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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 22 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you Asked a Philosopher from June 2003 — August 2003:

  1. Enjoying your job
  2. Enlightenment according to Horkheimer and Adorno
  3. Justification for terrorism
  4. Doubts about Freud on the unconscious
  5. Confucianism versus Communism
  6. Comparing Confucius and Aristotle
  7. Where the brain ends and the mind begins
  8. I'm interested in Buddhism and Objectivism
  9. Who said the end does not justify the means?
  10. Hegel and Marx on alienation
  11. Long question about the 'Art of memory'
  12. Why maxims are important for Kant
  13. Advice to an incarcerated son (2)
  14. 20th century philosophers of religion
  15. Thales on how fire comes from water
  16. Substitution instances in formal logic
  17. What has two heads, four arms and four legs?
  18. Breeding animals for human consumption
  19. Advice to a troubled teenager
  20. Is it selfish to enjoy being unselfish?
  21. Amending the Golden Rule
  22. How to cope with memory gaps
  23. Descartes on the idea of a perfect being
  24. Natural vs. non-natural accounts of moral reasoning
  25. Nietzsche's theory of knowledge
  26. Is the glass half empty or half full?
  27. Philosophy and quantum mechanics
  28. Doubts about the cosmological argument
  29. Machiavelli and Seneca on friendship
  30. Connection between faith and hope
  31. Philosophers and the mentally retarded
  32. Knowledge as justified true belief
  33. Cultivating emotional indifference
  34. What would happen if everything stopped moving
  35. Cognitivist and relativist views of aesthetics
  36. Who is Gerta...or Gurtta?
  37. Ontological status of artifacts
  38. Relating mind, self and brain
  39. All honor's wounds are self-inflicted
  40. Language, Heidegger, Sartre, Wittgenstein, unicorns and God
  41. The first philosophical question
  42. Proving or disproving God's existence
  43. Imparting hope that the world is not predominately evil
  44. The end of time
  45. Heraclitus the philosopher of Becoming
  46. Guess what I'm thinking
  47. Definition of consciousness
  48. Absolute truths
  49. Philosophy of knowledge
  50. Why fear is not the only evil
  51. Harmful desires and aiming for the good
  52. When asking questions is 'unamerican'
  53. Problem of evil
  54. Alcohol and pregnancy
  55. Why B.F. Skinner was not a philosopher
  56. Wisdom from Star Trek
  57. Advice to an incarcerated son (1)
  58. Why philosophy arose in Ancient Greece
  59. I'm interested in boredom
  60. God and heaven and hell
  61. Solving Zeno's paradox
  62. Should athletes thank God after victory?
  63. Why empirical science cannot prescribe
  64. Matrix and defining reality
  65. What John Locke wrote
  66. The first question of the Presocratic philosophers
  67. Our professor asked, "How do you eat strawberries?"
  68. Gilbert Ryle on, "Where is the university?"
  69. Is love the answer?
  70. Are children more, or less creative than adults?
  71. Modal statements and 'what is x' statements
  72. The actual infinite
  73. Wittgenstein, Nagel, Nietzsche, Descartes etc.
  74. Can one be aware that one is not thinking?
  75. A Maori philosopher
  76. Dreams and near death experiences of the blind
  77. Lucretius and Epicurus
  78. What was this question about justice?
  79. I want to understand everything in order to find myself
  80. Objectivity in the human sciences
  81. Dialetheism and the philosophy of contradiction
  82. All the arguments for God
  83. Does God know what it's like to be ignorant?
  84. Advice to a beginner struggling with Heidegger
  85. Justifying morality
  86. Miracles and religious belief
  87. Why it is good to be sentient
  88. I've started a new business and I'm terrified
  89. How democracies allow great disparities in wealth
  90. Impossibility of total self-knowledge
  91. The logic of 'except'
  92. Can science show we have free will?

Phillip asked:

Do people really enjoy their jobs? We're misled into believing that the typical workplace needs to be a part of social structure. I think surveys are misleading. For instance if a survey was taken asking people if they liked their jobs. They're only able to answer that with the perspective they have at that moment. A more accurate way to ask that question would be to ask them do they prefer working or not working.

Is there a social need for work? Aren't these questions philosophers should be asking? I don't think we need work for social structure. People would rather go to clubs or to a park, and just hang out with friends. I believe life should be lived seeking real knowledge, and nurturing friendship. By real knowledge I mean where the mind naturally leads one to think, as in Aristotle or Plato. Even seemingly the best jobs are kind of mundane.

As to your first group of questions... first, surveys have gotten pretty sophisticated these days. But the question I like to ask people is, "If you won the lottery (or something equivalent happened), would you keep living the way you're living, and doing what you're doing?" The answer to that, I believe, is a reasonable indication of whether someone likes their job, or life situation, or whatever (yes, I would). At the worst, it stimulates thought about one's situation... even if the person rationalizes that they enjoy their job. I think that putting it concretely this way is better, perhaps, than asking the abstract and misinterpretable question of whether they "like" their job... which they might at some given moment, or might believe they would most of the time, etc., even if they don't at that particular moment. Or whatever.

As to your next group of questions... hard to answer without your defining "work" more clearly. The societies which have the most leisure time for the most people are, believe it or not, the hunter-gatherer societies: small groups living off the land growing minimal crops (according to a study I've seen... which I do not have the citation for, sorry). But nonetheless, everyone in such a society "works" in some sense of that word, otherwise how would people eat, have shelter, raise children, etc.? But would you really want to live in such a society? Think about it: death by infection, disease, accident; the necessity of restricting life to the village; the necessity to conform to the group norms; living with basically zero technology, just what you make (by working?) by hand. But again, it depends on what you mean by "work". Doing something necessary for survival? Doing something you don't want to do in order to survive? Is doing something you do want to do in order to survive "work"?

So here's a rough classification for you.

1) If you spend most of your life doing what's necessary for survival and not enjoying what you're doing, then you are not happy... but you may be making others happy. Is that good? I think we could argue that most of humanity lives this way... not much different from how animals live, when you get right down to it, is it?

2) If you spend most of your life doing what's necessary for survival and not caring about it, I guess you're ok... but you've given up, I'd say.

3) What if you work part-time, and spend most of your life doing things not necessary for survival, which you enjoy? You're poor but happy... at least if you can find something you really enjoy. Of course if being poor makes you unhappy, you've got problems with this strategy.

4) But the best is when you can spend your time doing something you enjoy, whether or not it's necessary for survival, and get paid for it. Now these are the happy people, aren't they. And very few. After all, first you have to determine what it is you really want to do... not something vague like "nurture friendship". What does that mean, anyway? Be a therapist? Pay people to like you? Tell everyone how wonderful they are? Just sort of sit around and chat the days away? What, exactly?

As for the "best" jobs being "mundane"... well, that's in your viewpoint, isn't it. I'd say sitting around all day in desultory conversation is pretty mundane, myself. I know several (yes, offhand I can think of 5-10 whom I know personally) people, at this point in my life, who absolutely love their work; who, if they won the lottery, would keep doing just exactly what they're doing; maybe buy a better stereo, or whatever, but not change anything basic in their lives. Not that I'm against seeking knowledge, no not at all... but even that's a pretty vague kind of description, isn't it. Just how, precisely, do you want to go about "seeking" knowledge? I'd think about that. Then plot a strategy to be able to do it and get paid for it... lab work, research, theory... you need lots of education for that kind of thing.

Steven Ravett Brown


Justin asked:

Can you enlighten me about 'The Dialectic of Enlightenment' by Horkheimer and Adorno?

You didn't specify what kind of enlightenment you wish for. Horkheimer and Adorno were principal members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, who left Germany during the era of the Third Reich and worked on a number of sociological projects in the USA. In order to understand what the Dialectic of Enlightenment is all about, you need to first be in the clear that both were not only sociologists, but also socialists, specifically western type Marxists. Sometime in the late Forties, they worked together on this book, in which they question the genuine meaning of the term "Enlightenment" and seek to analyse out what kinds of prejudices — philosophical, political, sociological, literary etc — this Enlightenment laid into the cradle of modern (post industrial revolution) Europe. The principal issues revolve around such fundamental questions as: Is enlightenment truly rational? Well, what then is rationality? Do we truly understand what we mean by that term or are just patting ourselves on the back?

If you want more, I suggest you read some of the book. I would almost do to just read the first 50 pages, which contains the whole philosophy; the rest of it comprises two sections designed to throw into sharp relief two 'special cases' of application, in the manner of excursuses; and then there is a small collection of shorter pieces which didn't find their way into the book proper. Although written in the Forties, the book's impact came in the Sixties to Seventies and coincided roughly with the widespread student unrests.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Jules asked:

Is it possible to justify terrorism?

To justify an action is to show it was the right thing to do, even if it appeared to be wrong. That is different from excusing the action, which is to try to show that even if the action is wrong, there are mitigating explanations for why it was done (excuses like, "it was an accident" or "it was due to ignorance.")

Terrorism is a means to an end (but not, usually, and end in itself.) To justify terrorism, you would have to show that the end for the terrorism was morally worth the evil of terrorism. You would, in addition, have to show that the same end could not have been accomplished by some other means. When terrorism involves (as it does) the deliberate targeting and harming of innocents, it seem to me very difficult to justify (or to show that despite appearances, the deliberate targeting and harming of innocent people, is right. Doesn't it to you?

Ken Stern

The definition of justification is that to justify is to show something "apt or right" about the action or just to show something positive about it (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy). So, yes, you can 'justify' terrorism. It will be right relative to the cause of the terrorists. Highly apt.

Moral justification is another matter. Is it good? I doubt it is good if justification is relative to a few people's interests. That isn't what we mean by a moral good. In any case, what is good doesn't call out for justification. If you can't see what is good or bad, you are simply not part of a human evaluation scheme.

There were several answers on this a while back which you will be able to find on the Philosophos Search Engine.

Rachel Browne


Cameron asked:

Freud believes we have an unconscious that is a kind of repository of unconscious ideas and thoughts that could be influencing us in our everyday lives. I can understand talk of unconscious processes (such as those that occur in my body and brain that I am not aware of), but have trouble understanding the notions of active, unconscious 'thoughts' and 'ideas'. Do such things make sense?

Unconscious thoughts and ideas don't make much sense because we believe thought to be a conscious process. It is memories or experiences which are repressed into the unconscious and these are active in that they influence our behaviour and what we are inclined to think consciously.

The unconscious is not simply constituted by repressed memories and experiences which are too painful for us to face. The unconscious contains information and memories which guide us throughout our lives. Antonio Damasio points out that when children start to use the plural of words such as 'cat' or 'dog' at the age of three they are not conscious of this knowledge of the plural but use it as a result of non-conscious memory. The use of the plural cannot be described as a thought or an idea but background linguistic processing. So really we are nearly completely influenced by the unconscious in our everyday lives. This unconscious processing is also a physical processing by the brain that we are not aware of. The problem is why this is called 'unconscious'. In the case of our everyday non-conscious processing I can't see much use for the word 'unconscious' with its implications that the processing is mental. The mental is widely thought to be that which is conscious.

But Freud's position was about the nature of the repressed rather than everyday processing. Emotions and motivations we are not aware of cannot be described as mere brain processes. To be driven by past experiences that have been repressed into the unconscious is to be driven by that which was conscious or mental and can become so again. The instincts, drives and emotions that we have may not be conscious to us but such states refer to mental states rather than purely physical ones. As Freud would say, they are 'psychical'. Unconscious influences are part of the psychological structure of mental states, but the part which is not known to us. A change in one's psychical structure, which is supposedly brought about by psychoanalysis, would change a person's conscious experiences so that he would actually feel different. So we assume influential unconscious mental activity which is in some way part of our consciousness, or what it is like to be us, but this is not in the form of thought or idea.

Rachel Browne

This is quite a good question, and there are differing points of view on it. There are many philosophers (e.g., John Searle) who find the notion of an unconscious thought meaningless. He thinks that such processes, which arguably do take place, must be considered only as neural activity, i.e., "brain processes". In other words, if we're not conscious of it, it's not mental. One of the major examples cited by the opponents of that viewpoint is that of "blindsight", where people who are consciously blind (as far as pretty thorough tests can tell) nonetheless are able to say something about objects in what would be their visual field. Are these the result of "mental" and/or "neural" processes? The jury is still out on these issues.

To put this another way, given any reasonable position these days about the mind, one must acknowledge that thoughts are at the very least accompanied by neural events (I'm a materialist, so I think that they are realized by such events, but I'll argue more broadly here). Given that, what is the status of a neural event which is nearly (it can't be completely, since the conscious aspect is not duplicated) identical to that accompanying a conscious thought, but which is not conscious? Well. You see the problem, right? If it's the same, with the same effects except that it's not conscious, then why not call it a "thought"? On the other hand, does it really have the same effects?

When we really take a good look at Freud, he's not too impressive, any more, as far as his theories' accuracy are concerned. He was brilliant, his theories were wonderful and useful for a long time, but we've moved past them at this point. If you read the early Freud, you'll find that much of his work (although he later repudiated this) is based on a hydraulic theory about the nervous system, where something that might be termed an "energy pressure" fills it, and if it's dammed up in one place ("suppressed") it will pop out somewhere else, like water pressure in pipes. This is now known to be incorrect (Speaking broadly. One could, I suppose, say something vaguely similar about blood and tissue concentrations of some neurotransmitters... but that's another discussion.). But when I, at least, read the later Freud, I see this idea in many of his writings about suppression, transformation, etc., etc. I don't think he was able to get entirely away from it.

But we're still left with blindsight and a variety of things like "repressed" anger and other emotions, which seem to operate, even if you consider them merely "brain processes", nearly the same as if they weren't "only" brain processes, i.e., as they'd operate if we were conscious of them. So, how to deal with that? Well, as I say, the jury is out. But my feeling is, first, that we need more knowledge about the neural correlates of consciousness, and second, that, on one level at least, this is really not too important an issue, when you get down to it. What matters are the differences, neurally and functionally, between conscious and unconscious processes, not what we call the latter. And we find that difference by performing well-designed experiments, not by speculating on whether someone's best friend "really" felt "unconscious anger" at someone else.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ferdi asked:

What is confucianism? Is it the backdrop of communism?

The answer to the first part of your question would be vast, because Confucianism has been the principal philosophy and secular religion in China for the best part of 2000 years. If your point of view is sociopolitical, the best way of looking at it is that it provided the guidelines for a socioliterary structure, in other words for teaching. The Chinese have (had?) a national holiday for teachers in memory and honour of Confucius for his founding role in the education of mankind.

Since his philosophy is based on humanistic principles (analogous to what we mean by humanism in the West), this philosophy is totally incompatible with communism. So there is the answer to the second part.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Tamara asked:

I am interested in finding ways in which Aristotle and Confucius can be compared and contrasted in any aspect of their life, and teachings. Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.

Confucius was principally concerned with teaching, state craft, music, literature — that sort of thing. So his philosophy expresses a humanistic attitude to the cosmos in which we live and revolves in particular around the idea of Man in society. Aristotle was concerned with the same principles in those parts of his philosophy which relate to the same subject area, e.g. his Ethics, Rhetoric, Politics and Aesthetics. The idea of a "Golden Mean" occurs in both, and this is because it is true, as you seem to have noticed, that in many respects they pursued the same goal of an "achievable philosophy of life", which is obviously political. The main difference between them is therefore based on the fact that in the China of Confucius, the structure of society was royal, so that Confucius' teachings are designed to turn his humanism to account from the top down.

These are similarities worth pursuing. I've named some Aristotelian titles to help you, but with Confucius owing to the imperfect state of authentic transmissions, you'll need to rely more heavily on the secondary literature. There are several good accounts of Confucius, but if you want to stick with Confucius, rather than Confucianism (which is quite a different thing), keep to books which depict his philosophy in his own time.

Just a note on an important difference to conclude. Aristotle also wrote voluminous tracts on metaphysics and various scientific disciplines. You'll find nothing like it in Confucius, so save yourself the trouble.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Benjamin asked:

I am writing a philosophical paper and need a little advice about a theory. I have concocted a theory on the mind and have come up with a basic problem in it. I must first ask where does the mind end and the brain begin? What functions do the brain control and what are productions of the mind?

It seems that you have opted for a dualist philosophy, hence you are at once burdened by the age-old problem of the interface between mind and body (brain). Over the years dualists have proposed different solutions to the problem. The following are three of the best supported concepts :-

Two-way causal interaction between the physical and the mental: physical events cause mental events, and vice versa.

Mental and physical events run in concurrent series, but events of either kind are not caused by events of the other.

Mental events are a kind of by-product of a physical system, the human body, which from a causal-scientific point of view is self-sufficient. Human beings can be regarded as machines which would function in just the same way without the puzzling 'extra something' that we call 'mind' or 'consciousness'; but this is not to deny that the latter exists. The example often given is the sound of a steam train whistle, the whistle emanates from a physical act in the engine; the sound of the whistle becomes a separate entity from the engine, but could not be there without the presence of the engine.

One way of considering mind and body as two separate entities is by way of the common concept that 'we' own our bodies. We frequently refer to 'my body', 'my brain', 'my leg', etc.. We talk about 'using' our bodies, about 'moving' a leg, an arm, a finger, etc.. Thus something called 'I' seems to dominate proceedings.

You ask where the mind ends and the brain begins, and what are separate tasks of brain and mind, both questions are derived from a priori judgements based on a presumption of dualism. If we accept the presumption that there are two entities referred to as mind and body, then there is a way in which one can be viewed as separate from the other, however, we are still left with the problem of the interface between the two, and how it is possible for one to act upon the other, having in mind that one is considered to be 'matter stuff' controlled by the laws of physics, and the other some form of 'non-matter stuff', immune from the laws of physics, and which has its seat in some quantum world explained only in terms of metaphysics. Unless we accept the notion of 'parallelism', where it is understood that God (Nature) has wound-up two clocks and set them off to run side by side and perfectly synchronised, but neither interferes with the other. Any change in one corresponds with a change in the other.

The term 'mind' encapsulates a whole series of concepts — attention, concentration, awareness, consciousness, intentions, choice and will. It is extremely difficult, in my view, to succumb to the pressures of science to promote the brain as the one and only possible source for the generation of such complex concepts. My belief has always been that the brain is a tool of the mind, rather than the other way around, as proposed by materialists. I recognise the ability of the brain to carry out unconscious actions, reflex responses and indeed all actions involving control of the body, although it would be unwise in view of current research to consider the brain as little more than a complex of dry electrical circuits. The brain is very 'wet' as interactions between neurones and hormones constitutes the control system of the physical body.

It would be foolish to deny any relationship between mind and brain, but it really is taxing credulity to the nth degree to claim that a bundle of neurones has 'intentions', 'willpower', capabilities of making choices, making decisions, etc. Once we have worked out how a thought can move a limb we shall have discovered what happens at the interface between mind and body (brain). Something seems to make the decision and the brain carries out the physical operations to achieve the intention. The mind, whatever it is, is the boss. Most people are too easily persuaded by science to accept the materialist view. Science is really materialist philosophy.

John Brandon


Laura asked:

I have a few questions after reading through a melange of Eastern and Western philosophy, particularly that of Buddhism and Objectivism. Are these two schools of thought in any way reconcilable? Can desire ever successfully overcome the personal ego? If so, does transcending the personal ego lead to stagnation or activity? Is it only through abandoning the notion of an individual self-hood that life becomes fully enriching and receptive?

So let me get clear on this. You've been reading Ayn Rand and also some sort of commentaries on "Eastern" philosophies, and you find them contradictory. Yes, they are. Absolutely. They are intended to be. Are they reconcilable? Probably not. Can "desire" "overcome" the "ego"? You got me. What do those words mean, anyway? Does "transcending" this "ego" lead to... no, look, I'm sorry, but here are a couple of comments on all this.

First, what you've read does not sound like philosophy to me, as that term is usually employed by philosophers. It sounds like predigested self-help homilies. And you're not asking philosophical questions, but questions about how to feel better. If that's not true, then you need to stop using jargon and ask your questions more clearly; alternatively, define terms like "enriching" in such a way that they can be meaningfully addressed. If what you want is to feel better, you're on the wrong website.

But I'll assume that you are actually serious about this and truly want to find something solid in all this mush to think about. Ok, then here's what you do. Go read some of these:

 Dupre, L. Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection: Excursions in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

 Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by W.R. Trask, The Cloister Library. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1961.

 James, W. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Collier Books, 1968.

 Laski, M. Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

 Ross, N.W., ed. The Way of Zen: An East-West Anthology. New York: Random House, 1960.

 Watts, A.W. This Is It: And Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1971.

 Watts, A.W. The Way of Zen. New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1964.

For some very basic background in religious mysticism and Zen.

Then go read some of these:

 Apostle, H. G. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Grinnell, IA: The Peripatetic Press, 1984.

 Audi, R. "Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics." In Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 101-36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 Edgerton, R. B. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

 Flanagan, Owen. Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

 Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

 Johnson, M. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

 MacIntyre, A. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

 May, L., M. Friedman, and A. Clark., Eds. Mind and Morals: Essays on Cognitive Science and Ethics. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.

 Nussbaum, M.C. "Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach." pp. 32-53. Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue. edited by P. A. French, T. E. Jr. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 13. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

 Urmson, J. O. Aristotle's Ethics. 11th ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.

For some background in ethics from a more Western viewpoint. This is just toe-dipping; the literature here is enormous.

Then go back and rethink and reformulate your questions.

Steven Ravett Brown


Dianajane asked:

Who is the philosopher who said, "The end does not justify the means"?

I do not believe that any particular philosopher ever actually stated that. But, I think, that Immanuel Kant (18th century German philosopher) is the philosopher very much associated with that position. Kant held that the rightness or the wrongness of an action is never a function of its consequences, or even its intended consequences. Rather, Kant held that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends entirely on the agent's (the person who does the action) motive in doing the action. He also held that this motive must be that of doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do.

Ken Stern


Kanchana asked:

According to Hegel "alienated consciousness" will finally be overcome when we realize that we are all part of ____ ____?

According to Hegel all reality originates from ____; whereas for Marx all reality originates from ____?

Trying to guess what you're really asking is not the best way to find an answer! However, since "alienation" is a key term in Hegel's chapter on Master and Slave, which was subsequently picked up by Marx, I'll try to give a simple and straightforward answer (leaving the complexities of the issue a little to one side). In that chapter Hegel put out the idea that the Master, due to his power over his servants, is in a position to satisfy his desires and 'consumer' orientation by simply putting his servants to work on the satisfaction of his 'needs'. In the result, Hegel says, his consciousness of being is reduced since all he needs to do is enjoy the products of his servants' labours. Thereby he becomes alienated from life, from the hands-on type of awareness that puts us in touch with life-as-it-is lived. Inadvertently, however, the slave or servant, although socially oppressed, becomes a beneficiary in that, being forced to do the hands-on work, retains these connections to life etc.

One of Hegel's successors and critics, Ludwig Feuerbach, put forward a different, anthropological perspective. He maintained that men had projected all their good nature on God and retained all the nasty, evil and negative aspects of life in the human realm; the task was therefore not to simply accept this alienated Hegelian consciousness but to do something about it; and the first step in this direction would be to dismantle religion and thus retrieve from God (you understand he was an atheist) the good side of human nature and proceed from there to combat alienation by developing a non-alienated consciousness which sees Man as a part of Nature and to encourage the structuring society in such a way that the disparities of which Hegel speaks and which are grounded in religion, disappear. This is what Marx latched onto: his "Theses on Feuerbach" are, as it were, his first articulate statement on what he perceived as alienation.

As a postcript to this, it might not be out of place to take note of the historical fact that in western, capitalist societies, the employer and employee classes came over time to an accommodation to each other, of which one outcome is the fairly generous profit sharing by the working class, who are thereby placed in the same position as Hegel's erstwhile master: in present-day capitalist societies, the only difference between master and slave is that the former has a few bucks more to spend, but generally only on the same things which the working class enjoys too, so that in terms of Hegelian alienation we are all of us alienated from Nature now, because capitalist societies have turned to large-scale consumerism. So there does not seem to be any hope, at least not on the immediate horizon, that alienation is going to disappear (we won't bother mentioning the communist experiment).

Jürgen Lawrenz


Adrian asked:

Given the Art of memory, as done over by Dame Yates, reaching back into the Middle Ages, and it is known that they were in wide use during oral times [why is it] that no deep research is done into this? vide:

"Anatole realises that the frame of time and space, which has always seemed to be the fundamental map upon which existence itself must be drawn, is as distorted a view of reality as the Mercator projection of the Earth's surface, no less useful, but artificial." Brian Stableford.

Which is exactly how it works, not unlike the one Kepler stole from alchemy and somewhat like "Hamlet's Mill" by Giorgio de Santillana and Martha von Dechend. What they missed is this as an intellectual construct. As I recall Foucault made an attempt to find it in the family triad, and which completely misses the boat, just as does Chomsky's deep structure. It also focusses on the notion of what amounts to a universal Aristotle allowed us to only deduct from, while not explaining its function. Sapir was into it too but also missed the connection. The only one I found who knew how it works was Lewis Carroll.

"New concepts formed in his mind...but now that he had comprehended the message of the ruins, he understood the interlocking of place, time and identity that lay at the core of Bellaterran thought. For the first time, he felt that he glimpsed the ethos of the planetary deity, the creator and sustainer, the omnipresent giver-of-all." John Morresey, 'Nail down the Stars', NEL, 1979, p 76.

What puzzles me about this is how come people cannot realise or recognise this as resident in the head, or, rather, as the foundation of "intellect". I'm not so sure this is a function of intelligence so much as quite something else. So we indeed suffer as suggested by Bolke, the biologist, that our minds ossify as we grow older? What then does this not happen with some, etc.. He wrote, as I recall it, that we are the extended version of the ape's youth, given, of course, one "believes" in Darwin.

Nice, but you've forgotten Kant. He was quite clear and elaborate on this subject. And he's been taken up, in effect, by many modern cognitive psychologists. Cognitive psychology is, in my opinion, the data-driven successor to Kant's original position, and while it does not support everything Kant maintained, it definitely supports his general stance (and surprisingly many of his specific claims). It is interesting, I grant, how well-educated science fiction writers are, and how they incorporate philosophy into their stories. That's one of the major reasons I read sci-fi. But you have to realize that those ideas did not originate with them.

