1st series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]  2nd series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49]

  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 46 (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 46/1.

(1) Jean Maria asked:

Complex Questions of Torture-Like Institutional Procedures

My questions to Ask a Philosopher arise from my interview with Israeli psychologist David Senesh, in preparation for the Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook (PMIC) on Ethics of Interrogation, Training, Treatment, and Research, under the auspices of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Dr. Senesh is a noted human rights advocate in Israel. He has agreed to public discussion of his testimony, which I summarize below.

As a young military recruit in the 1973 Israeli war against Syria and Egypt, Senesh was captured and violently interrogated by the Egyptians. In retrospect, Senesh said that the violence of the Egyptians allowed him to justify to himself his giving up information. He felt that if they had used rapport-building methods, which were nevertheless compelling, then he couldn't forgive himself for giving up information. He didn't remain angry with the Egyptian interrogators because he knew he was in the game of war.

Upon return to Israel, by prisoner exchange after 40 days, he was unsympathetically debriefed by Israeli intelligence officers. In Israel soldiers were expected to die fighting, and those taken captive were regarded, to some extent, as traitors. He had expected the debriefers to treat him as one of their own but he was treated with great suspicion. They subjected him to manipulative, nonviolent questioning to determine what information he had given to the Egyptians, in spite of the fact that he wanted to tell them everything. He felt dishonored and betrayed by his own military.

In the 1990s, the Israeli army acknowledged that many of its returned POWs were falling apart, much worse than combat veterans. The Israeli army initiated psychiatric and psychological interviews to determine disability payments. Senesh found the disability interviews by the Israeli health professionals most devastating. It was not enough for them to know the history of the ex-POWs and to hear about his symptoms. They insisted on 'breaking' the ex-POWs so as to witness their disabilities. Senesh said he was angriest and most traumatized by the 'interviews' of the psychiatric committees. Not only were they compatriots, but they were health professionals, who were supposed to care for people in his situation.

This testimony raises ethical questions different from all the other Casebook consultations, so I hope for some help from professional philosophers. But lets just start from the premise that torture is morally wrong and not rework that theme again. For the Casebook, the problem here is moral comparison of different kinds of torture as experienced by particular individuals.


1. How can we distinguish morally among these forms of interrogation, as experienced by Dr. Senesh? Other victims might rank their harm differently.

2. Is a strategically 'nice' interrogation really more blameworthy than a harsh interrogation?

3. Senesh's assessment of the three different episodes focuses on the long aftermath rather than the immediate experience. How does moral theory compare immediate experience of harm with the harm of later consequences?

Thank you for any help with these questions.


A 9/3/09 news interview with Dr. Senesh appears at Jewish Community OnLine:


The transcript is the Casebook interview is posted at the PMIC workshop website:


Jean Maria Arrigo, PhD (social psychologist) Project on Ethics and Art in Testimony http://www.peat-intel.org/


1. Three sorts of interrogation:

A. Israeli soldiers roughly interrogated (tortured) by Egyptian soldiers in time of war. This type of interrogation comes under international law as well as bilateral and multilateral contractual agreements between States. By agreeing to treat prisoners of war according to certain principles, the belligerents do not particularly change their respective chances of 'winning' but they do modify the depth of the horror of the ultimate outcome (independently of who 'wins'). The Nazis treated British prisoners of war relatively well, in the expectation that German prisoners would be equally well treated. (Meanwhile, the Nazis were not treating noncombatant Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals nearly as well.) In the absence of such morally binding and prudentially reinforced agreements, the combatants of one side find themselves in an utter state of nature with regard to combatants on the other side. (The Lockean view of the state of nature is perhaps theoretically preferable to the Hobbesian one — not that, in practice, this will make much difference.) The States which are signatories to instruments like the Geneva Conventions commit themselves to compelling the citizens of non-signatory States to comply as well. The legal and moral magic by which an enemy soldier becomes a prisoner of war entitled not to be shot and maimed at will is perhaps similar to the legal and moral magic by which a mere physical object can become someone's 'property'.

B. Debriefing of Israeli soldiers by Israelis. Here, human rights and the presumption of innocence apply, at least to the extent that the State has any pretension to being a juridical embodiment of morality. The agents of the State have a duty to protect all citizens equally, not just the ones who 'stayed home'. We are here speaking of States which are not mere caricatures of genuine, morally justifiable States.

C. Interviews to determine liability payments. Here again, to the extent that the State has any pretension to being a juridical embodiment of morality, human rights and the presumption of good faith on the part of persons interrogated apply. The case is similar to interviews of insurance claimants by the agents of a private insurance company. Abuse of claimants is wrong. Fraud by claimants is also wrong — and is subject to sanctions under criminal law and the law of tort. But this does not justify 'punishing' bona fide claimants for the wrongs which other persons may perhaps commit.

2. The category of strategically 'nice' interrogation techniques is a problematical one. Does this include lying? Does this include playing fake sound effects of human shrieks in an adjoining room and pretending to prepare to execute a prisoner? These are techniques which leave no nasty welts or burn marks. Acceptable interrogation techniques for cases of type B and C include straightforward questions concerning the relevant facts, preceded by disclosure to the person being interrogated of what is at stake. How can more than this be justified?

3. Long term versus short term harm? Answer: harm is harm. Besides, can we be certain in any given case of short term harm that the short term harm in question will not itself be the cause of further long term harm of the same or a different sort? It may perhaps be conceded that even non-utilitarians may on occasion find it morally necessary to balance some harms against others — e.g. in order to justify stealing medication by breaking into a pharmacy which is closed for the holidays in order to save lives in an emergency situation. Nonetheless, it may be advanced, contrary to what utilitarians may claim, that the question of harm caused and harm avoided is not the only relevant one, ethically.

Coercion, including deception and intimidation, is difficult to justify against someone who may have done nothing wrong.

James Crombie
Président, Comité d'éthique de la recherche (CéR)
Chair, Research Ethics Board (REB)
Université Sainte-Anne


(2) Jean Maria asked:

Complex Questions of Torture-Like Institutional Procedures (see above)


Is there really a committee 'to determine disability payments' that proceeds along these lines?

Setting that aside, I don't think the deep matters you raise will turn out to be something that we can elucidate in short. It looks like a PhD research proposal to me. Perhaps, though, it is a proposal that might be improved by a little more reflection, so I'll address myself to your question in the hope of making a contribution to that considered proposal.

How can we distinguish morally among these interrogations (as experienced by X)?

First off, I'm unclear what the '(as experienced by X)?' remark is doing there. Do you mean 'judge the interrogations that were experienced by x' or 'judge the interrogations that were experienced by x from the perspective of x'? Well look, I'm not x.

Regarding the 'How', there would be various theoretical backgrounds which might inform judgements here, and I suppose your hope is that these will be helpful judgements, with some actions coming out as preferable to others. With that hope I have all sympathy, but am at the same time a little doubtful.

One moral argument against what happened at each stage is simple and clear: such things should not be done to human beings. The difficulty arises from the fact that at various times we appear to value all kinds of things more than the human individual. I suppose that's how there come to be nations and armies in the first place. If I said that this is the basic moral error, and that beyond that there is nothing much by which we can distinguish one evil of war from another, my answer would have the all charms of clarity, simplicity, and with that, perhaps, some serious religious tradition to it.

However, as remarked, the difficulty arises from the fact that at various times we appear to value all kinds of things more than we value the human individual, and also, perhaps more tellingly from the idea that morality is supposed to somehow help us in a world where armies and nations and so forth are a fact, rather than preach irrelevantly for their abolition. I take it that this is your idea, and I'll admit that I can't quite escape it altogether either. I find myself stuck with the intuition that it was necessary to defeat Hitler militarily, and then try to work from there — but the effort is often rather groping.

So, what you want is some means by which to say that this evil mangling of individuals because of war is to be preferred to that evil mangling of individuals because of war.

In past times your best hope for this kind of discrimination is not quite a moral argument at all, but a resort to what might be called, somewhat hopefully, the law of war. This has noble origins, in the attempt of armed horsemen to established for their own satisfaction that they are not thuggish killing machines, but noble, cultured servants of God — some actual improvement was involved. By the 'law' of war we are also thinking of a considered decision procedure. Because it centers on a decision procedure it is slightly misleadingly called 'just war theory' and would better be called 'war justification theory'. In amongst the strange multi-sourced 'law of war' we are also thinking of various treaties — the geneva convention, for example. The typical defects of this approach are that 1) the evidence of due process to back up the papers and theories of the 'law' is scant, and 2) usually the important parties are either not both signatories or none of them signatories, and 3) some vital question was not addressed when the convention was signed or the theory invented.

Now, the argument in defence of what happened to your luckless X at each stage will always be the same, i.e. that it was 'necessary', or some such. Necessity, though, is a funny thing when you think about it. It matters for what such and such is necessary. An ipod is necessary, but only to keep up with the jones's. Food is necessary, but only to stay alive (would you eat your mother?). Dropping the bomb on Japan was necessary, but only to hasten a capitulation to the United Sates, etc etc. Notice that we usually make some moral assessment of the objective for which such and such is necessary in assessing, as it were, whether it was really necessary to behave in that way. Thus the decision to sacrifice many lives in D-day is often judged necessary, because what it was necessary to was the liberation of Europe (and the containment of Stalin). Whereas the death of thousands of french civilians in Nazi reprisal attacks is judged unnecessary, because the objective which demanded it, namely that french civilians live in fear of the SS, is not one with which we can remotely sympathise.

Unavoidably, this moral assessment of ends enters also into our assessment of means, and this will include your interrogation examples. And unpalatably, given each operative hypothetical imperative, there would appear to be some force to each claim. Thus, if your objective is to defeat the israeli army it is necessary to acquire information on it for which it may be necessary to interrogate a P.O.W., and if I were such a P.O.W. I would not volunteer information that would endanger the lives of my comrades willingly, hence the necessity of, as you put it, 'violence'. Likewise, if I did give away vital information to the enemy it is a reasonable expectation that whether out of shame or out of some loss of allegiance I may not reveal the full extent of this to my previous comrades. And given this reasonable expectation, and given the objectives they have (safeguarding the army and the nation), the israelis may well claim some necessity for violence in their debriefing.

But as I say, such necessities are only hypothetical: it rather matters how we weight the individual against the objective sought. When are they even to be allowed onto the same scales?

And it may be a reasonable view to take that no mere tribe is worth this kind of evil against an individual human being.

Various utilitarian and consequentialist diversions might present themselves just here, but I have pointed out the error of utilitarian thinking elsewhere and will not return to the point here.

What makes WWII powerful as an intuitive case of Just War is nothing to do with utility, but rather because of the way it strikes one, given what we even then know about Hitler, as a necessary war to prevent the dangerous idea of Volk supplanting the individual everywhere. The absurdity of a war fought to defend the worth of the human individual which nonetheless mangled countless individual lives is well expressed in 'Catch 22'. That man must be stopped. Yes, but why me?

I conclude with a question: can any of your violent interrogations of x be defended as part of a necessary war to defend the worth of the human individual against a force and ideology that would obliterate it forever?

Possibly some of the participants may be of that mind. But they may be wrong. And if they are, then, excluding for the moment any tinge of sadism in the characters involved, the evils of the one interrogation may be very much like the evils of the other.

David Robjant


(3) Jean Maria asked:

Complex Questions of Torture-Like Institutional Procedures (see above)


Many thanks for your provocative and challenging scenario. In response to your question regarding 'the moral comparison of different kinds of torture as experienced by particular individuals,' there seem to be several issues that need to be addressed, but the most important would be the motivation of the interrogators and their methods. I should probably state up front that I do not see the particular individual's experience to be relevant to the moral questions at stake.

Taking first the motivation for eliciting information, this does not appear in any of the three cases to be unjustified. Senesh accepts that the Egyptians were within their rights to interrogate a PoW, and, again remaining with motivation alone, this is acceptable within international law. Where Senesh is more concerned about unjustified interrogation occurring is on his return to Israel. However, while he claims that he would have willingly told the IDF everything he had given the Egyptians, from the IDF perspective the situation would have been less clear. Had Senesh, for instance, been turned? Might he have given away to the Egyptians some particular information that he would be embarrassed to admit to the IDF and try to hide? Senesh's sense of the IDF's suspicion was probably correct: they were suspicious of him — a lot can happen to a person in captivity for 40 days. Furthermore, if the cultural norm was such that soldiers should 'never surrender' (reprehensible as this may be) then in the eyes of the IDF Senesh's loyalty was almost certainly already in question. As a result, his protestations of loyalty and desire to tell all would appear (from the perspective of the IDF) to stand in contrast to his actions, and possible scenarios which it would be their job to consider (i.e. the withholding of limited information). A similar concern could be raised regarding his later interviews in the 1990s. The IDF could be seen to have been protecting Senesh's interests in doing its best to ascertain which PoWs genuinely required disability assistance, and which did not. It surely stands in everyone's interests that those in greatest need should receive the most treatment, and that need has to be ascertained somehow.

I am clearly not overly sympathetic to Senesh's case when it comes to the motivation of the interrogators. From the manner in which it is described, it appears as if he expected his patriotism and loyalty to be taken for granted, despite having acted in a way which he himself acknowledges would cause others to question precisely these virtues. Deontologically he might be seen to have forfeited his right to treatment as a loyal citizen at the point of his surrender. Furthermore, the potential security risk for the IDF of taking these for granted, only to find later that he had been turned, etc. could have been far greater than he seems ready to acknowledge. Hence it seems as if his interrogations at the hands of the IDF can be justified both deontologically and consequentially.

I must confess that I am not particularly sympathetic either when it comes to the methods employed. From your second question ('Is a strategically 'nice' interrogation really more blameworthy than a harsh interrogation?') it would follow, if true, that physical torture was less reprehensible than questioning. This simply cannot be the case! While I accept that torture cannot be justified (and I would like to say here how much I have personally benefitted from your papers on the subject of torture) I do not accept that all three scenarios describe situations of torture. It strikes me that, for torture to be distinguished from interrogation, it must involve some element of extreme physical, mental or emotional duress. Hence 'manipulative, non-violent questioning' which raises doubts about the loyalty of a citizen is not necessarily torture. Would he really have preferred to have been physically tortured by the IDF? In the third instance the question of loyalty/compatriotism is raised again, but in addition there is the issue of the responsibilities of healthcare professionals. It is certainly lamentable that healthcare professionals do become involved in torture (and I believe you provide this as a consequentialist argument against torture in your paper responding to the ticking bomb argument), but in this instance it is again not obvious that he was undergoing torture. Indeed, the presence of the healthcare professionals might have served precisely the function he is calling for, in limiting the subjugation he was experiencing and preventing it from developing into torture.

It strikes me that the key moral questions arising from this case are whether or not a soldier who surrenders is automatically either a traitor or a security risk. While I would deny the former I would agree to the latter. It then remains to be asked what are the justifiable actions that may be performed on a returning PoW, given that his status as loyal citizen has now been altered to be either a traitor or a security risk. We are agreed that torture is unacceptable in any situation, although interrogation (I hold) is not. There are strong reasons why a returning PoW should be subject to interrogation to determine firstly whether he is now a traitor or a security risk, and secondly for purposes of damage limitation. There are then later justifications to determine the level of support a disabled PoW should receive.

We are then left with a need to a) determine the status of a returning soldier who has surrendered: is he/she automatically a traitor, a security risk, or a loyal citizen; and b) distinguish torture from interrogation. Surrender is not, in my view, an expression of betrayal, but it has been seen as such in the past by more than just the IDF (e.g. the USSR under Stalin in 1941). Furthermore however much one might want to believe in the continued loyalty of a returned PoW, there are considerations, outside of that soldiers control, that might render him/her otherwise. As such it would appear to be naive to treat him/her unquestioningly as a loyal citizen. It therefore seems sensible to accept that, through no fault of their own, their status as citizens has passed (albeit temporarily) from unquestioned loyalty to security risk.

Distinguishing torture from interrogation strikes me as a far harder task! I would want to veer away from subjective elements, though. How a subject perceives his/her treatment during interrogation might have little to do with the actual treatment. Ultimately this could lead to the conclusion that all interrogation is morally unacceptable, which seems like an extreme and unjustified position. I would rather advocate objective standards, far tougher than those currently in place to judge from the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, by which an interrogation can be judged to have passed over into torture. Intuitively, though, and operating solely from the description offered, it does not appear as if Senesh was tortured by the IDF.

Your final question concerned the period of harm under consideration, and I would respond that this is one of the difficult concerns that arises from a teleological approach. Precisely when does the harm end? With which generation? If the experience fundamentally changes the individual then does the harm ever end? By contrast a deontological approach is able to take the far cleaner line of denying or accepting the legitimacy of the actions up front. As with defining torture, there is again no need for recourse to the individual's experiences, either now or over time.

I hope that this is helpful in drawing some conclusions about the case. I would certainly be happy to discuss this further as my own research (currently at a very early stage!) concerns legitimate government responses to terrorism, into which interrogation and torture clearly fall.

Kevin Macnish


(4) Jeremiah asked:

This question might not be completely philosophical and it might be a mere linguistic wondering but here goes. I am not one to believe in the supernatural at any rate but pondering recently I wondered if anything, if it so existed, could be supernatural. If, say, fairies were real — purely hypothetically — wouldn't the definition of nature include them in it. So the question really has much to do with the definition of nature as a philosopher would define it and if there can really be anything that actually exists that is either outside or above nature?


That's a good question, Jeremiah. One way to answer it that maybe wouldn't completely trivialise the notion of 'natural' (so that everything that exists is by definition 'natural') would be to distinguish between knowing (or having good reason to believe) that something exists on the one hand, and how (if at all) we might come to know things about its nature, or the way in which it interacts with us or our environment, on the other.

So take fairies. We could in principle come to have very good empirical evidence that fairies exist: maybe we trap one in a box, everyone who looks (including people we have every reason to think are very reliable) can describe what it looks like, etc., and there is simply no other available explanation for why they would be able to do this except that there really is a fairy in the box.

Imagine that nonetheless the fairy was not detectable by any scientific instrument: it has no mass, it doesn't interact with its environment in any of the ways that physical objects do, it can make things happen by sprinkling fairy-dust but the best scientific investigations cannot reveal how it manages to do this (and fairy-dust can't be collected and tested for chemical composition), etc. Then I guess we might conclude that fairies do exist and that they are indeed supernatural, i.e. their nature and powers fall entirely outside the remit of scientific understanding.

On the other hand if scientists then managed to devise instruments that could detect fairies, they came up with new theories that included fairy-dust as a new, bona fide substance and made well-confirmed predictions about how it worked, and so on. And imagine also that other theories — in physics and chemistry, say — were revised or at least taken to have more limited scope so that they are not incompatible with the existence and behaviour of fairies. We might say that all this would constitute accepting that fairies were 'natural' phenomena — part of the world that can be described and investigated by science.

This kind of approach would line up the natural/supernatural distinction with a distinction between what does and does not fall within the remit of scientific investigation. It does presuppose that in principle we can come to know (or have good reason to believe) that something exists independently of what our best scientific theories tell us, however. But intuitively that doesn't seem obviously wrong. (So for example it's not obviously mistaken in principle to think that there is an a priori argument that establishes the existence of God; being a priori, such an argument would be impervious to anything science might discover about the nature of reality, so if — as seems likely — God just falls completely outside the remit of scientific investigation, that would in no way invalidate our a priori argument that he exists.)

On the other hand you might think that in principle we can't have any reason whatsoever to think that something exists if its existence is not predicted by current scientific theories, or if its nature or effects on its environment cannot be measured by our best current science. If you thought that, then this distinction between the natural and the supernatural would turn out to be trivial after all, since you'd deny that (e.g.) we had any reason to think that there was a fairy in the box in the first place (despite the evidence of the senses of everyone who took a look, and despite the fact that no alternative scientific explanation — that doesn't invoke the existence of the fairy — of why people claimed to see a fairy was available).

I think the former view is implicit in our ordinary understanding of the supernatural though. Arguably most people who don't believe in, say, the spirit world (as allegedly communicated with by mediums) aren't just motivated by the fact that current science has nothing to say about how we might measure the presence of spirits or what the causal mechanism is by which spirits communicate with mediums. Or at any rate, there is a further motivation for not believing in the spirit world, which is that, science aside, there isn't even any prima facie reason to think that mediums really do communicate with the spirit world to start with. (A halfway decent magician can reproduce the phenomena of a seance, say; you just need people who are suggestible enough and who subconsciously want the ouija board to spell out someone's name or whatever.)

Helen Beebee
The British Philosophical Association


(5) Jeremiah asked:

This question might not be completely philosophical and it might be a mere linguistic wondering but here goes. I am not one to believe in the supernatural at any rate but pondering recently I wondered if anything, if it so existed, could be supernatural. If, say, fairies were real — purely hypothetically — wouldn't the definition of nature include them in it. So the question really has much to do with the definition of nature as a philosopher would define it and if there can really be anything that actually exists that is either outside or above nature?


This is an excellent question. The use of the term 'supernatural' appears to be brought about by an unreflective categorization of events/objects/beings into those that are 'natural' and those that are 'supernatural'. One could try to defend the use of the term by postulating a set of objects that are not bound by the same laws that describe the behaviour of objects that we can apprehend with our own senses, but then aren't these supernatural laws still a part of nature, albeit ones that pertain to objects beyond our senses? Why should those laws be called supernatural and the other laws simply called natural? Why not the other way around? A similar issue exists with the terms like 'spiritual realm' or 'hidden realm' or 'immaterial substance', and they are often used as a framework to support the existence of entities like souls, ghosts, angels, etc, which are thought to exist on a 'higher' 'plane' of reality.

However, if one is going to postulate the existence of a higher plane or dimension, then the onus is on them to articulate what a plane or dimension actually is, and how different planes or dimensions are related to one another. More importantly, it is not metaphysically elegant to suppose that different laws exist on different putative planes. Rather, one would hope for a generalized theory of physics that describes behaviour on all planes. That way, differentiating the behaviour of ghosts from animals would be fundamentally no different from differentiating the behaviour of birds (which move through a gas) and fish (which move through a fluid). Although fluid dynamics predicts different patterns of regularities between air and water, the same underlying principles can be used to derive those regularities in each substance. We do not consider birds to be supernatural beings, and we should not consider ghosts to be supernatural. Perhaps one day our theologians will formulate such a unified theory!

Marwan Daar


(6) Dan asked:

Assume one of the following is true:

1) The world we observe around us is real, though our perceptions of it may differ from person to person.

2) The world around us is created by our minds, and possibly co-created with other minds like our own.

How can we tell the difference between these two scenarios?


I remember once discussing with my junior school friends how we could ever be sure that the world wasn't just a dream, and, if so, whose dream was it? We kicked the question around for a while but didn't reach any firm conclusion.

We'd read the Alice books. Here's how Lewis Carroll ends his tale Alice Through the Looking Glass:

Now, Kitty, let's consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that — as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know — Oh, Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw can wait!' But the provoking kitten only began on the other paw, and pretended it hadn't heard the question.

Which do you think it was?

Carroll (a.k.a. Charles Ludwig Dodgson) was a mathematician who knew more than a bit of philosophy. When Alice calls this a 'serious question', the reader might think Carroll is poking fun. But in a way, he is serious. He knew his Berkeley. Bishop Berkeley's answer — in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous and Principles of Human Knowledge — is that all that exists are subjects and objects of experience. We are all dreaming one another's dreams of 'the world' because everything that exists, exists in God's infinitely capacious mind. The world is God's dream.

On Berkeley's view, the experiences we have while asleep which we call 'dreams' do not 'create a world' because they are private to us. The dream images in our minds do not correspond to anything outside our own experience.

I doubt whether this is something me and my school friends would have figured out for ourselves. But in any case, Berkeley is going out on a limb here. If you add together all the 'waking dreams' of all the human beings (and non-human animals and aliens too, if you like) there will be massive gaps. No tree fell in the forest if no creature saw or heard it. Objects come into existence from nowhere and go out of existence in a flash, when someone looks, or looks away. This is an untidy hypothesis, but the God theory seems a trifle extravagant as a way to avoid it.

The entire story of my life, and yours, reduces to a sequence of experiences. You can well ask, if it would make any difference whether or not there exists something corresponding to those experiences. What kind of 'difference' is a difference which no-one (by hypothesis) can ever detect or perceive?

But if we are prepared to go this far then I think another step is needed. The entire story of my life reduces to a sequence of experiences. I can ask, if it would make any difference whether or not there exist experiences belonging to the familiar objects which move about and talk, which I call 'people'. People exist in my waking dream, to be sure. But I can't see how it can make any difference to me whether or not I exist for them.

Maybe you can see where this is going. Because there is still one more step to take. Bertrand Russell once raised a question how we know that the universe has existed for millions of years. Perhaps the universe came into existence five minutes ago, and you and I and everyone else with our apparent memories.

