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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 20 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you Asked a Philosopher from February 2003 — March 2003:

  1. Wittgenstein on Augustine's picture of language
  2. My philosophy of evolution
  3. Teaching 14 year olds to design the ideal society
  4. J.L. Mackie on the subjectivity of ethical values
  5. Reasonable and unreasonable reasons
  6. Could we live our lives over and over again?
  7. When do infants know about objects?
  8. Arguments against fatalism
  9. When human beings look like ants
  10. How software makes a computer 'move'
  11. Why metaphysicians are interested in non-actual possibilities
  12. Customs and traditions
  13. Proving God's non-existence
  14. Why the Nazis liked Nietzsche
  15. Asking whether we exist
  16. Are verbal contracts binding?
  17. Happiness, pleasure, virtue and the good life
  18. Only the present moment is real
  19. A question about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem
  20. Why it is wrong to eat people
  21. Scientific problems and philosophical problems
  22. Contingent identity of mental and physical states
  23. Are works of art in the mind?
  24. Where to find out about paradoxes
  25. Ethical egoism and psychological egoism
  26. Reason and emotion
  27. Making ethical business decisions
  28. Soul, consciousness and gut feeling
  29. Do ants have souls?
  30. The assumptions behind logic
  31. Is atheism self-refuting?
  32. Philosophy is a scrap heap
  33. Could a robot have a soul?
  34. When moral maxims contradict one another
  35. Plato on the role of images in knowledge
  36. Philosophy suffers from arrogance and dismayed insightfulness
  37. Is the attempt to create an altruistic society doomed to fail?
  38. How many colours are there?
  39. Why God lets people get ill
  40. How neurons produce consciousness
  41. Testing philosophical aptitude
  42. Problems for UN weapons inspectors in Iraq
  43. Did Socrates show that philosophy is good for everyone?
  44. How philosophy can be relevant to the business world
  45. Making capitalism more altruistic
  46. Does philosophy disturb the harmony of the planet?
  47. Why we miss the easy shot
  48. Perception and sense data
  49. Dualism and the beetle in the box
  50. What happened to the grandeur of ancient Greece?
  51. What is the universe in and where are God's parents?
  52. How logic influences historical interpretation
  53. Are we real or do we exist only in God's imagination?
  54. Does poverty diminish human dignity?
  55. Erigena's theological comparisons
  56. Does listening to music help study?
  57. Conceptual framework for guiding educational practice
  58. Tips for teaching first year philosophy students
  59. Role of religion in Athens' golden age
  60. Metaphysics and extra-terrestrial intelligence
  61. Superstitions and mental health
  62. Individual selves and mind-stuff
  63. Why Plato wrote the Republic
  64. How to read Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
  65. God and tense vs. tenseless views of time
  66. I am lying
  67. Answering a question with a question
  68. Why there are wars
  69. Patriotism at a time of war
  70. Judging beauty vs. perceiving beauty
  71. Descartes' and Spinoza's proofs of God
  72. Reason, senses and intuition
  73. Religious experience as a form of knowledge
  74. Computationalism and the mind
  75. Tattoos and the work place
  76. How we know that we were born
  77. Mind-body identity and raw feels
  78. On the nature of excellence
  79. Do we believe in religion because we need to?
  80. Neoplatonism, Christianity and the Medieval world view
  81. Wittgenstein on social structures and mental structures
  82. Why do we encounter physical objects in our dreams?
  83. Why do things exist?
  84. Santayana on art and beauty
  85. The web and intellectual property
  86. Guides to Hegel's Phenomenology of Sprit
  87. Utilitarianism and euthanasia
  88. Difference between fact and opinion
  89. Attempt to refute moral monotheism
  90. Difficult passage from Plato's Euthyphro
  91. Theological explanations of good and evil
  92. Human rights and natural rights
  93. Free choice and moral responsibility
  94. Life is hell, so why does it matter what we do?
  95. Difference between choice and decision
  96. How can an unchanging God interact with a changing world?
  97. Origins of Japanese philosophy
  98. Locke on the natural right to property
  99. Describing a colour we have never seen
  100. How our actions express our thoughts
  101. If God is a woman, why were men invented?
  102. The three Aristotles
  103. Inherent goodness and inherent badness
  104. Schopenhauer on the basis of morality
  105. Quine vs Carnap on the analytic/ synthetic distinction
  106. Difficult passage from Locke's Essay
  107. Justified and unjustified discrimination
  108. Why necessary truths must be knowable a priori
  109. How cold is twice as cold?

Liv asked:

What is Wittgenstein's argument against Augustine's picture of language and why did he pick on him and noone else? And is Wittgenstein's view of language noticeably more convincing than Augustine's?

I don't know whether this is a question that was given to you as part of your studies or whether it is your own question. In either case it is a bit of a "trick" question.

Paradoxically Wittgenstein "picked on" St. Augustine because, in the first place, he regarded him with the utmost respect, as one of the greatest thinkers (in the broadest sense) and writers that ever lived — and he loved to read all St. Augustine's writings, and did so throughout his life. Secondly he "picked on" him precisely because be believed Augustine had given a very clear and powerful expression of a picture of language that, in various other forms, is very widespread in almost all philosophical thinking and reflection, but which is a deeply misleading picture that results in all sorts of confusions and false or misleading theories in philosophy. Wittgenstein felt that if such a great man could hold such a problematic view of language then there must be something pretty important about it!

And this brings us to the point that really Wittgenstein was most definitely not just "picking" on Augustine "and no-one else"! In fact he was most certainly picking on himself and the philosophical theories that he had put forward more than twenty years earlier in the Tractatus, which were very similar to Augustine's conception of language. And also, for the same reason, he is really, but implicitly, arguing against the views of many other philosophers: from his contemporaries like Russell and the Logical Positivists right back to the ancient Greeks.

You will need to bear in mind that very few philosophers would admit to openly and simplistically believing in the "Augustinian picture of language" [very roughly that all words are names and that to know the thing referred to by a word is to know its meaning]. However Wittgenstein's point is that this "picture" is very deeply embedded in our thinking, almost subconscious one might say. It is a sort of magnetic pole towards which philosophical reflection and theorising tends to gravitate in all manner of subtle ways, and Wittgenstein believed that this tendency leads to misrepresentations and misunderstanding of how language works, and so to philosophical confusion and misguided theorising.

If you don't mind I am not going to do your homework for you and explain what Wittgenstein's arguments against it were, and whether or not his views are more convincing. His basic arguments against it and the alternatives he suggests are given in the early sections of the Philosophical Investigations, which I trust you will have read. But for a full account of Wittgenstein's thinking on these matters you would need to read much further, and I hope that you will. However in doing so bear in mind that Wittgenstein always sought to present the philosophical ideas that he was arguing against as forcefully and thoroughly as he possibly could — in order to get to the deepest crux of the problems. He liked to play his own Devil's advocate. On the other hand his own resolution of the problems is invariably presented only very briefly, or by way of mere "hints" and "pointers". He did not want to save people the trouble of thinking for themselves, indeed, he believed that only in this way, by fully "experiencing" the problems and finding their own resolutions, could anyone make any real progress in philosophy. That is no doubt true. But this single fact has probably lead to more misunderstanding of Wittgenstein than anything else: people very often thinking that what he is arguing against is what he is advocating! ... because he presents it so powerfully and thoroughly.

And these sort of misreadings are not just a problem for beginners and new-comers to Wittgenstein, but for some of the most famous and highly respected university professors! Indeed there is still quite a lot of controversy about exactly how to understand Wittgenstein's thinking on many of the issues and questions relating to language.

So good luck!

Rob de Villiers


Josh asked:

Over the past two years I have been contemplating my own philosophies about life and am going to write a 10 page english paper on them. Unfortunately, I have had a very hard time finding people who share my own philosophies so it makes it harder for me to learn more about them. My question is if anyone could tell me of any resources/authors that share my philosophies. Hear they are in a nutshell.

I don't believe in any spiritual bodies.

I believe in the evolution of man.

I believe the meaning of life is merely to survive and reproduce because otherwise you will die and your genes will no longer be around.

I believe good is what benefits that individuals/ groups survival and evil being the opposite. I believe we are no different than animals except we have evolved to reason better than all other animals.

If you can help to point me in the direction of others who have thought similarly it will allow me to learn much faster than if I had to figure everything out for myself.

Well Josh, from the evidence of your list, I don't figure on much of a chance of persuading you that there is not much philosophy in your beliefs; and I can't quite tell whether your beliefs are founded on hearsay or factual evidence. But I will assume the latter: I'll go on the assumption that you've read at least a dozen or so well-argued books on the pros and cons of each of these points and formulated (at least in your mind) some cogent arguments for them if ever you happen to be in company and called upon to defend them.

Having said this, however, I must take issue with you immediately on Point 4, "we reason better than animals". You must have written this in one hell of a hurry, for you cannot possibly be incognisant of the fact that we do not reason "better" than other animals. We just reason; animals do not. There is no basis for comparison.

And now that I come to think of it, I'm a bit uncomfortable with Point 1 as well. I don't believe in spiritual bodies either; in fact, I wonder if anyone in the world does. I've always thought that people who believed in ghosts and spirits, and God and Allah, thought of bodies as a species of things, and the spirit as a species of non-things. But I guess what you mean is, you don't believe in ghosts etc. Well, that makes two of us.

Point 2 also strikes me as dubiously expressed. You don't believe in ghosts, but you believe in evolution. I wonder if you've ever actually stopped to think what evolution "is"? Obviously not a thing, nor an occurrence: but what then is it? I might say, it's the same as stating, it's wet down here because it just rained. I could write a lovely 'scientific' thesis proving that every time it rains, something down here gets wet. Now you probably think I'm being frivolous, but if you did, you guessed wrongly. I'm dead serious. Evolution is not a thing to "believe in", because it is just an account of how the earth habitat changed as a result of living creatures occupying it, and how they in turn are changed as a result of changing the habitat. But I'll give you one reason why one can't "believe in it": there is no prognostication associated with it. Now this is a severe limitation. It's like saying, in my example from before, gosh, things get wet when it rains, why can't we figure out when the next rain shower is going to happen? Indeed: so why can't we figure out what kind of hominid is going to evolve from us? Because evolution is not an exact science, but a scientific biohistory of this planet. The big thing about it is nothing other than its explanatory power, which is a great deal more sophisticated than what religions used to dish up. But to say "I believe in evolution" is like saying, "I believe in Gibbon's Fall of the Roman Empire". Better to say: I believe that it accounts adequately for the existence of species on earth, and this is not, of course, compelling like the idea of a Creator God, but still a matter which is 'in principle' subject to verification by appropriate research, whereas a God is not.

Finally I should say a thing or two about your "belief in" reproduction and survival. You've actually got a case there, moreover it's just a fact that all living things reproduce in order to preserve their species. However, I now wish to ask you a counter question. Don't answer me, just think about it. The question is: why don't chessmen and lead soldiers and plastic ducks reproduce?

Jürgen Lawrenz

Start by looking here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/journal.htm. This site will get you into the world you're looking for. You might also look up: http://www.world-of-dawkins.com/default.asp. I think you will find a very sympathetic community at these sites.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jane asked:

How could I get children (age 14 approx) to think about designing the ideal society?

I don't think you should try to do this or even want to. In history, attempted ideal societies have tended to be authoritarian, illiberal, restricting and inflexible. These characteristics actually seem to be inseparable from ideal societies and utopias because those who establish them obviously don't want them to change. But those same characteristics often explain to a great extent why so many ideal societies eventually fail because of the internal stresses and strains they generate. A major problem is always what do you do about all those people who do not like what you regard as ideal?

Much better is to inculcate in your children a healthy scepticism towards those people who claim to know what an ideal society should be.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't encourage your children always to try to improve the world. They certainly should. In his work on political philosophy, Sir Karl Popper advocated just this. When you see something wrong with society, try to fix it. But bear in mind that the actions you take to fix the problem may well produce unexpected new problems that you had never even thought of. Of course, you don't then give up. You try to fix the new problems, and so on. Society then progresses in this way through processes of trial and error. Hopefully it also improves but, as Popper said, there can never be any guarantees of improvement.

Popper called this sort of approach 'piecemeal social engineering' and it is really at one with his whole philosophy that all life is problem solving.

But it's like painting the Forth Bridge. The work never stops. And we shouldn't want it to because if it did stop — perhaps because it was thought that the ideal society had been achieved — there would nothing left for us to do. It would be like being in heaven. That sounds fine until you remember you can only be in heaven if you are dead.

John Sartoris

I will not concern myself with the question whether such a question is useful. But why not?

Just some ideas: THE ideal society doesn't exist. Every system of thought has its own ideals. You might think that for instance democracy is ideal. Why? It could very well be possible that in Eastern cultures this doesn't fit. So start with letting think children about THEIR ideal of society. But I guess that's what you mean. At the age of fourteen their creativity shouldn't be a problem. A bigger problem is usually your own value system. Try not to judge. Children often have problems constructing a system. So why not add promising ideas to a virtual society (let them decide what is promising).

Henk Tuten

Well, there's always science fiction... Ursula LeGuin has several books on this theme... you might try her Lathe of Heaven. John Brunner The Stone that Never Came Down, and maybe, if they're bright kids, Stand on Zanzibar. There is always Wells' Time Machine... and so forth. All in all, I'd take a look into the sci-fi literature; there's lots of utopian speculations there, and some of it is combined with good adventure also.

Steven Ravett Brown

Of course you will start letting the kids put down any ideas of what they think a good society should look like. This would be the first round of this game. The second would be to look for contradicting goals in this list. Perhaps put the list on the blackboard in front of them in the classroom and let them debate and see. To learn that some goals are contradicting is a great step to deeper insight.

Then let them discuss different ideas of what is "good". I always call Plato's Republic a "brilliant nonsense", because it's a brilliant analysis of our concepts of "justice", but misses the important fact that human togetherness is not only justice. I compare this to the different concepts of "good eating" underlying the advice of the gourmet and the advice of the doctor: The gourmet speaks of "grand cuisine", while the doctor speaks of vitamins and minerals and calories etc. In this sense you may have the kids compare the life of a playboy or playgirl on a palm-beech ("The Bacardi World") against the life of a monk or nun in a cloister after vowing "poverty, chastity, and obedience" to the prior. While completely different both forms of life and togetherness are decent, sensible and "good" in a specific way.

Next let them see the difference between utopian totalitarian designs as in Huxley's Brave New World or as in Fascism and Stalinism and in the Taliban regime etc. as compared to interpersonal relations in the New Testament or in "humanistic psychology" (Maslow, Rogers, Fromm etc.) concentrating on "mutual love and understanding" without any "grand design" of society. What makes the difference? Here is a hint:

The socialist model of society failed, the Christian model of society failed likewise, and so did the liberal model. Why? Because all three models presupposed a very unrealistic model of human behaviour.

People are cowards, they are lazy, they are greedy, they are envious, they are vile, they are stupid, they are stubborn, they are arrogant, they are self-opinionated, they are vain, they are craving for power, they are sadistic, they are weak, they are forgetful but unforgiving, they are whimsical and capricious, they are lecherous and hypocrites, they are sensuous and voluptuous, they are thoughtless, gullible, and superstitious, and they sometimes even are mad and beset by mad ideas and fears and irreal hopes etc. And all this you have to take into account when building "an ideal society".

You cannot build a society on the concept of a "Christian" or a "socialist" or a "liberal" personality. That's nonsense. Those people are very rare indeed like geniuses and saints. It was not only the idea of a socialist society that was questionable. The real cause of failure was the misunderstanding that people could be selfless and caring and behave responsible all of a sudden. If you are a member of the "nomenklatura" in a communist state, you are not the "representative of the workers" anymore, but you are the member of the nomenklatura in the first line. You adapt to the requirements of this nomenklatura and to the specific craving for power and the specific greediness, vileness and self-righteousness of this nomenklatura. But of course you would never admit it. Thus the whole construct of "representing the working class" becomes a great lie and self-deceit of the members of the "socialist elites". And if you are paid a meager but at the same time assured and equal income by socialist standards, indifferent of your abilities or industriousness or inventiveness, you eventually stop being industrious and inventive and start being lazy and indifferent. And this you start not only because of resignation, but also because of being hassled by the more lazy and indifferent people around you. You cannot expect many achievers in a society that in fact calls achieving an unnatural and inhumane and "un-social" behaviour. Likewise there are many liberal lies and self-deceits on the real goings of a liberal society like in the USA or elsewhere. And of course there are many lies and self-deceits on the real goings of a Christian or an Islamic society defended by the true believers against all evidence.

All this is quite natural and "human". A good society is one that tries to be honest to experience, that tries to avoid the self-deceit, be it socialist or Christian or Islamic or liberal or whatever. Sounds very simple, but is very hard, because most people prefer false dreams. To be slim you should eat less fat and sugar an do sports and walking. But people prefer to eat fat and sugar and then pay dear for wonder-pills and wonder-exercises to get their weight down. This too is quite natural and "human". The problem is not to pay for the poor and the jobless and the elderly, the problem is that people don't like to do what is needed. They prefer to wail over all sorts of "crises of the welfare state". This is exactly like wailing over too much weight: Serious experts know what to do, but since it's annoying their advice is not asked for and so the quacks do the show.

And then there is this other and even deeper problem: The problem of perfectionism. Most well meaning people, when starting to design a "good society", set up a list of all evils as are smoking, drinking, "immoral behaviour" etc., and then simply call it item for item "forbidden" or "unnatural" etc.. Thus no smoking, no drinking, no "immoral behaviour" etc. anymore. They simply don't understand the difference between robots and living humans. Eating cake all the time surely is not good, but sometimes eating cake is very good. Fighting, running and achieving all the time surely is not good, but sometimes fighting, running and achieving in a contest is very good. But those schematic people designing a better world don't get it. Since they are principled fools they want clear decisions: X should be either bad or good, but not sometimes bad and sometimes good. But most things in life are good or bad only in some measure or under certain circumstances and not once and for all and under all conditions. Simpleminded persons get confused by this, while it's only common sense. This too is "being honest to experience".

Thus let all things as they are? No! There are real fools and evil persons around whose thoughts and deeds should not be tolerated. In a certain way, the Giuliani (the former mayor of New York city) principle of "zero tolerance" against trespassers of the law is not bad. But this does not include strictures in the form of a totalitarian regime like that of the Taliban or of some Christian fundamentalists as in the Geneva of Calvin.

There is an essential and clear difference to be seen: The "zero tolerance" principle is a defensive principle, not an oppressive or positively coercive one. It does not tell people what to do, it only tells them what NOT to do. It says in effect "Keep out of my home and garden, no trespassing here — but I don't care what you do otherwise." Thus "zero tolerance" only means "drawing the line". And by this the principle of "zero tolerance" lacks the moral arrogance of all true believers that try to impose their moral convictions on other people. True believers are zealots that don't like to learn and to listen, but that only want all others to have to learn and to listen. This is not the position of defenders of "zero tolerance", who are liberals.

And it's not the position of defenders of the Golden Rule either: The Golden Rule says "As you would like to have others do onto you, so do yourself onto others!" But this is not enforcing the behaviour of the others but your own behaviour. If you want people to be nice and helping, you first start to be nice and helping yourself and not shouting people around what to do and how to behave.

And then: According to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle "the good" is desired just for being good, like sweets are desired by the kids just for being sweet. Thus to make the good look good and attractive you have to advertize and to demonstrate it's quality, not to force people into some "good behaviour". You have to sell the better quality on the marketplace. But this is imposed on you, the seller, it's not enforcing the buyers to buy. You may be tempted to ban some "bad goods" from the market — but you should not. You may denounce what you think is bad, but let the customers decide for themselves. This is the way of an open and learning society. Criticize and advertize — but don't patronize or matronize, and don't compel.

Thus it is not quite impossible to bring some clarity into this debate on a good society. Even teenies should get an idea of the dangers of "designing the ideal society" by this and should become very cautious. But at the same time they should be encouraged: There really is much that can be done to improve human togetherness. That too they should learn by thinking it over.

Hubertus Fremerey


Cindy asked:

What are the premises and conclusions for J.L. Mackie's subjectivity of values in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong?

Can you give an analysis of his arguments?

Mackie gives a number of arguments against moral realism in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. The one im going to talk about is the 'queerness' argument. The basic idea is that Mackie wants to show that moral properties are somehow metaphysically queer, in that they are quite unlike any other kind of properties that exist and hence there existence should be rejected. The argument goes as follows:

  1. If moral properties are real then they have to be objective
  2. If moral properties are real then they have to be subjective
  3. If moral properties are real then they have to be both subjective and objective
  4. It's not the case that any property is both objective and subjective
  5. Therefore, it's not the case that moral properties are real

Mackie gives support to (1) because Mackie thinks that moral properties would have to be primary properties in a Lockean sense (i.e the same kind as shape) in order to make them really objective. (2) is supported because Mackie thinks that moral properties would also have to be like secondary qualities (like colour and taste) in order to be so closely tied to subjective states in an individual. Such a property (both a primary and a secondary) would, according to Mackie, be hopelessly queer.

People have responded to Mackie in a number of ways but ill mention just one. John McDowell (in his "Values and Secondary Qualities") has responded by saying that what's really wrong with Mackie's argument is his conception of the primary/ secondary property divide. McDowell argues that if we think about moral properties on a secondary quality model then we can generate enough objectivity for us all to be happy with. The basic divide is that Mackie takes it that secondary properties can't be objective, whereas McDowell thinks they can. McDowell thinks that secondary properties can be viewed dispositionally (i.e. x is red if and only if a standard observer in standard conditions would judge x is red) and that this can generate a level of objectivity that is sufficient for a genuine moral realism. Whether McDowell is correct is another matter (for the record, I don't think so) and im deliberately cutting this short because I could talk about this for a long time. Feel free to email me with any follow ups....

Rich Woodward


Trevor asked:

In the sport of sailing, we have an appeal procedure run by the Royal Yachting Association. I am the chairman of the Appeals Committee. We have a rule in racing that an entry to a race can be rejected or cancelled providing the organizers 'state the reason for doing so'. We are debating the question as to whether a reason has to be reasonable. Can you help?

As I understand the 'issue' here, it seems to me that you are wondering what criteria should be in place to determine if a reason counts as a good' or acceptable reason. On the surface, it seems like a reason for rejecting an entry could be just about anything. The rule in place only says that a reason must be given and does not stipulate the content of the reason. So, we might imagine for argument's sake that a reason plainly stated like, 'We dislike green-eyed people, and prohibit them from racing,' could be offered to cancel an entry. Yet such a reason might be considered 'unreasonable' as it is arbitrary. When offered this reason we can ask the question, 'Why?' Indeed, how would one explain why? 'Well, these people are disagreeable and nobody likes them.' But, why? 'They have green eyes.' But why is that disagreeable? 'It is simply how we feel.' But why is that grounds for rejecting an entry? 'Because it is how we feel.' But, why is that grounds for rejection (and not anything else)? 'It is — because we say so.' Arbitrary reasons have the character of being unjustifiable they cannot withstand testing (why questions). Often, they are justified ultimately on the very lacking grounds of 'just because.'

Acceptable, non-arbitrary reasons have some justification. These reasons are 'reasonable' in the very least, they provide us with grounds for a real debate. For instance, we might imagine that an entry is rejected for the reason that the crew members are all seven years old, and the association prohibits such an entry. The association gives the reason that unsupervised minors are not permitted to enter races. When asked why this is so, the association may claim that such a situation represents a safety hazard. When asked why, the association may make reference to the risks involved in the sport and that minors cannot legally assume these risks. Now, there might be an argument about the merits of these particular seven year-olds involved, or the legality involved, but, ultimately, the association has provided a non-arbitrary reason for its decision.

The issue then is whether or not the Royal Yachting Association wishes to deny entries for races with arbitrary reasons or with justifiable reasons. A private club or association might be within its rights to utilize arbitrary reasons for rejecting applications, but then would face fairly reasonable criticism, perhaps even legal action for discrimination (unjustified bias against the green-eyed, for example). It seems to me that although the language of the charter is vague and open to this sort of interpretation, it is hard to imagine that anyone in your association would want to act upon this sort of interpretation. It would be best to assume that the reasons the association should provide must be non-arbitrary and justifiable (or, as you put it, reasonable reasons).

Maureen Eckert

I think you will find that in the rather loose way in which rules like these are framed, the intention is to put off an applicant in the nicest (and most logical) way, and in this respect the demand is certainly for a 'reasonable' excuse. In essence, of course, it is wholly arbitrary. A committee like your's represents an interest group, and part of your duty is to preserve and protect those interests (providing they are within the applicable laws). For instance, it would probably not be considered a reasonable rebuff to an applicant to point to his/ her hairstyle and/ or manner of dress — yet if the rules demand of all applicant to have crew cuts and to wear a blue and white outfit, then that 'unreasonable' criterion becomes suddenly eminently reasonable. In most committee work of this kind (at least those of which I have had experience), a 'reasonable reason' is usually required for most decisions which reject an application; though in these as in most cases, it is the majority opinion which prevails in the judgement of what is 'reasonable' under the circumstances. I suppose you're aware that every now and then a court may overturn one of these 'reasonable' decisions; but this tends to happen more often in the 'serious' avenues of life, e.g. schools or highly competitive sporting environments.

Jürgen Lawrenz

I'm going to take it that you really are who you say you are... which means you are a) serious about this, and b) reasonably sophisticated in human relationships. Now, clearly "reasonable" doesn't merely mean "have a reason", since that could be anything, and very well might be. So I do think that you have to set some standard, or establish a procedure for setting standards. As I see it you have several choices.

First, you can set up some meta-rule to this effect: "a reason shall be deemed valid by a majority vote of the rules committee; there will be one opportunity to appeal a negative ruling within one month [or whatever] and the ruling from that appeal is final". That's one possibility... reasonable is what a majority says is reasonable. Period. Why not? You must have thought of that, surely.

Second, you could do the same as the above, basically, and let the chairman have the final say, or the tie-breaking (if you can have ties) say. I'm in favor of this one, for the reason that the captain of a ship has the final say, and you are then modeling the committee after a ship. A workable model, it seems to me, given the nature of your club.

Third, you could take a look at legal definitions of "reasonable". That isn't my field; I have no idea as to what they might be; but I cannot believe that some lawyer on your committee or in the club could not find such a definition. Then use that as the definition for your committee.

Well that's it for my ideas... I don't see any point here in going on about different ethical systems, etc. Arbitrary as it sounds, I'm in favor of the second alternative for your club. Anyway, I hope this helps.

Steven Ravett Brown

It depends on your aims. It is our whim or we don't like you are reasons. But they are not reasonable in the sense of being fair — and fairness is to be expected by an Appeals Committee just because such a body is expected to act reasonably or there would be no way of appealing with any sort of case. And I expect it is your aim to be held in regard.

Rachel Browne


Jim asked:

Is it possible that when we die we could be re-incarnated back to the time we were born and live our own life over and over again, regardless of the ribbon of time?

Anything is possible, Jim, anything at all. Consider that there is an INFINITY "out there", of which we know probably not even a millionth of a percent.

On the other hand, there are a few things which we do know. And from those few things which we can positively assert to be possible, probable or likely, irrespective of what kind of secrets may be lurking in that gargantuan realm of the INFINITE, we can say that reincarnation, as in your question, is out of the question.

This is not to say that in the space of all possible, probable or likely occurrences in the INFINITE universe, you and reincarnation are present and accounted for, even though perhaps in no other state that the thought you had. I think you meant your question to be taken literally, however, and that's why I positively answered it in the negative. Now if you are wondering, why I captalised INFINITY, it was as a reminder that if the world/ universe/ God etc are really infinite, then questions like yours (and probably most of the questions we put to the world/universe/God) are just the toys of our mind. Because being FINITE, we cannot know anything at all about the INFINITE. We can only know what prevails in our local FINITE segment; and this implies that, for all intents and purposes, the INFINITE universe beyond the tiny little bubble of our local system does not exist.

You see the problem, I hope? For anything to be possible that is actually impossible, you require an infinite range of possibilities. But infinite possibilities can only occur in an infinite system. And ours is not, it's a finite system. Therefore impossibilities cannot occur in our system.

Jürgen Lawrenz

The thought that you have expressed, the idea of an 'eternal recurrence' was first formulated by the Greek Stoics, and was later taken up by Nietzsche:

The greatest stress. How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you — all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a dust grain of dust.' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?

F. Nietzsche Thus Spake Zarathustra Part One, 101

Leaving aside the question whether this information ought to make us gnash our teeth, or, on the contrary, ought to reassure us that our existence has some 'weight' to it (see the opening of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable LIghtness of Being) Nietzsche's hypothesis bothers me for two reasons.

First, I don't see why I have to think of 'the next GK who comes around' after the history of the universe has repeated itself as being me. Suppose the demon had whispered that reality consists of an infinite three-dimensional array, each compartment containing an identical universe. Surely, there would not be any temptation to think that the GK in one of the compartments next to this one, or the compartment after that, is myself. No, it is someone like in every respect. The next GK along is writing these very words, just as I write them, is thinking the very same thoughts as I am thinking and so on. But that does not make us one and the same individual.

That does not necessarily take away from the sublimity of the idea of an infinite recurrence or repetition, whether taken in a temporal or a spatial sense.

However, the analogy with the spatial array ought to make us stop and think whether we really understand what is meant by the idea of infinitely many identical universes, whether extended in time or stretched out in space. By hypothesis, there could be no 'travel' to the next universe along, nor could any empirical observation count in support of either hypothesis. Every possible observation and experience, for now and for evermore, will be the same whether the universe is infinitely repeated or not.

You might dismiss that as merely an expression of verificationism. At any rate, Nietzsche evidently took the challenge sufficiently seriously, because he attempted to prove the truth of the eternal recurrence on the basis of the principle of universal determinism. His idea was that if determinism holds, then given sufficient time the particles which make up the universe must one day fall into an identical arrangement to one that has existed at a previous occasion. From that time onwards, determinism guarantees that everything that happens from that moment will be the same as what happened the previous time, and so on to infinity. Unfortunately, the proof has a fatal flaw (see my answer to Nick Answers 7).

Even if we reject the verificationist worry, in the case of time there is a third alternative to consider, that time is not like 'a ribbon' as you put it, but is circular. I would very much like someone to explain to me the difference between the hypothesis of infinite temporal recurrence in linear time and the hypothesis that time is not linear but circular.

Geoffrey Klempner


Kiernon asked:

When do infants know about objects?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, because of a problem with the term "object". Just what is an object? A block of wood? A circle against a background? One's own hand? A splotch of color? A sound? Something that stays the same when it disappears behind something else? There is a sense in which infants are aware of objects several weeks before they are born. But that is a very primitive sense, which is constantly being refined. I simply cannot answer your question without more specification. Check out these for a very sparse introduction:

 Cowan, N., J.S. Saults, L.D. Nugent, and E.M. Elliott. "The Microanalysis of Memory Span and Its Development in Childhood." International Journal of Psychology 34, no. 516 (1999): 353-358.
 Gopnik, A., and A. Meltzoff. "The Development of Categorization in the Second Year and Its Relation to Other Cognitive and Linguistic Developments." Child Development 58 (1987): 1523-1531.
 Gopnik, A., and D.M. Sobel. "Detecting Blickets: How Young Children Use Information About Novel Causal Powers in Categorization and Induction." Child Development 71, no. 5 (2000): 1205-1222.
 Piaget, J. The Construction of Reality in the Child. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, Inc., 1971.
 Piaget, J. The Grasp of Consciousness. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
 Stern, D. N. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985.
 Zheng, M., and S. Goldin-Meadow. "Thought before Language: How Deaf and Hearing Children Express Motion Events across Cultures." Cognition 85 (2002): 145-175.

Steven Ravett Brown


Marlys asked:

I am having a hard time finding any good arguments for and against fatalism. I would like to believe that we all have free will, but I have not been able to find much information on these topics. I am also finding it hard to research if agency exists. Any help on these issues would be helpful.

I understand fatalism as the theory that whatever anyone, including you, does, what is fated to happen will happen. In other words, human beings are impotent to change the future and so that the future is just like the past in that respect. As Doris Day sang in the film Don't Eat the Daisies, "Che Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be...."

What that implies is that if your instructor or teacher tells you that you must hand in a term paper, and that unless you do so, you will fail the course, then, if you are a Fatalist you will argue as follows:

"Whether or not I pass or fail the course is already fated. Che Sera, Sera. So, what is the point of bothering to write and hand in the term paper? None at all.

If you think that this argument is correct then you think Fatalism is correct. But if you disagree with this argument, you disagree with Fatalism.

It is because of this that the Stoics called a version of Fatalism in their time, "The Lazy Man's Sophism" (A Sophism is a plausible, but ultimately fallacious, reasoning.)

Ken Stern

It seems that there are two possible views you can take about the future. We'll stick with the example of the term paper. On the first view, the statement 'I will pass the course' has a truth value, just like any other statement, e.g. 'I spent three nights in a row writing my term paper', 'I am now printing out my term paper'. A statement just is the kind of thing that is true or false.

One philosopher who was worried about this view was Aristotle. He proposed an alternative theory (Aristotle De Interpretatione E.M. Edghill trans. in The Philosophy of Time Gale, R. ed. Macmillan 1968 pp. 179—182) which has come to be know as the 'open future'. At this moment in time, the future result pass or fail is not a fact. It is not decided. You can think of the universe branching out into two possible futures, the future where you pass and the future where you fail, which are equally real. What you do now will make all the difference.

It is possible to hold the first view — we can call this the 'closed future' — without accepting the validity of the lazy sophism. From the point of this more reflective fatalism, the fallacy in the lazy sophism consists in taking one view of what I am able to decide now, and another view of the future. The future is already fixed. We know that. But so is the present. That's what the lazy sophism misses. The correct conclusion to draw is that if the future is closed, then what we think of as 'making a decision' isn't what we take it to be. In other words, you can't say to yourself, 'I will write the paper...but what's the point? whether I pass or fail is already decided', because it is also 'already decided' whether or not you will write the paper. Deciding is something that happens, and like anything else that happens it has a causal effect on future outcomes.

