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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 18 (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 18/1.

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) Everett asked:

In "On Sense and Nominatum," Gottlob Frege writes not only of reference but also of sense as forming the objective basis that underlies meaning. (There is also a subjective aspect, called tone, but Frege does not give it much credence.) In the essay, Frege tantalizingly hints that the ability to develop alternate senses for some particular reference is a source for creative thought about that reference ... i.e. of imagining the reference in a different way. wondering whether any philosopher has taken up the task of refining the concept of sense so that the roll sense plays in the make up of creativity is made clear. Just because I haven't seen anything which delves the question in-depth doesn't mean it isn't out there. Or perhaps you think my question is faulty, ill-posed or nonsense? Any response would be cheerfully accepted.


I think your question is very rambling. However, what I think you want are references to philosophical works on creativity, especially from the analytic tradition, right? I don't know too many; here are a few:

Crawford, D. W. 1982. Kant's theory of creative imagination, edited by T. Cohen and P. Guyer. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, M. 1985. Imagination in moral judgment. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 46 (2):265-280. ------. 1987. The body in the mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Minnameier, G. 2004. Peirce-Suit of Truth — Why Inference to the Best Explanation and Abduction ought not to be Confused. Erkenntnis 60:75-105.

Turner, M., and G. Fauconnier. 1999. A mechanism of creativity. Poetics Today 20 (3):397-418.

Dastani, M., B. Indurkhya, and R. Scha. 2003. Analogical projection in pattern perception. Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 15 (4):489-511.

Fields, C. 2004. The role of aesthetics in problem solving: some observations and a manifesto. Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 16 (1):41-55.

Goodman, N. 1976. Languages of art. 2-d ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

------. 1988. Ways of worldmaking. 5th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Scruton, R. 1987. Analytical philosophy and the meaning of music. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46:169-176.

Silveira, L.F.B. da. Some considerations about semiotic machines from the point of view of Charles S. Peirce's Philosophy [].

Steven Ravett Brown

(2) Julia asked:

I am writing a paper on Parmenides. I am trying to find a scholar that comments on the following problem: If Parmenides believes that change is impossible, how then did he himself move from ignorance to knowledge (as illustrated in the proem). In all of my research so far, I have found no one directly addressing this issue. Could you please point me to a book that I can read?


It's endearing that you assume *someone* must have found a way to defend Parmenides here, but in fact I think you have an unanswerably good point.

It is possible that someone else has made it, but I can't recall. Usually Parmenides is criticised on other grounds — that his monism makes meaning and language impossible (Plato), that he's got the wrong idea about what 'not' means (Plato again), that it's patently obvious that there's change and motion (empiricist philosophers).

One thing I will say, however, about how far your point goes, is that Parmenides would probably have said something like:

'So what? — the proem is merely an literary device, for *in some sense* I always knew The One'

The place to challenge P then is over this *some sense*. How plausible is a picture of knowledge that says I know something when nothing I say or do displays this knowledge? Or, if P thinks that something always did display this knowledge, then what? And is that enough to count? If that is knowledge, what wonders might we now know, without knowing it? Note that lots of philosophers (eg pragmatists) think that we know things without knowing that we know them (because really I know where the light switch is in the dark, as is shown by the fact that I put my hand on it successfully nine times out of ten), but P would have to be a specially extreme case, wouldn't he? What marks of previous knowledge could he point to?

David Robjant

(3) Arianna asked:

I am preparing a research and I would like to know your opinions about the topic I chose. I am going to compare/contrast Plato's philosophy with Hitler's views on politics and philosophy in general. I thought the two proposed similar ideas about the concept of state, more in particular, about the fact that citizens should be directed by the government and the government should decide, after having provided education to them, if they are "artisans, guardians, or rulers." -Both personalities had an utopian vision concerning the organization of society. -Their "socialist views" Those are some of the ideas I had about Hitler and Plato. I would like to get some help in finding other topics for comparison of the two, and also some infos about their differences. I hope you can help me with my request, I must have the research ready by Thursday 12/9/04. I wish I had found your web site earlier, I would have contacted you before.


What you are proposing, it would seem, is to re-write Karl Popper's 'The open society and it's enemies', so I propose you read that book, to avoid unnecessary embarrassment or accusations of plagiarism. After you've done that and agreed with all of what Popper has to say, I suggest you take a short break at a local cafE, put all of that Popper stuff attempting to blame WWII on Plato to one side, and then, with an open mind, re-read the Republic paying special attention to all the passages which say that the republic is not a political manifesto at all, but a metaphor for the soul and an examination of a soul at "fever heat". You may also find some passages in which Plato says that War is caused by greed and that greed is the greatest evil in the soul.

David Robjant

(4) Kevin asked:

Why is the world the way it is?


Ah, but is it?

David Robjant

(5) Marcin asked:

I have a number of questions concerning Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblances. The first is: Can you recommend any sources (philosophers, books, articles) that criticise the idea of FR (as put forward in Philosophical Investigations).


For two serious attempts to articulate doubts about W's late philosophy as a whole including the hay made of family resemblances see Cook 'Wittgenstein's Metaphysics' and Murdoch 'Metaphysics as a guide to morals'.

David Robjant

(6) Scott asked:

What does it mean for philosophic atheism now that Anthony Flew has become a Deist? (


Nothing. Although I do think that most current theology ought to be be as suspicious of Flew's deism as his atheism. Look at the odd rationale he gives. Nothing about emotional engagement — and as a result one may wonder (theologians will) if it is really God that he's talking about. Really the question ought not to be the dried up 'does god exist?' but some more honest variant of 'do I love/hate/get slightly miffed by God?' A good Buddhist practiced in taking full responsibility for their own lives may be able to answer 'no' to all these questions, but as for all of us less perfect persons, I suspect there are important vital senses in which God exists for us and in which the nature of our emotional engagement and the resultant object of them matters, whatever we may say when quizzed in a 'philosophical' mood.

David Robjant

(7) Luciano asked:

Do colours actually exist or do humans conceptualize colour in our brains?


You're trying to set up an opposition here, and it doesn't really work. Since colour experience is one thing and the idea of distinct colours quite another, it is perfectly possible that these two questions are not related as you imagine. Ie, it would be possible to answer 'no' to both or 'yes' to both.

Consider: how many colours are there in a Rainbow?

Five? Six? A million? Infinitely many? None? Silly question?

Now, our experience of rainbows is not, I would say, 'conceptualised in our brains'. This merging flowing variation really does exist — there it is over by that cloud. However, it is popular philosophical question as to what 'red' means. It is patently obvious that rainbows do not come with little black lines around areas of colour and little arrows attached to a label saying 'this is red'. *How many* colours there are depends on us. But that does not show that they 'do not exist'. Nor does it show that colour — if by that we mean the whole rainbow — is 'conceptualized in our brains'.

David Robjant

(8) Katrin asked:

Is abortion moral or ethica.?


It's both in some circumstances, neither in other circumstances. Since morality, technically, refers to a general or systematized ethics (or to reverse that, one could say that specific ethical decisions derive from general moral principles), one could also easily find instances where the morality and the ethics of abortion differed.

Steven Ravett Brown

(9) Anna asked:

I'm really interested in critical thinking. Because I think it's one of the take-off bases in being a good thinker. But I have a question: how to learn to find the main claim, main idea. Sometimes it's quite easy to locate it but there are texts where I get lost. Any suggestions?


You've hit on one of the hardest problems in reading comprehension, in general. And the general answer is merely to read, read, read, and keep working on it, with educated feedback from competent professionals. Now there are some tricks... you can look at tables of contents, you can look at headings, and you can look at the first sentence or two in a paragraph, which usually (but not always) more or less summarize the thoughts in that paragraph. The best person I know of for the latter is Aristotle. Take a look at the Nichomachean Ethics... you'll see that general to particular organization throughout. In fact, one might claim that the first paragraph of that document summarizes all of it.

Steven Ravett Brown

(10) Chardlie asked:

Explain the problem of goodness Versus happiness in Plato and Aristotle.


Well, go here: and look up "eudaimonia".

Steven Ravett Brown

(11) Diane asked:

Can you please explain to me the philosophical statement, "A person can get used to anything". Specifically when it comes to survival (for example, survival on an island, or on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific ocean).


No, because it's not a philosophical question. It's a psychological question. You might do some reading on how people survived concentration camps.

Steven Ravett Brown

(12) Thomas asked:

Well my question is about piaget's and vygotsky's theory in practise while teaching physics. I would be grateful to hear your opinion about this!