Let's throw Russell's sceptical hypothesis into the mix. As before, you can dispense with any idea of God having anything to do with this. Let's just say the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago as a result of a gigantic cosmic accident. (If you think that's far fetched, how come you are so ready to believe in the Big Bang theory?) In that case, for all I could ever discover, the entire story of my life, your life, the universe and everything is just an apparent memory I am experiencing now.

I doesn't make any difference. It makes no difference whether or not a real world exists, whether or not other people exist, whether or not the past exists. At this point, maybe you are beginning to wonder whether the intuition about 'telling a difference' might be less clear than you thought it was?

Geoffrey Klempner


(7) Richard asked::

What does it take for belief and to be justified?


I have a belief of which I am very certain about and regard this belief to be rightly held or justified. I then ask myself on what basis do I have this justified belief? I answer that nothing justifies my belief as I consider that my belief does not require any additional support for it to be rightly held.

This however is not a very plausible way to safeguard my belief. My belief could in this instance be said to be lacking any foundation and like a building without any foundation, it would simply not stand and eventually fall down. A belief that lacks solid foundation i.e. no justification, would evidently collapse.

In order to defend my belief I would be required to provide some sort of supporting evidence and also offer an explanation for these supporting beliefs.

It is these supporting beliefs that are justifying the original belief, and if I cannot secure or back up these supporting beliefs, then neither the supporting beliefs nor the original belief can be justified.

Should I try to try to support the belief that I have, this will require another belief which in itself will again require further support. This will continue indefinitely and lead to an infinite regress. Like the building with no foundation eventually crumbling, a building constructed of foundation upon foundation but lacking any structural support will likewise ultimately collapse.

It is always very difficult to convincingly continue and offer new supporting beliefs. Instead it may be easier to return to statements that I have previously claimed. This chain of justification however will eventually come full circle in that one of my supporting reasons is repeated. This circular chain of justification is similarly fragile to that of the continual regress

It seems that the only way that I can give reason to my belief is if it can be justified without being supported by any further beliefs, or that it is structured in such a way that chains of justification end with special self-justifying foundational beliefs which do not require any need of any further support. This type of belief is by its own nature self-justifying and as a result does not need any further grounds of justification.

It is however difficult to identify the self-justifying beliefs that can serve as foundations. It could be argued for example that foundational beliefs are those that must be certain and dependable. This criteria could ensure that these beliefs are self-justifying and not need to rely on any further beliefs.

Scott Baillie


(8) Andrew asked:

Do you want to take the time to question everything?

It has been said that in the end philosopher are just trying to justify there own instincts.

The bravest of the brave will question their own instincts because there instinct is to be brave. They can question their bravery but this not a limit to their questioning. But in this case they will take a stand on nothing.

Exactly the same applies to the gravest of the grave.

I think this is the best starting point for philosophy do you?

The trouble is there are many things I must take a stand on. They are what constitute Me. And I will be me at all costs.One of the things about Me is that I will not put my heart and soul into something that I cannot be the best at. But if I cannot do the best philosophy then I cannot be the best at it.

Is philosophy for me an impossible thing.


I wanted to question everything and I was only interested in what I could know to be true, that is why I decided to study philosophy. You have to remember that you can never know that you will be the best at something. Van Gogh never really knew that he was a great artist. He rarely sold a picture when he was alive. He painted because he had to do it. I studied philosophy because I had to do it and I have never regretted that decision but I would never advise anyone to study philosophy unless they feel compelled to do so.

You must decide what you have to do. Whether you will be any good at it is something that is beyond your control. You certainly cannot be good at anything unless you put your heart and soul into it.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Frank asked:

Getting a Philosophy Degree Online (BA, MA, PhD)

Where can one study for a degree course in Philosophy?


As far as distance learning for an undergraduate degree goes, you have a number of options and this will probably expand over the next few years.

1) Study for the London External BA. This site will give you more details and help with tuition if you require it. The emphasis of the London University BA is getting to grips with analytical philosophy, with a number of core subjects and a degree of options as you progress. Details are given below.


2) Whilst not a fully fledged degree, Oxford university dept of continuing education offer courses in philosophy which are accredited, for each module you get 10 credits. (A full degree is worth 360 credits so this is only a supplement to other courses). This option is useful, if you have a degree in a different subject, and want to do some preliminary study in philosophy, before applying for an MA. I enclose a link below.


Also if you live in a university town the dept of continuing education will probably offer a number of courses in philosophy.

3) Study for a degree via the Open University, the emphasis of their courses is on applied ethics, philosophy of the mind and political philosophy. However they do not do a full degree, if you are interested in social and political philosophy you can combine the philosophy subjects with topics in politics and economics. Alternatively if you are interested in psychology and the philosophy of the mind they do degree in philosophy and psychological studies. Unfortunately their courses do not seem to cover the core subjects such as metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language and philosophy of science. However if you combine the Open university courses, with courses from the Oxford University dept of continuing education you will be able to cover the gaps.


4) Finally and this is just starting the University of Lampeter North Wales has just started a distance learning BA in philosophy. This covers a broad range of options and unlike London tries to justice to both the Western analytic tradition and the continental tradition . They also offer a BA in applied philosophy. The link is below.


The main problem with doing a BA is that it would take 4-6 years to complete a full degree. If you have a degree already, then it might be worth considering going for an MA which would take 2-3 years to cover, although you wouldn't necessarily get the broad range of coverage that a degree would give you.

The Open university does an MA, which concentrates on social and political philosophy. Alternatively Lampeter University do a number of MA's, including one on philosophical studies which includes a detailed reading of Hume and Kant, and another on European philosophy. If you browse the links above then you will be able to investigate further.

In an ideal world, London University would open their MA in philosophy to external candidates. However if you follow this link you can get access to their reading lists, for the various options, which acts as a useful guide for private study.


Doing one of these MA's would enable you to go on to do a PhD with either of these institutions, Lampeter seems to be the one most amenable to supporting PhD students via distance learning, also you would appear to have more choice in research area, than the Open University.

I'm considering various options at present, and have started gaining credits via the Oxford University dept of continuing education and my home town of Edinburgh University. After this I will probably apply to the University of Lampeter, to do either their MA in philosophical studies or their course on European philosophy in a year or two's time. Then hopefully onto a PhD. Of course, if London were to open their MA up to external candidates, then I would probably do that option.

Christopher Finlay


(10) Melissa asked:

What is the difference between induction and deduction?


Deduction is the logical process of going from premises to conclusion using valid argument forms. A deduction is valid if, given that the premises are true, the conclusion must be true; and it is sound if the premises are in fact true.

Induction is generalisation, which is inferring a universal truth from a limited number of instances. In science this takes the form of going from an empirical formula to a law; in superstition it usually takes only one instance to reach a generality; and in stereotyping, only a few instances. Kepler's laws are an example of scientific induction, while touching or crossing one's fingers to avert bad luck are an example of superstition. The problem of induction for philosophers of science is the problem of how to justify induction in science while denying it in superstition and stereotyping. The nearest to a solution of this problem, that I know of, is that scientific generalisation is objective while the other two are subjective. You might note also that generalisation could be called animal thought: it only takes a few instances of picking up a dog's leash for the dog to generalise that this means a walk.

Helier Robinson


(11) Bill asked:

How can an idealist, namely Schopenhauer, talk about 'the material (or physical) world' whilst claiming mind (consciousness) as the subjective 'support of the world'?

Does anyone take idealism seriously nowadays given the strong physicalist view of most scientists?

And doesn't idealism seem quite anthropomorphic? Why privilege ourselves so? As far as we know sentient beings exist only here on this cosmic speck of dust we call earth.


Finding an effective argument against idealism is a central challenge for philosophy. I won't attempt to do that here. What I will try to show is that idealism is not a straw man or easy target practice for first-year philosophy students.

I take idealism seriously — which probably puts me in the minority of English speaking philosophers working in the field of metaphysics. Notable books are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). The Pathways Metaphysics program is based around the debate between idealism vs materialism as 'theories of existence', and realism vs anti-realism as 'theories of truth'.

I like Bill's question, not least because of what he says in his last sentence. For all we know, we might be alone in the universe. There are good reasons for thinking we are not — it would just be too fantastical a coincidence — but the reasons are less than conclusive. You can play the game of 'calculating the probable distribution of intelligent life in the universe' any number of ways, but whichever way you do it, you have to make assumptions which cannot be verified.

So: we are very, very small, and the universe is very, very big. Maybe we are alone; but even if we weren't, surely it would be absurd if material existence — physical planets, stars, galaxies — were all mere products of consciousness. And, in any case, physics and cosmology provide a far more convincing explanation of the existence of the universe than the human mind. That's the essence of Bill's question.

However, the idealist is not defeated so easily. Consider the fact that Schopenhauer also said that conscious experience is produced by the brain. How can he possibly hold that the brain (being a part of the physical world) is simultaneously produced by consciousness and that which produces consciousness? It doesn't add up.

Or consider the view that the Earth existed for billions of years before life evolved. How can that be true, if the planets, stars and galaxies only came into existence with the first conscious experience?

The simple, short answer is that idealism is not an empirical claim. The idealist can quite happily endorse current scientific theory. The best explanation, in whatever field of scientific inquiry, remains the best explanation. What the idealist questions is whether 'the best explanation', supposing it to be true (and given that it is the best explanation, we have to regard it as probably true) is the ultimate truth about the nature of things.

Putting a formal case for idealism requires a book. I am just going to ask you to consider a thought experiment, or, rather, two thought experiments. The aim is to show that a seemingly easy and plausible way of arguing for materialism can be 'turned on its head' and converted into an equally plausible way of arguing for idealism.

John has toothache. What can we say about John that is true? Obviously, things are unpleasant for John, and he would vehemently agree. So one thing that is true is that John is wincing, holding his jaw and complaining of toothache. Another thing that is true is that John has a large, festering cavity in his tooth which is the obvious cause of the pain. This example suggests a plausible generalization: take any psychological state: what is true about it reduces to all the causal connections between that state and the rest of the physical world.

That, in essence, is the idea behind Armstrong and Smart's 'topic-neutral analysis' of mental states. You can insist that, regardless of all that is physically true about John's toothache there is something real for John, a 'raw feel' that cannot be reduced to the physical. You can keep saying this till the cows come home, but nothing turns on it. Any truth that can be stated, can be stated in the physical mode without implying the existence of anything extra over and above the neural state which, according to the best explanation, is John's pain.

What materialists may not have noticed, however, is that exactly the same form of argument can be used by the idealist.

John perceives an apple tree. What can John say about his experience that is true? John is standing on the grass, admiring the juicy apples dangling on the branches. If he closes his eyes and opens them again, the tree is still there. If he walks round to the other side, it still looks like a tree (and not e.g. a cardboard cut-out). John shakes the tree, some apples fall down. He takes one, and eats it.

Everything that John can ever know about the tree is ultimately based on his direct experience or knowledge which he has gained through experience, including the fact that the tree was planted before he was born, belongs to a species which has been cultivated for hundreds of years, is studied extensively in university departments of botany. So far as John is concerned (or you or me or anyone who asks the same question) any question relating to the tree is a question to be answered (if it can be answered) by investigating and thus enlarging upon human experience.

That in essence is Bishop Berkeley's argument for immaterialism. You can insist that, regardless of what may be true about the tree as an object of experience, there is something real that the experience is of, the actual substance, the 'matter', which produces the experiences in us. But whatever you say about this 'material substance' merely reduces more talk about experience or possible experience.

What I am suggesting is that when you tell the story about science, the 'raw feel' of conscious experience is indescribable, but also dispensable; when you tell the story about human experience, the 'material substance' behind all that experience reveals is indescribable, but also dispensable.

But now comes the finesse. The upshot of the two stories is the same. The subject of science is the world of our experience. The object of experience is the world of science. Look at the picture any way you like: from whichever side you start, the other side drops out as superfluous. The thing itself — 'raw feels', 'material substance' — which we regarded as so important, cannot be expressed.

With two perfectly balanced arguments, you might be tempted to call the debate between the materialist and idealist a stalemate. That would be premature. I prefer to say that the easy-going materialist has been hoist by his own petard.

Geoffrey Klempner


(12) David asked:

Panic in the middle of sleeping. I freak out because I know that I could die in my sleep and I would have never known that there was such as thing as existence. The scariest part, the most frightening, the worst thing in the world, is that one day, maybe not in my sleep, it will happen.

I wonder about the last image of earth. Im not religious, so I don't believe that I am going anywhere after death. I always find corners and odd places that people don't visit and think, What if this place was the last thing that I saw? What if the last thing that I witness during my short lifetime is a KFC bowl? What if I die at the DMV?

It doesn't matter really. There hasn't been proof positive of an afterlife, so realistically none of this matters. And you if believe that your memory continues through family and lineage, Im sorry to bum you out but at some point existence/space as we know it will fold in on itself taking everything with it. For some damned reason I always think about Bob Dylan when I think of everything disappearing. I think about how touching his lyrics are and in the end, it will be as if his voice, and those words never existed.

I try to force myself to not think about the end of existence, but it is creeping. Life is short. Life is so god damned short.

My girlfriend of many years has said that I am morbid. She can see my face change, and its usually during moments of happiness that I understand the cruelty of the gift of consciousness. It is others peoples lives that depress me even more than my own. To look upon a face of a someone you love and know that they are destined for the graveyard is an adult harsh realization.

I wish that we were all going to another place afterwards. I wish that we could all share a drink when we get there, but there is no escaping it.


William Blake, the poet, suggested to me when I read him that it is only when we experience the extremes of a thing that we can know it to be. In a sense this means that we cannot experience love without hate, pleasure without pain etc. I was reminded of this when I read your note, as by being so powerfully aware of the inevitability of our demise, i.e. that we die, we are with equal power, able to be aware of the fact that we are alive. So it would seem that you are by the very nature of your anxiety, confirming your existence and further confirming your innate will to experience.

The will to experience may be life itself, and so by simply wondering about our existence we confirm it, more to the point by allowing ourselves to think of the end of existence, instead of repressing it, we may in fact increase the value of our experience of existence.

Milan Kundera came up with an amazing title for his book, 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. I think this says so much about the dilemma of existence and death. There is perhaps something of that in what you say about the gift consciousness during times of happiness. His story manages to factor in beauty, as well as the weight and lightness of the moment of beauty. From what I understand, the Greek word 'pathos' describes this too, something like the sadness that is so close to joy.

There is more I would like to include about the art of life being in the tension between extremes, between the unbearable and the light if you like, but I can't remember who said it. I am pretty sure it wasn't Bob, although he probably said something like it some time.

I hope you find answers that make you feel like loving life, with the pathos, and then more questions.

Siobhan Mullins


(13) Elizabeth asked:

How do I know if there is such a thing a past life?


I doubt if it would ever be accepted legally that past lives are real. Even religions that recognise reincarnation do not campaign to have it legally recognised. Think of all those contested wills and disputes over inheritance.

When you want to decide if past lives are real, as opposed to imaginary, then you should should expect to provide evidence of a scientific standard. People who have had past lives should be able to provide a wealth of information (about the price of eggs, bread etc) that they could not know by any other means. They should know about buildings (shops etc) that no longer exist and be able to take us to the sites where these places existed. We could often use old maps to show if such claims are real.

However no one who claims to have had a past life has ever managed to pass these sorts of tests. Nor do we know of any way in which memories of past lives could be passed on from one brain to another. There is therefore no reason to regard claims to have had a past life as being real and I don't think there ever will be.

It is no surprise to find that people who claim to have had a past life usually have one that is more dramatic and interesting than their present life.

Imagination is a wonderful thing but everyone should try not to confuse imagination and reality.

Shaun Williamson


(14) Marcin asked:

What's the point of being a philosopher?

What do you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?


Let's say I'm a philosopher. I will accept that as the premise of your question, although on some days (or in some moods) I don't really feel that I qualify. Elsewhere (My philosophical life) I've described myself as a latter-day 'sophist'.

Amongst the most prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece — Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Antiphon, Thrasymachus (Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers Ch.XXI) — there was by no means agreement on the value of the new-fangled inquiry known as 'philosophy'. By all accounts, the self-styled 'lovers of wisdom' were a pretty exclusive group, jealous of their monopoly on 'the truth' (as they saw it).

A true lover of wisdom would never stoop so low as to make a living as a professional thinker. That's fine if you're an aristocrat like Plato, or content to live on the streets like Diogenes, begging pennies off passers by.

You will gather that there's no love lost between me and Socrates. I have no interest in defending Socrates' and Plato's grandiose view of the philosopher as best qualified to rule because the philosopher alone knows what is required for the 'proper care of the soul'.

Yet the questions of philosophy grip me. I state that as a fact, which often (on some days, in some moods) surprises me. Why do I care about the nature of time, or the relationship between consciousness and the brain, or the definition of truth, or the problem of knowledge? It beats me. I just do. As I described in my answer to Jim, I have puzzled over the nature of time for as long as I can remember.

I suspect, though I can't prove, that most persons — even those who scoff at philosophy — are gripped from time to time by philosophical questions; they just don't recognize a philosophical question when the see one. Like any area of expertise, you get better at spotting opportunities for applying your knowledge with practice.

However, that's not really an answer to your question. It is blatantly circular to defend the value of answering philosophical questions by appeal to the brute, inexplicable fact that you find the questions gripping (as Socrates would no doubt be quick to point out). Maybe the critics are right: philosophy is best described as an obsessive compulsive disorder, and philosophers need to be cured, not indulged in their pursuit of answers which serve no useful purpose.

(As an aside, the great 20th century philosopher Wittgenstein in his later writings compared the activity of the philosopher to therapy, the aim being to cure us of our tendency to erect fanciful theories in response to seeming 'questions' which only arise in the first place because we misunderstand the grammar of our own language. — But, actually, on a closer look, Wittgenstein seems to me the very archetype of the 'philosopher's philosopher'.)

I think the problem with your question, Marcin, is that you are looking for an answer on a level of generality which completely bypasses the issue what philosophical questions are actually about. Above, I gave a list of the first questions that occurred to me (time, consciousness, truth, knowledge). The list isn't random. Philosophical questions are not about anything you please. They are about the nature of reality.

There is no such thing as a definitive answer to a philosophical question. You grapple with it. As a philosopher, you get to see bits and pieces of reality, never the whole thing, all at once. Traces of the truth.

Millions have enjoyed the Matrix movies, and heard Neo confess to Trinity that he knows there's 'something wrong with the world' but he just doesn't know what it is. Neo is right. There IS something wrong with the world. Something about the world just doesn't add up. And in a much more profound way than some silly conspiracy tale about good guys and bad guys.

We tell ourselves stories about what we are and why we're here. Everyone you meet has their 'pitch'. We compete with one another to be more attractive or fascinating. Above all, human beings need to justify their existence and will do anything to avoid admitting that their lives are pointless, unnecessary, superfluous. So the first thing you need to do is take off the mask. Admit to yourself, even if you won't admit to anyone else, that you don't know how it all adds up. You didn't ask to be born.

When you finally realize it's 'game over', then a new game — the real game — begins. You have woken up. You are no longer sleeping in your pod, dreaming the same dream as everyone else. You won't have to ask what the questions are because you will know. You will have started on the road to philosophy.

Geoffrey Klempner


(15) Karla asked:

Can you clarify Kant's idea of not treating people as a means rather that an end? It is a little grey as far as what is the purpose? How would I perceive this in every day life... aren't we all really a 'means' for something?


This is a perceptive question, but it is based on (and highlights) a common misunderstanding of Kant's Categorical Imperative (in this — the second — form). What Kant actually says is that we should not treat persons MERELY (or solely) as means, but always also as ends. But it does often get shortened to the form you use (treat persons as ends, not means).

Here it is on one translation (by Ellington) from the German: 'Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.' --Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

You are quite right, Karla, to point out that we do often treat people as means. If I ask you to shut the door, I am treating you as a means to having the door shut. This is a pretty trivial example, and there are many more serious ones: if I get you to work for me, I use you as a means (to get the work done).

All this is moral, according to Kant, provided that I do not treat you only as a means, but I also treat you 'as an end' — that is, I recognize your autonomy and dignity. I do this (in this example) by paying you a fair wage, and by not forcing you to work (you can exercise your autonomy and leave). However, if you are my slave, then I treat you merely as a means, and ignore you as an end — and that is not moral.

I hope this clears up your confusion.

Tim Sprod


(16) Marcin asked:

What's the point of being a philosopher. What do you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?


I think that the most important feature of a real philosophical question is that it has no answer. However the other really important feature of philosophical questions is that they don't need an answer. For me the activity of philosophy involves becoming completely clear about why philosophical questions seem to be real and why they are not real.

The point of being a philosopher is that you want to know the truth. Philosophical questions can seem to be the most difficult questions of all. If you don't find philosophical questions really puzzling then there is no need for you to do philosophy and you are a very lucky person. For me there are no philosophical truths so after studying philosophy for many years I know no more that when I started except that I now know that there is nothing in philosophy for me to know.

You might think what a waste of time but I think this is something I really needed to know. There is a difference between imagining that something is true and knowing if it is true.

Shaun Williamson


(17) Loren asked:

What and who determines if an argument is fallacious?


Fallacies are errors in reasoning that apparently to the unreflective may seem plausible and valid. There certainly is simply a very significant consensus among rational people as to what type of reasoning is invalid, i.e. fallacious, at least after a sufficient amount of (honest) reflection, analysis and discussion.

However, the question of how logical laws of inference and reasoning , and hence criteria for fallaciousness, are justified is a quite tricky one. It seems any such a justification would have to rely and make use of those same laws it pretends to justify. Some argue (e.g. Michael Dummett) that this does not matter because the type of circularity is not a vicious one.

Some serious philosophers (e.g. G. Priest) hold positions about logic that seem extremely counterintuitive, e.g. that contradictions are true. Hence the question is, in lack of other external criteria, if our 'intuitions' are the right guide to decide about the correctness of logical laws affecting reasoning. However, usually philosophers tend to defend common sense classical logic which, given the overwhelming success it has had is a reasonable position.

I found the notion of a 'reflective equilibrium' very useful in this context (see e.g. Nelson Goodman). Our intuitions about what is logically correct and our theories that should capture our intuitions need to stand in an equilibrium and we may in case of a clash between theory and intuition either 'correct' the former or the latter. Maybe we cannot say that logical laws are 'correct', only that they are very much coherent among themselves and with our intuitions. But also 'deviant logics' can be very coherent, so that still and theory about laws of logic can be reasonably disputed. Some argue (e.g. Susan Haack) that different logics are valid in different domains of discourse and that we need a logical pluralism.

Not all fallacies though that are called 'fallacies' are based on logical, deductive errors but rather on unsound premises. I wouldn't call those strictly fallacies. It is quite a different ball game to evaluate the validity of an argument on the one hand and the soundness of it on the other. The continuing discrepancy about sound assumptions and premises is what keeps philosophical dispute going.

Christian Michel


(18) Casey asked:

I am doing a school essay on identity and belonging.

The topic is: 'Personal identity is determined by what others think of us.'

I was just wondering whether there are any philosophical theories relating to this topic?


Casey, I'm guessing that you have done a few Google searches and seen the phrase 'personal identity' on philosophy web sites and forums. It's a popular topic in academic philosophy. However, when philosophers discuss personal identity they are primarily interested in identity in the forensic or strict sense: the precise physical and mental criteria for being one and the same person at time A and time B. Much of the discussion is quite arcane, involving science fiction thought experiments of body duplication, mind swaps etc.

But let's bring things down to earth.

A suspect is arrested for a murder. What the police want to know is whether the suspect is the person who did the murder or not. Suppose that they think that he is the murderer. (Well, obviously we assume they do otherwise he wouldn't have been arrested.) What the police think is just their belief — which might turn out to be true or might turn out to be false, depending on whether the suspect really is the murderer or not. That's what they hope to find out.

Applying your formula — 'personal identity is determined by what others think of us' — would lead to the absurd (and scary) conclusion that a suspect is guilty if other people believe he is guilty, even if he knows that he is innocent!

The facts are the facts. Sometimes, innocent people get convicted of crimes they did not commit, and no-one ever discovers the truth. On your formula, however, that would never happen. Your formula says that the identity of a person — e.g. the perpetrator of a crime — is determined just by what people think.

So, if you don't mean personal identity in the forensic or strict sense, what do you mean?

I think what you are talking about is a person's sense of what kind of person they are. We loosely refer to this as 'a sense of identity', but the identity in question is not the identity of a particular individual over time but rather identity with something larger than themselves, for example, a family, an occupation, a religion, a flag. All these things express one's 'sense of identity'. You can accept or reject the religion you were brought up with. You can be proud to be, e.g., an American, or indifferent, or ashamed depending on how feel about the country of your birth.

