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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 1 (2nd series)

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(1) Aeron asked:

What is the difference between a Catholic and a Muslim?


First: There is no difference, since they both are humans with only different religious convictions. This is similar to speaking different languages. You can change a language and so you can change a conviction.

Second: Catholics are Christians, and Christians are defined by some creed, usually the Nicene creed. This confesses dramatic things. Look it up under http://www.mit.edu/~tb/anglican/intro/lr-nicene-creed.html.

Added to this are some specific Catholic convictions that are not agreed on by protestants or by orthodox Christians. But I will ignore these.

Now Mohammed was not Allah's son and not any incorporation of Allah but only his prophet, receiving the Quran spoken from Archangel Gabriel and then writing down what he has heard and spreading the message (NOT the Gospel!). By this Mohammed is comparable to one of the Jewish Prophets.

But the essential aspect is a very different concept of God himself: While in Christianity God is saving mankind from his wrath by becoming a true human and the scape-goat of mankind sacrificed at the cross "to bear our sins" but resurrecting (since he is God) from the dead, and ascending to the heaven, nothing of this complicated ritual is known to Islam. Allah may be wrathful then and now, but he never feels he has to extinguish the whole mankind for restitution of his honour. Thus there is only Allah but no son, nor crucifixion, no resurrection, no ascension to the heaven — and no Holy Spirit coming down on Pentecost either.

In short: While Christendom is a "dramatic" religion centered on sin and salvation, Islam only "calls the faithful to adore and honour Allah, to follow his commands and to trust in him" (which is the verbal meaning of "islam"). There is no "drama" in Islamic religion, but much piety. In view of this one has even called Islam "similar to Protestantism", since Protestantism is centered around "the Word" (i.e. the Bible) and nearly without those many rituals and sacraments characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church. But this is misleading: Even the Protestant Church is full of Christian "drama" of sin and salvation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, that are all so utterly alien to Islamic thinking and feeling.

The Islamic religion simply sees all humankind under the guidance and protection of Allah — nothing less and nothing more. In Islamic feeling Allah is seeing into the hearts and into the streets and into the houses, he is "present". This applies with the Christian God too, but this is all they both have in common — besides being the creators of the world.

Hubertus Fremerey


(2) Stuart asked:

What exactly is Russell's suggestion that it is difficult to prove that the world wasn't created only five minutes ago?


I don't doubt that you've already received numerous replies to this, but I'll give you an answer anyway.

It seems you can think of Russell as giving the following argument. I can prove that the world wasn't created five minutes ago only if my evidence that it wasn't created five minutes ago establishes, beyond any possible doubt, that the world wasn't created only five minutes ago.

But my evidence for the claim that the world wasn't created five minutes ago is based on my memories of previous events, and those memories do not establish, beyond any possible doubt, that the world wasn't created five minutes ago. Why not? Because it seems possible that all my memories could have been placed in my mind when the world, along with everything else, was created five minutes ago. If that had happened, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between that world and one in which my memories of things are really memories of things that happened more than five minutes ago. So there is some, admittedly slight, ground for doubt about my memory evidence that the world wasn't created five minutes ago. And since there is some ground for doubt about my evidence, I can't prove the world wasn't created five minutes ago.

Another way to think of it would be this. If I can prove the world existed more than five minutes ago, there would have to be no alternate explanation for the memories I seem to have of things that happened more than five minutes ago. For the memories are the evidence, and they'd only allow me to prove the world wasn't created five minutes ago if the only possible way I would have those memories is by actually experiencing the world more than five minutes ago. But that's just not the only possible way I could have got those memories. For instance, God could have created me five minutes ago and given me what seem to be memories of things that happened long before. This seems unlikely, but it's a possible explanation for my having these memories. And so there is an alternate explanation for the memories that constitute my evidence that things were going on more than five minutes ago, and so I can't prove the world existed more than five minutes ago.

Jacob Miller


(3) Dana asked:

What would be John Locke and Karl Marx views on universal (single-payer) health care for Americans?


If by 'single payer, universal health care' you mean the provision of universal health care by universal taxation to which each citizen contributes, then I've the following answer. If you mean something else — my answer is wrong/!

Karl Marx

Marx would agree to universal taxation to provide for universal health care as a sufficient response to the inadequacies of market and charitable driven health care in a capitalist society such as the U.S.A. Marx would have described this move as prefiguring a society in which most human needs would be provided socially i.e., Socialism as a stage before full Communist society.

Capitalist society he believed would polarise sharply between the property-less and poverty stricken proletariat and a minority of wealthy capitalist owners. Having no other option but revolution, the majority would overthrow the minority and set about creating a society where the means of production, distribution and exchange (including health care) would be socially owned and democratically controlled. As money would still exist at this stage of post-capitalist revolutionary society, each would still contribute according to his/her means towards the upkeep of socialised provision. The language of negative rights, the defence of private property would be seen at best as bourgeois ideology, at worst as the prejudices of the bourgeoisie in the face of mass poverty.

Eventually, at a time when the majority of the world proletariat has triumphed, throwing off the exploitative chains of capitalist exploitation and the material pre-conditions exist, global society will progress towards world communism. The state, money, all coercion will fade away. People will realise their human essence through creative work for each other in the spirit of human solidarity and love.

John Locke

Locke defends the Life, Liberty and Estate of citizens as enshrined in the Natural Rights of people established by Natural Law. Defence and articulation of the natural law is the justification for citizens observing and obeying Government. Government promotes the common good. When it ceases to promote the common good, citizens can seek its replacement.

Government therefore, cannot remove property from people without their consent. Libertarians such as Tibor R. Machan cite Locke in a philosophical defence of their position. Without my consent, other persons and the State have no moral grounds to invade my liberty and take my property (taxes) from me. My legitimately acquired property is my property. As such, it is entirely my concern how I dispose of it.

However, if citizens do decide to devolve part of their property in taxation then this would be legitimate. Socialisation and Nationalisation of property could follow on the same reasoning.

This reasoning arises on the premise of universal franchise. It is a matter of contention whether Locke believed in franchise per se, in franchise for all, or franchise for property owners only.

Martin Jenkins


(4) Cecilia asked:

Can we know something that has not yet been proven to be true?


Depends on what you mean by "proven".

"Proof" is usually considered to be absolute and binary. A proposition is either proven and is therefore absolutely true, or is unproven, and is therefore not true. This is, however, a logical or deductive concept inapplicable to inductive reasoning. In inductive reasoning, you accumulate sufficient evidence to justify a generalisation. You can never "prove" (in the logical sense) the generalisation. Although many people, in casual discourse, use the word to indicate that the inductive conclusion is sufficiently justified to be "almost certainly true". So the question is, in which sense are you using "prove"?

The usual philosophical understanding of "knowledge" is a justified belief in a true proposition. Therefore, if you are using the more logical sense of the word "prove", and you have sufficient justification to believe the proposition is true, and the proposition is in fact true, then you can know something that has not yet been proven to be true.

On the other hand, if you are using the more casual (inductive) sense of the word "prove", and you have sufficient justification to believe the proposition is true, and the proposition is in fact true, then your knowing something is the proof that it is true. So in this sense, you could not know something that is not proven (in the casual/ inductive sense) to be true.

Stuart Burns


(5) Matt asked:

This question doesn't really involve any theories or anything, but you guys would know how to answer this question more than many people I know. Me and a buddy of mine are putting together a philosophy club and we want to know exactly what should go on in a meeting since we are new to the subject as well.


Ok, go here for a society: http://www.philosopher.org/

here, for clubs:

http://www.lclark.edu/~ipp/ http://www.umassd.edu/1Academic/CArtsandSciences/Philosophy/philclub.html

I think that should get you started...

Steven Ravett Brown


(6) Mohammed asked:

I am in the process of writing my first philosophy essay on, "Can androids give birth?" I was wondering if you have any tips or any links to theories I can use.


Can you please define an "android" for me? Now please don't fob me off with a one-sentence description of some creature of fancy. I want a definition. Please look up a dictionary to make sure you know what I mean by a "definition". Once you've done that, and worked out exactly what an android is, I hope you will send your question back here.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(7) Dhvani asked:

What is the philosophical importance of Descartes' discovery that he cannot doubt his own existence? After reading Meditations on First Philosophy I do not seem to understand why doubting your own existence is so important. Could you help me with this one?


I'm not really sure what you're asking here. I think I can say why Descartes thinks his discovery that he cannot doubt his own existence is important.

In the First Meditation Descartes wants to more or less abandon any belief that he can doubt at all. This is way of finding a belief that is completely certain, a belief that he can be absolutely sure is true. If he cannot find any reason to doubt a belief, even the slightest bit, then it's certain in this sense. And the reason he wants to find such a belief (or such beliefs) is that he thinks that he can then base the rest of his beliefs on then, and he will be able to be sure that his beliefs rest on a secure foundation.

The problem is that he seems to have found skeptical arguments that show that there is no absolutely certain belief,that every belief he has is open to some (perhaps very slight) doubt. These are the skeptical arguments he gives in the First Meditation. It might seem, then, that he's doomed to be without an absolutely certain foundation for the rest of his beliefs. And this, clearly, would be a grave problem for his aims in the Meditations.

But this is where the fact that he cannot doubt his own existence comes in. It turns out that he really cannot doubt the belief that he himself exists. For the mere fact of his trying to doubt that he exists, or of his thinking anything at all, clearly shows him that he does exist. So there is no doubt, not even a very slight one, that he exist. Consequently, there is at least one belief that is absolutely certain: that he himself exists. So it turns out that there is a belief of the sort he needs to ground the rest of his beliefs on a secure foundation.

Jacob Miller

Examining the truth and reliability of what he can know is important for Descartes. His method of rigorous questioning and doubting — 'Cartesian Doubt' seeks a truth whose veracity cannot be doubted. The discovery of such a truth will act as a foundation upon which, the structure of human knowledge can be built. If no such truth can be discovered, human knowledge will not have a secure foundation. It will be dubious, contingent and fortuitous — we cannot know anything with 100 per cent certainty. Hence the philosophical importance of Cartesian doubt is to doubt all that is presented before it until (if ever), arriving at that which cannot be doubted. It is a year zero in knowledge — a revolutionary purge of all that can be doubted in order to find truth.

Cartesian Doubt

The doubting of his own existence is the culmination of his methodical doubting. In the First Meditation, there is a general overthrow of beliefs that admit of dubitability. Truth has formally been placed with the evidence provided by the senses. But the senses have proven deceptive and do not qualify as indubitable and secure. Just as you are reading this Dhvani, your senses lead you to believe a computer screen of paper is in front of your eyes. Have you not dreamt of similar situations with similar strengths — as if they were real? But how do you know you are not dreaming now?

Perhaps we are dreaming all the time and nothing is 'real'? Maybe not, for aren't dreams copies of real objects that exist independently of you in the real world? But didn't they think that in 'The Matrix' films? So the senses do not provide secure, indubitable truth which can act as a foundation.

Nevertheless in all images, real or otherwise, there is found extension, quantity, magnitude, number, space and time. These quantities can be measured mathematically and geometrically. Maths and geometry are never wrong. For 2+2 will always =4. A square can never have more than four sides. These are self-evident truths and cannot be wrong without contradiction. So is a foundational truth discovered here?

Descartes considers that God might create them as illusions — just as he might create the illusion that there is a world of objects existing independently of him. God may deceive me that 2+2 really does =4. So mathematics and geometry do not provide indubitable truth.

God is good and cannot deceive. But as Descartes has already written, he is sometimes deceived; so God must permit it. So a good God cannot exist? If a non-deceiving good God cannot exist, human beings are further away from that perfect Power that created them and guaranteed truth. Thus they are more subject to deception.