Well the problem here is, first, that Piaget and Vygotsky were psychologists, developmental psychologists, and not primarily philosophers. Second, neither of them had a "theory". They had many interconnected theories. Third, "teaching physics" is far, far, too vague to be able, even if I wanted to distill the hundreds of pages of Piaget and Vygotsky I've read — which I don't — to a 25-word or less answer, to do it coherently. Fourth, both of those people have been superseded by further experiment and theory in the *enormous* field of developmental psychology, so even if I *did* a) *want* to answer this question, and b) *manage* to answer it in less than, say, 50-100 pages, I would still, after all that, have provided an answer which was about 50-75 years out of date insofar as current theory and experiment go in that field. My answer to you, then, is, go take courses, or at the very least, go ask someone in developmental psychology for a reading list so that you can learn the contemporary work in that field. Of course, since you're asking about teaching, I should also refer you to the field of education, which has progressed in its own right in the last century or so.

Steven Ravett Brown

(13) Mustafe asked:

Islam reached its peak centuries before, so is it possible that Islam will raise again, if it is how? if it is not why?

I have two other questions which I have been searching for the last two years, they are;

What is the secret of life?

We know that the time is "running", please can you tell me the speed of the time.

To question 1) I'd say: of course it is possible. But it might require some of the factors responsible for that former flowering (for instance in old Baghdad). And what were these? Not war or anger.

2) I don't know what question you are asking. Do you mean 'how is life possible?' or 'what is the key to a good life?'

2) Time can have no speed, since speed is a temporal concept. Yet withal that we do speak of the way time moves, which may be code for how our experience moves. When we say that time 'runs' or 'flows' we are using a metaphor to picture the *way* in which what passes does pass. Running — I suppose we picture a world in which the future is 'in front' and it moves towards it (a metaphor with semi-fatalistic overtones). 'Flowing'- we picture a world in which what passes moves past us in time smoothly, continuously, like the river.

David Robjant

(14) Nael asked:

I want to ask: what is the more important attribute of the historian: the ability to analyse evidence scientifically or the ability to develop interpretations of evidence using creative imagination? I like if you would clear the answer for me using examples please.


You tell me what a historian is, and I'll answer your question. Is a historian someone who wants to find historical truth, inasmuch as that's possible? Is a historian someone who wants to *interpret* what's known about historical truth to further some other end? Obviously, the different conceptions of historians imply different answers. Look at it this way... what about "scientists"? Should they go for truth, i.e., analyzing evidence scientifically (and I'm not going to further pursue what that latter phrase means... if *you* want to, read Kitcher's first book), or should they go for "creative interpretations" of evidence? Well, where's the boundary line between "creativity" and "analysis"? For a scientist, the boundary is where the products of creativity start to become inconsistent with what's known about the world, wouldn't you say? But surely that leaves a lot of room for the creation of theories and hypotheses. I would assume that this boundary is the same for a "scientific" historian.

Steven Ravett Brown

(15) Amanda asked:

I can't find a good definition to "calculus of Individuals". I am reading the paper, "The Calculus of Individuals and its uses" by Goodman and Leonard, but I really can't figure out what they mean by calculus of individuals. I have seem the term referenced by Richard Martin in "time and the null individual" and "A homogeneous system for formal logic" but I still don't understand. Any help would be appreciated.


Well, I went here: to find an interesting article, by putting "calculus of individuals" into Google. There isn't a lot on this subject... it seems to be a rather strange variant of nominalism, dealing with combinations rather than collections of elements; objects rather than sets, roughly.

Steven Ravett Brown

(16) Luciano asked:

Do colours actually exist or do humans conceptualize colour in our brains?


Try some of these:

Arterberry, M.E., and M.H. Bornstein. 2002. Infant perceptual and conceptual categorization: the roles of static and dynamic stimulus attributes. Cognition 86:1-24.

Matravers, D. 1996. Aesthetic concepts and aesthetic experiences. The British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (3):265-277.

O'Regan, J.K., and A. NoI. 2001. A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (5).

Pessoa, L., E. Thompson, and A. NoI. 1998. Finding out about filling-in: A guide to perceptual completion for visual science and the philosophy of perception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21:723-802.

Pratt, J., and B. Hommel. 2003. Symbolic Control of Visual Attention: The Role of Working Memory and Attentional Control Settings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 29 (5):835-845.

Rosch, E. 1973. Natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 4:328-350. Tye, M. 2002. Consciousness, color, and content. Edited by H. Putnam and N. Block, Representation and Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Steven Ravett Brown

(17) Katrin asked:

Is abortion moral or ethical?


This is one of those moral questions about which people disagree and at present there seems to be no way to reconcile the disagreements. I think everybody is agreed that abortion is not a good thing in itself but many people think that it is permissible and that a woman should have the right to choose. Other people think that human life starts at the moment of conception and that abortion is the same as murder and can never be allowed. There are complex arguments on both sides about the right to life, when does a foetus become a person etc. You can study these but in the end you will have to make your own mind up.

Shaun Williamson

(18) Mel asked:

What is the nature of reality? How do we know what?s real or true? How ought we live? What does it mean to DO philosophy?


The whole point of doing philosophy is to enable you to decide what is real or true or what you ought to do for yourself. You cannot just ask and accept anyone else's answers to these questions because they might be wrong.

Shaun Williamson

(19) Jane asked:

If a tree falls and no one is there does it make a sound?


Yes it does and if we left a video camera there it would record the tree falling and the sound that it makes even though no one is there to hear it.

Shaun Williamson

(20) Margaret asked:

I have had Tinnitus for the past 5 yrs. Started around time of cancer/s diagnosis, breast to brain metastis, surgery, chemo and radiation for both. Now I'm even afraid to go to the dentist. I y home can not work/concentrate. What response do you have fo me?


There are now better treatments for Tinnitus in some London hospitals. Many cases of Tinnitus are caused by the brain losing its ability to filter out background noise. The treatments are based upon forcing the brain to listen to very noisy recordings to help it relearn this ability.

Shaun Williamson

(21) Gareth asked:

Do we live our lives and decide what actions to take based upon the reactions of these 'actions', what if a world existed where you realised that your actions had no consequence, I'm thinking about a groundhog day scenario Would there be anything that is 'off-limit', as the next day there would be no consequences Is our morality based on consequence?


Well if there really were no consequences then morality would become unimportant but there always are are consequences even if these are only relevant to you. So if you steal then you just become a thief. The point of the groundhog day scenario is that the main character comes to realise that his actions have consequences for him. If he cheats other people he just becomes a cheat etc. being a hero and pretending to be a hero are very different.

Shaun Williamson

(22) Scott asked:

What does it mean for philosophic atheism now that Anthony Flew has become a Deist? ( Thanks


It means absolutely nothing. Just because Anthony Flew was once an atheist and is now a Deist doesn't compel anyone to follow him. Philosophy is about making up your own mind not about following the opinions of others. There are no masters and disciples in philosophy, just equal individual making up their own minds about things.

Shaun Williamson

(23) Anonymous asked:

Do absolute true morals exist?


Well morality exists but placing words like 'absolute' and 'true' in front of it doesn't help.

You might just as well ask does absolute true mathematics exists or does absolute true physics exist.

Shaun Williamson

(24) Hazel asked

What is the role of Karma in the HIndu worldview?


Karma plays a big role in the Hindu worldview. In Hinduism, Karma translates as 'action', and it is closely connected with reincarnation, because each reincarnation constitutes a punishment or a reward in reference to the actions you took in your passed life. Very important are those actions related to the moral law or dharma. The ultimate goal would be for the soul to return to the source of divinity which gave it form — Brahman (Absolute) — reaching nirvana.

You can see that karma plays a main role in the process of spiritual evolution. It's also interesting to see that everything in Hinduism is based around the notion of 'change', of 'perpetual motion', not unlike what happened in ancient Greece. It's easy to understand why the most revered divinity in India is Vishnu, because it is the god of the constant, which makes things last as they are. Brahma is the creator, and is respected. Shiva is the destroyer and is feared. Only Vishnu makes things last, and is therefore respected the most'.

Nuno Hipolito

(25) Beth asked:

How are Socrates and Descartes optimistic that philosophy can be directed at objective truth?


The answer is very simple actually: they both had a very strong method for discovering truth. They were so confident that their methods were foul proof that they were obviously optimistic about finding objective truth in their endeavours. Both the Socratic and the Cartesian methods were sceptical, always putting things in doubt at first, so that reason acted as a filter for reality, and the experience of the human senses.

Nuno Hipolito

(26) Gareth asked:

Do we live our lives and decide what actions to take based upon the reactions of these 'actions', what if a world existed where you realised that your actions had no consequence, I'm thinking about a groundhog day scenario Would there be anything that is 'off-limit', as the next day there would be no consequences Is our morality based on consequence?'


