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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 19 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from November 2002 — January 2003:

  1. Existential approach to education
  2. How to write or compile a philosophy
  3. Interfering in natural evolution
  4. Kant and Nagel on moral luck
  5. Determining what we believe to be true
  6. If everyone were on Prozac
  7. Masaryk's philosophy of education
  8. Difference between fact and opinion
  9. Getting stuck on Heidegger and language
  10. Christianity and Hellenistic thought
  11. Philosophy of Marcus Tullius Cicero
  12. Democracy based on reason
  13. Wittgenstein's Tractatus
  14. Sacrificing freedom for happiness
  15. Why children mustn't read the Bible
  16. Free will and predestination
  17. Kant's phenomenal and noumenal worlds
  18. Origins of Darwin's theory
  19. Changing a person's morals
  20. Are you there?
  21. Occam's razor
  22. Wilamowitz contra Nietzsche
  23. Is truth in us or in others?
  24. Philosophy of fitness
  25. What your bedroom reveals about you
  26. Righteous anger
  27. Is humanity destroying itself?
  28. Sex and morality
  29. Philosophy for 9th graders
  30. Views on existentialism
  31. What if we're alone in the universe?
  32. Davidson's scheme/ content distinction
  33. Big things and small things
  34. The cosmos as a brain
  35. Can absolute truths be relative?
  36. Letter from Yevgenia in Russia
  37. The human essence
  38. What people really think of us
  39. I am confused by Nietzsche
  40. Source for Japanese philosophy
  41. A world of total control
  42. Personal identity and copying
  43. Why we discriminate
  44. Infinity
  45. Is man good by nature?
  46. Truth
  47. Dilemmas for a multilingual state
  48. Euthanasia for and against
  49. Definitions of realism
  50. Why God deserves to be god
  51. Why philosophers disagree
  52. Why we can't believe whatever we want
  53. Chalmers vs. Dennett on the mind
  54. Duality of good and evil
  55. Some theories about the cosmos
  56. Marx's view of human nature
  57. The logic of 'most'
  58. Can brain stimulation give rise to new sensations?
  59. Ways of reaching God
  60. Life as a zero-sum game
  61. What 'kapelle' meant for Nietzsche
  62. Doing something on purpose for no reason
  63. Why philosophers go insane
  64. Becoming an intellectual
  65. Crimes of omission
  66. Goethe's theory of colour
  67. Ethics of cloning body parts
  68. Platonic dualism and somatophobia
  69. Impact of Zeno's paradoxes
  70. Future for analytic philosophy
  71. How we could hear colours and see sounds
  72. On the subjectivity of mystical experience
  73. Philosophy as autobiography or technology
  74. Quine's attack on analytic truths
  75. Transfiguration of the commonplace
  76. Living in the three-fingered world
  77. Four elements in Presocratic philosophy
  78. Sex education for 6th and 7th graders
  79. Musical influences of 1001 Arabian Nights
  80. 'Religion is...the opium of the people'
  81. Leibniz on Locke's theory of personal identity
  82. Globalization and national sovereignty
  83. Arguing against Nietzsche
  84. Why things matter
  85. Darwin machines and Von Neumann machines
  86. Meaning of 'sensibility'
  87. Comparing inner experiences
  88. Problem of cheating in class
  89. Are philosophical problems real or only about language?
  90. Standing up at soccer matches
  91. God and the disabled
  92. You can't have your cake and eat it
  93. Looking for a title for a Philosophy PhD
  94. Why philosophy is worth studying
  95. Doctors know best
  96. What the mind is
  97. Abortion
  98. Love
  99. Impact of Confucianism
  100. Locke on innate ideas
  101. Hume on explanation
  102. Philosophy of food
  103. Robin Hood on trial
  104. Could brain circuits allow for free will?
  105. What Marx would think of today's rich celebrities
  106. What would happen if everyone disbelieved in God
  107. Brain teaser
  108. Holography and the soul
  109. Why Socrates thought it was smart to know nothing
  110. Kuhn and Popper on realism and anti-realism
  111. Should I give up college to earn money?
  112. Mathematical certainty and arithmetical error
  113. 'The bigger the lie, the more people believe it'
  114. Infinite regress of homunculi
  115. Virtue of obedience
  116. Difference between religion and philosophy
  117. Sport as art
  118. On forlornness and economic competition
  119. Spinoza's metaphysics
  120. Knowing God's will from one's own
  121. Philosophical science fiction for 9th graders
  122. Uselessness of philosophy
  123. Suicide bombing
  124. Tradition
  125. Should there be a legal drinking age?
  126. Philosophy in schools
  127. Davidson's anomalous monism
  128. J.S. Mill on toleration
  129. Can animals have thoughts?
  130. My one philosophical truth
  131. Can thought 'vibes' make things happen?
  132. Concept of European identity
  133. Agony uncle
  134. Levinas on solitude
  135. E=MC2 and mental 'energy'
  136. Choosing the best religion
  137. For and against anomalous monism
  138. On what can be proved
  139. Why people are more valuable than land
  140. Frege's puzzle of identity
  141. Russell's theory of descriptions
  142. Self-interest in nature
  143. Reality of God
  144. Is necessity real?
  145. Answers and analogies
  146. Right to punish or be punished
  147. What happens to the 'I' in a coma
  148. Problems with the sense datum theory
  149. Animal consciousness
  150. Two types of people
  151. Pros and cons of alcohol
  152. Artificial intelligence
  153. Value of life
  154. What if there are no analytic statements?
  155. Why do we always want to be guy on top?
  156. Kierkegaard's subjective and objective approaches to God

Emily asked:

I have been looking at the implications of various philosophical approaches for an understanding of the nature of education.

When thinking about an existential approach to education it seems to me that the emphasis must be on individual and personal understanding in learning, and education as a means to finding personal meaning and understanding. If this is the case, then I am finding it difficult to reconcile this idea with the possibility of the curriculum ever being prescribed in any way and not simply stemming from the individual interests of the learner. I guess my question therefore is what kinds of learning would follow from an existential perspective for education?

It seems to me that there are all sorts of problems lurking in the conclusions you are tempted to draw concerning the implications of "existential approach" for education. It is very difficult to know quite where to begin and quite how to understand your ideas about this.

In the first place, whether or not one takes an existentialist view of things, it is, in a sense, trivially true that education emphasises "individual and personal understanding in learning" because it is trivially individual persons that understand and/ or learn anything (or not, as the case may be). So I feel that you you must have something more significant in mind here, perhaps hinted at when you talk about education as a means to finding "personal meaning and understanding". But this is even more problematic. I have a feeling that meanings are generally fairly public sorts of things and I would have hoped that existentialism did not entail some sort of solipsistic conception of meaning/ understanding and if it does then I would take that as a prima facie case for rejecting existentialism in the first place even before considering whether it has anything useful to say about education.

The point is that I think you need to spell out in more detail what you take to be the significance of "personal" meaning and understanding. Why the epithet "personal"? What are you really setting it up in opposition to? "Public" meaning and understanding? If so, why? and what is wrong, from the allegedly existentialist point of view, with public meaning and understanding? or "interpersonal" meaning and understanding? or whatever else you have in mind?

But perhaps the nub of my concerns about what you say is that you seem to feel that the alleged existentialist notions of "finding personal meaning and understanding" (whatever this amounts to) are totally incompatible with a student's ever being challenged to confront and come to grips with something that does not happen to "stem from his individual interests". We need to explain a bit more fully why these are incompatible.

Presumably you take the student himself as the final arbiter of his own "personal interests"? So be it. That is, no doubt, a truism. And in that case "his individual interests" means "what he happens to find interesting at some particular time". Is he also the only judge of what "stems" from his personal interests? Even if that is the case it still needs to be considered whether the purpose of a state funded education system is to provide cash handouts to enable individuals to go seeking their "personal meanings and understandings".

The thought or possibility that I am asking you to consider here is a rather difficult one — but it amounts to this: Consider whether there might just be some things in life that are SO important that, for precisely that reason, they should not be set up as "objectives" of the education system at all! And I am beginning to think that your notion of "personal meaning and understanding" might be just such a thing!

Anyway, whether or not "personal meaning and understanding" is a sensible and meaningful objective for an education system to have, you still have at least two major problems:

(1) You have to argue more fully why it should be that ANY element (even partial) of prescription in a curriculum MUST inevitably preclude achieving "personal meaning and understanding" or MUST, at best, lead to learning and understanding that is somehow not "personal" or wrong or bad in some way ... and you will need to spell out exactly what that is, and why it is so.

[I suspect that lurking here are some partially digested existentialist notions of "authenticity" and "freedom". These will have to be spelt out properly. Also in this context it might be worth giving some consideration to the accusation that existentialism had managed to replace the hard notion of truth with the soft notion of authenticity.]

(2) Conversely you will need to explain why only engaging with what I personally find interesting, or deem to stem from what I personally find interesting, should lead to my finding ANY "personal meaning and understanding" at all let alone be the ONLY way to such an achievement.

My thought here is that, on the contrary, if this "finding personal meaning and understanding" is to be worth a fig then it needs to be built upon a person's ability to respond to whatever the world might throw at him. After all, if I am not mistaken, existentialists have had an awful lot to say about "facticity", human "thrown-ness" into a world one did not create, and "authentic engagement" with the world and others, and such like. The notion that I am only being authentic if I follow only my own "personal interests" (even if, and it is a very big if, these can be distinguished from navel-gazing, or other forms of self-indulgence) seems to me run counter to all these existentialist notions.

Sartre (and others) have had a lot to say about "viscosity" and "boredom" and such like (manifestations of the facticity of existence in the world) ... but I did not think that they conceived of simply pursuing one's "individual interests" as an "authentic" way of coming to terms with these and achieving "personal meaning and understanding"! — though I stand open to correction on this point — but if I am wrong then I think it behoves someone else to explain to me the difference between existentialism and hedonism.

So then, quite contrary to your interpretation, it might be the case that real authentic personal meaning and under- standing might ONLY be achieved or achievable via those encounters with the world and others where one HAS TO to face up to challenges precisely NOT of one's own making or choosing! And so an existentialist view of things might in fact demand that the education system present students with challenges over and above their own personal individual interests. That is to say, an existentialist philosophy might demand some measure at least, of prescription in the curriculum!

Now another approach I think it is important that you consider is this: try not to do all you thinking about your problem just at the level of vast and woolly generalisations about "individual interest", "personal meaning and understanding", etc. You can go round in circles for ever and ever doing that, redefining things, re-interpreting them this way and that to serve whatever purpose you want ... rather come down to earth & take a specific example of some minimal but real measure of prescription in some curriculum (and not just a "straw man" case!) and try to prove, if you can, in specific detail why it must, in itself and as such, inevitably fail to lead to ANY "individual learning" or finding of "personal meaning and understanding", — however you understand or define these. I think this might be rather difficult.

Robert de Villiers


Patricia asked:

How do I compile or write a philosophy?

What are the morals and ethics of humans interfering in natural evolution?

Oboy, you've really pressed one of my buttons here. Just what does "natural" mean? Anything non-human? Anything non-rational? Anything non-mechanical? Let's see... non-human. That would mean that absolutely anything a human being does, in any circumstance, is "unnatural". No, too extreme.

Ok... non-rational is "natural"? But then we'd have to say that some actions of the higher apes, at least, are "unnatural", since they can reason, to some extent. Also, it would mean that anything we do, think, say, etc., based at all on rational thought is "unnatural". That would pretty much eliminate everything we do, except when we're driven entirely by emotion, not really a very frequent occurrence, I'd say. Not that we're particularly rational, mind you... just that it does enter, a teeny bit, into virtually everything we do or think.

Mechanical? Well, then we'd have to eliminate lots of tool-using animals; not just apes, but creatures like ants, wasps, birds, etc., etc.

Now what? Well, how about this... when humans do something which alters an ecosystem, they're being unnatural. Well, I'm afraid that won't work either... there are innumerable examples of animals doing the same, from deer eating themselves into starvation, to predators exhausting the supply of prey and dying, to huge populations of buffalo turning prairies into dustbowls... and so forth.

Building cities? What about termite mounds, columns of driver ants (and their colonies), prairie dog colonies stretching for literally hundreds of miles (yes, before humans).

Ok... polluting the planet...? Sorry, but we breathe the oxygen which was originally generated by anaerobic bacteria, several hundred million years ago (or maybe as long as a billion, I can't remember), which turned the methane atmosphere of this planet into something like what we breathe today. Highly unnatural, those little critters.

Human beings cannot do anything unnatural. We are creatures evolved on this planet, like all the others. What we do is part of what has arisen from causes responsible for everything else. We can destroy the planet, just as any animal can destroy its environs, and as many have, or we can live in "harmony", i.e., in some kind of equilibrium with it, like some lucky animals... if we manage to figure out how before it's too late.

Now. Evolution. Tell me, just what does "evolution" mean? Roughly, adaptation because of random genetic changes making our phenotypes (the result of genetic read-out) more able to reproduce, for whatever reason. So let's see... Parasites living inside creatures are unnatural, since their hosts have "interfered" by providing an "unnatural" environment? Ants which keep aphids for the sugar they secrete are unnatural, then, because the ants have interfered with the aphids "natural" evolution?

Dogs? Do you have a pet dog or cat, or goldfish? Do I need to elaborate? What about bread... you like to eat bread, right? How do you think the wheat got so tasty, hardy, fast-growing, etc... yes, by selective breeding. Rice? Corn? Should I go on? We've "interfered" in the genetics, the "natural" evolution, of all those and many, many more. Did we consider the ecological effects, when we domesticated the horse? When we irrigate land to raise rice to eat, and destroy huge habitats, forcing adaptation of all sorts of creatures, including ourselves? Yes, of course we should consider the effects of breeding different plants, animals, etc... and we should have been for the last few hundred thousand years. But we haven't, have we. But then, neither did the ants when they domesticated the aphid.

So now everyone is talking about "genetic engineering". We now have yet another technique for doing what we've been doing all along. And it will let us do it more efficiently, and perhaps make more profound changes. Yes, indeed. We are entering the century of biological engineering, like it or not. I for one think it's wonderful... it can give us more control over our lives and our environment, it can feed the hungry, it can help make work easier. And we will learn things. Or it can destroy us... just as our overpopulation, our weapons, our diseases, can, just as... hey, you name it.

Whatever the ethics of "interfering" in evolution are, it's certainly not something we've just begun to do. I for one would prefer the comfort of a warm house in the winter rather than being huddled in a cave... but that implies massive interference in the environment in which I'm living, even if all I'm doing is living in a log cabin burning wood I've cut (not to mention that to have as little as an axe with a metal blade implies all sorts of technology... mining, smelting, etc., etc.). And that interference implies adaptation in that environment on the part of plants, animals... and other people.

No, I'm afraid that there is no boundary between any actions we take, especially now, and actions which "interfere". So the morality of interfering is just exactly the same as the morality of any actions at all.

Steven Ravett Brown


Mark asked:

This is about Thomas Nagel's essay "Moral Luck" (in his book Mortal Questions).

I am trying to find what are Nagel's reservations on Kant's statement that "the only thing that can called good without qualification is the good will."

Nagel objects to Kant's claim that the only thing of value is a good will. He objects on the basis that however good one's will may be, it is always subject to luck or circumstances. While you may have a good will with regard to a situation, it may be that circumstances make it the case that your action is not judged by others as morally "good". If you accidentally kill someone, the fact that you had a good will isn't going to absolve you from moral blame or the judgement that your action was bad. In raising the objection of "moral luck" Nagel's claim is that we judge people on what they do and if, as bad luck or circumstance would have it, you do wrong through no fault of your own, and with no bad intentions, the condition of your will doesn't the moral value of your action.

I don't think is a strong objection. Kant was talking about intrinsic value and Nagel is talking about moral judgements. What is of value in itself, regardless of what happens in the world, of luck or circumstances or whether there is blame for external action, is for Kant a good intention.

It is, for Nagel, a matter of luck what kind of person you are. If you happen to be especially sympathetic and kind natured, it is expected that you will be judged as more moral than a cold person, but even the latter can do his Kantian duty. I imagine that Kant would answer the former by saying this is not a matter of ethics but psychological relations. In the ethical moment it is necessary that the will act purely for the other. In the latter case, the cold person may well perform his duty, and here Nagel raises one of the main objections to Kantian ethics. But I wonder how the person Nagel describes as "greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous etc" could really even momentarily possess what we understand to be the "good will". My own understanding of the good will is that it is a real but pure state, unadulterated by sentiment, but not emptily performing in accordance with duty.

Rachel Browne


VoF asked:

How do we determine what we believe to be true?

If we aren't able to coin a definite definition for what is truth then how is one to answer such a question as it would be based on mere speculation.

I hope you will pardon me for not regurgitating 5000 years worth of speculation on "what is truth?" and how one might frame its definition so as to have an unassailable position on it. Instead, what I want to suggest to you as a precept is this: It is part of the bargain engaged in by life forms — and I mean all life forms from bacteria upwards — that the rules of existence may be rewritten. In the material realm, truth is an easy concept: yeah or nay; there or not there etc. It is the clear-cut answer to an unambiguous question. It is only natural, I suppose, that we humans would wish for this kind of security, but it is purchased at a price — ultimately nothing less than giving up life for it. So the bargain of which I spoke is this: that we enjoy the flexibility, plasticity, adaptivity of multi-choice answers to all the question posed by the universe; and that we ask our questions in the same spirit. And this way we retain options for development, for evolution, for growth — in short, for all the wonderful things that make forms of life different from forms of nonlife; but this inevitably means that the concept of truth must change as we ascend the spiral towards greater spiritual and intellectual awareness. More knowledge means a greater range of truths; and if we continue to explore the realms of being in the same manner as we have done in the past, we will discover not just new facts, new sciences, but new truths as well.

In short, the whole notion of just one truth reflects (with apologies to many a great thinker) a view of life that is a bit simplistic. And I don't think this is either a limitation or an invitation for anyone to aver that 'therefore' we cannot distinguish truth from falsehood. We humans are complex beings; we can accommodate the idea of many truths, because in the end there is a term or concept which (as it were) does embrace them all, although obviously I would class it as a group concept: so let's call it Truthfulness. If you accept this, then you can see how it also has a single opposite, namely Falsehood. I won't go into this, but if you think a little about this opposition, you will then find that an answer of the kind you asked is implicit here: for although there are many truth and many ways of being truthful, there is only one way of being false.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Well, most of the time we don't determine anything by means of procedures that can be spelt out unless we are involved in science and experiment. In perceptual case, we check again. Sometimes we ask others.

The logical positivists, early in the century, thought that we could hold that something is true if we can verify it. This means that statements of value, those of ethics, aesthetics and many other evaluations cannot be true. On this view, only facts can be true. But facts change. A fact for the philosopher Hume was an impression, whereas a modern day fact might hold at the unobservable quantum level, and beyond that there may be phenomena that we cannot verify at all.

Some people, in particular, these days, Bernard Williams, believe that there is an absolute conception truth, aimed at by physicists, which is free from perspective and a relative truth which is relative to the capacities of a being and the latter is the most we can achieve. But this doesn't really capture what we mean by "true" when this is limited by our incapacity to know the absolute. For sure, the meaning of truth is not "mere speculation". It is only because that we "know" what it means that we can talk about it and use the concept to distinguish between absolute and relative truth. The concept might not be definite, but (the Wittgensteinian view) is that to know what a concept means is to be able to use it. Philosophers have tried to define it in terms of assertibility conditions, verification, correspondence to states of affairs, or conceptual coherence, but nothing has been particularly conclusive. Lack of determinacy is a problem with a lot of our concepts and I think it is too much to expect.

And it seems that truth might have different senses. When we talk of sentences being true we are looking at semantic truth and tend towards a theory of correspondence to facts because of the connection of sentences to logic through grammar, but the value problem arises, and a problem our beliefs about fictional sentences. When we look at scientific truth, we may be more concerned with coherence of a theory within our conceptual scheme.

We seek to justify beliefs in terms of reasons for holding them rather than their truth. But truth is that towards which we aim.

Rachel Browne

Relativists determine something to be true by reducing it to basic statements. Such a truth exists only in a specific system of thought.

Absolutists BELIEVE truth to be absolute. They attach the value TRUE to basic statements and further use the same logic methods as relativists. In their eyes there exists only one system. That comes close to your "definite definition". It is a point of view found in many religions. They all have their own commandments (basic statements), and in some cases followers are ready to die for it.

There is no big difference between relativists and absolutists, only the first ones realize that they DEFINED some things to be TRUE, and consequently that there are as many truths as definitions.

Henk Tuten


Neil asked:

In an article in a recent issue of Time magazine, Dr Sanjay Gupta discussed what would be the outcome "If Everyone Were on Prozac", in which he noted that some people/ psychiatrists "fear that a nation on Prozac would miss the inherent value of struggle and strife".

Do we have any logical grounds for believing that such a positive value is indeed inherent in struggle and strife? Would an idyllic Eden be an inappropriate goal to seek?

An interesting question: does pure pleasure have inherent value? Here are a couple of scenarios to consider: 1) We develop the ability to put an electrode into one's pleasure center (we can do this), and indefinitely support them (we're close) with IV drip, etc., while they do nothing, think nothing, and feel nothing but intense pleasure; 2) we turn the planet into a garden, with more than enough food growing everywhere, and no need to do anything to satisfy basic needs beyond picking it off the nearest bush... and the food is loaded with tranquilizers and euphoric drugs (well, possible in some future). Ok? You like these? Do you think one or the other of these is what humanity should aim for? If you leave the ability to think, you're going to have striving, at least by some... so you've got to turn it off, one way or another. But hey, why think, if you've got food, shelter, sex, and (minimal, since we don't think) entertainment? Bread and circuses, like the Romans, right?

You could ask what the difference is between humanity like that and no humanity at all, just blades of grass... I don't see one. I'm not going to present an ethical system with some other basis, although I easily could. You think of one. I could say that in order to make the scenarios above, or something like them, work, you'd have to change the basic nature of humanity... and then the question becomes: to what do you think it should be changed, and why?

But to give you two direct answers: yes, and yes. Here's one simple reason: we can't predict the future. If we have a world of contented cattle, they'll need keepers, right? Because something is bound to happen to the system, eventually. Well, who will be the keepers? Robots? Could you trust them a) to do a good job, in the long run... be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, to not rust away, etc., and b) to not just abandon humanity?

Steven Ravett Brown


Prathamesh asked:

In the current changing scenario,what should be our approach to, and philosophy of education?

Masaryk, one time president of inter-war Chekoslovakia, once argued that the ills of the age could largely be attributed to the prevalence of what he called "semi-education" amongst those in positions of influence in public life (from the lowliest teachers to political leaders).

By "semi-education" he meant the the sort of education that furnished people with a facile ability to criticise the foundations of everything without providing any deeper ability or understanding with which to defend the foundations of anything.

Would you not agree that some commitment to redressing this imbalance should be expected of a philosophy of education in the current climate, in the "current changing scenario", as you put it?

Robert de Villiers


Colin asked:

What if anything is the difference between fact and opinion?

In one meaning of the word "fact" a fact is something that can be shown to be true by accepted methods. For instance, it is a fact that Mars is the fourth planet.

An opinion (or belief) is something that cannot be shown to be true by those who hold the opinion, by any accepted method, although it may be true, and it may become a fact when and if accepted methods are determined. For instance, it is an opinion, held by many people including some astronomers, that there is extraterrestrial life.

A "matter of opinion" is different. Something is a matter of opinion when it is not something that can be shown true or false, but is "subjective". For instance, whether vanilla ice cream tastes better than strawberry ice-cream is a matter of opinion that no one should quarrel about. Matters of opinion are not true or false, or something we very much care whether they are true or false. "Matter of opinion" is pretty much the same as "matter of taste".

"My opinion" or "only my opinion" (with emphasis on the "my") usually means a view or belief I happen to hold, but do not expect others to share. For instance, "I think that eating stewed prune ice-cream is disgusting, but that's only my opinion".

Ken Stern

A 'fact' is something that has actually happened or an action actually performed (the latter of course is just a special case of the former). For you to say, "the sky is blue and that's a fact" is therefore not strictly speaking a proper way of expressing it, although one would have to be an extreme pedant to ignore what's become pretty common language usage. At any rate, a fact (providing it is adequately testified) is once and for all time. Thus we accept that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, even though no one can prove it. The testimony, however, is reliable. An opinion, on the contrary, is a belief you hold, and there may be times when this is in contradiction to facts. So there is this difference to begin with. Further, many people change their opinion often; and accordingly opinions can fluctuate all the way from virtual certainty (expert opinion) to a mere whim. In philosophy you will often find the syllable "dox" (as in paradox, orthodox) attached to a word to denote that the matter in question is an opinion. Plato distinguished between "doxa" and "episteme", that is, between opinion and knowledge; but then Plato had a pretty rarefied notion of knowledge which in today's world might be difficult to insist on — I mean: there is a solid body of philosophical opinion that all knowledge is just opinion ...

Jürgen Lawrenz


Sebastian asked:

I am working on an independent study on Heidegger and language. I have some really good books to work with but I am a little stuck on the paper. So far what I have is exegesis and I have little in the way of objections and replies. Can anyone recommend to me how to get started on this? The only objections I can find are in the way of "he is difficult to read" which isn't very helpful and a little ignorant as well. I am just grasping his thought, so it is difficult for me to come up with my own critical analysis of his work.

This isn't a question I'd normally answer, because I'm not really a Heidegger fan. But I just thought I'd throw something out, since no one else has... you can read Gelven, M. A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989, if you want a readable commentary... but it's written by a Heidegger enthusiast, to put it mildly... For a more critical and somewhat odder approach, try Tugendhat, E. Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination. Translated by P. Stern. Edited by T. McCarthy, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986. The latter I think is more linguistically oriented. Now if you really want to get into Heidegger's linguistic issues, of course the Macquarrie and Robinson translation of Being and Time has zillions (a technical philosophical term... haha) of comments on his use of German (and Greek, and...).

Steven Ravett Brown


Joesaliba asked:

How did the main events of Hellenistic thought that preceded and prepared the advent of Christ, mark the new testament?

Who could affirm that the events of the Hellenistic thought prepared the advent of Christ? This is only a hypothesis which implies the refusal of the existence of the historical Jesus. Well, nowadays nearly all historians accept that Jesus existed.

Some Hellenistic elements can be found in the New Testament, particularly in the Johannine writings. The Logos (which in ancient and modern Greek means "word" as well as "reason") is described as God from eternity who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. For trinitarian Christians (all Roman Catholics, all Eastern Orthodox and many Anglicans and Protestants) He is one of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity.

It seems that St John has been partly influenced by the same sources as Philo of Alexandria (c 20 B.C — c A.D 50), the great Hellenistic Jewish thinker. Yet it is to be noted that St John's identification of the Logos with the Messiah was quite new.

Jean Nakos


Tina asked:

What was Marcus Tullius Cicero's core philosophy? Because I don't really consider him to be anything but a political figure, not a philosopher

There is an unfortunate tendency (at least I think it's unfortunate) to elevate any prominent person with opinions to the status of philosopher. I heard a football coach being interviewed the other day; he too had a 'philosophy', and then there was a marketing expert touting his 'philosophy' about salesmanship, and so on. What this so-called philosophy boils down to is 'method'. The coach had a method of coaxing competitiveness out of players, the sales guy a method of psychology centred on ingratiation. In both cases, the use of the word 'philosophy' reflects, bluntly spoken, crass ignorance of the nature of philosophy, and it is used by people of this ilk for no other purpose than to convey some air of being smarter than people without a 'philosophy'. But there are plenty of respectable examples of misuse, too. Albert Einstein (a scientist), Leo Tolstoi (a novelist), Mao Tse Tung (a politician), Albert Schweitzer (a musician and humanist) can be found on philosophy shelves in bookshops and libraries with morsels of their 'wisdom', well why not Seinfeld? Indeed, why not that great classic Cicero?

You are right. Cicero was a lawyer, a politician and a great stylist of Latin prose. He also dabbled in philosophy. But to be frank, don't bother looking for a 'core philosophy'. No-one who's sincere about philosophy could possibly maintain that Cicero has any claim to this title of honour.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Faris asked:

Is a democracy based on reason possible? For Socrates, it seems that a single person will always know what is best, and yet his idea of reason seems to extend beyond knowledge to encompass the freedom of questioning. How might this allow for the justification of democracy?

I don't know about reason... human beings are neither sane nor rational. But there's a bit of hope; take a look at this study. Here's a quote:

"When red deer stand up and honeybees dance, they are not simply stretching their legs or indicating where the nectar is, according to a new study. As bizarre as it may seem, they are voting on whether to move to greener pastures or richer flowers.

"The process is unconscious, the researchers say. No deer counts votes or checks ballots; bees do not know the difference between a dimple and a chad. But no one deer or bee or buffalo decides when the group moves. If democracy means that actions are taken based not on a ruler's preference, but the preferences of a majority, then animals have democracy."

Full text at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/14/science/life/14DEMO.html

So, fortunately, it seems that rationality is not necessary for democracy (but perhaps sanity is... in that case, we have problems), and that democracy actually is a good choice for governing.

Steven Ravett Brown


Paula asked:

Please can somebody send me all they know about Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations)?

Whew! A tall order. Do I detect a note of urgency?. Have you read either of the books, or bits of them, and do you have any specific questions about what you have read?

If you really need a quick potted introduction try some of the web based encyclopaedias such as Peter Hacker's article in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy or the Wittgenstein entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [You will find both on the PhiloSophos site at http://philosophos.org/knowledge_base/.]

Avoid stuff like Paul Strathern's Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes or take it with a hefty a pinch of salt and move on... this sort of thing is written by dilettantes to separate the naive from their money...

If you want to progress from the simplest "dictionary" type introductions then David Pears' little book Wittgenstein in the the Fontana Modern Masters series and Anthony Kenny's book with the same title are OK-ish and will be reasonably easy to read. But of single volume commentaries on W., the best, bar none, is Insight and Illusion by P.M.S. Hacker (Oxford University press, ISBN 0-19-824798-2). But it will not be easy reading, especially if you are new to this. Otherwise, but at a similar level, Hacker's book Wittgenstein and Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy is excellent and perhaps a bit more "accessible".

Robert de Villiers


Liz asked:

Why should freedom not be sacrificed for happiness?

Why is it that children in our schools are not permitted to read the Bible and men in our prisons can?

Because our country (I'm referring here to the US, but the same arguments hold in Britain) is not a theocracy; there is separation of church and state (or so the Constitution says).

Because children are, by definition, not responsible adults and so cannot separate fact from superstition.

Because schools are not prisons.

Because if they were "permitted to read" (which actually means: "taught to believe", doesn't it?) one bible, why not all? The Christian bible, which I assume you are referring to, is only one of many. Why should we prefer that one?

Because, since this is primarily a Christian country, children would not merely "read" the Christian bible, they would be (and are) subjected to pressure to believe it. Why should they be Christians and not Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists... etc., all religions with millions of followers just as zealous and certain of the correctness of their faiths as Christians? Not to mention the hundreds of faiths with less than, say, hundreds of millions of followers... in Utah, for example, they would be (and are) pressured to be Mormons, and to "read" (i.e., to believe) the Book of Mormon, their bible. Should they be "permitted" to do so in state-sponsored schools?

If you want your child to be schooled in one of the multitudes of faiths presently existing, send that child to the appropriate religious school; there are thousands of them. There they will learn that the particular set of beliefs taught in that school is the only correct one, and that all the rest of humanity, from the dawn of time to the present, is and has been utterly wrong and misguided in their beliefs, and is most likely burning in some version of hell. Am I exaggerating, even the smallest bit? No, I don't think so. Just tune in to any religious broadcast, any faith, and check it out.

Steven Ravett Brown

But they are so permitted. But not in our schools (or at any rate) not as truths.

Ken Stern


Claire asked:

Do I have free will? A Christian would say yes but if God is omniscient then how can we have free will when the idea of predestination exists? Are there any other arguments for or against the validity of such a question?

According to the apophatic theology, God is not omniscient nor non-omniscient. God is beyond omniscience which is merely a human concept. God is beyond concepts.

Predestination is also a mere concept.

It seems to me that the God of your hypothesis, as formulated in your question, is a rather anthropomorphic God.

Jean Nakos


David asked:

The way I understand Kant's transcendental foundations to epistemology is that he divided up existence into different 'worlds' — the phenomenal world, the world-in-itself, and the world or structure of language. Are there any other philosophers since Kant and completely independent of him who have started from scratch like this but divided things up in a truly different way?

If not, who are the philosophers that have taken this same starting point but proposed different relationships between these worlds?

I'm a bit puzzled by the way you've phrased your question. If you really understood that Kant "divided" the world, then you've misunderstood (consolation prize: you're not alone). There is only one world, but this one world is not accessible to us in its totality. The phenomenal world is the same world as the one which contains the Ding-an-sich (Thing-in-itself), but the latter is not knowable to us for various reasons, e.g. we lack the sensory (including scientific) apparatus to detect it. To put this issue into a nutshell, you could say that the divisions in Kant's "worlds" are aspects, and one relatively straightforward way of understanding this is by an everyday example such as what you can see of a boat. First, the side not facing you, second that portion of it on the inside and third, the portion submerged in the water — these are all aspects which you can inspect one at a time, but never all at once. Kant's idea is that the world, both the material and the noumenal, has aspects that elude our apprehension altogether. The only aspect to which we have direct access is the phenomenal. — The philosophers in the second part of your question are Descartes (Discourse on Method) and Popper (The Self and its Brain, cowritten with John Eccles).

Jürgen Lawrenz


Angie asked:

I'm looking for information on where (specific people) Darwin developed his theory. I have discovered Malthus, and Darwin's father, but I'm sure there must be more?

Read this:

In The Power of Place, the second volume of Janet Browne's biography of Charles Darwin, A.S. Byatt discovers the role of the postal service in the formulation of evolutionary theory (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne 656pp, Cape, 25)

You can find the review at: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,868117,00.html

Steven Ravett Brown


Davy asked:

Is it unethical to try change a persons morals?

Are all ethical theories relative, i.e. Kantian, Utilitarian etc. or is there only one true moral theory?

If you really object to someone's morals isn't it unethical NOT to try to change them? ... within the limits, no doubt, of certain civilised constraints, good manners, etc., or whatever is appropriate to the nature of the particular issues at stake and your relationship with the other person? Conversely, if you believe, or come to the conclusion, that it is never ethical to try to change anyone else's morals, then wherein, would you say, does the point of your own morals consist (whatever they may be)?

Rather than just trying to answer these questions at the level of abstract generalities and principles, can you think of a range of specific cases of your own, think your way through them... and see what conclusions you come to?

Robert de Villiers

How far should we be prepared to go in trying to 'change' the moral views of someone whose views differ from our own?