I have no interest in defending fatalism. But nor am I convinced that Aristotle's 'open future' is the only alternative. A third, more subtle possibilty is that we say, about something that might happen in the future, 'If X will happen then it is true now that X will happen', the words "it is true now that" add nothing to the content of the statement. I might as well say, "If X will happen then ba ba ba ba ba X will happen". If we remove the 'babble', then "If X will happen then X will happen" is just an tautology, an instance of "If P then P". And nothing of consequence can follow from a tautology.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ricardo asked:

I know what Barbara means (Answers 20) when she asked her question about human beings and ants. Firstly, sometimes the individuality of people can be overlooked in favour of what is often termed 'the general public' or as Sartre put it 'the impersonal flock', I too loathe these terms yet they remain inescapable all the same. Speaking for myself here, these terms make me feel insignificant, almost like an ant. I don't know whether or not ants or humans have or have not immortal souls, I don't wish to go there, not because I am a sophist, opting for 'the answer is complex and life is short', but rather that I do not wish to be dogmatic or assuming. The existence or absence of 'souls' is not something which can really be proved. However, I do believe that if humans have souls then so then do ants, why not? I recently went on the London Eye and trust me up there it's hard to see people in the same way as one might on the ground, and in fact to me at least the city did look just like a giant kind of ant colony.

That we look like ants as you tower above us on the Eye doesn't mean that we are ants. Did you not see little cars, buses and bridges and the Houses of Parliament?

I think that it is not only sometimes that individuality is overlooked, but that it always is when group descriptions such as 'the general public' are used. This is because when people use the description it doesn't apply to every member. If you say the general public are in favour of increased support by the government of public services, there will always be individuals who are not. These are simply generalisations. For any ascription to the general public, or any description of them, there will be exceptions not, of course, that they are people but this is part of the meaning of general public any further comments are false. So you might feel easier if you realise that any such statement is not true.

Another way of looking at it is that Sartre might have seen people as an impersonal flock, but within that flock the reality is that there are people deeply in love with each other and people who have strong attachments with one another and people with ethical commitments which arise in relation to those they do not even know. What Sartre wrote probably didn't even reflect his personal experience amongst others.

The way forward is to think of our connectedness with one another rather than existential alienation.

The reason we don't think that ants have souls (and we could be wrong) is that their interactions with the world and one another don't seem to be of sufficient complexity to reflect a creative and imaginative inner life. They are thought simply to work. If you like, one way to look at it is that their lives must be so boring that they indulge in a great deal of imaginations and also in ant communication when in small groups to compensate. Watching them closely, they don't acknowledge each other as they pass. Very much like London.

But more realistically, why was it that when you were on the eye you didn't marvel at the little cars and bridges?

Rachel Browne

Of course from a distance we may as well be ants too! But humanocentrism may consider things otherwise.

Do ants have immortal souls? Why not? Concerning the Judeo-Christian tradition, the opinion of the majority is that animals have not immortal souls. However there always were and are many eminent theologians, religious personalities and plain believers who claim that animals do have immortal souls too. The minority's opinion is based on various biblical and theological elements.

For further consideration I would suggest to read the book After Noah (Mowbray, first published 1997) by the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey and the Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok.

Jean Nakos


Sweis asked:

I am beginning my studies in philosophy of mind. However, I have a question I feel might be considered stupid by my fellow students and professors: How does the software of a computer make the hardware move? The question is of course connected to the ever bothersome mind-body problem started by Descartes. I read your answers to Dualism and others, but my question is on the computer connection.

These types of question, Sweis, have been around for ages and yet we don't ever seem to get any closer to a resolution. But there is an absolutely fundamental fallacy here, namely in just putting it the way you have, as a presupposition that "a computer moves things". I suppose thousands, maybe millions of people share in this fallacy; they are confused because science tells them this-and-that about the supposed powers of computers and we are all supposed to believe it because of the prestige associated with science. Let me therefore point out the fallacy for you, and maybe you'll then feel motivated to spread the word a little. Just try and answer these few questions, but try and see through the pattern of them:

1. When a ball rolls down a slope, who/what moves the ball?
2. When a tile falls off a roof and kills a passer-bye, who/what killed that person?
3. When you go to sleep at night, who/what puts you to sleep?
4. When you move your writing hand, who/ what pushes the pen?
5. When you drive a car, who/what drives the car?
6. When a computer issues printing code to a printer, who/what instructs the printer?

Now questions 1-2 are answerable, though not to everyone's complete satisfaction, for it depends on whichever scientific theory is current at the moment to account for concepts like 'impetus', 'force', 'attraction' etc. But in any case, if you said "gravity" for the first and "chance" for the second, the likelihood of it standing up in a judicial court is pretty good. With No. 3 you have to command some fairly precise knowledge of physiology, but again an answer is readily attainable. But with No. 4 we move into a different realm, one where the concept of 'volition' enters the picture. Let's leave aside any question of whether it is the soul or the psyche or the mind that is ultimately responsible; for by whatever name you label the faculty responsible for the movement, the answer to No. 4 is not, of course, "my hand", but "I". The cartesian dilemma can be said to have been resolved to the extent that there is no longer cause for us to abide by his mind/ matter distinction; for although we have not come to a solution of where or how the pulse originates which moves the hand, yet its source is the "I", which generates a stream of electrochemical energy through the appropriate neuronal pathways, which are in turn converted by the motor cortex into a signalling bundle that triggers the desired muscular functions.

Now here you have an answer to No. 4, which gives you both the 'mechanical' features and the 'mental' features of the arrangement involved in the movement, namely that there is an "I" (however constituted) which initiates, a series of functions which obey, and the medium by which the intentions are communicated and in the same pass translated into action. Basically, you have the answer to No. 5 as well now; and I only threw in this question as a stepping stone to the unveiling of the above mentioned fallacy. Evidently it is not the motor which drives the car, although in everyday parlance we often speak as though this were the case. Nor is it your foot on the accelerator with your hands on the steering wheel, but once again, indubitably, the "I".

And indubitably, it is again the same "I" which issues code to the printer and instructs it. For both a printer and a computer are 100% dead matter, which is built and programmed by human. Accordingly the only thing a computer or a printer can "do" is to roll down an incline (if it's on wheels) or fall off a balcony and kill a passer-by, as the objects of questions No. 1 and 2. The seemingly 'intelligent' actions they perform, however, are not 'actions' at all — they are in the strictest sense of the word actions performed by humans, for whom the computer acts as a proxy. For it is always and exactly the same agency, a human mind, which instructs your hand to move the pen, your foot to push the gas pedal and the computer to generate the code to activate a printer. Now I should add something important here. There can be no pretence that we know exactly how the mind generates the stream of electrochemical energy which runs down your nerve strands to make certain muscles twitch. But we know exactly, down to the finest detail, how analogous action occurs in a computer and printer. And we know this for a very obvious reason: because a human mind designed this piece of machinery to work just as it does. Therefore, as I said, the ultimate cause of printer action is a human mind. — The ultimate cause of a human mind? Well, for that we're still looking!

Jürgen Lawrenz

Try thinking of it this way: there is a kind of illusion that "software" is the program you see on paper or what you type in on the screen. But those are the means of symbolizing and inputting software. Software actually is magnetically stored in the computer, and the magnetized areas in RAM affect electrical currents flowing through the silicon. You could (and the earliest computers did) use magnetic tape just like cassette tapes. So you don't have anything different, on that level, from an electric motor or a thermostat. What the RAM does is enable you to direct the electrical flows very precisely, in very complex patterns, which alter other magnetic areas, which direct other electrical flows, over and over until you finally get impulses directed to your screen or hard drive or whatever. You could just as well feel puzzled over how the tape in your tape player (if you still have one) causes the speakers to make sounds.

So how is this connected to the mind-body problem? A good question. You think computers have minds? Why on earth should you think that, except that we've been told over and over that this is the case? I'll let you in on a secret... they don't. Which is not to say that you can't get mind from matter. That is a totally, completely different question. And the conflation of those two questions has led to some enormous problems in several fields today.

You might look up the "hard problem" on the web... but carefully... this is a very nasty area in philosophy.

Steven Ravett Brown

As a former engineer I worked a lot on the software-side of computers. The most 'hard' thing I ever did (in the first year of my study) was translating normal software in 'Assembler'. Now Assembler is a kind of software very close to the hardware. The hardware is designed in such a way that it understands commands in a 2 cipher-system (compositions of 0's and 1's). Its logic is a dual logic. Consider a zero as NO and a one as YES. Assembler now translates smarter software in series consisting of only 0's and 1's.

Back to your question. On the highest level there is smart software (close to language). This is translated in a few steps to basic software. The last basic software is Assembler. So the final result is a command like 0001011100110000011111. That shape of command originally used to be punched in cards. The cards where used to steer a machine. In the machine there was a unit that felt the holes in the cards, and translated them to machine instructions.

Henk Tuten


Sofia asked:

"If X might exist but we have no reason to suppose that it actually does exist, then as metaphysicians we should not concern ourselves with X." Is this true? Why or why not?

Good question. I'd say that the sentence is false. David Chalmers recently wrote a book on the nature of consciousness. In that book he spends much time talking about 'zombies'. A zombie is a creature who is physically identical to you but lacks your conscious experience. Now, Chalmers would probably say that there is little reason to suppose that the actual world has zombie inhabitants. But that fact that zombies could exist tells us some interesting things about metaphysical nature of consciousness (i.e. that consciousness cant be a purely physical thing because something can be physically identical to you be lack all conscious experience). So, zombies might exist, they don't actually exist, but the argument goes that the fact that they exist in some possible, but non-actual, world means that they can still tell the metaphysician some very interesting (and controversial!) things about the nature of mind. The interesting thing is that when metaphysicians talk about things that might exist but don't actually exist, they usually means that there exists a possible world and at that world that thing does exist. The nature of possible worlds is of course a matter of great controversy. I wrote a couple of answers about them in the past so you might want to look there. Feel free to email me with any questions....

Hope that helped.

Rich Woodward


Sara asked:

What are 'customs' and 'traditions'?

In what sense can any of our present day customs and traditions be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages?

Customs are habitual practices of a community or people. But a tradition is a body of principles having an immutable normative validity and a metaphysical character. The 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.

You ask whether 'our' present day customs and traditions can be traced back to Europe in Middle Ages. What do you mean by 'our'? Whatever your answer may be, the fact is that many of the world's customs and traditions could be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. For example, Freemasonry's various customs and tradition derive from the craft organizations of the medieval European free-stone masons.

Jean Nakos


Francis asked:

Can you prove that God does not exist?

A good question! I am so used to tackling the argument for God's existence that this has rather caught me on the back foot.

First, taking the two questions side by side: "Does God exist? — "Does God not exist? — It might appear on the surface that both questions are in the same category, and that each argument could be commenced at the same point, but this is not the case. Perhaps philosophers like A J Ayer might say that you are asking the wrong question. He might say that, like the unicorn, you have invented something simply to prove that it does not exist. He would insist that the position is: Now that you have posited a God, prove his existence.

Taking on this question could mean taking the arguments for God's existence and simply saying that such arguments are invalid. For example, many who claim that God exists use the argument from 'order in nature,' those opposed would simply have to say that there are other explanations for order in nature, which could be backed up by scientific argument. Evolution could press its claim to be simply a series of fortuitous accidents. All religious writings could simply be dismissed as mythology and illusion. In fact, all we would have to do is sit back and claim that science will eventually come up with an answer. There is no need to build up an image of God simply to knock it down. The onus is on the believers to prove that there is a God.

My conclusion is that to answer your question would involve us in an interminable search for proof of an argument which lacks a positive, authentic, basis to start with. The question is in a very different category to — 'Does Mount Everest not exist?' It falls within the same category as, — 'Do unicorns not exist?' Though believers would say that there is more supportable evidence for God than there is for unicorns.

John Brandon


Robert asked:

To what extent does Nietzsche's philosophy deserve to be tainted with Nazism?

You may not realise it, but this is a LOADED question! And although there are several ways of handling it, I will suggest something to you which is always a good way of defusing it: before asking it in just these terms, be sure that you have at least a working acquaintance with Nietzsche's philosophy and ditto with Nazi ideology. For if that's the case, then you might find that any relationship between Nietzsche and Nazism is a matter of third parties, invariably with vested interests, making that connection, which does not in any genuine sense exist. I would go even further and assert that the more you become acquainted with his writings, the less similarity you will find. Mind you, there are causes why the 'taint' arose; but again this is neither Nietzsche's doing nor indeed that of the Nazis themselves, whose 'leading lights' (if you wanted to call them that) would hardly ever be caught reading a philosopher! And on the other side, although he's not around to confirm my opinion, I think Nietzsche himself would have recoiled in horror at the election of the Nazi Party, let alone their doings once they held the reins of power.

But I owe you at least a hint of an account, why people keep sniffing around Nietzsche to find if the odour of proto-Nazism, which once was believed to be clinging to him, is still there. Essentially they are two. Firstly, there is a certain amount of 'incendiary' writing in his work, and some of it is couched in language that can easily be bent to suit an ideology if that happens to be your intention. So certain phrases like "I philosophise with a hammer", "blonde beast", "Uebermensch", "herd mentality", "master race" and so on got stripped of their philosophical vestments and thrust into a sub-intellectual political milieu where they could hardly stand up as the concepts they were in their own environment, but got turned into slogans. But you must surely have heard that Nietzsche felt himself to be an apostle of the aristocracy of mankind; and now try and match that attitude to beer hall speeches, the Nuremberg rally, Hitler Youth and so on: the very "canaille" he never tired of raging against. And yet he was fulminating against Germany when there was 'Kultur' there, with a capital "K". I think Nazism would have exceeded his capacity to believe in its very possibility. However, there is another reason, equally important. Nietzsche had the misfortune that a totally unscrupulous sister 'looked after' his posthumous fame, who outlived him by decades and spent most of that time 'editing' his letters and manuscripts by painstaking forgery of his handwriting. In particular she was concerned that posterity would not read those letters of his where he told her 'home truths' of the most unpleasant kind, including her political affiliations and her antisemitism. With Hitler, by the way, she got on like a house on fire.

But the worst 'service' she rendered her dead brother was to publish his projected book, The Will to Power. This book was throughout the early decades of the 20th century regarded as his chef d'oeuvre. You should be aware that Nietzsche is not responsible for its contents; for although many of the words and sentences are his, their arrangement is a wilful distortion and the best thing to do (as editors have done ever since the 1950s) is to ignore its existence and read the aphorisms in the higgledy-piggledy order in which they were written. In a word, the book is a forgery, a concoction of paragraphs in a sequence calculated to rouse a certain impression that does not reflect Nietzsche's intentions (what little we know of them). Who among scholars could have known this during the years of the fascist hegemony? They didn't and accepted the book as what it purported to be. But we, today, who know better, should of course draw the consequence and let the 'Nazi case' dies its natural death. In a way the continued hankering after it is becoming a manner of refusing to look into his philosophy and find ourselves depicted as in a horrid distorting mirror! Nietzsche was a prophet; and as you know, they're always a prickly lot. My feeling is that it would be much more useful to pursue the question, why and how did Nietzsche become such an easy prey to bowdlerisation, and not just by the Nazis? But let me end as I began: there is no case; and to prove this you need do no more than read his works. If in addition you can spare the time to read into Nazi ideology, you will only strengthen the case. But I for one doubt it is worth the effort. Nietzsche was a great philosopher, and in itself this is incompatible with Nazism. Accordingly I think it is high time we stop looking for things he didn't say and affiliations he didn't foster and start paying attention to the things he did say.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Selina asked:

Do I exist...more generally, do we exist? If so, how can we possibly prove this, in accordance to everything around us that supposedly exists as well?

Do you exist? Well, I'll tell you what... you tell me what you mean by "exist" and I'll answer your question. How about that?

What does it even mean to ask that question? Doesn't your asking it imply some sort of existence? If not, why not? If you can question your existence and you don't exist, then who's asking? Who is asking whom? What are you doing?

Or maybe you're just trying to puzzle the "philosophers" here? Hey, whatever. But I, or anyone else here, is not going to give you a better answer than to ask you how it is you can ask that, or any other question, if you don't "exist" in the first place, in some sense of that term.

Steven Ravett Brown


Chrissy asked:

Are verbal contracts binding?

In English Law oral contracts are generally binding. The exceptions are contracts for the sale of land and contracts for the assignments of debts. These have to be written.

Of course, the difficulty with an oral contract, if you want to sue on it, is proving in Court that it exists and what its terms are.

John Sartoris

In English law, all contracts are binding and have legal force insofar as they create legal responsibilities, generate rights and obligations and allow for recourse to the legal system if responsibilities and are not met. There are cases when contracts are not binding, such as when a contract has been entered into under duress or there has been misrepresentation.

A contract is defined in terms of offer, agreement and consideration. A verbal contract is not just a promise to do something. It is an essential element to the existence of a contract that both parties intend to become legally bound. The parties must also have legal capacity and excluded categories are persons of unsound mind, drunkards and minors. My contract books don't mention drug addicts, but I suppose they would be classified as of unsound mind.

Consideration is the reason for the enforcement of a promise. The law obviously cannot uphold all promises. You might think that a promise made by parties with the intent to become legally bound would be sufficient for a contract, but it is the consideration that allows the court to know how to assess the nature of the compensation. Consideration is vital. 'A valuable consideration, in the sense of the law, may consist either in some right, interest, profit, or benefit accruing to the one party, or some forbearance, detriment, loss or responsibility, given, suffered or undertaken by the other' (A Casebook on Contract by Smith Thomas quoting Currie and Misa). Contract law in England, by the way, is case law rather than statutory law which means that the law is determined by rulings in particular cases by the courts rather than parliamentary statute. Case law can be quite funny (amusing!). It has been ruled that consideration need not be adequate but must be sufficient (or real). Smith notes that if I make a promise to you for supplying three chocolate wrappers which are quite useless and you were going to throw them away anyway, this would be perfectly good consideration because of the rule that the court will not enquire into the adequacy of the consideration so long as it is real. Even though you were going to throw the chocolate wrappers away anyway, you have parted with something you might have kept so this is considered 'detrimental' in accordance with the definition of consideration according to the courts!

But although it is a general rule that the courts of England don't require that a contract is written to make it valid, there are exceptions such as in the sale of land or where this is determined by statute.

Rachel Browne

Yes they are. Trouble is, they may be hard to prove. As Samuel Goldwyn (the great film producer) once said, "Verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they are written on."

Ken Stern


Sarah asked:

What can be said about the claim that happiness is simply pleasure?

Sarah also asked:

What is a virtue? What virtues do we need in order to live a good life?

Over the centuries many philosophers have written about happiness being nothing deeper than a sense of pleasure, the absence of pain, uninvolvement in serious affairs etc. Among the Greeks, Epicurus is foremost; among the Chinese Yang Chu has written some beautiful stories and prose sketches on the subject (I for one far prefer these to the dour Epicurus, who seems to me almost hysterically concerned with his menu, health, fears and other worries: Yang Chu is more interested in fine clothes, food, entertaining in style and philosophising on death — in a gentle and happy sort of way). Among more modern philosophers, Schopenhauer has written a gravely beautiful book on the subject, called Aphorisms on The Good Life; and Santayana might be regarded as to some degree belonging into the same bracket, although he is much more aristocratic and cultivates a prose style that is almost too beautiful for philosophy. An example is his book Scepticism and Animal Faith, full of good humour, gentle sarcasm and much wisdom. As an example of what he is on about: he believes that even an atheist should continue to abide by the Roman Catholic Liturgy, because it is ... well, stately, grand, festive, full of innocent pleasure and promise and, yes, beautiful. But you know: these are mostly the work of elderly thinkers, who've seen much and probably suffered a lot. How much their recommendations may mean to a young person I cannot assess. But if this is how you feel, you could do worse than at least dip into their books.

Your question about virtue, on the other hand, no-one could possible pretend to answer in one paragraph. One might recommend you start with Plato, but which book? I'm inclined to say: all of them. Reading Plato is one of the best ways of killing time known to mankind, so my recommendation is not frivolously intended. The trouble with virtue is, unfortunately, that in our Christian society, it is inevitably bound up with specifically Christian virtues; and accordingly a great deal of what has been written on the subject is tinged with religious/ moral issues. In Rome, where the word originated, 'vir' had quite a different slant on it, cf. "virility", one of its derivatives. And speaking of Plato and his cohort, their word was "arete", which is better translated as "excellence" and carries a semantic of 'social excellence'. So you need to pick your favoured notion of virtue; for there simply isn't just one single meaning to this word.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Oscar asked:

If the reality of the just passed moment is gone, and the reality of the just to be moment, it seems that the only reality is this instant, (and that is gone as we think). Is it possible then that time is not a real dimension rather just a derivative of what we assume when we measure events that are happening or the duration it takes us to traverse a measured distance? Is then distance not the same since both time and distance are measured as derivatives of each other. Just as well, isn't that true for velocity (and the velocity of light).

When we think of it, we believe in the future based on what experiences we had in the past and a projection of what will be in the future. That expectation is what can be referred to as "faith" but there is nothing but statistical collection of past occurrences to lead us to believe an event in the future will ever happen. This question takes us into the realm of things we call constants such as speed of light, gravity, mass, and other "things" we use to measure each other with respect to each other. I think these definitions are derivatives of each other and therefore subject to setting of false and conflicting baselines with self-fulfilling proofs.

Well first of all, the reality of the present isn't an instant... the psychological, experienced present extends into the past through brief and fading memories (retentions), and into the future through equally brief expectations (protentions). Husserl wrote about this quite extensively (Husserl, E. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time. Edited by R. Bernet. Vol. IV, Edmund Husserl: Collected Works. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.). Next... yes, it's quite possible that time is not a "real" dimension... Kant wrote on that (e.g., Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by W.S.T. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.). We impose, according to him, structure on a reality which we can never directly experience, and our experience of time is part of what we impose on reality... where "impose" does not mean that we create anything external... the imposing we do is in our interpretation of whatever is "out there" which we cannot experience as it "really" is. I'm using all the quotes to emphasize aspects of my little explanation here which are almost totally inadequate, inasmuch as they barely touch on what Kant actually said. But what you're saying about measurement and light is not what underlies this little problem we have with reality. Once you accept measurement, duration, length, you're locked in to the position, basically.

No, that expectation is not "faith", in the usual sense of the word. It is an assumption, or a set of them, that we make, and if you want a thoroughly skeptical take on that one, read David Hume (Dialogues). Also, you need to take a look at a basic book on statistics; you're using that word incorrectly. A "statistical collection" is a kind of sample, and that's not what expectations based on past occurrences are, or are based on... at least, not as you're using the term. Now, as far as your last sentence... no, I'm afraid you're simply wrong here. The question of the interdependence or circularity of these physical dimensions and measurements, has, believe it or not, occurred to others. And great care is taken to avoid this kind of circularity. If you have been taught otherwise, you have been taught incorrectly.

There are a couple of things you need to get clear here. First, you're asking interesting and profound questions. That's good. Second, you are assuming that no one else has asked them, or that the people who have are not very bright. That's bad. Why don't you try another perspective, and assume that those people were as smart as you... maybe sometimes even smarter, and that they put some thought into these issues? And go find what they said about them. I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised, after you begin to understand what they've said... which, actually, is in many cases quite difficult to grasp without a lot of background. Start with the Hume; that's pretty easy and direct, and go from there. Kant, in fact, was at least in part responding to Hume.

Steven Ravett Brown


Yu asked:

Let me ask a question about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Which is stronger, the claim that T is incomplete or the claim that T is undecidable?

Strictly speaking, this is a mathematical and/ or logical issue. But philosophically it is undoubtedly the second, undecidability, which is the stronger or more important outcome. You will recall that Hilbert's programme (like that of Whitehead and Russell) was for a leak-proof set of axioms; that it failed was a minor catastrophe for mathematics, for it showed by the paradoxical means of a rigorous proof that certain logical problem are inherently insoluble (undecidable); and you probably also know that since then Gregory Chaitin has shown with his elephantine 'Diophantine equation' that the whole notion of a rigorous arithmetic can be dissolved in a game of pure chance. For philosophy this is a blessing insofar as the core notion of human agency, which is always under threat when people start tinkering with human substitutes, is thereby placed back in the driver's seat. As Kroneker used to say, "God invented the whole numbers; everything else is the work of man."

Jürgen Lawrenz


John asked:

Is eating people wrong? Why?

Yes. Kant had the answer to this one: it is immoral to treat a person as an object. If you eat someone, that's what you're doing. Now, there is an interesting variant on this, however. One could conceive of ritual cannibalism, where one eats the dead to show respect for them to symbolically join with them by taking them into oneself, as moral, because then you're treating them as people, not as food. The ritual cannibalism (yes, "communion") of the Catholic Church is something like this. Is that kind of cannibalism moral? I'm not sure, but it seems that it could be, with suitable respect for the dead. But aside from that kind of cannibalism, using a person as food is denying their humanity.

But, you say, what if you're on a desert island, a ship lost at sea, or whatever, and you and some others are starving... and someone dies. Is it moral to eat them? I'd say yes, myself... I'd want to be eaten in those circumstances, anyway, if it was me that died first. What's the difference between that and, say, donating your organs after you die to medicine, to save lives?

Now there's another kind of cannibalism which I have not really thought through as to its morality, and that's where human beings might clone their own flesh to feed themselves, in some future where food is scarce. Is eating cloned human meat, grown in a vat a) cannibalism, b) immoral? After all, that's nearly what we do now with chickens, commercially. Does it make a difference what the meat is, genetically? My take on this is that it's only our cultural conditioning which makes us feel that this is repulsive and immoral, and that there's not any real immorality there; humans are not treated as objects or as food; there's just meat with human genes. On the other hand, taking human genes and employing them in this fashion, it might be argued, is using the human blueprint, at least, in a way that denigrates it and that opens the door to real abuses. That's certainly a reasonable response, and that's why I don't know the answer to this one... I don't have what I'd consider a decisive reply to it. Which isn't to say there isn't one... maybe there isn't; or perhaps I just haven't thought of it yet.

Anyway, you can see that this is a rather nasty but interesting issue... and quite relevant to today's world, wouldn't you say?

Steven Ravett Brown

My own view that eating people is wrong is based on the idea that it is revolting. It is a human body. This is eating someone: A person. Much as I like people alive, dead bodies have little appeal. My attitude is the same when it comes to meat. Those who eat meat, seem to just think of it as meat. To me it is the flesh of a dead animal, a being, and the longer I have been a vegetarian, the more it seems unhygienic to have dead flesh in the kitchen. It seems perverse to prefer to eat a dead animal to a pizza.

Most people in cities wouldn't eat meat if they had to kill it, skin it and take out the innards and cut it up and cook it. (Of course, the innards are a delicacy, so once taken out, must be put in the fridge for a special occasion). If the animal was a pet, people would have a deeper aversion to eating it. They would especially have an aversion to the killing element.

But a more moderate stance on why eating a person is wrong is because we have ethical relations human beings. Our attitude to humans is different from our attitude to animals. As Raimond Gaita says in The Philosopher's Dog, no-one 'would respond to someone who served up infants in the way they do to someone who serves up animal flesh'. People have a special place in our lives, as do pets. Our respect for persons is shown in the way we bury or cremate them with a religious ceremony. Our respect for pets is beginning to match this. The mass slaughter of animals in England that came with the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease came with no such ceremony. We even have different words: killing and slaughter. Slaughter implies a brutality that is inappropriate between human beings and is only used in the context of war. Our brutality towards animals is something we find acceptable. We do not find it acceptable when it involves humans.

But even if you were to eat a person who died naturally, would you serve the person at a dinner party?

Rachel Browne


Diego asked:

Are all genuine problems scientific? what is left for philosophers to do in a post modern age?

A counter-question: are ANY genuine problems scientific? Once astrophysicists have nailed down the Higgs Field, what's left for them to talk about? — Let me give you a hint you might like to ponder. At this moment, a war is being fought in Iraq. Many people throughout the world disagree with the decision of the US government to wage this war. Is this a problem? Surely it is! But what's it got to do with science?

Jürgen Lawrenz

Well, your first question itself raises a genuine a problem which does not appear to be scientific. It's clearly not physics or chemistry or anything like that, is it?

It seems likely that only a philosophical answer could deliver a satisfactory response your question. It therefore answers itself to an extent.

It is a point that is often missed that when people say things like "the only important truths are scientific truths" they are not making a scientific statement but a philosophical one.

Such statements are sometimes said to be "pragmatically inconsistent" — i.e their assertion is inconsistent with their being true.

John Sartoris


Espie asked:

What does it mean to say that there is a contingent identity between mental states and brain states?

This is a good question, but not an easy one to answer in a short space. I recommend you go here: http://www.stanford.edu/~lmaguire/phil186/smart.htm to read a nice essay about this.

In addition, I'm really not clear that this whole issue isn't largely linguistic, i.e., about language use, as Wittgenstein would probably hold. On the other hand, one might ask whether there's any point in the label "contingent identity" and whether it does not oversimplify a complex issue. But, anyway.

So, I'll start by claiming, first, that contingency means, basically, that something depends on some kind of knowledge, and so, for one thing, it isn't certain; that for example if taking a taxi is contingent, there are things you have to do to take a taxi, like pay, open the door, things like that, right? Whereas taking a taxi isn't contingent on what kind of shoes you're wearing, usually (let's say). What about "contingent identity"? Well one way you could think of it is in terms of uncertainty: you could say that if we're uncertain about what something is, then its identity to something else is contingent... on our finding out, for example. We could say that light is contingently identical to electromagnetic radiation before we took physics, or something like that. The classic example here is the planet Venus and the morning star; they are the same, if you know a bit of astronomy. Is this more than a linguistic issue, at base? I'm not going to go further on that question.

But there is another sense of "contingent identity" which is deeper, perhaps. Suppose we're talking about the way we understand something, and that in order to understand something in a particular way, we have to have more than just knowledge about it, we have to have a particular mental perspective. Now, that perspective might be a direct result of knowledge as in the above, or it might be a result of a worldview: the difference between, say, a wise person and a person who knows a lot. Or it might be the difference between what might be termed "internal" perspective: that we experience brain-states as feelings, but we see them as traces on oscilloscopes, for example. Is there really a difference here, between knowledge and what I'm calling "perspective"? Well, you know, I really don't know. The debate is still raging, out there in the world of philosophy, such as it is.

So if we assume that a) there are entities we can term "mental states", and b) other entities that we can term "brain states", we've already divided things in a particular way, haven't we. Oh, well. Now, we notice that there seems to be a correspondence between brain states, e.g., neural firing, or transmitter levels, or fMRI readings, or suchlike, and mental states, e.g., the smell of hamburgers, fear, the thought of no thought of tomorrow, and so forth. So what does that correspondence mean? Well, it could mean that mental states are in some way exactly identical to brain states, i.e., if and only if ("iff") we are manifesting brain state B(A) then we are in mental state M(A). And if you say "iff" then the converse works too, and we can say, "iff we are in mental state M(A) we are manifesting brain state B(A). Well, there's nothing contingent about that, is there. So we can't use "iff" if we're talking about contingent identity; we have to say, "if we are manifesting brain state B(A) then we are in mental state M(A)". That's a very different thing, because now we can't say, "if we are in mental state M(A), then we are manifesting brain state B(A)", and we've opened the door to a nasty dualism. You see? If that last kind of statement (with "if" instead of "iff") is true, then maybe it's true that we can be in a mental state but not in a brain state. So, although we have to feel something, let us say, if someone pokes at our brains... nonetheless maybe we can die and our brains can rot and we can still feel things, if the contingent statement above is really the case. In other words, it doesn't make anything true, but it allows for the possibility.

Well naturally then there are a lot of materialists, including me, who don't like this possibility... and either want to devise arguments supporting the "iff" kind of situation, or just want to say that the whole thing is silly to talk about now, since we just don't have enough real, hard, data to make a decision one way or another. That's my take on it, anyway. But, the arguments go on... you might also look up the whole controversy about Mary and the black-and-white room. This is a very nasty and complex area in philosophy of mind, not one to be approached casually.

Steven Ravett Brown


Larry asked:

Are Works of Art in the mind?

Yes. And to prove this to yourself (and/or to your friends), imagine there were no minds. Where do you suppose a Martian visitor might find a work of art on earth? Whereas if a Martian happened to land today and enquired about the "Night Watch" or the "Moonlight Sonata", you could reply, "they are embodied tokens of something we create with and in our minds; and we put something into these tokens, some clues which our minds pick up, but which do not belong to the objects as objects, and that's why you, as a Martian (they have electron plasma brains) can't see it."

Jürgen Lawrenz


Bruce asked:

I have become fascinated by paradoxes, almost all philosophical arguments seem to end there! I wonder if anybody out there can suggest some reading matter.

Try Paradoxes from A to Z by Michael Clark Reader in Philosophy at Nottingham University (Routledge 2002).

John Sartoris

How about Paradoxes From A to Z by Michael Clark, and W.V. Quine's, The Ways of Paradox?

Ken Stern

Take a look at my answer to "Hal" in the November 2002 — January 2003 set of answers (Answers 19). I also give a couple of websites for paradoxes there.

Steven Ravett Brown


Pete asked:

How could one embrace ethical egoism without also embracing psychological egoism?

Ethical Egoism is an ethical theory that claims that actions are right insofar as they promote a person's own self interest. Under this theory, if one acts out of altruism (does something solely for the sake of another person), this action is wrong. Psychological Egoism is a theory of moral psychology (a theory of mind with respect to actions). It claims that all of our motivations for action are reducible to self-interest. According to this theory, although people might claim to be acting out of altruism, they are mistaken. Their so-called 'altruism' is actually an instance of self-interest. For example, the Psychological Egoist would interpret an act of charity as being a case of a person displaying her personal wealth and power over others less fortunate than she is (This example can be found in Hobbes' Leviathan — Hobbes is a psychological egoist). This act of charity can thus be reduced to an action that promotes an agent's self-interest, and was not really done for the sake of others in need.

