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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.wordpress.com
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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 15 (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 15/1.

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) Juanita asked:

What are the contrasts for the movie the Matrix and Plato's allegory of the Cave?

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

Both the cave and the matrix represent a world that isn't "real" although its inhabitants think that it is. To Plato, the cave is the physical world which we inhabit. He did not think we could have knowledge of the physical world — only opinions and beliefs about it. To get to knowledge requires us to have our rational souls oriented correctly toward the good (through living the good life — one of contemplation, put very briefly), which enlightens us and enables us to remember the truths that we forgot at birth (Plato thought souls are immortal, eternal and imperishable). The images that people ('the slaves') see on the walls of the cave are mere shadows of objects which are themselves imperfect copies of perfect forms found in the spiritual realm. Yet when the slaves are given the opportunity to break free from the cave and learn about the "real" world, they choose not to — they prefer their familiar ignorance. This is where the plot-line of "the matrix" comes into it. The people in the pods have an artificial reality which makes them happy and with which they feel familiar. when given the opportunity to discover the 'truth' about the matrix only the strongest ones choose to. in much the same way, Plato believed that only certain people could cope with the blinding light of the forms — philosophers. at least part of this answer is correct — very interesting question!

Lyn Renwood


(2) Roy asked:

Where can I find a rational number that terminates with the largest amount of numbers after the decimal point?

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

I'm having a hard time with this one... first, "where" you can find a number isn't a question that can be answered, since numbers are abstractions, and don't exist in the normal world of space-time to which we apply the "where" question. If they exist at all, in any reasonable sense. I'm not a Platonist, so I have problems with the ontology of numbers. But aside from that question, which gets truly nasty, having been debated for 2500 years or so, I will assume that you might be asking something like, "what is the rational number which is the longest?" Well. As it happens, there are an infinite number of rational numbers, which when expressed as decimals, are equally, infinitely, long. Their length is an order of infinity called "aleph-null", which is the smallest infinity, and is countable. All countable infinite numbers are equally long, and all are length aleph-null. Thus, 1/3, expressed as .333... is the same length, expressed as decimals, as 2/3: .666... , as 1/11: .090909..., as... and so forth. All have an infinite number of digits, and all have aleph-null digits. If you are really interested, you might read:

Cantor, G. 1915. Contributions to the founding of the theory of transfinite numbers. Translated by P. E. B. Jourdain. New York, NY: Dover Publications.

Steven Ravett Brown


(3) Paul asked:

Does Gender affect how we see optical illusions?

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

An interesting question. I'm not aware of any such affect, but there might be some optical illusions involving color which could be affected by gender, since a) many more men are color-blind than women, and b) there are more women who see more than the normal spectrum than men. That is, a few people, mostly women as I recall, have one (I think only one) extra color pigment in their retinas which enables them to see many more hues of color, i.e., many more subcategories of colors, if you want to put it that way, than normal people see. There are some birds, mostly parrots, which also have more color receptors than we do, and so see more colors. In addition, there is a phenomenon known as synesthesia in which numbers (or sounds, or smells), for example, are literally seen as colored, and I think, but I'm not sure, that this is more prevalent in men. There may be illusions (and of course you could claim that synesthesia itself is a class of illusion) stemming from this... but I don't know any offhand except an impaired performance of synesthetes on a test known as the Stroop Test, which involves differentiating words on the basis of their color vs. their meaning (which may or may not be of the same color, e.g., the word "two" on this test might be colored either red or blue, and a synesthete will clearly do better if it has the color they see the number two having, whereas a normal person will not differentiate on this basis).

Steven Ravett Brown


(4) Dennis asked:

'This is a question put by one of my students. Plato did not list negatives like death, disease or evil among his forms. But what about nothingness? Is there a form for that, given we never actually observe nothingness, yet still have a conception of it? If there is not a form for nothingness, how would Plato say we could conceive of it? The same could be said for absolute evil.'

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

To which Steven Ravett Brown replied (14/16):

'Well, the same could be said for anything, once you start that game, including death, disease, or torture, if it comes to that. It's almost an interesting question, I guess, what precisely the Forms were.'

What SRB's gotten hold of here is the infamous question of whether there are forms for 'mud' and 'worthless things', touched on in the Parmenides, where a 'young Socrates' proves himself fairly useless at understanding a theory more subtly developed elsewhere. The answer to the 'and mud too?' question is 'no', but not because mud is 'worthless' but rather because it is a perceptual rather than an intellectual object (because of flux Plato doesn't think that there are correctness criteria for the attribution of perceptual objects, so he's hardly likely to invoke forms to support those non-existent criteria). There doesn't have to be a form for 'everything' because the forms are not invoked as the meanings for all and any kind words (the semantic conception of forms which one or two commentators have been lead astray by), but rather as those intellectual objects without which thought would be altogether impossible — a clarification Plato puts into Parmenides' mouth in the dialogue of that name.

SRB also says:

'I'm not a Platonist, or indeed even much of an essentialist, so I'm not really too interested in working out the implications of his ideas, especially when it's actually rather easy to parse through the various Dialogues, etc., and find inconsistencies, bad logic, etc.'

Perhaps he needs a reminder that these are dramas, and not treatises. Whether Plato, the author of the dialogue, thinks something that contains inconsistencies, bad logic, etc, is an entirely different matter from whether this or that character in the drama is a bit short upstairs, or a bit short with interlocutors. Plato makes us have to think about what it is he intends. You need a certain kind of temperament to get it, as it were, with a philosophical drama: it's not like opening your brain and letting some treatise in, and not like hearing someone give a philosophical paper (I guess it's a bit like trying to follow the twists and turns in the post-paper discussion: a curiously different activity). As noted above, it is of some dramatic importance that the Socrates of the Parmenides is characterised as a young tyke. He might thereby stand for all those animated students who've half-understood some theory and want to share their insight, who find themselves stumbling over the finer points (and in his case over some of the simpler points). He could stand for any young academician with a half-baked grasp on the theory of forms. As far as I can see from my reading of the late dialogues, this tyke even manages to get wrong something as fundamental as Plato's primary motivation for the theory of forms (it is certainly not to explain resemblances qua resemblances — this misinterpretation leads to the 'third man argument' — it is rather to explain how particularity and meaning is possible when sense experience is of flux). He makes plenty of other mistakes in his retelling of a theory developed in dialogue after dialogue. I guess one strategy for reading the dialogues might be: find a character called 'Socrates', he's Plato's authorial voice, attribute whatever he says and whatever mistakes he makes to Plato. Kinda OK, up to a point, as a strategy in one or two dialogues, but as a general rule, as fine a set of blinkers as can possibly be engineered.

