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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 3 (2nd series)

When referring to an answer on this page, please quote the page number followed by the answer number. The first answer on this page is 3/1.

(1) Stephen asked:

How is the field of philosophy likely to alter (or progress?) during the 21st century?

Have any notable thinkers (especially those well-read in the history of philosophy, notably the last century or two) given any (credible) theories regarding this issue?

The reason I ask is that philosophy during the 20th century, in particular the Anglo-America analytic schools (which are prominent at universities in the UK and USA) has tended to become very abstract, emotionally detached, and consequently further detached from the human condition, in my opinion. Is it likely that the prominence this form of philosophy now holds will decline in the coming century?

Especially with regard to the philosophical counseling movement, there may be a greater demand for more 'human' philosophy in the future, as opposed to abstract, self-referential, analytical theorizing, which may be fine for a mental activity among intellectuals, but offers little in the way of comfort or consolation, or wisdom readily applicable to everyday life.

Although existentialist philosophy is more concerned with the human condition than the analytic school (and has consequently had a big influence on psychotherapy, both with regards to Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy, and the Humanistic approach pioneered by Rogers and Maslow, and perhaps later philosophical counseling too), the book Spirituality for the Skeptic by philosopher Robert C. Solomon criticizes both the Continental and Analytic schools of philosophy, the former for its "often cynical obscurantism". He calls for a return to the (often passionate) spirit of Hegel and Nietzsche, as a way of "liberating the soul of Philosophy".

Outside of academia, although traditional religions are on the decline in the Western world, New Age religions are on the increase, perhaps pointing to a disillusionment with rationalism and a desire for a more passionate philosophy of life (much as happened with the rise of Romanticism following the Enlightenment).

Is it possible that such a (neo-Romantic?) trend will occur in academic philosophy during the 21st century?

"Between the well-healed spiritual pundits on the media circuit", said Solomon, "and the brilliant technocrats locked away in philosophy seminar rooms, the throngs of humanity who are searching for that big picture find themselves with a pretty poor choice".

Perhaps such a new trend in philosophy could provide the 'missing link' between these two unsatisfactory alternatives, and this return somewhat to its original Greek meaning, "the love of wisdom".

How likely is this to realistically happen during the upcoming century?


Well, yes, Philosophy does look to be in a rather pitiable state, doesn't she? The Queen of Disciplines, the 'Mother of all the Sciences', as Einstein called her, was once the standard-bearer who led the intellectual troops into battle with questions like "what is matter?", "is empty space possible?", "How does the mind work?". But she now seems rather more like the ambulance corps- running up after the big boy's battles to pick up science's dead and wounded (What shall we do with nuclear weapons? How about cloning? Is quantum theory logical?).

What has happened, if you ask me, is that Philosophy has been just too successful at her own job. If Philosophy is The Study Of Things We Don't Know Anything About (and that, I think, is precisely what it is), then, as soon as it finds out about something, then that subject ceases to be Philosophy. So Philosophy has asked 'what is life', and, as soon as some sort of an answer was found, Biology invented itself, and ceased to be part of the mother. Just so with Physics, and Chemistry and Geology. Adam Smith discusses 'The Wealth of Nations' and Economics is born, Auguste Comte writes about 'Positive Philosophy', and Sociology arises. And so on. Philosophy has done well, but she isn't now left with much to do, other than for one practitioner of the craft to fill their time arguing about what some other one has said, or might have said, or ought to have said- leaving the bird rather, as Kant put it (albeit in a different context), vigorously flapping its wings without actually moving from the spot. Even formal Logic has flown the nest to go and live with Computer Science.

In fact, about all she is left to fiddle with is the science of the unknown mind. (Such as there is of the known mind having, of course, already peeled off to call itself psychology.) And even that seems ready to fall away, for, every day, neuroscience creeps up. The study of the brain has already achieved so many astonishing things- of which the most fundamental must surely be the idea that the brain IS the place where the mind arises. This seems such a commonplace understanding nowadays that it is difficult to remember how it was hotly debated just a couple of decades ago. But that's just a start, something new is happening - subjects like consciousness, selfhood, religiosity and goodness are all now being discussed by anatomists and chemists. I nearly said 'as well as philosophers', but, no, generally rather better than philosophers. In fact, I remain astonished by the general the ignorance of philosophers on even the simplest discoveries in matters of the brain. I could even start to get angry. I won't, but I'll have to give you at least one example of philosophical drivel as dumb as old Aristotle declaring than women had fewer teeth than men, without bothering to simply glance inside Mrs. Aristotle's mouth, so the nonsensical garbage that is Nagel's "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness" will have to do.

Give neuroscience one, tiny, little extra and it'll begone from Philosophy forever. That extra is nothing more than just a way of describing events in the mind in exactly the same terms as events in the brain. I'm rather hoping it is going to be me who finds this vital link. But, hurry, get yourself a copy of Rita Carter's 'Mapping The Mind', and go to it — someone needs to be ready to lead the philosophers into the next century, and you've as good a chance as anyone else.

And then what? Well, the end of Philosophy has been announced before, and I don't think it is about do die yet. Rather, it seems as if there is a cycle in the life of new sciences. After they get invented they have to go through a phase of cataloguing, where all is about getting the facts in order, making lists of things and defining the limits of the art. Botany went through that. And geology, chemistry, mechanics, zoology, and astronomy, and the rest.

