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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.wordpress.com
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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 11 (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 11/1.

The latest questions are distributed weekly to members of the Ask a Philosopher panel. If you would like to join the panel, please email askaphilosopher@fastmail.net, including a brief CV and statement of your academic qualifications.

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Sal asked:

Haven't the homeless got a right to sleep on the streets if they want to? They are not obliged to us to improve their situation if they don't want to are they?

============

'Having the right to do something can be analysed in two ways: you have a natural right to do it, or you have an acquired right to do it. You, for instance, have a natural right to your liberty and self expression. You can have an acquired right to, for instance, take down a tree to build a pool, given you are granted permission to do so. You ask if the homeless have a right to sleep on the streets. I would say no, because that is not a natural right, and in most civilized societies, sleeping on the street is not permitted by law or even morally and socially acceptable. 'Wanting to do' something doesn't necessarily give you 'the right' to do it. Just imagine if you say you want to neglect your end of the social contract by not paying your taxes, or not obeying to law enforcement authorities it would bring chaos and anarchy. The second question you pose is, in my view, harder to answer. You ask if they can remain as they are, not being forced to improve their situation. It's like saying that a poor person cannot be forced to improve his or her situation by moving to a better home for example. I think that your personal freedom, a natural right, grants you the choice not to improve your well being if you don't want to, and if that choice does not collide against the natural rights of others - imagine if you pose a health issue.'

Nuno Hipolito


(2) Antonio asked:

Weeks ago I send you a question about the possibility of knowledge of reality, given the fact that all we know depends on the particular structure of our brain and senses.

Your answer suggested ironically "a very simple experiment": to walk toward the wall of my bedroom.

Well, let's accept your suggestion: I walk to the wall and... I see a wall, I feel it resisting to my passage. That means I have configured a wall from something outside me.

The problem as I see it, is that all experiments with the wall suppose a wall in connection with me, not the thing in itself.

So, I would reformulate my question:

Is our knowledge of the reality the knowledge of a human reality, I mean, a reality according to our senses, our brain, according to what we are? Or do you think it is possible a knowledge of things as "they are"?

============

To prevent some of the remarks of your previous answer, this question has nothing to do with solipsism. I think ist was Aristotle who said, commenting Melisso de Samos, that such theories are near to madness, which I agree.

Excellently qualified. Now I'll give you another slightly less ironic answer: take dogs. Yes, I'm serious. Now, what is physics to a dog? Well, it's jumping in such a way as to be able to catch a ball, running and not stumbling, etc., etc. A dog physicists might be able to think that they anticipate where the ball will be when they jump, i.e., that they aren't jumping at the ball but at where the ball will be. And so forth. That's about it for dog physics, right? And yet, dogs use it, operate in the world just fine by doggish standards, and can refine that physics to a great extent. They've solved physics, as far as they can. It works, it's complete, it's testable, and so forth.

But dogs can't formulate equations, you object; they can't abstract to the "laws" of physics. But what is the ability to reliably catch a ball, but a physicalized abstraction of those laws? Human beings, you reply, are able to "symbolically represent" those laws, and dogs can't do that, and that enables us to reach degrees of precision and sophistication that dogs simply cannot. This is a fine and valid objection to the depth and breadth of dogs' understanding of the world.

Now, take the human cortex. We think with it. If it's damaged, we can't think, speak, write, or do physics... depending on the extent of the damage. That's what we use, period. The human cortex is, when unfolded and spread out, about a yard square and 6 cells deep. That's it. Well, let's say that a dog's cortex is 1/3 that size... it's certainly significantly smaller, whatever the exact ratio. With that, they operate in the world very precisely, up to the point of abstracting. With our cortex, we operate with what we term "symbolism" and "abstraction" more precisely. But what if our cortex were, say, two yards square and 12 cells deep? Ten times that?

So, the answer to your question, then, is in two parts. First, our intelligence would be found just as limited by beings with brains on a larger scale as we find the intelligence of dogs, and our "knowledge" of reality just as limited... yet just as precise and useful on our level as a dog's is on its level. Second, our cortex operates according to principles and structures that have evolved to fit our environment, here on this planet, as have dogs'. We have a kind of blend of "modular" and "gestalt" structure in that cortex, parts of which employ symbolism, parts of which are very concrete... and so forth. Those subsets, all of them, are structured by both genetics and environment, and that structure, for the most part, is very very finely grained, and rather specifically organized.

Thus there are in fact two ways in which we are limited: by capacity, and by function. If you want to find out more about the first, go read some neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. If you want to find out about the second, read Kant's first critique for a philosophical description (but it's nothing you can just plunge into; you have to do a bit, say two years or so, of preliminary reading to really get it), and some basic books in cognitive science, for an empirical description.

Steven Ravett Brown


(3) Filip asked:

I recently heard something about the paradox of Schrodinger. But I can't find anything about it on the internet. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

It goes like this:

He puts a cat in a box and closes it.
Then he asks if the cat is dead or alive.
The answer is neither dead or alive.

What is this paradox about?

============

Go to the web and look up "Schroedinger's Cat" (and note how I spelled "Schroedinger"). There is an enormous amount of misinformation and misunderstanding of this thought experiment. It is not, first of all, a paradox, but a rather dramatic illustration of some of the principles of quantum mechanics. After you have read about it, if you still have questions write here again.

Steven Ravett Brown


(4) Sean asked:

Is philosophy practical or nothing more than mental exercise?

============

Is this question practical or no more than emotional venting?

Steven Ravett Brown


(5) Earl asked:

We agree that emotions are physical reactions to our thoughts. We interpret these physical reactions and name them as emotions. If a computer with physical components were to react to verbal input in similar manner as humans, shouldn't we be able to show, by agreement to definitions of terms and the meeting of criteria, that a computer does "experience" emotions?

