Philosophy Q and A by Geoffrey Klempner




Q and A


Geoffrey Klempner





© Geoffrey Klempner 2011, 2017


All rights reserved.











Academic philosophy woes

Agreeing to disagree

Atheism as the best explanation

Being in two places at one time

Capitalism and the poverty of desire

Choosing your own reality

Collingwood on absolute presuppositions

Definition of a solipsist

Degrees of agreement

Does knowledge entail certainty?

Eliminating the masses

Ethics and advertising

Ethics and suicide

Ethics of monetary interest

Exact meaning of 'philosophy'

Existentialism and advancing years

Explaining time to a 10 year old

Gifford Lectures Russell never gave

God, ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma

How our dreams can change us

How to prove your free will

Human test tubes

Instinct and epistemic luck

Is Socrates the wisest man?

Is anatomy destiny?

Is the world created by our minds?

Jobs for philosophers

Knowing the limits of knowledge

Knowledge and pragmatism

Life in a well-oiled machine

Making sense of the world

Metaphysical explanations

Morality of the moral philosopher

Nietzsche: If truth be a woman

Nothing is what it seems

On identity and belonging

On the existence of holes

On the idea of international law

On the obligation to testify

On the possibility of comparison

Origin of ethics and moral values

Personal survival

Philosophy as a process

Point of being a philosopher

Possibility of non-existence

Pragmatism, induction, and belief in God

Presentism and the cosmos

Proofs in metaphysics

Putting oneself before another

Quid est ergo tempus?

Realism, idealism, solipsism

Rescuing capitalism

Rewiring the brain

Selfishness as a virtue

Semantics of 'except'

Sophistry, wisdom and wonder

Suitable work for a pessimistic misanthrope

The benefits of war

The case for idealism

The egocentric predicament

The elephant in the room

The end of religion

The fear of death

The fierce urgency of now

The philosopher as entertainer

Thought and language

Uniqueness of the self

Uses for the dead

Vacuum of a posteriori thought

What a philosopher might think about

What any god can do or know

What is a goy? joke

What is the point of living if we're going to die?

Where ignorance is bliss

Why is the sky blue?

Why people die

Wiggins on the Ship of Theseus




The book cover is ‘Socrates Teaching a Young Man’ by José Aparicio Inglada (1811) housed in the Musée Goya, Castres, France. Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia.




With gratitude to anyone who

has ever submitted a question

to ‘Ask a Philosopher’



Philosophy is for everyone

and not just philosophers


Philosophers should know lots

of things besides philosophy




About this collection


Ask a Philosopher was launched in 1999. In the beginning, I was the only philosopher answering questions. A year later, I had been joined by a panel of experts helping me out with answers on every conceivable philosophical topic. Since then we have seen numerous changes to the panel of Ask a Philosopher, but I have continued my regular contributions right up to the present day. For this collection, I have gathered together answers which were originally featured on my blog Tentative Answers. The questions have been re-arranged in alphabetical order. In the text, there are references to my books The Metaphysics of Meaning, Naēve Metaphysics and Ethical Dilemmas. All are available on Amazon Kindle. There are also references to my blog The Glass House Philosopher, For the latest questions and answers by members of the panel, go to the ‘Ask a Philosopher’ page at


Geoffrey Klempner

17th November 2017



Academic philosophy woes

Andy asked this question:

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

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

I deserve this question. As someone who has in the past criticized contemporary academic philosophy — and put no small effort into laying out my alternative vision of how philosophy might be practised and taught — it is only poetic justice that I should be required to come to the defence of academic philosophers and 'Intro to Philosophy 101'.

When I was a Philosophy undergraduate at Birkbeck College London in the early to mid-70's there was a group of students who seemed to spend much of their time discussing 'what was wrong' with academic philosophy. They called themselves 'radical philosophers'. Things haven't changed much. Here's the blurb from the Radical Philosophy web site which I looked up today:

Radical Philosophy is a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy. It was founded in 1972 in response to the widely felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time (in Britain completely dominated by the narrowest sort of 'ordinary language' philosophy), with the purpose of providing a forum for the theoretical work which was emerging in the wake of the radical movements of the 1960s, in philosophy and other fields.

In the interests of historical accuracy, in 1972 (my first year at Birkbeck) the dominating interest in British philosophy was not ordinary language philosophy (J.L. Austin, John Wisdom, the later Wittgenstein). That was already on the way out. The new thing was W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson and truth conditional semantics.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition were once again looking at the great work of Frege and Russell and the early Wittgenstein, and showing an increasing preparedness to question the 'givens' of ordinary language. (Again, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that J.L. Austin did write a fine translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic which fans of ordinary language philosophy seemed to have largely ignored.)

I would argue that the new technical, semantic approach had something of the spirit of radical philosophy in that it raised the possibility that much of the time we don't really understand what we mean, that accepted linguistic forms hold our minds captive — an idea not so far away from the notion of 'false consciousness' which the Birkbeck radical philosophy group talked incessantly about.

Of course, much of the new stuff was coming from the USA, and this did get up the nose of many young British philosophers. But I think it would be fairer to say that the emphasis on formal logic and semantics seemed the epitome of the kind of thing Heidegger was warning against in his strictures about technology. And I do agree with this to some extent. (But then again, I'm not such a great fan of Heidegger either.)

I will accept that history is bunk. I've just told a story which touches on how things were back then which seems true, based on my own experience, and possibly is still true (or maybe more true) today. Other philosophers will tell the story differently. It doesn't matter. To my ear, one thing that grates more than boringly minute academic debates over the analysis of Russellian definite descriptions or the Davidsonian truth conditions for action statements, is boringly minute academic debates over Marx, Althusser, Marcuse etc.

In German Ideology Marx set the standard for emotively hyperbolic diatribe which to some radically minded philosophers seems to have provided the model of 'committed' philosophical discourse. Then again, some of the more convoluted passages in Sartre's Being and Nothingness possibly pip Marx for the prize for sheer muddy obscurity. Next to these examples, the clean, austere writing of the likes of Quine and Davidson seems like a model of how words ought to be used in the pursuit of truth.

But I'm digressing.

The question isn't, 'Which style or tradition of academic philosophy do you prefer?' (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, radical philosophy, process philosophy, eastern philosophy etc.) but rather, 'Why does philosophy have to be academic?' (Or, as a variant, 'Why does philosophy have to be so academic?')

The Pathways School of Philosophy which I run, offers courses in academic philosophy. It's called 'academic' philosophy because that's what you study if you enrol at an academic institution for a course in philosophy, anywhere in the world and regardless of the dominating tradition there. Philosophy has a history, or, rather, several alternative histories depending on which version best fits your tradition. If you don't like studying other philosophers or the history of philosophy remember, 'Those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it.'

The irony is that I am not academic. I've done my share of sitting at lectures and poring over books. But books and lectures bore me to tears. I like to talk. I talk with my students (admittedly, via email mostly). In partnership, we create something that, as I once wrote, 'is neither yours nor mine — something neither of us could have created by our own unaided efforts — the dialogue itself as it takes on an independent life of its own' (‘Can Philosophy be Taught?’

Does Intro to Philosophy 101 bore you? Do you hate listening to professors droning on? Get over it. Don't mistake the style for the substance. The style is clunky, because clunky is what academic institutions do best. It doesn't have to be pretty so long as it works. Don't look to others to provide you with inspiration. That's what you've got to find within yourself. But don't think if you look into your own mind you will find philosophy there. Everything that's in your mind right now came from somewhere. And most of it is a cliché.

You want to follow Descartes' example and write your own 'Meditations on First Philosophy'? Fine. Start off by sitting through lecture after boring lecture by Jesuit priests. That's what Descartes did, and what provided him with the tools to pursue his own original philosophical investigations. That, and reading the great classics of philosophy that were available in his day.

This isn't a sales pitch so don't expect me to tell you how at Pathways we do things differently. Maybe we're a little less clunky, but that's just the beauty of the internet. A laptop can be your professor and your library. And when you've had enough of study, you can play games or DVDs on it too.

— Don't knock it, you academic philosophers: it's the future.



Agreeing to disagree

Vernon asked this question:

I know this question has been asked at least once before yet people still seem to use a term I think doesn't make sense.

Does the term 'agree to disagree' make sense? To me there are two problems with the term. The first is the structure of the phrase seems to be contradictory. Secondly, how is it that two can agree to disagree? Wouldn't that in fact remove the argument entirely?

Vernon's question has the air of a paradox: there's nothing philosophers love better than getting their teeth into a good paradox. The problem with viewing the question this way is that it tempts us to think that what we are searching for is a solution, something that would either tame the paradox or, better still, remove it entirely.

Bertrand Russell spent years trying to solve the paradox of 'the class of classes which are not members of themselves'. His solution was the Theory of Types. Various other solutions have been proposed to Russell's Paradox, but each like Russell's has its 'cost'.

Let's see if we can work something similar with Vernon's question:

A1. X and Y agree to disagree.


A2. X agrees with Y.

A3. X disagrees with Y.

A4. Contradiction!


I won't labour the point by offering a version of the mini-analysis that shows that by agreeing to disagree X and Y have 'removed the argument entirely'.

Anyone with a grasp of elementary logic can see the fallacy in the above 'proof'. The term 'X agrees with Y' is not a simple relation like 'X is taller than Y' or 'X is the father of Y'. People don't 'agree' or 'disagree' simpliciter, they agree about some question or topic. Therefore, the correct form of the argument should be:

B1. X and Y agree to disagree.


B2. X and Y agree about P (where P is the statement 'X disagrees with Y').

B3. X and Y disagree about Q (where Q is anything you like).

B4. No contradiction!

If only things could be that simple. Vernon would no doubt be quick to point out that X and Y already know that they are in disagreement. This isn't something they need to agree about because it is patently obvious. What they more or less reluctantly agree to is to let the disagreement stand, or not make any further attempt to resolve it.

Vernon finds difficulty with this idea, and I agree. The difficulty isn't, as Vernon represents it as being, that the statement 'X and Y agree to disagree' is blatantly self-contradictory or meaningless. It's more subtle than that.

In order to take this further, we need to look at some actual examples of 'agreeing to disagree':

'We're not going to resolve our argument, so let's carry on because we've got work to do.'

'Let's call a truce; otherwise, we'll only end up fighting.'

'I think you're wrong, but I'm happy to wait until you discover that for yourself.'

'I don't see why you see things so differently from me, but, frankly, I don't care.'

'I love you, and I value the fact that we hold different beliefs.'

What is interesting here is that in each of these cases there is an extra dimension which we have so far not considered: the question of what is at stake in the disagreement.

1. We can't stand arguing all day if we need to get the job done. That's a good reason for agreeing to disagree provided that the disagreement isn't about how to do the job because then we can't proceed another step until the disagreement is resolved.

2. Other things being equal, human beings should try their best to resolve their disagreements, in the interest of truth. However, there is something worse than failing to agree, and that is going to war over the disagreement.

3. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. But I'm confident that in time you will anyway.

4a. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. However, the issue on which we disagree is unimportant, so I'll let it go.

4b. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. I am not going to try because you are unimportant to me. I couldn't care less what you believe.

5. I care greatly what you believe because your belief is important to you, and you are important to me.

— I'm certainly not claiming to have exhausted the range of possibilities. But already one can see that there is no simple logical structure common to all agreements to disagree.

Some beliefs have practical consequences; amongst these, some are ethical while others are not. But not all beliefs have practical consequences. For those that do not, there remains the 'interest of truth'. If it matters to you that your beliefs are true, then, other things being equal it should also matter to you whether what another person believes is true or false.

Religious beliefs are a different case again, especially when one of the disputants is religious and the other not. Atheists rarely get so worked up about theists as theists get about atheists.

No doubt in many cases, we agree to disagree when we shouldn't, where we should be doing our absolute utmost to reach an agreement because the stakes are so high. Equally, there are cases where we pursue disagreements needlessly, out of a belligerent desire to win the argument at all costs, or intolerance, or plain bigotry.

However, we in danger of losing sight of the problem now because you might well think that it is no big deal that we sometimes have to agree to disagree. In which case it would follow that Vernon is just wrong. But I don't think he is, at least not totally.

The real problem is about ethics. Surely, in ethics the stakes are always too high to allow disputants to agree to disagree. If we disagree about abortion, then one of us is a would-be 'murderer'. Maybe there are things that one holds as personal ethical belief — like vegetarianism — which one doesn't necessarily insist in foisting on everyone else. But even here, there must surely be some discomfort in the acknowledgement that you are prepared to let others indulge in a practice, eating meat, which you do not permit yourself to indulge in because you regard it as ethically wrong.

When I first considered this question, some years ago, I came up with a solution which worked for me at the time, the notion of an 'ethics of dialogue' (see my articles The ethics of dialogue and Ethical dialogue and the limits of tolerance). The idea is that true respect for the other requires that we are prepared to engage in earnest dialogue and debate, but also, for the very same reason, that we are prepared to accept the fact that arguments are not always resolved.

I still hold this: but I now see immense problems. The more seriously you enter into dialogue, the harder it is to accept failure to reach agreement. This looks like a real paradox: surely, agreeing to disagree means you're not taking the argument seriously enough? What is dialogue anyway, if it is not just two persons vehemently stating their own case, i.e. talking past one another?

Or maybe this should be seen as not 'agreeing to disagree' but rather the tragic acknowledgement of our human-all-too-human failings? — You can't agree to something like this, you can only sorrowfully accept.



Atheism as the best explanation

Kalyan asked this question:

I claim and proclaim to be an atheist as well as a skeptic rationalist. But then, my question, is it a contradiction in the sense that as a skeptic and a rationalist, I don't have enough evidence to prove my arguments as an atheist?

The short answer to Kalyan is that you can be an atheist while holding a reasoned skeptical stance ('reasoned' because your skepticism isn't either pathological or mere blind obstinacy) without believing yourself to be in a position to offer a proof that God does not exist. It suffices that you can offer arguments in favour of the view that atheism is the 'best explanation'.

'Best explanation for what?' is the question. The existence of a world (rather than no world) is one possible explanans, or thing to be explained. Another possible explanans is the existence of a Moral Law (if you believe in such a thing). But there are many more, maybe as many as there are views on the nature of the godhead.

I have never undergone the experience of a religious revelation. But supposing I did, would I be in a position to consider theism and atheism as alternative explanations and, moreover, choose atheism on the grounds that it provided a better explanation for my experience than atheism? Well, yes, that is what one has to say as an atheist. But I admit it sounds rather odd to say it. I can see a case of arguing that an experience wouldn't be the experience of religious revelation if you regarded it as possibly illusory. But then again, that problem doesn't arise if the explanans is another person's (alleged) religious revelation.

The idea that a scientific theory is an 'inference to the best explanation' goes back to the American philosopher of science C.S. Peirce who distinguished what he termed abduction from the process of Baconian induction. The idea was more recently revived by British philosopher of science Peter Lipton, and has become part of the vocabulary of contemporary analytic philosophy.

My University of London external students taking the BA Philosophy of Science module have been sending me essays on this topic, along the general theme, 'Is inference to the best explanation a distinctive kind of explanation?' I find Lipton's idea somewhat hazy, and yet there seems undoubtedly to be a core notion, which the God question illustrates nicely. You wouldn't seriously claim to have inductive evidence for atheism. Yet it seems to make perfect sense to say that atheism is a better explanation for any alleged evidence that a theist might put forward than theism.

According to Occam's Razor, other things being equal the better explanation is the one that posits fewer hypothetical entities. God is an unnecessary posit. Any explanation that does any work, works just as well without God directing things behind the scenes. That would be the moderate atheist view.

Enter Dawkins. In 1976, in my first year taking the Oxford B.Phil, there was a rumour going round that the redoubtable Gareth Evans was offering his undergraduate tutees and graduate students a free hardback copy of The Selfish Gene (which had been published that year) provided they promised to read it. With such a great testimonial, I could never bring myself to indulge in the fashionable Dawkins-bashing, despite Dawkins' somewhat embarrassing reductive views of the nature of philosophical inquiry, as a mere illustration of the theory of 'memes'.

Apropos of the meme theory, the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes is the first recorded philosopher to employ a genetic argument against a religious claim:

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers §168, p. 169

As Xenophanes must surely have realized, this isn't an argument that God cannot be black and have a snub nose. What the observed 'coincidence' shows, in our terms, is that the Ethiopians' reasoning to the best explanation is likely to have been somewhat biased. Having said that, if you believe that man is 'made in God's image' and your only experience of human beings is of people who are black and have snub noses, then it is surely reasonable to infer that God is black and has a snub nose.

However, by the same token, someone who had travelled a bit and discovered that different races have different physiognomies, would realize that this inference was not reasonable, and that any claim of 'resemblance' between God, or the gods, and man must allow for racial variation.

What this shows, if anything, is that you can undermine a purported inference to the best explanation by either pointing out grounds for possible suspicion of bias, and/or showing that the explanation relies on an impoverished evidential base. At any given time, however, the explanation remains in place until either a better explanation comes along, or the grounds for putting forward that explanation are undermined.

I would therefore be quite happy to accept that the belief that atheism is the best explanation for the existence of the world, or the phenomenon of religion — or anything you like — is a 'meme', in Dawkins' sense, whose evolutionary history goes back to the great historic clashes between established religion and the emerging sciences. That doesn't decide the question whether atheism is or isn't in fact 'the best explanation'.

But doesn't our very sense of what makes one explanation 'better' than another depend on prior conditioning, on the memes that have been transmitted to us? Is there a fact of the matter here? Couldn't we be completely wrong about what is or is not a good explanation?

For Dawkins, the spectacular success of science is a major consideration. The kinds of criticism that any scientific claim is subjected to by other scientists do not vindicate themselves (because the same argument can be run with 'the kinds of criticism that any theological claim is subjected to by other theologians'). However, the advantage science has over theology, is in its results. Religious belief has 'results' too, but the results arise from the belief — its psychological effect on the believer — rather than the truth of the belief: a vital distinction.

As I've said, it all depends on the explanans. Here, there is a nice finesse in that the atheist isn't the one who has to state what the explanation is intended to explain. Atheism is not a claim, but rather the denial of a claim. The onus is clearly on the one who makes the claim — the one who asserts that God exists — either to offer a proof, or, failing that, to justify the view that God's existence is a better explanation for XYZ, whatever 'XYZ' may be, than any alternative.



Being in two places at one time

Farnaz asked this question:

Is it possible that a person can be in different places at the same time?

The ability to be (or, alternatively, 'appear' — that's one of the questions we have to decide) at two different places at the same time is known as bilocation. This cropped up in a story I once wrote:

The giant out door auditorium was filled to capacity. Overhead, robot drinks and ice cream vendors darted about amongst the hovering TV cameras. On the podium a man in a blue tunic had just started to speak. Distorted images of his friendly features loomed on scores of giant video screens.

'...Some of you might remember me from the old television series, Star Trek. For the benefit of those who haven't seen any of the episodes, my name is Captain Kirk. And yes, I am a real Star Ship Captain. The series is substantially based on true events, though of course we had to simplify things to fit each story into a fifty minute slot. Followers of the series will be glad to hear that all your favourite characters are here. You might even get the chance to meet some of them. You will all have met Mr Spock of course...'

Captain Kirk's words were almost drowned in wild cheering. He paused to salute his Science Officer, who was seated behind the podium. Spock stood up briefly to take a stiff bow.

'...Like the rest of us here today, Spock has para-psychic powers. In his case it is the relatively rare but extremely useful gift of bilocation, the ability to appear in several different places at one and the same time. Some of the Catholic Saints were able to bilocate, I believe.

'Well that is by the way. The main question that seems to be on everyone's lips is, 'Where is Heaven?' That's a little difficult to explain. But if you give me a few minutes, I'll do my best to fill you in. Mr Spock has written a useful little book for those of you who've done a bit of maths and physics, complete with equations and flow diagrams, but I shall just try to keep things simple.'

Kirk paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts. The famous smile beamed down from scores of video screens. One thing you knew for sure. The maths and physics weren't above his head.

The Possible World Machine Unit 12: Space Hopper

In the story, a group of persecuted telepaths escape to an alternative universe existing in a different space from our actual universe (but not in a different time). The idea was to test Kant's claim that there necessarily can exist only one space using a thought experiment which doesn't rely, as Anthony Quinton's does, on a subject falling asleep and appearing to 'dream' of a life which is no less coherent than his 'waking' experience (Anthony Quinton 'Spaces and Times' Philosophy 37, pp 130-147 1962).

In my tale, there is said to be a fully scientific explanation of how there came to be two spaces. It's the 'simplest explanation' of the data. (There was a 'cataclysmic explosion', and a fragment of space 'split off' from the universe to form a space of its own.) There's no reason, in principle, why experimental evidence couldn't lead us to conclude that Kant was wrong about there being one space, just as Quantum Mechanics has shown that he was wrong about the a priori truth of determinism.

I don't know if that's acceptable as a response to Kant. It amounts to little more than stating the very thing that Kant denies. Unlike the case of QM, we don't have the least bit of scientific evidence for multiple spaces (ignoring things like the many-worlds interpretation of QM which seems to be a different thing entirely). It is pure speculation about what we would conclude if such alleged evidence turned up. In this case, we really need to consider the argument Kant gives (in the first part of Critique of Pure Reason), and whether the argument is in fact logically sound. (Many commentators agree — e.g. P.F. Strawson in Bounds of Sense [1966] — that Kant's argument for the necessity of determinism is over-ambitious: the most he can claim is that experience should exhibit sufficient regularity to enable us to make reliable predictions.)

If there were overwhelming logical objections to the very idea of a person being located at different places at the same time, then no amount of empirical 'evidence' would be sufficient to persuade us otherwise. We would have no choice but to offer an alternative explanation. However, it is worth pointing out, that at least some of the things said about the bilocating Catholic Saints can be understood in the weaker sense of the individual in question appearing to observers at a place (as a realistic apparition) as opposed to actually being there in the flesh.

But is genuine bilocation — actually being in two different places at the same time — such a nonsensical idea?

Before we can even consider that question, we have to address the prior question of what it is to be located at a space. For trees and rocks, or planets and stars, there is a simple and conclusive test. Spatial position is one of the criteria (or, indeed, the main criterion) for identity. If an object, say, a paperweight is seen at two places at the same time, then we have two exactly similar paperweights, not one paperweight. If I scratch the paperweight on my desk, and an identical scratch mark simultaneously appears on the matching paperweight on my coffee table, or if smashing one paperweight with a hammer immediately results in the destruction of the other, then the conclusion would be that some kind of unknown causal influence has occurred, not that this is proof that the 'two' paperweights were in fact one and the same object or entity.

Of course we are free to call the matching paperweights by a single name, describe it as an extended 'object'. This might even be a useful thing to do. (We might want to distinguish superficially matching paperweights from genuine pairs which exhibit this remarkable property.)

With persons, on the other hand, an entirely new factor is brought into play. Persons have a point of view. If I have a twin on Twin Earth — or for that matter Doncaster — even if the same things appear to happen to my twin as happen to me and at the very same time, we are not the same person. I have my point of view and my twin has his point of view.

The problem with this intuition, as Daniel Dennett entertainingly shows in his piece 'Where Am I?' (originally in Brainstorms 1978, reproduced in Dennett and Hofstadter Eds. The Mind's I 1981 pp 217-229) is that if we assume the materialist hypothesis that the mind is a kind of program which 'runs' on the brain, then there are various science fiction scenarios where we simply don't know how to answer the question, 'where I am'.

I'm not going to pursue Dennett's idea of brains being simulated by computer programs. If the self is a program, and a program is (as it necessarily must be) a kind of thing, a set of instructions which can be written in any language, realized on any suitable hardware (or 'wetware'), if that's all it is, then it's hardly surprising that you can't 'find' the location of the self, or even decide whether you are dealing with one self or more than one self. The 'GK program' would be like Windows XP.

So I'm going to assume we don't know whether or not you could 'write' the program for GK. In other words, I'm assuming that you can be a materialist without being committed to Dennett's version of materialism.

The US flying drone which destroyed the alleged Al-Qaeda cell last Saturday was 'flown' by a GI operative sitting comfortably at a laptop. In World War II, the Japanese kamikaze gave their lives to achieve the same objective. But what exactly is the difference between being there, at the moment the high explosive detonates, and not being there?

Let's notch this up a bit. Instead of a metal and plastic flying drone, let's have a fully functioning robot which reproduces my bodily movements via a broadband radio connection. To make this really effective, I need the ability to feel when my robot is damaged. This is a very expensive piece of equipment, what better way to protect it than to give the operator a suitable jab of pain? As my robot engages in battle (presumably with other robots) I have the most vivid sense of 'being there'. Only, I am not there. It's just an illusion, isn't it?

Let's say that as a result of carelessness or lack of sufficient fighting skill, my robot gets destroyed, and I feel the pain of its destruction. After receiving a severe dressing down from my commanding officer, I'm issued with another robot with the warning not to let this happen again, or else. This time, I will not only feel the pain. I will receive the same injuries, in the same body parts that my robot receives. If it dies, then I die.

Remember that my robot doesn't have a brain, or a computer simulating my thought processes. It is just a sophisticated drone. And yet, in this extreme case, wouldn't it be correct to say that where my robot is — where the action is happening — there I am also?

If I put my hand into a fire, then the fire doesn't only burn my hand, it burns me. Whereas a drone under my control is just like an extended artificial hand. What puts me there, in the flames, is nothing other than the fact that it is my life that is at stake. I am where my vulnerable parts are.

It helps to have 'eyes' and 'ears' where your vulnerable parts are located otherwise you will injure yourself too easily. But merely having eyes and ears at a location (as in the case of the Al-Qaeda drone) isn't sufficient for being there.

If Dennett is right about the possibility of a brain program, then human beings do not, in principle, have any vulnerable parts. As noted above, the self program can be endlessly reproduced. On the other hand, if Dennett is wrong, and brain function cannot be duplicated in a program (more precisely, by a Turing Machine) then the living human body which I call 'mine', or at least that part of me (say the brain) whose destruction would lead to my death, is necessarily where I am.

I have noted that 'genuine' bilocation must be more than just appearing in a place. The appearance must correspond to reality. As we have also seen, it must be more than my manipulating a robot or simulacrum of me at that place, because the destruction of the robot or simulacrum does not entail my destruction. To be in a place is to risk death at that place. If I can do this in two or more places simultaneously, then I can bilocate, but not otherwise.



Capitalism and the poverty of desire

Kramer asked this question:

How can philosophy help in addressing a poverty of desire? Living in a capitalist society leads to spending most of my time towards earning a living and caring for my dependents. I feel I must try out different vocations to figure out the job I would like best but then you would not know if you really like a job unless you put in sufficient time. And I don't have much time and I don't know what I like. I just live and this causes a poverty of desire.

The claim that human beings in capitalist society work 'just to live' rather than to fulfil their 'human essence' was the criticism famously levelled by Marx originally in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. As a capitalist sympathetic to Marx's ideas about the human essence and the need to fulfil it, I feel sorry that so many people spend so much of their lives in dead-end jobs just working to make ends meet, I really do. It's something of which I have hardly any experience, not because I am capitalist living of the sweat of the working class, but because of my innate laziness. I lack the Protestant work ethic. You won't get me to work by threats or rewards. Only the prospect of fulfilling my human essence is sufficient to motivate me.

As a result of this, I am poor. If I had been more 'responsible', my family would be better provided for but at least we have a roof over our heads and we don't starve. I have spent two thirds of my six decades doing more or less what I do now. I reckon I'm pretty good at my job — philosophizing on a point. I don't get a lot of praise, but then I never needed other people's approval to motivate me either.

This morning, I knew that another answer was overdue. I looked forward to the prospect with a mixture of apprehension, nervousness and slight annoyance at myself for not having written my weekly answer last week so that I could spend the rest of my day watching the clouds go by as I love to do.

But then, part of being lazy is not doing a task at the first opportunity, but rather on the deadline when you absolutely know that you can't postpone it another day.

What advice can I give Kramer?

First, about Marx. It is absolutely wrong to think that the need to work at a task you don't like is a criticism that Marx laid at capitalism's door. Not at all. How much work is required and what kind depends to a large extent on things out of our control. In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust the survivors will be working their guts out just to stay alive. In a future super-technological age of plenty, perhaps very little work will be needed at all, maybe just a couple of hours on a Friday.

But let's just tackle things as they are.

Regardless of how society is organized or what political system human beings live under, work will be necessary. Marx understood this. Doing what is necessary, pulling your weight, making your contribution to society is part of what is required to fulfil one's human essence. There are some jobs that only a masochist would enjoy, and there are not nearly enough masochists to go round. But the jobs have to be done, nonetheless. Say, it's your turn to clean out the lavatories. The point, however, is that provided everyone pulls their weight (and barring the nuclear holocaust scenario) you have sufficient time time to do things that you enjoy, which enhance you and express your individuality.

The young Marx's criticism of capitalist society was that the very best of the worker is used up in the daily grind. The worker's only pleasures the animal pleasures of eating, sex and sleeping. Then the whole thing starts again. Marx believed that to sell your labour rather than give it freely out of the joyful desire to make a useful contribution (including cleaning out lavatories) already condemns you. You're nothing better than a prostitute. But then so are the all those talented people who choose wealth and comfort over artistic integrity. In a world that runs on money, we sell our souls because we lose our sense of value — regardless of whether the general standard of living is high or low.

Criticism of materialism is nothing new. Gloomy Diogenes was there before Marx (see Pissing and shitting in the street, begging coins of passers by in return for a caustic philosophical discourse, that's not my idea of the good life. But freedom to express your human essence has a value, and that's one way to be free if you can accept the discomfort. Be a bum. — But I forgot, you have a family.

(This reminds me of a beautiful short novel Knulp — actually three short stories — written by Herman Hesse in 1915, which makes a good case that the life of a tramp isn't that bad if you are one of those rare people who has the right qualities.)

This isn't the place to launch into a criticism of Marxist philosophy. I will just say that a society of brotherly and sisterly love, where we are all just one happy family and everyone does the work required without needing to be motivated by material reward isn't something that anyone has ever believed possible, apart from maybe the early Christians. That's what you would have to achieve in order to get rid once and for all of the evil of money.

Kramer, your problem isn't about the evils of capitalism, real though they may be. Accept that you may need to choose between jobs you don't like, and that the best choice you can possibly make is more likely than not a job you won't enjoy doing — at least not too much. But still, there's the pleasure of social contact, work mates, the various compensations that help you get through the day. Be prepared to take a cut in pay, in order to work for someone human rather than a bastard (as many bosses unfortunately are). You have obligations to your family but those obligations don't include self-sacrifice. If you sell yourself into miserable wage slavery, your value to them reduces to the money you earn.

(Which reminds me of another novel, or novella, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis coincidentally also written in 1915.)

Find an interest in life, outside work or family. You can probably guess what I'm going to say. You found the Ask a Philosopher web site searching for sites related to philosophy. Take a philosophy course. Develop your mind. Don't do it because of the super-slim chance of making philosophy your career. The chances are, you're not cut out for it. Do it because it is one way — very satisfying, as I have discovered — to realize your human essence.

And do other things. Don't forget your friends, keep yourself fit, engage in something artistic, look after your garden. Whatever talents you have, exploit them. Accept the necessity for work but have a life as well.



Choosing your own reality

Ruth asked this question:

(I apologise for asking such a basic question, but I have googled and googled and... nothing.)

I was reading a discussion online the other day and one of the participants posited that 'all experience essentially takes place in the mind'. My question is, if there is no such thing as 'objective' reality, are people altered by the things they experience and change because of outside stimulus, or do they 'change' the things they experience to suit their own framework? Which choice is preferable?

At first glance, Ruth's question looks like a question about idealism. But I don't think it is. The idealist doesn't say that 'there is no such thing as 'objective' reality'. On the contrary, Berkeley's immaterialism, Kant's transcendental idealism, or Hegel's objective idealism are all theories about the nature of objective reality. In these theories, mind plays an important role, but it is not your mind or my mind but Mind (with a capital 'M').

It is fair to say that the current philosophical climate is predominantly realist rather than idealist. Yet even the staunchest realist would agree that our point of view is not the 'View from Nowhere' as Nagel terms it (Thomas Nagel The View From Nowhere 1986). The way we gain knowledge about the world outside us, our ability to access the 'objective' facts, depends on many factors including our mental constitution, sensory capacities, concepts and linguistic resources. Human beings differ from one another in this respect, although there is a also sense in which there exists a specifically 'human way' of perceiving and gaining knowledge of the world, by contrast, e.g., with that of a whale or a bat.

So in response to the question, 'Do we change because of outside stimulus, or do we 'change' the things we experience to suit our own framework?' my answer is, both.

I am writing this answer today because when I checked my 'Questions In' mailbox I found Ruth's question there. If there hadn't been a question that interested me, I might have been doing something else. When Ruth clicked the button at Ask a Philosopher to submit her query, that action in a small way changed the course of my life.

Yet it is also true that the things I experience, the way the world impresses itself on me and stimulates me to action, depends on my desires, attitudes, moods. By working on myself, by reflecting on the way I feel and think, I effectively change my world. The world is the world, the same world for all of us; but I can choose where to live in that world, my intellectual habitation — be it high or low, austere or lush. In a very real sense, it is up to me to create my own reality.

Which choice is preferable? How do you choose when to open yourself up and let the world impress itself on you, and when to work on yourself in order to make the world — or your world — different? That's a fair question. Each person, I would argue, differs in this respect. It is a particularly tricky question for the philosopher.

As a seeker after truth, my aim is or ought to be to make my subjective contribution as small as possible so that I can accurately reflect the nature of objective reality. It isn't up to my free choice whether to be a materialist, or a dualist, a realist or idealist. I have to let the arguments impress themselves upon me, and then decide. I am nothing and reality is everything. That attitude is often taken as definitive of the 'philosophical standpoint'.

And yet, truth seeking would be a pointless exercise, if it were not part of a strenuous effort to make sense of things. It's not as if any 'truths' will do. A philosopher is only concerned with ultimate or universal truths, truths which would remain true even if the actual world as we find it was different in so many different ways. But that's still too many. My world is meaningful, or meaningless, depending on choices I make, for example, choices about which truths to focus upon, which questions to live with.

As regards 'how to live' in a practical sense, there don't seem to be many choices open to me, given my resources and ongoing commitments, my place in society. And yet as regards making sense of things intellectually, all the work is yet to be done. As I remarked last time, the world seems to me like a puzzle that doesn't add up. That impression, that feeling: is it an accurate reflection of reality, or is it rather the reality I have merely chosen to inhabit?

It feels like a choice. I have chosen to be gripped by a question which, if the reactions of students, colleagues, friends are anything to go by, not many people nor even many academic philosophers find puzzling. I don't have to spend all my time thinking about it. I don't have to slip into this mood. But I do, because that is what I will.

I don't find much comfort in the thought that the thoughts I am thinking now are merely the product of two and a half thousand years of the history of philosophy. That somehow I am merely 'continuing a tradition'. The past is the past, water under the bridge. It's true that 'those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it' (as I often tell my students). After nearly 40 years doing this, I think I know enough about the history of philosophy to get by. (Not nearly as much as the late Anthony Harrison-Barbet, author of Philosophical Connections but I doubt whether many working academic philosophers do.)

I said last time that 'to hold the entire universe 'in question' seems liberating, in a strange sort of way'. Why do I need to be liberated? liberated from what? The idea that philosophy has its 'consolations' is as old as Boethius, or older, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I chose philosophy all those years ago because I needed it, because it seemed to be the only way I could stop my world from falling apart. And it's done a pretty good job ever since.

Some will sense that the G-word is in the background to all of this. The theist says, 'Of course the world has a purpose, the purpose given to it by God.' My response: If it turned out that God did exist (don't ask me how we would know), it would be our duty to kill him, or her (don't ask me how we would achieve this). If it turned out that God didn't exist (don't ask etc.), it would be our duty to create him, or her (don't ask etc.).

This isn't some mad idea; better minds have been here before me. But I'm not really interested in the God question, I see through all these facile moves. This isn't where the answer is going to be found. (Like philosophy, religion is a life choice. I just don't think that it is a very good choice, but I'm here speaking for myself not for you.)