So, I suspect, it will be with Philosophy herself. For the best part of three thousand years she has been going through her cataloguing phase. It has only taken so very long because her subject is, well, so very, very big. When, soon, the science of the mind is reasonably clearly defined, it will be time for the Mother of All Knowledge, not to die, far from it, but to begin to call all her lost children home. To begin the grandest and the greatest task of all, to put all the sciences and all the arts and all the crafts back together again into one, great, grand thing called, properly, Philosophy. And then, when Plumbing can understand Semantics, and Endocrinology speaks Latvian, and all the lovers of wisdom can share at one great table, what will we not be able to achieve?

Glyn Hughes


(2) Kenneth asked:

What is it called if I hold that we consist of nothing but matter, but that we also have free-will, because maybe God was able to somehow engineer true free-will out of matter? Are there any philosophers that hold to that?

and Daylan asked:

I hold that somehow God was able to engineer free-will by a certain arrangement of matter, such as the human brain. Does that make me a subject dualist? A compatibilist? Are there philosophers that explore this idea? [etc]


The fly in the ointment is the phrase "God was able to somehow engineer".

But for the large questions the use of this phrase raises about your theology and your views on God's powers of creation and/or intervention, it would be clear that you are compatibilist, ie that you think that Material monism (the thesis that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, and that stuff is physical stuff operating according to discoverable physical laws) is compatible with freewill. There are lots of philosophers who elaborate one of a number of varieties of compatibilism. The usual problem that they have to grapple with, though, is that the impossibility of free-will seems to fall out of the very definition of matter, ie stuff interacting according to law.

There are various positions and strategies adopted here, one variety being that which questions the lawfulness of matter side of the problem, and the other of which questions the meaning of freewill side of the problem. Occasionally you get a maverick scientist or pop-scientist who plays with lawfulness of matter, or tries to create freewill out of some deep randomness that lawfulness is supposed to permit, or something like that. In this category we have the freewill and consciousness through quantum physics / chaos / complexity views. Mostly these look like wishful thinking by people who aren't in the habit of addressing philosophical questions (how can freewill equal dice throwing? exactly how complex is complex enough?). I guess that philosophers more usually go for the tweaking-with-the-meaning-of-freewill option, mainly because conceptual analysis is their thing rather than the details of theories in physics. But there's a problem with that strategy too. Namely, it usually ends up appearing that there is nothing to the concept of 'freewill' but the appearance of freewill, whereas it wasn't the appearance we were worried about - we wanted to know if we had it or not.

There is a third more sophisticated approach to these questions, which can sometimes look a bit like one or both of the strategies I've already described (particularly when it is a scientist doing it), is the one which tackles head on the question of the status of scientific law and the definition of matter. If your view is that scientific truths are true in virtue of corresponding with the way reality is, there's no wriggle room for freewill. But there are other views on the status of scientific truth. (Coherence, pragmatism, etc)

An interesting side alley in all this is your conception of God. If you are prepared to admit God as a non-material substance that has the ability to move matter around independently of the laws of matter, it becomes obscure why you would want to be a compatibilist. Why not just be an out and out dualist, declaring that in addition to God there is also Human non-material substance? If we think and decide not with our brains but rather our souls, material determinism is escaped. You've still got the old old problem though, of how, it being part of the definition of matter that it is a closed system operating according to law, there can be non-material interventions into it. Thus putting our ability to raise an arm (the mind-body problem) onto the same mysterious footing with Gods creation of the universe. The "God was somehow able to engineer" business is reminiscent of a further view on how matter and body manage to run according to their own separate laws without my arm failing to raise when I will it, namely: the two clocks thesis. This has it that god engineers souls, and god engineers matter, and he engineers it so that the two 'clocks' run separately, but in time. A problem with this thesis is that while it escapes the determination of will by matter, it does imply the predetermination of will by God, which is not consistent with most Christian theology (with some interesting exceptions).

David Robjant


(3) Stephen asked:

How is the field of philosophy likely to alter (or progress?) during the 21st century? [etc]


Quite apart from whether, it is an extremely interesting question as to how the dominant schools of thinking in philosophy can alter over time. I'm not sure that I know, exactly.

For comparison, it used to be thought, as to how scientific thinking changes, that all the appropriate answers were to be found in something called the "scientific method", conceived of as a relation between experiment and conclusions. But then T.Kuhn came along with 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' and, at a stroke, turned the alteration and progression of science into a quasi-sociological matter. He observed that in fact the scientific community behaves rather according to Lenin's model of democratic centralism, where, after a certain point, dispute is actually settled not 'by experiment' but by a sort of vote of those thought to matter, which then endorses an opinion known as the "scientific consensus". Muck-rakers and other motivated persons make all kinds of unwanted hay out of this sociological turn in the philosophy of science. But I can't think that anyone has succeeded in quite the same treatment, or hay making, in the case of philosophy. Which is odd. I should think we deserve it, but unlike with science the problem probably is: no platform from which to stand so as to survey the scene from outside, as it were.

There is of course the other question of whether philosophy makes any "progress". Your answer to this question usually hangs on whether you happen to agree with the current fashion and think that the previous one was all wrong.