============

In a word, no. First, what do you mean by "in similar manner"? On the face of it, this is absurd, because computers are machines with screens, keyboards, etc... and human beings have faces, arms, etc... so in what possible manner could a computer's reaction be "similar" to a human's? You mean that a "similar" string of words will appear on a computer screen to what a person might type? Well, in this superficial meaning of "similar", of course you're correct... after all, there are only 26 letters to the alphabet (I'll disregard other characters for the purpose of this discussion), and thus the similarity in typed response is pretty inevitable, isn't it... all the letters will be similar. In fact, for a computer programmed to output in English, the words will be similar also. What a coincidence, right? The computer must have feelings, then, because English words appear on the screen?

Well, let's see... perhaps the computer has feelings because coherent strings of words, not merely English words, appear on the screen. Um... no. I can open any book and read coherent strings of words... does that mean the book has feelings? What if I were watching the book being printed out, so that the words appeared in succession... would that make it have feelings? Or perhaps the printing machine has the feelings?

Do you begin to appreciate the problem here? A computer is a logic device; a very very complicated adding machine, in effect, operating with Boolean algebra. When a sum of numbers appears on the screen of an adding machine, should we attribute "thinking" to that device? "Feeling"? "Consciousness"? Let us say, for the sake of argument, that in some sense yet to be determined, it is correct that emotions are "physical reactions"... to our bodies. Ok, fine. Now, just what does that mean, precisely? What is a "physical reaction"? Clearly, if we throw a stone and it shatters, that stone has physically reacted to our thoughts, right? Do we then conclude that it has emotions?

Do you begin to appreciate the problem here? This is one of the most difficult issues in philosophy... to first, even formulate this in coherent terms, and second, attempt to answer the question, once formulated. Go to the web and look up the "hard problem"; I think you'll be stunned at the literature you need to wade through to even approach fully grasping the question, much less formulating it (which, in my opinion, has rarely been done correctly), much less offering some sort of tentative answer (which, in most people's opinion, has never been done correctly).

Steven Ravett Brown


(6) Nick asked:

What argument can a fundamentalist animal liberationist put forward to stop any form of animal testing in an attempt to find a cure for my sick child? Conversely the same with cloning stem cells for finding a cure?

============

Well, I can't think of any. Look at it this way: medicine is still a relatively primitive science. In order to develop treatments and cures, medicine has no choice but to perform experiments on living creatures, for two reasons. First, medicine deals with living creatures; you can't do it on dead cells, nor in a test tube. Second, because medicine is primitive, we cannot produce virtual creatures to experiment on; we just simply do not have the knowledge and technology to simulate, on a computer, a mouse, person, or even an amoeba, then simulate the effects of a drug or other treatment on that virtual organism. That latter would, I agree, be the ideal way to go, in a better world, and perhaps some day we'll be up to it. But not now.

So the choice is this: experiment on people and/or animals, causing them to suffer, or have no medicine. This is a classical ethical dilemma, faced by everyone every day they take a step on a floor, since that step kills uncounted bacteria and other organisms. Is walking worth killing? Well, you must think so. What about fighting wars? Do you think the killing in Iraq is justified? What about that in WWII, against Hitler?

As for me, speaking as the survivor of acute appendicitis, pneumonia, and other infections... I'll take medicine, thank you.

Steven Ravett Brown


(7) Irineo asked:

"Is there a genuine truth? It seems to me that many philosophers talks about truth according to their own beliefs and perspectives, who among them shall we believe on to?"

============

Brad Palmer answered (10/3) :

"The only 'genuine truth' is the 'truth' that unfolds for YOU in your search for 'truth', and the 'reality' that that 'truth' reveals. It is a very personal thing. There is no 'one size fits all' truth. Those who believe there is, usually feel that it is THEIR version that is the real one and will fight and kill to preserve that egotistical illusion and ignorance. Witness the Crusades, Inquisition, etc... Good luck in your 'quest'!"

There might be a tiny grain of truth in what BP has to say here, but the handling of it could seem a tiny bit imperfect: Hitler's vision was fairly "personal" (indeed the intellectual ethos behind Nazism, if there was one, had something to do with Nietzsche's espousing of something rather like your credo of "There is no 'one size fits all' truth").

There's a paradox of relativism that goes like this: everything that is true is true or false only for persons, including absolutes. To fix this leaky notion we need to be clearer about what we're after here. Obviously any groping for truth goes on in an individual, and one might think that only that individual can fully comprehend he meaning that he attaches to his own terms in that quest. However, just because the search is individual it doesn't follow that the truth to be sought out there is "personal". The possibility remains that, amongst those who have reached the truth the only differences would be about terms. Let's allow for that possibility, and say that there is truth, and then there is the form of the expression of truth.

David Robjant


(8) Emran asked

"Why can we only use 10% of our brain?"

============

Shaun Williamson answered (10/19):

"What we do know is that certain human abilities, such as the ability to recognise faces, are carried out by small and specialised parts of the human brain. So if this small part of the brain is damaged we lose the ability to recognise faces although we can still recognise every thing else."

Shaun's first claim here is false. We do not know that "certain human abilities, such as the ability to recognise faces, are carried out by small and specialised parts of the human brain". What we do know is that without those parts of the brain we don't recognise faces - here Shaun's second claim is correct. But the first claim is not equivalent to and does not follow from the second claim. Without a functional carburettor, many petrol engines will not generate power. It does not follow that the "small and specialised" part of the engine which generates the power is the carburettor.