Descartes adopts the supposition that there is a malignant being that is deceiving him in all that he perceives. The existence of the senses, the body, of extension, of movement and even the existence of a good God are all illusions. If his body and other bodies do not exist then perhaps he does not exist? Doubting the existence of himself is the last line in doubting. He can go no further and it seems nothing can be known with certainty, beyond doubt.


By doubting his own existence Descartes has turned the corner. In doubting whether he exists, something must exist to do the doubting. This is philosophically important as it reveals a truth: that I have to exist in order to perform doubting or to be deceived — I am, I exist. This cannot be doubted without contradiction and this is exactly what Descartes has been searching for.

To repeat, I have to exist in order to doubt my own existence or to be deceived by the malignant deceiver. I am, I exist. Ego sum, ego existo. Descartes has found the foundational truth that withstands critical doubt. The rest of the Meditations builds on this foundation.

Martin Jenkins

Simply this: if life and everything connected with it are totally illusory, perhaps the trickery of an evil demon or just an aberration of evolution; and if furthermore you cannot have certainty that you are a person both unique and integral, then your consciousness as a being is valueless. Then you are not in a position to identify anything whatever in the confidence that you in fact exist or, as Heidegger would say, that you have Dasein. You would be reduced to an object, perhaps invented by the evil demon as a plaything. So the discovery that such a demon can possibly do everything with me except convince me of my own non-existence is the first step towards knowledge of something that really exists. That in logical fact I can't not exist while thinking about existence.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(8) Chazha asked:

What is the level of credibility at which shareholders, stakeholders and other related parties place on the final accounts of an enterprise considering the fact that the phrase "true and fair view" of accounts contains subjective elements?


To what extent shareholders even care about such things depends in part on what objectives they have in holding stock. The first question you should ask is: Do shareholders hold shares so as to grow their capital, or so as to derive an income from their capital?

The public limited liability company was invented as a mechanism to encourage capital to be invested. This was done by laying it down that the shareholders in such a company are not jointly and severally liable for any and all liabilities arising from the endeavour. Smokers can bring a class action suing the tobacco company, but not a class action suing all the shareholders individually. The point of this invention was to reduce the risk to capital to a point where capital wouldn't stay fearfully under the mattress. Money could be reasonably ventured — and thus do work. Positive results of this invention include, it is often said, the industrial revolution, the flushing toilet, etc.

However, in limiting the risk to capital, the limited liability invention does not do away with the risk altogether. While investors do not stand to be personally sued for all they own and can earn, they do still stand to lose those funds invested in the company, e.g. when the class action brought by smokers bankrupts the company, or if capital is frittered away on daily expenses. It is because investors run this risk of losing their capital completely that it became useful and traditional to offer dividends to offset this risk. And because dividends, as an annual return on investment, are in competition with rents on land holdings and such like, it became possible to think of investment in a company as analogous to holding these other kinds of property.

Now, those who hold their shares in this spirit will regard the management of the company rather in the way that a landowner regards his estate manager, ie as a hired help whose job it is to ensure, through wise measures and sound accounting, that the capital continues to accrue interest year on year, just as a soundly managed bit of farmland maintains or increases it's yield. We speak of 'yield' both with wheat and with dividends. This kind of investor cares very much whether "the final accounts of an enterprise... [are a] 'true and fair view' of accounts". Crucially, this kind of investor cares very much about methods for distinguishing running costs from capital investment, and wants to see his money spent on investment in techniques and machinery and personnel that will maintain the ability of the business to make profits and return dividends. There are subjective elements in accounting procedures for identifying capital expenditure here. But it is a particular kind of subjectivity.

Through the consistency of the accounting procedures from business to business ensured by some regulatory standard, the investor can legitimately hope to be able to form a view of how good the management is at managing his 'estate' in comparison with other companies and managements. That this kind of assessment is 'subjective' can be seen to be of less importance than the fact that the variety of subjectivity involved is, so far as possible, made consistent across the board. (Consistency and objectivity here are closely related notions, as can be seen in the idea of objective size and it's connection with the consistent measure guaranteed by the ideal metre rod held in Paris). Given a sufficiently consistent structure of accountancy assessment laid down by the regulators, an income seeking or income farming investor is able to judge the performance of the management against that of other managements, and use the voting power accorded in line with his shareholding to hold the management of the company to account, and ensure that they act properly in their position of trust.

But there is another kind of investor in the picture who really doesn't care about long run dividends, and for whom, in consequence, the soundness or otherwise of a company's accounts is of rather different significance. This second kind of investor can, because of his different relation to the company, exercise a quite distinct influence over the behaviour of the managers to whom he has entrusted his money. This is the more ambitious type, or the more stupid, depending of the degree of success which fate rewards him with.

This second kind of investor is the one who is interested chiefly in capital growth. Capital growth, in this case, means simply a rise in share value. This is an investor who wishes to purchase cheap and sell dear. Here the relation of the capitalist to the capital is like that of a market hawker to his goods, or of a punter to the horses on the racecourse, rather than like that of the farm owner to his land. And since this investor measures the value of his holding not in terms of the income that can be expected to be realised from it in the long term but rather in terms of the money that can be realised by selling the shares, what this investor cares about chiefly is market sentiment.

To refine the horse racing metaphor, there is no 'finishing post' other than the market sentiment at some time in the future. The finishing post is sentiment, not 'fundamentals'. It is the beliefs of other investors about the company that chiefly concern this investor. The quite separate question of whether those beliefs are in fact well founded takes second place, if it is considered at all. It is of little interest to this investor whether the company is well run. What matters to him is that that the company should appear to be well run for those other shareholders who care about these things, if there are any of them left.

This hawker-investor thus, to the degree to which his type is dominant in the ownership of a company, exerts a malign influence on the behaviour of the managers of the company (typically by omission rather than by commission, ie by exerting no good influence or 'scrutiny' over the accounts), who begin to care more about the current market share value than about assessing the ability of the capital invested to generate reasonable levels of income in perpetuity. The effect of this kind of change of emphasis can be seen most dramatically realised in the case of Enron, but in fact the danger is a structural one, in proportion to the preponderance of investors seeking capital growth before income return. It is the achilles heel of anglo-saxon capitalism, and the reason why we get boom and bust in all kinds of markets.

In the case of this second kind of investor, the right answer to your question, "What is the level of credibility... which shareholders, stakeholders and other related parties place on the final accounts of an enterprise?" is: None at all. They don't care. They might care about market reaction to the final accounts, but they do not care about the accounts in themselves. And because the investors don't care, the probity of the accounts comes more and more to rely solely on the insight and activity of the regulatory regime, rather than, as was previously the case, on both the regulatory regime and the owners operating in tandem.

David Robjant


(9) Jim asked:

How can I know what is "real" and what is not real? I just finished reading a lot about George Berkeley and am more confused than ever.


First: Don't confuse Bishop Berkeley and "reality". Think what you would call reality and then look up what Berkeley said on this.

Remember the Matrix-Film: Reality is a nervous thing. If you get all the feelings and sensual impressions needed to make you see a juicy piece of steak then it will "be" such a piece of steak, even if "in reality" it is only a piece of bread. Thus where is "reality" — in the "thing" or in the "think". This is the way British "empiricism" looked at the problem ("Locke, Berkeley, Hume").

There is quite another sort of "reality" in idealism: What is the reality of gravitation? You don't see or feel it directly. You only feel its consequences when carrying luggage or falling down. You may call this "empirical" too, but it is not really, since you need mathematics to formulate its "law", and you need much more complicated theories to "explain" it.

Then there is "God's grace": While it was heavily on the minds of Luther and Calvin, it was not on the minds of Plato or Cicero and not on the minds of Kant or Marx either. So in what way is it "real"? You may say in this case that "Plato could not know — he had to await the coming of Christ!" Well, but Kant and Marx DID know — and didn't care. Then you may say "Yes, but those were not spiritual persons!" Well again, but the Dalai Lama seems to be a spiritual person and knows and still does not care. Thus it is a difficult sort of reality.

Where is the reality of "Moonshine-sonata"? Is it in the sheet-music, in the piano, in the head of the pianist, in the sound-waves, in the heads of the listeners? It's all at the same time. This is one aspect. But there is another: What do you CALL in this case "the reality of the sonata"? The notation, the sounds, the feelings? They all are in some way "related to the sonata" in a specific way, i.e., it is THIS sonata played at THIS moment etc. and not another piece of music played at another occasion. Thus it is about as complicated as "God's grace".

Start from these hints and terrorize your friends and relatives with finding other examples of "reality", then you will become a good philosopher. Berkeley started the same way. Have fun!

Afterthought: Of course there is much more to be said on Berkeley and his "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"). Since he was a bishop living in the first time of "Enlightenment" much of his arguing was theological and by this is barely understandable today. On the objection that a tree would become non-existent every time nobody is there to perceive it he answered "Well, but there is always God to perceive it!" In your understanding this may seem a dirty trick, but in Berkeley's time it was not. By differentiating between the objects we are thinking and speaking of and the objects "that are there" he paved the way to Kant.

Indeed, Berkeley is really hard to understand because to understand him right you have to know explicitly the whole background of the debates of his time (which, by the way, applies to most philosophers and philosophical arguments). Thus in "The Columbia History of Western Philosophy", edited by Richard H. Popkin in 1999 (Columbia University Press), one finds on p.450 (cited from http://www.questia.com):

Once upon a time it was more or less taken for granted that the three British empiricists were linked by their views on substance: Locke had two, mind and matter; Berkeley analyzed Locke's matter away and so had only mind; Hume used Berkeley's analytical method to dissolve mind and thus was left with no substance at all. It now seems clear that Berkeley is explicitly a defender of a doctrine of substance, while Locke is a much more rigorous opponent of substance than was earlier appreciated and might even entertain the possibility that matter might think. For three quarters of the twentieth century — thanks initially to the work of Berkeley's editors, A.A.Luce and T.E.Jessop — Berkeley's indebtedness to Descartes, Malebranche, and Bayle has been scrutinized and his debt to Locke much reduced. Hume's debt to Berkeley has also been reexamined. The internal textual evidence is scanty, but from a letter of Hume's we know that he recommended to a friend that he read Berkeley, Bayle, and Malebranche. In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume praises Berkeley for his discovery of the argument against abstract ideas.

The whole confusion of "realism" and "idealism" arises from "abstracting" our ideas of some object from this object itself. Since we never can know of "the object itself", Berkeley suggested to drop it and be content with the ideas of it. In essence he said: "What we are debating are our concepts of reality, not reality itself. But our concepts are derived from our perceptions." HOW they are, this was left to Hume and Kant to show — at least in part.

Perhaps try to see it this way: How do we know of atomic nuclei? What we really know of are only some indications of volt-meters and counters etc.. The atomic nuclei are nothing else than "theoretical constructs" derived from those "primary data". Now you could say that there are no nuclei at all but only "theoretical constructs". But do you really think that a nuclear power-plant is generating electricity "from theoretical constructs"?

For "common people" like you and me problems of this sort seem absurd, but for philosophers they are not, because philosophers want to know what we are speaking of. What about God — is he "a reality", even the "utmost primary reality", or is he "a mere theoretical construct"? If you tend to answer to the latter, than think of the power-plant again. Yes, it IS difficult!

No, I didn't give you a clear answer. You may be even more confused than before. But Berkeley was at least as much as you are. That's philosophy.

