thing would be to him that clones have different minds (souls). Maybe since Descartes was religious he might take issue with man creating life in a different way than God had intended. However he probably would reassure himself/us by saying that a) nothing is possible except God lets it happen, b) if God gives a soul to this being, this is in fact the important step in creation, the one step man cannot imitate.

Helene Dumitriu


Matthew asked:

Me and my mate came up with this idea that nothing is random and that the outcome of everything that happens is determined by some form of input. However many inputs are very small and there are many of them. Therefore it is not practically possible to predict the outcome of most of the things that happen around us. For example if you type =RAND() into Excel it will give you a random number. No, somewhere in the code for Excel there is a rule to how the computer calculated this number, therefore if you know this code and all the inputs that go into it you can predict the number that will come out at the end.

Is this idea published anywhere, if so where and by whom? Or am I talking a load rubbish?

You are not talking rubbish, but sense. You have arrived at Leibniz' "Principle of Sufficient Reason" that "nothing is without reason for its being, and for being as it is". Schopenhauer characterised the principle of sufficient reason as that which "authorises us everywhere to search for the why".

If everything has a reason, there is really no such thing as "random" or "chance", in the sense of "uncaused". Random or chance events areconcepts without reality, another way of saying that the cause or causesare not known.

Tony Kelly

Well, the idea that our fate is determined, that our life is determined by the stars, the local gods, the fates, the planets, etc. etc,is probably as old as humanity. Now if you're talking about "input", the question is, "towhat?" You mean, in the context of modern physics, can there be randomness? The answer to that seemed to be a resounding "yes". Remember Einstein's remark, "god does not play dice"? That's just what he was referring to, and to the results of quantum mechanics (QM), which indicated that there is indeed randomness at the heart of the physical world. (As far as computers go, it depends on how the random number table was arrived at. Some are calculated, in which case they are not strictly speaking random; some however are arrived at by charting the "output" of radioactive materials or thermal motion or what-have-you; as random as you can get.)

Now, getting back to randomness... the randomness which has been understood to underlie physicsis now not absolutely certain. The basics of QM, as it is now understood, are indeedin part random processes. However there have recently been some experiments, and theory, which seem to indicate that the experiments that supported randomness (i.e., the experiments supporting Bell's Theorem) hold only in particular conditions. If this is true, then some hypotheses employing what are termed "hidden variables" (which Einstein wanted, and which Bell's theorem said could not exist) may in many cases (indeed an infinite number of situations) be the case, and there are then processes "behind" or "beneath" the QM probability distributions. We do not as yet know whether this is true, but the possibility is now open.

So. In answer to your question. Up until 5-10 years ago, the answer would have been unambiguously that there are indeed random processes, and that they are fundamental to reality. Now, we know that we do not know this, and your question cannot be answered.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ajay asked:

I am greatly impressed by your Mission Statement.

I am the Proprietor of "Synergistic Solutions" with the mission of creating effective people reaching the zenith of human potential, living their life synergizing with nature.

My question to you is, "Why are people corrupt?"

Socrates would reply: Because they lack knowledge. They think that their actions are to their benefit and do not realise that they are actually harming themselves. If they really knew where their benefit lies they would not be corrupt: No one does evil willingly.

Helene Dumitriu


Mark asked:

Why is God also called a rock?

In the Bible (Second Book of Samuel, 22.2,3) it is written: "And he (David) said, The LORD is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer; The God, my rock; in his will I trust: he is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my high tower and my refuge, my saviour, thou savest me of violence."

In the above passage one observes that God is called a rock metaphorically. The believer considers him as a natural stronghold. A shelter solid like a rock.

Jean Nakos


Donald asked:

I am currently teaching myself philosophy, and I have a few questions I would like answered:

1) What is the difference between logic and clear thinking?
2) What is the difference between logic and clear-headed thought?
3) How can I develop philosophical thinking skills?
4) What books do you recommend for beginners like me (Metaphysics, Logic, Epistemology and Philosophical thinking?)
5) Also, what is the best way to unclutter my mind,so that I could get rid of the preconceptions, postconception to become a truly open-minded person?

I am 40 years of age and I just got interested in philosophy. (I'm a High School Graduate).

1 and 2: Clear-headed thought is the product of clear thinking. Thinking is a process of discovering answers to questions, while logic describes the process of proving your right to make a claim, based on a given set of premisses.

3: It is possible to teach yourself philosophy up to a point: the problem is that you have to be your own critic, and philosophy (as you will learn) is one of the most fallible of all human activities. The constant experience of a philosopher is discovering that one has been wrong — made a false assumption, or a false logical inference, or asked the wrong question etc.

A philosophy student needs to read and write. At some point, you will need to have your writings criticised by others.

4. There is a selection of introductory books on this site at http://philosophypathways.com/programs/pak5.html. You will find advice on writing a philosophy essay at http://philosophypathways.com/programs/pak4.html.

5. Famously, Descartes describes how he set out to unclutter his mind in the Discourse on Method. My advice would be to read through some of the pages of questions and answers on the Ask a Philosopher site. You will go back to your books with an increased awareness of different ways of looking at things, and with far less confidence in your own infallibility.

As I said, at some point you will realize that you need someone to be a critic and/ or direct your studies. In the history of philosophy, the only philosopher who was entirely self-taught was Thales.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jenny asked:

Can you please help me to understand the subjective and objective views about fox hunting, whether it be for or against it?

Jenny, this is certainly a topical question!

Fox hunting is part of a wider question of human's treatment of animals, though it also seems to have some extra baggage; these relate to questions of tradition and the way of life of those in the countryside. Of course, whose lifestyle we are talking about is another matter; not everyone in the countryside has a tradition of foxhunting.

Taking the first question about human treatment of animals, we can link this to other similar questions that pop up on the TV or in the newspapers, issues like whether or not people wear leather or use rabbits for the testing of cosmetics.

We could start by talking about rights, since we hear a lot of talk about rights in the media, and it seems that people are prepared to go to extremes in the defence of certain rights, including so-called 'animal rights'. It's worth asking what is a right, where does it derive from, and do 'rights' apply only to humans or to animals as well?

What are rights based on?

This is an important question for those who make major decisions based on the 'right' of some group or people. Think how often you hear a group or individual lay claim to some right or other...the right to life, the right to choose, the right to clean water... The list is long.

One approach to this, but by no means the only one, comes from the tradition of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and continued by John Rawls. This founds the idea of a right in the capacity of a person to reflect on and think about an issue, before making a choice. And on the basis of this rational capacity his or her choice is to be respected.

Well, if you accept this argument about rights for people based on their capacity to reflect on their situation and make a choice that is best for them, do you think it also applies to animals?

Do they also reflect and make choices in a similar manner? There are arguments that the higher primates show something like this kind of capacity.

Another way of looking at this question is to consider animals' and people's capacity to feel pain and to suffer. This is a separate tradition but one which has been hugely influential. It seems that in 'a nation of animal lovers', many people's attitude towards animals is based on their feelings of sympathy for them; that is, to treat them in such a way so as not to cause pain to them. Or, at least (for those who eat meat, for example), to treat them in a humane manner, presumably by giving them a comfortable life followed by a swift and painless death.

On this account, we can see why some people oppose fox hunting, since they allege it causes needless suffering.

Just from these two accounts of how people should regard animals, we can get two different accounts of how we should regard the fox. You could call these two views objective, because they identify main features of animals and people, rather than looking at individual cases. They suggest to us that reasoned debate, leading to a solution, is possible.

Now, just to focus a bit more on the particular problem of fox hunting....

Presumably drawing on some kind of argument that a fox itself doesn't have any great value (it's not like a person, etc), the pro-hunting lobby often present their case as one of freedom. That is, not so much a issue of the treatment of animals but one of having the freedom to do what one wants, as long as it doesn't interfere with other people.

Here, you could say that they are asking for the freedom to do what they want to do, just as many groups in society do. The issue becomes a political one, that of the issues of one group in society, rather than a question about cruelty to animals.

You also hear arguments based on tradition, that fox-hunting has a long history. But do you think that, just because you have done something in the past, you should be allowed to keep on doing it? It's easy to think of traditions that have died out and nobody wants to bring them back; having a monarch with absolute power would be one example. At the same time, some people would argue that we shouldn't be too quick to do away with our traditions, because of their educational value and formative role in our identity. After all, there's now a big market catering to those who want to define their 'Britishness'- just look at all the history programmes on TV!

There's also a practical argument made in favour of fox-hunting, that it kills 'vermin'. Unfortunately, I don't know much about this- I guess you'd have to ask a scientist to check whether this claim is true or not!

One last 'objective' approach to fox-hunting is to ask about the character, the personality, of someone who takes part in fox-hunting. If you think that the killing of foxes in this way is cruel, then does that make someone who enjoys the hunt cruel? If someone enjoys taking part in a practice that leads to the death of a fox, does that raise doubts about their attitude towards people? Are they more likely to be, simply, 'a mean person'?

To come back to your question about subjective views of fox-hunting....

Of course, you could say that none of the above abstract 'tools' for deciding whether fox hunting is reprehensible are as relevant to what you think and feel now. Despite the very eloquent development of the two opposing views outlined above, we don't seem to have solved the issue. No argument has been produced such that it wins over one side completely- we still don't have any consensus. Although we don't have agreement, we might soon have legislation prohibiting it. But that's another matter.

Andy Lambert


Sophia asked:

I have to make a digital movie for my philosophy class with a philosophical theme, and I have no idea what is or is not philosophical. So, if you could help me chose some themes?

I think there are two issues here; on one hand we can ask about the role movies play in dealing with philosophical themes and on the other hand we can ask about the role philosophy can play in shaping our view of the film medium.

Many movies have dealt with philosophical themes, such as freewill, the nature of consciousness, human beings place and role in the world. The best 'philosophical movie' is in my opinion 2001 A Space Odyssey. For a look at how philosophical concerns enter film narratives take a look at Mary Litch's Philosophy through Film and Christopher Falzon's Philosophy Goes to the Movies ( Routledge Press 2002). Of course at this narrative level film is part of a wider cultural milieu that also deals with philosophical themes, including literature, theater, poetry, and music.

What then is the distinguishing feature of film that sets it apart from other mediums? The obvious answer is that, more than merely telling a story, film deals with imagery. Or rather the image as such, the nature of the image, the fact that it can represent the real world, but also that it can and does play with that world, such that the image itself could become our reference point rather than what the image is of.

Film creates Image in a way that theater, or narratives do not, even in a way that photography does not. Why? Because in film we have a dynamic image which introduces considerations of time and space, Here Deleuze's Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image are key references.

So the very fact that we make films, create these images, and what these images mean is itself a philosophical theme. If then I had to make a digital movie with a philosophical theme, I would make a movie about the philosophy of making movies about the nature and role of the image or perhaps the philosophical implications of digital technology

An excellent account of the role of digital imaging plays in destabilizing our access to the world and our assumptions about time, reality and appearances see Bernard Stiegler's essay "The Discrete Image" in Echographies of Television by Derrida and Stiegler 2002, Polity Press.

Stiegler compares digital images with 'analogue reproducibility'. That is, conventional photography and cinema. He claims that the former is immune from the so called 'objectivity of the lens', (it's the old saying 'the camera doesn't lie') and that it is able, in a way the latter is not able, to disrupt our trust in the past, our memories, our archives, our history. Such that the traditional link between the object and the image of that object is broken (in fact it's the essence of the digital camera to lie, what then becomes of the notion of the Truth when there is no longer the object of the Truth?). Stiegler concludes, with the suggestion that " Life is always already cinema". If that is calling out for Hollywood treatment I don't know what is.

Brian Tee


Cody asked:

Couldn't epistemological relativism simply be defined as a form of limited skepticism? What are the different aspects that separate the two?

This is a very good and original question. I'm going to assume that you are talking generally about "knowledge", and address post-modern criticisms of science. Those do indeed lead to a position best termed "epistemological relativism". Is it a form of skepticism? Yes, but in a funny kind of way. A true skeptic would deny even relativism, i.e., would deny that any position has justification. A relativist maintains that the justification of a position, moral or epistemological, has to do with current custom, beliefs, culture, or some such. And thus, in a sense, it seems to me that it is the mere possession of those beliefs that somehow justifies them. What that seems to me to amount to is a kind of emotional justification: if you feel good about something, believe it. I truly do not know that there is, ultimately, any deeper justification to relativist positions. There are, by definition, no intellectual justifications for beliefs to a relativist. If there were, they could not be relativists.

I do not agree with this position, but it is very difficult to argue against, in that the argument must be extremely wide-ranging. The best statement of this argument I know of is Philip Kitcher's in The Advancement of Science, and in order to do that he had to write a rather long and complex book, addressing various aspects of the skepticism underlying relativism, and many of the contemporary philosophers espousing relativism.

I would highly recommend you read Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, then Kitcher's. He was a student of Kuhn, and has found, I believe, the weaknesses in Kuhn's position.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stephen asked:

What is a human being? Are we no more than just clever animals?

Well, your first question is a big one, and I'm not going to try to answer it here. It is the second one that interests me. Why do you think that being a clever animal is such an insignificant thing that it can be dismissed with the phrase 'no more than just'? It seems to me that being an animal — even the simplest type — is an extraordinary thing in its own right. How is it that inanimate matter can evolve into a self-organizing, self-reproducing form? What an amazing achievement! And then, even more incredible, some of these animals then evolve into conscious, self-aware animals. While some important strides have been made in understanding all this, there is a lot more to find out. Finding out how we came to be a clever animal is quite enough of an exciting and invigorating quest for me.

Tim Sprod


Brent asked:

What is the difference between 'logical' and 'ontological' distinctness?

In papers I have written, for example in "A Process Explanation of the World" at http://www.philosophy.27south.com I have drawn a distinction between logical possibilities and ontological possibilities. I have not encountered this distinction expressed in this way elsewhere, but it may well have been. I have not encountered the phrase "logical and ontological distinctness" per se, so can only assume it refers to the distinction I have drawn.

In my usage, a logical possibility applies to concepts that do not contain a self-contradiction. A Unicorn is logically possible. There is nothing self-contradictory in the concept of a horse with a single horn. But Unicorns do not exist in reality.

An ontological possibility is a real possibility. Something that is ontologically possible really exists if all the conditions of its possibility are satisfied. I may have a fertile dog and a fertile bitch. A litter is a logical possibility. It only becomes an ontological possibility if the condition of a successful mating is satisfied.

A category mistake is made when something that is only logically possible is assumed to also be ontologically possible. Multiple Universes are a case in point.

Anthony Kelly


Rhoda asked:

I would just want to ask about enthusiasm...what it means and what are some reflections of philosophers about it?

This is actually a very interesting question to me. As far as reflections of philosophers on "enthusiasm" or "motivation", I do not really know of too many, except perhaps some of the Existentialists... I think you might get something out of Heidegger here, and probably you could relate the thesis of books like Nausea to this topic, i.e., boredom as the opposite of enthusiasm. Colin Wilson, actually, has written about the generation of enthusiasm or "intensity" in this regard.

But there is another aspect that is interesting, and that is the relationship between enthusiasm and motivation and learning. That is, given enough motivation, people can accomplish extraordinary things. But this degree of motivation is rare; why is that? In other words, why can we not just decide to be enthusiastic about something, the way we decide to walk in a certain direction? Of course, considered as an emotion, we have problems deciding to feel anything... one of the great and tragic human limitations. But I also would like to see motivation treated as "intelligence" is treated, i.e., as a characteristic that might very well be innate, and something that could be tested for, and that we could educate children to develop. We try to "motivate" children, but we do not try to educate children to motivate themselves. Why not? Because, mostly, we do not know how to motivate ourselves. So this should be studied, and as far as I know it has not been. You might also look at John Dewey on this topic.

Steven Ravett Brown


Becca asked:

Why ask why?

Funny question ! Why do YOU ask then? So one more why,"Why do you ask, 'why ask why?'?"

But think of situations : When do you ask why?

There are several typical situations. Some are concerning objects : Why do things fall down and never up?" Why are sun and moon spherical?" Why does the moon change his appearance regularly?" Today all three questions are simple to answer, but the first two have not been some 300 years back before Newton and the third is at least not trivial. But all these questions are simple" now in that they belong to the class of scientific explainable" questions. Many questions are of comparable nature but much more complicated if they require knowledge of atoms and subatomic particles or of fluids and solid bodies and genes and biological cells etc.. This whole class of simple" questions is on why does it work such and so?"

But if you ever lost a person or a pet very dear to you, then the question why?" has a totally different character. Or at least we don't know. Some people simply can't stand what they think is absurd". It at least comforts them to think that some God or some underlying meaningful" necessity like karma" or the stars" has caused the loss and not mere accident".

In both very different sets of examples by asking why" we want to know what is behind the appearances", we ask for ex-planation" like opening — making plane — a book or a wrapper.

But there is a second class of why-questions", comprising not causal explanations", not why is it as it is?" but but final explanations" — why should it be such and not otherwise?" And once more there are two subclasses of final explanations" — those of the artist and those of the ethicist. The artist has to decide what to do — what word in a poem, what note in a sonata, what colour in a painting, what movement in a dance to use at this moment etc.. The ethicist — or somebody deciding what to do here and now — has likewise to decide which of several possible ways to follow in doing the next step. In this art and ethics are closely related. There is a difference — but this is complicated and not to be explained in some sentences here. In this sense f.i. Kant's second and third critique — the Critique of Practical Reason" and The Critique of the Power of Judgement" are related. But they both are related to the first critique — The Critique of Pure Reason" — too, since to have a good judgement of what to do, you should have a good judgement of what is the case.

But then — as Hume showed — from what is the case there can be no way to what should be done. There is a gap then, a hiatus", the hiatus of freedom : At least in principle all the facts of the world neither can force nor hinder me to do what I want to do by free choice. This once more leads into a complicated set of questions concerning the free will, so I let it be for now.

But why ask a philosopher? Sit down and ask yourself what you are asking for if you ask (f.i.) : Should I go to the cinema or should I better prepare my exam — and why?" What is it that makes you decide for the one or the other option? The one philosopher would say its a value, and you are evaluating different possibilities". Another philosopher would say its a subconscious drive and you only try to rationalize and to come to terms with your conscience". There may be other explanations of why you decide such and not otherwise. Thus from a deterministic point of view a final why" could be reduced to a causal why" : Even your free decisions" are only consequences of hidden causes. This once more is a minefield and cause of much arguing.

This applies to a similar sort of hiatus — the hiatus of faith in the way Pascal and Kierkegaard saw it : There can be no proof that Jesus — if he ever was more than a myth — has been the son of God". Even if there were a detailed report of his behaviour and interviews and video-tapes, this would be no proof of more than his appearance and deeds. Then the question of why should I take him to be 'the son of God' and follow his steps?" could not be answered.

There is finally a third class of why"-questions — the metaphysical" ones : Why are we here?", Why does the world exist?" Those questions are meaningful and unavoidable, but one could doubt if they are fruitful. But then they were the origin of the idea of God or gods. Viewing all the temples and churches around the globe I think the metaphysical why" should be called a fruitful one. But some think it a misleading one. What do you think? Why?

Hubertus Fremerey



As a student of computer science, with an interest in philosophy, I have been wondering about the following question:

If philosophy can be regarded as the epitome of human higher reasoning capability, and yet philosophy is not reducible to mere logic — does this imply that computers, whose "brains" rely solely on logic-based processes, will never be able to think, or reason (or indeed, philosophize) as humans do?

Surely AI research would be pretty much a dead-end road if this were true, if the ultimate aim is to produce human-like intelligence (or beyond)?

I think that it is true, and that the project to make artificial intelligence through what is sometimes referred to as Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI) is a dead end. Read Bert Dreyfus' mid 70s book "Why Computers Can't Think" and his early 90s "Why Computers Still Can't Think" for an excellent exposition of why.

However, there are other ways to build computers, and it does not seem to me (or Dreyfus) that, in the final analysis, computers which use different means of processing, together with emotions and embodiment, will never be able to think. One further requirement, it seems to me, is that computers will need to have a 'childhood' — a developmental period when they learn to think, emote and act in a variety of specific situations surrounded by more able 'thinkers'.

Tim Sprod


Abel asked:

In comparing both Plato's and Aristotle's view on tyranny, Plato states that the bodyguards are chosen from slaves, whereas Aristotle feels that the bodyguards can be chosen from the citizens. Which argument is sound in comparing it to the tyrannical rule of Adolf Hitler and his appointment of the SA and the SS?

In my opinion the term "bodyguard", as used by Plato and Aristotle, today refers to the entirety of the security agencies and forces of a modern state.

I doubt that the case of Nazi Germany could tell us which argument is sound. The SA (Sturmabteilung = Assault Section) personnel were recruited from all classes of the German Society. Among them one could find noblemen such as Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, commander SA of Berlin- Bradenburrg and chief of the Berlin Police, as well as members of the lower classes and convicts such as the SA Obergruppenfhrer (lieutenant general) Edmund Heines.

The recruitment of SS (Schutzstaffel = Defence Squad, created in 1925 within the SA, originally only as Hitler's bodyguard) was more complex.Their security and intelligence sensitive agencies and units were staffed with "pure Aryans", again from all strata of society. However the Waffen SS (SS Army) had also men from peoples who were considered as "inferior" and destined to be the slaves of the "Aryan" masters. There were Slavs, Indians, Turkic peoples etc. The 13th Waffen-Gebirgs Division Der SS "Handschar" was staffed with Bosnian Muslims. The 21st Waffen-Gebirgs Division Der SS "Skanderberg" with Albanians. There were also various ethnic "non-Aryan" brigades, regiments and battalions.

Jean Nakos


Vearnetta asked:

Who was the greatest Black Philosopher?
I have searched the web and have found "Moms Mabley."
Can you confirm for me if she is a philosopher?

I'm a little puzzled. How did you search the Web? Do you know about the Google search engine (www.google.com)? It's absolutely the best. Anyway, you might start with W.E.B. DuBois and M. Garvey, and go from there.

Steven Ravett Brown


Terry asked:

In reviewing your past questions and answers Miguel asked a question, "Can you prove that God exists or can't we prove it?" The answer stated that "it is harder to prove that God doesn't exist".

A later question from another person asked "I've been reading a lot about the theory of determinism and so far, no one has given me any good explanation on how it may not be true. Can you?" The answer was "Since you think this is true, what is your argument for it? After all, isn't it up to the determinist who is the one asserting determinism to argue for his view? After all, if you are the one who says determinism is true, isn't it up to you to argue for it?"

Those two questions where answered in contradicting ideals.

Isn't up to the person who believes in God to argue for it, just like it is up to the person who believes in determinism to argue for it?

I was the one who pointed out that it was the person who asserts (in this case, determinism) who has the burden of proof, not the person who does not believe determinism is true. And I certainly do agree with you that the same issue is true about the existence of God.

I want to add this, though. There is a big difference between not being able to prove God exists, and proving that God does not exist (which you appear to suggest are the same in your question) The person who says, "It is up to you, who is making the claim, to show that God exists (or that Determinism is true)" is, himself, making no claim, so he himself has nothing to prove. But, on the other hand, the person who says, "God does not exist" (or Determinism is not true)" is making a claim, and is under the obligation to support that claim. As is said, the absence of evidence is not at all the same as the evidence of absence.

Ken Stern


Andrew asked:

What is Metaphysics and how do we use it in our personal lives? Also who was the first person to come up with this theory, how did they find it and how did they use it? What do philosophers use it for today?

Metaphysics is not a theory but a type of inquiry — an inquiry into that which underlies appearances. What is it that truly exists, and causes all that we experience? No-one came up with this — or if someone did, it is lost in the mists of time when humans first started to become self-aware. Such questions are asked in many of the earliest writing we have. However, the name 'metaphysics' comes from the fact that Aristotle talked about such questions in the book that comes after his 'Physics' — and metaphysics means (roughly) 'after Physics'.

We use metaphysical assumptions when we see the world as made of certain types of things — say, only of 'atoms and the void', or of two types of stuff — matter and minds, and so on. We may not actually inquire into these assumptions of ours, but they are metaphysical.

Tim Sprod


Matthew asked:

I was wondering about reality and perception. Is what we perceive considered to be reality. Take for example color. Light is projected at certain waves and frequencies, each one of these differences the human brian interprets as a different color. Many would argue that those are the true colors of the frequencies. But what about people that are color blind, they perceive those colors differently. What if everyone perceives colors differently?

If the colors just a human's interpretation of reality, thus varying from person to person, and therefore "real" to each individual person. Can we have true knowledge on what colors really look like?

Generally, yes. What we take to be reality is that which we perceive. Colour is, of course, difficult. Locke called colour a secondary quality, as opposed to a primary quality, since it's perception is reliant on a creature with the ability to sense. Today, many would say colour is not a part of reality because the sensory aspect, what red "looks like" is a fact about consciousness of a certain sort of being rather than a fact about the world.

However, we understand facts to be what makes up reality and some people talk of mental facts. There is a theory of consciousness (see Ted Honderich's web site) called "mental realism" which relies on the fact that we cannot deny that consciousness is real for us, and so it is part of the world. On this view, our sensory experiences are part of reality even if we were to experience colours differently — and it is logically possible that this is the case, whereas it is not possible that we see square as round because we would then move around in the world inappropriately. Frank Jackson ("Epiphenomenal Qualia", in Philosophical Quarterly 32) also argues that the world is not just the physical world. He tells a story about a woman who learns all about the world from a black and white television and when she finally leaves her room and enters the world she learns a new "fact", i.e. what it is like to experience red. This sort of mental realism allows colour experience to be a part of reality, but it is compatible with everyone having different colour experiences.