Oh, and by the way, an 'essentialist' (referred to by SRB) is someone who thinks that if you take something like a boat some of it's qualities are accidental, not essential to it's being the thing it is, while some of it;s qualities are essential to it's being the particular thing it is. Ie essentialism is the view that there are essential qualities. Plato couldn't have been further from such a view. He thought that particular objects just were the collection of judgements ('opinions') expressed 'about' them (ie he thought that there was no genuine reference in the case of particulars, but only in the case of forms). This view has something in common with Russell's Descriptivism, the view that a particular stood for a totality of descriptions. Famously the argument about whether Caesar could have not crossed the Rubicorn and still been what we mean by 'caesar' is between essentialists on the one hand (ie 'yes he could') and Leibniz and Russell and the descriptivists on the other (ie 'no he couldn't') (though Russell changed his view about this, as about everything). Plato on this, by my reading of the theaetetus (the passages surrounding 'the mind by itself'), is a variety of descriptivist, the antithesis of an essentialist. I mention this only because SRB might have given the impression that a Platonist is a variety of essentialist ("I'm not a Platonist, or indeed even much of an essentialist"). He isn't.

David Robjant


(5) Prem asked:

My question fundamentally reposes on metaphysics. Our mental events give birth to the firing of neurones which results in physical events such as my thinking to commence a walk for the city hall and firing my neurones to move my legs. This is what I have conceived hitherto. My quest is: Does any a physical event has to occur to assure the firing of neurones? As when we are lying on the bed and thinking, just thinking. When we sleep is our mind thinking?

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

There is good evidence that even when we are just thinking neurones are firing in our brains. Even when we are dreaming there is evidence that neurones are firing which reflect the content of our dreams. So that if we dream we are walking somewhere slight contractions of our leg muscles take place and can be measured. However your question is not a metaphysical one and I think your initial statement that our mental events give birth to the firing of neurones is wrong . The connection between mental and physical events is complicated and the cause of much philosophical confusion. So that for example it is correct to say that you think but not to say that your brain thinks or your mind thinks.

Shaun Williamson


(6) Jean asked:

What is reality??

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

The problem is that if you know what the word reality means (and you must know this in order to ask the question) then you already know what what reality is. It is rather like asking 'Who am I' when you are not suffering from amnesia. If you were French and didn't know the meaning of the English word 'reality' then I could answer your question but at present I don't understand what you are puzzled about.

Shaun Williamson


(7) Eric asked

What's wrong with lying from a virtue ethical standpoint?

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

Humans value truth and honesty more highly than lies and deception. Just as we don't want people to steal from us so we don't want people to deceive us. But having said that there are both harmful and harmless lies. In social situations we don't always tell the truth because we don't want to hurt other people's feelings. But in general it makes no sense to ask why people value truth more than they value lies. It is just a fact of how humans are. Even the habitual liar doesn't want other people to deceive him.

Shaun Williamson


(8) Marg asked:

i wish to ask what our society would look like if Kant's philosophy was still in vogue? Also what would it look like if Nietzsche's philosophy were in vogue?

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

It would look just the same. Very few people have any knowledge of philosophy and this has always been true. But even those who believe in a philosophy do not let this effect their real lives. So I know philosophers who claim that we have no free will and everything we do is determined in advance but in their ordinary lives they do not consistently follow these beliefs.Philosophers are prepared to believe all sorts of strange things about the world but also find it easy to ignore the consequences of their beliefs.

Shaun Williamson


(9) Tasha asked:

What is the task of philosophers?

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

Different philosophers will have very different ideas about this. I would say that the task of the philosopher is to help other people to set themselves free from philosophy by helping them to see that philosophical problems are not real problems. However I doubt if many other philosophers would agree with me.

Shaun Williamson


(10) Mel asked:

Predictability is is knowing what is going to happen before it actually does, be it through experience, knowledge or experimentation. If this is true then surely there is no such thing as free will ?

Everyone knows the sure certs like "i will die someday" or "if I jump out of a plane I will fall to the ground as long as the earth has gravity" these are however broad complex processes all grouped into one prediction which is based on experimentation, experience, and passed on knowledge.

To understand my way of thinking , you have to start at the lowest possible predictable denomination I will use the atom for now although these are undoubtedly made up of smaller things like quarks and strings or something of which I am not knowledgeable.

When single atoms interact or react for example there is a computer which picks up the result and can then determine the outcome the next time, assuming the conditions are exactly the same. Now when a group of atoms react with another group of atoms them again if pre testing has taken place the the outcome is again predictable. Now it wont take very long before the computer is no longer powerful enough to cope with measuring and predicting how millions of atoms will react with each other although the theory is still there. It can be predicted!. Now say you had a computer with capabilities beyond your wildest imagination that could determine the outcome of all interactions and reactions of every atom on the planet. Then surely everything is predictable does this mean we have no free will, every thought we have and react upon is conditioned by a previous experience. As the powerful computer will predict what atoms are going to work next in my brain cells it will be able to predict when I will finish typing

Have I missed anything?

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

Answer: Yes you have missed something. You do not seem to see the deeply puzzling and paradoxical nature of the problem. Suppose you have a maths test next week then you might think that you may have more chance of obtaining a high mark if you do some revision now. But if you believe in determinism then you know that it has already been decided if you will get a pass or fail mark for the test and there is nothing you can do to change that. So you may just as well sit down in front of the television and wait and see if you are in some way compelled to revise for the test since this has also been decided already. If A murders B then as a determinist I have no right to condemn A or punish him for his actions because they are not within his control. Whether you believe in free will or determinism has also been decided in advance and your thinking about it or asking this question cannot change that. So thinking about anything is pointless since our conclusions have already been decided in advance. I have not chosen to answer your question since I could not have done otherwise because all my actions are also determined in advance. I meet determinists all the time but they still encourage their children to do well at school. This of course is pointless and inconsistent since it has already been determined in advance if their child will do well at school. We generally have the idea that to some extent we decide what we are going to do. Certainly I know that there are physical limitations to my actions. If I jump up in the air then I cannot prevent myself from falling to the ground. However if I raise my arm in the air as I do many times every day in order to reach for things then this is very different from my arm going up in the air by itself although to an outside observer there may be no apparent difference. If I am on an aeroplane then I may have no control over where the plane goes. However if I am the pilot then I do feel that I am controlling where the plane goes. None of the above is meant to be an answer to the free will vs determinism debate since this is a very complex problem but I hope it will help you to see that it is a real and deeply puzzling problem and that there are no simple answers to it.

Shaun Williamson


(11) Antonio asked:

First, I'm sorry for my poor English, since it's not my native language.

After reading Berkeley (Treatise) and Wittgenstein (Philosophischen Untersuchungen) I still have a doubt concerning abstract concepts. I can't see any meaning in concepts like "beauty", "justice", "good" or "The absolute". I can use those words in expressions like "this is a beautiful sunset", or "killing is bad". But "good" in itself, or "beauty" are concepts that doesn't seem to me having any possible definition.

But I imagine that if Socrates or Plato read this, they would smile and say: how can you discern that an action is good if you don't have the understanding of the meaning of "the good"?