Your actions always have consequences, even in a 'groundhog scenario'. If you have a strong moral belief that prevents you from killing another man, I'm sure you won't murder him just because you can do so, without being caught. Just remember that if it's true that there is no 'next day consequences' that works both ways. For example, you could steal a lot of money, but you wouldn't be able to spend it the next day. So the next time around, you probably wouldn't steal, because there was no point to steal, whatsoever. The point is your morality is always based on choices, even in a 'groundhog scenario'. You probably find it exciting to ponder what would happen if you could freeze time or go back in time, and you consider those things as chances to be amoral, but a human being is never amoral, because all liberty comes with the necessity to make choices. Even if you chose to be immoral, or amoral, you are making a choice, and accepting the consequences of your choice, which is called 'responsibility'. I don't think, in conclusion, that our morality is based on consequences, but is, on the other hand, based on the necessity of making choices in life. And because you always have to make choices, you always have to consider your stance on morality, even if time does repeat itself.

Nuno Hipolito

(27) Jane asked:

If a tree falls and no one is there does it make a sound'


'This is a classical philosophical problem, that in fact in a non-issue for 'modern philosophy'. This problem is easily resolved using philosophy of language. What is a sound? A sound is the mechanical effect of propagating waves that travel to a human ear, and are processed by the cognitive area of the brain and so understood. We understand sound as something that is perceived, so no sound is produced when we do not listen to it, that would be nonsensical.

Nuno Hipolito

(28) Luna asked:

Compare and contrast a predicament of socrates and jesus.


'There is a tendency to consider Socrates a kind of intellectual Jesus. I think Jesus was an intellectual as well, but I can understand the comparison. Well, Socrates did sacrifice himself for his beliefs, as did Jesus. In this lays the main comparison between the two. Socrates wanted men to question themselves, but Jesus wanted men not to question that they would be saved by God, if they believed. It's hard to compare a philosopher with a religious prophet. Although sometimes both preach, and have followers, they are indeed different in essence. While a prophet asks of its followers that they believe blindly, by faith, a philosopher wants its followers to believe using reason, and always after using their liberty to question is own ideas. So, although they both did end up dying for their beliefs, I don't think Jesus and Socrates were in the same 'line of work'. That can be seen clearly by the aftermath of their deaths. When a prophet dies, a religion is born. When a philosopher dies, a system of ideas is born. They both originated something that came from their deaths but they were very different things. And they were very different men'.

Nuno Hipolito

(29) Luciano asked:

Do colours actually exist or do humans conceptualize colour in our brains?'


I think this is another 'philosophy of language' question. A colour is our concept of our perception of a part of the spectrum of light. Colours did not exist before humans, because they were not perceived as colours. But the spectrum of light existed, as early as there was light. (even before Edison, imagine that!). So we do conceptualize colour, by naming it, to understand it.

Nuno Hipolito

(30) Marcin asked:

I have a number of questions concerning Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblances. The first is: Can you recommend any sources (philosophers, books, articles) that criticise the idea of FR (as put forward in Philosophical Investigations). Marcin Mizak


Well, you might check these out:

Ashby, F.G., and E.M. Waldron. 1999. On the nature of implicit categorization. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 6 (3):363-378.

Burch, J.W., and V. Pishkin. 1984. Family resemblance: category structure of joy and shame. Journal of Clinical Psychology 40 (5):1136-1143.

Colcombe, S.J., and R.S. Wyer. 2002. The role of prototypes in the mental representation of temporally related events. Cognitive Psychology 44:67-103.

DeliEge, I. 2001. Prototype Effects in Music Listening: An Empirical Approach to the Notion of Imprint. Music Perception 18 (3):371-407.

Rosch, E. 1973. Natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 4:328-350. ------. 1978. Principles of categorization, edited by E. Rosch and B. B. Lloyd. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

------. 1999. Reclaiming concepts. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (11-12):61-77.

Rosch, E., C.B. Mervis, W.D. Gray, D.M. Johnson, and P. Boyes-Braem. 1976. Basic objects in natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 8 (3):382-439.

Steven Ravett Brown

(31) Tony asked:

What does Kant think about dualist interactionism?


One can claim that the whole point of the three Critiques is to demonstrate the possibility of free will... not, note, the *existence* of it, just the possibility. Now, given that the Third Critique culminates with an argument about the "genius" and how that necessitates a kind of non-lawful connection with reality, and that the rest of the mental is lawful, we might claim a kind of dualism here. There is, as far as I know, no explicit development in Kant of the interaction between the intuitions of the genius and the lawfulness of the normal logical faculties, and so that dualism, while it certainly must imply some sort of interactionism, is not explained. It is, however, necessary in some form, since the thrust of the Critiques is to show the possibility of this non-lawful mental dynamic, vs. the lawfulness of the rest of mentality. Of course, Kant pays lip-service to the religion of the day in many of his writings, and that must imply lip-service to a dualism, given the Critiques. But I think that latter is not significant, while the former, I believe, is, and is much more interesting... but, as I say, undeveloped. You might look at the "hard problem" in current philosophy to see the modern equivalent.

Steven Ravett Brown

(32) Peter asked:

How much is reality mathematical?


We don't know. Mathematics is a way we model the world. How successfully do our models function, how close is their structure to the structure of reality... these and related issues are questions that have been debated for millennia, and are still being debated.

You might try these:

Boole, G. 1958. An investigation of the laws of thought. 2-d ed. New York, NY: Dover Publications.

Dipert, R.R. 1997. The mathematical structure of the world: the world as graph. The Journal of Philosophy 94 (7):329-358.

Eisenbud, L. 1971. The conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics. Edited by W. C. Michels, Van Nostrand Reinhold Momentum Books. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Godel, K. 1992. On formally undecidable propositions of Principia mathematica and related systems. Translated by B. Meltzer and R. B. Braithwaite. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. Original edition, 1962.

Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nunez. 2000. Where mathematics comes from: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Nagel, E., and J. R. Newman. 1958. Godel's proof. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Narens, L. 2002. The Irony of Measurement by Subjective Estimations. Journal of Mathematical Psychology 46:769-788.

------. 2002. A Meaningful Justification for the Representational Theory of Measurement. Journal of Mathematical Psychology 46:746-768.

Null, G.T., and R.A. Simons. 1981. Aron Gurwitsch's ordinal foundation of mathematics and the problem of formalizing ideational abstraction. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 12 (2):164-174.

Shepard, R. 1964. Attention and the metric structure of the stimulus space. Journal of Mathematical Psychology 1:54-87.

Steven Ravett Brown

(33) Lena asked:

What is your opinion of covering law model? Do you believe it doesn't illuminate the nature of explanation? For example, if someone wants to know why x happened under conditions y, it's not illuminating to be told that x is the sort of thing that always happens under y conditions. Would you agree?


I wouldn't agree at all. What happened to induction here? I would certainly agree that in a strict sense (e.g., "covering laws" as formulated by Hempel are probably incorrect, because I'm not really much of a logical positivist. But more generally, the term, and the concept, seem quite reasonable and useful to me. We'd be in a pretty pickle without statistical inference, don't you think? Sure, the question of what a "law" is, precisely, remains a bit of a puzzle... but still, do you really think we have any other criteria, in the real world? To put it another way, I'd cite abduction from the "conditions" you mention above as a way to get around a simple list as a *statement* of a law, without getting away from that list as the necessities for or indications of that law.

Steven Ravett Brown

(34) Anthony asked:

I refer to answer 17/24. What I was referring to is Outer space.If it does not have an end or boundary then what does it mean if one says it is infinite.I cant see how something physical can have no boundary neither can I understand what lies beyond Outer space if it has a boundary. We can't seem to have more and more space without an end to space and if there is an end to space it's hard to imagine nothingness too.


Anthony I understood that you meant outer space but there is no difference between outer space and space in general. Space can be the space between the table and chair in my room, the space between two atoms in a sugar cube, the space between earth and the planet Mars or the space between our solar system and the most distant galaxies. What you have to remember is that space is not a thing, it is not like books, planets or stars. I can ask you to bring me the chair in the next room. I can ask you to bring me the second atom on the left in this sugar cube. This is difficult but it can be done. I can ask you to bring me the planet Mars. This would be difficult unless you are Superman. But I can't ask you to bring me the space between the Earth and Mars even superman wouldn't be able to do this. Now it may be true that you can't imagine an end to space or imagine that space is infinite but what we can or can't imagine isn't important here. Science adopts the best available theory that is consistent with the evidence we have at the present time. The current theories of cosmology and of atomic physics do not describe the world in terms that we can imagine. Quantum mechanics, Relativity, The Big Bang theory and even String theory do not describe a world that can be pictured but there are very good reasons to believe that they may be true. Space only exists where there is matter and the material world is finite but it is expanding in all directions, so space is expanding and may go on expanding for ever. So you could say that space is finite but is potentially infinite. If you want to understand more about these things then you will have to study particle physics and cosmology. But forget about what you think you can or cannot imagine. This is unimportant.

