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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 38 (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 38/1.

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) Jean asked:

I would be grateful for any philosophical comment, point of view or criticism concerning Brian Greene and his book The Elegant Universe.

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

The Elegant Universe is a narrative account of what physicists and mathematicians 'say' with numbers. Mathematical models and theoretical physics describe worlds — possible worlds, and the world that we live in.

Quantum physics — which is a mathematical account of quanta, units of energy and the movement of subatomic particles — gets quite odd the deeper the theory goes. Relativity theory, which addresses things that are really, really big — like universes — also gets pretty weird at its outer edge. The law of non-contradiction no longer holds, and a particle can be in two places at once. Time bends, conflating with space.

The search for 'a theory of everything' is the attempt to reconcile these contradictions in logic and other mathematical impossibilities at the edge of scientific inquiry as we know it today. These cannot both be true at the same time, they contradict each other, and yet they are both correct. These two theories adequately describe the universe, and science progresses normally within its confines, except at the edges, deep in quantum physics at the subatomic level, and at the outer edges of the universe, where relativity theory is unsure of whether the universe is expanding or not.

One theory in philosophy of science against which you can consider The Elegant Universe is the notion of paradigm shifts. This comes from Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Scientific inquiry progresses normally, within the disciplines as we know it, with confusing, seemingly unsolvable puzzles at the edge. Until a revolution causes a seismic shift, and upends the entire world of normal scientific discourse. Then, because of this revolution normal science then progresses within a new framework, or paradigm, with a new set of confusing questions at the outer edges of that theory. Before Einstein, Newtonian physics described a fixed, unchanging universe. Now, physics is searching for a theory of everything.

A few additional examples: Before Copernicus, the movements of planets and stars, around an Earth at the center of the universe, were puzzling. Theories to explain it got increasingly complicated. One geocentric theory before Copernicus even postulated rotating spheres and crystals. Until the heliocentric theory came along, put the sun at the center, and nine rotating planets circulated in concentric circles. Before the pathogenic theory of disease, it was thought that miasma — bad smells — carried disease, and medicine was hit or miss, as people and doctors didn't concern itself with sanitizing its surroundings and minimising the presence of bacteria. People died from simple procedures or even from medical treatment itself, because the miasmatic theory did not account for infection. Now, medical science proceeds with the understanding of cells as the basic units of life, and pathogens, or germs as the carriers of disease. At the outer edges, the new set of problems are medicine is treating a new series of problems, trying to understand viruses, which are a special class of germs that are difficult to understand.

Scientific revolutions have given rise to simpler more economical explanations that are, to use Greene's word, elegant.

What if a new, elegant theory will reconcile fundamental the incompatibility of quantum physics and relativity theory? What if nature does always take the easiest route? What if the simplest explanation is correct?

Is a 'theory of everything' possible, and, if so, will it be astonishingly simple, like e=mc squared?

I am not qualified to offer a critique in physics, neither of Greene's account and certainly not of Einstein's. That is beyond my level of expertise. The Elegant Universe is a good example of scientific writing for laypersons — most appreciated for its narrative value, for someone like me who would like to be conversant in the theoretical questions treated in philosophy of science, but who lacks an advanced background mathematics or physics. I commend it from a literary perspective, as an engaging narrative, and his argument progresses with examples in normal language that carries the reader along, to understand where scientific progress is today. As such, I can consider the philosophical merit of Greene's argument, at least as a spectator, while theoretical science asks cogent questions about the universe and speculates on possible answers to the deep problems of theoretical science.

N Greene


(2) Brian asked:

What is the difference (if any at all) between fate and destiny? also in terms of philosophy (knowledge, metaphysics, morality) where does ones faith in God 'fit'? In relation to these two questions, how much of a role does the way in which one views his or her 'path in life' determine their belief system(s)?

For example, if one believes in destiny must they believe in God and vice versa. thank you

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

According to the popular notion of 'destiny', if X is destined to do P, then irrespective of what X does or what happens to X in the meantime, X will do P. Oedipus was told by the Oracle of Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He ran away in order to escape the prophesy, but the prophesy was fulfilled nonetheless. If he hadn't run away, the prophesy would still have been fulfilled. Destiny is something in the future that you can't escape, no matter what you do.

According to the philosophical theory of 'fatalism', every statement about the future has a determinate truth value now. If it is true now that X will do P, then there is no possibility that X might do something, or something might happen in the future that would prevent P. However, this applies to every event. Oedipus could not have decided not to run away, the Delphic Oracle could not have withheld the prediction. Everything that happens, has to happen and could not happen otherwise.

Destiny implies a powerful being, for example a Greek god, who is able to so 'fix' things that no matter what you do, you will meet your destiny one way or another. Belief in fatalism, on the other hand, goes together with — but does not require — the metaphysical idea of a God or recording angel who is able to survey the past, present and future states of the world from a position outside time.

Geoffrey Klempner


(3) Ricky asked:

Can you please tell me if if there is real reason to believe the big bang theory? I truly want to know if it is a real true possibility.

Thank you so much for your time.

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

The Big Bang Theory is a scientific theory and at one time there were other competing theories such as The Steady State Theory advanced by the astronomer Fred Hoyle. However over the last fifty years are so it has gradually become apparent that all the evidence (and we now have a lot of evidence) supports the Big Bang Theory.

Of course future discoveries may cause the theory to be modified but it is unlikely to be completely overturned. So yes we do have good reasons to believe in this theory just as we have good reasons to believe in Quantum Mechanics, the Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Relativity.

Shaun Williamson


(4) Reshmi asked:

The only thoughts always wandering through my mind are like... 'What is the purpose of life'..'of my life', 'what is my mission on earth', 'why have I been sent to this world'? etc.

This burning quest about 'Purpose of Life' came to my mind when I was just 16 yrs old. My friends used to enjoy goin for shopping, roam around just like that, watch movies, go to beauty parlour, gossip about classmates etc .But I was never contented with these; Never happy with anything I have in life.

Then suddenly I was goin through the most depressing days of life.

Problem: I preferred sitting alone, contemplating like a monk in seclusion... it took a toll on my health and studies...

Now though I have learnt somewhat to put these thoughts aside and get busy with little pleasures of life( chatting with friends, watching tv, reading novels etc), and keep myself busy with office work, still this thirst for finding the purpose of life is deepening day by day..

Some say that there is nothing like 'Purpose Of Life'... that only thing that matters is that we enjoy life...

Cant find my answers from any Self Help book...

I am still not ready to accept that there's nothing like 'Purpose Of Life'... that I will never find a 'passion in Life'... .

Can someone suggest on how one can find one's 'calling in life'... .

so as to avoid the regret of havin wandered through life aimlessly... .to avoid the pain of simply vegetating...

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

I do not think you will find the answer to your question on this site, any more than you found it in self help books; it is a question that you must answer for yourself, and your life must be the answer. Some people seem to be lucky enough to have a passion for something, like music for example, which they simply follow without any agonising about it. Others are content with superficial pleasures. I wonder why you are so dissatisfied? You want some big passion because you feel small and empty, possibly? If you are looking for a purpose beyond or outside life, then you will have to resort to God or something of the sort; there are many who will be keen to tell you all about that. But if you want to find some purpose within life, that makes life worth living for its own sake, then you might be well advised to look towards the small and the empty for some beauty and goodness, and encourage that to flower in your life.

Bob Macintosh


(5) Christopher asked:

I think that the reason that we 'hate' is because we FIRST 'love.' White supremacists hate African Americans because they first love their own ethnicity. We hate terrorists because we love our country. Would you agree or disagree? Is there any validity to my statement?

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

This is a very interesting question, and it certainly has some validity. My wife hates my girlfriend because she (my wife) loves me. That seems to make sense. But I don't hate broccoli because I love ice cream. When you talk of loving one's country or one's ethnicity, you are talking about identifications that we all tend to make — people like me, my place, my husband, etc. In this kind of love, there is always an element of selfishness if you look for it ('me' and 'my'). And so there is always a separation from something 'other'. In this sense, love and hate are opposites which go together just as you say. Perhaps that is all we are capable of, but there is a sense of the word love which means a total lack of selfishness, a complete unconcern with 'me', and in that sense, love is not the opposite of hate any more than ice cream is the opposite of broccoli, it is something completely different.

Bob Macintosh


(6) Eloy asked:

Is it possible to have happiness, without ever knowing sadness?

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

I hope you are happy to receive this answer. If you are, imagine that you have lost all memory of the past, while still being able to read. Then you would be happy without knowing sadness. But would you know that you were happy? Probably not. What this shows is that knowing is always the past, so leave your happiness and your sadness behind in the past and live now. Then the question does not arise.

Bob Macintosh


(7) Geoffrey asked:

Is now just like all other times?

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

Now you're asking! Now I'm answering, and now you're reading my answer. Now you're posting it, and now other people are reading it. There are no other times, there is only one. One last time, it's now. The rest is just memory and imagination.

Bob Macintosh


(8) Carl asked:

My Views on Life. Can you point out some problems/contradictions with it?

Questioning only leads to more questions. To me, life seems to be meaningless. But the human mind has its limits, and therefore I could be wrong that life is meaningless. But how do I know that human mind has its limits? How can I know for certain that anything is true or correct when I can only see things through the limits and perceptions of the human mind? Everything we learn and know, all our understanding, is based on empirical evidence. Everything we know to be true is based on life experiences, how we are genetically hardwired and things our senses can pick up. We can't see reality from an omniscient perspective. We can only see it from a subjective viewpoint, through the limitations of our body and mind. And therefore since we can only see reality and logic as we perceive it to be, we can't know what is truly real, and what is truly correct.

Logic is how our brains make sense of the world. We think that say.. the sky is blue and we believe that to be reality. But because our brains are limited we may not be seeing the true reality, only our own perception of reality. Bees can see ultraviolet light that we can't see, that is what they believe to be reality. Maybe there isn't even one ultimate reality that is true. But we can't know, because we can't see and know anything from an omniscient, objective viewpoint. That's because we're stuck inside this human body and mind.

