Pathways to Author Page for Geoffrey V. Klempner

on this page

Or send us an email

Application form

Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal

Pathways to Philosophy

Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner

International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site

1st series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]  2nd series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49]

  View the latest questions and answers at
pathways (ask a philosopher)

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 40 (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 40/1.

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) Saffron asked:

Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I no longer 'believe in science'. Many people have found this hard to understand, and I myself am struggling with the concept. Is it even possible to disregard something which so many hold in such high esteem?

I feel that the basis for my beliefs, or lack thereof, lies with the question of infallibility. Upon broaching the topic with friends from my philosophy class, I was told that not believing in science was simply not an option. I had to believe in it, because it was all around me. My counter argument was that science was elitist, something for the select few, in that there are very few people who actually 'know the truth'. One friend in particular pointed out that I had to believe in gravity, as it was acting on me all the time, and that the clothes I was wearing and the dye I use in my hair were all products of science. I remain unconvinced though, as neither my friend, nor anyone I know, can actually prove these beliefs they regard so highly. Has no one considered the possibility that science is simply an invention to 'fob off' the masses about the world in which we live? I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist; I am simply looking to understand why or if we should all believe in science and what the implications are if we are all wrong?


Suppose you gave me a magic wand and told me that all I have to do is wave it and wish for what I want and my wish will be granted. I tell you that 'I don't believe in magic,' and you say, 'I'm not asking you to believe in magic, just try it out!'

Sure enough, every time I use the magic wand, my wish is granted. (I learn pretty quickly to be careful how I phrase my wishes.) I use the wand sparingly, because I still don't 'believe' in magic, and also because getting things you want too easily takes the fun out of life.

OK. You say that you don't believe in science. But, as your friends never tire of pointing out, you rely on science in countless ways.

So what IS belief, if not relying on something AS IF it were true?

There are various stories you could tell. For example, you could say that the 'laws of physics' might be just rules that super-intelligent aliens invented and which they could change at any time. Do you believe that? No. It's just a possibility, alongside countless weird and wacky possibilities. Lots of things 'might' be the case.

Scientists aren't interested in weird and wacky possibilities (with the exception, perhaps, of super-string theorists but that is another story). All they are concerned with is providing the 'best explanation'. Circumstances change, and explanations which once looked very good are overturned in favour of better explanations.

Once Aristotle's theory that an object remains in motion so long as it keeps being pushed along looked like a good explanation -- until Newton.

Until we actually encounter these super-intelligent magical aliens, the explanations currently offered by science are better than any that you can dream up.

Geoffrey Klempner

(2) Andrew asked:

For part of our course work for this year, my class was assigned to read Martin Luther's 'On Christian Liberty'. Luther believed that all people are predestined before their birth to either achieve salvation, or be damned for eternity. Luther also believed that during our lifetime, we have free will over our own actions, thus we have a choice to lead a godly life or otherwise. Assuming that God exists and that He is just, how can these two ideas coexist?


Andrew, The real answer is that the two ideas cannot co-exist; or, God lacks one of the following characteristics: Omniscience, Omnipotence, Benevolence. Don't feel bad; even though I can explain it, I am not sure it makes sense. One thing that I want to point out is that there are many denominations of Protestants, and this is one of the issues they argue over. (A Protestant is a Christian who follows Martin Luther's teachings).

Here is one way I have heard it 'resolved': Of course god knows whether or not we are going to be saved he is omniscient. God, in his love for us, gives the freedom to choose whether we accept Christ as our savior (it is not whether or not we lead a godly life, according to Luther). It would be MUCH easier if all I had to do was lead a good life. No, I have to find Christ. If I am born in the jungles in Africa I am screwed. If I am never exposed to Jesus, how do I believe in him? But lets skip this problem.

Lets imagine that I am a simple-minded person just trying to get through life with the limited tools that God gave me and when Jesus is presented to me I don't believe in him. I would hope that a benevolent god would help me out and realize that I just don't know any better. That is no reason to send me the wraths of hell! However, maybe I am wrong, and I just don't understand what 'true' benevolence is. Or, perhaps God lacks that characteristic.

Eric Zwickler

(3) Randolph asked:

Whitehead used the term 'completed metaphysical system' to describe a future state of metaphysical understanding, and I find that term questionable, so here I am posing it to the philosophers! Could there be a 'completed' metaphysical system? Is this the same as a Theory of Everything and Grand United Theory? Could Whitehead be suggesting that there is a 'best' metaphysical system?


If you ask philosophers to give you a list of the ten most important metaphysical truths discovered by philosophers over the past 2500 years you will find that there will be no agreement between them and many philosophers believe that there are no metaphysical truths. So the idea that we are making any progress towards a best metaphysical system is a non starter. There is no progress in philosophy. Everything is still disputed.

I myself believe that: 1. There are no metaphysical truths. You might like to note that this is not the same as believing that 2. There cannot be any metaphysical truths. If 2 were true then it would itself be a metaphysical truth but1 does not suffer from the same self-contradictory defect.

Shaun Williamson

(4) Tommy asked:

Two people I know had an argument, both of who brought up good points in their arguments. The arguments were this:

One of the kids said that his car was better than the other kids car, hence he won. The other kid responded by saying I do not own a car and the kid with the car said exactly so I win because the existence of something is better than the nonexistence of something. Now this sounds like a dumb argument but it has made it into our philosophy class with half the kids siding with one kid and the other half with the other kid. So the question is this: Can the kid say that his car is better than the other kid's car, if the other kid does not own a car?


Both sides of the argument are right. That is because there are two distinct ways of logically analysing the statement, 'My car is better than your car.'

Version 1 states: 'I have a car and you have a car and my car is better than your car.'

This statement is false if you don't have a car. That is because any statement which has the logical form 'P and Q and R' is false if just one of the statements P, Q, R is false.

Version 2 states: 'I have a car which is better than any car you have.'

This statement is true, either if you have a car and my car is better than your car, OR if I have a car and you don't have a car.

It is irrelevant, so far as this argument is concerned, whether having a car is better than not having a car.

Geoffrey Klempner

(5) Sam asked:

I heard of interesting experiments in psychology. During those, the brain of mice was stimulated using electrodes in an area which caused the mice to feel pleasure. Mice had the option of using a plug to turn the stimulation on, when they wanted to. The result was that the mice simulated themselves frantically. I am not sure, but I think I have read that some of them even neglected eating because of it.

1) Do you know the name of the experimenters?

2) I think that if one says 'The goal of life is happiness', then if such a machine were available for human beings, he would have to agree to plug in, into such a machine this would logically follow. Therefore, if one chooses not to be connected to such a machine, he has to say 'The goal of life is not happiness' and 'happiness is not important in life'. Do you agree?

3) People often say that 'One of the reasons you should help other people is because of the fulfillment you feel'. Does not the mice machine show that it is a bad criteria? If fulfillment is a criteria for ANY decision, then it is logical to plug yourself into a machine that gives you constant fulfillment. But the latter is undesirable, so the former is undesirable.

Thank you!


As to (1), Olds, James, & Milner, Peter (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of the septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47, 419-427.

As to (2), I definitely agree. These and similar experiments virtually prove that Happiness is not what drives people. At best, 'happiness' (however personally defined) is a convenient surrogate for what actually drives people. Personally, it is my considered opinion that the underlying drive is for genetic reproductive success over the long term. How to achieve this genetically programmed goal is the problem, since everyone will have different opinions, and judgements, as to the best means of personally achieving that goal. The human mind is a powerful interpretation and planning tool that can often get quite confused when incorrect or contradictory premises are inserted into the logic processes. A suicide bomber, for example, is quite convinced that s/he is doing the right thing to achieve a 'better' life and a 'better' world.

As to (3), I think you are confusing 'fulfillment' with 'happiness'. Fulfillment can come from a lot of sources that have nothing to do with happiness. But then 'fulfillment' as the ultimate goal shares all of the same problems of 'happiness' as the ultimate goal. Personally, I think they are both simply indicators of how we individually 'measure' or 'rate' the alternatives and the scale by which we judge which means to pursue towards the goal of genetic success.

'Evolutionary Ethics' can explain a lot of behavior that confuses and confounds other, more traditional ethical systems.

Stuart Burns

(6) Meme asked:

Should the government reduce taxation if it wishes to cure unemployment in the uk or should the government increase taxes and welfare assistance if it wishes to cure unemployment?


Economics and economic history are both quite clear. If the only goal is to 'cure unemployment', then the government should reduce taxes and reduce welfare assistance. (Of course, that recommendation assumes that shifting people from the unemployment line to the welfare roles is not a 'cure' for unemployment. It assumes that the only way to 'cure' unemployment is for people to get a job.) Taxes, minimum wage laws, government regulations, and welfare assistance are all economic impediments to the most economically efficient and productive deployment of the labour force.

The difficulties facing any government, however, is that 'curing unemployment' is not the only goal that needs to be pursued. Reducing taxes and the welfare roles can cause other problems that may, in the opinions of the politicians running the show, out weight the 'benefit' of curing unemployment.

Stuart Burns

(7) Victor asked:

Ned Block, phd. created the problem 'China Brain' which I think he is famous. He was the philosophical chair at MIT and now is at NYU I believe. I just wonder what the overall sense is for this insight into human consciousness? Who are his critics? Anything you can suggest would be helpful.

I'm a beginning student. Thanks...


Ned Block's 'China Brain' is a hypothetical instantiation of the 'program' which runs on some human brain, with actual people replacing individual neurons -- the entire population of China. We are familiar with the idea that the same software can run on different computers, so why can't the China brain be a giant computer? And if running a suitable program is all it takes for the brain to have 'consciousness' then why can't the China brain have consciousness?

The answer to the first question is easy: there is no doubt that the China brain is a fully functional computer. However there is a lot of doubt -- and this is Ned Block's point -- over how the attribute of 'consciousness' could magically appear in the China brain, as a quality separate from the consciousnesses of the individuals composing it.

The common sense reaction is that the China brain just cannot be conscious. David Chalmers expresses this reaction in his zombie thought experiment: there must be something more to me than just a brain running a program, because I can imagine a perfect physical copy of me with a brain just like mine who was a zombie.

Questions arise, however, over precisely what it takes to be a zombie. Is it someone who is indistinguishable from me physically and behaviourally? In that case, my zombie will 'protest' just as loudly as I do that it has consciousness. In which case one ought to conclude that whatever it is that causes me to protest that I have consciousness can't be the possession of something that my zombie double lacks.

On the other hand, suppose that although I am incapable of being distinguished from my zombie double by any physical tests, nevertheless there are tiny internal differences which result in my brain producing consciousness while my zombie double's brain doesn't. In that case, my zombie double will behave differently from me (e.g. talk in a monotone, walk in a jerky way the way they do in the movies).

The consequence of the second version of the zombie thought experiment is that we are fully justified in refusing to allow that the China brain can be conscious. It might run the same program as a human brain, but something extra is needed for consciousness in addition to running a program.

