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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 35 (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 35/1.

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) James asked:

If eyes had never evolved, would LIGHT still exist (or: be manifest)? By this I do not mean: would there still be electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of wavelengths (there would, of course). Rather, I mean: in the absence of eyes, would there still be brightness, luminance, illumination (i.e. what we ordinarily call 'light')?

I am aware, of course, that, according to physics, light simply IS electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of frequencies. However, does this mean that things are, so to speak, illuminated 'in themselves'? Or, contrariwise, is it the case that, in order to get what we ORDINARILY call 'light' (brightness, luminance etc., as opposed to Maxwell's equations), we must also take into account the way that electromagnetic waves excite our rods and cones etc.?

In other words, without eyes and, therefore, without VISIBILITY would the entire universe remain 'in the dark'? Does it indeed make any sense to speak of the universe being either 'dark' or 'illuminated' in the absence of vision and visibility? Or to speak more generally would there be any 'phenomena' (i.e. would anything be 'manifest'), without a subject or dative TO WHOM they appear/manifest themselves?

Any suggestions for reading on this issue especially scientifically informed literature would be greatly appreciated.

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

Really this isn't a scientific question. We have experiences and sense-impressions, and we try to build up a model of the world to make sense of them, and in particular to predict them. The most painstaking and careful methods are called 'scientific methods', but don't really differ from any other method except being more subject to more rigorous testing and examination.

Small children learn to use the word 'light' to explain the cause of a certain difference in their sensations in their eyes. We build up a model of light streaming and moving, along with our models of physical objects and shadows and so on. Learning from the work and experience of many researchers over many centuries, we have built up models of 'electromagnetic waves' and 'photons' and so on. Light is an interesting example, as our explanatory models for it are not entirely consistent with each other. However, few models we have, scientific or otherwise, are entirely consistent nor stable over time: that is part of the nature of being human and learning. To try and touch 'absolute' reality, 'out there', is not a feasible project. Any method we use, whether rigorous examination or testing, or mystical spiritual intuition, is potentially subject to contradiction. Some methods may produce more reliable results than others, some may be more useful, but at least outside the fields of mathematics or logic, no method produces an answer that someone else cannot in principle contradict.

You have, as I understand it, asked about 'qualia', that is to say, our internal private sensations, and what relationship if any they bear to reality. Is 'light' our sensation, or is 'light' a kind of quantized electromagnetic wave? Ultimately, for each of us, 'light' has to relate to our qualia in order for each of us to have a reason to want to use it. However, once it is a word in a public language, it becomes a model to explain that sensation, not the sensation itself. The private sensation cannot in itself be directly referred to in any public discourse. However, we would never have a reason to use a word if it did not have at some remove some relationship with the actual qualia we experience.

The only reading I can think of is Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations' (Basil Blackwell 1953, Prentice-Hall 1999, Blackwell Publishers 2001, trans. Elisabeth Anscombe), although his view is not quite the same as mine here. It doesn't talk about science as such, but talks about how we know and come to mean anything: although Wittgenstein was at different points in his life a reasonable aeronautics engineer and medical laboratory technician.

Roger Williams


(2) Rory asked:

This is probably an easy question. This question deals with the Sinatra 'doo be doo be doo' joke. I am not sure who said the two other phrases that many are given credit for:

1) 'To be is to do' phrase, supposedly said by Kant, Plato, Sartre, Aristotle, and/ or Descartes.

2) 'To do is to be' phrase, supposedly said by Sartre, Socrates, Plato, and/ or Nietzsche.

My question is: who said what? Who should be given credit for the two phrases? (Or if more than one person said each phrase, who said it first?)

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

I have been wondering about this myself. This is what I know so far.

'To be is to do'

The original joke is from Kurt Vonnegut, in Deadeye Dick. Vonnegut had Socrates for 'To be is to do.' Socrates never says this, but perhaps it is a from the hip gloss on 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' In recent years this is attributed to Kant and in the Wikipedia it is presented as a direct quote but without references. I have no idea where this is from. For Kant action is important. In the Second Analogy of the First Critique he maintains that 'substance appears to manifest itself ... through action.' But this is hardly glossed as 'to be is to do'. Maybe it appears somewhere in Kant, but it does not sound like Kant. I've seen this slogan attributed to Nietzsche, Plato, Descartes, Voltaire, Krishnamurti and how knows who else. I think it is all name-dropping. In my view, the slogan could be used as a simple gloss on Heidegger.

'To do is to be'

Vonnegut attributes this to Sartre and that seems like a good gloss on Sartre and the idea of existence preceding essence. It is through our choices (to do, action) that possibilities and options are opened as well as closed (to be).

Michael Losonsky


(3) Petros asked

Has the activity of philosophy become so embedded in an academic and sometimes inaccessible environment that it is in danger of losing touch with its inherently universal roots? Has philosophy become philosophology ie the analytical study of people who love wisdom? I have always felt that if a particular aspect of wisdom is difficult to grasp intellectually or has some abstract complexity about it, then it is innately corrupt or false.

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

On your questions in order: 1. Yes, it is a danger, at least it it is if you can speak of an idea or a practice 'losing touch'. 2. Often, yes, scholarly philosophology is indeed how philosophy departments often justify their existence. There is potentially a conflict between the different goals of philosophising deeply and well, on the one hand, and excelling in tests of academic productivity as devised by administrators, on the other. 3. There's an element of truth in what you say, but putting it exactly like that claims too much.

Difficulty, of itself, is hardly proof of falsehood. Some people find fractions difficult. Uncommon ideas, even when presented in ordinary words and short sentences, can be very 'difficult' for people to grasp — in the sense that the habits of mind which prevent this grasping can be very difficult to remove, or even to identify, where one is a victim of that habit. I would suggest that Philosophy ought to be 'difficult' in this sense, and that this kind of challenge to unthinking habit is valuable precisely in proportion to it's difficulty.

The element of truth in what you say is that by 'abstract complexity' you might mean gratuitous difficulty, the use of technical terms or convoluted grammatical niceties where plain english might do, the effect of which may be to obscure the writers meaning from his readers, or, in many cases, from himself. This may be motivated by a wish to establish membership of a professional club (philosophy-speak can resemble lawyer-speak in this corruption), by purposeful obscurantism (where stupefaction is a weapon deployed by politicians and philosophers at will), or just a matter of unthinking habit. Well, you are right, there is a lot of it about, and it is definitely a bad thing.

David Robjant


(4) Melissa asked:

I have a few questions. Other than at a university, where would I find a philosopher and what (professionally) would the philosopher be doing (i.e., what do you guys do)? Also, what are the largest areas of philosophy that people currently pursue? Finally, is the topic of whether or not God exists still as hotly debated among philosophers or is it something that is taught more for students?

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

1) What's a 'philosopher'? When you can answer that I can answer your first question. But you might look here:

http://www.philosophers.co.uk/cafe/cafe.htm

http://philosophy-shop.com/cafeinfo.html

http://www.philos.org/anglais.html

http://www.naturalism.org/philo_cafe.htm

2) I don't know what you mean by 'largest'. Most people? Most issues? Most difficult? Most interest? And so I can't even begin to answer this. One 'large' area is that of the ontological status of mental entities, particularly qualia. Metaethical issues such as naturalism vs. internalism of one sort or another are pretty hot. Medical ethics is a very fashionable field right now, but it's really waiting on some kind of resolution of the metaethical debates. And so forth. There are always people reworking basic analytic issues such as Goodman's 'new problem of induction'. Phenomenology seems to be reluctantly moving in the direction of naturalization, except for a few people who are doggedly attempting to apply Husserlian-inspired mereology to structure metaphysical (or maybe it's epistemological) analyses. Has this answer served any purpose? Um... we're not doing 'existence of god' anymore, if that's what you're wondering... things have moved well past that.