Whatever my parents' religious beliefs may have been, whatever they hoped I might believe, my beliefs are mine. Whatever people may think of me, I'm the best judge concerning whether I am proud of my country or not. Those are facts about my feelings and attitudes, and the kind of person I am. How can what other people think be relevant?

What makes your topic interesting is that despite what I've just said there does appear to be room for questioning this view.

Consider the popular phrase, 'You can't deny your roots.' Do you agree? or disagree? Think of different actual situations where someone might make this remark to another person. Is it always true, or does it depend on the situation? Are there circumstances where it is OK, or even desirable to deny one's roots? Who has the final say?

In certain parts of the world, skin colour is, sadly, still a major factor in determining how others think of you. 'I may have white skin, but I have a black heart,' said an Irish politician to his Harlem audience. They didn't laugh.

Around 1970 I was wearing granny T-shirts and bell bottom jeans, and sported a shoulder width Jimi Hendrix hair style. You might have taken me for a hippie. Maybe I thought of myself as a hippie, but in reality I was just a middle class British kid dressing up. If someone had offered me free love or a tab of LSD I would have run a mile.

What others think of you affects the way you think of yourself. If how you think of yourself is an expression of your sense of identity, then what others think can be a determining factor of your 'identity'. But much still depends, just as before, on the facts. You can be wrong about who you think you are, and others who 'know you better than you know yourself' can be right. Or they can be wrong and you can be right. Or maybe in this particular case there's no answer to the question. You just have to make your decision and stick with it. — All these answers are equally possible.

Or perhaps it is truer to say that we conspire with others through our desires, beliefs and attitudes to create our social 'identity' — our allegiances, our 'roots' — a 'fact' which we subsequently embrace or repudiate (for good or bad reasons). Each person has his or her own version of the story. There's no referee keeping score.

Geoffrey Klempner


(19) Malcolm asked:

What makes one argument or theory more valid than another?


The position is different as between an argument and a theory. Validity applies to an argument, not to a theory. I will explain what makes an argument valid. Then, what makes an argument good. Finally, what makes a theory good.

A valid argument is one in which the conclusion follows from the premise(s). In a deductive argument this entailment (validity) is logically watertight ie if the premise(s) are true, the conclusion is necessarily true (could not possibly be false)

eg: Pr 1. All Scotsmen are drunks
Pr 2. Craig is a Scotsman
Concl. Craig is a drunk

Note, we can decide validity from the form of the argument without reference to the way things lie in the world. The conclusion is contained (implicit) in the premises and doesn't tell us anything about the world. Indeed one or more premises may be false, in which case the (valid) conclusion may (or may not) be false. Thus, in the above example, Pr 1 is false, so conclusion may be false (or true — Craig may be a drunk even though most Scots are sober).

If, however, in a valid argument, the premises are (all) true, then the conclusion must be true. Such a valid argument with true premises is called a sound argument.

So, a good argument is one which is valid and sound, and for completeness, we could add that it is one which is persuasive. There are technical tests for validity (truth tables, deductive rules) used when practising formal logic, but intuitive grasp is fine for most everyday and philosophical thinking.

In an inductive argument, the entailment of conclusion by premises is not logically watertight. Hence we say that induction (as opposed to deduction) can only be vindicated (not validated), or can only be validated probabilistically, rather than definitely

eg: Pr. the sun has risen every morning for eons
Concl. the sun will rise tomorrow

Past sunrises don't logically guarantee future ones (the Earth might be shattered and scattered by an undetected giant asteroid; our physics theories may have overlooked something, and the sun explodes, etc). We can only say tomorrow's sunrise is (very) probable

A good theory (eg Newton's theory of motion/gravity, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection) shows some or all of the following

* accuracy (explains existing findings)
* scope (predicts new findings)
* testability (against the world, allowing corroboration or refutation)
* consistency (fits with other accepted theories)
* fruitfulness (generates new ideas, research, technological advances)
* simplicity (no rigorous account of this but prized by scientists)

These criteria are inexact and may conflict, so that there is an inevitable subjective element in choosing a theory (over its rivals), let's call this expert judgment. But using these criteria will usually allow us to distinguish a good theory (or at least one worth pursuing) from a crank theory or a theory-in-name-only.

Note that a good theory need not be true. Newton's theory was a good one, serving us well for 250 years or so, and still good enough for its calculations to get men to the moon and back. But it has been superseded by Einstein's theory without which your car satnav would be uselessly inaccurate. And Einstein's theory conflicts with quantum theory, so the search is on for a unified theory which will supersede both. It is arguable that no theory can ever be known with certainty to be true, although some may in fact be true. Most of us think that successive scientific theories get closer to the truth (but this is a slippery notion which I wont go into) I have dealt with theory in science. The word is also used in an everyday sense eg 'I have a theory where Jill has disappeared to'. Here it just means an idea. If anything grander is intended, the same general approach as to theory in science will suffice

Craig Skinner


(20) Martin asked:

Is it possible for there to be a god but no afterlife, so the self/soul/mind dies with the body?


Yes it is possible and I have met Christians who have this belief. Buddhists believe in reincarnation but being reincarnated as an ant isn't quite the same as the survival of the self/soul/mind is it? We have no evidence of any sort of afterlife nor can we prove that god exists. Both these things are a matter of belief and you can believe in one without believing in the other.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Lauren asked:

Should Descartes have questioned whether there could be thinking without an 'i' that does the thinking?


No. Descartes was trying to discover indubitable truth, and he found it in his cogito. He could not doubt his own existence simply because he had to exist in order to doubt. Something does the thinking and thereby exists, and it is usually referred to by 'I' but it could be called 'Something' instead and would have to exist in order to do the doubting.

Helier Robinson


(22) Eric asked:

Exactly what does philosophy mean?

How do philosophical questions differ from other questions?

How do philosophers answer the questions they raise? (most important).


The short answer to Eric's first question is that the word 'philosophy' (from the Greek philo sophos, literally 'love of wisdom') doesn't have any significant meaning. It is a gesture — nebulous, vaguely pious — which intimates something profound but in reality is little more than a magician's hocus pocus. Or as I once wrote:

The term has the appearance of a label invented for political purposes, like 'social democrat'. The philosophers' party wished to be known as the lovers of knowledge or wisdom: if you were against them then you had to be an ignoramus or a philistine.

Searching for the Soul Unit 1

José Ortega y Gasset in his brilliant short book The Origin of Philosophy (Tr. Tony Talbot Norton 1967) wittily describes the term 'philosophy' as 'cross-eyed':

For no sooner were people aware of the existence of 'inquirers', than they began assaulting them, misinterpreting them, confusing them with other vague professions, whereupon that marvelous, ingenuous name [aletheia or 'inquiry'] had to be abandoned and another assumed, one born of spontaneous generation, infinitely inferior but more 'practical' — that is, a more inane, base, and cautious one.

J. Ortega y Gsset The Origin of Philosophy

Still today, academic 'philosophers' have to keep their eyes open on two fronts, to the world of politicians and university grants committees, and to their own domain, where they can let their hair down and inquire, alone or together with fellow 'inquirers' in language which makes perfect sense to those initiated into the circle, while remaining sufficiently abstruse to the non-initiated.

With rare exceptions, academic philosophers don't get paid for thinking or dialoguing amongst themselves. They are paid to teach. To the tyro student's questions, 'What is philosophy?', 'What do philosophers do?' academic philosophers have their pat, ready-made answers. Those who seek initiation into the inner circle learn soon enough that no mere formulaic answer can be adequate.

The fact is, I don't really know 'exactly' what question Eric is asking. He evidently thinks he does, and has stated the form an answer should take: 'A philosophical question is one that blah blah blah, and you answer a philosophical question by doing blah blah blah.' — Just fill in the blanks, please.

Well, just what is it that I do? A first stab would be this:

Philosophy is concerned with ultimate things, things that you can't find out by performing experiments, sifting evidence or looking around the world. I know that there are ultimate things to be inquired into, and I believe that such inquiry is worth while; that is the faith of the philosopher.

When people talk of 'ultimate things' the first thing one thinks of is God. As it happens, I am an atheist. I consider the God question all but settled. There's no way forward, so don't waste your time inquiring. You are perfectly entitled to say I'm wrong, and offer your reasons if you have any. But I don't feel obliged to answer every possible philosophical question. I pick the questions that grip me. The God question doesn't grip me, because I see through it.

I am gripped by many questions. For example, by the nature of knowledge. St Augustine famously said something about time which is relevant: 'When no-one asks me, I know. When someone asks me, I don't know.' He means, 'understand'. You assume all sorts of things — all sorts of ideas — that you don't really understand. You are not even aware of that fact, until a question is posed.

Those ignorant of philosophy eventually reach a point where all one can say is, in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song, 'Is that all there is?' I know that there is more. I don't know what it is; I only know that there is a question, and where there is a question, there one can inquire. To inquire — to seek aletheia — is to be in touch with something 'ultimate'.

Philosophy's saving grace is that anything you can say that clarifies or is relevant to the question counts as progress. Slowness, not speed, is of the essence. The more slowly, the more painstakingly you proceed — the more shades of meaning you see wrapped up in what you thought at first was a simple question — the more you understand.

As a teenager ignorant of what philosophers do, the only image that came to mind was 'old men in beards'. You can laugh at that but the funny thing is, that is just what I have become. A human life isn't long enough to pursue the questions of philosophy. Rush Rhees, one of Wittgenstein's students at Cambridge once wrote an introduction to philosophy entitled Without Answers (Routledge 1969). You can learn a lot from pondering the paradox which that title implies.

Geoffrey Klempner


(23) Nat asked:

I have been reading Philosophy in the Flesh the recent book by Lakoff and Johnson that argues for a new philosophy based on the evidence cognitive sciences and current linguistics have provided for the embodiment of mind, the underlying metaphoric structure of conceptual thinking, the preponderance of unconscious thought, the evolutionary nature of cognition, etc. They seek to put an end once and for all to the mind-body 'problem' and to demystify the way philosophers and metaphysicians have traditionally addressed the question of 'the mind.'

My question is this: is the 'body' as clearly defined a concept as the authors presuppose it to be? Meaning: the body (and the brain contained therein) is after all a form of DNA, of matter. What the physicists now suggest about matter is that it is at the sub-atomic level in perpetual motion across space, and that it is perhaps inter-connected in some as yet undeciphered way. In other words the sub-particles that 'pass' through our bodies are not 'embodied' by us, are they? At the cellular, neurochemical, molecular, and sub-atomic levels, we are not as self-contained as we appear to be, are we? Cells regenerate within our own bodies (and now it's thought in our brains), and it seems also that our bodies are not self-contained at the sub-atomic level.

So, how do we justify the notion that our bodies represent the ultimate borderline for our notions of being? They are from a strict materialist view merely tissued vats of complex carbon. There is an invisible world passing between all of us, and all matter, is there not? Therefore, is the body itself an undeniably necessary, but fundamentally illusory, way of orienting ourselves and our experience? I realize this thinking walks very close to a mysticism based on the interconnectedness of all matter--but we seem to have found that this interconnectedness is in fact empirically true at the sub-atomic level, have we not? So while we may have found mind is embodied, have we also found that body is embodied (by the subatomic)?


Lakoff and Johnson are building philosophy out of how we conceptually build our sense of our selves and the world. According to my understanding of that book, we come to explain reality through language and the linguistic tools of metaphors. This linguistic map is the foundation of a society's culture. The origin of these maps is found in the origins of our experience of being a body that is the source of our identity of mind/body unity and the embodied mind concept. Our experience of being a mind/body unity is first silent and built from our earliest experience starting with birth and infancy continuing to the acquisition of language and through that the culture we are a part of. To determine how we build our conception of reality start with what infants know and then continue on through what we learn as toddlers.

That is our primary experience. Infants and toddlers do not know anything of atom and sub-atomic affects and thus those ideas are not relevant to how we have actually build our conception of self and the linguistic metaphors we use to understand our self and the world. We do not experience ourselves as cells, or DNA, or atoms, or quarks, or "tissued vats of complex carbon ", etc. We experience ourselves as a mind and a body and that is the key to the linguistic origins of our understanding how we build our conception of reality. Lakoff and Johnson and the philosophers who are presenting this embodied mind conception of reality and self are attempting to uncover the actual sources of our primal conceptions of reality. It is upon that primal foundation that we then build our elaborate maps of self and reality that include ideas such as cells, DNA, atoms, etc.

Gary Jaron


(24) Toby asked:

'A wicked year 7 pupil, the self-styled 'Logician', was up before the head of year on a serious charge of misleading the rest of the year into avoiding homework through clever argument. The head of year promised expulsion from the school, but added the following strange condition that, if on the day of expulsion the Logician signed a statement making one true declaration about his punishment, the expulsion would be reduced to confinement in the Head's study for ten days. If on the other hand the statement is false, then the sentence will be carried out immediately. The day of expulsion arrives and the Logician, beaming, signs a declaration which is handed to the head of year who reads it in bewilderment. Tearing the document to shreds in his anger he orders that the Logician suffers no punishment whatsoever.'

What could the Logician have said that resulted in him getting no punishment?


Simple really since this sort of paradox was known to the ancient Greeks and formed the basis of Godel's Proof.

The student should just present the headmaster with the statement 'Today I will be expelled from school'. Now consider that if this statement is true then the student has made a true statement about his punishment, so the headmaster cannot expel him from school. However if the headmaster doesn't expel him from school then the student's statement is false and therefore the headmaster must expel him from school.. and so on.

Shaun Williamson


(25) Ivy asked:

Aristotle is carrying a copy of Nichomachean ethics. The gestures of Plato and Aristotle correspond to their interest in the philosophical field. One is pointing up and the other down. Why?


This picture depicts the different attitude of Plato and Aristotle to the problem of universals. A universal is a generalisation from a particular, so for example from the fact that we see many things which are coloured red, some people say that red must exist as an entity independently of any particular instantiation of it. Plato elevated this idea into his theory of forms, for each shared property there is a form corresponding to it. Only in this manner, can we understand how it is that different things have the same property. However for Plato the things which partake of the forms on earth are only imperfect representations of the forms. In his late life as represented by the dialogue Parmenides Plato seems to have realised some of the imperfections of his doctrine of Forms. In particular there is a danger of an infinite regress suppose two different objects a book and a scarf are coloured red, then at a first level we would say that both the book and the scarf partake of the form red, however what is the form that red partakes in, there must be another form which unites red, the book and the scarf together and so on. Also it is not clear whether there is a form for everything, such as mud or hair for example. Plato seems never to have resolved these difficulties.

The problem is, if the forms exist independently of any concrete instantiation in the world then where do they exist? Somewhat pejoratively the place where forms are supposed to exist has been described as Plato's Heaven. The picture thus has Plato pointing up towards the heavenly realm of forms. On the other hand Aristotle, whilst not necessarily denying the existence of universals, thought that the idea of a universal existing outside of space and time was nonsense. Aristotle believed that universals were concretely instantiated in the objects around us, hence his finger points downwards to the earth.

Christopher Finlay


(26) John asked:

What would David Wiggins' answer be to the paradox of Theseus' ship?


As an undergraduate at Birkbeck College, University of London I cut my teeth on David Wiggins' short, and in parts maddeningly obscure monograph Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity (Blackwell 1967). I remember working on my essay on Wiggins' theory of identity as 'spatio-temporal continuity under a covering sortal concept' while the Yom Kippur war raged. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about the intellectual attractions of the metaphysics of identity.

A year or two later found me attending David Wiggins' intercollegiate lectures at Bedford College, which were later incorporated into his considerably longer work, Sameness and Substance (Blackwell 1980). The room was packed. Nibbling on a cube of cheese — which I assumed was his lunch — Wiggins explained in precise logical detail why God could not have turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt.

At that time, the early to mid-70's, essentialism and 'going back to Aristotle' were the big thing. Kripke had published his Naming and Necessity (originally in Harman and Davidson Eds. Semantics of Natural Languages (Reidel 1972), it later appeared as a Blackwell monograph in 1980). But I'm digressing.

There is in fact a short, and rather boring answer to the puzzle about Theseus ship. (I won't dignify it by calling it a 'paradox' because it isn't one.) But first, here's Plutarch's description:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.


What's all this about?

Let's bring it up to date. Fred has been bringing his old Ford for servicing at Joe's Garage for many years. Unknown to Fred, Joe kept every single part that he replaced. Every time Fred dented a wing or a door, the panel was replaced by a new one. What Fred didn't know was that a couple of decades later Joe had Fred's entire original car in the form of a heap of (still usable) parts hidden in the back of his garage. So which is Fred's Ford, the one he's been driving for 20 years, or the heap of parts?

If you're sentimental about ownership you might prefer the heap of parts. ('This is the very car seat where I proposed marriage to my wife-to-be.') But Wiggins has a more logical answer. What Fred owned, and still owns, is a functioning car, not just a heap of parts. It is the same car as he has always owned because of the continuity, through space and time, of its essential function as an artefact designed to propel passengers from one place to another.

In a not totally dissimilar way, my body is the same body as the one I owned 20 years ago, even though nearly all the matter (in the form of living cells) has been replaced. In both cases, what matters is the 'covering concept', what the thing essentially is, and cannot lose on pain of 'going out of existence'.

In his Bedford lectures, Wiggins explored the relation between the logical role of a sortal concept, and underlying chemical or biological structure as revealed by scientific inquiry. Investigation of underlying structures leads to explanation of why things hold together in the way that they do. Wiggins' idea was that the availability of such an explanation was not just a happy accident — as if a lazier deity could have made a world where there weren't any interesting structures to be found through scientific inquiry. The existence of underlying structure is metaphysically necessary.

A living organism, such as a human body, is a better example of this than an artefact like a ship or a car. The essence of an artifact is identified by the function it performs. By contrast the 'essence' of a living human being reaches down to an individual's unique genetic structure, and the relation of that hypothesized structure to observable characteristics as explained by the laws of biochemistry and biology.

This is in fact very un-Aristotelian. Aristotle was hostile to the novel idea, proposed by the atomists Democritus and Leucippus, that the changes we observe in the world might be accounted for by invisible mechanisms whose existence can only be postulated. According to Aristotelian metaphysics, water freezes because the power to transform into ice when cooled belongs to the Aristotelian Form of water. Today one might scoff at such an empty 'explanation' but Aristotle was convinced that the human mind aided only by the power of observation is equipped with all it needs to understand nature; which would not be the case (or so it seemed at the time) if the atomists were right.

Wiggins is fully aware of this, of course. He has no axe to grind in defending or resurrecting Aristotelianism. The central idea is that through logical or conceptual inquiry we can discover interesting and important metaphysical necessities, or ways that the world must be. That was what Aristotle believed too.

This is still the bread and butter of contemporary academic discussions. In any introductory metaphysics text book you will find a chapter on the concept of substance, along with chapters on time, causation, possible worlds etc.

However, looking back now I think that my former enthusiasm was somewhat misplaced. This isn't metaphysics as I now understand it — inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. Wiggins' and Kripke's metaphysical necessities are founded on soft ground. They are necessary provided one is prepared to grant absolute priority to 'our conceptual scheme' — what P.F. Strawson referred to in his Individuals (Methuen 1959) as 'descriptive metaphysics'. But this seems too parochial. It is also unrealistic, because it fails to recognize the creativity of language use, the fact that 'our' conceptual scheme is not a rigid structure, but fluid and malleable.

Strawson is credited for bringing about a revival in interest in metaphysics at a time when English speaking philosophy had reduced the scope of its ambitions to logico-linguistic analysis. Yet Strawson's legacy — at least in this respect — seems to me to have been harmful rather than beneficial.

The world could be much more different in all sorts of ways. I mentioned the possibility that in some possible world (which for all we know might turn out to be the actual world when particle physicists have dug down to the very lowest level) there might not exist microscopic structures that account for the things and processes we observe — a world, in other words, where Aristotle is vindicated.

There is no logical limit, despite what Wiggins says, to what 'sortal concepts' there might be in other possible worlds, or what changes a thing can logically undergo. Michael Slote in his book Metaphysics and Essence (Blackwell 1974) offered some highly imaginative counterexamples to claims about 'metaphysically essential' properties, which bear a second look.

Or if we just look at day-to-day puzzles about identity, there are many questions which simply so not have a determinate answer. In the real world, objects can be vague, or vaguely defined (regardless of what a mess this makes of attempts to map ordinary language onto first-order predicate logic). Philosophers do not have the last word on ownership disputes (like that over Fred's car) when all things are taken into consideration, including the fact that human beings can be very creative in 'defining' objects and their identities.

With regard to the question of substance and identity, including the much-debated question of personal identity, in so many cases you can say what you like not be wrong — a sure indication that we are not dealing with things as they ultimately are but merely a 'world' of more or less temporary linguistic constructs that for the moment suit our purposes.

Geoffrey Klempner


(27) Sue asked:

What is the key argument against ethical objectivism according to Ayer?


As a Logical Positivist, Ayer requires knowledge claims to be subject to verification. The proposition 'The cat is on the mat' is strongly verified by empirical observation. The proposition 'There is no oxygen on Mars' can be weakly verified by theoretical approximations of astro-physics that, are capable of potential if not actual verification.

The same cannot be said for knowledge claims concerning aesthetics, ethics, theology and metaphysics. There is no way of subjecting them to the criteria of the verification principle. One cannot verify the statement 'It is the case that The Absolute Is'. Accordingly, neither can the statement 'It is the case that A is a good act' How can 'good' be verified? Ayer would argue that it cannot. It cannot be observed sitting on the mat in the same way as the cat can. At most, when a person says 'A is a good act' s/he is basically making an approval in the same way as they would about the types of food they like [Mmmmm!]. They may also be trying to evince other people to agree with them about the good and a particular type of food. The failure of verification leads Ayer to reject ethical objectivism in favour of Emotivism.

Martin Jenkins


(28) Robert asked:

I have recently become interested in studying math because it is based on pure fact, it is the only form of study that the answer has absolute certainty. So Quantum Physics says that electrons can disappear and reappear anywhere in the Universe instantaneously; thus traveling faster than the speed of light. Also, it is said that it is impossible to travel beyond the speed of light but what if you aren't trying to travel?

I read that a man traveling at the speed of light would see time slowing down more and more as his speed increases. In fact the time would slow down at the exact opposite rate of his Speed. As his speed increases time slows down until it eventually 'stops'. I don't believe it is the speed that causes this change in time but the forces of Gravity that are involved. So what if someone created a machine that could focus enough gravity on one point that it matches the gravity bending affects that would occur if one was to travel at the speed of light?

Couldn't they than disappear and reappear anywhere in the Universe instantaneously?

This amazing feat is accomplished on a daily basis by Electrons so my only problem with this idea is would it be possible for a Human to experience this bending of gravity without being destroyed?


Well this is not a question, it is a combination of assertions and questions. Some of the assertions are dubious, so I will go through them one by one.

1. Mathematical truths can be known with absolute certainty but so can the truths of logic. However most of the truths that are important in our lives fall outside the scope of mathematics and logic.

2. Quantum mechanics teaches us that sub-nuclear particles do not behave like ordinary objects and it teaches us that there is uncertainty in the measurement of the position of particles such as electrons. However it does not require us to believe that these particles travel faster than the speed of light.

3. The theory of relativity only says that matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Here is an example of something that can travel faster than that. Imagine you have a powerful laser beam and you direct it onto the moon, A spot of light created by the laser will be visible on the surface of the moon. now swing you laser from side to side so that the spot of light moves across the surface of the moon. It is easy to make this spot of light move across the surface of the moon at a speed greater than the speed of light.

4. A man travelling near the speed of light would not notice any slowdown in the passing of time (you have misunderstood the theory of Relativity here). Even if his clock runs slow relative to our clocks, he would not notice any difference in the passing of time.

5. It is difficult to theorise about gravity machines that we will probably never be able to make.

6. We have still not managed to achieve a synthesis of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics but we are getting closer to it. In the meantime physics sometimes suggests contradictory conclusions. For example at one time Einstein was tempted to write that 'a moving clock ticks more slowly' but this cannot be true because if it were then two clocks moving relative to each other would have to go slower than each other and this is a logical impossibility. It seems that only clocks moving relative to us go slowly.

Shaun Williamson


(29) Courtney asked:

What does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argument show about the relationship between morality and religion?


Anyone who, like me, thinks they have a moral case against God has to reckon with the moral case for God. I suspect, or worry, that the moral case for God is stronger than many believe — which is why I have chosen Courtney's question.

Briefly, in Plato's Euthyphro Socrates poses a dilemma to the God fearing but not very bright young man, Euthyphro, who is on his way to the law courts to prosecute his father for impiety. We needn't go into the somewhat macabre circumstances of the case (which today would be considered manslaughter). How sure is Euthyphro that what his father did was sufficiently bad to be an offence against the gods? 'What is piety?' asks Socrates with a wink.