So, how do you think this problem (if there is one) can be resolved?

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

It is possible to know something e.g. how a clarinet sounds but not be able to put it into words. To know what a word means is to be able to use that word in the way that all speakers of the language use it. It does not mean that you must be able to provide a neat definition of a word and this applies particularly to abstract concepts. Nor does it mean that you must FEEL that the word has meaning when you use it. One of the things Wittgenstein points out is that philosophers are prone to superstitious beliefs about how language works. So they may think of words as names. So just as the word chair is the name of a physical object a word like goodness names an abstract object "the good". Suppose some tells us that he knows what the word good really means because he apprehends the true nature of "the good". This is just so much philosophical nonsense. What really shows that someone understands the word good is whether they can use the word correctly and this is the only test of understanding. Someone who claims to apprehend the true nature of "the good" but then cannot use the word correctly i.e according to the rules of English does not understand the word good. So when you say you can't see any meaning in words like beauty then this is merely the expression of a philosophical anxiety. Suppose one day I wake up and feel that the word green has lost its meaning. I still know how to use the word but every time I utter it I feel somehow that it is empty. I might be tempted to say that I still know how to use the word green correctly but somehow I have lost the concept of greenness. Philosophy tempts us to speak in this strange way. When you hear other people using words like 'good' and 'beauty' do you worry if they 'really' understand what these words mean or do you just ignore this and listen to what they are saying.

Shaun Williamson


(12) Nikki asked:

'Does goodness require the strength to be bad?'

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

To which Shaun Williamson replied (13/23):

'Goodness requires a lot more strength than that. The idea that goodness is weak and badness is strong is the exact opposite of the truth. Don't confuse goodness with niceness.'

To which Megan Fox answered (14/15):

'Goodness is not a concept that can exist solely. Imagine, if you can, that you have lived so long in a state of happiness that you've completely forgotten the concept of unhappiness. In this state, how can you continue to define your current state as happiness — what is happiness, then? Without unhappiness or "bad feeling" to contrast against, how exactly does one explain what happiness is?

In this way, happiness can become neutrality and simply status-quo — and when this happens, what we originally thought of as happiness might become limiting, old-hat, and simply undesired. So in this way, we eventually cease to desire happiness when in a state of constant happiness.

Now let's say that goodness is applied happiness — that is, the application or gift of happiness to others is how we define goodness. This concept likewise evaporates, eventually, without an equivalent concept of badness to act as a contrast.

So — a person must have a concept of badness to experience or be capable of goodness. However, this does not require that the person actually have the capacity for badness; Conceivably, you could have two separate groups, one good and one bad, each with an understanding of what the other group does without being capable of it themselves.

In this way, goodness would not require the strength to be bad — it only requires that badness exist in some understandable and visible form.'

Hm.

The following is intended to provoke, rather than a finished statement of my view. I think that what Megan says here is inaccurate and incomplete in one important respect. Whether she needs to insist on 'visible' as well 'understandable' is one interesting hare for pursuit, but there is a more important difficulty with what she says. What Megan has established here is that in order for our word 'good' to have meaning and use 'requires that badness exist in some understandable... form.' What she has most definitely not established is that what the word 'good' accurately describes ' requires that badness exist in some understandable... form'.

In a world where there was no bad, moral vocabulary would be altogether redundant. But the death of part of our language is not automatically the death of an area of our experience, unless you surreptiously import a number of highly questionable philosophical theses.

There are lots of things I experience for which I have no words. So that the 'concept' of goodness should evaporate is not the same thing as that goodness should evaporate. Unless you are an emotivist. The view that the concept and thing itself are one and the same thing here may have something to do with emotivism (the belief that 'good' means only 'I like it'). If emotivism were true, it would be true that there was nothing, no reality or object of experience referred to by 'Good', but that the use of the word and concept 'Good' was all there was to it. Good is just about emoting, and no bad entails no emoting entails no good — so the argument goes. Emotivism isn't true, however (I say, for a whole bunch of Platonist reasons I won't go into here: what's important is that MF's thesis might depend on agreeing with emotivism or some akin philosophical thesis about the meaning of 'Good'). So I say: 'Good' is a word we use to describe something that exists. In which case taking away the contrast which gives meaning to the word wouldn't take away the thing the word refers to, it would only take away the word. Which we wouldn't have any need of anyway.

No you will all pile in and say 'what craziness is this?'. Well, what craziness is it?

David Robjant


(13) Ifeyinwa asked:

We live in an age in which we are threatened by terrorists. Suppose for a moment that we could rid the world of all terrorism on the condition that one person be condemned to suffer a slow and painful torture for the rest of his life. Clearly the majority of people in the world would be safer and happier. It seems, then, on utilitarian grounds that we should, if we want to be ethical, allow the person to be tortured. Given this supposition, would you elect to accept the have the terrorism-free world with the tortured man? Why? Why not?

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

No I wouldn't accept this because it would be immoral. You cannot produce good by doing evil. There are various interpretations of Utilitarianism. The one you have outlined is one of the most common. But the examples used including the one you have outlined are in a sense phoney because they are loaded. Consider a different example. Suppose we could save the lives of two people by killing one man. Should we do it? According to the version of Utilitarianism you have described we should, since the lives of two people are worth more than the life of one person. One dead healthy person = two kidney transplants, one liver transplant, two cornea transplants one pancreatic transplant, one heart and lung transplant etc. etc. So we could make a lot of people happy by killing you. All this shows is that you cannot apply crude mathematics to morality.

Shaun Williamson


(14) Samantha asked:

"Post Big Bang" The thought that the universe is extended and there are edges in which we may go to, and as long as the stars continue to extend, we can see the birth of the universe, and see everything happens. Lincoln's death, Kennedy's speech, everything. Could that thought be true, could that honestly happen. Is there another universe like that, like ours? Do we constantly transfer ourselves to different universes and not know, mainly because of the blink of our eye? Could every blink transfer us to a different universe?

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

Well I think the answer to most of these things is no. You cannot go backwards or forwards in time. The barriers to this are not physical they are logical. You can see many things that happened in the past because they have been recorded on film or on photographs i.e the execution of the Lincoln assassins etc. The idea of alternative worlds is a difficult technical idea which has uses in logic and physics. It has also inspired science fiction writers. But we should not confuse fairly tales with reality. However fairy tales (which includes science fiction) are important.

Shaun Williamson


(15) Sabab asked:

If the world will end, where will the people go? can anyone or anything survive?

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

If by the world you mean planet earth then some humans could survive by going to another planet. In a few billion years the Sun will start to expand and the earth will become uninhabitable. We could get an extra 250 million years by migrating to Mars. But obviously it is unlikely that we will be unable to save all the 6 billion people on the earth. If the universe ends as physics tells us it will, many billions of years into the future, then humans will not survive. So lets make the best of the time we have.

