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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 4 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from February — March 2000:

  1. The Hart-Devlin controversy
  2. Is it possible to live authentically?
  3. Kant and quantum mechanics
  4. Is there knowledge we shouldn't seek?
  5. Why won't people accept living prophets?
  6. Do the actions of some Marxists and Catholics refute their beliefs?
  7. Analysis, metaphysics and Hume's fork
  8. Can euthanasia be justified?
  9. Kant's theory of space and time
  10. 'Birds don't see the sky'
  11. I'm 15 and interested in philosophy
  12. Has the universe always existed?
  13. Why do we exist?
  14. Alan Turing and thinking machines
  15. Wittgenstein's later philosophy of language
  16. Kant on rationalism and. empiricism
  17. Descartes and the bees' wax
  18. How Descartes explains errors in judgement
  19. Kant, punishment and the State of Utah

Sheree asked:

Is it possible to legislate morality?

A few years ago, a case came before the British Courts of a group of sado-masochists whose leisure activities included sticking pins and nails through various parts of one another's anatomies. As a result of one of their over-exuberant sessions, one of the group was rushed to hospital requiring an emergency operation.

The members of the group were prosecuted despite the fact that all the acts they did to one another were done with each others' full knowledge and consent, and within the privacy of their own homes. In summing up, the Judge affirmed that it was the proper business of the law to defend accepted moral standards, which these individuals had clearly transgressed. They were found guilty and each given a prison sentence.

The issue of the enforcement of morality was brought to a head in the 60's in the clash between Lord Devlin and H.L.A. Hart. Devlin argued in his book The Enforcement of Morals (1965) that in certain cases the law should be used to enforce morals. Hart argued vigorously against Devlin's claim that a society could not hold together unless it was founded on an agreed moral base. Today Hart's arguments seem generally to have prevailed.

It might be claimed that citizens are harmed by the actions of the sado-masochists because the very thought of what the sado-masochists do causes offence. However, as J.S. Mill argued in his famous essay On Liberty, the fact that a person is offended by someone's action does not establish that they have been 'harmed'. According to Mill's Principle of Liberty, an adult person should to be allowed to do what they want provided that their action does not cause harm to someone else. The question is whether Mill was right about this.

You ask if it is 'possible' to legislate morality. There are potentially two questions here, first, whether there are any occasions where one ought, other things being equal, to seek to legislate morality, and secondly, whether in fact this can be done in practice. It seems to me that the extra powers that would need to be given to the state to seek out moral lawbreakers would be too high a price to pay. What actually happens in the UK is that we have an inconsistent situation where archaic laws are occasionally enforced.

Today it is extremely hard to identify moral views over which there is reliable consensus. But suppose there were. Suppose that everyone apart from the sado-masochists agreed that the practice of sado-masochism is in itself outrageous and therefore morally wrong. Suppose further that there were no practical obstacles to the enforcement of a law prohibiting sado-masochistic acts. Would the introduction of such a law be justified? — My simple response would be, The fact that the majority assent to a judgement does not make it right. The majority are entitled to feel outraged, but that is all.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jake asked:

Can we ever truly live authentically as suggested by existentialism or are we always influenced by the actions and reactions of others? If we believe anything of the theory of socialisation, surely this is impossible?

Also my mate Sarah thinks that this is ponsey (she is probably right) and wants to know why sometimes we have chips and other times we go without.

I think that your mate Sarah may have hit on the right approach to answering your question.

Sometimes we fancy chips and sometimes we don't. The choice of chips or no chips is decided by the desires and needs of the moment.

If someone says, 'I'm on a diet. I've stopped eating chips,' that's seems OK. They might fancy chips some times, but not enough to risk ruining their figure. But suppose you point out to them, quite reasonably, that eating a few chips on this single occasion isn't going to make a difference, when the only alternative on the menu is something they really hate.

'But if I eat chips just once, I'll be motivated to break my diet.'

'Yes, but the reason you had for being on a diet in the first place won't be any different than it was before.'

'Agreed. But as a result of eating chips once, I'll find it more difficult to resist eating them again.'

The question is whether someone who wants to be existentially authentic can say this. As you see, the actions and reactions of others are not necessarily the problem.

The view others have of us is important. We prefer people to approve rather than disapprove. Let's say I make a decision which someone whose opinion matters to me approves of. I can still be existentially authentic, if my reason for doing what I did was solely that I judged it to be the right thing to do in those particular circumstances. Naturally, I am glad to accept well-merited praise for my decision.

I demonstrate the things I like or do not like, the things I want or do not want by the choices I make. That is simple, 'authentic' decision making. Where inauthenticity comes in is where I allow 'the fact that GK likes X', 'the fact that GK does not want Y' — either in my view, or the view of others — to become considerations that motivate me. I may have liked X's in the past, but that doesn't mean I have to like this particular X. I may have refused Y's in the past, but that doesn't mean I can't want this particular Y.

Geoffrey Klempner


Morad asked:

Please tell me, Can we simulate the metaphysical concepts in Immanuel Kant's philosophy with quantum mechanics in physics?

In the section on the 'Analogies of Experience' in his book Critique of Pure Reason Kant argued that a necessary condition for our having experience of an objective world is that determinism must hold universally.

