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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 9 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from December 2000 — January 2001:

  1. Why?
  2. Plato's Form of the Good
  3. Influence on Plato of Buddhist and Eastern Ideas
  4. Answer to the big questions is,“We don't know”
  5. Is suicide ethically wrong?
  6. I'm suffering from chronic nervous exhaustion
  7. Greece's Golden Age
  8. What is moral relativism?
  9. Hypothesis and dialectic in Greek philosophy
  10. How to agree yet disagree with an essay question
  11. Who am I?
  12. Does belief in God come before understanding?
  13. Frege on the sense and reference of singular terms
  14. Difference between emotions and feelings
  15. Ultimate reality can only be grasped through personal God
  16. Rationalization and weakness of the will
  17. Can all knowledge be taught?
  18. What is Azilosophy?
  19. The world just exists in our heads
  20. Society without religion
  21. Apollo versus Dionysus
  22. Quine and Wittgenstein
  23. Spinoza on the irrationality of value judgements
  24. Subjectivist view of moral motivation
  25. Difference between idealism and anti-realism
  26. Can God make good without allowing evil?
  27. Why God chose to create the universe
  28. Do we really want to know why we are here?
  29. Hobbes on war and the state
  30. Was reincarnation a biblical teaching?
  31. Realism versus anti-realism
  32. Importance of love
  33. Original sin and the distinction between body and soul
  34. Paucity of female philosophers
  35. Pragmatism
  36. Why the ones we love take us for granted
  37. How assumptions and values influence the search for knowledge
  38. How determinism might be compatible with freedom
  39. Sartre on freedom. Is utilitarianism degrading?
  40. Is justice an unobtainable ideal?
  41. Is science the only reliable way to understand the world?
  42. How truth can be obscured by language
  43. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud on religion
  44. Academic philosophy vs the new Sophists
  45. How I know I exist, and how I know others exist
  46. Do we choose to be victims?
  47. Does all knowledge come from experience?
  48. How to get inspiration
  49. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas
  50. Does everyone hate lawyers?
  51. My teacher has advised me to study philosophy
  52. Should we let white supremacists march through a black neighbourhood?
  53. Mill's Principle of Liberty
  54. The philosophy of disguise
  55. Quinton's 'two world' thought experiment
  56. How space can be finite
  57. Empiricism and sensory deprivation
  58. Marx, Engels, Sivaraksa and Christ on religion and society
  59. Does fate rule our lives?
  60. Theories of animal rights
  61. Aristotle and Plato
  62. Contemporary relevance of Plato's Cave allegory
  63. The anthropic principle
  64. Kant's Kingdom of Ends
  65. Doing philosophy and having 'a philosophy'
  66. Medicine as a social construct
  67. Did Gödel prove that mathematics is uncertain?
  68. Mary and Jody: Killing one Siamese twin to save the other
  69. Philosophy and the practical necessities of life
  70. Murder and the cultural defence: Plato vs relativism
  71. Epicurus' theory of atoms and the void
  72. What is it to be Jewish?
  73. Is objective knowledge possible? — views of the great philosophers
  74. Is religion important?
  75. Physical fitness and the philosophy of sport
  76. Recommended reading for philosophy of mind
  77. Is Rawls' liberalism male biased?
  78. Qualia and the subjective character of experience
  79. Philosophy of reincarnation
  80. How philosophy differs from maths, science and history
  81. Contemporary views on Zeno's paradoxes
  82. Why philosophy is more than the history of philosophical theories
  83. Aristotle's doctrine of the Mean
  84. Taoist view of the meaning of life
  85. Will the human mind surpass technology?
  86. Peirce's convergence theory of truth
  87. Ethical vs psychological egoism
  88. Nothing is true, everything is permitted
  89. Christian view of Creation
  90. Does belief in God entail fatalism?
  91. “I think therefore I am” as a synthetic a priori judgement
  92. Multiple personality disorder and the law
  93. Socrates' Apology
  94. How Kant reconciled morality with determinism
  95. I have problems falling asleep

Babz asked:

I came across this philosophy paper...this was the only question on a university term paper:

(1) WHY?

How would you go about answering this question?

My answer would be, "Why not?" What do you think?

My first, perhaps unkind thought was that you submitted this question out of sheer boredom, for a laugh. As your suggestion shows, you're not looking for an informative answer!

How about, "Because"? — Ha Ha!

However, you say that you actually saw this question on a university term paper. I believe you. I like one word questions. My favourite essay topics are "I" and "S" (on the nature of the self and self-reference; and on Wittgenstein's private language argument concerning the indefininable sensation "S"). So let's do some lateral thinking.

Consider the possibility that you are not being asked the question, "Why?" You are being asked, by the person who set the paper, to consider the question, "Why?", or rather, questions which begin with, "Why...?"

Now, we're getting somewhere. That looks like an interesting question. What is it that especially distinguishes, or is characteristic about questions which begin with, "Why..."?

Cub reporters are taught to always ask the six questions: Who, What, Why Where, When and How? Five out of the six can be answered very simply: The butler (Who) murdered the housekeeper (What) in the library (Where) last night (When) with a samurai sword (How). The odd one out is "Why?" The question, "Why?" seeks an explanation. Whole books can be written seeking to give the explanation for something. Whereas there is only one right answer to the other five questions, there can be different, equally valid, ways of understanding the question "Why?":

  • Why did the butler murder the housekeeper, instead of paying her to keep quiet about his affair with the maid?

  • Why did the butler murder the housekeeper with a samurai sword, instead of poisoning her?

  • Why did the butler choose the library to do the evil deed?

And so on.

So one point to make about explanations is that they are, as Hilary Putnam argues in Meaning and the Moral Sciences 'relative to interest'. There is no such thing as the explanation of something.

The explanations I have listed above all refer to human motives. But there are other kinds of explanations, for example, scientific explanation. Or is this a different kind of explanation? Some philosophers would argue that the explanations we give in 'folk psychology' aren't real explanations at all, but mere descriptions which cover up the real causes of human behaviour of which we remain blissfully ignorant.

Come to think of it:

What is a historical explanation?

What is a philosophical explanation?

— Plenty of meat there, don't you think?

Geoffrey Klempner


Noesis asked:

My Ancient Political Theory class has been reading The Republic. The one question that has perplexed us all is, "What is the Form of the Good, and what is Good?" We need this answered before we can continue our discussion or answer any of our other questions. If anyone has any suggestions about how to find the answer, please let me know.

Aha! You have read Plato and found his epicentre, and in that of our entire Western tradition. I will offer a suggestion of an answer to you.

Plato, as you have doubtless noticed, doesn't answer the question; when asked to come out with the goods and give a full and clear explanation of what the 'Forms' are, he says himself "Do you really want a blind, halting display from me when you can have nice clear accounts from other people?" He prattles on with analogies involving the sun, caves, mariners and lines and generally gets nowhere.

So what are these mysteriously absolute 'Forms'? Words, or language in general, have sometimes been suggested as being the actuality of the Forms. In this way the very word, say "bed" (it always seems to be "bed", "tree", or "desk" with philosophers, presumably because they look around for a suitable word, and those three tend to be the fist things they see)... so that the 'Form' of the bed is the word "bed" itself. But Plato's version is much more interesting...

His account, such as it is, could be summed up as "the Forms are the true essence of things, the reality behind what we see". It is not entirely clear whether Plato is suggesting that The Forms have genuine existence in some other reality to our own, or whether they are a sort of mental construct that allows us to understand the reality behind mere appearance. Either way, you could equally sum up Plato's ideas in the Republic by saying that his view is "Who should rule? Surely the people who know what is for the Good should rule! Only True Philosophers understand what the true Form of Good is, which is to say, understand what the "Forms" are, so they are the only ones who should rule. I can't tell you what the "Forms" are, because you are not a True Philosopher, and only True Philosophers would understand my answer". From this it follows that "I am a True Philosopher, therefore I know what 'Forms' are, therefore I should be permitted to tell everyone else what to do."

You could get exasperated at this and reason that Plato is merely saying, in a rather clever way, what many of us would like to say, namely "I should be in charge". While this might be true, the very fact that you ask the question demonstrates that you already belong to the tradition of Plato.

Many of the conclusions presented in the Republic may seem, with two-and-a-half thousand years of hindsight, just silly. But its method of reaching those conclusions, by a precise process of honest and careful step-by-step searching after absolute answers, has been, and remains, the one great distinguishing feature of the European way of thinking. The great search for 'Forms' underlies the impossible search for perfection which has given rise to Europe's science, politics, psychology, education and much of its angst. It stands in valorous contrast to the world's only other great founder-philosopher, Confucius, whose attachment to harmony and the certainties of tradition built a very different society.

There are no Forms. And what's more, while many have tried, I can't actually prove that there aren't! That is the glory of them. You could try looking for them in the two "plain language" versions of the Republic at http://members.nbci.com/the_republic/sj-txt.htm and http://www.btinternet.com/~glynhughes/squashed.htm. But I wouldn't expect any great success if I were you.

It is the very searching after "The Forms" which has made us great. The search is everything, the results, inevitably, are found to be nothing. Keep on searching!

Glyn Hughes


Tanya asked:

Are Plato's philosophies influenced by Buddhist ideas and Eastern philosophies? If so, are there any works written about this comparison?

Both The Buddha and Confucius lived about three hundred years before Plato, so it is quite possible that some of their ideas filtered through to him. But, to be honest, it is very difficult to say. How could we know who is influenced by whom? We can look to either explicit statements that 'I was influenced in this by X' or we could look for similarities between their ideas.

If we look for explicit information, then only documented connection between the ancient Western and Eastern traditions which I am aware of is that of Pyrrho of Elis, a little later than Plato, who is said to have studied under Indian 'sadhu' philosophers (Called the 'gymnosophists', or 'naked philosophers' by the Greeks) while travelling with Alexander the Great. The extreme form of scepticism which Pyrrho came to espouse does indeed seem quite similar to much Hindu thought, but it is quite at odds with the belief in the real existence of absolute knowledge presented by Plato.

If we look for similarities of ideas, then there is an excellent and very detailed work outlining the comparisons between Western and Chinese philosophy by Fung-Yu Lan. Extracts from it are available in the west in The Philosophical Writings of Fung-Yu Lan. He draws detailed comparisons between Plato, Aristotle, Democritus as well as Hume, Mill and others and their Chinese equivalents. The trouble here is that, East or West, we are the same sort of creatures in the same world living the same sorts of lives and therefore being confronted with the same sorts of problems. It is no surprise that we often come up with the same answers. You may care to look at the comparison of Confucius and Plato available at http://www.san.beck.org/C%26S-Contents.html and you'll see what I mean.

Glyn Hughes


Mick asked:

The response to all philosophical questions, e.g. "Does God exist?", "Why are we here?", "What's the meaning of life?" etc, etc , must be, "We don't know" (always assuming that we're honest). I'm 58 yrs. old, of average intelligence (I think), not particularly well-read or educated to a high standard — an ordinary man! I am unable to go beyond this response. I'd appreciate any thoughts on this matter.

I hope this question is theoretical. If you are truly concerned that there is no meaning to life, you may lack some form of essential attachment to what there is in the world around you. However, there is a sense in which it is normal to recognise — and sometimes feel — that life lacks meaning. One philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has pointed out that being able to recognise the absurdity of life is part of what it is to be human: "It is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight — the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought".

There is only a meaning to life which is beyond, or transcends, what we know if we have faith in God. There are philosophical arguments both for and against God, and although we cannot prove God exists, we cannot prove the converse either.

Life may be essentially pointless and futile, but we can give it point and purpose simply by being engaged in the world as it is. Hopefully, you have family, friends and interests which give you a reason to be here or, in other words, provide the point of life. If this is not so, there remains the wider moral community of other persons you interact with daily and the possibility of better, changed circumstances and the arousal of interest in the world around you.

The question "What is the meaning of life" is meaningless because it searches for something outside life itself to provide a point. We want the point to be available to us here and now, as a reason for living and it is. The point, for you, is whatever you find valuable in life for its own sake.

Rachel Browne

I'm not sure that "I don't know" is the only honest answer to the 'big questions'. Another answer, which might be more truthful, is "I don't understand". Because it is often confusing to work out what is actually being asked.

If someone asked me one day at work: "why are we here?", I might give all sorts of answers, like "because we get paid" or "because this is where the office is". Clearly this is not what is being asked when the question is intended philosophically, but it still remains to be asked what in fact is in question here. Again, an explanation of the birds and the bees would not be the answer the questioner is looking for. And it would seem obvious that no scientific answer could ever suffice.

So what is being asked? I must confess that I am not sure, but I would suspect it is the equivalent of shrugging one's shoulders and sighing. It is an expression of confusion, of bewilderment at the brute fact of existence. I really do understand this, but it is not a question. And if it is not a question, then it cannot be answered.

I would suggest that the other examples of questions you gave could be disposed of in a similar way.

Will Greenwood


Peter asked:

Is suicide ethically wrong?

There are at least two reasons why suicide is regarded as ethically wrong. Firstly, if you commit suicide you fail to take the feelings of others into account; those who care about you. It is the essence of morality to think of others. The second consideration is that you have a moral responsibility to yourself. Kant, for instance, argued that we should treat others with respect as Ends in Themselves. As individuals, one amongst others, we too are an end in itself and should treat ourselves with respect. Kant also thought that our moral community was essentially a rational community and it is rational to want to live.

So if ethics is grounded in either feelings or rationality, suicide is immoral.

However, if it is the case that no-one actually cares whether you commit suicide or not, then on the first reason, I cannot see that it would be unethical. You will not hurt anyone, except yourself: And it is not even clear that you would actually be hurting yourself. Our bodies belong solely to us and I think that we have the right to dispose of them as we think fit.

The rationality argument against suicide shows how you would be hurting yourself and applies even if you don't accept Kant's theory of respect. If you have no reason to live, and no desire to do so, suicide would seem to be the rational conclusion. But this would only be so if there was no future possibility of coming to want to live, and this possibility cannot be rejected. If there is an ethical sense to this it would be that one should be good to oneself and allow oneself the chance of some future happiness.

Rachel Browne


Henry asked:

O.K. I may have to admit it, but I am suffering from a chronic state of nervous exhaustion. I am 40 yrs old and have had the problem for 10 years. How can philosophy help me?

I think philosophy can help you. It could have helped you more if you had asked for advice before you let things get to this stage.

From what I know of cases of nervous exhaustion, you are never going to get back to the way you were. That life, the life that led to your being in this state, is over and finished. Whatever regrets you may feel, it is a waste of energy to go over the why's and wherefore's. It is time to move on.

Psychologists emphasize the value of stress. Human beings are equipped to deal with stressful situations. Adrenaline pumps into the blood, with the chemical changes we think more quickly, physically we become stronger and can endure more. But not everyone benefits to the same extent, or relishes the challenge of a stressful life. And no matter who you are, too much stress can hurt you, sometimes permanently.

A philosopher friend once told me that the highest incidence of stomach ulcers amongst academics occurred with those who did philosophy. That is something I can well believe. (I've seen them with their glasses of milk.) Given the choice between some of the philosophy seminars I've attended, and the Roman Colosseum, I'd choose to fight it out with the lions. Nor are things necessarily any easier for the philosopher locked up in their study. Rodin's 'Thinker' is not having a nice time. He is in acute mental pain.

Yet philosophy does not have to be about violent mental combat, or scaling the highest heights. As a student of philosophy, you can learn to enjoy and appreciate the achievements of the great philosophers. You can learn the joy of calm reflection.

The Medieval philosopher Boethius wrote his Consolations of Philosophy while in prison, awaiting what he knew would be an horrific torture and death on the charge of heresy. For the Stoics, philosophy taught that the things we encounter or that happen to us in our lives only hurt us because of our own ignorance, because we fail to see the wider picture or take a sufficiently detached viewpoint. I do think, with the ancients, that the everyday world and its annoyances, disappointment, and grief becomes smaller and less significant as our interest in philosophy becomes more. Try it and see!

Geoffrey Klempner


Ryan asked:

I need help with the following question: What made Greece's golden age "golden"? What important standards and principles were set that are still admired today?

The hegemony of Athens in Greece during the 'golden age' contributed greatly to why we look back at Greece the way we do. From roughly 594 BCE, under a variety of great leaders (Solon, Peisitratos, Kleisthenes and eventually Pericles) the form of government known as democracy evolved and developed in Athens, and Athens exported it to the far reaches of her empire. Compared with the despotism of Xerxes in Persia, say, or the system in Sparta, the Athenian system was clearly enlightened (although they used democracy for their own ruthless imperial ends, not because they gave it a value like we do today). But that is nonetheless one thing that we look back at and admire. I have read that the development of democracy in Athens was crucial to other cultural developments there before and during the 'golden age'.

From democracy (and specifically Athens' ruthlessness in using it as an imperial tool) came money. With money the Athenians were able to build great monuments which we can still visit. On the other hand pre-Socratic philosophers Democritus and Leucippus postulated that the fundamental constituents of matter were atoms, which is not completely antithetical to the modern view. That people were able to have abstract thoughts is because they had the leisure to do so. Athens was rich enough that leisure was affordable.

Drama was virtually invented by the Athenians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are the tragedians we remember, Aristophanes in particular the comic) Many literary scholars still regard the Oedipus Rex as the greatest play ever written. Nietzsche thought that through the great plays of the tragedians came the 'truth' of the absurdity of the universe — that the Greeks not only survived knowing this, but constructed a culture the likes of which has never been seen since.So at the very least, the cultural achievements of the golden age have been a talking point for aesthetes ever since.

What finally of philosophy? A great number of our most fundamental and troubling philosophical questions were first asked (as far as we know) by the pre-Socratics, Socrates himself, Plato and Aristotle. These questions range from the nature of universals, moral realism, freedom and the self. So philosophy more-or-less came into being during this period (not that these are necessarily the questions we should still be pondering over, according to Richard Rorty) The time period of the golden age is short (c.490 to 404 when Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian war) which makes these achievements all the more amazing.

Many principles we would not agree with today (slavery and corporal punishment) But democracy, a relatively advanced civilisation, wealth, an emphasis on reason in philosophy and creativity in art — these are all aspects of the golden age which continue to amaze its students and which people often feel an affinity with. Its hard to know why it all started and came about so quickly; perhaps because they made money and could afford to.

A. Gatward


Charlotte asked:

What is moral relativism?

'Moral relativism' is one of the responses you sometimes hear people give in cases of ethical conflict. For example the Romans fed Christians to wild beasts and kept slaves as gladiators, whereas we do not, and regard it as wrong. You can either respond that we are morally more enlightened than the Romans were, that we today have got it right; or you can opt for the relativistic line that there is no answer to these kinds of question. So moral relativism is a denial that there is any single moral code that has universal validity.

Relativists need not deny that there is such a thing as moral truth, although their account of truth will be very different from an absolutist like Kant. Moral truth, to the relativist, is relative to factors which are culturally and historically contingent. So you can be a meta-ethical relativist about truth and justifiability. The wide variety of ethical beliefs in the world is perhaps a point in its favour. How do you even assess the truth of something outside of your own background, language and community?

You can also be a relativist in a slightly different, 'normative' way. This would be to say that we ought to hold that the values of others are as valid as our own. Anthropology has thrown up an exotic array of practises from distant cultures which we simply cannot relate to and even find distasteful (infanticide, cannibalism, head-hunting etc). A moral relativist might claim that we have no normative grounds for judging these kinds of practise by our own moral standards. See my answers to Russ, Charlotte and Duane for some practical examples, and see Geoffrey Klempner's answer to Diana for some thoughts on the 'cultural defence'.

A. Gatward


Eliza asked:

How did the Presocratics perceive soul? Is Plato's theory of ideas equivalent to religious faith? What is a hypothesis? On what basis did Socrates adopt it ("Phaedo")? All philosophies take something for granted to begin with, a base; but what did the Sophists have as a base? As nihilists of their time was it power (e.g. political)?

Thales, the first Presocratic philosopher, is said to have explained the effect of a magnet on iron by saying that it had a 'soul'. Heraclitus, who taught that the universe was an everlasting divine fire which 'kindles in measures, and goes out in measures' also held that each of us had this fire within us. It is death to allow one's soul to become 'wet'.

Plato's theory of Ideas or 'Forms' is not a religion as you would understand it. There is no personal God that we can pray to. it is a religion of reason. Heraclitus had identified the universal fire with Logos — explanation, reason, account. Reason 'rules' over the ever-changing world of phenomena. All changes, however apparently random or chaotic, are law governed. Plato's world of Forms gives intelligible structure to the Logos, just as his world of phenomena — the world we inhabit, so long as we remain 'imprisoned' in our earthly bodies — represents a world of Heraclitean flux. So in Plato's philosophy we can find, if not religion, then an eschatology. There is rational hope, for those who strive to make their souls more philosophical, more detached from physical things, of an eternal life 'amongst the Forms'.

In the Phaedo, one of the greatest and certainly the most moving of all Plato's dialogues, Socrates, condemned to death for 'impeity' and now facing the very last day of his life, discusses with his friends various arguments for the immortality of the soul. In the course of the discussion, Plato introduces the concept of 'hypothesis'. We may be unsure whether to accept theory A or theory B. One way to proceed is to put forward the 'hypothesis' of A, and see what follows. If the consequences are unacceptable, for example, if the assumption of A leads to a contradiction, then we can examine whether the hypothesis of B fares any better. In that way, the philosopher is able to make progress without assuming a fixed starting point, or 'taking something for granted'. That idea, the idea of dialectic is one Socrates' and Plato's greatest gifts to the Western philosophical tradition.

In Plato's jaundiced view, the Sophists did not practice dialectic. They did not use the method of hypothesis in the search for ultimate truth. They practiced eristic, logic chopping. The Sophists taught how to 'make the weaker argument appear stronger.'

But why should we believe that dialectic, or learning how to demolish hypotheses will ever get you to the truth? Plato's early dialogues show Socrates again and again proving the point that he knew nothing, save the fact that he was ignorant. Every definition of the moral virtues put forward by his helpless interlocutors falls to pieces under his dialectical blade.

Plato got 'religion'. He found his theory of Forms. The Sophists were perhaps wiser to the limits of philosophical method. Some, it is true seemed to tend towards nihilism: like Gorgias who wrote a notorious, some say satirical treatise On What is Not — in which he argued that nothing exists, and even if something did exist no-one could ever know it — or Thrasymachus whose view that 'justice is the interests of the stronger' provides the starting point for Plato's investigation in the Republic. The greatest of all the Sophists, Protagoras, who taught that we ourselves are the 'measure' of values, was not arguing for nihilism. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes a convincing case that the Sophists were passionately concerned with values.

Like Nietzsche, their modern counterpart, who repeatedly portrays nihilism as the greatest threat to human culture, the Sophists saw values as ultimately coming from us rather than from a Platonic Heaven. That is not nihilism. It is a way, the Nietzschean would argue — as Russell argued in 'A Free Man's Worship' — to embrace the reality of values without accepting the false comforts of religion.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jocelyn asked:

Is it possible to agree yet disagree with some aspects of a philosophical essay topic? My topic is, "Should philosophy be made compulsory in junior and senior high schools?"

I am not sure whether you are asking: is it possible to agree and disagree with something at the same time? Or are you asking: is it possible to agree with some aspects of an issue and disagree with others?

In the former case, I have never been able to agree with something I disagree with (although I sometimes have no opinion). But when you assess an argument carefully for an essay it is best to defend a position or attack it. Pointing out the weakness in a position you choose to defend does not mean you must disagree with that position in the final analysis. I may agree with capitalism, say; but capitalism has many weaknesses which I would acknowledge if I were writing a defence of it.

In the latter case there are pros and cons to any essay question which you need to weigh up. Some consequences of teaching philosophy in schools you will accept, others you will not like. Finding the balance between the two sets of consequences will be your answer to the question.

So you might agree that philosophy should be taught because it is very interesting or provides good mental training in some way. But you might disagree that students ought to be forced to read 18th century philosophical texts as part of the course because a lot of the texts are often boring and 'kill' the subject for beginners. Or you might think that reading those texts is a good thing for all of us because at the very least it breaks the will! A good way of defending a position you agree with is to point out its possible weaknesses (or the bits that make you uncomfortable) and try and hammer them out of the way or argue that they aren't weaknesses at all.

A. Gatward

I think you can just put forward the pros and cons for whether philosophy should be taught in school, and then pick out those you agree and disagree with. Its certainly not an easy thing for you to come to a conclusion about.

Rachel Browne


Paul asked:

Who am I?

Well, if you don't know...! I suppose you ask this question having read all the philosophical arguments on the subject of personal identity, and found that there are no ready answers.

Perhaps not. So firstly, you are not your body, because simply to be a body without consciousness would be insufficient to provide you with a sense of "I". Consciousness is essential to personal identity. Secondly, you could wake up in a state of awareness of a completely different body, so there is no particular body which makes you you. Furthermore, we can conceive of disembodied consciousness, so it is not necessary that you have a body at all.

Consciousness looks essential to personal identity. But the question arises what it is about my consciousness that makes me "me". If I lost all my memories, I would still be me. At any particular moment there is no particular thought about anything which makes me "me" except a subjective awareness of the moment. This seems to reduce the idea of "I" to "here" and "now".

This approach gets us nowhere. There is nothing to do but abandon the idea of "me" as my mind or body, and take it as both. It must be a necessary condition for a sense of "I" that I have both a mind and body and am aware of myself as different from others and objects. It also appears to be necessary that I can at least think about myself, and take myself as an "I" and so I must be a language user. In order to be a language user, there must be a community determining the rules of use for the language. If we are able to conceive of a disembodied consciousness with a sense of "I", it is because we are already physically embodied language users in a community. Given that this so, any real sense of who you are is gained by being embodied and having experiences, but it doesn't matter which body or which experiences.

Whichever body and experiences you have, you are a conscious subject with a unique perspective on your body who has thoughts and experiences.

But the idea of a conscious subject as substantial has been abandoned by philosophers. It is now accepted that there is no such thing as the Cartesian "I". There is nothing that we can grasp as "I" beyond the experiences and the contents of the thoughts we have. There is a school of philosophy which holds, with Jacques Lacan, that "Where I am, I don't think, and where I think, I am not". Thinking cuts you off from "being". Once an individual is able to think, to distinguish others and use language, the self — what it is to be — disappears. What you can see, experience and think about are common to all persons, and all there is content, what the experience is of or what the thought is about. You cannot grasp what it is to be — you can have no direct awareness of yourself — prior to gaining the ability to think because as soon as you think the self disappears.

The place of "being" is held by Lacan to be where thought is not, and given that being must be internal, it is located in the unconscious. This doesn't get us anywhere either because we have no direct access to the unconscious.

More positively, we could ignore these two approaches, and look at the self in Sartrean terms. In the words of Phil Washburn: "The true self is what you do spontaneously, naturally, by instinct. If you have to think about who wants you to do something, or about the consequences of doing it, or what people will think, then you are not expressing your real self. We are born with a unique potential, in fact many potentialities."

Rachel Browne


Mark asked:

It has been my experience thus far in philosophy that often when an answer seems very obvious to me, I have not fully understood the question. With that in mind, I want to ask about Anselm's and Augustine's assertion that belief must precede understanding.

It seems obvious to me that this cannot be so. For, belief must be belief in something, and having identified that something, one has (already) begun to understand it. It seems a logical necessity that belief follows understanding. Can someone help me understand Augustine's assertion in a way that would make me more sympathetic to it, or is it just as I see it?

I think you are referring to Anselm's phrase 'credo ut intellegam' (which means 'I believe so that I may understand' ) It is the starting point of his ontological argument in the Proslogion.

I agree with your lack of sympathy for the position but for different reasons. It is not a logical necessity that 'belief follows from understanding' as you suggest. If this were true, understanding the idea of God, say, would be sufficient grounds for a belief in God. I think you are right to say that in order to be able to identify something, you must understand it first. But it doesn't follow from this that understanding is prior to belief.