3) No. Yes, if even that. Most philosophers realize that this question is unanswerable, for a large variety of reasons. For example, a) there's no agreed-on definition of 'god', or 'God'; b) in the several thousand year history of pursuing that question, no arguments (for or against) have been acceptable to the majority of people analyzing them; c) since there's no agreed-on definition, there can hardly be debates on things like the ethical implications of an entity whose characteristics, much less existence, cannot be agreed on (and I'm not just talking about philosophers here... think about the huge variety of conceptions of god(s) that have been — and are — held in various cultures. To take only two contemporary examples, how long should the existence of Ganesha be debated before moving on to the divinity of Buddha?). And so forth.

Steven Ravett Brown


(5) David asked:

How about evolution and the Hebrew creation account?

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

I not quite sure what question you are asking. However the account of the creation of the world found in Genesis is copied (sometimes word for word) from ancient Egyptian scriptures. The writers of Genesis obviously were familiar with the ancient Egyptian text and were happy to adopt it for their own purposes. It would seem to follow from this that they probably did not intend their account to be taken literally and so there is no need to believe that the Hebrew text contradicts evolution. It is meant to be a metaphor that expresses the religious view that God creates the world out of nothing, not at a particular moment in time, since this sort of creation is outside of time.

Shaun Williamson


(6) Stephen asked:

I've noticed that you philosophers make the choice to not believe in any God.

You've said that there is no evidence, no proof.

I'd like to know the proof that God does NOT exist, or at least whatever it is that makes you choose to not believe in Him.

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

Many philosophers used to think that they could prove that God exists. Now most philosophers are not convinced by these proofs although some continue to believe in them.

There is, as far as I know, no proof that God does not exist but to many philosophers it is not clear if the idea of God makes sense.

I don't believe in God because I am a democrat and as far as I know God was never elected. We should all have the chance to be God. Who decided that God should be God?

Shaun Williamson


(7) Elizabeth asked:

Is it true that the Chinese people try to match a man and woman for marriage according to their blood type due to the belief that they will be more suited to one another? I have noticed recently that I have the same personality difficulties with all type O blood types as I am myself a type B blood type.

Does this make any sense? I am totally sincere and serious about my request for this information.

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

Blood typing is a fairly recent discovery of western scientific medicine and there is nothing that corresponds to it in traditional Chinese medicine. So if Chinese people do try to arrange marriages according to blood type then this mst be a very recently acquired superstition.

I call it a superstition because as far as I know no research has been done into blood type and personality. In fact so many billions of people in the world have type O blood (the most common) that it seems unlikely that they all have a similar personality and it seems unlikely that you would not be able to get on with any of these billions of people.

Shaun Williamson


(8) Abed asked:

THIS IS IMPORTANT EVERYONE LISTEN.

The end of the world is near not by destruction by the power of Allah (God). I do not know when BUT not longer than 60 years from today (27/12/2006).

Watch Out!

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

Sorry Abed but this just sounds like nothing important so it is unlikely that anyone will pay attention to it. Why do you think the end of the world is near? Do you have any evidence for this? How do you feel about this? Have you considered that you may be suffering from some sort of mental disturbance? How do you know that you are thinking clearly about these things?

Shaun Williamson


(9) Abed asked:

THIS IS IMPORTANT EVERYONE LISTEN.

The end of the world is near not by destruction by the power of Allah (God). I do not know when BUT not longer than 60 years from today (27/12/2006).

Watch Out!

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

Of course the end of the world is nigh. It has been for quite some time. Possibly, this is because of the wickedness there is in the world. Another possibility is that wickedly self-obsessed people are frightened of the horrible thought that the world might go on perfectly well without them, indefinitely, with every new year mocking pride, and further eroding the memory and significance of one human life. How much it comforts the devious ego to think that we are now in the Last Days — that every generation stood upon the stage in order, with all a parade upon the well lit stage — all history a book with beginning, middle, and end — how much it flatters us, and gives us a proud 'meaning' to our lives (if we are unable to realise some more modest and humane fulfillment).

Ah, the consolations of disaster. And how contrary to the humility taught by the great books these devious consolations are. Vanity vanity sayeth the preacher, all is vanity.

Sixty years is an interesting timeframe for Armageddon. Not chosen at random, but related to our three score years and ten in just the right way. We shall have lived our best years then, or even better died, the very last of the wise. Ha!

David Robjant


(10) Rose asked:

Explain how Anselm shows that God must exist. Do you think Anselm's argument is successful? Why or why not?

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

You need to go and look up the original texts, but basically Anselm gives an ontological argument for the existence of God that he believes shows the idea that God does not exist is incoherent. The existence of God is built into the actual concept of God. His argument rests on his definition of God as a being than which no greater can be conceived. As such, if God fails to exist then an even greater being can be conceived (i.e. one that does exist). Obviously this doesn't make sense as nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. Any being of which no greater being can be conceived must exist — so God must exist.

Ontological arguments are notoriously difficult to do away with, despite the fact they often seem obviously wrong. A contemporary of Anselm — a monk named Gaunilo — gives an argument against (Gaunilo, 'On Behalf of the Fool', in St. Anselm's Proslogion, M. Charlesworth (ed.), Oxford: OUP, 1965 [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/anselm.html Available online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Paul Halsall (ed.), Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies, translation by David Burr]). Also see Kant's Critique of Pure Reason for criticisms of ontological arguments in general. Also you could check out Alvin Plantinga for recent stuff on ontological arguments. Personally I think Anselm's argument proves very little, but I'll let you make up your own mind.

Samuel Michaelides


(11) Lawrence asked:

What is it for an argument to be sound? Can arguments be valid but not sound or sound but not valid?

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

An argument is 'valid' if its conclusion follows from its premises. An argument is 'sound' only if its conclusion follows from its premises AND its premises are true. So an argument can be both valid and unsound, but cannot be both sound and invalid. Consider the following examples:

1) Socrates is a man
2) All men are mortal
3) Socrates is immortal

This would be an invalid argument as the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Now consider:

1) Socrates is a man
2) All men are Spanish
3) Socrates is Spanish

This would be valid, as the conclusion does follow from the premises but premise 2 is false so the argument is unsound. Now for both valid and sound:

1) Socrates is a man
2) All men are mortal
3) Socrates is mortal

Samuel Michaelides


(12) Anon asked:

This thought has crossed my mind so often but has so often been pushed to the back of my mind. However, events that have happened in my life so far, have been influenced by this thought. It has always seemed to me since I can remember that what I am doing, what everyone is doing, in this world is pretty much a waste of time, as though its not really important, like there's something else bigger that's more important and this is a mere middle ground. But if everyone thought this way the world would be in complete disorder and noone would make the effort to do anything! So why on Earth do I feel like this?

I was brought up as a Catholic but as I get older and as I read the other side of the argument I wonder if the bible is just fiction as there is no solid proof and maybe its just there to make people feel better when in need. But if there is no ultimate being, something at the end of this life that we are in now, then what are we here for?!

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

Why do we have to be here for anything? Why can't we just be here?

Samuel Michaelides


(13) Stephen asked:

I've noticed that you philosophers make the choice to not believe in any God.

You've said that there is no evidence, no proof.

I'd like to know the proof that God does NOT exist, or at least whatever it is that makes you choose to not believe in Him.

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

'We philosophers who meet at night
Believe in God when we are tight
And honestly repent our sins
Our intellect, and other things'

The idea that all persons called 'philosophers' hold the same views on the existence of God, drunk or sober, is laughable. There is only one other context in which I have heard it asserted to me directly — this was, perhaps relevantly, by someone from Birmingham University Christian Union. Is this a widespread notion amongst believers? On what is it based?

