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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 43 (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 43/1.

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.

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(1) Katelyn asked:

I have to answer the question:

'What is the answer?'

Which doesn't make any sense... can anybody help?


If someone set me that question I might be tempted to tell them to stop being a smart-arse and try provoking some thought. Except that they seem to have already provoked you to an admirable thought, namely that the question doesn't make any sense. Hold that thought, and expand on it. You are probably being asked to impress with your ability to marshal your own resources into argument, and your ability to detect the senselessness of the question is one such resource. Well, tell them, in exactly what does this senselessness of the question consist?

David Robjant

(2) Mike asked:

What caused the big bang theory?


According to the big bang theory, the big bang caused the stars and galaxies to exist.

On a planet orbiting one of these stars, human beings evolved, developed science and eventually came to formulate the big bang theory.

Therefore, according to the big bang theory, the big bang caused the big bang theory.

Geoffrey Klempner

(3) Mike asked:

What caused the big bang theory?


It is fair to say that scientists do not know what if anything caused the big bang. Whether it was God or some other thing is a question science cannot answer. However from both a theoretical point of view and an observational point of view it would appear that there is strong evidence for the big bang as opposed to say a steady state cosmology. The big bang rests on three main observations:

1. The observation by Hubble that the galaxies were moving away from us.

2. The discovery of the isotropic 30 K background radiation by Penzias and Wilson in 1965.

3. The observation that the mass fraction of hydrogen is about 75% of the total mass of baryonic matter in the universe, whilst that of helium is about 25%.

Whilst there are small traces of other elements, to a first order approximation the matter in the universe can be seen as consisting of just hydrogen and helium. At about the same time as the discovery of the microwave background radiation, Peebles, building on work by Gamow showed how the mass fractions of these two elements could be calculated. He assumed that in its early stages the universe was a hot plasma of neutrons, protons, electrons and positrons, as the universe expanded .the temperature cooled allowing for nuclei such as helium to be formed. Prior to this calculation, attempts had been made to account for the correct abundances by assuming that all the elements were created as the remnants of stellar explosions. Whilst such models developed by physicists such as Hoyle and Fowler could account for most of the elemental abundances, the abundances of hydrogen and helium could not be accounted for in this manner.

From a theoretical perspective, these results were predicted using the following combination of ideas:

1. A cosmological model due to Friedmann which allowed for an expanding universe and is a solution to Einstein's general theory of relativity.

2. As the universe expands it cools down allowing matter to form. After about 100th Second after the big bang matter is essentially a mixture of electrons, neutrinos, protons and neutrons. Physicists using their understanding of the rates of nuclear reactions, have been able to piece together a convincing story of how this soup turned into hydrogen and helium in the correct abundances seen today. To predict this physicists use a combination of Fermi's theory of the weak interaction and statistical physics.

Since this work in the late 1960's it has been realised that the baryonic matter only forms 4% of the total matter in the universe. It would appear that other matter, so called dark matter, is responsible for holding the galaxies together, Also another type of matter is necessary to explain the observed acceleration of the universe. There is also evidence coming from observations from the Hubble telescope that the universe went through a period of inflation.

Further Reading

Steven Weinberg The First Three minutes (despite it's age this is still the best account).

Christopher Finlay

(4) Elias asked:

Could it be, that just like shadow is the absence of light, life is just an absence of death?

Since it appears that death lasts way more than life, I know that we are strangers to what death is.. and I also know is kind of a question with no answer (at least in life) but I would like to know your point of view about it


For the most part, when I perceive a shadow, I am standing at some vantage point I might plausibly consider at least partially external to the shadow (leaving aside for now the question of whether anything is truly 'external' to anything else). That is, I perceive myself as distinct from both the source of light and the object blocking it, and come to the conclusion that the shadow is an effect not of the light, but of another object: it is an absence of light because light's suffusion of that space-time coordinate is impeded. This is important, because the idea of an 'absence of light' is the sort of abstraction that really only makes sense to a human observer. An 'absence' of light implies the normalcy of light's presence, and so my first assumption in saying that 'shadow is the absence of light' is that this phenomenon I have observed and named is an aberration of sorts. Why speak of absence, but where presence is expected? Thus, we do not talk (except perhaps very loosely) about 'shadows' on a cloudy, moonless night in the forest; an all-penetrating light does not represent the condition of normalcy at that moment. Because it does not suffuse the space around us generally, there is no question of its absence from a particular locale being aberrant: there are no shadows on such a night.

Why am I going through all this? I want to make a point about the difficulty of believing ourselves about even a phenomenon that is generally accepted as 'objective' and 'external.' Now, how much more difficult to say something we could recognize as valuable about 'life' and 'death,' which are abstractions for processes whose limits we cannot imagine. For all we know, these are not even abstractions for separate things/processes/events! As a mode of thinking that can produce generally plausible results, I don't necessarily recommend this: I can't 'reasonably' compare a state that is by definition experiential or phenomenological ('life,' that is, is a word that represents experience in abstraction) with a state that is by definition perceived from a stance of non-identity with that state (that is, 'shadow' is only perceptible insofar as I am not wholly identified with this absence of light, insofar as my experience — including all that I see — extends beyond the shadowed space in some way; so, too, death itself is an empty signifier unless I can attach it not to my interpretations of my observations of the lives of others, but rather to an element of experience). But, hey, what the heck. Let's trace the comparison out, and see what we come up with.

And let's also imagine for a moment that we may safely trust that 'life' and 'death' are meaningfully separate processes — returning, then, to the ideas of light and shadow. Were life an 'absence' of death — the product of some impediment blocking the 'normal' suffusion of a point in space and time by death, life would be by its very definition a non-thing to any observer: like the shadow. The shadow itself is a perceived effect; it may or may not exist independent of observation, but it is meaningful only from the stance of one who can see contrast, meaningful only as an aberration from the normalcy of light's suffusion. So, then, in your proposed relationship, life would retain meaning only from the perspective of one who stands in and/or can also see death, that suffusing presence. So far, so good.

Except wait: Can I really 'see' death? In your question, you note that 'we are strangers to what death is,' and I suspect you are right. At any rate, existing within or as the confines of whatever it is we sum up with the abstraction 'life,' I can gesture toward a belief in something outside those confines, but the very definition of the abstraction 'life' — its identification with me in my totality — prevents me from saying anything that I can reasonably trust about what is 'not-life,' is not-me. If life were the shadow cast by an object interposed between death and something approximating a coordinate, I would be so wholly identified with the space-time at that coordinate as to be unable to speak to anything not also at that coordinate. But, recalling the previous thought about where one must stand in order to 'see' a shadow, this would mean that I could never trust myself to notice or to know the shadowness of life. That is to say, if life were the shadow of death, I would by the definitions of those very abstractions (the former for an experience, the latter for what I believe marks in some way the boundaries of that experience, but about which I cannot say anything beyond that) be forced to conclude that I — identified with that shadow — could not plausibly conclude what would be precisely the case: that life was the shadow of death.

Here, then, the extent of our dilemma begins to become clear. Because I am stuck in the perspective of one term of a life-death binary (which, incidentally, I'm not so sure is such a useful abstraction — even if it is based in our observation of the changes that take place in other beings), I really couldn't say whether life would be the shadow of death or death the shadow of life. That is, experientially, life is the only thing that is real for me. For death, I have only concepts, imaginative figurings that respond to the change of state I observe in others. But without the phenomenological perspective that would allow contrast, how can I even know whether what I have marked off as a limit on something I've determined is life is, in fact, an actual limit. Perhaps, that is to say, there is only the light, and that light is life. Or perhaps there is only the shadow, and that shadow is death. Here, though, the conjecture grows wilder and goes further afield than seems valuable.

Perhaps, after all, a stronger question might be that of the psychologist ('Why do we want to demarcate a boundary between life and death, especially when the conceptual apparatus of empiricism — on which our philosophies still largely depend — tells us this is beyond our means?') or that of the rhetorician ('What are the strategies we use to symbolize a a fundamental differentiation we imagine or believe to exist within being, the linguistic or symbolic conventions by which we conceive of death and life as abstractions?'). Or, in the end, might the philosopher's tripartite question be still our best: 'What is being (ontology), how do we apprehend it (epistemology), and what do we believe ought to become (norm-setting)?'

I hope this is of some use.

Ira Allen

(5) Tom asked:

What are Plato's Forms/ideas?


To do justice to this question would require a full essay, however in essence Plato's forms are generalisations from particulars. In a famous question, Socrates asks 'What is justice?' The dilemma, as with any abstract noun such as beauty or truth, is, is there something more to justice, than a series of just acts ? Plato claims that there is, each of these concrete acts of justice is a particular instance of the underlying form of justice. It follows that the form of justice (J say) is separate from the various instances of it. An action of any kind is just in so far as it takes part in the form of justice. In real life nothing is a pure representation of the Form. Thus whilst there are particular triangles say, all of these are but shadows of the 'real' triangle. True knowledge according to Plato means going beyond appearances of a particular thing to the underlying Form.

Forms have three characteristics:

1) They are unique.

2) Non identity whilst particulars have a share in the form of X they are not identical with X.

3) They have the property known as self predication, which essentially means that the Form of X is the pure exemplar of X.

Somewhat surprisingly. Plato rarely gives detailed arguments for the existence of forms. However he spends a lot of time in attacking the idea that we can gain knowledge of something by just considering particular instances of it or their appearances. Also he uses the one over many argument. This essentially says that any group of things called by a single name such as cars, tables horses has something in common which is not another car, table or horse but is the essence of that thing.

In book 10 of the republic, Plato uses his doctrine of forms to criticise art as representation, in brief the argument goes, that a carpenter who makes a chair is closer to the form of a chair, in order to make a chair he must have knowledge of the form of that chair. In contrast the artist, who paints a chair only needs to know the appearance of a chair and does not participate in the form of a chair. It follows that art as it is purely representational is an inferior form of knowledge than say carpentry.

Plato in his later life appears to have acknowledged some of the problems associated with forms. In the Parmenides, Zeno ask's Socrates whether or not there are forms for everything such as mud or hair, or is it only certain concepts such as beauty, truth and love which have an underlying form. Plato appears at this later stage to want to restrict forms to abstract ideas such as truth, beauty and justice.

A particular problem known as the Third man argument, comes from the idea that forms have the property of self predication. This causes an infinite regress, The form Horse and a particular horse (Shergar say) have something in common since they are both called 'Horse'. So the doctrine of forms should account for a third form 'Horse 2' say in which both the form Horse and the particular horse Shergar can participate in. In the Parmenides Plato uses the example of largeness. It is not clear that Plato was ever to resolve this dilemma and it is still a constant source of debate.

The philosopher Whitehead once said that philosophy is just footnotes on Plato. It is true that much of philosophical discussion concerns itself with the relationship between universals (forms) and particulars. Those who accept Plato's doctrine of forms are usually called realists or rationalists, and believe in the real existence of abstract things such as numbers or justice. Those who reject Plato's forms are usually called nominalists or empiricists and claim that there is nothing beyond the appearances but abstract concepts are useful even if they don't correspond to something out there.

I hope this brief overview helps and I have given some suggestions for further reading.

Further Reading

Plato's main discussion of forms occurs in the dialogues Phaedo, The Republic (Books 5-7 and 10), The Symposium and Parmenides (1st Part). These are available on line from the Perseus digital library.

A good overview is given by Allan Silverman 'Plato's Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology' in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy also available on line.

Christopher Finlay

(6) Octavius asked:

A quality about yourself which distinguishes you from others


Ah, but is is right to think that I am distinguished from another by my qualities?

I suppose it is common enough to speak of a 'distinguishing feature' (meaning a mole, or interestingly arranged nasal catacombs, or whatever), or differently of someone being 'very distinguished' (meaning that he is especially successful, or respected, or approved of, or has been decorated by the Queen, or whatever). But what is the connection between such 'distinguishing qualities' and the actual distinguishing?

I suppose the story goes a bit like this: imagine a load of indistinguishable people in a room (so perhaps it is not a very good party). If we want to make them distinguishable, we must now give them different 'qualities' and 'features'. This one gets red hair, that one a bent nose, and so on. Now they are all of them distinguished by their qualities, and this approximates the (happy) situation we find ourselves in, in 'real life', where people are distinguished by their qualities. Or so the story goes. And it has some attraction, too, because if I start to wax lyrical about some girl I met, and you feign sufficient interest to ask which one that is, the conversation we then have may be about her distinguishing features. This fact about how, in description or in conversation with someone else we may go on to specify who we are talking about by feature and quality is then taken to be evidence of some analogous process of feature-based identification outside such verbal or written exchanges.

And there's the rub. A rather large problem with the story is that people people (and animals), are on all sorts of occasions able to reliably distinguish one person from another, recognise long lost friends and so on, and at the same time may be largely incompetent at judging and describing any adequately distinguishing features of such persons. They may reach for a photo to help themselves identify and describe such features, yet reliably reach for the right photo. If I am a poet or a novelist, I might be very good at identifying 'distinguishing features', but absent mindedly forget if or where I had previously met this bloke talking to me in a pub who seems to know me. Likewise, I may be in all other respects a successful human being who manages to recognise his acquaintances infallibly, but remain incapable of acquiring my boy scout reporter's badge, being lost for words beyond 'she has red hair'. In general, there is no deep connection between my ability to reliably recognise my friends, and my ability to helpfully describe them.

But in that case, what role is this talked of 'distinguishing feature' playing in my actually distinguishing one person from another? The place where is patently does play a role is in my ability to describe one person in a way that distinguishes them from another. But then, inarticulate persons still manage to distinguish persons, so why should we think that a role for the 'distinguishing feature' in helpful descriptions must carry over into a role in our actually telling people apart? It would so carry over if we thought that our encounter with persons goes via a sort of perpetual descriptive monologue going on inside our heads, such that inarticulate persons (and prize winning novelists in moments of bafflement) must be having some difficulty in translating their perpetual inner monologue into terms we can understand. But why think that?

David Robjant

(7) Ben asked:

Statement 1: Fred has no rabbits.

Statement 2: All of Fred's rabbits are male.

What is the link between these two statements?


There are two ways of understanding the statement, 'All of Fred's rabbits are male.'

In traditional logic, the statement implies that there are rabbits belonging to Fred, and that all of these are male.

However, in modern formal logic, the statement is interpreted as saying only that if Fred has any rabbits then they are male.

You can see the difference this makes to your two statements:

On the traditional reading, 'Fred has no rabbits' is inconsistent with 'All of Fred's rabbits are male' because it implies a logical contradiction, 'Fred has no rabbits and Fred has some rabbits.'

On the modern reading, 'Fred has no rabbits' is is not only consistent with, but entails the statement, 'If Fred has any rabbits then they are male.' This sounds paradoxical, but it is a consequence of the way the statement is formalised. You can say anything you like about the rabbits that Fred doesn't have without saying anything false. E.g. on the assumption that Fred has no rabbits, it is paradoxically true to say 'If Fred has any rabbits, then they possess supernatural powers and can travel through time.'

Geoffrey Klempner

(8) Lynn asked:

What is the difference between teleological and deontological ethics? Gives an account of the strengths and weaknesses and, give a conclusion of which comes out looking the best.



Neither from motives or consequences but from the act alone it self is judged the value. As with Kant's Categorical Imperative, telling the truth must be performed. Not to do this undermines its own value. Even if it has negative consequences [like the film 'Liar, Liar'], telling the truth is in conformity with one's status as a Rational Being.

If I opted to tell the truth sometimes, depending on the circumstances, depending on how I feel, or depending on if I like you, the value of truth would be undermined as it would become contingent. Truth is not contingent. So, tell the truth.

However, telling the truth all the time engenders acts, which could have been avoided if less than the truth was told. 'Where is he?' asks the axe-murderer. 'He's in there' I say, refraining from lying and being good. Yet, we aim at deontology when we say that generally, one ought to tell the truth, one ought not to steal.


By teleology, the consequences alone are judged to be good. Act Utilitarianism is such an approach. The greatest happiness of the greatest number of people for the greatest period of time is the aim of all acts.

The end goal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number permits the persecution of the smallest number. It also relies on 'ends' as alone evoking value when the act itself could also provide value i.e., happiness is not an end state to be sought, it is an activity.

Martin Jenkins

(9) Alicia asked:

How do we know we are not dreaming??


The key to the answer is the recognition that the concepts 'reality' and 'dreaming' refer to two distinctly different modes of experience. By the very nature of these two concepts, they cannot refer to the same thing. Therefore, the simple answer is that what we refer to as 'Reality' cannot be the contents of a dream without seriously abusing the meaning of the two words. Poets, of course, are granted license to abuse the language for artistic purposes. But philosophers must take greater care.

We each experience 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' in two distinctly different modes. When experiencing life in one mode, we notice that things perceived are constant, persistent, consistent, coherent, and more or less predictable. When experiencing life in the other mode, we notice that things perceived are dramatically less constant in form and character, often transient in existence, frequently mutually inconsistent both from thing to thing and across time, frequently quite incoherent, and in general unpredictable. One mode of experience draws the focus of our attention, is amenable to inquiry, and responsive to our reactions. The other mode of experience often drifts uncontrollably past our attention, is rarely subject to inquiry, and is often unresponsive to our reactions. On any scale of measure, the difference between the two modes of experience is dramatic and unmistakable whenever noticed. One of these modes of experience we call 'Reality', the other we call 'dreaming' (or hallucinating, or suffering from illusions).

Most of us spend most of our time experiencing life in the 'Reality' mode. Episodes spent 'dreaming', while they may seem quite real at the time, always end with a transition back to the 'Reality' mode of experience. Some people, for reasons as diverse as drugs to organic brain damage, spend more of their time in the 'dreaming' mode of experience. Some people, again for diverse reasons, lose the ability to notice the distinctly different character of two modes of experience, and are unable to distinguish their 'real' experiences from their 'dream' experiences.

The bottom line is that life is not a dream. The 'real world', unlike the 'dream world' possesses an unmistakably greater degree of constancy, consistency, coherence, and predictability. In the real world, elephants are huge, grey and don't fly. That remains true across time, and is consistent with all other information we have about the 'Reality' mode of experience. In the dream world, pink elephants can buzz around your head, and turn into green mice stomping on the roof of your house. The fact that sometimes a dream appears so real you can't tell, does not alter the fact that you always wake up.

Stuart Burns

(10) Suzanne asked:

In my philosophy class we're discussing Hume. One of the questions we have to answer is to come up with an original idea without using impressions. I'm not looking for anyone to do my homework, but I need a few examples. If anyone can help I'd be eternally grateful.


One of the best examples is given by Hume himself: towards the end of his Treatise he says that he has an idea of the Self, but no antecedent impression of it. This, of course, ruins his whole philosophy, which is based on the claim that there are no ideas without antecedent impressions. In fact, these days any theoretical idea is an idea without an antecedent impression: theoretical entities in science are entities which cannot be perceived, we can only perceive evidence for them. Since perception is what Hume meant by 'impression', there is a host of such ideas: electrons and protons, for example, or minds other than one's own, or God.

Helier Robinson

(11) Justin asked:

My professor in philosophy asked us this very simple question, yet we can't really answer it, because every time we get near to the peak of answering the question he's pulling us back to the first basic question and that is: 'what is a chair?' can you please answer it for me.. coz its seems to me that he doesn't have any plan of answering that question.


There is no precise definition of a chair. It follows that there will be some borderline examples where we don't know whether to call a thing a 'chair' or not. (E.g. how long do the legs have to be in order to count as a chair? Is a chair made of paper which collapses when you sit on it a chair? etc. etc.) In that case, not even God knows whether the thing in question is a 'chair'.

Geoffrey Klempner

(12) Justin asked:

My professor in philosophy asked us this very simple question, yet we can't really answer it.. because every time we get near to the peak of answering the question he's pulling us back to the first basic question and that is: 'what is a chair?' can you please answer it for me.. coz its seems to me that he doesn't have any plan of answering that question.


If this is a metaphysical question, the professor may be asking you to draw a distinction between things as they appear to be to us, and things as they are in themselves. This popped up at the first step of philosophy when Parmenides argued that the world is in some ways an illusion. This was more succinctly pursued by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, when he sought to understand the things of our common experience in the hope that this might lead him to understand things in themselves.

This is a most complex question because it may also require that you recognise an internalist perspective, where you can only really know the objects of your mind — your thoughts do not reach out and 'touch' the objects of your thoughts. Further, you may be dreaming that there is a chair — perhaps there is no physical chair there at all. Then a chair is that to which you refer as being a chair. For you to recognise it, according to Plato, you compare the object in your view with the ideal chair in your head. However, there is always the possibility that seen from another angle it may no longer look like a chair at all. In this context, a chair is anything that has the minimum attributes required to be a chair (avoid giving examples of these attributes because the professor will then erode your argument by showing inconsistencies) and has insufficient attributes that would contradict it being a chair.

Steve Anastasi

(13) Rocky asked:

I maintain that 'atheism' is not rational and as such can logically be ignored as viable. Here's my rationale and I would like your comments on them.

One has two options. atheism or theism. There are no other choices. There are either supreme beings worth of worship or there are not. So one can either choose or ignore thinking about the question. The choice is simple if you look at it rationally. I base it on choosing the 'worst possible outcome'. Therefore if you are choosing between dying and going into eternal nonconsciousness or burning in hell for eternity, then it is only logical to choose the one that has the worst outcome for nonbelief. If you are wrong you receive a lesser outcome. If you are right you receive the best outcome. This makes it more likely that you will avoid the worst outcomes.

So atheism is illogical and can forever be tossed away as a viable belief.

Next you would have to choose between the theisms. Here again you choose the belief that has the worst outcome for nonbelief. That, I believe, is fundamental christianity where if you don't accept Christ you will burn in hell. I know of no belief system that offers a worse outcome for nonbelief. Therefore it is most logical to believe fundamental christianity.

Has anyone ever heard of the argument before? Has it been proposed by a renown philosopher or is this a fresh idea?