The point is that our perception of reality is limited to our human senses and limited brain capacity. We can't know anything is right for sure. We can't even trust that our logic is right for sure because our 'logic' is only a mental process of our limited minds. Because we lack omniscience, we lack the ability to know things as they truly are. I can't even trust that what I'm writing is absolutely true.

A lot of people would believe that humans and human lives would be somehow more meaningful than say, a sentient robot. But I believe that all lifeforms are just like robots, only made out of organic/cellular materials and far more complex than any robot we have made at this point in time. We aren't sacred or special at all, we're merely a product of evolution designed to survive and reproduce. And I still can't be sure that any of this is absolutely true. Perhaps there are no absolute truths, I don't know.

Questioning only leads to more questions, and at the moment I think that the end result of them happens to lead to simply 'I don't know for sure', due to the limits of the human mind. But it's not necessarily important to know anyway. Nothing seems to have any intrinsic value or importance beyond what we give it. Which is partly why I see life as being pretty meaningless, with the only goal being to survive and reproduce. It's just a pointless cycle that doesn't lead to anything higher. And there is nothing that is truly higher, because nothing has any intrinsic value or importance beyond what we give it. It's all about perception.

I believe that we should just do whatever we do and be content with ignorance, and just follow our intuition, emotions and logic to live our lives without necessarily trying to think deeper about it. They say ignorance is bliss, but I believe that ignorance is contentment. Many cows just walk around in paddocks eating grass all day mooing to the other cows. I'd imagine that they feel pretty content since all their basic needs are met. (herd, food, water, sun, etc.) They don't need to think deeply, they just do what they were designed to do, blissfully unaware of more complex things. And we might as well do that too.

A teacher once told me that Socrates said 'An unexamined life is not worth living'. I disagree with that. I think that no life is necessarily worth living. Life is just something that's there. I say that because nothing seems to have any intrinsic worth.

I read about Plato's Cave recently. Forgot most of it but anyway... the prisoners chained facing the wall were content with their perception of reality. And if you're content why bother changing that and going outside the cave when things are perfectly good? As long as we're content we might as well accept the limitations put on us, because since our minds are limited and we are not omniscient I'm not sure that we even can go too far outside the cave(so to speak), and see things as they truly are.

Bloody hell, this is turning out to be a long question! Anyway, I'm only 15 and I hardly know anything about philosophy and other people's ideas. And I'm not saying my viewpoint is correct. It's merely what I believe at this point in time. Could you please point it out if you can see any contradictions or problems in my current view of life?

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

You have a theory of knowledge, a theory of evolution, a theory of perception, an idea of the limitations of logic and rationality, an understanding of the major Greek philosophers, and a healthy skepticism about you own knowledge and understanding — yet you say you know hardly anything about other people's ideas. When I examine your life as expressed in your question, I conclude that you are not a cow. Rather, you are a young philosopher. Incidentally, if you spend some time with cows, you will find there is a lot more to them than eating grass and moos. And if you spend some time with humans you will find that they all go around trying to understand everything and trying to get beyond the 'natural' limitations of their senses and bodies. Cows eat grass, and Humans eat ideas. I applaud and encourage your skepticism; for example, just because we are so limited that we cannot say what is the meaning of life does not mean that there is none. The only problem with your current view that I can see is that you seem to think you ought to be a cow. But cows are not as you imagine them, and anyway, you are not a cow It seems to me that you ought to be what you already are, which is a philosopher (the length of your question alone, never mind the content demonstrates this).

Bob Macintosh


(9) Kathryn asked:

I have been thinking about senses. My dad was born without a sense of smell, and when you try to explain what smelling is to him, he has no clue what it could possibly be like. He understands it has something to do with the nose, and inhaling, but otherwise he can't imagine what it would be.

This got me to thinking. I have five senses, but isn't it conceivable that there are far more than five senses in all of life? Maybe we are walking around completely unaware of a lot of other things. We would never know what these other senses are, like my dad can't imagine what smelling something would be like.

What do you think about this? I have been wondering about it a lot.

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

The idea that there might be creatures who possess senses that we do not possess involves something more than just the possibility that some creature might possess the ability to detect things that we cannot detect, by the use of a new sense organ.

For example, imagine as a result of a genetic mutation that human beings are born with the ability to detect magnetic fields. Just by 'looking' (i.e. turning his/ her head) a mutant can tell you where the magnetism is strong and where it is weak, its polarity and so on.

What I have missed from this description is the 'phenomenology' of magnetism detection. What is it 'like' to 'sense' magnetism? One possibility is that these creatures literally 'see' the lines of magnetic flux. In other words, the magnetic sense is presented visually, for example, as shimmering white lines in one's field of vision.

What you have in mind is something more than this, an experience which is unlike sight, hearing, taste, smell and therefore indescribable to those who do not possess it. Your first-hand experience trying to explain what it is like to experience smell is a good clue to how the mutants would feel when they tried to explain their magnetic sense to us.

Geoffrey Klempner


(10) Mustafa asked:

Tell me something about principle of verification of Logical positivism

The logical positivists wanted to claim that science and logic are meaningful while metaphysics, theology, and other speculative disciplines are not. To this end they proposed the principle of verification as their standard of meaning: a statement is meaningful if it can be verified scientifically or logically. Hence a statement that cannot be so verified is meaningless. But this meant that the statement of the principle of verification is meaningless. Logical positivists then enunciated the principle of falsification in its place: a statement is meaningful only if it can in principle or in fact be falsified. This was more satisfactory logically, but it led to the position that nothing could be verified — including science and logic. Logical positivism ultimately failed because it could not account for theoretical science, which is speculative.

Helier Robinson

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

Joy asked:

Explain me the problem of evil

The problem of evil is the problem that God is all-good and all-powerful, yet evil exists. If He is all-good He would want evil not to exist, and if He is all-powerful He is able to abolish it, yet evil still exists. hence He is either not all-good or else not all-powerful. The usual answer to this is that evil exists for the sake of a greater good. This greater good is usually cited as the fact of us having free will, and evil exists as a result because some people freely choose to act evilly. However an all-powerful God could have chosen to create us in such a way that we had free-will but never in fact chose evil.

Helier Robinson


(11) John asked:

I would like to ask a question regarding multiple minds.

Lets suppose that two individuals are sat in a room, both with their eyes shut and both are focusing on a single conscious mental image, which for the sake of argument is a red dot. Assuming that both people are focusing intently on the image, the contents of their consciousness is identical. Lets also assume that the red dot imagined is exactly the same for both individuals, and no other thoughts creep into their minds.

In this instance, the individuals are effectively 'thinking the same thought'.

When this occurs, and the experienced contents of both minds are identical, would it be accurate to say that there are not two minds, but only one.

Leibnitz law would apply here equally is my thought, i.e. if two minds are alike in every single way, then there are not two minds, but just one. This obviously applies for any number of minds.

Following on from this (if this were accepted), it could also be suggested that if any person ever held the same thought as myself, then for that instance there is only one mind, i.e. this would be true across time boundaries as well. If Napoleon and I thought exclusively of the same red dot, even 200 years apart, then our minds would be one mind, as long as the thought persisted.

Does this make sense? Or what is the logical flaw?

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

The word 'identical' has two meanings: one, and exactly similar. The first entails the second, but not vice versa. Thus if A and B are one then they are exactly similar (i.e. self-similar), but if they are exactly similar they are not necessarily one. So if the content of two minds are exactly similar this does not make them one. Leibniz' principle of the identity of indiscernibles (i.e. no two things differ numerically alone) would apply here because it requires that if A and B are exactly similar then they are one; but not many people accept this principle; also, is it possible for two minds to be alike in every single way?

Helier Robinson


(12) Eric asked:

Hi, I am having a conversation with a friend and I'm wondering if an inanimate object can be a victim? For example, the recently desecrated Monet in Paris, where some drunk people punched a hold in it. People are calling the painting a 'victim'. Thoughts? Thank you!

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

The question you are asking is whether it is possible to harm an inanimate object. If a piece of plaster from the ceiling had fallen and made the hole, we would still feel that the painting had been 'harmed' even though there was no-one to blame.

Things can be broken, damaged or destroyed. This implies functional description. If a photograph or painting is defaced, then its functional ability to represent is impaired. If, in addition, the object in question is considered to have aesthetic value, then not only the function but also some part of that aesthetic value is affected.

In the latter case, we are tempted to use language which is more appropriate to the case where a human being is hurt or injured. But this is metaphorical. It is we who have been harmed by the damage to the Monet, not the painting itself.

However, I detect another sense to your question, which concerns whether we have any moral obligations to inanimate objects. Suppose the human race has been decimated by a deadly virus. You are the last human being on earth. You have not long to live. Would you burn the Monet in order to keep warm if it was the nearest fuel available? After you are gone there won't be anyone to appreciate its beauty. Yet many would hesitate. Why is that?

Geoffrey Klempner


(13) Omar asked:

If Humans are evolved from nature (Darwin's theory) then how and why they acts in many unnatural ways? like we see humans as Gays and Lesbians, having a destructive approach toward natural environment, being greedy, etc.

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

Your question contains a very iffy assumption. If humans are in evolved as per Darwin, then by what criteria do you label the 'problematic' behaviour as 'unnatural'? Perhaps (in fact likely, if Darwin is correct), these behaviours that you mention are in fact natural, and can be satisfactorily explained by the workings of genetic self-interest in a complex social environment.

Stuart Burns


(14) Moruti asked:

If life is meant to be lived, then why are we living at the expense of others. It is like having a friend that continually sucks away at your bank account. What then is the purpose of life, if not to live according to someone else's standards. With God's standard being mine.

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

Your question contains a key hidden assumption that makes your conclusion (that we ought to live according to someone else's standards) totally circular.

From your first sentence it certainly seems that you believe that 'life is meant to be lived' is inconsistent with 'we are living at the expense of others'. The only way that I can make sense of seeing this as an inconsistency, is to understand your phrase 'life is meant to be lived' as meaning that 'ALL life is meant to be lived EQUALLY'. If that is in fact what you mean, it is a pretty considerable assumption on your part, with a lot of ethical consequences. (If that is not what you mean, then you are going to have to explain your question a little further.)