I am sceptical of this idea. But I do have a criticism of my own. You can't talk of consciousness which is not for the entity in question. The China brain does lack something which we have, namely a body, sense organs, genuine needs and desires, 'arms and legs'. Give it these, and it is far more difficult to deny that it can be conscious. After all, how do I know that my neurons haven't been replaced by billions of friendly aliens running the program that my brain used to run?

Geoffrey Klempner

(8) Thomas asked:

I sometimes struggle with sharing philosophical views with others and I wonder if this is being private or dishonest? I am agnostic and I have many friends who hold strong religious beliefs. I see no point in challenging their beliefs or pointing out irrational thinking. I often know more about scripture than they do and I am honest with them if they ask me for my thoughts directly. But, I am torn because while I firmly feel that good ideas should hold up to scrutiny, I am also aware that there is a cultural exception for this where religion is concerned. I have no desire to be an evangelical agnostic and I often envy my friends for the comfort they have in their faith. Who am I to say, 'Hey, how about trying this existential anxiety instead of that wonderful feeling of Christianity.' I hate being awoken from a pleasant dream and that is what I fear may happen if I engage in dialogue with some of my friends. If I could drink from their cup, I would but it just is not who I am. I happily attend church and sing along with my friends.

I do not want to be a hypocrite and I do get a pleasant feeling of fellowship and I engage in good deeds that I would support no matter what denomination is sponsoring them. My friends say they are praying for me to be saved and I politely say, 'thank you,' even though I also feel they are being dismissive of my views. When I reflect on this, I recognize they are not trying to offend me and this is their way of expressing concern. Is there a way to reconcile these feelings and hold my views without feeling hypocritical or offended by those trying to save me. Am I obligated to say, 'no thanks, I just came for the singing not the salvation.'


By and large, I feel that I am in the same boat as you find yourself.

However, I am not an agnostic, I am a Bright! I do not enjoy going to church (partly, I suppose, because I could not hold a tune in a steal safe ;-) ). And I feel a little more strongly than you appear to that people who insist on maintaining irrational religious beliefs, and holding strong to their comfortable dreams, living their lives is a sort of hopeful fog, are not the kind of people that I find worthy of more than acquaintance. Perhaps I am being overly stringent, but I have found that friendship requires at least a minimal commonality of intellectual honesty. People have a habit of defining 'hypocritical' in ways that suit their current purpose. But the Wiktionary provides this definition of 'hypocrisy' -- 'The claim, pretense, or false representation of holding beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not actually possess.' So if you simply accept your friends comments, you are perhaps leaving the false representation that you also belive in their God. Especially since you also go to their church, and pray to their God. To my way of thinking, that is being hypocritical.

Like you, however, I am no 'evangelical Bright'. I make comments where I deem it appropriate (like here). And I ignore the religious comments where politically advisable (i.e. Socially polite) to. But I make no bone about the fact that I am anti-religious when the opportunity presents. If this costs me friends and acquaintances, then they were foggy minded characters I would not have chosen to associate with anyways.

Although you profess agnosticism, you may find some assistance in dealing with your religious friends at the Brights-Net web site. They have a page that offers some non-religious rejoinders to the comments that you find annoying. Here is one with some responses to the 'praying for you' comment:

Take a look at their home page, and see if anything strikes a chord --

Stuart Burns

(9) Sam asked:

Do you think that if something is objectively true, it has to fall necessarily within the realms of science?

And specifically, values and aesthetics.

Do you think that the fact that you cannot use scientific tools to decide which values are superior, and which art is more beautiful is sufficient to prove that all art and all values are relative?


No I do not think that if something is objectively true, it has to fall necessarily within the realms of science. I think you are perhaps holding a misconception about the boundaries of the 'realm of science'. The realm of science is the realm of testable hypotheses. If an hypothesis is not testable, it is not science. (Hence, for example, the hypothesis that God exists is not testable, and places that part of religious beliefs outside of the realm of science.) Objectivity is indeed a prerequisite to the notion of testing an hypotheses, because if we cannot both test an hypothesis and reach the same conclusion, then the point of testing it is lost. But saying that science requires objectivity is not saying that everything that is objective is necessarily science. If something is objective, one can still pose untestable hypotheses about it.

As to whether the realm of ethics and values falls within the realm of science, I do not think that it is fact that you cannot use scientific tools to decide which values are superior. What you regard as a 'moral fact' (if any), will depend on your theory of ethics. There are scientific theories of morals that posit objective moral facts that can be measured, resulting in moral hypotheses that can be objectively tested. Hence placing morals within the realm of science. Google 'Evolutionary Ethics' as one example.

As to the realm of aesthetics, I think the major problem with 'science-izing' this field is the lack of any suitable definition of either 'beautiful' or 'art'. If, as most people seem to think, 'art' and 'beauty' are in the eye of the beholder, then there would be no room for testable hypotheses. And hence would remove aesthetics from the realm of science. But there is evidence that this common belief in the subjectivity of 'beauty' (at least one part anyway) is false. Experiments in facial recognition show that the kinds of face that people will find 'beautiful' is predictable. Hence, an objective definition for at least a 'beautiful face' is obtainable, and places at least that narrow realm of aesthetics within the realm of science. Perhaps other areas of aesthetics will follow?

Stuart Burns

(10) Brian asked:

Why should the law insist we wear seat belts (or crash helmets)?

After all isn't this a matter of mature choice, and we (potentially) hurt only ourselves.


According to J.S. Mill's 'Liberty Principle', enunciated in his book 'On Liberty', an agent ought to be free to perform an action provided that it does not cause harm to someone else. This idea seems intuitively attractive. Even if you can, by interfering, prevent a person doing him or herself harm, it is still wrong to do so because restricting a person's freedom is a greater evil.

However, we also recognize that if a person is intent on doing harm to another person, then we have every right to interfere.

The case of seat belts and crash helmets is interesting because it seems like a simple question of personal freedom. It is OK to run adverts warning of the dangers of not wearing a seat belt or crash helmet. You can try to persuade someone to belt up or don a helmet. But you can't force them either physically or by means of legal sanctions.

The best argument I have heard against this is that people who refuse to wear seat belts or crash helmets potentially cause harm to others by requiring greater resources from medical services when they have an accident. It is the taxpayer who has to pay for each motorbike rider who gets hospitalized with brain damage, or for each motorist who requires extensive plastic surgery for facial wounds.

However, if this were the only argument then a sufficient way of meeting it would be to allow motor bike riders who dislike helmets or car travellers who hate seat belts the option of paying a standard non-refundable premium -- a 'helmet tax' or 'seat belt tax' -- calculated to be sufficient to cover the costs of treatment of those unlucky enough to suffer serious injury as a result of their reckless behaviour.

Geoffrey Klempner

(11) Alfie asked:

Can you help me naming some Eastern philosophers and their pupils?


Why would you want to know about Eastern philosophers as opposed to just philosophers. The Western tradition of philosophy is based only upon rational inquiry about the nature of the world. There are Eastern moralists and Eastern religious thinkers but no major figures who are recognised as Eastern philosophers. People may talk about Eastern philosophy but the fact is that it doesn't exist. This is an accident of history but history is full of accidents. The major theories of science and the major discoveries of scientific medicine are also western. Except for the medieval Arab thinkers who studied Aristotle, in general Eastern thinkers failed to grasp the difference between rational thought and theological belief.

Shaun Williamson

(12) Brad asked:

Isn't philosophy kind of irrelevant in today's society? It seems difficult and only by a stretch of imagination to justify departments of philosophy within the modern university.

As traditionally taught, it could be part of history faculty. Construed as deconstruction (and the entire analytic approach generally), it belongs to the English faculty And given development of sociobiology (evolutionary psychology), it can become part of science.


These are really just vague and unclear suggestions. Why is philosophy 'kind of' irrelevant in today's society? What is your idea of the purpose of a modern university?

As traditionally taught it could not be part of the history faculty. In general historians understand nothing about philosophical ideas and without this they could not properly teach the history of philosophy. Nor would many philosophers agree that deconstruction has any connection with the analytic approach to philosophy.

Philosophy has no connection with evolutionary psychology or sociobiology and cannot be reduced to them. Also you make no mention of where you will hive off the teaching of logic. Which department are you going to put that in. Perhaps the music department could take it over.

I can't see any reason to agree with any of the things you say. One of the things philosophy can teach you, is how to express your thoughts clearly and completely. You have failed to do that.

Shaun Williamson

(13) Stuart asked:

My question is about consciousness, it started with wondering about cryogenics and if the human consciousness could survive it. It led me to wonder if perhaps consciousness was like a relay race where from one second to the next we pass our consciousness from one version of our selves to another, and its just our memories and experience that make us feel that we are the same person we were a few seconds ago.

So as we go through life building our futures we are doing it selflessly for that future occupier of self. If that's the case it ponders some questions like if a person were somehow duplicated exactly with all memories, that person prior to duplication would expect to occupy the consciousness of one or other of the duplications. Where as in fact he would occupy nether but the two duplications would both be under the impression they were formally the duplicated person.

What do you think? Please discuss.


You have described a view which I find strangely compelling. There is no ultimate difference between the continuity of the self or discontinuity, no sense to the assertion that the self 'survives' from one moment to the next or 'doesn't survive'.

Bertrand Russell once hypothesized that if the universe was created five minutes ago, and all of us along with our apparent 'memories', no-one would be the wiser. However, we can consider the less extreme hypothesis that my body and mind were created last night by an evil scientist while I slept. No-one noticed because all physical traces of the human body that existed up to that time were destroyed.

If there is no way I can tell from memory or the quality of my consciousness that I am not my own doppelganger, then the next question is 'What difference does it make?' So far as I can see, none.

Suppose I go into a 'person copier', the kind that philosophers who discuss the problem of personal identity love to talk about. In goes one individual, there's a lot of noise everything goes foggy and then out comes two identical individuals, who point to each other in horror.

There is nothing that 'makes' me the individual who WILL be the one on the left pointing to the one on the right, rather than the one on the right pointing to the one on the left. I can't be both (we are assuming that the individuals have separate minds) so, it seems, I must be neither.

The point doesn't depend on the technical possibility of constructing a person copier. The sense of identity is essentially a backwards notion. The one on the left will think of himself as me and so will the one on the right. In reality, they will both be in the same position as my doppelganger who was secretly substituted for me last night.

I would argue that the doppelganger and the duplicated persons are all in exactly the same situation that we all are.

Geoffrey Klempner

(14) James asked:

Is Christianity a cult?


From the MSN Encarta Online World English Dictionary:"

'Cult' (noun) = '1. Religion: a system of religious or spiritual beliefs, especially an informal and transient belief system regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, extremist, or false, and directed by a charismatic, authoritarian leader; 2. Religious group: a group of people who share religious or spiritual beliefs, especially beliefs regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, extremist, or false.'