Hubertus Fremerey


(10) Kira asked:

My question deals with coherentism. I am trying to piece together my own thoughts about it, but don't have a lot of arguments against it, besides that the chain of beliefs could not be true through justification. That they are consistent and connected, but there are no grounds to base them off of. I was looking for further opinions and ideas against coherentism. It would be of great help I am a college student writing a paper on it. Thankyou and God Bless!


Yes, that's a good and classic objection to it. The only person that I know, of any real stature, who takes something like coherentism seriously now is Rorty, and he's a relativist... which is what you have to be to be a coherentist, in my opinion, at least. So you might read some Rorty. Also, for some arguments for and against argument for coherentism, take a look at:

BonJour, L. 1985. The structure of empirical knowledge. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hare, R. M. 1996. Foundationalism and coherentism in ethics, edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M. Timmons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, D. K. 1994. Epistemic competence and contextualist epistemology: why contextualism is not just the poor person's coherentism. The Journal of Philosophy 91 (12):627-649.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and M. Timmons. 1996. Moral knowledge?: new readings in moral epistemology. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R.C.S. 1989. The coherence theory of truth: realism, anti-realism, idealism. Edited by T. Honderich, International Library of Philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge.

BonJour, for example, in the above book was a coherentist... but later changed his mind.

Steven Ravett Brown


(11) Helena asked:

Would Epicurus agree with the use of his name in today's society? Why?


No, he would not. When we call someone an "epicurean", or when we describe a lifestyle as "epicurean", we are pretty much talking about the opposite of what he taught. His philosophy was essentially, drink plain water and eat dry bread, and much more of the same in relation to other walks of life. The whole terminology we use is really nothing but a bizarre mistake. Maybe is started as a sarcasm?

Jürgen Lawrenz


(12) Jeanelde asked:

If God is all loving and His Grace covers all then why is there suffering in the world? Can we really trust our senses?


You're basically talking about what philosophers call "the problem of evil" here; this is the problem of reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil (in this case, suffering) in the world. I don't have any good response to this problem, but I can list for you some ways in which others have answered it.

(1) Deny that God is omniscient, or that He is omnipotent, or that He is morally perfect. The problem only seems to arise if God has these characteristics; otherwise, we can have a perfectly good explanation of why there is some suffering. If God isn't omniscient, then he may not know about all the suffering or he may not know how to stop it. If either of these is the case, we can make sense of why God doesn't eradicate all suffering. If God isn't omnipotent, then he may simply be unable to step in and stop all the suffering. If God isn't morally perfect, then he may not be concerned with stopping all the suffering.

(2) Claim that the suffering that God does allow leads to greater good than we would have if there weren't such suffering. Basically, the move here is to argue that the world would be a worse place if God had stepped in and stopped whatever suffering there is. God wants to make the best possible world, and the best possible world had to be one in which people suffered in this way. And people who defend this argument usually appeal to cases where it seems plausible that suffering actually leads to more good. So they talk about how you need to suffer in order to fully understand the good things in life, or how the suffering of some people allows others to be charitable and compassionate towards those who suffer, and so on.

(3) A connected move is to argue that we wouldn't really think there is evil in the world if we saw things from God's perspective. We have a limited perspective on the world, and so we do not understand the whole of God's plan. If we did, we would see that there really isn't any evil in the world. People often draw an analogy with art here. If you look at only a small part of a painting, it may seem to you that it's not very beautiful. But then if you step back from the small part and look at the whole painting, the painting as a whole may be beautiful. And once you've seen the whole and the part within the whole painting, you'll realize that the part isn't really ugly; the part needs to be understood in the context of the whole painting, and the part makes an essential contribution to the beauty of the whole. And then they argue something similar about suffering. In our limited perspective, we see the suffering but we don't see it within God's overall plan. If we did see it that way, we'd be able to see that the suffering has an essential role to play in the goodness of the whole; and so we'd see that it's really good that there is such suffering. Beings as limited as we are simply can't understand God and His ways, and therefore we simply can't understand why God allows suffering. He has some reason to do so, but it's beyond our comprehension.

(4) Some people claim that human free will explains the existence of suffering. They say that God gave us free will, and that this was a good thing. They then argue that the suffering in the world results from human beings misusing their free will. So the suffering in the world is really our fault, and not God's. God couldn't eliminate all the suffering in the world without stripping us of our free will, and it would be worse for Him to strip us of our free will than to eradicate all suffering.

Jacob Miller


(13) Yume asked:

Suppose if we are 'reincarnated', will our reincarnated self have the same mind we do right now?

Will it be the same feeling that we can think in our own minds? Or will it feel as if our reincarnation is someone else?


Those who believe in reincarnation place their faith in the notion that the mind is somehow indestructible. In contrast it is obvious to most people that the body is a disposable entity. Reincarnated persons, therefore, can be considered to be minds which transfer from one body to another. From this point of view genetic succession can only be an attribute of bodies. For example, if a person called Tony Green was to become aware that in a previous life he was a person called Tom Brown, the body he is now occupying as Tony Green would come from a totally different gene sequence to the discarded body of Tom Brown. The names Tom Brown and Tony Green belong to bodies not minds. A connotation of this is that bodies are the properties of families, minds or souls are independent entities, 'real' persons who move from body to body.

Just to introduce a bit of modern dualism, we could consider that if minds are affected by genetic activity, then a mind occupying a body containing 'bad' genes has little option other than to be a 'bad person'. Hence, a person could have been a pirate in one life and a bishop in the next, according to his genome. Those who claim to be reincarnated through several lives often reveal a range of radically different lives from emperor to street cleaner. It is all a bit 'Alice in Wonderland' but I am afraid that this is what we are confronted with if we wish to apply materialist logic to the question.

Reincarnation, like psychic phenomena, does not fit into the current scientific world view, hence it has little support or interest from this direction. What evidence there is available is usually considered dubious and expected to lie within the bounds of psychological explanation. The biggest support for reincarnation is found in the East, particularly India and Tibet.

Two books, each offering opposed views are:

Reincarnation, true stories of past lives. Roy Stemman, Piatkus Books. ISBN 0-7499-2022-X pbk.

Reincarnation A Critical Examination. Paul Edwards, Prometheus Books ISBN 1-57392-005-3.

John Brandon


(14) Mary asked:

Why are gay and lesbian relationships rampant not just in the US but all over the world?


Because, statistically speaking, about ten percent of the human population is gay/ lesbian. The percentage holds accurate (within sampling error) across cultures, races, and the sexes. It is one of the strongest arguments that homosexuality has a genetic basis.

Gay and Lesbian relationships only seem more rampant, because liberally biased popular media always seems to make such a fuss out of a minority struggling for "equal rights", or against big governmental biases.

Stuart Burns


(15) Martin asked:

Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: A connection or a missed encounter?

Any thoughts on this question would be greatly appreciated.


Take a look at New York Times magazine 21 March. It has an interesting article on philosophical counseling.

Steven Ravett Brown


(16) Rosa asked:

I really do not understand the debate among the Presocratics (or even who they are) on the reality of change and plurality and how sensation and abstract thought contribute to knowledge. I have to refer to Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Zeno and Democritus. I have no solid understanding about their debate or who half these people are.


Why don't you write to Dr. Klempner, who runs this forum. He has a terrific Internet teaching programme on the Pre-socratics, if you intend learning about them (The First Philosophers). On the other hand, you might just want a "quick fix". Now I cant possibly give you the information you want in less than about 10 or 12 pages, which you would hardly expect me to do; but then you might as well consult an encyclopaedia under the heading "Presocratic Philosophers", so as to get the basic information on these people. Im sure your Library will put those resources at your fingertips in one minute flat. Try them!

Jürgen Lawrenz


(17) Sarah asked:

Is Descartes right to think that the cogito survives the test of doubt? Could you give any famous philosopher who disagrees?


Bertrand Russell, in his book The Problems of Philosophy (and I think in Chapter 2), denies that the cogito survives Descartes's method of doubt. Descartes thinks he can be certain of the following: I exist. Russell argues that Descartes can really only be certain of this: There are some thoughts that exist now.

Why does Russell think this? Well, he seems to think that the truth of 'I exist' would require that there is some thing, the I that Descartes is talking about, that exists beyond the thoughts. The I, whatever it might be, is some single that that underlies all these particular thoughts I'm aware of now. Moreover, Russell thinks that this I, whatever it is, is something we usually think exists across time. The I that is thinking my thoughts now is the same I that was thinking the thoughts I had a few days ago.

And Russell doesn't think you can be certain that there is any such thing underlying all the thoughts. We can't be certain there is some thing, the I, that has our thoughts and that exists across time. Maybe the evil demon sends a different thing to think our thoughts at every moment, and maybe he makes it seem to us that the same I exists all the time. This seems unlikely, but it does seem possible. And so we can't be certain there is such an I. So Descartes can be certain that there are some thoughts going on right now, but he cannot be certain that there is this I thing that is having them. So Russell doesn't think the cogito can be used to establish with certainty that I exist.

Jacob Miller


(18) HongLi asked:

How does one come to terms with consciousness and free-will scientifically? Quantum mechanics? Superstring theories involving a 10 dimensional "universe" partitioned into 4 and 6, with the space 6 somehow explaining consciousness? What?

And yes, I guess I'm expecting a counter-argument that the notion of free-will is merely an illusion and that everything is fated. I don't believe so however, even though it is impossible to prove one over the other.


On the contrary, quantum science or any other science has nothing to say about consciousness at all. Try to forget all this mumbo jumbo for a moment and take note that consciousness (itself) is not actually detectable by scientific apparatus. If it were, we wouldn't still be asking what it is. Doctors who examine patients in a coma can assert with reasonable confidence on certain indicators that a patient is/ is not conscious. But they can't be sure until the patient gives concrete evidence by responding consciously.

Moreover the whole discussion about free will has (in my opinion) given rise to more red herrings than any other philosophical topic. The plain fact is (and it is a plain fact) that every creature alive on this planet is imbued with free will of some kind. You don't find free will among the matter objects of the world.

The difference with us humans is that our free will is amplified by the possession of a mind, so that our repertoire of free will is immensely richer than that of our nearest animal kin. Also, for the same reason, infinitely more troublesome and indeed dangerous. But that it exists is not a scientific issue. It just exists, as a "brute fact".

Now you might like to take your own belief more aggressively into debates on the subject. Ask anyone who denies free will to PROVE it's an illusion or just an electrochemical property of the brain. Read them a line of Keats and go on from there. But don't get into a defensive posture. Shift the burden of proof where it ought to rest.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(19) Belisarius asked:

What do you think of the NRA's argument that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'? They (gun-supporters) also quote from several anthropological studies, which have shown that it is not the amount of weapons in a society that increases the number of homicides in that same society, but something else, which must be further studied. (E.G. Compared to the USA, Switzerland has a huge number of armed citizens, yet the death rates of the country attributed to weapons are almost zero; therefore (they contend) it has nothing to do with weapons). In the end, they claim that the USA has homicide problems related to weapons, because it has a culture of violence (i.e. Violence used/ encouraged as a means of settling your problems), whereas other countries have it to a lesser degree. Do you agree?


Oddly enough, I do pretty much agree. You might take a look at Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" for support for this (US as a violent society) from an anti-gun activist. But the problem for the NRA is that this doesn't help their cause at all, as far as I can see. If we assume that the problem is with society rather than with guns, the easiest solution is still to remove guns from people... certainly easier and quicker than changing society, especially since we have good ideas on how to do the former and none on how to do the latter. Second, if there is a society which is afraid, paranoid, and violent... should those people be given guns? That seems insane, doesn't it. Give guns to the people most inclined to use them on each other? I mean... just think about it. So while I agree with the NRA as to what's going on, I think that their reasoning, i.e., that if guns aren't the problem, the people who most want guns should be able to own them, is absolutely absurd and ridiculous.