Euthyphro states confidently that pious actions are 'what please the gods', and impious actions are those that displease them. Socrates replies, Are pious actions so-called because they please the gods, or do they please the gods because they are pious?

That's Euthyphro's dilemma. Substitute your favourite term of moral appraisal. Either an action is ethical because God commands it, or God commands it because it is ethical. In the former case, anything that God commanded would be ethical by definition, even if He commanded the entire human race to commit suicide. In the latter case, the reason why an action is ethical must remain a valid reason irrespective of whether God exists or not.

Hence, there is no moral argument for God's existence. Belief in God is redundant, so far as ethics is concerned.

The case looks open and shut. However, when I saw Courtney's question I recalled an essay on 'Plato's Euthyphro' I had seen many years ago in a collection by Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Blackwell 1972), where Geach accuses Socrates of tangling his hapless young victim in sophistical knots. Searching on the internet, I found a chapter from Geach's book God and the Soul (Routledge 1969), The Moral Law and the Law of God.

Students of the philosophy of religion are probably familiar with Geach's forthright response to Socrates (or if they are not, they should be).

Geach constructs his argument with meticulous care. First, he concedes outright what many would think is the point at issue: we do know that certain actions, like lying, are wrong without qualification, independently of any belief that God forbids us to tell a lie.

Why is lying wrong? As I argue in Uunit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas, the very attempt to state that you sometimes tell lies, even if only very occasionally, is self-defeating. If I tell you that I only lie 'when I am in a tight spot', then the next time you find me in a tight spot my lies won't help me. Any attempt to articulate one's policy on lying is similarly self-defeating. I conclude, 'An action which we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong.'

Now Geach states his case:

The knowledge of God is thus not prerequisite to our having any moral knowledge. I shall argue however that we do need it in order to see that we must not do evil that good may come, and that this principle actually follows from a certain conception of God. If I can make this out, the sophistry from which I started will have been completely refuted; for accepting or rejecting this principle makes an enormous difference to one's moral code.

(ibid., my italics)

If you do not believe that there are any moral principles (not even the moral principle 'do not lie'), then Geach has nothing to say to you. You are beyond the pale ethically. His case is directed at someone (like me) who thinks that there are moral principles (however few of those there may be, possibly lying is the only incontestable example), but rejects the idea that God's command is required to make them work as principles.

Geach cleverly insinuates that many of those who hold principles, only do so because of their implicit knowledge of what God commands, even if they refuse to acknowledge this fact. God is the ultimate source, whether they like it or not.

Perhaps you are a moral intuitionist who holds that principles of duty are the ultimate ethical given, which cannot be further articulated. Geach's answer is that without God such a view amounts to rule worship. 'If a young Nazi machine-guns a column of refugees till he bleeds to death, instead of retiring for medical treatment, is not his Sense of Duty something to fill us with awe?'

Geach also looks at attempts by moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, to explain moral principles in terms of the idea of virtue. Such attempts fail to cover those cases — relatively rare though they may be — where a man is forced to contemplate an action which will 'damage his virtuous habits and perhaps irreparably wreck his hard-won integrity of soul', in response to the agonized plea, 'Haven't you got a hand to burn for your country (or mankind) and your friends?' When push comes to shove, for the ungodly man principles must go.

One of the main themes of my Ethical Dilemmas is that we must, simultaneously, recognize certain moral rules as principles while at the same time accepting that 'sometimes you have to go against your principles'. I acknowledge that this is a paradox. In ethics, as elsewhere in philosophy, paradoxes are not something that you happily live with.

Even if I won't own up to telling lies, shouldn't I be prepared, Geach would say, each time the choice presents itself, to calculate whether in this particular case lying would be the 'best' option (the option that leads to 'the good')? But If I believe that, then how can I at the same time hold the prohibition against lying as a principle? It is just one more ethical consideration amongst others. Then I am beyond the pale.

Why the fuss about lying? One could envisage a language game where telling lies was accepted as a matter of course, in the same spirit as bluffing in poker (cf. the notorious 1968 article by Albert Carr in Harvard Business Review, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?). Perhaps I don't want you to put me in a position where I am held to moral account, now and for all future time, for the things I say. 'Assume that I will always act in my self-interest,' I tell you candidly. 'It is in my self-interest, as we both know, to tell you the truth now, but I refuse to commit myself for the future. You must judge me by my actions.'

That's a kind of honesty, but not honesty from any ethical motive. I have chosen to abrogate ethics so far as our conversation is concerned, and I present this to you as a fait accompli.

The effect is to reduce human beings to more or less useful instruments for finding things out about the world. A faulty thermometer doesn't 'lie'. But even though it is not totally reliable it can still be useful (e.g. if I know that I need to tap it hard to get a correct reading). If you suspect your partner in crime of lying to you, there are ways to test a person's reliability.

But, then, why aren't people just 'useful instruments'? Why hold, with Kant, that one ought to treat others as 'ends in themselves'? — The fact is, that is what human beings do. We despise 'users', praise those who recognize the justified moral claims of others.

The strength of Geach's case is that one is not required to decide whether God exists or not. That's not what the argument is about. 'You deny God's existence,' Geach in effect says to the atheist, 'yet your attitudes and behaviour belie that claim.'

Maybe the believer in God is still, despite his belief, inclined to calculate advantages and disadvantages of telling a lie. As Geach reminds the reader, defying God is not merely imprudence, it is 'insanity'. There is no place to hide. Whatever may be for 'the best' is ultimately in God's hands, not ours. All He requires us to do is follow His commands.

I have to own up at this point: there was a time when I would have been prepared to argue for the necessity of ethical principles, along the lines of Levinas' notion of the irresistable ethical command of 'the Other'. In my book Naive Metaphysics I articulate the case for ethics as a presupposition of there being such a thing as a 'shared world' or 'truth' for me — pretty hard things to give up.

But needs must where the Devil drives.

Now, from my more sober perspective, Levinas, like Geach just seems to me one more in a long line of apologists for religion, even if Levinas is far more circumspect in introducing the God concept. And I have set my face against religion in all its forms. It is time for the human race to grow up, and recognize that we only have ourselves — as terrifying as that prospect may seem. Ethics is in the dock, and, as they say, 'the jury is still out'.

Geoffrey Klempner


(30) Genalyn asked:

Can you think of some ways in your own culture that Hinduism has influenced society? Can you think of Hindu influence in popular media? Music? Movies?


Read 'The Shape of Ancient Thought', McEvilley. He argues that Greek Philosophy as we know it would be inconceivable without the influence of Hindu thought, and Buddhist thought inconceivable without the influence of Greek Philosophy. That's one way of demonstrating the influence of the vedas on western culture.

David Robjant


(31) Jennifer asked:

How are pragmatism and analytic philosophy uniquely American movements? How are these ideas different from Europeans of the same time period?


They are not uniquely American. Pragmatism can be considered to be a uniquely American movement but analytic philosophy is a European and British movement. Exported to the U.S. by the members of the Vienna Circle fleeing from Nazi persecution it swiftly replaced the American Pragmatic philosophy which was the dominant tradition in the U.S.

The founders of modern analytic philosophy are generally agreed to be Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and Frege. We can also add to this the Vienna Circle and figures such as A. J. Ayer (the logical positivists) and the early works of Wittgenstein. You will note that none of these thinkers are Americans. The Analytic tradition in philosophy is often contrasted with what is called Continental Philosophy which in modern times includes things such as Existentialism and Post Modernism.

The most important American analytic philosopher is generally agreed to be W. O. Quine.

I once saw a dreadful Hollywood film about how white band leaders invented jazz. I expect that at some time in the future I will see a film about how Americans invented Analytic philosophy. I expect Mel Gibson will be playing W. O. Quine since he is an actor who seems to specialize in historical fictions.

You might like to note that pragmatism influenced Wittgenstein's later philosophy long after it had been killed off in the U.S. by the imported European Analytic philosophy movement.

Shaun Williamson


(32) Ik asked:

Outline the concerns of philosophy of science.


Why are there two kinds of science, empirical and theoretical, and what are the relations between them? How is theoretical science able to predict empirical novelties, successfully and often, and why can only mathematical theories do this? How can you justify induction in science when outside of science induction produces superstition and stereotypes? What are the criteria of good empirical science, and of good theoretical science? Is there such a thing as scientific method, and can it be extended to other fields, such as art and religion?

Helier Robinson

(33) Rhea asked::

Please answer my question!!! I really need the answer right now. Why do we need to philosophize?


We need to philosophise about reality because we experience illusions, which are false perceptions — and we want to correct that falsity. We need to philosophise about morality and the good because people disagree about these so much that they are will to go to war over them. We need to philosophise about existence, justice, beauty, etc. because we seem to be unable to say what they are. We need to philosophise about God because we cannot prove whether He exists or not, or prove what His nature is. In short, there is so much ignorance and error in life that we need to philosophise in order to try to correct this.

Helier Robinson


(34) Jason asked:

What kind of job can you get with a philosophy degree? I'm studying philosophy as an option in an Arts and Contemporary science degree which is an equivalent to a philosophy degree, but I'm worried that having this on my resume won't really impress anybody. What are my options?


I'm having a second go at this question. Back in 2001, I answered a question from 16 year old Phil who candidly admitted, 'obviously I want to be the next modern day Plato or Aristotle, or wait — even better — Leonardo da Vinci.' Here's an extract from my answer:

At a Freshers induction day for the Sheffield Philosophy Department, I was asked by young student just starting out on her BA degree what were the job prospects for philosophy graduates. 'I complete my degree, then what?' 'Then you sign on the dole!' (social security) I replied. This did not go down too well. I think she was expecting me to say, 'Then you get a job teaching philosophy, have a brilliant career, become famous and live happily ever after.' You will not be surprised to hear that I was not invited to any more induction days.

It wouldn't have been so bad, had our conversation not been overheard by a young woman from MIT who had recently joined the Sheffield teaching staff. She was outraged. How could I justify living off the state? A parasite financed by taxpayers hard-earned money? I said something to the effect that the tax payers were getting 'good value for their money' from unemployed philosophers who worked hard at what they did best. She replied coldly that people with jobs didn't have the choice whether or not to pay taxes.

Back in 1987, only three or four years before this incident occurred, I was unemployed, driven to the desperate expedient of putting up 'Philosopher for Hire' cards in the windows of local shops. Everyone deserves at least one lucky break in life. Mine was having a sharp-eyed reporter from the Sheffield Star notice my little advert. A week later, I was being interviewed and having my photograph taken. The article appeared under the headline, 'Philosopher in Bid to Hire Out His Talents'...

... And the rest is history.

For the sake of a reality check, here's a very different account, from an article published in The Guardian newspaper in 2007:

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show philosophy graduates, once derided as unemployable layabouts, are in growing demand from employers. The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.

It is in the fields of finance, property development, health, social work and the nebulous category of 'business' that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In 'business', property development, renting and research, 76% more philosophy graduates were employed in 2005-06 than in 2002-03. In health and social work, 9% more.

Just to reinforce the statistics, the Guardian article offers quotes from enthusiastic employers of Philosophy graduates. Here's one:

Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: 'A philosophy degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.'

— Is that the sort of answer you're looking for, Jason?

From the Guardian perspective, the case for the employability of Philosophy graduates is all about transferable skills. The very same skill which you use to analyse an argument from Plato's Republic serves equally well in analysing a financial forecast or the pitch for a new ad campaign.

Analysing, criticising, thinking 'out of the box' are obviously very useful attributes. We should all strive to be useful members of society. That is what we are taught from an early age. And if society has a use for you, you will be rewarded. Isn't that it?

You might say that it is easy for me to indulge in scepticism, given that the majority of Pathways students have degrees or advanced degrees and/ or professional qualifications, and are in well-paid jobs. Yet I detect that some are not happy, and would much rather chuck it all in if they could. A lucky few — those who have made enough money to afford an early retirement — have the leisure to devote themselves full-time to philosophical study.

Philosophy gets you, that way. It makes you question assumptions, to be sure, but one of the assumptions that you will find yourself questioning is why you are so keen to 'impress people with my resume'.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't be interested in having the best possible resume. My question is what it would be good for. Let's assume that the better your resume, other things being equal, the more employable you are. You have a wider range of jobs available to you. For most people, this translates into opportunities for more highly paid jobs. But as a philosopher, or someone interested in philosophy, that is an assumption that cries out to be questioned. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but money isn't everything.

Of course, you can always go for the 'early retirement' scenario, if you are that good. On the panel of Ask a Philosopher is an Englishman who retired at 52, for the second time (he got bored after retiring in his early 30's). But you do have to be very good — or very lucky.

Of the two greatest Stoic philosophers, one was a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and the other a slave (Epictetus). Lacking the resources of an emperor, you don't have to opt for wage slavery. The kind of job a philosopher would look for (outside of the academic world, an option we are not even considering) is one that allows you time, and mental freedom, and pays enough to keep body and soul together. If you are also doing something that enables you to put your beliefs into practice — like working for Greenpeace, or for an organization helping the homeless or the unemployed — that's a bonus.

It is possible that after you get your BA degree you may feel no need or motivation to pursue your present interest in philosophy any further. That happens too. There's no shame in it. In that case, these words are not for you. But that's not something you know now. Taking the philosophy course option might deepen your interest. I hope it does.

There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option. As I have painfully discovered, you have to accept the pitying looks of those — they may be your family or your friends — who judge success by material possessions. It's your choice.

Geoffrey Klempner


(35) Dorothea Young asked:

'Aristotle argued that humans were inherently social animals. How does this relate to the concept of the Good life?'


In the Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics, Aristotle develops his theory of the Good society. It is grounded in a foundation from which it follows. The foundation is the essence or nature of man. Like all phenomena, Man has an essence and its essence is to be realised [Telos] for man to be man. In other words, the essence of man — Rationality [Ratio] — is to be purposively realised in leading the Good life. The highest realisation of this is in Contemplation [Theoria] but it can also be realised in the good life of practical conduct between people [Phronesis] notably through the doctrine of the Mean.

The essence of man and good conduct can only be realised and performed through and with, other people. Just as a fish can only swim with water-thereby being a fish- similarly a human can only become fully human within the society of other humans. The above noted qualities of essence etc are only realisable in a community or city state [polis]. In this sense, man is defined as a political animal [zoon politikon]. Only through and by means of sociality can a person-although not a slave-realise and lead the Good life.

Martin Jenkins


(36) Julie asked:

Could a scientist give an adequate account of the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus?


Yes they can. Firstly it is only a story and so we don't know if it is true or false. Secondly we do not know if Lazarus was really dead. It is well established that people tell all sorts of stories of miracles which when investigated turn out to be false.

People are credulous and superstitious, they will believe anything if the circumstances are right.

In fact some fundamentalist Christians will tell you the the world is only 4 or 5 thousand years old. This is like believing that the world is flat. Any absurd or foolish belief that you can think of is believed by somebody, somewhere.

Shaun Williamson


(37) Ray asked:

What is the meaning of life? Is the world we live in not just a well oiled machine and we as a species are simply one gear in that machine? If this is so, wouldn't that mean our meaning or purpose would simply be, to BE. I have struggled with this one for a bit, maybe someone can keep me going on these thoughts?


You have a choice, Ray. You have the choice whether to be. So does the human race. It wouldn't be necessary to make the decision to kill ourselves, or even to allow the human race to die out as a result of nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. We could just choose not to procreate — as indeed can you.

A machine is constructed for a purpose, but if the universe is a mere machine then it has no particular purpose that we can fathom. Nor does the machine need human beings in order to function. When we go, we won't be missed. The stars and planets will continue to obey the laws of nature, flawlessly, however things turn out.

I gather from your question that you see no meaningful place for God or religion. Neither do I. But suppose one accepts the pragmatic view that some beliefs are more useful than others. Even the materialist, atheist Marx had to admit that religion, the 'opiate of the masses' was yet the 'heart in a heartless world'.

Marx isn't conceding that the human race is better off with religion than without it. What he means is that things are so bad for so many people — the downtrodden workers — that it would be too cruel to take religion from them as well.

Meanwhile, the world is indifferent as to whether you choose to be a revolutionary, or reactionary — or reluctantly or gladly or unthinkingly embrace the status quo. Life goes on regardless; your life goes on, or not, as the case may be.

Where's the meaning in that?

Bertrand Russell, in his 1902 essay 'A Free Man's Worship' offers the following consolation for those who accept that their ultimate fate is be born, procreate and die:

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man's worship.

B. Russell 'A Free Man's Worship' in Mysticism and Logic (London Unwin 1963)

'To think of them greatly.' To pursue truth, to appreciate beauty — if only the beauty offered by the tragic spectacle of human life and death — is all we have. That is why the free man rejects the false comforts of religion.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Russell wrote his essay just twelve years before the Great War. Amongst the 'great ideals' that he describes in such glowing terms are those of courage, duty and sacrifice, so brutally exploded in the trenches of the Somme and the war poems of Wilfred Owen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

No, there is no meaning that I can discern. We have witnessed how bad things can get, and they could get still worse. But my view of this remains a cheerful one. Unlike Russell, I don't need high ideals, so long as there are questions that grip me, as yours does. Meaning is for 'true believers'. I just want the truth — as best as you, or I or anyone can discern it.

Maybe my optimism is misplaced. Maybe I still have illusions to shatter. In that case, as F.H. Bradley once remarked about pessimism (Appearance and Reality 1897, Preface), 'Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.'

Geoffrey Klempner


(38) Barbara asked:

Is it true that Plato believed all people were born equal, but, that each would rise to an appropriate place in society according to his or her abilities?


Plato wanted citizens in his ideal city to believe in a certain tale. Citizens must be told that they were all born from the soil of the earth. However, they were not all born of the same earth-constituents. Those fit for ruling or philosophizing, were born with gold in their constitution; those fit for guarding and fighting, with silver; and the remainder, those fit for working or earning wages, with iron or brass. In most cases, each of these classes — the Rulers, the Guardians and the Workers — will produce an offspring like themselves. On the whole then, Plato did not believe (or did not want people to believe) that everyone was born equal (in the sense described). That said however, this was no caste system. It is typical of a caste system that once one is born into a caste, it becomes impossible to rise above it. Although Plato acknowledges heredity as a powerful force in the intellectual domain — and so, as a general rule, an individual will find his natural place in the class to which his mother and father belong — there are exceptions. Sometimes there are individuals who are not fitted for the work of the class into which they are born. If they have superior abilities, they will be promoted to a higher class (a talented and courageous child of peasant farmers may become a guardian); if inferior, to a lower one (a cowardly guardian may be demoted to the status of farmer). So, at least in principle, no one is to be locked by the accident of birth in a particular social class. Unfortunately, how exactly individuals are to be examined for signs of talent (or inability), Plato does not say much about.

Kristian Urstad


(39) Steven asked:

Does the human brain think in English or the native tongue?


First of all it is important to be clear about the fact that people think, brains don't think.

So for example we say things like 'John thought that ..' We don't say 'John's brain thought that ...'. You need a brain in order to think but brains don't think.

If you are French then you speak and think in French usually. I am English but sometimes when I am in France I occasionally find myself thinking in French, although my French is not very good.

What is this native language you have mentioned. My native language is English, I don't have any other native language. Do you think there is some universal language of thought that we all think in and then have to translate into English when we want to express our thoughts. Are there any dictionaries for this universal native language. How do you know that you are translating it accurately into English. This sounds like a philosophical myth. How did you learn this native language and how can you be sure that you have learnt it correctly.

A French politician once said that French was the best language in the world because people said things in the same order as they thought them. I wonder what he meant by that?

Shaun Williamson


(40) Martin asked:

'The Earth is a rotating planet orbiting the Sun'. This is a truthful statement.

'F=G(m1)(m2)/(r squared)'. This is a mathematical model of reality.

In physics, where do the truthful statements end and the mathematical models of reality begin? Should physicists make more of an effort to distinguish clearly between these two areas of their subject? Should physicists strive to convert all of their subject into truthful statements, rather than mere mathematical models of reality?


I'm not sure I accept the premises of your question, however you appear to confuse two things your statement about the earth being a rotating planet orbiting the Sun is an empirical fact. Newton's law of gravitation is a universal law, applicable to any two bodies. When applied to planetary motion, it enables physicists to accurately predict the relative positions of the planets with respect to each other as time progresses. It is this ability to make concrete predictions, about phenomenon, which can only be done via mathematics, that makes physics different from say astrology or voodoo. Without this ability physics would just be a collection of empirical facts, with no discernible relationship between them. Newton's law of gravitation is not just a 'mere mathematical model of reality' as you put it. I suggest you look at some physics textbooks, such as the Feynman lectures in physics, learn some calculus and learn how a few basic laws such a Newton's laws of motion can be applied to model a vast range of phenomenon, then you will have a better idea of how physics works.

Christopher Finlay


(41) Dian asked:

I've always enjoyed mulling over philosophical questions but I've run into a road block with this one. It concerns morals and ethics. Basically their origin: is there such a thing as absolute morality and what is the direction humankind is going when it comes to concepts of morality and ethics?

To approach the matter in the right philosophical frame, and honestly examine the origin of morals and ethics, I feel I have to first disengage myself from all the preconceptions I've picked up from my Judeo-Christian background to think clearly and without bias on the subject, focusing rather on general innate human predispositions. It seems paramount to me to place one's self in the position of being a human being rather then a believer or inheritor of a certain traditional mindset to truly understand the human condition.

But have I already become biased because I look at things from the position of being a secular humanist with existentialist leanings? How can I tell if I'm learning anything or only examining what I already think I know?

Chris asked:

I'm one of those philosophy students in college who are prodded from time to time. It's unlikely this will be addressed in class so I ask it here:

Throughout our class studies thus far (the classicals, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and my limited private studies of more recent philosophers (such as Nietzsche) I have noticed an overlaying theme that Humanity is special. That we are either divinely inspired, logically superior to nature, or press forward on our personal development to a fixed collective goal.

What I've found scarce are resources regarding (or maybe there isn't any legitimacy in?) thoughts on the more 'scientific' approach, that we just happen to be really complex amoebas, we just have a brain, but it's still as predictable to the 'outside' observer as we can predict what a single celled organism will do in its life.

So the question is best summed up as this: Are Humans really doing anything spectacular with this philosophy thing, or would anything given our characteristics have ended up in the same place?


I have decided to answer Dian's and Chris's questions together, because they converge on a common theme: the idea that there is a naturalistic account of how human beings have developed ethical rules and moral values. By 'naturalistic' I mean an explanation which can be given from the 'outside' in Chris's sense, in terms of a broadly scientific understanding of what human beings are and how they have evolved.

If ethical rules and moral values can be explained in this way, then there it would be true to say that human beings are nothing special. We may be the most advanced organisms on this planet, as measured in terms of our neural capacity, but we share with all organisms the same tendency to prefer (or 'value') particular outcomes out of a range of available choices, based purely on our individual needs or inbuilt conditioning.

The question has become especially pressing for me, because of my increasing scepticism regarding the possibility of a metaphysical foundation for ethics, which I attempted in my book Naive Metaphysics. I don't think that the idea of a necessary link between the concepts of truth or reality and 'recognition of the other' is worthless, but I have come to realize that I seriously overvalued it.

Others exist, are 'real': so what? That bare recognition leaves me almost as free to do what I will as the psychopath or amoralist, given that I remain the final judge and jury on what I 'owe' to others, the extent to which recognition of their needs and interests bears on my conduct, if at all. In short, it depends on just how important I think I am in the overall scheme of things — no-one, neither any individual nor society, can dictate that to me. (A Max Stirner or an Aleister Crowley would have no difficulty with that thought.)

To answer Dian's question, I don't see that there is any problem of bias, if we take the secular humanist view as the default position. Surely, the onus is on the theologian to offer something better, explain why we are more than just a part of nature.

You might question how the issue of onus is decided. How come I'm so sure that the onus is not on those who question the 'Judeo-Christian' view? It isn't about numbers. I don't have to listen to any argument which is predicated on a belief, in the absence of sufficient justification for that belief. Nor will I accept Pascal's view that, given the stakes are so high, I ought at least to grant theism the benefit of the doubt. I don't scare so easily. (Russell once remarked that if he were ever to find himself at the gates of Heaven, he would tell God, 'You should have given me better reasons for believing in you!')

However, the debate over ethics is one which has thrived on false oppositions, the most blatant of which is, 'God or science?' To accept that human beings are ultimately part of nature does not commit one to Freudianism/ Kleinianism, or Marxism, or evolutionary ethics/ sociobiology, or Dawkins' memetics — or whatever is the popular theory of the moment for explaining the human sense of right and wrong.

Just as I won't accept God as an explanation, so neither do I need to accept any reductivist theory based on observation of my behaviour or human behaviour in general. But this is where things get tricky. Because I am all these things: each of the competing explanations potentially contains a fragment of the truth. If science has shown anything about what it is to be human, it shows that we do not know our own selves. Ideas which seem to spring from a miraculous creative power, in fact have a perfectly intelligible genetic explanation (as Freud showed so brilliantly). That's why, for me, the existentialist option is no less unacceptable.