I would recommend, if you want to get serious about this, that you read Kant. A nice translation:

Kant, I. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by W.S.T. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by W.S.T. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

I happen to like the Pluhar translation very much. To get into the actual data supporting this, you might start with a good general text in cognitive science:

A classic:

Neisser, U. Cognitive Psychology. The Century Psychology Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

Nice intro, if old:

Gardner, H. The Mind's New Science. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1985.

Tie-in with philosophy:

Goldman, A. I. "Cognitive Science and Metaphysics." Journal of Philosophy 84, no. 10 (1987): 537-44.

Goldman, A. I. (Ed.). Readings in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.

More modern and general:

Reisberg, D. Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. 1st ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.

Mehler, J., and S. Franck, eds. Cognition on Cognition. Edited by J. Mehler, Cognition Special Issues. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.

Steven Ravett Brown


Michael asked:

Why are maxims or principles important for Kant's ethics?

Principles are important because Kant wants to explain and ground our sense of morality, which he takes as acting on obligation rather than impulse. Impulse doesn't have moral import. Kant thought that we actually do act from a sense of duty to others. If we act according to a sense of duty, we act on principles which can be worded in the form that we "ought" to do such and such. Before Kant, Hume said that we can't derive an "ought" from an "is" and if Hume is right and there is no ground for recognising an "ought" there is no obligation and acting from moral duty doesn't make sense. But, as Kant recognised, we do act from a sense of obligation. Kant thought this was the essence of moral action.

In acting on principle we are not acting on impulse or motivated by mere desire. We are rational and can act contrary to desire. However, there are two senses of principles and maxims. To motivate us our principles or maxims must be subjective — or ones we are committed to. To be moral these maxims we are committed to must be universalisable and essentially universalisable by ourselves as individuals. If we merely acted from desire, we couldn't produce reasons (in terms of maxims and principles) but as rational beings we can be committed to principled action and perform such actions even when we don't actually want to do so. As free rational beings we can commit ourselves to a principle or maxim.

Rachel Browne


Ramiro asked:

I read the question from Dennis about his incarcerated son. I ask, isn't your life of freedom pretty much over. Even if you do educate yourself, what is left for when you come out? You will have that record hanging around your neck forever. So, what is left?

Ok, now I have something specific to offer. Take a look at the Arts & Ideas section of the 8/9/03 issue of the NY Times. On page A13 you will find a story titled "Professors with a Past". It is about people who have been criminals who go to school in criminology. They have respectable jobs in academia, and are valued because of their first-hand experience in the area. There's one guy at Northern Kentucky University, who states, "Ex-cons make good criminology professors because we know so much about the system". And so forth. And I would assume there are other related jobs which are less academic, in criminology, where that kind of experience is valued.

So, I repeat... tell your son to get educated!

Steven Ravett Brown


Joseph asked:

Has the twentieth century produced any notable philosophers of religion?

Definitely. I'd state Evelyn Underhill and Walter T. Stace. They are both brilliant philosophers who deal with mysticism. The former is more a mystic than a philosopher, Mysticism is one of her most important works. The latter is more philosophical, with his books Religion and the Modern Mind, Teachings of the Mystics and Mysticism and Philosophy which is most likely his greatest work ever. Stace is taking the position of the neutral critic. He ends up with conclusions that the mystical experience is the most profound basis of religion, and that religion is not mainly about ethics, but mysticism. He tries to somehow blend 'Atheistic (?) Naturalism' with mysticism.

Among other philosophers [who write about religion] are Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki, Rudolf Otto and R. M. Bucke.

Arthur Brown


Cressie asked:

How could Thales of Miletus consider that fire came from water — as his theory says that everything came from water?

Remember that the ancient Greeks, and indeed everyone up to the last century or so, had no real idea as to what "fire" and "water" referred to. We know, now, that fire is, roughly speaking, a dynamic state of rapid oxidation accompanied by light and heat, and water is a particular compound of hydrogen and oxygen. Fine. But the Greeks had no idea of any of this, nor even of the idea, for the most part, that substances were comprised of combinations of other substances down to the level we now know this to be true. They did realize that mixtures were combinations, but only down to a certain point. So fire was an actual substance for Thales, and so was water, not a compound, not a dynamic process. Fire corresponded better, perhaps, if you want to really stretch the metaphor, to what we term "energy" now. Given that, he could say that plants, for example, were in part comprised of both fire and water.

Steven Ravett Brown

Is uncertain whether Thales believed that everything is water (the claim attributed to him by Aristotle) or only that everything comes from water, which is what you are saying. However, on either interpretation, there seems to be a problem with explaining fire.

Let's take the second alternative first, because it is easier. Why is it a problem that fire 'comes from' water? Because water is wet and fire is dry? or rain feels cold and fire feels hot? Thales could have pointed out that if the sheer fact of change is perceived as a problem, then any perceived change in anything is a problem, even in a tiny degree. (That was before the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides who came up with an astounding argument that change or differentiation of any kind are logically impossible. It would take me a lot longer to answer that question.)

More difficult is the claim that fire really is water. What could that mean? If that is what Thales thought, then he meant it in the same sense that ice and steam really are water. One and the same substance or stuff can have different perceptible qualities at different times. However, if you think about it, there is no difficulty in principle with including fire as one of the forms of water, that doesn't apply to steam or ice. Think of a property of fire (e.g. incandescence) that it seems hard to imagine being a property of water. Well, it is equally hard (Thales would have said) to imagine that solidity is a property of water. The only difference between the two cases is that we have seen water solidify (freeze), but never seen water turn into fire.

Geoffrey Klempner

The first thing you need to understand, Cressie, is that Thales did NOT have a "theory" at all. To maintain this is to misunderstand completely what drove him and his successors to investigate Nature. Thales was looking for a "principle", a word which originally meant (and still does) "something that comes first before everything else". In the world of Thales that "first" thing was (as it is in most religions) a divinity: a creator God or some spirit or demon. And so Thales, like the other people around him who had begun questioning the standard religious tales in the context of whether religious stories are actually believable, decided they are not. But there was no science around in those days, so Thales put forth a proposition — a discussion point as we might call it today. Let us discuss, he might have said, if water, which seems to be everywhere around us, everywhere in us, everywhere in things (even those that seem at first glance to be totally dry) might be the "first substance" on which everything depends.

So, forget the term "theory". This is a modern short-hand for something much more fundamental, in fact something philosophical. And from this you should take away with you the important difference between having a theory and philosophising: namely, that theories are ideas about something "believed to be true for the time being", whereas philosophies are efforts to establish truths which may hold forever. That difference is not always adhered to, even by philosophers. But if you need an example: a THEORY is the belief that "space" (i.e. the universe) is a container in which objects are placed, while a PHILOSOPHY is the notion that, in order to hold such a belief, one should furnish a "Sufficient Reason" for it. As you can see, these are worlds apart; and so (as I said) in Thales the THEORY and PRINCIPLE of water as the basic substance of all things are also worlds apart.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Purple asked:

I was wondering if you could help me find information on substitute instances for the hypothetical syllogism and substitution instances for conjunctions.

Substitution is a test for truth functionality of a connective in modern logic. The conjunction in formal language is true just as long as both components are true. You can substitute any true sentence for A or B in the conjunction 'A and B' and the truth value of the whole remains the same. So whereas 'and' is truth functional, 'knew that' is not because you can know that Aristotle was a philosopher (proposition A) but not that Xenophanes (proposition B) was. If you use the substitution test replacing proposition A by proposition B then if 'knew that' was truth functional substitution would preserve the truth of the whole. But it doesn't.

Propositional logic has replaced the syllogistic study of logic, however the propositional form is:

If A then B
If B then C
So, if A then C

According to the truth tables of logic a conditional is true as long as the consequent is true. By contrast, for a syllogism to make sense the content has to make sense to us in a transitive way because the antecedent and consequents are conceptually related. You cannot substitute different content. A dictionary example of a hypothetical syllogism is:

If the sun shines it will be warm
If it is the warm the plants will grow
So if the sun shines the plants will grow.

There is a conceptual connection between the sun shining and warmth. In ordinary language we need a connection between the antecedent and consequent and it is not the case that for a conditional to be true all that is needed is for the truth of the consequent.

Propositional logic is formal so substitution is possible, but in thought or argument in ordinary language we need to know what each component means and how they are related. As Aristotle says at the beginning of Posterior Analytics, 'argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge'. Aristotle refers to semantic argument such as the syllogism above where we know or understand the conceptual content. Formal logic and substitution are syntactical rules.

You might look at L S Stebbing's A Modern Introduction to Logic and J Lukasiewicz Aristotle's Syllogistic. Or go back to Aristotle's Analytics.

Rachel Browne


Michael asked:

I have been looking for a proverb that states that when God made man he was made with four arms, four legs and two heads. God then tore apart the creature for each to go their own way. When eventually the two meet up again they will become whole. This is related to the fact that when two soulmates find one another and fall in love they too become whole. I cannot remember if it is a Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu proverb, can any one help?

This was a hard one... I also remembered it but not its origin. But it's a Greek creation myth. Take a look at this page:


Steven Ravett Brown

It is a fable told (I think by Alcibiades) in Plato's dialogue, The Symposium.

Ken Stern

There may well be a Buddhist etc proverb to reflect this, but you need only look into the culture of western mythology to find the same story. The word "hermaphrodite" means exactly the same thing. I'll leave you the with the pleasure of looking up any classical dictionary and discovering the source of this term.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Melanie asked:

I'm doing another Philosophy paper, but this time it's on the topic "Is it ethical to breed animals for human consumption?" I've got a few quotes from Arthur Schopenhauer to point out that humans are very similar to animals, but are there any other philosophers that I can use in this essay? I can't find any!

Let me be nasty. Do you really think all those nice animal lovers on the Animal Channel are vegetarian? And don't you think sharks are beautiful, possibly intelligent, killing machines?

A human being consumes at least 50 times more energy per year than a crocodile, and western humans possibly consume about 1000 times the energy need of crocodiles. This predator kills generally within a few seconds, and lives for one year on the energy provided by one prey. What if you waited lifelong in prison for execution of a death penalty?

I mean, killing to eat in itself is a way of life. Notions like GOOD or BAD are inventions in the ethics of the dogmatic part of religions. Killing can be seen as efficient and beautifully performed, i.e. as a very creative act.

That 's quite different from acknowledging that any society needs rules. If that society forbids eating cows, and stimulates eating fish, that's fine to me. But don't look at long dead Christian philosophers to explain such rules.

Breeding other animals for food is a wide spread efficient habit in nature, from ants to humans. Do you plan to rewrite Darwin?

I suggest that you look at Animal or Discovery Channel for a modern view on things. And then you'll be prepared to have a peep at Schopenhauer.

Henk Tuten


Kayleigh asked:

I am a teenager and I get these kind of complicated thoughts in my head, they are things like rude things put into sentences to do with my family. I know you will probably say I need special treatment but I just want some advice from you to tell me what I'm experiencing.

Well for one thing you're not telling me very much — "complicated" can mean just about anything; so can "rude". I guess one question is, are you actually saying these rude things, or are you just thinking them? If you're saying them, then you at least need help, maybe just talking to a friend, in controlling yourself to that extent. Another question has to do with your situation. I mean, if you're basically living a pretty good life, with enough money, clothes, you're clean, etc.; if no one is abusing you in any serious way... then that's one thing. If you're living in a slum with rats crawling over you, clothes in rags, no money, being beaten, or something like that, then we're in another place entirely, right?

Now, given that you can write reasonably well, that you can use and have available a computer so that you can go to this site and ask a question (even though really it's not a philosophical question and this site is for philosophical questions), I'm going to assume that you're pretty much ok as far as the basics of living are concerned (although you could still be being beaten, abused, etc... how can I know?). But I'll assume that you're living in reasonable comfort, being educated, and so forth.

Ok... Now I'll go through several possibilities, all or none of which may be right... how would I know? So you'll just have to judge for yourself.

Here are some minor problem possibilities:

1) You're very smart and your family isn't. So you're bored and restless, you hate school, and you argue with everyone.

This is a hard one. You're going to feel lonely, at least for a while. One possibility: read, study, become a nerd. Get great grades and research how to go to another school for bright kids; there are such schools, and some give scholarships, i.e., money or free tuition, if they think you're smart or whatever. Hey, do it. You won't be so alone there.

Another possibility: keep a diary, and read. You can talk to the diary, and live in part in the books. Not really a bad way to go; lots of bright people do it this way.

Also, since you can deal with computers, join discussion groups, socialize that way.

2) You have a brother or sister who is the "good" one, and you've always been the "bad" one, but you don't really feel good about that.

Well... I don't really know how to say this gently... just do it. Become another "good" one. You'll feel better, get along better with your family, after the initial shock. If you don't want to do it suddenly, do it gradually. If you don't want to do it at all... then you'll just have to figure out some way to balance between being "yourself" (whatever that means) and "getting along"... in such a way that you aren't as "bad" yet are still "true" to yourself. I'm using quotes here a bit cynically... you might think about where you really are on these issues pretty carefully.

3) You've been just fine until recently, until something major in your life has changed, and you may or may not be feeling upset about that... but probably that's what's upsetting you at some level.

Um. Talk to someone. It doesn't have to be "help", just talk to someone about it.

4) You've been just fine until recently, until something in yourself, probably sexuality, has changed, and you're upset about that and don't know how to deal with it.

Yes, embarrassing. Talk to someone. Think about it this way: everyone has sex, otherwise there would be no human race, right? So everyone goes through this. You are not alone, you are not unique... in this, at least. If you really can't talk about it... go to a bookstore and read, read, read. Yes, about sex.

5) Ooops, my mind just went blank. If I've missed something, go to a bookstore and read about it. Read about what goes on with teenagers. Read about the physiology of it, if you don't want to read the "self-help" section.

Ok, major problem possibilities. I seriously hope none of these are your problem... but:

1) You've been hearing, really hearing, voices (yes, I'm serious). Get immediate help. Right now, call a clinic. This is not trivial, and should not be kept secret.

2) You've started doing pretty serious drugs. Stop, if you can. Then, yes, get help. Period.

3) You've started doing what you think (and you're probably right) is too much sex. Stop. Yes, just stop. Then talk to someone, anyone, and get tested for STDs.

4) You're being beaten (seriously) and/or sexually abused. GET HELP. Look for this, just the way I'm putting it: a "shelter" for "battered women". No matter how you've been threatened, DO IT. You will be protected. Show evidence: bruises, burns, cuts, etc., if possible. People who treat abused women, and kids, know what bruises, etc., from beatings look like. Your being a minor makes it more difficult, but not impossible; that's where evidence will help your case.

Well I hope those last ones aren't what's really going on. As I say, how can I possibly know what is going on with you? I can't. Maybe I've totally missed the mark... well, that's the way it goes. Maybe in that case you can use bits of the above to improvise something. If the problems continue, really you should go to another site which is not primarily philosophy... we're not really set up for emotional problems here.

Steven Ravett Brown


Benjamin asked:

I was reading some old entries in hope to expand the knowledge of philosophy in my simple college student brain and I found one topic, which was brought up a few times, very interesting. It was on egoism and altruistic beliefs. What I gathered from the entry was that people who are unselfish practice this only for themselves. Which is selfish. My question is... Could someone elaborate on this idea for me so that I can understand it more clearly?

Reason: Every time that I go out of my way to help someone now I think that I am just trying to be selfish. It is obviously one of those human instinct things that everyone does, but how can I try to control my selfishness and when do you draw the line between selfishness being a good thing or a bad thing?

First of all, I think, you have to distinguish between being selfish and being self-interested. A person is selfish only if he is taking something from another to which he is not entitled in the first place. He is not selfish just because he is acting in what he believes to be his own best interest.

Let me illustrate what I mean:

A mother leaves two pieces of cake for her sons, and writes them a note telling them that one is for Billy, and the other is for Johnny. Billy arrives home first, and takes his own piece of cake, and leaves the other for Johnny. Billy is doing something he believes he is in his own self-interest. But he is not being selfish. Now suppose that Billy arrives home first and not only takes his own piece of cake, but also takes his brother's as well. Now, when Billy's mother finds out about this, she would certainly be justified in calling Billy selfish. But would she have been justified in calling Billy selfish just because he took his own piece of cake and not Johnny's? Of course not. But in that case, Billy was acting self-interestedly, wasn't he? So, it is a confusion to mix up self-interest with selfishness. To call someone "selfish" is to make a negative moral judgment about him. But "self-interested" is neutral. Most of what you and I do is motivated by self-interest. If I go to bed when I am tired, that is self-interest.

Now to deal with your question more specifically. You say that when you go out of your way to help someone you think you are being selfish. But why? Going out of your way to help another is exactly the sort of action which is called unselfish. Why would you call what is called "unselfish," "selfish?"

You don't say except that you "gathered" that from a book. I don't know whether the book actually said that, or whether you were just misinterpreting. But it is true that some people (and the author of that book may be one of those people) have got it into their heads that just wanting to do something you do, makes your action, selfish. But that is nonsense. It is not wanting to do something that makes your action selfish, but it is what you do, that makes your action selfish. That you want to do what you do, just makes your action voluntary, but surely, not selfish. And that you voluntarily go out of your way to assist another (without being compelled to do it) makes your action laudable, and the very opposite of a selfish action. To repeat: it isn't wanting to do something that makes that action selfish; it is, rather, what you do when you do that action that makes it selfish (or, of course, unselfish) In fact, that you actually want to help others, makes you a nice person.

Ken Stern

Take a look at these:

Gintis, H. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms." Journal of Theoretical Biology 220, no. 4 (2003): 407-18.

Gintis, H., S. Bowles, R. Boyd, and E. Fehr. "Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans." Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003): 153-72.

And you might also look at The Selfish Gene by Dawkins.

The idea you've seen is that any behavior can be rationalized as selfish or egoistic... if you're helping someone else it's because it makes you feel good or some such. Yes, very nice and very slick, and probably not easily refutable... I mean, how could you establish whether helping someone really makes you feel good, bad, or indifferent? You can argue this one until the cows come home and starve to death, and not resolve it.

But what you can do is look at animals and try to find examples where there is no obvious benefit for the one sacrificing themselves, and ask why that happens. The genetic argument is that animals sacrifice themselves more readily the closer the (genetic) kinship is. And this does seem to be borne out by data... thus, the "selfish gene", i.e., our genes "want" to continue, and we're here more-or-less just to help them do that. Not unreasonable, I suppose. But all that still neglects the feedback abilities of a chaotic neural net, i.e., ourselves, and how that feedback can modify virtually (I hedge with that term) any "hard-wiring".

So the likelihood, I think, is that we can act altruistically, but that it's difficult. We have to get around all the above.

Steven Ravett Brown

If an ethical theory such as egoism states that a person who acts in the interests of another is acting from selfish motives, then it is difficult to understand. It wouldn't really amount to an ethical theory at all. Being selfish is a personality trait to be distinguished from being generous. Being selfish is something we believe we should try to overcome as moral beings. If this is so such a theory would lead us to conclude that we should try to overcome our selfish motives in acting in the interests of others. So we shouldn't be selfish or altruistic.

Ethical egoism is the view that people do what is in their self-interest. This is to be contrasted with doing something for its own sake. If you think that we just do act ethically because you believe in human instinct, then this could be seen as a natural or psychological altruism yet this wouldn't be doing something for its own sake because we would be compelled by instinct rather than acting purely on external reasons.

Ethical theories can be confusing. I think the best way to look at it is to see that it is not selfish to be moral at all. Rather, self-interest is involved in morality as it determined normatively, by society, that we should have a certain amount of self-interest. It is part of personal responsibility to wash and not to give away all of your belongings so that you become dependent on others. Morality isn't solely about the good of others. If you are overly self-interested it becomes a personality defect which would be described as selfishness or self-obsession. It is difficult to say how to draw the line between self-interest and acting in the interests of others. I don't think you can do sums or plot a graph to work it out. However, to an extent we have shared interests in that we want to live in a peaceful and friendly world.

Rachel Browne


Quentin asked:

Instead of the Golden Rule:

"Treat others as you would like to be treated."

Why not the following 'Platinum Rule':

"Treat others as THEY would like to be treated."

With the first, say I am ordering coffee for my friends. Say I have not been told what each desires. So, under the "Golden Rule" I will simply get X number of my favorite drink (say a latte). Well, that seems silly. Obviously, instead I should endeavor to know what they would like.

Could you also tell me what "formal" moral philosophy might be said to be closest to my 'Platinum Rule'?

But isn't that how you want to be treated? In other words, you would want someone to ask themselves, "what would Quentin like?", right? And that might be different from what they would like. So I think both are equivalent.

But in any case, there are no formal philosophies that I know of which directly and explicitly employ this rule. Why is that? Because it is not well-thought out. Why should you be treated as you would like to be treated? What if, for example, you want someone to tell you the truth about things, and that person knows (or has good reason to believe — and that itself is the start of a long discussion) that telling you that truth in some instance would harm you or cause you to harm someone else? Should they tell it to you, even though that's the way you want to be treated? Why? And in answering that "why" you come to a more fundamental level of analysis than the previous, which implies a much more sophisticated approach to, and (attempted) answers to, ethical problems. To take another example, suppose that treating you the way you want to be treated is also treating you the way you don't want to be treated? What if you don't know, or can't decide, or feel ambiguous, or feel two ways simultaneously?

You see that there are so many problems here that one simply cannot stop at this point. And very few philosophers have.

Steven Ravett Brown

What I like about your 'Platinum Rule' is that it reminds us that other people may want very different things from us. But there is one big problem we don't always know how others would like to be treated. And that, I suppose, is why the 'Golden Rule' was formulated. As humans are all basically similar, if you can't ask the other person how they want to be treated (and that is just the kind of situation this rule is meant to cover!), the best guide is your own wants and feelings.

How could you 'endeavour to know' what kind of coffee each of your friends would like, except by asking them?! I'm sure if your friend was ordering coffee for you, you would like them to ask you what you want before they order it unless of course they already KNOW what you like best. And the 'Golden Rule' would then suggest that you should treat them in the same way, ask them what THEY would like.

Katharine Hunt


Naomi asked:

How come I can't remember my childhood, I don't have a disorder of any sort and I can remember everything from age of 12 but not before. I'm 23 years of age.

There's no way to answer that question, of course, without knowing a great deal more about you. This kind of memory deficit might be due to repression, if you had a very unpleasant childhood. It might be due to something organic, i.e., a chemical problem in your neural system. It might be due to your being very focused on the present for a long time, for whatever reasons, so that you are not skilled in accessing your memories. Or whatever. For whatever it's worth, unless you are having problems in your life due to poor memory, it doesn't have to be very important, but it is annoying. I have the same problem, and in addition I have very poor memory for proper names and arbitrary symbols like formulas. I have had enormous difficulty in school with courses requiring lots of memorization, like languages and history. I suppose there is some minor organic reason, and it's something that can be compensated for by a great deal of effort and practice, which I've done, so you probably can also.

Steven Ravett Brown


Stanley asked:

I'm not very much sure whether I agree with Rene Descartes ontological argument on the existence of God that "Everything I know of comes, ultimately, from outside of myself. I know of the existence of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, namely God. There is nothing in my experience which ought to make me know this, so it must have come from elsewhere, namely from God Himself." (Rene Descartes)

Surely, if God wanted us to know that he was our creator, he would have given us that cognitive ability (instinctively, or otherwise) to know that. That knowledge would have been part and parcel of the formative teleology of being human. We would not have to run around, trying to find out who actually created us, and why.

Does this argument make sense?

Also, is it true that the principle of creation is such that only the creator knows the purpose of what he creates? This, by implication means that only God knows the reasons for creating mankind. We will never know what our purpose of our existence is until it will be revealed by God.

Is that So?

No doubt the creator knows the purpose of creation. That does not mean that we can never know it by using our intelligence.

If God wanted us to know that he was our creator he could have let us know. But would he want to? Could he have a good reason for making it difficult to work out?

Theologians generally agree that the only motive God has for acting is to produce an entity that is similar to God and appropriate for God to love. The catch is that even God cannot create an entity that is similar to God. God is self-existent. Anything created is other than self-existent. What can God do?

The only possibility is for God to institute a process that involves self-organisation and self-creation so that an entity could self-create in attributes that are similar to God's, such as creativity, goodness and love.

So we have the Big Bang that produces matter. Matter self-organises to produce a planet that can support life. Life begins in a simple form and gradually evolves to produce an animal that has the mental ability to self-create, to be whatever it wants to be — as humans do.

This is my argument in The Process of the Cosmos.

Dr A.B. Kelly

Descartes postulates that God has given us knowledge of God. The questioner makes a reasonable point in doubting that we have this knowledge. What is interesting to me is not that 17th Century Man Descartes believes we have a knowledge of God and 21st Century Man , Stanley believes we don't, but that Descartes cannot imagine that the knowledge he has of God came to him from the very human institution of the Catholic Church. For Descartes the Church is invisible. It is very much like people today who repeat things from T.V. News as definite facts, forgetting that they have been told these things by certain human beings with prestige and power. Instead, they believe they have somehow discerned these things by their own innate abilities. Descartes was unable to bracket his knowledge and investigate where it actually came from, as opposed to accepting the knowledge's claims about its origin.

We should remember that there was little separation between the Catholic Church and its members at this time, so in a sense, the Church we in Descartes' blind spot. He could not see it as his human source of information about the supernatural world. Stanley can see it and thus can reject Descartes' claim of direct knowledge of the supernatural, as Locke went on to do.

Dr Jay Raskin


Fabino asked:

"Our technologies establish the truth of many of our scientific laws." is there any comparable means of establishing moral rules and norms?

Well, you're asking the question here... can we "naturalize" ethics? Indeed. Well, there's no generally agreed-on answer to this question at this point. I favor the affirmative... but there are many positions on this.

For pro-naturalizing, you might look at:

Clark, A. "Connectionism, Moral Cognition, and Collaborative Problem Solving." edited by L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark, 109-28. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
 Edgerton, R. B. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press, 1992.
 Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.
 Johnson, M. "Imagination in Moral Judgment." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 46, no. 2 (1985): 265-80.
 Johnson, M. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
 May, L., M. Friedman, and A. Eds. Clark. Mind and Morals: Essays on Cognitive Science and Ethics. 2nd ed. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.