A physicalist, who believes all that is real must be physical would agree with your suggestion that colour perception is a matter of light waves and frequencies and brain processing but once again this is compatible with varying sense experiences.

So whether sense experience is part of reality or not doesn't help us to answer how we can know what colours really look like. But you mention colour-blindness and this is an interesting case. My husband has trouble with red and blue. Once, in a hotel room, he looked at the taps and both looked grey. On turning the taps on to find which was hot and which cold, the spots on the taps turned from grey to provide a sensory experience of red and blue. This is quite common in colour-blindness. It seems to indicate that knowledge of what a grey spot should look like plays a part in providing an experience of red or blue. I would say that there are regularities and connections in the brain. My husband hasn't always had the grey experience and so probably past experiences where he had immediately sensed red and blue came to the fore through memory and connection to provide the correct neural response to the light waves. So I suppose that when we receive certain waves and frequencies, a specific neural state is necessary for an individual to sense red in the same way across time.

However, whether the phenomenal "look" differs for each individual, we cannot know because consciousness is private.

Rachel Browne


Ester asked:

Can you please give me some reasons why the study of the Bible does not have a valid place in the core curriculum of a liberal arts college?

I assume that by the "Bible" you mean the Christian bible, i.e., the collection of writings termed the "New Testament" and "Old Testament" in the Christian religion. In my very strong opinion, the study of the Christian bible has no more nor less place than the study of any other religion's bible(s). Now, given the central place of religion in human culture through the eons, I do most certainly think that one should study religion... from that viewpoint. And that would entail studying the Hindu bibles: the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and so forth; the Koran; the Tibetan Book of the Dead; the Chinese writings of Lao-Tzu (and others); the Japanese Zen literature; African religions; American Indian religions, including South American Mayan and Incan; and many others which I have left out because I just don't want to go on and on. When I was an undergraduate I took a comparative religion course, and indeed found it valuable.

But if you mean that we should be taught that the Christian bible contains the correct religious doctrine... right, tell that to a Muslim or a Hindu.

Steven Ravett Brown

It seems to me that the answer to your question depends very much on how you see the Bible. If the Bible is seen as a great work of literature from the past, with an important influence on the sort of culture that we have, then it does have a valid place in the core curriculum — but so do a lot of other books. Then it comes down to making decisions about exactly which of these many books should be studied — just as we decide which plays of Shakespeare to study. The Bible has a claim, but not an overwhelming one.

If you see the Bible as the word of God — a central and unique book with divine sanction — then there is a compelling reason to place it right at the center of any curriculum.

If the Bible is seen as a concoction of stories and half-baked history put together for avowedly sectarian reasons by an organization that seeks to control people, then it has no claim to a place at all.

Tim Sprod


Kate asked:

Who is Jesus Christ?

Don't you mean "was"?

Ken Stern

If you refer to Jesus of history, I would suggest to consult Albert Schweitzer's book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A Critical Study of its Progress (1910) (the English translation can be read online in www.earlychristianwritings.com/schweitzer — 6k). In this work Schweitzer develops his own interpretation of Jesus' life emphasizing the humanity of Jesus. He comments in the book the works of scholars who had themselves, in the past, studied the issue. If I am not mistaken, since 1910 there is no new discoveries which could add some more significant hypothesis to the ones advanced by Schweitzer and his predecessors.

>From time to time some writer claims that the early Christians did invent Jesus as a historical person. The most sophisticated of this type of claims could be found in the books (several) of G. A. Wells. However, today nearly all historians accept that Jesus existed. It is even said that we know more about Jesus than about any other religious personality of his century.

You may also consult the Historical Jesus Theories site (www.early christianwritings.com/theories.html — 100k).

If you refer to Jesus Christ of faith, I would suggest to consult the Nicene Creed, a brief Christian statement of faith. In it you would find what exactly is Jesus Christ for the mainstream Christian believer. Roman Catholics (900 million people), Eastern Orthodox (250 — 300 million), trinitarian Anglicans and Protestants, all refer to this creed.

The text of the Nicene Creed can be found in the book Documents of the Christian Church selected and edited by Henry Bettenson (Oxford Press, several printings) or in Christian instructional manuals.You may also read it online in several web sites. Look for Nicene Creed.

Jean Nakos


Bianca asked:

Why is it impossible to say how religion began?

Perhaps you could resend this question in a more precise form. As it is, it seems awfully trivial. How did building houses begin? How did horse-riding begin? How did making clothes begin? How did asking questions begin? Without a time machine, it is impossible to say how any of those began, because there were no records made of their beginnings. Now that we have newspapers, computers, cameras, even books, that sort of thing, we can say when things began. But before all that...?

Steven Ravett Brown


Shelton asked:

With so many different philosophies, is it possible that someday, a single philosophical theory that encompasses all others will eventually be formed?

I guess that it is possible a single philosophical theory that supplants (not encompasses) all others might be found, because every philosopher tries to advance reasons for their view that they believe are compelling — compelling enough to convince others of their correctness. However, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it — there are many deep and complex philosophical puzzles that I think we are nowhere near solving. I don't think that we can have an encompassing theory because some philosophical positions contradict others. I don't see how we could have a theory (for example) that encompasses both materialism (only matter exists) and dualism (two distinct substances — mind and matter — exist). Further, when saying that it is possible there is a single theory, I don't mean to imply that it is inevitable or even likely. In some philosophical positions, it seems to me that the degree of complexity is too great to solve. Maybe we are just not complex enough ourselves to be able to devise or even understand a theory complex enough to explain all our puzzles. Maybe the idea of a single coherent theory is not viable anyway.

Tim Sprod

Well, you know, that really depends on how arrogant you are. Take Heidegger, for example. He was, by all accounts, an incredibly arrogant and snobbish intellectual who believed that he was having a dialog with Aristotle, and that no one else was capable of understanding him. So of course his theory encompassed, and surpassed, all others. Hegel felt the same way; so did Marx (as far as I know); Husserl; perhaps Russell, for a while; and others. I don't know of any of those who felt they did this, who many (with the exception of some of their students) agreed actually had successfully created this kind of ultimate synthesis, with the possible exception of Aristotle, and that mainly because there wasn't really anyone much around at the time to create their own ultimate philosophy to rival his (In the West- we mustn't forget that the Indians were writing at that time... but it was all in Sanskrit, so no one in the West could read them anyway.)

So in answer to your question... sure, lots of them, supposedly, but probably only a few people will agree that any of them actually do this, and they all disagree as to which ones were successful.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stephen asked:

In response to questions regarding the existence of eternal torment in Hell as conflicting with the idea of a just and loving God, I've heard theologians use arguments such as:

"It is not up to us and our pathetic brains to try and understand the ways of God." Therefore, we should not question the injustice of God burning people in Hell.

Is such an argument valid, however? Or is it self-defeating, in that it implies that all human attempts to try and understand God are ultimately useless, thereby reducing all theology, including the argument itself, to utter nonsense?

The argument "it is not up to us and our pathetic brains to try and understand the ways of God" could hardly be used by an academic theologian. An academic theologian does just that; he/she tries to understand the ways of God (And be sure that he/she does not ignore the limitations of human brains). Furthermore, theology itself, even the apophatic theology, is nothing less that a systematic endeavour to understand the ways of God.

In your question you are describing one of the various doctrines of atonement. The doctrine you are describing is the less lenient. I think that the question should not be addressed to the theology in general (since not all theologians agree with the doctrine you are describing) but only to the theologians you have heard supporting the point of view you are referring to.

Jean Nakos


Mujawo asked:

What is the value of philosophy of education?

Well, here are some questions you might consider:

Should we incorporate "practical" subjects like motor repair into public education? Why or why not?

Should we use physical punishment in schools in order to enforce discipline? Why or why not?

Should class sizes be large or small?

What is a "teacher"? How educated should they be? In what subjects?

What are we educating children to be: broadly educated people with some knowledge in many areas, or narrowly, with deep knowledge in a few areas? Defend the answer. Should children who do better academically be placed in faster tracks?

Should education include moral goals, or should it just be of facts? What is a fact? What is the best morality to learn? Why?

That should get you started.

Steven Ravett Brown

Here's my answer. If you are involved in education — and I am a teacher — then your whole practice is based on your beliefs about what education is, what its purpose is and a large number of other assumptions. You may recognize these assumptions explicitly, or they may be unacknowledged. Philosophy of education is all about facing up to these assumptions and subjecting them to reflective thought. For me, and I suspect for many people, thinking through deeply those things that underlie our practice helps us to become clearer about what we are trying to do, to identify those things that we do which are not helping us to achieve our aims, and to plan what we will do to achieve those aims better. Philosophy of education (like the philosophy of anything) therefore, for me, arises in taking what is puzzling or interesting in our experience and subjecting it to critical inquiry.

Unfortunately, much of what is taught as philosophy of education in schools of education makes little effort to connect with the experiences of trainee teachers. It is usually what puzzles and interests the lecturer, or some distant philosopher. Further, it is not a joint inquiry by the lecturer and students, but a pre-packaged lecture. Philosophy becomes dead to many students in this situation. To make things worse, the trainee teachers are often taught this philosophy before they have much in the way of experience of teaching, so that the puzzles and interests have not yet arisen. No wonder many trainee teachers (me included) disliked the philosophy of education they endured in their training.

Tim Sprod


Stephen asked:

What is a thing?

A dictionary defines a "thing" as "whatever is or may be perceived, known, or thought about".

However, is it philosophically possible for there to exist a "thing" that is impossible to be thought about (given, for instance, the limitations of the human mind)?

If so, what kind of "thing" may this be? Could it be possible to predict, say, the 'nature' of such "things"?

First of all, I can think about the limitations of the human mind, in particular my mind. And so can you.

And, in fact, people are not ordinarily called "things" in polite society, so the dictionary seems to be wrong

But your question is a good one.

The word "thing" is a kind of place-holder for whatever you want to put into it. It is a deliberately vague term used to avoid specificity. For instance someone who is leaving might say, "I have to get my things together" to avoid saying, "I have to get my coat and my hat and my sweater...." which would be tedious and unnecessary. It is a useful term. And its use teaches us that there are times when we have good reason to avoid being specific. "Look at all the nice things there are to eat!" again is said so as to avoid having to list those things.

Ken Stern


Heather asked:

Is there ever justification in breaking the law?

This is not exactly a question that has escaped people's notice, in the last few thousand years. There is so much literature on this that I don't know where to start in referring you to it. The short answer to your question is "yes". The long answer is to debate the question, "What is the relationship between law and ethics/morality?" Clearly legal principles, not to mention those actually passed into law, are not equivalent to moral principles. Ok, how and where are they different? You've got a huge amount of reading in ethics before you if you want to address this one. Good luck!

Steven Ravett Brown

This is a question that has been asked down the ages, the answers are extensively varied. As the question resides within the bounds of moral philosophy there is a strong subjective element in the way in which it is perceived, which obviously influences the resulting answer. A further complication is provided by the ongoing argument in moral philosophy as to whether we are born with an intrinsic awareness of what is rightand what iswrong, or whether this is acquired from parental influence and/or those we admire.

Those with a religious orientation, particularly christians, often believe that it would be wrong to break or oppose any law : the accepted laws of God seem to these devotees to somehow equate with the laws of man. In fact, one accepted law of God is that we are all supposed to bow to authority, and to accept without question the laws of our elected, or, indeed, imposed leaders. A very happy situation for bloodthirsty, psychopathic, monarchs in the past, whose authority was established through the backing of the church. In fact, the founder of the Anglican Church, Henry the Eighth, had a worse record than Jack the Ripper, disposing of anyone by so-called law who got in his way, aided and abetted by the leaders of the church, who, of course, benefitted both materially and in status from their support. Most of the atrocities this monarch, and indeed others, perpetrated were based on the law of Treason, a very convenient law which could be revised, enhanced or slanted to suit the immediate purpose; anyone accused of treason very rarely escaped the rack, the axe, the rope or the sword. The very word struck terror in the population, making many feel that they were constantly walking a tightrope. Would it have been justifiable to break it? Of course it would, but the penalties imposed for doing so, as we have seen, were harsh, hence very few deliberately did so, those who suffered the penalty were usually the victims of concocted stories or situations.

The above is an example of laws laid down by despotsand tyrants, usually not for the good of the community but to protect their own interests and well being, and to maintain their hold on power. It bears out the proposition that in general 'man makes laws to suit himself.' When the privileged are represented by by governments which support their interests, then laws are made to suit the privileged, there is a bias towards the well-off, land owners, big business, etc., The underprivileged are nearly always seen to be the ones breaking the law, for the simple reason that the laws are stacked against them. In the past, and to some extent today, the laws of property rights were far more important than human rights, the penalty for stealing was hanging, usually it was the starving poor who stole.

The laws I have so far referred to were and are unjust, personally, I have no problem in saying that there is every justificationin breaking them. On the other hand, I see no justification in breaking laws that are in place for the protection of the public at large. I have no difficulty in accepting that the evil factions in society should be subject to strict laws bearing harsh penalties for breaking them. However, if such laws are not even-handed and the penalties are modified for the rich and famous, as we have recently seen in the media, then this again I am strongly opposed to.

Law makers usually have an eye on the political situation and/or a strong leaning towards some ideology. Consider the current laws in countries like Iraq and China, the former laws in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Stalin's Soviet Union. People were reluctant to break these laws, not because they believed in them, but because to do so was life-threatening.

To sum up then, whether laws can justifiably be broken depends on your point of view and your ethical and moral concepts. Personally, I have always believed that unjust laws are there to be broken. Also I believe that there is no justification in breaking laws simply because we dislike them, in such cases we can do no more than object and stick to our democratic instincts.

John Brandon


Storm asked:

Why do some people view philosophy solely as a 'consolation/ chicken soup for the soul?' A consolation to what? and how can they perceive it to be such a thing?

Some people who think that philosophy is consolatory will not mean academic philosophy but rather some sort of mystical or religious set of beliefs which provide comfort. In academic philosophy it can be difficult to sustain many beliefs because there are often arguments to the contrary.

But philosophy can be consolatory. A person can find solace from the ordinary world and its problems by immersing themselves in the study of philosophy — or any other subject.

Rachel Browne

I imagine they are thinking about what some call "the tragedy of existence" or "the tragic sense of life." Many philosophers have been Pessimists (Arthur Schopenhauer is a good example) and believe, that on the whole, as some Greek is reputed to have said, "It is better not to have been born than to have been born. But who is as lucky as that? Not one in a thousand!" Most philosophers who think of philosophy as a consolation for what they believe is the general lousiness of life are Stoics of one brand or another. (Schopenhauer was a sort of Stoic). Stoics believe that although life is pretty bad, there is nothing much you can do about it, so the best way of handling life is to try to be as detached (stoical) as possible, and not "let it get to you."

There is something to stoicism: not all the time, of course, but when, as they sometimes do, things get a bit much.

Ken Stern


Rae asked:

Can knowledge provide timeless certainties?

I have been set this question as an assignment and am at a loss as where to start!

My first thought is to start by considering the different fields of knowledge, and exploring whether any of them might make a claim to timeless knowledge. If they do, are there any grounds for claiming that this knowledge is certain? You might contrast maths, science, history, literature.

Tim Sprod


Dennis asked:

Could you please recommend some novels with religious philosophical ideas? I was thinking of something on the line of Dostoevsky's novels, but perhaps a little less known. It would be wonderful if they are Catholic in nature.

I would suggest the following:

George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
Morris L. West, The Devil's Advocate Walter F. Murphy, The Vicar of Christ

Jean Nakos


Melissa asked:

What are the eight different compartments that fall under philosophy and could you provide a brief explanation of each? The only one that our professor gave us is Ethics.

I think a better term is "branches" not "compartments" of philosophy.

I don't know whether there are eight or eleven, or sixteen branches of philosophy. I have never heard of an official numbers (and neither, I bet did your professor) But here are some, according to me, anyway.


(the above two may be lumped together as "theory of value")

Political Philosophy

And then there are the different branches dealing with different subject matters like:

The Philosophy of Science
The Philosophy of Mathematics
The Philosophy of Language

and so on. Let's see, that makes nine. Well, your professor was nearly right.

Ken Stern


Gonzalo asked:

I would like to know if you could address the following question. How do we gain identity? and what is the role of the context (country, family, school etc) in which we grow a part of this process of gaining identity? Also, I would like to know what is the role of language in the aforementioned process? If you are not able to answer my question fully I would really appreciate if you were kind enough as to tell me what books I may find helpful in order for me to answer the questions above.

and Anna asked:

To what extent is a person an independent entity? Can you have a person without a society? Do people make society or does society make people?

I would like to have a go at Gonzalo and Anna's questions together, because I think that my answer will cover both. It seems to me that the role of others is essential to the development of an individual's identity. Those features that are most important to human identity — language, emotion, reason, morality and much more — must be developed in a community of language users, emoters, reasoners, moral beings. It is only through learning to operate on one's own behalf in a community through developing these capacities that a person can become autonomous. Of course, because that community consists of individuals, people make the society as well. That's a very short account, and not very fully argued.

For books that deal with this view, I can recommend the following: Annette Baier (1985). Postures of the mind: Essays on mind and morals. London: Methuen. (especially Chapter 5 — Cartesian Persons). Seyla Benhabib (1992). Situating the self: Gender, community and postmodernism in contemporary ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press. Charles Taylor (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tim Sprod

I shall use the word "character", since "identity" raises specific philosophical problems. Family plays a large part in the formation of character since our parents instil us with values which we can either accept or rebel against but in either case, this is an external impact from those closest to us. The family also provides us with our first relationships with others and although we can change and grow and are not stuck in the mould of early relationships, they will remain part of our history. The school then takes over this function of instilling value and providing interactions with others. A country, or a culture, will have an impact to some extent upon character and values. It is said that a person who rejects his family and his country becomes a lost soul. Identifications and shared experiences provide us with a sense of who we are.

By learning language we enter into a common way of being, which may be called being human. This might be fine-grained or sophisticated humanity. Behaviour is also a form of language because it is a means of communication. The psycho-analytical view is that on recognising the other, or the mother, the baby becomes conscious and the instinctual part of the self disappears into the unconscious. The conscious self then integrates into a shared and objective world capable of entering into fine-grained relationships with others and objects. So when it comes to a person's character, there is a duality. There is the conscious controlled side of a person, and the instinctual self of the unconscious which has more or less bearing on total character depending on how the conscious self is able to cope with reality. You might be able to find introductory books on Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan if you are interested in this aspect. For the first part of your question, you will need sociology books.

Rachel Browne

For one thing, this is not really a philosophical question, in my opinion. You are asking about data, about real-world situations. Now, we could go around on what "identity" means... and many think that is a philosophical issue. However, your questions seem quite psychological to me. Try Erikson, Freud, Fromm, Dewey,... the gamut of clinical psychologists (though Dewey was a philosopher and an educator). You'll find quite a bit on identity in the clinical literature, enough to keep you busy for some time. Now, there are identity theorists in philosophy, and if you want some contemporary writings, try this conference: http://www.bu.edu/wcp/MainPPer.htm (which was on "Persons and Personal Identity"). But I think you'll be much more satisfied with writings in clinical psychology. Also try this journal ("Self and Identity"): http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/pp/15298868.html.

You might also take a look at the recent book: Models of the Self edited by Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear. This should give you a very complete set of contemporary positions on this issue.

Steven Ravett Brown


Eugene asked:

Is Eric Voegelin, who was severely critical of modern philosophy, especially what he called its "deformation" From Descartes to Hegel, considered or recognized as a philosopher by modern philosophers?

Since I am not a landlord I am quite liberal with the application of the the term philosopher. For the most part, so far as I am concerned, anyone who calls himself (herself) a philosopher is one. Of course, whether think someone who calls himself a philosopher is a good philosopher is a different issue. It is a little analogous to a person who is moving on a dance floor and says he is dancing. I am willing to allow that person is dancing, whatever he does, but whether he is a good dancer is quite a different matter.

You may really be asking whether Eric Voegelin is well-known to other philosophers. I think the answer to that is, no.

Ken Stern


Jessica asked:

Does utilitarianism offend our views about justice? does that matter?

Does universal prescriptivism necessarily lead to utilitarianism?

I'll answer only your first two questions. Here's an example to get you thinking. Say that a horrendous murder takes place in a town which consists of two communities — a privileged majority and an underprivileged minority. The murder victim is from the majority, and a rumor sweeps the town that it was committed by someone from the minority. Large crowds are threatening to attack the minority group and string up anyone they can get their hands on. The police rapidly arrest a member of the minority, but just as soon find that he is innocent. The police chief is now faced with a dilemma. If he should free the suspect, the vigilantes will slaughter many other innocent people. If he executes the suspect, the vigilante anger will subside. What should he do?

What would a utilitarian recommend? The greatest happiness for the greatest number would seem to entail an execution. What does justice seem to require? I think that it requires the release of the suspect.

Does it matter? I think we can react to this situation in two ways. We can accept that utilitarianism theory has shown us that morality is not compatible with such an idea of justice, which must therefore be wrong. Or we can say that any theory which recommends such an injustice must be mistaken. Which do you think?

Tim Sprod


Buckley asked:

What price truth?

First, it seems to me, we need to unpack your question further, so this is my interpretation. Asking 'what price truth?' seems to imply that truth is not priceless. That, in turn, seems to mean that truth is not an absolute value that 'trumps' all other values.

If truth is not an overriding value, then I can see two possibilities. Either there is a fixed hierarchy of values in which truth is not the top one, or there are a number of competing values which have no fixed order of preference. In the second case, we need to know exactly what the circumstances are when we make a judgement about whether truth, or some other value, should take precedence.

I think that the second answer is the right one. Let's look at an example. In arguing that the duty not to tell lies overrides all other values, Kant gave a famous one: A friend of yours asks you to hide him from a mad axe murderer, so you do. The axe murderer then appears and asks you where your friend is. Is truth priceless — must you tell him? Kant says yes. I would say no. Though truth is important, so is caring for others.

So... what price truth? Quite a high price, but exactly how much depends on then other competing values at play, and the exact context.

Tim Sprod


Bas asked:

Recently, I discovered the fascinating world of Kant (and Hume), mainly due to two wonderful books of Brian Magee. First, Confessions of a Philosopher has brought my view of the science of perception (psychophysics) into a much broader context. Secondly, the correspondence of Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan has contributed a lot to the question what the auditory world of the hearing-impaired (or deaf) person might be. At the University of Amsterdam we try to gain knowledge with respect to the auditory world of the hearing-impaired person by simulation of deficits. Informal listening and performance of auditory tasks by normal hearing persons with simulated hearing loss can provide insight into the world of experiences of the hearing-impaired person, and the effects of deteriorated auditory performance. Most interesting is comparing a hearing impaired and a normal ear in one person, but this combination in man is not easy to find.

Reading the books of Kant and Hume, I got stuck on some peculiar statements and some conceptual problems.


1. On the idea of being.
Descartes wrote his famous words: "I think, therefore I am." One could also state "I am, because I perceive." But is this statement valid? Suppose one could not perceive, due to a lack of all the senses. Is this possible, and can one be then? And what can such a being conceive?

2. On Kant.
The framework of Kant's
Critique of Pure Reason is very systematic and elaborate. It is finely structured and every branch is thought over. The formal structure is in a way very mathematical. As I understand Kant was broadly educated, including knowledge of mathematical physics.

Do you know of famous mathematicians and physicists who read Kant? Did, for example, Einstein read Kant's Critique and did he criticise him on the ideas about time and space? Are there great mathematical minds that agree with the created metaphysical world needed to describe reason?

3. On the outer and inner world.
Despite Kant's work I still do not understand how one could distinguish the outer world and the imagined world. People can never be sure unless maybe by combining different sensations, i.e. touch, vision, hearing, etc. Although, to be absolutely sure? One of the ideas around schizophrenia is that people suffering from it cannot distinguish between these two worlds.

4. On Milligan.
Magee has discussed with Milligan about the perception of people who see and do not see and the concepts they form. Kant wrote something quite bizarre. I hereby give the original German text and a translation by M.J. Gregor. I am wondering what you think of Kant's rude idea of conception of deaf people. I think he underestimates the power of sign-language, which is most probably the oldest language in the world. Moreover his 'analogue of reason' is quite an insult for all blind and deaf people. Or do I misinterpret Kant?

On the Cognitive Powers, On the sense of hearing §18.
Hearing does not give us the shape of an object, and words do not lead us immediately to the idea of it; but just because of this, and because they have no intrinsic meaning (or at most they signify inner feelings, but not objects), words are the means best adapted to signifying concepts. So a man who, because he was deaf from birth, must also remain dumb (without speech) can never achieve more than an analogue of reason.

On the Cognitive Powers, Questions §22.
Can we use the senses vicariously? that is, can we use one sense as a substitute for another? If a deaf man was once able to hear, we can get him to speak as he used to by gesturing to him, and so by means of his eyes. He also uses his eyes to read our lips, or his sense of touch to feel our lip movements in the dark. If, however, he has been deaf from birth, his sense of sight must begin with movements of the vocal organs and convert the sounds he has been taught to make into feeling of moving the muscles of his own vocal organs. But he never arrives at real concepts in this way, because the signs he uses are not the sort that can be universalised.

Kant, I. (1974/1798 &1800). Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view translated, with an Introduction and Notes by M.J. Gregor, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.

