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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 7 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from August — September 2000:

  1. How can interaction with others be genuine?
  2. Defining religion
  3. What makes something beautiful?
  4. Past political philosophy and present day problems
  5. Infinity or finitude of outer space
  6. Possibility of existentialist ethics
  7. Difference between 'the past' and 'history'
  8. Subjective claims and mere opinions
  9. Scepticism and the definition of knowledge
  10. How lack of knowledge inhibits freedom
  11. Criticisms of Locke on primary and secondary qualities
  12. Value judgements and the emotions
  13. Am I dreaming?
  14. Phenomenology and existentialism
  15. Humans, monkeys and zombies
  16. What happens to our soul when we are asleep
  17. Do you believe in fate?
  18. Knowledge as a social construction
  19. Your meaning of 'philosophy'
  20. Philosophy, religion and science
  21. Getting to grips with Plato's Parmenides
  22. Monological and dialogical argumentation
  23. Defining existence and reality
  24. My ex-wife gave her partner herpes
  25. How something came from nothing
  26. Has every possibility actually existed at some time?
  27. Is relativism about truth self-refuting?
  28. Can human beings ever learn to be rational?
  29. Vagueness, abortion and fuzzy logic
  30. Philosophers and UFOs
  31. Nature of religious symbols
  32. Does man have a soul and if so is he immortal?
  33. Civil disobedience and hackers
  34. Daniel Dennett on intentionality
  35. Film theory and Aristotle's account of mimesis
  36. Philosophy of religious education
  37. Philosophers and the quest for happiness
  38. Do we see anything beyond our own sense data?
  39. Suicidal risk taking
  40. Is Descartes' method useless and uncertain?
  41. Exclusivism and the pluralist society
  42. Can Plato's Forms be known but not perceived?
  43. How philosophers do their job
  44. Can we ever hope to know our own selves?
  45. Your philosophy is too Western for me
  46. I am 16 and interested in existentialism and structuralism

Chris asked:

Is it possible to genuinely interact with others as ends in themselves and thus interact with them beyond whatever structure or functionality they are "socially" ascribed — given that interaction is made possible in part by our understanding (or lack of) of who they are?

But does not our understanding or knowledge of who they are constrict their freedom, in that who they are is not what they are perceived to be? (The fallacy of perception?) Ultimately, how can I interact with others without compromising their freedom and mine also? It seems that mis-communication would be a more appropriate term for what we do, rather than a clear communication of the facts between two distinct entities both existing in an objective world.

Surely to interact with others on the basis of "the functionality they are 'socially' ascribed" is what is not genuine! As to whether we can "interact with others as ends in themselves" — this is what we should do. It is part of interacting with others that we treat them in a certain way. To treat a person as an end in himself is to treat him with respect regardless of his social function and whether you like or understand him, and it could be said that this is actually because of our lack of understanding. We don't know what makes others as they are and we cannot blame them. We don't know the problems and suffering others have undergone. So we should treat people with unconditional respect.

As to "interaction", psychologists are aware that their own questions and behaviour will influence the subject. In psychoanalysis, transference is the main problem the analyst has to face. On listening to a patient many emotions are sparked off in the analyst. He may come to dislike the patient or overly sympathise for personal reasons. The analyst must deal with these feelings or they can be transferred back to the patient who will suffer even more confusion. So the analyst must be impassive in order not to influence the patient. This, of course, is not a normal case of interaction. In ordinary life, there is transference in that we affect one another all the time. However, this IS a form of communication. Does this constrict our freedom? It is one of our freedoms to affect others and be emotionally affected. It is to be a human being.

We don't really "perceive" others. When we hear what they say an watch their behaviour, our understanding goes beyond perception, and this is partly based on the knowledge we have of ourselves. It can be instinctual. It is certainly not like perceiving a chair. In ordinary perception, misperception and illusion are the odd cases. But misunderstandings are part and parcel of our interactions with others.

Ethics is theoretical, but human beings are not philosophical problems on an ordinary level of interaction.

Rachel Browne


Julie asked:

My question is simply, well, not that it's simple but...What is religion? Is there a definition out there for religion that suits all religions? My thoughts are that there isn't one, but I have an assignment to find a definition of religion which I agree with.

The first point to make is that there are serious doubts as to whether a definition is possible for many things much simpler than religion. The classic example given by Wittgenstein was of 'games' (Philosophical Investigations paras 66—71). There are many different types of games: ball games, card games, olympic games, board games etc. etc. To give a common feature that they all share is probably impossible. They do not all have competition, they don't all have winners and losers — think of patience. A child throwing a ball in the air is playing a game, but this seems to have little in common with a serious game of chess. if it is impossible to find a definition for a 'game', why should it be possible to define something as complex as religion?

We are tempted to say that there must be something in common between all games, in order that we should call them all games. But this is to miss the force of the argument. It is true that all games have something in common: the trivial seeming fact that they all are games. It might be a plausible answer to your question to say that all religions have something in common, just simply that they are all religions.

Just because a sharp analytic definition is not possible, this needn't rule out the possibility that certain general features couldn't be outlined. We can teach a child the meaning of the word 'game' by showing her various games, and telling her what they were. In time, the child will come to understand the meaning of the word, although she will not have any definition. A similar tactic might be taken for any definition of religion, i.e. giving examples of various religions, beliefs and practises. Although this would not probably be satisfactory for your assignment, it is, I think, the only strictly correct way of doing it.

Will Greenwood


Valerie asked:

What makes something beautiful?

There is no scientific account of what makes something beautiful. For something to have beauty, more is required than mere sense experience of shapes and colours. So an account of what makes something beautiful must be stated in terms of our response, and this must distinguish the beautiful from the merely pleasant and attractive. Theories of art which describe works of art as giving rise to pleasure (Mill) or producing emotional responses (Collingwood) fail to make any determinate statement about beauty.

R Caillois in Generalised Aesthetics stated that "Natural structures constitute both the initial and the final reference point of all imaginable beauty, although beauty is human appreciation. . . It does not follow from this that nature is the model of art, but rather that art constitutes a particular instance of nature." This view allows both natural and created objects to be beautiful, whilst acknowledging the necessity of man's attitude of appreciation. On such a view, what makes something beautiful is not a matter of artistic technique since a flower can be beautiful. If there is one thing determining beauty, therefore, it should not refer to the nature of the object but to the response to which the object gives rise.

And so to Kant (Critique of Judgment), who thought that on judging something as beautiful we do not bring the object under a concept, e.g. that this is 'a flower'. If a flower is thought to be beautiful this not a pure beauty since it is part of our judgement that it is a flower, i.e. part of the miraculousness of nature that it should be so well coloured and formed, and in thinking of it as beautiful we are thinking of own interests, our luck in living in such a world. For something to be purely beautiful it should be designed in such a way that cognition gives way to imagination.

I find it difficult to describe what Kant means when he says that a beautiful work of art should produce "aesthetic ideas". An aesthetic idea is "a representation of the imagination which occasions much thought, without however any definite thought, i.e. any concept, being capable of being adequate to it." It is essentially pleasurable and also general in nature, in that it gives rise to thought. It might be understood as a theme. I prefer #151; not being a visual sort of person — to think of listening to classical music. This is an easy example because we don't think in conceptual terms, we do experience pleasure and we do feel the imagination is involved. But this may be too unintellectual. The notion of a theme at least involves thought.

Rachel Browne


Henry asked:

I am a political science student here in the Philippines, and we have a course requirement which applies political science. I am looking for a political problem where a philosopher has contributed a solution to that problem. I hope you can give a me a present problem, say about democracy etc. and the contribution of a philosopher (past) to help solve that problem.

One of the most pressing political issues today is Globalism. It touches many other issues including freedom of the individual, the nature of the state, sovereignty, authority and obedience. But let's concentrate on how the life of an individual would be impacted by globalism.

For the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a person achieved the "Good Life" — the best possible life for mankind in accordance with his nature as a uniquely rational creature — only as part of a political state. Part of the good life was being a good citizen and one could only be a good citizen by actively participating in the goings on of the state. For Aristotle, this meant that the state or "polis" should be small enough to allow citizens a say in the life of the polis (this does not mean that democracy is the ideal of the good state or the good life since Aristotle restricted citizenship to those who were free of the need to produce in order to survive, so slaves and women were not citizens of the polis.)

So for Aristotle the idea of a global social order or even a modern nation state would be an anti-human way of life and a corruption of our aim for the good life.

However Aristotle was living in ancient Greece. Today, what with near instantaneous media coverage and technology with the potential for making participation in the political life open to all, globalism would perhaps be achievable. And given the horrors of nationalism and fanaticism we see in today's world a one global society may even be desirable.

Karl Marx too sought a global community. Marx thought that nation states were organised and controlled by a certain economic and social class &151; those that controlled the means of production in society. He thought that the workers would establish an all-encompassing and long lasting global community, where once again the best possible life for man would be found.

However there is another form of globalism would not perhaps be the most desirable state of affairs. This is the Consumer globalism that creeps into our lives through the work of multinational companies. Manufacturing and flogging their "seen one seen them all" products around the world and gaining such power that even the national governments bend to their will. This is not only a danger to individual lives but even political structures. Needless to say neither Aristotle or Marx would be happy with this form of globalisation.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Thomas asked:

Is what we call "outer space" infinite?

There is a paradox from Ancient Greek philosophy which goes like this. Suppose that the universe — what we now refer to loosely as 'outer space' — is finite, and not infinite. Imagine an archer at the outer limit of the universe who shoots an arrow. Now we have to decide what happens to the arrow:

  1. If the arrow carries on flying, then obviously the archer could not have been situated at the outer limit of the universe, contradicting the hypothesis.
  2. On the other hand, if the arrow hits a wall, then that too contradicts the hypothesis that we have gone right to the outer limit of the universe. There is something beyond that limit, viz. a wall. And now the same question arises, whether the wall is of finite thickness, or infinite thickness.

These two alternatives were regarded as exhaustive, therefore showing that the idea of a finite universe was absurd. However, one can think of at least three other alternatives:

  1. The arrow ceases to exist. Or, more precisely, as the arrow passes the outer limit of the universe, first the head, then the shaft, then the feathers go out of existence. From a purely logical point of view, this is a neat solution. However, it raises serious problems for the possibility of physics, in the way that it flagrantly violates conservation principles.
  2. The arrow reappears on the other side of the universe. A good way to imagine this is by analogy with a piece of paper rolled into the shape of a pipe. As an arrow goes over the left hand edge of the paper, it reappears on the right hand edge.

  3. If you set out looking for the edge of the universe, using the best available methods for keeping in a straight line, you will never find it. Instead, if you keep going long enough you will return to the point you started from. This is in fact the view of modern relativity physics, according to which the geometry of space itself is 'curved'.

In other words, philosophical analysis shows that it is logically possible that space is finite. The idea of a finite space is not intrinsically absurd. Modern physics leads to the conclusion that what we have demonstrated to be logically possible is in fact the case.

Geoffrey Klempner

Second opinion:

There are two problems here, one is that we do not know what kind of universe we are living in. We know that it is expanding but depending on certain conditions (the rate of expansion and the average density of the universe) there are a number of different answers to your question. The second problem is that we do not really what it means to talk about infinity, the concept is teeming with paradox and all kinds of nasty things to give us headaches.

Further if the universe is infinite it has no centre or more specifically every point can be regarded as the centre.

As 1 said earlier the kind of universe we live in depends on certain constants having certain values Cosmologists have developed models to predict the fate of the universe depending on the values. If the rate of expansion is such that the universe will continue to expand then space is infinite. If however the universe ends up as a "big crunch" collapsing back in on itself then space is not infinite, but neither does it have a boundary. In such a universe gravity would be so strong that space is bent round on itself and if one could travel fast enough for long enough one would eventually come back where one started, so in effect one could travel forever in a finite space! But it is an empirical and as yet undecided matter as to which model this universe fits.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.

Third opinion:

In Physics Book III Aristotle distinguised the void from the infinite.

Outer space is a void and we cannot say anything about it since it is not part of our conceptual scheme. Infinity, on the other hand, is part of our conceptual scheme, i.e. the ideas we have in and about our world. Examples are infinite numbers and time.

The infinite, like a void, is not space, in that there is no top or bottom, it can't be divided in half or have any qualities. However, Aristotle doesn't want to say there is no infinity or the consequence would be finite numbers and time with a beginning and end. So he defines infinity in terms of finitude. This is to say that whatever magnitude you have you have you can always have more, and any magnitude is infinitely divisible. This is not to talk of actual magnitudes, or space as such, since Aristotle defines infinity as potential rather than actual. There are infinite potential operations for any magnitude.

Rachel Browne


John asked:

Is Sartre's existentialist ethics possible? ethics without moral principles to follow? What are some arguments that confirm that existential ethics is possible? and those that deny it?

There is a superb critique of Sartre's existentialist ethics in Iris Murdoch's short book The Sovereignty of Good. Murdoch argues convincingly that the values, the 'good' we perceive in the world around us, or in the consequences of the possible choices we might make, cannot appear to us as merely the products of our own subjective will. — I think that this is true on the level of phenomenology, as a description of the 'way things must appear' to the agent making moral choices.

