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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 10 (2nd series)

When referring to an answer on this page, please quote the page number followed by the answer number. The first answer on this page is 10/1.

The latest questions are distributed weekly to members of the Ask a Philosopher panel. If you would like to join the panel, please email, including a brief CV and statement of your academic qualifications.

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Emran asked:

Why can we only use 10% of our brain?


That's what we philosophers like to call an "urban myth", haha. It's utterly untrue. See these sites:

Steven Ravett Brown

(2) Lauri asked:

"Hindus see life as constant suffering caused by person's craving for things he/ she can`t have. Should those desires be suppressed?..."


Steven Ravett Brown answered (8/10):

"...I cannot claim to be an expert on Hinduism, so this is probably not too well-grounded. But... first, look at the culture in which this viewpoint arose. Extremely high population density, low technology; a rigid class structure, with no possibility of bettering one's position in the world. Combine that with a religion claiming endless rebirth, with the odds being in favor of being born in a lower social class than where one dies, even reborn as an animal. It's no wonder that most Hindus saw this as constant and hopeless suffering, is it....[...]. If you can't kill yourself physically to escape because you'll just be reborn in a lower form, then, hey, kill yourself mentally, so you don't care anyway. Seems reasonable to me..."

David Robjant replied (9/14):

The question and the answer share a mistake: these religious traditions talk of transforming desires into steadily better and more satisfying ones, and not of 'suppressing' them. The difference is important, and I suppose that there is the danger of christian puritanism infecting modern Hindu or Buddhist thinking with the 'suppressing' idea, or (which is somewhat more likely) the danger of those brought up in the puritan traditions of anglo saxon christianity misreading indian traditions through the prism of their inherited and unexamined ideas about the religious.

Acknowledged, there is the picture that the most satisfying objects of desire are not objects at all in the ordinary sense of 'object'. But to call this picture of moral progress up through various levels the "suppression" of desire is like calling the process of training of a fruit tree against a wall the "suppression" of the tree.

The answer adds some confusions and audacious factual inaccuracies of it's own to that first mistake shared with the questioner. For someone who "cannot claim to be an expert on Hinduism" the historicism of the answer is audacious to the point of comedy:

"... look at the culture in which this viewpoint arose. Extremely high population density, low technology; a rigid class structure, with no possibility of bettering one's position in the world."

Hm. What is known about population density in 1000-800 BC India? Very little. What is known about their technology as compared to that of Egypt or Ancient Greece? Very little. And as to what this supposedly second rate society was producing intellectually? Hindu philosophers were discussing materialism a hundred years before the greeks. The flourishing of thought contemporaneous with the greeks is of like depth and breadth, except that most of the chief philosophical protagonists from the indian materialists to Buddha are all dated circa 600 BC, ie 100 years before classical Greece. Classical Athens was a rigidly segregated slave based society that didn't stop socrates thinking or arguing, and there appears to be not one shred of evidence available for the relationship SRB hypothesises between class structure and Hinduism. Ie, he claims that the caste system predated the religion which was erected so as to endorse it whereas an alternative view reeking rather less of dialectic materialism would be that the caste system was the product of the religion's account of moral progress and reincarnation. Moreover, in mounting a general attack on Buddhism and Hinduism together SRB manages to overlook the salient fact that so far from caste being a pre-religious status quo which Buddhism existed to justify, a rejection of caste was a key part and product of Buddhist thinking. I liked SRB's introductory modesty, but not what followed.

Thanks for the help. But I'm afraid that you utterly misunderstood my answer. I answered not in terms of what the religions say, but in terms of what originated them. What any religion says is what it's followers want it to say; do you really think that's useful in a situation like this? Really? So the question is, then, what does the religion mean, not what does it say.

I must admit that I think your garden analogy is beautiful... but I'm afraid that, again, it's utterly off the mark. Oh well. The "historicism of the answer" is in fact the only useful point to it. Would you debate religious tenets? Come on.

As to what is known about population density... quite a bit. Do some reading. What is known about technology? Do some reading.

As for my criticizing the society as "second rate"... it sounds to me like you're reading your own prejudices into this... where did I say that?

Indeed the rejection of caste was a prime part of Buddhist thinking. That's my point.

Steven Ravett Brown

(3) Irineo asked:

Is there a genuine truth? It seems to me that many philosophers talks about truth according to their own beliefs and perspectives, who among them shall we believe on to?


The only 'genuine truth' is the 'truth' that unfolds for YOU in your search for 'truth', and the 'reality' that that 'truth' reveals. It is a very personal thing. There is no 'one size fits all' truth. Those who believe there is, usually feel that it is THEIR verson that is the real one and will fight and kill to preserve that egotistical illusion and ignorance. Witness the Crusades, Inquisition, etc... Good luck in your 'quest'!

Brad Palmer

(4) David asked:

I think that the quest for Socratic self-knowledge can basically be understood as a search for an accurate account of human nature. Richard Rorty maintains that the construction of such an account would necessarily imply that there is only one form of "the Good Life for Man". I don't see why this necessarily has to be the case. Wouldn't a functional account of human nature (e.g. man as the semiotic animal) rather than an essentialist one still allow us to save a pluralism about human ends (such as a Berlinian value pluralism)? And finally, does the standard view of Socrates see him as having believed in and been in search of one, true form of human flourishing?


Yes I tend to agree with you; I admire Rorty's intent, but don't agree with all his inferences. All we know, of course of "Socrates'" view is what Plato says he said, and Plato wanted the Forms to exist. Given that (and the stuff in the Republic, for example), I think you're sort of stuck on some form of essentialism if you rely on him. But what about Aristotle? Isn't he much more oriented to a functional account? And indeed, given his emphasis on the logos, something like a "semiotic" one? I think that Aristotle is more the person you want to look into here. And of course one can read Aristotle right into Heidegger if one wants (ugh), or into a more cognitively-oriented naturalistic picture (i.e., Dewey, for example).

Steven Ravett Brown

(5) Jazmin asked:

What would exist if the world and the entire universe didn't?


Well I like your backwards way of asking the question... but my answer would be that nothing would exist, by definition, since "the universe" is everything. If you mean, "is there a non-physical realm that is independent of the physical realm?", then, haha, you've opened a can of worms that no one will be able to stuff back. My personal take is that there isn't. But hey, most (but not all) of the religions of the world would disagree with that... now all you have to do is pick one. Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown

(6) Dave asked:

I have recently begun studying philosophy on my own and choose after some thinking to start with Kant. Now finding a complete list of Kant's published work was rather easy. However when I moved on to Schopenhauer it took some digging, and with Husserl no one place that I looked had a complete list. My question then is: Is there one place (or perhaps a few places) in which complete bibliographies of philosophers are given in their native language and hopefully the translation of said title into english? I have searched the web extensively and am guessing such a site has simply escaped my notice.


Well... you're off to a bad start. You need to start at the beginning, with Plato, then move to Aristotle. You can have no real grasp of what Kant was doing until you read where he was coming from and what he was reacting against. Second, why read everything someone has written? You think it's all of equal quality? What about Kant's little book The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science... do you think that's as valuable as the Critiques? I hope not. If you want to do that with Husserl, good luck, they're still translating and publishing stuff from the Archives. But to appreciate Husserl you have to have read Plato, because otherwise you just don't realize what he was oscillating between, and indeed what the thrust of his anti-Cartesian project was. Have you read Descartes? Have you read Aquinas, against whom Descartes was reacting? Have you read Aristotle, whom Aquinas practically worshipped, and Plato, whom he despised? And I'm not even touching the "pre-Socratics", and reasonably good medievals, like Duns Scotus. I mean, there's 2500 years of history "sedimented" into Kant and Husserl, as Heidegger liked to say. You just can't jump in like that; it's like trying to learn quantum mechanics without learning basic mechanics and electromagnetic theory.