For anti-naturalizing:

Annis, D. B. "A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification." American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1978): 213-19.
 Henderson, D. K. "Epistemic Competence and Contextualist Epistemology: Why Contextualism Is Not Just the Poor Person's Coherentism." The Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 12 (1994): 627-49.
 MacIntyre, A. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
 MacIntyre, A. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1st ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
 Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. 21st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

For general reading:

Williams, B. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
 Anscombe, G. E. M. "Modern Moral Philosophy." Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1-28.
 Apostle, H. G. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Grinnell, IA: The Peripatetic Press, 1984.
 Hare, R. M. "Foundationalism and Coherentism in Ethics." edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 190-99. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
 Kant, I. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by L.W.T. Beck. New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.
 Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and M. Timmons.Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
 Sommers, C., and F. Sommers. Vice & Virtue in Everyday Life; Introductory Readings in Ethics. 4th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985.
 Urmson, J. O. Aristotle's Ethics. 11th ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.

This is just a kind of very limited basic set of readings on this issue. To really know it well, you need several years of reading.

Steven Ravett Brown


Adam asked:

I have read a limited amount of Nietzsche, and my interest in epistemology has led me to wonder if Nietzsche has a theory of knowledge. I am asking purely for the sake of my own interest, as I have no paper due on the subject. Three Political Science and Philosophy professors have been unable to answer my question at all. My philosophy professor even went as far as to state that Nietzsche was perhaps not even a real philosopher because his system of thought is so disjointed. I disagree, but does he make a valid point nonetheless?

Nietzsche is the first of the major impact non-scholar philosophers, so you can defend the view that he really is not a philosopher in the likes of Hegel or Kant. Using a rather poetic approach to the analysis of philosophical questions, such as individuality, freedom and morality, it is only natural that you can't make a "system" out of his body of work. The fragmented nature of his ideas, make it difficult to follow him, as you would follow a master. But then again, isn't existentialism all about not being able to follow?

What is knowledge to Nietzsche? I would adopt the Spinoza approach to answering this question, and put the question in these terms: what is not knowledge to Nietzsche? All that is not related to vitality and the search for a noble way of life. I would tend to say that knowledge for him is definitely more about conscience of what you are and what you can achieve. Conscience is an essential part of the process of the individual thought process, as it allows you to restrict yourself to those matters than are indeed valuable. It is then not a question of what you can know, but more a question of what you should know. For instance, access to the truth about God, his nature and existence, is irrelevant, as you can read in the Antichrist, because you must know that you are without Him. The end result of not having a particular objective in the field of knowledge, but only a starting point — conscience — means that in fact you have an abandoned Man, abandoned to his own destiny in a way, so he must adopt no pre-conditions.

In fact you can pretty much see what this leads to. The theory of knowledge you can find is: conscience is the Archimedes's leaver to the remainder of what should be the things necessary for a noble man's freedom, a man that refuses the slavish way of someone who believes and depends on God.

So is there a theory of knowledge in Nietzsche? I would tend to say yes. But, as for as for so many other things, not in a classical sense. Socrates said: I only know that I know nothing, and Nietzsche says: I must know what I am. Conscience that fundamental knowledge starts with knowing that you have to free yourself from God, "be alone" in materialistic and metaphysical sense, presents us with an empty, but unrestricted reservoir for what could the culture of a free man could encompass.

Nuno Hipolito


Sanneetha asked:

is the glass half empty or half full? my friend and I have been arguing over this for quite sometime. I say that it depends on if the person is drinking or pouring but she says that its half empty because you are always drinking. We are only 14 and it seems as if this question will bug us for the rest of our lives and a whole lot of life left to be worrying about a question like this so please help us!

It's interesting to me that this is so important to you. Why do you think that it is? Consider that we might say "empty" and "full" merely refer to static states. "Empty" then would be just a sort of hole sitting there, and "full" would be a container with no space unfilled. So the dynamic considerations of whether you're drinking or pouring, that is, what direction the volume is changing, would be irrelevant. Why not use this idea? On the other hand, it's certainly fascinating and original to bring up the dynamics of the container's filling (or emptying) as part of the criteria for it being empty or full... but why is it anything beyond interesting; why is it important? What further implications does it have? If there are none, then it is not important.

Think about it. Here you are, feeling that this is an important issue. Where does this feeling come from? Why does it matter? Consider this: right now, at your age, you are beginning, just beginning, to understand the world around you. What that means is that you are forming categories, classifying things, putting them into relationships. And this issue, "full", "empty", etc., is important to you because it involves your structuring of the world. But, you know, there are other ways to structure the world, and in addition, as you get older, what happens is that, if you keep learning, the categories and relationships you are now forming, that seem so important (indeed that are important, right now), become more flexible, more vague, more fuzzy. And they should become that way. After all, those relationships that you are struggling with are merely a human way of looking at objects... and why, ultimately, is that important? How is that important? Shouldn't they be able to be made more flexible?

And so you might reflect that the general process you're going through will ultimately need to be questioned, quite thoroughly... and so will your conclusions, however clear they might seem at this point. And if you do not do that, you will become stuck in a rigid net of categories, as so many adults you see around you, who have not continued learning and changing, are.

Steven Ravett Brown

I agree with you, Sanneetha, that the glass can be regarded as half-empty or as half-full, depending on how you look at it. This is what you're trying to get at when you say 'it depends on if the person is drinking or pouring'. A lot of issues in philosophy depend heavily on how you look at them!

It all depends on the attitude of mind we bring to the situation; the glass contains the same amount of liquid when half-full as it does when half-empty! I don't agree with your friend's argument that 'you are always drinking'. As you say, sometimes one is pouring, and there must come a point, during the filling of a glass, when it is already half-full, but you have not yet finished filling it!

Whether you regard the proverbial glass as half-full or half-empty is really a metaphor for your attitude to life. Do you see events in terms of how good they are (how full), or how bad they are (how empty)? It is the contrast between pessimism and optimism. Have a look at your views on other subjects. Do you tend to hold a balanced, realistic view, with your friend being more pessimistic? I'd be intrigued to know.

Katharine Hunt

Two answers to this age old question:

1) According to physics, the glass is completely full, half with water and half with air. (Half full to the human eye, half empty from the perspective of air content.)

2) According to a linguistic analysis, the glass is half full, because the word 'full' and the word 'glass' are related in the same contextual meaning. A glass is primarily filled and not emptied, so if it contains water, it should be considered upmost filled with something and not emptied of something. In other words, the glass is a container and not a "emptier". The same conclusion comes from a pragmatic and even finalistic approach — the glass should be looked as it stands, and not as a part of a process of emptying or filling.

As our reality comes foremost from perception, and we make our own reality happen, in a matter of speaking, I would consider the glass half full. Mainly because we relate to the world by the way we construct linguistic manners of understanding it. As a glass is a functional object, meant to be filled, if it contains liquid, it should be analysed in a perspective of being x amount filled.

Nuno Hipolito


Tataiat asked:

Discuss in detail about the influence of "Quantum Theory" on the philosophical field. And I would like you to direct me toward accessible resources (Professors or websites etc.) in order to deepen my knowledge on this topic.

There is a massive literature on this, dating from the introduction to QM in the 20s to the present, with branches in physics, ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology, relating to issues running from the nature of knowledge to the nature of reality to the nature of consciousness. You can spend the next 5-10 years getting to be an expert in this area if you want, with my blessing... but you're not going to get any sort of detail in this forum.

Here's an introductory reading list. I recommend starting with Herbert's book.

Atkins, P.W. Quanta: A Handbook of Concepts. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991.
 Bohm, D. Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.
 Eisenbud, L. The Conceptual Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Edited by W.C. Michels. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1971.
 Greene, B. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2000.
 Herbert, N. Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985.
 Mulhauser, G. R. "On the End of a Quantum Mechanical Romance." Psyche 2, no. 19 (1995).
 Popper, K. R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Translated by K. R. Popper, J. Freed and L. Freed. English, 1958 ed. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968.
 Reichenbach, H. Philosophic Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1965.
 Reichenbach, H. The Philosophy of Space and Time. Translated by M. Reichenbach and J. Freund. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1958.

Steven Ravett Brown


Karen asked:

Could you please explain the Cosmological argument and the objections to it?

It is an argument which purports to prove the existence of God. There are several ways of putting it; two of the best known are the formalisations offered by Leibniz and Kant. The one by Leibniz is analysed by Russell in his popular book, A History of Western Philosophy. Kant's version occurs in the Critique of Pure Reason, Part I, "Transcendental Doctrine of Elements", Book II, Chapter III, sect. 5. Both of these are almost short enough to be quoted here; but rather than this overt "lifting", I'll give a rough and ready guide and leave you the pleasure of reading the full text in the books referred to.

The argument proposes that, if anything at all exists, then a 'necessary' something (e.g. God) must also exist. For example, I exist, but I did not come to be from self-causation. Rather, I came to be from a contingent cause, the more or less accidental mating game enacted by my parents. They in turn came to be from similarly contingent causes. Pursue this strain through to its end: somewhere along this line of argumentation you come to molecules, atoms, electrons, fundamental particles, big bang, what have you. All these are "occasions" which depend on other causes. Where does this so-called "infinite regress" end? According to the cosmological argument, with a creator who is uncaused, but provides the initial impulse to set this whole chain in motion. If you're religious, you might call this creator "God", if not, you might be content with the "quantum flutter" of Hartle/ Hawkins.

Clearly this whole argument rests on logical principles as well as on a linear conception of infinity. Kant demonstrates among several other refutations that this linear causality is conceptually inadequate. He mentions in his criticism that the ontological proof is unsatisfactory because it requires us to accept an a priori necessary existence, and that the cosmological proof was introduced because its saving grace is the actual and known existence of some beings, so that rather than arguing in an intellectual vacuum, we can have recourse to this known existence and argue backwards. In the end, however, both proofs, ontological and cosmological, suffer from the same defect of infinite regress.

Now one reason why this has always been felt to be inadequate (even in ages when faith in God was unquestioned) was that these proofs rather obviously do not solve the problem they tackle: God (the uncaused cause) is always a privileged entity. But once you are on course of admitting such an exception, then you are effectively free to apply the notion of privilege to any link in that chain. More recently, in the wake of complexity theory, the notion of disposition has taught us that "privilege" and "hierarchy" are in a much greater way than ever before considered fundamental principles of organisation throughout the cosmos, in every dimension, and therefore just the thing to upset neat logical proofs which taper off into infinity. But this is a chapter I might now leave you to research on your own. Check out your study resource for "first cause" and "infinite regress" and go from there. Happy hunting!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Connolly asked:

Machiavelli and Seneca take seemingly different positions. Friendship is highly important to Seneca, whilst Machiavelli would much rather be feared than loved. But are their claims really contradictory?

But this is an interesting question to me, for another reason. What are you after here? It is certainly possible to take writings by virtually anyone, especially people long dead who have written in another language, and interpret their positions in virtually any way one wants. The so-called "deconstructivist" movement specializes in that sort of thing. And many people, including myself, are getting very impatient with it. I've no doubt that with sufficient effort, ingenuity, and research you can argue that Machiavelli and Seneca are in agreement, or are incompatible, and have a great deal of fun with that. Does it demonstrate something? Certainly it does not demonstrate that their positions were either compatible or not. Certainly it does not demonstrate that they in fact had no positions, nor that if one could actually ask them, that they would not come to blows over their disagreements. Or the opposite, that they would agree. What it does demonstrate is that with insufficient facts one can argue for any interpretation.

So you might ask yourself: do you actually want to go as far as you can, with admittedly poor evidence, towards finding out the actual truth? A truth which did in fact exist? That is, as I said, if you could have brought Machiavelli and Seneca together you would have found out that truth. So it did exist. The question for a historian, as contrasted to a deconstructivist, then, is how close one can come to ascertaining that truth. Not how convincing one can make an argument for either position, nor how convincing one can make an argument that it is difficult to determine the actual truth.

Steven Ravett Brown


Brian asked:

What is the connection between faith and hope?

and Sara asked:

Faith and hope are my two favorite virtues. Faith is believing in something unconditionally without a need for proof of it's existence. Hope is the feeling that everything will turn out for the best after doing everything in your ability to the point of impeccability! Once you live with hope in your life, you have every right to have faith that things will, in fact turn out for the best! A very strong connection?

and Floradel asked:

Isn't the connection between faith and hope is that if a certain person have faith certainly he has hope. If he don't have faith then he have no hope.

Perhaps in everyday language very little. To say, I hope it will rain tomorrow, or, I have faith that it will rain tomorrow, will in neither case necessarily produce rain. But, oddly enough, I will feel, and seem to others, to be a bigger fool if I have expressed faith rather than hope, and in the event that rain does not materialise. We could also say that hope is a wish, but faith is a belief; in fact, faith is often defined as a firm belief, or something a bit stronger than an ordinary belief.

Faith, it would seem, gains its major use in a religious context. To put our faith in God seems to be a stronger act than putting hope in God. In religious language faith seems to imply mystic connotations, whereas hope remains a more mundane expression. One example of the positive sense of faith, as opposed to the more neutral sense of hope, is seen in the statement, "I have faith in the fact that Jesus will one day return." To say, "I hope that it is a fact that Jesus will one day return," is obviously not the same statement.

Paul, in the New Testament, refers to the "shield of faith." Faith in Christ is, therefore, a protection against evil. To declare hope in Christ is not quite the same. Also, to have faith in someone or something and to be let down, seems far more tragic than to be disappointed in one's hopes not being fulfilled.

Not only religious people but others, can claim faith to be a greater certainty than hope by excluding a time limit. Much more confidence is placed in the statement, "I have great faith that the world will become a better place before I die," than, "I have great faith that the world will become a better place before next Wednesday." But we could confidently , "I hope that the world will become a better place before next Wednesday," because there is no real commitment, it is just a hope. We could respond to someone who says, "I hope to win the lottery before long," by saying, "So do I." But we would hesitate to respond in the same way to someone who said that they had faith that they would win the lottery before long.

To sum up, hope and faith are two different concepts.

John Brandon


Theo asked:

I've been wondering if philosophers consider mentally retarded individuals as humans.

My problem is that I have no idea what "philosophers" is. Has anyone ever met one? I could ask, "do politicians consider mentally retarded people as human?", and how would you answer? Well... there are lots of politicians, right? Which one(s) am I referring to? Well, there are lots of philosophers, all of whom, perhaps surprisingly, are human beings with their own opinions, etc., many of which differ from each other.

Speaking as a philosopher, I am not happy being lumped together with every other philosopher. And if that is not the intent of the question, I am utterly unable to answer it, since the range of philosophers' opinions and thinking on this (and virtually every other) question is quite wide. One might continue this thought and question Theo's considering of "mentally retarded individuals" as one category also.

Steven Ravett Brown


Toni asked:

"Outline and illustrate the role of justification in distinguishing between true belief and knowledge."

I have to answer this for my studies but I keep hitting a brick wall.I understand the basic idea but I cannot make the answer worth the 15 points I need to achieve.

Briefly (but this will not, I think, be enough to get you the 15 points, but only enough to get you started.) True belief is a necessary condition for knowledge but not a sufficient condition. Your true belief has to be justified. A good illustration of this is that a lucky guess is not knowing. If I think that Whirlaway is going to win the next race,then, even if it is true that Whirlaway does win the next race, it would be wrong for me to say that I knew that Whirlaway would win the next race. If someone asked me how I knew that, I would have to reply, well, I didn't actually know, it was a lucky guess. What I am saying, is that I did not have adequate reason to believe that Whirlaway would win the race. Which is to say, I lacked justification for my belief even though the belief turned out to be true.

By the way, there is good reason to think that even with the addition of justification (or adequate reason) for my belief, it does not follow that I know. That is, there is good reason to think that even truth, and adequate justification are not sufficient conditions (even if they are necessary conditions) for knowledge.

Ken Stern


Robyn asked:

How does one cultivate emotional indifference toward some people?

Well, there are bookshelves full of popular self-help books. There's always that. But actually there is a very old, tried and tested methodology for this... yes, I'm serious. Take up Buddhist practices. If you can avoid overdoing the religious aspects and beliefs of any of the multitude of Buddhist sects, you will find a core of practices which do help.

I'll clarify my position here. There are very many Buddhist groups, just as there are many Christian groups. Their teachings and beliefs are extremely varied, but most have a type of "sitting" meditation in common, which is different in type and aim from the meditation of Hinduism... at least in many Buddhist sects. In addition, many of these groups have beliefs about "rebirth" or "enlightenment" which are extremely varied. Further, in order to really understand Buddhism, just as with any other religion or social practices, one must either have grown up in or around its practitioners or thoroughly immerse oneself in it as an adult for a long period of time.

But if one approaches Buddhism as a set of practices designed to make coping with stress easier, one can, I think, reap many benefits without committing oneself to particular beliefs. Probably the best approach for a Westerner is through Zen... but some of the Zen sects are also very strict. You'll just have to look around for something fairly secular and relaxed, yet reasonably authentic.

There is recent research which supports the benefits of meditative practices, in general. In addition, Buddhism has been around for roughly 2-3000 years. One implication of this is that these practices, in general, are good for you. Another implication is that it doesn't matter too much which ones you take up, which implies that it is not necessary to subscribe to a particular set of beliefs to benefit from the practice.

Steven Ravett Brown


Vincent asked:

What would be the result if all motion in the universe suddenly ceased? Would time exist or ever have existed? Would matter or energy exist?

If all motion in the universe ceased instantaneously, you'd have one God-almighty Big Bang on your hands, Vincent. The question of time doesn't even enter consideration; there certainly would not be enough to call the fire brigade. You understand I put this silly joke in, so that you will realise that "time" is not an independently existing entity, but tied to periodicity: the phases of the moon, the rotation of the galaxy, the oscillations of an excited sulphur atom. If you've got none of these, no time.

Would matter or energy exist, after the big crunch? According to current physics theories, matter and energy always exist; they are two phases of the same thing and conserved throughout all changes. Without matter, no universe. Without energy, no matter. Without a universe, no energy. It is not, however, a concept easy to live with. No philosopher, no scientist has ever proposed a theory of "Nothing". Maybe you should ask the Buddhists. I believe it is a more familiar notion in their philosophies. On the other hand, they do not in this context admit of your and our concept of matter.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Felix asked:

Pardon me if this sounds unserious, I am an undergraduate philosophy student in a Nigerian university and I have to write an assignment on a topic I've not thought about before, neither have I the material. It is, "Discuss the theory of arts and aesthetics in relation to cognitivism and relativism."

I'd be glad if you can help out and there certainly will be more communication between us, I did not know of this site before now.

Well I'm not going to write your essay for you. But here's a short list of readings related to this subject:

Arnheim, R. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.
 Arnheim, R. New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.
 Cohen, T., and P. Guyer. Essays in Kant's Aesthetics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
 Goodman, N. Languages of Art. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976.
 Goodman, N. Ways of Worldmaking. 5th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.
 Gracyk, T. A. "Are Kant's "Aesthetic Judgment" and "Judgment of Taste" Synonymous?" International Philosophical Quarterly XXX, No. 2, no. 118 (1990): 159-72.
 Levinson, J. Music, Art, and Metaphysics: Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
 Raffman, D. Language, Music, and Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.
 Sloboda, J.A. "Empirical Studies of Emotional Response to Music." In Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication, edited by M. Riess-Jones and S. Holleran. Washington, D.C.: APA, 1996.
 Sloboda, J.A. "Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings." In The Psychology of Music, edited by D. Deutsch. New York, NY: Academic Press, 1991.
 Thagard, P. R., and J. Nerb. "Emotional Gestalts: Appraisal, Change, and the Dynamics of Affect." Personality and Social Psychology Review 6, no. 4 (2002): 274-82.
 Tsur, R. "Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship: Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts." PsyART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts 4 (2000).

You might start with Arnheim.

Steven Ravett Brown


Claire asked:

Who is Gerta? Gurtta? I am not sure of the spelling.

I am behind writing an essay on the ontological status of 'artifacts', using a cognitive approach (that is, referring to all the philosophy that abundantly relies on cognitive science); I am particularly interested with understanding how the human mind processes the conceptualisation of artifacts. Is there anyone who might suggest some clues (essays, articles and people) about experimental data and/or philosophical reflections related to such issue?

An interesting question which is just beginning to be seriously researched, after Heidegger's Luddite treatment of technology discouraged that. Take a look at these:

de Lon, D. "Cognitive Task Transformations." Cognitive Systems Research 3 (2002): 349-59.
 Imamizu, H., T. Kuroda, S. Miyauchi, T. Yoshioka, and M. Kawato. "Modular Organization of Internal Models of Tools in the Human Cerebellum." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100, no. 9 (2003): 5461-66.
 Maravita, A., C. Spence, S. Kennett, and J. Driver. "Tool-Use Changes Multimodal Spatial Interactions between Vision and Touch in Normal Humans." Cognition 83 (2002): B25-B34.
 Narens, L. "The Irony of Measurement by Subjective Estimations." Journal of Mathematical Psychology 46 (2002): 769-88.
 Narens, L. "A Meaningful Justification for the Representational Theory of Measurement." Journal of Mathematical Psychology 46 (2002): 746-68.
 Pattee, H.H. "The Physics of Symbols and the Evolution of Semiotic Control." In Workshop on Control Mechanisms for Complex Systems: Issues of Measurement and Semiotic Analysis, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Dec. 8-12,1996. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
 Philipse, H. Heidegger's Philosophy of Being: A Critical Interpretation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
 Philipse, H. "How Are We to Interpret Heidegger's Oeuvre? A Methodological Manifesto." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXIII, no. 3 (2001): 573-86.
 Tugendhat, E. Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination. Translated by P. Stern. Edited by T. McCarthy, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986.

I believe that the Maravita article might be the most directly relevant to your question. Pattee has some very interesting things to say about how what might be termed "measurement" relates to sensory qualities.

Steven Ravett Brown


Benjamin asked:

I have been wondering about the philosophy of the mind a lot lately. I look at it first through the eyes of the materialist and say that brain states are identical to mental states and actions happen for causes not reasons. But this is does not seem quite right. In my mind I have a thing I call the self. So I separate a mind and a self and a brain. I am just trying to figure out if in classic thinking a mind and a self have always been two separate things or just one. If they are two separate things are either of them physical entities? If not then how do they affect the brain causing bodily actions? I guess I just have the classic interaction problem sorry.

You wonder whether mind and body are "two separate things or just one." Perhaps you should ask yourself whether, as your question seems to assume, the mind is a "thing" at all. Many philosophers, Aristotle for one, and Gilbert Ryle (much later) for another, have questioned this assumption. And, of course, it the mind is not a "thing" (like the body) then the issue "goes away." Perhaps the mind is not a thing (and so not a separate thing from the body) but rather the way the body functions, perhaps as is illustrated in one of Plato's dialogues, like the music played on a musical instrument like the lyre. The lyre and the music played on it are not, of course the same, but is it because they are not the same "things?" Is the music played on the instrument a "thing" the way the "lyre" is a "thing?" Suppose you are making music on an instrument, and you take the instrument away; does the music remain behind?

Ken Stern


Tiffany asked:

What does this quote by Andrew Carnegie mean?

"All honor's wounds are self-inflicted."

Try looking up: shame-oriented vs. guilt-oriented cultures and values. You might also think about the differences between inner-directed and outer-directed people and values. All of these can be found at the library or on the web. Then think about how those relate to your question.

Steven Ravett Brown


Malcolm asked:

I love to hear some answers to these questions:

1. I am confused about our language subject-predicate structure. Have some philosophers suggested this isn't reliable? Can there be other structures we could use?

2. Does Heidegger argue we cannot start from the subjective, personal first person certainty position and if so why? also does Heidegger say that fear frames the basis of all thought or consciousness to the world, and if so where?

3. In Being and Nothingness can you explain to me why Sartre rejects Berkeley's idealism? (I know what esse est percipere means, but can you tell me the precise meanings of the words, percipere, percipi?

4. What is the point of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit argument?

5. What I don't fully understand is why saying 'unicorns don't exist' is a problem. Of course unicorns don't exist in the physical world, but the idea of unicorns exists in our minds in the physical world. Why don't people accept that we are referring to the idea, and saying something about it — which might be something like, 'the unicorn idea does not have the property of physical embodiment in the world?'

6. We do after all talk about ideas like this all the time, we often talk about the idea of God. If I said 'God does not exist,' is this a contradiction, do atheists contradict themselves all the time when they say this?

1. Not reliable in what sense? I believe all languages have the same basic subject-predicate structure or so the thesis of universal grammar has it. It is held to be a problem that while we use the subject-predicate form grammatically when we talk of things that don't exist, when this is translated into logical form a sentence like 'Pegasus is a flying horse' is false because the name fails to denote a subject which exists.

Philosophers have tried changing the logical form. Russell and Quine have taken Pegasus as a description and have re-arranged logical structure to account for cases of non-denoting terms. But this means that when we say grammatically 'Pegasus is a flying horse' what we really mean, under their form of logical analysis, is 'There is a thing and that thing pegasises', which is simply counter-intuitive. If logical structure determines our ontological commitment, we might say that it doesn't apply to talk of non-existents, but then logical structure would fail to reflect the structure of our language in a general way because a lot of our talk is of non-existents.

2. Heidegger thought that when thinking about being, or existence, we shouldn't withdraw from the world into a subjective state as Descartes did when he sought a foundation for knowledge. Rather we should recognise that we are immersed in the world and should look at what everyday experience is like to describe being and existence and dwelling the world. We are already in the world which opens itself up to us and likewise we open ourselves up to the world. This is what existence is like and a Cartesian approach falsifies thinking about being because it demands some proof of the external world. But we already live there.

I don't think Heidegger mentioned fear. He mentions dread and a being-towards-death, but this is because we are temporally orientated towards to the future in our being.

3. Sartre thought that appearance isn't given any more substance or reality by being supported by the fact that it is perceived by God, than that it just appears. There need be nothing beyond appearance since the way things appear to us is the essence of the way things are for us.

