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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 47 (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 47/1.

(1) Yap asked:

How come the entire world of science is still looking for the answers within the vacuum of a posteriori thought? Surely one can only know the inside of the universe if one' mind is aligned in an a priori manner, along the correct ontology of existence.


Well, Yap, if what you say is true, you'd better not trust any of the current scientific 'knowledge' we have, because it's all a posteriori. And I'll bet you do trust it. I bet you take medication and travel on planes and cross bridges just like everyone else does.

You claim that we could only know about the universe if our minds were somehow aligned with it in an a priori manner. I'm not sure why you would think this: what's wrong with a posteriori investigation, of the kind we all do, all the time, and the kind that forms the basis of the scientific method? Also, it seems really implausible to me to think that such an alignment is even possible — so if you were right, we could never know anything about the nature of the universe at all; it's not like we could replace current scientific method with some other, a priori method.

Admittedly, some metaphysicians think that we can gain knowledge of the nature of reality just by thinking a priori about it. David Hume famously argued that this is impossible. (He urged us to commit such speculative metaphysics to the flames, 'for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion'.) I'm inclined to agree with him. But even if Hume's wrong about metaphysics, not even people who engage in a priori metaphysics think that it's going to get us anywhere with building bridges or planes or understanding physiology or chemistry or cosmology — it's no substitute for a posteriori scientific investigation!

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(2) John asked:

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

Could it be that if ignorance is bliss then tis folly to be wise.

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


I don't agree that philosophy is the study of wisdom. Philosophy is the study of philosophy and by studying philosophy you may arrive at wisdom. However philosophy is a difficult subject and many people who try to study it find it too difficult to understand.

None of this should be surprising, we all have different talents. Not everyone can understand higher mathematics so there is no reason to assume that everyone will be able to understand philosophy.

However if you really want to understand something then you can do so. It is all really a question of determination or lack of determination.

In the UK we have a tradition of admiring people who can ride a horse, shoot straight and play a good game of cricket. We are suspicious of people who read books and think about things. Other countries such as France have a very different attitude to ideas and intellectuals.

Shaun Williamson


(3) Alvin asked:

In the Myth of Sisyphus, I don't quite understand the core concept of absurdity. Camus says that our attempt to find a meaning of life is futile. But it is possible that we make our own isn't it? Roger Federer's meaning of life might be enjoying the best out of tennis and having a great family. Camus also said that we tend to avoid the absurd feeling through the so called 'act of eluding' which manifests itself as hope. Is Federer's meaning of life hope in this case? What is Federer eluding then? What is so unfruitful about this thought, this playing tennis? Isn't this the true meaning of life?


For those not in the know, here is the Federer newsflash from 23 December 2009, courtesy of celebrity-babies.com:

Tennis ace Roger Federer will undoubtedly be checking his list twice this Christmas!

The 28-year-old World No. 1 on Tuesday shared a new family photo via Facebook. Identical twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, 5 months today, are seen sitting contently for Roger and wife Mirka, whom he wed in April.

'Many fans have asked for an updated picture of our girls so we thought we’d post this picture for the holiday season,' Roger writes. 'Our entire family wishes you a safe and happy 2010.'

I am guessing that many, or most persons — including Alvin — faced with the choice of contemplating the absurdity of human existence or being Roger Federer would choose to be Roger Federer. On Alvin's reading, however, Camus would rather contemplate the absurdity of human existence. This is preferable to succumbing to the illusion of hope, eluding the existential question which every human being must ultimately face.

In other words, the case of Roger Federer is (according to Alvin) a reductio ad absurdum of Camus' views on absurdity.

The first thought that occurs to me is, How can Alvin be so sure that Federer hasn't read Camus?

Let's imagine two possible worlds, each very similar to the actual world — in fact, one of them is the actual world, we just don't know which — with two Roger Federers, 'Federer1' and his counterpart 'Federer2'. Federer1 has read Camus, Federer2 has never heard of the French philosopher. Asked whether he thinks life is absurd, Federer2 replies, 'How can my life be absurd? I have my tennis, and my family!' Federer1, on the other hand, says, 'Yeah, I agree. I like to read Camus in the locker room, it helps me focus on my tennis.'

That's not my response to Alvin, merely a rebuttal of the initial charge that the case of Roger Federer makes Camus' claim about the absurd, obviously absurd. It is not obviously absurd. But it might still be false, we have yet to see.

Federer2 doesn't interest us. There are many people like Federer2, crowding the pages of Hello and celebrity-babies.com, but they are of no interest to philosophy. As little interest, in fact, as the many who have never considered the mind-body problem, or the problem of free will, or the challenge of scepticism. I'm not passing judgement. It's a non-issue.

Federer1, on the other hand, looks to be a bit of a challenge. To appreciate, intellectually, the absurdity of existence, the absurdity of every human project, does not require that one feels this, the way a man contemplating suicide might feel it. Federer1 (like Federer2) is justifiably proud of his achievements on the tennis court, as he is of his twin daughters. Life is good. Then what exactly does he get out of reading Camus?

There is a superficial way of understanding this, an impression one might gain from someone like the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. 'Remember at the moment of your greatest glory, that you are destined to die. Your body will on day be dust.' Or words to that effect. It's a thought you don't need to be a philosopher to a appreciate: victorious Roman athletes were crowned with a garland of laurel leaves, as a symbolic reminder of human mortality.

You can accept the fact of death, and with it the realization that everything we achieve will eventually be taken from us — that our beloved children are destined for death, as are their children — without seeing this as making all our efforts and striving absurd. To be limited in time, as all human goods must be, does not take away from their intrinsic value. But Camus is claiming something more. It is not merely the transience of the things we value that concerns him, but the fact that they are only valuable because we value them, and so long as we value them. To value X, or not to value X, is ultimately a matter of each person's existential choice regardless of what X may be.

At this point, you might begin to smell a rat. The dialectic is familiar territory to anyone who has struggled with the problem of scepticism in epistemology. The philosophical sceptic asserts, 'There is no such thing as knowledge,' then outside the philosophy seminar room continues to live as we all do. You wouldn't drive a car if you feared the engine might catch fire. But if you say you don't know that your car is safe to drive, what the hell are you doing getting behind the wheel?

In an similar way, if Federer1 spends three frustrating hours working on a problem with his backhand volley, and you ask, 'Why bother, what's so great about being a tennis champion anyway?' and he replies, 'Sure, I've read my Camus, there's nothing so great about it other than the fact that I choose to care,' then spends another three hours practising the same stroke, we are entitled to ask whether he is being sincere. The effort he puts in is proof that he really does care, not in the way of someone who arbitrarily 'chooses to care' but rather in the way of someone who sees something out there that is objectively worthy of being cared about. We may not necessarily see what he sees, but that is the way with values.

The philosopher/ novelist Iris Murdoch makes much of this point in her short monograph — an excellent introduction to ethics — The Sovereignty of Good. Values, things-to-be-cared-about, are there to be seen, just as Plato held that justice and virtue are not mere human inventions but eternal Forms, of which the philosopher seeks to gain vision and knowledge. Trouble is (as Murdoch well knows) it's not to easy to find philosophers these days willing to defend the literal truth of Plato's Theory of Forms. The point about the objectivity of values is a point about phenomenology rather than ontology. Phenomenology considers how things must necessarily appear to us, regardless of how they might or might not be in reality, supposing that we have some independent grip on what 'reality' is, or is meant to be.

But if it's just phenomenology, then isn't Camus vindicated? Again, one falls back on the parallel with scepticism in epistemology. It's true that the sceptic who wants us to give up the term 'know' risks the charge of insincerity. However, there is a way of saying this — a way of making the point — which doesn't have the absurd consequence that we should all wrap ourselves up in cotton wool, and never risk getting into a car, or even sitting on a chair (which might collapse).

There is a problem with knowledge, just as there is a problem with the idea of objective values. There is a dialectic to explore. Camus' Myth of Sisyphus is a historically essential contribution to that on-going philosophical debate, as well as being an important document in human psychology. But it is not the last word. The debate goes on.

Geoffrey Klempner


(4) Malcolm asked:

Can someone become a genius or is it something you are born with?


I think your question is completely misplaced. What is a genius? MENSA is full of people with genius levels of IQ who never achieve anything. Neither Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso are reputed to have had genius levels of IQ but their achievements are amazing.

The idea of Genius is a lazy media, newspaper construction. If you want to be good at something then you must first be interested in it. Don't sit around waiting for inspiration or waiting to see if you are a genius, decide what you are interested in then try to do something with your interests.

Shaun Williamson


(5) John asked:

Understand the relationship between philosophy and good reasoning


There is no special relationship between the two things. In philosophy we need to use good reasoning but we also need to use good reasoning in mathematics, science and in all other parts of our life.

Logic is concerned with valid arguments and any argument which isn't logically valid is worthless. This applies to all arguments not just the ones that philosophers use.

Philosophers have traditionally been the ones who have studied logic formally and one of the first things you learn when you study logic is that a valid argument is not the same as a good argument. However all good arguments must be logically valid.

Shaun Williamson


(6) Alvin asked:

In the myth of sisyphus, I don't quite understand the core concept of absurdity. Camus says that our attempt to find a meaning of life is futile. But it is possible that we make our own isn't it? (i.e Roger Federer's meaning of life might be enjoying the best out of tennis and have a great family.) Camus also said that we tend to avoid the absurd feeling through the so called 'act of eluding' which manifests itself as hope. Is what federer's meaning of life, hope in this case? What is so unfruitful about this thought, this playing tennis? Isn't this the true meaning of life.


Alvin I will try to explain it as well as I can. In the past a medieval Roger Federer might think he exists because God has placed him on this earth to give glory to God and to make the best use of his tennis talents and to look after his family as well as he can. In this way Roger would be assured that his life has some cosmic significance and this leaves him free to concentrate on the tennis. In fact I don't know if Roger Federer is a Christian but if he is then I am sure that this will be how he thinks.

However the existentialist philosophers, including Camus, start from the point that philosophy has failed to provide a rational foundation for belief in God or any higher power and it has failed to provide a rational foundation for ethics or morality. So for these philosophers we exist in a universe which is empty of significance. Of course we can become a tennis player or a mass murderer or a Nazi but our lives will still have no real point or significance.

Different existentialists had different answers to these problems. Kierkegaard believed that we must make a leap of faith to belief in God. Others such as Sartre emphasised reaching an authentic existence by committing ourselves to a life, although of course it is impossible to say that one sort of life is better than another. Heidegger just became an enthusiastic Nazi and later on Sartre became a Marxist.

Camus alone rejected all these answers, for him they were just attempts to pretend that the problem didn't exist. He accepted that we are alone in an empty morally blank absurd universe.

Camus of course was a footballer, he was the goalkeeper for Algiers City but he didn't think that football gave any meaning to his existence, it was just something that he did.

People often ask 'What is the meaning of life?', Camus's answer to this would always be that life has no meaning.

Shaun Williamson


(7) Andrew asked:

Which philosophers (other than Marx) wrote about the value and conditions of work?


Friedrich Engels wrote 'Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Idealism' and the exposition of Dialectical Materialism in 'Anti-Duhring'. He can qualify as a philosopher. Concerning work and its value, he wrote 'On the Conditions of the Working Class in England'.

Martin Jenkins


(8) lfand asked:

The morality of the moral philosopher

Does a moral philosopher, or a student in moral philosophy as I am, must behave morally, or in a much more moral way than any one else (as a nonphilosopher)?

I look for philosophical and/or literary references on this problem.


Philosophy is not a religion and philosophers aren't priests. Philosophy is about truth but philosophers, even moral philosophers have no special knowledge of good and evil. Moral philosophers can only be judged in the same way as anyone else. Obviously we only hold people guilty of doing something that is wrong if they know that it is wrong. This applies equally to the philosopher and the non-philosopher.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Dee asked:

After doing a self-examination of your moral thinking, about the inconsistencies found in your moral reasoning. For example, you cannot be both a relativist and a proponent of universal moral laws; you cannot be a determinist and also believe in moral responsibility. You don't have to resolve the inconsistencies at this point; merely recognizing them is an important step in the right direction.


Dee you haven't quite asked a question. However I know what you mean and find your post the most intelligent post I have ever seen on this site.

Philosophers are often inconsistent. I know many people who are always telling me that morality is relative (whatever that means) but then show in their own lives that they don't believe any such thing. I know many people who claim to be determinists but then show in their lives that they don't believe that.

Things like determinism are a philosophical problem because they pose deep dilemmas. Even if you believe that determinism is true it is impossible to practice it.

The fact is that the only reason for doing philosophy is to recognise and resolve these deep dilemmas.

Shaun Williamson


(10) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman intro to philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with todays academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book.....to me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of so I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system.If u could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life...


Well you may think that you know what philosophy is, but other people are unlikely to agree with you and it seems that things didn't become so clear to you in your philosophy class. All that became clear is that you want to daydream and avoid hard work. There is nothing wrong with that of course but don't fool yourself into thinking that you have found the one true road to philosophical knowledge, you haven't.

You can only learn what philosophy is by reading philosophy books. You can only learn what medicine is by studying medicine. If you want to avoid all the hard boring work that involves reading books and exposing your thoughts to the criticism of others, then please do so but don't try to fool yourself into thinking that this is doing philosophy, it isn't.

I think that you should write poetry, forget philosophy you don't have the right type of brain for it. Good luck.

Shaun Williamson


(11) Philostudent asked:

A squirrel is on a tree trunk, about 6 feet from the ground. A dog is on the ground on the other side of the tree, aware of the squirrel but unable to see it. The dog runs around the tree several times trying to catch a glimpse of the squirrel, but the squirrel is faster than the dog and always keeps the tree trunk between itself and the dog: the dog never sees the squirrel. Eventually the dog wanders away in disgust.

Question: It is clear that, in this scenario, the dog goes around the tree; does it, however, go around the squirrel?


Is this some kind of philosophy professor test? Here's William James's answer (from 'What Pragmatism Means' (1906), available here). He's talking about a man, not a dog; also the squirrel had better not be faster than the dog or the dog will catch a glimpse! In fact the squirrel had better be slower because he's going in a smaller circle than the dog. But anyway:

'[It] depends on what you practically mean by 'going round' the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb 'to go round' in one practical fashion or the other.'

That works for me!

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(12) Yap asked:

How come the entire world of science is still looking for the answers within the vacuum of a posteriori thought? Surely one can only know the inside of the universe if one's mind is aligned in an a priori manner, along the correct ontology of existence.


One way of taking Yap's question is as a sceptical challenge to science. A posteriori thought can never yield true knowledge of the universe, only a priori thought — the 'ontology of existence' or metaphysics — can do this. This is how Professor Helen Beebee, of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham reads it:

Professor Beebee is right about the sceptical challenge: if you want to build a rocket ask a rocket scientist not a metaphysician. The fact that we have succeeded in putting men on the moon is proof of the validity of scientific knowledge, as the chance of doing this by guesswork or trial and error is virtually nil.

However, I don't think Yap intended to question the validity of science within its own proper domain. Of course, science delivers answers, lots of answers, more answers than all the questions you or I could ever think of. But science does not — or, at any rate, ought not to — waste time looking for the answers.

I take it that by 'the inside of the universe' Yap means the universe's deepest essence — in other words, the bit science doesn't see because science only deals with 'outsides'. (Analytic philosophers will hear echoes of Thomas Nagel's distinction between the 'objective' and 'subjective' standpoints in his book The View From Nowhere.)

In Naive Metaphysics I argue that there are just two questions:

1. Why is there a world, rather than no world?
2. Why is there I, rather than no I?

Asking these questions is what I call 'naive metaphysics'. You're philosophically naive if you think that there's any point in asking why there is a world rather than no world, or why there is I rather than no I. No answer will satisfy you.

So far as I can gather, the best answer from physicists to question 1. is that the most perfect or symmetrical set of laws of nature corresponds to the laws of nature that actually obtain. And according to these laws, there is (or, rather may be, if we haven't made a mistake in our calculations) a non-zero probability of matter or energy appearing where previously there was no matter or energy.

Of course, there is no a posteriori reason why the laws of nature that actually obtain must be the most perfect or symmetrical, by any standard of perfection or symmetry that we can conceive. 'Must' implies what is 'a priori'. What must be the case, cannot be otherwise. What must be the case is provably the case, is the case in all possible worlds.

Actually, this is not a new idea. Anaximander had similar notion, two and a half thousand years ago:

There are some who say, like Anaximander among the ancients, that [the earth] stays still because of its equilibrium. For it behoves that which is established at the centre, and is equally related to the extremes, not to be borne one whit more either up or down or to the sides; and it is impossible for it to move simultaneously in opposite directions, so that it stays fixed by necessity.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield (trs.) The Presocratic Philosophers §123, p.134.

Anaximander's question is comparatively modest: Why does the earth stay in place, where it is, and not fall? A perfectly intelligible question at the time, given that no-one had conceived of gravity or Newtonian mechanics. Anaximander's answer is that if despite appearances, the cosmos is perfectly symmetrical, and if the earth is located at the precise centre of the cosmos, then there would be 'no more reason' for the earth to move 'up' or 'down', to the 'left' or to the 'right'.

Anaximander's reasoning is a priori. But what he is doing is proposing an inference to the best explanation. We already have our answer: the earth does not move (or at least it doesn't appear to move). And the question is what would be the best explanation of this given fact, or observation. Whether the explanation is in fact true depends on how things, as a matter of fact, are. In other words, if Anaximander's explanation is true, then it is true a posteriori, not a priori.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to contemporary cosmology (or, rather, cosmogony). If the laws of nature are such as to allow matter a finite probability of appearing where previously there was no matter, then that would explain why there is matter here now. But such an explanation, if true, can only be true a posteriori, notwithstanding the a priori reasoning used in formulating the theory.

OK then, let's look at 2. Explaining the universe is one thing; accounting for the presence of life is something else. I'm not getting involved in the question just 'how good' a theory is Darwin's theory of evolution. The fact that the nearest contender to your theory is is useless as an explanation, fails to pass even the most minimal standards of a scientific theory (I'm talking about creationism) doesn't make your theory a 'good' theory, any more than there being someone who is much uglier than you makes you beautiful. If you and your rival were the only two people in the world, you'd both be ugly as sin.

As I said, I'm not interested. Because the only possible reason for asking how life came to exist is in order to explain why I came to exist. So the story goes: I exist because my parents had sex and subsequently, I grew in my mother's womb. My parents existed for a similar reason, right back through the generations to the very first single celled organisms, billions of years ago (apart from the fact that sex was only invented along the way).

My objection? Well, this explains (if it does explain) why 'GK' exists. It doesn't explain why I am GK, why the universe, just as it is, is a universe with 'I' in it rather than a universe without 'I'. (I've had the opportunity to test this argument on quite a few people over the years and, I have to admit, most of the time all I get is a puzzled stare. Never mind.)

If the existence of the world is, as I have argued, a posteriori, a matter of brute fact that cannot be proved by any metaphysical theory, then what about the existence of I? Do I exist a posteriori? But I've just argued why no possible a posteriori explanation for the existence of GK could explain why I am GK. Well then, do I exist a priori? That's the only alternative. But, obviously, that can't be right either.

Then is there a third alternative? I can't think of one. Don't think I haven't been trying.

What then of the prospects for Metaphysics or an 'ontology of existence'? Grim, if you're looking for an answer to 'the universe, life and everything'. But I take Yap's negative point, that so far as the ultimate question, or questions, is or are concerned, a posteriori thought is a vacuum. Don't go looking there, you're just deceiving yourself.

Geoffrey Klempner


(13) Malcolm asked:

Are human beings really selfish and greedy, or generous and kind?


Malcolm, why should we think that the answer has to be one or the other, for all human beings? Some humans are selfish and greedy, others are generous and kind. Most of us are sometimes one and sometimes the other. Isn't that a good enough answer? Of course, one might think (and plenty of philosophers have thought) that there's such a thing as a 'human nature' that we all share, even if it is often disguised or modified by the culture we live in, our upbringing, and so on. Insofar as I can make any sense of that claim, it would be a claim about our genetic predispositions towards certain kinds of behaviour. Since we have no practical way of testing it, all we can do is look at, say, chimps and gorillas. Well, sometimes they act in ways that seem downright nasty, and sometimes they act in ways that seem pretty altruistic. (Of course we probably shouldn't actually apply the words 'nasty' and 'altruistic' to them; I don't think chimps and gorillas are moral agents.) So even for gorillas and chimps, the answer is 'some of them are one, some of them are the other, and probably most of them are sometimes one and sometimes the other'.

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(14) Ashley asked:

Do you believe in god.


No, I don't. I don't see any reason at all to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity, or indeed any kind of supernatural being.

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(15) Meg asked:

who are considered philosophers?

Perhaps it is best to begin with the source of the word. Philosophy or philosopher is of Greek origin and simply translates as the love or lover of wisdom, where wisdom was generally understood as less a purely theoretical kind of knowledge and more a kind of knowing-how-to-live. But it was in Plato's Symposium that the word 'philosopher' gets fully articulated for the first time. There, the philosopher, the seeker of wisdom, is described as someone halfway between ignorance and wisdom (sophia). He is not totally ignorant because ignorant people are not aware of lacking something and so do not desire what they do not think they need. On the other hand, he is not totally wise either because only gods are wise; and they never wish to become wise, since they already are. The philosopher, Plato explains, is midway between the two. He is a lover and pursuer of the wisdom he is conscious of lacking — and so always tries to make progress towards it — yet at the same time fully aware that he is destined never to fully attain it.

What marks the ancient meaning of philosopher from our more modern one is at least twofold. First, for the ancients, philosophy was more concerned with the knowledge of how to live, with proposing an art of living or becoming fully realized human beings. For us moderns, the philosopher is viewed more in a scholastic light, as a writer or professor who writes philosophical discourses on specialized issues often very removed or separable from a way of life (and, importantly, his way of life). Second, for the ancients, philosophy was not a group of propositions or principles which could simply be written down and communicated to a classroom. 'How nice it would be', Socrates is made to say ironically (Symposium), 'if wisdom were the kind of thing that could flow from what is more full into what is more empty.' For us moderns, there is perhaps a tendency to see the philosophy professor as someone who transmits (prefabricated) knowledge or finished content to his students. Socrates would say that wisdom can never be received ready-made, but must, only over a long period of time, be engendered by the student himself.

Kristian Urstad


(16) Lubheen asked:

I was wondering if someone can check my assignment for me. The argument given for the philosophy assignment is:

Every event must have a cause. Hence an event a must have as cause some event b, which in turn must have a cause c, and so on. But if there is no end to this backward progression of causes, the progression will be infinite,and in the opinion of those who use the argument, an infinite series of actual events is unintelligible and absurd. Hence there must be a first cause, and this first cause is god, the initiator of all change in the universe. We had to break this down and make an argument summary in the form of premise/ conclusion depending on however many premises and conclusions I can find. This is what I have as my argument summary:

P Every event must have a cause
P Every cause leads to another cause
P Event A would cause event B
P Event B would cause event C
P The events would happen in the form of a series
P These series of events and causes would progress forever
P The progression of a series forward is infinite
P The progression of a series backward is infinite
P The argument of progression of a series of events going to infinite is unintelligible and absurd

C Thus there must be a first cause to initiate the series of events and causes.
C The first cause is God, the initiator of all change.

If someone can give me some feedback on how my argument summary is and if it needs any changes, that would be really helpful.


Here is some feedback. Whether it is 'really helpful', only you can say Two general points:

1. We usually talk about cause and effect. Your assignment talks of cause and event. To do so is to assume that the cause/effect relation is between events. This may well be, but some people think that the relation is between facts, states of affairs or things (substances) rather than events. It's not crucial to the analysis you have to make, but talk of events makes God seem more plausible because it's difficult to think of God being an event, whereas it'snot difficult to think of God as being a thing (A BIG THING of course) or the existence of God as being a fact or a state of affairs, However let's stick with events.

2. The assignment talks only of a backward infinite series, and this is all we need consider. You also consider forward infinite series, which is of great interest but inessential to the First Cause argument, and makes things needlessly complicated.After all, if things have somehow got going (due to God or in some other way), it doesn't seem at all absurd to think of things keeping going on indefinitely, whether due to God's will/action or otherwise. It's how things got started (if they did have a start) that's the issue. So let's stick with a backward infinite series

Having regard to 2. you can leave out several of your premises, and also some which essentially restate others. This leaves 2 arguments:


P1 Every event must have a cause
P2 An infinite series of prior causes is absurd

C There must be a first cause.


P1 There is a first cause

C The first cause is God (the initiator of all change in the

You don't ask about evaluating the argument(s), but I'll say something about that. To be acceptable an argument must be valid and sound. Valid means that the C necessarily follows from the P(s) ie if the Ps are true, the C must be Sound means (of a valid argument) that the Ps are in fact true so that the C is true To rebut an argument you must show that it is invalid or that it is unsound.

Let's deal first with argument 2. above. It is invalid because, given that there is a first cause,it doesn't follow that the first cause has to be God (it might be a Consortium of gods, oran Ethical Necessity for Good to Exist, say). Unless we take 'God' to mean 'the initiator of all change in the universe', in which case we don't have an argument, just a definition, and an unnecessary one at that, for what's the point of the word 'God' then. I am assuming that by 'God' we have in mind the single,omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent creator posited by monotheistic religions

As for argument 1.

I accept it as valid.The only proviso is that whereas every other member of the postulated finite series is both a cause (of the next event) and an effect/event (of the previous cause), the first member must be only a cause (if it was an event as well it would have to have a cause as per P1, and the series would continue) So is it sound? I think we can successfully challenge both premises as follows P1. Every event has a cause.

It's easy to conceive of uncaused events. Furthermore, science (quantum mechanics in its most widely accepted interpretations) tells us that uncaused events (involving fundamental particles) happen all around us all the time. So why couldn't the universe be an uncaused event?Indeed the Big Bang view suggests just that possibility (well there are issues about whether some sort of quantum laws must exist for a Big Bang to occur, but that's another story) At any rate, I don't accept P1.

P2 An infinite series of prior causes is absurd Infinite series are not absurd. They are commonplace. Simple example, the integers, extending infinitely in both directions from zero. Indeed infinite series 'bigger' than this (eg the real numbers) are standard fare in maths A subtler point. We can still ask why the series (whether finite or infinite doesn't matter) exists at all. But this is the question of why something exists rather than absolutely nothing, an interesting question, but not key to this assignment.

In conclusion:

Your assignment can be reduced to 2 short arguments. The argument for a first cause. It is unsound The argument from first cause to God. It is invalid (indeed it's questionable whether any actual argument is even given)

Craig Skinner


(17) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman intro to philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book.....to me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of so I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If u could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life...


I sympathise with you, and have a suggestion for you, based on my own experience. But first, 'the same old boring lame 20th century academic system.' For most of the 20th century philosophy has been exclusively analytic; which is to say, philosophy is allowed to analyse any given data, but must not synthesise — that is, speculate. This is a sceptical tradition that, in the English speaking world, goes back to David Hume, famous for reiterating that ''Tis vain to speculate.' The reason for this is that some philosophers speculated rather wildly, in a field called metaphysics; and there seemed to be no way of either verifying or falsifying their speculations.

However, in my view, to deny all speculation in philosophy is a mistake. The reason for this is that science is speculative, and very successfully so; and philosophy must keep in step with science. In fact, all speculation is explanatory, in all fields of enquiry. In science, theoretical science is explanatory; it attempts to explain the results of empirical science by describing the 'underlying' causes of empirical phenomena. All explanation is causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects. Contemporary philosophy has denied itself the possibility of explaining, whereas it should be speculating about underlying causes, with its speculations disciplined by theoretical science, just as theoretical science is disciplined in its speculations by empirical science. (I leave it to you to figure out what 'underlying' means.)

So if you really, really want to be a philosopher then do not fill your head with other people's ideas, by going to classes and reading books; instead, get one of those jobs where you do not have to do anything other than to be there in case something goes wrong, such as being a lighthouse keeper or a forest-fire watcher. You would then have lots of time to look inward, as you want to do. (My own experience in this respect was two and a half years in the Antarctic, followed by three and a half in the Canadian Arctic; I came out with the skeleton of a system, which I fleshed out in the process of getting a PhD at the University of Toronto, which in those days had not yet made the switch to analytic philosophy.) Good luck!

Helier Robinson


(18) JohnD asked:

The existential crisis is not resolvable barring suicide We are bound to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so ridiculous, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide. Sisyphus is bound to roll his boulder up, see it roll down, and start over again for eternity. It may be enough to occupy a life, but what good does it do, considering everything? I don't think there's a true answer can be given. Is it possible to argue that to suicide is not a valid response to the world? So, what comes next?

Progress, increase, advance? Space, the final frontier? More? Bigger? Larger?

It's enough to bring the strongest person to their knees How about philosophy? An attempt. understandable enough,surely, to possess, a chase, a hunt. Ultimately however, I'm torn, I do not think it's possible to argue against nihilism. What response do you give?


Consider these two versions of 'Further Adventures of Sisyphus' as it were.

1. After years of pointless boulder pushing, Sisyphus is approached by the gods. They say they are sorry for his plight, he has been punished enough, he can now join them in the Elysian Fields. He does and delights in the comfort, relaxation and absence of drudgery. After some months, though, he seems pensive and the gods ask him if anything is wrong. He says he is ever so grateful for what they have done and The Elysian Fields are great, but, well, he misses the fresh air, the exercise, and the view from the top of the hill. Could he return to the boulder rolling?. He does and is content Moral: his activity has meaning because it is his choice

2. After some years of boulder rolling...etc. The gods say they cant reverse their decision, he must continue, but with this difference. When he reaches the top with a boulder, instead of it rolling down again, it is kept at the top, and he descends to push another one up. As far as his actions are concerned, nothing has changed. But the accumulating boulders at the top are used to build an ever expanding complex of theatres, restaurants, libraries, mountaintop hotels and so forth. Sisyphus sees the ever-growing complex and it's visitors, and takes daily pride in the fact that his labour makes it all possible Moral:his activity has meaning because it contributes to an end beyond himself which he considers worthwhile

I think all that any of us can do is to find meaning in one or both of these ways. Of course you can argue that ultimately it's all futile (as the early Russell did, although he had a long and interesting life despite it). But I find the absence of divine or cosmic meaning liberating — no Big Man in the Sky telling me what to do, I can decide for myself, within the limits of my nature and my circumstances. And if am lucky enough to be fit and well (like Sisyphus) and the further good fortune to have food and shelter without too much struggle, I have absolutely no complaint. I like Douglas Adams' comment when asked whether he felt despair, angst and a sense of futility living in a vast,largely empty, indifferent universe. He replied 'No, on the contrary, I think 70 years or so in such a universe is time well spent' You can cut it short by suicide if you want, but instead it can be time well spent, and it soon passes anyway(my 70 years are up this year, but I'm game fora a bit more boulder rolling)

Craig Skinner


(19) Brook asked:

Plato stands up and declares 'the next statement socrates says will be a true statement,' then Socrates stands up and says 'Plato just told a lie'. Who is telling the truth?


For obvious reasons, one is tempted to say that, in such a case, neither could be telling the truth. But not so fast. The context is insufficiently described, and if we imagine it, Socrates might have some basis for what he says. This is one possibility: Plato and Socrates might know each other's fixed ideas so well that each can tell from what the other has just said what they are about to say next. Plato anticipates Socrates' next move in just this way, in a way which has proved reliable on several previous occasions, and is in fact reliable on this occasion: Plato correctly predicts what Socrates had intended to say next. Only, what Socrates had intended to say next isn't something he regards as true, and Socrates has good reason to believe that Plato understands that his (Socrates') attitude to the upcoming claim is ironic.

Thus, in the case where Plato's attitude to the claim is not ironic, when Plato claims that Socrates is about to tell a truth, he would be telling a kind of lie: by failing to add 'a truth even though Socrates thinks it isn't' Plato would be 'conversationally implying' that the next claim is intended by Socrates to be regarded as a truth, which implication is a lie. In that case, Plato would have warrant for saying 'the next statement socrates says will be a true statement' and Socrates would have warrant for saying 'plato just told a lie'. I.E., they would both be telling the truth.

David Robjant


(20) JohnD asked:

The existential crisis is not resolvable barring suicide We are bound to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so ridiculous, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide. Sisyphus is bound to roll his boulder up, see it roll down, and start over again for eternity. It may be enough to occupy a life, but what good does it do, considering everything? I don't think there's a true answer can be given. Is it possible to argue that to suicide is not a valid response to the world? So, what comes next?

Progress, increase, advance? Space, the final frontier? More? Bigger? Larger?

It's enough to bring the strongest person to their knees How about philosophy? An attempt. understandable enough,surely, to possess, a chase, a hunt. Ultimately however, I'm torn, I do not think it's possible to argue against nihilism. What response do you give?


While less a question than the verbalisation of a despairing sigh, I suppose your contribution is no less philosophical for that. It even contains, which is usually the mark of rather sophisticated philosophy, a logical fallacy. In your contribution you try to strengthen the case for nihilism by assuming a contrast, in fact a dichotomy, between the ultimate Good ('considering everything') and all the little immediate goods (strawberries, sex, philosophy, etc). You simply assert, as if it needed no further elaboration or defence, that to be a local kind of good (eating a strawberry, understanding some tiny point in philosophy) is by that fact not the Ultimate good, and — here comes the end point of the fallacy — therefore worthless.

May I point out that Humans being local little creatures rather than omnipresent gods, our experience of the Good is bound to be local. You seem to be declaring human life worthless on the grounds that it is nothing like the life of a God. But that is perfectly absurd. For a Human, Ultimate Good manifests itself to us through eating strawberries and understanding things in philosophy and so on. In particular, it manifests itself in precisely the feature that seems to trouble you, the absence of completeness. To me, the fact that one might one day eat a tastier strawberry, or that one might come to an even more accurate philosophical understanding, just is the presence of Perfection and Ultimate Good in our lives as the standard by which the particular may be found wanting.

To you, this impossibility of a totalized and perfected human experience is somehow a demonstration of it's worthlessness. That is silly, and fallacious: you simply assume a standard of 'worth' which applies nowhere in human life. Everywhere, you complain about human existence for the ways in which it fails to live up to the existence of a God. But God cannot eat strawberries. Nor could a perfect being have the experience of loving the truth and pursuing it and possessing some part of it — the Perfected cannot love or enjoy wisdom since they posses it, are it. Our language cannot stretch to describing the experiences for which you say you crave. I suggest to you, however, that you do not crave for totalized perfection in the way that you pretend. What you in fact crave is a better strawberry, a better understanding of some point in philosophy, and so on. That, indeed, is how the Good presents itself to Human beings.