Again consider the lighting system in a house. There are several fuses between the grid and the lightbulb: the general circuit breaker for the house, plus the fuse on the lighting circuit (for some lighting systems) or the socket ring fuse and the fuse in the plug. If any of these fuses blow the lights go out. It does not follow that the ability to light the house is carried out by the blown fuse. The system performs the abilities of the system.

Again, would one say that the ability to recognise faces is "carried out by" the eye? It cannot be the case that the ability to recognise faces is "carried out by" a small part of the brain, and at the same time not "carried out by" that small part of the brain but instead "carried out by" the eye. Yet the loss of the ability to recognise faces follows equally from the loss of eyes or of a brain sector. So by what is the ability performed? In one place? In both places? Or in neither?

The ability of the system is performed by the system. (obviously)

The system in question is a living breathing human being - and not a collection of medical specimens thrown together.

David Robjant


(9) Sean asked:

Is philosophy practical or nothing more than mental exercise?

============

Lots of philosophies are impractical. In fact, it's a sort of consensus amongst philosophers (and I include pub-philosophers) that nearly all philosophies are impractical, with one exception: their own. The flip side of that is that, for every philosopher, that philosopher claims that their own philosophy is practically efficacious in some fashion or other.

By the way, why think that what is nothing more than a mental exercise is impractical? And what do you mean by "practical"? Practical for whom? Practical in what circumstance? For what end? What is practical for surviving with one's mental health intact in a prison or a school can be impractical elsewhere. Precisify. Stop quipping - what do you mean?

David Robjant


(10) Henry asked:

What is insight in general?

============

In particular, it's what you're after. In general, it's what I hope you're after.

David Robjant


(11) Earl asked:

We agree that emotions are physical reactions to our thoughts. We interpret these physical reactions and name them as emotions. If a computer with physical components were to react to verbal input in similar manner as humans, shouldn't we be able to show, by agreement to definitions of terms and the meeting of criteria, that a computer does "experience" emotions?

============

In answer to your first sentence:

No! - we do not agree that emotions are physical reactions to our thoughts. It looks like you've got hold of something called the 'fact-value' gap - a much discredited bit of philosophical old-hat from the likes of A Y Ayer, associated with a dead school called "logical positivism" - study up on it's well-understood faults. The triple twist you've added to this is 1) to treat 'thought' as essentially propositions concerned with fact (why do that?), 2) to treat evaluations and value-saturated thoughts as "reactions" as if our tastes were essentially and universally passive and reactive (why think that?), and 3) to treat these patterns of taste as "physical" (whatever that means). If you count the first founding step of the fact-value separation, I count here 4 philosophically questionable assertions (all of which I reject) before we get to the first full stop. Given this, I owe no response to what you then go on to claim about computers that experience emotion, other than to point out the unexamined (and jolly peculiar) steps in your thinking.

David Robjant


(12) Antonio asked:

Is our knowledge of the reality the knowledge of a human reality, I mean, a reality according to our senses, our brain, according to what we are? Or do you think it is possible a knowledge of things as "they are"?

============

Why begin by contrasting how things are with how things are for humans? We, after all, are humans. There is no other perspective from which we might start. Would you challenge the hedgehog on the same basis? If you must begin by demanding another (unspecifiable) starting place, you forbid all starting whatsoever, and forbid knowledge of any degree or any extent. Global scepticism of this kind is the rejection of the enterprise of knowledge: it is not the refutation of that enterprise. While as old as the presocratics, your question is also like the irishman who, asked how to get to dublin, replied: I wouldn't start from here. Well, here's where we are. May we start? Please?

David Robjant


(13) John asked:

How Can i write a reaction paper on Plato's The Republic Book 1?

============

Read The Republic and have a reaction. Now you can write your reaction paper. If you do not have a reaction, you cannot write your reaction paper. Read it. You will have a reaction.

David Robjant


(14) Liza asked:

How can marxist theory be applied in nursing care?

============

In cases where the patients think they are Lenin there might be some diagnostic use.

David Robjant


(15) Matthew asked:

Can morality evolve in the face of amorphous culture and still be considered "universal"?

============

Why should the process of evolution have anything to do with the validity of what evolves?

David Robjant


(16) Jules asked:

In natural language the terms 'if...then' are assumed to make a connection between two states of affairs such as:

1: 'If Mary leaves then I will leave'

This is standardly translated into logic where the conditional is false where the antecedent is true and the consequent false.

In all other case the conditional comes out as true. In logic the conditional is defined in terms of its truth function. The truth function of the conditional is the same as the truth function of the disjunction 'Not P or Q'. This translates as

2: 'It is not the case that Mary leaves or I will leave'

However, it seems to me that 2 does not capture everything that 1 has said. In particular there does not seem to be any connection between Mary leaving and my leaving in 2 whereas in 1 there does seem to be such a connection.

Secondly where conditionals are uttered in natural language and they do not have any connection between antecedent and consequent and the antecedent is false we tend to say that the conditional is false. For instance:

3: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction then he hid them up his ass.

Where the antecedent is false and Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction we would not say that the conditional is false. Rather we would say that if he had them then he had them well hidden but not that they were kept up his backside.

So according to the above natural language treats conditionals in a different manner from formal logic and it does not permit of translating the conditional into the disjunction with a negation.

My question is how does formal logic in so far as it is concerned with translating natural language into formal logic deal with these issues? Is there a real issue with the translation of natural language into formal logic? Can the above easily be dealt with by a distinction between semantics and pragmatics (what is asserted and what is conveyed)?

I would be grateful to anyone who could point me in the right direction.

============

I almost didn't answer this one... you are asking a question here (the translation of formal languages into natural languages) which has been debated for about a century now. The literature on this is beyond enormous. To really even address this question, you need to read philosophy of language, starting with Frege, and proceeding through Chomsky into the cognitive linguistic realm, and of course the accompanying linguistic theories and literature; you need to know about artificial intelligence research over the last, say, 50 years; you need to have a good background in cognitive science... for starters. Then you can start thinking about how to further research this issue.