It is a matter of speculation what Kant would have said if the physics of the day had been quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian mechanics. One possible response would be to say that Kant would have acknowledged his error, and set to work providing a non-determinist metaphysical foundation for quantum mechanics. Commentators on Kant, notably P.F. Strawson in his excellent book The Bounds of Sense have argued that the 'flavour' of Kant's philosophy can be preserved despite the rejection of his claim about determinism. What is required for objective experience, Strawson argues, is merely a world which displays causal regularities, where things generally happen in predictable ways. That is sufficient to provide us with a basis for distinguishing 'genuine' objective experience from subjective hallucinations or dreams.

My own view is that Kant would not be satisfied with this account. I think that he believed, rightly or wrongly, that it is only by virtue of the truth of universal determinism that every statement about the past has a determinate truth value, whether we can ever know the truth value or not. Provided determinism holds, the present state of the universe, according to Newtonian mechanics, retains information that would be sufficient to deduce all that has gone before. That is a powerful idea. Once universal determinism is rejected, past events can disappear from the 'memory' of the universe as if they had never happened.

It is possible that present day physicists or philosophers interested in quantum mechanics might be attracted to Kantian philosophy for a different reason. What I have said about Kant's 'proof' of universal determinism applies to the world of possible experience, the 'phenomenal' world in space and time. But Kant also believed that there exists an unknowable 'noumenal' world outside of space and time which provides the ultimate ground for the existence of all subjects and objects. It does seem conceivable that in the light of the difficulties facing a 'hidden variables' interpretation of quantum mechanics, some might be tempted to see Kant's unknowable 'noumena' as a possible candidate for the ultimate reality of which quantum effects are the visible appearance. — The sceptic would say that the only thing to recommend such a view is its complete obscurity.

Geoffrey Klempner


Vijaya asked:

Do you think that there is knowledge we should not seek? And if so, why?

There is a popular saying that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. I am mentioning this at the start because I want to exclude this sort of response. That is not a reason for not seeking knowledge in the first place. If I know that the best I am likely to achieve in my knowledge seeking is insufficient to reliably guide my actions, then I should be aware of that fact and proceed with caution. 'A little knowledge' is dangerous only when we falsely estimate its size.

There are in fact two questions to answer: 1. Whether there is any knowledge which, as a matter of prudent self-interest, I should not seek. 2. Whether there is any knowledge which it would be morally wrong for me to seek.

1. Knowledge gives us the power to do things. If my plans rest on false assumptions, they are more likely to be frustrated than if they had been based on knowledge. It would seem to follow from this that knowledge can never be a bad thing for me. The more knowledge I possess, the more power I have to achieve my goals. However, we have to reckon on the psychological effect of certain kinds of knowledge, for example, the knowledge that one has only six months to live. A doctor may judge that it is not in a person's best interests to be told be told the truth about their state of health.

2. A person can be held morally culpable for not making sufficient effort to acquire knowledge of the facts, in cases where their actions have unintended bad consequences for others. It is not an adequate defence to say, for example, 'I didn't know that the brakes of my truck were faulty.' Ethics concerns doing good things, and not doing bad things, and just as in the case of prudent self-interest, knowledge is necessary for successfully carrying out our intentions. However, as before, there seem to be cases where one can reliably predict that the effects of our acquiring certain kinds of knowledge. One example would be the attempt to devise intelligence tests which could be used to determine possible differences between people from different racial groupings. It is a near-certainty that such knowledge would be put to a bad use.

I therefore see no contradiction in asserting the following propositions. Knowledge is prima facie good for the person who seeks it. We have a prima facie moral duty to ensure that we act out of knowledge rather than ignorance. Yet there are cases were, all things considered, knowledge is not good for the person who seeks it. And there are cases were, all things considered, we morally ought not to seek knowledge that is within our means to acquire.

Geoffrey Klempner


Samuel asked:

The Lord gave us scriptures (writings of prophets) to teach us by showing us what previous people have done so that we might learn from their mistakes. However, mankind has not. We always say, 'If I were there I would have believed...' right? My question is: Why don't people accept the word of the Lord (the teachings of true living prophets)? And why do people wait until 300 years later to believe, why not now? Does the average Judeo-Christian ever wonder why isn't there a living prophet? If you knew of one and knew he was called of God, would you follow his counsel? Why not?

I totally agree that if there have been prophets in the past, then there is no reason why there should not be prophets living amongst us now.

The problem is, as it has always been, how to tell a true prophet from a false one.

Geoffrey Klempner


Philip asked:

Is a belief invalidated by the behaviour of those who have held it? I think for example of Marxism or Catholicism, whose adherents have perpetrated acts of great brutality: does this mean (cf. Nietzsche) that it is not decent to be a Marxist or a Catholic?

It is always open to the loyal follower to respond that people who perpetrate acts of brutality in the name of Marxism or Catholicism merely prove by their actions that they are not true believers in Marxism or in Catholicism. In other words it is their professed belief which is invalidated by their actions, not the belief system itself.

Nietzsche, in his attack on Christianity, and critics of Marxism inspired by Nietzsche's writings, would argue that there are essential features of those belief systems which explain the necessity of events such as Stalin's purges or the Spanish Inquisition. However, that argument has to be given, one cannot simply deduce a refutation from the acknowledged facts.

(I am reminded of a footnote in Genealogy of Morals Essay One, section 15 where Nietzsche quotes Aquinas: 'The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them' as evidence of the 'eternal hatred' that lies that the core of Christian belief.)

But perhaps your point is simply that the sheer historical fact that atrocities have been committed in their names is in itself sufficient objection to the profession of a belief in Marxism or in Catholicism. It is not 'decent'. Not only do you spit on the graves of all those who died, but you wash your hands of the whole affair. 'It wasn't my kind of Marxist who followed Pol Pot but the other kind.'