Perhaps it is necessary to point out that most european philosophy taught in universities is avowedly theist (from Descartes to Kant), that even existentialism is theist in origin (Kierkegaard), that Marxism as an atheistic religion is now dead, and that since what gets called the 'linguistic turn' in philosophy anglo saxon philosophers haven't spent much time talking about whether god exists, one way or the other, and have diverted themselves rather more with the question of what belief in God might amount to, and whether this or that argument for the existence of God is nonsensical.

So someone who is to be found loudly championing atheism nowadays, as if it were clear what belief in God amounted to and mattered that there is no such, is most likely either

a) one of a small and non-threatening number of Buddhists, who are anyway liable to um and ah about whether there is a God, depending on whether you merely wish to claim that God is as real as tables and chairs (which Buddhists will allow), or whether you wish to say that he is the most real thing (which they won't)

or,

b) a sort of raving loony, who sometime advances from the given to the contentious by way of an obvious non-sequitur: 'darwin shows that the book of Genesis was wrong about that seven days business, therefore there is no God' — and at other times pretends his assertion to be the less obviously illogical but similarly bizarre credo that everything we know we know by 'the scientific method'.

Of these, a few of those in group a) would be counted as Philosophers, and the late Iris Murdoch would be one such, but I really don't think it's herself who is causing all this fuss about the dangerously atheistic challenge of philosophy.

That leaves b), the loony so-called darwinists. Calling these people 'philosophers' would be a tremendous insult to philosophy graduates everywhere. Some of these darwinists are very annoying indeed, because while they are indeed respected scientists, they are not well read in the one field in which they are most vocal, the philosophy of science. A professor for the public understanding of science who doesn't seem to have read Kuhn's seminal discussion of the scientific method in practice, and even maintains contrary to Popper that science verifies, is a good deal worse than useless.

So reviewing the current state of atheism as a positive creed, I can't see why 'philosophy' would be the name you'd give it. There is an interesting myth here, which tells us not very much about philosophy as an academic disciple, and rather more about the sense some theists have of being persecuted by 'Reason', and their mistaken acceptance of an exclusive contrast between Reason, on the one hand, and Faith, on the other. In order to see why this is a mistaken contrast they need to do an undergraduate course in philosophy, perhaps read some Plato and James. So do the 'darwinists', though one doubts that the details of their credo would help them make a good impression at interview.

David Robjant


(14) Akbar asked:

I am a 2nd year philosophy student writing a paper on Sartre's being for-itself and in-itself, and their relation. What journals or books would you recommend?

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

Aside from the obvious? I mean, you want to learn about Sartre, then reading him might be a good idea. And of course it's easy enough to look up commentaries on Sartre, using his name. Now aside from that, you might try some of these... some are more directly bearing on this issue than others. This isn't an issue I'm too interested in, so this first is a rather biased and incomplete list.

Piaget, J. Insights and Illusions of Philosophy. Translated by W. Mays. New York, NY: The World Publishing Co., 1971.

Zahavi, D. 'Back to Brentano?' Journal of Consciousness Studies 11, no. 10-11 (2004): 66-87.

Dreyfus, H. L. 'The Current Relevance of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Embodiment.' Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy 4 (1996).

Gendlin, E. 'Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language, and Situations.' edited by B. den Ouden and M. Moen, 22-152. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1991.

Ihde, D., and E. Selinger. 'Merleau-Ponty and Epistemology Engines.' Human Studies 27 (2004): 361-176.

Merleau-Ponty, M. The Structure of Behavior. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1968. ------. Phenomenology of Perception. Edited by Ted Honderich. 1st ed, International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970. ------. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by C. Lefort, J. Wild and J. M. Edie, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

Ruedin, I. 'A Re-Introduction: Merleau-Ponty's Husserl Aux Limites De La Phenomenologie and Derrida's Introduction to Husserl's Origin of Geometry.' Philosophy Today (2002): 143-51.

Stawarska, B. 'Merleau-Ponty in Dialogue with the Cognitive Sciences in Light of Recent Imitation Research.' Philosophy Today SPEP Supplement — Merleau-Ponty in Dialogue (2003): 89-99.

Toadvine, T. 'Naturalizing Phenomenology.' Philosophy Today 43, Supplement (1999): 124-31.

Steven Ravett Brown


(15) Jazz asked:

Give some suggestions on how to reduce rapid growth of human population?

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

It's easy answer the 'how' insofar as reducing population growth is concerned. The simplest solutions are the historical ones: war and starvation. The next simplest is mass birth control. All of these work just fine... well, the wars have to be pretty severe, but we have the means today. As for birth control, it's even been reasonably successful in India, and in China, there are whole villages consisting of just young men because of the huge number of abortions of female fetuses.

The problem isn't 'how', in this general sense. There are condoms, costing almost nothing, readily available throughout the world; abortions are fairly easy to get; hormone pills are well within the reach of the relatively more affluent. The problem is how to get people to accept, and be motivated, to use the very effective means that are out there. We see, throughout the world, populations dying of starvation, disease... living in abject poverty, to a great part because of enormous population density on land unable to support them. Why? Because we don't know how to control births? Not at all. It's because children are seen as having a) intrinsic value (having children makes you a 'man', or a 'better person', or 'brings new life into the world', or is advocated by organized religion ('be fruitful and multiply', right?), or some such), b) social value in the sense of imparting prestige, c) economic value in that they will, presumably, support their parents in old age. And so people want children, preferably males. What needs to be done, somehow, is to change these cultural values to reflect reality, and I have no idea, beyond vague generalities, as to how to do that. Gee gosh, ads in newspapers? TV? Radio? And let's see, just what governments will support this? Unfortunately, governments are by and large comprised of people sharing the above values. Whoops. So maybe we should start in our schools, telling children not to have children of their own? And what do you think would be done to teachers saying that, assuming you could get them to agree to say it? If you have any good ideas on how to accomplish this, go write them up and send them to the UN... who knows?

Steven Ravett Brown


(16) Chris asked:

I have been playing with the idea that the human species is incorrectly named homo sapiens sapiens, and should perhaps be renamed something like homo aptus to emphasis its immediate adaptability rather than its supposed wisdom. Can you refer me to any philosophers that emphasis a functional definition for our species?

Also from an ontological perspective, I am putting a lot of thought into a definition of an entity as a 'control domain', rather than anything bound by some arbitrary flesh boundary. Do you know of any philosophers looking into this area?

Lastly ... I am interested in collective intelligence, and wanting to understand rules, or criteria which would suggest sentience, or some awareness over and above this... which could be referred to as sapience. Do you know of anyone studying in this area?

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

1) Well I'm not sure why you want a 'definition', as such, and as far as characterizing our species goes, I'm afraid that the debates on that are, and have been, raging for quite some time. In addition, what's the point? You can go functional, or anatomical, or genetic, or whatever you want, depending on what you want to get out of it. There's no 'best' way to do this kind of characterization. The only point I can see is a lead-in to your next question.

2) Without more specifics, your question is very hard to answer. There are people ranging from Andy Clark to A.N. Whitehead who have written and thought about 'process' as fundamental. You might go look up 'process' philosophers... Whitehead and Taylor immediately come to mind, and perhaps Dewey as well... or you could just start with Hegel, and go from there.

3) Look, this is a very bloogy area. I'll give you some people, but please be sure to do a lot of reading here. Don't just find someone, get enthusiastic, and dive into them, ok? The usual tendency here is for people to go off the deep end for one person or school. You need to sprinkle huge grains of salt over this area, you know?