Shaun Williamson

(35) Husein asked:

Is the evolution directed by its very nature? If it is not then why we see species better than before? If it is directed then is their any need for a designer or it is a normal natural process that appears to us as a design?


I think it is unhelpful to think of evolution in terms of is it directed or not. The theory of evolution describes the complex interaction between living things and their environment. Species don't get better they change according to genetic laws and the laws of spontaneous mutation. If these changes make them better to survive and breed in the environment in which they find themselves then they survive otherwise they die out. Consider the elephant. Elephants need to consume a large amount of vegetation every day so they can only exist in a world where this food is available. Because of their size they live for a long time and have few natural predators. Now consider the mouse. It is small and so has a short lifespan but its need little food and breeds quickly. In certain environments the elephant will survive and the mouse will perish. In other environments the opposite will be true. It is wrong to theorise about evolution without understanding the details of the theory and it is the details that are important. Evolution is one of the most misunderstood theories in science. Rejecting the theory of evolution is not an option unless you can come up with a better theory. Just as you cannot reject Quantum mechanics unless you can come up with a better theory.

Shaun Williamson

(36) Anthony asked:

I refer to answer 17/24.What I was referring to is Outer space.If it does not have an end or boundary then what does it mean if one says it is infinite.I cant see how something physical can have no boundary neither can I understand what lies beyond Outer space if it has a boundary.We can't seem to have more and more space without an end to space and if there is an end to space it's hard to imagine nothingness too.


Here's an example of a construct without a boundary: take the area within a circle, and remove the actual circle. Then there is a set of points within that radius which has no boundary. One can look at physical objects on the quantum level for the same kind of "bo" property... i.e., there is no line one can draw and say, "beyond this line there is no possible presence of an electron". So in that sense there are no physical boundaries. In fact, one might go so far as to claim that *we* create boundaries; that there are in fact none in nature.

But your actual intent, I assume, wasn't really to ask about boundaries, but about *extent*. Does the universe have finite extent, right? Well, go look in the archives (sorry I don't remember when) for questions on this; it has been answered. But roughly, the answers can be put into two categories: a) space is a construct of the human mind, and b) answering this in physical terms is dependent on what you conceive the "universe" to be, physically. If (a) is the case, as, e.g., Kant argues, then all you're talking about is the applicability of a construct to a situation which it was never designed to cope with, and so of course it's going to run into problems, and their resolution, on their own terms, is probably not possible. In other words, our minds can cope with a limited class of environments, and the one in question isn't in that class. If (b) is the case, then on the one hand, of course, if the "universe" refers to *everything*, and the universe is spatial, then there can be no boundary to it (although space could be *finite*... a seeming paradox which I'll leave for you to look up the answer... and yes, there is one, and not the above bo circle). If on the other hand the term "universe" refers to some subset of everything then of course how this is resolved depends on how and to what it refers, and you're going to have to be very very clear on that.

Steven Ravett Brown

(37) David asked:

Thanks for the opportunity to ask a question. Here's one that has been bugging me lately, regarding free will and responsibility. Some claim the following: 1. All my actions are determined by causes. 2. I therefore have no power over my actions. 3. Responsibility only exists where power exists. 4. I therefore bear no responsibility for my actions. Is there a name for those who explicitly reject clause #3? In other words, those who maintain that you have no control over your actions, but *nonetheless* must bear responsibility for them — that power and responsibility are not linked? Is there a general area of philosophy that denies the link between volition and responsibility?


You know, it's funny... the *only* group I know of who held that position were the Puritans who settled in America. They held that their god had already laid out the destiny of the world and everyone in it, and that you were, at or before birth, already saved or damned because of the life you were *going* to live. I can imagine few philosophies more bizarre... and the fact that a fair number of people actually *believed* that is certainly enough to convince anyone of the irrationality of humanity and of religion in general, I'd say. Aside from that I know of no one holding this viewpoint, because if you did, then you'd also have to hold stones responsible for falling on people, fish responsible for eating each other and so forth, wouldn't you. I suppose that if you were a complete animist you might hold something like this, but animists *do* think that stones, etc., have choices. Really what you're talking about here is that *anything* that effects something else is "responsible" in some moral sense for that effect... I assume that's the implication of the conception of responsibility you're concerned with, otherwise you're merely asking whether something which has caused something else actually *has* caused it, which is pretty trivial, after all. Should we think about electrons as having moral obligations and responsibilities? I don't think so, myself.

Steven Ravett Brown

(38) Peter asked:

How much is reality mathematical?


I can't answer this question because I don't understand what it means. What would reality be like if it were more mathematical. Suppose the ratio between the radius and circumference of a circle were 3 rather than an irrational number like pi, would this make reality more mathematical? You need to clarify your question. Despite using very powerful supercomputers which can do many trillions of calculations per second we still cannot accurately predict the weather. Does this mean that reality isn't very mathematical? I don't know.

Shaun Williamson

(39) Amiin asked:

Hi my question to you is; what is LIFE?


For humans and animals and insects and fish its the time between birth and death. You need to clarify your question. What exactly do you want to know.

Shaun Williamson

(40) David asked:

Thanks for the opportunity to ask a question. Here's one that has been bugging me lately, regarding free will and responsibility. Some claim the following: 1. All my actions are determined by causes. 2. I therefore have no power over my actions. 3. Responsibility only exists where power exists. 4. I therefore bear no responsibility for my actions. Is there a name for those who explicitly reject clause #3? In other words, those who maintain that you have no control over your actions, but *nonetheless* must bear responsibility for them — that power and responsibility are not linked? Is there a general area of philosophy that denies the link between volition and responsibility? Thank you again.


I don't know of any philosophers who explicitly say that even if we are never free to choose our own actions we must nevertheless be responsible for them. It would be illogical to hold such a belief. However I have known many philosophers who claim to believe in determinism but refuse to accept the consequences of this belief in their everyday life. If you really believe that people have no freedom to choose then you loose the right to condemn people for the things they do. The idea of right or wrong has no meaning unless you believe we can choose to do right or wrong.

Shaun Williamson

(41) Jean-Pierre asked:

Is all knowledge Propaganda?


No. For example you can know your own name or what day of the week it is. These things are also knowledge but they are not propaganda.

Shaun Williamson

(42) John asked:

The perennial question, what philosophy is, pops up from time to time in heated debates on the nature of philosophy. One might say as Bertrand Russell and declare to hold logic as what is fundamental in philosophy. Another might argue that logic is just a tool that is only necessary when trying to figure out if an argument is deductively valid or invalid — real philosophy should concentrate on being etc. like existentialism does. The third might object and say that epistemology is the only true philosophy, because you cannot write or analyze philosophy without a way to know that the person writing is talking more than "cod shit". That he/she knows something and that this something can be true. Now for the actual question. Debates such as the ones previously mentioned are based on a feeling that philosophy is this and this. How can philosophy be a science if it's fundamental questions are based on feelings that some part of philosophy is more important than another? Do you think metaphilosophy is useful/needed more in the future or should it be discarded as useless?


Well I think the answer to this one is that philosophy is not a science. There are no agreed theories or answers to problems in philosophy. There is no progress in philosophy in the way that there is in science. None of the problems of philosophy can be solved by using 'meta philosophy'. One of the facts you will have to face about philosophy is that philosophers are never going to agree. You might draw some conclusions from that if you think about it.

Shaun Williamson

(43) Slave asked:

Personal opinion-what do you say is the worst invention of mankind?


The internal combustion engine, an inefficient, energy wasting contraption responsible for the deaths of millions in accidents and pollution. The worst discovery, nuclear power, including the atomic bomb, followed by the dreadful mistake of putting it into the hands of politicians.

John Brandon

(44) Phil asked:

"What was Hegel's view of historical progress and how does this compare with Marx's view?"



Hegel's view of the historical process is that it is the development of the consciousness of freedom. History is the reconciliation of universal, collective consciousness [or Spirit Geist] with itself. This is achieved by its dialectical overcoming of alienation and of oppositions that develop out of itself — a developmental process of supersession and incorporation [Aufgehoben]. This teleological process ceases with the total reconciliation of Spirit with itself in Absolute Identity. So the development of spirit manifested in human history is progressive.


