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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 26 (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 26/1.

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) AskPhilosophers asked:

I believe that I am the only thing that really exists. I think that my friends and people I meet are versions of myself if I had taken a different path in life. I could be anyone and I can understand even the most ridiculous of ideas. It seems like a negative view but I am convinced that everyone or everything I encounter is to benefit me in some way. I don't believe in good or bad. Nor emotions or science. Just nature. I was created and all I am here to do is survive as long as possible. Period. No silly questions about the meaning of life or what is my purpose or am I a good person. Life isn't a gift it was just something that was possible and eventually happened. I think people like to lie to themselves to forget the fact that they are basically useless. I apologize for making this sound negative and too long. I guess my question is how can anyone prove to me that they really exist?


The idea that 'I have been or will be every person that exists' is one that serves as a powerful motivation of a certain view of ethics, according to which the right action is one which is judged to be 'best' (by some criterion yet to be determined) from a purely detached or 'disinterested' standpoint. The 'fact that it's me' carries no weight.

As an idea, a picture, this does not have to be literally true. We can consider it in the sense of, 'What if...'. However, we can also ask what it would mean for it to be literally true. Imagine that when God created 'man' he created just one subject, who then lives every life that will ever be lived. Or maybe the one subject is God, in some sense.

The problem here — which is also a problem with the very notion of 'reincarnation' which appears both in the philosophy of Pythagoras and in Indian philosophy — is finding a suitable sense in which the person who is, say, George W. Bush or Kylie Minogue 'next time around' is me in the absence of any memory of my previous life. In The Matrix the traitor Cypher says to Agent Smith, 'I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand? And I want to be rich, you know, someone important. Like an actor.' Cypher was liberated from the Matrix but discovered that the real world is not to his taste. So he wants to go back into the Matrix with his memory wiped. But how is the prospect of a total memory wipe different from death?

Leaving aside he question of identity, how would it follow that in a universe where everyone is 'I', there is no good or bad as you say? From the purely detached viewpoint, all values, all the things that human beings prize, or pursue, all that gives character to an individual life, are painted in a uniform shade. My preferences may be vivid and real for me, but so far as you are concerned they are just 'my preferences'. If everything is 'good' or 'bad' merely in the disinterested or 'moral' sense of considering the other person's preferences as having equal weight to one's own then there is no real good or bad. Every value is relative. A bleak picture indeed.

That's one possible view. But it could equally be argued that if I really am going go be or have been George W. Bush, Kylie Minogue and all the rest, then I should just relax and enjoy the ride. Every pleasure and pain that life has to offer, every ecstatic or despairing moment has been or will be mine. How cool would that be.

Geoffrey Klempner

(2) Michael asked:

Why is killing wrong? I cannot argue why I think killing is wrong using valid arguments with premises and conclusions.


Here are several alternative approaches for you to consider —

(1) Some people maintain the absolute moral dictate that killing is wrong — period, and end of reasoning!. To them, it is a fundamental premise with no further background than the premise itself. Hence —

(P1) Killing is wrong.

(C) Killing is wrong!

(2) Some people maintain that whatever is commanded by God is the foundation of moral right and wrong. Hence —

(P1) Whatever God commands is a moral commandment.

(P2) It is wrong for us to violate a moral commandment given by God.

(P3) God commands that we do not kill.

(C) Killing is wrong!

Note that the third premise is debatable. In the King James version, the commandment (Exodus 20:13) is translated as "Thou shalt not kill". But in the more recent New International Version, the commandment is translated "You shall not murder". There is a fairly significant moral difference between these two translations. (A distinction usually lost on the religious anti-abortion faction.)

(3) Some people, following the reasoning of Kant, argue that moral behaviour is behaviour that respects the other individual as an end in him/herself. Hence —

(P1) To be morally right is to respect the other person as an end in him/herself.

(P2) Killing another person is to treat that individual as a means to your end, and not as an end in him/herself.

(C) Killing is wrong!

Note that both these premises can be debated. Not all philosophers agree with Kant's "Categorical Imperative" approach to morality. It is, for example, inconsistent with any of the consequentialist moral theories such as Utilitarianism or Evolutionary Ethics. And while it is rather obvious that some killings involve treating the victim as a means to your end rather than an end in him/herself, it is not at all obvious that all instances of killing necessarily are such.

(4) Some people will argue that it is wrong to break the law, and killing is (in most meaningful senses) against the law. Hence —

(P1) It is wrong to break the law of the land.

(P2) Killing is (mostly) against the law.

(C) Killing is (mostly) wrong!

Note that premise one would be debated by anyone who believes that the laws can sometimes be themselves "bad" laws that ought to be broken. "Civil Disobedience" would be immoral by this argument, and most people would not accept that conclusion.

And here is my own personal favourite — the Evolutionary Ethics argument —

(5) Some people argue that killing is wrong because it almost always interferes with the realization of the benefits to be had from social cooperation. Hence (in over simplified terms) —

(P1) Man is a social species who gains many individual benefits as the result of social cooperation.

(P2) Killing other members of the social group is almost always disruptive to the realization of the benefits of social cooperation — by both the individual doing the killing, and by the other members of the group should killing be tolerated.

(C1) Social groups always establish norms of acceptable behaviour, and penalties to dissuade unacceptable behaviour.

(P3) The standard of moral behaviour is the best interests of the individual, considered over the long term.

(C2) It is almost never in the long term best interests of the individual to incur the wrath and punitive response of the society within which the individual is functioning.

(C3) Killing is (almost always) wrong!

Stuart Burns

(3) Leen asked:

I would like to know if your body and soul are separated?

Is it your soul who feels and thinks? Is it possible that we reincarnate and keep our soul? Is it possible that we keep our wisdom in our soul and when we go to a sort of heaven when we're perfect? I mean with 'perfect', when we are one with everybody and have all wisdom, I don't mean knowledge.


The answer to your questions depend very much on just what you mean by "soul".

If by "soul" you mean the religious concept of the animator of the body, and the immaterial spirit that will eventually reside in heaven or hell, (the animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity; the spiritual nature of human beings, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state; the disembodied spirit of a dead human being) then your guess is as good as anyone else's. As there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing, and absolutely no evidence either way on any of the auxiliary questions you have asked, you can make up your own answers to please your sense of emotional comfort, and no one will be able to dispute you. The religious notion of a "soul" resides in the realm of religious faith, and not in the realm of science and evidence. So there is absolutely no limit what so ever on what you choose to have religious faith in.

If, however, you choose to adopt a more scientific/ materialist interpretation of the "soul", then the answer to your main question is "No!" The "soul" is the consequence of the biochemical operation of the brain. As such, it cannot be separated from the brain. So obviously, the soul dies when the brain dies, we don't go to heaven, and there is no reincarnation.

Stuart Burns

(4) Ivan asked:

I believe it was Wittgenstein's idea that problems in philosophy may be due largely to language inadequacies or errors; that language, being sort of an abbreviated fuzzy convenience — a pared-down 'token' of experience, cannot and doesn't really even try to accurately represent either the depth or the complexity of experienced reality. The depth and complexity of experience seem almost infinitely complex and nuanced, more so than the weather, and language only approximates it at best. Does Wittgenstein's (if I have it correct) notion act as a sort of philosophical 'uncertainty principle', and what does it imply about the goals of philosophy if philosophy itself stands on on a problematically unstable base of necessarily fuzzy semantics and definitions?