A famous example of this is a book called "Plato's Progress" in which an anti-metaphysical behaviourist called Gilbert Ryle argued that Plato got much smarter as he got older, which Ryle understood to mean that Plato ditched his metaphysical nonsense for something much more sensible in his later works. Ryle only attempts this interpretation because he thinks that movement away from metaphysics is progress, and, wishing both to be charitable and to claim Plato as a farsighted ancestor of his own views, wants to ascribe just this "progress" away from metaphysics to Plato. But it remains debatable, to this day, whether a movement towards anything like a Rylean position is really "progress", and also highly dubious whether Plato did indeed ditch his metaphysics in the Sophist, Theaetetus, and Parmenides (eg, I argued the contrary in my own MPhil thesis).

The best thing to say is that Philosophy by definition cannot make "progress", since it is precisely that arena in which what is to count as "progress" is discussed. We shouldn't bandy about vague terms like "philosophical progress" without making clear that we mean to allege something specific like "progress towards formulation in symbolic logic" (and there are those who think that such formulations take us away from the proper solutions to philosophical problems), or "progress towards liberalism", or, simply, and which is the case depressingly often, "progress towards agreeing with me".

David Robjant


(4) Stuart asked:

I was reading a introduction to philosophy book a Simon Blackburn's Think a and under the Chapter on mind, I came across a joke that I don't get (if it is a joke): Two behaviourists are in bed, the one says to the other "That was great for you, how was it for me?" Could you lease explain this to me, I don't follow.


For behaviourists (at least for the kind of behaviourist attacked in the joke), the meaning of mental expressions (such as 'I feel peckish', 'he feels peckish') is to be understood in terms of the relation holding between the utterance in question and some publically observable behaviour. IE, the claim 'he feels peckish' is warranted by observing his slavering tongue, or by noticing that he's on the way to the canteen or something like that, and the behaviourist then claims that the meaning of 'he feels peckish' is just the same thing as the warrant for the claim. IE, the superficially simple 'he feels peckish' can be analysed into a more complicated claim about observable facts such as 'he is either slavering or on the way to the canteen or looking at food in a magazine or...' and so on.

Why do Behaviourists pursue this line? The advance here is supposed to be that now we don't have to speak of mysterious and unknowable mental properties that are 'hidden' in the inaccessible consciousness of another, but can instead trade in plain facts, as it were. Such as: is he on the way to the canteen?

A difficulty that the joke makes much of is that this while this kind of strategy for avoiding unknowables is based upon privileging a third-person perspective, this is done at the expense of the first-person perspective. IE, the meaning of 'Gerald is peckish' is unpacked to 'Gerald can be observed by another, and could in principal be observed by the entire faculty, to me making his way towards the canteen'. But what is poor Gerald to make of this? Is he able to think that the meaning of 'I am peckish' is entirely contained in the facts that are observable to others? Well, some behaviourists have attempted, by various routes, to swallow exactly this. Here ridicule rather than argument seems the most appropriate strategy, hence:

Two behaviourists are in bed, the one says to the other "That was great for you, how was it for me?"

David Robjant


(5) Sonny asked:

Is there a philosophy or development of thought that deals with there having to be an opposite? Does there have to be contrast for something to be known? Can you know good without knowing any evil? Dark without light? Cold without hot? Life without death? etc.


Lots of philosophers have commented on contrast and knowability, but of those to make it a theme, two philosophers, at opposite ends of the history of western philosophy, come to mind.

Heraclitus, as in "It is not better for human beings to get everything they want... Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest" (compare: Buddhism, also Plato in the Republic on pleasure and pain) and "God [ie ultimate reality] is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger [ie a set of oppositional pairs "in strife"]..."

Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Here we have the idea that the meaning of a sentence is in what it rules out, so that meaning depends upon opposition.

There are people who tried to interpret Heraclitus in terms of Wittgenstein. I think they are going too far, because there are all kinds of different philosophical directions in which it is possible to take this basic idea that opposition is important to knowledge and meaning. For instance, in what field must the necessary contrast lie? In answering this question all the normal philosophical disagreements come into play. Are we to talk of "sense impressions"? Experience? Being? What?

David Robjant


(6) John asked:

I have been reading Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, and it has been puzzling me. I don't like his doctrine of sense-data, but I can't figure out quite why. [etc]


Just to add to the previous contributions that there is another reason why one might dislike, and/or be puzzled by, the idea of sense-data. Heraclitus, Plato, Bergson, Sartre, Iris Murdoch: all these philosophers think that there is sensation, but deny that it comes as 'data'. In the idea of 'data' is the notion of discrete bits of information. But Murdoch etc do not think of experience as a succession of discrete things, and, accordingly, do not think of experience as bits of information. In Plato, Heraclitus, Murdoch, the way they express this is to say that the sensory world is in 'flux'. It is fluid like a river, not made up of solid bits and pieces like the banks.

(Bergson also goes back to the Presocratics to support his thought, but his reference is to Zeno's paradoxes (Achilles and the Tortoise etc) which he takes as showing that continua of distance etc are not built up of bits.)

Russell's idea here owes a lot to Hume. Supposedly our experiences, at some basic level, arrive with us as little atoms of experience, uncuttable bits, "sense impressions" Hume calls these. Russell's idea of 'sense-data' plays a similar role, in that these are supposed to be the basic stuff of our sensory experiences. One might object simply by saying: there is no basic stuff.