As you have noted — if every life is to be lived to an equal extent/degree/success/whatever, then there must be available an objective standard against which we can measure 'equal'. You can certainly not rely on any one individual's evaluation of what constitutes 'equal'. Whether some particular life is lived equally must be determinable by everyone and anyone at any time. Otherwise, how can you make any moral choices? As you point out, this means living your life according to someone else's standards.

Unfortunately, interpreting you initial sentence in this broad a context raises a few critical complexities that need to be addressed before any answer to your question can be attempted -

(a) Your assumption is certainly inconsistent with any of the biological sciences. Do you have any justification to support it?

(b) Do you mean ALL life, or just Human life? If the former, then what about the lives of other species of animal, plant, bacteria, etc? And if you mean the latter, then on what basis do you draw the line where you draw it?

(c) Just what do you mean by a life 'lived'? And how do you measure success at 'living' a life?

There are, of course, alternatives to the initial assumption you have adopted. And there are a number of answers on the Ask-a-Philosopher knowledge database. If you would like to peruse some of these, go to http://philosophos.org/knowledge_base/ and type in 'purpose of life' in the search field. When I tried it, I got 15 hits. If you can't find anything interesting here, you might try asking your question again, with a little more supporting detail.

Stuart Burns


(15) Behrouz asked:

What is the purpose of life ?

Yes this is my question. Perhaps you would think that it's too childish or too simple. Moreover, you may think that I am a person who began to think about this issue for the first time.

But, I spent YEARS of my life on this simple question. I analyzed various philosophies and religions long hours of night to morning in absolute silence, with full concentration, without any distractor. Times and times again I revised my previous conclusions and stablished beliefs mercilessly. In short, I passed every possible way to reach an answer but at last the whole process of life seems meaningless for me.

Now, if you know a reasonable and logical answer for this basic question please let me know that.

Thank you for your time and attention.

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

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist/ materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor. I am sure you will have no problem finding a suitable representative of whatever religious faith appeals to you (or that you happen to stumble across). And they will tell you that your purpose in life is to unselfishly and altruistically dedicate your existence to the glorification of whatever notion of God they propose. You will have to take their word for it, of course.

On the other hand, if you are seeking an answer that you can check out for yourself, then you are seeking a materialist answer where science and evidence have a meaningful role to play. The answer I provide here will not be met with agreement by many. It does, however, have the advantage of being consistent with all that we currently know about biology, evolution, and psychology.

The first step in answering your question from this perspective is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you. (I refer you to any of the numerous works on evolutionary biology if you need further argument on this point). The argument goes like this: (a) Life is Action. 'Life' is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move — 'act' — through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy. (b) Life's Actions are Teleological (Goal Oriented). At a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

The second step is to acknowledge that the 'thing' that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual (and we need not quibble over the precise meaning of 'gene'). You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother's ovum and your father's sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Michael Ruse, and many other similar writers in popularizing science if you require further argument on this point.) The argument goes like this: (a) The Gene is the Unit of Life. It is that (not necessarily contiguous) stretch of the DNA (or RNA) molecule that can be functionally classified as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates — continuation of which is the goal of Life's Actions. (b) The actually observed behaviour of all living creatures, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival. (c) As an example of life, as an example of the species Homo sapiens, and as an individual consciousness, our purpose is therefore to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.

To be 'Good' at anything is to do a quality job at fulfilling the purpose of that thing. A good Human Being is efficient and effective, and fulfils with quality, the purpose for which the Human Being was built — to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes. To ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes is a never ending struggle. There is never enough assurance that the job is complete. There is always something extra that can be done, some marginal increase of assurance that can be found. No matter how 'good' a job you are doing, it is always possible to do a 'better' one.

And finally, the struggle continues whether or not the individual is consciously aware of why they are striving, or what they are striving for. Even if they are striving under misconceptions, misinformation, or mistaken assumptions, the human animal is built to strive. The best situation is to be consciously aware of why you are striving, and employ the best of your intellectual abilities to make conscious rational choices of what to strive for. Happiness comes from knowing you are doing a good job.

That then, is your answer. The purpose of your life, your function, your meaning, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation. The point of it all is the welfare of your genetic descendants (over the long run, of course, and not necessarily your immediate children).

You are not here to be good for society. You are not here to become whatever God might have intended. You wake up every morning and tackle the day because you have a function to perform. Friends, family, and society matter only to the extent that they can contribute to your ultimate purpose in life.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers — and of course anyone with a religious/ spiritual bent. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are both gifted and cursed with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. You are here to ask the question you asked because your parents (and their parents, and their parents, etc.) were good at their job. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.

Your fundamental moral choice in this life is whether you are going to be an ancestor, or a dead end.

Stuart Burns


(16) Mriga asked:

I have been mulling over the idea that love (loving) makes us less free. What do you think about this?

I recently read A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues by Andre Comte-Sponville, and his last chapter is about love.

Some quotes to assist us: 'Duty is a constraint, it is a sadness, whereas love is joyous spontaneity', 'What one does from constraint does not come about from love — Kant', 'What one does out of love one does not do from constraint or out of duty', 'Yet must we also love love? Of course we must, but the fact is that we do (for at the very least, we love being loved), or if we do not, then morality can do nothing for us. Without this love of love we are lost, and therein perhaps lies the true definition of hell, by which I mean damnation and perdition in the here and now. We must either love love or love nothing, love love or be lost.'

I find this thought interesting, and I am perhaps even in agreement with most of it. My problem is that in the whole chapter on love, Comte-Sponville never mentions the nature of love that binds us. Let me explain, what I mean is love of other people. If you love someone you will be unhappy when this person is unhappy, experience pain when this person is in pain. I don't mean to suggest something sinister is afoot, but, in my opinion, love can be blissful but it is also painful. Love and pain are inextricably linked because there can be the latter without the former, but there can never be the former without the latter. I don't mean to suggest that love somehow isn't worth it, but simply that it makes us less free in the sense that we will experience suffering even though it is not US that is the victim of ill fortune.

Think about the people you love the most, I suspect it is a painful feeling, a worry about their present and future well being, and distress at even the thought of a hypothetical situation of pain involving them.

(I just want to add that Comte-Sponville is really a good writer, in that poetic, imperturbable French way, I wish I could write like that!)

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

Kant believed that even if 'stepmotherly nature' had endowed a person with inability to love, nevertheless such an individual could still respect the moral law. He also held that such respect is the only thing that is 'good in itself' or 'good without qualification' as opposed to being good for the sake of something else.

Comte-Sponville is making a case for the diametrically opposed view which would be expressed, in Kantian terms, by the claim that love is the only thing that is 'good in itself' or 'good without qualification'. With love, there can still be moral behaviour, but Kantian respect for the moral law is not sufficient to give life meaning.

What has this got to do with freedom? For Kant, human freedom just is the ability to act out of respect for the moral law, to act on the basis of a categorical imperative. Freedom is the ability to be determined by reason. Reason demands conformity to the moral law in all our actions.

On the other hand, if we replace the categorical imperative by love, can one not also say that the only freedom worth having, is the ability to act on the basis of love?

The individual who is ignorant of the moral law, is not 'free' in Kant's eyes because in that case all ones actions are determined by material needs and wants. Compte-Sponville's response to this would be that 'only love can set you free'.

Geoffrey Klempner


(17) John asked:

Shaun Williamson replied to my last posting about multiple minds as follows:

'Well I think this is just the sort of idea that can arise when we are thinking philosophically i.e without any real context to guide our thoughts. Suppose we agree that you and Napoleon are the same mind. So what? Does that make you into a short Corsican who conquered Europe. Does it make him into somebody who poses philosophical questions on the Internet. What real consequences flow from this idea beyond the picture that it creates in our minds.'

I would just like to ask:

Eh? what sort of answer is that?

a) Bizarrely enough, yes it was a question arrive at by 'thinking philosophically'

b) 'So what'.. 'SO WHAT? '!.. So lots e.g. in the areas of personal identity, ethics, etc.

c) 'What real consequences..'? Since when did 'real world consequences' have an influence on whether a question of mind was important or not.. Maybe you had better mention to Descartes not to bother thinking too philosophically (e.g. without any real context) about the mind-body duality, i.e. after all 'so what? '

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

You ask what sort of answer is that? Well obviously it's the sort of answer you are not even able to consider. Your philosophical speculations will never have an effect on ethics or morality. I would of course have advised Descartes to avoid idle contextless thinking that led to the nonsense of the mind body duality.

It is part of the peculiar nature of philosophy that things that you might consider interesting and important to others just seem like nonsense. There are no accepted philosophical truths and there never will be. There are no advances in philosophy and there never can be.

Let me leave you with some quotes from the great twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language.' 'Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.'

Shaun Williamson


(18) Miguel asked:

I am sorry if this is a FAQ but I could not find anything similar to it in the archives.

For someone who is new to the subject, is there a specific path or curriculum that one should follow in order to learn philosophy?

For example, should I start with Greek Philosophy and then move on chronologically? Standard university curricula generally start with courses on Logic and then move on to Ethics and Epistemology is this the most pedagogical way of doing it?

In fact this is part of a broader question which is: given any body of knowledge such as Philosophy or Mathematics or Physics... is there an optimal path for learning it (i.e. in Mathematics you first learn Arithmetics and then move on to Algebra and then...)

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Philosophy is quite unlike Mathematics or Physics. There are no generally accepted philosophical truths, no agreed advances in philosophy. The phrase 'a great mathematician' means someone who discovered new mathematical truths. The phrase 'a great philosopher' merely means a philosopher who is important in the history of philosophy. It doesn't imply that he discovered any philosophical truths and it doesn't imply that his ideas are in any way accepted by other philosophers.

Given that there is no natural way to study philosophy beyond knowing the history of the subject, I would advise you to start by acquiring a good knowledge of the history of philosophy. The multi volume work by Copleston is a good but long read. Bertrand Russell's one volume history of western philosophy is a good shorter read. However don't accept that what either of these works say about a particular thinker must be true.

Philosophy does not represent a body of knowledge in the way that mathematics and science are bodies of knowledge. Philosophy is just a never ending dispute, where everything is always up for doubt or question.