Steven Ravett Brown

(7) Allison asked:

I am currently reading The Origin of Geometry, and I am having some difficulty understanding Husserl's argument. I am not sure how the original sense of geometry could be uncovered as such and reactivated in the present and for what purpose. By the "original sense" does this mean the actual content i.e sense of circle as spatial object, or the infinitising moment of the Greeks as inaugural of the historicity of sense? Also, I am having trouble with just what 'transcendental historicity' and 'universal historicity' mean exactly. Are they the same? Thanks, sally


Well this is a bit of Husserl that I really haven't paid much attention to... but I'll answer you on the basis of what he says in Ideen, Cartesian Meditations, and Time-Consciousness. You have to keep in mind Husserl's big project, which was to answer the Cartesian doubt, on the one hand, and on the other to put philosophy on what he considered the same apodictic (i.e., absolutely certain, roughly speaking) basis that he considered mathematics to be (a position which I actually think is rather easy to refute... but that's another essay). I assume you know about the eidetic reduction and the epoche, and the differences between them? If not, go look them up; understanding them is absolutely essential to understanding Husserl. Anyway, for Husserl, to find the bases of geometry, or whatever, involved employing this methodology, which would then result in intuitions of the essences of the basic concepts... the equivalent, in some sense (which Husserl was constantly throughout his career struggling to clarify) of Platonic forms. So that's what he had to mean by "original sense", that essential understanding of the basics of geometry, in this case. But of course he wanted to extend that to everything. By "transcendental" he meant something like "objective"; he distinguished between the "immanent" and the "transcendent", where "immanent" referred to "sensations and intentions" (Sokolowski, R. 1964. Immanent constitution in Husserl's lectures on time. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24:530n551.). So you can get an idea then as to what he meant by that type of historicity. I'm really not sure, and I don't care enough, to go look for what he meant by "universal historicity"... but my guess would be that it referred back to the essences discovered by phenomenological methodologies.

Steven Ravett Brown

(8) Chris asked:

What Philosopher believes you can engage in your own "character analysis". Ask yourself: Which personal habits of yours serve to make you successful and which of them prevent you from being successful?


Well, doubtless you can engage in your own "character analysis", the question is: should you, and with what end? I suppose we all have myths about ourselves. But what is or ought to be our attitude to all this mythmaking? Know thyself, the oracle enjoined. Well, on this, I'm with the Platonism expressed in Coleridge's 'On self knowledge':

"What is there in thee, man, that canst be known, Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought, A phantom dim of past and future wrought, Vain sister of the worm, -life, death, soul, clod — Ignore thyself, and seek to know thy God!"

I add a non-belief in God to Coleridge's non-beleif in the knowability of the self. But in any case the same argument applies. I'd suggest as suitable alternatives to navel gazing: other people, mathematics, foreign languages, painting, poetry, accuracy in philosophy. I dare say such self-less activities might improve one's character too, obsession with onself being, as it is, a character defect in itself.

Anyway, I guess what Coleridge meant by "God" was more in the nature of hawks above, stags at bay, streams, the purple colour of the winter birch, the wondering mind of his son, and all that sort of thing — rather than some biblical creator with beard — and certainly all these things seem more worthy and rewarding of attention than one's "character".

I'm tickled by the association and background rhymne in "known/worm" — a hidden stanza ends at "worm", then we get the coda: "life, death, soul, clod — Ignore thyself, and seek to know thy God!" Well, we're the clod, and all around is... something far more interesting.

David Robjant

(9) JC asked:

As per plato what are the origins of war?


In the Republic, Plato has what may look like a marxist-lenininst account of the origins of war, or, which might be more accurate, the account of the causes of war given by Lenin (and leftist historians like Hobsbawn) owes a lot to Plato.

However, people who take the Republic as a political manifesto (ie a utopia) ignore at their peril many crucial passages in Book 2. In one of these, Socrates is describing a society of farmers and peasants as ideal. Glaucon objects that he wants luxury in an ideal state, and Socrates responds by promising to describe a state at "fever heat" — which state then becomes the main topic of the book. Requiring more land to support luxury, this state has to go to war with it's neighbours, and the entire political structure of the Republic, all of it surrounding the need to maintain and control a professional military, starts from there. This is just the argument connecting war with the luxury-class which Lenin used to mobilise the industrial workers and the peasant armies in the russian revolution, bringing to an end the war against germany on the eastern front.

Another passage which people who take the Republic as Plato's political manifesto ignore at their peril is the one in which he says that they will examine the state only so as to use it as an image of the individual. In my view, it would be more faithful to plato to see this connection between greed and conflict as a process Plato identifies in the moral development of individuals. Thus, they begin by seeking what they need and avoid war, then they go for what they want, this leads them into conflict with others, this gives rise to care for honour and to a conflict between three parts (or loves) of the soul (the appetitive, the spirited, the rational), which leads to various kinds of madness — unless the rational part gains the upper hand.

Because Plato is fundamentally concerned with the individual in this description of the origins of conflict, it is possible that his illustration of the individual in terms of the state may mislead. Good morals may make bad politics, and vice versa. The appearance of a parrallel between Marx and Plato should be corrected.

It is important to state that while Lenin's materialism leads him to the conclusion that property is the cause of all conflict between persons and states, Plato's analysis is a good deal more subtle. Greed, according to Plato, isn't simply for possessions, but rather for the more complex notion of luxury, for enjoyment, and also, more importantly, for something as un-material as esteem. Marxists labour under the delusion that on abolishing property that they will have abolished greed and all the vices — Plato is under no such illusion. Some 2oth century marxists have tried to stretch the notions of 'property' and of 'the means of production' to make up for this idiocy in their moral universe, with the result that they no longer know what they mean by their terms. But if you start from a more Platonic place you acknowledge greed as including greed for regard. How often have you heard those agitating for war resort to this refrain:

"We will not tolerate this humiliation!"

This is not the rational part of the soul speaking. Glory, honour, indignation — all kinds of madness, Plato thinks.

David Robjant

(10) Emran asked:

Why can we only use 10% of our brain?


Because the other 90% is for phrenology.

David Robjant

(11) Emran asked:

How is a computer smarter than a human when a human invented it?


It is not widely accepted that current computers are smarter than humans, except in certain narrowly constrained and generally mechanical senses (arithmetic, playing chess, &c). Some philosophers would argue that this situation is not likely to change anytime soon, if ever: computers may become much faster and more technically sophisticated but without ever achieving genuine intelligence.

Assuming that this is false, perhaps a computer's intelligence could outstrip its designers' the way other machines outstrip attributes of their designers. Most machines are designed to accomplish tasks their designers could not, from stone axes and wooden levers onwards. Perhaps intelligent machines could be similar. Specifically, if it were possible to design an artificial replica of a human brain, presumably it would also be possible to scale it up, providing greater speed, or more accurate and capacious memory. Thus we could arrive at a more intelligent machine, just as flint axes are sharper than our teeth and wooden levers stronger than our arms.