You will probably agree that murder is going too far, but anti-abortionists and animal rights protestors have in the past resorted to terrorism. At the end of the day, what matters is not that the other person has the objectionable moral views but rather the fact that they are prepared to act on those views. So if you can't win the argument, then consistency with your own firmly held moral beliefs demands that you take the next logical step and resort to violence.


Geoffrey Klempner


Juan asked:

Are you there?

Although the principle of Ockham's razor (that the simpler answer is often better than a complicated one, provided it is not oversimplified) has been highly influential in the field of science, why has this approach not been so highly regarded in philosophy itself?

It is quite highly regarded. You can find references to it in every field of philosophy. However, it is, basically, just another assertion which must be backed up with argument in any particular case. To put it another way, although the sciences may employ it, they do not do so, as a rule, explicitly. That is, a physicist, faced with two explanations, will not choose the "simplest" one (assuming the physicist even has some clear criteria for making that judgment) merely for that reason. It must have data, etc., backing it up; and being supported more clearly by the data weighs much more heavily than simplicity. Now, once you've got two or more rivals for an explanation, all of which seem to do an equally good job, then you can fall back on Occam's Razor to make a tentative choice between them. But all the romanticism of "beauty", "simplicity", and so forth that everyone holds forth on so eloquently is very post hoc... if you look at the literature, you'll find that cutting-edge work in virtually any field is messy, difficult, and complex... and data-driven.

Steven Ravett Brown

The question is not what philosophers think of the use of Occam's razor in the empirical sciences, but rather its application to philosophical theories. Here is an extreme view:

If a sign is useless, it is meaningless. That is the point of Occam's maxim (L. Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 3.327).

Occam's maxim is, of course, not an arbitrary rule, nor one that is justified by its success in practice: its point is that unnecessary units in a sign-language mean nothing (ibid. 5.47321).

Taking Wittgenstein at his word, it is inconceivable that there could be two alternative philosophical theories, one of which was preferred to the other on the grounds of positing the fewest entities, or making the fewest assumptions. If we are faced with such a decision, all that can mean is that we haven't thought things through thoroughly enough. If we did, we would realize that one of the two alternatives must be meaningless.

My view? I think I can see why Wittgenstein says this. But I can't agree with it. There are many occasions when a philosophers sense of judgement is called for. Perhaps because 'thinking things through' to the bitter end is an impossible ideal. In practice, the philosopher makes the decision to go with one theory rather than an alternative theory on similar grounds to those which the scientist appeals to.

I am not saying (as some philosophers would like to say) that this shows that philosophy is just another species of theory making, alongside chemistry, physics etc.

Geoffrey Klempner


Eliza asked:

Could you please tell me a few things about "Zukunftsphilologie" of Wilamowitz, how and why he attacks Nietzsche's first philosophic work?

Wilamowitz was a German philologist of roughly the same era as Nietzsche. In the 19th century, Germans dominated this subject, especially classical philology, and Wilamowitz was one of its brightest stars. However, Nietzsche was trained in the same profession and had in fact begun teaching at Basel University a few years prior to the contretemps with Wilamowitz. It could be argued that if Nietzsche had not become a philosopher, he would probably have achieved equally great reknown as a philologist.

Yet in 1872, as a result of his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner, he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, which contained the first public exposition of his idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in man. The philological and philosophical arguments he advanced in this book were a bit of hot potato in his day, because it was widely perceived that he had written an apologia for Wagner's "Zukunftsmusik", i.e. the music of the future, which in turn was the title of one of Wagner's own, very provocative pamphlets on the state of music in the Germany of his time. In one sentence, Wagner condemned all opera as mere amusement and claimed that his work would restitute the old Greek practice of "sacred" entertainment (Aeschylus). Hence the allusion in Wilamowitz' critique: all his readers would have understood even without reading the rest that the article about Nietzsche would be dealing with a highly questionable aesthetic (Wagner's) and condemning the pollution of philology by Nietzsche in becoming a slave of Wagnerian propaganda.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Randy asked:

Is truth in us or in others?

I'm supposed to write a philosophy of fitness, but I don't really know what to write about and I'm not sure about what I think of fitness so that's why I hope you can help!

Try starting with the phrase: "mens sana in corpore sano"; "a sound mind in a sound body". Take a look at the origins of the Olympics.

Steven Ravett Brown


Edwin asked:

What books can I read to learn how to analyze someone by asking a few questions or even looking at their bedroom?

Do you not think that your own single question perhaps reveals more about you than you will ever learn to see in someone else by consulting books on how to analyse someone by a few questions, etc.?

I am not saying that what you seem to after cannot be done but the book I would most strongly recommend is called "The Book of Life" — really jolly excellent — I can't off-hand remember the author or ISBN No. — if you are interested do drop me a line and I will try to dig up some of the details.

Robert de Villiers

Thankfully this is more to do with psychological interpretations of behaviour rather than philosophy. You need to find a psychology book about personality types and then go from there, right into the bedroom with your guidebook. But most psychology is generalisation and you will need to be personally attuned to minute details and possible contradictions. Good luck, and let me know what you find out about very untidy bedrooms.

Rachel Browne


David asked:

What is righteous anger and where does the term originate from?

The vast majority of people are right handed. Accordingly language, which (according to the great philosopher of language, Wilhelm von Humboldt) is a "sediment of experience", mirrors in numerous guises the "rightness" of rightness: rectilinear, rectify, director, upright, shipwright, legal rights, dexterity and so on. In German "Richter" (righter) means "judge". "Dexter" is occasionally used as a name. But when you fear the devil behind you, you look over your left shoulder.

So "righteous" anger (or anything else in that context) reflect a desire or need or determination to straighten the crooked, fix the foul, upbraid the false.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Elisa asked:

I am doing a project in philosophy, and I'm kinda stuck. My question is: Is humanity destroying itself? my thesis is: "If humanity continues on its path to 'un-ethical' activities, the order of the world will collapse upon itself in dismay."

Here's an idea for you... instead of attempting to decide what is "ethical" and what is not, and where "unethical activities", whatever those are, will lead... a project which is basically impossible; why don't you read some Malthus? He wrote some very prophetic stuff around the turn of the last century about population explosions.

Steven Ravett Brown


Felisha asked:

I'm looking for information on what constitutes morality and what role it plays or should play in sexual relations.

Contrary to the common belief 'the morality' does not exist. When the word is used without mentioning the rules on which it is based, then it has little meaning. But often in that case Christian morality is meant (to make things easy think of the 10 commandments).

The term "morality" is mostly used in two ways:

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,<
2. some other group, such as a religion, or
3. accepted by an individual for her own behaviour or
4. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

Method 1 likely leads to some form of relativism.

Method 2 results in different kinds of moral theories (rational persons act differently).

I suppose you use the second definition. Though rational persons can act in many ways, there are similarities. And to make things easy often their chosen partner shares their view on life.

So I think of general notions like:

mutual respect
self-humour (i.e. being humble)
respecting freedom

You mention sexual relations. These you have in two kinds: 1. the ones for recreation, 2. the ones for a long time relation and possibly having children. You know best what you search for in the first group of partners. But probably you mean the second. Often attraction plays some role. Don't deny it, it is one of the ways that developed in evolution for finding a mating partner.

So find your way of weighing attraction and the notions that you find important and using that mix you'll find a suitable partner.

Henk Tuten


Joana asked:

I do not have any specific philosophical question, but I'd ask for your help — you see, I am very interested in philosophy, but I have never ever studied it before since I'm 9th grade. Our teacher told us about a philosophy competition and I want to participate. In order to do that, I need to write an interesting and original essay...Would you mind giving me some good topics for this? It may be connected to music in some way or to basic problems like: What's real and unreal? Is there absolute truth?, etc.

Well, first, I hope that this competition is for 9th graders, or children around your age. Because if it isn't then you simply don't have the background, any more than you would in advanced physics or math, to write something "interesting and original". But assuming that it's for people your age, try this. Read Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder, and see what ideas you come up with. Or read through Alice in Wonderland, and think about issues from that. Or if you want music, read about Hildegard von Bingen and listen to some of her stuff.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stephen asked:

I'm interested in existentialism and am presently rereading Sartre Existentialism and Humanism. Whenever I study secondary material on the text, there always seems to be references to the numerous errors and weaknesses of Sartre's work but no one ever seems to spell out what these are. Could you possibly inform me of these difficulties, or tell me where I could find this information myself?

Let me state first that there were many good ideas in existentialism. Among students in my youth (I'm 49) this view on life was still debated heavily. Books of for instance Sartre were bestsellers. There were points in this view that were attractive, like free will. Much later came the first critical sounds, but to be fair by people who were looking back.

However there were a few serious flaws in the theory. It took digesting World War II to make these obvious. But these few negative points had been removable, they are in my view not essential.

Existentialism was at the same time highly theoretical and very strict. Existentialists preferred situations that allowed the greatest amount of personal choice, but recognized some compromises were necessary. When it came to ethics existentialists generally referred to a system, a formalized method of determining better and worse in any situation. Morals in existentialist view were events in some conforming community. In other words, in existential ethics 'moral' could be totally different from 'ethical' (using these words in a descriptive way, so connected to a society). A good point was that existentialism was an active philosophy. It was the pursuit of authenticity that mattered most. This was formed in talking and debate. If one had an opinion or thought, it had to be expressed. If a thought required action, then action should be taken. Faith offers an excellent example of existential action. If you held a belief, the existentialist view was that you should act accordingly.Was there an a common basis for the various values expressed by existentialists, so that you can pinpoint the flaws? Yes, I think so. Although existentialism was interpreted in different ways there were some general 'rules'.

Existentialism rested on the following simple set of truths: — Every existentialist is always looking for individual essence — All humans have free will; this has to be strongly protected. — All actions are the result of decision making — Decision making is individual and brings personal responsibility — Everything has a positive and negative side — Good decisions don't exist, only better or worse (no right or wrong) — The 'better' decision produces reduced freedom for lesser individuals (that's why some existentialists supported Hitler) — Importance is scope (using that rule Hitler made a lot of important decisions, influencing many others).

Obviously the last 2 points could be interpreted easily in dubious ways. The confusing thing was the protection of free will and the readiness to die for it, and at the same time accepting obviously wrong decisions because they fitted better in some grand scheme at that moment.

Henk Tuten


Michael asked:

If we, this planet located in space in such a way as to support life and life forms such as us, are truly, if this an acceptable word to use, the only planet that has the correct combination of events and elements to support life and life forms, then we must realize this vision collectively and create a world culture to support life and life forms. If it is not a world culture and remains alienated with itself then it will adjust itself to infinite chaos. What is your view?

Well, you know, perhaps you should go to this site:

http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pictures.html and this one: http://cdsweb.u-strasbg.fr/astroweb.html

and take a look around. The universe is enormous. The odds that we are the only living creatures in it are, in my opinion, so infinitesimal that they aren't even worth considering. But really, what does that have to do with your point above? If the universe were teeming with life, wouldn't we still be ethically obligated to "support life and life forms"?

Steven Ravett Brown


Andy asked:

I am trying to get clear about Davidson's scheme/ content distinction as a generalisation of the analytic/ synthetic distinction. Is this anything like it?

The model:

The world (from Wittgenstein's Tractatus) consists of simple objects, these can be linked to form 'states of affairs', the obtaining of a state of affairs is a fact.

Mind: A representation of a state of affairs is a picture — a proposition is such a 'logical' picture. In the picture names go proxy for objects. Any proposition therefore must be analysable into names each of which stands for a simple object. Simple objects must exist to stop an infinite regress.

Analytic/ synthetic distinction. An analytic sentence is true by meaning, a synthetic one is true by data, to say a proposition is tautological is to say it is analytic, which is to say it contains two parts that 'mean the same thing', again which is to say it can be analysable into parts that represent the same simple objects? (this is the part I am particularly perplexed about, what do 'meanings' do? — connect the representations in virtue of projecting out into the world? how else could two representations mean the same thing?

Scheme/ content distinction. In 'immediate awareness' there exists 'the given' — names? These are synthesised into propositions, this synthesis is done according to a 'scheme', the appropriate rules for combining them (in analytic philosophy — the rules of logic implicit in language). The rules are 'in the mind', they are what the mind contributes, this is why analytic truths are indubitable.

First I'll forget your interpretation, because trying to understand it could influence mine. In "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" Davidson treats the idea that there could be differing conceptual schemes (i.e. in fact different 'truths', sometimes called conceptual relativism). By different conceptual schemes Davidson means basically different points of view on the same thing. He concludes that two people have different conceptual schemes if they speak languages that cannot be translated in one another. But because he considers translatability as a criterion of any language, he speaks about partial failure of translation.

First question: how could different conceptual schemes be possible, i.e. different truths exist? Two elements must be present:

1. The relation seen between objects is essentially different in the two 'compared' languages (if experiences of the speakers of those languages don't share the same logic or rationality).
2. Failure of translation (in fact result of 1)

This is a notion from mathematical logic. In Formal Languages such different schemes are treated. In my opinion general philosophy could speed up quite a bit by looking more at mathematical logic.

Davidson says: "Something is a language, and associated with a conceptual scheme, whether we can translate it or not, if it stands in a certain relation (predicting, organizing, facing, or fitting) to experience. Thus, the CHALLENGE is to say what the relation is and be clearer about the entities related."

The difference of two logic schemes that are essentially different is found in two ways of explaining. There is no real comparing, only trying to find out the different explanations for the same object or action. Something is said to be an acceptable conceptual scheme or theory if it fits sensory evidence. Thus in the case of failure of translatability there clearly are different sensory experiences, maybe incomparable senses. Here we have two different truths.

Just for the sake of being able of considering translatability as part of any language Davidson speaks about partial failure of translation. In fact two different truths means total failure of translation. Languages can only be translated into one another IF they share the same truth (or conceptual scheme). That is my own interpretation, but this statement seems difficult to really contradict.

Translating includes that there is a third language, being (at least) the sum of the two translated ones. Often not all statements can be translated from one language into another (their truths partly differ). That's why partial translatability comes in handy, but the essence behind it remains that the failure is caused by different truths. That means that translatability is NOT a trait of every pair of 2 languages (i.e. if you want to call any form of verbal communication language). Space travel could make us meet beings that we don't understand.

You have to distinguish interpretation and translation. Between two languages always interpretation is possible by means of a third language that contains both. To keep it simple: in language 1 a statement is "dogs bite cats" and possibly in 2 "sometimes 4 legged animals don't understand each other". Clearly in language 1 in this statement dog are unequal to cats or A=/=B, and A and B relate by biting. In language 2 in this statement A and B equal and relate by misunderstanding. So it's better too speak about interpretation instead of translation. For such an interpretation a third language is used. It contains both language 1 and 2. Between 1 and 2 there is total failure of translation. But language 3 offers space for interpretation.

In quantum-theory you have particles described by for instance 75% of time equal to A and 25% equal to B. What if in a third language B is understood in a third language C, but not A? This situation resembles schizophrenia were someone part of the time is in an unknown world. Then there is no translation or interpretation

Back to your questions:

So both languages can consist of analytic sentences (based on a kind of basic logic). Both too can have synthetic ones (Based on experience. In an acceptable scheme this fits basic logic too.)

In any language many sentences are similar (or tautological if they can be reduced to the same basic sentence).

Scheme / content distinction. The scheme consists of a couple of basic propositions. The content of any sentence in theory is reducible to such basic propositions, but because of tautologies they can become very complex.

The mind only USES schemes, so it only plays an active role as interpreter.

Henk Tuten


Steve asked:

We have come to find that matter is comprised of molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, nuclei, subatomic particles, nano thingys, etc. We have known of the existence of planets, moon and stars and galaxies for much longer.

If we assume we are 'middle of the road', speaking of size, intelligence, development, why are we finding more smaller things than larger things?

Does it really matter? Why is this issue important? How about this... we're finding smaller things right now because it's easier to find bigger things; you just look up into the sky and there they are, right? But for smaller you need to devise very expensive, complicated, instruments based on extremely complex physical theories.

Steven Ravett Brown

It appears that the Ancient Greek atomists wondered about this too.

Here are two tantalizing fragments quoted by Kirk, Raven and Schofield (The Presocratic Philosophers 2nd. edn. Cambridge University Press p. 416):

Leucippus posited an infinite number of elements in perpetual motion — the atoms — and held that the number of their shapes was infinite, on the ground that nothing is such rather than such (Simplicius, DK 67 A 8).

To this extent they (sc. Epicurus and Democritus) differed, that one supposed that all atoms were very small, and on that account imperceptible; the other, Democritus, that there are some atoms that are very large (Dionysius, DK 68 A 43).

Arguments that appeal to the idea that, nothing is such rather than such (i.e. in the absence of an adequate reason why alternative A should obtain rather than B) seem to have been very popular with the Presocratic philosophers. KRS comment wryly on the second quote, "No doubt he would have explained that very large atoms are to be found only in parts of space distant from our universe" (ibid. P. 416).

Why are contemporary cosmologists not tempted to make a similar claim? Because, unlike Leucippus and Democritus (and, later, Epicurus) who reasoned out their atomist philosophies their using logic alone, cosmologists today seek the best explanation of the available evidence.

Geoffrey Klempner


Reuben asked:

The cosmos is a brain. Electrochemical neurons hurtle through the bloodstream we call "space".

If the cosmos is a macro-organism; we being the tiny lifeforms akin to the nanoscopic life-forms in our own blood, is it possible to test this theory, given the incredible difference in comparative size? Also, if this is true, can the life-forms in our own blood become aware of 'us'? Trace their origins to a beating heart perhaps?

I'll tell you what; read "The Galaxy Primes" by the sci-fi author E.E. Smith. And then read "Macrolife" by Zebrowski (also sci-fi).

Steven Ravett Brown


Cody asked:

I'm a self-read philosophy student. Is relativism a legitimate philosophy, or is it too general a term? The way I see it, everything is relative, including absolute truths.

You put questions like this to a philosopher strictly at your own risk! You might find that it can be an issue apt to raise quite a blast of passion, and in fact debate on it (very passionate!) goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. And truly I can't do better than to recommend some reading to you: Plato's Protagoras, quite a wonderful (and surprisingly humorous) dialogue that you can read in little more than an hour. Here Socrates, in debate with Protagoras (the man who uttered the famous words: "Man is the measure of all things") shows why relativism is not a sound position to hold; and then you might feel inspired to do a piece of your own trying to prove the contrary. That's important. After all, you might be accused of merely holding to an unsubstantial opinion.

On that score, let me give you my opinion, which is that for you or anyone to say "The way I see it, everything is relative" is not really enough; you need at least to add "relative TO . . ." and define a little better what you mean by "everything". And when you do, you may discover that this ubiquitous relativity is punctuated by a surprisingly high degree of hierarchical structure — among humans, in nature, in physics, indeed everywhere you look. What I mean is this: that "dependence on" is such a universal phenomenon that it is likely to cure you very quickly of the relativity position. Because once something depends, relativity ends within that relationship. — Anyway, happy hunting!

Jürgen Lawrenz

I don't know what a "legitimate" philosophy is. But relativism seems to be one. The first thing to ask about a relativist philosophy is "relative to what"? Moral relativism is the doctrine that all moral beliefs are relative to some particular society. The denial of relativism is not absolutism, but universalism. Universalism is the view that there are (in the case of moral truths) universal moral truths: That is to say, moral truths (maybe thou shalt not murder) true in all societies and cultures. According to the moral relativist, what morally true in one society or culture (e.g. cannibalism is wrong in Western Society) is false in other (cannibalistic) societies.

Ken Stern

As you suggest relativism can be used in a general way or with regards to specific issues. Used in a general way however I think it is wrong for the following reason.

The main problem I see with relativism is that if it is true that everything is relative, then the proposition that everything is relative is not an absolute truth but a relative truth. Now if truth is relative to the individual (or whatever) then the truth that everything is relative on analysis becomes:

Everything is relative for me.

But this cannot be an absolute truth so you get:

Everything is relative for me, for me.

Again this can't be absolute and so a vicious regress is generated. On the other hand if the proposition that everything is relative is an absolute truth then it makes itself false. The position then that everything is relative leads either to a vicious regress, or to self refutation, as such it can be seen to be a weak position.

On the other hand relativism when applied to other issues seems entirely plausible, for example whether or not Marmite is nice, Elvis is pleasing, or a picture is beautiful. Hope this helps.

Mike Lee

Look, I don't mean to be insulting, but you need some disciplined instruction in philosophy. You just can't ask a question like the first, and follow it with that second comment. They don't work together, and that you didn't see that indicates to me that you need to find some coursework, a mentor, etc., in this field. You can ask whether "relativism" is "legitimate"... after you've defined your terms. I could guess at what "relativism" means from various writings, but "legitimate"? What could that possibly mean? True? Consistent? Applicable to something (what?)? Employed by people? I don't have the slightest idea of what it could mean, and depending on that, an answer could be just about anything. Then you ask whether "it" is too general a term. What, "relativism"? "Legitimate"? "Philosophy"? They're all too general.

Then you follow with a contradiction. Why, just to be contentious? What purpose does that serve? If you're really serious, then you have extremely non-standard meanings for "relative" and "absolute" (assuming you've thought it through sufficiently to have reasonably well-defined meanings), and again, how can one answer a question when the terms in which it's put are undefined, and seem contradictory? You want absolute? Ok, try walking through the nearest wall. Whoops, now that's pretty absolute, isn't it.

So my take on the above is that you need, as I say, some criticism, and some discipline. You might try the program that Geoffrey K. runs from this site.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jenia asked:

My name is Yevgenia. I am 17 and live in Kazakhstan. I would like to talk with people who think about world, life, future and happiness. Because I can't find such people here, in my town. I have wonderful parents. My dad all of his life wants to become philosopher, but can't find people understanding him. I don't know what I must do. All people around me think about food, love and so on. They only live — no they only exist. I want to be useful for world. When I look in people's eyes I see emptiness. They look like robots. I feel pain. I think that anybody would be absolutely happy only then when all will be happy. I mean each man, each animal and finally each particle. And I hope people will do that, but in the future. We must only help them: don't kill, be good, love all around us. That idea of my dad. He told me and I understood. But I can't find anybody who thinks so too. I'm young and I must do something. I don't know what? Maybe you can help me. I want to do all possible in order to be good. Please I need to know — What are you thinking about? Tell me your ideas. I hope you help me with your words.

P.S. I don't know English very well. And it's difficult explain my thinking in my language (Russian), all the more in English. And I'm sorry for my mistakes.

Goodbye. I wait for your letter.

Hello, Yevgenia! Thank you for your wonderful question. (And your English, I think, is quite good. It is certainly better than my Russian, which is nonexistent! :-) ) It sounds as though you and your father would like to have meaningful conversations with people, but find that the people around you are not willing. How frustrating! Some people, for whatever reason, are simply trying to make it through the day. They don't have the energy left over to think about much. Other people seem to be afraid to think. They're afraid that if they try to think, they'll fail and be forced to think of themselves as stupid. They're afraid that if they ask "What is the meaning to life?" they won't like the answer they come up with. These people are like little children who are worry that a monster lives under the bed, but are too afraid to look. I'm glad that you are not one of those people! I know, though, that it can be lonely, if you don't have someone to talk to about things that are important and meaningful. First, I'll give you some ideas I have about that. Then, I'll talk a little about being happy and good. Okay?

You've already done one important thing to find a philosophical community — you've looked on the World Wide Web! There are lots of good discussion groups online. Also, there might be more people in your area who want to talk about ideas than you suspect. People around the world are starting philosophy cafes — also called "Socrates Cafes" — in local bookstores or coffee houses. If you know of a place that might be willing to have a group of people gather to chat, you could ask to put up a notice, announcing the time and day of the first meeting. You could also advertise around town. I'll bet that a number of people would show up, very happy to have a chance to think and talk about meaningful things! Your father might be willing to help you, too.

Now, about happiness. You wrote that nobody can be absolutely happy until everyone else is happy. I don't think that is right. Think about it this way. Suppose that there are only three people in the universe — Ann, Bob, and Carol. Further, suppose that they are not completely happy. And finally, suppose that none of them can be happy until the other two are. Now, how can any one of them, say Ann, become happy? There are two facts here, as the situation is described. 1) Because Ann can't be happy unless the other two are, Ann can't be happy until both Bob and Carol are happy. 2) But because neither Bob nor Carol can be happy until everyone else is happy, neither one can be happy until Ann is happy. But do you see what this means? Putting ideas 1 and 2 together, we get the fact that Ann can't be happy until Ann is happy! Ann needs to get happy before she gets happy! =:-O This is a paradox, so something must be wrong with the situation as described. In particular, I submit that people can be happy even though not everyone else is. I do think that you need to be a good person in order to be happy — you need to treat yourself and other people well, you need to extend wisdom and compassion to everything, no matter how unhappy or dead inside that thing seems to be — but you don't need everyone around you to be happy. Ultimately, your own happiness may very well be one of the things that makes those around you happy!

There's a saying where I live: "Never cut down a tree in winter." That's because, where I live, trees loose their leaves in the winter and so you can't tell the dead trees from the living ones. What you need to do is care for all of the trees, because only in the spring, when they bloom, will you know which ones are alive. People are a lot like that, I think. Sometimes they seem dried up and dead, cruel, or mean, or only interested in unimportant things. But you should always remember that it might be winter for that particular person, and sometimes winter lasts a long, long time. Sometimes people are afraid, or busy, or beaten down for decades. Water them anyway. Let your happiness be in the watering, not in the blooming, and when spring eventually comes, there will be more blossoms than you can imagine. At least I think so. That's always been the way it worked for me.

Dona Warren
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point

Hello Jenia, my name is Katharine. I'm 28 years old and I live in southern England. (You can see a picture of me here.)

I struggled to find the right words to respond to your letter. Many people here, when they write philosophy, use a lot of long, complicated words, and often it is difficult to understand them. Your letter is breathtakingly simple and direct by comparison.

You must indeed have wonderful parents, if they have helped you to learn and talk about such ideas. But you feel lonely because you do not meet anyone else like yourself — there is no-one you can really be friends with. You might be surprised to hear that it's not so easy to find people here in England who want to talk philosophically about life. When philosophy is being taught in Universities, students are not taught to discuss life, peace, or happiness.

Here is one of the great benefits the internet can bring us, and that Pathways helps to achieve. It is best when we can discuss such important things with other people one-to-one and face-to-face, but when that isn't possible, it's much better to be able to discuss them by e-mail than not to be able to discuss them at all.

I think that getting to know people, I mean their character and personality, is important in helping us to understand their thoughts and ideas. As you say, it is difficult to tell other people what you really think in any language. But we will succeed, as long as you are honest and say exactly what you think and feel, and as long as you really want me to understand you, and if I really want to understand. It's just that most people don't really want to go that deeply into their thoughts and feelings.

You also say you want to do something to improve society, to make the world a better place. To do something is much more difficult than thinking about it or talking about it — although some talking and thinking are important to help you do the right thing.

Personally, I don't believe it will ever be possible to achieve world peace — there are too many people who don't want to know — but I do believe it is possible and worthwhile to do smaller things that will make a difference. As one example: I work in a Montessori nursery school, teaching and looking after children from 2 to 5 years old. I try to hold their interest and attention, to correct them when their behaviour might offend others, to question them and make them think more carefully or in new ways. But I can't do much about what happens in their home life, which in some cases is affecting their development or behaviour. Many parents would take their children away from the school in anger, if the teachers tried to tell them very much about what they should do at home to help their children.

I hope you will find my reply interesting and helpful, and that you will want to write to me some more. I also hope you will get many more letters from readers of Ask a Philosopher.

Katharine Hunt

Your father must be a fine man. I was moved by your letter, and I am sure that our readers will be too.

Your letter will be posted on Ask a Philosopher...and will also go out tomorrow in Issue 48 of our Philosophy Pathways electronic journal.

My thoughts? A philosopher might question what it would mean for a particle — say a particle of wood or iron — to be 'happy'. Yet your statement, 'I mean each man, each animal and finally each particle' is very powerful. One instinctively grasps what is meant, even if one cannot find words to adequately express that meaning. A 'happy universe' would be one where every part of the universe — every particle! — was like a singer in a choir, singing out chords of joy. Or like a tiny piece of glass in a magnificent stained glass window, with the sunlight streaming through.

You might be interested to read the words of one of our contributors from the Russian Federation, Dmitry Olshansky, who has posted his personal thoughts on philosophy in the Philosophy Lovers Gallery at:


Geoffrey Klempner

Hello Yevgenia.

Yevgenia, your letter is very beautiful.

I have every sympathy with your father's and your own frustrations of doing philosophy in isolation — because since graduating I have spent my working life very far from academic philosophy or any like-minded people with whom to discuss things.

You describe the emptiness you see in other people's eyes. This is a very common feeling — travel on the crowded London Underground and you will see that emptiness all the time. The trouble is that when I catch my own reflection in the window I see that I look just the same as everyone else! I have come to think that this habit of seeing emptiness in other peoples eyes is a very negative and destructive thing — perhaps we are just seeing our own emptiness reflected back at us? (Is Hell other people, as Sartre said? — no it is not.) What I think can start to happen here is that, if one makes the effort to look a little harder one can begin to see this not as an emptiness but as a wonderful space of infinite human possibilities and potentialities — of nobility, vanity, joy, suffering, silliness, wisdom, hopes, fears, aspirations, frustrations... and to be quite honest also weariness, failure, duplicity, wickedness... that's life. It is up to us to fill out the apparent emptiness by being truly involved with our fellow men and not just wallow in our own angst.

You will (unlike me!) be able to read Tolstoy in the original Russian. You might notice that his stories almost always start with descriptions of of the most apparently superficial, empty, comical people in apparently silly and facile social situations. But slowly, as the story unfolds things imperceptibly change, 'till after a while, we seldom know quite when, those silly empty figures have become real people capable of the most profound humanity — suffering, heroism, compassion, love, joy... And so he is able to write the greatest stories ever told — BUT they are about bone-headed army officers and and St. Petersburg social butterflies! So much for what one might or might not see in the eyes of a stranger — even one who may never share own own particular philosophical passions and interests. And maybe we too can come to see in a stranger a little bit of what someone like Tolstoy could.

You feel that "anybody would be absolutely happy only then when all will be happy" and say you are young and "must do something". These thoughts are surely true and we all have to come to terms with them in working out our destinies...

But you personally are not responsible for the whole of humanity, "the poor ye will always have with you" and we have to learn discretion and fine judgement about when we need to be our brothers keeper and when we have to hold back and let others work out their own destinies... and there are seldom any easy answers.

As Bob Dylan said: "May you always do for others" but also "and let others do for you".

Don't try to boil the ocean...

Read a lot...

Listen to music...

Take it slow (and remember, as Wittgenstein said, that in philosophy the one who wins the race is the one who comes in last).

Remain faithful to the visions of your youth, and again, as Bob Dylan said: may you stay forever young.

I hope these mere words may be of some help.

Fondest regards, Rob.

Robert de Villiers

Maybe what you see in the eyes of others is not emptiness. Maybe they feel pain too. For sure, they are not robots. If you want to be useful to the world, you could start now, close to home, and try to connect and communicate with those you see as robots. Perhaps to be useful to the world you need to find a place in it and understand how others really feel first. Some people think that a small amount of suffering is needed in the world. Only if this is so would you seek to be good and useful.

Rachel Browne


Shaif asked:

My question is philosophical anthropology: what is the human essence? what property defines us all as human and distinguishes us from other types of living beings?

Behold man, who strikes coins with the same die and gets coins all alike; but behold the King of kings, the Holy-Blessed-Be-He, who strikes all men with the die of Adam and not one is the same as another.

Babylonian Talmud

To be a human means to live as if one were not a being among beings. As if, through human spirituality, the categories of being inverted into an 'otherwise than being'.

Emmanuel Levinas

What makes humans special from rocks, trees, trout, dogs, in fact everything is that we are unique, individual, we can't be lumped together under a heading, or at the most such headings and categories are incidental and does not identify what makes us special — as the quote from the Talmud recognises. What makes us unique is threefold; 1) that we are able to transcend our own particular place in the world and to identify other times and places, nothing else experiences time and space as we do, 2) that we recognise our own self, we are self aware, 3) that we recognise Others as Others that is others in their own special uniqueness. No other living thing can respond to an other of its kind, or any other living thing and say 'wow look at that it's completely unique and individual'. All cows are the same. All humans are different.

Put these things together and you get something like what Levinas is describing an 'otherwise than being' (this is not to be understood as not-being, nothingness or death. (Heidegger thought that our experience of nothingness was what distinguished us, the awareness of our own death made us unique, but there are problems with this view, plus the fact of our own death can I think be analysed in terms of the three conditions I listed above especially self awareness and time awareness).

Cows are part of being, they exist from moment to moment with only a fleeting awareness of the flies buzzing around the smell fresh grass, the calls of the bull. Humans are a part of being too (note Levinas says as if one were not a being among beings), we have material bodies that need to eat and sleep, but we can make the move from merely participating in being to moving beyond being to something better, we can care for and look after one another. We don't need to be defined by what we are, that we exist, but by how we are, the way we exist.

Brian Tee

Bernard Lonergan draws the distinction that other living beings are pre-programmed and to act by instinct, while humans alone perform intentional acts. The species Homo was initially pre-programmed, but humans also had the capacity to develop. In Lonergan's view, expressed in his A Second Collection (1974 Westminster Press, Philadelphia) modern humans "apart from times of dreamless sleep, are performing intentional acts. They are experiencing, imagining, desiring, fearing; they wonder, come to understand, conceive; they reflect, weigh the evidence, judge; they deliberate, decide, act. If dreamless sleep may be compared to death, human living is being awake; it is a matter of performing intentional acts; in short, such acts informed by meaning are precisely what gives significance to human living" (1974, 3-4).

In the same work Lonergan identifies three levels of human investigation of reality and of human intellectual development. There is the first level of experiencing, imagining and saying, the second level of inquiry, understanding, defining and conceiving and the third level of reflecting, weighing the evidence and judging (1974, 35).

It is the progress into this third level that has made Western culture dominant. The process of the acquisition of information is intentional, and "our intending intends, not incomplete, but complete intelligibility" (1974, 41). He dismisses Kant's limited understanding of "object",which asserts that the one way our cognitional activities are related to objects immediately is by intuition, and he proposes that "objects are what are intended in questioning and what becomes better known as our answers to questions become fuller and more accurate" (1974, 122-3).

Lonergan's position is consistent with my thesis that the Cosmos is a process with a purpose. This process involves both self-organization and self-creation at the human moral cultural level. ["The Process of the Cosmos" (1999) USA, Dissertation.com] We are distinguished from other living beings by our intentionality, our creativity and our morality.

Anthony Kelly


David asked:

I am trying to find a answer to the question, "What does that person really think of me?". I've applied the knowledge I have of the thought process. My question to you would be, "What philosophers have covered this topic?" The rest of this email is what I have been able to put together on my understanding of what makes a person likable to others.