Shaun Williamson


(19) Abben asked:

In Willard Van Orman Quine's Methods of Logic, he discusses the if...then truth function ('the conditional'), which can be represented in the form:

p → q

to read 'if p then q'. As a truth function, this statement as a whole is supposed to admit of truth or falsity, depending on the truth values of p and q. The relationship between the components and the statements as a whole, says Quine, goes like this:

p true, q true: statement is true

p false, q true: statement is true

p true, q false: statement is false

p false, q false: statement is true

I'm having difficulty understanding what it means for an 'if-then' statement to admit of truth or falsity 'as a whole'.

I get the 'gist' of the conditional: whether q is true depends upon whether p is true and there will be instances where we can only speak of things conditionally. But I do not understand this relationship between the truth of the statement and the truth of individual components. Why should the statement as a whole be taken as false when p is false but q is true?

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

Logic is concerned with logically valid arguments, not with relevant or good arguments so logical connectives like OR, AND and IF..THEN are defined with regard to their strict logical function.

So what we have to consider is when is a logical if p then q statement true or false. Logically what this statement asserts is that if p is true then q is true so the only time when this statement will be false is when p is true but q isn't. In all other cases it will be true by default. This may seem strange but remember that we are only concerned with logical validity here.

This gives us the truth table for if...then statements. 'If p then q' is false when p is true and q is false. For all other combinations of truth values if p then q is true. Now if this seems strange to you remember that the if p then q doesn't say anything about cases where p is false so it cannot be wrong in such cases and p true and q true is certainly in agreement with what is being claimed in if p then q. The logical definition of if...then leads to the correct results and that is what is important.

The gist of a conditional (for the purposes of logic) is not that the truth of q depends on the truth of p. This is how we might interpret an if..then statement in everyday use but not in logic.

Shaun Williamson


(20) Steph asked:

Why is pain painful? how do we know that something is painful and not pleasurable? my question may not be clear, so I will give an example; When you prick yourself with a pin, you feel pain, but when you lie on a pillow, you feel comfort and not pain. This is something that has bothered me for a long time.

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

This is like asking why do triangles have three sides. The answer is that we don't call it a triangle unless it has three sides. So we don't call it a pain unless it is painful. If it tickles then its a tickle not a pain.

The doctor asks you does it hurt? He never asks do you have a pain and does your pain hurt? When it comes to knowing that something is painful or pleasurable then there are two cases to consider 1. Yourself or 2. Other people.

In the first case you decide whether something is painful or pleasurable. Except in strange circumstances it doesn't make sense to say I know I am in pain nor does it make sense to say I thought I was in pain but now I see I was wrong (except in strange circumstances).

In the second case you decide if other people are in pain by observing their behaviour and you can say I know he is in pain or even I thought he was in pain but he was only pretending.

Shaun Williamson


(21) Rajeev asked:

Is language necessary for thinking?

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You could answer this question by finding a way to ask your question without using words. Can we do mathematics without using numbers or as Wittgenstein asked could we play chess by stamping our feet rather than using a chessboard and chess pieces.

What we need to do rather than answering the question is to explain clearly out temptation to use a word like necessary here. Can you give an example of a non verbal thought? Can you do it without expressing the thought in words? Thought is a word in a language (the English language). 'Necessary' is the most dangerous word in philosophy because it persuades us that we are discovering some new and interesting metaphysical truth about the world when all we are really doing is bumping into the grammar of our language

Shaun Williamson


(22) Rajeev asked:

Is philosophy result of anthropic thinking

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The dictionary definition of anthropic is 'Of or relating to humans or the era of human life'. Humans think, humans do philosophy so I think it is safe to say that philosophy is the result of anthropic thinking since we have no idea if God is interested in philosophy and animals don't do philosophy unless they are very good at hiding that fact from us.

Shaun Williamson


(23) Jack asked:

What is wrong with the following line of thinking?

God is love.

Love is blind.

Ray Charles is blind.

Therefore Ray Charles is God.

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

There are many things wrong with your argument however lets just concentrate on the main one, the use of 'is'. In logic it is recognised that there are two distinct uses of the word 'is'. The first is identity e.g. 'God is Love' can plausibly be translated as 'God = Love'.

However the other use of 'is' can't be translated in this way e.g. 'Ray Charles is blind' is not the same as 'Ray Charles = Blind' and 'Love is blind' cannot be translated as 'Love = Blind' or 'Love = Blindness'.

So your argument fails to be a logically valid argument since you have made invalid substitutions of things that are not identical. For many other reasons it also fails to be a sensible argument for example one of my favourite songs asserts 'Love isn't blind but it can't see around corners' and this if true contradicts one of your premises.

Shaun Williamson


(24) Brian asked:

I came up with the following argument. Is it valid?

1. Cause must always precede effect.

2. You cannot be conscious of a thought before you think it.

3. Therefore, you cannot consciously cause thoughts.

The logic seems infallible to me. However it is intensely counterintuitive. It seems like common sense to say that I cause the thoughts that I am thinking.

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

I think you are just getting tangled up in language here. It may be be common sense to say that I sometimes cause the thoughts I have but this is not the same as saying that I consciously cause the thoughts I have. In fact I am not sure of what it would be like to consciously cause a thought. Would it be something like this.

I decide to study Godel's proof and I find a suitable textbook in order to do this. After I have finished the book I think to myself that it is the most beautiful mathematical proof I have encountered.

Now I consciously decided to study Godel's Proof and as a result of this initial decision I caused the thought about the beauty of the proof so does this mean I consciously caused the thought or not?

Sometimes I look out of the window and the clouds make me think it is going to rain. Did I cause this thought or did the clouds cause it or did my looking out of the window cause it? In any case do any of these things have to be conscious? Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't.

Sometimes we say 'What made you think that? ' but by this we are not necessarily asking for a cause (in the cause and effect sense) we are asking for a reason or explanation. Far from your logic being infallible it seems to me to be full of confusions between cause, reason and explanation.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein discusses sentences like 'What I really meant to say...' and he poses the questions is this a description of a mental process i.e the thought passed through my mind (and we think of the thought as a ghostly thing and the mind as a ghostly place) but somehow I didn't express it properly and now that I get a clearer look at it I can give a more accurate description.

For Wittgenstein such mentalist ideas about things are what he describes as primitive superstitions. Suppose someone says to me 'I think its going to be a fine day today' and in response to that I say to them 'Did you consciously cause that thought yourself or did something else cause it? ' Would they always know how to answer that sort of question and should we always believe their answer?

Shaun Williamson


(25) Mriga asked:

I am deeply troubled by the problem of suffering, of my own and that of others. If life is suffering(and I do believe it is), what can we do about it? I am an atheist (or nontheist), and philosophy is my only hope of finding some relief that is not just fleeting moments of pleasure. Is Schopenhauer right, we need to lose the will to live? What does he mean by the 'will' exactly? Sometimes I think he is referring to some kind of biological drive, but other times I am not sure. What about Indian thought that advocates detachment from the world? Is that the only sure way not to suffer?

Finally, why is life worth living anyway? If death is nonexistence(which I believe it to be), would that not be infinitely better than consciousness?

I am also having trouble with the work that we do. I know philosophers, scientists and artists have noble pursuits, but what of the rest of us that are selling hats and nail polish? Even if we are involved in 'the noble pursuits', who or what are we doing this for? What is the guarantee that our work will survive past us or past our civilization?

Nagel gave me some hope out of this predicament with his paper 'Death', but I need to go over it again and again.

I hope the above is not entirely confusing or incoherent. I am not depressed, masochistic or suicidal, I feel as though these are legitimate questions and they boggle my mind. I am searching for something I guess. Let me end by quoting you a beautiful passage from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, a true aid in my suffering

'Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after fame is oblivion. What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, philosophy.'

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

Recently, I had to review a paper which argued — amongst other things — that human beings have a duty not to procreate, because the risk that one's offspring (and their offspring) might have to endure great or unimaginable suffering outweighs any amount of happiness or pleasure that might be experienced, now or in the future.

This looks like a problem that only philosophers debate. But some parents face this dilemma for real, when they discover that there is a probability that, owing to defective DNA, their children will develop incurable diseases or have disabilities, of varying degrees of severity. How much pain and suffering are you prepared to risk, for the sake of creating life that has no more than a fighting chance of experiencing some happiness or pleasure?

We have no hesitation in condemning parents who know that their children will be born with severe disabilities. So it looks like it is only a matter of weighing up pain against pleasure. If there is only a slight risk that the defective gene will be activated, or if the disability is only comparatively mild, then it is acceptable to have children, on the grounds that the happiness or pleasure will (probably) outweigh the pain.

One question would be whether we have to think this way, in terms of 'adding up' pains and pleasures, or whether there is a coherent alternative. When one considers that most people would choose death rather than endless torture, then the answer is probably not. The point of life might be more than just pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (as Nietzsche claimed). But that doesn't negate the claim that absence of 'too much' pain is a precondition for a meaningful life. It is only a matter of what scale you are using.

I am aware of arguments to the effect that all pleasure is questionable because pleasures are fleeting and merely increase our 'attachment' to the things of this world. My answer would be that a fully 'detached' life would not be worth living either. Why bother going to the trouble to meditate for long periods, or undergo strenuous spiritual exercises designed to loosen the grip of material desires, when shooting yourself in the head is easier and quicker?

Geoffrey Klempner


(26) Sadie asked:

Is homosexuality immoral? why?

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Human sexuality is driven by biology, conditioned socially, and appraised ethically in the context of a social and cultural framework. All these dimensions of human existence interact with each other in questions of sexuality.

Nevertheless, sexuality need not be abandoned to relativism or considered only in the confines of cultural specificity, where there is only right and wrong according to social convention; it is possible to articulate ethical norms. For example, consent is a key concept; it dovetails with questions of freedom and justice; we can deem sexual acts moral and immoral if they violate another's freedom, or if violence is involved.

Homosexuality, all other factors being equal, is not the same sort of question. Imagine a neutral zone, outside of culture or history — in this zone, what is the answer to this question? Is there such a thing as an immoral human sexuality.