As you can see, these two theories are very different. Psychological Egoism, being a theory of moral psychology, is what can be considered an 'error theory' about moral terms (moral language). While we think that moral terms like 'charity', 'generosity' and 'altruism' are words we use to refer to actions that consider the needs of other people, we are mistaken. Ultimately, we only consider the needs of other people insofar as they affect our fundamental self-interest. All our actions, at heart, are self-interested, according to this theory. Ethical Egoism is not a theory of moral psychology. It is a theory that suggests that self-interest is a principle by which we can determine whether actions are right or wrong. Typically, this theory suggests that since every person has one life to live, and this life is of fundamental value, actions that do not promote this fundamental, individual good are wrong. Moreover, trying to promote the self-interest of other people does them an injustice (is paternalistic), since no person can live the life of any other person and know what is truly in their best self-interest.

One can be an Ethical Egoist without falling into Psychological Egoism quite easily because the Ethical Egoist does not deny that people may be motivated by things like concern for the common good, concern for the good of one's family, community or nation, or even pure, saintly altruism. There can be a plurality of things that motivate our actions, but Ethical Egoism tells us that some of these motivations might be irrational, useless or harmful. Unless we employ our understanding that self-interest should guide our actions, we will often do the wrong thing. Unlike Psychological Egoism, Ethical Egoism is not an error theory about the meaning of our moral terms. It may suggest (very strongly) that altruistic actions are wrong, but it does not say that altruism is really, when looked at deeply enough, a self-interested action. The Psychological Egoist might applaud altruistic acts, since she believes that these actions, like ALL the rest, really express self-interest. The Ethical Egoist would not.

Maureen Eckert


Lizzie asked:

What are the ways in which emotion might enhance and/ or undermine reasoning?

I don't think anyone would have the least doubt that emotions do both. When you're on a 'high', things come easily to you, and when you're low, thinking can become an intolerable chore. I suppose your question is not about the mechanism involved, so this leaves us with two 'faculties' that occasionally contend with each other for priority. It also leaves us with two camps of informed opinion, which are probably both right, but have thus far failed to discover a common denominator.

Briefly, the first camp is entrenched in the belief that reason is the 'glory of mankind' and should therefore have priority; in particular, the advocates of this view contend that our emotional life is pretty much the same as for all mammals, at a pinch more subtly responsive, but still pretty crude. A very vocal proponent was the late Arthur Koestler, in his day a bestselling writer on interesting philosophical issues (and therefore sometimes referred to as a philosopher, but that's probably stretching it). At any rate, in his book The Ghost in the Machine he gives an extensive analysis of the troubles which our emotions cause us, who must live and work in societies which exceed in the complexity of their organisation anything encountered elsewhere in the animate realm. In order to give reason a chance, he proposes that conflict situations might be controlled by the administration of some otherwise 'harmless' chemical substances. I suggest that this book, even though it might seem dated, is eminently worth reading and not difficult to follow — after all, it was written with the general public in mind and the issue itself can hardly be said to have made much progress since. I do not suggest that Koestler was ever alone; rather he reflects a very widespread sentiment that emotions can be and usually are the downfall of reason, although he also concedes their value. But altogether he promulgates the notion that we human possess a kind of aggregate of emotional modules, what he calls the inheritance from the croc, the horse and our hominid ancestors, all afflicted with an innate 'wiring defect'. This defect occurred because evolution cannot not dismantle structures once they're in place, but only add to them; and since no designer was around to supervise the wiring, it happened higgledy-piggledy, one on top of the other without any definitive resolution to the hierarchy in charge of dealing with conflicts between emotion and reason.

NB: Another good book on the same subject is The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. I'm deliberately referring you to such semi-popular accounts, for unless you want to get embroiled in neurophysiology, this is where all the relevant information is laid out.

Needless to add, that philosophers on the whole sound the same regretful note about the presumed enmity between emotions and reason. Two notable exceptions are Hume and Schopenhauer; to the first we owe the famous quote, 'reason is the slave of the passions'. But neither one of this pair is really 'on the side' of the emotions. For this you have to go somewhere else.

You would obviously be aware that a lot of potboilers have been written recently with a view to encouraging us to 'let it all hang out', as if there were some especial merit to emoting all over the place. There is neither philosophical nor even any social merit in this and I suppose Koestler would turn in his grave if he knew. Nevertheless, there are serious studies of the virtues of the emotions; and in particular of the indispensability of the 'despised' passions for the health of our reason. For it must be said that, as much as emotions can be analysed down to positively harmful features of our psyche, so reason, when examined closely, turns out to be a very fragile instrument, whose gravest demerit is a kind of 'abstractedness' from life in the raw — in other words, it encourages in us a sort of pristine dedication to truth, love, beauty etc etc which not infrequently gives one the impression of having derived from cloud cuckoo land rather than any place you might find on earth. By the same token, reason which leaves emotion behind is inhuman, and there is plenty of historical evidence to prove this. Emotions and reason, in an ideal case, would keep each other in balance; and one way of looking at this would be to take note of the value structures which we human have erected, which might be said to reflect the good sides of both our emotional and rational faculties.

One book I have already recommended elsewhere in this issue can bear a second push; it is really an outstanding contribution to what we should know about reason and emotion and how our mental health depends on both of them. The book is Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens. Damasio was (is) a practising psychiatrist and neurologist, and I dare say, what he doesn't know isn't worth knowing. On top he is an exceptionally clear writer, so that I shall leave you in his capable hands it you should feel like pursuing this matter further.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Linda asked:

How can my moral philosophy influence my business decisions?

That's a bit hard to answer when I don't know what your moral philosophy is, if you're looking for something specific. In addition, your question is confusing. I mean, if your moral philosophy tells you not to lie, to cheat, to steal, for example, then doesn't that influence your business decisions in rather obvious ways? Or, alternatively, if your moral philosophy did let you lie, cheat, or steal, then wouldn't your business dealings be radically different than the former alternative? So just what are you asking? Perhaps you are asking something like this: if your moral philosophy tells you that it is better not to lie, then how can you judge when it is the case that it is better, or that it is the case that you can lie to avoid a greater immorality. Is that it? You're asking how to make moral judgments, right? Because otherwise your question is pretty trivial, as you can see.

But that jumps the question into a realm which no one has been able to settle, as far as specifics go; I'm not going to give you any specific examples. But I'll answer your question in general terms. First, you might look at the writings of Singer: there's a philosopher who's not afraid to make judgments, whatever you may think of them. Actually, whether or not I agree with him, I greatly admire him. Why? Because he's doing something that requires great courage, and that most people avoid doing: he's attempting to use his philosophy to make real-world judgments. Make them, justify them, and stick with them, and, as far as I know, he's open to argument and change. After all, if there's any good at all to philosophy, that's what has to be done with it, right? That's why religious figures are admired, also. They have lived according to their moral philosophy (well, a few of them). The problem I have with the latter types is that they are almost uniformly not open to change, and that latter characteristic is, in my opinion, absolutely essential. After all, what if you make a mistake in logic? What if you have misunderstood something, or simply haven't had enough data, or your data has been biased? Then you need to be able to change your decisions, maybe even revise your philosophy... something most saints cannot do.

So, then, what this comes down to is that in order to make making moral judgments part of your life, you have to a) have a fairly clear idea of what your philosophy is, and b) become a saint, bodhisattva, or otherwise uncompromising, but rational (in the best sense of that word) worldly philosopher. A tough row to hoe... but you asked.

Steven Ravett Brown


DT asked:

How do you define one's soul, one's consciousness, one's gut feeling? Is it relative to learned behavior? Does the soul need a physical brain?

The soul is often thought to be immortal and so not dependent upon physical brain. We can imagine that we could exist without embodiment and the possession of a brain, so it is logically possible that soul might not be dependent on brain. But it doesn't seem to be empirically or naturally possible given scientific knowledge these days. These days, atheists think that there could be no mental existence without brain, and it is also thought that the soul is simply a mental capacity, or subjective consciousness. Workers in artificial intelligence seem to believe that they can create consciousness without an organic brain, but the only evidence of this behavioural and physical. Response to external stimuli is no guarantee of soul or consciousness.

I would define the soul as an individual consciousness and this consciousness as subjectivity or internal life. A gut feeling, or instinct, comes very much from within and because it cannot be explained, it is thought to emanate from the unconscious and is not related to reality in the same way as perception or thought is.

Behaviour is learned in the sense that it is dependent upon our interactions with the external world and other people. Behaviour is functional and if a person was simply in a total void, where there was nothing, there would be no cause, reason or motivation towards behaviour.

So, yes, the soul and consciousness are derived from learned behaviour. Gut feelings, even if emanating from the unconscious, are also derived from interactions with others and the environment. Instincts may not be rational insofar as we cannot explain them, but if there had never been interactions with the world and others nothing would become repressed into the unconscious and nothing would give rise to such feelings.

Rachel Browne


Barbara asked:

Do ants have immortal souls? If not how can humans? after all from a distance we may as well be ants too.

We would not, I think, even look like ants from a distance, let alone be ants. After all, we would not appear to have feelers or nipped in waists. But even if we looked like ants, would that mean were were ants?

As for souls, I don't believe ants have souls, but then I am pretty skeptical about whether people have them either. But that is neither because humans are ants nor because ants don't have souls.

Ken Stern


Eric asked:

Returning to what mathematical logic is:

When I say "for all..." or "if ..then..." may I be assuming something that is false?

(I guess there are certain hidden assumptions in the above statements, at the most aggregate level the assumption of space and time.)

May the conclusion that I come up with be wrong as I begin with false assumptions during working with any type of mathematical logic? The question is: Has there been an effort to generate a representation that is free of space, or, time; or both space and time-related assumptions?

Can you recommend me any reference where I can read more about such representations, if they exist of course?

In answer to the first question: yes, of course you can be assuming something false. 'If cows had no tails, then they couldn't swat flies'. A true statement starting with a false assumption, leading to a wrong (but true, given the logic) conclusion.

(In answer to your second question... yes, there are, at least according to some people. Read: Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.)

In answer to question 3: do false assumptions give wrong conclusions? See1.

4. Yes. But what you're really asking is whether the effort has been successful. Most logicians would consider your question trivial, and answer that of course, any logic is free of those 'assumptions' (a bad term on your part; they aren't assumptions; they're underlying structures). But given what Lakoff and Nunez say, that they are metaphors which are basically built into the way we think, roughly speaking, some cognitive linguists would say that humans cannot escape those structures. Kant would say the same thing.

Read the Lakoff/ Nunez book for an argument that they cannot exist.

Steven Ravett Brown


Jeff asked:

Due to the inherent ambiguity of the term "God", the proposition "God exists" can be either true or false depending exclusively upon the definition of the term. Atheism — to be understood as "without belief in God or gods" — erroneously concludes that the proposition is always false. In fact, if we grant atheism validity, atheism itself would thereby conclude that "God" is to be understood as a conceptual manifestation — and thus existent, if only as a concept. Does this prove that atheism is by definition untenable?

You seem to be playing around the meanings of words used and reaching conclusions based on differing uses of the words. Consider the following argument:

All banks are financial institutions
All rivers have banks
Therefore all rivers have financial institutions.

Now given that each of the premises are true we must logically accept the conclusion. The reason we have however for avoiding the conclusion is that the word 'bank' is used in two different ways. You seem to be making an analogous move with respect to God. Of course the spoken words 'God exists' can be true or false depending on the meaning we give to those words, in some possible world the utterance 'God exists' means 'there are dogs' which in that world is a truth. Clearly and atheist who denied this would be wrong. However whilst the word God may have different meanings depending upon the concept employed of God, each use of it has a specific determinate meaning which can be true or false.

'Atheism — to be understood as "without belief in God or gods" — erroneously concludes that the proposition is always false'

The mistake you make here is to confuse the actual meaning of the word atheism as used and the possible meaning. As illustrated above if 'God' actually means 'dogs' then atheism would be false in not believing in God, but given that the word 'God' has a definite content we can deny God's existence. Atheism doesn't assert that the utterance 'God exists' is necessarily false, rather given the actual meaning of the utterance it is false.

What's more, under your analysis the theist suffers equally. God exists can be true or false and so to assert that God exists erroneously concludes that God exists is always true. Unfortunately I didn't really understand what you meant by your penultimate sentence, if atheism does deny that we have the concept of God then it would seem that it is false; there are however two options here both of which are highly plausible. First the atheist can just say that we don't have a coherent concept of God, it is in fact self contradictory, in a similar way to my concept of a round square. Secondly they can say yes we have the concept of God but so what? Unless we have some sort of Ontological argument which defines God into existence by virtue of having the concept God then the atheist looses nothing.

Mike Lee


Max asked:

Once upon a time all subjects would have been classified as "philosophy" — mathematics — chemistry — psychology — astronomy — physics — and so on were all subjects studies by the "philosopher".

As each discipline became more mature, and developed theories of sufficient complexity and soundness (and may I dare to say became useful) it peeled away from philosophy to become an area of study which stood alone.

Now universities have many many departments set up to study subjects which would once have been a part of philosophy.

Presumably if a new subject area which is presently a part of philosophy becomes strong enough it too will leave the nest.

Philosophy (these days) therefore seems to be the scrap heap of discussions and theories which never really got of the ground. Almost by definition if a subject area develops any real solutions it ceases to be philosophy (like the above examples).

Is it time for the few remaining to jump the sinking ship — or can philosophy still serve a useful purpose?

Your questions are, if I'm well: (1) Is philosophy a sinking ship, and (2) if not what useful purpose does it serve?

To answer your first question:

Partly you answered it yourself. Philosophy is about questions, while the resulting sciences are about answers. As soon as serious research for an answer to a specific question is started, THEN it is not a philosophic question anymore. That doesn't mean every philosophic question results in a science, but that most essential questions start as philosophy.

Now your second question:

An example. Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea paradigm shifts. He was also a physician, but for this science this idea at first was too vague. So he wrote a philosophical work named The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This work is mentioned by sociologists, physicians and philosophers, but it started as philosophy.

So the purpose of philosophy is valuing every new idea, however strange. This habit made it survive in evolution. That doesn't mean be uncritical but unprejudiced. Present postmodern philosophy may seem strange, but possibly hides a useful core. Let them be. Philosophy is about ideas, that preferably contradict or extend the other existing sciences.

BUT if questions in philosophy could be solved by an existing science, than those questions are NOT philosophical, and don't belong in philosophy.

Henk Tuten

Yes, one way to view philosophy is in terms of subject matter, and then (although this is somewhat controversial) I think you're basically correct) one finds that virtually all the sciences, math, etc., were at one point branches of philosophy, and have left and become their own fields as they've become empirically investigated. A somewhat sad comment on philosophy... until you realize two things. One is that it's nice to be in on the birth of a science, isn't it. The other is that we don't know that we've run out of sciences to give birth to... look at what's happening with cognitive science and consciousness right now.

In addition, one might argue that some subject matters will not be empirical; morality, for example. I do not agree with this, by and large, but it's a point, and in addition morality is certainly not empirical yet. Further, what about things like learning how to live together, how to live a happy life, how to be productive and satisfied in the world? It may be that science could give guidelines for this, indeed I think it likely... but that won't be the case for individuals. Each person will have to apply their general thinking to their individual situation, or a combination of that general thinking and science, to live a satisfactory life.

Now, aside from philosophy as subject matter, there's philosophy as process, i.e., as the study of process. What is the best way to learn to think? What should we think about? That is, I very strongly believe that philosophy, done correctly, teaches clear thinking and flexibility better than any specific subject area. In fact I think that this is a prime reason philosophy should be taught in lower-level schools as well as higher-level. And this relates to my paragraph above. If you want to apply your own thinking about morality, how to live a good life, etc., to your own individual life, then don't you want to know how to think these things through, come to conclusions, and apply them? Look at all the mistaken moral systems, utopias, and so forth. So many people jump to conclusions, harbor contradictory ideas... the list of possible process mistakes is enormous.

So, no, the ship isn't sinking, and we shouldn't jump it. We just need to distinguish this particular ship from the others.

Steven Ravett Brown


Rhys asked:

Does consciousness imply a soul?

For example, does artificially created consciousness, which is currently being developed, imply that a soul has also been created?

Would robots also be able to puzzle over whether or not they have a soul in the same way we do?

I am going to be very short with my answer, mainly because this is a subject that crops up time and again and the answer has to be the same every time as well. To take a stand, however, on your three points explicitly: 1. Yes. For a human being, consciousness implies a soul. It is, if you like, the default explanation until someone comes up with something more convincing. 2. I am dubious about artificial consciousness. The whole concept rests on a fundamental error and is (in the end) nothing but a self-deception of the kind we humans tend to fall into from time to time.

Let me therefore acquaint you with two important FACTS: Firstly, that consciousness is known only to occur in (living) organisms. Consequently what we know about consciousness is exclusively derived from the study of organisms known to have consciousness. Secondly: NOBODY knows what consciousness is. Science, which you believe is in process of 'creating' artificial consciousness, does not have a description for consciousness. But science cannot develop anything for which it lacks a description. Accordingly I invite you to entertain from here on a healthy scepticism about such claims and in particular to demand PROOF from any proponent that artificial intelligence is possible at all, viz to demonstrate to you that they fully understand the concept of consciousness. You may then discover (as I did in years of study of the matter) that this so-called consciousness is a far cry from your and mine and everybody else's consciousness. 3. The question about robots answers itself now.

Actually let me add one more comment. Consider for a moment that this endeavour is based on the assumption that we humans with our fancied consciousness and intelligence are just more bits of meaningless matter strung together from the physicist's menagerie. Do you think this is a HEALTHY attitude? Do you think that if all of us were to start thinking that way, that any good reason could be advanced for wanting to preserve the human race?

In a word, I think you might want to start thinking that this attitude does very little for maintaining the self-respect of humans that is absolutely critical (evolutionarily speaking) to our survival. Best of luck!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Best asked:

1) Suggest two moral maxims which would give rise to contradictory actions. How might the differences between these be resolved?

2) Could it ever be morally right, according to Kant, to torture one person in order to get information which would save the lives of a large group?

3) What place does God have in Kant's moral philosophy?

1) For Kant, the most challenging case that gives rise to two maxims that are contradictory is 'The Case of the Inquiring Murderer.' Imagine that a friend of yours is being chased by a murderer. She comes to your door and tells you about this situation, then proceeds to hide. You know where she hides. A little while later, the murderer comes to your door and asks you where she is. What should you do?

According to Kant, you are rationally bound to uphold the maxim 'Do not lie.' Yet, at the same time, you are also bound to any maxim that prohibits murder or participating in it. It would seem that by telling the truth you would be acting in such a way that ends in the death of another human being. If you lie, you have acted in such a way that undermines truth telling universally, which was Kant's condition for rejecting a maxim.

Kant himself defends the idea that in this difficult case you should not lie. You cannot know the future, all the variables involved, and above all, morality is not a matter of considering the consequences of actions. In choosing to lie, you would be considering the consequences, which is precisely what his moral view (deontology) prohibits as entering into consideration of the moral worth of an action.

Many people have found that, intuitively, they believe they would lie to save someone's life. Deepa Metha's film, 'Earth,' contains a wonderful depiction of this Kantian case (at the very end of the film). It might be worthwhile to take a look at this film and then think about how you feel about the ending and what you believe the right thing to do is.

The solution to this dilemma (a scenario in which both outcomes are unsatisfactory) would be creating a principled way to rank or prioritize moral maxims. That is to say, develop a rule that indicates, for example, that preserving life trumps the maxim against lying. Another possible road to take is to further specify the contents of maxims. This is to say that it may be possible to universalize a maxim, 'If a crazed murderer comes to the door looking to harm someone, lie about his or her whereabouts.' The problem with this sort of solution is that it seems that in any moral situation we might be able to tinker with maxims so that everyone, if they stood in our exact same shoes, would do as we do. In the end, all that does is justify any moral decision we make based on our own case.

2) The answer is no, at least given the way that you've posed the question. The telling words are 'in order to get' that bar moral justification in this case. Utilitarians (consequentialists) could claim that such an act is morally justified, given that they hold the principle of utility: Actions or rules are morally right if they promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For a deontologist like Kant, consequences cannot be taken into consideration in moral justification. To pose this in a different manner, it is always wrong, according to Kant, to use a human being as a means to an end for any reason. Every human being must be treated as an 'end' in his or her self — a being with the capacity to reason and arrive at their own moral judgments. A Kantian would not be able to morally justify torturing a person to save the lives of others. The only option open is persuading that person that it is wrong to kill others and one is obligated to protect their lives.

3) Although it appears that, through the categorical imperative(s), human beings are able to make moral judgments independently of any given conception of God, when we engage in moral thinking we are not approaching the world as we do scientifically. While the scientist confronts the world in order to gain knowledge of the mechanical (causal) laws at work within it, a physical world devoid of "free will," from a moral point of view we approach the world with respect to moral value. Within this way of conceiving the world, it is not mechanical laws that we try to determine, but the question of right and wrong and of our free will to act in one way or another. From the moral point of view, we encounter the world as a 'kingdom of ends' — a world in which God has created rational beings capable of understanding what is right and wrong and employing free will. Thus, God, who appears to have no place in the scientifically understood world, has a very meaningful place in the world approached from a moral point of view.

Maureen Eckert


Jennifer asked:

I was considering the contradictions with regards to Socrates' Divided Line (specifically that the highest form of knowledge cannot use images to help represent its explanations) and his actual approach to attaining knowledge (that is, through using images, such as the sun which represents the form of the Good as explained in Book VI of the Republic).

My question is this: What was Socrates intent in creating this obvious contradiction within his teachings?

But this is not a contradiction. When one is attaining knowledge, one does not have it, at least in its final or "highest" form, right? Otherwise, why be in the process of attaining it? So then, one's knowledge, while in the state of attaining to the highest form of knowledge, can be in the form of images, even though after one has reached Nirvana or whatever and attained a state of highest knowledge, one's knowledge will not be in images... which, as representations of real or ideal objects, must be imperfect. According to Socrates, as I understand him (Plato, actually), it is only the ultimate objects, the ideal Forms, which are perfect, and those cannot be representations. So one's knowledge, at that point, must not be of reality, one's knowledge must in some sense be reality. Don't ask me how that was actually supposed to work, I have no idea. But that was Plato's take on it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Robert asked:

Today's philosophy suffers..... from arrogance and dismayed insightfulness..... those who have a lot.... have a lot to lose.... those who do not have nothing to lose..... when a philosophical thought can address this demise let me know..... until then..... your thoughts and reflections and your ruminations are destined for the shredder..... philosophical purity is not in the thought..... it is in its service to mankind.

Why such violence? Why the shredder rather than a bin or the trash can?

I think most people who answer here would agree that philosophy should be in service to mankind. But why cannot it not be indulged in for it's own sake without arousing such antagonism?

Rachel Browne

In one thing you are right. The quality and number of publishing philosophers gradually has diminished. Say twenty years ago reading philosophy was more fun. A lot of top philosophers disappeared into sociology, education, physics, mathematics etc. Mainly because this paid significantly better. The result is that a lot of articles in late postmodernism are indeed only worth a good laugh.

But PART of top philosophers always were physicians, mathematicians. Don't tell me that in those sciences quality disappeared.

But the publishing group is only a tip of the iceberg. Underneath things go on as usual. Aren't you happy with a facility like Ask a Philosopher?

There's only one shredder that counts. That's the one of evolution. So I hope in after hundred years or more people will still remember your name. Like all sciences philosophy should serve mankind. If it doesn't, be sure that it will disappear.

Henk Tuten


Nicholas asked:

Mike asks about the unethical behaviour associated with the 'free market'. Steven Ravett Brown asserts that "altruism as opposed to selfishness; empathy or peacefulness as opposed to aggression; material well-being for the many, freedom for the many", have been "attempted several times in the last century, on large scales, with uniform lack of success" (Answers 20).

Does this mean that the above values which one could be led to believe constitutes a good society should be abandoned because they don't seem to meet with success?

Is it not true that every fledgling movement which has attempted to move out of the mainstream and create a fair egalitarian society has been swiftly 'put down' by that class in whose interest it is to maintain their positions of wealth, power and privilege?

Well, first, Nicholas, what I actually said was, "But Marxism has been attempted several times in the last century, on large scales, with uniform lack of success."

Now if you want to assert that Marxism is the only way to achieve "altruism as opposed to selfishness; empathy or peacefulness as opposed to aggression; material well-being for the many, freedom for the many", that's your privilege... but I think you'll find that most people disagree with you, including me.

In answer to your first question, no, it doesn't mean that.

In answer to your second question, no, that's not true. Read about the French Revolution. Read about Castro and Cuba. I'm not claiming that those movements succeeded in the above sense (I'm not going to argue that one way or another here), but I am claiming that they were not "put down" by the class that was removed from power. Nor, if it comes to that, was the original Russian revolution. Nor was Mao's. I think that you'll find, if you do more reading, that on the contrary, in most cases one privileged class was replaced by another.

Steven Ravett Brown


Person asked:

How many colours are there?

An interesting question. I'll ask you one: what is "a color"? We can say, "I see red" when we look at a red light; but we're not seeing red, really. After all, "red" is a class-name, for a large set of specific colors, right? We are seeing an example, an element, of that class. So what we're doing is seeing a red light, with a very particular exemplar, a token, of the type: red. Ok, fine. So then that particular token is, let us say, "a red". But if we say that, then as you can see there are an infinite number of colors, right?

But let's say that you are asking something like, how many types of colors are there? Now, I could say, with complete seriousness, that there are no colors or types of colors at all, any more than there are numbers "out there" in the world. We construct colors from our processing of wavelengths of radiation, just as we construct numbers by abstracting from the operation of counting. So in one sense of "are", there are no colors at all.

But hey, let's get past that, and take this fairly casually... how many colors are there. Ok, there are three. Well, four, if you count the rods in the eye. We have receptors for (wavelengths corresponding to) red, blue, and yellow. We combine those and make things like orange and purple, but those are complexes of the three primary colors we have receptors for (and in dim light we use the rods which are blue-sensitive as well, but I'm not actually sure that they combine in the same way as the others). So that's another possible answer.

On the other hand, further up in the cortex we do opponent-processing, where red-blue pairs interact with, I think, yellow-green (?)... I'd have to look it up. At any rate there are three of those pairs also. So maybe we see three primary colors and three secondary pair-colors. But then I don't know how many colors there are, because what's a "pair-color"? But that's how we do it. I guess you could say that there are nine colors in that case, perhaps.

But on the other hand, an artist would say I was being an absolute idiot, and that there were millions and millions, maybe an infinite number, of colors... because we can discriminate all sorts of shades of colors. I actually do not know whether anyone has attempted something like changing a color mix by one photon, or by the smallest fraction of a wavelength they could generate in a lab (which is actually quite small) to see if people could see that difference. That would be the test, I guess. Then you'd just multiply, or so you'd think. But the problem with that is that the human visual system doesn't work that way. Sensitivity is dependent on context: the setting you're in; your expectations; what you've last seen; how bright or dim it is; your color sensitivity is extremely variable, just like all your other senses. There are circumstances in which you can see single photons, if the light is dim enough... but you'd never be able to do that in bright light. So... how many colors are there? It depends on where you're seeing them.

Steven Ravett Brown

In English there are eleven colours: Black, white, red, yellow, blue, green, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey. According to George Lakoff (Women, Fire and Dangerous Things) these are the 'focal' or purest categorisations of colours. Sometimes a colour term is contained within the focal category, as scarlet is contained in red.

The numbers of colours identified in a language can vary greatly between languages. However, there are six primary colours black, white, red, yellow, blue and green which are psychologically real even if a people does not name them.

Rachel Browne

How many colours are there?
None whatever. The whole thing is a big mistake. Just ask any bat.

(PS: Someone just recently asked a similar question. So let me refer you to my answer there. Just look for the word "colour".)

Jürgen Lawrenz


Benjamin asked:

Does God let people get ill to remind them that there is a God?

Benjamin is not the first (or last) person to wonder whether or not the presence of pain in our lives has theological significance. In the 13th Century the Sufi Poet Rumi wrote:

The servant complains to God of pain: in a hundred ways he moans. God says, "But after all, grief and pain have caused you to act rightly and humbly call on Me; complain instead of the bounty that befalls you and takes you far from My door." In reality every enemy of yours is your remedy: he is an elixir, a gift, and one that seeks to win your heart; for you flee from him into solitude
imploring God's help.
— Mathnawi V: 91-95

Version by Camille and Kabir Helminski, Rumi: Jewels of Remembrance Threshold Books, 1996

This kind of question about the theological significance of pain, and any attempt to answer it, qualifies as a version of what is called a 'theodicy.' A theodicy is an account of why God, given that he is considered all good, all powerful (omnipotent) and all knowing (omniscient), allows suffering in this world. Basically, if God is omniscient, then he knows about all the suffering that goes on. If he is all powerful, then he could, at least, prevent some of it. Perhaps, he is not all good? Or is suffering supposed to benefit us somehow? Or is the devil in charge of our suffering, especially senseless evil? If there is a devil responsible for evil and suffering, then how can God be all powerful?

The basic challenge of a theodicy is to show that the existence of suffering and evil in the world does not conflict with the there traditional attributes of God (listed above). A theodicy attempts to show that there is no true conflict.

When assessing this question it is important to distinguish that there are two sorts of evils or causes of suffering: natural evil (earthquakes, diseases, natural disasters...) and moral evil (violence, theft, murder...). Often, it seems easy to say that we human beings are responsible for moral evil and suffering that we ourselves cause. We have free will, supposedly, and could prevent these causes of suffering. God's three powers may not seem very challenged by moral evil. Often, though, certain moral evils, like the holocaust or the torture and murder of a newborn baby, are examples that seem to some people to defy any claims about our making our own choices and being solely responsible for all moral evil When so many people die unjustly under horrendous circumstances not of their own making, it is hard to see why an all powerful and benevolent god would allow an evil event of this scale to happen. Likewise, when an innocent child dies senselessly, it is difficult to see how his or her free will was involved to begin with — why would an all powerful and good God allow a child without any opportunity to become morally responsible to suffer and die senselessly

Natural suffering is also quite difficult to reconcile with our idea of God. We might think, 'Well, if God is so good and powerful, why does he allow as much of it as he does?' When a tidal wave wipes out an entire community, it may seem reasonable to wonder if this isn't over-kill on God's part. Why not simply destroy peoples' property instead of drowning everyone? Some may find the answer here to lie in our fall from the Garden of Eden; we ourselves chose to reject the original paradise we were given. The world since then is a difficult place. Yet, others find that in cases of natural evil, God seems to act randomly. Natural disasters do not seem to be caused by the evil deeds of those affected by them. The more we have learned about the world, about the causes of earthquakes, tidal waves and diseases, the less inclined we have become to blame themselves for these occurrences. If God is a master-planner, these evils seem like flaws in his design.

The philosopher John Hicks has one of my own personal favorite answers. He calls the world a place of "soul making." The idea is that our souls, if we get them, are made through our experiences in this world and our responses to our experiences. Hidden in this concept is an interesting challenge to the idea that we all are born with souls, ready-made. Ultimately, this idea, in my view, places God at a great distance from us, and perhaps this answer would be unacceptable to those who wish to maintain a strong notion of a personal god who possess the three qualities he is traditionally considered to have.

An excellent documentary film on this subject is called 'Questioning Faith.' The documentary follows the explorations of a divinity student who wishes to understand why God allowed his dearest friend to become ill and die. I highly recommend this film, which explores the question of why God allows suffering in the world from diverse points of views, different religions, including atheism as well.

Maureen Eckert

Imagine a world where God has allowed just as much evil as necessary to the mix to make souls achieve the best they can possibly achieve. However, in this imagined world, where ethics is practised to the highest degree, no-one has ever conceived of the existence of a 'God'. In other words, I am describing a humanist paradise, where everyone lives in blissful ignorance of the author of their being. In these circumstances, would any theodicy be able to justify the introduction of additional pain and suffering, not to make us morally better — because we have already achieved the highest that it is possible to morally achieve — but simply to "remind us that there is a God"? That is what your question seems to be getting at. And your thought is: "Surely that would not be the action of a benevolent being but a despot, whose only concern was to force his subjects to bend in submission?"

Geoffrey Klempner


Kate asked:

How and why does consciousness arise from the jumbled up mass of neurons which exist in my brain?

How? If anyone here could answer that, they'd be up for the Nobel. No one knows. But.. neurons are not "a jumbled-up mass". Not at all, the brain is extremely well-organized, on both small and large scales. Consciousness arises from some sort of structural factors, it seems. But we do not know how or which ones.

Why? Well at least we can take a stab at this one. Consider the "lower" animals, i.e., animals with smaller brains, down to animals with no nervous systems at all. What do you find, in terms of their thinking, inasmuch as we can determine that, and in terms of their behavior? You find less and less flexibility, less ability to adapt and change, less ability to break habits. And when you finally get down to very low animals and plants, you find none, pretty much, except on evolutionary time-scales (which isn't what we're talking about here). So then what is the function of consciousness, i.e., why does it arise? Well, there you are; that seems to be the answer to that one. There's an interesting breaking-point in behavior; interesting to me, at any rate. Consider the animals who play. What are the lowest (for lack of a better term) animals who play, when they're young? Well, fish never play (I don't mean dolphins or whales, etc.; they're animals). Plants never play. Reptiles never play, not as far as we can tell. I mean, as soon as a fish or reptile hatches, they are adults, basically... small, but they won't ever change. But take some birds, like crows, or dogs, or cats... etc... when they're young, and to a certain extent even as adults, they play with things. It's almost symbolic behavior, isn't it... a bit of cloth or string or whatever becomes something else: not what it really is, as a piece of string. Well, I think that's the point where we see the first bit of consciousness. Play is a very flexible way of seeing and manipulating the world, much more than just seeing it as it is. But this is just my own private hypothesis, with very little to back it up; I'm just giving it here because it relates to your question.