Clark, A. Microcognition: Philosophy, Cognitive Science, and Parallel Distributed Processing. Edited by M. A. Boden. 4th ed, Explorations in Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Bohm, D., and B. Hiley. The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.

Cariani, P. 'Symbols and Dynamics in the Brain.' BioSystems 60 (2001): 59-83.

Dewey, J. Human Nature and Conduct, 1922. Edited by J. A. Boydston. 2nd ed. Vol. 14, The Middle Works of John Dewey: 1899-1924, Volume 14. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Hegel, G.W.F. 'The Phenomenology of Mind.' edited by J.B. Baillie. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1967.

Kim, J.A. Supervenience and Mind; Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by E. Sosa, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lanier, Jaron, 'You Can't Argue with a Zombie', Journal of consciousness studies [1355-8250], yr:1995 vol:2 iss:4 pg:333 -345

Levin, D. M. 'The Discursive Formation of the Body in the History of Medicine.' The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 15 (1990): 515-37.

O'Brien, G. 'Connectionism, Analogicity and Mental Content.' Acta Analytica 22 (1998): 111-31.

Pattee, H.H. 'The Physics of Symbols and the Evolution of Semiotic Control.' In Workshop on Control Mechanisms for Complex Systems: Issues of Measurement and Semiotic Analysis, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Dec. 8-12,1996. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Peirce, C.S. 'Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.' In The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, edited by N. Houser and C. Kloesel, 28-55. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Taylor, C. Human Agency and Language; Philosophical Papers, Volume 1. 8th ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Whitehead, A.N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Toronto, Canada: Collier-Macmillan Canada, Ltd., 1969.

Steven Ravett Brown


(17) Jona asked:

Is there randomness in the universe or just unpredictability in observers?

If real world causality is distributed amongst multiple, interacting forces then isn't determinacy really a question of determinability, which (in sufficiently complex circumstances) is only practical/possible locally?

Does this mean that chance and randomness are really measures of unknowability, of epistemic failure?

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

You'd almost be correct if the universe were a Newtonian one... but it isn't (of course the 'as far as we now know' should be read into everything I'm saying). Despite the Bohr interpretation of quantum theory, which would indeed support your premise (but see below), the experimental proof of Bell's Theorem (e.g., Herbert, N. Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985) was an absolutely earthshaking event, and refuted that school of thought. The phi function in Schroedinger's wave equation was shown to be not merely due to observer inadequacy but to reflect physical reality.

That is, in simple terms, yes... the world really is fuzzy, there really is physical randomness.

Now, on top of this, there is also a type of irreducible uncertainty in a Newtonian world, because of what is (inaccurately) termed 'chaos' in nonlinear dynamical physical systems. That is, there are systems (actually most physical systems are like this) whose future cannot be predicted (to complete precision), under any circumstances, because the mathematics we employ to model them does not allow us to solve the equations which (insofar as we are able to do mathematics) accurately capture them. We have to use various approximations to 'solve' them, and for the more complex systems (like, for example, turbulent water) the only way we can even approach solutions is by using very very very fast computers to build pretty pictures to look at. Note, however, that the physical systems are completely causally determined... it's only our ability to predict how they will go into the future that's limited. However, if the world were Newtonian, we could, in theory, observe the present states of these systems to any degree of precision. But the world, as I said, is not Newtonian, and we can't make that kind of observation, even in the best case.

However, if you're trying to relate this to whatever 'free will' means, it won't work. Do you want your volition to be either causally determined, or due to random chance? Um, not much of a choice, right? But that's all you get from the above.

Steven Ravett Brown


(18) Vidhya asked:

Looking back at your life, do you feel that all things, good or bad have happened for the best? and all decisions you have taken lead you to good? even if those things or decisions might have seemed bad or tragic at that point?

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No, I don't feel that all the things that have happened to me have happened for the best. I don't think that all the decisions I have made have, lead me to good. Some of the decisions I made, which seemed bad at the time, were bad. Others which seemed bad at the time later turned out not to be so bad.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Bernadette asked:

Which of the following philosophies is attributed to Parmenides?

1) Everything can be infinitely divided into smaller parts.

2) Motion does not need an explanation.

3) The basic substance of everything existing is air.

4) Reality is unchangeable, and any change detected is an illusion of the senses.

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

Number 4 is the correct answer. Parmenides took the exact opposite view of Heraclitus, who said that 'nothing is permanent except the fact of change' and 'You cannot step into the same river twice.' They were not being arbitrary, but were trying to solve the problem of identity and change, which is as follows.

First prove that qualitative difference necessitates quantitative difference: whatever A and B may be, if there is a qualitative difference between them then there is some quality, Q, such that A is Q and B is not-Q; if A and B are one then one thing is at once Q and not-Q, which is impossible; therefore A and B are two.

Next define a change as a qualitative difference, in parallel with a duration; and identity as oneness — as in 'Mount Everest is identical with the highest mountain in the world.' If now one thing, such as you yourself, changes with time, as common sense takes for granted, then we can distinguish the earlier-you and the later-you, and the two are qualitatively different (because of the change) hence two, not one, not identical. On the other hand, if you have identity through time than you cannot change, since the earlier you and the later you cannot be qualitatively different since one thing cannot be qualitatively different from what is it is.

Heraclitus got around this problem by denying all identity: you cannot step into the same river twice because the supposedly second time both you and the river have changed and so are each numerically different, each two, not one.

Parmenides declared all change to be illusion: 'Only the One is,' he said — i.e. only identity exists, all change is illusion. Plato tried to resolve this problem by saying that there are two worlds; one, the sensible world, the world we perceive around us, contains the illusion of change; and the other, the real world, consists of unchanging 'Forms,' of which sensible objects are copies or images.

Modern philosophers usually support common sense and sweep this problem under the rug. If you want more details, see my book 'Belief Shock' available free in electronic format at http://www.sharebooks.ca.

Helier Robinson


(20) Jona asked:

Is there randomness in the universe or just unpredictability in observers?

If real world causality is distributed amongst multiple, interacting forces then isn't determinacy really a question of determinability, which (in sufficiently complex circumstances) is only practical/possible locally?

Does this mean that chance and randomness are really measures of unknowability, of epistemic failure?

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

Nobody knows, they only have opinions. My own opinion is that there is no randomness, everything is determined. 'Chance' is a word we use when we don't know the causes of something, just as 'infinity' is a word we use when we don't know the limits of something. However, this view is not popular. One reason for its unpopularity is that if it is true then our feelings of having free will are illusory.

Helier Robinson


(21) Jazz asked:

Give some suggestion on how to reduce rapid growth of human population?

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A very important question, since world over-population is the cause of all of our environmental problems: pollution, global warming, shortage of raw materials, shortage of fresh water, endangered species, etc. My preferred solution is to have a widely available pill that is at once contraceptive, an aphrodisiac, and mildly addictive. People would take it for the second property, and continue to do so because of the third. Then people would have to exercise will and responsibility in order to have children, instead of having to exercise will and responsibility in order not to have children.

Helier Robinson


(22) Cian asked:

This question is about the academic study of the Philosophy of Science, particularly the philosophy of Time and Space. Does one have to be a competent Geometer to have a better understanding of Space? or does one have to be a competent Physicist and have an understanding of Relativity Theory to say anything constructive about Time and Space? Is a background in science essential to being a Philosopher of Science?

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Judging by most contemporary philosophers of science, a background of science and/or mathematics is not necessary — and this may be why philosophy of science for the last century or so has been of such poor quality. For example, if you read the established philosophers of science concerning the important questions in philosophy of science, there are no satisfactory answers. I have in mind such questions as: why are there two kinds of science, empirical and theoretical, and just how are they related? Or, how is it possible that mathematical theories in science can predict empirical novelty so often and so accurately — as with radio, antimatter, nuclear energy, lasers, etc. Or, why is it that every entity in theoretical science is imperceptible? (We can perceive empirical evidence for theoretical entities, but never the entities themselves.) So, yes, if you want to be a philosopher of science then study mathematics and physics as well as philosophy.