Given that Christianity is a minority religion, one would have to say that other more populous religions, not to mention the bulk of the scientific establishment, would properly regard Christianity as misguided and false. And Christ was certainly charismatic, if perhaps not authoritarian (but an argument can be made from what He is reputed to have claimed in the New Testament Scriptures that he was authoritarian). The Roman Catholic Church in particular is unquestionably directed by a charismatic, authoritarian leader. So by this dictionary definition, Christianity would certainly seem to qualify as a 'cult'.

Stuart Burns

(15) Theresa asked:

Why is it bad for humanity that we tend to overestimate the extent of knowledge which is certain?


Your question raises three questions in response -

(i) Why do you think we tend to overestimate the extent of knowledge which is certain?

(Ii) What makes you think that 'knowledge' necessarily involves anything being certain?


(iii) Why do you think that it is bad for humanity that we tend to overestimate the extent of knowledge which is certain? Or, alternatively, given some possible answers to (ii) above, why do you think that it is bad for humanity that we tend to overestimate the confidence we have in the truth of the knowledge claims we make.

Stuart Burns

(16) Emma asked:

Hi there. I am currently a second year Philosophy student. I have a great interest in the subject, but don't want to pursue it as a career. However, my grades seem to range somewhat. One minute I'm performing with 2:1s, the next thing I know im only just passing and getting thirds! I don't see the point of getting a degree with a below average mark, but I don't see the point in quitting, not now. This makes me feel so disappointed in myself, and I know that asking for help is the best thing to do, but its doing that which is hard. I've especially had subjects I struggle with, like Marx, but then some I appear to find easy, like feminist philosophy, and I perform badly! There seems to be no consistency, and I just cant understand where I'm going wrong. Could you please advise me of how I should improve. The main areas to focus upon. Essay feedback doesn't seem to be consistent, I go wrong in so many different areas! Thank you.


Philosophy is a very difficult subject to assess. It is perfectly possible that you are in fact performing consistently, but the different lecturers that you do work for differ in how they evaluate your work.

It is also possible that, although you do have genuine philosophical ability, your own evaluations of what you do are not very accurate. This is quite a common failing. Learning how to evaluate your own work is especially difficult, however, if you are getting conflicting evaluations from those who are teaching you.

A sure sign that something is wrong, however, is if you find a subject 'easy'. Sometimes you will struggle and fail and sometimes you will struggle and succeed but no work of philosophical value is achieved easily.

Consider the possibility that your 'failures' are no less valuable than your successes, even if the marks you receive are lower, as they must be. Don't worry. It's a percentage game. Concentrate on doing your best seeing each piece of work as a fresh challenge. If you are achieving some marks in the 2/i bracket then you have every chance of gaining a 2/i degree.

And if you don't, so what? Grades aren't everything.

Geoffrey Klempner

(17) James asked:

Is Christianity a cult?


In general I don't think it is. There are Christian cults just as there are non Christian cults. However it all depends on how you define a cult. I think of cults as involving a large measure of psychological coercion to prevent members from leaving the cult. Mainstream Christian denomination such as the Anglican/ Episcopalian church do not try to coerce church members into staying. Nor do I regard religions such as the Mormons as cult like. There may be no sharp dividing line between cult and non cult organisations but that does not mean the dividing line doesn't exist.

Shaun Williamson

(18) Daniel asked:

Bear with me....

When we 'think', we think that we are thinking from our heads. If I am having a thought whilst eating something, such as 'That tastes nice', I feel as if I can locate that thought in my head. That inner voice resides in the head. And that's obviously because consciousness arises from the brain. But the only way I know and feel that my thoughts are in my brain is because I have consistently been told in everyday speech and education about how my thoughts are in my head.

So considering that, if you bought up a child, and told them that their brain was in their knees, and that all their thoughts were therefore in their knees, and you exposed them to colloquialisms about thinking in your knees would that child naturally feel as if they think in their knees? If that child ate something and had the thought: 'That tastes nice', would it feel for them as if that inner voice was located in their knees? Or would the true fact that consciousness arises from the brain override that?

In short, can you fake the location of consciousness and move it to another area of the body, or must it always been where the brain is?


It is important to realise that a thought isn't a physical thing and therefore doesn't have a location. When we talk about thoughts being in our head that is a metaphorical use of in and we only tend to apply it to unspoken thoughts .

In the past before the importance of the brain was realised different metaphors were popular. The heart is still regarded as the seat of feeling. We still talk of someone having a broken heart. How we feel about the location of our thoughts is interesting but it is just a metaphorical way of talking about things.

It is not clear that we think of all consciousness as being located in the brain. If you have a pain in your knee then you rub your knee not your head. If you feel sick then you tend to clutch your stomach not your head. A sensation of thirst is located in the mouth and throat.

Shaun Williamson

(19) Nelson asked:

First, I am only an amateur reader of philosophy, so bear with me. But I have a grudge. Why does contemporary philosophy have such an apparent antipathy to the topics of money and finance? Hume, Smith Simmel, Marx, Hayek, and Sen are exceptions, of course. But it seems this whole field of symbolic valuation has been largely ceded to economists. The capacity for 'exchange' is a unique and defining human trait, Smith argued. Yet as wags point out, an exchange only takes place when two parties can 'disagree' on the ultimate value of something. This seems like fertile territory for anyone interested in logic and value. Moreover, I can think of no more useful role for the trained philosopher these days than a 'redescription, ' as Rorty puts it, of the financial and economic principles that have come to rule our lives and are evidently supplanting the nation state. When I look at the financial pages I can't help but feel that we are all in the grip of some dark and obscure pseudoscience. Any suggested readings? Thank you,


I am a metaphysician who has come very late to the topic of the philosophy of business. I couldn't agree with you more that the entire question of money and exchange is a topic ripe for philosophical re-evaluation.

I wish I could offer suitable readings. I was unable to find anything suitable for my purposes when I began my research into this topic.

My main concern has been with the way that the invention of 'exchange' created a new way of living, a new world not just in the way that it opened up possibilities -- like the invention of the wheel -- but in a deeper, metaphysical sense.

Human beings inhabit two worlds, the 'human world' (for want of a better term) and the 'business arena'. We have become very proficient in moving back and forth between these two worlds.

If you are looking for reading, you can start with my article 'The Business Arena' in the ISFP e-journal 'Philosophy for Business' Issue 5

Good luck! And let me know if you make any progress in your search. We can always use good original material for the business e-journal.

Geoffrey Klempner

(20) Yap asked:

E=Mc2 is technically a construct in the mind. Energy, Mass, Time and Constant, are all conceptual notions.

Obviously these notions have been set up around a supposed order in nature, but nonetheless, they are still conceptual notions set as a configuration of sorts in the subjective bed.

My point being Whatever the unified field turns out to be in the world of physics, it will technically be, and this is important, a configuration set in the human mind. How can it not be?

Now if we consider the Unified Field from this perspective, we have to then consider the following. If for the sake of argument the unified filed, (and this is just to keep it very, very simple) turns out to be A,B,C,D, then A,B,C,D in the subjective bed will have to be established in relation to how the human mind itself can fundamentally structure its a priori apparatus around this construct.

Planck's constant H has to be considered in relation to the bed of the mind as much as anywhere else in the universe. Now if we are searching to unify all fields of thought into one sound bite, then we have no choice but to unify this sound bite with the mind or else there can be no unification at all. We can't find the nut without the spanner that fits it.

So it stands to reason that the physicists are technically looking in the wrong place for the answers. Their ideas are all predicated around a posteriori outcomes. Whereas I am considering the outcome from first order.

If we are to document how nature is constructed and growing from the view of quantum mechanics, then it stands to reason we have to learn to work our minds apparatus around this perspective. Quantum exists in the mind too, and since nothing else in the known universe is as complex as the human mind, where better to start. What are your views on this?


I think you are completely wrong. Scientists are trying to do science, they are not looking for the answer to any philosophical problem. In fact I think that science has no philosophical implications whatsoever. I think you have misunderstood the quest for the unified field theory. This is not the quest for some holy grail, i.e. It is not a philosophical problem. It is a scientific problem which is well defined and at present is centred around the search for the Higgs Boson particle.

It is essential that scientists continue to concentrate on experiments and the results of experiments and not get diverted by idle philosophical speculation.

Shaun Williamson

(21) Curt asked:

Would the following be a cogent argument:

No Christian believed in doctrine X until the 1500's. If doctrine X were taught in the Bible, then some Christian would have believed it during the first five centuries of Christian history. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Bible does not teach doctrine X.

The reason why I ask is because of the following scenario:

Evangelical Protestants believe in a doctrine called, 'justification by faith alone'. Roman Catholics claim that no Christian believed this doctrine until the 1500's. They claim that if this doctrine were taught in the Bible, then some Christian would have believed it during the first five centuries of Christian history. Roman Catholics claim that since no Christian believed in justification by faith alone until the 1500's, then it is unlikely that the Bible teaches that doctrine.


It is probably true that the Bible does not support doctrine X explicitly. However your argument fails for other historical reasons that you have failed to take account of.

Before 1500 access to the Bible was confined to the clergy and a small educated elite because it was only available in Latin and the Church made sure this was so by denouncing and killing anyone who translated it into other languages. Even where it was available in translation, it was still only available to a few since most people could not read. Before 1500 many strange doctrines were believed by groups (often large groups) of Christians. However these groups could be persecuted and denounced as heretics.

The doctrines of the Reformation did not suddenly arise from thin air. The only thing different about the Reformation was that the Catholic church lost political control of parts of Europe so that they could no longer persecute and wipe out any dissenting theological views.

Shaun Williamson

(22) Justin asked:

Why do we assume that numbers go on toward, up to and past infinity? Isn't it reasonable to expect that quantities of things would have a limit, even if that limit seems unimaginable?


This is not an unreasonable question. If anything has a number, surely numbers have (I mean the natural numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, ...). But amongst all the things that have number, we generally believe that this number is some specific number even if it is a number which we do not, and cannot know.

For example, we believe that there is a number which is the number of hairs on the heads of all the people who travelled by aeroplane in the last hour. There is a number which is the number of all minky whales currently alive in the sea. There is a number which is the number of all the planets in the universe which have at least one moon. And so on.

However, numbers themselves are different. That is because of the way the number series is defined.

The number series is defined by an operation, 'plus 1'. The natural numbers are zero, and all the numbers which follow from zero by applying the operation plus one. If n is a natural number, it follows by definition that n+1 is a natural number.

It follows that there cannot be a last natural number. If m was the last natural number, what would m+1 be?

It also follows that the set of all natural numbers is infinite, according to the definition of an 'infinite set' as a set whose members can be put into a 1-1 correspondence with a 'proper subset' (i.e. with the same set with some of the elements taken away).

For example, the set of all natural numbers can be put into a 1-1 correlation with the set of all even numbers. That is to say, there is the same number of natural numbers and even numbers.