David Robjant


(21) Andre asked:

I have used the Gifford Lectures as a source of interesting reading material in philosophy. Why, therefore, was Bertrand Russell never invited to be a Gifford lecturer?


On the face of it, this is a daft question. Russell, famous atheist and author of one of the most powerful tracts ever written against religion, 'A Free Mans Worship' is the last person you would invite to be a Gifford Lecturer:

The Gifford Lectures were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford (died 1887). They were established to 'promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.' [...] The lectures are given at the Scottish universities: University of St Andrews, University of Glasgow, University of Aberdeen and University of Edinburgh.

A Gifford lectures appointment is one of the most prestigious honors in Scottish academia. They are normally presented as a series over an academic year and given with the intent that the edited content be published in book form. A number of these works have become classics in the fields of theology or philosophy and their relationship to science.


However, Andre's question got me thinking: if, owing to some administrative cockup Russell had been invited to give the Gifford Lectures, what would they have been about? It's an intriguing question.

You don't need to be an old-fashioned (or even new-fashioned) theist in order to be a Gifford Lecturer. It is sufficient that you are able to put in a good word for religion. As a basic minimum, you must assume that God-talk is neither meaningless or pointless, but has a worthwhile purpose, even if there is no physical or metaphysical entity, as such, that we refer to when we use the term 'God'. 'God' is a symbol which embodies a number of different elements, not just the rational or conceptual, and it is the function of philosophy to elucidate the use of that symbol.

As you may have guessed, I'm with Russell on this. I would like to see an end to religion. That was Russell's view too.

Even Karl Marx was prepared to allow that religion is the 'heart in a heartless world' (Wikipedia Opium of the people). Marx was not being sentimental. As he himself knew, the comforts of religion are false comforts, not merely because they are based on false premisses but because the comforts are, all things considered, worse for those who accept them, even if they offer temporary relief from suffering.

Yet for Marx, as for Feuerbach before him, there is something worthy of veneration, if not worship in the literal sense, in the idea of the 'human essence':

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.


At a stretch, Marx could have been a Gifford Lecturer. It would have been a controversial appointment, no doubt. But Feuerbach, author of The Essence of Christianity definitely fits the criteria, and if Feuerbach, then surely Marx.

Marx is a utopian thinker, looking forward to the time when the 'human essence' is finally realized. Russell was by no means innocent of utopian thinking, but at least this is kept in check by a healthy scepticism. Anyone who perceives the evils in society must have a view of how things would be if the evils were removed. This is something on which Russell expressed a view. But it is a long step from this to the idea of a 'final realization' of human potential or an end of history when evil, as such, is overcome.

Utopian thinking is thinly disguised religious thinking. Russell understood this. His vision of the universe, as expressed in 'A Free Mans Worship' is a tragic one, where the best human beings can ever hope for is to celebrate our refusal to be crushed by forces so much greater than ourselves.

But let's get concrete. Why do human beings pray?

When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer.
Petition the Lord with prayer.
Petition the Lo-o-o-rd with prayer!
You can-not petition the Lord — with prayer!!

Jim Morrison (The Doors) 'The Soft Parade' 1969

Gifford Lecturers offer a wide range of explanations and justifications for the activity of prayer. According to John Macmurray (whose 1953–1954 Gifford lectures are published as The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation) prayer is the 'celebration of communion'. This communion is not with an entity called 'God' but rather with our fellow human beings. It is something to celebrate that we are 'persons in relation'.

To me, this just sounds like boy scouts round a campfire singing songs. Or proud patriots, hands on hearts, singing out the national anthem. — How much evil has been done in the name of patriotism?

On second thoughts, better that than the alternative:

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That's the real thing

Coca Cola 1971 Commercial

What we're really talking about — and this is an argument why Russell should have been invited to give the Gifford Lectures — is what we are going to replace religion with. For many, of course, religion has already been replaced — by bottles of brown fizzy liquid, iPhones and Facebook.

How would Russell's 'free men and women' live? What occasions would they celebrate? Here's a view from Nietzsche:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?

From The Gay Science, quoted at http://www.follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_17.html.

To illustrate the quote, I used a 1978 sketch by H.R. Giger depicting the Alien. I am not critiquing Nietzsche, or even passing comment. The aim is to provoke: Why not?

The values Russell celebrated in 'A Free Mans Worship', the values of duty, honour and sacrifice, were exploded finally in the trenches and battlefields of the First World War. There's no turning the clock back. We can no longer believe in these fine things. 'It's your duty' is what you say to someone to persuade them to do what you want them to do, against their better judgement. 'Honour' is for judges and lawcourts. I can't remember the last time I heard the word 'sacrifice', outside a game of chess.

So Russell really does owe us an account of where he thinks we are heading, now, in the 21st century, after Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Not long ago, I attended the funeral of a friend of a friend, whose family had asked for the proceedings to be administered by the British Humanist Association. There were 'readings' and 'prayers'. It occurred to me that if a non-English speaker had stumbled upon the small gathering, they wouldn't even have been aware that this was not a 'religious' service. It struck me as very odd. I wonder what Russell would have said.

Geoffrey Klempner


(22) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of. So I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.


There is more to loving wisdom, and to getting it, than sitting in a class room, reading out of a book, or writing an essay — right enough. And indeed, around such academic activities grow up institutions and habits and competitions that are, if we face facts, not sure to make us wiser. Still, for all that, books and classes have their place, and you are a little unfair to that place. Yes, one may distinguish between getting wiser and getting higher marks. But it does not follow that 'today's academic approach' will make a fool of you. It rather depends on you. How you study and use your time on the 'academic approach' may make all the difference. If you remember that the point of your studies is to venture and develop a sober and reflective view of your own, a working view which you can inhabit and which is no mere entertainment or fleeting consolation, then those studies will already seem much less like a bookish school sports day, and much more like the solemn temple or workshop you appear to desire.

Your passion for 'a more ethical and reasoning life' and impatience to get there is commendable. And indeed, for 'a more ethical and reasoning life' book learning alone won't be enough. But whatever form your practical exercise of virtue might take, in whatever craft or technique, in relation to whatever real thing, serious attention to your task will not be aided by confusion. Some of the better books, and you will have to learn to distinguish which these are, may help you in preventing confusions. That is one thing you might get out of the 'academic approach', but it is up to you to get it. You will not go far in that direction by dismissing what might be on offer in a library of books on the strength of some 'lame... system'. If you allow that system to have you paying close attention to what is in those books, it may not be so lame after all. A training of attention and persistence in this one area may fit you for the necessary concentration elsewhere.

David Robjant


(23) Sam asked: is there a view from nowhere? why?


I assume here that the question alludes to Thomas Nagel's book 'The View From Nowhere'. 'Is there a view from nowhere' is in my personal top ten list of philosophical questions and puzzles. It can be understood as the question about nothing less then the possibility of total objectivity in forming a view or a theory about us and about the world.

A 'view from nowhere' is a view from no particular perspective or standpoint, without any subjective or relativistic distortion. Nagel thinks that this is impossible to obtain, because any view is a view from some standpoint and hence has an irreducible subjective component.

Apart from the fundamental impossibility of total objectivity, due to what a view amounts to, there are specific — human — reasons why our best possible objective view will (probably) forever be restricted anyway. Modesty demands that we should assume the world to be conceptually richer than human grasp. We have five senses, but extrapolating from the situation of blind or death persons, the world may offer richer features than represented by what five senses can capture.

However, objective progress is possible. We can step out of ourselves and contemplate ourselves from outside as someone in the world having a view. We can get a meta-view on how we see the world. And so forth, in infinite regress.

Here Nagel contradicts Kant's view that we generate from an non-intelligible 'world as such' through our human conceptual apparatus an only apparent world, a world hence subjectively distorted. Nagel beliefs that features e.g. represented by 'primary qualities' like shape, size and number (as opposed to secondary qualities like colors, sounds, smells) are among the objective features of our world on which we can have objective partial views.

On a collective level, Nagel calls this progress a progressive 'awakening' of humanity. This is somehow reminiscent of Plato's cave. From an unconscious contemplating the shadows, we can get aware — in objective progress — of the fact that those are only shadows of things that viewed from another perspective are three-dimensional. However, we will never see the whole picture. We will never be able to see the world completely from outside, because there are always more inclusive views comprising the world, us and the last view we just had.

The question is if Nagel carries through his 'view' metaphor with a too literal meaning. Trivially, a view can never be from nowhere, otherwise it would not be a view proper. Maybe I wrongly take him being too literal on 'view' and what he means is, more abstractly and simply, 'a theory'. A totally objective view were then a perfect objective representation of the world through a theory. But what is a 'perfect' objective representation? Suppose we have such a representation of the world. We can now say something about it, can't we? So it can't be perfect (and complete), or so I think. Or it includes already the 'view' on itself, creating a sort of circularity of which I don't know whether it is vicious or virtuous.

Whenever we talk about, contemplate or simply have a view or theory 'of', 'on' or 'about' something, it seems we open up a subject-object gap. A question is if we somehow can eliminate this dichotomy, that Nagel seems to accept as a given. I am skeptical we can eliminate it and maintain a cognitive attitude.

Finally , rather than an objective view by reduction of the subjective — a view more and more from nowhere — what seems to me is that Nagel speaks of a 'view from everywhere'. A more and more inclusive, a more and more self-conscious view, a view that take into account all possible perspectives and ways to look at the world.

Christian Michel


(24) JohnD asked:

The existential crisis is not resolvable barring suicide We are bound to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so ridiculous, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide. Sisyphus is bound to roll his boulder up, see it roll down, and start over again for eternity. It may be enough to occupy a life, but what good does it do, considering everything? I don't think there's a true answer can be given. Is it possible to argue that to suicide is not a valid response to the world? So, what comes next?

Progress, increase, advance? Space, the final frontier? More? Bigger? Larger?

It's enough to bring the strongest person to their knees How about philosophy? An attempt. understandable enough,surely, to possess, a chase, a hunt. Ultimately however, I'm torn, I do not think it's possible to argue against nihilism. What response do you give?


As it seems to me, the overarching question here regards whether, granting existentialism its basic grounds, one can mount a serious argument against suicide, which you're here linking very closely with nihilism. It's an important question, but also perhaps an unnecessarily limited one.

I remember being a freshman in high school, singing with the then-new Bad Religion album (Stranger than Fiction), and thinking, 'Fuck yeah! 'Even though you try not to be, we are of the same plague,' indeed!' Well, not the 'indeed' bit, but all the rest. And then a few years later, a decade I guess, really working through--emotionally--the idea of humanity-as-plague, -as-virus. It made sense. It still makes sense, as a possibility.

And then a year or two after that, sitting at my computer while my then-lover slept in our hotel room in San Francisco, typing up a manifesto. I'd come to the conclusion--never mind how I got there; the point is that I believed wholeheartedly I was right--that the most ethical thing I could do would be to commit suicide after doing my absolute best to persuade as many others as possible to do the same. I envisioned (not that I thought I'd have such persuasive power--the point is that the most ethical thing I could see to do would be to try) all of humanity executing a self-chosen, orderly retreat from existence.

Not killing one another or tricking people or anything like that: just carefully and conscientiously cleaning up after ourselves and quietly, undramatically, collectively but singly ending our being as individuals and as species.

Like I said, it doesn't really matter how I came to the conclusion; I believed this would be best and set out to write my manifesto. (Deluded? Sure, why not? But delusion's always only a determination made after the fact, based on what's-agreed-to-have-been.)

I would say that what happened next was that I couldn't go forward. That would be the way of saying it that makes sense for us, that fits one story (i.e., species-survival, coded at the genetic level, absurdly or randomly or stupidly or selectively or divinely opted for my individual survival at that moment). But that's not what happened, or what felt like happened (and how is one to know the difference between those two?).

I didn't change my mind, decide I had been wrong. And I also didn't feel impotent, unable to act. But I also didn't want to go through with the whole thing, even though I still thought it would be right to. That is, it still seemed to me best to commit suicide and encourage as many others as I could to do the same. But, in the fact (in der Tat [act, deed], as the Germans say), I didn't want to. I chose, as I experienced it then, being. For no particular reason that I could see, not even that old standby of Kierkegaard and the Scholastics before him, 'on the strength of the absurd.' I wanted in that instant to be and to continue to be, and I had an experience of choice, and no reasons were available to me before that choice, though plenty and enough popped up ex-post-facto.

Should we exist? I don't know. I think you're right to be suspicious of those who would see this as a moot, or an irrelevant, question. Indeed, I think it's one of the most crucial questions we can possibly ask. Not because so much hinges on the answer (though it does on the asking of it, and on the struggling with the answers we elaborate for ourselves), but because we can't not ask the question. It's in our very structure as linguistic beings. That is to say, if language carries with it some kind of strong moral sense, if humans are, as the philosopher/rhetorician Kenneth Burke once wrote, 'moralized by the negative,' then it is certain that sooner or later we'll find ourselves logically, linguistically dismantling the beliefs to which we've found ourselves up to that point committed. Including, perhaps even regularly, the belief that there's some 'value' or 'good' in our being, in yours or my continued existence.

Here, though, things get thorny. After all, what's to stop us (if we've not been there already) from taking a half-step to the side and doubting whether the systems of evaluation that we use have any value themselves? Ought we value our criteria for evaluation?

This is where I find your question unhelpfully constraining: Consider the implications of (the enormous leap of faith you take in stating) the idea that 'We are bound either to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so _ridiculous_, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide.' Surely, unless we imagine ourselves to have some absolute knowledge (which seems unlikely, given the topic at hand), we can't know these things you've suggested about the world's absurdity. It just happens to feel or seem that way to you and/or I and/or a rather large handful of our closest mates back through history. Are we right? Who knows? But let's say, for argument's sake, that we are, that the world is a completely ludicrous and stupid place. In that case, so what if there's no meaning? In a world without meaning, it means nothing that the world is without meaning. Indeed, the argument's often (and I think generally fairly accurately) made that most existentialists' turn toward social engagement--with de Beauvoir and Sartre particularly in mind--is in the end an avoidance of the question of the value of meaning. 'Fine,' they seem to say, 'there's no meaning in the world than the meaning we make of our lives. Very well, then: let's mean!' Along the way, the question of whether meaning matters, the only question proper to nihilism, is left by the side of the road.

On my view, the clearest response to the question, 'Can one argue against nihilism?' is, 'Can one argue for it?' By my lights, the only possible answer to either is 'no.' Nihilism, done properly, simply doesn't admit of arguments. Indeed, I'd go so far as to insist that there is no such thing as nihilism, if by 'nihilism' we mean the persistent commitment to the value of nonbeing or the non-value of being.

In the former case, there's an internal contradiction; any 'commitment,' as an act of evaluation across time, implicitly privileges or values being, even if it explicitly values nonbeing. That is to say, one can inveigh against being, but one's ongoing commitment to it (expressed in the act of living and making commitments and inveighing and such) rather pulls the teeth of one's argument. Likewise, one can surely kill oneself, but there will be no way of knowing whether one has thereby been a nihilist. Was the suicide an act of despair, or the expression of a commitment? Despair seems clearly to fall short of a systematic philosophical position, and I've just suggested above the problem with 'commitment' in this context. That holds as much for commitment's final expression as for its earlier moments. For the latter case, the problem is simply that, for nihilism, argument itself must become as meaningless as anything else. So, perhaps there are some who happen not to believe that being has value, but they--in conformity with their non-belief in anything in particular--would surely never try to convince anyone else of this; if they are nihilists, we'll never know it for certain. Again, I'd cheerfully grant your contention that it's not possible to argue against nihilism, but only because it's also not possible to argue for it.

I suspect, however, that in framing things in terms of arguments for and against nihilism, you yourself are not entirely persuaded. If I am correct in the above, this is because there is no such thing as 'nihilism' to be persuaded of or against. There are, of course, ten billion kinds of doubt, and ten billion temporary fixes for doubt (read Wittgenstein's _On Certainty_ for a romp through doubt, by the way). But doubt--and even a decision that being is without value or meaning or that nonbeing is in some way preferable to being--does not in itself constitute a systematic philosophical position.

I submit, instead, that the following is the case, probably for any species with a complex language system:

We need, on some level, to choose our own being, to choose that which has been laid down for us as the ground for our choices about it. And we need also to consciously experience as ours the choice against our own being. We can't not choose both, that is, and our choices for and against our own being include also choices for and against the value systems within which we make those choices themselves. I'd like to lay out the full argument that would ground more persuasively what I'm saying. Unfortunately, I haven't time or space at present, so I suppose one will just need to keep an eye out for the book in the next couple years. For now, just this:

We are the evolving intersection of these two choices, for and against our being, in a million different moments. It is ours to negotiate, to feel, the ways in which they, these choices, will have been who we were. Whether we happen at some moment to suicide or not, this cannot not have been the case.

Ira Allen


(25) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of.

So I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.


It strikes me too that what we may term a 'true philosophical path' is more than a dry academic study, although I would suggest that at the right time academic study is a part of the path. I do empathise though. How many of us who may be philosophically inclined have travelled far to sit at the feet of one or another wise one, only to find , for one reason or another that they have no answers. Coming from a 'strange land ' in which one feels lost and distant we are inclined to think that the answers are out there and that one day we will find the truth neatly packaged and wrapped, but the absolute always seems to avoid our grasp. It's frustrating. The answers are in the questions and the questions are in the answers and all we can do, once on the path, is keep asking. You could ask yourself:

What do I mean by my entire life? What is entire? Who do I consider to be my peers and why? If I disagree with the academic system can I see any sense in arguing my reasons in their language, i.e. the academic language or do I expect them to speak my personal language? What is my personal language? Could it be that the academic system is giving me answers to questions that I am not asking? Is that my responsibility or theirs? Can I change it? What is our true spirit? Is it only mine or is it really collective? What do I mean when I say look inward? What is inward? How reasoning /ethical am I already? What is reason and ethic anyway?

The only answer I can give you is that other philosophically inclined persons over thousands of years have asked these very same questions. So much so in fact that nearly every aspect or stream of philosophy has been developed form them. But you knew that anyway. So I hope the others on this forum answer you much more academically. They will be able to quote some of those 'real' philosophers much more eloquently than I, as I have come so late to them. All I can do as a fellow traveller is affirm your experience, which has its place, but they can tell, after years of study, who thought what and why. This gives you more context and a language to make things better.

Siobhan Mullins


(26) Gabriel asked:

1. Does society's interest in protecting an unborn child justify coercive measures against pregnant women who ingest harmful substances?

2. Should pregnant women who refuse to stop drinking or get treatment be incarcerated until they give birth? Should mothers who repeatedly give birth to children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome be sterilized?

3. Should liquor companies be held liable if adequate warnings against use during pregnancy are not on their products?


I could simply answer 'No!, No!, and No!' But that would probably not provide you with what you are looking for. Since you asked these questions on a Philosophy forum, I have to assume that you are looking for a reasoned answer to your questions.

But that assumption raises a number of challenges. Whether one chooses to answer any of these questions with a 'Yes!' or a 'No!' (or even, perhaps, a 'Maybe!') will intimately depend on the fundamental ethical premises that are brought to the analysis of the various issues involved.

Consider the first issue raised by your first question. Does society have a properly justified interest in protecting the unborn child? If you answer 'Yes!' to this question, you are assuming that 'society' constitutes an ethical entity independent of the individuals that make up that society. On what basis can that assumption be justified?

And if you do provide an adequate justification for it, or just adopt this as a premise, then the question that follows is whether such a 'collective moral entity' has any justification for doing things that would be unethical for an individual moral entity (or vice versa)? Answering either way will influence whether you consider it ever ethically justified for a moral agent to initiate the use of force.

So you see, if you are looking for a reasoned answer to your questions, and not just an emotional gut-reaction (perhaps based on political affiliations) to them, then the answers could get rather long and involved. I would be more than happy to explore the ethical issues behind your questions at greater length, if you would wish it. But this forum does not invite book-length analyses.

Having said that, I will provide you with an indication of where I am coming from, ethically speaking. I believe in Evolutionary Ethics, and politically would be best described as a Libertarian. So I would argue that there is no such thing as a 'collective moral entity'. Ethical standards apply only to individuals. 'Society' does not do anything. Only individuals do things.

Hence, I would understand your first question as — 'Do I (and my family and friends) have any interest in protecting an unborn child? Does that interest (if it exists) justify coercive measures against pregnant women who ingest harmful substances?'

If the unborn child is part of my circle of family and friends, my answer would perhaps be different. But for an unidentified anonymous unborn child, I cannot see that I (and my family and friends) would have any interest in its protection beyond the purely economic one of minimizing likely public health care and police services costs. I am willing to entertain arguments to the contrary, of course.

However, whatever the interest I might have in the unborn child, I never have any moral justification for the initial (unprovoked) use or threat of force. So even if I did have a personal interest in the welfare of the unborn child, I am never morally justified in employing coercive measures against the mother. The extent of my morally justifiable 'retaliation' is limited to a withdrawal of my willingness to cooperate with the mother and the father (and any other relevant party) of the unborn child. Some religious communities call this 'shunning'. Hence my initial answer of 'No!'

I think you can easily see how this moral position translates into my 'No!' answers for the other questions you have asked

Stuart Burns


(27) JohnD asked:

The existential crisis is not resolvable barring suicide We are bound to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so ridiculous, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide. Sisyphus is bound to roll his boulder up, see it roll down, and start over again for eternity. It may be enough to occupy a life, but what good does it do, considering everything? I don't think there's a true answer can be given. Is it possible to argue that to suicide is not a valid response to the world? So, what comes next?

Progress, increase, advance? Space, the final frontier? More? Bigger? Larger?

It's enough to bring the strongest person to their knees How about philosophy? An attempt. understandable enough,surely, to possess, a chase, a hunt. Ultimately however, I'm torn, I do not think it's possible to argue against nihilism. What response do you give?


If you don't think that a true answer can be given to some question (whatever the question), that is a sure-fire guarantee that you need to re-examine your premises.

Is the 'existential crisis' real? Or is it a figment of your imagination, or a product of your lack of experience or education? (Or perhaps the product of taking Sartre too seriously?)

What makes you think that this world is absurd, 'a circus really'? Most people don't think so. I don't think so. Perhaps your evaluation of it as absurd is based on an incorrect premise about its purpose and proper function? If you think its absurd because it doesn't make any sense to you, then you haven't yet figured out how the world works. Because it does work. And it is pretty much predictable for most people, most of the time — if they care to make the effort to learn how to predict it.

You are not Sisyphus. And this isn't a world of Greek Mythology. Sisyphus' purpose in life was given to him. Your own purpose, you have to identify on your own.

In the movie 'City Slickers', the character of Curly tells Mitch that the key to happiness is 'one thing'. Kicker is, you have to identify your own 'one thing'. Find your purpose, pursue that purpose. Happiness is a byproduct of the pursuit.

Suicide ends all options. Usually a pretty dumb choice.

I could tell you what I believe your purpose in life should be. But you are unlikely to believe me, until you reach the same conclusion on your own. There is lots of material on the Web to help you, if you care to invest the effort.

Stuart Burns


(28) Malcolm asked:

Does anyone have the right to tell you what 'good' and 'bad' mean?


Well, the answer is both Yes and No — on two different levels, depending on just what you mean by 'mean'.

The Linguistic Level

On the 'No' side — you are perfectly free to employ the words and symbols of communicative language however you might wish. The words 'good' and 'bad' are but symbols that denote particular concepts. You are free to associate any concepts you wish with these symbols. You might, for example, choose to associate the symbols 'good' and 'bad' with the concepts that I associate with the labels 'orange' and 'pear'.

On the 'Yes' side — unless you use the words as others use them, you will be unable to communicate ideas with others. If you did make the idiosyncratic associations I suggested above, then how are you ever going to communicate to someone the idea that the pear that you are eating tastes good? If you want to communicate with people, you have to let them tell you how they are using the words.

The Ethical Level

On the No side — no one has the right to tell you which ethical principles to adopt as criteria for what should be classed as ethically good versus ethically bad. Everyone does have an ethical obligation (to themselves) to try and guide your own discovery of what moral principles ought to be so employed. But you have to make up your own mind. To rely on someone else's say-so is to abdicate your own moral responsibility to yourself. You are not a robotic automaton blindly obeying someone else's program. You have the ability to think, learn, and reason for yourself about what moral principles ought to apply. You can either choose to live for yourself. Or you can fail to choose, and wind up living for someone else.

On the Yes side — once there is some agreement on which fundamental ethical principles ought to apply, then it is reasonable for others to offer corrections to your ethical judgements. No one is omnipotent, so no one is ever in the position of knowing with certainty all the consequences of any proposed action (or how best to apply which ethical rule, if that is your ethical system). So it is always helpful to have others, who may be in a more informed position, offer suggestions for things you might have missed, misinterpreted, or simply mistaken in your ethical judgements. Suggestions only, of course. You still have to make your own choices, lest you fall into the trap described above of living for someone else rather than for yourself.

Stuart Burns


(29) Jean asked:

If there was no evil or problems in the world, would there be a need for any of us to work? By 'work' I mean, professions such as doctors, fireman, therapists, nurses, police officers, dentists, etc...For instance, if there was no crime ever, wouldn't police officers become bored. If there was no sickness, wouldn't doctors feel not challenged? What would society do all day if there was no evil or challenges? Would there be a need for 'work' at all? This question is bothering me because it almost seems as if someone can make a great career for themselves because of evil in the world. Are these people actually benefiting from the evil by feeling challenged, getting a paycheck, establishing clout in their position, etc...?


Your seemingly simple question actually raises a whole host of more complex issues.

Of course, if there were no 'evil or problems' in the world, there would be no need for people to work in those professions whose function it is to deal with 'evil or problems'.

But the really interesting question is just what do you classify as 'evil or problems', and by what criteria do you so classify them? Especially interesting would be the criteria by which you distinguish 'evil' from 'problems'. Is 'sickness' an evil or a problem? Is a broken bone from a tumble a 'sickness'? And won't we still need the policeman to direct traffic and catch speeders (or is speeding an 'evil')? And we'll still need farmers and truckers and assembly line workers to provide us with all those nice things we need and want — or are they 'problems' as well?

You seem to suggest, in your question, that it would be 'OK' to work in a profession that dealt with 'problems', but 'less than OK' to work in one that dealt with 'evil'. Why do you feel that it is 'less than OK' to feel challenged, get a paycheck, establish clout in one's position, etc. while dealing with whatever it is that you are classifying as 'evil'?

'Sh*t Happens!' Whether we like it or not. Some of it natural, some of it man made. Some of latter intentional, much of it the result of ignorance, and stupidity. Given that sh*t happens anyway, shouldn't we respect and honour those whose chosen profession is to shovel it all day? Rather than condemn them for profiting from the 'evil and problems' that are not of their creation?

Personally, I would think that the ideal world without 'evil and problems' that you are looking towards would be pretty boring all around. My definition of Hell — the Christian concept of Heaven.

Stuart Burns


(30) Xiaoqing asked:

Why I am me and not you?

Wen asked:

Why do things break?


I've put Xiaoqing's and Wen's questions together even though they seem to be about totally different topics, because they are both examples of what I would term a request for a 'metaphysical explanation'.

I want to examine these two examples in order to show how a philosopher responds to a request for a metaphysical explanation, by indicating the kinds of logical steps that one would typically take. This isn't going to be an infallible recipe, or 'how-to-do-it' guide, but it will demonstrate, I hope, something about the nature of the inquiry known as 'metaphysics'.

The first point to make is that not all metaphysical questions are requests for a metaphysical explanation. 'What is time?' or 'What is truth?' are metaphysical questions but they are not, on the face of it, requests for metaphysical explanation.

A request for a metaphysical explanation typically takes the form, 'Why is...?', or 'Why isn't...', or 'Why can...?', or 'Why can't...?' We notice that something always is the case, and wonder why it always is the case. Or we notice that something is never the case, and we wonder why it is never the case. We have an inkling that it's not just an accident that things are like that, that somehow we are dealing with something necessary. The question is, What is the source of that necessity?

A metaphysical explanation is not like a physical explanation, for example the answer to the question, 'Why is the sky blue?'. In a different world, where the physical conditions were different from what they are on earth, the sky might have been pink, or green. The same applies if the laws of physics had been different from what they in fact are in this universe. It is a contingent fact that the sky is blue, and the explanation takes the form of a deduction from known facts about the world, or the universe.

Different again are questions concerning purely logical necessity, such as, 'Why does 2 plus 3 always make 5?' If you grasp that the series of natural numbers is defined by the 'plus 1' operation, and that each number in the series is identified as a given number of applications of the 'plus 1' operation, then the question, 'Why does 2 plus 3 make 5?' is equivalent to, 'Why does 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 make 5?' And the answer is, 'That's just what 5 is!'

Of course, if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy of arithmetic, there's more to say about this: the point is that the question, 'Why does 2 plus 3 make 5?' isn't a question about what numbers are, in themselves, which would be metaphysical, but rather a question about arithmetic. If you don't know why the answer is 5, then you don't understand arithmetic.

Examples of requests for metaphysical explanation which typically turn up on the Ask a Philosopher pages are, 'Why can't an effect precede its cause?', 'Why can't a stone be conscious?', 'Why can't two objects occupy the same spatio-temporal position?', 'Why do all things go forwards in time?', 'Why am I the same person today as I was yesterday?'

Logically, the first thing to ask is, Is it true that the statement in question is a necessary truth? Is it necessary that things break, or are some things incapable, in principle, of being broken? Is it necessary that I am me and not you, or might there have been circumstances in which I became you, or even in which I was born as you?

What gives these questions their bite is that we think we can imagine, or half imagine, things being different. The mobile phone on my desk would shatter if I hit it with a heavy hammer. But suppose it didn't. Suppose I hit the mobile phone with every kind of hammer, put it in a powerful steel press, tied an atomic bomb to it, and none of these attempts at breaking the mobile phone succeeded, wouldn't one conclude that the item was really unbreakable? Or imagine that you and I are having a casual conversation, suddenly I feel my consciousness floating free from my body, the next moment I am entering your head. And then I am you, talking to 'me'!

Can't an effect precede its cause? Suppose I forgot to turn the water heater on, and now the water is too cold for me to take a bath. So I tap my time belt and travel back in time one hour and turn the water heater on. When I return to the present time, the water is nice and hot. (It's quicker than having to wait.) Can't a stone be conscious? Suppose an evil witch turns me into stone. I can see the witch holding up a mirror and laughing at me, but I can't move a muscle. In the mirror I see, to my horror, a stone statue where previously there was my living, breathing body.

Let's look at the case of the unbreakable mobile phone, and the case of 'me becoming you' more closely. (The other two questions I have looked at elsewhere: For 'Why can't I change the past?' see my Afterword to David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself. For 'Why can't a stone be conscious?' see my Truth and Subjective Knowledge.)

A mobile phone can be disassembled. If it has screws, then these can be unscrewed. Most objects — including biological 'objects' such as human beings — are 'assemblies' in this sense, parts fitted or put together, by nature or design, such that the resulting assembly performs a particular function or set of functions. The function of a mobile phone is to send texts and make phone calls (amongst other things). The function of a human being is to live and procreate (amongst other things). Just as the mobile phone is made of parts, so the parts themselves are made of smaller parts, or different kinds of material such as metal or plastic, and material is 'assembled' from yet smaller parts, i.e. atoms and molecules.

Breakage is a particular kind of 'disassembly', where taking the object apart involves force, rather than following the disassembly procedure which the item in question is designed to permit, e.g. when it is being serviced. A broken mobile phone is no longer able to perform its proper function. (If you like carving pretty patterns into it with your penknife, that is modification rather than breakage — the mobile phone still works.)

'But couldn't God make an unbreakable mobile phone?' In that case, it doesn't have 'screws'. Not only that, but the material isn't metal or plastic or any substance made of atoms or molecules, because as we have seen any material physically composed of atoms or molecules is capable in principle of being broken apart.

But, then, this is metaphysics, so we should not come to any conclusions which depend on assuming the truth of the laws of nature, which are themselves merely contingent, not necessary.

So, we are to suppose that the mobile phone isn't made of natural material, but supernatural material. Only God can work with supernatural material. In that case, if the mobile phone can't be taken apart or broken by any natural means, what about supernatural means? Can't God break asunder what he himself has made?

Here's a nice question which turns up on Ask a Philosopher from time to time. 'Can God make a stone that he cannot lift?' Or, 'Can God make an object which he cannot break?' The answer in both cases is, No. However, this does not entail a limitation of God's power, because the definition of an object which is 'unbreakable by a being who has the power to break any object', or 'unliftable by a being who has the power to lift any object', is self-contradictory. It is not a limitation of God's infinite power that he cannot 'break' the laws of logic. So the mobile phone is breakable either way, whether it's manufactured by Nokia or by God.

The Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus defined 'atoms' as metaphysically unbreakable. Each atom is an exemplification of the unchangeable One of Parmenides. The problem is that you can't just define an object with specified properties into existence. Atoms have a definite size. (The Atomists believed that there were 'atoms' of every size, including atoms the size of planets.) In that case, different parts of an atom occupy different parts of space. In that case, surely we can conceive of the logical possibility of those parts being separated.

(I guess it's possible that Wen was probably thinking more of the fact that valuable items such as mobile phones break too easily. Well, if you will insist on using your mobile phone in the bath! In that case, you'll have to ask Nokia. The reason why consumer items break so often is a question of economics rather than metaphysics.)

How about the question, 'Why am I me and not you?', or, 'Why can't I be you?'

In the case of the mobile phone we imagined, or tried to imagine, possible universes which were 'designed' to allow for unbreakable objects — the theist universe of natural and supernatural objects, or the Greek atomist universe of unbreakable atoms. In both cases, the design flaw is a purely logical or conceptual one. There is no logical way to make a universe to the specification required.

What would it take for me to be you, or to become you? Let's go back to our conversation. My consciousness floats free, and enters into your head. Now I'm you seeing me. But wait a minute: in order to be you, to be really you, I can't bring any of my me-thoughts with me. All the thoughts I think must be your thoughts. So that rules out me thinking, 'Hey, now I know what it is like to be someone else!' Before, there was you, thinking your thoughts, then afterwards there is someone who looks identical to you, stands exactly where you stand, experiences all the experiences you experience, thinks all the thoughts that you think. How on earth can that person not be you?