You are conflating a great deal here: your own feelings about language (and are they more than feelings, i.e., Have you done the reading to back up statements like "language [is an]... Abbreviated fuzzy convenience"? Judging from the terminology, I doubt it.) . Some reading you have done of Wittgenstein (and have you contrasted the early and late Wittgenstein? They are very very different.) , And some sort of ideas you have read about physics. There are circumstances in which it is useful to operate with metaphors (the "uncertainty principle") , but not here. All you've done is produce a kind of mishmash of ideas. No, Wittgenstein's notion has nothing to do with an uncertainty principle. No, philosophy does not stand on a base of fuzzy semantics and definitions, no more than anything else does. No, Wittgenstein does not equate problems in philosophy and problems in language, although he may have done so in some specific cases; but certainly not generally.

Not only that, but you are actually asking two very different questions, which you have confused. One concerns the ability of language to "express experience", the other, which splits into another two parts, concerns problems in philosophy and how they are both expressed and pursued. Now, I do not think, myself, that language is particularly precise, except when it is applied to and originates in formal systems, and not even all formal systems are precise. However, the lack of precision in language does not imply that it does not function adequately in many circumstances, the communication and solving of problems being one. That is, instead of considering language as a medium of thought, i.e., As something which carries thought, you must consider it as an encoding of ideas which are then decoded, i.e., Interpreted, by a reader (listener, etc.) . The ideas, thoughts, etc., Are never in or by language, which serves as clues and cues to what the speaker (writer) is thinking. Seen this way, more in the manner of Putnam, perhaps, it is quite possible to make very clear and accurate inferences about what someone means by an expression (and just as possible to make horrendous errors) . The question then does not become whether language causes problems in philosophy, but how well those problems are, in particular circumstances, encoded by some particular utterance(s) .

Go look at this paper, it's quite interesting:

Reddy, M. "The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language." In Metaphor and Thought, edited by A. Ortony, 164-201. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Steven Ravett Brown

(5) Tom asked:

I would like to get help for answering these questions:

1. What is the sense in which Aristotle believes virtue to be a kind of mean?

2. What is for Aristotle the essence of virtuous activity?

3. In what consists the difference between the Aristotelian and Platonic moral theories?

4. Explain the following quotation, "For the man who is truly good and wise, we think, bears all the chance of life becomingly..." Aristotle.

5. "The happy life is thought to be virtuous, now virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.." Aristotle. What is the distinction being attempted here?

6. Aristotle asserts that virtue is unnatural. Explain what he means by this claim.


1. According to Aristotle everything in nature is being destroyed by the excess or deficiency. Therefore through the state of the 'mean' can be preserved. For example the mean is the intermediate between foolhardiness and cowardice and this is bravery. The mean is relative and certainly after choice and deliberation. You can see in Aristotle's, 'Nicomachean Ethics' (II 1104a-1107b) .

2. The virtuous activity is voluntary, implies choice and is for the sake of the 'good' and the noble. Virtuous activities mean noble deeds for noble ends, beyond pleasure and pain. Through reasoning and thought (prudence) one chooses the right action, being aware of the persons involved in the action, the means, the end and the consequences of the action.

3. This is a question, which needs a lot of space to be answered. In brief we could say that Plato considers the root of the non-virtuous action to be the ignorance, therefore virtue is knowledge, while Aristotle introduces the virtue of the mean.

4. According to Aristotle life is activity and happy life consists both activities, actions in accordance with virtue (good man) , and activity in accordance with intellect through contemplation on the universal principles.In this way one can fulfil his composite nature, namely social and thinking being, and as result contribute to his happiness, since each being is happy when lives in accordance with its nature. You can see more in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (1177a-1178b) .

5. Since all actions are for the sake of happiness, and happiness for the sake of itself, and as on the other hand amusements are for the sake of themselves, Aristotle wants to distinguish the happy life due to virtuous actions from the 'happy' life due to amusements.

6. The virtuous actions imply choice and deliberation, which presupposes reasoning and thought, and since no animal and child possess reason, therefore the virtuous action is unnatural. Reasoning needs training so as the 'potential' (dynamei) prudent man to become 'actual' (entelecheia) prudent and virtuous man. While the natural trend is the appetite or anger etc.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(6) Pamela asked:

Is it possible to know another person?


This depends on what we mean by the terms "know" and "person". One way of addressing your question might be to imagine if it's possible to know your toaster. Its behaviour changes depending on conditions such as whether it's plugged in, whether there's bread in it, etc. After a few months you might get to "know" your toaster and all its quirks. If we understand a person as being a machine that is rather more complex than a toaster, then in principle it may be possible to know a person, or at least a part of her.

In the above example, to know means to "have an understanding of how something functions". In this sense, if we "know" a person, we will not be surprised at most of the things she does, and we may be able to predict many of her behaviours. Such "knowledge", especially if mutually reciprocal — so that she has a similar knowledge of you — may foster a sense of familiarity between the two of you. However, there may be surprises — after all it would be difficult to imagine completely figuring her out. Moreover, there is the notion that a person is not a static entity; rather, it constantly changes, like the surface of a stream. This idea emerges from the understanding that who you are is a function of the physical state of your body, most importantly your brain. Because complex physical systems like the human body, and especially the brain, are never stagnant, it is hard to imagine them being in the same state for any period of time. Of course, things may remain stable within this flux, such as a love of a certain piece of music, or a belief in an idea (although it is arguable that perhaps the qualities of these loves and beliefs may be constantly undergoing tiny changes) . It is unclear, to me at least, whether "personhood" is something that can remain stable. Further clarification on the idea of what might constitute a person is needed to continue with this analysis, and I won't pretend to be able to do that justice here.

Perhaps part of what it means "to know someone" is our ability to successfully put ourselves in someone else's mind. This "sympathetic introspection" may be due to our creating, within our own minds, a simulation of another's mind, or a part of it. In doing so, we may be able to experience an aspect of what they are experiencing. The problem of course is the quality and completeness of the information we use to construct this simulation. Typically, honest communication and careful reflection are two key ingredients to this process, however communication (via verbal and body language) is limited in its range and precision, so it may be impossible to fully achieve this goal. Nevertheless, one may come close, and claim to have a degree of knowledge of (a part of) someone. For example, a person may spend two hours carefully detailing her feelings, and the contexts of those feelings. If the listener is a good friend, and tries to recreate those feelings in his own mind, by power of imagination, then he may get a good (but not necessarily perfect) feeling for what his friend is going through.

Perhaps an equally important question is to ask why we would want to completely know someone. Isn't part of the beauty of relationships the anticipation of learning more about someone? Perhaps a fractal metaphor is appropriate here, where there is an infinite amount of beauty and complexity to be gleaned the closer and closer we zoom in upon a fractal. — choose a zoom factor and click on an area of the image to explore.

Marwan Daar

(7) Ophelia asked:

I want to know how Philosophy differs from:

i) Apologetics
ii) Religious philosophy
iii) Theology


Philosophy is, broadly speaking, the pursuit of knowledge. It can cover pretty much any area of life and thought. Religious philosophy (I presume that you mean philosophy of religion) is a branch of philosophy wherein one studies questions that arise from the area of religion, i.e. Whether there is a god, what difference it makes if there is one, do we have free will or is life pre-determined, if God is good then why does evil exist, etc. Theology is the study of God. This involves, among other things, considering which texts inform us about God, what we know of God (if anything) , how we interact with God, the role of the church/mosque/temple, etc., And what will happen at the end of time. Apologetics is the defence of one's beliefs, usually in a religious context. The word derives from the Greek apologia ("defence" or "reason") , which appears in the Bible as an admonition to give a defence of one's beliefs to those who ask (1 Pet. 3:15) . Apologetics involves philosophy (responding to questions such as whether God exists) , but often goes beyond philosophy to look at history and consider textual analysis. Further, although it is a Greek word found in the Bible, there are apologetics for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

Generally speaking, philosophy and the philosophy of religion make no commitment to any particular faith (although the philosopher may have a personal commitment) . Theology is the study of the beliefs of a particular faith and apologetics is the defence of that faith.

