What constitutes knowledge?
and Romina asked:
How can we be sure of what we know?
You might think that whatever else knowledge might involve, it has at least got to entail that the person who is said to know that P, is sure that P. How can you be said to know something if you're not sure?
In that case, Romina's question would have to be understood as a rather careless way of expressing the problem of scepticism. What Romina should have said is, How can we be sure that we know what we think we know?
For the moment, I do not want to talk about scepticism. So let's stick with the question whether you can know something even though you're not sure.
First off, it could be argued that there are cases where a person does know something, even though they are not sure. The standard example is the 'nervous schoolboy'. The nervous schoolboy is asked, 'What is the capital of France?' The schoolboy knows that the answer is 'Paris'. After all, he's been on holiday to France and even gone up the Eiffel Tower! Yet when put on the spot by an irascible teacher, all his confidence vanishes, and he cannot bring himself to give an answer.
There is more than one way to analyse this example. Threatened with instant execution, there might be all sorts of questions that you would have answered perfectly confidently, which you now feel not quite sure about. How sure is sure? Would you risk your life to assert that Paris is the capital of France? Isn't there a tiny possibility that Ministers at the latest EU Summit agreed that Lyons should be the capital in return for a subsidy for French beef?
An alternative explanation for failure to be sure of what you "know" is that there are certain states of fear where one's brain is simply paralysed and will not let out the knowledge which is in there. Not just the word 'Paris', but the city of Paris with all its buildings and inhabitants, has temporarily vanished from the fearful schoolboy's mind.
This takes us into the general question of just what does constitute knowledge. The standard account used to be that knowledge is 'justified true belief.' Someone cannot be said to know that P, if it is not true that P. (What we would say instead is that 'They thought they knew.') Or we use scare quotes: I "knew" that this question was not going to take me more than fifteen minutes, but I was wrong! However, not every belief which is true, counts as knowledge. You've got to be able to justify your claim by giving suitable reasons.
As the philosopher Paul Gettier showed in a paper which rocked academic philosophy in the 60's, that's still not enough. You can have excellent reasons for believing that P, and your belief that P can be true, but it can still turn out that it was only by a lucky fluke that your belief turned out to be true. For example, I "know" that my next door neighbour Derek is at home because I can see him mowing the lawn. In fact he is mowing the lawn. But what I didn't know is that his long lost twin brother Brian has come to stay for a fortnight, and it could just as easily have been Brian, not Derek, whom I spied through the window.
With the Gettier-type examples, the floodgates are opened. Take anything you could reasonably be said to know. Like the fact that Derek is mowing the lawn. I ask myself, 'Do I know that Derek has not got a twin brother?' If I can't say, 'Yes' then I don't know that Derek is mowing the lawn, even though I can see him clearly. With a bit of ingenuity, you can do the same trick on just about any factual proposition that you take yourself to "know".
Basically this question relates to the age old argument about whether or not man has free will or if his actions are predetermined. My question is: What does it matter whether man has free will or not if he fails to, or is incapable of, comprehending the world he inhabits? This seems like the sort of thing that Sartre or Soren Kierkegaard would have touched on, but I can't locate anything directly related. I would love a compelling argument but would be pleased to find any related material.
I don't think that your question is about free will. Nor do I think that Sartre's or Kierkegaard's views are especially relevant. What you have discovered, in thinking about the question of freedom of action, is the fact that human power is limited by the extent of our knowledge.
Free will is not the same thing as power. If I don't know which bottle of medicine will alleviate my medical condition, and which will make it worse, I lack the power to make myself well. However, I have the freedom to pick up any bottle I choose.
The more we understand, the more we comprehend, the more real choices we have, and the less we have to rely on hit-and-miss or guesswork. In short, knowledge is power.
A.V. Ravishankar Sarma said:
What is the actual problem of counterfactuals in interpreting them in object language? In what sense are counterfactuals relevant in technical areas like physics, computer science, AI?
Counterfactuals, or 'contrary-to-fact conditionals' as they are sometimes called, are one of the most maddeningly difficult problems of philosophical logic. Take a simple statement like, 'If I hadn't been working on these questions today, I would have been reading the book on Eastern Philosophy which one of my students lent me.' Or, 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri last April, I would still be driving it now.' We make these kinds of statements all the time. We know when they are true, and when they are false. (In fact, both these statements are false. Responding to the latest letters from my students is higher up on my Do-list. And had I not crashed it, my Capri would certainly have failed its compulsory Ministry of Transport inspection last July, and been sold or scrapped.)
But what makes a counterfactual true, when it is true? What kind of fact does a true counterfactual statement convey?
Let's play a game of suppose. Suppose I didn't crash my Capri. There are lots of different situations that I can imagine which are consistent with that supposition. 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri, I would have been driving a Lancia.' Or, 'If I hadn't crashed my Ford Capri, I would never have learned to drive.' Intuitively, we know that these statements are absurd. Yet, one of the possible scenarios where it is not the case where I crash my Capri, is the scenario where I never owned a Capri in the first place. Another possible scenario is the one where I never owned a car in the first place.