Helier Robinson


(23) Ann asked:

Is there such a thing as nothing?

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Only in language. You can talk about 'nothing' as if it were something, but you cannot have it in any other way. Language does not have automatic controls to prevent this kind of thing, so that you can name the unnameable, describe the indescribable, speak the unspeakable, etc. You can also define things that can exist only in language, such as square circles and the nearly infinite. It is also probably because of this lack of internal controls that you can have all kinds of paradoxes in language, but not outside language.

Helier Robinson


(24) Melissa asked:

What does a philosopher do? What is your real job?

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The real job of a philosopher is to think about problems that originate in everyday life, and try to solve them — usually unsuccessfully. For example, imagine that you are looking down a straight road lined with telephone poles. The farther away you look the smaller things become: the road gets narrower, the poles get shorter, and the poles get closer together; visible space shrinks in all three dimensions. But real space does not shrink in this way, as you can find out by walking down that road with a tape measure. So since visible space shrinks with distance and real space does not, it follows that visible space is not real space. How do you reconcile this with your belief that the world that you see around you is real?

Helier Robinson


(25) Anos asked:

What are the three stages which contributed to the change of life from the state of nature to the present society according to John Jacques Rousseau?

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In The Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, Rousseau writes that Human beings literally existed in blissful ignorance prior to the establishment of Civil or Political Society. Being a social construct Morality does not exist in this State of Nature and so no moral judgements can be made. As such, Inequality is not a moral, political or social issue in the State of Nature although it exists quite naturally.

From this natural inequality develops the tilling of the land, agriculture, metallurgy and primitive industry. Natural advantage formerly no problem, now ferments inequality by being translated into the ownership of property; property acquired by those who have more advantage over others. Upon ownership of things, trading occurs — further exacerbating inequality. Poverty and Riches exist juxtaposed. Conflict ensues. Thus:

- Everyone is against the rest.

- Possessions become as burdensome as wants.

- There is no safety for rich and poor alike.

To escape from this situation the rich make a Contract with the poor to create a Supreme Power, Rule by Law, to repulse common enemies and maintain harmony in the State.

Martin Jenkins


(26) Michelle asked:

Sartre says that existentialism holds that existence precedes essence or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point. Explain what Sartre means by this.

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Existence precedes existence means that how one lives one's life, the choices one makes are not predetermined by any pre-existing human nature or essence. Living ones life by recognising one's freedom and choice making means existing makes one what one is. Utilising the phenomenological insights of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Sartre developed an ontology of Being and Nothing. Being is surrounded by Nothing. Nothing qua Nothing guarantee's and secures human freedom. Man as agent or subject is condemned to be free for everything s/he does involves making a choice — a free choice because of the interaction between Being and Nothing. Each and every act begins from the free subject.

This has proven contentious as for example, does it lead to indeterminism? Sartre would say that it doesn't. Nothingness dialectically interacts with Being meaning that every act follows from a choice. Human beings are in control of their lives.

To act within this manner recognising that one chooses freely is to be sincere — to act in good faith. Attributing that for example, my opinions are determined by the social structure I live in and I have nothing to do with them is to ignore my free agency — to choose that I have or do not want any choice. This is to act in bad faith.

Martin Jenkins


(27) James asked:

What is the comparison between Aristotle and the Stoics on the importance of externals?

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Although both Aristotle's and the Stoics' ethical teachings aim at 'eudaimonia', there are considerable differences particularly in the means of achieving it.

For Aristotle the highest good (ariston agathon) is 'eudaimonia' (happiness), which can be achieved, on the one hand, through the activity in accordance with the rational nature of man, that is to say, the life according to intellect (kata noun vios), namely knowledge (episteme) and contemplating (theorein) (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X 1178a). On the other hand, through life in accordance with moral virtue of the 'mean' (mesotes), for the social nature of man, along with the pleasures which accompany all these activities. You can read some more in my answer: Ask a Philosopher Answers 27 (55).

However, Aristotle does not underestimate external goods, since sometimes these are the means for virtuous and noble acts.

'Yet evidently, as we said, 'eudaimonia' needs the external goods as well, for it is impossible, or not easy to do noble acts without the proper equipment.' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I 1099a, 30).

The Stoics on the other hand believe that 'eudaimonia' can be achieved through the states of mind, characterized as 'apathea' (absence of passion, peace of mind) — a state similar to Epicurus' 'ataraxia' — and 'euroia' (serenity), That is to live in accordance with our nature, therefore we have to practice virtue.

'Now if virtue promises happiness, peace of mind and serenity, then progress towards virtue is certainly progress towards each of these.' (Arrian's, Epictetus' Discourse A, 4 On Progress 3).

The reasoning faculty (logos) that we share in common with the Universal Logos, can help us to distinguish the things, which are up to us or else in our power and in accordance with our nature (eph' hemin), and which are not in our power (ouk eph' hemin), and therefore indifferent (adiaphora) to us.

Those things, which are not in accordance with our nature (indifferents), are those that do not depend on us and are determined by other, different factors. 'Indifferents' are according to the Stoics, body, property, fame, political situations, health, disease, life, death and in short, all the external material things (ektos). All the above-mentioned do not depend on us, as there are unlimited factors that determine their outcome, therefore we should not bother about them. We have to let them work out in accordance with their nature, which means as the divine providence (pronoia) takes care of them.

'In our power are choice, and all actions dependent on choice; not in our power, the body, the parts of the body, property, parents, brothers, children, country, and in short, all with whom we associate.' (Arrian's, Epictetus' Discourses A, 22 On Preconceptions 10).

'What then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and the rest as it naturally happens. And how is that? As god pleases.' (Arrian's Epictetus' Discourses A, 1 On what is in our Power ... 17).

As we can see there is a great difference between Aristotle and the Stoics with regard to the importance of the externals.

Nikolaos Bakalis


(28) Laura asked:

What is most 'real' the chair you are sitting on, the molecules that make up the chair as you are sitting on it, or something else? Why?

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They're both equally real, because the relaxation time of their interactions in the appropriate contexts (as molecules, as chair) maintains their integrity as whole objects in that context. When their interactions are below the appropriate relaxation time, they're collections. Well, you wanted an answer, and that's mine (and it's a theory I'm still working on). Now all you have to do is find out what 'relaxation time' means; I'll leave that up to you. If you want other types of answers, you might look at Barry Smith's 'Mereology'.

Steven Ravett Brown


(29) Laura asked:

Suppose that your mind was successfully transplanted into a stranger's body. Who would you be? The stranger or yourself? How would you convince people you were you?

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

A mind isn't a physical thing and we don't know where to find it, so we can't transplant it. It might, at some time in the future, be possible to transplant a brain from one body to another although I think this is very unlikely.

So let us imagine that your body is dying and the doctors transplant your brain into the body of the recently deceased Duke of X. Who would you be. Well you certainly won't be legally recognised as the Duke of X since he is dead, so you won't be allowed to claim the dukedom.

Since you still have your brain and probably all your memories it is likely that we will still be prepared to accept that you are the person you were before the operation. One of the established modern criteria for death is brain death. So we can say that the Duke died but you didn't and you were just the recipient of a full body transplant.

Shaun Williamson


(30) Stephen asked:

I am antidisestablishmentarianistic. People say I'm ignorant for being this way (for my opinion), and arguing for prayer to be in school once again. Is taking 5 minutes out of each school day to read a verse from the Bible really so bad? After all, Christianity seems to give people morals and a positive perspective on life. Although many people are not Christian, does it really negatively effect them, or does it only positively effect a small percentage?