Shaun Williamson


(16) Dejuan asked:

What is the kinetic energy of a 136 Pound cyclist if she is moving on her bike at 8m/s?

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

This is a mathematics question, not a philosophical one. Philosophers are very busy thinking about the meaning of life etc. and don't have time to answer maths questions. Don't be so lazy. look up the equation for kinetic energy by doing as Internet search and answer the question yourself.

Shaun Williamson


(17) Shahjan asked:

What action will a teacher take if a students steals from other student?

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

This is a difficult question. The first thing is to talk to the student and try to find out why they are stealing. But also you should insist that they make some sort of restitution if possible (make them return what they have stolen). People steal for many different reasons. It has been claimed that really they are stealing love which they feel has been denied to them in their life. But you also have to recognise that you cannot rescue everyone and it is also important to protect the other students who are the victims of this criminal activity. You will have to decide what is important and what is possible in each individual case.

Shaun Williamson


(18) Nita asked:

Religious said god is everywhere? where? peoples are praying why god not listing?

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

George Bush is praying that Islamic terrorists will be defeated. The Islamic terrorists are praying that America will be defeated. Other people are praying that they will win the lottery etc. etc How is God to satisfy all these people? Not so easy is it, even for God? I'm glad I'm not God.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Prem asked:

My question virtually rests on ethical dilemma. I adore a girl and she does me too. I am clear that my parents would not allow to marry her. so then I must manage myself to take care of her.If I apply utilitarianism then there will be one problem i.e. there will be injustice to her. If I apply rule consequentialism I myself would drown in the midst of perplexing state.Which theory of conduct should this man apply on earth so that the two creatures can (she and me) best handle the situation.

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

The idea that you can even think about which moral theory to apply in this case makes me think that you don't really love this girl. If all you are concerned with is what is the right thing to do and what is the best theory of conduct to apply then don't marry this girl. You will only make her unhappy.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Eve asked:

Who said that there is not such thing as original thought!

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

I don't know but if he was right then he must have stolen the idea from someone else.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Gil asked:

What does a philosopher do? How does one qualify to be known as a Philosopher?

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

Go to university and get a degree in philosophy. This won't necessarily make you a good philosopher but you will have the right to claim that you are a philosopher.

Shaun Williamson


(22) Kathy asked:

Why are a majority of the questions/answers here Western Philosophy centered? When you recommend someone to learn philosophy, you usually tell him/her to read a work from a Western Philosopher...NOT an Eastern philosopher. Is this ethnocentric? Thanks.

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

Well the Chinese invented gunpowder. The Arabs invented the modern numeric system. The Greeks invented axiomatic geometry and philosophy and that is how things are. Who are these Eastern philosophers? There are eastern moralists (and they are important) but there are no eastern equivalents of Plato, Socrates or Aristotle, no Eastern equivalents of Descartes, Kant, Godel or Wittgenstein. That is something you will have to learn to live with.

Shaun Williamson


(23) Jr Urgent asked:

This is an attempt to psychologically evaluate a patient.could there be a rare form of human genius, the rarest, with no more than 5 or 6 alive at any one time, who cannot be evaluated until after their deaths, and even than, just debated, who live half as long as normal adults, they cannot be rationally or objectively identified psychologically or intellectually, except in in literature or research suggesting pagan idolatry or religious iconitry, and are considered by ethicists, angels, if they existed, and all references to them have been removed from the data base and professional literature, because they are considered destiny, future, hope, and suggestions of god. and the govt. categorizes this genius as national trust property and monitors it by computer programs filtering print and transmission airwaves and limited surveillance. are there angels?

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

No, no, no. This just sounds like demented rubbish. The idea that the government are monitoring anything by computer programs is so far away from the truth. The government can't even keep track of our tax returns using computers. Most geniuses live to a very old age so the idea that their lifespan could be half that of ordinary people is rubbish. Please think again.

Shaun Williamson


(24) Jr Urgent asked:

if you don't answer, i'll know the answer, and if you do, I still might not know.

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

So you ask a question but you have already made up your own mind about what the answer must be. And you don't really know what the answer is.

Shaun Williamson


(25) Arra asked:

Would it be reasonable to consider homosexuality as a violation on our human identity?

============ No. If if it is reasonable then you will have to say what your reasons are and you don't give any reasons.

Shaun Williamson


(26) Kyle asked:

I know that getting a tattoo is considered a sin cause you are suppose to treat your body as a temple, but what about getting a tattoo of a cross?

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

Who said getting a tattoo is a sin? There is nothing in the Bible about tattoos.

Shaun Williamson


(27) Sarah asked:

What does a philosopher seek

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

Complete clarity, consistency and understanding about how things are.

Shaun Williamson


(28) Dana asked:

are there any PhD distance learning programs in philosophy?

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

Well yes in the U.K. at least. There is the Open university and I think London University also offers external PhD's. But before you can undertake one of these courses you will usually be expected to have a degree in philosophy and maybe an M.A. degree also.

Shaun Williamson


(29) Geoffrey asked:

'Will the quality of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher improve?'

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

To which Rob de Villiers answered (14/32):

'Yes, if and when we realise the utter stupidity of having philosophy as a high school "subject" and drop it from the school curriculum. In fact the quality of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher is the complete and living proof (if such were ever needed) of the complete non-sense of wasting school time and taxpayers money on this subject. And the fact that so many of these fatuous questions are so evidently school homework gives cause for the utmost concern. It is a total lie that philosophy "teaches" rational and critical thinking and if such allegedly desirable things cannot be taught in the normal course of studying our language and its literature, history, geography, sciences, mathematics, etc., then there is not a snowball's chance in hell of teaching such things buy wasting high-school time on philosophy, time that would far better be spent on thorough and proper study of the aforementioned. There is no royal road to rationality and wisdom and high-school philosophy is most certainly not it.'

A word in favour of the teaching of philosophy. I'll agree that there is no royal road to rationality and wisdom, and that given this thing doesn't exist, it follows (as hangover follows binge) that it doesn't exist as a philosophy course in school. But in his paragraph against the daft questions of high school philosophers I think Rob radically underestimates the degree to which teaching 'our language and its literature, history, geography, sciences, mathematics, etc' leads to a vast quantity of daft questions in all of those other disciplines too.

Some disciplines are worse than others for this. I'd agree that, however daft a question is in Mathematics, it is imperative that we give people an ability to tackle it. Likewise a good case might be made for the teaching of english grammar, and for the posing and answering of daft questions in foreign languages. But then we come to geography (which is nowadays taught as social science: is there really such a thing?), to history (which ought to open peoples minds to the dangerous argument techniques of politicians and economists, but in practice mainly serves to equip pupils as competently dangerous politicians and economists), and to english literature (which equips people to answer a peculiar variety of questions about the forms and techniques of their reading matter which it is not particularly profitable to have unless you plan to be a literary critic, equips people with a modest array of verbiage on theory with which to baffle themselves and each other at dinner parties, and which manages, in the process, to put vast numbers of less malleable people off poetry and deep reading and reflection for the rest of their lives), well, I'm less than certain that any of these things does any positive good. So, now we've pared back school education to the essentials which can be definitely shown to produce some benefits in exchange for the taxes spent on them over and above keeping children off the streets (IE, reading, writing, arithmetic), might not a case be made for a fourth 'R', namely 'Reasoning'?