When understood in this way, however, as a piece of phenomenology rather than as a metaphysical claim about the values that exist in a non-physical world of Platonic forms, I would argue that Murdoch's claim is not inconsistent with an existentialist approach to ethics.

The strongest argument in favour of an existentialist ethics is simply the impossibility of constructing a moral theory. There is no system of moral principles or rules that can be applied to every possible case. There will always be exceptions. From an existentialist point of view, one might say that there will always be the potential, in any new situation that you face, to discover a reason for going against the pattern of responses that you have made to similar situations in the past. Light dawns. You undergo a radical conversion. You can try formulating a new moral 'rule of thumb' that takes account of your new way of seeing things, but you can never be certain you will not be forced to change your mind again.

What is important in the account I have just given is that one talks of a 'situation', of a 'reason' that one discovers. These features are most appropriately described in terms of the metaphor of vision. I see in the situation facing me what is the right thing to be done. The fact that it is me, as I am now, doing the seeing, the fact that other people — or indeed my former self — might judge things differently does not need to be mentioned, because it is implicitly understood.

Geoffrey Klempner


Chari asked:

Based on the definitions of E.H. Carr and other historians, what is 'history' and what is 'the past'?

I'm not a historian, so I couldn't tell you what different historians' views are regarding this question. What I can do is look at our ideas of 'history' and 'the past' to see what latitude there may be in distinguishing these two concepts.

The most simple and direct illustration of the difference between history and the past is your own life. Assuming that the universe was not created five minutes ago by a playful Deity, you do have a past. Much of it is unknown. There is some number which is the total number of your heart beats from the moment as an embryo when your heart started beating, to the time you reach the end of this sentence. That is an unalterable, objective fact about your past.

We are story-telling beings. That is a fundamental fact about our 'natural history'. When we look at the course of our own lives we feel compelled to re-construct the actions we have done and the events that have happened to us in a way that makes some sort of sense. Why is it necessary to do this? Why not just lay out all the 'facts' that we are able to recall to memory, or reconstruct from external evidence?

Explanations of the form, 'X caused Y to happen', whenever they are available, will be part of this catalogue of facts. But causal explanations will not always be available, or, when they are available, may be highly conjectural. What is the real, objective explanation of any human action? How far back do you go? From this perspective, it seems an impossible task.

Yet we do explain our past actions. We succeed in telling a coherent story about our own lives. Of course, there will always be opportunities for self-deception. But remember that these personal 'histories' have to stand the test of the questions and criticisms of others. If your attempt at autobiography falls apart under the most cursory examination, then that is as good a sign as any that the historical claims you have made regarding your own life are false. But what exactly does that mean?

A record of your actions and the events that happened to you in the past can only be true or false. Either what the diary records, or what your memory tells you, happened or it didn't. Such records constitute the evidence for a history. By contrast, a history can only be more or less coherent than another history based on the same historical evidence. Some philosophers would draw the conclusion that a history cannot strictly be 'true' or 'false'. I would rather say that when we are concerned with history, rather than with the past, questions of truth and falsity remain open-ended, not just with respect to the possibility of uncovering new evidence, but also with respect to the possibility of seeing past events in a new light.

What I have said about personal history, about constructing an autobiography, is intended to generalize to all history. Just as I can attempt to tell my history, so I can attempt to tell yours. Or we can attempt to tell ours — or theirs. It is not necessary that the span of one's own life should be placed within the history that one is telling. Yet it seems to me that a good historian always does succeed, in imagination, in putting themself in the historical period that they are recounting, and by so doing, enabling the reader to do the same. A historical account is believable, makes sense, to the extent that we can imagine what it was like to have been there.

Geoffrey Klempner


Courtney asked:

I have this essay assignment in my Philosophy class and I'm not sure how to go about answering the questions. The questions are:

(1) Are there any mere opinions? (Mere opinions being technically defined as: "A meaningful, grammatical opinion-like statement that is not a claim but is nonetheless believed to be true.")

(2) Are there any subjective claims? (Subjective claims being technically defined as: "A claim whose truth or falsity is dependent upon someone's beliefs regarding its truth or falsity.")

My answer to question (1) is that certainly there are opinions, in the sense defined. To discover a person's opinions on a particular subject, you ask, 'Do you believe that...?' It is perfectly possible that someone will be able confidently to answer that they believe some proposition P, even though they have never thought about the matter before.

(I was going to give some examples of 'opinions' that P is the case, or that P is not the case, but I'm sure you could do that yourself!)

Question (2) raises deeper, metaphysical issues. The traditional version of the sense datum theory of perception is based on the idea that there are certain beliefs which are guaranteed to be true by the mere fact that we believe them. For example, 'The sky looks blue to me', 'This tomato looks red to me'. I am not making any claim about whether the sky is clear or overclouded, or whether the tomato really is ripe or unripe. Nor am I making any claim about how the sky, or the tomato would look to others. I am simply reporting the subjective state of my own consciousness, a report which by its very nature cannot be called into question, because I am the sole authority.

I do not accept that there can be a 'subjective claim' in this sense. A simile which I have used with my students is that a purely subjective judgement or claim would be like 'shooting' an arrow which had attached to it a 'target' that unfurled wherever the arrow happened to land. 'Truth' implies that your judgement is successful. You cannot 'succeed' in hitting a target that is already attached to your arrow.

Geoffrey Klempner


Dexter asked:

What constitutes knowledge?

and Romina asked:

How can we be sure of what we know?

You might think that whatever else knowledge might involve, it has at least got to entail that the person who is said to know that P, is sure that P. How can you be said to know something if you're not sure?

In that case, Romina's question would have to be understood as a rather careless way of expressing the problem of scepticism. What Romina should have said is, How can we be sure that we know what we think we know?

For the moment, I do not want to talk about scepticism. So let's stick with the question whether you can know something even though you're not sure.

First off, it could be argued that there are cases where a person does know something, even though they are not sure. The standard example is the 'nervous schoolboy'. The nervous schoolboy is asked, 'What is the capital of France?' The schoolboy knows that the answer is 'Paris'. After all, he's been on holiday to France and even gone up the Eiffel Tower! Yet when put on the spot by an irascible teacher, all his confidence vanishes, and he cannot bring himself to give an answer.

There is more than one way to analyse this example. Threatened with instant execution, there might be all sorts of questions that you would have answered perfectly confidently, which you now feel not quite sure about. How sure is sure? Would you risk your life to assert that Paris is the capital of France? Isn't there a tiny possibility that Ministers at the latest EU Summit agreed that Lyons should be the capital in return for a subsidy for French beef?

An alternative explanation for failure to be sure of what you "know" is that there are certain states of fear where one's brain is simply paralysed and will not let out the knowledge which is in there. Not just the word 'Paris', but the city of Paris with all its buildings and inhabitants, has temporarily vanished from the fearful schoolboy's mind.

This takes us into the general question of just what does constitute knowledge. The standard account used to be that knowledge is 'justified true belief.' Someone cannot be said to know that P, if it is not true that P. (What we would say instead is that 'They thought they knew.') Or we use scare quotes: I "knew" that this question was not going to take me more than fifteen minutes, but I was wrong! However, not every belief which is true, counts as knowledge. You've got to be able to justify your claim by giving suitable reasons.

As the philosopher Paul Gettier showed in a paper which rocked academic philosophy in the 60's, that's still not enough. You can have excellent reasons for believing that P, and your belief that P can be true, but it can still turn out that it was only by a lucky fluke that your belief turned out to be true. For example, I "know" that my next door neighbour Derek is at home because I can see him mowing the lawn. In fact he is mowing the lawn. But what I didn't know is that his long lost twin brother Brian has come to stay for a fortnight, and it could just as easily have been Brian, not Derek, whom I spied through the window.

With the Gettier-type examples, the floodgates are opened. Take anything you could reasonably be said to know. Like the fact that Derek is mowing the lawn. I ask myself, 'Do I know that Derek has not got a twin brother?' If I can't say, 'Yes' then I don't know that Derek is mowing the lawn, even though I can see him clearly. With a bit of ingenuity, you can do the same trick on just about any factual proposition that you take yourself to "know".

Geoffrey Klempner


Justin asked:

Basically this question relates to the age old argument about whether or not man has free will or if his actions are predetermined. My question is: What does it matter whether man has free will or not if he fails to, or is incapable of, comprehending the world he inhabits? This seems like the sort of thing that Sartre or Soren Kierkegaard would have touched on, but I can't locate anything directly related. I would love a compelling argument but would be pleased to find any related material.

I don't think that your question is about free will. Nor do I think that Sartre's or Kierkegaard's views are especially relevant. What you have discovered, in thinking about the question of freedom of action, is the fact that human power is limited by the extent of our knowledge.

Free will is not the same thing as power. If I don't know which bottle of medicine will alleviate my medical condition, and which will make it worse, I lack the power to make myself well. However, I have the freedom to pick up any bottle I choose.

The more we understand, the more we comprehend, the more real choices we have, and the less we have to rely on hit-and-miss or guesswork. In short, knowledge is power.

Geoffrey Klempner


A.V. Ravishankar Sarma said:

What is the actual problem of counterfactuals in interpreting them in object language? In what sense are counterfactuals relevant in technical areas like physics, computer science, AI?

Counterfactuals, or 'contrary-to-fact conditionals' as they are sometimes called, are one of the most maddeningly difficult problems of philosophical logic. Take a simple statement like, 'If I hadn't been working on these questions today, I would have been reading the book on Eastern Philosophy which one of my students lent me.' Or, 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri last April, I would still be driving it now.' We make these kinds of statements all the time. We know when they are true, and when they are false. (In fact, both these statements are false. Responding to the latest letters from my students is higher up on my Do-list. And had I not crashed it, my Capri would certainly have failed its compulsory Ministry of Transport inspection last July, and been sold or scrapped.)

But what makes a counterfactual true, when it is true? What kind of fact does a true counterfactual statement convey?

Let's play a game of suppose. Suppose I didn't crash my Capri. There are lots of different situations that I can imagine which are consistent with that supposition. 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri, I would have been driving a Lancia.' Or, 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri, I would never have learned to drive.' Intuitively, we know that these statements are absurd. Yet, one of the possible scenarios where it is not the case where I crash my Capri, is the scenario where I never owned a Capri in the first place. Another possible scenario is the one where I never owned a car in the first place.

Somehow, we are able to pick out the scenarios which are pertinent to the possibility that we are imagining, and reject those that are not pertinent. The problem, as logicians have discovered to their dismay, is that it is impossible to come up with a coherent set of rules for doing this.

One philosopher, David Lewis, has put forward the theory that the scenarios which are 'pertinent', in this sense, are the ones existing in possible worlds where the thing we are supposing is true, which are most similar to the actual world. So, in the case of the supposition, 'I do not crash my Capri', the most similar possible worlds are those in which I continue driving my Capri, rather than those in which I never owned a Capri, or a car, in the first place.

It's a neat theory. The problem is that it doesn't altogether work. The idea of 'similarity', though it works for some cases, gives the wrong results for others. One example that Davis Lewis himself gives that causes difficulties for the similarity account is a statement like, 'If Oswald had not Killed Kennedy, someone else would have.' This statement appears to come out true on Lewis' account, simply because a possible world where Kennedy dies at the hands of another assassin is more similar to the actual world than a possible world where Kennedy lives out his term of office. But surely, one would only believe that someone else would have killed Kennedy if one thought (as many in fact do) that Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy, rather than a single killer acting alone. Philosophers are still waiting for a fully adequate logical analysis of counterfactuals.

Who else is waiting? Does anybody else care? Physicists, computer scientists, AI researchers etc. all make use of counterfactual statements. To the extent that it is not fully understood how counterfactual statements work, there will be a penumbra of unclarity whenever counterfactual statements are used. I think it does matter, if scientists can't be sure what they are actually saying, or what their assertions commit them to.

Geoffrey Klempner


Helen asked:

Why is the difference between primary and secondary qualities that Locke so emphasized rejected by David Hume and latter British empiricists?

The short answer to this question is that Locke's distinction is perfectly sound, but Berkeley and Hume had their own agenda. In pushing that agenda, the primary-secondary quality distinction was the obvious target to attack.

Some qualities of a thing, such as mass, volume, shape are possessed by those things irrespective of the existence of subjects capable of perceiving those qualities. Other qualities, such as colour, smell, taste only exist by virtue of the power of the thing that possesses that quality to bring about experiences in a percipient subject. That, in essence, is the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

For both Berkeley and Hume, however, the very idea of primary qualities was inconsistent with the metaphysical principle that what we term 'material objects' are, in reality, constructed out of the materials of experience. For Berkeley, statements about physical objects reduce to hypothetical statements about the experiences that one might receive in such-and-such circumstances. In Hume's 'ideal' theory, the notion of a material object existing distinct from perception, and continuing to exist during periods when it is not perceived is self-contradictory. 'Material object' is a useful fiction, nothing more.