Your argument has some relationship to Pascal's wager so it is not original. However it is not logical, this is a misuse of that word. You start by claiming that there are only two possible choices, there are either supreme beings worth of worship or there are not. This is just nonsense, there are lots of other choices, there may be supreme beings who are not worthy of worship or who don't even want to be worshipped. Why do you assume that all supreme beings are narcissistic?

When it comes to choosing between theisms then fundamental Islam is no different to your fundamental Christianity. If I don't accept Christ, I will be condemned to hell. If I don't accept the Koran I will be condemned to hell. There is no difference between them.

However all your choices are based on fear, fear that there might be a God who demands worship, fear that there might be a Christ who will condemn you to eternal hell fire if you don't fall down on your knees and worship.

Why don't you stand up and be a man. Who elected God as supreme dictator, I don't remember getting a vote in that election nor will I bow down in front of your repulsive punitive Christ.

I don't know if there is a God or not however if I thought my only choice in life was to worship God or be condemned to hell then I would choose hell every time. That would seem to be by far the best outcome to me.

Most fundamentalists of course spend too much time reading the Old Testament and never bother to read the New Testament. If God exists and God is love then let us hope that he can forgive the fundamentalists and not condemn them to hell for their perversion of true Christianity.

Shaun Williamson

(14) Kevin asked:

If art is imitation, is Photography superior as an art form to painting? Is sculpture superior to photography, because sculpture is 3D?


If art is imitation, then yes, and yes.

But is it?

If your question were an essay question, then the question you would be here invited to consider is precisely that: 'is art imitation?'

If your question is a rhetorical question, I suppose it contains a sort of argument against 'art is imitation'. The problem being that the degree to which art is here being separated from imitation is hugely unclear, and the hoped for separation may be vastly larger than that supported by the points made.

It would be better if essay questions weren't also rhetorical questions.

Wouldn't it?

'Is art imitation?' is a bit like 'is grass green'. Imitation and greenness are fairly central to what we understand in a set of central cases by 'art' or by 'grass'. But there are lots of important things that grass is other than green (a plant that grows at the base rather than the tip and so on), and quite a lot of the time it isn't even green, say if it hasn't rained for a while, or if some 'artist' has painted a square of turf purple and inserted it into a gallery (if this hasn't happened yet, I want royalties when it does).

David Robjant

(15) Pasquale Di Rago asked:

Just read a book called A World without Time by Palle Yourgrau, based on the relationship between Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel, and I have to admit I am a little perplexed Mostly because it really didn't extend into what Time actually is. To my way of thinking time is a measure of change, but that's too simplistic. And the more I ask myself what time is, I find that really its more than past, present and future. In fact I believe its more in line with the laws of thermodynamics, in that we have movement from one state to another, but that it always is in one direction. Yet the laws of Relativity say that they equally apply in both directions. So go figure.

So I'm left with aspects of time, which are Duration, Intensity, Relevance (i.e, context), Awareness of, it's genuine and its omnipotent. Yet if you follow the text of the book, Godel ends with the rather mysterious conclusion that the laws of relativity permit time travel, so is time can't be real.

I'd love if someone can clarify whether or not time exists, but before that supply me with a working definition of what time actually is.


Your question raises a number of interesting issues and I will do my best to answer them in a reasonably short space I've also added some references for further reading. I'm not sure if your request for a 'working definition' of what time actually is, is possible. As you are probably aware philosophical discussions of time usually begin with McTaggart's claim that there are two different theories of time referred to, as the A theory and the B theory. The A theory involves the traditional distinction between past, present and future and the assumption is that all people have the same experience of events occurring at one particular time. Furthermore time appears to flow independently of events. In contrast the B theory is a relational viewpoint involving the concepts of events being earlier, later or simultaneous with another event. The B theory is a static viewpoint and at first sight seems counterintuitive, however in the light of relativity it seems to be better supported by current theories in physics.

Up until the advent of Einstein's theory of relativity the A theory was the standard view and appeared to be vindicated by the success of Newtonian mechanics. However Einstein's theory challenges our notions of simultaneity: It is a consequence of the fact, that the speed of light is independent of the velocity of an observer, that people no longer necessarily experience events simultaneously. For example consider two observers: one on a train (A) and another watching the train from a fixed position (B). Imagine a flash of lightning, which hits two points along the rail track one behind the train and one in front of the train. Observer B will see the light hit the two points simultaneously whereas observer A will see the light hit the point in front of the train before it hits the point behind the train as the train is moving faster. Effects like this have been empirically verified for example it has been demonstrated that 'moving clocks go slow' thus according to relativity whether or not events are experienced simultaneously depends on ones frame of reference. However relativity still has the notion of events, these are objective and provide the 'fixed points' of the space-time manifold. Space and time are relationships between events, rather than containers in which events occur. There is no unique frame of reference from which all other times can be measured.

However we all 'know' intuitively that time has a direction, and here we come to one of the great debates in physics. It is known that macroscopic systems in a state of disequilibrium tend towards equilibrium. From a microscopic viewpoint if I were able to film the motions of individual particles all I would see is a random series of motions. If I were to run the film backwards then I would not be able to tell the difference. On the other hand (for example) if I put some coloured ink in water, the drops disperse and the water eventually becomes uniform in colour. Thus macroscopically we can distinguish from the initial situation of the ink being concentrated in a small region to one where it is uniformly dispersed. The conventional answer, ever since Boltzmann, is that the asymmetry is a consequence of the fact that there are more configurations where the ink is uniformly distributed than just being concentrated in a small region. As all configurations are equally likely it follows that the ones where the ink is uniformly distributed will be far more numerous than the initial situation where the ink was concentrated in a small place. There is an extremely small (and for all intents and purposes it will never happen) probability that the ink will form a configuration where it is concentrated in a single place. Thus there is an (admittedly uneasy) reconciliation of the lack of direction of time of microscopic events and macroscopic events. Associated with the tendency to equilibrium is a corresponding increase in entropy.

Finally I come to Yougrau's book and the implications of the Godel universe for our notions of time. Yougrau seems to make the leap from a possible solution to Einstein's equations of general relativity to the assertion that this one is the way in which things really are. However we should distinguish between a mathematical possibility and what is actually the case. Einstein's general theory of relativity allows for many varied cosmological solutions, all of which have different implications for our understanding of space-time. There is currently no empirical evidence for the Godelian universe. As I'm sure you are aware our current best model of the universe involves an expanding universe, which is based on the so called Robertson Walker solutions, in these solutions there is no room for time travel. Also there would appear to be a cosmological arrow of time in that the universe has a fixed starting point. It is somewhat disingenuous of Yougrau to concentrate on the Godelian universe at the expense of other cosmologies which have better empirical support.

To summarise then, whilst relativity challenges the notion of absolute time, there is still evidence of time having an arrow both from a thermodynamic and a cosmological point of view. However it is not clear that we can simply read off our ideas of space and time from the current state of physics, as general relativity has yet to be reconciled with quantum physics. If this happens in a convincing manner our current understanding of space and time will probably change. Philosophy can help by articulating the basic questions that need to be asked.

Further Reading

The best (and free!!) starting points are the articles in the Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy.

In particular the article on time:

And the article on the arrow of time:

A recent book covering the current issues is by B Dainton Time and Space Acumen 2001.

Christopher Finlay

(16) Kalvin asked:

I would like to know how you manage to state Christianity is a religion, while you base evolution as fact and adopt it as 'life'? Surely with such complex life, and even the thought of DNA, there must be a creator, designer, God.!

Evolution is based upon false assumptions that haven't really been explained. No one! has ever observed any form of evolution, though people are able to mutate species with certain chemicals, this doesn't change what they are! If you managed to produce a fly with 5 legs and 8 wings, does that change is into a complete new species, or does it stay a fly, with, 'unique' qualities.


First of all, let's be clear about the language we are speaking.

According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 'Religion' means '1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.' And according to Wiktionary, 'Religion' means '1 A system of beliefs, including belief in the existence of at least one of the following: a human soul or spirit, a deity or higher being, or self after the death of ones body. 2 A number of customs and rituals associated with such beliefs. 3 Anything that involves the association of people in a manner resembling a religious institution or cult. 4 Any system or institution which one engages with in order to foster a sense of meaning or relevance in relation to something greater than oneself.' So according to these standard documentations of the usage of the word 'religion', the theory of evolution could by no stretch of the imagination be classed in the same category as a religion. The theory of evolution does not involve belief in or worship of a supernatural being. It involves no worship, no pursuit or interest followed with devotion, no customs or rituals, no association of people, and offers no sense of meaning or relevance.

Perhaps the reason you combine these two systems of belief in the same thought stream is that you have some notion that while the acceptance of the truth of religious beliefs is based on 'faith', so is the acceptance of theory of evolution as a true description of the facts of the matter. But the word 'faith' has two (if we ignore the irrelevant entries) clearly distinct meanings. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 'faith' means '1 complete trust or confidence. 2 strong belief in a religion.' And according to Wiktionary, 'faith' means '1 Mental acceptance of and confidence in a claim as truth without proof supporting the claim. 2 A feeling or belief, that something is true, real, or will happen.' Notice the distinction between 'faith' in the sense of 'a belief in the truth of something in the absence of evidence', and in the contrasting sense of 'confidence in the truth of something because of the evidence'. Religious faith is the former. Faith in the validity of the theory of evolution is the latter. So it is committing the fallacy of equivocation to use the wrong sense of 'faith' in thinking about these two systems of belief.

The second part of this reply is that the theory of evolution is in fact not based on false assumptions, or assumptions that haven't really been explained. The theory of evolution is as well supported by the evidence as is the theory of gravity. The theory of evolution is as commonly accepted as an accurate description of the facts of biological reality as is the theory of gravity is commonly accepted as an accurate description of physical reality. There is as much evidence for one as there is for the other. The only practical difference between the two is that one ruffles the feathers of some religious beliefs, while the other does not.

As a matter of record, everyone has observed evolution in action! Our friendly feline and canine pets have evolved from their wild ancestors — albeit with our intentional guidance. Antibiotic resistant diseases have evolved from their wild ancestors entirely on their own. To suggest that intentionally (or unintentionally) mutating a species doesn't change 'what they are', is to seriously misunderstand the concept of a 'species'. A 'species' is a classification of convenience, with no hard and fast boundary criteria. It is also an 'ex post facto' classification scheme, not a predictive one. If one applies the common standards of species identification, then a Saint Bernard breed of Canis Familiaris would be classed as a separate species from a Pekinese breed (they physically cannot interbreed, for example). The fact that they are not so separated is a result of the fact that species identification is a matter of convenience, not a matter of hard and fast rules. There are plenty of examples of separately identified 'species' that in fact share more commonalities than do many individuals of what are lumped as a single species. (There was even a time when the Black and Mongoloid races of Man were identified as separate species.) Hence, if experiments with fruit flies and chemical mutagens produces flies with twice the number of wings, or legs, or eyes, or whatever, then the fact that the new life-form is not classed as a new species is a matter of convenience, not a result of the fact that evolution has not produced a 'new form of life'.

If you really want to get out of the 'religious mind set' and explore the responses of reputable scientists to the foolishness and intentional misrepresentation of the anti-evolutionists, then you might want to visit such web sites as:

Stuart Burns

(17) Fiona asked:

What is Descartian Philosophy?


Descartes believed that there are two kinds of substance in the world, which he called thought and extension. (Today they would probably be called mind and matter.) He believed that they are distinct and never interact. That meant that he could not explain how a mind willed a body to move, or how material substances, such as alcohol, could affect the mind.. Later he suggested the existence of a third substance, which he called 'human being,' to interact between thought and extension. But this does not work: interaction is a causal process, not a substance. My own view about Descartes is that, as a good Catholic in a time when the Church was strongly opposed to the new science of Copernicus and Galileo but which Descartes strongly supported, he divided all of existence into two substances which could not interact, one for religion and one for science, so that there should be no quarrel between them.

Helier Robinson

(18) Etreh asked:

Can a philosopher be happy?


Yes they can, I know I am.

Shaun Williamson

(19) Samar asked:

How can I creatively prove that Santa Clause exits ?

And Sousou asked:

Does Santa clause exist ?


To the latter if you are older than eight years old: no.

To the former: there are occasions when creativity, lovely as it might sometimes be, becomes a badly behaved child who ought not to expect any presents.

David Robjant

(20) Franz asked:

What does 'the victory of Thomas Aquinas over Averroes' mean? There is painting called 'The victory ...' that shows Thomas sitting and Aristotle and another philosopher standing on both sides of him. Over him is Christ. In front of Thomas ist lays Averroes on the ground, a famous arab interpreter of Aristotle. What is the reason of Thomas victory?

What I know of the problem it is about the immortality of the soul (anima, psyche). After death of the human the soul can be in heaven or hell. Aristotle says the soul is the form-giving principle of an (living) organism. There is a herbal soul, an animal soul and a human soul. According to Aristotle the soul is not immortal but the mind (reason?) that after death reunifies with the 'global' mind or so. This is the opinion of Averroes.

My question is: How made Averroes it that the soul is individual and immortal. Remark: Thomas Aquinas is the most important philosopher of the Catholic Church up to now.


My best answer (not being an expert in Medieval philosophy) is that according to Aristotle, the soul is the 'form' of a living human being. Contemporary philosophers such as David Wiggins (in his book Sameness and Substance) concur with this view, arguing that — with a few 'tweaks' — it is fully consistent with a broadly materialist theory.

By the time of Descartes, the 'soul' had become an 'immaterial substance' which has the capacity to survive the destruction of the material body as an individual. The principle of individual survival is crucial to Christian theology.

Geoffrey Klempner

(21) Sandra asked:

What is Human Nature for Nietzsche?


Will to Power constitutes all living things. As living things, human beings are constituted by it. At its most rudimentary level, Will to Power [macht] is power, energy which displays a directionality [hence Nietzsche likened it to the human Will]. Will to Power primarily seeks to grow, to expand, and to accumulate power. Manifested in human drives, they struggle against each other for supremacy as manifestations of power [Beyond Good and Evil (BGE) #19 passim].


Initially being wild, roaming nomads or 'blond beasts', where the instincts and drives were immediately expressed; human beings came to exist in communities. The structures and practices of the community interacted on them, particularly their interiority. For instance, the creditor-debtor relationship [Second Treatise, Genealogy of Morals] entailed severe and painful punishments to transgressors who failed to honour their debt. By means of acute awareness of the nature of punishments and pain, this led to humans developing a more comprehensive consciousness and a reflective insight into their actions achieved by inculcated sense of guilt. The creditor became the State, the Community, ancestors and eventually God. Primitive drives of a-social individuals were prescribed as they were socialised into the structures of the Community.

The nature of the structures is significant for Nietzsche. He proffered that healthy societies such as Imperial Rome and Ancient Greece [in which the healthy drives of activity and growth were to the fore] had succumbed to 'the slave revolt in morality'. The revolt he identified with Christianity. Healthy drives were repressed making people guilt ridden, timid [an issue here is whether people were innately, physiologically sick or whether social structures made otherwise healthy people sick], devaluing life with pessimism and pity. This earthly life was correspondingly devalued and 'the next life' valorised.

Nietzsche saw 'Modern Ideas' of Democracy and Equality as symptomatic and a continuation of Christian thinking, values and prescriptions. Although belief in God might be declining, humanity still thought in his shadow.

Nietzsche called for 'Free Thinkers and Spirits' who would, in this transitional period, pave the value-laden way for the Ubermensch. These would be the creative sources of values — human values — practiced and initiated without any recourse to God, gods or transcendent realities.

Non-Metaphysical Essentialism

So, although there is a basic text or nature of human beings, or Homo Natura [BGE # 230] how this is manifested, is not fixed. Nurture reads, interprets and implements the text. As forms of power [macht], or energy, human material is malleable — largely but not wholly a social construct depending on the values of that particular society. As constituted by Will to Power, each living thing seeks to grow, to flourish. Whereas the 'primitive' human might have sought to overcome an enemy and take his/her possessions, a modern person — whose drives have been sophisticated by society — might seek to acquire knowledge. [The philosopher is a sophisticated barbarian]. Thus Nietzsche is advocating a non-metaphysical human essence or essentialism that he calls Will to Power. This is not a Humanism [where thinking, rational human beings are separate from nature, being the 'crown of creation'] as Will to Power occurs through us, creating and constituting us — albeit at a more complex level than primitive nature [see BGE #36 & Of Self -Overcoming; Zarathustra]. Just like power such as electricity, how this is expressed, what it does is varied [from powering this computer screen, providing light to read under, to cars, hospitals and means of killing] — hence Nietzsche's genealogical method of tracing the development of values which are the symptoms of living human beings and the expression of Will to Power.

Nietzsche [wrongly?] feared that Modern values would inhibit this growth and flourishing by means of equality [which he understood as levelling, making each and all the same] and by pity [all struggle and difficulty is to be avoided, abolished and thereby, its contribution to growth]. Post-God thinking and valuations would be created and destroyed by ourselves as a living virtuous circle of Will to Power.

Martin Jenkins

(22) Robin asked:

This is a question which my history teacher asked me. There is A, B and C. B and C both hate A (however b and c don't know each other). A announces he is going to a desert. B and C both decide to take this opportunity to kill A. Firstly B puts poison which kills instantly in A's water bottle, C then comes and without knowing what B has done empties A's water bottle in the hope of dehydrating him. A dies in the desert that day. Who is guilty of what and why based on the evidence we have?


First of all, what did A die of? If he died of dehydration then he was murdered by C, so C is guilty of murder. If he died of something unrelated to his water bottle then C is guilty of attempted murder. Either way, B is guilty of attempted murder.

Helier Robinson

(23) Lily asked:

Why is there evil in the world when god is meant to be all powerful and all loving because if he was these things, then evil wouldn't exist?

I have read about the fallen angel and some people believe that evil happens because of this angel... but isn't God powerful enough to stop this?


Welcome, Lily, to the small community of rational thinkers.

You have noticed what has come to be called 'The Problem of Evil'.

Having advanced far enough to notice that this poses a difficulty for the rational consideration of God, and have taken the difficulty seriously enough to have inquired about a solution on a Philosophy Forum, you are now faced with a critical choice.

(1) You can recognize that the common notion of God is logically self-contradictory — like a 'round square', or a 'triangle with four sides'. If you choose this option, you have to drastically revise how you think about God, and thereby separate yourself from the vast majority of other religious people. Either God is not omnipotent. Or God is not omnibenevolent. (Or both, of course.) Or, as many choose, God (as commonly understood) does not exist. This latter alternative does not necessarily entail Atheism. It just means a notion of God that is not consistent with the common notion of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.

(2) Alternatively, you can recognize that your notion of God is logically incompatible with the common understanding of the words 'good' and 'evil'. This alternative will allow you to maintain that your God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But it will require that you 're-classify' what most people consider as 'evil' as in fact, in God's evaluation, really 'good'. This means that when you talk about 'good' and 'evil' you will have to make clear to whomever you are talking to that you are not speaking standard English when you use these words. Otherwise, you will be guilty of misleading your audience, and committing the logical fallacy of equivocation. Mind you, this alternative raises the issue of just what is God's definition of 'good' and 'evil'. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then by definition, whatever happens does so because He either allows it or commands it. Therefore, whatever happens is 'Good' according to God's evaluation of it. But is 'good' defined by God's will? Or is God's will constrained by some Godly concept of 'good'?

As you may notice, either alternative, as a 'solution' to the problem you identified, will separate you from the vast majority of people — the great unwashed masses of non-rational thinkers. Of course, you are always free to choose the 'do nothing' alternative — flee back to the irrational, and deny there is a problem here. But since you have made this first step on the road to rational thinking, I do hope that you will not retreat.

Stuart Burns

(24) Dayana asked:

We have an assignment due for class and the question is 'what is the difference between realism, conceptualism, and Nominalism.' The textbook doesn't offer much help and I cant find anything online.


These three positions are ways of accounting for universals. A universal is a word that has plural reference, as opposed to a name that has singular reference. The problem of universals is the problem of discovering what their meaning is. Nominalists say that the word itself is the meaning: 'All thought is silent speech' and 'Words are the counters of the mind' are two ways of putting this. Conceptualists say that the meaning of universals is abstract ideas. Realists, also called Platonists, go further and say that abstract ideas, like all ideas, are ideas of something; these somethings are unchanging entities — for example. your idea of two and my idea of two are both abstract ideas of the real number two. The trouble with nominalism is that it cannot count for synonyms and different languages. The words 'silence' and 'quiet' are quite different, as words, and so must have different meanings, as also the statements 'It is raining' and 'Il pleut'. Conceptualists and realists accuse nominalists of being introspectively blind to abstract ideas; but their problem is to say just what an abstract idea is. And on difficulty for realists is the question of where the objects of abstract ideas exist..

Helier Robinson

(25) Rodrigue asked:

Why does listening to music move us?

Could you illustrate with an example?


It just does.

Living the examined life (as we try to do in philosophy) doesn't mean supposing that everything must have some sort of explanation, but rather that any possible explanations for various phenomena must be entertained on their merits.

Doubtless there is some research program going on in which some prof will find that a particular area of the brain lights up like an electric bulb every time he plays the londonderry air.

Ok, but not an explanation.

David Robjant

(26) Jonathan asked:

What is the 'success of Science' argument?


The argument is known as 'no-miracle' argument, was proposed by Hilary Putnam in 1975 and was also called by van Fraassen (1980) as the 'ultimate argument'. It is still widely discussed and is considered to be the major argument in favour of scientific realism. Hilary Putnam claimed that:

'The positive argument for realism is that is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle' ('Philosophical Papers Volume 1, Mathematics, Matter and Method' p. 73), which implies that progressive scientific theories accepted in a mature science are approximately true.