Geoffrey Klempner

(23) Richard asked:

If you are travelling at the speed of light and then put a mirror in front of your face would you see your reflection.


This is a scientific question not a philosophic one. It is one of the original thought experiments devised by Einstein that led him to formulate the Theory of Relativity which includes the idea that the same physical laws exist throughout the universe no matter what our speed is relative to other objects. So yes, you would see your reflection because the speed of light relative to an observer is always the same no matter how fast he is travelling.

Shaun Williamson

(24) Kandace asked:

Does the inability to define something imply ignorance of its meaning?


No, it doesn't. Most people know what the words 'fairness' and 'game' mean although they may find it difficult to give a formal definition of them. Knowing how to use a word and being able to give a definition of a word are two different skills.

Shaun Williamson

(25) Grant asked:

In matters of ethics I consider myself to be a utilitarian/ consequentialist: i.e. the ethical value of an action can be determined by the consequences which flow from that action. Thus, broadly speaking, actions that increase 'happiness' in the world are 'good' and actions that increase 'suffering' are 'bad'.

However I have recently been pondering comparisons between actions by different people where their motivation and or capacity differ. For example, John who is almost financially destitute, but believes in the importance of helping others, saves Andrea's life by donating money to allow her to have a lifesaving operation.

On the other hand Frank, who is very, very wealthy, and has been told by his corporate image manager to give to a charity as a public relations stunt, saves Jane's life by donating money to allow her to have a lifesaving operation.

Both actions save a life. 'Common sense' would suggest that John's action is more praiseworthy than Frank's. But is one action more ethically worthy than the other? Why should the motivation or capacity of the agents impact on the ethical standing of their actions when the outcomes produced are identical? How does a utilitarian address this issue?


John Stuart Mill in his book 'Utilitarianism' considers the distinction between a 'good agent' and a 'good action', in the context of actions which are done from a good motive but which, through no fault of the agent, lead to bad consequences.

According to utilitarianism, we should all aim to do the action which leads to 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. We don't always achieve this. It doesn't mean that we are not good persons.

However, it occurs to me that in order to be consistent we ought to look at praise itself from a utilitarian standpoint.

Amongst the actions that we can perform are the actions of offering praise and blame. We also identify people who do actions which are worthy of being emulated. These actions of offering praise and identifying those worthy of praise, like any other actions, have consequences for human happiness.

Hence, other things being equal, the utilitarian or consequentialist ought to hold that encouraging persons who have a lot to give a lot will have good consequences for human happiness, while encouraging persons who have a little to give a lot will have even better consequences. That is why John ought to receive more praise and respect for his altruistic action than Frank.

— But is that explanation true? What do you think?

Geoffrey Klempner

(26) Saffron asked:

Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I no longer 'believe in science'. Many people have found this hard to understand, and I myself am struggling with the concept. Is it even possible to disregard something which so many hold in such high esteem?

I feel that the basis for my beliefs, or lack thereof, lies with the question of infallibility. Upon broaching the topic with friends from my philosophy class, I was told that not believing in science was simply not n option. I had to believe in it, because it was all around me. My counter argument was that science was elitist, something for the select few, in that there are very few people who actually 'know the truth'. One friend in particular pointed out that I had to believe in gravity, as it was acting on me all the time, and that the clothes I was wearing and the dye I use in my hair were all products of science. I remain unconvinced though, as neither my friend, nor anyone I know, can actually prove these beliefs they regard so highly. Has no one considered the possibility that science is simply an invention to 'fob off' the masses about the world in which we live? I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist; I am simply looking to understand why or if we should all believe in science and what the implications are if we are all wrong?


I afraid you are just hopelessly confused. Science isn't a set of beliefs that can be accepted or rejected like some sort of alternative religion. Science is a way of dealing with the world.

If when you are ill you go to the doctor then this shows that you believe in science. If you use a computer and access the internet then this shows that you believe in science. If you watch television then this shows that you believe in science. If when you go into a dark room, you reach for the light switch and switch on the light, then this shows that you believe in science. If you travel by train, boat, car or plane then this shows that you believe in science.

In the same way if you count your change when you are in a shop then this shows that you believe mathematics. If science is a conspiracy then the light switch and the light are some of the products of that conspiracy. The atom bomb is another product of that conspiracy and so is the computer and email and philosophy websites.

I don't believe in alternative medicine and I show that I don't believe in it by never having anything to do with it or its products. If you really don't believe in science then you can only show this by not having anything to do with the products of science. When you do this we might start to believe that your professed disbelief of science is sincere.

Do you know what science is? Perhaps you need to read some books, so that you understand exactly what it is that you think you are rejecting.

Shaun Williamson

(27) Roman asked:

Why, despite all of the greatest minds in the history of mankind, has there been no real answer to the problem of the meaning of life? I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is because there is no real or true answer. And if there is no true answer then my next question is this: Why, if ones life is mostly an experience of anxiety, depression, boredom, and loneliness, should one continue to live once this is realized by one's Self? Especially if that Self believes that death will be an eternal relief of this suffering in total oblivion or that the Self will continue to exist in some unconceivable way in an absolute reality.


Language wasn't invented by God it was invented by humans so that they could communicate with each other about the things that concern them. One of the things that we can do with language is ask questions and answer them. However we can also ask questions that have no sensible answer. The human who asks the question should also be responsible for explaining what sort of answer would satisfy them.

Suppose I tell you that the meaning of life is to do good and avoid doing evil then will you accept my answer? If not, then why not? What sort of answer would you accept? If you don't know then don't ask the question.

If ones life is mostly an experience of anxiety, depression, boredom and loneliness then what you should be doing is asking yourself why this is true for you. Why have you let your life become such a total failure and what can you do about it?

Death does not offer any relief from your suffering so don't fool yourself. It will end your suffering, just as it will end everything else but that isn't the same as finding any sort of relief. Penicillin cures diseases, killing yourself stops you suffering from a disease but that doesn't make it a cure for a disease.

Shaun Williamson

(28) Adiba asked:

What are the qualities one should possess to study philosophy?

What does one need to have: imagination, high IQ, math knowledge or what?

How can I know if I can study philosophy?


IQ is a measure of the speed at which your brain works in computing answers to logical puzzles. There are also psychological tests which are designed to assess other aspects of mental performance to which it is harder to give a precise numerical value, such as lateral thinking and imagination.

However, I would say that the one and only requirement for studying philosophy is that you are capable of being really gripped by a philosophical program. Don't take it for granted that just about anyone is capable of this. It is not a rare talent, but it is not that common either.

You will find intelligent people, as well as many people who would regard themselves as good lateral thinkers or having a good imagination who honestly say that philosophy leaves them stone cold. I don't have a good explanation of this. Perhaps it is just something about our materialist culture.

It is also true that if these mental capacities are too limited, then it is very unlikely that philosophical problems will grip you. I wouldn't want to give a precise figure, but I would be surprised if someone with an IQ of less than 85 was capable of studying philosophy.

In short, the very fact that you are asking this question is pretty good evidence that you do have the qualities required to be a student of philosophy. Go for it!

Geoffrey Klempner

(29) Alex asked:

Can anything be 100 per cent proven to exist?


In mathematics and logic we have proofs and methods of proof. So for example we can prove 100 per cent that there is no greatest prime number. We can prove 100 per cent that classic propositional logic is both consistent and complete.

However for ordinary things like 'Does the tax inspector exist?' Or 'Does toast exist?' There is nothing that we would call a proof for these things nor do we feel that we need them. We still have to pay our taxes although we can't prove that the tax man exists. We still eat toast even though we can't prove that it exists.

Shaun Williamson

(30) Theresa asked:

Why is Darwin's theory of natural selection a genuine scientific hypothesis? What facts support it?

My opinion is that Darwin's theory is able to explain natural selection through the use of facts. The theory's ability to be scrutinized and tested, while providing evidence through the application of empirical knowledge. Darwin's theory has been proven, but rather well it explains the known facts What sorts of known facts support it? By providing evidence of extinct species, the theory remains consistent through out its explanation of the facts. Darwin's theory explains not only the original facts, but also the observed fact that there are traces of extinct species. Darwin's theory genuinely explains these facts, whereas the design hypothesis relegates them to mystery. Other facts that are presented are the presence of vestigial organs and the fact that more complicated skeletal structures are consistently found in younger strata of Earth.

What do you think?


Darwin's theory of evolution is the only theory we have to explain the diversity of life on earth and the fossil record and the geological history that we find on earth. Evolution by natural selection is only a part of the theory of evolution. It is the mechanism by which evolution occurs. There have been other suggestions for the mechanism part of the theory but natural selection is still the one favoured by the evidence. There is still a lot of work to be done on the details of evolution and many more discoveries to be made.

The design hypothesis fails to even achieve the status of a scientific theory because there is no evidence in favour of it (even given that there are many versions of the design hypothesis).

If the design hypothesis is true then let's see the evidence.

Shaun Williamson

(31) Petros asked:

Was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein correct when he said '...there are no philosophical problems just linguistic riddles'.

Is the discipline of philosophy just a game of words and phrases where an apparent philosophical problem totally collapses once the linguistic riddle is solved?

If Wittgenstein is correct then what exactly is the purpose of this web site?


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe Wittgenstein ever said, or wrote, 'There are no philosophical problems just linguistic riddles.'

However, Wittgenstein did like to use the word 'riddle', usually, with the implication that we are wrong in thinking that philosophical 'riddles' are like other kinds of 'riddle' -- i.e. in having an 'answer' which we are searching for but have not yet found.

What Wittgenstein seems to have believed is that all the problems that we call 'philosophical' ultimately arise though a misunderstanding of the way our language works, a failure to grasp the 'grammar' of a particular notion or concept. This is not grammar in the ordinary sense, however.

It follows from Wittgenstein's view that when a problem is 'solved' it in a sense disappears. You see reality for what it is, no longer distorted by the illusions that arise from your ignorance of the way your own language works.

Why should it follow from this that there is no purpose in a web site which discusses 'philosophical problems?' All that follows is that what we regard as philosophical 'problems' are different from what we naively took them to be. Seeing philosophy this way doesn't necessarily make the activity of philosophy any easier (or, more difficult).

Geoffrey Klempner

(32) Tommy asked:

Two people I know had an argument, both of who brought up good points in their arguments. The arguments were this:

One of the kids said that his car was better than the other kids car, hence he won. The other kid responded by saying I do not own a car and the kid with the car said exactly so I win because the existence of something is better than the nonexistence of something. Now this sounds like a dumb argument but it has made it into our philosophy class with half the kids siding with one kid and the other half with the other kid. So the question is this: Can the kid say that his car is better than the other kid's car, if the other kid does not own a car?


The key to this argument is the idea that 'the existence of something is better than the non-existence of something'. There is no way to establish this so just ignore it.

The existence of diseases that kill children isn't better than the non existence of such diseases. The existence of violent psychopaths isn't better than the non-existence of such people. The existence of poverty isn't better than the non-existence of poverty.