Kevin Macnish

(8) Matthew asked:

Which comes first metaphysics or epistemology? Perhaps this isn't a meaningful question to ask but if you take this to be the case please explain why?


This is a good question, but what do you mean by "which comes first"? Do you mean ontologically (i.e. Which exists first) , epistemically (i.e. Which do we know about first) , or educationally (i.e. Which should we study first) ? Or even, which should come first?

Historically, metaphysics was the starting point for philosophy. Philosophers saw the world around them and sought to explain it, especially how appearances often differ from reality. This led the pre-Socratics to such beliefs that everything is in flux (Heraclitus) or everything is static (Parmenides) or that there are two worlds, one static and one in flux (Plato) . This approach continued through the medieval period, resulting in some highly complex systems.

A significant change came with Descartes in the seventeenth century. For the first time, here was someone suggesting that we should not start with asking how things are, but how we know that there are things in order to know how things are. There was hence a shift in starting from metaphysics (what there is) to starting from epistemology (how we know what there is) . There was also a shift from starting from the external (other things) to the internal (me) .

Descartes' shift in focus caught on and became the starting point for much of philosophy the modern period. However, by Nietzsche there is a recognition that from the starting point of "can I know anything for certain?" The result is an inevitable "no, " and hence we get nihilism: that because I cannot know any meaning, therefore there is no meaning. Existentialism was an attempt to by-pass this conclusion, while post-modernism seems more to be a way of coming to terms with his conclusion gracefully.

So as to which comes first, do you think that there is life left in the modern experiment? If so, then start with epistemology. If not, then would returning to metaphysics as the initial position be a step backwards? If not, then look to metaphysics. If so, then you have to find a third alternative (Rorty, for instance, suggests starting with the philosophy of language) .

Kevin Macnish

(9) Leslie asked:

I intend to study Philosophy with the OU, I have already studied the inro to the Humanities, previous career was with the British Infantry and I am 47 years old. My question is why do, when I mention I would like to study this subject to friends, family and former colleagues they either guff or hit the roof, what's the problem here?


Well most people have no idea of what philosophy is except that it sounds like something so high flown and outside their own experience that all they can do is make a joke out of it. Ignore what other people think. Do what you want to do and accept that you may never be able to explain it to the people you know.

Shaun Williamson

(10) Dipesh asked:

Sir, I am the student of architecture, as it is the subject which has to address the human behaviour, make human to live in a comfortable though it may be uncomfortable to live in . I have learn from some of the master that every design is bound with some philosophy, which they had managed to address it in their design. But the problem is how such kind of mastery idea came from does it has to be acquired form the past or from the exploration.

1. My question is what came first does philosophy came first or the the product that is design. If philosophy that what may be its back ground or the design .

2. I am in the phase of doing my thesis the topic for that is "women correction center" and if I have to carry the philosophy for that than what may be my best philosophy and how it will be possible to address that philosophical aspect in the build form. 3 Philosophy is only to be address verbally or it is possible to address it in structural form.


Take a look at these:

Tanizaki, J. In Praise of Shadows. Translated by T. J. Harper. New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, Inc., 1977.

Kepes, G., Ed. Education of Vision. 3 Vols. Vol. 1, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965a.

------, Ed. The Nature and Art of Motion. 3 Vols. Vol. 3, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965b.

------, Ed. Structure in Art and in Science. 3 Vols. Vol. 2, Vision + Value Series. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1965c.

They might help.

Steven Ravett Brown

(11) Patrick asked:

I am interested in the subject of interpretation, particularly theories of such. Who must I read to discuss this subject in a broad, but rigorous, context?


Well in part it depends on what you mean by "interpretation". The field of hermeneutics is derived from the Medieval practice of interpreting religious texts. For that I'd recommend your reading Heidegger and Gadamer, unless you want to go all the way and read the older literature. But if you want a wide variety of approaches to interpretation, then you can pick from these literatures also:

Baldwin, D.A., And L.J. Moses. "Links between Social Understanding and Early Word Learning: Challenges to Current Accounts." Social Development 10, no. 3 (2001) : 309-29.

Budiu, R., And J. R. Anderson. "Interpretation-Based Processing: A Unified Theory of Semantic Sentence Comprehension." Cognitive Science 28 (2004) : 1-44.

Dolgin, K. G., And M. Azmitia. "The Development of the Ability to Interpret Emotional Signals — What Is and Is Not Known." Edited by G. Zivin, 320-43. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, Inc., 1985.

Hasselmo, M.E. "A Model of Prefrontal Cortical Mechanisms for Goal-Directed Behavior." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17, no. 7 (2005) : 1115-29.

Jackman, H. "Individualism and Interpretation." Southwest Philosophical Review 14, no. 1 (1997) : 31-38.

Philipse, H. "How Are We to Interpret Heidegger's Oeuvre? A Methodological Manifesto." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXIII, no. 3 (2001) : 573-86.

Rosenthal, D. "Consciousness, Interpretation, and Higher-Order Thought." In 3rd Annual International Symposium on Psychoanalysis as an Empirical, Interdisciplinary Science. Vienna, Austria, 2002.

Sontag, S. Against Interpretation. New York, NY: Picador USA, 1990.

Spalding, T.L., And B.H. Ross. "Concept Learning and Feature Interpretation." Memory & Cognition 28, no. 3 (2000) : 439-51.

Zahavi, D. "Beyond Realism and Idealism: Husserl's Late Concept of Constitution." Danish Yearbook of Philosophy 29 (1994) : 44-62.

Steven Ravett Brown

(12) Nicole asked:

What is Michel Foucault's theory about space and power in his interview with Paul Rabinow? The title of the essay is 'Space, Knowledge and Power'.


If I'm right, the interview is contained in The Foucault Reader edited by Paul Rabinow. He begins the interview by asking Foucault what he meant when he said that architecture becomes political at the end of the eighteenth century. Foucault states that architecture and the spaces it creates in buildings, in cities and so on have a place within the relations of the transference of power.

There is no specific theory developed by Foucault [that I now of at least] of space and power. Power does not flow from the architect or planner this being a juridical view of power in which the architect etc has replaced the monarch as the origin of power; this view of power is limited and inadequate to analyse all the operations and effects of power. Many factors and agencies are used by power. Buildings, architecture, spaces within and without, the types of inhabitants, the power mechanisms between the inhabitants themselves and others in authority [e.g. Psychiatrists, wardens or prison officers, psychologists, educationalists] the relation of these to theories by which they are understood [power/ knowledge] all interact in the functioning of power. Whilst the space of cells which hold a prisoner may function to focus the criminals 'soul' on his deeds, his past and his future [just as Monastic cells served to focus the Monk on his soul and relation to God], this is not to be examined in isolation. The walls and space therein are nothing without inclusion in a discursive regime of power/ knowledge and the genealogical account of the development and adoption of this regime of power. Foucault's Discipline and Punish provides excellent material for his account of how spaces, buildings and practices play their interrelated parts in the material power relations that invest the body.

Martin Jenkins

(13) Marshall asked:

What does Karl Marx mean by the term class consciousness in the Communist Manifesto? What does he mean by the terms mode of production and means of production?


Class consciousness is reached when the each worker or proletarian become conscious of sharing a common identity with other workers making then all one class. As opposed to being unconsciously in-itself, the proletariat consciously views itself for-itself: as a definite class being exploited in capitalist society by the bourgeois ruling class. Signalling knowledge of itself, class-consciousness is an essential weapon in the class struggle against the bourgeoisie. By means of production, Marx denotes the means, instruments, tools, practices with which human beings create the means of subsistence. This ranges from stones, sticks, spears, to industrial factories, nuclear fission and so on.