That is the question at hand. The wrong question, to ask I think, is whether homosexuality is natural or not; this does not adequately address the question. Appealing to nature as a neutral zone in conversations about sexuality is a common mistake. The argument: in sexual reproduction, male and female sex cells are necessary, therefore homosexuality is immoral because it deviates from the natural order of things. If homosexuality is unnatural (i.e. not evident in nature, or very rare) then it must be immoral.

Biology seems to be a vacuum, where propositions are empirically observable and universally true. However, this is false and a flawed approach. Instances of same-sex copulation are not at all difficult to find among animals. Furthermore, biology and nature are not the only ingredients in moral judgments and ethical systems. (give an example of an ethical question that does not involve nature — we live lives that are more complicated than nature, and biology.)

While an appeal to the state of nature is a familiar turn in the history of philosophy — what are humans like in an ideal state, what is the individual separate from society? This is a useful thought experiment in considering justice and other questions in politics. However, it is not an appropriate approach in this case.

It is impossible to discuss the ethics of sexuality from a purely biological perspective. It is human behavior, not just biological cause and effect. XX and XY chromosomes, and sex cells, do not determine human behavior with law-like precision. The social context of human behavior is inextricable from this question; it impossible to assess sexuality without addressing this. Anatomical sex does not correspond to gender, and certainly does not determine sexual behavior.

Because sexuality is behavior, there are many interesting approaches you could take, to consider this question. What if you asked the question within an ethical framework? Culture and religion do provide one such context. Orthodox versions of Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — all agree that homosexuality is immoral. Why might this be the case? Is it the result of monotheism? Is it because they are fundamentally male-centered? These are philosophically interesting questions. How about tracing the prevailing norms around homosexuality in Western culture — from ancient Greece, where it was normal, to the 20th century when it was against the law, to today, where notions of social justice are debating the legitimacy of a marriage between two people of the same sex. If homosexuality is wrong (or ethically permissible), what are the implications of this, from a feminist perspective? If it is wrong, in a religious context, is it just for a legal system to legislate from this perspective, in a pluralist society?

How would a utilitarian approach this question? Is an inductively reasoned approach defensible? Also, it could be interesting to consider questions of free will, freedom, and the public/private divide.

Formulating a question well is the task of philosophy; engaging in nuanced philosophical discussion on this issue will help you critically assess the question and determine an answer, if you feel strongly that 'live and let live' is just not enough of an answer.

N Greene


(27) Vittoria asked:

I would like to know where I can find information on line about The relation of Okra (Soul) and Honam (body): An Akan Conception by Kwame Gyekye. There seems to be very limited information on African Philosophy.

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

You are right Vittoria; a quick Google search did not turn up much. However, I did find entries on Okra and Honam in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The essay you are studying is in the Blackwell anthology of African Philosophy, edited by Emmanuel Eze; reading other essays in that provide a good overview of issues and traditions in African thought. If you have access to a university library, and can search databases for philosophy articles in African Philosophy, I strongly suggest that.

N Greene


(28) Ricky asked:

In the Allegory of the Cave, what is Plato's main complaint about democracy?

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The allegory of the cave describes the ability to 'see' the form or essence of justice, the ethical truths that will enable a ruler to govern well. These are outside of the cave. Democracy is not a good form of government, Plato argues, because understanding and implementing justice is impossible for people who cannot 'see' by the light of the sun, the form of the good, and most of us live inside the cave, where we see by firelight. This weak light illuminates shadows on the walls of the cave, that are flickering, shifting impressions of contingent good in this analogy. Because cave-dwellers know nothing else, and convention assumes that the play of shadows is the real thing, these approximations pass for goodness and justice. This is Plato's complaint about democracy. Consensus determines the good, not its form.

The form of the good, the highest principle from which all moral rightness is derived, is the blinding light outside of the cave, and this real light illuminates other ethical truths, but deep in the cave it is impossible for a troglodyte to know that the sun even exists at all. Justice should be administered in the light of higher ethical truths, not convention. People who have not seen by the light of the sun should cannot be entrusted with the well being of other citizens. The ideal form of government, Plato argued, is a monarchy, governed by a philosopher-king, and administered by trained experts.

N Greene


(29) Libby asked:

I am struggling to understand Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic. I would be very grateful for an explanation of the key ideas and a suggested reading list.

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

Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic is a step in his Critique of Pure Reason. In this move, he describes our cognitive functioning, in terms of the highest principle, the pure understanding. The pure understanding makes perception and interpretation of the world around us possible.

Determining an object, and perceiving its attributes, is a function of our minds. The form of an object, the essence of a chair of which chairs are particular instances, is not 'out there' but in our minds. This is why Kant, and thinkers who followed his thought in this vein, are categorized in Philosophy as Idealists.

That space and time are located in our minds is not a denial of objective reality, it is a theory of forms and universal principles. This theory simply locates the mechanism that we use to make contact with the world in our minds, and describes how we order sense data into concepts. At its most abstract, the mind is a grid made up of space and time, and it is through this framework that we perceive objects in the world. This grid is the highest principle of perception, the 'form of intuition.'

As for a reading list, I suggest the Cambridge edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer. And, a good encyclopedia of philosophy will be a helpful starting point for an explanation of this and other terminology in Kant's Critique.

N Greene


(30) Bruce asked:

Steven Nadler, in Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts), makes the following statement (p.85): 'Ordinarily, causal necessity is distinguished from logical or absolute necessity... Logical necessity would seem to be something that holds primarily between propositions, not things.' I have seen this de re/de dictu distinction made, as well, in objection to Hartshorne's revision of the ontological argument. I wonder about the justification for the distinction (other than its usefulness as a rejoinder to metaphysicians). Isn't it the point of reasoning about the world that logical relations may serve as a model for real relations? Leaving aside (if that is permissible) the question of alternative logics, isn't it the case that the reason we find the rules of logic to be valid that reasoning according to these rules has consistently led to results that are verifiable in the world? Or is it now considered a well established principle that all logics are only systems and any truth valid only within a particular system? Surely, though, that's a theory and, if a prevalent position today, may not be so tomorrow.

I suppose I could rest content with this seeming division of philosophy from reality if it were made plain that what was being asserted by the denial of the possibility of inference to a world outside of propositions was only that there could be no absolute certainty regarding the conclusion (though the probability be ever so high); that is, that other rules of logic might one day prove to have been more appropriate or that some relevant factors were not incorporated into the premises.

To return briefly to Nadler (and you needn't comment directly on his remarks if that's awkward; I'm using the as a convenient illustration of the points), he gives the following as an example of the distinction: 'While we may regard it as unusual or contrary to some laws of nature...for water to freeze at a temperature higher than 32 degrees Fahrenheit...we do not think that it is logically inconceivable.' That would seem to imply that the distinction is valid at a certain level of abstraction (i.e., when many facts pertinent to the physical situation, such as the nature of chemical bonds, are left out of the calculation). In the discussion of necessity in metaphysics, one usually means an unconditioned necessity, one without other factors to be considered (or to be abstracted from). Does not the de re/de dictu distinction, then, presume that only contingent relations are real?

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

Do I think that it is logically possible that pure water might freeze at a temperature higher than 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Centigrade)? Yes. Would I still think this if I considered what would have to be the case, at a microscopic level and in terms of the known laws of nature for this to happen? Yes: the laws of nature would have to be different. Then how do I know that it is logically possible for the laws of nature to be different? — Now that's the interesting question.

The laws of logic define the limits of reason. That is why it is incoherent to speculate about possible worlds where the laws of logic are different from the way they are in this world. (I'm not talking now about 'fringe' cases such as proposed quantum logics etc.) But how can we be sure hat it might not turn out that the laws of nature are ultimately deducible (through a deep and subtle proof that presently eludes us) from the laws of logic?

This is the idea behind so called 'experimental metaphysics', and speculation about the possibility of deriving physics from the analysis of the physical concept of 'symmetry', originally appealed to by Einstein in the Special Theory of Relativity. I'm not saying that this project is a waste of time. If the dream is ever realized then we would finally have a proof that this world is the only logically possible world, and that Leibniz's idea of 'other possible worlds' is a self-contradiction. Then one would truly achieve the goal of replacing God by logic. Or, if you miss having a God to worship, you can worship logic.

Geoffrey Klempner


(31) Aaron asked:

If there is a possibility that you may not know everything, could there then be things that you do not yet know? It is then possible that you may not yet know anything? How could you ever know that you know anything at all? God is then always possible and God can never be impossible. How then, can anybody say with any confidence, 'There is no God?'

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Lets change your question slightly so it reads like this. 'If there is a possibility that you may not know everything, could there then be things that you do not yet know? It is then possible that you may not yet know anything? How could you ever know that you know anything at all? God is then always not impossible and God can never be impossible. How then, can anybody say with any confidence, 'THERE IS A GOD? ''

Now in fact there are lots of things that I know and that you know so the idea that we really know nothing while it might seem poetic is merely empty rhetoric.

It is nonsensical to conclude from the fact that I don't know everything that this somehow make its possible that I know nothing. This seems to me to be the worst sort of garbled nonsense.

Is there a God? I don't know but if you believe in God and if your God is the usual sort of God who commands us to stone other people to death or who smites our enemies etc. then I want nothing to do with your evil God.

The important question is not do you believe in God but rather what sort of God do you believe in? If there is a God then I am sure he wants nothing to do with most of the people who believe in him.

Shaun Williamson


(32) Beer asked:

I have a simple question, the bible says that God created everything in 7 days (7 days as we know not 7 days as God thinks how long that period is, you know mankind wrote the bible not God so I'm sure they meant 7 days as we humans think of how long that period is).

First God created the animals then the humans, so my question is how did mankind survived with dinosaurs? according to the bible Noah put every creature of both sex into his boat/arc, so how did he manage to lure a dinosaur into his boat? And why did the dinosaurs get extinct and humans didn't?

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I don't think you will find anyone here who believes that dinosaurs existed at the same time as humans. The Bible is at most a metaphorical account of creation. It cannot be taken literally by any reasonable human. There are of course people who think the Bible is a literal history of how things happened. It is possible to feel pity for these people but that is all. I am sure God feels pity for them as well.

Shaun Williamson


(33) Jarrid asked:

If my thoughts are in the English language because that is what I speak, what are the thoughts of a deaf person in?

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If they are English then their thoughts will be in English assuming that they have learned how to read English and how to sign in English.