Maybe there is a way. Once again, we have to 'imagine a universe'. In this universe, human beings have physical bodies, and brains which enable them to experience, feel and think. But they also have something else, the I-factor. (In some respects, the idea of an 'I-factor' is similar to the Atman of Hindu philosophy, but I won't make anything of this.) It is possession of the I-factor which makes me me. My I-factor could have been born in your body, in which case I would have been you. Or, indeed, my I-factor can 'leave' me and 'enter' you. The peculiar thing about this, as we have already observed, is that this isn't an 'experience' in the normal sense.

It looks like we are going to have to bring God in again. (Always a sure sign of desperation.) I can never 'know what it is like' for my I-factor to be 'in' you. But God, or so we imagine, 'sees' my I-factor in me and your I-factor in you, and is perfectly capable, should he choose to do so, of swapping the I-factors around. Let's not ask why would God possibly want to do this. Let's say he does it just for fun. Why can't God do things for fun sometimes? It suffices that he can. But can he? I don't think so, and I don't think Xiaoqing thinks so either. The idea of a transferable I-factor, as I have defined it, is the purest nonsense.

That's the reason why I am me and not you, and you are you and not me. It's a logical, conceptual reason. You can't make a universe where things are any different from the way they actually are — with respect to me being me and not you, or with respect to things being breakable — because you have failed to give a coherent description of the alleged properties of such an alternative universe, other than one which merely begs the question.

Geoffrey Klempner


(31) Ashley asked:

Do you believe in god?


No, I don't.

In the first place, I have never found the God premise a necessary foundation upon which to base an understanding, or a prediction of, the world around me. I have always found Naturalistic explanations far more accurate, comprehensible, and useful. By Ockham's Razor, therefore, I have chosen to reject the God Premise. (Ockham's Razor — 'entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem' — the principle that 'entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity' — the simplest explanation tends to be the best one.)

In the second place, I have never encountered a meaningful description of other people's understanding of the 'God' concept that I have not found to be internally logically self-contradictory. Consider, as just one example, the 'problem of evil'. The existence of evil in the world is logically inconsistent with the premise that God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

In the third place, I have found that many of the efforts I have encountered to provide a logically consistent description of the God concept, result in descriptions of a God that is unworthy of my respect or admiration. This seems to be inconsistent with the concept intended for God by those who provided the descriptions. As but one example, it is easy to argue that what we consider 'evil' is actually a 'necessary evil' by God's standards in her effort to create the best possible world. But if that is the case, then God, for her own professedly omnibenevolent reasons, tolerates a degree of evil in the world that would be intolerable to any reasonable person. Such a God is hardly worthy of our respect and admiration, in my judgement.

In the fourth place, I am a very curious soul. I like to know why. I like the process of finding out why. I like the idea that I could find out why, even if I can't right now. But the God concept is an inquiry stopper. God is, by any definition I have ever encountered, incomprehensible, unexplainable, and beyond the reach of rational inquiry. I do not like the notion that there may be elements of the world that are, by definition, beyond my comprehension. It may turn out that there are in fact elements of the world that are beyond my comprehension. But I prefer to proceed on the basis that there aren't. Inquiry is pointless if it is given there is no comprehensible answer.

Stuart Burns


(32) Lubheen asked:

I was wondering if someone can check my assignment for me. The argument given for the philosophy assignment is:

Every event must have a cause. Hence an event a must have as cause some event b, which in turn must have a cause c, and so on. But if there is no end to this backward progression of causes, the progression will be infinite,and in the opinion of those who use the argument, an infinite series of actual events is unintelligible and absurd. Hence there must be a first cause, and this first cause is god, the initiator of all change in the universe. We had to break this down and make an argument summary in the form of premise/ conclusion depending on however many premises and conclusions I can find. This is what I have as my argument summary:

P Every event must have a cause
P Every cause leads to another cause
P Event A would cause event B
P Event B would cause event C
P The events would happen in the form of a series
P These series of events and causes would progress forever
P The progression of a series forward is infinite
P The progression of a series backward is infinite
P The argument of progression of a series of events going to infinite is unintelligible and absurd

C Thus there must be a first cause to initiate the series of events and causes.
C The first cause is God, the initiator of all change.

If someone can give me some feedback on how my argument summary is and if it needs any changes, that would be really helpful.


Your argument restructuring has too many premises, not enough conclusions, and no indication of the logical relation between premises and conclusions. Try this out for size. It may not be perfect, but it will give you a better basis from which to build your own improvement.

P0: A cause is an event.
P1: Every event must have a cause.
C1: Every event X(i) must have as a cause, an event X(i-1). [From P0 and P1]

P2: An unending iteration is infinite. [definition] C2: The iterated sequence of causes is infinite. [From C1 and P2]

P3: an infinite series of actual events is unintelligible and absurd. [unchallengeable??] C3: C2 is unintelligible and absurd. [From C2, P3]

P4: A proposition that is unintelligible and absurd is false. [unchallengeable??] C4: C2 is false. [From C3 and P4]

LL: A false conclusion entails at least one false premise. [Law of Logic] C4A: P1 is false. [From C4 and LL, and the arbitrary selection of P1]

NP1: There is at least one event that does not have a cause. [negation of P1] NC1: Not every event X(i) must have as a cause, an event X(i-1). [From P0 and NP1]

P5: 'God' is an uncaused event.
C5: 'God' terminates the iteration of causes [From NC1 and P5]

Note that while C4A concludes that P1 is the false premise, the argument also depends on the truth of P3 and P4. Consider what happens to this argument if it is either of P3 or P4 that is taken to be false, instead of P1.

Note also that concluding that the 'uncaused cause' is to be called 'God' does not entail any of the characteristics traditionally associated with our common conception of God. Note also that if P1 is false, it is logically possible for there to be more than one uncaused event — multiple Gods?

You can, of course, have some fun by adding more of the 'hidden' premises that this argument includes.

Stuart Burns


(33) Malcolm asked:

How is it possible to convey profoundly original philosophical insights with sufficient clarity so that anyone can understand them?


It isn't possible at all.

Almost all people, almost all of the time, couldn't care less about philosophical insights, original or otherwise, profound or mundane. Hence, most people will never make the effort to read, let alone understand, whatever you or anyone else may write in an effort to convey some insight hoped to be profound and original.

The best that we can hope for is that if we try to be as clear as possible, as simple as possible, and approach the insightful idea from as many different angles as possible, at least one other person will have the interest and intelligence to try to understand what was written. If there is one other person who is willing to try, we might, through an iterated process of question and answer, challenge and response, get to a point that someone else besides ourself might actually understand the insight — profound or not, original or not.

But don't let that stop you from trying! Good Luck in your efforts.

Stuart Burns


(34) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman intro to philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with todays academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book... to me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of so I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system.If u could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life...


Well, let's look at it: Somebody who thought exactly as you do was Socrates. He too was asking for 'a more ethical and reasoning life.' Thus start from the Platonic dialogues to feel encouraged.

Looking inward seems not the best thing to do. You better look outward. Looking inward would make you self-centered, but you should be critical and explorative.

Now what is philosophy all about? We are always arguing — explicitly so on this conference, but there are many dozens of similar conference all over the world going on. So many questions ! Any such debate is critical in itself if the spectrum of opinions is sufficiently broad as in a parliament, and participants fiercely oppose each other. Then whatever you propose and claim, you will find people who object and call your positions and arguments weak and faulty and unacceptable. So you have to improve and hone your arguments. And this by itself is good ! Where do you find opponents if you are looking inwards? There are people who like to hear followers saying 'yes, you are bright and right !' But I prefer people who say 'no, you are wrong, I don't find your argument convincing !' If you prefer to be surrounded by people of your conviction, then go to the religious forum. True philosophy is not comfortable — for nobody. You must learn to swallow your vanities and to be beaten for your sloppy and faulty arguments all the time.

But you are right on one thing: Most of modern philosophy is boring formal analysis. To defend this analysis, I first put the answer of a physics professor from Mexico here. After reading my recurrent assaults at 'analytic philosophy' he wrote:

'I did Philosophy at the University of London and now and then I teach philosophy at several Mexican universities. You have no idea how much I miss the 'analytic philosophy' view of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Very often, in continental tradition countries such as Mexico, philosophy students are just 'intoxicated' with ill digested ideas simply because they lack the necessary tools to rigorously study a philosophical problem. In my view to initiate the study of philosophy within the rigor of analytic tradition is the best any student can do, even if later on he/she decides to drop it.'

I wholeheartedly agree to this evaluation. But of course you can overdo every good thing.

As I use to say: 'Don't moralize — analyze !' You may call for 'more liberty and more justice and more well being !', but you should think a bit what you call 'liberty' or 'justice' or 'well being'. Philosophy is not about good feelings but about good arguments. So you have to know the difference of sound and clear as compared to sloppy and weak arguments. What are we speaking of? Usually people debating 'justice' start from different assumptions of what they call such, and all sorts of misunderstandings ensue. Thus analytic philosophy helps to clarify the philosophical discourse.

In a sense analytic philosophy to a large part is no philosophy at all. Look at it this way: To become a great pianist, you have to do many hours of exercising. But those exercises are not what we expect to hear. What we want to hear are some sonatas or concerts. In this sense analytic philosophy is a series of exercises mostly, and the general reader rightly expects to see the results exemplified in a great work of 'real' philosophy. But the concept-analysis and the analysis of 'the problems that haunt us' cannot be separated easily. As critics of art use to say: Form and content most often fall into one. But this is difficult stuff.

Great philosophers provide questions and answers that make us see the world in a new light or from a new perspective, and new worlds we never saw before.

Hubertus Fremerey


(35) JohnD asked:

The existential crisis is not resolvable barring suicide We are bound to continue living in this absurd world sprung from an unknown, that's just so ridiculous, so stupid, a circus really, or to suicide. Sisyphus is bound to roll his boulder up, see it roll down, and start over again for eternity. It may be enough to occupy a life, but what good does it do, considering everything? I don't think there's a true answer can be given. Is it possible to argue that to suicide is not a valid response to the world? So, what comes next?

Progress, increase, advance? Space, the final frontier? More? Bigger? Larger?

It's enough to bring the strongest person to their knees How about philosophy? An attempt. understandable enough,surely, to possess, a chase, a hunt. Ultimately however, I'm torn, I do not think it's possible to argue against nihilism. What response do you give?


There are many arguments against nihilism however you would have to be prepared to study philosophy for some time in order to evaluate them.

It is important not to confuse philosophical nihilism with suicidal depression. Suicidal depression is a neurosis which requires treatment. It is common for people suffering from suicidal depression to latch on to the ideas of philosophical nihilism in order to give an air of intellectual respectability to their psychological illness but this is just a failure on their part to understand nihilism and a failure to recognise their own real unhappiness.

When Camus wrote about the Myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the ultimate futility of existence he did not conclude it by writing on the last page 'So let's all go and kill ourselves'. In fact Camus had a very full life, besides writing philosophical works he was a footballer who also wrote some of the most important novels of the last century. As far as I know he enjoyed life and wasn't suicidally depressed.

People who are so unhappy that they kill themselves certainly deserve our sympathy but there is no reason to see them as having arrived at a courageous decision about solving life's problems.

Young children are prone to a superstitious belief that if you can't see something then it doesn't exist. When faced with something unpleasant children will often close their eyes or put their hands over their eyes. However adults know that the problem doesn't disappear just because you refuse to look at it. Suicidal people are also inclined to the childish belief that the only way to solve their problems is to remove themselves from existence. This is as irrational as thinking that if you have flu, you can cure it by committing suicide. After all if you are dead you don't have the flu any more, do you?

Shaun Williamson


(36) Cornelius asked:

If the universe gave rise to intelligence, and the discerning quality of intelligence is purpose, then could be argued that the universe has a purpose? In light of the questions surrounding our origin, could that purpose be to reflect the existence of a greater intelligence?


Your questions are a classical (i.e. typical) example of what I call 'sloppy thinking and arguing'. So look at how analytic philosophy is working here:

'The universe' is not well defined, but I will assume for the moment that you mean 'the accepted model' of a world resulting from the Big Bang and developing atoms and molecules and stars and planets and then 'somehow' life on some planets, as f.i. on Earth. I leave it at that, but note that 'the universe' has to be defined in this or a similar way. This is not trivial, since other philosophers define the universe in a different way, assuming God or 'the weltgeist' or something like that as part of their explanation, or rejecting the 'Big Bang' and evolution etc..

Then what do you call intelligence? The earthworm and even less developed animals like protozoa surely display 'purposeful behaviour', but would you call them 'intelligent'? If not, then you don't need intelligence to explain purposeful behaviour.

But if humans (and some animals like dogs and cats and apes and dolphins etc.) are 'intelligent beings', then you are right in stating that 'the universe gave rise to intelligence'. But what is showing purpose here: Those 'intelligent beings' or 'the universe'? If 'intelligent beings' show 'purposeful behaviour', this does not give us a right to speak of 'the universe' showing 'purposeful behaviour'.

Intelligence clearly is an advantage in the ongoing contest of living beings for a better positions in the food chain, but this does not include that nature as a whole had any intentions to bring forth thinking beings. If intelligent beings were possible at all, then they became probable at the same time because of the enormous superiority of the intelligent being when compared to the unintelligent. But this was an automatic result, not an intended one.

Thus it does not follow from the existence of intelligent beings that there must be some intentional 'intelligent Creator'.

On the other hand, the very fact that the laws of nature allow for the existence of atoms and of life and intelligence remains a great wonder. While we may and should be aware with awe and humility of this wonder, it does not bear to our understanding to call the origin of this wonder 'god', while we may do so of course.

Thus to speak of a 'greater intelligence' ('God') does not add anything to our understanding of this world or of the existence of 'intelligent beings'. We would have to explain 'Who created this greater intelligence?' and then 'who created the creator of this greater intelligence?' and so on ad infinitum. It's just another 'stack of tortoises'. We simply do not know. And in my opinion this is a good philosophical attitude: To accept some limits to meaningful questions and to let the place of the answer void.

Hubertus Fremerey


(37) Seth asked:

A Philosopher known for question why?


A philosopher who asks the question why would have to be a stupid, dumb philosopher. 'Why?' isn't a question although given a context it can imply a question. Suppose I knock you down and you say Why' then I can assume that you are asking 'Why did you knock me down?'.

Given no context at all there is no intelligible question to answer and anyone who thinks that there is is seriously deluded.

Shaun Williamson


(38) Doug asked:

How can you prove that you are awake right now, and not dreaming?


Why would I want to prove this and who would I want to prove it to? In mathematics and logic we have proofs and maybe in law courts we also have a different sort of proof e.g I prove that I wasn't at the scene of the crime etc.

Suppose we are both in the same room and you say to me 'Are you awake?' then I can answer 'Yes' and that shows that I am not asleep. I could also answer 'No' and that would also show that I am not asleep.

There is a general rule in life. People who are asleep can't answer your questions.

Shaun Williamson


(39) Brian asked:

I was talking to someone the other day and we stumbled on a question which like all good ones seems so obvious once it is asked, but which has stumped me:

How is comparison possible?

What is it to compare one thing with another — do we compare things or properties of things? can we only compare like with like? but if so haven't we already presupposed a comparison?

Is comparison a basic 'category'? is it prior or anterior to other concepts e.g. identity, difference, metaphor.

Which philosophers discuss the methodology of comparison?


Is this one of the 'good ones'? I've already picked it as the Ask a Philosopher Prize Question for February — the best of a not terrifically great bunch — but I'm still not sure just how good a philosophical question it is. Let's see.

How do you compare two peas in a pod? Or apples and oranges? Or my ear and the moon? 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?...'

Are we dealing with a basic logical category, like identity and difference? or could it be even more basic? or is it merely derived?

Ricoeur wrote a book on metaphor (The Rule of Metaphor 1981). I can't imagine a philosopher writing a book on comparison. There's something meaty about metaphor. Comparison seems too general a topic, compared with metaphor. But that's just my first reaction. I could be wrong.

Let's start with something easy. Does comparison have a methodology? Let's say I run a research team for a washing powder manufacturer. One of the things we might regularly do is compare different formulations of washing powder. Because this is a laboratory and not a laundry, the tests have to be strictly controlled, and the points of comparison clearly defined. Powder A is more effective on egg stains than Powder B at 40 degrees Centigrade.

However, a consumer might be more interested in which powder makes clothes smell nicer. How do you test this? what methodology do you apply? I read somewhere that deodorant manufacturers employ people to sniff the armpits of volunteers, in order to determine which formulation is more effective at preventing offensive odour. The training may not be quite as rigorous as for wine tasters but the job still requires a special skill. The aim is to get as objective an assessment as is possible given the inherent subjectivity of judgements of nice or nasty smell.

In order to make a specific comparison, a methodology may or may not be appropriate. In choosing the Prize Question of the month, I simply go through all the questions in my email in-box and make a short list. Then I run through the short list two or three times and pick the one I consider the best. That's how I chose Brian's. I didn't employ a 'methodology'. I just used my judgement. (There was a question on solipsism which I quite liked, but the questioner seemed a bit too confused: it wasn't sufficiently clear what the question was.)

But we're still circling round the problem. Brian seems to think that there is a potential paradox here: 'can we only compare like with like? but if so haven't we already presupposed a comparison?'

'You're comparing apples and oranges' is something you'd say to someone who asks for a comparison between two things which are too unlike to form a sensible judgement. But you can still compare apples with oranges: you can ask which fruit is richer in Vitamin C, or which is better value at the local supermarket this week. However, that presupposes that you have already identified applies as 'like' oranges in respect of their nutrition, or as value for money. Then again, you can compare an apple with a tennis ball (both good for a game of catch, although apples don't bounce).

We don't first acquire concepts and then discover that things falling under different concepts can be compared. They are different aspects of one and the same skill.

The ability to apply a concept, like 'red' or 'fragile' or 'intelligent', involves the ability to compare red things, or different objects with respect to their fragility, or different people with respect to their intelligence. But how do you do this? Doesn't the ability to make comparisons presuppose that you have a standard — e.g. for what counts as red, or fragile, or intelligent? But then, how do we judge that the standard is the correct standard for the thing it's for?

In the opening pages of The Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein considers the following case:

If I give someone the order 'fetch me a red flower from that meadow', how is he to know what sort of flower to bring, as I've only given him a word?

Now the answer one might suggest first is that he went to look for a red flower carrying a red image in his mind, and comparing it with the flowers to see which of them had the colour of the image.

Blue and Brown Books Blackwell, 1969 p.3

Well, what's so wrong with that?

...consider the order 'imagine a red patch'. You are not tempted in this case to think that before obeying you must have imagined a red patch to serve you as a pattern for the red patch which you were ordered to imagine.


Wittgenstein is making an important point here about the nature of concepts. My ability to recognize, e.g. a red flower as 'red' is, partly, what my grasp of the concept of red — or, in the linguistic mode, my understanding of the use of the word 'red' — consists in. The idea that I need an internal standard of red to compare red things with in order to tell whether or not they are red leads to a vicious regress.

I think Brian was kind of hoping that the concept of comparison is paradoxical because of the implicit threat of a vicious regress. Well, there isn't one, and it isn't. At least, not for that reason.

Concept use involves judgements of 'identity' and 'difference'. You can't be said to have a concept unless you are able to make judgements about the things that fall under the concept (identity) or the things that do not fall under it (difference). The ability to make judgements of numerical as opposed to qualitative identity and difference — the 'same man' or 'same horse' — is somewhat more sophisticated. Aristotle was the first philosopher to really explore this topic.

Imagine a world much simpler than the actual world, where objects differ only in kind and not in degree. There is no 'more' or 'less' (except in a strictly numerical sense), no 'shades', no borderline cases. In short, no scope for comparing which of two objects is closer to some given standard. In this imaginary world, for any concept F, and any object x, either x is an example of F, or x is not an example of F. There is no other possibility.

I have just demonstrated (I think!) that the concept of comparison is not derived from the concepts of identity and difference. As I conceded, even in this imaginary world, you can compare numbers: there can be more objects which satisfy a given description or concept than those which don't. Numerical comparison is a matter of simple arithmetic. I think Brian would agree that that isn't the notion of 'comparison' he had in mind.

For the same reason, I don't think we can say that identity and difference are derived from the concept of comparison. In the simple universe, objects either match (or satisfy) or fail to match (or satisfy) a given description or concept. Which leaves one remaining alternative: that comparison is an equally basic category, alongside identity and difference. That seems to make sense.

In the more complex universe we inhabit, objects fall at different points on a smoothly sliding scale with respect to a given concept or quality. Things are vague, blurred, have fuzzy edges. This is a huge philosophical topic. When logicians and philosophers of language debate the topic of vagueness, it can sometimes seem as if the existence of expressions which do not have a precise definition is an unfortunate quirk of ordinary language. Frege, the father of modern logic thought so. Two centuries earlier, Leibniz dreamed of a characteristica universalis, a form of precise notation which would render every philosophical problem soluble (see www.follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_7.html).

But this gets things completely back to front. In the real world, things are not simply, 'F' or 'not-F' without qualification. They are more or less good examples of F, with the less good examples shading off into cases where it's difficult to form an opinion, which in turn shade off into cases which look more like not so good examples of not-F. While the canonical forms of human language appear to cut things up into the categories of 'same' and 'different', ordinary reality contradicts and subverts this ideological image at every turn.

Aristotle viewed human beings as creatures who categorize. To be rational is to possess the ability to sort things into species and genera, or recognize a valid syllogism. But it is surely closer to the truth to regard human beings as creatures who compare and evaluate. This was something Aristotle did consider, especially with regard to ethics. But ultimately, in an Aristotelian universe, logic comes first.

— It has just occurred to me that the 'golden mean' is Aristotle's contribution to the methodology of comparison. A brilliantly simple but deep idea. A topic for another question, perhaps.

Good question, Brian.

Geoffrey Klempner


(40) Mspano asked:

Can you help me with the understanding of this following paragraph from Chapter 18 in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan:

But a man may here object, that the condition of subjects
is very miserable; as being obnoxious to the lusts, and other
irregular passions of him, or them that have so unlimited
a power in their hands. And commonly they that live under a monarch,
think it the fault of monarchy; and they that live [5]
under the government of democracy, or other sovereign assembly,
attribute all the inconvenience to that form of commonwealth;
whereas the power in all forms, if they be perfect enough
to protect them, is the same: not considering that the state
of man can never be without some incommodity or other; and [10]
that the greatest, that in any form of government can possibly
happen to the people in general, is scarce sensible, in respect
of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a
civil war, or that dissolute condition of masterless men,
without subjection to laws, and a coercive power to tie their [15]
hands from rapine and revenge: nor considering that the greatest
pressure of sovereign governors, proceedeth not from any delight,
or profit they can expect in the damage or weakening of their
subjects, in whose vigour, consisteth their own strength and
glory; but in the restiveness of themselves, that unwillingly [20]
contributing to their own defence, make it necessary for their
governors to draw from them what they can in time of peace,
that they may have means on any emergent occasion, or sudden
need, to resist, or take advantage on their enemies. For all
men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses, [25]
that is their passions and selflove, through which, every
little payment appeareth a great grievance; but are destitute
of those prospective glasses, namely moral and civil science,
to see afar off the miseries that hang over them, and cannot
without such payments be avoided. [30]

What is his argument structured as?


In Chapter 18 of the Leviathan, Hobbes outlines the rights of the Sovereign.

In the passage cited, Hobbes is writing of the necessity of having government and the violent, destructive consequences of its absence.

In lines:

1-5, The condition of subjects may be called miserable and such subjects may attribute their misery and all their inconveniences to the government — whether it be on of Monarchy or democracy.

5-10. Yet the state of man in the Commonwealth can never be without some inconvenience or other. This inconvenience is incomparable to the inconveniences that arises in the absence of laws and the coercive power of government to enforce them — as in for example, in Civil War, or where there is 'mob rule' of masterless men.

10-15. Anything the Sovereign does is not to delight in the weakening or damaging of his subjects. He would be stupid to do this as he needs them for his own strength and glory.

20-25. So, if people are unwilling to obey the Sovereign thereby contributing to their own defence in times of peace, then of course the Sovereign will be compelled to 'draw from them what they can' so they will be able to resist and take advantages of enemies in times of war.

25-30. Men are by nature so shortsighted that they can't understand obeying the Sovereign and his dictates is not a great grievance or too great a payment to be made so as to avoid the miseries that would occur without such payments: the collapse of government and the return of the natural war of all against all.

Martin Jenkins


(41) Cynthia asked:

How is it true that the position of Darwinism disproved the divine creator and the great talks of Ionians philosophers?


I am not too sure to what you are referring by 'the great talks of Ionians philosophers', but I can hazard a guess. I suspect you might be referring to the theories of the ancient Greek philosophers that the Universe was ultimately (in the final analysis) made out (or consisted of, or constituted by) water (Thales of Miletus ca. 624-546 BCE), or fire (Heraclitus ca. 535-475 BCE)), the indefinite or apeiron (Anaximander ca. 610-546 BCE) or Earth, Fire, Water, and Air (Empedocles ca. 450 BCE), etc. If my guess is off the mark, perhaps you might like to clarify?

I don't think that it is correct to claim that Darwin's theory of the evolution of species by differential reproductive success actually 'disproves' either the theories of the Ionians, or the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious doctrine of the Divine Creator.

Darwin's theory (or 'Darwinism' if you prefer) offers an explanation for the diversity of species that does not rely on super-natural principles, forces, or management. As such, it is in direct conflict with the religious doctrine of a Divine Creator. (Hence the ire raised in the minds of the religious fundamentalists.) But it is not in any essential conflict with the theories of the Ionians as to the fundamental constituents of the world.

One scientific theory does not (usually) directly 'disprove' another. What usually happens is that one scientific theory offers a better (more elegant, more useful) explanation of past observations, and a better (more specific, more extensive, more useful) basis upon which to predict the future. Copernicus' Sun-centered theory of the solar system did not disprove the Ptolemaic Earth-centered one. It just made it obsolete for most purposes because Sun-Centered astronomy gives a simpler explanation for most past observations and a more accurate prediction of most future observations. (In fact we still use a Ptolemaic Earth-centered system for certain celestial navigation tasks — assuming that the sky rotates about the Earth makes navigating by the stars a simpler calculation. But then, celestial navigation ignores the positions of the planets.)

What rendered obsolete the theories of the Ionians were discoveries by the Alchemists of the Middle Ages. If all things are composed of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, then there should be some way to change one lump of stuff into a lump of some other kind of stuff — say gold. In their efforts to discover the appropriate means of turning stuff into gold, they kept finding that what was commonly thought to be simple stuff, was actually made out of combinations of other stuffs. And that these more basic 'stuffs' could not be broken down further, nor changed into anything else. Instead of the Ionian's all-encompassing 'Earth, Air, Fire and Water', the Alchemists found a couple of dozen basic and un-transmutable 'stuffs' out of which the rest of familiar things were made. These days, we know these 'stuffs' as the elements of the periodic table, and we know that there are 118 of them (at last count, at least — some of which exist only very briefly, and some of which are artificially created).

So Darwinism did not disprove 'the great talks of Ionians philosophers'. It was the work of the Alchemists that demonstrated that there was more to the Universe than just Earth, Air, Fire and Water. At least on a practical level. On a different level, since all these elements are the products of stellar 'cooking', and the hypothesized 'Big Bang' started as a 'fire' of sorts, we could argue that Heraclitus was actually right in thinking that the Universe is fundamentally made of Fire. Or we could argue that since the Universe is supposed to be infinite in extent, and the Human intellect is suggested to be infinite in capability, that Anaximander was right to think that the Universe fundamentally consists of the indefinite.

What rendered obsolete the religious doctrine of supernatural Divine Creation was Darwin's naturalistic theory of evolution by natural selection. A naturalistic explanation of any phenomenon is preferable to a supernatural one, if one's purpose is to understand and predict. A supernatural explanation of anything ends all inquiry. A supernatural explanation of anything is, by definition, beyond our comprehension and immune to further investigation. A naturalistic explanation of some phenomenon (even if wrong) is open to and invites further investigation.

Since almost all of the phenomena that previously was 'explained' by the Divine Creation doctrine, can be explained naturalistically by Darwinism, the latter theory has supplanted the former in any field where investigation, explanation, or prediction is desired. This does not mean that Darwinism has 'disproved' the doctrine of Divine Creation unless one is willing to take a fairly relaxed interpretation of the meaning of 'disprove'. The doctrine of Divine Creation is still usefully maintained within its religious sphere, where accuracy of prediction and openness to inquiry are not issues.

Stuart Burns


(42) Lucy asked:

Why do effects happen after causes and not before? Could an effect ever precede its cause?


In order to answer this question, it is necessary to come to some understanding on just exactly what is a 'cause' and an 'effect'. There are a number of different theories of causality that would provide different answers to your questions, and those differences are based primarily on different understandings as to what constitutes a cause or an effect.

Here is one example: A 'cause' and an 'effect' are events. And an event is a change in at least one property of a concrete particular from one time T1 to an adjacent time T2. (Note that this definition is time symmetric.) According to philosophers Dowe, Salmon, Schaffer, and Fair (among others), all change requires energy and emits energy. According to Einstein, energy (understood to include momentum) is the only universally conserved property of space-time. Causation is then best understood as a matter of the flow of energy from the cause event to the effect event. The property change that is the cause event is the source of the energy that initiates the change in property that is the effect event. This is, of course, not the only (or even the most popular) theory of causation. (And I have over-simplified outrageously.) But if this theory is taken as correct, then the reason that effect events happen after cause events is that energy, by definition, flows only in the positive temporal direction. An effect event could never precede a cause event, because energy does not flow backward in time. (Although this last statement is debatable.)

Here is another example from the other end of the spectrum of theories: David Hume maintained that our notions of cause and effect are a consequence of habituation to the observation that one event of type C seems always to be succeeded by another event of type E. And in Hume's ontology, an 'event' is whatever we choose to call an event. (I am grossly over-simplifying, of course.) If Hume's approach is correct, then causes always precede effects because the label 'cause' is used to identify the event that we first experience, while 'effect' is used to identify the event that we experience later. The temporal sequence of the events dictates the labels we use to identify them. Hence it would not be possible, by definition, for an effect to precede a cause.

If you don't like either of these theories, then you are going to have to do your own research. There is plenty of material out there waiting for you. A good start would be the Wikipedia entry on 'causality'.

Stuart Burns


(43) Malcolm asked:

Is the UN universal human rights too individualistically centered? As in some cultures the group is more important than the one. Some people in Asian and Eastern cultures seem offended toward western culture, even though we have good intentions. Should we create one culture or embrace each others cultures and just be very tolerant toward each other?


Your first question was whether the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is too individualistically centered. By the very nature of what that document pretends to be, it is supposed to stipulate the rights of the individual — the protections that the individual is due in defence against the majority, and defence against the dictator. It is directed towards 'the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family' and 'the dignity and worth of the human person.' And Article 3 states: 'Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.' Hence, it is intended to be individualistic, and cannot therefore be too individualistically oriented.

In fact, the UN Universal Declaration of Rights is not nearly individualistic enough. Like all international compromises, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. Consider, for example Article 22 — 'Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.'

This article was clearly added by the communistic cultures. It offers an open legitimization to any efforts on the part of the state (or any social group within the state) to seize and expropriate without compensation any economic or cultural assets deemed 'indispensable' for the dignity and development of personality for some anonymous beneficiary. This legislated entitlement is not only a blank cheque granted to every citizen of every country on the assets and productivity of every other person, it is also incompatible with the rights granted in Article 3 (the right to life and liberty), Article 4 (the freedom from slavery and servitude), and Article 17 (the right to own property). This article grants to every government a legally justifiable claim to the assets and productivity of every person. It renders 'non-arbitrary' any seizure of assets (violations of Article 17), any imposed servitude (violations of Article 4), and any constraints that may be placed on the individual citizen's ability to protect their life and liberty (violations of Article 3).

And consider another addition by the communistic cultures Article 25.1 — 'Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.' The problem here, of course, is that there is no place in the Declaration where it specifies how these 'economic rights' are to be paid for. This, again, is similar to Article 22. It grants to all claimants license to take without adequate compensation the products of the creativity and/or labour of any productive citizen.

As a declaration of the Human Rights, the document is a joke. It grants the enemies of the individual all the legal license necessary to enslave the individual, even though it proclaims in Article 4 — 'No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.' While on the one hand proclaiming in Article 1 that 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights', it also proclaims in Articles 22, 23, 25, and 26 that nations should be governed by the principles of 'equality of outcomes' — granting to the less well positioned a license to demand compensation from the better positioned simply on the basis that they have not earned it.

Your second question was whether we should create one culture or embrace each other's cultures and just be very tolerant toward each other. In an important sense, of course, by creating a culture where we 'embrace each others cultures and just be very tolerant toward each other' we just are creating a single culture. This sense of understanding the question is important just because it is the creation of such a new culture, with its attitude of tolerance towards others, that is objected to as quite foreign to many extant cultures in the world. For example, despite many contrary passages in the Koran, most of the Islamic cultures would object to this 'new' culture. Most Islamic cultures draw on religious principles to justify a more or less intolerant attitude towards the rights for women, or the rights of the 'infidel'. (Islamic culture is even more or less intolerant towards the rights of private ownership of property — viz. the Sharia laws against 'usury'.)

Proposing a universal culture based on the principle of 'tolerance towards each other' is proposing that all people, regardless of their 'native' culture adopt the moral principle that every person is due equal regard for their person, dignity, and legal rights. This is not a popular proposal — even within those supposed paragons of Western Democracy as the United States, Britain, and Canada. (A glance at a summary of the Patriot Act in the United States, or the status of Native Peoples in Canada should convince any doubters.)

We do not need a 'Declaration of the Rights of the Collective'. Governments, demanding as they do the exclusive prerogative on the legitimate use of force, have no need for such a declaration. States have the capability of doing almost whatever those who rule please. What we need is a 'Declaration of the Rights of Individuals in Defence Against the Collective'. That is what Declarations of Human Rights are supposed to be. That is how the first such declarations (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a fundamental document of the French Revolution) were thought of. That is how they are used, when they are allowed to be used. Defending the individual against the excesses of the State or the unreasoning Mob is what a Declaration of Human Rights is for. We can't even begin to create a culture of 'tolerance towards each other' until we recognize where the threats are coming from.

Stuart Burns


(44) Olaide asked:

How and why is man morally obligated to his natural environment?


In order to address your question properly, I would need to know from which system of morality you would like to approach the answer. Providing this information would tell me just what you mean by a 'moral obligation', and whether in principle a person could be morally obligated towards something that is not another person. Some systems of morality maintain that morality is a matter between people, and not between people and things. (Utilitarianism would be one example). Some systems of morality would maintain that 'moral obligation' is not something that can exist between a moral agent and a non-moral agent.