Although operated by the proletariat, means of production are developed in the interests of bourgeois profit. Changes in the means of production can engender changes in the social superstructure. The Industrial revolution in the means of production destroyed cottage industrial production, threw rural workers out of work, created rural-urban migration, the expansion of cities and the industrial proletariat. Who owns the means of production and who produces denotes, in classical Marxism at least, the social relations of a society.

Bourgeois ownership of the means of production aims at the creation of profit by the appropriation of surplus value gained from exploiting the proletariat creating the capitalist mode of production. Monarchical and subordinate Landlord ownership of the means of production whereby tenants produce the means of subsistence, of tribute from agriculture or war [no profit here note] creates the Feudal mode of production. Social and democratic ownership of the means of production by the producers themselves for their and the people's needs, is the Socialist mode of production. The relation of the producers to the owners of the means of production determines the social relations of a society. The combination of the social relations and the means of production regarding ownership determines the mode of production if historical epochs.

Martin Jenkins

(14) Jan asked:

If one question seems to be just as important as the next one — which also means sometimes none do — and one seems to be driftwood on the currents of life — how does one avoid one's mind turning into a "bric-a-brac" shop? I.E. How does one go about the business of structuring one's life and enquiry? To rephrase, if I only feel that I'm morally obliged to have a purpose in life, but cannot feel any particular drive, how to I go about achieving that drive and some consistency?


The classic answer to this question is: get religion. Religion is a great motivator. But that's not my answer; I think that's a cop-out, because what you're doing then is giving up your independence and self-determination to a religious figure of some sort and letting them tell you what to do. Joining an army is an equivalent alternative, and many go that route also.

The next level of answers is something like: go try a lot of things and see what you like, then go for that. Well, that works for some, and it's certainly a better alternative than the above; at least it preserves your dignity and independence: what little free will we have. But alas, it usually doesn't work. One finds something one prefers a bit more than anything else and settles for that, at best.

Unfortunately, we cannot control our motivations the way we control our bodies... This is a problem which all human beings have, and few acknowledge. We can move our arm, for example, at will... But we cannot direct our enthusiasms similarly. If only we could do that, the world would be a radically different place.

My suggestion is this: try doing it by sheer will... I.E., Find something which interests you, even mildly (and which brings in some money) , and just do it: resolve to master it, whether it be cooking, banking, car repair, statistics... Whatever. Take the 5 to 10 years this requires (yes, that's right) , discipline yourself, and just go master something: learn everything about it and be the best at it you can. I mean, why not, if everything is about equal? My guess is that if you do that, at the end of that time, if you have indeed concentrated completely on that area, you will find that you do enjoy it and take pride in your accomplishment.

Steven Ravett Brown

(15) Bob asked:

Do clones have feelings?


Cloning a human being has never been done as far as we know. If it were possible to do it at some time in the future then humans produced in this way would still be human and have feelings and emotions in the same way that other humans do. There is nothing special in the cloning process that would enable you to argue against this. Its just another way of fertilizing a human egg cell.

Shaun Williamson

(16) James asked:

I'm a first-year philosophy student and I've just read about the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. What I want to know (out of curiosity, not for an essay) is this: assuming you (the reader) are just a brain in a vat that is being stimulated by a computer, is what you are DIRECTLY experiencing, perceptually, a simulated world that exists in your mind (like an hallucination) or inside the computer?


Well, I'm coming to this question from a rather different viewpoint; a somewhat neo-Kantian one. Think of it this way: do we experience, directly, what is impinging on our sensory receptors? That is, when, say, our finger pushes against something, we experience pain, yes, but. Without the nerves leading to the a) spine, then the b) brain, we do not experience this pain. Further, if the peripheral nerve is cut, but the spinal nerve is intact, we do not experience the pain. Also, if the peripheral nerve is intact, but the spinal nerve is cut, we do not experience the pain. Now think about this. What that means is that what "you", wherever that is (let's say it's some function over the whole cortex, just for the sake of argument) experience is neither the external physical event, nor the nerve impulses from the finger, nor the nerve impulses from the spine. What you experience is, somehow, something happening in the cortex. Think about the "phantom limb" phenomenon if you doubt me (go look it up) . So the answer to your question is that what you are "directly" experiencing is some transformation (which we do not know how to further characterize at this point) of the neural dynamics of the cortex, however that is brought about, whether by something physical impinging on the peripheral receptors or by something induced directly onto the cortex. A bit scary, yes.

Check this out (it starts out right on the mark, but unfortunately I think it veers off the wall about halfway through) :

Lehar, S. The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Steven Ravett Brown

(17) Lorraine asked:

in laymen terms can can you explain what substance dualism and property dualism are?


Substance dualism maintains that there are two fundamentally different kinds of things. Like, mind versus matter, ok? There's rocks, trees: stuff. And on the other hand, there are minds, which sort of float around and don't interact much with the rocks and trees: they're not physical, they are "mental". Property dualism says that there's only one kind of thing, say, matter (though some say only mind) , but that it can have two different sets of characteristics. So, trees are just physical things, but on the one hand they have hardness, color, etc... On the other hand, they have feelings (so if you cut down a tree it hurts) . And those are both part of being physical, but they interact with the world differently. The hardness, etc., Is what you bump against, and the pain is sort of given off like smoke or a smell, but it's a mental smoke or smell. Does that do it? By the way, there are those (me included) who think both of the above are weird, creepy, and um... Wrong (for reasons other than being weird and creepy) .

Steven Ravett Brown

(18) Paul asked:

I have just started taking an interest in philosophy. I have no academic qualifications. None. I'm 58 left school unable to spell. So forgive the question. Is it me or was aristotle a first class snob misogynist racist and just full of his self importance. I was impressed with his "equity bids us be merciful to the weakness of human nature"; otherwise I would cross the street to avoid him. Im currently doing socrates plato aristotle as a beginning to philosophy studies. Im not sure how far ill get. As this is my first ever email please forgive any lack of protocol.


No, it's not you. But you also have to remember that, aristocrat or not, Aristotle was attempting something which basically hadn't been done before: the creation of an empirically-based system of the world, and he did a very good job, considering. He had reason to be a bit swell-headed. In addition, you're not considering that he came from a radically different culture from ours, one we would probably consider both primitive and very Eastern, not Western at all; and like all of us, he was a member of that culture and influenced by it both consciously and unconsciously. You might get the translations of Aristotle by a guy named Apostle (yes, really) ... They're quite good, and full of very interesting comments. At any rate, you're doing the right thing, I believe, in starting with the people who began the western philosophical tradition. You have to know what they said in order to really understand their intellectual descendants. I would recommend, in addition to reading them, your writing comments about their ideas as you read. That will help you a) organize your ideas, b) remember them, c) improve your writing skills.

Steven Ravett Brown

(19) Christophe asked:

Hello, There is a point I do not understand about final causes applicability to physical systems. Action guided by final causes (future conditions as cause of the event) are not considered as scientifically acceptable in the world of matter. Only actions guided by efficient causes (prior conditions as cause of the event) are considered as scientifically acceptable in the physical world. However, simple robots like the cybernetic turtle orientating its movement in the direction of a source of light can have their action guided by a final cause (reach the source of light) . So a simple robot built up with matter following only efficient causes seems to be in a position to obey final causes. How is this possible ? Thanks in advance for your answer.