Well I'm not quite sure about percipere/percipi. I think percipere is the act of perceiving and percipi is that which exists or is seen. Sartre says that the percipere cannot affect the perceptum of being which I take to mean that the act of perceiving cannot change that which is perceived. The percipi is that which can be known, his example being a table.

4. Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit is an example of 'seeing as' or aspect-perception. We can see the duck rabbit in two different ways. Using the same sort of activity we can see a face in the moon or a shape in the clouds.

5. Yes, but isn't a unicorn a mythical animal? Is an animal an idea in the mind? If you have been reading Sartre, you will have seen that we think of the unicorn and negate its being. It is part of the idea of the unicorn that it has non-being. But this can't be right. It has mythical being as an 'animal' and mythical reality. There is more than the physical existent and the idea. When we think of the unicorn we don't create it. It is in some sense more than an idea, in that it has some sort of objectivity that enables us to think about it. It is available to be thought about.

But I don't think its existing in our minds gives the idea of a unicorn a place in the physical world. The mind isn't physical. The idea may have a particular place in the physical brain in which it is realised, but this isn't unicorn. It is just a part of a brain state.

But yes, we do say grammatically, in discourse, that unicorns don't exist (should someone suppose that they do), and the problem is at the logical level, as you note when you say 'God does not exist' is a contradiction.

But there is also the problem of what 'exists' means, because there is mythical or fictional existence. There are theories of possible worlds which attempt to account for fictional existences. For sure, it is possible that a unicorn might exist. We can imagine it. But this is all a very complicated area and you might look at Anthony Grayling's Introduction to Philosophical Logic.

6. Again, I'm not sure God is an idea. As far as I am aware, people who do believe in God don't share the same concept. If God is infinite could finite beings have an idea of God? What are God's properties? In any case the proposition 'God does not exist' is seldom used. Is this because we are guided by the fact that we aware of logic and contradiction, or is it because the concept or being of God is a matter of belief which it is inappropriate to assert? We say 'I don't believe in God'. My turn to ask you questions, I think!

Rachel Browne


Eleanor asked:

I'm a philosophy student in Poland. I just want to know what is the first philosophical question? Who is that philosopher?

Let me begin first, since this is a question about beginnings, about how to begin, and about the possibility of being to late to begin, by pointing out an ambiguity in the question "What is the first philosophical question?"

We can distinguish at least two readings chronological and logical: "What is the question that first leads us on the path (way) to our philosophical endeavours?" and "What is the proper starting point for our philosophical inquires?"

These two questions may give different answers, the first question provides as many varied answers, as there are philosophers, examples are: "Why am I me and not someone else?" "Do I have a soul?", "What happens when I die?", "Why is there a world", "Do I see the same red door as everyone else?" "Does the world really exist or is this all a dream?" My own view is that philosophy begins, we start to ask philosophical questions, when we witness or become involved in loss of equilibrium between our own self and the world, between the particular and the universal. That is, when an event occurs that shows a discrepancy between me and the rest of the universe we ask questions like the ones above. Philosophy starts in the strange space that is the intersection and gap between me and the world.

These may be the first question we ask, but they are not first in the logical sense, where first is understood as prior, original, foundational and structuring, in this case the chronologically first questions we ask would lead us (later) to the 'ultimate questions', the first philosophy, upon which the rest are built or derived.

Philosophy has always been (at the first) concerned with this discovery of origins, of this original base: "Philosophy is the courage to get to the final ground, the ultimate reason for all and everything...Philosophy is first philosophy in the double sense that it seeks the ground, foundation origin, arch', and then it anchors grounds, founds, everything upon that origin" (Cohen: Elevations 150).

What then is the first philosophy, what is the proper starting point and ultimate ground for philosophy?

You may not be surprised to learn that depending on who we read we find a different answer, however one common staring point has been the realisation that things exist, not just things as such, but that there is existence. Being is at the origin of what can be investigated. Ontology (the study of being) is first philosophy (in both of the sense described above). This preoccupation with being has in various guises been predominant in the history of philosophy, from Aristotle to Heidegger. [Importantly, I should point out that Aristotle was not the first philosopher. It may be impossible to ever uncover the origins of philosophy since many records, and documents have been lost, generally however, people like Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, the pre-Socratics are called the First Philosophers, There are a number of source books available of there works, there is also a Pathways programme dealing with these thinkers.] According to Adorno however Aristotle was the first to investigate the intersection I mentioned earlier between me and the world. See Adorno's Metaphysics: Concept and Problems.

Not everyone is satisfied with this prior-ity accorded to Being; for some God is the proper starting point of philosophy for others it is Ethics. Others think that Philosophy begins and ends [its an interesting question whether and where philosophy should end, can we make a similar distinction between chronological and logical orders here?] with the study of language.

Recently, post-modernist thinkers have questioned the very idea of a starting point a ground a foundation, maybe they have realised that one always comes along too late to uncover any origin, we just start with what we already have.

Brian Tee

The first ever philosophical question comes down to us as a proposition: 'The basic stuff and the origins of everything are in water'. Behind that proposition we have to guess at the question, which is not difficult — for instance: 'If we choose not to believe that there are gods who made everything, can we find an underlying order or substance of which everything in the world is made?' The thinker responsible for this train of thought was a Greek named Thales, who lived around 600 BC; his 'agenda' was subsequently adopted by many other Greek philosophers and can be said never to have come to rest. Although much knowledge has been acquired since, and it is now evident that water is not the basic stuff of the universe, nevertheless it was such a provocative idea that even today we are still looking for something to fill the bill — in this respect we are still the children of Thales.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Ayman asked:

I have read that Richard Gale in his book God and the nature of existence made it very clear that the evidence of God's existence and non-existence are a failure and unsound. Is this true?

The second question is what is meant by saying that atheism and theism are not based on transparent foundations so that no-one has epistemic priority or privilege to his belief?

Try to replace the concept of "God" by the concept of "unicorn": How will you prove that you have seen a unicorn, or how will you disprove somebody who tells you he has met one? Or replace even this by the well known "Nessie", the evasive monster of Loch Ness. Or by Bigfoot roaming Montana. Or take UFOs.

You always have the same problems: First: What are you trying to prove? You have seen "something". But how do you know that this "something" is what you think it was? If you have seen only some shadow moving through the woods or through Loch Ness or across the sky and under strange illumination during dusk or dawn, that does not prove much. Now transfer this back: What do you really "know" of "God"? You have heard something told of him and read some holy book and some reports from true believers, and you fit this with some great feelings. While those books and those feelings are both real, your way of fitting them together is not justified. You have seen something strange in the woods and you have read something on unicorns (or on Bigfoot etc.) and now you stick this together. This is much more than the evidence could bear. As Leonardo da Vinci said: "You can hear the Ave Maria in any ringing of distant bells". Or read the solution to E.A.Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue". There is a strong tendency in humans to make meaning of what they see and hear. We try to live in a meaningful world. Thus if the meaning is not evident, we try to construct one. There is some "horror vacui" (fear of void) in philosophy, and most people prefer a plausible answer to no answer at all. Which explains a bit why so many strange demigods and monsters and "forces" have been invoked at all times to explain strange events. Why do bright children always ask "why"? Because they try to build up a meaningful world.

The second problem: If there are living unicorns, then there should be dead ones too. And if there were dead ones they would be stuffed up and shown in the museum. Where do all the dead unicorns go unnoticed? Thus you have another problem of consistency: If there is one evidence, there generally should be more evidence of another sort, and they all should be consistent. In this way the spherical shape of the earth is "proven": By ship-traffic, by air-traffic, by satellites, by theories, by direct evidence looking from the moon etc.. There is a tremendous mass of evidence consistently proving the spherical shape of the earth. But what consistent arguments are proving the existence of God? Of course there are those many true believers consenting on their experiences, but there are many experiments "proving" collective experiences of "facts" that simply are not provable. If you open a flask of clear water before a students' audience and tell them that this is a perfume with a lavender scent, and you ask the students to rise their arms if they smell it, you will get nearly the same results as if there were really this perfume in the flask and not pure water. This once more is in part an effect of "horror vacui" — and it is an effect of "being sociable": If you stay objective and deny smelling anything, then you either seem stupid and having no nose, or you seem arrogant and calling all others stupid for smelling this lavender scent. To avoid this social conflict you agree to smell something while in fact you do not. Thus how dare you to think there is no God if all your more experienced and bright elders agree that there is one? If all elders agree that there are witches and unicorns and UFOs, how dare you to question them on this?

There are of course some things hard to prove or to disprove. Suppose Columbus had been the only survivor of his first voyage to the Americas. People would have thought him to be mad perhaps from exhaustion and telling some absurd and wishful stories of a strange land. If these stories could not be confirmed by his companions and by further voyages, one would never have known if this America does exist or not. There are several things that are rare and whose existence has been proven only in recent times like super-waves crossing the ocean as "solitons" or giant octopuses of 40 feet length. In the same way there must have been some rabbi Jesus who made a great impression on some contemporaries in Galilea, otherwise there would have been no apostles and no Christendom. But how will you prove that he really called himself "son of god" or even identified himself with God? There are no video-reports of his speeches. To be a really impressive person like Ghandi and to be an incarnation of God are two different things. There have been several persons in history that have been risen to the status of a god after their death. But to be seen as the founder of a world religion and as an incarnation of God even 2000 years after your death you must have been really impressive and your teachings must have contained more than the usual minimum of truth. But if he really made the claim to be the creator of the universe incarnated: how would you prove or disprove such claim? It is impossible. Only to jeer at it is not disproving it. We cannot exclude the possibility. There is much we do not know.

Thus whether Jesus was indeed God incarnated or only a really great rabbi is not provable. But then it is not that important. You should listen to him — whatever he may have been.

Hubertus Fremerey


Suzanne asked:

"As the child grows older, what wisdom can be imparted; and from which philosophers, which may give hope that he is not being raised in a world predominantly evil?"

Ok... let's assume that all children are being raised in a world predominantly evil. Now what? Should we all despair? Should we all become evil? Kill ourselves? Why not ask: "What is it that we can do to increase and maintain good?", and then go from there?

I know of no way to determine whether the world is "predominantly" anything... except polluted, maybe. Which it is, given industrialization. But "evil"? What does that even mean?

So I think that you might refocus on how to make things better, even in some small way, and not on whether to despair over the state of the world, which is probably not all that great... but who knows? And who knows whether it is improving or getting worse?

Steven Ravett Brown


Edaw asked:

If time has a beginning (when things started to change) does it have an end (when things stop changing)?

How is it possible for the universe to stop changing?

What is time? From the way you put your question, it seems to me that you think of time as something independent, some entity or process that runs its course, irrespective of the entities or processes comprising the universe. But this is not the case: time is dependent on entities and processes being there; and it is altogether appropriate to look upon time as their periodicity. So, for example, what we humans understand by the concept of "time" is tied to the physical processes which control our lives, from the periodical rotations of the sun and moon, which strongly affect the chemical processes of life on earth, to the small-scale (and sometimes imperceivably minute) activities of subcellular and even submicroscopic events that occur in these realms and (as it were) set the agenda for the larger-scale events which we call "living".

Even without going into the specialised meaning attached to the concept of time in physics, which is however an altogether analogous meaning — i.e. tied to the large-scale rotations of cosmic events controlled by gravitation etc. — it should be clear to you now that "time" is a human concept and has no independent existence whatever. It is merely a word with a specific meaning to us humans. Time itself is neither observable nor measurable; what we call the "measurement" of time is merely a gauge we put on processes developing in a monodirectional way. If you really want to confuse yourself, you might like to try this little logical exercise: we measure time today by the vibration rate of the caesium atom. This atom flutters something like 900 billion times a second. What is a second? Well, 900 billion vibrations of the caesium atom! There is merit, then, in the old wisecrack that God invented time to prevent everything from happening at once.

The question of the universe stopping is a little more difficult to answer properly. It depends in large measure on the theory of thermodynamics and the subsidiary question of whether that theory is accurate. We believe it is, but there are no guarantees. We cannot observe the universe, only a very small portion of it. So the current theory is that thermodynamic processes will "run down", that ultimately the fuel which drives all the nuclear interactions we can detect out there will burn themselves out. For example, an atom vibrates when it is active, and in doing so dissipates its mass. This dissipation is what we mean by "burning out". Like striking a match and watching it turning to ash. Ash is not renewable; so if the thermodynamic theory is correct, then at some time in perhaps 20-30 billion years, the presently known mass of the universe will have burnt itself out and everything will come to a stand still.

However, there is a countervailing theory, which assumes a "residual electric potential", like an "energy pump", which in fact continuously recycles these processes. You can understand this in terms of such phenomena as superconductivity, a state of matter where (because of the coldness) resistance to the dispersal of energy across the vast distances of an empty universe is practically nil; and these energy fragments are bound, sooner or later, to collide and build up the dissipated structures again. As they build up, heat is generated, resistance increases etc etc. Time resumes.

For the time being, these are the main theoretical alternatives. But which one you choose to believe is entirely up to you.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Olga asked:

Why has Heraclitus been called the philosopher of Becoming?

Only a few fragments of Heraclitus's thoughts and teachings have survived the two and a half thousand or so years since his death.

The most famous example is "You cannot step into the same river twice". Imagine you step into a river, then you climb out, then you step back in again. Between the first and second immersions, a great deal of water has flowed past; so you are stepping into a different body of water.

What Heraclitus is saying, in other words, is that facts about change entail that objects don't persist through time. Nothing just is; everything becomes.

Persistence philosophy has become a lot more systematized in the last hundred years or so. The default view is that objects do persist — Heraclitus is quite radical in this respect — however, the pro-persistence camp can be divided three ways, viz:-

Endurantists claim that objects are three dimensional things, wholly present at every moment from their creation to their destruction. I think this is probably what most people naturally believe. It's certainly the most popular position in philosophy.

However, endurantism is beset by the problem of change. Take my home, 'Dunroamin'. This morning it was immaculately clean and tidy. But suppose that this afternoon, loan sharks came and smashed all the windows. Then 'Dunroamin' this morning has different properties — unbrokenwindowedness — from this evening's damaged 'Dunroamin'. Now Leibniz's Law states that all and only objects with all their properties in common are identical. It follows that the two Dunroamins are non-identical, i.e. different objects.

Perdurantists recognize the endurantist problem with change. They think that objects are four dimensional things, not wholly present at each moment of their existence, but extended across time in a way analogous to the way things extend through space. For example, this evening's "timeslice" of 'Dunroamin' is to 'Dunroamin' the 4-D object as my spleen is to my body.

Finally, stage theorists (the classical example being Katherine Hawley, author of How things persist) deny that there are four dimensional entities over and above timeslices. They think that the timeslices are the objects, and that they aren't identical with eachother. You might think that means that objects don't persist. The endurantist Trenton Merricks would agree, according to his review in the Journal of Philosophy of Hawley's book. Hawley reckons that although timeslices or stages aren't identical with eachother, nevertheless persisting isn't a matter of identity across time, rather stages persist by means of standing in "non-supervenient relations" to other suitable stages.

Richard Craven


Colin asked:

What am I thinking?

What are you thinking now reading this response to your question 'What am I thinking?'? What are you thinking as I type this response to your question 'What am I thinking?'? What were you thinking when you sent this question to ask a philosopher?

If I say, 'Don't think about a red monkey,' it's a good bet that you have a thought about a red monkey. Similarly if I ask what are you thinking now, it's a good bet that you are thinking, 'what am I thinking?' but what is the thought 'what am I thinking'?

Right now I am thinking about what to type, that's the most immediate, the most pressing thought, yet the radio is playing and I'm singing along to the song, the window is open and I can hear the cars pass, I'm thinking about a play I want to see and if I can get a discount on the tickets. The point is that I am thinking about loads of things, I don't think this is unusual, you are probably doing the same, our thinking is a rag-bag of jumble. Perhaps a more appropriate question would be what am I attending to?

Attention is an interesting phenomena, but one I will not touch on here.

Yet it's still undetermined as to the temporal framework we are working with, if I say red monkey again you will think about a red monkey, is this the same red monkey thought, are you remembering the previous red monkey (you probably are now that I've mentioned it, but again is this the same red monkey or a new thought?).

Philosophers make a distinction between types and token thoughts, so for example there is a new model (type) of car, but many particular cases (tokens) of that car. Similarly with thoughts red monkey is a type of thought, and each instance we think it, is a token of that thought, so that it is possible for example for two minds to think the same thing. But I have a suspicion this is not correct, it is probably okay for dealing with the question how can two minds think the same thought, and for cases like red monkeys, but my suspicion is that the thought 'what am I thinking' escapes the type/ token distinction.

Let's go back to the three original questions, even if what you are now thinking is has same form as what you were thinking when you wrote your question, namely, 'what am I thinking' this is not the same thought now as then, it's a different 'what am I thinking'.

Why, because your asking now 'what am I thinking' changes each time you ask it.

This is the reason it escapes the type/ token distinction, it is essentially indexical, and self-referential.

Even if you can remember what you were thinking when you wrote 'what am I thinking' would you be thinking now what you thought then, no, because it is remembrance, it will have a different temporal structure, a different feel and therefore a different content, it will not be the same thought, similarly thinking now 'what am I thinking will be different in the future from thinking it now.

Time and thinking are tightly connected, I'm sure I've had that thought before.

Brian Tee


Jason asked:

Is defining consciousness possible?

This is a horrendous and nasty issue. First, what is a "definition"? Usually we take that to mean something like translating a complex term or idea into a combination of simpler terms or ideas; or substituting ideas or terms we do understand for ideas or terms we do not. Going on that rough idea of definition, we then ask what "simpler" or more "understandable" (whatever those mean) terms or ideas do we substitute for "consciousness" or for consciousness (think about the quotes). Well. I don't know of any, offhand. "Awareness"? Um... why is that simpler?

There is an enormous amount written on "what" consciousness is. This can all be taken as attempts to "define" consciousness... but not in any dictionary sense, more in the sense of explaining it, elaborating the concept, etc. I'd suggest that if you're seriously interested in this you go here: http://assc.caltech.edu/, and start looking around. For a few years (yes I'm serious).

Steven Ravett Brown


Ying asked:

What is meant by absolute truths, and what are the implication for knowledge of absolute truths?

The term "absolute" means independent, pure, unrestricted (from Latin, which in its migration into English gives you a hint: ab = un, solute = soluble, as in "insoluble"). Thus in speaking about absolute truth, we mean something which is totally pure, uninflected, unconditional, unchangeable, not influenced by theories and circumstances.

>From this, you might understand that such truths cannot be very many. For example, a scientific theory is the truth as currently understood; but theories do change and cannot ever be absolute. Similarly with many human truths, which may be influenced by the presuppositions active in a particular society. And now you could go through the whole gamut of truths and find that all of them, even the so-called black and white truths, are nothing more than truths understood as such for the time being. I'm leaving out of reckoning here such truths as depend on facts: for example the fact that the earth is a planet. You could say that this is a truth about the earth, but that's stretching the concept of truth somewhat, because a fact and a truth are not really the same thing (a fact is something that actually is or was the case, whereas a truth should be something that just is). I'm also leaving out of reckoning such truths as are dealt with in instrumental algorithms, where a memory chip may be loaded with a value "true" or "false", because again this is rather a thin type of concept referable to mechanical evaluation and in any case completely dependent on the prior understanding of the factuality (yes or no) evaluated by the device in question.

But this leaves us with very little, namely philosophical and religious truths. Now the latter qualify for an absolute state without question — if you are believer. That God is absolute Truth (with a capital T) is taken for granted in most religions, and if there is discussion about it, this is only in the service of understanding its absoluteness, not the "fact" that it is. In philosophy, absoluteness is essentially an Hegelian concept and refers to the spirit which endeavours, through the conquest of knowledge, to arrive a synthesis of the totality of existence. Other metaphysical thinkers, for instance Pascal, Spinoza or Spencer, have similarly embraced the whole of the universe or the total harmony of the cosmos under the idea of an absolute truth. The concept, however, derives ultimately from the late medieval philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, who coined it with just such a meaning in mind.

Now it is clear from the above that there is a certain amount of wishful thinking in all this. You don't have to take my word for this, of course (I'm quite irreligious). But if the idea of "knowledge" means anything at all, then absolute truths are not subjects of knowledge. Nor are religious ideas of Truth-and-God genuine knowledge — even the medieval thinkers acknowledged this, for they expended enormous amounts of energy to come to a concept of "knowledge" that enlists metaphor or analogy, because they knew that God cannot be known. I would say, then, that absolute truth is a metaphysical concept; hence the term "knowledge" is misapplied. Metaphysical truths are ideas we might strive for, that we struggle with and try to understand even against all possibility of truly understanding them. I would go so far as to say that in part, this is what philosophy is all about. Wittgenstein wrote at the end of his Tractatus that we should stop talking about things we can't express in unambiguous words; it was a kind of counsel of despair, and clearly ideas concerning "absolute truth" would fall under this stigma if Wittgenstein is accepted as having the last word on the matter. But he doesn't. Even his antimetaphysical utterance reflects a metaphysical attitude and he clearly understood this himself in just these terms.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Well let me give my PERSONAL opinion.

'Absolute' truth is the opposite of relative truth (see http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/r/relativi.htm). It is called absolute because of believing in one continuous (often limitless) truth. The debate about absolute versus relative truth is often called the Popper-Kuhn debate. But the question is if choosing sides is necessary, both ways of looking at truth have stronger and weaker sides.

Absolute truth or authoritarian knowledge seems to be necessary in the first part of education. At some point though you have to go your own way, and then relative truth comes in the picture.

All present political systems are based on power and some kind of 'absolute' truth. Humanity at present seems on a point of change.

Henk Tuten


Juan asked:

What is the meaning of knowledge?

Your question is concerned with one of the major divisions of philosophy, 'Epistemology.' Any answer I can provide will certainly not be conclusive, and you will find that there are several alternatives. Much depends on the standpoint from which one approaches the problem. The starting point of the empiricist differs to that of the rationalist, the idealist, the materialist, and so on.

My favourite answer to the question is contained in the work of Bertrand Russell, who claims that there are two sorts of knowledge; knowledge of things and knowledge of truths. Knowledge of things is further sub-divided into knowledge by acquaintance, and knowledge by description. We can say that we have acquaintance with anything of which we are directly aware, and this is to understand what might be called a pure awareness, without the addition of other sorts of knowledge or any truths. In other words, knowledge we receive by way of the senses is given knowledge and remains the same to whichever mind it is presented. Hence, if I am in the presence of a chair I am acquainted with the sense-data that make up the appearance of the chair, such as colour, shape, hardness, smoothness, etc.. I strongly believe, but have no way of proving, that the very same sense data generated by the chair would be received by any other human mind to which it was presented.

Although I can claim to have knowledge of the sense data representing the chair, there is no way in which I can get beyond this sensa to the actual thing presenting the sense data. As I can only know the chair by way of the given sensa, I can only have beliefs and assumptions about the real chair. Russell called the received knowledge about the chair "knowledge by description." He further claims that all the knowledge we posses started off as knowledge by acquaintance (bare sensa), both knowledge of things and knowledge of truths.

Sense data then supply the most obvious and striking examples of knowledge by acquaintance. But if they were the sole examples, our knowledge would be very much more restricted than it is. Only the immediate data presented by our senses could be known, we would know nothing about the past, or even that there was a past, nor could we know any truths about our sense data. Knowledge of truths demands acquaintance with things which are of an essentially different character from sense-data, things which are called abstract ideas (Universals).

We all have the ability to remember things, so we can claim that most of our sense data is confined to memory. It follows that memory must refer to the past, remembering, then, is a further example of knowledge by acquaintance, memories recalled to mind is knowledge of the past, i.e. knowledge of things previously presented to the mind by acquaintance with sense-data, these would include memories of objects and memories of events.

The deeper one investigates into the meaning of knowledge and the more complex it becomes, so we should not be surprised when we find other layers of knowing, hence, we realise that we are aware of 'being aware,' when I see a tree I can be aware of 'seeing the tree.' This is a fascinating facet of Philosophy of Mind; does one part of my mind observe the actions of another part, or is there an 'I' separate from the mind which is aware of events in the mind? However, according to the present thesis awareness of being aware is another case of knowledge by acquaintance. Russell called this awareness by introspection. Our desires are things with which we are acquainted, as are our feelings and sensations.

Memory is concerned not only with the past but also with the future. Aware of things and events that can be repeated, we can extrapolate our experiences into the future, allowing us to anticipate, and to direct our actions towards a purpose. Introducing 'will' and 'interest' into the subject of knowledge is a further indication of the complexity of the subject. There are also variable approaches to life and expectations based on different modes of up-bringing and environmental conditions. The knowledge gained by a person brought-up in poverty and a restricted environment is 'coloured' differently to a person raised in privileged and well-off conditions.

In addition to our acquaintance with particular existing things, we also have acquaintance with universals, as previously mentioned. These are general ideas such as whiteness, diversity, relationship, etc.. Controversy about the use of language further complicates the problem of knowledge, however, the consideration of language problems are an essential part of Philosophy of Knowledge. The transfer of knowledge from one mind to another depends largely upon the proper understanding and use of language; as does our construction of concepts.

If you wish to pursue the subject I recommend the following reading:

The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell, Oxford Paperbacks ISBN 0-19-888018-9.

The Problem of Knowledge A.J. Ayer, Penguin Books.

Mind and the World Order (Outline of a Theory of Knowledge) Clarence Irving Lewis, Dover Publications ISBN 0-486-26564-1.

John Brandon


Stephen asked:

Is fear the only evil?

I don't think so, in fact I think fear presupposes an encounter with evil and that fear is an appropriate response to evil.

If fear was the only evil then those who feared genocide would be evil, surely we don't want to say that those who died were evil. Of course it could be said that those who perpetrated genocides did so because of fear and this is certainly evil, so I guess it all depends on who is the fearful one. That's why I said fear presupposes evil. The Nazis were not evil because they feared the Jews (if you will allow me to phrase it like this), the Nazis feared the Jews because the Nazis were evil. In the face of the evil of the holocaust the Jews were justified in succumbing to fear, this did not make them themselves evil. Fear is a response to evil not the cause of it. Imagine what we would be like if we did not fear evil, if we embraced it... that would be the most evil of all evils. But of course fear alone is not enough of a response to evil, it's what I would call a negative response. However, evil cannot be overcome on its own terms. It's true to say that evil cannot be defeated by more force, because that just adds to the misery. I think formulating a positive response to evil is one of the pressing question of modern thought.