The argument was challenged by neo positivists (Fine 1984), contemporary defenders of the 'pessimistic meta-induction' (Laudan 1984) as well as by the constructive empiricists (van Fraassen 1980) and the defenders of underdetermination (Stanford 2001). Van Fraassen attributes the success of scientific theories to their novel predictions, which are only true, while theories are not true but only empirically adequate. Defenders of the 'pessimistic meta-induction' argue that scientific theories are better in problem-solving but not true ones that represent approximately the reality. The counter argument by defenders of scientific realists (Boyd 1990, , Musgrave 1988, Niiniluoto 1999, Psillos 1999, Worrall 1994) is that empirical adequacy and success of a theory cannot be explained if not by postulating its truth or truthlikeness.

You can find some more points of discussion in the following:

Boyd R., (1990) 'Realism, Approximate Truth and Philosophical Method' in Wade Savage, ed. Scientific Theories, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science vol. 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Fine A. (1984). 'The Natural Ontological Attitude', in Leplin.

Laudan Larry (1984). 'A Confutation of Convergent Realism' Philosophy of Science 48: 218-249

Leplin Jarrett, (1984) Scientific Realism, University of California Press

Musgrave, A. (1988). 'The Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism', in Nola 1988: 229-52.

Niiniluoto I. (1999) Critical Scientific Realism, Oxford University Press

Psillos Stathis, (1999) Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge

Stanford P. K. (2001). 'Refusing the Devil's Bargain: What Kind of Underdetermination Should We Take Seriously?', Philosophy of Science 68 (Proceedings)

van Fraassen B., (1980) The Scientific Image, Oxford University Press

Worrall, J., (1994). How to Remain (Reasonably) Optimistic: Scientific Realism and the 'Luminiferous Ether'. In D. Hull and M. Forbes, eds. PSA 1994, vol 1: 334-44. East Lansing: Philosophy of Science Association

I hope my hints are helpful.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(27) Rocky asked:

Regarding epistemology. I believe that one cannot know anything with perfect certainty. But can I make that statement with perfect certainty and defend it? Somehow I feel I can but I am not sure how to defend that statement. It seems unarguable in one respect. Being that one can never prove knowledge of anything, therefore it seems perfectly certain that all is unknowable. That leads directly to the statement that with certainty, nothing can be know except that nothing can be known. In fact, there is only one thing in the universe that can be know and that is that nothing can be known.



I don't see any formal inconsistency in asserting the following proposition, which we will arbitrarily name 'Q':

'For all propositions P, if P is not Q then it is impossible to know that P with perfect certainty.'

However, if it is known with perfect certainty that Q, how about the proposition, 'It is known with perfect certainty that Q'? Is that known with perfect certainty? In that case, far from there being 'one thing in the universe' that can be known, there will be a potentially infinite number of propositions. That's not much comfort, however, to someone seeking to defend our ordinary knowledge claims.

The real question we should be asking is how any argument, inside philosophy or outside, can be so persuasive as to rule out the possibility that there is a flaw in one's reasoning. Given the immense controversy that has raged over the question of scepticism, anyone who thinks that they have an argument to the effect that 'nothing can be known' ought to at least consider the possibility — however far-fetched it may seem — that there is something that they have omitted from their calculation.

Another point arises in relation to the qualification, 'with perfect certainty'. Why is perfect certainty necessary for knowledge? It follows logically (and hence necessarily) from the statement, A knows that P, that 'P' is true. However, it is invalid to infer that the only things that can be known are things that are known for certain.

Geoffrey Klempner

(28) Lily asked:

why is there evil in the world when god is meant to be all powerful and all loving because if he was these things, then evil wouldn't exist?

I have read about the fallen angel and some people believe that evil happens because of this angel but isn't God powerful enough to stop this?


This is a tricky question and as some one who no longer believes in an almighty, all powerful theistic god I'm not sure if my answer will be that helpful to you. Obviously for an atheist this is not really a problem. However this is not to deny the injustice, pain and misery that is a major factor in many peoples lives. The real question is not how can God allow suffering, but how can suffering be minimised, and how can victims of suffering, obtain healing in order to come to terms with their pain.L Philosophers and theologians have called the type of question you ask the problem of evil. For those who believe in a theistic god the attempt to justify the existence of God in the light of suffering is called theodicy. There are a number of philosophical attempts in the literature.

Augustine and many others have put forward the response that God allows suffering and evil because of man's free will. The argument goes something like this, Man is a better person for freewill, a side effect of this is that man will inevitably cause suffering to others, but this is a lesser evil than mankind being created an automaton. Somewhat optimistically Augustine claims that God will never allow mankind to endure suffering beyond it's capability.Augustine claims that God will eventually bring good out of evil.

Another position is that of Leibniz, he claims that a world without suffering or pain would not be 'the best of all possible worlds'. He claims that a balance of good and evil is necessary. Since some goods, such as compassion induced by the witness of suffering, are made possible by the presence of evil, then a world without suffering would not be one where compassion exists. Voltaire's attacks this view, in his novel Candide. The character Dr Pangloss a caricature of Leibniz is mercilessly attacked for always taking an optimistic view of things. Voltaire was deeply shocked by the consequences of an Earthquake in Lisbon. Whatever the merits of the above arguments, they tend to engage the head, rather than the heart. Given the awfulness of suffering after such events as the Holocaust or the Lisbon earthquake, one might feel that the significance of the problem has been minimised.

Christian theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jurgen Moltmann argue that in the incarnation, another side of God has been revealed, the claim is that if one takes the incarnation seriously, then as God chose for his vehicle a humble peasant who underwent severe suffering himself, then this is a challenge to the concept of an all powerful almighty God. Instead by entering into human suffering, the power of love is able to transform pain and suffering. The traditional picture of God as almighty and powerful and the emphasis on the miracles of Jesus as revealing the powerful nature of God is a projection of institutional power. Moltmann argues (at least for those who are Christians) in a powerful way, that the church instead of siding with the rich and powerful should side with the poor. Similar ideas inspired the Liberation theologians of South America. Whilst such writings are undoubtedly moving, their appeal is limited to those who are Christians, and the obvious question is why single out one person's particular sufferings.

Buddhist's and philosophers such as Schopenhauer who was influenced by Buddhism, would argue that suffering is caused by desire and selfishness, if we minimise our desires and detach our selves from the pursuit of such things as wealth and riches, then we will reach a state of enlightenment. Suffering will cease when desire is removed. In the Phaedo (an early dialogue by Plato), Socrates claims something similar, the aim of philosophy, is to practice detachment from the pleasures of the world so that the contemplation of pure knowledge is facilitated. Of course Socrates enjoyed good food and wine, he even had a child, but for Socrates the quest for knowledge was the main thing. He thought he would obtain this in the after life. Of course for those of us who are not so sure of an afterlife this doctrine may seem a bit optimistic to say the least.

The problem of suffering in general, has been the topic of much great literature and music, tragedy is so much more satisfying than comedy because the dilemmas involved raise deep issues. Obvious examples include the book of Job (provided one sees it as an open ended dialogue and not the usual sad tale with a happy ending). Shakespeare's tragedies, the novels of Thomas Hardy, and Dostoevsky. In the Brothers Karamazov, there is an explicit discussion of the problem. From a personal point of view, the Arts engage me more directly than theological or philosophical discussions of the problem. Whilst there is no real answer to the problem of evil, the fact that other people have articulated in powerful ways, the effects of suffering, gives it a universal dimension beyond individual suffering.

The 'answer' to the problem of suffering lies with us, it is no use blaming a non-existent God, for suffering. It is up to us to resist tyranny and injustice, to be kind and compassionate, in that way whilst individuals cannot do much about suffering on a global scale, we can at least attempt to mitigate suffering wherever we find it. However it is not just individuals, mankind has on the whole the ability to prevent famine, disease and injustice; it just needs the political will to do so.

Further Reading

An overview of the traditional philosophical responses to the problem of evil is given in Ch 5 of 'Philosophy 2' edited by A C Grayling. Oxford University Press 1998.

Jurgen Moltmann's main discussion of the problem of suffering is in The Crucified God SCM press 1974.

Finally I would recommend Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamazov or at least the dialogue entitled the Grand Inquisitor which discusses the problem of suffering.

Christopher Finlay

(29) Leighton asked:

OK, I'm 15 years old and have my own answer for this question/story. I don't exactly remember the story, but its basically, there's a guy, he gets all kinds of things done to his body, (surgery, limbs replaced with robotic limbs) and in the end, all he has is his brain and consciousness. Is he human?


You talk as though consciousness is some sort of thing, it isn't. To say that someone is conscious is to say that they can see, hear, touch taste etc. (or at least some of these things). It is to say that they have an awareness of the world and are not unconscious. So we have to imagine that he still has eyes, a nose, ears etc. and that he shows by his behaviour that he is conscious.

You say that you have your own answer to this question but it isn't up to any individual to decide who is human and who isn't. Their are legal and moral implications to deciding that someone is or is not human. Also you should remember that an unconscious human is still a human at least until they die.

Shaun Williamson

(30) Mark asked:

Is it plausible that genes constitute, as Richard Dawkins suggests, the 'ultimate rationale' for our existence?


I have many objections to this. First of all, why assign meaning to certain composite elements that nobody readily encounters as meaningful? Do we perceive the paint used to create a masterful work of art as meaningful? No, we perceive the art itself as meaningful. It would not exist without these elements, but we don't take this as a reason to relocate the beauty of the picture in its constituent parts.

Secondly: Surely meaning must be functional as well as literal in order to constitute any kind of fullness? When religious people talk of the meaning in their lives they do not only articulate the beliefs that motivate them but act on these motivations. Surely if a person genuinely believed that they exist to function solely as a gene propagating hunk of organic matter the first thing they'd do is burst in to tears and find a gun?

Thirdly: Meaning is necessarily subjective. It comes from individual consciousness, and no one consciousness can articulate an objectively 'higher' order of meaning to any other consciousness. To say otherwise on the basis of intelligence, morality and wit is tempting, but basically just prejudice.

What Dawkins is doing is reductionism, in the bad sense of the word. It's like saying that life is nothing but chemistry, or that mind is nothing but brain. Life has properties that chemistry does not have, and mind has properties that brain does not have. Again, a bowline knot is a knot that will not slip, and this is a property of the knot, not a property of the rope. The operative concept here is emergence: life is emergent from chemistry, mind is emergent from brain, and knots are emergent from rope. Dawkins makes genes the ultimate rationale for our existence because of his prejudice against religion, and prejudicial thinking is irrational and un-philosophical.

Helier Robinson

(31) Aziza asked:

Are the mind and the body the same thing, or are they separate and distinct?


If mind and body were the same thing then I am sure you wouldn't even need to ask your question because everybody would know that it was so. Probably in the dictionary under the word 'mind' it would say 'another word for body' but it doesn't.

When you look in the mirror you can see your body but you can't see your mind. Your body has parts, legs, hands, feet and a head. Your mind doesn't have any feet or a nose or a head.

Shaun Williamson

(32) Katy asked:

How do you judge whether an act of lying is ethical or unethical?

What are determinants that can be used to base this decision?


It al depends on which system of ethics you wish to apply. There are many to choose from. Here is a sample of answers.

(i) Religious Ethics. All systems of religious ethics are based on the commands of God. And all such commands are behavior-specific. In other words, lying (sometimes in specified circumstances) is unethical because God so commands it — if and when He does so command it. Hence, in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition, the Ninth Commandment is 'You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor'. So a lie that can be interpreted as doing so is unethical by fiat. Other lies may or may not be determined to be unethical according to whether some passage in the Bible/Torah/Talmud/Koran can be interpreted to give some advise on the question. You'll have to consult an expert on your religion of preference to get further advise.

(ii) Utilitarian Ethics. A lie would be unethical if it could be shown that not lying would deliver greater net utility to a greater number of people over the long run. And vice versa, of course. The calculations could be quite difficult to complete in any reasonable amount of time. So some variants of Utilitarian Ethics adopt rules (so-called Rule Utilitarianism). The rules adopted are those that can be demonstrated to deliver the greatest net utility to the greatest number of people over the long run, given that all people obey the rule. Since it is a usual assumption underlying inter-personal communications that what you say is true, a lie, when considered as a general thing, would undermine this general presumption of truth. Because we rely heavily on the information we receive from other people, it would be a bad thing if this general presumption of truth was undermined. Hence, lying as a general rule, would be frowned upon. You'll have to consult a Rule Utilitarian to determine whether lying is in general frowned upon regardless of circumstances, or whether there are identified sub-categories of lies that are treated differently ('white' lies?)

(iii) Ethical Egoism. A lie would be judged ethical if, in your judgement, the net benefits accruing to you and yours over the long run are greater than not telling the lie. (And vice versa, of course.) The focus here is on a correct estimation of the likely consequences of your actions (lying or not lying), and an emphasis on the long haul consequences to you and your genetic descendents. Personally, as an Ethical Egoist myself, I have learned to be cautious about lying. Getting a reputation as one who lies is an awful damaging consequence (as per my discussion above about the importance of a general presumption of truth). And one must always remember that the truth will often come out eventually. So if you are going to lie, choose the circumstances carefully. And if you are rushed, or under time or emotional pressure, the rule of thumb — 'Don't tell lies' — is a useful quick guideline. It will usually save you more trouble than it causes.

There are plenty of other alternative systems of Ethics you can explore if this short list is not satisfactory.

Stuart Burns

(33) Elaine asked:

Please can you explain in easy to understand The Allegory of the Cave so I can in tern explain it to my 13 yr old child.


If Plato were writing today, we would be chained to our seats in a cinema, knowing life only as Hollywood depicts it. The movies on the screen are like Plato's shadows on the cave wall; the actors who made the movies are like the slaves carrying bundles to throw the shadows. Reality is outside the cinema/cave. What this means is that the shadows represent the irrational, the actors the rational, and outside the supra-rational. The actors are more real than the movies, and the outside more real than the actors. and as the shadows are images of the actors, so are the actors just images of the outside. In other words, all that we normally perceive around us is images of reality, not reality itself, and we can get to know reality — that is, achieve wisdom — if we can get to the outside; and to do that is to be supra-rational. We can get to the supra-rational, according to Plato, by studying mathematics, music, and beauty, and by the practice of dialectic. Although common sense is very strongly against this view and in favour of the belief that what we perceive around us is real (that is, it continues to exist when not perceived) consider that everything empirically known is somewhat illusory and thereby unreal, and that the whole of your empirical world is composed of sensations, which are images of reality manufactured in the brain.

Helier Robinson

(34) Robert asked:

Are Computers living beings? Are they able to think for themselves?


Growth, reproduction, irritability, movement, nutrition, excretion and respiration can define a living thing. No computer displays such characteristics.

Thinking requires self-regard; consciousness. Computers do not possess this. They follow pre-programmed operations no matter how complex. So consciousness and thinking are absent from computers.

So I would maintain that computers are not living beings and neither can/do they think for themselves.

Martin Jenkins

(35) Liv asked:

A few months ago, my dog died. He was twelve years old, he had the mellowest and sweetest temperament out of any dog I've ever seen, and was my best friend. If anything was wrong with me he could sense it and would sit patiently next to me for as long as I took to feel better, looking up at me with big empathetic brown eyes.

I know that many people like believing that there is a heaven for pets (just like many believe there is a heaven for humans, but we cannot be sure, we can simply discuss it and analyze why there may be one), especially dearly loved ones. What are your theories on this? Do animals have souls as many believe humans do? Are they capable of thinking and on what levels, simply basic or complex?

Thank you for your time.


Your question is not about whether dogs can hope for everlasting life in heaven but rather concerns what human beings can reasonably hope for, in relation to the belief about an afterlife.

Grant for the sake of argument that what you have stated is the literal truth. Your dog was exquisitely sensitive to your moods, and cared enough about you to offer what help and support a dog could when you were feeling down. It does not seem to be stretching a point too far to say that your dog loved you.

It nevertheless remains true (or at least highly likely based on all we know) that dogs, like other animals, live in the moment. Your dog responded to you in the moment. For beings who live in the moment, there is no such thing as 'hope', let alone the hope that one will survive one's bodily death. However, if you believe in an afterlife, then there is nothing wrong or absurd in hoping that when you die, you and your dog will be reunited.

Geoffrey Klempner

(36) Rodrigue asked:

Would it be fair to hire or fire a female tv news anchor on the basis of her age or appearance? explain.


Given that TV news is a branch of the entertainment industry, yes, that would be entirely proper.

What, you think TV news has some other function?

David Robjant

(37) Emily asked:

If no one is around to see a reflection, does that reflection exist?


Yes it does. Our idea of a reflection makes no reference to an observer. Suppose you have a large mirror in your living room. In it you can see a reflection of all the things in the room. You set up a video camera in front of the mirror and then you go out of the room. When you come back and view the video tape you will see that all the reflections still existed even though no one was in the room. If a fly flies in front of the mirror you will see the fly and its reflection recorded on your video tape even though no one was in the room to see it at the time when it happened.

Shaun Williamson

(38) Emily asked:

Can babies and animals think if they cannot speak any language?


Yes. Language is an aid to thinking, but not essential for it. When you have a word 'on the tip of your tongue' you have a meaning without a word; and also if you have an original idea, for which there is not yet a word. Meanings are distinct from words, and thought is with meanings, or else with concepts, which are meanings and words joined together.

Helier Robinson

(39) Emily asked:

Can babies and animals think if they cannot speak any language?


No I don't think so. What could they be thinking about. To be able to say something like 'He thought that it was time for dinner' implies that he could agree with the statement 'It's time for dinner'.

It does not mean that he must be able to speak but he must at least be able to understand the sentence 'It's time for dinner'. If you don't have any understanding of language then it makes no sense for us to talk about your thoughts.

However a baby can look thoughtful and so can a dog.

Shaun Williamson

(40) Alberto asked:

Hi, I am a student from college and I have to write about the difference between the libertarians and the utilitarians when referring to the human freedom. I have to confess that as much a read about it , more confuse. Thanks in advance


It is going to be a bit difficult to compare these two, since Utilitarianism is a system of ethics that does not directly address the issue of human freedom, while Libertarianism is a system of political philosophy that is fundamentally based on the idea of human freedom.

The fundamental principle of Utilitarianism is that the ethically recommended is whatever will deliver the greatest net utility to the greatest number (usually when considered over the long run). So the question of human freedom (I presume you mean this in terms of individual liberty) does not arise as a general ethical evaluation. One would have to examine each possible individual choice, and make an ethical judgement as to whether this choice or that in these particular circumstances is the more ethically correct. Not a process that would yield a general statement on the ethical desirability of human freedom.

Of course, Utilitarianism is based on the premise that the individual does have the freedom to choose. If there is no choice in hand to consider, then Utilitarianism has nothing to contribute. But again, this contributes nothing to a discussion on whether human freedom is a generally desirable thing to have. It is quite conceivable (and in fact common in practice) that a Utilitarian could judge that there would be a greater delivery of utility to a greater number over the long run, if individual liberties were constrained to some greater or lesser degree. A Utilitarian justification of taxes, for example, would argue that coercing people to pay taxes delivers a greater net benefit to more people over the long run, than would otherwise be the case.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, is based on the fundamental premise that individual liberty is a good thing. From that premise, a Libertarian would argue that any initiation of the threat or use of force is unethical. So coercing people to do anything (like paying taxes) is ethically unacceptable. The only constraints on human freedom that a Libertarian would deem ethically acceptable are constraints that prevent the initiation of the threat or use of force, or the intentional misrepresentation of values offered in trade.

Stuart Burns

(41) Mary asked:

What is reality?


One definition is that reality is all that exists independently of being perceived — i.e. it exists regardless of whether anyone perceives it or not. Another is that reality is all that we perceive around us that is not illusory. A third is that reality is what determines the truth or falsity of propositions. Most people believe that all three are equivalent, but this can be shown to be wrong — see my book Belief Shock available from

Helier Robinson

(42) Monica asked:

Did Plato like the American judicial system?


Plato lived a long, long, long time ago, long before the birth of Christ. Look him up on the internet.

At that time the U.S.A. did not exist and neither did its judicial system. Plato's thoughts on colour television are also unknown, since apparently he never watched television.

Shaun Williamson

(43) Katy asked:

Why is there something rather than nothing at all?


If we define the Universe as everything that exists and ask why it exists then either it exists by accident (that is, it is uncaused) or else it is caused. Existing by accident does not make sense, so it must be caused, It cannot be caused by something outside of the Universe because there in nothing outside, by definition, in which case it must be self-caused. That is, there must be something in the Universe that makes it exist: this is the property of necessary existence. Whatever has necessary existence has to exist, necessarily. Of all possible universes, one is the best: perfect in all respects. (Such perfection is possible, so one possible universe must have it.) If the best lacked necessary existence, it would be less than perfect. So the best has necessary existence. So we live in the best of all possible universes. This argument is a variant of an argument called the ontological argument, which was invented by St. Anselm. It was used by Leibniz in support of his claim that 'This is the best of possible worlds.' Leibniz was ridiculed by Voltaire for this, in his novel Candide, but Voltaire misunderstood Leibniz. Leibniz was not talking about the empirical world that we perceive around us, but of the real world. (The empirical world is a reconstruction of the real world, out of sensations, and contains much illusion — including the illusion of being imperfect.) Needless to say, not all philosophers go along with this.

Helier Robinson

(44) Tobias asked:

Maybe it is rude to ask this question: Buthow can physicists 'get away' with talking about a 'wave-particle duality'? Isn't a contradiction a contradiction by definition 'wrong'?(by the way, thank you very much for your answer to my question on solipsism)


Whilst I see that you have effectively withdrawn this question, I feel it deserves an answer. It is true that 'popular ' science books often speak of 'wave -particle' duality and for quite a long time most physicists would agree that for want of a better word 'quantum objects' manifest themselves some times as a wave or as a particle. The key experiment which has actually been performed and allegedly demonstrating this duality, is the two slit experiment. As I'm sure you are aware this consists of a beam of particles being fired through two slits. If they behaved purely classically, the resulting pattern should have two regions of intensity corresponding to the width of the slits and nothing much between. However what is observed is a series of interference fringes more characteristic of that of a wave. Furthermore the 'mystery' is that if the intensity of the beam is such that only one particle is allowed at a time there is still a wave like pattern which builds up. However if we try to detect the particle it will always behave as a particle. So one particle appears to go through a single slit but still a wave pattern is eventually built up. This has led to the popular viewpoint that quantum objects have both a wave like property and a particle like property all at the same time.