Some users of sign language have claimed that it is a separate language but I prefer to regard it as a dialect of English that is very different from standard spoken English and like many dialects (e.g. Irish English or West Indian English) has a life of its own. Where deaf people come together with all other English speakers is in the written language.

So English deaf people think in English just like you do. French deaf people think in French.

Shaun Williamson


(34) Bob asked:

Is it true that marijuana expands your thoughts?

I for myself know when I'm stoned I get a lot of ideas that I'd never think I'll ever have them when I'm not baked.

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

Yes but what do you do with these ideas? Tell us what they are. Are they any good?

There is a difference between 'having a great idea' and 'thinking that you are having a great idea'. I have done lots of experimenting in this particular field and I can confidently say that marijuana just makes you think you are having great ideas while at the same time stopping you from having any great ideas or even any good ideas. However it a recreational drug like alcohol (which can also make you think you are having great ideas) so let's not take it too seriously.

Shaun Williamson


(35) Emma asked:

Why the world is created and brought the wars, diseases, tears, (maximum/MOST inconvenience) And smiles, happiness prosperity (minimum/least comfort)?

The duration of happiness is shorter than the duration of sadness.

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

Like everybody else I don't know why the world was created like it is. I don't think that the duration of sadness is longer than the duration of happiness but when you are sad it can seem as though sadness will last forever. It doesn't. You can only learn to be happy by accepting and not forgetting the sadness.

Shaun Williamson


(36) Brian asked:

How do I reconcile the teaching of the wise that desire is the constant enemy of man, with the idea that we are born to manifest the glory of god and that playing small serves no-one. It seems that the desire to express oneself fully in life, business etc goes against the idea that one is complete and perfect already. I guess what I'm really looking for is a philosophy that will enable me to really go for it in business, without becoming obsessed and ego driven.

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

Business is a great game, and if you want to be a player then do it to the max. Just remember, it is only game. You are more than the character you play in the business arena.

In other words, go for it, but always remember to keep a modicum of philosophic detachment. It will serve you in good stead, if luck deals you a bad hand.

Geoffrey Klempner


(37) Frank asked:

What is meant exactly by the ethics of the disinterested? How can one be disinterested and still said to have ethics?

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

I can't really make any sense of your second question. I think that perhaps you are confusing the meanings of the two words 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'.

Shaun Williamson


(38) Rebecca asked:

While you were asleep a fiendish but highly intelligent scientist has stolen your brain. He's keeping it alive in a special vat or container. He can simulate all the normal sense experiences you have awake.

So how do you know that you're actually reading this, and not just a brain in a vat?

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

Well, if he can simulate all the normal sense experience, then more or less by definition, I cannot know. This is similar to an old argument that Descartes formulated. In his case it was just a fiend that might have been deluding him. His first conclusion was that at least he could not be deluded about his own existence as a thinking being. In the end he concluded that he was a 'mind' in a 'body' and argued that God, whose existence he thought also indubitable, guaranteed the truth of his sense experience. My own view is that the ultimate nature of reality is not knowable with absolute certainty, and that the only course is to take my experiences as real. If at some time I 'wake up' to a new reality, whether it is God and fiends, or scientists and brain vats, then I will have to take that as real. In the meantime, it makes no difference whether I am 'really' a brain in a vat, I am (having the experience of) reading your question and answering it. I don't normally bother to put that 'having the experience of' into everything I say, because (I have the experience that) it doesn't make any difference in practice.

Bob Macintosh


(39) Aimee asked:

Why is it unwise to rely solely on philosophy in explaining human social behavior?

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

The short answer is that philosophy is human social behaviour. One can equally argue though, that any human social behaviour must have an implicit underlying philosophy. There is a tendency for every discipline to attempt to 'engulf' every other. Thus one can take a historical, or a psychological view of philosophy, and conversely one can take a philosophical view of history or psychology — or indeed social science. It is wise to at least suspect that each point of view has its own validity and its own limitations; that no single point of view has universal validity, or limitless explanatory power.

Bob Macintosh


(40) Danielle asked:

I'm in a intro to philosophy class currently. I just can't seem to understand anything my professor says. Is there a way I can better understand the readings, or find someone who can break down the Ph.d terminology and put it into normal terms?

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

Don't panic.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with your situation. As soon as something becomes clearly understood, it ceases to be philosophy. Philosophy is difficult, and one of the difficulties is that there is no beginning to start at. This does make it difficult to teach, never mind learn. Some courses start with logic, a sort of philosophers tool box approach, while others take a historical approach. Neither is entirely satisfactory. Where ever you start, one of the first things you should learn, is that a lot of things you take for granted in your normal life are up for question. What is there? What makes something good? How do you know anything? This is unsettling and confusing if you are not used to it and can lead to vertigo. There are various problems with terminology; one is historical, when reading early philosophers one has to try and put oneself in the mindset of the times, when common knowledge (to us)like evolution, the existence of the unconscious, atomic theory, were not thought of. This gives quite simple words like say 'substance' a rather different flavour. Another is that even modern philosophers do not always use words the same way — you have to pay attention to each one's definition of key terms. Then there are the endless '-isms'. Again these become ambiguous between different writers; they are convenient to talk about 'kinds of argument' quickly, but if you are not familiar with all the various schools and factions it can be difficult; a little dictionary of philosophical terms can help here. It is more than possible that your professor is a poor communicator, and/or that the readings are poorly chosen; the least likely possibility is that you are just not very intelligent.

Bob Macintosh


(41) Andrew asked:

If we had the ability to travel back in time, would we have the moral obligation to change history?

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

We need first to separate out the issue of how you know that your attempt to make things better won't have much worse consequences that you are unable to calculate. That isn't a matter of moral obligation but rather practicality.

We can also put on one side objections to the very idea of travelling back in time and changing history (the so-called 'grandfather paradox').

The point of the question is to raise the issue of how far our moral obligations extend. Is it always the case, no matter what, that if you can do something which has a preponderance of good consequences over bad, then you ought to do it?

Suppose you travel back to yesterday, and see a child about to run in front of a car. You don't know what the consequences of saving the child's life might be, all you know is that you must do something. It is irrelevant how you got here.

However, the question concerns the 'moral obligation to change history'. I would argue that the same principle applies in the time travel scenario as actually applies in the actual world. I do not have a moral obligation to do all the good things that are within my power. If I did, then I would not be answering this question (which has only a modest benefit to you, and perhaps the people reading this) because I would do more good helping raise funds for the starving in Ethiopia.

On the general principle we are considering, my taking time to answer this question would be 'immoral'. And that is something I find hard to believe.

Geoffrey Klempner


(42) Jason asked:

This sentence is false.

Is it true?

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

As you have noticed it is impossible to decide since if the sentence is true then it is false and therefore true and therefore false etc.

Any language which is powerful enough to allow self-referential statements allows us to construct these paradoxical sentences. It was this idea that inspired Godel's proof about the impossibility of proving that our system of mathematics was both consistent and complete. If we disallow self referential sentences then Godel's proof is no longer true.

Shaun Williamson


(43) Garry asked:

What is a philosopher?

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

For me a philosopher is someone who is fascinated by philosophy. So I don't thing you can really be a philosopher unless you have studied and have a good knowledge of the history of philosophy. It is not enough to just think about things. Beyond that I think you must also have a knowledge of science, literature, mathematics, music, poetry and art. A philosopher should be interested in everything.

Shaun Williamson


(44) Othnielle asked:

How was the world made?

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

I want to start by saying that I think that language is man made and was made by man for the purposes of human communication. So for us the question 'How was X made? ' is a very familiar question and so are the answers to it. So we ask 'How was this sweater made? ' and the answer is 'My mother knitted it' or 'It was knitted on a machine in a factory in China'.

The sorts or examples of making things that we are familiar with with involve making things out of other things e.g how are diamonds made. Of course we can use science to get to the truth of the history of the universe (the big bang all those billions of years ago). However is there a separate question beyond all this i.e. how was the big bang made? This question is difficult for all sorts of reasons, we have no experience of making things out of nothing and it is difficult to decide if the question even makes sense. What sort of answer would be satisfactory. Can we just say well there was a big bang as though that is something we are really familiar with and as though it should be the answer to all our questions.

I don't know how the world was made because the world was made out of nothing and that is something we know nothing about.

Shaun Williamson


(45) Taylor asked:

Hey, and nice to write to you. My philosophy teacher asked us for homework to prove to him that he himself, in fact 'exists.'

I thought realistically, and critically about the subject, and came to no definite conclusion. I would really enjoy hearing your opinion about it. Cuz in my opinion, even if we aren't really here, who gives a shit, might as well live in the moment.

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

If you aren't really here you can't live in the moment, can you?

It makes no sense for someone to doubt their own existence just as it makes no sense for them to be sure that they exist. Other people can doubt that you exist or they can be sure that you exist. Other people can even try to establish in a court of law that you exist.

If there were some situation where it made sense to doubt that your teacher was who he said he is then you could try to prove it. In general to satisfy a court you need things like legal documents such as birth certificates, witnesses to the birth who knew his when he was born parents.

However if I look in the mirror and say to myself 'Do I really exist? ' then no matter how much sincerity I put into my voice I am talking nonsense unless I am using these these words in a non literal sense.

So you shouldn't waste your time trying to prove that your teacher exists. After all if he didn't exist you wouldn't have to go to his classes, would you?

Not every correct sentence makes sense and not every question has a sensible answer.

Shaun Williamson


(46) Tom asked:

is there a syntactic definition of 'semantic'?

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

I don't really understand the question so perhaps you could explain it in greater detail. In any case I suspect that the answer is no. However it all depends on how you frame your syntactic rules e.g. if you say that Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase = sentence, then this is a syntactic rule that also requires semantic knowledge in order to apply to any particular language.

Shaun Williamson


(47) Barry asked:

Who was it that, when asked by a student about a life of philosophy, told them to become a mechanic instead?

I thought it was Wittgenstein, but I can't find anything about it anywhere, I hope I haven't confused the details too much

Alternatively, if you could point me to a list of philosophers who have denounced a life of philosophy and their reasons for doing so, that would be interesting.