I myself am not convinced by this argument. Why is it, then, that the objection looks much more convincing if one substitutes 'National Socialism'?

I am tempted to say that, unlike National Socialism, Marxism has at least a valid claim to being a coherent philosophy, whether or not one is persuaded by Marx's arguments. Catholicism has at least a valid claim to being a genuine religious faith. Ultimately, that may not count for a lot in the face of the historical facts, but it counts for something.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jen asked:

I have a question about philosophy. My question is "Are philosophical questions about reality, or our ideas of reality?" This question boggles my mind. If you can please help me, I would greatly appreciate that.

You are right, the question you have asked is mind boggling.

There is a philosophical tradition going back to Locke and Hume according to which the sole purpose of philosophy is to analyse concepts or 'ideas'. In his Essay on Human Understanding Locke describes the philosopher as an 'underlabourer sweeping away the rubbish that lies in the path of knowledge'. In the closing paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume presents a devastating dilemma — which has come to be known as 'Hume's Fork' — which says that the only knowledge we can attain comes either from experience or from logical or mathematical deduction. If we find that a book contains neither of these things we should 'Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion'.

The idea of conceptual analysis is the dominant paradigm today, though by and large philosophers now prefer to talk of 'theories'. There is room for a kind of 'metaphysics' too, but what this entails is largely the logical analysis of concepts like 'truth', 'existence', 'time', 'essence', 'necessity'. It is not the kind of rationalist metaphysical theory that Hume set out to attack.

In these terms, there is room for lively debate whether the analyses produced are a response to 'questions about reality' or only about 'our ideas of reality'. I would say both. For example, a question about the nature of causation is about the world of causes and effects, and also about our concept of a 'cause'. By coming up with a workable analysis of the concept of causation, analytical philosophers would say that they have discovered something we didn't know before about the world.

Or, alternatively, if you are interested in metaphysical systems of the past you can analyse the 'ideas of reality' proposed by Spinoza, Berkeley, Kant or Leibniz. Then you can say, Yes, if one agrees to certain premisses, say, about the nature of "space" or "experience" or "substance", then certain conclusions follow.'

The deeper question is whether there might be something left over when all the logical analysis is done, as I think there is. My interest in metaphysics is neither analytical nor historical. I share the faith of the metaphysician that there are truths to discover about the ultimate nature of things. This isn't the place to try to persuade you. However, I would point out that the end of metaphysics has been advertised many times, and each time has proved to be a false alarm.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ricco asked:

My question is about euthanasia. Can it be justified? Is it moral or immoral? Or is it out of the question of moral or immoral? Could you share your opinions with me?

We are all going to die. I do not believe that there is any moral justification for the view that a person should never be allowed to choose the time and the place. It follows that if the circumstances make it impossible for a person to take their own life without assistance, then there will be cases where it is morally permissible for such assistance to be offered. It does not follow, however, that euthanasia is always justified provided that the decision is freely taken.

We need to think very carefully about the consequences that would arise if euthanasia were legally sanctioned. Would a healthy person be permitted to request euthanasia? Or would a committee of doctors decide whether the quality of a person's life was sufficiently impaired to justify the request? There will inevitably be cases where the request would not have been made, had the patient been able to afford certain expensive drugs. The committee, in granting the request, would be saying in effect, 'As you can't afford the treatment, we agree that you are better off dead.'

My intuitions tell me that the scenario I have just described is totally unacceptable. I cannot justify that view with a philosophical argument, although I believe that the intuitions are widely shared. And there will be many other such scenarios.

It is quite possible that, when all the problem cases are taken into consideration,we shall find that it is impossible in practice to formulate a law permitting euthanasia that had adequate safeguards. The paradoxical conclusion is that what is morally sometimes permissible ought never to be legally permissible.

Geoffrey Klempner


Antonio asked:

Could you explain with an example how Kant understands space and time?

One of the things that sticks in people's minds about Kant's philosophy is the idea that space and time are merely ways in which we perceive the world, the idea that the world in itself is neither in space or in time. It seems almost as if he believes that inside the human mind is something like spectacles, which force us to experience things in the way that we do. The spectacles make things look as if they are in space. The spectacles make our experiences seem to happen in time.

If that were true, then one might speculate what would happen if we could succeed in removing our spatio-temporal spectacles. According to Kant, however, the very idea that we could see things 'as they are in themselves' is absurd.

What is characteristic about the human situation, or indeed the situation of any finite beings, is that we have to piece together a theory of the world from bits and pieces of evidence based on what is given to us in perception. Kant provides some compelling arguments why our experiences must be structured in certain ways in order to make any sense at all. Time is the 'form' in which experiences come to us, space is the 'form' in which we build up a picture or theory of a world outside our own minds.

In reality, there doesn't have to be any time, in order for human experience to exhibit a time order, there doesn't have to be any space, in order for human beings to interpret their experiences as the perception of objects in space.

Here's an example from science fiction which illustrates Kant's view of space. The film, The Matrix, is based on this idea. In the film, computer scientists of the future have succeeded in writing a program which accurately models a spatial world and the people who inhabit it. The program not only describes their movements and speech, but also their experiences and thoughts. The individuals contained in the program are not merely pictures or representations of people, they are people. They perceive a 'real' world of objects in space, and other people moving about and communicating with them. In reality, they, and their world are nothing more than electrical currents going round the circuits of a supercomputer.