It therefore follows from Berkeley's and Hume's theories that from a metaphysical point of view all qualities are, ultimately, secondary qualities.

Geoffrey Klempner


Morgan asked:

To what extent should our emotions be considered an important aspect of our ethical and aesthetic judgements? And do we have to think scientifically in order to find the truth?

Earlier in the century (A J Ayer in 1936 and C L Stevenson in 1944) there was an ethical theory called Emotivism which held that a moral judgement that something is good is a report that you like it with an implicit urge to persuade others that it is good. To say that murder is bad is to say you don't like it. The problem is that we want judgements to be true and false — murder is bad, and the claim that we don't like it is not strong enough. The theory is too subjective and doesn't allow for moral arguments, nor of course, does it give much support to the law.

In the 18th century David Hume in his essay On the Standard of Taste outlined a theory of aesthetics which was similarly subjective, such that to think that a work of art of good is a matter of sentiment, of liking it. He introduced the idea of an ideal judge who had refined taste, experience, and was unprejudiced etc. as an attempt to allow some sort of objectivity to a judgement so that we can say that if this ideal judge were to think the work of art good, then my sentiment if I judged the work good would be correct. The same notion could be introduced into an emotional ethical theory. But who is the judge? And if there were an ideal judge he couldn't say one work of art was better than another, since there are not criteria for comparison, and if there were criteria, the idea of the judge would be otiose and aesthetic judgement would be an empirical matter reduced to techniques. Art would become a craft.

A problem with subjective emotional approaches is also that they ignore the rational aspect in judgements, and a theory such as Kant's in the Metaphysics of Morals would hold that emotions should not be involved in ethical judgements to any extent. A moral action is to act in accord with a categorical imperative, which is contrasted with the hypothetical imperative. The hypothetical imperative would for example be if you wanted to be a good person, express your love, etc then you would act morally. This disregards the idea of the unconditional duty towards others as rational beings which we have as rational beings ourselves. We should do good for its own sake. While this view is regarded as cold I would recommend it on the grounds that to love and care is to love and care, and not to be moral. To act morally is not to act in accord with your feelings, but to do what is right. This need not be to say that you do not love and care, but this should not be why you do the right thing.

As to the Aesthetic judgement, again Kant in his Critique of Judgment held that a judgement was not a matter of sentiment, of a liking, but was a matter of pleasure, involving the play of the imagination, implicit in which is the judgment that anyone would find the work of art beautiful. This is still subject to the problem of the truth and falsity of aesthetic judgment, but it allows that a judgment is not completely arbitrary and a matter of individual taste, because the feature of universality is not involved in merely subjective individualistic likings.

As to scientific thinking, science leads us to empirical truths about the world. For aesthetic and ethical judgements scientific thinking is not relevant since we are not talking of primary qualities (shapes) and secondary qualities (colour) qualities alone but an essentially subjective response. Intersubjective truth, an agreement in response, is the most that we can hope for.

Rachel Browne


Sarah asked:

How do I know I am not dreaming?

The problem is this: For any thing I experience it is possible that I may also dream I experience it and if I am dreaming X I am not really doing X. So 1 cannot be certain that I am doing X if I cannot be certain that I am not dreaming that I am doing X.

But there is no way to distinguish dreaming X from really doing X, so I cannot be certain that I am not dreaming X.

There are three possible ways to get out of this troubling situation. Option one is to question the premise that there is no way to distinguish dreams from waking life. Option two is to question the idea that it is possible to dream everything, perhaps there are some things that we cannot dream. That way, if we experience them we know that we are awake. Option three is to question the 'epistemic' condition that to know X we must know the falsity of all the things incompatible with knowing X.

I think that the first two options fail and so we are forced to find a conception of knowledge that avoids the epistemic condition. Option one fails because if we have some test that we can apply to discriminate between dreams and waking life it is always possible to dream that we have applied the test and so we would never know if it has been successful. Descartes thought that the difference was that waking life is joined together by memories unlike dreams. But surely it is possible for dreams to be connected by memories, or, if not, then at least for us to dream that they are!

Option two fails for similar reasons, say, for example that "I am now asleep and having a dream" is not something that we can know when we are actually dreaming (since we cannot know anything when we are dreaming). So if and when we experience it, we know that we are in fact awake! But it is still possible to dream that we are asleep and so once again we cannot tell whether we really know we are awake or merely dreaming that we know we are awake.

So by elimination we have to adopt option three, unfortunately 1 do not have anything positive to say about this yet.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.

Second opinion:

Logically you do not know you are not dreaming since any evidence that you are not could be dreamt, including being told and pinched. The problem is the sceptical problem and is not answerable logically.

However, you do know that you are not dreaming in the same way you know that you are not insane. To really have a concern that you might be dreaming is rather akin to insanity, in that you have begun to lose a basic sense of reality. This is a psychological rather than philosophical problem.

A grasp of reality requires a conscious rather than unconscious state. In dreams, as in insanity, the unconscious takes over.

Rachel Browne


Olly asked:

What is the difference between existentialism and phenomenology?

Phenomenology obviously has its precursors, but these only become visible as such in retrospect, after Husserl's Logical Investigations (2 Vols) 1900—01. The maxim of phenomenology was 'to the matters themselves!'. The matter itself is the phenomenon: that which shows itself. The phenomena is the totality of that which shows itself. Thought is to direct itself to these matters and be structured according to them. In phenomenology then, entities or things are not seen 'as such', but as a 'manifestation'. Phenomenology wants to see what is manifest in and by things. It is a bit like the old idea of 'speculative' thought, where thinking tries to 'mirror' (speculum) what is.

Existentialism springs from phenomenology because it asserts that the prime phenomenon (or matter at stake) is that being for whom the world is phenomenal, who sees the world as such. This strange phenomenon is involved in all phenomenology, but is itself unclarified. Hence, Heidegger says, at the beginning of Being and Time (1927): "We are ourselves the entities to be analysed. The Being of any such entity is in each case mine." Sartre's existentialism takes another course to Heidegger's, but both philosophers hold that existence comes before essence. That means that one always already exists and that existence is always already mine before there is any question of 'the matters themselves'. First we must wonder, "what is it to exist?'

Matthew Del Nevo


Jason asked:

What is a human that is not human but has all the human actions and expressions?

The answer is, a Zombie.

But this is no ordinary zombie. What we are talking about has nothing to do with Voodoo, or Night of the Living Dead. Our creature is strictly a product of logical analysis: a philosopher's zombie.

One of my Pathways students, Glyn Hughes drew me a cartoon of a philosopher's zombie which I liked so much it is now a permanent feature of the Pathways Launch page. Have a look, then come back here.

The title of the cartoon is, 'Zombie with Qualia'. (Sorry, Glyn, I had to use the recognized term, not 'Quales'!)

This is how the analysis goes. All we can ever know about a person comes from their physical manifestation, their bodily presence in the world and the physical effects that their actions are able to bring about. Yet all that could be done by a creature that was nothing more than physical stuff, atoms, molecules, flesh, bone, skin, nerves, muscles, sinews, brain.

Yet I know, looking inside myself, that there is something extra that a purely physical me would not possess, this conscious experience, these feelings that I am having now. A physical duplicate of me could laugh, cry, do philosophy, keep up this web site, even though all was dark within. Even my wife couldn't tell us apart.

Philosophers tempted by this argument call the extra 'something' that I have but my zombie double would lack, 'qualia' (the plural of 'quale', pronounced 'kwar-lay' — it's taken from the Latin). The conclusion of the argument is a form of mind-body dualism.

In order to see why there has got to be something wrong with this argument, consider the statement, 'I have a quale of green'. I am looking at the leaves of my house plant, so there is quite a lot of green in my visual field at this moment. But if I can say, 'I have a quale of green', then a being physically indistinguishable from me in every way, but which lacks qualia — in other words, my hypothetical 'zombie double' — would have to say exactly the same thing!

So the zombie-with-qualia theorist is committed to accepting that it is perfectly possible for a creature to utter the words, 'I have qualia' even though it lacks qualia. It follows, that even though I may find myself moved to utter the words, 'I have qualia', it doesn't follow that there actually exists an extra, non-physical 'something' or this that my words refer to.

Geoffrey Klempner

Second opinion: We have to be careful here to avoid chauvinism. There are two senses we can use "human". One is a biological sense used to designate a physical creature with certain characteristics such as hands, faces, gene sequence. A second more difficult sense of the use human is better termed "person", a being that is a moral agent, has thoughts and the like.

Now it is important not to confuse or equate the two, for if we do this can lead us to disregard beings as persons just because they are not humans. The two concepts are separate, one need not be a human to be a person and not all humans are persons.

For example a zombie — a perfect replica of a human being with all the physical properties of humans able to perform any and all human actions and expressions is not a person. Also non-human beings (first sense) may have human (second sense) characteristics, such as the monkeys who use mirrors to groom themselves and this may make us more inclined to treat them as persons, but we have to be careful here too, in order to avoid liberalism — regarding a creature as a person just because it shows a slight resemblance to us.

Just because a being can act and look like a human does not mean that it is a human and just because a creature can act like a person does not mean that it is one.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Christopher asked:

If you accept the existence of the spirit, then how can sleep be explained? For an immortal spirit would not sleep, as it not an organism in the sense of an animal. If our spirit existed as part of our self, we should therefore have a form of consciousness in our sleep.

The traditional dualist thinks that we have a spirit and a body. One easy explanation of why we sleep is that it is a bodily function separate to the goings on of the spirit. Although the spirit may be immortal the body is not. It is finite and has limits. Sleep could be for some regenerative purpose.

The question of our continued consciousness during sleep is more interesting. Perhaps the spirit can only operate through a fully functioning body, some complex interaction may be necessary between the two that fails to work in sleep or perhaps dreams are the awareness of the spirit's goings on.

In fact how do we know that the spirit is immortal or that it can dispose of rest? after all, immortality does not mean ever-alert, perhaps the spirit too takes time out when the body sleeps. Given the assumption that we do have a spirit, the fact that we do not have a full consciousness in sleep supports the idea that the spirit does itself need rest.

But even if we do not have a spirit the question of the purpose of sleep and dreams is just as interesting. In biological terms sleep must have some enormous advantage, given that it leaves us defenceless for hours a day. What can it be?

We know that the body is able to make essential proteins at a much faster rate while sleeping than when awake, and without sleep the body cannot store energy as efficiently, and without any sleep we would eventually die.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.

Second opinion: Although Christopher does not make this explicit, there does seem to be a problem with accounting for a sleeping spirit, or soul, on Descartes' dualist theory of 'mental substance' and 'material substance'.

According to Descartes, material substance is defined by the essential attribute of being extended and occupying a position in space. In a similar way, mental substance is defined by the essential attribute of thought, or consciousness. In these terms, it would seem that the idea of a mind that was not conscious for some period of time would be no less absurd than the idea of a material body that was not spatially extended, or did not occupy a spatial position for some period of time.

The solution is to accept that the spirit or soul can never be completely lacking in consciousness. Even in a dreamless sleep, therefore, a defender of Descartes would have to say that there is some small degree consciousness there. Descartes is only committed to the claim that 'I exist is true whenever I think it'. He is not committed to holding that whenever I exist, I must be consciously aware that I am having thoughts.

Geoffrey Klempner


Matthew asked:

With occurrences like the miracles at Medjugore not being commonplace nowadays but nevertheless evident, fate seems to be justified. Some people believe that if I was to do something totally out of the ordinary (like grow wings — bear with me here) that it would be totally unpredictable. However, it's highly improbable, not impossible. Do you believe in fate, even if to an extent, or that anyone is in control of their own conscious thought? What makes you believe this?

A miracle presupposes a world where anything is possible. Fate presupposes a world where there are inexorable laws. The former case is that of early Christianity in which, as Mark has it, "for God all things are possible". In other words, anything could happen, and lots of strange things did, not least the historical survival and ascendancy of the Church. The latter case is that of ancient Greece, say the plays of Sophocles, where, like Oedipus, you cannot escape your destiny. As Tertullian said, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' In their extreme forms, little or nothing. But there is overlap between Athens and Jerusalem in the notion of Providence. So in the Wisdom of Solomon (chs.10-12, 16-18) there are long chapters on patterns in history i.e. there is a perception that history is far from arbitrary. In Ecclesiasticus, (chs.10-18) the way in which 'God governs the world' is explained in prudential terms, and so on. In Greece, strict fatalism gave way to 'logos' or reason, due to the influence of the philosophical schools.

The ontological ideas of fate and freedom are not coherent but they inform Western thought and our modern selves in various ways. While I do not 'follow my stars' I do believe that to some extent 'you reap what you sow'. However, this belief is based on experience, that if I over-indulge myself, the consequences will not be to my liking. I do not however, extend my belief that 'I reap what I sow' into a belief in karma, which is the logical corollary. Therefore, I do not believe we get the illnesses we deserve. I do not believe that this life is a punishment for a past life. In that way I sympathise much more with Job than with his comforters.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mike asked:

What is meant by "knowledge is socially constructed"? and how can this change over time?