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

Normal Malcolm, in his short book, Wittgenstein: A Memoir describes an incident where Wittgenstein advised one of his students to seek a job in a more practical profession than philosophy. I have heard reports that a number of his students received similar advice.

Bertrand Russell, in his Autobiography describes the following incident with his young student Wittgenstein, at Cambridge:

At the end of his first term at Trinity, he came to me and said: 'Do you think I am an absolute idiot? ' I said: 'Why do you want to know? ' He replied: 'Because if I am I shall become an aeronaut, but if I am not I shall become a philosopher.' I said to him: 'My dear fellow, I don't know whether you are an absolute idiot or not but if you will write me an essay during the vacation upon any philosophical topic that interests you, I will read it and tell you.' He did so, and brought it to me at the beginning of the next term. As soon as I read the first sentence, I became persuaded that he was a man of genius, and assured him that he should on no account become an aeronaut.' (Autobiography London: Unwin 1967, page 330).

Putting 2 and 2 together, there is more than a hint of a suggestion is that the reason Wittgenstein advised some (not all) of his students not to go into professional philosophy was that he believed, simply, that they were not good enough. Not being an 'absolute idiot', in the eyes of Wittgenstein, implied a standard which many of those who were entering the profession failed to meet. I suspect he would say the same thing now.

Geoffrey Klempner


(48) Enzo asked:

What happens when we die? Is there a heaven?

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I don't know if there is a heaven or even if the idea makes sense. All things die. Why should we be so special? Is there a heaven for the dead chicken we buy at the supermarket or the fly that we swat when it tries to alight on our food. There are six billion people in the world, are they all going to fit into heaven and hell.

Treat your life as though it is only the things that you do in this world that count. As humans that is all we can know.

Shaun Williamson


(49) Bruce asked:

Steven Nadler, in Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts), makes the following statement (p.85): 'Ordinarily, causal necessity is distinguished from logical or absolute necessity... Logical necessity would seem to be something that holds primarily between propositions, not things.' I have seen this de dictu/de re distinction made, as well, in objection to Hartshorne's revised ontological argument. I wonder about the justification for the distinction (other than its usefulness as a rejoinder to metaphysicians). Isn't it the point of reasoning about the world that logical relations may serve as a model for real relations? Leaving aside (if that is permissible) the question of alternative logics, is it not the case that the reason we find rules of logic to be valid is that reasoning according to these rules has consistently led to results that are verifiable in the world? Or is it now considered to be a well established principle that all logics are only systems and all truths valid only within a particular system? Surely, though, that's a theory and, if a prevalent position today, may not be so tomorrow.

I suppose I could rest content with this seeming division of philosophy from reality if it were made plain that what was being asserted by the denial of the possibility of inference to a world outside of propositions was only that there could not be absolute certainty regarding the conclusion (though the probability be ever so high)that is, that other rules of logic might one day prove to have been more appropriate or that some relevant factors were not considered.

To return briefly to Nadler, he gives, as an example of the distinction, the following: 'While we may regard it as unusual or contrary to some law of nature...for water to freeze at a temperature higher than 32 degrees Fahrenheit...we do not think that it is logically inconceivable.' That would seem to imply that the distinction is valid at a certain level of abstraction (i.e., when many facts pertinent to the physical situation, such as the nature of chemical bonds, are left out of the calculation). In the discussion of necessity in metaphysics, is one not usually meaning an unconditioned necessity, one presumably altogether without other conditioning factors to be considered (or to be abstracted from)? Does not the de re/de dictu distinction presume that only contingent relations are real?

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

No, we don't find the laws of logic to be valid because they lead to results that are verifiable in the real world. And there is no chance that in the future we will revise or change the laws of logic. To understand why this is so I think you need to undertake a more detailed and formal study of logic (especially symbolic logic) rather than trying to reason about the subject from the outside.

Shaun Williamson


(50) Patricia asked:

Are we prisoners of our past?

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

No, we can never be a prisoner of our past unless we want to be. If you look at history you will see that for humans nothing has stayed the same and this also applies to the individual. If we were prisoners of our past then we would still be living in the stone age.

Shaun Williamson


(51) Lorie asked:

Assuming there is infinite, what form does it come in? It can't be a straight amount of years all straight things have a beginning. Does this mean infinite is just one big circle?

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

'There is infinite' isn't an English sentence that I understand. Maybe it is similar the the question 'What colour is Tuesday? '. For me Tuesday is green for other people it may be yellow. The infinite may be straight, circular or elliptical (I don't know) but what colour is it? For me the infinite is sky blue.

Infinity is a useful concept in mathematics, so are the concepts of zero, negative numbers, the square root of -1 and transcendental numbers. The fact that we can't imagine these things doesn't matter, they are still useful.

Shaun Williamson


(52) Kevin asked:

In philosophy can one prove or disprove anything? Can the existence of a person be proved, or even gravity? I've heard many times that when having a philosophical discussion one cannot prove or disprove anything and I find great fault with that. If one cannot prove or disprove anything then that statement is true, thus that statement should be able to be proven. If it cannot then one can prove and disprove.

Further more, I find the same fault with truth, or should I say absolute truth. In my opinion the absolute part is irrelevant because truth must be true all the time. That, however, is not my question. Are there absolute truths and can one prove them? If one makes the statement that there are no absolute truths, then they are stating that there are absolute truths simply because the statement that there are no absolute truths must be an absolute truth to be correct.

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

You are asking good questions that show you are thinking hard about an area of philosophy called Metaphysics. I understand (and share) your frustration, which is why I stay away from the topic. I'll try to answer a few of your questions.

First, lets examine the statement, 'there are no absolute truths'. By stating emphatically that there are no absolute truths, the speaker is confirming his/her belief that there is at least one thing that is absolutely true that nothing is absolutely true. Unless properly qualified, the statement 'there are no absolute truths' is at best meaningless, at worst inherently wrong. A better way to say this might be 'we can never know the Truth' or 'Truth is a meaningless concept'. (When philosophers speak about the truth, or the 'absolute truth' we usually capitalize the word so that you know we are referring to the form 'Truth').

Most physical things cannot be proved in the way that you seem to want them to be. Gravity and the existence of other persons cannot be proved with the same certainty that we can prove that 1+2=3, or that 'a'='a'. There is a difference between our knowledge of the external world and our knowledge of logic and numbers. A good philosopher knows there is a distinction yet tries to achieve knowledge despite the uncertainty of our prospects of 'truly' knowing the external world. This doesn't mean that all answers to a question are equally true. Even the most hard-core skeptic will quickly pull his hand out of a fire. Sometimes the evidence is over-whelming one-sided.

Eric Zwickler


(53) Patti asked:

Is it ever 'OK' to suspend ones own principle for the sake of 'not causing a ruckus' or 'it is a small instance'?

My son's school uses a breathalyzer on all students before homecoming dance for obvious reasons. He doesn't like this practice this although he is not a drinker himself.

His response to my suggestion that he discuss it in the school paper was met with the above response (more or less). He is an editor and it sounds like an interesting topic and worthy of discussion.

What do you think? I appreciate your response in advance. Thanks.

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

Bertrand Russell once said that political action is justified only if it has a chance of success. If it does not, then it is 'just silly'. In the First World War, Russell was imprisoned for supporting conscientious objection. In his later years, he campaigned actively for CND.

Your son may have calculated that 'raising a ruckus' in the school paper does not have any realistic chance of success. If a grievance is real, then one has a right to speak out. But it doesn't follow from the fact that one has a right to speak out, that there is a duty to do so.

It is a matter to be deplored, that your son goes to a school where students do not feel free to air grievances or debate school policy. As it happens, I don't agree with his objection to the use of the breathalyzer, if indeed there has been a problem with drunkenness at school dances in the past. The fact that he himself is not a drinker is irrelevant. However, I agree with you that the justification for breathalyzing students is a matter worthy for open discussion.

Geoffrey Klempner


(54) Rebecca asked:

Hi there. I am researching for an essay and I am having a difficult time finding criticisms of Existentialism. I am arguing for Existentialism, but obviously need to consider (and hopefully successfully argue against) criticisms.

So the question is: What are the main criticisms of existential philosophy?

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

The chief defect of all existential thought is that it is morally vacuous. Existentialists accept that philosophy has failed to give a rational foundation to morality and they abandon the attempt to do so.

Instead existentialists emphasise concepts such as commitment, authenticity or sincerity. So it doesn't matter if you are a Nazi or a Democrat as long as you are a committed Nazi or an authentic Democrat.

Of course in their assumption that commitment or sincerity are to be regarded in some way as superior to their opposites the existentialists show the basic contradiction in their way of thinking. If there is no rational foundation for morality then there is no reason to regard sincerity as preferable to insincerity.

If you read one of the seminal existentialist works such as Camus's 'The Outsider' then you will see that it is simply a statement of the absolute value of honesty and this in itself contradicts the existentialist idea that moral values are subjective.

Shaun Williamson


(55) John asked:

Is death the other side of living?

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

Yes it is. If you are not alive then you are dead but how is that answer helpful?

Wittgenstein said 'No one lives through their own death' and that is certainly true but not very informative. What do you really want to know? Do we live after death? Unlikely I think.

Shaun Williamson


(56) Steve asked:

How old was the matter that went bang in the big bang and where did it come from? I would think it takes a min. of two different substances to make a new substance, so:

a) there have always been two substances

b) there is no start or finish to the universe its just a cycle ( big bang then a big black hole sucks it all in shoots it out=big bang)

and please don't say god.

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

This is a question about science rather than philosophy. The matter that was involved in the big bang is what is sometimes called a singularity. It is not matter as we know it and so we can't speculate about its age since our universe and time itself both started at the big bang, unless of course we find more evidence to support the idea that there have been repeated big bangs.

You think that it takes at least two substances to make a new substance but the fact that you think that is true doesn't make it so. Give us some scientific evidence for this. The big bang was a special event and is not subject to the same rules as other events.

The sort of creation we are familiar with is creation by rearrangement of what already exists i.e a sculptor making a statue out of a piece of stone. The big bang involves creation out of nothing, it was the beginning of our universe, all the matter in it and the beginning of time itself.