1) You need to read Descartes again, and get a better idea of his arguments. Your objection isn't relevant; "perception" is included in thinking for Descartes. But that aside, his statement is better taken as an intuition of consciousness than anything else, I believe. Merleau-Ponty treats it pretty well in that regard in The Visible and the Invisible. As for not perceiving... do computers think? They don't perceive, anyway. But the answer to your next question depends on your epistemological position; the British empiricists would probably deny you could have thought... Descartes probably wouldn't have. For a "real" answer to that question, if we look at the effects of sensory deprivation on developing animals, it results in very severe neurological problems... but severe enough so that a human, totally sensorially deprived as both fetus and baby, wouldn't be able to think? I doubt we've ever had that situation, given that a 6-9 month fetus can sense and respond to the environment. My guess would be that degree of deprivation might very well preclude the neural development necessary for thinking.

2) Probably every one of them, especially the Europeans. I'm sure Einstein did, since he attended a German school, but I don't know what, if anything, he wrote specifically on Kant. But given other things Einstein wrote, I do not think that he liked Kant's ontology, i.e., that there is a fundamentally unknowable noumenon.

3) I assume you saw the movie "The Matrix"? It's an old problem... there's still controversy about Putnam's "brain in a vat" arguments. As for combining different sensory modalities, that's a very good idea, and ultimately the basis of consensual validation, if you think about it. However, you can also see that there is no real refutation of skepticism there. I do not believe that one can refute a strong skeptical position on this... but so what? I'm not going to try walking through any walls soon.

4) Kant was a product of his time, as are we all. As I recall, deaf people, because of their lack of language, were regarded as animals before the French invented sign language, surprising everyone. I do not agree that sign language, as a true language (i.e., with tenses, aspect, etc.), is "old" in any sense. If you remember your Greeks, language (a consequence of rationality) was considered the test of the difference between humans and animals. However, I do not believe that if Kant were aware of sign language his position would change, merely be broadened to include it as a type of language. Remember Kant's "schemas" and how abstract they are, yet how symbolic... more-or-less the equivalents of computer programs, if you wish to push the analogy. Given that, you need a symbolism to carry them, so to speak, yes? And that would be "language" of some sort. Concepts, for Kant, necessarily included those relations, as I recall.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ivan asked:

How does a real philosopher notice when he has found the total truth he is looking for?

Good question. But a real philosopher would realize that the notion of "total truth" was not the name of anything clear, so that he would have to clarify it to himself before he could know that he had found it. I know that judges admonish the witness to speak "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". But that is in a context. I doubt very much that the notion of truth has much meaning outside of any context whatsoever. The late philosopher, J. L. Austin used to talk about "the fallacy of talking about nothing in particular". You may be committing just that fallacy.

Ken Stern


Lindsay asked:

1. Kant's ethics is based on the proposal that the moral law is discovered and articulated by each person through determining in a given situation what he or she ought to do. If each person is the source of the moral law, why is the law objective (or intersubjective) and not merely subjective and meaningful for that person alone?

2. Immanuel Kant offers a revolutionary ethics based upon the autonomy of the good will. What does Kant mean by 'autonomy'? The fundamental principle of Kant's ethics is the Categorical Imperative. Explain the meaning of the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative; how they seek to encourage public thinking; and the impact upon human relationships intended by enjoining that all persons be treated as ends, never merely as means.

3. State three ways in which persons ought to be considered to be distinct from things according to Kant, and also according to Kant, what moral duties do we owe ourselves?

This is obviously an essay question, and so I'm too late, but then I could hardly answer it before you did you essay, since that would be cheating and un-Kantian.

1. The moral law is objective because it is valid for all rational beings. This is not subjective, nor is it intersubjective. As subjects we belong to the world of the intellect, governed by laws of reason, as well as to the natural world of the senses and instincts. The moral law is abstracted from the latter, and only thus can it be valid for all rational beings, free from personal interests. Since the moral law is divorced from man's complete being as a subject, it cannot be held to be intersubjective, although it might be said to be "inter-rational".

2. Autonomy is the freedom of the realm of the intellect from all interests which operates freely from the realm of nature. The first formulation is that we should be able to will the universal law. The will here is understood as free from all personal interest. The second formulation is that we should treat others as ends in themselves, and the third that we should see ourselves as making the moral law. The moral law, then, is rational and holds for all rational beings, who should be treated as such, but it also issues from us. We make the moral ourselves and as moral beings (with a free autonomous rational will) we cannot do otherwise. Kant sees the categorical imperative as the form that can be drawn from the way in which we really do recognise a moral "ought", and the formula is such that we cannot get out of it without denying that we are rational in this pure non-prudential sense. It is unlikely that the categorical imperative has any impact in reality, since not many people read Kant. But it doesn't need to have an impact on the public, since Kant holds that the CI reflects the ordinary man's moral attitude in any case.

3. A person is distinct from things in being rational, in his possession of freedom and his awareness of an active self. We have duties to develop our talents and to generally treat ourselves with the respect that we also owe to others. This places a general moral ban on cheating.

Rachel Browne


Erick asked:

Do you think that the universe is so huge like people say, or is this not true and they just don't want us to ask any questions?

Well... just what do people say, anyway? I'll tell you what... go read Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, especially the part where he says something like: the universe is big... really, really big... mind-bogglingly big.... He's right. When you're out in the country sometime, where there are no lights, and the sky is clear (in Britain... oh well...), you might reflect on the fact that what you see is such a small fraction of what's out there as to be ridiculous. Try this site for some graphic emphasis of my point:


and just look around it for a while.

Steven Ravett Brown

When it comes to questions such as how big the universe is, how can each of us come to an answer? Clearly, we cannot just go out and look for ourselves. Nor can we just reason out the answer, for this is an empirical problem (that is, the answer relies on going out and seeking evidence). To find out for ourselves, it would seem that we would need to do a degree in astrophysics and a lot of work — but even then we would be relying to a great extent on what others tell us. All scientists rely on work done by others as well as their own work.

So it seems to me that the only other way we can know how big the universe is, is to trust what we are told by scientists who have done the work. Such trust is not a blind trust, though. We can look at what a number of people say, and the reasons they advance. Above all, we can ask questions. Does this person seem to know what they are talking about? Are their reasons convincing?

So... yes, I do think the universe is huge, because the scientific accounts that underlie that view seem solid to me. I'm not sure who you mean by 'they', but scientists would most certainly want you to ask questions — asking questions is what science is all about.

Tim Sprod


Kevin asked:

What were the four corners that the Buddha said to respect instead of the four directions?

The terms "four corners" and "four directions" can be found in various mystical traditions. However they have not always the same meaning.

The question may refer to the teaching of the Japanese master Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282) — a monk honoured today by the controversial new religious movement Soka Gakkai — and the symbolism of the mandala Gohonzon. (A mandala is a diagram or a painting that is contemplated during meditation. Each mandala represents the Universe).

According to Soka Gakkai's interpretation of the Gohonzon, in the four corners are large characters who represent the Four Heavenly Kings. They are believed to protect the community from the four directions of north, east, west and south and support the practice throughout the universe of those who aspire to become Buddhas. (SGI New Century series, "Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism", "The Gohonzon" (Part 2), "The Essential Content of the Gohonzon").

Jean Nakos


Felicita asked:

Do you agree on having homework on weekends?

Let me put it this way. When they studied Asian families in the States to see why their children did so well in school compared to other children, why their IQs were higher, and so forth... all the racists thought it was genetic. Well, it turns out that grades are due, on average, to two things: simply the amount of time put in studying, and whether parents encouraged and worked with their children. Period, that's it. No big secret, no genetics, just time put in.

Now, do I agree about homework? Well, here we are, in a pretty complicated world, and you have the choice: do you want to know how things work, why, where they come from, what other people do, and so forth, or do you want to become the equivalent of a primitive: things work by magic. Turn on the lights... hey, magic! Start the car... magic! The TV... the stereo... computers... plastic... books... the magic is all around you, right? Those "scientists" (hey, the magicians, right?) just wave their lab coats and it all appears, right? Um, no. Wrong. What about all the art and music? You know, that "classical" stuff that real old people listen to... why do you think they do that? Or go to galleries and museums and look at art? Because it hurts them and they like to suffer? No. But it turns out that being able to see and hear is also something you have to learn. Time put in, that's the secret.

The math is icky, the science is icky, the "literature" is icky... right? Yes. The best thing is that maybe, with something, you will just really like it. If you do, go with it, whatever it is, as much as you can. Play with it. If you haven't found anything like that... look around. Find it. Anything, just about, can be turned into a doorway. For example, you're fooling around on a computer to write to this site, right? So play around a bit more with it, and see where that takes you. Who knows?

So there's your choice. It's your life, and very few people will care what you do with it. But I can tell you this... the more you learn, the more you realize how finely textured things are. Like looking very closely at a piece of cloth and seeing that what you thought were threads were themselves pieces of cloth... and on and on. It's really fantastic when you see that in things around you. Also, the more you learn, the more doors will open to you, and the more people will care.

Steven Ravett Brown

The central question, it seems to me, is what the purpose of homework is. If it is to assist in the learning of something that is interesting, or worthwhile, or necessary to know for some future benefit, then I think that homework is quite legitimate. If its purpose is more to meet some requirement that a certain amount of homework be set, without meeting any other worthwhile purpose, then I think it is not. In any case, the homework that you do because you see the benefit in doing it is always much better than that which you do (solely) because your teacher has commanded it. And note that the amount of homework required should not be so much that it throws the students' lives out of balance.

As to the weekend, if the homework is legitimate homework, I can't see why it shouldn't be done on the weekend. However, particularly for more senior students, I always think that homework should be set over a more extended period of time, so that you, the student, allocate the time to it as you see fit — and if you choose never to make that time on the weekend (while still being able to meet the time commitment that you need to reach your goals), then it is your choice.

Tim Sprod


Felicia asked:

When we ask whether life has meaning, what precisely are we asking?

You know, this is really an interesting question, but not because we don't know the answer. We don't know "the" answer because there are too many answers. You can take "meaning" to mean all sorts of things, from "long-term goals" to "purpose" to "relationship to the rest of the universe" to "the ability to control one's circumstances"... and on and on. So one can get bogged down going from one to another of these possible answers, around and around... because one never clarifies what one is actually asking. If you're religious, then the answer has something to do with religion. Or maybe not. If not, then maybe it has something to do with ethics. Or maybe not. And so forth.

At any rate, you see where I'm going here. It's not for me or anyone else to put that question for you until you're quite clear on what it is you're asking. And to do that, you have to have a certain amount of insight into yourself, your situation, etc. Then you can ask something like, "what are the possible bases for ethical systems?" or "are the sociological reasons for religions related to their metaphysics?" or "is there a modern argument for something like an Aristotelian teleology?". But to narrow down to that extent, where you can actually begin to get a glimpse of possible reasonable questions to ask (and indeed, these are still really too broad), you need to focus on your interests and concerns.

So I would put it back to you: what precisely are you asking?

Steven Ravett Brown

In my view, you can't have meaning without a meaning maker. Hence, we need to specify meaning for whom. This implies that, unless there is some meaning maker (like a god) that can find meaning over the whole of life, then we are asking more about how people find meaning in their lives than about some sort of overarching, eternal meaning of life.

Tim Sprod


Monica asked:

How do I know I really exist and am not myself a dream?

The story goes that Morris Raphael Cohen, the American philosopher, was asked by a student, "How do I know that I exist?" Cohen's reply was, "Who's asking?" There is a lot in this reply of Cohen's because it points out that the question you ask could not be asked unless you existed. "But what if I only dream that I exist?" But isn't it true that in order for you to dream that you exist (or dream anything at all) you must exist?

In a way, I am only repeating Descartes famous proof that he existed. He pointed out that he could not doubt or question his existence unless he did exist.

Ken Stern


Alan asked:

Would you say that Hume was an atheist or an agnostic?

I'm not sure that you can tell this from Hume's writings since he left his philosophy in the study and distinguished what he wrote from the way he lived. For sure he was extremely scathing about religion in his paper Superstition and Enthusiasm and his general philosophy would not be compatible with a belief in God. It is compatible with both atheism but I'm not sure about agnosticism since he was, after all, an empiricist. However, given that he distinguished what he thought philosophically from the way he lived, it might well be that believed in God. His essays On Suicide and Of the Immortality of the Soul were published after his death and it is suggested by the editor of his Selected Essays (Oxford World's Classics) that this could be due to Hume's fear of ecclesiastical condemnation and prosecution. So if he was an atheist or agnostic, he certainly wasn't willing to stand up and be counted.

Rachel Browne


Sasha asked:

I have heard of a female philosopher known as Welby. But I cannot find anything on her (except a small mention now and then). I can only get information on Augustus Welby and that is not who I am looking for (I know because he is a man) I am very interested in finding her. One of the many reasons being that I can't find her easily (I cant easily back down from such a challenge). Any help on this subject would be greatly appreciated, in the meantime I will continue looking.

You probably want Lady Welby. Here's one: Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence Between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby Ed. by Charles S. Hardwick & J. Cook (1977) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. An important collection of Peirce's correspondence with the English linguist Victoria Lady Welby between 1903 and 1911. Semiotic and Significs, which supersedes an earlier collection edited by Irwin C. Lieb, is rich in sign-theoretical content, and constitutes an important document in the history of semiotics. The collection is of particular interest for Peirce studies as it displays many important phases in the development of Peirce's later semeiotic, and includes material unavailable elsewhere.

Another: Essays on Significs: Papers presented on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Victoria Lady Welby (1837-1912) Schmitz, H. Walter (ed.) Number in series: 23 1989. xv, 313 pp.

Another: http://www.macalester.edu/~warren/courses/P50-01_timeln.htm

Another: A main contention of writers on general semantics, namely, that everyday language and, to a large degree, scientific and technical languages especially in fields not yet made rigorous, are permeated with prescientific structural assumptions, is therefore no surprise to any competently trained linguistic student. The logical consequences of this fact, that everyday discussion, public controversy, and even scientific discourse, are often made fruitless or meaningless by the unnoticed intrusion of obsolete prescientific assumptions, is also a familiar notion, vigorously argued by Lady Welby (fn 4 Viola Welby, What is Meaning? (1903).

Another: Discussion on 'An apparent paradox in mental evolution', Lady Welby Journal of the Anthropological Institute 20, pp.304-23. 1890

Another: Welby, Victoria Lady. Significs and Language John Benjamins.

That should get you started.

Steven Ravett Brown


Bill asked:

Has anyone ever bothered to document passages in the bible, King James or others, that support the argument for reincarnation, and if so, where can I find the list of passages?

I doubt that there could be passages in the Bible supporting the argument for reincarnation. The concept of reincarnation is alien to Judaeo-Christian biblical and theological ideas and religious beliefs. Furthermore, the words reincarnation and metempsychosis cannot be found in the concordances of the Bible I have consulted. (concordance is an alphabetical index of the important words of the Bible as they occur in context) Regarding mainstream Christianity, personally I have seen only once a passage friendly to reincarnation. It is in the book "Meditations on Tarot, a Journey into Christian Hermeticism" (Amty N.Y, Amty House 1972, 1985) written originally in French by the Roman Catholic spiritual writer Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973, a former Lutheran and former president of the Estonian Anthroposophic Society). The book has been prefaced laudably by Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), a leading Roman Catholic theologian, who died a few days before he was due to become a cardinal.

Jean Nakos


Cosmas asked:

1. Is there any connection between science and philosophy?

2. Can I define philosophy as a subject that tries to answer questions about right and wrong?

1. Yes, there are lots of connections. Science, after all, was known for a long time as Natural Philosophy. It started in Philosophy and it continues to rely on a series of assumptions which are philosophical. These assumptions include: that everything that happens has a cause; that the world is explicable in mathematical terms; that there is no need to invoke supernatural causes when explaining events and so on. Investigating such assumptions is the role of Philosophy of Science.

Equally, philosophy (in my opinion) has to draw on lots of scientific advances. While I don't think that science can answer most philosophical questions, we most certainly have to take account of scientific knowledge in philosophizing about questions such as the nature of consciousness, the link between the mind and the body, the nature of morality and many more.

2. Well, to paraphrase what Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty say, you can define any word in any way you wish. But that doesn't really answer your question — I am being facetious.

More seriously, the subject which tries to answer questions about right and wrong is a part of philosophy — Moral Philosophy or Ethics. Philosophy itself also tries to answer other questions as well, and has several other parts. Examples: questions about the rules of formal reasoning make up Logic, questions about what beauty is are in Aesthetics, questions about the ultimate underpinnings of reality are Metaphysics, questions about what we can know are in Epistemology.

Tim Sprod


Claire asked:

Please can someone send me some information on some of the theories of how the galaxies evolved.

Take a look at this site, and just look around:


and here:


That should help.

Steven Ravett Brown


Pilar asked:

Why do we exist? what is the purpose?

Many people have asked a similar question. But they and you should, at least, consider the possibility that there is no general purpose of our existence, except, of course, the purpose we each of us give to our own lives. In that case, only the individual can answer that question, but there is no general answer for all people. It would be like asking what was the height of everybody. Each person has his own height, but there is no height that everyone has.

Ken Stern

The principle of sufficient reason maintains that "nothing is without reason for being, and for being as it is". Ithas also been expressed as "Every being must have its sufficient reason somewhere in being, either in itself or in some other being or beings". We should therefore be able to propose some reason for humans existing. Thepopular neo-Darwinian response to the question, that we are just the result of a series of "chance" mutations, can be seen to violate the principle of sufficient reason. Chance is an epistemological concept.Chance has no ontological reality. Chance is not a reason, but is the absence of a reason or explanation.

That is not to say that your question is an easy one. It is probably the fundamental question behind the origin of philosophy, and of all religions. An explanation of why we exist will probably involve an explanation of the world. Myexplanation of the world — and of human purpose — is that there is a self-existent entity, an entity that has its sufficient reason for existing in itself. All other existents, including humans, ultimately have their reason for being in that self-existent entity. That self-existent entity is usually called God, but I prefer to call it X, as the word "God" carries too much baggage. Initially I only accept that part of the baggage that maintains that X is perfect.

As X is perfect, X needs nothing. The only motive for X to act is love. But as Aristotle has shown, an entity can only really love another entity that is similar to itself. Obviously the self-existent X can no more create another self-existent entity than X can make a square circle. Both are logical impossibilities. What can X do?

The only possible course is for X to initiate a process that involves a number of stages of self-organisation and self-creation,with increasing freedom from stage to stage. The initial stage of self-organisation follows the Big Bang and leads to the production of at least one life-friendly planet, Earth. Life is initiated with the potential to freely evolve, eventually producing Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens forms cultures and gradually self-creates his latent mental ability, eventually becoming capable of abstract and critical thought. When these capacities are sufficiently developed Homo sapiens begins to become aware of ideal (Platonic) objects, as in mathematics and in morals. All cultures are processes of self-creation.People make cultures and cultures make people. Moral people make moral cultures, opening the potential for humans to become similar to X in creativity and goodness, and so appropriate for X to love.

This is the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz deduced from the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is the only world that could produce an entity similar to X in goodness and creativity. Whenever a human realises, in the sense of making real, the Platonic "ought-to-be" he adds value to the world. The purpose of humans is to complete the creation of the world. As Nicolai Hartmann perceived, the creation of the world is not completed so long as man has not completed his creative function in it. (Ethics, Vol 1, Page 31).

Tony Kelly


Justin asked:

Why do skeptics use reason to deny things when any arguments they can propose are made up of notions they should not believe in as skeptics?

Because they are trying to cover all possible cases, basically. If you have an argument that is only true some of the time, then how do you know when it's true? But if you know it's true all the time, without exception, then you're set, right? So, in order to determine that, you try to take the absolute worst cases, and if you're still ok, then everything else works. So that's what a skeptic does; or conversely, a skeptic shows that in some very bizarre situations, some argument just doesn't work. Well, then it doesn't work, period, because if it doesn't in some situations, then where or how do you find the line for when it does, always, work? But if you do manage find that line (assuming you can at all), then you can just recast your argument to be within those new boundaries.

So if someone says that you can't be sure the world exists because a demon might be causing everyone to hallucinate it all (Descartes' argument), then, sure, nobody really believes that... but it leaves them in a dilemma. If you can't refute that claim, then what can you know is certain? Where is the line, and how can you prove that your line is the correct one? Descartes' boundary was between our thoughts and reality... whether or not a tree exists, we know that we are experiencing seeing a tree, even if some demon is causing us to hallucinate it. So we have certain knowledge of our experiences (or, actually, when you really get down to it, that we are experiencing something which we think we remember is a tree). So what the skeptic has done, with an extreme example, is to show that if we're going to talk about certainty, if we want certainty, then we have to be very careful indeed.

Steven Ravett Brown


Kyle asked:

Is it possible to feel another person's emotions with only having knowledge of their presence, and if so could their inflicted emotions affect yours?

I think that emotions are part of a person's presence and influence our relationships in many ways. Sometimes we find we don't like someone when we first meet them, and in part this is because of the emotional type they are. We know this by their demeanour, their expressions and tone of voice. Of course, we can be wrong when we get to know people better.

There is some kind of relation between another's emotion and your own. When with a person who laughs a lot, we tend to laugh too, and we tend not to laugh when a person is suffering. Although, it is an inconvenient fact about some of us that another's suffering can spark off nervous laughter. But this is simplistic common sense.

The close relationship between two people is well expressed by Sartre when he says "the other is not only the one that I see but the one who sees me". Our whole way of being is affected by the other. It is quite different to be in a room alone to being in a room with another person. Knowledge of another's presence is not like knowledge of the presence of an inanimate object.

Sartre also acknowledges that the presence of another can alter our perception of what we are doing. He examples a person looking through a keyhole, interested in what is taking place on the other side of the door. Suddenly the person realises that there is someone behind him and that he is being observed. No longer is a he a person interested in what is going on in the room. He is a prying person, feeling shame at what he is doing.

Rachel Browne


Stephen asked:

What is a question?

Good, I like this one. Suppose that you are constantly making models about the world: about what's going to happen (or not); about what something looks like on the side you don't see; about what other people feel or think; about what you yourself will feel or think... and on and on. Now, suppose that either a) you don't know right now whether one of your models is correct; or b) you have just found out that one of your models is not correct. What do you do?

Now, suppose that you do not make models like the above. Will you ever ask questions?

Suppose that you do make models like the above, but you don't know that you do. Will you ask questions? Will you know that you ask questions?

Steven Ravett Brown


Nita asked:

Are brains better than beauty?

I'm currently working on an essay about morality and law. Is it possible to declare the laws of the period of Nazi Germany invalid without applying some moral reasoning, or sense of right and wrong? I can't find a way of stating that Nazi law was invalid without applying some morality, or the natural law concept. Any suggestions?

Well one problem I'm having here is that I don't know what you mean by "invalid". If that means "immoral", then you're stuck. So you might think about that. However, what about functionality? There is a book called "Culture Matters" and another called "Sick Societies" which talk about cultural values, behaviors, etc., as empowering or as hindering the people in various cultures. Now think about the Nazis and the consequences of their culture. Were the consequences of applying, following, etc., their laws and customs such that their culture would be successful in the long run, would make people content in the long run, would make them able to cooperate with their neighbors (and thus avoid wars and the economic, etc., problems they cause), etc., etc.? Those and others are functional questions and consequences of cultural practices.

To take a more specific example, what if the Nazi culture involved destruction of the environment and enslavement of workers in order to support heavy industrialization; what would the long-term physical results be (leaving out for the sake of argument issues of the morality of slavery, etc.), assuming they had conquered the world? Pollution and disease, with the problems they cause, are merely two of the many consequences that come to mind. And all that of course brings up the issue of the ultimate basis of morality, and whether that too has some sort of functional grounds, i.e., whether morality can be "naturalized". A very contentious issue these days.

Steven Ravett Brown

Can a bad law or bad legal system be criticized on grounds of legal principle independently of moral considerations? To take a simple example, you could argue that equal treatment for relevantly similar cases is part of the essence of any legal system. So if, for example, the legal system allowed an Aryan a significantly lighter punishment than a non-Aryan for the same offence, on grounds of race, then this would be a legal rather than directly moral ground for criticism of the legal system.

The infamous Nazi show trials made a mockery the legal principle that an individual is assumed innocent unless proven guilty. Here the legal system itself was used as a means to an immoral end. However, the very idea of a show trial is wrong on grounds of legal principle even if it is used as a means to a moral end.

Geoffrey Klempner


Yolka asked:

My teacher asks me to write two paragraphs by explaining what is my philosophy. I don't have a clue what my philosophy is about. Do you mind if I ask you what is your own philosophy so I can have an idea what my own philosophy is?

This seems easy enough. Did the teacher tell you how long the paragraphs should be?

Most people don't have a philosophy, as such, but only tend to take a certain stance on a philosophical matter, such as whether the world is mind-independent or shaped by our way of thinking.

Two suggestions which I think you will be able to think about for yourself are, firstly, whether you think God exists and why you think so. Secondly, if you are not interested in God, you could consider whether you believe in fatalism or free-will. You will be able to find some answers that have been done on this through the search engine at philosophos.org.

Rachel Browne


Hubertus asked:

I can't find a proper English word for the German Lebensphilosophie. Perhaps you can help out. My text below explains:

"...This was the insight the thinkers of Lebensphilosophie in the wake of Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger and many others started from. Lebensphilosophie is NOT 'philosophy of life', it is not concerned with what life 'is', but it is philosophizing under the leading idea that thinking is problem-solving in the service of life, or even better and more precise that thinking is problem-solving to serve the interests of the thinker. The core question of Lebensphilosophie is not so much 'is it true?' but 'is it important and why should it be?' Nature poses no problems — WE do."