Knowing the difference between a valid and a sound argument would help our citizens and decision makers, I submit. Knowing the difference between rejecting and refuting would help improve reporting amongst BBC journalists.

The middle path Rob thinks of as a way of avoiding corrupting the youth with philosophy is in fact no such thing: it is merely a way of biasing the forms of philosophy by which our youth are corrupted towards those popular with and incompletely presented by academics within English and History. And if we really want to allow the teaching of History (for what purpose I don't dare imagine), hadn't we better admit that most of it is fairly unintelligible unless we can understand and properly evaluate the philosophies which animated it's actors and criminals? And that means knowing, in detail, the thoughts of more philosophers than just Marx and Locke, because otherwise we'll just be left with a lot of unreflective half-baked marxists and Lockeans and nationalists coming out of the school gates. And not just school gates neither. In fact, if 'half-baked' is what we want to avoid, then in general the thing to teach is either: (a) nothing at all, or (b) everything including the history of western philosophy. The case I make is that so far from it being Philosophy which is the danger to our youth, it is only on the basis that Philosophy is the lead humanities/arts subject that it can be safe to teach Literature and History in schools and universities. That's to say nothing, by the way, of Religion.

David Robjant


(30) Dana asked:

Are there any PhD distance learning programs in philosophy?

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

You might look up the University of Phoenix. I believe that has at least Masters level programs, and might have a PhD. There are very few distance PhD programs in purely academic fields like philosophy. But I would not recommend getting a PhD in philosophy through a distance program. You will be at a grave disadvantage in applying for jobs in academia, which is about the only reason to get a PhD in that field. Departments will not consider that you have done as much or as thorough work as in a residential PhD program, and by and large they will be correct.

Steven Ravett Brown


(31) Dana asked:

Are there any PhD distance learning programs in philosophy?

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

Yes. EG at my institution: http://www.lamp.ac.uk/philosophy/phd.html#phd Here 'distance learning' is called 'external'.

David Robjant


(32) Idika asked:

What is the existential import of reincarnation?

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

Well if you reincarnate, it has huge implications on your moral responsibilities in you current life. Death not having a concrete meaning is crucial to existentialism, as well as knowing that life itself has no meaning, other the one that we can build for ourselves. If you know you are not dying forever, you might see yourself as not obliged to have moral responsibilities. You could always reincarnate, again and again.

Nuno Hipolito


(33) Kathy asked:

Why are a majority of the questions/answers here Western Philosophy centered? When you recommend someone to learn philosophy, you usually tell him/her to read a work from a Western Philosopher...NOT an Eastern philosopher. Is this ethnocentric? Thanks.

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

Philosophy grew up as a system in Greece. It was here on planet Earth before, I grant you that. You should also know that in Asia, for instance, philosophy is more about relating to life itself than being a science per se. So when you learn philosophy, you need a manual of sorts, and no Asian manuals exist, all but few eastern philosophies are organized in a system so that they can be studied as such.

Nuno Hipolito


(34) Arra asked:

Would it be reasonable to consider homosexuality as a violation on our human identity?

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

What is human identity? Is it being heterosexual so you can procreate? Or is it more than that, is it being a biological entity that has the power to grasp the world around him and do beautiful things like art and love?

Nuno Hipolito


(35) Recelle asked:

Is there such thing as destiny?

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

Take a look at this link:

http://www.wolframscience.com. In is book A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram states that all is based in simple rules, that can be interpreted by a computer. He considers that all complex things have a simple beginning. In theory we could predict all events that will happen in the future, if we develop the tools to understand the simple rules that originate them.

Nuno Hipolito


(36) Kuzek asked:

in math, all theorem that we learn is axiom (assume truth) . but why math is the only area that is absolute truth?

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

1+1=2 right? What if 1=infinite? Then 1+1=infinite. What is the difference between the first 1+1 and second 1+1, other than our definition of 1? This is a simple philosophy/linguist problem that in a sense shows that no human science has absolute truths.

Nuno Hipolito


(37) Key asked:

I want to know if you think there are any problems with the empiricist's point of view because personally I don't really see a problem, apart from knowing that our senses sometimes deceive us. Do you know of any other problems??

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

As you are probably aware, empiricists assert that all our knowledge comes to us by way of our senses. We are able to cogitate on the sensa presented to us and thus build up our knowledge of the world. From this knowledge we form concepts, and even establish predictions regarding future events. Our observations support scientific research and advances in technology. The more we place our faith in the sensa available to us, the more we become convinced in the reality of materialism. Empiricism and materialism go hand in hand. Most thinkers outside philosophy, religion and mysticism are materialists, although there are those within some philosophical schools of thought who are sympathetic to the materialist viewpoint. However, we should not overlook the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley who, though not a materialist, still believed that knowledge came to us through the senses. His philosophy bears the cumbersome title of 'Empirical Idealism'. Berkeley's world is a world of 'mind' as opposed to 'matter', it is a world constructed by perception, constant perception maintains the existence of things in the world. Everything undergoes constant perception, for when we are not perceiving things God is.

As you say, our senses sometimes deceive us but, as most empiricists might claim, this is easily rectified by hindsight, in other words, our knowledge is such that we are able to correct mistaken observations. Unfortunately awareness of mistakes often comes too late to avoid disaster.

A major challenge to empiricists comes from rationalists, who claim that at least some of our knowledge is 'innate'; to put it crudely, we are born with it. Rationalists often refer to a priori knowledge, in other words, knowledge derived prior to experience, as opposed to a posteriori knowledge derived from experience.

The major problem for empiricists is to prove that the sensa we receive is a true representation of 'reality'. As we are totally confined to a world of sense data, our knowledge rests within the interpretation of the received data, we have no access to the world beyond our senses. As Kant pointed out, our world is a world of representation, a 'phenomenal world', the real or 'noumenal' world is inaccessible to us. This major problem for empiricists means that the 'common sense' strength of their argument is seriously undermined, exposing them to the arguments of rationalists and idealists. Even what appears to be the simple observation of 'matter' itself by way of sense data is, in fact, not simple at all, we have to rely on scientifically constructed concepts to make sense of it, most of the stuff we refer to has never come within reach of human senses!!

John Brandon


(38) Kuzek asked:

In math, all theorem that we learn is axiom (assume truth) . but why math is the only area that is absolute truth?