Shaun Williamson

(33) Justin asked:

Why do we assume that numbers go on toward, up to and past infinity? Isn't it reasonable to expect that quantities of things would have a limit, even if that limit seems unimaginable?


Mathematics wasn't invented by God, it was invented by humans for human purposes. We define what a number is and part of the definition is that every number has a successor'. This means that there is no greatest number, numbers go on forever. There is no assumption here, we do mathematics because mathematics is useful to us. Study the 2500 year old proof that there is no greatest prime number and you will be more able to appreciate why we have decided that numbers should go on forever.

Shaun Williamson

(34) Rachel asked:

I'm currently doing 1st yr Philosophy with UOL. With regards to the examinations...

How many pages should my essay normally be?


You are presumably talking about an examination question for the University of London Diploma or BA in Philosophy.

An exam consists of three questions and lasts three hours. So you have one hour per question. My advice to my students who are taking the University of London Diploma or BA as External students is that a good essay answer can be as little as 800 words, or 3-4 pages of handwritten script, depending on the size of your handwriting. There is no virtue in a longer answer which is of lower quality.

What is far more important than length is making your answer relevant to the question. Avoid anything that looks like padding, or offering information which wasn't asked for. That is why it is so important to give yourself time to think about exactly what the question is before you start writing.

To repeat, a short, good answer will score better than a long mediocre answer.

Geoffrey Klempner

(35) Brian asked:

Why should the law insist we wear seat belts (or crash helmets)? After all isn't this a matter of mature choice, and we (potentially) hurt only ourselves.


No, its a matter of immature choice, there are a lot of stupid people out there, many of them driving cars. Today the first driver in the U.K. was jailed for killing a cyclist while using a mobile phone. She was driving while texting on her mobile phone (Is this a question of mature choice?). People not wearing crash helmets or seat belts potentially use up a lot of health care resources and social security money when they are turned into vegetables. If you will sign a form allowing us to shoot you when you are brain damaged in an accident then I will be prepared to allow you your immature choice of not wearing a seat belt or crash helmet.

Shaun Williamson

(36) Ke asked:

What is 'intelligence' and 'being intelligent'?

Is 'intelligence' a talent, a potential thing that one already has when one is born?

Can some people be more intelligent than others, and is there nothing one can do about that?


Probably the best definition of intelligence is that it is the ability to solve new problems, where the 'new' applies to the person whose intelligence is being assessed. There seems to be some evidence for intelligence being a hereditary trait, in that intelligent people usually have intelligent children; but that fact can also be explained by the parents giving their children a home environment that promotes the development of intelligence. Psychologists probably know more about this that philosophers. Definitely some people are more intelligent that others -- we would have no use for the word 'fool' if they were not. Note that IQ tests do not measure intelligence: it's not known what they measure.

Helier Robinson

(37) Miles asked:

To be absolutely tolerant, must one tolerate intolerance?

1) the intolerance of other people

2) if so, can one tolerate one's own intolerance?

Thanks for your time.


What is intolerance? Say, I am an atheist, in conversation with a true believer who does not 'tolerate' atheists. Should I tolerate the believer's intolerance, or not? Do I have the right to demand that the believer listens and responds politely to my arguments? Or suppose I am a pro-abortionist. Do I have the right to expect tolerance from an anti-abortionist who regards abortion as equivalent to murder?

These examples suggest that there is no such thing as 'absolute tolerance'. There seem to be just two possibilities:

Either you believe that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad, hence on pain of tolerating something bad one cannot tolerate intolerance,

Or you embrace tolerance as a personal life choice, in the way that some vegetarians embrace vegetarianism, as an attitude which you do not consider necessary for everyone.

The first option seems too... intolerant. While the second option just looks weak and woolly. An open, tolerant society is one which we should struggle and fight for.

There is no simple answer to this conundrum. However, one possible way out is to observe that tolerance is not an all-or-nothing affair. Even if I do not tolerate my intolerant anti-abortionist neighbour, I still have to live alongside them. We may even find ourselves on the same side of the barricade on other issues, for example, pollution of the environment, or opposing an unjust war.

This suggests that in between tolerance and intolerance there is considerable leeway for compromise. One cannot always be tolerant. But preparedness to compromise -- when, and only when, compromise is required -- is not necessarily 'tolerating intolerance'.

Geoffrey Klempner

(38) Billy asked:

What are the top 20 questions of philosophy?

Three to start:

Which came first the chicken or the egg?

How many angels can dance on the head of pin?

Being that God is omnipotent how does he make a rock bigger than he can lift?


None of these are anywhere near the top twenty questions in philosophy. The egg came first because chickens evolved from dinosaurs, which laid eggs. The question of angels on a pin is said by some to have been merely an exercise for students in mediaeval times; others say it never was a question discussed by mediaeval philosophers, but was only a detraction invented by sceptics. The question about God's rock is answered by the point that an omnipotent God is able to do anything that is logically possible, but not anything logically impossible -- and making a rock bigger than He can lift is logically impossible. The most important question in philosophy (in my opinion, but not in most contemporary philosophers') is: is what we perceive around us reality, or is it only images of reality?

Helier Robinson

(39) Debi asked:

I am doing my first essay in philosophy and my topic is Is it possible to know anything with absolute certainty. My question is what philosophers could I use that relate to this.


Descartes asked this question and invented his method of hyperbolical doubt to answer it. This is to doubt everything you possibly can, and then what is left is certain, indubitable. He even speculated about an evil demon that was deceiving him about seemingly certain things like mathematical and logical truths, so that these too could be doubted. In the end he came up with his famous cogito ergo sum -- I think therefore I am. Or, as we would say today, I am conscious therefore I exist. One's own existence is indubitable because one has to exist in order to doubt. (The existence of other minds is of course not indubitable.)

Helier Robinson

(40) Gareth asked:

If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and does not wish to compromise our free will, why doesn't he call the firemen whenever there is a fire? Surely that doesn't compromise free will?

This question seems really immature. I can assure you it is deadly serious, and has stumped me. Help!


The assumption behind your question seems to be that the response to the Problem of Evil is that 'God does not wish to compromise our free will.' However, that cannot be the complete response because there are many evils which cannot be prevented by human effort. An unexpected earthquake, for example, or being hit by a meteorite.

However, let us just consider the narrower question, whether a universe where, e.g. God called a nearby fire service every time there was a fire is better than a universe where God does not call the fire service.

This is not such a daft question as it looks.

Obviously, one consequence of God acting as fire watcher is that no-one dies in a fire because the fire service failed to be called out. They might die for other reasons (e.g. because the fire is too big to bring under control, or because the firemen are incompetent) but not for that reason.

However, by intervening in this way, God also has to reckon with other not-so-immediate consequences. Why should anyone bother to call the fire service if they know that God can always be relied on to do it?

OK, to fix that objection suppose that God calls anonymously, as a member of the pubic. The consequence would still be the same, that people would no longer die in fires that the fire service were not called to because no-one was able or willing to make the call.

I think that any argument that we would become too complacent is specious. Less people would die in fires, but as God is not putting out the fire we would still do all we can to save people trapped in fires.

However, this still does not establish the proposition to be proved, that 'a universe where God calls the fire service is better than a universe where God does not call the fire service'. It is better in this respect, without doubt, but it doesn't logically follow that it is better overall. That is the point of all the arguments defending God in cases like earthquakes, meteorite strikes etc.

Geoffrey Klempner

(41) Cyndy asked:

What is love?


The best definition that I know of is that it a willingness to give unconditionally: to give to the beloved without expectation of any return. As such, it is a feeling. Not to be confused with infatuation.

Helier Robinson

(42) Curt asked:

Would the following be a cogent argument:

No Christian believed in doctrine X until the 1500's. If doctrine X were taught in the Bible, then some Christian would have believed it during the first five centuries of Christian history. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Bible does not teach doctrine X.

The reason why I ask is because of the following scenario:

Evangelical Protestants believe in a doctrine called, 'justification by faith alone'. Roman Catholics claim that no Christian believed this doctrine until the 1500's. They claim that if this doctrine were taught in the Bible, then some Christian would have believed it during the first five centuries of Christian history. Roman Catholics claim that since no Christian believed in justification by faith alone until the 1500's, then it is unlikely that the Bible teaches that doctrine.


The obvious answer to your question is: read the Bible to find out if it teaches this doctrine. Or ask an evangelical Protestant scholar if it is in the Bible. Also, is it in fact true that no Christian believed it before that 1500's? Concerning the general case (doctrine X) then the argument is cogent -- particularly since its conclusion is only probable.

Helier Robinson

(43) Walter asked,

I am an educator who needs help interpreting our school board mission statement. There seem to be a number of assumptions and embedded reality claims in the statement -- but I do not have the analytic skills to tease them out. If anyone there could be of some help, it would be greatly appreciated.

'The Eastern School District is committed to excellence in education. In partnership with the community, we will provide a safe and caring learning environment in which all students have the opportunity to reach their potential and to face the future with confidence.'


I am all for mission statements, but sometimes the the motivating idea can get buried in successive drafts, especially when you are aiming for brevity.

You want to say:

-- The Eastern School District is committed to excellence in education.

-- We will provide a safe and caring learning environment.

-- Our learning environment will give all students the opportunity to reach their potential.

-- Our learning environment will also enable all students to face the future with confidence.

(Or: reaching their potential will enable all students to face the future with confidence?)

-- We will be doing these things (or something? what exactly?) in partnership with the community.

It is not clear that 'facing the future with confidence' really adds anything significant. It sounds more like advertising jargon. Of course, the better educated you are the more confidence you are likely to feel, other things being equal.

Also, you need to be more explicit about the input from 'the community'. Who exactly are 'the community', and what responsibility do they have in forwarding the school's aims? This is not an easy issue to resolve in a neat and tidy way that is appropriate for a mission statement.

Geoffrey Klempner

(44) Richard asked:

if you are travelling at the speed of light and then put a mirror in front of your face would you see your reflection?


In principle, yes. Because light would travel from your face to the mirror and back again, at the speed of light, since light travels at the same speed for every observer. In fact, of course, you could not travel at the speed of light because you have rest mass.

Helier Robinson

(45) Susan asked:

I am trying to remember the name of the philosophical question that deals with the problem of the boat whose parts are replaced bit by bit and then asked whether it is still the original boat.


This is the problem of identity and change: if something changes, does it still have the same identity? Identity here means being one and the same, or oneness. We all have a very strong feeling that we are each one person -- one identity -- travelling through time and changing as we go, so that most people believe that it is possible for one thing to change with time. However, if you consider the principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference, then you-now are qualitatively different from you-changed, and these two you's are two -- they cannot be one. So something cannot have identity through time as well as change.