Somehow, we are able to pick out the scenarios which are pertinent to the possibility that we are imagining, and reject those that are not pertinent. The problem, as logicians have discovered to their dismay, is that it is impossible to come up with a coherent set of rules for doing this.
One philosopher, David Lewis, has put forward the theory that the scenarios which are 'pertinent', in this sense, are the ones existing in possible worlds where the thing we are supposing is true, which are most similar to the actual world. So, in the case of the supposition, 'I do not crash my Capri', the most similar possible worlds are those in which I continue driving my Capri, rather than those in which I never owned a Capri, or a car, in the first place.
It's a neat theory. The problem is that it doesn't altogether work. The idea of 'similarity', though it works for some cases, gives the wrong results for others. One example that Davis Lewis himself gives that causes difficulties for the similarity account is a statement like, 'If Oswald had not Killed Kennedy, someone else would have.' This statement appears to come out true on Lewis' account, simply because a possible world where Kennedy dies at the hands of another assassin is more similar to the actual world than a possible world where Kennedy lives out his term of office. But surely, one would only believe that someone else would have killed Kennedy if one thought (as many in fact do) that Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy, rather than a single killer acting alone. Philosophers are still waiting for a fully adequate logical analysis of counterfactuals.
Who else is waiting? Does anybody else care? Physicists, computer scientists, AI researchers etc. all make use of counterfactual statements. To the extent that it is not fully understood how counterfactual statements work, there will be a penumbra of unclarity whenever counterfactual statements are used. I think it does matter, if scientists can't be sure what they are actually saying, or what their assertions commit them to.
Why is the difference between primary and secondary qualities that Locke so emphasized rejected by David Hume and latter British empiricists?
The short answer to this question is that Locke's distinction is perfectly sound, but Berkeley and Hume had their own agenda. In pushing that agenda, the primary-secondary quality distinction was the obvious target to attack.
Some qualities of a thing, such as mass, volume, shape are possessed by those things irrespective of the existence of subjects capable of perceiving those qualities. Other qualities, such as colour, smell, taste only exist by virtue of the power of the thing that possesses that quality to bring about experiences in a percipient subject. That, in essence, is the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.
For both Berkeley and Hume, however, the very idea of primary qualities was inconsistent with the metaphysical principle that what we term 'material objects' are, in reality, constructed out of the materials of experience. For Berkeley, statements about physical objects reduce to hypothetical statements about the experiences that one might receive in such-and-such circumstances. In Hume's 'ideal' theory, the notion of a material object existing distinct from perception, and continuing to exist during periods when it is not perceived is self-contradictory. 'Material object' is a useful fiction, nothing more.
It therefore follows from Berkeley's and Hume's theories that from a metaphysical point of view all qualities are, ultimately, secondary qualities.
To what extent should our emotions be considered an important aspect of our ethical and aesthetic judgements? And do we have to think scientifically in order to find the truth?
Earlier in the century (A J Ayer in 1936 and C L Stevenson in 1944) there was an ethical theory called Emotivism which held that a moral judgement that something is good is a report that you like it with an implicit urge to persuade others that it is good. To say that murder is bad is to say you don't like it. The problem is that we want judgements to be true and false murder is bad, and the claim that we don't like it is not strong enough. The theory is too subjective and doesn't allow for moral arguments, nor of course, does it give much support to the law.
In the 18th century David Hume in his essay On the Standard of Taste outlined a theory of aesthetics which was similarly subjective, such that to think that a work of art of good is a matter of sentiment, of liking it. He introduced the idea of an ideal judge who had refined taste, experience, and was unprejudiced etc. as an attempt to allow some sort of objectivity to a judgement so that we can say that if this ideal judge were to think the work of art good, then my sentiment if I judged the work good would be correct. The same notion could be introduced into an emotional ethical theory. But who is the judge? And if there were an ideal judge he couldn't say one work of art was better than another, since there are not criteria for comparison, and if there were criteria, the idea of the judge would be otiose and aesthetic judgement would be an empirical matter reduced to techniques. Art would become a craft.
A problem with subjective emotional approaches is also that they ignore the rational aspect in judgements, and a theory such as Kant's in the Metaphysics of Morals would hold that emotions should not be involved in ethical judgements to any extent. A moral action is to act in accord with a categorical imperative, which is contrasted with the hypothetical imperative. The hypothetical imperative would for example be if you wanted to be a good person, express your love, etc then you would act morally. This disregards the idea of the unconditional duty towards others as rational beings which we have as rational beings ourselves. We should do good for its own sake. While this view is regarded as cold I would recommend it on the grounds that to love and care is to love and care, and not to be moral. To act morally is not to act in accord with your feelings, but to do what is right. This need not be to say that you do not love and care, but this should not be why you do the right thing.