There is an entire skeptical tradition in philosophy — of which Hume is probably the greatest champion — which holds that some of our fundamental commitments (such as our beliefs in causation, continued and distinct existences, freedom etc) are without rational foundation. Putting it incredibly crudely, when you sit in a chair you believe it won't collapse under you (and it probably won't). But is that belief based on any understanding? The idea is that a lot of our expectations and beliefs are based on custom and habit, not the understanding. We only come to understand much later.

Anselm and Augustine seem to me to be making a similar kind of point: the way we understand the world has to start somewhere, and this starting point (to them) must be with a deeply held faith in the Christian God.

There is an argument called the Parity Argument which might interest you. Lets say you agree with the skeptical tradition that some commitments of secular concern are without rational foundation even though we believe them. So, the argument goes, you are inconsistent if you refuse to yield to religious beliefs merely because they have no rational foundation (i.e. the starting point for understanding the world has to be with a set of beliefs of some sort). So faith in God is a bit like faith in other things.

The Humean take on this is that it is not an inconsistency unless:

  1. There is pressure to yield to religious beliefs equal in all respects to the pressure to yield to secular ones.
  2. The meta-rational demands for religious belief are equal to the meta-rational demands to believe in an external world etc.
  3. Religious beliefs fulfill the same criteria as our non-rationally founded secular beliefs which enable those secular beliefs to be resistant to skepticism.

The criteria are:

  1. Conclusions arrived at must be temporally prior to reasoning.
  2. They are indispensable as presuppositions for knowledge and conduct for a being living in a coherent relationship with the appearance of things. In practical terms one cannot live in the world unless one carries those beliefs.
  3. So, 'natural beliefs' are universal and not simply the dominant ones held by the vulgar. They are ones we all possess.

We conclude, firstly, that it is incontrovertible that religious beliefs are not universal in the manner of (c), and secondly that individuals can and do act perfectly adequately without beliefs in God. The beliefs are not an epistemic requirement for any coherent relation to the appearance of things. So (b) is not fulfilled either and from (1) and (2) we can reject Anselm's point that we must believe in God in order to understand.

A. Gatward


Charlotte asked:

What is Frege's puzzle? Why did he reject the metalinguistic solution and change to reference and sense? What is his second solution and does it work any better than the first?

and Alex asked:

I'm writing an undergraduate essay about Frege, which is, "Is sense a semantic property of singular terms?" I would greatly appreciate any help on this subject as it is very difficult and I don't understand it!! Thank you.

In his essay, 'On Sense and Reference' ('Uber Sinn und Bedeutung') Frege presents a puzzle about the notion of identity. Identity statements, of the form A=B, can convey factual information about the object designated. To take Frege's example, we now know that the sun we see in the sky is the same object whenever it appears. Once, people did not know this. Or, to quote an example popular with academic philosophers, we all know that Superman is Clark Kent, but Louis Lane does not. If she were to discover Clark Kent's identity, this would be knowledge. But what exactly is this knowledge and how is it represented in the statement, Superman=Clark Kent?

There seem to be just two alternatives:

  1. A statement of identity describes a relation which every object holds to itself, and does not hold to any other object.
  2. A statement of identity describes a relation which holds between two names which refer to one and the same object.

On alternative (1), when we say that Superman=Clark Kent, what we actually state is that a certain individual is identical with himself. But this is hardly news! On this reading, there is no difference in informational value between the statement, Superman=Clark Kent and the statement, Superman=Superman.

On alternative (2), when we say that Superman=Clark Kent, what we actually state is that the name 'Superman' designates one and the same individual as the name 'Clark Kent'. This 'meta-linguistic' solution which Frege originally adopted, looks more promising. To know that an object is designated by a particular name is a piece of factual information. For example, I ask what my neighbour's new dog is called and she tells me his name is 'Bruce'. Now I know something I didn't know before.

But Frege rejects this second alternative. Why? This is what he says:

[T]his relation would hold between the names or signs only in so far as they named or designated something. It would be mediated by the connexion of each of the two signs with the same designated thing. But this is arbitrary. Nobody can be forbidden to use any arbitrarily producible event or object as a sign for something. In that case the sentence a=b would no longer refer to the subject matter, but only to its mode of designation; we would express no proper knowledge by its means.

Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege P. Geach and M. Black eds. Blackwell 1970.

As an undergraduate, I remember puzzling over this. What is Frege saying? Of course, I am free to invent my own arbitrary name for Bruce. Suppose my name for Bruce is 'Bonzo'. For me, it is not news that 'Bruce' designates the same entity as 'Bonzo'. For you it might be. Not having a great eye for dogs, you are unaware that the naughty 'Bonzo' I point out tearing up my vegetable patch is the very same well behaved 'Bruce' you were introduced to by my neighbour last week when you were invited over for tea. So what's wrong with this account?

There's nothing wrong with it. It is perfectly all right. The statement that 'Bruce' designates the same entity as 'Bonzo' will convey information to you just in the case when the statement that Bruce=Bonzo conveys information. They are not the same statement, of course. The first statement refers to names while the second statement uses names, but does not refer to them. (You refer to a name when you put it in quotation marks.) However, the two statements do the same job.

But that is precisely the reason why the meta-linguistic analysis doesn't make any contribution to solving the original puzzle. It looks as though the meta-linguistic analysis gets you somewhere, whereas in fact it doesn't. The question, which still hasn't been answered is, What is it that is characteristic of all and only those cases of statements of the form A=B or of the form The object designated by 'A'=the object designated by 'B' which succeed in conveying factual information?

Frege's solution is to propose a distinction between the sense of a name and its reference. The reference of a name is the entity which it designates. The sense of the name, for a given individual or group of individuals who use that name, depends upon — now, here comes the difficult bit — something (Frege calls it the 'mode of presentation' of the object) which is not the same as the entity itself. In the statements, 'Superman=Clark Kent' or 'Bruce=Bonzo', the names on each side of the '=' sign have the same reference but a different sense.

Objects, as I would put it, have sides. Every object that we are acquainted with, potentially has sides from which that object would be unrecognizable to us. Occasionally, we succeed in connecting two disconnected sides together and recognize that fact by asserting an identity statement.

It is therefore is absurd to claim that the semantic value of names like 'Bruce' or 'Geoffrey' is the object which they refer to. If that were the case, one would have to conclude that we can never know the meaning of any name. If one did know the meaning of a name, then one would have to know the object from every possible side, knowledge to which, as Frege laconically remarks, "we never attain".

But do names have a semantic value, in Frege's sense? Is there any useful point in looking for the mode of presentation, or sense of a name like 'Bruce', or 'Geoffrey'? Does my neighbour's dog have a 'Bruce' side and a 'Bonzo' side? Only in certain artificially restricted examples. In real life, modes of presentation overlap in exceedingly complex ways. One would have to conclude that Frege's argument for a sense/reference distinction for proper names as a solution to the puzzle about identity statements is totally unconvincing. Names have a fluid and variable currency, not a fixed 'semantic value'.

Geoffrey Klempner

Dear Alex:

It can be difficult to understand sense and reference but I think this is just because reference always seemed to be called "meaning" as if sense was irrelevant to semantic theory. However, there are two different aspects to meaning.

Firstly, there is thought and speech. What we refer to is the object or referent. When we "mean" something, we refer to it and, in doing so, we use a particular sense, or a description. You may know John as "the bloke in the pub" and your friend might know him a "the man who works in the bookshop". You can talk about the same person without knowing it, but you are both talking of the same person (you have the same reference), and you may come to both realise it when you come to agree on senses — or descriptions — under which you know John. Sense is essential to this aspect of meaning. You can't talk about John without a sense, i.e. a description under which you know him, or you wouldn't understand what you were talking about. For Frege, this type of meaning was both sense and reference. It is an account of an individual's understanding of a sentence. Frege called this propositional as opposed to sentential.

The other aspect of "meaning" is the relation between a sentence and the fact in the world. When we use language we use propositions which express our relationship to, or our understanding of, the way the world is. There is what we know of John, but there is also John himself who embodies all facts about himself. The sentence which contains as the referent the word John, picks out John as the individual of whom there are facts which are true or false of him. The sentence "John works in the bookshop" directly refers to a particular person as an objective item and doesn't need to carry sense to have meaning. An ordinary sentence — as opposed to a propositional thought — is given meaning in terms of its truth conditions, so is directly determined by extra-linguistic facts such as those in the world.

Dear Charlotte:

According to Gareth Evans in The Varieties of Reference, Frege did not abandon one semantic theory for another, but recognised that more than an extensional analysis of sentences was needed if a theory of meaning was to encompass an account of what it is to understand a sentence.

His initial theory of meaning was in terms of truth value. The meaning of a sentence is determined by whether or not a description is true or not of the referent. What Frege realised, which is the reason for his sense/reference distinction, was that in many cases we might know an object or person under one description yet not under another. What an individual knows about a referent is its sense, or intension. The sentence relation between sentences and extra-linguistic entities is extensional and doesn't account for what people understand by their language and a theory of meaning should be able to provide some explanation of differences in understanding as well as being able to underpin a theory of communication.

Evans identifies Frege's initial recognition of the problem of understanding in regard to a theory of meaning in an unpublished letter in which Frege gave an example of a mountain discovered from different directions by two explorers. One explorer calls it 'Afla' and discovers it's height to be 5000 metres, the other calls it 'Ateb' but knows nothing of it's height. The second explorer can successfully refer to the mountain as Ateb and might come to discover that Ateb is 5000 metres high. He would thus believe "Ateb is 5000 metres high" but not "Afla is 5000 metres high" because he doesn't know that Ateb is Afla. Therefore, these cannot be the same thought: There are two senses, one referent. It is possible not to know that the mountain is not snow-capped in the summer, so Frege's theory of sense shows how it is possible to informatively communicate with others about objects. Frege's example of Hesperus and Phosphorus (the evening star and the morning star) in 'On Sense and Reference' illustrates the same point. On the extensional analysis, which Frege came to recognise as inadequate, if you believe that "Ateb is 5000 metres high" then you would believe that "Afla is 5000 metres high".

As a theory of meaning the sense/reference account works to an extent, but lies slightly problematically alongside Frege's account of extensional meaning of sentences. Some sentences, about fiction for instance, include names which do not refer to objects. On a logical extensional analysis, this type of sentence would be false because it fails to refer. If a theory of meaning was simply extensional, a person using a sentence about a fictional character would fail to say anything. There would be sense without reference for a class of propositions and sentences. Michael Dummett, the main interpreter of Frege, has held that for these sentences a third, indeterminate truth value should be introduced. Evans holds that Frege took a more Russellian view of fictional sentences.

One specific problem arising from Frege's account is what Susan Haack in Philosophy of Logics refers to as "The morning star paradox". On the extensional analysis, the morning star is the evening star — both terms refer to the planet Venus — which is an identity relation, and so it is necessary. If the morning star is the evening star then that fact could not be otherwise. However, because there are two senses involved here, it follows that it is contingent. Not everyone knows that the morning star is the evening star. We can easily conceive that they might have been two different stars, given the different senses.

Rachel Browne


Cesar asked:

What is the difference between an emotion and a feeling? What are the common or basic emotions?

I don't know of any philosophers who have distinguished between feelings and emotions. However, it would make sense to say emotions are focused feelings, and that all emotions are feelings, but not all feelings are emotions. A few feelings which I would suggest are not emotions because they are not focused are those of calm, anxiety and general happiness or sadness.

Aristotle thought that to be in an emotional state is to be in a certain "frame of mind", e.g. "People who are afflicted by sickness or poverty or love or thirst or any other unsatisfied desires are prone to anger and easily roused". There must also be a cause of the emotion, such as being "slighted" in the case of anger, and each emotion is related to feelings of pleasure and pain. Emotions also guide our thoughts: In the case of anger, Aristotle points out that we are led to thoughts of retaliation.

Aristotle didn't distinguish between feelings and emotions and so analysed feelings such as calm and friendship as emotions. He characterised calm, as a cooling down after anger, which is to continue to respond to an external cause because you calm down in relation to the person who made you angry. However, a person can simply be calm which is a condition rather than an emotion, or simply feel calm for no particular reason, and calmness in these senses would not fall within Aristotle's definition of an emotion.

If we accept that emotions are focused (actually, or as the content of thought) on particular states of affairs outside the body, then feelings can be characterised as unfocused internal states. A paradigm for feeling is the physical feeling of pain. This has a cause inside rather than outside the body. To be calm or happy in this sense, where there is no external cause, can be taken as a feeling and contrasted with emotions. On this distinction, friendship, as directed at another person would be an emotion.

On this analysis, I suppose that the most common emotion is friendship. It is not really possible to talk of common emotions in general, since many emotions, such as jealousy and anger, depend upon one's being of a personality type.

Rachel Browne


A.C.Hughes asked:

Ultimate universe reality cannot be grasped by mathematics, logic, or philosophy, only by personal experience in progressive conformity to the divine will of a personal God. Neither science, philosophy, nor theology can validate the personality of God. Only the personal experience of the faith-sons of the heavenly Father can effect the actual spiritual realization of the personality of God. True of False?

There is no way of saying whether your statement is true or false although doubtless it is one or the other. You rule out of court the methods we have for assessing the truth of a proposition in your first sentence: on the basis you have given for finding out the facts, I think it is impossible to assess the truth of your claim. You can't have your cake and eat it, and claim that personal experience makes a proposition true and then rule out other methods by which we normally assess it. If your claim is true, then we would have to be able to explain why it is true in other terms to avoid circularity.

I don't know of any way to make a negative statement about truth, bracket it off and then ask whether the whole statement is true or not. On your basis, I could argue:

  1. A statement is true if and only if I enjoy one of the faith experiences you describe.
  2. Faith experiences are a sufficient criteria for truth.
  3. I haven't had such experiences.
  4. So, your statement is false.

But this clearly begs the question!

According to Hume, rightly in my view, reports of personal religious experiences are almost always less likely to be true than the intrinsic likelihood of the truth of the agent's being mistaken. So this gives an inductive basis for thinking that your statement about God is false, in a possible world in which the truth of a proposition is assessed externally to the personal faith encounter.

A. Gatward


Will Greenwood


Adrienne asked:

What determines how we use moral rationalization? Example, the person who is released from jail, knows or should know how to stay out of incarceration, yet they have a history of being a repeat offender. The crime does not necessarily have to be the same offense.

This is the problem that was known in Greek philosophy as the problem of akrasia or 'weakness of will'. The problem is acute for any one who believes that we do the action which, in our view, we have the best reason to do.

In your example, the person released from jail knows that they ought to stay out of trouble. It doesn't matter whether one understands this as a moral 'ought' (the offender has learned the error of their ways) or merely the recognition that they are not clever enough to avoid getting caught. Once out, their resolve weakens and they offend again.

I prefer Socrates' solution to this problem to Aristotle's. For Socrates, 'weakness of will' is not the correct description. The failure is a failure of reason and knowledge. If you really knew it was better not offend again, then you wouldn't do it. When you do offend, it is because your knowledge deserts you at the crucial moment. You get distracted from your goal. Aristotle didn't like this explanation. He thought you could know you were doing the wrong thing by your lights, yet do it under the influence of temptation. On such an occasion, your actions are controlled by your passions, not by your reason.

I cannot accept the idea that there are two distinct causes of our actions, our reasons and our passions. Whatever we do, we do for a reason, even if it is a bad reason. The shoplifter who lusts after a pair of designer jeans takes them for a reason which, in other circumstances would be considered perfectly acceptable. I don't see how the desire for designer jeans can be a reason for action on one occasion (when you can afford to pay for them) but not on another occasion. Of course, there are reasons of various kinds for not shoplifting. These have to be taken into consideration. Yet, at the crucial moment, the reasons for staying on the straight and narrow suddenly seem less convincing. “Yes, I know it is wrong to steal. But I've got no money and it's wrong that other people are rich and I am poor. And in any case, no-one is really going to suffer as a result of my action.” Or, “I know I have been caught many times in the past, but practice makes perfect. This time, I am certain I can get away with it!”

What I think Aristotle is absolutely right about is the crucial importance of habit. However, this can be shoe horned neatly into the Socratic account. The ability to keep ones eyes fixed on an objective and resisting the distractions of momentary temptation is something that can be strengthened or weakened by habit. Thinking is an action just as much as doing. It would be absurd to claim that I perform the mental action of choosing to consider a particular reason, only because I consciously think about the reason for considering that reason. The result would be a vicious regress. In order to consciously think about the reason for considering the first reason, I would have to think about the reason for thinking about the second reason for considering the first reason, and so on.

The knowledge in which moral or prudential virtue in Socrates' sense consists, involves, above all, a certain capacity for memory. It is memory that determines the reasons that occur to us at this or that time, and how we respond to those perceived reasons. “The greatest curse of human beings,” as Max von Sydow's Merlin remarks, “is that they forget!”

Geoffrey Klempner


Yunus asked:

I study electronic engineering in a foreign country. We have been asked to make an essay:

Le savoir est-il ce qui peut s'enseigner?

I understand that question to mean: Is it possible to teach all forms of knowledge?

I think for Plato knowledge is what has a precise content, we can give a definition. I refer to the dialogue Meno which is about a problematic definition of virtue. According to Plato, if something — for example, virtue — is knowledge, then it can be taught.

But if we consider knowledge acquired from experience, and not from a professor, in this case, is it possible to teach this knowledge? Personally, I learnt a lot of things during my work experience that I think someone else couldn't teach me.

Plato thought that we acquire practical 'knowledge' by means of the mere transfer of information, examples being flute-playing and medicine. Real knowledge, for Plato, had to be of the abstract and eternal and when we apply concepts for which we don't have a definition — such as virtue — to the empirical world, we are using beliefs and opinions

Real knowledge is acquired by the "tethering" of right opinion — which is appropriate for geometrical problems — where repeated working out of problems is needed before you can claim to know. It involves "reasoning out the explanation" which is needed for conceptual knowledge such as the definition of "virtue", or knowledge of properties in the empirical world. To tether or reason out the explanation is to fully understand. We can only know certain things. Plato thought that the world was subject to change and flux and could not be an object of knowledge, so real knowledge is that which is attained through reasoning.

Today it is thought sufficient that we know what something means just so long as we can use the concept — this is so for knowledge of the empirical world, at least. "Virtue" is a more difficult concept because it is evaluative, so although we have beliefs about what virtue is, real knowledge can only be achieved by understanding which requires reasoning. We can inform others of our beliefs about virtue, but if we don't actually know what it is we cannot really teach others because we would not pass on knowledge.

I don't know what it is that you have learnt from experience which you feel someone else couldn't teach you. If you have learnt from observation, supposedly you could have been shown. Of course, this would not amount to knowledge according to Plato, and couldn't be taught.

Basically, on teaching, practical knowledge (for Plato and everyone else) can be taught. For abstract knowledge (maths and conceptual definitions), Plato would not allow that this can be taught, because you can only come to know something on your own, having reasoned out the explanation, or having understood. You can only "prompt" (i.e. question) others to acquire a proper understanding for themselves. Philosophers other than Plato might characterise prompts as teaching. For difficult concepts such as "virtue" we do not have definitions, and so on Plato's view and most other people's, we can only transfer information. Where we don't have undisputed explanations, we only have beliefs, and these are what cannot be taught on anyone's account, only conveyed or passed on. This may be characterised as "being taught", by non-Platonists, but it is not the acquisition of knowledge on anyone's account.

I don't know anything about electronic engineering, but perhaps you can achieve a deep understanding as opposed to just following instructions or rules. Understanding is something you do on your own.

Rachel Browne


Trevor asked:

In the obituary of a very distant relative of mine, the following sentence occurs: “It is as an author of valuable books on theology and azilosophy-philosophy that Dr. Miall Edwards will live long in the memory of Welsh ministers and studious laymen.”

Question: What is 'azilosophy'? I have searched the Net, the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (including the Supplement). Nothing.

The deceased was Dr. David Miall Edwards, a liberal, non-conformist Welsh theologian, who died 1941. Was 'azilosophy' a mis-hearing by the newspaper reporter? If so, what was the word he misheard, please?

I don't think that there is any such word as 'azilosophy'; I haven't been able to find it either, so it is likely that your reporter just got it wrong. The individual in question was a liberal theologian you say: an appropriate word that springs to my mind is 'axiology'. The Encarta dictionary defines 'axiology' as the 'study of the nature, types, and governing criteria of values and value judgements.' It comes from the Greek 'axia' meaning 'value'. Axiological considerations about the universe are sometimes discussed in theology along with 'nomological' considerations: what is the relationship between the values Christians feel about the world, and the world's law-governed deterministic nature.

A. Gatward


Cat asked:

I've though about this question loads and I'm really confused: Is it possible that all the world just exists in our heads?

If all the things in the world exist in our heads, and our heads are in the world, then our heads exist in our heads. Now that is really confusing!

I suppose what you mean is, Is it possible that all the world exists in our minds, where the existence of a mind does not require the existence of a material object, such as a brain or a skull bone.

The first thing to point out is if I really thought it was possible that there were no material things, and that everything 'external' I see around me is nothing more than a kind of projection of something within my own mind, then I would seriously question whether you exist, as a separate subject with a mind. All I know of you are words on this computer screen! But then I might go on to question whether my wife and children exist. Everything I know of them, just as everything I know of you, is based on experiences in my own mind. Our own experiences are all that any of us ultimately has to go on.

Having got that far, there is still more to doubt. All I know of my past experiences is what I can remember of them now. So my past experiences might be nothing more than a projection of experiences currently occurring in my mind. I could have come into existence one minute ago with all my apparent 'memories' as they are now, and I would never know.

Even if, armed with a good dose of common sense, all these speculations seem to us highly improbable are then still possible? Do they make logical sense? Do I have to remind myself every so often that this wide, wonderful world and all the people in it might, just possibly, be nothing more than a momentary bubble of experience that calls itself 'I'? A mere illusion of a 'world' which appeared out of nowhere and will disappear the next moment into the nothingness from whence it came?

So far as nothing is absolutely certain in philosophy, I have to concede — though I don't like it — that what I have just said is possible.

That's not the question we should be asking. The real question is whether it is possible that we might be persuaded, by the philosophical argument of a Berkeley, or a Leibniz or a Kant, to embrace one or other version of the theory that what we call 'the physical world' is not real in itself, but rather something woven together out of the strands of experience.

Kant's theory is in some ways the most attractive of the three. He held that reality is something apart from the things that appear in our experienced 'worlds'. Berkeley, Leibniz and Kant are all agreed that there cannot be appearances without something behind those appearances, their ultimate source. Kant was the only philosopher out of the three to realize that this 'something' would have to be totally outside all human knowledge and experience.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sian asked:

What would be the consequences for a society without religion?

The consequences for a society which is not completely religious are available to see in all ages. It is rare for religion to be all-pervasive, and today, in Britain, Australia, America, at least, there are multiple religions as well as a vast amount of atheism. I think that religion is useful for laying moral foundations within a society. As the world is, most people who have no commitment to religion are still exposed to religious teaching, but if a society had no history of religion at all, morality would still have an impact.

Morality might be grounded in "rational bargaining" which is a recognition of the rights and freedoms of others, aiming at a peacefully run society, or it may be grounded in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism aims, simplistically, for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and would rule against bad deeds as not conducive to happiness. However, such societies would be simply rule or pleasure governed but there is another element of morality which may be based upon religious teachings, such as forgiveness. Deep moral feeling such as remorse and forgiveness come from the subject rather than some form of organised social rules. If the wrong doer, in committing an immoral act does not suffer himself in terms of remorse then morality really has no inner, subjective, hold and a society without religion might well differ very much from a religious society.

However, without religion there remains the natural feeling people have for one another. This may seem an inadequate thing to rely upon, but I don't believe that people perform charitable acts, or are just good, simply for religious reasons. We all behave well to people we love, just because we love them and where there is love, there is forgiveness and remorse. These moral feelings are easily extended beyond relationships based on the close tie of love. So morality with a deep subjective aspect would exist without religion because religion doesn't necessarily provide us with these feelings if there is also a source in love and the recognition of common humanity.

There will always be natural human fellowship, as well as individual and organised charity. Every human being has a cause which touches him. Each organised charity brings in people with particular interests and sympathies.

I believe that people are capable of living in peace with each other and performing good deeds without religion.

In fact, religious differences often cause social division.

Rachel Browne


Russ asked:

Do you have suggestions for someone who feels caught between the ethics of Apollo and Dionysus? I know Nietzsche fell firmly in the Dionysus camp, but I don't feel like he had it all figured out. I think Aristotle's Golden Mean is more of my kind of ethic. Anyway, I'd be interested in any further readings on the topic.

“The real question is how far a belief furthers and supports life, maintains and disciplines a species” Beyond Good and Evil.

Nietzsche's celebrated distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian can be found in his first book The Birth of Tragedy. If you are interested specifically in ethics, rather than the metaphysical and aesthetic strands of the idea, I think the question to ask is how strong are Nietzsche's arguments against moral realism and what exactly is the outcome of his position. Perhaps thinking about this will help you feel less trapped; Walter Kaufmann's book on Nietzsche is excellent.

Here is my take: Nietzsche claims that we are psychologically prone to error through our desires to conform and to avoid pain (pain in the sense of the terror that seeing the world as nauseatingly absurd can induce in us) Descriptions of moral 'facts' are merely descriptions of a moral attitude. There are no moral phenomena, only moralistic interpretations of them.

This is a specialisation of his general metaphysical view — there are no facts and no order (hence no moral order) at all. In most need of re-evaluation are thus our meta-ethical beliefs concerning the possibility of justifying the ethical beliefs we hold. His is a kind of 'error theory' about how we arrive morally realist conclusions and is essentially a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. In this sense it is somewhat similar to J.L. Mackie's arguments for subjectivism in his book Ethics which I recommend. Nietzsche also offers us a psychological explanation for why this error persists — what is the non-moral provenance of moral interpreting and what is its function in human life (see the quote at the top!)

A good question to consider is whether Nietzsche smuggles in some kind of moral realism with this talk of what is 'life-enhancing'; it sounds like a normative notion based on his interpretation of Darwin. Our nature is x, so we ought to do things to enhance it. His lengthy and bitter criticisms of Christianity (see Anti-Christ) often focus on the thought that Christianity could never be life-enhancing and is indeed inimical to happiness when practised because of the lack of value he sees it as placing on existence in this world.

On a purely personal reading of Nietzsche, I thus think that his moral criticisms of Christianity are actually very much along the lines of Greek virtue theory. So you are right to be thinking of Aristotle and the Golden Mean as a possible alternative to some of the more gloomy aspects of what he says elsewhere. Golden Means (e.g. courage is a mean between cowardice and irrascibility) encourage us to function in the right way — they help us to survive and be happy. If you think Nietzsche gets it wrong with the Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetic (roughly, hide from the absurdity in the first case, glorify it and love it in the second), there is still something powerful in the 'virtue theory' aspects of his thought — a virtue is to fulfill your nature as a human.

Nietzsche also speaks of the relativity of moral values however. Whether this sits a little more difficultly with virtue theory is something I often wonder. As Zarathustra puts it:

Much that one people calls 'good' another calls 'shame' and 'disgrace'. So I found. I found much that we here name evil and there decked in purple...a table of values hangs over every people.

Note that this is not a good argument for 'irrealism' and does not mean that we should abandon ethical realism altogether. Bernard Williams claims that we cannot engage with the ethics of a Medieval Teutonic knight (say) not because his moral beliefs were necessarily false but simply because those beliefs are too remote. Modern realists like David Wiggins and John McDowell would agree with Nietzsche that if you gave up your language and conceptual scheme you would end up in chaos; but does Nietzsche (and Mackie for that matter) make the right moves? Perhaps it is the standard for realism that needs to be weakened, and that abandoning ethical realism completely is not the move to make.

A. Gatward


Paulo asked:

I would like to know about Private Language in Wittgenstein, but I also want to make connections with arguments of Quine about translation (the famous Rabbit) and the mind as a Museum. I need this because I am trying to put the things in a comparative table for students. Thanks.