I'll give you some short and horrifically incomplete and unsatisfactory answers to your three questions: a) Very badly. See the literature on AI and translation. b) Yes, a huge issue, but it has moved into computer programming, computer translation, and computational linguistics. c) No, no, no. That distinction doesn't begin to do justice to this issue. You might look at framing analysis for an attempt at approaching it from this viewpoint, and some of Schank's early work on scripting. But it's not as if people haven't been aware of this problem for the last 50 years or so. There are many many approaches.

Basically, to barely begin to approach these issues, you need a PhD or the equivalent in 1-2 major fields of research in this area.

Steven Ravett Brown


(17) Earl asked:

We agree that emotions are physical reactions to our thoughts. We interpret these physical reactions and name them as emotions. If a computer with physical components were to react to verbal input in similar manner as humans, shouldn't we be able to show, by agreement to definitions of terms and the meeting of criteria, that a computer does "experience" emotions?

============

No! No! No! First of all we DON'T agree that emotions are MERELY physical reactions to our thoughts. If you start at the wrong place then you will reach the wrong destination (old Irish proverb). Now suppose that I am an American high school student and I fear that I will fail to graduate at the end of the school year. But I am not American. I am the wrong age to be a high school student so I can never have this particular fear.

Of course as I write this I know that there are many American high school students who are experiencing this particular fear. Now consider how you would build a computer that would experience the same fear. It wouldn't be enough to build one that says 'I am an American high school student and I fear I will fail to graduate and then shows signs of fear etc.

An actor who acts an American high school student who fears they would fail to graduate at the end of the year wouldn't do either. There is a difference between simulating an emotion and experiencing an emotion.

Instead you would have to build a computer that could get itself admitted to an American high school and progress through the school to the final year and then start getting fail grades. It would have to go to the end of year proms and do all sorts of things that high school students do etc. etc.

Consider the sentences 'Jack's parrot speaks English' and 'Jack speaks English'. On the surface they may look the same but their implications are very different. Don't be superficial. Things are much more complex than you think.

Shaun Williamson


(18) Jules asked:

In natural language the terms 'if...then' are assumed to make a connection between two states of affairs such as:

1: 'If Mary leaves then I will leave'

This is standardly translated into logic where the conditional is false where the antecedent is true and the consequent false.

In all other case the conditional comes out as true. In logic the conditional is defined in terms of its truth function. The truth function of the conditional is the same as the truth function of the disjunction 'Not P or Q'. This translates as

2: 'It is not the case that Mary leaves or I will leave'

However, it seems to me that 2 does not capture everything that 1 has said. In particular there does not seem to be any connection between Mary leaving and my leaving in 2 whereas in 1 there does seem to be such a connection.

Secondly where conditionals are uttered in natural language and they do not have any connection between antecedent and consequent and the antecedent is false we tend to say that the conditional is false. For instance:

3: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction then he hid them up his ass.

Where the antecedent is false and Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction we would not say that the conditional is false. Rather we would say that if he had them then he had them well hidden but not that they were kept up his backside.

So according to the above natural language treats conditionals in a different manner from formal logic and it does not permit of translating the conditional into the disjunction with a negation.

My question is how does formal logic in so far as it is concerned with translating natural language into formal logic deal with these issues? Is there a real issue with the translation of natural language into formal logic? Can the above easily be dealt with by a distinction between semantics and pragmatics (what is asserted and what is conveyed)?

I would be grateful to anyone who could point me in the right direction.

============

The purpose of logic is to explain the concept of a VALID argument not as people often imagine the concept of a GOOD argument. So you need to take care about translating 'ordinary' language into logical language.

Consider English sentences of the form 'either x or y is true. To translate these into the logical language they will often have to be translated to the form 'either x or y but not x and y. Similarly sentences of the form if x then y will often have to be translated (in logical language) into 'y if and only if x'

So in logic the following is a valid argument. 1.If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction then he hid them up his ass.

2. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction 3. Therefore Saddam hid weapons of mass destruction up his ass This is counted as a valid argument because the definition of a valid argument is that it is one where if the premises (1. and 2.) are true then the conclusion (3.) cannot be false. Now I think that if we admit that 1. and 2. are true then we must also admit that 3. is true. Of course you might have to be insane to think that 1. is true, but this is not the concern of logic. The idea that logic was only concerned with valid arguments rather than good or reasonable arguments has been very fruitful. It made possible the invention of the computer so it is not just an impractical,theoretical idea. Logic does not tell you how to translate ordinary sentences into a logical form. You have to decide which logical form exactly captures the meaning of the original sentence.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Sean asked:

Is philosophy practical or nothing more than mental exercise?

============

Well how do I answer this. I first became fascinated by philosophy when I was 14 years old, I am now 58 and still fascinated by it. When I was 17 I reached the conclusion that philosophy does not exist and there are no philosophical truths. Since that time I have found no reason to change my mind about this. But I could not have reached that conclusion without obsessively studying philosophy for many years. To me philosophy is the most practical subject that exists but I wouldn't advise anyone to study it. Only a true philosopher will ignore this advice. If your only aim in life is to be practical then become an accountant and there is NOTHING wrong with being an accountant but its not for everyone.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Antonio asked:

Weeks ago I send you a question about the possibility of knowledge of reality, given the fact that all we know depends on the particular structure of our brain and senses.

Your answer suggested ironically "a very simple experiment": to walk toward the wall of my bedroom.