As to the Aesthetic judgement, again Kant in his Critique of Judgment held that a judgement was not a matter of sentiment, of a liking, but was a matter of pleasure, involving the play of the imagination, implicit in which is the judgment that anyone would find the work of art beautiful. This is still subject to the problem of the truth and falsity of aesthetic judgment, but it allows that a judgment is not completely arbitrary and a matter of individual taste, because the feature of universality is not involved in merely subjective individualistic likings.
As to scientific thinking, science leads us to empirical truths about the world. For aesthetic and ethical judgements scientific thinking is not relevant since we are not talking of primary qualities (shapes) and secondary qualities (colour) qualities alone but an essentially subjective response. Intersubjective truth, an agreement in response, is the most that we can hope for.
How do I know I am not dreaming?
The problem is this: For any thing I experience it is possible that I may also dream I experience it and if I am dreaming X I am not really doing X. So 1 cannot be certain that I am doing X if I cannot be certain that I am not dreaming that I am doing X.
But there is no way to distinguish dreaming X from really doing X, so I cannot be certain that I am not dreaming X.
There are three possible ways to get out of this troubling situation. Option one is to question the premise that there is no way to distinguish dreams from waking life. Option two is to question the idea that it is possible to dream everything, perhaps there are some things that we cannot dream. That way, if we experience them we know that we are awake. Option three is to question the 'epistemic' condition that to know X we must know the falsity of all the things incompatible with knowing X.
I think that the first two options fail and so we are forced to find a conception of knowledge that avoids the epistemic condition. Option one fails because if we have some test that we can apply to discriminate between dreams and waking life it is always possible to dream that we have applied the test and so we would never know if it has been successful. Descartes thought that the difference was that waking life is joined together by memories unlike dreams. But surely it is possible for dreams to be connected by memories, or, if not, then at least for us to dream that they are!
Option two fails for similar reasons, say, for example that "I am now asleep and having a dream" is not something that we can know when we are actually dreaming (since we cannot know anything when we are dreaming). So if and when we experience it, we know that we are in fact awake! But it is still possible to dream that we are asleep and so once again we cannot tell whether we really know we are awake or merely dreaming that we know we are awake.
So by elimination we have to adopt option three, unfortunately 1 do not have anything positive to say about this yet.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.
Logically you do not know you are not dreaming since any evidence that you are not could be dreamt, including being told and pinched. The problem is the sceptical problem and is not answerable logically.
However, you do know that you are not dreaming in the same way you know that you are not insane. To really have a concern that you might be dreaming is rather akin to insanity, in that you have begun to lose a basic sense of reality. This is a psychological rather than philosophical problem.
A grasp of reality requires a conscious rather than unconscious state. In dreams, as in insanity, the unconscious takes over.
What is the difference between existentialism and phenomenology?
Phenomenology obviously has its precursors, but these only become visible as such in retrospect, after Husserl's Logical Investigations (2 Vols) 190001. The maxim of phenomenology was 'to the matters themselves!'. The matter itself is the phenomenon: that which shows itself. The phenomena is the totality of that which shows itself. Thought is to direct itself to these matters and be structured according to them. In phenomenology then, entities or things are not seen 'as such', but as a 'manifestation'. Phenomenology wants to see what is manifest in and by things. It is a bit like the old idea of 'speculative' thought, where thinking tries to 'mirror' (speculum) what is.
Existentialism springs from phenomenology because it asserts that the prime phenomenon (or matter at stake) is that being for whom the world is phenomenal, who sees the world as such. This strange phenomenon is involved in all phenomenology, but is itself unclarified. Hence, Heidegger says, at the beginning of Being and Time (1927): "We are ourselves the entities to be analysed. The Being of any such entity is in each case mine." Sartre's existentialism takes another course to Heidegger's, but both philosophers hold that existence comes before essence. That means that one always already exists and that existence is always already mine before there is any question of 'the matters themselves'. First we must wonder, "what is it to exist?'
Matthew Del Nevo
What is a human that is not human but has all the human actions and expressions?
The answer is, a Zombie.
But this is no ordinary zombie. What we are talking about has nothing to do with Voodoo, or Night of the Living Dead. Our creature is strictly a product of logical analysis: a philosopher's zombie.
One of my Pathways students, Glyn Hughes drew me a cartoon of a philosopher's zombie which I liked so much it is now a permanent feature of the Pathways Launch page. Have a look, then come back here.
The title of the cartoon is, 'Zombie with Qualia'. (Sorry, Glyn, I had to use the recognized term, not 'Quales'!)
This is how the analysis goes. All we can ever know about a person comes from their physical manifestation, their bodily presence in the world and the physical effects that their actions are able to bring about. Yet all that could be done by a creature that was nothing more than physical stuff, atoms, molecules, flesh, bone, skin, nerves, muscles, sinews, brain.
Yet I know, looking inside myself, that there is something extra that a purely physical me would not possess, this conscious experience, these feelings that I am having now. A physical duplicate of me could laugh, cry, do philosophy, keep up this web site, even though all was dark within. Even my wife couldn't tell us apart.