There are many solutions to this conundrum, the 'orthodox' view can be found in Chapter 1 of the Feynman lectures on quantum mechanics. However this neglects (in my opinion) the fact that the wave like aspects, only manifest themselves, after many particles have passed through the slits. Thus the wave aspects can be seen as statistical, to take a classical example, if I were to randomly fire bullets through a large gap in the wall at a target the pattern which emerges would be that of Gaussian distribution or Bell curve. No one would claim that each bullet has intrinsic 'Gaussian' properties. Similarly I would argue that no one should speak of intrinsic wave like properties associated with particles.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to give a purely particle like explanation of the two slit experiment. In a paper, which should be much more widely known, such an account is given by Marcella (Marcella 2002). In arrangements such as the two slit experiment, the slits act as measuring devices giving an uncertainty in position equal to the width of the slit and in accordance with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle a corresponding uncertainty in its momentum. Each particle has a probability amplitude, which is a complex number, to go from one slit to another position. Marcella shows using the standard quantum mechanical formalism that when two slits are open the probabilities that a particle will be scattered in a certain direction are such that an intensity characteristic of a 'wave' pattern results. Thus after many particles have passed through the slits a wave like pattern will build up.

Thus it is not true that quantum objects behave simultaneously as a wave and a particle at the same time. They retain their particle like identity and only collectively manifest their wave like properties. In particular, they do not as is often claimed, pass through two slits simultaneously or interfere with themselves. Of course this still leaves open the question as to why electrons or photons collectively behave in this way, but that is another story !!

Further Reading

Feynman Lectures in physics Vol 3 Chapter 1. McGraw Hill 1963

Marcella T V (2002) 'Quantum Interference with slits' European Journal of Physics 23 p615 — 612. An online copy can be obtained here

(Don't worry about the maths its worth reading the text of this paper for a summary of its general points)

The two slit experiment with electrons is described by Silverman in his book

Silverman M P (1995) More than one mystery (Springer Verlag New York)

The 'statistical' interpretation of quantum mechanics which I'm advocating here is due to Ballentine and the fullest account of this interpretation can be found in his book on quantum mechanics.

Ballentine L 2003 Quantum Mechanics a Modern Development World Scientific Press.

Christopher Finlay

(45) Mark asked:

Can you explain to me how a faith in God is any more contrary to rationality and empiricism than a faith in western society, a faith in 'freedom', a faith in money, a faith in the fruits of honest labour, and a faith in material happiness? Given that we see these faiths 'undermined' consistently in the people around us and in the news, and yet people still abide by them, I'd say the majority of 'non-religious' people are probably no such thing. They just pray in banks rather than churches. People are primarily motivated by feeling, which always pre-exists thought. And in view of this fact, is it just a simple fact that we are all creatures of faith?


No I can't, faith is faith no matter what sort of faith it is. However I think its best to avoid faith in God, banks or anything else. If religious faith is criticised then it is probably because of the nasty, repugnant and evil beliefs of some religious people who seem to wish to force their beliefs on everyone else.

Feeling doesn't pre-exist thought, whatever that means and claiming that we are all creatures of faith is just playing with words. You may be a creature of faith, I'm not.

Shaun Williamson

(46) Mick asked:

Firstly, I'm not an academic. Simple soul me. After much thought I've come to the conclusion that the only 'true' philosophy/attitude/doctrine re the existence of a god, or any of the attached tenets is agnosticism, because, surely, we as human beings do not know. Any faith-based ideology is thus suspect. Atheism is of itself faith-based. An atheist will state that gods do not exist, but he doesn't know, he has no evidence, he merely believes that this is the case.

What are your thoughts on this? I'm concerned that my thinking is skewed as I said, I'm no intellectual, haven't read any Philosophers and probably won't. But I do like to think.


First of all, I applaud your intention to think, and to reach rational conclusions.

However, I do have a couple of 'corrections' to offer for your further consideration.

The first concerns your statement that 'Atheism is faith-based'. On what do you base that assertion? The word 'faith' is used in two different contexts. In one context, the word 'faith' is used to imply a belief in the truth of some statement in the absence of any evidence, and occasionally in the face of contrary evidence. In the other sense, the word 'faith' is used to imply a justified trust that what the evidence supports is in fact the real truth. As you can see, two completely different implications from the same word. The religious exploit the commonality of the word to confuse with the different meanings (a common tactic). One can, of course, be an Atheist in a faith-based way on the first meaning of the word — if one has dogmatically chosen to believe in Atheism (i.e. disbelieve in God) without relying on any evidence. But the usual sort of Atheist is one who believes in Atheism (i.e. disbelieves in God) because of the evidence. Atheism of this sort is 'faith-based' only in the second sense of 'faith'. The way that you are using 'Atheism is faith-based' in your question pretty much implies that you are intending to use 'faith' in the first sense of the word, and not in the second sense of the word. So I would have to strongly object that you are mis-characterizing Atheism. Atheism is not at all (normally) a 'faith-based ideology'. It is the reasoned result of a judgement that the evidence supports the conclusion that God (as traditionally conceived) does not exist.

Which introduces my second 'correction'. You suggest in your question that 'he [the Atheist] has no evidence'. But this is in fact quite false. Now of course, an Atheist cannot prove that there is no God. Despite all the evidence that supports the conclusion that God does not exist, scientific reasoning is not about proof. It is about reaching the most reasonable explanation for the evidence. There are two kinds of evidence supporting the non-existence of God. The first sort is the observation that the evidence that should be there, if God (in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception) did exist, is not there. If God answered prayers, for example, we should be able to observe that fact. But we don't. The fact that evidence that should be there, given the God hypothesis, is missing, is solid evidence that the God hypothesis is wrong. Science uses this sort of reasoning all the time. An hypothesis is put forward, evidence for or against it is sought, if no evidence supporting the hypothesis is found, then the hypothesis is judged false. The second sort of evidence supporting the conclusion that God does not exist, is that alternative explanations can be found for everything that God is supposed to have done (or is supposed to be doing). Science does not need the God hypothesis in order to explain anything. That is solid evidence that the God hypothesis is superfluous — and therefore, given the nature of the God hypothesis, is almost certainly wrong.

So, in conclusion, I would argue that (in your words) 'the only 'true' philosophy/attitude/doctrine re the existence of a god, or any of the attached tenets' is actually Atheism. An Agnostic is merely pleading ignorance. And as such, is ignoring (or is ignorant of) all the evidence that supports the Atheist's conclusion. The Atheist may still be wrong (and an honest Atheist will admit that). But the Atheist's conclusion is much more in keeping with the evidence than is the Agnostic's.

But however you receive my contributions, keep on thinking!! Examine the evidence and make up your own mind.

Stuart Burns

(47) Isabela asked:

To what extent do symbolic representations such as language, statistic, maps and photographs give us an accurate representation of the way things are?


In order to answer your question, the first question we have to address is, 'accurate in relation to what?'

Suppose I give you a map showing how to get to the shopping mall. The map is just a few pencil lines roughly drawn on paper. However, the map contains all the information necessary for getting to the shopping mall. In that case, the map is a correct map, an 'accurate representation' in the only sense in which this has meaning.

Any photograph is an 'accurate representation' of how things look from the point of view of the camera which took the photograph, given the shutter speed, film speed, aperture etc. However, if I show you a photograph and then claim that it 'proves' that a particular event happened, many extra assumptions are needed. The accuracy of the photograph, as a purported representation of that event depends on those extra assumptions.

We sometimes have the feeling that language is 'too clumsy' to express the things we feel. But then most of us are not poets. A statement, 'There is a pen on my desk,' can be true. So can the statement, 'There is a dream in my heart.' If a statement is true, then it is 'perfectly accurate' insofar as what it states is the case. The inaccuracy comes from our own shortcomings, our inability to 'find the right words'.

Of course, there are many cases where we find it very difficult to decide whether a statement is true. Once again, that doesn't show a limitation in the powers of language, but rather a limitation to our ability to find things out about the world.

Geoffrey Klempner

(48) Jovian asked:

How would you go about describing a colour that you have never seen before?


You just did.

More seriously, can you describe any colour, other than by other colours? (For example, 'This is a reddish-blue.' ) We can define colours ostensibly, by pointing to them and naming them, but that is not to describe them. So you cannot describe colour to a blind man, or sound to a deaf man, or any other sensation to someone who cannot experience it.

Helier Robinson

(49) Billy asked:

Descartes used 'Cogito Ergo Sum' as proof of being, what is the latin for 'I don't think therefore I am' and why can this not be the case?


Don't know what the Latin is but the import of the statement is logically impossible. 'I don't think therefore I am' presupposes thought. It therefore contradicts itself. It's like the phrase 'Don't read this'.

Martin Jenkins

(50) Arsim asked:

What is time? does time exist?


Your first question 'What is time' seems to call for a neat formula which will somehow sum up forever all the complex things included in our idea of time. I can think of a neat definition and I don't think one exists.

Your second question would have an answer if, for example, you were Russian and didn't know what the English word 'time' means. However I think you already know what time is. Do you own a watch? If you do then you know about time and you know that it exists.

In the same way you know that mathematics exists and you know what mathematics is, even though you can't necessarily define the word and even though you don't know all of mathematics.

Shaun Williamson

(51) Geneva asked:

How is Plato's 'Allegory of the cave' compared to real life or, how is it applied to our everyday lives?


Hope it doesn't sound pretentious. I'd say that the study of philosophy and its consequences are very similar to the experience of those who leave the cave, experience the light of knowledge and return to inform those who live in the gloom of shadows and illusions. To those interested in Philosophy, it is revelatory. It questions the very fabric of human existence. The questions asked make one appreciate 'reality' at a different 'level'. There is no return to the satisfaction of shadows and illusions after the light of knowing.

The allegory of the cave is present in everyday life in those who have experienced a 'religious revelation'. They have experienced 'the light' and return to evangelise to the dwellers in the dark.

The principle of the Cave allegory is present in everyday life in the practice of examinations and its relation to knowledge. Those who have passed have the grounds to profess knowledge of their subject matter in a way those who haven't passed do not. If you had to have a life saving operation, would you want it done by a qualified, competent surgeon [possesses knowledge, been outside the cave] or a non-qualified person [shadows, illusions of the dark] who believes he knows what he is doing or 'has a right to do it'?

Martin Jenkins

(52) Danny asked:

Does Karl Popper's falsification theory show that science can progress without using induction? By progress I mean advance to a forward position. Your help would be much appreciated. Thanks very much.

Popper's philosophy of science is based on the fundamental logic of the conditional. Given a statement such as 'If P then Q' there are three common argument forms: (i) modus ponens, or affirmation of the antecedent 'If P then Q, and P is true therefore Q is true; (ii) modus tollens, or denial of the consequent 'If P then Q, and Q is false therefore P is false; and (iii) fallacy of affirmation of the consequent 'If P then Q, and Q is true therefore P is true. (i) and (ii) are valid, (iii) is not, as can be seen from clear examples: (i) 'If Pat is pregnant then Pat is female, and Pat is pregnant therefore Pat is female'; (ii) 'If Pat is pregnant then Pat is female, and Pat is not female therefore Pat is not pregnant'; and (iii) 'If Pat is pregnant then Pat is female, and Pat is female therefore Pat is pregnant.' In (iii) Pat might be pregnant but is not necessarily pregnant just because she's female, so that argument form is invalid.

Popper's point is that induction in science proceeds by the argument form of (iii), in two ways: generalisation of an empirical formula to an empirical law, and verification of a theory by an empirical law. In each case the law or the theory could be true, but is not proved true by the empirical evidence. So Popper claims that verification in science is impossible. On the other hand, falsification is possible, by denial of the consequent: if a law requires something empirical to happen and it does not then the law if false, and similarly with a theory. So scientific laws and theories can be falsified but not verified. Later Popper admitted that laws and theories could be corroborated, even though they could not be verified. But he did not succeed in analysing the difference between corroboration and verification. What you should bear in mind in all this is that induction is a fancy name for generalisation, and much generalisation goes badly wrong. Superstitions and stereotypes are formed by generalisation and are nearly always false. So how can a philosopher of science justify generalisation in science while denying its validity in superstitious thinking and stereotypical thinking? My own view of the matter is that in science generalisation is strictly disciplined, by rules discovered over centuries of trial and error, while superstitious and stereotypical generalisations are undisciplined.

Helier Robinson

(53) Elias asked:

Could it be, that just like shadow is the absence of light, life is just an absence of death?

since it appears that death lasts way more than life, I know that we are strangers to what death is.. and I also know is kind of a question with no answer (at least in life) but I would like to know your point of view about it


No I don't think so. Death is the absence of life not the other way round.

Death doesn't last for a long time. We can say that X was alive for sixty years, we can't really say he died for sixty years. Death is instantaneous and doesn't last. Life can last for more than 100 years for some people.

Shaun Williamson

(54) Kay asked:

Please can you explain the term 'subject' especially as used in the phrase 'disengaged subject'? I am confused by the use of 'subject' to mean apparently an independent or autonomous person (or 'agent'?), when it is also used to mean someone in a subordinate position, as in 'subjects of the queen' or 'subject of an experiment'. To give you my context, I am trying to write about the relationship of personal freedom, obedience and authority and authority.


One first has to recognize that in the English language, some words have been invested with numerous, and not necessarily related, meanings. One then has to reference a suitable dictionary to learn what lexicographers have discovered about the common usages of the word. So, in this case, referencing the online dictionary you will learn that the word 'subject' is commonly used in these various ways:


(1) Under the authority or control of, or owing allegiance to, another;

(2) Having a disposition or tendency; liable (to); exposed (to);

(3) Contingent or conditional upon (with to)


(3) A person under the authority or control of another; esp., a person owing allegiance to a particular ruler, government, etc.;

(4) Someone or something made to undergo a treatment, experiment, analysis, dissection, etc.;

(5) Something dealt with in discussion, study, writing, painting, etc.; theme, the main theme or melody of a musical composition or movement, esp., the opening theme in a fugue;

(6) Any of the various courses of study in a school or college; branch of learning

(7) Grammar. The noun or other substantive that is one of the two immediate constituents of a sentence and about which something is said in the predicate;

(8) Logic. That part of a proposition about which something is said; that which is affirmed or denied;

(9) Philosophy. The actual substance of anything as distinguished from its qualities and attributes;

(10) The mind, or ego, that thinks and feels, as distinguished from everything outside the mind

Transitive Verb:

(11) To place under or below; to bring under the authority or control of; cause to owe allegiance to; make liable or vulnerable to;

(12) To cause to experience or receive some action or treatment; (13) Rare to place before.

Finally, one has to recognize that words are but perceptible symbols used by the sender to communicate some concept to the mind of the recipient. What you have to do is figure out which of these meanings (if any) the sender of the word has in mind when it is being used. It might not be amongst the list here enumerated. Normally, it should be obvious from the context. But people are free to use words and other symbols in any manner they choose — accepting, of course, the consequence that their audience might not understand their message.

In the context you specify, I cannot imagine what contribution this clarification will make to your efforts. There is quite a significant difference between the three meanings you cite, and that difference should be rather obvious from the context of usage.

Stuart Burns

(55) Mick asked:

Firstly, I'm not an academic. Simple soul me. After much thought I've come to the conclusion that the only 'true' philosophy/ attitude/ doctrine re the existence of a god, or any of the attached tenets is agnosticism, because, surely, we as human beings do not know.

Any faith-based ideology is thus suspect. Atheism is of itself faith-based an atheist will state that gods do not exist, but he doesn't know, he has no evidence, he merely believes that this is the case. What are your thoughts on this? I'm concerned that my thinking is skewed as I said, I'm no intellectual, haven't read any Philosophers and probably won't. But I do like to think.


The weakness of your position is your statement 'because, surely, we as human beings do not know.' You can no more prove this than an atheist can prove that God does not exist or a theist can prove that God does exist. Some people claim to have had religious experiences which prove to them that God exists, but since these experiences are entirely private they are hardly proof to anyone else. And the problem of proof for atheists is the difficulty of proving a negative. My own view, as a philosopher, is that the ontological argument is valid; but this argument does not distinguish between Judaism, Christianity, Muslim, or any other religion.

Helier Robinson

(56) Jovian asked:

How would you go about describing a colour that you have never seen before?


Most English speakers do not have a large colour vocabulary and the colour words that people know are different e.g. women often know more colour words than most men do.

So trying to describe a colour in words is like trying to describe the sound of a clarinet to someone who has never heard a clarinet. It can be done but probably not accurately. If you can get a sample of the colour you can show it to people.

If you live in the U.K. then you can carry round a copy of the British Standard Paint Chart and select the colour on the chart that most closely matches the colour you want to describe. That is how architects and designers do colour matching.

Shaun Williamson

(57) Jill asked:

When Descartes stopped at the inn in Germany and searched for what it is he could truly know, how could he know he even existed, he concluded, 'I think, therefore I am.' Is there something in this that could signify that I only exist when I think?

I am certain that I am exposing my huge ignorance here. I have not studied much western philosophy at all but instead have read and worked with the teachings of Gurdjieff, and also have read some eastern teachings, primarily Taoism (Complete Reality school) and Tibetan Buddhism.

But I feel the need to sharpen up my intellect in order to become more balanced and intellectually precise so that I can more clearly delineate to myself what in me has any 'grounds.'

So my question to Descartes is: What about your body? You still have to eat and carry out other daily chores to take care of your body. Even if you have the mental discipline to always think at a high level (as opposed to moments of inner day dreaming) when you do these things, still the power of thinking does not put food in one's belly, and for each person there is a threshold of physical pain beyond which high level thinking can occur. So in those moments when you are not thinking about anything but craving food or water or relief from pain, what is it that exists? If it trumps 'thinking' then would it not be more real?

And what about your 'being'? Have you not had moments of openness to beauty and harmony that have transported you beyond thought into a state of pure existence? How do these moments of awe relate to the 'I am' of thinking?

Are these questions of any concern to any modern philosophers?


The questions you raise are not of much concern to modern philosophers — except for those who have a particular interest in the philosophical musings of Descartes. In his second Meditation, Descartes has pretty much provided the 'standard' answers.

In Meditation II, Para 8, Descartes says 'But what, then, am I? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives.'

This means that the 'I' that exists is the thing that has had moments of openness to beauty, has been transported into a state of pure existence, experiences pain, craves food or water or relief from pain, etc. By Descartes' use of the words, 'thought' and 'thinking' are inseparable from experiencing. Hence one cannot be transported beyond thought, or experience a pain beyond which thinking does not occur. To experience is to think. Descartes does not use the term to denote only 'higher level thinking' as you seem to in your question.

In Meditation II, Para 6, Descartes says 'This alone is inseparable from me. I am — I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind, understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing.'

So Descartes has considered the possibility that he exists only when he is thinking, and that he ceases to exist during those intervals when he is unconscious (not experiencing anything). Since he is here considering the possibility under the assumption that there is a god or evil demon intent on deceiving him about all that he perceives, this possibility is of no serious concern at this point. The rest of the Meditations constitute an exercise in demonstrating that the 'I' that exists also has a body, and that Descartes can trust the veracity of his 'clear and distinct' perceptions of the external world. So by the end of his Meditations, he has concluded that he does not cease to exist when he is unconscious. But to get there, he has to go through a lot of steps. More steps than I can summarize here.

If you want a 'cheat' summary of the Meditations, I have found that the SparkNotes summary is helpful. Try this site:

Stuart Burns

(58) Osamuede asked:

Because we do not experience such things as human rights, moral duties, good and evil, and justice with the 5 senses, is it possible to have an empirical theory of ethics.

Why say that? I saw that man sadistically beating him. Why isn't that a case of experiencing good and evil with the senses?

David Robjant

(59) Jill asked:

When Descartes stopped at the inn in Germany and searched for what it is he could truly know, how could he know he even existed, he concluded, 'I think, therefore I am.' Is there something in this that could signify that I only exist when I think?

I am certain that I am exposing my huge ignorance here. I have not studied much western philosophy at all but instead have read and worked with the teachings of Gurdjieff, and also have read some eastern teachings, primarily Taoism (Complete Reality school) and Tibetan Buddhism.

But I feel the need to sharpen up my intellect in order to become more balanced and intellectually precise so that I can more clearly delineate to myself what in me has any 'grounds.'

So my question to Descartes is: What about your body? You still have to eat and carry out other daily chores to take care of your body. Even if you have the mental discipline to always think at a high level (as opposed to moments of inner day dreaming) when you do these things, still the power of thinking does not put food in one's belly, and for each person there is a threshold of physical pain beyond which high level thinking can occur. So in those moments when you are not thinking about anything but craving food or water or relief from pain, what is it that exists? If it trumps 'thinking' then would it not be more real?

And what about your 'being'? Have you not had moments of openness to beauty and harmony that have transported you beyond thought into a state of pure existence? How do these moments of awe relate to the 'I am' of thinking?

Are these questions of any concern to any modern philosophers?


I am told that one exercise practised by a particular group of followers of Gurdjieff is to follow the second hand of your watch as it goes round the dial. It is surprisingly difficult to keep one's attention on the watch for more than thirty or forty seconds.

In the last chapter of his celebrated book, The Outsider Colin Wilson talks about Gurdjieff's teachings and the idea of vigilance or remembering one's own self and who you are. Somehow, this vigilance is seen as important as a solution to the problem of human existence.

I am only mentioning this because I can see a possible case for claiming that we only truly exist when we practise this vigilance, when we are totally attentive to our own being (whatever that would mean in practice). As it happens, I don't agree.