Other systems of morality (like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic) are silent on the possibility of a moral obligation towards something like the natural environment. Genesis 1:26 — 'Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'' And Genesis 1:28 — 'God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'' Clearly, in this religious tradition, Man has the moral obligation to subdue and rule over the natural environment. But then the Bible does not go into very much detail on just what kinds of obligations this entails. On the one hand, it could be argued that this grants to Man a moral obligation to exploit the natural environment to the best of his ability. On the other hand, it could be argued that this grants to Man the moral obligation of ensuring that there remains a natural environment to subdue and rule over.

Yet other systems of morality are self-interest based. (Aristotle's Eudaimonia, and Evolutionary Ethics would be a couple of examples.) These would argue that maintaining a flourishing natural environment is ultimately in our own long term best interests, and therefore conclude that Man has an obligation to himself to ensure that there remains a flourishing natural environment. Of course this is not an obligation to his natural environment, but an obligation to himself about that environment.

So, how and why (and if) man is morally obligated to his natural environment will depend on just how you view morality, and moral obligations. Please feel free to provide further guidance as to which way you would like to approach this topic.

Stuart Burns


(45) Candice asked:

I have two questions:

1st — Is this an example of a proposition: 'Which way did he go?'

2nd — Are propositions made up of arguments?


Clearly, you are asking for some guidance on the nature of propositions, since the answer to both of your questions is 'No!'

Proposition — '5. Logic. a. A statement in which the subject is affirmed or denied by the predicate. b. Something that is expressed in a statement, as opposed to the way it is expressed. c. A statement containing only logical constants and having a fixed truth-value.' The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition

As you can see from this excerpt from the dictionary, the philosophical meaning of the word 'proposition' is somewhat special. A sentence in English is usually intended to say something about Reality. But there can be more than one way in English to say the same thing. In philosophy, and especially epistemology, the word 'proposition' is used to refer to the sense or meaning of a sentence or statement irrespective of the words, sentence form, or even language or symbology employed.

Consider these two sets of sentences based on the children's book 'The Cat in the Hat'.

The hat is on the cat. Take the hat off the cat.
The cat is wearing a hat. Where is the cat in the hat?
The hat is being worn by the cat. Is the hat on the cat?
The cat is the one wearing the hat. I hate a cat in a hat.
The cat is what the hat is on. I love the cat's hat.
The cat is in a hat. Put the hat on the cat.

Now consider these same sentences as if they were in French, or German, or Russian.

In each case, the words and the sentence structure are different. In the sentences on the left, a particular assertion is being explicitly stated. In the sentences on the right, the same relationship between the cat and the hat is being hidden within other forms of sentence. But in all cases, even in the different languages, the underlying sense or meaning of the relationship between the cat and the hat is the same. Propositions express relationships between concepts. In the example sentences about a cat and a hat, the proposition involved is the same, even when the sentence structure is a command to make the proposition true, or a question as to whether the proposition is true.

So called 'atomic' propositions involve just a single relationship concept, and the entity concepts to which the relationship applies. That is what makes them 'atomic' propositions. The simplest kind of atomic proposition involves just three concepts — it expresses the thought that one concept stands in a particular conceptual relation to another concept. More specifically, it expresses the thought that the existents subsumed within the first concept stand in some particular relationship to the similarity characteristics that bound of the second concept. In the 'cat in the hat' proposition, there are three concepts involved (the 'cat', the 'hat', and the relationship of 'in' or 'is on', etc.), and the proposition expresses a particular relationship between those concepts.

You cannot utter or think of a sentence or a statement without expressing some relationship between concepts. And the contents of that relationship is just an atomic proposition. More complex propositions are composed of some number of atomic propositions. The proposition 'Alice hopes that Bob comes between five and six o'clock' contains two atomic propositions — p = 'Bob comes between five and six o'clock', and q = 'Alice hopes that p'. The words 'that', 'or', 'and', and similar connectives are a clear indication that an additional atomic proposition is involved.

So, in answer to your questions, 'Which way did he go?' is not itself a proposition. However it does imply the propositions 'He went some way' and 'you can tell me which way he went'. Propositions are not arguments. But arguments employ propositions.

Stuart Burns


(46) Malcolm asked:

What is the difference between a circular argument and begging the question? Please clarify.


In modern parlance, and in most modern text books on logic and the logical fallacies, the two terms ('begging the question or petitio principii' and 'circular argument or circulus in probando') are used interchangeably to indicate the logical fallacy of assuming (implicitly or explicitly ) that which is to be proved.

But Aristotle maintained that they were quite different. The Begging the Question fallacy is examined by Aristotle in Prior Analytics II, 64b, 34 — 65a, 9 — 'whenever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question'. The circular argument Aristotle explores in Prior Analytics II, 57b, 18 — 59b, 1. Aristotle does not consider it a fallacy, rather he treats it as a particular form of logical argument — 'Circular and reciprocal proof means proof by means of the conclusion, i.e. by converting one of the premises simply and inferring the premise which was assumed in the original syllogism' ... 'suppose it has been necessary to prove that A belongs to all C, and it has been proved through B; suppose that A should now be proved to belong to B by assuming that A belongs to C, and C to B-so A belongs to B: but in the first syllogism the converse was assumed, viz. that B belongs to C. Or suppose it is necessary to prove that B belongs to C, and A is assumed to belong to C, which was the conclusion of the first syllogism, and B to belong to A but the converse was assumed in the earlier syllogism, viz. that A belongs to B. In no other way is reciprocal proof possible.'

So for Aristotle (but not in modern parlance), circular reasoning is a valid form of reasoning that involves 'circling back' to one of the premises of a linked series of syllogisms and adopting the converse of one of the intermediate premises.

As I said, Aristotle did not recognize this form of reasoning as fallacious. But modern logicians would so label it.

Stuart Burns


(47) Tim asked:

George Collingwood saw history as a rational process but is it rational to ignore the fact that our absolute presuppositions may be true or false? If we say no then we are back to the problem of investigating absolute presuppositions without any of our own absolute presuppositions to start the enquiry.

Is there an answer to this problem? Can we investigate the truth of absolute presuppositions without any of our own absolute presuppositions?


This is a great question which takes me back to the time when I was writing my D.Phil thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning and reading everything I could lay my hand on which had anything to do with metaphysics. My supervisor was John McDowell. I was supposed to be writing something on the philosophy of language, but all I could see was theorists of meaning trying, and failing, to do metaphysics.

The only answer was to go to the source: Plato, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Whitehead, Heidegger.

The short answer to Tim's question — which I will explain in a minute — is that Collingwood hasn't 'ignored' the putative 'fact' that our absolute presuppositions may be true or false. According to Collingwood, truth is not 'correspondence with fact' but rather an answer to a question. Every question has presuppositions. Some of these are 'relative' and can therefore be questioned. But you can't question absolute presuppositions, because they are in a very real sense the ground you are standing on. There is no vantage point or place to stand from which one could regard one's absolute presuppositions as a 'proposition' with a 'truth value'.

It is understandable why many philosophers have regarded this as deeply unsatisfactory, and is the main reason why Collingwood has been branded a 'historicist' about metaphysics. Collingwood appears committed to the view that when we study the history of metaphysics, we are merely describing the thoughts of metaphysicians in relation to their time. There is no way to meaningfully raise the question whether these thoughts are 'true' or 'false' in a non-historically relative sense.

I first got onto Collingwood reading a book by Leslie Armour The Concept of Truth (Van Gorcum 1969), and Armour's follow-up book Logic and Reality (Van Gorcum 1972). I can highly recommend these to any philosophy student with a sense of adventure who is looking for a walk on the wild side, especially the second which attempts the (some would say) impossible feat of doing what Hegel attempted in his Science of Logic, only doing it right. This is thrilling stuff, speculative philosophy of the first order.

To get back to truth, Armour goes through all the standard theories of truth — correspondence, coherence, pragmatist — and finds each of them wanting, mainly for reasons which have been discussed in the literature, although with a few clever dinks of his own. So far, OK. But then he argues for a view which anyone who thought 'eclectic' was a word for something bad would be appalled by. Each of the theories is kind-of true, but lacks something. However, if you put all the theories together, you get something which approaches a true account of truth. Collingwood's theory of truth as 'an answer to a question' is the leavening in the cake.


I never got round to reading Collingwood's The Idea of History. I read and re-read An Essay on Metaphysics and An Autobiography. As with Armour, I can recommend these to any student who has an interest in metaphysics as a speculative, foundational inquiry.

One of McDowell's favourite quotes from Wittgenstein was:

If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'

Philosophical Investigations Para. 217

Wittgenstein is talking about explanations you can give for why you follow a certain rule. But he could just as easily have been talking about Collingwood's 'absolute presuppositions'. In philosophy, there is a point below which you cannot dig — a warning which according to McDowell philosophers like Dummett and Quine fail to heed in their attempts to reductively analyze linguistic meaning (see e.g. McDowell 'Truth Conditions, Bivalence and Verificationism' in Essays in Semantics Evans and McDowell Eds. OUP 1976).

I wasn't altogether convinced by the Armour and Collingwood line — minimalism about truth seemed, and still seems, more attractive and a lot less effort to defend — but Collingwood's critique of the traditional view of truth made me realize the key issue in any attempt to construct a metaphysic. You have to start somewhere. You need axioms from which to deduce your metaphysical theorems. But how do you defend your axioms? How do you prove that your axioms are true?

Descartes' 'I exist' is an example of a famous metaphysical axiom, which first-year philosophy students use as an introductory exercise. If 'I exist' is true whenever I think it, how does it follow that I existed in the past, or that I will exist in the future? Does there even have to be a 'subject' that 'thinks' in order for a thought to exist?

I'd studied Wittgenstein's private language argument and I knew better (or so I thought at the time). The ego is just an illusion generated by grammar. All first-person truths are necessarily supervenient on third-person truths, that is to say, on what can be communicated in language.

Then I had a brainwave. All the argument over 'realism' versus 'anti-realism' about truth and meaning can be dealt with in exactly the same way, as a critique of the truth illusion. There is no ego, there is no truth. Nothing 'in here', nothing 'out there'. There is no starting point for metaphysical inquiry. All there is, is the power of logic which the philosopher can bring to bear on any alleged metaphysical axiom or theory. Metaphysics is a dialectic of illusion. (See my 1982 D.Phil Abstract.)

For anyone looking for the great truths of metaphysics, this is a bitter pill to swallow. A Pyrrhic victory. But I was undismayed. I had discovered something, a negative truth. I'd plumbed the depths. To plumb the depths and know that there's nothing down there is knowledge they don't have. I mean, all the philosophers throughout history who have entertained the idea that there could be a 'true' metaphysical theory.

So Collingwood was dead right. You can study metaphysics. It's a fascinating logical exercise. But you know before you even set out that you are not going to find anything true. At best, all you will discover are the consequences of assumptions which, at the time, were thought to be beyond question.

But I agreed with those who were uneasy with historicism. To seems just too damned contingent to view metaphysics as merely consequential on human history, or intellectual history. I preferred Kant's idea that there are in some sense necessary illusions, which arise from the very nature of the mind. But, contra Kant, there was no way you could prove that these particular illusions had to arise. You just had to accept the illusions — the standing temptations which set us on the road to metaphysical inquiry — as a given.

And so I was led to a rather weird conclusion:

[T]he propositions of a system of metaphysics can serve only to refute metaphysical illusion; once one departs from that negative function there is nothing upon which to base the development of the system except the appeal to an 'incorrigible metaphysical intuition'. But that is just what the task of 'identifying the source of the illusion' would require us to do. So long as the dialectic is confined to its negative function it can yield only illuminating redescriptions of the illusion; we may cast those descriptions in ever more revealing forms, but the source of the illusion itself remains untouched.

G.Klempner D.Phil thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning 1982 p.222

The remedy?

Identifying the source of the illusion is indeed a necessary task; but it is not a task for metaphysical inquiry. For its necessity belongs, not to metaphysics but to psychology. It is that necessity which differentiates the explanation of the source of metaphysical illusion from the explanation of a mere error, rather than the discipline for which the explanation is set as a necessary task.

Ibid. p.223

Or, in plain terms, if you want to know where metaphysics ultimately comes from, get yourself psychoanalyzed. I really thought that! (But that's another story.)

— One up on Collingwood, eh?

Geoffrey Klempner


(48) Claes asked:

1. When you explain something you always refer to something earlier in time.

2. Scientists tell us the there was nothing 'earlier' than the Big Bang.

3. It follows that the big bang and with it the universe can't be explained, only described

4. A support for this conclusion seems to be the fact (?), that there isn't even a theory about how the big bang came to be.

5. This is intellectually unsatisfactory. The universe is there after all. We must be able to understand it. And probably there is nothing wrong with the universe

6. So there must be something wrong with our idea of an explanation. Something wrong in our way of reasoning.

Question: This argumentation is extremely simple so I am sure it must have been discussed before. What are the theories and standpoints here? Is somebody really trying to hammer out a new way of thinking? A new definition of explanations? Which would allow us to understand the universe?


A new way of thinking, or a new definition of explanation, is not required. What you are doing here is documenting an example of reductio ad absurdum reasoning. You have laid out a number of premises, and the conclusions that appear to follow from them. Then you have observed that the conclusion apparently dictated by your premises seems to be contradicted by reality. The proper response here is not to question our way of reasoning, or our idea of explanation. The proper response is to question the truth of our premises, or perhaps uncover an ambiguity in our wording that has allowed an equivocation. Let me show you what I mean. I will replicate your argument, but add in some commentary.

1. When you explain something you always refer to something earlier in time. [No problem with this as it pretty much defines 'explanation' in terms of 'temporally prior cause'.]

2. Scientists tell us the there was nothing 'earlier' than the Big Bang. [Problem with this one is that only some scientific theories posit that time began with the Big Bang. Obviously, as you proceed to point out, providing a 'temporally prior cause' for the Big Bang on the basis of this hypothesis is self-contradictory. Hence, if your intent is to explore the cause of the Big Bang, you must reject this premise in your argument. As a matter of simple logic, if the Big Bang had a cause or explanation, it cannot be the case that there was nothing earlier than the Big Bang.]

3. It follows that the big bang, and with it the universe can't be explained, only described. [True on the basis of Premise 2 being true. Not otherwise.]

4. A support for this conclusion seems to be the fact (?), that there isn't even a theory about how the big bang came to be. (The idea of baby universes seems to circumvent point 2 above.) [Actually, there are a number of alternative theories as to the cause of the Big Bang. But as you observe here, if we assume premise 2 to be true, then there logically cannot be any theories as to how the Big Bang came to be.]

5. This is intellectually unsatisfactory. The universe is there after all. We must be able to understand it. And probably there is nothing wrong with the universe. [Your reductio ad absurdum observation — Conclusion 4 is absurd in that it is violated by observation 5.]

6. So there must be something wrong with our idea of an explanation. Something wrong in our way of reasoning. [As I mentioned, this is the wrong logical move. The correct one is to examine your premises to see which one is wrong. In this case it would appear to be premise 2. An alternative would be that your observation 5 is wrong. Perhaps we need not be able to understand the Universe. Perhaps there is something wrong with the Universe after all. And perhaps the fact that it is there (and has nothing wrong with it) does not necessitate that is has an explanation (or a cause).]

Stuart Burns


(49) Malcolm asked:

Is the UN universal human rights too individualistically centered? As in some cultures the group is more important than the one.Some people in Asian and Eastern cultures seem offended toward western culture,even thou we have good intentions.Should we create one culture or embrace each others cultures and just be very tolerant toward each other?


The idea of human rights is based on moral reasoning. Moral reasoning stands above all other sorts of human reason and is entitled to pass judgement on them. Morality can never be influenced by or criticised in terms of cultural norms. Culture is a vague relative idea which is often just based on the norm or 'Who shouts the loudest'. So in some societies the cultural norm may include stoning to death women who commit adultery but that can never influence our idea of human rights. I am sure the Nazis in 1930s Germany would have been offended by the idea that you are not allowed to murder Jews.

Certainly we should try to be tolerant to other cultures but never forget that cultures can be good and cultures can be evil. Most cultures are a mixture of both things. Culture can never determine our idea of human rights. So forget about culture and think about what is ideal because morality is based on the ideal and so is our idea of human rights.

Shaun Williamson


(50) Brook asked:

Plato stands up and declares 'the next statement socrates says will be a true statement', then Socrates stands up and says 'plato just told a lie' who is telling the truth?


Neither Plato nor Socrates is saying the truth. This does not imply that both lie. They simply could not have meant to say something assertorically with what they said. If they really uttered those sentences, they either did not know what they exactly speak about, or they had another purpose when uttering the words (e.g. to confuse listeners). The reason is that such a dialogue meant assertorically cannot arise in reality.

This claim needs to be made plausible in a principled not ad-hoc way, therefore let me provide some context.

The dialogue between Plato and Socrates is an interesting version of the basic Liar paradox. Take the sentence 'This sentence is false'. Is it false or not? If it is false, then it must be true. If it is true, then it must be false. This is a paradoxical conclusion. The proposed double sentence version is interesting because it involves two statements referring to each other instead of one to itself. This shows that paradoxicality is not a question of an individual self-referential sentence. It also shows that empirical circumstances rather then only syntax and meaning of the words in a sentence produce the paradox.

The Liar paradox seems to show that something is wrong with logic and/or language. The sentences are apparently meaningful because you clearly can identify a subject matter. The sentences talk about some sentence and they seem to assess the truth values of those sentences. So how can a paradox arise from such a meaningful sentence pair (or any arbitrary number of sentences chained adequately)?

As our natural language is vague and messy, one approach is to say that it is the imperfections of ordinary language that are guilty of the paradox. As a remedy, one can try to give the Liar paradox a rigorous logico-formal treatment to get it under control and to pin point what is wrong. Usually it is in the context of the so called 'model theory' (which analyze formally the relation between a regimented languages and an object world) that this is done. Many solutions have been proposed in this direction. Tarski e.g. stipulates that only a language on a higher level, the so called meta-langue, can talk about truth values of a lower level, the so called 'object language'. He simply blocks the possibility of self-referentiality; but then the sort of sentences in the Liar paradoxes are 'forbidden'.

The problem with this approach is that it seems an ad-hoc move to forbid such sentences. Natural language does contain their own truth predicates and truth is simply not hierarchically structured. And what after all is paradoxical about 'This sentence is true'?

Some think that the solution is to give up classical logic and its principle of bivalence (each statement is either true or false). Then we could argue that the Liar is neither true nor false but has a third truth value, something like 'paradoxical', 'indefinite', 'neither true nor false'. The problem with this approach is that 'revenge' is around the corner. The paradox only reappears again in form of a 'strengthened liar paradox'.

What calls the attention is that the liar sentences, though one can identify a clear subject matter, seem not very informative. Plato and Socrates talk about the truth value of the statements which only state something about the truth values of that very statements. Therefore those sentences seem a bit unnatural and useless. The liar types of sentences seem somehow ungrounded in any external substantial fact. They look like semantically endogamic sentences.

But on the other hand, the facts that certain sentences are true or false could be considered part of the inventory of facts of the world. So after all there seems nothing illegitimate that sentences talk about their own truth value or of other sentences in a circular way. So it is not clear that we can simply explain the paradox by saying it contains 'ungrounded' sentences.

Still, the idea of some grounding requirement has a strong intuitive appeal. I suggest that what is wrong with the liar paradox is that the sentence cannot arise from any possible configuration of facts out of reality as a semantical word form, means as a sentence that is uttered with the purpose to say something truly of falsely. Obviously, the sentence can be uttered, but then the intention of the utterer cannot be assertorical.

This idea applied to your concrete sentence pair: We clearly understand that Plato and Socrates talk about the truth value of each others utterance. What are all possible configurations of matter of facts in the world that could give rise to such utterances? There are four: (1) Plato says the truth / Socrates says the truth (short: T/T), (2) T/L, (3) L/L, (4) L/T.

Now what utterance pair arise out of situation (1)? It is: ' The next statement Socrates says will be a TRUE statement'/ 'Plato just told THE TRUTH'. The same arises from (3). From (2) and (4) arises: 'The next statement Socrates says will be a FALSE statement'/ 'Plato just told A LIE'. In no case can the sentence pair from your question arise.

What this seems to show is not that something is wrong with logic or language. What is wrong is the assumption that you can combine words freely to form assertorical sentences. Not every meaningful sentence (meaningful in the sense of understanding what is the subject matter) is assertorical. Linguistic combinatorics outstrips possible facts. This does not only apply to a single sentence describing a fact but also to a group of sentences uttered by different persons describing more complex situations, like your little dialogue with Plato and Socrates.

PD. The most charming version of the Liar paradox has just recently been brought forward by Peter Eldridge-Smith and Veronique Eldridge-Smith, as the 'Pinocchio paradox' (Analysis, January 13, 2010). Imagine Pinoccio saying ' My nose is right now growing'.

Christian Michel


(51) Karen asked:

Can one ever really own knowledge? I a referring to the debate of Intellectual knowledge and the rights of an owner/enterprise. I believe the creator, be they individual or enterprise should be accorded the right to prevent others from using his or her or its ideas without consent or without compensation or reward being paid to the individual or enterprise (i.e., music or movies).


I think you are confusing lots of things here that need to be separated. Music and movies are artistic works that society has decided to protect legally in order to allow the artist to earn a living from them. Other sorts of ideas such as mathematical proofs cannot be copyrighted or patented.

In Europe we allow computer code to be copyrighted so that it cannot be used for free by other people. However we have resisted the idea that the logical methods contained within a computer program can be owned exclusively by one person. In the U.S.A. it is possible to patent these logical methods.

Let me give you an example of this that will illustrate the problem. Suppose I were the first programmer to write a program that can work out if a particular year is a leap year. Then if I lived in the U.S.A. I could patent the idea of using a computer program to work out if a particular year is a leap year. This would mean that no other programmer can ever include his own routine in a computer program to work out if a year is a leap year without paying a royalty to me.

There are similar problems with allowing people or companies to patent knowledge of the human genome (DNA). It could seriously inhibit research into cures for certain diseases.

The original idea behind copyright and patents was to allow artistic creators and inventors to profit from their work. However is is important not to do this in a way that does not inhibits research and invention and that is not bad for society.

Shaun Williamson


(52) Eddie asked:

I don't know if any of you reading this have had similar experience before: I, in my dream, have asked one (someone in my dream) some question. It seemed that until one actually replied (in the dream), I (in the dream) had totally no idea beforehand what the reply would turn out to be. Indeed, I (in the dream) was really surprised by hearing the content of the reply. This is really weird since everything happening in my dream, including one's reply (in the dream), is essentially created by myself, however without my conscious mind, in my brain, and how could I have no idea at all about how one was going to respond (in the dream), given the response was essentially something in my brain? Is this really possible? If so, does it mean that I can no way rule out the possibility that I am nothing but a brain-in-a-vat?


Your experience is evidence for your not being alone in your head. You are not in sole charge of what you do, think, believe, or dream. The main evidence for this is the fact of internal conflict, as in duty/inclination conflict and neurotic conflict. Conflict requires at least two agents, in a common situation, with mutually exclusive goals in that situation, where an agent may be defined as anything that is conscious of its situation and has some control over it. War, sports conflicts, games such as chess, and quarrels all characterise such conflict and require at least two agents. So does internal conflict. So there is another agent in there with you, giving you unexpected answers to questions in your dreams. If you want to know more about this, try my book Belief Shock, available as a download from www.sharebooks.ca. I have suggested the name 'Oge' (rhymes with bogey, and is ego spelled backwards) for this other agent.

Helier Robinson


(53) Zoli asked:

My question is about solipsism. According to Kant 'existence' is not a first order predicate, which means that we can use it meaningfully as a second order predicate. How can then we say the other people does not exist? Isn't that just a misunderstanding of solipsism. Solipsism is true in the sense that you cannot experience the other people's subjectivity which is quite obvious. I think the problem is that we equalize the word 'exist' to the subjective experience of the self.


Solipsism is the doctrine that I alone exist. (The name comes from the Latin sole ipse, meaning alone I am.) The best way of understanding it is to define an imperceptible, for me, now, as anything not in my present consciousness. 'Me, now' refers to anyone who might be considering this, and the time at which they are doing so. If I then declare that no imperceptibles exist, then all that exists is what is in my present consciousness. If I describe this as 'I' then I alone exist. It then follows that time does not exist because the past and the future are imperceptible, so I alone am stuck in an eternal moment; I experience passage of time and change, but these have to be illusions because time does not exist. Also, I am conscious of memories and expectations, but these are all false, for the same reason. And I am conscious of beliefs, but all are false because beliefs are all about imperceptibles, which do not exist. And all that I am conscious of outside my body is illusion because what makes perceptions true is reality, and that is not perceptible.

Kant, like David Hume before him, was on the slippery slope to solipsism. Kant made his phenomenal world a priori synthetic, which meant that it was entirely private to him; he then wrote about the phenomenal world, common to all people, without justifying this step. David Hume started his Treatise with the declaration that there are no ideas without antecedent impressions (i.e. perceptions), so that ' 'Tis vain to speculate.' But our only knowledge of imperceptibles is speculative.

Helier Robinson


(54) Curtis asked:

Was the first thing which Descartes realizes is beyond doubt was the principles of mathematics?


No. It was the indubitability of his own existence, as in cogito ergo sum; he could not doubt his own existence because he had to exist in order to doubt. And mathematics is not beyond doubt (during his process of hyperbolical doubt) because he could be being deceived by a malignant demon. Once he satisfied himself that God exists, mathematics became beyond doubt because God is not a deceiver.

Helier Robinson


(55) Jennifer asked:

How does Socrates reply to the charge that he willingly corrupts the youth?


In response to Meletus' charge that he corrupts the young, Socrates offers two replies.

1) Meletus claims that all the Athenians, except Socrates, make the young into good people; only Socrates alone corrupts them. Socrates responds by questioning Meletus' claim that all men improve them while only one individual (himself) corrupts them, and he does so by using an analogy. Socrates claims that when it comes to helping horses, only one individual, or very few, namely horse breeders, are able to do so, while the majority of people who have horses and use them actually do them harm. Socrates' point is that those without specialized knowledge, which is most people, are actually the ones with the potential to corrupt others, not the individual with knowledge or expertise.

2) Socrates' second reply begins with a question to Meletus. He asks his accuser if there is any man who wants to be harmed, to which Meletus replies, 'Of course not.' Socrates then asks him if he is being accused of corrupting the young deliberately or unwillingly, to which Meletus replies, 'Deliberately.' Having gained Meletus' ascent to these two propositions, he moves forward with his refutation. Since wicked people typically do some harm to their closest neighbors, why, Socrates asks, would he make his associates wicked if he runs the risk of being harmed by them? Either he does not corrupt the young, or, if he does, he does it unwillingly. In either case, Meletus is shown to be lying.

Kristian Urstad


(56) FFK asked:

Situation A: you hold a belief for which you can offer no justification, and that belief is true.

Situation B: you hold a belief for which you can offer justifications, and that belief is false.

Which of these two situations would you say if to be preferred?


That's a nice question. I think it depends on what you mean by 'preferred' (and maybe also on what the belief is, so maybe there are different answers for different beliefs).

From the point of view of effectively getting around in the world, it looks as though (at least for beliefs with practical consequences) there is a sense in which situation A is better. Anna beliefs, for no reason at all, that the bus will arrive at 9.30. Bill believes, with excellent grounds (he's looked at the timetable, knows that the buses are reliable, etc.), that it will arrive at 9.35. The bus arrives at 9.30, and Bill misses it. So who's better off? Anna, obviously. So in the sense of 'under which situation are you better off?' the answer would seem to be that situation A is preferable.

In the sense of 'which kind of belief would it be a good idea for me to try and acquire?', though, the answer has to be 'B'. The recommendation, 'just try and acquire true beliefs — it doesn't matter whether you have any justification for them!', is impossible to follow. How would you go about acquiring true beliefs, in line with the recommendation? Guess? Consult manifestly inappropriate or unreliable sources? That doesn't sound like a good idea. 'Only believe things for which you can offer a justification' sounds like a much better idea, and that's because it's just in the nature of justification that is generally (but not always) conducive to truth. If you've been told something by an expert or a reliable source, or you've seen it with your own eyes, or you've derived it via logical principles from something else you have good reason to believe, then it's pretty likely that what you believe is true; if that wasn't so, those methods for acquiring or justifying beliefs wouldn't count as justification.

That said, I'm not sure that my first claim, that there is a sense in which situation A is better, holds across the board for all beliefs. After all, the reason I offered was a practical reason, to do with getting around the world effectively. Lots of beliefs don't have those kinds of practical consequences: a lot of philosophical beliefs, for example, or beliefs about the more abstruse regions of maths or physics, don't have any obvious practical consequences. In such cases I'm inclined to think that there isn't any sense in which situation A is better. Someone who believes, say, some conjecture in maths just on a whim, and who just happens to be right, doesn't really have any advantage that I can think of over someone who has thought really hard about it and come up with an amazing proof that the conjecture is false — but which unfortunately has a mistake in it somewhere. The second person has a deep understanding of a lot of serious maths, even though somewhere along the line they've made a mistake. The first person has just taken a guess and they happen to be right — they might not have any mathematical understanding at all except for the minimal amount required to understand what the conjecture says. They are lacking, we might say, in cognitive virtues that the second person possesses. (Of course that's true of Anna as well, but at least she didn't miss the bus! I don't see any payoff in the maths case.)

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(57) Travis asked:

What is the purpose of life?


Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one — especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this seemingly very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, even some very casual contemplation of the question will quickly reveal that you really need to be more specific about just what you mean by 'purpose', 'life', and 'purpose of life'. It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret your very simple question. And unfortunately for this Ask a Philosopher forum, a reasonable answer to any of these more focussed questions could be quite involved. So it would not be appropriate to try to answer them all.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. I don't pretend that this list exhausts the possibilities. By 'What is the purpose of life?' do you mean:

1. What is 'life' and why and how is 'life' different from 'non-life'?

2. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of 'why does life exist at all?

3. What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?

4. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human life (the human species)?

5. What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?

6. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of my life? This is a much more specifically focussed question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.

7. What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically focussed question, posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by 'Science'. (We each are one of six billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe. How insignificant can you get?)

If you would like to be a little more specific as to what you had in mind when you asked the question, I would be happy to offer you my two cents worth of a reply.

Stuart Burns


(58) Brian asked:

I was talking to someone the other day and we stumbled on a question which like all good ones seems so obvious once it is asked, but which has stumped me:

How is comparison possible?

What is it compare one thing with another, do we compare things or properties of things? can we only compare like with like? but if so haven't we already presupposed a comparison.

Is comparison a basic 'category'? is it prior or anterior to other concepts e.g. identity, difference, metaphor?

Which philosophers discuss the methodology of comparison?


Wittgenstein said that 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language'. Often this is caused by considering abstract terms such as 'comparison' apart from any normal context which might guide our thoughts and then all sorts of absurd questions arise. 'How is comparison possible?' can only be answered by saying 'Don't you already know this? After all you compare things all the time'.

'Do we compare things or properties of things?' Sometimes we compare things by comparing their properties e.g. is this stick longer than that stick. Sometimes we compare the properties of things e.g. Do you think this blue is more restful than that blue?

Can we only compare like with like. We compare things in order to see their likeness and their differences. How is a horse like a table? They both generally have four legs. How is a horse like a bicycle? You can ride a horse and you can ride a bicycle. Finally let us compare a bicycle with a table. A bicycle doesn't have four legs and you can't ride a table. That can be called a comparison also even if it isn't a very useful one.

You do not need high flown philosophical discussions about the mental act of comparison, you need to remind yourself of what you already know about how the word 'comparison' functions in our language.

Shaun Williamson


(59) Lucy asked:

Does Plato's system justify inequality?


It certainly justifies a division of labour based on ability. Plato would perhaps argue that allotting people a place in the polis based on their abilities and talents is not unfair, it ensures justice. The tripartite division of Philosopher Kings, Auxiliaries and the rest ensures that society runs in the best way it can by people restricting themselves to what they do best and not engaging in anything about which, they do not possess knowledge. For example, would you like a delicate medical operation to be performed by a trained professional surgeon who possesses the appropriate knowledge and skills or; by a layperson without training etc? For Plato, 'inequality' is the basis of justice and, the just society.

Martin Jenkins


(60) Ashley asked

'What will happen (what consequences?) when antibiotics are rendered useless against more and more antibiotic resistant bacteria'


It's been happening since anti-bacterials were developed in the 1930s. First with sulphonamides, then penicillin, then other antibiotics including TB drugs; and a similar phenomenon with antimalarials. Antibiotic resistance was predictable from the theory of evolution by natural selection, and is a good example of evolution in action, of an 'arms race' between human introduction of new antibiotics and adapting bacterial populations. In bacterial populations we see adaptation in months or years because of their short reproductive time (an hour, say) allowing about 170 generations in a week.

Compare this with the 3500 years or so for 170 generations to pass in humans. A population of bacteria, like any other species,will contain (randomly generated) genetic variants. So, when an antibiotic is introduced, a few bacteria will already have an inbuilt resistance, of no use (or detriment) to them until the antibiotic comes along and wipes out the sensitive majority, leaving the resistants to flourish and even replace the original, largely sensitive, population. The more widely used the antibiotic, the quicker this will happen.

This phenomenon has major implications for medical practice and public health worldwide.

A few examples:

Medical Practice

1. Antibiotics to be used only when needed

(a) not for trivial infections — if your doc declines to give you antibiotic for a cold, this is good practice (b) keep some antibiotics for particular infections, don't use for all kinds even if effective. All hospitals will have written antibiotic and infection-control policies dealing with these matters.

2. Get people out of hospital ASAP, the wards are full of resistant bacteria (eg methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus — MRSA).

Public Health

Resistant tuberculosis (TB) is a big international problem. TB is always treated with 2 or more drugs, never one, because the latter allows the few naturally resistant bugs to multiply and produce a resistant infection which can then transmit to other people. Due to poor treatment, or patient failure to adhere to good treatment, serious outbreaks of multiple resistant TB have occurred eg New York City 1990s where docs/nurses were among the fatalities, patients were quarantined on Ellis island, and it cost billions to combat. Resistant TB ( and TB generally) is a big problem in poor countries and countries with civil disorder, and population movement (asylum seeking, migration) helps the disease persist in rich countries.

Bacteria are smart, they even transfer DNA across species so that resistance in one can transfer to another species causing quite different disease.