Brian Tee


Jules asked:

A problem for desire satisfaction theories of the (non-moral) good is that some desires are plainly bad. A desire to smoke, or drink excessively, commit crimes, lead to undesirable consequences lung failure, heart failure, curtailment of freedom. These desires seem to persist even when we have full information of their possible consequences. My question is what is the best way to make sense of desires that are harmful, and can evolutionary psychology help?

You might look up the literature on "acrasia" or the original (Anglified) Greek: "akrasia". There is also quite a bit of recent literature on prefrontal development, and how it is incomplete in adolescence until the early 20s. The prefrontal lobes are mainly responsible for self-regulation and ethics. As far as the EP perspective goes, you can clearly question the delay between the interactions between reinforcement and limbic circuitry, and prefrontal inhibitory effects. Is it advantageous to have such prolonged development? It may have been unavoidable, given the size of the human brain and head vs. the pelvic opening in women. Perhaps in addition the ease of misleading youth into becoming followers was functional for the preservation of tribes. But that's just speculation on my part.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ben asked:

Do you all think that so many of us are asked not to question or at least discouraged from questioning?

Think of the recent war. Many people thought that any form of inquiry into whether it was right or wrong was "unamerican." Is that really true? Of course not. Do people have a right to question leaders? Parents? Do kids have the same rights as adults? The educated as the uneducated? Should we all have an equal right to ask questions?

>At bottom, Ben, when you look at the issue of "rights" from a completely objective point of view, no-one has any rights at all. We are born without anyone asking us if we want to be born, and we die without anyone asking if we would wish to live longer or even forever. What happens in between is, equally, altogether up to chance, for if you happen to be born in a tent you'll be brought up according to the nomadic way of life or, if you happen to be born in a highly civilised country, you'll grow up as a scion of civilisation and will adopt its queer notion that as a result of this chance, you have "rights". If you were to look at this issue from the point of view of Robinson Crusoe, you'll see at once that this is purely a social issue, and consequently when philosophers or legal writers talk about "rights", they are of course adopting the presupposition that in a society, rights and duties are distributed according to some notion of fairness and/or justice, although they would be hard put to point to more than perhaps a dozen such societies in the whole history of mankind. Most of the time, it's the law of the jungle; even today (as you know) there are plenty of tyrannical governments which have not been touched by any concept of right other than that right is with those who have the power to exercise it.

Now this does not answer your question at all. Nevertheless it is worthwhile, every so often, to put the issue in these terms, to clarify a couple of central points in the debate about rights. Firstly, we are indeed constantly discouraged, even in so-called democratic nations. Wherever there are governments, there is secrecy and cover-up. To exercise rights, either individually or in a group, requires you to combat those whose interest is poised against your's. Simple fact. Secondly, however, the whole problem is strung up from the wrong angle, as so often happens with really important human concerns. Instead of rights, we should be talking about responsibilities. What is being left out of reckoning is this: Being born does not confer rights, it only confers responsibilities. Everyone of us, on reaching a certain age, is confronted with this plain fact. So are animals, which then go on to follow their instincts. But we pride ourselves in brains with which to think. So we think up the notion of rights and forget what we really should be thinking about and doing ...

Well, at least I've answered some part of your question and hopefully given you something to think about. There is of course a vast literature on "rights", on legal rights and social rights and natural rights and so on. You might like to dip into Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Sartre for the flavour of the thing. As for me, however, I'll now step off my soap box and let someone else take over. Still, I would be pleased if in reading any or all of this stuff, you bear in mind what I said about responsibility. It is amazing how such a simple thought can throw such a different complexion on the political and social questions which animate us all, and especially us "free" citizens of the "free" world.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Amanda asked:

Do you think that the existence of evil is problematic? If, so how would you attempt to resolve it? (Aurelius Augustinus)

The existence of evil is not just problematic, it is a fundamental threat to the intelligibility of the world and the pursuit of understanding.

To call an event 'evil' suggests that it cannot be situated in a narrative of our lives in the way a crime or misdeed could. The evil undergone or committed by someone sets that person apart; they lie beyond the limits of our understanding. What is characteristic of evil is that it is excessive, overpowering attempts of comprehension — this conditions its dis-order, evil cannot be appropriated into a scheme or framework of thought. Evil cannot be understood only suffered and this suffering is useless or meaningless. There can be no explanation or justification of evil. This means that even appeals to God's actions and/or plans are futile. In this sense the world must remain unintelligible.

This is the threat to the intelligibility of the world evil presents. There is also the threat to the pursuit of understanding. If evil lies outside comprehension, if we cannot understand why children tortured (to use Dostoevsky's Ivan example) then whatever else we do understand is worthless, it makes no difference to these children whether I can explain why planes don't fall from the sky or why 2+2=4. What's the point then of knowing about planes if it doesn't stop the torture?

Some may think I am committing a non-sequitur here: Just because some things are beyond understanding it does not follow that we should give up the attempt to understand anything.

This objection is based on a view that holds epistemology and ethics separate, after the holocaust, Hiroshima, and in the face of the power of evil I think this is a position we can no longer unquestionably adopt. I am not suggesting that every piece of knowledge has to have some use and be productive, I am suggesting that the pursuit of knowledge can no longer be separated from the threat of evil, we can no longer be satisfied with knowing for knowing sake, we can no longer comfort ourselves or hide in good conscience with the appeal: 'this work is for the benefit of mankind'. (See Badiou's Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil for some — not necessarily convergent — development of these ideas.)

There is a second objection against this view, that by viewing evil as unintelligible, beyond comprehension I have given up any basis by which to confront evil: If we cannot understand the causes and workings of evil how can we ever hope to eliminate evil?

What adequate response can we make then in the face of evil? One response is to adopt nihilism, holding that because evil exists the world is fundamentally unintelligible and meaningless. However what I want is a response that does justice to the reality of evil and yet makes it possible to reclaim meaning.

From what will have been argued the answer will not be one based on cognition or comprehension, if only because such explanations seek to encompass all events of evil in one wholly satisfactory account, which it seems to me is wrong. Not allowing for difference and otherness in the world is one of the processes evil-doers promote, to adopt the same strategy in opposing evil seems doomed to failure.

The response then will be one based on action. I would argue however that opposition to evil couldn't be meet with forceful (physical) action since this would ultimately necessitate more evil, but only with what Levinas calls 'ethical resistance'. There are at least three kinds of ethical action: 1. Forgiveness of evil 2. The possibility of redemption by atonement or making amends and 3. the Levinasian concept of my infinite responsibility for the other, where my own suffering can be endured if it alleviates an other's.

I don't know which of these or any combination of these would be successful, but I know that none of them is an easy option.

Brian Tee


Elizabeth asked:

Is it morally wrong to drink alcohol which could harm an unborn baby?

You're putting that question in a form which virtually forces the answer of "yes". If you ask, "Is it morally wrong to drink alcohol which might (perhaps we do not know) harm an unborn baby?" then there is room to say, "perhaps it will not harm the baby, and so it may not be wrong". But even then, would you want to take a chance? And in fact, the likelihood is good that drinking alcohol while you are pregnant will harm the fetus, and thus the baby.

Is it morally wrong to do an action which will bring harm to an unborn baby? Really, do I have to answer that? How could it not be, unless you are sure that you will abort the fetus? And what would make you sure of that latter?

Let me make it clear: research strongly supports that there is a good chance that drinking, to any extent, during pregnancy, will harm the fetus, particularly neurologically. Don't do it. Period.

Steven Ravett Brown


Diego asked:

B.F. Skinner wrote a book called Science and Human behavior. I understood this as a philosophy book and not a psychology book. Skinner's ideas seem copies of the pragmatist theory. Any thoughts?

Simon Laplace wrote a book called The Mechanical Heavens, in which the philosophical principles of determinism are singularly well exhibited. But that does not make it a philosophy book. Laplace was a physicist and his book is a work of science. Ernest Mayr wrote a book This is Biology, in which a great deal of scientific philosophy is evaluated, but this does not make it a philosophy book. Mayr was a biologist and his book is a work of science. Both James Jeans and Werner Heisenberg wrote books entitled Physics and Philosophy, where the scientific ideas of philosophers are discussed; but neither of these books escapes being classifiable as a work of science.

The situation is more difficult to define when you come to academic and scholarly texts which occupy the shelves in the philosophy sections of libraries and bookshops. Are these philosophy books? One could put the argument that they are not; that instead we should call them 'works of scholarship' and reserve the title 'philosophy books' to those where an original and/or authentic philosophy is given. This may be too stringent a requirement, but the question is worth putting, in order to illustrate how tenuous a classification can be. So (as a final example) the works of Frege are nowadays listed as philosophy books, and there can be no doubt that Frege contributed fundamental and authentic ideas. But he was a mathematician, not a philosopher. So you might well ask your librarian and/or philosophy teacher to justify this strange rubrication.

And thus to return to Skinner: no, his book is not philosophy. Not by the most generous margin of permissibility can this book (or any of his writings) be allocated to philosophy. It is strictly the writing of a professional on his profession, and as you already stated yourself, that profession is (clinical and experimental) psychology.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Michelle asked:

What is wisdom?

Given that philosophy is 'the love of wisdom' you would perhaps expect philosophers to have an understanding of what it is they love, unfortunately they don't. Or if they do its in a rather limited way, my philosophical dictionary for example defines wisdom as 'a form of understanding that unites a reflective attitude and a practical concern'.

A reflective attitude here would be what is normally construed as the philosophical concern to understand the fundamental nature of the world and its significance for human life. The practical concern would be how to implement this concern ( both difficult and complex aims).

But I remember a quote (from an episode of 'Star Trek Deep Space 9' I think) that puts all this a little more poetically:

"Wisdom is the difference between knowledge and experience."

Brian Tee


Dennis asked:

What can one tell his 25-year-old son, who is incarcerated for one and a half years, to see the "up" side of the circumstance or to see the opportunity to take this experience and turn it into a positive life aspect?

Hard to answer without knowing him or you... he's in a situation where he's surrounded by criminals and about all he can learn from them is how to be a criminal, and maybe how to pass the time in jail. Not too useful outside. I assume the prison has a library; does it have internet access? Can he request books from outside? There is an old book (maybe updated) called College on Your Own which I highly recommend... it gives reading lists for various courses. In other words, what I'm saying is that in my opinion as a person who has never been in prison he needs a) to turn away, mostly, from what he'll learn from other people in prison, and b) to actively pursue learning in some area. Also, to try to keep up with current news and events, so that when he gets out he won't be too disoriented. You might tell him this: that even if he does only one half to one hour per day of learning in some area, that will add up over time to considerable expertise. Surely he has that much time he can read and study. He might

Steven Ravett Brown


Sporty asked:

Why is Greece the place of a few philosophers?

You may be surprised to learn just how many reasons there are. The first and most obvious is that Greece has always been a very hot and dry place; and as you probably know, the best way to assist the body with air conditioning is to open your mouth and breathe heavily. Now once a person has their mouth open, it seems quite a waste not to use it for its dual purpose, speaking, and so it came about that the Greeks, presumably from their naturally argumentative temper and inclination, became exceedingly garrulous. Nietzsche commented on this when he wondered why the Greeks invented tragedy: it was (he said) because they loved grand speeches; and the grander, the better.

Now clearly, garrulity helps with philosophising, if you've got a philosophy to argue about. The Greeks didn't at first; and so some of the older generation went about fossicking in the near East (Babylon, Egypt etc) for morsels of ancient wisdom, and since the patron saint of travellers and thieves was Hermes, it seemed a foregone conclusion that those travellers would pilfer on the grand scale, as indeed they did. Now one of the great scholars of the past, John Burnet, disputes this point by asking, where is the evidence that any of these people had a philosophy that could be 'borrowed' from them? There is, however, plenty of evidence from the Greeks themselves, in the commentaries to many of their philosophers, that Solon and Pythagoras, Plato and Democritus and others as well either went there in person or asked their friends to report what they had seen and heard.

Another factor that facilitated the rise of philosophy in Greece was the smallness of their communities. Athens, which was by far the largest state in Greece, had a population of less than half a million at its height, and that's obviously why Athens had to wait so long before philosophy took hold there. You probably know that it arose initially in quite insignificant colonial places like Elea, Miletus, Ephesus etc, before the greed for knowledge infected the Athenians and they decided to have their own philosophy. This occurred not long after Anaxagoras visited and taught many of the young lions of the city, including one Pericles, and he thereby set the tone for a veritable flood of foreign visitors, who brought a veritable smorgasbord of philosophies with them, so that eventually it was the Athenians who became the principal intellectual gourmands of Greece.

A fourth reason is that the Greeks, but especially the Athenians, were very adept at filling their pockets, and this means that their tummies were always full and they got bored waiting for TV and the Internet to be invented. But as Brecht said, you can't philosophise on an empty stomach, so from this piece of wisdom you can deduce quite readily that a full stomach is on the contrary very conducive to it. Philosophy then became a fashion; at first the philosophers taught in schools and academies, then in cafes and the market place; and later on they invented other means of making themselves noticed, for instance Diogenes lived in a tub in the middle of the street and told passers-bye not to disturb his meditations, whereas in reality he made this aggressive move for no other purpose than to be talked about. You might have heard of Cynicism, which was originally a philosophical trend; but you may not know that the term derives from a Greek word meaning 'dog': well, Diogenes was such a Cynic, and that's why he lived like a dog. — Incidentally, there is an anecdote that Alexander the Great once passed by the tub and exchanged a few "civilities" with Dio-what's-his-name, and was thereafter supposed to have said that if he wasn't Alexander, he would wish nothing more than to be Diogenes. I'm somehow a bit sceptical about the likelihood of this story being true, mainly because Alexander wasn't a Greek and much preferred sword play to tongue play.

Yet another reason (and let this be the last) that might be quoted is that the Greeks were inveterate drunkards. Again, you need not take this from me. Check their poems — with the sole exception of Pindar, who was a very sober person, all the poets of Greece wrote verses about wine swilling non-stop, and there's even a philosopher, Xenophanes, who did the same thing. I don't know of any other nation whose poets were so obsessed with grog, unless it was the Persians. And as you know drink loosens the tongue: 'in vino veritas' (so the Romans said). Here then you have a good reason why, in spite of their thievery and garrulity, the Greeks seemed to uncover a lot of truths about themselves and humans generally.

Anyway, this concludes my roster; maybe others can think of more reasons. For example, I haven't mentioned sex at all, but if the Lysistrata gives any indication, the Greeks were just as obsessed with it as with drink (of which Plato, by the way, gives an outrageously distorted account). And who could fail to observe that they were all colour blind (the men, at any rate)? But these items may have to wait for another day. Meanwhile I hope you've got enough ammunition to put an argument together; though in addition you might just reflect on how come that so many different tribes (albeit speaking the same language) all had these qualities in abundance and that all around them, in the same era, equally bright people didn't. There might be some truth in the old saw that 'it's in the drinking water', after all.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Bas asked:

I'm investigating the topic: boredom. I am now looking into this big human "problem" from an philosophical point of view. Many philosophers from the past have said something about boredom but till now beside some quotes I didn't find much study about this topic. If anyone can direct me further, and anything is helpful, that would be very nice.

The two discussions I know of are Schopenhauer and Heidegger, each is concerned with what and in what manner boredom reveals about the way humans exist.

According to Schopenhauer "boredom is a direct proof that existence is itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence" ('On The Vanity of Existence'). Elsewhere he argues that boredom is at the foundation of human society, this is because "The striving after existence is what occupies all living things and keeps them in motion. When existence is assured to them they do not know what to do with it. Therefore the (second) thing that sets them in motion is the effort to get rid of the burden of existence, to make it no longer felt, 'to kill time' in other words to escape from boredom...it causes beings who love one another as little as men do, to seek one another so much, and this becomes the source of sociality" (The World as Will and Representation vol 1, sec 57).

This is an interesting view, but I wonder if he is correct. When I first read your question I wondered why you called boredom a problem, if it reveals a fundamental fact about the way we live what's problematic about that? But then I remembered what being bored is like, boredom is it seems to me a paradoxical psychological or emotional state to be in. One the one hand there is as Schopenhauer recognises a desire not to be bored, it's not nice to be bored, we don't want to be bored, and yet on the other hand we don't want anything else either, and its not for lack of options or opportunity, there is always something else we can do. And yet if someone suggests something we just shrug our shoulders and moan 'nah, I don't think so'. So boredom consists of two conflicting desires. I think that is the problem we are confronted with. This might be an interesting approach for your studies.

There are two other properties Schopenhauer identifies that I think would be worthwhile pursuing. The first is the fact that boredom revels a desire to 'escape from existence' to make it no longer felt. One of my favourite philosophers, Levinas also uncovers such a desire in his essay appropriately entitled 'On Escape'. He does so in terms of pleasure, shame and nausea and although he does not discuss boredom, it would be an other interesting question as to whether it could be accommodated in his descriptions in that essay, especially given the second property Schopenhauer identifies , i.e. the temporal considerations bound up with boredom (one of Levinas's major concerns is to give an account of who we experience time): 'To kill time".

This is also where Heidegger's interest lies. In his 'The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics; World, Finitude, Solitude' he spends around one hundred pages talking about the various kinds of boredom and there temporal structures, which is a kind of 'being held in limbo by time as it drags'. Obviously I cannot condense 100 pages of investigations, descriptions and analysis here. But this connection between time and boredom is it seems to me the most interesting aspect of boredom.

Brian Tee


Andy asked:

Why is some people goin' to heaven and some goin' to hell? People become religious for various reasons, how they were raised may be stronger than their will to be religious, so is god fair making some headstrong people in every religion ...those who are right won't be doin' it for god.

I'll tell you what... go to the library, or on the web, and read about "the problem of pain". The general issue you address with specfics in your question has been debated by Christians for millennia. Since I'm not a believer, I'm not going to comment on it. But you'll find lots of material under that topic.

Steven Ravett Brown


Alex asked:

Has Zeno's paradox been solved? Or has it been shown that it's not a problem any more? I've only found information concerning the problem with nothing providing a (clear) solution.

There are two aspects to this problem, Alex, and it may be said that under one of these Zeno's problem has been solved while under the other it is essentially insoluble. Under one aspect, the solution was devised in the 17th century, when the calculus of motion was invented. The way it works is not easy to describe in words (a diagram would be easier), but if you can visualise a slope ascending steadily in accordance with the coordinates of Achilles and the turtle, you can see that we are dealing with converging fractions; what is missing from this is the time coordinate. But this is simple for us; so if you now add an arbitrary slope to represent time, all three lines will eventually intersect at one point which fixes the 'instant' where Achilles overtakes the turtle.

From this you can see that the 'defect' of the riddles, as they stood back in the Greek days, was a defect in their mathematics, namely the inability of the Greeks to account for irrational numbers (the point of intersection is such an irrational). We are more generous nowadays, because it does not matter greatly to us whether or not we can assign a precise numerical value to this point; it is sufficient to know that such a point exists and we can easily devise an algorithm to locate it, to any number of decimal places we wish to allow.

As a logical problem, however, the problem is not up for solution at all. It was originally devised as a 'visualisation' of the single-block universe of Parmenides. Zeno determined to show that all movement is an illusion under the logic which appertains to his master's philosophy, of which the main tenet is: 'What is, is.' Something that is, cannot not be. If you pursue this thought to its (logical) consequence, you can show that the idea of something coming into existence or even changing from one state of existence into another defeats our logical faculty. The same applies, naturally, to converging fractions. In logic, any two lines representing, as here, Achilles and the tortoise, go on forever without touching, although this assumes of course that there is no smallest possible quantity. But since logic is not concerned with quantity, the division involved in these fractions has no good reason ever to stop. Today we would of course dispute this, for in a quantitative argument the fractions would coincide at some point or other, because there must be an end eventually to divisibility. But with this argument we are back at cartesian coordinates.

As framed by Zeno, the riddle remains a riddle. The only option, if you are dissatisfied with its logical aspect, is to assert that logic is inapplicable to the riddle, that Zeno in fact proposed a physical argument and was using logic only because the state of Greek mathematics was such as to permit the riddle being posed in such a way. Personally I'm inclined to accept this point of view, but you might try the argument on others to see if they can think of something to dislodge this proposition.

Jürgen Lawrenz

Yes. Here's one solution: If you have a group of teenagers, say, at a school dance, and the girls are on one side of the room and the boys on the other, and they go halfway toward each other... then halfway again... and so forth... perhaps they will never meet. But at some point they'll be close enough for all practical purposes (haha, the joke solution). But seriously, what you have is infinities cancelling out, when you look at the paradox. That is, the distance, say, gets smaller by half each time, and there is an infinite series of those fractions. But that distance is being traversed in shorter and shorter times also. So as the distance decreases so does the time to traverse it, and as it approaches zero, so does the time taken. So the total time is finite. Another way to look at it is to take the sum of the set: 1/2+1/4+1/8... what is that sum? It is one unit. This is such an old problem. For this and other paradoxes, take a look here: http://home.earthlink.net/~djbach/paradox.html.

Steven Ravett Brown


Rajeev asked:

Should athletes thank God after victory?

Thank God for what? For the fact that they won, or conversely that others lost? Thanking God that others are worse of than oneself seems a little ungodly. The view that God favours oneself over others has lead to worse losses than victories. Perhaps it is the case that God is on everyone's side. God supports each athlete equally. But then why should anyone lose at all, why doesn't every one win, why don't they all cross the line at the same time?

If that were the case there would no longer be a race a competition, just God playing with his puppets. But if they are thanking him for winning what does this amount to? For including them in his game?

Isn't one of the main purposes for entering any competition the satisfaction gained from knowing the achievement one has accomplished? If so wouldn't that satisfaction be diminished if one found out that it wasn't due to oneself that victory was gained, but some external factors. If someone fixed the timing of a race it (Not only would it not be a real victory) wouldn't feel like a real victory. Similarly if God is the cause of me winning, then is it really my victory?

The other alternative is that God has nothing to do with the competition, he favours no one, and he just lets them run. In which case what do they thank God for, he didn't do anything? Perhaps just that Thank you God for not interfering, for letting me prove myself. In other words; Thanks for Nothing!

(Perhaps this is the best way to understand the old saying that god helps those who help themselves.)

Brian Tee


Liz asked:

Comment on the following statement: "Empirical science can prescribe nothing — since 'prescribing' must be done by a 'prescriber'.

You really want a "comment" on this? Ok... it seems silly to the point of meaningless to me. It seems to be a rhetorical device designed to discredit science and to set up an argument for religious authority, by creating categories which seem meaningful but actually aren't. How about that?

Steven Ravett Brown


Dennis asked:

I was wondering, how do we define real? Yes, I know, that's a direct quote from 'The Matrix'. It seems to me we're all slaves of senses and the way our bodies seem to work. It's all mechanics. But feelings seem to be more real, the reason you're feeling doesn't have to be real, but that you feel is a fact; because you feel it. But can we make up our feelings, aware or unaware. And if we make up what is true for us, is that bad, our just something you should adapt to?

'The Matrix' is a very fine and challenging movie; but don't forget that ultimately it was written for you to be entertained and only incidentally challenged in your philosophical beliefs. Moreover, it is heavily slanted in favour of an approach to the mind via the so-called cognitive sciences, whose presuppositions have yet to establish their credibility. Although, therefore, the dialogue is unusually intelligent for a movie, the action sequences in large part contradict their underlying theory. And if you've been unfortunate enough to sit through Part II, you'll probably have come to a recognition that there is not enough to carry conviction throughout a saga. It would have been much better to just 'put the question' than to attempt an answer, because the risk of triviality is overwhelming. QED.

Having said this, I will address only one other part of your question, namely the (unfounded and erroneous) assumption that 'it's all mechanics'. I invite you to redress this fallacy as a matter of great urgency, for as long as you (and anyone else who shares it) maintain this view, you will not come anywhere within zillions of the mere possibility of understanding what reality is. This is because 'reality' is a two-fold thing, firstly of the body and secondly of the mind, but there is no mechanism involved for either of these two. Consult a biological text (or even a picture book) and acquaint yourself with the entity called 'organism'. When you have done this, you will find a lot of reality in the way organisms make a living in the most multifarious circumstances and conditions, from the sulphurous furnaces near the molten core of the earth, where bacteria who revel in the fine nomenclatures of hyperthermofilia and pyrobalum ply their trade, to the icy wastes of Siberian winters, where psychrophiles engage in a strange altruistic suicidal ritual in order to save their fellow creatures from death by freezing. Neither here nor anywhere else in the world of living things can these activities be reduced to mechanical functionality. Throughout, a residue of irreducible faculty, a will to exert these functions, prevails, and most obviously in humans.

You said so yourself by pointing at feeling; and hence it is the exclusive emphasis in your thinking that is at fault. Feelings, too, can be described materialistically as a kind of 'chemical jugglery', a balancing act to provoke intentionality; but anyone who might be lured down this path to the conclusion that 'it's all in the chemistry' would find every relevant avenue towards a proper understanding of feelings barred. Feelings, like the mechanical whirring of muscles, tendons, cartileges etc depend on some faculty to move them, which is not part of the pull-and-shove causality of materialism.

Observe, in 'The Matrix', the window into 'real' reality, which is the mission of Morpheus and his followers to reclaim for humans and which on the strength of certain prophecies they believe to be a talent imbued in Neo. Note that in the film the parallel realities are mutually exclusive and that the characters can be coupled only to one or the other. What I criticised above concerns the (not very adequately founded) conception of the possibility of physical movement in the illusory domain concocted by the machines, which we are to understand as the creation of our manipulated nervous systems. This entails several weighty problems which are not glossed in the movie (the impact of the film results not from its dialogue, but from the stirring cinematography). Thus: the nervous system is not a standalone utility, but involved in the totality of all electrochemical activity of the body; to think otherwise — and this is how it is depicted in 'The Matrix' — is a capital error.