Philosophers tempted by this argument call the extra 'something' that I have but my zombie double would lack, 'qualia' (the plural of 'quale', pronounced 'kwar-lay' it's taken from the Latin). The conclusion of the argument is a form of mind-body dualism.
In order to see why there has got to be something wrong with this argument, consider the statement, 'I have a quale of green'. I am looking at the leaves of my house plant, so there is quite a lot of green in my visual field at this moment. But if I can say, 'I have a quale of green', then a being physically indistinguishable from me in every way, but which lacks qualia in other words, my hypothetical 'zombie double' would have to say exactly the same thing!
So the zombie-with-qualia theorist is committed to accepting that it is perfectly possible for a creature to utter the words, 'I have qualia' even though it lacks qualia. It follows, that even though I may find myself moved to utter the words, 'I have qualia', it doesn't follow that there actually exists an extra, non-physical 'something' or this that my words refer to.
Second opinion: We have to be careful here to avoid chauvinism. There are two senses we can use "human". One is a biological sense used to designate a physical creature with certain characteristics such as hands, faces, gene sequence. A second more difficult sense of the use human is better termed "person", a being that is a moral agent, has thoughts and the like.
Now it is important not to confuse or equate the two, for if we do this can lead us to disregard beings as persons just because they are not humans. The two concepts are separate, one need not be a human to be a person and not all humans are persons.
For example a zombie a perfect replica of a human being with all the physical properties of humans able to perform any and all human actions and expressions is not a person. Also non-human beings (first sense) may have human (second sense) characteristics, such as the monkeys who use mirrors to groom themselves and this may make us more inclined to treat them as persons, but we have to be careful here too, in order to avoid liberalism regarding a creature as a person just because it shows a slight resemblance to us.
Just because a being can act and look like a human does not mean that it is a human and just because a creature can act like a person does not mean that it is one.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.
If you accept the existence of the spirit, then how can sleep be explained? For an immortal spirit would not sleep, as it not an organism in the sense of an animal. If our spirit existed as part of our self, we should therefore have a form of consciousness in our sleep.
The traditional dualist thinks that we have a spirit and a body. One easy explanation of why we sleep is that it is a bodily function separate to the goings on of the spirit. Although the spirit may be immortal the body is not. It is finite and has limits. Sleep could be for some regenerative purpose.
The question of our continued consciousness during sleep is more interesting. Perhaps the spirit can only operate through a fully functioning body, some complex interaction may be necessary between the two that fails to work in sleep or perhaps dreams are the awareness of the spirit's goings on.
In fact how do we know that the spirit is immortal or that it can dispose of rest? after all, immortality does not mean ever-alert, perhaps the spirit too takes time out when the body sleeps. Given the assumption that we do have a spirit, the fact that we do not have a full consciousness in sleep supports the idea that the spirit does itself need rest.
But even if we do not have a spirit the question of the purpose of sleep and dreams is just as interesting. In biological terms sleep must have some enormous advantage, given that it leaves us defenceless for hours a day. What can it be?
We know that the body is able to make essential proteins at a much faster rate while sleeping than when awake, and without sleep the body cannot store energy as efficiently, and without any sleep we would eventually die.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.
Second opinion: Although Christopher does not make this explicit, there does seem to be a problem with accounting for a sleeping spirit, or soul, on Descartes' dualist theory of 'mental substance' and 'material substance'.
According to Descartes, material substance is defined by the essential attribute of being extended and occupying a position in space. In a similar way, mental substance is defined by the essential attribute of thought, or consciousness. In these terms, it would seem that the idea of a mind that was not conscious for some period of time would be no less absurd than the idea of a material body that was not spatially extended, or did not occupy a spatial position for some period of time.
The solution is to accept that the spirit or soul can never be completely lacking in consciousness. Even in a dreamless sleep, therefore, a defender of Descartes would have to say that there is some small degree consciousness there. Descartes is only committed to the claim that 'I exist is true whenever I think it'. He is not committed to holding that whenever I exist, I must be consciously aware that I am having thoughts.
With occurrences like the miracles at Medjugore not being commonplace nowadays but nevertheless evident, fate seems to be justified. Some people believe that if I was to do something totally out of the ordinary (like grow wings bear with me here) that it would be totally unpredictable. However, it's highly improbable, not impossible. Do you believe in fate, even if to an extent, or that anyone is in control of their own conscious thought? What makes you believe this?
A miracle presupposes a world where anything is possible. Fate presupposes a world where there are inexorable laws. The former case is that of early Christianity in which, as Mark has it, "for God all things are possible". In other words, anything could happen, and lots of strange things did, not least the historical survival and ascendancy of the Church. The latter case is that of ancient Greece, say the plays of Sophocles, where, like Oedipus, you cannot escape your destiny. As Tertullian said, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' In their extreme forms, little or nothing. But there is overlap between Athens and Jerusalem in the notion of Providence. So in the Wisdom of Solomon (chs.10-12, 16-18) there are long chapters on patterns in history i.e. there is a perception that history is far from arbitrary. In Ecclesiasticus, (chs.10-18) the way in which 'God governs the world' is explained in prudential terms, and so on. In Greece, strict fatalism gave way to 'logos' or reason, due to the influence of the philosophical schools.