At one place in Word and Object, Quine makes a disparaging remark about Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. That it was not in the least bit original, and had all been thought before. I remember reading the remark and thinking that this must have been a kind of blindness on Quine's part. Sure, the philosophers who rejected the idea of a private language before Wittgenstein made the right move. But there is all the difference in the world between rejecting a theory — like the famous incident recorded by Boswell of Dr Johnson kicking a stone in order to refute Berkeleian idealism — because you are convinced by your gut feelings that the theory is wrong, and offering a philosophical argument which shows why the theory is wrong, and uncovers the source of the illusion that tempts us into holding the theory in the first place, which is what Wittgenstein did with his attack on the idea of a private language.

The 'indeterminacy of translation' and the 'inscrutability of reference' are two famous Quinian theses. There is nothing in Wittgenstein that is remotely like the claim that translations from one language to another are underdetermined by all actual and possible data (indeterminacy thesis), or that it is impossible to determine from the structural features of a given language which objects the singular terms of that language refer to (inscrutability thesis). The closest Quine comes to sounding like Wittgenstein is when characterizes the view he is arguing against as involving the picture of the mind as a Museum, with rows of exhibits each labelled with a different word. That is not a philosophical argument, however. It is mere rhetoric.

According to Wittgenstein's private language argument, there is no knowledge of 'objects' independent of a shared language and its resources for identity and individuation. According to Quine, the objects that exist in the universe are relative to our language. So, by changing our notion of identity, we change the way in which reality is carved up into objects. There is no 'absolute', language independent, list of the objects that 'really' exist. Reference is 'inscrutable'.

So, for example, in Quine's famous case of the rabbit, if you came across a tribe who used a word 'gavagai' which they used whenever we used the term 'rabbit', it would be possible in principle to offer an alternative, equally accurate translation according to which 'gavagai' was a term which referred to a 'rabbit part', or, alternatively, to a temporal 'slice' of a four-dimensional space-time rabbit.

Like Quine, Wittgenstein makes his point using an imaginary scenario. Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a person attempting to coin a word for an experience whose only impact on the world is in the mind of the subject whose experience it is, which cannot be accounted for or defined in terms of any concepts with which we are familiar.

In a similar way, you could pair off Wittgenstein's argument that there will always in theory be more than one way of interpreting the expression of a given linguistic rule, with Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. According to Quine, however much data you gather, it is conceivable that the sentence you have translated into English has an alternative, incompatible translation which is consistent with that data.

I am prepared to concede that in both cases, Quine and Wittgenstein are talking about the same thing. They are trying to get across the same idea. In my admittedly biased view, however, Quine's dialectical approach fails while Wittgenstein's succeeds.

Geoffrey Klempner


Gary asked:

What do moral and aesthetic notions like 'good' and 'bad', 'beautiful' and 'ugly', 'ordered' and 'confused' really signify according to Spinoza? And why do we use them?

For Spinoza, moral and aesthetic concepts are obscure "inadequate ideas" and cannot be true. A moral emotion or an aesthetic judgement is not arrived at scientifically, but is a response to the world, which Spinoza would say is a modification of the body. Because moral and emotional judgements are externally caused by something outside the body affecting the body, they do not belong within a system of logical thought and the concepts involved cannot be clarified logically. It follows that we cannot say what they really signify. This is not a drawback to Spinoza's theory, because it actually is the case that we don't have clear ideas of what we mean by beauty and good.

Because such concepts are inadequate ideas, they do not belong within a coherent system of thought and it follows from this that we cannot even say that moral and aesthetic judgements are true and false because, for Spinoza, the truth and falsity of propositions is determined by logical coherence with a system. Philosophers today grapple with the problem of trying to show how value judgements can be taken as true and Spinoza would have predicted that this is a waste of time.

Nor is it problematic that Spinoza gives no guidance as to how we might distinguish similar concepts, such as elegant and beautiful. We use each concept when a different impact has been made upon us and this doesn't admit of an explanation. On Spinoza's view there is no explanation of "inadequate ideas". Explanations are deductive. The philosophies of aesthetics and ethics are devoted to attempts to find definitions and explanations, without much success — as Spinoza would have predicted.

Because we use value concepts when there is an impact upon us from the outside world, it follows from Spinoza's metaphysics that there are attributes of things and events in the world which cause us to respond in a certain way. It is our body, which belongs to the causal chain of nature, which is affected. Because the mind is passive in respect to external events there is no logic in the mind to account for why we use "elegant" rather than "beautiful". When we use these terms we are caused to do so by the object. Furthermore, we do not even use a common term. Each person is affected by external causes differently: this brings problems for moral and aesthetic agreement, but allows for argument, of which there is more!

Rachel Browne


Charlotte asked:

What is the definition of a subjective motivational set? What role does this play in how we act? and can you please give me some help on Hume's view of whether we only do what we want to do, and names of any philosophers who may disagree with him.

In Notes From Underground Dostoevsky writes:

a man...likes to act as he chooses and not at all according to the dictates of reason...it is possible and sometimes positively imperative to act contrary to one's own best interests"

Hume's subjectivist account of ethics starts by looking at how we are motivated to act; we can reason that to do a is better than b, he says, but then act in a completely different way. The idea is that reason has no claim on telling us what to do unless we actually want it to, and there is no requirement of practical reason to act on the conclusion one arrives at. In other words, we need the presence of desires when we are motivated to act. A possible anti-Humean argument from theoretical reason might be this:

  1. It is true that P
  2. If P then Q
  3. Therefore Q

It seems wrong to invoke desires here; we do not conclude Q because we want to believe the logical consequence of our beliefs. It feels as though we are rationally constrained to conclude Q given the rule plus the truth of P. If this works theoretically, why not on the practical side? Hume is skeptical for the reason that ethical propositions are not like mathematical ones. The action guiding nature of morality is explained by the presence of attitude or feeling, itself constitutive of moral judgement. This is bedrock when we are subjectively motivated to act. The relevant passages are Hume's Treatise Book 2, part III, para 1 — 3 and Book 3, Part I, Part II, para 1 &2.

There are really two theses at work there: an argument that concludes that moral grounds are not sufficient to explain moral action, and that a desire is needed (where he finishes by saying that 'reason is the slave of the passions') The second thesis is that the basic source of action lies in the presence of an unmotivated desire or conative attitude; the answer to "why did you do that" boils down to "I wanted to...or...I felt like it". This argument concludes that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of your finger.

Phillipa Foot has put forward an argument against Thesis 1 (in 'Does Moral Subjectivism Rest on a Mistake' Oxford Journal of Legal Studies Vol.15): she claims that for the just person, certain considerations count as reasons for action; if one understands moral grounds/ reasons, nothing further is required to explain moral action. Foot thinks this can account for the action guiding nature of morality without invoking desires in Hume's fashion. Her move against Thesis 2 is to claim that recognising a reason gives us rational goals and this recognition is not based on some prior feeling or desire. You simply recognise the truth of the claim (e.g. it is a good idea to co-operate) and this is sufficient to explain why you do in fact co-operate.

A second move against Hume's theory of subjective desire-based motivation comes from Warren Quinn in 'Putting Rationality in Its Place". He thinks that if we regard our motives only as desires we happen to have, these do not give reasons for action. Reasons of the kind we want are not the same as rational ones to make sense of our actions. We can always ask whether acting on these desires is actually good; and we need an affirmative answer it the desires are to provide us with a reason for action. Desires, in other words, do not show us what we should do. This move tries to block the Humean starting point.

This is a little more moderate than the Kantian response, but is along the same lines (see my response to Sergey for an interpretation of Kant — I wanted to concentrate on contemporary responses here). Contemporary moral philosophers do not think, in general, that we can abstract completely from the partial point of view. For moral agency we need compassion and sympathy and so on; equally we fail to capture something important about morality if we simply accept the desires we happen to have as the real starting point.

My view is that it is a questionable proposition that the understanding (having reasons) is completely sufficient to account for all moral action; there is a real Dostoyevskean sense that one can understand the right thing to do and then act against it out of spite. Foot's essential move against the 'akratic' — the individual who succumbs to 'weakness of will' — is to say that such a person just doesn't understand the reasons properly if he then acts against them. This knotty problem is something you might like to consider further; I often wonder whether introspection is satisfactory in coming up with an answer to that question, however.

A. Gatward


Rute asked:

Is idealism the same as anti-realism? If not, What is the difference?

and Alan asked:

I have a question: do you think it is right to try and link realism/ anti-realism about truth to the philosophy of language and theories of meaning? I have been pondering this one for a while. I agree that when you say something is true, you can only mean that words have been used correctly or not. Is this subjectivism or is truth something else?

Part of this question has been dealt with in my answer to Johanna, on the eighth page of questions and answers.

I would characterize idealism as a theory concerning the nature of existence and anti-realism as a theory concerning the nature of truth. You can hold, or reject, either or both theories, so that there are four possible permutations altogether.

According to Berkeley's idealism, what we term 'material objects' are really ideas existing in the mind of God. To exist is to perceive or to be perceived. The entire universe consists in God — or, rather, God's infinite mind — and the finite 'spirits' that God has created, namely us. To use contemporary language, material objects like this desk or this keyboard, or the hands that I see typing these keys, exist in a 'virtual reality'.

In his paper 'The Reality of the Past' (reprinted in Truth and Other Enigmas) the British philosopher Michael Dummett describes a theory which rejects the view that statements about the past for which there is no effective decision procedure still have a truth value. The claim can be made about any subject matter. The past provides a particularly clear example. As the poet John Donne once wrote, in his 'Song':

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divel's foote...

Where are past 'facts', if there's no Recording Angel? If you believe that the truth is 'back there' irrespective of whether or not we can ever know about it, then you are a realist.

In these terms, Berkeley was a realist. He believed that the answers to questions about the past exist in God's mind even though we might never come to know those answers. By contrast, Dummett rejects Berkeleian idealism. He embraces the existence of material objects existing apart from the mind and its perceptions.

Much of my doctoral thesis was spent attacking the view that anti-realism is a thesis about the nature of meaning, and not just a thesis about the nature of truth. Talking to philosophers today, it is clear that the penny has still not dropped. There are in fact two claims which Dummett defends:

  1. Anti-realism entails a theory of meaning according to which the central concept is not that of truth but verification. The meaning of a statement is not its truth conditions, where truth is understood to be a property which a statement can possess regardless of our capacity to determine that it has that property. To know the meaning of a statement is simply to know the rules for its correct use.

  2. Anti-realism entails the refusal to accept the truth of the Law of Excluded Middle, P or not-P. It follows that the anti-realist must reject Classical logic.

Defenders of anti-realism who reject claim 1. still cling to claim 2. In other words, they still cling to the idea that there has to be some practical upshot of the rejection of realism. There must be something, they believe, that the realist is prepared to say (like 'Either Caesar thought of his father before crossing the Rubicon or he did not') which the anti-realist is not prepared to say.

They are wrong. The anti-realist is perfectly capable of making that statement. The anti-realist merely associates a different picture with the assertion of the excluded middle from the picture which the realist associates with it.

In that respect, anti-realism and Berkeleian idealism are on a par. There is no statement about the world which the idealist makes which the opponent of idealism is not prepared to make, or which the opponent of idealism makes which the idealist is not prepared to make. Idealists don't differ from in their empirical beliefs, or in their commitment to science. They don't differ in their logic. They don't differ in their theory of meaning. Like anti-realists, they differ in their metaphysic.

Geoffrey Klempner


Paula asked:

Is it possible for God to give certain benefits without the existence of evil being inevitable?

It is often assumed that a good God and evil can — indeed must — logically exist together. Valuable sentiments like compassion and tolerance can only exist in the face of evil events (whether natural evils or moral evils). So for some benefits to exist, there has to be evil.

A tradition that can be traced at least as far as St Augustine has denied that evil has an ontological status: evil is just the absence of goodness. For example, the world and man were created good. As Aquinas interprets Aristotle, doing evil actions is falling short of what one is supposed to be; so evil is just an absence of the good that God intended.

The logical issue can be captured in four simple propositions:

  1. God can do away with evil but won't
  2. God cannot do away with evil but would
  3. God can do away with evil and does
  4. God cannot do away with evil and wouldn't

The issue here is: How do we find a balance between defending God's omnipotence and defending his goodness in a way that is logically satisfactory? In the first case God is not good but is omnipotent, in the second he is good but not omnipotent...and so on.

If God omnipotently made us free he cannot make us always choose the good, so theists often argue. If freedom is the privilege that Christianity believes it is, then it is a benefit that does make evil inevitable. Logically, if you are free to choose good, you have to be able to choose the opposite — choose the non-good. The good cannot be forced. So evil is inevitable if we are to be free to fulfill God's plans. The assumption that freedom is the highest good for man is one that you might want to question (see 'The Grand Inquisitor' chapter from Dostoevsky's great novel The Brothers Karamazov).

If you believe we have libertarian free will you might think that God could never be responsible for the actions we choose since he has given us power to act in ways that cannot be controlled. Unfortunately this does not help, as if we really were free in this way it would no longer be possible to know for sure that the freedom really does outweigh the evils which are inevitable. God certainly couldn't control the actions to ensure that the freedom really was worth it. So God would have made a mistake. If you believe instead that we are free to act in accordance with our natures (i.e. assume a kind of causal determinism or liberty of indifference) then God can be held responsible for our natures and these natures he could change. The existence of evil would thus not be logically inevitable, whatever the metaphysical value of freedom.

The question as to why God could not create us free and such that we always choose the good is usually answered by saying that doing logical contradictions is something God cannot do, and that this does not constrain his omnipotence. If you go along with Descartes and think that an omnipotent being cannot be constrained by logic however, then the answer to your question would have to be 'yes' and we would have to wonder why God does not remove evil and maintain the benefit of freedom. It is fairly clear that God does not do this in our world, unless you constrain human understanding intolerably.

As J.L Mackie has argued in The Miracle of Theism, if I can choose the good today, then it must be logically possible for me to choose the good every day; the fact that I do not choose good every day implies that God is responsible for not bringing it about such that I always freely choose the good. So at the very least, God's goodness is open to question. These kinds of logical issues cause severe difficulties for a convincing defence of traditional theism in my opinion.

A. Gatward


Steven asked:

On the assumption that:

  1. God does exist.
  2. The universe did have a beginning.
  3. God created the universe

Why did God create the universe?

It is hard to think of a reason why God created the universe without making some suppositions about the character of God, his motivations, reasons and the like, which usually we only get through His revelation to us, which then gets us into religious metaphysical systems. Whatever reason God had for creating the universe would only make sense given some larger religious interpretation of the world, its purpose and our role in it.

Some religious groups claim that God created the universe as a reflection of his power and glory and created and created intelligent beings in order to appreciate and worship His greatness.

The problem with these religious pictures however is that they are at rock bottom egocentric. They explain very well why we are here and what role we have in the greater scheme of things, but they give us very little insight into the motivations of the Big Man, appealing to the old 'God works in mysterious ways' line.

We could give a non-religious reason, perhaps after an eternity of sitting around doing nothing God got bored and needed something to entertain him for a few trillion years. Or perhaps one day he was in the grip of existential doubt about the meaning of his own existence and decided to create the universe to give his life a purpose. But here again we are transferring human motivations on to God and we don't really get any answer to the question, just a trivial comedy sketch.

We can however approach the question more philosophically to try and get at the very heart of the nature of God. The religious answers are based on the assumption that God had a reason to create the universe. Well, this assumption may be wrong. Perhaps God didn't have a reason, perhaps he didn't even have a choice. Here's why:

The fact that God is a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good means that He could not fail to create the universe, because if he did not create it he would not be God. God, being omniscient knows that it is a better state of affairs that the universe exists than its not existing. Being omnipotent He can create the universe. And being wholly good he would do whatever was the best thing possible. Therefore, because of His very nature He had to create the universe. Of course this argument rests on the premise that it is better for the universe to exist than for it not to exist. If we forget about God for a minute, this premise would be open to debate, because if God does not exist then the existence of the universe would be a value-neutral fact. The universe would just be there, the result of physical processes without any moral reason for it being here rather than it not being there. Without God, the claim that it is better that the universe exists is a moral claim about what we think and some people may disagree with us.

But because God is wholly good, morality already has a foot hold in an explanation of the world. So for God to fail to create the universe would mean he does not do something which was the best thing to do.

This however only explains why God created something rather than nothing. There is a related and equally important question why God created this something, this universe rather than some other world — assuming of course that He could have created a different world. Again perhaps because of His nature he could not have created a world different from this one, perhaps to use Leibniz's term this is the 'best of all possible worlds'.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Stephen asked:

What is the purpose of life and why are we here?

Most analytic philosophers would approach this question by turning it round, and asking, What right do you have to assume that life has a purpose, or that there is any reason why we are here other than blind chance?

That assumes, wrongly in my view, that on a question as important as this one can be satisfied with a purely negative answer. If you can't say beforehand what the purpose of life is, then you can't prove that life has a purpose. If you don't know the reason why we are here, then you can't argue that there must still be reason. However, these sceptical moves do nothing to address the problem. One feels these questions as an urgent demand. To ask, 'What right have I to feel this way?' does nothing to lessen that feeling.

However, there is a more radical way of approaching this question, which we can illustrate with the aid of a thought experiment.

Suppose that there was an answer to the question of the purpose of life and why we are here, and it was in a book in front of you. This is, of course, just what some people believe. The book in which the answer is to be found is the Holy Bible. Or it might be the Koran, or some other sacred text. The trouble with the Bible, or the Koran is that the answer is there only for those who have faith, those who already know the answer, or feel that they do. I am supposing that the answer in our imaginary book is as clear as day. Anyone who reads the words will be instantly convinced, This is why we are here.

I want to suggest two reasons for doubt, which I find troubling.

We are to assume that life has a definite purpose. Human beings are here for a reason, and you are here for that same reason, or as part of that reason. Moreover, having read the book you now know what that reason is. As I said, it is as clear as day. This is a purpose, a reason, that you must acknowledge irrespective of your own prior interests and projects. The story of the Old Testament prophets, or of Jesus' disciples are vivid illustrations of just what this means in practice.

We see our own projects, the purposes we invent for ourselves, to be limited, we see through them. They don't answer the big question. All that is true. Yet I would argue that the belief that you were chosen to be part of some project that is bigger than you are, a project that doesn't end in the grave as your personal projects will, is not enough to answer that question either, if you are honest about it.

The reason is this. If you knew that someone had a plan for you, it would still be up to you to decide whether or not to go along with that plan. Even if that someone is God. For it surely could not be part of that plan to deny human beings freedom of choice and turn them into puppets. The decision is yours, it must be. With all that you know now, having read the book from cover to cover, the question of the purpose of your life is still a question, your question. And no book, no recipe, however clearly laid out can supply the answer.

That's one reason for doubt. And here's the other:

I have argued that you still have a decision to make. No factual knowledge about the ultimate purpose of life or why we are here can make that decision for you. But could there be such knowledge?

Your question is not simply why we are here but why I am here. When I ask this question myself, I have to consider, not just the possibility of a universe where we didn't exist, but a universe where I didn't exist. To consider this is not just to consider a universe where someone exactly like me didn't exist. In the imaginary book there is a master plan, and someone fitting my exact description is part of that plan. But there is still one fact which that book cannot explain, namely, why I am here. Anything that can be communicated in a book is just words, and all words can speak of is someone like me, someone fitting my exact description. There therefore cannot be a factual answer to the question, Why am I here?

— This might be considered one way of putting the case for an Existentialist response to your question.

Geoffrey Klempner


Katsu asked:

I don't understand Hobbes's answer to the following questions: What is war, why does it exist, and why do we need the state?

Hobbes thought that without some form of government humans would live in a 'state of nature'. Because of his views about human nature, Hobbes thought that this would be a terrifying, harmful, ugly, and dangerous existence for most people. Because in a world of finite and possibly scarce resources each person would strive as hard as they could to protect what they had and to gain more in order to provide for the future.

Inevitably in such a state conflict would arise. Each person would try to get what the other has, either to reduce the risk of the other taking their possessions, or. to ensure that they, themselves have enough to survive. This would be a state of war, what Hobbes called a 'war of all against all'. Hobbes did not mean that such a war would be a state of constant fighting and conflict, but rather the war would be one of constant readiness to fight, an ever vigilant existence one with not a moment's peace, always the possibility of death.

Now certainly individuals could form alliances in order to protect themselves against stronger aggressors. But what guarantee is there that they will not be betrayed for a stronger alliance with someone else? (this is a form of the prisoners dilemma). Trust could never be generated, any alliance would crumble and we would go back to killing each other.

So according to Hobbes, as long as there are individuals each competing against one another for their own benefit there will be war, and conflict and death. it is primarily the universal fear of death that leads to the formation of the state. But for Hobbes this cannot be just any kind of state, it must be one where individuals give up their freedom to do what they want (this is what causes the war in the first place) for the sake of self-preservation. Hobbes imagines the best state to be a commonwealth, headed by a supreme sovereign, who has the power and authority over all, because all have agreed to his being in control.

The war of all against all is over. Survival and the elimination of the prospect of death are guaranteed in the state. But only when individuals give up their freedom to a ruler who has the power to install the fear of death in everyone. The fear of death is still there, but at least in the state we know that death is not looming over our shoulders ready to strike at any time, only the sovereign has the power of death over us, and this is the only way, Hobbes thought, to ensure that stability and our survival could be preserved.

Now it may be objected that Hobbes is wrong in his account of human nature. People may not be intrinsically selfish and egocentric, but are rather socially amenable and co-operative. Locke and Rousseau have different conceptions of human nature, but all share the idea of individuals coming together to from a society. Hobbes may also be wrong about the need for a society. What if people do not have a fear of death, or are strong enough to protect themselves from any aggressor? (Hobbes does have answers to these objections, they centre around his notion of 'felicity', but that's probably another question!)

Another objection is that Hobbes misses out an essential part of human life, namely morality. Hobbes, it could be argued, is only concerned with prudence, not ethics.

However, Hobbes does talk about 'Laws of Nature' which have the air of morality about them, but which Hobbes thinks we only have a duty to obey if everyone else obeys them. That is when a state is established. In the state of nature we desire that everyone obeys the Laws of Nature, but because mutual obedience can never be guaranteed, actual obedience is so rare that we might as well say that morality per se is not achievable in the state of nature, but only once the commonwealth has been established.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Stephen asked:

I am interested in the theory of reincarnation and would like to find some info that is not sensationalized. Being a Christian (although not the televangelist fundamentalist type) I am at odds with my fellow believers on this subject. Is there any truth that reincarnation was a biblical teaching or at least hinted at before the Councils of Nicea etc, removed it?

Early Christians believed in reincarnation. A page dedicated to scriptural support for reincarnation can be found at http://www.near-death.com/experiences/origen3.html). Reference to reincarnation can certainly be found in the writings of the church fathers (e.g. Origen's De Principalis). Origen got the idea from the pre-Socratic philosophers Empedocles and Pythagoras, and it is a Platonic doctrine which with a number of other ideas from Plato was absorbed into Christianity (see my answer to Bernadette).

Reincarnation was officially banned by Justinian in the 6th Century. This was a long time after the Council of Nicea, although from 325 the doctrine was no longer official. Although many of Origen's ideas were declared heretical, his ideas were held to by certain mystical groups (e.g. the European sect known as the Cathars) into the 13th century until they were destroyed by the Pope and the ensuing Spanish Inquisition.

Early Christianity befell the same troubles as befall many other young movements whose original leaders are gone: some ideas were kept, some ideas were lost according to practicality and the choices of men. Reincarnation is not inconsistent with any saying that can be attributed to Christ, whatever attitudes have been taken to it since by the church.

A. Gatward


Joanna asked:

What is anti-realism?

First we have to get an idea of what realism is. Broadly, it is the view that reality is mind-independent. That the world is found rather than created. Anti-realism is the opposite view, that the world is created rather than found.

Now the problems come, when we try to say what it is that reality consists of, what are the things that exist independently of our (or any intelligent mind) thinking about them? Not everyone agrees about what things are actually in the world. For example, common sense tells us that physical objects are real. Tables and chairs would continue to exist independently of what we think about them, but what about abstract objects like numbers or Plato's Forms? Or what about pains? They are real, but are they mind-independent? What does realism about pains require? Is it that pains exist because I am aware of them, or am I aware of them because they are painful?

Or what about values, moral and aesthetic. Would the works of Dali be masterpieces if no one was around to look at them?

So we can be realist about many different kinds of things. The issue gets even more complicated because we can be realists about one aspect of reality and anti-realists about others. For example we can be realists about physical objects whilst being anti-realists about properties and relations. So if we did not exist there would be objects but perhaps there would be no colours or distances or causal relations between these objects.

And perhaps we can be realist about physical stuff, but anti-realists about tables and chairs. For if we did not exist would it even make sense to talk about tables and chairs? If there was nobody around to use these things there wouldn't be anything that would qualify as a table. Because a table is a social construct. There would be no such things as tables if people didn't use them.

The problem here is where to draw the line. if we are anti-realists about tables and chairs, why not be anti-realists about electrons, magnetism, elephants, or sunsets. 1 do not the answer, it is a problem that has been bothering me a long time: How much of the world is created by us and the way we think? Is the world found ready made, split into easy to use natural kinds of things that our ideas and languages simple refer to? Or is it the other way around, does our use of language mould the world into the ways we want it?

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Rafael asked:

What's the most important matter: love, good, truth, happiness? And, what is happiness? And love?

I think love is the most important thing that we should want because it lies deeply at the source of human need.

The importance of love can be seen in the following excerpts from Rollo May's book Love and Will:

Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is...being uninvolved, detached, unrelated to significant events...The interrelation of love and will inheres in the fact that both terms describe a person in the process of reaching out, moving toward the world, seeking to affect others...and opening himself to be affected; molding, relating to the world or requiring that it relate to him...Apathy is a gradual letting go of involvement until one finds that life itself has gone by.

If it is true that the opposite of love is apathy, then without love there can be no happiness or interest in good and truth.

Love as a form of being able to engage deeply with others is necessary to happiness. Rollo May says that most of his patients in analysis have not found love and the consequent emptiness they feel means that they become unable to love. They enter analysis in search of another source of happiness.

Plato's Symposium is devoted to the subject of love. Socrates asks "What is Love?" and quotes Diotima:

He is neither mortal no immortal, but mean between the two...He is a great spirit and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal...He is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides men and gods, and therefore in him all in bound together.

There have been answers on happiness in these pages before which you can look at. I think that it is the ability to feel joy.

Rachel Browne


Elizabeth asked:

What does the concept of original sin have to do with the distinction between body and soul? Does it have some connection to humans' dominion over animals?

In the Old and New Testaments of the Bible there is no distinction between body and soul as we usually understand it. The writers of the books of the bible — the Israelites — never saw the soul as distinct from the body, but rather the two were seen as a unified whole, a totality. The soul was the animated living body, the 'breath of life' and not an eternal, spiritual substance. This idea of the soul was adopted by the Christian world from the Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and found full treatment in the works of St. Augustine. This is also where the doctrine of Original Sin finds it's proper formulation.

Augustine thought that all humans, after Adam and Eve were born 'soiled by sin' and that this sin was passed along biologically via male semen. Some have taken this starting point and gone on to say that it is our physical bodies that are corrupted, that the result of Adam's sin was to introduce death into the world. Some even go so far as to say that matter, our physical bodies are inherently evil.

Others have, from the same starting point claimed that each person's soul (this time the eternal spiritual Soul) is stained by sin and that unless we seek forgiveness or have faith in the sacrifice of Jesus we will be condemned by God. Christians, specifically Catholics believe that via the sacrament of baptism the original stain of sin can be washed away, and then whatever we do after the baptism is our own responsibility and we can be judged by our own merits. St. Anselm who held this view also thought that God would condemn to hell all infants and babies who died before being baptised! Because they carried with them the stain of original sin. Even though the idea of Original sin is objectionable, morally and historically, and logically, perhaps the best way to focus all this is to say that when Adam sinned human nature was soiled. Before that humans were perfect, but after Adam sinned humans became imperfect, we were mortal and were condemned to death.