This is fantastical. But it is not a lot less fantastical than the idea that one day a supercomputer might be programmed with 'artificial intelligence'.

Kant argued that it is impossible to provide a rational proof of the existence of God. But he does talk of what God would be like, if he existed. God sees the whole of reality by 'intuitive perception'. We have to piece together a picture of the universe. God sees everything all at once. So God doesn't 'see' the space and time that we see. What he sees is the unknown 'something', the Matrix, which causes us to see things in space and time.

Geoffrey Klempner


Kanokwan asked:

Do you mind if I would like to know your opinion about the words, 'The bird don't see the sky...The fish don't see the water...and The Human don't see the Earth.' I think it's a kind of philosophy and I want another opinion, please.

The words, 'The bird don't see the sky, the fish don't see the water and the Human don't see the Earth' do suggest to me deeply philosophical ideas.

What I see are in fact two fundamentally different approaches to the branch of philosophy that Aristotle called 'First Philosophy', which came to be known as Metaphysics. (The term derives from the title given to Aristotle's treatise on First Philosophy which the librarians at Alexandria classified 'after the Physics' or 'meta ta Phusica'.)

What does it mean to say that the fish doesn't see the water? We know that water is only a part of the world. For the fish, however, the world IS the water it swims in. The analogy suggested here is that human beings believe that the world in which they live, the world of Earth, water and air — or planets, solar systems and galaxies — is 'all there is'. Metaphysicians from Parmenides and Plato onwards have argued that this belief is wrong. There is another 'world', outside space and time, which is in some sense the 'ultimate reality'. A well known example of this view is the belief that there exists a God who views the universe 'under the aspect of eternity'.

However, I believe that there is another, strikingly different way of understanding the remark about the bird, the fish and the human.

What the fish doesn't see is the water, because water is everywhere. What the bird doesn't see is the sky, because its freedom of movement is not restricted in the way ours is. The sky is a problem for human beings, and that is what makes us aware that there is such a thing as 'the sky'. According to this interpretation, what human beings fail to see is the world as a world. By contrast with the transcendent metaphysics of Plato and traditional theology, metaphysicians in the twentieth century such as Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Heidegger have sought an understanding of the universal features of experience, or logical structure of the universe, which we do not perceive just because they never fail to be present.

According to this second view, there is no second, ultimate, reality. There is only this reality, this world. What human beings ignorant of metaphysics fail to see is the world as an articulated totality, a meaningful whole.

Geoffrey Klempner


Kelly asked:

My name is Kelly and I am 15 years old. I am very interested in philosophy and would like to learn more about it. I don't do very well in basic school subjects because I am always thinking about philosophical topics. I don't know any of the terms or anything, I just know I have a philosophical mind. I have been thinking about how everything goes back to infinity, and I don't know what that is called? I think about how if there is one God, then who made him, and who made him....and so on, it all comes down to infinite measures. And how we are all so stupid, and we only have the ability to imagine and think about so much. And I also have this obsession with time, I mean what is it? Does it even exist or is it a system. I don't think our minds have the capability of even imagining these answers, but still, the questions are on my mind all the time. I know you're probably thinking, 'What an idiot' but I really am interested in learning about this stuff, and anything would help. Thank you.

When I was fifteen my all-consuming passion was chemistry, and all I knew about philosophy was that it had something to do with 'old men in beards'. But I did think of myself as an atheist (I don't now) and got into lots of scraps because of that. It was good practice for philosophy.

The traditional ideas of theology provide a good starting point for thinking about metaphysics, which is what your questions are really about. There is the contrast between the infinitude of God, the creator, and the finitude of his creation, including creatures like ourselves. Then there is the contrast between the way things appear to finite beings who are dependent on perception as the source of all their knowledge, and the way things are in reality, or in themselves — or maybe for God.

Time figures prominently in both kinds of questions. You are right that we oscillate between the idea of a time stretching endlessly into the past and endlessly into the future, and the idea of a universe that came into existence at some time in the past, and will cease to exist at some time in the future. Things necessarily appear to us as occupying a position in space and time, yet in reality, from God's eternal standpoint, time is like the pages in a book or the tracks on a CD.

One of the philosophers who thought most deeply about these issues was Immanuel Kant, in his book The Critique of Pure Reason ('Kritik der Reinen Vernuft'), first published in 1781. Although it is one of the most difficult philosophy books you're ever likely to see, it won't hurt you just to pick it up. Have a look at the Preface and Introduction. Check out the index and list of contents. See what you can learn about Kant from doing a bit of detective work.

Kant argued that we can have no knowledge of 'things in themselves', and that there is no way to prove the existence of God. Gathering knowledge is an unending process, so in that sense space and time have no finite boundaries. But the infinity is potential, not actual. The concept of the universe as a totality is one that kant thinks is too big for our minds to grasp. He tried to show that there were limits to what human beings can discover through the use of reason. His purpose, he said, was to deny the possibility of rational knowledge — about God, about the way things are in themselves — to make room for faith.

There are lots of good introductions to philosophy. (Some are listed in the Pathways Introductory Book List on the Pathways web site.) It is important, though, if you don't want to kill your enthusiasm for philosophy, to look at some original texts, like Plato, Berkeley, Descartes, Russell, Wittgenstein. Better to get a taste for the real thing than rely on watered-down versions.

Thank you for sharing your questions with me. I hope that your philosophical journey proves to be a joyful one.

Geoffrey Klempner


John asked:

Hi, I'm new to philosophy and I'm sure this has been discussed many times, so please bear with me!.