In a 1947 journal entry, Murdoch sums up her thinking thus "Our imagination is immediately and continuously at work on our experience. There are no 'brute data'."

David Robjant


(7) Francis asked:

How can a manager maximise the shareholders wealth without sacrificing the interests of other stakeholders?


Andrew Browne said, "So a simple answer is to look to cut costs." I disagree.

Thinking more creatively about exactly what market place wants and improving your product/ service so as to better meet an actual or potential demand and thus sell more stuff and/ or at higher prices, is the route by which industrial economies actually progress and create wealth. If we were still just trying to cut costs, we'd all have fantastically cheap clogs, and no bicycle.

David Robjant


(8) Tim asked:

How likely is it for AI to develop meaningful programs that will allow "social" dialogue that might lead to emergent consciousness between machine systems, or will AI most likely remain defined by syntax (versus semantics) and stay purely computational?;


You ask about likelihood. Probability is statistical. There can be no statistics relating to 'emergent consciousness' because (a) it has not been observed, and (b) no one seems to know what the phrase means anyway.

If you like, I can give you a conceptual reason why computer consciousness is a contradiction in terms, but it is such a boring old reason really, I am sure you know what it is, and I am fairly confident that that's why everyone would rather talk about ill-defined or goal-post shifting concepts such as 'emergent consciousness'. Anyway: computers crunch numbers - this is true even of vast collective heaps of computers that sociably crunch vast collective heaps of sociable numbers. But what we are conscious of is not essentially numerical, or even, in the first instance and before we set our minds to work on it, necessarily a matter of definite or numberable objects and qualities either. So, consciousness: input of indefinite amorphous experience, and then, occasionally, ideas and actions out. Contrast computers: numbers in, numbers out. Because of this simple and obvious contrast, which is exactly the same as the difference which held between Babbage and his mechanical marvel, there can be no such thing as computational consciousness. Consciousness is pre-numerical, obviously, as any maths dunce could tell you. How boring. Disappointing somehow. Won't sell many books.

Imagine a sci-fi world where the government of the world has been taken over by the publishers of popular science books. Some poor resistance fighter in the woods campaigns for the right to treat human beings as morally significant and to treat robots as lumps of metal. But the publishing empire is closing in. He makes one last rousing speech to the faithful peasants gathered about him in the clearing, and, oh dear, they discover that the line he's peddling is the hoary old one about computers crunching numbers. 'Boring!', they cry, and then variously, 'did you see the Turing tribute last week?', 'I love tank tops', and 'how much for your tamagochi?', before going home to watch Horizon - there's a rumour that they've gone and bought a new cd of portentous discovery music for this series. Collapse of human race.

David Robjant


(9) Joaquin asked:

Would human clones have "souls"?


Yes. There is, unless you can tell me otherwise, no reason to think that there is any connection between having a soul, ie being a unique consciousness, and having a unique DNA sequence. Why on earth should there be?

I suppose that if you start of by thinking that the world is just a collection of things that can be cut up and inspected in the bottom of a microscope, you might have a bit of trouble with consciousness. But if that's your philosophical trouble, identifying souls with DNA sequences isn't going to help you any. Souls experience things. DNA sequences don't. They are bits of matter. So you will still have exactly the same 'problem of consciousness' or 'mystery of consciousness' that you started out with. Your question is typical of the kind of got-up problem faced by people who maintain that all there is is matter, and that everything else, consciousness, personal identity, moral oughts, has to boil down to this basic stuff one way or another. It won't. And moreover there's no particularly good reason to think that matter is the one basic stuff anyway. Yes, science based on the hypothesis of material monism is terribly successful and true. But there is all the difference in the world between understanding the truth of such material science in terms of it's success (pragmatism), and understanding the success of materialism in terms of it's truth (correspondence theory). It is the later dogma that creates this peculiar and unnecessary mystery about consciousness and identity, to which DNA poses a inadequate and unnecessary solution.

David Robjant


(10) Joanne asked:

There is good evidence that British and American soldiers have been torturing Iraqi prisoners. What would a relativist, a deontologist and a utilitarian have to say about this behaviour? Which position would you adopt and why?


It is utterly astonishing the speed at which a politically motivated hoax transforms itself into an essay question.

As I write, the photographs published in the Mirror, which were wrongly held to be evidence of British soldiers torturing iraqis, have been definitively proven to have been faked in Manchester, UK, and legal action against the hoaxers and or the Mirror newspaper may follow. Regarding the British, we as yet know of no "good evidence" of torture. There are a number of allegations under investigation, but we are not in a position to say whether any offered evidence is "good evidence". The situation with American forces is entirely different and we do know that they did these things.

You will note, of course, that there is no such thing as a utilitarian or deontological 'position' on those acts, since utilitarianism and deontology are metaethical views rather than normative ethics, ie they are claims about the status and origin of moral claims, and not lists of claims. Likewise, it is hard to see how 'relativism' could have a view on the matter at hand, either.

I imagine that you are being asked to contrast the supposedly lax consequentialism of utilitarianism (torture is OK if it gets good results), with strictly moral deontology. But against this simplification one can easily conceive of a deontological ethic that in fact condoned torture (ie by containing the rule "torture is fine if they are the enemy"), and indeed concern for consequences has been argued to mandate a strict respect for the rules and law.