You can't know something if it isn't true. Whatever else, 'knowledge' might imply, it implies that we take something to be the case, and what we take to be the case is the case, in other words, is true.

But what does it take to make something true? Do truths exist in a timeless reality, waiting for us to discover them? Or are some of the things we call 'truths' merely a product of the way we think, or rather, the way human beings have thought at a particular historical period? Like houses and cities, on this view, the 'truths' that human beings take themselves to know are constructed and, in time, pulled down again.— Could that be true?

To some extent, what I would say here is the same as I said, below, in my 'second opinion' on R.E. Lee's question about the argument against relativism. But it seems to me that in the 'social construction' theory of knowledge there is more going on than simply the claim that truth is relative to a society, or to a historical period.

First, one has to notice that not all forms of knowledge appear equally suitable candidates for a social constructivist account. It is a plain fact that either Caesar did, or did not, cross the Rubicon (as I remember vaguely from my history lessons at school). On the other hand, the question why he did is a matter for historians to argue over. One of the things that characterize a given society in a given historical period is the way it views its own history. The way certain historical facts are common knowledge, seen to be unquestionably true.

It is when knowledge is implicated in self-understanding that the claim about knowledge being socially constructed appears most tempting. What we are depends partly on what we understand ourselves to be, the way we view where we have come from and where we are going.

Here is an example which I have used before. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher notoriously said, 'There is no such thing as Society', her words reflected a reality that had come about because of the prevailing attitude towards social issues that kept the Conservative party in power. Where there had been 'Society', there was no more. This attitude was supported by a certain view of history. A critic of Thatcher would say that it was a distorted view. But it was not wholly false either.

As individuals we tell, and re-tell the story of our own lives in response to changes in our circumstances. We are always striving to create a coherent narrative, to impose our will on the chaos of events. The same thing is true on a social level. Whether you believe in the existence of such a thing as 'Society' with a capital 'S' or don't believe it, whether or not Society is itself one of the things that is 'socially constructed', we are individually and collectively constructors of our own 'truths', our own 'knowledge'.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sheena asked:

Please can you explain to me your meaning of 'philosophy'. Thank you.

Philosophy is the art of rational thought. But there is more to it than just 'rational' thought, after all, rational thought was born of philosophy, not the other way around. The Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) means a lover of wisdom (sophos). A lover of wisdom is distinguished in this definition from one in possession of knowledge. The philosopher is a seeker and therefore philosophy is this seeking of wisdom. Philosophers who think they have the truth then, lose philosophy herself, who is (Boethius says), the Comforter. Philosophy means to be on the way to wisdom — to be fully seeing all things by the light of truth. This 'on-the-wayness' is also our destiny in time. Also, philosophy as a matter of being on the way means that questions are more important than answers. Answers are just starting points for new and different questions.

Matthew Del Nevo


Cicely Francis asked:

How would you compare and contrast philosophy and religion, and also philosophy and science?

One of the ways of approaching the question what philosophy is, is to explain what philosophy is not. Philosophy is not religion. Philosophy is not science.

The two statements I have just made about philosophy do more than simply narrow down the field of possibilities concerning what philosophy is, or might be. It is one of the features that essentially belong to the activity of the philosophy that one labours under the intermittent or constant temptation towards seeing philosophy as a kind of religion, or, alternatively, as a kind of science.

In the opening paragraphs of my paper, Can Philosophy be Taught? I talk about the temptation to 'make a God out of philosophy'. In my paper, I called that a 'foolish mistake' and offered the throw away remark, 'I sincerely hope it's not one I've ever been tempted to make'. But that is untrue. I have been tempted. Otherwise, how would I know what I was talking about?

Worship, and a conception of what is holy, are the core of religion. (I don't necessarily mean worship of a personal God, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition.) Religious practices, like prayer and meditation, are designed to open ourselves up to experiencing, or receiving, that which is immeasurably higher than us, that which is what we are not.

Philosophy, or the greatest philosophical or metaphysical systems, are merely a product of human endeavour. To worship what we ourselves have made is idolatry.

Nor is philosophy science. Once again, you can't really understand what that means if you have not, at some time, wished that philosophy could be made 'scientific'. To qualify as a science, an inquiry does not need to be based on observing or collecting facts, or putting forward empirically testable hypotheses. Mathematics is a science. But philosophy is not mathematics. Even Plato, who famously put above the doors of his Academy, 'Let no-one who has not studied mathematics enter here' knew this. Even, I believe, Descartes, despite his well-advertised attempt in the Discourse on Method and Meditations to apply the 'geometrical method' to philosophy.

In philosophy, there are no fixed starting points. No philosophical term of any consequence has ever been successfully defined. One is constantly striving to understand the significance of the things that the on-going dialectic obliges, or tempts us, to say. We never quite know where we are. That is why the illusion of a 'scientific' philosophy appears so tempting.

Geoffrey Klempner


Giovanna asked:

I am an undergraduate student studying for the External Programme/Distance Learning BA degree in Philosophy with the University of London, U.K. I study on my own and this entails being the student and the teacher at the same time. Whenever I have questions or don't understand something, I somehow must try to find the answer on my own. It's certainly more challenging this way, but everyone needs some guidance (even Plato had his guide after all).

I have some perplexities about some of Plato's works. I am having somewhat of a problem with Plato's Parmenides, I need someone to illuminate me about Parmenides' Eleatic philosophy. I haven't yet decided whether he's for the Absolute or the Relative theory of things. His reasonings are a bit mind-boggling. Help!

Plato's Parmenides is his most difficult work. Proclus (410-485), probably the greatest commentator on Plato in history, said the Parmenides was Plato's most essential work and he expressly treats it like a Scripture. As with all works which are fundamental to thinking, we need to recognise, at the outset, that we are not going to be able to find a few easy (or even difficult) formula which encapsulate it. If we think we 'understand' the Parmenides, it only means we have a theory about it, which merely represents a fore-closure upon further thinking about it, which thinking itself cannot allow! Even the best of such theories can never dispense with the Parmenides itself, which in a sense, always remains ahead of us. Although our theories would like to put it behind us and consign it to 'history', they never shall. Proclus recognises this, but many modern academic scholars fail to do so. To adapt the words of Jorge Luis Borges, the best explanation of the Parmenides are the words of the Parmenides itself.

How to get on the way to thinking about the Parmenides is the question, not how to comprehend it. The fact that you know it is 'mind boggling' means you already understand more than all those 'experts' in the dialogue who no longer find it mind boggling. You are ahead of them.

My own reverential reading of the text leads me to believe that it is not about a theory of things, but a theory of theories. Also, it is neither Absolute nor Relative. Parmenides' stance is eidetic or dialectic — although what these things mean is itself a major area of study. Remember, the stance of the hero is at a distance from what Plato, as the philosopher, might be trying to reveal through the dialogue as a whole, and Parmenides' speeches in particular. Ordinary thinking as well as rational thinking is positive-negative, subject-object thinking. Plato's thinking in this dialogue is speculative. He is thinking about the unity of what are absolute opposites. These opposites are not particulars but enter into all that is. The Eleatic doctrine (which Parmenides stands for) is that only being is, and that non-being is not. Platonic dialectic is not the same as the dialectic of Elea. In either case, this dialectic is speculative not just conceptual. This makes it more demanding for a modern reader and one cannot really come to it cold and hope to get even a glimpse of what is going on. For Plato there is an identity of Being and non-being. It is not just that Being is not without negation, but Plato wants to show that non-being is always already the essential determination of Being; in other words, Being is always otherwise than itself. By contrast, for the Eleatics, Being is always a matter 'in itself' and 'for itself'. Plato is against a metaphysics of pure Being (monism) and against a metaphysics of co-incidence or con-junction of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum).

What is truly 'Socratic' about this dialogue (i.e. Platonic) is that Plato has Parmenides as the mouthpiece for theories which refute those supposedly held by him as the leader of the Eleatic school. Plato does the same thing with the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. I am not sure what, but I am sure this means something.

The Parmenides is very difficult. Be guided by your perplexities, don't succumb to theory in place of philosophy. Although I unfortunately don't have it at hand at the moment, I would recommend that for further clarification than I am able to give here, you find the old (late 19th cent.) edition of Jowett's translation of the Parmenides, the one with his long introductory essay and analysis. Normally translators make poor commentators, but Jowett's essays and ideas about Plato are exceedingly authoritative.

Matthew Del Nevo


Kayley asked:

Can you tell me the difference between the monological and dialogical approaches to argumentation?

I'm not sure what you mean by the dialogical approach to argumentation, as opposed to the dialogical approach to certain philosophical problems, like the nature of the self, or the relation between the self and other. In the latter sense, 'dialogical' refers quite specifically to the tradition that includes the work of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. (Major works: Buber I and Thou, Levinas Totality and Infinity.)

By contrast, argumentation that is 'dialogical' is what I would term dialectical. The idea of philosophical argument being dialectical, or involving a zig-zag structure of claim and counter-claim, goes back to Plato. We term the procedure in a European or American court of law 'dialectical', because the truth is arrived at through a confrontation between the arguments for the prosecution and the defence. In a Rabbinical court, by contrast, the Rabbis arrive at their judgement by directly questioning the parties involved.

But 'dialectic' is a magical, dangerous word. It is a word we over-use, sometimes abuse. Even if you don't believe in Plato's or Hegel's or Wittgenstein's dialectic — or any philosopher's dialectic— it is difficult to resist the sense of almost mystical significance.

What about the opposite, 'non-dialectical' or 'monological'? (I have never heard of 'monolectical'.) Spinoza, the faithful student of Descartes, is perhaps the best example of a philosopher who set out, in his metaphysical work the Ethics, to follow through a straight line of argument from definitions and axioms to a conclusion. In this, he modelled himself on Descartes' pronouncements about the application of the 'geometrical method' to philosophy, rather than on Descartes' actual example.

Yet as many commentators have pointed out, all the interesting bits of the Ethics are in the added 'Scholia', the parts supposedly added on merely to aid the reader's comprehension of the main line of the argument. Even Spinoza, it seems, found it difficult to pursue a philosophical investigation 'monologically'.

Dialectical proof has sometimes meant, as in Aristotle, establishing a philosophical conclusion by the method of reductio ad absurdum. You reach conclusion A by demonstrating the absurdity of supposing that A is not true. The negative approach has its advantages, but should not be overrated. We all-too easily assume that because not-A is not true, A must be true. But that is a fallacy. To the question, 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' It is impossible for me to answer 'Yes' or 'No' because both alternatives — that I have stopped beating her, and that I haven't — are false! Often in philosophy we wrongly assume that 'A' and 'not-A' are the only possible alternatives, only to discover later that neither is in fact the case.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cyril asked:

How can we define the words 'existence' and 'reality'? And a second question: existence, is it reality?

Existence (existentia) is a word traditionally used in distinction from essence (essentia). According to its essence a thing is what it is. According to its existence a thing actually is, it is placed outside its potential state in its causes. Reality (realis) refers to the extra-mental i.e. that which has a foundation in fact, not just in mind. The real is not the same as the actual. The actual is the opposite of the possible. The actual traditionally referred to the activity of something. The actual (actualis) also means the active. In modern times these words have broken free from their moorings in the Latin world and have been redefined differently in different philosophies. Therefore, you need to note their meaning anew in each case.

Your second question, 'is existence a reality?' asks after the esse — the being — of existence. I would say, given the definitions just given, there is no reality without existence. But hat existence is, raises the further question, what is man? Or, what am I? What being is, raises other questions not unrelated to the former.

Matthew Del Nevo


JMR asked:

My ex-wife had herpes for many years. We were together eight years and split up last fall. She had an affair and have H to someone who would not wear protection. She wants to end the relationship but he tells here that she has a moral obligation to stay with him because she infected him. Any thoughts?

First 1 do not think that any one has a moral obligation to stay in a relationship with anyone else.

Personal relationships are not based on or maintained by what ones duties are to the other, instead they are based on mutual loves and likes. If and when these likes and loves are no longer mutual the relationship may end. There may however be residual duties and obligations that one of the parties carries with him/her. but these can be fulfilled outside of the relationship.

For example, a divorced farther has obligations to his children, but these obligations can be fulfilled independent of the husband/ wife relationship.

However, 1 think this is more a question of informed consent. If the ex-wife told her partner that she had herpes (and he understood what the implications of this were) but he still refused to wear protection then he is responsible for whatever consequences followed.

If she did not tell him she had herpes and had unprotected sex then she is responsible. I'm not sure what the legal status of knowingly infecting someone with a potentially lethal disease is, but morally it is a wrong act. But if she is responsible, this does not mean she ought to stay with him.

So the ex-wife has an obligation to tell her partner that she has herpes, if she fails in this obligation she is responsible for the consequences, although she is not obliged to stay with him. If she did tell him and he did not wear protection he is responsible for his actions and the consequences of them and again she has no obligation to stay with him.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


James asked:

Philosophy, huh? Pah! You guys crack me up. Okay, I'll admit the need for the contemplation of the various ideas as detailed by this site...and human conciousness in general. But come now, Kollidge Kids. The "basic facts" of existence are:

1. There was "nothing".

2. "Bang".