As a student, Marx was first attracted to the 'craggy melody' of Hegel's Philosophy later to radically reject it. He rejected the Idealism of Hegel and his followers substituting it with a materialist ontology. I say substitute because certain categories of Hegel can still be discerned in Marx. Whereas Hegel viewed historical change as emanating from a phenomenological dialectic within human consciousness, Marx 'turned Hegel the right side up' to posit historical change in material and social factors notably the struggle between social classes.

Hence for Marx 'the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the class struggle'. From the original identity [harmony] of human beings with themselves in Primitive Communism, Slave, Feudal and Capitalist societies are characterised and moved by the class struggle. Marx's view of progress may be discerned in his view that the class struggle would be won by the proletariat in the overthrow of Capitalism yielding to the good society of world communism. With the latter, Class struggle would cease to exist and the absolute identity of human beings with themselves, free from social antagonism will commence.

Progress for both Hegel and Marx seems to be measured within a historical and teleological template. Movement towards the end of the historical process is identical with progress.

Both share a teleological view of the historical process — it has a goal and movement towards it or away from it is judged progressive / regressive accordingly. Both share the belief that the historical process has an intelligible pattern that can be made transparent to human beings. Both view the historical process as dialectical in character.

However, is there a teleological process to the activity of human beings? Nietzsche and Foucault maintain there is not. For Hegel and Marx are still writing and thinking in the shadow of the dead god.

Martin Jenkins

(45) Tymika asked:

"How are Hobbes' and Locke's conceptions of human nature similar?

Really, we should perform a conceptual analyses as to what we can understand by 'human nature'. Nevertheless Tymika, regarding your question, I would argue that Hobbes and Locke's conceptions of human nature are dissimilar!! Hobbes viewed human beings as compelled to constantly seek the gratification of their desires. This leads to conflict. Socially, this entails a war of each against each in a condition of war. Although humans may have natural rights or covenants, these are very difficult to enforce in the condition of war — because of the conflictual nature of human beings. Hence Hobbes' solution is for a covenant or contract to be made between people and one of their number; who then becomes a Sovereign monarch with absolute powers to enforce his laws with awe and punishment. With Locke, in his 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding', he argues for human nature as acquired by experience. Experience 'writes' on the blank slate [tabula rasa] of every new human being. Arguably, this could lead to the conclusion that human nature is malleable. Contrariwise, in the second of his 'Two Treatises On Government', Locke argues that human beings innately possess an understanding of Natural Law or Rights which, can guide their behaviour. So is there a tabula rasa or not?

Anyway, Locke's human beings can live relatively harmoniously in the state of nature — prior to government and civil society — without, as Hobbes maintained, it degenerating into a state of war. This is based on his conception of human beings as capable of Reason, of recognising and implementing natural law. Social Contract is made to amongst other things, obtain consistency in the implementation and standardisation of laws based on Natural Law. So although both thinkers are social contractrarians, they hold non-similar accounts of human nature and the underlying reasons for a Contract to be made. For Hobbes it is to enforce by coercion Peace and security because human nature, would not otherwise enable it. For Locke, coercion does not underlie Contract, it is to maintain a consistency in the institutionalisation of Natural Law in government. Locke's human beings can live peacefully prior to civil/political society because of their nature.

Martin Jenkins

(46) James asked,

Which is the more important attribute to the historian, the ability to interpret sources scientifically or creative imagination?


The first objective of anyone concerned with former events is to be able to determine the difference between 'the past' and 'history'. The past includes all events that have occurred, and which are recognised by evidence in primary sources. The recording of such events without bias or contamination by speculation constitutes an authentic record of past events. History, on the other hand, is an interpretation of past events by a historian. These interpretations can be politically slanted, sensationally slanted or, worse still, deliberately aimed at character assassination, e.g. Richard 3rd., Cromwell. Exaggeration of talent and ability, e.g. most so called royal personages. Opposed interpretations frequently occur, such as the Industrial Revolution from the point of view of capitalists and the opposing view of socialists.

The basic answer to your question lies in the recognition of the difference between the two terms 'recording' and 'interpretation'. A historian is at liberty to use speculation and imagination providing he/she makes it clear that this is what it is. There is often only a fine line between history and fiction, and the historical novel is often mistaken as factual presentation.

John Brandon

(47) Andreas asked:

I am after a proper explanation of the term "non-trivial" as used in scientific and philosophical papers. I am aware that the term is used in mathematics and particularly in probability; but what I am asking about is what does it really mean when people say "the results of such and such a study are non-trivial; or in an article on consciousness, "when we talk about consciousness is an unavoidable and non-trivial part of trying to understand the relation between consciousness and intentionality"


This is quite an interesting question, and as far as I know there's no really good answer to it. Here's one take on it: to really be able to master a field of study, anything, really, ranging from carpentry to cab-driving to mathematics to philosophy, and so forth, requires about 5-10 years of concentration for most people. Now, given that (and that's actually been fairly well confirmed theoretically and experimentally, believe it or not)... what *kind* of questions do you think that people who have *not* mastered a field ask those who have, versus the kind of questions people who *have* mastered a field ask, and what kinds of answers can be given them? Think of how you have to talk to people who are tyros in some area in which you have a great deal of experience. Well, I think we can characterize the former questions, for the most part, as "trivial" relative to the latter. Of course there are always exceptions; I'm just giving a rough answer here, which I think is all that *can* be given. Here is a small fraction of related literature:

Gauthier, I., Skudlarski, P., Gore, J. C. and Anderson, A. W.: 2000, 'Expertise for cars and birds recruits brain areas involved in face recognition.' Nature Neuroscience 3, 191-197.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M. J., Anderson, A. W., Skudlarski, P. and Gore, J. C.: 1999, 'Activation of the middle fusiform eface area increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects.' Nature Neuroscience 2, 568-573.

Kozbelt, A.: 2001, 'Artists as experts in visual cognition.' Visual Cognition 8, 705-723.

Maxwell, J. P., Masters, R. S. W. and Eves, F. F.: 2003, 'The role of working memory in motor learning and performance.' Consciousness and Cognition 12, 376-402.

Rossano, M. J.: 2003, 'Expertise and the evolution of consciousness.' Cognition 89, 207-236.

I think that characterizing the results of a study, or "talking about" something as "nontrivial" or a "nontrivial aspect" of something else, brings the same kinds of considerations into play. One is making a judgment as an expert, or judging what other experts will consider important about something.

Steven Ravett Brown

(48) Jean-Pierre asked:

In Plato's Apology, as part of Socrates defence he gives an account where he took an order from a [Spartan] Oligarch to kill a person. Instead of following the order he fled, knowing if caught he would be executed for disobeying the order. He used this account as an example of his virtue and his refusal to commit an unjust act. This example proves that Socrates held his own views on what is just and what is unjust in higher esteem than the law of the land. However In Plato's Crito, the dialogue that took place between trail and execution (which was only a 4 week period between his 'Apology speech and this one), Socrates refuses to escape or receive aid from his friends to escape on the basis that in doing so, he would be breaking the law, thus committing an unjust act. Surely this is a contradiction? In the trial he publicly announces he broke the law because murder was unjust, yet he doesn't use the same logic to escape being murdered himself? Was there another logic behind the decision not to escape? to be a Martyr? Or did he respect Athens's democracy over the Spartan Oligarch? If this is the case, then why did he accept the order in the first place? why was he collaborating, and only disobeyed when an order came along he didn't like?


You are right. Socrates does not confuse morality with law, neither Spartan nor Athenian Law. There is indeed another logic behind his decision not to escape. Socrates thinks (and publicly commits himself in the Apology to the view) that:

"to fear death is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils."

According to his conception of the philosopher as the man who knows that he does not know and abandons all pretence, no true philosopher would fear death. To act as if death where either good or bad would be to pretend to an essentially unavailable knowledge. Thus, for Socrates to act in the knowledge that (1) if he remains he will be killed, and (2) this would be a bad thing, would be for Socrates to give up being Socrates. Thus Socrates running away is just impossible, given who Socrates is.

One way (not the way I'd recommend, but a popular reductive tactic for lesser minds) to understand this is to say that for Socrates in the trial his whole life project is on the line. To run away from a death sentence of the court would be as good as dying, in the sense of: ceasing to be Socrates the Philosopher and becoming some pointless hypocrite in disgrace. Thus according to this reading Socrates stays not because he does not fear death but because he fears disgrace or hypocrisy more than death. Everything about Socrates' relation to the illusory goods of Honour and Public acclaim in the dialogues of Plato and the other reports tells me that this self-regarding reading of Socrates' behaviour at this point is the wrong one to have — still, people flock to it when they are unable to swallow the point about death not being something a wise person can intelligibly fear even to the slightest degree.