My view would be that you should not treat people that way, and that you don't need to decide anything about metaethics to see this.

David Robjant


(11) George asked:

How historically verifiable are the writings of Plato?


Jurgen gave an answer to this question that I thought excellent, but he understood the question in a particular way, ie: is it historically verifiable that these are the writings of Plato? George may have meant to ask: How good are the wrings of Plato as verifiable History?

Plato, of course, happens to mention any number of ancient figures and myths (eg atlantis), besides in addition writing his philosophy as plays in which historical figures have mentions or parts. Well on this the thing to say is that excepting the very important case of the Trial of Socrates in which Plato is both emotionally and philosophically engaged, the historical accuracy of Plato's playwriting and myth yarning is never the point. The point is the philosophy. A number of ancient greeks wrote histories. Plato wasn't one of them.

David Robjant


(12) Someone asked:

is there such thing as silence?


I would not have known how to answer this prior to my experience of tinnitus, which to me has been both illness and grief together.

I would define silence as what I have lost. Silence is when you sit quietly and are able to hear yourself think, and stay in the pauses between your thoughts, waiting.

Silence is something absolutely essential to any serious philosophical reflection, to reading anything worth reading, to all that is best in life.

It is not essential, I discover, to typing at a computer. Hence this.

David Robjant


(13) Michael asked:

What are your proofs against Christianity? And how to you justify the COUNTLESS proofs (many undeniable, albeit a few undeniable) FOR Christianity?


I note the previous contribution but, as is, this is not a question I can say anything about. Except, I might encourage you to define Christianity. This would be useful for the philosopher (because then he will know what on earth we are talking about), and also for the faithful (because then he will know what he is putting his faith in).

There are a variety of frankly contradictory views of god, the universe, the bible, morality, and the significance of Christ, all of which are called "Christianity", and many of which are to be found espoused in the same church. We ought to allow that is is perfectly possible that one of these views is correct in every detail. What is logically impossible is that they all are.

David Robjant


(14) Someone asked:

Is there such thing as silence?

Answer: I don't know, since I don't know what you mean by "thing". But think about this: are there such "things" as holes? Why or why not? Take a look, for example, at the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth before you answer that. You might also look at:

Casati, R., and A. C. Varzi. 1995. Holes and other superficialities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Steven Ravett Brown

(15) Someone asked:

I would like questions that would help me understand the way my friend thinks and feels. a question is if you had 48 hours left on earth, who would you see, what would you do, and where would you go. I want a question to ask like that


Ok, here's one for you: if you won the lottery tomorrow, or somehow got all the money you needed to live life comfortably and securely for the rest of your life, would you continue working at the same job you're working in now? Or generally doing what you're doing now? If not, then maybe you should think about finding something you like to do more. If so, you're one of the lucky few.

Steven Ravett Brown


(16) Veronica asked:

My philosophy lecturer, after each lecture leaves us two questions to think about until the next lecture. Though Im having trouble with this weeks questions, here goes:

'are moral value judgements subjective?'

'what is an objectivist's theory of moral value judgements?'

As I said im having real trouble with these questions I would be grateful if you could help!


Hey, Veronica, join the crowd! This is one of the most horrific and nasty problems in philosophy, and it's been debated for over 3000 years. You might take a look at Plato's Dialogues, and then David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, to start. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Steven Ravett Brown


(17) Chris asked:

What is the significance of Plato's Parable of the Cave to philosophy?


The Theory of Ideas is the starting point for the philosophical school of thought known as Idealism. And this theory is the basis for the parable you mention. For Plato, as for Socrates, the real world was apparent, and another world was in truth real – the ideal world, the world of ideas. This dichotomy was described in the parable of the cave in the VII book of The Republic. Men (the prisoners of the cave, forced to be with their backs to the entry of the cave) to Plato are eluded with the appearance (the shadows projected in the cave’s wall) that give them the consistence of their only reality. But, when released from the chains that hold them (ignorance), men recognize that the shadows are nothing but ghosts and not pure reality. Plato also states that if any of those men were to return to the cave, he could no longer see things the same way as he once did (he could no longer be ignorant again). He also would be unable to convince others that remain there of his now found truth – emphasis on personal experience.

The importance of this vision is that Plato says that truth is not of this world, but belongs to an ideal world. This is called an epistemological objectivism. Knowledge never changes and has for object the pure reality, making the soul the only instrument of a philosopher. The world that was before all the reality, becomes nothing of importance when it comes to finding truth. In essence, the real world is no longer real. So, it’s pretty important what Plato states with this parable.

Nuno Hipolito


(18) Paul asked:

I would like to know what if anything is wrong with Ayn Rand's definition of a concept in her philosophy of Objectivism. I understand that it gives a solution to the problem of universals tying concepts to objective reality and wonder why it is not being taught in our colleges and universities.

I've read two histories of philosophy and found that if a concept could have been objectively defined it would be possible to get objective definitions tied to reality for the rest of the words in a language.


I have written a rather lengthy analysis of "Concepts" that among other things, addresses some of the short comings in Ayn Rand's notion of concepts. You might find the answers you are seeking at http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0302.htm

Stuart Burns


(19) Ram asked:

Could you please explain Kant's distinction between Analytic and synthetic judgements a-priori?