It might be objected that intelligence is different from other tasks which a machine may accomplish: we could understand those tasks without being able to replicate them, but to understand a mental process we need to be able to accomplish it for ourselves. However, even if we accept this claim, it would rule out the construction of machines more intelligent than their designers only on the further assumption that we would need to be able to understand how they work in order to build them. This assumption is common-sensical, but open to doubt: various design methodologies based more or less on trial and error, including evolutionary algorithms and neural networks, are already in use as a source of simpler or more elegant engineering solutions than we could readily devise by traditional methods of design. If such processes could be used to produce machine intelligence, they would do so without any human necessarily understanding what they had done. Hence the limits of human understanding would not limit the intelligence of the resulting machine.

In principle, the processes described in the last two paragraphs need only produce the most modest improvements in intelligence for far more dramatic results to be achievable by getting each generation of intelligent machines to design its own successors.

Andrew Aberdein

(12) Emmy asked:

i would like to know more about the limitations of scientific research. secondly i want to know if there can be a science of social life?


Given that "sociology", "psychology", "economics", "ethnology", and "anthropology" have been around for over a century, it is difficult to understand your question. Do you not consider those "sciences"? If not, why not? What is a "science", and why, for example, is "sociology" not a science? Do you think that "science" implies hard and fast rules? A formal logical structure? If so, you are operating with an idea of science which is about 50 or more years out of date. Take a look here: Kitcher, P. 1993. The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Steven Ravett Brown

(13) Dave asked:

I have recently begun studying philosophy on my own and choose after some thinking to start with Kant. Now finding a complete list of Kant's published work was rather easy. However when I moved on to Schopenhauer it took some digging, and with Husserl no one place that I looked had a complete list. My question then is: Is there one place (or perhaps a few places) in which complete bibliographies of philosophers are given in their native language and hopefully the translation of said title into english? I have searched the web extensively and am guessing such a site has simply escaped my notice.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good place to start. Articles on individual philosophers usually include thorough bibliographies, at least of principal works, and often link to specialized sites where more detailed information may be found. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although it seems to attract fewer high profile contributors, publishes comparably well referenced articles.

Andrew Aberdein

(14) Emran asked:

How is colour made? How is it there?


This is a scientific question rather than a philosophical one. We are bordering on philosophy when we claim that there is no colour in the world, and one could go on to develop a philosophical thesis around this proposition. However, your question is couched in scientific terms and begs a scientific answer.

Radiation (light) of different wavelengths impinge upon the retina of the eye, where special cells, known as 'cone cells', are stimulated to produce an 'electrical' discharge along the optic nerve to the visual cortex situated in a position at the back of the brain. It is here that the different wavelengths, having been identified by the stimulation of different cells in the retina, are interpreted as different colours, chiefly red, green and blue, and mixtures of these three primary colours. Hence colour is produced in the brain to help our identification of things in a colourless world.

Light itself is colourless and invisible to the eye, and can only be identified to be present when it strikes a 'material' object and reflects to the eye. Take as an example the green leaves of a tree you may be observing. Of the several wavelengths of radiation striking the leaves, let us say for simplicity, all the wavelengths are absorbed (for photosynthesis) except one, which is rejected (reflected), this particular reflected wavelength reaching the retina is eventually interpreted by the brain as green. In the case of a red-brick house most wavelengths are absorbed by the bricks, but the wavelength we call red is rejected. Virtually all solid, liquid and gaseous objects absorb radiation and reflect the wavelengths which fail to fit the vibrant energy state of the 'matter' involved. Now we are getting into quantum physics. When more than one wavelength is reflected we are presented with varying shades of colour manufactured by the brain. Without reflection we would see nothing, the shapes we see in the world are due to light reflecting from surfaces, to aid us in this the retina possesses another set of cells, called 'rods' which are concerned with the intensity of light, giving us light and shade.

How does the brain manage all this? Well, perhaps this is a question for the philosophy of mind, science is still perplexed by it all!

John Brandon

(15) Emran asked:

Why can we only use 10% of our brain?


This is a scientific question. However, the notion that we can only use 10% of our brain seems rather odd. The brain is a highly complex organ, now regarded by many scientists to work more like a large gland than a set of dry electrical circuits. Despite much research it is still not very well understood, and the constant discovery of previously unknown activity causes radical changes in thinking, particularly in the area of medicine where new drugs impinge on the little understood hormones and chemical transmitters in the brain. I believe that your question is aimed at our use of 'mind' rather than 'brain', and particularly the loss of our primitive instincts and alleged sixth sense. These things are still there, but in this modern world there appears to be little use for them. More's the pity.

John Brandon

(16) Samantha asked:

2 Questions:

Question 1: Colors. How do we determine colors? I have had many arguments with fellow students on this, for example: The color pink. We call it pink, we know what it looks like, but what if the color pink I see is really the color blue you see, but yet we all call it by the same color- — pink. Could this perhaps cause 'mismatching colors'? This text color is black, we call it black, but what if the color black I see is your color green? How do we know we all see the same exact color?

Question 2: Black matter, what is it? How do we know the universe extends so far, no one has ever returned from reaching the 'end of the universe' How do we know that there isn't some type of pleasure at the far side of the universe, but yet no one has gone, or at least has gone somewhat. How do we know there is an exact end? Black matter- — is it there- — is it real?


Let me answer the second question first. I have never been to China but I know that there is a river in China called the Yellow River. I have never seen Hadrian's wall but I know that it exists etc. etc. Now the existence and nature of black matter is theoretical and its exact nature is not yet settled. Our evidence for it is problematic. All we can do is go on the evidence we have so far. The chief theory of modern physics, Quantum Mechanics is a weird idea and we can't easily form a picture of the universe it describes.It has practical implications that are undeniable. The invention of the modern computer is a proof of the fruitfulness of the ideas of Quantum mechanics.

For hundreds of years people believed that the earth was a sphere. It was only with the advent of space travel in the 1960s that we could finally see that the earth was a sphere and of course blind people will never be able to see this. That doesn't mean that they don't have good reason to believe that it is true. Most of our ideas about the distant universe are in their infancy and are likely to change as we gather more evidence.

Now lets look at the first question.

Wittgenstein wrote that 'Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday'. By this he meant that when we are just thinking about things without any particular purpose to guide our thoughts it often seems as though we can discover new ways of using language which seem to open up new and interesting aspects of reality which have been hidden from us.

So lets perform an experiment. Let us get together a group of twenty people including you and me. These will be people with normal colour vision. Then we build a wall ten feet high and paint it pink. We all sit down in front of the wall and look at it. We all agree that that the wall is pink and we could say that when we are looking at it we are having a definitive experience of pinkness. Now if I am under the influence of drink or drugs then I might experience the wall as being green. But this would be obvious to the rest of the group because I would tend to say that the wall is green and argue with anyone who claimed that it was pink. It would be obvious that I am having a hallucination. In general my idea that I can identify the colour of things is based upon the fact that I have learned how to use colour language and I am sure that I have not forgotten it. But I can also check that my judgements agree with the other speakers of the language. It is this common agreement as to how words are to be used that makes language and meaning possible. Now let us consider the idea that my experience of pinkness might be different from your experience of pinkness and of course this difference would be undetectable because we would both still agree about which things are pink and which things are not. And we can extend this idea even further. Perhaps my experience of pinkness changes from day to day or from minute. I may say that I remember that my experience of pink today is the same as it was yesterday but I have no way of checking that this is true.