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

You're making a lot of assumptions here yourself. Anyone can set up a logical or mathematical system by starting with a few axioms, work out their implications, and have a nice little set of statements, all provable given that one assumes the axioms hold. But those axioms, and the resulting statements, do not have to relate to reality in any way. A mathematical system is just a game, played by rules you set up arbitrarily. Or it can be. Yes of course there are lots of people who would like their particular system to show deep truths, and think that their axioms are clearly and intuitively and absolutely true. But how do you show that the axioms of a system are true? Well, you can't do it by assuming they're true, can you. So you can't do it within the system. That means you have to go outside the system to show that its axioms are true. And that opens questions, suddenly, which have been debated for literally thousands of years, about truth, knowledge, and on and on. There are whole systems of mathematics which started as games, like some branches of topology, which no one still knows whether they will be applicable to anything or not, and the people playing those games don't really care (as long as their universities keep paying them, anyway).

Now, there are people who think that mathematics contains or describes absolute truths, and that numbers, for example, are real entities. Or that arithmetic, say, describes something fundamental about the world: that there are discrete objects which can be piled up, for example. And there are other people who think that all mathematical truths are based on, abstracted from, the way human beings perceive and operate in the world. But both of these viewpoints still require some sort of verification. Most people just go on without paying too much attention to these issues, as long as the mathematics works well enough that the bridge stays up in a high wind, or the rocket ship or reactor keeps running.

Steven Ravett Brown


(39) Christina asked:

Last year I had a nervous breakdown and I was diagnosed with major depression after the loss of a child. I'm not quite sure when I began to lose sight of reality, but during the negative experience I enrolled and withdrew erratically and brought my GPA down from a 3.6 to a .99 over the past year. I have always aspired to be a scholar. I feel I have just ruined my life. I have an idea that I could get away with not including the transcript when applying to other graduate programs. I know this is wrong. Yet, I don't know what else to do to gain my peace and happiness again. Please, if you have any advice, I would greatly appreciate it. School has been my life. I am so sad now. I wanted to get a ph.d. but this loss of personal control over my life has nearly ruined me. I feel so guilty for even thinking that omitting a transcript record is an option. I know I can get away with it, but part of being a scholar is having integrity. I hope you can help.

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

Christina you have obviously been through a very difficult time and you have my sympathy. But there is no reason why you should let this ruin your life. Integrity as a scholar means integrity with regard to your studies. It does not mean that you have to reveal all of your past life to others. If you do enroll on a postgraduate course then you only need to tell them about your previous failure if they ask you on the application form if you have previously done postgraduate study. If they don't ask then you have no duty to tell them.If they do ask then it would probably be better to tell. If you had medical treatment for your depression then letters from your doctors would help to explain your previous failure. Good luck in your future studies.

Shaun Williamson


(40) Louise asked:

Who gets to decide what's morally right? Society? Religion? And if anybody, who gave them the right? Or is morality a natural instinct

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

We all get to decide since we are all members of the moral community and we are all morally equal.

Shaun Williamson


(41) Luke asked:

A friend asked me "are we really here, right now?". I didn't know how to respond so I figured I'd bring this question deeper thinkers than myself. Good luck with this one.

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

Well the answer to this one is easy. We are always really here, right now. So the answer is 'Yes'. The opposite i.e saying 'I am not here right now is always false. Its the same as 'I am always as old as I am now and never younger or older than I am now'.

Shaun Williamson


(42) Christabel asked:

I fancy an old mate, whose sister is my friend. We go to private lessons where I see him three times a week. He doesn't talk much to me... but he looks at me many times in a seductive way! Does he (Kurt) like me?

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

Well we don't know if he likes you because he doesn't really know you but at least he finds you sexually attractive. Perhaps you should try talking to him and get to know him better. Then you will be able to decide. Men are really influenced by visual appearance. So all you can be sure of is that maybe he likes how you look.

Shaun Williamson


(43) Anna asked:

Primarily, I would like to apologize in advance for what I suspect will be a lengthy yet easily solved question. Secondly, I would ask that the philosopher not worry overmuch about the terms that I use; I am a writer by trade, and so I tend to use description rather than definition. A friend and I were recently discussing existence, and he claimed that he had no proof of the existence of anyone but himself. He hypothesized that no one but "himself" (and I use the term loosely) existed, and that everyone and thing that he encountered was a construct of his unconscious mind. He compared this hypothesis to the nature of vivid or "lucid" dreams, wherein one can feel sensations and everything is perfectly realistic, and one can make decisions and control one's own actions. Although it is a dream and therefore a product of one's own brain, the "decision-making" part of the brain has no idea what the "scenario-creating" part of the brain is up to, and so the "decision-making" part can still be surprised by events in the scenario. I often have dreams of this variety, and I found his logic (that he is merely dreaming, with occasional dreams within dreams) eerily compelling. Then again, if I were to apply his logic, then I would be the one doing the dreaming and he would be part of my dream. I suppose that this long narrative boils down to the "Red King" question from Through the Looking-Glass; which of us is doing the dreaming, and if neither of us is dreaming, what proof is there to refute the dreaming theory?

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

Well to talk about things such as dreams and proof you must have learned the English language and if you believe the English language exists then you must believe that other English speakers exist. Proofs belong to mathematics and logic. We do not prove that other people exist and to think that we could do this is a bizarre idea. We are quite happy to believe that our parents exist as long as they continue to give us our pocket money (England) or allowance (USA). You cannot have a proof that other people exist but you cannot have a proof that you exist either. You cannot prove that your landlord exists but you still have to pay your rent.

Shaun Williamson


(44) Jordan asked: Can you answer a question with a question?

============ No, because a question isn't an answer. But you can refuse to answer a question by asking another question.

Shaun Williamson


(45) Anna asked:

Is there any question that logic is physically incapable of answering, and if so, what is/are it/they? Does the fact that I am asking the above question and attempting to answer it by using logic mean that the above question is moot? If one could not answer a question using logic, then what would one use?

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

Logic doesn't ask or answer questions. Human's ask and answer questions. There is no reason to assume that every question makes sense and has an answer. For example the question 'Who am I and why am I here' only makes sense if you are suffering from amnesia. Some questions such as 'Am I conscious' never make sense.

Shaun Williamson


(46) Andy asked:

Is philosophy now purely academic?

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

Well if it is, then what is Ask a Philosopher, and why are there people with PhDs and Masters in philosophy answering questions here?

Steven Ravett Brown


(47) Miche asked:

Do you think that Taoism when applied to modernity can provide a solution to environmental problems?

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

I think that there are many, many philosophical and religious systems which, if applied, would provide good solutions to environmental and other problems. I don't think, given the historical record, that it's likely they will be applied. The question here isn't, "do we know the answers?" Yes, we know what has to be done. The question is how to get greedy, selfish, uncaring people to do what has to be done. No one knows the answer to that question, I'm afraid... if they did, we wouldn't have the problems we have, would we.

Steven Ravett Brown


(48) Jordan asked:

Can you answer a question with a question?