3. There was everything.

Ain't there something wrong here? We all understand that "everything" is created...from other "things". Everything. No exceptions. Except.... Everything.

Seems to me, the entire human population should huddle together one week out of the year and contemplate the utter nonsense of the fact of "our" existence. Why we don't walk around muttering "We came from nothing. We came from nothing. We came from nothing." is a mystery in itself.

So the philosophs and others never seem to take up that question. Even the essays which I've read here ignore that question. (Although, it's true that I ain't read `em all yet. :} ) Because if you accept that premise (and by golly, either you accept it or you go "mad"), than any other concept of existence of possible also. Anything. Mind Reading. Teleportation. Living rocks. Stars as sentient beings. Humans as microorganisms in a vastly greater "reality". Unending universes. And so on.

It is humorous though. The only way human conciousness can exist is by ignoring the true reality of our existence. Or at best, simply remaining in awe of the whole shebang. Never forgetting to awe is the most important thing to remember.

As far as I can tell, the only way to deal with it is to not think about it. You got any better ideas?

What cracks me up is that you don't notice an equally big problem staring you in the face every time you look at the bathroom mirror in the morning.

Let's play a game of suppose. Suppose there were an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. That wouldn't be very interesting or helpful, if under the description of 'something' came any possibility under the sun, including a universe consisting entirely of empty space. There still remains the urgent question, Why is there this universe, rather than some other possible universe? Why are things this way, rather than one of the myriad other possible ways things might have been?

But now suppose — if you are still with me — that we had an answer to that question. The philosopher Leibniz thought he had, in his conception of God as the one unique being that contains the reason for its own existence, who necessarily chose to create the 'best of all possible worlds'. — Huh!

As I was saying, we've got something when there might have been nothing. We have got this world, when there might have been some other world. Now, you are looking in that bathroom mirror, and you think, 'Hang on a second, why is there thisface in the mirror? Why am I me? Why is there such an individual as I?'

Leibniz's theory implies there had to be a James S. Gagliardi matching your precise physical and mental description, because that is what was required to make this the best of all possible worlds. But where does I come into the picture?

I think that this is a question that deserves to be pondered at least once a day, not one week every year. Not for very long, though. I suggest a couple of minutes, at the maximum. Then you can think about how to fill the rest of your day. I suggest that an hour set aside for all the other fascinating problems of philosophy would be very good and rewarding use of your God-given talents.

Geoffrey Klempner


Nick asked

I have often thought that given statistics and the knowledge that both the universe and time are infinite, everything (and I mean EVERYthing) can be proven to either exist or have once existed. Astronomers currently measure the universe at 15 billion light years, but that is only a measurement of visible stars. They do not take into account the measure of space itself, which appears to be limitless. Though time is measured at 15 billion years, that is just the start of the Big Bang. Scientists tend to avoid the question of what came before, yet it would seem logical that something existed, otherwise there would have been 'nothing' and absolute nothingness cannot spawn something.

My theory is that if nothingness can exist, then the universe can be finite and there can be a thing that has never been anywhere at any time. But if nothingness cannot be, which I tend to believe, everything has at some time and place existed. Although I must concede that from a pragmatic point of view, due to the fact that human experience is finite, things that we will never experience is the same as things never having existed. But from a philosophical point of view, I still think that every book at Barnes & Nobles could be listed under non-fiction. In your opinion, is my thinking correct?

I like this question, which fits in very nicely with the previous question, from James.

Your theory will not work as it stands, but the idea behind it is important. I'll explain that in a minute. But let's first look at the theory. Your claim is that, given infinite time, every conceivable possibility must necessarily be realized. Intuitively, this seems to make sense. If I close my eyes and make a dot with my pen on a blank sheet of paper, then another, then another eventually there will be no empty space left. Of course, it is logically possible that given any finite time, there will remain gaps. The probability of there being gaps gets smaller and smaller as time goes on, never reaching zero. But if time is infinite, then that probability becomes infinitely small.

However, that overlooks the following possibility. Suppose that the universe is governed by deterministic laws. Given enough time, it is possible that exactly the same total configuration of particles, forces, fields or whatever will be repeated. From that moment on, the history of the universe will necessarily follow the exactly the same course as it followed from the previous time that the universe was in that configuration. In other words, the history of the universe will effectively be caught in a loop from which it can never escape.

This was the idea behind Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, which he revived from the Greek Stoics.

In arguing for this theory, however, Nietzsche made the error of assuming that in a deterministic universe the same configuration must at some time be repeated. You can see this is wrong if you consider a simple 'universe' consisting of three concentric discs of equal size, where discs A and B revolve at a constant speed, relative to disc C, and where the ratio of the speed of the revolution of A to the speed of B makes an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be expressed in the form of a fraction n/m). Then if a point on the edge of disc A, coincides with points on disc B and on disc C at any time, the three points will never coincide again, even given infinite time!

Nietzsche was wrong that the same configuration must be repeated. I am only saying that you cannot rule out the possibility that the same configuration will be repeated, resulting in an infinitely repeated finite loop.

However, there is a way to salvage your idea. And that is to talk, not about things that will occur in time, but rather about things that might have occurred, in some other logically possible world. Philosophers who take a strongly realist view of possible worlds, such as David Lewis (see his books Counterfactuals and On the Plurality of Worlds) claim that the only difference between the actual world and other possible worlds is a difference of perspective. In other words, it is the same difference as the difference between one time and another time, or one person and another person. So the 'actual' world is just one possible perspective on the universe of all possible worlds, just as 'now' is one possible perspective on the history of the universe, or 'I' is one possible perspective on the totality of self-conscious subjects.

The answer to, 'Why is there this universe rather than some other possible universe?' is simply to reject the assumption behind the question. This world does not exist rather than some other possible world, because all possible worlds are equally real.

However, you might have gathered from my response to James that I am not happy with this argument. As someone who takes the question, 'Why is the person asking this question I?' seriously, I do not consider it a satisfactory answer to be told, 'Every self-conscious subject is an "I", and you are just one self-conscious subject amongst others.' In other words, if in reply to the question, 'Why is there this universe rather than some other possible universe?', one points out that the difference between 'this universe' and 'another possible universe' is only a difference in perspective, then the question becomes, 'Why is the world-perspective of the person asking the question this world-perspective?

Geoffrey Klempner


R.E. Lee asked:

Does the Relativist negate relativism through his one inevitable premise that,

"There is no absolute truth"

when such a claim expresses what is, to him an absolute truth? Or is this issue confused by linguistic trickery? Or does such a premise, in the very least, force the relativist into treating as equal all other opinions no matter how absurd? Or...?

Relativism can be a useful way to interpret some aspects of the world, e.g. sociological and psychological differences, and at the very least it promotes tolerance and respect for others. However, extreme relativism, while it may initially sound plausible is in fact a kind of nonsense.

Why? because the relativism cannot be applied to itself. The claim that everything is relative, or that "there is no absolute truth" has to be either objective or relative. But it cannot be objective since then it would be false, and it cannot be relative for then it would not rule out the possibility of there being any objective truths, including the claim that the statement "everything is relative" is objectively and absolutely false.

Perhaps the relativist may reject this argument, claiming that my logic is only relative to my culture and not in any position to criticise him, but then he is open to the same objection, for what privileged position does the relativist hold that enables him to make such general and all-encompassing statements?

This is a pretty simple argument and it is surprising how often it needs repeating, but not everything is relative, although trying to draw the line that demarcates the objective from the subjective is one of the hardest problems we have got.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.

Second opinion:

I disagree with Brian that relativism about truth is only involved in self-contradiction when taken in its extreme form.

The claim that truth is relative would imply that there is a statement P, and persons A and B such that:

(1) P has the same meaning for both person A and for person B.

(2) A believes that P is true, and B believes that not-P is true.

(3) A's belief in the truth of P is true, so far as A is concerned, or relative to A.

(4) B's belief in the truth of not-P is true so far as B is concerned, or relative to B.

Let there be just one statement P satisfying these requirements. That would be the most moderate version of relativism about truth that could be considered. Anything less would not be relativism about truth.

Now here comes the bit that R.E. Lee might call 'linguistic trickery'. In fact, it is a simple point about the possible meanings that the term 'true' can have. The point is this. If someone makes a statement, and you say, 'that's true', then you have effectively asserted that statement yourself. You are expressing your agreement with her claim, by making the very same claim. As the logician Alfred Tarski observed, that is the one single, essential feature that marks a predicate 'is T' as being about truth rather than being about something else.

As an illustration of this point, if, instead of saying 'that's true', you'd said, 'that's poetic', or 'that's clever', or 'that's very well supported by the available evidence', then you would not be committed to agreeing with what was said. A statement that is poetic, or clever, or very well supported by the available evidence can still be false.

Now A says to me, 'I believe that P', and I say, 'That's true.' Then B says to me, 'I believe that not-P', and again I say, 'That's true.' Then there are just two possibilities. Either I am contradicting myself, in asserting both that P and not-P, or the meaning that I have attached to 'true' does not satisfy the one essential feature that makes any predicate 'is T' a truth predicate.

To say that 'P is true so far as A is concerned' can only be to say that P believes that P. To say that 'not-P is true so far as B is concerned' can only be to say that B believes that not-P. The predicate 'is true so far as A is concerned', or 'is true relative to A', or 'is true in A's world' is not a kind of truth. It follows that even the most moderate version of relativism about truth is incoherent.

Geoffrey Klempner


R.E. Lee also asked:

Seeing that there is no human action, but rather reaction and since only matter (mechanically) acts, to which we, in turn, react, to what extent is it possible, as a creature, to react in a purely logical, objective fashion when reactions, it seems, stem from an instinctive or (the evolution of instincts, emotion) emotional determinate? That is to say, will humanity ever be capable of making purely rational decisions motivated simply by reason or logic itself?

If so, can it be surmised that the emotive-brain (the hypothalamic region as it is called presently) will atrophy, thus causing the "atrophy" of religion with its imaginary command over the cosmos, and inversely the development of science with a real command over our environment and our fate?

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that determinism holds universally. In pondering your question, certain physical processes of cause and effect are going on in my brain. In a possible universe exactly like this one up until the present moment, the very next thought that occurs to 'Geoffrey Klempner' in that universe is the same thought as the thought that occurs to Geoffrey Klempner in this universe. Given the total state of my brain at any one time, and all the causal influences brought to bear on my brain state from my body and external environment, then the state of my brain at all other times is determined. It is impossible for my thoughts to deviate in the slightest degree from the tracks determinism has laid down.

Does it follow that I cannot think rationally and logically, or that 'rational' or 'logical' thought is nothing more than mere illusion?

The simple answer is, No. The world of truth, reason and logic, of argument, justification, criticism and all the concepts that fall under the heading of norms of rationality is no less real for being realized in blind, irrational, unthinking physical processes. What we are talking about are two metaphysically distinct levels of description, the personal and the sub-personal, or the human world and the physical world.

Emotions, interests, desires have a physical basis in the way our brains and bodies are constructed, in the way that human beings have evolved. There are, no doubt, interesting explanations to uncover, for example, why sex is such fun, or why people like to fight and so on. But it would be absurd to claim that insofar as human beings are motivated by emotions, interests, desires, they are irrational! A being that did not have any things that it wanted or that moved it to act, would do nothing at all! It would not even have the motivation to sit and ponder the problems of philosophy.

Emotions, interests and desires appear in the personal or human world, the world governed by norms of rationality, as reasons for action. I fully agree that human beings are not fully rational, perhaps they are not as rational as they could be. (Studying philosophy is an excellent way of training and strengthening one's rational side.) It is a deep, and interesting philosophical question how we account for failures of rationality, indeed, how such failures can be coherently described. For example, the problem that Aristotle first raised, of how to account for weakness of the will.

As hard as we try to conform to the norms of rationality, it remains a plain fact that human beings are capable of errors of judgement, just as we are capable of errors in physical co-ordination. A point of logic can trip you up just as easily as a banana skin.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sharon asked:

I can't remember the name or specifics of this particular philosophical dilemma. It involves the metamorphosis of one thing into another thing. The dilemma is that it is not clear when "the thing" stops being the first thing and starts becoming — or is? — the second.

This question arises out of a discussion on abortion and the question, "When does something become human?" — the difficulty in answering this question seems to lead to a difficulty in defining what a human being IS. Although as I write this, I wonder if a [late] Wittgensteinian approach to definition — family resemblances — might be helpful in defining what a human is. Please illumine me. I would like to know the specifics of the dilemma but also any thoughts on the issue pertaining to abortion.

The problem you have described is a variant on an ancient paradox concerning the use of terms whose meaning is intrinsically vague. The version of the paradox that I like is called the Drinking Problem.

I estimate that I drink no more than twenty units of alcohol every week, the equivalent of ten pints of beer. Let us assume that my estimate is in fact correct. My drinking, you will be pleased to hear, is within the UK government health guidelines. According to those guidelines — and according to common sense — I do not have a drink problem.