An individual's subconscious (or lower order thoughts) assigns a feeling/ emotion to each person who that individual interacts with. Along with that feeling/ emotion, a representation is also assigned to that person.

Some examples of the feeling/ emotion assigned are love, hatred, pleasant, or tolerance.

Examples of the representation assigned are troublemaker, provider, companion, enemy, etc.

More then one representation can be assigned, such as a companion/ provider, or a troublemaker/ instigator. This all takes place subconsciously and we are unaware that our brain is subconsciously categorizing each person we meet.

These emotions combine with the representation creating a mental state. This mental state dictates how we interact with that person.

If you were at home bored, looking for someone to call, it would reasonable to assume that you would call someone that your subconscious has given a pleasant feeling and companion representation to.

If you were at home trying to get your computer to work properly, and in need of help, you would call a person you have given a provider representation to so they could provide you with the information and help that you need. This person could possibly have a tolerance emotion associated with them. Or you could call someone with a pleasant emotion associated, that has a companion/ provider representation.

The person/ people you decide to interact with is decided by what you need at that present time. Humans are selfish by nature; whether you need companionship (someone to watch the game with you) or a service (someone to install your satellite dish so you can watch the game). Our mental state (derived from emotion/ feeling and representation) is subject to constant change depending on our needs at that time.

When you meet new people, a feeling/ emotion and representation is still assigned upon first contact. This is a first impression. These initial feeling and representations are subject to change. Only after repeated contact with a person do you have a set feeling/ emotion and representation assigned to them.

Our subconscious also applies these emotions and representations to animals. We might have a fearful emotion with a predator representation for a lion, but a compassionate emotion with a helpless/ needy representation for a stray puppy. Once again, these emotions and representations combine to form a mental state. This mental state would cause us to run from a lion. On the other hand, the mental state created by seeing a stray, hungry puppy would prompt us to help the stray puppy.

When a person asks you, What do you think of me?, that person is essentially asking you two questions, What emotion or feeling do you associate with me? and What representations have you assigned me?

We do have limited control over the representation and feeling/ emotion a person assigns us. The emotion that we are assigned come from the general feeling or vibe that person gets from us. We have almost no control over this because the feeling is drawn from the other persons past experiences and how we parallel those experiences. An agreeable attitude and a smile would give us a friendly emotion association, whereas a frown and restlessness would give us that person a suspicious feeling about us.

We do have a lot of control concerning the representation assigned to us. We can mediate our action (verbal and physical) to mimic the representation we would like to have. Such as constantly helping out would put us in the provider category. If we seemed to know the answer to that person's problems, then we would be given a wise man representation.

Our actions dictate how the other person will view, perceive, and classify us. Although emotions are more primal and people tend to go with those, by having control of the representation aspect, we can somewhat direct their mental state towards us.

It must've been hard work to organize your ideas about the thoughts and feelings we have for others. It's all pretty clear and coherent. But although what you argue makes sense to me, it sounds more like a way of looking at things, a model, rather than an explanation.

It is impossible to be rigorous and scientific when discussing emotions, and this leads many philosophers to dismiss such discussions as not really philosophy at all. Emotions are easier to express or evoke, rather than pin down with descriptions; hence much poetry, music and art.

Nevertheless, here is a question that people really want to know the answer to — what do other people think of them; and equally, what do they think of other people.

"What does that person really think of me?" has implicit in the question the understanding that another person may be lying or otherwise concealing what they really think. People aren't always honest. What do we really want — to read their mind and discover their most secret private thoughts?

It's not socially acceptable to march nosily up to someone and baldly ask "What do you think of me?" If you did it, you'd be likely to provoke a lying, or at least not completely truthful, response, perhaps for the sake of politeness. Total honesty can be terribly rude — we call it tactlessness. Maybe it is better that we don't know how people think about us in their private, secret thoughts. It might be shocking.

In finding out what a person thinks of us, we can only go by what they say and what they do. There's nothing else we can get at. I suppose people's actions are less likely to be deceptive than their words. It's easy enough to say nice things about someone you don't like that much, but you would be less likely to bother to invite them round for dinner, say. What about those people who swap addresses with you and passionately declare that you must keep in touch, then never or hardly ever contact you again? You might've thought they must like you, if they want to swap addresses, but this is merely a convention which for some reason is considered polite. If they never actually write, they obviously didn't like you that much — their actions give them away.

So here are two ways of getting a better idea of what a person really thinks of you: you either need some reason to feel sure they are telling you the truth (perhaps there is simply nothing to be gained by lying; or they have said they will do something for you and then actually carried it out several times in the past). Or, you need to pay attention to what they do rather than what they say. (Do they keep in touch? Do they speak/ write formally or informally to you? Do they make time to meet up with you?)

The other aspect of the question "What does that person really think of me?" I find equally interesting — "What do I really think of that person? (and why?)" I have thought about this quite a lot. I tried making a list of characteristics that several people I found attractive seemed to me to possess (e.g. casualness of appearance, sensitivity, interesting ideas, humour). But this is an analysis trying to make sense of a feeling that's already happened. The feeling seems to arise without thought — I don't decide what to feel about somebody, whether to like them or not. What is that feeling of attraction or aversion? We struggle to put it into words. Maybe it's some kind of animal instinct — we have the ability to quickly decide who is our friend or our enemy, who is likely to help us or fight us. If so, evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology might all be able to help us understand.

A couple of comments: you make the assumption that "Humans are selfish by nature", but not everyone agrees with this. How is it that a person might decide to phone an acquaintance they thought would need comfort after the death of a close relative, for example? It is hard to explain this convincingly in terms of selfishness.

Our 'verbal and physical actions' are not the only things other people observe about us that we can control. We choose what clothes to wear, what hair style to have, perhaps also our hair colour, whether to use cosmetics, what objects to buy and be seen with. These things all influence other people's opinion of us — indeed, some people choose these things according to what they believe other people will like and approve of, rather than what they themselves like.

The following philosophy writings all have discussions of affection and/ or aversion:

Sartre: Being and Nothingness
Plato: Symposium
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Bk VIII "Friendship"
Montaigne: Essays, esp. "De l'amitie" ('On Friendship', or 'On Affectionate Relationships')
Hume: Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals
Hume Treatise of Human Nature, Bks II and III
Hume Essays, esp. "Of the Dignity and Meanness of Human Nature"
E.R. Emmet: Learning to Philosophize, Ch.5 "Value Judgements"

Katherine Hunt


Jennifer asked:

I have a project for my high school philosophy class due in a month on Nietzsche. The problem is that when I start to read some of his works, I just get confused. I mean, I feel like I think I might understand, but his wording is just baffling to me, at least partially due to differing translations I know, but also because my education in the Bible is limited and when it comes to Greek mythology, I have utterly Americanized versions that I only vaguely remember. I was wondering if you could help find any sources (preferably internet) that are informative AND understandable. Especially considering that I have to do an analysis of one of his major works.

and Casey asked:

I have been learning about Friedrich Nietzsche in school, and I was wondering if someone could explain his philosophy to me, because I am having trouble understanding it. What does it mean that he separates everyone into ascending and descending? What is the sign of affects?

In a nutshell: Nietzsche is a troublesome thinker, because the unsystematic manner of his work invites the most diverse and conflicting opinions on what his real message is. More than most philosophers he had his readers importing their own opinions into his writings and therefore reading them as confirmation of whatever views they held. In consequence he's been accused of being a mere essayist (i.e. not a full quid as a philosopher) and variously blamed for Nazism and other forms of disreputable politics, not to mention sundry other evils of society, for which he is supposed to have furnished an ideology. In truth, however, he was a culture critic and moralist, who saw his task as the diagnosis of western civilisation, which seemed to him corrupt to the bone.

The consequence he drew from this diagnosis was, that the rot had set in such an extent that it was irremediable: The type of man representative of western civilisation was malformed (spiritually & culturally) by a 1000-year hegemony of Christian morals with their enmity for and disgust with life, which in turn inevitably fostered false ideals and counterfeit values. Not seeing a cure, he preached the overcoming of this type of man, the revaluation of all values and an affirmative attitude to the sacrifice inevitably demanded by these goals. This is the core of his philosophy.

Let me add that Nietzsche was a passionate philosopher, as none before him; and that philosophy was for him quite literally a matter of life and death. One needs to know this in reading him — which is to say, in the study of his works, the microscope reveals too little too close up. In Nietzsche, the larger context is everything. Although they comprise mostly aphorisms, these add up to the meaning of a whole book. This is what readers miss out on who content themselves with selections.

Nietzsche is nowadays becoming increasingly recognised as primarily a moralist and attention is gradually shifting away from the poetic/ prophetic masterpiece Thus Spake Zarathustra to the more strictly philosophical Genealogy of Morals. If you need to study a principal work, this would be my recommendation; and there is available an excellent book to help you along, Nietzsche on Morals, published in the Routledge Philosophy Guides, which gives you a chapter by chapter analysis as you read.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Clinton asked:

Question on Japanese philosophy:

This question is more practical than anything else. I'm searching for an institute/faculty where I can do a PhD. in Japanese philosophy. Does anybody have a good suggestion for me?

I studied philosophy (3 years) and Japanese studies (5 years) and I'm currently doing a master in Osaka, where I am working on a thesis on the philosophy of Inoue Enr.

Why you don't ask the East Asia Institute, Faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University:


Jean Nakos


Chris asked:

It seems to me that if the human race continues to go in the direction that it is going that we will be doomed to live in a world of total control that will put free will and thought at a minimum or a stop. I am interested in learning your thoughts and opinions on this subject.

The idea that you pose, has been the subject of many philosophers. The first ones that made this observation were members of so called Critical Theory in the early 20th century. The founder of this group was Herbert Marcuse. Much later (outside Critical Theory) he wrote a bestseller about it: One-Dimensional Man.

Marcuse was the philosopher behind Flower Power. This was a movement that started as a student revolution in Paris in 1968. Often this movement is considered as in the meantime off the wall. It stressed too much one-sided feeling, and that was not considered as serious in a rational world. But the central idea that Marcuse stressed in his book is still valid: western society has become dependent on economy and on politics, resulting in lack of freedom of mind. Already half a century ago he made that observation, and things haven't gotten any better.

Marcuse measured capitalism by the unsatisfied needs of the population. That approach lost part of it's attraction as soon as capitalism proved itself capable of delivering the goods. Still there are the mental needs but the established system seems on the right way.

Marcuse once wrote, "obstinacy [is] a genuine quality of philosophical thought". With that thought in mind Marcuse keeps stubbornly attacking the limits of capitalism, because:

(1) There are still wars, hunger plagues and ecological catastrophes.
(2) The contradiction between daily ugliness of society and art (the greyness of life versus colorful art)
(3) Massive manipulation of consciousness (especially through TV in all it's forms)
(4) No fulfilling work and security of life for the vast majority
(5) Signs of deep dissatisfaction beneath the surface of success (the general search for something more).

These reasons make sense. This society, Marcuse optimistically argues, has the potential to be "sound" but artificially maintains competition and violence as the basis for domination and inequality.

Back to your question:
At the moment you see that world leaders live in a rational and economic world. Don't expect solutions from that side. At the same time voting percentages have never been so low. That means that there developed a 'canyon of difference in views' between the top layer of society and 'the masses'. Right now this is developing in a crisis. Who knows what'll happen

Please don't think in terms of "be doomed". That is fatalism, and what we need is action.

Henk Tuten


Stephen asked:

Suppose a scientist could create a machine which is able to create an exact duplicate, or clone, of an adult human being (assuming the materialist view that humans are 'physically duplicatable' as living, conscious beings).

Now suppose this scientist puts Fred in his machine in his lab, and creates an exact clone of him. Both Freds have the exact physical form and identical memories (and so the clone cannot tell that he is not the original, and he is never told or able to find out otherwise).

Now, seconds after the clone and original are both conscious, the scientist kills the original Fred. The clone is then allowed to go back to Fred's everyday life, believing himself to be the original.

The question is: Is anything lost in this process? And if so, what, exactly, is it? (A 'soul'?)

It appears that, once the clone and Fred are both alive (and conscious), they are separate (sentient) beings. And so, for the Fred who entered the lab, his life ended there.

My Dad, however, argues that a person's individuality is defined by his memory, and so, since all of Fred's memories would still be intact in the living clone, Fred would still be alive (and therefore, nothing would be lost).

Which of these views is most likely to be correct? If the first view could be correct, does this pose a problem for (strict) materialism?

Why do I get such a strong feeling that Fred's life 'for him' must end in the lab, even though, to every one else around him, it would appear that Fred is still alive? To illustrate more bluntly: Knowing that the cloning had a 100% success rate, would YOU volunteer to go through the same treatment as Fred? If not, why not?

The crucial word in your question is "assuming". You see: there is no legitimate warrant for assuming that in the real world such things are possible, even in principle. Of course I'm aware, as you are, that a colossal amount of industry (though mostly entertainment) is devoted to it: but fundamentally the answer has to be "no". This is because human life (indeed any life form) is not willy-nilly reduplicable; the notion of living things as "material" entities is only true insofar as that is what they are made from. But the way these material constituents hang together is a dynamic equilibrium; and part of this transformation entails that they no longer behave in a normative chemical manner and cannot be handled as chemical systems qua chemical systems. Ergo: chemistry = dead matter, manipulable; biochemistry = living matter, cells, self-assembling.

One way of appreciating this fundamental discrepancy is to take note of what "cloning" is, namely, not (as in your assumption) some kind of mechanical copying, but rather the initiation of the biochemical process of self-assembly which culminates in the generation of a new life (and, by the way, the same applies to "genetic engineering", which is nothing like engineering, but again the outcome of a scientist disturbing in a targeted way a genetic strand and waiting for it to repair and re-assemble itself).

The last point is this: that a body could (in principle) be duplicated if particular conditions prevail. I hope from the foregoing you know what that "special condition" must be. In a word: death. When a body is dead, the dynamic equilibrium collapses and the material bits and pieces return to their normal chemical functionality. Hope this answers something. Not much philosophy in it, but I suspect that the completely fictitious dilemmas of your question would not arise if philosophy were to play a more pronounced role in scientific developments.

Jürgen Lawrenz

This issue is addressed by many sci-fi authors. I'm always a bit puzzled, actually, by the controversy here. How do you know that the next person you pass on the street isn't identical to you, mentally, at least? That's certainly possible, isn't it, especially if you're a physicalist (which I am)? Given that, what's the answer to the above? Of course Fred sub1 and Fred sub2 are different individuals: they have separate consciousnesses, realized in separate brains. Whether they're thinking the same or different thoughts at any given moment is surely irrelevant. If they have the same memories, again, so what? Maybe that person you pass on the street has memories close to yours also. Even if you and they are identical, all that means is that your two consciousnesses are, at that moment, identical in content. Why on earth would that mean that killing one would not be killing a conscious individual? If it comes to that, to aliens, human beings would seem virtually identical anyway... think about us vs. insects, for example. So we could all be killed except one individual, with no effect? No.

What is being lost here, when a Fred is killed, is an individual consciousness. You might argue that no "information" is being lost, but I don't know what "information" means when you apply it to this kind of situation. In addition, the fact that the two Freds must occupy different locations, etc., implies that they cannot be identical. But I do not think the latter argument especially relevant. The point is that unless their two brains were intimately connected, so that their two bodies had one consciousness, killing either is killing an individual conscious being. If you're Fred sub1, and you're killed, Fred sub2 lives on, a separate consciousness, as he always was.

So if you want to put yourself, say, into a computer, as a conscious program, and so live a long and varied life, the way you'd have to do it would be to connect your brain quite intimately to the computer, so that you had one consciousness sharing both the computer and your physical brain, simultaneously. Then you could, I think, kill off your body and claim that you had transferred into a computer... but you'd have to make sure, beforehand, that the neural configuration, on the one hand, and the software configuration, on the other, both responsible for consciousness, were continuous across both systems, otherwise killing your body would also kill the consciousness in that body, as above. To put it another way, if Fred sub1 and Fred sub2 were wired together so completely that only one consciousness (FRED) animated both bodies, then I think that you could kill one body and claim that FRED was still alive, although greatly diminished in intelligence and other capacities.

Steven Ravett Brown

I think you and your father are talking about different aspects of personal identity. Your father is looking at his identity in terms of what makes him the person he is, considering introspectively what it is to be him, and chooses memories as opposed to his body. I think I would choose my body. And, really, to choose memories is a bit harsh on amnesiacs. Do they not have a sense of self? You, on the other hand are looking at the philosophical concept of personal identity, and what is essential to having a personal identity is subjectivity, as you rightly say, whether this is filled out by private awareness of mind or body as necessary for being. Pure subjectivity is lacks being or conceptual content. You are both right.

This is why you feel Fred's life ends "for him". There is nothing more to subjectivity, in its purity, than being here and now, or non-conceptual awareness of "this", because "here" are "now" seem to involve conceptual knowledge and I feel this brings in something beyond the pure subjective feeling of the non-conceptual "I" which you are looking for. "Here" and "now" presupposes possession language. You do need a language to think "I", but an awareness of self in relation to others can be ascribed to animals, in my view.

What is "I" or "this"? We cannot say. We cannot even say it is the same for all of us. Maybe it is not — after all it is subjectivity, the purely private.

To contrast essential subjectivity with personal identity as a set of memories, you have to think that you are Fred. It will matter to you that YOU will no longer exist. The clone will not be you even if he is physically identical and has your memories. They will no longer be available to YOU, the subjective self, positioned as "I".

I don't think there is a problem specific to materialism. One type of materialist holds that to be in the same physical state is to be in the same mental state and the clone's physical state is never in the place as you, so the clone cannot be physically identical. You might simply want to claim that identical brain states make for same mental state, if you subscribe to internalistic materialism. But I find it difficult to see how the brain would be positioned in relation to the world beyond the senses which contributes to the privacy of the feeling of subjectivity. Another type of materialism says that if two people are in the same mental state they are in an identical physical state. Whether two identical mental states are identical depends on content and possibly internal connections. But there might be an element of "Being you and not Fred" which differs in relation to content in that the memories matter to you. Mental states are analysed in terms of content but if a mental state is relational, there is still this mysterious "I".

Rachel Browne


Anthony asked:

Why is it easier to discriminate than it is to make equal?

In asking this question, you are showing that you have philosophical problems worrying you, and this is generally the first hint that a good mind is struggling with meaning. I can't answer your question in depth, of course. But I'll give you a hint where you can pursue the answer, if depth is what you need.

As creatures which have evolved in response to the need for accommodating to the habitat in which we find ourselves, it is a non-negotiable demand on us to discriminate and differentiate — food from poison, predators from harmless fellow creatures, solid from liquid, hot from cold, and so on. Accordingly the totality of our perceptual as well as cognitive ability has been structured through continuous adaptivity with a view to discerning signs that identify problematic objects by devices which allow us to focus on and interpret by which marks one is distinguished from the other. Stereoscopic vision and audition with their slight offset between the two ears/ eyes are obvious instances of refinement, based on the principle that angled perception facilitates the "modelling" of the perceptive source, as (e.g.) binoculars do not. Another example is colour: there is none in the world as such, but our sensorium has devised a way of translating a certain bandwidth of electromagnetic radiation (i.e. discriminating very minute gradations of heat) as colour; and this is where our native impression of red as hot and blue as cold comes from. So one could put the argument that without discrimination, no creature life would be possible — this ability is part of the definition of living things.

Let me recommend a very good book which deals largely with this issue, Man and Nature by Gregory Bateson. It's an eye opener.

Jürgen Lawrenz


John asked:

This isn't really a question, but more of a 'Tell me your opinion' thing. Now Let me say what I've got to say.

Infinity is most commonly classified as having no beginning or end. Infinity seems to be such an impossible thing to comprehend. Try to visualize it. I would say you couldn't.

Now, take a circle. A circle can be the size of an atom, or the size of the universe. But, look at it closer. A circle has no beginning, or an end. Just the circle.

And, as I said, that circle could be the size of an atom, or the size of all creation, yet it has no end. So, what I'm really trying to say is: Infinity isn't a size, or a measure, or anything of that sort. Infinity is a property.

What are your opinions on this?

This isn't a matter of opinion. In the above, you are not being clear on what you mean by the term "infinity". There are several coherent meanings of this term, and very many incoherent ones. As far as a circle having an "end"... you are confusing two senses of the word "end". One is that of the end of a series of numbers, the other is the end of a physical object... or, alternatively, the end of a path one is traversing. Why are you supposing those are identical? They certainly don't have to be.

The coherent meanings of infinity are mathematical/ logical. First, you might look at any basic book on calculus, at the section on integration. You will find that the integral, in a sense the inverse of the differential, may be expressed as the sum of an infinite series. That is one mathematical notion of infinity, coherent enough that most of physics and engineering uses it to build bridges, stereos, etc., etc. Infinity in this sense is a measure. The differential is also the limit of a series, and as such also a measure. Second, there is Dedekind's (and others') definition of continuity, which uses a similar notion of infinity. Again, this is quite explicitly a measure. Third, there is Cantor's notion of orders of infinity, having to do with the size of various infinite sets. These various orders of infinity measure the size of sets of numbers.

Steven Ravett Brown


Roma asked:

Is man good by nature? Can you cite a proof why yes or no, a proof from a particular philosopher, or a philosophy of man?

In my answer to Shaif I referred to the work of Levinas who says that what is special about humans is that we can transcend nature towards ethics. But suppose for a moment that we were unable to do this, what would it be like?

My guess is that things would stay pretty much the same, we would still have relationships, we would still donate to charity, we would still have babies, we would still be polite to people. But what would be different as the philosopher Kant notices, is that we would do all these things not because it is right to do them but because of other reasons, self satisfaction, self-interest, sentiment, these reasons may be useful and beneficial, they are done in accordance with the Good requires but are they done because they are what the good requires?

Consider cases where the Good may require us to give up our life for someone, how may penguins have you seen thrown himself on a grenade to save his fellow penguins? A penguin may trip and fall on a grenade when it is about to explode and save the colony but that wouldn't be self-sacrifice. Self sacrifice is not part of nature, it requires something special.

It requires that we move beyond the binds of nature. Penguins can't do this but we can. Kant thought this move involved reason giving itself laws of action, ones not conditioned by inclinations or motivations, but are followed solely for its own sake (see his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals). Levinas suggests that the move is made when we encounter the special presence of an other person, who demands our help. This move does not just solely require sacrificing my life, rather all ethical acts are an act of self sacrifice of some kind, it is the putting of the others needs before my own.

Levinas argues that the other person is special in that are Other, they are different from me and to treat them as if they were the same, would be to do them a violence, it would be to take something away from them. Therefore in order to protect this otherness, I must not place them in or reduce them to a mere role in nature, they are better than that.

Humans then are not good by nature, they are self satisfying animals, but because we can transcend nature, we can do good. All that is Good about humans is unnatural:

"Ethics is, therefore, against nature, because it forbids the murderousness of my natural will to put my own existence first".

(dialogue with Levinas)

Brian Tee


Victor asked:

What do we mean by Truth? How do we know truth? Why is it significant — as it appears to be?

"What is truth? asked Pontius Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

In that little epigram, you have the substance of a whole book. I would love to answer your question, but the best and indeed only relevant advice I can give is this: remain truthful throughout life, both to yourself and to others, and then the time may come, perhaps when you've grown old, that the answer will come to you of its own accord. Failing this, you would have to read almost every philosopher that ever wrote, as well as many poets, legislators, theologians, psychologists and even cognitive scientists. Which prospect do you prefer?

Jürgen Lawrenz


Angela and Linda asked:

If language is essential for the cultural life of a group of people, and if a common national language is also essential for creating a sense of national identity, would a multilingual state be confronted with a dilemma in its attempt to create a sense of national identity? if not why not? if yes, explain how the dilemma really arises. Is there any way out of the dilemma?

Before considering the national identity issue, one should ask whether a common language is essential for governing and administering a multilingual state. The case of Switzerland suggests that it is not. The case of India suggests that it is.

However, the above example could be considered as misleading. Switzerland is a small country in Europe with a population of hardly 8,000,000. There are only four ethnic/ cultural groups speaking respectively German, French, Italian and Romansch which are the official languages of the state. Nevertheless each Swiss canton is organized according to its own community language's criteria.

India is the sixth or seventh largest country in the world and the second most populous with a population of more than 1,000,000,000. It comprises 23 states and 8 Union Territories organized according to linguistic groupings. There are many ethnic and cultural groups speaking 1600 languages and dialects. Under such circumstances it is difficult to see how the Republic of India could be managed without a common language. Thus India has one national language, Hindi. But because Hindi is spoken by 200,000,000 people "only", it has been decided to use also English as a second common language which has nothing to do with the Indian national identity (India has been a British colony).

In fact, there could be no choice and no dilemma. Most multilingual states are large countries. A large multilingual country could not be managed without a common language. One should not expect that countries like Indonesia (several islands, population 200,000,000) could put into effect the Swiss model.

Jean Nakos


Stephanie asked:

What are some of the reasons for or against euthanasia?

To be honest, the fight is about the interpretation of the word "euthanasia". Everybody seems to have an opinion, but everybody uses his/ her own presumptions. So look critically at the assumptions you or somebody else uses.

If somebody sees euthanasia as murder, then the discussion is about the use of the word "murder". The word mercy-killing assumes that somebody kills out of mercy. But what if the victim doesn't want mercy, but sincerely wants to stop living?

As a severely handicapped person I know that even in my country The Netherlands euthanasia almost only exists on paper and mostly drowns in formalities (it is in practice only rarely applied for people older than seventy years). I myself at first travelled this road at a much younger age and be sure I'm quite capable of expressing my wishes. There appeared to be hundreds of rules that doctors, clergyman, nurses social workers etc. tried to follow. I rightfully denied every rule, but that was not enough. Because the real problem nobody wanted, and they only used the rules to hide themselves.

Let's stick to my case of somebody quite capable of making decisions. Then it's a matter of following the rules to be certain that the process happens well. Not a matter of "yes" and "no". My opinion of life is not a Christian one, and for me death was just a relief of which I'm not afraid.

The are as you know as many opinions as persons. So basing a decision on some concept of life without saying so is not very brave. I respect every opinion, but want to make decisions on my own.

Don't worry, in the meantime I'm quite happy as a philosopher (thanks to the PC).

Henk Tuten


Amy asked:

I am having a problem defining realism. I hope you can clear this up for me.

The meaning of the terms Realism and Anti-Realism has been much discussed in modern philosophy. As I understand the terms the following map might help

(D is the discourse in question — i.e. the comic, the good, the scientific etc)

(1) are any of the sentences of D truth-apt? (capable of being true or false)

If yes then go to (2), If no then you are a anti-realist non-cognitivist about D. You believe the the surface grammar of D is not actually expressive of facts but something else, i.e. emotions as many non-cognitivists about the moral hold.

(2) Are any of the sentences of D true?

If Yes, then you are a Realist about the discourse. You believe that the D is a factual discourse and some of the sentences are true. Go to (4).

If no, then you are an anti-realist error-theorist about the D. You believe that though the sentences of D are truth-apt, none of the sentences are true. J.L. Mackie was an error-theorist about the moral (Ethics Inventing Right and Wrong). He believed that moral sentences are capable of truth, but the world 'lets us down' and there are no moral properties. Thus, when we make moral judgements, we commit an error (hence Error-theory!)

(3) Does D exhibit a cognitive command?

If yes, then no two people, with all the information about D, can disagree about the truth-value of one of D's sentences without committing a rational error. i.e. one of their cognitive capacities is functioning wrongly. If two people, with all the information can still disagree, then this is good (though not conclusive) reason to be an anti-realist about the discourse.

Supplementary Realist question:

(3a) Are the truths about D mind-dependent or mind-independent?

If mind-dependent then the truths are dependent on minds existing i.e. if no minds then no truths. If mind-independent then even if no minds then still truths. I.e: if no one existed 2+2 still equals 4 but Monty Python would not be funny. Though you can be a realist about the funny and about logic, you can have different kinds of realism, as your answers to 3a might be different.

I hope this helps a bit, there is a lot of literature on the realism debate. This is just how I was taught it in Uni, and how I approach the question.

Rich Woodward


Eduardo asked:

Which are God's merits, qualifications,background, (luck?), etc. for being God? why his entity and not mine or your's or anybody's? did he compete? how did "he" create himself? I know you can not have answers but, please elaborate.

God is held to posses certain qualities that make him the supreme being. Theologians and philosophers usually list a big old list of them: Omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, eternal, infinite, omnipresent. Imagine a God that wasn't all knowing all seeing, all powerful, all good and the source of all creation, what would be the point then of calling him God? He would just be like us finite or at the most like some powerful alien from out of Star Trek. So these qualities are supposed to define God qua God.

But is that enough for us? for us as people engaged with the world that presents problems for us problems like why am I here and what should I do?

Suppose we meet God some day say on the judgement day, but we're just not impressed. Wouldn't we be justified in taking Him to one side for a moment and asking him " What gives you the right to come and judge us?" The fact that he created us wouldn't give Him the right, the analogy of parent and child (that some believers use) is unconvincing to my mind. If I created some one individual and unique, like Mr Data from Star trek for instance I don't think I could claim any rights of sovereignty over him, In the same way God has none over me. Further God created us free to choose, if I chose to reject him or ignore him what has it got to do with Him, if he then threatens me with oblivion that hardly seems to be in accordance with a loving good God. We have moved to the question of God justifying himself to us. I can't think of anything God could say that would make me want get down on my knees.

All I have said up to now rests on an understanding of God that has been intellectualised, the God here is the God of philosophers, of thinkers, that this is the God that died, and it's a God thing that he is dead, because he wasn't really a god we could believe/ have faith in. Would not the 'real' God justify himself not by the things he would say or do, not by encompassing everything in his domain, not by a show of his strength and powers, but by his withdrawal, his silences, the void and gap between him and everything else. Not by his involvement in existence in being but his sheer difference from it.

If so then we have reached the limits of what can be said, we cannot know the how or why of God's being moreover we cannot talk of 'god existing, or being' or having qualities or essence, this does not mean that God does not exist or have being, but that his existing is different from that of the world, including any spiritual or psychical elements.

However we can have an experience of this difference. The philosopher Levinas has argued we can find it in the face of another person. The Other's existence is also different. the other is never completely present even when she is standing in front of me, how ever much I may know and recognise her there is always something unreachable my me about her, there is a void and a gap between us. The other is absent even while she is standing next to me. But Levinas says the other is also hungry and needing my help. The other calls me to justify my own place in the world, to account for my own (potentially unethical) existing when so many others may die just to keep me home and fed.

Could it be then that this absent god justifies his (non-understandable, un-knowable) entity, in calling me to justify my own before another person?

Brian Tee

I'm inclined to suppose your question is not altogether flippant; I will state my answer in tune. On the assumption that philosophy is an essentially a-gnostic pursuit, God's qualifications, luck etc. etc. are precisely the same as those of the cultural group who worship him, under whatever guise and by whatever name. Proof of this contention is easily furnished when you consider how many "immortal" gods in mankind's history have not lived up to the claim of deathlessness — meaning that when their culture disappeared, they were decommissioned. Of course this implies an anthropomorphic theory of religion, and if that is the view you hold, then the above should suffice. However, one may retain nagging doubts all the same: for example, what qualifications, luck etc. inhere in the residual electric potential of the universe by which we scientific super sophisticates explain the (possibility of the) Being of Everything. You would now return the favour and explain this to me?

Jürgen Lawrenz


Stephen asked:

Why do philosophers disagree?

Yes. You know, this is the kind of infuriating question that really, in my opinion, needs to be taken quite seriously. The easy and obvious answers are things like: philosophers are trained to see details, to argue, and indeed to disagree. And they are trained to question everything. Thus disagreement is inevitable. Well that's all very fine, but one could say the same about mathematicians or physicists, or even engineers... but we find massive agreement in those fields, don't we. Now, why is that? Well, in part it's the old trashcan story: philosophers are cheaper to hire than mathematicians... neither need labs or machines... but with philosophers you save money on trashcans; we don't need those, either. To put it another way, just what does it take to refute a philosophical position? As long as the logic is clear, all we can do is attack the assumptions, and how does one do that, if they are not empirically based? And once they become empirically based, somehow, magically, we're not philosophers anymore, we're scientists. Given enough background and subtlety in arguing, one can defend pretty much any position. As far as I can tell, the only reason philosophical positions are not held is that either 1) they turn empirical and philosophers (mostly) lose interest; or 2) someone does find a flaw in the logic and a question does get settled or eliminated; or 3) upon analysis, it is found that a question has been inadequately or too simplistically formulated; or 4) they just go out of fashion.

1) Mostly the case. As far as I know (though there are people who disagree with this claim), most of the sciences, etc., arose as branches of philosophy.
2) Flaws in logic are rare, and usually when they are found the person just reformulates their position. Look at all the "unmoved mover" arguments.
3) More common than 2. But again, it is rare that a position is abandoned in consequence. It is usually elaborated to take the additional complexities into account. But at least here we can argue that there is a reason to continue the discussion, i.e., that elaboration may lead to further insights, and so forth.
4) Lots of these. Why don't we debate Medieval religious questions any more? Well, who cares?

All very fine. But where is the agreement? 1) After becoming empirical, we test against the world, and it's hard to argue against things either exploding or not, and so forth... although it's always tried. But ultimately we tend to get agreement here. 2) Back to the beginning after the reformulation; no agreement. 3) Here maybe we make some progress, but we still don't agree. 4) If you can call this agreement.

If it comes to it, there are still people arguing the pros and cons of Aristotle's analyses of causation. There are still arguments about the validity and consistency of Thomism. We have discovered a "new problem of induction", but we're also still debating whether induction is merely a type of deduction or a different kind of reasoning.

It seems that philosophical positions just fade away... they never really completely die, but eventually they just lay there gathering dust: they are conceded to be valueless dead ends. I have no idea if anyone has addressed whether this process is a valid form of induction; someone probably has, but if not, it might be a good idea for someone to think about.

Steven Ravett Brown

My personal opinion is that philosophy is either giving a view on statements as made in any language that developed during evolution, or extending such a language. Differences in views are inherent.

But Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that he mainly noticed philosophers who refuted other philosophers.

So you may assume that there is some truth in this statement.

Maybe the majority of philosophers drowned too much in quarrelling, because that is what the 'man on the street' observes. It isn't much different in 'harder' sciences, so maybe evolution caused this tendency to fight.

According to Bertrand Russell in "The value of philosophy":

If the study of philosophy has any value at all for others than students of philosophy, it must be only indirectly, through its effects upon the lives of those who study it.

So if you're happy studying it, then this happiness inflects others. In the same chapter Russell writes:

But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences.