As an aside, the perpetual evolutionary arms race between big animals trying to stay healthy and bugs trying to live and multiply inside them, may be one of the reasons for animals favouring messy sexual reproduction over simpler, cheaper, budding. Sexual reproduction mixes the parents' genes so new combinations keep coming up in offspring making it hard for a bug to find the right resistance key to unlock a cosy home in all members of an animal species. If we were asexual, our budded off new generations would essentially be clones,and if a nasty disease-causing bug hit the resistance jackpot (and of course this would happen),all humans would be wiped out. But in a sexual species, there will always be some resistant individuals, which is why the Black Death for example killed only one third rather than all the European population, and later, TB did much the same on a lesser scale.

I hope this is helpful, if not very philosophical.

Craig Skinner


(61) Malcolm asked:

What's a acceptable amount of quotations, and reference (of other authors) in a philosophy essay of 1500 words or 3000 words?


It depends.

If a critical point of your essay is to make claims about what someone else said, or meant to say, or was right or wrong to say, then you should include as much quotation to support your case as is consistent with stating it in a intelligible way. You should pay particular attention to quoting anything which might be taken to conflict with your case, in order to show that you are aware of the challenge and are able to say something to counter it.

How much of another's words you can refer to without it rendering your own words unintelligible is largely a question of style, which is something barely taught on a philosophy course and barely teachable. But taking note of margin comments from your teachers along the lines of 'I can't make head or tail of this' you will need to observe to yourself what works well in your voice and what doesn't and, in this way, take some hand in teaching yourself the art of sensitive and constructive quotation.

On the other hand, it is important to avoid what I would call 'footnotitis'. This irritating skin condition involves refusing to state plain facts without scholarly authority. Thus, for 'it is raining' some anxious would-be and even tenured academics will sometimes substitute 'As the noted forecaster Michael Fish has said [1. 1983, volume XXIV], 'it is raining'.' Please, don't do that. The ability to marshal the resources of the library in support of inanity is not scholarship.

And there may even be some essay subjects on which, under the guidance of your lecturer, it may be possible to philosophise raw, as it were, without a safety net of quotation — such cases will be rare, and one must bear in mind that Plato himself would not be the philosopher he is but for the opportunity he has of quoting the presocratics — but there may be such cases, possibly.

If you are tempted to go without the safety net, remember that one point of quoting is that someone else might already have had the insight you are struggling distantly towards, and that it is your job, by studying what they have said with charity and sensitivity, to spot that insight.

The other point of course is to have something to argue against, without which there would be no philosophy. But try not to let the second purpose oust the first altogether.

David Robjant


(62) Bob asked:

MAIN QUESTION: if you absolutely knew you wouldn't get caught, what would make you choose good over evil?

For example, If you were driving and came across a red light, and you absolutely knew that no one was around, would you stop or would you run the red light? Realizing that you would absolutely not get caught if you ran it...


The reason we don't run red lights is to do with prudence, rather than good v. evil — running red lights might kill you, and is a bad habit to get into if you want to live long and prosper.

The better example is the Ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic, slightly transfigured but curiously recognisable in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Imagine a ring you can put on to become invisible — now nothing you could do could lead to you being discovered and shamed as the author of those actions — what reason could you yet have for acting beautifully? The rest of the Republic, as an allegory of the soul, is partly offered as an attempt to answer that. In short, flourishing and happiness are found to require a degree of psychological unity and/or self mastery which abandonment to the power and temptation offered by the ring would corrupt. Rather the argument of Tolkien, indeed.

David Robjant


(63) Nandi asked:

True/ False: Xenophon's account of socrates is inaccurate.


Without the proverbial time machine, it is impossible to say whether it is inaccurate, except to say that while Plato's account of Socrates is evidently animated by love, Xenophon's isn't. Do lovers see more accurately? Some say so, others not.

David Robjant


(64) David asked:

If you go to music collage to become a famous musician and learn at music college that famous musician drop out of music collage to become famous musicians, do you drop out of collage?

This question is based on what seems to happen at Art based collages and UI's.


Most of the people who go to music colleges go there because they are interested in music and want to learn about music. Most people who go to art colleges go there because they are interested in art and want to learn about art.

It seems that you are not interested in art or music, you just want to be rich and famous. So you want us to tell you how you can become a rich superficial person. I think you can find out how to do this by yourself.

Of course some people do drop out of college and become good musicians and good artists, however most of the people who drop out of college just become nothing.

Try to become a good musician (but that requires a lot of hard work) and forget about what other people have done. You can become a good musician without going to college but you need dedication, something that people who just want to be rich and famous often lack.

Shaun Williamson


(65) Rocco asked:

Hey there!

Lately, I've been mentally paralyzed by this odd hunch that somehow, somewhere between the first time anything was 'understood' until this moment in time, there have been mistakes.

I'm no mathematician, but to me it seems highly likely, given the massive amount of things we do not know, that we've made terribly wrong assumptions somewhere down the line.

Perhaps there's a missing number we've accidentally skipped, or a complex bias that we're so entrenched in that we can't even identify it to correct it. One I've been playing with mentally, something large enough to substantially bias a large portion of assumptions is, for lack of a better term, human egocentrism, the implicit assumption that humans are the most important creatures on the earth. Many political and public decisions and statements are based on that assumption. If it's wrong, doesn't that discredit much of what we think we know?

Is there a philosopher who tackles the issue of how we know we know what we know? Could human egocentrism exist? Should I be so paralyzed by the thought of continuing to think even if there's a good chance what I'm thinking is based on faulty assumptions?


Well there could be a large ten mile deep hole opening up in the floor of your bedroom but that doesn't stop you getting out of bed in the morning.

Of course humans make unfounded assumptions but you have to study in order to find out if this is true. We don't all assume that humans are the most important things on earth and all our decisions aren't invalidated by unfounded assumptions as you seem to assume.

You say 'if its wrong..' but you don't know if it is wrong or not. Like many people you are concentrating too much on the possible and forgetting about the probable.

Shaun Williamson


(66) Amalie asked:

This question is about why Kant's imperative about not using mankind only as a means rules out suicide.

I take a course in practical philosophy where we are now reading Grundlegung by Kant (we read it in Norwegian, so please excuse any strange translations). In class the other day we couldn't seem to agree on a question that showed up:

When talking about the second formulation of the categorical imperative, 'Act as if you use mankind (including yourself) as ends in themselves and not as means to an end' Kant presents some examples to illustrate it.

We found the first example hard to interpret.

He is testing the following maxim: is the action of committing suicide consistent with the idea of mankind as ends in themselves? Kant says it is not, because if one destroys oneself to escape a loathsome condition, one uses one person only as a means to maintain a bearable condition until life ends.

Here the problem appears: we think we do understand his imperative about not using mankind only as a means, what we don't understand is the formulation above: when Kant says 'one person' is that the person that thinks about committing suicide, or is it persons around him that have to bear with him until he kills himself? In other words, if Kant says that one uses oneself as a means, we find a logical limitation: how can one use oneself only as a means? But if he says that one uses someone else when thinking about committing suicide, we don't understand why one necessary uses someone else as a means before one die.

I do hope my question was clear, and I do hope someone finds it worth answering.

Alvin asked:

I was reading about Mill from a Philosophy Now magazine and I find that he champions the desire for happiness too loosely. He said that the right moral action is the action which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people; alright, it makes sense. But for example, suppose one day we humans became crazy and violent due to an outbreak of a wrongly experimented biological virus. But at the same time, we are sufficiently sane to be able to talk normally. Presidents all over the world declare that mandatory suicide becomes a law and everyone should do it immediately. Everyone agrees and they are happy to oblige. And so a mass suicide took place and humans are wiped out forever.

The people are feeling happy when they decide to take out their lives, but it seems obviously wrong isn't it? You might say that its coercion (i.e virus) and that coercion doesn't lead to happiness, but they are still happy with twisted ideas so does that count?


I am taking Amalie's and Alvin's questions together, not just because they both mention suicide but because they illustrate in the most dramatic way two diametrically opposed views of ethics based on the idea that universalizability is the essential defining characteristic of ethical judgement.

Perhaps this is not so obvious in Alvin's case, as he is talking about utilitarianism, which in the usual treatments of ethics is described as a 'consequentialist' ethics by contrast with the 'deontological' ethics of Kant. However, in his book Utilitarianism Mill stated that he regarded his 'Greatest Happiness' principle as equivalent to Kant's Categorical Imperative. There is an element of truth in this rather odd claim, borne out in the moral philosophy of R.M. Hare.

Both Hare and Kant start off from the same point: how can there be such a thing as an ethical command? No factual claim is sufficient to generate an ethical command: As David Hume argued, you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.

Kant's solution was to derive ethical commands from the general formula giving the form of what would be an ethical command, supposing that such a thing were possible. A hypothetical imperative, 'Do X if you want Y' can never be the form of a moral command because the motivation for doing X depends on the contingent assumption that you want Y. Kant is thus led by what seems a logically compelling inference to the Categorical Imperative, 'Act only on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law', and subsequent formulations which he claims are in some sense equivalent to the original formulation.

What emerges is the key idea that human rationality is the only thing in existence that is an end in itself, rather than a mere means to an end. The value of human beings resides wholly in their being 'lawmaking members of the Kingdom of Ends'. Everything else has merely instrumental value, as a means to that singular end.

Now let's look at Hare. Hare is best known as the advocate of the meta-ethical theory known as 'Prescriptivism'. Ethical statements, which on surface appearance appear descriptive in form, are in reality commands. The only constraint on what can be an ethical command is that it be universalizable.

There is a way of understanding this, according to which ethical beliefs and statements have no logical basis in reality. If I believe that toothpaste tubes should always be squeezed from the bottom, then this is an ethical belief provided that I regard the statement as applying everyone in all circumstances. If you squeeze a toothpaste tube from the top, you are doing something which in my view is 'ethically wrong'.

The problem is, on this view, everyone is is free to formulate his or her own 'ethical' rules. You always brush your teeth before breakfast, but I don't agree with that. It depends on whether or not I am in a hurry to get out. Whereas you don't agree with my ethical rule regarding squeezing toothpaste tubes, because some tubes are hard to squeeze from the bottom, especially if you have small hands.

Hare's solution is to introduce a further crucial stage of universalization: The universal rules which constitute genuinely ethical laws are those, and only those which everyone can agree to. My belief that everyone should squeeze toothpaste tubes from the bottom is fanatical, because I am, in effect, unreasonably insisting that everyone share my values. But who am I to set myself up as a legislator for values? Hare's solution is simple and very elegant: the only valid basis for ethical commands — the only way to avoid fanaticism — is to hold that each and every person's desires count the same, regardless of the content of those desires.

One important consequence of this view that the ethically right action is one which maximizes the surplus of satisfaction of desires, over non-satisfaction of desires.

This position is known as preference utilitarianism. This was not, in fact, what Mill believed. On the contrary, Mill is committed to the idea that what will make people truly 'happy' does not always consist in getting what they desire. Some pleasures have a higher value than others. It is possible to be wrong about about what will make you most happy. However, from Hare's perspective, this notion is merely a form of fanaticism. Who am I to judge what kinds of activity or satisfaction are the ingredients for happiness? It is up to each person to decide for him or herself.

It should be clear by now that Alvin's scenario, where the human race is infected by a viral plague which makes everyone want to commit suicide, is a prima facie challenge to Hare's preference utilitarianism, but not to Mill's utilitarianism. Mill would say that we must act on the assumption that there is a possibility that a person can achieve happiness which they thought was not possible, which may involve being forcibly prevented from committing suicide. To simply allow everyone to commit suicide because that's what they want is to accept that there is no possible future scenario where the human race, despite their presently suicidal tendencies, achieves a positive balance of happiness over unhappiness, or pleasure over pain.

The preference utilitarian has resources for dealing with this objection, strong though it may be. He can point out that no-one has just one desire. The desire for suicide, be it ever so strong and incapable of being argued with, nevertheless has the potential to clash with other things that a person desires. It is not fanatical, from Hare's point of view, to engage people in dialogue in order to get them to see the inconsistency in their desires, with the ultimate aim of changing their view of what they really want. Maybe. At any rate, there is sufficient unclarity in the idea of determining what a person 'really' desires, all things considered, to provide sufficient room for manoeuvre.

All this, of course, has no bearing on the question whether it is wrong on Hare's theory for an individual person to commit suicide. It is consistent with Hare's view to hold that an individual who sincerely wishes to do away with himself, who won't be terribly missed and is meanwhile making everyone's lives a misery with his constant complaining, ought to be permitted to have what he wants, the termination of his unhappy existence. The rest of humanity, who do not desire to commit suicide, will be better off.

This could not be further away from Kant. Suicide is wrong, in any circumstance whatsoever, because it contradicts the Categorical Imperative. However, I can quite understand the difficulty Amalie and her classmates are having with this idea.

First of all, Kant is not saying that by committing suicide I am using any other particular person as a means. It is true that other persons may be affected by action, but that is a contingent question. That would not suffice to show that suicide is wrong in any circumstances whatsoever — for example, if Robinson Crusoe committed suicide before he had the opportunity to meet Man Friday. Kant means is what he says, that in committing suicide, I am making 'humanity in my person' a mere means to an end, namely the cessation of my suffering.

By 'humanity in my person' Kant is referring to all of humanity, everyone who has ever or will ever exist. By reducing myself a mere means, I effectively demonstrate that I view humanity as such, as a means to my end. From a certain perspective, this is contempt for humanity on a truly colossal scale.

You need to understand that Kant's view, by contrast with Mill and Hare, is profoundly anti-hedonistic. Pleasures and pains are the things that push and pull us in a deterministic universe, but they are not part of what gives human beings their ultimate value. Only rationality — the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation — is suitable for being an end. Moreover, this rationality has to be understood not as a mere 'tool' or 'slave of the passions' as Hume calls it, but as something with intrinsic value, in itself.

Happiness, misery, pleasure, pain — these are all things that pass. F.H. Bradley in Ethical Studies calls them 'perishing particulars'. The greatest sensual enjoyment, thrilling though it may be at the time, passes and is gone. You can savour the memory, but that too is just something that passes away in time. Value is permanent or it is nothing. A work of art, for example. You and I have value, insofar as we exercise our capacity for rationality for its own sake.

It is difficult to make coherent sense of this, except in teleological terms: human beings have a purpose, a teleology, which they do not give themselves but which is given to them, namely, the capacity to form a community where they engage in rational discourse, in which each rationally legislates for the actions of all.

The idea is not thousand miles removed from Plato's vision of the The Republic. Plato does not deny that human beings have desires and emotions, in the absence of which we would not have any capacity for a meaningful existence. However, it is only through the opportunity which they give for the exercise of rationality that desires and emotions acquire positive value, by fulfilling their assigned functions in the ordered soul: the law-respecting citizen of the ideal Republic. On any other view, we are no better than brute animals.

I am no Kantian — or Platonist — but I can appreciate the majesty of Kant's conception. We live in a very I-centered world, where society is seen as the mere sum of individual units, each pursuing its own agenda for consumption. Besides my likes and dislikes, I am nothing. This view not only justifies suicide but taken to its logical conclusion requires euthanasia — including non-voluntary euthanasia for those infants judged at birth sufficiently incapable of leading a 'happy' life.

Is that the only choice? Is there no middle way between a Brave New World and Kant's Kingdom of Ends? Possibly there is. Maybe the question of suicide is the key. Is there any way in which one could defend the view that suicide is wrong, but nevertheless must sometimes be permitted? Or is that mere double-think?

Geoffrey Klempner


(67) Leah asked:

Is there life after death?


It would seem to me that there are only two possible answers to your question — either 'Yes', or 'No'. I can't see that a 'Maybe' answer would be any different from an 'I don't know'. And I can't see that there is any other possible answer that would be at all meaningful (although I have been wrong before!).

So lets consider the status of both a 'Yes' and a 'No' answer.

On the 'Yes' side — Just about every system of religious belief since the dawn of history has contained a belief in the immortality of the soul. And it is indisputable that most of the people who have ever lived have adhered to some religious belief system. If you believe in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, for example, then you are almost forced to believe that the Torah/Bible/Koran is 'the word of God'. And if that is so, then you have to believe what these sacred texts tell you. And they tell you that the soul is immortal. So if we are to adopt the principle that so many people cannot possibly be wrong, then we must adopt the position that there must be life after death.

Although, of course, it may be debatable whether 'life' is an appropriate description of the status of the immortal soul after the death of the body. Different religious traditions offer differing advice on the question. The Christian notion of the soul residing for eternity in Heaven, for example, might not be most appropriately described as 'life after death'. On the other hand, numerous religious traditions embrace the notion of reincarnation. And for these traditions, 'life' would seem the most appropriate label for the soul returning to Earth in another body. Since there seems to be no basis upon which to found a judgement that one religious tradition is any more 'correct' than another, I don't know how you would go about choosing between them on any grounds other than subjective preference.

On the 'No' side — There have been any number of philosophical arguments presented to the effect that the soul is immaterial and immortal. (The earliest, if perhaps not the most famous, being that of Plato in his Phaedo dialog.) None of them have proved logically sound. Similarly, there have been any number of philosophical arguments presented to the effect that God exists. And many would consider it reasonable to presume that if God exists, then the soul must survive after death. Unfortunately, none of these philosophical arguments have proved to be logically sound either. So if we choose to adopt the position that truth must necessarily be logically consistent, then none of these arguments demonstrate that there is life after death.

In addition to this, there has never been any scientific evidence of life after death (and we'll ignore for the moment the quibbles deriving from the definitions of 'life' and 'death'.) If we dismiss as anecdotal and not scientific all those stories of ghosts and such, there has never been a documented case of a person coming back after death to tell us about the life after death. So if we choose to adopt the scientific principle that repeatable and testable evidence is the only evidence acceptable for any claim to truth, then we must conclude that the evidence available so far demonstrates that there is no life after death.

Of course, the preceding depends on the standard conceptions of 'life' and 'death'. If one chooses to play with the definitions, then we can definitely state that there is life after death. Many people have been revived after their hearts have stopped, for example. But that is just quibbling with the language. Because the notions of 'life' and 'death' have never been precisely defined, there is 'wiggle room' in the boundaries where it is easy to propose a 'life after death' condition. But such wiggling would not be acceptable to most people.

In the end, you have to decide what your standards of truth are going to be. The advantage of the scientific standard of truth is that it has demonstrated a pretty good track record of improving the lot of mankind — most of the people alive today would not be alive but for the consequences of the scientific standard of truth. The advantage of the religious standard of truth, is that it has assuaged the mental anguish of a whole lot of people over the course of history. Mind you, it has also been responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people over the course of history.

So science says 'No', and religion says 'Yes'. Take your pick. But live with the consequences of your choice.

Stuart Burns


(68) Leah asked:

Is an orange called an orange because an orange is orange or is the colour orange called orange because an orange is orange?


In the abstract, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum which we refer to as orange would obviously have existed before the appearance of the fruit to which shares the same name. However, as far as using the English word 'orange' to describe the two, the fruit comes before the colour.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary — 'orange c.1300, from Old French orenge (12c.), from Middle Latin pomum de orenge, from Italian arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), alternate of Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, from Sanskrit. naranga-s 'orange tree,' of uncertain origin.'

Hence, an orange is called an orange because the ancient Sanskrit word for 'orange tree' was 'naranga'. The Sanskrit word was borrowed into European languages through Persian narang, Armenian narinj, Arabic naranj, Late Latin arangia, Italian arancia or arancio, and Old French orenge, in chronological order. The first appearance in English dates from the 14th century. The English word 'orange' as the name of a colour is derived from the fruit, first appearing in this sense in 1542.

Now perhaps you are really asking whether in the ancient Sanskrit an orange was called a naranga because a naranga is orange or was the ancient Sanskrit word for the colour orange called what it was because a naranga is orange? If that is the case, then you need an expert in ancient Sanskrit, not a philosopher. I could not find an English translation for the ancient Sanskrit word for the color orange.

Stuart Burns


(69) Leah asked:

Why is being straight considered being normal?


You haven't specifically said so, but with the combination of 'straight' and 'normal' in the question you asked, I am assuming that you are asking about 'straight' versus 'gay' as a sexual orientation, rather than 'straight' versus 'bent' as a geometrical form. I may be wrong in this assumption, but I will offer an answer from that perspective.

I can offer two separate reasons from different interpretations on the meaning of 'normal'.

In the statistical sense, the best estimates of the experts indicate that gays constitute between ten and fifteen percent of the population. So on a simple statistical basis, being straight is the norm, hence normal.

According to the best of modern science, being gay is not (entirely?) a choice, but is determined primarily by either genetics or developmental chemistry or both. In the evolutionary sense, the next generation of humans will (with statistically irrelevant exception) be birthed by those who are not gay. Likewise, the current generation was birthed by those who are not gay. Being gay is therefore a self-defeating genetic anomaly. An anomaly that begs for an explanation as to why it is still prevalent within the human genome, to be sure, but an anomaly none the less. The simple rules of genetic inheritance dictate that whatever influence genetics might have on being gay, that influence can never become the norm. Evolutionary pressures will ensure that the 'gay gene' (whatever that might turn out to be) will tend to breed itself out of the genome over the long term — unless there are some genetic benefits to having the 'gay gene' as a recessive. But even in that case, it will have to remain a scarce anomaly or the human species will go extinct.

Stuart Burns


(70) Gina asked:

What is the difference between philosophical and scientific or factual questions?


The difference between philosophical questions and scientific or factual questions rests on the significance of empirical evidence.

Scientific or factual questions are about the empirical evidence, and can only be answered by more empirical evidence. Empirical evidence consists of repeatable and testable observations. (Anecdotal or 'one-of' observations don't count.) Questions of science and fact build upon each other, and are interconnected. Each new question presupposes the answers that have been provided to all previous questions. The answer to each question must be consistent with all (or at least most) of the previous answers. For example, you cannot dismiss Evolution as a theory unless you are also prepared to dismiss most of modern biology and a number of related disciplines. Any new answer in physics has to take into consideration the outstanding predictive successes of General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory.

Philosophical questions are those for which the empirical evidence, while relevant, is not determining. Philosophical questions are ones for which the ancient Egyptians would have been as well equipped to answer as the most up to date scientist. Questions in Philosophy are only very rarely ever answered convincingly. We are still wrestling with the same questions that consumed Plato and Aristotle. Questions of philosophy are largely independent of each other. A choice of one view of Ethics over another does not influence how one views the issue of Universals, or Causation for example.

And besides, a cynic would suggest that as soon as Philosophy understands a question well enough that empirical data become meaningful, the question ceases to be a philosophical question and becomes a question of science or fact.

I am not quite so cynical. I just feel that Philosophy addresses the questions about what makes empirical data meaningful to science. Even scientists can't answer scientific questions unless they accept (mostly unconsciously, to be sure) some of the metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions that give meaning to the question. It is philosophy that provides the underlying framework of scientific questions.

Stuart Burns


(71) Jordan asked:

What would Jesus do?


You can ask your favourite Biblical scholar for an appropriate interpretation of the Gospels. I am not such a scholar.

But for me the really interesting question here is — why would you care?

Presumably, you are asking what Jesus would do as an attempt at discovering 'what is the right thing to do?' This, of course, is the realm of Ethics. And your question presupposes that Jesus (as recorded in the New Testament) has the answer to all questions of Ethics. Given that Jesus lived 2000 years ago, and the record of his teaching is sketchy at best, what makes you think that his Ethical rules would be applicable to today's Ethical challenges? Even if he did offer some absolute rules of conduct, or listed some supremely desirable consequences that one ought to achieve, is there not perhaps a more recent Ethicist in the same school of Ethics, whose advice might be more appropriate to your current circumstances??

Stuart Burns


(72) Karen asked:

To Torture or Not to Torture?

You are a federal agent working for the Department of Homeland Security's Counter Terrorist Team (CTT). Part of your duties involves the investigation of terrorist activities and the interrogation of suspected terrorists. In recent weeks, the CTT has been investigating evidence that a large scale terrorist attack is imminent in a major metropolitan area of the United States. The threat level is very high and sources have confirmed that a major disaster is certain. Until recently, CTT has not been able to discover the details of the attack including the city that is going to be targeted.

You just had a major breakthrough, however. In a raid on a suspected terrorist cell group, a number of high level terrorist leaders have been arrested. During their arrests, you have uncovered important details about the attack. You discover that a thermonuclear weapon has been smuggled into the country and is planted in a major US city. Though you don't know the precise day or time of its detonation, the evidence indicates that it will be soon.

In an effort to get more information, you are assigned to interrogate the leader of the terrorist cell. You have been authorized to use whatever means necessary to achieve your goal. After hours of interrogation you have learned little. He has confirmed that there is a nuclear bomb and that it will go off very soon. In fact, he has boasted about it, but he has refused to tell you where it is located. You can tell he is resolved not to reveal its location and no amount of pain you inflict on him will get him to change his mind.

However, along with capturing the terrorist, you have also captured his family, including his seven year old daughter. While you are convinced he can withstand torture himself, you are also convinced that if you torture his daughter in front of him he will break down in time to tell you the location of the nuclear device. Because of your experience in interrogation you are virtually certain of these two facts. However, you cannot fake the torture of the girl he will not be convinced unless he actually sees you torture her and hears her screams.

You bring the daughter into the room and strap her into a chair. You light a cigarette lighter and prepare to hold the flame against her skin.

Two important points: (1) We know that this will work and (2) It is the only thing that will work. Should you torture her? You are not allowed to alter this scenario in any manner.


You have put a lot of thought into this particular example of Applied Ethics. I have to admit of some curiosity as to why you would go to such effort, rather than just ask the simple question of whether torture can be ethically justified.

The answer is that different ethical theories would generate different answers as to whether torture could ever be ethically justified. And as you may or may not expect, providing the extensive details that you have does not change that fact. Deontological ethical theories prescribe rules of behaviour and/or duties to perform. Consequentialist theories base their prescriptions on the consequences of actions. Each kind of theory represents a completely different way of viewing the ethical problem you present. Here are three brief answers from different ethical theories.

If you adhere to Christian ethics, for example, torture would never be justifiable. (I think! I am not a Biblical scholar, so I cannot say with any confidence whether there may be a passage in the Bible that might be interpretable so as to justify torture. But torture does seem to me to be contrary to the principles of Christianity.) Christianity is a deontological ethical system. It is based on absolute rules of behaviour, with the consequences being irrelevant. And one of those rules is the 'Golden Rule' — 'Do unto others . etc'. Since you (presumably) would not want to have torture done to you, then you are prohibited from torturing others.

Utilitarianism in its elementary form (as described by Bentham and Mill) would allow you to justify torture if you could reasonably expect that the net total utility would be increased by the contemplated torture. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical system. What matters is the consequences, rather than just the particular actions. Within your constructed scenario, you have set things up so that a Utilitarian could easily justify the torture of your prisoner.

Since this sort of answer does not coincide with many philosophers' innate intuitions, many philosophers have developed variations of Utilitarianism that would not allow you to justify torture. For example Rule Utilitarianism would employ the Utilitarian principles to establish rules. A rule would be acceptable if the behaviour in question could be exhibited by all persons and still maximize the net utility. It makes a deontological system out of what started as a consequentialist system. You could not use the Utilitarian principles to justify a Rule that would permit a particular special torture without simultaneously permitting generalized torture. Hence Rule Utilitarianism would not allow you to justify just one particular torture.

Evolutionary Ethics would provide a different answer. Evolutionary Ethics works at the level of the individual. And in your scenario, you have provided a ready 'get out of jail free' card. You stipulated that 'You have been authorized to use whatever means necessary to achieve your goal.' This means that you have negated most of the potential negative consequences of torturing the prisoner. Since Evolutionary Ethics is based on the net welfare of me and mine, and you have stipulated that me and mine would be better off if I torture the prisoner, I have just ethically justified torturing this prisoner. Without the get-out-of-jail-free card, the ethical decision becomes more difficult, but it would still rest on my evaluation of whether me and mine would be better off (in the long run) with or without the torture.

An interesting return question springs to mind for the adherents of the other Ethical systems: If the fate of your family hung in the balance, would you torture the prisoner even if you did not have that 'get out of jail free' card in your pocket, and even if your preferred ethical system prohibited it?

Stuart Burns


(73) Mark asked:

Why are we what we are, and why do we build weapons of colossal power and do so in the name of security. I struggle to understand why man has this instinct to kill. On the other side, I mean really, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Coz my understanding is that both good and bad have equally bad and good within.

We could build a whole new world — a world with no destruction (except for the destruction mother nature inflicts upon us, as she at the end of the day rules us all). Do we really want to let people decide our futures? Coz I myself would rather mother nature decide. Not some person in a position of power who thinks he is speaking for an entire nation when the reality is he speaks for those in his company only.


Why are we what we are? The answer, of course, is because of our evolutionary history. We build the biggest club we can because the world out there is full of nasty competition that would just love to take what we have given half the chance. Man does not have an instinct to kill. We do not kill without justification. There are over 3 billion people on this planet at the moment. If we had an instinct to kill, there would be a WHOLE LOT of killing going on. But historically speaking the daily killing rate is one of the smallest in history. What we have is an instinct for self-preservation (or more specifically, the preservation of 'me and mine'). We kill only when we judge that it is in our best interests to kill.

Unfortunately, far too many people are intellectually lazy — often because their teachers, religious leaders, and political leaders teach them to be intellectually lazy. Too many people let themselves be taught to let others do their thinking (and judging) for them. They are persuaded by their leaders that letting those leaders do the thinking/judging is in their best interests. (Of course, it is rarely in the best interests of anyone to let someone else do the thinking/judging for you.) Hence a lot of people kill because they are tricked into believing that killing is in their best interests. And of course, it rarely is. Sitting on the sidelines and being an armchair quarterback is easy to do. It is less easy to maintain one's own dignity and self-respect by refusing to let others do the thinking for them.

You seem to have the basic notion already. What you need to do is foster that sentiment, and cultivate the necessary knowledge of the world to let you do your own thinking. For instance, we could build a whole new world — a world without man's self-destruction. But would we really want to do that? On this planet we are our only competition. If we do not control our numbers ourselves voluntarily, then we will control our numbers involuntarily by violent competition. Otherwise, we will over-populate the planet and die in our own sh*t.

And besides, the only way we could ever build the Utopia you have in mind is if those who want to tear down civilization are somehow convinced that they are wrong. And somehow, I don't think we will ever convince them short of killing them off.

But hey, I have been wrong before. And the everyone knows that the world will only be saved by someone too idealistic to realize that it is impossible.

Best of luck to you, and remember to do your own thinking. Keep on surviving and never let the bastards grind you down.

Stuart Burns


(74) Siobhan asked:

Is the thing that thinks really me?


To tell you the truth, I have no idea. Since I am not you, I cannot be sure that you think. I suppose that it is possible that you do not think. Perhaps you just randomly hit the keyboard keys, and came up with that question? But your question raises far more questions than the one you ask.

From where I sit, I am absolutely certain that I think. In fact 'that I think' is one of the very few absolute certainties that I have. As Rene Descartes said 'Cogito ergo sum' — 'I think, therefore I am'. From in here, I am convinced that I could not be a 'me' without thinking.

Then there is the question of what it is that makes a person more than just an inert hunk of decaying meat. You identify yourself as a 'me'. How is it possible that you can do that without thinking? Is not thinking integral to being an intelligence sufficient to be able to ask the question you ask?

Is it possible that you have so completely abdicated the role of thinking to the dictates of others, that you have lost the sense of thinking for yourself? Have you so completely lost the sense of self-worth that you let others do your thinking, judging, and deciding for you? Do you just do what others tell you, without considering the consequences at all? I sincerely hope not. It would be a terrible fate for anyone.

I have to admit of intense curiosity as to what motivated your question. How is it possible that you might entertain the notion that whatever it is that is 'you' does not do the thinking that is integral to being a 'you'? Have I missed something important here?

Stuart Burns


(75) Tanzeel asked:

As it is admitted that there is a limit to human knowledge or understanding, I just want to know what is meant by limit? How and when can we say that 'Now that is the limit'? How can anyone have the knowledge of the limitation of the knowledge?


This is a great question. We take it more or less for granted that human knowledge has limits — limits which we don't know (because we haven't reached them yet) but also limits which we do know about. Bertrand Russell has the dubious honour of writing a book which was once referenced in one of the episodes of the legendary BBC comedy Hancock's Half Hour, 'The Bedsitter':

"Oh I don't KNOW what he's talking about. The limit and scope of human knowledge. Well we've soon found out MY limit haven't we — three sentences!"

The title of Russell's book is actually Human Knowledge: It's Scope and Limits. I've had a copy on my bookshelf for years and never got so far as reading one sentence. I'm sure it's a very worthy book, and not one of Russell's 'potboilers'. But my main limit is patience. There are lots of things I ought to know but don't, just as there are lots of books I ought to have read but haven't, because it would cost just too much time and effort.

But we're not talking about that kind of 'limit'. Limits to human knowledge would be limits which we could not overcome even with our very best efforts.

In many cases, or so we naturally assume, we will never know what these limits are because we will never even get close to them. In Donald Rumsfeld's immortal words, they are 'unknown unknowns'. But Tanzeel isn't concerned with this kind of limit. She's concerned with the limits which we know about. How can you ever know, for sure, what the limits to human knowledge are?

There is a puzzle which has to do with the quantitative aspect of knowledge, the sheer immensity of things to be known. It is a problem which infects Finitism in mathematics, sometimes known as 'Strict Finitism', which extends the rejection of the classical notion of the infinite by mathematical intuitionists to the Aristotelian/ Kantian notion of the 'potentially' infinite. According to finitists, anything to do with the infinite in any sense of the word is beyond human knowledge and understanding, period. You might as well just be babbling.

The difficulty with this position is that even if you get rid of the infinite, you still have to deal with immensely large numbers, like a quadrillion to the power of quadrillion. A proof which required that number of steps would be beyond the capacity of any embodied being, now or a any time in the future. There are simply not enough particles in the universe.

The problem I'm thinking of has to do with the ancient Paradox of the Heap. One grain of sand is not a heap. If n grains of sand cannot make a heap, then n+1 grains of sand cannot make a heap either. But then it follows by a simple application of mathematical induction that no amount of sand can make a heap. Let's take a similar case in finitism. Any proof which requires a thousand lines is capable of being constructed. If a proof is capable of being constructed, then a proof which is one line longer is capable of being constructed. Therefore (as before) a proof of any finite length (including a quadrillion to the power of quadrillion) is capable of being constructed.

Or in more humble terms: we know how to measure the weight of one grain of sand (it's around a half to one milligram). This is easily done with an precision laboratory balance. If you can know the individual weights of n grains of sand, then you can know the individual weights of n+1 grains of sand. You just measure the weight of one more grain. Therefore you can, in principle, know the weight of each grain of sand on every beach in the world. But we know we can never know this.