Steven Ravett Brown


(20) Cheryl asked:

I'm told that in order to have my union dues go to a charity rather than to the union (I am a newly forced union member), that I must give a philosophical reason for not wanting my dues to go to the union.

What can be more philosophical than "I don't believe in them"? How can I support something I don't believe in?


In some ways, it sounds like all they're asking is why you don't believe in them. They just want some reason you could offer to a reasonable person that might convince that person that their money ought not to go to a union.

So suppose someone asked you why you don't believe in unions. What would you tell him or her? You might think that unions are an illegitimate way for employees to petition their employers for better pay, benefits, etc. For you might think that individuals ought to do that on a one-by-one basis, and not as part of a group. Or you might think that employees shouldn't be able to collectivize and use the added power it gives them in negotiating with ownership. Perhaps you think that unionizing and threatening strikes and so on is threatening management in a way that is morally impermissible. Or you might simply think that unions lead to decreased efficiency in the market. You might think that people in general would be better off (e.g. prices good goods and services would be lower, there would be less unemployment, etc.) if no one unionized.

I suppose they just want something of that sort.

Jacob Miller

Well you can't say you don't believe in the dues, because you know they exist and would like them to go to a charity. Nor can you say you don't believe in the existence of the union — you'd look irrational. It isn't sound to be sceptical about particular bodies without reason.

You could say you find the union's existence is unjustified — just find some factual reasons, or ask them to justify themselves and this bullying behaviour. Or you could say that you don't want to be bullied on moral grounds of personal freedom. You could say that this is not to treat you with dignity as a person who is owed respect and has freedom of rational choice which is the very basis of personhood — read something about Kant in a philosophical dictionary.

Rachel Browne


(21)Zak asked:

Someone give me a convincing argument against the reasoning that humans have "free will". I've heard the argument that if you could calculate everything at a certain moment you could predict the future. But that doesn't mean we don't have free will, it just means we can predict the future. I think that a lot of philosophers take the "everything has been determined" standpoint because they are pretentious.


(Continued from Answers 24.)

To amplify my previous objection to understanding determinism in terms of the predictions of some ideal science, see "Atmospheric waves skew forecasts", Robert Matthews, Financial Times, Mar 19, 2004: "... every forecast begins with a set of measurements that are inevitably less than perfect ... no matter how powerful supercomputers become, they will never capture every nuance of, say, the swirling mass of air over our planet. Inevitably, corners are cut but, until now, it has been an article of faith among forecasters that the resulting errors are always much less important than those caused by the butterfly effect. Nor so, says Mr Orrell... both sources [of error] have their own characteristic pattern of growth... when errors are due simply to the butterfly effect the model's predictions become ever more uncertain over time, but still tend to cluster around the correct result. But if the basic [inevitably corner-cutting] model is fundamentally flawed the predictions do not merely become less precise but also move further away from reality... [and Orrell finds that this is the dominant pattern in forecasting errors] These findings have implications for forecasting the effects of global warming [because only on the assumption that the chief source of error in forecasts is the butterfly effect are] broad brush conclusions to be made with some confidence."

The butterfly effect: where feedback loops amplify small movements in the world.

Model error: where the necessary imperfection of measurements leads to errors in the calculations based on those measurements. Since the latter source of error is found to be both dominant in forecasting errors and also ineradicable, it would seem that weather forecasting is not to be thought of as in principle perfectible. So, determinism is not to be thought of in terms of a perfect prediction.

The FT article takes the line that one might be able to minimise Model error about some weather mechanisms through the introduction of random noise to the data. If that worked, it would not help us in the direction of the perfect prediction imagined by determinism.

David Robjant


(22) Mandola asked:

Why is killing wrong? In terms of uncontroversially wrong kinds of killing of people. NOT controversial kinds of killing such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, killing in self-defense, killing of soldiers in war, suicide, assisted suicide, etc. Why is killing wrong in general in the more ordinary cases?


If you believe in one of the various religions that dictate that killing is wrong, then killing is wrong simply because God has told us that it is wrong. And if you don't like that answer, then you must tackle the conundrum that has challenged theologians for generations Is it wrong because God says so? Or does God say so because it is wrong?

On the other hand, you may be seeking a non-theistic answer. In that case, try this on for size killing is defined by the group as an unacceptable behavior, because it is detrimental to the achievement of the common goals of the group to have group members running around killing each other off. What makes it "wrong" is the fact that mankind has lived in groups for several million years, and we have evolved to recognize the group taboo against killing off members of the group.

Couch the same reasoning in terms of a rational morality, and you get killing another member of your own group is almost always detrimental to the attainment of your long term best interests.

Stuart Burns


(23) TheA asked:

Can you please give me some important reasons why women are not temptresses?


How about: it takes two to tango? Or: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink?

Steven Ravett Brown


(24) Claire asked:

I have an exam coming up about Bertrand Russell and his doctrine of sense-data. I'm finding it difficult because no matter how many books I read on the subject I seem to get more and more confused. In particular I don't understand how 'sense data' are what is immediately experienced rather than physical objects.


It sounds like you're not clear on just what a sense-datum is supposed to be. Is this right? If you are, that just shows that you're being perceptive since it's hard to say what they're supposed to be. But you might try to think about it in this way.

There certainly seem to be some things that we see that aren't external, physical objects. Suppose you stare up at a bright lamp for a few seconds. Usually, when you stop staring at the lamp, you see a orange image in your visual field. If you do this and then you look around, you see an orange thing everywhere you look. Now, there isn't any physical object that corresponds to this orange thing. You're not seeing the lamp any more, since you can still see it when you look down at the ground. And there isn't any orange thing floating out there in space. So the orange thing you're seeing, whatever it is, isn't a physical object. Instead, it seems this orange thing is wholly subjective; it's just "in your head."

Russell will tell you that this orange thing is a sense-datum. It's a mental thing that you're directly seeing when you look around and have this orange image in your visual field. So here is a case in which it seems we clearly have something that is immediately experience that that isn't a physical object — namely, the orange patch.

And he wants to argue that this isn't only the case when you're seeing weird things like this orange after-image. This is how it works all the time: there are sense-data "in our heads" that we see and that we are caused to see because of the effects of external objects on our sensory organs. The basic argument that we should think there are sense-data all the time is that cases where we're seeing sense-data don't seem all that different from ordinary cases.

Suppose you have a very vivid hallucination that you're in a zoo seeing an elephant. And suppose further that you're actually sitting at your desk writing an email at the time when it seems you're seeing an elephant. In such a case, there isn't any elephant there for you to see. Russell would say you're seeing sense-data here — the reason you have the hallucination is that you have some elephant-looking sense-data. And he'd also say that your experience of the elephant could be just like your hallucination. You could really go to the zoo the next day and see and elephant and have experiences just like the ones you had when you were hallucinating. So your real experience of an elephant could be just like seeing sense-data that look like an elephant. But if they look exactly the same, why not think you're seeing the same thing, namely sense-data, in both cases? You might think that fact that sense-data experience can be just like real experiences, shows that all experience is sense-data experience. If you were seeing just sense-data in one case and really seeing the elephant in the other, wouldn't there be some qualitative difference between the two experiences?

I think that should get you started.

Jacob Miller


(25) Darrell asked:

If initially my consciousness were the result of certain forces (by "forces" I mean the stuff of physics — matter, energy, even things presently unknown to us) coming together in a certain way, then am I not in danger of duplication somewhere, sometime? It seems like those same forces could come together again either in some other consciousness here on Earth or somewhere else in the Cosmos, to make me a dual consciousness. There doesn't seem to be anything to prevent this LOGICALLY from happening if the unique thing-that-I-am is simply a certain configuration of physical stuff. But it never seems to happen. There are no reports (that I know of) of anybody being a dual consciousness with some other person on Earth, or a being in, say, the Andromeda Galaxy. Could this not be empirical evidence that consciousness is NOT the result of a certain arrangement of physical forces? In fact, would not a dual consciousness violate causality, since I would have instantaneous knowledge of events separated in space?


There is nothing "LOGICALLY" wrong with assumption that since you are the product of material and physical forces it may be possible that your form could be recreated again or somewhere else in the "cosmos", unlikely but possible.

You are making a mistake in assuming that this would mean that 'you' would then be a "dual consciousness". It would just mean that there are two physically identical you's. Your consciousness would not be 'shared' between these bodies, you would each have your own. So whilst you might be "simply a certain configuration of physical stuff" and there could be two of these things, the mere fact of their different space-time locations ensures that they are different things and will consequently be two different 'you's' to 'themselves'.

So no, this could not be "empirical evidence that consciousness is NOT the result of a certain arrangement of physical forces?" and yes, "dual consciousness" would probably "violate causality since.." you "..would have instantaneous knowledge of events separated in space" but since "dual consciousness" is logically impossible its not worth worrying about.

As an aside, you might find reading Hume's discussion of causality interesting.

Kim Boley


(26) Michael asked:

This is more of a 'theory' than a question, yet I need an answer...

My claim: I'm omniscient.

Taken from Merriam-Webster dictionary (http://www.M-w.Com/home.Htm):

Omniscient: having infinite awareness.

Infinite: immeasurably or inconceivably great or extensive.

Awareness: having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge.

Using Rene Descartes' Cogito, I think therefore I am; I know that I exist. Because of this knowledge, I must know that I know that I exist. Also that I know, that I know, that I exist... Ad infinitum. This sequence of knowledge (awareness) is infinite, thus I have infinite awareness.

It is important to note that "knowing everything", a common definition/ description of omniscience is different from having infinite awareness, (used in my dictionary reference), which is knowledge an infinity of things.

Now the questions: On who lays the Burden of Proof? I cannot possibly prove, beyond reasonable doubt that I exist, as Descartes said...

What errors are there in my line of reasoning?


This is a wonderful demonstration of what could be called "Descartes's Trap": This infinite regress is in a similar way absurd as was "Achilles and the Tortoise" in Antiquity.

First: To know that you know that you know that... does NOT include that you know anything more than — that you know. There is not the slightest factual knowledge to be derived from that. But the knowledge of Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg etc. was a FACTUAL knowledge, making computers and flights to Moon and Mars possible and many many more things of our modern world too. But even to know how to tame a dog or a horse or how to build a house and make pottery or devices from iron and copper and gold etc. more than 5.000 years back needed factual knowledge, while not that much theory as is needed for your walkman or PC or cell-phone today. And even the Zen-master and guru knows something of relevance, but not so much on handling dogs or copper but on handling the human passions.

Thus to know that you know comes nearly to know nothing and not at all being "omniscient". As you justly stated yourself, "It is important to note that 'knowing everything'... is different from having infinite awareness." Right. And the modern analytical philosopher would ask "What is 'knowing everything'? What is 'awareness'? What is 'I'?" Those all are not "logical terms" but concepts within a rich empirical and theoretical and linguistical context which is very complicated and open to much debate.

But of course Descartes was no imbecile. What he tried to get at — and he clearly said so — was a point where to start. He lived in a time of confessional quarrels shortly after the end of eight (!) Huguenot-Wars (1562-98) and during the time of "Thirty Years War" (1618-48), where he even took part as a soldier. Thus he wanted to get rid of all this and find a starting point outside of this religious strife.

Have a look at Discourse on Method, part IV, 3rd para) where the famous statement, "I think therefore I am" shows up. You see how very much aware Descartes was of the outer world and all its realities!