And he concludes:

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation.
The value of philosophy for Russell is: (1) enlarging our view on what is possible, (2) improving our intellectual imagination, and (3) lessening dogmatic assurance. Perhaps he meant that is what philosophy should do. Points 1 and 2 or more or less similar, it is improving knowledge like any study should. There remains probably the main point of making one humble, because of an overview on 'the problems of life'.

Back to your question. Those philosophers who act like their main job is disagreeing with one another are certainly not being humble. For Bertrand Russell these are not real philosophers. So if that is the impression about the whole of philosophy of the majority of people, then there is something VERY WRONG.

Henk Tuten

Perhaps the question should be, why should philosophers not disagree. After all, there is disagreement among practitioners in all areas of investigation: physicists, psychologists, and economists, to name just three. So why should philosophers be any different? Disagreement in general is caused by differences in view, or mistakes by one party or another. The same is true in philosophy.

You may think that there is something special about philosophy that causes disagreement, and it is true that there is perhaps more controversy in philosophy than in some (but not all, for instance political science) areas. Of course, philosophy is an especially abstract subject, and that, perhaps makes for the possibility of differences in view as well as for the greater possibility of mistakes in thinking.

Ken Stern


Rycke asked:

How tenable is the proposition that we are free to believe whatever we want?

There's a short and a long answer to this. The short answer is, you can indeed believe what you want, but if it conflicts with reality, you and your beliefs will not enjoy a long life expectancy. For the long answer, I commend Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Of course I am not 'free' to believe that I can fly in the sense that the world does not let me get away with acting as if I can fly. The question is whether, through an act of will alone, I have the power to believe something that I did not previously believe. Take for example, my belief that is now evening. Can I, willing it to be so, change that my belief to the belief that it is still the afternoon? I cannot. It is impossible for me to look out at the darkened sky, to be aware of the time on my computer clock without forming the judgement that it is no longer the afternoon but the evening. Believing is not like doing. This is a conceptual point about the concept of 'belief'.

Yet it has been claimed that certain kinds of beliefs — for example, those which relate to religious faith — are, or can be in some sense subject to the will. Hence talk of the 'will to believe'. You can accuse someone of 'lack of faith', implying that this the belief in question was not simply a response to perceived evidence but was at least partly under their control. They should have made a greater effort to 'believe'.

Even if that point (argued strongly by William James) were true, it would still not follow that we are free to believe whatever we want to believe.

Geoffrey Klempner


Matthew asked:

What are essentially the main disagreements between philosophers David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett in their interpretations in Philosophy of the Mind?

I'm very interested in consciousness... so I probably shouldn't be answering this question. I have to shrink a mountain into a grain of sand. Oh well. Ok, 65 words or less: Chalmers thinks that we can meaningfully talk about qualia, i.e., phenomenal qualities, although (he maintains) they are a type of property of (physical) substances which cannot be described by conventional physical theories. Dennett does not think we can meaningfully talk about qualia at all, indeed, that they are quite probably mere illusion. And so for him everything can be described in terms of conventional physical theories.

Dennett's position is derived, more or less, from Wittgenstein's position on private languages. Chalmers' is derived from logic and information theory. Oboy... sorry, guys. I'm almost embarrassed to simplify so much. I mean, really, both of these people are good philosophers and have written massive amounts on this subject.

But I'll keep sticking my neck out... I happen to disagree with both of them. I think that Dennett's position is an overstatement of rather classical skeptical positions which philosophers have, until he started them up again, rightly seen as either settled or unresolvable. I think that Chalmers has gotten overinvolved in hair-splitting logic (not that he's done a bad job of it, mind you), and assumes too much correspondence between logic, language, and the world. In other words, that conclusions based on logical considerations pertaining to our analyses must then pertain to what we are attempting to analyze: that the way we analyze (these aspects of) reality corresponds to the structure of reality. I just think that it doesn't to the extent he seems to think it does.

So, all that being crystal clear, you can see that the disagreements between the two are rather profound.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ian asked:

When discussing the problem of evil, why must we assume a duality in nature (good and evil) and the idea of God as good? Isn't it merely human to categorize things so? Are things in life, in the universe, not on a continuum? Hasn't some modern philosophical thought evolved that places God in the middle, or better yet, above it all? He is the sole creator, after all.

The problem with evil is that it avoids categorization, that may sound an odd thing to say after all, as you say humans split things into categories all the time. We know the difference between a good thing and an evil thing, keeping babies in dark cupboards is evil, giving the homeless your coat is a good thing, so how can I get away with saying that evil avoids categorization?

What I mean is that evil itself, the phenomena, its feel, the way it affects us, doesn't fit into any conceptualisation no sense can be made of it, it's useless. Try answering the question "why do we suffer, why role does the misery and pain serve?" I don't know the answer, I doubt any can be given that's because evil itself doesn't fit into the continuum of life, it exceeds it. Evil is excessive. There is always too much of it. It can't be added up or invoiced We could even say that evil is unnatural, in that it does not belong in the world, it has no place.

If god did create the world he could have done so without miserly and suffering and if he does have some purpose for the suffering we endure doesn't that make evil even more abhorrent, for example saying that the horrible pain of the dying breath of a starving child is accounted for by the role it has in some divine plan fills me with disgust. For a start God doesn't need any means to fulfil his desired end, he's God! It's only a half formed intuition but, I feel that rationalising evil makes evil more evil, the nearest expression I can find of it is Dostoyevsky's Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov : "And if the suffering of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price...to high a price is asked for harmony".

And what about the Holocaust, 'a paradigm of gratuitous human suffering'? A time where God turned his back and not in order to protect us from his burning glory. What can we say about a god who let the nazi's do what they wanted?

One option is Ivan's: Rebellion.

Option two is to declare the death of god. This includes the a version of the problem of evil; god cannot be omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent and at the same time evil exist. Evil does exist, so god is not omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. Such a being however would not then be god. Hence 'the death of god'.

Option three is the view you have identified, the view that places God beyond the world. This view states that God of option two is dead, but that this is a good thing because that wasn't really God anyway but just, as you indicate, a human categorisation, a conception crudely of God as a part of the world, in the sense that he shared in being, he had existence in basically the same way we did, but just more of it. A conception of God as the Supreme Being. The top dog of things that are. But this is just a mistaken view of God say defenders of option three, God does not share in being. He has turned his back on us and left us in the world. God is, to use Levinas' term, 'otherwise than being' (take a look at my response to Eduardo for more on this). But why did God leave?

One answer may be that if God is absent then we must be atheist. We are left alone to tender the world. Atheism clears the way for human life to exist and flourish. This is not a version of the view that God created us with free will and so we can do what we want, rather it's the opposite, for Levinas the human life is the ethical life, the life lived for the other person, that God is not part of being means that what we do for the other person we do for ethical reasons and not in the hope of some reward from God.

The responsibility for everything that happens becomes ours. For Levinas, on this picture a defender of option three, atheism is a necessary step towards the ethical life, (a strange thing to hear coming from a celebrated Talmudic commentator). What this also means is that evil is a human affair, its our doing, Evil on this picture originates when we take what is special about others and turn it into something ordinary and mundane. The holocaust again is a prime example, the Jews were seen, transformed into something less than people.

It is part of the paradox of evil that its origins, the attempt to reduce persons special otherness to a theme or caricature or category, rather than respect they unique and unassimilatable difference, produces a phenomena of such magnitude that it itself does not fit into and destroys any such categorisation.

Of course its not all doom and gloom, goodness is excessive too, it reaches beyond the confines of being, in helping the other, taking care of her, providing for her we can experience this good kind of excess.

Brian Tee

According to the theist apophatic theology, God is beyond human categories. However theism and particularly mainstream Christianity, holds to both the transcendence and the immanence (presence within and interaction with the world) of God.

Your question pertains to two important theological issues: 1) Theodicy (justification or explanation of belief in God, in the face of the existence of evil). 2) The contrast of the theism with pantheism (belief that God and the world are one — either without qualification or with the world as divine emanation) and with deism (God is creator but there is no divine participation/intervention in the created order).

Jean Nakos


Andy asked:

Theory 1: The "big bang" starts at 0 degrees on a sign wave, as the universe slows it's expansion it reaches 90 degrees and therefore returns to the "big bang" at 180 degrees. Thus, an "anti-universe" will complete the cycle.

Theory 2: Assume for a second that the human body can understand input at a certain rate, say 1000000MHz for talking sake, but the universal cycle occurs at 1999999Mhz. This would mean our bodies and the rest of our "existence" would not realise we are being created and destroyed so fast we could not perceive our TRUE being.

Theory 3: If the universal cycle was exactly double the rate of our consciousness we would not "move" through time, but rather be one instance in time. i.e. our thought would be parallel to the X axis on a TIME vs UNIVERSE SIZE graph.

Theory 4: This being the case, our conscious thought is the only thing that remains once the universe ends and begins again. In other words we (as pure thought) are immortal.

Nothing can change this as it has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. After all the power of the universe can not dissipate. Can it?

I cannot possibly do justice to the sheer complexity of possible states raised by your theories — a real can of worms! But I suggest some reading to you by which you might like to model your presentation. Problems of this sort were proposed 100 years ago by Henri Poincaré, a mathematician; his books are in and out of print all the time, so you might be lucky to find a copy. Most editions contain all three of his published works, and that's the edition I would go for.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Eva asked:

Does Marx's theory of communism discredit human nature and its complexities? If it does not than why are we not living in a true state of communism now? If communism is the ideal way of life, then why does is its philosophy biased on the "evil" structure of capitalism? In communism, would man's natural aggression disappear?

Scanning down the questions, I came on this... no one else has answered, so I'm going to comment. The proviso is that this is not my field of expertise. However, I became curious about Marx once, and attempted to look up a description of the goal state, so to speak, i.e., the end to which his system moves and which he claims is inevitable. I could find virtually nothing. There was a vague description of someone working in the fields, then going fishing, then reading... so absurdly unreal and impractical that it was quite amazing. Perhaps somewhere in his writings there is a clear description of where, precisely, he believed society was going... but I couldn't find it. Now, my question is, given that there is no clear statement of what an ideal society is, how it runs, etc., and I mean clear and precise, as many details worked out as possible, how could he, or anyone, claim to know the path to that state of affairs, much less claim it to be inevitable? How do you plan change without knowing the end to which you're aiming?

That's problem one. Problem two, in my opinion, is that given the enormous amount of data supporting territoriality and dominance/ submission behaviors throughout the animal kingdom, and indeed into the insects and plants, it seems to me that anyone with any sort of modern education would have to reject the possibility any sort of "classless" society. That kind of idea is one which could only be formulated before our modern knowledge of anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary psychology. We are part of a planetary ecosystem which seems hard-wired, genetically programmed, if you wish, for obtaining territory, defending it, and controlling it. And "territory" can encompass, for humans, quite abstract areas, such as one's dominance in a field of learning, for example... as well as a social hierarchy, like most animals.

So given all that, and given communism's failure globally, how anyone, at this point, could imagine it could exist stably except perhaps on a very small scale, e.g., in a small religious group like a kibbutz (and indeed those are usually controlled by some dominant figure — a "prophet", "guru", or whatever), is beyond me.

Steven Ravett Brown


Lauren asked:

I was trying t figure out how to put this into a standard form syllogism. Would you be able to help?

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.

This syllogism is of form AOO-3 and is valid. It is also an enthymeme (or incomplete syllogism) with a missing minor premise which needs to be supplied. One way of formulating it might be:

(1) All lovers of liberty are lovers of responsibility

(2) Some people are not lovers of responsibility (This is the supplied premise)

(3) Therefore: Some people are not lovers of liberty.

Ken Stern

'Most' is tricky. You can for certain purposes equate 'most' with 'some', but something is lost in the translation. This can be seen in the following putative inference:

(a) Most philosophers know about logic.

(b) Most philosophers who know about logic, know the meaning of 'incomplete syllogism'.

(c) Therefore most philosophers know the meaning of 'incomplete syllogism'.

This is invalid. Suppose there are ten philosophers in the universe and that seven of them know about logic. Out of the seven, four know the meaning of 'incomplete syllogism'. Then premisses (a) and (b) are true but the conclusion (c) is false. This is a a counterexample to the argument I have just given. If you can find a counterexample to an argument, then it is invalid.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

We've all heard that direct electric stimulation of the brain can elicit memories and sensations in the subject undergoing such a procedure — someone being thus probed might remember a past incident, or smell the scent of a peach.

Assuming these reports are true, (I know nothing of the science of it) would it follow that this kind of direct stimulation of the brain could cause new, unprecedented sensations in the subject? That is, is the scent of a peach somehow there, already, in the brain, awaiting to be switched on? If so, could new knowledge (e.g. the taste of mint to one who had never tasted it) arise in this situation?

This seems improbable, but the alternative seems to be that the act of smelling a peach causes that smell to be recorded somehow by the brain. The problem here is what is happening the second time you smell a peach...are you smelling the peach or is your brain providing the sensation for you? It seems you could never know, which makes the first idea not so far-fetched. Any ideas?

The easy answer to "pre-sensation" is: No, there is no scent (or any other sensory stimulus) hidden in your nervous system. To put it extremely simply: Smell is communicated to the nervous system by molecules, so it's an altogether physical impingement. You may know that Hobbes promoted the view that all our senses are variants of the sense of touch; and science has confirmed this. What this means in relation to your question is that our sensory modalities are each "preconfigured" (by long massaging from evolutionary factors) to have sensitivity to "their" species of input, and being physical, stimulation modifies the affected nerve strands (this is called "hardening" in neurophysiology). This physical alteration acts like a marker to pathways in your memory facilitating recall. What your question deals with are memories that the subjects have forgotten — but the hardened nerve strands are still in place and therefore accessible under certain conditions (including direct stimulation of the dedicated nerve strands).

There's much more to it, of course, but I can't produce a thesis here. The only other thing that might help your understanding is that memories are not stored, computer fashion, as complete (tactile, audio or video) images, but as instructions for the mind to reconstruct the whole memory from its internal resource of stored stimuli.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Yes, those reports are pretty much true, depending on where in the brain the stimulation is. It is the case that the act of smelling the peach causes the smell to be "recorded" (ugh, a bad term, really... it's much more complex than that) by the brain. So when you smell a peach when your brain is being stimulated, you are recreating the neural effects of smelling a real peach... and you can't tell the difference, since those neural effects are what smelling a peach is. Now, the last two sentences are rough. There are very many qualifications I could put on them, about how complete the experience is, where in the brain the stimulation must happen, other things accompanying smelling the peach (seeing it, etc.), philosophy about mind/ brain differences... and so forth. But very roughly that's what's going on. You might check out a recent book: The World in Your Head by Lehar.

Now, as far as stimulating the brain and producing a new sensation. An interesting idea... but not unprecedented. Think of the similar effects of drugs, for example. Don't we have there stimulation of the brain, not identical to stimulation by electrodes, perhaps, but similar, and external in the sense of not willed, i.e., not self-induced? And doesn't it result, sometimes, in strange ideas? Think about LSD trips, about how we think better (or so we hope) on caffeine... etc. That's really pretty much the same, isn't it. So really, you don't need to think about electrodes here, and people have been doing this for quite a long time.

Steven Ravett Brown


Narendra asked:

How to feel and reach God by knowledge? by work/ duty? by devotion?

To whom exactly are you addressing your question? To philosophers? To theologians? Of course you realize that for philosopher who do not held theist views your question is irrelevant. Moreover,philosophers who do share theist views are not unanimous in answering this kind of question.

There is no unanimity among theologians of various religions either. Furthermore one could not find unanimity even among Christian theologians. Opinions differ according to denominational theories and points of view. Not all theologians accept that it could be possible to feel and reach God by knowledge alone. Not all theologians accept that you could feel and reach God by work/ duty. Not all theologians accept that it could be possible to feel and reach God by devotion alone.

The question of Divine Grace (the supernatural assistance of God bestowed upon a rational being with a view to his/ her sanctification) has been the subject of much controversy. Nevertheless it seems to be some kind of unifying point as well, because almost all appear to admit the need for Grace in order to feel and reach God.

Your question looks like a simple one. In fact, it refers to various complicated theological controversies. Some of them led to schisms, heresies and the division of the Christian Church.

Jean Nakos


Tamas asked:

Has any philosopher addressed the question whether or not LIFE (the creation and process of all living) is a zero-sum game (e.g., for everything organizing into life, must something else disorganize into oblivion, or for anything staying alive must something living die?). If it is a zero-sum game, what scientific evidence is there? If it is not, are Homo-sapiens the only living things trying to make it into one?

To answer your question I must keep it simple. So humans developed in an evolutionary process a la Darwin. In such a process only energy is changing shape, nothing vanishes. A zero-sum game supposes an opponent. This is the one that changes, but in evolution things themselves are subject of change. So there is no need of an opponent, only objects causing the direction of change. Similar to a game, in evolution life changes after 'choices'. The extra rule is that it behaves like a one-way road and seldom crosses the same point.

Do humans try to make life a zero-sum game? Certainly there is to much 'enemy'-thinking, it obstructs cooperation. Politics often seems playing zero-sum. Bargaining like, if you do this then I do that. The outcome is often far from being a solution for the original problem. What is needed more is treating the really observed problems, without first considering opponents. And on top of that the direction of change is too much in trying to make it only one specific kind of game, an only rational game.

Bargaining is a way of handling things of fearful people. It is the opposite of believing in one's own strength. Of course part of it is necessary for communication, but too often most of it hides uncertainty

I don't know any philosopher who treated this view, but maybe others.

Henk Tuten


Hussam asked:

I need help with the German word Kapelle. In English it means chapel. What is the general meaning for the atheist philosopher? what did it mean for Nietzsche?

Dear Hussam, Kapelle is the place where the choir sings and the bell tolls. Hence, by long custom of installing bands in chapels, "orchestra": Staatskapelle Dresden = Dresden State Orchestra; Militrkapelle = Brass Band. But its connotation serves frequently for evocative purposes through association with funeral services — this is a context for Nietzsche, e.g. Zarathustra. There is no atheistic meaning, because through cultural affiliation, the religious overtones are present, one way or another.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Peter asked:

I am not sure if this statement is better suited for analysis by a psychologist than a philosopher but I will give your team of philosophers the first crack at it. I dropped out of college on purpose for no reason. Is this possible? Does it make sense? I would also like to know how you came up with the answers to these two questions.

Does it matter whether it "makes sense"? Whether you can now reconstruct the reason, whatever it may have been? My question to you is, why are you asking this question? Why is it important to you? What purpose will answering it serve, for you? Why not just ask what you want to do now?

Steven Ravett Brown

I believe I have a stronger understanding of psychology than philosophy, but I will give a satisfactory answer to your question, hopefully.

In brief, a reason is not necessary. Whether you know WHY you decided to drop out does not have any effect on the outcome of your decision. You will still be dropped out either way. [if we restate your question: "I dropped out of college on purpose."]

I assume from previous personal experience that you can "drop" by failing to register for the following session. The system has to work this way. [now your question could be: "I failed to register on purpose."]

Now, for my explanation of why:

If your college is like those with which I have experience, the college cannot keep you enrolled against your will. That is, students must actively signify their willingness to attend by registering. If nobody registered, the college would not offer any courses, nor would they need to. In fact, it is more surprising from an effort standpoint, that people register for courses at all.

Does this make sense? Certainly. College is a social contract. You pay for the courses you attend according to a published schedule. As long as you register and pay, you can expect full privileges as a student. Just as you should not expect to use the college's facilities without paying, the college cannot charge you when you are not registered for classes.

Jeff Kenton

If you do something 'on purpose' that means you do not do it inadvertently, or accidentally, or unknowingly. After you have done it, you know what it was that you did, and you know that it was indeed your intention to do that thing, and not nothing, or something different.

It won't help in explaining the meaning of 'doing something on purpose for no reason' to give an example of something one fails to do, a state of affairs that is brought about as the result of not taking a certain action. For one can still ask the question, 'Why?' Why did you intentionally, knowingly drop out of college?

Suppose you reply, 'I could see no reason to continue' then that is a reason, and a sound reason. College costs money. You could be doing better things with your time. The drawbacks outweighed the benefits. But that is not what you want to say. What you want to say is that your dropping out — your not turning up to register, or whatever — was your doing, but there was no explanation that you could give, then or now, of why you made that choice, rather than the opposite choice. It is as if the decision just happened out of the blue. One minute you were going to continue, the next minute you found that you had 'decided' to drop out, but without having any reason to give for that decision.

Sometimes it happens that one forgets the reason for doing something. Perhaps you once had a reason for continuing in college, you saw the point to it, then one day you could no longer see the reason. But even here, one can say that that your reason for not continuing was the things I mentioned under the heading of 'drawbacks'. So in this scenario it is not the case that you dropped out for no reason. Your reason was (what you saw as) the unnecessary waste of time and money.

Let's suppose finally that you did have all the time, and the money, in fact you had absolutely nothing to lose by continuing at college. But you also forgot the reason why you had previously chose to attend college. Well then, I suppose, whether you continued or did not continue was nothing to you at all. You dropped out on a whim. I grant that this makes sense. That's why there is a word for it. But is it really true — in your case?

Geoffrey Klempner


Jeff asked:

How many philosophers were known to just lose their mind and sanity? who are the well known ones and what do you think the main reason was for the break-down?

Haven't you heard that going nuts is an occupational hazard for philosophers? It's rather more surprising, then, to learn that in other branches of humanity the incidence of nuttiness is even higher — just visit any asylum and you'll find dozens of non-philosophers there. So perhaps it's rather more a case of non-philosophers being especially vulnerable. Well, what do you think?

Jürgen Lawrenz


David asked:

How does one cross the barrier from ordinary to excellence?

To explain this further. When does a person take knowledge and training and transform into an intellectual? How does this transition take place?

Why are you asking this of philosophers? You need to ask this of psychologists. But hey, I'll answer it anyway... believe it or not, it's quite simple, in general. If you have the potential for excellence, your achieving this depends pretty much on no more than putting in tremendous amounts of time pursuing some field. Simply the amount of time put in... which of course requires discipline to do, is the critical parameter. And I mean major amounts of time... like 40-60 hour weeks, minimum. I'm being serious. That is truly the answer. But that's the easy part, answering that question in general terms. The hard part is arranging your life so that you can actually do this. Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown


Matthew asked:

In criminal law it is a duty of certain people to act in given situations, and is therefore a crime to omit to act. Should liability be extended to all people in situations were there is a moral obligation to act?

and Meg asked:

Are me morally responsible for our omissions? We assume to hold ourselves and others for our actions, but what about our non-actions?

We are responsible for our omissions, why some say we are not rests I think on a mistake concerning the workings of ethics, a mistake I will outline below.

We can make a distinction between those omissions that allow bad things to happen and those omissions that do not promote good things happening. These are not the same since whilst allowing a bad thing to happen will avoid promoting a good thing, avoiding promoting good will not necessarily mean that a bad thing will happen, things could just stay the same.

First, are we responsible for allowing bad things to happen? Consider the case of a burning house with a child trapped inside. You are the only person nearby, the only chance the child has of surviving, trying to rescue him will mean that you will certainly suffer burns and smoke inhalation, possible even die, should you go in or let the child die? One day I was walking home from school, the route took me across a busy road and up a public footpath, on the way up the path I saw a young boy on a bike speeding down the hill screaming, obviously he was going to fast and had lost control, I could have lifted him of off the bike as he past me, instead I sidestepped, let him past and he went into the road hitting a car, breaking his arm and leg. Watching him go I felt terrible, I knew what was going to happen and it did, I let a bad thing happen. I felt horrible then and every time I think about it I feel terrible. I was responsible for his injuries even before they happened. When I ignored him, his shouting, when I moved out of the way I was responsible for what happened next.

Karl Jaspers once wrote about the Nazi percussion of the Jews, "Each one of us is guilty in so far as he remained inactive. The guilt of passivity is different. Impotence excuses; no moral law demands a spectacular death...but passivity knows itself morally guilty of every failure, every neglect to act whenever possible, to shield the imperiled, to relieve wrong, to countervail." (The question of German Guilt).

The reason we may think that we are not responsible for our omissions is that there are limits to the demands of ethics (of both consequentialist and deontological kinds), it permits us to pursue our own goals and interests and steps in to prohibit anything that will affect others for the worse during these pursuits, sometimes morality requires us to sacrifice some of our own interests for the benefit of others but not at the expense of our own welfare.

This I think is the mistake in traditional thinking about ethics. Often ethics is seen and thought about on the same model as economics, a book-keeping of gains and loses, pros and cons, weights and measures. A balancing act of avoiding blame, keeping ones hands clean securing ones own self, against helping others. Often the balance wins out in favor of oneself. We help others up to a point but where it beings to interfere with our leisure time, our bank balance, our secure home, the limit is reached. That's one reason why it is generally regarded that we are not responsible for our omissions; there are limits to he demands of morality and our omissions point to those limits. This is the idea that morality should be about stopping bad things happen, but not necessarily about promoting good things happening and that the domain of responsibility only reaches as far as the first. Omissions of the latter kind are on the traditional view not omissions at all but superogatory acts, something above and beyond our normal call to duty. We can be praised for doing them but not blame for not doing them.

But morality is not like economics, its not about balancing what I use with what I can give away, morality breaks up this structure, there are no limits, it's looking after the other person bearing the weight of the world. Some object that this would make intolerable demands on people, it would make us all murderers for failing to help those in Zimbabwe, it would mean giving up more and more until we have nothing left, for to do otherwise would mean that more people die, it would mean, to take up Matthew's point that liability be extended and that's just unrealistic, if we put everyone in prison no one will feed the poor! But that's exactly what morality requires. (Not that everyone be in prison — the Law follows even more the pattern of economics, of give and take, I wonder if it makes sense to punish someone legally for what they have failed to do ethically, since ethically we will all fail to do something, perhaps then responsibility and punishment need to be separated.) According to Emmanuel Levinas: "Responsibility becomes serious when it is not only my surplus that is affected but all that sustains my life and my very occupancy of this post".

Morality for Levinas is answering for the needs of the other person, without concern for my own self. A paradigmatic example is the giving of bread from ones own mouth to the beggar on the street. If I turn the beggar away he will die, I have killed him. But someone will object: "there will always be beggars on the street I can't feed them all I can't be responsible for them all!" Such an objection is still tied to thinking of ethics as if it were a balance sheet. Levinas is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky: "Everyone of us is responsible for everyone else in every way". Further there is no way to alleviate this responsibility. We cannot make it lighter, Levinas recognizes that there will be more beggars of course that's not a good thing, but it's no objection to denying our responsibility either: in fact recognizing our responsibility increases it: "The more I face my responsibilities the more I am responsible". When it comes to responsibility the accounts can never be settled.

The view that says we are not responsible for our omissions, of both kinds, is a view that does not see the beggar on the street, it's a view that does not take ethics seriously.

Brian Tee


Jeff asked:

A while ago, I came across a reference to Goethe's theory of colour. What exactly is the theory? and is it true?

Goethe's theory is a phenomenal theory of colour, as opposed to Newton's wavicular theory, which is based on the retractability of light into a spectrum. Phenomenal in this context means, "as it appears". Goethe was, among other accomplishments, a competent artist; accordingly his interest in colour is an artist's. Consequently no-one other than artists has ever been convinced by his theory, mainly because it relies on subjective validation. For example, he struggled manfully to assess the changes in colour appearance when shadows are involved; but whereas in the physical theory this is easy (simple subtraction), in the phenomenal theory you are reduced to observation and guesswork, because shadows obviously change hue from minute to minute depending on the direction and strength of the light. So whether it is "true", depends on who you are. If an artist, you may well feel that his theory (which is really more a philosophy of colour, certainly not a science) is "true". But if you're interested in colour as light, forget it.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Jenny asked:

I am in my 3rd year studying philosophy. I am doing a dissertation at the moment the title is: 'The ethics of cloning body parts' Please can you help me as I am finding it pretty hard finding books about the subject!

Try the National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature, The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington DC


and look for Basic Resources in Bioethics.

Jean Nakos


Amos asked:

What is Spelman's critique on Platonic Dualism? And can you define somatophobia and do you think our culture suffers from it?

On dualism, especially relating to both questions, try reading: Damasio, A.R. Descartes' Error; Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1994. But no, I don't think our culture (USA) suffers from a fear of the body, particularly... it suffers from so many fears that I don't see any reason to single that one out. Now if you're asking about British culture, I'm the wrong person to answer that one.

Steven Ravett Brown


Eve asked:

Why did Zeno's paradoxes provoke such a deep crisis in the intellectual environment of ancient Greece? Show how philosophical progress after Zeno required some compromise between the views of the Parmenidean camp and those of the pre-Parmenidean camp.

and Zero asked:

Could you explain Parmenides' and Zeno's objections to the reality of change?

I'll give you two of a number of equally valid reasons:

(1) If you hold to the ontological view that "Whatever is, is" (as Parmenides did), then logically this implies, "Whatever is, cannot not be." Therefore creation and destruction, both of which are neither being nor non-being, are logically impossible: e.g. to become, the thing that is becoming must be something already, it cannot be nothing. But this means it is. Conversely, if something is to be destroyed totally, you need to ask where the matter goes that is being annihilated. But wherever it goes, it cannot not be. Therefore in ultimate reality nothing ever changes, the universe is one unchanging material block. From this Parmenides deduced that all change whatever is illogical, yet since we seem to experience change nonstop, it was necessary to discredit the senses which communicate change to us. Parmenides himself did this in his poem by depicting the realm of ultimate truth as the immortal Gods' realm. The gods, who are not prone to illusion as we are, demonstrate the changelessness of reality to him.

From a modern scientific perspective you would probably say that it is contradictory (for the gods) to be eternally changing along with evolution, where and how would they end up? But just in case you think this is all hocus pocus, since it is so obvious that the world is in a state of non-stop transformation, the fact is that even today's scientists have not given up on Parmenides' notion. For a fascinating insight into his enduring impact on physics, you might delve into Popper's The World of Parmenides.

(2) Zeno's paradoxes, or logoi as he called them, are demonstrations of the impossibility of motion, by showing that all increments of seeming motion can be broken down into discrete units, i.e. an arrow in flight, so comprehended, is really standing still. Proof that change is mere illusion communicated by the senses. Zeno's puzzles, I might add, were not solved until the 17th century. At least to scientists' satisfaction. Some philosophers maintain, however, they were never solved and indeed can never be solved, because their logic is unassailable.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Enzo asked:

Has the language problems discussed by Wittgenstein been resolved as of yet? Is there a future for analytic philosophy?

Well probably this questioner has given up... this was at the bottom of the list. And for good reason... who could possibly answer whether there is a "future" for analytic philosophy? However, I have a solution for you! Read This Book: Edmonds, D., and J. Eidinow. Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument between Two Great Philosophers. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2001. You still won't get an answer, but you'll understand the question a lot better!

Steven Ravett Brown

Don't you think that Wittgenstein himself tried to provide resolutions of the problems he raised? Or was he just a riddler who tried to tie us all up in conceptual knots? (A bit like Socrates, perhaps?)

The simple answer to your question is that in the philosophical world generally there is is still a great deal of argument about the sort of language problems that W. discussed — and so it would appear that they are, as yet, unresolved. But some philosophers seem to almost completely ignore what W. had to say about these things, others do not. Many of these would still regard themselves as analytic philosophers in some sense or the other ... so perhaps analytic philosophy is alive and well ... but in some quarters "analytic" philosophy would appear to have been taken in a direction very different to what W. was doing. And even in W's time there were those (e.g. Carnap) doing very different types of "analytic" philosophy from what W. was doing... but I would not be too hung-up about labels like "Analytic"...

What is far more important is that Wittgenstein himself believed that he had resolved (or untangled or dissolved) many of the problems he discussed — or at least pointed to how they might be resolved/ dissolved. It is not always very clear how this has been achieved, because he doesn't give simple black and white answers. He believed that that would lead to people not thinking for themselves.

I would suggest the following approach: pick just one specific language problem that Wittgenstein raised, try to work out WHY its is a problem for him and philosophy generally, consider carefully what W. has to say about it and whether he has not, explicitly or implicitly provided a resolution/ dis-solution of the problem. Do YOU also feel it to be a problem and does what W. say help you see any glimmer of a resolution? Try to work from the original W. texts but by all means use secondary commentators to help you (just bear in mind that there is a fair measure of disagreement between secondary commentators!)

THEN consider whether more recent philosophers are still haggling about the same problem. If W. had a solution have the contemporaries missed the point? Or have they found that W's solution was wrong? Or (a third possibility) have they simply ignored W, having perhaps rejected his philosophy for other, unrelated, reasons and are now just going their own sweet way, returning to the old problem, but perhaps with a different approach? If so, surely one or the other is/ was barking up the wrong tree? Or are their problems really different, only apparently the same?

I would most strongly recommend you take a look at Peter Hacker's book "Wittgenstein and Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy" I am sure it will help you find some answers.

Robert de Villiers


Onduko asked:

"If nerve fibres from our eyes could be crossed with the nerve fibres from our ears, then undoubtedly we could hear colours and see sounds." Criticize or defend this claim.

You might concede that (a) if this made any sense whatever, evolution would probably have done it long ago, and (b) nerve fibres are not lengths of copper, but living fibres adapted to perform a very specific function with the view to giving their system a fighting chance against the hazards of the environment. You can perform a simple test by yourself to verify what cross-modal signalling produces. Get someone to punch you on the eye and then report the pain you saw. What in fact you saw is commonly called "seeing stars". You can't correlate these "stars" with feeling pain: wrong modality. Satisfied?

Jürgen Lawrenz

All the sensory information that you obtain through your eyes could, in principle, be translated into patterns of sound. That is not to say that sound space matches the logical structure of colour space, but only that there is a function which translates patterns of colour into patterns of sound (just as both can be translated into electrical pulses).

What does this show?

Let's suppose we performed this (unethical) experiment and see what happens:

"The patient reported on the first day after the operation that he could not hear or see anything around him. Only a chaos of colours and sounds that he could not make any sense of....

"Today, a year later, after the subject's successful completion of a program of vigorous training, the results of every sight and hearing test that we have been able to devise are normal. Yet the subject continues to insist that he 'hears' colours and 'sees' sounds."

There's no telling what would in fact happen if the experiment were performed. The question you should be asking, however, is whether the fictional account I have just given is logically coherent, and, if it is, what consequences we should draw from that.

Geoffrey Klempner


Bean asked:

Explain and assess the claim that mystical experiences can be dismissed as purely subjective.

Is philosophy a form of autobiography, or technology, or both, or neither?

I'm inclined to the view that philosophy, literature, art, music, religion, history and indeed all forms of intellectual and creative expression form part of the autobiography of mankind.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Garry asked:

Is there a general consensus amongst philosophers on whether Quine was right to deny that there are analytic truths? If we agree with him is it still possible to do conceptual analysis, i.e. finding the necessary and sufficient conditions that a concept must satisfy? A lot of philosophers still seem to be doing philosophy like this. Can you recommend reading material please — I have got Quine's essays and the reply by Strawson and Grice. I would also like to know how this fits with Putnam and Kripke's views and would be grateful for some guidance on this (to me) perplexing and difficult subject.