So there is a real difficulty with the idea of 'knowing the limit' when it comes to merely quantitative restrictions on knowledge. There is no way, in principle, that you can draw the line between what is knowable and what is not knowable. What about quantitative restrictions, on the kinds of knowledge it is possible to have?

There are various kinds of case where we come up against the limits of measurement and prediction. There are very good reasons why you cannot predict the behaviour of a human being with complete confidence. But on the other hand we can come close in many cases, and especially when we are dealing with human behaviour from a statistical point of view (e.g. the number of men each year who marry at the age of 25). In physics, by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle you can never know the precise mass and velocity of a particle, because all measurement involves some form of physical interaction, and physical interaction alters the state of the thing you were attempting to observe. But, once again, we can gain a great deal of information about physical systems on the sub-microscopic level.

But I don't think that this is the kind of case Tanzeel is thinking about either. Like the quantitative limits to knowledge, these kinds of example are just too mundane.

In a previous answer, I talked a bit about Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena, and the idea that the world of physical things in space which we interact with and which science investigates is merely an 'appearance' of some unknowable ultimate reality. I've already given my reasons why I don't accept this view. You can only go by the best argument, in philosophy as elsewhere, and according to the argument which persuades me, Kant is wrong. Maybe The Matrix does 'have us'. But in that case that is just more physical reality, not something supra-physical, beyond space and time.

However, one might think of the category of the Unknowable in a less metaphysically loaded, but no less compelling way.

In his Herbert Spencer lecture 'The Unknowable' George Santayana rescues a doctrine that Spencer was heavily criticized for, the view that the substance of the world is 'unknowable', and gives it a poetic twist:

I have sometimes wondered at the value ladies set upon jewels: as centres of light, jewels seem rather trivial and monotonous. And yet there is an unmistakable spell about these pebbles; they can be taken up and turned over; they can be kept; they are faithful possessions; the sparkle of them, shifting from moment to moment, is constant from age to age. They are substances. The same aspects of light and colour, if they were homeless in space, or could be spied only once and irrecoverably, like fireworks, would have a less comfortable charm. In jewels there is the security, the mystery, the inexhaustible fixity proper to substance. After all, perhaps I can understand the fascination they exercise over the ladies; it is the same that the eternal feminine exercises over us. Our contact with them is unmistakable, our contemplation of them gladly renewed, and pleasantly prolonged; yet in one sense they are unknowable; we cannot fathom the secret of their constancy, of their hardness, of that perpetual but uncertain brilliancy by which they dazzle us and hide themselves. These qualities of the jewel and of the eternal feminine are also the qualities of substance and of the world. The existence of this world — unless we lapse for a moment into an untenable scepticism — is certain, or at least it is unquestioningly to be assumed. Experience may explore it adventurously, and science may describe it with precision; but after you have wandered up and down in it for many years, and have gathered all you could of its ways by report, this same world, because it exists substantially and is not invented, remains a foreign thing and a marvel to the spirit: unknowable as a drop of water is unknowable, or unknowable like a person loved.

If you look at the question this way, then of course there is a limit to human knowledge, which exists by virtue of the fact of the sheer inexhaustibility of the world. We know that we will never cease to find things that surprise us, so long as we continue our quest for knowledge.

When I first read this, in an old volume which belonged to my parents, Reading I have Liked edited by Clifton Fadiman, I was enchanted and enthralled. These days one would hesitate to quote Santayana's references to 'the ladies' and the fascination which they exercise 'over us'. But I would just say, Get over it, otherwise there's too much great literature that you would have to consign to the flames.

Nonetheless, the idea of 'penetrating' to the very heart of reality is a very male idea. This quote from Hegel, from the Introduction to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy which I have used for unit 1 of the Metaphysics program says it all:

But in the first place, I can ask nothing of you but to bring with you, above all, a trust in science and a trust in yourselves. The love of truth, faith in the power of mind, is the first condition in Philosophy. Man, because he is Mind, should and must deem himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think too highly of the greatness and the power of his mind, and, with this belief, nothing will be so difficult and hard that it will not reveal itself to him. The Being of the universe, at first hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.

On the Pathways Follydiddledah! web site I have illustrated this with a photo of a NASA Saturn Rocket taking off from Cape Kennedy. I hope that human beings will never lose the appetite 'to boldly go'. However, it is good to temper boldness with a modicum of reverence for the inexhaustibility of a universe which we found and did not make.

Geoffrey Klempner


(76) Martin asked:

It is fairly common to believe that a person can remain the same person perhaps for a lifetime while undergoing a lot of change. Can a satisfactory naturalistic account of this belief be provided?


The key to answering this question is recognizing that the things that we identify out in the world, the 'particulars' (to use a term of art) that we identify in the world, we identify only because we have a particular interest in identifying them. And their identity (but not their existence) depends on our identification of them. When you look at a nice green lawn, do you see the lawn, or do you see the blades of grass? How we draw the boundaries around what we perceive in the world depends on our current cognitive purpose. Do you see the stone, the pile of stones, or the hillside? Is that a house, a wall, or a brick I see?

So when we perceive a member of the human species, on what basis do we choose to draw the boundaries around what is and what is not the 'person' we perceive? What matters is not any particular property of the object we perceive. What matters is our cognitive purpose in drawing the boundaries. We draw the boundary around a 'person' so as to maintain the 'identify' over time of the moral agent, since that is what matters (most of the time) for our cognitive purpose.

We can assume, for the purpose of this exposition, that our cognitive purpose in dealing with other persons, is to compete or cooperate in the attainment of our goals. What matters to us is our ability to predict the behaviour of that other person. To do that we attribute to that person beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and other behavioural tendencies. We use that information to predict how that person will react to what we do. So what matters is to us is the ability to predict (however roughly) the behaviour of that 'person'. And means is that what is important in identifying a continuity of 'person' is the continuity of that ability to predict — what I am calling here 'moral agency'. If we have a discontinuity in that ability to predict, we tend to identity a different person. Multiple personality disorder is a case in point. If we have a continuity in that ability to predict, we tend to identify a continuity of person, regardless of any discontinuity of physical characteristics. The Star Trek transporter being a case in point.

What does not matter is any property inherent in the object we perceive. Hence, it does not matter for our cognitive purpose that real physical boundary around the thing we identify as a 'person' is somewhat vague — physical materials are constantly flowing into and out of what we identify as a 'person'. The person could loose a significant part of its physical boundary (like an arm and a leg, and so forth) and still remain the same person. The physical body could be completely destroyed and a new body recreated in a distant place (by, say, a Star Trek transporter), and still remain the same person. What matters for the identity of a person over time and change is the continuity over time of the same moral agent, not any continuity of the physical boundary.

By 'moral agency' in this context, I mean the integrated set of beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and behavioural tendencies that we attribute to what we are calling the other person. We learn to associate a particular set of these beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and behavioural tendencies with a particular perceptible exterior as a way of anticipating and reacting to the behaviour of that person. As long as we find that the particular set of these beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and behavioural tendencies remains sufficiently continuous to remain useful in dealing with that person, we will believe in the continuing identity of that person over time. Dr. McCoy remains Dr. McCoy as long as the surly, curmudgeonly medical expert that goes into the transporter comes out of the transporter — even if the atoms that made up the input have no part of the output, and even if the output is far far away in space and/or time. Commander Data would remain the same Commander Data as long as the particular set of beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and behavioural tendencies that we attribute to him remains the same even if the only thing that got moved from one positronic brain to another was the information that caused us to attribute to him those particular beliefs, wants, needs, desires, and behavioural tendencies.

The same principle applies to every 'particular' that we pick out of the world. The tree in my yard is the same tree over the years, even though it changes from a small seed to a large towering maple. What matters for the concept of identity over time is not the physical boundary, it is the role that the tree plays in my cognitive purpose.

I have to add a caveat, however, lest I cause undue confusion. It is one of my cognitive purposes to understand the world well enough to predict well its future reactions. That requires that I include in my cognitive purpose the desire to 'cleave nature at its joints' (Carl Linnaeus). Which means that I find it in my best interests to draw boundaries around things that react as units within the world. So unless I have other over-riding interests, I do not identify the atoms and quarks out of which all things are made. I identify the chairs and tables and other such furniture of the world. This means that sometimes it is the pile of rocks and not individual rocks that are important, and sometimes the other way around. And it means that I have an abiding cognitive interest in trying to identify 'particulars' in the world in a way that best aids me in understanding and predicting how the world will react to my actions.

So, to answer your question, it is almost universal to believe that a person can remain the same person while undergoing a lot of change because what matters for our identification of the 'same person' is the continuity of moral agency, not any continuity of physical presence. And this is a thoroughly naturalistic account of this belief.

Stuart Burns


(77) Malcolm asked:

What is the best argument for God's existence? And what is the best argument against? Or is it a question of conceivability? If God exists ,why do theists need faith? Is belief a question of will?


Your first pair of questions raise a difficult issue. That is because for a person who already believes in the existence of God, there are any number of good arguments for the existence of God, and few, if any, against. Yet for the person who does not believe in the existence of God, there are any number of good arguments against that existence, and few, if any, for. The problem arises because the criteria that either side employs to judge a 'good argument' for or against will change depending on which side of the issue you start from.

I cannot give you a balanced answer, because I start from the side that does not believe in the existence of God. Perhaps one of the Theists in this forum will post you an answer from the other side.

From this side of the issue, the best argument for God's existence is the persuasiveness of the multitude of influential people in your life (friends, teachers, idols, parents, and so forth) who believe in the existence of God. And the best argument against the existence of God is that there is no scientific evidence that would suggest the existence of an entity with the abilities and powers usually associated with God (and if He existed, there should be lots of it, so in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence.)

Theists need faith because they have to depend on the truth of the premise that so many good people just can't be wrong. And they have to assume that this premise is true despite the fact that all of the evidence there should be if there is a God, is not there. Such a belief is indeed a matter of will. One has to will one's self into believing a proposition that is inherently unlikely, and contrary to the evidence.

But as I said at the beginning, this is an answer by one who does not believe. I have never found any of the arguments offered by the theists anything but circular.

Stuart Burns


(78) Malcolm asked:

What's the difference between a dream and reality? According to Descartes, thinking determines his existence, but couldn't I be dreaming of thinking? If our thinking can deceive, then isn't it possible that maybe we are dreaming? If there are some observations which are NOT reliable, doesn't this make empiricism fallacious?


The concepts 'reality' and 'dream [world]' refer to two distinctly different modes of experiencing 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. When experiencing life in one mode, we notice that things perceived are constant, persistent, consistent, and coherent. When experiencing life in the other mode, we notice that things perceived are dramatically less constant in form and character, often transient in existence, frequently mutually inconsistent both from thing to thing and across time, and far more frequently quite incoherent. One mode of experience draws the focus of our attention, is amenable to inquiry, and responsive to our reactions. The other mode of experience often drifts uncontrollably past our attention, is rarely subject to inquiry, and is often unresponsive to our reactions. On any scale of measure, the difference between the two modes of experience is dramatic and unmistakable whenever noticed. One of these modes of experience we call the 'real word', the other we call the 'dream world' (or hallucinations, or illusions).

Stuart Burns


(79) Malcolm asked:

Should materialistic science be replaced by theistic science? Is science too humanistic?


The term 'theistic science' is oxymoronic — self-contradictory.

Theism and science are two different ways of interpreting and understanding our experiences, predicting the consequences of our actions, and prescribing the best means of attaining our goals. And they are incompatible.

Theism takes as given that there is a God (or Gods). All experience is interpreted in light of that presupposition. All hypotheses about how the world works, upon which are based all prescriptions of how best to attain our goals, must be compatible with that presupposition.

Science takes as given that acceptable evidence must be testable and repeatable. All experience is interpreted in light of that presupposition. All hypotheses about how the world works, upon which are based all prescriptions of how best to attain our goals, must be testable and verifiable by independent investigators.

The two ways of understanding the world will therefore yield incompatible understandings, incompatible predictions about the consequences of our actions, and incompatible prescriptions about the best way to attain our goals.

The best current example of 'theistic science' is what is called 'creation science'. Creation 'science' assumes as a presupposition that the world was divinely created according to Biblical descriptions. It then proceeds to interpret all possible evidence in light of that presupposition, dismisses as 'not evidence' any observations incompatible with that presupposition, and takes many observations and comments by reputable scientists out of context in order to buttress its a priori position. 'Creation science', whatever else it might be, is therefore certainly not 'science' by any common understanding of that label.

Stuart Burns


(80) Erin asked:

If there is such thing as 'self', then is it possible that there are two completely identical human beings in the same universe?


It is not at all obvious just what you mean by this question.

The notion of the 'self' is the concept of 'I/me'. The 'self' is the 'I/me'. So I am at a loss as to how to take your first phrase. How could it be possible for you to have a sense of 'I/me' and not admit of the existence of the 'self'?

I am a human being with an awareness of 'self'. Call me SB1. Given the size of the Universe, I suppose that it is logically possible that somewhere in the Universe, there is a duplicate of Earth upon which there may be a duplicate of me. Call that person SB2.

Now suppose that SB2 is molecule for molecule identical with SB1. If we assume a physicalist's position that the mind, the 'self' is supervenient on the physical brain, then we would have to maintain that SB2 is also aware of his own 'self'. So we could assume that SB2 is identical to SB1 in the sense of being a complete duplicate of SB1.

But SB2 is not identical SB1 in the sense of being the same 'self' as SB1. For each of SB1 and SB2 has a thought in mind to prevent that. And that thought is 'That copy of me over there is not ME. Clearly, I am in here, and he is out there.'

Now, having said that it is logically possible (conceivable) that there are two completely identical human beings in the same universe, I would suggest that it is so vastly unlikely as to be almost (but not completely) inconceivable.

Stuart Burns


(81) Bob asked:

MAIN QUESTION: if you absolutely knew you wouldn't get caught, what would make you choose good over evil?

For example, If you were driving and came across a red light, and you absolutely knew that no one was around, would you stop or would you run the red light? Realizing that you would absolutely not get caught if you ran it...


The simple answer is 'Intelligent self-interest!'

The more complex answer is that I do not accept anyone's judgement of what is 'good' or 'bad', unless they are using as a standard the long term intelligent self-interest of me and mine. Generalized rules of conduct are 'rules of thumb' — guidelines to employ when I do not have the time or information to make a thoughtful judgement as to what is in my long term best interests.

In your example, you describe an action (running the red light) which would be illegal. But you only imply that you view the illegal as 'evil'. I do not see that this equivalence necessarily follows. So in your example, based on the sketchy information you provided, I would judge that it would be in my long term best interests to run the red light (minimizes the wear and tear on my car, at least).

Stuart Burns


(82) Erin asked:

If there is such thing as 'self', then is it possible that there are two completely identical human beings in the same universe?


I don't know what you mean by 'such a thing as 'self'' However in our world no two people can be completely identical because each individual has their own body composed of different atoms and each body has its own space-time history. In fact the idea of two people who are completely identical does not make sense. If they are two people then they cannot be completely identical i.e. the same person. In the same way no two earthworms can be completely identical either.

Shaun Williamson


(83) Malcolm asked:

Should materialistic science be replaced by theistic science? is science too humanistic?


Science is science, it is neither materialistic nor humanistic nor theistic. I think you don't have any clear idea of what science is or what scientists do. The idea that science can or should become theistic is just nonsense as is the idea that science is or should be materialistic.
Scientists look at the world and attempt to discover the laws of nature, that is all. Science is neither theistic nor atheistic.

In the same way people who knit make things out of wool and knitting is neither materialistic nor humanistic nor theistic, it is just knitting.

Shaun Williamson


(84) Ruy asked:

Is it possible to embrace idealism and not to fall into solipsism?

Muganga asked:

I would like to know the difference between the idealistic philosophy and the realistic philosophy.


I've postponed this question long enough. I first tried an answer a couple of weeks ago, but abandoned it. You could say that solipsism is my Achilles' heel. But Ruy is one of my University of London students so I have to give it a go.

The starting point is a talk I gave to graduate students at The University of Hull in 1997 entitled The Partial Vindication of Solipsism. I had to apologize to my audience because the talk was only half-written. At the crucial point, I just ran out of things to say, so I had to extemporize. (We had a lively discussion — I wish someone had taped it.)

Let's first get clear about some definitions. I'm not interested here in the realism/ anti-realism debate about truth and meaning, associated with philosophers like Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright. I've written about this — you'll find it in the Pathways Philosophy of Language and Metaphysics programs, but I want to focus here on 'traditional' idealisms, like Berkeley's Immaterialism, Kant's Transcendental Idealism (with phenomena-noumena distinction) and, possibly, Bradley's (or Hegel's) Objective Idealism. These are all robustly non-solipsist theories, so in a way that answers Ruy's question.

But, of course, it doesn't because the next question is, can Berkeleian Immaterialism or Kantian Transcendental Idealism or Bradleian Objective Idealism (or etc. etc.) be defended? If you do some research on the internet you'll see that a 'case can be made'. Two notable books which I may have mentioned before are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1984).

You don't need to be an idealist in order to see the attractions of a 'partial solipsism'. In fact, as I argue in my book Naive Metaphysics it doesn't even help to be an idealist so far as contemplating the attractions of solipsism is concerned.

Here, I want to give my 'take' on why idealism is challenge to be reckoned with. I think that idealism can be refuted. But there wouldn't be much interest in its refutation if idealism wasn't worth taking seriously.

Science has moved on, since Berkeley attacked the idea of 'matter'. The distance between a Newtonian corpuscularianism (essentially, a modified Democritean atomism) and (e.g.) string theory is stupendous. Physicist David Bohm's notion of an 'implicate order' could even be described as a 'new idealism'. But I'm going to take a broad sweep and include any view that sees physics as giving the ultimate account of the nature of the universe as inconsistent with philosophical idealism. The universe might be much stranger than we supposed, but physics gives the final account. After that, there's nothing more, you've included everything that exists.

According to the idealist — or at least my kind of 'idealist' — physics can never give the ultimate or final account. Physical theories aim to tell us how the world works, at the most fundamental level. But there is something else, which physics doesn't and cannot explain.

It's easier to grasp this if you are a theist (which I am not). What there is, which physics doesn't account for, is, on Berkeley's version of theism, the super-mind within which all physical existence is enclosed. When you look out onto the world, you are merely looking at the inside of God's mind. All the physicist does is look deeper into it. The nature of the deity is a subject for theology, or, possibly, metaphysics, but not physics.

(You can of course, be a theist without embracing idealism. God did his God bit by 'making' things out of 'matter', the way a potter makes pots out of clay. Alan Watts has a great phrase for this theory in The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966): he calls it 'The Crackpot Universe'.)

If you asked me, 'How is it that the Earth is able to hang suspended in space?' and my reply was, 'Imagine the Earth resting on a tortoise. Now, remove the tortoise', you wouldn't think much of my answer. But I do contend that what I said about the tortoise is a valid way to think of idealism. 'Imagine the universe existing inside God's mind. Now, remove God.' The point is that nothing is explained by appealing to the nature of the deity. How can we know? But, equally, one can't simply say, with Wittgenstein, 'A nothing would serve as well as a something about which nothing can be said.' Serve what purpose, exactly? If you just mean 'serve the purposes of science', then you're just begging the question.

In short, for all its ambitions towards objectivity, science is confined to looking at the universe from the inside. That's what the idealist claims. There is something beyond science, for the same reason that anything that has a 'inside' must have an 'outside'. But as to what that 'something' is we can only speculate.

A student of metaphysics might notice that what I've said isn't very far away from Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena. Or maybe Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea.

In objective idealism, the metaphor of 'inside' and 'outside' is replaced by the notion of part to whole. According to F.H. Bradley in his treatise Appearance and Reality (1893), thinking dismembers experience by means of the apparatus of terms and relations, resulting in irreconcilable 'contradictions' which are only 'overcome' in the Absolute — although as finite beings we can have no positive knowledge of how this is possible. Even God is merely an aspect of the Absolute.

What's wrong with idealism? We can leave aside the usual objections, like P.F. Strawson's disappointingly weak reasons for rejecting the phenomena-noumena distinction in his otherwise excellent book on Kant, The Bounds of Sense (1966). Yes, talk of an 'unknowable ultimate reality' borders on the unintelligible. But that's precisely the point where we need to avoid the temptation to throw our hands up in horror (the way the old-time logical positivists used to do).

Commenting on Bradley's denial of the reality of spatial and temporal relations, Strawson's contemporary at Oxford J.L. Austin is said to have remarked, 'There's the part where you say it, and then the part where you take it back.' Space and time are 'real', for all practical human purposes, just not for metaphysics. Well, I know what Bradley meant, even if Austin (disingenuously, in my view) professes not to. If only philosophy were that easy!

I've not done much more than try to describe the idealist's vision, so it would be somewhat unfair to offer a refutation when I haven't really given an argument to refute. I have more to say about this in the Pathways Metaphysics program. However, there are two books which stand out for me as encapsulating what needs to be said if you want to resist the idealist's challenge.

The first book, or rather pair of books, is John Macmurray's The Self as Agent (1957) and Persons in Relation (1961) based on his Gifford Lectures, 'The Form of the Personal'. Macmurray identifies the key move that needs to be made as the rejection of a 'metaphysic of experience' in favour of a 'metaphysic of action'.

The second book is Richard Rorty's rightly celebrated Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) where the key assumption behind the panoply of idealist philosophies is identified as the view that human thought acts as a 'mirror' which serves to 'copy' or 'represent' an 'external reality'.

We are as agents bound up with the world too intimately to make a separation, even in thought, between experience, or thought, and its 'object'.

I suppose that this is, essentially, pragmatism. The American Pragmatist William James correctly identified this as the weak point in F.H. Bradley's idealism, the notion that human physical agency reduces to so much 'experience'.

It is the same point, again, as the famous incident when Dr Johnson, emerging into a church courtyard after hearing one of Berkeley's sermons, kicked a heavy stone and declared 'I refute it thus'. An idealist would say that Dr Johnson was being naive because 'of course' idealism can explain the experience of rapidly moving your boot, the judder of contact, etc. What Dr Johnson saw — and Berkeley missed — is that what makes reality real, and not merely 'virtual', is that actions are things we do rather than things we merely experience.

Geoffrey Klempner


(85) Claes asked:

1. When you explain something you always refer to something earlier in time.

2. Scientists tell us the there was nothing 'earlier' than the Big Bang.

3. It follows that the big bang and with it the universe can't be explained, only described

4. A support for this conclusion seems to be the fact (?), that there isn't even a theory about how the big bang came to be.

5. This is intellectually unsatisfactory. The universe is there after all. We must be able to understand it. And probably there is nothing wrong with the universe

6. So there must be something wrong with our idea of an explanation. Something wrong in our way of reasoning.

Question: This argumentation is extremely simple so I am sure it must have been discussed before. What are the theories and standpoints here? Is somebody really trying to hammer out a new way of thinking? A new definition of explanations? Which would allow us to understand the universe?


There is one theory about how the big bang came to be. It is based on the known facts. The Big Bang provided Time, Energy and mathematical Cosmic Constants. The Cosmic Constants developed both Matter and Life from Energy, and enabled their further development, establishing the laws of nature that we discover. How can such an event be explained?

One possible explanation requires us to postulate an intelligent creative entity, a God. But why would such an entity act through a Big Bang?

Aristotle provides an answer. He reasons both that God is necessary for there to be a world and that God would act to produce another entity similar to God. This second conclusion appeared to be contradicted by the nature of the world, making Aristotle believe he had developed an antinomy.

Aristotle did not consider whether humanity could be involved in an incremental process of self-development. His category of process was based on the circular processes of biology, in which what is produced replicates what already exists. He did not possess our linear category of process, in which an output can differ radically from the inputs.

Had Aristotle possessed our category of process he could have understood that he had not developed an antinomy. Humans could be engaged in an incremental process of self-development and self-creation that could make them more similar to God. Jesus could then be understood as a product of the communal and individual self-creative moral processes of Judaism, rather than as a 'Son of God'.

Dr. A.B. Kelly


(86) Malcolm asked:

Why are Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre such popular and trendy philosophers? If I was fond of Nietzschean philosophy and many others are also, wouldn't this become very un-Nietzschean?


Why would it be un-Nietzschean? On Nietzsche's specification, values and preferences are sign languages of the hierarchical constitution of your emotions and drives. So if you are fond of Nietzsche and other thinkers, this would evidence who you are — at least some of the time according to particular moods ascendant in your body at that time. If you like Sartre, its because you like freedom and the responsibility for your actions and choices that accompany freedom. This is strength.

Contrast this with those who are afraid of responsibility. They will probably find justification and excuse in the values and philosophy of determinism. All that happens is a matter of cause and effect, so the person is responsible for nothing. This is weakness.

Martin Jenkins


(87) Malcolm asked:

Nietzsche philosophy is seems very anti philosophical, why? Why was he against everything? Is he trying to tell us that philosophy can be misleading? Was Kant too idealistic?


Nietzsche described Thus Spoke Zarathustra as his 'Yes' saying book whereas Beyond Good and Evil was the 'No' saying book. Nietzsche was not against everything. He is certainly not a nihilist. Sometimes, he might read as being against everything yet at others, he is very affirmative. I think Nietzsche is trying to naturalise philosophy in values. As such, when he, like everyone else, is in a certain 'negative' mood, his writings express this. When in a more 'positive' mood, his valuations and writing express this. It is this vitalistic element of his writings that provides for so many inconsistencies and ambiguities in his work. Human, all too human.

What Nietzsche is certainly against is metaphysical philosophy which began with Socrates and Plato and subsequently shaped the Western way of thinking. He calls it the lie of millennia with Christianity being 'Platonism for the people'. In respect of morals, valuations are said to be immutable and handed down from a transcendent god. All people are to accept such universal valuations and the worst instincts of the human condition [cowardice, laziness, servility, resentment of anyone different, conformity and safety in herd numbers] are to be amplified. Nietzsche hopes this will be replaced by a naturalistic form of ethics in which the growth and flourishing of life is expressed [Will to Power].

Epistemologically, Nietzsche highlights how the metaphysical worldview has, for example, determined how we view ourselves, others and the world. The essence behind appearance becomes the soul which becomes the mind in each individual. The mind is a singular entity which rationally chooses course A or B. With Nietzsche, the body is rehabilitated to be the source of drives [instantiations of Will to Power] which form a transient hierarchy.

The concept of 'Truth' as knowledge sub specie aeternae — which mirrors how things actually are; is challenged. There are only perspectives. Perspectives express life and as such, change with life. See Genealogy of Morality #12 Third Essay. The promulgation of Absolute Truth is misleading.

Martin Jenkins


(88) Rozario asked:

One lady is suffering from imagination. She thinks that she is followed by two persons. She thinks that drugs is induced into her body without her knowledge. What to do now sir?


If you are sure that this lady's problems are imaginary then she may need medical and psychiatric help, but she only needs this help if her imaginary problems are making her a danger to herself or others.

It is often difficult to persuade people who are suffering from delusions to seek help and there is no way that you can force them to seek help unless they behave in ways that society finds unacceptable.

Shaun Williamson


(89) Jarah jayne asked:


What is the nature of the universe? Where does it come from? Of what is it made? How did it come to exist? What is its purpose? By what process does it change? Is it evolving or devolving? Does it function by itself or would it degenerate to chaos without some kind of intelligent control?


Is there a Supreme Being? If so, what is His nature? Did He create the universe? Does He continue to control it personally and if so, at what level? What is his relationship with man? Does he intervene in the affairs of man? Is this Being good? If this Being is good and all powerful, how can evil exist?


What is the place of man in the universe? Is man the highest fruit of the universe or is he just an insignificant speck in infinite space or something in between? Does the spirit of man descend into matter from higher spiritual realms, or has it evolved from matter? Is the universe conscious or unconscious of man? If it is aware, is it warm and friendly to him, or cold and indifferent, or even hostile?


What is reality? What is mind; what is thought? Is thought real? Which is superior: mind or matter? Has mind created matter or has matter evolved mind? Where do ideas come from? Does thought have any importance does it make any difference in our lives or is it just fantasy? What is Truth? Is there a universal Truth, true for all men forever, or is Truth relative or individual?


What determines the fate of each individual? Is man a creator and mover of his life, or does he live at the effect of forces over which he has little control? Does free will exist or are our lives determined by outside factors and if so, what are those factors? How does life work: is there a Supreme Force that intervenes in our lives? Or is everything predetermined from the beginning of time? Or is life just random, full of coincidence and accident? Or is there some other control mechanism we do not perceive?


What is good and what is bad or evil? What is moral? What is ethical? Who decides good and bad, right and wrong; and by what standard? Is there an absolute standard of good and bad beyond ones the personal opinions? Should good and bad be determined by custom, by rational law, or by the situation? What if the decisions of others (society, authorities, laws, etc) determining good and bad are contrary to ones personal beliefs or freedoms? should you obey others or follow your own conscience? Moreover, if as an answer to FIVE, we do not have free will but are ruled by outside factors, what difference does good and bad make? we have no choice. If so, we have no responsibility for doing bad.


Why are things the way they are? How should things be ideally? What is the good life for the individual and for the many (society)? What would a Utopian society, a heaven on earth, be like? Is it even possible to create a Utopia? If so, how? Would not a Utopia assure personal freedom? What, then, should you do with those who don't cooperate and violate the Utopian system? If you control or punish them, is there no longer a Utopia?


What is the ideal relation between the individual and the state? Should the individual serve the state or the state serve the individual? What is the best form of government and what is the worst? When is a man justified in disobeying the dictates of the state? To what extent should the majority rule and thereby act against the freedom of the minorities? When is a man justified in rebelling against the established order and creating a new state? What are the relative merits of the different economic systems (capitalism, communism, etc.).


He who controls education controls the future. What is education? How should the young be educated what is important and what not? Who should control education: the parents, the student, the society or the state? Should a student be taught to think for himself or to adopt the beliefs of the society? Should man be educated to be free and live for his own interests; or to subjugate his desires to serve others or the state? see Question EIGHT.


What happens at death? Is death the end of everything or is there a soul in man that continues to exist beyond death? If so, is that soul immortal or does it too eventually cease to exist? If the soul does continue to exist after death, what is the nature of that existence? If there is an existence after death, is good rewarded and bad punished? If so, how do you reconcile this with the concept of predestination? And if there is a God of INFINITE LOVE and FORGIVENESS, how to you reconcile punishment?


Oh My!! This looks uncommonly like the syllabus for an introductory philosophy course designed for a student of education in a religious school. It is fairly obvious that you did not compile this list of questions on your own. And it is also fairly obvious that you really do not expect a detailed answer to them. The 'Ask a Philosopher' service is not intended to provide you with a course study guide, or to answer course examination questions. (I would be interested in discovering just why you did choose to post this long list.)

But I am going to provide you with some 'quick and dirty' answers. I am doing this only because your laundry-list of questions interested me as a neat compendium of philosophical positions in one place. I don't intend to provide you with any detailed arguments in support of these answers, just to provide you with an integrated set of responses from a particular philosophical position. (Its all a matter of fun on my part.) And given the religious tone of some of your questions, I do not really expect that you are going to like the answers I provide here. But if you might wish to discuss any of these answers in greater detail, I would be more than happy to oblige.

ONE — The Nature of the Universe.

The Universe is (or at least may be) a four-dimensional spatio-temporal block of infinite extent in all dimensions. Therefore, the question of where it came from and how it came to exist are illegitimate. It has always been here. It will always be here. It didn't come from anywhere. It is made of energy (and it is an empirical question as to whether en grosse there the net energy balance of the Universe is zero or not). And it does not change. Change requires time, and the four-dimensional spatio-temporal universe is timeless (time is one of its dimensions, so it has time. But it is not in time.) Change is an illusion caused by the transit through this unchanging Universe of a three-dimensional wave-front that is our current awareness of the present. Since the 4-dimensional universe does not change, it neither evolves nor devolves, and would of course not degenerate into chaos. The Universe just is — it does not have a purpose.

TWO — Is there a Supreme Being?

No there is not. It should be obvious that whether one adopts the supreme being premise will affect what you consider to be evidence either way. But a philosophically rational approach would be to examine the issue in the absence of any pre-suppositions. And from that perspective, without a prior adoption of the premise of God, there is no rational foundation on which to base a belief in such a thing. In the absence of a pre-supposition of God, there is a surfeit of evidence that suggests there is no such thing. In the case of the hypothesis of a Supreme Being, absence of any of the evidence that should be there (if it exists) is adequate evidence of its absence.

THREE — The place of Man in the Universe.

The Universe, not being sentient, is not aware of Man, and has no feelings towards him. Man is just an evolved organization of energy on an insignificant spec of dirt, in an insignificant corner of the Milky Way, which is itself an insignificant and mundane galaxy in an unremarkable corner of the Universe. Man's 'spirit' (whatever that word means) has to have evolved from matter, because there is nothing more to Man than matter organized in a specific way. Man is the 'highest fruit of the Universe' only in his own mind. To the e.coli bacteria in his gut, he is jus another warm place of residence.

FOUR — Metaphysics

The concepts 'reality' and 'dream [world]' refer to two distinctly different modes of experiencing 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. When experiencing life in one mode, we notice that things perceived are constant, persistent, consistent, and coherent. When experiencing life in the other mode, we notice that things perceived are dramatically less constant in form and character, often transient in existence, frequently mutually inconsistent both from thing to thing and across time, and far more frequently quite incoherent. One mode of experience draws the focus of our attention, is amenable to inquiry, and responsive to our reactions. The other mode of experience often drifts uncontrollably past our attention, is rarely subject to inquiry, and is often unresponsive to our reactions. On any scale of measure, the difference between the two modes of experience is dramatic and unmistakable whenever noticed. One of these modes of experience we call 'reality', the other we call a 'dream' (or hallucination, or illusion).

'Truth' is a predicate that we apply to propositions when the proposition correctly describes reality. The proposition 'snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white. Truth is evidence transcendent — which means that propositions can be true (accurately describe reality) independent of whether we can judge or even know whether they are true. Propositions that are true, are true independent of what we think about them. Therefore, (timeless) propositions that are true, are true for all men in all times.

The 'mind' is what we call the observable consequences of the material of our brain in the process of dealing with the sensory inputs that it receives. Mind is matter in action, just like digestion is matter in action. In the absence of a material brain actively processing inputs, there would be no mind. Mind is an evolved feature of matter. There is no sense of one being superior than the other, besides the fact that mind is necessarily dependent on matter. Thought is how we process those inputs. All ideas are ultimately caused by, or started by, our sensory experiences.