The ontological ideas of fate and freedom are not coherent but they inform Western thought and our modern selves in various ways. While I do not 'follow my stars' I do believe that to some extent 'you reap what you sow'. However, this belief is based on experience, that if I over-indulge myself, the consequences will not be to my liking. I do not however, extend my belief that 'I reap what I sow' into a belief in karma, which is the logical corollary. Therefore, I do not believe we get the illnesses we deserve. I do not believe that this life is a punishment for a past life. In that way I sympathise much more with Job than with his comforters.
Matthew Del Nevo
What is meant by "knowledge is socially constructed"? and how can this change over time?
You can't know something if it isn't true. Whatever else, 'knowledge' might imply, it implies that we take something to be the case, and what we take to be the case is the case, in other words, is true.
But what does it take to make something true? Do truths exist in a timeless reality, waiting for us to discover them? Or are some of the things we call 'truths' merely a product of the way we think, or rather, the way human beings have thought at a particular historical period? Like houses and cities, on this view, the 'truths' that human beings take themselves to know are constructed and, in time, pulled down again. Could that be true?
To some extent, what I would say here is the same as I said, below, in my 'second opinion' on R.E. Lee's question about the argument against relativism. But it seems to me that in the 'social construction' theory of knowledge there is more going on than simply the claim that truth is relative to a society, or to a historical period.
First, one has to notice that not all forms of knowledge appear equally suitable candidates for a social constructivist account. It is a plain fact that either Caesar did, or did not, cross the Rubicon (as I remember vaguely from my history lessons at school). On the other hand, the question why he did is a matter for historians to argue over. One of the things that characterize a given society in a given historical period is the way it views its own history. The way certain historical facts are common knowledge, seen to be unquestionably true.
It is when knowledge is implicated in self-understanding that the claim about knowledge being socially constructed appears most tempting. What we are depends partly on what we understand ourselves to be, the way we view where we have come from and where we are going.
Here is an example which I have used before. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher notoriously said, 'There is no such thing as Society', her words reflected a reality that had come about because of the prevailing attitude towards social issues that kept the Conservative party in power. Where there had been 'Society', there was no more. This attitude was supported by a certain view of history. A critic of Thatcher would say that it was a distorted view. But it was not wholly false either.
As individuals we tell, and re-tell the story of our own lives in response to changes in our circumstances. We are always striving to create a coherent narrative, to impose our will on the chaos of events. The same thing is true on a social level. Whether you believe in the existence of such a thing as 'Society' with a capital 'S' or don't believe it, whether or not Society is itself one of the things that is 'socially constructed', we are individually and collectively constructors of our own 'truths', our own 'knowledge'.
Cicely Francis asked:
How would you compare and contrast philosophy and religion, and also philosophy and science?
One of the ways of approaching the question what philosophy is, is to explain what philosophy is not. Philosophy is not religion. Philosophy is not science.
The two statements I have just made about philosophy do more than simply narrow down the field of possibilities concerning what philosophy is, or might be. It is one of the features that essentially belong to the activity of the philosophy that one labours under the intermittent or constant temptation towards seeing philosophy as a kind of religion, or, alternatively, as a kind of science.
In the opening paragraphs of my paper, Can Philosophy be Taught? I talk about the temptation to 'make a God out of philosophy'. In my paper, I called that a 'foolish mistake' and offered the throw away remark, 'I sincerely hope it's not one I've ever been tempted to make'. But that is untrue. I have been tempted. Otherwise, how would I know what I was talking about?
Worship, and a conception of what is holy, are the core of religion. (I don't necessarily mean worship of a personal God, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition.) Religious practices, like prayer and meditation, are designed to open ourselves up to experiencing, or receiving, that which is immeasurably higher than us, that which is what we are not.
Philosophy, or the greatest philosophical or metaphysical systems, are merely a product of human endeavour. To worship what we ourselves have made is idolatry.
Nor is philosophy science. Once again, you can't really understand what that means if you have not, at some time, wished that philosophy could be made 'scientific'. To qualify as a science, an inquiry does not need to be based on observing or collecting facts, or putting forward empirically testable hypotheses. Mathematics is a science. But philosophy is not mathematics. Even Plato, who famously put above the doors of his Academy, 'Let no-one who has not studied mathematics enter here' knew this. Even, I believe, Descartes, despite his well-advertised attempt in the Discourse on Method and Meditations to apply the 'geometrical method' to philosophy.