Why are people courageous? why are they kind? or just? or honest? Why be moral? I think that the answer, in the end, does lie with philosophy. Not in some a priori proof why one 'ought' to embrace any of these values, but rather in the very capacity which philosophy gives us to see ourselves synoptically as part of an 'overall scheme of things'. That was Plato's and Aristotle's legacy to ethics.

Human evolution and culture have given us the ability, unique amongst the organisms that populate this planet, to engage in rational inquiry: for example, to consider questions about ends and not merely means to ends. (In McDowell's phrase, we inhabit the 'logical space of reasons' no less than the physical space of causes and effects.) But what that is, what it is to practice this ability is something one can only appreciate from within the 'form of life' of beings-who-philosophize.

Geoffrey Klempner


(42) Ray asked:

What is the meaning of life? Is the world we live in not just a well oiled machine and we as a species are simply one gear in that machine? If this is so, wouldn't that mean our meaning or purpose would simply be, to BE. I have struggled with this one for a bit, maybe some can keep me going on these thoughts?


This imagery of the world as a machine is just that, imagery. We are attracted to it because our picture of the world is just true enough to permit us to make successful aeroplanes and TV's. But the world itself is not an aeroplane or a TV, and the picture of the world as a machine makes the mistake of assuming that not yet, but one day, our picture of the world will be complete, as the parts list for an aeroplane might be complete. No such completion can ever be achieved. Reality, unlike the specifications of a machine, is inexhaustible. Regard your nearest Human Being. They themselves are beyond accounting for. The greatest god's-eye novelist, God himself indeed, could not bring out every thought and feeling of a Human being. If we are cogs, and cogs within us even, they are the sort of cog that no one casts and no one can completely describe. That is no kind of cog.

David Robjant


(43) Malcolm asked:

What makes one argument or theory more valid than another?


First of all, there are no degrees of validity: an argument is either valid or invalid. (It is valid if the truth of the premises necessitates the truth of the conclusion; otherwise it is invalid.) A theory (I'm assuming that you're thinking of a scientific theory) usually contains argument but is not simply argument: the theorist is trying to explain empirical facts by describing their underlying causes, and in order to do so makes assumptions that serve as premises. But the argument within a theory is usually straightforward and its validity is not at issue; what the theorist is concerned with is how well his or her theory explains the facts. And this is a matter of the truth of the theory, not of the validity within it.

So perhaps your question was intended to be: what makes one scientific theory more true that another? The answer is that scientists, by trial and error over several centuries, have discovered a number of criteria for the truth of their theories. Two of them are falsifying criteria: the theory must not be logically inconsistent (i.e. invalid) and it must not be contrary to empirical fact. There are six others, of which the most important is whether the theory can predict empirical novelty, as Maxwell's equations predicted radio and Einstein's predicted nuclear energy. Next in importance is the amount of detail explained; this requires two criteria: the bigger the scope of the theory the better, and the greater the density of detail with that scope, the better. And three other criteria, of lesser significance but not unimportant, are: the theory should be as simple as possible; it should integrate well with other, accepted, theories; and it should be beautiful. These latter six are verifying criteria, although the verification is never complete; it only make the theory more 'probable', meaning greater consensus among scientists about the acceptability of the theory.

Helier Robinson


(44) Jimmy asked:

Imaginary v.s Reality

If we define reality as everything we can perceive with our senses, what are the things we perceive in our imaginations?

To give an example, if I imagine a dragon behind me so well that I can fell its scales or hear its breath, does that mean that when I open my eyes there WILL be a dragon behind me?


Well I closed my eyes and I imagined you giving me lots of money, it seemed so real, but when I opened my eyes you weren't there and neither was the money.

It is misleading to think that we perceive things in our imagination because this makes it seem like a sort of seeing. We imagine things but imagining things doesn't make them real or even 'sort of real'. Probably this is a good thing. How would we cope with all those imaginary dragons especially if they are behind us.

Shaun Williamson


(45) Marcin asked:

What are the benefits of war?


'War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.'

Heraclitus (Diels Kranz 22B Fragment 53)

'War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!'

Edwin Star (Song written for The Temptations by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)

I will accept the assumption of Marcin's question, that war has 'benefits' — the question is what these are.

While pondering this, you might look at the online version of Wilfrid Owen's famous war poem Dulce et Decorum Est (referenced in my answer to Ray).

Here's the last verse, which states Owen's concise case against the view that 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. Owen is describing a British infantryman who has become victim to a poison gas attack:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Edwin Starr argues his case on two fronts: the sheer horror of violent death, and also the loss of innocent lives:

War! I despise
'Cos it means destruction of innocent lives.
War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons gone to fight and lose their lives.

Searching the internet, I found lots of pages quoting the fragment from Heraclitus, but nowhere did I find any attempt to explain the meaning of his words. It may not be immediately obvious, but he is stating a case too.

There is a view that Heraclitus isn't talking about war as such, but merely re-iterating the fundamental principle of his metaphysics, that the universe is held together through the conflict of opposites. In other words, reference to 'war' is merely metaphorical. Anyone who thinks this hasn't bothered to consider what Heraclitus actually says:

1. War is the 'king' or 'father' of all. Everything that exists comes from war. Here, he is talking about 'war' in the metaphysical sense, as well as the literal sense. Everything we know, the entire universe, is a product of eternal tension or conflict. But it is also true in the literal sense that the life we live now is a product of wars and battles past. Human history without war would be unthinkable. From what he goes on to say, Heraclitus is clearly aware of the double meaning of his words.

2. War 'manifests' some as 'gods' and some as 'men'. One could read this as stating that the Gods on Mount Olympus, no less than the human beings who populate the earth, are the product of the eternal metaphysical tension between opposites. However, Heraclitus is also stating literally what it is that war reveals. War gives men the opportunity to be heroes, to be 'gods amongst men'.

3. War makes some men 'slaves' and some 'freemen'. One could stretch a point and argue that men are 'free' so long as they have knowledge of the Logos, the law which governs all change. But freedom and slavery is also literally what war is about. Von Clausewitz famously remarked, 'War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means'. The threat of war offers the vital incentive in a negotiation. Execution of that threat is an attempt to achieve the conclusion you want by force. In other words, the possibility of war is the permanent undercurrent of peaceful diplomacy. In modern warfare, the winning side no longer take slaves. Yet for the losing side, surrender means a loss of freedom: you have to agree unconditionally to the victor's terms.

I would like to take a dispassionate view of the arguments, such as they are. Ideologically, I'm neither a hawk nor a dove. But I am gripped by the question of war as a challenge to the very notion of who I am or what life is about.

Is there anything that I would be prepared to fight or risk death for? If not, what does that say about me?

It is never necessary to fight. Faced with the threat of deadly force, you always have to option to offer passive resistance, as Ghandi showed when he stood up, unarmed, against the guns of the British Army. No-one doubts that this was an act of great heroism. More than that, Ghandi was fully aware that the greater battle was for hearts and minds. Passive resistance was a weapon in that war. The cost of employing that weapon was death for many of his supporters. In the end, Ghandi was victorious.

Ghandi also argued, notoriously, that the British should use the same strategy against Hitler. All evil empires eventually fall. To take this lofty historical view, however, is arguably even more callous than the British generals who ordered their troops to march at a steady pace towards the German machine guns on the battlefields of the Somme, where they were mown down in waves like wheat at harvest time.

Wilfrid Owen appeals to horror, as his main argument against war. The Spartan hoplites, for whom nothing was more desirable than a 'good death' knew that the reality of death at the point of a spear or a sword — to lie for hours freezing on a battlefield, disemboweled, as your life blood ebbs away — is no less horrific than the horrors Owen describes. Owen's bitter words were for the folks at home who saw the Great War through a misty romantic haze. The Americans who viewed the daily news footage from Vietnam on their TV sets were under no such illusions.

As one of my philosophy students from Northern Island once remarked, 'What is so bad about death?' On the contrary, isn't it good that you have something so valuable — your life — to wager as proof of your commitment to your highest beliefs and ideals? That's something Ghandi understood.

Yet as much as it is a soldier's duty to put oneself in the line of fire, it is also necessary to kill. And it is this, rather than the danger of being killed, which seems to me the most difficult issue. It is more than mere squeamishness which makes me recoil at the thought of causing death of any kind — let alone horrific death, or unavoidable innocent death. Your training gets you over that. I have no right to extinguish another life. But doesn't that mean I'm really no different from the Jain monks who take immense pains to avoid causing death to any living thing, even the insects under their feet?

Or, if, rejecting all forms of religious belief, there is nothing for me on this earth or in this universe that is holy, whence the reverence for human life?

Without death, war would just be a competition, a contest. If you wanted to avoid injury, you'd have to ban many sports. Death is the meaning of war. We have no comprehension of the meaning of death, or the meaning of war, so long as we lack a proper understanding of the value of life.

Geoffrey Klempner


(46) Malcolm asked:

Does Nietzsche side with Zarathustra or does he make fun of him?


Nietzsche uses Zarathustra as the fictional mouthpiece to articulate many of his mature philosophical ideas. In fact, Thus Spoke Zarathustra encapsulates all of Nietzsche's philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil and subsequent works merely reiterate the subjects mentioned in Zarathustra.

Subjects such as the Will to Power, Eternal Return, Death of God, the nature of Christian Religion, criticism of the metaphysical world view and so much more, are all present in TSZ in vivid prose. Zarathustra, of the Zoroastrian religion in which the dichotomies of Good and Evil were introduced, is used to end them and their hegemonic domination in Western thinking; allowing humanity to pass beyond good and evil.

I don't think Nietzsche makes fun of Zarathustra.

Martin Jenkins


(47) Chris asked:

I'm one of those philosophy students in college that are prodded from time to time. It's unlikely this will be addressed in class so I ask it here:

Throughout our class studies thus far (the classicals, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and my limited private studies of more recent philosophers (such as Nietzsche) I have noticed an overlaying theme that Humanity is special. That we are either divinely inspired, logically superior to nature, or press forward on our personal development to a fixed collective goal.

What I've found scare are resources regarding (or maybe there isn't any legitimacy in?) thoughts on the more 'scientific' approach, that we just happen to be really complex amoebas, we just have a brain, but it's still as predictable to the 'outside' observer as we can predict what a single celled organism will do in its life.

So the question is best summed up as this: Are Humans really doing anything spectacular with this philosophy thing, or would anything given our characteristics have ended up in the same place?


I don't know if we are special but we are certainly different. Amoebas don't do philosophy and they don't do tap dancing either. I don't think its helpful to describe us as complex amoebas just as it would not be helpful to describe an amoeba as a simple sort of human being. In fact we can't predict what an amoeba will do. we don't have enough information to do that and we can't predict what a human will do. We may imagine that both humans an amoebas are predictable in theory but theory isn't the same as practice.

Of course we imagine that, like amoebas, humans are subject to the laws of physics but its only humans who have the idea that there are any such things as the laws of physics. We don't even fully know what these laws are, its still a work in progress. In fact it may always be a work in progress. That humans are completely predictable is not a truth of science. We don't for example do any scientific experiments to prove or disprove that.

Shaun Williamson


(48) Michelle asked:

How do I know the chair is on the table in two words?


The answer on the classical standard definition of knowledge would be: you belief there is a chair on the table, it is indeed a chair on the table and your belief is justified (you have reasons to belief it) and your belief is not only coincidentally true.

However, the classical justified-true-belief-account, though pretty much accepted as at least a rough and ready set of necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge suitable for many purposes, is philosophically problematic. The small kid may know the table is on the chair, but he is still too young to have conscious access to reasons — and hence a justification — to belief the chair is on the table; he just sees it and hence he 'knows' it. Does this mean the justification condition is not a necessary one ?

An 'externalist' would deny that conscious access to good reasons is necessary for knowledge. As long as there is an adequate causal chain between the chair on the table and your belief (e.g. an adequate perception process), you know that the chair is on the table. Unfortunately, this seems a definition from a perspective of an omniscient observer. How could we know whether there is an appropriate causal chain ?

One could also argue that beliefs that 'track the truth' constitute knowledge. 'Truth tracking' is defined counterfactually: a belief tracks truth if you wouldn't have the belief in case the believed fact were false. You know that there is a chair on the table, because if there weren't one, you would not have the belief that there is one (but again how do you know that?)

What seems to be something pretty ordinary, knowing whether there is a chair on the table, turns out to get pretty complex. The theories of knowledge are legion and 'internalists' argue against 'externalists'. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. If you belief that truth is not totally subjective you need some externalist element (e.g. a causal chain) to make sure your belief is objectively connected to reality, is 'truth conducive'. However, without awareness (or potential awareness under reflection) of the reasons for what you know, at least I have problems to accept that this is really the sort of rational knowledge we want to define.

But maybe it is all much easier. You simply know as a matter of brute fact that there is a chair on the table. If you don't know such a basic thing, what sense does it make to continue arguing ? George Edward Moore built an argument against skepticism on a common sense premise: what kind of intuitions could be more basic and reliable in any rational discussion than those of the sort 'I know this is my hand' (or 'I know there is a chair on the table') ?

Christian Michel


(49) Dave asked:

I want to know if there is a name for the sick feeling I get from behaving in a way that I know is harmful to me and others (behaving while knowing it is harmful behavior while I am doing it but doing it nonetheless), is a waste of precious time when I could be doing productive loving things. For example licking the earth as one author put it, spending lots of money on things I don't need or pursuing a relationship that I know will be harmful to me or my kids. I thought the name was poshlust but as I look up this word it does not explain the feeling almost like dread and horror mixed together.


The Russian word Poshlust is notoriously difficult to translate. To deploy the term 'poshlust' against a person or object implies that one is seeking unmask something — a work of art, a piece of writing — which makes false claims to depth or profundity, kitsch which loudly professes that it is not kitsch but the 'real thing'. Evidently, what is or is not 'poshlust' is very much in the eye of the beholder. A piece of critical writing purporting to expose an example of poshlust can itself be an example of poshlust. — As indeed could this answer to a more critical eye.

That is not exactly what Dave is talking about. But I can see a tenuous connection between Dave's concerns and the question of self-knowledge and unmasking, in relation to the phenomenon of poshlust.

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics wrangled with a problem which he inherited from Socrates: the doctrine that 'no-one does wrong knowingly'. Sometimes we do things we 'know' are wrong, but somehow that knowledge doesn't help us. We hear the voice of conscience but we disobey it. Aristotle called this akrasia, which one would translate as 'weakness of the will' or 'moral incontinence'.

On any objective view of ethics, moral incontinence is a challenging paradox: if you believe that there is such a thing as objective moral knowledge which is logically sufficient for action, and if ethical considerations by definition trump all other considerations, then how can you fail to do the ethical thing, if you know what it is?

However, what Dave has described doesn't exactly fit the description of moral incontinence either. If through weakness of will you fail again and again, then you must surely reach the point where you know yourself too well. It's pointless even considering the ethics of the situation, if you know that you are never going to do what ethics demands.

The feeling of 'dread and horror' which Dave describes is appropriate for the sense of hopelessness of the chronically incontinent individual, who does what he or she sees as wrong again and again, compulsively, unable to alter their patterns of behaviour.

A nymphomaniac or a paedophile would be examples of individuals who fall into this category. There is of course a debatable line between compulsive behaviour which would be diagnosed as 'neurotic', as symptomatic of an underlying pathological cause over which the agent has no control, and behaviour which is compulsive but not neurotic. ('Nymphomania' is a term from the psychiatrist's lexicon of mental 'illnesses' — as feminists have pointed out, the compulsive lecher or sexually promiscuous male wasn't seen as 'ill' in the same way.)

The interesting issue which Dave's question raises is whether an individual can be compulsively (but not neurotically) addicted to poshlust. You see through the tawdry pretensions of a consumer product, or activity, or 'work of art' and yet you cannot resist it. This is different from recognizing a piece as kitsch and liking it for that very reason. There's nothing wrong with that. It's shameful, indeed morally shameful to be addicted to poshlust, and yet there's nothing you can do about it, for the very reason that you are are an 'addict'.

— Is the description I have just given coherent? That would be one philosophical take.

I suspect that my description isn't fully coherent. Let's take Dave's situation as a (purported) example of chronic ethical incontinence, e.g. 'pursuing a relationship that I know will be harmful to me or my kids'. The desire for 'relationship', the urge for sexual intimacy, is one of the most powerful human desires. In many cases, society may tell us that this is 'wrong', or we may have commitments (such as a spouse, or children who might be adversely affected) which clash with this desire. But is this even a case of Aristotelian 'akrasia'?

Many's the time we are made to feel ashamed — by other persons, or by society — when we ought not to feel ashamed. That's ultimately what is so hateful about the 'voice of conscience' idea. Many's the time that the voice of conscience lies. For Nietzsche, by contrast, the overriding imperative is, 'Do not make others ashamed.' It's the worse thing you can do. Taking advantage of the moral high ground, making others ashamed, is 'slave morality'.

In the case of liking things your intellect tells you you oughtn't to like, for example seeing through the pretensions of a pretentious movie but enjoying it anyway, who is right: you or your intellect? I can see room for an argument here along the lines that we have a moral duty to ourselves not to coarsen our aesthetic sense through over-indulgence, and that there are various points along the path where you do have the choice. The problem is, that I find nearly all examples of people who habitually seek to avoid 'coarsening' themselves, pre-eminent examples the very thing they despise. (Stuck-up prigs. There's nothing so despicable as a person parading their hypertrophied 'aesthetic sense' or 'moral conscience'.)

There's a great line in The Bourne Identity, just before the car chase. 'I just want to do the right thing, Marie!' pleads Jason (he actually says it twice). 'No-one does the right thing,' Marie replies laconically.

The thought that makes Dave feel so sick is the thought that he can do the right thing, or 'it's there to be done'. But is it, really?

I have a theory that Russian intellectual life is afflicted by chronic bad conscience, which will take many generations to dissolve. Under the Communists, 'intellectuals' and 'philosophers' (so-called) debated apparently weighty problems, all the time aware of the vast weight of censorship bearing down upon them, silencing any genuinely significant idea. They pretended concern for the pursuit of truth while all the time hopelessly mired in lies. (All the more remarkable, then, that a few great intellects did succeed in making a mark. See Dmitry Olshansky's Gallery of Russian Thinkers.)

The very word, 'poshlust' is a perfect example of one of Richard Dawkins' toxic self-replicating 'memes'. No sooner do you learn the 'meaning' of the word than you see poshlust everywhere. You realize that you're mired in it. Your strongest desire is to infect other people with similar 'perceptions'.

I guess what I'm working up to is the thought that we are all more or less struggling in a moral miasma. There are times when you can do the right thing and times when you can't, or won't. Just as there are things you know you oughtn't to like but you do anyway. We all have our guilty pleasures. Or as Christ is reported to have said, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'

Geoffrey Klempner


(50) Tiffany asked

Is it true that Hume denies that there is a such thing as cause?


Hume did not deny that there is such a thing as a cause. Indeed he felt that causation was the 'cement of the universe' and central to 'all reasoning concerning matters of fact'. What he did deny is that we can have knowledge of any necessary connection between cause and effect other than by inference from our experience of observing 'constant conjoining' of events. To explain: Hume (using the example of billiard balls colliding) says that if we had never seen this before, we wouldn't know what to expect as the balls got closer — they might stop dead on collision, swerve and avoid each other, or whatever. In fact we see them bounce off each other and set off in new directions. This single instance does not produce in us the idea of cause and effect. Next time we see the same (or a very similar) sequence, the same thing happens. We have discovered nothing new by seeing this second collision, and indeed no matter how many we see collisions, we learn nothing more than we saw the first time. All we see, or can ever see in repeated instances is a 'constant conjunction' of two events (balls collide and balls set off in different directions). We do not, in addition, see any connection between the two events.

But our minds are so constituted that we infer a necessary connection between the first event (cause) and the second (effect). In brief we acquire the notion of causation by experience, rather than its being an priori notion. Thus Hume concludes, 'But when we look for this necessary connection in our experience of the world we come up with nothing... one event follows another; but we can never observe any tie between them: they seem conjoined but never connected'. He goes on, famously, to give two different definitions of cause in a single paragraph, the first being the 'regularity' account we have briefly discussed, the second the 'counterfactual' account. Thus, 'An object followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second. Or in other words where, if the first object had not been, the second never had existed' Note that the last sentence is a non sequitur, despite the 'in other words', and introduces a quite different definition of cause, one which Hume doesn't consider further, but was developed in the 20th century, notably by Lewis.

The regularity definition falls foul of the difficulty in distinguishing causal from accidental regularities, which is unsolved to this day; and in distinguishing joint effects of a common cause — Hume's contemporary and compatriot, Thomas Reid, pointed out that, according to Hume's definition, day would be the cause of night.

Opinions differ as to whether Hume felt that the necessity of causation exists only in the mind, and we project it onto the world (projectivism), or whether it exists in the world (realism) as well as in the mind. I favour the latter, and suspect Hume did too.

Hume would be unsurprised that modern philosophers still cant agree on the nature of the causal connection. Many suggestions, including process views such as property transference and energy flow, and probabilistic views such as statistical correlation and agent manipulability, have been advanced, but none is unproblematic. Some philosophers think the connection cant be reduced — it is a primitive notion, lets call it causal necessity. Very few have been driven to deny causation. It would really make rational thought impossible. Russell (1912) famously declared, in the context of fundamental physics, that the notion of causality was 'a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm'. However, although the equations don't contain the word 'cause', the 'laws' and 'explanations' of physics (endorsed by Russell) simply smuggle causation in through the back door.

The idea of causation is indispensable to deliberative agents such as us, although we may argue as to which features of the concept are objective and which are merely projected by us on to the world.

Craig Skinner


(51) James asked:

Do all of our actions have moral dimension(s)?


It all depends on the circumstances. Suppose I get up in the morning and decide to comb my hair. Life would be very tedious if I had to consider the moral dimensions of hair combing all the time.

However suppose I decide to comb my hair while someone else is dying on the bathroom floor because I decide that my hair is more important. This could have a moral dimension and my hair combing could be described as an immoral act.

Shaun Williamson


(52) Sherrie asked:

What is the nature and meaning of the egocentric predicament?


I really ought to try to answer Sherrie's question, as this is what my book Naive Metaphysics is largely about. The phrase 'the egocentric predicament' was used by Bertrand Russell. It belongs to another age, when 'realists' battled it out with 'idealists', and the theory of knowledge was conceived largely along the lines laid out by Descartes in his Meditations: How can I pass from knowledge of my existence and my mental states, to knowledge of things or subjects of experience, outside me?

One of the charges laid by Russell, in his extremely hostile reception of his former pupil Wittgenstein's later work, Philosophical Investigations is that Wittgenstein's theory of 'meaning as use' had entirely failed to address the egocentric predicament. In My Philosophical Development Russell remarks dryly, 'We are now told that it is not the world that we are to try to understand but only sentences.' What a retreat!

The key argument of Wittgenstein that Russell failed to grasp is the argument against the possibility of a private language. To show how wrong Russell was, I will try to recast the argument in terms of our 'understanding of the world'. My larger aim, however, will be to show that Russell was in fact right about there being an egocentric predicament, even though he misconceived it. Valid and important though it may be, Wittgenstein's argument merely serves to sharpen the sense of paradox of there being an 'I' in relation to a world.

The private language argument is essentially a reductio ad absurdum. In other words, we will start with a proposition which we seek to disprove, in order to deduce consequences which are patently absurd. As Wittgenstein succinctly explains, 'My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense' (Philosophical Investigations Para. 464).

From my egocentric standpoint, I don't know anything about the world, other than what is given to me. That there is a 'world' outside me is something that has to be proved. In that case I can bracket all my former beliefs and opinions, just as Descartes did. I don't know that the Earth exists. I don't know that I am sitting at a computer, writing these words. I don't know that I have a physical body. All I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now.

But do I know this? What is it to 'know' something? What is the absolute basic minimum needed for knowledge? Wittgenstein's answer is: you need a means of representation, a 'language'. So long as I concentrate on this, on that which is present to my mind, without trying to describe it in any way, I do not know it. If I try to say what I know, all I can say is THIS, or point, speechlessly. (If you're into meditation, you might thing that 'this' is a very important piece of 'knowledge' — but that's just a dispute about semantics, because no factual proposition follows from this.)

'No problem,' says the egocentrist. 'It's quite apparent to me that the contents of my subjective experience have variegated properties, such as colour or shape, or sound, or smell.' OK, then, give us an example. 'I see a patch of blue now.'

I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that there is this blue.

Wittgenstein has a simple question which shatters that certainty: 'How do you know the meaning that the term, 'blue' has for you?' Remember, I am only going on what I know, I am not allowed to make any assumptions of any kind. As a term in my 'private language', the word 'blue' must have a meaning. It denotes areas of my visual field which have this colour. — What colour is that, exactly? 'Blue, of course!'