The function of our mind, the purpose of our thoughts, is to navigate our way through reality and obtain from that reality the things we need. We have no fangs, no claws, we are not very fast at running, climbing, or swimming. What we are good at is learning how reality reacts, and planning ahead so that we get our next meal rather than becoming the tiger's next meal. So thought has a very great deal of importance in our lives. Without thought, we become the tiger's next meal — either because we fail to think about the sensory evidence that indicates where the tiger lurks, or because we abdicate our thinking in preference for following someone else's dictates. (And someone else will almost always direct us towards the tiger rather than away from it, because that other person is more interested in avoiding becoming the tiger's lunch himself, than preventing you from becoming the tiger's lunch. In fact, it is often the case that giving you to the tiger as lunch is the way that he avoids being lunch himself.)

FIVE — Free Will versus Determinism.

In the four-dimensional spatio-temporal block that is the universe, the life of any individual thing is just a worm that is threaded through all the other worms along the temporal dimension. But this does not entail fatalism. Man is both the creator and mover of his own life, and survives by the grace of his own mind through the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' — the effects of forces over which he has little control. The Universe itself is (probably) deterministic (at least in its grossest manifestations — quantum indeterminancy not withstanding). But saying that the four-dimensional universe is deterministic is not to say that everything is pre-determined. That the four-dimensional manifold contains a record of every choice you will make does not imply that your choices are not free, or that your choices are pre-determined in the sense that you are unable to choose otherwise. Man has free will even in a deterministic universe.

'Free Will' is just exactly that mental process that evaluates, deliberates, and chooses the most appropriate response to the current situation. Free Will is not represented by choices, decisions, or judgments that are undetermined or uncaused, or caused by random or indeterminate events. Free Will is represented by choices, decisions and judgments that are caused by your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that you perceive at the time. Given the character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that are perceived at the time, you could not have chosen other than you did. But given any difference to this long list of inputs, and you might have chosen other than you did. You will make your free choices based on that laundry list of inputs, and the four-dimensional manifold that is the universe will record the choices you make.

SIX — The foundation of Ethics.

Life is Action. 'Life' is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move — 'act' — through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy. Life's Actions are teleological (goal oriented). At a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving. The Gene is the unit of life. It is that (not necessarily contiguous) stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates — continuation of which is the goal of life's actions. The actually observed behaviour of Mankind, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but it remains within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival. As an example of life, as an example of the species Homo sapiens, and as an individual consciousness, the ultimate goal of all human behaviour is to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes. The pressures of ecological competition ensure that if we pursue any other goal, we will be out-competed by a species that does pursue that goal. The pressures of ecological competition over our several billion year evolutionary history have ensured that our current genes are those that have successfully managed to program our individual behaviour so as to have survived for this length of time. We, as individuals, are designed by evolution as survival machines for the genes that constitute the recipe for our construction.

To be properly labelled as 'Good' at anything is to do a quality job at fulfilling the designed purpose of that thing. Therefore a 'good' Human is efficient and effective, and fulfils with quality, the purpose for which the Human was designed — ensuring the continued survival and proliferation of our genes. If any human is not a 'good' human by this standard, then the next generation will consist only of those who were 'good' by this standard. Over evolutionary time scales, failing to be 'good' by this standard is self-genocidal. 'Be Good or Die!'

What is 'good', therefore, is whatever action, behaviour, choice, circumstance, or opportunity that most likely will best contribute to the continued survival and proliferation of our gene-pool over the long term. And since it is your gene pool that is your standard of measure, it can only be you that decides what is good and bad, right and wrong. Ethics is more that personal opinion, however, because that which is best for you in these circumstances is an objectively determinable fact. Laws, social mores, religious commandments, custom, must all be regarded as 'rules of thumb' — rules that collective experience has taught us have usually been more successful than not at identifying the best alternative; rules to apply in situations where lack of knowledge, time, or personal sense of self-worth prevents you from making an informed rational choice.

If you do have the knowledge, time, and personal sense of self-worth to make an informed rational choice, and the choice turns out to be contrary to the socially accepted rules, then you have to factor into your judgement the likely consequences of flouting those rules. But the existence of the rules does not make the rules right.

SEVEN — Social Engineering

Given that the moral goal of every individual is to maximize the likelihood that one's own gene pool will survive and proliferate over the longest term manageable, each individual has a vested interest in a social environment that maximizes the opportunities to pursue this goal, and minimizes the interference from others. Also, given the fact that Homo sapiens is a social species, we are best able to achieve our own individual moral goals through processes of social cooperation, rather than social coercion. The historical evidence is overwhelming that individuals fair better on any scale of measure when there is more individual liberty and less institutionalized coercion.

Cooperation is based on voluntary fair trade. Coercion is based on the threat or use of force. Therefore, the ideal social environment would be one that maximizes the opportunities for all members of the society to engage in voluntary fair trade, and minimizes the resort to force or the threat of force by some individuals against others. Social sanctions should therefore only be employed against those who attempt to exploit others by means of fraud or coercion. Since we no longer have the option of expelling evil doers from our social groups, we are left with the only alternative of isolating the morally corrupt and insulating the rest of society from their immorality.

EIGHT — The status of the State

The 'State' is not a moral entity in its own right. The 'State' consists of individuals. Throughout history, the 'State' has usually consisted of one or more individuals exercising coercive power over others — pursuing their own moral goal at the expense of the freedom of others to pursue their own. The purpose of such a 'State' is therefore to steal the wealth of the many, and concentrate it in the hands of the powerful few.

Ideally, however, the 'State' is simply a collection of individuals that the rest of society has employed to govern those aspects of social cooperation that need central coordination. The purpose of such a government is therefore to serve the interests of the individuals of the society in the pursuit of their goals. Individuals employed by governments are no more morally justified in the first use of fraud or coercion than are any other individuals.

The proper function of Consititutions and Bills of Rights is to protect the individuals from the collective power of the majority. It is not enough to declare that it is immoral for individuals employed by the state to engage in the first use of force or fraud. That declaration must be accompanied by specific behavioural protections of the individual citizens against the coercive powers of those employed in government.

But any individual, regardless of their social situation, regardless of the 'State' under which they live, is free to make his own informed choices in the pursuit of his moral goals. All that rational judgement requires is that the individual take into consideration the likely consequences of his choices. This means that the potential rebel must factor into his decision making the likely response that the society will mount to any rebellious choices. Moral justification lies with the objectively determinable best long term interests of the individual's gene pool.

NINE — Education

Education is the teaching of the next generation all the information, habits, rational thinking processes, and social mores necessary for the next generation to flourish within the social environment. What is important is equipping the young with the tools necessary to flourish in the environment they will find themselves. What is not necessary (except as derivative) is 'developing their character', or 'maintaining their self-esteem'. The social group as a whole has a vested interest in seeing to it that the education of the young covers certain minimal standards of acceptability. Uneducated (and unsocialized) young grow to become a drain on the social assistance network of the social group. The parents have a vested interest since it is the moral goal of the parents to ensure that their off-spring flourish well. The student has a vested interest, but only exceptionally will have the intellectual and emotional resources to make informed decisions in the matter.

[One of my own personal opinions is that education should be assisted by the government through vouchers, but should be managed by the parents and local school boards. Private enterprise education will be are more efficient and effective than any sort of government monopoly of education. I include this comment only because of the nature of some of the questions.]

One of the key things that should be explicitly taught, but is now only implicitly taught, are the moral principles around which the social group is organized. One of the greatest current failings of the educational systems in all western democracies, is that they make no effort to explicitly teach the moral principles that underlie democratic political organization and capitalistic economic organization. As a consequence, most young people grow up having absorbed by osmosis moral principles that are at odds with the fundamental principles that guide their society.

TEN — Death

Death is the end. At least for you as an individual. The only thing that lives on is your genetic heritage, if you have managed to procreate. Punishment after death consists of the failure of your genetic heritage to flourish through time.

Have fun!!

Stuart Burns


(90) James asked

Is it true that there is an infinite number of points of measurement between any two objects and travelling from one to the other I pass through all these points?


You are dipping your toe into the deep waters of maths and physics here. I'm not sure what a point 'of measurement' is as opposed to just a point. I suppose you mean any point at which a measurement (of the distance to one of the objects) could be made, at least in principle. This seems to include all the points, so let's leave out the 'of measurement' and stick with points. I'll try to keep things 'as simple as possible but no simpler' (as Einstein remarked) Yes, there is an infinite number of points on any line (between two objects or otherwise) and yes, you pass through them all in moving along the line. Why an infinite number?Because a point, by definition, has zero dimensions (absolutely no size at all) so that you can fit as many as you like on a (one dimensional) line without taking up any part of the line at all. How big is this infinite number?

Well, the first size of infinity is that of the counting numbers (1,2,3,4...unendingly). This is called a countable infinity because we can count off the numbers one by one without missing any out. Any collection that we can count off using the counting numbers (by one-to-one correspondence) is the same size as the set of the counting numbers. For example the even numbers (2,4,6,8...etc) can be counted off in this way (2 is no.1, 4 is no.2, 6 is no.3 etc). So the set of even numbers is the same size as that of the counting numbers. You'd expect that there would only be half as many since you left out all the odd numbers, but that's because you are used to finite collections where this would be the case. Similarly the set of prime numbers,or of every millionth number (1m is no.1, 2m is no.2, 3m is no.3 etc), is the same infinite size. Surprisingly,although you can fit in an infinite number of fractions (rationals) between any 2 counting numbers (eg between 1 and 2 we have 3/2, 4/3, 5/4..29/28, 29/27, 29/26...etc etc), we can set out all the fractions in ordered rows and columns and count them off by meandering systematically through them, missing none out. So the infinity of the rationals is no more than that of the counting numbers. So there is the first size of infinite — countable infinity.

So, is this how many points there are on a line?. No, the number of points is a vastly greater infinity. In a 1-inch line we can think of one end as 1 and the other as 2. imagine each of the countable infinity of fractions between 1 and 2 is put at its appropriate point. Despite filling in this infinity of points,the line is still virtually empty. The uncountable infinity of unoccupied points remaining corresponds to the uncountable infinity of irrational numbers. No way can these be put into one-to-one correspondence with the counting numbers, there are vastly too many of them, the next size of infinity. You might think there are more points on a 10-inch line than on a 1-inch line. In fact there are no more on an infinitely long line than on a 1-inch line. But surely there are more on a 2-D plane (can be thought of as an infinity of lines side by side)?No, there are no more. What about a 3-D volume. Again no more. There are as many points on a 1-inch line as in all the space of the universe. After proving this, Cantor remarked to a friend, 'Je le vois mais je'n lecrois' (why in French I don't know, he being one German speaking to another) Amazing to think we move through such an impressive number of points every time we raise a finger. So much for the maths.

Enter Zeno (DOB 490 BCE), Aristotle and others Zeno, supporting Parmenides view that motion is impossible, formulated 4 paradoxes purporting to show this. Let's take the Stadium (logically equivalent to the Achilles). To walk across the stadium we must first cross half the distance. To do this we must cross half that distance. But first half of that half (1/4), but only after half of that quarter (1/8),but before that half of that eighth (1/16) and so on without end. We must perform an infinite number of tasks, which is impossible. We cant even start our journey. Now obviously Zeno knew perfectly well that people crossed stadiums with no trouble at all, and that nobody imagines Achilles is still running after that tortoise, but he invites us to find the flaw in his argument. To refute we must deny one or more of the following presuppositions in the argument: 1. To travel a distance we must cross each and all of the intervening points 2. A line (distance) consists of an infinite number of points 3. We can't complete an infinite series of actions (tasks) Aristotle denied 1. saying a line has a size and can't consist of points which don't. A point is potential, only becoming actual if we divide the line. So we don't cross an infinity of actual points in walking a distance Others denied 2.saying space is not infinitely divisible but consists of tiny discrete units so motion is a series of micromini jerks too small to feel in which we cross a finite number of space quanta. Yet others deny 3. saying that properly conceived, an infinity of actions (a supertask) is possible. Few find Aristotle convincing here.

But still lively debate about whether space (and time) are continuous or quantized (discrete, atomized), and about supertasks — is a supertask possible, and does a walk constitute a supertask anyway smartass moderns often say the solution is that the distance covered is just the (finite) limit of an infinite convergent series e.g. 1 is limit of 1/2 +1/4+1/8+ etc. But this 'solution' just says in mathspeak what Zeno already told us, that the distance is finite, just infinitely divisible. It doesn't explain how we complete the task.

So is the uncountable infinity of points on a 1-inch line just a tale in the story of maths, more useful than medieval speculation as to how many angels can dance on a pinhead perhaps, but still a fiction? Is the world really like that?The jury is still out. Maybe we can never know. Some modern attempts at uniting relativity with quantum mechanics (an incompatible pair of theories) suggest the quantum of space is 10 to the power minus 135(cm), and the time light takes to cross this distance, 10 to the power minus 43(sec), is the quantum of time.Whether this is so is an empirical matter, but doubtful if we could ever probe such fantastically tiny distances — the suggested space unit is as small in relation to a proton as a proton is to the entire universe.No wonder some physicists liken such theorizing to pins/angels, so far from being testable as not to count as science.

Well, you dipped your toe in, I've stirred the waters up just a little so you can see how deep they are. Plunge in if you fancy.

Craig Skinner


(91) Mustafa asked:

I have some different questions in my mind and I want to ask some of them which are nor relevant to each other:

1. Why something is ugly in my opinion and is beautiful in someone else idea?what makes our judgment different?

2. Is there any limits for our intellect?if yes,where it is?how can we say that understanding something is out of our intellectual ability?thousand years ago,Christianity related every things to the almighty,and rejected all rational matters,because they thought that our intellect can not understand everything. these thought was ignored by the enlightenment's philosophers,because Christianity didn't answered to this question.enlightenment's philosophers tried to find the answer of this question,but,unfortunately, they ignored metaphysics and limited our intellect in phenomena.in my opinion western philosophers have not answered to this question yet!!


Question 1.

There is no general reason or explanation as to why someone finds something beautiful and someone else finds it ugly. Suppose I say that many of Picasso's paintings are beautiful and someone else says that they are ugly. I ask him why they are ugly and he says 'They are ugly because I don't like them'.

Then what he says is of no interest to me. I am only interested in someone's opinion about art if I know they are interested in art and have studied art and looked at lots of paintings.

People are inclined to think that because personal taste is involved in aesthetic judgements that such are judgements are just a matter of taste. That is not true, informed and educated taste (if it is sincere) is worth much, much more than uneducated ignorant taste.

You don't ask someone who has only drunk beer to judge fine wine. You don't ask someone who is tone deaf to judge if Beethoven was a great composer.

If you ever see an artwork that has been highly praised but that to you just seems ugly then you should remember that when the Impressionist painters first exhibited in Paris they were generally thought by the critics and the public to be painting ugly, nonsensical paintings. Now if someone said that the Impressionists paintings were ugly we would just think that they have no taste or knowledge of art. In the same way you should think about why an artwork that seems so ugly to you is so highly praised by others. This does not mean that you have to accept the opinion of the critics but you need to be open to that fact that there may be limits to your ability to appreciate art.

Art is about seeing and seeing is not just an individual thing, it is a social shared thing and art is a human social institution.

Question 2

It is more difficult to answer this question because in it you express some ideas that I don't think are necessarily true. From its earliest beginnings Christianity was always tied to Greek philosophy, at first to Plato (through St. Augustine) and later to Aristotle (through St. Thomas Aquinas). However Christianity like all Churches is a religion and all religions have their limits. Christianity embraced rationality but only if that rationality agreed with the ideas of the Church (as Galileo discovered).

Before the enlightenment philosophers knew that their ideas must not contradict the ideas of the Christian Church unless they were happy to be banned from university teaching or possibly burnt at the stake. The Enlightenment philosophers wanted to free themselves from this religious tyranny and to them we owe a debt of gratitude. They wanted to be free to think without having to make their ideas acceptable to religious or political tyranny. Not all enlightenment thinkers were against metaphysics but they felt free to ignore the conventional metaphysical ideas of the Christian church.

There are no limits to our intellect. Questions are a human thing expressed in human language and language was devised by humans in order to talk to each other. It was not given to us by God. I believe that Western philosophy has answered all the questions and has found the answer to all these metaphysical problems but philosophy is difficult, philosophers never agree about anything and you haven't found the correct answers yet. You have to remember that philosophy is the ruthless pursuit of the truth about the most difficult questions that humans have been able to think of.

You cannot find the answers to philosophical problems just by studying the history of philosophy, you need to study the philosophical problems themselves so I am inclined to dismiss your ideas about the success or failure of Western philosophy.

Shaun Williamson


(92) Malcolm asked:

Is the claim ,'anything is possible' nonrefutable?


No it isn't, some things are not possible because they are impossible. For example it is impossible to find the greatest prime number, not even God can do that. It is impossible to arrange all the decimal number between 0 and 1 into a countable set.

There are many things that are impossible, but people just don't think about that when they offer silly maxims like 'anything is possible'. Anything is possible except all the many things that are impossible. More importantly the fact that something is possible doesn't mean that it is probable. In human life we are interested in the probable. If we know that it probably will rain today then it might be prudent to carry an umbrella. Knowing that it is possible that it will rain today is not of much interest to us.

Shaun Williamson


(93) Christine asked:

Is it possible to stop loving one's parent?


Your question is ambiguous, I'm not really sure what you want to know but I will try to answer it. There is a difference between loving your parents and being in love with your parents. Young children really do fall in love with their parents, this is their first experience of an intense emotional relationship. It can happen even if the parent isn't a very good parent.

However as we grow older our relationship with our parents has to become more distant so that we can grow up and move away from home in order to form emotional relationships with new people. This can be a difficult thing to do and can be the cause of difficult emotions between parents and children during adolescence.

So yes it is possible to stop loving your parents, it may even be necessary for a time. However if you did love them at one time then you should try to remember and preserve this love in a different form.

Having said all that, just as their are cases when a child is unlovable, there are also cases where a parent is unlovable. We don't choose our parents and our parent may turn out to be bad people. In the same way children may turn out to be bad people. We all have to make grown up judgements about these things.

Shaun Williamson


(94) Chris asked

When did time begin?


The standard view of the topology of time is that it is:

boundless (no beginning or end)
continuous (no gaps)
linear (not cyclic)

All these features can be disputed. Most commonly the first, and your question, indeed, supposes that time is not boundless but had a beginning.

You are in good company.

St Augustine was allegedly asked what God was doing during the indefinitely long time before He created the world. His reply — 'preparing Hell for people who ask such questions' — may have shut his questioner up, but was no real answer. In his 'Confessions' he wrestled with the problem and concluded that time only began with the creation of the world (God being eternal and outside time). This became a standard Christian view, and is compatible with scientific evidence indicating a 'Big Bang' start to our universe some 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang theory is enthusiastically supported by the Catholic Church.

So, there's one respectable answer to your question — time began (along with the universe) some 14 billion years ago.

Kant felt that the idea of time having a beginning, and the idea of time not having a beginning, were both contradictory. He suggested time was part of our framework for grasping the world, we project time on to the world.

His argument that endless past time is contradictory is:

P1 If no beginning to time, then infinite time has already
P2 If so, then completion of an infinite series is possible
P3 This is not possible

C Infinite time has not passed (time had a beginning).

Of course we reject P3.

In Kant's day, there was no rigorous account of mathematical infinity. Nowadays we see that completion of an infinite series (not a series of tasks of course) is no problem (for example, a 1-inch line contains points corresponding to the uncountable infinity of real numbers between 0 and 1).

So Kant's argument fails.

There is no logical or conceptual barrier to the notion of infinite past time.
In a lecture Wittgenstein told how he overheard a man saying '...5, 1, 4, 1, 3, finished'. He asked what the man had been doing.

'Reciting the digits of Pi backward' was the reply. 'When did you start?' Puzzled look. 'How could I start. That would mean beginning with the last digit, and there is no such digit. I never started. I've been counting down from all eternity'.

Strange, but not logically impossible.

Eternal past time is popular with physicists. The earlier version was of an endless succession of Big Bangs/ Big Crunches so that one universe succeeds another indefinitely. More popular these days is the Multiverse idea of a boundless foam of universes endlessly budding off new ones which go on to do the same, with variations in the constants of nature and in natural laws from one to the next (perhaps random variation with natural selection of universes more fitted for budding). It's speculation but solves the 'fine tuning problem'(why our universe has constants and laws finely tuned for emergence of life) — all possible variations can be 'tried out' in an infinite ensemble of universes and, naturally, we find ourselves in one of the rare ones suitable for life. Many find this a more plausible explanation for fine tuning than the non-explanations 'God made it that way' or 'It's just a brute fact'.

So there's another answer — time never started.

Take your pick

Craig Skinner


(95) Courtney asked:

Why do people die?


I was at a funeral last week, the mother of a good friend and former student, who died in her bed at the age of 51. The death was totally unexpected, and all the more shocking for that. Death seems senseless to those bereaved, but especially in circumstances like this.

Yet any one of us could die, in the very next second. The human body is so fragile.

I have already looked at the fear of death. I first wrote about this in my article Is it Rational to Fear Death? which was prompted by the death of my own mother.

However, there is another side to this question which I haven't looked at. Putting thoughts of consolation aside — if such a thing is possible — why do we die? Obviously, there's a sense in which we all know the answer to this question; I've just stated it: 'the human body is fragile.' Things that are born, also die. It's a fact of biology. Yet, somehow, that answer doesn't seem enough.

Courtney's question isn't about factual explanation. We all know the facts. It is a request for a 'metaphysical explanation'. In a previous answer, I considered the question, 'Why do things break?' as an example of a request for a metaphysical explanation. You might indeed be tempted to see the death of a human being as merely a special case of this. If all material things are, logically, capable of being broken then so is a living body.

But I think this is not quite right. There's more to it. And this, perhaps, be a way of indirectly gaining some hope or consolation in the face of death even though this is strictly not my present objective.

As the first piece of evidence, I would cite the thought of a Greek philosopher who lived before Socrates — one of the Presocratics of the Eleatic school named Melissus. Melissus is in some ways considered the 'poor man's Parmenides' because he dared to question the central doctrine of his teacher that the One is temporally and spatially finite. Actually, I think Melissus' arguments are better than he has been given credit for (e.g. by Aristotle).

My interest is in one particular argument which goes like this: Assume that the One is temporally infinite. It has always existed and will always exist. (I'm not concerned here with why Melissus rejected Parmenides' doctrine that the One neither 'was' nor 'will be' but only timelessly 'is'.) If we assume temporal infinitude then the One cannot, Melissus argues, be spatially finite. Why not? Here are Melissus' words:

But since it neither began nor ended, it always was and always will be and it has no beginning nor end; for what is not entire cannot be always.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers 2nd edn, CUP 1982. §526, p. 394; McKirahan Philosophy Before Socrates Hackett 1994 §15.2, p. 394

Assume that the One is finite. It follows that it is logically possible that the One can grow. But anything logically capable of growth is also capable of shrinkage. But if we allow the possibility that the One can shrink then there is no logical barrier, in principle, to its shrinking to nothing. Just keep taking bits away until there's nothing left. 'What is not entire cannot be always.'

The conclusion of this argument — if it's valid, which I think it is — is stronger than the explanation I gave for why things break. Material things, I argued in my post on 'metaphysical explanations', are structures which occupy space, and any structure can in principle be broken apart so that it no longer performs its characteristic function. (Note that what this argument doesn't show is that things can be permanently broken. If you break a thing into bits then there is no logical reason why you can't put the bits back together so that it works again. Maybe the task would exceed human technology, but that's just a contingent limitation.)

What the Melissus argument establishes is that anything which is finite in extent cannot be immortal by nature. This isn't about 'matter' or 'structure' but rather finitude as such. So we can easily extend the argument to cover a universe in which there is soul substance or mental substance in addition to material substance. Even if mental substance cannot be 'broken' like material substances, that is no guarantee of its survival.

When Descartes argued for mind-body dualism in his Meditations he did not thereby prove the immortality of the soul, even though many have thought he did. The soul, being non-material, is immune from physical destruction. However, by the very fact that the soul is finite, not infinite, there is no logical barrier to its being snuffed out, even if it survives the death of the physical body. Descartes in fact believed that all 'finite substances', whether material or mental only continue in existence because of the continual creative effort of an infinite God. If He so wanted, God could allow any soul to go out of existence. Everlasting life may be a promise, but it is not a logical certainty.

Where does that leave us? Believe what you like about what happens when the body dies. According to the Melissus argument nothing which is 'finite in extent' — which can be diminished by having things taken away, whether material or mental — is immune from destruction.

However, not being immune from destruction doesn't mean that an entity is necessarily bound to be destroyed. And therein lies the catch.

We naturally think of the destruction of a human being, whether physical or mental, as death. However, in order to be death, real death, the destruction must be permanent. There can be no possibility of putting the person in question 'back together again' like Humpty Dumpty. But how can we ever know that?

In the case of material things, we can know. We know (at least, according to the best cosmological theory) that the universe has a finite life-span. Everything will end in a Big Crunch. Even if this is followed by a Big Bang and a universe identical to the one which existed before, anything that existed in the former universe is not 'brought back into existence' but merely copied. Next time around, St Paul's Cathedral will not be this St Paul's Cathedral but merely an exactly similar St Paul's Cathedral. And for the same reasons, if you and I are brought back, it will be a perfectly similar people not the same me or you.

However, if you are a mind-body dualist, there's a get-out clause. We are talking about the logical possibility of survival. And we all know, or think we know, what that means. You wake up and realize, 'I'm still alive!' Couldn't you do that, after the destruction of the universe? Why not?

The reader who has followed the argument thus far will realize that the conclusion we are shaping up to is this:

According to the argument of Melissus, nothing finite, whether physical or mental, can be necessarily immortal. However, at least for things which have mental properties, one cannot logically rule out the possibility of survival in any given set of contingent circumstances (e.g. the death of the body). To be finite, to be capable of death, implies by contrast the thought of the infinite. If you are dead you are dead forever, for all infinite time. And who can be sure of that?

As I implied above, this hope (or fear, if you are tempted by Pascal's Wager) is only really available if you take a dualist line. Moreover, not just any version of dualism will do. Anyone with Humean doubts about personal identity will resist the temptation to rely on our intuitions about what it would take for some entity to be 'I' at any time in the future. Or as I once stated (cf. the fear of death) '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.' — In that case, there's nothing to be concerned about, is there?

Geoffrey Klempner


(96) Emile asked:

Short Question:

Is it possible that the universe always existed?

I mean, if the universe has always existed, then it (the universe) should take infinite years to get to this specific time...Isn't that impossible?


It is possible but not probable that the universe has always existed. All the available evidence is against it.

However suppose the universe has always existed then the year would still be 2010 and we would still be the age that we are. So the Universe has got here, so obviously it is possible.

Consider the infinite series of fractions 1+ 1/2+ 1/4 + 1/8+ 1/16 .. and so on to infinity. This infinite series has a finite sum and we can prove that the sum is 2. The notion of the infinite is complex and cannot be used like ordinary numbers. For example infinity+infinity=infinity and this alone shows that infinity is not an ordinary number. It is not clear how we should interpret statements like 'Time has no beginning' or 'Time started 28 billion years ago'.

Shaun Williamson


(97) Zach asked:

Is there really a thin line between madness and genius?


No there isn't. The incidence of mental illness amongst people of high intelligence is the same as the incidence of mental illness in the general population.

The idea of this thin line is purely an invention of the media.

Shaun Williamson


(98) Johnny asked:

What is the purpose of love?


The survival of the human race.

Shaun Williamson


(99) Ted asked:

I am a college student who could use some extra input on an assignment if possible. My main goal is to examine the George Orwell classic '1984' and connect the ideas of existentialism to it. My problem is that existentialism is in blatant general terms all about freedom and 1984 is about a totalitarian government eliminating freedom. I was hoping if anybody could help me make relations of the two subjects, even if its showing how 1984 disagrees with the ideals of existentialism. Or comparing such as saying Winston is Dostoevsky's Underground Man, or comparing by disanalogy in Camus' ideas of living life as completely free as possible and accepting all that comes to you. Please give me any kind of input, I would greatly appreciate it.


Dostoevsky wasn't an existentialist but a novelist who, because of the power of what he wrote, existentialists would like to claim for their own. The existentialism reading of Crime and Punishment is, in my view, pretty silly. At any rate, it is controversial. So comparing characters from Dostoevsky and Orwell doesn't get you far towards a comparison with the ideas of existentialism. You'd double your workload here, by having to show a connection between D and existentialism, plus a comparison between O and existentialism.

You've already spotted that Orwell is in conflict with Existentialism, and the freedom issue might be an aspect of that, only I suggest you will find it something of a red-herring. Everybody likes freedom, but people have different ideas about what freedom is, and 'existentialism' covers a range of conflicting views. I suggest you precisify things. Both Orwell and Sartre are moralistic authors, but of rather incompatible kinds. Sartre's main concern is to promote recognition of our responsibility, while Orwell's main concern is to point to some things as manifest evils. What I suggest you think (and read-up) about is the extent to which Sartre's connecting of the moral colour of situations with our adopting a 'posture' is in conflict with Orwell's moral realism.

David Robjant


(100) Ruud asked:

I'm wondering is it possible that all the knowledge of the universe (past, present and future) is all in us. In our DNA?

As the universe and a cell look so much alike it makes me wonder if infinitely big and infinitely small are the same thing.

Hope you can understand my poor English and give me an philosophical view on this question.


Well the answer to this is no, its a nonsensical idea. Let us suppose that the complete knowledge of atomic physics is contained in our DNA. How do we extract this knowledge. Well let us suppose that the knowledge of how we extract this knowledge is part of the knowledge contained in our DNA. Well how do we extract that knowledge, we just don't know so in what sense is it knowledge if no one knows it or can know it?

In fact the universe and a cell don't look alike, I don't know why you think they do and the infinitely small and the infinitely big are not the same thing. Also the infinitely small and the infinitely big don't exist except as a limiting idea of our notion of size.

Shaun Williamson


(101) Jason asked:

I must be meditative to other people and the forces found in the Universe can flow through me so that I cam overcome all illusion about myself and the world and thus discover an ultimate reality? what your opinion?


I think that the idea of an ultimate reality is nonsensical. How does it differ from reality? Perhaps you could explain this. You may have illusions about yourself or you may have no illusions about yourself. How can you tell? In any case I don't think meditation will help. If meditation can help you to know yourself why can't it help you to know mathematics? No one would recommend meditation as a way to study mathematics, why should it be a good way to study yourself. If you want to know yourself study psychology. If you want to know the world study science. Forget the easy option of letting the universe flow through you, it won't teach you anything, it is just an easy way of wasting your time. Do something really difficult for a change, there is no easy knowledge that you can acquire by doing nothing. That is an illusion loved by the lazy. Meditation is a good way to relax, it is never a way of acquiring knowledge

Shaun Williamson


(102) Benjamin asked:

I am a freshman pursuing my bachelor's degree in philosophy
which would lead to me getting a doctorate in it, and hopefully working for a law firm.. I want to write a thesis, but I have no idea for what topics to write on. Any suggestions?


It you want to work for a law firm, why aren't you studying law? I don't know of any law firms that employ philosophers, except as filing clerks.

I don't understand why you think getting a bachelors degree will lead to a doctorate. To get a doctorate you need to get a good bachelors degree, then do a masters and then get accepted to do a doctorate. All this is a long way away from where you are now.

We can only suggest a suitable subject for an essay if we know what you already know about philosophy and what your interests are. Your teachers are the people best qualified to give you this advice.

Shaun Williamson


(103) Malcolm asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing?


Metaphysical philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz [1646-1716] addressed this question. He argued that there are two reasons why phenomena in the universe and indeed, the universe itself exist. One reason why something exists rather than nothing is that it is an effect of a previous cause. So a person is caused into existence by his/her parents who in turn, were the effects of their parents as cause and so on regressively. So, on one mundane level causality tells us why there are some things rather than nothing. On another level, this doesn't provide an answer to the question as to why this series itself exists rather than does not exist. For if there is a series of cause and effect without an initial first cause or if it stretches back in time ad infinitum neither provide a reason as to why the causal series as a whole [i.e. the universe] exists rather than does not exist.

Leibniz proffered that there is a reason why things exist as opposed to not existing. This is Sufficient Reason. As the reason why the causal series exists cannot be accounted for in itself; the reason must lie outside of it. God created the causal universe: the sufficient reason why something exists instead of nothing is that God created it. By his nature, God is not subject to causality — he is not caused to exist — he is eternal. Leibniz writes:

Therefore, even supposing the world is eternal, you will still be supposing nothing but a succession of states and will not in any of them find a sufficient reason, nor however many you assume will you advance one step towards giving a reason, it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere. From this it is evident that even supposing the world to be eternal, we cannot escape the ultimate extra-mundane reason of things or God.

On the Ultimate Origination of Things 1697.

So according to Leibniz, the reason why there is something instead of nothing is because God created the something for the best of all possible reasons.

Martin Jenkins


(104) Pamela asked:

What is A. J. Ayer's key argument against ethical objectivism?


Ayer's key argument against ethical objectivism is that according to the logical positivist philosophy, ethical objectivism does not meet its criteria of providing knowledge. Its statements or propositions are not verifiable.

Logical Positivists such as Ayer, require knowledge claims to be subject to verification. The claim 'I am typing on the keypad' can be strongly verified by empirical observation. The claim 'There is no oxygen on Mars' can be weakly, indirectly verified by the approximations of astro-physics. In short, these are capable of being verified either directly or indirectly. That which cannot be verified does not constitute knowledge. It is into this category that metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and similar fall. Can a 'Good' be empirically observed? Can it be put on a table so all observers can look and verify: 'The 'Good' is on the table'? Ayer would argue that it cannot. If ethical objectivism maintains there is an objective Good or Goods — it/they are not capable of being verified.

When I make the statement 'X is Good, it ought to be followed'; Ayer argues this is me trying to convince you to agree with my emotive stance toward X. It is the same as one person saying to others, how great a song is. The person is trying to evince others of his/her preferences or emotive preferences. This is all 'ethics' is, even if it is masked as 'objective'. Emotive preferences are not verifiable, not a subject of knowledge — according to Ayer.

Martin Jenkins


(105) Lfand asked:

Does a moral philosopher, or a student in moral philosophy as I am, have an obligation to behave morally, or in a much more moral way than anyone else (as a non-philosopher)?


Which do you think is worse, hypocrisy or arrogance?