So, in my own mind, I have found something better than religion. I've spent two thirds of a lifetime creating my world, and the job is not done yet. When it is, I'll let you know.



Collingwood on absolute presuppositions

Tim asked this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

One of McDowell's favourite quotes from Wittgenstein was:

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

Philosophical Investigations Para. 217

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I was led to a rather weird conclusion:

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

G.Klempner D.Phil thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning, Ch. 33

The remedy?

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

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

— One up on Collingwood, eh?



Definition of a solipsist

Dave asked this question:

I have not studied philosophy but I seem to keep gravitating to it unwittingly.

I spend a lot of time thinking and I recently discovered Solipsism and thought it fit almost perfectly with my beliefs.

However, upon trying to find out more about it I just found people using it as a device to make ironic jokes. I just seek clarification on what I am and whether I am a type of Solipsist.

People seem to think that Solipsists would not want to congregate because by definition they are denying everyone but themselves and see little value in others.

I believe in quite the opposite. If all other people are fabrications of my mind, I would find great value in meeting with them especially those with similar ideas. This is because I am not consciously creating them and the fact that they are aspects of my mind's creation means that they are aspects of myself and I have created them for a reason.

Have I got Solipsism right or wrong? Or am I specific type of Solipsist?

I don't want to get into a boring taxonomy of philosophical positions. And who cares about names and labels anyway? However, it is necessary to make some preliminary cuts with the analytical knife in order to address Dave's question.

The first cut — the first option which I want to put on one side — is scepticism about other minds. Scepticism about other minds, or more specifically the hypothesis that I am the only conscious being in the universe, could be contingently true if either of the following circumstances obtained:

(a) I live in a world populated by robots disguised as human beings, each controlled by a pre-programmed tape. (This is to rule out the possibility, which a materialist might argue for, that if the 'robots' are genuine examples of AI, then they have consciousness just as I do.) The super-intelligent alien scientist who created the robots and tapes has died.

(b) Mind-body dualism, of the epiphenomenalist variety, is true, but I am the only person with a mind as well as a body. Everyone else that I meet is a zombie, which behaves in every respect just like a human being except that it lacks a mind or consciousness. (I'm not asserting that this is necessarily a coherent possibility, merely that it is initially plausible. I actually think that it is incoherent, but I won't try to show that here.)

The second cut I want to make relates to another contingent possibility, related to the Matrix scenario. Imagine that the Machine World is devastated by a massive power cut, leaving only myself alive and my dreams of living in Sheffield in 2010 and answering questions for the Ask a Philosopher web site. Apart from my personal life-support system, all the machines have ground to a halt. It is possible that I am the only consciousness in the universe (assuming the absence of any alien life forms).

Well, actually, I am answering those questions, and not just dreaming that I am answering them, because we are assuming, by hypothesis, that I am in full possession of my intellectual faculties. However, the questions originate, not from named or anonymous surfers on the internet, but in the computer program my brain is interacting with. Dave and his question are the invention of the original Architect of the Matrix.

Why am I confident that none of these scenarios fits Dave's description? He states that he 'recently discovered Solipsism and thought it fit almost perfectly with my beliefs'. No plausible process of scientific investigation or inference to the best explanation could lead to the belief that I exist in a world populated by robots, or the other bizarre possibilities outlined above. You don't believe something just because it's possible, unless you are suffering from serious mental problems.

So now we need to supply an argument — which Dave does not give — which might plausibly have lead him to the conclusion that he is a 'solipsist'. By understanding how that argument works, we can diagnose exactly what kind of solipsist Dave is.

I suggest that the missing argument is along the lines given by Descartes at the beginning of the Meditations. All I know for certain is my own existence, and the fact that I have experiences. Descartes never actually goes this far: he proposes, as a sceptical hypothesis, the idea that an evil demon is deliberately deceiving me into thinking that a material world and other people exist, when in reality all there is, is myself and the evil demon. (Note, that this goes way beyond the Matrix scenario which assumes the existence of material objects in space.)

If all that exists is myself and the evil demon, then my experience, e.g., of looking at my computer monitor has two sides. It is my experience, but it is also produced by something external to my conscious mind. Dave would say at this point, 'Exactly! I am not consciously creating the computer monitor. But my mind is still the source of my experience.' But there is a problem here. What makes this 'unconscious' source of my conscious experience mine or part of me? My experience would be just as it is now if it was the evil demon who was responsible for it. Or, rather, 'my unconscious mind' is the evil demon for all intents and purposes.

This is still unsatisfactory, because one could argue that Dave is assuming something he has no right to assume: that when experience happens, it comes from somewhere, something is 'producing' it. Why?

A large part of the answer lies in our adherence to a certain model of causal explanation. You don't have an effect without a case. You can't have experience without something producing the experience. But isn't this a merely contingent matter? Based purely on my experience, I cannot say for certain whether it has an external cause or not.

I'm going to take a leap at this point — I don't know whether Dave is willing to join me — and assume that my experiences have no external cause. All that exists in the universe, all that I have any certain knowledge of, consists of my actual experiences. This isn't some crazy lunatic fantasy but a powerful philosophical position. This is all I know, and all that could ever be. Nothing that is not this could possibly have any impact on me, or have any meaning for me.

There are some subtle arguments that the solipsist can deploy, along the lines of Kantian and Husserlian phenomenology, to the effect that, in some sense, it is necessary that my existence takes the form of perception of 'objects in space', and that I identify myself as a 'person' in relation to other 'persons'. The details aren't important. What is important is that they allow, or indeed justify, my concept of 'other persons' as an essential part of my experience, characters in the story of my world. If my experience was not like this, if it didn't take this logical form, there wouldn't be anything describable as 'me' or 'I'.

A suitable name for this position (if you are into naming philosophical positions) is transcendental solipsism. The kind of solipsist that Dave is, is a transcendental solipsist.

One very curious feature of transcendental solipsism is that, prima facie, no practical consequences follow from this theory. It's not as if you look at people in a funny way. You deal with them exactly as you would do if you didn't believe in solipsism. You can attend solipsist philosophical conventions, and argue the toss with solipsists and anti-solipsists.

I said 'prima facie', because there is a problem here. You can deal with other persons in just the same way as you would if you weren't a solipsist (or Dave's kind of solipsist). But you don't have to. After all, they are just characters in the story of 'my world'. You can choose to behave ethically, if this helps to keep up the illusion that you are enjoying their 'company', but that's just your choice. On the other hand, it might be more fun if you played games with some of these characters. After all, they are just your barbie dolls and action men. Whatever you do with your human toys can't be 'wrong'.

Personally, I wouldn't like to be stuck with this view of ethics, which is why I think it is important to find an argument that would be sufficient to refute solipsism. But that's another story.



Degrees of agreement

Len asked this question:

My question has to do with language and in that sense it could be a linguistics or a philosophy of language question. Of the two, I'm not really sure into which category it falls.

If you agree or disagree with a statement, it seems to me this is an absolute. However, on many psych tests employers use these days for candidates seeking to fill the open position, they give choices of 'agree,' 'strongly agree,' 'disagree' or 'strongly disagree. For example; if the the statement is 'The sky is blue,' I can either agree or disagree with the statement. How could I further agree or disagree about the state of the color of the sky or any other statement for that matter. If you and I both disagree, how could either of us disagree 'more' than the other? Herein lies my question:

How can you assign an adverbial quantifier to something that I believe is an absolute? I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who thinks this way so could tell me the difference between agree and strongly agree?

This is a fascinating question in the philosophy of language. Somewhere (I can't remember where) Michael Dummett raises the possibility of a speech act similar to assertion, where the speaker is less than fully confident about what they are saying. I think the term he used was 'probabilistic assertion', an idea he associated with Michael Polanyi. I remember long ago discussing this with my thesis supervisor John McDowell, who was roundly dismissive of Dummett's proposal.

Consider weather forecasts. People complain when the weather girl says, 'It will be fine tomorrow,' when she knows damn well that there is only a 70-80 per cent probability that it will be fine tomorrow. (I'm talking about BBC weather girls who've studied meteorology and actually know what they're talking about, on other TV stations they just read a script.) In the discussion I made the point that the context (a TV weather report) makes it clear that when the weather girl makes an assertion about tomorrow's weather, she isn't doing what we normally do when we make assertions. It isn't necessary for her to quote the probability figure, or express some degree of doubt about what she is telling us. It's understood.

But that's just the thin end of the wedge. (I think that this was McDowell's objection.) We would have to admit a whole family of speech acts, speculative assertion, tentative assertion, cautious assertion, confident assertion, emphatic assertion. And that just seems wrong. To make an assertion is to aim at truth. There are only two possibilities, you aim at truth or you aim to miss (i.e. you tell your audience a deliberate lie). It's understood that failure is a possibility. But you can't include a rider to that effect without destroying the whole point of this language game. Or, if not, then the rider adds nothing to what you've already said, the force and semantic content of your speech act.

However, my intuitions tell me that there is a point in the way these questionnaires are constructed, and the options they give. To extract this point, we need to do quite a bit of of work in a number of related areas: game theory, probability theory, the analysis of knowledge from testimony, as well as philosophy of language. Just to give a sense of the complexity involved, here's a short parable:

I am having a pleasant stroll in the hills around Athens with my three companions, Parmenides, Zeno and the young Socrates. Somehow, we've managed to get lost. I'm sure we passed that broken tree half an hour ago. We reach a point where the path forks three ways. 'Which we should we go?' I ask. Zeno scratches his chin. After what seems like an eternity he says, 'It's not right and it's not straight ahead, so I think it must be left.' 'No, no!' shouts the young Socrates waving his pointing finger enthusiastically, 'We have to go right, I'm sure of it!' Parmenides scowls. He stares straight ahead and nods. 'That is the way,' he says in a quiet tone.

Which way do you go?

I don't think that there's any doubt. I would follow Parmenides, I'd go straight ahead. Zeno isn't completely sure, so we can discount him. Socrates' wild gesticulations aren't convincing. Whereas Parmenides impresses us with his authority. He doesn't need to make a fuss about it. He knows.

There's a discussion of the connection between knowledge and authority in my Answer to Demetreus. If you think about it, there could not be a linguistic device which qualified a statement in a way which reliably gave the hearer information about the speaker's authority to make that statement, the credence one should place on it. And yet, we make these kinds of judgements all the time. The reason why we couldn't have such a device is that people aren't always the best authority on how credible an authority they are.

However, there is no objection in principle to introducing new devices into the language game, provided they have a use. Indeed, arguably, we already have such a device in the various ways and means available for conveying the strength with which you hold a belief or opinion. The finesse here is that the 'measure of strength' isn't like assertion, it doesn't function in the same way as a speech act, nor does it function as a qualifier of the speech act. It's information that you give out, more or less voluntary, of the same order (or at least closer to) the information you give out when your face blushes, or you tremble, or your features contort in anger. It is almost impossible to imagine what human life would be like if these features were absent.

When you tick the boxes (and I fully accept, sometimes it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense when you are asked whether you 'agree' or 'strongly agree' to a particular statement which is just plain true so far as you are concerned) you are giving out information that will be processed to yield a result. A numerical scheme is applied, somewhat like the various proposed preferential voting schemes for proportional representation. In a similar way to preferential voting, knowing this gives you some additional measure of control over how your application will be assessed. And the people who designed the form, know that you know this. In other words, you are being invited to participate in a game.

Here's just one example: Good psych tests (I mean, ones that are actually researched empirically, and constructed so you can't just 'cheat' your way to a better result) give you plenty of opportunity to contradict yourself. If you strongly agree to X and also strongly agree to Y, and the implicit assumptions behind X are inconsistent with the implicit assumptions behind Y, you earn a higher demerit than if one or other or both of your statements was less emphatic.

Your doubts justifiably reflect uncertainty about exactly what game you are being invited to play. Who designed the test and what is its real purpose? You are at a disadvantage because you don't know the rules. You don't know what numerical scheme will be applied. Or maybe — and this is potential source of criticism of this kind of exercise — you don't agree to this game at all. (That's what I feel about the new '0-5 star' system of appraisal introduced by eBay. If you're happy with the transaction, there ought to be only one choice, so far as I can see.)

However, if you are applying for a job, you don't really have the option. Honesty is, or ought to be, the best policy. But if it seems to you as if you are being required to be dishonest, give a false account of yourself, then maybe you should consider how badly you want the job.



Does knowledge entail certainty?

Demetreus asked this question:

Descartes and Plato equate knowledge with complete certainty.

Do you agree that knowledge requires this very high standard?

If knowledge means being certain, is there anything we can truly know?

Methinks Demetreus would not have posted this question, if it hadn't been on his philosophy class assignment sheet. Quite a lot of these questions find their way to Ask a Philosopher. I'm not averse to answering them because they show something revealing about the way philosophy is taught in many colleges and universities.

The topic is Epistemology or 'Theory of Knowledge'. The term comes from the Greek word episteme, which Plato in his Republic contrasts with doxa or mere belief. According to Plato, you can't have episteme of things in the empirical world — the world in space and time — because empirical objects are shifting and uncertain. You can only have doxa. Whereas episteme is reserved for eternal things: the objects of mathematics, and, ultimately, the Forms.

Descartes argued in his Meditations that empirical knowledge is possible, but only on the basis of a proof of the existence of a benevolent God, who has so arranged things in this world that provided that we use our capacity for judgement responsibly, we will not be led astray. Even so, Descartes knew full well — as he explains in Meditation 6 — that even when you exercise exquisite care in making judgements, a judgement can still turn out to be false. The acquisition of empirical knowledge relies on mechanisms like perception, which for natural reasons — the laws of nature that God Himself decreed — can sometimes fail to deliver the goods.

Why can we only know the Forms? Why is God needed to make knowledge possible? These are deep and fascinating questions for students of Plato and Descartes. Unfortunately, a style of lazy thinking seems to have crept into Epistemology, which lays the blame on the requirement of certainty. According to the lazy view, Plato and Descartes were wrong, because they didn't realize that certainty isn't required for knowledge!

This is such a preposterous idea, no wonder generations of tyro philosophy students are baffled by it.

The anonymous author of the question, an instructor at some college somewhere, has obviously realized that there is a lacuna here so he/ she has inserted the adjective 'complete'. This is like a flashing red light. Why the need for a qualification? Certainty is certainty. Does knowledge entail that you are certain, or does it not? If I tell you I'm certain, and then you go on to ask me if I'm completely certain, you deserve a smack in the jaw.

Most persons who have not been subjected to first-year Epistemology classes would say knowledge does imply certainty. Suppose I remark, 'Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her.' I have made two claims. First, Bob is cheating on Sue. That's bad. It's not the sort of thing you'd want to make a mistake about. (I haven't said I know that Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her because that's already implied by what I said.) The second claim is that Sue knows this. By implying that I know, I have also implied that I am sure of my ground. I am certain. By stating that Sue knows, I imply not only that Sue is sure of her ground, but also that she in a position to be sure. If Sue told someone, 'Bob is cheating on me', the hearer could take this information as authoritative, not open to doubt.

That's how he concept of knowledge works. If you are not sure, if there is any element of uncertainty, then you should say so otherwise you are behaving irresponsibly. You are giving your audience grounds for thinking that you are an authoritative source of the information in question, when you are not. You are only guessing.

Do we really go through all this palaver in daily life? Yes, we do. We just don't think about it in such explicit terms.

However, these are just the kinds of facts that the sceptic exploits. Arguments for scepticism typically take the form of pointing out the many ways in which it is conceivable that you could be wrong. Descartes in Meditation 1 comes up with a real show stopper: all my assumed 'knowledge' of the external world could just be a dream fed to me by an evil demon. You might think the idea is spectacularly improbable, but it is logically possible. In that case, you can't rule it out completely. You don't have the right to be certain after all.

However, it is not necessary to go to such extremes in order to raise a question mark about ordinary claims to knowledge. 'Is Bob cheating on Sue?' 'Yes, I saw him together with Mary.' 'Does Bob have a twin brother in Australia?' 'Search me if I know.' 'If Bob had a twin brother, wouldn't it be possible that it was his twin brother on a visit from Australia you saw with Mary?' 'Yes, I suppose so.' 'In that case, would you like to revise your statement?'

It doesn't require too much ingenuity to come up with suitable defeating questions for just about any knowledge claim.

Philosophers have offered various solutions. According to David Lewis, knowledge is a contextual notion. Assume that Bob is cheating on Sue. The question is whether I know this. Based on what I saw them do in the park, there's no question in my mind. I know. I'm certain that he is. Then you hit me with the question about the possible twin brother. Now I don't know. All you did was ask me a question! (As it happens, Bob doesn't have a twin brother. But of course that's irrelevant because I've never thought to investigate.)

Lewis’s solution grabs the horns of the dilemma in both hands, but I don't like it because it leaves the whole notion of 'knowledge' seeming too damn paradoxical. I don't have a better solution. All I know is saying 'knowledge doesn't entail certainty' (or 'complete certainty' if you will) is a complete cop-out.



Eliminating the masses

Derrick asked this question:

With the rapid implementation of advanced automation, robotics and soon nanotechnologies will there still be a place for the human masses?

We have long since passed the point of sustainability, we pollute our ever shrinking supply of fresh water, deforest at accelerating rates and erode our agricultural land and every human disaster is serviced by emergency aid and the result is further breeding to add to the rescue mission next time.

For how long will the have continue to support the have not, will there still be a place for humanity's masses in the coming ages or are we in the process of eliminating ourselves?

How much can I do without? Work is piling up on my desk today, but I don't sense any strong ethical impulse to be getting on with it. Diogenes' question — remember Diogenes, the dog philosopher who lived in tub? — that question haunts me. I don't need any of this.

I've never had much money, but I could get by on a lot less than what I have. I don't own a car, don't go on holidays, keep one pair of shoes (whoever heard of a car, even the most expensive car, needing more than one set of tyres?). Computers would be more difficult to give up, but that wouldn't be too hard once I'd given up all that I need computers for.

Probably the hardest thing would be chocolate biscuits to have with my coffee. Or coffee — whoah, that's a thought!

OK, that's enough about me. What about the human race? What do we need? How much can we do without? Why do we need the masses?

Obviously, the world economy still requires a plentiful resource cheap labour but (as Marx allegedly foresaw) advances in technology will eventually make manual labour redundant. Imagine workforce of obedient robots who need nothing apart from a few drops of oil and a regular recharge. Well, that's pretty obvious.

Who are the 'masses'? Jose Ortega Y Gasset gives a pretty potent definition in his book Revolt of the Masses (1929). The main point to note is that one shouldn't make the mistake of identifying the masses with the 'have nots'. Ortega's typical 'mass man' is the self-satisfied bourgeois.

Get rid of them all, is the answer. Get rid of the have nots, for sure. But also get rid of the bourgeoisie. Who else? Anyone with an IQ under (hmm...) 135. That's a bit generous, I know; not enough to get into Mensa, but that's OK because we're eliminating Mensa members anyway (too smug and self-satisfied by half).

To be serious for one moment (as I'm trying to be, because it's a serious question): Here's a useful thought experiment. Imagine that human beings are the only intelligent life in the universe. I know that we're repeatedly told that the probability of alien intelligence is overwhelming — despite the complete lack of any concrete evidence — but it isn't a fact, it isn't something we know.

So, imagine we're all alone. Does that make you feel more important? Does it make you any less willing to let a few billions die? Not me. What about the survival of the human race. Surely, one would care about that. But why? Survive, for what purpose?

I don't know. That's the honest truth. I just don't know.

I can't think in such general terms. When I try, I lose all my bearings. There are persons whose survival, and happiness, I very much care about apart from my own survival and well being. Instead of starting at the 'big end' (the entire human race) and eliminating the ones whose survival doesn't seem to matter, maybe the thing to do is start at the other end, the small end, by writing a list of all those I do care about, all those who I would allow into the Ark, so to speak.

As each human being comes into focus, looks me in the eye, I feel as if I would have no choice but to let them in.

The solution to 'the world's problems' has been a topic of debate for a long while, certainly since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population. Undoubtedly, technology must play an important part. But, as Derrick has so clearly seen, if we rely only on science and technology then there may very well come a time when human beings, or at any rate a large proportion of the human race, become simply redundant.

This isn't the place for a mealy-mouthed lecture on ethics. I parade my moral virtue for no man. So I will just say this. A heap of sand is made of individual grains. The masses are made of individual persons, and each person has a face. Whatever your ethical or political views may be, that is one fact that you should not allow yourself to forget.



Ethics and advertising

Emmanuel asked this question:

Dr I am Emmanuel a student at a university pursuing a Bachelors in Business Administration. I need your assistance on some questions such as:

Provide philosophical arguments to the ethical questions which arise when considering modern advertising techniques:

1. What responsibility, if any, does a company have for honestly educating the consumer about its product?

2. Should advertisers be allowed to suggest that a product will make a person more sexy/ interesting/ beautiful/ successful etc?

3. Is it ethical to use celebrities to sell products they probably don’t even use themselves?

4. Is it the buyer’s responsibility to be aware of these strategies and not allow adverts to manipulate their emotions?

This question was sent as a personal email rather than submitted to Ask a Philosopher. I'm guessing that Emmanuel found my article ‘Ethics and Advertising’ ( I don't give private advice because that's too close to helping students cheat with their homework. All answers to questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher are published on the internet.

These are very good questions, which you won't find the answers to in my article. I was more concerned to set limits to what ethics can reasonably demand from advertisers, rather than put forward specific principles governing the ethics of advertising. However, it seems to me that the questions Emmanuel raises don't require any special expertise in business ethics. They are a matter of plain common sense.

What responsibility, if any, does a company have for honestly educating the consumer about its product? Let's imagine a case where you are marketing a very nice product, which has some features not found in any of the competing products in the marketplace. You go to an advertising agency, who discuss your 'unique selling point' (USP), and possible ways of presenting this in TV adverts, billboard advertising etc.

However, you know, and your advertising agency knows that there is a better product available from a rival company. You've done extensive secret testing and their product beats yours every time. Yes, your product has features the rival product doesn't have, but that is more than offset by the fact that these features are mostly eye candy and not very useful. Is it unethical to tell consumers that yours is the best available?

I am told that in Germany it is actually against the law to state in an advert that your product is the best unless you can prove that it is. Elsewhere, such as the UK where the rules are a bit more relaxed, saying that a product is 'the best' isn't considered as potentially misleading information. Whereas if you say that your toilet cleaner kills 99% of germs when it only kills 75% then you are breaking the Trade Descriptions Act.

'We think it's the best,' is a way of saying, 'We believe in our product, we stand behind it.' To me, that is a perfectly reasonable attitude.

Do you have an ethical obligation to tell your potential customers that the rival product is better, according to your own tests? Absolutely not. You are ethically (and in many cases legally) obliged to ensure that your product is fit for purpose, not dangerous to use, and not misleadingly described. On the other hand, a sufficiently resourceful and creative advertising agency can make the most of the fact that you are not the leading brand. 'We're Number Two But We Try Harder,' was the famous Avis advert which won them an increased slice of the car hire market against their leading rivals, Herz.

I would love to see an advert which said, 'Product X is Better But Ours Has More Eye Candy!'

Should advertisers be allowed to suggest that a product will make a person more sexy/ interesting/ beautiful/ successful etc? My answer to this would be, Yes, if it's true. If the product in question really does make you more sexy, for example, then you have every right to tell consumers that it does.

But how could this be measured? 'In a survey of a randomly chosen sample of consumers, users of laptop A were considered more sexy than users of laptop B.' Well, an advertiser would never say this, just like that. But they would imply it. The finesse here (as I argue in ‘Ethics and Advertising’) is to realize that the advertising campaign in itself can give the product the power to make you more feel, or appear sexy. The money invested in the campaign adds to the value of the product, not by making it more useful, but by making the users of the product feel or appear more sexy, or cool, or whatever.

I suspect that behind this question is a puritanical attitude that hates the glitz and the glamour of today's marketplace. A car is just a useful machine from getting you from A to B. A laptop is just a useful device for sending emails and browsing the internet. As if!

I know that there will be some who are unsatisfied with my defence of the glitz and glamour. Do we really want to live in a tinsel world far removed from reality? — How close to reality do you want to be? I don't want my face rubbed in the dirt. Don't take away my dreams, the world can be a hard place. But I understand that there's a happy medium. Use value is an important consideration, of course it is. Just don't get puritanical on me.

Is it ethical to use celebrities to sell products they probably don’t even use themselves? This is a sneaky question, because of the use of the qualifier 'probably'. We have to look at two different cases:

The first case is where a celebrity states that they use a product, and that they like it and they endorse it. If they are lying, if they don't use the product, then that is unethical, because it is unethical to lie. There's no argument here. However, in the real world things are not quite so black and white. Consider the immensely lucrative field of sports endorsements. A leading tennis player uses Wilson tennis rackets. But this isn't a Wilson that they purchased in a local store. The racket has been finely adjusted and tweaked. To buy something like that in a shop would cost you thousands. But surely you'd have to be an idiot to think that you could win Wimbledon with a racket you got from the local sports shop!

The second case is where celebrities appear in adverts but don't explicitly endorse the product. Rather, the product gains glamour through the association. Here, again, I think that most viewers of the advert are not taken in. Having said that, you have to consider things from the point of view of the celebrity. Would you, a famous film actor for example, appear in an advert for a product that you considered junk, which had the potential to harm your image? It is not unreasonable to infer some degree of endorsement, even if this isn't explicitly stated.

Is it the buyer’s responsibility to be aware of these strategies and not allow adverts to manipulate their emotions? If you are able to prevent anyone ever manipulating your emotions then you are a better man than me. Of course our emotions get manipulated, and often we willingly allow this to happen. I don't like it when an advert makes me feel bad, yet if it is an advert, say, for the charity NSPCC which campaigns against child abuse then, then I know that I ought to feel bad about the things the adverts depict. On the other hand, if an advert makes me feel good that's a gift for free, and I haven't even bought the product! Before buying it I will consider the practicalities, of course, but in my eyes its value is already enhanced. That's how human emotions work.

Consumers are not puppets, we do succeed in resisting what we see as irresponsible or shameless manipulation of our emotions. It is in the advertiser's own interest not to go too far in this respect, but to remain within the bounds of good taste. Campaigns backfire badly when advertising executives get this wrong.

Yes, emphatically, the buyer has responsibilities. The responsibility doesn't all lie with the seller or advertiser. But there are different cases to consider. If your marketing campaign is aimed at younger persons, especially children, then different rules apply than if it is aimed at adults. It's a matter of common sense.



Ethics and suicide

Amalie asked this question:

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

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

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

We found the first example hard to interpret.

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

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

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

Alvin asked this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One important consequence of this view that the ethically right action is one which maximizes the total surplus of satisfaction of desires, over non-satisfaction of desires, either for all intelligent beings or — in the case of Hare's former pupil Peter Singer — all sentient beings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By 'humanity in my person' Kant is referring to all of humanity, literally everyone who has ever or will ever exist. By taking my own life, I effectively demonstrate that I view humanity as such, as a means to my end. The value — as a member of the Kingdom of Ends — that I deny to my own person through the maxim of my action, 'I will end my life if it is not sufficiently pleasing,' I thereby deny to all. From a certain perspective, this is contempt for humanity on a truly colossal scale.

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

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

It is difficult to make coherent sense of this, except in teleological terms: human beings have a purpose, a teleology, which they do not give themselves but which is given to them, namely, the capacity to form a community governed by the principle of ethical respect for one another as ends, in which each rationally legislates for the actions of all.

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

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

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



Ethics of monetary interest

Douglas asked this question:

What do you think of the role of collecting monetary interest, on a societal level, in Western culture? Is collecting interest positive? Is collecting interest moral? Sixty per cent of Americans are in debt. It is pertinent. Credit cards are the main culprit, given the high interest rates that credit card companies operate.

I want to take a fresh look at a very old debate. Long before Marx wrote about the evils of capitalism and money, lending money for profit was seen as something inherently evil. Christ drove the money lenders out from the temple. It is written in the Quran that those who practice usury are 'controlled by the devil'. Does that mean that Christ was against money lending, or only when it was conducted within the holy confines of temple? Is all taking of interest 'usury', or only when the interest charged is excessive?

Suppose we turned Douglas' question on its head: 'What do you think of the role of making interest on savings on a societal level, in Western culture? Is making interest moral?'

Why should I save my hard earned money rather than spend it all? One answer would be that I need cash for a rainy day. But that isn't a very reliable incentive. If the rainy day never comes, then I get no benefit at all, no reward for my financial prudence.

Here's an alternative: I join a savings co-operative, where members agree to pay in a certain amount each month. Members of the co-operative who want to buy a house can apply to the co-operative for a loan at reasonable interest rates. The profit from the interest rates finances a modest rate of interest for the regular savers. That, in a nutshell, is how many of the well known 'building societies' or 'friendly societies' were formed: today's mortgage companies.

Or let's say I have a friend who is a trained chef and wants to open a restaurant. I offer to loan my friend a sum of money to be paid back over five years, plus an amount of interest based on profits. If the restaurant venture fails to make a profit, then all I get back is my original stake. If it goes bust then we both lose. However, I have great confidence in my friend's business sense as well as in his culinary abilities, and I fully expect to receive back more than I originally gave.

Examples like these would be considered wholly free from ethical opprobrium. However, I would go further and emphasize their praiseworthy aspects. The impulse to help someone out is an altruistic impulse, even if at the very same time doing so is in one's own interest. There is no contradiction in this. The feeling of being part of a larger whole, making one's contribution to a collective effort is rewarding in itself, leaving aside any financial advantages. It is a genuine case of altruism, but without the element of self-sacrifice.

Along with this sense of fellow-feeling necessarily comes an element of trust. To put a fixed amount into the co-operative fund, month after month, year after year, or to finance my friend's ambition to be a restauranteur, requires an act of faith. It isn't blind faith. I know these people. They know me. Things have come to a pretty pass if there's no-one you can trust and everyone you meet is out for number one.

Of course, Douglas will say that he wasn't thinking of these cases. He is concerned with the bad examples of monetary interest. But that changes the discussion rather dramatically. We aren't concerned with whether making an interest is morally right or wrong per se but rather with the particular circumstances in which it is wrong.

Another factor comes into play here. My two examples would be considered to lie on the fringes of capitalist economics — if they belong to economics at all. Once we take into consideration the impersonal phenomenon of the market place, faith, trust and altruism play a relatively smaller, although I would argue still not insignificant role. In place of the mutual desire to reach a fair agreement for the sake of friendship, there is free competition between potential lenders. Other things being equal, you go for the best deal.

But if this were really true, how is it that credit card companies are able to charge so much for loans? How is it (if it is true) that sixty per cent of Americans are in debt? I wonder if these two facts could be connected.

It has become almost a knee-jerk reaction to blame corporations and big business for all manner of financial woes. There have been so many appalling stories in the news, that you can pick targets at will. The case of the sub-prime mortgage market is merely the latest in a long history of scandals — if that's what interests you.

In my role as business ethicist I am of course professionally interested in what it is to practice good business. But that's not what we are talking about here. Douglas raised the question of credit cards and debt. For once, I think the ethical spotlight needs to be trained on consumers rather than on the financial institutions who service their needs.

What do you call someone who borrows from a friend, knowing that you can't repay the loan? Assuming that your friend does not know this. Isn't it the worst case of using someone else for your own ends? Yet when you apply to have the limit raised on your credit card account far beyond what you know you can afford, that's just a fair gamble. If you go bankrupt and can't pay your debt, there is no victim apart from yourself. The credit card company takes a minuscule hit on its profits.

I would like to see borrowing more than you can afford to be seen for what it is: a form of potential theft. You wouldn't do it to a friend. Then why do you think it's OK to do it with American Express?

In a free market, you would expect that prices rise with higher demand. Credit card companies charge the interest that they do because you are prepared to pay. We are not talking about back street loan sharks who take advantage of people's misfortune to charge an arm and a leg for a small loan. My average weekly collection of junk mail usually contains several unsolicited offers from credit card companies touting 'zero interest on balance transfers' and the 'lowest APR'.

I talked rather emotively of 'theft' but I think it is closer to the truth to say that over time the idea that being in debt is a bad thing has eroded to the point where we see the difference between having savings and being in debt as of little significance. If a rainy day comes, it is just as likely that the modest sum of money you've saved won't be enough anyway. But you can always borrow.

Look on the bright side. If money is evil, or the root of all evil as traditional religion preached, then surely it is a good thing that we care less about money than we used to do. Isn't it?



Exact meaning of 'philosophy'

Eric asked this question:

Exactly what does philosophy mean?

How do philosophical questions differ from other questions?

How do philosophers answer the questions they raise? (most important).

The short answer to Eric's first question is that the word 'philosophy' (from the Greek philo sophos, literally 'love of wisdom') doesn't have any significant meaning. It is a gesture — nebulous, vaguely pious — which intimates something profound but in reality is little more than a magician's hocus pocus. Or as I once wrote:

The term has the appearance of a label invented for political purposes, like 'social democrat'. The philosophers' party wished to be known as the lovers of knowledge or wisdom: if you were against them then you had to be an ignoramus or a philistine.

Pathways Program B Searching for the Soul Unit 1

José Ortega y Gasset in his brilliant short book The Origin of Philosophy (Tr. Tony Talbot Norton 1967) wittily describes the term 'philosophy' as 'cross-eyed':

For no sooner were people aware of the existence of 'inquirers', than they began assaulting them, misinterpreting them, confusing them with other vague professions, whereupon that marvelous, ingenuous name [aletheia or 'inquiry'] had to be abandoned and another assumed, one born of spontaneous generation, infinitely inferior but more 'practical' — that is, a more inane, base, and cautious one.

José Ortega y Gasset The Origin of Philosophy

Still today, academic 'philosophers' have to keep their eyes open on two fronts, to the world of politicians and university grants committees, and to their own domain, where they can let their hair down and inquire, alone or together with fellow 'inquirers' in language which makes perfect sense to those initiated into the circle, while remaining sufficiently abstruse to the non-initiated.

With rare exceptions, academic philosophers don't get paid for thinking or dialoguing amongst themselves. They are paid to teach. To the tyro student's questions, 'What is philosophy?', 'What do philosophers do?' academic philosophers have their pat, ready-made answers. Those who seek initiation into the inner circle learn soon enough that no mere formulaic answer can be adequate.

The fact is, I don't really know 'exactly' what question Eric is asking. He evidently thinks he does, and has stated the form an answer should take: 'A philosophical question is one that blah blah blah, and you answer a philosophical question by doing blah blah blah.' — Just fill in the blanks, please.

Well, just what is it that I do? A first stab would be this:

Philosophy is concerned with ultimate things, things that you can't find out by performing experiments, sifting evidence or looking around the world. I know that there are ultimate things to be inquired into, and I believe that such inquiry is worth while; that is the faith of the philosopher.

When people talk of 'ultimate things' the first thing one thinks of is God. As it happens, I am an atheist. I consider the God question all but settled. There's no way forward, so don't waste your time inquiring. You are perfectly entitled to say I'm wrong, and offer your reasons if you have any. But I don't feel obliged to answer every possible philosophical question. I pick the questions that grip me. The God question doesn't grip me, because I see through it.

I am gripped by many questions. For example, by the problem of time or the nature of knowledge. St Augustine famously said something about time which is relevant: 'When no-one asks me, I know. When someone asks me, I don't know.' He means, 'understand'. You assume all sorts of things — all sorts of ideas — that you don't really understand. You are not even aware of that fact, until a question is posed.

Those ignorant of philosophy eventually reach a point where all one can say is, in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song, 'Is that all there is?' I know that there is more. I don't know what it is; I only know that there is a question, and where there is a question, there one can inquire. To inquire — to seek aletheia — is to be in touch with something 'ultimate'.

Philosophy's saving grace is that anything you can say that clarifies or is relevant to the question counts as progress. Slowness, not speed, is of the essence. The more slowly, the more painstakingly you proceed — the more shades of meaning you see wrapped up in what you thought at first was a simple question — the more you understand.

As a teenager ignorant of what philosophers do, the only image that came to mind was 'old men in beards'. You can laugh at that but the funny thing is, that is just what I have become. A human life isn't long enough to pursue the questions of philosophy. Rush Rhees, one of Wittgenstein's students at Cambridge once wrote an introduction to philosophy entitled Without Answers (Routledge 1969). You can learn a lot from pondering the paradox which that title implies.