From the robot's "point of view" (such as it is, i.e., The internal operations of the computer) there is no final cause operating here, only proximate ("efficient", if you like) causes. The state of the computer at any given moment causes the robot to respond in some manner. In fact, there is an infinite class of such robots which are explicitly history-independent: Markov machines. From the programmer's point of view, however, that response, and the internal state of the robot, is "guided" by a "final" cause: reaching the source of light. But there is no "source of light" to a computer-guided robot, only the moment-to-moment workings of it's internal states, which the programmer interprets as the workings of a "program". There are non-Markovian machines, but all that means is that the response at time x is dependent on the history of the robot's responses, i.e., It is a learning robot which stores its interactions with the environment. But at time x, that history is still merely another co-present variable influencing the machine. It does indeed "seem", as you say, to obey final causes, but we are the entities who realize that seeming; i.e., There is meaning present in this system only for the programmer. For further development of this general analysis (of how meaning, or final causes, can be apparent but not real) , take a look at something like Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, or Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker.

Steven Ravett Brown

(20) Mark asked:

I was having a discussion with someone recently regarding presuppositional apologetics. I asked this person why I should presuppose the existence of God, and his response was that I cannot judge the quality of the response to that question because in judging it's merits, I would be "reasoning independently from God." When I asked what was wrong with doing that, I was told that my decision to "reason independently from God" was "reasoned independently from God" and therefore internally inconsistent. Is it indeed philosophically inconsistent to use my own "independent" reasoning abilities to judge the efficacy of my own reasoning abilities? What is the best means by which to counter presuppositional apologetics?


No, it is not inconsistent to use your own independent reasoning, although the presuppositionalist might argue that the only reason that you are able to think cogently is because God has created you that way. As a transcendental argument, the presuppositional apologetic is sound, but it is not convincing to many people: it smacks a little too much of circular reasoning such as, "if you believe in God then you will believe in God." If you wish to counter presuppositional apologetics in order to assert a different apologetic system, then this fact that it is not convincing is a good starting point. If you wish to counterpresuppositional apologetics, though, in order to take an atheist or agnostic stance, then denying the premise that "we are only able to reason because God gives us that ability" would similarly be a good place to start.

Kevin Macnish

(21) Laura asked:

What are the Christian and Jewish views on how the universe was created?


When it comes to creation, both Christian and Jewish beliefs turn to the same writings, namely the book of Genesis in the Bible/Talmud. In essence, both believe that prior to creation there was just God. God then spoke and created the heavens and the earth, light, etc. There is considerable debate on whether creation took six literal days (periods of 24 hours) or whether it took place over thousands of years. Both positions, though, hold that God created the universe.

Kevin Macnish

(22) Sally asked:

What does it mean philosophically, when Genesis tells us that the world had a beginning? How does this compare or differ from what the Hindus and Greeks thought about the history of the world?


It means that the universe is not infinite, but had a definite beginning. It also means that the universe had an efficient cause (which many people take to be God) . I could not speak to Hinduism, but within Greek thought there is a general belief that the universe is infinite (that is, that it has always existed) .

Kevin Macnish

(23) Homer, Bryan and Jhay asked:

What is the role of the devil according to Rene Descartes?


Descartes presupposed the existence of a demon who might be playing tricks with his mind. In this way he doubted everything that the demon might be tricking him into believing (such as the existence of the room in which he was sitting, or the existence of other people) . After some thought, he realised that however much the demon tricked him, it could not persuade him that he was not thinking. He therefore arrived at what he believed was certain knowledge: that he was thinking. Because HE was thinking, he concluded that there was a HE to think. Hence he arrived at his famous conclusion, I think therefore I am.

Kevin Macnish

(24) Elayne asked:

Please explain the Heraclitean-Parmenidean dilemma in laymen's terminology. Thanks.


Heraclitus and Parmenides both approached the same problem of change. Parmenides argued that change must be either a change in being or non-being. As non-being is nothing it cannot be a principle of change (for to change by nothing is not to change) . But being is not a principle of change either, for if being were to change, it must either become other than being (that is, non-being) and so cease to be (in which case there would be nothing, and there would be no change) , or it would become being, which it already is and so there would be no change. If, therefore, change is not a change in being, nor is it a change in non-being, then there can be no change.

Another way to look at this is in terms of difference. If two being differ then they must differ by either non-being or being. Yet to differ by non-being (i.e. Nothing) is not to differ. And to differ by being is to differ by the very thing that the two beings have in common, and hence there is no difference. Hence two beings cannot differ.

Either way, Parmenides arrived at the conclusion that there was no change and only one being.

Heraclitus agreed that being and change were incompatible. However, he felt that change was so blatantly obvious (you never step into the same river twice) that he decided to reject being instead. That, though, leaves the question of what it is that is changing.

Kevin Macnish

(25) Alberto asked:

Is it possible to arrive a to a full understanding of "being as being"?


Yes, but not as long as being is considered a thing (see response to Elayne) . If being is thought of as an act then it gets a lot easier (but not easy!) .

Kevin Macnish

(26) Anjie asked:

Is a woman or girl truly free if she does not have control over when and if she should reproduce


No one is truly free in the sense that we are all subject to physical and social constraints. You might just as well ask are humans truly free if they can't fly. In the past before the invention of contraception humans were at the mercy of their own inbuilt instinct to have sexual intercourse. They had no way of controlling reproduction before they came to understand the connection between having sexual intercourse and conception. Once they understood this the only way to control reproduction was by abstinence. Now we can control reproduction by means of contraception. We can also travel faster by going on an airplane. Does this mean we are truly free? I don't know. Some women feel they aren't free because they can't conceive.

Shaun Williamson

(27) Kiernon asked:

Could a robot suffer from emergent depression?


Steven Ravett Brown said, 'Tell me what a robot is, exactly, and I'll answer you.'

A better -but equally evasive — answer is: Tell me what a emergent depression is, and Ill answer you.

The problem is similar to the question whether a computer can be intelligent. The most famous answer to this is the Turing test: If a computer seems intelligent, it is.

And if that answer isn't convincing, ask yourself: Can a human suffer from emergent depression? How can you tell?

Rhonald Blommestijn

(28) Tal asked:

What is the point in philosophy if we don't know the answer to the basic most questions -- like the reasons we are here, or what is this world?


But there IS an answer to these basic questions and that is: 'These questions are wrong'

For instance, the question "what is this world?', Can only be answered by referring to something outside this world. But there is only this world. At least this is all we have knowledge of. Any question with "the reason of" etc. Can not be applied to the whole world. It may sound like a question (like "what is the colour of Tuesday?") , But it is in fact nonsense.

Tal will not be satisfied with this answer I guess. But it is the best logical answer there is.

Logic aside, Tal's personal reason for being here are just that: personal. Please don't expect to much of philosophy in that department.

Rhonald Blommestijn

(29) Alexis asked:

Do you agreed that Abortion is really Moral?


This problem is largely made impossible to answer by the difficulty of answering whether it concerns a real human life here. I never came across a definite solution to this. It is more a political question than a philosophical one.

And, like in most ethical issues, it can be a matter of choosing between evils: killing/preventing a life, or bringing an unwanted person in the world. This element should not be under-estimated. Unwanted children a much more likely to be depressed, suicidal and criminal.

And: is it moral that society can decide in these matters instead of those directly and personally concerned (mother/parents) ?

Rhonald Blommestijn

(30) Robert asked:

How like Callicles is Nietzsche, and in what ways are they unlike?


In Plato's dialogue 'Gorgias' (481c-494b) Callicles challenges Socrates with the argument of the Sophists 'justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger', in another version than in Republic, namely 'is just by nature that the better, the superior and the more intelligent and brave rules over and has a greater share than his inferiors' (490a) . Therefore justice and self-control is against nature, shows lack of courage and belongs to the slave-mentality. While the brave and intelligent men (superiors) ought to allow their own appetites to get as large as possible and not to restrain them.