Steven Ravett Brown

I don't know HOW, but I'm pretty sure IN WHAT WAY.

I guess that somewhere in evolution it became profitable to distinguish yourself from others. Why attack yourself?, that makes no reason. Imagine yourself sharks biting in their own tail. Of course there are other ways to prevent that. But in this way by evolution the trait of recognizing your own body became 'seen' as positive. In the same way recognizing your own thoughts as connected to this body got useful for humans and some apes. These were the first because these creatures needed communication to survive. So in their case it was extra useful.

How this was realized is another question.

Henk Tuten

We first have to prove that it does!! We could reverse the question and ask: How does consciousness in the form of mind manage to manipulate the neurons in the brain to perform the actions that they carry out? If I wish to raise my arm the action follows the thought, not the other way around, the thought does not arise from the action of the neurons. Also, it is difficult to envisage how mechanical neurons can make decisions: I think that most of us entertain the belief that the neurons carry out the decisions made by the mind. When we put a probe in the brain does the electrical crackle we hear follow the thought or precede it? In my experience it seems to be the former, though I concede that the speed at which the system works makes it very difficult to observe.

Another way to think about it, is that sensory neurons stimulate sensations in the brain/ mind informing us about our environment. The sensation received when we touch something is not at the end of the finger but in the sensory cortex of the brain. We can respond to or ignore the message received, this is a conscious decision from information received. In fact, philosophically, we can say that our world is in our mind, as this is where all sensory information is received and interpreted. When we respond to sensory information the decisions we make are carried out by motor neurons which move the necessary parts of the body, if in danger we run or stand and fight, the choice is made by the mind and the neurons carry it out. There is one circuit however that informs the mind/brain after it has carried out the action, this is called a reflex; when we touch something very hot we jerk the finger away automatically, the feeling of pain arrives in the brain shortly after. Reflexes are circuits in the neuro-system designed to protect us; in the case of heat, if the message arrived in the brain first for the mind to make a decision about moving the finger away from the heat, the digit would be very badly damaged and perhaps lost. Again, in the reflex there is no thought arising from the neuron, it is an automatic mechanical action, the thought comes after when we say: "Ooh!! That hurt!, and decide to tell the neurons to stick the finger under the cold water tap.

There is obviously much more to say on this, the philosophy of mind is a massive subject within which philosophers and scientists disagree widely. However, I may have said enough to indicate that your question is a common presumption and that the neurons seem to be the slaves of the mind rather than the other way round. Recent advances in neuro-science now indicate that the brain is more like a large gland, where hormones have a massive influence, rather than just dry electric circuits. This complicates the issue even more, but whether we consider either dry or wet conditions in the brain, the mind seems to be the boss, rather than the worker. However as I have indicated, there are many other points of view.

John Brandon


Edward asked:

This isn't really a philosophical question as such, but rather a question about reading philosophy. Recently I was advised not to apply to read philosophy at university because I achieved a low mark in an abstract reasoning test i.e. my ability to discern trends and patterns in shapes was poor. My teacher did, however, add that my mark may have been dependent on poor spatial reasoning (as the test involved shapes) which is not necessarily required for philosophical study. Do you think such tests are a guide to potential philosophical aptitude?

Secondly, do you think logic can be improved with practice?

There's no black and white answer to this. There seems to be such a thing as "general intelligence", but it's hard to pin down. Specialized tests such as the one you cite tend to relate to one's general intelligence and to each other, but that's just a tendency, not anything written in stone. Do I think they're a guide? Yes, in general. But I cannot answer that question, and no one can, in any particular case. There are also specific abilities which are realized in specific brain areas, and visualizing is not realized in completely the same areas, generally, as verbal abilities. There's overlap, of course.

You want advice? Go for what you're interested in. If you like philosophy, read it. Maybe you'll have more trouble with it than some others, maybe you won't. But you'll be enjoying yourself, in any case.

There is absolutely no doubt that one's ability to reason logically can be improved with practice. But in addition, with very intense practice and time put in, one's aptitude can also be increased. That is, with great effort you can increase your intelligence, even in some fundamental sense... up to a limit, of course... which no one can determine beforehand. interactions between motivation and intelligence are strange and complex.

Steven Ravett Brown

I am strongly against using any form of intelligence or mental ability test in order to measure 'philosophical aptitude'. To begin with, I would challenge the justification for the belief that if you do well on test XYZ you will perform better as a philosopher (unless the test is a philosophy test — even then, I have my doubts).

If the designer of the test has reasoned a priori that marks in the test will be correlated with philosophical performance, then this claim is open to refutation by an empirical study of actual case histories of philosophy students who have taken the test, and their subsequent careers. (The point that such a priori assumptions in psychological testing are open to empirical refutation was repeatedly made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck.) Have any such extended studies been made in the case of tests for philosophical aptitude? I very much doubt it.

But let us suppose that good performance the test has been shown empirically to correlate generally with success in philosophy. There will always be exceptions to any empirical correlation. Even if ninety-five per cent of people who score badly in the test do significantly worse in philosophy, you may be one of the five per cent who succeeds spectacularly against the odds, because of other factors such as motivation, or other intellectual skills which compensate for lack of skill in the narrow area tested.

Ignore your teacher. If you have decided that philosophy is something you really want to do — and I am assuming that you know what philosophy is about, and are not merely guessing that you might like it — then that counts for far more than performance on any test.

Yes, the ability to solve logic puzzles, diagnose logical fallacies, write proofs in formal logic can all be improved with practice. But that will have positive benefits for any academic subject — not just philosophy — that requires you to argue a case.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mack asked:

In a report to the United Nations on February 14, 2003 International Atomic Energy Agency Director General, Mohammed ElBaradei said, "We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq."

To take another example, a documents which Iraq provided suggested to us that some 1,000 tons of chemical agent were unaccounted for and/ were destroyed, and Hans Blix, Chief Weapons Inspector said, "We [the United Nation and United States] must not jump to the conclusion that they exist."

How can Iraq PROVE IT DOESN'T HAVE weapons of mass destruction?

Isn't that "trying to prove a negative"?

This is a complex question and requires a complex answer. It is not up to Iraq to 'prove the negative', but rather up the UN Inspectors to prove the 'positive', i.e. that Iraq is in possession of WMDs. To this point in the two reports Hans Blix has delivered to the UN Security Council the case 'have not proved the existence of WMDs'. Thus, as it stands at the moment, Iraq has not been found to be in 'material breach.' Thus, the negative is not proved because the positive has not been proved. The key to this question lies in the understanding of UN Security Council Resolution 14.41. UNSCR 14.41 was a political manipulation by the right-wing hawks of the American administration, and by the injudicious support of that Administration by elements of the British Government. It was a resolution which did not initially receive the backing of the American Administration who wished to initiate military hostilities immediately. However, the resolution serves as a legitimisation of a strategy of the 'hawks' who are concerned that the Weapons Inspectors have not proved the positive. The strategy was two fold: the Weapons Inspectors would deliver the report of Iraq non-compliance (which has not yet happened) and the 'hawks' in the meantime, would prepare for military hostilities though massive build up of men/ women and the machinery of war.

UNSCR 14.41 is an International agreement which comprises of a multi-level approach to this serious issue. Both the American administration and the British Government has signed up to 14.41 as the method of determination as to what action should follow, if Iraq is found to be in 'material breach'. It also states that non-compliance and 'material breach' will bring with it 'serious consequences' but it does not state what those serious consequences are. That is for the International community to decide, but the hawks have already pre-empted the decision of the International Community and made it clear that 'serious consequences' means pre-emptive military hostilities. But, as yet, no case has been proved. Since it is a resolution of the UN, both America and Britain have signed up to the multi-level, multi-strategic approach and should they act outside the confines of the terms of the resolution they will be in contravention of International Law and the UN Charter on human rights.

So, the negative does not need to be proved, the positive does. Only then in the proving of the positive can the International community decide which course of action should be undertaken. It is also not outside the bounds of possibility that the 'hawks' of the American Administration are disappointed that the UN Weapons Inspectors have not, as yet, declared Iraq in material breach. Attempts to introduce emotive issues to the Americans (a connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda) are futile since resolution 14.41 makes no mention of this, and this connection most certainly has not been proved, indeed, as Colin Powell found out, is dismissed by the intelligence agencies. Consequently, there is no internationally legal justification for a pre-emptive military strike, nor is there a moral case for military hostilities under the terms of UNSCR 14.41. The case must first be proved. To date, it has not been and therefore the case of proving the negative does not exist — the UN Inspectorate is seeking to determine whether Iraq does have WMDs, not whether they do not. Thus, a war is neither morally or ethically justified. It may be commercially justified (the ensuring of the constant flow of oil for the Western/ American financial markets) but that is markedly different from the moral case. Prove the positive before determining the negative.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM

Looking at an argument's logical form, i.e. considering the structure of an argument without the content you can prove a negative. Consider:

If A occurs then B occurs.
B does not occur.
Therefore A does not occur.

We have proved a negative here, that is, that it is not the case that A occurs. Now to reintroduce content to bring it back to Iraq, consider:

1. If Iraq has WMD then it will leave evidence of them.
2. There is no evidence of them.
3. Therefore it is not the case that Iraq has WMD.

Now I'm not asserting that any of the propositions are true merely that if they were true then you could reach the negative conclusion.

Considering the issue from an epistemological perspective instead of a logical one. Now it seems that we have two hypothesis to consider:

Either, 4. Iraq has WMD
Or, 5. It is not the case that Iraq has WMD.

Now to prove 4 all we need is one example of a WMD to prove it, whereas to prove' 5 we would need to rule the possibility of WMD being anywhere at all. Fortunately our standards of proof never require us to have absolute certainty regarding a proposition. Even to prove 4 beyond any doubt we would need to rule out any possibility at all of doubt which, thanks to sceptical arguments, we never can do (at least with respect to factual knowledge). So if we accept that we don't need to be absolutely certain of the truth a proposition we can see that we can prove a negative proposition. If all we need is to be beyond reasonable doubt, then it is a case of weighing up the probability of Iraq having WMD given the evidence we have.

Now the final issue remaining is that of a person who wishes to hold on to proposition 4 come what may, (perhaps as pretext to military action!). If the weapons inspectors say there is no evidence of 4 all that person need say is that they haven't proved it, perhaps because the Iraqis are so sneaky and clever that they can hide them perfectly. The problem is that the two people are using the word 'prove' in different ways.

To conclude if we demand that proof be absolutely certain in order to accept a proposition then it is unlikely that we can ever prove that Iraq has no WMD, but then by the same standards we can never prove absolutely that they do.

Mike Lee

Some 'doubts' have application in the real world, while others exist only in philosophers' fertile imaginations.

If Hans Blix finds what appears to be a nuclear warhead, and all the scientific tests confirm that it is a nuclear warhead, then only an idiot would say, 'Ah well, but it could be a cleverly engineered illusion, or a dream'. Yes, there is a logical possibility that we are living in a Matrix-world, and all our beliefs about the world around us are false. But no-one would ever consider modifying their actions to take account of that 'possibility' — unless of course evidence that this world is a Matrix-world were to appear.

On the other hand, if the most thorough searches have not revealed a nuclear warhead, if all the Iraqi nuclear scientists have passed lie detector tests etc. etc. then it still does not require a science fiction scenario to imagine that hidden away in some cave or abandoned mind somewhere is an arsenal of nuclear warheads. No-one can be that certain.

So, the question remains, How certain do we need to be? How high is the standard of 'probable proof' to be set? Probability is relative to evidence. But you need to have enough evidence to make your calculation, otherwise you're just guessing. I think that this is a case where there is no rational way to assess probability, at least, not without a far more thorough search than any that has been undertaken to date.

Geoffrey Klempner


Carrie asked:

Do you think Socrates feels that philosophy adds meaning to life for everyone? Or does it only apply to certain people? How?

In Plato's Apology, Socrates defends himself against his accusers claiming that he is on a divinely inspired mission. "I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise" (Ap.23b) In the dialogues, we find Socrates speaking with a variety of interlocutors, ranging from famous Sophists (Gorgias, Protagoras), Philosophers (Parmenides) friends both young and old (Meno, Crito) and other Athenian figures (Euthyphro, Laches). He was regularly found in the Lyceum and agora, public places where he came into contact with citizens and strangers, even going to at least one Symposium (drinking party) held by Agathon in the company of the playwrights of his day, along with Alcibiades. Plato's Socrates seems to interact with a great deal of people and is willing to engage them in philosophical conversations. When they are not well versed in philosophy, he helps them as best he can grasp the questions he asks. He does appear to think that the unexamined life is not worth living with respect to everyone. Yet this may (controversially) mean that every person can benefit by coming to understand their epistemic limitations — to know that they truly do not know.

Whether everyone Socrates conversed with were able to benefit from philosophy in the way he hoped is unclear. Euthyphro, for instance, runs away at the end of his dialogue with Socrates. And Socrates admits in the Apology that his practice of philosophical questioning has made him many enemies among the politicians, poets, and craftsmen. It may be an open question as to who can benefit from philosophy. In Plato's Republic, the picture of education painted there is quite different, and very few people would have the capacity to rise to the heights of philosophical dialectic after ten long years of practicing mathematics. Only a few would end up as "Philosopher Kings." Many view these ideas as reflecting Plato's own view, which contrasts with his portrayal of Socrates. It seems clear that Socrates had a following, and by philosophizing in public, became the target of the public's wrath. Plato founded the Academy, and taught philosophy under more selective conditions, perhaps benefiting far fewer citizens than his teacher had.

Maureen Eckert


Mike asked:

I am an interested amateur philosopher, working in commerce as a business consultant. I see a great need for discussion of and application of higher ethical standards in business. I also think that the majority of business decision makers would benefit from the introduction of some philosophical thinking into their training and ongoing personal development. I further think that they would enjoy it and it would encourage them to help us make a better world.

The continuing existence of this vacuum leads me to conclude that most philosophers are too introspective or too involved in exchanging erudite opinions and speculations with their colleagues and not enough concerned with how their thinking could be applied in the real world to real world problems.

Are there philosophers who are engaging with working people to demonstrate how exciting philosophy can be, and how it can be applied with advantage to personal and strategic issues in the business world?

Well, let's take it from the top. First, of course, as a philosopher, I completely agree with your first paragraph. And there are courses in medical ethics, business ethics, philosophy of education, and so forth, in virtually all our universities.

Second, what vacuum? You merely state that people would benefit from this. I assume you're implying that they don't have it, and that it is the fault of philosophers that they don't. A strange assumption, to my way of thinking. Lets see... how would I go about educating 'business decision makers'? Publishing a journal in ethics? No... that's being done. Writing about ethics in newspapers... being done. Courses in ethics... being done. How about this: ethics courses and seminars in businesses! Great idea. Who's going to pay for this...? The business leaders who need the ethical lessons. Right. Whoops... we seem to have hit a snag here, haven't we. First, they won't pay. Second, even if they do pay, do you actually think that a few seminars are going to change their minds? I guess I'm more cynical than I thought... because I certainly don't think so.

So the solution seems to be to have ethical education in high school and before that. Well, that's a nice idea... and who's going to pay for that? Look around you; what's happening to money for education? Yes. Ok... philosophers should just volunteer their time, since there are so many of them and they're so overpaid anyway, to teach in the schools...? Not a bad idea either, except that to teach you need certification, etc... all of which takes time, costs money... and that time and money are taken from doing philosophy, which, believe it or not, is actually quite difficult.

We seem to have some problems here, don't we. First, money. People won't pay for philosophers to teach them; they don't see philosophy as necessary, as you do, to your credit. There are very few jobs for philosophers, and they are not in industry nor in public high schools. Not as philosophers. Second, what would happen, do you think, if a philosopher, teaching in a lower-level school, would start explicitly teaching ethics? They'd be thrown out by a pack of indignant parents and educators, wouldn't they. Especially if they taught anything resembling modern, humanist ethics. We don't live in a secular society, not here in the States, at any rate. Just look at what's happened with teaching evolution, which has so much evidence backing it up that... well. I won't even go there.

Now in answer to your last question, yes, there are, believe it or not, many resources. First, there is 'philosophical counseling', a movement which started in Europe and has spread to this continent... but it's for individuals who see themselves as needing a particular kind of therapy, and it's expensive. As it should be. Philosophers are highly trained and educated; shouldn't their skills cost as much as, say, engineers or physicians or psychiatrists? Information about that can be found at the American Society for Philosophical Counseling: http://www.aspcp.org/.

But in fact there are also low-cost alternatives. There are is Cafe Philosophy: http://philosophy-shop.com/cafeinfo.html. There is the Philosophical Cafe: http://www.parapsi.com/. There is the Society for Philosophical Inquiry: http://www.philosopher.org/. And there is this site. These people would be ecstatic at being invited to give seminars in businesses. Guess how many they've been asked to give? None, that I know of. I guess it's because they haven't taken out ads in the NY Times, etc... but those cost money, don't they. And that brings us back, in any case, to the usefulness of one or two seminars... pretty minimal, I'd say. No. We're talking about major alterations in educational theory, principles, and financing here. The only societies that I know of that incorporate ethics, and I should put quotes around that term in this context, into the schooling of their young children are... yes, you've guessed it: the religious societies. Now, would you call the teaching of fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Judaism, fundamentalist Hinduism, and so forth, the same as the teaching of ethics? I wouldn't. But that seems to be what people conceive of as ethical teaching, doesn't it. So the upshot, then, seems to be that we philosophers have failed in our mission to radically alter societies from religious to secular and to incorporate humanist educational principles into high schools... OK... you figure out how to do it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Mike also asked:

I have spent most of my working life in the marketing and general management sides of commercial business. Along with most of my colleagues and competitors I have seen the marketplace as a battleground, on which you strive your utmost to win business at the expense of your competitors. If a competitor goes to the wall, or is weak enough to be taken over, so much the better, if the result is less competition.

A free market and tough competition stimulates innovation and progress (at least in material terms). It also fosters unethical behaviour and lack of consideration for one's fellow man, particularly if they work for the competition. Despite that, man does not yet seem to have come up with a better way of advancing the (material) well being and freedom of the majority, in any large community.

Is there a fundamentally different and better way for man to move ahead, that will temper his aggressive, selfish instincts with greater altruism?

It sounds as if you're going through an ethical crisis. Good for you. There are many answers that have been given to your question... the field of utopian ideas is a moderately large one in philosophy. Plato, in fact, was one of the first, in the West, to attempt a utopian community. It failed, eventually. It seems that on a small scale, practically anything can work, for a time. On a large scale, and over long periods of time, the longest-lasting systems, as far as I am aware, have been those in which nearly absolute power is concentrated in a small class of people, usually ruler-priests (I'm thinking of Egypt, China, India, the Mid-East, the Aztecs, the Mayans, Japan, the Catholic Church, for example). The combination of military and religious power is one that works on multiple levels of the human condition, as you might imagine. I do not think that capitalism, in your sense of the term, has been around long enough to test it, really... a couple of hundred years, maybe... not very long compared to these other systems. Is it better than those? Oh, dear... "better"? Surely you see the problems there?

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that your criteria are the correct ones: altruism as opposed to selfishness; empathy or peacefulness as opposed to aggression; material well-being for the many; freedom for the many. You realize that it is not universally accepted that all these are "good"... just because you and I do is not any sort of justification... just because our societies do is not either. But I will not go into arguments attempting to justify them, I'll just accept them for the purpose of this discussion. Now, given that, we ask your question above. There are no answers, I'm afraid. Oh, certainly, if you read Marx, for example, the thrust of his whole system is just exactly to maximize these values. But Marxism has been attempted several times in the last century, on large scales, with uniform lack of success. There are many who advocate universal Buddhism... and perhaps they have the best case; all in all, that is a philosophy which has pretty much stood the test of time; and it does more-or-less embrace the above values. But it is not, insofar as I am aware, an economic system... sort of the opposite, in effect; a renunciation of economics and the importance of "material well-being". I have no idea how it could be worked out as an economic system, and so far as I know it has never been. But that might be something for you to look into; in all other ways it seems an admirable life-style, especially, in my opinion, if you do not embrace it's religious/ metaphysical underpinnings (rebirth, karma, etc.). There are of course the various religious communities... but first, they are not (with one exception that I know of — Mormonism) well-worked out economic systems, and second, they are small-scale, and dependent, really, on being embedded in larger societies. Thus we could mention the idyllic life-styles of monks, of the Amish, and so forth.... The Mormons seem to be an exception to this. But they are, as far as I can tell, actually a prime example of a social group similar to the older societies above: the virtually absolute rule of a powerful priesthood, very much like Muslim societies seem to be, for the most part. And those societies, while they pay lip service to "the majority", in actuality provide freedom and wealth proportionally to one's status in the ruler-priest class.

So, where does that leave us? In flux, I'm afraid. You can certainly go to any bookstore and pull down innumerable books on how best to live, how our society should be shaped, governed... how we should live as individuals, blah, blah, blah. But one must first justify such conceptions with data and logic, then test them, then implement them. We have, at this point, still insufficient data on how human beings function. What data we do have, has not been put together into a coherent system relating to coordinating human activities: a "society" maximizing the above values. And third, that putative system, once formulated, must, as with all hypotheses, be tested empirically... at what human cost, who knows? Then finally, that system, successfully formulated, then tested, must be implemented. Good luck. History is littered with the failures of such attempts. But... how else can we proceed?

Steven Ravett Brown

If you are speaking of the entirely and absolutely "free market", I would say that I have not the perception that this is "the better way of advancing the (material) well being and freedom of the majority, in any large community".

>From what I have seen, well being and freedom are more advanced in communities where free enterprise is tempered by clever (and enforced) regulations and established solidarity.

Concerning the question in your last paragraph, it all depends on what you mean by "moving ahead".

Jean Nakos


Robert asked:

Philosophers throughout history have always been quintessence of what we would refer to as student. They sometimes are influenced by other minds when forming a philosophical opinion. Plato might have been influenced by the Buddha or Confucius, Jesus by so called prophets, Mohammed by Jesus and the Torah and so on and so on. It's like a philosophical pyramid. It perplexes me when so many "students of philosophy" can have totally different views on a single issue.

Hence my question.....has there been any study as to how philosophy can be detrimental to the harmony of this planet? It seems to me that any new philosophical thought can alter the status quo and be disruptive among this species. Couple that thought with the present political and economic climate around the world, philosophy seems to be outright dangerous. Western...middle eastern and eastern cultures dictate a philosophy that is suited for that part of the world. It seems to me philosophy has lost its purity as a science or even as a discipline. May I have your views on this?

I suspect you will get more than one answer to your question; and it occurred to me that possibly one slightly 'offbeat' way of responding would be to invite you to ponder the presuppositions to which your questions gives voice.

For example: "The harmony of this planet." Are you sure there is such a thing? Isn't harmony a human concept? Of course it is; and when you use the phrase "harmony of the earth", you probably mean some kind of balance between us and nature that is not destructive to either. But perhaps you might entertain the possibility that this supposed harmony is also a human prejudice — an extremely rare manifestation in the real world and therefore all the more desired and hoped for. For to begin with, harmony implies disharmony; it implies disparate elements coming together and producing a concordance of co-existence. But altogether there is more conflict in the world, much more: and this could positively invite you to consider whether those 'conflict situations' to which you allude with such worry may, in fact, comprise the preconditions of harmony? I put it to you as a debating point that the concept of 'harmony' which is promoted by so many thinkers has an element of sterility about it. Harmony is not a natural state of being and the complexity which, for example, rules life would collapse to an inert state not much different from the 'peace' enjoyed by a rock if harmony were the default condition.

So I'm suggesting to you that you put a perspective on your beliefs. Harmony tends to be a 'loaded' term, often accepted without examination as to what it purports; and thus "the present political and economic climate", which seems disastrously unbalanced to you, strikes you as a dangerous problem; but you need do no more than dip into any history book to find the sages of every age and culture saying the same thing. There is an old adage, whose source I can't remember now, but its meaning was effectively: we strive throughout our lives mightily to achieve a secure basis for our peace, happiness and contentment, and one day, in our dotage, we achieve it and find little satisfaction in it. It is then, when we look back upon the course of our struggles, that we realise that our true happiness and contentment were in the doing, not in the relaxing, and that the very meaning of it all revolved around this question-and-answer game with society, nature, our own inner strivings and the perpetual need to create-and-resolve conflict situations.

In other words, I'm really giving the question back to you with a counter-question: is harmony perhaps something greater than ourselves, a phenomenon that works itself out through conflict over long stretches of time, but with the telos of earth persistently in the balance: and we are too small and unaware, that our conflicts are in the service of the greater "harmony of this planet." After all, allowing for a moment that harmony equates with eco-balance; it is a pretty plain conclusion that if we humans manage to untip this balance sufficiently, we'll go down. The earth will not support a rapacious creature like homo sapiens for long if our greed enters the stage of runaway calamity: for if we deplete the resources available to other life forms, we do the same to ours.

Finally you wonder whether philosophy has lost its purity. I hope you realise, even from the little I've just said, that this is again a terribly prejudicial notion. Philosophy is not a "something" made of material with changing degrees of purity. It is a human pursuit, and philosophy is exactly as 'pure' or otherwise, as the person pursuing it. Philosophy is about reason, knowledge and truth, and all these must change as we go along, not because we are 'losing' harmony or purity, but because harmony in the human domain is a dynamic state of interplay between minds and amenable to growth. There have been eras in the history of mankind where just one philosophy prevailed, and few would go along with the suggestion that these eras were notable either for their peace and harmony or especially conducive to the maintenance of human values. So the best hope for us, I think, is that the disharmony which you perceive is 'value-driven' and will allow something good to come out of it. And this is a play in which you too, have a role to play.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Jack asked:

I am not exactly sure how to state this so I will try to cite an example first.

When shooting pool sometime I miss an easy shoot and it totally baffles me. Afterwards, thinking about the whole game I will determine that it was not the correct shot to "win" the game. I believe that my subconscious was fighting so much to get through to my brain that it distracted me so much that I missed the easy shoot.

I think this happens in real life as to cause some major mistakes, due to this inner turmoil. You might think you really had some insight and go ahead and do what you where going to do. When in reality what you did was completely wrong and you never realized it, of course, till it was after the fact.

Are there any psychology studies on this philosophy and/ or what it might be called so I could do some research on it?

There are so many reasons we make mistakes that I can't possibly even begin to go into them. One mistake you are making is trying to account for mistakes through one overriding class of causes. But mistakes are caused by many classes of causes. For example, your pool shot. Here's one possibility: suppose that as you're lining up to make this shot, you start thinking about how you might miss the shot. Well, in order to do that, you have, to some extent to rehearse missing the shot. In other words, thinking about a movement activates the motor areas, to some extent, responsible for that movement. So to make a shot, to walk steadily, to ride a bike, to ski, to play ping-pong, you need to think about making the shot, etc., and not about how you might miss it. Then you will be rehearsing the correct motion, by thinking about it. This accounts for some degree of some people's clumsiness and accident-proneness, I believe. My theory is that they are literally constantly practicing how to drop things, how to stumble, etc., by thinking about doing those things. And since they practice so much, they get good at doing them. Mind you, this is my personal theory; I have no idea as to whether it is actually true... but the neurological basis for it is there.

Another way we make mistakes is, as you speculate, by interference with other tasks or other sensory images: "distractions". Also, if we try to do several things at once, because we have limited capacities, we cannot devote as much to any one, and will tend to lose concentration and make mistakes.

Another way we make mistakes is by coming to the wrong conclusion about something and following through on that conclusion. But there's no reason that this has to be due to "inner turmoil"; you might be perfectly calm and still conclude that, say, Echinacea is an effective cold remedy, or that crystals give one psychic powers, or that decks of cards or tea leaves will reveal the future. There are people who believe these things, and many more, despite overwhelming evidence against them.

There are many other causes of mistakes. Perceptual illusions, conceptual limitations... by the way, this is not a philosophy. These things come under both psychology and philosophy, and there are so many categories here that I don't even know where to refer you.

Here are some readings:

 Piattelli-Palmarini, M. "Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds." New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.
 Rozenblit, L., and F. Keil. "The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth." Cognitive Science 26 (2002): 521-562.
 Piaget, J. Insights and Illusions of Philosophy. Translated by W. Mays. New York, NY: The World Publishing Co., 1971.
 Damasio, A.R. Descartes' Error; Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1994.
 Schwartz, B.L., D.M. Travis, A.M. Castro, and S. M. Smith. "The Phenomenology of Real and Illusory Tip-or-the-Tongue States." Memory & Cognition 28, no. 1 (2000): 18-27.
 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): 277-297.
 Hines, T. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.
 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.
 Shermer, M. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1997.

Steven Ravett Brown


Carrie asked:

I am a philosophy student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Just recently I discovered your website, and found it to be very informative...so maybe you could help me out. :)

I have two questions (1) "What does perception make us aware of?" and (2) "Are there sense data?"

I'll answer No. 2 first, because it is easily disposed of. The term 'sense data' is only a facon de parler (manner of speaking), which is convenient to us today because we are habituated through I.T. to refer by this term to unformed packets of potential information. But our senses do not respond to 'data'; the way they are calibrated or sensitized implies a prior selectiveness, a mode of screening unwanted impressions, so that the 'data' which actually impinge on the nervous system are more accurately termed sensa, to distinguish them from all other data which may strike our senses, but are not registered for one reason or another.

No. 1 is more difficult to handle, because it embroils us in theories of the mind and brain. The term 'perception' implies an evaluation, or judgement, performed by the nervous system, the brain, the mind, or all three of them to varying degrees. Thus to perceive dangerous heat, you need nerves, but not necessarily a brain; to perceive a stalking predator you need a brain, but not necessarily a mind. Finally to perceive a sound uttered by another human being, you need a mind to transform that percept into a meaning unit.

So perception makes us aware of meaningful conditions in our environment. Over long stretches of evolutionary passage, organisms in their habitat developed what might be called a delicate and quite subtle symbiosis of 'give and take'. The environment is given, but changeable; organisms respond to and in turn influence its shape. In the strict context of your question, however, the best way of understanding what this give and take amounts is this: that sensa on the whole reflect those circumstances which are of instantaneous importance to an organism and that accordingly the senses are tuned to pre-process impressions relevant each to their modality, whereas perception performs the evaluation by synthesizing them. From this you will understand that sensa are immediate, without an appreciable time lag between an impingement and feeling it, whereas perception, owing to its greater complexity, may lag at times considerably behind.

I have left out of my answer the one criterion that perhaps is the real focus of your question. What does perception mean in human terms? But this cannot be addressed quickly and easily, and in any case there are many conflicting theories, which I could hardly ignore or attempt to reconcile with each other. The best advice I can give you, therefore, is to read a relatively small, but very informative and lightly written book which presupposes no prior study: A History of the Mind by Nicholas Humphrey. The context of your question is well covered in it and I think you will find it rewarding reading.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Well I hope you're not expecting anything like an answer to those questions... they've only been kicking around for the last 3000 years or so. For some very interesting articles relating to those, take a look at the Journal of Consciousness Studies site. You can get there through this one: http://www.imprint.co.uk/. You will find links to enormous resources on these and related questions.

I could say something like, 1a) perception makes us aware of qualities, or 1b) perception makes us aware of things... but you can see, I'm sure, the weaknesses in those responses. I could also say, 2a) yes, of course... but that is only an epistemological question, not a metaphysical one, or 2b) yes, of course, and we make metaphysical distinctions on the basis of clarity. Yes, haha, aren't those satisfying? They just melt away, don't they.

I'm afraid that in order to even address those questions, you are going to have to have quite a bit of background... like, say, about 5 more years of reading. Sorry, but I'm serious. Think, for example, about your terms. Do you really know what "perception" means? Are optical illusions perceptions? Are hallucinations? Dreams? Can we perceive numbers? What about beauty, is that a perception? Do we even perceive, say, automobiles? We see an object, let us say, and we know that it's an automobile (is that knowing part of the perception?)... yes, but what are we perceiving there? You begin to see the problems? And I haven't even really addressed your question, just the first term in which it's posed. There are further implications in the way you've phrased it, which may or may not have been intentional: "make us aware"... did you intend that active voice? Perhaps perception merely allows awareness, rather than forcing, or creating, it. On the other hand, perhaps there are extremely active processes involved in perception, processes which include conscious decisions... what would be the implications, in either case? As I say, you might start at the site above.

Steven Ravett Brown


Joshua asked:

In tackling my Phil107 class I came upon an essay on the mind body problem, more specifically, the beetle in the box. How is the beetle in the box problem of mental expressions related to the cartesian dualist view? How can the cartesian dualist respond. I'm not asking you to write my essay, merely a pointer in the right direction would be helpful.

The beetle in the box argument is just one of several arguments that comprise what has become known as the Private Language Argument(s). Very roughly put the Cartesian view would appear to assume that it is possible to doubt and discount all knowledge of "the external world", "other minds", etc... yet at the same time retain the ability to talk sensibly about the self (the famous Cartesian Cogito) and its "mental" states & experiences — pain, happiness, intentions, beliefs, etc, and sensations (of colour, hot/cold, sounds, smells, etc...) because they are conceived to be somehow mental and therefore "directly accessible" to the conscious soul and indubitable. The Cartesian then sees his task as "rationally reconstructing" and providing secure "foundations" for all knowledge from this basis of the Cogito and its world of mental experiences alone. So the Cartesian, having discounted all "externals", assumes he can still meaningfully talk about his experiences of seeing red, feeling hot, being in pain, being happy, thinking something, etc., BECAUSE he believes (or just assumes) that he can explain the meaning of these words by reference (a sort of pointing inwardly) to his own private mental samples of red, pain, happiness, thoughts, etc.. which he assumes are immediately present, simply "given", within his conscious mind or soul.