The proof of the principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference is simple: whatever A and B may be, If the is a qualitative difference between them than there is some quality Q such that A is Q and B is not-Q, or vice versa; but one thing cannot be both Q and not-Q, so A and B are two. Your question deals with parts of the boat, rather than qualities of it, but the argument still applies. This matter was first raised in ancient Greece. Heraclitus claimed that only change is real, nothing is permanent except the fact of change, while Parmenides claimed that all change is illusion, only the One (identity) is real. Plato tried to resolve this by supposing two worlds: the sensible world, which we perceive around us and which includes change, and the real world of the Forms, which is unchanging, and which is the cause of the sensible world. Later Aristotle claimed that if a part of a thing has identity (substance) and another part changes (attribute) then that one thing both has identity and change. Democritus argued similarly by claiming that everything is made of unchanging atoms of which the arrangement changes with time.

But both Aristotle's and Democritus' arguments are invalid. If you imagine that a movie film of you has been made from the moment of your birth until your death, and that the frames of the film are separated and stacked in order, then this stack has identity and is unchanging, but between each frame there is a qualitative difference and hence a change. So from a hypothetical god's eye view, you are changing from birth to death, but have identity overall. Now switch to a four-dimensional space-time and three-dimensional you's are changing from moment to moment, but the whole stack of them has identity. A problem remains, however. If all this is correct then the strong feeling that we are each one person travelling through time and changing as we go must be an illusion; the problem is: how do you account for us having such an illusion?

Helier Robinson

(46) Sanjana asked:

Isn't it true that you don't know what anybody actually looks like including yourself? This is because when you look in a mirror there's light shining upon you and how do you know whether the mirror is showing you the right face? The reason you don't know what someone else looks like is because there is light shining upon them.


How do we arrive at the idea that there is a correct or true way that an object 'looks'?

Consider the simple case of a tomato. Most people know that a ripe tomato is red. An unripe tomato is yellow or green. We say that a tomato is red because this is the colour that a ripe tomato looks in normal (white) light, to persons who have normal colour vision. If you look at a tomato using the light from a sodium lamp, the tomato will look yellow, i.e. not its 'correct' colour.

'What colour does a tomato look in the dark?' is a nonsensical question because the way things 'look' is defined in relation to circumstances in which they are visible.

The difference between looking at a tomato and looking at a person's face is that a face has features which appear differently depending on various factors such as the angle of view -- how close up we are -- and also the direction of the source of light.

For a human face, there is no such thing as 'the' correct angle of view, or 'the' correct lighting. This is a significant fact, because it means that we can't talk of a person's 'actual' face. There is no such thing, comparable to the 'actual' colour of a tomato as it appears in normal light to normal perceivers.

For the purposes of identification, passport photos capture unique characteristics -- like the shape of the ears or the distance between the eyes. That is why a photo which makes a bad portrait can still be a 'good' passport photo because it shows these features clearly.

Geoffrey Klempner

(47) Alice asked:

Can another person understand your feelings? Truly understand?


Yes. It's called empathy.

Helier Robinson

(48) Theresa asked:

I think that the ideas that we get about things come from perception or from our senses.

According to Descartes, he doesn't think that the ideas that come from perception can be true because the senses deceive us?

What is your thoughts on this?


The senses deceive us when we perceive illusorily, as for example when visible objects appear smaller with distance. Ask yourself whether you ever perceive something that is wholly free from illusion? And if you do, how do you know it to be so? If you cannot answer these questions, then you are siding with Descartes.

Helier Robinson

(49) Sharn asked:

Suppose the fates decided to get Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother by controlling what Oedipus thinks and wants. if this were so, how would determinism differ from fatalism?


This is a good question, which highlights the difference between philosophical fatalism and the kind of fatalism implied by the idea that someone up there -- such as the Greek gods -- is in control of what happens.

How could the gods control what Oedipus thinks and wants, while Oedipus remains Oedipus? Can they make him want to kill his father and marry his mother? Well, maybe, but obviously, there are limits. They can't make him want to become an astronaut or President of the United States. They can implant suggestions, in a somewhat similar way to that attempted by subliminal advertising but more effective.

The gods can also achieve the same result by controlling external events. Oedipus decides to flee his home after hearing the prophesy from the Delphic Oracle, but unexpectedly meets someone on the road whom he does not recognize as his father. By controlling physical events, for example blocking the road his father had originally intended to travel, the gods can bring about a meeting which otherwise might not have happened.

However, this scenario differs from philosophical fatalism in that we are assuming an agency who is deliberately setting things up so that the prophesy is fulfilled. Whereas philosophical fatalism is based simply on the idea that there are immutable truths about the future. If it is true that Oedipus will kill his father then logically there is no way Oedipus cannot kill his father, in pain of logical contradiction.

This is different from determinism. You can believe that there 'truths about the future' in the fatalist's sense even if you do not hold that determinism is true. For example, if there is an omniscient God who has created a world where determinism is not true.

You can also believe in determinism while not believing in fatalism. The truth of determinism now, or up until now, does not logically entail that determinism will continue to be true for ever more.

There is one further point: you might think that applying determinism to human actions is like the Greek gods version of fatalism because our brains are controlling what we do, with the result that we are never able to make a free decision. The response to this is to say that human freedom consists in our brains doing what a brain does when its function is unimpaired -- processing perceptual information, deliberating and deciding -- without being controlled by an outside agency.

Geoffrey Klempner

(50) Kandace asked:

Does the inability to define something imply ignorance of its meaning?


No. One counterexample will do: do you know what existence is, and can you define it?

Helier Robinson

(51) Zoe asked:

Could you outline and illustrate two arguments which might be used to support a representative theory of perception at as simple and understandable a level as possible?


One is that illusions are contradictions within perception and therefore false perceptions; as such they must be misrepresentations of reality and therefore representations. A second is that everything that we perceive is made up of sensations, such as colours, feeling of hot and cold, rough and smooth, and hard and soft, etc. Sensations are manufactured in our brains, as a result signals coming from our sense organs, and as such are not reality but only representations of reality.

Helier Robinson

(52) Brian asked:

Given that one's 'life' is merely a succession of present moments... is the purpose of life to simply be as fully conscious as is humanly possible in each moment? and if so are the modern notions of purpose, vision, mission and even success completely missing the point?


Having an aim in life is not inconsistent with the aim of 'being fully conscious as is humanly possible in each moment'. The quality of that consciousness contains a relational element which refers to other moments of consciousness. If it did not, you would not even be aware of who you are.

However, I would question whether we ought to be fully conscious of every moment. There are many valuable human activities which require losing our focus on ourselves, which cannot be performed successfully while we constantly attend to ourselves performing them.

Geoffrey Klempner

(53) Joe asked:

if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?


Bishop Berkeley's famous question. The answer is that the word 'sound' has two meanings: an acoustical vibration is the air, and a sensation of sound caused by an acoustical vibration reaching someone's ear drums. We can argue by induction that whenever a tree fall and someone is around to hear it, it makes a sound. (Ask a lumberjack!) So the answer to Berkeley is that the falling tree makes an acoustical vibration, but no sensation of sound. A similar problem is that of whether colour exists in the dark; that answer is that the molecular structures that send electromagnetic radiation to the eye exist in the dark, but the radiation, and the colour sensations that they produce, do not.

Helier Robinson

(54) Alex asked:

Can anything be 100% proven to exist?


Yes, as with Descartes cogito ergo sum: you yourself have to exist in order to ask you question.

Helier Robinson

(55) Kate asked:

A person who is blind from birth is able to distinguish the difference between a sphere and a cube with the use of touch alone. Said person suddenly gains vision and is asked to determine which is which using their sight only. Would they know which was which?


This is somewhat of a trick question, because of the qualification 'suddenly'.

Someone who suddenly gains vision for the first time would be totally confused (there is sufficient evidence for this) and would therefore require some time to learn how to interpret visual signals.

Once such a person has learned to interpret visual signals, then they would have no problem distinguishing between a sphere and a cube. In fact, this would be a test of whether they had successfully learned how to use their eyes.

It is interesting to note that patients who have had the partition between the two halves of their brain (the corpus callosum) severed as a treatment for epilepsy are unable to tell with their left hand what shape the right eye is looking at. See Thomas Nagel's article 'Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness'.

Geoffrey Klempner

(56) Justin asked:

Why do we assume that numbers go on toward, up to and past infinity? Isn't it reasonable to expect that quantities of things would have a limit, even if that limit seems unimaginable?


My own opinion on this (although not many agree with me) is that you are right: there is no infinity, it is just a word that we give to cover our ignorance of a limit. The same can be said of chance: we use the word to cover our ignorance of causes.

Helier Robinson

(57) Brady asked:

I'm new to philosophy, can someone help me out with this?

Write the following argument in standard form. Then, use the counterexample method to prove that it is invalid (use birds, dogs, and mammals as your terms):

Inasmuch as no Americans are French existentialists, no Germans are French existentialists, since no Americans are Germans.


No Americans are French existentialists. No Americans are Germans. Therefore no Germans are French existentialists.

Note that the last statement is a premise because it begins with 'since'. The syllogism is invalid because it has two negative premises.

A counterexample is:

No dogs are birds. No mammals are birds. Therefore no dogs are mammals.

Helier Robinson

(58) Aiks asked:

If you only have one eye... are you blinking or winking?


Winking is an intentional action, while blinking is an automatic action necessary for eye-lubrication and also a reflex which protects the eye from harm.

According to this definition it is irrelevant whether you have one eye or two. If you deliberately close your one eye with the intention of conveying what is normally conveyed by a wink, then you are winking.

If this seems odd, imagine a man with an eyepatch closing his good eye and making the expression one would normally make when one is winking. Whether a cyclops with an eye in the middle of its face can 'wink' is a harder question to decide.

Geoffrey Klempner

(59) Aik asked:

What is Post-Modernism and how does it affect Modernism? Is Post-Modernism going to take on Modernism?


Many commentators maintain that 'Post-Modernism' or PoMo is too disparate to be a general theme. There is PoMo art, architecture, literature and so on. My position is that in Philosophy, there are general themes in the writings of various PoMo philosophers and I shall make this evident.

Generally, PoMo points out the ambiguities, caesura's, in the narratives of Modernism. This is important as it goes to the heart of modernist claim that narratives in epistemology and ontology are systematic, final, closed and self-reflexive. For example, once one is introduced to the Forms in Plato, the ontology of What Is, is given holistically. Particular things are instantiations of their Universal Archetypes and this has ramifications in ethics, in politics, in epistemology. The transcendental informs the mundane and all falls into place. 'Thinking is over, here is the Truth'. With Rene Descartes, once the foundation of a Thinking substance has been established, a closed, self-referential philosophical system is built upon it. Both systems in Plato and Descartes are absolute as they claim to access Truth. They are closed to any thing outside their systematic edifices. They are immutable as they cannot accommodate any change in their systems, cannot accommodate what is other to, or different from the categories and concepts with which their edifices are built. This tendency is inherent to Western Philosophy from Plato to GWF Hegel from Karl Marx to Jurgen Habermas. Post-Modernist philosophers point out the problematics in this tendency.