Very interesting... it sounds like they're going back to the Greek notion of rationality: Plato and Aristotle's idea that the happy man is the rational man, and that the highest purpose and the best way to live is to embody, in effect, rationality. Take a look at Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics on this. To put it another way, the field of cognitive science is concerned with the mind as, in effect, a problem-solving system, where even our perceptions are the way they are because of theories we hold (both consciously and unconsciously) about the world.

Steven Ravett Brown


Will asked:

How can I better my thought processes?

By thinking. But that's not enough; you need training in how to think. You only get that through interaction with people who already know how. How do you get that? School, reading, writing and having your writing (and thinking) criticized. How do you get good criticism? By finding competent people to critique you. How do you do that? Find a good school. And/or, write your ideas and submit them to journals that review and reject articles, not to journals that publish anything. You will find that it takes years of training to succeed, so be prepared for that. Another way (really the same general way) to get training in very specific ways of thinking: learn computer programming; learn the games of chess or (better) go. All of these require interaction with others to verify your competence, all require years to get that competence. There is no easy way to learn to think competently. People who do it when they're young have bumped up against others already competent, probably their parents, from birth, basically. If you didn't have that, you just have to grit your teeth and go after it yourself.

Steven Ravett Brown


Geoff asked:

I am interested in the idea of time travel, as described in H.G. Well's novel The Time Machine.

Is time travel consistent with the laws of logic?

How would a philosopher explain the time travel paradoxes?

While I am a physicist, I am no expert on time-travel, but here is a link:


I am not sure that there are any paradoxes: If a system is accelerated, its clocks begin to slow down against the non-accelerated system, since acceleration makes a real difference to constant inertial motion and in this way is not "relative" anymore. If the accelerated system once more gets into contact with the place where it started, the clocks of the accelerated system are behind the clocks at the starting point. But they are not behind the starting time, since both clocks have advanced. There are no paradoxes of causality, since you never get behind your starting time. Then all the famous films on time-travel are physically nonsense — while attracting to movie-directors by their bizarre logic. But I will check that.

Carl Sagan in the interview to which the second sublink points is not sure if travel "backwards in time" is possible. There seem to be ideas along that line, but not proven still. Maybe the "superstring theory" for which Jean asked will give an answer some day, but superstring theory is speculative too up to this time. For superstring theory generally go to http://superstringtheory.com.

And there may be some ride "backwards in time" after tunnelling through wormholes — but in a parallel universe not causally connected to ours. Then too all the films on going "backwards in time" — paradoxes, which like the "grandfather paradox" (you kill your own grandfather; then why then are you here?) — depend on causality, would become nonsense once more.

In my opinion the most important "pedagogical" value of the theories of modern physics, astrophysics and biology is to force people to ask for strict mathematical argument from proven data. From a philosophical point of view this is a major progress from the the old speculative theories of alchemy, "vis vitalis", astrology, kabbala etc., which were self-generating systems without any "Popperian" check of validity. Even if "time-travel" and "Grand Unified Theory" are not proven yet, they at least are serious and falsifiable hypotheses to work on. But many people don't like this merciless insistence on evidence and proof.

Hubertus Fremerey

This is really an interesting and extremely difficult question. Right now, as far as I know, there are a few physicists who think that some form of time travel (to the past) is possible in some limited fashion by using a "black hole" (which, remember, is not a hole, nor is it entirely black). I am have not looked at this in the depth necessary to evaluate it (assuming I could understand the math). But these physicists are in a minority, I believe.

Evaluating whether "time travel" is possible must wait on a good theory of "time"... and there is none. On the face of it, time travel is not possible, because it would require movement "through" time, which is the source of movement. What does that even mean? If you read Kant on time, you'll think that whatever is "out there", time itself is something we have created to make some sense of "it": the noumenon. But we don't know, really, that Kant is correct. If you look at fairly classical special relativity, then time travel would be possible if there were other dimensions to the universe which were inaccessible to us, so that whatever entities they were accessible to could employ our time dimension as a spatial one. Right. But all that would get those beings would be entry into what they would perceive (remember, this is all according to particular ideas in special relativity) as a sort of solid block of the four dimensions we inhabit. To them, our past and future would be all there, all fixed. So for them changing our "past" would entail no changes whatsoever in any other part of that block, just kind of chiseling out a small piece of a big brick. And we, as just a part of that brick, of course could not travel in time... whatever we've done is all there already. But this, as I say, is just one of a multitude of theories, none of which, as far as I know, have any experimental evidence for them which makes one preferable, really, to any other.

Given all that, what paradoxes are you talking about? There are none, because there is no theory from which to construct any.

Steven Ravett Brown


William asked:

Can anyone form a seat of learning, i.e. a college or university? Are there a criteria one must undertake? Does such a proposed institution have to submit itself to a process of some kind, or can it form itself independently, as for instance, a private company does? How then are academic qualifications accredited?

The answer to your questions depends very much on where you live. As I understand it, in some countries, such as Australia where I live, and the UK (probably many others) there are strict rules about the use of the term 'university', and the need for accreditation from an official body. In others, like (I believe) the USA, the rules are much less restrictive. Consequently, you can be sure that any degree issued in the former countries is worthwhile, while in the latter countries, you need to investigate the status of the issuing institution.

Tim Sprod


Nelda asked:

What is the most important thing about the Philosophy of Buddha and from where did he generate all his ideas? What are the major differences between this philosophy and the ones of the Ancient Greeks and Africans? which one fits better to these times? why?

1. What is the most important thing about the Philosophy of Buddha?

The division of Buddhism into schools and sects means that there is not a single point of view. The common foundation of most of the Buddhist trends is that they consider salvation to be the goal of life and that ethical and spiritual experiences are the means of attaining that goal.

However the most important thing of what we call the philosophy of Gautama Siddhartha (562-482 BC), the Buddha (the enlightened one), could be the emphasis given to the reality of suffering. In his first discourse in Benares, the Buddha developed his discovery of The Four Noble Truths, which could be summarized as follows:

1. Life means suffering
2. The origin of suffering is attachment, desire
3. The elimination of attachment eliminates suffering
4. The way to follow is The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of:

1. Right View
2. Right Will
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5 Right Livelihood
6. Right Aspiration
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

I would repeat that Buddhism put emphasis on the practical aspects because it is believed that only through practice and annihilation of the self one could reach a higher level of existence and finally attain Nirvana (the state of liberation from the limitations of existence and from rebirth).

2. From where did he generate all his ideas?

The tradition teaches that the Buddha, after six useless years of study and research, gave up the practice of asceticism. Then he tried a last meditation under a tree. Thus he finally found the path to the enlightenment.

Buddhism strove to replace Brahmanism, the tradition of early society in ancient India. Buddhism rose against the sacrifices of cattle and against the faith in the god Brahma, declaring him non-existent. The Buddha was a great reformer. He ceased to recognize the authority of the sacred texts of India (Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads). He wanted his own doctrine to be completely independent from Brahmanism. So one may conclude that the Buddha generated his ideas from his opposition to Brahmanism.

3. What are the major difference between this philosophy and the ones of Ancient Greeks and Africans? Which one fits better to these times? Why?

Which schools of Greek philosophy are you referring to? Concerning Buddhism, some Greek schools of philosophy had more and wider differences with it than others. Regarding African philosophy I am even more perplexed. Are you referring to the religion and philosophy of Ancient Egypt? Are you referring to the traditions of African peoples south of Sahara? Are you referring to all African philosophies and traditions of ancient times?

Jean Nakos


Nayan asked:

I just saw Dr Klempner's website:


Don't you think all philosophy is just a 'mind game'...constant churning of thoughts which takes you away from reality...away from what is here in front of you right NOW.

All philosophy is just an assumption of reality...has any philosopher ever come upon what reality/ truth is??

Is dissection of a flower necessary to enjoy the beauty of the flower....?

Just wondering!

A seeker from India.

Given that there is a flower, why can't we both enjoy its beauty and dissect it to gain knowledge of it?

While I agree that a lot of philosophy seems to be a mind game (possibly a fun game though if you like that sort of thing and why not enjoy, dissect and have fun too?), it is not at all true that philosophy assumes reality. It is quite the reverse. A large amount of argument central to the study of philosophy questions what reality is. There is disagreement about the nature of reality and the mind's relation to reality, as there is disagreement about truth. Here, I think that you might accuse philosophy of being a mind game because we will never know how things really are as we cannot get beyond our own mental capacities to any sort of pure mind-independent reality. But we can still consider, and it is interesting to do so, the ways the mind might relate to reality — or whether it is a relation at all — and in our considerations of what reality and what truth are, we do learn more about the nature of things closer to home, like what a belief is, or what a proposition might be.

In considering this, we get even closer to the less conceptually abstract nature of man, since we have to understand how the mind works and what thought is. The interest in this comes from our knowledge that we think and have a mind and so it seems, to those interested, that we might be able to find an answer. At the centre, the arguments are not simply about reality or truth which might be mind-independent, but are about ourselves. A dissection, it is true, but that we can still appreciate mankind at a normal level of interaction.

Rachel Browne


Sue asked:

What logical arguments have been developed for valid reasoning that avoids the excluded middle and proof by contradiction? I have been training as a mathematician, which I am now applying to Buddhist philosophy regarding the nature of reality. Starting from the single premise that "An agent of change must not be non-existent to have an effect", I find that one can prove that there is no free will. However, I am concerned because I easily fall into using excluded middle arguments, and in quantum mechanics one ends up with atoms being neither existent in the way we usually think of existent, nor non-existent. So I want to make arguments regarding phenomena that are in this grey area, between inherent existence and nihilism. What has already been done in this regard?

I am aware that Erret Bishop, a constructivist mathematician, did mathematics without use of the excluded middle, but that is probably deeper into the mathematical side than the philosophy I am working on. Have there been philosophers who have also worked on this?

Well if you've been training as a mathematician, and interested in this area, I'm surprised you haven't heard of fuzzy logic, developed by Zadeh. It treats extensively of the continuum of probabilities between true and false, and has in fact been applied to the construction of analog circuits in, for example, elevator controls. One can also look up quite a bit of literature on many-valued logic, an area I really have no expertise in... but three-valued is just a starter. As for whether "philosophers" have worked in this area... I guess it depends on whether you regard logicians as philosophers. You might also try Whitehead on "process" for another take on causality.

Which brings me to another point. Your sentence, "An agent of change must not be non-existent to have an effect" seems to assume quite a bit of metaphysics. What is "change", how is it brought about, what is an "effect", and so forth are questions which are still being debated. Whitehead, C. Taylor, and others do not give conventional answers to these questions. As far as quantum mechanics goes, that's no help for the free will problem, since you're just dealing with probabilities there, and not different types of "existence", whatever that term means. You might also look at John McCrone, Peter Carruthers, Daniel Wegner, Jaegwon Kim, and Palmquist for a few modern treatments of free will.

In addition, just what do you mean by "free will"? After reading a bit on this subject, I find that I really have no idea as to what that phrase might mean. Do you mean, we can make choices? No. Do you mean, our choices are uncaused? No, because then they'd be random or probabilistic, neither of which helps. Do you mean, our choices defy physical laws? But then what laws do they follow, "mental" ones? But then we're back to where we started. Do you mean, our choices are neither random nor do they follow any kind of laws? But then what is it to make a choice, and how are we, as the dynamic of physical neural nets, so apart from physical causality? Do you mean, we do not understand physical causality? Now there I'd agree that is a possibility. It may indeed be that there is another alternative here that we do not (as yet) understand, or cannot understand, although our remarkable success with the physical sciences argues against this. And of course the existence (which by the way I do not hold likely at all) of some sort of ESP has no bearing on the above arguments, as you no doubt realize. Why then does Buddhism?

If you want modern critiques (which I am very skeptical of) of the sciences and that conception of causality, I'd also recommend someone like Feyerabend or Foucault.

Steven Ravett Brown

Yes, there are lots. There are many versions of logic around nowadays, and some deal with these sorts of issues. Paraconsistent logics allow that there can be statements A, such that A and not-A are true. I suggest that you start by looking up the article on paraconsistent logic in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at:


One of the authors of the article, Graham Priest, is a leading philosopher in this field. There are lots of suggestions for further reading if you find that interesting.

Tim Sprod


JP asked:

I've been reading a lot about the theory of determinism and so far, no one has given me any good explanation on how it may not be true. Can you?

Determinism is the view that every event has a cause, and every cause is, itself, an event.

You seem to think that this theory must be true, since you ask for an explanation on how it "may not be true." But, I would think that the question would be this: since you think it is true, what is your argument for it? After all, isn't it up to the determinist who is the one asserting determinism to argue for his view? Suppose that I simply say: well, you (the determinist) may be right, and if you can give me a convincing argument I am prepared to listen to it. Please go on. What would you answer? After all, if you are the one who says determinism is true, isn't it up to you to argue for it?

Ken Stern

What would a universe in which determinism failed to hold be like?

Suppose instead we were talking about the law of non-contradiction. There is nothing one can say about what universe in which the law of non-contradiction failed to hold would 'be like' (pace Hegel). For if we allow that some contradictions are true then any proposition can be true, e.g. 'George W. Bush is an alien from the planet Zog'. From a contradiction, anything follows. And saying that just is a way of explaining why the law of non-contradiction is necessarily true.

Kant is one philosopher who held a similar view of determinism: that there is nothing one can say about what a universe in which determinism failed to hold would 'be like', because determinism is a precondition of objective experience. If determinism failed to hold, Kant thought, there would be no distinction, in principle, between a veridical experience and an illusion. The argument for this is in the 'Analogies of Experience' in the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason. The general consensus, however, is that Kant fails make his case, although most would agree that he succeeds in showing that a universe in which experience is possible must be orderly and predictable (see e.g. Strawson The Bounds of Sense).

In an orderly and predictable non-determinist universe, we would still identify 'causes' and 'effects'. It would still be regarded as problematic to identify a particular event as 'not having a cause'. And I think this is the source of your worry. To perceive an event as 'something that happens' just is a way of locating it in a network of causes and effects that stretches out indefinitely throughout space and time. So if we are to accept that determinism might not be true — as some believe, pointing to the discoveries of modern physics — we have to learn a radically different way of looking at things.

Geoffrey Klempner


Amelia asked:

If a man was going to die and he needed to buy some medicine, but he had no money, should he steal it?

This is the Heinz dilemma (well, almost — in the original, it is the man's wife, and not he himself, who is going to die). The story of Heinz was famously used by Lawrence Kohlberg in his research into moral development — an interesting story in its own right.

In the highest stage of moral development, as Kohlberg tells it, we make a judgement on this case on the basis of objective moral principles. In this case, the principle may be that it is always wrong to steal, or it may be that it is wrong to put profit above a human life. Kohlberg himself was not so much interested in which principle the subjects of his research used, nor what answer they came to, but more in whether the subject appealed to principles. Other answers, such as appeals to the greatest good, or to the need to follow laws, were interpreted by Kohlberg as earlier stages of moral development.

As Gareth Matthews has noted (see his "Philosophy of Childhood", Harvard University Press 1994), each of the stages Kohlberg identifies is a position seriously argued by some philosopher. Kohlberg counts Kant's view as the most developed — a view with which followers of Mill, Hume or Aristotle would disagree.

Kohlberg's original study was conducted entirely with boys. When Carol Gilligan tried to replicate it with girls (see her In a Different Voice Harvard UP, 1982), she found that girls did not (on average) reach as high a level of moral development as boys (on Kohlberg's scale). Given the relative rate of imprisonment of males and females (among other things) this might seem an extremely surprising result. Girls seem to pay more attention to caring about others, rather than following objective moral principles. Maybe Kohlberg is wrong.

But I haven't answered your question yet, have I? That's because I don't think it can be answered as it is. Unlike Kohlberg, I believe that morality is about complex, nuanced moral judgements that take full account of the detailed context (something that doesn't appear in your question), rather than strict adherence to simple, overriding principles. We need to know more before we can answer.

Tim Sprod


Bianca asked:

Are our lives predetermined? And is there anyway to prove they are not? Could you please tell me three different philosophers (one ancient, one from modern times, and an eastern philosopher) that discuss the ideas of predetermination?

I think that you're question probably needs to be rephrased. Since modern times the live question in (anglo-american) philosophy has been whether or not freewill is compatible with causal determinism. Some philosophers say yes and some say no. I would definitely fall on the "no" side. I won't offer an argument against causal determinism, but will instead outline what I think are good considerations in favor of freedom and causal determinism being incompatible with each other. (This would be the first step toward an argument against determinism).

First, if some agent A freely performed some act p, then A could have chosen to do other than p.
Second, If A could have chosen to do other than p, then it was not causally determined that A perform p.
Third, some agent A has freely performed some act p. Therefore causal determinism is incorrect.

Admittedly there are several disputed issues lurking below the surface of this sketch of an argument. And many, if not most, philosophers would disagree with the second statement (that is they would claim that "choosing to do otherwise" is compatible with causal determinism being a correct theory). If you are interested in exploring both sides of the question further you could start with the following books:

(1) Peter van Inwagen An Essay on Free Will
(2) Daniel Dennett Elbow Room: On the Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting

Those two works will give you a very balanced introduction to the current debates surrounding free will. The following are some philosophers that discuss the topics of free will and determinism:

Ancient: St. Augustine (if you consider him an ancient; he is a neo-Platonist in any case)
Modern: John Locke, Thomas Hobbes
Eastern: I'm afraid I'm not very well read in this area. Schopenhauer's "Prize Essay on Free Will" is probably influenced by eastern philosophy.

Lance Floweree


Hisham asked:

Kripke says if a substance is not H2O then it is not water, regardless of the substance's phenomenal properties. My question: What if H2O has the phenomenal properties of blackness and hardness instead of transparency and fluidity? Is it not possible for H2O to have those properties? If it is, in what sense is the statement, "Water [transparency, fluidity, etc.] = H2O" necessary?

You seem to have stepped into the middle of what is actually a long and complex debate about the nature of essences, of terminology, and of counterfactuals, to name but a few of the issues here. The "earth" and "alternate earth" arguments have to do with the nature of our definitions of things; whether they refer to actual things, to our uses of things, to social constructs, etc. If a substance has the formula H2O, is transparent, etc., and we call it "water", why are we calling it "water"? Because of appearance? Because we drink it? Because it has a particular physical makeup (H2O)? Suppose there were an alternate earth where people drank something that behaved like H2O but had a different formula, but was in every other way (never mind laws of chemistry, suppose they were different there) like H2O. Should it be called "water"? Suppose on that alternate earth the substance with the formula H2O was indeed hard and black, and undrinkable. Should it be called "water"? This question has not been answered to everyone's satisfaction, and a great deal of the bias toward different answers depends on what you think the function and nature of language is. Does language describe the world? Does it express only our beliefs? Only social conventions? What if it does a bit of all of those... then to what does "water" refer? Well. Do some more reading on this; it's not a simple issue. Go look up the "alternate earth" debates.

Steven Ravett Brown

Kripke holds that water is H2O in all possible worlds, that is, that necessarily water=H2O. Hence, when we ask 'is x water?' we disregard the phenomenal and functional properties of x and instead focus on its chemical make up. If x is not made up from H2O then x is not water. Hence, the truth condition for 'x is water' is ''x is water' is true if and only if x is H2O'. Saying water=H2O turns out to be equivalent to saying H2O=H2O. Now, you argue that a substance could be H2O and lack all the phenomenal and functional properties of water, and that this would be that the substance wouldn't be water. However, consider ice. Ice lacks the phenomenal and functional properties of water (its hard, it doesn't fall from the sky when it rains) but is still H2O. Does this mean that ice is not water? In a sense yes, but in another no. Kripke is just going to argue that H2O is water under certain conditions, like below freezing point. Hence, H2O is necessarily water given certain conditions, like temperature as in the ice case. The important point is that anything that is in the extension of water (set of all things that term is true of) is going to be H2O. Maybe the converse needs a few conditions to specify when H2O is water and not ice but that seems no big hurdle — Everything that is H2O is potentially water, necessarily.

On a personal note, I find it hard to accept Kripke's position. For example, I doubt very much that I mean 'can I have a glass of H2O?' when I ask the waiter for some water. Secondly, I doubt whether the biblical writers cared at all whether the rivers of babylon were filled with H2O or XYZ. I don't think we use language in the way Kripke suggests. Lastly, I am dubious about the notion of a natural kind as it is used in Naming and Necessity. Perry wrote a good article on this topic. I can't remember the title but if you type 'natural kinds' and 'Perry' into the 'Philosophers Index' (search Google) you'll be able to get the reference.

Rich Woodward

We have made the empirical discovery that the structure of the clear fluid that we call water is H2O. It is a matter of empirical fact, or necessity in this world that this is so. We could have called black hard stuff "water" since a classifying word is contingent, but were we to find that the black hard stuff was H2O that would become an identity relation of empirical necessity. It is conceivable, though not naturally possible, that we might suddenly come across black hard stuff and find that that, as well as the clear fluid was H2O, but we wouldn't call it "water" since it wouldn't be of any help in our talk about two things with such different phenomenal properties which would have quite different uses. We would use a different name but that name would also be identical to H2O. However, that H2O should have different phenomenal properties than the ones it has is a logical and metaphysical possibility, not a natural possibility. In the world as it is, H2O just is clear fluid.

Rachel Browne


Kerry asked:

Should children be allowed to play with war toys?

Let me put it this way. My sister and brother-in-law, an anthropologist and a pediatrician, respectively, and both very conscious of things like violence, sexism... etc etc... had two children, a boy and a girl. As soon as the boy could reach out, he created weapons, played with sticks, anything that could be turned to violence. As soon as the girl could, she played with dolls, beads, etc. Talk about stereotypes. And nothing their parents did or does makes any difference. Now, surely, there are both cultural and hormonal influences in this... hey, I'm not denying any of that. But your question, it seems to me, and believe me I'm not happy with this, just seems to miss the point. It's not a matter of allowing children to play with certain types of toys (and I'm just as against the Barbie thing as I am the soldier thing, believe me). It's a matter of changing, in my opinion, both culture and human nature. Now you pick the easiest, and tell me how to do that... because I don't have the faintest idea as to how. And I don't think that changing either separately will be the answer, if it comes to that. Yes, I am in favor of genetic engineering... as extremely dangerous as that will be... look at human history; could we be any more cruel, violent, repressed, stereotyped than we are? What do we have to lose? Perhaps, hopefully, we will (probably purely by chance) create a race that will be both compassionate and intelligent enough to protect itself from us, to supplant us.

Steven Ravett Brown


Cristina asked:

What is the difference between inferring something and just making it up? Do I really have to believe something to infer about it?

You infer one proposition or statement from another proposition or statement when you say that the second proposition or statement follows from the first. That means, you are asserting that if the first is true, then, so is the second true (or, what is the other side of the same coin, if the second is false, then the first is false) Your inference may be correct, or incorrect. But there is no question of making something up. For instance: Suppose I I draw the inference that if 5 is an odd number, then 5 is not divisible by 2. That is a correct inference, since no odd number is divisible by 2.

The question of inference is this: if you know that a certain statement is true, what else do you know? For instance, if you know that I have a penny in my pocket, do you, or do you not, know I have a coin in my pocket? The answer is, yes. But if you know I have a coin in my pocket, do you know I have a penny in my pocket? The answer is, no. Therefore, you can correctly infer that if I have a penny in my pocket, I have a coin in my pocket. But you cannot correctly infer that if I have a coin in my pocket, that I have a penny in my pocket.

You should see that you do not actually have to believe I have a penny in my pocket, to know that if I do, I have a coin in my pocket. You can know that without believing I have a penny in my pocket.

Ken Stern

The way I understand 'infer' is that it means to validly draw a conclusion from a number of statements. That's very different from just making something up. You certainly have to believe those statements before you can infer anything from them. 'Infer' is sometimes (incorrectly) used to mean 'hint' or 'imply'.

To infer is to draw a logical conclusion from a number of statements. Logical conclusions are, in a sense, contained in the statements from which they are drawn. Conclusions can only be guaranteed to be true if the statements from which they are drawn are also true, and the inference follows the rules of logic. Hence, you need to believe the statements from which you are inferring the conclusion if you are to believe the conclusion.

Tim Sprod


Juliet asked:

In my enquiry into the concept of existence, meaning and God, I've come across many different prevalent theories. But so far all of them (so it seems to me) seem to sprout from humans' deep-rooted, inherent desire to be masters of the world and themselves.

I say this because present systems of reasoning — or to be a bit technical "logic" — are too contextual and limited while we seem to talk about entities and their operative modes which are universal. For what is reason but a mere software (however advanced) that is run inside our brains? Reason and logic may not dictate reality (if reality is conceived as an outside independent objectivity) any more than they dictate themselves. Reason has such a strong hold on us by virtue of its very nature and the only device at hand to disprove reason is reason itself, which leads us into bizarre contradictions.

If this is so don't you think we need first to question the universality of reason?