Existentialism and advancing years

Wesley asked this question:

Has anyone written on the concept of a Post-Existential life?

I have entered the final years of my life. The life I am living now can be changed only fractionally by decisions and actions I make now. That is, it is as if all my previous decisions have painted me into this corner of this room in this house, here.

If authentic acts/ decisions are those in accordance with one's freedom, my Authenticism is absolutely limited by the limits of my freedom to act/ decide, which have become limited by all previous decisions and by Existence itself. My actions have brought me to where I am. I have decided on a course of moral and social Being. I have made decisions that now limit my health. All these limit my Freedoms and thus my Choices. I can no longer act in such ways that bring further Freedoms of Decision. All my existential life has led to this painted corner.

Granted, I have the wide freedom limited by health and financial circumstances to act in opposition to all prior decisions, 'Out of Valid Character' so to speak. To be wicked, criminal, to defile what I have held dear, to do the opposite of what I have chosen as the correct response in previous choices presented by my Freedom. But to do so seems Inauthentic in the extreme. And even so, my opportunity to act Out of Character is highly limited.

Thus, my life could be said to be Inauthentic in that I have little freedom to act, but can this be? Does one live an Authentic Life only to face death necessarily in Inauthenticity?

Rather, I see this as Authenticity leading to infinitely smaller and smaller Freedoms of Action the closer I approach and enter death. Thus, Authenticism leads to lesser and lesser, fading, then extinguished Freedom of Action. Neither Authenticism nor Inauthenticism. But even this seems unacceptable.

I would appreciate comments. Thank you.

I understand, Wesley, where this is coming from. However, I will argue that if you accept the truth in existentialism, then there can be no such thing as a 'post-existential' life.

One needs to draw a distinction, however, between 'being an existentialist' (which as it happens I am not) and 'accepting the truth in existentialism' (which I do). You'll see the reason for this distinction in a minute.

Last week, as an exercise, I gave myself a mock interview. If one is being po-faced about this, one could say that it was part of an ongoing project of seeking to 'know thyself' as Socrates advocated. The serious point is that this is knowledge which one is perpetually on the way towards and never finally achieves. Indeed, to think you had achieved it, and that there was nothing more to know would be an act of bad faith.

Of course, the whole thing was rigged. This was intended for an audience. Even so, it was surprising to me, some of the answers that slipped out. (Maybe it had something with playing Hendrix's Electric Ladyland album in the background as I was writing — which has a way, as great works of art do, of getting under the skin, loosening and unravelling the congealed layers of the psyche. Hendrix once said he wanted to write music that had the power to heal; he came closer to this than most of his generation.)

One question which I posed myself is whether or not I am a stoic. I said, somewhat cagily, 'I wouldn't describe myself' as a stoic. What I meant was, I'm not of the breed of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, or those who follow in their footsteps. I don't believe that all that suffices for a life of ethical virtue is 'knowledge of the Good' or some such Platonic notion.

And yet, on reflection, I realize that I accept the truth in stoicism. That is to say, I believe that there is something to know, which provides an objective basis or rationale for ethical conduct; only that 'something' falls short of what Socrates or Plato aimed for. (One of my ex-students reminded me that I once actually told him I was a stoic, which is interesting as I have no recollection of saying this.)

Iris Murdoch in her brilliant short monograph Sovereignty of Good (1970) makes a big play of the shortcomings of existentialist ethics, and the need to rediscover a Platonic notion of an objectively existing Good. I have no quarrel with that. What I'm saying is that fully responsible or 'authentic' action requires that we accept the heavy burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by. You cannot distil those values from knowledge of the Good. There is nothing to know other than what we can discover through patient, factual investigation (here I am with Hume and the early Wittgenstein). But to be willing to conduct such an investigation — when faced with bewildering ethical choices and dilemmas — is a responsibility, and to a large extent an ethical responsibility.

'If it doesn't impact on me then why should I care,' is the ultimate question posed to ethics. A true existentialist would say that I choose to care and take responsibility for that choice. I don't think, realistically, that this is a choice. (Hence, I am not an existentialist.) It is about being a person, or being human: to look at the face of the other and never be moved, or successfully resist any temptation to be moved, is to put oneself outside human life altogether. I won't try to give a metaphysical spin on this. I am stating this as if it were a plain fact.

Now to the question: what happens to this 'burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by' as one approaches death? All the big choices have been made, and one has accepted, taken responsibility, for those choices. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had not 'chosen relationship'. But I did, and I live with the consequences of that choice. I do sometimes feel, as Wesley does, a keen sense of being 'painted into a corner'. As a widower, with three daughters who still need a parent's practical and moral support, I don't have the range of choices I would have otherwise have had.

But this picture is completely wrong, if one interprets it as implying that there are no 'big' choices left, only little or insignificant ones. Of course, one can just walk over the wet paint and make a mess of things. I fully appreciate why Wesley would not consider that as a valid option. However, to stay in one's narrow corner is an existential choice. Maybe you've made some bad decisions in your life and now you're living with the painful consequences. You can to stay and face the music, or flee. And you have chosen to stay.

But I am going to assume that this is not the case for you. By and large, you are reasonably happy about the decisions that you have made.

The first point to make is a purely practical one: we don't know, for sure, what lies ahead for us. Not everyone gets to enjoy a tranquil old age. Tragedies and disasters have a way of disrupting one's cosy retirement plans. I won't enumerate all the ways in which this can happen. Imagine that this is 1936 and you are a Jew living in Vienna. Or it is 1945 and you and your family live in the vicinity of Hiroshima.

Or let's move things on a bit and take an extreme case. You are close to death. Physically, you are incapable of any movement apart from blinking in response to questions put to you. And someone asks, 'Do you forgive X for what they did?' And let's suppose, for the sake of this example, that what X did was really unforgivable, monstrous. But you still have that choice. Is it a small choice, or is it possibly one of the biggest choices you have ever made?

Or to strike an even more sombre note: Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) poses, as a philosophical question, what reasons are there to not commit suicide. There is no time in the length of a human life where that option no longer exists as a potential life choice.

One of the points I make early on in the Pathways Moral Philosophy program is that most of us, most of the time, never face really big ethical decisions. Our courage, for example, may never be fully tested. You might well ask whether one can be an existentialist when you live a life of comfort and ease — regardless of your age — where there are no scary or momentous choices, only pleasant ones.

In H.G. Wells' brilliant parable The Time Machine, the Eloi live like this. We can only see the Eloi as irresponsible children, unwilling to face the grim reality of their situation — easy meat for the Molochs. But how many persons do, in fact, live such a life of irresponsibility? That is, after all, the point about the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. 'You've never had it so good,' as Prime Minister Macmillan said. — But that was to a generation who had lived through the Second World War.

The biggest challenge for existentialists, or for those who 'see the truth' in existentialism is how to live when no important ethical choices ever seem to intrude on one's happy existence. I'm not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing that one is happy and contented. Ultimately, we can't choose the external circumstances in which we find ourselves, the events which intrude on our lives. This lack of momentous choices is a problem at any age, not just in old age.

Yet at the same time there is a part of me that wants to rebel in fury at the idea that anyone has the right to be contented. I don't just mean that the world is in a mess, in so many ways, and that you should be striving to the utmost and to the end of your days to do something about it. That's just one way. Equally strenuous and demanding would be the decision go back to college, study philosophy, say. Or, for someone in my situation, to look for another life partner. But to be a bit cynical about this — aren't these just so many strategies against boredom? Why this great effort? what difference does it make? You're going to die, anyway. — That's the question Camus asks.

Which brings me back to the one thing that I cannot get past. The one indubitable nugget of metaphysical fact: my existence. This is what existentialism is ultimately about. I am not 'some' person. I do not do what 'one' does. The choice — and there is always a choice — is here for me, now. That is what it means to say that 'I exist', in the sense in which this is an active verb rather than a merely tautological statement.



Explaining time to a 10 year old

Jim asked this question:

What is the philosophical definition of 'time'? It may seem simple but try to give an answer to a bright 10 year old boy.

He can read a clock. He wants a simple explanation of 'time' if there is one. I have come to the belief there isn't.

Geographically, us rounding the sun, is only a definition of the measure of time.

Jim, I will accept your challenge of explaining time to a 10 year old. So there will be no discussion of theories of time from Aristotle to the present day, no arguments for or against the reality of time, no examination of fatalism and the problem of future contingents, or temporal becoming and the myth of passage, or any of the other stock problems from the academic philosopher's toolbag.

These are all gripping problems for me, but I would be struggling to explain why they are gripping to a 10 year old.

Time is a problem that baffles and mystifies me, and probably (though I can't be sure) was one of the first philosophical questions which I ever thought about, long before I had ever heard of a subject called philosophy.

I have a memory fragment as a boy of being driven by my father to the dentist. This was before they had high speed drills and pain-killing injections. I would have been about 9 or 10. I know this because I remember consoling myself with the thought that in an hour I would be travelling home in the car and I would say out loud, 'Cool for Cats!' And sure enough, on the way home I did remember to say it.

Cool for Cats was the title of a British popular music TV programme for young people, which according to Wikipedia ran from 1956 to 1961. In 1961, I was 10 years old.

That little episode illustrates as well as anything the mystery of time. I said 'Cool for Cats!' twice. The first time I said it, the pain of the dentist's drill was in the future. The second time I said it, the pain was in the past. What a difference an hour makes! Yet now, both events are just things that happened a long time ago.

A clock measures the distance between events or 'things that happen' just as a ruler measures the distance between two points. There's no mystery about that. The hands of a clock go round the dial at a standard speed, which is the same for all clocks, measured in hours, minutes and seconds. A ruler is a standard distance measured in inches or centimetres.

It would be a rather strange request if you asked, 'Don't tell me about how you measure length, I just what to know what length is!' Length just is what a ruler measures, there's nothing more to it. (Well, that's not strictly true if you really wanted to delve into the nature of space, but it will do for now. I would argue that there's no mystery about length or distance, the way there is about the passage of time.)

A clock is an instrument that measures events, and your entire life up to the present moment — or indeed the history of the universe — is just a series of events. When I said 'Cool for Cats!' twice, those were just two events in my life, two insignificant events in the history of the universe. Yet at the time there was a world of difference between them.

But how would you express that 'difference' in the form of a definition? Consider: every second that the clock ticks is an example of the ever-shifting difference between past, present and future. Sometimes, an event (like a trip to the dentist) brings the difference to our attention. But it was there all the time. It is here now, as I type these letters on the screen, as I look away from the computer and look back again, as I lift my finger to scratch my nose, or take a sip of lukewarm coffee I made half an hour ago.

Maybe that's one way philosophers stand out from other people: they learn to ponder things — seemingly trivial things — you wouldn't normally think about. You could describe it as a sense of 'childlike wonder', although not all children are equally gifted with it.

I don't know if this is making any sense. Or whether it would make sense to a 10 year old. I'm not talking about fancy theories. I'm talking about an experience, something that you just have to see. And when you see it, see it for what it is, you realize that you don't understand it at all. That's why I call time a mystery.



Gifford lectures Russell never gave

Andre asked this question:

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

On the face of it, this is a daft question. Russell, famous atheist and author of one of the most powerful tracts ever written against religion, 'A Free Mans Worship' (see my post Life in a well-oiled machine) is the last person you would invite to be a Gifford Lecturer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

On second thoughts, better that than the alternative – like the Coca Cola ‘teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony’ ad.

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

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

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

Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science

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

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

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

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



God, ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma

Courtney asked this question:

What does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argument show about the relationship between morality and religion?

Anyone who, like me, thinks they have a moral case against God has to reckon with the moral case for God. I suspect, or worry, that the moral case for God is stronger than many believe — which is why I have chosen Courtney's question.

Briefly, in Plato's Euthyphro Socrates poses a dilemma to the God fearing but not very bright young man, Euthyphro, who is on his way to the law courts to prosecute his father for impiety. We needn't go into the somewhat macabre circumstances of the case (which today would be considered manslaughter). How sure is Euthyphro that what his father did was sufficiently bad to be an offence against the gods? 'What is piety?' asks Socrates with a wink.

Euthyphro states confidently that pious actions are 'what please the gods', and impious actions are those that displease them. Socrates replies, Are pious actions so-called because they please the gods, or do they please the gods because they are pious?

That's Euthyphro's dilemma. Substitute your favourite term of moral appraisal. Either an action is ethical because God commands it, or God commands it because it is ethical. In the former case, anything that God commanded would be ethical by definition, even if He commanded the entire human race to commit suicide. In the latter case, the reason why an action is ethical must remain a valid reason irrespective of whether God exists or not.

Hence, there is no moral argument for God's existence. Belief in God is redundant, so far as ethics is concerned.

The case looks open and shut. However, when I saw Courtney's question I recalled an essay on 'Plato's Euthyphro' I had seen many years ago in a collection by Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Blackwell 1972), where Geach accuses Socrates of tangling his hapless young victim in sophistical knots. Searching on the internet, I found a chapter from Geach's book God and the Soul (Routledge 1969), ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’.

Students of the philosophy of religion are probably familiar with Geach's forthright response to Socrates (or if they are not, they should be).

Geach constructs his argument with meticulous care. First, he concedes outright what many would think is the point at issue: we do know that certain actions, like lying, are wrong without qualification, independently of any belief that God forbids us to tell a lie.

Why is lying wrong? As I argue in unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas, the very attempt to state that you sometimes tell lies, even if only very occasionally, is self-defeating. If I tell you that I only lie 'when I am in a tight spot', then the next time you find me in a tight spot my lies won't help me. Any attempt to articulate one's policy on lying is similarly self-defeating. I conclude, 'An action which we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong.'

Now Geach states his case:

The knowledge of God is thus not prerequisite to our having any moral knowledge. I shall argue however that we do need it in order to see that we must not do evil that good may come, and that this principle actually follows from a certain conception of God. If I can make this out, the sophistry from which I started will have been completely refuted; for accepting or rejecting this principle makes an enormous difference to one's moral code.

Peter Geach God and the Soul ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’

If you do not believe that there are any moral principles (not even the moral principle 'do not lie'), then Geach has nothing to say to you. You are beyond the pale ethically. His case is directed at someone (like me) who thinks that there are moral principles (however few of those there may be, possibly lying is the only incontestable example), but rejects the idea that God's command is required to make them work as principles.

Geach cleverly insinuates that many of those who hold principles, only do so because of their implicit knowledge of what God commands, even if they refuse to acknowledge this fact. God is the ultimate source, whether they like it or not.

Perhaps you are a moral intuitionist who holds that principles of duty are the ultimate ethical given, which cannot be further articulated. Geach's answer is that without God such a view amounts to rule worship. 'If a young Nazi machine-guns a column of refugees till he bleeds to death, instead of retiring for medical treatment, is not his Sense of Duty something to fill us with awe?'

Geach also looks at attempts by moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, to explain moral principles in terms of the idea of virtue. Such attempts fail to cover those cases — relatively rare though they may be — where a man is forced to contemplate an action which will 'damage his virtuous habits and perhaps irreparably wreck his hard-won integrity of soul', in response to the agonized plea, 'Haven't you got a hand to burn for your country (or mankind) and your friends?' When push comes to shove, for the ungodly man principles must go.

One of the main themes of my Ethical Dilemmas is that we must, simultaneously, recognize certain moral rules as principles while at the same time accepting that 'sometimes you have to go against your principles'. I acknowledge that this is a paradox. In ethics, as elsewhere in philosophy, paradoxes are not something that you happily live with.

Even if I won't own up to telling lies, shouldn't I be prepared, Geach would say, each time the choice presents itself, to calculate whether in this particular case lying would be the 'best' option (the option that leads to 'the good')? But If I believe that, then how can I at the same time hold the prohibition against lying as a principle? It is just one more ethical consideration amongst others. Then I am beyond the pale.

Why the fuss about lying? One could envisage a language game where telling lies was accepted as a matter of course, in the same spirit as bluffing in poker (cf. the notorious 1968 article by Albert Carr in Harvard Business Review, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?). Perhaps I don't want you to put me in a position where I am held to moral account, now and for all future time, for the things I say. 'Assume that I will always act in my self-interest,' I tell you candidly. 'It is in my self-interest, as we both know, to tell you the truth now, but I refuse to commit myself for the future. You must judge me by my actions.'

That's a kind of honesty, but not honesty from any ethical motive. I have chosen to abrogate ethics so far as our conversation is concerned, and I present this to you as a fait accompli.

The effect is to reduce human beings to more or less useful instruments for finding things out about the world. A faulty thermometer doesn't 'lie'. But even though it is not totally reliable it can still be useful (e.g. if I know that I need to tap it hard to get a correct reading). If you suspect your partner in crime of lying to you, there are ways to test a person's reliability.

But, then, why aren't people just 'useful instruments'? Why hold, with Kant, that one ought to treat others as 'ends in themselves'? — The fact is, that is what human beings do. We despise 'users', praise those who recognize the justified moral claims of others.

The strength of Geach's case is that one is not required to decide whether God exists or not. That's not what the argument is about. 'You deny God's existence,' Geach in effect says to the atheist, 'yet your attitudes and behaviour belie that claim.'

Maybe the believer in God is still, despite his belief, inclined to calculate advantages and disadvantages of telling a lie. As Geach reminds the reader, defying God is not merely imprudence, it is 'insanity'. There is no place to hide. Whatever may be for 'the best' is ultimately in God's hands, not ours. All He requires us to do is follow His commands.

I have to own up at this point: there was a time when I would have been prepared to argue for the necessity of ethical principles, along the lines of Levinas' notion of the irresistible ethical command of 'the Other'. In my book Naēve Metaphysics I articulate the case for ethics as a presupposition of there being such a thing as a 'shared world' or 'truth' for me — pretty hard things to give up.

But needs must where the Devil drives.

Now, from my more sober perspective, Levinas, like Geach just seems to me one more in a long line of apologists for religion, even if Levinas is far more circumspect in introducing the God concept. And I have set my face against religion in all its forms. It is time for the human race to grow up, and recognize that we only have ourselves — as terrifying as that prospect may seem. Ethics is in the dock, and, as they say, 'the jury is still out'.



How our dreams can change us

Amery asked this question:

I want to know if dreams can change the sort of person we are through a sort of 'life-experience'-esque way.

Is it possible?

I get the point of your question, Amery. Our life experience can change the sort of person we are. If our dreams are part of our life experience, then dreams can change us too. Why not?

I agree. Dreams give you ideas. They are like thought experiments, things you could never try out in the real world. Or they can shock you with the consequences of your beliefs or actions by painting the resulting scenario in lurid colours. Above all, dreams are creative. They come from us, and yet they are at the same time totally unexpected events that come out of the blue. We meet things in our dreams just as we meet things in the real world.

Our life experience includes contingencies or things that happen to us over which we have only limited control. You apply for a job. You give it your best shot at the interview. But, ultimately, it is out of your hands whether your get the job or not. And getting that job could conceivably change your life, and ultimately change you. Or you could meet that special person, fall in love, and end up emigrating to South America.

Are dreams then 'part of life experience'? in this sense?

There is a powerful argument for saying that they are not, which derives from Sigmund Freud's famous book The Interpretation of Dreams. To understand Freud's position, it is necessary to appreciate his guiding methodological assumption, which we may call psychic determinism. This is a stronger principle than determinism understood merely as the rule that 'every event has a cause'. For Freud, events in dreams have a particular kind of cause, which confers essential meaning on that event.

According to psychic determinism, every detail in your dream (that is to say, every detail that you write in your 'dream book') has a meaning and an explanation. If I dreamed that I walked into a room that had seven chairs, that is different from dreaming that I walked into a room that had several chairs. The number seven must be significant, it cannot be merely accidental. If the chairs were green, rather than just 'some colour' then that colour is significant too.

Freud held that all the details in a dream (apart from the factual content taken from real life) express wishes deriving from the subconscious, in a disguised form which has been allowed past the 'dream censor'.

In other words, your dreams are statement about you, written in code. There is nothing accidental. Everything has significance, a large part of which is sexual in nature. Of course you can be changed by your dreams in this sense, if you are able to decode that meaning with the help of a psychoanalyst. You are changed because you discover something about yourself, something that was hidden in your subconscious.

Notwithstanding the importance of dream interpretation in analytic psychotherapy, I think Freud was wrong. Many details in our dreams undoubtedly have significance, but the assumption of psychic determinism is unwarranted, even as a merely methodological principle. It is simply too strong.

My case is not merely that Freud fails to justify this principle. What Freud fails to take account of is something that is fundamental to human nature, our capacity for genuine creativity, not in the Freudian sense of 'making the subconscious conscious' but rather in the sense of producing novelty through a process which has an irreducibly random element.

There's nothing necessarily mysterious about creativity in this sense. Human behaviour would be very rigid and hidebound if we couldn't come up with novel solutions to problems. Nor is it necessary to posit some unique, indescribable 'creative faculty'. Daniel Dennett in his book Brainstorms MIT 1981, pp.296-8 describes a simple process which he terms 'generate and test', whereby candidates are randomly generated and then tested for relevance or suitability. A scientific researcher looking for a solution to a problem does this. So does a novelist. What does Katy do next? Let's try some random possibilities and see where they lead.

In dreams we do this too. One situation leads to another through a peculiar kind of 'dream logic' where the criterion of 'relevance' is applied in a very loose way. Almost anything can happen.

I talked earlier about 'contingencies or things that happen to us over which we have only limited control'. We do not only meet up with these in real life. We also meet up with them in our dreams. We create our dreams, and yet, in an important sense our dreams are also something that happens to us, which might as well have been made by the world as by our own selves.



How to prove your free will

Alan asked this question:

Do we have free will?

Just before I typed this, I toyed with the idea of not submitting the question. Then I decided to submit the question although it seems that I could effortlessly have decided not to submit the question. This seems to be a process of me doing the deciding. Is it not meaningless to say that it is just an illusion that I have a voluntary choice of whether or not to submit this question when it feels so real that I have this choice?

I have a similar story to Alan's. It being a Friday afternoon, with the prospect of a weekend of relaxation and enjoyment ahead of me, there are several items on my list of things that I had meant to get done this week — which have still not been done — and my answer is just one of them. And it's not necessarily the most urgent, either. However, all things considered, having done enough this week to keep the good ship Pathways afloat, having not disappointed too many people, I feel I'm justified in doing what I would most enjoy from my task list and leave the rest until next week.

Some people would hardly bother to go through this rigmarole of deliberation. Others would not consider their feelings of enjoyment to be a relevant consideration, but would just plough ahead do the most important task whether they enjoyed it or not. I'm somewhere in the middle. Anyone who knew me well enough would be able to predict my decision. It's not that I always take the easiest or most enjoyable option; only sometimes. But you can bet that if there's any time I'm likely to do this it will be on a Friday afternoon.

Well, Alan's case on the face of it is slightly different. He claims that his decision was made 'effortlessly' by which I take it he means that there was no particular reason to submit the question or not submit the question. He could just as easily have not submitted it. Problem is, if he hadn't submitted it, we wouldn't be able to give him an answer. My grandmother used to say, 'If you're lucky, you can win the lottery without filling in the coupon.' But Ask a Philosopher doesn't work that way. We're not mind readers.

I know what Alan means. What he means is something that we find ourselves doing when we first consider the idea of free will. We want to prove it to ourselves, by doing something — freely. But what exactly does that entail?

This is familiar territory in philosophical discussions of freedom of the will. The default view, which you will find defended by many philosophers from David Hume onwards, is that an action is free provided that it is done from our own choice, not under duress and in full possession of our mental faculties. This view is known as 'compatibilism' — defined in this way, freedom of the will is fully compatible with determinism.

This won't satisfy Alan (and it doesn't fully satisfy me either) because this kind of 'freedom' hardly looks the kind of thing that we would want or be satisfied with. We want more. We don't want there to be a story about causes and effects that ultimately explains every action that we do. We want the action to come from us not from the world grinding on, doing its thing.

Confusingly, however, we also want it to be the case that when we do good, not only do we receive praise but also recognition that the action in question was to be expected, given our character. If the action is praiseworthy, it's an insult if someone says, 'I'm surprised you did that!'

But aren't we all part of the world? If I have the sort of character that would lead me to do something praiseworthy, or blameworthy, is that not a fact about the world? In that case, where does my 'process of deciding' fit in, if not as a process taking place in an entity situated at a place and time, following its nature or character?

There is something wrong with the statement I have just made; and it's wrongness was pointed out by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. There is something that happens, at the moment of making a decision, that cannot be fully accounted for in terms of any amount of knowledge of one's character or predispositions. Every situation is unique. It doesn't matter if you have been here a thousand times before. You still have the opportunity to confound those who would predict your action. In this respect, it is wrong to see human beings as merely 'part of nature'. There is something added to the equation every time you decide, regardless of what other people expect, or even what you expect from yourself.

But how to prove this?

I've thought a lot about our meeting, Mr. Hofman.

Since the beginning, I felt the need to see you.

When you left the cafe,

I realized I couldn't wait any longer.

What you said on television persuaded me.

I gathered the courage you spoke of.

You can kill me.

I acknowledge your right to do so.

I'll take the risk.

But I'm banking on your curiosity.

You want to know what happened to Miss Saskia.

When I was 16, I discovered something.

Everyone has those thoughts, but no one ever jumps.

I told myself: 'Imagine you're jumping.'

Is it predestined that I won't jump?

How can it be predestined that I won't?

So, to go against what is predestined, one must jump.

I jumped.

The fall was a holy event.

I broke my left arm and lost 2 fingers. Why did I jump?

A slight abnormality in my personality,

imperceptible to those around me.

You can find me listed in the medical encyclopedias

under 'Sociopath' in the new editions.


The Vanishing 1988 (Dutch: Spoorlos)

What did Raymond Lemorne, Saskia's abductor, think he had proved all those years ago by jumping off the wall? There was a very good reason for not jumping off the wall — it's sheer height from the ground, the consequent risk of injury — but he also had a very good reason for jumping: to prove a point.

If Alan had wanted to 'prove' his free will, wouldn't it have been better to choose something he had a strong reason not to do, but do it nonetheless, in spite of his character and circumstances, in spite of himself? Lemorne gives the lie to that conceit. He knows what he is: a sociopath. And it's not as if you could just choose something trivial to prove the thesis. I could go home now, leave this post unfinished, leave my computers on (much to the annoyance of my office landlord) but I won't, because even if I did, it would prove nothing.

If you can't prove your free will by doing something predictable, you can't prove it by doing something unpredictable either.

But do I have to prove it? Don't I just know? As Alan states, it's 'meaningless' to assert that free will is an illusion when it 'feels so real'.

Isn't Alan just being a good empiricist here? How else do we find out about the world and about reality but from our experience? And some things just can't be meaningfully doubted. At the end of the day, you have to go along with your best take on how things seem, the best explanation. And how things seem, in the case of human action, is that actions come from us, not from the world. It's called 'saving the phenomena.'

I'm not going to dispute the claim about explanation. It could be argued that the whole purpose of seeking explanations is that we dig below the surface. Sometimes explanations can be counter-intuitive or paradoxical, yet we know them to be better than the explanations that seem easier to accept, because they take more into consideration. However, in the case of free will it's a moot point. As soon as you leave the perspective of the agent, in your attempt to 'take more into consideration' you lose the very thing you were trying to focus on.

My objection is different. To call something an 'illusion' implies that you grasp the difference between how things appear in respect of the entity in question, and how things are in reality. I know what it means to say that it is an illusion that a straight stick partially immersed in water appears bent, because I grasp the difference between what it is for a stick to be straight and what it is for a stick to be bent. If is an 'illusion' that I am freely deciding what to type next, then this is a claim about how things appear to me, at this moment. But that implies the possibility of there being some other way of seeing those same events. You immerse the stick in water, or you remove it. But there is no corresponding alternative in the case of human action.

Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere (1986) refers to this as the 'necessary penumbra of ignorance' of the causes of those events we regard as our actions.

In short, I don't know what I would be denying if I denied that free will is an illusion. I don't have any conception of 'how things might be otherwise'. Therein lies a possible solution to the free will problem. We think we know 'what we want', but the very attempt to state what we 'want' from freedom of the will falls into confusion.



Human test tubes

Ronny asked this question:

Human Test Tubes?

If this website is anything to go by depression appears to influence a lot of people into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to their issues with life. It appears I am one of those people although I am not naive enough to expect a definitive answer to any of my questions. I simply feel the need to express a thought that has dogged me since being offered medication for my depression.

My depression was explained to me, when initially diagnosed, as being due to low levels of certain chemicals within my body and medication would go some way to help correct this imbalance. Coming from a medical background up to graduate level, I was well aware of the complexities of human physiology. However, having had depression explained to me in such a manner I began to question whether everything we are as human beings is not a result of a series of complex chemical reactions? Light passes into my eye where a chemical reaction converts this to a signal passed to my brain where further chemical reactions occur and I am present with an image. Sometimes the images we perceive can produce what we describe as an 'emotion'. Could emotions therefore be seen as the end point of a chemical cascade? Are 'feelings' also end points of chemical processes? I hear a sound which is converted, via a mechanism within the ear, to a chemical reaction to produce electrical signals within the brain. Further chemical reactions branch away from this and the end point can be a stimulation of further physiology and a 'feeling' is produced. Does repetition reinforce a certain chemical pathway so that we develop the same 'feeling' or 'emotion' to the same stimulus? Is that how we come to 'like' or 'dislike' something?

These questions made me wonder whether it is ever truly possible to therefore control 'feelings' or 'emotions'? Once that chemical cascade starts can we influence it? Then again, while writing this I am having 'thoughts' that I feel I am controlling and if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these chemical reactions?

Once again, I don't feel naive enough to think I am the only person ever to have considered whether the body is not one large test tube full of complex chemical reactions with mind numbing interactions that will never be truly understood.

However, what do we become if we view ourselves in this way? Is our feeling of self or the belief that we make our own decisions in the way we interact with the world the result of a series of chemical processes?

The first thing I want to say to Roy is that I take the idea that depression and philosophy go together very seriously indeed.

I remember being told, many years ago, that if I continued with philosophy I would end up 'looking for the shortest rope'. That was by my uncle Jack. At the time, I thought Jack was probably wise enough to know that his own mental constitution wasn't suited to pondering the meaning of life. I can see his worried face even now. But I was different. I could handle it. I'd peeked into the abyss and it hadn't fazed me.

Then I recall that two of the lecturers who taught me when I was an undergraduate subsequently committed suicide. Maybe they thought they could handle seeing into the abyss, but they were wrong. — But that's just idle speculation, innit?

Actually, I rather like looking into the abyss. When I cast my eyes around this dingy world, the tawdry sideshows that human beings call 'culture', the abyss is the only thing with any real depth. Anxiety is the only real human emotion. (I think Freud said that.) But philosophy isn't just about plumbing the dizzy depths. It's about remembering and focusing. About being present. It can sometimes be a pleasurable activity (especially if you have a taste for Schadenfreude) but it's not something you do for pleasure.

So is Ronny right, that 'depression appears to influence a lot of people into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to their issues with life'? or did my Uncle Jack see deeper into the truth about these things? — And what the hell has any of this got to do with taking pills?

My chemical of choice is alcohol. Problem is, for medical reasons (chronic sarcoidosis, or maybe Sjogren's syndrome — the doctors don't seem to know which) I can't drink a single drop. I get a super-hangover that lasts for days. You know that feeling, when you just need a drink? I'm talking about someone who isn't in any way addicted to alcohol. I'd settle for one bottle of beer a week. I can't even have that without causing myself a lot more pain than pleasure.

At least I still have my coffee. I've been told it's bad for my condition, but I'm not aware of any particularly adverse effects. It helps me concentrate. (What do they know, anyway?)

They also say you shouldn't drink alcohol if you have a tendency towards depression. At any rate, you shouldn't drink alone. But social drinking is the best cure I can think of. If alcohol had never existed, the history of Western Philosophy would have been entirely different. Or maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. Read Plato's Symposium, if you don't believe me.

Getting back to pills. Ever since the first 'magic bullet' (Salversan, Dr Ehrlich's 'miraculous' cure for syphilis), an increasingly part of the chemicals industry has been dedicated to discovering new ever more potent formulations to add to the human test tube (nice image). Psychiatric disorders are exactly on a par with physical illnesses and disorders from the empirical standpoint. If it works with sufficiently benign side effects, that's all you want to know.

From this perspective, it's really a red herring to consider whether depressive people are that way because of a chemical imbalance. Even if their depression wasn't caused by a chemical imbalance (we'll get to what 'cause' means in a minute) a chemical cure can still work just as well. To repeat: we're only concerned with 'what works'.

I'm a good materialist, that is to say, I accept the minimal commitment for being a materialist, that mental events are supervenient on physical events. Anything else is up for grabs (a huge topic in the philosophy of mind which I don't what to get into now). Any thought, any feeling, any emotion is reflected in chemical or electro-chemical changes in my body. The direction of causation is the hard bit to figure out, but Ronny has half-seen this ('if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these chemical reactions?').

The bottom line is that you can interact with someone as a person, that means communicating, one person to another (Freud's 'talking cure'); or you can interact with them as a test tube. And that works too, sometimes. Some would argue, it works a lot better, certainly a lot faster.

This is all very circuitous (I'm sorry for that) but you'll see where this is going in a minute.

The other week, one of my old Mac laptops (a Powerbook 1400) died. Instead of starting up in the normal way with the 'happy Mac' logo, I got a picture of a floppy disk with a flashing question mark, then a black screen. I knew the hard drive was ancient and had probably had it. But I wasn't giving up. So I gave the laptop a sharp slap just to the left of the touchpad, where the hard drive is located. This time, the laptop started up, and has been working fine ever since.

We do this with people too. Sometimes, a sharp slap is just what a person needs. But doctors aren't allowed to do this, so they give a chemical slap instead.

What I'm working up to say is that this whole way of thinking about people and their mental trials and tribulations is totally wrong. To see that it is wrong, you have to get away from boneheaded empiricism and the idea that all that matters is that you 'feel OK' again. Freud understood. He saw his aim as transforming distressing psychological illness into 'generalized unhappiness'. When you do that, you have become free, your actions are your own rather than merely effects of your neurosis.

Freud said that in order to write, he needed to be in a mood of mild depression. The fact is, all genuinely creative work is painful. Gaiety and joy are wonderful things, but they're not ultimately real. At best, they are refreshing interludes that help strengthen our resolve, and they come as gifts. There's nothing more shallow or annoying than permanently joyful people.

So get away from the idea that all you need is to 'feel better'. There are other things you need, perhaps need more. (Perhaps philosophy is one of those things; or maybe psychotherapy — at least you'd have one real human relationship.) Accept the pain, adapt yourself to it, work with it. If you can find some depth in your life, whether from philosophy or some other activity, that is of far greater value.



Instinct and epistemic luck

Sydney asked this question:

I had my first class in critical thinking earlier today and my professor was unable to tell me if instinct was epistemic luck. I was wondering if you might be able to help answer this question?

Reading Sydney's question, my first, somewhat unkind thought was, 'No-one likes a smartass.' But then the question immediately came to mind, Why wouldn't someone qualified to teach critical thinking be able to answer Sydney's question? There is an answer: The term 'epistemic luck' is a piece of technical jargon, coined in the debate over epistemological theories following Edmund Gettier's landmark 1963 article, 'Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?' If you aren't trained as an academic philosopher (or studying for a degree in philosophy) it is fairly unlikely that you would have come across that term. Sydney has obviously been doing a lot of extra-curricular reading.

The curious fact is, you don't need to be a trained philosopher in order to teach critical thinking, at least the way this subject is often taught at colleges and universities. I'm not offering comment on whether that is a good or bad thing.

(Ignorance cuts both ways. My lack of knowledge of the current state of debate in critical thinking leaves me totally unable to answer the question what view critical thinking takes about instinctive knowledge generally, knowing but not being able to explain how you know, etc. I can live with that.)