I'm basically asking for your opinion on this subject.

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

Well, take a look at this article:

Paul, Gregory S. Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look. Journal of Religion & Society, Volume 7 (2005)

Here's a quote from Paul's conclusions:

'In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction.'

So this isn't a matter of opinion, but of data: religious belief, not just in Christianity, weighs against morality.

Steven Ravett Brown


(31) Doug asked:

In our youth, for the most part, we are well, strong, and virile. Many appear to adopt that strength/wellness as part of their identity, and often manifests in the form of reliability, independence, and fortitude, and roles that call upon those traits in ones family, workplace, or social groups.

At some point in life, some circumstance or event will threaten that wellness/strength, often suddenly, and thus threaten those elements ones self concept.

Maybe this is a pain avoidance topic, but it seems to me that in order to ensure continued emotional health, one MUST expect that at some point, this day will come when one is no longer as able or strong, and thus no longer as reliable or independent as before. Thus, one must not allow self concept to be irreparably threatened or compromised by diminished ability/capacity. At least, one would be wise to be prepared to adapt to it.

Essentially, one must know that at some point you are going to die, to be felled by circumstance. If you were to find out that death/diminishment was imminent, how would you feel: disappointed? Regretful? Satisfied? Relieved? Anxious?

What philosophies do these questions tap into? Existentialism?

What reading/ philosophers would you recommend for following these topics? From a more psychological stance, I know of Carl Rogers' self concept, and I have a vague sense of possible relevance to Frankl and meaning, but what else?

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

Well, it really depends on where you want to go with this. Do you want help? To be aware of your feelings? Of most people's feelings on this? If so, I'd advise not philosophy, but psychology... Rogers, as you say, and also Kubler-Ross, and any number of other modern people on aging, dying, and death. Clinical psych isn't really my field, but you can easily go to the web and find stuff on this.

As for philosophy, yes I'd say existentialism would be your best bet if you want to generalize these concerns to all society, to humanity in general, and so forth. Sartre for sure, and then you could go further. But the big caveat here is that most of the French existentialists are very very heavily influenced by Freud, and all the modern experiments done to verify his theories have failed. The mental components, stages of development, and so forth that Freud wrote about so extensively just haven't panned out when they're investigated in tightly controlled studies. So I'd approach post-Freudian existentialism (that done after, and influenced by, Freud) very cautiously indeed.

Steven Ravett Brown


(32) Kassandra asked:

Do we need a solar system?

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An interesting question... could the earth be in a stable orbit if there were no other planets? The answer is yes. Does the earth need the sun? Absolutely. So we need a solar system of at least the sun and the earth.

Steven Ravett Brown


(33) Anissa asked::

I have to type a paper on the Apology, Trail and Death of Sacrotes. It has to be an argumentive, questioning the fact whether Sacrotes was optimistic or preministic.

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

Tell me, should I feel insulted or should I just be cynically amused at your ignorance and lack of consideration for us? There was never a person named 'Sacrotes'. There's no such feeling or state as 'preministic'. Go look these up, correct them, and present us with a well-formed and thoughtful question. And perhaps as you make these corrections, you might do some thinking yourself about your homework.

Steven Ravett Brown


(34) Eric asked:

Isn't rationality highly overestimated in our western culture? The more I think about it, the more I'm getting convinced that the real 'processing' power resides at a less conscious level, in our neural network which can 'reason' with incomplete and inconsistent data in 'real time'. This power is sometimes called intuition or common sense.

I believe that intuitive knowledge is the foundation for cognitive knowledge. It delivers the axioms for our rationality. And these axioms are much more than just: 'Cogito ergo sum' ...

Are there any philosophers who adhere this idea?

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

I am not certain is rationality is highly overestimated in the West. In academia we search for explanations, especially in the sciences and philosophy. My interpretation is that Reason will always give a better explanation than intuition. It is always easier to give a coherent explanation using reason rather than referring to intuition. Arguments that are supported by statements such as I feel strongly about this or I can't prove it yet, but I know it in my gut, just sound silly. However, that doesn't mean they are wrong. The Eastern philosophies seem more comfortable allowing for mysterious aspects in their knowledge, as well as accepting that we cannot grasp every idea and systematize it.

If you are interested in ethics try G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica. Moore believes that the good is not reducible to another quality, such as eudaimonia or pleasure. Good is a basic irreducible principle. If you are interested in epistemology try Husserl. He discusses a very particular method of overcoming our prejudices in order to understand things are they truly are. He calls this bracketing. If you are interested in philosophy of language, try Wilhelm Dilthey. For metaphysics try William James.

Also, many would question your definition of intuitive. Someone might say that regardless of what level of consciousness your mind is solving the problem it is still Reason. That is, you can call it intuition if you like, but is still your brain reasoning.

Eric Zwickler


(35) Doug asked:

In our youth, for the most part, we are well, strong, and virile. Many appear to adopt that strength/wellness as part of their identity, and often manifests in the form of reliability, independence, and fortitude, and roles that call upon those traits in ones family, workplace, or social groups.

At some point in life, some circumstance or event will threaten that wellness/strength, often suddenly, and thus threaten those elements ones self concept.

Maybe this is a pain avoidance topic, but it seems to me that in order to ensure continued emotional health, one MUST expect that at some point, this day will come when one is no longer as able or strong, and thus no longer as reliable or independent as before. Thus, one must not allow self concept to be irreparably threatened or compromised by diminished ability/capacity. At least, one would be wise to be prepared to adapt to it.

Essentially, one must know that at some point you are going to die, to be felled by circumstance. If you were to find out that death/diminishment was imminent, how would you feel: disappointed? Regretful? Satisfied? Relieved? Anxious?

What philosophies do these questions tap into? Existentialism?

What reading/ philosophers would you recommend for following these topics? From a more psychological stance, I know of Carl Rogers' self concept, and I have a vague sense of possible relevance to Frankl and meaning, but what else?

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

Thanks for the question Doug. Questions about death and well-being are discussed in almost every area of philosophy. Philosophers site examples similar to yours to show the advantages of a life of reason. While I cannot jump as high as I could when I was eighteen, I have leaned a lot, and I consider my mental/ emotional growth to be exponential. While I am passed my physical prime, there is no reason to believe that I cannot continue to learn and grow as I age. Since I value my intelligence more than my ability to dunk a basketball, I have the potential to have a healthy self-image for some time. As for outside tragedies that interrupt my health or well being, I have no control over them either way. It would be pointless to plan my life for how I might handle a theoretical future. Worrying about these things seems counterproductive to establishing a healthy self-identity.

Existentialism talks about some of these topics, most importantly about dread. I am not sure it says anything worthwhile, but I have friends and colleagues who swear by it.

If this is genuinely stressing you out you could always go talk to a psychologist.

Eric Zwickler


(36) Barrios asked:

People, such as teachers and my parents, say that I'm a negative person. They say that if I think negatively about something, then it's going to be the way that I thought it was going to be. Is this true?

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Well, look. I can't really give you advice about your personality, you know? I don't know you or even what you mean by 'negative'. But there's some interesting recent research on the formation of concepts, which says two things about learning new things. First, you have to be aware that you're making mistakes to learn new ways to think about things... and this is true in ethics also. Second, you have to be told something about the new way of thinking about things. You need both of those to move forward. now, what does that say about negativity? Well, there has to be criticism, pointing out errors. But there also has to be, if not 'encouragement', at the very least an active pointing out of some way that works to solve problems and think about things. Either one by itself doesn't work very well, but both together work. Think about that.