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

I'm tempted to just reply, "why not?", and let it go at that. But really this is an interesting question, in a way. What is an "answer", after all? If an answer is supposed to be a statement of a fact, then perhaps one cannot answer a question with a question, since a question makes no statement... or so one might think. Of course, if the original question were something like, "what was so-and-so's question about..." then the answer would be a statement which contained a question... but that's still a statement of a fact. On the other hand, if an answer is something broader than a statement of some fact(s), then of course answers might also be questions. So we must look at the function of an answer to investigate this. Is that simply to provide facts, or can an answer have other functions than that? I think it would be silly and short-sighted to maintain that answers must only state facts, don't you? And given that, the answer to your question then becomes, "yes".

Steven Ravett Brown


(49) Elizabeth asked:

I posed the following question to a friend: If everything were simultaneously growing at the exact same rate and proportion, would it be possible to be aware of it?". We grappled with the question for a while, and my friend eventually concluded that it was meaningless/nonsensical. He argued that the notion/event of "increasing in size" necessitates an observer and point of reference, which don't exist in the scenario. I then argued that the case can theoretically exist, that is, we could say "there is a universe in which everything is growing.....", or "suppose this is happening, with humans removed from the situation....then add humans back in", etc (I was trying to establish that the situation could physically exist). His response was that there was still an observer and reference--namely that this time I was still projecting myself as observer and reference, although inexplicitly and unintentionally (simply by saying/conceiving of it). So, does the initial question have meaning, and if so, what's the answer? Is it possible to make a case in which one is theoretically removed/to deny one's own existence?

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

Yes, good. The analogous question in relativity theory separates general from special relativity. That is, can one tell a difference between a reference frame in motion at a constant velocity and one which is at rest? The answer is unequivocally "no". There is no difference, without an external observer, between frames moving at a constant velocity and those at "rest". However, what about a frame moving at varying velocities, i.e., a frame which is accelerating (and by the way, "acceleration" means either or both of a change in rate of speed or a change in direction of motion)? A frame which is accelerating, even if it is in motion without contact with an external observer, is analogous to an accelerating elevator. Can you tell if you're in an accelerating elevator, or spaceship? Yes, indeed, as long as the velocity keeps changing, you know that either you're in a gravitational field or (equivalently) that your spaceship is changing its velocity relative to the universe at rest.

So in answer to your specific question, if everything were growing, or shrinking, at the same rate, and that rate was constant, then, no, you couldn't tell the difference. But if the rate varied, i.e, if your growth were accelerating, then you should be able to tell, through relativistic effects, that you were indeed growing.

Specifically, the question would be, given an observer and a light source, with constant growth, whether the increasing distance would redshift the light to compensate for both of the growth movements, yours and the light source you're looking at, blueshift of the light. Off the top of my head, I think that it might... as you grew, say, two feet toward the source, and it grew the same two feet toward you, and if space grew to increase the distance four feet to compensate, then the space would have to grow twice as fast as you and the source to keep the relative distance the same, and that should compensate for the combined Doppler shifts of you and the light source. So constant growth wouldn't been seen, I think. But accelerated growth would.

Steven Ravett Brown


(50) Obafemi asked:

What would one say are the features of modern philosophy as distinct from the preceding or succeeding epochs of the philosophical enterprise?

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

Modern philosophy is not bound by religious dogma.

Steven Ravett Brown


(51) Jordan asked:

Can you answer a question with a question?

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

What kind of question do you have in mind Jordan?

Apparently you can then. Whether you should, and whether this constitutes a genuine answer is a different question altogether.

Steve Bullock


(52) Fahad asked:

How would you compare science and philosophy?

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

I believe, perhaps naively, that the objectives of both science and philosophy lie in the pursuit of 'truth'. Science pursues truth by way of an investigation of 'nature' based on the acceptance of a 'material reality'. Hence, scientists are fundamentally tied to Big Bang theories, fundamental particles, quantum theories, evolution, cosmological events, etc.. Cause and effect, essential to their materialist paradigm, leads to serious problems with 'origins', e.g. the origin of matter, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of man, etc.. From this viewpoint arise teleological predictions, final phases derived from the notion that every beginning must eventually reach an end. The eventual end will come from the instability of matter, increasing entropy as the limited energy of the universe is gradually lost, all leading to a depressing doomsday scenario.

Before making a comparison with philosophy, I must emphasise that I am comparing the philosophical aspects of science with pure philosophy, and am not considering the valuable contributions made by science to the wellbeing of nature and mankind: or, indeed, contributions made to the detriment of nature and mankind.

Philosophy, as opposed to science, has a wider and more inclusive brief. Philosophers are not exclusively tied to materialism, though some are, admittedly, firm supporters of the scientific viewpoint. Philosophers are willing to consider alternative concepts of 'truth' and 'reality'. That reality may be a mind structure rather than a material structure has always been an accepted possibility for many philosophers. Whereby it is probably true to say that most scientists are empiricists, believing that all knowledge comes to us by way of the senses, this is not the case for philosophers. There are philosophers who are rationalists, believing that new knowledge can be acquired through reasoning. Some believe in the idea of innate knowledge, this is knowledge that we are born with, some philosophers of language for instance believe that there may be some 'genetic' contribution to learning the construction of our native language, we seem to automatically recognise order in language from an early age. Some philosophers are willing to consider a more mystic content in life than scientists ever could, and it may be fair to say that philosophers are more at home with religious concepts than are scientists. Though I hasten to say that some scientists are devoted followers of their chosen religion.

Making this comparison could involve me in several pages of work, however I trust that this brief outline will suffice to indicate the general difference between the two schools of thought.

John Brandon


(53) Angela asked:

Hi! I'm a 16-year-old girl from Puertollano (Spain) and I need urgently an answer for my question... "there was a prestigious famous philosopher-woman who defended the naturims or naturalims in the s.IV a.C, and people threw stones her for her ideas; and my question is WHO WAS HER??"

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

Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370--415 AD) was head of the Platonist Academy in Alexandria. She was murdered by a Christian mob hostile to pagan beliefs. See

http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Hypatia.html

Andrew Aberdein


(54) Ray asked:

Why (if indeed it is) that the statement "All the books in my room are on philosophy — if there are no books in my room" true?

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

To paraphrase your question: Why is the statement "All the books in my room are on philosophy" true if there are no books in my room?

In first order classical logic this proposition may be represented as (x)(Bx —> Px), where

Bx = "x is a book in my room" Px = "x is a book on philosophy"

That is "For all x, if x is a book in my room then x is a book on philosophy".

On the understanding of "if" in classical logic, "if A then B" is always true if A is false. So, if there are no books in my room, Bx will be false for every x, so (Bx —> Px) will be true for every x, making (x)(Bx —> Px) true.

In categorical logic the story is somewhat different. The statement "All the books in my room are on philosophy" would be represented by an 'A-proposition', that is something of the form "All B are P".