Now the private language arguments as a whole undermine this conception and its underlying assumption of a dualism between two distinct realms — an "inner", mental world of the soul (or mind) and an "external" world of tables and chairs and other people. They do this by arguing that the inner world of the cogito and its alleged "mental objects" provide no basis whatsoever for the concepts of experience, sensations, mental states, etc. that the Cartesian assumes he has a right to use. The beetle in the box argument is just one of these and has the a very specific objective of pointing out that:

IF (1) language is to be used as a means of public communication AND (2) key terms (e.g. "beetle") are assumed to get their meaning only by way of reference to a logically private mental sample, that only I can "see", locked within my "box" — the Cartesian inner world of the mind and its "representations", THEN (3) the private mental sample (the beetle or thing in my box) ends up being irrelevant to whatever public meaning our use of the concept ("beetle" or whatever) might or might not have.

One possible response for the Cartesian is to say: — OK then, I forgo the public communication aspect and just regard my use of these words as part of a private language all of my own. I will accept some form of scepticism as regards the possibility of communication with other people, either simply accept it and live with it (possibly even terminating in a form of solipsism), or reckon on resolving or explaining it away by some other means, later. But I can still lay claim to my own private language about "beetles", "red", "pain", "happiness", etc... ...

It is the purpose of the other bits of the private language arguments to disabuse the Cartesian, and his later heirs, of the belief that this is an option. ... and, of course, I am assuming that you have read the relevant sections of the Philosophical Investigations, namely paras 243-314.

Another possible response of the defender of the Cartesian conception is to try to argue that the beetle in the box and other "private language" arguments are either (1) viciously circular ... relying on hidden premises that are equivalent to what the arguments allegedly purport to "prove" or (2) rely on other hidden premises or presuppositions that are, for some reason, unacceptable... you might want to try to think what these might be yourself but we can leave them for another time,... get a hold of the basic arguments first.

Rob de Villiers


Mae asked:

Did ancient Greece's grandeur disappear? Why are Greeks of today not as influential as before? What are the reasons for Greece's mediocrity today?

The first consideration is that the Greeks today are not 'mediocrities', unless you are willing to classify all humans as mediocrities except that tiny handful who have made outstanding creative contributions. Such views as your question puts forward are often expressed from a point of view of modern western civilisation's accomplishments. But even if I were to grant your point, on the assumption that once upon a time the Greeks were a race of brilliantly creative people who later 'lost the plot', a simple answer would be that ever since the 'takeover' by the Romans, Greece has been the site of numerous invasions, as a result of which their racial mix has changed completely, so that today's Greeks have little more in common with the ancient Greeks than their political name. Now this historical fact should give you a second lever by which to query whether there is any relevance to the question as you've put it. The comparison between then and now, because its rests on an assumption of identity between the people occupying Greek terrain formerly and today, is not valid.

Thirdly, and finally, the terms of your argument can easily be extended to many other cultures, which had their day and would not feel happy at being singled out as mediocrities because they have fallen off from a peak of achievement which is so rarely granted to any group of people. The China of today is not what it was in Marco Polo's day; and his own Venice is not what it has been. Samarkand was once the glory of the world, what of it now? Ditto with Rome, Florence, Nineveh, Memphis, Granada etc etc. — In sum, "Grandeur" is an exceptional state of generally short duration; therefore let us bless Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, that we have them as examples of those pinnacles to which the human race is capable of ascending, even if so far we have not discovered the secret of making it last.

Jürgen Lawrenz

According to the German historian and politician Jacob Phillipp Fallmerayer (1790-1861) "the Greeks of the present say are of Albanian and Slav descent with hardly a drop of true Greek blood in their veins." Fallmerayer's view was adopted by the Nazis and used in order to justify the exterminationist policies inflicted upon the Greek population during the WWII German occupation of Greece.. The same view is sometimes expressed today for political purposes. However, anthropology, ethnology and linguistics have shown that the population of Greece is basically native and that the contemporary Greeks are descendents of the ancient Greeks.

History answers your question. All influential nations have their rise and their fall. Greeks are not the exception. Their influence lasted long (until 1453 — the fall of Constantinople) but their fall was quite hard. They were occupied by the Turks (Ottoman Empire) and this occupation lasted, more or less, 450 years! They won their independence in 1831. During the World War II they won the first victory for the allied camp (1940 — against the Italians). Today they are a small nation of 17 million people (10 million in Greece and 7 million abroad). But still they are more influential than many small nations. Greece is an old and full member of the European Union, of Nato and of the OECD). Currently, Greece holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

... And Greece is still a superpower in poetry! Two of her poets, Elytis and Seferis won the Nobel prize and she had at least ten other poets of the same class and stature (Cavafy, Ritsos, Sikelianos, Palamas, Calvos, Solomos, Kariotakis, Valaoritis, Drosinis, Malakasis and others).

Jean Nakos


Kurt asked:

This maybe a very convoluted question...earth is in a solar system, our solar system is in a galaxy, our galaxy is one of many galaxies contained within a very large universe. What is that universe filling? and if god (be it man/ woman or both or neither) made all of this who are god's parents and who are their parents etc?

Your metaphysics have led you immediately into, what is called in philosophy, an infinite regress. To make any progress this line of questioning will have to be abandoned. The range of empirical statements you make up to "universe" can be dealt with by the sciences of astronomy, physics and mathematics. The problems arise when your sequence enters into the metaphysics of space, time and God; problems that philosophy has battled with since ancient times.

Deducing from your knowledge of the empirical world, you have fallen into the trap of making God in the image of man, hence God requires parents, and so on. The absurdity of this line of reasoning becomes obvious when you require to house, clothe and nourish God, to say nothing of his involvement in sexual activity!! Even religion does not make such claims. Taking the religious line that God is a 'spirit,' although I have only a hazy notion of what this means, I can tolerate it because it seems to have possibilities beyond what I understand. However, being a physiologist I know more about humans than most people, and to propose that God is a human would be a self-revealing absurdity.

You have actually touched on the frustrating problem of origins, a problem which defeats science and opens up a range of difficult to prove philosophical and religious theories. Both physics and biology are held suspect simply because they have had to invent their own ideas of origins, the Big Bang in the case of physics, and the accidental formation of proteins in mud pools in the case of biological origins. Neither of them to my mind is very convincing. Even when we put aside the origins and start half-way up the ladder, as both physics and biology do, to say that there is such a thing as an evolutionary process which depends on a sequence of fortuitous accidents seems on the face of it an absurd proposition. As for the Big Bang, where did the first primaeval atom come from? Unfortunately science is tied to the matter myth and all its theories are blinkered by this. Whereas philosophy can offer a range of possibilities beyond the paralysing confines of alleged material reality. Scientists are not mystics and they will always seek to explain strange phenomena in terms of empirical/ material solutions. They are reluctant to admit that answers can be obtained from anything other than naive reality, and if answers to phenomenal events cannot be produced, they are simply suspended in the confident belief that there will eventually be a 'natural' solution to the event, whatever that means.

You ask what the universe is filling, again, there is something here to do with naive reality in your concept. Stated simply you seem to be making the suggestion that there is a vast amount of matter which has to be contained in something, a bit like a gas filling a spherical flask. The question is asking: What is the flask like? What is the flask made of to be able to contain all this matter and restrict its expansion? Again, such a question is based on empirical evidence drawn from everyday experience. The problem does not seem to be about containers, but space and time, or space-time as we now understand it. Events in the universe occur within space-time, not within some mysterious container. Space limits the universe within three dimensions. An event is identified by a 'world point' in a four dimensional continuum. The four points are, three points of space and one of time.

Given that science has had to admit that when we try to study material reality by reduction, i.e. looking at smaller and smaller constituents, we enter a reality very different to the common concept, away goes cause and effect and we find ourselves in a universe of random events, an unpredictable world of quantum events where matter seems to pass in and out of existence. MATTER?!! Whatever am I talking about.

John Brandon


Francisco asked:

To where it influences the logic in the explanation of the historical facts?

This one has been around for quite a while... and it's so ungrammatical that I'm not sure it is possible to understand. But I think that after seeing it over and over, I finally get it.

What you want, I believe, is a beginning text on hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. How does logic influence the interpretation of history? There are those who might claim that it has very little influence, and they write about how viewpoint basis such interpretations: hermeneutics... a field which began in the Middle Ages with the interpretation of religious texts.

But hermeneutics is not my field, and I do not know a good beginning text in it... all that comes to mind is Gadamer, who is not for beginners. In addition, given your problems with English, I would strongly advise you to find a text in your native language (Spanish?), and I have no idea as to Spanish writings in hermeneutics.

So, good hunting!

Steven Ravett Brown


Kirsty asked:

Do humans actually exist or are we part of the imagination of some greater being? Do we imagine each other?

I used to ask questions just like this myself, when I was a lot younger. I studied astronomy and particle physics and began to wonder about the truly inconceivable disparity between the greatest and the smallest; but even between an atom and a quark there is such a huge gap that a living thing living on an atom still would not know that there are quarks around! And I started thinking, what if we are nothing other than the denizens of one of these billions of quarks that might make a millionth of a gram of matter, how could we possibly know? And then, perhaps, all those enormous structures in the universe might just be more quarks; and all this, the whole universe together, just one atom!

Well, even today, when my interest has shifted to biology, I am staggered by thoughts not unlike this. When you consider that a human being begins as just one tiny microscopic cell and ends up being a collection of 6,000,000,000 of them, don't you just ask yourself, how can these things live and not know what they're doing? I'm sure they do, the same as we 'know' what we're doing; and if a galactic visitor looked at us from a few billion miles away, he or she (or it?) would probably think we're just an ant heap anyway, rambling around in our transport vehicles this way and that way, without any obvious purpose whatever.

Can I give you an answer? Heavens no! Not even to the second question, "Do we just imagine each other?" No-one can be absolutely sure that we are real; the best we can do is rely on instruments that can't be cheated as easily as we can; and so if some detector device registers the presence of smoke, well, then you know there's a fire somewhere close by. The trouble is, that scientific devices and apparatus can't be calibrated to register all those things that are really important to us — in a word, science cannot answer, truly answer, your question. So that leaves the two of us dreaming away, imagining we're having a conversation via the Internet, whereas what we're really up to might be starting up some plasma-wave generator in the dimension we can't see, where some super-being has just won the Nobel Prize for discovering internetty plasma-waves as a new law of nature....

Jürgen Lawrenz

The main problem here is the use of the terms 'exist' and 'imagination.' I believe that I understand what you mean, and I appreciate the limits that language imposes on philosophical discussion. Imagination is used here not quite in the sense that we understand it in everyday life.

The great 18th century philosopher, David Hume, referred to the sense data we receive, along with our passions and emotions, as 'impressions.' The faint images of these he called 'ideas.' Imagination, then, arises from combinations of the simple ideas derived from received sense data. Hume pointed out what we are all aware of, that sense data, i e our everyday experiences are more vivid than things imagined or things arising in the mind from stored memories. These latter are mere shadows of what we call sense impressions.

It is necessary to be aware of the above before entering into the metaphysical view posed by your questions. If there is a great power capable of producing all things within its own 'mind,' and if this is indeed the nature of the universe, then this would be the only 'reality' in 'existence'. The world would be 'mind stuff,' this would of necessity include humans. However, it seems that this great power would have to impose laws on such a creation, 'natural laws' we might call them. Human minds would be individual minds within the great universal mind. Controlled by the laws, all humans would seemingly be guided into a general recognition of things in the way the great power required. Thus, if it was required that all humans should recognise, or believe in, a material existence, then so be it. Each human would recognise other humans, and would come to understand what was meant by 'life' and 'independence,' we would all 'exist' within this 'reality.' As we would all be products of this super power, then such a power could impose anything it chose on the world, including 'free will' for humans: or, if it wished to keep control then our lives would be 'determined.'

Alternatively, if this super power was capable of producing 'actual' 'matter.' then it might create a 'material' world; everything, including humans, would be 'real' in the solid sense, real 'material' objects. It seems that this is the way you are using the term 'real' in your question. The implication being that things can only be real if they are out there in the world as solid objects. As we have considered another way in which things can be real as 'mind stuff' the fallacy in your question is revealed. You are using a pre-conceived idea of reality derived from what philosophers call a 'naive' view of the world. This view is to some extent held by materialist philosophers and probably most scientists. But there are some philosophers called 'idealists' who take the view that reality is mind stuff controlled by abstract laws. In fact some philosophers, both materialist and idealist consider the abstract laws of mathematics, space and time, etc. to be more real than what are called material and mind stuff objects. Some of these are called 'rationalists,' who believe that things can be discovered about the real world, not only by direct perception, but by rationalising, cogitating (thinking) about things.

Your second question by implication hints at 'solipsism,' the view that only oneself exists. Although a seemingly absurd proposition, it is still debated by philosophers. I wonder if it is a comfort to the solipsist to believe that he/she cannot really die, they just stop imagining, and it is the world that actually dies?!

John Brandon


Kev asked:

Does poverty diminish human dignity?

Please send me some web site I could search.

I'm sorry but I don't know a web site on this; I'm sure others will give you one. But here are some thoughts for you. First, are you clear on what 'dignity' means? Does it mean, for example, doing only what you consider ethical, i.e., not compromising your ideals? Does it mean being treated respectfully by others? Does it mean doing what you want to do in life? Does it mean not being in anyone else's power, or must you have power over others to have dignity? Does it mean not becoming upset by circumstances? You can see that there are many possible meanings for that term, and I'm sure you can think of others. But in order to answer your question fully, you need to have clearly in mind what you mean.

Here's one possible viewpoint on this question. There are several possible ways to support oneself. One can be dependent on others for their support. One can inherit enough wealth to support oneself without working. One can work for a living, doing something that one enjoys (and/or finds meaningful and I'm not going to try to analyze that here). One can work doing something that one does not enjoy or that one is indifferent to, and find enjoyable activities outside of work. Within that latter choice, one can work as little as possible at jobs one does not enjoy, be poor, and spend the rest of their time doing what they do enjoy; or one can work a 'normal' or greater than normal amount, either hoping that effort will enable them to eventually do something they enjoy or not caring.

The first alternative may or may not retain dignity, depending on how one is dependent, what one does or does not do, what is expected of one... and so forth. Usually, but not always, being dependent seems to lessen 'dignity', however. Alternative two does not usually lessen dignity because wealth confers automatic status, deserved or not, a human peculiarity... and status makes a person believe, at any rate, that they have retained their dignity. Alternative three is perhaps the best of all... and few attain it.

Some people choose alternative four... but since wealth confers status and poverty does not, any poor person is seen by some, at any rate, as having less dignity. Whether this should be true is another question, isn't it. However, poverty, given that one spends their time doing what one enjoys and feels is meaningful, does not, it seems to me, lessen dignity at all. Alternative five is one where a person hopes to attain wealth or a job that they enjoy, and sacrifices for it. Not unreasonable, given even a slim chance that this might happen, and usually people perceived as doing this are perceived as having dignity. The last alternative, where people work at something they do not find meaningful and have no expectations of changing that, but do something enjoyable and meaningful outside of work, seems to be the lot of much of humankind. As long as there is something meaningful in one's life that one actively pursues, one is seen as having some dignity. The last alternative, then, is one where there is no enjoyment of one's work and in addition no feeling outside of it that one can do anything meaningful. Much of humankind lives like this also. How many are in this state and how many in the previous is one of those horrible questions that many people try to avoid facing, because the last alternative is a life with very little dignity.

So in answer to your question, poverty makes dignity less likely. Now the next job of analysis here would be to look closely at 'enjoyment' and see what kinds involve dignity and which do not. I'm not going to do that, except to point out that there is quite a bit of literature on a life lived, say, for sensual pleasure versus a life lived for, say, intellectual pleasure.

Now the above analysis is, in essence, a kind of economic one. We might also do a power-oriented one... where, instead of one's work providing the means of support, perhaps one's work provides power over others. Usually the two are related, but not always. Does increasing power increase one's dignity? It does seem that powerful people are understood, by and large, as having dignity. Thus we see that dignity is not necessarily associated with being good or moral, since it is extremely difficult for one to have power and retain one's morality... as history shows. And so we must ask whether dignity is actually desirable in itself, or if other characteristics, which lead to dignity, are the desirable ones... while yet others which lead to dignity are not desirable. You might think about that.

Steven Ravett Brown


Billy asked:

What were Eriugena's comparisons on his different modes of theology: Affirmative, Negative, and Superlative?

When we use an expression like "God is [whatever]", we are making comparisons with created nature. So to say, "God is wisdom [truth, goodness, beauty etc.]" is to make use of an affirmative notion, as if God were somehow comparable to whatever notions we hold concerning wisdom, goodness, etc. But these notions are not compatible with a Being that is not created, but infinite, omniscient and the cause of all created things; accordingly such expression can never be more than metaphors . Therefore, although it sounds paradoxical, it would be more appropriate to say, "God is not wisdom (etc)", i.e. the negative mode, so as to leave God unenclosed in our created realm and to acknowledge that a mere word, "wisdom (etc.)" is incapable of embracing an infinitude of predicates. Erigena, who inherited most of this theology from such predecessors as the Pseudo-Dionysius and Neoplatonists, then went on to examine whether adding the prefix "super" to our concepts of wisdom (etc.) would occasion more than just a grammatical change. Since 'super' means 'beyond', it could be argued that this usage meets both desiderata, e.g. to leave God's autonomy untouched while retaining the convenience of talking about God's attributes in humanly intelligible terms.

For Erigena the crucial point in this debate is affirmative and negative senses are in essence just verbal devices, both constrained by the experience we can have of wisdom (etc); accordingly the superlative predication can be distinguished from both affirmative and negative mode in that the copula "is" has, strictly speaking, no content — "super-wisdom" is not something conceivable to us. Yet in its grammatical form, a statement like "God is super-wisdom" it is still of the affirmative variety. But, Erigena counters, in its meaning it swings over to the negative, so that we are effectively negating the positive denotation of the statement.

Erigena concludes in the end that the superlative usage effectively reconciles the affirmative and negative senses and that something important may be learnt from this exercise in dialectics. What we can learn is that God is, for "to be" is for God indicative of a transcendental state which is beyond relation; and consequently what we cannot learn about God from our logical and verbal finessing is what God is, for this would require us to set him into a relation to what we already know.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Judi asked:

Does listening to music while working help you to study better?

No. There are many many studies in the field of attention relating to distractors, divided attention, switching attention, and so forth. A huge literature, in fact. And ALL of it, without exception, shows that dividing one's attention lessens the ability to learn. There's no ambiguity here. It doesn't help. Period.

Steven Ravett Brown

There are some opinions which affirm this and others which deny it. Then there are some views which claim that baby needs Mozart and that hens will lay better eggs if music is piped into their pens. Like all opinions, these are always backed up by solid proof — a reminder that if you attack a problem from the right angle and use the right technology, you can prove anything you like.

All the same, there is something to be said for the influence of music as a background while you are consciously focusing on some other matter. Like the colours and shapes, and smells and noises which surround you, music has some effect on the state of your psyche. In particular music is apt to produce moods; but what kind of mood does not depend on the music or your will. It's totally up to chance; and that's why measuring harmonies or frequencies is an idle pursuit. Our bodies do not react to frequencies, but to the forms in which music is cast, which address a mind; and these forms are analogues of emotions which you may pick up in 'background listening mode'. Then you are being, subconsciously, influenced.

Having made this more or less objective comment, I'll add my personal opinion, which is that music making and listening is a spiritual experience. Since this is my view, I cannot but feel that music, which is capable of connecting us with or inducing in our psyche a transcendental state, is debased when used for mere background noise; and therefore I also happen to believe that the 'piped music syndrome' is one of the great disasters of social living. So many people's psychic state is being deformed daily on account of this, it is gone beyond a sick joke; and the most amazing part of it is that so few people resist this blatant manipulation of their inner states. I can see it coming that before much longer all these millions of people, who are completely unaware of being subjects of mood manipulation, will fall for another trick of conditioning, except maybe something more directly malevolent. I have wondered for a long time now why there is no resistance, and I have half a mind to ask you, in view of your question, whether you ever feel annoyed or put out or distracted by the hundreds of loudspeakers you have to pass every day, and if it ever occurred to you to complain?

Jürgen Lawrenz


Grant asked:

I am working on a conceptual framework to guide practice in an adult education institution for all academic aspects of the institution (design, delivery, assessment, student services, etc.)

Are there certain essential elements that should go into a conceptual framework to make it valid and reliable, and hence useful to inform practice?

Why is the one basic "conceptual framework" that you have, namely your mother tongue, not sufficient to do what you want to do — which would appear to be to design courses, define methods and policies of delivery, assessment, student support, etc.? Why do you seem to feel the need for a new or additional "conceptual framework", i.e. a new/extended language, to do this?

Concepts are not "valid" or "invalid" reliable or unreliable, they are just more or less useful, and many philosophers have questioned the usefulness of the very notion of a "conceptual framework" itself. Certainly the idea that one might be able to pre-define the essential elements that any "conceptual framework" should have to ensure "validity" and "reliability", strikes me as pie-in-the-sky.

Why can't you just use the English language (which provides a pretty rich source of concepts!) to clarify, define and state your institution's objectives and policies — and use this general understanding of what you are about to guide and inform particular issues of practice? Or is your problem that you simply do not know what your institutional objectives and policies are, or that there are deep and fundamental disagreements between members within you institution as to what they should be? If either of these is the case I very much doubt that shopping about for, or trying to construct a new "conceptual framework" will solve your problem. Although, of course there will be any number of vendors happy to sell you their favoured "philosophies", theories, ideologies, &Co. No "conceptual framework" will provide you or your institution with an automatic guarantee that your thinking, decisions and methods are "valid" or "reliable" ... or relieve you of the task making your own decisions about what you believe in and value or what it is right to do.

I just find your question so strange ... Do you conceive of us and our institutions as somehow like pieces of inert computer hardware that require the installation of software — programming languages and operating systems ("conceptual framework", the "right" language) to work, "correctly"? ... weird... a strangely and deeply de-humanising idea, I would have thought ... but no doubt I completely misunderstand you...

Rob de Villiers


Sudarmaji asked:

Did you know how frustrated it is to be in the position of teaching philosophy to first-year students? I bet you did. The problem is: Is there any tip to teach philosophy for students that recognizes this art of living as a "beyond of everyday life", especially, never getting used to being comfortable and enjoying life? The worst is that he/ she who loves philosophy lives in a "strange world" — out of norms, eccentric and "beyond the ideal figure".

Malang, Indonesia

Here's my take on your question. You are living in a Far Eastern society, one in which population density is very high and in which conformity is valued very highly. It is probably what is termed a 'shame' rather than a 'guilt' culture, where moral rules, customs, and so forth are enforced by group pressure, rather than by internal pressure. Am I correct? In the West, the culture is guilt-based, i.e., one's actions are largely internally guided. There is value attached to nonconformity in this culture, sometimes quite high, depending on context. Artists and philosophers are taken for granted as eccentrics, for the most part, and are valued for that quality. Given that, you see that your question is not one with which a Westerner would consider central to being a philosopher, and certainly not the 'worst' of it. To a Westerner, the 'strange world' of the philosopher is a small deviation from the normal one, and it is very hard for us to understand and appreciate what is behind your question. I do not know how to answer it, because I do not know how eccentrics in your culture cope with the status of 'outsider', which in Western culture is an accepted role. I can refer you to an interesting book, The Lotus and the Robot by A. Koestler, a Westerner's viewpoint on India's and Japan's cultures. I have no idea as to whether there are writings in your or similar cultures about this dilemma; I do not know your literature. But those topics: the outsider, shame versus guilt cultures, and similar ideas are where I believe you should look.

Steven Ravett Brown


Doe asked:

What part did religion play in Athenian achievements during the golden age?

A very significant part. In fact, it played a greater part in their society than religion plays in ours, and they had their daily round of observances and sacrifices, their weekly services, their monthly and annual festivals the same as we do, except they believed in them. This is the sort of thing we tend nowadays simply to forget: but consider that the tragedies which we call 'plays' or 'dramas' were part of Athenian liturgical festivals, that a great deal of their sculpture, which is 'art' to us, comprised offerings to the gods; and so on. There is no scarcity of books on this subject, but if you want just a short overview, an article in the Cambridge Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut, will help you get a clearer perspective on this important matter (and its obvious influence on Platonic philosophy).

Jürgen Lawrenz


Casibjorn asked:

In metaphysics anything can exist, beyond the human senses and mind yet all maybe subject to more questions and doubt. Based on Aristotle's metaphysics as the reference point for my inquiry on the subject of extraterrestrial life and intelligence, I would like to ask the question of its validity.

Adding to that, if it still OK, based on the philosophical eras from ancient to the contemporary, I would like to know each era's point of view on the same subject.

Metaphysical means per definition everything outside (formal) physics. Because physics is about sensory experiences, this could indeed mean non-sensory. But in practice the common sense meaning of metaphysical became non-rational experiences. That could mean involving senses that are not yet accepted. It even in theory includes on earth unknown senses of extraterrestrial beings.

So the word metaphysical' got used not to indicate non-sensory experiences, but not rationally explainable ones. This is in essence the controversy between Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn (if you'rE interested look at my site http://huizen.daxis.nl/~henkt/popper-kuhn-controverse.html, but mind that this difference in view is still in discussion).

Until Wittgenstein and Kuhn in THE early and mid 20th century the rational viewpoint dominated (in fact it still does). Only coming closer to the founder of rationalism Descartes will you find more limited views of this system of thought.

The word metaphysics' got a human-made meaning. That means that this meaning is not beyond the mind. But if you take it as total denial of human activity, than certainly some extraterrestrial life forms will fit this definition.

Maybe the metaphysics of Aristotle is not in this case the right point of departure. In his time the word rational in the modern meaning didn't even exist. Or it is a very nice point of departure, because metaphysical used to imply more than only non-rational. But I don't have an opinion about Aristotle, because I only know him from citations.

Extraterrestrial life could in the Closed Circle Theory of Wittgenstein very well have developed an intelligence not to be grasped by human means, and certainly outside rational intelligence.

To be more specific, we might even not notice such beings. But then, can we never understand such forms of life? Not by ourselves, but through an intermediary it seems possible. Then this intermediary should have some of our senses, and some of those of the researched life form.

Henk Tuten


Puva asked:

What is the impact of superstitious beliefs on mental health?

It depends on what you mean by "superstitious beliefs", doesn't it. But take a look at this book:

Harrington, A., ed. The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

It is an exploration of the reality of the placebo effect, which seems to happen about 1/3 of the time... although there is controversy about this. There was a recent study, either Danish or Norwegian, I forget which (sorry for lack of reference), which seemed to indicate much lower frequency than that. At any rate, one interesting correspondence is that about 1/3 of people can be reasonably easily hypnotized. Kihlstrom has done work in the latter area, e.g.,

Kihlstrom, J. F. "The Cognitive Unconscious." Science 237 (1987): 1445-1452, and many others.

See also:

Farthing, G. W. The Psychology of Consciousness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1992 for information on hypnosis.

Now, why am I talking about placebos and hypnosis in the context of superstition? That's pretty obvious, isn't it. If you consider that the means of effect of superstitions are at least partly through these processes, then we're starting to understand how to get a reasonably clear handle on them. In addition, relating to the origins of superstitious beliefs, you might look at: Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third ed. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1951; and Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by W.R. Trask, The Cloister Library. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1961.

Steven Ravett Brown


Lindsay asked:

I just want to know that if there is no 'me' in this world, where do my mentality and my feelings go?

There are several possible answers to this, but whether any of them are credible to you depends very much on what you choose to believe. You may take the hints I'm about to give you as an incitement to follow up with some research of your own; there are few things more important than this if you have the slightest inclination to keep prodding things for an answer to their enigma!

First, then, there is the quasi-scientific view, according to which the neurosystem, over several stages in your growth, 'switches on' the various neurophysiological modules that give you a sense of selfhood. When you die, these modules, the source of the energy by which you, your mentality and your feelings are maintained, are 'switched off' and all your mentality is extinguished. The body's matter falls apart, having reverted to the dead-matter state; but whether the psychic product of their work, while alive, has the capacity to survive is answered in the negative by science and in the affirmative by religion. But neither knows .

Secondly, there us the view which forms the basis of Schopenhauer's philosophy. What I've just called 'psychic energy' is, according to him, a pervasive force in the universe. It is everywhere, but formless: mere potential (echoes of Aristotle). This force becomes attached to matter and gives it form as well as the power to act — something like electromagnetic gravity which we suppose to inhere in every clump of matter. It also becomes attached to biological substances and accommodates itself to their special nature. Organisms, being living things, on acquiring this force, find themselves endowed with the will to live and to assert themselves. The more complex organisms, in particular those with a nervous system and a brain, absorb more of this force and then it manifests itself as a manifold of psychic strands, apt to generate the illusion of individuality and personality — but (Schopenhauer maintains), it is still just the one will, that one pervasive force of which a fraction is alive in us. Because he was a passionate (!) atheist, he doesn't have much to say about this will that is good and comes down heavily on the side of those moralists who have always preached that selfhood is the source of all evil in the world, even though he castigates them too, for their nave belief in God as the source of the human will. His whole philosophy is a kind of negative imprint of Leibnitz's conception of this world as the best of all possible worlds, for Schopenhauer doesn't mince words about regarding the products of the will as the cause of the worst of all possible worlds!

Between these two, together with religions, the matter has been pretty well carved up; and in the last 20-odd years, there has been a huge spate of books devoted to brains and minds. But it would be too sanguine to believe that we've made any real progress on answering something as apparently simple as your question. All that can reasonable be said in view of our limited knowledge of mentality, is this: it appears to be the outcome (emergent property) of the complex organisation of neurons in the brain. Not their quantity, but the way they are interconnected. In other primates which are occasionally proposed as also having a mind, this appears not to be the case. This complexity and its emergent property depend in turn on the sensitivity of the neurons themselves; for although to a microscopic view they all look the same, studies in embryology have shown at least that neurons differ among each other as much as all living creatures do. This again is an evolved trait, for evidently the 'program' for the manufacture and connection of these neurons is transmitted through the generations by their genetic encryption. where your mentality and feelings disappear to when you die can only be guessed at. It is probably not so much an unanswerable as a wrong type of question, because it assumes that the notion of a 'self', of 'mentality' and of 'feelings' identify something 'real'. But they may identify something that is simply 'being', i.e. a state or phase of the universe which is not attached to objects like humans, but generated by them.

To put it into a somewhat far-fetched metaphor: a picture by Rembrandt can be used as (a) bits of canvas and timber suitable for burning on a cold winter's night; (b) a memento of once living people, who lacking cameras had no other recourse to perpetuating their image than a painter's brush and skill, (c) as a resource in, say, a computer data base, of imagery suitable for all manner of occasions, (d) as part of the 'autobiography' of western civilisation, (e) as the spiritual record of a man and his era, the painter laying down in coloured images whatever concept of visual truth he wished to communicate. Now the sense of (d) and (e) in my metaphor is just the sort of criterion that cannot be quantitively evaluated, it depends crucially on there being some mentality in the world which is expressed in and capable of being deciphered from the clues in those pictures. But to a visitor from Mars, (a) might be the only criterion to apply to it. What this implies is, that human mentality is not a possession 'for keeps' or some force creeping into our skin from another dimension, but a force inside us which, owing to certain special conditions prevailing, is transformed from its neutral phase of animal consciousness into a specific 'force' of selfhood, emotional awareness, cognitive consciousness etc. Here is 'being', but not 'existence', more or less as Heidegger taught. The 'you' in the creative act is, literally, self-created. Necessarily it must go when your body dies. But it lies as a potential in every human being born, so although your specific selfhood and mentality must die along with you, yet there is (partial) continuity of even yourself in the fact that half of your genes go into any baby you procreate.

But this is where I must leave you to it, though I hope that something in this answer might induce you to pursue the topic on your own. It is probably the single most fascinating course of study there is!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Meagan asked:

I have to write a paper on this question, "What was Plato's purpose in writing the cave in the Republic?" and I don't really understand what his purpose was so I was wondering if you could tell me.

Plato's cave is a metaphorical exploration of his ideas of basic forms. He held that over all existent things, there are pure forms which exist outside of our world, yet define things within it. The basic form is like a mould which defines the constitution of real objects. for instance, all breeds of dog are very different in their constitution, yet they're defined as being 'the same'. Plato maintains that there is a pure dog form which exists in a metaphysical space, this space defines the way we view the world. We compare real dogs to this mould — four legs, tail, barking, fur etc.

In the cave, the shadows on the wall represent the images we receive in the real world — pale copies of the original form (which casts the shadow). The man who breaks free of the chains and makes his way into the world of forms, is the philosopher. Plato believed the job of the philosopher was to escape subjectivism and to reach object reality through rational introspection. By escaping the cave the "philosopher" enters the metaphysical world of the form.

However, upon returning to the cave, the escapee is killed. This relates to Socrates' death at the hands of the Athenian ruling class. The ideas of Socrates were seen as dangerous, subsequently he was seen as a heretic. As I'm sure you know he took hemlock, under duress from the good people of Athens.

Plato presents the idea that philosophers are the "chosen few" who will lead their people to a higher plane, the people to be lead however are not easily persuaded.

Daniel Williams


Renu asked:

I would like some insight on how to read a philosophical text for maximum understanding. At present, I am grappling with the Nicomachean Ethics. To be able to follow Aristotle's intricate arguments is a daunting task, but to be able to analyse the text and find contradictions in it and come up with own's argument is proving more daunting.

Thanks for your valuable website.