Different Post-Modernists

Jacque Derrida [1930-2004] begins with the Structuralist premise that linguistic structures or texts constitute how we understand the world. The text is not stable as a close reading of it reveals the signifiers to be saturated with trace or different meanings. As such, the signifiers can be deconstructed to reveal different readings of the text. There does not exist the single, correct reading which is Truth. Reflexive, holistic systematicity of the text is breached by difference.

Emmanuel Levinas [1906-1995] writes about ethics built not on representation but on non-representation. In the represented Face of a person we see the significations we work within in everyday life [job title, husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend and so on]. These are irrupted by an event that is led by but goes beyond peak experiences. The Event is an epiphany Levinas describes as illeity [the overthereness of God] which calls person. This event breaks with the totality of representative structures [or Totality as Levinas terms it] to ensure the otherness of the Other is beyond representation and cannot be restricted to it. The epiphany is so significant; it alters the persons approach to the Other to one of accommodation and tentative, no-judgemental acceptance. Again, systematic holism of modernity is breached.

Jean-Francois Lyotard [1924-1998] wrote that society is too complex to be accurately accounted for by a single narrative or meta-narrative. There ought to be incredulity towards meta-narratives. The later Lyotard postulates genres [Wittgensteinian Language Games] that are incommensurable to each other. Difference or the Differend between them is recognised but connection can be tentatively made without one genre suppressing or inflicting violence on another genre. Lyotard encourages disensus and not consensus. Again, Modernist certainty of a closed, reflexive system is imploded by the Post-Modern diversity and incommensurability of genres or language games. For Lyotard, Post-Modernism is not to replace Modernism; they are two sides of the same coin. PoMo will always be found within Modernism and will therefore continually point out holes in the bucket of Archimedean certainty.

Martin Jenkins

(60) Kena asked:

Compare and contrast the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle. How much does each system inform their sense of politics?



In his Politics, Aristotle develops his theory of the good society. It is informed by his metaphysical concepts of teleology and essence. Aristotle maintained that all things have an essential nature [essence], which it is their purpose or goal [Telos] to realise. The essence of a man is ratio or Rationality. The highest realisation of this is Contemplation [Theoria] and/or its general realisation is in moral relations [phronesis] between men. As such, these are only realisable in a community with other men or city state [Polis]. In this sense, man is defined as a political animal [zoon politikon]. Distributive Justice is practiced based on proportionate equality. That is, community is just in the sense that relations are 'equalised' by each member receiving benefits proportionate to merit and desert. Merit is determined relative to the goal pursued by the community. The science of politics is to facilitate the good life for man -ultimately contemplation and wisdom -- but generally, moral relations between members of the Polis. This is the purpose of the Polis as informed by Aristotle's metaphysics.


In The Republic, Plato divides the community as he divides the psyche of men. The psyche is composed of the Rational, the Passions and the Desires. The Rational part of the body governs the other two as knowing knowledge, it practices wisdom. Applying wisdom, it gives assent to and can restrain the passions. By subservience to the Rational part, each keeps to its own time and place allowing their proper, appropriate manifestation. This ensures a healthy, moral and Good being. Departure from this inner order creates a life that is unhealthy, immoral and Bad. The community and its component classes are evocative of the constituency of the good psyche. The desires are identical with the many [hoi poloi] -- trades people, farmers, and day labourers. Passions [such as courage, indignation] are identified with the 'civil service' of the Community [Militia, administrators] and Wisdom is identified with the Philosopher Kings. Again, each class of the Community ought to keep to its own part, its own business.

This tri-partite division in the psyche and Community is informed by Plato's epistemology of The Forms. Compliance with the prescriptions of the Philosopher Kings ought to be followed as they possess knowledge of the Good -- they have been proven to access knowledge of the Forms. The Forms are the universal archetypes of each particular, which is instantiated in the physical world. They are the highest reality and those who know them are entitled to rule. The education system and selective breeding has selected those capable of being Philosopher Kings just as it has selected those who demonstrate bravery and courage to become Auxiliaries and, those who possess vocational skills to become trades people etc [hoi poloi]. According to this epistemological selection, each keeps to his own area of expertise; Injustice is interfering in a sphere of which one has no knowledge to do so. This is not oligarchy but government by those who know how to govern and a good society because it operates by an epistemological division of labour. Failure to follow the strictures of the Philosopher Kings creates a Bad society. The unrestrained desires of the hoi poloi invites the dissolute turbulence of a government ruling by appeal not to what is right but to what is desired. This is akin to placating a savage beast in order to avoid its wrath; very distinct from governing for what is Right and Good.

Martin Jenkins

(61) Susan asked:

I am trying to remember the name of the philosophical question that deals with the problem of the boat whose parts are replaced bit by bit and then asked whether it is still the original boat.


The Ship of Theseus

Geoffrey Klempner

(62) Petros asked:

Was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein correct when he said '...There are no philosophical problems just linguistic riddles'.

Is the discipline of philosophy just a game of words and phrases where an apparent philosophical problem totally collapses once the linguistic riddle is solved?

If Wittgenstein is correct then what exactly is the purpose of this web site?


The purpose of this site is to allow people who are puzzled by philosophy to ask questions about it?

I am one of the few people who believes that Wittgenstein was exactly right, most philosophers have a different view.

However what Wittgenstein was sure about were the following. 1. Philosophical problems occur to humans naturally. 2. Philosophy is the most difficult subject there is and understanding why there are no real philosophical problems and seeing the solutions to the linguistic riddle is the most difficult thing for a human being to do.

If there are no philosophical problems that disturb you then that is fine. Ignore philosophy and get on with your life. You should only study philosophy if you are compelled to do so. However there is a difference between BELIEVING that all philosophical problems are merely linguistic riddles and KNOWING that all philosophical problems are linguistic riddles. You at present are on the BELIEVING side of this equation. You don't know if Wittgenstein was right or if he was wrong, do you?

Shaun Williamson

(63) Adiba asked:

What are the qualities one should posses to study philosophy?

What does one need to have: imagination, high IQ, math knowledge or what?

How can I know if I can study philosophy?


To study ANY subject it helps if, 1. You can read really fast 2. You have imagination 3. You have high I.Q. 4. You have a good knowledge of mathematics.

Only study philosophy if you know something about the subject and you feel compelled to study it. Don't study it because you think it is a trendy subject, it isn't. Don't study it because you think it will make you seem like a deep and interesting person, it won't. Don't study philosophy because you think it will lead to a lucrative job, it won't.

If you need to study philosophy then you will and you won't have any choice about it. You don't need to know if you CAN study philosophy. But it seems to me that at present you don't know anything about it and that you don't need to study it, so do something else with your life.

Shaun Williamson

(64) Sue asked:

Do you put a full stop inside a bracket or outside a bracket?


Thanks for your question (which is not really philosophical).

It all depends on whether the entity inside parentheses is a sentence or not.

(You can see the difference from this example.)

Geoffrey Klempner

(65) Aik asked:

What is postmodernism and how does it differ from modernism? Is postmodernism going to take over modernism?


Oddly enough, when philosophers and other intellectuals use the term 'Post Modernism' they don't simply refer to any historical time-line, according to which the history of philosophy can be divided (to ancient, medieval, modern etc.), since in a way we can argue that modern itself has not got to its end yet; rather, post-modernism refers to a totally new way of thinking. Although I do not necessarily agree with the Post-Modern set of assumptions, I do believe they contribute something substantial to contemporary way of thinking; i.e. there is something about Modernism and its own set of assumptions, that Post-Modernism was reacting to, or rather against, and by doing that it laid out the terrains for a contemporary ways of thinking and doing.

Perhaps the most important and bold idea was to argue that Truth (with capital T) is not a single unified objective noble entity. By means of first deconstruction and later reconstruction, post-modernists created a legitimate space for all sort of relativism: moral, cultural, and of course epistemological and ontological; namely: truth and knowledge is something that can be viewed through the eyes of the beholder, the agent, and can be accessed through her cultural background and needs. Furthermore, one's notion of truth is not situated in relation to other's in a way that implies hierarchy, instead, again, by means of deconstruction post-modernism celebrates different notions of truth to be re-organized in new ways. I would also say that post-modernism in its essence allows multiplicity and diversity and encourages eclecticism as long as it's done critically and reconstructively; granted many abuse this term and ridicules it by simply creating a mish-mash of ideas, artifacts and alike, without having a rationale to support it or a message to be delivered.

Maya Levanon

(66) Gaurav asked:

Is happiness a choice?


For my opinion, based on my life-experience, the answer is YES! Yet, any choice in life is always given to external limitations, or conflicts that can interfere with one's choice (see 'free will'). For example, I can choice to eat Indian food tonight, but if the Indian joint in my corner is closed, and there is no other Indian place in town, then I'll have to make some adaptations to my choice, or that my choice will be surprised by objective reality. So, on that same token I can chose to be happy, and for a while it will work, maybe even most of the time, however, if something terrible just happened to me, like a lost of a beloved one, or a terrible flue followed by migraines, I'll probably give up to my choice to be happy. So how is that a choice? Because most things in life are neither 'objectively' disastrous nor they are 'objectively' awesomely fun!' -- Most things can be given to subjective interpretation, and that is based on choice.

Maya Levanon

(67) Geoff asked:

I just want to be clear about necessary and sufficient conditions, particularly with respect to truth. As I understand it, a necessary condition is one of the set of conditions that must hold in order for some thing to be classified as a member of set 'S'. A sufficient condition is one that, apart from any other condition, gives us enough information to conclude that some thing is a member of set 'S'. Is this an accurate depiction?

I am asking because I recently was told that 'logical consistency', although not a necessary condition for truth, is a sufficient condition for truth. But I am not sure what the difference might be here: Leaving aside the question of whether we or not have a viable definition of 'truth', what would the difference be between viewing logical consistency as a necessary condition vs. viewing it as a sufficient condition?


You were told wrong. Logical consistency is necessary but not sufficient for truth. The statement, 'I have three heads' is logically consistent but it is not true.

If a statement is inconsistent then it can't be true. So it is necessary for a statement to be consistent in order to be true.

Geoffrey Klempner

(68) Rogelio asked:

If one has Psychological problems (i.e. Depression) goes to either the Psychologist or a clinic that has this type of assistance. But what about Philosophical problems (existence, sense of life, facing death etc...), Are there any Philosophical Consultant (Advisor) to follow a 'therapy'


To begin with, I wouldn't be so certain regarding defining 'depression' as 'psychological problem.' For start, any average materialist/ reductionist or just a contemporary American who prefers the easy fast track to instant happiness, will define depression in terms of brain chemical imbalance, which is not at all psychological, if psychology is still to be understood as the 'science of psyche, i.e. Soul.' Furthermore, depression is not necessarily a problem in itself, it can be the result of a physical (bodily, monetary, etc.), Spiritual, philosophical calamity. i.e. If I just lost my job and my husband left me, I will be depressed, depression here is the symptom or the expression of another problem; I'm now alone and with no money.