Here we might say that language runs out of meaning. Perhaps there is an invisible intangible football suspended six inches above my head. What evidence could I have which argues for or against this? The truth of the matter is that when we are both looking at the pink wall and we both agree that it is pink then you are experiencing pinkness and I am experiencing pinkness. It makes no difference if you think that your experience might be different from mine or even if you imagine that I am experiencing nothing at all. We are both still experiencing pinkness because we are both looking at an object that we agree is pink and that is how experiencing pinkness is defined in the English language. If I want to show you what pink is like I show you something pink. I don't ask you to look inside my head at my experience of pinkness.

Now in the end you can't compel me to agree that your strange new way of talking makes sense and I can't compel you to admit that your ideas make no sense. I will simply have to conclude that I cannot attach any sense to some of the things you say.

You will have to make your own mind up about these things.

Shaun Williamson

(17) Lyne asked:

Where does the future store? It is there somewhere, but where? what about the past. Where does it go?


Wittgenstein said "We are like primitive people who take the expressions of civilised men and interpret them in strange ways (or something like that).

The future isn't stored anywhere because it hasn't happened yet. You can store your furniture but you can't store your future furniture. The past doesn't go anywhere. People go to places (on trains, planes, in cars etc.) the past isn't a person or a physical thing so it can't travel or buy a train ticket. Humans can keep records of the past. The past doesn't keep records because the past can't write or type. Don't confuse poetry with reality. The poet W.H. Auden wrote 'History, to the defeated, can only say alas and beg for pardon'.

He was not saying that history is a person and can talk. But nevertheless he was saying something very important as poets often do.

Shaun Williamson

(18) Emran asked:

How is a computer smarter than a human when a human invented it?

I have never heard of a computer that is smarter than a human. Computers and humans are completely different. Computers can carry out calculations much faster and much more accurately than a human can but they are still just essentially calculating machines. People often have mistaken ideas about how computers work. So I have heard people talk about computers as though they were conscious thinking things. This is only science fiction.

You need to find out exactly how a computer works and then you won't think they are so smart. It is not impossible that one day we will manage to make computers that are really conscious and really intelligent but we are a long way from that at present. So don't confuse science fiction with reality.

Shaun Williamson

(19) Emran

Why can we only use 10% of our brain?


Well there is no real evidence that this is true. What we do know is that certain human abilities, such as the ability to recognise faces, are carried out by small and specialised parts of the human brain. So if this small part of the brain is damaged we lose the ability to recognise faces although we can still recognise every thing else. We need all of our brains to function as complete human beings even if we don't use all of our brains at the same time. The idea that we only use 10% of our brain is absurd. Why would we have such a large brain if we don't need all of it? Evolution would never be so inefficient. About a quarter of all the food consumed by a human is used to power the brain. If we could make do with a smaller brain then that would be a great evolutionary advantage. People who say this and claim to be able to teach you to use 100% of your brain are usually just interested in relieving you of large amounts of money. It is true that just as your body needs exercise to become stronger your brain will also benefit from mental exercise. The best way to exercise your brain is to learn something new. So use your brain and ignore such superficial nonsense.

Shaun Williamson

(20) Anna asked:

We are all familiar with Donald Davidson's theory on causality, and the concurrent responses by philosopher's that followed. How do you think we should solve the mind/body problem in what direction does the answer lie? It would be a pretty grim reality if we were to say that the mental realm is not causally efficacious, yet on the other hand to answer that question without referring to the divine become increasingly difficult.

So if M has causal power and P has causal power then can't we say that M and P occur simultaneously in an endless chain wich is alligned in some manner. Who alligned the two chains, (God) is the typical answer, but is there any way of eliminating the necessity for a divine intervention and locate the cause of allignment? Previously the source was the 'pineal gland' which is obviously false, how do we get around this problem?


Well I don't know where to begin on this. Philosophers have been kicking the mind/body problem around for a few hundred years and getting no nearer to an agreed solution. What should we conclude from this? Perhaps we should conclude that philosophers ways of thinking about this problem are deeply defective. I think there can be no solution to the mind/body problem because there is no mind/body problem. Descartes completely misunderstood the nature of physical and mental events so it is not surprising that he found the relationship between them problematic. Of course Descartes mistakes are not simple ones and they are not easy to dispel. But all I want to do here is to suggest to you that there are other approaches to the problem of other minds that do not involve any of the traditional answers such as scepticism, realism or behaviourism.

Shaun Williamson

(21) Lyne asked:

What is the purpose for mankind to do evil to others? Could someone explain why man deliberately takes revenge upon others?


If you want to understand things like this then you must be prepared to do some hard work yourself. I suggest you start with one concrete example such as Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. There are many books available on the history of the Nazis and their ideas. Study them and you will get some idea of how men justify terror and mass murder and at the same time think they are doing something good.

Shaun Williamson

(22) Jessica asked:

I know that I really want to have children. But I don't know the reason for this. Am I just acting out of a selfish instinct? Is there a good reason to have children other than wanting to have that experience or leave a part of yourself behind? My question is, why have children?


Well I don't know why you assume that instincts are selfish. If we didn't have instincts we wouldn't survive. Hunger makes us eat. Wanting to have children stops the human race from dying out. Since children need a lot of care and cost a lot of money and can drive you crazy at times, its possible that becoming a parent is a rather saintly thing to do rather than being selfish. I suppose what argues against this is the fact that the world is rather overpopulated so perhaps we need fewer children than before. This is a choice that everyone has to make for themselves because it depends on their own individual circumstances but I can't see any reason to suppose that wanting to have children is selfish. Being a good parent is like being a great artist (very difficult and hard work). It is one of the most creative things a human can do. But its not for everyone.

Shaun Williamson

(23) Emran asked:

How is color made? how is it there?


Sorry Emran but your question us not specific enough for me to know what you are asking. I suggest you start by studying the physics of light and the construction of the eye and how it perceives colour. Any encyclopaedia could help you with this.

The first scientist to have a comprehensive theory of colour vision was Edwin Land who also invented the polaroid instant camera. Perhaps you could ask another question which explains more clearly what it is that you find puzzling about colour.

Shaun Williamson

(24) Emran asked:

How is color made? how is it there?


I'm glad you're asking a philosopher. Why? Because the temptation must be great to ask a scientist; when you would receive a reply full of confidence and authority in its certain answerability! I say this because a genuine answer, such as the one I'm going to give you, can only be tentative — meaning, to the best of our knowledge it is so and so.

Thus: there is no colour as such. Colour is a phenomenon which exists in the world by virtue of perceptive organs, such as our eyes. If you were the size of a microbe, you would not perceive the same colours as we do, if any at all. This is because colour is essentially a form of radiant energy, for instance sunlight, that strikes an object and is then reflected or absorbed (partially or altogether). When our eyes pick up this energy, being sensitive to its features (wavelength, intensity etc.), they convert it into a species of energy suitable for transmission by the nerve strands leading into the cortex, where further analysis ensues.

The end result of all this activity is an impression. This is where things become difficult. Because in saying impression, I am using a term that means something to us, but is not (scientifically) verifiable. It is something in the same class as all the other impressions we receive. Our brain, or mind, which 'creates' this impression makes us see this energy as colour. From this way of answering the question you can see that a certain amount of mystery clings to it. You will also understand (or at least: you should understand it this way) that it's not analytical in the same sense as, for example, a computer would dissect the colour spectrum. Computers already rely on the human sensorium (the work of the visual cortex): without this prior knowledge, we could not programme a computer either to detect or to produce colour. To a computer, all this is numbers. But the 'impressions' which your monitor sends out are again not the 'colours', but the wavelengths which, as I said, are pre-programmed to be picked up by our eyes in a certain way.