Concerning Quine and the status of analytic "truths"... I certainly do not think that Quine has the last word on the matter or that there is much general consensus... (But I'm not au fait with Putnam or Kripke's current thinking.)

However for what I think is a most useful take on the issue that cuts across the whole debate (and to my mind settles it — or at least points in a direction which I reckon would settle it), I most strongly urge you to take a look at Chapter 7 of Wittgenstein's Place in 20th Century Analytic Philosophy by P.M.S Hacker — in particular pages 212 to 216. ANY serious discussion of the issue will, I believe, at least have to take some account of the considerations put forward here.

Robert de Villiers


Martha asked:

I am reading Arthur Danto's book The Transfiguration of the Banal and would like to know if this concept of "transfiguration" is found in Wittgenstein's theory.

The title is actually Transfiguration of the Commonplace. I'm not aware of the presence of this concept, as Danto uses it, in Wittgenstein's writings. But I concede to you that certain portions of his Philosophical Investigations could be interpreted in that light. Now here is an excellent suggestion for some creative thinking! But it means you will have to read both books. Don't expect to solve this puzzle by fishing on the Internet!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Rachel asked:

What if we only had three fingers, how would this have changed our five fingered world?

Take a look at a book on numbers, and the notion of "bases" for numbering systems. We use a base 10 numbering system, because... yes, we have 10 fingers total. If we had three fingers (two plus thumb, right?), we'd probably use base 6, actually a better system (base 12 is really the best, because 12 has so many divisors). So the numbers would go: 0,1,2,3,4,5, 10. Why? Because "10" means: "take the next power of the base". That is, in base 10, 1 is 10 to the 0. 10 is 10 to the 1. 100 is 10 squared. And so forth. So in base 6, what is 10? Yes, we write it (in base 10) as "6". 100 is six squared, i.e., 36, as we write it. And so on. The base used in computers is base 2. So the numbers for computers are: 0,1,10,11,100... and so forth. Think about it.

Aside from that... we would have less sure grips on tools, I guess... but I don't see any reason for big changes. Playing piano would be much harder... we would have to redesign them.

Steven Ravett Brown


Tabula asked:

I studied basics at school, mainly about Greek philosophers and not in depth. Could you suggest the any books that deal with the four elements...ether and anything that can get me started?

Most books on the Presocratic Philosophers discuss the elements. Both Penguin and Oxford UP have published basic (and cheap) paperbacks on these philosophers.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Mary asked:

I need to develop a philosophy of education on sex education. I am having problems how to word this. The population I would like to target are 6th and 7th graders along with their parents.

I would have thought the least of the problems with putting forward a philosophy of education concerning specifically sex education would be how to word it... though given the subject, no doubt there might be points were discretion is called for. The question is the "philosophy" itself — if you have clarified what you really believe about it I would have thought the wording would have happened at the same time?

I would however most strongly recommend you take a look at the chapter on sex in Roger Scruton's book (rather naffly titled) An Intelligent Persons Guide to Philosophy (Duckworth, ISBN 0 7156 2789 — 9). I would hope that anyone involved in enunciating a "philosophy of sex education" would attempt to take some account the sort of considerations he raises... Roger is hardly one of the coolest of cats and the thought of him or (any philosopher I can think of) pronouncing on matters sexual might be rather abhorrent, just as Wittgenstein found the thought of Bertrand Russell so doing... Nevertheless I believe it may be worth a look.

Robert de Villiers


David asked:

Is it possible for 1001 Arabian Nights to have influenced composers of various types? If so, how, even if not directly exposed to the story? I am strenuously working on this painstaking research paper, so I would be grateful to any information.

Off the top of my head, there are Rimski-Korsakov's and Ravel's Sheherazade, Weber's Abu Hassan and Oberon, Schubert and Wolf wrote some songs things based on Arabic or Persian lyrics. But this is something you need to research yourself. The best way to start would be with opera, going right back to the Renaissance, and checking out something like "Orientalism" in Music.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Leina asked:

What did Marx mean when he said that 'religion was the opium of the masses'? Was he dismissing religion? If that's the case why did he change his religion from Judaism to Christianity? Or was that simply a convenient career move?

The exact quote from Marx is:

"Religion is the sigh of the creature overwhelmed by misfortune, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

For Marx, religion was a profound expression of distress and suffering, offering comfort when none could be found; but it was also a delusion, dulling awareness of the true causes of misery. Which is to say that is was like a drug (like opium) which Marx thought was given to the masses by the ruling class to divert them from their miserable lives and to make them easier to deal with.

Marx, himself did not change his religion. He was born into a family which had changed theirs years before. Marx was, himself, an atheist.

Ken Stern


Joee asked:

How would Leibniz have criticized Locke's theory on Personal Identity?

I am preparing for a debate over the resolution "When in conflict globalization ought to be valued above national sovereignty" which is pretty self-explanatory, but is just basically discussing whether combining global community is more important than a nation's individuality. I am looking for some philosophical information to use on either side to build my own knowledge in the subject and to use in the debate (which would have to be presented under a time restraint). Philosophers, their philosophies, and quotes would all be helpful.

This is not my field, but I'd like to add the equivalent of a footnote. There was recently a study, published (I think) in Scientific American or Science (sorry about the lack of reference), which gave the results of a mathematical model of the economic interactions between countries. The study relates to the general issue of globalization, anyway. The results were that if one country was much richer than another, free economic interactions were bad for the poorer country: its rich got richer, and its poor got poorer. On the other hand, if the two countries were reasonably close in wealth, free trade benefited both of them.

Steven Ravett Brown


Nick asked:

I was wondering if anyone could give me some strong arguments against the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche?

Critics have been doing this for 100+ years. I think we're slowly getting around to an acceptance that we should stop blaming the diagnostician for the diseases of his patient.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Adam asked:

At the end of the day does any of it matter, is there a right way to be, a way to be that that is more right than any other, taking for granted that religion is man made, there for there will be no reward after death, does anything we do in our life matter, as after death it will all be lost anyway??

Of course it matters. It matters what we do in our life today. It matter to us and it matters to others alive today. Sometimes what we do will matter when we are dead and not there to care, but it might still matter to those alive.

Everything matters. If we accept that small things don't matter, like lying, for instance, then it becomes socially acceptable and things escalate and we don't mind who lies. We will allow it from parents, teachers and politicians. Surely that matters? We have standards and even if there is no God and no afterlife, we simply have human standards and we know what they are.

Rachel Browne

Your question contains a number of assumptions. The examination and questioning of the assumptions that we have taken for granted is fundamental to the development of a sound philosophical attitude.

Even taking for granted that religion is man-made, does it follow that nothing that we do in life matters,or that after death it will all be lost? Religions are attempts by humans to come to terms with aspects of reality. This does not mean that they are worthless. Much that is good in the world, including much great art, has been inspired by religion. How we live our life, and what we do in life, matters both to ourselves and others. Religion can make a great difference to how we live and how we act. That difference is usually, but not always, beneficial. Religion that does not accord with reality can be counter-productive. A religion that is fully in accord with reality would not be. Is such a religion possible? I believe it is.

Christianity has been the most productive religion to date, but the Christian explanation of the world, particularly the explanation of the Christ-event that was forged in the next five Centuries, no longer resonates with modern thinking. There is a need for a critical re-thinking of the Christ-event. I have argued elsewhere that:

1. The existence of a self-existent entity — a God — is the best explanation of the existence of the contingent Cosmos.
2. The only motive for a self-existent entity to act is to enable the production of another entity that is similar to itself.
3. The self-existent entity cannot directly create an entity that is similar to itself. Any directly created entity is obviously non-self-existent, and so is dissimilar to the self-existent entity.
4. The only course possible is for the self-existent entity to initiate a process involving self-organization and self-creation, to enable the possible self-creation of a communal entity that is similar to the self-existent entity in both creativity and goodness.
5. The stages of the development of the Cosmos to date have the appearance of such a process. The present human-moral-cultural stage is part of that overall process.

The Thesis on "The Process of the Cosmos" and associated papers are available on my Web Page at http://www.philosophy.27south.com

Anthony Kelly


Angela asked:

What exactly is a Darwin Machine? Is it different from a Von Neumann machine?

The first is just a conceptual tool, not something that actually exists. It relates to adaptive intelligence in evolution. But a von Neumann machine is a real machine, also known as the CPU of a digital computer.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Olga asked:

I have difficulty with translating my paper to English. If you could tell me what exactly "sensibility" means in philosophy if such a term exists at all. Is it the same as sensuality, does it relate to the theory of affect, and sexuality? This word in Russian is very ambiguous: we use it for Kant's two forms of sensibility (space and time) as well as for general describing of what could be called "love discourse" in relation to human emotions, as well as referring to Nietzsche Genealogy of Morals (people of "straight sensibility" (I am not sure I get it right) vs. people of ressentiment, so it could be understood as reactivity, affective response in intersubjective relations. Could you tell me the equivalent in English, is "sensibility" the right word? I hope I made myself clear.

The word "sensibility" is defined by the Merriam English Dictionary with the following meanings:

1: ability to receive sensations: tactile sensibility

2: peculiar susceptibility to a pleasurable or painful impression (as from praise or a slight) — often used in plural

3: awareness of and responsiveness toward something (as emotion in another)

4: refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste with especial responsiveness to the pathetic

Perhaps meaning 1 is the nearest to the meaning in Kant. And meaning 3 is perhaps the nearest to the one you describe second. "Sensibility" is certainly a word in English and the title of a famous English novel by the 18th century writer Jane Austen is Sense and Sensibility in which the term is used in meaning number 4 above.

Ken Stern


Scot asked:

God designed humans to be similar to each other, we all have arms, legs, a brain, and hair. But they are all unique, no eyeball is the same color and definitely no two people look alike. If these minor differences are present, then why wouldn't our sight, smell, and hearing work slightly different from each other? Is my "blue" the same as your "blue"? Is my "F sharp" the same as your "F sharp"?

It's probably just as you say. In philosophy, this is the problem of "qualia". My problem is that I could write 50 pages without blinking an eyelid on this topic, and yet everything I might write would surely be contentious, because it's still a red hot issue at present. So my suggestion is that you consult a philosophical dictionary under the heading of "qualia" and go on from there. Have fun!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Louise asked:

What I regard as cheating is considered OK by many American university students — one survey revealed that as many as 75% of the interviewed students had purchased essays, term papers or even their masters theses from other writers, usually through online "paper mills", instead of doing their own work. One student responded to the question Why do you cheat? by saying "If you're not cheating, you're not trying."

As a non-cheating student in classes as large as 400 students, I can vouch for the difficulty of competing against students whose written work is done by professionals and whose exams and classes are taken by paid substitutes. They get better grades, look smarter on school records and get better opportunities for jobs as the "A" students. Professors don't bother to make themselves available to students or to get to know them, so they have no way of knowing that many of their "best" students got their grades by cheating.

These papers cost a lot of money, but cost is irrelevant to students who use Daddy's charge cards to pay for them, stay in party mode and assign their education to writers and sit-ins. I do not see that they really lose out. They do not care whether they are educated, they want to make money and hang with people like themselves, and they will graduate with far more social advantages than I will, swotting away while they cruise the clubs and make the connections that will get them the best paying jobs. I'm sure they will continue to cheat at their jobs by using insider information and paying underlings to do all their work for them as they take the credit for it. They will have better grades and no doubt get into better grad schools after they get tutoring for GMAT exams or even get access to tests, and present their references as top of the class pupils with good social connections.

I am bitter and struggling for my grades and wish I could find a way to rationalize cheating, because it seems I am being a sucker by not doing it.

They say it doesn't matter if they cheat to get through required courses that they'll never use, (like Ethics, haha.) What is your take on this cheating epidemic? It is not only common in University, but also in lower schools, where 75% of seventh grade students had cheated, and 63% of sixth grade students, according to a Duke University study. Professors do it too! One east coast professor was allowed to continue teaching after being caught lying to his Vietnam History of the War classes about his (non)experience fighting in Vietnam, or the several historians and writers who have been caught presenting plagiarized material as their own work in books, or the journalist who made up his own "sources" to quote. I know one cheating professor who even used old, forgotten dissertations in his newly published book and presented the work as his own, because I worked for him!

Is there a new philosophy that makes cheating laudable because it is so prevalent and because there is no benefit to not doing it except a feeling (useless) of virtue? I can't say that I recall anything much from my courses, even ones I got excellent grades in only a year ago, so it's not as if I am so much better educated than cheaters are.

They all act as though cheating is an out of date concept and practical results are everything. I feel as if I am adhering to some outmoded philosophy (not religious — I was brought up Unitarian) that works to my ultimate disadvantage yet I can't seem to let go of it. Please comment, this disturbs me every time I see a fellow student sitting in the U. pub while I am flogging myself toward the library. It is ruining my educational experience, plus there are not very many fascinating minds to connect with. My University is ranked in the top 5 in the U.S. — it's not as if this is happening where it won't affect the future, but then look at the President — did he really have what it takes to get to, let alone through Yale? I wonder.

There is no philosophy of cheating. Instead, cheating is a strategy for accomplishing a goal with a minimum of effort. Moreover, cheating is a calculated risk. The cheater reasons that his professor will likely not check his work, and he may thus escape capture. However, penalties are severe if a cheater is ever caught (expulsion or other severe penalties, in Universities where I have been). Honestly, a notation of expulsion on a college transcript is something that is never washed away. That horrid legacy will haunt anyone who is caught cheating. The fact that increasing numbers of Universities are subscribing to anti-plagiarism systems should sound a note of caution to all potential cheaters.

You have high ambitions for yourself, as you described. I applaud your effort. However, it is important to remember that not everyone shares your desire for top grades, nor do they have the same talents as you. When you find yourself admiring the guy drinking beer at the bar as you trudge to the library, remember this: He might have paid his look-alike friend to take a test for him. Or, he might be celebrating an "A" on a test, after hours of his own studying. Or, he may have a photographic memory. Or, he may simply keep a different schedule than yours. Or, this person may be content to get the lowest passing grade and does not see the need to study until his grades fall below passing.

Cheating is not a philosophy, it is a strategy. People who cheat to succeed are also the same people who ran Enron, WorldCom, and any number of other businesses with abysmal ethics records. Their "luck" ran out and now most of them are scrambling to cover their hind sides before someone else exposes them. That is the life of the cheat.

At the end of the day, the only opinion of yourself that matters is your own. If you are willing to risk a college degree for the sake of a better letter grade, then perhaps your life's priorities require reassessment.

Take care and don't cheat.

Jeffrey Kenton

let me tell you something about honesty. Nothing philosophical, nothing religious, but practical:

It is about being honest to yourself, to your own way.

If you identify something in the world around you that might be of help to you and you feel good with it then take it. If you do not feel good with it then leave it and do it your own way. This is real simple. If you saw the whole world cheating around you and you don''t feel good with it then do not look left or right'! Do not compare your way to the way of the others! This is very essential! Never compare! Honesty might bring material disadvantages with it but not necessarily. The example I have before my eyes is my boss. He was one of the German top managers and I was real lucky to be his secretary in the past 5 years. He was an honest man through and through, he had an outstanding career in our company over the past 35 years and last Friday he retired and he got lots of good-bye emails of which I read some. It is unbelievable how he was seen as an example to others, how much respect all those people paid him. He was the one in our company in several years who retired on his own terms, he was forced to nothing.

It is a deep and very real experience to me that people who go their own way in honesty to themselves and to others are guided by some invisible hand. This is nothing religious but a real experience! This way is not the bright and shining, funny and good looking way of the mass but your own which may often be dark and full of hindrances but in going this way you will become a personality people can trust. Would you ever trust somebody or pay respect to someone of whom you know how he got his degrees or whatever by cheating. What he achieved is a lie. Would you want to build your life on a lie? Besides being afraid that it will be known some day. If you see them sit together, drinking beer in a pub do you really think they can ever trust each other knowing that they are all able to cheat? Leave them alone. Let them live their lives how they want. Find people in your school or university who are honest like you. Be together with them, your own people. This gives some confidence and you are not alone. If there is no one you can turn to the way to the library is the best way you can choose. In case there are no fascinating minds alive around you be sure there are lots of the most fascinating minds who left their thoughts to us in the books.

My favourite is still Seneca and his letters to Lucilius. They are brillant for somebody in your situation. I know because I was in a similar situation but I was the one being cheated. And not only once. It helps to stay honest, go your own way despite of what happens to you and gives you confidence doing the right thing and showing this to all the others. And the strength to separate from people who are not good for you which might bring with it that you are often alone but again, not necessarily.

I wish you the strength to not looking left or right when there is nothing good for you to see.

Martina Blumenroth

There has always been dishonesty, cheating, lying, stealing, torture, maiming, and killing throughout human history. Many times it results in no punishment for the unethical; they get rich and powerful. If you doubt that, just look at world leaders and the rich today and throughout history. I assume that you've just realized that, and that you're shocked by it. I don't blame you, really... but there isn't much difference between conduct today and in the past, as far as I can tell. Human beings haven't changed much. Actually, things might be a little better... people don't usually torture others, at least physically, for public entertainment any more, as virtually all societies used to do, and there are watchdog groups, such as Amnesty International and the ACLU, now.

If cheating is successful, then you will do worse than cheaters in your grades and future jobs and money, probably. However, you will learn the subjects you study, and you will learn to behave ethically under duress. Children learn from example, and you will be setting an example. If you feel very strongly about it, start making a fuss: write letters, start a club, talk to the administration. Perhaps something will come of that, perhaps not. I'm certainly not going to give you a message of hope here... given human nature as it is shown by human history, the picture is bleak. There are a few people, here and there, who try to keep things going, intellectually, artistically, ethically. Not very many, really... most are indifferent, some are hostile. That you can reflect as you do above is a good sign... you are able to choose your values, which most people do not do. Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown

Your letter to us is eloquent and disturbing and I am sad to read it. As you say, this is a practical problem that affects what our society turns out to be like.

The first comment I would make is that I don't think the situation is the same here in England. I studied at Uni here a few years ago (I graduated in 1995). The classes here, both at school and Uni, were certainly much smaller than your 400. At Uni, our exams were set by the lecturer who had taught the course, and often invigilated and marked by them — certainly by one of the departmental staff. They all knew who I was!! (I used to draw cartoons and write limericks about them.)

I'm sure our lecturers recognized the students who showed themselves in the department and regularly attended lectures. These students would be expected to get better grades than those who never attended. I worked hard and read a lot, but I was rewarded with a 1st. I don't think the people who used to come up to me and my friends 2 weeks before the exams and ask "What books are we studying?" did so well — although I don't think they failed, either... My only experience of cheating was when another student borrowed one of my essays 'to help him understand', and I had some difficulty getting it back.

That said, it sounds like cheating is a common and accepted fact in the US. Do you believe the statistics produced by the surveys? Do you think, from your own experience, that those figures are accurate? In England, few students would admit to cheating, even if they were doing it! Here, there is a great suspicion about the results of surveys, the accuracy of which depends on many things, including the sample size, the truthfulness of those conducting the survey and of those questioned, and the statistical analysis applied, which are often not disclosed when the survey's results are quoted.

If everyone knows about this cheating, doesn't anyone else besides you want to stop it? Do you think there's anything you could do about it? Would it be possible for you to expose people you know to be cheating? What about if a group of people formed an association or campaign against cheating? Don't your schools and Uni's want to do something about it? Is there any group you can join that works to reduce cheating? Is there any action that can be taken against those who take exams for others, or who supply essays and papers to cheats? If no-one would agree to do this, it would be much harder to cheat. These people are as much to blame for the continuance of cheating as those who pay them.

Looking at this issue from a different angle, do you really believe that cheats have the happiest lives? Would what they have make you happy? Cheats only benefit if, as you suggest, having lots of money and status are the things most to be desired in life. Are they what you most want? Our society seems to tell us that they are indeed important. Do you agree? Do you think these things are what is really valuable in life? Because I don't. But I often find it hard to remember they're not. Rich and famous people are admired, they seem to have it all.

By the way, I was interested in your comment that "...there are not very many fascinating minds to connect with." I don't think this is anything to do with cheating — there just aren't many fascinating minds, not anywhere! Statistically speaking, the majority of people are of average intelligence, and even the clever ones aren't all interesting! Like you, I wish I could meet more people I would enjoy talking to, and perhaps become friends with. But as there are not that many of them, the chances of meeting one are relatively small. I hope Pathways to Philosophy is one place where 'fascinating minds' can meet!

Katharine Hunt

There seems to be a lot of frustration in your "question". The kind of cheating you notice is inherent in a capitalist system. That indicates that not the cheaters are wrong, but possibly the system. Anyway bought knowledge helps to get titles, but not to solve problems. So it's a matter of your goals: do you want a title, or do you want to solve problems? If you want only a title, than the present system can be frustrating. However if you yourself want to attack problems, than own knowledge is inevitable.

Henk Tuten

Why do you wonder especially about Bush? Because he talks funny, and comes from Texas? As for me, I wonder how so foolish a man as Clinton got where he did.

Ken Stern


Hal asked:

I just happened upon your website and found myself enraptured by your virtual smorgasbord of ideas! A question: "Are philosophical problems, problems of linguistic clarity and interpretation, or real problems that transcend language itself, or are they an amalgamation of both linguistic and evidential difficulties?"

Hal also asked:

What constitutes a paradox and if they do exist, then why do they exist? From my perspective there seems to be a number of different kinds of paradoxes: apparent paradoxes (paradoxes which appear to be, but after deeper reflection aren't), real paradoxes (paradoxes which stand unresolved after prolonged scrutiny) and unrealized paradoxes (ones which exist but are not readily apparent). I have read many explanations for the existence of paradoxes through the years:

1) the limitation of human comprehension
2) the imposition of flawed assumptions
3) the introduction of sin into creation
4) an irreducible fact of existence
5) a problem of frame of reference
6) the cognitive dissonance of order and chaos.

1) Thanks. In answer to your question: yes. I could stop there, haha... all of those types of problems are philosophical problems, or can be. You have touched on one of the most ghastly areas of philosophy... the whole question of whether there are philosophical problems that can be addressed as more than linguistic. I'm just not going to go on about this one... it's too big. Take a look at the recent and excellent book: Wittgenstein's Poker, for an introduction to this issue, and how Wittgenstein and Popper almost came to blows (as the legend goes) over it.

2) First, here's one of many sites on paradoxes: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/3022/. Now, how about these:

a) the statement below is false.
b) the statement above is true.

Think about it. There are paradoxes which arise, inevitably, from the limitations of expressions within "orders" of logic, given a language which does not contain an infinite number of (or the capability of an infinite number of) meta-linguistic expressions. One can argue that natural languages do have this potentiality, and I tend to agree. Thus, we could make a natural-language meta-statement about a & b above, and that meta-statement would not be a paradox. But we could not do this within the propositional level at which the statement is formulated (at least in a formal language).

I would not say that human limitations give rise to paradox, in a formal sense of that term. You must be careful in your use of "paradox". A paradox refers to a logically self-contradictory statement or set of statements that cannot be resolved. Now of course humans hold contradictory ideas all the time... and so I guess you could say that someone who says one day that they believe in an infinitely merciful god and the next that all sinners will burn forever in hell is being paradoxical... but it's a paradox that is easily dismissible, as merely a contradiction that has not been resolved, but could be, in a religious context. Whereas the logical paradox above (a & b) cannot be resolved within its context.

Flawed assumptions: a trivial case of paradox. "Sin"? I can use the term, as in the above... but I don't really feel that I understand it, not being a theist. It seems to have something to do with obeying "laws" or commands that cannot be questioned... but as a philosopher, I hold that there are no such laws or commands. A fact of existence? Um... what's "existence"? Again I don't understand your terms. "Frame of reference" is usually a phrase in physics, or in cultural anthropology, or psychology. The first leads, if at all, to logical paradoxes, the second and third, to the kind of "human" paradoxes I mention above. Now you've completely left me behind. As you employ those terms, they are, as far as I can tell, meaningless. "Order" and "chaos" are extremely vague and/or complex terms, with multiple meanings in a huge variety of arenas. "Cognitive dissonance" is a technical phrase (originated by Festinger) in cognitive psychology which does involve paradox, again in the human sense above, where someone holds contradictory ideas. Here's a site on that: http://www.dmu.ac.uk/~jamesa/learning/dissonance.htm. But it's not related to order and/or chaos in anything but vague ways.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jacques asked:

Standing up at a soccer match

I'm a 16 year-old football supporter and have noticed that in all seater grounds when someone in a row in front of you stands up, out of excitement or anger, you have either to tell them to sit down, risking an argument or stand up yourself. Those behind you have to stand up etc. It seems to me this model of behaviour is common in societies. Does it have a name? Is there anywhere I could read a discussion of its philosophical implications?

Yes, this kind of behaviour does have a name, it's called being inconsiderate.

People are being inconsiderate if they stand up and block your view at football matches. They are failing to think about how their behaviour is affecting you. (If, as you say, they stand up out of excitement or anger, and not deliberately to annoy you, they are not really being selfish. To me, that would imply they had thought about you, but decided to put themselves first instead.)

People being inconsiderate is indeed a very common behaviour. In order to stop this kind of behaviour from spreading, you have to decide to be considerate yourself, even if other people are inconsiderate to you. In the case of the football match, this would mean that you should stay sitting down to avoid blocking the view of the person behind you — even if your own view has been blocked by someone standing up in front. If you stand up as well, as you observe, soon a large number of people will be on their feet.

It is interesting that, in your question,you didn't consider this to be an option available to you. You said that "...you either have to tell them to sit down, risking an argument, or stand up yourself." You then continue; "Those behind you have to stand up..." — am I right to assume you don't actually regard telling the person to sit down as a possible option either? Why do they argue when asked politely to sit down? (I trust you would ask them politely?) Should there be people at matches to enforce sitting in all-seater grounds, and eject anyone who will not sit? I don't go to football matches myself so I'm not sure how big a problem this is.

If you wanted to explore the philosophical implications of this you would need to look at theories dealing with selfishness and altruism. Ethics might have something to say about it; but then so might behavioural psychology. I don't know any specific sources, maybe someone else can suggest something?

Katharine Hunt


Shelly asked:

What is your theory on the relationship between the disabled and god? And if god created the disabled, what did he expect them to do, and why did he choose the families he did to care for them? Do the disabled and their families or carers share a special bond with god in which we don't?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition transmits various insights which could indicate that the suffering creatures seem to be close to divine milieu (Job, the Suffering Servant, etc). For the Christian religious thought this closeness is highlighted by what is known as the Passion and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (who, according to mainstream Christianity, has two natures, one human and one divine).

Neither the religious thought nor the philosophers who accept the hypothesis of God could answer your questions. They could only agree that the suffering people and theirs families or carers seem to share, as you put it, a special bond with God.

However, as everyone has the possibility to care for disabled or other people who need care, one could suppose that everyone could share the relationship you are describing.

Jean Nakos


Victor asked:

I didn't understand your answer to Joan: Does Husserl succeed in refuting psychologism?

You say that the saying: 'You can't have your cake and eat it' is equivalent to the logical law of non-contradiction:

It is not the case that (P and not-P)

Surely if I have a cake the opposite is not not-eating it, but not-having the cake. Equally, I can eat or not-eat a cake. But to say that 'I can't have my cake and eat it' is like comparing apples with oranges?

Or am I missing something, or should I be taking your philosophy course?

I was careful to say that 'You can't have your cake and eat it' is a consequence of the law of non-contradiction. In saying that, I was aware that 'I have my sacher torte' and 'I eat my sacher torte' do not exhaust the logical possibilities. They are, however, inconsistent statements, and 'inconsistent statements cannot both be true' follows from the law of non-contradiction.

As you correctly point out, however, the statements in question can both be false. To use the technical term from Aristotelian logic, they are 'contraries', rather than 'contradictories'.

The fact that you spotted this is evidence that you would make an excellent student on one of the Pathways programs. May I recommend the The Philosophy of Language?

Geoffrey Klempner


Pang asked:

Forgive this question from a dummy but this dummy believes some guidance from an expert is far better than none. I'm in the process of looking for a thesis title for my PhD. Could you give me some suggestions? A thinker in the frontiers of a subject should know what should be looked into!

It would help if I knew what your thesis was about, or even in what area it was in. Don't you think?

Ken Stern

This is one of the oddest questions... I assume you mean PhD in Philosophy? You've gone through undergrad and grad school and still have no idea of what you're interested in?? Well, in order to do philosophy, you have to be interested in philosophical topics and questions, think and write about them. If at this point you can't think of anything you want to write about, my very strong and sincere advice would be to go into another field. Some field where you make money, which is not philosophy. Because if you can't think of an idea now, how are you going to turn out 1—2 papers/year as a professional philosopher? I'll tell you what, do your dissertation on the very uncertainty you're experiencing... there's plenty of stuff written about that in the French literature.

Steven Ravett Brown

Pang is not expressing a personal difficulty (if he were, that would be sad) but issuing a challenge: Which thesis titles (in your opinion) might best express the frontiers of philosophical inquiry at the present time? Where has philosophy got to in 2003? What is the burning philosophical question of the day?

It is a question that an academic philosopher would relish. Speaking for myself, however, I care less for the 'state of the art' than I do for my own personal journey in philosophy. Today's burning question is tomorrow's outmoded fashion. So Pang's question does not grip me. Chacun à son gout.

Geoffrey Klempner


Muhammad asked:

Why is philosophy worth studying?

Often philosophy is called useless (see my article The Inevitability of Philosophy). I have a simple view. Philosophising is a trait that developed during evolution. The alternative is following tradition. But sometimes it's not a grateful job. That is when you have a really good alternative view, and don't get it accepted during your lifetime. Then you experience that freedom of speech is only relative, and not much use when nobody listens. Try to get your satisfaction from HAVING new ideas. And learn to look at yourself and others with humour. If you succeed in doing this then philosophy can be great fun. It is the triumph of having 'Aha'-experiences now and then. And it's wonderment about all happenings instead of getting annoyed by a lot of them.

Mind that in present late Postmodern philosophy there are many views only worth a good laugh. Physicians and mathematicians are right to notice that it looks like chaos. But you don't need to believe such only fashionable thinkers, you are free to even skip reading them.

Still most philosophy is valuable and most people practicing it do a good job. But in general Western formal philosophy needs to adapt its attitude, and get more 'down to earth'.

Henk Tuten


Colette asked:

I'm doing two exam assignments. The first question is "Doctors know best" Discuss the epistemological claims inherent in this claim. I have a couple of ideas, but would appreciate some guidance on what you think I should be mainly focusing on. The second question is, "Doing good for the patients is more important than respecting autonomy" Discuss. Any ideas?

You will probably need an introductory book on epistemology and then you can consider the distinctions drawn in relation to the proposition about doctors.

There are three terms here. Firstly, consider doctors. They only know more about health matters. What is it that they "know?" How does medical knowledge differ from mathematical knowledge, or the knowledge of physics? Is medicine less lawlike than mathematics? Medical knowledge is learnt from experience, but can we come to know rules of mathematics, not by being shown but through guidance (see Plato's Meno). Find out about the difference between a prior and a posteriori knowledge.

Then there is the type of knowledge. Doctors look at symptoms and are extremely prone to error. The general practitioner is especially prone because he is dealing with symptoms. The surgeon is dealing with what is physically perceived to be impaired and doesn't just possess knowledge of how the body should work but has a practical skill. The former simply has an understanding of the relationship between symptoms and named diseases and at best he might be said to have beliefs because of the possibility of error, whereas the surgeon has knowledge if knowing how and knowledge from perception constitutes knowledge.

However, there is a difference between knowing how and knowing that. The former isn't essentially connected to truth and so the question arises whether this is in fact knowledge. There is also a difference between knowledge gained from perception and inferred knowledge as that based on symptoms.

Then there is the question of whether you can know "best" rather than more. "Best" is evaluative rather than epistemological because we either recognise others as having authority, or allow them to adopt such a position. Yet there is a sense of "best" which implies that given equivalent knowledge, one person is more intelligent and in that sense he might know best in his use of the knowledge.

For the second assignment you are looking at ethics and you could consider Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. According to Kant a person should be treated with respect under all conditions and should never be lied to. The contrary view is utilitarian. This is the position that the main consideration is consequential and if it is for the maximum good (though it is slightly more complex that this), you would be allowed to operate, for instance, against a patient's wishes. You should be able to find a large amount on utilitarianism on the internet.

Rachel Browne


Nourieh asked:

I'm doing an independent study on the mind and my incisive question is, "What is the mind", so I was just wondering if you would be able to give me some info as well as some book reference that I can use.

You might not agree with it, but a very famous and influential book is:

The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

Ken Stern

This is a massive subject so I suggest you start with Paul M Churchland's book Matter and Consciousness, which is a short guide with further suggested readings.

Rachel Browne


Crystal asked:

Is the issue of Abortion actually intractable?

Is there a way to prove an ethical certainty through logical reasoning without appeal to religious sources?

Not according to the various groups who claim that a) abortion is killing a child, or b) that women should have choice in this matter... etc. They don't consider the issue intractable at all, do they. So why should we, looking at the various people with their certainties? Because we are unconvinced by their arguments... but does that mean that they are a) wrong, or b) that there are no other arguments or c) that there are no other possible positions? In other words, just because we don't think the issue easy or settled, why are we correct in that viewpoint?

So the issue is not whether the issue of abortion is intractable, but how, as you state below, do we decide between different positions. How indeed. I could give you my point of view, but what would that mean? But look at it this way. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that morality can be "naturalized" in some manner, i.e., that the "oughts" and the "is's" can be reconciled. Now, even given that this is true, where does this leave us on any particular issue? Still using inference, right? In other words, if morality could have a basis in fact, then we would be in the position of scientists doing investigations to support various moral facts, and we would still have no certainty, any more than any empirically-based study does not provide certainty, but only degrees of evidence. The only way you're going to get certainty is by making some sort of assumption and following it out logically... then everything is fine as long as your assumption is good... but what guarantees that?

So I think that the best we're going to do, in the best of situations, morally, is good evidence that some course of action is morally correct. I do not think certainty is possible.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jessica asked:

I have a grade 12 Philosophy essay to write and I decided to chose the topic "The notion of Love". I'm looking at it from the aspect of fate and love at first sight. An example what I'm talking about would be like the movie, "Serendipity". Please try and help me out here I'm having a have time finding resources for this topic but ever since I saw that movie I've wanted to try and find out answers. I figured this would be the best opportunity.

There are 2 things I like about your question: 1, that a movie you've watched has made you think; and 2, that the subject you've chosen to think about is love. You've helped yourself greatly with your essay by choosing a topic you're genuinely interested in.