There are two possibilities: Either the universe has always existed (which is presumably impossible) or there was a time when the universe did NOT exist and then all that matter was created out of nothing (which, according to our current knowledge of physics, is equally impossible as matter cannot derive from nothing!).

Of course, if the universe was 'created' then this begs the question: 'Who was the Creator?', then 'who created the creator's creator?', etc. — Any suggestions?

The first thing to point out is that neither of the initial possibilities you mention is a logical impossibility. There is no logical impossibility in the notion of a universe whose history can be traced further and further back, at no point reaching a 'first event in the history of the universe'. Neither is there any logical impossibility in the idea of a universe whose history traces back to a specific date, before which there 'was nothing'.

You say that the latter is inconsistent with our current knowledge of physics. That would not be sufficient for ruling it out if the alternative was thought to be logically impossible. The correct conclusion would be that current physics must be wrong.

Given that the alternative of a universe with an infinite history is not logically impossible, it is still remains open to the physicist to argue that the ultimate physical 'constant' is not matter but probabilistic laws according to which at every time and at every place there is a non-zero probability of matter appearing where previously there was no matter. The laws have existed for an infinite time, matter has only existed for a finite time.

I am not talking about any specific physical theory (such as quantum mechanics), but rather possible physical theories, or theories that might hold in some logically possible world.

However, the issue of whether the history of the universe is finite or infinite is arguably not the problem that brings God into the picture.

In the Cosmological argument for the existence of God, the problem is not time but causal dependency. A universe stretching infinitely back in time is no more difficult to conceive than a universe stretching infinitely into the future. The regress becomes vicious only when we look to events in the past as an adequate explanation of how things are now. A perpetually conditional explanation is no explanation at all.

So the argument goes, There has to be a Creator who exists outside the infinite series of causes and effects, who timelessly 'causes' the whole infinite series to exist. The Creator does not exist in time, so the question of when the Creator came into existence does not arise. The Creator is 'cause of itself', so the question of who created the Creator does not arise.

I am not defending this argument, only expounding it!

I myself do not understand what it means to say that something is the 'cause of itself' or 'exists outside of time'. However, if the straight choice is between a proposition which is logically impossible and a proposition whose meaning one does not fully understand, then reason dictates that we have to opt for the second alternative.

Geoffrey Klempner


Nandita asked:

Why do we exist?

I want to concentrate on one aspect of your question which seems to me the most important. There may or may not be some ultimate reason why human beings are here on this Earth. If there if there is no such reason, if human beings are merely the result of the mechanics of Darwinian evolution, there may yet be an answer to the moral question what the goal of human life ought to be.

But there is another, metaphysical question, which we can ask: Why am I here? Why do I exist?

Each of us, at some time in our lives, is brought face to face with the contingency of our own unique existence. If your parents had not met, you would not have existed. Neither of them would have existed if their parents had not met, and so on. You are a fluke, and so am I. Your existence is a gigantic improbability and so is mine.

Of course, if neither of us existed, neither of us would be asking the question. But that is not an adequate answer.

If you believe in God, then here's a way to make sense of the fact that Nandita exists. God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. In creating the universe, God knew the precise date that Nandita would be born, and, being all-good, his decision to create a universe in which Nandita would exist was motivated by the thought that, taking everything into account, a universe containing Nandita was better than a universe without Nandita.

The trouble is, that doesn't answer the question. The question that still grips me, and the question that ought to grip you is, Why did I have to be in the universe? One can say the same thing about Geoffrey as I have said about Nandita. God saw the possibilities that each of these two individuals represented and approved. Yet still I am gripped by the question, Why did I have to be Geoffrey? And similarly, you ought to be gripped by the question, Why did I have to be Nandita? I cannot ask your question and you cannot ask mine. It is a question that each human being can only ask about themself and no-one else.

It is not as if it would make any sense to imagine that I might have been someone else other than Geoffrey. As the eighteenth century philosopher Leibniz commented, 'To imagine myself being Napoleon is to imagine myself not existing and Napoleon being in my place.' If all your thoughts, feelings and experiences are replaced by Napoleon's thoughts, feelings and experiences then there is nothing left of 'you' to think the thought, 'Now I know what it is like to be Napoleon!'

So what we are left with is a mystery, the mystery of I. There is no answer from science. There is no answer from theology. The only contribution that philosophy has to make is to point out that the real problem is prior to the question 'Why...?'. For no philosophical theory has yet succeeded in explaining how there can be such a thing as the sheer fact that I exist.

[From MAYNA Staff Users, 10 Feb 2001: “I know that philosophers' arguments aren't always concerned by purely pedantic points of factual accuracy, and I'm probably not the first reader to have noticed this, but in your reply to Nandita's question, Why do we exist? (Feb-Mar 2000) you make Leibniz ask why he wasn't born as Napoleon. Er, shome mishtake, shurely? Leibniz (whom you oddly call an 'eighteenth century philosopher') lived from 1646-1716. Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821. Either Leibniz was gifted with prophetic vision, or you're referring to some later Leibniz (which is quite possible). I'm not trying to score points here. I'm genuinely puzzled!” — Oops! Of course I 'knew' that Napoleon came after Leibniz. Sorry about that! G.K.]

Geoffrey Klempner


Monique asked:

Can you explain to me how a machine can think?

Machines such as computers can calculate, but calculating is not the same as thinking. A chess computer running a program like Deeper Blue, the program that defeated Kasparov, calculates moves at an amazing speed but it does not think. It does not have beliefs or desires. It is not conscious.