Analytic judgements are those where everything which can be said about something, is contained in its concept.

To use philosophical parlance, all the predicates are contained in the subject. In the concept of a triangle is contained all the predicates that can ever belong to it as a triangle such as having three angles that add up to 180 degrees and as having three sides. Analyse the concept [or Subject] and its predicates will emerge. This is known prior to any actual triangle in the world: it is known by analyses of the subject alone. Hence it is an analytic truth. To deny the predicates [s] involves committing a contradiction.

Synthetic judgements a-priori are formed by the combination or synthesis of pure conceptions [i.e. Transcendental Categories] of the understanding with intuitions of the senses. That is, formed by the synthesis of ‘experience’ with the transcendental categories of the understanding.

Such a synthetic a-priori judgement would be 'the triangle is coloured Red.' The category of triangularity is synthesized with the empirical intuition of redness. Whether a triangle is red or not, is not contained in the a-priori concept of triangle. It can only be known after the a-priori concept is synthesised with empirical intuitions of red to make a synthetic a-priori judgement.

Another synthetic a-priori judgement is that of causality. We never perceive a cause of a subsequent effect, yet it is integral to our understanding of the world. So from where does it originate? It originates from a synthetic judgement a-priori: a priori categories of cause and effect synthesised with intuitions.

Martin Jenkins


(20) Emma asked:

Is the death penalty ever a legitimate punishment? or is killing always wrong?


I do agree with John Brandon that if the law of the land declares capital punishment to be the penalty for certain crimes, then the punishment is legitimate, and whether it is morally right or not is another question. And I agree that the question is a delicate one whether killing perpetrated by the state is justice or is actually revenge.

I would just like to point out that when John refers to the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill", he is implying that justice based on the Christian ethic must necessarily employ the King James Version of the Bible. There are newer translations of the language in which the original has come down to us in (I don't remember whether the original script of Exodus comes to us in Greek, Aramaic, or some other ancient form.) For example, where Exodus 20:13 is rendered in the King James Version as "Thou shalt not kill.", it is rendered in the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version as "You shall not murder." And in The Amplified Bible, it is "You shall not commit murder." (You can go to http://bible.gospelcom.net to see any particular Bible passage as it is rendered in any of 18 different versions. That site will also route you to pages that describe the methods employed in translation.)

Now, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "murder" means - "(noun) The unlawful killing of one human being by another, especially with premeditated malice." And according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, "murder" means "(noun) the unlawful premeditated killing of one person by another." Or "(verb) kill unlawfully and with premeditation."

So, contrary to John's suggestion, there is indeed a proviso in the commandment which allows you to kill if you are a high court judge, or a state executioner, or even if you are defending yourself from an aggressor in your home, on the street, or in a war. None of those forms of killing constitutes "murder" according to current legal statues. Nor can they be viewed as immoral, if one is employing as one's moral standard, the more up-to-date translations of the Ten Commandments. (The Bible, of course, contains many contradictory admonitions, so it is entirely possible that other passages of the Bible may be found to render any killing "contrary to the commands of God".)

David Robjant


(21) Gerald asked:

Why is Ayn Rand considered by some as a philosopher, if she is not a "good" philosopher? i.e. she seems to be one person in philosophy who is either loved or hated. Thus, no one hates Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle, is it because their ideas have stood the test of time or because of time their ideas are more historical and thus more neutral. Also, then can anything be gleaned or made usable in her philosophy of Objectivism?


I'll preface this response by admitting that I am a fan of Ayn Rand, so this response will be admittedly biased from some perspectives.

My own take is that there are two reasons why Ayn Rand is not considered a "good" philosopher, and is hated by much of the Philosophical world. First, Ms Rand proposed a system of ethics diametrically opposed to the Leftist / Socialist inclinations of the bulk of the intellectual (including Philosophical) elites of the 30's thru the 80's. As such, she was frequently dismissed out of hand as promulgating something that was "clearly wrong". And second, she made no attempt to earn the respect of other philosophers by studying for degrees, memorizing the works of numerous past philosophical thinkers, or playing the PhD game of publishing well footnoted articles in recognized learned journals.

It is a common failing of those who have labored hard for their PhD's (and not just in Philosophy) to dismiss as uneducated those who have not demonstrated the same depth of learning. In philosophical circles, this is most visible from the extent to which philosophical argument becomes a discussion about how past thinkers would interpret some issue. [Consider, for example, the high proportion of questions to this forum that are about the thoughts of such long dead thinkers.] Philosophical thinkers who choose not to study the past, are therefore too often dismissed as unworthy of the label "Philosopher". At least while the current generation of "properly qualified" PhDs still rule the roost. Future generations may take a different view of things.

Stuart Burns


(22) Sarah asked:

Who owns the genetic material of an aborted foetus? For example who owns the umbilical cord etc. The mother, foetus or hospital, for example. Does the foetus have rights or is it just a part of the mother? I have looked through a lot of websites and found nothing very accurate that relates to this particular sort of question/ topic.


I think you need to think about providing a definition of "ownership" and "rights" before any answers to your question can be meaningful.

For example, if you define "ownership" as what the local laws provide, then who owns the aborted fetus (including its genetic material) will vary from one jurisdiction to another. Similar for the presence of rights. The legal rights of the fetus also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

But if you are seeking answers from a moral/ethical perspective, then it becomes important to understand just what you mean by ownership and rights. And those concepts vary from one system of ethics to another.