Finally it is worth mentioning in passing that there are two kinds of colour quite distinct from each other. The kind that is reflected from surfaces (or pigments) has different primary/ secondary/ tertiary colour spectrum from the kind which is perceived by translucent agents such a film. But with this we are getting into an area of colour theory well beyond the terms of your question. So I'll leave it there, and leave it to you follow it up if you have an interest in it.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(25) Emran asked:

Why can we only use 10% of our brain?


Before you ask a question like this, you should really enquire from your sources on what basis they make such a claim. Therefore — since I disagree with the question — I ask you this counter question: what makes you think we use only 10% of our brain? And also, a logical challenge (to your or your 'authorities'): why would evolution give us such a big brain and then waste 90% of it. And finally: what do you suppose this unused 90% is? Maybe straw, or what?

Jurgen Lawrenz

(26) Emran asked:

How is a computer smarter than a human when a human invented it? How could this be possible? I mean, seriously: how could a machine exceed the knowledge which directs it? There is nothing a computer can do which it is not explicitly programmed to do. This is not invalidated by such seeming contradictions as a computer giving a result to a question which its human questioners did not know beforehand. You can test this for yourself by punching into your pocket calculator the cube root of 19,657,943. Do you know the answer? Does the calculator? No in both cases. All the calculator does it to perform a preprogrammed algorithmic routine. And then you know the answer. But the calculator or computer still doesn't. It does not even know the meaning of the word answer. Answer to what? The computer has no problems. You have. And that's why we invent and design machines. None of these machines are "clever". The people who design them are. So the whole notion on which your question is based is really unabashed nonsense. Sorry!

Jurgen Lawrenz

(27) Ola asked:

What is the difference between theology and philosophy? between religion and philosophy? "The God of the philosophers is not the God of religion." Can religion be rational?


There is a short answer and a long one. For the long one (which depends on your own presuppositions, e.g. whether you are a 'believer'), you had better ask a theologian, not a philosopher. For a brief and simple summary, the position is this: that philosophy is the endeavour to explain the world — spiritual and material — from the point of view of objectivity. It proposes that human reason should be self-reliant and rejects the idea which is replete in most religions that supernatural powers intervene in the processes of nature. Accordingly philosophy and its daughter science have made it their business to investigate phenomena along those lines, and one would have to admit that a great deal of the world has been made intelligible. Most importantly, those phenomena which fall under the criteria of knowledge all hang together. For all we can tell, there is very little, even in the farthest reaches of outer space and in the smallest quantum region of our research, that does not obey those rules and regulations which we call the "laws of nature" or the "laws of science".

Now this encouraged a tendency by those who subscribe to these views to dismantle those belief systems which require gods, angels, spirits and ghosts to produce miraculous results. The observations of philosophy and science tend, on the contrary, to show that miracles never occur; but that most if not all such phenomena are ultimately attributable to either a badly observed event or simple naivety. This is where your "God of the philosophers" comes in. A number of philosophers in the recent past have effectively 'invented' their own God, for example Descartes. His God would never do many of those things as were routinely believed by the faithful to be his practice: plainly, most of these are bluntly illogical (I give you the beliefs of the 'occasionalists' as an example). And so, in the long run, rather than carry this uncomfortable hypothetical luggage around with them, many philosophers just gave up.

Whether religion can be rational is a moot question. In the 17th century, many believed this to be the case — e.g. Hume, who wrote dialogues on "Natural Religion". Many Christian thinkers have claimed that the Christian religion is in fact distinguished from other religions by its emphasis on rationality. Reading the texts in question is not calculated to persuade you unless you already have a hankering for religion. And so I will leave this question in abeyance, because it so obviously depends on your point of view. At most I will suggest that the question is intrinsically unanswerable, like many metaphysical propositions. A belief in God clearly hinges on the belief that the Hebrew prophets had a direct telephone line to God. If you doubt that, the claim for any rational religion necessarily crumbles.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(28) Lyne asked:

Where does the future store? It is there somewhere, but where? what about the past. Where does it go?


Your question is based on a practice, frequently encountered in theoretical circles, called "reification". It means, "thingifying" something that is not a thing or indeed anything at all. The terms "future" and "past" are human conventions, nothing more. There is no future as such, and the past is simply the recorded memory or the projected memory of events which precede us. By 'projected' I mean such events which are still visible to us, say from outer space, whose 'present' state we have no way of knowing. Other than this, you need to understand that the 'reification' of past and present is also a religious term. The idea of god and an eternal life would evidently make no sense unless there was a real future, i.e. some reservoir of time where certain events are prefigured but not yet actualised. But this, I suggest, is a question of faith. In every other respect, past and future belong to language and perception: they are not part of the furniture of the world.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(29) Signe asked:

Does Hannah Arendt have anything to say about what should be done with poor and hungry people's sufferings? She seems (to me) to hold an opinion that they shouldn't be addressed at all.


Why don't you read The Human Condition? Blanket statements like this are often evidence of prejudice and fragmented acquaintance, whether your own or of your sources. So do yourself a favour and read the lady's writings. That' s where you'll find (after all) the authentic response to your claim.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(30) Samantha asked:

2 Questions:

Question 1: Colors. How do we determine colors? I have had many arguments with fellow students on this, for example: The color pink. We call it pink, we know what it looks like, but what if the color pink I see is really the color blue you see, but yet we all call it by the same color- — pink. Could this perhaps cause 'mismatching colors'? This text color is black, we call it black, but what if the color black I see is your color green? How do we know we all see the same exact color?

Question 2: Black matter, what is it? How do we know the universe extends so far, no one has ever returned from reaching the 'end of the universe' How do we know that there isn't some type of pleasure at the far side of the universe, but yet no one has gone, or at least has gone somewhat. How do we know there is an exact end? Black matter — is it there — is it real?


Re colours, see my answer to Emran's question. To which I will add, in response to the specific grain of your's, that 'mismatching' is quite common and simply the result of variable construction of the visual apparatus in humans. Colour perception is an intuitive performance; but to the extent that a 'normative' human being has a 'normative' colour sense, you will find among all cultures on earth a fairly exact similarity in the way we distinguish colours. Cultural practices sometimes cause naming problems; for example, some tribes in New Guinea have no names for certain tertiary colours — but! they identify them without trouble when they see an animal clad in that colour.

On 'black matter', the term denotes precisely what you suspect: namely, that it is something we don't know. The concept covers another 'mismatch', in this case that between the supposed weight of all matter in the universe and so much of it as we can't detect. Bear in mind that the only matter we can detect is matter in an incandescent state, because it radiates energy. Matter which is black (providing it exists) is therefore 'burnt out'. How much there is, how far it extends, and all the other problematic issues that vex you and many of us, are simply unanswerable. But we keep trying, and sometimes in our embarrassment at not getting the hang of certain impenetrable secrets of the universe, we resort to 'intelligible' terminology like 'black matter'. All this term really says is, "Suppose there is."

Jurgen Lawrenz

(31) Sangeeta asked:

What is the usefulness of Hobbes and Rousseau's for today's high schools. Both of these philosophers had something fundamental to contribute to our understanding of the nature of man in society — why we form societies and what are the conditions under which it takes place, or should take place. Now it is my opinion — which I somehow doubt that it is shared by many adults, and I know it is not shared by practically all governments and their education authorities — that politics ought to be a classroom subject.