Well, let's accept your suggestion: I walk to the wall and ... I see a wall, I feel it resisting to my passage. That means I have configured a wall from something outside me.

The problem as I see it, is that all experiments with the wall suppose a wall in connection with me, not the thing in itself.

So, I would reformulate my question:

Is our knowledge of the reality the knowledge of a human reality, I mean, a reality according to our senses, our brain, according to what we are? Or do you think it is possible a knowledge of things as "they are"?

To prevent some of the remarks of tour previous answer, this question has nothing to do with solipsism. I think ist was Aristotle who said, commenting Melisso de Samos, that such theories are near to madness, which I agree.

============

Well don't assume that the answer must be A or B to start with. Of course we only know reality through our senses. If we had the same sense of smell as a dog then of course our knowledge of reality would be very different but don't jump to simplistic conclusions. For example I know that the Great Wall of China exists. I have never been to China but what I do know is that I have never met a dog, even a Chinese dog, that knows anything about the Great Wall of China. Science and scientific theories such as Quantum Mechanics have enabled humans to invent many things, electricity, the computer etc. that have nothing to do with direct sensory experience. Of course by definition all knowledge is human knowledge but that doesn't mean that there is some further hidden knowledge (i.e REAL knowledge of things as they REALLY are, that is hidden from us). Also I know many things that not even God can change. For example that 2+2 = 4 and the power of the continuum is greater than infinity. Things are much more complex than you think. Don't start by assuming there can only be two answers to any question.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Colin asked:

First off, I would just like to point out that I am only 14 and not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just wondering if you think I'm being hypocritical with the following:

I myself am not a vegetarian and quite happily eat meat, but I do think killing animals is wrong. I have tried to justify my thoughts by saying 'Well, if I don't eat this meat then that animal has been killed for no reason,' but in retrospect, if I were given the option to stop the killing of animals and not eat meat again, I wouldn't stop.

Reading this again I am now fairly sure that I'm being hypocritical, so I have answered that question, but is there a way I can justify my thoughts so I'm not being hypocritical? I'm looking forward to your replies.

============

No there is no way you can justify your thoughts. If you really believe that killing and eating animals is wrong then any meat consumption by you will only lead to more animals being killed to supply meat. If you really don't want animals to be killed to supply meat then STOP eating animals. This is the least you can do.

I am not a vegetarian and I do eat meat but I wouldn't do it if I had your beliefs.

Shaun Williamson


(22) Filip asked:

I recently heard something about the paradox of Schrodinger. But I can't find anything about it on the internet. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

It goes like this:

He puts a cat in a box and closes it.
Than he ask if the cat is dead or alive.
The answer is neither dead or alive.

What is this paradox about?

============

This is not a philosophical question. It is a question about modern theoretical physics and in particular about quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. So suggest you search for these instead.

Shaun Williamson


(23) Mark asked:

A preacher said, "A gay person can be a Christian, but a Christian cannot be gay."

Is this some sort of twisted logic?

============

Well it might be twisted theology but its not twisted logic. What it means is this. If you are gay then you can become a Christian and give up your gayness i.e don't practice it since it is evil in the eyes of the lord etc. etc. I am not a Christian and I am not gay and I can't imagine why a gay person would want to be a Christian but I recognise that humans are strange and I can't tell them what to do.

Shaun Williamson


(24) Jack asked:

Seven years ago, I received a double lung transplant for a genetic lung disorder. I was 48, and the donor was a 17 year old boy who had been killed in an automobile accident. I have become able to work full time and be as normal as anyone else. I own my own businesses and hire a lot of young people.

Is it possible that because of "cellular memory" in the donor lungs, I have become more like a teenager than an adult my real age? I have been accused of going through a second childhood, but I know that that isn't it. I have the same feelings, wonderment, and nervous anticipations that I had when I was a teenager. And I'm having more fun and anguish than ever before

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You have had a death sentence hanging over you for many years which must have blighted your teenage years. Now that that has been removed it not surprising that your body feels it wants to make up for lost time. If I were in your situation I would feel a certain sense of euphoria as well. I don't think it has anything to do with mystical things like cell memory etc. You are just having to work through feelings that you have had to suppress for many years because you had more important things to deal with. Enjoy your second chance at life.

Shaun Williamson


(25) Camilo said:

I am a Colombian Psychiatrist. I want to know the exact translation (in English) of one essential proposition of Edmond Husserl ( "the return to the very things" of eidetic view) and one sentence of Heraclitus ("And the lighting governs everything" fragment 64).

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In the widely used Hackett published ISBN 0872203263 'Presocratics reader', the translation Richard D. McKirahan Jr gives for Heraclitus fragment Diels-Kranz 22B64 (from Hippolytus) is:

"Thunderbolt steers all things."

The thunderbolt being an instance or apogee of Fire, Fire being Heraclitus' image of the cosmos, thus RDM's version of DK 22B30:

"The cosmos ... an ever-living fire being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures."

"Being", as I take it, here introducing an explanation of the metaphor, so that the whole thing means something like "the cosmos is a fire in the sense that it is kindled in measures etc". Heraclitus doesn't, I think, intend that the cosmos is itself literally a fire. (How silly would that be?). As is also shown by DK 22B90:

"All things are an exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods."

The sense of this is much more like the exchange equation E=mc2 than it is like the equality E=m (by my substituting Energy for Fire in don't intend that this is what Heraclitus meant, but just that Heraclitus doesn't think that the cosmos is fire any more than Einstein thinks that the cosmos is energy).

David Robjant


(26) Spenser asked:

Do you think the world would be better if humans weren't so far "evolved"? Or maybe we are indeed less so "evolved" then other species which would explain our numerous faults that other species lack.