Then Socrates comes with the argument of the pleasant and the good as well as the question whether the good is for the sake of the pleasant or the pleasant for the sake of the good (506c-e) . Nietzsche certainly is an aristocrat in his values, is against the slave-mentality and not a crowd pleaser (herd morality) , like Callicles accuses Socrates to be. However, Nietzsche although recognizes the importance of the instincts, which should not be repressed and opposed to the conscious and rational action, he aims through the mutation of them at the creation of the new values and the 'Ubermensch', whose aim is not at all to rule over the others and get the greatest share. The superiority of the 'Ubermensch' is spiritual and not a materialistic one (political or military power) , since his superiority resides in his intellectual awareness and in the aim of overcoming himself. Zarathustra himself, as the embodiment of his 'will to power', praises the Buddhist values against the Christian ones.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(31) Robert asked:

I wrote this question after thinking about the definition of "infinity". I thought of movement through the Universe and if it's actually possible. And by movement, I mean movement of any kind. When you take a step, are you really going anywhere? Or is it only relative to yourself? If the Universe is infinite, and infinity cannot be measured, is it possible to move through it at all? There is no distance in infinity. Since infinite distance cannot be described in a foot, mile, kilometer or light year... How can one say that anything has moved at all, let alone tell the distance? Because, relative to the infinite universe, a mile means nothing. I write this assuming that "distance" means the space between the beginning of something to the end... But if infinity has no beginning or end, how can there be "distance" at all? And if there is no "distance" how can there me movement at all?


Here are two quotations from Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

1. 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language'.

2. 'Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday'.

If I say I'm going down to the shop to get a newspaper and I do that. Then later on if someone asks me where have you been today then I can truthfully answer that I have been to the shop. Now of course when we are just thinking about the mysterious nature of the infinite then we might be tempted to say but have you 'really' been anywhere but the answer to this is that I have been somewhere i.e. The shop. Someone else who stayed in the house all day hasn't been anywhere. There is no question of how can there be distance, distance is a word in our language and it has a practical use. Infinity is also a word in our language and it also has a use, but it is easy to get confused and think that the use of the words 'an infinite distance' is just the same as the use of the words 'a distance of ten feet'. It isn't. The one thing I can't do is move relative to myself but I can move into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. You can't decide the true nature of infinity just by thinking about it. Instead you should study the practical use that the word infinity has in mathematics etc.

Shaun Williamson

(32) Jeremy asked:

Lets say you are driving in your car with both windows down and a bird is flying right beside the car at the same speed. Lets say the bird slowly veers inside the car but at the same time, keeping up with the car. Once the bird is inside the car, would it have to continue to try and keep up with the car or would it instantly fly into the windshield?


This is a complex question which would be best directed to an aeronautical engineer. It seems reasonable to assume that the air outside the car is stationary with respect to the car so if the car is travelling at 20mph the bird will have to fly at a similar speed to keep up with it. It also seems reasonable to assume that some of the air inside the car is stationary with respect to the car and is travelling at 20mph relative to the air outside. There will also be some air i.e. Near the window in an intermediate state.

If the bird makes it past this turbulent boundary to the air inside the car and keeps flapping its wings then it will fly into the windscreen since it will now be flying at 20mph relative to the air inside the car.

Shaun Williamson

(33) AskPhilosophers asked:

When something disastrous happens, like Katrina, "logic" says: so much the worse for a loving God. But for the believer, what comes out, instead, are things like "God never gives us more than we can handle" and "We have to praise the Lord, and thank him, that we are OK." Why? (Or is this just a psychological or sociological question? Or did I watch too much Fox news?)


Well most people know things like hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes and so on, are chance. So maybe less Fox would be advisable. The different reactions show that cultures are relative 'paradigms'. It explains a 24 hour broadcast on CNN about 'Rita', while a few days before a typhoon in China with two hundred deaths was only mentioned in the weather forecast.

Gods are human constructs to give sense to reality, there are Western Gods and Chinese Gods. But I fear the wrath of the American God.

Henk Tuten

(34) Jeremy asked:

Lets say you are driving in your car with both windows down and a bird is flying right beside the car at the same speed. Lets say the bird slowly veers inside the car but at the same time, keeping up with the car. Once the bird is inside the car, would it have to continue to try and keep up with the car or would it instantly fly into the windshield?


Um, well, really, this actually depends on whether or not the car is enclosed, mostly. I mean, if only one teeny window is open, then the air in the car is moving at the same speed as the car, pretty much, right? But if all the windows are open, then then air is moving just as it is with the bird. So... If you're in a convertible and a bird flies over you, it has to keep flying in order to stay over you, pretty much. But if you're in a car with just one window open a crack, and the bird just flies in, then you'll probably get a pretty stunned bird on your windshield (if it keeps flying) , because the air in the car will suddenly sweep it forward, since that air is moving with the car. But it also depends on the bird, right? Because as it enters that window, it will feel the air pushing it, and might try to stop flying. Also, even with a small window open, there will be some air swept into the car before it's brought up to the speed of the car. So the bird will probably hover for just a bit, then as it moves in will be pushed forward, I'd imagine, depending on the pattern of turbulence. So really there's no certain way to answer this question because it depends on the car, the bird... Etc.

Steven Ravett Brown

(35) Steven asked:

If autonomy were the result of increase data-processing resources, why didn't would-be-humans show gradual results during the last two million years, but behaved just about the same as other animals, but took control of the planed so suddenly? How and when did humans acquire the capability to make autonomous choices? Thank you for taking the time to reply.


But why should more data-processing resources result in autonomy? Do modern computers have more autonomy than older computers? I'd say they all had none, myself. So there's something else going on, assuming that we have more autonomy than other animals.

Anyway, you're asking many many questions here which are not necessarily related. As far as taking control of the planet goes, assuming that's the case, we've done it suddenly, probably, because of a confluence of nonlinear curves: population, technology, and types of economic and political systems. The normal progression of, say, population, is described by an exponential curve (let's be really simple and neglect... Well, everything, pretty much) , which looks like a sort of extended "S". Or imagine a ") " shape, but more curved, then cut it in half horizontally, and pivot the top half 180 degrees. You get it? It looks a bit like an "S". Well, so, there's a slow start at the bottom, then a bit in the middle where it's almost vertical, then a slow end toward the top right. That's what you get, for a variety of reasons, when population increases then levels off because of lack of food or whatever. Well, we're in the vertical part right now (we all hope that's not true, actually, and that we're in the top slowdown, but...) , And have been approaching that for the last millennium, roughly speaking (well, maybe the last 500 years. Whatever.) . Technology is getting to that vertical bit, but I don't believe we're there yet (yes, really. Just wait until we get real biological engineering, and nano engineering, if you want to see it shoot up.) .

"How" do we make autonomous choices? When I answer that I'll be in line for a Nobel. That's assuming that we actually do make "autonomous" choices. But one question here is: exactly what do you mean? Are you asking about free will? Good luck. About the ability to do meta-thinking? Um... Good luck again. You can look at our development as a progression of recursive abilities, as Zelazo does, and in addition claim, with the later Chomsky, that language necessitates that also. But exactly how that happens is not known at this point. You might look at:

Christiansen, M.H., And N. Chater. "Toward a Connectionist Model of Recursion in Human Linguistic Performance." Cognitive Science 23, no. 2 (1999) : 157-205.

Hammer, B. "Recurrent Networks for Structured Data — a Unifying Approach and Its Properties." Cognitive Systems Research 3 (2002) : 145-65.