In answer to your question, no I don't think that we should question the universality of logic. Mainly, im going to disagree with your claim that 'logic does not dictate reality'. Reality must work within the laws of logic. For example, reality could not contain any contradictions. It can't be the case that it's both raining in Leeds and it's not raining in Leeds (¬(p&¬p)). Reality simple cannot bend this law. Nor can it bend other rules. For example, "its either raining in Leeds or its not raining in Leeds" (p v¬p); "if water=H2O then if x isn't water then x isn't H2O" (if x=y then if ¬(a=x) then ¬(a=y); "if it's raining in Leeds then it's raining in Leeds" (if p then p). Reality simply cannot break these rules. Secondly, if logic is just a software in the brain then logic must govern our thinking. Our thinking is part of reality, so logic must govern part of reality. Logical laws are of the upmost generality and if we lost them then we would lose our grip on reality.

Rich Woodward

Quite a few years ago, there was a bug in an early version of the Pentium processor which caused PC's to produce the wrong answers to certain mathematical calculations. Is it not conceivable that there could be a similar malfunction in the human brain, caused perhaps by a genetic mutation that took place millions of years ago?

If a malfuctioning logic machine in our brains governs our thinking about reality, then there will be times — as with the malfunctioning Pentium processor — when we reason illogically.

Suppose that were true. As a matter of fact, human beings are rather less reliable than computers when it comes to reasoning. All of us have reasoned illogically at times. However, we are also able to discover when we have done so. Illogical reasoning leads to inconsistency.

What if it didn't: suppose that because of this genetic feature of our brains we are unable to recognize when our thinking is at odds with reality. So our defective 'logic' appears to us perfectly consistent, because, in effect, we are measuring our logic against itself as the standard?

But wait a minute,we can't speak of 'consistency' because this already assumes the truth of the law of non-contradiction! Maybe the law of non-contradiction is false, but we are incapable of seeing this because our brains are locked into thinking 'consistently'....

Geoffrey Klempner


Alice asked:

This is probably not a philosophical question, but I was wondering why was I so uncomfortable when I was in presence of a friend who was showing so much affection to his wife while we were having a dinner in the restaurant. The affection included touching her hair, patting her on her back, hugging her — constantly for the duration of the dinner which was three hours. He was also at the influence of alcohol and he even asked her to touch him etc. I think they should go for this dinner together, not invite their friends. I have always thought that showing so much affection should be limited to the family circle. I would appreciate what you think of my friend's behaviour.

Most people would be uncomfortable in this situation since sexual affection is normally a private affair and I agree that they should go to dinner alone. One might say that this friend was very inconsiderate, especially if you are young. But if he is very much in love and was under the influence of alcohol, you can't really expect him to act with consideration. Love and alcohol can affect behaviour.

I see no reason why such behaviour would necessarily be acceptable within the family circle. In fact, I'd have thought children wouldn't like seeing their parents mauling each other and constant hugging within a family circle also seems rather unappealing.

Rachel Browne

Well it actually can be a philosophical question. As far as your emotional responses as such go, they're the product of your education through your culture, family, etc. So that's the simple and easy answer to your question. You feel that way because you've been trained to. But... we can ask what "privacy" means and how that concept is relevant to different situations. This is a really nasty question. And the further question is, should you feel embarrassed at public displays of affection, and if so, which ones? And why? Surely all public affection should not be bad or embarrassing. (Though there are cultures that would violently disagree with that statement. Are they correct? Why or why not? Let's see.)

One thing that "affection" might be taken to be, and/or show, is sexuality. Lots of cultures frown on public sex, and if affection is regarded in this way, then public affection will be disapproved. Now, let's call this alternative 1, and assume for the sake of argument that this viewpoint is correct (although I don't actually agree). We can still ask whether it should be disapproved. What is it about sex that should be private? Well, what differentiates sex from other activities? First, its used for reproduction. But this won't do... you can go to a lab and play with sperms and eggs, and do that in public. Second, we see public sexuality all the time in the movies. What is the difference between that and seeing "real" people being affectionate? So there is something having to do with sexuality being between two real people. What about strangers? I'd say you'd probably be embarrassed by seeing two strangers making out passionately in a restaurant or a public park, correct? But would you be as uncomfortable if a) you didn't know them, and b) they were both enjoying themselves? That is, what about this difference: the two real people are both obviously enjoying themselves vs. one of them is not? Probably both scenarios would be embarrassing, but the latter (one is not) much more. Now here we can find a clear ethical component: one person is being forced, to some extent. So you (and everyone else) should disapprove of the scenario in which one person is forcing their affections on another. And I imagine that was part of your problem in the restaurant.

Now let's look at the situation where both are clearly enjoying themselves, in public. Why should we disapprove of that? Well, let's look at some possibilities. What is there about "privacy" which is valuable or good? If you assume that others are going to take advantage of you in some way, or are merely going to disapprove of some action (for whatever reasons, good or bad), then performing that action in private is reasonable, in the sense that since you're living in a social context, you have to behave in ways to get along with others, otherwise you'll be shunned, treated badly, and so forth. But we do live in a culture where both of those are true. First, there are people who will try to take advantage of you (say, through some sort of social blackmail, for one), and second, there are people who will disapprove of your actions (perhaps not for any good reason, merely because they've been told they are "bad"). And that disapproval can take many forms, virtually all with negative consequences for you. Now, I'm not thinking of things like privacy for the purpose of keeping valuables safe, and that sort of thing... just in respect of sexuality. Let's take an extreme example: if you think of the behavior of the very rich and powerful throughout history in front of their slaves, the conception of privacy becomes a bit iffy... since a slave was not recognized as an equal, and perhaps not even as really a person, and the masters had absolute power over them. Consequently, sex in front of slaves was a matter of indifference in that kind of culture, unless the slave was seen as some kind of potential threat. So sexual privacy has to do with the ability of others to harm, which a slave (in some contexts) did not have.

Given that admittedly quick analysis, we can ask whether you should have felt embarrassed, if those two were mutually enjoying each other. Well, in an ideal culture, where everyone lives in harmony, we would have no reason to feel vulnerable exposing ourselves, and thus, probably, no reason for privacy... unless we just wanted to be free of distractions. But clearly we don't live in that culture... and indeed I doubt anyone ever has or, given human territoriality and aggressiveness, ever will. Given fairly normal cultures, i.e., most throughout history, you should have felt, if not embarrassed, at least that those people were behaving inappropriately, if only in that they were making themselves too vulnerable to a number of possible threats.

But as I said above, I think that most of your negative feelings were due to your cultural and familial contexts, and also that you may have seen that the man's wife was not enjoying herself, i.e., was being forced to behave in a particular manner. Now given that the above is correct, we might conclude that the more prohibitions a culture has against public displays of intimacy, the more internally aggressive that culture is, i.e., the more potential for threats there are in the interpersonal interactions within that culture.

Steven Ravett Brown

I would have not only felt uncomfortable. I would have been angry, and probably have walked out. To start with, both of your friends were being rude since they were paying little attention to you or to your feelings. But, that is only to start with: They were also doing things which should be done in privacy not in public, so I do not agree even that they should have acted in that way if they had been alone in public. If they had acted in that way in a restaurant owned by me, I should have told them to stop, and if they had not stopped, I would have asked them to leave.

Ken Stern


Tony asked:

Try as I might I find myself unable to apply the 'valid' and 'invalid' deductive forms to syllogisms that go beyond if p, then q, p. therefore q to syllogisms that introduce another factor. For example All mammals have legs/ My cat is a mammal/ Therefore my cat has four legs. This example includes another factor, i.e., how do I interpret the second statement? It goes something like if p, then q, BUT q is r. Then what happens next?

It is not clear just what your difficulty is, for I do not understand why you think you must "interpret" the second premise. Perhaps you mean that you think you have to decide whether the second premise is true. But you do not. For instance, suppose the second premise was "My snake is a mammal" That statement is, of course, false. No snake is a mammal. But, nevertheless, the conclusion, "My snake has four legs" would follow necessarily from those premises, although, of course, that conclusion would be false, since no snakes have four legs. The central issue in logic is whether the premises support the conclusion. But not whether the premises or conclusion are true or false. That is a separate issue.

Ken Stern

"Valid" and "invalid" forms? What you have above is totally straightforward. Here are the forms:

Roughly speaking, according to C.S. Peirce, 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 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.

Ok? Now, given deduction (RCE), you can say: R: all mammals have legs; C: my cat is a mammal; E: therefore my cat has legs. If you want to introduce the number of legs, you have to say something like: R: "all mammals have four legs". Or you could introduce another syllogism similar to this one: All mammals have legs; (my cat is a mammal) AND (normal cats have four legs) AND (my cat is a normal cat); therefore my cat has four legs. You just concatenate (haha) conditions.

If you want invalid forms, you use the inverse or the converse, which do not logically follow: my cat has legs; my cat is a mammal; therefore all mammals have legs. No. Or, all mammals have legs; my cat is not a mammal; therefore my cat does not have legs. No again.

Steven Ravett Brown


Chris asked:

If you had perfect/ full knowledge of everything, would you still have feelings? (Excluding feelings by the use of senses or physical pleasure/ pain) Does "feeling" come from whatever does not seem logical to us and because we do not know the causes for everything? Also, for example, if we could solve how "beauty" exists and explain it perfectly, would we still feel it?

In brief, yes, I think we would still "feel" beauty even if we had a full, complete and true explanation of how beauty exists etc. What I would say is the 'feeling' probably isn't the right word though I think I know what your getting at. Consider that even if we had a true theory about colour, we would still get colour sensations. Something I have been thinking about recently is this: Suppose that Mackie is right, and all moral statements are systematically false, and there are no moral properties in the world. So, if this error-theoretic conception of morality is right then Mackie has shown that all our moral discourse is systematically mistaken and that morals do not objectively exist. Would this stop us "feeling" morality in the way you ask? It would seem not. Even if the world was convinced about the truth of Mackie's theory it still looks plausible that we would have a certain moral 'tug' in one way, we would feel bad when a child was murdered, our decisions would still pray on our conscience. Consider the analogous case of aesthetic value: Suppose there are no aesthetic properties in an objective sense. We would still get certain impressions from paintings. Picasso's work would still seem 'beautiful' and give us certain feelings. Im not trying to give any argument for realism in morality or aesthetics, (im dubious on both counts) all im trying to suggest is that even if we proved that morals or aesthetics did not exist we would still 'feel' them in the way you suggest, even if, on reflection, we knew we were wrong.

Rich Woodward

It seems to me that you are equating knowledge with a store of value-free facts. I would argue that the idea that the world is made of facts (one the one hand), and values (or emotions, or feelings) are easily and cleanly distinguished from facts, and are somehow not a part of the world, is a false account of the world.

If feelings are just as much a part of the world as facts — and are not even able to be cleanly distinguished from facts — then knowing feelings would be essential to having perfect/ full knowledge of everything.

It seems to me that another way of asking your question is: if we had a complete scientific explanation of the way the physical world works (the causes), would we therefore know all there is to know? I would answer 'no'. Your last question indicates why. Feeling a sense of beauty may be dependent on having certain processes take place in your brain, but knowing about those processes is not feeling it, any more than knowing the wavelength of red light and how it affects the retina is the same as seeing red.

Can I also comment on your phrase 'seem logical to us', which you seem to use as another way of talking about a scientific causal explanation. Logic is not science, and being logical is not being scientific. Logic is a tool that science uses, as do many other areas of knowledge. Logic merely allows us to move from true statements to true conclusions — it does not tell us which statements are true to start with. Thus, we can be logical about feelings just as much as about facts. Take this example: Fred says to Mary: "People who feel light-headed about someone and worship the ground they walk on are in love with that person. I feel light-headed about you and worship the ground you walk on. Therefore I am in love with you." Fred is being perfectly logical, as well as being wonderfully emotive.

Tim Sprod


Diaisa asked:

How long has the Earth been spinning? Will it rotate forever? What would happen if it stopped suddenly?

1) About 4.6 billion years (4600000000 years).

2) No — the sun will eventually expand and consume the earth — in about another 5 billion years.

3) It won't — the amount of energy needed to do this is far too large.

Tim Sprod

1) Billions of years, anyway... about from the origin of the solar system... but I don't remember the exact number. Look it up.

2) No. Nothing lasts forever. Eventually our sun will turn into a red giant and swallow up and vaporize the earth. It will stop rotating at that point, since it won't exist. However, don't hold your breath... that's another at least several hundred million, and probably a few tens of billions, years off.

3) On this, take a look at HG Wells "The man who could work miracles" for a nice graphic description. Imagine a sphere turning very fast with lots of little thingies on it. You stop the sphere... what happens?

Steven Ravett Brown


Andy asked:

"Is Civilization itself? The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact. It is silence that isolates."

Extraordinary question. Is civilization identical to itself, do you mean? Yes, if civilisation is a lawful state it cannot at the same time be a barbaric one. Or is the question whether what we take to be civilization really is civilised? Yes, since we make the law. Or are you saying that civilization is a contradictory word? Perhaps you define civilization as something like "the best and most advanced organisation of society" and we think that this is what we have now but there are obviously grave doubts about this, and that if this is the best there is no room for change, and how do we know when we are truly civilised? Even then it is not a contradictory word.

I can't think of a contradictory word, but wouldn't say that the word preserves contact. What about the touch or the look? The spoken word which is understood is just one means of contact. The contradictory word cannot be understood. Silence doesn't isolate.

Rachel Browne


Molly asked:

What do blind people dream of?

I assume that what you're actually asking is something like: what does someone with no visual cortical processing capability dream of. Because if you were blinded tomorrow in an accident which destroyed your eyes, you'd dream just as you do now. On the other hand, if you were in an accident which destroyed your visual cortex (and you somehow managed to survive with everything else intact, an unlikely chance), your dreams would indeed then have no more visual images. What someone who has no ability to visualize dreams of is everything else: sounds, smells, kinesthetics, words... etc etc. Think about what a dream has as content: many other things besides visual images. Whatever your waking world consists of you reconstruct, accurately or not, in dreams.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jose asked:

Does everyone has a future and a destiny already defined?

Such a view is called determinism or fatalism. I think that it is wrong. We have a certain control of our future — not to make it anything at all, but to influence it for good or bad through the wise or foolish decisions we make.

Tim Sprod


Jim asked:

Does our level of happiness at present time come from comparison with our previous levels of happiness — in this way, our happiness level throughout our lives would always be at average level — and our comparison with how happy we perceive others to be compared to us, OR is our level of happiness inborn within us? Perhaps both? I've often heard the saying that you can't know happiness until you know sadness. Is this saying true? If even the smallest amount of our level of happiness is inborn, doesn't the saying have to be false?

Jim also asked:

Can pleasure (like sex) be used to achieve "happiness" indefinitely or do we build up tolerance towards it and does it become less enjoyable over time?

Happiness is a state or emotion and we can be in this state whether or not we know about it, so comparison has nothing to do with it. My dog isn't ascribed emotional knowledge, but when I see him "zig-zag" running in a large field, I know that he is happy. It's not simple running but a strange way of running which is having fun. Sometimes his whole body wriggles with happiness. Average levels and comparisons are peculiarly quantitative notions and while there may be levels of happiness, it isn't the sort that can be measured. Maybe it is that we don't have the capacity, but even if we did, a scientist might be able to measure how happy we are at any one time and compare it with other times but we wouldn't be able to know from introspection and memory. How could we know we are happier now than three years ago? Can we really get in that state we were in three years ago to compare?

I think that there are certain personalities more bound for happiness than others. Some people unintentionally impair their capacity for happiness because they cannot cope with the bad things in life. Others can cope, and assimilate traumas recognising that that is just bad luck but so be it, and this clears the way to the possibility of future happiness.

There doesn't seem to be any reason why there should be any truth in the saying that you can't know happiness until you know sadness. We learn to use the term "happiness" socially and could do this in a society with no sadness. But then this isn't because happiness might be inborn and so the saying false. It could still be true that we need particular things in our lives to make us happy and then we recognise or know that we are happy on criteria for the application of the term as determined by society.

As to your second question, a psychologist has said that we don't "achieve" happiness at all. Rather it is a by-product of what we do. Happiness may well be a by-product of pleasure and sex, or if you reject what the psychologist says, it might be achieved thereby. But it certainly isn't the sort of thing we can build up tolerance against, like a germ. Happiness isn't a physical anti-body. It is always good, to us. Though, of course, the means some people come by happiness can sometimes be doubted as good.

Rachel Browne


James asked:

I think that all types of emotions/ feelings can be explained except for humor. I believe that all other types of emotions come from our lack of pure knowledge and will disappear with complete intellectual analysis and when using determinism as a premise (I believe in determinism). As to feelings, if there is a pleasurable feeling that each of our five senses can give us, (e.g. beauty, delicious food, baby's skin, perfume, and good music) is humor a pleasure for our emotions? What is the source of humor and how would you explain it? If so, are there any other source of pleasure for our emotions other than humor?

I couldn't disagree more. There is an enormous literature on emotions, and none of it supports your claim, quite the contrary. However, there is a conference which I highly recommend you look into. See the site:


for the conference on "...what would be the influence of a reasoner's emotions on his/her reasoning? And, conversely, would it make sense to study the influence of reasoning on a reasoner's emotions and why? If so, how could it be possible to model such an influence?" This sounds like it would bear directly on your interests.

Steven Ravett Brown


Hossein asked:

What is Lipman's philosophy?

What is Lipman's model for a Philosophy for Children syllabus?

This is a passion of mine. Contact me if what I say below is not enough.

Matthew Lipman is an American philosopher who, in the late 1960s, decided that children were not being taught how to think well, and that doing some philosophy in the classroom was the way to set this right. Together with Ann Margaret Sharp, an educator, he developed the community of inquiry method for dong informal philosophy in schools, and wrote the book "Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery" for use by such communities. Here is a description of Philosophy for Children I have published elsewhere:

Philosophy for Children (P4C) is a program that involves school children in whole class discussion on philosophical issues. It aims to improve children's thinking through introducing them to, and enabling them to investigate, many of the 'big questions'. Using the program, teachers encourage children to think more deeply about the ideas behind their schoolwork in a classroom community of inquiry. Children will then focus reflectively on their own thinking and the skills they use, thus improving them, in the meantime exploring and enhancing their own ideas and those of others in response to philosophical and other puzzles. The joint exploration of ideas leads to more cohesive shared knowledge within the group.

Philosophy for Children is based on the idea that children construct knowledge and reasoning capabilities in a community. The teacher's role is not that of supplying knowledge for children to swallow, but of providing the model of an experienced thinker to the apprentice thinkers of the class and of ensuring the level of thinking is kept high. Children set the agenda for the discussions by asking questions that appeal to them, ensuring that what is discussed is appropriate to their needs and abilities and that student questions are valued. The thinking is done within a rich context, with repeated applications of thinking techniques to diverse contexts as is judged appropriate by the participants. This improves the chances that children will be able to transfer these skills to other situations. The model of discussion allows students to drive the conversation, creating the time for proper exploration of ideas.

The original Philosophy for Children syllabus was written by Matthew Lipman and his associates at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA. Typically, a unit of the program consists of a lengthy purpose written 'novel' or 'text', presenting a group of children (often, but not always, the characters overlap from text to text) engaged in creating their own Community of Inquiry in and out of school. The texts have philosophical hooks embedded within them; there is a central philosophical theme (or 'spine') to their inquiry, though many other puzzles are also included. This text is backed up by a Manual which highlights the philosophical issues and offers discussion plans, exercises and background notes for the teacher to use as appropriate.

Other trigger material may be used, however, such as picture books, novels, movies, newspaper articles, provided they contain a philosophical 'hook'. Using such material is becoming more common, and there is an increasing array of such material being produced. The great majority of this, in both amount and quality, is Australian produced material.

In the classroom, the teacher sets up a Community of Inquiry. The children sit in a circle so that they can see each other. A section of the text is read around the group, each student reading a paragraph unless they opt to miss out by saying "Pass". Then children's questions about the passage are gathered and written up publicly and the discussion begins. The teacher's role in building the discussion is crucial.

Prior teacher preparation
The Federation of Australasian Philosophy for Children Associations strongly recommends that all teachers who want to use Philosophy for Children in their classroom attend an accredited training course. Training courses are available through your State Philosophy for Children Association. Running a community of inquiry has many continuities with good teaching practice, but there are also some powerful distinctive features that it is difficult to learn without practice and modelling.

The teacher, as discussion leader, must have previously considered the possible lines of development of the discussion arising from the various hooks in the trigger experience, even though they cannot be sure that any particular line will be picked up by the children. This assists them in identifying the potential of remarks that students make, and can suggest the right intercessions to make to help develop them. Of course, as the agenda is set by the students and the actual direction of the discussion arises from its own dynamic, there is still considerable need to 'think on your feet'.

Running the Community of Inquiry
Once the trigger material had been presented, the Community of Inquiry commences. The major features of this method are:

1. Ask the children what they found interesting or puzzling about the story or other experience. Encourage them to make their comments in the form of a question. Gather the children's questions on the board, writing the name of the child who asked each one after the question.

2. Discuss the questions in an order decided by one of a variety of methods — we might vote for the most interesting question, try to group similar questions to see the area of major interest, weed out the questions that have easy answers or which are impossible to answer on the evidence we have and so on.

3. Rules for the discussion can be decided by the community, either in advance or after some experience of the community. In one class, for example, five rules were decided on by the community before the first discussion. They were: be quiet when not speaking to the community, only one speaker at a time, listen to the speaker, don't play about, speak up loudly when you are the speaker.

4. The teacher's role is that of a facilitator. Basically, it is to provoke and model the moves made by experienced thinkers in their own best thinking, avoiding the teacher's common roles as source of knowledge and instant evaluator of student responses (the community takes on these roles). Some of the major techniques here: the use of increased wait times, avoidance of judgmental comments, the exhibition of teacher puzzlement, and the judicious use of questioning that signals the cognitive moves that might usefully be made next and concentrates children's attention on metacognition (thinking about their own thinking).

5. The impact of the physical setting of a circle on the establishment of a community is reinforced by the encouragement of participants to talk to the whole circle, or directly to the person they are answering, rather than always through the teacher. Whilst it can be necessary, especially with a newly established group, to insist on hands being raised before speaking, it is certainly an aim of the teacher to develop turn taking skills, so that the discussion follows a more normal conversation dynamic. Deciding how far to allow a noisy interchange to continue before insisting on one speaker at a time is one of the teacher's major judgments.

6. The teacher is a member of the community and hence has a duty to participate in the discussion. However, traditional roles of teachers mean that any input they make will carry greater weight than the contributions of students. Hence it is important for the teacher to hold back in matters of fact and opinion if there is a good chance that the students may come up with an acceptable answer with suitable encouragement or given time. Lipman often says the teacher should be 'pedagogically strong but philosophically self-effacing'. Of course, there are times when teacher input is just what the discussion needs; deciding when and how to do this form part of the professional judgment of the teacher, guided by knowledge of the group and the prior consideration of the issues involved. It need not, however, always be in the form of a dogmatic statement.

7. The teacher needs to encourage a recognition in the community that many questions are complex and not amenable to simple, quick answers, so time has to be provided for talking around problems. Clarification of what the problem is must be recognised as valuable, even if no answer is found; premature closure of questions is to be avoided. 8. Children must be encouraged to take responsibility for their comments and be prepared to defend, modify or change them as appropriate. The teacher needs to ensure that attacks on positions are not made or seen as attacks on the holders of the positions.

Tim Sprod


Walter asked:

I'm very confused about the distinction between bivalence and the law of excluded middle. Some textbooks and philosophical dictionaries seem to give the definition as the same, e.g. "every proposition is either true or false." Those that do draw a distinction do not explain it clearly enough for me to understand. Could you explain this distinction with a clear example or two?

The distinction between the principle of Bivalence and the Law of Excluded middle can be difficult to understand — even the Oxford Companion to Philosophy conflates them. In classical logic the two seem equivalent, with bivalence stated as 'every proposition is either true or false' and the law of excluded middle stated as 'p or not-p'. At first glance the two do seem equivalent but consider the following case: Bivalence means that there are only two truth-values i.e. true and false. The Law of Excluded middle, on the other hand, is consistent with 'supervalued' logics such as Fuzzy Logic where there are more than two truth-values i.e. true, false and indeterminate. To see this, consider that 'p' means 'it is true that p' but 'not-p' means 'it is not true that p' from which it does not immediately follow that 'p is false' as p could also be indeterminate, at least within a supervalued logical framework. Of course, once you have the principle of bivalence, you can derive the law of excluded middle but the opposite does not follow for the reason that the law of excluded middle is consistent with three (or more) value logic as well as the principle of bivalence.

A reason for postulating a third truth-value 'indeterminate' is the problem of vagueness. Consider a colour spectrum between red and orange. Let us also call the statement, 'It is red here', 'p'. Now, it is obvious that there are cases where 'p' is true (the red case) and clear cases where 'p' is false (the orange case). However, between the two extremes there seems to be a large class of colours where we just cannot say whether 'p' is true or false. Hence, some have suggested that in such cases 'p' is neither true nor false and that a third truth-value — indeterminate — is needed. Such a suggestion would rule out bivalence but retain the law of excluded middle. The best book on this distinction and the problem of vagueness is Timothy Williamson's book Vagueness.

Richard Woodward


Ian asked:

Given that life begins and ends on the Earth for every person, now and into the future, i.e. the possibility of an 'after-life' for the purpose of this question is nil, how does one overcome the sense of futility and instead obtain a sense of purpose for one's own life and others, knowing that ALL are destined for the same fate?