What kind of fact is the fact that I call this blue? Well, I just did. It's blue. And now I have just done it again. The sky (or, rather, the patch in my visual field) hasn't changed colour. It's still the same colour, blue. — But how do I know that?

I don't. This is where Wittgenstein drops his hand grenade:

Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.

L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.207

You don't think that this is much of a hand grenade? You don't get it?!

I've chosen the quote because it's all Wittgenstein needs; the rest is just heuristics. We are talking about knowledge, and I can only say what I know. I don't know that my 'private object', the visual patch, is not constantly changing, so that each time I say or write the word 'blue' I am describing a different colour. The meaning I gave to the word 'blue' is another private object — maybe that's changing too. If I don't know either of these things, then on the assumption that 'all I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now', then I don't know anything. Q.E.D.

Cast in this mode, the argument is one which Russell was familiar with. It's a point he made himself: When consistently thought through, solipsism, the belief that only I and my mental states exist, retreats to 'solipsism of the present moment'. All Wittgenstein's private language argument does is deliver the final coup de grace. In the present moment, there is nothing to 'know', nothing but the wordless this.

Now comes the constructive part of Wittgenstein's investigation, the part that left Russell bemused. In order for there to be a language in which I can express knowledge about the world, the meanings of the words I use cannot be up to me. The language I use is one that I learned, from other language users, and if other language users must exist, in order for me to know anything at all, then I must know a lot more than I thought I did when I conceived of myself being in an 'egocentric predicament'.

My response? I agree up to this point. But in recasting Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, I gave a hostage to fortune. I conceded one very small but significant point: that there is this. Of course, the statement I have just made is nonsense. I'm trying to say what cannot be said ('and you can't whistle it either' was Frank Ramsay's pithy comment on the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed that there are things that 'cannot be said but can only be shown').

One reviewer of an earlier version of Naive Metaphysics alluded to the underlying assumption of a 'metaphysics of presence': Derrida's memorable phrase. Well, I'm not afraid of Derrida. But here's a less metaphysically loaded way to express the point: Someone is grappling with the egocentric predicament and seeking to refute it, or escape from it; someone is deploying the private language argument against Cartesian epistemology. And that someone is me. I am the one asking the question.

There, stripped of its metaphysical trappings, is what the egocentric predicament is really about. When you do philosophy, you are gripped by a question and you try to answer it. Each person must do this for him- or herself, because philosophy is ultimately about making sense of my world, or (what amounts to the same thing) my place in relation to the world of others. That's what makes philosophy different from all other forms of knowledge.

You, the reader, are the unique person to whom that question is addressed.

Geoffrey Klempner


(53) Eric asked:

Exactly what does philosophy mean?

How do philosophical questions differ from other questions?

How do philosophers answer the questions the raise? (most important).


Originally philosophy meant love of wisdom, but today it's more a matter of dealing with questions beyond the scope of science.

So philosophical questions differ from scientific questions in that they are questions that science cannot deal with, such as questions concerning the nature of the good, the beautiful, and the true.

These days most philosophers believe that philosophy must be exclusively analytic, so that philosophical questions are answered by analysing all available data, but no more. In particular, philosophers should not speculate, wildly. I happen to disagree with this because if it is true then philosophy cannot mesh seamlessly with science, since science is both analytic and synthetic. That is, empirical science is analytic and theoretical science is speculative. (Speculation in science is highly disciplined, according to rules discovered by trial and error over several centuries.) What theoretical scientists invent (speculatively) is explanations of the data found in empirical science. Explanation is causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects. Theoretical science explains by describing 'underlying' causes, meaning imperceptible, or non-empirical, causes. Philosophers need to do this also, if philosophy is to mesh with science, but most philosophers tend to reject anything non-empirical and so confine themselves to analysis only. Some even confine themselves exclusively to analysis of language, following in the steps of Wittgenstein.

Helier Robinson


(54) Geoff asked:

What is meant by 'privileged access' to my own mind?


What a bizarre idea, the mind as a cinema show and I am the only one allowed into the cinema and I'm sitting in the front row.

Of course when someone questions what we feel we sometimes say 'Look I know what I feel'. But perhaps this just means I have the right to say what I feel or I don't feel what you think I feel.

So in some circumstances someone might say 'You really hate X don't you?' and I reply 'No I don't'. They might then think 'But your actions show otherwise'. They don't have to take your word for it. Sometimes our feelings are clearer to other people than they are to us.

On the other hand I might say sincerely 'I am in pain' and even though no physical cause can be found for my pain it makes no sense to deny that I am in pain. By this I mean the sentence 'He is sincerely saying that he is in pain but he isn't in pain doesn't generally make sense unless it turns out that I don't know what the word pain means.

We do talk of imaginary pains but this doesn't mean that they aren't painful. In general it makes no sense to say I thought I was in pain but I realise now that I wasn't but this isn't because I am so close to my own pains that I can't be mistaken. If I truthfully declare that I am in pain then I am in pain. The statement 'I am in pain' can only be untrue if I am lying or joking or if I don't know what the word pain means. However that is just a remark about the grammar of the word pain in our language it is not a strange fact that happens to be true in our world.

Of course we might say I thought I knew what pain was until I fell down the mountain and broke both legs. This doesn't really mean that I didn't know what pain was. Lets not be simple minded here.

Wittgenstein said that the general nature of a philosophical problem is this. The Sceptic attacks the normal form of expression as though it were a truth for which we have no evidence while the realist defends it as though it were a truth recognised by everyone. But the normal form of expression is just what it is, it is a remark about the grammar of our language. So we say 'You can often tell if other people are in pain by observing their behaviour'. This is a remark about the grammar of the word pain in our language not a dubious factual claim about the world. My privileged access to my own mind if it exists is a trivial truth of logic. I can say 'Only I can experience my pain, I can't experience his pain'. This only means that any pains I experience are mine not his. That is true by definition it is not the expression of a queer fact about the nature of the world.

What we need to do is offer a full account of how we know that when we use the word pain, we are using it correctly and how did we learn to use the word correctly and who did we learn it from.

Suppose I meet a Chinese man and he asks me what does this English word pain mean. I can show him, I stick a pin in him and when he jumps and says 'Ow'. I say 'That is pain'. Now it makes no sense here to say how do you know that he really experienced pain because I am teaching him the meaning of the word, that is how you are supposed to do it. I can also show him other people in pain and say things like 'He is in pain'. Now that he has understood the lesson will be shown in how he goes on to use the word both for his own pains and other peoples' pains. If he were to see other people writhing around in pain but say I can't tell what is going on in their minds then that simply shows that he has not learnt to use the English word pain correctly. Unless he has reason to think that their behaviour is a pretence, he cannot deny that they are in pain.

The idea that you could never be sure that Van Gough really knew what blue was even though he always used the word correctly is a really strange idea because for us using the word correctly is the only test we can have that someone knows the meaning of a word or that I know the meaning of a word. My inner certainty that I know what a cat is, is of no value at all unless I can go on to correctly identify cats and that I agree on the whole with the judgements that other people make.

What shows us that a foreigner has confused the meanings of the English words cat and dog. It can only be shown by what he says. What is going on in his mind is of no interest to us. The idea that he really knows what a cat is even though he always uses the word incorrectly is a nonsensical idea that leads nowhere.

Shaun Williamson


(55) Robert asked:

I have recently become interested in studying math because it is based on pure fact, it is the only form of study that the answer has absolute certainty.

So Quantum Physics says that electrons can disappear and reappear anywhere in the Universe instantaneously; thus travelling faster than the speed of light.

Also, it is said that it is impossible to travel beyond the speed of light but what if you aren't trying to travel?I read that a man travelling at the speed of light would see time slowing down more and more as his speed increases. In fact the time would slow down at the exact opposite rate of his Speed. As his speed increases time slows down until it eventually 'stops'.

I don't believe it is the speed that causes this change in time but the forces of Gravity that are involved.

So what if someone created a machine that could focus enough gravity on one point that it matches the gravity bending affects that would occur if one was to travel at the speed of light?

Couldn't they than disappear and reappear anywhere in the Universe instantaneously?

This amazing feat is accomplished on a daily basis by Electrons so my only problem with this idea is would it be possible for a Human to experience this bending of gravity without being destroyed?


I'm not sure how to respond to this question. However the body of your question contradicts your claim that you are interested in mathematics because it is based on pure fact. I'll come to why I disagree with your first statement later. Despite your interest in mathematics the main part of your question departs from any mathematical fact and indulges in the widest speculation more akin to science fiction novels than serious mathematics.

First of all, in no way does quantum mechanics state that electrons can disappear and reappear anywhere in the Universe instantaneously; thus travelling faster than the speed of light. I think you may be confusing results of experiments done with pairs of electrons or photons which when emitted from the same source, superficially seem to imply that the measurement of a spin component of one of the particles affects the spin component of the other instantaneously. The particle is not destroyed and recreated at the other end as you seem to think. The interpretation of the results of this experiment has been subject to a long standing debate. In the late 1960's Bell showed that if we assumed that the spin components of the particles were intrinsic to the particles (an assumption of realism) and that measurement of the spin component of one particle does not affect the other (the assumption of locality) then a contradiction between the predictions of quantum mechanics regarding the strength of the correlation between the two particles would ensue. As the quantum mechanical predictions were shown to be correct, it follows that there must be something wrong with the joint assumptions of locality and realism with regard to spin components.

The orthodox view of quantum mechanics claims that because spin components are subject to the uncertainty principle, they cannot (unlike say mass or charge) be seen as intrinsic properties of the particles and the way in which we choose to measure them affects the results. Thus the orthodox view rejects realism with regard to spin components and says nothing about non locality or the implied view that influences can travel faster than the speed of light. It should be noted that rejection of realism vis a vis spin components does not imply the rejection of realism with respect to intrinsic properties of particles such as mass or charge. Thus the 'California interpretation' of quantum mechanics that all properties of particles are created by acts of measurement and ultimately human consciousness has no basis. Non realism in the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics is non realism with regard to certain properties of particles, not all properties of particles, despite the wilder claims in some of the popular literature.

On the other hand those who take a realist view of spin components such as David Bohm claim that there are hidden variables determining the spin components and so there is a non-local influence which travels faster than the speed of light when one of the spin components is measured. Unfortunately the mathematics sheds no light on what this alleged influence might be and so any attempt to clarify the nature of the interaction goes beyond the formalism and cannot be empirically verified. All this speculation adds nothing to what we already have i.e. a mathematical formalism able to predict correctly what will happen in such experiments and if you wish to stick to facts as the first part of your question implies, then that is all you can say and the rest is (or should be in my opinion ) silence.

As for your speculation about 'gravity machines' the only way in which gravity could be focused in the way you seem to think would be in the presence of massive bodies such as a black hole. It really is not practical to focus gravity on earth, as you can with a laser beam. Thus the main body of your question borders on incoherence and again does not stick to the facts.

Finally a few words as to why I don't think mathematics is the road to absolute certainty as you seem to think. (for more see 44/72). The main reason is do to with Godel's theorem. In the early 1900's Frege and Russell thought they could make mathematics completely free of ambiguity by reducing mathematics to logic. However Godel showed that any axiomatic system sufficiently complex to include the basic axioms of arithmetic, could either be complete or consistent but not both. Completeness is the view that all known theorems of arithmetic can be deduced from a single set of axioms, but this comes at the price of inconsistency. Conversely if the axiomatic system is made consistent it is no longer complete. The sting in the tail is that including the missing theorems as axioms makes the system inconsistent. Thus mathematics can never achieve completeness and so your first claim that mathematics is the road to absolute certainty is also incorrect.

As a final point, for me the fascinating thing about 20th century physics and mathematics is that it does seem to imply that even our most rigorous systems do not lead to absolute certainty. For me this is a reason to celebrate, as it means that mankind will always find new things to explore and think about.

Christopher Finlay


(56) Jules asked:

Why is the sky blue?


It seems too much of a coincidence that Jules asked this question just a day after I wrote in my Answer to Sherrie:

I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that there is this blue.

The 'blue' that can exist without Earth, sky or physical matter is a false philosophical construct, a 'private object' allegedly inhabiting my consciousness which my mind unerringly fixes upon. According to Wittgenstein's argument against a private language it is sheer metaphysical illusion. There is no such entity.

But right now, we're not into anything metaphysical. We are just looking at the world as it is. Everyone knows that when you look up at the sky, what you see is blue. The sky is blue. That's its colour. The sky can be other colours, but on a clear, sunny day it is always some shade of blue.

Perhaps it would satisfy Jules to be told the standard physical explanation for the blueness of the sky. It has to do with the scattering of light by the Earth's atmosphere. I remember once when I was very young trying out an experiment from the Childrens Digest. Go into a dark room and shine a torch through a bottle of milk. If you look through the milk at the torch, it will look orangey-brown. If you look at the milk bottle from the side, the colour is pale blue.

The scientific explanation in both cases is that lower frequencies of light — the red end of the spectrum — are scattered less than the higher frequencies, the blue end. That's the simplest account. If you wanted to know more then you would have to go into the physics of electromagnetic radiation and its behaviour in different media, and the differential scattering effect on different wavelengths of light. But that's not my area of expertise. I'm satisfied with the simple account.

Thinking about this more, I recalled an essay I received from one of my Pathways students recently, in which the writer argued that the belief that the sky is blue is a mere illusion which science totally discredits. The sky isn't really blue. There isn't really such an entity as 'the sky'. All that is really up there is the rest of the universe, mostly obscured during the daytime by the Earth's atmosphere. The Sun, Moon and the planet Venus are the only astronomical objects bright enough to be seen through the gaseous haze.

You might suspect that to say that there is no such thing as 'the sky', or that it doesn't 'have' a colour even though it seems to, is a sophisticated kind of nonsense, the kind that only philosophers are tempted to fall into. But first, we need to ask some basic questions about the nature of perception: What is it for something — some 'entity' — to be an object of perception? What is the difference between the properties we perceive objects to have, and the true or false beliefs we have about those objects? What is an illusion?

Once, it was believed that the sky was a dome lit up by the light of the sun. If you stand in the middle of a large field and look up and around at the sky, what you see is a majestic dome. Is that appearance a mere illusion? If you live in the city, the sky looks more like a flat ceiling. You might say, looking out of your apartment window, there's no 'false appearance' of curvature. So do we get a better view of the sky in the city than we do in the country? Who but a philosopher would think that?

There can't be many people nowadays who don't know 'what the sky is'. Or perhaps the belief that the sky is a blue coloured dome can still be found amongst primitive people. But let's take someone who has never thought about this question before. They've never asked themself, 'What is the sky?' We were all at this stage, at some time in our earliest years — before we started pestering adults with questions.

What does a young child see? Surely, the child sees the same thing that we see. We can talk about the colour of the sky, or the various objects that appear in the sky, and so on. Our beliefs about the sky may differ, but our perceptions do not.

In that case, it seems there are just two ways you can go. You can either say that both the child and the adult see something that is there to be seen — in other words, their perceptions, as perceptions, are valid and true — or you can say that in both cases the perceptions are false. There seems to be 'something' that I see when I look up at the sky, but in reality (as anyone who knows a little science knows) there is rather an 'absence of something'.

The question looks rather like the one raised by Sir Arthur Eddington in his best-selling book The Nature of the Physical World which appeared between the wars. My father had a copy. Eddington claimed in the book that we wrongly think things are 'solid' when in reality they are mostly 'empty space'. Eddington is a popular topic for philosophers of perception: the standard answer is that Eddington is confusing scientific theory with what it is for something to be an 'object of perception', the kind that that human beings find lying around or bump into, or the kind that we are, ourselves. If everyday objects weren't solid, if you couldn't see them, touch them, manipulate them, there wouldn't be any knowledge at all.

Similar things can be said about colours. It is not true to say that the objects we see 'don't really have colours', as Locke argued in his Essay on Human Understanding, and before Locke, the Ancient Greek atomists Democritus and Leucippus. The young child, who has not yet thought to ask, 'what is yellow?', sees that corn is yellow or that gold is yellow. The scientific explanation comes later, and does not negate what we see with our own eyes.

The idea that spatio-temporal objects are basic for human perception goes back to Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that on the assumption that we have experience, it necessarily follows that the primary objects of human perception are objects located in a spatial world. The problem is that the sky is different from the other examples. It's not like a desk, or corn, or gold.

The sky exists as an object of visual perception, and only as an object of perception. Yet in an important sense perception, conceived as a 'distance sense' is not essential for knowledge. It is fortunate that human beings have eyes. It is conceivable that somewhere in the universe there are blind, deaf aliens — a race of Helen Kellers — who have managed to develop knowledge and technology relying only on their ability to manipulate physical objects. As soon as you can move around objects, or move objects around, you have a concept of space.

It looks like what I'm working up to is that, from the point of view of the logic, it is a mere accident that such a thing as 'the sky' figures in human knowledge and experience at all. If we had lived all our lives underground, or if our bodies lacked the capacity for distance perception, there would be no sky for us. Think about how you would go about explaining the sky to someone who had never seen it. (Aeroplanes fly through the air. The don't fly through the sky.)

This is one of those occasions when thinking about something perfectly ordinary can send you into a dizzying spin. The sky, as an object of perception, exists only because we see it. When we see the sky as blue, it is blue. Does the sky exist, or not? Is the sky blue, or does it only appear blue? Is all our talk about the sky redundant, so far as human knowledge is concerned? — If you were forced to live underground, what would you not give for the chance to see the sky again?

Geoffrey Klempner


(57) Kayla asked:

What else exists in our universe, if anything?


Your question is incomplete: it should have the form 'What else besides X exists in our Universe, if anything?' X might be energy or matter or spirit or something else. If you meant 'What exists outside of our Universe?' the answer is: nothing. The Universe is usually defined as everything that exists, so that nothing exists outside it.

Helier Robinson


(58) Felipe asked:

I would like to know why Henry Shue says that humans cause climate change.


I do not know what Henry Shue says, but there is really only one explanation of our present climate change: too many people. There are two thought experiments that explain this. One is: suppose that the present population of the world doubles and all else remains equal. ( It would not remain equal, of course, but this is a thought experiment.) That would mean twice as many people breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, twice the consumption of fossil fuels, twice the consumption of fresh water, twice the quantity of agricultural and industrial pollution, and so on. The other thought experiment is: suppose the present population of the world halves, and all else remains equal. I don't need to spell that one out. The point is that in the last hundred years the world population has doubled twice: from one and a half billion to six billion plus. And the bigger it is the faster it grows.

There are three natural limitations to such growth: famine, disease, and war. We've grown pretty good at war: WW2 killed about 40 million people. But generally we are much better at saving lives that ending them, with medicine and improved food production. However, we cannot do these forever, and should not, since the world population is already far too large. My own preferred cure to the problem is the invention of contraceptive pills which are also aphrodisiacs and addictive.

Helier Robinson

(59) Loveofgood asked:

Does the significance of philosophy does not lie in the range of answers that it attempts to resolve or clarify, rather it lies on the range of questions that it poses as well as on extent of how it provides a ground for the development and maturity of one's thinking and judgment?


No, I don't think it does. Philosophy is about truth. We want answers to questions not a situation where we think about how wonderful it is that philosophy can pose all these unanswerable questions. Only truth and answers can provide you with a clear view of things and only this can provide you with maturity in thinking and judgement. When you know the truth about the world then you will be able to judge things.

Philosophy is about a ruthless dedication to the truth. Philosophical questions are the most difficult questions that humans ask themselves. If you don't find the answers to them then you have failed. Given the difficulty of the problems there is no shame in that but lets not congratulate ourselves on the simple fact that we can ask difficult questions. Any idiot can say 'What is the meaning of life?.

Shaun Williamson


(60) Tigist asked:

If it's true that we are here to help others, what are the others doing here?


Tigist is quoting — or rather misquoting — a remark reputedly made by the famous poet
W.H. Auden (1907-1973):

We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.

The last time I heard this was in a sharp exchange which I had with the business ethicist Tibor Machan (recorded in my Glass House Philosopher, second notebook page 106).

I'd expressed a view about Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness' in my article 'On the Possibility of a Business Ethic' (Philosophy for Business Issue 27) which Machan strongly objected to. I won't rehash the debate here. Machan quoted Auden as a rejoinder to what he saw as 'this widespread eagerness to deem all of us altruists'. I regret that I didn't take the opportunity to analyse exactly what Auden meant to convey by his witty remark. In philosophy, you don't judge a quote by how well it sounds, but by how good a case it makes.

In her question, Tigist talks of being 'here to help others' whereas Auden merely says 'do good for others'. The difference is more than a shade of meaning. There are many ways in which you can do good for others which would not count as 'helping' them. A painter who paints a painting or a novelist who writes a novel which gives pleasure or inspiration to others is not 'helping' them thereby. To disseminate one's work (as I'm doing here) is not an act of selfless giving but rather closer to what Nietzsche described as the 'will to power'. We need others in order to express ourselves, in a sense, in order to be what we are.

Maybe I'm giving a spin on Auden's words which he didn't intend. But at least on this reading, one can say that he is not attacking a straw man. According to this interpretation, what Auden is seeking to reduce to absurdity is not the view that the reason why we are here is to perform acts of charity, but rather the view that we are here so that others may benefit in some way from the actions that we do or the things that we produce.

Why is that so wrong? If we are here merely to help others, then the question naturally arises, 'help them do what?' Help us? Help some third class of persons not yet accounted for? On the other hand, if we are here to produce something of benefit to others, there is surely no absurdity in the notion that every member of society has something to offer, according to his or her talents or abilities.

Ayn Rand admired the producers — be they novelists, film producers or business tycoons — who do things that others benefit from. Yet she passionately believed that the only valid basis for this is egoism. I am writing this for myself, not for you, the reader. Whatever value these words have derives from my integrity as a writer or (dare I say) as a philosopher. — If you don't like the cut of my writing, you can surf away to another site.

Exactly the same principle applies in business. (Here, it could be argued that Ayn Rand betrayed herself as possibly too idealistic for the nitty gritty realities of the business world.) Suppose I create a design for a better mousetrap. As the saying goes, 'the world will beat a path to your door'. It's a win-win situation: I make a profit from marketing my invention which I can use to improve the life of myself and my family, and the lives of others are improved through the reduction in the population of house mice, not to mention the employment opportunities generated by the ever-increasing orders for mousetraps.

Ayn Rand didn't merely promote this notion of egoism as a virtue. She saw the opposite, 'self-sacrifice' or 'altruism' as a vice. Those who praise altruism are deniers of life, who denigrate all that is best about what it is to be an individual — what it is to be human.

As a writer, what I am here for is to write. What you are here for, is to read. Converting this observation into a general principle, I am here to create, while others are here to enjoy the fruits of my creation. That would be fine if we are prepared to make a distinction, as Nietzsche did, between two classes of human being, the mensch and the übermensch. The übermenschen or 'over-men' (in some translations, 'supermen') are the value producers, while the rest of us are merely value consumers.

It is the weakest link in Nietzsche's philosophy that he couldn't see a way to define a common good for all human beings, and not just a special elevated class. Aristotle, whose Ethics and Politics in many ways provides the model for Nietzsche's conception of human flourishing, was able to avoid that fatal step by seeing every human being, from the ruler down to the slave as having their justified place in the polis. There are virtues appropriate to every station in life.

F.H. Bradley passionately defended this Aristotelian idea of virtues appropriate to one's station in his essay, 'My Station and Its Duties' (in Ethical Studies, first published in 1876). However, the clearest expression of Bradley's recognition that the possibilities of human life span a continuous range from pure 'self-assertion' to pure 'self-sacrifice' occurs in his metaphysical treatise Appearance and Reality (2nd edition 1897, pp. 414-429).

This is the core of my case. All human values ultimately involve reference to 'the other'. No man is an island. That doesn't mean we all have to be eager do-gooders. It is one of the fundamental existential choices which human beings face, where exactly we exist on the continuum between self-assertion and self-sacrifice. Nietzschean will to power is vitally important, but so is Humean sympathy. As the Jewish Talmud reminds the faithful, whatever your life plan, do not forget to make necessary provision for 'the widow and the orphan'.

Ayn Rand hated the idea that others less fortunate than ourselves have the right to demand our aid. Yet all the developed countries accept this basic principle. Yes, of course, there is self-interest involved, it is not pure altruism. But the point I am arguing is that no-one is purely altruistic or purely selfish. We have the right to assert ourselves, the right to personal integrity. We don't have the right to shut our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, or the pleas of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Geoffrey Klempner


(61) Malcolm asked:

H.I. Menckem describes Nietzsche's thought as 'a thorough going empiricism', 'the work of an utter and unquestioning materialist'.

What does he mean by this?