In philosophy, there are no fixed starting points. No philosophical term of any consequence has ever been successfully defined. One is constantly striving to understand the significance of the things that the on-going dialectic obliges, or tempts us, to say. We never quite know where we are. That is why the illusion of a 'scientific' philosophy appears so tempting.
I am an undergraduate student studying for the External Programme/Distance Learning BA degree in Philosophy with the University of London, U.K. I study on my own and this entails being the student and the teacher at the same time. Whenever I have questions or don't understand something, I somehow must try to find the answer on my own. It's certainly more challenging this way, but everyone needs some guidance (even Plato had his guide after all).
I have some perplexities about some of Plato's works. I am having somewhat of a problem with Plato's Parmenides, I need someone to illuminate me about Parmenides' Eleatic philosophy. I haven't yet decided whether he's for the Absolute or the Relative theory of things. His reasonings are a bit mind-boggling. Help!
Plato's Parmenides is his most difficult work. Proclus (410-485), probably the greatest commentator on Plato in history, said the Parmenides was Plato's most essential work and he expressly treats it like a Scripture. As with all works which are fundamental to thinking, we need to recognise, at the outset, that we are not going to be able to find a few easy (or even difficult) formula which encapsulate it. If we think we 'understand' the Parmenides, it only means we have a theory about it, which merely represents a fore-closure upon further thinking about it, which thinking itself cannot allow! Even the best of such theories can never dispense with the Parmenides itself, which in a sense, always remains ahead of us. Although our theories would like to put it behind us and consign it to 'history', they never shall. Proclus recognises this, but many modern academic scholars fail to do so. To adapt the words of Jorge Luis Borges, the best explanation of the Parmenides are the words of the Parmenides itself.
How to get on the way to thinking about the Parmenides is the question, not how to comprehend it. The fact that you know it is 'mind boggling' means you already understand more than all those 'experts' in the dialogue who no longer find it mind boggling. You are ahead of them.
My own reverential reading of the text leads me to believe that it is not about a theory of things, but a theory of theories. Also, it is neither Absolute nor Relative. Parmenides' stance is eidetic or dialectic although what these things mean is itself a major area of study. Remember, the stance of the hero is at a distance from what Plato, as the philosopher, might be trying to reveal through the dialogue as a whole, and Parmenides' speeches in particular. Ordinary thinking as well as rational thinking is positive-negative, subject-object thinking. Plato's thinking in this dialogue is speculative. He is thinking about the unity of what are absolute opposites. These opposites are not particulars but enter into all that is. The Eleatic doctrine (which Parmenides stands for) is that only being is, and that non-being is not. Platonic dialectic is not the same as the dialectic of Elea. In either case, this dialectic is speculative not just conceptual. This makes it more demanding for a modern reader and one cannot really come to it cold and hope to get even a glimpse of what is going on. For Plato there is an identity of Being and non-being. It is not just that Being is not without negation, but Plato wants to show that non-being is always already the essential determination of Being; in other words, Being is always otherwise than itself. By contrast, for the Eleatics, Being is always a matter 'in itself' and 'for itself'. Plato is against a metaphysics of pure Being (monism) and against a metaphysics of co-incidence or con-junction of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum).
What is truly 'Socratic' about this dialogue (i.e. Platonic) is that Plato has Parmenides as the mouthpiece for theories which refute those supposedly held by him as the leader of the Eleatic school. Plato does the same thing with the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. I am not sure what, but I am sure this means something.
The Parmenides is very difficult. Be guided by your perplexities, don't succumb to theory in place of philosophy. Although I unfortunately don't have it at hand at the moment, I would recommend that for further clarification than I am able to give here, you find the old (late 19th cent.) edition of Jowett's translation of the Parmenides, the one with his long introductory essay and analysis. Normally translators make poor commentators, but Jowett's essays and ideas about Plato are exceedingly authoritative.
Matthew Del Nevo
Can you tell me the difference between the monological and dialogical approaches to argumentation?
I'm not sure what you mean by the dialogical approach to argumentation, as opposed to the dialogical approach to certain philosophical problems, like the nature of the self, or the relation between the self and other. In the latter sense, 'dialogical' refers quite specifically to the tradition that includes the work of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. (Major works: Buber I and Thou, Levinas Totality and Infinity.)
By contrast, argumentation that is 'dialogical' is what I would term dialectical. The idea of philosophical argument being dialectical, or involving a zig-zag structure of claim and counter-claim, goes back to Plato. We term the procedure in a European or American court of law 'dialectical', because the truth is arrived at through a confrontation between the arguments for the prosecution and the defence. In a Rabbinical court, by contrast, the Rabbis arrive at their judgement by directly questioning the parties involved.
But 'dialectic' is a magical, dangerous word. It is a word we over-use, sometimes abuse. Even if you don't believe in Plato's or Hegel's or Wittgenstein's dialectic or any philosopher's dialectic it is difficult to resist the sense of almost mystical significance.