[Continued from Answers 17]

Knowing that something must come to an end has never seemed to me to properly require a sense of futility. I know that the nice dinner I am eating will come to an end, but I enjoy it just the same. The game of basketball I am playing will come to the full time whistle, but I will strive to do my best until then and even to win it. Similarly, my life will end, but if I have lived it well, have enjoyed my time, and if I have achieved some of the goals I set myself, I will think it has a purpose. The meaning and purpose of life lies in the meanings and purposes we give it — where else can it reside?

Tim Sprod


Berengere asked:

Cognitivists believe that intuition enables them to make objective moral statements. Can these statements be seen as factual, and if so, are they open to the naturalistic fallacy?

This is an old question from the bottom of this list, which I just came across... I'm interested in it for two reasons. First, I do not believe that cognitivists believe in intuition... although I may be wrong here. However, the cognitivist schools I'm aware of are naturalistic in their position on morality, i.e., they argue that moral properties can be derived from implications of the interactions between people and their environments. I also hold this view.

The "naturalistic fallacy" is a bit more interesting to me... according to what I've seen, Moore stated that any definition of a moral property, i.e., "goodness" involves one either in a regression or in a simple problem. That is, if "goodness" is defined in terms of another property, then that latter property either must be defined in terms of others, etc., etc., leading to an endless regression; or whatever property that sequence ends in can itself be evaluated as to whether it is good. But that means, according to Moore, that it cannot itself be goodness.

I have three problems with this. First, even if the definitional process went as he describes, so that to ask whether, say, pleasure is good, and have that question be meaningful implies that there is some perceived difference between the meaning of "pleasure" and that of "good" does not imply, I would claim, that "good" cannot be defined in terms (for example) of pleasure. Surely the whole point of a definition is that that defining terms are somewhat different than what they define. Which leads to my second point, that a definition is usually a combination of simple terms and relationships. Thus if "good" were defined with a set of simpler terms, etc., then we could not expect that it was equivalent to any subset of those terms, but only to the whole, interrelated in a particular way. Thus, instead of saying, "good is pleasure", we would have to say, "good is such-and-such a type (let's say, aesthetic) of pleasure felt under such-and-such circumstances, by such-and-such persons, in such-and-such a manner"... or something like that. Then the naturalistic fallacy could not apply to any subset of that definition, and to ask, "is 'such-and-such type of pleasure felt under such-and-such circumstances, by such-and-such persons, in such-and-such a manner' good, would indeed, I claim, make no sense... in the sense of "sense" that Moore employs, meaning something like, "clearly not a tautology". That is, it would be a tautology.

But worse, I believe, for Moore, is the appeal to intuition underlying his whole argument. What is it to say that Moore's question "makes sense"? To whom? Why? Because, if I'm seriously maintaining even something so simple as "pleasure is 'the good'", then to me, asking, "but is pleasure good?" does not make sense (in Moore's sense of "sense"). Yes, of course, pleasure is good, that's how I've defined it, and supposedly, that's how I feel, intuitively... whatever it is that Moore feels about that question. Do we take surveys to determine whether Moore's question "makes sense"?

The problem with "ordinary language" approaches to philosophy is that they run into this intuitive aspect... which is also a problem with much research in linguistics. What is "ordinary usage", how is that determined, who is the ultimate authority... and similar questions are all too easily glossed over here. Philosophers who like this approach need to be clear, in my opinion, that they cannot appeal to their personal intuition about what "good usage" is, nor even to that of their colleagues and graduate students. Either there is some independent justification, or they're doing sociological research, which is just fine, as long as they realize that they're doing empirical studies and apply appropriate experimental procedures to that research.

So my objection to Moore's criterion of "but is pleasure good?" making sense is quite a general objection to all such appeals to "sense". One does not know, without empirical research, whether "sense", in that context, itself makes sense except to the particular person employing that term.

Steven Ravett Brown


Susanne asked:

What can be learnt about 'real world' (human) behaviour in the laboratory?

The laboratory is part of the 'real world' and human behaviour is human behaviour everywhere. The problem with the laboratory is the expectations of the subjects and of the conductor(s) of tests and finding ways to conduct tests such as to exclude the impact on the results. Expectations and reactions to them are perfectly good human behaviour and worthy of examination in their own right.

Helene Dumitriu


Jessica asked:

What is the difference between the One of Plotinus and the One of Parmenides?

In defining the One of Parmenides' metaphysics, it becomes necessary to search his line of argument on being. In short, Parmenides suggests that from being, only being can come. He states that nothing can become something else. That what is, always has been, and remains as what it is. If you follow his argument then, there can be only one eternal underived, unchangeable being. Being must therefore be continuous and indivisible; being and thought are one, identical. What is thought is being. It could be possible that being and thought are one, that reality is endowed with mind. If this is so then, the idea of being as One unchangeable reality endowed with mind is similar to Plotinus' One.

In Plotinus you find the Three Hypostases. The Hen is the One. The Hen is ineffable — ultimate reality. Hen is the first cause of all causes. The One is the first Divine Hypostasis. It has the capacity to create and go on creating. Plotinus' One overflows or emanates that which results in the remaining two Hypostases.

The Plotinus One (Hen) then is an Absolute causeless cause, unity of unities. The One of all things and yet the One prior to all just as Parmenides being from which being can only come. It is all that is, just as Plotinus' One is all that is. So in reality, rather than being different, they are the same.

John Eberts


Reg asked:

I have heard it claimed that the mind-body problem is a philosophical not a psychological problem. Do you agree?

[Continued from Answers 17]

Yes, I agree. The key problem in mind-body (for me) is: how do we reconcile the clear experience we have of a subjective, personal, "movie-in-the-brain" mental life (what we might call the phenomenology of the mental), with the apparent conclusions of science that the world is entirely physical (whatever that actually means) and that there is no need to invoke spiritual ideas to explain its workings. Psychology can enable us to study the mental phenomena, or the biological bases of them, or even the correlations of the 'mental' and the 'physical', but I can't see how it can reconcile the two — that is the job of philosophy.

Tim Sprod


Ji Wu asked:

I am now dealing with machine translation. As you know, the traditional method processing natural language based on Chomsky grammar theory is a deterministic view. Now probability view gains more interest and has more success stories. So my questions are:

(1) Can natural language be computed deterministically?

(2) Can probability explain all the aspects of natural language?

1) Not at this point. Ultimately... well, that depends on your viewpoint on language, of course. What Chomsky did, among other things, was to show that a formalistic, AI-inspired approach to language analysis was at least more fruitful than any other to that point, and to validate, to a reasonable extent, what might be termed "mental constructs" (e.g., see his article on Skinner). I don't actually think much of the statistical approach to language, because I see it as both a) an approximation to metaphorical (in the broad sense of that term) usage, b) because I don't see the neural basis for it (despite what might be termed the "averaging" of inputs over ensembles of neurons), and c) because what kind of grammar do you get purely from statistics? On the other hand, there's probably some amount of Bayesian processes going on... why not? But I'm very strongly influenced by the West Coast cognitive linguistic movement, which denies the Chomskian viewpoint. I'd like to see a bottom-up approach... and of course so would many others... and that latter, pdf-inspired approach does, I think, rule out a purely statistical one. So in answer to your question... I don't believe, for several reasons, that this will happen.

2) No, given the above reasoning.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ramon asked:

Would it be OK if after my third cousin divorces his wife I get married with her? We have been seeing each other for a few months now and we get along very well. Please give me an advice.

Since you ask it's probably not OK. But seriously: Your question indicates that you have doubts, do not dismiss such doubt but analyse where it comes from, it may be well-founded. From a philosopher's point of view one possible position for conduct of one's life is to aim at maximising benefit and minimising pain considering the whole, not just oneself. Consider the impact on your cousin and the whole family.

Helene Dumitriu

The fact that the woman you want to marry will be your cousin's ex-wife is not, in itself, any reason why you should not be married. However, if there are repercussions — as there may be — you have to take responsibility and accept what comes.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jean asked:

In his reply to Cathi's question (Answers 17) on the moral objectionability of murder, Tony Flood writes that "persons are the highest moral value there are".

I presume that by persons Tony Flood means human beings (I observe that in the past slaves were often not considered as persons). May I ask according to what scale of values are human beings the highest moral values there are? Is there any moral "bookkeeping" indicating the rating of values? Who grants the ratings?

I somehow knew I wasn't going to get away with a short answer! I appreciate the opportunity Jean has given me to expand upon it.

Even if all human beings are persons, it does not follows that all persons are human beings, for there may also be divine and angelic persons. I didn't "rate" values, but ranked them: I may judge A more valuable than B and B more than C, but I need not assign a number to A, B, or C. According to what scale are values ranked? According to the true scale, I hope. But what values are on that true scale, how they are discovered, and who gets to apply it are all questions for each philosopher to answer.

Why do I say persons are the highest moral values? I can only outline an answer, which I do to reinforce my answer to the original question, asked by Cathi, "What is morally objectionable about murder?" The full answer is embedded in a comprehensive philosophy, which is a work in progress. Every statement below will sound dogmatic, but I cannot write a dissertation in the limited space.

In the first place, I hope I wasn't saying anything too controversial. If someone believes there are values that rank higher than persons, values for which we would be justified in sacrificing persons, I would like to know what they are.

A person (metaphysically, not necessarily legally) is a unity, not only of experiencing, but also of understanding, judging, desiring, evaluating, deliberating, deciding, acting, creating, and loving.

A value is anything that satisfies a being's needs or desires. Values are intrinsic, or instrumental or both.

A pure intrinsic value is an experience that is valued only for its own sake. (For example, an esthetic experience.)

A pure instrumental value is an experience or object that is valued only as a means to an end, as a condition of attaining other another value. (For example, an uncomfortable but medically necessary treatment.)

Some values are mixed, that is, one seeks them both for the experience and as a means to another experience. For example, physical exercise is valued both for the intrinsic value provided by tension-relieving physical exertion (or so I'm told) and as a means to the enjoyment of good health.

A moral value is an instrumental value that is a condition of the good life. The good life for any valuing being is a life characterized by the enjoyment, and prospect of the regular or routine enjoyment, of all, or very nearly all, of the kinds of basic intrinsic goods that by its nature it desires (e.g., good health, gratifying work, love, etc). If a life is missing any basic, intrinsic good, we are inclined to withhold the description "a good life." One example of a moral value is a virtue (e.g., honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, etc.). We see the connection between honoring them and the pursuit of the good life, but we do not "consume" virtues. Likewise, liberty is a moral value: it is an instrumental value the honoring of which is conducive to the good life.

Persons regard other persons as (or as sources of) intrinsic values, as (or as sources of) instrumental values, and as (or as sources of) moral values. (I apologize for the cumbersome formulation, but if X is a source of value Y, we impute the value of Y back to X, whether or not we value Y on other grounds.)

Persons come to understand through experience that the values they can receive from persons are deeper, richer, more intense, and more satisfying than any values that nonpersons (living or nonliving, sentient or nonsentient) can provide. They also come to understand that they themselves are values or sources of value for others.

To wantonly deprive a person of his life, i.e., to murder, is to attack our individual and collaborative efforts to construct good lives, not just to bring prematurely to an end one person's effort to achieve a good life. Murder is intrinsically evil, for we are intrinsic-value-seeking beings and implicitly define the good life in terms of the possibility of our achieving intrinsic values with and through other persons, which possibility murder unequivocally negates. To condemn an attack on the conditions of the successful pursuit of the good life, even if one's own such pursuit is not immediately attacked or foreseeably threatened, is to adopt the moral point of view.

Therefore, when I condemn the murder of a stranger, I do not pretend that he or she was an actual source of intrinsic values for me (although he or she was a potential source of such values for many, and that many may, for all I know and will now never know, include me). Rather, I am acknowledging the stranger as a person, and therefore at the very least the highest possible source of values and therefore a moral value him- or herself. My condemnation of the murder of a stranger is therefore not a function of my emotions, as it would be in the case of the murder of someone who was an actual source of intrinsic values for me. (In fact, it would be psychologically difficult for me to give a "mere reason" why that murder was morally wrong. It was simply an outrage that must be avenged.)

The relatively impersonal moral outrage that we feel upon hearing about the murder of a stranger — the feeling that remains after discounting empathy and fear — is a function of our rational judgment that our spontaneous efforts to enjoy intrinsic values cannot be sustained if persons may be killed wantonly and with impunity.

Tony Flood


Dina asked:

Is there morality among the animal kingdom?
Do animals have morals?

[Continued from Answers 17]

What an interesting question. My answer would be that there is not an animal morality, in the fully fledged sense that there is a human morality. This would, I think, require a conception of right and wrong, and I am not sure that animals have concepts.

However, I believe that there are important precursors of such a morality (and of concepts) amongst animals. Morality, it seems to me, must have evolved, and be an emergent property of humans. Two places I can send you for more on this are the writings of Mary Midgley (especially The Ethical Primate: Humans, freedom and morality, London: Routledge (1994)), and an article in a recent New Scientist, "Virtuous Nature", No. 2351, 13 July 2002, p 34-37 which takes the view that these precursors do amount to a type of morality.

Tim Sprod


Axel asked:

Hi, this is a variant of the "surprise examination paradox", and actually a reply to your answer at: Answers 12.

As most answers to this puzzle I don't find it actually satisfactory. You reduced the problem to 2 days, which I think is a very good approach, but I think you can go even further, let's reduce the problem to 1 day only!

So a modified story could look like this:

Professor CrazyDazy is known to be a little crazy and confused. One day he tells his students: "Tomorrow will be a surprise examination". One student raises his hand, and calmly explains to the professor that his proposition can't be true, since he just told them that it would be tomorrow and no surprise anymore. He agrees, and of course the students did not prepare but went on a party. However the next day Professor CrazyDazy makes an examination, and imagine how surprised the students were!

Now what happened, was the statement of the professor actually true? Where is the logic conflict?

The paradox as I see it lies in the statement of the professor itself. If I consider it as valid, it renders itself invalid. However if I consider it as invalid it renders itself valid. (since I will be surprised the test will come nevertheless) The 5 days of the week are just additional complexity thrown in.

And this is different than the barber paradox, where the statement that barber shaves everybody but himself is just false. The fascinating fact on the professor's statement is that rendering it false makes it valid.

I'm going to put in about 2 cents worth on this, and that's about all. What you are describing above is known as The Prisoner's Dilemma, and is a very well-known and extremely controversial problem in logic. There is a huge amount written on this problem, and it is the basis for theories in economics and game theory. Before you go on about this, go look it up.

Steven Ravett Brown

There is a Prisoner's Dilemma involved in the students' decision whether to party or not to party, if we assume that they are wise to the (not so crazy) professor's ruse. If they all party and there is an examination, then they will all do badly and (we may assume) CrazyDazy can't flunk the whole class. On the other hand, if a group of students sneak away early and study for the examination, then they will benefit at the others' expense. The dilemma for the students is how to ensure that this doesn't happen, and everyone keeps to their agreement.

In the actual example, as I read it, the students were not wise to the professor's ruse. The professor knew that the students would be surprised by the examination because he was able to predict how they would react to his statement.

In a not totally dissimilar way, the Oracle at Delphi knew that Oedipus would react to the prediction that he would kill his father and marry his mother by fleeing — the very action which was required to make the prediction come true.

The CrazyDazy and Oedipus stories show examples of a statement about the future whose very utterance brings about a series of events which leads to that statement turning out to be true. Famously, the Wall Street analyst's prediction, 'The Dow Jones will fall over 500 points tomorrow' is another.

I could write a few thousand words analyzing the fascinating similarities and differences between the three cases, but I leave that to you.

Geoffrey Klempner


French asked:

What is "necessity" from an ontological point of view? Is this concept accurately applied on pluralities (causal relations, mathematical deductions, logical inferences) or it is equivalent with "identity"? (see E. Boutroux Du Contingence des Lois de la Nature and E. Meyerson Identité et Realité). The same question about "simultaneity" in physics: stricto sensu, is correct to represent a state of a deterministic world like a simultaneous multiplicity?

The philosophical study of the terms 'necessarily' and 'possibly' is the study of modality (because 'necessary' and 'possible' are modal terms). When a philosopher uses terms such as 'necessarily' or 'possibily' they are usually concerned with causal relations, mathematical deducations and logical inferences and identity. For example, you often hear statements such as 'neccessarily 2+2=4' or 'if p then q, and p then necessarily q'. You might hear somebody say 'necessarily p=q' which is a identity statement with a modal operator but then you also get contingent identities. For example, the mind might be indentical to the brain in our world but there might be a world where the mind is not identical to the brain. So necessity is not equivalent to indentity, as you can get necessary and non-necessary identities.

In answer to your question, modal terms are correctly applied to logical/ mathematical inferences and causal relations, as well as being correctly applied to identity statements, even if necessity is not reducible to identity.

In the twentieth century, philosophers have used the idea of 'possible worlds' in order to help us think clearly about this issue. For example, it has been held that 'necessarily p' means 'p is true in all possible worlds' and 'possibly p' means 'p is true at least at one possible world'. Importantly, a possible world is not a planet in the far reaches of our universe, rather, a better phrase might have been 'possible universe' as 'possible worlds' are seperate from our universe. The ontolgical status of possible worlds is controversial. Some have held that possible worlds are abstract objects (see Kripke, Naming and Necessity (1980) and Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (1974)) wheras David Lewis On the Pluarlity of Worlds 1986) has notoriously held that possible worlds are as real as our universe, but distinct for our universe in the spatial, temporal and causal senses.

Richard Woodward


David asked:

I have been troubled by a concept or question: If people make poor decisions in their life which leads to hardships for them, why should I help or be concerned — after all, it's their own fault! A family member, the bum on the street, a coworker anyone who is not doing very well in life because of their own making. How do you come to terms with wanting to help or actually helping, but still knowing people caused their own problems and should be responsible for their hardships?

[Continued from Answers 17]

This is a question that will lead to a lot of places, but I won't go to all of them. Maybe I'll sketch out a few possible paths, and a couple of possible answers.

I take it that you are limiting your question to those for whom the misfortune is solely a consequence of their own poor decisions. You can, I assume, see that we should be concerned for those whose hardships occur as a result of events beyond their control. Even so, this raises questions about the extent to which we are responsible for our decisions.

A thorough-going determinist would claim that people are just forced to make their decisions, poor or not. This might mean that you should feel sorry for them, since it isn't their fault — although the same determinist would say that you, equally, are forced to feel sorry for them (or not). The question as to whether you ought simply does not arise.

It would seem that a free will account makes people responsible for their choices. Thus, you need not help, as they have chosen their course. However, a libertarian view does not usually say that people have complete freedom to choose whatever — it merely says that they make choices within constraints, which may be reasonably loose in some cases but in others are quite tight. So, to say that one need not be concerned at someone's circumstances would require that the choice they made that led them into this situation was made under conditions which allowed them to avoid the outcome through wise choice. [I will skate over the complication that some of these constraints may be internal to the person — bad education, limited intelligence or suchlike.]

There is another complication here. To require that people take the sort of responsibility for their decisions you mention, they must have made the decision in the knowledge of what all the possible outcomes would be. We seldom have such information available. The less desirable outcomes of our actions are often not foreseen, or we hope for the best but are disappointed. Since this can happen to all of us, we are wise to help others 'down on their luck' in case the same happens to us later.

So we seem to be coming to a position that says we ought not to help or be concerned only when a person makes a poor decision when other better decisions were (in practical terms) really open to them, and they had every opportunity to foresee the bad outcome. Such situations, while relatively rare, certainly occur. And part of what we mean by responsibility must be that people who, in full knowledge, nevertheless make bad choices (perhaps from greed or lust or some other character defect) should bear the brunt of their actions. But does this also entail that others should not help or be concerned for them?

What we have ignored so far is the origin of such concern. The argument so far seems to rely on a picture of decision making (particularly the decision to help or be concerned) that is rational — in a sense that contrasts rationality with emotionality. In my view, such a situation calls for a reasonable, not a rational, decision. Reasonableness includes rationality, but also proper emotionality. David Hume places the core of morality in the 'fellow feeling' or empathy we have for others. I agree. I think that morality is based in community. While there are limits to empathy (some decisions are very harmful to community), when these are not overstepped, I think that we should feel concern for, and offer to help, those who make poor decisions. They need it but, more importantly, we also need it — to be more fully human, as a member of our community.

Tim Sprod


Neha asked:

I have problem with this question:

How would Plato react to the statement, "all men are created equal"? explain in detail.

Plato would disagreee completely. In the Republic you can read that he believed that our natures are different from birth — we are not all cut out to be philosophers or warriors (even though he also believed that education plays an important part in fully developing our talents). He would probably point to the obvious differences that we can observe i.e. some babies are born healthy and strong, others crippled or ill... he would ask how that could be called equal? Also we observe that some people have exceptional potential and talent i.e. we cannot all become opera singers, contortionists, mathematical geniuses...

Regarding political equality you first must remember that even the democracy in Athens at the time considered only the full citizens as politically equal; slaves, women and children did not count. Plato himself had reservations regarding the democratic system — he asked for instance: If we were travelling by ship, would we want it to be directed by the pilot who knows about navigation using the stars etc. or would we prefer to vote democratically about it? Therefore would it not make sense to identify the knowledge required to govern a state well and to let those lead that have this knowledge (if it can be had)? Check out the Republic (you can read it on the Internet as well) but remember that what the character Socrates says may be intended to provoke rather than a finished theory...

Helene Dumitriu


Jess asked:

My question stems from an observation: Often — on the web especially — we find defenses of philosophy or of the philosophical life that claim that philosophy is, or at least ought to be, relevant to 'real life'. My observation is that often this relationship between philosophy and real life goes only in one direction: everyday situations give rise to all sorts of philosophical problems, but once we enter the realm of philosophical enquiry, bringing the problems and their possible solutions down to earth in a meaningful way is quite a challenge. My question is about bringing philosophy down to earth in a meaningful way: What would a philosophy field trip be like?

Um... tell me, just what is "real life"? You mean, getting a job and earning money? That sort of thing? Well, take a look at what's happening, right now, in the States in the business community... the scandals, arrests, etc... you think knowing and following ethics isn't relevant to business? What about law? How do judges decide questions? And so forth.

So what would a philosophy field trip be like? Well, we go into a business and start asking questions... or look at the books. How was the business plan decided on, what are they doing now, how close to the legal edge are they willing to go... why are laws relevant, rather than ethical principles?

To school: what is being taught, and why? What about the evolution/ creation controversy... what is the science behind them, what is science; what is the ethics of teaching "creationism" alongside evolution?

To college: what about student evaluations? Is it ethical to give students control, in effect, of their teachers in this manner? What courses are being taught and why? How are they taught?

Home: how are children being raised? What are the assumptions about punishment, and their bases?

Does this begin to give you an idea?

Steven Ravett Brown

I can follow you all the way until the last sentence. A philosophy field trip? I'm not sure how that connects to your concerns. On a philosophy field trip, I imagine that one would be looking for the philosophy that arises in real life — just like on the geological field trips I have run, we look for where items of geological interest arise in road cuttings, cliffs etc. For philosophy, this is something that you rightly say is not hard to do.

Maybe you mean something different. Maybe you want to look for philosophy in action, being applied to real life, rather than arising from it. Again, I don't think it would be hard to do, although you would need to develop the knack of good timing. Every time a group are trying to decide what to do about something, and someone says "Hang on, what exactly do we mean by x, or what makes x the right thing to do?", then you are seeing philosophy. In Habermasian terms, this group has moved from practical or communicative action into a critical discourse. These discussions may not be informed by quotes from philosophers, but they are often drawing on philosophical writings at many hands removed.

Tim Sprod

Generally it's much easier to have a problem than to have an answer — in philosophy as everywhere else. To bring philosophical answers back to the world you first should have some. That's the main part of the problem. But theres another part of the problem you state: Like in politics, if you think you have an answer — maybe others don't think so — you have to implement your solution. Put simply: If you think you have found the (philosophical) formula for "a just society" you have to fight all those people who doubt or resist your solution. Going around with a machine-gun like Hitler, Stalin or the Taliban or whoever as a true believer will/ should not do.

So the natural way to bring philosophical answers back to the world is by time and by speech and writing and by "hoping for rain". Some insights have to await their time — even if they are valid and no mere misunderstandings (as they often are). Think of the Gospel: Even today it cannot be "proven" that the Gospel was any help to mankind. Many think so, but others think it has been mainly a curse in the hands of hypocrites, liars and seducers. And how did the Gospel "win" over competing "gospels" offering "truth"? Since the Christian Gospel found more followers among the inhabitants of the Roman Empire than any other "gospel" in the 4th century, Constantine the Great and Theodosius the Great found it proper to use it as a new "common creed" to hold the vast empire together and made it a state religion — just as Lenin made his version of Marxism a state religion for the new USSR or Hitler made his version of a national socialism the state religion of his "Third Reich" or Chomeini made his version of Islam the state religion for Iran. So this is a way to bring philosophical answers back to the world. Do you like it? No?

There is another field of application: Kepler and Newton found their formulas "by luck and Neo-Platonism" so to say. There has been one and only one planetary orbit in the time of Kepler that could be proven to be elliptical by the data gathered by Tycho Brahe — that of the planet Mars. Jupiter was too far away, the Venus orbit is practically a circle, and the orbit of little Mercury is too near to the sun to be easily observable. So from only one orbit Kepler derived his famous laws. And Newton's interest was in the ways of God, not in founding "modern physics". It was mainly a theological and not a practical argument that drove him to his theory of gravitation. So this time the "gains from a philosophical answer" have been very impressive — the whole of modern industrial society — but they have been a case of "serendipity", not intended by the primal inventors Kepler and Newton. But this time nobody needed force to spread the "gospel" of science — to the contrary some tried to stop it. Not even the idea of the modern liberal state and the human right of free speech have been welcomed by everybody. The popes Pius IX and Pius X both condemned "by anathema" most modern convictions of the French Revolution and the US Constitution as "dangerous errors" in their "syllabi errorum".