If you want to get up to speed with the debate over epistemic luck, you could start by Googling "Rocking Horse Winner" or "chicken sexer", plus Epistemology. These are standard examples of cases where we might be inclined to say that someone 'knows' even though they are unable to explain how they know (the little lad who mysteriously predicts the winners of tomorrow's horse races, workers trained to sort newborn chicks into male and female by subtle differences in their look or feel — or is it?).

I am somewhat bemused by these debates, even though I regularly mark essays sent to me by my students taking the University of London BA module in Epistemology. Epistemology is one of those areas of philosophy that has increasingly acquired the aspect of chess opening theory, with every possible avenue of inquiry, every argument and counterargument explored and elaborated on ad nauseam. No better evidence could be put forward that current academic philosophy has drifted into a new age of scholasticism, driven in part by the incessant need to publish or lose tenure.

However, whenever I begin to feel sick, or bored, I remind myself of things that matter to me in relation to the question of knowledge. Then it all gets real again. Knowledge matters, no more so than to the philosopher pursuing knowledge.

I rely a lot on my instincts. I have hunches. I will pursue an investigation, expending many days, weeks or even months on a question because I have a feeling that it might lead somewhere. What wasted effort, if that feeling could not be relied upon, or did not at least promise some probability of success! Then there are issues in philosophy which I take a strong position on, where I am sure that i am right, even though I know that are those who take the completely opposite view who are just as sure that they are right and I am wrong. How is that possible?

Human beings, like other members of the animal kingdom, have instincts which we have acquired through the process of Darwinian natural selection, although because we are language users and reasoners, the instinctive side of human knowledge has been pushed very much to the sidelines. Instincts are much less useful to us than they are, say, to a pair of nesting birds or a pride of lions. I guess my direct answer to Sydney's question would be that if you believe something 'on instinct', say, that beneath the false smile of the person extending their arm and hand in greeting there lurk aggressive intentions, and that instinct is a genuine biological instinct, with an aetiology, an explanation of its reliability, then that isn't a case of 'luck' epistemologically speaking. It is not an accident when the person who roused your suspicions turns out to be a thief or confidence trickster.

The problem is, there are many, perhaps many more examples where one 'feels something on instinct' where there is no valid explanation that a more knowledgeable observer could provide. Then is it just mere guesswork? If you turn out to be right, was that just luck? I'm not sure that it is, always. Maybe I've watched too many American TV detective shows, but it seems to me that hunches can be valid, even if there is no explanation of how you could possibly know, or what it was that gave you the hunch. There is an art to judgement, which no amount of methodological analysis will ever unravel. This applies, in different though related ways, to police work, sports like golfing and archery, or the judgement of a scientific researcher or philosopher.

Of course, one has to exercise caution here. It's so easy to persuade oneself that one's hunch is valid (it wouldn't be a hunch if it didn't feel that special way). But how can you possibly know? More to the point, why should anyone else, who doesn't feel the hunch that you feel, believe you? (How many TV detective plots have followed that theme!)

I've alluded to the question of reliability in Epistemology. One of the main contrasts in current debates is between Epistemologists who consider 'acquiring a belief through a reliable means' as sufficient for knowledge, provided that the belief is true, and those who require something stronger, say, the ability to defend your belief with persuasive reasons when challenged. The problem is, it's too easy to defeat a knowledge claim just by asking an innocent question (see my Answer to Demetreus). My own tentative view would be that we need to shift the focus away from the question of defining knowledge and onto the question why we are interested in identifying the 'one who knows' the answer to a particular question.

To make a factual statement, any statement, implies that one has the authority to speak. At any time, you can be legitimately challenged. But the inability to meet that challenge doesn't necessarily undermine your right to state your view. 'I just know,' can be a sufficient answer. Say, for example, when one is a very experienced golf caddy who just 'sees' that the number 5 iron would be too heavy for that shot, even though according to the book that's the correct iron to use. Trust your caddy, he does know.

At Oxford, I was lucky to have a term of supervision by P.F. Strawson for my B.Phil paper on Kant. In our conversations, it very quickly became clear that when Strawson told me, 'no, you are wrong', it was no use arguing. I was wrong. It wasn't arrogance on Strawson's part, just the voice of experience.

Strawson wasn't claiming to be right about everything. Just about some things. I don't do this too often (my students wouldn't let me). But the philosophical point is about authority. Authority is established, granted, defended, or challenged and defeated. Our interest in knowledge, as a concept, hinges on the question of authority: Whose authority do you trust on a particular topic? when do you accept a piece of advice or testimony and when do you reject it? This isn't about a definition of knowledge in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather about the place of the concept of knowledge in the social matrix. The simplest example: 'How do you know?' 'I saw it with my own eyes.' End of discussion. This is how language (to use Michael Dummett's happy phrase) 'extends the range of human perception'. Your eyes become my eyes, through the authority which being a witness of the event in question grants you.

I'm coming up to my 60th birthday (next Monday, as it happens). Having been in philosophy for the best part of four decades there are one or two things that I know. In saying this, I hope you will believe me but the decision is yours. Judge me on my work. Right now, I am pursuing a line of where feelings and hunches are playing a somewhat larger role than I would like. I know there's 'something there' which I can't articulate. In the past when I've had that feeling, it turned out to have substance, but not always. Down the years, I've been down many blind alleys, took many wrong turns and there's no saying for sure that I haven't taken a wrong turn this time. But, in the end, it is a matter of judgement and one has to trust one's judgement.

Good luck with your course, Sydney. Don't blindly accept authority, but don't become a boring sceptic either. Strive to find a balance, that way you will grow.



Is Socrates the wisest man?

Scott asked this question:

Who is more intelligent?

A. A person who knows everything. is A (impossible?) Doesn't it depend on your environment? Student asked this question, I don't have a response for this HELP!! Right and wrong?

B. A person who knows he doesn't know everything.

I am teaching world history and my students attained this question from a Socrates quote: "I am the wisest man in the world, for I know one thing, and that is I know Nothing."

What is your opinion? and Do you mind if I share it with my students?

Socrates doesn't just say, 'I know that I don't know everything.' He says, 'I know that I know nothing.' And that should make us pause, don't you think?

It goes without saying that it is impossible to know literally everything. No-one knows, or arguably ever could know regardless of how long they spent investigating, how many grains of sand there are on all the beaches in the world, or how many planets in the universe have intelligent life. On the other hand, you can know everything about a sufficiently restricted subject matter: for example, you might be a British soccer fan who knows the names of every winner of the FA Cup since 1872.

It's good to be modest in the evaluation of one's knowledge. It may not be the whole of wisdom but undoubtedly it is an essential part of becoming wise to recognize our all-too human failings and the ease with which we gather misinformation without even realizing it. Any good teacher recognizes that they are not infallible, and that it is far better to admit to your students that you don't know than pretend to knowledge that you do not have.

On the other hand, if you ask me what I think of President Obama, and I reply that I have no knowledge of politics and never listen to the news so I can't answer you, you are hardly likely to be impressed by my great 'wisdom'. If one is aware of important gaps in one's knowledge, one should do one's best to remedy them, and not rest content with being an ignoramus.

But this is largely irrelevant, so far as Socrates is concerned.

Consider the following argument: If Socrates knows nothing then it follows (e.g.) that he doesn't know whether or not he's wearing his toga. For all he knows (namely, nothing) he might be out in the market place stark naked. If he gets arrested for indecent exposure, the judge and jury are unlikely to be sympathetic to his plea that he was unaware he was committing any offence. — How do you think Socrates would reply to that argument?

'My dear fellow, you must realize there is no knowledge of the things of this world. All we have are more or less useful beliefs. I believe that I am wearing my toga and am confident in this belief. For practical purposes, confident belief is all we need. Knowledge, supposing that any person had it, can only be of ultimate things, the answers to the deep questions of philosophy. Nobody knows that, although many think they do.'

This is rather poignant for me, because I have to ask myself what I have been doing for the last 37 years; what decades of pondering the great questions has achieved since I first started along the road to philosophy. It is a charge not infrequently laid at philosophers, that they never make any real progress, and the best they can offer is endless disagreement and scepticism.

But there is another side of the coin. Philosophers see things for what they are. They are not easily fooled by bullshit and propaganda. They understand what is important, and what are merely the trivial concerns of passing fad and fashion. The world (just as Plato said in his Republic) is not what you think it is. We are all cave dwellers. Even if Plato was over-optimistic in thinking that the philosopher alone has the power to escape from the cave, at least one can make the attempt — over and over again if necessary.



Is anatomy destiny?

Will asked this question:

Hello, I need a bit of guidance in regards to Freud. Could you please tell me what is meant by 'anatomy is destiny' and do you think he proves that anatomy is in fact destiny?

I think it might just be to do with the developmental stages that Freud theorised about and how these affect us when we grow and so affects our behaviour and thoughts.

Searching for "Anatomy is destiny" in Google I quickly found an answer to Will's question in the Online Glossary of Psychological Terms from Athabasca University:

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) claimed that anatomy is destiny, that is, one's gender determines one's main personality traits. Karen Horney (1885-1952), while considering herself a disciple of Freud, disagreed. Beginning in 1923, she began publishing papers arguing for culture over biology as the primary determinant of personality. Thus, if a woman feels inferior to a man, it is not due to some universal process such as penis envy. Rather, she wrote, '[t]he wish to be a man... may be the expression of a wish for all those qualities or privileges which in our culture are regarded as masculine, such as strength, courage, independence, success, sexual freedom, right to choose a partner' (New ways in psychoanalysis New York: Norton 1939, p. 108). For Horney, the reason psychoanalysis appears to understand men better than women is that the field, from the beginning, has been dominated almost exclusively by male thinking and thus has evolved into a masculine enterprise.

Disentangling the strands of nature and nurture with respect to human sexuality is an incredibly difficult undertaking. But Freud wasn't simply guessing in the dark or expressing common prejudices of his day (or indeed ours). He made his judgement on the basis of many hundreds of hours of analytic practice.

— But then, so did Horney.

I don't have an axe to grind in defending Freud. It seems to me perfectly possible that like many researchers Freud discovered what he was looking for. As this is a question for Ask a Philosopher and not 'Ask a Psychoanalyst' or 'Ask a Social Psychologist' I don't want to get bogged down in that debate.

However, I do have experience of my own to call upon. I am male, and a philosopher, and many hours of following, or attempting to follow the Socratic maxim 'know thyself' has naturally led me to reflect on the role of my sexuality in relation to my chosen calling.

In my post on ‘Knowing the limits of knowledge’ I wrote:

One might observe that the attitude which Santayana describes of opening ourselves up to experience the wonder itself shows something of the aspect of 'the feminine'. By contrast, the thought of adventurously penetrating to the heart of reality has a resolutely masculine appeal.

I go on to cite one of my favourite quotes from Hegel, from the Preface to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1825-6) where he says that 'The Being of the universe... has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.'

Even though the words make me cringe, just a bit, I recognize that, fundamentally, that is how I feel about philosophy. It's not that I've never experienced the 'opening up' feeling Santayana describes. But far more often my thoughts dwell on the challenge of honing and sharpening my intellect in order to get down into the recalcitrant roots of reality.

At this point, you might accuse me of focusing too narrowly on a single image. What about the competitive nature of philosophical debate?

I've been witness to some comic scenes in Oxford academic philosophy seminar rooms, where professors high on intellectual vanity and testosterone have tussled like angry bulls. — And they wonder why there are fewer female academic philosophers!

Glass House Philosopher Notebook II, p. 46

Yes, there is that aspect too. But I think that it is less fundamental. How else to you behave when philosophy seminars are organized as bull rings? There is another way, where debate is co-operative rather than competitive, but to make this happen you have to do some radical thinking; about ways to overcome the inherently competitive nature of a career where in order to rise to the top you have to prove yourself to be better than the next philosopher.

Oh, I just remembered something:

And have you ever thought about the strange phenomenon of books? why they are made the way they are? why scholars love to pore over them? Because what they are secretly after is a woman's...

Glass House Philosopher Notebook II, p. 134

The year was 1977, my first year as a graduate student at University College Oxford. On my wall, in my room at Merton Street, was an Athena poster of a Modigliani nude. I'd just woken up from a nap. Glancing up at the painting, I caught myself in the act of daydreaming, about a book — that wasn't a book. I've never fully been able to shake that image from my mind.

But this isn't a psychoanalyst's couch, and the evidence of dreams or daydreams is flimsy at best. What I know is how I think, how my mind typically works, whatever the topic or problem. An attitude, a sense of conviction which colours everything that I do.

Then what is there — down there?

I remember seeing a quote from a review of Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil (1998) where the main protagonist, a philosopher called Rozanov says something to the effect that, 'When you dig down — and that's not very far down — all you find is jumble and rubble.' That depressed, and depressing thought was quite sufficient to put me off reading the novel.

I don't mind that there is jumble and rubble in me, I accept Murdoch's view that when we 'tell our story' we always idealize, we avoid looking at the bits of the jigsaw that don't fit together. That's about the self, the jumble and rubble in us. But what I can never accept is that that's how it is, at the very roots of reality.

In the past, I've referred to this piously as 'the faith of the philosopher', but that makes it sound as if I'm searching for God. And what if I met up with my quarry? — 'If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!' (Sheldon B. Kopp, Bantham 1976: a brilliant take on the aims and practice of psychotherapy.)

It's not God, not destiny or faith, but just resolute determination not to be illuded, to ask questions where no-one else sees a question, to 'break on through'.

The point is that I can. I am free, and that is what freedom ultimately means to me. I don't know what's 'down there'. If I did, there wouldn't be a question. I may never know. But whatever the chances, even if there are none, I will continue digging. It's a matter of pride; arguably, male pride.



Is the world created by our minds?

Dan asked this question:

Assume one of the following is true:

1) The world we observe around us is real, though our perceptions of it may differ from person to person.

2) The world around us is created by our minds, and possibly co-created with other minds like our own.

How can we tell the difference between these two scenarios?

I remember once discussing with my junior school friends how we could ever be sure that the world wasn't just a dream, and, if so, whose dream was it? We kicked the question around for a while but didn't reach any firm conclusion.

We'd read the Alice books. Here's how Lewis Carroll ends his tale Alice Through the Looking Glass:

Now, Kitty, let's consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that — as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know — Oh, Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw can wait!' But the provoking kitten only began on the other paw, and pretended it hadn't heard the question.

Which do you think it was?

Carroll (a.k.a. Charles Ludwig Dodgson) was a mathematician who knew more than a bit of philosophy. When Alice calls this a 'serious question', the reader might think Carroll is poking fun. But in a way, he is serious. He knew his Berkeley. Bishop Berkeley's answer — in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous and Principles of Human Knowledge — is that all that exists are subjects and objects of experience. We are all dreaming one another's dreams of 'the world' because everything that exists, exists in God's infinitely capacious mind. The world is God's dream.

On Berkeley's view, the experiences we have while asleep which we call 'dreams' do not 'create a world' because they are private to us. The dream images in our minds do not correspond to anything outside our own experience.

I doubt whether this is something me and my school friends would have figured out for ourselves. But in any case, Berkeley is going out on a limb here. If you add together all the 'waking dreams' of all the human beings (and non-human animals and aliens too, if you like) there will be massive gaps. No tree fell in the forest if no creature saw or heard it. Objects come into existence from nowhere and go out of existence in a flash, when someone looks, or looks away. This is an untidy hypothesis, but the God theory seems a trifle extravagant as a way to avoid it.

The entire story of my life, and yours, reduces to a sequence of experiences. You can well ask, if it would make any difference whether or not there exists something corresponding to those experiences. What kind of 'difference' is a difference which no-one (by hypothesis) can ever detect or perceive?

But if we are prepared to go this far then I think another step is needed. The entire story of my life reduces to a sequence of experiences. I can ask, if it would make any difference whether or not there exist experiences belonging to the familiar objects which move about and talk, which I call 'people'. People exist in my waking dream, to be sure. But I can't see how it can make any difference to me whether or not I exist for them.

Maybe you can see where this is going. Because there is still one more step to take. Bertrand Russell once raised a question how we know that the universe has existed for millions of years. Perhaps the universe came into existence five minutes ago, and you and I and everyone else with our apparent memories.

Let's throw Russell's sceptical hypothesis into the mix. As before, you can dispense with any idea of God having anything to do with this. Let's just say the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago as a result of a gigantic cosmic accident. (If you think that's far fetched, how come you are so ready to believe in the Big Bang theory?) In that case, for all I could ever discover, the entire story of my life, your life, the universe and everything is just an apparent memory I am experiencing now.

I doesn't make any difference. It makes no difference whether or not a real world exists, whether or not other people exist, whether or not the past exists. At this point, maybe you are beginning to wonder whether the intuition about 'telling a difference' might be less clear than you thought it was?



Jobs for philosophers

Jason asked this question:

What kind of job can you get with a philosophy degree? I'm studying philosophy as an option in an Arts and Contemporary science degree which is an equivalent to a philosophy degree, but I'm worried that having this on my resume won't really impress anybody. What are my options?

I'm having a second go at this question. Back in 2001, I answered a question from 16 year old Phil who candidly admitted, 'obviously I want to be the next modern day Plato or Aristotle, or wait — even better — Leonardo da Vinci.' Here's an extract from my answer:

At a Freshers induction day for the Sheffield Philosophy Department, I was asked by young student just starting out on her BA degree what were the job prospects for philosophy graduates. 'I complete my degree, then what?' 'Then you sign on the dole!' (social security) I replied. This did not go down too well. I think she was expecting me to say, 'Then you get a job teaching philosophy, have a brilliant career, become famous and live happily ever after.' You will not be surprised to hear that I was not invited to any more induction days.

It wouldn't have been so bad, had our conversation not been overheard by a young woman from MIT who had recently joined the Sheffield teaching staff. She was outraged. How could I justify living off the state? A parasite financed by taxpayers hard-earned money? I said something to the effect that the tax payers were getting 'good value for their money' from unemployed philosophers who worked hard at what they did best. She replied coldly that people with jobs didn't have the choice whether or not to pay taxes.

Back in 1987, only three or four years before this incident occurred, I was unemployed, driven to the desperate expedient of putting up 'Philosopher for Hire' cards in the windows of local shops. Everyone deserves at least one lucky break in life. Mine was having a sharp-eyed reporter from the Sheffield Star notice my little advert. A week later, I was being interviewed and having my photograph taken. The article appeared under the headline, 'Philosopher in Bid to Hire Out His Talents'...

... And the rest is history.

For the sake of a reality check, here's a very different account, from an article published in The Guardian newspaper in 2007:

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show philosophy graduates, once derided as unemployable layabouts, are in growing demand from employers. The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.

It is in the fields of finance, property development, health, social work and the nebulous category of 'business' that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In 'business', property development, renting and research, 76% more philosophy graduates were employed in 2005-06 than in 2002-03. In health and social work, 9% more.

Just to reinforce the statistics, the Guardian article offers quotes from enthusiastic employers of Philosophy graduates. Here's one:

Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: 'A philosophy degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.'

— Is that the sort of answer you're looking for, Jason?

From the Guardian perspective, the case for the employability of Philosophy graduates is all about transferable skills. The very same skill that you use to analyse an argument from Plato's Republic serves equally well in analysing a financial forecast or the pitch for a new ad campaign.

Analysing, criticising, thinking 'out of the box' are obviously very useful attributes. We should all strive to be useful members of society. That is what we are taught from an early age. And if society has a use for you, you will be rewarded. Isn't that it?

You might say that it is easy for me to indulge in scepticism, given that the majority of Pathways students have degrees or advanced degrees and/ or professional qualifications, and are in well-paid jobs. Yet I detect that some are not happy, and would much rather chuck it all in if they could. A lucky few — those who have made enough money to afford an early retirement — have the leisure to devote themselves full-time to philosophical study.

Philosophy gets you, that way. It makes you question assumptions, to be sure, but one of the assumptions that you will find yourself questioning is why you are so keen to 'impress people with my resume'.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't be interested in having the best possible resume. My question is what it would be good for. Let's assume that the better your resume, other things being equal, the more employable you are. You have a wider range of jobs available to you. For most people, this translates into opportunities for more highly paid jobs. But as a philosopher, or someone interested in philosophy, that is an assumption that cries out to be questioned. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but money isn't everything.

Of course, you can always go for the 'early retirement' scenario, if you are that good. On the panel of Ask a Philosopher is an Englishman who retired at 52, for the second time (he got bored after retiring in his early 30's). But you do have to be very good — or very lucky.

Of the two greatest Stoic philosophers, one was a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and the other a slave (Epictetus). Lacking the resources of an emperor, you don't have to opt for wage slavery. The kind of job a philosopher would look for (outside of the academic world, an option we are not even considering) is one that allows you time, and mental freedom, and pays enough to keep body and soul together. If you are also doing something that enables you to put your beliefs into practice — like working for Greenpeace, or for an organization helping the homeless or the unemployed — that's a bonus.

It is possible that after you get your BA degree you may feel no need or motivation to pursue your present interest in philosophy any further. That happens too. There's no shame in it. In that case, these words are not for you. But that's not something you know now. Taking the philosophy course option might deepen your interest. I hope it does.

There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option. As I have painfully discovered, you have to accept the pitying looks of those — they may be your family or your friends — who judge success by material possessions. It's your choice.



Knowing the limits of knowledge

Tanzeel asked this question:

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

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

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

'The Bedsitter'

The title of Russell's book (which Tony Hancock is struggling to read in bed) is Human Knowledge: It's Scope and Limits (1948). I've had a copy on my bookshelf for years and never got so far as reading one sentence. I'm sure it's a very worthy book, and far from being one of Russell's potboilers. But my main limit is patience. There are lots of things I ought to know but don't, just as there are lots of books I ought to have read but haven't, because it would cost just too much time and effort.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have owned up to that, but age has brought a modest increase in self-knowledge. As Dirty Harry once said, 'A man's got to know his limitations.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about qualitative restrictions on the kinds of knowledge it is possible to have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Santayana 'The Unknowable' Herbert Spencer Lecture 1923

If you look at the question this way, then of course there is a limit to human knowledge, which exists by virtue of the fact of the sheer inexhaustibility of the world. We know that we will never cease to find things that we previously didn't know about — new aspects to marvel at — so long as we continue our quest for knowledge. But there will always be far, far more than we can ever know.

When I first read this, in an old volume that belonged to my parents, Reading I have Liked edited by Clifton Fadiman, I was enchanted. These days one would hesitate to quote Santayana's references to 'the ladies' and the fascination that they exercise 'over us' (weren't there any 'ladies' in the audience?). But I would just say, Get over it, otherwise there's too much great literature that you would have to consign to the flames.

One might observe that the attitude which Santayana describes of opening ourselves up to experience the wonder itself shows something of the aspect of 'the feminine'. By contrast, the thought of adventurously penetrating to the heart of reality has a resolutely masculine appeal. This quote from Hegel, from the Preface to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy which I have used for unit 1 of the Metaphysics program says it all:

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

G.W.F. Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, Preface

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



Knowledge and pragmatism

Matt asked this question:

If one is not certain of something, should they withhold judgement and simply attempt to be pragmatic?

I.e. I'm not certain that leaving my house today will result in my death but I can't stay inside my entire life due to a possible factor with low probability, thus it would be pragmatic to go outside when needed barring no other factors.

Actually, if one isn't certain of anything would we gain more peace of mind simply by withholding judgement about everything and living life in whatever manner was the most beneficial for ourselves?

I recognize Matt's last remark as a version of a doctrine held the Ancient Greek skeptic Pyrrho, the doctrine of ataraxia. There's a nice quote in the Wikipedia article:

By suspending judgment, by confining oneself to phenomena or objects as they appear, and by asserting nothing definite as to how they really are, one can escape the perplexities of life and attain an imperturbable peace of mind.

(I can't tell from the context whether the quote is meant to be from Pyrrho's pupil Timon of Phlius or the book by Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Come on Wikipedia!)

Note Pyrrho's distinction between 'phenomena or objects as they appear' and the question 'how they really are'. If you and I see twinkly white dots in the night sky, that isn't a matter upon which arguments can be put for or against. It is a given. Even if I have no idea what the white dots are, I can be certain about what I am experiencing now. Whereas my judgement, 'The earth is round', or 'The moon is thousands of miles away' could conceivably be false, consistently with my experience. As soon as you try to state how things 'really are' you run up against the problem of how to extend knowledge through inference. The case can be made for a flat earth, or the moon hovering a few miles off the ground, however implausible you might consider that case to be. If no argument is absolutely irresistable, if for every case for there is a case against, then the only reasonable course of action is to suspend judgement. That is Pyrrho's position.

In Ancient Greece, it might not have made any practical difference whether the earth was round or flat, but one could not say that today. It is no longer possible for human beings to inhabit a 'world of appearance'. Too many of the things which are an essential part of our lives depend on layer upon layer of scientific knowledge. Science is part of common sense. You can of course pretend to be a savage and regard computers, motorcars and toasters as working 'by magic', but that would just be a pretence. Whereas if a motor car was transported in a time machine to Ancient Greece, there could be genuine, rational disagreement over the theory that a car engine derives its power from internal combustion.

What would be the equivalent of Pyrrho's ataraxia today? Matt offers a possible solution: concerning the things beyond our present experience, the appropriate attitude is pragmatic.

'Leaving my house today' is actually a loaded example. No-one knows what the future holds. That I might be killed in a freak accident on my way home is not something concerning which I have any reason to be certain or doubtful. Freak accidents do happen, just as people do win the lottery. The thought, 'it will never happen to me' does perfectly well as a pragmatic attitude, but as Matt notes, pragmatism isn't the same as certainty.

By contrast, if I fill my car petrol tank up with water, or plug the toaster into the telephone socket, then I can be certain that the result will be a non-functioning car or non-functioning toaster. To have this kind of certainty you need basic knowledge of how things work.

(I've just remembered a scam from the 1930's: if you add a test tube of acetone to a petrol can full of water, the mixture will run a car. The 'miracle fuel' which cash strapped motorists queued up to buy had only one drawback: it destroyed the engine after a few miles.)

In my answer to Demetreus I argued against the 'lazy' view in epistemology that knowledge doesn't require certainty. To be the one who knows about some particular question or topic is to have authority as one whose testimony is to be trusted. If you are not certain of the truth of your belief, then you should not state your belief as a fact, at least, not without qualification (as in, 'I think there are buses running today, but I can't be sure').

The difficulty with Matt's position is that he is, in effect, giving up on knowledge. Pragmatism will do in a situation where knowledge cannot be obtained, where we are not in a position to be, or justified in being certain. The temptation is to 'play it safe' and take the Pyrrhonian view that certainty is not to be had about anything. But we need certainty about lots of things. I need to be certain that pouring water (or diesel) into the petrol tank of my car will stop the engine from working, or that the wheels will not fall of as I'm driving along.

We need certainty, not only for immediate practical purposes but because others rely on the statements we make. To give up on certainty is to give up on the authority to make statements about matters of fact. The only consistent Pyrrhonian stance — as critics of scepticism understood — is one of total silence.

Despite this, there is a sense in which pragmatism is vindicated, by the observation that certainty is itself a practical attitude. I am certain, so long as there are questions you don't ask me, or that don't occur to me (like the trick with the water and acetone). This makes knowledge a 'contextual' notion (as noted in my answer to Demetreus) but that is surely a better outcome than Pyrrhonian scepticism.

In stating that certainty is a practical attitude, or has a pragmatic dimension, I am following Wittgenstein's views as expressed in his work On Certainty, the last book he wrote (and incidentally one of his best). However, the most pungent quote on doubt and certainty comes from Philosophical Investigations:

'But, if you are certain, isn't it that you are shutting your eyes in face of doubt?' — They are shut.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.224

Wittgenstein's target is Descartes, rather than Pyrrho. There are many things concerning which we can conceive or imagine a doubt — for example, Descartes' thought that my world might be dream produced by an 'evil demon', or in the contemporary (and less extreme) version that I might be a prisoner in the Matrix. But to merely conceive or imagine a doubt is not yet to doubt. If I hadn't known about the acetone, I might still have imagined that there 'might be' some substance which, when added in small quantities to water makes it sufficiently combustible to power a car engine, as unlikely as that may seem. Certainty is too robust to be shaken by this kind of imaginary worry.

But it can be shaken, and often is. As we learn more about our world, our previous 'certainties' crumble. — Of course, Pyrrho couldn't have said that, because to learn is to acquire knowledge.



Life in a well-oiled machine

Ray asked this question:

What is the meaning of life? Is the world we live in not just a well oiled machine and we as a species are simply one gear in that machine? If this is so, wouldn't that mean our meaning or purpose would simply be, to BE. I have struggled with this one for a bit, maybe someone can keep me going on these thoughts?

You have a choice, Ray. You have the choice whether to be. So does the human race. It wouldn't be necessary to make the decision to kill ourselves, or even to allow the human race to die out as a result of nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. We could just choose not to procreate — as indeed can you.

A machine is constructed for a purpose, but if the universe is a mere machine then it has no particular purpose that we can fathom. Nor does the machine need human beings in order to function. When we go, we won't be missed. The stars and planets will continue to obey the laws of nature, flawlessly, however things turn out.

I gather from your question that you see no meaningful place for God or religion. Neither do I. But suppose one accepts the pragmatic view that some beliefs are more useful than others. Even the materialist, atheist Marx had to admit that religion, the 'opiate of the masses' was yet the 'heart in a heartless world'.

Marx isn't conceding that the human race is better off with religion than without it. What he means is that things are so bad for so many people — the downtrodden workers — that it would be too cruel to take religion from them as well.

Meanwhile, the world is indifferent as to whether you choose to be a revolutionary, or reactionary — or reluctantly or gladly or unthinkingly embrace the status quo. Life goes on regardless; your life goes on, or not, as the case may be.

Where's the meaning in that?

Bertrand Russell, in his 1902 essay 'A Free Man's Worship' (Mysticism and Logic London Unwin 1963) offers the following consolation for those who accept that their ultimate fate is be born, procreate and die:

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man's worship.

Bertrand Russell Mysticism and Logic ‘A Free Man’s Worship’

'To think of them greatly.' To pursue truth, to appreciate beauty — if only the beauty offered by the tragic spectacle of human life and death — is all we have. That is why the free man rejects the false comforts of religion.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Russell wrote his essay just twelve years before the Great War. Amongst the 'great ideals' that he describes in such glowing terms are those of courage, duty and sacrifice, so brutally exploded in the trenches of the Somme and the war poems of Wilfred Owen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

No, there is no meaning that I can discern. We have witnessed how bad things can get, and they could get still worse. But my view of this remains a cheerful one. Unlike Russell, I don't need high ideals, so long as there are questions that grip me, as yours does. Meaning is for 'true believers'. I just want the truth — as best as you, or I or anyone can discern it.

Maybe my optimism is misplaced. Maybe I still have illusions to shatter. In that case, as F.H. Bradley once remarked about pessimism (Appearance and Reality 1897, Preface), 'Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.'



Making sense of the world

Aurora asked this question:

Why is there a need for man to make sense of the world?

Aurora's question is about a topic that will be familiar to many. What is the meaning of life? What sense can be made of the world? Well, it's good that she didn't ask that question, because if she had I wouldn't have chosen it. We get that question frequently. Why should we know? Do people asking what the meaning of life is seriously expect an answer? Luckily that's not Aurora's question. What Aurora wants to know is why do human beings feel motivated, or impelled to ask that question? Why is there a need to 'make sense of the world'? That's not a question many ask. A philosopher's question.

I would like to know the answer to that too. More to the point, I would like to know what on earth the question is about. (I won't make anything of the fact that Aurora asked why man needs to make sense of the world — and woman doesn't?)

There's no puzzle about why we need to make sense of things. I mean, things in the world, situations or events or objects that we encounter. There are different kinds of 'making sense'. The detective tries to make sense of the scattered clues left at the scene of a crime, say, a murder, by reconstructing the sequence of events, analysing cause and effect. There's also the question of motivation: was the motivation revenge, or theft, or was it just a random senseless killing? Then there's the hastily scribbled note left on the table. What does it say? what do the words mean?

I've just given three contrasting examples of 'making sense', which we apply every day. We ask about causes and effects; we ask about intentions, motivations, purposes; and we ask about the sense of words. There's no puzzle about why we do this. Try getting getting through the day without once doing one of these things. It's a matter of sheer survival. This can be an everyday event: like reading the words on the bottle to make sure you're taking the right medicine, or judging whether an approaching car is slowing down because the driver has seen you step into the road. And even when our survival isn't threatened, we ask these questions out of natural curiosity — which itself has survival value.

Aurora could have asked why human beings are so curious about the world, curious beyond any reasonable need if survival were the only thing we cared about. Other species exhibit curiosity too, of course, but at least in their case evolution supplies a sufficient explanation. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's not difficult to see why on the whole this trait is beneficial rather than harmful to kitty.

It was in this spirit that Plato and Aristotle both remarked that 'Philosophy begins with wonder.' Human beings are creatures that wonder, that ask questions which go beyond any obvious utility or purpose. We ask for the sake of asking. We just want to know. That's one of the wonderful things about being human.

But that's not Aurora's question. Her question isn't about why, out of insatiable curiosity, we try to make sense of everything we come across. It's about why we ask the familiar question, 'what does this mean?' about the world. The world as such. The whole thing. All that is (or 'all that is the case'). Being qua being. Life, the universe and everything.

I've remarked before that it would be intolerable if the world had a sense — in the sense of a meaning or purpose — and we finally got to know what it was; and it would be equally intolerable if we finally got to know, absolutely and for certain, that the world does not have any meaning or purpose. What I'm now saying is that neither alternative — that the world has a sense, or that that world does not have a sense — makes any sense to me at all.

I am talking about the absurd. A world where everything added up, and you could see exactly the point of everything would be an absurd world; equally absurd would be a world where you knew there was no prospect of adding things up. A world that made sense, or didn't make sense, would be absurd. But it's absurd even to ask this question. And that's the point. Yet we do, anyway!

Physics, or rather cosmology, makes a pretty brave attempt at making sense of the universe in the first of the three senses that I outlined above: figuring out the sequence of causes and effects. But of course that's only on the assumption that by 'the world' one means 'this universe', that is to say, the world as governed by the laws of physics. Cosmologists sometimes forget (one can hardly blame them) that these laws are, ultimately, contingent not necessary (an observation I made in my previous post). There could have been different universes, governed by different laws than the laws that govern this universe.

A case could therefore be made for saying that the world, the world as such, is bigger than the physical universe or cosmos, because maybe there are potentially lots of universes, just as there are lots of suns with orbiting planets in this universe. But I don't want my argument to turn on that debatable claim. Let's just talk about the universe.

The universe or cosmos is that which is, existence, which of course includes ourselves. Whenever we try to 'make sense' of something, in any of the three senses which I distinguished (cause and effect, intention/ purpose, semantic meaning) it is always in relation to a framework. You can ask whether the universe as a whole 'has a purpose', say, if you are prepared to hypothesize something outside the universe, such as God is conceived to be. But then the same question arises again. You can only put God or a creator outside the universe by, in effect, hypothesizing a larger universe that contains both the creator and 'his' creation. (This is a familiar point from debates over the various arguments for the existence of God, so I won't labour it.)

The idea of a framework, the distinction between questions within a framework and questions about a framework, is one that Rudolf Carnap discussed in his seminal article, 'Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology'. After Quine's attack on the analytic/ synthetic distinction less attention has been paid to Carnap's foundational work on this topic, but the fundamental point is still valid as a diagnosis of the error which we easily fall into, of confusing questions about a framework with questions within a framework.

When the framework is the universe or cosmos, and the question is about meaning, then the correct and proper conclusion to draw from Carnap's theory is that we imagine a question where there is no question. We attempt to ask questions about the framework that can only be asked within the framework, such as the question, or questions, about the 'sense of the world'.

Why do we do this? Why are we impelled to commit this error, over and over again? That's a question that Kant asked. The whole of the Critique of Pure Reason is devoted to exploring, in different ways, the limits to questioning and how we are impelled to transgress those limits. So I guess it would be appropriate to let Kant have the last word:

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

The perplexity into which it thus falls is not due to any fault of its own. It begins with principles which it has no option save to employ in the course of experience, and which this experience at the same time abundantly justifies it in using. Rising with their aid (since it is determined to this also by its own nature) to ever higher, ever more remote, conditions, it soon becomes aware that in this way — the questions never ceasing — its work must always remain incomplete... by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness and contradictions; and while it may indeed conjecture that these must be in some way due to concealed errors, it is not in a position to be able to detect them.

Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason Preface to the First Edition (N.K. Smith tr.)

Kant's great book was one of the first volumes I picked up when I discovered my interest in philosophy — even though I knew I wouldn't understand most of it. You could do worse, Aurora, than read Kant's Introduction and Prefaces (to the 1st and 2nd editions). It will inspire you.



Metaphysical explanations

Xiaoqing asked this question:

Why I am me and not you?

Wen asked this question:

Why do things break?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Morality of the moral philosopher

Lfand asked this question:

Does a moral philosopher, or a student in moral philosophy as I am, have an obligation to behave morally, or in a much more moral way than anyone else (as a non-philosopher)?

Which do you think is worse, hypocrisy or arrogance?

If I tell you that I am more moral than you because I am a moral philosopher, then isn't that just arrogance? On the other hand, if I tell you that despite the fact that I am a moral philosopher, I do not regard this as having any consequences for the morality of my actions, isn't that just hypocrisy?

If anyone claims to be more moral than I am, then it takes all my powers of self-control to prevent me from giving them a smack. So don't parade your moral virtue in front of me, I won't be impressed. And don't call me a hypocrite just because I refuse to parade my moral virtue in front of you.

I don't like philosophers who preach. In the past, I have nearly succumbed to the temptation, in my erstwhile incarnation as a philosopher of business. My ten part Ethical Dilemmas ('a primer for decision makers') contains guidelines for business people designed to help them think more clearly about moral issues. However, thinking clearly about a moral issue can sometimes mean seeing that whatever you do will be 'wrong' — from one point of view or another — so don't feel too bad about it. Just do what you've got to do.

What is 'morality'? It is an ugly word, but so is 'ethics'. When philosophers distinguish between the two, it is usually for the sake of some pet theory. I personally don't have a view on this and don't care what term one uses. (My usage generally accords with what Fowler mildly denigrates as 'elegant variation'. When I get bored with using the term 'moral', I switch to 'ethical', and vice versa.)

When Marx in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach stated that philosophers should seek to change the world rather than merely interpret it, he was in a way restating the view expressed 2500 years earlier by Socrates in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. In a long, memorable passage, (96A ff.) Socrates explains why he lost interest in the physical speculations of his predecessors, in particular Anaxagoras. 'Man' and the question how one should live is the central concern of philosophy.

My own taste veers towards 'interpreting the world', understanding the nature of existence. I would like to understand ethics, or morality, because the phenomenon puzzles me. I don't mean this in a superficial sense. I accept that ethics is a direct route to metaphysics, and you can't do metaphysics without at some point tackling ethics. But what has ethics, or metaphysics, taught me (if only incidentally) about right or wrong, or how I ought to live?

You see, I have real problems with the idea that there are some things I 'must' or have an 'obligation' to do, by contrast with the things I desire for myself. To my mind, I don't do things 'for myself', or 'for others' but simply for a reason. Anything else would be irrational. But maybe I mean something different by 'reason' than you do. Being 'fun' is a reason, so I do some things for fun. But sometimes you have to avoid things which would be fun, or do things which are positively not fun. It might be fun to knock a policeman's helmet off, but the reason for not doing so is (in most cases) stronger.

This is where the real problem arises. Just because, being a philosopher (or a moral philosopher) you aim to understand and see more, there is a danger that you see reasons for action that other persons fail to see, or indeed that you will see through what others mistakenly take to be valid reasons for action. In other words, it's simply about being true to what you know.

Following this line of reasoning, it would be perfectly logical — perfectly rational — to come to the conclusion that, as a result of what you now know (which you didn't know before) you realize that in the past you have been more moral, more ethical than you ought to have been. You foolishly allowed yourself to be swayed by irrational considerations into doing acts which won moral praise from others, which you ought not to have done, and would not have done had you known better.

Let's say you are a previously ardent Christian who reads Nietzsche and concludes that much of what you thought was ethical is merely the expression of 'herd morality'. You unwittingly allowed your emotions to be manipulated by others to their own ends. Or, let's say you are a previously ardent Socialist who reads Ayn Rand and discovers the 'virtue of selfishness'.

I am not putting forward these philosophers as necessarily representative of my own views; I am merely stating a point of principle. If you look into morality with the unblinking eye of a philosopher seeking truth, there's no saying in advance what you may discover or where your investigations may take you.

What I believe is true — and I don't consider it arrogant to say this — is that the study of philosophy has made my life better. I don't mean this in a moral sense, or a non-moral sense because I don't recognize the distinction. I see meaning, where others struggle to see meaning. But nor is 'helping others to see' a reason for what I do. How could it be, if I didn't have a reason to be a philosopher that was a reason for me?



Nietzsche: If truth be a woman

Tev asked this question:

To what does Nietzsche compare truth, and what is the meaning of his comparison?

Malcolm asked this question:

Why is Nietzche open to so many interpretations or misinterpretations?

This takes me back. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a cafe opposite the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London in 1982. Each table had an inlaid chess board, but I hadn't come to play chess. In my coat pocket was a newly purchased copy of Walter Kaufmann's translation of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. A month or two before, I had been awarded my D.Phil. And I hadn't even read Nietzsche. What an admission!

I opened the chubby paperback at the Preface, and this is what I read:

Supposing truth is a woman — what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman's heart? What is certain is that she has not allowed herself to be won — and today every kind of dogmatism is left standing dispirited and discouraged. If it is left standing at all! For there are scoffers who claim that it has fallen, that all dogmatism lies on the ground — even more, that all dogmatism is dying.

Speaking seriously, there are good reasons why all philosophical dogmatizing, however solemn and definitive its airs used to be, may nevertheless have been no more than a noble childishness and tyronism. And perhaps the time is at hand when it will be comprehended again and again how little used to be sufficient to furnish the cornerstone for such sublime and unconditional philosophers' edifices as the dogmatists have built so far: any old popular superstition from time immemorial (like the soul superstition which, in the form of the subject and ego superstition, has not even yet ceased to do mischief); some play on words perhaps, a seduction by grammar, or an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.

Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil W. Kaufmann Tr., Preface

This was incredible. Nietzsche was talking to me, he had written this for me. A hundred years separated us, yet here he was sitting at my table, fixing me with his glassy eyed stare.

My thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning was a critique of the 'realism vs. anti-realism' debate in the philosophy of language, focusing on what I termed the 'ego illusion' and the 'truth illusion'. I agreed with Michael Dummett — and Kant, and (as it turned out) Nietzsche — that there is no 'direct route' to metaphysical knowledge as the dogmatists, or 'transcendent metaphysicians' believed.

But I was equally sceptical of the analytic philosopher's attempt to distil metaphysical conclusions from the analysis of language, or, in Dummett's terms, 'an account of the form of a theory of meaning'. To me, that was just another form of dogmatism.

Philosophers are never so happy as when they have a 'method' for solving a problem. I suppose the equivalent in seduction techniques would be the kind of book you see advertised on the internet, 'Six fail-safe methods for winning a woman.' (I mean, if they are fail-safe, why do you need six? Wouldn't one be enough?)

My hero was a philosopher of an altogether different calibre, Wittgenstein, who understood well what it was like to 'try to untangle a spider's web with one's fingers', that the only way to make real progress is through patient philosophical therapy applied to the various things we are tempted to say, that turn out to be so much nonsense. Or what I called, rather crudely and impatiently, 'negative dialectic'.

The irony is that Dummett's arguments for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning' were, so he claimed, inspired by Wittgenstein's account of 'meaning as use'. Well, you've got to try, haven't you?

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein are masters of a philosophical style which has become known as indirect discourse. To pull this off, you need special literary gifts, as well as a finely tuned sense of irony. These are philosophers who deliberately risk being misunderstood, because correcting your misunderstanding is a necessary part of the learning process. (I can understand, though I don't altogether agree with the view that there is more real philosophy going on in English departments these days.)

The question is, putting aside the rhetoric, is there such a thing as truth in philosophy? Is truth something that philosophers can attain if we give up brute force and heroic full frontal assaults, and become seducers (Kierkegaard's term) teasing out the truth with tact and patience?

But that's forgetting that Nietzsche is an ironist, and he is being ironic in this passage. The similarity to Kant's description of Metaphysics, in the Preface to the 1st Edition of Critique of Pure Reason, as erstwhile 'Queen of the Sciences' now a 'matron outcast', is too obvious. Nietzsche is 'doing a Kant', and he's doing it tongue in cheek. There will be no grand critique, no systematic drawing of the limits of human reason, no method.

But will there be truth? Did Nietzsche, tragically unsuccessful in his attempt to woo the only woman to capture his heart, Lou Salomé (see Matthew Del Nevo, 'Lou Salomé and Nietzsche' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 148) seriously think he was up to the task of attaining truth? Or is he trying to tell us that the very idea of 'pursuing the truth' as philosophers have thought of themselves as doing, is in some sense absurd?

Nietzsche is no mere relativist. He saw nihilism as the greatest threat. Yet the last thing he would have claimed is to have discovered 'the truth'. Each time you circle round the problem, you tease out different aspects, gain new perspectives. And this process is itself done for a purpose, that is to say, ultimately a practical purpose. To know 'the truth' as such is not, for Nietzsche, a credible or even intelligible aim for the philosopher.

In his 1880's Notebooks, published posthumously as The Will to Power, Nietzsche states more than once, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' With this, you can seemingly get away with saying anything. 'I'm not stating my view as a fact, just an (or my) interpretation!' Is the interpretation meant to be valid? or merely a subjective report on the way you happen to see things? Anyone who has read Nietzsche and felt the urge to say, 'Yes!' to an insight or observation would find it disconcerting, at best, to be told that the thing they said 'yes' to wasn't meant to be true.

There are many truths, many partial interpretations, like pieces of a jig-saw. As with a partially assembled jig-saw, you kind-of get to see the big picture, but it is ambiguous, like the 'duck-rabbit' illusion. One moment, you see it this way, then you see it that way. But there is still something to see. Nietzsche evidently thought so. He was gripped by the urge to communicate his vision. The last thing Nietzsche wanted was for his readers to give up on truth.

Some time in the late 80's, I stopped thinking of the thing I'd called in my thesis the 'ego illusion' as an illusion. If something is an illusion, that implies a way of seeing things from a non-illuded perspective. But in the case of 'I', that can never be (unless you are God, but then, as I argue in Naēve Metaphysics, God can't see the 'I-ness of I' either). I don't even know if it's true to say that I changed my mind. Am I just looking at things from a different viewpoint? Do I now have the truth? Was my previous view false, or only partially true? — I found another jig-saw piece, that's all.



Nothing is what it seems

Louella asked this question:

Kindly explain the saying,


or does REALITY exist?


Louella has struck a nerve with her question. On the face of it, it looks like a beginner's question, the sort of thing that someone who hasn't had much exposure to philosophy would think about. 'Nothing is what it seems.' We know that isn't true, don't we? Some things are what they seem (e.g. the half-drunk cup of luke warm coffee on my desk is a half-drunk cup of luke-warm coffee), and some things aren't what they seem. We sometimes get the wrong impression of things. We correct that wrong impression, and then we see things aright.

But, actually — at least in certain moods — I am more inclined to think that all that's just superficial. What we term 'reality' is just a more or less coherent story, not the real truth about things whatever that may be. — I'm just describing a feeling, you don't need to think particularly deeply just to feel this, say, to feel the way Neo felt in The Matrix.

But note what I just said: 'not the real truth about things'. Louella goes on to ask, 'or does reality exist?' Either nothing is what it seems, or reality exists, but not both. That's the implication of her question. But I'm suggesting the opposite: In stating that 'nothing is what it seems', we have in mind, or imply, that there is something real, a real truth about things, which we can never know, or at least which is very difficult to know, or maybe only a few people know.

What if reality didn't exist? How would you describe that situation? Then everything is what it seems. A thing cannot fail to be what it seems unless reality exists, unless there is a way that thing 'really' is, which is different from the way it seems. If reality doesn't exist then everything is the way it seems to me, and everything is also the way it seems to you. If things seem different to you than they do to me, neither of us can be wrong. We are both right. My world-of-seeming is mine, and your world-of-seeming is yours.

But surely that's just... nuts? How could absolutely everything just be exactly as it seems? That would mean that I never a mistake or error about anything, that it is never necessary to correct my first impressions, that, basically, my beliefs are always true (and so are yours). One only needs to consider that a person's beliefs are are not always consistent with one another to realize the impossibility of what I've just stated.

Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus considered these questions. Interestingly, he didn't think that the idea was so 'nuts' that it was OK to ignore it. He puts the thesis, 'Everything is what it seems' in to the mouth of the great sophist Protagoras. (Some commenators would argue that this is a somewhat unfair gloss on Protagoras' famous statement, 'Man is the measure of all things.') Plato doesn't rest content with saying the obvious: that the very attempt to state the thesis leads to absurdity. He considers how one would have to think of knowledge if that hypothesis were accepted.

If there is no real distinction between 'seeming' and 'reality', then we can no longer think of statements as 'aiming at the truth', that is to say, aiming to correspond with the way things 'really are'. Instead, a statement becomes a tool which one uses to affect someone's behaviour. That's what a sophist aims to do in Plato's picture. As a result of listening to the sophist's discourse you are not 'informed' about 'reality' (because there is no reality). Rather, as the sophist would claim, you are made 'better' in some way. The athletics trainer helps you run faster. The rhetoric coach helps you to impress people with your speaking ability, that is to say, your ability to use words to influence or manipulate them.

In a Protagorean universe, according to Plato, everything as we 'know' it is turned upside down. Nothing is 'rational' or 'irrational', 'valid' or 'invalid', 'true' or 'false'. All one is permitted to say is that the verbal statements we make are either 'effective' or 'not effective'. Nor can one even speak of there being a 'truth' as to whether or not a statement is 'really' effective. All speech is propaganda, all thinking is reacting. In some ways, it is a perfect depiction of the world George Orwell horrifyingly portrays in his novel 1984. That's surely not what Protagoras or the other Greek sophists had in mind, but according to Plato it is the inevitable consequence of the relativist view of knowledge.

So what about that feeling I had, that maybe Louella is right and nothing is what it seems? All this, all of you, these... things around me are just shadows, as indeed am I myself. Plato talks eloquently about this too, in his dialogue Republic, in the allegory of the Cave. But, then, according to Plato, something is real, because you can get out of the cave — if you're clever enough, if you know how to work the dialectic. And then you will 'see', not with your eyes (which can never yield true knowledge) but with your mind. The perfect world of Forms.

But if Plato is right then something is what it seems, after all. The eternal Forms are what they seem (to the mind's eye). You cannot gaze upon the highest Form, the Form of the Good, and not know it for what it is, in its very being and essence.

If like me you think that this is all fairy tales — or 'the last fumes of evaporating reality' as Nietzsche describes it in Twilight of the Idols — then maybe you will begin to feel an unnerving sense of the threat that the Protagorean way of seeing things poses. I can't quite wholly believe in this familiar world, I can't fully accept it's 'reality'. But I can't see anything else either, no alternative, certainly no 'purer' or 'higher' world behind these deceptive appearances. Then, maybe, we really can't say for sure whether the Protagorean view, as Plato describes it in Theateteus might not after all be the only possibility left standing, after all the alternatives have fallen away.

If this is a Protagorean universe, then I am not arguing with you now. I am not making a case. This isn't logic and my words are not governed by any notion of validity. I am behaving — linguistically — a trick invented by a certain species of ape around 50 thousand years ago in order to improve their success rate in hunting non-speaking animals for food. Or whatever is the current explanation. Except of course that what I'm telling you now isn't 'knowledge', or even a 'probable theory'. Just words intended to produce an effect.

One of the more interesting developments in English-speaking analytic philosophy in the last century, was the idea of a clash between 'realist' and 'anti-realist' approaches to the nature of meaning and truth. A foremost figure in the debate is Michael Dummett who argued for an 'anti-realist' theory of meaning, along the lines of the later Wittgenstein's notion of 'language games'. (I first came across Dummett's views in his celebrated book Frege Philosophy of Language London, Duckworth 1973.) To know the meaning of a word or a statement is no more, or less, than to be competent in following the rules for using that word or statement, as accepted in one's local linguistic community.

Subsequently, in an interview (around 1980 in a religious program on TV exploring Dummett's Catholic faith) Dummett confided that his real desire — though he could not yet see a way to do this — was to argue for the necessary existence of God, in a manner similar to the idealist philosopher Berkeley. Rebounding from the Protagorean universe described in the anti-realist theory, there is no alternative to believing in God, if you want to defend your belief in knowledge, truth and rationality. When I saw the program, I was shocked by Dummett's frankness. My D.Phil thesis which I was working on at the time defended a stark version of anti-realism, without the God option.

I don't know exactly where Dummett stands on the God issue today. It is true that he has modified his views on the theory of meaning somewhat. But the stark challenge posed by the philosophy of anti-realism remains: believe in God — or something — or resign yourself to living in the world of 1984. I am aware that there are many analytic philosophers today who broadly follow Dummett's line who would dispute this claim. Wittgenstein believed he was merely combating illusions about our inner life and the 'grammar' of our language. Quietism does not necessarily lead to totalitarianism. However, I don't think that things are that easy or simple. I don't think we really know where we are. My impression is that the way things are going now, it would only take a couple of small steps to find ourselves living in an Orwellian universe.

Meanwhile, academic philosophers debate minutiae, not realizing the ground is being cut from under them.



On identity and belonging

Casey asked this question:

I am doing a school essay on identity and belonging.

The topic is: 'Personal identity is determined by what others think of us.'

I was just wondering whether there are any philosophical theories relating to this topic?

Casey, I'm guessing that you have done a few Google searches and seen the phrase 'personal identity' on philosophy web sites and forums. It's a popular topic in academic philosophy. However, when philosophers discuss personal identity they are primarily interested in identity in the forensic or strict sense: the precise physical and mental criteria for being one and the same person at time A and time B. Much of the discussion is quite arcane, involving science fiction thought experiments of body duplication, mind swaps etc.

But let's bring things down to earth.

A suspect is arrested for a murder. What the police want to know is whether the suspect is the person who did the murder or not. Suppose that they think that he is the murderer. (Well, obviously we assume they do otherwise he wouldn't have been arrested.) What the police think is just their belief — which might turn out to be true or might turn out to be false, depending on whether the suspect really is the murderer or not. That's what they hope to find out.

Applying your formula — 'personal identity is determined by what others think of us' — would lead to the absurd (and scary) conclusion that a suspect is guilty if other people believe he is guilty, even if he knows that he is innocent!

The facts are the facts. Sometimes, innocent people get convicted of crimes they did not commit, and no-one ever discovers the truth. On your formula, however, that would never happen. Your formula says that the identity of a person — e.g. the perpetrator of a crime — is determined just by what people think.

So, if you don't mean personal identity in the forensic or strict sense, what do you mean?

I think what you are talking about is a person's sense of what kind of person they are. We loosely refer to this as 'a sense of identity', but the identity in question is not the identity of a particular individual over time but rather identity with something larger than themselves, for example, a family, an occupation, a religion, a flag. All these things express one's 'sense of identity'. You can accept or reject the religion you were brought up with. You can be proud to be, e.g., an American, or indifferent, or ashamed depending on how feel about the country of your birth.

Whatever my parents' religious beliefs may have been, whatever they hoped I might believe, my beliefs are mine. Whatever people may think of me, I'm the best judge concerning whether I am proud of my country or not. Those are facts about my feelings and attitudes, and the kind of person I am. How can what other people think be relevant?

What makes your topic interesting is that despite what I've just said there does appear to be room for questioning this view.

Consider the popular phrase, 'You can't deny your roots.' Do you agree? or disagree? Think of different actual situations where someone might make this remark to another person. Is it always true, or does it depend on the situation? Are there circumstances where it is OK, or even desirable to deny one's roots? Who has the final say?

In certain parts of the world, skin colour is, sadly, still a major factor in determining how others think of you. 'I may have white skin, but I have a black heart,' said an Irish politician to his Harlem audience. They didn't laugh.

Around 1970 I was wearing granny T-shirts and bell bottom jeans, and sported a shoulder width Jimi Hendrix hair style. You might have taken me for a hippie. Maybe I thought of myself as a hippie, but in reality I was just a middle class British kid dressing up. If someone had offered me free love or a tab of LSD I would have run a mile.

What others think of you affects the way you think of yourself. If how you think of yourself is an expression of your sense of identity, then what others think can be a determining factor of your 'identity'. But much still depends, just as before, on the facts. You can be wrong about who you think you are, and others who 'know you better than you know yourself' can be right. Or they can be wrong and you can be right. Or maybe in this particular case there's no answer to the question. You just have to make your decision and stick with it. — All these answers are equally possible.

Or perhaps it is truer to say that we conspire with others through our desires, beliefs and attitudes to create our social 'identity' — our allegiances, our 'roots' — a 'fact' that we subsequently embrace or repudiate (for good or bad reasons). Each person has his or her own version of the story. There's no referee keeping score.



On the existence of holes

Asia asked this question:

Do holes really exist or are they pockets of non-existence?

Whoa! I know someone who would love this question — my erstwhile student and Pathways mentor Brian Tee. Brian got his MA in Philosophy from The University of Sheffield and now owns The Porter Bookshop in Sheffield — a nice job for a philosopher. I have to apologize to Asia in advance because Brian would have been able to give a much better answer than me. But I can only try my best.

I remember having a three hour discussion on the philosophical topic of holes with Brian while downing pints of Easy Rider at The Sheaf View pub, just up the road from my office. John Riley, another ex-student who designed the banner for The Ten Big Questions was also there. The discussion was sparked off when Brian pointed to the absence of beer in his glass and reminded me that it was my turn to buy a round.

How can an absence be something? As any beer drinker knows, the absence of beer in your glass is a very serious matter that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Somehow, that got us onto the topic of holes.

Let's say that holes undoubtedly exist. Then what is a hole?

Consider a hole in a wall. (I think that was my bright idea.) A hole is something you can climb through: an opportunity (if you are trying to get to the other side of the wall) or a threat (if you are trying to prevent someone from getting to the other side of the wall). However, a hole — say, a gap in the brickwork — isn't a hole in the wall if it is too small (then it's a crack — another concept that one could look at), or if air is blasting through at a sufficiently powerful rate, or if it contains a guillotine designed to chop you in half if you try to climb through.

Chicken wire is full of 'holes', but a hole in a chicken wire fence is a matter of concern to the farmer, especially if there are foxes about. Here again, what does or does not count as a hole is relative to the function or purpose of a given item.

Is a hole a thing? Consider the holes in Emmental ('Swiss') cheese. If you bought some Emmental at the supermarket and then discovered that it didn't have any holes, you'd have the right to complain: the cheese may taste the same, but it isn't Emmental without the holes. You'd miss the peculiar pleasure of exploring the holes with your tongue as you bite into the cheese. Visual appearance is also very important. In this and in many other cases, holes are a positive aesthetic feature.

However, so far we are merely skirting round the issue. Talk of the 'functional' or 'aesthetic' role of holes merely underlines the reasons why we take a practical interest in these strange objects. The philosophical question, however, is what holes are, ontologically speaking.

From the point of view of logic, to say that a hole is a 'something' is to assert that it is an 'entity with an identity' in P.F. Strawson's sense: an object of reference whose persistence and identity conditions are sufficiently well defined to enable a speaker and hearer to identify it as the 'same again' on different occasions and say things about it.

One of the things we discussed in the pub was Sartre's discussion of 'the absence of Pierre'. I'm waiting in a coffee bar for Pierre but Pierre hasn't shown up. Wherever I look, Pierre is not in my field of vision. In terms of Gestalt psychology, I perceive the cafe not just as general scenery but as a ground on which I am expecting a figure to appear. All the details fade into a more or less uniform blur. And yet what I perceive is not merely a blur but something positive, Pierre's absence.

To perceive a hole is to perceive a gestalt, a 'figure' on a 'ground'. But, equally, to perceive the absence of a hole is to perceive a gestalt. The hole searched for is not there.

Frege or Russell would say that the absent Pierre isn't a peculiar kind of object inhabiting the 'realm of non-existence'. Rather, the statement, 'Pierre is not here' can be analysed in first-order predicate calculus as, 'For all x, if x is in the cafe, then x is not equal to Pierre', or, analysing proper names ą la Quine, 'For all x, if x is in the cafe then x does not have the property of being-Pierre'.

However, this response still fails to address the question why absences, or holes, are philosophically interesting, and indeed why Sartre sees the very notion of 'nothing' or 'nothingness' as having deep phenomenological or metaphysical significance. You don't have to believe that holes are 'made of' a special kind of non-existent stuff, or think of holes as 'pockets of non-existence' in order to sense that holes are somehow problematic and disturbing.

Assume that a hole is, as stated above, an 'entity with an identity'. Holes that meet this criterion are like things, and yet they lack many of the essential qualities of things. Holes lack the defining properties of a 'substance' in Aristotle's sense. In Lockean terms, holes do not have 'primary qualities' from which their 'secondary qualities' flow.

And yet holes are like things in that they have a natural life, a natural history. Consider the hole in a sock, which starts off as a broken thread and then gradually grows and grows until your heel sticks through. The holes in Emmental are produced by a biochemical reaction, their distribution and size is carefully controlled by the precise conditions under which the cheese is manufactured. And yet they are not made of anything. They contain pure carbon dioxide but they are not made of carbon dioxide, any more than a hole in a brick wall is made of air.

Just like physical objects, holes can combine and merge. Two small holes in a sock can gradually grow until they merge and become a bigger hole. Equally, holes can be divided up. Adding a few strands of wire fixes the 'hole' in the chicken wire fence. From one point of view, the larger hole has been divided up into smaller holes, but, as we have seen, the smaller holes are not holes in the fence, which as a result of the timely repair is once more an effective fence, sufficient to keep the foxes out.

In the pub we also considered the idea that the edge or rim of the hole constitutes is actual, physical presence. It is true that in describing the precise dimensions of the rim you have described the dimensions of the hole. And yet logically the rim, qua physical stuff, cannot be a constituent element or part of the hole, because you can fill the hole in (e.g. a hole in a wall) without in any way changing the material properties of the the rim. Equally, if I mark a chalk circle where I plan to cut a hole in the wall, I have defined a potential rim which in a sense actually exists (as physical material) and yet does not yet exist — just as for the sculptor the statue already 'exists' in the uncarved stone.

— Come to think of it, what is it that one 'sees' in the hunk of stone?

Last week, I was kicking around possible designs for a new web page, ISFP Publishing The idea is to help unknown authors promote books on philosophy. Somehow, I gravitated towards the idea that the background should look like old paper. I found something very nice on Flickr. But still, there seemed to be something missing. Then the idea came to me — from I don't know where — that what the page needed was a fly, crawling across the paper. The people I've shown the page to agreed that the fly was just right and nothing else would do. But how did I know this, from just staring at the space where a fly was not? What did I see?

However, I think there's something else that needs to be emphasized, something to do specifically with our psychological attitude to holes in particular, which does not apply to absences or lacks generally.

As a matter of physical fact, our bodies are porous (from the Greek poros, passage or pore). The human body is made of, defined by, its holes. (Something about this reminds me of Tantric philosophy.) Through these passages and channels, information and physical material flows in and out. The miracle of reproduction is the most impressive example.

The very notion of perception involves the idea of holes or channels whereby information is conveyed into our minds from the external world, through the eyes, ears, nose. To be receptive to experience is essential to our connectedness with the world and our surrounding environment, as indeed it is to our capacity to communicate with one another. Yet equally important is the role of holes in relation to physical needs, the need to breathe, eat etc.

Last time, I strayed into Freudian territory in talking about 'male' and 'female' aspects of the impulse to philosophize. Leaving aside the differences between the sexes, the discovery that one has an anus as well as a mouth, must be a momentous event for the human infant.

All of which leads me to conclude that what makes the topic of holes so enticing is not just one thing but a potent combination of factors.

— Well, those are some more or less jumbled thoughts. Holes exist. But there is no single, definitive way of stating what makes something a hole. It depends on your point of view, or interest. And I've tried to explain why holes are so 'interesting'. If there is a core or real essence to the 'philosophical problem of holes', I don't think I've found it. Maybe you will, Asia, if you keep looking. Or ask Brian.



On the idea of international law

Penny asked:

This is a political philosophy question about the incompatibility of national sovereignty and international institutions such as the UN, EU, treaty commitments and the legitimacy (or not) of enforcement mechanisms. I'm sorry it's so long.

For my entire adult life I have been a strong supporter of the UN and international law as the best hope to prevent and mitigate wars and help bring about, if not perfect global peace, harmony and justice, at least a reduction of conflict and more peaceful coexistence. I dislike nationalism, and particularly superpatriotism, which seem to me one of the principal causes of conflict, and have looked forward to the decreasing importance of nation states.

Now, since I've developed an amateur interest in philosophy and ethics, I discover that national sovereignty is seen by many as key to human progress and civilisation since at least the Enlightenment; that it is inalienable and by definition supreme, meaning that states cannot relinquish any part of their sovereignty, thereby destroying any claim to legitimacy of international law (and the courts to enforce it). I read, too, that while states have the authority to make treaties and sign up to conventions if they wish, they can also break them at will if that suits, and that no other state or institution has (or can have) legitimate authority to prevent them, or penalise them for doing so (or even, it seems, have grounds to criticise them, since states are not moral agents).

So when those of us who were against the Iraq war complained that it was a war of aggression, or we cite the Geneva Conventions (rather than basic morality) on the treatment of prisoners, or the Law of the Sea when unarmed passengers are killed on ships in international waters, or the discriminatory application of the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, or we welcome the establishment of the ICC, apparently we haven't a philosophical leg to stand on.

If nothing short of a world state (inevitably oppressive and therefore far from desirable) can legitimately override national sovereignty, what is to be done? Are we stuck forever with a Hobbesian state of nature in the international arena, where the strongest countries can generally expect to prevail over the wishes and needs of the weakest, backed by the threat of superior brute force?

I was warned that studying philosophy would force me to rethink some of my fundamental beliefs, which was true and is stimulating, but I'm finding this very hard to come to terms with. Is there a way round or over the sovereignty stumbling block to greater global justice, a philosophical route to legitimacy for what I think of as progressive international institutions?

The question of how the actions of nation states can be subject to law is the most urgent question of our times. It is, above all, a practical question. If the United Nations and the Security Council are not sufficiently effective to deter or prevent wars of aggression then we should be figuring out ways of making them more effective. Which is of course exactly what political thinkers and political leaders have been doing. If we succeeded, would it really matter if this went against some treasured philosophical principle? I don't think so.

Sovereignty is essential, as Hobbes argued in Leviathan because in the absence of a sovereign to whom one cedes the power to enforce law, there can be no justice and no law except the law of the jungle, the war of 'all against all'. But Hobbes also argued with perfect consistency that a monarch, ruling alone, is the only effective sovereign. As soon as you introduce limitations to the power of the monarch — a parliament for example — the problems that the idea of a sovereign was introduced to solve break out all over again.

The problem is encapsulated in the famous example of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Of all the many game-theoretic strategies that have been explored, Hobbes' solution is the only one that guarantees the an agreement or contract will be honoured by both parties — because they are answerable, not just to one another but to a third party who has the unfettered power to punish infractions with lethal force. The third party, once appointed, cannot be unappointed. That's what ensures no backsliding on the deal.

No-one accepts this today in the political arena. Why not? Logically, Hobbes' argument is unassailable. To absolutely guarantee peace, the humble acquiescence of every subject to the law of the land, nothing less than the absolute power of a dictator is required. The problem is, kings and dictators have an awkward tendency to behave in way that is not necessarily aimed at the good of their subjects. (But that's OK, because they will face the judgement of God.)

Having made the experiment, human nations have settled for less. We have a political system — I'm talking about liberal democracy although you could say similar things about other political systems — which works for the most part in maintaining the peace of the nation. Bad things still happen. There are political stalemates when we need urgent political action; the police force struggles to stay on top of the crime rate; civil disobedience and strikes throw their spanner in the works.

'Thank goodness that they do,' would be a reasonable response. Can you imagine what kind of state it would be, where the decree of the ruler was absolute, where every crime and misdemeanour was instantly punished? Vid screens in every room just like in 1984. You drop a piece of chewing gum on the pavement and Whooof! off you go in a puff of smoke. (Although I know a few people who would agree to that.)

So my argument would be, if we are prepared to compromise the logic of Hobbes' response to the prisoners' dilemma for the sake of practicality, then what this means, in effect, is an admission that the idea of a 'sovereign' is a fiction. It may be, as many believe, an indispensable fiction, but it is a fiction nonetheless. I recognize the law of the land, by and large, but there are cases where my conscience, or just urgent practical need, overrides respect for the law. One drives through the occasional red light.

The United Nations is a building in New York. It is also a fiction. It doesn't exist except in the minds of the political leaders who founded it and the delegates who attend it. Belief that the UN can work is necessary in order to make it work. And it has worked, by and large; at least one can argue that world affairs would have been in a far worse state without it.

There isn't a question of what may or may not 'legitimately' override national sovereignty from a philosophical standpoint. If a resolution is passed by the UN, then it is legitimate, because that's just what the member states have subscribed to. Of course, the real world being what it is, resolutions fail to be implemented, just as national laws fail to be observed. Punishments and sanctions only deter in proportion to their severity: that's a problem for national law as well as for international law.

But can't philosophers figure something out? Insofar as this is a problem for game theory, you need game theorists; insofar as this is a problem of practical politics, you need political scientists. Maybe somewhere in there, is a role for utopian dreamers. (The League of Nations was once a utopian dream. It's failure led to the UN.)

The most intractable problems of our time require more than a number-crunching or logic-crunching response; they require originality, creativity. Something new, at any rate. I do wonder whether there is any meaningful role for political philosophy. You want 'philosophical legitimacy' for international law? You've got it. What we want is just to make international law more effective, without it hurting too much. Maybe that just shows the colour of my philosophical creed (for want of a better word, call it pragmatism with a small 'p').



On the obligation to testify

Penny asked this question:

This is a question about justice, the law and the duty of bystanders who witness a crime.

A philosopher friend criticised my son as a 'snitch' for going to court to testify in a case as a witness (whereas I thought he was being public spirited, and argued that justice through the courts can only be achieved when people are prepared to testify even in the face of intimidation).

My son and three teenage friends were the only other customers in a family-run Pakistani restaurant which a group of aggressive white men trashed when they were unhappy with the service. They also attacked and injured one of the waiters, a clever sixth former in the same school my son and his friends attended, leaving him with some brain damage.

After much discussion of this and other hypothetical examples, my philosopher friend's reasoning seemed to be that giving evidence against people who have done nothing to you is not your business. If that evidence is given to authorities with coercive authority over people, it constitutes an act of aggression against others. He argued that it goes against Kant's first formulation; and challenged me to devise an appropriate maxim that would always hold true and I couldn't. As he wrote to me about it, 'If a principle cannot be universalised without contradiction it is not true and cannot be true. It may be an emotionally attractive principle and make you feel better, but it still isn't true.'

He agreed that I could report a robbery (or other crime) in progress to the police to allow them to do their duty and then go about my business, or I could intervene directly in the situation myself. But he claimed that I could not justify giving evidence in court after the fact.

I am interested in philosophy but am very poor at following through to logical conclusions. I asked if his was a very hardline Kantian position, as I couldn't imagine any of the usual secular humanist Kantian philosophers whose articles I read in the Guardian or wherever taking the same line, but he claimed that was the logical application of the CI in this case and there was no getting round it.

Is he right?

No, your friend is not right. The claim is that witnesses to a crime not only do not have the moral obligation to testify in court, but indeed are morally obliged not to testify. As justification for this claim your friend offers the first formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

So we have to propositions to consider: First, whether witnesses to a crime are under a moral obligation not to offer themselves up voluntarily in order to testify in court; Second, whether this claim follows from Kant's Categorical Imperative, or, more specifically, from the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

Let's look at the first claim. One of the basic regulative principles which govern the way arguments in moral philosophy are conducted concerns the way we test proposed moral theories or philosophical claims about ethics against our intuitions, i.e. our ethical beliefs prior to conducting a philosophical examination. The American philosopher John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice (1971) has coined a nice term for this, which has become part of the contemporary philosophical vocabulary: he calls it reflective equilibrium.