This is also not Descartes' view. It is true that Descartes is somewhat challenged to explain what it is for a soul to 'exist' through periods of unconsciousness or sleep. However, there are many times throughout an ordinary day where we are aware of many things without consciously thinking or exercising our intellects. For Descartes, 'I think' stands for any psychological property. What he is claiming is that, during periods of conscious awareness, whether we are explicitly thinking or not, we have a kind of 'incorrigible certainty' of that awareness. I cannot know I am in pain, or feel a tickle, without knowing I am in pain or knowing I feel a tickle.

There are, however, problems with Descartes' view. In the twentieth century, there were a number of philosophical movements which attempted to break out of the the narrow Cartesian 'intellectualist' view of human existence. For example, in Merleau-Ponty's The Phenomenology of Perception, you will find sophisticated arguments which attempt to readjust the balance between the mind and the body, emphasizing the role the body plays in perception and our sense of self. Another work which I consider to be of major importance is John Macmurray's Gifford lectures, 'The Form of the Personal' published as, The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation.

In the preceding century, Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation argued that the function of art is to overcome our narrow, selfish interests. In the contemplation of aesthetic beauty, we are no longer troubled by the restless will, our desires are stilled. This would be an alternative take, which seeks in some sense to downgrade the importance of the 'I'. Schopenhauer was influenced to a considerable degree by Eastern philosophy.

Geoffrey Klempner

(60) Krishna Kumar asked:

Why is the sky blue? Is it an illusion or the reality seen through our eyes? Is the sky has its own colour or not? What makes it really to appear blue?


The sky is blue because photons are scattered by our atmosphere. They are scattered at right angles to their direction of travel, and violet is scattered most, red least. There is little violet in sunlight, so the light that is scattered most when the sun is high is blue, and this blue light makes the sky appear blue. Equally, at sunrise and sunset, the sky is first yellow and then red because the light has travelled through a lot of atmosphere and had all the blue scattered out of it. Whether all this is illusion or not depends on how you use the word 'colour'. A real object, we believe, has a molecular structure that reflects electromagnetic radiation in various frequencies and when this radiation lands on our retinas it produces neural signals that we experience as sensations of colour. So if the sky is a real object reflecting electromagnetic radiation of the right frequency to produce sensations of blue, then it is really blue — in the molecular sense. But since sensations are produced by our sense organs at the earliest, and more likely in our brains, then they are all illusions, as is the empirical blue sky.

Helier Robinson

(61) Frederic asked:



The fact that Christianity survived and spread as a religion is good evidence that Jesus was a real person. In the same way we can be sure that Mohammed and the founders of other religions were real people.

However knowing accurately what sort of person Jesus was is much more difficult.

Shaun Williamson

(62) Kabura asked:

What is knowledge and how is it different from mere opinions?


The definition of knowledge that was given first by Plato in the Theaetetus (201d-210a) was:' true belief (opinion) with an account' (meta logou alethe doxan). There Plato presents three versions of the 'account': 1. speech or statement, 2. enumeration of the elements of the object of knowledge and 3. sign of difference, which distinguishes the thing in question from all the other of the same kind. However the definition in this Dialogue is proved to be insufficient. On the other hand skeptics have argued that we have no right to have true or false beliefs, since there are no reliable criteria of justification.

Apart from that, some questions may arise here concerning the difference between belief, true belief and justified true belief. Is it a matter of a reliable source of information or no? E.g. compare the sentences: 'The thief told me that he didn't steal the money' and 'I saw the thief stealing the money'. The first sentence implies 'justified true belief with an account' but involves a false statement by the thief, therefore modern epistemologists regard as more complete definition of knowledge: 'true belief with an account that does not involve any false statement'. The second sentence implies that the criterion of justification is reliable, since is based on empirical data, which means that there are some basic foundational beliefs, among them experience, that can justify other beliefs (foundationalism). On the other hand, since the criteria of justification based on experience are not always reliable (optical illusions, hallucinations etc.) coherentism argues that justification means coherence with one's other beliefs (e.g. consistency, explanation, probability etc.). Reliabilism on the other hand argues that justified belief is a result of reliable methods. For example: 'eyewitness saw the thief stealing the money and after having examined his finger prints, Police knows that he is the one').

You can read some more in:

Chisholm R. M. (1977) Theory of Knowledge

Dancy J. (1985) Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology

Goldman A. (1986) Epistemology and Cognition

Lehrer K. (1990) Theory of Knowledge

Sellars W. (1963) Science, Perception and Reality

I hope my hints are helpful.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(63) Steveo asked:

What does it mean to live an authentic life? What can it mean if we say a community or society is inauthentic and what are the relations concerning authenticity between the two: the individual and society?



Authenticity understood in its Sartrean sense means to recognise that one is free. Freedom entails the burden of making choices and being aware that all one's actions follow from making choices. Not to recognise this freedom and choice, is to choose to live in bad faith — or inauthenticity.

In Heidegger's sense, inauthenticity is to recoil from the realisation that one lives a unique life before a unique death that is mine: in the face of this death my decision what to do with my life becomes focussed. Opting to ignore this, I can lose myself in 'theyness' of mass society with its trivial, superficial concerns as decided by others. Thereby I become inauthentic.


To say a society is inauthentic obviously implies it can be authentic. Early Heidegger emphasis on authenticity [Being and Time] can be read as calling 1930's Germany to 'wake up' [become authentic?]. This coincided with his support for the National Socialists. After World War Two, seeing the Nazi period as the continuation of the homelessness of Being, Heidegger held that Germany ought to recognise its destiny as a philosophical nation in the vanguard of Being. It should go beyond of the domination of planetary technology — manifested in the USSR and the USA — to heed the call of Being. [Der Spiegel interview 1976]

Sartre said that when France was occupied by National Socialist militarism during WW2, the people were at their most free. Their freedom posed the dilemma of opting to resist or to collaborate. The choice was before them. Hiding in the excuse of having no choice was of course, to live in Bad Faith by ignoring such freedom.

Individual and Society

To say that a society can be authentic raises the philosophical issue of whether society is more than the sum of its parts. For Hegelian inspired philosopher's like Giovanni Gentile, it is. The Fascist state presupposes and transcends individuals. To be authentic here, would be to recognise and act as the state commands. Is this authenticity or conformity? The state or leading individuals will decide what is 'authentic' — be it national destiny, ethnic uniqueness, cultural purity, the new socialist human being — and politically impose it on others. Isn't this contrary to the element of choice upon which existentialism operates?

Can existentialism apply to individuals alone or to a society as a whole? If it applies to society as a whole, [if society can be a whole] this will curtail the freedom of individuals — freedom intrinsic to existentialism. Or equally, it will highlight the freedom before the individual to resist or conform.

Martin Jenkins

(64) India asked:

I am doing A-Level philosophy and at the moment we are studying persons. I have been given this essay question for homework — 'Explain one argument for and one argument against the view that the essential feature of personhood is rationality.' I have no idea what to do, and was wondering if you could help me. I would be grateful for any help you could offer.


We have this word 'person' that supposedly picks out a certain set of things from the world. The question is just what things does it pick out, and what is/are the criteria we use to segregate 'persons' from things that are not 'persons'.

There is a lot of discussion of these questions in philosophical circles. And the issues are germane to modern political and judicial debates as well. Consider the Abortion debate, for example. One can characterize the debate as a disagreement over whether the foetus is to be classed as a 'person'. And there are plenty of laws that are framed so as to apply to 'persons', without defining just what that term means. All of these debates turn on just what criteria are to be used to pick out 'persons'. Who/what gets included, and who/what gets excluded?

The one criteria that you mention as part of your problem essay question is the criterion of rationality. By this criterion, a 'person' is whatever is rational. And if a thing (like a foetus, say) is not rational, it is not to be classed as a person.

The main argument in favour of this criterion is historical. Ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle, efforts to characterize just what constitutes a 'Man' (in the generic sense, let's not get sexist) has focussed on the apparent fact that Man, alone of all the kinds of thing on this Earth, is rational. Hence, all through philosophical history 'Man' has been considered 'the rational animal'. And a 'person' for all ethical and judicial purposes was a 'man'. Rationality, whether actual or potential, has for most of history been regarded as the distinguishing characteristic of Man — the characteristic that separates 'Man' from the other life forms we encounter. Up until the last hundred years or so, there really hasn't been any better criterion for separating what we should call 'Man' from, say a chimpanzee or a dolphin or Lassie (or various forms of 'sub-humans' which, from time to time, it has been socially expedient to recognize).

After all, it is by use of our rationality that we 'persons' have come to dominate the landscape. We do not have the teeth and claws of a lion or shark. We do not have the fleetness of foot of a gazelle or a cheetah. We can't climb trees like a chimpanzee, or fly like an eagle or bat. We aren't as prolific as a dandelion, or as tough as an oak tree. The only quality we have that has allowed us to succeed as well as we have, is our minds and our ability to think creatively. If we should encounter another form of life out there 'where no one has gone before', we have every expectation that the most prolific life form we meet will be the most intelligent one. (We ignore, of course, the 'invisible' single-celled bacteria and viruses.) So picking out 'rationality' as our 'most distinguishing characteristic' does have some appeal.

On the other hand, 'rationality' as a distinguishing feature does have its difficulties. Foremost among them is the problem of defining just what 'rational' means in a way that is not circular. (We can't just say that 'rational' is what Man is, because we have defined 'Man' as the rational animal.) It turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to provide a definition of just exactly what we mean by 'rational' that does not raise more questions than it answers. And to decide just how to apply that definition to establishing the boundary of what we will accept as 'persons'.

Depending on how we delimit 'rational' we might have to include as 'persons' the chimpanzee and dolphin, or exclude the seriously retarded or demented. If we mean 'actually rational' then we might exclude as 'persons' both the recently born and the Alzheimer's patient. If we mean 'potentially rational' then we would have to include both the zygote and the coma patient.

Throughout history, the criterion of 'rationality' has been used to exclude from 'personhood' all sorts of things that we would today find quite politically incorrect. As but one example, European whites once considered the African black man as not qualifying as 'persons' because they obviously were not rational. Later, that was modified slightly to classify them as 'sub-persons' because they were not as rational as the rest of 'us'. Today, we recognize that this segregation is unacceptable. But why is it unacceptable? How have we modified the notion of 'rationality' to make it unacceptable? Do we really understand what we mean by 'rational'? All we have really done is transform the problem of identifying 'persons' into the problem of identifying 'rational'.

Today, we recognize that there has to be a better foundation to the segregation of 'persons' from non-persons. Although there is still plenty of debate over just what that foundation ought to be, it is generally acknowledged that 'rationality' is not the answer.

Stuart Burns

(65) Naomi asked:

Does diversity of opinions make the search for truth pointless?

What is an opinion?

Does one need the concept of truth in daily life?


The following argument goes back to Plato's dialogue Theaetetus.

Suppose you get ill and you go to a doctor. The doctor diagnoses your illness and prescribes a course of medication. Are you concerned whether or not the doctor's diagnosis is correct? Do you care about the doctor's competence to treat your illness? Would you rather go to someone you knew was a quack? why? or why not?

Let's develop this a little. It is generally accepted in medicine that medical diagnosis is fallible. There are many potential causes of the diseases and disabilities that human beings suffer from. When a condition is difficult to diagnose, or when the treatment is ineffective, one is advised to 'seek a second opinion'. The second opinion is fallible, like the first. But the assumption seems to be that if the two doctors agree, there is greater chance that they are right.

This isn't about how far we should put our faith in doctors. The point is simply that in your quest for treatment you are very much concerned with matters of truth. You want the correct treatment. You are far more likely to receive it if the beliefs that your doctor has formed on the basis of his or her examination are true.

That is just one practical illustration of what we mean by 'truth in daily life'.

Geoffrey Klempner

(66) Kevin asked:

If art is imitation, is Photography superior as an art form to painting? Is sculpture superior to photography, because sculpture is 3D?


Philosophers seem to be unable to agree on the nature of art; but of all the aesthetic theories the 'art is imitation' is the weakest. If art really were nothing but imitation then your hierarchy would be true. But art is also communication of feeling (for example) and as such much more than imitation.

Helier Robinson

(67) Lucy asked:

What are the core branches of philosophy? what is epistemology, scepticism, empiricism, and rationalism? what is the background of Descartes?


This addresses the first part of your question:

The main branches of analytical philosophy (the branch dominant in the UK and US) are:

Logic: The analysis of the validity of arguments, independent of the truth or otherwise of the premises. Thus for example from Lewis Carroll

All Toves are Slithy,
Boggle is a tove,
Therefore Boggle is Slithy.

is an example of a valid argument (called the syllogism), even though the premises are meaningless, the argument is a valid one. Understanding logic is a prerequisite to the philosophy of language, although it is not clear as was previously thought by philosophers such as Frege and Russell that language can be reduced to logic. It also plays a major part in the philosophy of mathematics.

Epistemology: the study of knowledge and how our beliefs are justified it covers three main areas. Justification of knowledge in general terms, Perception which leads to the philosophy of mind and attempts to refute scepticism which is the view that knowledge is not possible and raises such issues as to whether or not we are just brains in a vat.

Metaphysics: This deals with such questions as whether or not universals (eg beauty, justice) have an existence independently of particular instances of them. The nature of space and time. The persistence or otherwise of things in time and whether or not complex objects such as human beings can be explained by more fundamental things (eg their genes) this is called ontology.

Methodology: This is concerned mainly with the philosophy of science and covers such issues as the demarcation between science and other branches of knowledge (eg the difference between astronomy and astrology). Whether or not we can generalise from experience and issues such as reductionism. Particular branches of science such as physics especially Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum physics raise interesting philosophical issues to do with the nature of space and time and whether or not electrons are real.

Ethics: Ethics is the study of whether or not people can be motivated to behave in certain ways, which are good for society as a whole even though it might go against their own interest, unlike religion, it tries to answer these questions without regard to the notion of God or tradition. It leads naturally to political philosophy.

Finally rationalism is the viewpoint that the world around us can be explained by rational deduction from a few basic principles independently of sense experience. Key rationalists are Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. It is contrasted with empiricism which is the view point that we have to start from our sense experience and anything which we or other people cannot directly perceive we cannot say anything about. Key empiricists are Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Kant tried to synthesise the two viewpoints, but whether or not he succeeded is an open question.

The best overview of philosophy and all its branches is given by:

A C Grayling Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject Volumes 1 and 2 London University press.

Bertrand Russell's little book The problems of philosophy is also worth looking at.

Christopher Finlay

(68) Craig asked:

Starting with doubt prove that 'I' exist.


You can doubt the existence of everything you perceive, since it might all be illusion. But you cannot doubt your own existence, since you have to exist in order to doubt.

Helier Robinson

(69) Kalvin asked:

I would like to know how you manage to state Christianity as a religion, while you base evolution as fact and adopt it as 'life'? Surely with such complex life, and even the thought of DNA, there must be a creator, designer, God.!

Evolution is based upon false assumptions that haven't really been explained. No one! has ever observed any form of evolution, though people are able to mutate species with certain chemicals, this doesn't change what they are! If you managed to produce a fly with 5 legs and 8 wings, does that change is into a complete new species, or does it stay a fly, with, 'unique' qualities.


I will try to answer your questions as best I can although, as far as I can see, you are just repeating the standard ignorant creationists views, so you probably already have a closed mind about these things.

Christianity is a religion because Christians themselves say that it is. Christian churches get tax exemptions because they are a religion. I have never heard a Christian say that Christianity is a science and not a religion. Evolution is not an alternative to Christianity, it is a scientific theory not a religious belief. The Bible isn't a scientific textbook so stop looking for scientific truths in it.

'Evolution By Natural Selection' is a scientific theory and like all scientific theories there is very good evidence for it. Science has been very successful. Scientific theories have given us electricity, computers, antibiotics, the knowledge of our own DNA and how it works. Science has enabled us to send men to the moon. Like most people you use computers, electricity and the internet. So you accept the knowledge and benefits that science has brought us.

Evolution is a well established scientific theory and it is not 'based on false assumptions that have not been fully explained', so stop telling lies. If you had really studied evolution, you would know that your claims are nonsense. Like all scientific theories Evolution is based on all the facts that we see around us all the time. Anyone who wishes to disprove the theory of evolution can do so by finding evidence that shows that it is not true but they would also need to come up with a better theory that fits the facts. Creationism doesn't fit any of the facts, it doesn't explain any of the facts and there is no evidence that creationism is true.

Scientists have always been very critical of each others theories so if the theory of evolution was a weak theory, we would soon know about it. Creationists beliefs also contradict the laws of Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Astronomy. So you cannot be a true creationist without rejecting all of science.

You claim that because no one has seen the evolution of a new species that we can't know that it happens, this is nonsense. Physics teaches us that light consists of particles called photons. No one has ever seen a photon, no one ever will but they still exist. You have never seen God have you? However you still believe in him. You didn't see God create the world but you still believe this is what happened, don't you?

The vast majority of Christians have no problems with evolution. The largest Christian churches leave their members free to believe in evolution if they want to. It is only a small number of fundamentalist Christians who claim that the Bible contradicts evolution. Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalian and Orthodox Christians are all free to believe in evolution. Creationism isn't Christianity, it is a simple minded perversion of the true Christian message.

I would suggest that you do not understand science and you need to understand it before you start to criticise it. Talk about flies with extra legs etc. just shows your ignorance of what the theory of evolution is about. Also stop pretending that your brand of Christianity is the only valid form of Christian belief, it isn't. The preachers who preach creationist views know nothing about the science of evolution. They don't know much about the Bible either. They are false prophets, don't listen to them.

I can't in a short answer teach you what science is, you have to open your mind and open your eyes and you must do that yourself. If you want to know what God's world is like then study it. That is what scientists do. That is what evolutionary scientists have always done.

Shaun Williamson

(70) Kellie asked:

How do I know that I am the same person today as I was yesterday?

How do I know that this is me in this photo?


You evidently do know that you are the same person today as you were yesterday, or you couldn't pose the question (same as who was yesterday?). How you know that you are the same person, I couldn't say. Perhaps, in a large range of normal cases there is no mechanism or ground. You just know.

The photo case I think may be different in all kinds of ways. After all, someone may have difficulty identifying their notion of themselves with the face in the mirror, never mind in a photo, while having no problem about remaining the same as themselves in their own mixed way from moment to moment and day.

David Robjant

(71) Phil asked:

'There is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised,' says Descartes. What are the reasons for this conclusion? What roles does such doubt play in his philosophical system?


Descartes was concerned about the proper basis for 'certain knowledge'. He was aware that there were many things that he though he 'knew' that were based on highly dubitable foundations. Like his Scholastic predecessors, he thought of 'knowledge' as something that was absolutely certain. Where there was no certainty, there was no knowledge. So in an effort to establish a properly certain foundation for knowledge, he proposed to systematically examine all of his beliefs, and reject as 'knowledge' any of which he could find that were not certain.

To do this, he adopted what has come to be called 'methodological doubt'. He examined the basis for entire classes of beliefs, and recognized in each case, that there was some reason to doubt the certainty of the basis. For example, any of the beliefs he formed on the basis of his sensory perceptions could be doubted because sensory perceptions can be fooled. If some sensory perceptions can be fooled, then any given sensory perception might be the result of being fooled. Hence none of his beliefs based on his sensory perceptions could be relied upon as absolutely certain. This process he carried on for any number of classes of beliefs. Until, at the end of his meditation (Meditation I, actually), he reaches the conclusion that you quote above.

His 'methodological doubt' plays a very critical role in Descartes philosophy. As I mentioned, Descartes considers that the honorific of 'knowledge' is reserved only for those beliefs that are certain — i.e. indubitable. Hence, if there is any reason to doubt the basis for any given belief, that belief cannot qualify as 'knowledge'. And it is knowledge that Descartes is seeking.

He wants to demonstrate that most of the things we think we know, we do in fact know in this strong sense of certainty. To do that, he needs to start at the beginning, with clearly certain truths. And from that basis in certainty develop his beliefs in God, the External World, and all the rest of scientific knowledge. The contents of his 'Meditations on First Philosophy' is just that development. He starts with his systematic doubt, and ends with his acceptance as certain knowledge, the evidence of his senses about the external world.

His method of doubt leaves him with but a single proposition that is indubitable — proof against all forms of doubt. '[I]t must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition 'I am, I exist', is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.' [Meditation II-3] Upon this proposition, along with the 'self-evident truth'(inherited from his predecessor Scholastics) that an idea of perfection must have as a cause something of equal or greater perfection, Descartes develops his proof that God exists. With the existence of God proved, Descartes can demonstrate that an omni-benevolent God would not so create him as to be consistently fooled by his senses. Therefore, Descartes can rely on the evidence of his senses. Hence his beliefs in the outside world, and the evidence of science, qualify as certain and as 'knowledge'.

Stuart Burns

(72) Alyssa asked:

Can a determinist believe in punishment?


Certainly. If everything is determined and punishment occurs, then that punishment was determined. And if he/she either approves or disapproves of punishment, then that approval or disapproval is also determined. Ditto believing or disbelieving in punishment.

Helier Robinson

(73) Xena asked:

What is change?


Change is two relations in parallel: a duration, and a dissimilarity. If you think about it, change always requires some time, and if there is no dissimilarity over that time then there is no change.

Helier Robinson

(74) Jon asked:

I can predict with near certainty that the presidential election will not be decided by a single vote.

Therefore, my vote will make no difference to the outcome.

Therefore, why should I vote?


While it is unlikely that an election will be decided by one vote it is possible that this could happen and if it did happen then it would be your fault.

The most unsatisfactory presidential elections happen when the turnout is low e.g. the Bush/ Gore election. If turnout is low then the inevitable cheating and vote miscounting that happens in every election has a disproportionate effect and leaves people feeling bitter and cheated.

Most American presidential elections show a small percentage split between the two main parties i.e. 52 to 48 percent is common. When the turnout is high then this will still give a decisive result. If the turnout is low then this can mean that the difference in votes between the two leading candidates is only a few hundred thousand votes. This leaves the result open to undue influence by cheating or miscounting.