If I tell you that I am more moral than you because I am a moral philosopher, then isn't that just arrogance? On the other hand, if I tell you that despite the fact that I am a moral philosopher, I do not regard this as having any consequences for the morality of my actions, isn't that just hypocrisy?

If anyone claims to be more moral than I am, then it takes all my powers of self-control to prevent me from giving them a smack. So don't parade your moral virtue in front of me, I won't be impressed. And don't call me a hypocrite just because I refuse to parade my moral virtue in front of you.

I don't like philosophers who preach. In the past, I have nearly succumbed to the temptation, in my erstwhile incarnation as a 'philosopher of business'. My ten part Ethical Dilemmas course ('a primer for decision makers') contains guidelines for business people designed to help them think more clearly about moral issues. However, thinking clearly about a moral issue can sometimes mean seeing that whatever you do will be 'wrong' — from one point of view or another — so don't feel too bad about it. Just do what you've got to do.

What is 'morality'? It is an ugly word, but so is 'ethics'. When philosophers distinguish between the two, it is usually for the sake of some pet theory. I personally don't have a view on this and don't care what term one uses. (My usage generally accords with what Fowler mildly denigrates as 'elegant variation'. When I get bored with using the term 'moral', I switch to 'ethical', and vice versa.)

When Marx in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach stated that philosophers should seek to change the world rather than merely interpret it, he was in a way restating the view expressed 2500 years earlier by Socrates in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. In a long, memorable passage, (96A ff.) Socrates explains why he lost interest in the physical speculations of his predecessors, in particular Anaxagoras. 'Man' and the question how one should live is the central concern of philosophy.

My own taste veers towards 'interpreting the world', understanding the nature of existence. I would like to understand ethics, or morality, because the phenomenon puzzles me. I don't mean this in a superficial sense. I accept that ethics is a direct route to metaphysics, and you can't do metaphysics without at some point tackling ethics. But what has ethics, or metaphysics, taught me (if only incidentally) about right or wrong, or how I ought to live?

You see, I have real problems with the idea that there are some things I 'must' or have an 'obligation' to do, by contrast with the things I desire for myself. To my mind, I don't do things 'for myself', or 'for others' but simply for a reason. Anything else would be irrational. But maybe I mean something different by 'reason' than you do. Being 'fun' is a reason, so I do some things for fun. But sometimes you have avoid things which would be fun, or do things which are positively not fun. It might be fun to knock a policeman's helmet off, but the reason for not doing so is (in most cases) stronger.

This is where the real problem arises. Just because, being a philosopher (or a moral philosopher) you aim to understand and see more, there is a danger that you see reasons for action that other persons fail to see, or indeed that you will see through what others mistakenly take to be valid reasons for action. In other words, it's simply about being true to what you know.

Following this line of reasoning, it would be perfectly logical — perfectly rational — to come to the conclusion that, as a result of what you now know (which you didn't know before) you realize that in the past you have been more moral, more ethical than you ought to have been. You foolishly allowed yourself to be swayed by irrational considerations into doing acts which won moral praise from others, which you ought not to have done, and would not have done had you known better.

Let's say you are a previously ardent Christian who reads Nietzsche and concludes that much of what you thought was ethical is merely the expression of 'herd morality'. You unwittingly allowed your emotions to be manipulated by others to their own ends. Or, let's say you are a previously ardent Socialist who reads Ayn Rand and discovers the 'virtue of selfishness'.

I am not putting forward these philosophers as necessarily representative of my own views; I am merely stating a point of principle. If you look into morality with the unblinking eye of a philosopher seeking truth, there's no saying in advance what you may discover or where your investigations may take you.

What I believe is true — and I don't consider it arrogant to say this — is that the study of philosophy has made my life better. I don't mean this in a moral sense, or a non-moral sense because I don't recognize the distinction. I see meaning, where others struggle to see meaning. But nor is 'helping others to see' a reason for what I do. How could it be, if I didn't have a reason to be a philosopher which was a reason for me?

Geoffrey Klempner


(106) Courtney asked:

Why do people die?


The way your question is phrased exposes it to flippant answers like, because they get old, because they become ill, because they have accidents, etc. Perhaps you are asking why dying is a natural event? Who knows? It is an event within the natural order of things, along with birth and the progress of maturing to old age; what we refer to as 'nature' is a wonderfully mysterious complex of events which is at present beyond the capabilities of man to understand.

Some religions believe that such decisions are the responsibility of a deity, which again places them outside the scope of man's intelligence. However the faithful find comfort in their beliefs that a god is in total control and death holds no fears. A belief that there is a life hereafter, or a firm belief that there is evidence for reincarnation tends to allay any fear of death but simply adds to the mystery.

John Brandon


(107) Daniel John Pascoe asked:

what is the speed of darkness


Darkness spreads (the sun sets) at the speed of the earth's rotation. If you were at the equator this would be about 1000 miles per hour. However it is different for places north or south of the equator. So it is impossible to give just one answer. Darkness is just the absence of light so while light has a definite single speed in a vacuum, darkness which isn't a physical thing, doesn't.

Shaun Williamson


(108) Goraya asked:

Why god gave me birth when nobody loves me here?


I am sorry that nobody loves you. I don't know if there is a god. However it is your parents who are responsible for your birth, not god. So it seems unfair to blame god for everything that is wrong in your life.

If you can learn to love other people and to forget about whether they love you then you will learn how to be happy. If you are a loving person then you will become worthy of love and you will realise that it does not matter if other people love you.

Shaun Williamson


(109) Faiz asked:

Actually I am a student of engineering but very much interested in pursuing philosophy as my secondary study.But the problem is that as I am only taking it as a hobby, I don't know how to start it. What type of text should I start reading initially.Having difficulty in finding the head of the string. Can you guide me a bit about it. Thanks


You could start by reading a history of philosophy. Try the one volume work by Bertrand Russell. It will give you some idea of the sorts of things that philosophers are interested in.

Shaun Williamson


(110) Andr asked:

At some point during human evolution man developed a free will (maybe symbolised in Genesis when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden apple tree) and was from then on able to choose between good and evil. At what point during our personal development from an infant to adulthood can we be hold responsible for our actions? I am asking this question in the light of criminal jurisdiction.


First let us be clear, you are not asking about moral responsibility you are asking about criminal responsibility. These two things are very different. I don't think that there is any one answer to this question that fits everybody. We should expect in any particular case at least that the individual understands that their actions are wrong, in the moral sense, and that if they are a crime then they may be punishable by law or they understand that even if their actions are not morally wrong that they are illegal.

Of course there are complications here, in an unjust society the laws may be morally wrong.

In practice a society has to decide on an arbitrary age of criminal responsibility but a wise society will allow for discretion in individual cases.

Shaun Williamson


(111) Ashlee asked:

Is a person already immoral even if she never actually carries out such acts?


No, definitely not. An immoral person is someone who does immoral things. If you don't do immoral things then you are not an immoral person and don't let anyone persuade you that you are.

Shaun Williamson


(112) Thomas asked:

Why believe in the 'big bang'? how could this possibly have happened? it sounds like a fairy tale. a more suitable and believable scenario would be that the universe always had dust and hydrogen and all these different regions just coalesced into clumps of dust and over the eons came together and formed matter. what's the big mystery? big bang? I don't believe that at all. an infinitely small particle that blew up and formed the universe? that is so bogus and childlike, that i'm surprised that any sensible scientist thinks this could be true. do I make sense philosopher?


No you don't make any sense. Suppose I say to you 'penicillin': 'You mean a mould grown in the laboratory can actually cure diseases and that these diseases are supposed to be caused by things so small that we can't see them? This just sounds like a fairy tale to me. Its so bogus and childlike.'

Science doesn't have anything to do with what you, in your complete ignorance, think sounds true or false or likely.

Scientists formulate theories and they then perform experiments and make observations to confirm or falsify their theories. They don't decide things on the basis of whether they sound incredible or not. If you want to study something really incredible. Try Quantum Mechanics the chief theory of modern physics. It may sound incredible to you but it works and the computer you used to email your question is just one of the things that came from this incredible scientific theory.

The big bang is simply the best theory we have so far that fits the available evidence about the origin of our universe. If you want to come up with a better theory that also fits the evidence then please do so but don't criticise what you clearly don't understand and have not studied.

Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief or what sounds probable or incredible. It is not a question of what sounds sensible. It is a matter of evidence and observation.

Shaun Williamson


(113) Bob asked:

What is the best response to objection to physician assisted death is that it can abuse a patients moral belief in a way that some people believe that suicide is an unforgivable sin.


Bob, I'm not a moral philosopher, but here's my response to that objection anyway! It's not a doctor's job to give patients what they think they ought to have, as opposed to what they want. Here's an analogy. The shopkeeper knows I'm a committed vegetarian. But I have this hankering for bacon, so I pick some out of the fridge, and go up to the counter and pay for it. Should the shopkeeper refuse to sell it to me, because eating the bacon (or perhaps just buying it) is, by my own lights, immoral? I don't think so. She might remind me of my committed-vegetarian status and double-check that I really, seriously want to buy the bacon. Maybe that's even something she ought to do. (By analogy: terminal patients should be given access to counselling before they make their decision, to make sure they really do want to end their lives, particularly when this desire is in tension with their moral commitments.) But I want to buy the bacon, and it's the shopkeeper's job to sell bacon, so she should sell me the bacon; my moral beliefs (as opposed to what I sincerely want, namely bacon) aren't really any of her business.

Presumably, most people who think that suicide is an unforgivable sin aren't going to ask for assisted suicide in any case, just as there is no chance of me buying any bacon. But someone who does ask, despite thinking suicide is immoral, is surely entitled to have their desire fulfilled (assuming it's legal) — again, assuming we've made sure that this isn't just a temporary lapse and it really is what they want, all things considered. Divorce lawyers aren't morally required to check that their clients aren't Catholics, after all; nor is a bank morally required to check that their client isn't a Muslim before offering them a loan. People are entitled to make their own decisions, even if those decisions are wrong by their own lights!

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(114) Precy asked:

Been asked what is life? and what is soul?

and why I am a Roman catholic... I couldn't answer... so please can you please enlighten me?


The best definition of life that I know of is due to Erwin Schrodinger, the physicist, in his book 'What is Life?' He defined life as very high negative entropy in dynamical equilibrium. Entropy is a mathematical concept in physics meaning, roughly, disorder; and negative entropy is consequently order. According to the second law of thermodynamics entropy in a closed energy system easily increases to a maximum, but only has a negligible probability of decreasing. And dynamic equilibrium originally was the equilibrium of a spinning top: if it is not spinning, it cannot stand on its point, but if it is spinning it can, and is then in dynamic equilibrium. So life is a very high degree of order, which would not last long because of the second law of thermodynamics, except that it is kept high by bringing in new order, by feeding and breathing, to replace that lost. Soul is a concept that goes back to Aristotle; it is a substance, the thinking part of a human being. (A substance for Aristotle was anything that is always a subject, never a predicate.) The concept is a convenient one for theology because the soul is supposed to be independent of the body and so immortal. But modern science has no use for the concept, except is a debased meaning of the word as used in chemistry. This is one reason why so many scientists do not believe in immortality.

Helier Robinson


(115) Thomas asked:

Why believe in the 'big bang'? how could this possibly have happened? it sounds like a fairy tale. a more suitable and believable scenario would be that the universe always had dust and hydrogen and all these different regions just coalesced into clumps of dust and over the eons came together and formed matter. what's the big mystery? big bang? I don't believe that at all. an infinitely small particle that blew up and formed the universe? that is so bogus and childlike, that i'm surprised that any sensible scientist thinks this could be true. do I make sense philosopher?


The Universe has been proved to be expanding, so if you trace its development back over time it gets smaller and smaller, down to its beginning in the Big Bang. The name 'Big Bang' is indeed a bit childlike; it was due to Fred Hoyle, who was being derisive, and it has stuck. In my opinion the word 'infinity' is meaningless; we use it when we do not know the limits of something (just as we use 'chance' when we do not know the causes of something.) So your idea of a universe that has existed forever is an infinite universe; and the Big Bang coming out of an infinitely small particle is equally suspect. In fact modern cosmology is an exact mathematical science, worked out in great detail, with the Big Bang thoroughly established. Try Googling it.

Helier Robinson


(116) Goraya asked:

Why god gave me birth when nobody loves me here?


Hmmmmm. You asked this question on a Philosophy forum, and not a religious forum, so you are going to provoke a philosophical response and not a religious one. And philosophically speaking, your question demands two questions in response.

The first question that springs to mind is — What makes you think that God has any responsible for your birth?? The evidence is overwhelming that God had very little (if anything) to do with it. Your birth was the responsibility of your (biological) mother and your (biological) father.

Of course, you can choose to believe the religious myth that God is actively responsible for everything that happens. In which case, you can feel free to blame him for all the undesirable things that befall your life. It's a nice little comfort — nothing bad is ever your fault, and you always have a scape-goat to blame for anything unpleasant. Of course, unless you also give God all the credit for everything nice that happens, you are a being hypocritical. Most people don't like that. Most people like to take credit for their accomplishments and good luck, while blaming God (or the Fates) for their bad luck and failures.

So if you really feel that God was responsible for the fact that you were born, then you are going to have to provide a little more in the way of justification for that belief. If you prefer to insist that God is responsible for everything, then the only possible answer anyone could conceivably offer in response to your question is 'How the H*ll can you expect anyone to understand what is/was in God's mind when he decreed that you should be born. God is, by definition, incomprehensible!'.

The second question that springs to mind is — What makes you think that your being born has anything to do with whether anyone here loves you?? The evidence is overwhelming that your being born is the consequence of deterministic biology following certain actions of your mother (ovum) and father (sperm). The evidence is overwhelming that whether anyone here loves you is mostly (mothers possibly excepted) a consequences of whether you are a loveable person. The two different aspects of your concern (your being born, and your being unloved) have no discernible connection.

A more rational philosophical attitude to your predicament would be to recognize that your life is what you make it. You and you alone are responsible for how you deal with the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune throws in your direction. You can choose to bemoan the pitfalls that come your way. Or you can choose to treat such potholes in the road of life as opportunities to demonstrate how well you can deal with and overcome them.

Crying and self pity has never, in the history of man, overcome any challenge. Always remember, it is not how many times you stumble and fall that matters. What counts in the final tally is whether you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and choose that course of action that will be in your long term best interest — whatever that might be.

My own experience suggests that such a change in attitude will go a long way towards making you a more loveable person.

Stuart Burns


(117) Keisha asked:

Are we justified in having faith in what we can't prove? Why or why not?


Your question employs three words that have special meaning in philosophy.

First, the word 'prove'. In philosophical discourse, the word 'prove' has a much more restrict application than it does in general conversation. In philosophy, the only things that we can say we can 'prove' are those conclusions that can be logically deduced from stipulated axioms by employing the accepted rules of deductive logic. Hence, I can say that given the stipulated axioms of arithmetic, I can prove that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Or given the stipulated axioms of Euclidean geometry, I can prove that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. But I cannot prove Newton's laws of gravity, or that I am not a 'brain in a Vat'.

In general conversation, on the other hand, we often employ the word 'prove' when conclusions are not proved in the strict philosophical sense, but simply overwhelmingly likely. Hence, in general conversation, I can claim that Newton's laws of gravity are 'well proved'. As is Einstein's theory of gravity, and as are the laws of quantum field theory.

So when you talk about things 'that we can't prove', we must be careful to distinguish the philosophical sense of 'prove' from the general conversational sense of 'prove'. I am going to adopt the working hypothesis that you are talking about 'things that we can't persuade ourselves are overwhelmingly likely'. This is to be contrasted with 'things that we can persuade ourselves are overwhelmingly likely'. I would observe that a consequence of this distinction, is that the body of 'things we can't prove' will likely be different for different people. There will be things that you might consider as something that we can't prove, that I might consider well proved. A topical example might be the theory of evolution. I consider that theory well proved — in the sense of being overwhelmingly likely. A Creationist, on the other hand, would consider that the theory of evolution is something that we can't prove.

The second word that needs some clarification is 'faith'. The word 'faith' is used in two very different senses by different people. On the one hand, 'faith' means a belief in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence. In this sense of 'faith', the very concept of evidence is irrelevant, and talking about this sense of 'faith' in the same breath as evidence is committing a logical 'frame' error. This is the sense of 'faith' that is usually employed when discussing religious faith. The religious believe their religious truths as a matter of faith. The notion of evidence is totally irrelevant to this belief.

On the other hand, the word 'faith' is also used to refer to a belief that is considered 'well proved' (in the general conversational sense of 'prove' discussed above). Hence, even though I cannot 'prove' (in the philosophical sense) that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, I have 'faith' (in this latter sense) that it will. All instances of inductive reasoning (reasoning from a series of particular observations to a generalized conclusion) rely on the assumption that 'nature is uniform', or that 'the future will resemble the past'. But this 'inductive assumption' is not something that we can prove in the strict philosophical sense of that word. We rely on its continuing truth only because it has been true so far. But there is nothing in our past experience that would offer any assurance that this inductive assumption will remain true in the future. So ultimately, my reliance on that inductive assumption is based on 'faith'. But it is not the same sense of 'faith' as is used when discussing religious faith. It is a sense of faith that includes the notion of a belief in something for which I have a lot of supporting evidence.

The third word that needs some discussion is the word 'justified'. Just what does it mean for a belief to be 'justified'. What it means is that we have sufficient reasons (evidence, conclusions, etc) that let us judge that the belief in question is more likely to be true than false. Now it comes down to a personal judgement as to whether the reasons we are aware of constitute sufficiently convincing reasons, to make us judge that the belief is more likely to be true than false. And how much more likely to be true than false a belief must be, to be considered 'justified', depends on the context of the judgement. Different contexts will impose different degrees of required justification. If you are debating where to have lunch, you may be justified in believing that Subway is a good place on very little basis. But if you are debating whether to buy this house or not, you are going to demand much a more persuasive set of reasons in support of a belief that you should buy the thing. The more significant the consequences of a wrong judgement, the more stringent are the criteria for sufficient justification.

So, with all that clarification behind us, let's look at your question again — 'Are we justified in having faith in what we can't prove?' Given a non-religious sense of the word 'faith', the answer must be 'No!' We are never justified in believing something for which we do not have persuasive supporting reasons. All of science and engineering is based on the non-religious sense of 'faith' in the inductive premise that the future will resemble the past. But all of science and engineering is also based on the principle that we are never justified in having faith in what we can't prove. Or, in other words, the principle that we are never justified in believing in the truth of some statement in the absence of sufficient persuasive evidence to suggest that the statement is overwhelmingly likely.

On the other hand, given a religious sense of the word 'faith', the answer must be 'Yes!' The religious sense of faith stipulates a belief that is held in the absence of any evidence. As I have already explained, the very notion of 'proof' is irrelevant to such faith-based beliefs. For example, one cannot prove (in either sense of the word) that God exists without presupposing his existence. One has to accept the existence of God in the absence of any supporting evidence or persuasive reasons — and in the face of considerable evidence and persuasive reasons to the contrary.

I hope I have clarified things for you?

Stuart Burns


(118) Thomas asked:

Why believe in the 'big bang'? How could this possibly have happened? It sounds like a fairy tale. A more suitable and believable scenario would be that the universe always had dust and hydrogen and all these different regions just coalesced into clumps of dust and over the eons came together and formed matter. What's the big mystery? Big bang? I don't believe that at all. An infinitely small particle that blew up and formed the universe? that is so bogus and childlike, that I'm surprised that any sensible scientist thinks this could be true. Do I make sense philosopher?


Sorry, no you don't make sense.

The truth of any proposition is not dependent on its believability. More particularly, in this case, the truth or falsity of the Big Bang Theory (BBT) is not dependent on your lack of imagination or aesthetic displeasure.

What is now called the BBT was initially proposed in response to the astronomical observations (of Erwin Hubble, among others) that distant galaxies appeared to be receding from us at a rate that varied directly with their apparent distance. The initial 'Expanding Universe Theory' explained these observations by the hypothesis that the universe in which these galaxies were imbedded was expanding. This explanation would result in the same kind of observations of receding galaxies regardless of where in the universe one chose to make the observations. This was far more palatable than the hypothesis that Earth was in the privileged position of being the centre from which all galaxies were racing away.

Obviously, if the universe is now uniformly expanding, as is suggested by the astronomical observations, then one should be able to 'run the film backwards' to see where things started. Presto — the Big Bang.

Now, of course, mathematical physicists have explored the mathematical consequences of 'running the film backward'. If the mathematics of Einstein's theory of relativity and gravity are correct, and if the mathematics of quantum field theory is correct, then the consequences of 'running the equations backward' are readily discoverable — to a point. And given that these mathematical descriptions of the Universe are correct (and all the evidence so far seems to indicate that they are), then we can understand what happened very close to the instant of the Big Bang. That understanding has allowed the physicists to make predictions about what we should see in today's Universe — predictions that have turned out to be remarkably accurate.

It turns out that the mathematical description of the kind of Universe that you describe (a so called 'Steady State Universe') is not at all compatible with the astronomical observations we have on record. The Steady State Universe idea has therefore lost ground to the Big Bang Universe — despite your distaste for it.

One caveat I should mention — Einstein's theory of gravity is not consistent with quantum field theory. So on the basis of current physics, we can't 'run the film/equations backward' beyond the point where the predictions of the two theories conflict. Since this point is somewhat before the one-second point in the history of the Big Bang, the difficulty is not too great for the issue of distinguishing the BBT from any alternatives. I should also note that beyond a certain point, Einstein's mathematics starts to yield 'irresolvable infinities'. But there are other physical theories currently being explored (like the M-Theory) that would resolve these difficulties and push our understanding back even further in time.

So even if you do not like the result, and find it difficult to imagine, the BBT is the current way we (I should perhaps say 'Science') understand the universe. So far, it has defeated all potential competing theories on the battlefield of predictive success.

Stuart Burns


(119) Andy asked:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of.

So I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.


I deserve this question. As someone who has in the past criticized contemporary academic philosophy — and put no small effort into laying out my alternative vision of how philosophy might be practised and taught — it is only poetic justice that I should be required to come to the defence of academic philosophers and 'Intro to Philosophy 101'.

When I was a Philosophy undergraduate at Birkbeck College London in the early to mid-70's there was a group of students who seemed to spend much of their time discussing 'what was wrong' with academic philosophy. They called themselves 'radical philosophers'. Things haven't changed much. Here's the blurb from the Radical Philosophy web site which I looked up today:

Radical Philosophy is a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy. It was founded in 1972 in response to the widely felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time (in Britain completely dominated by the narrowest sort of 'ordinary language' philosophy), with the purpose of providing a forum for the theoretical work which was emerging in the wake of the radical movements of the 1960s, in philosophy and other fields.

In the interests of historical accuracy, in 1972 (my first year at Birkbeck) the dominating interest in British philosophy was not ordinary language philosophy (J.L. Austin, John Wisdom, the later Wittgenstein). That was already on the way out. The new thing was W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson and truth conditional semantics.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition were once again looking at the great work of Frege and Russell and the early Wittgenstein, and showing an increasing preparedness to question the 'givens' of ordinary language. (Again, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that J.L. Austin did write a fine translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic which fans of ordinary language philosophy seemed to have largely ignored.)

I would argue that the new technical, semantic approach had something of the spirit of radical philosophy in that it raised the possibility that much of the time we don't really understand what we mean, that accepted linguistic forms hold our minds captive — an idea not so far away from the notion of 'false consciousness' which the Birkbeck radical philosophy group talked incessantly about.

Of course, much of the new stuff was coming from the USA, and this did get up the nose of many young British philosophers. But I think it would be fairer to say that the emphasis on formal logic and semantics seemed the epitome of the kind of thing Heidegger was warning against in his strictures about technology. And I do agree with this to some extent. (But then again, I'm not such a great fan of Heidegger either.)

I will accept that history is bunk. I've just told a story which touches on how things were back then which seems true, based on my own experience, and possibly is still true (or maybe more true) today. Other philosophers will tell the story differently. It doesn't matter. To my ear, one thing that grates more than boringly minute academic debates over the analysis of Russellian definite descriptions or the Davidsonian truth conditions for action statements, is boringly minute academic debates over Marx, Althusser, Marcuse etc.

In German Ideology Marx set the standard for emotively hyperbolic diatribe which to some radically minded philosophers seems to have provided the model of 'committed' philosophical discourse. Then again, some of the more convoluted passages in Sartre's Being and Nothingness possibly pip Marx for the prize for sheer muddy obscurity. Next to these examples, the clean, austere writing of the likes of Quine and Davidson seems like a model of how words ought to be used in the pursuit of truth.

But I'm digressing.

The question isn't, 'Which style or tradition of academic philosophy do you prefer?' (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, radical philosophy, process philosophy, eastern philosophy etc.) but rather, 'Why does philosophy have to be academic?' (Or, as a variant, 'Why does philosophy have to be so academic?')

The Pathways School of Philosophy offers courses in academic philosophy. It's called 'academic' philosophy because that's what you study if you enrol at an academic institution for a course in philosophy, anywhere in the world and regardless of the dominating tradition there. Philosophy has a history, or, rather, several alternative histories depending on which version best fits your tradition. If you don't like studying other philosophers or the history of philosophy remember, 'Those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it.'

The irony is that I am not academic. I've done my share of sitting at lectures and poring over books. But books and lectures bore me to tears. I like to talk. I talk with my students (admittedly, via email mostly). In partnership, we create something which, as I once wrote, 'is neither yours nor mine — something neither of us could have created by our own unaided efforts — the dialogue itself as it takes on an independent life of its own' (Can Philosophy be Taught?).

Does Intro to Philosophy 101 bore you? Do you hate listening to professors droning on? Get over it. Don't mistake the style for the substance. The style is clunky, because clunky is what academic institutions do best. It doesn't have to be pretty so long as it works. Don't look to others to provide you with inspiration. That's what you've got to find within yourself. But don't think if you look into your own mind you will find philosophy there. Everything that's in your mind right now came from somewhere. And most of it is a cliché.

You want to follow Descartes' example and write your own 'Meditations on First Philosophy'? Fine. Start off by sitting through lecture after boring lecture by Jesuit priests. That's what Descartes did, and what provided him with the tools to pursue his own original philosophical investigations. That, and reading the great classics of philosophy that were available in his day.

This isn't a sales pitch so don't expect me to tell you how at Pathways we do things differently. Maybe we're a little less clunky, but that's just the beauty of the internet. A laptop can be your professor and your library. And when you've had enough of study, you can play games or DVDs on it too.

— Don't knock it, you academic philosophers: it's the future.

Geoffrey Klempner


(120) Franco asked:

Three guys walk into a hotel, and they're going to split the cost of a room. The room is 30. They each kick in 10 and head up to their room.

The manager gets wind of it and tells the clerk the room is only 25.

He hands five 1 bills to the bell hop and tells him to go refund the guys' money. On the way up to the room, the bell hop gets to thinking, and says to himself, 'No way can three guys split 5, I'm going to help out.'

So, he stuffs 2 in his pocket, knocks on the door, gives each guy back a dollar and heads back downstairs to the desk, glowing in the warmth of a job well done.

So now each guy has paid 9 for his portion of the room.

9 times 3 is 27... plus the two the bell hop stole equals only 29!

Where is the other dollar?


Hmm, well, it's not philosophy, Franco, but it's a nice puzzle and it had me baffled for a while. (Why do I get the feeling you know the answer already and are just testing us philosophers out?) Here's my answer.

The 2 in the bellhop's pocket isn't part of the difference between the amount the guys have now paid (27) and what they originally paid (30). Rather, it's part of the 27 they have now paid (the other 25 being with the manager). To put it another way: where is the original 30? Easy: 25 with the manager, 2 with the bellhop, and 3 with the guys in the room. The difference between the original 30 and the amount now paid (27) is the 3 in the guys' wallets, and not the 2 in the bellhop's pocket.

To make the trick more obvious, imagine that the manager had said that the room was only 10, gave the bellhop the 20 refund, and the bellhop had still only given the guys 3 back, so they were still paying 9 each for the room. On the reasoning the puzzle prompts us to go through, money has now miraculously appeared out of nowhere! We have the 27 the guys paid, plus 17 in the bellhop's pocket, = 44! That's obviously wrong: we still have 30 in total (10 with the manager, 17 with the bellhop, and 3 with the guys). The right sum is 10+17+3 = 30, and not 27+10+17. The 17 in the bellhop's pocket is part of the 27 that the guys have paid, and not part of (well, more than in fact) the difference between what they have now paid (27) and what they originally paid (30). As before, that difference — the 3 — is back in the guys' wallets.

Helen Beebee
University of Birmingham


(121) Franco asked:

Three guys walk into a hotel, and they're going to split the cost of a room. The room is 30. They each kick in 10 and head up to their room.

The manager gets wind of it and tells the clerk the room is only 25.

He hands five 1 bills to the bell hop and tells him to go refund the guys' money. On the way up to the room, the bell hop gets to thinking, and says to himself, 'No way can three guys split 5, I'm going to help out.'

So, he stuffs 2 in his pocket, knocks on the door, gives each guy back a dollar and heads back downstairs to the desk, glowing in the warmth of a job well done.

So now each guy has paid 9 for his portion of the room.

9 times 3 is 27... plus the two the bell hop stole equals only 29!

Where is the other dollar?


There is no such, but it is interesting to consider how the riddle might strike one as having force, because it is a possible image of some other puzzles in philosophy. First off, there is no missing dollar:

30 = 25 + 3 + 2

So the amount first paid is equal to the room cost plus the money returned plus the two dollar theft: no missing dollar.


27 = 25 + 2

So the amount finally paid is equal to the room cost plus the bell hop's theft of two dollars: again, no missing dollar.

The sense of mystery is, I suggest, attached to a carefully crafted confusion between these two separate sums, the first about the original payment, the second about the final payment. Thus, when the riddle states

So now each guy has paid 9 for his portion of the room.

9 times 3 is 27... plus the two the bell hop stole equals only 29!

... it states a truth, but a carefully chosen and irrelevant one which, at first glance looks relevant. If we want to know the location of each and every one of the 27 dollar eventual payment, we do not need to add the two the bell hop stole to 27. We need to subtract it, leaving the 25 dollar room cost. The sum to which the bell hop's theft should have been added is the 25 + 3 + theft sum of the original payment. Thus an entirely different calculation about where the original payment of 30 dollars is has been confused with the question of where the eventual 27 dollar payment is.

The riddle works, then, by confusing two different questions and switching between them at just the right moment to get a convenient answer. Convenience, in this case, is the mystification of the enthralled internet audience of head-scratchers.

Political rhetoric in response to questions sometimes has a parallel defect, except that there what is aimed at isn't the attraction of interest to a puzzle, but the diversion of it from an unwelcome line of inquiry. Here the politician is merely pretending to confuse the two questions. It is often useful to a politician to pretend to be quite thick.

In philosophy the confusion is typically less intentional than in the case of the riddler or politician, since all parties to the confusion may be honestly struggling to separate out questions that seem to be asking the same thing, and in fact are not.

Of this struggle, which in philosophy may be observed over countless generations, the short disentangling the bell-hop riddle is a rather nice image.

David Robjant


(122) Franco asked:

Three guys walk into a hotel, and they're going to split the cost of a room. The room is 30. They each kick in 10 and head up to their room.

The manager gets wind of it and tells the clerk the room is only 25.

He hands five 1 bills to the bell hop and tells him to go refund the guys' money. On the way up to the room, the bell hop gets to thinking, and says to himself, 'No way can three guys split 5, I'm going to help out.'

So, he stuffs 2 in his pocket, knocks on the door, gives each guy back a dollar and heads back downstairs to the desk, glowing in the warmth of a job well done.

So now each guy has paid 9 for his portion of the room.

9 times 3 is 27... plus the two the bell hop stole equals only 29!

Where is the other dollar?


The three guys paid 30 dollars for the room, they were refunded 3 dollars. 30 minus 3 is 27 and 27 plus 3 is thirty.

The manager gave 5 dollars to the bellhop who gave 3 to the customers and kept 2 for himself. 3+2 = 5, so no problem there either.

The customers paid 27 for the room but they should have only paid 25 dollars. 25 dollars plus the 3 dollars refund plus the 2 dollars the bellhop kept equals 30 dollars, so no problem there either. There is no missing dollar, persuading you that there is, is a conjuring trick as old as the hills and shows the need to keep a clear head when thinking about money.

The hotel got 25 dollars, the bellhop got 2 dollars and the customers got 3 dollars refunded, it all adds up correctly to 30 dollars. The two dollars that the bellhop stole is already included in the 27 dollars the customers paid for the room so there is no reason to add it again.

If you want to think about things in a silly way you could say 1. The three guys paid 27 dollars for the room 2. 27 + the 3 dollars they were refunded equals 30 dollars. 3. Add to that the 2 dollars the clerk kept and now we have 32 dollars. Where did the extra 2 dollars come from?

Shaun Williamson


(123) Franco asked:

Three guys walk into a hotel, and they're going to split the cost of a room. The room is 30. They each kick in 10 and head up to their room.

The manager gets wind of it and tells the clerk the room is only 25.

He hands five 1 bills to the bell hop and tells him to go refund the guys' money. On the way up to the room, the bell hop gets to thinking, and says to himself, 'No way can three guys split 5, I'm going to help out.'

So, he stuffs 2 in his pocket, knocks on the door, gives each guy back a dollar and heads back downstairs to the desk, glowing in the warmth of a job well done.

So now each guy has paid 9 for his portion of the room.

9 times 3 is 27... plus the two the bell hop stole equals only 29!

Where is the other dollar?


This is an old chestnut, a simple case of misrepresentation. The early paragraphs are a smokescreen, intended to get us to accept the incorrect sentence I have highlighted and italicized. This sentence should read:

9 times 3 is 27... 25 for the room plus the two the bell hop stole.

There is no 'other dollar'

I suppose the point for the philosopher (and everybody else) is to be on the alert, as listener or reader,for attempts to foist invalid conclusions on us by equivocation and other fallacies, ambiguity, loose, irrelevant or confusing talk.

If you are interested in slightly more challenging puzzles, start with 'Labyrinths of Reason: paradox, puzzles and the frailty of knowledge' by William Poundstone (1988) Penguin Books (deals engagingly, among much else, with some of the paradoxes philosophers think about — Brains in Vats, Paradox of the Ravens, Grue-Bleen paradox, Sorites, Ship of Theseus, Unexpected Hanging, Zeno's paradoxes, Newcomb's paradox, Chinese Room) or, if maths is more your interest, 'A passion for mathematics: numbers, puzzles, madness, religion, and the quest for reality' by Clifford Pickover (2005) Wiley.

Craig Skinner