The revolution in Descartes's approach was to turn from the books and teachings of the "old masters" (including Plato, Aristotle, St.Thomas and many others) to his own observations and to his own possible errors. This was part of the "subjective turn" that culminated in the critical work of Kant some 150 years later (1781 ff).

But even Kant didn't claim to be omniscient. Like Descartes he tried to cut out the limits of our cognitive abilities. The modern scientific approach is very pragmatic: It dropped the idea of "truth" altogether and replaced it by "efficient". No physicist today cares a trifle whether Einstein is right in any metaphysical sense. It suffices that his theories work out. If they don't then get some better theory but don't ask for "truth". But many people find this casual, down to earth approach disturbing and cynical. It all started with Descartes asking for undeniable facts and avoiding all grandiose claims on "truth".

But there is "world": To build a radio or computer or car you need not "awareness" but "knowledge". And this knowledge need not be on "truth", whether in pottery or in electronics. To know what works is sufficient. Even theories are not on "truth", they only give order and meaning to knowledge. Truth is needed only in religious things. But this is not your question. Thus I leave it there.

Hubertus Fremerey

The argument is based on an equivocation between "infinite awareness" and knowing an "infinite number of things". God's awareness is held to be "infinite" because it is not limited in any way. If we accept the unstated premiss that to know that P entails knowing all the logical consequences of P — and hence, to know an "infinite number of things" — that is still consistent with our also not knowing an infinite number of things.

(If you are puzzled how one can both know and not know an infinite number of things consider that the numerical series, 1,3,5,7... is infinite, and so is the series, 2,4,6,8... .)

Geoffrey Klempner


(27) Socrates asked:

I have read and heard about a form of reasoning referred to as "adduction." My philosophy professor stated that philosophers adduce conclusions when making value judgements. He pointed out that usually reasoning falls into either Deductive or Inductive. However, making value judgements requires a mixture of both (and even some emotional force) that is where reasoning by adduction comes in (I guess). Can someone simplify what it means to "adduce?" I am confused to how one mix deductive and inductive reasoning. What type of reasoning is used in making value judgements (e.g. 'Abortion is impermissible under any circumstance')?


He might be referring to "abduction", a type of reasoning described by C.S. Peirce. Here a bit on it: Several important issues raised by the above argument concern the nature of formalizability, of manipulations of symbols, and of the various types of formal logic. Roughly speaking, according to Peirce (e.g., in Deduction, Induction, and Hypothesis), there are three basic types of logic, derived from the three-part syllogism. This syllogism consists of a rule R (the beans in this bag are white), a case of the rule C (these beans are from the bag), and a result E (these beans are white) (Houser & Kloesel, 1991, p. 188). By altering the order of the elements in this expression, Peirce realized that one could symbolize entirely different types of thinking. Thus, deduction consists of statements in the above order: R, C, E; induction in the order C, E, R; and hypothesis construction (also termed "abduction" (e.g., p. xxxviii), the order R, E, C.

You might also look at:

Forstater, M. 1997. Policy innovation as a discovery procedure: exploring the tacit fringes of the policy formulation process.

Gettysburg, PA: The Jerome Levy Economics Institute, Gettysburg College.

Ketner, K. L. 1995. Peirce and contemporary thought: philosophical inquiries. Edited by V. M. Colapietro and V. G. Potter. 1st ed. Vol. 1, American Philosophy Series. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

Minnameier, G. 2004. Peirce-Suit of Truth — Why Inference to the Best Explanation and Abduction ought not to be Confused. Erkenntnis 60:75-105.

Peirce, C.S. 1998. The first rule of logic. In The Essential Peirce, edited by N. Houser, A. De Tienne, C. L. Clark, D. B. Davis, J. R. Eller and A. C. Lewis. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Original edition, 1989.

Steven Ravett Brown


(28) Michael asked:

How does either Spinoza or Leibniz react to the problem of Cartesian interactionism?


This is a bare-bones answer, and I'm not expert on either Spinoza or Leibniz. But both reject Descartes's interactionism.

Spinoza argues that mind and body don't causally interact because they're both attributes of the same substance. So he thinks mind and body aren't distinct things that influence one another. Instead, he seems to hold a dual-aspect theory of the mind: he thinks mind and body are really just two different ways of looking at one and the same thing. Naturally, then, mind and body don't causally interact since things don't causally interact with themselves.

Leibniz also argues that there is no causal interaction between mind and body. (Indeed, he seems to think that there really are no bodies: all of reality is composed of individual monads, and monads are mental substances. But let's ignore this for a second.) Instead, he argues for the pre-established harmony of the mental and the physical. The mental and the physical don't cause one another to behave in certain ways, but they seem to influence each other because the world has been set up in such a way that they operate in harmony. It's as if the mind and the body run along similar parallel paths. It might look like their paths are so similar because they are forcing one another to go down the same path, but all that's really happening is that their paths have been set up so they run in the same way.

These are their basic approaches, though you should, of course, consult their works for more detail. I'm really just trying to give you the flavor of what they think.

Jacob Miller


(29) Lisa asked:

I am new to philosophy and would like some help on clarifying what Thomas Aquinas's views were on faith and reason, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics and his political theory. I have written my essay, but would like confirmation that I am on the right track. It is a very difficult topic for a first time essay, and any advise or clarification would be greatly appreciated.


Thomas Aquinas is difficult for modern students. Check your thinking on those topics you mentioned against the lucid and readable and modern explanation in Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Your questions are answered there in a way you will understand.

Matthew Del Nevo


(30) Karen asked:

Which should come first, the individual or the state?


Without hesitation, question or exception the Individual! The State is but a tool of the individual in her efforts to achieve her own ends.

Without exception, over the course of human history, every deplorable excess of mankind has resulted from the elevation of the interests of "The State" over the interests of the individual.

Stuart Burns


(31) Liesl asked:

Why is testimonial evidence alone so prone to being shoddy?


Take a look at the work of Elizabeth Loftus and coworkers:

Gallo, D.A., and J.G. Seamon. 2004. Are nonconscious processes sufficient to produce false memories? Consciousness and Cognition 13:158-168.

Lampinen, J.M., T.N. Odegard, and J.L. Bullington. 2003. Qualities of Memories for Performed and Imagined Actions. Applied Cognitive Psychology 17:881-893.

Mazzoni, G.A.L., E.F. Loftus, A. Seitz, and S. J. Lynn. 1999. Changing Beliefs and Memories Through Dream Interpretation. Applied Cognitive Psychology 13:125-144.

Seamon, J.G., C.R. Luo, and D.A. Gallo. 1998. Creating False Memories of Words with or without Recognition of List Items: Evidence for Nonconscious Processes. Psychological Science 9 (1):20-26.

Smith, S. M., D.R. Gerkens, B. H. Peirce, and H. Choi. 2002. The roles of associative responses at study and semantically guided recollection at test in false memory: the Kirkpatrick and Deese hypotheses. Journal of Memory and Language 47 (3):436-447.

Thomas, A.K., and E.F. Loftus. 2002. Creating bizarre false memories through imagination. Memory & Cognition 30 (3):423-431.

Wright, D.B., E.F. Loftus, and M. Hall. 2001. Now You See It; Now You Don't: Inhibiting Recall and Recognition of Scenes. Applied Cognitive Psychology 15:471-482.

Zeelenberg, R., G. Plomp, and G.W. Raaijmakers. 2003. Can false memories be created through nonconscious processes? Consciousness and Cognition 12:403-412.

Steven Ravett Brown


(32) Kay asked:

In his paper, "Is it Wrong to Discriminate on the Basis of Homosexuality?," Jeff Jordan argues that it is permissible to discriminate against homosexuals in denying them the right to marry. I do not agree, I feel that homosexuality, (of course between two consenting adults) harms no one. Therefore, same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Premise 9 in Jordan's 'Conflicting Claims' argument is wrong in that there is no accommodation for same-sex couples when the state refuses to sanction same-sex marriage. Jordan believes that accommodation is possible when the state refuses to recognize same-sex marriages. His definition of this accommodation is that the state sides with the 'religion-based moral view, but the state can tolerate private homosexual acts.' Therefore, the state only acts in the public realm while leaving the private realm to personal choice. He defines this as accommodation.

However, accommodation refers to both sides in an argument meeting each other, to varying degrees, halfway. The state's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages is not an accommodation but rather preservation of the status quo. In other words, the state does not meet same-sex couples halfway, but rather it chooses to take one side, that of the 'religious-based moral view.' Furthermore, this flaw in premise 9 also leads to flaws in the remaining premises. The state could certainly sanction same-sex 'marriages' in the form of civil unions, or some other marriage designation while reserving the traditional marriage for heterosexuals thus coming to a true accommodation. This type of declaration could result in the solution of the public dilemma.

While, I can successfully find fault in Jordan's argument, I am having trouble developing my own argument for the allowance of same-sex marriages.


I have some ideas concerning how you might go about arguing for the allowance of same-sex marriage, though I'm not sure any of these arguments is very good.

First, you might argue for a sort of anti-discrimination argument. So you could argue that heterosexual couples are currently allowed to marry while homosexual couples are not, and that this constitutes a sort of discrimination against homosexual couples. Now, there could be reasons to discriminate in this way, and so it's not enough to point out that there is discrimination here. The relevant principle here is not simply that the government shouldn't discriminate, but that it shouldn't discriminate without having a good reason to do so. So you're also going to need to argue that there's no good reason for this discrimination — or, at least, that there is no reason that is good enough to justify the discrimination. This is going to involve rebutting the various arguments that are usually put forward against same-sex marriage. The problem with this argument, of course, is that this is going to be a complicated task, as there are quite a few arguments that people put forward against same-sex marriage.

So this first argument is basically a negative argument. You claim that disallowing same-sex marriage is something that must be justified, and then you argue that the putative justifications that have been offered aren't convincing. But you don't provide any positive case for same-sex marriage. Here are some positive arguments:

You could argue that allowing same-sex marriage doesn't undermine traditional marriage but simply extends the benefits of the institution to more people. This is going to involve providing the reasons that the state is in the marriage business in the first place. So first you'll need to answer this question: What purpose is served by the government giving its imprimatur to certain relationships between heterosexual couples? I'm not sure what we should say about this, but one thing you might say is that the purpose is to create and support stable families. Then you argue that allowing same-sex marriage will allow us to do this even better than we're doing it now. It seems you'd need to argue two things here: (i) that allowing same-sex couples to marry would make their families more stable, and (ii) that allowing same-sex couples to marry wouldn't have a significant negative effect on the stability of the relationships of heterosexual couples.

Or you could use a more abstract utilitarian sort of argument. You could simply argue that allowing same-sex marriage would significantly increase the happiness of gay couples (and others who have an interest in their relationships), and that it wouldn't significantly affect the happiness of straight couples. That is, you'd need to argue that the net happiness would increase if we allowed gay marriage, and so we ought to allow it.

Jacob Miller


(33) Suresh asked:

1) What is the brief sketch of Marx's Philosophy in over all?

2) What are the connections between Hegel and Marx in their philosophical views?


1) Read The Communist Manifesto by Marx for this. Note the genre of Manifesto, Marx's philosophy is programmatic, political and activist. For the content, the Manifesto itself makes this pretty clear.

2) It is conventionally understood that Marx turned Hegel upside down. Hegel had argued that history is the movement of an absolute spirit that moves the times (Zeitgeist) and is moving them back toward itself, if we read the "signs of the times" aright — which Hegel claimed to do. Marx said that history is governed not by an absolute spirit but by economic factors, which manifest themselves in politics, by which he meant power struggles, and latterly the class struggle. They are connected in their focus on history and on teleology (the end of history). They differ in their interpretations of history — Hegel idealist, Marx materialist.