The mathematician Alan Turing once proposed a test which could be used to settle the question whether a computer met the criteria for being an 'artificial intelligence', that is to say, a test which would determine whether the computer was not only able to calculate but also to think, as we do.

The idea of the test is childishly simple. Suppose you log onto a chat line. You have a conversation with an individual who calls themself 'Daniel'. How do you know that Daniel is not a machine programmed with set responses to the words that you type on the screen? If Daniel is able to continue to hold up an intelligent conversation, respond appropriately to whatever questions you asked, then you would conclude that Daniel was capable of thinking. What Turing said was that it is irrelevant whether Daniel is a human being or a machine. A machine that can do what Daniel does is intelligent, is capable of thinking, by definition.

Your question, however, is how it is possible that a machine like 'Daniel', a machine with genuine 'artificial intelligence', could ever exist.

Is that a technical question or a philosophical question?

Daniel's 'brain' is not made of biological tissue but metal, silicon and plastic. But why should biological tissue be the only material that is capable of producing thoughts? On the other hand, perhaps you are just as puzzled (as I am) by the question how a person can think!

Daniel does not have a body, as we have. He sits motionless on a desk. His only action is to spew out words when words are fed in. For me, that is a serious, perhaps fatal objection, which is why I am not finally convinced by the 'Turing test'. I share the view held by a number of researchers in this area that a genuine 'artificial intelligence' would have to possess something analogous to arms and legs, eyes and ears. I would have to be an agent, and not merely a language user.

Geoffrey Klempner


Andreas asked:

I would like to ask your opinion about how language relates to the external world according to Wittgenstein's later philosophy.

You have asked me to write a book!

The first thing to emphasize is the underlying continuity in Wittgenstein's conception of the problem facing any philosophical account of the 'relation between language and the world'.

We can describe the relations between things in the world. Some of the things in the world are pictures or signs, while other things are things pictured or signified. For example, the sign saying, '400 meters to the beach' is actually 577 meters to the nearest bit of sand. The picture of the hotel in the holiday brochure was taken on one of the few days that the builders were not working on the ground floor extension and the swimming pool.

The statements I have just made use language, English, to relate objects to one another. The philosophical problem arises when we raise the question how language as such 'relates' to the world of objects. Wittgenstein was not the first to see that this kind of question is threatened by a potentially vicious regress. It is impossible to give a complete description of how our words 'relate' to the objects in the world, because an account must also be given of the words used in that description, and then the words used in the account of the words used in the description, and so on.

In his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein conceived the task of the philosopher of language as giving an account of the structure that language must have in order for there to be statements that are either true or false. Note how this Kantian idea of 'explaining how such-and-such is possible' neatly avoids the question of saying what the relation actually is! Wittgenstein's conclusion was that there is a vast, intricate structure underlying my use of words that I know nothing about. On the assumption that every statement I make has a determinate truth value, his reasoning is logical and persuasive. Yet the conclusion seems incredible.

In his later work the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandoned the assumption of the determinacy of truth and meaning. What made this move possible was his recognition of the essentially social character of meaning. The hidden logical machinery needed to account for the utterances of the lonely 'I' confronting a 'world' was thrown away. In its place, Wittgenstein talked of 'forms of life', the essential commonality of language speakers — biological, psychological, social — that accounts for their ability to join in and play 'language games' with one another.

That is not, it should be noted, an account of 'how language relates to the external world'. It is better described as an account — for those who are persuaded by it, a much more believable account than the one Wittgenstein gives in the Tractatus — that explains why that question is the wrong question to ask.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sandra asked:

How is Kant's philosophy a synthesis of Rationalism and Empiricism?

Descartes held that we have 'innate ideas' planted in our minds by God. Locke said that all human knowledge comes from experience: the infant's mind at birth is like a blank sheet waiting for knowledge to be written on it — a tabula rasa. The rationalists Spinoza and Leibniz agreed with Descartes, the empiricists Berkeley and Hume agreed with Locke.

So the story goes.

A keen student will be quick to point out that the empiricists couldn't have held that the mind lacked any innate powers. And what is an 'idea', a 'concept' but a power to organize perceptions in a particular way? So what was the dispute really about? and what was Kant's contribution to the debate?

There are just three concepts that we need to think about: the concept of oneself, the concept of things occupying space and the concept of a cause. How are we able, from a barrage of uninterpreted sensations, to identify ourself as the subject or owner of those experiences? How do we succeed in sticking our experiences together to make things that occupy space and persist through time? Where do we get the idea of one thing causing something else to happen?

Kant agreed with the empiricists that there is no rational faculty that enables me to perceive the innate ideas inside my own mind, as Descartes thought he could perceive his own soul and his idea of God. David Hume, in response to Descartes' claim about the soul reported that,

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.
Treatise on Human Nature Book I, Part IV, Sec vi.

When philosophers' intuitions clash like this it's the end of the debate. Kant took the side of the empiricists in absolutely rejecting any speculations about what God might have planted in the human mind, that cannot be established by means of a logically compelling proof.

...in this kind of investigation it is in no wise permissible to hold opinions. Everything, therefore, which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.
Critique of Pure Reason Preface to First Edition, A xv.

Yet Kant also believed — and this is where he found himself on the side of the rationalists — that if the innate powers of the mind were not specifically targeted on forming a concept of self, identifying things in space and their causal relations, then the infant would never get to first base. It could never succeed in making sense of its experiences.