Now human nature, that which we all have in common, is where Adam's sin takes effect and these effects are both physical and spiritual. Physical in that we die, spiritual in that we are no longer perfect. The point is that we do not have to think in terms of an eternal soul that carries the sin, in order to make sense of the idea of original sin. (Although with, or without a soul the idea of original sin is difficult to make sense of anyway.) On the point about humans' dominion over animals, I do not think that it is connected to Original sin, because in the Genesis story of the Fall God gave Adam control over the land and the animals before he sinned, and 1 do not think it says anywhere that God revoked such an arrangement because of Adam's sinning.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


John asked:

Why have there been no female philosophers? I was surprised to find no similar question in your archives. I do have a couple of theories: 1. Women have just recently been able to change their roles and were, unfortunately, not encouraged to pursue such activities/careers. 2. The all-male society of philosophers fails to recognize women such as Ayn Rand as philosophers. (She most certainly considered herself as such).

It isn't true that the 'society of philosophers' is all-male; there are plenty of women working in philosophy who have produced work every bit as important as male philosophers. Simone de Beauvoir, Suzanne Langer, Martha Nussbaum, Phillipa Foot and a number of others spring to mind immediately. There are fewer women working in philosophy, but I should think that this true of most academic subjects. This might well be reasonably put down to changes in attitude towards women in the last century, and we should hope that attitudes to women will continue to become more liberal in all areas of life.

Ayn Rand is not recognised as a philosopher by other philosophers not because she was a woman in a male-dominated subject but because, in their view, she was just bad at philosophy. The first page of Ayn Rand's book on Epistemology is enough to show that she was not a philosopher. I think that the female philosophers I mentioned above would certainly agree with that estimation.

A. Gatward

I think your first theory on why there have been no female philosophers is correct. If you find women who, in the past, have been philosophers, I expect you will find they were rich and/or childless.

It unlikely to be the case that a "male dominated society of philosophers" have failed to recognise female philosophers simply because they are female. Philosophy may be dominated historically by men, but women are well recognised today. If a philosopher is not recognised it does not mean that he/she is not a good philosopher. It is probably that he/she addresses issues which are not popular, or they receive inadequate publicity.

There do seem to be fewer female than male philosophers, and perhaps women find philosophy too abstract. Perhaps there is a certain personality type which is attracted to the abstract which is mainly to be found in men. Antony Storr in Human Aggression has suggested that two philosophers — Descartes and Schopenhauer — had schizoid personalities: cold, aloof, superior and detached. It would be a plausible suggestion to say that this type is likely to be attracted to analytical philosophy. However, Kant is well known to have been sociable and very likeable. So that falsifies that!

On Nietzsche's account (and Freud and probably many others) a woman would only be a philosopher if she goes against her nature, and there are more natural than unnatural women. That could be it!

Rachel Browne


Enrique asked:

What exactly is pragmatism? How is it different from other philosophical currents?

Originally Pragmatism was intended as a method for clarifying the meaning of our concepts, through examining the practical effects of the use of the concepts. Then through the works of William James Pragmatism became known as a theory of truth, where the criterion of the truth of a belief was the usefulness or expediency of the belief.

Today however, pragmatism can be seen as an attempt to talk about philosophical issues and problems in a different way than they are traditionally approached. There are a number of methods adopted by pragmatists in order to do this, but these methods are not unique or exclusive to pragmatism and it is interesting to see where pragmatism shared insights with such philosophers as Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida.

But Iet's concentrate here on the motivations pragmatists have in wanting to dissolve traditional philosophical problems.

From it's earliest days, beginning with C.S. Peirce, there has been resistance to the systems of Plato, Descartes and the seemingly intractable issues raised by them, such as the distinctions between appearance and reality, the subjective and the objective, facts an values, knowledge and scepticism. Pragmatists do not like these dualisms, and don't even like to set the problems of philosophy in terms of these distinctions. They would sooner get rid of this way of looking at things and to use Rorty's terms 'develop more useful Vocabularies'.

Why? Because these dualisms are according to pragmatists out of date, ambiguous, obscure, unuseful and perhaps even dangerous — in that they hinder proper progress. Pragmatists want to persuade us to stop thinking of the problems of philosophy in this way. This is because of the importance Pragmatists place on the Primacy of Practice. The way we use beliefs and facts in order to get by in the world.

Going back to the traditional problems of philosophy, there is a distinction between theory and practice, between knowing something and doing something. We can know something about the world without actually being in the world. From here it is possible to draw another distinction that gets us into trouble: we can, for example, imagine that the world is different from what we actually think we know about it. This is the appearance/ reality distinction, which can lead to scepticism. And that is generally considered to be a bad position to be in.

However for the pragmatists there is no distinction between theory and practice. Beliefs and knowledge are put to work, we use them to negotiate in and around the world. We call a belief true and gain knowledge when the beliefs we have successfully work in that we are able to achieve our aims and purposes. Therefore there is no distinction between facts and values either, because what aims we have, what we find useful and good will determine what facts and truths there will be in the world. This also means we can avoid scepticism.

Scepticism means that if we have reason to doubt any one of our beliefs we also have reason to doubt them all. We could never be certain any of our beliefs were true and we could not know anything. For Pragmatists however, doubt requires as much justification as belief, the reason we come to doubt one of our beliefs is if it fails to perform well in helping us in our purposes. We call a belief false when it is unuseful But this does not mean we have to call into question the validity of our entire set of beliefs. Instead of scepticism, pragmatism is characterised by its appeal to Fallibilism. It is also a form of Holism, preferring a. coherence theory of justification of beliefs rather than a correspondence theory as found in Plato and Descartes.

So we have some idea of the defining characteristics of pragmatism. First there is the importance of the primacy of practice in explaining notions of truth and reality and the possibility of knowledge. Pragmatism also denies that there is a distinction between facts and values. It is anti-sceptical and adopts fallibilism. But there are connections here with what Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein say, and these philosophers are not usually referred to as pragmatists, so what is the difference between pragmatists and these others? I think it is an interesting question and not a simple one, because of the influences they have on each other. However I think we would have to say that it is the Primacy of practice that separates pragmatism from it's close relations, the idea that what is useful for us will influence what truths there will be.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Andrew asked:

Why is it that the people whom we care the most about take us for granted?

I don't think the people we care about always take us for granted. When they do so it is often because we allow them to do so.

Often, the people we care about most take us for granted because they know we love them. To an extent we should want them to take us for granted because if they don't they will constantly be asking for reassurance — which is annoying. A person who loves wants the objects of their love to feel secure, and if the loved one doesn't feel secure the person who loves doesn't feel their expression of love is adequate.

There is a difference between genetic family relations and marital ones. In genetic family relations there is always a tie or bond — which cannot be denied — and this enables one to take love for granted. This is what makes family relations (when they are not dysfunctional!) so easy. In marriage there is the constant possibility of divorce — at least these days — and it is dangerous on one level to take love for granted. Where there is not genetic bond, it is important to try to continue to be a person worthy of love and not to take love for granted. Yet, to an extent, you have to take love for granted because this the basis of trust. If you don't trust your partner, you can fall into possessiveness and jealousy which is ruinous to a loving relationship.

So perhaps the people we most care about take us for granted because they don't want to annoy us, they trust us and know that we love them.

Rachel Browne


Bernardo asked:

How do beliefs about the world, and beliefs about what is valuable, influence the pursuit of knowledge?

First, beliefs about what is in the world will influence what Kinds of knowledge we pursue. For example, if we believe that morality is a social phenomenon we will not try to formulate meta-ethical arguments to prove that there is an objective reason why people should act morally. Or if we think that reality is the product of God's handiwork we will not inquire into the processes that caused the Big Bang. (Note that the Pope recently said that he does not mind scientists working on cosmology, but that they should not research into the time before the Big Bang.) We would do none of these things simply because it would never occur to us that they were required. The point is that facts and values are mutually dependent. The fact that we value our children means that we want to know which child-rearing methods provide the best results. We are interested in which mushrooms are poisonous because people don't want to be poisoned.

Second the beliefs we have about how the world is will influence the actual process of acquiring knowledge if we believe that the world is a certain way, e.g. that it is fully explainable in scientific terms. Or if we believe that we can only understand the world phenomenologically or religiously then we will consult the appropriate source when we want to know something.

If however, we are pluralists, in that we think that there is no one way the world is, no absolute description of the world, then we will be happy to consult any number of sources: priests, scientists, philosophers, house wives, TV show hosts. Each of which will be equally valid. Sartre, for example, talks about a young man who is debating whether to join the resistance or to stay with his elderly mother. The man went to Sartre because he knew (more or less) what Sartre would say. if he had been a Catholic he would have gone to a priest, if he had been a utilitarian, he would have consulted the works of Mill. The point is that we seek out in the world evidence for what we already believe. There are no purely independent facts that describe the way the world is. Any basic statement about the world can only be understood against a set of background assumptions and theories (this is a real big Issue in the philosophy of science and the realism/ anti-realism debate).

But this leads to a third aspect, namely the important question of if and how our beliefs actually influence what facts about the world there will be. If we thought about the world differently would the world be the same or would it change? Would there still be elephants if we did not have the concepts of animals, mammals, Africa?

Perhaps an initial answer would be that although the facts about the world remain the same, our interpretation changes. But this would require more to be said about what constitutes a fact and how we could identify facts as theory independent. However we approach the world, it is always with presuppositions and background beliefs.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Jaime asked:

"If determinism were true, it would be compatible with freedom?" Any suggestions?

This sounds like an essay question. Since we don't want to write essays for people, here's an approach that assumes you know something about the topic already.

Question1. Does acting freely require being able to act differently?

Let 'S' denote a subject, 'x' some action, and 't' a time. Imagine this possible scenario:

S chooses to x at t, and does so; but if he had not chosen to x at t, a neurosurgeon would have intervened and altered his brain to make him do x at t.

If so, when S chooses x at t, he could not have acted differently at t.

If so, S's acting freely at t does not require S to have been able to act differently at t.

So, it is sufficient for S's action to be free that S's doing x at t is brought about by his reasoning at t. It does not matter whether or not he could have acted differently at t.

Question 2. What if the neurosurgeon not only intervened by giving S the choice, but by giving him the mental states that reasoned to that choice? In what sense is action x now not the result of S's deliberation?

A problem highlighted here is that even for someone who says that freedom is compatible with determinism, the outcome of a choice is determined by one's prior mental states and dispositions. It is true that S has the free choice whether or not to marry a blonde woman for example, but if S was never the sort to marry a blonde woman in the first place, he will never make that choice.

How far you want to push the compatibilist line is up to you. The main issue is, Is the distinction between free and unfree actions robust enough for that kind of freedom to be worth having?

Question 3. Here is a Strawsonian argument (from P.F. Strawson's British Academy Lecture 'Freedom and Resentment' reprinted in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays) to think about:

  1. Adopting a deterministic view compels one to adopt an 'objective attitude' towards people and events.

  2. If one adopts an objective attitude to people, one cannot reason with them. Rather we would treat them as objects to be manipulated.

  3. It is not rational to adopt the objective attitude to persons, as our lives would be worse for it.

  4. So, It is not rational to adopt the deterministic view even if determinism is in fact true.

The idea is that reason compels us to adopt reactive attitudes towards people — feel affection, praise and blame. What are the strengths/ weaknesses of that argument?

Question 4. If your choice is determined in the sense of being in the power of your practical reasoning, consider whether this is a necessary condition for free choice.

If you are a realist, your beliefs are determined to some extent by the way things are. So is the problem that we feel free all the time in making our choices, but this belief in itself does not show that we are free?

— These are some possible avenues to pursue.

A. Gatward


Rosa asked:

Why does Sartre say that we are "condemned to be free"?

Why don't utilitarians think that their position is degrading to human beings?

Part 1: Why does Sartre say that we are "condemned to be free"?

Imagine a criminal in front of a judge and jury, explaining that because of his abusive childhood, and poor social conditions it is not his fault that he became a criminal. As a character witness he has his Freudian therapist beside him. Or imagine someone saying that a person has a cowardly temperament and is therefore unable to stand up to bullies. — Sartre hated this kind of description of people, and he hated Freud even more. For Sartre, there are no excuses for our actions. If the Freudian went to Sartre and said, “It's not the man's fault he did this but the pressures of society, his upbringing, his genetic heritage,” Sartre (a boxer, in his university days) would probably smack him.

There are no excuses because we are free, free absolutely and entirely, free to think, believe, feel, desire, do and choose what we want. We are free because we belong to what Sartre calls Being-For-Itself or (roughly) consciousness. Being-For-Itself is contrasted with Being-In-Itself or (roughly) matter. Now, matter is entirely and essentially deterministic and subject to causal laws, whereas consciousness is not subject to any kind of determinism, internal or external. The past, my personality, my circumstances, my genetic endowment, other people, my own body, none of these things will or can determine what I do. Of course I cannot jump over the moon, but this is a limitation of the being-in-itself, of which my body is a part, and not the result of causal laws acting on my consciousness. I am free to choose what I want.

This is the ultimate kind of freedom, the freedom to create myself. In other words, consciousness is self-determining. Whatever it does originates from itself. Everything is permitted and nothing is unavoidable. And so Sartre thinks we are also absolutely responsible for whatever we do. This freedom is unavoidable and inescapable. To be conscious is to be free. That is what Sartre means when he says we are condemned to be free. Whatever we do is an exercise of our freedom.

But we should not think that this means that freedom is the essence of being conscious. Sartre is explicit that being-for-itself has no essence. It is not defined by what it is but what it will be, in the future. The freedom to choose is not the essence or defining feature of consciousness, but rather it is the choices that are made, which allow us to say what we will be (not what we are).

Of course we can escape our freedom, by becoming unconscious, we can faint or pass out, or even commit suicide. But why should we want to? Sartre says, rightly I think, that this conception of freedom and responsibility is frightening and leads to anguish. Anguish leads to the recognition that we are free but it also troubling and disturbing and so we want to be rid of it. Sartre says that we do this by thinking of the being-for-itself as a being-in-itself. In other words, we think of ourselves as subject to the laws of determinism, influenced by our past and our psychology.

Part 2: Why don't Utilitarians think that their position is degrading to human beings?

Many people think that Utilitarianism is inadequate as a moral theory because it disregards the interests of individuals. The principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is argued, would allow us to walk over individuals and minorities, to use them in order to achieve the greater good. Other objections are that it ignores the intrinsic value of people and that it sacrifices personal relationships for the sake of impartiality. And on Utilitarian grounds it does not matter how the greatest good is distributed over the greatest number, so that while some people may be living like kings others may be only moderately happy, or even that the best situation would be a large amount of people each having only a minimum level of happiness, but when added up would fulfil the greatest happiness principle.

Now Utilitarians have an answer to these problems, a really simple answer actually. it is that if these consequences did really occur and did make people unhappy then Utilitarianism explicitly says that we should not perform the actions that would lead to these unwanted consequences. In other words, the best way to be a Utilitarian would be to act as if we were not Utilitarians. Or to make this sound a little less self-defeating, if the greatest good for the greatest number was better achieved by promoting respect for individual persons, taking into account personal relationships and the rest then this, as good Utilitarians is what we would have to promote.

The problem is then why should we consider ourselves Utilitarians at all? Why not bite the bullet and say that the promotion of the greatest good for the greatest number leads to unwanted consequences so we should abandon it for a more absolutist ethic?

One problem with this approach is that we have conflicting intuitions. On the one hand we think that personal relationships are important and should be maintained, and on the other hand morality seems to require us to adopt an impartial standpoint and treat everyone equally.

To make it worse I do not think we can settle the matter empirically. We could not test out both intuitions and see which state of affairs was best. The only way forward would be philosophical argument and this is what got us into the problem in the first place!

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Sean asked:

Is justice an unobtainable ideal?

I think we have to accept that justice is an unobtainable ideal. It would be good to answer that real life situations bear upon immediate facts, taking no account of theory, and all that is needed is for politicians to pay more regard to philosophical theory. However, philosophers themselves have not conclusively settled what justice is. Justice is a concept with a breadth of meaning: There is justice as virtue in the views of Plato, justice as the law which supposedly pronounces on and punishes morally right and wrong actions, and social justice which is political. I suppose you are interested in the latter.

Social justice itself needs to be defined. A lot of people — but not necessarily most people or most theorists — believe a system of justice should aim at equality. Other people, and theorists, think that justice is tied to notions of rights and deserts. Within the wide concept of justice are other concepts which are used to define justice, such as equality, rights, needs, deserts, and these narrower concepts are not compatible with one another.

The theories of two philosophers, John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia) exemplify the problem of definition. Rawls sees justice as fairness and equality, Nozick as rights and deserts, or more specifically "entitlement". Both views are problematic. For instance, Rawls wants inequalities to be arranged so that they benefit the disadvantaged, but he also wants equality of opportunity. The problem is that many people have no "opportunities" and benefits may not provide adequate balance: Consider an unemployed person who receives money from the state but is bored and depressed, has no particular talents, and recognises no opportunities. This person is simply disadvantaged. Furthermore, if inequalities are arranged to benefit the disadvantaged, the advantaged will not regard themselves as advantaged at all — and in all societies there are persons who want to be advantaged if they can. In theory fairness and equality seem to define justice, but in reality this doesn't cohere with human nature.

Nozick's theory of entitlement is based on deserts and rights and he thinks that any more than the minimal interference from the state will interfere with these. On this theory, there is no protection of the needy unless the old idea of idea of virtue of the individual, or charity, is relied upon. In reality, the needy aren't keen on charity from the richer individual because it confirms a lower status. Government interference is less obnoxious, since a government is seen as protecting people's interests rather than standing as a superior body.

In reality, there will never be equality of opportunity because there is no equality of ability which provides the means to grasp opportunities. Again, if justice is based on deserts and rights, there will be no equality.

This is not just a philosophical problem: It's not simply that we don't know what justice is. It is a problem with mankind. Rousseau said:

The first man who having enclosed a piece of land thought of saying “This is mine” and people found he was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Beware of this impostor”.

But others followed suit and probably would again.

Rachel Browne


Jason asked:

Who is the most widely read philosopher? Does this popularity have any correlation with the truthfulness of their ideas?

I think that possibly Plato is the most read philosopher, yet he hated democracy mainly because he was sceptical that the majority know best. Was he right?

As a science student, I was also wondering that because philosophers seem to disagree a lot (which is very important for the subject), how does a philosophy Ph.D. student graduate when the examiners may have very different opinions of the integrity of the thesis? Science papers are less subjective because of the power of experimental data. Therefore is science the only reliable way to understand the world since it seems easier to convince other scientists of theories?

I seem to have millions of original philosophical ideas, please tell me how can I find out if they are good or rubbish? The majority say rubbish.

If Plato was right in thinking that the majority do not always know best, then it does not follow from the fact that Plato is the most popular or most read philosopher that his ideas are any more true than the ideas of less popular and less read philosophers.

Of course, the reverse doesn't follow either. Just because a philosophy is popular doesn't mean that it can't be true. Sometimes the majority are right.

I am assuming for the sake of discussion that a philosopher is more popular or widely read in proportion to the number of people who believe that his/her ideas are true. That is not always the case either. To give one controversial example, I would think that more people read Nietzsche because of the brilliance of his writing and the provocativeness of his questions than because they believe that he was right in the answers he gave to those questions.

You say that the majority say that your ideas are rubbish. They may be right. Or they may be wrong. The question is, How do you find out either way?

To determine whether or not a philosophical idea is 'true', you don't simply take a vote: “I think it is rubbish”, “I think it is brilliant”, “I can't make up my mind”. You test it out. You argue your case. At the end of the day, you are the one that's got to make the decision. You might succeed in persuading the majority, but one lone voice of criticism succeeds in sparking doubts in your own mind, and you end up abandoning your idea. Or you might find that you are making no headway in persuading others to accept your idea, but none of the others succeed in providing arguments which persuade you to abandon it.

That may not seem much comfort to the philosophy PhD student facing a hostile panel of examiners. I feel sorry for PhD students — and I am sure there are more than a few — who feel that they are obliged tailor their ideas and theories to what they believe the examiners will find agreeable. For that is not the standard for academic success or failure. The standard is not whether a thesis is thought to be true, but whether a case has been made, whether the ideas are sufficiently original, and whether the arguments put forward in support of those ideas are sufficiently strong, to be worthy of debate.

However, the notion of what is or is not 'worthy of debate' raises a more troubling issue. The heart of your question concerns the vivid contrast between a thesis, say, in chemistry or physics, which in arguing its case has to account for the experimental data, and a thesis in philosophy where there are no experimental data. Philosophical ideas which do not fit in with current academic fashions are more vulnerable to being extinguished simply because there is nothing to fall back on.

I don't agree with you that science is 'the only reliable way to understand the world' because I would argue that the difference between the influence of subjective factors in science and their influence in philosophy is only relative, not absolute. It is a crude misunderstanding of the reality of scientific research to suppose that the production of experimental data is, in itself, a proof of objectivity. I suggest you read Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Feyerabend's Against Method, to get a flavour of the case against the view that scientific method is a guarantee of 'objective' or 'reliable' knowledge.

Geoffrey Klempner


Katja asked:

Are our truths obscured by the language in which we express them?

It is possible that a truth may be obscured by language. If, for example, I tried to explain relativity theory in my very poor Spanish, it is very likely that all truth would be obscured. But this is because I am very bad at Spanish, not because the truth is inexpressible.

The confusion that lies at the heart of this question is, I think, the idea that language sometimes seems incapable of expressing what we think we really mean. If I was to write an intimate letter to someone I loved, I might feel that the words were insufficient to express my feelings; that language falls short of what I really mean.

However, to say that language doesn't do justice to my feelings is not the same as saying that any truths are 'obscured'. The assumption seems to be that we have a language of thought, which we translate into a public language, so that other people may understand us. And we feel that sometimes our translation is less than perfect. Wittgenstein's assault on the idea of a private language is probably the most famous and most important single arguments in twentieth century philosophy, but I don't think it is entirely necessary to go over it in too much detail. (see Geoffrey's answer to Adam). All we need ask ourselves is "What does a thought consist in, before it existed in expression?" (Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para 335). I.e. what might a truth look like if it wasn't expressed in language? And how might we distinguish this from nothing at all?

Wittgenstein cites the (probably apocryphal) story of a French politician who wrote that the french language was special because the words are spoken in the order in which one thinks them. If one has only a basic grasp of another language, speaking it is a process of translating from one language into another. But speaking in the language that one knows best, there is no translation. There is little point in trying to 'watch what we do when we talk'; just think back to the times when you are having an argument for example. Did you have the thought first then find the words to express it? Sometimes we look for the right words, but often we just talk, sometimes with bad consequences.

Therefore: It is possible that language may obscure a truth, but only if we don't understand the language. Language is the vehicle of truth: the only things of which it is correct to say are true or false are propositions, (usually sentences, sometimes mathematical etc.). To be true it must be possible to be communicated, it must be public.

Will Greenwood

Language is supposed to express truths insofar as our concepts map the world as it is for us. Language is social and intersubjective, so that if some sort of truth is obscured it is objective truth or purely subjective truth. We cannot move outside our conceptual scheme to objective truth since as Bernard Williams has said there is no non-perspectival absolute conception of the way things are.

Discussions about truth normally focus on intersubjective and objective truth, but Jacques Lacan (heavily influenced by Heidegger) has argued that entry into language alienates a person from subjective truths. Before entering into a language there are drives and desires which cease to exist in consciousness once a person becomes a language user. The initial stage in becoming a language user is to recognise objects, which are the non-subjective, and as consciousness becomes filled with awareness of objects, drives and desires subside into the unconscious. This has led to the Cartesian position that “I” am a thinking subject, and then the Kantian position that there is no “I” but only thoughts. Later on, Freud found that he could access truths about a subject which the subject himself, who uses thought (and cannot move outside language) was unable to get in touch with.

Rachel Browne

I remember writing in a thesis that 'plain language is inadequate at expressing subjective states'. By this I meant that we are often more directly acquainted with what psychological states 'feel like' when we listen attentively to expressive music (say) than when we just talk about them. Retrospectively, I think I got it seriously wrong in the following sense (although right from an aesthetic standpoint!).

Preceding his 'Private Language Argument' at para 241 of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein suggests that the existence of rules governing how we use language in order to communicate with one another depends on agreement in human behaviour. For example consider the uniformity in human reactions which makes it possible make someone look at something by pointing at it. How do they know when I point at a table and say 'table' that I am referring to the name of the object rather than its colour or its size? How do you know? How do I know?

Some philosophers are tempted to think that numbers and sensations are absolutes which force upon us rules for the use of their words. These truths are distinct from the words in which they are expressed. Our words refer to objects or to ideas in the head.

Wittgenstein suggests that all this is illusory: you might think that 'pain' is something you feel directly and give a name, and that the rules for the use of the word are subsequently determined by the sensation itself. But this is illusory because the word pain (and so your concept 'pain') derives its logical identity only from a shareable practice of expression, reaction, and use of language. If 'pain' were a metaphysical absolute then the possibility of shared practice would be irrelevant to the concept 'pain'. The nature of 'pain' would be revealed in the mental act of naming it; the word pain would stand as a mark for it and as you suggest would not tell you (would obscure) what 'pain' is like.

It is a broadly Lockean idea that interpersonal verbal communication works by translation of internal mental vocabularies into sounds, accompanied by our hearer's re-translation of these sounds into her own mental vocabulary. So like Descartes, one could talk to oneself about one's experiences while claiming to be justified in saying that one does not know anything about the existence of an external world (for example) until one has produced an argument. Sharing must be irrelevant to the meanings of words.

These examples imply that the vehicle of my musings could be private — that it is conceivable that my knowledge and understanding could be confined to my own case. This holds especially true of Descartes, where in raising a skeptical question — if not to be self-defeating — he must hold that it is possible to identify experiences inwardly without relying on resources supplied by his essential embodiment in a world whose existence is independent of his mind and is accessible to others (which is precisely what he doubts!).

Wittgenstein's line is that the meaning of an expression is what we understand when we understand the expression properly; understanding consists in knowing the expression's use across the variety of contexts in which the expression occurs. Knowing its use is having an ability — the ability to follow rules for the expression's use in different 'language games'.

This is not a mysteriously 'inner' truth that language obfuscates when we attempt to express ourselves; it is not grasping a calculus which objectively imposes standards of truth which we then express to others. It is simply a practice embedded in customs and agreements in a community. It is essentially public. To follow a rule correctly is to conform to established practices. We acquire the ability to use words by our training as community members.

On this basis therefore our words do not obscure our truths — they anchor us to the world. What other 'truth' could there be (however restricted your notion of truth) that was not expressible in the form of a proposition? Whatever truths there are could only be known to us in the language that we use. The standard of correctness would be agreement among a community, since it is only through the publicity of language that we have a notion of 'truth' to begin with.

A. Gatward


Rosa asked:

Why does Marx reject religion? Why does Nietzsche reject Christianity? Why does Freud reject God?

Marx, Freud and Nietzsche all began from a rejection of Christianity, religion and God. It should be noted that Freud and Marx are concerned more with the psychological and social origins of religious ideas respectively, not with their truth content. Nietzsche's philosophy is the more devastating because at times he rejects the idea of moral truth altogether.

1. Marx saw a link between religion and society: if you change society, religion becomes unnecessary. Marxism combines the following two aspects: a sociological account of religion which shows religion to be dependent on social and economic relations, and a view that religion is alienation which will disappear in an socialist society. He argues for the first by claiming that the history of humanity is one of class struggle, ruled by the morality of private property . Moral, political and religious values are governed by social structures of production, exchange and exploitation.