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I don't know how we could be more or less evolved. Humans are the only species who assess their own actions as being good or evil because we think we have a choice. Lions don't agonize about whether they should become vegetarians But on the other hand they don't organise concentration camps either. Chimpanzees can organise to hunt and kill members of other groups of chimpanzees and they seem to enjoy the sport. Does this mean they are developing a capacity for evil? I don't know. The world can only become better if humans learn to act better. If human beings didn't exist the world would be morally neutral. You can't blame animals for the things they do. Only humans can be blamed for the evil they create and praised for the good they do.

Shaun Williamson


(27) Vince asked:

I have a question about randomness. I was thinking about it, and it seems that everything has a pattern. We only deem things random because we can not establish a pattern. But then I thought of some situations that baffled me so I came here for help. Say you picked up a pencil off a table and then set it down in what seems to be the same spot. Did you truly place it back in the original spot? Is there some minute space in between the pencil and the original spot? Say this was done several times, is the space in between each pencil placement random? Say you snap your fingers several times. Is the frequency produced by the snaps perfectly the same every time? I know a similar question on randomness was asked before. Any response would be appreciated.

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It's difficult to find an example in the macro-scale that one can unambiguously call random, certainly. But think about the micro-scale. What about the Brownian motion (look it up) of small particles and molecules? What about the probabilistic behavior of particles/waves at the quantum level? That latter is guaranteed to be random, if QM is at all correct... and so far it has held up. But I think that Brownian motion is a good enough approximation to true randomness to be termed that. But aside from quantum mechanical systems, it is surely true that we cannot say for certain that anything will be random forever, and by the same token, any finite collection of points can have an equation written describing it, rather than merely boundaries within which indescribable behavior takes place... except, as I say, at the quantum level.

Steven Ravett Brown


(28) Nick asked:

What argument can a fundamentalist animal liberationist put forward to stop any form of animal testing in an attempt to find a cure for my sick child? Conversely the same with cloning stem cells for finding a cure?

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Well I'm surprised that you can't imagine what these arguments would be.

If your child was ill would you agree to experiments being performed on other children to help cure your child? Probably not. Where do you draw the line? Suppose you had a family pet, a dog, that both you and your child love. Would you be willing to send it to the animal research lab to help find a cure for your child? The animal liberationist would say that animals are conscious and feel fear and pain just like we do. Their lives are as important as the life of your child. They would certainly sympathise with your love and concern for the child but to them that would not justify your willingness to sacrifice other lives just so that your child can live.

Would you be willing to purchase a kidney from a poor Indian child so that your child can live?

With regard to your other question I suppose this is about using the remains of abortions for research. To many people this seems like the start of a slippery slope. If we lose our idea that life is sacred in some sense then where will it end? Will the rich feel justified in using the poor to provide spare parts in order to preserve their own lives? And why do people always use the example of a sick child in these discussions and not a sick grandmother? Is it to because a sick child is meant to tug at our heartstrings in a way that a sick grandmother can't?

Everyone must decide where they draw their own line about these things, but if they don't see that these are important moral questions then their views are not worthy of consideration.

Shaun Williamson


(29) Someone asked:

Is there a difference between 'I am certain' and 'it is certain'? and is passionate conviction EVER sufficient for justifying knowledge?

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Yes there is a difference. Consider the sentence. It is certain that the great wall of China exists but John doesn't know that. So John can't say I am certain that the great wall of china exists. But in general if I say 'It is certain that X' then it makes no sense if I also say 'but I don't know that X'.

Passionate conviction might explain belief but it can never justify knowledge. If passionate conviction were enough then every madman would be wise. Only evidence can justify knowledge. To say that I know that X is true is to say that I have good evidence for X. Passionate conviction is not evidence.

Shaun Williamson


(30) Sal asked:

Haven't the homeless got a right to sleep on the streets if they want to? They are not obliged to us to improve their situation if they don't want to are they?

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I find this idea absurd. Where could a right to sleep on the streets come from? Is there also a right to stand in the middle of the road or a right to spit on the pavement or throw litter down wherever you want to? Is there a right to kill someone if you don't like their face? How are we supposed to answer these questions? No they are not obliged to accept our help and we are not obliged to accept their refusal to accept our help. Nor are we obliged to allow them to sleep on the streets. Lets forget all this talk about rights and concentrate on being reasonable in our responses to other people's behaviour.

Shaun Williamson


(31) Vince asked:

I have a question about randomness. I was thinking about it, and it seems that everything has a pattern. We only deem things random because we can not establish a pattern. But then I thought of some situations that baffled me so I came here for help. Say you picked up a pencil off a table and then set it down in what seems to be the same spot. Did you truly place it back in the original spot? Is there some minute space in between the pencil and the original spot? Say this was done several times, is the space in between each pencil placement random? Say you snap your fingers several times. Is the frequency produced by the snaps perfectly the same every time? I know a similar question on randomness was asked before. Any response would be appreciated.

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No I think you are just getting confused here. There are things which are random and things which are not. If we can't see a pattern in things then we don't just accept the idea that they are random. Sometimes we say there must be a pattern but we don't know what it is yet. Scientific research always assumes that there must be a pattern. As to putting a pencil back in the same place. What we count as the same place is always relative to a system of measurement. Are we measuring to the nearest millimetre or the nearest nanometre. Suppose we were asking someone to put a pencil back on the same place on a football pitch. We would surely be satisfied if they could do it to the nearest centimetre and would regard as a miracle if anyone could do this.

You say that we only deem things random because we cannot establish a pattern but maybe we cannot establish a pattern because we are dealing with something which is truly random.

Shaun Williamson


(32) Rajiv asked:

I am currently researching on the subject of RISK PERCEPTION- Driver behaviour.I have found debates on this matter online, but I want to go deeper into this subject, does anyone have any suggestions on literature?