Kant thought he had found the proof. He called it, rather grandly, his Transcendental Deduction of the Categories. It is the centrepiece of the Critique. — It is also incredibly badly written, obfuscating and repetitious. The essential core of the argument, without which the whole thing falls to pieces, is tacked on as an afterthought in the 'Refutation of Idealism' of the Second Edition.

For what it's worth, this is my interpretation how the argument goes:

1. I have experience.
No-one could doubt that, could they?

2. Having experience means my remembering experiences I have had before, along with being aware of the experiences I am having now.
You need a moment to think about this, to see why it's true.

3. The two 'I's, and 'my' in the previous statement all refer to the same subject I.
Need to think about this too. If the present 'I' seems to remember experiences which someone else had rather than me, then my memory claim is false. Kant calls this feature the 'transcendental unity of apperception'.

4. I have to conceive of myself as being located in a world which my experiences are of, meeting up with objects I have met up with before.
Now we are getting to the crux. Note that this isn't yet the world as we know it. You could think of the 'objects' of experience as just strung along in a line, like a melody that can be played forwards or backwards.

5. Objects which I perceive, then meet up with later, must be conceived as continuing to exist meanwhile.
Not true of the melody.

6. Objects which continue to exist must have a place to exist in.
This is where the categories of substance and a spatial world come in.

7. If things have changed when I get back to them, there must be a way of knowing whether they really have changed, or whether my memory is wrong. Changes happen in the world predictably, as the result of other changes happening.
This is where the category of cause comes in.

So the mere fact that I have experience proves that the concepts of substance and cause can't be constructed out of my experience but must be — innate. An amazing result, don't you think?

Geoffrey Klempner


Frank asked:

What is the wax, given, as Descartes says, that it is the same thing before and after it has melted? What faculty, i.e., ability does Descartes use to acquire the knowledge that it is the same wax before and after it has melted?

You are referring to the famous Beeswax passage from Descartes' Second Meditation. Descartes has been describing the essential properties that belong to his 'I':

I am a thing which thinks...I am not this assemblage of limbs called the human body; I am not a thin and penetrating air spread through all these members; I am not a wind, a breath of air, a vapour, or anything at all that I can invent or imagine...
Meditations on First Philosophy F.E. Sutcliffe tr. p. 105

But this thought is difficult to hold onto:

I cannot help believing that corporeal objects, whose images are formed by my thoughts, and which come under the senses, are more distinctly known to me than that, I know not what, part of me which does not fall within the grasp of the imagination.
ibid. p. 108

So he conducts an experiment. He places a piece of beeswax near the fire and observes the changes that take place. What is it, he asks, that gives him the confidence, and the right to judge that the same wax is still there, despite the radical alterations in its appearance?

It is the understanding, Descartes argues, and not the imagination which is the source of our knowledge that it is the same wax before and after it has melted. Just as it is the understanding, not the imagination, that reveals what I myself truly am.

The wax is a substance, a thing with qualities. According to this philosophical usage, 'substance' applies not only to kinds of material stuff but also to a table, or a human body. The table is the same table, even after it has been painted white and the legs shortened by six inches. A human body remains the same body, even though, over the passage of time, every living cell is replaced.

A contemporary philosopher would say that our concept of the identity of a material object through space and time, and through changes in outward appearance, is tied to the notion of a sortal concept. The material stuff of the table, before and after it has been chopped up for firewood is the same wood. But it is not the same table, because the table has ceased to exist. The piece of beeswax is the same wax before and after it has melted, even though the cells which the bees made out of the wax have ceased to exist. If the wax is heated to a sufficiently high temperature the wax, too, ceases to exist, and all that remains are the same chemical constituents of the former wax now broken down into carbon and water.

You will find the seminal discussion of identity and spatio-temporal continuity in David Wiggins Sameness and Substance Oxford 1980. The basic idea behind Wiggins' discussion, however, goes back to Aristotle.

A supporter of the view that identity is always identity under a sortal concept would certainly agree with Descartes' claim that perception and imagination are not sufficient for judging that an object, or a stuff, is the same despite changes in outward appearance, if we lack the concept of the thing in question. Note that I said, 'judging that an object...is the same'. The dog that recognizes its former owner, when the owner returns after many years unrecognizable to his former friends, does not judge that its owner has returned, but merely exhibits a finely tuned capacity for recognizing smell, and possibly other perceptual qualities. The dog reacts to the perception.

There are, however, ingredients in Descartes' notion of material substance that a contemporary philosopher would not agree to, notably the idea that the essence of material substance is completely accounted for by the pure geometrical notion of extension. Leibniz criticised Descartes on this point. And Descartes attempt to derive the science of mechanics from his analysis of substance as extension was decisively refuted by Newton.

Geoffrey Klempner


Damian asked:

What is Descartes' view on how humans make errors in judgement and how they can avoid doing so? What are Descartes' two reasons for believing that God is not to blame because humans make errors in judgement? I think it is in Meditation IV. Please help!

Descartes raises the question of how errors of judgement are possible in the Fourth Meditation. But the complete answer is only given in the latter part of the Sixth. So you have been looking in the wrong place!

How does the problem arise? The foundation of human knowledge and the refutation of scepticism, according to Descartes, depends upon the existence of a perfect God who is not a deceiver. It is only for this reason that we can have confidence that our perceptions correspond to an external world outside us. It is only for this reason that we can have confidence that our sense of judgement, which includes our sense of what is the best explanation of a given piece of evidence, is a reliable guide to how things really are.