However the main reason why you should vote is to preserve democracy. Despite all its faults this is the only system that allows humans some way of escaping from tyranny. It is our only hope of freedom and is worth preserving.

High turnouts make the politicians more nervous, they show that the electorate is interested. So help to keep the turnout high, vote.

Shaun Williamson

(75) Mark asked:

Can you explain to me how a faith in God is any more contrary to rationality and empiricism than a faith in western society, a faith in 'freedom', a faith in money, a faith in the fruits of honest labour, and a faith in material happiness? Given that we see these faiths 'undermined' consistently in the people around us and in the news, and yet people still abide by them, I'd say the majority of 'nonreligious' people are probably no such thing. They just pray in banks rather than churches. People are primarily motivated by feeling, which always preexists thought. And in view of this fact, is it just a simple fact that we are all creatures of faith?


First question: No; I can't. I basically agree with you that we have supplanted the faiths of one symbol-system with those of another, and that we'll probably continue to do so. Be careful, though, to make a distinction between faith/belief and it's world-ordering bureaucratization, religion. Belief in gravity, for instance, would probably not constitute a religion, even though it eventually traces itself back to certain axioms, or foundational beliefs. As we've tended to define religion, (see Emile Durkheim or William James for a couple of the more popular definitions), some reference is usually made to a cosmology (study of or series of statements about the universe in its totality), and a belief in gravity wouldn't fit most of the criteria for that. Our definitions of 'religion' are themselves historically and linguistically contingent, of course, but if one wants to talk with other people, one has to make at least some concessions to a contingent and generally accepted series of symbols.

Second question: As best as we can determine, I believe so: yes. But to call that 'just a simple fact' is to make exactly the same error you're inveighing against. So, my personal dictum is that der Mensch ist das glaubende Wesen (the human is the believing being), and I believe that dictum — possibly pre-cognitively, in fairness, but also with the support of an empirical analysis of the limitations on empirical thinking. But, by my own terms, this too is a belief!! The one thing that disturbs me a little about the way you ask your questions is the certainty with which you seem to be writing. From my perspective, the logical implication of your own thinking is that your perspective — like mine and everyone else's — is largely contingent on other things and is based to some great extent on pre-cognitive belief. But if you believe your position to be true, it seems only graceful to present it a little less forcefully, a little more openly. After all, having just announced our disbelief in the traditionally held meanings of the word 'fact' (as distinct, in much scientific/philosophical discourse, from the Vienna Circle on, from 'value'), we will be most consistent with our own beliefs if we acknowledge that it may be possible, after all, that we have been in error and that 'objective facts' do present themselves to 'objective observers' in some way not yet apparent to us.

I hope that's helpful :-).

Ira Allen

(76) John asked:

I know it is an odd (old as well) question, but I would like to have your opinion on it. Is nothing, something?


You have probably been told more than once that according to logic, 'nothing' is not the name of something. If I say that there is 'nothing in the box' what I mean is not that the box contains a strange entity called 'nothing' but rather that it is not the case that there is something in the box.

However, in real life as opposed to logic, we all know perfectly well that nothing is, or can be something; and sometimes a very big something.

A hole in a bucket is the absence of something. As a result of this absence, the bucket is rendered useless because the water runs out. If the bucket is your own means of carrying water from the well, and the well is your only source of water, then your life may depend on fixing that darn hole.

In the 1994 film 'Shawshank Redemption', a hole in a cell wall hidden by a poster of film star Ursula Andress is the absence of brick and plaster, but to the prisoner Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) it represents his one and only hope of freedom.

Holes, absences, lacks are very real things.

Geoffrey Klempner

(77) Phil asked:

'I must therefore admit that the nature of this piece of wax is... perceived by the mind alone,' concludes Descartes. What does he mean by this and what are his reasons for saying it


In the process of examining the relationship between the mind that thinks and indubitably exists, and the perceptions of his senses, Descartes draws a distinction between the properties that are perceive of a thing, and the thing itself. For this exposition, he uses the example of a chunk of beeswax. 'Take, for example, this piece of wax; it is quite fresh, having been but recently taken from the beehive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, figure, size, are apparent ( to the sight ); it is hard, cold, easily handled; and sounds when struck upon with the finger.' Then he places the wax next to the fire. '[W]hat remained of the taste exhales, the smell evaporates, the color changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it grows hot, it can hardly be handled, and, although struck upon, it emits no sound.' In short, none of the perceptible properties of the wax before are the same as the perceptible properties of the wax after. But it is still the same piece of wax. So the wax itself must be none of its perceptible properties. But the only way that we perceive the wax with our senses, is by perceiving its perceptible properties — and we have just seen that those properties need not remain consistent. Hence, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, we cannot use our senses. We must use our minds. Descartes concludes 'And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.' Hence, the conclusion that you quoted in your question — the nature of the wax, as distinguished from some sensible properties of the wax at some particular instant, 'is... perceived by the mind alone'. [Meditation II-11, 12]

Descartes little 'experiment' with the wax serves two purposes. Firstly, it highlights the fact that we cannot rely on our senses as the basis of knowledge because the senses deliver contradictory information on the nature of the wax before and after melting near the fire. And secondly, that it is the power of the mind alone that can correctly 'perceive' the nature of the wax. Descartes is emphasizing the power of the mind to perceive (meaning 'reflect on' or 'attend to') its own ideas — pure reason, as distinct from the power of sensing (e.g., seeing or touching) and the power of imagination.

Note that Descartes uses the word 'perceive' in two different manners. Firstly, as what the senses do when they detect the properties of the wax. And second what the mind does when it reaches a judgement about that wax. By failing to keep this distinction clear, he often confuses his audience. As when he talks about a 'clear and distinct perception' of the wax, he is talking about the perception that his mind has of the true nature of the wax. He is not talking about anything that his sense report on the properties of the wax.

Stuart Burns

(78) Jill asked:

When Descartes stopped at the inn in Germany and searched for what it is he could truly know, how could he know he even existed, he concluded, 'I think, therefore I am.' Is there something in this that could signify that I only exist when I think?

I am certain that I am exposing my huge ignorance here. I have not studied much western philosophy at all but instead have read and worked with the teachings of Gurdjieff, and also have read some eastern teachings, primarily Taoism (Complete Reality school) and Tibetan Buddhism.

But I feel the need to sharpen up my intellect in order to become more balanced and intellectually precise so that I can more clearly delineate to myself what in me has any 'grounds.'

So my question to Descartes is: What about your body? You still have to eat and carry out other daily chores to take care of your body. Even if you have the mental discipline to always think at a high level (as opposed to moments of inner day dreaming) when you do these things, still the power of thinking does not put food in one's belly, and for each person there is a threshold of physical pain beyond which high level thinking can occur. So in those moments when you are not thinking about anything but craving food or water or relief from pain, what is it that exists? If it trumps 'thinking' then would it not be more real?

And what about your 'being'? Have you not had moments of openness to beauty and harmony that have transported you beyond thought into a state of pure existence? How do these moments of awe relate to the 'I am' of thinking?

Are these questions of any concern to any modern philosophers?


The phrase cogito ergo sum is usually translated literally as 'I think therefore I am,' but a better translation these days is 'I am conscious therefore I am.' This one point should answer all of your questions. Descartes called his method hyperbolical doubt; this is not in any way sceptical doubt, as in, for example, David Hume, but is an exercise in discovering what, if anything, cannot be doubted. The indubitable is certainly true, in other words. The conclusion of the exercise is that your own existence is indubitable, since you have to exist in order to doubt at all. Descartes also invented a deceiving demon to account for some things that seem to exist indubitably, such as all that I perceive now, saying that he might be deceived in this by the demon. This seems like a good way to begin philosophy: start with the truth. The difficulty is where to go from the fact of your own existence

Helier Robinson

(79) Alexi asked:

Is being cultured being wise?


No they are not the same. Being cultured usually means having a high level of knowledge of the arts and sciences. This might help to make you wise since all knowledge makes you less likely to hold ignorant opinions. However wisdom takes more than this.

Shaun Williamson

(80) HAWA asked:



It is hard to be thoughtful in capital letters, but I suppose you manage it. Lots of people have indeed paused to wonder 'before then what?'. The answer, which within the mathematical equations and projections of the astrophysicists makes perfect sense, is that is no before. But I am in sympathy with your incredulity here, because sometimes physicists try to present their claims and insights as if they were imaginable states of affairs. They are not. That, however, is rather the point. The universe is in fact rather different from anything we have the power to imagine.

We can imagine God, and something, and nothing, right enough. The point is that this talent may be rather more of a handicap than a help. We start with images of atoms and what not, but in the end all we end up with is maths.

Einstein rather creatively imagined a way of imagining something unimaginable, and then Bohr etc made it steadily more absurd. Then they did some experiments and found that only the most unimaginable nonsense could account for how the world in fact is.

Challenging stuff, life. Oh well.

David Robjant

(81) Issa asked:

What opinions do people hold of Conservative Christians?


I don't know about people, but I can only speak for myself, and I'm afraid I don't think much of them at all. I found the Conservative Christian 'mindset' quite alien to my way of thinking. In what follows I will try and outline the main reasons why I reject the Conservative Christian viewpoint.

Conservative Christianity wishes for the most part to elevate one single piece of literature, the Bible, to an infallible document inspired by God. This means that in any position on Ethics, for example the answer is already given. For those of us interested in philosophy the one thing that one cannot do is engage in philosophical debate with the answer already known in advance. A major of aim of philosophy is always to challenge given assumptions. Furthermore any argument should be argued on its own merits not simply because texts written thousands of years ago say this is the case.

It is true that philosophers refer to old texts, such as the dialogues of Plato, but the aim is quite different, it is not to uncritically take over one perspective, but as a starting point to develop ones own thoughts in the light of new knowledge. Indeed in the dialogues of Plato one gets the impression that the questions asked are seen as the best one can do, Socrates in his principle of elenchus was forever challenging peoples assumptions and quite often would leave questions unanswered. The dialogues on the whole seem to be entered into in a spirit of openness, quite different from the closed mindset encouraged by Conservative Christianity

It is true that some Christians in the light of 200 years of biblical criticism tend to treat the Bible as a piece of literature. However Conservative Christians regard these people as 'not true believers' and also ignore these developments. It is this closed mindedness that I find totally abhorrent. As a piece of literature the Bible has a place in Western culture. I for one find some of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament inspiring, for example the problems raised by the book of Job about the nature of suffering are really profound. Also the prophets concern for social justice, it would be a sad day if we were to lose this. However that does not mean that I have to see the Bible as the inerrant word of God, or the sole answer to all my problems. One does not have to be a Christian to find the Bible (or the bits of it that remain relevant today) inspiring. For example, even though Thomas Hardy was an atheist he was able to find inspiration from the Bible and one cannot make much of his novels if one does not have a basic familiarity with the Bible.

The question I would ask Conservative Christians, is why does the message of redemptive love as being the answer to the worlds problems, depend on whether or not we believe in the miracles of Jesus, a literal interpretation of Genesis, and so forth. Even though I am not a Conservative Christian I can still be moved by the story of the passion, I find works such as Bach's St John's and Matthew's passions moving even though I don't accept Jesus as my saviour.

I tend to find also a variance with what Conservative Christians find immoral and my own views. I do not regard for example Gay people, sex before marriage and abortion as inherently unethical. I do regard evangelical pastors who encourage their followers to pay money so that they can be prayed for, who claim that you must accept the Bible literally and who support the American gun laws as unethical. Also there tends to be a variance in political attitudes, conservative Christians on the whole vote Conservative or Republican, I vote Labour and wish to see a Democratic president. I also think that it is dangerous for politicians to claim that their policies (such as the invasion of Iraq) have been inspired by God. If I do something kind, I do it because I believe on the whole that the world is a better place for compassion and kindness, not because I will be rewarded in heaven. Generally speaking Conservative Christians look to individuals shortcomings and tend not to see that many of society's problems require a political solution.

Finally Conservative Christians generally argue that those who don't share their mindset must be living unfulfilled lives. I reject this arrogance as completely untenable. For me the study of philosophy, science and the arts provides much more satisfaction, than accepting the dogmas associated with Conservative Christianity. For rational thought I can look at the analysis of such problems as the nature of knowledge, how we use language, and so forth. For a convincing picture of how the universe developed I can look at modern cosmology or Darwin's theory of evolution without the need to bring in God. For dealing with ethical dilemmas, I can look at what other philosophers, playwrights and novelists have written and use their insights to help me make my own mind up. Finally for a source of awe and wonder equal to that of any religious experience, I can tap into the arts, especially music or be inspired by nature. All this is enough to enable me and others to live a full and rewarding life without embracing the rather limited perspective of Conservative Christianity.

Christopher Finlay

(82) Phil asked:

What is Descartes argument for the existence of god, and what role does it play in his philosophical system?


Descartes needs to prove that an omni-benevolent God exists in order to defuse the sceptical threat of his deceiving demon. Descartes invokes his 'Method of Doubt' in order to find a certain basis for knowledge. As part of this approach, he posits an 'evil demon' intent on deceiving him at every turn. He supposes that this demon can fool his senses about what is 'out there' to be perceived, and can fool his memory about what he remembers. But the demon cannot mess with Descartes powers of reasoning — his ability to think.

Faced with such a sceptical challenge, Descartes is in the position of a 'Brain in a Vat'. There is no way he can justify accepting the evidence of his sense that there is an external world out there. His only means of escape from this sceptical dead-end is to posit that a benevolent God would not create him in this situation, or allow him to be so systematically deceived about what his senses report to him. So to defeat the deceiving demon, Descartes must prove that God exists.

But, given where he has started, Descartes is left no choice but to prove with certainty that God exists with no more resources than the certain knowledge that the deceiving demon leaves him.

Using his Method of Doubt Descartes systematically examines all his beliefs and sets aside those which he could call into doubt. He finds only one belief which he can not doubt — 'this proposition 'I am, I exist', is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.' [Meditation II-3] — the deceiving demon cannot deceive him into thinking that he does not exist when in fact he does exist. In his effort to demonstrate that God exists, therefore, he can draw upon nothing beyond the thoughts ('ideas') that he thinks.

With this limited foundation, then, Descartes begins his proof by establishing some classification schemes for his ideas. He observes that his thoughts, his ideas, when considered only as ideas, fall into three different classes. 'But among these ideas, some appear to me to be innate, others adventitious [that is to be caused by things outside of me], and others to be made by myself (factitious);' Although he, at this point admits that he has 'not yet clearly discovered their true origin'.

Descartes next establishes the distinction between 'objective reality' and 'formal reality'. 'Having more objective reality' means: '...participation by representation in a higher degree of being or perfection.' According to the Scholastic distinction, the 'formal' reality of anything is its own intrinsic reality, while the 'objective' reality is a function of its representational content.

Descartes originally posits the concept of objective and formal reality as a way to explain the difference between an object in the real world, and the idea of that object in our minds. But at this point in his reasoning, he applies the classification only to the ideas of his mind. According to Descartes, the amount of objective reality an idea has is determined solely on the basis of the amount of formal reality contained in the thing being represented. 'Formal reality' is simply the reality that something possesses in virtue of existing. Formal reality is what he takes to be the cause of his ideas, while the ideas in themselves represent objective reality.

Descartes then applies his classification scheme of ideas to his notion of 'substance'. Since he believed that modes of substances (properties) were accidental modes of the underlying substance, he argued that the underlying substance has more 'objective reality' than the modes. His reasoning is that the underlying substance itself must be 'more perfect' than could be any variations of that substance that are the modes we observe.

The next step in his argument is the critical one. It is his premise that 'Now, it is manifest by the natural light that there must at least be as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in its effect;' and 'it is not less repugnant that the more perfect should be an effect of, and dependence on the less perfect' This is the key premise of an 'argument from design'. Having classified the three categories of ideas according to his notion of 'perfection', he then maintains that the cause (the formal reality) of some level of perfection must be equal to or greater in perfection than the idea that is the effect (the objective reality).

Descartes argues that any thing that is the effect of another thing may contain in it only the qualities (modes) expressed in the cause. He uses the example of a stone. The idea of something like the stone, cannot exist clearly and distinctly in one's mind unless it was put there by a cause which contains at least as much formal reality as the objective reality of the idea.

Having thus set the necessary groundwork, Descartes then establishes his 'Proof' of the existence of God. He starts with the premise that he has an idea of absolute perfection — an idea of God. This idea, being an idea of his mind, has an objective reality. By his definition of objective and formal reality, he can conclude that whatever the cause of this idea of his, it must have at least as much formal reality as it does objective reality. Since his idea is that of absolute perfection, then the cause of the idea must also possess absolute perfection.

This idea of a perfect God cannot have an adventitious cause, since it has already been demonstrated through his method of doubt that the senses are flawed and hence imperfect. Nor can this idea have a factitious cause (be made by himself), since it has already been demonstrated that he can be fooled by his evil demon, so that he, himself, must be considered flawed and imperfect. Therefore, his idea of God must be innate. But an innate idea of absolute perfection must be the effect of a cause that has at least as much formal reality. Descartes reasons that the only way that he could come by this innate idea of his of an absolute perfection, is if something of equal or greater perfection caused the idea in him. Therefore God must exist.

Now, with the existence of God a certainty beyond challenge by the deceiving demon, Descartes can proceed to argue that the benevolence of God would preclude the existence of a deceiving demon. And with that demonstrated, Descartes can once more rely on his 'clear and distinct' perceptions about the external world.

Stuart Burns

(83) Krishna Kumar asked:

Why is the sky blue? Is it an illusion or the reality seen through our eyes? Is the sky has its own colour or not? What makes it really to appear blue?


I once saw a University of London philosophy examination question, which said, simply, 'The sky.'

The question was an invitation to reflect on any of a number of philosophical questions that one might raise concerning the idea that there is something called 'the sky'. Your question about colour could be seen legitimately as one of those questions.

First, there is a relatively straightforward physical explanation why the sky appears blue. The explanation is essentially the same as the explanation of why sunsets — or indeed the sun — appear yellow.

If you shine a torch through a bottle of milk, the torch will appear brownish yellow, as you look at it through the milk. If you look at the milk from the side, however, it will have a bluish hue. This is an effect of the differential scattering of light of different wavelengths. The shorter the wavelength of light, the greater the scattering. The earth's atmosphere behaves in a similar way in relation to the light rays coming from the sun as milk in relation to torchlight.

However, there remains a philosophical question concerning what exactly we are looking at, when we look up at a blue sky.

Even though the light in the daytime sky comes from the sun, we are not looking at the sun (otherwise, we would have to say that we are 'looking at the sun' whenever we look at any object illuminated by daylight).

If you accept there is 'nothing above us' as John Lennon sang (apart from outer space and the stars and galaxies that make up the universe) we are not looking at outer space when we look up at a blue sky. The only things we can see beyond the earth's atmosphere during daytime are the Sun and Moon, and occasionally, the planet Venus. We can't see through the earth's atmosphere to outer space.

Are we just looking at the earth's atmosphere when we look up at the daytime sky? That's a rather strange conclusion, if you think about it. Suppose I am lost in a thick fog. Would you say that I am 'looking at' the fog, or attempting, and failing, to 'look through' it?

I am therefore drawn to the conclusion that the term, 'blue sky' is an illusion twice over. There is nothing that the term 'blue sky' refers to other than the obscuring effect of the earth's atmosphere that the observer attempts but fails to look through (even though they would deny that this is what they are doing). Added to that effect is a blue colour which in no way corresponds to the 'colour' of the atmosphere itself.

Geoffrey Klempner

(84) Josh asked:

How can one discover the origins of Karl Marx's thinking and reasoning vitality?


Radical Democrat

After leaving Berlin University, Marx was a radical Young Hegelian. Writing in the Rheinishe Zeitung, he advocated universal franchise, radical democracy and dismissed the possibility of Communism. He is at this time, influenced by the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Jacobin period of the French Revolution and Reason underpinning the State entailing the democratic participation of Citizens. In 1843, he wrote the 'Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right'. Here, Marx stops regarding the state as impartial and above classes.


Moving to Paris the same year, Marx, with others, published the Deutsch Franzosische Jarbucher. He wrote two articles 'On the Jewish Question' and 'Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right'. The former article argues that a political revolution is inadequate to truly emancipate human beings; for this, a social revolution is needed that negates Religion. Here is the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach [who argued against Hegelian Idealism substituting materialism and political/social problems that arose from Humanities alienation from its essence which, had been transferred into God]. In the latter essay, Marx writes that Germany is ripe for such a revolution. The proletariat -industrial working class — is the revolutionary class. In emancipating itself it overcomes man's loss of himself — returning himself to himself; revolution is not just a class one, it is also a universal human one.

In 1844, Marx writes the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Marx is no longer concerned just with the ethical-humanistic imperative of overcoming alienation, he is exploring a philosophy of history — later to be Historical Materialism — , involving the proletariat, class struggle and the role of production. Alienation is now about labour — the human essence — being alienated in private capitalist property. Marx is emerging as a revolutionary Communist and an advocate of class struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. Emphasis is removed from Ideas, philosophical debates — a dialectic of dialogue — to a material dialectic of class struggle. In the same year, The German Ideology is written with the first definitive account of Historical Materialism. Contrary to German Idealism whether of Max Stirner or 'The Free' [Max and Bruno Bauer], thought is not 'pure' but tainted by and explained in relation to material conditions. Material conditions are in turn, explicable by the actions of the Productive Forces and the interaction of Social-Productive relations or, class struggle.

Some Marxist philosophers such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Negri dismiss Marx's early 'humanistic' writings. According to them, the later Marx became 'scientific' concerned with social structures such as the dynamic of capital and not overcoming alienation and other such Hegelian/ Feuerbachian fictions.

The best introduction to the origins of Marx's thought is in The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos.

Martin Jenkins

(85) Barbara asked:

What is the difference between appearance and reality?