Now suppose that, unknown to me, my average consumption increases by one tenth of one unit. If I didn't have a drinking problem before, then an extra tenth of a unit per week cannot amount to a drinking problem. In general, it seems logical to say that whatever the number of units of alcohol you consume in a week, if that number is not sufficient to constitute a drinking problem, then an extra tenth of a unit isn't going to turn it into one.

It doesn't take too much intelligence to work out that it follows strictly from the statement I have just made that even if I drink twenty pints of beer a day, I don't have a drinking problem! You just start with the statement, 'One unit of alcohol a week is not a drinking problem' and keep adding on tenths of a unit.

Biological metamorphosis is not really an example of the problem of vagueness. When a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis into a butterfly, it is not the case that the organism becomes less and less a caterpillar and more and more a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar goes through an intermediate stage, after it has spun its cocoon, where its body is dissolved into a 'soup' of chemicals which then form the body of the butterfly. No such intermediate stage exists in the gradual growth and maturation of a human foetus.

Which brings us to the crucial question of abortion. A foetus does not 'metamorphose' into a human being. It is human from the beginning. The question is whether there is any point in the development of a foetus before which abortion would be justified and after which abortion would not be justified. Here, one is tempted into the following argument. If you allow abortion at eight weeks, then in the absence of any precise, identifiable difference between a foetus that is eight weeks old, and a foetus that is eight weeks and one day, you are on a slippery slope towards allowing abortion at nine weeks, ten weeks, eleven weeks and so on.

This makes as much sense as the argument from Prohibitionists in the 20's that any amount of alcohol consumption, however small, is on the 'slippery slope' towards alcoholism.

So what are we to say? Vague predicates do not respect the strict laws of logic. This is only a problem if you think that terms which do not respect the laws of logic cannot have any sense, a view which Wittgenstein argued powerfully against in his later philosophy, for example, in his discussion of the complex 'family resemblances' that hold between different instances of a term (though this strictly does not concern the question of vagueness).

We are still faced with the practical question of when, if ever, abortion is permissible, or when enjoyment of alcohol does, or does not, constitute a drinking problem. The thing to realize is that these are not special cases, we make judgements based on vague differences all the time. It is only when we are faced with an important moral question, like the question of abortion, that we feel suddenly insecure, as if there were no longer any ground under our feet. But that is not the case. There is as much — or as little, depending on your point of view — ground under our feet when we are considering a moral question that turns on a vague distinction, as with all the other judgements concerning vague distinctions that we confidently make every day of our lives.

Geoffrey Klempner


Bick asked:

How does philosophy view the UFO phenomenon?

The eighteenth century philosopher David Hume observed that human beings have an irrational tendency to believe things that appeal to the imagination, or that they would like to be true, rather than according to any defensible notion of what does, or does not constitute a good explanation.

It is perfectly possible that the Earth is visited every day by alien beings. The Earth might even be a regular tourist stop in between other planets in this sector of the galaxy. Naturally, given our primitive and warlike nature, the aliens would not risk making contact. Or, if they did capture a few human beings for experimental purposes, they would be perfectly capable of covering up evidence of their activity.

Is that the best explanation of UFO reports? I somehow doubt it. Meanwhile, we can only dream along with Bowie:

There's a star man
Waiting in the sky.
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds.

Or the Byrds:

Hey, Mr space man
Won't you please take me along?
I won't do anything wrong.
Hey, Mr space man
Won't you please take me along for a ride?

Geoffrey Klempner

Second opinion:

1 do not know what UFOs are and I do not think that philosophy is equipped to tell us. That is an empirical matter for physics, psychology, doctors and the like. But as philosophers we can try to elucidate the implications of the various hypotheses about the origins of UFOs.

If UFOs are a purely human phenomena such as some kind of modern (space age influenced) folk lore or some semi-spiritual event it is interesting to ask what part of the human psyche is responsible for them — a manifestation of a subconscious search for a "higher meaning" in a life of despair and hopelessness?

If UFOs turn out to be the work of ETs then the philosophical implications are immense and multi-layered.

On one level we will have a positive answer to the question "Are we alone?" (in fact I would be more surprised if we were alone in the universe than by the discovery of alien life.) This discovery of ETs would force us to review our theories about our origins and development on Earth. We could no longer view our existence as an accident, a lucky random event, but would have to think in terms of a universe that has as a consequence of its existence certain inevitable conditions (this does not mean that we have to talk of any design or teleology implicit in the universe, just that there may be some "Cosmic Code " that the universe "operates " by).

However 1 think that the most important philosophical implications of the discovery of alien life would be on a more relative level. It would be more interesting philosophically to think about the kinds of minds ETs would have, what ideas about personal identity , morality and free will, the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth.

Even if they had the same theories as we do this would be just as significant as if they had utterly alien conceptions. If they were the same it would go a way to confirming our own ideas and may indicate some fundamental necessary features of intelligent rational beings (although we should not be surprised that they understand maths or logic or physics).

If they were so different from us that we could not understand them it would indicate the limits of our subjective conceptions of the world based on our existence as finite creatures with a finite abilities. The fact that we are human beings influences our perception of the world. Exposure to an alien life form would help us understand how much and may lead to a revolution in our thinking.

A book that looks at these issues is Paul Davies Are We Alone?

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Brad asked:

Do you know of any work or references of the examination of religious symbols being defined as working religious devices? If so, by who and what were their findings?

Paul Tillich, then at Harvard, has a useful little essay entitled 'The Meaning and Justification of Religious Symbols' in Religious Experience and Truth edited by Sidney Hook (New York University Press, 1974). It is hard to find a work on symbolism which is broad and straightforward, or not pushing some line like Theosophy or Thomism. Basically, his findings are that in order to understand the nature of religious symbols we need to understand the nature of symbols generally. Characteristic of symbols are that they point beyond themselves. They participate in the reality of that which they represent. They cannot be created at will. They are not therefore allegories or metaphors. A symbol symbolises with that which it symbolises, thus revealing it. Symbols have various functions and effects e.g. are integrating or disintegrating. Any of the works of Henry Corbin — e.g. the work on Avicenna — define religious symbols and show how they work in particular contexts. The study of symbolism always brings you into a living milieu.

Matthew Del Nevo


Jackie asked:

Does man have a soul and if so is he immortal?

As Brian Tee said to Josh (see this file) epistemologically, the answer is no. But your question is ontological and theological, not purely epistemological. The soul is not something we have, like a finger, but something we are, like in love or vengeful. The words, soul—psyche—anima, have always spoken of something incorporeal and bear the connotation of wind or breath. The soul was visualised sensuously as a breath body, Jung said. We can't save our body or consciousness from death, traditionally only the 'soul' was what could be salvaged from our condition.

There is much speculation about the soul. Aristotle said the soul was the form of the body. Heraclitus said our soul (psyche) was the presence of our depth (bathun). "You could not find the ends of the soul though you travel every way, so deep is its calling (logos)" (Fr.45). We are souls (not just material entities) for "invisible connection is stronger than visible." (Fr.54). We are dark beings and unconscious to ourselves, for "The real constitution of each thing is accustomed to hide itself." (Fr.123). Pascal in the 17th century wrote, "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." It is the Platonist not the Aristotelian tradition that is wisest about our soulfulness. Is the soul immortal? Upon this question hangs the matter of how one will lead one's life in this life. Platonists — and not just they — say the soul can be immortal, but it is conditional, not automatic, depending on whether our life is 'good'.

Matthew Del Nevo


Mark asked:

What is civil disobedience? someone told me that the activities of hackers can be justified by this concept. How can that be?

Politically, civil disobedience is an act against governmental authority motivated by a moral objection. Philosophically, civil disobedience can be justified I think by maintaining a distinction between "The Right" and "The Good", where the right is prior to the good. In other words, the right thing to do is not necessarily the good thing to do.

For example, it is not a good thing to riot or throw custard pies in people's faces, but it is right to protest against exploitation, corporate greed and globalization.

Civil disobedience, unlike casual or criminal disobedience is selective and purposeful. Usually acts performed under this title serve to draw attention to unjust laws or conditions. Perhaps the greatest example of civil disobedience came from Mohatma Ghandi who declared British denial of freedom to the Indians as unjust and therefore a moral issue.

Whether hacking can be justified by civil disobedience depends, I would suggest, on the individual act. Currently in Britain there is a political issue over the revision to the Freedom of Information Act which would in fact severely restrict the information that could be revealed. Now, if a hacker could produce important public information that has been withheld, I think such acts could be justified.

However, as in the recent case of the "Luv Bug" (though not a strict case of hacking), e-mail viruses or other actions that have the potential to ruin personal lives I would consider examples of criminal acts and therefore not justified on the grounds of civil disobedience.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Astroboy asked:

Can you explain the notion of "intentionality" as used by Daniel Dennett? I understand that it has to do with the anthropomorphic traits we associate with a thinking think but I think I get lost at this point.

Intentionality or the "Intentional Stance" is the approach we adopt in order to make sense of and predict a system's or entity's behavior. According to Dennett an entity's having beliefs and desires amounts to nothing more than the behaviour being explained from the intentional stance.

The intentional stance is one of three predictive strategies Dennett distinguishes between, the others being the physical strategy and the design strategy. The intentional stance is a strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity as if it were a rational agent with beliefs and desires. From these assumptions we can predict which actions it will perform.

The answer to the question, "Which things have beliefs and desires?" lies not in some independent fact about the state of the world, but in the success of applying the intentional strategy. Talk about beliefs and desires even for such objects as thermostats and bees is useful in helping us to predict their behaviour (in this sense, Dennett's position is referred to as instrumentalist).

Dennett admits that this is deliberate anthropomorphism but given that Dennett thinks the intentional strategy works and is useful, he says that this can be a good thing. And in defence of Dennett, he does also say that the intentional stance is not best suited for all entities and the other predictive strategies might be more successful.

Dennett also distinguishes between kinds of mind, so if you are a little put off at the thought of your fridge-freezer having a mind then if what Dennett says about mind is correct then this is not really conceding very much, just that it has the capacity to respond to its environment.

Dennett imagines a hierarchy, at the bottom of which are "Darwinian Minds" (thermostats and fridges would probably fit in here). Next up the ladder are "Skinnerian Minds", entities that can adapt their behaviour to changing environmental stimuli. "Popperian Minds" possess the ability to test hypotheses about likely courses of action to see which will produce the required outcome. At the top of the ladder are "Gregorian Minds" which are capable of self-consciousness (like humans).

If we stick with the intentional strategy in explaining behavior, there does not appear to be any vast qualitative difference between these different creatures. And so long as all we are interested in is predicting behaviour, this appearance is justified. But if we want to gain a deeper insight as to what makes a particular entity do what it does we should adopt the design stance.

There are at least two main worries with the intentional strategy (leaving aside the other aspects of Dennett's theory). One is that the intentional strategy works only on the assumption that the entities can be viewed as fully rational and can be predicted. However, many creatures behave in a way that does not appear rational and so we would not make very good predictions.

Secondly, what about creatures that are so different from us that we cannot understand them, and cannot adopt the intentional stance in relation to their actions? Should we refuse to count them as having beliefs and desires? Rather than anthropomorphism, Dennett is subject to the charge of chauvinism.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Anubha asked:

I have been working on 'literature and cinema an interface' for my doctoral thesis. I am looking for some information on how the theory of mimesis has been tackled by contemporary film critics. How does film theory talk about Aristotle's "Mimesis'? What kind of a representation is Cinema?

For Aristotle, different art forms use mimesis (in essence imitation, mainly but not necessarily, of reality) with different means of representation. This involves different manners of communicating that representation to an audience and different levels of ethical and moral standards being represented. Obviously he was referring to poetry, fine art and drama which were the main art forms of his day. However the principles of mimetic analysis apply to most art forms including most types of film. It has been argued that abstract painting, "modern" classical music and some video art fall outside the scope of analysis in mimetic terms yet still have as their goal the evocation of intellectual pleasure. Others would argue that no matter how abstract the art form it is imitating something even if it is an emotion rather than a 'thing'.

With "cinema" the analysis is complicated further by the different sorts of film — for example documentary film, cartoon animation, science fiction, classic Hollywood narrative etc. Each of these could be said to use different forms of representation. They interact with reality differently. Theories of Realism and cinema stretch back to Eisenstein in the 1920's and were a key part of Italian neo-realism for directors such as De Sica and Pasolini in the 1940's. Film theorists Verkov and Bazin argued (not very convincingly) that film had to imitate life as precisely as possible as if it was the divine mission of film to move towards verisimilitude. More recently Andy Warhol made a number of (very dull) films where he turned the camera on in front of a situation and e.g. filmed someone sleeping for four hours. This would presumably be the essence of pure mimetic cinema.

A number of writers on film theory — notably David Bordwell and Noel Carroll — have sought to analyse Film in the light of Aristotle's theory of mimesis. Similarly a number of philosophers have approached the same subject from another direction — notably Richard Janko and Roger Scruton. It is also worth looking up Leon Golden's article on Aristotle in the John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism and Richard Allen's book on Film and Philosophy.