I put it to you, and anyone else who might read this, that it is not an adequate policy to stuff childrens' heads full of the tenets of religion without giving them at least an equal dose of politics. The way we educate our children, even in this supposedly enlightened age, is to prejudice them from the outset, to feed them information which a substantial proportion reject on reaching adulthood. Yet by that time it is too late for them to overcome those ingrained prejudices and reach a mature appreciation of the fundamental importance of politics to all human affairs. The outcome is the catastrophic muddle we call politics, as well as the reluctance or refusal of large segments of ordinary, but well-educated people, to 'soil their hands' with politics.

I happen to believe that, for our own good, the political theories of all the major thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle onwards, should be written up for children of an age where they can read, say 9-10 years. We can do this with the Bible, with Homer's poems, with our "Shakespeare for Children", with History and all sorts of other subjects. I fail to see why we can't do it with politics.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(32) Orit asked:

What is epistemology?


Very simple. Episteme is the Greek word for 'hard' knowledge. The 'logy' portion of any such words in English always refer to the theory or science of... . Therefore epistemology is the Theory of Knowledge. It is the theory of how we can know things, more or less beyond reasonable doubt. Accordingly all science is based on epistemology.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(33) Sharon asked:

Is there a contemporary philosopher who sees inconsistency as a positive or useful thing?

============ There may be; but a pretty good source for you would be Machiavelli, in his book The Prince. This is a book on practical politics. Need I say more?

Jurgen Lawrenz

(34) A psychology student asked:

What do philosophers mean by 'Intentionality'? I'm really struggling with this one. I've looked the word up in various reference books but the definition always seems to change. So far I've come up with 'the content of a thought' and 'the mind's capacity to direct itself on things' (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Fine, but I don't see where the argument lies. If the mind could not 'direct itself on things', i.E. Think, it would not be a mind, would it? Could someone (a) give me a sensible definition of 'intentionality', and (b) recommend a paper introducing current thinking on the topic?


You make it too hard for yourself. Intentionality is just a technical word for "doing something with purpose", which is pretty much the ordinary use of the word as well. Where philosophers (in a manner of speaking) 're-coined' the word is simply because intentionality can be a pretty complex aspect of the human phenomenon. Thus the German philosopher Brentano, who introduced it as a philosophical term, meant thereby the "aboutness" which is a characteristic of the way we approach phenomena, i.e. the way we think about them. Accordingly it is feature of our mental performance. Apart from all the objects and events which form our perception of reality and into which we export our intentionality by the way we talk and think about them — referring to them always as meaningful to us in some way — - it may cover things that we think about which do not exist, such as Don Quixote or Roger Ramjet or the Terminator. We enjoy an ability to refer to them, and this is intentional[ity]. It also covers things we think about and give certain names — for example, Venus and The Evening Star — which are two 'intentional objects' but only one in hard reality. So the basis of the term is what we intend, either to do or to understand or to refer. Hope this helps.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(35) Emran asked:

If the big bang started it all, then what started the big bang?


Obviously the little bang that preceded the big bang. Or, if this does not satisfy you, why not the one-word answer "God?" Let me suggest to you that the only reason why we don't call the big bang by the word "God", for which it is a very thinly veiled surrogate, is because that word is not in the Dictionary of Science. Your question is relevant to the extent that the notion of a big bang evidently assumes creation from nothing; yet it is an axiom of science that creation from nothing is not an admissable concept. It is irrelevant from the point of view that in more recent times — at least two decades — the big bang has been in retreat (cf. the theories of Hawking and Penrose, among others) and will probably be tossed into the garbage bin before too much longer. So, if you've been worrying about it, stop right now. Life has many more substantial problems to offer.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(36) Fong asked:

Is reason the slave of passion or vice versa? A very fat man is stuck in the mouth of a cave on the sea coast. His head protrudes out of the cave mouth. In twelve hours the tide will rise and flood the cave. The fat man will live because his head will be above the high water level. This class is trapped inside the cave. (Your chronically unreliable teacher went for help, but who knows when he will return!) The class finds a case of dynamite, blasting caps, fuses and matches. Should we blow up the fat man or drown? What would Kant and/or Hume do or say? Who is right?

There is a fatal flaw in your argument — and I am aware that this very illustration has been bashed around for decades, if not centuries, in ethics classes. The flaw is that ethics cannot be approached in a logical way. Very few human predilections are amenable to logical analysis. In the case under discussion, the decision would be made not by a philosopher weighing the pros and cons of ethical imperatives — - which are to this extent fictitious anyway — but by the people trapped by the fat man. The ultimate arbiter in this case would be the will to live, the instinct to defend life at any cost. To this extent, I suggest you debate this illustration as an instance of the irrelevance of argument, which takes second place to the imperative of survival. As Brecht said, "you can't philosophise on an empty stomach." Let us therefore assume that the fat man is a philosopher and would, on ethical principles, be the first to reach for the dynamite and blast himself to smithereens.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(37) Irenio asked:

Is there a genuine truth? It seems to me that many philosophers talk about truth according to their own beliefs and perspectives, who among them shall we believe?


The problem of whether there is such a thing as absolute truth has taxed the minds of philosophers for centuries. From this it follows that different philosophers hold different opinions about truth; which, I believe, is what you are referring to when you say that, "philosophers talk about truth according to their own beliefs". This is not surprising when we consider its importance in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, the theory of meaning, the problem of knowledge and even in the philosophy of mind and ethics. The search is for a unifying thread in all the variety of things which have been said about truth. As it is not unusual for philosophers to concentrate on their own area of interest, is it any wonder we find the discussion of truth taking place in separate pockets of interest? How much, if any, of what has been written is relevant to the specifically philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth?

A broad division of the approach to truth is indicated in, scientific truth, imaginative truth, religious truth and relative truth. Despite this, there seems to be only a very restricted attempt to enter into the fascinating study of searching for the links which could reveal the possibility of an absolute truth. How many philosophers welcome the pronouncements of poets and saints as being fundamental to the search for truth? A good example of the attitude adopted by academic philosophy is revealed in the opening sentence of an article on Tarski's theory of truth by the American logician, Leon Henkin, (Truth and Probability):

"The word 'truth', as well as such words as 'beauty' and 'justice', refers to concepts so broad, and so deeply stirring to the human spirit, that some have set them as the aim of life."

Then he disappointedly continues:

"Here, however, we shall limit ourselves to a much narrower concept of truth, namely, as an attribute of sentences: What does it mean to say that a sentence is true?"

The answer to your question is then confined to the notion that academic philosophy considers that sentences, propositions, must conform to objects and things in the world to be considered truthful, or statements must conform to facts.

John Brandon

(38) Anna asked:

We are all familiar with Donald Davidson's theory on causality, and the concurrent responses by philosopher's that followed. How do you think we should solve the mind/body problem in what direction does the answer lie? It would be a pretty grim reality if we were to say that the mental realm is not causally efficacious, yet on the other hand to answer that question without referring to the divine become increasingly difficult. So if M has causal power and P has causal power then can't we say that M and P occur simultaneously in an endless chain which is aligned in some manner. Who aligned the two chains, (God) is the typical answer, but is there any way of eliminating the necessity for a divine intervention and locate the cause of alignment? Previously the source was the 'pineal gland' which is obviously false, how do we get around this problem?


Irrespective of what Davidson's theory of causality may propose (I have my doubts about it, but that's another story), reference to a divinity is mere prejudice, a human foible. This probably sounds very dogmatic; but if I can conceive of God, I can equally well conceive of any number of agents doing the same job without the attribute of omnipotence. The crux of causality is that the affected side must be susceptible; and there's hardly enough of a case in this for insisting that only a supreme power could be responsible for a causally efficacious 'alignment'.