Reality is usually defined as all that exists regardless of whether it is perceived or not. Appearance is all that we perceive around us. These are not the same because much of what we perceive is illusory and illusions exist only for as long as they are perceived and so are unreal. For example, visual space is illusory because it diminishes with distance, in all three dimensions. Imagine, for example, a straight road lined with equally spaced telephone poles; in the distance the poles get shorter, closer together, and the road gets narrower; if you were to walk down such a road with a tape measure you would discover that all three of these diminishings are illusory. Again, sensations are illusory: all visible colours are sensations manufactured in the brain as a result of various frequencies of electromagnetic radiation entering our eyes; so are tactile sensations such as various degrees of hot and cold, hard and soft, and rough and smooth. Since everything you perceive is made up of sensations it is difficult to know how much of reality you actually perceive. Another definition of reality, usually assumed to be equivalent to the first (but not so in my opinion), is that reality is all that we perceive around us (everything empirical, in other words) that is not illusory. To discover this requires the main criterion of empirical science: it is everything empirical that is potentially, universally, public. You may like to look at my book 'Belief Shock' available free from for more on this subject.

Helier Robinson

(86) Mike asked:

Is it better to be infamous than to be a nobody?


It depends on what you mean by 'better.' From a moral point of view it is better to be a nobody, since the infamous are immoral. From a point of view of vanity it is better to be infamous, since being a nobody is painful to vanity.

Helier Robinson

(87) Rodrigue asked:

Could a scientist give an adequate account of the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus from death


Yes he could. He could say that it's only a story and we don't really know if it is true of false. Maybe Lazarus wasn't really dead but only unconscious etc.

Even if Lazarus was really dead that doesn't mean there isn't a scientific explanation for what happened. Science doesn't have an explanation for everything but it is always looking for explanations. Saying that it was a miracle isn't really an explanation either.

Modern science can stop someone's heart for hours at a time and start it again in the operating theatre. We don't call that a miracle. Perhaps we should.

Shaun Williamson

(88) Phil asked:

Outline Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities. What arguments does he give to support the distinction?


'Ideas of primary qualities are resemblances; of secondary, not. From whence I think it easy to draw this observation, — that the ideas of primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves, but the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our ideas, existing in the bodies themselves. They are, in the bodies we denominate from them, only a power to produce those sensations in us: and what is sweet, blue, or warm in idea, is but the certain bulk, figure, and motion of the insensible parts, in the bodies themselves, which we call so.' [John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, viii, 15]

To understand what Locke means by this claim, we must go back a bit, and start with what Locke understands by 'qualities'. And to do that, we must understand the background of his Essay. One of the primary purposes of his Essay was to provide a sound philosophical foundation for the 'Corpuscular Hypothesis' of Boyle. In Locke's judgement, the then new mechanistic/ corpuscularian (atomic) physics was the best science available. This was in specific contrast with the then traditional Scholastic notions of the teleology of Aristotelean 'formal' and 'final' causes. The new mechanistic view of physics meant that the cause of all change was to be found in the basic properties of the fundamental properties of the 'atoms' that constituted all things material.

Locke further maintained that we have privileged access to our internal mental environment. We have access to the external environment only through the ideas that are caused in our minds by that external environment. The things we think normally of as 'qualities' of things, Locke maintained are actually ideas in our minds. Those ideas are caused by things in the external environment. So for Locke, ideas are the primary existents of our mental worlds. 'Qualities' are not what we think they are.

'Whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding, that I call idea; and the power to produce any idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein that power is. Thus a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round, — the power to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball, I call qualities; and as they are sensations or perceptions in our understandings, I call them ideas; which ideas, if I speak of sometimes as in the things themselves, I would be understood to mean those qualities in the objects which produce them in us.' [Essay II, viii, 8 — my emphasis]

Locke here draws a clear distinction between the ideas that we have of the nature of things, and the powers that are in the things that are the causes of the ideas that we have. The former — the ideas of the nature of things — are what we are used to calling 'qualities.' The latter — the causes of those ideas — are the powers of those things to cause the ideas in our minds. For Locke's chosen terminology, the actual or real 'qualities' of things are the causes of those ideas in our minds — the powers in the objects, not the ideas themselves.

Although Locke here also warns the reader that he will 'sometimes' (although in fact he does this more often than not) speak about qualities as if these were the ideas in our minds. When he does so, he wants the reader to understand that he really means the powers in the objects to cause the relevant ideas in our minds.

'[M]ost of the simple ideas that make up our complex ideas of substances, when truly considered, are only powers, however we are apt to take them for positive qualities; v.g. the greatest part of the ideas that make our complex idea of gold are yellowness, great weight, ductility, fusibility, and solubility in aqua regia, &c., all united together in an unknown substratum: all which ideas are nothing else but so many relations to other substances; and are not really in the gold, considered barely in itself, though they depend on those real and primary qualities of its internal constitution, whereby it has a fitness differently to operate, and be operated on by several other substances.' [Essay II, xxiii, 37]

To Locke, then, 'qualities' are powers in objects to cause ideas our minds. And Locke divides these 'powers' in three different categories: (i) Primary powers or Primary Qualities consist of those powers of things to cause certain sorts of ideas in minds such as ours. He lists them as: shape (figure), size (extension), position, number, mobility (motion or rest), solidity, and texture. (ii) Secondary powers or Secondary Qualities are powers, resulting from the primary qualities of their corpuscular constituents, to cause certain sorts of ideas in minds such as ours. He lists them as 'all other qualities of things' such as sounds, colours, tastes, smells, etc. (iii) Tertiary powers (Locke does not speak of them as Qualities) are powers, resulting from the primary qualities of their corpuscular constituents, to cause certain sorts of changes in other things.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities is meant by Locke to be a distinction between different kinds of powers. Not, as is sometimes attributed to him, a distinction between powers and qualities or relations and qualities.

So, given this understanding of what Locke means by a 'quality', what does he mean by 'Ideas of primary qualities are resemblances; of secondary, not'? To understand this, we must recognize that Locke maintains a causal theory of perception, not a representational one as is usually attributed to him. Locke is quite clear that it is the powers in things that cause ideas in minds. It is the real qualities of things that cause the ideas of qualities in our minds.

Consider this candidate representation of Locke's causal theory of perception:

(L1) S perceives that O is Q if and only if

(i) O is Q; and

(ii) O has the power to cause (in the normal way) an idea of Q in S.

The key to Locke's Primary/ Secondary distinction is the criterion (i). Because Locke adheres to Boyle's Corpuscular Hypothesis, he maintains that in some cases (the cases of Primary Qualities), O is in fact Q. But in other cases (the cases of the Secondary Qualities), O is not in fact Q. We can therefore see that in the case of Primary Qualities, when S has the idea that O is Q, and O is in fact Q, then the idea resembles the facts of the matter. But in the case of Secondary Qualities, when S has the idea that O is Q, and O is not in fact Q, then the idea does not resemble the facts of the matter. The words we use to describe the causes will in some cases (the Primary Qualities) resemble the words we use to describe the ideas. In other cases (the Secondary Qualities), the words we use to describe the causes do not resemble the words we use to describe the idea.

Basing his analysis on the Corpuscular Hypothesis of Boyle, those qualities that Locke classifies as Primary, are those that he argues are the fundamental properties of the atoms or corpuscles that make up the things we perceive — those are the cases where O is in fact Q. Secondary qualities are those that he argues are not properties of the corpuscles themselves, but are caused in us by various configurations and motions of those corpuscles. Hence, the snowball is round because the configuration of the corpuscles is round. But the snowball is cold because the motion of the corpuscles is slow. In the case of shape, the words describing the idea resemble the words describing the configuration of corpuscles. In the case of warmth, the words describing the idea do not resemble the words describing the motion of the corpuscles.

Does Locke succeed in establishing this principle of resemblance to an acceptable extent? To a certain extent he does, of course, simply as a matter of definition. The more fundamental question is whether or not any particular quality should be classed as a Primary Quality — as being a basic property of the atoms of matter, or a Secondary Quality — as being the causal result of more basic properties of atoms. And, of course, the related question of whether, in fact, there are any qualities that should be classed in one category or another. For these questions, one can either adopt the level of science knowledge available to Locke, or one can adopt the best available science knowledge of today. On either basis, one can debate whether any given quality should be considered Primary or Secondary.

Given Locke's distinction between the idea and the power in objects to cause those ideas, and given Boyle's Corpuscular Hypothesis, it is relatively straight forward to demonstrate that Locke's causal theory of perception will inevitably set up a distinction between those cases where O is in fact Q and those cases where O is not in fact Q even when in both cases, S perceives that O is Q. And given the additional assumption that there is at least one perceived quality that is not in fact a property of the atoms that constitute the material things we perceive, then Locke's claim that ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities themselves, while ideas of secondary qualities do not, is adequately established.

Stuart Burns

(89) Estrella asked:

Which philosopher introduced philosophy to Athens?


According to the historical data, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, pupil of Anaximenes supposed to have been the philosopher who introduced philosophy to Athens, since he left Ionia and went to Athens. Among his pupils were the poet Euripides, the politician Pericles and Archelaus the teacher of Socrates. You can read more in Kirk G. S., Raven J. E. and Schofield M., (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 352-385.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(90) Danny asked:

Does Karl Popper's falsification theory show that science can progress without using induction? By progress I mean advance to a forward position.

Abey asked:

What is the difference between Positivist and Critical Realist approaches in Philosophy?

Phil asked:

How does Popper propose to demarcate science from pseudo science?


As the above three questions are closely related I hope you don't mind if I take the liberty of answering all three questions simultaneously. To begin with the last question first, Popper's main idea is that science contrary to popular belief progresses by a process of conjecture and refutation. Popper claims that it is easier to falsify a hypothesis than to verify it. A classic example being to verify the hypothesis that all swans are white, would mean the impossible task of observing every swan and checking that it is white. In contrast it only takes the observation of a single black swan to falsify the hypothesis. Thus there is an asymmetry, it is easier to disprove a hypothesis than to falsify it.

Taking a large leap, Popper claims that the aim of science should be to propose hypothesis and then devise tests which would refute those hypothesis. It has to be said that this is easier in quantitative sciences such as physics. A theory in physics can usually be applied to model a given situation. Thus for example Einstein's theory of general relativity when applied to the motion of mercury around the sun is able to predict certain anomalies, if the predicted size of the anomaly had been incorrect then according to Popper, Einstein's general theory would have been falsified. It is this ability of science to make falsifiable predictions that distinguishes it from other branches of knowledge. Somewhat controversially Popper's targets were Marxism and Freud's theory psychoanalysis Popper claims that these theories are unscientific in that the proponents tend to look at ways in which their disciplines are verified rather than being falsified. Popper also claims that they immunise themselves against falsification by adding ad hoc hypothesis as more data is bought to bear on the system.

In a masterpiece of rhetoric in his book The Open Society and it's Enemies Popper traces the roots of Marxism to Plato, via Hegel and claims it is inherently totalitarian. Of course at the time of writing in the late 1930's Popper had become disillusioned with Stalin's totalitarian regime especially after the Von Ribbentrop pact in which Stalin gave Hitler the assurance that he would not attack Germany if it were to invade Poland. In the 1980's Mrs Thatcher and free market economist's used this rhetoric to bolster monetarism and proclaimed the end of Socialism. Not for the first time has a philosopher's views have been used totally out of context. None of these economists are now proclaiming that free market capitalism has been falsified in the current crisis, which they would have to if they took Popper's ideas seriously.

Returning to the notion of falsification, Popper claims he killed off logical positivism in that positivist's claimed that you could verify science by applying a particular theory to given examples the more successfully the theory was applied, then the more the theory was verified. Popper's falsification hypothesis is diametrically opposed to this. Popper put forward the view known as critical realism. Science can never be certain that its hypothesis are true, however as time progresses theories thought to be correct are falsified and so we can say that the present theories of science are approximations to the truth. As time progresses we can build up a better picture of the 'truth'.

Yet as O'Hear points out in his introduction to the philosophy of science this does not do justice to the way in which science is used in every day life. Old theories such as Newtonian physics are still used to design bridges and solve problems associated with mechanical engineering. This despite the fact on a strict Popperian basis it has been falsified by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum physics, as it breaks down for large velocities and small length scales. Popper is unable to do justice to what Kuhn calls 'Normal science'. In my opinion it would be more accurate to say that the limits of Newtonian physics have been found, but inside its domain of applicability, (essentially speeds up to about 10% of that of light and lengths of about 10-5 m) it is perfectly appropriate to use Newtonian physics. Indeed given that this is what happen's in practice, it is not clear whether or not the notion of Newtonian physics as an approximation to relativity or quantum physics is a useful one. It is a moot question whether or not for example current theories of particle physics will have any impact on every day life as the energies at which the exotic particles manifest themselves are usually so out of reach of every day life, that it requires big accelerators such as the Large Hadron collider to create the particles. A modern day positivist such as Van Fraassen would claim that the aim of science is to discover which theories are empirically adequate and the limits of applicability of those theories. It makes no claim as to the 'truth' of these theories for example as to whether or not the concept of an electric field or a quantum wave function has an ontological significance.

Critical realists (who tend to be philosophers of science, rather than practising scientists) on the whole find the above viewpoint unsatisfactory. The view outlined above is called constructive empiricism, and critical realists like to see themselves as defending the view that science aims at discovering the truth about nature. For them the success of science is inexplicable, if the abstract concepts it uses do not correspond to something out there, resting content with empirical adequacy for them is a cop out. Whereas for example most quantum physicists on the whole are happy if they can explain a given phenomenon by seeing it as a particular application of the general formalism. Critical realists spend their time discussing whether or not the wave function of quantum physics is more than just a heuristic device for calculating the probability of certain events. The problem with this point of view is that, often there are quite different formalisms, having quite different metaphysical implications, the difference between them which is untestable. Thus for example in the current challenges to the standard view of quantum physics there are two main rivals. One is that of David Bohm who proposes that all the strange quantum effects can be explained by a non-local quantum potential. The other is that of Everrett, who claims that every time a measurement is made a parallel universe is created. Of course none of these claims can be falsified. I find it quite ironic that critical realists, because of their attachment to a form of realism, end up endorsing unfalsifiable theories quite opposed to the spirit of Popper.

In my opinion we must live with a certain degree of ontological ambiguity as far as our fundamental theories of science are concerned. The notion of empirical adequacy seems to be a safeguard on the one hand, between a totally relativist viewpoint, which would claim that science is just a social construction and that astrology or voodoo is just as valid as astrophysics, or that 'intelligent design' is just as valid as evolution, and on the other a view which sees the current status of science as having the absolute truth and leading to scientism which tries to reduce everything to the laws of physics.

Further Reading

Popper's main works are The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations His application of his ideas to political philosophy is in The Open Society and its Enemies. Van Frassen's main work is The Scientific Image. For a view of quantum mechanics totally opposed to mine see David Deutsche's 'The Fabric of Reality'

Christopher Finlay

(91) James asked:

The selfish axiom, states the all human action is in the fulfilment of the will. On this level it is impossible to escape the concept of selfishness, because the first person necessarily served is the subject himself. Is there anyway of actually proving this axiom. Many people deny the truth of this statement, through states about impulse, instinct or just mindless action. I would like to be able to settle it for my own peace of mind.


It is not true that every human being lives by the maxim, 'I do what I will.' On the contrary, relatively few would embrace Aleister Crowley's principle, 'Do what you will is the whole of the law.'

If I choose to obey a rule which this or that person has laid down — against my 'will' — then Crowley would brand this a kind of cowardice. The same holds of obeying the Bible, or some moral code, or just wanting to please others. I should only please myself. What I will is the only law, and the Bible, moral codes, the praise or censure of others be damned.

On the other hand, it is tautologous to say that if I do F willingly (that is to say, I freely intended to do F and I succeeded) then I am 'doing what I want', or 'doing what I will'. That may be true, but it is trivial. People want all sorts of things, good and bad, moral and immoral, selfish and unselfish. Whatever you want, is something you 'will' in that trivial sense.

However, we should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that when someone like Mother Theresa forms the desire to 'help the poor', her action is as 'unselfish' as it appears to be. There are many subtle and not so subtle ways in which behaviour which on the face of it is altruistic, or at least unselfish, is in reality motivated by desires which we would prefer to hide from others and also from ourselves.

This is not axiomatic. But this is a fact about human psychology. In other words, there is no logical reason (no 'axiom') why a human being should not be capable of forming a genuinely unselfish desire. However (as Kant observed) in reality it is often very difficult to discern a person's true motivation.

Geoffrey Klempner

(92) Craig asked:

Starting with 'I' prove that god exists and is not a deceiver.


I suspect that what Descartes intended in the passages you are alluding to was a good deal more subtle than you give him credit for in so presenting the headings of his argument. Think about the ways in which confidence in God's goodness is related to a sense of contentment or positive happiness in the faithful. That God is Good is a kind of translation into religious language of a special joy of living. Descartes was really talking (whether he knew it or not) about the way in which the emotional life enters into the possibility of knowledge. If you are convinced (as lots of people are, at least on occasion) that the whole world has it in for you (the mal genie) no genuine knowledge will be possible. This is particularly true when the thing to be known is that I damaged the bumper because I judged the distance wrong, not because the pillar conspired against me.

David Robjant

(93) Michelle asked:

How does philosophy influence politics?


'The Social Contract' written by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau influenced the Jacobins — particularly their leader Maximillian Robespierre — during the French Revolution of 1789. Ideas of 'Citizenship', the General Will', a 'community' as 'one and indivisible' became concrete actuality.

The works of philosopher Karl Marx [himself influenced in no small way by the philosopher Hegel] led to the creation of political Parties such as the Communist Parties. Beginning with Russia in 1917, Communist Parties implemented policies informed by Marx's writings and secondary interpretations by leaders such as Lenin. This became a historical and geographical reality in over a third of the planet and for millions of people.

Giovanni Gentile was a philosopher and committed Italian Fascist who participated in Mussolini's government. Using Hegel, he theoretically justified Fascism with the philosophy of 'Activism'. The State/ Nation was viewed as transcending and pre-supposing the individual. Fitting in with such an Idealist background, values such as Heroic Virtue were valorised over materialism and individual liberty.

Along with economists such as Milton Friedman, Frederick Hayek provided the philosophical justification for the 'New Enlightenment'. This intellectual movement applied notions of individual liberty to capitalist economic liberty and manifested itself concretely in the 'Free Market' govts of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and others. Commentators argue that the current economic crisis has falsified policies informed by the philosophy of the 'New Enlightenment'.

Martin Jenkins

(94) India asked:

I am doing A-level philosophy and at the moment we are studying persons, I have been given this essay question for homework:

'Explain one argument for and one argument against the view that the essential feature of personhood is rationality.'

I have no idea what to do, and was wondering if you could help me, I would be grateful for any help you could offer.


One argument for is that personhood — i.e. being human — is that rationality distinguishes people from all other animals. An argument against is that ethics, not rationality, distinguishes us from all other animals. Another is that humans are tool-making people. All are probably wrong, in that there is no essential feature distinguishing us from other animals, only differences of degree: other mammals, such as dolphins, show some rationality; some, such as dogs, are intensely loyal towards their masters; and some, such as chimpanzees, can use tools to some extent.

Helier Robinson

(95) Claire asked:

Whether one believes in evolutionary theory or not, there can be no doubt that there are some striking parallels between apes and human beings. If friendship is all about giving to the other, then a most interesting question can be raised: Are the parallels between apes and human beings close enough for a self-respecting person to have an ape as a very dear friend?


Many people love their dogs and even regard their dog as their best friend so I suppose you could have a friendship with an ape.

However, interesting though apes are, you can't really have a good conversation with one. They can't lend you money when you are broke. Their table manners can be embarrassing so I don't think I could ever regard one as a dear friend. I would always be happy to have an ape as an acquaintance however.

Shaun Williamson

(96) Brian asked:

What is the problem of identity through time?


The problem is more fully stated as the problem of identity and change through time, in that one identical thing cannot remain one if it changes. Identity, in philosophy, means oneness; for example, we all assume that we are each one identical person as we travel through time. Change is two relations combined: a relation of dissimilarity in parallel with a duration; for example, a change from sunshine to rain is a dissimilarity in the weather over a short duration. The problem is that one thing cannot be dissimilar to what it is: if it is dissimilar it is two, and has no identity; and if it is one then it is exactly similar to what it is. And this applies to any duration, no matter how long or short.

The ancient Greeks understood this well. Heraclitus claimed that there is no identity, only change: 'Nothing is permanent except the fact of change,' he said, and 'You cannot step into the same river twice.' Parmenides argued the opposite: 'Only the One is, all change is illusion.' Plato tried to reconcile these by having two worlds: a sensible, or Heraclitean, world, which is largely illusory (including the illusion of change) and a real, or Parmenidean, world of Forms which do not change. Leucippus and Democritus had an atomic theory: atoms do not change and thereby have identity, while arrangements of atoms can change; So things made out of atoms have both identity and change. Aristotle argued similarly: things consist of substances having attributes: substances have identity and attributes can change. However, neither of these work, as you will discover if you think about it carefully. Identity applies to a whole thing, to all of it: if a whole has identity then so does every part of it; but if a part changes, then so does the whole, in which case it no longer has identity. So the problem of identity and change through time is still with us.

Helier Robinson

(97) Issa asked:

What opinions do people hold of Conservative Christians?


What is a conservative Christian? I have never heard of this before. Do you mean a fundamentalist Christian?

I regard fundamentalist Christians as arrogant evil people who are a danger to democracy, so are Islamic fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists and Hindu fundamentalists.

We must make sure that none of these people ever gain the power to impose their intolerant views.

Shaun Williamson

(98) Michelle asked:

If an agent does something he/ she believes to be the morally correct thing to do, and the act turns out to be wrong, is that person blameworthy?

I have my opinion about it but I would like to hear some other opinions, perhaps to expand on my own ideas.