Blasi, A. 'Emotions and Moral Motivation.' Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 29, no. 1 (1999): 1-19. ------. 'Kohlberg's Theory and Moral Motivation.' New Directions for Child Development 47 (1990): 51-57.

Little, D.R., S. Lewandowsky, and E. Heit. 'Ad Hoc Category Restructuring.' Memory & Cognition 34, no. 7 (2006): 1398-413.

Steven Ravett Brown


(37) Martin asked:

I heard a fascinating tale on a local radio station just recently, which attempts to explain the meaning of life. Known as the Red King (Related to the character from 'Through the looking glass) theory; four words were buried underground in a box that would explain life in a single sentence. The meaning is said to be so powerful however, that most people who looked at it were instantly killed. Furthermore, a book apparently well known to philosophers also exists that goes under the aforementioned 'Red King' title; a book with immense theoretical notions. Since I was half awake (literally) whilst listening, I did not retain the full dialogue. Do you have any knowledge of this account? I have searched for keywords on this subject, high and low, but with scant reward.

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

You were listening to a story. There are no single sentences that explain life in four words. Think about it! Its just not possible. The idea that looking at a book can kill you is nonsense. Please try to think like an adult and stop looking for such childish nonsense.

Shaun Williamson


(38) Martin asked::

I heard a fascinating tale on a local radio station just recently, which attempts to explain the meaning of life. Known as the Red King (Related to the character from 'Through the looking glass) theory; four words were buried underground in a box that would explain life in a single sentence. The meaning is said to be so powerful however, that most people who looked at it were instantly killed. Furthermore, a book apparently well known to philosophers also exists that goes under the aforementioned 'Red King' title; a book with immense theoretical notions. Since I was half awake (literally) whilst listening, I did not retain the full dialogue. Do you have any knowledge of this account? I have searched for keywords on this subject, high and low, but with scant reward.

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

The book is The King in Yellow, by Robert Chambers. It's a very early sci-fi/ fantasy novel, not bad... um, I read it and did manage to retain some shreds of sanity... I hope...

Steven Ravett Brown


(39) Angie asked:

How can a person be identified as an existentialist and still believe in god?

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One thing that the various flavours of existentialism have in common is a belief that the world cannot be comprehended rationally and that philosophy has failed to provide a rational basis for belief in God or for morality. So existentialists value concepts such as commitment, authenticity etc.

This fits in well with the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard who wrote about the leap of faith that we have to make in the face of existential dread. We have to commit ourselves to belief in God and Christ. So there is no contradiction between existentialism and his Christian brand of existentialism.

Shaun Williamson


(40) Nazir asked:

'We must adopt western ways to keep pace with developed World.'

But I disagree with the above statement, so please share with me your comments on the case against the above statement. Which is more important a question and give me an answers soon?

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

No, I'm not going to give you an answer. But here's something to think about. There was a study done about a year ago concerning the interactions, through trade, of countries of varying economic status: what happens when a rich country starts trading with a poor country... and rich vs. rich, poor vs. poor, etc. Well, the answer was (and remember this was a computer simulation, with all the problems inherent in that) that as long as the two countries had comparable wealth, both benefitted. When they did not, the rich country benefitted, and only the rich in the poor country did. I would say that this, given the inevitability of trade, was one reason for poor countries to find ways to 'keep pace', whatever other considerations there were, wouldn't you? Of course if you're one of the rich in a poor country you might disagree.

Steven Ravett Brown


(41) Richard asked:

Please explain the epistemological difference between 'real' and 'true'.

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The real is usually defined as anything that exists independently of anyone's perception; or sometimes of anyone's consciousness. The true is a property of an idea, proposition, statement, picture, or image; these are true insofar as they represent the real, and false insofar as they do not represent the real. According to common sense all that we perceive around us that is not illusory is real — that is, it continues to exist when unperceived; but some philosophers claim that all the we perceive around us is not reality but only images of reality, and these images are true insofar as they are not illusory.

Helier Robinson


(42) James asked:

Most people seem to agree that it is not possible to imagine a square circle. If square circles are unimaginable, what else is unimaginable, and what does this limit to imagination tell us about the mind and the world?

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The logically impossible is unimaginable (such as a square circle) and so is anything abstract (such as the curvature of space-time.) Bishop Berkeley insisted that nothing abstract exists, so that the unimaginable is always impossible, but anyone familiar with the abstract knows that the abstract is unimaginable but not thereby unthinkable. Generally the imaginable is concrete (it can be pictured or heard in the imagination) and thought is abstract. The impossible can exist only in language, where anything is possible (such as naming the unnameable, describing the indescribable, or stating any other logical contradiction.)

Helier Robinson


(43) Maria asked:

What is the definition of love from a philosopher's point of view?

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The best definition that I know is that love is a willingness to give unconditionally to the beloved. Not to be confused with a feeling of love, or loving.

Helier Robinson


(44) Julie asked:

Many of us feel pulled in both directions when considering relativism, in that there appear to be strong (convincing) arguments in favor of it, as well as strong arguments opposing it. What do you think is the strongest argument in favor of relativism? What about the strongest argument opposing or undermining it? After considering both of these arguments, where do you stand in terms of your overall assessment of relativism?

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Relativism is the doctrine that all truth is relative. The strongest argument in favour of relativism is that when it comes to beliefs there is so much variety among people that is difficult to say whose beliefs are true and whose false. So it is easy to claim that each person's beliefs are 'true for him' or 'true for her'. In other words, truth is relative to each person.

The strongest argument against relativism is that it is self-refuting. If truth is not wholly relative then some truth must be absolute; either relativism is absolutely true or it is not; if it is absolutely true then at least one truth is absolute (namely, this claim that relativism is absolutely true), in which case relativism is false; and if it is not absolutely true then it is only partially true, in which case some truth is absolute and so relativism is false. Relativism should be thought of as an expression of philosophic defeat, a cop out, resulting from the difficulty of discovering truth.

Helier Robinson


(45) Kobe asked:

Why is it that even a three year old child knows the answer to some major philosophical questions while philosophers sometimes spend their whole life searching for an answer?

Do I exist? Does the external world exist? Do other minds exist? Am I dreaming? Is knowledge possible?...

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First of all, the child does not know, it only believes — as do most people on these questions. Do I exist? Of course I do — I have to exist in order to ask this question. Cf. Descartes' cogito. Does the external world exist? It depends on what you mean by the external world. If you mean the world that you perceive around you, then it exists at least as long as you perceive it. Anything in your present consciousness has to exist in order for you to be conscious of it. If you mean that the world you perceive around you is only sensory images of a real world, and this real world is what you call the external world, then the answer is: probably, but we cannot prove it. Do other minds exist? Probably, but we cannot prove it. Am I dreaming? Probably not; dreams are much more incoherent than waking life, and what I now experience is coherent. Is knowledge possible? Yes, according to Plato and his followers, but it is very difficult to achieve. You have to get out of the cave, get to the top of the divided line, get to know the Form of the Good, from which all other knowledge derives. If you can manage this, all my 'probablies' above become either certainly true or certainly false.

Helier Robinson


(46) Bob asked:

When Descartes claims to know that he exists, does he really know that he is a separate entity (e.g. that he is not part of Brahman)?

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Descartes' cogito ergo sum was the result of his hyperbolical doubt, which was an experimental process of doubting everything he could, so that what was left was indubitable — it could not be doubted. That his own existence was indubitable implied nothing about any other existents — although Descartes believed that it did imply the existence of God, whom he would not have called Brahman, nor of whom he would say he was a part. Spinoza, on the other hand, did believe that he was part of God, of whom he might well have said was also called Brahman.

Helier Robinson


(47) Lanre asked:

Does a falling tree make a sound when no one is around?