Love is a subject that is rarely tackled by philosophers, because it is so difficult to be sure other people have understood exactly what we mean when we talk about our feelings. But I think love is extremely important, and therefore we shouldn't be afraid to discuss it, even if this is difficult.

I've never seen the movie you mention, but we've all heard stories about love at first sight. 2 people walk into a room, and as soon as they set eyes on each other they just know that is the person they will marry and love forever. And so it goes on to happen.

Maybe this really does happen occasionally — instant attraction leads to an enduring relationship. But I wonder if people conveniently forget all the times when they felt sure they were going to love someone they'd just met, only to be deeply disappointed when they got to know them! Isn't that one reason why many relationships break up?

Do people even remember how they felt when they first met, or are they perhaps imagining things? It's easy to say you fell in love at first sight after the relationship has proved to be a lasting one. Did any of the people who claim to have felt love at first sight keep a diary, and write down at the time what they felt when they first met their loved one? I wonder...

In fact, I don't believe that love at first sight is possible, although attraction at first sight obviously is. I think that for a relationship to last, it is extremely important for you to love the other person's character and personality. At first sight, you simply do not know what a person is like, and in that case I fail to see how you can love them.

This leads me to remind you that our word 'love' can cause problems, as it can be used to describe a huge range of different emotions, for example:

romantic love
sexual love
love of a parent, child, sibling
'love thine enemy'
love of God
love of country
love of humankind
strong liking for certain foods, TV programmes, clothes etc.
love of nature
love of a pet

I don't think anyone would be particularly confused when you talk about 'love at first sight' — we usually understand this as romantic love that proves long-lasting — but you might find it interesting to consider how this kind of love differs from other kinds. I would particularly suggest you think about how love at first sight makes people feel (in the body), and what does it make them want to do (kiss the loved person? get to know them? marry them?) Have you ever experienced this kind of love yourself, or do you know anyone who has, who could describe it to you?

Katharine Hunt


Mystified asked:

Confucianism in the past have had immense impact on not just the religious but also in issues such as politics. What elements does Confucianism possess that allows it to impact on its followers and the wider community?

Religions always had, as you put it, an "immense impact on not just the religious but also in issues such as politics".Which great religion had not an immense impact on politics and on every day life issues. Christianity had in the past such an impact. Still today in various countries Christians influence political life through Christian lobbies or political parties. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU — today the second political party) had been for years the first and ruling party of that country. All religions seem to have similar, and sometimes stronger, influence. Imagine the influence that religion has today in some Islamic countries.

Confucianism is generally considered in the West as a religion. However,it seems to be firstly a traditional philosophy — some would say a tradition.

The Confucian Canon (comprising the Five Classics and the Four Books — not all actually written by Confucius (551-479 BC) himself) has many elements which allow to influence the ruling of a country. For instance, the "Ch un Ch' iu" (Spring and Autumn Annals — said to have been compiled by Confucius himself) are extracts from the history of the state of Lu (the Chinese state — now Shantung Province — of which Confucius it is said to have been the prime minister) from 722 to 484 BC, accompanied by commentaries (dated from before 200 BC).

The characteristic of Confucianism is that it records precise rules of conduct, regulating social relations. Thus it is not surprising that it had a great impact on the Chinese society.

Jean Nakos


Anne asked:

I am trying to understand how Locke could refuted innate ideas. I know he said that if babies don't have them, then they could not exist. But this is just the simple doctrine of innate ideas. The sophisticated doctrine says that babies don't need to have them because there is something which triggers innate ideas later on. How does he refute this? It seems to me that saying babies don't have them isn't enough.

I tend to agree with you. A lot depends on what you think the theory of innate ideas, and innate knowledge is. After all, it is clear that a person has the ability to play chess even if he does not know how to play in a way that a dog does not have the ability to play chess. The person has an unstructured ability or capacity, but the dog does not even have this. You might be interested in having a look at Steven Pinker's new book, "The Blank Slate" which talk about this matter in detail.

Ken Stern


Arthur asked:

David hume remarked that if we give an explanation for any natural phenomenon, we'll still need an explanation for the explanation itself, and there is one of two possibilities, endless (infinite) number. of explanations, or a last explanation (unexplainable explanation!).

Here's an example:

1. Water boils if put on fire.

2. Explanation: fire gives water energy, and this energy makes the molecules go far from each other till the water boils.

3. How does energy go to the water from the fire? and how does it increase the kinetic energy of the molecules?

4. When you answer, I'll ask 'how' and so on...

Well there can't be infinite number of explanations, because this will mean than an infinite number of actions happened after the water was put on fire till it boiled, and this would require an infinite time. So we are left with a last unexplainable explanation, can it exist? how?

Well there can't be infinite number of explanations, because this will mean than an infinite number of actions happened after the water was put on fire till it boiled, and this would require an infinite time. So we are left with a last unexplainable explanation, can it exist? how?

Wait. What if Hume was wrong? What if we come to an explanation which is intuitively obvious, so clear that we just can't help but understand it? That's one possibility, one which Husserl (in a sense) wanted. Second, why do explanations correspond to events? If we "explain" an event, just what are we doing? Does an explanation imply that we must invoke another, different event? What if we are just reformulating, or understanding that first event in a different way through our explanations? Third, let's say that we would require an infinite number of explanations, all of which correspond to events. Why would those events take an infinite time? What if some of them were of infinitesimal duration, or simultaneous? Fourth, let us say that we are left with a "last" event which we cannot explain. Ok, so what? We cannot explain it... and... what? So maybe after we study it for a while we will be able to explain it... or maybe not. What does that have to do with its "existence", whatever that means? Why does explanation have anything to do with existence?

These are just some of the issues and questions that might be raised here. I'm sure that you could find more at this point. My point is that before you go on and on building huge constructs from some limited set of ideas, take some time to question those ideas. The odds are that you will find alternative viewpoints.

Steven Ravett Brown


Tomomi asked:

Considering the book Cooking, Eating, Thinking by Curtin and Heldke, discuss how diet in the sense of an eating regimen (i.e., philosophical consideration of food) is related to diet in the sense of a course of life. Why should something as mundane as food be of any interest to philosophers seeking knowledge about what is true, real, and good?

Why should eating not be of philosophical interest especially as the concepts of true, real and good apply to food. There are truths about what is good for us and this is part of reality. One might say that the further away from nature we go in our eating habits and the further away from what is real and natural, the further we get from the good, or what we ought to eat given that we are members of the natural animal world. As members of the natural world of animals most of whom to my knowledge are carnivores, it appears natural that man should kill animals and eat their dead flesh. But the philosopher has to consider man's whole nature. Man differs from other animals by being highly creative and inventive with an inclination towards technology, and given that he has the ability to produce a sufficiently nutritious diet which no longer needs to include dead animal flesh, the question arises what is natural, real or good here.

The other way in which to consider the real or the good is whether eating is just a matter of consuming what tastes good rather what is good (i.e. either by virtue of man's animal nature or his creative nature). In the first sense, eating panders to the subjective appetite without regard to nutritional value or what is right for man. If you think this is all there is to eating then it is mundane, for sure.

Of course, not all philosophers find eating of philosophical interest. It is a matter of personal interest and philosophical taste. But the interest doesn't stem from current social obsession with eating regimes because the Ancient Greeks also argued whether or not man should eat meat. I recall Aristotle saying "man should eat dry food" and although I can't remember why it is clear that he was considering what man "should" do, or what is right or good for him.

Rachel Browne


Andrew asked:

The following question has created much debate in my philosophy class. I was hoping you might be able to help me convince them one way or the other. "Were the actions of Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor Just? Give two opposite arguments."

Robin Hood was a crucial person in Anglo-Saxon history. In the middle ages many young sons of powerful families went fighting in "the Crusades". That resulted in an enormous power vacuum by the time their fathers got old. This chance was readily taken by all kinds of people. These had in common a talent for twisting the rules, because they needed to rationalize their taking the power. The order before the Crusades disappeared. Robin Hood became a myth as one of the people, who returned after the Crusades and tried to restore the former order. So his fight was not so much a defending of rights of poor people, as well as a fight to reclaim the rights that existed before the Crusades. Those in power though accentuated the role as defender of poor people by illegal means, to distract attention to the much more dangerous side of his fight.

To answer your question this information is crucial. For those who stole power he was seen as a terrorist. In their eyes he was a criminal, who attacked power. Of course defending rights of poor people is a good course. But justice is always defined by the established power.

Argument 1: As such his methods for realizing a good course were criminal. The problem is that Robin Hood lived by the old rules, he didn't accept the power of the new leaders.

Argument 2: Fighting the establishment is in the eyes of so called 'terrorists' and their followers always just.

Henk Tuten


Corrine asked:

The study of Free Will vs. Determinism is by far the most fascinating and yet aggravating topic that I have thus far stumbled upon. I find it completely unlikely that all human action is caused by neuron firings. I have been trying to construct an argument to convey my point of view that humans do have free will and although biology does have some influence it is not responsible for all human action. If neuron firings were responsible for the complete make-up of an individual then would it not be possible to know every action an individual would commit beforehand simply based on previous experience? Do you have any thoughts regarding this issue one way or the other?

Even supposing you were right and someone could know whatever a person would do before he did it, would that imply that the person did not do those actions freely? I don't see why. I know, pretty well, that when you read this, you will not commit suicide over what I wrote. Does that mean that you did not commit suicide of your own free will? Why, I wonder, do you think that knowledge of what you will do implies that what you do is not done freely?

Ken Stern

There are not many choices, really. You might take a look at Searle's article, which is a reasonable summary: Searle, J. R. "Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain." Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, no. 10 (2000): 3-22. But a search of the references on this issue will give you only a few alternatives. The neural alternative: see Libet, B. "The Timing of Mental Events: Libet's Experimental Findings and Their Implications." Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002): 291-299. Also, Libet, B. "Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action." The Behavioral and Brain Science 8 (1985): 529-566. The latter is probably the seminal paper in this area, and has stimulated enormous controversy. Libet's follow-up is in his second paper, and it's easy to find commentaries.

Religion: you're on your own here; I'm not a theist.

Physics: there are two ways around it, as commonly conceived, here. One; quantum theory. Check out H. Stapp on this... but I don't believe what he says. The model of the collapse of the wave-function as determined by consciousness is, in my and very many others' opinions (and theory), dead, dead, dead (for early theoretical support (and there is more): Mulhauser, G. R. "On the End of a Quantum Mechanical Romance." Psyche 2, no. 19 (1995)). Two; chaos theory (e.g., Freeman, W. J. "A Proposed Name for Aperiodic Brain Activity: Stochastic Chaos." Neural Networks 13, no. 1 (2000): 11-14.). A possible way out, but not a good one, really, since chaos theory is, or can be, completely Newtonian. You get randomness here, which I don't think helps. You can get that from quantum theory also. If you want your actions to be partially random and you think that gives you free will, good luck to you; we've certainly got that, given nothing more than thermal (and chemical) noise in the nervous system.

Metaphysics: well, here it gets sticky. What you have to argue here is that conventional notions of causation are wrong when you come to the mind. Well and good... but first, physics is enormously successful, and second, what alternative are you proposing, that takes mind (nonconventionally causal, in some sense to be argued for)/brain (conventionally causal, or so it seems) interactions into account? Whoops. I was not pleased with what I found in this literature, and lots of it comes straight from various religious dogmas. I'm afraid that since my interests are not in pure metaphysics, I cannot give you anything I consider good arguments here. You might take a look at Whitehead on process, and Taylor on metaphysics.

Now, in answer to your question. No, it would not be possible, even with complete knowledge, to know every action an individual would take, but not because of free will. Neural circuits are chaotic (in the technical sense of that term), and this implies that in some cases literally an infinitesimal initial difference will result in a large resulting difference. You just can't measure, i.e., have knowledge of, infinitesimals... which means, really, that you can't, even theoretically, have complete knowledge of someone's complete makeup. And this is aside from thermal noise, quantum uncertainty, etc. But this doesn't help the metaphysical issue of free will. The best I can do here is to remind you of the similarity (let us say, for the sake of argument) between mind and a computer program. The same substrate can run an infinite number of different programs. The counterargument is that actually, the substrate is not the same, since to run a program a particular configuration must be "loaded" into (the neural equivalent of) memory, i.e., into molecular-level configurations of neural circuits, and that loading changes the physical substrate. True enough... on the other hand, running the program, through feedback, also changes the substrate, and thus you could argue that the mind "reprograms" the brain's circuitry. Yes. But the counterargument to that is that the program feeding back is itself run on the physical substrate, i.e., it is the dynamics of the physical substrate, and thus subject to the laws of physical causality. So the best you can get out of this, I think, is that we have free will inasmuch as we have feedback capabilities, but subject to physical (and of course "mental", i.e., to follow the analogy, programming) laws. Libet's argument is somewhat the same.

Steven Ravett Brown


Adam asked:

What would Marx think of the rich and famous people of today?

Marx was more interested in capital, accumulation of capital, means of production and class struggle than in rich and famous people.

Since the means of production are today (as well as in Marx's epoch) owned by private enterprise and since there is still no classless society, one could suppose that Marx would not change his views and opinions.

Jean Nakos

The short answer — Not a lot.

Marx believed strongly in human freedom; his problem was to somehow produce a political system based on collective freedom and at the same time retaining that precious individual freedom. Within such a system a fair means of controlling production had to be found. This obviously had to be achieved without allowing the development of a class structure. The simple concept is "rule of the people by the people," a class-less society requiring legislation to prevent the separation and elevation of a ruling class founded on wealth and privilege.

The big enemies were aristocracy and capitalism, in both their social and political concepts: he found the systems repugnant. Here were systems in which the rich and the privileged made all the laws, unassailable laws which gave protection to themselves and perpetuated the system. At the time of Marx, the early and middle nineteenth century, the gap between rich and poor in western society was enormous; there was no hiding the fact that the rich looked down on the poor, oppressed them, exploited them and generally treated them with disrespect and disdain. The courts came down heavily on the poor and leniently on the rich.

What differences would Marx see today? He would note that the gap between rich and poor had probably increased, despite the fact that the working classis marginally better off. He would see that the means of production is firmly in the hands of the rich: that the tentacles of capitalism now stretch across the world, with some multinationals so rich that governments have little or no power over them, they have now proved beyond a shadow of doubt that money means power. They can now freely desecrate and pollute the planet in pursuit of profit and within the capitalist laws which protect them.

Marx would also find that his system, designed to put an end to capitalism and privilege, not only never got off the ground but had been misrepresented by dictatorships and police states, thus playing right into the hands of capitalists, enabling them to point to murderous and oppressive regimes as socialist/ communist threats to the world.

Seeing that Marx had very little regard for the rich and famous of his day, he would be very unlikely to approve of what he would see today. The rich are still being put on pedestals and decorated for making themselves lots of money. As for the famous, he would again be made aware of the influence of wealth in creating so-called famous people. He would find himself in a very artificial world confronted by so-called 'stars,' 'celebrities,' 'millionaire footballers,' ' TV newsreaders,' 'TV presenters,' and so on. He would now find that we had the famous rich and the rich famous. But he would be able to rub his hands and say, "I told you so!!"

John Brandon


Eric asked:

Imagine tomorrow evidence that proves God does not exist is broadcast around the world, and surprisingly, is accepted as truth by everyone. How would that affect societal relations?

What a fascinating question. I have no idea what the answer is. But you might like to read a novel called A Corner of the Veil by Laurence Cosse which begins with discovery of an absolutely knock-down proof of the existence of God, and how this proof affects the world.

Ken Stern

Who can say? An easy guess is that it would affect less the Western secularized societies than the traditional ones. But who can say?

Jean Nakos


Uzma asked:

Question: Smellman says: "I have more than 999 music CD's."

Mushquist replies: "No, Smellman, you have fewer than 1000 music CD's."

Crudler says: "Smellman has at least one music CD."

Only one of them is correct.

1. Who is correct?

2. How many music CD's does Smellman have?

All right... if you have fewer than 1000 (or any other positive number), then you could have 0. If you have more than 999 (or any other positive number) then you have at least 1.

So given Crudler is correct, then so is Smellman (and vice versa). So if you want only one of the above to be correct in such a way that it excludes the others, then it must be Mushquist, because then Smellman is certainly wrong, and Crudler could be wrong. Or you could just say that Smellman has 0 CDs, so Mushquist is correct. Blah, blah, blah.

Ok? Now, what's the point? Why have I answered this, except to amuse myself?

Steven Ravett Brown

This is not a philosophical problem but a simple logic puzzle. To solve the puzzle, (and puzzles like it) you simply go through all the alternatives until you find one that fits.

I'm glad to say that Steven gave the right answer. The answer is:

1. Mushquist is correct.
2. Smellman has no music CD's

Geoffrey Klempner


Mick asked:

Are there any schools of thought/ opinions in regard to soul separation or splitting associated with the holographic model of existence? If we consider the possibility of our soul/ Essence/ energy having the capability to produce constructs in relation to our physical bodies and surroundings, then is it possible that our Essence or souls are split dimensionally so that our core is cosmically aware and linked to our core in our natural place or plane of existence? I have a very hard time expressing this notion, but it somehow makes sense that if we are here attempting to learn to align our constructed personalities with our souls (in an effort to learn and evolve), then there is a possibility that our consciousness (in our Home dimension/ plane) is also working and co-ordinating path choices and directions for our Self that is in the physical world.

I'm not quite sure that I understand you completely. But I think you presume 'our essence' being capable of constructing (or changing) a multitude of energy fields that make up our soul. That way our soul could be split up in different paths. That's an interesting thought, and it even is not unimaginable. In my view 'our soul' is built by our thoughts and by our experiences. This combination makes a unique being. Possibly both thoughts and experiences can be translated in energy fields. Now comes your learning process of such constructed personalities. There is no proof yet that our consciousness by using these fields can actively influence our doings. I'm sure that experiences and former thoughts passively influence our decisions. But in paranormal happenings persons seem to be able of directing energy fields. That could be a matter of talent, but a learning process as well. Then by using the energy fields produced by either thoughts or experiences, our consciousness could partly steer our choices. This would be interesting if in this way we could direct more actively our path to the future. As a thought experiment there are no objections. But now the proof or disproof. You know how difficult it is to distinguish paranormal talents from tricks. To prove your theory one has to detect physically these energy fields making up 'the soul'. Then one must show the connection between experiences or thoughts and such fields. And last but not least one must show the way in which our consciousness can make use of the existing fields.

I don't know any schools of thought that thinks this way. But if you're really convinced of your theory, then try to find out which study can help you most in proving it. Famous thinkers in history just followed their convictions.

Henk Tuten


Adam asked:

I'm lost as to which of Plato's works Socrates says "I know I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing". This is a famous quote of Socrates that I've scene translated into various forms, but I've yet to come across the piece of work it was pulled out of.

I do not believe that Socrates ever said what you say he said. You may be thinking of what Socrates relates in Plato's dialogue The Apology where Socrates tells us that when he heard he had been called the wisest man in Greece by the Delphic Oracle he was puzzled since he believed he knew nothing. But after having questioned many people he came to the conclusion that the Oracle was right, but just in the sense that others thought they knew things when they did not, but at least he, Socrates knew this one thing, namely that he knew nothing. The others did not even know that much. So he was wiser than those who believed they knew, but did not.

Ken Stern


Sebnem asked:

Do the views expressed in Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions represent scientific realism or anti scientific realism according to Karl Popper's philosophy?

There's a very good book out that I'm recommending to people right now: Wittgenstein's Poker. It's about Wittgenstein and Popper and their origins, etc., and will give you an excellent introduction to their ideas. Now, I'm not sure what you mean by "anti-scientific realism". The cultural relativism which is anti-scientific, usually, is not what I'd term "realism", which usually has as a basis some sort of idea that there is an independent world out there that we can meaningfully interact with. I don't know how you can be anti-scientific about such a world. Relativism's world is not an independent one. Kuhn as I recall considered himself a realist, not a relativist. His book is another matter, and it is easily interpreted to read that our knowledge of the world is purely relative. I do not think, from what I recall of Kuhn, that he intended this. Be that as it may, Popper was much more hard-headed than Kuhn, and would probably have violently disagreed with him, and indeed thought him anti-scientific. You will find, when you read about Popper (please, read WP!) that his rebellion against the Vienna Circle, although profound in one sense, did not take him near to Kuhn's hypothesis about paradigm change. I also recommend to everyone Kitcher's book: The Advancement of Science. He was Kuhn's student, and in my opinion makes much more sense. Popper would have problems with him also, but Kitcher, whatever else he is, is a pro-scientific realist.

Steven Ravett Brown


Karl asked:

I'm not sure if this is a philosophical question, but since I'm looking for wisdom in making a sound decision, I figure this is as good an option to consider as any. My question: I'm unemployed, but I am a full-time undergraduate student. My wife works full-time and pays all the bills. I have a year and a half to complete the requirements for a degree. I intend become a certified teacher. Our finances are so strained that my wife's family has urged her to persuade me to leave school and get a job. What would be the wise thing to do?

To what extent are you married to your wife's family? I assume your wife agreed to you starting college in the first place. If giving up your studies will cause regret and resentment you mustn't do so, but it is difficult to see why you can't switch to studying part-time which will allow you to earn some money. It's called compromise.

Rachel Browne

Get your degree... GET your degree... GET YOUR DEGREE!! Do NOT stop now. Speaking as someone who dropped out of a program just before getting a degree and had to postpone doing what I wanted to do for over a decade because of it, KEEP GOING. FINISH. If you absolutely have to work, do what many do, and indeed I did when I returned: work part-time and STAY IN SCHOOL. There are many people who do this. There are very few jobs or employers who care how much education you have and in what field if you do not have the official certification, the stupid piece of paper, saying you have it. I don't know about "wise", but I DO know about finishing what you started, about realizing your goals... since I was one who did not (and am finally doing it now). If teaching is what you truly love, and you give it up now you will always regret it. Yes, you are living a hard life now; yes, your wife is living a hard life now (and I hope you will support her similarly when you are finished)... but you knew what you would have to go through, and I'm sure that your wife when she married you knew also. As long as there was free agreement about this course, it is, in my opinion, a moral one, even though a hard one.

Steven Ravett Brown

My advice is ignore the pressure from your wife's family and carry on and finish your degree. You must do that. However, it might aid your case if you could find some part-time work to help with the finances.

Geoffrey Klempner


John asked:

We are often told in introductory philosophy textbooks that we can be absolutely certain of the truth of mathematical propositions For example we can be absolutely certain that 3 + 4 = 7.

My question is whether the certainty referred to is just a psychological contingency that arises because the proposition is so easy to understand and is so familiar to us.

If it more than this — for example something to do with the nature of mathematical propositions themselves being tautologies how should the following example be explained?

Consider a sum in simple arithmetic that consists of 500 numbers each 10 digits long (e.g. 7453895823). How can we ever be certain what they add up to? It would seem certain that the 500 numbers actually do have definite total but, again, the question is how can we ever know with any certainty that we have added them up correctly and therefore have the right answer to be certain about?

In practice the overwhelming likelihood is that a mistake will be made. Obviously if you're just using a pencil and paper!! — but also if your using a calculator (slips of the finger, misreading of digits or their order, etc).

I think there is a sense in which we can never be sure getting such sums right and therefore cannot be sure of the results of even simple arithmetic. What I'm not sure about is whether this lack of certainty has any significance such as showing that arithmetic is just like any other empirical science and it is a matter of experiment (i.e. doing the sum again and again and checking with other people's results) to see whether we have got it right?

I might add that this is not just an academic question but has real-life consequences for people like me who are accountants and are required to devise methods of testing (i.e. auditing) whether sometimes many hundreds of long numbers have been added up correctly (just think, you only need to be dealing with hundreds of thousands of pounds to have 8 digit numbers if the pence are included — e.g. £999,999.99p and the clerks that work in accounts departments often have to add up pages and pages of such figures!).

That's an interesting distinction, between the actual adding of a number and the theory. First, no, the addition of, say, 3+4 or any other sum (or product, or whatever) is not contingent. It is dependent on the nature or definitions of number and on the operators employed in the ring or set constrained, say, by the operation of addition. And that set can be extended to other operations as well.

Now on the other hand, is actual addition contingent? I'd say both yes and no, for a couple of reasons. First, you could break any complex operation down into simpler ones, and do them separately. Thus, you can be certain about additions, say, as they extend to higher powers of ten, because of the nature of the symbolism we use. That is, we can take 10+7 and know it's 17, right? A simple operation which we do not need to verify by counting, because we have defined the symbolism in such a way that it must be true. Thus, we put the "1" of the "10" into the second column, and the "0" into the first, since we're using base 10 numbers. And so adding 7 to it is transparent... we just put it in the column next to the 1. Then we can simply read what 10+7 is because of our notation. Thus in this sense addition is not contingent. We can, if we want to, verify any sum, but not by the methods we employ to (routinely) add that sum, but by inspecting the processes we engage in to arrive at that sum, and merely matching, process by process, to see if the processes are identical. Thus, 1000+874 is also 1000 with an "8" put into the next (hundreds) column, etc. We can do this because these processes are Markovian, i.e., not history-dependent.

But we don't add this way, and the second sense of contingent then is the one involving, as you say, the practicality of adding many numbers at high speed. Now here I'd agree; mistakes are inevitable, and adding in this sense is contingent. But that's why we have computers, right? Think of how the log tables were originally calculated, for example... yes, by hand. That's why, by the way, in statistics, we use a significance level of.01... because that's the accuracy they could be practically calculated to when statistics began. And we've enshrined that value, for no good reason, since.

So as electronic media become more ubiquitous, the likelihood of mistakes should decrease... and hopefully people will not have to read and enter numbers by hand, error correcting will be highly redundant, etc... but of course these will never eliminate this kind of error. Practical addition will always be contingent.

Now, there is yet another sense in which addition and all mathematics may be contingent. But that is a much deeper sense than you are asking, viz., is number dependent on human perception and cognition? One can argue that the nature of the way we structure the world gives rise to our abstracting number from our tendency to group and isolate objects (which one could argue is merely a human set of processes imposed on objectivity), then count them, and so forth. I actually think that this is the case, and that it is probably possible to perceive and manipulate the world without human types of differentiation. But that's another, long, discussion.

Steven Ravett Brown

Well, that we are certain of 3+7 is a psychological contingency in that it is an easy sum. It is possible that we could have brains that could be certain when we performed much more complicated calculations. However, we have not got that sort of brain, but this doesn't affect the fact that there is a correct answer to mathematical calculations and it is intrinsic to maths that this is so. Mathematics is never under dispute — we know there is a correct answer, even if there can be error on our part. The error is human and correction of error is to check again, using normal human means, although artificial intelligence isn't subject to the same sort of error as humans and with a human checking AI is functioning normally, there seems no reason to be concerned about auditing problems.

Mathematics is not an empirical science. It is necessarily true that 3+7 = 10 and the same is so for more complicated calculations and it is only because you know this to be the case that you can be concerned about error. We cannot conceive of any conditions which would create doubt about actual calculations. It is different with empirical science which tells us that water is H20. We can easily conceive that what we take to be water might have a different chemical constitution. But what would make it the case that 3+7 (or a bigger calculation) was false?

Rachel Browne

An excellent question. Immanuel Kant distinguished between "subjective certainty" or "I am certain that...." and "objective certainty" or "It is certain that...." As you correctly argue, arithmetic evades subjective certainty because of the ever present possibility of mistake, although as a practical matter of fact, this possibility is vanishing small when it comes to simple and short calculations.

But, given that the answer to an arithmetical calculation is true, that answer is certainly true. That is, it would be impossible for it to be otherwise. It is, in other words, a necessary truth, and people often use the expression "is certain" for a necessary truth. So your calculation is certain (given the answer is true) in the sense that the proposition that the earth is round is not certain since it is not a necessary truth and could be otherwise.

Ken Stern


Faisal asked:

In the statement, "The bigger the lie, the more the people believe in it," said by Hitler, what did he mean?

He meant just that. Literally. Let us read the following BBC report of 31 August 1939:

"There have been reports of an attack on a (German) radio station in Gleiwitz, which is just across the Polish border. The German News Agency reports that the attack came about 8.00 pm this evening when the Poles forced their way into the studio and began broadcasting a statement in Polish. Within quarter of an hour says reports, the Poles were overpowered by German police, who opened fire on them. Several of the Poles were reported killed, but the numbers are not yet known."

The next day, 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland.

In fact the Gleiwitz event was a false, a fake attack fabricated by the German Gestapo and the special operations section of the Security Service of the SS, led by the Sturmbannfuhrer (major) SS Alfred Naujocks (1911-1960). The killed "Poles" were prisoners from a concentration camp, drugged by epidemic injections and dressed posthumously with Polish uniforms. The same day Naujokcs and his men "attacked" also a German forestry station and destroyed a German customs building. Everyone in Germany believed that Poland had attacked a German boarder town. This false attack, this big lie, gave Hitler the excuse he needed in order to invade Poland.

Hitler's big lie led to World War II, the biggest war ever.

Jean Nakos


Enkeleda asked:

Please explain to me the 'infinite regress of homunculi'.

Ok. We see colors, right? But are there colors "in the world"? We feel heat and cold, we taste sweetness, and so forth. These are qualities which we create from whatever is "out there" interacting with us. Now that I've said that, I have to tell you that this is an extremely controversial position, and one which is absolutely sneered at in many circles today. And I've expressed it in four sentences, which has simplified it a teeny bit. But with that warning, let's proceed. There is, then, a visual, let us say, internalization, an internal world, of qualities, sensations: the scenes around us, that we create. Fine. However, the problem is still to explain how we see it. We sit there, looking at the "real world", constructing this one of qualities in order to see it... but then all we've done, it seems, is create another world which is made up of qualities. Ok, who then sees that "internal" world of qualities? Someone else inside our heads, looking at those qualities? But how does that little person (the homunculus) see the qualities? Well, by constructing other qualities, or whatever, using ours as its "external world", just as we construct the first set from our "external world". Whoops... you begin to see the problem? How then does the homunculus see its qualities? It needs another homunculus inside it... and on and on.

This is one approach to what is termed the "hard problem", that of explaining consciousness itself. At this point, the problem has not been resolved. Of course to say that is to say that all the people who do think that it has been resolved are wrong. But there are enough different "answers" to this question that I do not believe it is accurate to say that it has been resolved. There is the "soul" theory; there is what might be called the "internal-external continuity" theory; there is pure idealism; there is instrumentalism; there are the deniers of qualia; there are the direct-access theorists; there are the computer modelers who claim the problem is a misunderstanding... you see my point?

Steven Ravett Brown


Lol asked:

is obedience a virtue?

Obedience according to the dictionary means, "the act or practice of doing what one is toldl the state of being obedientl willingness to obey commandsl dutifulness." It would seem from this that if the answer to your question is yes, then subservience is a virtue!Itappears to me thatthe only people likely to accept this would be the indoctrinated, the poorly educated and the uneducated. However, is this extension of the term ' obedience ' too narrow? Is there a difference between a child being obedient to his/ her parents, and a slave being obedient to his/ her master? It would surely seem so on the face of it. In the first case obedience is linked to learning about life and recognising pitfalls. In the second case it is about people being placed in a humiliating situation and being forced to obey against their will. However, in both cases disobedience has always been met by punishment of one form or another. In fact, when considering obedience as a virtue we must always be aware of what it means, in most cases, to be disobedient. Disobedient employees might suffer dismissal, threat of dismissal or docked wages. Disobedient military personnel have in the past suffered some diabolical punishments, even today some acts of disobedience are likely to incur some very harsh penalties.

I do not wish to imply that there is no such condition as a willingness to obey, but how much of this may be generated by promised rewards? Consider the commandment, "Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee," Surely, if the commandment was concernedwith exposing virtue in an individual, then it would read, "Honour thyfather and thy mother." Can we associate a virtuous act with an anticipated reward? Kant says we should obey moral laws/ rules because it is right to do so, not because there is a reward for doing so, or a punishment for not doing so. However, it is obvious that there is a difference between obeying moral laws and submitting to the will of another or others.

A separate consideration more difficult to interpret is the case of the 40,000 or more British and allied troops who were mowed down by a hail of bullets and shells as they walked towards the enemy lines on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in the First World War. Was it just blind obedience? Was it a sense of patriotism? Was it a response to the threat of punishment intrinsic in every order disobeyed on the battlefield? In this case the punishment was death. An observer can find virtue in the obvious bravery shown by these men, but how many of those taking part felt a sense of virtue as they saw their comrades mown down like stems of corn in a matter of minutes?

The question seems simple, requiring a straightforward answer, in fact the answer depends on the type of obedience involved. To sum up, most forms of obedience are linked to a carrot or stick approach, hence the idea of a virtuous act is subjugated beneath the anticipation of reward or the threat of punishment. Most of us are subject to moral conviction and most can find virtue in carrying out moral law, simply because it is considered right to do so, whatever the consequences. A virtuous person pays no heed to either punishment or reward.

John Brandon


Amiso asked:

What is the major difference between religion and philosophy?

With a wink one could say the major difference is, that philosophy asks questions, while religion is answering them.

Viewed from a safe distance the most apparent difference between religion and philosophy is, that Religion is based on ritual, dogma and authority, while Philosophy rests upon critical thinking. "Most religions rely on authorities, as in the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rabbinical Councils and Courts, or the Imam. Philosophies do not. There is no Absolute Aristotlean Authority, or Supreme Scholasticism Senate", one of my colleagues once said quite bluntly. A bit more sensitive, one will realise, that philosophy knows at least authorities, that "all western philosophy was merely footnotes to Plato" as Whitehead coined. Or what about some postmodern thinkers, who claim there is no absolute truth, holding their very own claim as absolute truth! Isn't such an authoritative tenet quite what we would call a dogma for short?

From a more inside view, we could say that, though both, religion and philosophy are concerned with many of the same issues — the nature of reality, belief, right conduct, the mind,... — but they treat these issues quite differently, there are different "techniques of approach": while religion investigates by means of commitment, faith and emotional experiences, philosophy investigates by means of scepticism, criticism and objectivity. But wouldn't we end up in total skepticism without a trace of faith and wouldn't we fall for false prophets without a trace of skepticism?

For true religious people there is an essential difference: religion is linked to God Himself, the Creator, Upholder and Mover of the Universe. God's words are unlike those of philosophers not well-built arguments but revelations of eternal truth. Whereas it is out of question that humans can experience "revelations", I don't see why these revelations should be reserved for institutionalised religions: What about the great Mystics then?

To my mind all these distinctions are quite superficial and it's better to put your question in a bigger frame. While we have developed many tools for the many fields of physical research since the invention of philosophy as "mother of all sciences", it seems that religion and philosophy are left only for the provisional unexplicable rest. And while noone seriously would use neurophysiological equipment to investigate atoms, some still use telescopes to investigate God. The basic idea behind this is, that one day everything can be explained (or rather reduced) by physical sciences.