Matthew Del Nevo


(34) Michael asked:

As one of Plato's cave dwellers I see the world around me as, my world, and all that is in it as being my reality.

I take comfort in a statement made by John Brandon in responding to question on What does 'external world' mean? When he replied:

Suffice it to say for the purpose of answering your question that within this complexity is a general notion that there can be no real proof available of an external world, because we do not have direct access to such a world; all we do have access to are our own mental interpretations of what is given to us by our senses (Answers 23).

From my solipsist position I have to consider that any answer that may be given is generated out of my own imaginings. Though some would argue that having a language at all to be able to pose this question negates me being the solipsist.

So is there a state of affairs where both language and no proof of an external world can co-exist?


Since you seem to like "twisted" problems, I will try a "twisted" answer. Part of this "reality"-question I treated in my answer to Jim from this same list, where look it up.

Jim asked: "How can I know what is 'real' and what is not real? I just finished reading a lot about George Berkeley and am more confused than ever."

There is a famous fable of Dschuang-Tse awaking from a dream where he dreamt to be a butterfly and then was unsure whether he was a butterfly dreaming to be a man.

How do you "know" that the dinos approaching you in Jurassic Park are not real? Because you know that you sit in a cinema. You can check that: You have your ticket, you remember waiting in the queue before the cinema, you see people sitting besides you and staring at the screen etc.. Thus you check not only the movie-picture but the whole situation you are in. Brandon is right: The butterfly has no possibility to check whether he is only dreaming to be a man, since this world of man is consistent. As long as a world is consistent you will find no way out. To find a way out you need an inconsistency, you have to find something that does not fit. The world shown in the first ten minutes of "Matrix" cannot be "real", since in a "real" world people cannot vanish into a phone-receiver, only their virtual electronic image can. Thus it must be a virtual world.

Instead of speaking of an external world as different from an internal one we should speak of a more consistent world as different from a more inconsistent one: What we call our everyday world is much more consistent than the world of our dreams or that of drugs. In the everyday world even dreams and drug-highs find a consistent neuro-chemical explanation, while there is no consistent explanation of the everyday world in a dream or drug-high. This comparison is possible only because we can switch from the one world to the other. But we cannot know whether our everyday-world is only a dream in relation to some meta-world. This was the message of Matrix, but it is the message of Buddhism and in some aspect even of Christendom and of esoterics: There seem to be some inconsistencies in our everyday experiences that hint at another world "behind the wall". A famous movie where this idea was exploited long before Matrix is "The Truman Show" (1998), see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120382/.

In the end it is the old and famous theme of "possible worlds" and "parallel worlds" that are separated by "walls" like pipelines: Every such world is consistent as long as the "pipeline" is not "leaking". As long as your world is consistent, you cannot know whether there are other worlds developing in parallel to yours or whether there is a meta-world — or even an infinity of parallel- and meta-universes.

The problem of consistency is important in the drug-scene: While LSD only affects the "dream-area" and leaves the basic cerebellum intact, so you still know that you are "only dreaming", there are some much more dangerous hallucinogens of a certain chemical class of the ergot-type that even get at the cerebellum and by this "bridge" the difference of dream and reality. People high on this stuff simply don't know that they are "not real". If they think they have become birds, they flung themselves out of the window and may break their necks.

But some religious or political addicts are not much different. There is this old question whether the true believer becoming a martyr of building a cathedral or something like that is only a narcotic. But I will not enter this difficult topic this time. I only give a hint: To be a true believer like (f.i.) Hitler and his most ardent followers you have to screen of all counter-evidence that could prove that you are in fact on drugs and on a bad trip. Thus beware of "reality"!

A hint from the editor: This whole answer was written by a virtual robot, a program roaming the net by the name of "Hubertus Fremerey".

Hubertus Fremerey

The question asked whether taking the solipsist position is consistent with "having a language".

It seems that the solipsist can say, "I appear to have a language — my experiences of my world are consistent with an account of my 'learning a language' at my mother's knee. But they are also consistent with my coming into existence one second ago and seeming to find myself with a language ready-made."

So the argument, "You are using language; according to Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, possession of language presupposes a social context; therefore you cannot consistently maintain that you are a solipsist" won't work. The solipsist can reply, "OK, I'm not really using a language, it only seems to me that I am doing so. So what?"

There is no truth, nothing can be said. There is only now, there is only seeming. — This cannot be "said", but it is shown to one who remains a convinced solipsist.

Geoffrey Klempner


(35) Ron asked:

How is it possible that science keeps putting a theory forward about evolutionary biology when it doesn't seem to make sense? I mean, evolution seems to be a means by which organisms adapt to their changing environment, no harm in that, but to me it seems illogical that a sea-creature would acquire legs so that it can thrive on land because these would initially impair their movements under water and so make them more vulnerable in the sea. Let's assume that man is evolving at this moment to a creature that has the ability to fly, then we should be growing some sort of wings over time, so it would probably begin with stumps in the shoulder area, but these would hinder us in our daily tasks, and if we then follow the survival of the fittest theories...


How is it possible that after all the books, courses, journals, etc, etc., on evolution that someone could still be in such ignorance of its basic principles and tenets?

Go here:


and do some reading.

Steven Ravett Brown

You appear to have latched onto one of the basic problems associated with Darwin's theory of evolution. The important point to note here is that you are referring to a theory and not a statement of fact. For over one hundred years science has tried from every angle open to it to prove the theory to be a material fact; unfortunately, all the alleged evidence has turned out to be rather flimsy.

The great weakness of the theory is its dependence upon accidental progress by chance genetic mutation. Unfortunately for this notion most mutations are usually degenerative, or even fatal to the organism; and even if this were the mechanism for progress it is difficult to visualise a series of fortuitous events appearing within the limited geological time scale obtaining since the Cambrian period approx 500m years ago, when life in great diversity seemed to burst forth from nowhere. If physics can boast a Big Bang for the origin of the universe, then biology can also boast a very significant Big Bang for the origin of advanced life forms in the Cambrian. Another very nasty thorn in the side for evolutionists. Also weighing heavily against the theory is the limited time for adaptation in rapidly changing environments, where dependence for survival is on chance mutations. There is a great deal of evidence in the geological strata to suggest that time and again the dominant life form of a geological period has been overwhelmed by rapid environmental changes which have pushed them into extinction. The dinosaurs being a case in point. Extinction rather than evolving into something else seems to be the order of the day.

There is also the great possibility that, even in the case of a fortuitous mutation, this would not be sufficient to overcome an environmental hazard; the major systems of physical bodies are controlled by complex series of genetic material, particularly where metabolic processes require huge numbers of complex enzymes working in sequence; each enzyme itself being a complex protein where one amino acid missing or out of place could be fatal.

Science would prefer to keep hammering at this old chestnut rather than admit that there could be some powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered. To most of them this smacks too much of religion. The man who pushed evolution was not Darwin but "Darwin's Bulldog" T H Huxley, a scientist looking for personal advancement and "an inveterate hater of religion". He saw evolution as a weapon with which to bring down the church. Unfortunately for him and his followers his premature attack has led to a disjointed, loosely woven, hotch potch of ideas, which require constantly shoring up against the advances of modern physics and biology. To give Huxley his due, he never accepted even to his death that the case for evolution had finally been proven.

See, The Rise of the Evolution Fraud M Bowden Sovereign Publications Kent.

John Brandon


(36) Laura asked:

What is 'ACT' and 'RULE' utilitarianism?


It seems possible to think of the difference in the following way. The basic idea of classical utilitarianism is that one's fundamental moral obligation is to maximize the total happiness of all people. But it's not clear about how we should go about putting this moral principle into practice. Act and rule utilitarianism arise from different responses to this issue.

Act utilitarianism: one ought always to act in the way that will maximize the total happiness of all people. Rule utilitarianism: one ought always to act in accordance with rules whose general observance will maximize the total happiness of all people.

So, according to act utilitarianism, the right thing to do is what will maximize happiness in your particular case. And, according to rule utilitarianism, the right thing to do is to act in accordance with the moral rule that applies to your case, where the appropriate moral rule is the one whose general observance in such cases would result in the greatest total happiness.

That, I think, is the basic idea.

Jacob Miller


(37) George asked:

How historically verifiable are the writings of Plato?


Among all the transmissions from the ancient world: all the history, all the poetry, all the tragedy and so on, Plato's works are the most reliably authentic. Everyone who was touched by philosophy knew of them; the libraries of the ancient world stocked them; critics wrote reviews; commentators wrote commentaries; and librarians kept lists of all Plato's writings. Now it so turns out that we still have copies of those library lists; and all the works of Plato listed there we actually possess. So Plato is the only author of antiquity whose works have survived intact and complete. We actually have more of his works than are authentically vouched for. Some of the dialogues are accordingly considered imitations, and of the seven letters we have, only two are taken on trust as actually written by Plato. Altogether then, we have all the authentic works of Plato, plus a few more where we're not sure who wrote them.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(38) Murphy asked:

Is euthanasia wrong? I am in need of reasons why euthanasia is morally wrong and why society should not accept euthanasia. Or why they should accept euthanasia.


According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition): "Euthanasia" means "The act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment." And it comes from the Greek euthanasi, meaning "a good death".

For the purpose of this discussion, there are two aspects of this definition that need emphasis. Firstly, the "victim" involved is not leading a normal life. The implication of the definition is that the quality of life of the "victim" is deemed intolerably poor. And second, euthanasia is a positive action, unlike the passive inaction of the already socially sanctioned "removal of care", or "turning off the machines".

Lets divide acts of euthanasia into a number of categories for further analysis:

(1) Voluntary Euthanasia

(2) Non-voluntary Euthanasia

(a) Where the "Victim" is conscious and rational

(b) Where the "Victim" is either unconscious or irrational

(1) Voluntary Euthanasia. This would involve actively ending the life of someone who wishes to end their life. Either directly through such specific acts as mentioned in the definition cited above, or indirectly through what has often been referred to as "assisted suicide". As long as the intended "victim" of the act is rational, and is reaching her decision to end her own life rationally, with reasonable justification, I can think of no rationale that would suggest that this kind of euthanasia is morally wrong. Of course, there are many people who hold what I consider to be an irrational belief that life is somehow "sacred" and to be sustained regardless of costs or consequences. I can see where such a belief might prevent someone from participating in an act of voluntary euthanasia either as "victim" or as "assistant". But I can not fathom a moral basis from which such a belief would justify coercively restraining others from participating in such acts. Certainly, there are people who rationally judge that their continued life is intolerable, and death would be a welcome release. I can see no moral basis from which to coerce such people into continuing to tolerate the intolerable. Nor can I see any moral basis from which to coerce potential assistants into not assisting the chosen path of the "victim" in such cases.

I did mention one caveat, however, that really is the "kicker" when it comes to putting the theory into regular practice. How can we make sure that the "victim" in question has reached the decision rationally? We would want to ensure that such an irreversible decision is reached with proper justification, and is not the result of some transient emotional trauma. So the reasons why society might not want to sanction voluntary euthanasia do not stem from the morality of such acts, but from the practical problems of ensuring that the euthanasia is indeed voluntary.

To rephrase your question in those terms then if society were to sanction voluntary euthanasia, can we ever be assured that the decision to end one's life is reached intelligently, with proper justification and in the absence of transient emotional trauma? Personally, I think the answer must be, Yes. On a case by case basis, I think it is reasonable to think that we could take such measures to assure ourselves that the intended "victim" is making a proper decision. And although institutionalising the practice opens up the risk that the associated bureaucracy might get carried away (as most bureaucracies have a tendency to do), I think it is quite feasible that we can implement sufficient protections. The medical profession does, after all, have some experience in dealing with such troubling matters.