This reflects the dominance of the upper classes — the owners of production processes who exploit their workers' labour by keeping the surplus value produced for themselves. The product of labour is 'alienated' — separated from the workers and interpreted through the capitalist machine.

Religion is also a form of alienation to be explained in terms of social conditions. The state produces religion and this causes in man "inverted world-consciousness". Unjust social conditions (the exploitation of workers by the ruling classes) produces religion as something people turn to so they can feel hope. Religion in turn also keeps the social conditions alive by the consolation it can offer. Revolution brings social change, but in the grip of religion, society will not revolt. Religion is ineffectual as it diverts attention from the harsh realities of everyday existence and concentrates on the promise of an afterlife. It is, as Marx puts it, 'the opium of the masses'.

2. Freud's idea of God is that He is a magnified form of the human father. In his Totem and Taboo lectures of 1912, Freud explains the origin of religion: religious activities are an expression of neurosis. In primitive ages, he suggests that humans lived in small groups each protected by a dominating father figure who owned all the females. The sons were driven out and killed when they made the father jealous. So they joined into a group and killed the father and shared his power. The struggles that took place taught them the futility of quarreling which brought about a new way of organising society and the in first taboos forbidding incest, Memory of the father — feared and admired — was preserved in the ritual of sacrifice (the totem). Behind totemism therefore is the Oedipus complex secretly at work — attachment to the mother and a death wish to the father.

Freud also believed that Moses had been murdered by the Hebrews (see Moses and Monotheism) and the memory of this was repressed until it appeared in the neurotic teachings of the prophets. The story of Christianity is thus the death of the Son to atone for crimes against the father. Immortality, retribution and the hereafter are "representations of our psychical interior".

3. When Nietzsche called himself an 'immoralist' he announced his opposition to Christian morality. The Church, he claims, has always insisted on the worthlessness of things in this world because of their transiency. It concentrates instead on the hereafter in which virtues will be rewarded and vices punished. This he regards as plainly offensive: it is inimical to happiness and also to survival. That which is not 'life enhancing' — i.e. moral ideas of equality, tolerance and altruism — Nietzsche treats with elaborate condemnation. He despises all forms of mediocrity — and this is how he views Christians.

Nietzsche is at his most interesting in his claim that the world is morally neutral; in Twilight of the Idols he writes:

The moral judgement has this in common with the religious judgement, that each believes in a reality which does not exist. Morality, which is only an interpretation — or better a misinterpretation — of certain phenomena...belongs to a stage of ignorance at which the concept of reality, of any distinction between imaginary and real is lacking.

A. Gatward


Royce asked:

What do you think of the status of academic philosophy? Is it relevant? accessible to the rank and file? Do academic philosopher-practitioners work in a highly insular environment detached from the "real world"?

(Note: On occasion, very good books appear in the lay press which tackle difficult subjects and treat the subject matter in digestable understandable terms. . . examples: Ian Hacking and Rorty.)

With the passage of time, I find it harder and harder to understand what makes an academic philosopher tick. As a graduate student at Oxford I thought I knew it all. I was up there. I knew where the action was. I read the latest articles and attended the biggest seminars. We were hounds in pursuit of truth, and truth had nothing to do with disseminating knowledge that the non-academic public can appreciate or make any sense of, still less with practical utility.

The first thing to understand about academic philosophy is that it is a group activity. You can't be an academic philosopher on your own, without students or colleagues. The search for truth is seen as a collective effort of argument and debate rather than the product of the inspiration of isolated individuals.

The second thing to understand about academic philosophy is that it is founded in hard, economic reality. Academic departments of philosophy exist in order to provide employment for philosophy PhD's who want to make a career out of their vocation.

The third thing to understand about academic philosophy is that to keep your job, you must be seen to be producing 'research'. It is not enough to be a good teacher. Research is anything that you can persuade an editor of an academic philosophy journal or book publishing house to publish. Work which you can't get published is so much waste paper.

Academics who have succeeded in getting tenure regularly bleat about the plight of young philosophers who can't find jobs, or who find jobs but can't keep them. In reality, the system is founded on massive waste. The waste of talent of all those who fail to make it to the gravy train, as well as the wasted time and effort devoted to maintaining one's status and place there.

Despite this, the best academic philosophers have produced, and continue to produce work of solid quality. My own bookshelves are lined with books by academic philosophers. To say that the cause of philosophy is not best served by the current, wasteful system is not to deny that good comes out of it.

Is there a better way? I like to think my way is better, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? The Sophists of Ancient Greece suggest an alternative model of how things might be conducted. The internet provides the forum — the contemporary equivalent of the Athenian marketplace — where, if you have something to say, you say it. You don't have to be admitted to the Academy. There are no editors or faculty boards to please. If others find value in what you have to offer, word gets out.

I don't know if this structureless, potentially anarchic system can ultimately be made to work in the cause of philosophy, or if it will work against it. The experiment has only just begun. Ask me again in a few years time.

Geoffrey Klempner


Harpreet asked:

Can you prove you exist? Can you prove that others exist? Am "I" or "you" defined by essence or by existence?

I think there are two strands to your question; a skeptical one about the existence of minds (including our own mind) and a more controversial one about personal identity. The first is concerned with whether we exist, the second with what kind of existing things we are.

Do I exist? Descartes suggested that it is particularly senseless to doubt that I exist because doubt simply confirms that I do — I think therefore I am, as he puts it. Whatever I don't know about the world, I do know that it contains the thinking thing that is me.

The argument is invalid. Descartes shows that there is a thought, not that there is an 'I' thinking it. I cannot know what 'I' am simply from the immediate awareness of mental states; and I cannot know from this awareness alone that there is a unitary centre of consciousness to whom these states belong. In other words, I cannot know how to ascribe thinking to myself on the basis of introspection.

A more fundamental problem with this view is that if I did obtain my concept of myself from introspection — from 'looking at what goes on in my mind' as it were — then I would need a very good argument indeed for thinking that the same thing were going on in others. From the fact that the only mind of which I have direct knowledge is my own, I would merely suppose that others have minds. J.S. Mill proposed that one might do this by perceiving the similarities between myself and the other walking, speaking figures I see, hear and get married to. I can only assume by analogy with my own case that they have sensations, thoughts and possess minds.

Thus I am supposed to infer from a sequence of phenomena in a single case (mine) to the probable occurrence of the same phenomena in others. This is problematic because in my case I am presented with a number of three termed sequences of the character:

  1. Physical modification
  2. Conscious Experience
  3. Bodily movement

Yet the class of three-termed sequences I observe from my own case is small when compared with the class of sequences which are two-termed as far as I can tell. The number of cases where I do not perceive feeling or thought intervening between (1) and (3) — i.e. when I see any other member of the human race — is much greater than the number of cases in which I do (my own phenomenal world). Thus I should properly regard it as very unlikely that thoughts and feelings intervene between the embodiment and behaviour of other people that I encounter. As a piece of inductive reasoning the analogy approach is absurd.

What does it mean to ask whether the figures I see around me have minds? Are these figures 'people'? If so, then it is not an open question as to whether 'people' have minds. An essential property of personhood includes having a mind. If one were to say that these figures were 'living human bodies' we should have to ask what a living human body is if not that of a person. I do not know how to pick out objects that might not be the bodies of persons.

The idea of a living human body which might not belong to a person is nonsensical. Peter Strawson puts the problem like this:

There is no sense in the idea of ascribing states of consciousness to oneself — or at all — unless the ascriber already knows how to ascribe some states of consciousness to others. So he cannot (generally) argue 'from his own case' to conclusions about how to do this; for unless he knows how to do this, he has no conception of his own case.
P.F. Strawson Individuals p. 100ff.

If I do not know how to say that mental predicates are true of others, I do not have a concept of subjects of experience other than myself. So then I do not have a concept of myself as a subject of experience. This solution clearly relies on Wittgensteinian doctrines of meaning and reference which I am not concerned to defend here. But it should be clear that the question 'do other people have minds' is a meaningless one as it could never be an open question as to whether members of the class of people have minds.

To come to the third question therefore I think that the identity of a person consists in her essential properties; I am essentially an animal (a type of physical object). My memories and personality are not essential to the person I am; the essential properties of the physical object that is me — necessary for any identity claim — include material cohesion and spatio-temporal continuity, not my memories or my current attachment to The Chipmunks' Christmas Album. This seems to me a far more coherent position than the existentialist doctrine that existence precedes essence.

A. Gatward


Leone asked:

Can you tell me why there is a terrible belief growing in our western society that being a victim of a crime is worse than being a perpetrator? So many people accuse others of 'being a victim' as if it is their fault. I hope philosophy survives the New Age onslaught of this silly way of thinking. I believe we are, if not all victims at some time in our lives, then we are certainly at the mercy of our fellow humans and of nature. I need to know if we have power or if we are victims, and if there is a difference.

Suppose that a crazed roof-top gunman picks you out of a crowd because of your bright orange T-shirt. You can be criticized for your dress sense, but not for 'making yourself a victim' of the shooting. In getting shot, you became a victim. You didn't make yourself a victim.

I have heard it said that muggers and rapists know whom to prey on. Suppose that is sometimes true. Suppose that meekness, or timidity, or some other more subtle quality identifies an individual as a suitable target of such vicious crimes. Knowing this, there is something we can do to lessen to some extent the chance of our becoming victims. Assertiveness training might be some help, or classes in self-defence. It still does not follow that a person who suffers a violent assault is in any way to blame for 'allowing' themselves to be perceived as a victim.

It is a rather different question when a therapist finds themself having to deal with a client trapped in an abusive relationship, where the client regularly becomes the victim of their partner's violence. To assert emphatically that it is not the abused wife's fault that she is being beaten (more often than not, she has become convinced that it is somehow her fault) is not to say that she cannot be helped by therapy to find another way of being in the world, besides that of the helpless victim.

This is not New-Ageism, or some other 'silly nonsense' but part of the daily experience of practitioners in the field.

It is a truism that, as you say, we are all potential victims. As the example of the roof-top gunman shows, we are all, ultimately, at the mercy of our fellow humans. It is also a truism that there are times in our relations with others when we have the opportunity to adopt the stance of 'the victim', or not to adopt that stance and accept our part of the responsibility for the things that happen to us. It is a false comfort to think that one has less power at one's disposal than is in fact the case. Instead of complaining, “Look what you did to me”, or, “Look what you made me do”, we can take assertive action. In that sense, psychology has something relevant to say to us all.

Geoffrey Klempner


Laura asked:

Does all knowledge come from experience?

On the surface of things, there are many convincing reasons for thinking that all knowledge comes from experience. The classic empiricist account of knowledge begins with the question of how knowledge is acquired. The conclusion, roughly, is that the way we acquire concepts and our understanding of the world is only through our perceptions of the world. It is from perceptions that all knowledge comes.

Why be an empiricist? Locke sets about the problem by arguing first of all that none of our ideas are innate, e.g. our idea of the law of identity, A=A. According to Locke, the 'innatist' may appeal only to the universal assent of others in support of the view that this idea is innate. Since no principle receives universal assent, there are no innate ideas. Children and idiots likewise have no idea of such principles nor would they understand them in all likelihood. So he proposes that the only alternative to innatism is that we acquire knowledge through experience.

If knowledge is acquired through perception then there must be a real or causal relationship between the perceptions of the object and the object itself. It is not a straightforward question as to whether it makes sense to claim that from experience alone we know that the outside world causes our perceptions. What would be the basis for claiming that we know that A causes B? A position known as Direct Realism holds that things as we see them are exactly as they are in themselves; this position is untenable for a number of reasons, notably because what we see is mediated by our sense organs. The nature of sound in itself is not the same as the sound that we hear. Sound is a wave of a certain sort. It sounds different to creatures with different auditory systems. What is the right way to hear something? The same goes for vision, sensations of smell and taste.

Indirect Realists hold that we see the world via ideas and that our ideas resemble objects in the world in greater or lesser degrees. This position brings up a further skeptical problem: on the basis of experience alone (from which we learn to conceptualise on this view) how do we know that our sensory experiences — our visual ideas, say — correspond to anything like the way the world is? The fact that we are able to survive in the world does not entail that we see the world 'as it is'.

As attractive as empiricism may initially seem, the thought that knowledge can only come from experience leaves the possibility of empirical knowledge virtually out of the question. We know our ideas because we are immediately acquainted with them but do not know how and in what sense they correspond to the world. How could ideas even give a good reason to suppose that there is a world outside us which they represent? Claims to knowledge involve proposing that one thing is right in the light of another. Experience on its own — as Wilfred Sellars held — could never be such a tribunal.

A. Gatward


Oliver asked:

This question is, I suppose, slightly superficial but I would still like your opinion on it. Do you believe that inspiration comes to you, or that you earn it through searching? Is it the privilege of those who have patience, or of those who search (i.e. Tibet and suchlike)?

Awaiting the blessing of what I hope to be wisdom.

I believe in serendipity. I also believe that the gods smile on those who make some effort themselves. Knowing this, there are things we can do to increase the chance that a bit of inspiration will come our way.

Inspiration is not something which you can work for, or work towards. Our labours produce works, not inspiration. But simply waiting and hoping does not work either.

My father used to say, “You've got to make waves.” Some times our efforts seem mere ineffectual splashing about. It is still better to splash about than remain motionless in the water.

I suppose what my father meant was that we can never gauge the remote effects of our actions on other people. But it is equally true that we can never gauge the remote effects of our actions on our own selves, on our state of mind. What we call 'inspiration' is often merely the remote effect of our own actions, actions which we never intended to have the effect that they did.

I am all for taking trips to Tibet, if you can afford the air fare. If you can't, a break from routine, throwing yourself into a different activity, may be all you need to set those waves in motion.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cecilia asked:

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had a similar way of reasoning but with a different focus: Aristotle based all his theory on reason, and Thomas Aquinas based his theory on God. Can you give me deeper similarities and differences between the two?

In a soundbite, it is fair to say that Aquinas tried to make the philosophy of Aristotle compatible with Christianity in the same way that St Augustine brought the philosophy of Plato into Christian thought. Aquinas holds that there is no reason for supposing a conflict between what we can learn from the philosophical life and what is taught by Christian revelation. The idea is that we can reason ourselves to the truths that we can find in the Bible.

Aquinas, following Aristotle, maintains that God is wholly simple and thus timeless, spaceless and bodiless. This wholly simple God is the God of Catholic Theology. Aristotle's position presumes the existence of a God as an efficient cause which set the natural processes of the world in motion. God is also a final cause in that he gives the universe its meaning. This Aquinas accepts; but because Aristotle lived a long time before the death of Christ, Aquinas adds that we must rely on the Bible and Jesus' teachings for a more developed picture of what God is like.

Aquinas tries to prove the existence of God on an Aristotelian basis in the first three of his Five Ways. These arguments are essentially cosmological arguments — and they presuppose Aristotle's view of causation (the idea of final causes) and Aristotle's laws of motion which states that movement is a potentiality within an object (by contrast with Newton's view that forces act on objects to cause movement.) The Unmoved Mover is what starts the chain of motion — where the chain of causes and effects comes to an end.

Curiously, however Aristotle came to a conclusion that there may be either forty-seven or fifty-five unmoved movers.

The other important similarity surrounds the idea of natural law: to Aristotle things in the world have fixed essences and their function is to fulfill as well as possible what is fixed by this nature. Man's natural proclivity according to Aristotle is eudaimonia — happiness — and for the Christian Aquinas this leads to the beatific vision of God. Both philosophers believe in these natural inclinations. Laws are natural to the extent that they relate to what humanity is; if they are a true reflection of the world then we must examine humanity to know what humankind ought to do. According to Aquinas, rules and principles help humanity realise their natural inclinations. Rational agents see the importance of these rules for the good flourishing of society.

This involves reasoning from the fact that humans are x to a conclusion concerning values viz. that humans ought to do y. Hume pointed out that this is not an inference one can make. The difficulty is implicitly escaped by Aristotle and Aquinas by the thought that 'ought' is a way of saying that one is teleologically seeking to be a good human being — reason finds natural goals.

A weakness with the position is that it assumes that there is one goal for everybody; the fact/value inference remains questionable, as do the scientific doctrines upon which the argument is based. Many people think that it is illegitimate to think that the universe cannot be uncaused, but that God alone can be.

A. Gatward


Jessica asked:

Why does everyone hate lawyers?

Not everyone hates lawyers, although it is true that many do. This is partly due to the fact that they are thought to charge large fees for doing very little, although most people don't actually know how much or how little the lawyer is actually doing. Another reason is that they are perceived as taking longer than necessary in dealing with cases, causing frustration to clients — and building up even greater fees. The length of time spent on a case doesn't actually increase charges, because charges will only be made for time actually spent. If a case is frustrating because of time taken this is not necessarily the fault of the lawyer since other people (e.g., banks) will be involved in the case. So it isn't rational to hate lawyers for these reasons.

Litigation lawyers are often thought to be immoral. For example, a lawyer who goes to court to repossess a house on a behalf of a building society, thereby making someone homeless, is doing something it is difficult to approve of. However, this only happens if the defendant owes a lot of money and a justification for the lawyer is that if he doesn't do it someone else will. The legal process goes on regardless of which particular persons are involved.

Criminal lawyers are also thought to be immoral because they are trying to stop people who have done wrong from being punished. The same justification applies. Also, the defence lawyer must believe in the innocence of the accused because if there are reasons to suppose the accused is guilty it would be to withhold evidence if he doesn't make this known.

Rachel Browne

Not everybody hates lawyers (people who avoid going to jail through good legal defence for example). The notion that all good lawyers are dead lawyers probably stems from the fact that they are often able to make a great deal of money while sometimes we feel that their ethics are dubious. A lawyer may make a great deal of money from successfully defending a well known celebrity accused of murder, but the celebrity may well have been obviously guilty for example. How could a lawyer justify this?

Everybody deserves a fair trial in the eyes of the law; this is how a lawyer justifies defending somebody whom we all think is clearly guilty. Is this a grey area of morality? The law sanctions the guilty man's exoneration if he cannot be proven guilty in the eyes of the law. Things approved of by the law are not always ethically approved by us.

A. Gatward

My guess is that you are a law student, am I right? You love what you do, but you are put off by the fact that as a lawyer you will do things that people will hate you for. Accept that you can't be loved by everybody, and strive to be the best lawyer that you possibly can be.

Geoffrey Klempner


Alessio asked:

I was advised to study Philosophy at university by a teacher at my college. I have started to read on the subject and feel that I will find it very interesting. But I know that philosophy will not provide me with happiness or answers, rather frustration and more questions. So can I ask you as a philosopher, what have you personally achieved and gained from studying philosophy?

There are two alternative lives I might have lived, as a research chemist, and as a photojournalist. (See The Glass House Philosopher.) If I put the three lives side-by-side, my actual life and my two possible lives, am I better off for having made the choice that I made? Is it ever possible to make that kind of assessment?

Let's not talk about being 'better off'. We are dealing with things that are incommensurable. I discovered that philosophy was the thing I needed to do, more than I needed to do anything else. And that is really the point. If philosophy is the thing you need to do, then that is sufficient justification. The question of 'achievement' or 'gain' — even 'happiness' — doesn't come into it.

That is why I would strongly urge against your choosing philosophy on your teacher's advice. Your teacher is no doubt well meaning. Perhaps you have produced good work in philosophy, and shown that you have a real talent for the subject. However, that is not sufficient reason for choosing philosophy in favour of another subject that you feel you would like to do more. There are plenty of people who have the mental qualities suited for the study of philosophy who are still better off doing something else.

Geoffrey Klempner


Hana asked:

What positions would Mill and opponent of his take with respect to whether white supremacists have the right to march in a black neighborhood? and why?

Mill would say that it is okay for white supremacists to march in a black neighbourhood, so long as they do not harm those living in the area, or encourage others to harm them. And so long as they do not prevent those living in the neighbourhood from expressing their own opinion or marching themselves. This is because Mill argues that we are free to do what we want providing what we do does not harm others. Mill also argues that mere offence or distaste does not constitute harm, so the white supremacists would be allowed, and perhaps even encouraged by Mill to march.

Now there are problems for Mill in saying just what it means to harm someone, or the limits of encouragement that is allowable, but generally most people would perhaps agree with his views. There are however opponents that would disagree with Mill, I think we can identify three major types, one that I call 'free speech hypocrites', a second which could be called 'free speech humanitarians'. Both of these work within a Millian framework and disagree with then details of Mill's theory. But a third opponent is one who would reject entirely what Mill has to say about liberty.

Free speech hypocrites all those like the white supremacists, who argue the case for freedom of speech as a constitutional right under law, so that they can march, but only appeal to the value of free speech in order to actively deny such rights to others, namely those living in the black neighbourhood. Such opponents would not accept the consequence of Mill's view that every has the freedom to do what they want. They would not want others to be free to march against them.

The second group agree with Mill that liberty is a good thing and free speech should be permitted, but disagree with Mill that whatever its content, free speech does no harm. They would argue that racism, homophobia, fascism, and other prejudiced beliefs are harmful and should be prevented from being freely expressed. The problem here is that no matter what anyone says it will offend someone, should we therefore ban all differing opinion, or offensive behaviour?

The third opponent does not agree with Mill that free speech or individual liberty is necessarily a good state of affairs. They usually would argue that individual freedom leads to unfulfilled lives. Such opponents would find support in the works of Plato and Aristotle, who argue the need to live the Good Life, a life that is defined by the role one plays within a society. Hobbes would also disagree with Mill. He thinks that individual freedom must be sacrificed to a powerful sovereign if those individuals are to avoid war and conflict.

I do not think that Hobbes would allow the white supremacists to march, if the march would lead to frustration or harm the black community, because it would them mean that there was an imbalance in the freedom given up by some. If this imbalance was corrected by the sovereign allowing the blacks to have their own march, it would lead to frustration on the other side, possibly resulting in conflict, and so the sovereign would not be doing his job. The only way the sovereign could protect all the members of society would be to ban the march in the first place. Freedom is given up for the sake of peace and survival.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Ono asked:

Under what circumstances does Mill think it permissible for the state to use force against a citizen? Why then and only then? How can we adapt Mill's principle?

In On Liberty Mill clearly says that the only justifiable cases where an individual can be acted upon against there will is if their actions will cause harm to another individual. And even then force may not be justifiable, we should first aim at persuasion, apply social pressure and the like rather than actual physical force.

Mill holds this position (sometimes called the liberty principle or the harm principle) I think because, in accordance with his utilitarianism it would be the best way to maximise happiness. At first these two philosophies may seem incompatible, for utilitarianism would allow just the kind of interference that the liberty principle forbids. For example, the liberty principle forbids us to interfere with another liberty even if what they do causes them harm, such as a drug addict, or even a choice someone makes that we will know will make that person unhappy. However on utilitarian grounds we would be fully justified in stepping in and pointing out the unforeseen consequences of the choice the person makes, or in stopping the person becoming addicted to drugs.

Your question gets us into the very heart of Mill's philosophy and into a current debate as to just what it was Mill was up to. Did he think that freedom was an intrinsically good thing itself and therefore incompatible with the greatest happiness? Or is happiness the only good, if so is liberty a nice side show and less important?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Mill is clear that happiness is the greatest good, but that liberty is the only source that will guarantee that happiness is achieved in the long haul. In this sense liberty is intrinsically good, but only when it is contributing to our happiness. Mill gives various reasons why on utilitarian grounds individual liberty should be protected, probably the most important one is his idea that there should be as many diverse opinions as possible, leading to what Mill calls 'experiments in living' which when successful result in social progress and general happiness.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Amerjit asked:

Did any philosophers past or present deal with the nature of disguise, in relation to people's personalities, and how might this help or hinder people to cope with every day life. What do you think?

There are a number of ways one could think about this interesting thought.

Freud thought that there is a part of the human soul called the 'id' in which basic instincts (love and aggression) jostle with no sense of value. The part of us which is in touch with the outside world (the ego) aims at survival and selects or rejects some of the id's demands accordingly. The superego is the deposit of parental influences and exercises further control over the id by banning socially unacceptable practices.

The unconscious thus contains repressed experiences which often manifest themselves in neuroses. So there is a possible sense in which a personality is already a form of disguise. Conditioning and the unconscious rub against each other and our personalities are a troubled confusion. The idea here is that this causes us problems (hence the popularity of psychoanalysis that has gained so much currency since Freud).

An existentialist like Sartre would agree that disguise is bad. He criticises people who live in 'bad faith'. Once you see yourself as a 'being approaching death' (as Heidegger puts it) you are faced with the task of creating your own life as something for which you are fundamentally responsible. Disguising yourself would therefore not help you.

Inscribed at the seat of the oracle in Delphi was the phrase 'Know Thyself'; according to Hans Kung, this can be the basis for the 'reconstruction of a personality'.

A. Gatward

I don't think that philosophers have discussed disguise. The closest concept would be Sartre's "bad faith".

As an example of bad faith, Sartre describes a waiter whose behaviour is like a parody of a waiter. His behaviour is so waiter-like that he appears to be acting — he isn't being himself but being what he thinks a waiter should be. This person is pretending he is a waiter, and this is to act in bad faith because he isn't a waiter. He is a free man and could choose to do something else, but is unable to face up to his freedom. Sartre thought man cannot face the freedom and contingency of his existence. To believe that it is your purpose in life to fulfil a role, is a strategy for avoiding the feeling that existence is futile.

The waiter syndrome is a common one and may help people to cope with everyday life. But it is insecure. At any moment one might come to feel the falsity of role-playing and recognise the ultimate futility of life and the consequence may be emotional or mental breakdown — a collapse into "anguish, forlornness, despair". To role-play is a dangerous disguise. It is to pretend to be what you are not and to conceal from yourself your true condition.

Rachel Browne


Carman asked:

My teacher give me an assignment. This is what we are asked to imagine: In the morning, I am a student. My daytime experience is continuous. While in my dream, the things I do are continuous too, such as if I am a singer, I will see myself singing tonight and on the next night I see myself singing and continue to do other things too.

In this situation, can I explain that there are two "mines" but which one is the real mine, I do not know. You may say I feel pain when I am in reality but in the dreams I won't! I doubt that our brain controls our sensation and it can give us the signal and the feeling of pain when we are sleeping too, therefore I would like to say I cannot distinguish which "mines" are real and then I will become crazy! Can I say it in that way??

The kind of scenario you are describing was first discussed in a well known paper by Anthony Quinton 'Spaces and Times' (Philosophy 1962).

Quinton's solution is to say that there are not two 'yous', but rather one you living in two spatially unrelated worlds, the world where you are a philosophy student, and the world where you are a singer. Quinton uses this thought experiment as a way of testing Kant's argument in the Critique of Pure Reason that experience is only possible on the condition that I am able to interpret it as experience of a spatially unified world. In other words, according to Kant there can only be one space.

As you say, both worlds are equally continuous and coherent. When you go to sleep in one world, you wake up in the other. In both worlds, you feel pleasure and pain. There is not the slightest indication that one world is only a dream while the other is real.

I am not sure that Quinton has succeeded in making his case against Kant. I am worried by the idea there seems to be no criterion for the truth for the things you claim to remember about your adventures as a singer, while you are living the life of a student, or for the things you claim to remember about your student existence, while you are in the world of the singer. In either case, the other life might as well be a dream. You can call each alternative world a 'dream' in turn and never be proved wrong by things that happen in the world you are currently in.

The interesting idea that there are two yous, rather than one you living in two worlds, might arise in the following way. Suppose that as a student, you are quite nervous and shy, while as a singer you are exuberant and full of charisma; or suppose that as a student you have high standards of moral integrity, while as a singer you live a life of drug taking and debauchery. In our dreams, we some times seem to become different 'persons', and this does not pose a problem. If the two worlds are equally real, however, then the problem becomes acute. Even so, it is one and the same 'you' who experiences, and remembers, both lives.

Geoffrey Klempner


John asked:

How can any intelligent individual entertain the possibility of finite space (I know, Einstein, Hawking, etc)? Everywhere there must be either something or nothing. One is occupied space, the other is unoccupied space. Space therefore is infinite.