For consider that it might be easy enough to deceive the tongue to savour the taste of cheese, which in "reality" may be any cheese substitute you can think of (cork?): but this can not be the end of the story. For even your taste buds trigger appropriate chemical signals to the digestive system, influence the blood circulation and a thousand or million other correlated functions; and of course the stomach extracts nutrients and cannot be fooled to "sense" food constituents where there aren't any. In the end, the whole idea of mechanisms, epecially those which execute machine-like functions, is derived from the biological realm in the first place. Just think of the many interesting things you can do with fingers, hands and arms. What are our mechanical contraptions in their majority, if not imitations of body units, or of particular "worker" organisms? We feel contemptuous of mechanisms because they are cold and dead, but in extending this to biological functions that are not mechanical, we then profess to despise them for an ill-understood "mechanicalness" and blame them for something which they're not and don't do. And these are minor issues, because a sense like taste is relatively primitive compared to vision or hearing, which engage not merely our perceptive and hedonic faculties, but most especially the mind.

It is here, with this topic, where the movie makes its fundamental 'statement'. It assumes, and presupposes in accordance with certain present-day paradigms (all which are valid merely 'for the time being'), that mind is an emergent phenomenon of brain activity, a kind of software written by evolution to run on the wetware inside our skulls; but you need understand little more than the meaning of the term 'infinite regress' to see that thereby the problem of the homunculus or the 'ghost in the machine' which Gilbert Ryle sought to banish from intelligent discourse, has returned via the back door. This will not do; so much is evident. Depending on your own level of erudition, I would suggest you pick up one of Gerald Edelman's books: his scientific writings if you can handle embryology; if not his Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. These are written by a scientist who knows his facts and has a good appreciation of what reality means to an organism, from the instant of its birth to its moment of exit — from reality. In this traversal of life, the organism traverses reality. Non-reality is the state that exists before and after. It does not surround the organism. You might like to ponder this in the light of your remark of "making up what is true for us".

The issue of 'what is reality (to us)?' boils down eventually to this. Everything experienceable to an organism is reality; illusions, delusions, fears and hopes are part of this. But there are (I should say obviously) many layers of reality, and to some of these we don't have access or partial access only. It is the latter which are the subject matter of 'The Matrix'. Without producing a thesis, I can say little more now than that the 'manufactured reality' in which the humans live and work and play in the film is a highly improbable state for an organism to function in; it is evolutionarily speaking a non sequitur and would be 'found out' rather more quickly than suggested in the movie. We live and survive as bodies because we acquire and store concrete knowledge of forms of reality which comprise our habitat, and this reality tends to exert itself cruelly if offended against too long. Think of the comparison with drugs manufactured by the body as part of its endocrinal routine: if these are artificially injected, the result is inevitably hallucination, thus you see here an analogy to the "Matrix" scenario. But in their majority the hallucinations I speak of are (at least) harmful, and in many cases destructive or even fatal. So while omnilateral delusion may furnish a brilliant talking point and highlight certain common human dilemmas, it doesn't measure up to "reality" all that well.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Daniella asked:

What are the names of books that John Locke wrote?

The works of Locke can be divided into those that deal with exclusively philosophical themes and his political writings.

His main work is the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding which you can probably find as a e-text.

Also important are his:

The conduct of the Understanding
Two treatise of civil Government
First letter on Toleration
Two tracts on Government
Essays on the law of nature
Some considerations of the consequences of the lowering
  of interest and raising the value of money
The reasonableness of Christianity
Thoughts concerning education


Clarissa asked:

What is the first philosophical question of Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Democritus? This is my assignment in my philosophy class.

'Is there a basic stuff from which everything in the world is made?' Mind you, they all proposed different answers, but you won't expect me to write your essay for you, so I cannot spare you the effort of researching this further. But since all these thinkers are known as 'Presocratics', you should have no trouble locating source material

Jürgen Lawrenz


Edward asked:

A professor asked our class, one student at a time, "how do you eat strawberries." The "correct" answer is "one at a time." What does this mean?

Your professor is trying to be clever and to make you think about the meaning of "how". If "how" refers to the mechanism or actions of eating, then "one at a time" is one possible correct answer... I guess. Another might be something like, "by chewing and swallowing". He wants you to see that saying "with cream" or something like that does not tell us "how" we eat strawberries. He (I'm arbitrarily saying "he") seems to be doing a fairly good job of teaching this, since you're thinking about it to the extent of asking us.

Steven Ravett Brown


Patricia asked:

When I studied Philosophy at Surrey University in the 1970s, I remember our lecturer reading from a book which cited the case of a foreigner visiting Oxford who asked the question: "Where is the University?" I cannot remember the reply to the question or the title of the book or the philosopher in question. However, I am writing a book about sources of information for the construction industry. Not only are the relevant organisations diverse and fragmented but some of the established sources (libraries for instance) are becoming more distributed and virtual, with company libraries decentralising.

I would love to locate the answer to the philosophical question, its source, the wording and the philosopher concerned. It might make a suitable quote for the concluding chapter of my book.

The quote is from Gilbert Ryle's 'Categories' (1938), in which he tells of someone visiting Oxford and, having been promised a tour of the university, and having seen the lecture theatres, the sports hall the libraries and the administrative buildings, then asks "but where is the university". He uses this as an example of a 'category error', in this case the visitor is mistakenly thinking that 'university' belongs to the same category of entities as a 'building'. This was used to illustrate Ryle's argument that when we puzzle over what 'mind' is, we are making the 'category error' of assuming it is some sort of quasi-physical entity, leading to what he called The Dogma of the Ghost in the Machine- the view that the mind is some sort of ghostly entity independent of the body.

Glyn Hughes

This may be a reference to Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind. In Chapter 1 section 2 (see note), Ryle introduces and explains the concept of 'Category Mistake'. He gives the example of the foreigner visiting Oxford for the first time. He is shown the colleges, the libraries, playing fields, museums, registry etc. He then asks 'But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live and work and where the administrators and the rest work. But I have not yet seen the University ....'

It then has to be explained to him that the University is not another 'collateral institution' or some 'ulterior counterpart' to the colleges and other buildings he has seen. The University is just the way all that he has already seen is organised and co-ordinated.

The visitor's mistake was to assume that the University belongs to the same class or category as Christ Church, the Bodleian and the Ashmolean. That it is just another member of that class or category of things. In simple, the visitor has made a category mistake.

Ryle's general purpose is to argue that people such as Descartes, who talk about the mind as if it were a non-material substance separate from the physical body and extra to it, commit a similar category mistake because really talk about the mind and mental states is actually just talk about the body and bodily behaviour.

He refers to the official Descartean doctrine as 'the dogma (or myth)of the Ghost in the Machine'. That now notorious phrase indicates the tone and style of the rest of the book which is written so engagingly that The Concept of Mind is one of the few philosophy books that even beginners can actually read through from cover to cover and enjoy doing so. It became known as 'Le style, Ryle'.

[Note: the precise reference is page 16 of the Hardback edition first published by Hutchinson in 1949, with many subsequent reprints.]

John Sartoris

The book you are after is: Ryle, G.(1949) The Concept of Mind. Penguin.

The quote you are after starts from a paragraph beginning on page 17.

"A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks 'But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the College live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.' It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The university is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized." [Ryle 1949:17-18.]

Julian Bennett


Dennis asked:

This is a great service, so before I start using this way of asking more often, I would like to thank you because of this service. And please excuse my language failures, I'm not English!

Now, my question is: What about love? Defining reality and life is nice, but love... Love is the answer, like the Beatles said it best. And Philosophers seem to ignore or overlook the most important question of all: Is love the answer? It is most likely that I'm not aware of philosophers which do so, therefore I would like to know some names and if there aren't many, why?

I agree with you that Ask a Philosopher is a great service. Not only for those was ask, but as much for those who answer.

To start with your question: I think many good philosophers realize that love is very important. On the other as well there are many others who act like taking part in a competition of quarreling.

Your English is perfect, it isn't my native language either. So necessarily I keep things simple.

To define love is not that easy. But I'll try.

Let's begin wondering what means loving yourself. That seems to me accepting and liking your own approach to life (creativity). That bring us to loving others: accepting and liking THEIR approach to life. On a completely different level things play like sexual attraction (equally important but different).

Is love the answer? yes I think so, if seen as accepting EVERY approach to life (or system of thought). Seen that way 'love' is like relativism.

But mind that this also means that 'hate' as the dual partner of love is just as important. It means accepting a way of thinking, BUT disagreeing. It can't be missed in reinforcing self-love. Discussion, fighting, quarreling etc. helps to steer on the endless way to truth

Henk Tuten


Ian asked:

I was recently reading a piece suggesting that 'creativity is an adult achievement and that talk suggesting children can be creative was simply a kind of nonsense'. I am very tempted by the opposite conclusion: not that adults cannot be creative — they clearly can — but that it is easier for young children to be creative than we adults, unconstrained as they are by convention etc. anyone have any thoughts on the issue?

Assessing easiness isn't very easy! This would especially be the case if the nature of creativity changes through the life span, which it seemingly does. Jean Piaget, the child psychologist, concluding through research with children that fictional inventiveness begins between the ages of 2 and 7. So, this is just the beginning of inventiveness and at this stage creativity would hardly be at its peak. Piaget's finding was that abstract thought develops from the age of 11 onwards. The abilities of the mind develop and change greatly through childhood and adults have quite different capacities.

Kendall Walton in his book Mimesis as Make-Believe argues that art, or representational fiction, is an extension of childhood play. The urge to make-believe with mud-pies and playing with dolls gets transformed into the ability to create and/or appreciate art. It is a continuous development. It might be easier to create games as a child than to appreciate art as an adult, but it is difficult to assess because the nature of the creation is so different and the adult has more scope for emotional satisfaction, such as in sport rather than art. Also in some individuals there is probably is more of need for make-believe. Make-believe is comforting.

If Walton is right there isn't conventional constraint on creativity, but a natural development. As adults we would just rather write a novel or read one than play with dolls or play cops and robbers. Child's play is alien to most adults and doesn't satisfy any need at all.

What is interesting here is why it is that some people are artistically creative and others are mere appreciators. I have no idea why this is so, but it does seem that the more you appreciate a certain form of art, the more you are likely to produce one of its kind.

Since the impulse to creativity is the opposite of the impulse to destruction, creativity is a good outlet of energy we naturally have. I don't think there are conventional constraints but believe that play and art are both comforting and consoling. I'm sure Iris Murdoch once said that art should not be consoling. And very great art, perhaps, should not be. But if art and creativity function as extension of childhood play I don't see why it shouldn't be so.

Rachel Browne

If you get away for the moment from the sophisticated psychospeak of professionals in these areas and concentrate just on the concept of creativity (it would help if you had first hand experience of bringing up children, the more the better), then you would see at once that the activities of children are misnamed as 'creativity'. They are play and pretence, of which however it may be said that they represent minds gearing up for creativity. What many researchers miss here is a distinction quite elementary: that 'creativity' is a concept which relates to (a) making something new out of something that already exists and placing it into a bounded conceptual environment with the effect of conferring a new and integral semantic on it, or (b) making something ('inventing') by the discovery of connections and relations among existing things (including ideas) which had not been noticed before.

Now it must immediately be conceded that a great deal of grown-up's activities are also nothing more than play and pretence. One of the fashions of today is to call certain activities 'creative' for no better reason than they resemble in some ways the actual creative activity of actually creative people. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this, and one must wonder sometimes whether all this undisciplined pseudocreativity has any purpose at all. For instance, to encourage adolescents at school or mature age students to write 'poems' and fictions might have some didactic or paedagogic value, but hardly measures up to sponsoring creativity except in that very loose sense in which it is used in such situations. The fly in the ointment is not, essentially, the dispute over whether children are creative, or whether humans as a whole are creative, but what kind of conceptuality we associate with that term.

I might leave this thought for you to ponder on your own. Creativity is a potential, and on the whole (viewed over the whole evolutionary passage of homo sapiens) a clear distinguishing mark that sets us off, as a species, from other species. But this is no excuse for bludgeoning the concept to death with cardboard swords or trifling around with it by pushing it in front of everyone's nose as something you must do for 'self-expression'. That way, the more likely thing to happen is a complete watering down of creativity to just mucking around with the idle notion that every activity which does not directly serve our needs has creative potential and then you might wish to give a good reason for disallowing the term to gambling. The point is, that from a philosophical perspective, creativity is the single most important criterion to confer hope on us and a belief in the future of mankind on this planet, in spite of the catastrophic mess which we are pleased to call our 'management' of the habitat. But just as little as one swallow makes a summer, so a stanza or a splotch of paint or the playing of children do not comprise creativity. But like the swallow, they are harbingers.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Colin asked:

I have two questions:

1. Can anyone make a statement that is not either a statement of what is possible or what is actual or one that states what is necessary?

2. Is it the case that in responding to questions of a 'what is x' nature — e.g. what is love, what is a question, what is a car, what is philosophy etc. — the nature of the response (apart from I don't know!) will be either structural or functional or concerned with the origins of the thing?

Can anyone make a statement that is not either a statement of what is possible or what is actual or one that states what is necessary?

answer: 1. You mean, like: "triangles have four sides"?

Or do you want something like, "unicorns weigh 250 lbs"?

Or, "this statement is false"?

As you can see, there are many statements that meet your criteria. The above are three examples of types of such statements.

2. As for your next question... when you tell me what "structural", "functional", and "origins" mean, I'll answer it.

Steven Ravett Brown


Alain asked:

Does the infinity exist?

"When we say anything is infinite, we signify only that we are not able to conceive the ends and bounds of the thing named, having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability."

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan ch.III

If there is one thing that seems to characterise the philosopher's discussions of infinity, it is that the discussion, like its subject, seems to have gone on and on forever without even the remotest suggestion of a possible conclusion. Now, I have no intention of re-investigating the weird world of 'transfinite numbers' or debating the merits of 'infinity orders'. What you want to know is whether infinity is actually a valid concept.

What we do know is that we cannot, by definition, place a limit on infinity, which means that we struggle to offer up any precise word-image of the term. But that doesn't seem to have stopped even the most distinguished thinkers from invoking it. Much as I might wish to avoid seeming impious, I think we have to ask what sort of reasoning led Karl Popper to state that "our ignorance must necessarily be infinite"? Why was Aristotle so certain that "infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life"? What made Alfred Whitehead sure that "we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite" or led Leibniz to assert that God "selects from an infinite number of possibilities"? And so on. Has any great thought gone into the invocation of this ultimate pseudo-scientific substitute for 'god'? It seems not.

But who can blame them? When we're confronted with something which we know carries a range of possibilities, and we immediately see that the range is beyond ready calculation, it is all too easy to just throw in the word 'infinite'. What is all too tricky is to take one of those obviously infinite sets and try to rigorously check whether it does indeed present options without limit. If we're going to investigate this we'll need to find something, which is self-evidently infinite, which is clearly defined and which is known and understood by almost everyone. There are many possibilities, but I will choose to have a look at pictures. It is utterly obvious that the options available in constructing a picture, or a painting, or a photograph or pattern or piece of graphics is limitless. The number of possible pictures is infinite indeed. Or is it?

So, how many possible pictures are there? Let us begin with perhaps the simplest form of picture known to most people today; those austere little icons that litter our computer screens with their crude, and now very well-recognised images of a document, a printer a magnifying glass or whatever. It is clear that there can only be a limited number of such icons, because they are constructed within a bounded system — the abilities of the computer screen. In fact, the system is severely bounded in that, conventionally, such icons are constructed on a grid just sixteen pixels square. If we further restrict the possibilities by allowing the use of only two colours, black and white, how many possible different icons could be devised? What would your guess be? A few hundred? A few thousand? Perhaps a million or so? In fact the total number of possibilities can be calculated from the number of options per pixel raised to the power of the total number of pixels, in this case 2 to the power of 256. This is such an extraordinarily large number that it is probably worth giving in full:


Is this not remarkable? In just a tiny little grid, with so few options, the total number of possibilities is a number so vast that it is difficult to find some understandable way to express it. One might point out that the length of the list of possible sixteen-grid black-and-white images is roughly equivalent in size to 112 times the age of the universe in seconds multiplied by the volume of the universe in cubic millimetres, though that barely makes it clearer. Within that list is enumerated, not only every possible computer icon, but also everything which can possibly be expressed using the same system. So there is every letter of every alphabet, whether known, or lost, or yet unmade. There is every character which can be drawn with less than nine vertical or horizontal strokes, including virtually all in every pictographic script.

But where has this got us? The magnitude of the answer may be surprising, but it is not surprising that there is a clearly definable answer because we are dealing with a clearly bounded system. Surely, this cannot be true of pictures in general? No matter what picture is made, what photograph taken, what pattern formed or what arrangement of lines or colours, no matter how abstract, there is surely always the possibility that that picture itself could be subtly altered in colour, or viewed from a different angle, making a new picture. The moustache, it seems, can be drawn onto the Mona Lisa in an infinite number of ways, because the system within which it is drawn is not bounded by pixels or by anything else. This is not in fact the case.

A picture is, by definition, something, which can be seen by a human eye. It is very probably the case that dogs, or crayfish, see images of some sort. But 'picture' is the name we give to such images, and, as far as we are aware, neither dogs, nor crayfish nor any creature other than humans ever gives names to anything. "A picture", as Wittgenstein put it (admittedly in a slightly different context) "is a fact". So, let us try to see if the total number of those facts, a purely human thing, has an upper limit.

But the human eye doesn't resolve an image as definable pixels. Or does it? Visual information is collected through some 120 million rod and cone cells in each eye. But these are unevenly distributed and the information from them processed by the brain in such a way that exceptional differences or exceptional similarities between signals carry more weight. However, no neurology is actually needed to find out what the resolution of the human eye is — a simple home experiment with a large grid of coloured dots shows that we can resolve, at very best, about 3,000,000 pixels and about 1,000,000 colours and shades. So the total number of possible different images which could be seen is 1000000 to the power of 3000000. This is a staggeringly large number, but it is most certainly not infinite. In fact, you could say that it is almost infinitely less than infinity.

That figure of 1M to the power of 3M is the length beyond which the list of all the paintings ever made, and yet to be made, in every possible variety of combinations and colour varieties, can never go. It is the upper limit of the length of the list of all possible wallpaper designs, of every possible representation of every fractal. It has every frame from every movie, with subtitles in every language. It has every visible page of text, including every page, past or as yet un-thought of, on this website and the entire text of the as-yet unwritten e-mail demonstrating that this thesis is wrong, and that in every individual form of handwriting and in every colour and every language and every typeface. It is the list of all your, and everyone else's, holiday photographs. It is the size of the list of all possible sights.

But what if one of those pictures had some element in it altered by less than the resolution of the eye? It would seem that this would constitute a different picture and the validity of the assumption that there are indeed an infinite number of possible pictures could be restored. However, if the alteration, say adding a little dot, could not be resolved by a human eye, which is to say it is smaller than any pixel, then it would not, as far as a human is concerned, be a different picture.

Now, it may well be the case that an infinite number of images could be constructed, though I, nor any human, cannot know for certain, for that imperceptible alteration to one of them surely cannot be said in any meaningful way to exist for us? This is the old, old argument of realism versus idealism, yet with, I think for the first time, some numbers to suggest where the boundary between the two might lie.

I've only been using pictures as an example, because it seems so obvious that, whatever the picture is, you could always make a different one, so that the number of possible pictures is infinite. I hope I've shown you that this isn't true. There is an actual top limit to the number of possible pictures. And so there is an actual, numerable, top limit to everything — the 'top of tops' being the number of possible arrangements of all possible entities in the universe. That is so extraordinary a number that I cannot even begin to think what it might be like, but, as long as you believe that the universe is physically finite, then there must be an actual top limit of possibilities as well.

So, does the infinite exist? I think there's no objection to the use of 'infinity' as an abstract mathematical construct. But when it is taken out of the realm of pure numbers and is taken to represent things in the real universe then the simple answer is NO.

Glyn Hughes

If you think it does, then it does. There is a concept which you might have encountered, 'the space of all possible x'. This is an infinite space, the same space where your thought resides. But beware of the error lying in wait for anyone who takes these things literally: this 'space' is not real, but a conceptual space. There is no possible proof, because the only creatures known to us who are bothered thinking up such conundrums are humans. We do have this (seemingly ineradicable) tendency to believe that the only reality there can be is physical reality. This belief inevitably gets us into hot water when we then wish to rationally discuss what 'mental' reality is. For one, it is not physical. Is it not 'real', then? Others, following the same train of argument propose that mental reality is the 'only' reality. Well, which is what?

You can see the problem, can't you?

Now I'm not sure if with your question you also meant to ask, is the universe infinite? is God truly and absolutely omnipotent? But if you did, I would answer this in the negative. The whole idea of an infinite volume is based on our (very limited) understanding of extension. We only have experience of finite space, of a finite life span, of finite powers, so in such theoretical situations where we suppose those limitations to be transcended, we also suppose that we are talking about physical reality. Hence the conflict (as above).

Be aware that others might argue for the opposite.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Malcolm asked:

This is a great service, I could end up monopolising this site!

Could you clarify and answer some things for me:

1. In the Tractatus, does Wittgenstein hold the view that the logical structure of our language is misunderstood? And does he change this in the later Philosophical Investigations? Also in the Tractatus I would like to know why the picture theory of meaning is an improvement on the theories of his predecessors.

2. What is the point Nagel is making in "What's Is It Like to Be a Bat?"

3. In the preface of Human all too Human, Nietzsche refers to the problem of hierarchy, but what is it?

4. Would it be correct to say Descartes' dualism is a type of substance dualism? I was once told this was an unfair classification.

5. Where is it argued, and by whom, that man understands practicality before actuality, and not the other way around? I mean this as an existential question.

6. Does Ayer's, Language, Truth and Logic have or assume an ontology, even though it claims that metaphysics (ontology as well, perhaps) is meaningless? I ask this because I wonder if there is a link between meaning and existence? Surely anything that is meaningless does not exist, and accordingly, everything that has meaning must exist (that is not to say physically). Even if it is a lump of dirt or a rock, these things, even though perhaps insignificant and for many people not worth considering, still have meaning for us. That is when we see them, we see meaning with them simultaneously.

7. Could I also ask if anyone knows what this title is in English, Von den ersten und letzten dingen by Peter Heller?

1. Yes, he explicitly says so in the introduction and this is what the Tractatus is about. Wittgenstein was influenced by Frege and Russell.

Frege invented predicate calculus or formal logic which he thought this was hidden in the grammar of language. Russell also worked in symbolic logic but differed from Frege in his analysis of the logical structure underlying sentences. One reason for this was that he wanted to account for talk of non-existents to stay in line with a two-valued logic. I am not a logician and cannot give you the details, but as I understand it, Wittgenstein found formal logic empty and general. Formal logic and truth functions, for Wittgenstein, didn't tell us anything about the nature of concepts and objects.

Logic is concerned with the truth and the truth is about facts in the world we think about and Russell and Frege had failed to show how logic plays a role in our thoughts about the world. Wittgenstein thought that generalised propositions of formal logic showed the structure of an argument rather than mapping the way language is related to the world unless more is said about the mind as representational. A proposition in formal logic can be made to relate to the world by replacing the symbols for words in our language but unless we translate such propositions into an understanding of the world as a whole, each proposition is atomistic or self-contained. You couldn't understand 'The wall is red' without knowing more things and being related to the world. So for Wittgenstein, the world is a totally of facts and propositions are not self-contained, but internally related. You could not understand a formal proposition translated into a statement about the world on its own without understanding the symbols for concepts and objects and how these relate to other symbols.

Or so I understand it.

As such, I think that Wittgenstein's picture theory tied the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language tightly together and placed them in relation to the world and it is the world which makes statements and thoughts true and false. Frege was mainly concerned with logic and its relation to mathematics, as was Russell, and he held that a proposition which is true refers to the "true". Wittgenstein was more realistic than this and said that there is no object which is "the truth".

There isn't agreement about how much Wittgenstein changed his views. The Tractatus is concerned with the conditions of a logically perfect language but ordinary language is not logically perfect and is extremely vague. Also a lot of our talk is not about facts at all as Wittgenstein points out in the Tractatus. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein is not talking about logically perfect languages but ordinary languages.

2. Nagel is arguing that a reductive theory of the mind-body leaves no place for a theory of consciousness, since it is logically compatible with theories that reduce the mental to the functional or causal that there may be no consciousness.

So the point he is making is that consciousness, as the subjective character of experience is a fact but it cannot be represented. We believe that the bat has conscious experience but could not imagine what this is like without actually being a bat. Consciousness in general could never be captured in a theory because it essentially involves a point of view. Nagel says that phenomenological facts about humans form a common type and we can imagine the subjective experience of other humans but this cannot lead to psycho-physical reduction because the more a theory leads away from the human viewpoint, or subjective experience, the further away from capturing the mental a theory will be. You cannot capture the reality of the mental because the point of view, or the way things appear to a subject is just what consciousness is like.

3. Well, Nietzsche calls the problem of hierarchy 'our' problem referring to those who, like Nietzsche, have been able to separate themselves from common values and are masters of themselves. They have risen 'upwards' internally. Not a widespread problem. I agree that it reads as if it is more horizontal, like a personal history.

4. Well, Descartes claimed that he was a "thinking thing" and so he was distinct from his body which was essentially extended. If a thinking thing is not extended it need not be a substance but it is questionable exactly what it is. It looks like some strange ethereal sort of thing. But would the ethereal be a thing? A spiritual essence isn't what we understand by substance because it lacks physical spatial extension. For sure, Descartes can't be a property dualist because a property is not a thing but a quality of a thing. The decisive point is whether the thinking thing can exist/ persist/ subsist or whatever without physical substance. Then it is separate, but whether is it a "substance" or not is doubtful if we understand spatial extension by substance.

5. Well, Piaget thought children interact with objects before they objectify them as actualities and most child psychologists and psychoanalysts would take the same view. But Piaget wasn't an existentialist. Sartre, one of the main existentialists, saw consciousness as an activity which is a practicality, but then so did Kant who was not an existentialist. Actually, I don't understand this question. We don't "understand" practicality before actuality. Understanding comes with communication or language use. Only if you can express something behaviourally (not necessarily linguistically, but you will be communicating) or say what do you mean can you really be said to understand.