(2a) Non-voluntary Euthanasia of a Conscious and Rational Victim. Can actively ending the life of a conscious and rational "victim" who does not wish to die ever be morally justified? We must first set aside, as not really within the meaning of "euthanasia," any set of circumstances where society already recognises "justifiable homicide" (e.g. — self-defence, capital punishment, acts of war, etc.). For the remaining possibilities, I can think of no rationale that would morally justify what essentially amounts to lethal coercion. (Which is why the protections surrounding voluntary euthanasia have to be thorough enough to ensure that the euthanasia in question is indeed voluntary.)

(2b) Non-voluntary Euthanasia of a Unconscious or Irrational Victim. Which leaves the remaining category of non-voluntary euthanasia of a "victim" who is either unconscious (with no prospects of becoming conscious) or irrational (with no prospects of becoming rational). Personally, I can think of no rationale that would render such acts of euthanasia morally wrong. As with voluntary euthanasia, protections must be implemented to ensure that the "no prospects" conditionals are, for all practical considerations, in fact "no prospects". And society might not wish to condone such acts on the basis of the practical costs and difficulties of implementing such protections. But as with the strictures on institutionalised voluntary euthanasia, that would be a social cost/benefit trade-off not a moral determination.

But given that such protections can be implemented, keeping the incurably irrational or incurably unconscious alive is an inexcusable waste of someone else's resources. If it is your choice to allocate your resources to keep such a "victim" alive, that is your prerogative. The resources involved are yours. But if society proposes to coerce me out of my resources in order to keep your "victim" alive, I can think of no moral principle that would justify that coercion. If you are footing the bills to keep such a "victim" alive, on what moral basis could I, or society, justify the coercion necessary to prevent you from ceasing your benevolence? And if I am footing the bills for your "victim", on what moral basis can you justify coercing me to continue my benevolence? I can think of none. The victim's "right to life" ceases at the point where it requires coercion of others to sustain it.

Stuart Burns


(39) Felicia asked:

What would the Divine Command theory and utilitarian philosophy have to say about Euthanasia?


For the proponent of the divine command theory, the permissibility of euthanasia will depend on the nature of God's commands. If God has given a command that forbids euthanasia in all circumstances, then it is wrong in all circumstances. If God has commanded we not do it only in certain circumstances, then it is wrong in only those circumstances. If God hasn't given any negative commands concerning euthanasia, it is always at least permissible. And so on. So, for the divine command theorist, it's all going to depend on her account of the commands that God has given.

For the utilitarian, the permissibility of euthanasia will depend on the consequences of euthanasia in particular cases. If there are cases where allowing euthanasia will maximize the overall happiness, then allowing euthanasia it is the right thing to do in those circumstances. If there are cases where allowing euthanasia will lead to less overall happiness than disallowing it, then it is wrong to allow euthanasia in those cases. So, for the utilitarian, it's all going to depend on her views about the results of allowing euthanasia in particular cases or in certain types of cases.

Jacob Miller


(40) Lesley asked:

My question is "Is there a mostly shared path of philosophical evolution of man?"

I also want to read any references that you might give regarding this topic.

Specifically, I have been going through certain well defined stages, and I suspect that many others like me also passed through these stages.


I'm not sure what you mean by "philosophical" evolution. I'm going to take that to mean "moral" evolution. If that's what you're asking, then, yes, there are stages to that. There's some very interesting literature on that, starting with Piaget's description of the development of morality, going to Kohlberg, then Blasi. In addition, Zelazo has an interesting theory as to why we go through these stages (which is actually very similar to the others', above, but is maybe better worked out). Here are some readings:

Blasi, A. 1980. Bridging Moral Cognition and Moral Action: A Critical Review of the Literature. Psychological Bulletin 88 (1):1-45.

------. 1990. Kohlberg's Theory and Moral Motivation. New Directions for Child Development 47:51-57.

------. 1999. Emotions and moral motivation. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 29 (1):1-19.

Dawson, T.L. 2002. New tools, new insights: Kohlberg's moral judgement stages revisited. International Journal of Behavioral Development 26 (2):154-166.

Kohlberg, L., and R.H. Hersh. 1977. Moral development: a review of the theory. Theory Into Practice 16 (2):53-59.

Matthews, G.B. 1987. Concept formation and moral development. In Philosophical perspectives on developmental psychology, edited by J. Russell. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Lakoff, G. 2002. Moral Politics. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Piaget, J. 1997. The moral judgement of the child. Translated by M. Cabain. New York: Free Press. Original edition, 1965.

Wendorf, C.A. 2001. History of American Morality Research, 1894-1932. History of Psychology 4 (3):272-288.

Zelazo, P.D. 1999. Language, levels of consciousness, and the development of intentional action. In Developing theories of intention: social understanding and self-control, edited by P. D. Zelazo, J. W. Ostington and D. R. Olson.

------. 2004. The development of conscious control in childhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (1):12-17.

Zelazo, P.D., U. Muller, D. Frye, and S. Marcovitch. 2003. The development of executive function in early childhood. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 68 (3):vii-155.

Steven Ravett Brown


(41) Stuart asked:

"Sitting in his dressing gown by the fire, Descartes was able to entertain the skeptical possibility of doubting everything he believes by using the evil demon thought experiment. In our everyday lives, we cannot seriously maintain such a skeptical attitude to our beliefs. There is no point therefore in reflecting on such a crazy possibility as an evil demon.|

1) How is the evil demon thought experiment meant to lead to such skepticism?

2) Do you agree that there is no point to such crazy "thought experiments"?


First, read the answer to Dhvani's question. Then ask yourself: have you ever come across the word "metaphor"? Did I hear you say "yes"? Well then: the demon is a metaphor for radical doubt. It is a metaphor for the indubitable fact that many of our perceptions are mistakes; that we cannot trust our senses to deliver untarnished reports of the world. In a word, then: not only are such thought experiments excellent devices for assisting us with analysing the criteria of our mental existence in perception and cognitive perception, but that indeed without this specific Cartesian thought experiment we might (for all we know) never have got to grips with the concept of a mind at all. Descartes was in this sense the Copernicus of the World of Cognition. Whether or not he was right or wrong in his surmises is another issue. The fact is that we haven't solved this question; we are still, today, "researching" it. So your item (2) above is way off the mark.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(42) Tammy asked:

What are the necessary components of moral decision making in our Western system? And What is consequential and non-consequentialist moral theory in your opinion?


Funny ending: "in your opinion"! Did you ever have a look into those many intros to ethics that explain the difference?

Well — I didn't look either, so let's see what to make of it.

And then I will enter the first part of your question on "What are the necessary components of moral decision making in our Western system?"

But first "What is consequential and non-consequentialist moral theory in your opinion?"

The simplest expression of "non-consequentialism" is the "it's not done"-attitude, while the simplest expression of consequentialism is "does it pay?" or "may I steal or even kill if I only avoid bad consequences FOR ME?"

Kohlberg (a pupil of Piaget, see:


or http://www.eagle2.american.edu/~gb3107A/kohlberg.htm

or http://www.aggelia.com/htdocs/kohlberg.shtml)

would call "consequentialism" a "primitive stage of moral arguing", while he would call "non-consequentialism" an advanced stage. In this sense many (not all) school-children are "consequentialists" while Socrates and Kant were very much non-consequentialist and "principled".

But in fact things are not THAT simple. Even many (most?) school-children say "it's not done!" and don't lie or don't steal even in cases where this seems without risk. Many (most?) people won't even THINK to hold back 100 Dollars found in the woods for themselves. They would give it either to the police or to the Red Cross or to Salvation Army or to some poor chap.

And now you see the problem: By behaving "principled" and according to the "it's not done"-standard they are behaving — consequentialist! They only approach the "consequences" from a different angle than those "consequentialists". Instead of asking "what do I gain from doing wrong?" they ask "what do others gain from me doing right?"

I cannot expand on this, because there are so many aspects and details to this and then I have to write a book. But I hope I made you think a bit.

Now on the first part of your question: "What are the necessary components of moral decision making in our Western system?"

Once more a funny ending: Why "in our Western system?" Do you think that "the necessary components of moral decision making" are different in the Orient or in Africa? What was on you mind?

Any act — not only a moral one — has at least three components: An actor ("you"), an action ("the deed") and "consequences". "The action" is only the connection between the actor and the consequences. But even if an action is only intended and you refrain from it, it will have consequences on your mind and memory and conscience. Thus to refrain from an evil or vile action is a moral decision — may be even a hard one if you refrain from revenge or from an act of jealousy.

Instead of speaking of "moral" decision making you should once more change the perspective and speak of "creative" decision making: "If you want your little part of the world to become a better place, what sort of action would be best to make it so?" In this form of the question the word "moral" has vanished, but if you think it over it is still your question.

Once more there is much more to this, but I leave it there. Do your homework — ethics can be quite fascinating!

Hubertus Fremerey


(43) Benjamin asked:

There have been some philosophers who pursued trichotomies, for instance C.S. Peirce. Do you know of any philosophers who have made a point of pursuing tetrachotomies (4-chotomies)?


Take a look at E.J. Lowe:

Lowe, E. J. 1998a. Entity, identity and unity. Erkenntnis 48: 191-208.

Lowe, E. J. 1998b. The Possibility of Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lowe, E. J. 1998c. Form without matter. Ratio (new series) 11: 214-34.

Lowe, E. J. 2001. Dispositions and laws. Metaphysica 2: 5-23.

Lowe, E. J. 2002a. A defence of the four-category ontology. In Argument und Analyse, ed. C. Moulines and K. Niebergall, 225-40. Paderborn: Mentis.

Lowe, E. J. 2002b. Properties, modes, and universals. The Modern Schoolman 74: 137-50.

Lowe, E. J. 2002c. A Survey of Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lowe, E. J. 2003a. Recent advances in metaphysics. Facta philosophica 5: 3-24.

Lowe, E. J. 2003b. Identity, individuality, and unity. Philosophy 78: 321-36

Steven Ravett Brown


(44) Behnaz asked:

I am studying philosophy and my thesis is Quine and the indeterminacy of translation for my postgraduate degree in Iran. Please help me in this case thanks.


I'm not sure how helpful this will be, but I've always thought of Quine's argument in this way.

His main argument for the indeterminacy of translation is an argument from underdetermination, and so it's analogous to underdetermination arguments against realism in the philosophy of science. (If you want to know what such arguments are, you should look at the first chapter of van Fraassen's The Scientific Image. If memory serves, he endorses an anti-realist argument from underdetermination there.)

The issue is finding the correct meaning of some utterance (or group of utterances); this is the translator's goal in translating some utterance. We approach it by thinking of coming to the correct translation as we would think of positing a theoretical entity in science and then subjecting the relevant theory to empirical testing. So, in order to make sense of someone's utterance, we posit a particular translation that their sentence has and then we subject that translation to tests by comparing its prediction to the empirical evidence we acquire. Quine's conclusion is that which translation you should posit is always underdetermined by your evidence. That is, given the evidence you have to go on, there are always multiple translations that are consistent with it.

According to Quine, the relevant evidence is the evidence of the person's linguistic behavior. The evidence of what a person says, and what she says these things in response to, is all we have to goon when trying to assign a particular meaning to their utterances. And he claims that there will always be multiple translations that are consistent with the person's utterances, irrespective of how much behavioral evidence we acquire.