My question is: 'HOW TO INCREASE RISK PERCEPTION'

My title is: The way in which a driver's risk perception can be heightened through the physical manipulation of the space within the car.

1. What are people perceptions of laws on the road > ABSTRACT > REGULATION o TRAFFIC LIGHTS..AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS > CREATED BY PEOPLE!

HOW CAN THE LAWS BE PHYSICAL OR AT LEAST OUR UNDERSTANDING OF IT.

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This is a psychological question not a philosophical one. So I don't think philosophers can answer any of your questions.

Shaun Williamson


(33) Jules asked:

In natural language the terms 'if...then' are assumed to make a connection between two states of affairs such as:

1: 'If Mary leaves then I will leave'

This is standardly translated into logic where the conditional is false where the antecedent is true and the consequent false.

In all other case the conditional comes out as true. In logic the conditional is defined in terms of its truth function. The truth function of the conditional is the same as the truth function of the disjunction 'Not P or Q'. This translates as

2: 'It is not the case that Mary leaves or I will leave'

However, it seems to me that 2 does not capture everything that 1 has said. In particular there does not seem to be any connection between Mary leaving and my leaving in 2 whereas in 1 there does seem to be such a connection.

Secondly where conditionals are uttered in natural language and they do not have any connection between antecedent and consequent and the antecedent is false we tend to say that the conditional is false. For instance:

3: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction then he hid them up his ass.

Where the antecedent is false and Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction we would not say that the conditional is false. Rather we would say that if he had them then he had them well hidden but not that they were kept up his backside.

So according to the above natural language treats conditionals in a different manner from formal logic and it does not permit of translating the conditional into the disjunction with a negation.

My question is how does formal logic in so far as it is concerned with translating natural language into formal logic deal with these issues? Is there a real issue with the translation of natural language into formal logic? Can the above easily be dealt with by a distinction between semantics and pragmatics (what is asserted and what is conveyed)?

I would be grateful to anyone who could point me in the right direction.

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You are right about this.

Conditionals are not thought to map ordinary language very well. Natural language is a means of communication and it is used in such a way that more information is conveyed than is said. There seems to be a causal connection between the antecedent and the consequent in spoken language which doesn't seem present in the case of disjunction, as you have noticed.

You haven't mentioned H P Grice. He introduced the notion of 'implicature' to mark out ways in which information can be conveyed rather than said. Implicature takes place against the backdrop of conversation.

Grice thought that implicature is something over and above what is said which means that what is strictly said can still function like a logical conditional. You can get his book, Logic and Conversation or look him up on the internet.

The problem with Grice is that implicature takes place in conversation, so we can't say the sentence has implicature, but that it's use in a particular context does. This doesn't seem to be the case with your first Mary example. In any case, if it is sentences which are translated into logic, this doesn't seem right. I suggest you look at Mark Sainsbury's book Logical Forms which has quite a bit on whether 'if, then' is truth-functional and he also discusses implicature and assertability.

Assertibility might explain your Saddam statement, which doesn't look assertible. Your second suggestion is more assertible.

In your Mary statement there was more conveyed than strictly said in terms of logic without need of context, whereas what is wrong with your Saddam statement is a matter of assertibility.

It is mystifying and I don't know the answer. Good luck. Hopefully there will be other answers on this - if not, let me know what you find.

Rachel Browne


(34) Colin asked:

First off, I would just like to point out that I am only 14 and not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just wondering if you think I'm being hypocritical with the following:

I myself am not a vegetarian and quite happily eat meat, but I do think killing animals is wrong. I have tried to justify my thoughts by saying 'Well, if I don't eat this meat then that animal has been killed for no reason.', but in retrospect, if I were given the option to stop the killing of animals and not eat meat again, I wouldn't stop.

Reading this again I am now fairly sure that I'm being hypocritical, so I have answered that question, but is there a way I can justify my thoughts so I'm not being hypocritical? I'm looking forward to your replies.

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Well, I am a vegetarian who has recently started to eat fish as a doctor suggested it necessary for health reasons. But I would be prepared to catch a fish and eat it - should the need arise!

Yes, this seems very hypocritical. All I can say is that most people are hypocritical in some ways. Also, most people who eat meat wouldn't do so if they had to kill the animal themselves, and especially not if they raised the animals themselves. The whole meat industry is filled with deceit and, in the supermarkets, nice packaging.

No-one eats cow, they eat "beef". No-one eats pig, they eat "pork" or "ham". If an animal is small and cute like a lamb, you can call a spade a spade. Although no meat eater thinks of meat as the dead flesh, which it is - even when eating lamb. The label "meat" makes dead flesh into something edible. Don't worry about it. You're just a typical meat eater!

What I wonder is why meat eaters tend to say that the thing they couldn't give up is bacon?

Rachel Browne


(35) Orit asked:

What is Epistemology?

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Epistemology is the branch of Philosophy concerned with examining human knowledge. It raises issues such as: What can human beings know? What is the ontological nature of that which is known? Is that which is known material or immaterial? Is there a difference between Knowledge, Belief and opinion?

Accounts of Epistemology can be found in most general introductions to Philosophy.

Martin Jenkins


(36) Jazmin asked:

What would exist if the world and the entire universe didn't?

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No thing, Nothing would exist in such a scenario. Nor could anything be derived from it - no thing comes from Nothing. Nihil Ex Nihilo. Or is Nothing a something and as such, exists?

Martin Jenkins


(37) Camilo asked:

I am a Colombian Psychiatrist. I want to know the exact translation (in English) of one essential proposition of Edmond Husserl ( "the return to the very things" of eidetic view) and one sentence of Heraclitus (" And the lighting governs everything" fragment 64).