What about the opposite, 'non-dialectical' or 'monological'? (I have never heard of 'monolectical'.) Spinoza, the faithful student of Descartes, is perhaps the best example of a philosopher who set out, in his metaphysical work the Ethics, to follow through a straight line of argument from definitions and axioms to a conclusion. In this, he modelled himself on Descartes' pronouncements about the application of the 'geometrical method' to philosophy, rather than on Descartes' actual example.
Yet as many commentators have pointed out, all the interesting bits of the Ethics are in the added 'Scholia', the parts supposedly added on merely to aid the reader's comprehension of the main line of the argument. Even Spinoza, it seems, found it difficult to pursue a philosophical investigation 'monologically'.
Dialectical proof has sometimes meant, as in Aristotle, establishing a philosophical conclusion by the method of reductio ad absurdum. You reach conclusion A by demonstrating the absurdity of supposing that A is not true. The negative approach has its advantages, but should not be overrated. We all-too easily assume that because not-A is not true, A must be true. But that is a fallacy. To the question, 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' It is impossible for me to answer 'Yes' or 'No' because both alternatives that I have stopped beating her, and that I haven't are false! Often in philosophy we wrongly assume that 'A' and 'not-A' are the only possible alternatives, only to discover later that neither is in fact the case.
How can we define the words 'existence' and 'reality'? And a second question: existence, is it reality?
Existence (existentia) is a word traditionally used in distinction from essence (essentia). According to its essence a thing is what it is. According to its existence a thing actually is, it is placed outside its potential state in its causes. Reality (realis) refers to the extra-mental i.e. that which has a foundation in fact, not just in mind. The real is not the same as the actual. The actual is the opposite of the possible. The actual traditionally referred to the activity of something. The actual (actualis) also means the active. In modern times these words have broken free from their moorings in the Latin world and have been redefined differently in different philosophies. Therefore, you need to note their meaning anew in each case.
Your second question, 'is existence a reality?' asks after the esse the being of existence. I would say, given the definitions just given, there is no reality without existence. But hat existence is, raises the further question, what is man? Or, what am I? What being is, raises other questions not unrelated to the former.
Matthew Del Nevo
My ex-wife had herpes for many years. We were together eight years and split up last fall. She had an affair and have H to someone who would not wear protection. She wants to end the relationship but he tells here that she has a moral obligation to stay with him because she infected him. Any thoughts?
First 1 do not think that any one has a moral obligation to stay in a relationship with anyone else.
Personal relationships are not based on or maintained by what ones duties are to the other, instead they are based on mutual loves and likes. If and when these likes and loves are no longer mutual the relationship may end. There may however be residual duties and obligations that one of the parties carries with him/her. but these can be fulfilled outside of the relationship.
For example, a divorced farther has obligations to his children, but these obligations can be fulfilled independent of the husband/ wife relationship.
However, 1 think this is more a question of informed consent. If the ex-wife told her partner that she had herpes (and he understood what the implications of this were) but he still refused to wear protection then he is responsible for whatever consequences followed.
If she did not tell him she had herpes and had unprotected sex then she is responsible. I'm not sure what the legal status of knowingly infecting someone with a potentially lethal disease is, but morally it is a wrong act. But if she is responsible, this does not mean she ought to stay with him.
So the ex-wife has an obligation to tell her partner that she has herpes, if she fails in this obligation she is responsible for the consequences, although she is not obliged to stay with him. If she did tell him and he did not wear protection he is responsible for his actions and the consequences of them and again she has no obligation to stay with him.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield.
Philosophy, huh? Pah! You guys crack me up. Okay, I'll admit the need for the contemplation of the various ideas as detailed by this site...and human conciousness in general. But come now, Kollidge Kids. The "basic facts" of existence are:
1. There was "nothing".
3. There was everything.
Ain't there something wrong here? We all understand that "everything" is created...from other "things". Everything. No exceptions. Except.... Everything.
Seems to me, the entire human population should huddle together one week out of the year and contemplate the utter nonsense of the fact of "our" existence. Why we don't walk around muttering "We came from nothing. We came from nothing. We came from nothing." is a mystery in itself.
So the philosophs and others never seem to take up that question. Even the essays which I've read here ignore that question. (Although, it's true that I ain't read `em all yet. :} ) Because if you accept that premise (and by golly, either you accept it or you go "mad"), than any other concept of existence of possible also. Anything. Mind Reading. Teleportation. Living rocks. Stars as sentient beings. Humans as microorganisms in a vastly greater "reality". Unending universes. And so on.
It is humorous though. The only way human conciousness can exist is by ignoring the true reality of our existence. Or at best, simply remaining in awe of the whole shebang. Never forgetting to awe is the most important thing to remember.
As far as I can tell, the only way to deal with it is to not think about it. You got any better ideas?
What cracks me up is that you don't notice an equally big problem staring you in the face every time you look at the bathroom mirror in the morning.
Let's play a game of suppose. Suppose there were an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. That wouldn't be very interesting or helpful, if under the description of 'something' came any possibility under the sun, including a universe consisting entirely of empty space. There still remains the urgent question, Why is there this universe, rather than some other possible universe? Why are things this way, rather than one of the myriad other possible ways things might have been?