Nietzsche arguably sought to attribute a persons values to their physiology which is constituted by drives which are in turn, will to power. When he wrote that God is Dead, this is more than hyperbole. God represented the keystone to metaphysical thinking. Remove the keystone and the edifice collapses. For Nietzsche, there is no need to posit a metaphysical realm existing somewhere beyond the world of appearance. This refutes any existence of the soul, of an essence, of God and gods. So ontologically, Nietzsche is a materialist although he qualifies this. It is not a matter of empiricism is the guise of John Locke where knowledge arises from perceptual experience. Nietzsche also emphasises the importance of values and schematic valuations in determining perception. The paradigm of already mentioned metaphysics for example, determined how people viewed and valued the world and universe for nearly two thousand years. So although not a simple empiricist, I would say Nietzsche could be described as a Materialist.

Nietzsche's materialism is further qualified. See Beyond Good and Evil, # 12 and his references to materialist atomism.

Martin Jenkins


(62) Richard asked:

The Secret You, BBC TV

There appears to be an experiment to show 'self awareness' in people and animals. The fact that an infant can identify a mirror image with himself, no doubt indicates self awareness. But that a younger child does not identify the image can hardly be taken as a lack of self awareness. It merely shows a lack of mental agility. I would lay any bet that a young infant is quite self aware, as are most animals. The only experiment to prove self awareness in animals must surely be that of proving their reactions to pain is real and not mechanical.

Then the fundamental question of what 'I am' or how a person has self knowledge and sensation of self, rather than acting as a machine. Is this a question that cannot possibly be answered. Most questions relate to what we perceive outside ourselves, and how they relate together and can be measured, as objects of perception, but a question by a person about his own identity has nothing to relate to since we cannot identify with any other ego other than by inferring that they exist.


It is very easy to lose your way in idle speculation when thinking about these things. The fact is that the idea of 'self awareness' is not a well defined idea. The TV programme was attempting to give it a more precise scientific definition but no one is forced to accept that.

However your statement 'I would lay a bet ...' is nonsense. How are we supposed to resolve your bet and decide if it is true or false. Suppose I say 'I am willing to bet that every child has a full knowledge of mathematics and the child's inability to do arithmetic merely shows a lack of mental agility'. Isn't this just nonsense?. If the child can't do arithmetic it has no knowledge of mathematics. If the child cannot show signs of self awareness, it has no self awareness. It is not clear to me how a person can act as a machine. People can certainly act without being aware of what they are doing but that is not the same as acting like a machine. I suppose reflex actions are as close as a human can get to acting like a machine.

Some animals are self aware, some are not. For example chimpanzees can develop the ability to hide what they are doing from other chimpanzees. They have an awareness of what the other chimpanzee can see. Lions show no such ability. A lion will crouch down when hunting to hide itself in the long grass. However a lion will crouch down even if there is no long grass. This is part of its instinctive hunting behaviour. A chimpanzee that wants to hide would never make this mistake. It knows that it has to have something to hide behind and in this respect it shows a much greater self awareness (i.e a knowledge of itself as an object occupying a particular part of space) than a lion ever can. However self awareness is a question of degree. It is not an all or nothing thing.

However any questions that cannot possibly be answered cannot be of any interest to us as human beings.

Shaun Williamson


(63) Cyrstal asked:

Do all people have a conscience?


Having a conscience is, let us say, feeling the pull of what one ought and ought not to do. But there are dangers in thinking of the conscience as a kind of 'moral faculty'.

Psychology 'experts' say 'no, some people don't have a conscience', any they confidently label these people 'psychopaths', making them out to be quite a different species from the ordinary human being.

But how they can possibly tell the difference between a man who cannot hear the voice of conscience and one who willfully does not hear the voice of conscience, I have no idea. Indeed by practice it might be possible to quieten and exclude the voice of conscience, but what of that? Perhaps these 'experts' have some special device for seeing into the subject's soul. More likely, they have some findings from a brain scanner that can somehow be made to fit a theory that teeters on the idiot edge of phrenology. An absence of activity in the 'woodworking area of the brain' would not indicate that one cannot work wood, only that one isn't presently doing it, and I fail to see how an absence of results from the 'conscience area of the brain' could be any different. If we say that someone's conscience has been undeveloped, or has withered to nothing, this may well be a failure for which that person is responsible, as they might be responsible for a failure to exercise. If you prefer to watch movies and eat crisps all day you are responsible for your own obesity. If you decide to indulge your taste for blood and guts, you participate in your own dehumanisation. If you get into the habit of lying to women in order to get you way, you might not hear the voice of conscience, but that may well be as a result of your own efforts.

You will surmise that I detest the baseless confidence with which psychopathy is identified as a biological rather than moral condition by 'experts' who have, in fact, no access to the facts beyond what we all have. Their 'expertise' essentially consists in purveying a postulated metaphysics according to which morality is a limited area of human life in the way that woodworking is, such that one can fail to have the talent or faculty for morality just as for woodworking. But this postulated metaphysic is doubly mistaken. For one, morality is not a limited area of human endeavour but embraces the whole of it. (Plato: everything is understood in the light of the Good). For another, in any case we do not automatically treat lack of skill in woodworking as the absence of a 'faculty'.

Why do people pay so much attention to that postulated metaphysic then? Principally because the modern world is programmed to defer to anyone who declares themselves a 'scientist', and talk of 'areas of the brain' is calculated to press that button. Remember the respect mistakenly given to Freud's theories of psychology on account of his self-description as scientist. The comparison is apt. Talk of psychopathy as the inborn absence of a moral faculty has about as much basis in empirical observation as the claim that female psychology is dominated by 'penis envy'. These are merely pictures in which, for reasons akin to religion, some persons choose to put their odd faith. The attraction of the 'moral faculty' picture is that fits the dominant larger picture according to which value is a special kind of thing apart from fact, a special kind of thing with it's own organ of discernment. Every part of this picture is wrong.

David Robjant


(64) Matt asked:

If one is not certain of something, should they withhold judgement and simply attempt to be pragmatic?

I.e. I'm not certain that leaving my house today will result in my death but I can't stay inside my entire life due to a possible factor with low probability, thus it would be pragmatic to go outside when needed barring no other factors.

Actually, if one isn't certain of anything would we gain more peace of mind simply by withholding judgement about everything and living life in whatever manner was the most beneficial for ourselves?


I recognize Matt's last remark as a version of a doctrine held the Ancient Greek skeptic Pyrrho, the doctrine of ataraxia. There's a nice quote in the Wikipedia article:

By suspending judgment, by confining oneself to phenomena or objects as they appear, and by asserting nothing definite as to how they really are, one can escape the perplexities of life and attain an imperturbable peace of mind.

(I can't tell from the context whether the quote is meant to be from Pyrrho's pupil Timon of Phlius or the book by Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Come on Wikipedia!)

Note Pyrrho's distinction between 'phenomena or objects as they appear' and the question 'how they really are'. If you and I see twinkly white dots in the night sky, that isn't a matter upon which arguments can be put for or against. It is a given. Even if I have no idea what the white dots are, I can be certain about what I am experiencing now. Whereas my judgement, 'The earth is round', or 'The moon is thousands of miles away' could conceivably be false, consistently with my experience. As soon as you try to state how things 'really are' you run up against the problem of how to extend knowledge through inference. The case can be made for a flat earth, or the moon hovering a few miles off the ground, however implausible you might consider that case to be. If no argument is absolutely irresistable, if for every case for there is a case against, then the only reasonable course of action is to suspend judgement. That is Pyrrho's position.

In Ancient Greece, it might not have made any practical difference whether the earth was round or flat, but one could not say that today. It is no longer possible for human beings to inhabit a 'world of appearance'. Too many of the things which are an essential part of our lives depend on layer upon layer of scientific knowledge. Science is part of common sense. You can of course pretend to be a savage and regard computers, motor cars and toasters as working 'by magic', but that would just be a pretence. Whereas if a motor car was transported in a time machine to Ancient Greece, there could be genuine, rational disagreement over the theory that a car engine derives its power from internal combustion.

What would be the equivalent of Pyrrho's ataraxia today? Matt offers a possible solution: concerning the things beyond our present experience, the appropriate attitude is pragmatic.

'Leaving my house today' is actually a loaded example. No-one knows what the future holds. That I might be killed in a freak accident on my way home is not something concerning which I have any reason to be certain or doubtful. Freak accidents do happen, just as people do win the lottery. The thought, 'it will never happen to me' does perfectly well as a pragmatic attitude, but as Matt notes, pragmatism isn't the same as certainty.

By contrast, if I fill my car petrol tank up with water, or plug the toaster into the telephone socket, then I can be certain that the result will be a non-functioning car or non-functioning toaster. To have this kind of certainty you need basic knowledge of how things work.

(I've just remembered a scam from the 1930's: if you add a test tube of acetone to a petrol can full of water, the mixture will run a car. The 'miracle fuel' which cash strapped motorists queued up to buy had only one drawback: it destroyed the engine after a few miles.)

In my answer to Demetreus I argued against the 'lazy' view in epistemology that knowledge doesn't require certainty. To be the one who knows about some particular question or topic is to have authority as one whose testimony is to be trusted. If you are not certain of the truth of your belief, then you should not state your belief as a fact, at least, not without qualification (as in, 'I think there are buses running today, but I can't be sure').

The difficulty with Matt's position is that he is, in effect, giving up on knowledge. Pragmatism will do in a situation where knowledge cannot be obtained, where we are not in a position to be, or justified in being certain. The temptation is to 'play it safe' and take the Pyrrhonian view that certainty is not to be had about anything. But we need certainty about lots of things. I need to be certain that pouring water (or diesel) into the petrol tank of my car will stop the engine from working, or that the wheels will not fall of as I'm driving along.

We need certainty, not only for immediate practical purposes but because others rely on the statements we make. To give up on certainty is to give up on the authority to make statements about matters of fact. The only consistent Pyrrhonian stance — as critics of scepticism understood — is one of total silence.

Despite this, there is a sense in which pragmatism is vindicated, by the observation that certainty is itself a practical attitude. I am certain, so long as there are questions you don't ask me, or that don't occur to me (like the trick with the water and acetone). This makes knowledge a 'contextual' notion (as noted in my answer to Demetreus) but that is surely a better outcome than Pyrrhonian scepticism.

In stating that certainty is a practical attitude, or has a pragmatic dimension, I am following Wittgenstein's views as expressed in his work On Certainty, the last book he wrote (and incidentally one of his best). However, the most pungent quote on doubt and certainty comes from Philosophical Investigations:

'But, if you are certain, isn't it that you are shutting your eyes in face of doubt?' — They are shut.

L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.224)

Wittgenstein's target is Descartes, rather than Pyrrho. There are many things concerning which we can conceive or imagine a doubt — for example, Descartes' thought that my world might be dream produced by an 'evil demon', or in the contemporary (and less extreme) version that I might be a prisoner in the Matrix. But to merely conceive or imagine a doubt is not yet to doubt. If I hadn't known about the acetone, I might still have imagined that there 'might be' some substance which, when added in small quantities to water makes it sufficiently combustible to power a car engine, as unlikely as that may seem. Certainty is too robust to be shaken by this kind of imaginary worry.

But it can be shaken, and often is. As we learn more about our world, our previous 'certainties' crumble. — Of course, Pyrrho couldn't have said that, because to learn is to acquire knowledge.

Geoffrey Klempner


(65) James asked:

Do all of our actions have moral dimension(s)?


That depends on what we take the scope of morality to include. Many would consider morality to be mostly concerned with the treatment of others.This can involve actions as seemingly mundane as bumping into someone on a crowded street or as pressing as deciding whether to pull the plug on grandma. Taken together, this gives many of our actions a moral dimension. It is, in other words, difficult not to act morally (or immorally) if we are involved, in one way or another, with other people. We may wonder, however, about those actions that do not affect, or impose themselves on, others. Are the day-to-day actions of a hermit, or of someone like Robinson Crusoe, to be considered to have a moral dimension? If morality is taken to be exclusively concerned with the treatment of others, then the answer to this question would appear to be 'no'. However, there are some theories of morality which also, and some which solely, consider actions done to oneself to be of moral significance. Ancient eudaimonism would appear to be an example of the first, ethical egoism of the second.

Kristian Urstad


(66) Dave asked:

I want to know if there is a name for the sick feeling I get from behaving in a way that I know is harmful to me and others (behaving while knowing it is harmful behavior while i am doing it but doing it nonetheless), is a waste of precious time when I could be doing productive loving things. For example licking the earth as one author put it, spending lots of money on things I don't need or pursuing a relationship that I know will be harmful to me or my kids. I thought the name was poshlust but as I look up this word it does not explain the feeling as most like dread and horror mixed together.


I think the feeling you are talking about is best described as 'beating yourself on the head with a brick' since that seems to be what you are determined to do. Perhaps you need to experience the pain.

Shaun Williamson


(67) Vernon asked:

I know this question has been asked at least once before yet people still seem to use a term I think doesn't make sense.

Does the term 'agree to disagree' make sense? To me there are two problems with the term. The first is the structure of the phrase seems to be contradictory. Secondly, how is it that two can agree to disagree? Wouldn't that in fact remove the argument entirely?


Vernon's question has the air of a paradox: there's nothing philosophers love better than getting their teeth into a good paradox. The problem with viewing the question this way is that it tempts us to think that what we are searching for is a solution, something that would either tame the paradox or, better still, remove it entirely.

Bertrand Russell spent years trying to solve the paradox of 'the class of classes which are not members of themselves'. His solution was the Theory of Types. Various other solutions have been proposed to Russell's Paradox, but each like Russell's has its 'cost'.

Let's see if we can work something similar with Vernon's question:

A1. X and Y agree to disagree.


A2. X agrees with Y.

A3. X disagrees with Y.

A4. Contradiction!

I won't labour the point by offering a version of the mini-analysis which shows that by agreeing to disagree X and Y have 'removed the argument entirely'.

Anyone with a grasp of elementary logic can see the fallacy in the above 'proof'. The term 'X agrees with Y' is not a simple relation like 'X is taller than Y' or 'X is the father of Y'. People don't 'agree' or 'disagree' simpliciter, they agree about some question or topic. Therefore, the correct form of the argument should be:

B1. X and Y agree to disagree.


B2. X and Y agree about P (where P is the statement 'X disagrees with Y').

B3. X and Y disagree about Q (where Q is anything you like).

B4. No contradiction!

If only things could be that simple. Vernon would no doubt be quick to point out that X and Y already know that they are in disagreement. This isn't something they need to agree about because it is patently obvious. What they more or less reluctantly agree to is to let the disagreement stand, or not make any further attempt to resolve it.

Vernon finds difficulty with this idea, and I agree. The difficulty isn't, as Vernon represents it as being, that the statement 'X and Y agree to disagree' is blatantly self-contradictory or meaningless. It's more subtle than that.

In order to take this further, we need to look at some actual examples of 'agreeing to disagree':

'We're not going to resolve our argument, so let's carry on because we've got work to do.'

'Let's call a truce; otherwise, we'll only end up fighting.'

'I think you're wrong, but I'm happy to wait until you discover that for yourself.'

'I don't see why you see things so differently from me, but, frankly, I don't care.'

'I love you, and I value the fact that we hold different beliefs.'

What is interesting here is that in each of these cases there is an extra dimension which we have so far not considered: the question of what is at stake in the disagreement.

1. We can't stand arguing all day if we need to get the job done. That's a good reason for agreeing to disagree provided that the disagreement isn't about how to do the job because then we can't proceed another step until the disagreement is resolved.

2. Other things being equal, human beings should try their best to resolve their disagreements, in the interest of truth. However, there is something worse than failing to agree, and that is going to war over the disagreement.

3. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. But I'm confident that in time you will anyway.

4a. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. However, the issue on which we disagree is unimportant, so I'll let it go.

4b. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. I am not going to try because you are unimportant to me. I couldn't care less what you believe.

5. I care greatly what you believe because your belief is important to you, and you are important to me.

— I'm certainly not claiming to have exhausted the range of possibilities. But already one can see that there is no simple logical structure common to all agreements to disagree.

Some beliefs have practical consequences; amongst these, some are ethical while others are not. But not all beliefs have practical consequences. For those that do not, there remains the 'interest of truth'. If it matters to you that your beliefs are true, then, other things being equal it should also matter to you whether what another person believes is true or false.

Religious beliefs are a different case again, especially when one of the disputants is religious and the other not. Atheists rarely get so worked up about theists as theists get about atheists.

No doubt in many cases, we agree to disagree when we shouldn't, where we should be doing our absolute utmost to reach an agreement because the stakes are so high. Equally, there are cases where we pursue disagreements needlessly, out of a belligerent desire to win the argument at all costs, or intolerance, or plain bigotry.

However, we in danger of losing sight of the problem now because you might well think that it is no big deal that we sometimes have to agree to disagree. In which case it would follow that Vernon is just wrong. But I don't think he is, at least not totally.

The real problem is about ethics. Surely, in ethics the stakes are always too high to allow disputants to agree to disagree. If we disagree about abortion, then one of us is a would-be 'murderer'. Maybe there are things which one holds as personal ethical belief — like vegetarianism — which one doesn't necessarily insist in foisting on everyone else. But even here, there must surely be some discomfort in the acknowledgement that you are prepared to let others indulge in a practice, eating meat, which you do not permit yourself to indulge in because you regard it as ethically wrong.

When I first considered this question, some years ago, I came up with a solution which worked for me at the time, the notion of an 'ethics of dialogue' (see my articles The ethics of dialogue and Ethical dialogue and the limits of tolerance). The idea is that true respect for the other requires that we are prepared to engage in earnest dialogue and debate, but also, for the very same reason, that we are prepared to accept the fact that arguments are not always resolved.

I still hold this: but I now see immense problems. The more seriously you enter into dialogue, the harder it is to accept failure to reach agreement. This looks like a real paradox: surely, agreeing to disagree means you're not taking the argument seriously enough? What is dialogue anyway, if it is not just two persons vehemently stating their own case, i.e. talking past one another?

Or maybe this should be seen as not 'agreeing to disagree' but rather the tragic acknowledgement of our human-all-too-human failings? — You can't agree to something like this, you can only sorrowfully accept.

Geoffrey Klempner


(68) Francine asked:

My teacher gave us this question for homework. I'm at a loss...

1. But even the West is thought regionally as the Occident in contrast to the Orient, not merely as Europe, but rather as world historically out of nearness to the source. We have scarcely begun to think of the mysterious relations to the East that found expression in Holderin's poetry. German is not spoken to the world so that the world might be reformed through German essence; rather, it is spoken to the Germans so that from a fateful belongingness to the nations they might become world historical along with them. The homeland of this historical dwelling is nearness to Being. (Basic Writings of Heidegger) p. 242

What does Heidegger mean by nearness to the source? What does he mean by World historical and Homeland as the historical dwelling.? What is Heidegger's overall insight in this statement?


By nearness to the source, Heidegger means Being. Being is the source of all that is. Although the appreciation of Being was felt by the pre-socratic Greeks, subsequent Western Thinking obscured the source of Being. In fact, our modern society stands in the forgetfulness of Being, it has forgotten and closed itself off from the solicitations of Being. Heidegger believed that his reading of the poetry of Holderlin again brings humans near to the source of Being which they had forgotten and fallen away from. How did this falling away from Being occur?

Greek and Roman

The pre-socratics appreciated Being without trying to capture it in representational, conceptual thought or definitive, substantive linguistic description. All that can be said is that it is there and it gives. It discloses itself [Aletheia] in the gathering [Legein]of beings. The Greeks were aware of Being all around them without needing to be conceptually or representationally aware. Being was unthematised, unappropriated, unconceptualised. There was a relation of immediacy of each to all in the gathering. Enter Plato and Aristotle. Their philosophies were based on the view that the structure of things is akin to the structure of products or artefacts. Things have to be understood conceptually. In being so understood, they can be operationally used and exploited. Hence philosophy becomes the attempt to understand beings. In so understanding, reality is captured, controlled and exploited. The gathering [Legein] of Being becomes the conceptualisation [Logos] of beings. Note the trajectory away from Being to a conceptualisation of it under Ancient Philosophy. The fall away from Being marked by Ancient Philosophy destined the historical trajectory of the West. This event is still before us in the way we view ourselves, others and the universe around us.

Ancient Greek Philosophical Thinking provided the framework for European Thinking. Greek concepts are modified by Latin concepts. Logos becomes Truth [Veritas, verum]. A things truth is its correctness for use.

This Roman stamp on the essence of truth provides the foundation for the Occidental conception of it for the next 2,000 years.

Theology and Metaphysics

Christian and Islamic Theologians invoked the works of Plato and Aristotle to build a metaphysical-theology which emerged in the Holy Roman Empire and shaped, determined Western, European Thought and Thinking. The nature and purpose of phenomena are material, formal, efficient existing in a hierarchy towards and determined by the First Cause which is God the Creator. What is real is created and produced and restricted to its correct purpose. Human beings, as the crown of the created, have dominion over the world and all that is in it. They can use and exploit the content of the world. Gaining understanding or Knowledge about the world further enables such mastery to a greater degree. God the creator and controller allows an anthropocentric thinking so that humanity becomes the creator and controller.

The metaphysical mapping of the world into Aristotelian substance, form, matter and potentiality on an a-priori foundation destined the mathematical mapping of phenomena. Witness the works of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Their metaphysics lent towards natural philosophy from which modern science emerged. With Spinoza, beings have been categorised and cognised in accordance with geometrical method and order. The movement of beings are a matter of motion and rest of simple particles. God ceases to be an external first cause, creating the universe becoming an impersonal immanent cause before finally becoming superfluous. Thinking within metaphysics, thought is lending itself towards the mathematical, scientific way of thinking of the world.

Science and Technology

Natural Philosophy splits away from metaphysics and develops into Science. Science wants to know how things work. Note the cold instrumentalist approach here. Beings are to be made transparent and accountable to human understanding so as to be made pliable for human utility. Only thus will they have value. Technology aids this, it wants everything to function on a means/end instrumentalist basis. The world and beings in it are perceived as resources to be used and exploited. Technology dominates the world. Ostensibly opposed social systems whether Communist or Capitalist or indeed National Socialist — the regime Heidegger was living in — perpetuate the technological framework of viewing and valuing beings in the world.


Like Nietzsche, Holderlin was held up by the National Socialists as epitomising the Germanic essence. Heidegger interpreted them in a manner that did not favour this view. He believed that by closely reading the poems of Holderlin, he could perceive the 'saving power' which would contest the dominance of the technological world-view. Holderlin's Poetry opens up or rather discloses [Aletheia] ways of hinting at Being by thinking differently. In this sense, German is not spoken to the world so it might become German but, through Heidegger's analyses of German poetry, its saving power will contest the historical destining of the West — manifested in its fallenness away from Being cumulating in the Technologist world-view, a fallenness originating in Ancient Greek Philosophy.

A different destiny of the world can be announced that is attentive to the mystery of Being. A different destiny of the World could therefore, be followed. Language is the homeland of Being, different approaches to Being other than the technological one need to be found in this dwelling. If not, the catastrophe of technological domination will ensue [ecological issues? Nuclear Warfare?] Eastern Philosophy holds open a different relation to Being as it has not followed the trajectory of Western Thinking. Like Eastern Thinking, the poetry of Holderlin points towards the non-appropriative, non-objectifying, non-conceptualising relation with Being last appreciated by the pre-socratic philosophers. The opportunity of attending to Holderlin's poetry is as near to the source of Being as the failure of not attending to it is distant.

Hope this helps you Francine.

Martin Jenkins


(69) Amber asked:

What is it in us that yearns for answers to things that are beyond the scope of everyday life? How does this drive influence the imagination of the artist to create works of individual distinction?

If the universe is all that exists, and yet is expanding constantly what is it expanding into? What is the source or location of the void the universe is expanding toward?


A theologian would likely say that it is the Holy Spirit; but that hardly explains. My own view is that evolution is a process of slowly increasing complexity, an anti-entropic process, and we as a part of the evolutionary process, have a need to contribute to this process. Those who are good at this we call geniuses, and their activity we call creativity

As to your second question, the expansion of the Universe is not expansion into space, it is space itself expanding. This space is part of the Universe, rather than something that the Universe is in. And the expansion is not towards the void, because the void is literally nothing and you cannot expand towards nothing. It's puzzling, I know. But all of space is all of space so cannot be in another larger space. Some people believe because of this that space must be infinite, but in my opinion the concept of infinity is a cop-out word, invented for situations where we do not know the limits of something (just as chance is a cop-out word, invented for when we do not know the causes of something).

Helier Robinson

(70) Mary asked:

What fact makes it the case that you don't experience other people's experiences?


There are no facts that make it the case that you don't experience other people's experiences. It is simply a question of the grammar of our language. Anything you experience is by definition your experience and not my experience. I can have the same experience as you e.g. I can feel seasick and you can feel seasick but your seasickness is not my seasickness. In our language we don't attach any particular interpretation to sentences such as 'John experienced Jack's seasickness'.