6. Well, Ayer was a verificationist rather than a realist. The realist assumes an actual ontology of things external to the mind, but for the verificationist you can only know what you can ascertain to be certain, such as sense data. But this is experience-dependent and can't be said to exist as a real ontology. Ayer thought you could have meaning regardless of the nature of ontology/ existence. Value statements were held by him to have "emotive meaning". In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein held that we cannot speak truly of that which is other than factual or possible fact. Values don't have truth conditions, and emotive meaning would have to refer to the subject rather than truth conditions in the world.

I don't see, and never have done, why truth conditions have to be something external to the mind in an ontology. There are different types of meaning. There are emotional value assessments which are true for us and aesthetic evaluations which we assert. There is a mind-world relation where meanings are in part determined by what is external to us but for other terms truth might be defined as correct use. The term 'true' is defined in many ways, and I don't see why meanings only have to relate to the physical world either.

But the mind has a part to play in creating meanings and what we are prepared to say exists. A 'lump of dirt' is the way we look at it. It is difficult to see it as a lot of individual grains. It isn't a matter of agreement or correct use for 'lump of dirt' but a result of the way we just do perceive things due to the nature of our brains.

7. This translates as 'Of the first and last things' which is metaphysics. Thanks to the bi-lingual Hubertus Fremerey for this!

Rachel Browne

1) I'll let someone who likes W deal with this one. I admire him, but I don't like most of his stuff.

2) Generally, that we have only first-person access to phenomenal consciousness. We don't know whether a bat senses sounds the way we do colors, for example. We can say a lot about what it's like to be a bat, in some ways... but not in that way. Does a bat have a mind? If so, does it, when it hears some particular frequency, have the same experience we have when we see, just to take an example, the color red? Nagel's point is that we don't know.

3) I don't know.

4) "Unfair"? An odd description. Given that Descartes attempts to preserve free will by arguing for a "soul", which surely is a mental substance, since it's not subject to physical laws (otherwise how could it bypass them?), and which is separate from the "body" (connected through the pineal gland, according to him)... substance dualism seems right on the mark to me. What else? Property dualism? So what is the common substance and how could it have such disparate properties?

5) Sounds like Heidegger to me... but you might go back to Aristotle for this one, I believe. Sorry for the lack of refs.

6) I don't know enough Ayer to answer your first question... but I can play with it. Yes I'd say he had to have an ontology, and also that he could not claim that he does not (which you do not seem to know). Given the normal stance of the functionalists, you still have to assume that there are objects which you can manipulate, even if you can only know about them through your manipulations.

But as for a link between meaning and existence, you really should read Heidegger on that one. In Being and Time he is, if I am understanding him correctly, quite definitely claiming such a link. I do not agree. Just because when we see something we assign meaning to it (and I do agree with that) does not as far as I am concerned imply anything one way or another about its existence. Think about robots, for example... they manipulate the world, so in a sense the world they manipulate exists for them... at least functionally. But they have no minds... so there is no meaning for them. One might also use the same argument for plants. Does the world exist for a plant? Surely it does, in some sense... plants are utterly dependent on an external world, and manipulate it continuously. But they are not aware of that world, and so it has no meaning for them. Now, we could say that the world had meaning for a plant... but that's our meaning, not the plant's.

7) "Of [or about] the first and last things". Really, you might think about using a dictionary. They can be very helpful in looking up meanings.

Steven Ravett Brown

I can see why you are threatening us with the intention to monopolise the service! To answer all this (and we don't want to be flippant, do we?) is going to require a team. Still, there are some questions here that can be answered reasonably quickly, No. 2 and (I think) No. 7, and so I'll give you answers to those, hoping that one or the other of my colleagues will tackle the others.

Q2 (Nagel) can best be answered by rephrasing the title. There is a considerable literature on this little essay, but ultimately it all boils down to this: 'If a lion could speak, he would not be speaking lion-speak'. Speaking, in short, entails a human-type consciousness and is grounded in the type of expressive faculties we possess. So a lion could not, in fact, speak like a human, even if the animal possessed a vocabulary. There would be an unresolvable conflict between its experience of the world and the manner of communicating it. The lion could not speak it, and we would not understand, try as we might. Likewise, we cannot experience the world as a bat does. Instruments may do (e.g.) echo location for us, but we have no access to what it feels like to see with one's ears. In a word, each creature or species is subject to the specificity of its own evolutionary patterns and experiences, and these are not willy-nilly portable from one to another.

About Q7: I don't know the book or if there is an English translation, but I assume it could only bear a verbatim title, thus: 'Of the first and last things', meaning 'of ultimate questions'. Unless intended sarcastically, the title would therefore reflect that the text is about life and death.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Michael asked:

Can one be aware that one is not thinking?

A simple answer to this is Yes. This is because we are not always thinking. When we go to bed we hopefully stop thinking (otherwise we will get a troubled nights sleep). Hence we an be aware that we are not thinking. To put it bluntly we can say that we are aware that we are not thinking when we are not thinking! Most of us from time to time cease to think about things and engage in other activities like listening to music etc.

I can't see why anyone would want to deny this answer unless they identified themselves with their thoughts for some reason. Maybe you are thinking of Descartes here?

Maybe you are thinking of the question of whether we can be AWARE OF not thinking, rather than AWARE THAT we are not thinking?

This looks like a stronger test because we may assume that we can be aware of things only if they are present, and so we cannot be aware of the negation of things. Since not thinking is the negation of thinking we might assume that it is impossible to be AWARE OF not thinking because not thinking can never be present to us.

The argument may go something like this:

1) Awareness is always of something i.e., I am aware of being hot, thirsty, tired.

2) 'Not thinking' is not something. It is the absence of something, namely thinking.

3) Therefore one cannot be aware that one is not thinking.

Even here I think that premise one can be questioned. Consider the scenario whereby you walk in the room and everyone stops talking. Here you may be aware of the silence. Consider the case whereby you come home to find your table missing. Here you are aware of the space in which you expect your table to be found. Hence we can argue:

1) One can be aware of silence or space.

2) Silence and Space are not things but the absence of things (noise and objects).

3) One can be aware of absences or non-things.

4) Not thinking is an absence of thought or a non-thing.

5) One can be aware of not thinking i.e., when one sits quietly and allows the mind to stop chattering, we can be aware of the silence of our own mind and so we are aware of not thinking.

Julian Bennett


Tere asked:

Can you tell me of any Maori philosophers?

Kia Ora!

Well, there is Manuka Henare at The University of Auckland. He has taught and written extensively on Maori religion, cosmology, and philosophy. If you search the internet for his name, you'll find quite a few of his writings. Or, why not ask him yourself? His public e-mail address is m.henare@auckland.ac.nz.

Glyn Hughes


Johannes asked:

I read an answer to a question (at this place) about blind people, especially all-life-blind ones, and their ability to dream in shapes and colours, hinting at a priori evidence and even spirits. It said that no such things exist.

I then found a site referring to a book (Mindsight) that had discovered that all-life-blind folk or the congenitally blind in near-death-experiences (NDE) — however you might think of them as mind tricks of some sort — suddenly have an all visual experience (like the normal NDE).

Now what does that tell you (anyone)? If there is no 'a priori' (and maybe anyway) does that not mean that all those NDEs must be real?

If all this is very well known to you, then do you know if the blind NDEs start REM-sleep? as they should, right?

The question is from here.

NDE site link: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence03.html

It tells me or anyone absolutely nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. This is one book, citing a few studies of dying people. Do you have any idea of how difficult it is to get reliable data from living people? Getting reliable data from dying people makes that look like a kindergarten exercise. So, first, I don't believe it.

Second, think about it. What is blindness? Why, it's a simple thing; you don't see things, right? Wrong. There are many types and causes of blindness. Total complete cortical blindness is very rare. Someone with complete damage to their visual areas is most likely severely retarded and handicapped in many other ways. If you don't have such damage, you can have visual sensations from stimulation of intact visual cortical areas, even if you have total blindness from other causes, for example, no functioning eyes. So the NDE thing is unreliable as any indication of the "reality", whatever that means, of NDEs. Actually I think that NDEs are real experiences. Why not? The question is, what do they mean? You see a light... ok, fine. You feel religious... ok, fine. And? Those are feelings you have, and surely you recognize that we all have feelings that are and are not reliable, etc. What about people who wake up in the middle of the night with free-floating anxiety, for no discernible reason? Should they feel anxious? Well, to determine that you have to go to many other sources than just that feeling. Same with NDEs... which so far have proven to be about as "free-floating".

Take a look at these for a dash of cold water on the NDE hype:

Alper, M. The "God" Part of The Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God Brooklyn, NY: Rogue Press, 2001.

Azari, N.P., J. Nickel, G. Wunderlich, M. Niedeggen, H. Hefter, L. Tellmann, H. Herzog, P. Stoerig, D. Birnbacher, and R.J. Seitz. "Neural Correlates of Religious Experience." European Journal of Neuroscience 13 (2001): 1649-52.

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

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

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

Steven Ravett Brown


Charlotte asked:

I am currently studying Lucretius' De rerum natura for A-Level. For the exam I am expected to know the main aspects of Epicurean philosophy: is this just what Lucretius wrote about or are there any major differences between the two men's ideas? Also I am slightly confused about Lucretius' belief in the infinite universe not having a centre: can anyone help to explain it?

I may not be the best-qualified person to enlighten you on the philosophies of Epicurus and Lucretius, respectively, so take the following as an opinion and judge it against other opinions. I happen to be of the view that the philosophy of Epicurus, whose authentic writings have shrivelled down to mere scraps in the course of 'all-devouring time', was largely rescued for us by the writings of his Roman adept; but when one engages closely with the latter's reasoning process and tries to reconstruct what genuine epicurean elements may be found therein, surprisingly little is left that can confidently be attributed to the Greek.

In case this sounds confusing, let me rephrase it as follows: Lucretius had a philosophy of his own, culled mostly from the presocratic philosophers, though taking cognisance of later thinkers (e.g. Aristotle). But what he was groping for, and did not find among these forebears, was a philosophical principle or idea which suited his own, namely that the gods do not and cannot interfere in the human realm; they're a different species and occupy a different habitat. He also wanted to combat the fear of death, and like many a modern proselytiser taught that this fear is irrational because we are all, in the end, just bits of matter somehow enlivened: hence his vast materialistic canvas. Eventually he discovered Epicurus, whose teachings revolved around just these ideas and who had adopted and adapted the corpuscular theories of Democritus; and in his exaltation at this discovery began rewriting his poem to make room for the required reorientation. This is the reason for, firstly, the abrupt transitions in some passages (he apparently died before this revision was completed) and secondly, the almost hysterical paeans in praise of Epicurus, which sound very strange to a cool observer who notes his lordly dealings with other philosophers, most of them of superior in calibre to Epicurus.

In short, the problem we face here is that beyond the few authentic statements from the pen of Epicurus himself, which would barely fill a 20-page leaflet, Lucretius represents for us the largest coherent text on that philosophy. However, it is one thing to acknowledge his indebtedness, quite another to then go ahead and surmise how much of Lucretius should actually be attributed to Epicurus. There is a case for saying 'nothing', if only to counter the blithe dismissals of Lucretius' own philosophy, as if no such thing existed. My argument therefore boils down to an opinion based on what little survives of Epicurus (including the doxography) and comparing this with the poet's own utterances, which seem to me to be far more original than anything that can sanely be attributed to the Greek just for one argument, he seems to be much better informed than Epicurus about the scientific details of his theories and indeed shows a considerable advance. Some of E's pronouncements on scientific matters must have sounded as ludicrous to his contemporaries as they sound to us; but much in Lucretius is apt to astonish us even today with its prophetic vision.

For example, your second question. Try finding such a statement in any Greek philosopher. You won't find one, for the simple reason that the Greeks did not acknowledge such a concept of infinity into their philosophical canons and had no term in their vocabulary to cover it. And this bears on the explanation I'm about to give you: Draw a circle and mark the centre with a point. Now construct a spherical shell around that point (or just imagine a football, which must have a central point). Now imagine an infinite volume. How? There is only one way: take away the shell. It stands to reason that an infinite volume cannot have a shell. So what happens to the point? Well, you must take this away too. If you've got no shell, then you can't have a point. Right?

Now if you were to suggest this experiment to Aristotle, he might quietly point a finger at his temples and rotate it on a little circle (or whatever gesture they used to indicate a 'luny'). This is one example of many why I find originality in Lucretius that cannot be exported back into Epicurus.

I don't know if this is going to help you; but it might at least serve for discussion. Break a lance for Lucretius if you can!

Jürgen Lawrenz


Brad asked:

A question about justice.

I venture the belief that most people entertain a sense of justice. How often do we hear the expression: "I think that this is unfair?" Or; "What right have they to do that?" We seem to have an inbuilt awareness of an imbalance or injustice in a situation. As observers we can somehow see that if Tom gets five sweets and Mary gets four, there is an imbalance or unfairness about the situation. In one way, then, it seems that justice/ fairness is about balancing things out. Many of us, even just as observers, can get highly emotional at something that is glaringly unfair, particularly when there is nothing we can do about it. Basically, most of us, then, seem to be conscious of a rapid response to what we perceive as unfairness, so confident are we about this basic awareness of injustice/ justice that we feel entitled to act at once to put things right or make our feelings known.

Like morality in general, of which justice is an important ingredient, there is a suspicion amongst some philosophers that it is part of our mental make-up, something not actually taught us by experience or indoctrination, but, in a Kantian perspective, is a transcendental property. As you may be aware, Kant presented us with the notion that although we are aware of objects in a world outside the confines of our minds, by way of phenomena presented to us by our senses. We interpret this given objective knowledgein terms ofsubjective knowledge which we possess a priori, in other words knowledge not given to us by our senses, but intrinsically present in the mind, which includes as well as moral awareness things like cause and effect, and time and space. The addition of this subjective knowledge to the sensual knowledge we receive enables us to build up mind/ mental constructs. Thus the popular notion that the mind conforms to objects in the world is reversed and, according to Kant, objects conform to the mind. Thus when we observe an event involving fairness and equality,that event becomes inbuilt into a mental concept constructed in the light of justice.

Despite the fact that we may be intrinsically aware of what is just and what is unjust, this does not prevent our concept of justice being over-ridden by stronger emotions, such as desire, greed, revenge, misplaced sympathy, bias, favoritism, etc. Most of us are very good at providing excuses for unjust actions, but however good the excuses, the actions remain unjust. For example, in the light of current knowledge the Iraq war appears to have been unjust. The initial objective was supposed to be the desire to rid Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, it begins to seem that there are, and never were any. Yet a mass of propaganda was supplied to justify the action, However, whatever excuses are produced the basic injustice remains. The fact that a monsterous regime has been destroyed does not alter the premise that the USA and Britain went into Iraq to locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction; using a separate argument in hindsight does not remove the injustice of the action. It is unfair to accuse someone of something they have not done, even if that person is a monster. This seems to be at least one fundamental property of what we regard as justice, and begs the question for the absolute. If Kant is correct, then there is little reason to doubt the existence of absolutes, absolute morality including absolute justice seems ostensibly to be undeniable. However, if Kant is not correct this does not mean that an alternative argument cannot be provided for the existence of absolutes.

To come to the main point of your question, we can in the light of what has gone before conceive of the possibility of equal justice for everyone. After all, if justice is absolute then it applies to everyone and to every event. However, we must bear in mind what has been said before, our concept of justice can be over-ridden by emotions and feelings. To use examples from those previously mentioned, take the case of a person on a limited budget who cannot restrain the desire to purchase an expensive object which, if they do, will bring financial problems for the family. Their true sense of injustice to the family would probably be overcome by excuses and the probable conclusion; "If I had not purchased this, then I would be unjust to myself." This would, as well as desire, include selfishness. A person taking more than his/her share of a rationed provision, even though they know that it is unfair, is submitting their sense of justice and fairness to greed. I am sure that you can refer to cases where it is obvious that injustice has been done by carrying out acts of revenge, revenge can grossly over-compensate for perceived injustice, to such an extent that injustice becomes the result of revenge. Usually, cases of favoritism and bias are self evidently unjust, whilst misplaced sympathy for a cause or person can often be seen to be irrational and deliberately unjust.

Possibly, in all the cases of human failure and weakness injustice is the one most obvious to us. Despite our excuses the sense of an injustice we are responsible for stays with us by way of conscience, no matter what reasons and excuses we provide for ourselves, there remains the uneasy awareness that our action was unjust. What most of us are afraid of admitting is a feeling of regret, the reasoning and excuses are there to suppress this feeling.

The histories of politics and religion are full of injustices, as is the history of law, which is there to detect and punish injustice. The interpretation of justice in law leaves a lot to be desired. Where we would expect to find justice for all, has often been seen to be just the opposite. The failings of bias and revenge have often seen to be present in the so-called justice meted out. Wealth and position in society have always been seen to influence justice, so has corruption in the organisations which exist to uphold law and order. The present obsession with 'political correctness' often swings the alleged injustice from one side to the other. The present rather unfortunate habit of lenient sentencing creates a great sense of injustice in victims and the relations of victims. This also follows from the now rather common practice of seeming to dispense justice to the criminal at the expense of the victim.

Unfortunately, societies do not search for absolute justice, but are prepared to set the parameters within the alleged desires and preferences of the nation, establishing the subjective rather than the objective. As man makes laws to suit himself, justice is usually biased in favour of the ruling class. Most nations, then, present an artificial justice, which fortunately we are often equipped to detect and compare with the perceived absolute. It is in this light that the increased dominance of capitalism in an increasing secular world, strikes fear into the hearts of genuine moralists.

We are dealing here with a very extensive and complex subject, to do it justice we would require to write a book. To briefly demonstrate some of the complexity involved, where it is difficult to decide which of two opposing concepts is justified, take the parable from the New Testament, where a farmer desiring to harvest his crops employs a group of men early in the morning at an agreed wage. Later in the morning he hires more men at the same wage. After lunch he repeats the process, and just two hours before it is time to stop work he takes on more men at exactly the same wage. On the face of it there appears to be something very unjust, and this is quickly pointed out by the men employed early in the morning; Why should men employed for only two hours get the same wage as those who had toiled all day? The farmer's reply is that there is no injustice because this is the wage the early starters agreed to, they were quite happy to believe that they were being paid a reasonable wage until they learned that everyone was being paid the same. The farmer pressed the argument that having agreed what they believed to be a reasonable payment for the day's work, whatever he arranged with the others had nothing to do with them, and in no way affected their agreement. The early workers might claim that the farmer deceived them, if he had told them what he intended they would probably not have accepted, to them the farmer had acted unjustly/ unfairly by not revealing his intentions. I leave you to make your decision on this in the light of absolute justice.

John Brandon

Patti asked:

Where if anywhere in the Bible does it tell us that it is against Gods/ Jesus or the Church to gamble? I was hoping that you could answer that and also if it is also a sin to tattoo your body. This would help settle several family discussions.

I can find no prohibition on gambling anywhere in the bible, in fact hardly any mention of gambling at all. It gets a bit of a passing mention in the obscurities of Joel 3.3, Obadiah 1.11 and Nahum 3.10, but not pejoratively. Jonah was chosen by a lottery, the soldiers gambled for Jesus clothes of course, and the disciples cast lots to choose a successor to Judas, but that is about it. The Roman Catechism (s2413) says that "Games of chance, or wagers, are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others". Of tattooing, there is nothing, but one bit in Leviticus (19.28) "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you", but this refers to the ancient custom of people deliberately injuring themselves as a mark of sympathy when a relative died, not decorative tattooing. You might care to look at http://www.axxent.ca/~gennaro/Tattoo_History/ where it is suggested that many early Christians had religious tattoos. The catechisms, the Fathers and the Doctors of the churches, however, are silent on the matter. So, the question is really why so many churchmen from Augustine to Wesley have prohibited gambling and looked down on skin decoration?

I'm afraid the answer is probably that, if your group take all their moral cues from a single, written, authority, and you know that that authority is so complex that few, if any, of your followers can understand it, then there is a nasty temptation to claim that all your personal prejudices can be justified by it. So, if you gamble honestly and modestly or have your lover's name incised on your arm, I see nothing at all in Christian doctrine to suggest you might fall out of favour with God. The shades of Aquinas and Luther, though, might not be so pleased.

Glyn Hughes


Aaron asked:

I am lucky enough to have reached this stage in my short life where I want to know everything. I feel my mission is to be the keeper of wisdom and to understand everything in order to find "myself" in the end. However, I am finding that all I do is lead myself to more and more questions. The most confusing thing of it all now is that I don't even know what my original goal was. As a mini-philosopher myself, what is the best way to go about finding answers and drawing conclusions on my own (ie: music, religion, politics, etc.)?

Well off the top of my head I'd say you have two choices... three, really. One, which you don't seem to want ("on my own") is to go back to school. I'd consider it, for several reasons. First, you get to know that you know what others know, when you want to talk to them. Second, you get guidance from the occasional bright and interesting person. Third, you get a ready-made set of people to talk with.

Second, become a scholar. Get reading lists, and read, read, read. A good route if you know what to look for and don't mind isolation.

Third, go the Socratic route: seek out people who seem to be knowledgeable, and talk and ask questions. The advantage: you get lots of interaction. The disadvantage: usually, you don't know what you're talking about and won't understand what the person you're talking to means, unless you've already got a very good education. We've come a bit from the days of Socrates, in terms of knowledge, and in terms of building on others' thinking.

So it really depends on your background and inclinations, doesn't it? One way I've seen people go is to become associated with a book publisher, and attend conferences. You can talk to people who are interested in your books.

I've got to tell you, though... if you think you're going to "keep wisdom" you've got some hard times ahead of you. I don't know anyone wise, offhand, and that includes myself... but do I know lots of well-educated people. If what you want is to "know everything", then one or both of the first two alternatives are your natural choices.

Steven Ravett Brown

There are no best ways, only individual ways. But I can say something in answer to your question. I assume that to give life meaning (reach some kind of happiness) you need to acquire knowledge.

Knowledge is not to be obtained, like for instance money. The process of acquiring it makes you owner of the knowledge. In fact the two can not be separated (they form a mathematical unity). To posses knowledge you need to have acquired it, and after personal acquiring you automatically own knowledge.

That's why your question (luckily) can't be answered in general. For every individual some kind of finding knowledge feels best

Whatever you chose, try to get your satisfaction from HAVING new ideas (political, musical etc.). And adapt an attitude of wonderment about all happenings instead of getting annoyed by a lot of them.

Clearly you already have self humor. Try to keep it.

Henk Tuten


Yasmeen asked:

Objectivity in human sciences.

I'm a bit confused about the term objectivity, I've come across a lot of definitions for it, but what is objectivity in relation to human sciences?

What is an object? It is something given, an item among the furniture of the world which is not a part of any of us, i.e. of 'subjects'. Accordingly, when we are dealing with them by way of research, and we wish to study them as they are rather than as they appear to us or how they influence us, then we study them by way of exclusion of the human agent. We leave our emotions, attachments, interpretations, apprehensions and our motivations in regard to these objects at home and look at them (or at least attempt to) in the same way as another object might see them. By extension, then, any endeavour in which we might be engaged, and whereby we attempt to match this unattached and cold-hearted assessment, can be eligible for consideration as an 'objective' assessment.

In some instances, the use of this term is incorrect, because people have a habit of confusing the opinions of experts with objectivity, as if experts could not have an emotional affiliation to their pronouncements or research findings but this is just something to watch. The descriptive definition I gave is unaffected by misuse. An excellent example is the supposed objectivity of certain trends in literary criticism. Now you should have no problem from what I said above to realise that a work of literature is not an object and therefore cannot be assessed objectively. The only 'objective' features in (say) a poem are the number of words and stanzas, the sequence of rhythms and rhymes, the language used and so on. But the moment you begin reading you are involved and objectivity comes to an end.

One further comment. Why is objectivity so highly prized? Mainly because it permits us, to the degree possible to humans, to acquire knowledge unfiltered by opinion. A classic instance of the conflict between subjective and objective knowledge was Linus Pauling's advocacy of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) as a panaceum for most organic ailments, and especially the common cold. Pauling was a great scientist and an impeccable researcher, but his fetish about Vitamin C clouded his mind on one very crucial issue. For while all his objective arguments might be accepted as coming from the horses' mouth, yet the fact is that many human are allergic against acids and therefore ascorbic acid cannot 'objectively' put forward as a blanket recommendation for cure and control. His long struggle with the American health authorities did not, therefore, ever come to the conclusion he demanded. He left himself vulnerable on the score that (a) yes, most western diets are deficient in ascorbic acid, which is one of the principal chemical substances required by the body to combat illness, but (b) his recommendations were subjective in the sense that they lacked the rigorous objectivity we demand of a scientist in that they failed adequately to account for the rather numerous exceptions.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Jane asked:

What does philosophy of contradiction mean?

What does dialetheism mean?

Dialetheism is the view that there are true contradictions. Dialetheism opposes the so-called Law of Non-Contradiction: for any A, it is impossible for both A and A to be true — which has been nearly universally accepted since the time of Aristotle — though some, Hegel for one, have doubted it. The view is perhaps most associated with Graham Priest.

A logic is paraconsistent if it is not "explosive". An inference relation is explosive if a contradiction entails everything (for all A, if A and not-A then B, for any B). It is paraconsistent if and only if it is non-explosive — as Priest points out the Dialetheist will be believe that deductively valid inference is paraconsistent but the paraconsistent logician need not believe in dialetheia (that is, true contradictions). Also, the dialetheist need not believe that all contradictions are true (the view that all contradictions are true is called trivialism).

Why should anyone believe that there can be true contradictions? Well, the main argument for dialetheism begins from the paradoxes of self-reference — viz. the liar paradox and Russell's paradox. In turn, the liar paradox asks us to account for the sentence 'this sentence is not-true' and Russell's paradox concerns the set of all sets that is not a member of itself. The paradoxical nature of both is clear. In the liar paradox, if the sentence is true, then its false. But if its false, then its true. So its both either way! In Russell's paradox, the basic question is is the set of all sets a member of itself? It must be otherwise it cant be the set of all sets, but how can a set {a} be a member of itself? Though many have argued that the paradoxes of self-reference are open to solution, the solutions themselves do ask us to say very strange things about the nature of reference and set-theory — so maybe Dialtheism can get us off the hook.