Andrew Browne


Ruk asked:

Does religious education have the same philosophical basis as general education? I mean, is there the philosophy of religious education apart from the philosophy of education (like Essentialism, Progressivism, Perennialism, etc.)?

I am not sure about the relevance or relation of the '—isms' here with regard to education. Education is about the physical, emotional and intellectual upbringing of our children. With maturity one may make a further effort to gain more expertise in some area or wisdom overall. "If religion is what helps us experience connectedness between our own particular existence and the universal" (Anthony Shafton), then religious education is education that takes up the stance of a particular religion or variant of it. At the basis of this stance are core values that are held sacred and have proved to be (in the eyes of the beholders at least) invaluable for a properly functioning adulthood.

General education is more theory driven than philosophically informed. Some religious educationalists will attempt to deny or minimize the connection between education in general and specific religious education. However, on the above common sense definitions, religious education does have a basis in general education e.g. in learning the alphabet and to count. Religious educationalists, however, would say that religious education adds something valuable, or even invaluable, to that general education.

Matthew Del Nevo


Regina asked:

I'm studying Science of Religions and I need to write an essay about happiness for the subject of Philosophy of Religions. I would like to know how the quest for happiness has been treated by philosophers over the centuries, if they think that it can be obtained and, if so, how. Any interesting information about the role that happiness has in the work of some philosophers would help.

Philosophers have treated the quest for happiness over the centuries as an ethical matter. The ethical assumptions of all classical philosophers are essentially those of Aristotle. Happiness in Greek is eudaimonia, which is 'good for man' and absolutely reasonable as well as a reasonable absolute, since no-one in their right mind would not want to be happy. Ancient ethics then is 'eudaimonistic' as opposed to ethics based (like those of Rabbinics or Kant) on 'deontology' (duty or obligation).

Aristotle's position on happiness and ethics can be seen in the first book of the Nichomachean Ethics, although the whole text deals with the extrapolation of his equation of the good with the happy. Aristotle posited a golden mean that would lead us to happiness: neither too much nor little of something is good for us. There can be no happiness — or ethics — without first a reasonable degree of self-discipline.

The various schools of ancient Greek philosophy (Platonists, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics etc.) all sought happiness by following various ethics (life-styles, if you like) which all required self-discipline, only of different sorts.

The Platonists held that the Good wherein our happiness lay was transcendent, in this world but not of it. In order to apprehend this true Good, we must learn to die to this world — the so-called sense world. In this way we will wake up to ourselves and to the divine Form of the good which we are. Happiness for Plato was an 'ontotheological' structure of existence (to do with the logic of divine being) and his ethics is a means of accomplishing that happiness.

Between the start of the Christian era (4th cent.) and the start of the modern era (16th cent.) Platonism dominated. Augustine of Hippo (456-431) — the greatest Christian author of the West — said that people are Christians and become Christians "for the sake of happiness." (Sermon 150.4). One of his early writings is De Beata Vita (On the Happy Life).

Christianity was influenced (especially via Augustine) by Plotinus (205-270) a so-called neo-Platonist, one who read Plato and Aristotle harmoniously as opposed to against each other, which is the modern tendency. Plotinus said, "a person who is to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That." (See First Ennead, IV passim). Boethius (475-525) whose work, The Consolation of Philosophy is one of the most influential and widely read books of all time in European languages, wrote "God is the essence of happiness." And: "Supreme happiness is identical with supreme divinity" (Bk.III. pp.101-2 of the Penguin Classics edition). This is how it was in the West in this era — the question of happiness is caught up in philosophical theology and Biblical exegesis. For Aquinas (1225-74) eudaimonia is not the Latin delectatio (feeling of happiness, joy) but felicitas, a happy or blessed state of being. The ultimate happiness is bliss (beatitudo) or heaven. See a good epitome of Thomas' thought on this question in Selected Philosophial Writings, (Oxford World Classics) passage 34.

Modern philosophy seems more concerned with certitude than happiness. What happens to happiness is the modern era I don't know.

Matthew Del Nevo


Barbara asked:

Is it things, objects like shrubs, cars and houses, and people that I see out of my window? And an armchair, a computer a pink mug, a white lamp and a dark green plan in my room? Or is all of that just patches of colors? And what makes me think it is just patches of color? And if it is just patches of color, what makes me take them for an armchair and a lamp?

This is an excellent question because you have seen beyond the problem, How do I know there's a armchair in front of me? to the deeper issue of why we are tempted to ask that question in the first place.

The argument for the view that when I perceive a chair all I really see are patches of colour was put forward by Descartes in the Meditations and was revived in the twentieth century by philosophers defending the sense datum theory of perception, such as H.H. Price. It is know as the Argument from Illusion. It is possible to seem to see a chair, even though there is no chair there, for example, when I am dreaming, or undergoing an hallucination. My subjective experience is exactly the same as if there really were a chair there. Descartes used this point to argue that we cannot prove the existence of an external world, simply on the basis of our experiences. The conclusion of the argument, whether or not one accepts Descartes' sceptical conclusion, is that perceiving a chair involves having chair-shaped sense data, and then interpreting those sense data as the perception of a chair.

The argument from illusion is sometimes combined with an argument based on the scientific account of human perception. Seeing a chair involves a chain of causes and effects, the end product of which are electrical impulses in the brain. So when I see a chair, it is argued, the immediate object of my perception is not the chair, but changes in my brain. The final, dubious step in combining the two arguments is to identify sense data with processes in the brain.

I am not going to try to say what is wrong with these arguments. Because even if I did give a convincing critique, it would not answer your question. I don't think it is plausible to say that whenever you or I are tempted to see the world around us as no longer 'out there' but 'in here', this convoluted reasoning is going through our minds. If it were not for that prior temptation, the reasoning would not appear so convincing.

What is so amazing about the experience of familiar things around us turning into patches of colour, is that nothing actually changes:

The very objects themselves seem to dissolve away without a trace; nothing remains of what was supposedly out there. The apple and the table lamp now appear to me as nothing other than images floating in my own mind. As I look round, the same happens to every object I cast my eyes upon. What caused this extraordinary event to occur? My whole world has completely changed; and yet, in a strange way, everything remains the same as before. Nothing flickered or went fuzzy, no visible sign testifies to the dramatic transformation I have just witnessed.

Geoffrey Klempner Naive Metaphysics Chapter 3.

It is a trick anyone can teach themselves to do. When you do the trick, you don't have to imagine that the objects are anything other than what they are. You don't have to say to yourself, 'These are just sensations in my mind.' All you have to do is see the chair as my chair, the apple as my apple, the table lamp as my table lamp. It is not even the changing into patches of colour that is the important thing. You can mentally divide any object into bits without ceasing to think of it as 'out there'. What happens when I do the trick is that the space which these objects are in ceases to be a space that includes me as just another object in the world and becomes my space, my world. If I were not here, then neither would there be these objects.

Once you have learned the trick, it is difficult to stop doing it. That is the real philosophical challenge.

Geoffrey Klempner

Second opinion:

Let's assume that we are not brains in jars, and that we are not dreaming, or the playthings of some evil demon. For if any of these scenarios is the case, then none of the things we 'see' are really objects in the world, in fact there is no world for objects to exist in. Let's pretend that we have solved the problem of scepticism and that we know that there is a material world that exists and is full of material objects. We are still left with a problem, namely, What is the nature of these material objects and what is our relation to them?

Locke (1632—1704) said that physical objects possess two basic classes of qualities. His account fits nicely with a modern scientific account. Primary qualities, such as solidity, extension and shape, are aspects that are inseparable from the object because they belong to it intrinsically. Secondary qualities, by contrast, are powers that objects have to produce experiences in us, including colour, sounds, smells, taste.

On this account, a mug's pink colour is explained by the molecular structure of the mug and the way it reflects light waves, the way our eyes convert the light waves into electro-chemical information, and the rest.

However, colour is not a quality of a certain sort of wave length. Blind people can experience wave lengths, yet not experience colour. And in fact a purely scientific description leaves the world colourless: The mug is not pink, the light waves are not pink and no part of our brain has a pink patch corresponding to the mug. On a fully objective description, pink does not enter the picture anywhere.

Nevertheless, we do have a sensation of the colour pink. Colour, then, appears to be a completely subjective experience. If this is so, then perhaps all we are entitled to say is, not, 'I am seeing a pink mug', but, 'I have an experience of a pink patch'.

In that case, what makes the patch look like a table or a mug? That's a tough one. Berkeley (1685—1753) thought that physical objects were just mental events, a collection of ideas, that continue to exist only so long as they are perceived. I'm not too keen on that theory myself. A better answer would involve a reconciliation between the scientific, objective description of how the world is and the subjective description of how the world is for me, or for you. Unfortunately, I do not know if such a reconciliation is possible, certainly one has not yet been found.

A book that covers these issues is The Subjective View by Colin McGinn

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


David asked:

With regard to the philosophy of risk, can I be said to be "at risk" if I place no value on my own life? In other words is the concept of suicidal risk taking inconsistent? Linked to this are questions relating to the concept of risk itself. For example, are risks created by the imposition of values upon elements of reality by the intentional mind? Does it seem reasonable to suggest that if there were no values there would be no risks, only potential events or outcomes?

I think that it is a very poor diagnosis of suicidal risk taking to say that the risk taker places no value on their own life. Imagine a world where intelligent creatures evolved with no sense of self-preservation. Perhaps they grow on trees, like fruit, and when an alien dies, a new tree sprouts. Landing on this planet, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are shocked to discover that death is treated with casual disinterest. For these aliens, there is no such thing as suicidal risk taking. They recognize risks, certainly, but the risk of death is not among them.

Drag racing, or extreme rock climbing are examples of activities where the price of the thrill, for the participant, is a high degree of risk. The risk itself may indeed be a factor in the enjoyment. However, we can find this factor in its purer form in the game of Russian Roulette. (I am using the familiar name here, although I have no evidence, and no reason to believe, that Russian people have a special predilection for it.) Russian Roulette played with blank bullets would be a very boring activity. The sole interest lies in the fact that there is a one in six chance that you are going to die.

The Russian Roulette player does not want to die. When the hammer clicks on an empty chamber, the player enjoys the thrill of a narrow escape. Yet, interestingly, so far as I know, there is no variant on the game, where one points the gun at one's knee. Why should that be so? Even if death is something that one does not want, the fear of death has a unique quality that sets it apart from the fear of other things that one does not want.

I agree, therefore, that the concept of a 'risk' only makes sense relative to a background of values, of things we want or do not want. The philosophical question you have raised here is how death differs from other things that we do not want. Epicurus famously argued that the fear of death is not rational, because, 'Where death is, I am not, and where I am, death is not.' Yet surely it was not Epicurus' intention to argue that we should not care whether we live or die.

Geoffrey Klempner


Marc asked:

Sorry for my poor English, but my mother tongue is French. Did anybody read the introduction essay of Jean-Francois Revel to Descartes Discours de la Methode edited in the most famous pocket edition Collection de Poche? The essay is called 'Descarte inutile et incertain' trans. 'Descartes useless and uncertain'. I found myself astounded in front of a so irrevocable negative critic of the whole Cartesian method and conception. But it is written in a very persuasive style that my more novice approach and reading of Descartes fell apart under this destroying introduction. I don't know what to think about it. The rule is more to admiration concerning Descartes? I would like to find my way out of it, if possible.

Descartes was neither useless nor uncertain. He was writing in the time honoured tradition of philosophy as "the practice of wisdom". His Meditations are the result of his spiritual exercises, as he himself points out. He invites us to withdraw from the thrall of life and to question our own certainties as a like exercise. He supplies a method whereby one proceed by doubt. The real antidote to what you have read is to be found in the brilliant work of Pierre Hadot of the College de France. See his Exercises spirituels et philosophie antique (Etudes Augustinennes, Paris, 1987 2nd edition) in which he refers to Descartes throughout by implication and explicitly in several instances. I haven't read Hadot's book on Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations', La Citadelle Erieureint (Paris, 1992), but I imagine that he makes further illuminating contextualisations of Descartes there, either explicitly or by implication.

Matthew Del Nevo


Nick asked:

An acceptance of the exclusivists' claims about Christianity as made by some scholars may be incompatible with the concept of a pluralistic society.

I have written quite a lot for the question but I need help on the discussion of my scholars that I have chosen which are:

Barth and Borland: exclusivist views
John Hick: pluralist
Karl Rahner: inclusivist

Some of these people are more than just scholars (Barth, Rahner). You are surely right in your intuition that any kind of exclusivism is incompatible with pluralism. On your scholars see John MacQuarrie, Twentieth Century Religious Thought (SCM. 1971). He will fill you in and put you on the right track.

Matthew Del Nevo


Gregg asked:

I know that with Plato perception alone is not enough to know the Forms, but is knowledge of the Forms possible without perception?