One of the chief mistakes that we make in philosophy is to interpret rules of grammar as peculiar facts about the world.

Shaun Williamson


(71) Jimmy asked:

Imaginary vs. Reality

If we define reality as everything we can perceive with our senses, what are the things we perceive in our imaginations?

To give an example, if I imagine a dragon behind me so well that I can feel its scales or hear its breath, does that mean that when I open my eyes there WILL be a dragon behind me?


If you can feel its scales or hear its breath then you are perceiving it with two of your senses, in which case it is real according to your definition of reality. On the other hand we do want to say that much of what we can imagine (or think, if it is abstract) does exist even though we cannot perceive it: electrons, for example, or minds other that one's own, or the interior of the Sun. In fact, there are three usual definitions of reality in philosophy: reality is (i) all that exists independently of whether it is perceived or not; (ii) all that we perceive around us, provided that it is not illusory and is potentially, universally, public; and (iii) that which makes true propositions true. For common sense, and for many philosophers, these are all more or less equivalent; but it is instructive to try denying one of them and seeing how it affects the other two.

Helier Robinson


(72) Tev asked:

To what does Nietzsche compare truth, and what is the meaning of his comparison?

Malcolm asked:

Why is Nietzsche open to so many interpretations or misinterpretations?


This takes me back. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a cafe opposite the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London in 1982. Each table had an inlaid chess board, but I hadn't come to play chess. In my coat pocket was a newly purchased copy of Walter Kaufmann's translation of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. A month or two before, I had been awarded my D.Phil. And I hadn't even read Nietzsche. What an admission!

I opened the chubby paperback at the Preface, and this is what I read:

Supposing truth is a woman — what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman's heart? What is certain is that she has not allowed herself to be won — and today every kind of dogmatism is left standing dispirited and discouraged. If it is left standing at all! For there are scoffers who claim that it has fallen, that all dogmatism lies on the ground — even more, that all dogmatism is dying.

Speaking seriously, there are good reasons why all philosophical dogmatizing, however solemn and definitive its airs used to be, may nevertheless have been no more than a noble childishness and tyronism. And perhaps the time is at hand when it will be comprehended again and again how little used to be sufficient to furnish the cornerstone for such sublime and unconditional philosophers' edifices as the dogmatists have built so far: any old popular superstition from time immemorial (like the soul superstition which, in the form of the subject and ego superstition, has not even yet ceased to do mischief); some play on words perhaps, a seduction by grammar, or an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.

F. Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil W. Kaufmann Tr., Preface)

This was incredible. Nietzsche was talking to me, he had written this for me. A hundred years separated us, yet here he was sitting at my table, fixing me with his glassy eyed stare.

My thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning was a critique of the 'realism vs. anti-realism' debate in the philosophy of language, focusing on what I termed the 'ego illusion' and the 'truth illusion'. I agreed with Michael Dummett — and Kant, and (as it turned out) Nietzsche — that there is no 'direct route' to metaphysical knowledge as the dogmatists, or 'transcendent metaphysicians' believed.

But I was equally sceptical of the analytic philosopher's attempt to distil metaphysical conclusions from the analysis of language, or, in Dummett's terms, 'an account of the form of a theory of meaning'. To me, that was just another form of dogmatism.

Philosophers are never so happy as when they have a 'method' for solving a problem. I suppose the equivalent in seduction techniques would be the kind of book you see advertised on the internet, 'Six fail-safe methods for winning a woman.' (I mean, if they are fail-safe, why do you need six? Wouldn't one be enough?)

My hero was a philosopher of an altogether different calibre, Wittgenstein, who understood well what it was like to 'try to untangle a spider's web with one's fingers', that the only way to make real progress is through patient philosophical therapy applied to the various things we are tempted to say, that turn out to be so much nonsense. Or what I called, rather crudely and impatiently, 'negative dialectic'.

The irony is that Dummett's arguments for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning' were, so he claimed, inspired by Wittgenstein's account of 'meaning as use'. Well, you've got to try, haven't you?

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein are masters of a philosophical style which has become known as indirect discourse. To pull this off, you need special literary gifts, as well as a finely tuned sense of irony. These are philosophers who deliberately risk being misunderstood, because correcting your misunderstanding is a necessary part of the learning process. (I can understand, though I don't altogether agree with the view that there is more real philosophy going on in English departments these days.)

The question is, putting aside the rhetoric, is there such a thing as truth in philosophy? Is truth something which philosophers can attain if we give up brute force and heroic full frontal assaults, and become seducers (Kierkegaard's term) teasing out the truth with tact and patience?

But that's forgetting that Nietzsche is an ironist, and he is being ironic in this passage. The similarity to Kant's description of Metaphysics, in the Preface to the 1st Edition of Critique of Pure Reason, as erstwhile 'Queen of the Sciences' now a 'matron outcast', is too obvious. Nietzsche is 'doing a Kant', and he's doing it tongue in cheek. There will be no grand critique, no systematic drawing of the limits of human reason, no method.

But will there be truth? Did Nietzsche, tragically unsuccessful in his attempt to woo the only woman to capture his heart, Lou Salomé (see Matthew Del Nevo, 'Lou Salomé and Nietzsche' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 148) seriously think he was up to the task of attaining truth? Or is he trying to tell us that the very idea of 'pursuing the truth' as philosophers have thought of themselves as doing, is in some sense absurd?

Nietzsche is no mere relativist. He saw nihilism as the greatest threat. Yet the last thing he would have claimed is to have discovered 'the truth'. Each time you circle round the problem, you tease out different aspects, gain new perspectives. And this process is itself done for a purpose, that is to say, ultimately a practical purpose. To know 'the truth' as such is not, for Nietzsche, a credible or even intelligible aim for the philosopher.

In his 1880's Notebooks, published posthumously as The Will to Power, Nietzsche states more than once, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' With this, you can seemingly get away with saying anything. 'I'm not stating my view as a fact, just an (or my) interpretation!' Is the interpretation meant to be valid? or merely a subjective report on the way you happen to see things? Anyone who has read Nietzsche and felt the urge to say, 'Yes!' to an insight or observation would find it disconcerting, at best, to be told that the thing they said 'yes' to wasn't meant to be true.

There are many truths, many partial interpretations, like pieces of a jig-saw. As with a partially assembled jig-saw, you kind-of get to see the big picture, but it is ambiguous, like the 'duck-rabbit' illusion. One moment, you see it this way, then you see it that way. But there is still something to see. Nietzsche evidently thought so. He was gripped by the urge to communicate his vision. The last thing Nietzsche wanted was for his readers to give up on truth.

Some time in the late 80's, I stopped thinking of the thing I'd called in my thesis the 'ego illusion' as an illusion. If something is an illusion, that implies a way of seeing things from a non-illuded perspective. But in the case of 'I', that can never be (unless you are God, but then, as I argue in Naive Metaphysics, God can't see the 'I-ness of I' either). I don't even know if it's true to say that I changed my mind. Am I just looking at things from a different viewpoint? Do I now have the truth? Was my previous view false, or only partially true? — I found another jig-saw piece, that's all.

Geoffrey Klempner


(73) Matthew asked:

Is extortion/blackmail morally wrong? Are consequences extortion? Are laws?

Can consequences be considered extortion/blackmail?

To me blackmail/extortion is hanging the threat of something over another persons head.

I.e. If you don't do such and such for us, the oil companies, we will not give you money for your political advancement.

The person being extorted is offered the choice between obeying someone else's wishes, or suffering the consequences.

It would seem that although I offered you a morally shady example there, that laws are constructed in exactly the same manner that extortion/ blackmail is.... [...].


What nonsense.

You could start by acknowledging that blackmail is a very different case from extortion. If the Inland Revenue (IRS) started ringing you up and telling you to pay your taxes or it will publicise what you are looking at online or who you went to bed with last week, that would be blackmail. But they don't do that, so far as I know, so the supposed parallel between taxation and blackmail doesn't exist.

Now, about extortion.

It has been an old theme of individualist political philosophy that the state, any state, is a tyrant extracting resources from the people by force. Now, when the state actually is run by a tyrant (George III, Saddham Hussein), and the consequences of non-payment may include arbitrary confiscations and even death, the argument has a point to it. The trouble is that George III is no longer king, and the only person you will cheat by non-payment of your taxes is your neighbour who, like you, also uses the services paid for out of taxes (security, sanitation, roads, etc), but has to pay twice as much because of your non-payment. And if you don't like how your taxes are spent, you have a legitimate redress, through the ballot box. George III, as I earlier pointed out, is dead.

True enough, your payment for services rendered by the state is not like purchase of a MP4 file, in as much as it is not allowed to refuse the offering and decline payment. Your claim is that if taxation isn't like an ordinary shop transaction, then it must be extortion. This does just not follow, as a simple counter example shout suffice to establish.

The exchanges of love and affection, or for that matter of hate and resentment, that go on between parents and children are not, most of them, like ordinary shop transactions. But neither are they cases of extortion, either. Mum does not extort baby to kiss her. Consequences there would be, should it ever come to abandonment. But it hardly follows that all families exist only for fear of the lawyers.

I do not mean that inhabiting a civilised society is in all respects like being a member of a family, though plainly the image is a pregnant one in all kinds of ways: a situation of forced co-dependence that we are born into, where rights and responsibilities are redistributed as we develop into different roles. To head off the worst uses of the metaphor, we can do without the picture of the state as a patriarchal family with a Leader to whom loyalty is due.

All I claim for the image of the state as a family is that family relationships are relationships which are neither those of commercial exchange, nor those of extortion.

This suffices to show that your simple dichotomy, according to which our relations with others must either be fair exchange or extortion, is plainly false. With that demonstration, your argument falls.

David Robjant


(74) Ade asked:

I was just wondering, is there a certain type of qualification I would need to be a philosopher? Being a student of Psychology can I still write a book about religion based on previous philosophical analysis? Will that make me a philosopher in psychology of religion?


In general to consider yourself to be a psychologist you need a degree qualification in psychology from a recognised University. Philosophy is no different to psychology or any other academic subject.

Of course having a degree in philosophy doesn't make you a good philosopher but at least it shows that you have done a sufficient amount of study of the subject.

If you are going to write a book about religion then having a degree in theology will also help other people to take you seriously.

In the end you are entitled to write any book you want to write but you cannot necessarily expect other people to take it seriously, if it is obvious that you do not have any qualifications in the subject area that you are writing about.

Some people think that anyone can become a philosopher just by thinking about things, that is a mistake.

Shaun Williamson


(75) David asked:

Panic in the middle of sleeping. I freak out because I know that I could die in my sleep and I would have never known that there was such as thing as existence. The scariest part, the most frightening, the worst thing in the world, is that one day, maybe not in my sleep, it will happen.

I wonder about the last image of earth. I'm not religious, so I don't believe that I am going anywhere after death. I always find corners and odd places that people don't visit and think, What if this place was the last thing that I saw? What if the last thing that I witness during my short lifetime is a KFC bowl? What if I die at the DMV?

It doesn't matter really. There hasn't been proof positive of an afterlife, so realistically none of this matters. And you if believe that your memory continues through family and lineage, I'm sorry to bum you out but at some point existence/ space as we know it will fold in on itself taking everything with it. For some damned reason I always think about Bob Dylan when I think of everything disappearing. I think about how touching his lyrics are and in the end, it will be as if his voice, and those words never existed.

I try to force myself to not think about the end of existence, but it is creeping. Life is short. Life is so god damned short.

My girlfriend of many years has said that I am morbid. She can see my face change, and its usually during moments of happiness that I understand the cruelty of the gift of consciousness. It is other people's lives that depress me even more than my own. To look upon a face of a someone you love and know that they are destined for the graveyard is an adult harsh realization.

I wish that we were all going to another place afterwards. I wish that we could all share a drink when we get there, but there is no escaping it.


David's articulate question has prompted me to think again about my views on the fear of death (see my 1993 paper Is it Rational to Fear Death?). I said then:

Whether logical thinking is capable of altering one's attitude to death is a test — perhaps the ultimate test — of the practical relevance of philosophy.

But is that all the philosopher is called upon to do: think logically about the topic in question? I'm recalling Lou Salomé's remark about Nietzsche, the first modern psychologist: 'The will of the times transformed the exactitude of logic into a psychology with its own exactitude' (quoted in Matthew Del Nevo 'Lou Salome and Nietzsche' Philosophy Pathways Issue 148).

Salome, who went on to inspire Freud at the very beginning of his explorations in psychoanalysis, is talking about something that Nietzsche achieved, in his writing, which we recognize today as bearing the hallmark of the psychodynamic method; the relentless and exact exploration of human motivation and feelings, our acknowledged and unacknowledged sense of who and what we are.

I'm not qualified to do that. Actually, I don't want to know too much about what goes on 'down there', not out of fear but rather the sneaking suspicion that, like so much else in the wide world of knowledge, once you see the facts for what they are, all you can say (in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song) is, 'Is that all there is?'

Is that all there is — to my subconscious? I'd rather not know. (Or, if you insist, tell me later.)

Freud had much to say about the fear of death (read Freud's later writings, or, possibly better, Norman O. Brown's blockbuster Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History 1959). Enough to convince me (if I hadn't already been convinced) not to take the 'fear of death' at face value.

From a logical perspective, death isn't like the things we fear, such as necrotizing fasciitis or funnelweb spiders. We fear these things, in part, because they are deadly. Death isn't 'deadly'. Death is death. But that's just a tautology. It says nothing. Epicurus has the perfect retort to someone who fears the approach of death: 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.' Death isn't like a funnelweb spider; it doesn't 'sting'.

But I suspect David knows, or half-knows this. What keeps him awake at night is not so much the fearful thought that 'death may happen', as the realization of human finitude: the eternal nothingness that exists beyond my life, beyond human history, beyond the history of the universe.

There are various logical responses to this, some of which I explored in my paper:

You wouldn't want to live forever. Bernard Williams in his article, 'Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' (Problems of the Self 1973) offers a brilliant exposition of the main theme of Carel Capek's play (also known as The Makropoulos Affair), depicting the unbearable tedium of immortality. The 1992 film comedy Death Becomes Her (Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn) mercilessly pulls apart our naive and sentimental views about 'living forever' (although in this case, with bodies that can be worn and damaged, the result is more like a living death).

Suppose you die, and then in David's words, you 'go for a drink afterwards'. After the drink, then what? More life, then another drink (or two)? Wouldn't you run out of things to do? Repeated ad infinitum, wouldn't every conceivable human activity eventually become a total bore?

There's a kind of cheating answer to this: as life goes on, imagine that your memories fade further into the distance and eventually disappear. By the time you come round to learning how to water ski for the 88th time, you have forgotten the 87 times you learned to water ski in the past.

The problem with this is that there are some memories we just want to lose. To let go of these is to lose a part of you. It's a kind of death, only a death encroaching from behind, a death that perpetually stalks you as you live. But, at least, there would never come a point where you had to face death. Is that enough? I'm not sure it is.

The very fact that you have lived is an eternal fact. We can say the same of the universe itself: the fact that the universe has existed, is an eternal fact. (This idea is explored eloquently in Richard Schain's article, 'The Pointillist Canvas of Eternity' Philosophy Pathways Issue 79). In a similar vein, Wittgenstein remarks in the Tractatus, 'If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present' (6.4311). Nietzsche's doctrine of the 'eternal recurrence' (beautifully expounded at the end of the 2001 film K-Pax, by Kevin Spacey as the alien visitor K-Pax) offers a materialistic reading of the same metaphysical theme: you will live the same finite life over and over, and all your joys and sorrows, your triumphs as well as your disastrous mistakes, will be repeated ad infinitum.

But I suspect that David will not find these metaphysical or quasi-metaphysical thoughts reassuring. I don't.

Even less reassuring is my contribution to the debate:

My subjective world, as a reality constituted by its own appearance, only appears to continue; and that appearance itself is something which neither 'continues' nor 'fails to continue', for in itself it is nothing. My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment.

Naive Metaphysics p.120.

As I remark, in Glass House Philosopher Notebook 2, Page 72, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations expresses the same thought but more concretely:

Even if you're going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you're living now, or live another one more than the one you're losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can't lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?

Marcus Aurelius Meditations Gregory Hays tr. London: Phoenix 2004

Problem is, this only works (if at all, a big 'if') on the assumption that your worry is simply about losing your life. Aurelius' remark has no effect on the problem of human finitude as such, or indeed the finitude of the universe.

That just about exhausts the logical responses. It was the death of my mother in 1991 that first prompted me to explore the question of the fear of death. That was the first time I really became aware that I was going to die, that death wasn't just some abstract concept. My father died in 1998. My wife died earlier this year, in March. With June's death I feel in a strange way that I have been finally set free.

I suspect that the real answer to David's question, if there is one, must come from psychology. The fearful idea that eventually we will lose not only our own selves but the universe and all values that have ever existed is an abstract representation of the infant's fear of loss — the infant in all of us. That's why some find religion so comforting. For those, like David, like myself, who must live without the consolations of religion there is no simple remedy. But sometimes the passage of time itself supplies the cure.

Geoffrey Klempner


(76) Tev asked:

'To what does Nietzsche compare truth, and what is the meaning of his comparison?'


Nietzsche argues that something can be considered 'true' insofar as it life-affirming, species-preserving [Beyond Good and Evil #4] Pretty vague on its own. That's why it needs contextualising. Nietzsche found the strictures, prescriptions of Christian religion a fetter on life. Its themes, translated into secular thought of equal rights, democracy and socialism, would 'dumb down' life, opting for comfort and ease. The 'Last Man' described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra symbolises this view. The potentiality of humanity would be smothered. So for Nietzsche, if truth is valued by the degree it facilitates affirmation of life etc, the truth of Christianity is to be challenged by and compared with other 'truths', by other perspectives borne of life, perhaps of a different type of life.

Martin Jenkins


(77) Christina asked:

When is it all right to harm someone according to socrates? what are their justifications of this position? Does socrates believe in a 'just war'


Socrates believes that many of the commonly regarded goods (beauty, health, wealth, etc.), can, when directed by ignorance or vice, actually be harmful for the person who possesses them. A physically healthy burglar or a wealthy terrorist might be examples. Socrates argues that it would actually be better for the burglar and terrorist if they were physically impoverished and poor respectively. This is because, ignorant at base, they don't know how to use their goods in ways that will benefit them, bring them happiness. Socrates characterizes happiness as a kind of harmony of soul. He who is guided by ignorance will misuse his goods, which is to say he will eventually produce in himself an unbalanced or disharmonious soul, a miserable condition to be in.

So, according to Socrates, it appears to be permissible to punish someone when doing so frustrates or diminishes their ability to carry out acts stemming from vice or ignorance. But notice that if this befell them, i.e., some action that frustrated and restricted their ability to carry out their wrongful acts, it would not be regarded by Socrates as harmful to them. Instead, since they would no longer be able to possess or use certain goods in the service of ignorance or vice — and so avoid becoming miserable, he would claim that the punishment is beneficial for them. So consider the case of the wealthy terrorist. Socrates holds that if we were to take away his wealth, or somehow restrict his use of it, that loss or impediment would benefit him, not harm him, as is commonly thought. So the punishment that we exact upon bad people is not only not wrong or unjust, but it is not a harm to them either.

Kristian Urstad


(78) Lucy asked:

I have to write a philosophy essay with the title of; describe and illustrate empiricism.

this is the first philosophy essay I've ever had to write and I don't know how to go about it, can you help me please?


A good beginning is to define empiricism. The word 'empirical' means known through the senses, and empiricism is the belief that only empirical objects are real. Give examples of empirical objects. Question whether empiricism is true, by giving examples on non-empirical (that is, theoretical) objects that we want to say exist even though they cannot be known through the senses, such as minds other than one's own, or the continued existence of empirical objects when no one is perceiving them, or the objects of theoretical science such as energy or electrons.

Helier Robinson


(79) John asked:

If Philosophy is the study of wisdom then why is it studied by so few people?

Could it be that, 'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise'?

Are there political reasons why wisdom should be avoided in the UK in particular?


The serious study of philosophy — as opposed to the recreational or dilettante reading of philosophy books — leads to a kind of understanding and knowledge which has gone under various names, one of which is 'wisdom', although for me the term is a bit to general to convey the special kind of wisdom derived from philosophy.

Who'd want to be wise? The unspoken premise of John's argument is that the wisdom to which the study of philosophy leads is a good thing, something which many persons would want, or are capable of wanting. But as John observes, relatively few actually seek it.

Why is that?

John offers two possible explanations. The first is one I have considered before. The kind of understanding which the philosopher seeks doesn't necessarily make you happy or content. Would you consider taking a course in philosophy if you suspected that it would disrupt your blissful existence? Maybe, maybe not. This is the famous conundrum considered by John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism: Which would you prefer, to be a pig satisfied, or Socrates dissatisfied?

The second explanation, however, is more sinister. Could it be that the political establishment in the United Kingdom has a vested interest in stifling the academic study of philosophy? Last week Lord Mandelson, announcing cuts in UK government funding for universities urged universities to consider two-year rather than three-year degrees, and to offer degrees with a stronger vocational component. Recently, the Department of Philosophy at Liverpool University, where the highly respected Philos-L electronic list is based, narrowly escaped the threat of closure.

The justification for the threatened axe in Liverpool's case was that the Department despite an excellent teaching record failed to meet publication targets. Well, what do you expect if members of staff are encouraged to bury their heads in Augustine and Plotinus rather than pursue the latest exciting developments in cognitive studies and artificial intelligence?

It's a sorry state of affairs. But a sinister plot?

As I read John's question, there is a suggestion that the government prefers to see an electorate dumbed down with iPhones and Facebook. But then again, that's a charged levelled at capitalism generally. The UK is not unique.

There is something else. This country, which has produced great philosophers of the likes of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, has a strangely cool attitude to purely intellectual pursuits. Pursuit of knowledge or wisdom for its own sake is not a bad thing, provided that it is moderated by a healthy dose of common sense. The belief that it can be unhealthy to allow too much concentration on philosophy too young is reflected in the attitude of Oxford University which does not permit undergraduates to pursue a Philosophy as a single BA (you have to take it with Politics and Economics, or Physics, or Psychology and Physiology, or Classics).

I would seriously question the wisdom of pursuing a Philosophy as a single subject BA, especially in the present economic climate. What's the hurry? You will be a better philosopher if you take the time to acquire knowledge in other fields. Which reminds me: the motto of the Pathways PhiloSophos web site is,

Philosophy is for everyone and not just philosophers.

Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.

Yes, philosophy is for everyone. Not everyone has the taste to go into it that deeply. But even those that do, would benefit from combining their philosophical passion with more practical pursuits.

Who am I to say? For the last 14 years, I have supervised the studies of students taking courses at the Pathways School of Philosophy. The vast majority of my students have established careers — in areas as diverse as medicine, IT, business, scientific research, law. My students are highly knowledgeable and highly articulate — a far cry (I'm sorry to have to say) from the typical undergraduate who has gone straight from A-levels onto a BA course.

It is generally accepted that you can't acquire wisdom from study alone. Age and experience have their part to play. To be worldly, and to be knowledgeable about philosophy would be the ideal.

For me, however, it is something else. As I joke to my teenage daughters, 'I dropped out in 1970 and never dropped back in.' I don't own a car (can't afford one), don't go on holiday. I have one pair of shoes (black) because I can't see the point of owning more. I am interested in various things, but these are just distractions in between bouts of philosophizing. I don't have the taste for much else.

Would you want to be like me? Frankly, for most persons, the kind of life I lead is not one that I would recommend. It wouldn't be wise.

Geoffrey Klempner


(80) Marcin asked:

What is the point of being a philosopher? What do you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?


Two responses to this question Marcin. Firstly, there is the pedagogical role. In answering a question, the philosopher hopes to introduce the questioner to one or more possible answers. Answers may stimulate further enquiry from the questioner so that s/her can perform the second role.

The second response is the creative role of the philosopher. To paraphrase Nietzsche: Actual philosophers are commanders and lawgivers, they say 'it shall be'. Their knowing is creating, their creating is willing truth, willing truth is will to power.

The point of being a philosopher is to create values from out of the fabric of being. In answering a question, a particular instance of life in the guise of a human being, provides a valuating perspective or perspectives upon life as requested by the question.

Philosophy is the formulation and establishing of values by which and through which life is lived by human beings. A more concrete example can be found with political philosophy. Karl Marx proclaimed his truth in response to the question 'What Is the Good Society?' Eventually, his answer came to be a living reality for over a third of the planet and millions of people.

Finally, if you disagree with my answer, you will be answering your own question!

Martin Jenkins


(81) Michelle asked:

How do I know the chair is on the table in two words?


Look. See.

Helier Robinson