At this point the so-called Chain of Being comes into play, I will use this model to adjust the positions of religion and philosophy from my point of view. In terms of the modern view, largely influenced by the doctrine of evolution, this chain starts with inanimate matter and to consider man the last(!) link of the chain, as having evolved the widest range of useful qualities.

Why should men be the last possible or existing emergence with significance?

If Mineral can be written m,
Plant can be written m+a
Animal can be written m+a+b
Man can be written m+a+b+c,

then God can be written as m+a+b+c+d, or perhaps as m+x+y+z+a+..... z.

On these levels a,b and c are the significant ontological discontinuities or, more simply, each a jump in the Level of Being, and there are adaequate "significant" sciences for each of these levels, where none of these sciences can be reduced to another.

For example, if

m: physics, chemistry
m+a: biology
m+a+b: behaviour research
m+a+b+c: philosophy (as Wittgenstein said: philosophy is the investigation of thinking by means of thinking) and sciences of consciousness


m+a+b+c+....z, the "supermental", "supernatural", "spiritual", or "God" is the realm of true religion (it's not the simple fact that Jesus lived, but his spiritual dimension, on that religion is built). So we could conclude, if philosophy is the study beyound physical sciences, then religion is the study beyound philosophy.

Simone Klein
Virtuelle Schule Österreich
Department Philosophie & Psychologie


Federico asked:

My question is very short: Can sport be considered a form of art?

David Best argues that even if there are aesthetic sports (gymnastics), where how one performs (the beauty of the movement) is valued and acknowledged in competition, this is not enough. Aesthetic sports do not have the fundamental trait of a form of art in which the central purpose is creativity, and leaving an artifact. Cordner also does not consider sport as art because sport, unlike art, does not possess an internal end. What do you think?

I tend to agree with the critiques, in general. My view of art is that it must not merely have an end (which some sports do, i.e., when in the Olympics one tries for a record in human achievement — surely that is "internal"?), but an end which attempts to express something. Now, what do I mean by "express something"? Whoever is doing, realizing, performing art is employing that medium as a symbolism to communicate something about themselves, as well as whatever else, if anything, they are attempting to communicate. What are the alternatives here?

First, we might consider, as did Kant, that art expresses or realizes aesthetic feelings: let us say, feelings purely of pleasure in beauty. So art might be the creation of something with no other purpose than to be beautiful. But I do not agree with this. One could, for example, reproduce something already considered beautiful. Would that be creating art? Well, it wouldn't be "creating", since it would be reproduction... would it be art in any other sense? It would be the production, at least, of something purely for its beauty. But we would not consider this art, surely... merely reproduction. So it is not enough to produce beauty.

What about creating something that is purely beautiful, but expresses nothing, merely gives one, upon seeing it, the sense that there is something beautiful and the pleasure associated with that? Is that art? Suppose someone came up with a pattern that meant nothing, but was acknowledged to be a beautiful pattern; a purely abstract pattern in a rug, let us say. I think that might be considered art... but I'm not actually sure why, because the only difference between that pattern and some other original pattern which people did not consider beautiful would be that feeling, and further, why would its uniqueness, in contrast with the reproduction above, count toward its being art? However, this is a controversial point. There are many who consider mathematicians who create abstract beauty in systems which as far as anyone knows will have no real-world applications to be artists. Similarly for chess and go players, and so forth. In this respect, one could, I believe, consider sport to be art. What if the grace of a gymnast, or indeed of a basketball player, were such that their movements were considered beautiful? Then by this criterion they might be creating art. But I just don't see this as sufficient to consider something a work of art, or a process as an art.

Let us take another alternative. Suppose we considered creation essential to art, but not aesthetics. Thus, a new theory in science could, by this criterion, be considered art. Is that the case? No, I think we would deny this. One might consider a theory in science as art, but only if it met both criteria, namely, that it was new and beautiful. But even this is controversial, just as the pure mathematical idea was. We do not usually consider science to be art. Even exhibitions of "art in science" usually consist of photography or something similar, i.e., an acknowledged art form incorporating results from science. Again, this is a debatable point, but I am unconvinced that science, per se, is ever art.

Let us consider the case of expressiveness. Suppose that one wrote a description of a scene. Would that be art? It might be a beautiful description, in which case we would probably consider it art, but what about newspaper reporting, for example? Is that art? We don't seem to normally consider that type of expression art, because although something is being communicated, there is no attempt (except, perhaps, in finding the content) at originality of expression, or at creating beauty. So creativity and aesthetic feeling enters into this also; and in cases where the content is extremely unusual and presented well, we do sometimes consider news to be art.

Let us consider another case. Suppose there was someone who created something that most people acknowledged was ugly, and that person did not do it (produce the ugliness) purposely. Would that be art? I think we would all deny this... or at best, if the creation were original, we would say it was seriously flawed art. Now, what if the ugliness was purposeful? Is it now art? I think that we would concede that it might be. Unpleasant art, but still art. So what is happening here? First, we are still employing the Kantian test of aesthetic feeling as a criterion. The creation of beauty, or its opposite, must be purposeful. So art, it would seem, does include at least an acknowledgment, however, grudging, of beauty.

We are narrowing this down, it seems. We want some acknowledgement of beauty, we want creativity of expression and/or content, and we want that content also to express something beyond its appearance. Let's just arbitrarily stop here, and I'll claim that I've identified the essentials of art. Now, do sports meet these criteria?

1) Acknowledgement of beauty: not usually, except perhaps inasmuch as being good at, say, gymnastics or ice skating implies gracefulness and beauty of movement. But this is not, on the face of it, the acknowledgement of beauty, merely coincidence.

2) Creativity in expression and/or content: perhaps at the highest level of a sport, where someone is good enough to invent a new way to score, a new move in wrestling... but we do not consider this art, but very good craft.

3) Expression beyond the appearance: not in sport, except perhaps those sports on the edge of art, like ice skating. The breaking of Olympic records is a goal beyond previous content, but expresses nothing beyond that.

So, all in all, it seems, if my analysis is at all correct, that sport is not usually art, but craft, i.e., something requiring skill that does not in any way move beyond its internal practices. The "aesthetic" sports like ice skating, gymnastics, and so forth, may become art by transcending their craft, in effect, and attempting to strive for beauty and expressiveness. This, as an aside, is why I have problems with the term "martial arts", which I think is misleading, since none of them: karate, aikido, judo, etc., meet the above criteria for art. If one incorporated movements from such crafts into, say, ballet, then we would have art... but only as ballet.

Steven Ravett Brown


Dawn asked:

Why is forlornness always a result of the human condition?

Dawn also asked:

Do you see economic competition as inherently negative?

Well, forlornness isn't always thought to be the human condition. Why should we feel forlorn? We are people together, communicating in an amazingly sensitive way, not just amongst ourselves but with animals and we live in a beautiful world. If you were religious you might think that we are forsaken, but could you not also think that we have received God-given wonders? We shouldn't worry about being forlorn, but rather worry that we can be evil and that we are destructive — which is simply human. The unacceptability of existentialism is that we have to think of the human position as one of encompassing dread and anxiety. But this simply isn't true. There are many aspects to our existence — good and bad, forlornness for some, a wondrous blessing for others. There is no one attitude to being in the world.

On economics — Well, competition is in fact in many ways negative. Economic competition is supposed to enhance the quality of goods and products, simply because of the competition. Suppliers strive to be the best or the cheapest and to grab as much of the market as possible. The biggest down-side is that the means of enhancement, in terms of best or cheapness, are ignored.

When there is a lot of demand for supplies, there isn't much need for competition because there is a market greedy for goods. This is a satisfactory state of affairs for the people who have demands on the market. The sellers have to put down their prices. When there is little demand, there is more supplier competition and then the means of supplying goods becomes less important to the supplier because his main aim is to sell. To be attractive he'll want to undercut others by selling cheaply and a good way of doing this is to exploit cheap labour in developing countries. But in fact, this is done in any case to enable companies to make a profit. You can't just suddenly exploit developing countries when there is little demand: It is easier to do this all along, making it a policy.

However, although this is in fact the case, it need not be so. If businesses were to consider ethics, they might operate differently. So competition is not "inherently" negative. The problem is to connect business with ethics.

And there is a more positive side to competition. It leads to innovation because people also compete to create new products. And while I would say that competition leads to exploitation of developing countries, others might see it as providing people with jobs which they wouldn't otherwise have.

Rachel Browne


Beccie asked:

I've just started reading Spinoza's Ethics and would like to know if I've got it right so far! He seems to be saying that i) there is this fundamental 'stuff' that is prior to everything and ii) that this 'stuff' necessarily exists because existence is part of its nature.

If I'm right here, I completely disagree. i) Where is it? What is it? Where's the proof? I'm far from convinced! ii) Existence is not a property, it can't be subsumed under nature or essence.

Please let me know what you think!

Well, what you call "this fundamental stuff" is what Spinoza calls "God or Nature". And Spinoza maintains that it is everything that exists. Since everything includes space and time, it itself is in no place and in no time. So, your question about where it is cannot be asked about it. What it is is Everything there is. His proof is that all other alternative theories of what exists, namely Dualism (that what exists is either mind or matter) or pluralism, that there are many different existents, fail to explain the existence of the world for they suppose a creation by something other than the world, and this something needs explanation too. Only what is completely independent so that it requires nothing else for its existence, and so requires no explanation could be Everything. And this must be a necessary being.

You are right to raise the objection that the notion of a necessary being seems to require that existence be a property, and this is certainly a difficulty. It may, however, be possible to explain the idea of a necessary being without that supposition.

Ken Stern


Serene asked:

Assuming there is a God, how does one know God's will from one's own?

One must be cautious. There are many who believe that their illusions — and some who believe that their hallucinations — make them know God's will. Wilhem Steinitz (1836-1900), the first official chess world champion, towards the end of his life believed that he was connected by telephone with God and, thus, he was in a position to know directly God's will. His high IQ did not preserve Steinitz from being the victim of hallucinations.

For a believer, it is safer to examine the issue within his/her religious context. As far as religions are concerned, God's will is known thanks to the scriptures and (for the biggest and some other denominations) tradition. Several denominations may acknowledge the existence and authenticity of possible private revelations, provided that the person who claims to be the beneficiary fullfils the established norms for the recognition of genuine mystical phenomena. One significant indication is the absence of inflation of this person's ego.

Jean Nakos

One knows one's own will, if one knows anything. Any attempt to know God's will is obviously a far more difficult project. Any assumption that anyone knows God's will should be soundly based. Most such assumptions are based on pre-critical, mythological thinking. Distinguishing between one's own will, and any accurateconcept of God's will, should therefore not be very difficult.The prior question is "How could God's will be known?"

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all profess to know something of God's will, but theirideas of the nature ofGod's will clearly differ. These religions all believe that God has revealed his will in some way. The idea of such "revelation" arose primarilyamong people who had mythical perspectives on the world. They arose before the general application of a critical perspectiveto the world.

There would appear to be two possibilities.One is that God, or a messenger of God, spoke to some people at some time. The other possibility is that some people perceived values, particularly moral values, as Platonic "ideal objects" at a time when such perceptions were even rarer than they are today. In a pre-critical time these perceptions of ideal objectscould well have been characterised by the perceivers as messages from heaven.

Values, including moral values, occupy a special place in the realm of ideal objects. Their mode of being is uniquein thattheir realisation, in the sense of their being made real in the world of things, is mediated only through human action. Only humans can add value to the world.

Given that it is certain that some people have the capacity to perceive and realise moral values, the application of Occam's Razor would seem to indicate that we do not have to postulate God, or a messenger of God, as having spoken to the people who are characterised as prophets.Such prophets can be more simply understood as persons who perceived moral values, when such perceptions werevery rare,and who understood and proclaimed their moral insights as the "voice of God". If that is the case it would appear that the question of the nature of God's will is still open.

The human capacity to perceive moral values is a comparatively recent development. I have argued elsewhere that morality developed among the Hebrews before it developed among the Greeks. There is a significant difference between the "morality" of Homer and that of Xenophanes. Lawrence Kohlberg has found that only a very small percentage of present-day people are capable of making principled moral decisions. The vast majority of people still get their "morality" from the accepted pattern of behaviour in their own culture. This appears to support the view that morality, as distinct from mores, is a recent human development.

Clearly the nature of God's will is an important question. Perhaps an appropriate starting point in the attempt to work out an answer to this question would be to begin with Leibniz's deduction that this is the best of all possible worlds. The question of the nature of God's would appear to be related to the question: "In what way is this world the best possible world?" I have dealt withthis latter question in the Winter 2002 edition of the on-line Philosophy Journal, "The Examined Life".

Anthony Kelly


Douglas asked:

I am a high school English teacher who has no background in philosophy. I am, however, interested in challenging my 9th graders with some of the questions that all philosophers have in common. Perhaps these questions deal with our origin, our purpose of being, our destiny. In truth, I have not studied philosophy so I am just guessing what philosophers contend with.

What questions would you pose to 9th graders to challenge their cosmogonies?

Take a look at the book Sophies World, by Jostein Gaarder. He takes on some intriguing issues, and the book is designed for high-school age children. I'd also recommend some science fiction... Heinlein wrote for children; so did Asimov, and also Hogan. Sci-fi's purpose, beyond entertainment, is basically philosophical. You might browse the shelves of a good used bookstore or library for oldish sci-fi... the latest stuff tends to be either violent or rather complex.

Steven Ravett Brown


Fawn asked:

I am a very new student to philosophy and I find that the subject is so very broad in all the factors we must consider. A fellow student pointed out that he thought there was no point to philosophy at all. He declared that it was a waste of the time we know we do have. My instructor, said that there was an article called "The Uselessness of Philosophy" but could not remember the author or where he had found the article. He told me that it would be a good source to look into as I am developing my semester paper on why philosophy is not a waste of time. He said that it would help me prepare my paper for all the counter arguments. I have searched avidly to no avail. I was hoping that someone within your group might point me to a source similar or the actual article.

"The unexpected uselesness of philosophy" was originally a chapter in a book of Nobel prize winning physician Steven Weinberg. I don't have it, but it became a real classic in some circles. Weinberg is usually quite negative about philosophy.

Steven Sailer commented on it at: http://www.isteve.com/Philosophy.htm

Henk Tuten

I think a good source for you would be the final chapter of Bertrand Russell's little book, The Problems of Philosophy which is titled, "The Value of Philosophy".

Let me just add that whether philosophy is useless or not is, itself, a philosophical question. So how useless could a study be when to decide whether it is useless you are obliged to engage in that study itself?

Ken Stern

Try this site:


I'm not going to go into why I do philosophy... except that I am simply interested, and have been since I was very young, in questions usually considered "philosophical".

Steven Ravett Brown


Tim asked:

Should suicide bombing be made compulsory as a subject for study in religious schools?

It seems religious suicide bombers are acting fairly logically and rationally. They are sacrificing immediate pleasure (this life) for something much better as promised under their religion (Heaven, Valhalla et. al. all sound jolly nice places). This is pretty sophisticated reasoning. There is an element of uncertainty here, but not for a true believer. Isn't this fairly rational behaviour following Aristotle et. seq.? No nasty earthly pleasures, but the more refined pleasures of the next life. Suicide itself is all good prudential stuff.

Suicide bombing courses would just take this to its logical conclusion — suicide bombing is a logical and prudential act you kill a few people you disagree with (just like Desert Storm but cheaper) AND you get a better life. It is the practical side of philosophy. Yet somehow suicide bombing has got a bad name. Why is this?

Anyway it seems to philosophers manqué like me that it is hard to argue against suicide bombing becoming at least an option in General Studies CSE courses. Do you agree?

A method of violence isn't really suitable as an educational subject. Educators don't feel that this sort of thing is quite right for children, many of whom don't understand death or religion.

It might be rational if you believe in the after-life and consider such means compatible with a good after-life, but you shouldn't impose means on the young when they haven't necessarily committed to ends, such as particular religions, and we ought not to judge commitment until adulthood — the age of judgement! Admittedly, in some countries, adulthood comes younger than in others, but I would say that a couple of years beyond education is enough time to be sure of a persons' commitments.

This being so, I wouldn't rule such a course out of higher education on the same grounds. At the higher education level, there are moral and practical reasons for taking a stand against this which are also prudential, such as there a lot of atheists who don't want to die and don't believe in an after-life and you might kill a great artist or scientist accidentally. And the other moral ground is that most religions regard killing as wrong.

Rachel Browne

Since I agree that the term "suicide bombing" is a misnomer for this activity — it should be called "homicide bombing" since its main purpose is murder and suicide is only a by-product — and since I do not think that murder should be taught anywhere, I do not think that homicide bombing should be taught in any school.

Ken Stern


Tom asked:

What affects did Marx, Nietzsche and Baber-Murray have on tradition?

Tradition? Which tradition? The tradition according to Joseph de Maistre, or to Edward Bulwer-Lutton or to Ren Gunon? Any tradition which is a body of principles having an immutable normative validity and a metaphysical character? How could Marx and Nietzsche (who is Baber-Murray? I know only of Harriet Baber of San Diego, California and of Michael Murray, of Lancaster Pennsylvania) affect the (these) tradition (s)? Such a tradition receives everything which is in accordance with its unalterable, unchanging norm. It rejects and ignores everything that is irrelevant or contrary to the norm. Marx's and Nietzsche's views and claims are either irrelevant or adverse to tradition.

However, personally I think that Marx is a little nearer to tradition than Nietzsche. Perhaps I should say, that he is a little more influenced by it than Nietzsche.

Jean Nakos


Jeff asked:

Should there be a legal drinking age?

Well, I'll ask you a question. Should a three-year old have their own unsupervised access to wine and, say, vodka? No? Why not? What about a five-year old? Ten? Fifteen? So the question is not whether there should be a legal drinking age, is it... the question is, what should that age be? When does a child have the judgment to risk their life without supervision? I guess that when someone is old enough to drive, to vote, to serve in the military, they are old enough to drink, wouldn't you say? So the question then becomes, should children of 15 and 16 be allowed to drive? My answer would be no, they shouldn't. Should 18-year olds be drafted? Probably not, in my opinion. But that would mean that they shouldn't drive or drink unsupervised either, right? Think about all the casualties from drivers... more than from some wars. If you think about it this way, so that activities that put you and others around you at risk of their lives should be restricted to adults, you get a little different perspective on the issue, don't you. So the question is, when are people (usually!) able to make those judgments, and what activities do put them and others at high risk. Drinking, driving, the military, guns in general... these all lead to death fairly easily, with a bit of misjudgment and immaturity, right?

Steven Ravett Brown


Jeff also asked:

Should philosophy be taught in schools, and if so, why?

Yes. First, see my answer to Fawn; there is a site of all sorts of philosophers saying why they think philosophy is useful. Second, philosophy, as it is practiced in the West, teaches you to first, question everything, and second, do that questioning in a coherent and thoughtful way. Don't you think these are valuable things to learn? Third, philosophy, aside from teaching you to question things, also brings up questions that usually are not brought up at all in your typical family. They are usually very awkward and upsetting for people to deal with, but, in my very strong opinion, first, should be brought up, and second, should be talked about and hopefully if not answered at least discussed. Fourth, teaching children to talk about anything will teach them to do that among themselves, which will hopefully help them with their children eventually.

Steven Ravett Brown


Shamina asked:

I need some clarification regarding a specific concept of anomalous monism.

From what I understand, Davidson's theory requires us to make the distinction that mental events are identical to physical events and that the mental is ontologically but not conceptually reducible to the physical.

What I don't understand is the second part, "that mental events are ontologically but not conceptually reducible to the physical".

A mental event is ontologically reducible because for Davidson ontology is made up of physical events which are related by strict physical causal laws. The mental is causally dependent on the physical because while the mental is sometimes causal, it is not always so, and so it cannot constitute a closed or comprehensive causal string of events. So it is also the case that the mental is "nomologically independent" of the physical because it is not a strict and systematic law-like phenomenon. One way of looking at this is to say that if the mental is not systematic and law-like, but is a theory constituted by generalisations, it is not picking out anything ontological. But Davidson's reason why it is ontologically reducible is that there cannot be psycho-physical laws connecting the physical and mental because all laws are couched in strict law-like physical terms and the mental cannot enter in as a relatum which can be of causal significance as mental. The mental is not ontological, not a property in any real or physical sense, but Davidson allows that it is "supervenient" insofar as it exists in a dependency relation. But "Dependency or supervenience of this kind does not entail reducibility through law of definition". There can be no reducibility by law, because laws are always physical and there can be no reducibility by definition because the language of the mental and the language of the physical are incomparable. The mental is just ontologically reducible because of its distinctness from the nomological or law-like.

And, of course, it is implicit in this that the mental is not conceptually reducible because our mental language is explanatory understanding of others which is conceptually distinct from the realm of the physical.

Rachel Browne


Jennie asked:

I am a student at the University at Albany. I was wondering if you could give me some input about this essay question: In On Liberty Mill argues in favor of toleration. Is his defence of toleration based on scepticism? In other words, does Mill base his defense of toleration on the assumption that we are unable to objective assessments of each other's beliefs and ways of life? Does Mill argue that no beliefs are really true or false and that no ways of life are really better or worse than others? If his argument is based on skepticism in this way, explain how he defends this scepticism and how it supports his conclusion of toleration. If his argument is not based on this kind of skepticism, explain what it really is based on and how it supports toleration.

Mill's views on tolerance have to be divided into his view on tolerance of thought and speech, and his view about tolerance of action. His view about thought and speech is that there ought to be absolute tolerance in this area. His main argument here is that restriction on speech and belief implies that we can know infallibily what is true and what is false. Mill maintains that no one possesses such infallible knowledge. This is not skepticism, unless you define skepticism as the denial of infallibility. It is Mill's view that although we can sometimes know which beliefs are true or false (so, since Mill thinks we can know things, he is not a skeptic) he believes too that it is possible for us to believe that we know, yet be mistaken. So we cannot have infallible knowledge. And only infallible knowledge would justify intolerance of speech and belief.

On the other hand, when it comes to action, Mill maintains a conditional tolerance. He uses the "no harm principle". This means that a necessary condition of restrictions on action is that the action be harmful to others. Mill writes at the start of the Essay on Liberty:

"[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. "

So, Mill's views are not based on skepticism. He does think that beliefs are (really) true or false, and that some ways of life (which he calls "experiments in living") are better than others. And that we can test the latter using the principle of Utilitarianism (the greatest happiness principle).

Ken Stern


Meena asked:

Can animals have thoughts? It's an issue discussed by Descartes and Norman Malcolm. Are there other philosophers who have took up this issue? I'm doing a research paper on it and Descartes and Malcolm seem just too ambiguous to me.

Philosophers who take up animal issues deal rather with animal rights. Some of them examine the issue of animal mind as well. Try David DeGrazia:

Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996

Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 2002

DeGrazia is also co-editor with Thomas Mapes of Biomedical Ethics (2001)

Jean Nakos


Chris asked:

While at graduate school studying physics, I was talking with my advisor, a Ph.D. of twenty plus years, and asked him, "What are the things in physics that you really know, deep down, to be true and what things are simply built up like a house of cards?" His answer surprised me in that he replied with only one simple statement dealing with physics.

My question to you is the same: What are the aspects of your philosophy that you know to be true? I realize that terms such as "knowledge" and "truth" can be debated, but I hope you answer this question in the spirit in which it is asked.

The way one comprehends, grasps, understands the world, others, and themselves determines how they act in and react to the world.

The implications, then, are fairly clear, are they not?

Steven Ravett Brown


Tim asked:

I have read in many books that thoughts attract thoughts of a similar 'vibe' and can lead to a manifestation in reality — even to the point where a natural disaster is the result of many people worrying that said disaster will occur! Do you think this is a real possibility, and can you recommend any philosophers who expand on the subject?

No, I don't. No, I can't. I could name people who write about this, but first, I don't want to recommend this kind of fuzzy thinking to anyone, and second, I wouldn't consider these people philosophers. They're either writing popular books to make money or they're motivated by religion and/or superstition.

Instead of reading that stuff, why don't you try these:

Shermer, M. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1997.

Hines, T. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Kitcher, P. The Advancement of Science; Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Young, A.W. "Wondrous Strange: The Neuropsychology of Abnormal Beliefs." Mind & Language 15, no. 1 (2000): 47-73.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M. Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.

Schick, T., Jr., and L. Vaughn. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995.

Steven Ravett Brown


Margaret asked:

I have to formulate a question and write a paper anywhere in the field of European political and legal philosophy. I am interested in the idea of a European identity and its embodiment in legal bodies such as the EU or the European Court of Human Rights and am considering looking at whether these institutions in fact reflect a particular conception that is European. Anyway, I'm totally confused and could do with some help.

I would suggest you to consult the general web site map of the institutions of the European Union at: http://europa.eu.int. I think that you would find some department or some document which would be of use to you. If some department, agency etc seems to be of special interest for your paper, I would suggest to contact them by e-mail.

Currently, and for two or three more months, there is also the European Convention for the Future of Europe. They discuss the future of Europe of course, but also the possibility to create a European Constitution. There are a official body and a body receiving the contributions/proposals of NGOs, churches, political parties, trade unions, business and industry lobbies, universities, think tanks, associations of every kind etc. The last time I had consulted their site (look for European Convention Forum Futurum) there were the contributions of 185 such European organisations.The officiall body's part has also interesting material. Perhaps the one or other paper could be of use to you.

Jean Nakos


Mike asked:

Is masturbation a sin? And does it affect mental intellect or thinking? Is it harmful if a man doesn't perform one? Is it needed badly for us men?

Is this a philosophical question? Well, whatever... here goes.

1) I'm not sure what "sin" means, since I'm not a theist. My answer here though is very simple: masturbation is about as immoral as eating. Yes, there are circumstances in which it could be immoral, as when you've got a lover waiting and you masturbate and then aren't able to make love... I'd say that was probably inconsiderate and selfish, wouldn't you?

2) Yes. It relaxes you and makes your thinking clearer. That is, when people have orgasms, there are a variety of (temporary) physiological changes that go on which are good for you, having to do with lowering stress. There is a myth that athletes shouldn't have sex before a contest... they've done studies, and found that it actually usually helps. I guess that an athlete who likes tension and stress should abstain, maybe.

3) I would think so, eventually. After all, you've got this physiological system all set to go, and if you keep suppressing it it's pretty much like never exercising... your muscles get out of shape. Also, you're keeping yourself in a constant state of tension and arousal... pretty unpleasant and frustrating.

4) Well, I don't know what "badly" means... but my take on it is that it's certainly better than nothing, but not as good as sex with a good lover. By the way, women also masturbate (or should, in my opinion).

Steven Ravett Brown


Ashley asked:

I have to write a paper on a period of solitude I've experienced in my life in Levinas's terms. I do not understand what he says solitude is. Can someone help me?

When we think about solitude it is usually in terms of the absence of others, as being on ones own, isolated from the rest, lonely. Think about social occasions, a friend's party, a professional occasion, an office party, don't we sometimes feel we have nothing to say, nothing in common with the people there, we're just not interested in what's going on? Or think about personal relations, these sometimes fail because one person cannot understand the other, doesn't know what they want from them. Think about Robinson Crusoe alone on his desert island, or Shakespeare's plays without the soliloquy, without the glimpse into the characters mind. This is the solitude we are familiar with.

However these are incidental, transitive features, Robinson Crusoe can be rescued, Shakespeare can add the inner dialogue. What Levinas describes when he talks about solitude is a state that each of us has all the time, one that cannot be detached from what we are. Levinas wants to find the 'ontological root' of solitude, the something that structures our life rather than being just an outcome of it. He wants to say "something else about solitude than its unhappiness and opposition to collectivity, to this collectivity whose happiness one usually says is in opposition to solitude" (Time and the Other pp.41).

Levinas locates this 'something else' at a level in a person's life before (prior to) his social contact with others: Before any of these relationships, we can say of a person that they exist, moreover each of us exits, it is something each and all of us does and yet it is unique and individual to each person, no one else can have my existence, my little bit of Being. Levinas says "One can exchange everything between beings except existing" (T&O p. 42). My existence is mine alone, it is what is most my own, it cannot be shared or swapped (of course I can share aspects of my existence, my time and space for example, but not my existence as such). In other words my existence is like a solitary confinement 'to be is to be isolated by existing' (T&O p. 42).

It is by this fact that I exist, alone, that Levinas locates solitude, it is an ontological solitude, not a social or anthropological solitude. Solitude is the relation I have to existence, existing, to Being before I have a relation with any other. But for Levinas this I not a sad and lonely state of affairs because in my relation with being I have a certain mastery over being, I can shape the world to my wants, I can affect the world in what ever way I desire. Solitude, this being on my own means my Freedom; 'Solitude is not only a despair and an abandonment', Levinas says, 'but also a virility, a pride and a sovereignty' (T&O p.55). But this freedom comes at a price. When I am alone, out in the world, enjoying myself, there is a limit to these activities, a limit imposed by my solitude, by my being: it is the fact that I cannot detach myself from my existing, I am lumbered with myself, enchained to myself. Levinas says that the existent is occupied with itself. This sounds very strange, what is it to be lumbered to myself? Its just this; that I can't carry on doing whatever I like, after all I have a body, I exist materially and I have to look after myself after my own being, I need food and rest and the like. The condition of my freedom then, by being, solitude, is my responsibility for myself. This says Levinas is a paradox of existing " a free being is already no longer free, because it is responsible for itself" (T&O p.55).

My own self, for Levinas is like a weight or a heaviness that I must carry around. (Oddly enough I have found the best or most acute experience of what Levinas is describing occurs after a few drinks and a night on the town, its not just — I think — the magic effects of beer at work, but that my own body, my materiality becomes apparent. Its an weird experience, not that I'm suggesting you go and get drunk in order to write your paper, I doubt Levinas himself was much of a drinker and he got along with writing strange experiences okay.)

So It takes a lot of work just to simply be. It takes effort: "Everyday life" he says "is a pre-occupation with salvation" (T&O p.58). Real salvation, not taking up this responsibility means a return to an anonymous being Levinas calls the il y a, the there is. Levinas then proceeds to give descriptions of the states we find ourselves in when the effort of being is felt; two examples are work and fatigue.

In work effort is needed. Sweat and toil, pain and sorrow is how Levinas understands work. It is in this sweat and toil that the subject finds "the weight of the existence which involves its existent freedom itself" (T&O p.68). Having to work, the effort involved highlights the fact that I am. And of course work makes us tired. Think about the end of the working week; we've been nagged at, stressed out, abused, overburdened, we go home, wash of the sweat and curl up for the weekend (if we're lucky). Think of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down, before he starts to push the rock again we can imagine him giving an almighty exhale, he's fed up, he doesn't want to do it but he has to, his gasp is a hesitation, a recoil from work before the effort of being is taken up again. Curled up on our sofa of a Friday night, tried, fatigued, we have an aversion to work, its not even a break from work, a rest, fatigue is a reminder of the commitment to work and of course a desire to escape from work. As Manning points out "it is to be weary of being oneself" (Manning p.46).

This desire to escape from oneself, from being is the continuing concern of Levinas's philosophy. He thinks he find an escape via the other person, first as an erotic encounter, then, later, as an ethical response made to the Other's demand for help, But that takes us away from your question.

You said you had to write about 'a period of solitude', I hope it is clear that this is inaccurate when applied to Levinas' understanding. Solitude is not something that comes an goes, it is rather a condition of our being, the weight of being continually haunts us, sometimes it is just more acutely felt. I have indicated some of the areas Levinas thinks it is at its most apparent, you have to ask your self if you have felt the same, if not a starting point might be to consider just the strangeness of your existing, the fact that you are and that no one else can have what you have.


Levinas Time and the Other ( T&O)
Levinas Existence and Existents

— These works contain Levinas' most extended treatment of Solitude.

Robert John Sheffler Manning Interpreting Otherwise than Heidegger

— Contains a good introduction to Levinas' thinking on Being.

Brian Tee
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Sheffield

In Time and the Other, solitude is held to be the incommunicable sense of self, so it would seem that we are always in solitude.

In enjoyment, such as eating, solitude can be escaped. But in knowledge and in sociality, there is an impossibility of escaping the solitude of the self. In knowledge and sociality (where these exceed ordinary consciousness of the external world) the self is in solitude proper or up against the really other.

Levinas has said there is solitude in a "concern for knowing", where this is not knowledge of the thematised, or scientific, but of the more abstract, such as an attempt to understand creation or time. In Time and Infinity, Levinas says "The solitude of the subject will be recognised also in the goodness in which the apology arises". Solitude in its most intense form arises beyond intentionality, in the more spiritual, or in relation to that which is irreducible to fact. The goodness in which the apology arises is more than the apology itself. In paternity the son is part of the father, as the father prolongs himself in the life of his son, but he is not his son.

If you are studying philosophy, in writing your essay you will be in solitude. Otherwise, think in terms of interactions with others.

Rachel Browne


Josh asked:

If E=MC2, and mass can neither be created or destroyed, then energy can neither be created or destroyed. And if the functions of the brain rely on energy, (synapses, neurotransmitters, electrical charges, etc.) then what is to become of this energy after one's death? Does it follow the body's decay and simply become a part of something else, or does it retain unity and pattern from memories we may have had, hence giving us a "soul"? Or possibly even solve the mind-body problem (brain=matter, mind=energy)?

In a word, no. The functions of the brain rely on the organization of matter and energy, not just on their existence. You can run your car through a crusher, take the result and grind it into little pieces... do you have a car after that? But you have the same matter and energy. Or, let's say we take your computer, running a program, and drop a concrete block on it. I don't think you'll be interested in speculating on whether the program is still running "somewhere" at that point.

Steven Ravett Brown


Eduardo asked:

How can I know which religion is the best?

Best in what? In devotion? In expressing the truth?

A priest/ priestess would probably tell you that the best religion is his/ hers. A historian of religion or a liberal Protestant would probably tell you that all religions have common points. That all are equally significant. An atheist would tell you that all religions are useless.

Philosophers could not be of great assistance to you since their opinions diverge.Their opinions go from Karl Marx's (religion is the opium of the people) to Karl Barth's (the revelation of Jesus is better than religion — Barth was a leading theologian but he was also a philosopher).

How then could one know which religion is the best? There is no apparatus which could measure the quality of religions. One has to decide for oneself which religion is the best for him/ her. Faith is a very personal matter. It is not just mental assent. For the believer religion is a kind of truth that requires the participation of heart, mind and soul.

Usually,one follows the religion of his/ her family/ community. Some say that is the sole solution Religion is related to archetypes which may have cultural/ ethnic distinctness and one cannot change one's psyche nor one's idiosyncrasy. Others say that one could choose any religion. Nevertheless, the choice of religion is a serious matter.In looking for information one should take care to consult some genuine competent spiritual director from one of the well known established religions.