But now suppose if you are still with me that we had an answer to that question. The philosopher Leibniz thought he had, in his conception of God as the one unique being that contains the reason for its own existence, who necessarily chose to create the 'best of all possible worlds'. Huh!
As I was saying, we've got something when there might have been nothing. We have got this world, when there might have been some other world. Now, you are looking in that bathroom mirror, and you think, 'Hang on a second, why is there thisface in the mirror? Why am I me? Why is there such an individual as I?'
Leibniz's theory implies there had to be a James S. Gagliardi matching your precise physical and mental description, because that is what was required to make this the best of all possible worlds. But where does I come into the picture?
I think that this is a question that deserves to be pondered at least once a day, not one week every year. Not for very long, though. I suggest a couple of minutes, at the maximum. Then you can think about how to fill the rest of your day. I suggest that an hour set aside for all the other fascinating problems of philosophy would be very good and rewarding use of your God-given talents.
I have often thought that given statistics and the knowledge that both the universe and time are infinite, everything (and I mean EVERYthing) can be proven to either exist or have once existed. Astronomers currently measure the universe at 15 billion light years, but that is only a measurement of visible stars. They do not take into account the measure of space itself, which appears to be limitless. Though time is measured at 15 billion years, that is just the start of the Big Bang. Scientists tend to avoid the question of what came before, yet it would seem logical that something existed, otherwise there would have been 'nothing' and absolute nothingness cannot spawn something.
My theory is that if nothingness can exist, then the universe can be finite and there can be a thing that has never been anywhere at any time. But if nothingness cannot be, which I tend to believe, everything has at some time and place existed. Although I must concede that from a pragmatic point of view, due to the fact that human experience is finite, things that we will never experience is the same as things never having existed. But from a philosophical point of view, I still think that every book at Barnes & Nobles could be listed under non-fiction. In your opinion, is my thinking correct?
I like this question, which fits in very nicely with the previous question, from James.
Your theory will not work as it stands, but the idea behind it is important. I'll explain that in a minute. But let's first look at the theory. Your claim is that, given infinite time, every conceivable possibility must necessarily be realized. Intuitively, this seems to make sense. If I close my eyes and make a dot with my pen on a blank sheet of paper, then another, then another eventually there will be no empty space left. Of course, it is logically possible that given any finite time, there will remain gaps. The probability of there being gaps gets smaller and smaller as time goes on, never reaching zero. But if time is infinite, then that probability becomes infinitely small.
However, that overlooks the following possibility. Suppose that the universe is governed by deterministic laws. Given enough time, it is possible that exactly the same total configuration of particles, forces, fields or whatever will be repeated. From that moment on, the history of the universe will necessarily follow the exactly the same course as it followed from the previous time that the universe was in that configuration. In other words, the history of the universe will effectively be caught in a loop from which it can never escape.
This was the idea behind Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, which he revived from the Greek Stoics.
In arguing for this theory, however, Nietzsche made the error of assuming that in a deterministic universe the same configuration must at some time be repeated. You can see this is wrong if you consider a simple 'universe' consisting of three concentric discs of equal size, where discs A and B revolve at a constant speed, relative to disc C, and where the ratio of the speed of the revolution of A to the speed of B makes an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be expressed in the form of a fraction n/m). Then if a point on the edge of disc A, coincides with points on disc B and on disc C at any time, the three points will never coincide again, even given infinite time!
Nietzsche was wrong that the same configuration must be repeated. I am only saying that you cannot rule out the possibility that the same configuration will be repeated, resulting in an infinitely repeated finite loop.
However, there is a way to salvage your idea. And that is to talk, not about things that will occur in time, but rather about things that might have occurred, in some other logically possible world. Philosophers who take a strongly realist view of possible worlds, such as David Lewis (see his books Counterfactuals and On the Plurality of Worlds) claim that the only difference between the actual world and other possible worlds is a difference of perspective. In other words, it is the same difference as the difference between one time and another time, or one person and another person. So the 'actual' world is just one possible perspective on the universe of all possible worlds, just as 'now' is one possible perspective on the history of the universe, or 'I' is one possible perspective on the totality of self-conscious subjects.
The answer to, 'Why is there this universe rather than some other possible universe?' is simply to reject the assumption behind the question. This world does not exist rather than some other possible world, because all possible worlds are equally real.
However, you might have gathered from my response to James that I am not happy with this argument. As someone who takes the question, 'Why is the person asking this question I?' seriously, I do not consider it a satisfactory answer to be told, 'Every self-conscious subject is an "I", and you are just one self-conscious subject amongst others.' In other words, if in reply to the question, 'Why is there this universe rather than some other possible universe?', one points out that the difference between 'this universe' and 'another possible universe' is only a difference in perspective, then the question becomes, 'Why is the world-perspective of the person asking the question this world-perspective?