I am not sure that it's right to say that for Plato perception alone is not enough to know the Forms. His view is that when the philosopher asks questions about a concept, for example the concept of Justice, they come to perceive that in which Justice consists. This vision of Justice, arrived at by working through a patient dialectical process of question and response, is the source of all theoretical and practical knowledge concerning what is just or unjust. In this sense, it would be impossible to genuinely perceive a Form, yet lack the knowledge that goes with it.

Notoriously, Plato had a theory, or a myth, which purported to explain how it was possible that the philosopher could undertake a philosophical inquiry. The human soul, which is 'like' the Forms, inhabited the non-physical world of Forms before its incarnation into a physical body, and retains the capacity to recollect the knowledge it once possessed, by going through the question and answer process. The slave boy, in Plato's dialogue Meno is able to 'recollect' a simple geometrical proof, under the patient questioning of Socrates, even though prior to the experiment the boy had no knowledge of geometry.

So it looks as though Plato is saying that, if it were not for the fact that we once perceived the Form of Justice, and are now able to recollect that perception, philosophical analysis of the concept or Form of Justice would not be possible. Similarly, if it were not for the fact that we once perceived the Form of Triangle, the ability to prove geometrical truths about triangles would not be possible.

How seriously do we have to take this myth? It has been argued (by Gregory Vlastos, for example) that the whole point of the slave boy experiment is to show how philosophical knowledge can be like geometry in being a priori. In order to do mathematics, it can certainly help if you see where a proof is going. But some mathematicians place more reliance on vision than others. The same, it could be argued, is true in philosophy. Vision and logic go hand in hand, but not every philosopher puts such a strong emphasis (as I do, as it happens) on our vision of what we are about.

Plato goes one step further. I see the myth of recollection as a powerful metaphysical expression of the indispensable role played by the inquirer's philosophical vision. Because the Forms are metaphysically real, they cannot be known without being perceived. it follows that a philosophical analysis or theory of Justice which did not go beyond hypothesizing what this real entity might be like, could not amount to knowledge.

Geoffrey Klempner

Second opinion:

For Plato, knowledge must be knowledge of something, something that is, that exists. Further, these objects of knowledge have to be permanent and unchanging, or eternal. This is because knowledge proper is certain, universal and infallible (if one knows something then there cannot be any conditions under which what one 'knows' is wrong). Anything less than this is not knowledge but mere opinion or belief. Only the Forms satisfy the conditions that the objects of knowledge be certain, universal and eternal. A consequence of this is that we cannot have knowledge of particulars, like this parrot, but only of the Form of Parrot, or 'Parrotness'.

It may sound odd that we are unable to say knowledgeably that 'there is a parrot on the perch' when looking at one, but given Plato's conditions on knowledge we can see that statements like this are neither eternal nor infallible.

The Forms do not exist in the sensible world of changeable things, but occupy a realm beyond space and time that is independent of us. The realm that the Forms occupy is accessible purely by the intellect. So Forms are perceived by reason or intellectual capacities alone and not by the senses. This is the only way we can come to know them.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.


Mark asked:

In my life I've encountered a lot about what philosophers have concluded. But next to nothing about how they did it. How does a philosopher do his or her job? What kind of tools, real or ethereal, does he/she use? How does he/she use them? Can you recommend some not-too-challenging books about it?

Any good introduction to philosophy will give you a sense of how philosophers go about their job. Or, better still, you might have a look at one of the more accessible philosophical classics. I have listed some contemporary introductions, and some classic works, in the Pathways introductory book list.

Yet, in a strange way, reading philosophy is never enough. You can read the same passage a dozen times, and each time, you feel that you have witnessed a clever magic trick. You feel somehow persuaded by the argument, yet it is not apparent how the process worked. How is it that, in merely assembling words together in a particular order, without looking at the world or calling upon any pieces of factual evidence, a philosopher can make us believe something we did not believe before? Isn't it just incredible that one could ever do that?

The solution is simple. It is not enough to read philosophy. You have to learn to write it. The surest way to comprehend how philosophers are able to do what they do is to work at acquiring the skills of the philosopher yourself. You are a philosopher already, just an unskilled one. My short piece, Writing a Philosophy Essay gives some guidelines about how to get started.

Geoffrey Klempner


Shyam asked:

It is my belief that there is no end to 'know'-ing anything. If yes, is it worth the effort trying to know the self?

It is debatable whether there is an end to knowledge if you learn everything. In theory if all the facts of the universe were laid out, you would then be able to figure out everything and answer all existential questions. The great thing about knowledge however isn't the fact of knowing something, the great thing is searching for that little fact to know. Imagine how boring it would be to know everything though? Can you describe how happy you are when you find out something new, something that you had never known before? And now try to imagine what you would do if you knew everything. What would there be to look forward to? Life itself would not be worth living.

Fortunately, it is not that simple due to the fact that with every single question that is answered another one is created. Joseph Priestley in Experiments and Observations on Different kinds of air (18th century) writes "In completing one discovery we never fail to get an imperfect knowledge of others of which we could have no idea before, so that we cannot solve one doubt without creating several new ones."

Even though in my opinion it's theoretically possible to gain knowledge of everything if we were to capture all facts and lay them out before us, it is and will be practically impossible to ever know everything. The moment that man knows everything, he becomes God.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "There is no knowledge that is not power". Taking from that bold statement you can deduce that the more knowledge you obtain the more powerful you are. I mean 'powerful' in a metaphorical sense, the power that is gained from knowledge is relative. It is relative in the sense that the power from knowledge has many uses. This is true unless you were to conclude that some knowledge can be used against certain people as a form of black mail. In a case such as that, the knowledge loses its power and instead becomes a tool for terrorists.

The question is whether it is in fact worthwhile to get to know the self if in reality we have only such a short period of time to gain as much knowledge as we can about everything. And thus you imply that really we should not sacrifice the little time we have acquiring the knowledge of ourselves when it can be better disposed towards learning the outside perspective of reality. However in all true understandings, before we can continue on to step two which is in actuality the outside view of the universe, we must first understand the inside view of it which is our own personal understanding of ourselves. I think Charles Steinmetz best put it when he said "No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions".

Before we are able to acquire the knowledge of the outside we must first acquire the knowledge of ourselves in order to understand better the relation of other knowledge we gain in perspective to what we know about ourselves. To elaborate on this, here is an example: I want to gain the knowledge of what the ultimate purpose of the universe's existence is, but before I can do that I have to acquire the knowledge of what my ultimate purpose is in the universe. This is mainly due to the fact that you cannot learn advanced findings before you know the basic revelant ones. For example, you wouldn't be able to learn advanced calculus if you didn't even learn basic mathematics. Same with this, if you don't know what your place is in the universe, how can you even comprehend what the universe's place is in relation to reality?

In short, what I am saying is that the fundamental foundation of trying to know everything starts with the ability to place yourself in perspective of the knowledge that you seek. As evidence of this, if you had a problem with something, you must first understand and realize whether you are contributing to the problem or the solution before trying to figure out how to apply a certain answer to it. When you stop asking questions about what your perspective of understanding is in relation to what your understanding is in perspective to existence, you lose out in your translation of what reality knowledge is in.

Michael G. Bruce
Metaphysics and Philosophy


Josh asked:

I hate to stereotype, but I have reviewed some of your questioners questions and they seem so...Western Philosophical! My point is that the questions don't involve any spiritualistic notions. Why do you think this is, or am I just paranoid? Do you believe in spiritualism, if so, what are your spiritualistic notions?

On another note, I have a few questions of my own: What is the nature of the Universe? Is it to create life and sustain it, or is there something more relevant, less obvious?

If by spiritualism you mean that we possess a soul that continues to exist after our body dies and/or is possibly reincarnated, then, No, I do not believe in spiritualism. That is not because these ideas are childish or superstitious. In fact, philosophy is full of accounts and theories about reincarnation and immortality, some even without the need for any notion of a soul. The reason I do not believe in these ideas is simply because they do not make sense, at least as presented by their advocates.

If, on the other hand, you as asking whether philosophy ignores or dismisses spiritualistic ideas such as the classic idea that we are all one with nature and all connected with one another, then the answer is, No again.

I remember being taught at school that we are all composed of chemicals manufactured in the heart of stars. Basically we are all star stuff. Every time I think about this I still feel awe. It amazes me that we are all connected in that we were born in a star. Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers ever, once wrote that "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the often and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within."

But it is easy to take this thought too far. For if all we are is a bunch of chemicals forged in a nuclear furnace and randomly assorted, then that's it. That's your explanation of our life. Objectively there isn't anything left to say, there is no such thing as the 'nature' of the universe or the 'meaning' of life. The universe just exists.

But this is not the whole story. There is something more to us than a few pounds of chemical compounds. What is it? I don't know. But I think this is the fundamental question of philosophy. It has something to do with the subjective and inter-subjective aspect of our lives.

In summary, philosophy does not ignore spiritualism, it is just that we can see when we do philosophy that spiritualism is subject to as much criticism as any other theory, and if it is found to be inadequate then it must be rejected. But at the same time philosophy can be, and often is awe inspiring. The fact that we exist at all, and, given that we do exist as limited, finite and mortal beings, that we have the capacity to delve into and uncover mysteries about existence merely serve as examples.

A good book that covers these issues is Robert Nozick Philosophical Explanations.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.

Second opinion:

Students of Western Philosophy will tend to ask Western Philosophical questions! This is because Western philosophy is based on the discovery and use of reason. Phenomenally speaking, spiritualism is a fringe area of religion, and differs according to the religion to which it is related. Philosophy is a way of thinking about thinking and tends on the whole not to uphold "spiritualistic notions", which have more to do with areas of unreflected belief and superstition. On the other hand Jung has written well about para-psychological phenomena and Nobel prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer includes "spiritual notions" in most of his stories where they appear quite natural and both writers, who are world famous, believed that we are not alone.

As to your personal questions and knowing your distaste for Western Philosophy, hearken then to the Buddha, who said:

In the search for truth there are certain questions that are unimportant. What is the nature of the universe? Is the universe eternal? Are there limits or not to the universe? If a man were to postpone his searching and practicing for Enlightenment until such questions were solved, he would die before he found the path.

Suppose a man were pierced by a poisoned arrow, and his relatives and friends got together to call a surgeon to have the arrow removed and the wound treated. If the wounded man objects, saying, "Wait a little. Before you pull it out, I want to know who shot this arrow. Was it a man or a woman? Was it someone of noble birth, or a peasant? What was the bow made of? Was it a big bow or a small bow that shot the arrow? Was it made of wood or bamboo? What was the bow-string made of?" Then what will happen?

Matthew Del Nevo


Jasper asked:

I am a 16 year old Dutch philosophy student. After my rejection of Roman Catholicism I went on a search for something to believe in, some religion or conviction. I found out that both Existentialism and structuralism interested me but not the "whole" part. There were in both convictions things I couldn't agree with and things I accepted as the truth, so I tried to combine structuralism and existentialism.

In short: I believe that every being is put in a cage or a box, due to this, nobody is able to use his free-will because every made choice is influenced by the surroundings of "the chooser". It is impossible to have no surroundings, so even JP Sartre couldn't have been "free": He was Man, white, French, heterosexual, lived in the 20th century, smoked, and so on. All these things must have influenced his life, his choices.

Now there is one way to escape those structures, there is, I think, a way to feel free for a moment. By founding new structures; then you can feel freedom for a few moments. When people start to accept or reject "your" structure, your freedom's gone, these people will start making choices influenced by your structure.

What I want to ask: Is my reasoning right? Do you agree or don't you and why? Are there other people who think this, I'd like to communicate with them.

Wow, not many 16 year olds think like this! The existential and structuralist traditions are more historical and literary in their sensibility than the British analytical tradition and 'reason' tends to mean something slightly different. With this in mind I would say that you have succumbed to the sociological reduction. Certainly these things you list — white male, French, heterosexual, smoker etc. — are dimensions of who he was, but Sartre cannot be reduced to those dimensions. The same goes for those who say that 'we are determined by our genes'. They confuse a dimension with a cause.

You need also to distinguish the public and private life. The Sartre you describe is social Sartre, the persona, but the real Sartre was the one who wrote La Nausee (Nausea), Les Chemins de la Liberte (The Roads to Freedom) and L'Etre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness). These books issue from what Proust in his essay, "The Method of Sainte-Beuve" called "the deep self". Public life, says Proust, "is the work of a far more external self, not of the deep self which is only to be found by disregarding other people and the self that knows other people, the self that has been waiting while one was with others, which one feels clearly to be the only real self, for which alone artists end by living, like a god whom they leave less and less and to whom they have sacrificed a life that serves only to do him honour." Artistic work which is not the work of this deep self is not art, but the simulation of it, on this theory. Hence, we remember the work of Flaubert (and Proust) who wrote out their deep self, but not the work of Sainte-Beuve who wrote for the public from his social self.

I would keep these distinctions in mind, between a dimension of something and a cause and between the exterior and interior person. It is a reductionism to see one purely in terms of the other. To discuss existential and structuralist matters further, a society or group devoted to Kierkegaard would be a good place to start.

Matthew Del Nevo