When you make a claim, on the basis of a theory, which goes against unreflective moral intuitions then there are potentially two possible outcomes. Either one rejects the intuitions, or one rejects the theory. No moral theory is sacrosanct in this regard.

If witnesses to a crime never have the moral obligation or even the right to testify in court that would strike a blow at the very basis of our system of justice. The outcome would be intolerable in a civilized society. You know this. That is why the response from your 'philosopher' friend has left you so perplexed.

Now, it could well be that your friend has seized on this example as an argument against Kant's Categorical Imperative. This is familiar territory for moral philosophers. Even if one does not accept Kant's Categorical Imperative, one would be disinclined to accept the conclusion that Kant was just stupid, and didn't see an obvious negative consequence of his view. (Here, I am invoking another regulative principle, the Principle of Charity.) In other words, even philosophers who are not Kantians, have an interest in showing how Kant might have dealt with this challenge to his theory.

Suppose you were to say, 'Any time someone finds themself in the circumstances I have described [you then go on to describe the circumstances in detail] is under a moral obligation to testify.' This looks like a cheat, and it is. Kant would reply that more is required to make a maxim truly 'universal' than simply expressing it in the logical form of a universal statement.

Yet surely it is not the case that at all times and at all places, a witness to a 'crime' is morally obliged to testify in court. If as a student during the Third Reich I had the misfortune to hear my professor uttering words of criticism of Adolf Hitler, I am not morally obliged (even though I may be obliged by Nazi law) to attend as a witness for the prosecution. (There is, of course, a potential moral dilemma here for anyone who holds that there is a moral obligation to always obey the law, whether you agree with it or not: The issues are explored in the ISFP Fellowship dissertation by George Brooks on Positive Law Theory and its application to the case of Nazi Germany.)

The challenge for Kantians would be to find an acceptable path between the overly lax and overly rigid formulations of what the maxim of your action would be in this case. The result which we want is one where there is a moral obligation to testify in cases like that of the restaurant thugs, but no moral obligation to testify, or indeed a moral obligation not to testify, in cases like that of the outspoken professor.

One possibility would be to incorporate the caveat that testifying 'serves the interests of justice'. Once again, however, that makes things too easy. The Categorical Imperative was supposed to be the infallible touchstone of moral action, but now we would be appealing to a prior understanding of what is 'justice' or what actions are 'just' or 'unjust'. Nor, indeed, would we want it to be the case that whenever witnesses are asked to testify, they first have to decide for themselves what does or does not serve the interests of justice. That is why we have judges.

In some ways, the challenge to the Categorical Imperative looks similar to the case of lying. Kant notoriously argued that it was never right to tell a lie, even in the case where a crazed axeman is pursuing his intended victim and demands to know, 'Which way did he go?' (In his essay, 'On the Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns', Kant argues, unconvincingly, that e.g. if you say, 'He went left' thinking that he went right, and in fact unknown to you the victim did go left, then you would bear full moral responsibility for the outcome.)

Despite the well-known objections, I do think that Kant is onto something important in the case of lying (see Unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas). We have to recognize — as Kant apparently did not — that even for the impeccably 'good will' some times there can be irresolvable ethical dilemmas. Whatever you do will be 'wrong', so you have to choose the lesser of two evils.

In the case of the obligation to testify, more is needed than simply the rule that one must always tell the truth. I can simply refuse to enter into the courtroom. So the challenge for the Kantian in the case of the obligation to testify is, if anything, harder than the challenge in the case of apparent counterexamples to the moral principle that one should never tell a lie.

If the challenge can't be met, then that is bad news for the claim of the Categorical Imperative to provide an infallible touchstone for ethics, and your moral intuitions about your son testifying in court survive. On the other hand, if the challenge can be met, then once again your moral intuitions survive. Either way you are right and your 'philosopher friend' is wrong.

Can the challenge to Kant's Categorical Imperative be met? My hunch is that Kant's strategy would be to invoke the Third formulation of the Categorical Imperative:

Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

A 'kingdom of ends' in Kant's conception is not a mere collection of isolated individuals, each of whom takes care not to encroach on the moral rights of others. On the contrary, Kant's vision is overtly teleological, something that was not apparent in the first (or indeed the second) formulation. In a kingdom of ends each of us has a responsibility for actively supporting the state and the rule of law.

That doesn't mean I have to set myself up as judge and jury. It does mean that one has to acknowledge one's duties as a citizen. In contemporary terms, that includes voting, jury service, and, where necessary, attending as a witness in court.

My intuition is that there is indeed a fine line between responsible citizenship and being a busybody or a 'snitch'. In a relatively trivial matter like littering or indecent behaviour I would rather not be called upon to play my part in oiling the wheels of justice. In such cases, the Categorical Imperative does look like a rather blunt instrument, but I don't know of any moral theory that would fare better. — So much the worse, some would say, for 'moral theory'.



On the possibility of comparison

Brian asked this question:

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

How is comparison possible?

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

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

Which philosophers discuss the methodology of comparison?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludwig Wittgenstein Blue and Brown Books Blackwell, 1969 p.3

Well, what's so wrong with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All our reasoning is nothing but the joining and substituting of characters, whether these characters be words or symbols or pictures... if we could find characters or signs appropriate for expressing all our thoughts as definitely and as exactly as arithmetic expresses numbers or geometric analysis expresses lines, we could in all subjects insofar as they are amenable to reasoning, accomplish what is done in Arithmetic and Geometry. For all inquiries which depend on reasoning would be performed by the transposition of characters and by a kind of calculus, which would immediately facilitate the discovery of beautiful results... Moreover, we should be able to convince the world what we should have found or concluded, since it would be easy to verify the calculation either by doing it over or by trying tests similar to that of casting out nines in arithmetic. And if someone would doubt my results, I should say to him: 'Let us calculate, Sir,' and thus be taking to pen and ink, we should soon settle the question

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, quoted at:

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

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

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

Good question, Brian.



Origin of ethics and moral values

Dian asked this question:

I've always enjoyed mulling over philosophical questions but I've run into a road block with this one. It concerns morals and ethics. Basically their origin: is there such a thing as absolute morality and what is the direction humankind is going when it comes to concepts of morality and ethics?

To approach the matter in the right philosophical frame, and honestly examine the origin of morals and ethics, I feel I have to first disengage myself from all the preconceptions I've picked up from my Judeo-Christian background to think clearly and without bias on the subject, focusing rather on general innate human predispositions. It seems paramount to me to place one's self in the position of being a human being rather then a believer or inheritor of a certain traditional mindset to truly understand the human condition.

But have I already become biased because I look at things from the position of being a secular humanist with existentialist leanings? How can I tell if I'm learning anything or only examining what I already think I know?

Chris asked this question:

I'm one of those philosophy students in college who are prodded from time to time. It's unlikely this will be addressed in class so I ask it here:

Throughout our class studies thus far (the classicals, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and my limited private studies of more recent philosophers (such as Nietzsche) I have noticed an overlaying theme that Humanity is special. That we are either divinely inspired, logically superior to nature, or press forward on our personal development to a fixed collective goal.

What I've found scarce are resources regarding (or maybe there isn't any legitimacy in?) thoughts on the more 'scientific' approach, that we just happen to be really complex amoebas, we just have a brain, but it's still as predictable to the 'outside' observer as we can predict what a single celled organism will do in its life.

So the question is best summed up as this: Are Humans really doing anything spectacular with this philosophy thing, or would anything given our characteristics have ended up in the same place?

I have decided to answer Dian's and Chris's questions together, because they converge on a common theme: the idea that there is a naturalistic account of how human beings have developed ethical rules and moral values. By 'naturalistic' I mean an explanation that can be given from the 'outside' in Chris's sense, in terms of a broadly scientific understanding of what human beings are and how they have evolved.

If ethical rules and moral values can be explained in this way, then there it would be true to say that human beings are nothing special. We may be the most advanced organisms on this planet, as measured in terms of our neural capacity, but we share with all organisms the same tendency to prefer (or 'value') particular outcomes out of a range of available choices, based purely on our individual needs or inbuilt conditioning.

The question has become especially pressing for me, because of my increasing scepticism regarding the possibility of a metaphysical foundation for ethics, which I attempted in my book Naēve Metaphysics. I don't think that the idea of a necessary link between the concepts of truth or reality and 'recognition of the other' is worthless, but I have come to realize that I seriously overvalued it.

Others exist, are 'real': so what? That bare recognition leaves me almost as free to do what I will as the psychopath or amoralist, given that I remain the final judge and jury on what I 'owe' to others, the extent to which recognition of their needs and interests bears on my conduct, if at all. In short, it depends on just how important I think I am in the overall scheme of things — no-one, neither any individual nor society, can dictate that to me. (A Max Stirner or an Aleister Crowley would have no difficulty with that thought.)

To answer Dian's question, I don't see that there is any problem of bias, if we take the secular humanist view as the default position. Surely, the onus is on the theologian to offer something better, explain why we are more than just a part of nature.

You might question how the issue of onus is decided. How come I'm so sure that the onus is not on those who question the 'Judeo-Christian' view? It isn't about numbers. I don't have to listen to any argument that is predicated on a belief, in the absence of sufficient justification for that belief. Nor will I accept Pascal's view that, given the stakes are so high, I ought at least to grant theism the benefit of the doubt. I don't scare so easily. (Russell once remarked that if he were ever to find himself at the gates of Heaven, he would tell God, 'You should have given me better reasons for believing in you!')

However, the debate over ethics is one which has thrived on false oppositions, the most blatant of which is, 'God or science?' To accept that human beings are ultimately part of nature does not commit one to Freudianism/ Kleinianism, or Marxism, or evolutionary ethics/ sociobiology, or Dawkins' memetics — or whatever is the popular theory of the moment for explaining the human sense of right and wrong.

Just as I won't accept God as an explanation, so neither do I need to accept any reductivist theory based on observation of my behaviour or human behaviour in general. But this is where things get tricky. Because I am all these things: each of the competing explanations potentially contains a fragment of the truth. If science has shown anything about what it is to be human, it shows that we do not know our own selves. Ideas that seem to spring from a miraculous creative power, in fact have a perfectly intelligible genetic explanation (as Freud showed so brilliantly). That's why, for me, the existentialist option is no less unacceptable.

Why are people courageous? why are they kind? or just? or honest? Why be moral? I think that the answer, in the end, does lie with philosophy. Not in some a priori proof why one 'ought' to embrace any of these values, but rather in the very capacity which philosophy gives us to see ourselves synoptically as part of an 'overall scheme of things'. That was Plato's and Aristotle's legacy to ethics.

Human evolution and culture have given us the ability, unique amongst the organisms that populate this planet, to engage in rational inquiry: for example, to consider questions about ends and not merely means to ends. (In McDowell's phrase, we inhabit the 'logical space of reasons' no less than the physical space of causes and effects.) But what that is, what it is to practice this ability is something one can only appreciate from within the 'form of life' of beings-who-philosophize.



Personal survival

Daisy asked this question:

What is necessary for personal survival?

I guess that Daisy isn't looking for an answer along the lines of, 'a compass, a pen knife, a torch, a box of matches, and a can of Mace.'

This is one half of a question which analytic philosophers call, 'the problem of personal identity.' I won't say whether this is the easier or more difficult half. The problem of personal identity concerns the necessary and sufficient conditions for the identity of person A at t1 with the (allegedly) same person A at t2. This isn't a question that arises in everyday conversation. However, there are particular circumstances where the issue of personal survival becomes urgent: Can a person be said to 'survive' if they suffer total amnesia? or in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease? or if they fall into a permanent coma?

Added to these relatively few practical challenges — which would hardly justify the vast industry of philosophers who've worked on the topic of personal identity — are all the resources of science fiction. One feels, and as an analytically trained philosopher I think this feeling is largely correct, that if you can't say whether a person 'survives' in this or that imaginary scenario, if you are puzzled and are not sure what to say, then there is an understanding which you lack — an understanding of what it is to be a person. Maybe in everyday life (modulo the medical cases) we can get by perfectly well without this understanding. But that's just part of the genius of philosophy: it poses questions you never thought to ask.

But once you see the question, you are gripped.

We will consider some of these problem scenarios in a minute. But actually I don't think this is all of it. There is a deeper question about survival and identity, which I considered in my book Naēve Metaphysics. I reached the scary conclusion that there is no such thing as survival. The 'I' — the essential I — does not survive from one moment to the next:

[T]he subjective standpoint is a world every bit as rich and detailed as the world of the objective standpoint. Yet its reality hangs by the slenderest possible thread. It is real because I take it to be real, and only for so long as I take it to be real. By the slenderest possible thread the objective world is held at bay, yet no power in the universe can break that thread, so long as I exist.

Geoffrey Klempner Naēve Metaphysics: a theory of subjective worlds, Ch. 8

Only something that continues through time can cease to exist. Yet my subjective world, as a reality constituted by its own appearance, only appears to continue; and that appearance itself is something which neither continues nor fails to continue. My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment.

Ibid. Ch. 9

But let's get back to basics. One of the things I tell my students is, if you get stuck, try to think like a detective. Go back to the very beginning and don't assume anything. So I won't make any assumptions about what a 'person' is, or might be. Instead, I will list all the things, or kinds of thing, that might be necessary for personal survival. Here's the list:

— Something physical

— Something psychological

— Information (e.g. pattern, structure)

— Something metaphysical (whatever that means)

— None of the above


As you see, I'm not leaving anything to chance. At this point, one can't imagine what might be covered by item 5. but you never know.

However, I will make this assumption: if a thought experiment or science fiction scenario inclines us to say that survival would, or would not have occurred, then that should be considered as a datum, so long as we are unable to find a compelling argument against that intuition.

1. Is something physical required — logically required — for personal survival? My intuitions tell me, no. It seems to me perfectly possible that (as in Anthony Quinton's much discussed thought experiment in his article 'Spaces and Times' Philosophy 37 1962: 130-4) I could wake up tomorrow morning on Planet X, and know who I was, in the absence of any evidence of something physical having made the journey from Earth to Planet X, or indeed evidence that Earth and Planet X were in the same universe.

2. Is something psychological required for personal survival? John Locke thought so. Indeed on Locke's account memory is not only necessary but also sufficient for personal identity. Locke's theory of personal identity appears to confirm the intuition expressed in the previous paragraph. What matters is consciousness of my own identity. The essential thing, when we praise, or punish, is that the person be aware that such praise or punishment is merited, which they cannot be in the absence of memory of what one did in the past.

I don't agree that this is an inviolable intuition, and as evidence for this I put forward the case of Cypher in The Matrix:

Cypher: I don't wanna remember nothing. Nothing, you understand? And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important … like an actor.

Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

Cypher bitterly regrets his decision to take the red pill. He's sick and tired of 'reality'. He feels duped by Morpheus. What's interesting about this is that the scriptwriters evidently thought (and I agree with their intuition) that it is reasonable that someone might wish to have a total memory wipe. I wouldn't, but some would. From Cypher's perspective, this isn't death, not at all. He will be the famous actor, feasting on juicy digital steaks, living a life of ease and luxury. He will survive, even though the famous actor has no memory of Cypher's present existence. (I can't help wondering if the name chosen for this character, 'Cypher', isn't a sly joke on the part of the scriptwriters.)

3. It would not be an unreasonable inference from 1. and 2. that what is necessary for personal survival is either something physical (as in Cypher's case) or something mental (as in Quinton's thought experiment). Analytic philosophers don't like such 'disjunctive' answers. When you ask for necessary or sufficient conditions, a disjunctive, 'either-or' answer just sounds like equivocation. Either we're talking about 'physical survival' or we're talking about 'mental survival'. But that would be missing the point. In the case of the necessary conditions for personal identity, there is just one thing we are interested in: survival of what matters.

There is a way around this, however. One could say that 'what matters' is the continuity of information, a certain unique structure or pattern that can be carried either in a physical or a mental medium, or both. However, this is not a view that is universally held. While the idea of reincarnation or rebirth appears to require continuity of some aspect of the consciousness of the person who dies, there is no agreement amongst different schools (e.g. of Hinduism or Buddhism) on what exactly that aspect is. There appear to be some who have argued that what survives is the sheer point of view as such, distinct from all psychological attributes or contents of consciousness. That's how I understand the notion of an individual 'atman'.

I think this is sufficient to warrant a 'pass' on the question of transmission of information, as necessary for personal survival. To massage this intuition, one might envisage a combination of the Quinton and Cypher thought experiments. Imagine that Cypher wakes up on Planet X and spends a few years there, where his existence is totally miserable. Then Agent Smith offers him a splendid life on Planet Y, where all his memories of Planet X will be wiped.

4. At this point you will be champing at the bit to argue that in our new thought experiment, Cypher must believe that what he is essentially is an 'atman', a sheer point of view, which exists now on Planet X and will exist on Planet Y, even though nothing physical or psychological survives.

My response is, believe this if you like. It just doesn't make any sense to me. I lose the thread at this point. But I can't rule the possibility out because I just don't know what I'd be ruling out. It's an 'unknown unknown'. I have the feeling, though, that if Daisy gives this as her answer (I'm assuming, Daisy, that you have an assignment to write) she won't be very popular. Perhaps a better line would be to argue for an aporetic conclusion, as I have done. We've tried all the alternatives and none of them work, end of essay.

5. By now, you may have guessed where this is heading. We've tried all the alternatives and none of them is satisfactory. I'm happy to accept that not everyone will agree with me about this. At any rate, I'm not satisfied. 'Person' is a concept with a valid use within our linguistic community, our moral, legal and political practice. The philosopher's 'problem cases' aren't really problems. But they are to the philosopher.

Then again, if you are looking at the concept of a person from a philosophical standpoint, it is arguable that we put far too much emphasis on identity (see Derek Parfit's acclaimed book Reasons and Persons, 1984). However, I think Parfit overstates the case. I wouldn't like to live in his preference utilitarian utopia where the notion of being a person, or of personal identity or integrity is no longer considered 'important'.

We need to look again at the question of 'what matters'. When you consider the sufficient conditions for personal identity (something I haven't done here), it becomes apparent (as some philosophers have argued, e.g. David Lewis) that the best theories we have allow for multiple survival. E.g. I go to sleep, and two — or a hundred and two — GKs wake up, each individual version of GK fully satisfying the criteria for personal identity, according to our best theory. In this kind of scenario, our intuitions go AWOL. We don't' know what to say. We feel drawn to insist on something 'metaphysical' (such as a Cartesian soul substance, or Buddhist atman) which exists in one, and only one of the GKs, but common sense and logic tell us that there simply is no foothold here for picking out one of the GKs from the multitude in order to bestow this special honour.

So what really matters? I don't know about you, but I want to know is what it is by virtue of which it is true that I am GK (Thomas Nagel's 'I am TN'). That's what matters. The fact that I am here, that there is a world for me, when it is perfectly conceivable (as I would argue, you may disagree) that the world might have been exactly as it is now, in the absence of I. In other words, the existence of my subjective world is a contingency that depends on nothing at all. It's just a brute fact, evident to me now as anything can be, and yet nothing in my knowledge or experience justifies or accounts for the existence of my subjective world one single moment from now.

I realize that many will regard this conclusion as fantastical. I — the essential or ultimate 'I', the thing that matters — do not survive. I will not survive to see this blog post finished. Not even to see the next sentence that GK will write. I remember once my old Prof David Hamlyn (who did a writeup for my book) commenting in a letter that he sometimes worried that I took Plato's advice to 'follow the argument wherever it may lead' beyond the point that most would consider reasonable. I don't have a reply to Hamlyn, except to say, 'that's just me, innit?'



Philosophy as a process

Nastik asked this question:

Suppose someone objected, If philosophy is ongoing process, what's the point of engaging in it? You'll never get any certain answers; your search will never end. Such a prospect is thoroughly depressing. How would you respond to this criticism?

I've been wrestling with Nastik's question lately. There's a very easy, almost knee-jerk response that philosophers sometimes give to this kind of objection, along the lines of, 'The point of philosophy is that it is a journey.' As a philosopher, you are always on the way towards something but you never finally 'arrive'. Every stopping point is just another stage in the journey.

This response is wrong in so many ways I don't even think I can list them all. But I will just look at one or two.

When is a journey more important than the arrival? I recently bought myself a classic car on eBay. I hadn't driven for ten years. What finally prompted my decision was the realization that I didn't need a car. My 36 year old Scimitar GTE is strictly for joy riding. We're lucky to live in a part of the UK (on the edge of the Peak National Park) which has some great roads. You pick a destination — there are many to choose from — drive there by the most picturesque route and then drive back. There's no point to it other than the pleasure of the ride.

If I'm actually going somewhere, and the distance is short enough, I walk. I walk the two and a half miles to my office. Otherwise, I take the bus or the train. One of the things about an old car is that you can never be certain that you will reach your destination without mishaps. When you're joyriding, it's part of the sense of adventure.

Is that what philosophy is like? Firstly, there is far more pain than pleasure in a philosophical journey. I mean, if you are really serious about it. Philosophy can be agonizing. You do it, you endure, because you are trying to get somewhere and for the sake of getting there. And when you fail, which given the nature of the activity is often a foregone conclusion, on top of the pain is a sense of disappointment and regret.

You can study philosophy for pleasure, if that's what you want. You can follow the thoughts and the lives of the great philosophers, take a dip in the deep waters of two and a half millennia of philosophical thought, and come out feeling exhilarated and refreshed. Many of my students feel this way. But my best students know that there is more to it than that.

There's another way in which one might seek to justify philosophy as a process. This is along the lines of the mental gym where you exercise your thinking muscle. 'No pain, no gain.' You don't give up when the going gets tough, you try harder. All the time you know that your mental powers are being steadily improved. In the mental gym, there's no such thing as failure, because every hour you put in makes your mind stronger, better.

That's fine if you see philosophy as just another means of self-improvement. But if you are really gripped by a philosophical question, you want to know the answer. In athletic competitions, something counts as 'winning' or 'losing'. If you are serious about athletics, not just someone who goes to a gym twice a week to work out, then you want to win. Yes, there is satisfaction in knowing you did your best. But that's not sufficient compensation for coming second.

Why study philosophy? 'For pleasure,' is one good answer. 'For self-improvement,' is another good answer. But neither of these answers gets anywhere close to the core of what philosophy is about. Ultimately, there is no justification for engaging in philosophy other than the brute fact that one finds the problems and questions of philosophy gripping. And if you are gripped, really gripped, then you want to know the answers, just as much as the runner wants to win.

So let's consider 'the philosopher' as a character motivated, neither by pleasure or the desire for self-improvement but solely by the desire for knowledge. The desire for answers. You can satisfy this desire, and many serious and fine academic philosophers do this, by picking problems which can be solved. The implication of Nastik's question, they would say, is simply false.

Open any journal of academic philosophy and you will find contributions which advance the study of philosophy by answering questions, solving difficulties, clarifying confusions. In principle, the situation is no different in academic philosophy than any other academic subject, say, chemistry, or history. Meanwhile, the big questions remain matters of incessant debate. But the progress of the subject isn't judged solely by the progress made with big questions. Physics is not refuted by the likelihood that there will never be a fully consistent 'Theory of Everything'.

That would be fine if you are content to spend your time as a philosopher tweaking theories or debating points of logic. As I am not. Like many committed philosophers I also want answers to the big questions. I'm not satisfied with indefinitely putting off any hope of a solution. But isn't this a strange kind of paradox? I know that the ultimate problems can't be cracked. I know that the effort to find a solution is futile. And yet, I feel compelled to keep trying.

This doesn't depress me. It doesn't exactly fill me with joy either. Because it isn't really about me. Feelings count for something but they are not the most important consideration. Nietzsche understood that there was something more important than happiness (which 'only Englishmen' seek as an end in itself) and that is to have, or to be an arrow, to be possessed by a sense of direction and purpose. Yes, I do feel something, deeply, the sense that in doing this I am fulfilling my purpose even though I couldn't tell you exactly what that purpose is. To know that I would have to know the ultimate answers, and I already said, I don't believe I will ever know.

When I do philosophy, when I grapple with its insoluble problems, I have the sense that I am in the presence of something sublime. That feeling is something I value, even though, as I said, feeling is not the most important consideration. In the presence of the sublime, other things — things which are not sublime but merely mundane, the distractions of everyday living — are put into their proper perspective. And it is good to have a proper perspective.



Point of being a philosopher

Marcin asked this question:

What's the point of being a philosopher?

What do you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?

Let's say I'm a philosopher. I will accept that as the premise of your question, although on some days (or in some moods) I don't really feel that I qualify. Elsewhere (My philosophical life) I've described myself as a latter-day 'sophist'.

Amongst the most prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece — Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Antiphon, Thrasymachus (Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers Ch.XXI) — there was by no means agreement on the value of the new-fangled inquiry known as 'philosophy'. By all accounts, the self-styled 'lovers of wisdom' were a pretty exclusive group, jealous of their monopoly on 'the truth' (as they saw it).

A true lover of wisdom would never stoop so low as to make a living as a professional thinker. That's fine if you're an aristocrat like Plato, or content to live on the streets like Diogenes, begging pennies off passers by.

You will gather that there's no love lost between me and Socrates. I have no interest in defending Socrates' and Plato's grandiose view of the philosopher as best qualified to rule because the philosopher alone knows what is required for the 'proper care of the soul'.

Yet the questions of philosophy grip me. I state that as a fact, which often (on some days, in some moods) surprises me. Why do I care about the nature of time, or the relationship between consciousness and the brain, or the definition of truth, or the problem of knowledge? It beats me. I just do. As I described in a previous answer, I have puzzled over the nature of time for as long as I can remember.

I suspect, though I can't prove, that most persons — even those who scoff at philosophy — are gripped from time to time by philosophical questions; they just don't recognize a philosophical question when they see one. Like any area of expertise, you get better at spotting opportunities for applying your knowledge with practice.

However, that's not really an answer to your question. It is blatantly circular to defend the value of answering philosophical questions by appeal to the brute, inexplicable fact that you find the questions gripping (as Socrates would no doubt be quick to point out). Maybe the critics are right: philosophy is best described as an obsessive compulsive disorder, and philosophers need to be cured, not indulged in their pursuit of answers which serve no useful purpose.

(As an aside, the great 20th century philosopher Wittgenstein in his later writings compared the activity of the philosopher to therapy, the aim being to cure us of our tendency to erect fanciful theories in response to seeming 'questions' which only arise in the first place because we misunderstand the grammar of our own language. — But, actually, on a closer look, Wittgenstein seems to me the very archetype of the 'philosopher's philosopher'.)

I think the problem with your question, Marcin, is that you are looking for an answer on a level of generality that completely bypasses the issue what philosophical questions are actually about. Above, I gave a list of the first questions that occurred to me (time, consciousness, truth, knowledge). The list isn't random. Philosophical questions are not about anything you please. They are about the nature of reality.

There is no such thing as a definitive answer to a philosophical question. You grapple with it. As a philosopher, you get to see bits and pieces of reality, never the whole thing, all at once. Traces of the truth.

Millions have enjoyed the Matrix movies, and heard Neo confess to Trinity that he knows there's 'something wrong with the world' but he just doesn't know what it is. Neo is right. There IS something wrong with the world. Something about the world just doesn't add up. And in a much more profound way than some silly conspiracy tale about good guys and bad guys.

We tell ourselves stories about what we are and why we're here. Everyone you meet has their 'pitch'. We compete with one another to be more attractive or fascinating. Above all, human beings need to justify their existence and will do anything to avoid admitting that their lives are pointless, unnecessary, superfluous. So the first thing you need to do is take off the mask. Admit to yourself, even if you won't admit to anyone else, that you don't know how it all adds up. You didn't ask to be born.

When you finally realize it's 'game over', then a new game — the real game — begins. You have woken up. You are no longer sleeping in your pod, dreaming the same dream as everyone else. You won't have to ask what the questions are because you will know. You will have started on the road to philosophy.



Possibility of non-existence

John asked this question:

Can non-existence be supported, if once existence has occurred? And by a good estimation, existence has always been. Is there such a thing as non-existence?

John's question is prompted by a legitimate sense of bewilderment at the very idea that there might have been nothing at all — that what might have been true but is not in fact true of reality or how things are is that nothing existed: that a state of sheer non-existence obtained.

I am assuming that we can still talk of 'how things are' or 'reality', as indeed one must in order to make any sense of John's question. As Wittgenstein states in the first two propositions of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 'The world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.'

In the case where a state of 'sheer non-existence' obtains, it is a fact that there are no things. Nothing exists, in the sense of 'no things'. Whether or not you like this way of talking (one of my philosophy lecturers once commented on an essay I'd shown him, 'I'd much rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts!') I can't think of any other way to approach this.

It seems, prima facie, to make sense to say that if the Big Bang hadn't banged, if there hadn't been anything to go bang, then there would have been no universe, no space or time, no galaxies, stars or planets. No us. But what about the laws of nature? Are we supposing they to be non-existent too? Or can laws still exist — which dictated what would happen if something else happened — even if nothing physically existed?

I'm not sure that this isn't a question for a physicist rather than a philosopher. Suppose that according to law L, there is a finite but very small probability of a grain of matter coming into existence (something to 'go bang'). However, if an event is only probable, or improbable (it makes no difference), then it is still logically possible that it never in fact occurs. It is logically possible, according to the laws of thermodynamics, that all the air will spontaneously rush out of this room (all the air molecules as a result of their trillions of collisions will just happen to all be pointing in the direction of the door). But it will never happen.

But can it conceivably be a 'law' that matter can spontaneously just appear, out of nowhere? I think John would say that an assumption we are making — which he will not allow — is that such a law, or indeed any laws, could 'exist' in the absence of any physical matter, or energy fields, or anything similar.

One could object that John isn't entitled to say, 'And by a good estimation, existence has always been.' How does he know? We know (or rather, according to the best cosmological theory currently available — if that counts as knowledge) that the Big Bang happened so-and-so many billions of years ago (13.7 to 14 billion was the answer I found when I searched on Google). Except that according to physics that's when time started too, so in that sense it is true that existence 'has always been'.

Richard Swinburne in his book Space and Time (Macmillan 2nd. edn. 1981) argues that we are not logically compelled to identify time with 'physical time', in which case it would not be self-contradictory to state that there was a time before physical time existed. At least (so he argues) an empty time is a more coherent idea than an empty space. In one way this satisfies our naive intuitions (that there is no 'first moment' of time) but creates another problem, which vexed the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides: 'And what need would have driven it [sc. the One] later rather than earlier, beginning from nothing, to grow?' (DK Fr. 8).

In other words, given a prior state of non-existence, supposing such could occur, you cannot get existence, because as each moment of eternal time ticks by, there is no reason why anything should happen at this particular time, rather than some other time. Maybe that's true, if you grant Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason. Or maybe Swinburne is wrong about time and the physicists (e.g. Hawking) are right, and time and existence necessarily go together because time begins with the Big Bang.

That still does not get us any nearer answering John's question. Given that something does exist (and maybe always existed, but this isn't crucial) how can this make way for a state of sheer non-existence? Once you have something how can there ever be nothing? Or, perhaps more to the point, how can we so much as conceive of a state of non-existence?

I haven't got an answer to that. In my book Naēve Metaphysics I argue that when we consider the question, 'why anything exists' there are two problems not one: why there is a universe, and why there is I. Those are baffling questions. But isn't it also true that it is as hard to conceive of my non-existence as it is to conceive of the non-existence of the universe?

You can't argue from difficulty in conceiving alone. Maybe some persons are better at forming conceptions than others. I tell you that I can't conceive of my non-existence and you reply that you have no difficulty in conceiving of your non-existence. End of discussion. Exactly the same applies, if the topic of our conversation is the non-existence of the universe.



Pragmatism, induction, and belief in God

Lucy asked this question:

If pragmatic considerations show it is irrational not to believe in the principle of induction, do they also show it is irrational not to believe in God?

Mmm, it looks like Lucy is asking us to do her homework for her. This has all the hallmarks of an assignment or essay question. But unlike some we receive on Ask a Philosopher, this one is not that bad. How much help my answer is going to be is another question.

Two things ought to scream out at you when you see the phrase 'pragmatic justification of induction' (by the way, you'll find loads of pages if you search for this in Google):

The first point is, how on earth am I going to be persuaded by a pragmatic argument that belief in induction 'works in practice' or 'leads to practical benefits' if I'm not already committed to induction? In that respect, a pragmatic justification of induction is in exactly the same quandary as an inductive justification of induction. Just because induction works fine for you, or just because it has worked for me in the past, is no reason for me to believe that it will work for me now unless I have already accepted that inductive reasoning is reasonable.

The second point has to do with the — allegedly modest — idea of a merely 'pragmatic' belief. Suppose I accept that induction 'works' (or has worked for me in the past, or has worked for you); is that supposed to be a true statement, or only something that it is useful to believe? If I state that it is merely useful to believe the statement just made, is that a claim to truth, or am I merely saying that it is useful to believe that it is useful to believe... and so on.

This is all very well covered ground — as you will discover if you do an internet search. In any event, the idea of a 'pragmatic justification of induction' has at least two major points of uncertainty/ instability before we even go on to consider the even more explosive idea of an inductive proof of the existence of God.

(In my last post, I described myself as a 'pragmatist with a small 'p''. Perhaps, one should make clear that the background to this question is most definitely Pragmatism with a big 'P', I'm talking in particular about the philosophies of C.S. Peirce and William James.)

The Pragmatist may object at this point that I have willfully misinterpreted the pragmatic case for induction. We are not concerned with anything so abstract as the 'definition of truth' (although this more ambitious thesis is what James attempted in Pragmatism, 1907), but rather the question of how one ought to behave, or, equivalently, what makes behaviour 'rational' or 'irrational'. When I avoid putting my hand in a pot of boiling water in order to stir the spaghetti, I am not considering what would be a 'true statement' concerning the effect of a temperature of 100 degrees Centigrade on living human tissue. Rather, I am simply avoiding doing something that I know to be harmful. The knowledge in question is practical knowledge. It is something you just don't do, without having to think about it first.

We navigate our way through through the world, avoiding myriads of dangers large and small, choosing intelligently without pausing to reflect on that choice. This is part of what it is to 'be rational'. You wouldn't call someone rational who only did the rational thing when prompted to think about it, but the rest of the time behaved in a more or less random way.

This also disposes of the objection that a pragmatic justification of induction presupposes inductive reasoning. The whole point of the pragmatic 'turn' is to halt the threatened regress of an inductive argument for preferring induction. At a certain point, thinking comes to an end and we just act. The capacity to learn from experience (which is basically all that induction amounts to) is an intrinsic part of the capacity to make intelligent choices, whether or not these choices are reflected upon.

I'm prepared to buy all this, just for the sake of Lucy's question. I should add, however, that I don't really like the idea that induction is something we just 'have' to believe, come what may. There are principles that it definitely pays to believe even though they are apparently counter-inductive. One is Sod's Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If you estimate the chance of something going wrong with your plan, your estimate — however rationally based, however carefully you have sifted all the relevant inductive considerations — will always be too optimistic. Another well attested counter-inductive principle (which I don't have a name for) is that Good Things Never Last. On the basis of induction, rationally it oughtn't to make a difference whether you are onto a 'Good Thing' or not, but in practice it just does.

But maybe that just shows what a pessimist I am. Maybe (to be really clever, if not cute about this) you could make an inductively based case for pessimism, on the grounds that it offers a necessary rational corrective to the natural human tendency to be over-optimistic.

However, this is merely delaying the real question: whether an useful analogy or, better still, inference can be drawn between a pragmatic justification of induction and a pragmatic justification of theism.

On the face of it, there's a huge disanalogy, a massive non-sequitur. You say belief in God works for you. I say non-belief in God works for me. If you didn't believe in God, you say, your life just wouldn't be worth living. My response is that if I believed in God, my life would become hell. There would be no place far away enough or deep enough to hide.