So what is the drift of the argument: There seldom is a simple "answer" or "insight" or "truth" to be brought back from the philosophers study to the eagerly waiting world, but there are lots of people around who find the offered answer wanting or otherwise objectionable or downright scaring and dangerous. And there are historical and social preconditions and forces that bring forth or suppress an answer like rain or drought bring forth or suppress the development of a sprout. Some times are not "ripe" for some answers — and some times are not "ripe" for some questions either. And there sometimes is dumb luck or serendipity in finding a very great answer to a very great question that nobody has called for or even thought of.

Of course there are those "simple" cases too — sometimes: There are lots of philosophical "advisers" nowadays to apply new and old philosophical insights to some problem at hand. Why do you "ask a philosopher" if not to gain some insight into the nature of some questions to make a better decision or a better argument next time? This concerns students doing their homework in philosophy, but this concerns other people and fields of applied philosophy — mostly ethics — too. There are lots of philosophers in ethics panels today. Many of the more than 1000 questions stated in the Pathways "questions and answers lists" so far are quite "application oriented" — concerning war and abortion and suicide and sexual behaviour and religious tolerance etc.. But seldom are philosophical answers definitive and convincing. And they should not be! Life in this complex world is a permanent challenge to creative and pensive minds and should be so. If indeed philosophy arrives at "final" solutions instead of "wise" and "helpful" ones then the end of mankind is near. Man is a philosophical animal roaming free in a sometimes charming and sometimes disturbing world.

The lack of definite answers in philosophy has been called "the scandal of philosophy". Oh no! The scandal is to call that a scandal, because that shows a complete misunderstandig of what philosophy is about. Or let's say: a partial but important misunderstanding. Philosophy is somewhere between a science and an art, having aspects of both.

There can be no "single true" picture of the world — neither in art nor in philosophy — since part of the "truth" is in the eye of the beholder and in the question and point of view from which he approaches reality. There is no point in asking for "the" truth — normally. Schopenhauer and Husserl started from this: "There can be no objective problem. Why does a fact become a problem to this thinking animal?" Nature "poses" no problems — we do. The problem of "social justice" or the problem of "sin" are no "natural" problems, they are "our" problems. And if the questions and problems are in this sense "artificial", how could the answers be "natural"? So that places philosophy near the arts.

But then philosophy is no mere play with words and ideas either. There is a deep sincerity in the quest for truth of the great philosophers. In that sense philosophy is the science of our way of grappling with the world we live in. That was the position of Wittgenstein. He thought that philosophy tries "to show the fly a way out of the fly-bottle". But he didn't say if he thought this project promising. And he didn't say where the fly should go if she really got out of the bottle either.

And then: What is a "solution" anyway? To get out of the bottle is some sort of solution — a Buddhist one. To get out of the entanglings of sin and tragic events by faith in Gods grace is another form of "solution". To find the right answer to a mathematical problem — or to the problem of putting the "right" note into a musical composition or the right colour into a painting or the right spice into a meal are just some more examples. Boethius — sitting in jail and awaiting his death — wrote a famous little book on the "Consolatio Philosophiae" (The Consolations of Philosophy) — the consolation to be gained from philosophy in the middle of bleak despair. Many people got comfort from philosophy like from art and religion and psychotherapy and counseling. That too is "bringing the answers of philosophy back into the everyday world." Is that nothing? Should every outcome be countable and accountable too?

Hubertus Fremerey


Steve asked:

Does Hume maintain a plausible position through his skepticisim which claims that there is no authority beyond taste for the evaluation of works of art? Why, or why not?

I'm not sure that Hume's position is sceptical, or that he is saying that there is no authority beyond taste, since the ideal critic possesses more than what we might see as mere taste, i.e. he has informed appreciation, and so can be looked upon as the person who determines standards of what is good. This doesn't support a view of beauty as objective, that is, as having a form which can be determined mathematically as it is thought to be by some to be today. But ideal critics exemplify a criterion for distinguishing good from bad art. This means that there is a standard by which we can be right or wrong in making a judgement that something is beautiful. I think Hume's position is very plausible.

But firstly, there is a very clear article by Jerrold Levinson, "Hume's Standard of Taste: the Real Problem" in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, summer 2002. Levinson argues that if the standard embodied in the nature of judgement, as discriminating and unprejudiced, etc is not indicatively connected to the body of works which we regard as masterpieces, we cannot claim that such works are really paradigms of artistic value, but only that they are judged to be so by ideal critics. Levinson holds that the test of time and a work's being of such a quality such as to provide a certain aesthetic response, is compatible with Hume's theory of the nature of the ideal critic and the idea of a standard and that this fleshes out his position. Hume allows that beautiful works are naturally fitted to please us, and the ideal critics, being people of experience, recognise the body of work which has passed of time.

Levinson's article is good. The test of time alone doesn't provide an idea of standards, and we do classify masterpieces, and we do make distinctions. The standards for judging embodied in ideal critics do not allow us to assert that there really are objects of beauty. It could be a matter of some things simply appealing to the more informed sort of person. What I don't agree with is that by becoming an ideal critic, your aesthetic experiences are more worthwhile than those of others where this is taken as a reason for everyone to aspire to appreciate works marked out as good by the ideal critic. This cannot avoid scepticism.

I think we can agree with Levinson's fleshing out of Hume's position which makes it much less sceptical, or at least less subjective, than it might seem to be. But what is really plausible in Hume is that he enables us to distinguish between mere taste, or sentiment of the non-critic, from the informed view. In admitting this distinction, which is a real one (in film theory which is insecure in the area of the canon, the canon or standard of judgement is a bit of an obsession and there are constant lists of the industry's best films vs the directors' best films vs the public's) there is the possibility of taking the informed appreciation of the critic as truly correct and not based on sentiment in any major way. Hume does expect "refined" sentiment in the critic, but this is compatible with being well-informed and unprejudiced so that he is expected clearly see what is good and being of refined sentiment might be taken to mean lacking in sentimentality with its connotations of being inappropriately emotionally swayed. This then, is another way in which Hume might be seen as having a plausible, non-sceptical position. The original Greek meaning to "aesthetic" was that it was the perceived as opposed to the conceived, or the sensible as opposed to the rational. It is that which is out there to be appreciated in a certain way and Hume can be taken as maintaining this meaning, his essay on taste being about the nature of a type of judgement, the informed judgement which sets the canon of the masterpiece.

So that is in support of Hume. Against him, you might claim his view of how works of excellence are established is partially elitist in terms of judgement, but the institution of art is so. Plausible again.

Rachel Browne


Chris asked:

Okay this is a question not related to any philosophical study but I would like to know how to prevent it...Me and my buddy every once and awhile argue/ discuss about worldly issues and many other views, perception, interpretations, and situations...it always starts with opposing view points and logical examples...but in one instance we will be arguing about a specific subject and focusing on that specific subject...and all the sudden my buddy will switch focus on the focal subject and instead of granting I have validity in the matter will break it down to a lower level, say a molecular level or that everything is based on of faith...completely deriving from his original side to the argument and taking a new one and every time can cover himself by relating his original view point to, say faith.

Seems like a no-win situation to me...and I have to grant that he is right because if I don't I will be disagreeing with my own beliefs...it seems like to me he is doing this to just win the argument or argue for the sake of arguing.

Like this evening we got into a discussion about why people argue and I said that "people argue/ discuss things to come to one agreeable truth, to weigh the facts and use deductive reason to come up with a truth not an absolute but an understandable truth". Now from what I remember through my life no-one has ever argued differently but he says "one argues for the simple reason to be frustrated" and we discussed it for a few minutes longer throwing in our proofs and he said "because people believe things through faith and that someone will have one view point and leave with that view point happily and the other the same that it is the frustration that is the key point to arguing."

Now what I didn't understand is why would he argue if he knows he's keeping his view on a subject in the end, and he said to that "because arguing is fun"...seems ridiculous to me and I know he believes differently because he has stated it in the past that he believes the same as me but when confronted he just said it was wrong for someone to keep grudges or tabs on another person like I did and that he had changed his point of view...what am I supposed to do, not grant him that he can change? I can't do that so I granted it but I know he didn't mean it...my dilemma is really how do I stray from this loss of focal point and get him to stick to the subject...heck I know that I can't...more or less how do I stop something like that from happening...if he disagrees with me and that is usually how the arguments start, not the other way around, how do I stop the argument without letting him believe he has a more valid point...I can't just shut up after he disagrees with me and if I say something like "every one has there own interpretation" he keeps going by say "well it's not an interpretation it's just the way it is"...if I shut up then it looks like he smighted me, I look like the fool...heck maybe I might have to do that but I figure you people maybe have come across something like this.

He's a slick arguer I completely grant and this happens rarely other than that he is a great guy we mess completely most of the time except for those situations so just droppin' a friend over bad arguing is out of the question...I was just looking for that queen instead of the pawn to help me out...

if this sounds frustrating and confusing too understand you now know how I feel :)

A long question and a lot of frustration. I will give it a try.

First example

Chris suggests one theory why people argue (to reach a synthesis). Buddy suggests a different theory (to be frustrated i.e. on the downside one has not converted the other, on the upside one retains one's own belief). Chris does not see the point of this and Buddy then offers a new explanation (arguing for fun). I think in this condensed form you will see yourself what is going on here (admittedly less easy to unravel in the heat of argument).

From a philosophical/ psychological and rhetorical point of view both Chris and his buddy make some mistakes:

a) they use terms without defining them e.g. 'argument' — I think if they had spent more time to compare what each understands by that term there would be room for agreement that there are lots of types of argument (e.g. dialectic argument [thesis and counterthesis result in synthesis], debate [argument with the intention to win others over to your position] etc.) The term 'reason' is used by Buddy in two different ways when he claims the 'reason' why people argue is 'to be frustrated' and then 'to have fun'. It is not totally clear what he means e.g. it could be fun to have your expectation of the outcome confirmed, or the process could be experienced as 'fun' while the outcome is also in a way 'frustrating'...

b) generalisations and arguing from a single case to the general: Both use generalisations, bad tactics since generalisations can be defeated by even one exception i.e. when Chris suggests that 'people' argue for such and such a reason his opponent basically only has to say 'I am a person, and I do not argue for that reason — therefore your hypothesis is defeated.' Buddy however also uses generalisations. Both would be better off if they stated clearly what they really mean, and said: 'I argue because....'. Furthermore both generalise their own experience which is fallacious for the following reason: To argue from a single case to all cases is not necessarily valid — i.e. it can happen to be true that both Socrates is mortal and all men are mortal, but 'Socrates is Greek and therefore all men are Greek' is obviously nonsense. Validity can be reached only the other way round — from the general to the special case: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.

c) most importantly they do not before the start discuss what their objectives in the discussion are and whether — in the knowledge of the other's objectives — they really want to have this discussion: Clearly in this dialogue Chris behaves according to his theory (he wants to reach a synthesis) and Buddy according to his (he wants to maintain his point of view and Chris to maintain his, he wants to have fun simply from the argument, but expects no results other than that). I think one can see that these two objectives — were they clearly stated at the beginning — would make it clear to Chris that his objective is incompatible with that of Buddy (Buddy would not agree to any synthesis) and the result for him must be frustration, whereas Buddy might be successful (he is determinated to maintain his opinion no matter what and does not make a real effort to convert Chris, so Chris will most likely also stick to his opinion, confirming Buddy's view of how arguments should work, and Buddy derives fun from this type of argument).

On a psychological level I would say that both are engaged in playing a 'game'. Psychological games are played by people to derive some benefit — usually for the sake of the emotions involved, they thrive on the emotional response (even if negative) elicited from their 'partner'. The bad thing about this is that people playing this type of game do this instead of trying to get real emotions (love, friendship, appreciation etc) and that the emotions in the game are almost always negative (the strong frustration Chris is feeling). Also these 'games' are about control — Buddy is clearly controlling the process — he turns Chris' propositions into a 'game' or offers outrageous or paradoxical statements as bait... Basically I would suspect any repeatedly occurring pattern that is somehow frustrating for at least one party involved of being a 'game'... The formula here is: Buddy wants attention from Chris and this is the way of getting it. Chris should realise that Buddy is not in the least interested in the topics they discuss (or rather unless they stop playing games Buddy cannot engage in serious discussion). Chris should ask himself whether he is interested enough to assure Buddy of his friendship/ attention in other ways rather than re-inforcing this 'game' behaviour. Also he should have a critical look at himself — is he really only interested in the topics they discuss or is he also into game-playing?

There are ways to stop such games — but they normally result in the 'game' instigator turning very angry and also you must be very persistent, because he will not give up easily.

Here is how: Ask the person: Do you expect to convince me? If the answer is no — why should you continue? It is clearly a game. Or ask: What would it take to convince you of my point of view? Under which circumstances would you consider changing your mind or adapting your position? If the answer is that they would not consider anything 'enough' — do not continue, you would be playing their game. Ask also: What is your objective in the discussion/ argument with me? If the objective they name is not yours as well say so and stop the discussion.

Another way is also possible — Socrates was very good at that (but also in this case the outcome is normally anger) — ask questions, while not under any circumstances volunteering any information or interpretation of your own, just keep asking questions.

Second example

Chris (trying to end the argument): "Everyone has there own interpretation. Actually I happen to disagree with you but I can live with you having a different opinion."

Buddy: "Well it's not an interpretation it's just the way it is..."

Chris: "What do you mean by 'the way it is' — do you mean it is true? That you know it is true?"

The next move is to ask for a definition of whatever term he used i.e. of 'truth' or 'knowledge' or 'reality' (do not allow him to use examples, he must be able to come up with a proper definition, otherwise how would he be able to know the truth of the proposition he asserted in the first place — or know that he knows it — or what it means to say 'the way something is'? Also do not allow use of 'sayings' or generalisations — persist politely that you want to understand his own, personal view, that he should share his knowledge and enlighten you also etc.)

Whatever definition he comes up with scrutinize it i.e. ask for definition of the terms used if new terms are introduced, check whether it is possible to construct an example that leads to absurd consequences or circular reasoning, contradiction etc., then ask him to restate the definition etc.

Say the answer is 'knowledge is if the content of your proposition matches the state of how things in themselves are' — but how do you know how things really are? Say — if I say to you 'this is a table' — how do you know it is true, that there is indeed a table?' — By seeing it or touching it. But you could just as well be dreaming and having exactly the same experience? Or you are like Neo experiencing the Matrix and there is no table... etc. Result: You do not know what knowledge or truth is, therefore you cannot rationally assert the truth of your original proposition, it is a belief. say the answer is 'knowledge is justified true belief' — what counts as justification? how do you know/ justify that in turn? etc. see above.

Obviously you have to think on your feet to keep your opponent to the subject... so far no one has ever succeeded to resolve these questions in a way that leaves no more questions...

Whereas this sounds like a 'counter-game' to reduce the other person to a state where they have to admit to a total lack of knowledge (or flee from the discussion), it can and ideally should be also a mutually beneficial philosophizing, namely in the way that Socrates did it: Importantly at the outset he admitted to the other person that he himself did not know the definition of the term in question, and also importantly he asked their agreement to jointly investigate the matter. Socrates thought that you cannot even begin to understand things before you do not realize that your beliefs are not knowledge i.e. you must give up the false security of prejudices and half-truths and realize that you do not have knowledge. If Buddy is able to admit that (and does not give up before) Chris and Buddy may yet have some less one-sided and much more interesting and rewarding discussions.

Helene Dumitriu


Ingmar asked:

I'm writing an extended essay with the following title: "Deontological ethics is too rigid in it's emphasis on duties, utilitarian ethics is too keen to override basic human rights." Now I was wondering if you have any tips on writing this essay. I'm a little lost on the structure. I think I want to mention Kant for the deontological part. I'm not sure if I want to mention any other deontological philosophies because I am worried that I will exceed 4000 words. What philosophers should I mention for utilitarianism, or rather who was the most important philosopher? Hume, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Singer, all of them? On the other hand I fear the essay will be unbalanced if I mention only one deontological philosopher yet mention 4 utilitarian philosophers.

I couldn't agree with you more. About exceeding 4000 words, I mean. You are proposing to write a dissertation here, at the least. Try this: write an introduction to this issue. Take a sentence from that, being careful to choose one that seems utterly trivial, use that for an essay topic, and write an introduction to that. Take a sentence from that, again one of the most trivial, and do the same. At that point, perhaps, you may have narrowed this down to the point where you might be able to get 4000 words to mean something... but you may have to iterate a few more times, given your topic above.

Steven Ravett Brown

Since it is an extended essay, I'm assuming that you chose the title yourself. Thus, you can alter the title to read "Kant's deontological ethics... ". Then the problem disappears, does it not?

As for the utilitarians, I would leave out Hume, who is not to my mind a utilitarian at all. His ethics are based on 'fellow feeling' rather than maximizing pleasure or anything else. You might stick to Mill and Singer — Bentham is interesting historically, and because he grasped the nettle of saying all pleasures are equal (which Mill would not), but you might well not need to use him if you already have Mill and Singer. If you go for one, I would advise using Mill.

Are you planning to come down on one side or the other here, or are you planning to develop a third way that avoids both problems? If the latter, you might need to look at some other alternative ethical theories, such as Hume's, or Aristotle's — though that might also blow out your essay over 4000 words.

Tim Sprod


Salvador asked:

I have to write a paper concerning Rene Descartes and his opinion on animals being machines and not feeling pain. I am arguing against this view but I don't know how to approach this assignment. I was wondering if there are philosophers who do not agree with Descartes on animals and their ability to feel pain? How can I argue this?

As a beginning,I would suggest Salvador to consult the following:

Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics London: Unwin Books, 1967
Stanley and Rosalind Godlovitch and John Harris (eds), Animal, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans London: Victor Gollancz, 1971
Dr Mark Bernstein, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, On Moral Considerability: An Essay On Who Morally Matters Oxford University Press, 1998
Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals Oxford: The Clarenton Press, 1977

I would also suggest to look at Stephen Clark's page: http://www.liv.ac.uk/~srlclark/stephen.html

Jean Nakos


Angeline asked:

I need to know more about people intimidating others for power, even though I know they are not happy people?

Only lawyers (7 men lawyers) and 2 computer (women) teachers do this to me and then retaliate when I go to higher authority.

I feel I have a sign on me saying "victimize me" and yes I am very defensive.

I Can handle others.

This is not strictly speaking a philosophical question, but I will have a stab at it. If it is a mobbing situation you should document all instances and ask your superior officer to put a stop to it and to document your complaint. Find out what the procedure in the place is e.g. when to involve the personnel department or staff committee etc. Check also information on mobbing and bullying on the Internet, ask a Union or even your doctor would be able to point you in the direction of some information (many people fall ill because of mobbing). If it is a small company get written documentation of your complaint or take a colleague whom you trust with you to witness that you have made the complaint and when. Continue to document all instances if it does not stop and go again to your superior. He is obliged to stop it, and because if he does nothing you can even sue the company he is sure to do something about it. (Be aware though that in such a case your own behaviour also comes under very close scrutiny.)

If however you have encountered this behaviour at different times and places i.e. if these people cannot have influenced each other then you must indeed consider whether you are part of the problem. How do you react to the behaviour that you find intimidating? Maybe you run directly to 'higher authority'? It is better if you ask the person for a private conversation, then briefly describe the incident in objective terms and say clearly what you felt when the person did this and ask them to stop this behaviour. If they agree OK, give them a chance. If it occurs again you should in private again remind them of their agreement to stop this, emphasize what negative feelings you have and outline what steps you will have to take if the behaviour does not stop i.e. that you will make a formal complaint to the superior.

Again you should keep a record for yourself about the behaviour and the discussions you had. However it probably is not helpful if you assign motives to the people (you suggest they do it for power) or make judgements (i.e. that they are not happy). It is conjecture because you can never know for sure what is happening in others' minds. It is counterproductive if you let them feel or know that you think this, they will feel insulted and may react badly because of this. Also it is totally irrelevant what you think why they do it — you should stick to what is objectively observable — the behaviour. When raising the point for the first time with the person in private you could ask them why they act like this. If you have colleagues or friends you trust and who know these others as well you could ask them for their honest opinion on how to resolve the situation, but beware of gossip and slander.

Helene Dumitriu


Gavin asked:

"Organic foods are BAD, Pesticides are GOOD." Refer to rainforest, biodiversity and Third World poverty.

I was given this as an essay, which I have to do for an assessment for my final grade at A-level.

I do not have a clue on how to start this. I have looked up The Green Revolution, but I am still confused.

Oh I like this one. You've got a really neato instructor. Ok, think about it. Why are there pesticides? Just so the chemical companies can make money? Nooo... then why? They... kill....? The pesticide issue is not a black and white issue, but a horribly messy one.

Steven Ravett Brown

I would start with those capitalized words, bad and good. What can make something bad (or good)? Is the quote saying that organic foods are bad in the same sense that (say) murder is bad — that is, murder is in itself an immoral thing? Or is it saying that organic food is, of itself, pretty morally neutral, but taking into account the situation of the world — your chance to mention rainforest, biodiversity and Third World poverty — it is a bad thing because of the effects it has. There's a start.

Tim Sprod


Jason asked:

Quine's "gavagai": the explanations I've found have all been very simple, with a huge ending, that he was attempting to disprove the viability of metaphysics, what the hell is an explanation?

W.V.O. Quine's gavagai argument forms one of his two arguments for the thesis known as the 'indeterminacy of translation'.

The gavagai argument is the argument 'from below' as it concerns concrete cases, whereas his second argument is much more theoretical — the argument 'from above' — concerning the indeterminacy of any physical theory. Quine's basic thought is that if we suppose we were linguistic translators working to translate a tribe's language, we would be unable to come up with a single 'correct' translation from their language into ours. Suppose that the tribesmen say 'gavagai' whenever a rabbit runs past. It seems natural to suppose that the tribesmen mean what we mean by 'rabbit' when they say 'gavagai'. Quine's argument is that 'gavagai' is consistent with not only 'rabbit' but 'undetached rabbit part' 'temporal slice of rabbit' and many other alternatives. Furthermore, the translator could never know whether he was right to translate 'gavagai' with any single english phrase or word, because there would always be plausible alternatives that equally fitted the data. Moreover, all of the alternatives are equally viable as each other. Hence, for Quine, translation is always indeterminate.

Similarly, the argument from above, in brief, concerns the idea that for any phenonema two competing physical theories could explain the phenomena equally well and we can have no way of choosing between the two. Hence, physical theory is always underdetermined by the data because the same data is consistent with many different empircal theories. Now, as for this showing metaphysics to be impossible the basic idea is that if translation is indeterminate then so is meaning. Moreover, the indeterminacy must spread to pyschological states (beliefs desires, etc.) which are in part, identified by their linguistic content. If meaning is indeterminate, then anything that has semantics as an integral part will be indeterminate itself. Hence, most of what we consider metaphysics will be indeterminate which of course would show that metaphysics is impossible.

See Quine Word and Object 1960 and Wright 'Indeterminacy of Translation' in Blackwells Companion to Philosophy of Language eds. Hale and Wright. 1997

Richard Woodward


Jannifer asked:

Hume's philosophy:

It is possible to trace all of one's ideas back to an earlier experience one had?

The question is: Is Hume, in your judgement, correct? If not, what would be an example of an idea that does not depend on an earlier experience? How, then, would this idea have arisen? If you agree with Hume, explain why.

Descartes for instance argued that the idea of a Perfect Being, an infinite, all-powerful God having all perfections is neither a fictitious idea produced by us nor is it an idea derived from experience, but it is implanted in us by God. His reason for this was basically that an imperfect being like a human cannot of himself give rise to an idea so perfect, and we have not experienced and cannot fully experience God in his perfection. Read the Meditations — they make fascinating reading, are quite short, and available on the Internet. — The problem with this is 'the idea of God' which could be attacked either as vague (then no external greater cause is required for the idea), or as the extrapolation of our own properties.

Helene Dumitriu


Dian asked:

What comes first object or idea?

and Angela asked:

Our philosophy teacher asked us these questions, and I'm not so sure how to answer them. I hope you can help me.

1. What is real?
2. What comes first, idea or object?
3. What is the true source or nature of knowledge?

Well if your teacher is at all competent, they aren't meant to be answered. Think of them as Zen koans. The sound of one hand clapping, the question: "what is real". They're both cherry blossoms one contemplates as they fall into the pool, right? I mean, come on... "the true source or nature of knowledge"? Right, sure, we philosophers know all about that... in our wildest drug fantasies, maybe. I understand that as one recovers from nitrous oxide (laughing gas) intoxication one sometimes feels that one can answer those and similar questions, but the answers are lost upon waking. Oh well, good thing, too, otherwise there would be no jobs teaching philosophy, right?

Really, seriously, these are meant to stimulate you, not to be answered. Just have fun with them.

Steven Ravett Brown


Liz asked:

According to solipsism how would I determine if another person has a mind or not?

[Continued from Answers 17]

Solipsism arises as a result of extreme skepticism (the origin of which is often traced to Descartes' Meditations, though other earlier philosophers had advanced similar ideas). The extreme skeptic sees no convincing reason to believe that anything external to themselves (their own mind) actually exists. Therefore, for a solipsist, there is no way to determine if another person has a mind or not, because this is merely a particular type of an inquiry which they have already ruled out in general terms.