It is probably true that everywhere there must be something or nothing. But this is just a tautology, and says nothing. "Everywhere" means the sum total of "somewhere's", (or something similar). Space is finite, because there is only a limited amount of 'somewheres'. (And don't ask what is outside of these limited "somewhere's": It only makes sense to talk about an outside if there is somewhere outside.)

Will Greenwood

Here is a thought experiment. You wake up in the middle of the night to discover that the universe has shrunk to the size of your house.

You open the front door, and as you step across the threshold, you find that you are walking in through the back door. As you climb out of the kitchen window, you find yourself climbing in through the window of your study. And so on.

I have just described a possible world in which space is finite. Whether space is in fact finite or infinite is an empirical question.

Geoffrey Klempner


Karina asked:

We study at the tecnologico de Monterrey and would like to request a favor. Could you please tell us what you think an empiricist would respond as an answer when questioned: " How would you explain the reality of someone who is blind or deaf, or not able to use his five senses, would he be considered as an non-existing person since he can not conceive his reality through his five senses? or is he considered to see another reality?

For the empiricist, a deaf or blind person would not be considered a non-existing person. According to the empiricist John Locke, the defining characteristics of personhood are rationality and self-consciousness (see Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk II 27.9) A being unable to use certain senses would not normally fail this test.

What could this individual know about reality? Consider the question Molyneux posed to Locke.

Consider a man born blind...and taught by touch to distinguish between a Cube and a Sphere...[he is]...then...made to see. [Mr Molyneux asks] Whether by his sight...he could now distinguish them, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube...To which the acute and judicious proposer answers: Not.

Primary qualities in the world like shape and extension can be seen and felt by more than one sense modality; secondary qualities like colour and warmth can only be felt or seen by one sense modality. Does the visual idea of a cube correspond to the tactual idea? Locke (inconsistently in my view) agreed with Molyneux that it does not. So knowing the tactual idea would not mean knowing the visual idea; but one could still know something about cubes if one could not see their cubic shape.

The blind or deaf person would not be seeing another reality; whatever he could sense would be 'reality' but he would be more limited than a person whose senses all worked properly. On this picture, a blind person cannot know what colour is, a deaf person cannot know what Chopin sounds like etc. So for the empiricist, such a person would be able to make fewer claims to knowledge, since all knowledge to the empiricist is acquired in sense experience. But any quality in the world which could be sensed by more than one sense modality could be known about because, so the doctrine goes, our ideas of these types of quality closely resemble the actual qualities of objects.

A. Gatward


Steve asked:

How are Marx & Engels, Sivaraksa, and Christ's points of view interrelated on the subject of Religion, Society and Politics?

The short answer is that, apart from Marx and Engels, they aren't interrelated. Marx and Engels, Sivaraksa and Christ (which is a title meaning 'the anointed of God') — but I assume you mean Jesus of Nazareth — belong to different worlds. Marx and Engels themselves belong to different worlds within the same world: Engels was a wealthy patron and industrialist, Marx was a political exile, an impoverished journalist and philosopher. Although they collaborated upon their political writings, they belonged to different classes in a class-ridden society. Jesus was Jewish and, it seems, heir to ideas of 'the end of time' and the 'Messianic promise'. Sulak Sivaraksa is a Thai social justice activist from Buddhist culture.

The point is that 'religion', 'society' and 'politics' are not words that refer to things that remain constant across time and place. We may not treat these words as if they were universals. We may translate 'religion', 'society', 'politics' into the relevant language (ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, German or Thai) but the use and meaning these words have in those languages, especially with historical periods intervening, is very different.

Matthew Del Nevo


Lisa asked:

Say that one believes in fate and destiny, then how can that be justified?

What is a good justification for saying that there is fate in our lives?

Some persons, or persons at certain times of their lives, have a strong feeling that the life they are living is the life they were fated to live, or that they have a destiny which they cannot turn away from.

The philosophical arguments for fatalism are not very good. If you believe God exists then since God knew everything that was to happen in the history of the universe from the moment He brought the world into existence — or, on the theologically more refined view, since God sees the entire history of the universe from a viewpoint outside of time — God knows everything that is in store for you. He knows every choice you will make, and the outcomes of those choices. But is there such an all-knowing God?

Some will argue that even if an all-knowing God doesn't exist, the truth is the truth, whether it be a truth about the past, or the present, or the future. The statement, 'I will become President' is true or false, and if it is true, then there is nothing you can do to avoid that destiny. But we are not compelled to take that view. You can say that a future world where you become President and a future world where you don't become President exhaust all the possible future worlds in which you exist. However, as Aristotle argued using the example of 'tomorrow's sea battle', that need not be taken to imply that one of these worlds is actual now.

The best argument for belief in destiny is a practical one. Some people have that belief, and some don't. Those that do are strengthened in their resolve to bring their dreams to fruition, and sometimes — not always — they succeed. If you believe you have a destiny, if your life circumstances are such as to give you a sense of conviction about where you are heading, then you are lucky. (Of course, I mean a destiny to make something of your life, and not the 'destiny' to become a down-and-out!) Don't ask where that belief comes from, or how it can be philosophically justified. Just act on the assumption that your belief is true, and let things happen as they will.

Geoffrey Klempner


Fiona asked:

Concerning animal rights, there is the Utilitarian defence (for example, of Peter Singer), the contractarian view (denying that non-human animals can have rights), the view that all animals have inherent value (held by Tom Regan), and the view that species-ism is not necessarily a bad thing, only one that is natural.

I would like to know if there are any other major theories concerning animal rights, and if so, who the leading proponent(s) of the theories are.

There is the view that while animals have no rights, people do have an obligation to them. We have an obligation to pets or work animals — since we take them into our care it reflects badly on us as moral agents if we cannot take care of them. Or the obligation may extend to a species, or perhaps to the environment as a whole. In environmental ethics there is an argument that we have a duty to protect the world that we inhabit, if only because we also have the means to destroy it. We kind of owe it to ourselves to look after the world, to see our selves as capable of holding responsibility.

While this may be the best defence for the animal liberation movement, I think it might be a mistake to talk about animals having rights. A right makes sense only for a member of a moral community and animals are not members of our moral community. This is different, however, from saying that animals do not have value. Clearly they can, they may even have many different kinds of value: intrinsic value, instrumental value, aesthetic value, constitutive value. If we think of animals as having value rather than rights as moral agents the issue may be less controversial and even more plausible, and we may be able to fit the views of Singer and Regan.

For example, if animals have intrinsic value we may not be permitted to inflict harm on them or to exterminate them. And it they have aesthetic value we may not want to, or bring ourselves to. If they have constitutive value, the same would apply; something good is lost in the world, we become diminished if an animal or a species is allowed to become extinct. I do not think however that we ought to make a list of all the animals that have intrinsic or instrumental, or aesthetic value. For one thing these categories overlap, an animal that is intrinsically valuable is also constitutively valuable though one that is aesthetically valuable may not be intrinsically or constitutively valuable. Secondly these categories are not meant to be hard and fast, or even exclusive. There may be no sharp distinction between those animals that have intrinsic or instrumental value. In fact there is no reason why animals could not change values, for example the squid, a common meal in most restaurants and which has instrumental value, we use it, may be more intelligent than a dog. In which case it may gain intrinsic value.

This view does not say that animals could never have rights, they could, if for example, we succeed in 'uplifting' a species to intelligence through genetic engineering, I can see no reason not to regard them as members of a moral community, though it may then be hard to speak of them as animals any longer.

You might want to look at sci-fi writer David Brin's Uplift series for the idea of bringing animals into the moral community. And also Steven Baxter's Time which deals (in part) with squid intelligence.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield


Paulo asked:

If you wanted to explain the central differences between Aristotle and Plato, what would you put in a table?

Here are some differences. For a start, Plato's writings are poetic and dramatic; he sometimes relies on myth. Aristotle on the other hand is dry and precise. Compare Aristotle's De Anima with Plato's Republic. Very very broadly here are some areas in which they differ:

1. Metaphysics

Plato wanted to discover the eternal in and immutable in the midst of all change. He held that eternal ideas were more real than what we find in nature. The idea of a horse precedes the particular horses of the sensory world. The particulars are like shadows on a cave wall — shadows of what is real (cf. the allegory of the Cave in Book 7 of Republic). All things in the natural world are reflections of things that exist in a higher reality of 'ideas'.

We are able to work out geometrical truths, even if we have not done geometry before because we are acquainted with their truth before our birth. The meaning of a general term like 'horse' is likewise captured by our being acquainted with the eternal 'form' horse. Nothing in the natural world exists that has not first existed in the realm of ideas. The logic of this position is brought out when you consider what is meant by the word horse? Not any particular horse, but some kind of universal 'horseness'. Metaphysically the meaning of 'horse' is a the ideal form of a horse of whose nature particular horses partake imperfectly. So particular horses are only apparent compared with the reality of the ideal horse.

Aristotle agrees that nothing exists forever — that all is change. He also held that the idea of a horse is eternal; but the idea of a horse is just one that we form after seeing a number of horses. The ideal horse thus has no separate existence of its own. Aristotle holds that ideas in the soul are reflections of natural objects. Nothing exists in consciousness that has not been experienced by the senses first. He criticises Plato by musing where the form of a horse would come from? Is there a third one of which the idea horse is a copy?

There is no ideal form or mold from which the things are made; the form of something is simply the collection of properties belonging to that thing. Forms are therefore in the natural world.

2. Epistemology

According to Plato we cannot have true knowledge of things that always change. We only have true knowledge of that which is grasped by reason. We grasp mathematics and the forms through the exercise of reason. The things we see by sense in the natural world are dark and dreary compared with this world of ideas. We know certain rational truths from before we were born (Meno).

To Aristotle, the highest degree of reality is not what we think with our reason, but what we see with our senses. we have the innate ability of reason to classify things, but not innate knowledge of them. Reason is empty without sensory input.

3. Aesthetics

To Plato, art is dangerous and should be banned (Republic Book10) because it arouses decadent emotions and subverts reason; it cannot help us understand truth as it is only imitative of reality. It is thus at a third removed from the true reality of the world of ideas. Art is created by inspiration, not because the artist knows about what he is depicting (Ion). It therefore has low epistemological value.

Aristotle held art to be edifying through catharsis. Art is philosophical because it deals with universals — it invites interpretation in terms of the larger conceptions which structure human experience and understanding. Art represents possible events, so intelligibility depends on plot coherence and unity. The artist has a rational craft or techne (Poetics).

4. Ethics

According to Plato, wrong action is due to intellectual error. The man who adequately understands himself acts wisely. Thus the paradox that nobody does wrong willingly.

According to Aristotle, happiness is the key to living a good life. We achieve happiness through using our abilities and living a balanced life between extremes.

Both Plato's and Aristotle's ethics revolve around the twin notions of arete andeudaimonia — virtue and happiness, and so there are certain similarities.

A. Gatward


Byc asked:

I have been assigned to read Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave", from The Republic and have come to a thought that I would like further opinion of. In today's world of inundation of information and misinformation, how do you think this allegory pertains to everyone?

Plato's analogy is in one way very optimistic, in that it implies that the 'real' world is attainable, that we can know things in a way that is more than just 'appearances'. But, as Nietzsche pointed out, Plato is deeply pessimistic in seeing the majority of the human race as clinging to nothing but shadows.

I think the allegory could be used profitably to explain the propaganda and misinformation that seems to control modern western culture, but I also think that this would be to distort what Plato was saying. Plato was not making any kind of practical point about human life, but was instead talking metaphysics.

To suppose, as Plato does, that what I see around me is not the 'real' world is just to make a linguistic error, i.e. a confusion over the meaning of the word "real". Plato looked for certain truth, like truth in mathematics. When he didn't find it, he made up a world which did have it, and said that only it was real. The allegory of the cave is just a powerful way in which he expressed this delusion. (Most normal people have always realised that Plato's real world was a joke, and I think (and I hope) that philosophers are now not too far behind.)

Will Greenwood


Rebecca asked:

Can you explain to me what the anthropic principle is and what conclusions one might draw from it?

Does the evolving universe have a meaning and if it does, what would this mean? Science answers the first question by claiming that increasing complexity is explained by the random co-existence of a number of physical processes. The question of significance is answered by some theologians in terms of the anthropic principle. They assume a kind of teleology in the universe and deny that it is the product of chance.

The anthropic principle is concerned with the ontological origin of the universe. Why is there something rather than emptiness? Defenders of the anthropic principle think that the universe is as it is in order that we can live in it. The universe is created and accessible to human understanding; various contingent physical processes (e.g. the rate of acceleration of the universe and the way in which it cooled) were as they were so that human life might evolve. If any of those processes had been different, we would not have come to exist.

A. Gatward


Sergey asked:

What is Kant's idea of a "Kingdom of Ends"? How does the idea come out of previous formulations of the "Categorical Imperative"? How is it different from Aristotle's idea of happiness, Hobbes's notion of felicity or Mill's ultimate end of overall utility?

Kant's ethical line of thought is developed along several parallel (and supposedly equivalent) lines. The third formulation of the Categorical Imperative is known as the 'Formula of the End in Itself' and runs as follows:

Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal moral law for every subject...subjects treated as ends — namely rational beings, and never as a means.
The Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals.

The third formulation works as a check on the maxims we should adopt; rather than telling us to make sure that our maxim would be adopted by all (formulations one and two), the third formulation demands that we act in ways that respect and leave intact the ability of others to act on the maxims that rational beings are bound to adopt. In the 'Kingdom of Ends' each rational being is both 'legislator' and 'legislated-to', autonomous on condition that what is legislated is respect for others' like status as legislators. This is the self control that takes account of the like moral status of others.

Using another is to treat him as a tool and not a rational agent. Using another person as a means rather than an end in himself is not simply doing something he doesn't want, but is to do something to which he cannot give his consent. Promise breakers make it rationally impossible for the people they try to deceive to consent to the promise-keeping project. The principles we must adopt, consequently, if we are not to treat others as means are the principles of justice that are identified when we consider which principles are universalisible for all rational beings.

The position is completely different from Aristotle's ethics, the proto-utilitarianism of Hobbes (and Hume), and the utilitarian position of Mill. Kant does not judge moral worth by the happiness (felicity) or utility that an act produces.

Consider Kant's own example of the honest grocer; a grocer who is honest because it is in his interests to be honest does not act because he recognises honesty as a duty. He is honest because he will keep customers happy and make more cash. To act morally would be to go on charging the 'right' amount even when it is in his interests not to do so. If he went against his own interests to promote overall utility, still he would not be acting dutifully.

Equally, the philanthropist who is inclined to spread joy has no moral worth. His actions would be moral if and only if he would act in the same manner when he felt no joy and was 'clouded with sorrow', thus untouched by the troubles of others. So being philanthropic because it brings you happiness is not to act morally either.

In fact the Kantian moral hero is the person of little sympathy; although 'cold and indifferent to the suffering of others', he acts philanthropically because he recognises it a duty to do so. Duty presents itself as obedience to a principle or law accessible and universally binding to all rational beings (which another rational being would generate in similar circumstances) This is because the law is generated by reason itself.

If the Kantian moral hero sounds more like the Aristotelian self-controlled man than a dutiful/ moral person because he lacks the virtue of compassion, it is worth noting that in the Doctrine of Virtue of 1797 (The Metaphysic of Morals) Kant does admit that 'sympathetic feeling is generally a duty'.

A. Gatward


Ron asked:

I am interested in studying philosophy. What is the criteria for a way of thinking to become a philosophy? Or what makes a philosophy? What I would get out of it by studying it?

I think I have a philosophy but do I need to categorize it as realism, idealism, pragmatism, existentialism, etc. or can I mix classical philosophies and come up with my own and name it?

Do words from a great philosopher make a philosophy or is it anybody's way of living or thinking? Are some people's philosophies credible and others just opinions?

I think the difference between having a philosophy and practising the subject of philosophy is comparable to the difference between going to a high street bank and going to a river bank. That the same word is used, (or better: the same sequence of letters) should not lead to confusion. Having a philosophy is having a particular view on life. Doing philosophy is more about solving problems. By doing philosophy one might develop a viewpoint, or 'a philosophy', but I don't think it is necessary. Someone who is not upset by great misfortune might be described as being philosophical about it. But this does not mean that they are a philosopher. (And when I find out, as I frequently do, that I have made a mistake in reasoning, I get angry, i.e. not at all 'philosophical'.)

Will Greenwood


Duane asked:

How is medicine a social construct?

I'll indicate a possible approach to this intriguing question. Imagine the following three scenarios:

  1. You are a tram driver and your tram's brakes have broken. You steer your tram onto a siding and squash one person, instead of doing nothing and squashing the five people tied to the track ahead of you.

  2. You arrive in a remote village to find the locals about to kill five people; custom dictates that if you kill one of them, then they will let five people live. So you shoot a villager to save the lives of five others.

  3. You are a doctor in a remote hospital and there are five terminally ill patients at death's door. A man arrives with a minor cycling injury; you kill the cyclist, take out his organs and distribute them among the five thus saving their lives.

It is incredibly hard to refute the analogy at work here; each case involves the same outcome — five live instead of one. Prima facie, one might think that it is always morally better when few die for the sake of the many. Yet (1) we approve of, (2) we understand at a stretch and (3) we find is outrageously wrong. So it is a good philosophers question to wonder whether there is an unjustifiable fragmentation of value at work here — that moral values issue from a different source in each case despite the surface similarities of the cases.

Is this because some issues in morality (e.g. medical ethics) are 'social constructs'? Are some moral values inaccessible from different cultural standpoints? The three cases above present a problem for a systematic ethical solution in the following way.

In the medical case, we have the Hippocratic Oath — that it is a doctor's duty to preserve life. This is why we object to case (3). This kind of medical conservatism is ingrained in our culture, one might say. From a Utilitarian standpoint however, the sum of happiness would be greater if only one person died, and an impartial ethical line like this might compel us to endorse case (3). (Bernard Williams has argued that such a line also requires the agent to alienate himself from the values that make his life worth living. Serious moral intuitions can be such personal commitments, one might think.)

Case (3) clashes with our moral intuitions so strongly however, that we think that (3) could never be justified. Indeed there would be something dangerous about 'moral' philosophers if they advocated (3) on moral grounds.

But now imagine that there is a similar oath for tram drivers (McGinty's Oath — named after a great ethical tram driver of yore, as a former teacher of mine put it). According to the oath, it is a duty for tram drivers not to run over one person when there are five people in the way, even if you could save the five.

Now this analogy might seem a little tortuous, but it is very difficult to spell out the difference between McGinty's Oath and the Hippocratic Oath without begging the question against the defender of the Hippocratic doctrine. So here is a possible sense in which ethics in medicine is a social construct. We think that our cyclist has a better case in appealing not to be killed than the man on the track (to put it in Contractarian terms) because of the nature of medical duty; yet considered impartially, the factual/ normative moral grounds for this appeal are difficult to justify independently of a doctrine that is a part of our culture.

If there is fragmentation of value at work here, which is a possible way of thinking about this important and controversial issue, it might well be explained in terms of social constructs and customs. The Hippocratic Oath would be one such custom (so too McGinty's Oath in another possible world) This thankfully leaves some of our important moral intuitions untouched by implausibly impartial moral systems.

A. Gatward


Jack asked:

Mathematicians have tried to find certainty in the world through proofs and logic. Along the way Kurt Gödel proved that mathematics would never be completely certain.

I thought one could not prove a negative. How did he do that?

'Mathematicians have tried to find certainty in the world through proofs and logic.'

Mathematicians not only have tried to 'find certainty', they have found it. Mathematicians are free to use 'proofs' and 'logic,' i.e., formal reasoning, in deriving one mathematical proposition from another and in deriving propositions from theorems. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the 'proof' that 2 + 2 = 4; 137 x 59 = 8083; that the empty set is a subset of every set; that if a load bearing surface will support a weight of 5 kg. per square cm., it will support a weight of 1kg. per square cm. And so on. Gödel's two theorems do not impinge on the possibility of such proofs and demonstrations; indeed, Gödel himself makes use of logic in arguing for his first incompleteness theorem, of which the second is a corollary. How could he not use logic here?

'Along the way Kurt Gödel proved that mathematics would never be completely certain.'

Gödel really did no such thing. Try convincing a shopkeeper that you ātdon really owe her 25 pence if you've given her 75 pence for an item that costs a Pound, or try convincing a physicist that the speed of light is not the limiting velocity in the universe because of anything Gödel 'proved.' All that Gödel proved is that for formal systems there will always be sentences whose truth is not decidable within that system. There will always be some sentence, P, such that if a system, S, is complete, the truth or falsity of P will be as a matter of logic undecidable within S. 'You can't prove me either true or false,' P might be imagined as saying. 'And if you do try, you will generate another equally undecidable sentence, P-prime and so on.' Gödel's results were damaging for Hilbert's dream of completely formalizing mathematics.

'I thought one could not prove a negative. How did he do that?'

I think that what you have in mind here is something like proving that the Abominable Snowman doesn't exist, which has nothing to do with mathematics or with Gödel. It is often said that such a 'negative' cannot be proved because there is always the chance that someday we might find such a creature. Certainly our failure to have found the Yeti so far is not a logical demonstration that Yetis don't exist, but this is a failure not of mathematics or of logic, but of exploration and discovery, if it is a failure at all.

When Leverrier 'discovered' the planet Vulcan and used it to explain the perturbations in the orbit of Neptune, he warned that it would always be unobservable because it was, from an earthly viewpoint, always behind the sun. So, how can we prove that (as we now know) Vulcan does not exist? Simply because Vulcan, the sun, and the earth, would have constituted a straight-line solution to the three-body problem, a solution that is demonstrably unstable.

Do not look for ramifications of Gödel's results where there are none.

Paul Trevor


Nikaya asked:

How did the legal system in England recently come to a conclusion which gave doctors the legal right to proceed in the separation of the conjoined twins, Mary and Jody?

If this is what you'd consider a righteous moral decision, then how would one be morally aligned in any argument to refute any further influx of abortion and euthanasia requests?

In consideration of the judge's remark that "Right to life does not include the right to be parasitic upon nor malignant to the life of another"; in more realistic terms, What form of life upon this planet is not either parasitic or malignant to another? And even better, What does mutation now become if the claims of Darwin are correct in relation to it being the paramount process in evolution?

I gather from the newspaper that it would be medical negligence to deny the twin who would be able to survive as an individual a chance of life. The other twin, the "parasite" (a horrible way to describe a potential individual!), would not have survived alone and would have caused the death of the one with a chance of survival. If nothing had been done, both would have died and this would mean that the doctors who could have allowed one to survive would have been negligent. It is not the case that there were two individuals involved, since the parasitic twin could not have survived alone. Given that the parasitic twin was not an individual because she could not survive alone, it is questionable whether this was killing her rather than protecting the stronger twin who is an individual in the sense that she can survive alone.

The legal decision isn't a "righteous moral decision". It is practical and protects the interests of those concerned, and those concerned are individuals; i.e. the twin who as an individual can survive alone, and the doctors' professional interests (the doctors, if they did nothing, would have allowed the death of an individual). The parasitic twin did not have interests which could be taken into account. If there was "righteousness" in this case it was on the part of the parents and religious objectors who saw this as murder. In the eyes of the law, you cannot murder a thing that is not an individual, not a person.

This has nothing to do with abortion and euthanasia because in both these cases the death of the individual is involved.

Surely, Darwin believed in the survival of the fittest. In the case of the Siamese twins the fittest one would not have survived without medical intervention! Siamese twins, in their duality, are not fit. There is a distinction between positive mutation and its converse. In evolutionary terms, Siamese twins are not a positive mutation with survival expectations. But at least some survival is possible due to medical science.

Rachel Browne


Sotumvatey asked:

It seems to me that we are, now, talking too much about the origin and the capacity of our reason. Why our brain is so functionable like this. I guess if we still talk about this we could not bring our people to what some philosophers call 'human flourishing'.

My question is that should we turn our concern to the human living condition, both material and spiritual, without seeking why we operate like this. Even though we find out the answer, so what? We still need something to eat and we still pray, in different aspects through different religions. If we spend 1 hour to think about the origin of thing we have lost 1 hour to produce food and something else, am I right?

This reminds me of Marx's idea in The German Ideology, the relevant text of which can be read under the Chapter heading 'Philosophy' in The Florilegium at http://www.sicetnon.com/. First philosophy as the production of material life itself. A beguiling idea. However, 'the human living condition' doesn't just happen naturally, as if thinking were a distraction from doing. Bread making or wine making; for instance derive from the invention of bread and wine, which were ideas to begin with. The same can be said of all our 'human living conditions'. In fact, to call them 'human' living conditions is an idea with immense and lasting consequences, because it shows a measure of reflection and a language situation in which the word 'human' states the truth of these 'conditions'. This is not a chicken-and-egg thing of which comes first, material conditions or thinking. The two exist together wherever we are. They determine each other, but experience soon shows which is stronger. The ascendancy of civilization over barbarity and material conditions shows the dominance and prominence of thinking.

Matthew Del Nevo


Diana asked:

How would Plato view the cultural defense and why?

The following is an extract from 'Considering the "Cultural Defense": Immigrants, Gender, Race, and Criminal Law' by Jennifer Haejoo Lee (currently online at http://www.law.columbia.edu/crenshaw/Conference/JENNIFER%20LEE.htm):

On Sept. 7, 1987, Jian Wan Chen's husband smashed her skull with a claw hammer after she allegedly admitted to having an affair. Chen's body was discovered by her teenage son in the family's Brooklyn apartment. In March, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Edward Pincus sentenced Jian's husband to 5 years probation on a reduced manslaughter charge. After hearing the testimony of a Hunter College anthropologist, the judge concluded that Dong Lu Chen, a recent immigrant, was driven to violence by traditional Chinese values about adultery and loss of manhood.

The ruling sent shock waves through the Asian-American community last spring, and prompted calls for an end to the use of the so-called "cultural defense" in felony trials. Asian and women's groups quickly banded together to challenge the ruling, saying it "endangered women in general and immigrant women in particular"...

The implication of your question is that Plato, who in his moral philosophy was steadfastly opposed to the moral relativism of the Sophists, would have taken a very different line on the cultural defence than, say, Protagoras, the most famous of all the Sophists:

Of all things a measure is a person — of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.
Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers para. 491, p. 541.

(I have substituted 'person' for 'man' in Jonathan Barnes' translation from the Ancient Greek, for obvious reasons.)

You don't have to be a moral relativist to defend the cultural defence. Consider another legal defence that gained notoriety some years ago, the Twinkie defence. Depressed after hearing that he is to lose his job (I am making this case story up, but it could have been true) a man spends his lunch break eating several packs of Twinkies (a nauseatingly sweet snack which sadly one cannot get in the UK). Back at work, he grabs the nearest heavy utensil, and you can guess the rest. In court, his defence is that the massive increase in his blood sugar level was the cause of his uncharacteristic rage, and the judge accepts his plea of diminished responsibility.

A Western moral absolutist ought to view the cultural defence in a similar way to the Twinkie defence. Indoctrination from childhood in a false value system which places disproportionate emphasis on the evil of female infidelity to the point of exonerating (or appearing to exonerate) male violence, is sufficient ground for claiming diminished responsibility. Because of his distorted sense of values, Jian Wan Chen's husband was not in a position clearly to evaluate the rights or wrongs of his murderous action.

I don't think that it is a very persuasive defence. But then the Twinkie defence was not much good either.

I am far more suspicious of the moral relativist view of the cultural defence. This would be that taking into account the moral standpoint of Jian Wan Chen's husband, killing her was the right thing to do. Our own repugnance to such an act merely reflects our different moral standpoint. We have no moral right to impose our moral values on someone who holds different moral values. I'm no Platonist, but I am frightened that some people might be sufficiently muddle-headed about moral issues to think this way.

Geoffrey Klempner


Shannon asked:

Could you explain Epicurus' theory of atoms and the void, and its consequences?