Instead of the happy-clappy belief that 'God will always love me' or 'God is on my side', I prefer the honesty of good old-fashioned Catholicism. When you die, you can expect to spend 1000 years in Purgatory (according to one book I came across — it's a grimly fascinating subject for debate), going over every aspect of your life, inch by inch, until you are thoroughly cleansed and prepared for everlasting life in Heaven. Lovely.

The idea of being a 'God-fearing man' has this aspect of truth about it. As Geach (a Roman Catholic) says in his defence of Divine Command theory (see my post on Plato's Euthyphro) to defy God is the very definition of insanity. For my part, I couldn't live with that fear looming over me. The fire and brimstone preachers had the right idea: What the Hell are you smiling for?

However, you will say that I have just conceded the Pragmatist's case, by demonstrating that I am prepared to argue over the question of belief in God, on the ground of what is or is not the most weighty pragmatic consideration. How that argument is resolved is a mere point of detail. — I do not concede. I am expressing my personal feelings. Unlike the Pragmatist, I don't consider for one moment that my personal feelings constitute an argument let alone a 'rational' argument. So far as the existence of God is concerned, there is no case. There is no doubt where the onus of justification lies: it is with the theist, not the atheist.

For the sake of argument, however, let's put aside the last point. Suppose it were true that the question of the existence or non-existence of God is one to be settled by pragmatic considerations. To answer Lucy's question (finally!) there is still a huge disanalogy with the pragmatic justification of induction because (notwithstanding my somewhat tongue-in-cheek case for counter-inductive principles like Sod's Law) there really isn't a meaningful debate about whether or not we should accept induction. The genuine counter-inductivists died out long ago.



Presentism and the cosmos

Fred asked this question:

I've been thinking about presentism and the conditions of the cosmos. It is well known that when we look out into space we are looking backwards in time. If we look out far enough we will eventually see the big bang itself. Since this is true, even if I look out a fraction of a millimeter from my eye, what I am seeing is in the past. Even when I look at my body I am seeing it not as it is, but as it was. Thus everything that I perceive is not as it is, but as it was. If presentism is true, it seems everything I perceive does not exist. Really, only my mind exists and I am a solipsist. Is this argument sound?

I take it that the argument in question is that presentism entails solipsism. The argument, as you state it, is unsound. I will explain why. However, there is a link between a particular way of interpreting what the presentist means which connects with a particular way of interpreting what the solipsist means. And this is something I see as valuable and important. I will return to that question later.

What is presentism? The first thing we need to do in evaluating this doctrine is to forget all we know about physics. In the actual world, the best evidence we have points to Einsteinian Relativity being the correct description. Relativity is also (as it happens) a more elegant and simple theory because it is based on the principle the laws of physics remain constant in all frames of reference. There is no 'ether flow', as the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated. So you can imagine that Relativity would be the theory God chose, if there was a God and He had the choice. That's what Einstein believed. But it is still only a theory which, if true, is true as a matter of empirical fact, not logical or metaphysical necessity.

The point of this preamble is that the presentist is perfectly entitled to say that there is at this present moment — the only time that is really real — something happening on a planet circling some star in the Andromeda galaxy. Maybe, a philosopher seated at a computer answering a question about the theory of presentism. What you see, when you gaze up at the night sky is the Andromeda galaxy as it existed 2.5 million years ago. The Andromedan philosopher is beyond all possible knowledge, so far as you and I are concerned. But that is consistent with the truth of, 'An Andromedan philosopher is thinking about presentism at this present moment.'

The statement I have just expressed makes perfect sense in a Newtonian universe. There is a case for saying that it does not make sense in an Einsteinian universe, where there is no absolute definition of simultaneity. Two events 'happen' at the same time or at different times, depending on the frame of reference. All that means, however, is that the Einsteinian physicist has no use for such a definition. It is not required in order to express the laws of physics. However, as Richard Swinburne argues in his book Space and Time, that does not refute the belief in absolute time. (Swinburne is a theist: so you might suspect he has a special interest in putting the case for an absolute present which is God's awareness of the current state of the universe.)

I don't feel that I have sufficient knowledge of physics to wade into this debate. But it is not necessary to do so because, as I said, we are only concerned with evaluating the the argument that presentism entails solipsism. In order to demonstrate that the argument is invalid, it suffices to show that there is a possible world where presentism is true and solipsism false. The possible world in which Newtonian physics is true, is a counterexample to the argument. Admittedly, it is somewhat difficult to believe in presentism if you also believe in Relativity — because in Relativity there is no such time as the present — but as I have indicated the point is at least arguable.

Up to now, I have been talking about presentism as you describe it, what I would term 'naive presentism'. However, there is a deeper question whether there may be some way to express what the naive presentist means which does not attempt to encroach on territory occupied by contemporary physics.

Michael Dummett in his seminal article, 'The Reality of the Past' (1969), puts the case for what he terms an 'anti-realist' theory of meaning, which rejects the intuitively plausible idea that we can take the truth condition of a statement like, 'It's sunny today in Sheffield', and use it to account for the meaning of 'It was sunny at this location exactly 1000,000 years ago.' In the course of his argument, he makes the observation that to be an anti-realist with respect to the past involves taking the reality of time seriously. A realist about the past, by contrast, is more drawn to the eternalist view of time, according to which there is no pre-eminent time which we call now. Every time is a 'now'.

I share the intuition that it is a fact — a metaphysical fact, if you like — that the time is now. In terms of John McTaggart's distinction between the A-series (past, present, future) and the B-series (the series of events ordered by the 'before and after' relation), I would describe myself as an A-theorist. You don't have to be a presentist in order to be an A-theorist. One alternative would be C.D. Broad's view that the past is real while the future is unreal. Aristotle held a similar view. The past has happened, that's a fact, while the future is still open, it hasn't been 'made' yet. Some would regard this as just plain common sense.

I'm more drawn to Dummett's view. There's no recording angel. The ripples of events die down, until not a trace remains. There are no immutable 'facts'. I would go further and state that there are no truths, period, not even truths about 'what is happening now'. There are merely the things we believe, or say that we know and 'hold to be true'. No-one is keeping score except ourselves.

But who is 'we'? I can't speak for Fred, the author of the question, or for the anonymous reader of this post. Each of us has our own unique perspective, our own unique point of view. At the same time, we can and indeed must keep score of one another's beliefs and assertions. I can't do this just for myself. Wittgenstein's argument about private language and 'meaning is use' — the main inspiration for Dummett's argument — implies the incoherence of solipsism. There is no statement I can make about my experience concerning which I can claim incorrigible certainty. I am not the ultimate authority on whether or not I am 'following a rule' for the use of a word.

Yet, just as there is a fact that the time is now, and not some other time, so, I would argue, is it a fact that I am the person writing this post, not Fred, not the anonymous reader. This is what I argued for in my book Naēve Metaphysics. I call it the (partial) vindication of solipsism. The I-now is an ultimate fact, but it is not the only fact, for, if it were, then all these words would be meaningless and there would be nothing to do but wag my finger. The conditions for the possibility of meaning must obtain, and they are a 'fact' too.

I won't deny that this is all deeply mysterious. I don't go in for mystery-mongering, but I recognize a contradiction when I see one. I also recognize when we have no choice but to believe that a contradiction (I call it a 'metaphysical contradiction') can be true. (Or, 'can hold' as I don't believe in 'truth'.) You're welcome to come back at me and say that, in saying what I've said, I've given up any right to evaluate the validity or soundness of arguments. But I would turn that around. My view of metaphysics is eclectic, maximally permissive. There are no 'true' metaphysical theories and there are no 'false' ones either. I believe in what I see, and I 'see a truth' in presentism, even while I accept that presentism is not true.



Proofs in metaphysics

Vaidyanathan asked this question:

I am a newcomer to philosophy, and metaphysics in particular. I would like to know about the method of analysing and proving statements in metaphysics. Being a student of mathematics I am familiar with the axiomatic method. Is there any systematic method of proving statements in metaphysics?

Vaidyanathan has taken me on a trip down memory lane. How I wrangled with this!

Spinoza in his Ethics (1677) is probably the best example of a philosopher who explicitly uses Descartes' 'geometric method' for proving propositions in metaphysics. But you'd be totally wrong to think that Spinoza is any different from the majority of metaphysicians who eschew Spinoza's barbaric apparatus of axioms, definitions, propositions, scholia etc. etc.

You've got to start somewhere. Descartes starts with the 'Cogito'. Whatever proof you offer (and we'll get on to the question how there can possibly be 'proofs' in metaphysics in a minute) you need to assume something; or have you?

Thirty years ago, I showed this to my harassed thesis supervisor John McDowell. He was predictably nonplussed:

1. I begin with nothing: only an unspecified commitment, a pure question mark, a certain mental attitude. I want to tell the truth in a true way, before I even have any truths to tell; to grasp the nature of ultimate reality while reality itself presents no point of entry to its innermost circle; to forget all that I have learned and begin this time without a beginning, empty-handed and empty-headed.

It gets worse:

2. The dialectic is pure impulse to movement; and it is omnivorous. Everything serves as raw material, including its own self. When pure movement feeds upon pure movement, something may indeed arise out of nothing: the dialectic becomes conscious of itself and begins to construct its net.


3. In metaphysics, the truth wholly ceases to be true when told in a false way. The activities of the misguided thinker issue, neither in partial truth nor partial falsehood. They have no issue. From the point of view of ultimate reality the activities remain confined within themselves; they fail to acquire an external reference...

(I hope you're following this.)

...For to 'begin with nothing' means rejecting the 'matter in hand' and the 'common purpose'. Metaphysics is not a 'subject' concerning which there may be partial agreement or disagreement. One simply refuses to understand 'results' which the dialectic cannot be made to generate entirely through its own resources.

It's a wonder that I ever succeeded in writing my D.Phil thesis. Needless to say, this version of Chapter 1 didn't make it into the final draft.

The thing is, Vaidyanathan, I know exactly what it was I was trying to do. I really thought this was possible. You start without any assumptions. Ground zero. Nada. Then you spin the dialectic, say 'Abracadabra' and 'something' emerges out of 'nothing'.

(I've tried this exercise of retracing my steps before, in the Glass House Philosopher, Notebook II, page 9. Disappointingly, the attempt fizzles out after a few pages.)

However, there's nothing wrong with starting again. What was I trying to do?

Let's get back on course. You're a mathematician, so you're familiar with mathematical proofs. Here's a famous proof invented by the Ancient Greeks long before anyone thought of axiomatizing arithmetic.

To prove: The square root of 2 is irrational.

1. Assume (for the sake of reductio) that the square root of 2 is rational.

2. Therefore the square root of 2 can be expressed as the fraction m/n, where m and n have no common factor.

3. Squaring both sides of the equation, 2 = m2/n2.

4. Therefore m2 = 2 n2.

5. Therefore m2 is even.

6. Therefore m is even.

7. If m is even, then m is 2k for some number k.

8. Therefore (substituting 2k for m) 2 = 4k2/n2.

9. Therefore 2n2 = 4k2.

10. Therefore n2 = 2k2.

11. Therefore n2 is even.

12. Therefore n is even.

13. If m and n are both even, then they have a common factor, viz. 2.

14. But this is a contradiction because we assumed that in m/n, m and n have no common factor.

15. Therefore the square root of 2 cannot be expressed as m/n where m and n have no common factor.

16. Therefore the square root of 2 is irrational.

As I said, this proof is familiar to any mathematician. But what I want you to try to do is picture what is going on in your mind, as someone who doesn't know that the square root of 2 is irrational, as you work through the proof step by step. Remember the first time you learned this proof (and imagine what you would have thought if you hadn't been taught in school that the square root of 2 is an irrational number). Or picture the (unknown) Greek mathematician who discovered it.

Now, I'm going to show you another proof. A direct quote this time. (I've just interpolated numbered steps.)

Let us imagine the following case.

1. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign 'S' and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation.

2. — I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated.

3. But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition.

4. — How? Can I point to the sensation?

5. Not in the ordinary sense.

6. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation — and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.

7. — But what is this ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign.

8. — Well, that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation.

9. — But 'I impress it on myself' can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future.

10. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness.

11. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right.

12. And that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 258

On the face of it, there are notable differences between Wittgenstein's reductio ad absurdum of the notion of a 'private object' and the proof by the unknown Greek mathematician. But I would argue that these are superficial. In his famous para. 258, as well as the paragraphs leading up to and following it, Wittgenstein uses all his rhetorical gifts to get inside the head of someone who thinks that the notion of a 'private language' is possible. If you take all the extra trappings away, you get a 'proof' that is two, or at most three lines long. Even so, exactly the same thing is happening as in the arithmetical case.

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 464

I can write down, 'The square root of 2 = m/n' but what I am writing down is impossible. It cannot be true. However, it takes a proof to see this. Prior to discovering the proof, you don't see it. The nonsense is disguised. Maybe (as the Greeks probably did), you spend hours and hours looking for a fraction which correctly represents the square root of 2, not realizing that all the time you were chasing a chimera. That is exactly what Wittgenstein says philosophers are doing, who put forward theories of the mind according to which feelings and sensations are 'private objects'.

Thousands of miles of ink have been spilled expounding, or defending, or attacking Wittgenstein's 'private language argument'. I'm not going to add anything to that now, except to say that I believe (as I believed 30 years ago) that this is the most important argument in the whole of metaphysics.

As I once described it, the argument is like a 'metaphysical wall'. You see a wall, blocking the path of your thoughts. You imagine that there must be some way round the wall, or under it, or through it. But there is not. 'You reach the wall, only to find you are facing the other way.'

Just as we can tease out the assumptions, the 'axioms' behind the theorems of arithmetic (as Peano attempted to do) so I'm sure that there are plenty of assumptions or axioms to tease out if you want to formalize your intuitive grasp of what metaphysics is, that is to say, what it is to seek a 'definition of reality' (or 'Being qua being' in Aristotle's sense). But it would be a mistake to think that the results of metaphysics therefore 'derive from axioms'. They do not. The arise through the determined attempt to think whatever is thinkable, to the ultimate extent and wherever that may take us.

Metaphysics progresses by demonstrating what is not thinkable. Metaphysics shows us that the things we thought were thinkable are not thinkable. It seeks to 'make the nonsense manifest'. It is tempting to assume (and here's a possible 'metaphysical axiom' if you want it) that whatever emerges from this exercise unscathed is thinkable. But we can never know this for sure. And so, just like mathematics, there is no end to the discovery of the 'truths of metaphysics'.



Putting oneself before another

Lois asked this question:

There are situations where the pursuit of our own happiness and peace of mind conflicts with that of another. Must we always put the interests of others before our own? Is there any justification for pursuing one's own welfare at the expense of someone who stands in the way of our goal?

This question came in a while ago, and I wasn't going to answer it. Other Ask a Philosopher panel members have already had a go, and I couldn't really see that I had anything to add. (Lois didn't provide an email address so she'll have to wait — rather a long time, I'm afraid — until the next series of Questions and Answers is posted.)

But something happened to make me look at this question again. (It's not something I want to talk about here.) The thought occurred to me that pursuing this question from Lois can take you into a very dark place indeed.

But let's start off with the more obvious points that a moral philosopher would make.

I can think of two clear cases, which few would dispute, where in the one case it was perfectly reasonable to put oneself before another; while in the other case one has a clear obligation to put the other person before oneself.

Let's say you are one of two shortlisted candidates for a well paid executive position, waiting to be interviewed. This is the first time you have reached the short list after scores of unsuccessful job applications.

Your stomach churns as you realize how much depends on how you perform in this interview. A divorced mother of three. You are behind with your mortgage payments, and you and your children are threatened with eviction from the home they have lived in all of their lives. Your age is against you, and it was only pure luck that you managed to get this far in the selection process.

The other candidate catches your eye. 'How long do you think we're going to have to wait?' You mumble something in reply. But the other woman needs to talk so you listen. You listen with a growing sense of amazement to her story about her husband who cheated on her with his personal trainer, her subsequent divorce, her three young children and how far she is behind with her mortgage payments. She could be you. She has as much to gain, or to lose, as you have yourself.

What should you do? There's no question. You go for the job. In the interview you fight for your happiness and the happiness of your children. You fight for all your lives.

Our moral intuitions tell us — at least, my moral intuitions tell me — that in a situation of fair, or even not so fair competition such as the one I have described, there has to be a winner and a loser. You have every right to strive to win with all your might, even though as a necessary consequence the other must lose. Until human beings finally succeed in creating Utopia, that's the nature of the society we live in.

I've painted this in black and white colours, but it is not just an isolated, extreme example. There are many, many ways in which human beings have to fight for their happiness and peace of mind, knowing that there will inevitably be winners and losers in the game of life. Of course, you can do your best to help those less fortunate, give generously to charity and good causes. But if it was wrong to compete in the first place, then charity and good deeds would merely be a salve to ease one's guilty conscience.

In the example I have just given, it could be objected that I was unfairly raising the stakes as each candidate was naturally concerned for the well-being of her children. I don't think that's the crucial point, however. My original idea was to have two not-so young but single Philosophy PhDs competing for an academic post. (I can sympathize, but not that many would.) Exactly the same considerations apply. One is destined for a life in academia and the realization of all his or her dreams, the other will end up as a bank manager. And both believe this is the very last chance for either of them.

But what about a parent's duty to one's child? Isn't that the clearest case where one has an obligation to put the happiness of others before one's own? The very definition of a 'bad mother' or 'bad father' is a person who refuses to do this. Again, I'm relying on moral intuition, but I expect the majority of parents would agree. It's a cliché, but clichés are often true, that parenthood is a sustained and bloody exercise in self-sacrifice.

Well, I could go on to talk about all the cases in between, where we are pulled both ways, towards wanting to say that one has an obligation to put the other first, and saying that one is justified in putting oneself first. Or, I could delve into moral theory in order to account for these alleged intuitions: what would a utilitarian say? or a Kantian deontologist? or a virtue ethicist? or an evolutionary biologist?

But I leave that as an exercise.

What concerns me is a disturbing vibe that I get with this question. Our 'happiness and peace of mind' is at stake. What would one not do for the sake of one's happiness and peace of mind? As a parent, you can't be happy if your children are unhappy. And if there really is no prospect that one will ever attain happiness, wouldn't it be better just to end it all?

And to think that you could be happy, were it not for the one person standing in your way!

What you would say to the the mother of three who fails to get the job is that it isn't the end of the world. OK, so you get evicted from your home. That's terrible. But people survive worse, and they end up making good lives for themselves. Or to the disappointed PhD, one would remind them that they still have their life ahead of them, there are other ways to pursue one's interest in philosophy besides paid employment in a university.

When do we not think this? When are we absolutely and utterly convinced that unless XYZ happens, our happiness and peace of mind will be gone forever, never to return? Love would be pretty high on the list. But not the only item. It could be a political cause that you have dedicated your whole life to. Or something as banal and unidealistic as the mistaken belief that you can only be happy having lots and lots of money.

Which brings us to that dark place, which popular films and TV dramas love to explore.

In Lois' question, there was a nice vagueness in the idea of doing something 'at the expense' of another. One naturally assumes that we are dealing with a tit-for-tat situation. What one stands to win, the other stands to lose. But there's no logical reason for this assumption. — That is the way a murderer thinks too.



Quid est ergo tempus?

Sergio asked this question:

Dear Philosopher,

My name is Sergio, I'm from Italy and I like spending time reading your page. During my studies I've got stuck in a real big problem:


It might look simple to answer but it isn't for me, that's why I need your help.

In Italian (and maybe in English too) we talk about time as if we are the owner of it (sorry I don't have time for you, I don't want waste my time, etc.).

Sometimes we talk about time like if it's negative for us (the time was bad with that girl, she is 30 but she looks like she was 40).

Or like the time is something far away from us, for example when we have a problem and we can't find a solution (the time will bring the answers).

Or we talk about the relation between time and space.

Those things mean the we use time, it's ours, but doesn't really say QUID EST ERGO TEMPUS?

Can you help me to find a solution?



P.S. I'm not really looking for Husserl or Kant or St Augustine or what the other people say about time, I'd like to know what you think about time.

I'm sorry to disappoint you, Sergio, but I really don't know the answer to your question, 'What is time?' Like St Augustine, I seem to know what time is, so long as nobody asks me, but when someone asks, then I don't know.

I think this 'not knowing' points to something very deep. It isn't just a matter of some knowledge which I don't have yet, or which I would like to have. I'm not even sure if it's correct to say that time is unknowable, something outside or beyond human knowledge or understanding. Time, if anything, is too close to be out there, too close, even, for knowledge. However you try to get a handle on the nature of time, you find that you are talking about something else, related to time (for example, space).

I term which I have heard in this context is 'promiscuous'. Time is a promiscuous concept because it is mixed up with so many things. You can't explain time in terms of movement, because movement presupposes time. You can't define time as something that exists, because to exist is to exist in time. And so on. However philosophers try to explain time or theorize about it, they end up chasing their own tails.

What I will do is outline a theory of time, which is not my theory of time but simply my construction on what you have said. In other words, what I am offering is your theory of time, according to what you have told me. What you've said, in recalling familiar ways in which we talk about time, is very revealing.

For want of a better term, I will call this theory the 'agent theory of time'. By that I don't mean the obvious point that action or agency presuppose time, that doing or acting would be inconceivable in a world without time, whatever that would mean. (I'm also aware that in traditional theology, God is conceived to exist outside of time, rendering the question of how God acts on the world problematic. But more of that in a minute.)

What I mean is, rather, that according to this theory, your theory, time is an agent. Time does things, or has the power to do things:

• To have time, to own it, is like having money. Just as I can use the money in my pocket to buy things, so I can use the time I have available, this is a power that I have, which can be taken away from me. My time can be wasted or stolen. Time is money. You can use money to buy time, or use up time to gain money by earning interest on your capital.

• Time does things to people; to the unfortunate 30-year old woman, time has been unkind, her features show the ravages of time, the cares and worries that time has wrought. In colloquial English, we have the expression (now somewhat stilted and old-fashioned) 'How goes the enemy?', meaning, 'What is the time?' Time is the enemy that all of us have to contend with at some time or other.

• And sometimes, too, time is our friend and ally; a solution will come to the problem I am worrying about if only I wait long enough. Time is secretive. You can guess but you can never know for sure what time will bring, or even whether what it brings is something that we want or something that we don't want.

The agent theory of time is a mythological view of time, which like all myths seeks to render comprehensible something of great importance to us that we cannot control or understand, by a process of personification.

On a hunch, I looked up 'God of time' and found this article in Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, Chronos in pre-Socratic philosophical works is said to be the personification of time. His name in Modern Greek also means 'year' and is alternatively spelled Chronus (Latin spelling) or Khronos. Chronos was imagined as an incorporeal god. Serpentine in form, with three heads — that of a man, a bull, and a lion. He and his consort, serpentine Ananke (Inevitability), circled the primal world-egg in their coils and split it apart to form the ordered universe of earth, sea and sky.

So much for mythology. Is there any truth in this idea, or is it just another pre-rational belief that human beings have cast aside on the road through philosophy to science? Could there be a God of time?

I may not know what time is, but can I venture a view about what time is not?

I don't know.

There could be a God of time. Why not? Forget the Biblical story of Creation, of how the world was made in six days, 'and on the seventh the Lord rested'. If we take this story literally it would mean that the God of the Bible did not create literally everything. He is subject to time, just like every finite being.

My story would begin with a different God, a God truly outside of time who creates a world also outside of time, a world which reflects His eternal glory like the sun shining through a stained glass cathedral window. (This image is from Richard Wollheim's book F.H. Bradley talking about McTaggart's vision of the 'unreality' of time. In McTaggart's theory of eternally loving spirits, we are the figures in the stained glass.)

Eternal glory is a fine thing. But it gets boring (after a while, ahem). Then came along Chronos, the God of time who finally made things... interesting.

I don't believe this. But I can see the point of it. I can imagine it. I don't care what physics says about time. Physics isn't the last word, whatever the Stephen Hawkinses of this world might think. If you believe that there could have been a world outside of time, if that notion is not logically self-contradictory, then two things follow:

First, McTaggart is wrong. His view of time, the metaphysical claim that time is ultimately unreal, is false. But it is contingently true of a world that might have existed, instead of this world. There could have been a world outside of time, but, in fact, there isn't. The world, as we all know despite McTaggart's arguments, is a world in time.

Secondly, if you try to imagine who might be listening when you say your prayers, you can only imagine the God of time. A God outside of time can do nothing for you. You might as well pray to the number 42. As it happens, I am an atheist. But if I wasn't an atheist, then the God I would worship is the God of time.



Realism, idealism, solipsism

Ruy asked this question:

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

Muganga asked this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Rescuing capitalism

Derrick asked this question:

I recently read a report on a request made by the Russian Minister of Finance who asked that Russians smoke and drink more as the country needed the revenue. Is this not as a result of their adoption of the capitalist system, a system that has been faulty since its exception?

Communism did not work and the West did its utmost to see it failed, the Capitalist system is no better as it benefits only a small segment of the population and the myth of the creation of wealth which is now the holy grail is all smoke and mirrors and has value as long as the paper Dollar retains its value.

When it comes to finance we have people who are awarded the Nobel prize for the creation of systems that are supposed to improve how systems work, I have yet to see this actually effect anything, in fact things keep getting worse.

We are told how well we are doing while pensioners don't know how they are going to survive.

We are also told the markets know best, best for who? A shareholder's interest is never a countries interest, self-interest is the only consideration.

What do we need to break the cycle of greed, a 3rd World war? But then war is profitable.

I understand Greek Philosophers had thoughts on matters of finance, does Philosophy have solutions or is man so flawed that we are too far into the abyss to pull back?

Derrick's question is timely. I have been seriously considering whether I want to continue as Editor of Philosophy for Business, the e-journal which I launched in November 2003, in an atmosphere of heady optimism that a 'reformed' version of Capitalism, or 'Capitalism 2.0' was just around the corner. The philosophers would show the way.

While the readership of the e-journal has steadily increased, the flow of articles has significantly declined. There are undoubtedly business ethicists out there, marketing their expertise, but they've gotten smart. They know the things that companies and corporations don't want to hear, so they don't tell them. All the talk is of how, by increasing the company's ethical quotient, or boosting its CSR strategy, or even developing the 'emotional intelligence' of managers and executives, profits will inevitably increase. Cast your bread upon the waters.

Don't mistake these remarks for cynicism. I think that the business ethicists are doing the right thing, the only thing they can do, by working for evolutionary change and not trying to start a revolution. If things seem to be going very slowly one has to remember that the system has massive inertia. Change will come, but it will come slowly. At least, that's the optimistic forecast.

But too slowly for the likes of me. The great slogan of defenders of Capitalism (of which I am one) is 'freedom'. I believe in freedom. You can't have freedom without the marketplace, where goods, commodities and services are freely bartered and exchanged. That's the way it works. This isn't caving in to human 'selfishness' but rather the only way the game can be played. There's a place for ethics, provided you recognize that ethics and CSR are things you have to budget for. In some years you have more to spend and in other years less.

What really hurts me is seeing how unfree this same system has made us. If someone offers you work you don't waste time thinking whether you really need the money (unless you are lucky to have an inheritance or private income). It doesn't matter if you are a senior executive or do the postal round. Now, as a response to the recent downturn, belts are being tightened once more, we are being asked to work harder and longer — while we avert our eyes from those unlucky enough to be cast on the scrapheap.

We are prisoners of our own expectations — for example, that the only healthy state for an economy is growth. You must consume more, so that the money can go round, job opportunities increase etc. This is all economic witchcraft. Why not consume less, work less, have more time to dream, more time to philosophize?

Our wealth is one another, our friendships, our human capacities, the world of culture that human beings have created. When will there be an economics of that? Could there be, or is it more realistic to assume that the very concept of being 'economical' is at fault, that human beings are at their best when they are extravagant, when they don't count the cost? When was the last time you treated yourself — or your partner, or family — to something you couldn't afford? If you ever did, did you feel guilty afterwards? Shouldn't one feel more guilty at allowing such base considerations as money to influence one's decisions? (Actually, I think we do — based on my own experience.)

I sympathize with the Russian Minister of Finance. Alcohol and tobacco are two of the greatest benefits bestowed on humankind and at the same time two of the greatest curses. They are not just 'addictions'. They make you feel good. I can't think of anything more important then feeling good about oneself and about the world. You'll say that the country 'doesn't need' even more resources expended on the illnesses caused by smoking, or the social disorder caused by drinking. But maybe there is a balance that hasn't been reached yet. The economic benefits of a ten percent increase in smoking, say, marginally outweigh the cost of the increased burden on the health services. I can see that.

In his question, Derrick refers to the Greek philosophers. One of the fashionable trends in contemporary business ethics — reflected in the number of articles on this topic published in Philosophy for Business — is the application of Aristotelian virtue theory to the business world. The focus on the virtues needed for the 'good life', and in particular, the virtues needed to be a good business person, is one that I welcome. (See my Ethical Dilemmas, in particular Unit 10.)

The problem is that if you are looking to redress the imbalance between the rich and the poor, Aristotle and Greek philosophy generally is the wrong model. The Greeks had no problem with the idea of social inequality. Slaves were an essential part of the well-ordered polis. Unless you give a totally false, 'Christianized' gloss on the notion of 'virtue', there is no necessary corollary that exercising the virtues, or the business virtues will lead to a 'fairer' world, where we can all be free and equal together.

But I agree with Derrick that the world is in a mess, in so many ways, as it always has been (although that's no comfort).

My response is unoriginal, one that you will have heard many times before. If you can't change the world, if things move too slowly regardless of your best efforts, then at least you can work on yourself. If you are well-off, in a good job, then stop being so complacent. Become aware of your over-dependence on the system, which rewards you now but tomorrow may kick you out through the back door. If you are poor, then stop complaining. Consider all the ways there are of improving yourself without amassing useless material possessions. Ask how you can be helpful to others rather than just looking to others for help.

I am going to publish my answer to Derrick in the next issue of Philosophy for Business, which is due to go out at the beginning of next week, provided I can scratch together another couple of articles to go with it. If you are a philosopher or business ethicist reading this, then the offer of the Editorship is genuine. There's no salary, but then there's not a lot of work to do. Mainly, you will be badgering (or, if necessary, bullying) colleagues or people you know into writing articles. It would look good on anyone's CV.

If you're interested, email me on Initially, you will be invited to guest edit one issue. This is an experiment we've successfully tried in the past. If you pass the test, and still have the appetite for more, then the job's yours for as long as you can continue the flow of quality material. Think about it. It could change your life — it certainly changed mine.



Rewiring the brain

Robert asked this question:

Are there some key mental/ psychological characteristics of those who enter the study of philosophy? Meaning, are there internal mental phenomena that occur in the psyche of those who first enter into studying philosophy (and who can actually grasp and internalize the material)?

Do people have parallel experiences of mental phenomena during their initial exposure to philosophy? Can one almost detect their own mental rewiring and the side effects of that wiring?

Are there time periods where people, who are studying philosophy, actually balance between two world views and the result of which is the inability to function normally? Can studying philosophy trigger underlying psychological problems? Can philosophy bring about ones propensity for schizophrenia for example?

Robert's question follows on naturally from my answer to Nastik last week. It is interesting that over 15 years of running Pathways to Philosophy I have gathered a lot of data on how students react to the challenge of philosophy, how it changes the way they think, how it changes them. And yet, I have comparatively little idea about how all this feels on the inside. Here's a telling response to my post on ‘Philosophy as process’ from one of my more articulate students:

Yes to pleasure — the occasional experience of exhilaration, the aah moments, but more often pain, not to mention F*** it, I give up! Yes to mental gym, and the work-out is more demanding than I'd ever have imagined. And emphatically yes to wanting to know the answers — but in my case knowing that I, lacking the necessary equipment, will never be able to work any of them out myself. I'm glad you have your sense of being in the presence of the sublime — I don't know how you could carry on otherwise.

The vast majority of my students are different from me in one important respect, typified by this example. The most impressive thing, for the beginner, is the sheer difficulty of the subject. And one of the early decisions that one makes is that one is aiming for self-enrichment and self-improvement — and pleasure, to be sure — but not to become a philosopher. So, yes, you have to 'grasp and internalize the material' if you are to make any progress. But there is a cut-off point. You recognize your limits, and accept this as a fact. Then you can relax and drink at the deep well of philosophy and feel refreshed.

I realize that this might sound rather elitist. But I am talking about philosophy as a life choice. Apart from professional philosophers (not all of whom I would describe as 'philosophers' in the sense I mean), I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk to people who feel this way, who have made this life choice, who see the designation 'philosopher' as closest to what they truly are, or at least strive to be. Most of my students have successful careers in other fields. They are intelligent, inquiring, but they are happy to remain students of philosophy. They know their limits and stick to them.

What this boils down to is that in answering Robert's question I really only have myself to go on.

The human brain is versatile. You can develop your interests in a wide variety of ways — requiring very different ways of thinking — and not feel any great sense of strain. I have experienced this for myself. I like computers, I like photography, I like designing web sites, I like music. I used to like chess until I realized that I was so bad at it, that there was no point in pursuing that particular interest (although I still occasionally play against the computer when I'm feeling in a sufficiently masochistic mood).

It has been hypothesized that maybe this has something to do with the fact that there are two hemispheres of the brain with (to some extent) specialized functioning. I'm a rather peculiar case, in that in that I can only read comfortably with my left eye (my right eye is 'lazy') which means that information gathered from reading gets routed through the 'wrong' side (the right hemisphere). I would love to see a scientific study of this. It might explain why I have such immense difficulty in reading generally. (Of course, in the absence of evidence from research what I have said is not much more than idle speculation.)

Yes, I had a life before I 'discovered' philosophy. At one time, I wanted to be a scientist (I started a BSc in Chemistry at Leeds University but I was a lousy student). Then I discovered photography. I can remember vividly what it was like, doing dangerous chemistry experiments in the bathroom, then a few years later prowling the streets with my camera. Fond memories. But the person who did those things had no idea what lay ahead. (See the account I wrote in 1999 My philosophical life.)

And yet — and this is the ironic thing — human beings inevitably tell the story of their lives from a biased perspective. I can't help feeling that somehow, even then, I knew that I was bound for philosophy. At 12, I was nearly expelled from my barmitzvah classes for proudly telling a fellow student that I was an atheist. I have a memory fragment of wrestling with the God question in the toilet, calling God every rude name I could think of, scared of the punishment I would receive, but nothing happened. God ignored my insults. At some point, He just vanished. Only later, I discovered that this was a question you could argue about, logically. But the decision had already been made.

Then there's a memory fragment I had from when I was much younger, maybe 6 or 7 that I described in the Introduction to Glass House Philosopher:

There is a persistent memory from my childhood — I could not have been more than six or seven — holding my head in my hands on the stairs, in a swoon. I date this as the time I first became aware of the world around me as a world. Our house, the street, the suburbs of London, the Earth and sky spread endlessly out to the stars.

As my head spun, I had a fleeting memory image of a girl with blue eyes and black hair, standing in front of a school desk holding a large square piece of red paper. We used a lot of coloured paper at school. Cutting it, sticking it, folding it into models. I have never been able to discover the true connection between the image and the feeling of a world revolving dizzyingly around me. Was it maybe the panicked thought that everything, the world, myself included, is just made of different coloured stuff?

What was that about? It feels so real to me now. Can I really say, for certain, that that experience was my first inkling that I would be a philosopher?

To cut a long story short, I like to think that some of the things I did were somehow explained by an innate propensity, a natural inclination towards philosophy. But there is no way to verify this.

So now, we skip to my first year at Birkbeck College London. I am going hell for leather. At every lecture I take copious notes, carefully filed in a large red binder. I stay up until 3 am in the morning solving a logic proof. (I succeeded, but what if I'd failed? would I have carried on?) — What is going on in my head?

This is what Robert wants to know. It seems to me that the study of philosophy has this peculiarity. That if you're serious about the subject — serious enough to want to be a philosopher — then everything you do and every interest that you have undergoes a form of mutation. I was no longer a photographer, I was a philosopher with a camera. I was no longer a hippie lookalike singing Bob Dylan songs, I was a philosopher with a guitar (who still looked like a hippie). Most important of all, everyone I met got to know very quickly about 'my' philosophy. I had discovered a way of being in the world.