On the modern, Boolean interpretation B would represent the class of books in my room and P the class of books on philosophy. Hence the proposition may be understood as asserting that the intersection of the class B with the complement of the class P is empty--that is, "There are no non-philosophy books in my room". This would be true whether my room contains books only on philosophy, or no books at all.

However, on the original, Aristotelian interpretation "All the books in my room are on philosophy" is not true if there are no books in my room. Aristotle would interpret "All B are P" as ascribing the property P, being on philosophy, to the objects B, books in my room, and thereby as asserting that there are objects B, that is, books in my room. For that reason the relationship of subalternation (All B are P implies some B are P) is valid in Aristotelian categorical logic, but not in Boolean categorical logic. If there are no books in my room, that is no objects B, then "Some B are P" must be false, which (by modus tollens) makes "All B are P" false too.

In sum, logicians used to believe that "All the books in my room are on philosophy" must be false if there are no books in my room. They now accept it as true: a change which was made to facilitate the simplicity of the system as a whole rather than the intuitiveness of the rendering of this specific proposition.

Andrew Aberdein


(55) Konrad asked:

How do alchemistic beliefs conflict with scientific method?

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

The alchemists were the precursors of scientists. But in your question you have the germ of the answer: alchemy was based on beliefs which were not questioned. There were procedures done which could be loosely compared to experiments as they are now done; but one never questioned the central tenets of alchemy: beliefs about the nature of substances, about how substance and mind were coexistent, and so forth. So alchemy could never become a science; it was still basically a religion, albeit an empirically-oriented one.

Steven Ravett Brown


(56) Christina asked:

Last year I had a nervous breakdown and I was diagnosed with major depression after the loss of a child. I'm not quite sure when I began to lose sight of reality, but during the negative experience I enrolled and withdrew erratically and brought my gPA down from a 3.6 to a .99 over the past year. I have always aspired to be a scholar. I feel I have just ruined my life. I have an idea that I could get away with not including the transcript when applying to other graduate programs. I know this is wrong. Yet, I don't know what else to do to gain my peace and happiness again. Please, if you have any advice, I would greatly appreciate it. School has been my life. I am so sad now. I wanted to get a ph.d. but this loss of personal control over my life has nearly ruined me. I feel so guilty for even thinking that omitting a transcript record is an option. I know I can get away with it, but part of being a scholar is having integrity. I hope you can help.

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

The first question I have is: are you over your depression? You need to answer that clearly for yourself. Graduate school requires high and sustained motivation; if you are not up to that, wait until you are.

Next, no, you cannot lie. You must use your transcripts as they are, with an explanation of what happened. My guess is that departments will be sympathetic. I think that the worst that will happen is that you may not get into an absolutely top school... but I wouldn't even want to predict that. Given that you had a consistent record of achievement, interrupted by a bad year for a very good reason, I do not believe you will have problems.

Be sure you do well on the GREs. If you do that, you can point out to schools that a) you are over your depression, and b) you have ability, and c) you remember what you learned.

Think about exactly what you're interested in, in the field of philosophy. Read up on it. Contact people at schools specializing in that area, giving them your history and your thinking in that area, and what you want to do in it. If there is someone you particularly admire, gather up your courage and write to them. Be honest and professional. Even if one conversation doesn't work out, there are others.

Really, the hurdle is not so much getting in, it's a) persisting once you're in, especially with the dissertation; and b) finding a job once you graduate. That latter, if the economic climate stays as it is now, will be very difficult, and you need to prepare for that as early in grad school as you can. Publish. Make contacts. Publish. Teach as much as you can.

Good luck!

Steven Ravett Brown


(57) Alissa asked:

I do not seem to be able to get past my basic instincts when it comes to the following question. How can you tell that you are not dreaming? Every time I consider it, the idea of me having and using my senses gets in the way. Surely if a touch is that vivid it has to be real. Descartes doubts everything but the fact that he exists. I personally find it impossible to dismiss all of my prior attachments to the world around me in order to be able to present two sides to the argument.

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

You know, we get this question so much here... go look in the archives; you'll find umpteen versions of this and of answers to it.

Here's a quick and dirty answer for you: first, what does it matter? Second, no, you can't tell, ultimately. Look, if you're dreaming, and you hurt when you cut your finger, what's the difference? You're going to wake up into the "real" world? Oh, nice... and then... you wake up into the real real world... and then... um... you see the problem? Go rent the movie The Thirteenth Floor... it addresses this rather directly.

If you want a serious philosophical answer to this you'll have to do quite a bit of reading: Hume, Kant, and Merleau-Ponty have all been directly concerned with this, to list a very very few.

Steven Ravett Brown


(58) Luke asked:

A friend asked me "are we really here, right now?". I didn't know how to respond so I figured I'd bring this question deeper thinkers than myself. Good luck with this one.

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

Well, take a look at my answer to Alissa, in this set of answers.

Steven Ravett Brown


(59) Anna asked:

Primarily, I would like to apologize in advance for what I suspect will be a lengthy yet easily solved question. Secondly, I would ask that the philosopher not worry overmuch about the terms that I use; I am a writer by trade, and so I tend to use description rather than definition. A friend and I were recently discussing existence, and he claimed that he had no proof of the existence of anyone but himself. He hypothesized that no one but "himself" (and I use the term loosely) existed, and that everyone and thing that he encountered was a construct of his unconscious mind. He compared this hypothesis to the nature of vivid or "lucid" dreams, wherein one can feel sensations and everything is perfectly realistic, and one can make decisions and control one's own actions. Although it is a dream and therefore a product of one's own brain, the "decision-making" part of the brain has no idea what the "scenario-creating" part of the brain is up to, and so the "decision-making" part can still be surprised by events in the scenario. I often have dreams of this variety, and I found his logic (that he is merely dreaming, with occasional dreams within dreams) eerily compelling. Then again, if I were to apply his logic, then I would be the one doing the dreaming and he would be part of my dream. I suppose that this long narrative boils down to the "Red King" question from Through the Looking-Glass; which of us is doing the dreaming, and if neither of us is dreaming, what proof is there to refute the dreaming theory?

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Wow, another... ok, I'll add this to my answer to Alissa, since you're a writer. How about the story about the Chinese prince dreaming he was a butterfly, who woke up and didn't know whether he was a prince who had dreamed of being a butterfly or was now a butterfly dreaming he was a prince...

Look people, there's no way out of this, ultimately. You can push skepticism as far as you want to, and then push it further. The only thing I can do is say that there's a lot written on this and that no one agrees with all of it except pretty much that it's really a bit absurd to keep pushing it. What ultimate difference does it make? Dreaming or not, we want to avoid pain and suffering, and if we assume that others are illusion, well, for illusions their suffering seems pretty real, doesn't it. So once we act on all that, we've banished skepticism in, really, the only way that makes sense, that is, functionally. And that is a philosophical answer to where and how to end skepticism.

Steven Ravett Brown