There are also the references to the Homeric heroes in the Apology: there is a sense in which these people 'do not fear death'. But the analogy with Socrates is not precise and might be unhelpful, because there remains a sense in which the Homeric heroes *do* fear death, and in which their actions show the struggle of competing fears. The Homeric heroes fear dishonour, and might be said to be motivated by some public estimation of the good, rather than by their own autonomous philosophical lights. Their situation is like this: they do fear death, but they fear something else more, and so something interesting and *dramatic* happens in their psyche where they overcome the fear of death with another impulse — they *struggle*, like a boat in high seas caught between wind and tide. In this the Homeric hero bears a comparison with suicide bombers which Socrates will not. Socrates is calm. His fearlessness is not like the wind overcoming the tide. When Socrates does not fear death, his lack of fear is not a question of not fearing death *compared to* the prospect of something else, but a question of not finding *any* fear of death intelligible, period. The Homeric Hero, like the suicide bomber/christian soldier, pretends to knowledge of death. The former thinks of death as a terrible eternal underworld, the latter imagines a heaven — both pretend to knowledge and act in the light of that pretended knowledge. Indeed the suicide bomber/christian soldier inwardly pretends to both contradictory bits of knowledge at once, or else he would not be involved in inner struggles requiring moral or spiritual training as part of his outer struggle. But in any case both these types claim to know what being dead is like and act in the light of this pretended knowledge. This they call 'not fearing death'. The situation with Socrates is entirely different. He does ***not*** think that any knowledge of what being dead is like is available and for *this* reason finds fearing death an unintelligible and objectionable activity.

We (with our various confused and sub-conscious pretences to knowledge of the state being dead) may think of Socrates attitude here as either reprehensible stupidity or commendable bravery. He would reject both characterizations.

David Robjant

(49) John asked:

The perennial question, what philosophy is ,pops up from time to time in heated debates on the nature of philosophy. One might say as Bertrand Russell and declare to hold logic as what is fundamental in philosophy. Another might argue that logic is just a tool that is only necessary when trying to figure out if an argument is deductively valid or invalid — real philosophy should concentrate on being etc. like existentialism does. The third might object and say that epistemology is the only true philosophy, because you cannot write or analyze philosophy without a way to know that the person writing is talking more than "cod shit". That he/she knows something and that this something can be true. Now for the actual question. Debates such as the ones previously mentioned are based on a feeling that philosophy is this and this. How can philosophy be a science if it's fundamental questions are based on feelings that some part of philosophy is more important than another? Do you think metaphilosophy is useful/needed more in the future or should it be discarded as useless?


Well, for that matter how can physics be a science if it's fundamental questions are based on feelings that some part of physics is more important than another? Er, quite easily? It used to be thought that it was 'fundamental' to science to suppose that time and space are absolute, and that the speed of light was something comparatively unimportant. It was only Einstein who felt that the curious and unaccountable fact that we couldn't seem to observe light travelling at more than a certain speed might be more important than the whole of Newtonian physics put together — if only we could *imagine* this importance which Einstein felt.

Essentially my point is: your comparison is duff. And why bother about whether you want to call philosophy a 'science' anyway? The meaning of that word is less than perfectly clear in the first place. If you mean that philosophy isn't tested by collecting data, then even there it depends what you mean. What do you mean?

And what is a "metaphilosophy"? I only ask because I've never encountered a philosopher whose views about what philosophy is weren't at the same time bound up with a lot of other views about various more or less important questions (more or less important questions depending on your feelings and your imaginative leaps), and there's already a word we could use to describe this sort of more or less tight knit bundle of thought, namely it's a 'philosophy'. What is it that requires the further greek bit?

You prescriptive list of what philosophy may "fundamentally" be about: may inadvertently appear to suggest that there is this topic and that other topic as if they weren't all connected ('criss-cross', as Wittgenstein puts it). Why think that? Why, by the way, should we suppose it even matters where on the web of thought one starts, so long as what results is a working web? What I think philosophy is 'fundamentally' about: the same thing that good art and science are 'about'. An attempt to produce something which will help. That you may think is not a definition of 'philosophy'. Now my question to you is: exactly what help was this hoped for definition going to be? I take it you weren't going to use it as a device to avoid thinking seriously about anything which fell outside your definition...

David Robjant

(50) Luciano asked:

Do colours actually exist or do humans conceptualize colour in our brains?

and Christian asked:

Are colours universal? If you and I were to look at the exact same picture, would you see the same colours that I see? You may say yes, because we both see the same "colour". Or do we? Are we just taught to claim to see the same things when our brains really perceive them differently?


The scientific explanation of colour is based on the makeup of white light (daylight), and its manipulation and interpretation by the human neuro — brain structure. To put it very simply, white light impinges on the retina of the eye which is made up of a range of cells, including those described as rods and cones. Rods are concerned with the intensity of light, the cones, however, are concerned with colour. Objects are only seen by reflection, an object that does not reflect light cannot be seen.

Light is made up of different wavelengths, on striking an object, say a leaf on a tree, all the wavelengths are absorbed except one, this reflects and strikes the retina. The appropriate cones for receiving this particular wavelength are stimulated to pass an 'electrical' impulse along the optic nerve, to be received eventually in the visual cortex at the rear of the brain, where, in this case, the object is recognised as green. Reflection from a brick of a certain wavelength, the others being absorbed, will stimulate different cones which produce the colour red in the cortex. A mixture of reflected waves gives us the intermediate colours that we see in , say, mushroom or terracotta paint that some people like to paint on their walls. Thus it is alleged that colour is produced in the brain, to be observed by the 'mind'!? Which means that there is no colour in the world, just as there is no sound, taste, touch or smell. Science and some philosophy alleges that our entire world is somehow governed by the mind.

The philosophical problem arises from the fact that we have no access to another person's mind, hence there is no proof that two persons are seeing the same colour, we assume from the scientific theory that this is the case. There is nothing to prove that the parent who first taught us the names of colours was actually 'seeing' the same colour as ourselves. So it boils down to a question of names, a parent points to something he/she has always known as blue, utters the name, the child, whatever colour he/she sees repeats "blue". Hence, so long as we all use the same name , whatever colour we actually perceive is of no consequence in identification of colours. It is another of Wittgenstein's language games. However, one would venture to say that in the order of things it is highly likely that we all see the same colours, it is just that we cannot 'prove' what goes on in another person's mind, each individual is an island, depending on language and gesture to communicate thoughts. The same goes for seeing shapes or perceiving situations.

John Brandon

(51) Darren asked:

I contend that reason can only confirm the reality of the Self, since everything else is experienced within and by that Self. Existence is what we are and what we experience within. Why do philosophers spend so much time pondering realities beyond themselves when nobody can know anything beyond itself? Isn't a belief in material reality a philosophical crime in the sense that philosophy should be devoid of leaps-of-faith?


In the history of Philosophy, there are two quite distinct traditions about the nature of the relationship between "the Self" and what we think we perceive — what we think is real. They are the Idealist, or the "Inside-Out" tradition and the Realist or "Outside-In" tradition. (I like the more descriptive labels. I feel they are less confusing, since the Idealist/Realist dichotomy is used in many different ways and many different places within philosophy.)

The Inside-Out (Idealist) Tradition The "Inside-Out" tradition is best exemplified by the famous quote from Rene Descartes — "Cogito, ergo sum!" — "I think, therefore I am!" Philosophers of this tradition start with the incontestable premise that "I think", and deduce from that the inescapable conclusion that consciousness is the fundamental given of metaphysics. Their argument is that to deny the premise "I think", or that "I am conscious" is a logical contradiction. The very fact that one is denying it necessitates that one is thinking and is conscious — thus invalidating the proposition.

However appealing this approach is, it suffers from one fatal flaw that no philosopher has ever managed to bridge. In your question, you have highlighted this problem. Philosophers of the Inside-Out tradition maintain that our modes of consciousness and cognition modify or process the sensory inputs, so that what our consciousness is aware of as sensory evidence must be regarded as the products of our consciousness rather than unbiased evidence of reality. In that event, goes the inescapable logical conclusion, either we can know nothing about the nature of an alleged external reality (as you suggest in your question), or anything that we can know about such an alleged external reality must be provided through other means than our senses.

There is no logical line of reasoning that can proceed from the basic premise that consciousness is the fundamental given of metaphysics, to the conclusion that there is a reality outside of one's own consciousness. Since there is no way to validate the evidence of the senses, there is no basis from which to conclude that the sensory evidence is valid. Philosophers of the Inside-Out tradition are therefore forced to conclude that all that is perceived, as well as all the contents of consciousness is actively created by the nature of consciousness — the "Self" in your parlance. As it is impossible, therefore, to logically derive the existence of an external reality, there can be no logical foundation for any constraints on the nature of the contents of a particular person's consciousness.