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If by sound you mean an acoustical vibration in he air then it does make a sound. If you mean by sound the sensation produced in someone's brain by the ears when that vibration reaches them, then it does not make a sound. This is essentially the same problem as that of whether colour exists in the dark. If you mean by colour various frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, then it does; if you mean the visible sensations produced by the retinas when stimulated by this radiation then it doesn't.

Helier Robinson


(48) Eric asked:

Isn't rationality highly overestimated in our western culture? The more I think about it, the more I'm getting convinced that the real 'processing' power resides at a less conscious level, in our neural network which can 'reason' with incomplete and inconsistent data in 'real time'. This power is sometimes called intuition or common sense.

I believe that intuitive knowledge is the foundation for cognitive knowledge. It delivers the axioms for our rationality. And these axioms are much more than just: 'Cogito ergo sum' ...

Are there any philosophers who adhere this idea?

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Intuition is certainly very valuable to those people who have it: it enables them to get at truth. It has the disadvantage, however, that its feeling of certainly is indistinguishable from that of prejudice, which is at best a half-truth. The advantage of reasoning is that it can justify an intuition by means of logical argument. For example, Einstein's intuition about the curvature of space-time would have been useless without the mathematics that made it explicit.

Helier Robinson


(49) Richard asked:

Setting aside the idea that a list of activities is right or wrong simply by being listed I might be hung for standing on one leg otherwise. If we are rational about ethics:

Taking the concept, Equality, it can be used in two ways.

As an arithmetical calculation that two quantities are the same, or two people have the same qualities.

Or as an ethical value or virtue in itself, in which inequality in general is espoused, or equality in certain qualities, or equality in certain opposing qualities. Don't get too complex.

In a current controversy to say that 'gays' are equal to heterosexuals is an arithmetic statement about qualities being measured.

It is those qualities that are of ethical significance, and are exhibited in people.

Similarly a number of religions are only equal in the qualities they exhibit.

It is the qualities that matter not the name of the religion.

We cannot use fundamental values by themselves in relation to 'things'. The freedom of Man, resonates foolishly. Man is either free from a specific anti-value, or free to have something defined by another value, such as justice.

The term 'God' is not an ethical value and therefore of no purpose until translated into the values we are already investigating.

Might is right, is wrong perhaps.

Since ethical values define existence, or sapient life in the universe, we have no external base on which to stand and judge ethical values. The mistake often made here is for people then to say what they want back to blind wisdom again.

The most neutral statement that may be possible is to say that ethical values relate together as a reflection of a universal relationship of benefit, duty, etc in all the forms of ethical values.

Is it worth going forward from here???

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Yes. To begin with, you can clarify those terms you use which have more than one meaning. Arithmetical equality means something quite different from social equality, and freedom of the will is quite different from freedom under the law. The term 'God' is a word, hence to say that it is not an ethical value is to say nothing, since no word is an ethical value. Also, ethical values do not define either existence or sapient life. As Whitehead said, there is a big difference between obscurity of expression and expression of obscurity. You may be thinking clearly about the obscure, but the expression of your thought is too obscure for anyone else to know that. One of the advantages of studying philosophy is that it teaches you to express obscure thought clearly — something you need to learn.

Helier Robinson


(50) Christian asked:

I study psychology. I am devoted to philosophy and theology. In the career I am studying I am more of a constructionist (in part, because I myself also agree with process philosophy). Now, I am also a religious person. I am a christian, not a protestant but a mormon. I find, because of our materialist conceptions, no problems between science and religious philosophy. Rather it is very creative and innovating. However, it is not to this concern that I ask. I have read plenty of philosophical debates and theology concerning higher criticisms on mormonism's philosophical presuppositions, libertarian free will, notions of time, etc...This is only my background here.

My concern is another, mostly personal. How do I cope with something so unexpected to me, and against some fundamental worldviews I hold, as my recent feeling of love (erotic) towards a male best friend of mine? What is my duty now? I don't conceive homosexuality as sin, though never expected to feel this way. I believe sexuality to be a construct mostly, but yet this is so difficult. My friend is a christian also. We are like brothers since high school, and suddenly the normally restrained urges of touch between us have crossed the line to actually a kiss. We have ignored such event since it happened, and, he doesn't talk about it, though he behaves in the same lovely manner and normal way he usually does with me. I do not know how to approach this issue. May I approach him with the explanations I have of it? Do I simply 'prove' to him apologetically how deviated from truth is the christian doctrines of sinful and irreverent homosexuality? I do honor and value the sacred, in fact, I value it as the highest thought ever conceived by me. But I also honor my feelings, and, in praxis, one shouldn't overlap with the other.

What do I do. Sorry if the question is more of a mix of counsel and answer....I can't help it. Thanks, and regards.

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Look... first of all, this isn't a philosophical question, or shouldn't be. Although you're intellectualizing this, it's basically an emotional problem... for both of you. Just as no argument will convince you to give up your theism, so no argument will convince your friend to become, or even probably to accept, homosexuality, particularly his own, assuming he is homosexual and didn't just have an odd (for a heterosexual) moment. This isn't a matter of morality, duty, or whatever... it's a matter of handling feelings. Now, as far as 'praxis' and feelings go, I do not believe you're correct. There is no way to detach one's feelings from one's actions, and indeed to attempt this is immoral, because action is interdependent with feeling. To attempt to separate the two leads to grievous errors, because one cannot separate them, and the attempt results in ignorance of one or the other. What you need to do, instead, is to attempt to become a conscious participant in the interactions of feeling, action, and thinking, and this is extremely difficult. I certainly can't claim to be able to do it... I merely know that it should be done; not the same thing at all.

It's not arguments you need, it's someone to listen to you. It's not your friend you need to talk to, but someone else, to process all this. If you don't have another friend to talk to, go find a counselor, and preferably a non-religious one, because you're going to run into more prejudice against homosexuality from the religious than from secular people.

Steven Ravett Brown


(51) Anders asked:

Is it possible to make sense of explaining a word like 'meaning'? If so, how can one try to explain (or understand) it?

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How indeed. Go look here:

Ogden, C. K., and I. A. Richards. The Meaning of Meaning. 8th ed. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968.

it's old but still good.

Steven Ravett Brown


(52) Michael asked:

Hello I am a philosopher myself and am wondering how you would take this idea to be true false or possible, is it not true that we are all philosophers we all have are own ideas? We all have belief systems unique to our own personalities, so is it not logical to say we are all philosophers? If I am correct socrates said that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, so is this not correct to think this way?

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I'll tell you what... substitute the word 'physicist' or 'engineer' or even 'psychologist' in the first two sentences above, for 'philosopher'. Do you get the same answer? To be a philosopher requires as much or more training than those professions. And so, you might ask yourself of what that training consists.

Here's a 'joke' I tell people: there were two people at a party, talking, and one asked the other, 'what do you do?' the second answered, 'I'm a philosopher... and what do you do?' The first replied, 'I'm a neurologist... and I always thought I'd take up philosophy in my old age.' 'That's interesting', the other responded, 'I've always thought I'd take up neurology in my old age.'

Now, what's funny about this? Does that help answer your question?

Steven Ravett Brown


(53) Tal asked:

What is the point in philosophy if we don't know the answer to the basic most questions — like the reasons we are here, or what is this world?

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If you are not interested in doing philosophy, answer any of the basic questions you have cited. But your answer is not the only answer acceptable for every one. If you whole heartedly believe that your answer is right, if you think that many other things go drastically wrong if your answer is wrong, then, what will you try to do? You will try to provide us explanations and arguments in support of your answer so that we can be convinced of that your answer is right. Now, in doing so you are already engaged in the act of doing philosophy.

Laxminarayan Lenka