Tim Sprod


Anna asked:

I am extremely interested in the dispute over the honorary degree which Jacques Derrida received in 1992. I found it very difficult to gather information specifically on this topic. could you perhaps tell me the background of this dispute and where I could find articles written in that time about it! thank you very much in advance!

It was Cambridge. I just read that there is a letter to The Times dated 9 May 1992 in which nineteen philosophers signed a letter saying Derrida should not receive an honorary degree because his work offers "little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth and scholarship".

You can see an article on this at the following address, and now you know the university, you can do a better search for yourself.

http://www.mindspring.com/~dgolumbi/docs/ papers/quineandderrida.pdf

Rachel Browne

Derrida received an honorary D. Litt. from Cambridge in 1992. As I understand it, his candidature originated in the English department, and was opposed by many members of the philosophy department. Their complaint against Derrida was broadly that levelled against the postmodernists in the more recent 'science wars': that he is deliberately obscure, in order to equivocate between the plausible (but very dull) and the fascinating (but highly implausible) such that the incautious reader may suppose him to be saying something plausible and fascinating, when it can only be one or the other. They argued that Derrida's success was due to such intellectual chicanery, and should not be rewarded.

Professor (now Emeritus) Hugh Mellor was one of Derrida's most outspoken critics among the Cambridge philosophers. He later explained his stand in an interview published in the Spring 1993 number of Cogito (reprinted in Key Philosophers in Conversation: the Cogito interviews, ed. Andrew Pyle, London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 101-113, and available on Mellor's website at http://www.dar.cam.ac.uk/~dhm11/Cogito.html).

From outside Cambridge, the philosophy department's position was supported by a letter to The Times (of London), printed on Saturday 9th May 1992, from Barry Smith, the editor of The Monist and now a professor at SUNY Buffalo. He assembled an impressive list of co-signatories: Hans Albert (Mannheim), David Armstrong (Sydney), Ruth Barcan Marcus (Yale), Keith Campbell (Sydney), Richard Glauser (Neuchâtel), Rudolf Haller (Graz), Massimo Mugnai (Florence), Kevin Mulligan (Geneva), Lorenzo Peña (Madrid), Willard van Orman Quine (Harvard), Wolfgang Röd (Innsbruck), Karl Schuhmann (Utrecht), Daniel Schulthess (Neuchâtel), Peter Simons (Salzburg), René Thom (Burs-sur-Yvette), Dallas Willard (Los Angeles) and Jan Wolenski (Cracow). The full text of the letter is available at several locations online, including http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/againstdsdegree.htm.

Eventually the decision was forced to a vote in the Cambridge University Senate, the first time this had happened since the government minister Lord Hailsham was put up for an honorary doctorate in 1963. Derrida's supporters won by 336 votes to 204.

Plenty of information about the dispute is available online: try "Derrida honorary" in your favorite search engine. It was also widely discussed in the popular and academic press; many articles from that period should now be archived online, but you may have to pay for access — see what subscriptions your library has.

Andrew Abertein


Megan asked:

What do you think Plato's Allegory of the Cave has to do with Bin Laden and his followers and their guilt or innocence of terrorism in the United States. How can the two things relate?

I think they do not relate at all. Plato in the allegory of the Cave is concerned with the world of the 'forms' and their reflection in our world i.e. our life-time, where we cannot behold directly the ideal forms of the good, the beautiful etc. Whether certain parties are or are not responsible for certain events is a very different and much more simple question, hinging entirely on the availability of evidence and interpretation of that evidence.

Helene Dumitriu

The question is asking for an explanation of how two groups of people — in this case the followers of Bin Laden, and the compatriots of those who died in the twin towers — could view the very same events from such radically different perspectives.

A common thread in radical or revolutionary thinking is the conviction that one is in possession of the light of truth and that 'the others' who condemn you are still stumbling in darkness, deceived by shadows and illusions.

Geoffrey Klempner


Toni asked:

My question is, What is some background information on the contractual and traditional views of marriage? What are the two views? Differences? Similarities?

Take a look at the metaphors involving love and marriage in

Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Steven Ravett Brown


Hardik asked:

What would you answer if someone asked you to discuss Kant's arguments for grounding morality in reason and his formulations of the Categorical Imperative?

I would approach this question by looking carefully at the idea of reason. Kant seems to think that reason is universal and unchanging. This, I think, is wrong. The proliferation of logics we see at present seems to bear this out. Kant thinks that reason has nothing to do with inclinations, desires or emotions. That, too, I think is wrong. Kant says that every 'rational being' imposes the Categorical Imperative upon themselves through reason. Yet his arguments as to why it must be imposed is extremely complex and beyond the understanding of many — so how could they have imposed the CI through reason?

To me, morality cannot be grounded in emotion alone, nor in the sort of austere and hyper-logical reason that Kant champions. Morality needs reason, but it needs a much richer conception of reason that includes an emotional aspect.

Tim Sprod


Andy asked:

I asked a question about Davidson's scheme/ content distinction that has been posted but without any response yet, the question was a bit garbled, I have been thinking about it and have come up with a clarified version of it, would it be possible to post this one?

Analytic truth is true by meaning (as opposed to true by empirical data), Davidsonian schemes are structured by analytic truths, so my question is if meaning is a relation between a representation and an object in the world how are analytic truths true by meaning? Does it mean that if say item 1 in a formal scheme (e.g. a proposition) was replaced by item 2 and the truth value of the proposition was maintained then items 1 and 2 are true by meaning? I.e. that they both have the same reference? If so why does that kind of relation 'constitute' the empirical data?

First off, a disclaimer: I'm a bit unsure about your question. You seem to think that Davidson maintains the analytic/ synthetic distinction, which is at odds with what he says. Hence, what I intend to do in this response is clarify the arguments regarding conceptual schemes and empirical content found in such articles as 'On the very idea of a Conceptual Scheme' which I hope will help you understand whats a play. So here goes....

Davidson sets up the discussion by arguing that the notion of a 'conceptual scheme' cannot be given enough purchase with metaphors such a 'the system of categories which organize experience'. Davidson holds that if we are going to continue talking about conceptual scheme then we better be talking about languages. So, as the issue that is at stake is whether there could be alternative conceptual schemes, Davidson holds that what this boils down to is the possibility that there could be two languages which were necessarily not translatable. ('necessarily' is key here. Davidson is not talking about languages which cannot be translatable as a contingent matter eg. Etruscan, but rather the possibility that a language could be logically impossibile to translate, i.e not translatable in any possible world). With this characterisation of conceptual schemes as languages, Davidson takes it upon himself to establish the conclusion that any langauge that it is not possible to translate is not a language at all.

Now, the first port of call in his task is the Kantian distinction between 'concept' and 'content'. According to this distinction we have a fixed set of concepts with with we can describe any possible world. Davidson holds that this distinction directly entails the analytic/ synthetic distinction, i.e. those sentences true in virtue of the concepts involved and those true in virtue of how things are in the world. Davidson then cites philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Feyeraband as examples who have rejected both these dualisms. For them, on cannot make distinctions about meaning because 'meaning is contaminated by theory'. What this amounts to is the claim that the language of Newtonian physics and the language of relativity are incommensurable, i.e different, mutually exclusive conceptual schemes are involved. Davidson then argues that this is to embrace another duality — between scheme and content, which for Davidson is going to amount to a duality of language and that to which language is applied.

Davidson is sceptical of this. He argues that the example is bad because the two languages might be logically translatable even if we can't do it. Secondly, the Kuhn/ Feyeraband position does not give us any inkling of how to tell whether a new conceptual scheme has arisen. Furthermore, like Quine before him, Davidson rejects the analytic/ synthetic distinction. (There are many reasons for this — the revisability of any purported analytic truth and the implication that sentences can be ascribed contents on a sentence by sentence basis wheras Davidson holds that we must attribute contents holistically (i.e as a whole set of sentences, beliefs, propositional attitudes etc.) The scheme/ content dualism of the Kuhn/ Feyeraband position could be given more purchase by saying that content is the experience/ fact/ world which needs organising and the scheme is the language which does the organising. This, Davidson holds, is the key duality of the thesis that there can be languages that it is not possible to translate. Thus, 'conceptual relativism' becomes the thesis that:

'L is a language if it stands in a relation R to experience' (where R is a fitting, organising, prediction relation)

Now, it is sentences that fit reality and predict. However, following Quine it is generally taken that languages fit reality as a whole, not as a single sentences and that it is experience that gives us the evidence to accept sentences as true. But, what it is to fit reality is what it is to be true. Remember that Davidson accepts a 'Tarskian' theory of truth, where the extension of truth in english is the set of all T-sentences. (An example of a T-sentence: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white.) Davidson is getting at the idea that the two proposed languages which are not intertranslatable are both largely true. Now, the key point is that Davidson holds, with Tarki, that translation is a key element in a theory of truth, for the theory of truth needs a translation from object-language to meta-language. Recall the the theory of meaning is going to take the from of T-sentences such as, 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white. For a langauge to be capable of truth is for it to be translatable. For example, a theory of meaning for German in English is going to yield the T-sentence, ''Schnee ist weiss' is true if and only if snow is white. Hence, translatability is a condition of being a language, which would show a non translatable language is not really a language at all. Q.E.D.

What I've tried to do is run through the argument of Davidson's key article on Scheme and Content. It is important to note that key elements recur in Davidson's work — a truth conditional account of meaning, the relationship between a theory of truth and a theory of meaning, radical interpretation and holism. It is useful to think about these issues in relation to anything he writes, as it does all fit together even if it's hard to see.

Richard Woodward


Jacob asked:

The main teachings of the Judeo-Christian religion is guilty of the fallacy appeal to fear. Whether I am a Christian or not, as a philosopher I would have to abolish all arguments and ideas based around the teachings of a Judeo-Christian nature. Is this true?

One important thing for a philosopher is to be as accurate as possible, and to give a fair rendering of all positions, especially those which one does not agree with or intends to oppose/ attack. (Having said that I am still trying hard myself to reach this goal...) When asked 'Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets' (Matthew 22, 38-40). So it is not true that the main teachings of the Judeo-Christian religion are guilty of the fallacy appeal to fear. Furthermore I think you misunderstand the consequence of fallacies — if you can show an argument to be fallacious it means no more and no less than the fact that this argument is useless as proof for the conclusion it is supposed to support. So if and only if the other arguments depend on the fallacious one could they be discarded with it (and you'd have to show this dependency first)... basically depending on which question you want to work on as a philosopher you have to consider the current discussion and existing positions (and even historical ones). Basically the dividing feature between religion and philosophy is that in a discussion on philosophy you can argue only from reason and evidence available and accepted by all i.e. not from authority, scripture or personal mystical experience, revelations etc.

Helene Dumitriu


Arthur asked:

1. Can we disprove the existence of infinity by making some impossible conclusions based only on infinity as supposition?
a. Imagine two continuous lines from of infinite length, one is continuous and the other is dotted, which one possesses more points?
b. Imagine a cube with sides of infinite length, expanding outwards, can time indicate this change? no? how can there exist a change not needing time to indicate it?

2. If god is above time, and there can be no action without change, (i.e. time) then how can god create, think, give orders, hate, love, etc etc?

3. Which is more possible, time having existed infinitely in the past (which I doubt to exist) or a time that was created (and if created then it can have no cause because a cause needs time before the time and this is impossible). Please include the "singularity" of the big-bang as explanation.

1. Infinity does not exist, any more than a finite number, as such, exists. Numbers are ideas we have. Do ideas exist? Well, there are several positions on that one.... So you cannot prove or disprove, I claim, the "existence" of infinity, in the sense of objective existence.

a) they have the same number of points. See the reference below.

b) there cannot be change without time.

2. Good question. Since I'm not a theist, I'm not troubled by it.

3. Does time exist? See Kant on this.

Ok, look. You need, at the minimum, before you even start to think about this stuff, to read: Georg Cantor Contributions to the founding of the theory of transfinite numbers. Dover Publications publishes it, and you can probably find it in other editions. He explains very clearly about the various orders of transfinite numbers ("infinities"). I'll start you off: the number of integers is aleph-null. The number of all real numbers (which includes surds) is aleph-one, which is a higher order of infinity. The number of positive integers is aleph-null, which is also the number of all integers, and indeed all rational numbers. The number of points on a line is aleph-one. If you remove all integers from the line, the number of points is still aleph-one. The number of functions is aleph-two. And on and on.

Steven Ravett Brown


Tom asked:

What time of day is a person most creative?

This sounds to me like it isn't a philosophical question at all. We might need to do some philosophizing to ascertain just what we mean by creative, and what signs we are going to use to measure someone's level of creativity at a given time, but then we would need to do an empirical study to find the answer. That would be psychology. I don't know of any such studies, so I can't answer the question.

Tim Sprod

You obviously have a subjective feeling about the time of day you are most creative. However, by asking the question you show that you recognize that the subjective feeling, on a particular occasion, about how creative you are being need not necessarily correspond to objective reality. So how does one tell? What would an objective test for creativity be like? Good question.

Geoffrey Klempner


Dale asked:

I need help with my essay topic. The question is.

"The problem of other minds is a pseudo-problem. Discuss"

Dale also asked:

What happens when a person dies?

This might be too late, but you could look at a book called The Philosophy of Mind by V.C. Chappel to see why the problem gets a hold. Basically, it is problematic because our concept of knowledge requires that we have evidence or warrant for belief, and this isn't possible when it comes to other minds. We can't logically argue for the existence of other minds. You might then consider the work of Wittgenstein (On Certainty) who suggests that logic and knowledge are not always the right model. For sure, these are the wrong model for approaching the question of other minds. Rather it is that we cannot doubt that others have a mind, and since we are certain that others do have a mind, the question might be considered "pseudo". We do not know what happens when a person dies because they are in not in a position to tell us. Some claim to have died and had experiences and then been resuscitated, but it questionable whether they actually died if the concept of death means the end of consciousness.

Rachel Browne


Eddy asked:

My question is about memory.

I find it almost impossible to remember unusual words and also how to spell them. Sometimes within minutes the word has gone and also no matter how many times I need to use it I cannot recall it. An example is that I go regularly to a private library and I need to write down the name of the person who first introduced me to the library when I borrow a book. I can never remember the name and if I do I get stuck on the spelling. On the other hand I can remember every word of a song that I may last have hear 40 years ago and I only have to hear just a couple of notes of a complicated classical piece of music to be able to hum the complete piece.

Well I have the same problem, but not as severely. And I have the same thing with music also. It seems to be genetic. There are multiple areas in the brain which store various types and modalities of memory, and memories of names, new words, and symbols, seem to be in one (or several closely related). As I say, I have this same problem to a lesser extent, and it's made academia pretty difficult, since academic work is very verbally oriented... on the other hand, you can compensate for a bad memory by learning how to think. Also, there are many tricks for remembering... just go to a library and look them up. In the end, however, I'm afraid that you'll just have to put up with it. But I can tell you that if you do a great deal of verbal work, i.e., reading, writing, and really focus on verbal thinking, it helps enormously.

Steven Ravett Brown


Helene asked:

Here some questions I am grappling with:

1) Unfalsifiability (aka non-refutability) — is an unfalsifiable argument fallacious? I feel such arguments are unfair in philosophy and somewhat pointless, but would like to know if they have to be allowed anyway? (In science of course they are not allowed — see e.g. Popper on pseudosciences and the requirement for testability.)

2) The sceptic argues against knowledge based on sense perception that 1. We are sometimes mistaken in our beliefs based on sense perception. 2. If we are sometimes mistaken in this way then we can never exclude the logical possibility of being mistaken in a particular moment or even at all times with regard to perceptual beliefs. 3. Conclusion: We cannot claim to have knowledge based on sense perception. I think that one could argue against this by pointing out that the sceptic in premise one claims to have knowledge (that we have made mistakes) and in the conclusion that knowledge is impossible, which is a contradiction, therefore the argument fails. Am I correct? A friend pointed out that the sceptic does not have to know in premise 1 what is true or false, just that there are mistakes, but I would ask: how does the sceptic know that? How can he even distinguish the two? Is it not ultimately by referring to perceptual evidence, the same type of evidence the argument seeks to discredit?

3) Are there things Descartes does not doubt in his Meditations? If so, does this endanger his project?

1) Non-refutability: I'm not sure what is really so bad about a non-refutable argument. If someone offers you a deductively valid, argument with true premises the conclusion will be non-refutable. This just is the point of deductive argument. What you probably mean to criticise, given your second question, is the use of premises like:

(a) Possibly, my experiences are all the result of an evil demon's malicious games, and there is no way to distinguish that situation from that in which my experiences are caused by the external objects they seem to be caused by.

This particular premise has been heavily criticised by the logical positivists, namely Ayer. Ayer argued that in order to have meaning a proposition must be either analytic (true in virtue of the meaning of the terms used) or empirically verifiable. (a), of course, is neither. Ayer concludes that global sceptical arguments against the existence of the external world fail. These types of views on meaning, if they succeeded, would provide a powerful argument against Cartesian scepticism. Unfortunately verificationist criteria of meaning suffer from numerous problems and have generally been abandoned. For example, what is the epistemological status of the verification principle:

(b) A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable.

Well, (b) certainly isn't empirically verifiable (what would count as evidence for or against it?), so the logical positivist must be claiming that it is analytic. Unfortunately this isn't a very convincing line to take. As one philosopher put it (A. Plantinga, my paraphrase): the verificationist is free to define terms however he likes. It doesn't mean that anyone else is compelled to follow his usage. In fact, many of the propositions that normal people and many philosophers find meaningful are classified as meaningless by (b) (e.g., "God made that flower", "Murder is wrong").

Given that there is no non-arbitrary way to rule out "non-refutable" propositions like (a) as meaningless I think that you will have to accept them as part of the legitimate philosophical tools that the sceptic can work with. (If (a) is not ruled out as meaningless or as a conceptual error of some kind, then it is not merely true, but is necessarily true making it legitimate for use in philosophical argumentation.)

2) The argument from error: The argument you site here is an example of a local sceptical argument. It tries to establish the conclusion that sense perception cannot result in knowledge, not that knowledge in general is impossible. The complaint you raise is that the sceptic improperly claims knowledge of:

(c) We are sometimes mistaken in our beliefs based on sense perception

because the conclusion of his argument undermines his evidence for it. This is a very complex issue; a full explanation would require far too much space to give. However, I think that your friend is roughly correct: the sceptic need not claim an epistemological status for (c). He can simply use the premise as it is not disputed by the participants in the debate. Consider the following: Suppose that the sceptic is claiming to know (c) on the basis of perceptual evidence. What would follow. Well, either he knows that (c) or does not. If he does know that (c) and if the argument is valid and the second premise true then the conclusion follows. (This option seems paradoxical but many of the contexts in which the argument arises explain the paradox away. For instance, the ancient sceptics were concerned with ethical issues, and Ayer was concerned to motivate the introduction of sense data as a logical entity.) If he does not know that (c) then it is difficult to see what sorts of things might be knowable on the basis of perceptual evidence. In short, I don't think that the sceptic needs to justify a premise like (c) in every case. It is enough that it be accepted for the sake of argument.

3) Descartes: In the Meditations Descartes find that he is unable to doubt his own existence. Because doubting is an activity that can only be carried out by a thinking thing it is impossible for the evil demon (or his naturalistic counterpart the evil doctor ready to feed experience directly into brains in vats) to deceive him concerning his own existence. This is the foundation of Descartes' positive project concerning knowledge and does not endanger that project at all.

Lance Floweree

1) I think that it is not so much arguments that are unfalsifiable. Rather, it is theories which allow their defenders to explain away apparently contrary empirical evidence. Nor am I sure that Popper's falsifiability is quite up to the task of cleanly separating science and pseudoscience as he claimed. Scientists also are prone to defending their theories against apparent empirical falsification, rather than abandoning the theory. Instead, they fiddle with the auxiliary hypotheses that surround it (see Imre Lakatos' work).

Since (many) philosophical positions do not rely on empirical evidence, I'm not sure of the relevance of this to (much) philosophical argument.

) Your reasoning looks pretty good to me.

3) Have a look at this short extract from what Friedrich Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil section 16 (it is probably worth looking this up and reading some more):

There are still harmless self-observers who believe that there are "immediate certainties"; for example, "I think,"...

When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, "I think," I find a whole series of daring assertions that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove; for example, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an "ego," and, finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking — that I know what thinking is....

Tim Sprod

In Popper's world — and in Wittgenstein's — there can be no such thing as "non-scientific" answers for any serious philosopher. If science is about sound answers to meaningful questions then the difference between "scientific" and "unscientific" realms of knowledge follows from a misunderstanding or mis-use of the concept of "knowledge". How does Mozart "know" that a special note is proper at a special place in the sonata? That is not a "how is it?" but a "how should it be?" question, asking not for knowledge in the "scientific" sense — and then of course the whole concept of falsifiability is not applicable. But if you are doing theology or hermeneutics or political sociology or economics etc., then you are asking for factual and theoretical knowledge which answers to the question "is it thus and so — or is it not?" Then an unfalsifiable argument generally is fallacious. Of course you can hit the nail by dumb luck, but that;s not a serious method.

The typical problem with most unfalsifiable arguments is that they either (mis)take plausibility for truth, or that they are so all-embracing that they become "true but useless" or "ultra-stable" in the sense of Popper. Most "best-sellers" in the non-fiction sector of the bookshops draw their readers by selling one plausible argument as "the truth" — while in a serious textbook the argument is only one of a dozen likewise plausible arguments stated in some footnotes. And often the contrary to a plausible argument is a likewise plausible argument and not an unlikely or false one.

So the question is: What do you want to gain with an unfalsifiable argument? You change the quest for truth for the quest for assuredness or happiness. You cling to some answer that doesn't fit to the problem in question but that fits YOU. It is you that wants to be a true believer free from doubts. You are tailoring a truth that fits your requirements. That is what it comes to.

There's a dilemma here: "Real" safety can only be gained by "real" knowledge. That was the guiding idea of the philosophical and scientific quest since the pre-socratic philosophers. That was the argument of astronomy against astrology and of chemistry against alchemy: Replace idle speculation by sound knowledge.

But to make sense of the world we live in we always need some idea of "what it's all about". So we start with hypotheses and guesses. "Why is the world here and we in it? Somebody must have created this. Lets call this creator God!" Or, if there are events in our life that seem to be in a strange way patterned and strewn with meaningful hints we may call that "karma" or "providence" etc. That sort of argument is "ad hoc" and "preliminary", but at least it is "understandable". There seem to be not too many people around at any time that can stand a sceptic's world of "ignoramus, ignorabimus" ("we dont know, we never will know"). That's quite a heroic attitude. There is a mental "horror vacui": What we don't know we fill with hypotheses of all sorts to make sense of the world we live in and of our actions in this world. We need a house to live in, we don;t like to sleep in the woods under stars and storms like animals.

And this explains why people often resist replacing hypotheses dear to them by "mere factual knowledge" or by "doubts". If you make them abandon all unproven assumptions then you tear their house apieces and drive them to the woods. We all live on some assumptions every day — even the sceptic when drinking and eating.

But that points to another question: There can be good and not so good assumptions, well built and not so well built houses, misleading and smart guesses. This is quite another distinction to be made. Maybe the Platonic concept of "Idea" is false and unjustified — but it has guided human minds to the heavens. Maybe the christian gospel is false and unjustified — but it has driven the mind of Western Man all over the world and into the modern state. Neither the Platonic concept of "Idea" nor the christian gospel are "falsifiable" in the Popperian sense — but then they are no mere stupidities either. But most un-falsifiable ideas — like those of Hitler and Stalin — are.

Hubertus Fremerey


Carlos asked:

I'm in high school and we got an assignment which involves asking a philosopher a question. My team and I are not very good at these type of things. We're studying at Prepa Tec in Monterrey N.l., in Mexico.

Well, I'm gonna ask you two questions. The first one was made by a friend of mine: "Are we living life as it is, or are we blinded by others feelings and not living it?"

And here's mine: Basically, the knowledge of something means that you have had that certain experience or seen it with your own eyes, so everything we learn is not knowledge, or is it?

As for your friend's question... take a look at the 'early' novels of Colin Wilson. He was very concerned with this question. Try Adrift in Soho, or The World of Violence, or Necessary Doubt for a start.

One classical formulation is that knowledge is verified or justified true belief, but that has some problems. For a brief overview, look up 'Gettier' in the XRefer Oxford Companion to Philosophy search engine (PhiloSophos knowledge base) As far as what we learn being knowledge... I'm sure you'll have no problems thinking of things you learned that were not true, right? To put it another way, we can ask whether we can have false knowledge, but that seems a little strange, doesn't it?

Steven Ravett Brown


Jayson asked:

What is the meaning of life? What is man to the universe?

And what does, "To be, or not to be" mean?

Life in general means, in its primary use, organic existence. You can find a meaning, or sense of purpose, within this existence, though this will differ between persons. Some people are unable to see any purpose at all, but this would be to be in a depressive state, since there is always purpose to be found. Man exists as small speck in the universe, and it is amazing that he feels himself to be so important."To be or not to be" is a question raised by Hamlet, a Shakespearean character: "to be", with all the suffering that entails, or to die (just so long as death is an endless sleep without nightmares). According to the notes in my copy, the whole speech epitomizes the sense of disillusion and futility which was common at the time.

Rachel Browne