The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most difficult texts on ethics; it basically began the whole field, and there are not many general issues that Aristotle overlooked. That being the case... it's about the same problem as your being given, say, Newton's Principia, or one of Kant's Critiques, and attempting to criticize it, cold. When I first had a course in it, my instructor (who had two PhDs, one in Philosophy and one in Literature), took over 2 hours on the first page . Yes. So my reaction to your dilemma is to say, forget it until you've read at least, oh, 20 or so commentaries on it. Otherwise, even if you are exceptionally brilliant and do manage to understand it reasonably well, you will, at best, be repeating the work of other exceptionally brilliant people who have read and commented on it in the last 2000 years.

The way to approach it, then, is to expect to not fully understand it, and to find out what others have said about it. Then go back to it. Then look at a few more commentaries, when you understand it, and the previous commentaries, in more depth. Then go back to it. Repeat this process for about 6 months to a year, minimum. You will then have, unless you have concurrently been taking courses in ethics and meta-ethics (in which case you might be ready to write a teeny commentary which actually said something original — although that's unlikely), the beginning of an understanding of the issues involved.

Now if you're in a basic ethics course and your instructor is just sort of pointing you at this and saying: write something. Well... why not? Just don't expect that you'll do anything like a real analysis; that's simply a class exercise to see if you're getting something out of it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Mike asked:

I'm been thinking about the issue of God and time recently especially whether as a (Christian) theist one ought to subscribe to the tensed or the tenseless view of time (A series or B). Generally in time arguments I support the tenseless theory and I suspect that it will solve some of the problems regarding time and God. It allows for God to be outside of time and yet know what happens at all times, but causes problems with his knowledge of the 'present'. It also allows us to have God in time without compromising his eternal existence. I was hoping that I could get some ideas of the key issues here and responses to them.

For the uninitiated, the 'A-series' (as defined by the Cambridge metaphysician John McTaggart in his famous proof of the unreality of time in Nature of Existence) consists in the difference between past, present, and future. Every present event was once in the future and will be in the past. McTaggart defines the B-series as the series of historical events ordered by the relation of 'before-and-after'. It was, is and always will be true, for example, that the historical event of the Battle of Agincourt took place before the Battle of Waterloo and after the Battle of Hastings.

Hugh Mellor, in his book Real Time (Cambridge) is one of a number of contemporary philosophers who believe that the B-series is sufficient to capture the concept of time. There is no extra metaphysical 'fact' that (as I write) the time now is, say, 15.01 GMT on 5th March 2003, in addition to the fact that the event of GK writing 'the time now is, say, 15.01 GMT on 5th March 2003' timelessly occupies the place that it does in the objective before-and-after historical order of events.

You do not just want to say that God exists at all historical times. What you need to claim in addition is that God, unlike his finite creations (ourselves) is not subject to the illusion that there is 'an extra metaphysical fact that...the time is now...'. That is the least that is required to capture the notion of a God who exists 'outside time'. God actually occupies the vantage point that our B-series philosopher would like to occupy, or imagines occupying.

I see a difficulty for this claim, however. Mellor, and other philosophers of his persuasion, are fully convinced that they are not subject to this illusion either! In other words, they have succeeded in grasping time as God grasps it. So the only difference between God and his creations lies in God's longevity. Not a very satisfactory conclusion.

I assume that you do not like the A-series view. There is a neat way to capture the idea of a God existing 'outside of time' in terms of the A-series, which does not require the notion of a vantage point from which the flow of time is seen as an illusion. This is to hold that, just as one can imagine alien beings whose specious present — the period of time where things are grasped as happening 'now' — is of longer duration than our own, so there could, in principle, be a being whose specious present encompassed all historical time. I believe that the A.N. Whitehead (author of Process and Reality and Russell's collaborator on Principia Mathematica) held such a view.

I am one of those who do not accept that B-series is sufficient for time. However, unlike others who have resisted McTaggart's conclusions, I am prepared to grasp the consequence that a complete description of reality entails an inescapable contradiction, in the form of a clash between subjective and objective views which cannot be resolved by any 'theory' (see my book Naive Metaphysics). What that might imply for God's view of time I should not care to say.

Geoffrey Klempner

The formulation of your question implies an anthropomorphic god. A god who has human limitations.

According to the apophatic theology, God is not outside of time nor inside time. God is beyond the human concept of time.

Mainstream trinitarian Christians (all Roman Catholics, all Eastern Orthodox, many Anglicans and Protestants) hold that God (Holy Trinity) is both transcendent and immanent. According to the Christian Eastern Orthodox theology, we know nothing of the essence of God (Holy Trinity). We know only of His/Her energies.

Jean Nakos


Joseph asked:

If somebody says: "I am now lying", is he telling the truth?

Or, you could say, on Wednesday: "I only tell lies on Wednesday." Then what? To answer your question, that statement of course sets up a paradox which is irresolvable within that context. Now, the question I have for you is, why have you asked that question above? Are you interested in paradoxes generally; did you just want to confuse a "philosopher"; were you genuinely interested in whether there is a way to resolve paradoxes of that sort? As to the last alternative, there is not. You might look up the "Prisoner's Dilemma" for a really nasty problem of this sort.

Steven Ravett Brown


Amy asked:

Which philosopher always answered a question with a question?

Why are there wars?

Because the common failings in man are extended nationally, the main ones being greed, envy, power mania, suspicion, hatred, fear, revenge and abuse of religion. Wars are usually instigated by one or a few upstarts. Historically they have been seen to take many forms. In earlier times two armies met on what was known as a battlefield, a single bloody encounter settled the issue there and then. Some were stretched out over a series of battles lasting for years, like the War Of The Roses, and the English Civil War. Other wars have escalated on a huge scale dragging in many nations, and lasting yet again for several years, resulting in the death and maiming of millions of people. For example the First and Second World Wars. Unfortunately, as wars became more extended and more brutal, the expanding boundaries of the conflict began to include more and more of the civilian population; now we have reached a position where an aggressor is capable of virtually wiping out an entire nation.

Ancient and mediaeval kings held enormous power, their superstitious and often poorly educated followers, persuaded that the gods or God was on the side of their leader, risked and threw their lives away in pursuit of his greedy ambitions, believing it was their duty to do so. Conquering militarily weaker nations and empire building by power crazed despots has been a major cause of conflict from ancient to modern times. Empire building is of course euphemism for stealing a nation's wealth and enslaving its people by force of arms. The unfortunate thing, in my opinion, has been the hero worship of these power-crazed killers. For example, history lessons in schools down the years have singled out certain of these blood-thirsty characters to be national heroes, such as Alexander the Great, a blood-thirsty murderer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in pursuit of his selfish ambitions.

Another source of amazement is the ease by which power-seeking maniacs have been able to assemble huge numbers of followers to fight for their cause, when the only real beneficiary of victory is obviously themselves. There could be no wars without huge numbers of people condescending to fight. The skilful use of propaganda and telling bare faced lies have been the methods used by 'trusted' leaders. It still defies common sense to find that ambitious war-mongers can persuade a million or more men to pick up rifles and to go and shoot at another million or more men who they have never met before, yet have become indoctrinated to believe that they are there enemies. In the past ambitious and greedy kings did at least lead their armies into battle, and were equally at risk of being killed as their followers. However, since those times the instigators of wars send people to do the fighting that they have instigated, whilst they stay behind well out of it.

This question comes at an ideal time, a close observation of the Iraq situation will illustrate at least one way in which wars are started. At the moment the factors involved are greed, power mania, suspicion, hatred and fear: probably a combination of all these will pull the trigger.

Perhaps, and this is not as flippant as it may seem, when logic and philosophy become a compulsory part of the curriculum the chances of war will diminish. When a handful of government leaders falling out with each other can extrapolate their differences to the extent of millions of innocent people being killed in a world war, then there is something radically wrong with the general world view of the populace. The ease with which governments and individuals can still influence the public by the use of propaganda and blatant lies is very disturbing. World leaders are very much aware that they could not produce wars without the acquiescence of the public, who are required to risk their lives in the fighting. Millions of brave men stood up to their waists in mud shooting at each other in the First World War, most not quite understanding why they were there. Perhaps when politicians learn to represent the views of the people who have elected them, instead of believing that they are there to do as they like, wars may come to an end. If each of two confronting nations held a referendum before declaring war, there probably would never be another war.

John Brandon

This is a very old question.

Here is one of the old (but not necessarily invalid) answers:

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war.

Or, in modern language: "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts" (The Epistle of James 4.1-2).

Jean Nakos


Rajeev asked:

Should one always agree with the government at a time of war to be a patriotic citizen?

War should never be 'agreed with' in the sense you mean in your question. It is, was, and probably ever shall be, one of the great chimeras of the human condition. Whether fought for religion, ideology, or pure aggression, it brings with it misery, pain, suffering, and countless deaths. Witness the dropping of the two atomic bombs. There is something sinister in the human psyche when a senior military figure can say after the use of laser-guided weapons during the First Gulf War 'We have raised war to an art form.' The last century saw two world wars fought against tyranny and oppression, only to replace that tyranny and oppression with the Damocletian Sword of the nuclear threat, the spread of the same ideologies cloaked in a different guise, and the pursuit of power and wealth through neo-liberal capitalism and economic globalisation. Wars destroy people, cities, countries, the environment and corrupt the inherent orientation toward the good in the human species.

The human consciousness is the only one in the animal kingdom that kills without the need through a free act of the will. The weapons of war grow more and more sophisticated, more and more deadly, more and more destructive — it is in the nature of the human species to pursue assiduously the development of more and more terrible ways of destroying itself And all kinds of wars are justified for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps in the light of all this, the more patriotic stance to adopt is one of peaceful, non-violent disagreement with a country at war and to make the stand for equitable peace with justice. Idealistic, perhaps, nave perhaps, romantic perhaps, even foolish perhaps — but as the O Jays once sang, 'War, what is good for? Absolutely nothing!'. The defeat of Nazism has not stopped the spread of extreme right-wing fascism; it has not stopped human rights abuses; it has not stopped racism; it has not stopped hunger and suffering. The short answer to your question, Ranjeev, is: in supporting a war we may be being unpatriotic and perhaps even in the process of losing the little remnant of humanity the world has left at the moment.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM

Patriotism is loyalty to one's nation. To be unpatriotic is to be disloyal, and disloyalty is a vice.

We also have a prima facie moral duty to obey the state, that is to say, to obey the laws decreed by whichever authority has earned the right, through democratic election or otherwise, to pass laws and to enforce them through the judiciary and the police.

However, these are distinct moral duties. Civil disobedience is not necessarily unpatriotic, if, for example, you are someone who believes that the government has made a decision (e.g. to go to war) which you believe to be morally wrong.

Geoffrey Klempner

Whilst I agree that War is always a bad thing, I do not agree that all wars are wrong. Therefore I can't agree that we should always object to war. War is always bad because it leads to human suffering and possibly death. These are uncontroversially bad. However the treatment of a cancer may also lead to suffering and possibly death, this too is a bad thing. We accept the latter as a fair compromise; yes treatment causes suffering, but that suffering is necessary to stand a reasonable chance of surviving the illness. Likewise war can be a necessary evil.

There are wars which are just and there are unjust wars. A paradigm just war is the defence of your nation from an aggressor. To suggest that France ought not to have entered war with Germany in 1939 is just wrong. They were being attacked and they had the right to self defence, a patriotic citizen had every reason to support that war. Likewise we (Britain) had every right to defend France and Poland, both as duty under treaties, for self defence, and because it was the right thing to do. I accept that many wars are unjust and therefore we ought not to support them but not all wars are.

If a war is just then we ought to support it, however if the war is unjust then I don't think the issue is whether we ought to be patriotic or not but whether it is right to support it or not. Given that we believe a war to be unjust we ought to oppose it, patriotism just doesn't enter the issue. We need to act on what is right, and this duty is one that goes beyond any duty to a civil government. Patriotism is a strange force and one I think can be unhelpful, it appears to asks us to support our government, purely because it is our country, not because it is the right thing to do. Taking a more abstract definition patriotism could be defined as loyalty to a nation, not to the government of that nation. By differentiating the government from the abstract nation, it would indeed possible to oppose an unjust war patriotically. This however leaves the potential that the nation's interests may be best served, by going to war for an unjust cause. And I assert that we ought to support what is right over and above the interests of the state, or even the individual.

Mike Lee


Carla asked:

I have this question for my Theory of Knowledge class and I was wondering if you could help me out. The question is: "Does one judge something to be true or beautiful, or does one recognize it to be true or beautiful?"

Our relation to truth is different from our relation to beauty. Truth is something we take to be independent of ourselves, but beauty is dependent on a subject with an aesthetic attitude. If truth is a matter of fact, we would cognise, or recognise it. It is there, beyond us, to be found. Beauty, on the hand, is relational and depends upon our attitude so it is not to be found or recognised. We judge that something is beautiful.

Of course, we might want to say it is true that something is beautiful, but because of the relational nature of the judgement, and the need for an aesthetic attitude, philosophers normally refer the truth to the subject's reaction. Hume thought that a work of art is excellent if it is judged to be so by an unprejudiced and experienced critic of refined taste. Kant thought something was beautiful if it gave rise to the free play of the imagination. An opposite approach has been that beauty is a matter of symmetry and can be mathematically calculated. So if there is something in object which gives rise to a judgement of beauty it might be said that it has a form which can be recognised as beautiful. What do you think beauty is?

As to truth, not all truth is a matter of external fact. If we are in pain, this is internal to us, and what is recognised by others is physical damage or behaviour expressive of pain. And we don't say we recognise we are in pain, or we judge that we are. We just know. There are many different sorts of truths — about experience, about the beautiful, about fact, about other minds, about ethics, about mathematics and logic, about God, the past and the future. Do we recognise God, or judge he exists, or know? Do we make a judgement that 2+2=4 or not?

Rachel Browne


Mary asked:

What are the similarities and differences in Descartes and Spinoza's proofs for the existence of god, and what purpose does god serve in each's system? From a confused thinker

1. (a) Since both were Rationalists, they both used a version of the Ontological Argument for for the existence of God.

(b) But what they proved were very different since they had very different concepts of God. Descartes' concept of God was that of a transcendent being who was different from his creation, the world. But Spinoza's concept of God was of an immanent being, who was identical with his creation, the world.

2. In Descartes' system, God's role is to guarantee that our clear and distinct ideas are true. More generally, that people can know (for certain) what is true.

In Spinoza's system, God, who is everything, is the explanation of the world, namely God himself.

Ken Stern


Liliana asked:

What would be the best way in which you could trust reason, senses, intuition, etc.?

Well I'm not enough arrogant to assume my way to be the very best, but I'll have a go.

I use the model (or scheme) that no object or action can be 'really' known, but is interpreted by reason interpreting sensory experiences. That's all I need. Concepts like intuition only stand for some form of tradition (certainly tradition has a use, but it normally adds no new views). So all depends on the senses that you have and are actually using, and on the activeness of your brain.

The 'best' way to learn to trust this combination is to find out how they are functioning in your case. I.e. learning by trial and error, AND trying to find a system in it. You can try to influence this process, but that means you have already chosen a direction. That doesn't mean things your future is already decided, but that the path you take is in itself already very influential (for instance in my case I didn't chose to be disabled, but being so this has enormous impact).

My answer to your question is: go your own way (i.e. when it feels good). Then certainly you're using most of your strong points. That's all you can do. This is what evolution 'expects' you to do. If not you'll be an 'expected' waste in evolutionary terms.

Henk Tuten


Philippa asked:

Can religious experience really count as a legitimate source of knowledge?

Yes, of course. Absolutely. The question is, what kind of knowledge. Most people, especially in the past, have accepted what their senses have presented to them as reality. Thus, when someone has had visions, say, of Krishna, or Buddha, or Allah, or Zeus, or the Virgin Mary, they have accepted those visions as either literally real or at the very least as manifestations caused by that god. We are now, in some cultures, becoming a little more sophisticated than that, and are questioning the emotional, environmental, and neurological basis for religious thoughts, visions, and so forth. And so the kind of knowledge we are obtaining is psychological, neurological, and ethological. Why do humans have such experiences? What purpose have they served, in the course of the evolution of humanity and of cultures? It is questions like these that are just beginning to be asked (although Freud and others at the turn of the last century asked similar questions also) in the context of contemporary empirical studies. You might take a look at:

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

Giovannoli, J. The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions: Rosetta Press, Inc., 2000.

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

Steven Ravett Brown

In traditional societies (which are still the majority in our world today) it is "politically incorrect" to claim that religious experience is not a legitimate source of knowledge.

In Western societies (which are dominant in our world today), especially in some academic circles, it is often "politically incorrect" to claim that religious experience is a legitimate source of knowledge. However, seminars, colleges and universities teach legitimately religious studies and theology, which are knowledge based on or coming from the religious experience of founders of religion, religious reformers and other religious personalities.These academic institutions deliver recognized diplomas and degrees.

This is the answer if by legitimate you mean according to the law, lawful. But if by legitimate you mean authentic, valid, the answer would be; Why not?

Jean Nakos

The ancients would have said that it was the ONLY legitimate form of knowledge!! Since then we have had thousands of years of intellectual and intelligible growth and development whereby we can reflect on the understanding and insights of the ancients. The problem of knowledge is one of the most central in philosophy, so much so that it has its own 'branch' Epistemology. And knowledge takes many forms, whether it is mathematical, scientific, philosophical etc. and even religious. Plato would have said that 'knowledge' of the Forms, which only comes about through contemplation of the transcendent universe and is an 'ascent' into the intelligibility of the Forms, which is the 'real' world, would constitute a 'religious' knowledge, since real things are being known. Those who profess a 'theistic' belief, i.e belief in a deity, would suggest that knowledge is only 'true' when the deity is known. But since the deity is 'beyond' the historical and temporal sphere and cannot be truly known in a limited, existential way i.e. within the finitude of creature, it necessitates a 'movement beyond' the temporal into the a-temporal world. How is this to come about? Most 'religions' have some sort of doctrine of contemplative transcendence, an experiences of ecstasy (Greek. Ek-stasis, to stand outside the self), where they claim that in this movement outward and 'upward' the unknowable transcendent is 'known' intelligibly in 'truth.' So God (or whatever name we give our divine transcendent principle) is known only in the mind, or the soul since it is these which can transcend the limitations of the temporal world.

To those who experience this, they would claim that the knowledge obtained here, is a real, truthful and, thus, legitimate, as any form of knowledge. Testing the veracity of these claims is a different matter, and for those who hold a theistic belief, certitude or proof of validity or veracity is not central — for they believe that faith (which itself cannot be verified) is the guarantee of certitude. Given this, we can say, that it is a legitimate experience of knowledge, provided that we exist from 'the cave' of what passes for knowledge, but which is only a shadow of the truth. It is the search for truth, however it is defined, that constitutes the preoccupation of philosophy, science, and religion all of whose knowledge are legitimate.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM

It can. But does it?

Ken Stern

I can see what you mean in the broad sense of knowing things, but philosophically you might be hard pressed to describe what you mean by "legitimate knowledge." Is knowledge of things and events in an alleged material world more legitimate than alleged religious knowledge? I cannot know a 'real' world, I can only presume it is out there from the sense data I receive. The world that I say I understand/ know consists only of sense data, I have no access to the 'thing in itself,' i.e. whatever is causing the sensations in my mind. In fact, the mind itself is not actually known, and there are several theories of what it might be and what it does. Therefore, how can we assert that it cannot access knowledge from another dimension?

As each mind is an 'island,' although we presume that we are all receiving identical sense data, there is no way in which we can prove it; how do I know that when I see the colour which I call blue that it is the same colour that other people are seeing? When I hear what I call the sound of church bells, is it the same sound that others are hearing? Actually, from the scientific point of view, there are no colours in the world, the bells though swinging are silent, both the colour and the sound exist only in the mind; that also goes for scent, taste and tactile sensations: the thing in itself has none of these properties, the mind itself exists in a colourless, silent, tasteless, scentless, feelingless world. If this is not so then biology, physics and chemistry are feeding us a load of old rubbish.

So who is to say that religious experience is not 'real' in the same sense as just outlined? As I have no contact with another person's mind, how can I honestly prove that a religious or mystic event they claim to have experienced is anything other than a true experience? That some mind that receives knowledge through sense data, could possibly receive knowledge from another source and in a different way! It is not unusual to hear talk of a sixth sense, and many claim to have experienced such a sense.

How many of us make an actual attempt to discover this alleged sixth sense? Most are quite happy to allow the materialist philosophy, called science to dominate our lives and to accept without question any theory proposed as fact, therefore, if science says there is no such thing as 'real' mystic experience, despite the fact that people claim to have them, then because the scientific theorists are held in such high esteem their word is taken against that of the claimants. Science says there are no such things as ghosts, despite the fact that thousands of people keep seeing them and experiencing poltergeist activity. When scientists cannot come up with an explanation of phenomenal events, they usually pacify the public by claiming that there is a natural explanation. What can they possibly mean? May not a mystic event be just as natural as any other event, but in a way that science does not yet understand. Scientists having made up their minds that we live in a fully material world, try to fit every event into this materialist philosophy. Although we owe a great deal to scientific thinking, success in certain directions is no guarantee that conclusions obtained in other areas are 'true,' even though such conclusions could be logically valid.

Here is a short extract from "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by the American philosopher William James (1842 — 1910)

"In the Christian church there have always been mystics. Although many of them have been viewed with suspicion, some have gained favour in the eyes of the authorities. The experiences of these have been treated as precedents, and a codified system of mystical theology has been based upon them, in which everything 'legitimate' finds its place. The basis of the system is 'orison' or meditation, the methodical elevation of the soul towards God. Through the practice of orison the higher levels of mystical experience may be attained.The first thing to be aimed at in orison is the mind's detachment from outer sensation, for these interfere with its concentration on ideal things. Sensoral images, whether literal or symbolic play an enormous part in mysticism. But in certain cases imagery may fall away entirely, and in the very highest raptures it tends to do so. The state of consciousness becomes then insusceptible of any verbal descriptions. Mystical teachers are unanimous in this."

Does the above indicate another form of consciousness, not available to those who make no effort to discover it ? If it does then it can be claimed as a recipient of knowledge.

The following is a quote from writings of the mystic Saint Teresa.

"In the orison of union the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of the world and in respect of herself. During the short time the unison lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing. Thus does God, when he raises a soul to union with himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties. She neither sees, hears, nor understands, so long as she is united with God."

What would give us the right to say that Saint Teresa does not gain legitimate knowledge from her experiences?

John Brandon


Ray asked:

Evaluate computationalism, as an account of the mind.

Let me acquaint you with an incontrovertible fact:

The mind is not a computer.

Strictly speaking, that's the end of the evaluation. However, it is probably not unimportant to add that claims to the contrary require the burden of proof to be shifted onto the shoulders of those who make them; but to date no-one has put together an even half-way convincing case.

I'll put a couple of idea into your head further below, but le me finish the present train of thought first. Fifty years ago, similar notions were touted about the mind being a like a telephone exchange, and fifty years before that it was a more sophisticated variety of electromotor. And so on. You can see from this that whatever the present pinnacle of human invention happens to be immediately suggests itself as an analogue of the mind. But the mind (need I remind you!?) is neither an electromotor nor a telephone exchange (nor even remotely like either of these): and the case for computers is not a jot better or more plausible. For not only is the mind not a computer, but it is not software either; and calling the brain and its contents "hardware" is just as far-fetched.

Now I'm not saying all these negative things to scare you away (fat chance!). Nor is it my intention to belittle the truly worthwhile research done by hundreds and perhaps thousands of earnest scientists into artificial intelligence — after all, the benefits are all around us and they are meaningful. But one has to draw a line somewhere between research and the broadcasting of ideas that, inadequate as they are, still harbour the possibility of dehumanising the idea of human intelligence and to do so from a basis of utterly inadequate evidence. That's my point; and I'm not the only one making it; and I wish people would start to listen before it is too late. There is a sinister joke around about computers, that the greatest danger for us is not that computers might begin to think like us, but that we will begin to think like computers.

In the end the truth about computational theories of the mind is that neurologists and biologists, i.e. the people who study life "in the raw", not on a computer screen, would hardly lend their support to it. These people know too much about bodies and brains and nerves and all that to be taken in by fancy electronic gismoes. So to end, I'll toss a couple of ideas your way that you might really like to think about:

1. The brain is made up of cells. Cells are living things, just like you and I; and this means they're neither logic gates nor chips nor wires etc etc. They are living things that make a living out of constructing bodies and brains and lungs and skin. Now being alive means, of course, that they are vulnerable to disease, to shortages of food, to tiredness and all the other problems that beset life forms; and eventually they grow old and die. Ask yourself: what happens to a computer when the algorithm looks for a memory address and can't find it? HANG UP! In the brain, some 10,000 cells die every day. Would you like to write a program for a computer where you are not allowed to define a certain cell as memory X, for fear that it might be dead tomorrow? With the rate of fatality I've just noted, how many times do you suppose your brain/ computer would hang up on an average day? Do you think you or any of us would be around today to discuss this problem?

2. Okay, you might want to answer, surely there's got to be a way. After all the brain does work as a sort of information processing device, even if our terminology is a bit nave. Now I might be inclined to accept that point, but again with considerable reservations. Because it is commonly accepted theory that the brain as an intelligence device, works by parallel distributed processing. Computers, as you know, work by digital processing. These two methods are as different as chalk and cheese; and while we do understand a great deal about the way the brain does its parallel processing, it is not a theory that is easily portable into machines. With all our sophistication, we are stuck on the problem that the only truly parallel distributing intelligence system is, in fact, the brain. What we can simulate by means of batteries of CPUs strung up together is a very poor substitute and in any case a bit of a cheat.

But this being the case, we are back to where we started. If the brain is a parallel processing information device, if the only truly parallel processing system known to us is the brain, and if the brain is part of the biological partition of the universe, then there is no warrant for holding that computationalism as an account of the mind has a hope in Hades of being a true account.

I don't know what age you are, and so it is a little difficult to recommend something for you to read. A great deal of the literature devoted to these subject matters is a damned hard slog unless you have some prior training, for without it, you're just as likely to be bowled over by one or the other argument and left without that proper resource we call "independent thinking". Still, you might like to sample on the "pro" side books like After Thought, written by supercomputer expert James Bailey; or Paul Churchland's Engine of Reason, Seat of the Soul and if you want a mind-spinning yarn try Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. But especially in regard to the last-named, be warned: this is a chrome-coated phantasmagoria that takes one hell of an effort to keep at arm's length. On the "contra" side, John Searle has written two smallish, but very accessible books, and his Discovery of the Mind is on the way to becoming a classic for the "no" case. The well-known mathematician Ian Stewart has written several books in which the mind is a prominent "character" (e.g. The Collapse of Chaos and Figments of Reality, with co-author Jack Cohen). But if you choose not to read any of these, inform yourself at least about the reasons behind the pro and con arguments, and for this you can do no better than Gerald Edelman's popular account of his decades of research into the brain itself: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. This book, I think, should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to be in possession of a sound opinion on matters related to the human brain — including the question on how credible (or not) computationalism is as a theory of the mind.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Tasha asked:

College students are getting visible tattoos and body piercing all over the bodies like tongue rings and tattoos on their necks. How will these changes affect their future in a professional workplace?

If such practices become widespread enough, the question will be moot because there won't be any "professional workplaces." A practice that goes against the grain has its place, but so does the grain. The college students in question seem to be more in the message-sending business than in the business of preparing for a world in which adults exchange goods and services to enhance their chances of creating good lives. The world of voluntary exchange (the "business world") has time-tested protocols, adherence to which minimizes transaction costs. Some protocols govern appearance (clothing, hair, hygiene, etc.). Those protocols evolve. The corporate world has come to understand that, for example, "casual" days contribute to morale and hence to productivity. The expression of individuality past a certain point, however, may interfere with, or even defeat, the purpose for which the business exists. In the armed forces such protocols regulate, to the point of suppression, individuality in appearance and comportment. There are educational institutions in which appropriate protocols are in place to ensure that at least as much education as adolescent self-expression takes place.

In the end, however, parents will send their child either to such "old-fashioned" institutions or to their "hipper" competitors. This consumer choice is as significant a transmission of values as anything the child might be taught inside the institution. If parents think a tattoo or metal in the face is "cute" or, what is more likely, do not think about it at all (there are more pressing matters, you see), then the cultural consequences will follow, as they are already following. The tragedy will not be that the loss of a more demanding, and ennobling, culture will be mourned, but that it will not. Like the denizens of Mad Max's world, no one will even know what was lost.

Tony Flood


Lesley asked:

How do we know where we were born?

I must be missing something about this question. Isn't the usual answer that we learn where we were born from people who were there at the time? Like our mothers?

Ken Stern

Knowledge is often described as justified true belief. It cannot be the case that we have knowledge of where we were born directly from our senses as we were non-conscious beings at that point. However we have other reliable ways to determine the issue. For example if I were to ask my parents were I was born and they were typically truthful then that would provide justification for my belief, assuming there answer was true I would KNOW where I was born. To add corroboration I could check other sources which are conducive to truth, my birth certificate, or hospital records for example. In this way you could know where you were born.

The issue I think is that if you define knowledge as infallible true belief then we can't know where we were born as it is always possible that you are being deceived, however if all we need is justified true belief then you can know.

Mike Lee


Jessica asked:

Can the mind-brain identity theory account for the subjective 'raw feel' of experience?

One answer to your question, Jessica, has got to be the counter-question: why should the mind-brain identity account for raw feels? A worm has raw feels but no mind.

Now this cannot be the end of it; after all, your question reflects what is currently a hot potato in mind research. Now as far as I am concerned, the main problem is that someone asked this question for the first time, and verily I believe it was a philosopher: but he neglected to specify what was to be understood by the notion of raw feel. Like many proponents of provocative questions, he left the term dangling in a sort of limbo where many concepts hang around that are supposed to explain themselves. Well this one doesn't; and as my answer suggests, if you don't draw up a precise itinerary of raw feels, you're likely to find everyone with an opinion dealing with it according to their own private views. And so to some it is the same as "gut feeling", to others "pain", to yet others a sort of "super-awareness", and so on.

Nevertheless, I'll try to give you a reply to what I believe your question is asking. I will assume that what you mean by "raw feels" are just unfiltered sensa, in other words, what your taste, touch, smell etc bring home in such a way that it seems to you there is no filter intervening. For instance, if you cut yourself with a sharp knife, that pain would class as a raw feel, yes?

Now the way I have phrased this should have set alarm bells ringing. If there are such raw, unfiltered sensa, where does the mind come in? And in particular, if the brain and the mind are one and the same, how does this two-in-one system decide how strong a pain has to be before it is allowed to pass through without filtering?

Obviously these are problems I'm not going to solve here and now. The best I can do is to throw out a suggestion and to hope that someone else is also replying to you, so that perhaps there is a difference of opinion. My view of it is this:

(a) When I look at the world of nature, I find several million species of creature life with nerves and/or a brain but without a mind. I am dubious about apes, dolphins etc, but amenable to proof that I'm wrong. Until such proof is offered (and when I say proof, I don't mean personal opinion of even those who have lived with them), I remain sceptical and hold to the notion that only humans in the creature world possess a mind. But this implies, of course, that the mind is not directly involved in the evaluation of raw feels (sensa). They remain assigned to the brain, like most somatic functions, and at most it can be said that certain stimuli may "blot out" the mind, e.g. a really vicious toothache. But this has no real bearing on the mind's function, but rather falls into the same category as (say) starvation or pathology, which can disable the mind.

(b) A supplementary thought on raw feels, independent of your question. One of the results of the enormous industry in brain research of the 20th century has been that memory holds the key to a great deal of what we actually experience. I mean by this that many experiences which seem totally real to us are in reality mediated or even constructed by and from our memory. Behind this seemingly crazy feature is the way our nervous system is "tuned" from birth. The nervous system of a baby, infant, child gobbles up experiences like a wildfire; and for obvious reasons, because at that age the pattern is established for the possibility of all experiences that you are likely to encounter in your life. The "tuning"I referred to is the sensitisation of nerves for certain types of sensory influxes as well as the responses of your body; and all these are laid down as memories. It gets to the point where, on reaching maturity, an individual will have had so many experiences that much (and eventually most) of what happens in life are simple variations on previous experiences; and in these cases the most economical way for the brain to handle a situation is to "construct" it — mostly memory, a small increment instant sensation. It might sound a bit extreme to state it in such uncompromising language, but a boxer who's been hit a hundred times on the jaw might still feel the same sharp pain the 101st time, but it is very much more probable that the sense of pain was generated internally. So that as we age, though partly depending on how sedentary our life is, the experience of raw feels will tend to ease out, because the brain, which "knows" exactly how a blow to the jaw feels, is no longer going to be "bothered" with all that expensive and time-consuming effort of interpreting the fist's impact on your facial bone, but "replays it" from memory.

There's a bit of a nutshell view for you; but if this fascinates you, you're going to have to follow it up yourself. Anyway, the main point is made, I think: you don't need a mind to interpret raw feels, and I don't believe that this is what the mind is all about.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Stanley asked:

What are the origin and nature of excellence?

On what basis can excellence be demonstrated?

Through what process does anything come to be accepted as excellent?

Our appeal to history is losing its meaning. Our culture, especially, needs more analytical thought about excellence.

What do you mean by "excellence"? Do you mean, a property of a product of someone's effort, or do you mean a property of a person who produces outstanding products? Or both? Or something else? The first philosophers I know of to write about this issue are the Greeks: Plato and Aristotle. You might read some of Plato's dialogues; and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. You might also read some philosophy of education; Dewey comes to mind.

As far as the origin goes, how about the inventor, T.A. Edison's, explanation: 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration?

I'm not going to try to expound on the "nature" of excellence; I'll let the Greeks do that for you, as a start.

How you demonstrate it is by producing something and letting it be judged.