Dialetheism is a technical topic and as such I wont expand much because to much will be left unsaid . As such, all I can do is refer you to Priest's online synopsis of Dialetheism at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dialetheism. Please be aware that you do need to have a good grasp of logic when coming to read about Dialethism, as often much is taken for granted. If you have any questions then feel free to email me.

Rich Woodward


Melanie asked:

I'm in year 11, and I'm doing an essay about the possibility of a 'God' or 'Higher Being' existing. I have already considered the argument that if someone believes a 'mind' exists, then the Big Bang couldn't have caused it, as it isn't a physical thing. But it is not necessarily the Christian god, but could be another 'higher being'. In my research, I have also come across the 'problem of evil', (I found some info on this site). But I'm not sure what other views I could take, and which Philosophers to research. There are many contradictions in the 'Bible' but I do not wish to pick on one religion, rather I want to argue against any 'God'. Which doesn't leave me with many arguments.

Melanie, you are very right to see that there are not many arguments left to you. In fact, wrestling against God leaves you with just six, and only six, arguments. Which, of course is precisely the same number as are available to argue for God. Here they are: (with the names of some thinkers who might well be worth looking into)

1: The Miracles Argument

FOR GOD: God runs the universe and controls all its physics, therefore the only entity who can alter the physics is God. Thus, by doing magic miracles which are beyond normal physics, God's prophets prove that He exists and that they carry His authority. (Thomas Hobbes)

AGAINST GOD: Reports of miracles always seem to come from uneducated, far distant, ancient people, so they are no more to be trusted than any other such stuff. If miracles prove religion to be true, how come religions which oppose one another (e.g. Sikhism and Shinto, Judaism and Hinduism etc) can all claim to be proved true by miracles? (David Hume)

2: The Ontological Argument

FOR GOD: Everything I know of comes, ultimately, from outside of myself. I know of the existence of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, namely God. There is nothing in my experience which ought to make me know this, so it must have come from elsewhere, namely from God Himself. (Rene Descartes)

AGAINST GOD: The fact that you can conceive of something, doesn't make it true. You can imagine all sorts of infinitely great and perfect things — the perfect island, the perfect answer to a philosophy question — but that doesn't make them exist. Furthermore, 'existing' isn't a property of things. It isn't something which they might or might not have, like 'being blue' or 'getting hot', it is something which has to come first to make the concept real — you can't just tag it on after. Quite a lot of modern theologians, Don Cupitt being one, try to get round this by arguing that God doesn't exist as a being, but He does have 'real' existence as the abstract projection of our moral and religious ideals. Though how that differs from 'god doesn't exist' I don't know. (Immanuel Kant)

3: The Design Argument

FOR GOD: If you found a watch lying in the road, you would know from the perfect way all its little parts interact that it had not suddenly appeared by chance. You would know that some thinking creature had deliberately designed it. Look at the world around you, isn't it astonishing how all its parts fit and work so perfectly together? Such a magnificent structure must have had a designer behind it. That designer is God. (William Paley)

AGAINST GOD: I, Glyn Hughes, am by trade and profession a designer, so I think I can speak with some authority here. People with no experience of designing tend not to realise how the process works. They assume that the designer thinks out a grand plan, and then makes the thing from nothing more than the raw materials and his own genius. This is not what happens. Designers never can work alone — which would suggest, at least, a committee of several gods. They begin with prototypes, which are usually faulty. Objects which exist now do not mean that the designer is alive now (Guccio Gucci died in 1972, but you can still buy his watches.) Designers never begin from scratch, they merely make tiny modifications to existing designs. There never was anyone who ever designed a wristwatch. Dr Paley's watch would have been designed by someone who had copied almost every feature from previous watches, and they in turn from clocks, which copy a synthesis of milling equipment and water clocks, which might well have come about from the accidental breaking of a water jug. Such innovations as designers appear to make are invariably the result of either fortunate accidents, of synthesis with other designs. Consider that noted design icon, the Dyson vacuum cleaner. It is a synthesis of the upright vacuum cleaner with a device called a cyclone precipitator, invented decades before to remove dust from industrial chimneys, and itself the result of a chance observation about fans. James Dyson himself says that he 'stumbled' onto the idea, and took five years and 5,127 (yes, 5,127) different versions before the design was ready.

So, while, in philosophy, analogies are always suspect as arguments, the design analogy is an exceptionally poor one for God. In fact, if the design argument proves anything, it rather proves that gradual, blind, evolution is the better explanation for the harmony of the universe. (Richard Dawkins)

4: The Morality Argument

FOR GOD: Humans want to each grab as much as they can for themselves. They are naturally selfish, yet humans very often act with care and sensitivity. There is no logical reason why they should do this. Virtue, thus, must be caused by something outside of humanity which itself has a moral sense. This must be God. (John Henry Newman)

AGAINST GOD: Virtue is no mystery. It is quite true that humans each just want to grab everything they can for themselves, but the best technique for doing precisely that is to be as nice as possible to the people around you. Being moral is a good survival mechanism, it doesn't need God. In any case, what with all the earthquakes, diseases, pestilences, nasal hair and boils, God, if he did exist, doesn't seem to be at all nice Himself. (Matt Ridley)

5: The Experience Argument

FOR GOD: It just doesn't matter what anyone says, I just KNOW that God exist, and I prove that from nothing other than my own honest knowledge of my own mind. I have studied all the arguments, and I realise that God can't be demonstrated by science or logic. I have made the great 'leap of faith', I have chosen God. (Martin Heidegger)

AGAINST GOD: This could be a good argument for God, were it not for the fact that different people get totally different, and utterly opposing, inner experiences of God. And, funnily enough, such experiences seem to owe far more to each person's cultural and social influences than to anything outside of themselves. (William James)

6: The First Cause (or 'cosmological') Argument

FOR GOD: Everything which happens must have a cause. Everything which is moving must have been started off moving by something else pushing it. That means that there must have been some first thing, a 'prime mover' to start things off. That is God. (St Augustine)

AGAINST GOD: This argument is both illogical and unjustified. You can't begin by stating as an inviolable principle that 'all things must have a cause' and then use that to prove that there is something which doesn't have a cause. The fact that we don't really know how the universe started doesn't prove anything at all, it might have existed forever infinitely backwards in time for all we know. This is a 'God of the gaps' argument, where, when there is a gap in our knowledge, some people are tempted to slot God in. In any case, if all things have a cause, what was the cause of God? Another pre-God God? And what caused that God? (AJ Ayer)

That's about it for God. There is Blaise Pascal's 'wager', in which he suggests that it is better to profess a belief in God, as it gives you a better chance of eternal life. But that isn't an argument for the existence of God, just a reason why you ought to go to church. And not a very good reason at that; would a thinking God actually want to spend eternity with a bunch of sycophantic believers? Wouldn't an intelligent God rather spend His time with polite unbelievers — they would make for much more productive conversation.

As for arguments actually against the existence of God, they are few and poor. It is extremely difficult to prove that something ISN'T true, for to 'prove' generally means 'to bring forward evidence for', and it is usually impossible to bring forward 'non evidence' in order to disprove something.

There are the so-called 'fallacies of omnipotence', like 'could an all-powerful God make a stone to heavy for God to lift up?' But they are rather, shall we say, floppy, as arguments. There is the 'problem of evil' — that the horrid things we find thrown at us by the natural world show that a Good God couldn't possibly exist. But that doesn't in any way disprove the existence of God, it just shows that either He is either vindictive or uncaring, or that we don't really understand Him.

Then there is John Wisdom's 'Parable of the Garden', a sort of commentary on the design and ontological arguments, which might be neatly summed-up in this question:

"Could you please tell me what the difference is between:

1) A God who has no shape, no size, no location, no colour, no form, who cannot be heard, or seen, or smelled, of felt, or touched, who is invisible and unknowable...


2) A God who doesn't exist?"

Glyn Hughes


Edaw asked:

Does God know what it feels like to not know everything? If not than he doesn't know everything. But if he does know what it feels like to not know everything, then he doesn't know everything.

Being an atheist, a fortiori I do not believe that any god knows anything.

However, taking your argument on its own merits,

(1) I agree that if god doesn't know what it feels like not to know everything, then he doesn't know everything.

(2) I don't agree that if god does know what it feels like not to know everything then he doesn't know everything. I know my next door neighbour has brown hair. I can remember what it was like not knowing her, before I met her. So I know what it is like not to know she has brown hair; but that doesn't prevent my knowing that she does. So there is no principled reason why a god cannot both know everything and know what it is like not to know everything.

Richard Craven


Angie asked:

I am new to the study of philosophy and am not sure where to begin. The question that rings most predominantly in my mind is whether or not we are all here for a purpose, essentially, what is the meaning of life? I am currently reading Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics and do not know where to go next. Hell, I'm not sure why I'm even so concerned with this question.

If you were new to athletics, say triple jump, you might be well advised to learn something about the technique first before you attempt to set a world record. This might sound discouraging, but I'm trying to express with this comparison the thought that Heidegger is not the best way to gain an initial foothold in philosophy. Even experts are at loggerheads about where and how to 'place' his thinking. And this problem is possibly exacerbated by your uncertainty about the thing that drives you. Why do you want to know something about the meaning of life?

In such a predicament, it seems to me that the best advice I can give is to steer you in another direction. You need to have this last question attended to before you start reading in earnest, because if you're not sure of what it is you're looking for, you can waste a lot of intellectual energy on red herrings. I have in mind the following:

Decide what the phrase 'the meaning of life' actually means to you. There is no simple answer and that's why philosophers write books which attack this problem each time from a new angle. By this, they're really enriching rather than solving the enigma. This is fundamental. Beware of simple solutions.

Now you might like to read Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher. This is a book written by a thinker who has gone through such travails all his life, always asking questions of this kind whether he was engaged in politics, in theatre, or teaching at universities. He starts by recounting his childhood impressions of the 'strange' facts of life and death and so on. Magee's book gives you, as it were, a 'sample journey' from which you can learn where to look for at least tentative conclusions. In his case, it was Kant and then Schopenhauer who filled the bill, but you may find another philosopher's thinking more in line with your inclinations, and he gives you plenty to choose from. All you need to do is keep an open mind and discount his evident personal prejudices. That's not hard.

Another route you might follow is to read Camus little book The Myth of Sisyphus. This addresses the issue of 'the meaning of life' directly, though from the angle of 'justifying' it. He does this by asking, is there a rationale for suicide? Is life not an utter absurdity with its pitiful beginning and end and all the nonsense that goes on in between? As you read it, you will become aware of the influences he has admitted into his thinking, and if you find what he writes attractive, you can then follow up these sources for more depth.

You might, at the same time, read Descartes' Discourse on Method. This, too, is just 70 pages of text and written in very easy prose. The idea are pretty hard nuts to crack, but for a first impression of a metaphysic that has shaped and influenced European philosophy from the ground up, you can do no better. Don't be discouraged (I guess this is silly advice to someone reading Heidegger!), if you fail the first time around to plumb the depths of Descartes' arguments; the essential thing is to get a handle on the problems which disturb you and the stimulus to think about them with such a guide at your side.

Finally, a couple of smallish books written by Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy? and The Origins of Philosophy are highly commendable because they give you not merely an introduction to what their title promises, but a quite original and deeply considered message of the meaning of these issues. These books, in a word, do not offer you a predigested run-down, but a challenge to your thinking by opening up the whole theme from the angle of meaning what philosophy meant in the past and what it might mean to a modern citizen of the technological world we live in.

If you happen to find after reading these books that you're back in the same court where you began, i.e. metaphysics, no damage done. Because ultimately philosophy is metaphysics (as Heidegger says); but before you jump in at the deep end, ensure that you know you can swim and which direction you might wish to follow. These books will help you without throwing hurdles into your path.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Soc asked:

Can a moral right ever be justified? If so, what does the proof have to include?

This is a good question, sort of, but poorly asked. Notice that you say, first, "justified", and second, "proof". Is justification proof? Why? How do you know? What is justification? What is proof? In fact, justification is not proof. There are many many types of justification, some of which are based on a variety of inductive reasonings, some on feelings, some on logic. Very few on proof.

So let's just take this as asking about justification. Next, what is a moral "right"? One usually says that one has a "right to..." free speech, say. Is that a "moral" right, a "political" right, both, neither? How do you know? Do you have a "right" to cross the street when the traffic light is green? How about when it's red? Do you have a "right" to not steal? To arrest someone for stealing? To steal if you're hungry? But those latter are usually considered "moral" decisions and based on moral principles... so if they're not rights, then at least some morality does not relate to rights. I have a great deal of problems with the term "right"... I really have only the vaguest idea as to what it means, but I suspect it has very little to do with morality, and a lot to do with politics and culture, and implicit and explicit contracts we have with others and with various governing bodies.

What are we left with, then. Something like, "Can a moral principle ever be justified? If so, how?". I think that would be a better question, don't you? Unless you want to write another question and include a detailed explanation of what a "moral right" is. If you do want to ask about the political, then I'm the wrong person to ask.

Well when you come down to it, I'm not even going to answer this question. Why not? Because it's been debated for about 3000 years, and I really don't want to write a paper here summarizing that debate. There are various general answers... moral principles are justified by cultural norms; by an intrinsic "feeling" we have for morality; by various religious exhortations; by reinforcements of behavior and thinking based on pleasure and pain; by consideration of peoples' relative worth; by general principles of environment/ organism interaction... and on and on.

Here is a teeny itsy bitsy reading list to start you off:

Audi, R. "Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics." In Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 101-36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Sommers, C., and F. Sommers. Vice & Virtue in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics. 4th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985.

Urmson, J. O. Aristotle's Ethics. 11th ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.

Williams, B. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

But first, really, you have to ask what justification is, before we start using it, don't you. How, for example, do cultural norms, or feelings, or religions, or whatever, do this thing: viz., justify? How indeed?

And here is an eensy weensy reading list for this topic:

Annis, D. B. "A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification." American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1978): 213-19.

BonJour, L. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Hare, R. M. "Foundationalism and Coherentism in Ethics." edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons, 190-99. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

MacIntyre, A. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Williams, B. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Steven Ravett Brown


Luisa asked:

I know what miracles are but wondering how they play a role in justifying religious belief?

All religions require to show signs of a mystic content. A religion by its very nature must show that it is in contact with a spiritual world, from which the very power of creation derives. Having been more in contact with the Christian religion than any other, I am better placed to discuss miracles from the point of view of Christianity.

Miracles are a manifestation of spiritual power, those able to perform them reveal links with such a power. Jesus, portrayed by Christianity as the Son of God, had to be shown to have powers far beyond those of ordinary human beings; miracles are a way of making manifest such powers. The very entrance into the world by Jesus had to be seen as a miracle in itself, an ordinary birth entailing a normal father and mother would not have made any impact. Jesus' entry into the world was not only a miracle but also a drama.

Some miracles are more convincing and give better witness to spiritual powers than others. Changing water to wine and feeding the five thousand might still leave some doubt in the back of the mind that there is a possibility of some sort of conjuring trick; however, bringing the dead back to life, and healing the sick and infirm by touch or word, are the sorts of miracles that leave little doubt in anyone's mind that some supernatural power is at work.

The question is often asked, "Why did Jesus not step down from the cross to demonstrate the miraculous powers he was gifted with?" The simple answer is that the more powerful miracle is to rise from the dead, Jesus had to die to be resurrected, otherwise the purpose was defeated. Power over death is a necessary revelation in any religion.

The christian gospels reveal to us that the power to perform miracles can be gifted to anyone who dedicates their life fully to God, and prove to have undying faith. Hence we read in the gospels of the ability of Paul, Peter and other apostles who were capable of performing miracles. To prove that miracles do not just belong to the past events of the gospels, we find a continual history of miraculous phenomena alleged to be linked to certain pious persons and to the appearance of apparitions. Those thought to be responsible for miracles or unexplained phenomena are given the title of Saints by the Church.

To complete the answer to your question, miracles are fundamental to religious belief, they point to the existence of a super-power, or in the case of the Christian religion to the presence of God in our midst.

John Brandon


James asked:

What do you suspect is the origin of and advantage of sentience?

P.S. Please do not say this is a loaded question in that I am implying there is a direction consciousness must take. I'm just interested in your ideas.

The caveat in your question makes it relatively easy to answer. In fact, virtually any text on darwinian evolution would give you an adequate rundown, although the details might vary from one to another. Thus: the origin lies in the acquisition of nerves and the subsequent organisation of these (initially single-function) devices into faculties of perception. In advanced creatures such as mammals, these systems (nervous systems) continued to evolve into segregated modules devoted to the evaluation of perception; and finally in humans, this evaluative faculty progressed yet further by the development of what we call a 'mind'.

William James argued that the primary function of this last-named faculty is the handling of surprise. That's as good an encapsulation as any; and we certainly do not know much more than this about the supposed advantage of sentience. It does invite the counter-question, however, why and for what evolutionary purpose we write poetry and music, why we solve crossword puzzles and aim our telescopes at the stars, why we laugh and why we believe in God (or refuse to).

Not much philosophy here, then; although in saying this, I do not deny that potentially there is a great deal of scope for philosophising. Just playing on the quasi-mechanical aspects of this evolutionary pattern says nothing about the meaning one might wish to discover (i.e. is there a teleological drive behind it?). Nowadays it is out of fashion because of the methodological stance required by science, which has the greatest influence on our thinking to even consider aspects of biological developments that do not fall into the category of weighable, measurable, determinable phenomena. The recent rise of e.g. fractal geometry is beginning to leave question marks all over this scientifically ascertainable knowledge, but it will take at least another generation before it seeps into general consciousness that the binary categorisations of which we have been so fond over centuries of speculation are severely limited. Until we are in a position to positively recognise in (for example) 'free will' a fundamental criterion of everything that lives, we will miss out on many if not most of the relevant features of sentience and its development.

Interimistically, therefore, let me reply that the framing of your question, for all its plausibility, is trapped in that same materialistic mindset which seeks to solve human problems by recourse to measurable characteristics. But you will not get an answer to such a question from anyone that is going to ultimately satisfy your thirst. Knowledge is ineluctably of two kinds, viz. episteme and cognition. Science knows next to nothing of the latter. But a comprehensive answer demands nothing less than a fully formed idea of what cognition is. Many philosophers, from Plato onwards, have proposed their answers as problems, and this in turns demands from us, if we are to retain a philosophical aspect on it, to acknowledge that the pursuits of science are a means towards the acquisition of knowledge that might aid us in a greater understanding of the origins and advantages of sentience. But it is nothing more than tomfoolery to maintain that epistemic knowledge is all the knowledge we can have. So for the time being, the idea of 'Dasein' (Heidegger) and the entailments of that concept exposed in his book Being and Time are the best answer we can give.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Tajamul asked:

I have started new business. I'm very much terrified. The challenges are enormous. I'm in panic most of the time. I want to calm down. Any suggestion?

For the most part, these 'Ask a Philosopher' pages represent the tradition of European Analytic Philosophy, which is a very wonderful philosophical tradition for dealing with science and understanding, but a quite appallingly bad one at offering comfort and calm. If I guess correctly from your name, surely your home traditions, whichever side of the border you are on, are much better suited to soothing?

Having said that, the analytic faith does have a trick up its sleeve which never seems to fail. I suggest you get yourself a couple of books by our more abstruse and idiosyncratic philosophers. Descartes is good, so is Heidegger. Nietzsche is excellent, and so are Hegel and Kant. Don't bother reading them. Just, whenever you are troubled, open one of the books at random, pick a paragraph, and spend fifteen minutes trying to work out what on earth they are talking about. After that, by comparison, all the problems of everyday life seem minuscule, petty and incredibly easy. It works for me.

Glyn Hughes


Nicholas asked:

Using the Oxford dictionary definition of democracy (government by the people) can societies with great disparities in wealth legitimately call themselves democracies?

I fear they can. I think your definition is along the right lines. However, in most democratic systems government is by most of the people, not by all of them, otherwise everyone would need to agree about everything all the time, and that ain't ever happening. Moreover, in the UK, where we have universal adult suffrage, our use of the first past the post system means that government is quite often by a minority. This leaves ample scope for some members of the polity to oppress other members, including in the matter of wealth disparity. So, as long as you don't think democracy is only exists in an unattainably ideal world of perpetual unanimity, then for practical purposes, many societies with hideous disparities of wealth can legitimately call themselves democracies. Not, I hasten to add, that this legitimizes the disparities.

Richard Craven


Almode asked:

Is it possible for one to know oneself? to be aware of all the processes?

It depends on what you mean by "know oneself". You can know yourself to a very great extent, if you make the effort, in the sense of knowing a lot of your motivations, emotions, etc.

In the sense of knowing "all" the "processes", for example, the processes underlying your reading this sentence, understanding the words, etc... or the processes involved in speaking the same sentence... no, it is not possible to be aware of those processes. In fact there are enormous research programs attempting to find what those processes are.

The situation seems to be that when you are first learning something, you are aware of a great deal, but probably not all, of the processes that are involved. After you learn it, you lose awareness of those processes, and in addition they change as your skills increase. Also, usually, when you learn something like reading or walking, you are too young to be completely aware of what you're learning, or to remember those details later.

Further, if you think about it, it would be extremely disconcerting if you had to reconstruct all the mechanics every time you took a step, for example. So doing most things unconsciously is an advantage which more than offsets the loss of awareness.

Steven Ravett Brown

On the whole, and without delving into great depths, it is not only possible but mandatory for each of us to 'know' ourselves. But this 'knowing' is an incredible complex faculty, and it would be idle to say that anyone truly understands what's involved. I've been studying the subject for 15 years now, but the best I can report in the interim is that I have learnt only to comprehend the vast extent of the problem, without being able to say at the same time, I can see where it ends!

We are not, however, aware of all processes. Awareness is different from being aware of processes. Awareness is part of the process. This is one of the greatest obstacles to researching the subject of mind and brain. And I would say that there is good reason for this enforced ignorance on our part (and indeed part of the set-up is to keep 'us' out of it). A body is an incredibly fine-tuned aggregate of billions of organisms; we are in a sense a huge living planet ourselves, where all these organisms (cells, bacteria etc) ply their trade, and if we were aware of their work, we might unwittingly interfere and cause large-scale disruption. We do this, of course, any time we take drugs; but on the whole, this affects only the machine-like aspect of our somatic existence and usually the body has ways and means of exercising its own control and effect compensations (or say 'thank you' if we're sick and take drugs to assist with 'germ warfare'). Anyway, I could go on forever, but I prefer to recommend some light, yet informative reading to you: Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens. These are state of the art reports on brain, body, mind and emotions, but they are written with non-expert readers in mind, so you'll get a lot out of them, including answer to what we can at present know about your questions.

Jürgen Lawrenz


Roy asked:

Is the word 'Exception' a contradictory term? In every example I could think of a contradiction occurs. For example, All human beings are Americans, except those humans in England, Germany, France, (etc.) is contradictory because the quantifier 'All' was used. Certainly humans who live outside of America prove 'All' is the wrong term — 'Some' is the correct quantifier. I always think that a person who chooses to use long winded words and includes 'except' is being deceptive to cause confusion or cause a person to make a poor judgement (as a rhetorical effect.) Instead the person should use a simple term to express a statement if possible. Legal documents are full of long-winded sentences with the word 'except'. Should the word 'Only' be the proper term instead; for no contradiction occurs and is more specific?

All humans are American except those in England, France, etc.

The logical form is going to be

For all x, IF x is a human THEN:

x is an American, or x is British, or x is French, or x is etc. etc.

AND it is not the case that x is both American and British, or x is both American and French, or x is both American and etc. etc..

Exclusion is a property of disjunction: a or b is inclusive if a and b can both be true, exclusive if only one can be true. The above example is a example of exclusive disjunction. To make this clear then you need the "and it is not the case that ...". An example of an inclusive disjunction would be a case where I say 'you can have sugar or milk in your tea': Clearly, I would be lacking in etiquette if I meant this exclusively!

Rich Woodward


Clewley asked:

I would like to know if one can be examined to find out whether or not one has freewill. All my choices seemed to depend entirely on my emotional state at the time of choosing or fear of the consequences if I choose wrongly. When there are no consequences in my choice I just choose randomly. Is there a scientific test that could prove, for instance, that I have a freewill? How would you go about it? Or is it purely an introspective assumption that others have freewill? I am determined to know!

You are asking a question which has been debated for thousands of years. If you want a scientific/ philosophical approach to this question, which, by the way, I am in sympathy with, the best text I know of at this point is one which has just come out: Freedom Evolves by D. Dennett. I highly recommend it.

Steven Ravett Brown

There is a long and a short answer to your question. I'm going to keep it short: for more info, check any of the 1000's of books and papers written on the subject!

It so happens that I wrote an article in the Pathways E-Journal, 'Death, Value and Free Will' in Philosophy Pathways Issue No. 57, and made an attempt there to explain the nature of freewill. I suggest you read it: if nothing else, you'll discover that without free will you would not be here talking about it! That would seem to offer at least one solution to your problem.

The other issue, however, is a different kettle of fish. Firstly, there are no scientific tests, for the very good reason that you can't run a test on something you don't know what it is! Secondly, you might like to stop for a moment as you read this and question yourself as to why you expect science to furnish an answer? What has freewill got to do with science?

That leaves, thirdly, how you arrive at choices. Apart from the obvious ones, such as deciding to run away when someone who stands a head taller than you and threatens to belt you up, there is very little to clarify the matter. This is not to say that no-one has thought and written about it. Quite the contrary. Subjects like these, where we know next to nothing, seem to pose especially alluring challenges to writers and in consequence there are dozens of publications. But unless you feel like embroiling yourself in (mostly untestable) conjectures, you'll have to accept that the enigma will remain impenetrable a little longer yet. Mind you: there's nothing to stop you, if you're really serious, from devoting your life's work to this research. If (as you say) you're 'determined to know', consider how seriously 'determined' you are and if necessary, act on the consequences! After all, you're not the only one who wants to know, and I agree with your tacit understanding that it is surely one of the most important aspects of humanness we ought to understand!

Jürgen Lawrenz