Jean Nakos


Shamina asked:

I am trying to arguments for and against Anomalous monism. I Have found a lot of information explaining what it is, but not very much that either proves it, or that clearly criticizes in a way that is clear to understand.

Well you can't prove anomalous monism since it requires certain commitments such as to the nature of an event and whether mental explanation inheres inside the subject. For instance, Donald Davidson takes the event as a basic ontological particular, causal at the physical level, but subject to different descriptions. Against this, Jaegwon Kim sees an event as having distinct properties. Kim is Davidson's opponent in that he argues for a different type of event with mental and physical properties which can admit of psycho-physical laws. So you might want to look at Kim's position ("On the Psycho-Physical Identity Theory" in American Philosophical Quarterly 3 and "Causation, Nomic Subsumption, and the Concept of Event" in The Journal of Philosophy Volume LXX No 8). You will see that Kim's view of the mental is internalist and functionalist, whereas Davidson's is externalist and his description of the mental has been described as epiphenomenal or not causally efficacious. This is more materialistic that Kim. Kim, allowing a duality of properties, can admit that the mental is causal. Davidson, being externalist in his approach wouldn't allow an interior mental cause, firstly because of his anomalous monism argument, but also because a mental state cannot be detached from facts about the environment. If there are psychological laws, then if there is a physical property of some type, there will be a mental state of some type. This detaches the brain and the mental from the environment and society.

There is a whole book of essays on Davidson edited by McLaughlin and Lepore. In this you will find pro-Davidson arguments. For instance, John McDowell has written in defence of Davidson's thesis of the constitutive role of normativity in coming to understand others. In understanding others, or in acknowledging what they are doing, we require an understanding of what they ought to be doing. We don't have access to the mental life of others. So for instance, if mental states are "in the head", or dispositional, there is no way of forming a theory of how we understand others. But in fact we have no problems in understanding others because such understanding has its base in normativity, shared understanding of language, rational behaviour and folk psychology. None of this needs reflection in some internal mental state.

You might not easily come to form much opinion of the Kim/ Davidson event positions, but you can't ignore Kim if you write about Davidson. So that is a good criticism. However you are likely to develop a stance on the nature of the mental as explanatory or internal so — if you are as sympathetic to Davidson on this as I am — this is a good to support Davidson.

Rachel Browne


Stephen asked:

Can anything really be proven logically?

There are an infinite number of things that can be proven logically. For example, you can look up the proof that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle, on a plane, is the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. To take another example, a line drawn tangent to a circle forms a right angle with a radius of that circle which intersects it on the circle. And on and on. So what's the real problem here? You want proof that people are rational, or that the next fire engine you see will be red, or something like that? Well, those are things that you can't prove; they require inductive inference; they are contingent on other things that we do not know and/or have no control over.

The interesting question, really, is, what is the difference between things we can prove and things we cannot. And there we touch on a controversy which is still ongoing, having to do with the nature of formal systems. As long as we know that we are uncertain about things like: what is going to happen in the next instant; what is happening where we can't see, and so forth, we know that there are things we can't prove. Fine. But when we are dealing with formal systems, where we are setting up the conditions beforehand, everything nice and well-defined, then the question is whether we are actually doing what we think we are, i.e., what does it mean to be "well-defined"? Is it even possible? Some people want to "naturalize" the basis of any thinking, including formal thinking, so that it is all contingent... on various facts about our bodies, about how we interact with the world, and so forth. And others think this is absurd. As I say, it's an ongoing battle.

Steven Ravett Brown


Valdemar asked:

"The real riches of one nation is your people."

— Comment please on this sentence.

The sentence seems to be confirmed by Levinas:

A person is more holy than land, even a holy land, since, faced with an affront made to a person, this holy land appears in its nakedness to be but stone and wood.

This is an important and true idea. It was made in an interview following the 1982 massacre of hundreds of people by Christian soldiers in the camps of Chitila and Sabra in Israel, without the intervention of the Israel Defence Force, who had responsibility for the camps. It was made against the background of the Israel/ Palestine conflict. It was made by a Jew, a people who's history is one of displacement, of not having a land and yet who find that they now do have a land, a land that has caused the displacement of another people. The Israel/ Palestine issue is one of land, not of the importance of a single person's life.

Therefore we have to ask; what is a person, a people without a land?

Are they still a nation? Does a nation need a people in order to be a nation? Do a people need a land in order to be a people; what is the relation between a nation and its land?

Think about an empire, this covers vast areas of land and various peoples, are they all one nation? Perhaps, perhaps not. I wouldn't want to say that the English (or French) empires were one nation, however arguably the Nazi state was. Take the USA, (I wouldn't want to say the US is an empire — Yet) arguably home to as many various peoples as the British empire, is one nation ('one nation under god'). But is this only because the people once upon a time got together and decided it was? Without the people there would be no nation. And yet soldiers defend the land of America (and its interests) ultimately over the people.

If we ever do really recognise the priority of people over lands as Levinas indicates, then do national boarders become obsolete? Or would they still be important in some way for a people?

It seems to me that a nation is tied to its land I think the problems we have seen over nationalism and the problems we are now confronted with of the hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers would be better solved if that link were broken. Take a look at Derrida's essay 'On Cosmopolitanism' for further ideas.

Brian Tee
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Lily asked:

I am a 2nd year Philosophy student having some problems with getting into grips with what the central problem of Frege's puzzle of identity is. I came across the your site when I was trying to read up on Frege. I think I am mentally exhausted by Philosophy right now, especially because I am having to do Logic and Metaphysics in my tutorials. My brain somehow does not respond to Logic and Metaphysics at all (and that is rather worrying considering they are the fundamental parts of Philosophy). I would be most grateful if you could outline the main purpose of his paper "On Sense and Reference". I don't seem to see the difference between the object view and the meta-linguistic view. I have an essay title, "If the meaning of a name consists in the fact that it stands for a certain object, then frege's puzzle of identity is insoluble." I am not at all confident with handling logic and metaphysics and I seem to be "missing the point" most of the time. I would be most grateful if you could help me with clearing up the confusion in my head with regards to the two theses that he is refuting. What exactly is meant by the mode of presentation?

In his early work, Begriffschrift where Frege described his ground-breaking system of quantifier logic, he was not really interested in natural language at all, but rather in the logical apparatus which mathematicians use in setting out proofs. When it came to the concept of identity, Frege proposed that when the mathematician asserts a statement like, 'wxy = z', the content of that statement is that the expression 'wxy' refers to the same entity (e.g. number) as the expression 'z'. This is the 'meta-linguistic view', which Frege rejected in "On Sense and Reference".

Why did he reject it? He was not denying the truth of the statement:

The cube root of 1879080904 = 1234 if, and only if the number referred to by the expression, 'cube root of 1879080904' is the same number as the number referred to by the expression '1234'.

However, this equivalence disguises the fact the two expressions, 'cube root of 1879080904' and '1234' refer to the same number only because of a structure that exists in mathematical reality, and not because the mathematician has merely stipulated that the two expressions will be used with the same reference (as one might stipulate, when doing a proof, that the expression 'E[x,y,z]' refers to the same number as 'x + y + z').

This throws us back on the question, How can a statement that a certain number is identical with itself express a piece of knowledge?

In order to answer that question, Frege famously proposed a distinction between sense and reference. As a change of tack from the standard expositions of Frege's theory, I am going to stick to the arithmetical case. There is a certain number which we know something about. We know that it is the 1234th successor of 0. That same number is also referred to by 'MCCXXXIV' in Roman numerals. We also know arithmetical facts about that number as the result of performing calculations, such as the one given in the example. Each distinct 'way of knowing' the number involves a different mode of presentation. The mode of presentation might also be thought of as the route to reference. Think of following a route to a destination, such as a map or sheet of instructions. To follow a route you need to do work, calculate or find out things. When two different routes take you to the same destination that is an extra piece of knowledge which you didn't have before. That is how according to Frege, identity statements are informative.

Now comes the controversial part. Having established the sense/ reference distinction with the aid of the example of identity statements, Frege offers a logical analysis of indirect contexts, e.g. statements of the form, 'A believes that XYZ'. If the truth of the statement:

Bess believes that there are 1234 words in Geoff's answer.

depends solely on the reference of 'Bess', 'Geoffrey', '1234' etc. then it would follow logically that:

Bess believes that there are cube-root-of-1879080904 words in Geoff's answer.

But clearly the second statement does not logically follow from the first. Frege explains that this is because referring expressions which occur after a phrase such as 'believes that' refer to their ordinary sense. So in this example, '1234' does not refer to the number 1234 but to the sense of the expression '1234', the mode in which the number 1234 is presented when we refer to it using the expression '1234'.

This still leaves a number of questions open. What about the simplest case, e.g. the expression '1233 + 1'. Is it really plausible that someone could know what a number such as 1234 is but not be able to perform the operation, 'add 1'? Here is a case where there are arguably distinct 'senses' which can always safely be substituted.

Another problem is with different systems of numerical representation, such as binary, or duodecimal. I said earlier that 1234 is the 1234th successor of the number 0. That is the most direct route to reference. Once you know how to count, you can refer to any number. However, we cannot allow that the simple operation of counting fully accounts the sense of a given numerical expression, because many people (myself included) could not give the binary or duodecimal representations of the number 1234. On a simpler level, I am not even 100 per cent sure that the Roman numeral 'MCCXXXIV' is '1234'. Does that mean that 'MCCXXXIV' and '1234' have different senses?

Geoffrey Klempner


Andrea asked:

Why, according to Russell`s theory of definitive descriptions, does his theory suggest that definite descriptions have no meaning in isolation?

Andrea also asked:

What is the reference of entire sentences inside and outside indirect contexts according to Frege?

1. Russell thought that language was vague and ambiguous and an example of this is the definite description which is incomplete. "The President of the United States" is a definite description and looks as though it refers to Bush, but could refer to a past president, so it is, in isolation, an incomplete symbol. This is why Russell analyses the description so that its meaning is determined by universals such as "presidency", "American", "currently" and another definite description like "Bush".

This is supposed to answer several logical problems of definite descriptions when they are taken to refer, one being the case of there being no President. If "the President" is referential and the meaning of a name is determined by an object (as ordinary predicate logic has it) and picks out directly, it is impossible to say "The President is no longer alive" truly because there is no such person to give meaning to "The President"; reference fails and the sentence is false and meaningless. But for Russell the sentence can be true or false and meaningful in both cases. Instead of the President referring, the role of the word in the sentence falls under the scope of the existential quantifier, and it is false, but we can still identify the President by a universal and further definite description, such as ex-presidency and Roosevelt.

Another reason is epistemological. Russell's analysis reflects our understanding that language expresses general knowledge by description rather than by acquaintance. While something known by acquaintance, i.e. "this", refers and so is complete, all descriptions fall within the inferential and background process of language use. This allows us to understand sentences like "the present King of France is bald" even when King of France fails to pick something out. The King of France has to be understood within a context, because there is no real King of France to bear out and make true the meaning of the sentence.

Another reason is that if definition descriptions are incomplete and don't refer (only logically proper names such as "this" refer) then the world is not cluttered with non-existent objects. This problem is raised by Meinong whose account of logic was that symbols in sentences were tied to items in the world leading to a "bloated ontology". This is a metaphysical reason. If names had meaning in isolation, any name of a non-existent person, would seem to have it's meaning determined by a non-existent entity.

2. For Frege, the reference of a sentence outside an opaque context is its truth value. As with a name which refers or denotes by virtue of the object named, the whole sentence is true or false by virtue of whether the state of affairs obtains or not. A sentence is extensional, though, so that if you substitute Hesperus for Phosphorus, truth is preserved. This is not the case in opaque contexts. So the reference of the content of a propositional attitude is its sense because what makes the proposition true is different. It is not the extensional state of affairs that makes it case that you belief is true, but something about you. What makes it true that you believe Hesperus is Venus (that you have seen the evening star and learned it's name) doesn't make it true that you believe Phosphorus is Venus.

['Hesperus' is the name given to the evening star, 'Phosphorus' is the name given to the morning star. It was an astronomical discovery that Hesperus=Phosphorus.]

Rachel Browne


Kara asked:

I am writing a philosophical essay supporting psychological egoism. But first, in order to prove that people always act out of self interest, I need an accurate definition of self interest.

Before you write this essay, I would strongly recommend you read The Selfish Gene by R. Dawkins. You will get a functional concept of selfishness from that rather than having to deal with the various fuzzy ideas about people's feelings. There's also:

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley
Sociobiology by E. O. Wilson.

Steven Ravett Brown


Kike asked:

How can I know that God is real? (but not only like an idea).

I presume that when you say "not only like an idea" you mean "like a person", not just a philosopher's "first principle".

According to the religious thought, reason alone could not give the knowledge that God is real like a person. Reason could give the knowledge that God is real as a first cause or as principle.

According to the Christian tradition, one knows that God is real through Faith. Faith is considered to be a supernatural act, dependent on God's action on the soul and of the soul's response to this act.

Jean Nakos

The search for God started way back in the past and, it seems, still continues. However, there are those who believe that the search is long since over. These are mainly religious organisations, although some scientists and some philosophers believe that there is sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a God. Taking the judaeo-christian religion as an example, proof is dependent on ancient writings, where it is claimed that certain privileged persons actually spoke directly to God, and in fact received instructions from him. This was the tribal God of the people known as Israelites whose name was Jahweh. Unfortunately most of the writings seem to have their foundations in mythology and legend, and very little actual historical evidence seems to be there in support. Archaeologists have searched diligently for the necessary remains and artefacts to provide this evidence, however, such alleged evidence which has come to light is scant and not very convincing.

For example no record can be found in Egyptian history for the events claimed by the writings; one of the main events being the alleged exodus from Egypt of six hundred thousand Israelites (probably two million as only the men were counted). This seems strange as the Egyptian civilisation was comparatively well advanced and capable of recording events for posterity.In fact some of the claimed events are so far reaching and extraordinary that it is very unlikely that they would not be recorded elsewhere than the Bible. There are those who claim that many Old Testament stories are exaggerated natural events, like floods, earthquakes, pandemics, etc. Also a nation whose ancestors were nomads would find it very handy to invent a god that was on their side and could authorize the theft of land from settled tribes like the Philistines and the Canaanites, and many others. The situation was conveniently reversed, making the settled tribes the aggressors and illegal occupants of their own land. They were seen as the perpetrators of evil, whilst the Israelites were denoted as the victims and the representatives of God and goodness.

Reading the histories of science and philosophy we are confronted by a range of arguments for the existence of God, and conversely a range of arguments denying the existence of God. The arguments range from the extremes of cosmology to simple everyday psychology. Some questions and statements debated are: How can a universe be created in a complete vacuum? Where did the first 'solid' particle come from? Evolution indicates a steady progression of 'improvement', who or what is directing it? Is there not an obviousorder in nature? Man is not a creator but a discoverer of things and laws that already exist; where did they come from? Why can we not accept that there is a God that did not have to create 'real' matter from nothing. Surely such a power was capable of producing a non-material mind, which would produce an 'illusion' of matter and apply non-material (abstract) natural and mathematical laws and a moral code? Such a monistic creation would provide for a soul or spirit and a possibility of life after death!

Those opposed to the notion of a God, in the main, place their faith in the 'real' existence of matter, and believe that the starting point is a 'Big Bang' as a super-dense primaeval particle explodes and expands at a phenomenal rate, creating a universe of matter and an indescribable amount of energy. However, we never seem to discover where the primaeval atom came from in the first place. Further, those with materialistic leanings claim that progress in the organic world is produced by a series of fortuitous accidents, which they refer to as evolution. This materialistic approach quite logically produces the argument that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit, and therefore no life after death. All psychic phenomena are dismissed with the simple statement, 'there is bound to be a natural explanation,' whatever that means!

Many arguments about the existence of God are contained in the philosophical literature, and if you have time to look at the many previous answers on this Ask a Philosopher site you will find some of these arguments outlined and debated. If you are very interested I suggest you read The Existence of God Problems of Philosophy Series, Macmillan. Perhaps when you have perused some of the arguments for and against, you will come to the same conclusion as many of us, that the belief in God is personal and an act of faith. John Wesley once told a young preacher who had doubts to preach faith until he had it, and then to preach it because he'd got it!

John Brandon


Charlotte asked:

Is necessity real?

Well, there is logical necessity and natural necessity.

It is logically necessarily that p and not p cannot both be true (and this a logical law, rather than a reality) and it is logically necessary that something cannot be both round and square (this seems to be an empirically necessary truth and well as logical because it is determined by the nature of the world) and it is logically necessary that 2 + 2 = 4 (this is more akin to the laws of logic than the real).

Saul Kripke introduced the notion of empirical, or natural, necessity. It is empirically necessary that water is H20. If, in another world, there was something which looked like and was used as water but its chemical constitution was XYZ, then we wouldn't say it was water; it wouldn't be our stuff, which is of empirical and natural necessity in this (real) world, H2O.

I'm not sure if your question is about possible worlds. Necessity has been defined as that which is true in all possible worlds. David Lewis holds that possible worlds are real worlds, but this is controversial.

A logical necessity, like p cannot both be true and false is not "out there", in the world, like water. To an extent, logic maps the workings of the rational brain but it is a different language. Logic is formal but brain state interactions are complex physical states.

That something cannot be both round and square looks like a real necessity. This is not empirical necessity in the same sense as water is H20, since that argument that established a necessary truth in our world, but this is necessary in all possible worlds. If something is round it is conceptually true that it cannot be square. However, it is real necessity, because we wouldn't be able to interact with this — or any other — environment properly if it was false.

Rachel Browne


Stephen asked:

I have asked before, "What is a question?"
However, how could one answer the following question:

"What is an answer?"

Also: Just how fitting is the following analogy?

"Psychology is to philosophy as linguistics is to languages."

Well given my answer to your previous question, think about it this way. What happens when you have a word, or better, an idea, on "the tip of your tongue"? You know the expression? There's a gap that you're aware of, and if you finally remember, you fill that gap, and have a sensation of filling that gap. There's actually a bit of literature on this, starting with William James, and going into what's termed "metacognition": knowing that you know (which you can be mistaken at, by the way: see Metcalfe, J., and A.P. Shimamura Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.). So you're completing a pattern, aren't you, and this fits in with the idea that a question arises when there is an incomplete or erroneous pattern or model. Creating and/ or remembering these interrelationships, then, is answering a question. Quine has quite a bit to say about that sort of thing, and so does Gestalt psychology, and its extensions in cognitive linguistics (see Fauconnier, for example: Fauconnier, G., and E. Sweetser Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar Edited by G. Fouconnier, and G. Lakoff and E. Sweetser, 1st ed. Vol. 2, Cognitive Theory of Language and Culture Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). And so do many many others. There's a whole literature on cognition as theory building, for example.

As for the analogy... well. I don't like analogies like this; they simplify too much. Also, I don't know what you mean by "languages". All the other terms are words relating to fields of human learning and thinking; language is, roughly, a human function like emotion. So the category is different. In other words, you have to study the other areas; you don't study languages in the same way in order to speak them, you either learn them intuitively as children, or you study as fairly pure memorization. Whereas, the others are fields aimed at analyzing something, you see? Language expresses, it doesn't analyze, at least in the same way. If it did, there would be no need for science. At least that's one possible position... however, one could consider learning a field like, say, physics, as equivalent to learning the language: physics. But that isn't the same as doing physics. I'm not going to go further here. Anyway, if what you're asking is whether psychology underlies philosophy... haha, that's an unbelievably controversial area right now (and has been, off and on, for a few thousand years). My answer would be yes, it does. But in saying that I have to be prepared to duck the truckloads of eggs and fruit that more traditional philosophers will throw at me. Take a look at this one: Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought 1st ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.

Steven Ravett Brown


Osama asked:

Philosophy of Punishment:

To what extent would it be possible to justify punishment on the basis that an offender has the right to be punished or that the general public have a right that the offender be punished?

Kant thought that people, as rational agents were subject to a moral law and that any moral action we undertake should be directed towards treating them as 'ends in themselves' rather as a means to some other end. From this starting point Hegel developed his thesis that punishment is a criminal's right. The idea can be set out as follows: "If human beings are subject to a moral law, then one suffers an indignity when treated as being exempt from that moral law — which is what happens if breaking the law does not call forth from others its reassertion" (from H. Morris 'Persons and Punishment', The Monist 1967). In other words an individual is not treated as a rational person if allowed to break the law without being punished. According to Morris (and Hegel) retributive punishment is in keeping with and indeed is the only form of punishment justifiable in treating a criminal as a rational agent, as an end in itself. For Hegel anything else (such as reform or rehabilitation) is "akin to raising ones cain to a dog", it does not respect the criminal's capacity to make his own decisions, to be the author of his own actions.

So there are two questions: First, whether the right to be punished follows from the right to be treated as a person. Second, whether retributive punishment is the only acceptable form that respects this personhood right.

I think the answer to the first is that, Yes, it does, conditionally: Punishment is only one way that the right to be treated as a person. Another way is to be forgiven. Forgiveness is possibly a more human, more personal way, more ethical (though of course more difficult way) of relating to others as people. Unfortunately (possibly because it can be so hard) this option has been largely ignored in the area of the ethics of dealing with crime. It is an interesting question whether one has the right to be forgiven, how can one demand that one be forgiven? Or whether others have a responsibility to forgive, perhaps forgiveness points towards something (ethically) better than rights.

The answer to the second question is that it is not. The reason Morris (and probably Hegel too) thinks that forms of punishment other than retributive are unjustifiable is that they fail to respect the criminal as a person. This is a conception of a person as a rational decision making agent, clearly this is a key element in being a person but is it too narrow? Being a person is not just about choosing to do something, it's about being a subject in the world, having a unique point of view that can see itself in the world, but that can also empathise with others, consider the needs of others, to be concerned with others and to be concerned with how others see it. If this is right, then surely trying to help someone who is suffering from a lack of such a perspective, via rehabilitation or reform, counts as treating them as a person.

Of course this runs the threat of the dis-topian visions we see in many sci-fi films, a vision of society 'treating' individuals, using rehab as a form of therapy or conditioning, that in actual fact ignores the individual's right to be treated as an end in itself. Addressing the balance between the individual and the state is a perennial question in political philosophy, so were not going to answer it here, but obviously helping people to be better individuals is a good thing and needn't lead to happy pills or citizenship classes.

Brian Tee
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Joseph asked:

When I was a baby, I had two periods of Coma. I was born in the coma (10 days) and at age two, another coma (7 days). What was happening to my soul during this time? Where was I? Was I influenced by my surrounding able to feel love or fear? What was happening to my physical brain?

Although there are machines for measuring brain activity, coma is defined in terms of response to external stimuli and response, by means of which it is distinguished from a vegetative state. If you are in a coma your eyes don't open spontaneously, there is no evidence that you are perceiving, or that you can communicate and there is no evidence that you are able to respond. But as far as what is going on in you consciously in terms of feeling love or fear, there is no means of knowing.

This is rather similar to being asleep. Where is your soul then?

Rachel Browne


Olcay asked:

I'm really interested in philosophy of perception. I'm trying to write essays about this. But I have a problem about the sense-data theory. The majority of philosophers are talking about sense data coming through our eyes, ears etc. Locke and Berkeley had no doubt about this. But when we accept the faculties and these parts of our body, don't we presuppose and accept the external world in space and time? After accepting the causal theory and sense data, how can Berkeley and others argue about an "external world"? I am not a direct realist, but I believe that the representative theory of perception has structural problems, not only leading to idealism. What do you think about this?

I was actually hoping that someone else would tackle this one... oh well. Yes, you're right. But the problem I have is that I've actually done some reading in this area, and to go further gets us involved in matters that have had so much discussion that I hardly know to where to refer you. For example, if you want to stick to philosophy you can look at what Husserl and other phenomenologists have had to say on this. Merleau-Ponty, one of Husserl's pupils, attacks it directly in several of his books. There is an absolutely enormous literature on perception throughout the history of psychology, and most of the better psychologists are at least acquainted with some of the philosophical literature here (although it's only recently that the reverse is true, by and large, unfortunately). For a good modern treatment of perception, there's Palmer's book. In other words, what I'm also saying to you is that, in my strong opinion, to write meaningfully about perception, even the "philosophy" of perception, requires, now, a knowledge of the psychology of perception also. There's still people arguing about whether "colors" are real, and in what sense they are... and that's very close to being straight philosophy. But if you want to go further than the metaphysics, you need to know something about what's been done empirically. To put it another way, Helmholtz came up with theories about perception back when psychologists were still half philosophers. But they were, mostly, wrong, and what weren't have been elaborated to a quite radical extent, based on empirical work.

Some random readings:

  Arnheim, R. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.
  Arvidson, P. S. "On the Origin of Organization in Consciousness." Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 23, no. 1 (1992): 53-65.
  Baars, B. J. "Attention Versus Consciousness in the Visual Brain: Differences in Conception, Phenomenology, Behavior, Neuroanatomy, and Physiology." The Journal of General Psychology 126, no. 3 (1999): 224-33.
  Bealer, G. "The Boundary between Philosophy and Cognitive Science." The Journal of Philosophy 84, no. 10 (1987): 553-55.
  Bekkering, H., and S.F.W. Neggers. "Visual Search Is Modulated by Action Intentions." Psychological Science 13, no. 4 (2002): 370-74.
  Boyer, P. "Natural Epistemology or Evolved Metaphysics? Developmental Evidence for Early-Developed, Intuitive, Category-Specific, Incomplete, and Stubborn Metaphysical Presumptions." Philosophical Psychology 13, no. 3 (2000): 277-97.
  Cariani, P. "As If Time Really Mattered: Temporal Strategies for Neural Coding of Sensory Information." edited by K. Pribram, 208-52. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.
  Cariani, P. "On the Design of Devices with Emergent Semantic Functions." State University of New York, 1989.
  Colcombe, S.J., and R.S. Wyer. "The Role of Prototypes in the Mental Representation of Temporally Related Events." Cognitive Psychology 44 (2002): 67-103.
  Davis, G. "Between-Object Binding and Visual Attention." Visual Cognition 8, no. 3/4/5 (2001): 411-30.
  Dennett, D. C. "Quining Qualia." In Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, 42-77. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., 1994.
  Dreyfus, H. L. "The Current Relevance of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Embodiment." Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy 4 (1996).
  Fernandez-Duque, D., and M. Johnson. "Attention Metaphors: How Metaphors Guide the Cognitive Psychology of Attention." Cognitive Science 23, no. 1 (1999): 83-110.
  Flanagan, O. "Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion." In The Nature of Consciousness, edited by N. Block, O. Flanagan and G. Guzeldere, 357-73. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
  Fogassi, L., V. Gallese, G. Buccino, L. Craighero, L. Fadiga, and G. Rizzolatti. "Cortical Mechanism for the Visual Guidance of Hand Grasping Movements in the Monkey: A Reversible Inactivation Study." Brain 124, no. 3 (2001): 571-86.
  Follesdal, D. "Husserl's Notion of Noema." The Journal of Philosophy 66, no. 20 (1969): 680-87.
  Gardner, H. The Mind's New Science. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1985.
  Gasche, R. The Tain of the Mirror. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  Gibbs, R. W., and H. L. Colston. "The Cognitive Psychological Reality of Image Schemas and Their Transformations." Cognitive Linguistics 6, no. 4 (1995): 347-78.
  Giurfa, M., S. Zhang, A. Jenett, R. Menzel, and M.V. Srinivasan. "The Concepts of `Sameness' and `Difference' in an Insect." Nature 410 (2001): 930-32.
  Goldman, A. I. "Cognitive Science and Metaphysics." Journal of Philosophy 84, no. 10 (1987): 537-44.
  Gregory, R. "Perceptions as Hypotheses." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences 290 (1980): 181-97.
  Grossberg, S., E. Mingolla, and W.D. Ross. "Visual Brain and Visual Perception: How Does the Cortex Do Perceptual Grouping?" Trends in Neurosciences 20, no. 3 (1997): 106-11.
  Gurwitsch, A. The Field of Consciousness. Edited by A. van Kaam, Duquesne Studies: Psychological Series. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1964.
  Hasson, U., T. Hendler, D. Ben Bashat, and R. Malach. "Vase or Face? A Neural Correlate of Shape-Selective Grouping Processes in the Human Brain." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 13, no. 6 (2001): 744-53.
  Hayek, F.A. The Sensory Order. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  Helmholtz, H.L.F. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Translated by A.J. Ellis. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1954.
  Hollingworth, A., and J.M. Henderson. "Accurate Visual Memory for Previously Attended Objects in Natural Scenes." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 28, no. 1 (2002): 113-36.
  Husserl, E. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Translated by D. Cairns. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995.
  Husserl, E.. The Idea of Phenomenology. Translated by W. P. Alston and G. Nakhnikian. Fourth ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Marinus Nijhoff, 1970.
  Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception. Edited by Ted Honderich. 1st ed, International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
  Merleau-Ponty, M.. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by C. Lefort, J. Wild and J. M. Edie, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995.
  Palmer, S. E. Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

Steven Ravett Brown


Scott asked:

Do you think that all animals are conscious? Or just ones that are closer to humans? I feel that all animals are conscious as they display many characteristics that humans do. Animals show emotions such as fear and happiness so does this not make them conscious?

The statement "all animals are conscious" seems to be anthropomorphic. The statement "all animals are not conscious" seems to be anthropocentric. It would be wise to distrust equally anthropomorphic and anthropocentric claims.

Instead, I would suggest to trust your own observation and judgment. Personally, I observe that the animals I know all have awareness of themselves and of their surroundings. Particularly our family's old cat who is very well aware of our customs and usages and of lots of other things.

Jean Nakos


Tom asked:

Is it true that there are two types of people — those who believe that there are two types of people and those who do not?

Why even ask this question? Where does it get you? Yes of course there are the people who believe there are two types and those who do not; those who believe there are three types and those who do not; those who believe there are four types and those who do not.... There are two types of people: those who ask questions on philosophy sites and those who do not; those who ask 1 question and those who do not... There are... There... The... T...

Steven Ravett Brown

There is an air of paradox about this example. Of course, you can find people who believe that there are three types of people. In fact, anyone, when prompted, could probably think of three mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories: e.g. 'People who like Eminem, people who don't like Eminem and people who've never heard of Eminem'. And the same for any other number of 'types'. What is strange about this case is the self-reference aspect. The two 'types' in question exist in virtue of that very belief, not by any other criterion or sorting principle.

The self-reference in question looks paradoxical, but isn't. There's no circle or vicious regress. It's like the piece of paper both sides of which have the sentence 'The sentence on the other side of this paper is true'. There's no contradiction there, but one wants to ask, 'What is true?' Similarly, one wants to ask, 'What is the type of person who believes there are two types of people?' and the only answer forthcoming is, 'I have just said what.'

Geoffrey Klempner


Scot asked:

What are the Cons of drinking alcohol?

I am going to be concerned with beer over other alcoholic substances in this answer. I'm also going to assume that the abuse of alcohol is not the issue, because those cons are pretty much the same as other substance abuse: health issues, breakdown of social and personal relations, crime. There are also interesting questions about personality changes that sometimes occur when drunk, Am I still the same person after eight pints as when stone cold sober, are personality traits merely enhanced, or does a different personality take over? But I'm going to concentrate on the moderate drinker. I used to think that the most damaging thing about booze was that it destroys brain cells, which later in life would be a real disaster, especially when I can't remember where I put my drink down, but thanks to a friend of mine, who only recently came over to the dark side, I am no longer worried about this. Knowing my concerns she forwarded this to me:


A herd of buffalo can move only as fast as the slowest buffalo. When the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular culling of the weakest members. In much the same way the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we all know, kills brain cells, but naturally it attacks the slowest and weakest cells first. In this way regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That's why you always feel smarter after a few beers."

Well it convinced me anyway!

So now the only cons of drinking that I can see are mostly financial. In the U.K. the price of a pint is on the heavy side, it costs so much for a drink. It's an expensive past time.

Of course, now that I think on there are other cons, one is that one must be continually vigilant against the ever present threat of spillage, often the concern to protect the drink from dangerous affects of the enjoyment of consuming the drink.

And let's not forget the ethical implications of what one drinks. Much of the beer industry is dominated by monopolies of large international brewers, leaving the small local brew (often superior beers) to be marginalized even erased from the beer drinker's life. Should one then boycott these mass produced beers in order to safeguard independent (but more expensive) brewers thus protecting the diversity of beer for generations to come or does the need for cheap booze outweigh the impact on real ale?

And then there are the wider issues, how does drinking adversely affect others? Is it right to spend all this money on a pint of booze, which is really a luxury on the drinker's part, and which will probably end up against a wall, when so many people the world over are starving?

While these are serious issues that should be addressed by any drinker, let's not forget the biggest con of all, The Hangovers!

Brian Tee
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Scott asked:

Is Artificial Intelligence possible?

Sure. There's plenty of it around right now: computers that translate speech into written words, computers that play chess, that plan actions, robots that discriminate objects... Does that answer your question?

...It shouldn't, because you have not explained what you mean by "artificial intelligence". Do you mean digital computers that are conscious? Any kind of physical system that is able to answer some sort of question? Computers that pass the Turing test? You need to think very carefully about what you are actually asking. I won't even bother to refer you to any literature here; there's so much that it's a bit absurd.

Steven Ravett Brown


Pedro asked:

What is the value of life?

For every living being the value of his/ her/ its own life is its uniqueness. Humanity tends to recognize only the uniqueness of each human being's life by punishing murderers etc. Yet, at the same time humanity contradicts itself by accepting wars.

Jean Nakos


Curt asked:

Quine has argued there are no analytic statements. What does it matter if he's right? Does it make any difference in the way we think about the world?

An interesting question, and the answer depends on how concerned you are with truth. If there are only synthetic statements, it's all inference, right? And we have no absolute certainties. If there are any analytic statements, then we can have some certainties. So if you like to think about the world as having the possibility for producing or showing something which we can know is true, then you're going to be disturbed by Quine. Otherwise, if you can be satisfied with likelihoods, or better, with probabilities, then you can be happy with good odds that some things are true. You might look up the difference between Bayesian and Neyman/ Fisher statistics.

Steven Ravett Brown


Luis asked:

My question is, why we, as human society and individuals, are always dreaming or wanting to be the best in everything or in a specific thing, why are we always wanting to be the person above the others, and why are we not thinking of being the one below the others, the one that obeys and doesn't give orders, why not accepting our personal reality instead of trying to be someone we are not and someone we can't be, why trying to be the successful and millionaire guy instead of being the poor and ruined one?

Not everyone wants to be best and the vast majority of people are not. Most people I know are perfectly happy being average. The great thing about being the one who is supposed to obey, rather than the one who gives orders, is that it allows for rebellion.

Rachel Browne


Sharon asked:

How do I contrast Kierkegaard on the objective versus the subjective approaches to God?

I'd do it by comparing the various stages he describes in moral development to corresponding approaches to religion.

Steven Ravett Brown