Why should we appeal to history? You want to return to the Middle Ages? I think that philosophers and educators today have much more to say than those in the past; I referred you to the Greeks to give you some background in this issue, not because I thought they were the ultimate authorities. Although I do think that the educational establishment is probably 20 years behind insofar as incorporating results from contemporary cognitive research into educational methodologies. As for more "analytical thought" on excellence; I don't agree. I think we are probably doing too much thinking about it and not enough application. I would like to see, rather than more thought, more money put into programs designed to produce excellence. We have devalued education, not because philosophers or educators have not been concerned about it, but because the public, and our governments, are not concerned enough about it. What percentage of our taxes goes to education, in contrast to the military? What tax breaks do educational institutions get relative to big business?

Steven Ravett Brown


Becki asked:

Is it fair to say the religion for some is a 'need'? — like those explained in Maslow's theory of need — for those that need to believe, they do and for those that do not don't — is this a valid argument? if not why not? what are the argument's faults?

I'm certain religion is a need for some, assuming by that by this you mean that some people find life, without the solace of religion belief or at least observance, very difficult. This sort of remark doesn't express a logical necessity so much as an observational commonplace. Either way, I'm sure it's true.

The argument you give is invalid, if it is true that some individual exists who either needs to believe and doesn't, or doesn't need to believe and does. In fact, there are lots of people without religious belief, who feel its lack. Similarly, there are lots of people who are just as well off whatever their beliefs, but who happen to have religious belief for whatever reason.

Richard Craven


Wylie asked:

Relate Neo-platonism to Christianity and the entire medieval world-view.

Do you have a few years? The impact and importance of neoplatonism of Medieval Christianity is immense. And impossible to give in a short answer. To tackle a question like this I suggest that you begin by examining the doctrine of Plotinus (the 'founder' of neoplatonism), then move to consider the 'Middle Platonists' especially Nuemnius and Albinus. By way of digression into Christianity you can examine the doctrine of the Alexandrian Fathers of the Church, especially Origin of Alexandria in the 3rd century, and Gregory of Nyssa in the 4-5th. Then move to examine elements of Augustine's doctrine, since it is generally considered that the 'middle ages' begins with the death of Augustine. His impact on Christian theology and philosophy, for good or ill was, and continues to be, monumental. And his influence on the medieval scholastics was staggering. One of the most important Christian neoplatonic writers was Boethius, famed for his Consolation of Philosophy, and the other John Scotus Eruigena the 8th century Irish theologian who translated the works of Dionysius the Areopogite, a neoplatonist masquerading as a Christian whose 'Mystical Hierarchies' especially, had such an impact of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. The theological school known as the Victorines were also important in the diffusion of neoplatonism through the middle ages. With the ever increasing use of Aristotle in the universities, Augustinian-neoplatonism begins to loses its force and centrality, but its effect on the shaping of medieval thought was monumental. I would recommend you read J. M. Rist's, Plotinus:The Road to Reality; Peter Brown, Augustine, E. Gilson, A History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages; E. Delio, Simply Bonanventure. These will give you a very good introduction to the nature and style of medieval neoplatonism.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Jean-Paul asked:

What are the later Wittgenstein's views on the correspondence between social structures and mental structures? Does he argue against any such idea, or does his idea of a background posit precisely this? I'm confused as I read him as rejecting any view of meaning (or mental structures) based on an independent reality, but then I wonder how he explains the fact that our language is very much structured by social reality (i.e. by how society has developed and divided up the world). I know this is a wide and controversial issue, but comments would be much appreciated.

You're correct in your reading of Wittgenstein; there is only a simple misunderstanding due to terminology. By "independent reality" Wittgenstein (or his interpreters — I'm not sure if he ever uses these words himself) refers to something that he intends to oppose to social reality. When he denies that meaning is dependent on an "independent reality", he means something like the familiar Cartesian picture of the mind: mental acts going on in our heads independently of what goes on in other people's heads and inaccessible to them. Social reality, which according to Wittgenstein is what meanings depend on, is the opposite of independent in this sense: it is shared by a whole community of human beings (a "form of life", as Wittgenstein also calls it).

T. P. Uschanov
Research Assistant
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki


Lynn asked:

Why is it that the physical is present in our dreams, which is when we are most in touch with our mentality?

Very simple: because there is no difference from the mind's point of view between the physical and mental. If you've got the slightest acquaintance with any theory of the mind, you would know that physical objects are percepts to the mind, which means that they become residents of the mind as representations. In dreams (but also when you remember or hallucinate) these representations are recalled for your apprehension.

To understand this, you only need to ask yourself: how can a tennis ball be a visual object for me? Obviously the ball is not flying into your eye; therefore what you see is the reflected light from the ball, which strikes the retina and is then conducted by a rather complicated electrochemical transformation along the optical nerve strands into your visual cortex, where an appropriate evaluation takes place. At some point in this process (no-one knows when) you "see" the ball, and part of the mind's interpretation of this event is to class that object as "physical" on the strength of certain characteristics displayed by it. (This depends on millions of years of "calibration"). Now if this is the first time you've seen a tennis ball, then a memory of the event is formed, for the absolutely essential reason that in future you will more quickly and efficiently recognise the object as a tennis ball. If you've seen one before, then the event is compared by the mind with your previous memories and a sort of composite constructed, and it is this composite which you actually "see". From this you might begin to grasp that "seeing" is not a simple issue at all, but in reality one of the most complex things the brain is called upon to perform. And thus to return to your question: you will now also understand why I said that from the mind's point of view there is no distinction. Both your "live" visual experience and the dream image are constructed from the same set of data. Both are representations.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Lesley asked:

A question: for and against, why do things exist?

What does "for and against" mean? Some things exist now because others existed earlier. Now if one means, Why are there things at all?, no answer is possible. To ask "Why?" is to intend some actual thing as a reason. To ask why all actual things exist leaves nothing left over that might serve as such a reason.

Tony Flood

What else would existent things do other than exist?

But you may be asking, why do the things that exist, exist, rather than other things that do not exist? I think that we have to go to science for the answer to that question. For instance, it seems clear that if human beings as they presently are could not exist if the planet were very much hotter or much colder than it now is.

Ken Stern


Vanessa asked:

I wanted to know what the writer George Santayana thought about the essence of art. I know his position on beauty since he focuses on that topic, but I was curious as to know what he thought about art as it relates to beauty.

Beauty is the promise of the "conformity between the soul and nature", but it also has moral dignity. Since for Santayana, everything is art, Fine Arts are an instance of the beauty which surrounds us. However, there is a distinction between good and bad art, and good art, the most beautiful, must promote a conformity between the soul and nature as well as exhibit moral dignity. For this reason, Santayana thinks that art must have a function, or utility and it must be determinate. The moral dignity of beauty cannot be a messy matter of indistinct feelings and sensations. The conformity of soul and nature must be rational, perceptual and functional.

The fine arts are related to the world as art. Firstly, because natural beauty is the muse of art insofar as in perceiving the world, the artist gets ideas for new ways of portraying the aesthetic world in "plastic" form. Secondly, because in doing this the artist is bringing us to see the world in a new essential way meaning that more aesthetic essences can be perceived in the natural world. This is the function and utility of art. But also it must be determinate if it is to have this function. An ambiguous work of art, which is indeterminate and fails to create an aesthetic essence, will lack this function. Such a work would not be good art. As perception absorbs us in the world, and as such is both functional and provides us with determinate forms, so art, answering to Santayana's conditions of beauty can provide conformity between soul and nature. This is in itself is a moral dignity. It does not just provide enjoyment for the romantic aesthete. Rather, it increases our purposeful relationship with the aesthetic nature of the world.

Rachel Browne


Shah asked:

Managing the delicate balance between the commercial use of the Web and the rights of the Internet community as a whole is an ongoing challenge facing the digital enterprise. The rapid growth and predominance of commerce on the Internet makes it easy to overlook its many other facets — educational, social, creative, and artistic, to name a few. Indeed, to view the Web solely in commercial terms and to ignore its larger role in society is an oversight that can have unwelcome consequences.

So much of what we have discussed about the Internet has focused on its enormous commercial potential and the benefits that flow to consumers and businesses alike. We must also recognize how the power of the Internet can be abused. The early proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail — commonly known as "spam" — is just one example. The ease by which someone can send a message to millions of individuals is more of a curse than a blessing when used to send unwanted commercial solicitations. From clogging the network to clogging our mailboxes, "spam" when left uncontrolled has the potential of making the Internet a less hospitable environment in which to communicate.

As the Internet evolves technically, it evolves culturally. It is the culture of the web community that sets the boundary on what is viewed acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In the case of the latter, the ability for consumers to protest, to organize boycotts, or to simply take their business elsewhere has never been greater.

[Source: http://www.ecommerce.ncsu.edu]

Based on the above scenario, my task is to write on the following topics concerning Web Ethics: "Intellectual Property: Information and Software". I'm still confused and need more information about this question.

Try not to think too formal. I'll partly try to answer your question, looking at my own experiences.

4 years ago, I got disabled at the age of 45. Using the web in 1 year I made a good start in philosophy and in programming (mind that I made use of my experiences and of my degree in math). This would have been impossible in a formal system of education. Of course on my way I met a lot of unwanted spam, but also of really good methods to get rid of it. Now after 4 years I dare to say that I'm an acceptable philosopher and fairly good practitioner of HTML (the most used programming language on the web).

So the most important possibility that I found on the web was "freedom of information". In the 4 years that I intensively used the web this new way of communicating was obviously more and more used too for commercial purposes. It can be annoying when you're looking for information, and find an ad about a book on the subject. Maybe a division between informative content and commercial content would be handy. Further evolution of the web will show if that'll be chosen. Sometimes (but not essentially in evolutionary eyes) this can be speeded up by pressure groups. That does not mean such protest is not useful, but that it's part of the game (do it if you like it, don't expect results but enjoy the game). That is a relativist view, but acknowledging that everybody must act to 'feel well'. It is not saying that such a feeling is not very important. On the contrary, it is the driving force in evolution.

I also noticed that copying became an accepted practice. I found part of my own sites on those of others. That is at first very annoying, but it showed that my site was read well. And I made it to be read. Only my pride was hurt a bit. But I certainly wouldn't want that rules made my newly found freedom of information impossible or very difficult. The notion Intellectual Property is changing, but I already hated articles that were for 75% only references.

Someone who copies to extend knowledge USES your information in his own context. WHY NOT, that's the way to speed up knowledge. Someone who only copies to steal is misusing your information. Maybe that's the cost inherent to sharing knowledge.

Henk Tuten


Jhanvi asked:

I have completely fallen in love with Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. I spend hours deriving conclusions and re reading it. I wanted some references to judge and guide me thorough his phenomenology and other works.

I have dipped into this book off and on for 30 years (apart from reading it through three or four times), but I think it can never be useless or unprofitable to consult on occasion a well-written and thoughtfully planned guide to basics. Very important in the beginning to steer clear of contentious issues and unorthodox points of view; and in approaching a thinker as difficult as Hegel, nothing is more important than to grasp what he actually says before you get into "deep" thoughts about ramifications.

It so happens that just these last six months, I read the Phenomenology again, side by side with a half dozen critical guides, and now I hear you "have fallen in love" with it. Let me tell you that this is one love likely to abide!

So what can I recommend to you to assist you in your mind adventure? I think the very best book on Hegel for a first-time reader is John Findlay's Hegel: A Re-examination, very old and possibly only available through libraries nowadays, but with large chapters on the Phenomenology and the Logic and altogether one of the finest secondary texts on any philosopher you're ever likely to come across. Robert Stern's book on the Phenomenology in the Routledge Guides is also very good; it takes you chapter by chapter and in sequence through Hegel's text. These two are, I think, indispensable.

On the second tier you find a very brilliant and insightful essay by Georg Lukacs, which forms part of his book The Young Hegel. I can't give you references (mine are in German); but I'm sure it'll be easy to find an English reference. What is so valuable about this essay is that it illuminates the structure of the Phenomenology as well as the historical presuppositions. These are not easy to grasp without a knowledgeable guide. Then there is Adorno's Three Essays on Hegel, in which a sentence occurs that I've memorised, because it says something important about how one should approach philosophy, namely as a discussion and debate: "They are not the worst readers of Hegel who scribble their notes of protest in the very margins of his text"! The chapter in which this occurs is one entitled, "How to read Hegel", and this is surely an essential topic for anyone afraid of breaking their jaws when silently mouthing every word so as not to miss a single nuance.

That's as far as I'm prepared to go, because the secondary literature on Hegel is vast and you could spend a lifetime reading nothing else. But it is better, I think, to study Hegel's works with one or two sound guides (as above) and then decide whether you want to branch out.

It's not superfluous to mention that Hegel is also the object of an unusually extensive crop of vitriolic, and if you're scouting for something to read I would strongly recommend to you to stay away from anything that has the faintest whiff of argumentativeness about it — at least until you've acquired good familiarity with the subject. I will single out one book, Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, which was heavily criticised for its biased and totally unfair (and ill-informed) assessment of Hegel when it was first published; meanwhile Popper has become something of an icon and people are ready to overlook his vindictiveness. I think it's inexcusable myself. Be that as it may, these are the sorts of texts that presuppose a wide reading before you can assess whether or not there is something for you to learn in them.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Try these: Taylor, Charles (2000) Hegel. Cambridge Univ Press;

Taylor, Charles (1979) Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge Univ Press.

Steven Ravett Brown


Andrew asked:

What is the utilitarian view on euthanasia — if the victim gains maximum benefit then surely the murderer/ relative will lose out?

You seem to have the suppressed premise that for each increase in utility for one person there is an equivalent decrease in utility for another, yet sure this is false. Consider the case that we discover a cure for the common cold. Huge utility will be generated worldwide through application of the cure yet surely no individual necessarily looses out.

Specifically with respect to euthanasia I see no reason to suggest that either person looses out, to illustrate consider the following: Mary is dying slowly and painfully from a cancer, after struggling with the pain for a long time she decides that she wishes to end her suffering, as her drugs no longer relieve the pain sufficiently, what's more she knows she will die shortly. Her child John has watched his mothers struggle with the cancer, nursing her through it, often to such an extent that he is too tired to properly look after his other interests. When his Mother asks him to help her die, he is deeply saddened but also relieved; relieved that she will no longer be suffering, and relieved that he will be able to continue with his life. He duly administers a lethal dose of morphine and she dies peacefully. Now John gains utility, Mary gained utility and no one obviously lost out. Surely a counterexample to your assertion.

Mike Lee


Colin asked:

What if anything is the difference between fact and opinion?

Philosophically and logically there is a very big difference. Facts are associated with reality and knowledge, opinions with belief and estimation. It is a problem which comes within the bounds of epistemology (The Theory of Knowledge). The problems of truth and knowledge have occupied the minds of philosophers since ancient times. Theories put forward have been many and varied, each having its supporters and its critics. My personal preferences include ideas developed by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Neither of these great philosophers is easy to understand and both have been, and still are, open to misinterpretation.

The naive concept of a fact is a relationship between a statement and what is presumed to be reality. In everyday life observed things are taken to be facts, such as chairs, trees, rocks and water, etc.: but this is not the case, such objects are 'things,' facts are states of affairs.'Facts are in 'logical space,' as opposed to 'things' in space and time. (Wittgenstein). For example, 'this chair' is not a fact, but 'there is a chair in this room' is a fact. Facts can be pictured in the mind and expressed in language, therefore, we are able to state negative facts; which confirms what was said earlier, that facts do not necessarily depend on direct observation in space and time. Therefore, the proposition 'there might be a table in this room' is a fact, even though there is no table to be seen.

When facts are expressed as propositions they can be true or false; if the proposition, 'there is a chair in this room' coincides with the existing 'state of affairs,' then the proposition is true. If, however, the proposition, 'there is no table in this room' does not coincide with the state of affairs that there is a table in this room, then the proposition is false.

Facts then possess internal structures of objects juxtaposed with conditions like relationships and properties. Though it must be accepted that facts themselves are abstract even when their constituents are not!! Alleged moral facts are more problematical, thus the alleged fact 'thugs should not beat up old ladies' seems self evident. However, the proposition expressing the alleged fact would have to be proved logically before it could be accepted, The fact only becomes confirmed when this conclusion 'thugs should not beat up old ladies' is seen to follow from its supporting premisses. This, of course, is a major problem in moral philosophy, establishing the premisses on which to base a moral statement can be extremely difficult, and we often get into what is called, 'infinite regression.' A simple example is, "Don't do this," "Why?" "Because God said so." "Who is God?" "The creator of the universe." "Who created him?" "A super power." "Who created the super power?" etc. etc. etc..Therefore we see that what are sometimes claimed as facts in moral arguments are more likely to be opinions, where we are merely saying, 'I believe this, you believe it also.'

A point to consider is that beliefs could turn out to be true/ factual, although we can see no way of obtaining evidence either for or against. Errors can be made in producing facts when we move from perception to judgement, if we do not interpret the perception properly. This is how we sometimes get into confrontational arguments. Opinions can also turn out to be true or false, a well considered opinion could be based on certain facts and just might turn out to be right.

John Brandon


Mike asked:

I had some questions regarding "Moral Monotheism". Consider the following:

A. Which actions are right is not arbitrary, but objectively valid.

B. There is a God, who is the ultimate moral authority.

C. An action is right if and only if God commands us to perform it.

Q1. Why would a theist find it difficult to give up any of A,B or C?

Q2. How can A, B or C be rejected?

Q3. If I am able to reject one of the premisses, what would be the strongest objection against me.

Q4. And how will I defend my view point against this objection?

Hope to hear from someone soon. Thank you. This is a wonderful site to learn about philosophy.

I do not understand. Who says that all theists find it difficult to give up any of your A, B, or C? God is not seen by all as a puritan judge. This may be the view of some puritan pastoral theologies but, concerning the Christian tradition, it is interesting to observe that when Jesus Christ was invited to act as a judge, he refused to condemn the "woman caught in adultery" and said to the scribes and Pharisees; "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." (Cf John 8. 3-11)

Jean Nakos

Preliminary matters:

1. I am assuming that Mike intends A, B & C to express a syllogism, of which A and B are the premisses and C is the conclusion; i.e. A and B if true together entail C's truth.

2. As regards premiss A, validity is generally taken in philosophy and logic to be a property of arguments/ syllogisms, not actions. What A is trying to express is probably that there are mind-independent facts, about which moral judgements can get things right.

Q1 and 2. It would depend on what kind of theist we were talking about. In fact, I'm not even sure how to define "theist"; maybe a rough and ready definition would be someone who believes that there is at least one god. If we're talking about polytheism, all sorts of questions arise about how the gods limit each others' authority. Even ifwe limit ourselves to monotheisms, I don't think that the mere fact of being a theist of itself necessitates believing god to be the ultimate authority in any sphere, whether we're talking about omnipotence, omniscience, or moral authority. The Roman atomist Lucretius thought that the gods lived in either total ignorance of or blissful indifference towards (I forget which) the affairs of man. Even with a less avowedly hands-off deity, it could quite easily be the case that the creating being, if such be the god, bestows moral authority on the creature's of his/ her/ its creation. You don't have to look far to find Christian philosophers who believe that humankind possesses moral autonomy. Immanuel Kant is the example springing most immediately to mind.

So, depending on what kind of theist we're talking about, they could reject B.

B says that god is the ultimate moral arbiter. Another way of putting this is to say that an action is right if and only if god says so; which, of course, is exactly what C says. So a theist who believed B would be committing himself to C and vice versa.

I think it's possible for theists of one stamp or another to reject A, on similar grounds. There's no particular reason why some theist somewhere shouldn't believe that god created a morally relativistic universe, a universe where there were no mind-independent facts of the matter about the rightness or wrongness of actions.

Q3. If you were to reject B or C, the strongest objection would probably be that if it's not the case that actions are right just because god says so, it's very difficult to see what does make them right. Moral properties begin to look "Queer" (qv J.L.Mackie's Ethics, Inventing Right & Wrong p.35).

Q4. Difficult question (and I'm an atheist!). Several possibilities:

(1) G.E. Moore (famous for Principia Ethica 1903) wrote a paper called "In Defence of Common Sense". Common sense "thick concepts" tell us that, for example, recreational torture is wrong. This is a fact the truth of which is more manifest than any argument we could adduce in support thereof.

2) Utilitarians — Bentham, the Mills, Sidgwick — hold that actions are right insofar as they promote utility. How utility is defined is another matter: desire-satisfaction utilitarians, pleasure utilitarians, interest utilitarians, would all take different attitudes towards practical ethical questions. For example, desire-satisfaction utilitarians would oppose, and interest utilitarians support, the force-feeding of anorexics.

3) Psychological egoists like Thomas Hobbes (who wrote Leviathan) believe that ultimately we're all concerned ultimately with the promotion of our own interests/ well being. Hence, the natural state of man is one of incessant mutual conflict over scarce resources. Morality is a mere social construct evolving in response to the recognition by individuals that their own lives are less nasty brutish and short if they enter into contractual relations with their peers, under which system all are enabled to live as constrained maximisers of their own well-being.

Richard Craven


Megan asked:

Can you please tell me what this means or translates to? I am very confused!

Then it isn't because it is something seen that it is seen, but the opposite: because it is seen, it is something seen. Nor is it because it is something led is it led; rather, because it is led, it is something led. Nor because it is something carried is it carried; rather, because it is carried, it is something carried. Isn't it quite clear, Euthyphro, what I wish to say? I wish to say that if something comes to be something or is affected, it isn't because it is something coming to be that it comes to be, but because it comes to be, is it something coming to be; because it is affected, it is something affected.

From Plato's Euthyphro 53C

I'll say a bit on this. Plato is talking about the difference between, let us say, external and internal, or extrinsic and intrinsic, causes or changes. Or, to put it another way, between contingent and essential properties. We could take a triangle, for example. Triangles must have three sides, and the only things with three sides are triangles. So in that case, we can say: because it is something with three sides, it is a triangle. We can also say: because it is a triangle, it has three sides.

But carrying a book, say, is not something intrinsic to its being a book; you're doing something to that book. The book doesn't cause itself to be carried, or need to be carried, to be a book. So because it is carried, we can call it: something carried. But you can't say that a book is something that must be carried to be a book; you can't say, "a book is something carried", the way you can say "a triangle is something with three sides". Maybe you could say, "a book is something with pages", and if that is really the essence of being a book and only of being a book (let's say it is, just for the sake of argument), then you can say, "because it is something with pages, it is a book". So Plato is starting with "things" and talking about causes and essences affecting and comprising things. As long as that cause is not an essential property of that thing, it modifies the thing without modifying its essence, just like carrying a book "modifies" it (now it's being carried) without changing its essence as a book.

Steven Ravett Brown

In the context of the dialogue, the character Socrates is saying that an action is judged pious because it is pious. Not the other way round. So 'piety' cannot be defined as 'What x judges to be pious', even if x=God.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lindsay asked:

Can you tell me of a philosopher who contemplated on the existence of good vs. evil? Specifically, I'm wanting to know which of them concluded that good and evil are dual qualities of our God, that both are necessary elements that He had to construct for our existence here on Earth. That happens to be my position, but would love to read a "professional's" position on this.

Let me point to one thinker who is a bit "out of the way": Peter Abelard, who acquired historical fame as a lover rather than a philosopher (cf. Abelard and Heloise). But you may need to look under "Theology" to find his book Dialectica. As far as I'm aware, Abelard was the first of the medieval philosopher to come out with an explicit contention as in your question.

Jürgen Lawrenz

There are two views, which you may be confusing:

1. The standard response to the problem of evil (the problem of how an omnibenevolent, omniciscient and omnipotent God would allow the existence of natural and moral evils) which is to say that the existence of evil in the world is conducive to a greater good.

2. The Manichean (Manichaean) Heresy — for which many a medieval scholar was burned at the stake — which holds that evil exists because God's power is insufficient to overcome the power of the Devil, who is responsible for the existence of evil.

Geoffrey Klempner

I do not know whether the sages and thinkers of ancient Persia (Iran), including Zarathoustra or Zoroaster, who contemplated and thought persistently on the existence of good vs evil could be called "professionals". However it is interesting to observe that the dualistic Mazdean tradition of Ohrmazd (Good) and Ahriman (Evil) contrast with the monistic thought of Zervanism or Zurvanism. According to Zervanism, from Zervan or Zurvan (Time — the unitary principle of God) emerge both Ohrmazd and Ahriman.

It is said that Zervanism was a major Zoroastrian heresy. R.C. Zaehner, in his book Zurvan; A Zoroastrian Dilemma Clarendon Press, Oxford 1955, supposes that it was a result of Babylonian influences which appeared towards the end of Achaemenid empire. It was perhaps the dominant tradition at the court of Sasanians (224—c 642 CE), the dynasty that ruled Persia until overthrown by the Arabs.

You may also read Mary Boyce's book, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1979).

Jean Nakos


Rachel asked:

Is it more appropriate to speak of human rights rather than natural rights?

It depends on whether this is a moral question, philosophical question, or human question. That humans have rights need not be gainsaid and those rights are manifold: the right to life, free assembly, religious expression, political views, the right to life, employment education, freedom, peace, justice etc. The problem arises when those rights are either not recognised or denied. How does one respond to the denial of human rights? And what steps does one take to ensure that those rights are recognised and reinstated when they have been denied? But whether humans have rights simply because of their 'nature' is a different matter. I would suggest that whatever exists has rights, whether it sentient or not. Creation exists and, as a Christian, I obviously say that it exists because God wills it into being. But what exists does so because God wills it and not from any determinative necessity, therefore, since it is not necessary for creation to exist it is a contingent dependent on a necessity, since, I believe it is necessary that God exists. That creation is willed into being and given its own freedom and constituent elements e.g. laws, direction, development, the evolutionary process, physics etc., science may tell us how that creation is constructed but science does not reveal anything that is not already existent e.g. DNA always existed, science has simply dis-covered it, lifted the lid of it, so to speak, to reveal the glories and wonder of what is there in all its breathtaking beauty.

But such a creation also has rights, it has a right to exist and be itself independent of the utility value Man places on it. So, given that God wills creation freely, he also freely gives it rights — and those rights independent of Man. Perhaps we should begin to speak about a bi-lateral covenant agreement between creation and Man wherein the rights of all creation are guaranteed, respected, and when they are denied, how to effectively respond to them. As a Christian and a priest, especially a Franciscan, I would say that we speak of the rights of nature, including ours, and where those rights are denied or attack, then I consider it an attack on God him/ her/ itself.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


May asked:

Can human beings make free choices of the kind required for moral responsibility? what kind of free choice you think is required for moral responsibility?

Free choices are not in fact required for moral responsibility. The question is often asked: "If nobody can make any free choices, then how can we hold anyone morally responsible?" But this completely forgets that if nobody really can make any free choices, it follows that we ourselves are not free to refrain from holding a thief or a murderer morally responsible, any more than the thief or murderer was free to refrain from stealing or murdering. If a thief was not free, then neither are we free to let us be persuaded that this somehow lets him off the hook.

T. P. Uschanov
Research Assistant
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki


Yaya asked:

I'm just wondering if there is an answer to this but why don't people just do whatever they want? Yes, they would feel guilty in a way if they did something wrong but who would care? Everyone will die. Their thoughts will also die with them. For example, no one would remember me since the people that I've known though out my life will forget me when they die. If someone would argue that people are remembered though the course of history, that is not true. When the sun goes out, every life form on this planet will disappear, erasing everything left behind by humans. Including the past, present, and future of our thoughts. There is a saying that what you do now will effect the future. Why would anyone care since the truth is that the end is death. Is there really a point in living? I'm sorry to say but I see no point. Earth is absolutely a hellhole. I believe that to bring a child into life is the most horrible thing that you could do. Is there really a point for anyone to be here?

Yaya alternates between asking genuine, heartfelt questions and asserting claims that seem to rule out answers in advance. Psychology is not philosophy. There are questions that arise from one's inquiring mind that are of interest to other such minds, and there are questions that stem from an investigation into one individual's mental state. I can address only the former.

Some of Yaya's questions presuppose states of affairs that are not obviously the case. For instance, who says people don't do whatever they want? People want a great many things, but they also realize that their wantings are not mutually compatible and so must be ordered (for example, wanting to sleep late and maintain good attendance at one's job). They do what they believe will advance their most important goals. Also, wanting to feel guilt-free is neither a trivial desire nor a function of knowing "who would care."

Some people are remembered through the course of history, and some are remembered longer than others, but Yaya laments that history will come to an end in the (apparently inevitable) heat-death of the universe and, with that, the abolition of all possible memory. First, it is not clear to me why, unless that heat-death is just around the corner, it is meaningless to care about one's immediate future and that of one's loved ones. Millions labor daily for just that, and for them that is enough. Second, even if heat-death were immanent or, perhaps more relevantly, if no human being will remember us or care whether we had lived and died, it still may be the case that God does and will. It may be, for all Yaya has shown to the contrary, that a divine lure has been involved in the self-creation of every fundamental entity via its mentality and has retained knowledge of every one of them. Third, that everlasting divine involvement may also issued in the order of the physical universe. The evolution of that order exhibits a pattern of increasing novelty, complexity, harmony, and contrast. It is not paradise, and the existence of far too many people is hellish, but it is anything but a unqualified "hellhole," if that word has any meaning.

The "point" of our being here is to experience as deeply, richly, and intensely as possible, and to increase opportunities for oneself and others to do so and then to make possible experiences that surpass those. I'm not sure that the possible response, "What's the point of a deep, rich, and intense experience?," is coherent. Satisfying and fulfilling experience is at the heart of what it means for something to have point. As someone wrote recently, "What's my point? Well, does there have to be a point? The enjoyment of spectacular food, or just really good food in large quantities (southern barbeque is a case in point) is an end in itself. There needn't be a political or moral implication, or a practical application, to appreciate and simply enjoy such human artifices as the paintings and sculptures of da Vinci and Michelangelo; Texas-smoked beef brisket; or Newton's calculus." (Brad Edmunds, "Italian Cooking Still Wins," http://www.lewrockwell.com/edmonds/edmonds131.html posted February 12, 2003.) Some experiences are just intrinsically good (satisfying and fulfilling), good in themselves, about which it is absurd to ask, "Now what was that for?" Use your imagination.

That the universe has an order that makes intrinsically good (and rich and complex) experiences possible should caution one against regarding it as a mindless cauldron of vacuous "matter" in which persons (who experience ecstasy as well as excruciating pain) are anomalies. Yaya's despair is premature if he or she has not philosophically ruled out the possibility that the physical universe has a soul that is as organically related to it as we are to our bodies. If God is ever responding to each creature's effort at self-creation by luring (but not determining) them to the best that's possible at each moment, then someone, even if unable to miraculously wipe away every tear, heal every wound, or prevent every calamity, does care.

Tony Flood


Jerome asked:

What is the distinction between "choice" and "decision"?

If you have a choice there is more than one path you might opt for. When you make a decision you have settled on one of these.

Rachel Browne

Making a choice always implies making a decision, but there are circumstances where you can make a decision where one would speak of not having a choice — e.g. if someone 'makes you an offer you cannot refuse'.

Geoffrey Klempner


Arthur asked:

I think I could disprove god's existence (as described by monotheism). My ideas go as follows:

1- There can be no consciousness without change

2- Any entity above time can't change

3- Therefore, any entity above time (god) can't be conscious.

Thus god is either non-conscious (and thus would be impersonal like the Brahman of Hinduism) or he is ruled by time (not omnipotent, like the old gods of polytheism).

God as described by monotheism can never be omnipotent (above time) and conscious (personal) at the same time. I'd like to know how far are my words true.

Like Claire's (cf Page 19, answer 16) the god of your question seems to be quite anthropocentric.

According to the apophatic theology, God is not omnipotent nor non-omnipotent. God is beyond the human concept of omnipotence. Also, God is not conscious nor non-conscious. God is beyond the human concept of consciousness. God is beyond concepts.

According to the Christian tradition, God makes himself known by revelation. According to the Christian Eastern Orthodox theology, we know nothing of the essence of God. We know only of His energies.

Perhaps it is relevant to read Vladimir Lossky's best-seller, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St. Vladimir's Seminary, 1976 — there are also paperback editions) which is more theological than mystical.

Jean Nakos

Arthur's syllogism is valid: Whatever is nontemporal is nonchanging. Whatever is nonchanging is nonconscious. Therefore, whatever is nontemporal is nonconscious. But the God of monotheism is both nontemporal and conscious. Therefore, that God cannot exist.

But are the premises true? Arthur implicitly identifies "omnipotent" with "above time" and "conscious" with "personal" a bit too fast for my plodding mind. The same goes for "temporal" and "ruled by time." As he develops his philosophy he should explicate what he now only suggests. Also, what does he want to do now that he's ruled out classical theism (which he calls "monotheism," even though there are non-polytheistic neoclassical theisms that affirm God's temporality as well as personality)? Proceed to demolish all other forms of theism? Or develop a sound theism? In short, was there a point to his logical exercise beyond the sheer pleasure of drawing a valid inference?

Tony Flood


Space asked:

What were the origins of Japanese philosophy?

The Japanese culture bear the imprint of several foreign traditions (Chinese, Indian, Korean, others). It is interesting to observe that Japan has adopted the Chinese way of writing with ideographs in the 4th century A.D. Also the name of Shinto, the indigenous tradition of Japan, was probably derived from the Chinese words "Shin Tao" (The Way of The God).

The main roots of the Japanese thought were; Shamanism (up to c 950 B.C), Buddhism, Confucianism (especially Chu Hsi Confucianism) and Taoism (Dokyo). I would suggest to consult Charles Moore, ed., Japanese Mind; Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture (University of Hawaii Press, 1982). If you do like things Japanese (including philosophy) then you should read Basil Chamberlain's Things Japanese (1890) which had many reprints and it is easy to find still today.

Jean Nakos


Ike asked:

According to John Locke, there is a natural right to property. Is he right?