Kauffman, S.A. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Leitgeb, H., And A. Hieke. "Circular Languages." Journal of Logic, Language and Information 13 (2004) : 341-71.

Pollen, D.A. "Explicit Neural Representations, Recursive Neural Networks and Conscious Visual Perception." Cerebral Cortex 13 (2003) : 807-14.

Zelazo, P.D. "Language, Levels of Consciousness, and the Development of Intentional Action." In Developing Theories of Intention: Social Understanding and Self-Control, edited by P.D. Zelazo, J.W. Ostington and D.R. Olson, 95-117, 1999. Zelazo, P.R., And P.D. Zelazo. "The Emergence of Consciousness." In Consciousness: At the Frontiers of Neuroscience, edited by H.H. Jasper, L. Descarries, V.F. Castellucci and S. Rossignol, 149-65. New York, NY: Lippincott-Raven Press, 1998.


Everett, D.L. "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha." Current Anthropology 46, no. 4 (2005) : 621-46.

Das Gupta, A. The Second Linguistic Turn: Chomsky and the Philosophy of Language. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1996.

Chomsky, N. The Minimalist Program. Edited by S. J. Keyser, Current Studies in Linguistics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.

Steven Ravett Brown

(36) Bob asked:

Do clones have feelings?


Yes. Why on earth not? This question comes up quite a bit in submissions to this site, and I confess I am baffled about it's continuing grip on people.

The thought that clones might not be conscious human beings is of a piece with the speculation that travel at speeds in excess of 18 miles per hour would be bound to lead to asphyxiation. I mean, there is no motivation for these worries whatsoever, beyond the quite general (and faintly ridiculous) unexamined conservative instinct that if the world should not remain exactly as it was in our childhoods in all respects then we would not know how to make sense of anything.

This kind of maundering reminds us of the way in which, for those who in old age start to lose their intellectual capacities and their memory, any change may be treated as a threat to the order of the universe as a whole. In contrast, the non-senile amongst us regard claims like 'clones might not be conscious' as the sort of thing for which you need at least some kind of rationale, and yet no-one has ever offered any such. Why do people ask this daft question?

David Robjant

(37) Andrew asked:

Has philosophy ever solved anything? I mean, without raising further questions in its wake. And has it ever brought any relief or happiness, beyond the happiness of questing?


What's this 'I mean...' Business? What's the connection between solving something and not raising further questions? Don't most genuine solutions raise further questions in their wake? Isn't it, for instance in Physics, a mark of something being a good theory that it raises useful and interesting further lines of inquiry? I think your notion of a 'solution' that is altogether final is actually pretty odd, except in the area of some religious practice. Possibly you are thinking of the model of some equations in pure mathematics, in which case you are under the misapprehension that pure mathematics discovers matters of fact. It explores a system of notation for facts. Or you are thinking of a final solution on the model of a 'just so stories', where the idea is that we just accept some dim thought and don't engage any further nous. Or possibly you are thinking of a final solution on the model of a truck hitting you at sixty miles an hour. In any case your inability to detect a 'solution' of your preferred grade in the deliberations of philosophers is in no way a discredit to the philosophers.

David Robjant

(38) Leslie asked:

I intend to study Philosophy with the Open University, I have already studied the Intro to the Humanities, previous career was with the British Infantry and I am 47 years old.

My question is why do, when I mention I would like to study this subject to friends, family and former colleagues they either guff or hit the roof, what's the problem here?


The reason is:

Ignorance and stupidity, reinforced with the fascinatingly wrong pronouncements of a few favorite anti-intellectual intellectuals like Wittgenstein who have comforted us with the thought that there might be no deep philosophical questions (only grammatical ones) , leavened by a dose of respectable conservatism borne out of heroic political struggle with continental despotism, and topped off with the universal bane of english education, class.

That's not, I hasten to add, directly on the part of your acquaintances or mine, but rather on the part of the vast majority of the english speaking world over many generations, such that in the english language 'Philosophy' and 'Philosophical' have become by-words for fruitless entertainments and justifications for the unjustifiable. Carlyle is key here, and I dare say he had some kind of point at the time.

I suppose that if the philosophical works of American Pragmatists like James and Dewey were appreciated here as they are in their homeland, the attitude would be somewhat different — more like, indeed, the attitude of the states. Here are philosophers who combine a practical can-do men of business attitude with a sense that Kant and Plato are important, and don't feel that we have to attack the whole idea of theory in order to face facts. But for us, unfortunately, the characteristic dismissive image of a Philosopher would be Berkeley wondering whether unheard treefalls make noises — to which we are to suppose Johnson's hurting his toe is a smart rejoinder, or Nietzsche's syphilitic ravings which are somehow responsible for Hitler, or Sartre sitting in a Cafe smoking a Gauloise like the idle Frenchman we know (a priori) that he must be (never mind the three thousand words we haven't read that he wrote before his 3pm coffee) .

There is then the added problem of the influence of a miasmic class (or public-school) factor, in that pronouncement about Greek philosophy (i.e. The most important part of the whole tradition) has here been jealously maintained in the journals and schools as the special academic preserve of the classically educated, who generally prefer Homer anyway — which is the sort of taste you are likely to end up with if forced to read this stuff at fourteen. The Greeks do have something to tell us then, but only if we are a particular kind of actual or honorary toff, and in that case what they mostly have to tell us is how to write gripping poetry. Briefly, Plato was consulted about how to organize games in a boarding school, but views on this experiment differ, and plenty of 'educationalists' took the moral of this experiment to be that classics in grammar schools, and even grammar schools for that matter, were a form of collaboration with a class enemy. The Romans used to tell us how to run an empire and keep a stiff upper lip, but these days Bush-Bashing is a much less spiritually demanding white mans burden. The result is that Philosophy, the greek stuff without rhymes and heros, is useful to a number of academics for the purpose of displaying superior knowledge of the ambiguities of Greek grammar. In marked contrast to King James, translations here amount to cheating. Such is the game. The Many are not invited, and they too often take the hint, reciprocating with an anti-intellectualism borne of some experience. The contrast with many a french populariser of the Greek tradition (eg Simone Weil) could not be stronger. Can you imagine Myles Burnyeat teaching in a secondary modern?

The whole affair, the sorry history of the abuse of 'philosophy' in the english language and soul, is pretty depressing. This is one reality which is perhaps best dealt with by studiously ignoring it. A stiff upper lip may also help, since you are going to put up with such ingrained attitudes for some time, perhaps most of all from those who damn well ought to know better.

David Robjant

(39) Matthew asked:

Which comes first metaphysics or epistemology. Perhaps this isn't a meaningful question to ask but if you take this to be the case please explain why?


The problem here is that 'epistemology' has a quite specific meaning (the study of knowledge) , whereas 'metaphysics' has not one meaning, but any number depending on your prejudices. A certain amount of persuasive definition goes on in Philosophy, and what Wittgenstein attacks as Metaphysics may not precisely correspond to what another philosopher pursues as Metaphysics. Ontology provides a clearer contrast to epistemology, such that one might sensibly ask 'what ought we to inquire into first, knowledge or being?'. A difficulty here are that the two are linked by the idea of truth, which is arguably an epistemological idea. You can't know what isn't true. And, importantly, what's true describes what is. The deep question (if there is one) is exactly what the relationship between being and truth is. If the being of a thing depended on a certain statement referring to it being true, that might suggest that epistemology was prior. And conversely, of course. And it might be, as in Plato's picture, that in different areas there is a different priority, so that truths about the forms are explained by the being of the forms, whereas the (low level) being of particulars is explained by or amounts to the (low level) 'truths' about those particulars.