You are asking if there is a connection between the moral worth of an action and the worth of an agent (or person). The answer is 'probably no'. Imagine that a soldier in battle steps on a mine. The medic must make an immediate decision whether to amputate the leg. If the decision is wrong the soldier could lose his life; if it is 'right' the soldier (at best) loses a leg. A decision must be made now as the soldier is losing blood. The medic decides not to amputate, but it turns out that there was internal bleeding, and the soldier dies before they make it back to base. In this scenario the medic made a decision which he believed was correct, but it turns out he was wrong. We would hardly blame HIM for anything. However, it could be said that he did make the wrong decision. Thus, though his action was wrong we would not blame him. Whether he blames himself is another issue; but that is not exactly the blameworthy-ness you are talking about. The medic would probably feel 'remorse' or 'regret', however, he is morally blameless.

Eric Zwickler

(99) Bobby asked:

My question is for Helier Robinson regarding his Postmodernism reply (42/16):

What exactly is a 'non-thinker'? How can I differentiate my real thoughts from my unreal ones? I think it would be tremendously helpful if you could provide a even a short list of major non-thinkers that we all could safely ignore.


A 'non-thinker' is an insult. In my view the self-styled post-moderns insult all of traditional philosophy, and so I yielded to the temptation to insult them back. More precisely, a thinker is one who uses logic, one who is rational — as opposed to the non-thinker who is opinionated, prejudiced or irrational. However, one man's meat is another man's poison, and not everyone agrees on the rationality of other peoples' arguments. So you have to use your own judgement when it comes to discovering whom you may safely ignore. So far as learning to differentiate your real (logical) thoughts from your unreal ones, the study of philosophy is very helpful. But if you think that you have any originality then before you study other people's philosophical systems you should get a job that gives you lots of opportunity to think about problems that interest you — a job such a lighthouse keeper, or a forest-fire spotter. That way you will not clutter up your mind with other peoples' ideas; then, when you are ready, go to University to discover how well you rate relative to the greats.

Helier Robinson

(100) Stephanie asked:

What's the distinction between a necessary being and a contingent being?


A necessary being cannot not exist. Its being or actual existence is part of its essence and its essence is to be. It cannot therefore be caused by anything other to, or prior to its existence.

A contingent being relies on some other being or cause for its existence. It can not be as-well as be, in existence. The classical examples have God as a necessary being and the human being as a contingent being. The human is contingent as it depends on something else for its existence i.e., another human being or the necessary being.

Martin Jenkins

(101) Kevin asked:

If art is imitation, is Photography superior as an art form to painting? Is sculpture superior to photography, because sculpture is 3D?


If art were imitation then maybe you would be right. However art isn't imitation, it is a means of expression so there is no need to answer your original question question.

Shaun Williamson

(102) Roberto asked:

If any assertion, from the axioms of logic to Descartes' cogito to mathematical proofs, can be contradicted or denied, how can anyone make any claim whatsoever without questioning the intellect or sanity of anyone else who disagrees? In other words, I guess, how can claims to knowledge be distinguished from assertions of authority (i.e. 'I'm right because I'm better, saner, smarter, better educated, etc.)?


I think that the distinction that you are getting at here is between those assertions that qualify as knowledge and those that don't. Assertions (or more generally, propositions) that qualify as knowledge are distinguishable by their having an acceptable justification.

Unfortunately, the only way that claims to knowledge can be distinguished from other forms of assertions (whether from authority, opinion, misinformation, or mere whimsy), is to ask the source for the reasons that justify the claim.

The problem, of course, is to understand just exactly what constitutes an 'acceptable justification'. This is not an easy problem to resolve. And there is an awful lot of philosophical literature devoted to debates over the pros and cons of suggested answers.

As a matter of simple pragmatics, on a case by case basis, the only guide you have available to you is your own evaluation of the 'reasonableness' of the reasons offered as justification. None of that voluminous philosophical literature is going to help you decide whether any particular claim is 'acceptably justified'.

You'll have to make your own decisions as to whether a justifying reason of (say) 'The Bible/ Koran/ Torah/ Boss/ Teacher/ Parent/ Hero/ Friend/ Newspaper says so' qualifies as an 'acceptable justification'. The best advice is to consider the possible ramifications if the assertion is in fact not the case, and the consistency of the claim with what else you think you know. And then make your decisions accordingly.

Stuart Burns

(103) Rocky asked:

Regarding epistemology. I believe that one cannot know anything with perfect certainty. But can I make that statement with perfect certainty and defend it? Somehow I feel I can but I am not sure how to defend that statement. It seems unarguable in one respect. Being that one can never prove knowledge of anything, therefore it seems perfectly certain that all is unknowable. That leads directly to the statement that with certainty, nothing can be know except that nothing can be known. In fact, there is only one thing in the universe that can be know and that is that nothing can be known.



There is one thing that you can know with perfect certainty, and that is your own existence. You have to exist in order to believe that one cannot know anything with perfect certainty. This, of course, was what Descartes was working on when he discovered his cogito ergo sum: he was seeking certainty. Unfortunately, this is the only thing that anyone can know with perfect certainty — so this last statement may be false.

Helier Robinson

(104) Craig asked:

Starting with doubt prove that 'I' exist.


I don't know you so how can I prove that you exist and why would I want to prove such a thing unless there were some legal dispute about your existence? A question only makes sense if it has an appropriate context.

Shaun Williamson

(105) Michelle asked:

If an agent does something he/she believes to be the morally correct thing to do, and the act turns out to be wrong, is that person blameworthy?

I have my opinion about it but I would like to hear some other opinions, perhaps to expand on my own ideas.


Moral/ Ethical commendation and condemnation are normally assigned on the basis of two usually mutually supporting considerations: (i) the method used to make the moral/ethical choice; and (ii) the actual consequences of the choice.

Before the fact, one can judge the effectiveness of another's process of arriving at moral/ethical decisions. If another person does not 'properly' evaluate the alternatives available, then one can condemn their decision making process. Of course, what 'properly' means will depend on the ethical premises of the one doing the judging.

After the fact, one can judge both the decision making process that was used to make the moral/ethical decision in the first place, and the actual consequences that did ensue from the choice made. If the actual consequences that did ensue were (or should have been) 'reasonably predicable' by the person making the moral/ethical decision, then one can condemn the choice on the basis of its consequences. Of course, as before, what 'reasonably predicable' means will depend on the ethical premises of the one doing the judging. You will note, I am sure, that this is more or less the same sort of judgement as would be involved in the 'before the fact' case. And you should also note that the one doing the judging can just as easily be the agent in question, or some third party.

So, given this background, how should we answer the question you asked — 'If an agent does something he/she believes to be the morally correct thing to do, and the act turns out to be wrong, is that person blameworthy?'

First, one has to determine whether the actions turn out to be 'wrong' according to the ethical standards of the agent. You can't blame the agent for 'wrong' consequences, unless they are 'wrong' from the agent's perspective. (You can, of course, criticize the agent's ethical standards — but that is a different issue.)

Second, you have to determine whether the actual consequences could have been 'reasonably predictable' from the agent's perspective. You can't blame the agent for 'wrong' consequences if there was no way that the agent could have predicted those consequences. However, if there were conditions of knowledge that would (or should) have allowed the agent to predict the consequences, but that the agent did not possess, then you can criticize the agent for their lack of appropriate knowledge. This is a matter of interpretation, of course, and it will depend on the judge's standards of what conditions of knowledge are necessary for the consequences to be 'reasonably predictable'. Different systems of ethical premises place different degrees of emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge appropriate for predicting consequences. You could, for example, criticize the agent for their 'wilful ignorance', as long as you have some notion of what would constitute 'wilful ignorance' as opposed to merely accidental ignorance. Perhaps a few simple questions should have been asked before the choice was made? Obviously, it depends very much on the context.

If we adopt the generous assumption that the agent in question made an acceptably informed ethical decision, and the (to the agent unpredictable) consequences turned out to be 'wrong' (by the agent's standards), then you cannot hold the agent blameworthy for the decision made, or the undesirability of the consequences.

Of course, this does not prevent you, should you feel that the agent made the wrong choice, from pointing out where the agent went 'wrong' in their decision making process. (If you can't suggest where they went wrong, and merely want to tell them they went wrong, then keep your mouth shut because you have nothing to contribute.) After all, the way that we all learn to make better judgements (in any field), is to examine our mistakes and correct our decision making processes.

But keep in mind that 'Shit Happens!' Regardless of how careful we are in making well informed predictions of the probable consequences of our moral/ethical choices, sometimes reality tosses us a curve, and the unpredictable happens. You can't blame an agent for the unpredictable spit balls that life sometimes throws. Although sometimes, you can blame them for not being prepared for the unpredictable — that's what keeps insurance companies in business.

Stuart Burns

(106) Taylor asked:

What does it mean to say matter is extended and that Mind isn't? So far, as I have, Matter is accountable through location and space. Mind isn't. This is all I could understand. Also, what is the problem of interaction? Why does Descartes solution fail? I missed a question in class and can't find research on it anywhere.


Mind and Body

According to Descartes in 'Meditations On the First Philosophy', Matter occupies or is extended in space. The screen before you has length, breadth, depth and weight. It can be measured. It can be weighed. Mind is distinct from Matter. Mind is characterised by 'Thinking', by Thought. Descartes questioned whether the existence of extended things around him, including his body was beyond doubt. He concluded, they were not. Continuing the application of doubt he concluded he could not doubt the existence of his own Mind. Doubting its existence entails Thinking. So, Mind necessarily has to exist. From this, the distinction between Mind and Body is made. Mind is characterised by Thinking. The Body is characterised by extension in space. Although the existence of physical things is doubtful, the existence of the Mind is not. So whilst extended physical things might not exist, the un-extended Mind has to exist. Hence the distinction between extended Matter and unextended Mind.


Following on from the separation of Mind and Body, the problem arises as to how un-extended Mind can interact with extended Body. Something not occupying space is supposed to interact with something in space and vice versa. This struck many commentators of Descartes' philosophy as impossible to bridge and the problem of Mind-Body dualism arose. Descartes responded by saying the two interacted in the Pineal gland. This merely reiterated the problem and didn't convince many people.

Martin Jenkins

(107) Tobias asked:

Maybe it is rude to ask this question: But how can physicists 'get away' with talking about a 'wave-particle duality'? Isn't a contradiction by definition 'wrong'?


A contradiction is always false, rather than wrong. But talk about wave-particle duality is not contradictory. A so called wave-particle sometimes behaves like a wave (e.g. when travelling), and sometimes like a particle (e.g. when interacting) but never both at once. This is bizarre, but not self-contradictory.

Helier Robinson

(108) Katelyn asked:

I have to answer the question:

'What is the answer?'

which doesn't make any sense... can anybody help?


Well as you have already admitted, it doesn't make sense and no answer to it would make sense so why bother. You don't have to answer stupid questions. In fact refusing to answer stupid questions is a good way to assert your humanity. If one of your teachers is insisting that you answer this question then they obviously need help. Suggest that they go to see a good counsellor.

Shaun Williamson

(109) Tobias asked:

My question is: Would you say it is more correct to call a (logical) contradiction (x different from x?): Impossible, false/wrong or perhaps meaningless?


A contradiction is a statement that is both true and false at the same time; it is impossible in reality and in thought, but is possible in language. So it has no meaning in reality or in thought, but it does have 'nominal meaning,' which is meaning by analogy with meaning in reality or in thought. For example, in geometry we can define a right triangle as a plane figure which is both triangular and right-angled, and this is meaningful outside of language; and we can also define a squircle as a plane figure which is both square and circular, and this has nominal meaning by linguistic analogy with the definition of the right triangle — but no other meaning. We cannot draw or imagine or think of a squircle, as we can of a right triangle. It is an interesting feature of modern symbolic logic that it contains a theorem that from a contradiction you may deduce anything you please. It goes like this: let P be a statement and Q another statement that you wish to prove. Then we begin with a contradiction

1. P and not-P, Premise
2. P 1, simplification
3. not-P 1, simplification
4. P or Q 2, disjunctive addition
5. Q 4, 3 disjunctive syllogism

The justifications on the right hand side of lines 2 to 5 are in each case quite valid, as you may discover from any elementary logic text. This proof, among other things, makes some philosophers (myself included) argue that modern logic is seriously defective.

Helier Robinson

(110) Neer Gulatia sked:

Last days I get across to your site. I am indian it is my problem I want to be a philosopher but unfortunately I am fail to get high education. I want to reappear in any online university. I have lots of new ideas and answer of today's questions, why people tortured scholars and how marxism converted into dogmatism. I have new approach to socialism. Could you please help me to know how I can get admission in a university and write research paper in philosophy.


What is it you want? Do you wish to become a professional philosopher or do you simply want to get your ideas published. If the latter then why don't you register for the Associateship of the ISFP, where you will be assigned a mentor who will help you formulate your ideas and tell you whether or not they have any merit. Please don't make the mistake of assuming that your ideas are original, without any reference to previous work in the field. There are a number of authors who have formulated Marxism without recourse to dogmatism. These include the Frankfurt school, the Italian philosopher Gramsci and Jean Paul Sartre. Anyway within 1-2 years you will have completed your 4 essays and they will be published on this site for anyone to read. You can then write a dissertation to become a Fellow. However this will not enable you to become a professional philosopher if that is your aim.

If you wish to become an academic philosopher there are a number of ways in which you might succeed. The first thing is to get a degree which would take about 4-5 years by distance learning. Currently there are two main options, taking the external degree of London university which this site will give assistance with, or via the Open University which accepts people without any formal qualifications. The London university option is biased towards analytic philosophy, with political philosophy only available as an option in the last year which might not suit your needs. However if you choose this route you will have a rigorous training in philosophy, which in my opinion covers much more ground than the Open University courses.

The Open University does not offer a full degree in philosophy, but you can do a joint degree in politics, philosophy and economics which might cover more of your interests. It has to be said that none of these options are cheap, it would cost at least 500 a year for either option and you would have to spend a substantial amount of your own time studying whilst holding down a job, and maybe looking after your family if you have one.

After you have your degree, provided you have a high enough grade you can then apply for a Masters degree as the first step towards an academic career. The only realistic option currently available unless you are lucky enough to get a rare grant is via part-time study via a university close to you or distance learning, again the Open University does a part-time MA in philosophy with a specialist interest in political philosophy. After this hurdle has been overcome you should be qualified to do a Phd in your chosen area and as part of this you may be able to start publishing your ideas in peer reviewed journals. Again the Open University might be able to help, but places are limited. In all you are talking about at least ten years of hard work before this goal is achieved. However even with a Phd there is no guarantee of having a full time job as a professional philosopher.

Whilst this process may seem harsh and brutal, it is a part of academic life and anyone who has made it as a professional philosopher will have been through a similar process. It is always important to ensure that your ideas have not been stated before and you can only do this by familiarising yourself with the literature and subjecting your ideas to criticism from other people. I enclose a link to the Open University courses. This web site contains links giving details of the London University external degree.

Hope this helps.

Christopher Finlay

(111) Michael asked:

I don't know if this would mean anything to anyone else but I have been reciting this line in my head for quite a while.

'You are not who you are because of who you were but because of who you will be'. What would you make of this?


Well interesting but not completely true. You are who you are because of what you were and what you will be. You can't escape your past but only a dishonest person would want to do that.

Shaun Williamson

(112) Catherine asked:

What is mind? What is thought?


The nearest understanding of mind that I know of is that it is emergent out of brain, just as a melody is emergent out of an arrangement of notes, or working order is emergent out of a machine, or a knitted sweater is emergent out of several balls of wool. It is a characteristic of emergents that at the lowest system level in which they appear they have one or more novel properties — novel in the sense of not appearing at any lower level. The novel emergent property of mind is perhaps thought, a process of dealing with perceptions, and memories of perceptions, that is more or less conscious. A more precise definition of thought is that it is processing of abstract ideas, as opposed to imagination which is processing of concrete ideas or images. There is more detail on this in my book 'Belief Shock,' which can be down-loaded for free from

Helier Robinson

(113) HAWA asked:



Don't post everything in upper case because it look like you are SHOUTING AT EVERYBODY AND TRYING TO SCARE THEM.

God exists outside of time and it makes no sense to say that he existed before the big bang or after the big bang. In the same way God's creation of the world is timeless and outside of time.

Shaun Williamson

(114) Taylor asked:

What does it mean to say that matter is extended and that mind isn't? so far, I have... Matter is accountable through location and space. Mind isn't. This is all I could understand.

Also, What is the problem of interaction, and why is it a problem? Descartes' account of interaction? Why does Descartes solution fail? I missed this question in class and I can't find research on it anywhere.


Rene Descartes conceived that there was a 'real distinction' between the mind and the body. For Descartes, a 'substance' was something that did not require anything other than God's concurrence in order to exist. For example, a stone can exist all by itself. Its existence does not require the existence of minds or other bodies. And a stone can exist without being any particular size or shape. Descartes interprets this as meaning that God, if he chose, could have created the world as consisting of this stone all by itself. This means that for Descartes, the stone is a substance 'really distinct' from everything else except God. Hence, Descartes' argument that mind and body are 'really distinct' means that he believes that each could exist in the world all by itself without anything else if God so chose. However, this does not mean that these two separate substances do in fact exist separately.

For Descartes the purpose in identifying a 'real distinction' between the mind and the body is twofold. The first is his religious intent — the distinction provides a rational basis for a hope in the mind/soul's immortality. The second is his scientific intent — the new mechanistic physics that Descartes has adopted requires a complete absence of mentality from the nature of physical things. So Descartes divides up reality into three basic and distinct substances: God, Mind, and Matter. Because he needs there to be a 'real distinction' between the Mind and the Body, their respective essential characteristics must be different. To Descartes, the essential property of a Mind is that it thinks; the essential property of Body is that it is 'extended.' Each thought is a modification of Mind; each physical object, a modification of matter. This means that minds cannot take up space or be extended. If they were, they would be forms of body.

'[T]here is a great difference between the mind and the body, inasmuch as the body is by its very nature always divisible, while the mind is utterly indivisible. For when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete..By contrast, there is no corporeal or extended thing that I can think of which in my thought I cannot easily divide into parts; and this very fact makes me understand that it is divisible. This one argument would be enough to show me that the mind is completely different from the body..' (Meditation VI).

'[O]n the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing [that is, a mind], and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.' (Meditation VI).

The Mind/Body Dualism of Rene Descartes raises the critical difficulty of just how an immaterial unextended Mind can influence or be influenced by a material and extended Body. This is what is known as 'the problem of interaction'. Descartes did not really offer a solution to this puzzle. But he did offer a location wherein the puzzle was somehow solved.

The pineal (or pituitary) gland is a tiny organ in the center of the brain. In Descartes' day they knew of its existence, but had no idea of its function. Perhaps because of its central location in the base of the brain, Descartes fastened on this gland as location where the Mind-Body interaction took place.

'It is not [the figures] imprinted on the external sense organs, or on the internal surface of the brain, which should be taken to be ideas-but only those which are traced in the spirits on the surface of the gland H (where the seat of the imagination and the 'common' sense is located). That is to say, it is only the latter figures which should be taken to be the forms or images which the rational soul united to this machine will consider directly when it imagines some object or perceives it by the senses' (AT XI:176, CSM I:106).

Descartes' 'solution' failed quite badly, of course. Modern science knows far more about the biological function of the pineal gland than did Descartes. And it performs none of the 'master controller' functions that would have been necessary if Descartes' thesis about it had been correct. None the less, as long as one accepts any form of Body/Mind dualism, one is faced with the as yet unresolved question of how the one interacts with the other. And that still open issue is one of the primary arguments against Body-Mind dualism.

If you would like to pursue this issue further, try these sites to start:

Stuart Burns

(115) Gloria asked:

What is the Existential view of Death?


According to Martin Heidegger [1889-1976], the prospect of Death allows the human being or as he terms it Dasein [being there], to opt for an authentic or inauthentic life.

If we could understand our lives as a single totality — reading a biography of, what my life was, when, how and why I die — life would be understood. Due to the horizon of temporality under which Dasein is in it's being, lived as Care, this is impossible. I and we are limited to be, to act within temporality. As Care, life is not just present-to-hand as a mere object or thing [although it is to many people], it is lived, it has meanings, it has mystery, anxieties, peak emotions and so on. Dasein is the only living thing for which Life and Death are pressing questions. This is why death is not a biological issue, the dying of a plant is perishing — dying is not an issue for it to think or feel about

Dasein lives it life as Care. Care is Existence [being-ahead-of-itself] as I project myself into the future, my tasks, projects, hopes, from the next few minutes to my final few. It is Facticity — here I am in the world typing on this computer that wouldn't have existed thirty years ago, I have become who I am entailing responsibilities, if I leave the computer and go out into the big wide world, I become certain cultural and social practices that do or do not limit my actions. It is Falling — here I am thrown into in a definite stage of history, a definite country, region, and definite cultural practices. 'Only once in this world, and I became a philosophy enthusiast here in England, Western Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Care is the most basic structure of being-in-the -world.

Care reveals Death as uniquely impending. It structures reveal that one day, I will cease to be. I will not be, because I am. Death is permanently before me — it stands before me as a reminder I will not be — thereby highlighting the time I have before it. It cannot be outstripped or avoided. Finally, I can ignore this unique death horizon of mine and lose myself in the everyday concerns of life as do the mass of humanity das Mann: 'Who's going to be evicted from Big Brother?' 'Will I win the lottery?' 'What's the office gossip going to be tomorrow?'. This is to be inauthentic. Death is viewed as an empirical event; it will happen in the distant future, it happens to others in the mean time. To be authentic, is to appreciate the structures of Care. In so appreciating them, Being-toward-my-own-end individualises my relation with Death. As the prospect of my death is before me, so is the rest of my life. Its potential comes to be. With this, I can opt to live my life as I want, to appreciate every and each thing, to become who I want to be, being-toward-death and, to be increasingly receptive to the mystery of Being and how it was lived in my being and time.

See Chapter 1, Division II in Heidegger's Being and Time.

Martin Jenkins