So we have philosophers like Berkeley who argue that there is no external reality. What we think of as "reality" is but ideas in some consciousness — specifically God's consciousness. And we have Kant who argues that our understanding of the noumenal world (the un-perceivable and unknowable reality that is the foundation beneath our sensory perceptions) is governed by the structure of our consciousness.

The proponents of the "Inside-Out" line of reasoning support their arguments with examples and analyses based on evidence from the senses. Which is, of course, a logical contradiction since they argue that the evidence from the senses cannot be trusted. They assume that consciousness, as prior and primary to the sensory evidence, must generate our understanding from the evidence of our senses. Since this understanding is not a pure product of our senses, therefore what we understand about our sensory perceptions cannot be trusted as evidence of an objective reality.

Therefore, there can be no logical necessity for any standardization or similarity of the contents of consciousness from one person to another. In fact, there can be no logical necessity that there exists anything other than one's own consciousness. Any suggestion that there exists a reality, or that there exists other minds, is founded on untrustworthy evidence from the senses. The pure version of Idealism inescapably drives the logic towards Solipsism. And the only escape is to posit some unsupported additional premise (like Berkeley's addition of God) that can provide a loop hole.

Because it denies the existence of any form of objective reality, the Inside-Out tradition logically results in "Subjectivist" notions of Truth, Knowledge, and Ethics. The philosophy of Kant is perhaps the pinnacle of this school of thought.

There is also a sub-tradition maintained by those philosophers who start with the same "Inside-Out" premise, but despair over the subjective consequences and proclaim the "Nihilist" school — Truth, Knowledge and Ethics are impossible, illogical, and invalid pursuits for inquiry. The once popular school of "Logical Positivists" are more or less of this school. Which is probably a good explanation why Philosophy and Philosophers as topics of popular awareness are in such ill repute.

The Outside-In (Realist) Tradition The Outside-In tradition is best exemplified by Aristotle. Philosophers of this tradition start with the premise that thinking and consciousness are processes not things. By the very nature of what a process is, in order for a process to "exist" (be in the process of processing) there must be something that is being processed. To think is self-evidently to think about something. To be conscious is to be conscious of something.

Philosophers of this tradition start with this premise and acknowledge that by the nature of processes there must first be something about which I can think or of which I can be conscious, and deduce the inescapable conclusion that the existence of something is the fundamental given of metaphysics. The argument is that to deny the existence of something is a logical contradiction. The very fact that one is denying that something exists necessitates that one is thinking about and is conscious of something — thus invalidating the proposition. (By the act of thinking, one demonstrates that the thing that is thinking, and the thing that it is thinking about, both exist.) This argument is most succinctly (if not most cogently) expressed in the basic axiom of Randian Objectivism — "Existence exists".

Start with the premise of a reality that exists (i.e. is "real") as the fundamental given of metaphysics. Add to that the realization that if thinking and consciousness are processes that are about and of reality, then reality must exist prior to and independent of those processes. You can't have a process in operation, without something being processed. You can't be conscious, without being conscious of something. But a process is not necessary for the existence of something. Thus the premise of a reality that exists as the object of the process of thinking and consciousness, necessitates that reality is objective and independent of those processes.

If reality is not "real" (ie. objectively existent), then the information provided by our senses is not a valid basis upon which to base conclusions about the nature of Reality. For Reality to be other than "real", would mean it would have to be "un-real" (non-objective and/or non-existent). And "unreal" means just that something is imaginary, or ideal, or constituted by our consciousness.

The approach that is more in keeping with "Common Sense" is the view that "out there" is not "in here". That there is a reality that is outside oneself, that does not respond to the whims and notions of one's conscious attention, and that does not disappear when one's consciousness is focused elsewhere. If reality is "real", then the information provided by our senses is a valid basis upon which to base conclusions about the nature of Reality.

There are numerous writers of the Outside-In (Realist) school of philosophy, beginning with Aristotle, who have written excellent expositions on the 'real' and 'objective' nature of Reality. Among the more recent of these are Ayn Rand(1), David Kelley(2), and William P. Alston(3). I can do no better than refer you to the works of one of these authors. They have done a much better job than I could possibly do, and at far greater length than this text would permit.

Perception and The Outside-In (Realist) Tradition The "problem of perception" arises when one views perception as a three step process:- (i) the reception of environmental stimuli at the sensory organs; (ii) followed by some extra-mind neural processing; (iii) and finishing with some form of presentation to the mind for evaluation and consideration. The three step process almost demands the thinker invest all sorts of possibilities for deception and confusion into that middle ground between the retinal image of the chair and the mind's perception of the chair. From a basis in this model, what one "sees" at step (iii) can be, and apparently often is, different from the sensory impression at stage (i). With this view as the paradigm, one cannot avoid talking about things "as they really are" as different from things "as they appear". And from there, one is drawn almost inevitably into the sceptical paradox of denying the possibility of knowing anything about "things as they really are" (if indeed such a thing exists) whilst driving the car to work during rush hour.

The problematic three-stage model is a tempting error to anyone from the Inside-Out (Idealist) Tradition, or anyone with a penchant for viewing the mind as more than just neural processes within the brain (a Dualist). To anyone with an overt or covert commitment to Idealism or Dualism, anything other than a three-stage model seems to be obviously wrong. As the question points out, to an Idealist who must deny the existence of an external reality, reason can only confirm the reality of the Self, since everything else is experienced within and by that Self. Existence is what we are and what we experience within. For a Dualist, who must deny the identity of the Self and the Brain, neurological science has followed the nerves "back" from the sensory organs, and demonstrated that all there is, no matter how far "back" you look, is merely electrical signals between different sets of neurons. So obviously, there must be some sort of "theatre" where all these electrical signals get translated into some form of "image" that the mind can then understand and be aware of. Obviously, the mind is not aware of the electrical signals that are being exchanged during all that second-stage processing.

With the three-step, Idealist or Dualist, model of perception, one can entertain all sorts of fancy thought experiments ranging from the Brain in a Vat to Descartes' Demon, where the mischief is located somewhere between the sensory receptors that receive the image of "things as they really are" and the mind that receives the image of "things as they appear". One can then argue that what the mind "perceives" is not what the senses receive from the environment. And therefore, even in the absence of mischief, what the mind perceives as the way the world "appears" is not necessarily the way the world "really is". And since we can never know whether some perception has been the result of mischief along the way, we can never know "things as they really are". Of even if there is such a thing as "the way they really are".

Which raises the question of just what exactly would be the nature of some thing "as it really is" as opposed to the way that the thing "appears" — if in fact there is such a thing at all. The best answer that the Dualist can provide is Kant's. The phenomenal world (the world "as it appears") is in some way regularly dependent on the noumenal world (the world "as it really is"). But that does not really address the question of just what it would mean for something to be "as it really is" as opposed to how it "appears". The obvious intent of distinguishing between the two, is to permit that "things as they really are" can be different from "things as they appear". But since we can never determine what that difference is, and can only ever determine how things "appear", it leaves unanswered the question of just how things could be "as they really are" if that is different from how they "appear". And of course, it leave unanswered the question of whether there is such a thing as "how things really are". It leaves unaddressed the possibility that there is nothing at all outside of "things as they appear". Which, as I mentioned above, inevitably leads to Solipsism. But if they are in fact different, is it possible to conceive how they might be different? Indeed, if they are in fact different, is it possible to conceive of any answer to the question asked? It is even possible to conceive of "things as they really are" in a way that is different from "things as they appear"?

The significance of this question is highlighted when one considers just how one navigates a car through rush hour traffic on the way to work. The tolerances that apply to rush hour driving are pretty narrow (especially on a rapidly moving highway). It would not take much of a difference between the way things appear and the way things really are to cause an accident. Yet there are very few accidents that are attributed to such a difference. Which seems to imply that there is no practical, operational, day-to-day difference between "things as they appear" and "things as they really are". So why do philosophers make such a great to-do about such a difference if it doesn't seem to exist on a practical level? The unanswerable nature of this question (given the three-stage model of perception), is an indication that the concept of a difference between "things as they really are" and "things as they appear" is not a clear one. And that gives a clue to how to resolve the paradox.

The solution to this paradox is to avoid taking the first step. Reject the Inside-Out (Idealist) Tradition in favour of the Outside-In (Realist) Tradition. And then change the initial paradigm from a three step process to a two step process:- (i) the reception of environmental stimuli at the sensory organs; (ii) which is itself the presentation to the brain/mind for evaluation and consideration. With a two-step model as the basis, there is no longer any room for a separation between "things as they really are" and "things as they appear". The presentation that the brain/mind receives is the image of "things as they really are". That gives complete meaning to both phrases, explains the regular dependence between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and answers that unanswerable question. There are no traffic accidents attributable to the difference between "things as they appear" and "things as they really are" because there is no difference. "Things as they appear" is "things as they really are".