Now as to the pineal gland, there was never a need to get around it. This notion of an interface between two mutually incompatible realities was a dreadful faux pas on Descartes' part. As proposed, it is an offence against elementary logic. Which makes it the more incredible, I suppose, that virtually all the alternatives proposed in the meantime exhibit the same flaw. This includes, paradoxically, those writers who most vociferously deny the homunculus theory.

Yet the solution is as simple and plain as you could wish and has been sitting right under our noses for a very long time. To approach the right solution requires us to take the Cartesian incompatibility seriously and adopt the point of view that one side of that equation must be wrong. And if with this idea in your visor you now inspect the body's communications system, you will come upon a highly revelatory fact: that all communications engaged in by the nervous system employ a species of electrochemical transmissions. Willing to move any part of your body, for example, is a causal chain such that one or another module of your brain produces a specific stream of ECT, which is conducted to its target site and there will accomplish the release of a muscle or a gland (etc.). Thinking is an activity that likewise utilises ECT among the brain's neurons, tossing code of many descriptions back and forth. And it is no different with sensations, although these are evidently the faculties in contact with the 'outside' world.

But in calling the latter 'outside', we are committing a radical error. We are keeping ourselves trapped in the notion of a 'material' world with which our mental faculties can have no immediate touch. However, the opposite is the case. All of this supposedly outside world is in fact continuous with us; what we call 'colours', 'sounds', 'smells' or 'hard objects' are to our senses just another species of electromagnetism. — You have surely heard before today that, when you touch a table top, at the atomic level this is like two armies meeting, of which one exerts a powerful (electric) resistance and prevents the other from intermingling. It is this power which your senses pick up; and they convert it into the species of EM which can be interpreted by the body as of a certain material density, whereupon your cortices decipher this by creating the impression 'hard'. Similarly with the other sensations you feel.

Clearly, once you recognise that this is how the body evaluates impingements, and how the brain 'talks to itself' as well as to the body, th e consequence is the instant obsolescence of all causal theories which cling to the mentality/matter duality. There is none. Causality is grounded in one spectrum and in one dimension; and mentality and 'matter impingement' are revealed to be aspects of the same texture. We don't need God for such an explanation. Moreover, all higher animals (i.e. those endowed with nervous systems) sense and 'will' in the same way. Evidently the above is not yet a solution to 'the problem of the mind', but it is an unambiguous pointer to the direction you asked for — the only direction, I venture to say, likely to have any promise of success.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(39) Sara asked:

How does Socrates philosophy differ from Chuang Tzu's philosophy?


In a nutshell, Socrates wanted people to be aware and rely less on habit, hearsay, fuzzy thinking and the dictates of plain desires. To be aware means to account to yourself about who you are, what your place and role is in society and, most of all, to cater for your soul. It was his conviction that the state of one's soul is the most important value criterion in human life. If human and social (political) life are not based on these values, which include most particularly a clear conception of the many entanglements we have with each other and with the co-existents of nature — which includes adequate practical conceptions of such features as justice, ethical behaviour, respect for the gods and so on — - then we will forever remain slaves to the lower drives which we share with animals. "For the good of the soul" was a phrase forever on his lips.

In contrast to this, Chang Tsu's philosophy was deeply pessimistic. He held that we have just this one chance to enjoy life, and therefore we should do what we can to keep ourselves happy with fine food, good living, and loving the boons conferred by life. We have hardly an hour free from troubles, he said: our bodies are prone to disease; war and strife are results of vanity, ambition and greed; and the same applies to the acquisitiveness of wealth and power, which we can't take with us when life ends. So the best thing to do is to get on with life and pursue our pleasures to the utmost; and most especially not to interfere with the similar pursuits of others.

It's a pretty anarchical attitude, as you can see. There is an old Taoist dictum: "Govern a state as you would cook a small fish." This gives you the gist of it. Bear in mind, however, that most of this is anecdotal. Writings attributed to him are doubtful and probably the notes of either students or just plain gossip — like the silly story of Thales falling into a ditch while contemplating the stars. Accordingly there is no record of how he would organise society in such a way as to guarantee every individual the freedom to follow his recommendations. Who produces alll the food and goods that make for a good life? Presumably those who are deprived of this freedom. But then you need a police force or a political hierarchy. This is the crucial point where Socrates differs too. For him, the political reality is such that everyone must be engaged in politics. Aristotle drew from this the consequence that "Man is a political animal". On this criterion, Socrates remains a democrat-of-a-sort; whereas Chang Tsu is an aristocrat. The latter's philosophy is plainly aimed at those who, in Brecht's famous words, have a belly full of food and can therefore afford to philosophise.

Jurgen Lawrenz

(40) Mark asked:

A preacher said, "A gay person can be a Christian, but a Christian can not be gay."

Is this some sort of twisted logic?


The belief expressed by the preacher concerning homosexuality is a matter of some debate in the Church today. Personally, I regard such views, as expressed by a minister of any religion, as utterly deplorable.

However, the logic of the preacher's statement is sound. That is to say, the two statements, "A gay person can be a Christian" and "A Christian can not be gay" are not inconsistent with one another.

In both cases, "can be" should be understood univocally as meaning, "is permitted to be".

"A gay person can be a Christian." This follows a fortiori from the general proposition that every person in the world is permitted to be a Christian. No-one, gays included, is banned from adopting the Christian faith.

"A Christian can not be gay." This states that anyone who is a Christian or who has adopted the Christian faith is not permitted to perform homosexual acts.

If you are a Christian, in this preacher's view, and you perform homosexual acts, then that does not make you not a Christian, but rather a Christian who is doing something which Christians are not permitted to do.

Geoffrey Klempner

(41) Colin asked:

First off, I would just like to point out that I am only 14 and not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just wondering if you think I'm being hypocritical with the following:

I myself am not a vegetarian and quite happily eat meat, but I do think killing animals is wrong. I have tried to justify my thoughts by saying 'Well, if I don't eat this meat then that animal has been killed for no reason', but in retrospect, if I were given the option to stop the killing of animals and not eat meat again, I wouldn't stop.

Reading this again I am now fairly sure that I'm being hypocritical, so I have answered that question, but is there a way I can justify my thoughts so I'm not being hypocritical? I'm looking forward to your replies.


Suppose the question was about cannibalism. Would you say, 'If I don't eat this human meat then this person has been killed for no reason'? If not, why not? What's the difference, in your view between eating non-human meat and eating human meat?

Here is another case to consider. It is high summer and you are the lucky owner of your own secluded swimming pool. Unfortunately, there is a severe water shortage, and out of a sense of civic responsibility you decide to keep the swimming pool empty until the crisis passes. However, your wife does not agree and you return home after work to find the pool brimming with water. What, if anything, wrong with saying, 'If I don't take a dip, then all this water has been wasted?' How is this case different from eating non-human meat?

Thinking about these questions might help you clarify your ambivalent feelings about the case for vegetarianism. I don't have any simple answer to offer.

Geoffrey Klempner

(42) Julie asked:

"What can you tell me about Sartre? His views and your position on them?"


The title of Sartre's Magnus opus is Being and Nothingness. In this work he examines the phenomenological structures of ontology, of what is as it is, as experienced by human beings. This structure is composed of both Being and Nothingness.


Being is what is. What is, is Being. There is no subject — object duality of private Cartesian subject distinct from the external, independent or objective world of things, which tries to discover the essence, the reality behind appearance. The meaning or essence of an existent or being is the phenomenon of that being disclosed to consciousness of a being called the human. The phenomenon of being is the successive and connected revelation of the being of phenomenon. What beings are is displayed in their being.