But if all that is true, how is it that human beings make errors in judgement, as they undoubtedly do? Why does God allow us to be deceived? It cannot be malice or lack of power, because God is all-good and all-powerful. Surely, if he'd wanted to, he could have made our power of understanding in such a way that we always made the correct inferences. He could have made our senses in such a way that they always gave accurate information about the world outside us.

True to the style of the Meditations, Descartes starts off by considering several responses, then rejecting them as not fully satisfactory. Only God is perfect. I cannot know God's unfathomable purposes, I am only a small part of the whole picture, and so on. You can skip this. It is part of the standard fare that was served up (and still is) in response to the Problem of Evil. The first substantial part of Descartes' answer concerns the will. The second part involves a fascinating discussion of how the human senses operate.

I recently quoted a section from Descartes' discussion of will in my online notebook at The Glass House Philosopher (see the page for 13th March 2000). We exercise our will when we choose what to do, or choose what to believe. Now there is a simple way to avoid errors in judgement: Do not make any judgement unless the object of your judgement is presented so 'clearly and distinctly' that you cannot possibly be in error. This is the famous 'Method of Doubt' which Descartes has been following in his Meditations. If human beings stuck to this principle, they would never go wrong.

The problem is — and this is the first part of Descartes' answer — we have to make judgements every day about things which are uncertain. You give it the best shot, only sometimes your best shot misses. Weather forecasters are regularly blamed for making wrong predictions. But they are only giving it their best shot.

Now it would be easy to think that Descartes answer here is complete in itself. We exercise our wills in making a judgement, even though we can't be sure of being right, because practical circumstances force us to. But there's an obvious objection: Why hasn't God, who does not wish us to be deceived, arranged the world in such a way that we can always be certain when we make judgements? Why can't our senses convey 100 per cent reliable knowledge of everything we need to know?

Descartes answer is that if you think about what this entails, you will see that it is impossible, even for a God who is all-powerful and all-good. Descartes first point is illustrated by a child's innocent question, 'Ma, why does the sun look so small when it's really so big?' Ma's answer — if she happens to be a philosopher — is, 'How would the sun have to look in order to look as big as it really is?!'

If you think about how the senses of finite, space-occupying beings would have to operate in any possible world, you will see that it would be impossible for the senses to convey accurate information simply on the basis of the way things seem, without our having to use our understanding and judgement, for example, in calculating the sun's true size from astronomical observations.

Descartes second point involves a fairly detailed description of how human bodies are constructed, although it doesn't depend on contingent facts about human physiology. It would apply equally well to Martians. Our senses operate in accordance to the laws of nature. The link-ups, when they are all set up correctly, function as a reliable source of knowledge. However, the very fact that there is a chain of causes and effects in between an object and our perception which gives rise to knowledge of that object means that it is impossible, without violating the laws of nature, to avoid situations where something goes wrong in the process. For example, the very nerves which reliably tell us when we have hurt our foot, convey the false information to the amputee that he has pain in a foot which is not there.

- It would be interesting to speculate whether Descartes' original and powerful response to the problem of error could be extended to the problem of errors in moral judgement, and thus provide a basis for the solution of the Problem of Evil.

Geoffrey Klempner


Carla asked:

I would appreciate some help and guidance with this essay question:

'Punishment can never be administered merely as a means of promoting another good, either with regard to the Criminal himself or Civil Society, but must in all cases be imposed because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a crime.' — Discuss

The quote is from Immanuel Kant, The Philosophy of Law: An Exposition of the Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence as the Science of Right. At the time of writing, there is an on-line version at: Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science.

Punishment serves a number of legitimate purposes. I am not just talking about institutionalized punishment, written up in the statute books, but also punishment that a parent might mete out to a child, or a schoolteacher to a pupil. Here are the main uses:

  1. To deter the wrongdoer from committing a similar offence in the future.
  2. To deter others from committing a similar offence by making an example.
  3. To physically restrict the ability of the offender from repeating the offence.
  4. To alter the offender's behaviour patterns, so that they are less likely to offend in the future.
  5. To convey to the offender how strongly we feel about the wrong they have done us.
  6. To make up for the injustice committed by the wrongdoer by paying them back.
  7. To give the offender the opportunity to atone for their offence.
  8. To give the offender the opportunity to rejoin the moral community.

It is important to notice that Kant says that punishment should never merely be used as a means for promoting another good. He is not saying that punishment cannot also be used as such a means. There is a echo here from Kant's second formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. I should always treat other persons as 'ends in themselves' and not merely as a 'means to my end'.

Possibly, there may be other motives for punishment which could be added to the above list. One question you have to answer is which of the motives is capable of being used as an acceptable justification for the punishment meted out. Here we come to the question of philosophical theories of punishment. One book you might look at is Ted Honderich Punishment: The Supposed Justifications originally published in 1969.

Kant's view would be classified as 'retributivist'. However, retributivism encompasses a number of ideas. The central idea is that of returning the scales of justice to their rightful balance. Opponents of this view of justice see it as merely a cover for the primitive emotion of revenge.

The idea of balancing is crucial in opposing punishments which are more severe than is justified by the nature of the crime. At the time of Charles Dickens, a person could hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. I was shocked to learn that in the State of Utah there was recently a case where a prisoner faced the death penalty for aggravated assault. The biblical concept of 'an eye for an eye' has been much criticized. But at least it sets acceptable limits. By any intuitively acceptable standard of justice, it is unjust to demand a life for an eye.

Geoffrey Klempner