I guess what this is working up to is that this isn't really about the brain. As I have already argued, the brain is versatile, it can cope with almost any new input. This is about the struggle to define oneself, to decide how you face the world and how the world sees you. Of course there will be hiccups in the process of transition. You do feel sometimes that you are going mad (good advice to take a complete break when this happens — go for a walk, have sex, do something distracting). Robert Pirsig's bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance paints a vivid picture of a philosophy student ('Phaedrus' named after Plato's dialogue) who goes over the brink from too much mental exertion — reading that may have saved me from a similar fate.

You've got to push yourself a little bit — actually rather a lot — if you are serious. But I would never take a student whom I suspected had mental problems. For the same reason you wouldn't let someone who had a heart condition do martial arts training. That's just asking for trouble. On the other hand, none of us is perfect. Maybe it is even true that a painful sense of one's own mental imperfections is what drives one to philosophy. As the cheesy sign you sometimes see in offices says, 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps.'



Selfishness as a virtue

Tigist asked this question:

If it’s true that we are here to help others, what are the others doing here?

Tigist is quoting — or rather misquoting — a remark reputedly made by the famous poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973):

We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.

I recognized Auden's quote from a sharp exchange I had with the business ethicist Tibor Machan (recorded in ‘The Glass House Philosopher’, second notebook page 106).

In an article, 'On the Possibility of a Business Ethic' (Philosophy for Business Issue 27) I expressed a view about Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness' that Machan strongly objected to. I won't rehash the debate here. Machan cited Auden as a rejoinder to what he saw as 'this widespread eagerness to deem all of us altruists'. I regret that I didn't take the opportunity to analyse exactly what Auden meant to convey by his witty remark. In philosophy, you don't judge a quote by how well it sounds, but by how good a case it makes.

In her question, Tigist talks of being 'here to help others' whereas Auden merely says 'do good for others'. The difference is more than a shade of meaning. There are many ways in which you can do good for others which would not count as 'helping' them. A painter who paints a painting or a novelist who writes a novel which gives pleasure or inspiration to others is not 'helping' them thereby. To disseminate one's work (as I'm doing here) is not an act of selfless giving but rather closer to what Nietzsche described as the 'will to power'. We need others in order to express ourselves, in a sense, in order to be what we are.

Maybe I'm giving a spin on Auden's words that he didn't intend. But at least on this reading, one can say that he is not attacking a straw man. According to this interpretation, what Auden is seeking to reduce to absurdity is not the view that the reason why we are here is to perform acts of charity, but rather the view that we are here so that others may benefit in some way from the actions that we do or the things that we produce.

Why is that so wrong? If we are here merely to help others, then the question naturally arises, 'help them do what?' Help us? Help some third class of persons not yet accounted for? On the other hand, if we are here to produce something of benefit to others, there is surely no absurdity in the notion that every member of society has something to offer, according to his or her talents or abilities.

Ayn Rand admired the producers — be they novelists, film producers or business tycoons — who do things that others benefit from. Yet she passionately believed that the only valid basis for this is egoism. I am writing this for myself, not for you, the reader. Whatever value these words have derives from my integrity as a writer or (dare I say) as a philosopher. — If you don't like the cut of my writing, you can surf away to another blog.

Exactly the same principle applies in business. (Here, it could be argued that Ayn Rand betrayed herself as possibly too idealistic for the nitty gritty realities of the business world.) Suppose I create a design for a better mousetrap. As the saying goes, 'the world will beat a path to your door'. It's a win-win situation: I make a profit from marketing my invention which I can use to improve the life of myself and my family, and the lives of others are improved through the reduction in the population of house mice, not to mention the employment opportunities generated by the ever-increasing orders for mousetraps.

Ayn Rand didn't merely promote this notion of egoism as a virtue. She saw the opposite, 'self-sacrifice' or 'altruism' as a vice. Those who praise altruism are deniers of life, who denigrate all that is best about what it is to be an individual — what it is to be human.

As a writer, what I am here for is to write. What you are here for, is to read. Converting this observation into a general principle, I am here to create, while others are here to enjoy the fruits of my creation. That would be fine if we are prepared to make a distinction, as Nietzsche did, between two classes of human being, the mensch and the übermensch. The übermenschen or 'over-men' (in some translations, 'supermen') are the value producers, while the rest of us are merely value consumers.

It is the weakest link in Nietzsche's philosophy that he couldn't see a way to define a common good for all human beings, and not just a special elevated class. Aristotle, whose Ethics and Politics in many ways provides the model for Nietzsche's conception of human flourishing, was able to avoid that fatal step by seeing every human being, from the ruler down to the slave as having their justified place in the polis. There are virtues appropriate to every station in life.

F.H. Bradley passionately defended this Aristotelian idea of virtues appropriate to one's station in his essay, 'My Station and Its Duties' (in Ethical Studies, first published in 1876). However, the clearest expression of Bradley's recognition that the possibilities of human life span a continuous range from pure 'self-assertion' to pure 'self-sacrifice' occurs in his metaphysical treatise Appearance and Reality (2nd edition 1897, pp. 414-429).

This is the core of my case. All human values ultimately involve reference to 'the other'. No man is an island. That doesn't mean we all have to be eager do-gooders. It is one of the fundamental existential choices which human beings face, where exactly we exist on the continuum between self-assertion and self-sacrifice. Nietzschean will to power is vitally important, but so is Humean sympathy. As the Jewish Talmud reminds the faithful, whatever your life plan, do not forget to make necessary provision for 'the widow and the orphan'.

Ayn Rand hated the idea that other human beings have the right to demand our help and support. Yet all the developed countries accept this basic principle. Budgeting for overseas aid is mandatory: the only question is how much. Yes, of course, there is self-interest involved, it is not pure altruism. But the point I am arguing is that no-one is purely altruistic or purely selfish. We have the right to assert ourselves, the right to personal integrity. We don't have the right to shut our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, or the pleas of those less fortunate than ourselves.



Semantics of 'except'

Roy asked this question:

I have trouble understanding what people mean when they use a phrase with the word 'exception'. To me it sounds like a contradiction. So my question has two parts:

A) Is using the term 'exception' ever legitimate?

B) Does the term 'except' usually contradict the general rule that comes before it?

For example, All ice cream should be taxed, except vanilla.

It seems that the quantifier 'all' is false if a member is excluded.

For example, All students passed the final exam except Roy.

Seems to me this means only Roy failed the final exam and the quantifier 'all' makes the sentence false.

Please help me make sense of the term 'exception'. Thanks for your help.

I am going to treat Roy's question as a problem for truth-conditional semantics. Grammarians, who professionally are required to have a little more respect for natural language 'as it is spoken' might respond differently.

The modern wave of truth-conditional semantics was launched by the work of Donald Davidson in the late 60's, beginning with his seminal article 'Truth and Meaning' (1967). Davidson was merely continuing the project started by Frege with his revolutionary Begriffschrift, and continued by the early Wittgenstein, Russell and Tarski.

Davidson reformulated the task for a semantics of natural language — based upon Frege's ground-breaking invention of first-order predicate calculus — which aimed to satisfy two requirements: (1) to explain how it is that a speaker, using their knowledge of a finite number of words or semantic units, is able to generate a potentially infinite number of meaningful sentences; (2) make explicit the logical entailments between sentences which are only implicit in natural language.

Applied to the notion of 'except', what we need to explain is how it is possible for a speaker to use this term consistently in any number of sentences that they have never used or encountered before, and how they are able to recognize the logical implications of a sentence containing the word 'except'.

The logical analysis represents the speaker's implicit knowledge. What exactly it means to attribute implicit knowledge to a speaker is itself a problem in the philosophy of language, but as it affects truth-conditional semantics generally, I won't develop it here.

Now here comes the crunch: if you can do this, if you can give an analysis which satisfies Davidson's two requirements, then Davidson would say it really doesn't matter too much if the analysis which you offer of the idiom doesn't look at all like something that an ordinary speaker, unversed in the symbolism of first-order predicate calculus, would recognize.

This is all rather general. Let's apply this idea to Roy's case.

I can see why Roy thinks that it is odd to say something like, 'All the students passed, except Roy who failed.' If they all passed, then Roy passed. This follows logically from a basic rule of inference that any speaker competent with the term 'all' recognizes. But we just said that Roy failed. He didn't pass. Therefore Roy passed and Roy didn't pass. In other words, to say that all the students passed except Roy entails a logical contradiction.

Or does it?

Here is a first shot at translating the statement 'All the students passed, except Roy', into first-order predicate calculus:

(x)(((x is a student & x is not Roy) –> x passed) & ((x is a student & x is Roy) –> x failed))

'For all x, if x is a student and x isn't Roy, then x passed; if x is a student and x is Roy, then x failed.'

This seems OK. Let's try to apply it to the vanilla example:

(x)(((x is ice cream & x is not vanilla) –> x is taxable) & ((x is ice cream and x is vanilla) –> x is not taxable))

'For all x, if x is non-vanilla ice cream then x is taxable; if x is vanilla ice cream then x is not taxable.'

This is fine so far as it goes but it seems to leave out a rather important aspect of the meaning of 'except', which any competent speaker would recognize. When we say 'all... except...' we are pointing out a relatively infrequent exception to a generalization, which otherwise holds. 'All trains into London St Pancras are running normally today, except from Derby and Chesterfield.' If the announcer had gone on to list all the trains into London St Pancras bar one or two, then the statement would be regarded as false, or at best, deliberately misleading.

Exceptions are in the minority. This is an important part of what we mean when we use the term 'except', and any logical analysis that fails to recognize this is inadequate. If all the students except Roy had failed, then you wouldn't say (unless you were being cruel), 'All the students passed — except John, Mary, Christopher, Bob, Susan...'.

Closely connected with the use of the term 'except' is the quantifier, 'most'. 'Most of the candidates passed the exam.' Or, 'All the candidates passed, except Roy and Susan.' (We sometimes loosely say, 'Most of the students passed, except Roy and Susan'. But this is confusing when you think about it.)

But how do we evaluate what counts as a 'majority' or 'most'? Is it more than 50%? more than 60%? Can the threshold change between different contexts? 'Most blood supplied for transfusions in the UK has been tested for Hepatitis C.' That better had better be 99.999% or the Minister for Health has a potential scandal on his hands.

Various attempts have been made to give a truth-conditional semantics for 'most', although I don't know of any particular analysis that has been generally accepted. To allow a vague term into logic itself would have caused great affront to Frege, who saw natural language as unavoidably deficient and lacking the purity and precision of logic. The fact is that ordinary speakers exercise refined judgement in deciding exactly when and how to use terms like 'except' and 'most' and their logical implications. This ability is one that is, at best, inadequately explained by the procrustean formulae of first-order predicate calculus.

— So much the worse, some would say, for truth-conditional semantics.



Sophistry, wisdom and wonder

Kym asked this question:

Hi, my questions are:

1) why philosophy is not sophistry?

2) why philosophy is not wisdom?

3) why philosophy begins with wonder?


Having once described myself as an 'internet sophist' (see My Philosophical Life) you could say that I deserve this question. I am proud to belong to the tradition of Sophists, which includes the great figures of Thrasymachus, Protagoras, Prodicus and Gorgias. These were thinkers of stature who ventured out into the market place, as I have done, not to talk to anyone willing to listen like Socrates — a most unsuccessful Sophist if there ever was one — but rather on the understanding that their time was worth something, that they deserved recompense for their work. These contemporaries of Socrates and Plato were highly respected. The term 'sophist' had no negative connotations at that time. The closest translation would be 'professor'.

However, I accept the assumption of Kym's question: that there is an accepted sense of 'sophistry' (indeed, no-one these days would use the term any other way) that implies strong criticism and rebuke. To engage in sophistry is to use bad arguments deliberately to confuse your audience, in order to manipulate their beliefs. I hope that I have never done that, deliberately, or even as a result of carelessness or inattention. I share Socrates' passionate concern for the truth. Nor will I criticize his life style. There is nothing commendable about being wealthy. I make a living at what I do — working as an independent philosopher outside the Academy — but no more than I need for a very modest subsistence.

But pity poor Xanthippe. Pilloried by historians for being a fish wife, she had to live with the consequences of Socrates' decision to give up his well paid profession as a stone mason, choosing poverty and despising all comforts in order to follow his muse.

It was, above all, the founding of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum that put the final nail in the coffin of the honorable profession of Sophists. If you didn't belong to a school, then you didn't belong, period. To be a genuine 'philosopher' was to be recognized as such by other 'philosophers'. If you were not a member of the Philosophers' Party then by definition you were no lover of wisdom. That still holds true today, although universities are now under increasing pressure from the marketplace, as the recent scandal over the massive hike in UK university tuition fees has demonstrated. It is high time the university professors recognized that they no longer have the monopoly on excellence.

There are indeed signs that the prediction I made back in 1999 when I wrote my piece for The Glass House Philosopher was not so wide of the mark: 'The university departments have had their day. Time has come for a more democratic arrangement.' If I may venture a plug for my philosophy school, Pathways to Philosophy, you can do a highly acclaimed BA (Hons) degree in Philosophy from the University of London, with a higher standard of tutorial support from Pathways than any of the universities is able to provide (including Oxford and Cambridge with their long-established tutorial systems) for less than £5000 all in, for a complete four-year course, a fraction of what it would cost you if you applied as an internal student to the least 'expensive' university today. — And you don't have to give up your day job!

(I think I have earned the right to blow my trumpet now and then. After all, no-one pays me to do this blog.)

Well, what about wisdom. There are examples of great philosophers you could point to who were not very wise. Possibly the most catastrophic example from the 20th century would be Heidegger, whose flirtation with the Nazi regime (whatever gloss you place on it) cannot be justified or explained by any amount of sophistical reasoning. Bertrand Russell, rightly regarded as one of the most important figures in English-speaking philosophy and one of the founders of the tradition of philosophical analysis, was a serial womanizer, who alongside his brilliant views on logic and epistemology was prepared to entertain ideas on social reform which many today would consider opiniated and uninformed. Finally, there is Gottlob Frege, possibly the most important of all the founders of the analytic movement, about whom Michael Dummett in the Preface to his monumental first book Frege Philosophy of Language (1973) laments,

There is some irony for me in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a fragment of a diary which survives among Frege's Nachlass, but which was not published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man...

Michael Dummet Frege: Philosophy of Language Preface

Which just goes to show that the capacity for logical reasoning doesn't always go together with wisdom. That's not to say that we should take a sanguine view of philosophers who do not aspire to wisdom. There is a point in speaking of the 'love of wisdom', it's not just hot air or a mere political slogan. I view my own lapses from wisdom with regret, but it doesn't seem to me that my failings in that respect make me any less of a philosopher. One could have also pointed out that there are many persons whom one would consider wise, who have never ventured into philosophy. My old grandmother Rose was wise, though to my knowledge she had never read a word of philosophy. To put the point in terms of the language of logical analysis, being a philosopher is neither a sufficient condition for being wise, nor is being a philosopher a necessary condition for wisdom.

Finally, wonder. The motto on the web site for the International Society for Philosophers is 'Philosophy begins with wonder'. When I came to write this answer, I couldn't remember whether it was Plato or Aristotle who said this. Then I found this answer from Hawkinsian on Yahoo Answers:

Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Socrates at Theaetetus 155 d (tr. Benjamin Jowett): 'I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.'

Aristotle echoes the Theaetetus passage at 982b12 of his Metaphysics: 'It was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.'

What many miss, however, is that Plato and Aristotle are both talking about the search for theoria, for a knowledge and understanding of the nature of the cosmos and our place in it, in a sense which today would include the great figures of science as well as those of philosophy. (I guess that Hawkinsian is a fan of Stephen Hawking.)

Another motto — which I penned for the PhiloSophos web site — is, 'Philosophy is for everyone and not just philosophers. Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.' Philosophers should know about Hawking — and Dawkins and all the rest. Nor do you need any specialist academic training in philosophy to be a philosopher, to feel that special sense of wonder. That's why I said that philosophy is for all, and I meant it. But not everyone does feel that sense of wonder. My explanation would not be that the non-philosophical multitude lack sufficient knowledge or intelligence for philosophy. Rather, as the great Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus said, they are like people asleep. They sleepwalk through life, never once thinking of the Logos, the ultimate principle of all existence whatever that may be. The question never occurs to them. But it can occur to anybody.

I date the beginning of my interest in philosophy with that question. I have grappled with the question all my career, although, if the truth be told, there has been a long gap where my attempts to make progress with it had to go on the back burner (roughly, from the date when my book Naēve Metaphysics appeared). Now I'm back on the case. I've started another blog, where my daily attempts to put the the jig-saw pieces together is recorded. I may never succeed. In fact, given the ambitiousness of the project, it is almost guaranteed in advance that I will not succeed. But while I remain engaged, I am filled with wonder, I am doing the thing that I do best. I can without blushing call myself a 'philosopher'.



Suitable work for a pessimistic misanthrope

Robert asked this question:

I am a former engineer, and I have studied about 20 great cynic philosophers over the last 10 years. Diogenes, Voltaire, Buddha, Malthus and Schopenhauer are some of my favorites. I lived in the woods for 2 years to try and get a clearer view of cities, and find out what constitutes meaningful work.

Corruption seems very widespread within modern society. Everyone appears to be 'acting' in a very large play, which Shakespeare alluded to. I have a theory that 90% plus of the population of any given city has a small reality tunnel, and they may be a kind of farm animal that is working, paying rent, paying taxes and paying off debt for the better part of their adult life to benefit some wealthy elite(s).

I would like to know what your panel thinks would be a good livelihood for an intelligent cynical, stoical, pessimistic misanthrope?

World 1, as I now call it, lacks logic, proportion and integrity. I plan to spend the next year fishing and looking for silver coins on beaches with a metal detector. Is this where geniuses end up? I welcome your comments.

Well, Robert, to quote Morpheus, I know exactly what you mean.

The figure of Diogenes haunts me, ever since one of my students — coincidentally also called Robert — sarcastically referred to me as Diogenes in the marketplace. Being permanently hard up for cash, I don't have a lot of choices but at least I live in a house and not a barrel. I don't have to display my bare ass in the street while doing my daily ablutions.

My three teenage daughters rejected the academic world. One works as a nursing assistant in a local hospital, another is out all night doing gigs as a club DJ, the youngest is a singer in an aspiring heavy metal rock band. For lots of reasons, I'm not a good example — to anybody.

But let me tell you a story.

Yesterday, I travelled down to London to meet the people responsible for running the University of London International Programme in Philosophy. I was nervous about this meeting. Tutoring students for the University of London BA degree provides a good slice of my income. Yet I have done my best to remain aloof from the world of academic philosophy. For similar reasons to those you cite, I see it as a world mired in corruption. To survive as an academic philosopher today, you have to sell your soul many times over to ignorant administrators and the money men. You devise little tricks and ruses to enable you to carry on doing something worthwhile and real, while all the time you service the needs of a corrupt society steeped in materialist values.

I gave a good account of myself, while the inscrutable face of university bureaucracy smiled and nodded — and failed to understand a single word I was saying. I might as well have been speaking Ancient Greek.

I would love to spend the rest of my life fishing and looking for coins on beaches with a metal detector. As long as I had my laptop and an internet connection — because I don't believe in hiding my light under a bushel.

But what will actually happen is that I will remain here for quite a while yet. It wouldn't be fair on the kids who lost their mother to lose their father as well. And they still haven't learned how to cook.

I will continue to expend all my passion loudly declaiming to my audience of twenty-seven (or however many it was yesterday, I haven't checked the web stats) for no reason other than my own pathetic need and vanity, but at least I recognize that fact. That's got to count for something.

You can't take it with you. Don't envy the 'wealthy elite', they may have the best healthcare but it won't save them in the end.

Meanwhile, all you rich and great… get out of my sunshine!



The benefits of war

Marcin asked this question:

What are the benefits of war?

'War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.'

Heraclitus (Diels Kranz 22B Fragment 53)

‘What is [war] good for? Absolutely nothing!'

Edwin Star (Song written for The Temptations by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)

While pondering this, you might look at the online version of Wilfrid Owen's famous war poem Dulce et Decorum Est (referenced in my answer to Ray).

Here's the last verse, which states Owen's concise case against the view that 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. Owen is describing a British infantryman who has become victim to a poison gas attack:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfrid Owen ‘Dulce et Decorum est’

Edwin Starr argues his case on two fronts: the sheer horror of violent death, and also the loss of innocent lives. War ‘brings tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes’ when their sons go to ‘fight and lose their lives’.

Searching the internet, I found lots of pages quoting the fragment from Heraclitus, but nowhere did I find any attempt to explain the meaning of his words. It may not be immediately obvious, but he is stating a case too.

There is a view that Heraclitus isn't talking about war as such, but merely re-iterating the fundamental principle of his metaphysics, that the universe is held together through the conflict of opposites. In other words, reference to 'war' is merely metaphorical. Anyone who thinks this hasn't bothered to consider what Heraclitus actually says:

1. War is the 'king' or 'father' of all. Everything that exists comes from war. Here, he is talking about 'war' in the metaphysical sense, as well as the literal sense. Everything we know, the entire universe, is a product of eternal tension or conflict. But it is also true in the literal sense that the life we live now is a product of wars and battles past. Human history without war would be unthinkable. From what he goes on to say, Heraclitus is clearly aware of the double meaning of his words.

2. War 'manifests' some as 'gods' and some as 'men'. One could read this as stating that the Gods on Mount Olympus, no less than the human beings who populate the earth, are the product of the eternal metaphysical tension between opposites. However, Heraclitus is also stating literally what it is that war reveals. War gives men the opportunity to be heroes, to be 'gods amongst men'.

3. War makes some men 'slaves' and some 'freemen'. One could stretch a point and argue that men are 'free' so long as they have knowledge of the Logos, the law which governs all change. But freedom and slavery is also literally what war is about. Von Clausewitz famously remarked, 'War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means'. The threat of war offers the vital incentive in a negotiation. Execution of that threat is an attempt to achieve the conclusion you want by force. In other words, the possibility of war is the permanent undercurrent of peaceful diplomacy. In modern warfare, the winning side no longer take slaves. Yet for the losing side, surrender means a loss of freedom: you have to agree unconditionally to the victor's terms.

I would like to take a dispassionate view of the arguments, such as they are. Ideologically, I'm neither a hawk nor a dove. But I am gripped by the question of war as a challenge to the very notion of who I am or what life is about.

Is there anything that I would be prepared to fight or risk death for? If not, what does that say about me?

It is never necessary to fight. Faced with the threat of deadly force, you always have to option to offer passive resistance, as Gandhi showed when he stood up, unarmed, against the guns of the British Army. No-one doubts that this was an act of great heroism. More than that, Gandhi was fully aware that the greater battle was for hearts and minds. Passive resistance was a weapon in that war. The cost of employing that weapon was death for many of his supporters. In the end, Gandhi was victorious.

Gandhi also argued, notoriously, that the British should use the same strategy against Hitler. All evil empires eventually fall. To take this lofty historical view, however, is arguably even more callous than the British generals who ordered their troops to march at a steady pace towards the German machine guns on the battlefields of the Somme, where they were mown down in waves like wheat at harvest time.

Wilfrid Owen appeals to horror, as his main argument against war. The Spartan hoplites, for whom nothing was more desirable than a 'good death' knew that the reality of death at the point of a spear or a sword — to lie for hours freezing on a battlefield, disemboweled, as your life blood ebbs away — is no less horrific than the horrors Owen describes. Owen's bitter words were for the folks at home who saw the Great War through a misty romantic haze. The Americans who viewed the daily news footage from Vietnam on their TV sets were under no such illusions.

As one of my philosophy students from Northern Island once remarked, 'What is so bad about death?' On the contrary, isn't it good that you have something so valuable — your life — to wager as proof of your commitment to your highest beliefs and ideals? That's something Gandhi understood.

Yet as much as it is a soldier's duty to put oneself in the line of fire, it is also necessary to kill. And it is this, rather than the danger of being killed, which seems to me the most difficult issue. It is more than mere squeamishness that makes me recoil at the thought of causing death of any kind — let alone horrific death, or unavoidable innocent death. Your training gets you over that. I have no right to extinguish another life. But doesn't that mean I'm really no different from the Jain monks who take immense pains to avoid causing death to any living thing, even the insects under their feet?

Or, if, rejecting all forms of religious belief, there is nothing for me on this earth or in this universe that is holy, whence the reverence for human life?

Without death, war would just be a competition, a contest. If you wanted to avoid injury, you'd have to ban many sports. Death is the meaning of war. We have no comprehension of the meaning of death, or the meaning of war, so long as we lack a proper understanding of the value of life.



The case for idealism

Bill asked this question:

How can an idealist, namely Schopenhauer, talk about 'the material (or physical) world' whilst claiming mind (consciousness) as the subjective 'support of the world'?

Does anyone take idealism seriously nowadays given the strong physicalist view of most scientists?

And doesn't idealism seem quite anthropomorphic? Why privilege ourselves so? As far as we know sentient beings exist only here on this cosmic speck of dust we call earth.

Finding an effective argument against idealism is a central challenge for philosophy. I won't attempt to do that here. What I will try to show is that idealism is not a straw man or easy target practice for first-year philosophy students.

I take idealism seriously — which probably puts me in the minority of English speaking philosophers working in the field of metaphysics. Notable books are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). The Pathways Metaphysics program is based around the debate between idealism vs materialism as 'theories of existence', and realism vs anti-realism as 'theories of truth'.

I like Bill's question, not least because of what he says in his last sentence. For all we know, we might be alone in the universe. There are good reasons for thinking we are not — it would just be too fantastical a coincidence — but the reasons are less than conclusive. You can play the game of 'calculating the probable distribution of intelligent life in the universe' any number of ways, but whichever way you do it, you have to make assumptions that cannot be verified.

So: we are very, very small, and the universe is very, very big. Maybe we are alone; but even if we weren't, surely it would be absurd if material existence — physical planets, stars, galaxies — were all mere products of consciousness. And, in any case, physics and cosmology provide a far more convincing explanation of the existence of the universe than the human mind. That's the essence of Bill's question.

However, the idealist is not defeated so easily. Consider the fact that Schopenhauer also said that conscious experience is produced by the brain. How can he possibly hold that the brain (being a part of the physical world) is simultaneously produced by consciousness and that which produces consciousness? It doesn't add up.

Or consider the view that the Earth existed for billions of years before life evolved. How can that be true, if the planets, stars and galaxies only came into existence with the first conscious experience?

The simple, short answer is that idealism is not an empirical claim. The idealist can quite happily endorse current scientific theory. The best explanation, in whatever field of scientific inquiry, remains the best explanation. What the idealist questions is whether 'the best explanation', supposing it to be true (and given that it is the best explanation, we have to regard it as probably true) is the ultimate truth about the nature of things.

Putting a formal case for idealism requires a book. I am just going to ask you to consider a thought experiment, or, rather, two thought experiments. The aim is to show that a seemingly easy and plausible way of arguing for materialism can be 'turned on its head' and converted into an equally plausible way of arguing for idealism.

John has toothache. What can we say about John that is true? Obviously, things are unpleasant for John, and he would vehemently agree. So one thing that is true is that John is wincing, holding his jaw and complaining of toothache. Another thing that is true is that John has a large, festering cavity in his tooth, which is the obvious cause of the pain. This example suggests a plausible generalization: take any psychological state: what is true about it reduces to all the causal connections between that state and the rest of the physical world.

That, in essence, is the idea behind Armstrong and Smart's 'topic-neutral analysis' of mental states. You can insist that, regardless of all that is physically true about John's toothache there is something real for John, a 'raw feel' that cannot be reduced to the physical. You can keep saying this till the cows come home, but nothing turns on it. Any truth that can be stated, can be stated in the physical mode without implying the existence of anything extra over and above the neural state which, according to the best explanation, is John's pain.

What materialists may not have noticed, however, is that exactly the same form of argument can be used by the idealist.

John perceives an apple tree. What can John say about his experience that is true? John is standing on the grass, admiring the juicy apples dangling on the branches. If he closes his eyes and opens them again, the tree is still there. If he walks round to the other side, it still looks like a tree (and not e.g. a cardboard cut-out). John shakes the tree, some apples fall down. He takes one, and eats it.

Everything that John can ever know about the tree is ultimately based on his direct experience or knowledge that he has gained through experience, including the fact that the tree was planted before he was born, belongs to a species which has been cultivated for hundreds of years, is studied extensively in university departments of botany. So far as John is concerned (or you or me or anyone who asks the same question) any question relating to the tree is a question to be answered (if it can be answered) by investigating and thus enlarging upon human experience.

That in essence is Bishop Berkeley's argument for immaterialism. You can insist that, regardless of what may be true about the tree as an object of experience, there is something real that the experience is of, the actual substance, the 'matter', which produces the experiences in us. But whatever you say about this 'material substance' merely reduces more talk about experience or possible experience.

What I am suggesting is that when you tell the story about science, the 'raw feel' of conscious experience is indescribable, but also dispensable; when you tell the story about human experience, the 'material substance' behind all that experience reveals is indescribable, but also dispensable.

But now comes the finesse. The upshot of the two stories is the same. The subject of science is the world of our experience. The object of experience is the world of science. Look at the picture any way you like: from whichever side you start, the other side drops out as superfluous. The thing itself — 'raw feels', 'material substance' — which we regarded as so important, cannot be expressed.

With two perfectly balanced arguments, you might be tempted to call the debate between the materialist and idealist a stalemate. That would be premature. I prefer to say that the easy-going materialist has been hoist by his own petard.



The egocentric predicament

Sherrie asked this question:

What is the nature and meaning of the egocentric predicament?

I ought to try to answer Sherrie's question, as this is what my book Naēve Metaphysics is largely about. The phrase 'the egocentric predicament' was used by Bertrand Russell. It belongs to another age, when 'realists' battled it out with 'idealists', and the theory of knowledge was conceived along the lines laid out by Descartes in his Meditations: How can I pass from knowledge of my existence and my mental states, to knowledge of things or subjects of experience, outside me?

In his hostile reception of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Russell accused his former pupil of giving up 'serious' philosophy. Wittgenstein's theory of 'meaning as use' failed to address the egocentric predicament. It was as if Wittgenstein couldn't see any problem about our knowledge of an external world or how it is that human beings are able to communicate with one another. In My Philosophical Development Russell remarks dryly, 'We are now told that it is not the world that we are to try to understand but only sentences.'

On this occasion, Russell was wrong.

The key argument of Wittgenstein's that Russell failed to grasp is the argument against the possibility of a private language. To show this, I will recast the argument in terms of our 'understanding of the world'. But I also want to argue that Russell was right about there being an egocentric predicament, even though he misconceived it. Valid and important though it may be, Wittgenstein's argument merely serves to sharpen the sense of paradox of there being an 'I' in relation to a world, which is at the very same time an entity in the world.

The private language argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum. In other words, we will start with a proposition that we seek to disprove, in order to deduce consequences which are patently absurd. As Wittgenstein succinctly explains, 'My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense' (Philosophical Investigations Para. 464).

From my Cartesian 'egocentric' standpoint, I don't know anything about the world, other than what is given to me. That there is a 'world' outside me is something that has to be proved. In that case I can bracket all my former beliefs and opinions. I don't know that the Earth exists. I don't know that I am sitting at a computer, writing these words. I don't know that I have a physical body. All I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now.

But do I know this? What is it to 'know' something? What is the absolute basic minimum needed for knowledge? Wittgenstein's answer is: you need a means of representation, a 'language'. So long as I concentrate on this, on that which is present to my mind, without trying to describe it in any way, I do not know it. If I try to say what I know, all I can say is THIS, or point, speechlessly. (If you're into meditation, you might thing that 'this' is a very important piece of 'knowledge' — but that's just a dispute about semantics, because no factual proposition follows from this.)

'No problem,' says the Cartesian. 'It's quite apparent to me that the contents of my subjective experience have variegated properties, such as colour or shape, or sound, or smell.' OK, then, give us an example. 'I see a patch of blue now.'

I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that there is this blue.

Wittgenstein has a simple question that shatters that certainty: 'How do you know the meaning that the term, 'blue' has for you?' Remember, I am only going on what I know, I am not allowed to make any assumptions of any kind. As a term in my 'private language', the word 'blue' must have a meaning. It denotes areas of my visual field that have this colour. — What colour is that, exactly? 'Blue, of course!'

What kind of fact is the fact that I call this blue? Well, I just did. It's blue. And now I have just done it again. The sky (or, rather, the patch in my visual field) hasn't changed colour. It's still the same colour, blue. — But how do I know that?

I don't. This is where Wittgenstein throws his hand grenade:

Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.207

You don't think that this is much of a hand grenade? You don't get it?

I've chosen the quote because it's all Wittgenstein needs; the rest is just heuristics. We are talking about knowledge, and I can only say what I know. I don't know that my 'private object', the visual patch, is not constantly changing, so that each time I say or write the word 'blue' I am describing a different colour. The meaning I gave to the word 'blue' is a second private object; maybe that's changing too. If I don't know either of these things, then on the assumption that 'all I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now', I don't know anything. Q.E.D.

Cast in this mode, the argument is one that Russell was familiar with. It's a point he made himself: When consistently thought through, solipsism, the belief that only I and my mental states exist, retreats to 'solipsism of the present moment'. All Wittgenstein's private language argument does is deliver the final coup de grace. In the present moment, there is nothing to 'know', nothing but the wordless this.

Now comes the constructive part of Wittgenstein's investigation, the part that left Russell bemused. In order for there to be a language in which I can express knowledge about the world, the meanings of the words I use cannot be up to me. The language I use is one that I learned, from other language users, and if other language users must exist, in order for me to know anything at all, then I must know a lot more than I thought I did when I conceived of myself being in an 'egocentric predicament'.

My response? I agree up to this point. But in recasting Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, I gave a hostage to fortune. I conceded one very small but significant point: that there is this. Of course, the statement I have just made is nonsense. I'm trying to say what cannot be said ('and you can't whistle it either' was C.D. Broad's pithy comment on the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed that there are things that 'cannot be said but can only be shown').

To say that there is this puts me in the picture. From my subjective standpoint, I am more than just 'an other to others who are other to me'. It's a point noted by Thomas Nagel in his book The View From Nowhere. The statement, 'I am GK' states a fact, but in the sense that I mean it — or seem to mean it — is a fact only for me.

One reviewer of an earlier version of Naēve Metaphysics alluded to an underlying theme of 'the metaphysics of presence' — Derrida's memorable phrase. Well, I'm not afraid of Derrida. But here's a less metaphysically loaded way to express the point: Someone is grappling with the egocentric predicament and seeking to refute it, or escape from it; someone is deploying the private language argument against Cartesian epistemology. And that someone is me. I am the one asking the question.

There, stripped of its metaphysical trappings, is what the egocentric predicament is really about. When you do philosophy, you are gripped by a question and you try to answer it. Each person must do this for him- or herself, because philosophy is ultimately about making sense of my world, or (what amounts to the same thing) my place in relation to the world of others. That's what makes philosophy different from all other forms of knowledge.



The elephant in the room

Louie asked this question:

Is it possible that there could be a overwhelming stream of information, via the five senses, that bombards us throughout our daily routine; this stream cannot all be deciphered/ processed, so eventually the subconscious brain acts as a filter. Filtering out the "useless" and processing the "useful". And that all humans are innately desensitized to their environment?

Bertrand Russell's collaborator A.N. Whitehead, at the beginning of his magnum opus Process and Reality comments that human beings habitually 'perceive by the method of difference'. We notice an elephant in the room because an elephant is not always there. Whitehead is speaking figuratively. If an elephant followed you everywhere you'd still be able to 'notice' it whenever you wanted to! But Whitehead is talking about general and structural features of our experience, the kind that interest the philosopher engaged in metaphysical inquiry.

The inhabitants of Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) never think to ask themselves, 'When was the last time you remember doing something in the day time?' Could we be like them? Might there be something in our world, and not just in its general or structural features that we fail to see because our senses are overloaded and we've become desensitized?

This is one of the perennial themes of radical left politics, the idea that we are living in a state of perpetual 'false consciousness', our minds numbed into paralysis by insidious propaganda. If you're interested in science fiction, then Dark City or The Matrix provide models for all sorts of fanciful conspiracy theories.