You need to free your mind from preconceptions. Study quantum mechanics and you will find out how strange the world of sub atomic particles is. Study relativity and you will find out how strange the large scale universe is. It doesn't conform to our preconceptions and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

However we are only going to answer these questions by scientific study not by just thinking about it and deciding what our favourite answer is.

Shaun Williamson


(57) Eric asked:

Hi, I am having a conversation with a friend and I'm wondering if an inanimate object can be a victim? For example, the recently desecrated Monet in Paris, where some drunk people punched a hold in it. People are calling the painting a 'victim'. Thoughts? Thank you!

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

Well think of sentences like 'Death stalked the battlefield'. Of course death doesn't have legs and it can't walk. In the same way only living things (probably only sensible living things) can really be victims. However language has both literal and metaphorical uses. In our society some works of art have the same significance as religious objects and Monet's paintings certainly fall into that category for many people.

You describe the painting as recently desecrated although strictly speaking only religious objects and buildings can be desecrated.

Shaun Williamson


(58) Andrea asked:

What is the limit to the number of rays that can come from a single vertex?

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

In theory the number is infinite. A vertex is the point of intersection between two straight lines. It is possible to draw an infinite number of diverging straight lines through any one point.

All these things are theoretical mathematical entities. So for example a straight line has length but no width. In practice of course we can't draw a straight line that doesn't have some width.

Shaun Williamson


(59) Kathryn asked:

Recently I have been wondering what is 'real'. Are dreams as real to the brain as waking life? Do our dream experiences carry the same weight as our waking ones? What is the significance of lucid dreams? How are they different from waking reality? Essentially, are our dreams significant in their... realness?

In my dreams, I don't question whether they are 'real' or not while I am in them. There is this overwhelming sense during the dream that this is reality. I am so sure in my dreams that what is happening is real, but then I wake up and find that it didn't happen. In terms of what is 'real', does it matter that something doesn't physically happen to my body? When I am awake does my dream self feel my reality? It seems like we spend so much time asleep. Maybe it is because that is when our dreamselves are alive.

I have just been really puzzled by this lately and would like to hear someone else's thoughts. Thank you for reading my query!

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

Dreams are a natural part of human experience and as far as we can tell other animals such as dogs also seem to dream.

Lucid dreams in general are dreams where the dreamer is aware that they are asleep and dreaming. In most dreams this is not so. Also the dreamer can learn to control what happens in lucid dreams which are often especially vivid and in colour (most dreams aren't in colour).

Of course dreams are real in the sense that they are real dreams as opposed to the imaginary dreams you might find described in novels etc. Dreaming that you have won the lottery is very different from winning the lottery so that is why we say that dreams are not real.

However dreams are often such an interesting part of our experience of life that I think it would be foolish to ignore them. What you don't mention here and what I think are even more interesting than dreams are what are sometimes called daydreams otherwise known as fantasies.

Shaun Williamson


(60) Kathryn asked:

I have another question I thought I should ask.

I have been thinking about senses. My dad was born without a sense of smell, and when you try to explain what smelling is to him, he has no clue what it could possibly be like. He understands it has something to do with the nose, and inhaling, but otherwise he can't imagine what it would be.

This got me to thinking. I have five senses, but isn't it conceivable that there are far more than five senses in all of life? Maybe we are walking around completely unaware of a lot of other things. We would never know what these other senses are, like my dad can't imagine what smelling something would be like.

What do you think about this? I have been wondering about it a lot.

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

I once shared a house with two brothers who both had no sense of smell. This was very useful when we had to fix the drains but it was also dangerous because they couldn't smell gas or the smells produced by fire. Most of our sense of taste depends upon smell. They had a much more highly developed sense of the texture of foods.

Different animals have different senses. Dogs have a much better sense of smell and they can hear high pitched sounds that no human can hear however their vision is much poorer than ours. Birds can have much better vision than humans and birds and insects can see some wavelengths of light that are invisible to humans.

Migrating birds seem to have an extra sense which detects the earth's magnetic field, they can tell the difference between north and south.

However humans are the only animal that investigates the differences in sensory ability of animals and attempts to give some account of the differences, so in a sense we are more capable of experiencing these differences than any other animal.

Shaun Williamson


(61) Mriga asked:

Why are there not many professional women philosophers? According to the Society for Women in Philosophy, it is something along the lines of 20 percent

I remember asking this question in a philosophy class and hearing some really offensive stuff being spewed out. This particular philosophy department had 0 women teaching there. The chair told me that they desperately wanted to hire (a) women, but they are hard to come by and usually nabbed up by more prestigious universities offering better compensation packages

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

I don't know the answer to this. What I do know is that men who dominate the teaching of philosophy often think that women are incapable of abstract thought and this belief was commonly expressed openly up until the 1970's when being PC and women's lib prohibited the public expression of such prejudiced thoughts.

What I don't know is are women as interested in philosophy and mathematics as men are, or are there differences between the sexes. We will only find the answer to this question in some future society that is free of our prejudices and doesn't discourage women from their natural interest in such things.

Given the discouragement often suffered by women who are interested in abstract thought is doesn't surprise me that there might be a shortage of female candidates. In the end 'the truth will out' and philosophy is all about truth.

Shaun Williamson


(62) Mriga asked:

I have been mulling over the idea that love(loving) makes us less free. What do you think about this?

I recently read 'A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues' by Andre Comte-Sponville, and his last chapter is about love.

Some quotes to assist us: 'Duty is a constraint, it is a sadness, whereas love is joyous spontaneity', 'What one does from constraint does not come about from love Kant', 'What one does out of love one does not do from constraint or out of duty', 'Yet must we also love love? Of course we must, but the fact is that we do (for at the very least, we love being loved), or if we do not, then morality can do nothing for us. Without this love of love we are lost, and therein perhaps lies the true definition of hell, by which I mean damnation and perdition in the here and now. We must either love love or love nothing, love love or be lost.'

I find this thought interesting, and I am perhaps even in agreement with most of it. My problem is that in the whole chapter on love, Comte-Sponville never mentions the nature of love that binds us. Let me explain, what I mean is love of other people. If you love someone you will be unhappy when this person is unhappy, experience pain when this person is in pain. I don't mean to suggest something sinister is afoot, but, in my opinion, love can be blissful but it is also painful. Love and pain are inextricably linked because there can be the latter without the former, but there can never be the former without the latter. I don't mean to suggest that love somehow isn't worth it, but simply that it makes us less free in the sense that we will experience suffering even though it is not US that is the victim of ill fortune.

Think about the people you love the most, I suspect it is a painful feeling, a worry about their present and future well being, and distress at even the thought of a hypothetical situation of pain involving them.

(I just want to add that Comte-Sponville is really a good writer, in that poetic, imperturbable French way, I wish I could write like that!)

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

Well it is possible for a writer to want to be poetic and to allow that to override the desire to be truthful. Writers on love are particularly liable to ignore their duty to be truthful.

Of course love involves pain but it can also involve joy. Love by itself doesn't make you more or less free it simply binds you to another person. This can mean that you experience their pain as your pain but it can also mean that you experience their joy as your joy.

My partner was recently diagnosed with a fatal disease, a painful and wrong diagnosis as it turned out but it didn't make me feel that I was less free because I had to share her pain.

Shaun Williamson


(63) Dana asked:

Defend or criticize:'the claim that science is a uniquely Western contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character.'

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I love this question because it really makes me angry and could only have been put forward by an ignorant uninformed western academic.

Let us re frame the question.

1. 'The idea that science is a uniquely Chinese contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character'

2. 'The idea that science is a uniquely Indian contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character'

3. 'The idea that science is a uniquely African contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character'

4. 'The idea that science is a uniquely Persian contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character'

5. 'The idea that science is a uniquely Irish contribution to the world is ethnocentric, uninformed, and irrelevant to understanding science's character'

Which formulation of the question should we prefer, which is historically accurate? Are we supposed to hate our own culture so much that we must deny all its achievements?

When we first go into a room, in the dark, we reach for the light switch. Electricity is a European, scientific invention. It is unique. Lets not underplay that or overestimate its importance but it is a western invention and a very important invention.

There may be some people who want to claim that the transistor was invented in 12th century Iran but it wasn't so let's not bother with that nonsense.

The character of science doesn't depend upon where it was invented but let's get down to the truth. Modern science was invented in Europe, nothing can ever change that.

Shaun Williamson


(64) Zoe asked:

Do you think uk parliament is supreme in law making or has the European Union affected it?

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The UK parliament is supreme in law making because the UK parliament can always decide to withdraw from the EU and the EU is not going to go to war to prevent this. So we are free to leave at any time. The UK parliament has voluntarily decided to obey EU laws and to submit itself to the EU courts but it could reverse this decision at any time.

Shaun Williamson


(65) Christopher asked:

I think that the reason that we 'hate' is because we FIRST 'love.' White supremacists hate African Americans because they first love their own ethnicity. We hate terrorists because we love our country. Would you agree or disagree? Is there any validity to my statement?

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Although you raise an interesting suggestion, I would have to mostly disagree. I would agree that in order to experience the strong emotion of hate, one has to be first capable of experiencing any strong emotion — and love is as good a candidate as any. But I think that love is not the source of hate, as your suggestion would imply. I would suggest instead that fear is the source of hate. If one does not fear the object of hate, then I cannot see how one could raise such a strong emotional reaction as hate. After all, the opposite of hate is not love — it is indifference.

Stuart Burns


(66) Tamicka asked:

If there are more trees in the world than there are leaves on any one tree, and no trees have no leaves, then there are at least two trees with the same number of leaves. Is this statement true or false? Why?

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True.

Imagine that you can put all the trees in a line, beginning with one tree with one leaf, then a second tree with two leaves, then a third tree with three leaves, and so on.

At some point, you will reach the number n, where n is the largest number of leaves on any tree.

However, by hypothesis, there are still some trees which have not yet been put into the line. None of these trees can have more than n leaves, therefore at least one must have the same number of leaves as one of the trees already in the line.

Geoffrey Klempner


(67) Sassy asked:

Why do fools fall in love?

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We all fall in love and when we fall in love we all become fools. Life is like that for humans.

Shaun Williamson