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Take a look at the last set of answers, and at some of my earlier answers on Husserl, for some descriptions of the epoche and the eidetic reduction. As for relating that to Heraclitus, I think that the only way to do that without a great deal of difficulty would be only very vaguely and metaphorically. Given the enormous differences in the meanings of words (e.g., "the very things" in Husserl's German, vs for example "lighting" in Heraclitus' Greek), anything short of an extremely careful and rather long discussion would be fairly useless. I do recommend you go here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/, for an excellent source of accurate translations from the Greek... although I'm afraid they do not translate into Spanish on that site.

Steven Ravett Brown


(38) Kovid asked:

I am Kovid Mehta. There are many religions in this world. If I want to have proper knowledge of Birth and death, Re-incarnation, Re- Birth, purpose of life, sins, what happens after death, what should I do.

I personally believe, if there are no. Of religions, and each religion speak differently, but only one thing is right. If I talk to some Muslim Person, he tries to explain me as if his/her religion is correct.

If I talk to Christian, he explains me as if his religion is correct. If I talk to some Hindu person the same problem. And also I think all religions are not correct. There is one thing right in this world which is applicable to all Human beings, whether Muslim or Hindu or Christian. To get the proper knowledge, what to do. If you can please provide me some detail about all this or some websites, or some books where I can find the right thing.

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I could tell you what I think is true but the next person you speak to will have a different idea. You will have to do some hard work and find out what the truth is yourself. You could start by reading books on the history of philosophy. A useful place to start is to look for books by Bertrand Russell. He wrote useful books about the history of philosophy and philosophical problems which will give you a non religious perspective on truth and knowledge.

Shaun Williamson


(39) Sean asked:

Is philosophy practical or nothing more than a mental exercise?

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This question invites the common criticism of philosophy by non-philosophers, that it is not practical, but is a sort of intellectual game.

In response we might ask ourselves a further question, "Is it of practical benefit to question the grounding of commonly held beliefs, including our own?"

In the process of philosophising we seek to expose contradictory beliefs, fallacies, beliefs that are not well justified, theories that lack coherence, and we question value systems at the root.To give one example: there has been a belief that we should ascribe more or less value to persons on the basis of skin colour. At one time widely held, this belief has been weakened over time and is now regarded as not well justified, with far reaching practical implications. It is obviously not the case that every single person scrutinizes their own belief systems with the rigour of a philosopher, but where reasoned argument takes place over serious issues, then beliefs without strong justification (like the one above) can be examined and rejected. This is a philosophical process.

There are so many historical examples of philosophical thought being the ground of action that it is hard to understand why so many people deride philosophy as practically useless.

William Woolliams


(40) Sean asked,

Is philosophy practical or nothing more than mental exercise?

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Since ancient times philosophy has been involved in a search for the truth. Seeking truth is, in the main, an involvement in mental exercise. However, 'mental exercise' is perhaps a misleading terminology, giving the impression that philosophers are engaged in some sort of meaningless pastime. Perhaps it would be better to claim that philosophers are engaged in 'mental activity'. What is meant by 'mental activity'? Well, perhaps we could refer to it as 'reasoning', or manipulating information. Problems arise when we try to determine from whence the information is derived. Probably, most philosophers believe that all information is presented to us by way of the five senses, such philosophers are called 'empiricists'. Others are convinced that information can be obtained simply by thinking, they believe that we possess what are called 'innate ideas'. These are ideas that we are in some cases born with, but which may also have been presented to us in a way not yet understood. These philosophers are called 'rationalists'.

However, as we know, mental activity is a feature of every concern of the human race, from philosophers to the most mundane of interests, without it the species known as Man would completely lose its status in the world. To suggest that the mental activity of philosophers is somehow redundant and meaningless, with no practical value, is rather absurd. Philosophy, apart from offering something to the world in its own right, has stimulated the thoughts of scientists, artists, religious thinkers, politicians and, no doubt, many others throughout the ages. It could be said that philosophy is involved in the whole range of human interests from material concerns through to education, religion and moral understanding. Even the abstract realities of mathematics and music fall within the scope of philosophical investigation. As I said at the beginning, philosophy is involved in the never ending search for truth, mental games are not within its remit.

John Brandon


(41) Henry asked:

What is insight in general?

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Insight is generally understood to be the ability to discern things, to be aware within oneself of a deeper understanding of an object or situation. It raises the philosophical question of how deep we can go in our understanding of anything. There is a possibility that it could be linked to the idea of our possessing innate knowledge. Kant is one of the philosophers who submits to the notion that we are somehow possessed of a priori knowledge, that is, knowledge not obtained directly through the five senses. The more orthodox claim is that our contact with 'reality' is by way of the senses, hence all our knowledge is obtained in this way. Having obtained knowledge by way of the senses the 'mind' then works upon the raw data in a process which we refer to as 'reasoning'. This, of course, offers an alternative to the notion of insight being an innate addition to our knowledge; the possibility arises that insight is nothing more than residual memory established from constant exposure to recurring sense data.

Memory is a highly complex feature of the mind, involving what psychologists refer to as the 'subconscious'. The claim by psychologists and psychiatrists that residual memories hidden away in the subconscious can have great, sometimes devastating, influences on our lives when they inadvertently return to consciousness. It is, in fact, claimed that many of the memories held in the subconscious have entered that domain by completely by-passing conscious awareness.

The answer to your question is then not specific; from the point of view I have expressed, you are left with a choice of insight derived from an innate or a priori knowledge base, or deep residual memories obtained from experience and daily exposure to sense data, much of which may pass into memory without ever stirring conscious awareness. Of course, others may offer a very different opinion.

John Brandon