I don't know what a "natural right" is, and really have no interest in what Locke said about it. However, if we consider "natural" to pertain to that horrible term, "human nature", which I will arbitrarily claim is related to what we have in common with other animals, then we can look to other animals in order to characterize what "property" is. And indeed, doing that, we find that animals do have property, in many senses of that word. Generally, they have "territories", i.e., actual physical areas (and/or volumes of space) which they defend against interlopers, which they use for food, shelter, and procreation, and which have, in most cases, reasonably well-defined boundaries (e.g., see Ardrey, R. The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co., 1972.). Territories may, in addition, be abstracted to things like membership in packs, possession of objects, and domination over other animals. Now, doesn't this sound like what we call "property"? Thus, while the question of "rights" may be an open one, it is not open to debate (and there's much more than just Ardrey's book supporting this, at this point) as to whether we a) have, and b) need to have, property. Do we have a right to what seems an intrinsic aspect of, not only human, but all animal (and indeed most insects' and many plants') "nature"? An interesting question. But I'm not going to expound on it, because I'm not sure what a "right" is, or should be. Property, in some sense, does however seem necessary for humans.

Steven Ravett Brown

We can reasonably affirm that human beings have a natural right to property. We stipulate, however, that the term "right" does not refer to something tangible or a quality thereof. Having a right is not like having brown hair or money in the bank or a talent for singing. Rather, "right" refers to a relationship of moral owing or oughting that one person bears to another. This relationship, like any other, is not an object of sense perception, yet it can be grasped by intelligence and affirmed by reason. To say that some person X "has a right" means that (at least one) other person Y owes X. If such relationships are real, that is, affirmable by reason, then so are rights.

Now there is moral oughting and there is merely instrumental oughting. For example, in order to keep my appointment with another person, I ought to take the train instead of walking. That is, taking the train conduces to the end of appointment-keeping better than does walking. This is a case of merely instrumental, not moral, oughting. That I ought to keep my appointment, however, may be merely instrumental, but it might also be moral. It depends on my motivation. If I believe I ought to keep my appointment merely because otherwise the meeting cannot achieve one of my other purposes, then the oughting is merely instrumental. If, however, I keep my appointment also out of respect for the other person, then the oughting is also moral. The reason why showing up inexcusably late for a meeting decreases one's chances of achieving one's other end is this: a person was inconsiderately kept waiting who, just because he or she was disrespected, will be disinclined to favor the late-comer. Persons are intrinsic (not instrumental) values for themselves and the highest possible source of intrinsic values for themselves and for each other. Some of my related thoughts on this are posted here and here

By nature we are fellow-seekers of good lives. A "good life" for a human being is one characterized by the enjoyment, and prospect of the regular or routine enjoyment, of all, or very nearly all, of the kinds of basic intrinsic goods that a human being desires (e.g., good health, gratifying work, love, etc). If a human life is missing any basic, intrinsic good, we withhold the description "a good life." A primary condition of the possibility of our achieving a good life is that we appropriate and cultivate things outside of our bodies in order to sustain ourselves in existence. We must also be able to control and dispose of the fruit or increase that such cultivation yields, or there would be little incentive to undertake the labor it requires. Also, we are not immortal. Because the extent of our lives is uncertain, time is a scarce resource. In our respective, individualized pursuits of good lives we compete with each other for scarce resources. Not only for time, space, food, protection from the elements, but also for each other's time and skills. For we are not only rivals for scarce resources: we are also cooperators.

Our natural relationships of rivalry and cooperation make us members of a special class of resource, qualitatively different from nonhuman resources. We identify, with varying degrees of conceptual clarity, with those who also envision and strive to achieve good lives and need our time and skills to further their life-creating goals. That is, we see them and ourselves as the same with respect to good-life seeking. We also see them and ourselves as different from beings whose natures do not set for them the task of envisioning and creating good lives. There arises a practical need for guidance as to how we are to act toward members of this unique class of resource to which we belong.

Insight into the moral boundary lines that we would draw around ourselves as a signal to others at once defines the same lines around them. Talk of "rights" is a short-hand way of referring to some ramifications of this insight. We cannot rationally (nonarbitrarily) define lines of demarcation for any good-life seeker that would not apply to every good-life seeker.

The "Golden Rule" comes to mind: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or, since tastes differ, "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." Grounding the Golden Rule in the essentially economic reality of competition and cooperation does not demean it. For it still requires distinctively human intelligence and reflection to grasp its truth. It takes distinctively human willingness to implement it and, more importantly, to make its implementation habitual, rather than a constant struggle. The "Golden Rule" is neither a fond sentiment nor a command. It is an imperative that grows out of the natural impulse to create good lives.

Moral boundary lines delimit, not what one physically can do, but what one may do. The realm of freedom, as opposed to the realm of dense compounds, is the realm of alternative possibility, not determinism. The pull or attractiveness of the moral ought is felt, but not as irresistible. Evidence of resistance abounds. The pull of the envisioned good life impels each of us to conceive plans for its concrete realization. To disrespect moral boundaries is deeply inconsistent with such planning. But because we are free, such inconsistency is possible in the sense that the transgression of physical borders is not.

The goods that are steps toward or constitutive elements of a good life are things that fulfill and satisfy. We impute their goodness to moral boundary lines that serve to protect persons in their good-life seeking. The modern term by which we refer to those boundary lines is "right." If one finds "rights"-talk offensive, then one should find another term. The substantive issue is the human drive to create good lives and how it generates "rules of engagement" between human competitors-cooperators.

To the degree that we understand (a) how rights-respecting relates to good-life seeking and (b) that we spontaneously seek to improve our lives in competition and cooperation with others, to that degree we will respect rights. Impeding the conformity of doing to knowing is a short-sightedness that blinds us to the long-term negative consequences of rights-violating. Whether we are morally culpable for our short-sightedness is an issue that we cannot explore here.

Our fundamental natural rights are all property rights, rights in tangible things. We have rights, in the first place, in our physical bodies, our primary sphere of mental influence. Each of us morally owns — that is, may exclusively control the use of — the body to which he or she is uniquely connected. (If the reader doubts this, he or she should mentally entertain its denial and observe what follows. If you do not have the exclusive right to control your body, does someone else? Does everyone else? Does no one? Exploring various possible answers would be the burden of a dissertation that this answer does not pretend to be.)

In the second place, we have property rights in the things that, using our bodies as instruments, we take into our physical possession before anyone else has done so. (The same mental experiment is germane here as in the next two.) Thirdly, we have rights in those things that are created as a result of our cultivating ("mixing our labor with," as Locke would say) the things that we are the first owners of. Fourthly, we have rights in those things that we receive through voluntary exchange with other property owners. This frankly Lockean list determines the criteria for any other candidate for justly owned property.

Our human nature is constituted by the drive to achieve a multitude of ends and to harmonize our efforts. We are justified, therefore, in calling a right natural and not merely conventional (as is, for example, the right to run for elected office in a given locality). Our nature, like that of other animals, is to seek the realization of our ends. Not given to other nonhuman animals, however, is the ability to envision a good life; to intelligently grasp and reasonably affirm ourselves and each other as both competitors and cooperators in that individually diverse but common pursuit; and to deliberate economically and morally upon the appropriateness of proposed means to ends.

There is no such thing as a natural right to property only if there is no such thing as moral oughting that is irreducible to instrumental oughting; or if each of us does not morally own (a) his or her body, (b) the things that he or she originally appropriates and cultivates by means of that body, (c) the increase that such cultivation yields, or (d) what he or she receives in voluntary exchange with other owners. It seems to me, however, that the complex negative condition of the preceding sentence is not fulfilled. There is, therefore, something about human beings that strongly inclines them to set boundaries to their competitive-cooperative transactions. Historically, the term that has summed up this aspect is "the natural right to property."

Tony Flood


Robert asked:

A simple question: How do you describe a color that you never saw before?

I believe that's a moot question, since by the time children learn to describe colours, they have typically seen those colours more than once. In fact, learning to describe colours would seem to depend on noticing that adults do not merely call this "green", but also this, this and this, which resemble it in a certain way.

T. P. Uschanov
Research Assistant
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki

A simple answer: Research into the psychology of colour has established that all primary and at least some secondary colours are universally recognised by all human beings irrespective of their social upbringing. However, the naming of these colours shows occasional inconsistencies which do depend on social conventions. Now naming is not an innocent (irrelevant) factor, and so it happens that researchers equipped with colour charts will find themselves every so often amid one or another native tribe (usually nomads) who use the same word (say: "dark") for all colours that seem dark without apparently distinguishing red and blue and green. And so on. Yet in spite of this, when confronted with the flora and fauna of their habitat, they readily distinguish purple from orange and other subtle variations. Clearly, there is an evolutionary endowment among us humans to make such distinction based on hierarchies in the visible spectrum; and part of this endowment is an intuitive (admittedly not infallible) skill in establishing the relation of certain hues to their sources. E.g. purple, mauve and turquoise all have some blue in them, yet purple is unfailingly perceived as "red". So if you see a colour for the first time, your obvious starting point would be from the primary (pigment) colours yellow, red and blue, from there to their mixtures orange, brown and green. Already this covers a large percentage of the visible spectrum; your reference point from any unknown colour would be to this ensemble (plus, obviously black, white and grey). There is no colour conceivable to us that would not show one of these as a recognisably prevalent.

In short, for the sake of the exercise, look at aquarells, where the colours tend often to be very subtle shades and try to find one that is plainly not referable to one the above. But if you have a conception of (say) blue and you encounter mauve, you could always say: "Well, some sorta blue... kinda blue minus... like a bit of white thrown in"; and already you're halfway to its place in the spectrum. — Anyway, this is not really a philosophical topic and this rough guide may suffice you to start your research. The best place to look for information is under the heading of design with colour. There is a huge volume of technical information (look also for the name "Itten").

Jürgen Lawrenz

You mean, if you're an interior designer, and you want to inform your clients about new wallpaper? Or do you want to describe color to a color-blind person? Or do you mean that you are trying to describe the color to yourself, and you've never seen it before? There's always metaphor: "it's a warm red, warmer than fire-engine red". How about that? Or, "it's a combination of purple and greenish-yellow". Or, "no, chartreuse is green, not purple". Like that? Or are you asking what it is for the aliens around Orion to see x-rays? I'd guess they'd have to use metaphor to describe it to us also, wouldn't you?

Or are you asking why you have to use metaphor? Now, that's a more interesting question, and I'm not sure that anyone has the answer, completely. But if you look at how the brain's color system works, you find that there are certain "primary" colors, determined by absorption characteristics of pigments in the cones on the retina; and in the brain, those are refined and combined, and processed by an opponent-color system which contrasts "complementary" colors. It's very, very, complex. But the result is that there are particular relationships between colors, described in part by a "color wheel", and those relationships incorporate a great deal of asymmetry. So it is not possible, for example, to combine red and blue in the same way that yellow and purple are combined, for a variety of reasons. Take a look at Palmer, S. E. Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999. And that, in a nutshell, is why you need metaphor... the laws are a) extremely complex, and b) not all known yet.

Yes, this is a simple question in the sense that "how does a tomato grow" is a simple question; it's easy enough to ask.

Steven Ravett Brown

A simple reply: probably by analogy with colors you have seen before. Suppose you had never seen green before. You might describe it as a kind of blue with a yellow tinge.

John Locke, the English philosopher, once talked about trying to describe the color scarlet to a congenitally blind person. He suggested saying it was like the blast of a trumpet.

Ken Stern


Asif asked:

I have to write an essay on, "The way we think is the way we live and the way we live might give a good indication of how we think."

Writing essays is a personal job, but I can give you some clues. The title of your essay indicates that truth is relative. In essence it's even personal. Humans can exchange knowledge, but without really knowing how someone else interprets the same information.

Knowledge has two sources: experience and the mind. We may know someone's experiences but never the concepts (fantasies) in his/ her mind. The only way to get a clue about those fantasies, is by observing their way of life closely. Because the majority of their thoughts is expressed in the way they live. That's why love deepens after knowing more about the subject of love, or might even change into disgust.

Henk Tuten


Jaron asked:

If God is a woman, why were men invented?

The scientific definition of a woman is "Unguiculate, claviculate placental mammal, with orbits encircled by bone; three kinds of teeth, at least at one time of life; brain always with a posterior lobe and calcarine fissure; the innermost digit of at least one pair of of extremities opposable; hallux with a flat nail, or none; well-developed caecum; two pectoral mammae." For men, the only substitution is the last three words, which need to be replaced by "penis pendulous, testes scrotal". Now from this it transpires that the only word in your question that makes any sense at all is "IF". And this finding should enable you to answer it yourself.

Jürgen Lawrenz

The perennial question! And we could ask it the other way around! We know of course that God is genderless. Unfortunately the Western tradition has always used a gender pronoun, usually a He. This has led to all sorts of linguistic and even theological sexism. Indeed there was a debate in medieval scholastic philosophy as to whether or not women had souls! Language is indicative of meaning, and in many respects is semiotic so the use of a gendered term for a genderless existent has caused many problems. This has led to the whole movement for 'inclusivity of language', at least in Christian theology and liturgy. It is important that the person in their totality is seen and not simply their gender. The human person cannot be reduced to their gender, that they are male or female, is incidental to the truth of their humanity, but it as male or female that that humanity is experienced. It is when the humanity of a person is acknowledged, that their gender can be seen as integral to their reality and not an addendum to be oppressed, exploited, or discriminated again. So, if God is a woman, why were men invented? Perhaps because God realised that men and women are to be together as co-equal partners in the journey through life.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM


Brittany asked:

Who was Aristotle? And what did he believe in?

He was a Greek and his second name was Onassis. For all I know he believed in sex and money. I am told he got plenty of the first; and his affairs of the "heart" were the talk of the world, among them the legendary opera singer Maria Callas and the widow of former American President Jack Kennedy. But as to money, plenty is too modest a word: it is common knowledge that when God invented money, his left hand gave to all men on earth to share equally, but what his right hand gave was all for Ari (as he was affectionately known). Anyway, he is dead now; and since we can't take our money with us to the other world, I guess it can't have mattered all that much.

There was, however, another Aristotle, nicknamed the "Stagyrite" on account of his father owning a deer park, who is less well known and died much longer ago than Ari. He earned his keep as a private tutor to the well-to-do and wrote reams of books on a thousand different topics that kept a lot of people guessing how he managed to squeeze his life in between all those books. Anyway, one of his pupils was Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, and on account of this blatant hobnobbing with the great and famous, he is still sometimes mentioned in Alexander's biography. Howsobeit, he does not seem to have been as clever as his namesake, because when you read what people like Galileo or Bacon say about his books, you realise that he just couldn't get his facts right. Well, he's not alone in this.

Finally there is a fellow called the "English Aristotle", another indefatigable scribbler whose books occupy a whole shelf in my bookshop; but when you look on the title pages you find that there is no such person, but rather a team who must have adopted this name as a corporate pseudonym. Anyway I stay away from those books, because there are no pictures, and I'm a great believer that the captions in a book say all that's worth reading.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Laura asked:

How can certain things be proven to be inherently bad and other things proven to be inherently good?

I'll give Laura an absolute criterion for "certain" things being inherently bad. Here we go: given the normal definitions of numbers, we know what "2" means, and what "4" means. We also know what the operation of addition is, symbolized by "+", and the symbol, "=". So we know what "2 + 2 = 4" means, as normally defined. So, here's an inherently bad thing: "2 + 2 = 5, given the normal definitions of those terms". An inherently good thing: "2 + 2 = 4, given the normal definitions of those terms". As you can see, there are literally an infinite number of both inherently good and inherently bad things. Of course, it all depends on another definition (aside from "thing"), i.e., "inherently". I actually have no idea as to what that means, in the above question. But I can't think of any other meaning that would let me do what I've just done, i.e., give well-defined and concrete examples, unless we assert that there are moral properties of things that inhere in them. I am, of course, employing a non-moral use of "good" and "bad" here, which is also something not specified in the above question.

Well, well... nitpicking aside, what can we do with this question? Cite all the various philosophers who a) do assert the reality of moral properties, vs. b) those who assert the intrinsic opposition of "is" and "ought", vs. c) those who assert that both a & b are false? Well, that's an old and tired one, which I don't feel like pursuing... not to mention that it would take much more space than I want to fill here. Now, one interesting aspect of the above, which may or may not have been intentional, is the way it's posed: "how" can we prove.... "How" is an intriguing way to put it... not "can" we prove, but "how".

How do we prove things? Usually, we proceed through straightforward deductive methods... or in some formal systems, we can use inductive proofs, if we can show that the series which cannot be enumerated does follow some rule or formula which can, or does converge to some final value or statement. But we certainly can't say that latter of morality. We could do the former (deductive), but then of course we're tied to our assumptions... which we can't prove, at least by these methods. However, we could be classical phenomenologists, say, and take "proof" to imply the apodicticity of eidetic intuition... right? And indeed certain British moral philosophers around the turn of the century liked something like that kind of "proof". Well, I don't think that it is at all valid (not to mention, for example, Levin's extended refutation, etc...).

So, for morality, we've got deduction, which doesn't work in this case. Induction, which we laugh at scornfully. Intuition, which we sneer at (unless we're phenomenological believers... and they're still around). There's religion... but that takes us back to deduction, and justifying our assumptions, doesn't it. What about this: I speculated previously about philosophical positions, schools, agreements... to the effect that in a great many cases, philosophers agree more by default than anything else. That is, whole schools, once hotly debated, now are collecting dust on library shelves because philosophers simply consider the questions, answers, debates... irrelevant, unimportant, and probably not even good enough to be termed "wrong". This is a form of induction, when you come down to it, isn't it, which seems very similar to some of Kitcher's analyses of the processes of scientific validation. Does this get at anything "inherent", or does it merely reflect current cultural values? Well we know the postmodernist answer to that one, don't we. But some of those books have been collecting dust for a long time, on lots of library shelves.

It seems to me that some sort of consensual procedure is going on here. Is it a valid one? Does it reflect any sort of universal, at least, universal human, values? My feeling is that it does. And so, then, the question is, is there an interesting and reasonably rigorous way to pursue what might be another way of "proof", or at least a particular variety of induction? In addition, does this address the "how" question? Is the way to address moral problems to go on and on about them, and then see which of the rants survive the next century or so? Actually, unsatisfying as this might be to any contemporary ranters, it might be just the way to go. Get the opinions and arguments out, let them simmer while a couple of generations go by, and see what's left in the pot, so to speak. This is, after all, what we do with works of art, isn't it. Perhaps then we need to consider philosophical arguments to be closer to art than mathematics...

Steven Ravett Brown


Anon asked:

What are Schopenhauer's basics of morality?

Essentially his whole philosophy revolves around the idea that the Will is the Kantian "Ding an sich". He makes a case that the Will is some kind of force or energy, completely impersonal (maybe like the electromagnetic radiation that streams across the emptiness of outer space), but with the peculiar disposition of penetrating everything alive at birth. Now at first sight, this does not seem to make a great deal of sense; but if you consider that with all our science we still don't know what "will" is, why we have it, how it connects with the material tissue of our bodies; and finally why it seems such an irrational factor in our lives, then you begin gradually to suspect that maybe he has a case after all. — I mean: there are even theories around (quite respectable ones) that the universe as a whole is alive in some way; and if you can find yourself contemplating this possibility, then you might find yourself attuned with Schopenhauer's notion that this aliveness must come out in something. And since it doesn't come out in matter, then it must perforce seek out the biological partition in the universe, i.e. humans, animals, fish and birds, plants and microbes; and if then you seek to discover the one thing they all have in common, you can't fail to come up with the same answer as Schopenhauer. To be alive means to will something, even if nothing more than the will to live.

According to Schopenhauer, we are driven by this will; all our emotions, passions, ambitions etc are its manifestation; and since in the overwhelming majority of cases, what we will is just selfish, careless, ignorant, hateful, thoughtless, egoistic etc., he concludes that evil rules the world through the Will. Accordingly he casts about for a remedy. How can we escape this insane condition and find peace of mind, fulfilment etc.? His answer is not very different from what most religions have taught: forget sex, ambition, power and so on. But of course these demand great effort and sacrifice; and most people are simply too undisciplined even to make the effort, let alone capable of thinking that their lives are in fact wasted for as long as they pursue their vapid dreams, the inspirations of the Will. Nevertheless there is hope.

Most of us, at least in our better moments, are capable of SYMPATHY. Schopenhauer believes this to be an outcome of an intuition, innate in us, which enables us to actually (though unconsciously) realise that this will which drives us is the same in every living creature and that we also recognise that essentially we have hardly any control over it. So when we feel SYMPATHY, and especially its variant PITY, this innate intuition is coming to the surface, and for a few moments we forget that we are slaves of our will. Thus he feels that these sentiments are something that could and should be developed. Naturally this would involve a study of his philosophy, where he explains all these issues in great detail. Be that as it may, the point is, ultimately, that by this rare consciousness which comes out in moments when we feel sympathy and/ or pity for our fellow beings, we are causally entangled in an emotional force which opposes the Will and enables us to recognise that everyone is in principle everyone else; that when I suffer you suffer also, because we are essentially emanations and victims of the one Will. Sympathy and pity, in a word, promote the idea that if I perceive you are in pain and my pity is aroused, this happens because I am intimately cognisant of the pain you suffer, almost as if I were suffering along with you (hence "Mitleiden" = suffering-in-community-with). Accordingly this capacity has a moral dimension; it is something which our better side is capable of and it informs a great deal of philosophical thinking as well as poetry and literature and art.

Our big problem is that we have not discovered, in spite of thousands of years of trying, a means of subduing the Will with these moral drives. Even religions only ever succeed for some time, then they succumb again. The will is too powerful. But, Schopenhauer argues, this is only because we have never before properly understood what kind of a power this Will is. His philosophy explains it. And to this extent, he claims, his philosophy is the first and only philosophy ever written that is truly moral without ifs and buts, totally analytical and atheistic, and for this last reason also the only one without bias or an axe to grind.

You understand that I have rather simplified things: but nevertheless, this is the gist of his moral philosophy. I suppose the question arises from this: are his claims true and supportable? Well, there is a definite problem here. But I should stress that the problem is not the truth or otherwise of Schopenhauer's system. We human are (unfortunately?) so made that we tend not to adopt a 'mere' philosophy for a trial run; sad to say, if it was a religious doctrine it might have had a chance. Many religious doctrines don't have half the cogency of his arguments. But there is also the problem that western society in the last 200 years has become increasingly suspicious of any philosophical doctrine that comes across as a metaphysical system; but morals are of course deeply embedded in metaphysical issues. For all sorts of reasons, we tend nowadays to trust science more than philosophy or religion and we seem to be becoming increasingly cynical about politics and authoritarian figures. Well, there's nothing wrong in trusting science if you ask a scientific question. Unfortunately, however, morals are not scientific objects and therefore incapable of a scientific answer. And Schopenhauer warned us about this too.

As a last comment, it is worth pointing out that Schopenhauer's moral philosophy does not stand or fall by his theory of the Will. Even if this theory is pure fiction, what he says about the origin of morals is worth reading and digesting. But then, he may not be wrong about the Will. This is one of those issues where proof is not likely to be forthcoming, least of all from science. And if I may interject a final personal opinion, I can't see how any scientific effort to improve or impose moral values in society has a ghost of a chance. We do in fact expect of science that, somehow, it will find a cause or reason for the possibility of moral behaviour, and sociobiology is one department of science that has made such an effort. My belief is that sociobiology has not established its credentials to be trusted on moral issues; and I think that the very quest is doomed to failure, because we are asking the wrong questions and putting them to the wrong people. But this is something where you might wish to develop a view of your own; and reading Schopenhauer on this topic is certainly not a waste of time.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Belle asked:

I've been reading up on the epistemology of Carnap and Quine. Although Carnap maintains the analytic/ synthetic distinction, while Quine rejects it, both philosophers hold that any statement (including analytic) is open to revision. Given this, it is unclear to me why Carnap argues for the analytic/ synthetic distinction. Please help me illuminate his argument.

My take on Carnap and analytic truths is that they are those that come from considerations of logic. Synthetic truths come from empirical data, roughly speaking. Now, a truth which comes from logic is the result of deduction, usually (or induction on a known series, let us say), and as such follows from premises, according to the terms defined, the operations employed, etc. Now let's take an analytic truth like "any triangles' angles add to 180 degrees". This is provable within a particular framework, Euclidean geometry, as we all know. But as we also all know, at this point, this truth only holds on a plane. On the surface of a sphere, one must say (as I recall... it's been awhile), "any triangle's angles add to more than 180 degrees" (I'm just not sure of the "any" in that quote... but I think it's correct). And on a hypersphere (a surface of negative curvature), we must say, "any triangle's angles add to less than 180 degrees". So the Euclidean truth must be revised, mustn't it, when one generalizes to other surfaces than planes, to read, "any planar triangles' angles add to 180 degrees". And so it goes. But one still can say that those truths are analytic, if that term is indeed meaningful, as Carnap believed.

Steven Ravett Brown

For Carnap, a given statement can be analytic relative to one system or theory, but synthetic relative to another. Quine's objection in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' to the 'dogma' of the analytic/ synthetic distinction hinges on the fact that we don't know which is the correct theory prior to experience. I.e. we don't first arm ourselves with a set of concepts and then go about investigating the world.

Geoffrey Klempner


Candice asked:

In Book 2 of Locke's Essay on Human Understanding I am having trouble understanding his point or view on Ch. 23 sec 28. I think he means to say that the mind controls our actions but that's all I can get from it.

I can see why you're confused. Locke is here using two concepts that were legacies of scholastic theories on motion, and sets out to show that they are not satisfactory. The scholastics thought of bodies in collision imparting to each other some portion of 'impulse', so that (for instance) if you kick a ball, your foot transfers some quantity of 'impulse' to the ball. Note that Locke actually says this: "we can have no other conception but of the passing of motion out of one body into another," but he rightly calls this obscure, because motion is not a 'something' that can actually and demonstrably be transferred. In a word, this type of explanation explains nothing. He then goes on to the idea of thought causing motion (e.g. I'm hungry, I think I'll go to the fridge and see what's in it) and finds that thought causing motion is more readily acceptable than bodies causing motion. For if you put down two Lego blocks side by side, neither of them is going to get up and push the other away; where you need only to will it and it can happen. — So, yes: you did misunderstand the passage: he is saying nothing more in this paragraph than that the idea of motion is better explained if we suppose that mind and matter are not absolutely incompatible, since obviously mind can (somehow) move matter.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Jeremy asked:

What is the definition of discrimination (age, sex, racial)? Why is it unethical and unjustified?

To discriminate is to distinguish. It is the power to tell apart. It is generally a desirable ability to have. People who can discriminate among fine shades of color, tones, textures, accents, etc., are in demand. To describe someone as being of discriminating esthetic taste is a form of praise.

One person discriminates against another, however, when he or she tells people apart by their membership in groups and then demonstrates an aversion toward a member of a group just because of that membership. The presupposition of anti-discrimination ethics is that mere membership in a group is morally irrelevant. To discriminate against people is effectively to penalize them. It is immoral to penalize for a morally irrelevant reason.

But is group membership necessarily morally irrelevant? Certainly not in those regions of the world in which group conflict has risen to the level of violence. One is morally obliged to protect oneself and one's loved ones from bodily harm and worse, ruffled feelings be damned. For the question does not turn on whether the discriminator believes that the distinguishing traits of a group member mechanistically determine him or her to harm members of the discriminator's group. It turns on whether those traits are sufficiently information-bearing. Common sense suggests that they often are.

A Catholic, for example, is not welcome in a Northern Ireland pub frequented by Protestants. It is not, all things being equal, that no one would like to know what that particular Catholic chap feels deep down inside about the troubles. But all things are not equal: no one has the resources (especially time) to find out. The transaction costs of finding out, or being wrong, are too high. So he is "discriminated against" and encouraged (politely or impolitely) to leave. Yes, for all we know, he may be an apolitical pacifist. But who would pay the price of error here? Perhaps everyone else in the pub. A bureaucratically imposed anti-discrimination law here would impose on the innocent the costs of knowledge-acquisition or the costs of error (usually the latter).

Even in situations less volatile than civil war we find ourselves making summary judgments about people based on traits that we regard as inconclusive, but information-bearing, and therefore relevant. We do it, not because we are mean and nasty, but because the information that would enable us to form a reasonable judgment is not available now, and we must act now.

What may make all this go down a little easier for some is the realization that the discriminator is not depriving his "victim" of anything to which he is entitled. The importance of this point cannot be overstressed. If you are turned down for a job, or a house, or a business loan just because you fit the profile of those who have in the past underperformed, you will certainly be disappointed, perhaps even angry. Your interests, after all, have been harmed. Your rights, however, have not been violated. There is a difference between the two. You undoubtedly have an interest in getting the job, house, or loan, but you have no right to it. If you did, you would to some degree already be an owner of the object of interest along with the original owner, who now lies prone on a slide under the anti-discrimination microscope. Merely by showing up and declaring an interest you have not created any "hook" that attaches you to the property. If you are turned down, you are no worse off than you were. You may not be where you want to be, but that creates no obligation on those who own what you want.

Alas, this has nothing to do with the real world, for the real world is not constituted exclusively by unhampered voluntary transactions. It is rather a world in which such transactions are inhibited at every turn bydemocratically agitated State bullying. As if by some conceptual equivalent of Gresham's law, a bad idea has driven out the good. The original notion of discrimination — acting upon an aversion toward a group member just because of that membership — has been driven underground. Intentions are now irrelevant. After all, virtually all institutions fervently desire to comply with anti-discrimination statutes and, going beyond that, to diversify their workforces ethnically. But the traditional "victims" do not have the social or economic parity they demand and to which they believe they are entitled. Politically, that's all that matters. To the rescue has come the notion of the "disparate impact" that some private practices, no matter how benignly intentioned, have had upon different groups. And so a new weapon has been added to the vast income-redistribution arsenal in which "victims" win by settlementmore than what discrimination allegedly denied them, and certainly far more than they ever hoped to have earned by honest labor.

Tony Flood


Paula asked:

I know that Kant and Hume were influential concerning a priori knowledge, but why exactly have philosophers held that all necessary truths are knowable a priori if they're knowable at all?

I will give you a basic example. Take a look around your room and count a few objects. As you do, say to yourself: all this is unreliable knowledge, because I could be dreaming or hallucinating or looking into mirror, or the light might fall into the room in at a certain angle and what looks like a doll is just the shadow cast from the chandelier. Happens all the time. Or you might look at a coin and decide that it describes a circle, but if you took a photo and traced the shape, you'd find it to be an ellipse. Or you pick up a piece of wood and find that it just plastic. And so on. Out in the world at large we negotiate our way through all the objects by heaps of half-conscious guesses, most of the time without taking in what they are, other than obstacles. Okay, so far so good. You might begin to realise (I hope) that half-guessing and knowledge are not the same. But now consider this: how come I know that these are objects at all? Even if I'm dreaming, even when I'm on autopilot, I must still negotiate objects; I must recognise them as objects, because not to do so might be fatal. How then can we define what an object is?

You might like to try this yourself before reading on. The answer, of course is that objects occupy space — that's why I need to navigate them, for ultimately I am also an object. And now the cruncher: try and define space. What is this 'container' where objects clutter the landscape?

Resist the temptation (if it is one for you) of loading the argument with scientific mumbo jumbo. We want a simple, clear-cut idea of space. What is it? Where is it? Why is it? Do you think you can answer this? Feel like trying?

Now the answer to this question, and the reason why I warned you about science, is that we can have no knowledge of space either. If there is such a thing at all, we cannot know what it is (or where it is) because we are in it. And if you pursue this thought to its logical conclusion, you will find that there is only one answer: that space is the possibility for objects to exist. This entails no claim that either space or the objects really do exist. It cannot assert any more than a possibility. But it does say that if there are objects, then they must occupy space. So that the beginning of all genuine (=necessary) knowledge concerning objects is that space precedes objects as an organising principle, that without space no objects could be perceived; and that since we are objects ourselves, we could not exist in the absence of any space. So space "comes before" (=a priori) all objects and we are thus led to the conclusion that our intuition of space is the bedrock of the very possibility of experience. And this is where I'm going to leave you to your own devices. I hope, though, that you will now feel somewhat encouraged to get to the bottom of it yourself.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Melissa asked:

If it's 0 degrees outside, and it's supposed to be twice as cold tomorrow, how cold will it be tomorrow?

It will still be 0 degrees, since 0 x 2 = 0.

T. P. Uschanov
Research Assistant
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki

There is no answer to Melissa's question as formulated. A 0-degree reading does not stand for a nullity as does, for example, a 0 balance in a bank account (i.e., no quantity of money). Rather, it marks a position between -1 degree and +1 degree, neither of which is a nullity. The question as formulated may misdirect some into doubling the cardinal value of zero, yielding zero, with the paradoxical result that tomorrow's temperature will be the same, and "twice as cold," as today's.

Let's consider a similar question. If an earthquake in 2002 registered 5.0 on the Richter scale, and another in 2003 was 60 times more powerful, what was the reading for the latter? The answer is 6.0: each succeeding number from 1 to 10 on the Richter scale represents a force 60 times greater than that of the preceding number. The ordinal numbers on a thermometer, however, do not represent magnitudes the way a Richter scale. That is, we can say that a 30-degree day is warmer than a 15-degree day, but not "twice as hot" as the latter. There may be some objective meaning to "twice as cold," e.g., the halving of some thermal magnitude. We cannot divine that meaning, however, by treating the ordinal numbers on a thermometer's face as cardinal numbers. Positions are not quantities.

Tony Flood

The perception that the weather is 'twice as cold' as it was yesterday has nothing to do with the reading on a thermometer, but everything to do with where one happens to live. Tell someone who lives in Moscow who is used to hard winters that it will be twice as cold tomorrow and they form a different expectation — as measured on a temperature scale — from a Londoner.

Geoffrey Klempner