David Robjant

(40) Steve asked:

I'm having trouble explaining (to a very religious someone) , how something cannot have a property and lack it at the same time. The, because it results in nonsense answer, just isn't enough apparently. Even demonstration isn't good enough. Is there a way to prove logic without using logic, and without having to demonstrate it? I personally doubt it, but I would value your thoughts or details of similar experiences.


It isn't Logic you want to prove here, but rather the accuracy of a two value (true, false) logic as a description of the world. Is the world a logical place, on the model of a two value logic? Plenty of philosophers think it isn't. Plato, for one instance, held to a 'compresence of opposites' theory, much like your religious someone. Plato was specific in saying that it was the objects of sense, things in 'the realm of opinion', which both were and were not truly described as x, whatever x was. Objects of the intellect (like triangles) on the other hand did conform to what you would describe as the 'laws of logic', which is just another way of saying that logic is a description of the laws of intellection, and that triangles are intellectual objects. They can't help conforming to Logic. The same can be said for the models and equations of scientists — these are intellectual objects arrived at by intellection in accordance with it's laws. But that triangles by their nature conform to logic is no way to prove that Mary's Love, or Henry's Prestige, or every thing in the world, must also conform to logic. Heraclitus, who contrasted Logos with Flux, would say that since the world isn't an intellectual object but an undifferentiated sensory flow, it makes no more sense to speak of it conforming to logic than to speak of it as breaking the laws of logic. Existence, so to speak, is an outlaw.

You might argue that the success of scientific knowledge, that is, the ability of various intellectual objects to help us successfully fly across the Atlantic and so on, is a kind of proof that existence isn't an outlaw. The argument here is that logical thinking wouldn't meet with much success if the world itself wasn't logical: that the explanation for the success of logical model of the world is a logical world. Well, that's a popular argument, but it just doesn't follow. Logical models fail all the time, and not because the world happens to be illogical in those cases, but just because the model was a bad logical model. So the explanation for the success of a model (if there is one) is that it is Good, not that it is Logical.

Perhaps the deeper remark to make is that we shouldn't be looking for an explanation at this level, since the success of failure of our pictures of the world is itself the fundamental basis of any kind of explanation. The success of this model of aeronautics, then, can only be explained locally, that is, in terms of the success of other intellectual ideas. We cannot reach out in our explanations to a further test of correspondence to the world. The idea of a law-given world as the explanation for our practical success with our science and technology is a mistake. Behind it is, I suppose, the idea that if the world was capricious then logical scientific thinking couldn't meet with too much success. That's true, of course, but it is perfectly possible for the world to be illogical without being capricious, which is exactly what Heraclitus was pointing out. The world is a sensory flow, he would say, by which he'd mean that it was not made up of distinct objects, not made up of intellectual objects, and so not logical. But for it to be capricious it would have to be made up of intellectual objects which then rebelled against type. Capriciousness involves effect not following from cause. Heraclitus' idea of the non-logicality of the flux is the idea that here there are neither causes nor effects in the flux, since in the flux there are do distinct objects or events. Cause and effect, he would maintain, are intellectual objects, and behave in a logical manner in just the unsurprising way in which a triangle does — but like triangles cause and effect are not features of the flux but rather of our thinking. So existence as outlaw is both non-logical and non-capricious. The argument that in order for logical thinking to meet with success the world would have to be non-capricious and therefore logical is simply a non-sequitur.

In short, your friend is right, and you will just have to get along, like everyone else, with unproven logic.

David Robjant

(41) Brad asked:

Why is there something rather than nothing?


Why not?

David Robjant

(42) Kate asked:

What is the definition of a philosophical question? That is, what makes a certain question of philosophical interest?


No "That is" about it: you two questions are completely different! An explanation of what makes this particular question of philosophical interest may go no distance at all towards explaining what underlying qualities are shared by questions we call 'philosophical'.

My interest in your contribution is a case in point. What you ask happens to be of philosophical interest (and is thus at least by this route a philosophical question) because your treatment of two quite different questions as being the same question makes an error which is interesting to (and among) philosophers, namely the thought that where there are lots of instances of type x ('the philosophical question') there must be an essential nature of x-ness ('the definition of a philosophical question') .

This error is sometimes attributed to Plato, on the grounds that Plato took their to be certain fundamental essences or 'forms' which are more real than, and exist prior to, any particular. But Plato had his own method of pursuing the question of whether there must be a form here or there, and it certainly wasn't a solution to Plato's philosophical questions about being to point out that there was a predicate 'philosophical'. That people happily used certain words did not, for him, establish that there was a form underlying and supporting that use. IE, even a believer in essences such as Plato could have made exactly the response to your elision of two separate questions that I am making now.

In short: just because there are questions of philosophical interest which we call philosophical questions does not mean that there is or could be a definition of the philosophical question.

One might add: for what purposes might such a definition be necessary?

David Robjant

(43) Dylzski asked:

Can you step in the same river twice?

Is it you can't step in the same physically identical river and only back into your own concept of the river...If so to what point is reality objective or is it all subjective?


Heraclitus' point is that where identity and sameness is concerned there are only concepts. You want to try to think about 'the river itself', a thing beyond our intellectualizations, but there is no such in the world of our experience. Stripped of intellectualizations, you will step forward and waters and yet other waters will flow about you. These sensual experiences will not amount to the intellectual object 'the same river'.

A further thought bound up in all this is that being the same and being different, in fact the whole idea of an object, is intellectualization, not something given in perception. This is one, and not the only, parallel between Heraclitus and the Sanskrit religious writers. A recent book 'The Shape of Ancient thought' is very good on some of the other parallels, but misses this important one. Iris Murdoch, in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, speaks interchangeably of Heraclitean Flux, the Jamesian (Radical Flux and the) Stream of Consciousness, and the Zen concept of Pure Perception. In my view, she has good warrant for such syncretism.

David Robjant

(44) AskPhilosophers asked:

Is it true today what I will do tomorrow?


No. Today, what I said yesterday about what I would do today comes true. But the idea that this means the claim was true when I uttered it is daft. Not 'just daft', because the daftness has to do with a wrong idea that truths, if they are truths, must always be true, and that's part of a sophisticated (ish) unified philosophical picture of truth. So, daft, but not just daft.

Part of the problem here is a failure to discriminate between different kinds of truths. Truths about triangles are true Monday Tuesday and Wednesday. We say 'It's true that the internal angles of triangles add up to 180 degrees', then we say 'It's true that I gave a paper on Wednesday', and whoops or hey presto we conclude that we must mean the same thing by 'true' in both contexts, whence it follows that if 'true' in the first context meant 'true on Tuesday' it must also mean 'true on Tuesday' for the other case, whence we get 'It was true on Tuesday that I gave a paper on Wednesday' which is daft (but not just daft).

Plato would have never fallen for any of this nonsense, because he was careful to keep the eternal verities in quite a different category to the kind of thing we assert as a truth on a daily basis. He divided off truth from opinion, and would have said that whether I gave a paper on Wednesday was merely a matter opinion (perhaps even intersubjective agreement) , whereas in contrast what I am supposed to have said in my paper about the Forms was either True with a capital T or False.

I think that's the right approach, and amongst other merits it avoids the problem about true on Tuesday, but it does have the demerit (from certain philosophically motivated points of view) of producing a comparative devaluation of the most ordinary (some would say 'paradigmatic') examples of 'truths', eg that it is now raining. For Plato, that it is now raining is not as true as that there are 180 degrees to the internal angles of a triangle, and some people won't stomach that. But then again, if everything that is true is equally so, you do get back to this dark mystery about why if it is eternally true about the 180 degrees it wasn't eternally true about my giving a paper on Wednesday. As I say, it's daft, but not just daft.

David Robjant