Stuart Burns


(23) 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...


I disagree with John Brandon's answer.

Firstly, is evolution just a theory? No it is not. Evolution is a proved material fact, well supported by the evidence. In the words of one of the foremost biologists of the 20th Century.

In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact" - part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is "only" a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science - that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory - natural selection - to explain the mechanism of evolution. (Stephen J. Gould, " Evolution as Fact and Theory"; Discover, May 1981.)

Second, does Darwin's theory of natural selection depend only, or even most importantly, on "accidental progress by chance genetic mutation"? No it does not. John has fallen into the traditional Creationist trap of ignoring the critical importance of genetic variation within populations, combined with differential reproductive success as a result of environmental pressures acting on those genetic variations. Yes, mutation plays a part. And yes, given the tremendous complexities of life chemistry, most mutations are detrimental. But that is irrelevant. Given the large numbers of individuals involved, and the large number of generations involved, an extremely small chance of a beneficial mutation is all that is required. And even the concept of "beneficial" is open to scrutiny. What may be deleterious to one individual, may turn out to be beneficial to another individual in different environmental circumstances.

Third, the Cambrian Period (specifically, 543 to 520 million years ago) marks an important point in the history of life on earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. This event is sometimes called the "Cambrian Explosion", because of the relatively short time over which this diversity of forms appears. It was once thought that the Cambrian rocks contained the first and oldest fossil animals, but these are now to be found in the earlier Vendian strata. Thus John is incorrect is suggesting that "life seemed to burst forth from nowhere". The Cambrian/ Precambrian boundary is no longer considered as the place where life suddenly appears. There is a continuum of life across this boundary. Grotzinger et al (Grotzinger, John P., Samuel A. Bowring, Beverly Z. Saylor and Alan J. Kaufman, 1995, "Biostratigraphic and Geochronologic Constraints on Early Animal Evolution," Science, 270:598-604) write:

Once held as the position in the rock record where the major invertebrate groups first appeared, the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary now serves more as a convenient reference point within an evolutionary continuum. Skeletalized organisms, including Cambrian-aspect shelly fossils, first appear below the boundary and then show strong diversification during the Early Cambrian. Similarly, trace fossils also appear first in the Vendian, exhibit a progression to more complex geometries across the boundary, and then parallel the dramatic radiation displayed by body fossils.

Evidences of macroscopic life forms are now found as early as 680 million years ago in the form of worm burrows (Pagel, Mark, 1999. "Inferring the Historical Patterns of Biological Evolution," Nature, 401(1999):877-884). And several modern phyla are now claimed to appear in the Precambrian and thus are not part of the supposed 'Cambrian Explosion.' Here is a short list gleaned from the internet:

Phylum Porifera (Brasier, Martin Owen Green and Graham Shields, 1997. "Ediacaran Sponge Spicule Clusters from Southwestern Mongolia and the Origins of the Cambrian Fauna," Geology, 25:4:303-306)

Phylum Mollusca (Fedonkin, Mikhail A. and Benjamin M. Waggoner, "The Late Precambrian Fossil Kimberella is a Mollusc-like Bilaterian Organism," Nature, 388(1997):868-871)

Phylum Annelida (Cloud, Preston, and Martin F. Glaessner, 1982. "The Ediacarian Period and System: Metazoa Inherit the Earth.", Science, 217, August 27, 1982)

Phylum Cnidaria (Conway Morris, Simon, 1998. The Crucible of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p 9)

Phylum Arthropoda (Waggoner, Benjamin M., "Phylogenetic Hypotheses of the Relationships of Arthropods to Precambrian and Cambrian Problematic Fossil Taxa," Syst. Biol., 45(1996):2:190-222)

Current contenders for the cause of the Cambrian explosion include: 1) the Snowball Earth, specifically the genetic isolation associated with runaway icehouse conditions; 2) Oxygen Limitation, constraining animals to small size and/or limited exertion; 3) Nutrient Stimulus, inducing or accelerating animal evolution through an influx of nutrients; 4) developmental innovations allowing the construction of complex organization; and 5) ecological innovation, particularly that induced by complex multicellular organisms.


My own favourite is the last one listed here. It seems reasonable to me that the advent of complex multi-cellular organisms would (at some early point in their evolution) rapidly broaden the possibilities for advantageous mutations. If the organism has a number of cooperating cells, it also has a number of "places" where a mutation could change its opportunities for finding an unoccupied and beneficial ecological niche. But once all those niches are filled with opportunistic mutations, further adventurous mutations face much greater competition. So, John is quite incorrect to suggest that the Cambrian explosion is a "thorn in the side of evolutionists".

Fourth, John is also incorrect to suggest that mass extinctions are a problem for the theory. As John suggests, mass extinctions caused by rapid environmental changes, like the one that one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, have happened numerous times throughout the history of Life on Earth. And he is correct that extinction rather than evolving into something else seems to be the order of the day. But both these points are totally irrelevant to his thesis. It is the very fact of evolution - differential reproduction resulting from environmental pressures on genetic variation within species - that is the "cause" of Life surviving these mass extinction events.