Putting that didactic tone aside, let me answer your question, whether there are philosophical consultants. And the answer is a big YES.

First, you give very good examples doe what 'philosophical problems' (I personally prefer to call them 'dilemmas'): existential ones (who am I? Why am I here? What's the purpose of my life? Do I have a role in the cosmos? If so, what is it? Can I live with others or sustaining a healthy relationships with a significant other, or is the other by definition my hell?); There are of course the ethical dilemmas, which are also traditionally associated with philosophy: what is the right thing to do in the event of-, what is my responsibility toward- etc. These questions/dilemmas and others are indeed philosophical.

Unfortunately, most people today, due to pseudo-scientific/ mechanistic approach toward the human experience, tend to identify those dilemmas and others as psychological. They spend years in therapy just to find our they are exactly in the same place they started, but now they can give name and a forgotten childhood memory to every thing.

The more reasonable thing to do when you are facing a philosophical dilemmas, is taking it to a philosopher, philosophical practitioner, Socratic facilitator, philosophical counselor, or what have you.

Throughout the process of a philosophical/ Socratic dialogue, the philosopher will examine, questions, and challenge your positions and the source of the present confusion, dilemmas or even what might seem as a calamity. S/he will refer you to different philosophical models, as those can -- but not have -- appear in the texts. S/he will attempt to help you organize your thoughts, that often under the stress will appears as chaotic hence senseless, in a structure that can make sense to you, and thus can be reasonable tackled.

Maya Levanon

(69) Craig asked:

How do you kill without being caught?


I could tell you but that might be counted as inciting you to commit a crime, so I can't tell you.

What you should think about is this. Only a stupid man thinks that murder is a good solution to a problem and if you are that stupid then no matter what advice you are given you will make mistakes. Those mistakes will mean that you can be caught. So are you that stupid?

Shaun Williamson

(70) Mike asked:

I overthink, which contributes to my anxiety, in fact is the main cause of it. I am looking for philosophical rather than cheesy self-help book advice.


I don't see what's so bad about anxiety (unless it is sexual performance anxiety -- then philosophy can't help you). Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, said Mill.

I don't think that it is cheesy to say that it's good to get involved in something totally mindless for at least an hour a day. Drink, TV, computer games, sex -- take your choice.

In any case, you are wrong to think that there is no overlap between philosophy and therapy. Philosophy tells you when a question is not soluble by philosophy. I suspect that part of your problem is that you think your question is.

Geoffrey Klempner

(71) Killian asked:

If you were to turn a red apple invisible and then paint it green, is it a red or green apple? Similarly, is happiness attainable when you're looking for it? Or is it one of those accidental things.


If the apple is invisible then It might be difficult to find it and paint it green. However supposing we could do all these things then it would be a red apple which has been painted green. A red apple is called a red apple not only because it looks red but because it has originally grown up to be a red apple. For example I might be a redhead. Of course I can dye my hair black but I am still a redhead who has dyed their hair. If I become invisible then I am an invisible redhead who has dyed black hair.

Happiness can be found by looking for it carefully. It can also be found by accident but you can't depend on accidents happening.

Shaun Williamson

(72) Ariel asked:

I know I think, I've got consciousness etc... But how can I prove (know) that other people do?


'I can know that I am conscious but I can never be sure that other people are conscious' The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that if we consider the above statement then it is partly nonsense and partly false. By this he meant that the first part, 'I can know that I am conscious', is nonsense and the second part, 'I can never be sure that other people are conscious', is false.

What you need to think about is this. When you were born you did not speak a language. As you grew up you learned how to use words like 'blue', 'apple' and 'consciousness'. The question you need to answer is how can you be sure that you have learnt and are using the word 'consciousness' correctly. When you have answered this question correctly then you will no longer be tempted to ask your original question.

Shaun Williamson

(73) Geoff asked:

I just want to be clear about necessary and sufficient conditions, particularly with respect to truth. As I understand it, a necessary condition is one of the set of conditions that must hold in order for some thing to be classified as a member of set 'S'. A sufficient condition is one that, apart from any other condition, gives us enough information to conclude that some thing is a member of set 'S'. Is this an accurate depiction?

I am asking because I recently was told that 'logical consistency', although not a necessary condition for truth, is a sufficient condition for truth. But I am not sure what the difference might be here: Leaving aside the question of whether we or not have a viable definition of 'truth', what would the difference be between viewing logical consistency as a necessary condition vs. Viewing it as a sufficient condition?


I think your first paragraph is an accurate statement of the difference. However it is useful to think of concrete examples. Consider the set of cargo carrying ships. The necessary conditions for X to belong to this set are that 1. X is a ship and 2. X can be used to carry some cargo.

A sufficient condition for X to belong to this set is 'X is a ship and oil is a cargo and X can be used to carry oil'. It is not necessary that the ship X can carry oil in order for it to belong to the fleet of cargo carrying ships.

With regard to consistency being a sufficient condition for truth then I am not so sure that this is true. There are both formal and informal ideas of logical consistency. You may have a consistent set of beliefs and you may never contradict yourself. However all the things you believe may be false.

Shaun Williamson

(74) Geoff asked:

What constitutes logical consistency? Is it simply a matter of obeying the 'laws' (noncontradiction, etc), or might there be exceptions to that?


The idea of consistency has both an informal and a formal definition. Informally it does mean not contradicting yourself and this means not accepting contradictory statements as both being true simultaneously.

The formal idea of consistency applies to logical systems. A logical system consists of a set of axioms and a set of rules of inference. The axioms are propositions which are accepted as being true and new truths can be derived from the axioms using the rules of inference.

Such a system is described as being consistent if for any proposition p it is impossible to derive within the system both p and not p.

Shaun Williamson

(75) Court asked:

Since Ryle believes that the mind does not exist, he tries to prove this theory by stating that habits and skills direct our actions. But then I ask, do we not develop our habits and skills from the reasoning, feelings, and judgements that our mind makes? Eating, is an example of a habit, but a child can not eat if they do not have the previous knowledge from their mind of how to chew and swallow, right?


I don't think it is true to say that Ryle believed that the mind does not exist. If he had believed such a thing then he would have said so. However his writings are not explicit enough. He seems to duck the difficult questions and often gives the appearance of being a reductionist.

Shaun Williamson

(76) Michelle asked:

How many kinds of friendship did Aristotle say existed?


Friendship is considered to be very significant virtue by Aristotle, therefore he dedicates a lot of his ethical works to that. According to him, friendship (philea) at first is based upon the feeling of love for a person, which we consider to be good and lovable. And since 'good is what it seems to be for each man' -- namely it is subjective, as in Protagoras' saying -- therefore each man has different friends from the other. According to Aristotle, there are three motives of friendship; 1. For the sake of what is useful (chresimon) to the people, 2. For the sake of pleasure (hedone) and 3. For the sake of virtue (arete). In the first two kinds of friendship, the friends do not love each other for their character, but for their utility or pleasure, namely the loved person is loved because provides some goods or pleasure to the other. As a matter of fact, these kinds of friendship are incidental and not permanent, since the friendship is dissolved when the one party is no longer useful or pleasant to the other.

'Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and in so far as the other is a person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental, since the object is not beloved in that he is the man he is, but in that he furnishes advantage or pleasure. Such friendships then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain alike; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII, 1156 a, 15-21).

The friendship based upon the motive of pleasure is mainly formed among young people, since they live under the guidance of emotion, therefore they always pursue the pleasant and as a result their friendships are based upon that. According to Aristotle, the amorous friendship (erotic love) is of this kind, because it depends on emotions and aims at pleasure. Therefore the young people form and dissolve their friendship rapidly, since it aims at pleasure and when the one stops being pleasant to the other, the friendship is dissolved.

'On the other hand the friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure; for they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and what is immediately before them; but with increasing age their pleasures become different' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII, 1156 a, 30-35).

Friendship that is based upon the motive of utility, usually involves inequality or superiority of the one party to the other, with regard to power, wealth, social status, knowledge, health etc. So the other party which is inferior, tries to get its own interest from the superior party, and the latter usually aims at its pleasure. However, sometimes, since there is mutual interest among the different parties, people form friendship of association, which is based upon equality, e.g. Political, commercial, colleagues etc.

The third sort of friendship is mainly between men who are good and alike in virtue. In this kind of friendship, there is mutual love and communication, and each one wish the best to the other, since they are both good in themselves and they do not aim at pleasure or utility. This kind of friendship is based upon equality and is permanent, as these people are virtuous, and virtue is an enduring thing. Aristotle regards it as a perfect friendship (teleia philea), since in that relationship the two friends love one another for the character, and not for the sake of utility or pleasure. Each one wishes the best to the other, and makes an equal return in goodwill and pleasantness.

On the other hand, if there is a great distance in respect of virtue or vice or wealth or anything else between the parties, then there is no possibility of friendship between them. On the contrary, when both friends get the same things from each other, and delight in each other in the same things, this relationship is more like friendship, although it is for the sake of pleasure, just as the young people do. For friendship for the sake of utility is for base persons.

'Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue, for these wish alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally. Therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good, and virtue is an enduring thing' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII, 1156 b, 5-12).

'Now equality and likeness, and especially the likeness of those who are like in virtue; for being steadfast in themselves they hold fast to each other, and neither ask nor give base services, but (one may say) even prevent them; for it is characteristic of good men neither to go wrong nor to let their friends to do so' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII, 1159 b, 2-8).

Wicked men usually become friends to each other for the sake of pleasure or utility, their friendship is for a short time, and as long as they delight in each other's wickedness, but in the end they become enemies to each other. Most of the people wish to be loved rather than to love due to ambition, since to be loved is similar to be honoured. Therefore, most of the people love flattery and they cannot distinguish friends from flatterers. On the other hand, a flatterer as being in inferior position pretends to be such and to love more than he is loved, in order to achieve through this friendship his aim with regard to his personal advantage. In this context friendship is a virtue of the mean between flattery and enmity, since the noble man loves and takes care of his friend, (for virtue is active), in the same way he does to himself, as being conscious of the good in itself, and of the means to achieve it.

'And if life is desirable, and particularly so for the good men, because to them existence is good and pleasant (for they are pleased at the consciousness of what is in itself good); and if as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also (for his friend is another self); -- then as his own existence is desirable for each man, so or almost so, is that of his friend' (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX, 1170 b, 4-8).

Excerpts are from my book Handbook of Greek Philosophy.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(77) Peter asked:

I believe Aristotle stated that the most difficult of all questions was how the 'one becomes the many.' Can you give me source for this. I imagine it's in the 'Metaphysics' somewhere but I cannot locate it.


You can have a look on Aristotle's Metaphysics Book X (Iota) (1052-1059), where he examines in details the opposition of the one to the many, and also in the Book XIV (Ni) (1087-1093) that concerns the nature of numbers.

Nikolaos Bakalis