Epicurus (341 — 271/70 BC) holds that atoms (tiny, unbreakable portion of matter) are the basic physical constituents of the universe; they move in a void of empty space. Atom literally translates as 'uncuttable' — atoms are the fundamental building blocks of objects that cannot be cut. Macroscopic objects consist of atoms grouped together and the properties of all physical objects are to be explained in terms of the way atoms behave.

His argument goes along these lines: (1) it is obvious that there are bodies in motion (2) nothing comes into being from what does not exist. The first point is an empirical one, the second a general tenet of Greek philosophy, derived from the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the rule that for everything that occurs there is a reason why it happened the way it did).

We might draw the following out: (1) because bodies move there must be an empty space in which they move. To counter Epicurus however, this is not true of the universe as a whole. If we consider that the universe might be expanding, this is an expansion of space rather than an expansion into some other void. (2) The bodies we can see are made up of other bodies — they are compounded from other smaller pieces; physical objects can be broken into smaller parts. This cannot go on forever, Epicurus thought because otherwise matter would disappear into nothingness.

He also thought that the basic and immutable building blocks (the atoms) explain the regularities of nature. Nowadays talk of regularities of nature requires qualification; at the most fundamental sub-atomic level, many physicists believe that the behaviour of electrons is governed not by strict laws but by probability. Yet irregularities generally cancel each other out at the macroscopic level, which allows us to make certain scientific predictions based on perceived regularities. We also know that atoms are not uncuttable; there are more fundamental constituents of reality than atoms — heavily theoretical things like quarks and gluons.

According to Epicurus, bodies and void exist uncontingently; properties such as colour, temporality and the good are to be explained in terms of bodies. since Epicurus accepted that nothing can come from a nothing, he held that the universe has no beginning and will have no end. Atoms likewise must always have existed; our world is only one of in infinite number of possible worlds. Each comes into existence and then dies away; the universe is not limited in size — there is no edge . There are limitless atoms and limitless space.

A. Gatward

Epicurus thought that physical atoms must be indivisible, impassive and imperceptible. Since atoms are a mass, they must be very small to be imperceptible. The Presocratic philosopher Democritus had thought that atoms were of variable size, but Epicurus thought that if there were large atoms we would be aware of them. Epicurus wrote in his Letter to Herodotus that atoms must be indivisible or they would have been pulverised and disintegrated into nothing.

It follows from physical indivisibility that atoms contain no void. In order to physically divide an atom there must be some internal split — a void within the atom — although Jonathan Barnes in The Presocratic Philosophers notes that this is not a logical requirement, but a physical requirement that an atom is not porous.

Sorabji in Time, Creation and the Continuum says that Epicurus' novel position is that atoms were conceptually (as opposed to physically) divisible although there must be minimal parts because if an atom was infinitely divisible there must be infinite parts and an atom would then be infinitely large. Also in thinking about an atom we would be thinking about infinity which is impossible. The minimal part is to be understood on an analogy with the smallest perceptible part. The physical atom is actually imperceptible, but if we can think of a smallest perceptible part, Epicurus thought that we should be able to accept, by analogy, a smallest conceivable size because as he says in Letter to Herodotus "even the idea that the atom has a size was predicated on the analogy of the things before our eyes".

We might use Aristotle's distinction between the potential and actual to understand this since it may have been this distinction that led Epicurus to distinguish between physical and conceptual atoms. The analogy is a strange one and has given rise to discussion on the shape of the smallest part. Epicurus speaks of "uncompounded edges", so it may be that atoms had no edges or shape — which is Sorabji's view, although to follow through the analogy, edges and shape must be assumed to be there even if it is not clear what or how they are, and if the Epicurean conceptual atom is divisible it seems to be a presupposition that there are edges to the minimal parts — and with these, voids.

As for consequences, given the indivisibility of physical atoms — and the assumption that they are distinct from one another — it should be the case that they can be joined and parted. But if two are joined in such way that there is no gap, or void, then they cannot be parted. Another consequence is for change. Aristotle had held that if atoms were impassive and indivisible, there could be no movement or change.

The divisibility of conceptual atoms avoids these consequences. While the minimal part of an Epicurean conceptual atom has uncompounded edges, the atom in itself is not denied edges. Edges are made up of the minimal parts. If an atom has edges then it has a void — or gap — by which it can be said to be joined to another, and hence it can be parted. And because the conceptual atom is divisible, it is possible that it is subject to change.

Rachel Browne


Frank asked:

Is Judaism a religion or a nationality?

It is a world religion made up of Jews (a racial origin) who have different nationalities.

Matthew Del Nevo

One can be an atheist and still consider oneself Jewish. If one is not born a Jew, one can convert to the Jewish religion, and many do. There is no solution to this conundrum other than by stipulation (or legislation).

Geoffrey Klempner


Kyla asked:

Is objective knowledge possible? How would some famous philosophers answer this question?

Knowledge is often defined as 'justified true belief'. We have to believe that our claim is true, it has to be actually true, and we have to be justified in believing that it is true.

Rationalists and empiricists disagree over the source of knowledge or what counts as relevant evidence. Skeptics suppose that the justification condition is never met.

In the last century, Gettier questioned whether all three are truly sufficient for knowledge. A.C. Grayling has set out a definition of skepticism presumed in most contemporary discussions:

Possibly [Not P and E]

where P is some proposition and E the best evidence in support of it. The skeptic says that even the best evidence we have in support of P is logically consistent with a denial of P. So how can we know anything?

Empiricists such as Locke, Berkeley and Hume all thought that knowledge stems from experience; it appears obvious that we use our senses to take in the information that we use to form concepts. Perceptions give thought its content. Yet this does not pass the skeptical test above: how, on the basis of experience alone, do I make the leap from the way (say) light bashes on my retina or the way sound waves bash on my inner ear to the claim that I know the world looks and hears thus and so?

Perhaps the truths of reason are what we know. Descartes and Leibniz thought so. We cannot doubt that 2 + 2 = 4. If this is the case then it is doubly clear that there is a problem with pure empiricism since what sensory experience could be as indubitable as a mathematical axiom? Descartes suggested that we might not know we are right even about logical truths. One can't imagine them being wrong, but is this an adequate justification for thinking we have objective knowledge of them? We might be being deceived. His way out was to prove the existence of God who wouldn't deceive because he is loving. It is not clear that this is the best strategy.

If you think all this a bit depressing, responding to skepticism is not impossible once you start to think about what needs to be the case in order for there to be knowledge. What needs to be true of mind and world in order to make sense of the claim that I know something?

This is Kant's strategy. That there is no such thing as perspectiveless knowledge — that is, in order for something to be known it must be known from some perspective or other; so there is a sense in which objectivity must conform to a way of seeing things. What is known must conform to the perspective of the knower. What comes out of this is that we need the senses to input information, but we also require the mind to bring certain 'forms' to raw sense-data in order to make sense of experience. We require forms of thought which we couldn't learn from experience because they are presupposed in it. 'Percepts without concepts are blind' as Kant puts it.

In the mainstream tradition of European philosophy is the thought that a person 'knows' how things are with him (that he is in pain for example) but has a problem inferring to how things are on the outside. The private world is known better than the public. Descartes et al took this as given. It makes no sense to doubt whether we are in pain, so we assume it is something we know. It was natural to assume that this is a paradigm case of complete certainty. The problem here is that if we obtain all our concepts of the mental through introspection alone, I would need a good argument for reasoning from my own case that this goes on in others.

This approach is misleading; the ability to state one's pain does not rest on evidence — I do not discover or check that I am in pain. If being ignorant about one's mental states makes no sense then neither does knowing about them. Peter Hacker puts it this way:

To say 'I know I am in pain' is either an emphatic avowal of pain or a philosophers nonsense.

A possible way out then is to follow a Kantian type of strategy for dealing with skepticism together with this thought from Peter Strawson (Individuals Ch. 3 'Persons'): it makes no sense to ascribe consciousness to oneself unless we already know how to ascribe some states of consciousness to others. This is what close to what Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations: we need to master a language before we can think or say anything, and we can master language only within a shared 'form of life', in a community of other beings. So a possible response to skepticism is to say there are certain things about the world and the mind which need to be in place before we can even get started talking about what we know, or what it makes sense to say that we know. Needless to say a lot of work would need to be done to make this approach sufficiently robust; but that is when you start to realise how flexible the idea of "knowledge" really is.

A. Gatward


Harpeet asked:

Is religion important? And if so, why?

I take 'religion' in the formative sense of that which is binding on humanity and binds it. The Latin word 'religio' is related to religo 'to bind'. What is binding can be put in infinite ways, but it boils down to few 'precepts' or 'commandments'. Without these as a basis reason can't properly exist, and therefore neither can justice or the hope and friendship, which is the 'glue' of society. Without the basic precepts for conduct, humanity is not even properly 'human'. These precepts are universals. They are not compromised by time and place, rather the reverse is true, that time and place are often compromised by them. Therefore, when we look back on certain times and we realise how, for instance, the precept not to take life was forgotten, we are horrified and regretful. That which binds and is binding upon us is important, that is why religion is important. World religions give a cultural form, spirit and ritual to these binding precepts; most importantly (and this is what distinguishes the world religions from sect, cults and nonsense) they bring philosophy to bear. The world religions are as philosophically sophisticated as philosophy itself, that is why they are so wonderful.

Matthew Del Nevo


Usman asked:

What is physical fitness?

The traditional aim of Physical Education is to promote the three 'S's: Suppleness, strength and stamina. To these relatively utilitarian physical virtues one might add the aesthetic culture of physique through body-building, and the culture of the mind as well as the body through training in martial arts. All have been pursued in the name of 'physical fitness'.

To talk of 'fitness' immediately begs the question, fitness for what? Chess players as well as philosophers do well to include physical exercise as part of their daily regime. If you are out of shape physically, your mental stamina will suffer. Other vocations — such as fireman or soccer referee, to take two relatively extreme examples — require a rather higher level of physical fitness.

In competitive sport, there is no limit. Paraphrasing the Duchess of Windsor, You can never be too rich or too fit. Yet there are enormous differences between the requirements of different sports. The 400 Pound sumo wrestler would be considered supremely fit for what he is required to do. Sebastian Coe, the famed British middle distance runner of the 80's, reputedly had a heart so enlarged that when resting his heart rate was just six beats a minute. (With a heart as big as that, he would naturally join the Tory party.)

Coe was supremely fit, but as any retired athlete will verify, the added muscle mass requires a continued regime of strenuous exercise or it can become a serious health liability.

The idea of the states of 'fitness' and 'unfitness' as being states of human perfection and its opposite traces back to the Ancient Greeks. The Olympic athletes, gods and heroes celebrated in Greek statues are the closest approach to a visual representation of Plato's Form or Idea of 'Man'. The notion survives with a smattering of scientific respectability in Darwin's theory of evolution: to be physically fit is to attain the ideal physical form that evolution has designed for us. If we could read our genes, we could draw a blueprint of the perfect body that would have been ours if only we had looked after it properly. — But then I am forgetting that some do far better than others in the genetic lottery. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, so the saying goes.

What would the Ancient Greeks have made of the Paraplegic Olympics? Plato and Aristotle would have surely recognised that what we celebrate when we celebrate athletic and sporting achievement is not mere physical perfection or skill but the perfection of the moral qualities of courage and endurance as well as the intellectual qualities of resourcefulness and inspiration.

I would say the same of body-builders, an art unjustly sneered at by the sports mainstream. Over the last few decades, female body building in particular has gone off into the stratosphere, with women achieving physiques once undreamt of, which judged by the Platonic Idea of 'Woman' would be considered a grotesque parody of a human being. Yet surely here the achievement is just as great as with those who attain to the heights of any sporting or athletic activity. To achieve the highest distinction the same mental qualities are required, and it is these that we admire, as much as we admire the superb definition of a person's triceps.

Perfection of body and mind is the ideal. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the martial arts. Bruce Lee, the exponent of Jeet Kune Do — popularly known by the generic term 'Kung Fu' — is most widely known for his film roles. Yet it was his genius as a teacher and practitioner of martial arts rather than as an actor that inspired and continues to inspire tens of thousands of men and women to take up the different martial arts disciplines. It is less well known that Lee studied Western as well as Eastern philosophy to a high level. Always suspicious of compartmentalization, Lee sought for wisdom and enlightenment wherever it could be found — in Kant and Hegel as much as in Lao Tzu or Confucius — just as he taught that there is no right way but only your way, the path you have forged through your personal endeavour for self-perfection.

Geoffrey Klempner


Eliza asked:

If I want to study philosophy of mind, what do I begin with?

A good place to start is the article on philosophy of mind and language in Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject Volume 1 (ed. Grayling, OUP). I recommend The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle for its humour, method, and down to earth treatment of the mind-body issue. Problems of Mind by Norman Malcom is a good start in coming to understand Wittgenstein's philosophy of mind.

A more ambitious read would be Philsophy of Mind by Jaegwon Kim who writes there on a variety of positions. It would also introduce you to the debate surrounding Donald Davidson's anomalous monism which is important. Thomas Nagel's article 'What is it Like to Be a Bat' (which you can get online at http://jamaica.u.arizona.edu/~chalmers/online.html) is a classic reading in which he gives a solid defence of property dualism. I also recommend Mind and World by John McDowell which I'm reading at present. There can be a lot of weird terminology so it is worth writing down words like 'epiphenomenalism', 'multiple realisibiity' and the other strange wonders one comes across. The best of luck!

A. Gatward

You can begin with any introductory book to the philosophy of mind. There is a collection of essays which cover the general issues in the philosophy of mind called The Philosophy of Mind edited by V. C. Chappell.

Rachel Browne


Maria asked:

Is Rawls' liberalism male biased?

Does Rawls' 'Theory of Justice' presuppose a dubious conception of the self?

Rawls' Theory of Justice reflects a Freudian and Lacanian account of the subject. These psychoanalytical theories of the structure of the subject can be seen from a first-person perspective to give a plausible idea of the self.

The person in Rawls' "original position" is abstracted from a subject in real life. He does not operate within the world of particular situations and so does not act on desires or have personal interests. The person is an abstract ethical subject who sets principles of fairness. This abstract ethical subject corresponds to Freud's notion of the Superego, and also the Lacan's Name of the Father. The Superego, an internalisation of the parental function, is the moralising part of the mind which lays down the law.

Freud called the instinctual part of the mind the "Id" and the organised, realistic part the "Ego". The subject who has desires and interests in particular situations corresponds to the Id/Ego.

The Superego does not simply lay down the law, but can contribute pleasure to the desiring subject — Freud admits this when he claims that the Superego is responsible for humour. Therefore, it can be allowed that the abstract ethical subject of the original position — reflecting the Superego as it does — is able to choose "principles which do not defeat his desires".

The same duality between ego and moral force — the Name of Father — is part of Lacan's theory of the subject. The Name of the Father has a lawlike function of suspending desire, and is more negative than Freud's Superego but is a similar ethical force.

From the first-person perspective of the self we are aware of an internalised moral code which acts as a dampening force upon desires in real life situations. It is surprising, and to Rawls' credit, that his Theory of Justice mirrors theories of the structure of the mind which are still adhered by some schools of psychoanalysis today.

Rachel Browne


Michelle asked:

What do philosophers understand by the term 'qualia' in relation to the mind-body problem and the subjective character experience?

'Qualia' (the plural of 'quale', pronounced 'kwar-lay') is the name invented for something which is alleged to exist, the incommunicable subjective character of conscious experience conceived as an object of knowledge of the unique individual whose experience it is.

I say 'alleged' to exist, because I don't believe that qualia do exist. In my view (not all philosophers would agree with me) qualia fall into the same category as vital force, phlogiston and the philosophers stone.

Before we get into exactly what qualia are, or are thought to be, or how the idea of qualia impacts on the mind-body problem, we can defuse one powerful motive for embracing the idea of a species of object that is capable of being known by one unique individual, and by no other:

It seems overwhelmingly likely that the nature of brain states is such that information is encoded — a better term would be encrypted — in a manner that renders that information incapable of being directly accessed by any person other than the subject whose brain it is. I will not try to argue that here. What this means is that there is a perfectly good sense in which only I can know what it's like to be feeling this pain, or to be experiencing the genesis of this philosophical idea, or remembering when... . Of course, these things can be put into words. I have just done so. But words only go so far. Try describing a sunset to someone who can't see it. The difference is that the sunset is out there for all to see, whereas my conscious states are in me. I cannot show them to you, I can only tell you what they are 'like'.

The difference between qualia and subjective states as ordinarily conceived is that the occurrence of a quale is only contingently related to the world outside the subject's mind. We could both be experiencing the thing we call 'sky blue' or the thing we call 'feeling giddy', and the object that came into my mind when I looked up at the sky, or when I stepped off the roundabout could be totally different from the object in your mind. As I remember thinking when I was a child, 'what I see as blue others might see as red and vice versa, and we would never know'. Or, better still, since you and I are physically different, consider a precise cell for cell, proton for proton copy of you on Twin Earth. When you and your 'doppelganger' look up at identical blue skies, there is no implication that your quale of blue is the same 'colour' as your doppelganger's quale of blue.

This thought experiment can be taken one step further, as a refutation of the materialist view of the person. Your doppelganger might not have any qualia at all. So far as your doppelganger was concerned, all might be darkness inside. Physically you are identical. You walk the same walk, talk the same talk. But you are a subject of experience while your doppelganger is a mere zombie.

(Incidentally, there is a hilarious cartoon of a 'Zombie with Qualia' at the foot of the Pathways launch page by former Pathways student Glyn Hughes.)

As I said, I don't believe in qualia. I don't believe that there could be a physical 'zombie double' of me, so I reject this ingenious argument for mind-body dualism. As Wittgenstein demonstrates brilliantly in his destructive critique of the idea of a 'private language' in the Philosophical Investigations, we think we are talking about objects of knowledge when in reality we are merely babbling.

Geoffrey Klempner


Bernadette asked:

What is your philosophy regarding the topic "reincarnation"? Who are the other philosophers included in our history have discussed about this topic? In what period in philosophy does this topic is given emphasis? What religions believe in reincarnation?

The idea of reincarnation is not all that important in the western philosophical tradition, although one can find traces of the notion here and there. It was present in the writings of the church father Origen for example, but the emperor Justinas banished talk of reincarnation from Christianity in the 6th century. Origen thought his view in accordance with the pre-Socratic philosophers Pythagoras and Empedocles (c.500 — 450 BCE) and also with Plato in thinking that the soul enters the body influenced by past deeds.

The idea is that because of the changeable nature of the body, the soul eventually moves on to a new one. In De Principalis Origen held that the place of the soul in the world is determined by its past virtues and shortcomings. In the modern period, Descartes, Berkeley and Kant are three very different philosophers who believed in the immortality of the soul if not in rebirth as such. Locke even has a thought experiment in which a poor cobbler 'wakes up in the body of a prince' — the idea being that you could change your material identity without a change in your personal identity.

The idea is also found in ancient eastern philosophy, most notably in the Upanishads and belongs to an outlook very different from our own (and probably that of ancient Greece too). Hindus believe that the wisdom of the Upanishads is as old as time itself, but the texts were written some time between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE.

"This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth death and rebirth. Round and round it turns...as long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel of bondage to the laws of birth death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realises its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer" (Svetasvatara Upanishad 118).

So the idea is that "a mortal ripens like corn, and like corn is born again" (Katha Upanishad I.1.6).

A number of things are unclear; what do the 'laws' of birth, death and rebirth consist in? Are they physical laws or transcendent laws? We do not know of any physical laws governing rebirth. And any transcendent world must be wholly 'other', so it is unclear that it makes much sense to speak of laws at all. If there were transcendental laws we wouldn't be able to say or know anything about them. So talk of laws loses some of its force.

In what sense is it possible for a person or a self to exist separately from a body? Believers in reincarnation seem fundamentally committed to a kind of substance dualism between self and body that just seems wrong to a modern (Western) understanding of the self. And if there is no such thing as self — if self is illusory as the Upanishads hold — then what is it that is reborn? Philosophers today often think that the persistence of a self is simply the persistence of a body or material object and that this fulfills all the identity conditions at issue. If this is true, then there is nothing to be reborn.

Finally, the way I am to be reborn is governed by the meritoriousness of my actions, but to state this so baldly simply begs the question.

In the 19th century, Schopenhauer was influenced by this Eastern idea that each individual 'will' is illusory and is really part of a cosmic will. There is nothing but blind struggle. Scarcely less gloomily, Nietzsche had a doctrine of 'eternal recurrence' in which he imagined the history of the universe repeating itself ad infinitum, exactly the same each time. I'm not sure whether he thought this was literally true, but he exhorted men to make their lives such as they could happily re-live these lives time and again; one might be tempted to think that there is a kinship between the belief in the immortal soul that characterises some Western thought and the Eastern ideas about rebirth and the self. But this is more an issue for anthropology than philosophy.

A. Gatward


Yamilette asked:

  1. What is special about philosophy that distinguishes it from other intellectual endeavors like mathematics, science and history?

  2. Some people have claimed that philosophy is a purely abstract field that is of no help in dealing with practical everyday problems. Based on your characterization of philosophy, what are your views about this?

and Kanokwan asked:

I am wondering...why we must learn Philosophy...and what is the world without philosophy...?

What definition of philosophy, or characterization of its aims, methods or subject matter would encompass all the questions and answers raised on these pages? I doubt whether any would.

There are branches of mathematics, notably set theory and foundational studies, as well as intuitionist mathematics and logic, that have a strong philosophical component. The same is true of quantum mechanics and cosmology in physics. In history, the philosophical question of the nature of historical causation, or the criteria for evaluating a historical explanation are issues that historians themselves discuss and do not merely brush to one side as 'the concern of philosophers'.

We philosophers love to be useful. Philosophers sit on committees debating euthanasia and genetic research. They inspire politicians to write their speeches and election manifestos. But I believe the search for a justification of philosophy in terms of its usefulness ultimately leads to a dead end.

It is a great thing when philosophical puzzlement propels the investigator — the mathematician, or the physicist, or the historian — into aspects of their subject that they had not previously explored, into new approaches and new ways of thinking. For one whose vocation lies elsewhere, the questions of philosophy can be an inspiration, its methods a powerful tool of discovery.

For one whose vocation is to be a philosopher, the sole and complete justification for philosophy is a sense of wonder that pursues questions for their own sake, for no other reason than because one feels gripped by them. For those that need it, the question of justification is irrelevant; for those that do not, the question has no answer.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ian asked:

What is the present state of opinion on Zeno's paradox? Is there now a modern consensus, such as some technical/mathematical solution involving the sum of a series of recurringly divided numbers? Or are certain assumptions in the solution still considered problematic?

There is consensus on the mathematical solution to Achilles and the tortoise. There are claims to have solved the paradox of the dichotomy mathematically (e.g. Max Black Problems of Analysis), but the problem of traversing an infinity of sub-distances is still discussed.

In Time, Creation and the Continuum, Richard Sorabji objects to mathematical solutions which claim that there is not an infinity of spatio-temporal distances but only mathematical points which make up mathematical distances. On Sorabji's view the paradox isn't solved this way, since it still applies to physical points and distances. Sorabji rejects Aristotle's claim that we cannot traverse an infinity (Aristotle thought we could only traverse a potential infinity) and suggests that we accept the paradox and consequences to which it gives rise. If, in ordinary motion, we traverse infinite sub-distances in order to reach our destination then once we have reached that destination we have completed movement over a series of sub-distances. However, there is no final sub-distance that allows us to reach our destination because any sub-distance can be divided: There is always a gap between where you are and the destination. So one consequence for space, noted by Sorabji, is that the sum of sub-distances is not equal to the whole.

Rachel Browne


Ignace asked:

How do you see the relationship between mathematics and philosophy ? If anyone is searching for answers, hasn't he got more chances to find them in proofs in maths than in philosophy ? What makes the study of existing, unproved theories in philosophy more worthwhile than exact sciences?

I see philosophy as studying history more than actually trying to achieve something. There is a relationship between them, but I think by merely studying history, this doesn't give any answers.

One philosopher who would agree with you that philosophy is concerned with 'studying history' — although perhaps not quite in the way that you mean — is R.G. Collingwood. In his Autobiography (1939) and Essay on Metaphysics (1940) Collingwood develops a view of the core activity of philosophy as the study of the 'absolute presuppositions' of different historical periods. Insofar as the fundamental questions of philosophy have an answer, that answer consists in a description of the different standpoints from which the universe and our place in it has been conceived at different times, rather than a search for the one correct or true standpoint.

While I find that Collingwood's account of truth in terms of seeking an 'answer to a question' is a valuable reminder that explanations — say, the explanations offered by the historian, or the philosopher — are relative to interest, that truth depends at least partly on what you are looking for, his historicist view of the nature of philosophy seems unnecessarily defeatist. If Collingwood were right, then we are merely deceiving ourselves when look for answers to the philosophical questions that grip us. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' answer. All we are doing is investigating the presuppositions of our beliefs, rather than setting out, if necessary, to change those beliefs if they fail to correspond with reality.

I think philosophy can change our beliefs. You can take a view that is widely held — say, a view about the nature of free will, or consciousness, or truth — and demonstrate that it is logically incoherent. You can start with a truism, or set of truisms, and derive a conclusion that is very far from being truistic. I don't feel the least bit embarrassed in talking about proving things in philosophy.

Admittedly, proving things in philosophy is not like proving things in mathematics. In mathematics, a proof establishes a result, something that can be put in the text books. As Wittgenstein remarks somewhere, mathematicians do not usually 'come to blows' over whether a particular proof in mathematics is valid. (There are notable exceptions: for example the controversy over the nineteenth century mathematician Georg Cantor's proof of the existence of a hierarchy of infinite numbers.)

In philosophy, we are never completely sure of what we mean. Philosophers work with words, they construct arguments — a dialectic — out of words using logic as their guide. The result is — more words. The words suggest, rather than dictate, a certain way of seeing things, a vision. That in turn generates more words, more dialectic, and so the process continues apparently without end. One either has a taste for this kind of activity, or not. You evidently don't!

Geoffrey Klempner


Orla asked:

I am writing an essay for college on Aristotle's doctrine of the Mean. I would appreciate help in understanding this doctrine.

The famous doctrine of the mean states that every human virtue is a 'mean' between two extremes — one of excess and defect. Each extreme is a vice, and Aristotle examines various virtues in order to show that this is so. For example courage is a mean between the extremes of fear on one hand and confidence on the other while modesty a mean between being reserved and being too proud. Moderation is a mean between indulgence and abstinence. One can think of any number of others.

It seems far from complete however; truthfulness for example does not fit into this scheme. According to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 1108) truthfulness comes between boastfulness and false modesty. But this is a restriction of 'truth' to truthfulness about ourselves. So the resulting theory is a bit bland and seems to boil down to the claim that sensible and mature reflection is sufficient to answer serious ethical questions.

Aristotle notes that it is difficult to apply these descriptions to particular cases and thinks that ethics is an imprecise discipline; modern moral philosophers think that this is where things start to get interesting, however, not where they end. To characterise virtues so generally seems hardly adequate. On a more humourous note, Bertrand Russell gives the example of a mayor who adopted Aristotle's scheme. At the end of his term of office this mayor announced in a speech that he had tried to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other. Russell would be right to think that 'the view of truthfulness as a "mean" seems scarcely less absurd'.

A. Gatward


Ashley asked:

I have to put the "meaning of life" into 1500 words. Any suggestions as to where I should start?

I was thinking of approaching this from somewhat of a taoist perspective. I have this theory that all of our souls are standing in the middle of a vast ocean and we each have a cup. It seems as though the purpose or meaning of life is to fill our cup as full as possible, each drop of water representing material possessions, knowledge, power, etc. but what we are failing to realize is that each drop of water knows only how to be a part of the ocean. As we try to posses and separate each drop of water it loses its sense of truth. So the real purpose or meaning of life is to dump out our cup, and learn how to swim. (This of course, is the abbreviated version.) Am I headed in the right direction?