Fifth, John has the attitude of science exactly backward. It is not the case that "science would prefer to keep hammering at [evolution] rather than admit that there could be some powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered". It is the case that evolution is a proven fact. It is the case that the theory of natural selection a well tested and highly useful theory of how evolution takes place. And it is the fact that science does not generally waste much time looking for a "powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered" for which there is no evidence, or current need.

Sixth, John's characterizations of T.H. Huxley is correct (according to many histories of the early campaign to popularize Darwin's theories). But they are also totally irrelevant to his thesis. The scientific support for evolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection have far surpassed the rather inept attempts of Huxley.

Seventh, while I haven't read Bowden (the book is not in my local library), I would be curious how he distinguishes "the truth" from "a fraud". From my own methods of evaluation, on all but one means of distinction, evolution comes out as "the truth" and it is the anti-evolutionist argument that gets the epithet "a fraud". The only exception to this that I have encountered so far, is if one comes to the question with a pre-conceived notion that Darwin has to be wrong. And if one is going to recommend additional reading sources, I would offer as a counter to Bowden, the following works:

a.. Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett b.. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins c.. The Red Queen by Matt Ridley d.. Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones e.. Or start your online research here: http://www.fsteiger.com/urllist.html

Stuart Burns


(24) 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?


By "I don't believe in them", do you mean the dues, or the unions, or something else? I can't think of how you could argue that you don't believe in the dues. Associations of all sorts collect dues from their members in order to finance mutually beneficial activities. I think you would have a very hard time justifying the reasoning that you disagree with that activity. For similar reasons, I think you will have a hard time justifying the reasoning that you disagree with unions in general.

I think where you need to focus is on the aspect of coercion involved in the membership in the union and the forced collection of dues. You can check out any of the Objectivist web-sites for pithy arguments on why coercion is morally unacceptable. The essence of the argument runs - the voluntary exchange of values always nets each party to the exchange a net profit. Any involuntary exchange is a sub-optimal solution. In your case, you might argue that you perceive no personal benefit that might be derived from participation in the union, and that therefore the coerced collection of dues is theft.

Stuart Burns


(25) Michael asked:

What are your proofs against Christianity? And how to you justify the COUNTLESS proofs (many undeniable, albeit a few undeniable) for Christianity?


I do not offer a proof "against" Christianity. I merely maintain that I have yet to encounter ANY valid justification FOR Christianity. And in the absence of sufficient justification in support of the hypothesis, it is simpler to reject the hypothesis as unproven.

I know you think that there are countless proofs for Christianity. And, in truth, many a writer has weighed in on the argument with great excesses of verbiage. I have read a number. But all of the so-called proofs that I have encountered so far commit one of three fundamental kinds of errors:

(a) Assuming the consequent. Many of the so-called proofs that I have encountered attempt to prove that God exists (or Christianity is valid) from premises that themselves assume the truth of the argument being attempted. (An overly simplified but typical sort of argument runs - "Christianity is valid because the Bible says so".)

(b) Simple errors of logical thinking. These sorts of argument were more frequent in the millennia before the Renaissance, as it was politically dangerous for a critic to point out logical errors in other writers' analyses. (An overly simplified example would be - "God exists because the Universe must have been created." It ignores the logical possibility that the Universe may not have been created, but is infinite.)

(c) Ignorance of, or conscious discounting of, the evidence from the various branches of science on the nature of Reality. These are the sorts of arguments seen most frequently today. An overly simplified example would be "God exists because of all of the intricate design demonstrated by nature." It ignores the evidence from evolutionary biology.)

If you do have an argument for Christianity that does not fall into one of these three categories, I would be most interested in seeing it.

Stuart Burns


(26) Wale asked:

With reference to the logical status of the following statement as well as your understanding of philosophy, critically assess the third statement:

1. God is wisdom.

2. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom.

3. Philosophers say that God does not exist.


1) OK. This seems to be establishing a definition. You are establishing that the symbol "G-o-d" is to be considered semantically equivalent to the symbol "w-i-s-d-o-m", and when the symbol "God" is used, it should hereafter be understood to refer to the concept also referred to by the symbol "wisdom". A little unconventional, as it is not generally considered "clean" logic to radically redefine the meaning of commonly employed symbols (ask a thousand people what the symbol "God" means, and I would be surprised if any mention "wisdom"). But it is a technically acceptable logical move.

(2) OK. A reasonable interpolation from the Greek. The word "philosophy" comes from the Greek word "philosophein", which literally means "lover of wisdom". It is believed that this term was first coined by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, in referring to himself as a seeker after wisdom, as opposed to an already wise man (sophia). So philosophers can, by definition, be assumed to be lovers of wisdom.

(3) Not-OK. The problem arises from an intended confusion over the meaning of the symbol "God". If you mean for this statement to be interpreted in light of your redefinition of the symbol "God" in statement (1), then your statement (3) is simply wrong. Philosophers do not say that wisdom does not exist. On the other hand, if you intend to confuse the reader by meaning in (3) the standard Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept usually referred to by the symbol "God", then there is no conflict with your statement (1). The symbol "God" is being used to refer to two separate and unequal concepts in (1) and (3). Thus Philosophers (and specifically the realist/materialist sort) can maintain that the "God" of standard Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept does not exist, without maintaining that wisdom does not exist.

Stuart Burns