So we might be able to present his argument in the following way:

(1) The translation of a sentence S is determinate only if there is only one translation of S that is consistent with all the relevant evidence. (2) There is always more than one translation of S that is consistent with all the relevant behavioral evidence. (3) The relevant behavioral evidence is the only relevant evidence for or against particular translations of a sentence. (4) There is always more than one translation of S that is consistent with all the relevant evidence. (from 2 and 3) (5) The translation of S is indeterminate (from 1 and 4).

And you're suppose to be able to plug in any sentence of any language for S and get a valid argument. This would get you a global indeterminacy of translation thesis.

If we take this to be Quine's argument, he's going to need to defend premises (1)—(3) and defend the claim that any sentence of any language can be plugged in for S.

Premise (1) is simply his definition of determinacy, and, by implication, indeterminacy, and so this we can probably grant him. (You might argue that this sort of determinacy or indeterminacy is uninteresting, however. )

Premise (3) is a result of Quine's commitments to behaviorism and to a fairly radical sort of empiricism. Certainly, one could doubt whether this is the only relevant sort of evidence.

Premise (2) is what Quine supports with the 'gavagai' example. The basics of the example go like this. You're an anthropologist who encounters a previously unknown tribe. They speak a language that you don't understand, and there are no speakers of both their language and your language that you can consult to find out what their words mean. So you have to go on only the behavioral evidence to translate what their words mean, but you can acquire as much behavioral evidence as you want when trying to translate their words. Now we look at a particular case. suppose the natives invariably say 'gavagai' when a rabbit runs by. Well, it seems you ought to conclude that 'rabbit' is the correct translation of 'gavagai', that 'gavagai' means what you mean when you say 'rabbit'. However, Quine claims that there are other translations that are consistent with your evidence — like, say, that 'connected rabbit parts' is the correct translation of 'gavagai'. Moreover, there is no way to distinguish between these two translations, regardless of how much behavioral evidence you acquire. So premise (2) seems to be true for some S.

The argument that premise (2) is true for all S isn't all that clear. The basic idea seems to be that, if any sentence were going to have a determinate translation, it would be a sentence like 'gavagai'. For 'gavagai' is a sentence of the kind whose meaning is more closely tied to the behavioral evidence than any other kind because it's a simple response to something in one's environment. Since even this sentence turns out to be consistent with multiple translations, we have good reason to think that all others will be as well.

Jacob Miller


(45) George asked:

How can we define time in a single phrase? Are there any axioms about time?


Next time you wake up in the middle of the night, don't look at the clock, but just lie there and listen. Try and be aware that you were "switched on" just a few moments before (I mean: your waking consciousness). In the dead of night, there isn't much to hear. If its really quiet, you might hear your blood flowing or your bones cracking. You will also, of course, pick up anything that impinges on your other senses too, if there is anything. A flicker of light, perhaps the smell of flowers wafting in through the half-open window. But you will not sense anything you call "time". This is because we do not have time sensors.

Now this is peculiar. Our senses have evolved precisely to convey to us everything of importance in the environment. Yet we have no sense for time. As far as our body is concerned, there is no such thing as time. Has something gone wrong with evolution? What about other creatures? Chimps? Dolphins? Well, so far as we know, they can't sense time either.

So what is time?

Jürgen Lawrenz


(46) Cody asked:

I need to know any good sites to go on to explore this Greek quote, "a sound mind in a sound body".


The absolute best site for all questions about philosophy and literature in antiquity, as far as I know, is the Perseus site: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu. It is fabulous.

Steven Ravett Brown


(47) Nathan asked:

What are the differences and similarities between ancient and modern music?


The first thing you must realise is this: that none of the ancient music survives as sounds. There are no scores; and only a few, not very trustworthy accounts of musical practice. If you think of an average concert review, you will know that no-one could possibly make any musical sense of it except those who already know the music being talked about. All this adds up to a big problem of transmission.

At any rate, the commonly accepted scholarly view is that the main difference relates to the concept of harmony. Ancient music was essentially homophonic one voice with accompaniment; several voices alternating concertato style (with or without accompaniment). The instrumentarium was basic and not designed for full harmony as we understand the term. In other words: the term 'harmony' in the ancient world referred to intervals of succession, whereas in modern music, it refers to intervals of simultaneity. Ancient harmony is likely to have been built up kaleidoscopically. Reports of great virtuosity are not scarce. But it is hard to imagine what exactly were the sounds these virtuosi produced.

Modern music begins with roughly the 10th century, when (reputedly) Welsh choristers first began to fan out the voices in layers of thirds, fourths and fifths (rather than octaves, as in Gregorian chant). This principle, in spite of numerous changes in style and listening habits since then, is still essentially in force today. It passed through a pinnacle of sophistication between Bach and Beethoven and has been in decline since about the beginning of the 20th century, when surfeit with harmonic experimentation turned the minds of European composers to other sources, some oriental, some Afro-American, others intellectually contrived. But whether this is the end or a new beginning, no one can say at present. The major problem for the future may be, that if the reading and interpretation of European music fades, then it will eventually become as reconstructible as ancient music. Even a score only tells you as much as you can translate from a printed page into aerial molecular vibrations!

Jürgen Lawrenz

In general, the difference is the same, in an interesting way, as that between philosophy and religion. In modern music, as in philosophy, there are no dogmas, no beliefs that cannot be questioned. In ancient music, as in religion (which ancient music was closely tied to), there were dogmas: that is, there were particular ways that music had to be written. Certain intervals had to be either used or avoided; certain modes used, and so forth. Those conventions were taken as dogma, that is, they were not questioned... except very rarely and very cautiously. In modern music, especially after Schoenberg (and, I would argue, Ives), there were no longer any principles of musical composition which were held sacrosanct, and composers were free to create music from the ground up, so to speak. And many did, and still do. The results have been, as one might expect, extremely mixed. But even experiments such as Xenakis' and Cage's work led to positive realizations about the nature of music and of listening.

Steven Ravett Brown


(48) Phil asked:

If the behaviourist theory is accurate, if you lose the ability to speak, or express yourself in any other physical way, does the mind cease to exist?


No. Behaviorists only claim that one can know about things through measurable effects. So at most (and now, given fMRI, etc., even this would be questionable) a behaviorist would maybe hold that someone entirely paralyzed by, say, curare (a poison which paralyzes the voluntary muscles before the involuntary), totally unable to move, would have unknowable mental processes.

Steven Ravett Brown

This is a good question, and it's one the behaviorist has to deal with. Their usual move is to cash out mental states in terms of dispositions to behave as opposed to overt behavior. We can see what this is supposed to do for us if we look at a very crude behaviorist account of pain, like the following.

(B1) A person is in pain if that person says "I am in pain" when asked whether she is in pain.

(Clearly, this is far less complex than the real analysis would be, but I think it's good enough to get the main idea across.)

Your question is based on the fact that (B1) has an counterintuitive consequence that the mere fact that a person doesn't say "I am in pain" when asked the question is enough to show a person isn't in pain. But this doesn't seem right. Maybe the person is in pain and simply doesn't want to respond, or doesn't know how to respond, or is pretending not to be in pain, or she's in so much pains he can't respond, or something like that. If so, it seems she'd be in pain and yet wouldn't manifest the behavior that the behaviorist tells us is identical to being in pain.

The behaviorist tries to get around this objection by analyzing mental states in terms of dispositions to behave as opposed to manifest behavior. So the reformulation of (B1) would look like this:

(B2) A person is in pain if that person is disposed to say "I am in pain" when asked whether she is in pain.

(B2) may not have counterintuitive consequences of the type that (B1) has, since a person can have the disposition to respond by saying "I am in pain" without actually responding in that way. So the mere fact that the person doesn't respond wouldn't be sufficient to show she's not in pain. This seems true if you think about ordinary dispositions things have. The philosopher's favorite example is fragility. A thing is fragile if it is disposed to break or shatter when you drop it, strike it with something hard, etc. But a thing can have this disposition even if it never actually breaks, since it may never be dropped or struck or anything of that sort. So you can't infer from the fact that a thing never breaks that it isn't fragile; instead, you have to see what it would do if placed in the right conditions (i.e. conditions in which fragile things break).

Now the behaviorist can say something similar about being in pain. A person can be in pain even if they never manifest over pain-behavior, since they may never be in the sort of situation where the disposition reveals itself in such behavior. Nevertheless, they still have the disposition; and, if (B2) is true, that's enough to be in pain.

But suppose not that you simply didn't speak up when asked, but that you completely lost the ability to speak, which is what you were talking about in your original question. If we accept (B2), is this state of affairs still consistent with your being in pain? I think it's probably going to depend on just what's happened to you. If, say, your vocal cords are cut and this is why you can't speak, I'd be tempted to say you're still disposed to respond in this way. And in such a case I think behaviorism of this sort gives us the right answer. If you suffer serious brain damage and this is why you can't speak, the behaviorist might say that you really aren't disposed to respond in this way any more. Thus the behaviorist would say that you're no longer in pain. And I'm not really sure what to think about this case — it would seem to depend on the details of the case. But the behaviorist position that you're not in pain looks at least defensible here.

Jacob Miller

The mind does not depend on language. This is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the tube. Language came about because we (our ancestors) had a mind in the first place. Hominids left us with evidence of a mind at least half a million years before they can reasonably be assumed to have learnt how to speak.

Jürgen Lawrenz


(49) Arianne asked:

I wonder if Husserl has a Phenomenology of Aesthetics?


Interesting question... but I couldn't find one, except for a few mentions here and there. Nothing developed, really. But there are phenomenologists who have been interested in aesthetics. Take a look here:

Crowell, S. G., L. Embree, and S.J. Julian, eds. 2001. The reach of reflection: issues for phenomenology's second century. Boca Raton, FL: Electron Press.

Derrida, J. 1993. Memoirs of the blind: the self-portrait and other ruins. Translated by P.-A. Brault and M. Naas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, D. 1976. Listening and voice; a phenomenology of sound. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. Matravers, D. 1996. Aesthetic concepts and aesthetic experiences. The British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (3):265-277.

Tsur, R. 2003. Aspects of cognitive poetics. In Cognitive Stylistics — Language and Cognition in Text Analysis, edited by E. Semino and J. Calpeper. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

These should get you started, anyway.

Steven Ravett Brown


(50) John asked:

Hey I'm glad I found your site, I'm in core classes right now and hope to start studying philosophy in the fall.

Philosophy is all about debating and reasoning things out till they make sense, right? You have to leave unsupported opinions at the door and deal with reality. So, given the right amount of information, shouldn't true philosophers agree on a subject? Maybe the agreement is that there is not an answer or that there are more than one, but they should still agree.


Im going to keep it short for now, John, because it seems to me that you're about to discover a lot of things that are new to you. But I must cut you short at once in your belief that philosophers must "deal with reality". I do hope you have before today heard that many very intelligent people have not solved that issue at all: what is reality? So this is a hot topic for philosophers, and has been for over 2000 years. You simply cant "deal" with something you still have to discover! Agreed?

Maybe you're still reluctant. Then let me challenge you to read just the first page of a book called Patterns of Discovery by Hanson. Borrow it from your library. He describes here two scientists working at a microscope. But they don't agree with each other on what they are seeing. They are looking at the same object, but they disagree on what that object is. They still disagreed when test results came in. They and hundreds of other scientists in each of these camps disagreed for more than 10 years on what that object was. But according to you, they had all the same information and should have been able to figure it out by reasoning. After all, this is science! Well, they tried. For over over 10 years.

I hope this give you an idea that most things aren't that simple. But I hope you will enjoy what's coming at you!

Jürgen Lawrenz