This is not Immaterialism a la George Berkeley, whereby phenomena only have being when perceived. Rather, consciousness possesses knowledge of Being but Being is not restricted to that knowledge. Being surpasses the knowledge we have of it and provides the basis for such knowledge.


Nothingness does not arise upon negative judgements. If it did, it would be a consequent of intellectual judgements whereas it is a part of Being manifesting itself in the Nihilation of itself. This is when consciousness nihilates phenomenon in for example, questioning, negatives, experiencing absences, focussing attention on a particular object whilst others [in a room for instance] melt into the ground or background. Nothingness is a Nihilation or break with Being. For example, the absence of an expected friend, [Sartre uses the example of the failure of his friend Pierre to appear in a cafe], the anticipation of an answer to an asked question, a missing object — all give rise to Nothingness. This applies to the phenomenon of the self as well as to the phenomenon of the world.


In questioning, in doubting, in projecting plans and hopes into the future, human reality detaches itself from Being. Being recedes, it is nihilated. By this act, Nothingness ensues. Because of its character as Nothing, Nothingness is not hindered by anything. Nothingness is Freedom. As Nothingness is a structure of human Being, so is Freedom. Human Beings are free in their actions and choices. This is the cardinal point of Sartre's 'existentialist' writings.

To embellish this, Sartre introduces anguish. Consciousness is aware that something may or may not occur in the future precisely because the future is Nothingness. This gives rise to anguish concerning the outcome of my choices, questions asked, to hopes and investments. Will they turn out as I hope or not? As I cannot know anything with certainty because the future is undetermined then anguish arises. Anguish is the consciousness of freedom.

There is a relation of my present being and my future being based on hopes, projections, anticipations and intentions. Nothingness constitutes this relation as it breaks with Being; it is nihilated as I reflect into the future. I am not the self which I will be. Time separates the two states. The past self cannot be the foundation for the present self just as the present self cannot be a foundation for future self. No existents can determine what I am going to be. The prior state to my present state does not exist — it is in non-Being. As such, it cannot determine my present state. In the same way, my present state does not determine my future state, I do not have to be what I am now as I am conscious of being my own future in the mode of not being it. Not-being is Non-Being. Non-Being is the Nihilation of Being or Nothingness. Nothingness is Freedom. I am free to create my future; it is not determined. As Sartre writes:

"Thus the self which I am depends on the self which I am not yet to the extent that the self which I am not yet does not depend on the self which I am" [P.32. Being and Nothingness].

There is no human essence or nature which physiologically or metaphysically determines the behaviour of individuals.

Bad Faith

Human beings are free. Deliberate failure to recognise this is to act in what Sartre terms 'Bad Faith'. In one instance, this is to deliberately ignore the facts and possibilities of a situation [Facticity and Transcendence respectively]. Sartre provides the example of the woman on a date. In an intimate situation with a man whom she knows is sexually interested in her, she opts not to recognise his sexual overtures, pretending otherwise. Ignoring how he feels she pretends his motives are respectful, discreet and attributes such meaning to his actions. Yet she quite enjoys the attention whilst ignoring his desire. She interprets his desire as not being what it is. As such, she is in bad faith. She ignores the transcendence of the situation conflating it with facticity [i.e., ignores the possibilities arising in the situation — transcendence — which arises from freedom] and conflates the Facticity [the mans desires, what he is saying and the like] with transcendence [interpreting his desire as warmth, admiration, respect and esteem]. In Bad faith, something is knowingly hidden from oneself.

In another example, Sartre cites the waiter who conflates his facticity, as a waiter with transcendence. He ignores the transcendence/freedom that he is not always and does not have to be a waiter with the facticity that he is and can only ever be a waiter. He gratuitously plays up fully to his role as waiter as all and only what he is. As such, he ignores the real possibilities of not being a waiter.

The homosexual suffers from guilt yet refuses to admit that he is homosexual. There are always extenuating circumstances and excuses. Homosexual feeling and events are justified as 'they happened in the past and I'm different now'. He exists in Bad Faith. His friend has become irritated with his duplicity and wants him to admit that he is homosexual. Sartre asks who is in Bad Faith — the homosexual who denies he is homosexual or the friend who wants him to admit to being a homosexual?

The homosexual exists in bad faith insofar as he ignores the transcendence of his situation [that he has the freedom not to act as a homosexual even though he is homosexual] and insofar as he conflates himself as a Facticity [Iam / am not homosexual — either read as a fixed and unalterable fact]. In asking him to admit to being homosexual, the friend is also acting in Bad Faith. For the friend wishes to make the homosexual into a thing devoid of freedom, a thing that cannot not be what he is and be what he is not. That is, he wishes to remove his friend's freedom as a human being.

The homosexual and his friend must recognise that they have, by their constitution, the freedom to be what they are not and to not be what they are i.e., the freedom to change. The homosexual needs to recognise he is homosexual but exists beneath the horizon of freedom. He can choose not to engage in homosexuality. The friend ought to stop turning people into things and ignoring their possibility of changing who and what they are. For obviously, there is no honesty or good faith in the absence of choice.

It is beneath this horizon of the freedom to be or not be what we are that we make our choices: choices that as such are authentic. If there is no freedom then human beings cannot and do not make choices: a threat to the very idea of human civilisation and actions.

Existentialism and Humanism

Sartre also condensed Being and Nothingness in his 1946 lecture Existentialism and Humanism. The central theme is again freedom and the nature of freedom. There is no human essence or nature predetermining what human beings do or become. On the contrary, Existence precedes Essence. In our existence, we human beings create ourselves from nothing and our lives are testaments to this. We are what we have freely made of ourselves. We are an issue for ourselves in reflection and action.

To hide away in an essence or innate, fixed human nature is to negate one's freedom and responsibility for being a human being [think of this to the background of the current debates on genetic and evolutionary determinism]. One confuses oneself with the being of a stone. The stone cannot alter its actions. It is identical with itself [being-in-itself] the human being as both being-in-itself and being -for-itself can reflect upon and alter its behaviour. Existentialism is the philosophy of Choice.

Freedom of Choice can be onerous though. Anguish, Abandonment and Despair can accompany it. Anguish occurs because although I am condemned to make choices, I can never know with certainty their outcome. Whether my choices are the right ones, whether they are successful, what consequences they may bring about is unknown. On the basis of this not knowing, anguish arises.

We decide our being through our choices. Human beings have abandoned moral touchstones as they realise that they themselves make choices. I may decide to become a Christian. This has nothing to do with the 'grace of God'. It is purely my choice — a choice made by myself. I may decide to become a Communist. This has nothing to do with Historical Materialism but again, is solely my choice. We have been abandoned to our freedom.

Despair may accompany our choices and actions. Choices are made in contexts and as such, our intentions, hopes must be realistic i.e. made within the realm of possibility.

Existentialism is not a philosophy of pessimism or of quietist despair. It is an honest, accurate philosophy of human action. It does not negate action, it emphasises it: through the act, through the deed, a person makes his/her life. It acutely recognises that Freedom is a tyrannical burden.

Sartre's Existentialist philosophy may have been written, as some commentators maintain, as a response to the Nazi occupation of France. People in France were deemed by Sartre to be at their most free. They could choose to conform and collaborate. Or they could choose to resist. Not choosing was still a choice. Do you think there is there is merit in Sartre's philosophy Julie? The choice is yours.

Martin Jenkins