To a Realist-Monist such as myself, electrical signals between different sets of neurons is what the mind is. The "theatre" where sensory data gets translated into some form of image that the mind can understand is just exactly the initial sensory receptors — the place where environmental stimuli first get translated into electrical signals. The impact of certain wavelengths of light on the retina *is* a sensation of red. The impact of a certain frequency of vibrations on the cochlear nerve *is* the sound of Middle C. The retinal image of the chair *is* an image of the chair as it really is. And the mind perceives that image from the retina. The chair "appears" to the mind/brain "as it really is". The problem of rush hour driving is just one familiar example of the evolutionary pressures that would ensure a seamless union of "things as they are" with "things as they appear". Any differences between the two would have had a tendency to get our ancestors killed. Since it is indisputable that we are here, our ancestors were obviously able to avoid that source of error. Hence the unavoidable conclusion that evolutionary pressures would ensure that there is no such difference.

Evolutionary pressures also, by the way, explain the point often raised by critics, that we are designed to perceive objects that are in some sense like ourselves. At each stage in our evolution from simple replicating chemical molecules to complex multi-celled and conscious organisms, the economics of dealing with evolutionary pressures would ensure that we would perceive only those environmental threats that we could deal with. An individual Escherichia coli bacterium would have little use for an ability to perceive the tiger hiding behind a bush and his intended lunch. But would have every use for an ability to detect food, and react to a deleterious chemical environment by wriggling away. In a similar way, the most significant environmental features for human beings — food and physical threats — are almost all on roughly the same physical scale. It has only been quite recently (say the last 200 years) that the threat of micro-life has been greater than the threat of a tiger behind the bush or simple starvation.


(1) Rand, Ayn; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition, Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff; Penguin Books, USA, Inc. 1990; ISBN-0-453-00724-4

(2) Kelley, David, The Evidence of the Senses, A Realist Theory of Perception; David Kelley; Louisiana State University Press, 1986; ISBN 0-8071-1476-6

(3) See for example — Alston, William P.; Realism and Anti-Realism; A Sensible Metaphysical Realism; The Reliability of Sense Perception;

Stuart Burns

(52) Hayley asked:

What are the weaknesses and strengths of the cosmological argument? please.


Go to the Pathways Knowledge Base and enter "Cosmological Argument" in one of the search slots.

Stuart Burns

(53) Christian asked:

Are colors universal? If you and I were to look at the exact same picture, would you see to same colors that I see? You may say yes, because we both see the same "colors". Or do we? Are we just taught to claim to see the same things when our brains really perceive them differently?


Go to the Pathways Knowledge-Base site ( and enter "colors" in the PhiloSophos search slot.

Stuart Burns

(54) Ramesh asked

I am struggling from long time to search the meaning of life? Is life of has any meaning?What is real purpose for me in this world?I am seventy years old and tried my best in different field but every where I found out illusion. Can you guide me/

Answer: Go to the Pathways Knowledge Base site ( and enter "Meaning of Life" (in quotes) in the PhiloSophos search slot. You will find numerous answers to your question.

Stuart Burns

(55) Gonzalo asked:

Who have higher IQ, people taking up engineering or people taking up philosophy in college? Do you have any studies of the IQ of contemporary philosophers and people writing on philosophy, as compared to other people like engineers and doctors, businessmen, artists, etc. Gonzalo Cruz'


'I don't think you are a smarter person if you take a philosophy course instead of an engineering one, or vice versa. I don't know of any studies on IQs of such people, but what interests me in your question is that you don't seem to know that IQ is very much out of fashion as a tool for measuring intelligence. Nowadays human resource people are more aware of what they call your Emotional Intelligence or EQ. IQ may show you how you can perform a task, but EQ shows what tasks are better suited for you to perform. So if, for instance, you have a job you like but you don't have tasks that are adapted to your EQ, you may feel frustrated in your job, and underachieve. Higher EQ factors mean that you are 'happier in your job', and so you perform better at it. As for general IQ numbers, I think genius exists in every field of knowledge. Of course Sartre, Descartes, Kant and Socrates were extremely intelligent, but so were Newton, Einstein or Edison'.

Nuno Hipolito

(56) Getachew asked:

how can philosophy be socially relevant in africa?'


Just look at the social struggles in some African countries who are trying to reach democracy. Democracy is a philosophical idea, a Greek idea. But many other sociological concepts are philosophical ideas, such as fundamental rights, individual freedom, ethics and moral law.

Nuno Hipolito

(57) Ramesh asked:

I am struggling from long time to search the meaning of life. Does life has any meaning? What is the real purpose for me in this world? I am seventy years old and tried my best in different field but everywhere I found illusion. Can you guide me/'


I'm only 29, so I would first like to say I would be honoured to try and shed some light on your question. When I first read what you said, I instantly remembered a Portuguese Thinker/Poet called Fernando Pessoa. He once said: 'No one was ever lost. All is true and a Path'. He meant to say that when it comes to analyse the meaning of life, errors you make in your life are not wrong paths you take, but only paths as any others. All paths are ours to take and enjoy, not only one right path. So we can never be wrong, or be on the wrong path, looking for a right one. Because of this, we can never be really lost in life, because even errors are paths we should take, as any others. One can only be lost, if one knows where to go, and in life no one really knows were one is going, what is our final destination. Life for me, based on these wise words, is all about discovery, not only discovery of the good, but also of the bad. When you don't try to find a meaning for life, life begins to have the meaning of being discovered by you. You are now 70 years old, and I'm sure you have a very rich past behind you that leads you to this moment in time. It's been a very emotional voyage for you, and you should relish it, and always remember where you've been, and the things you saw and learned, the people you touched and influenced, or learned from. This is our voyage of discovery. So enjoy it, and relax, because the meaning of life is to discover it, step by step. Nothing is an illusion, such as nothing is truth, because all is truth, and all roads are yours to travel.

Nuno Hipolito

(58) Pappy asked:

Does God have an e-mail address?'


If you believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing God, God can read all the emails messages in the world. So when you write one, God will read it, for sure. If you think a bit about it, hoping God would read your email isn't much different from medieval times when someone would pray in a cold church, mumbling the words. You both expect God to listen, but none of you know exactly how to convey your message.

Nuno Hipolito

(59) Pappy asked:

Is it possible to step out of linear time?'


'Who told you time was linear to star with? Most physicists aren't even too sure time exists at all. But we do know, since Einstein, that we can 'stretch' and 'compress' time, when we travel at very fast speeds, approaching the speed of light. We also know that gravity influences time, in such places like the rim of an active black hole'.

Nuno Hipolito

(60) Sharlin asked:

What makes younger children less prejudiced then adults? Or are they the same?


You could say that younger children are often less prejudice because they haven't yet been exposed to society. Often prejudice comes from ignorance, such as prejudice against people who have different behaviour or act different from the most of us. People consider different things as dangerous, and are compelled to defend against them. A young child is not so prone to have this behaviour, and you could call this his 'innocence'. When we choose to be prejudice, to be a racist or a homophobic, for instance, we are taking a stand, making a social choice. Often this is based on ignorance, other times its based on rational thoughts or political choices. Younger children are not as exposed to these things, so they obviously are not as prejudiced.

Nuno Hipolito

(61) Ciaran asked:

Hello there, I was just wondering if you could possibly help me! I'm stuck on an essay question and I need some assistance. the question is, Explain how Aristotle's theories of cause lead to his belief in God? thank you for your help!'


Aristotle studied the problem of the existence of God in his physical writings. When studying nature, Aristotle came to the conclusion that the main characteristic of natural objects is that they are subjected to change. Change is what Aristotle studies most in nature. There are 3 main steps he takes to analyse change: 1) a form appears as a result of change; 2) this form did not exist before; 3) matter, pre-existent, is characterized, by change, from the form in question. Exemplifying with a statue: a statue begins with a form, which it didn't have before, but thereafter the form characterizes the matter after it is sculpted. Matter and form are, respectively, the material and formal cause of the statue. There were two more causes to Aristotle: the efficient cause (the sculptor) and the final cause (contemplation of the statue). With God, Aristotle uses a similar logical reasoning: change implies movement, and there would be no movement if there wasn't a primordial force of movement, itself characterized as not movable. This is called the proof by movement of the existence of God. It's as if God was the first cause of what best characterizes nature: movement or change. All these analysis can be found in the two works of Aristotle called Physics and Metaphysics.

Nuno Hipolito