I think you should go with your idea. There are two fundamental ways of approaching the question of 'The Meaning of Life': from the point of view of analysing the problem, or by simply presenting a solution. You have chosen the second alternative, and there's nothing wrong with that.

You describe your (very poetic) image as coming from a 'taoist perspective'. It would strengthen your case enormously if you could quote from the Tao Te Ching at suitable points in the essay.

Another thing to consider might be how 'the truth is in the whole' or 'the meaning is in the whole' connects with Absolute Idealist strands of Western philosophy (Hegel, Bradley, Royce).

The idea of connecting the idea of 'the whole' with giving up possessions is preeminently Marxian. If you could find a way to compare Taoist ideas with the things the young Marx says about communism, the evils of money and materialism, and the overcoming of alienation in his 1844 Manuscripts that would be a brilliant coup!

Geoffrey Klempner


Michael asked:

Will the human mind ever surpass technology?

While mankind is able to make technological advances, the human brain is not evolving in a way that allows it to match the technological expertise which it is able to create.

It is probably true that technology will never qualitatively match the human mind in terms of its phenomenological experience.

Rachel Browne


Johanna asked:

I am a Finnish philosophy student and currently struggling with Charles Peirce. I have been asked to do an essay on the following topic: '"Truth is that which to the community ultimately settles down," Charles Peirce. Analyse and evaluate this claim.'

Mr Peirce was a pragmatist, and that's almost all which I know about him. But how to "add" pragmatism into this statement? Can truth be divided into other categories than this? I've been writing something about subjective and objective truth — should his statement be interpreted that he meant community to be the one who defines truth or other way round? Or both ways? What about the word 'ultimately'? Somehow I feel it adds the concept of time to be considered as well. Truth is somehow time dependent, it changes and varies, but ultimately we can obtain it? Not? Ultimately — hard concept to define. Can mean infinitely, can it? I would be really grateful for your help.

What is truth? Or, more precisely, what are we saying about a statement, when we say that it is true? Any account of truth has got to start from the following pair of observations:

  1. When you assert a statement, what you mean to convey is that your statement is true. That is the point of a statement, the target that a statement aims at.

  2. The term, 'true' is the term which uniquely satisfies the following condition: If the statement, 'Snow is white' is true, then snow is white. If the statement, 'Tony Blair is a Martian' is true, then Tony Blair is a Martian. And so on for every statement, true or false, that you can make.

This might make it seem that truth is a simple and down-to-earth notion, but it isn't. These two observations rapidly lead us into a sceptical quagmire. To assert a statement as true is not the same as asserting that the statement has passed every verification test we can think of, or that everyone believes that it is true, or even that the assumption of its truth leads to joy and contentment for all those who hold it. A statement can satisfy any or all of these conditions and still not be true.

The result is that the simple notion of truth as 'what our assertions aim at' appears to acquire deep and imponderable metaphysical significance. When you assert a statement, when you aim your arrow at the truth target, you can never be absolutely sure whether you have scored a hit or a miss. For practical purposes, we assume the truth of things that pass the required tests, while all the time aware that real truth is 'out there' beyond our reach, outside all human experience.

The pragmatist response to this picture is to deny that a 'truth forever beyond our reach' — transcendent truth — is a truth that anyone could be interested in. What we are interested in is what, in some sense, works for us.

A accepted 'truth' that worked for us up until now might still let us down at a future date. So Pierce brings in the idea of convergence in judgements over time. When you assert something as true, what you are claiming is that, over a sufficiently long period, there will be convergence of judgements amongst members of the community — who have had ample chance to discuss and debate the matter — towards the view that the statement in question does indeed work for those who accept it. The possibility that events will prove us wrong, recedes further into the distance until, for all practical purposes, it disappears altogether.

But it is not enough to make the homely observation that outside of a philosophy classroom, no-one is interested in transcendent 'truth beyond our reach'. The simple observations I made earlier about truth appear to commit us to accepting the existence of transcendent truth, whether the ordinary person is interested in it or not. And that is sufficient to cause the metaphysical worry.

That is why as a pragmatist one has to make the final step of showing that there is no transcendent truth out there. To be a true pragmatist, in other words, you have to refute realism about truth. And that is no easy task.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lydia asked:

In my philosophy class we are discussing the notion of Ethical Egoism. I am still confused as to how Ethical Egoism differs from that of Psychological Egoism, and where is the line drawn — if it can even exist. Maybe you can further explain for me!

Psychological Egoism is a theory of human nature and human action, and states, roughly, that humans always behave selfishly. Any action — even an apparently altruistic one — is explained in terms of this theory. We act altruistically in order to be happy, or as a means to some other selfish end. So it is a theory that maintains the impossibility of selfless acts or acts done purely for the sake of the good. We only act, that is to say, when we are motivated by a desire to do so, and those desires are always for our own good; any desire for the good of others is always explained, so the theory goes, in terms of one of our own desires — what we want for ourselves. So it sounds as though we are hopelessly bound by our nature and our desires to act selfishly and that we are unable to act or be motivated by a reason (e.g. that x is good)

Ethical Egoism on the other hand is a moral theory as opposed to an account of human nature, and states that we ought to act selfishly, that the moral good consists in being selfish. As such it is distinct from Psychological Egoism as one can be committed to Ethical Egoism while maintaining that we do not always behave selfishly. One could also be a Psychological Egoist without being an Ethical Egoist and deplore our selfish natures while thinking that we are powerless to do anything about it. As such therefore, Ethical Egoism stands alongside utilitarianism (say) in putting forward a theory of what we ought to do and of what the moral good consists in.

A weakness with the latter position is that it seems not to capture some important aspects of our moral thinking — namely that (in our culture at least) moral goodness is often thought to consist in putting others before ourselves. And equating what is desired with what is good is clearly not right as one can desire things which are immoral.

As far as the former position goes, it is hopelessly weak for the reason that it tries to be a complete theory of human action. That is to say that a psychological egoist seems committed to the position that nobody has ever acted altruistically. Yet such a claim cannot be substantiated empirically and it is also far from being true a priori. Furthermore, the position is unfalsifiable to the extent that all evidence (even contrary evidence, such as a prima facie altruistic act for example) is used in favour of the position. So the psychological egoist leaves no room for the idea of a non-egoistical act, reducing the theory to meaninglessness.

Both positions can be refuted on further rational grounds too; following Thomas Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism, the argument might go as follows.

Premise 1. For certain agent centred reasons there are corresponding non-agent relative reasons.

(e.g.) My thinking in wanting to get rid of my tiresome headache is supported by thinking 'what is so bad about headaches' to which I reply 'it is a painful condition, and it is undesirable to be in pain'.

Premise 2. The fact that one's own condition can move one and that others can be in the same condition as me is sufficient to show that I can be moved by the conditions of others.

Therefore, unless you are a solipsist (who denies that others can be in the same condition as oneself) it is possible to be selfless and this is therefore a requirement of rationality.

This argument, in my view, is one of several knockdown ones against those who are skeptical about the possibility of unselfish action.

A. Gatward

Psychological egoism is pure self-interested egoism and cannot be ethical. To act purely from self-interest is to act in a way most beneficial to oneself without any consideration for the interests of others. It is possible for a psychological egoist to take others' interests into account if this is at the same time to promote his own interests but he will not act simply for others.

Even when the pure egoist appears to care passionately, his feelings will not really be other-directed. R. Gaita points out in Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception that one might love someone so much that one is willing to die for them. This would not make the pure egoist an ethical person. For sure, the egoist would derive no personal benefit. However, this is egocentric insofar as it purely based on feeling. Once love has ceased, the egoist will no longer be willing to die for the other person, so it was not properly in consideration of the other person that he was willing to die in the first place.

Oddly, the ethical egoist cannot act according to feelings. The ethical egoist differs from the pure egoist in that he is able to recognise a duty towards others and act upon it. According to Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ethical egoism issues from the general position of recognizing that it is in everyone's interest that each person acts in his own self-interest. This introduces an ethical obligation insofar as it provides a reason to promote the interests of everyone.

In failing to recognise obligations towards others, the ethical egoist becomes a psychological egoist. Likewise, if he acts according to non-moral feelings such as love.

It is widely thought that ethical actions can never be egoistic because egoism is incompatible with dispositional moral attitudes such as benevolence, altruism and virtue and hence ethical egoism is incoherent. Whether or not this is the case, the notion of duty is an ethical concept which determines the difference between egoism as psychological and egoism which allows the possibility of acting on others' interests.

Rachel Browne


Matt asked:

Explain this statement, discounting the obvious paradox:

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

and this one:

Everything is true, nothing is permitted.

Meaning, explain HOW if nothing is true, everything is permitted and how if everything is true, nothing is permitted. — I imagine you may enjoy this one. I look forward to your response.

If everything is true, then it is true that I am writing this and it is true that I am not writing this, and the same for any other statement and its negation. It also follows from the truth of 'Everything is true' that 'Everything is not true' is true. — Either we are not talking about truth, or the claim is absurd.

Trivially, you can infer the truth of any statement from the truth of all statements, including both the truth of the statement, 'Nothing is permitted' and the truth of the statement 'Everything is permitted.'

The statement, 'Nothing is true' looks at first sight to be making an equally absurd claim to the statement, 'Everything is true'. If nothing is true, then it is not true that I am writing this and it is not true that I am not writing this, and so on. In this case, however, we can understand the claim in a philosophically more interesting way, as the denial that the concept of truth is a meaningful concept. Nothing is true, because the very idea of something's being 'true' is absurd.

Does it follow from the rejection of the concept of truth that everything is permitted? The most radical way to understand the rejection of the concept of truth is as the view that it is impossible to make an objective judgement about anything. All each of us can say, on any question, is 'how things seem to me'. You can't be wrong about how things subjectively seem to you at a given moment in time, and I can't be wrong about how things subjectively seem to me. I do not assert that I am writing this, but only that it seems to me at this moment that I am writing this.

To say that something is not permitted, is to say that the doing of that thing is wrong. However, even if I cannot assert that a particular action is wrong — because that would be making an objective truth claim, and objective truth claims are not allowed — I can still assert that the action subjectively seems wrong to me now. So even on the most radical interpretation of the statement 'Nothing is true,' if an action subjectively seems wrong to me now, then on pain of self-contradiction, I ought not to permit myself to do it.

Geoffrey Klempner


Kirsty asked:

What would you say is the Christian understanding of the creation of the world, both past and present? Do you think religion is pre-scientific when it talks about creation?

The Christian understanding of creation has its origins in the book of Genesis. There are a number of key points to draw out of this; taken alongside what such Christian philosophers as Augustine and Aquinas have said on the subject, you will have a reasonable picture of the Christian position on creation.

The first and perhaps most important point is that the universe was created ex nihilo — out of nothing. Augustine talks about that, and this is clearly where the world came from in the Genesis myth. That is to say that God did not create the world out of pre-existing recalcitrant matter. Plato had held that he did — that the imperfections of the world are due to the limitations that this already existing 'stuff' placed on God. This might be said to place constraints on God's omnipotence however and this to the Christian is unacceptable.

The fact that the world was created 'ex nihilo' also suggests that the world is contingent — it might not have been; God on the other hand is necessary. Yet God created the world for us — man has pre-eminence among the animals and has been made in God's image. You get this idea in Genesis when God sees that creation is good.

But an important element of the doctrine of creation that also needs to be brought out is the idea of continuing creation — creatio continua as its called. This is the idea that the important thing about creation is not what God was up to in the beginning but what he has been up to since — the idea that he has directed or steered creation and that creation is heading somewhere purposefully. From a theological point of view, one needs to decide whether one thinks God is timeless or not; if he is timeless then it makes no sense to talk of what God did before or since anything. Creation is simply one act of God and one that is purposive. Aquinas and Augustine certainly had this conception of God and this is the most philosophically attractive in my view.

But more modern theologians (see Ward, Polkinghorne and others) have preferred to emphasize that there is both a timeless and a temporal aspect to God's nature; in order for mortals to have a relationship with God (which the Genesis story surely suggests is supposed to happen) God needs to have some kind of temporal aspect to his nature. God is seen as involved in time and the progress of our universe; so, roughly, classical Christian philosophy emphasizes the ex nihilo part of the Genesis myth while modern protestant thinking is more geared towards creatio continua.

What both hold to is that the exact "how" of creation is theologically uninteresting; so I think you are quite right to suggest that from an academic standpoint, the creation story is pre-scientific. I would have thought that it was supposed to be that way, concerning itself with a picturesque myth about humankind and why the world is as it is and not a scientific cosmology. It is only fairly recently that people have thought that the Genesis story is literally true. Augustine et al weren't worried or threatened by the possibility that it might not be. So the Christian religion does not conflict with science on that score.

The real problem in this debate is with the idea that the world has purpose in the sense that Christian philosophy supposes; it simply isn't clear from a Darwinian standpoint that one can claim that evolution is purposeful. Most biologists think it isn't; at the very least however the physical conditions necessary for the development of this kind of world are very contingent in that they are improbable given the large number of other possible ways the world could be (unless there are laws we don't know about that make the world the way it is).

So you might think that you have to consider whether it is more probable that the world was created by a God or whether the universe is simply an empty void and provides no grounds for supposing that there were a God; but if one takes that line, then one has to consider separately how likely it is that there should be such a being as God (that is a principle of inductive reasoning) The postulation of a God may make the evidence more likely, the evidence may even make the likelihood of there being a God more than it would have been otherwise, but its not clear that it makes the existence of God more likely than not.

Given our experience of the world, how likely is it that there is an all loving, all knowing, all powerful being? I would have to say I don't think it all that likely at all.

A. Gatward


Jere asked:

Is there really such a thing as fate? Is it God's will that propels us forward or do we make things ourselves as we scurry along through life? My friends and I debate this constantly and are looking for another opinion. Any response would be welcome!

You don't have to believe in God to be a fatalist. But it is an interesting question whether, if an all-knowing God does exist, it follows that everything that happens to us was fated to happen to us, or everything we do we were fated to do.

In the very act of creating me, or creating a world in which I was to exist, an all-knowing God must know everything that I will do. No ruse that I can think up can ever take God by surprise. God can see my entire life history, from beginning to end.

That does not mean that I must always do God's will. God's will is that I should be moral and good. Whenever I do wrong, I go against God's will. How is that possible, if in creating the world, God chose me? The answer is that every act of creation — including the creation of the universe itself — involves adjustment and compromise. It is logically impossible that beings who have the power of choosing between good and evil should always choose good and never evil. For any single wrong action that I might do, it was indeed in God's power to have created a universe like this one with someone like me in it, who chose the right action instead. But in that alternative universe, I would inevitably do wrong on some other occasion.

Even if, in some theologically subtle sense, my doing what God knows I will do is not necessarily doing God's will, it is still rather depressing to think that our lives are mapped out for us in this way. From God's point of view, nothing is new, everything is a foregone conclusion. It is only our ignorance that leads us to thing that 'we make things for ourselves'.

However, throwing aside belief in God is not sufficient protection against fatalism. You can have fatalism without the foreknowledge of an all-knowing God. All that is required is the notion that every statement that one might make, whether about the past, present or future has a truth value, true or false, whether one knows that truth value or not. For example, I do not normally decide what I am going to have for lunch the day before, and even if I did, I would always be free to change my mind. Yet if the statement, 'GK has eggs for lunch tomorrow', has a truth value, if it is already true now or false now, then I have no freedom to depart from the choice I am fated to make.

The solution which philosophers opposed to fatalism have put forward is to deny that it makes sense to talk about the truth or falsity of a statement about the future in terms of its either being 'true now' or 'false now'. To say that a statement about the future is true or false is simply to say that we will know one way or the other, when the time comes.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cassandra asked:

I actually have two questions for you tonight. One is about a question that we were asked in class today, and another is about something that I have a problem with. So here are the questions:

  1. Is "I think therefore I am" an 'a priori synthetic' knowledge statement, and if it is why is it? If it isn't why isn't it?
  2. Also my other question well is more a statement of my own. I would like someone else's view or explanation on it. In my philosophy book, the definition for 'synthetic a priori' goes like this. 'Through reason, independently of experience and expressing information about the world.' (Paraphrased from my notes so it doesn't exactly say that.) My problem with that definition is the examples it gives for these things. One example is that all apples are green. Well to me we gain this knowledge from experience, like if I had never seen an green apple before I would not believe it was green until I myself saw one, and then I would be able to make this statement. So anyway could someone please explain to me what exactly synthetic a priori knowledge is and send me in the right track? Thank you so much for your help.

I think it would help to answer the second question first; a good understanding of what 'a priori synthetic' propositions are leaves one is a strong position to evaluate whether particular propositions are 'a priori synthetic' or not.

Lets take the a priori bit first; in philosophy the phrase is generally taken to mean something like ' without (prior) experience'. Among true propositions, some are true independently of experience and will remain true however individual experiences differ. Mathematical truths, one might think, are a good model for these kinds of truth. 7 + 5 will always equal 12 in our normal number scheme. Other truths on the other hand owe their truth to experience and might have been false had experience differed. This latter set — which are a posteriori truths in the jargon — I take to be questions which we would verify by sense experience. The position of the chess pieces on the board to my left would be determined in an posteriori manner.

Now onto the analytic part: analytic propositions are ones like 'all bachelors are unmarried'. The truth of the sentence is guaranteed by the meaning of the subject. A proposition like 'All bachelors are sensible' would be an example of a synthetic proposition. These kinds of proposition say something substantial and do not simply restate the meaning of the subject (where bachelor here is the subject). They tell us something about the nature of the thing in question, or predicate something of it that is not simply a tautology or a reiteration of the subject's meaning.

Kant famously insisted that the a priori/ a posteriori distinction is not the same as the analytic/synthetic distinction. In other words, not all a priori truths are analytically true (and vice versa) and not all a posteriori truths are synthetically true (and vice versa). It is somewhat uncritical to think that truths that are independent of experience (a priori) are true if and only if the predicate is contained within the subject of the proposition.

It is just as uncritical to think that substantial synthetic claims like 'Every event has a cause' are always known to be true 'a posteriori' or 'through experience'.

Now we are in a position to appreciate what 'a priori synthetic' claims are. 'A priori synthetic' refers to a class of claims which we can make quite independently of our experiences, but which are not true in virtue of definitions alone. That is to say, they are not trivial statements like 'all bachelors are unmarried', but are ones (for Kant) that say substantial things. For Kant, this includes talk of our intuitions of space and time, and the concepts of causation and substance. What he is saying is that I do not form my idea of space from the experience of space; it is a priori just to the extent that the existence of space is presupposed in my experience. And claims like 'All things occur in space' are clearly not analytic, but synthetic and substantial. So they are a priori, but this does not affect their status as synthetic.

This line is in part a response to the empiricist school who famously hold that all knowledge is imparted through sensory experience; what Kant makes clear is that there are claims to knowledge which we make not in virtue of this or that experience, but because the truth of these claims is presupposed in experience on general.

More controversially, Kant also thought that mathematical propositions like 7 + 5 = 12 are synthetically true; it may seem at first that mathematical propositions ought to serve as a prime example of analyticity but Kant holds that the notion 12 is not contained as such in the notions of 7 and 5. That is a real philosopher's question of course, but I think there is something right in Kant's approach to the terminology.

Now to your first question: is Descartes' 'Cogito' an a priori synthetic claim to knowledge? You can judge for yourself. I'm not sure that I think Descartes was entitled to draw the inference that 'I exist' from the fact that 'I think' ; what he should have claimed is that there is a thing that thinks, not that there is an 'I' who thinks it. But as to its a priority, we can be pretty sure that when we think, we do so independently of sensory experience. I do not need an experience to verify that I am thinking — the fact that I am thinking about thinking confirms that I am thinking. And I don't believe that the notion of 'thinking' strictly contains the idea of 'existing', although one might engage with that by saying that thinking requires embodiment or something of that sort. But broadly it seems right that 'I think therefore I am' is an a priori synthetic proposition. Whether Descartes' 'I exist' is a true claim, or a claim to knowledge is however another question.

A. Gatward


Jasper asked: Gentlemen, my question is of a difficult nature, but one which philosophers have been wrongly charged with neglect over by certain individuals in countries with little tolerance and a large bill of rights at the cost of others.

The question is, "Are persons who suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder and other disassociative ailments culpable for illicit behaviour if an individual agent acts without the primary agent's (whichever one that means) knowledge?" Now I am talking murder here, gentlemen! And this is no game!

I'd ask those who tackle this question to consider:

  1. Are or do MPD suffers defined as beholding of solo personness, although other individuals compete within the same mind/ body for differing states of consciousness/being?
  2. If they are not culpable for their actions, in what ways does or should similar altered states be acknowledged as innocent before the eyes of the law?

This is not really a philosophical question, but one of jurisprudence, which I will attempt to answer from the point of view of courts in early 19th century England, since there seems to have been a clearer consensus on the legal definition of insanity and how it applied to culpability than is the case today.

The question hinges on whether the person is sufficiently in his right mind to understand the consequences of his actions and to know the difference between right and wrong. A person can be quite irrational and still be aware of the consequences of what he is doing. Suppose I believe I am Napoleon, despite all the objective evidence to the contrary, and perform some action while I am suffering from this delusion. Am I responsible for it? Yes — it was still my mind and my body which performed the action, and therefore, my mind and my body are the only ones which can be held accountable, even though the unquiet shade of Napoleon might be considered to have temporarily taken over. Conversely, if I were to make a significant scientific discovery while believing myself to be Napoleon, I would not regard this as a reason to omit the discovery from consideration in promotion and tenure cases.

Multiple personalities are commoner than is generally realized; they tend to attract notice only when one of the personalities is seriously antisocial. Everyone, at some level, has several selves, and the 'true' one may not be the same in all contexts.

Martha Sherwood (not currently Napoleon)
Ecology and Evolution Program
University of Oregon

There is a difference between culpability and responsibility. In the eyes of the law the physical person is recognised as culpable which is necessary for the protection of the public. If the physical person has more than one persona it can be recognised that only one of these is responsible. To an extent, English law makes allowance for a condition such as MPD.

To intend the death of a person and to carry out the act is to have full responsibility and to be culpable in the eyes of the law for murder. If a person's action results in the death of another it is only classed as murder if it is intended. A person suffering from MPD may claim that death was intended by one persona, while another persona was innocent. This would be to make use of a defence of diminished responsibility, i.e. the law recognises that such a person cannot be held fully responsible. However, because the law must protect the public from actions of the physical person, the sufferer will still be subject to a lesser charge of manslaughter.

Rachel Browne


Mia asked:

I have lately been studying Plato's Apology. What exactly does it tell us about Socrates? According to the Apology, who is a philosopher?

Although Socrates claims in The Apology "I neither know nor think I know", he also claims to be a philosopher and teacher. His form of teaching has to be distinguished from the recognised teaching of the day, which was by orators. An orator assumes he knows what, for instance, virtue and excellence are and speaks with eloquence on the matter, but has not properly analysed the concepts. Socrates does not have theories but engages in discussion. When Socrates interrogates, examines and cross-examines he does not come forth with eloquent speeches, but asks questions and instills those with whom he engages in dialogue with doubts, making them admit their ignorance. In this way, the interlocutors, like Socrates, no longer know. An orator can set himself up as a wise man by means of his eloquent speeches and Socrates derogates this as simply "thinking that you know". Only if you admit your ignorance will you be in a position to seek wisdom and this is simply because you are aware that you lack it. Socrates' interlocutors are reduced to ignorance, but his method of discussion has shown them how to think, so as such he is a teacher.

Rachel Browne


Sean asked:

Please could you shed some light on Kant's strategy for reconciling morality with natural determinism.

Another way of looking at this question is this: how is there room for moral responsibility if we live in a determinist set-up? How could we merit praise or blame for our actions and take responsibility for what we do if we are not free agents? And if we believe in the law of universal causality, how can we be free?

These kinds of important question can be considered through examining what Kant is up to in his critical philosophy.

Part of Kant's strategy in his First Critique (The Critique of Pure Reason) is to offer a distinction between 'appearance' and what he calls the 'thing in itself'. Appearances, roughly, are the way things seem to be to beings such as ourselves (I'm not going to dwell on the technicalities of the distinction). The idea is that in part, the way we see the world is determined by our cognitive faculties. The world in itself — divorced from our standpoint — may in fact be completely different from how it appears.

What is important to draw out of this distinction is the claim that we have objective knowledge of the world of 'appearance', but cannot have knowledge of the 'thing-in-itself' (he offers some good arguments for this).

A second concern in the First Critique is to show the universal validity of the foundational principles of the scientific world view, including that of universal causation. Causation had been subjected to a devastating skeptical attack by Hume, but a skepticism that is deeply unsatisfying. How therefore can we have the universal causation that is an objective feature of the world AND the freedom necessary for moral responsibility? If all (physical) events have causes, how can there be room for the freedom necessary for moral responsibility?

That these foundational principles can be proved only for the appearance of things means that at the very least one can meaningfully consider that things as they are "in themselves" may not actually be governed by these laws at all, or that they may be subject to completely different laws we don't know about. Thus one can coherently consider oneself as a free agent not bound by the deterministic grip of nature, but (in Kantian terms) bound only by the moral law which is a law of rationality.

Kant's famous comment "I must therefore suspend knowledge to make room for belief" should be read in this light; he is not claiming that knowledge must be limited in order to allow some non-rational basis for belief about important aspects of morality. Rather he seems to be saying, instead, that limiting the foundational principles of the scientific world view to the way things appear is necessary not only in explaining its own certainty, but also to enable us to consider ourselves as rational agents not constrained by the deterministic grip of nature but who are free to govern ourselves by the moral law as dictated by practical reason.

Kant attaches considerable importance to the autonomous nature of morality; the moral good is not laid down for us, but is a part of rationality. There is however a sense in which understanding the moral law requires us to act upon it. In this sense we are not free — the moral good is determined by a universal law of rationality. This is where he introduces the Categorical Imperative. The objectivity of the moral law also constitutes a reasonable argument for the existence of God.

This seems to be why restricting natural determinism to the world of appearance allows him to make the claim that we are moral beings, and that our status as such is thus not inconsistent with natural determinism.

Does it follow that if we reject the phenomenon-noumenon jiggery-pokery and also believe in natural determinism, then there is no room for moral responsibility? That depends on whether you are a compatibilist or not — whether or not you think there is room for freedom in a determinist world and that this type of freedom would be worth having. Perhaps all that free action requires is thinking that you are making a choice — I freely read a book at lunch time, although if I didn't, ruffians would break into my study and force me to read it upon pain of death. This move counters so-called liberty of indifference (which states that acting freely requires being able to act otherwise) because even though I couldn't have acted otherwise, I still acted freely. If I had chosen NOT to read the book, I would not have been free to do so.

Whether you accept this line or not is itself, I suppose, a matter of choice!

A. Gatward

For Kant, natural determinism which we see as causal law is not a product of experience of the world, but the way in which the mind structures the world. We introduce the idea of natural causal laws ourselves. If a moral action has a non-moral natural cause, there is no real moral description.

Kant's answer to the problem is to reject the external reality of natural causation.

Both causality and the concept of freedom are principles of pure reason. As rational beings acting in accordance with reasons we cannot act without conceiving ourselves as free and we conceive of ourselves as having the freedom to obey moral law. Likewise, we cannot but makes sense of the world except as being governed by natural laws.

That there really are natural laws which interfere with our freedom to act morally is not a real conflict because our ideas of freedom and causality issue from the same source.

Rachel Browne


David asked:

Can you explain this? When I am just about to fall asleep and am relaxed, I get a sudden horrendous and violent dive into sleep and then straight into wakening state....

One theory has it that this is an inherited characteristic passed down in the genes dating from the time when man lived in trees. The jerking awake is a security device which allows you to check your position in the tree before falling asleep.

But a more credible explanation is that as you begin to fall asleep your blood pressure drops sharply and the heart reacts immediately by pumping the blood faster to raise the pressure.

Rachel Browne