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Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 44 (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 44/1.

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

Ask a question Answer a question

(1) Sagar asked:

I am currently undertaking a MA in Philosophy. I feel free when I study philosophy but the world in which material gain is measured on how big your bank balance is and what car you drive dictates your status, I feel as though I should get a job and postpone my thoughts on a PhD. I find myself at a cross road where PhD, pursuing which would almost mean an ascetic life, while working in a dead end job would mean nice cars nice suits, and holidays etc. I know I should develop my mental capacity as I have a talent in that, and according to Aristotle one should develop his/ her talent in search of Eudaimonia. While studying philosophy I have grown to learn the importance of life beyond that of material gain and material appetite, but it seems as though I could have done that not having a £1520k debt on my head. I'll cut to the chase, would you recommend a PhD, and what are means of pursing a PhD (I have been told 101 things i.e you need to publish papers before you apply, you need to source funding, you need a good proposal, also been told, your too young wait for a few year). I'm confused!!


Well, what's important is what you want out of life. Do you want a big bank balance and a flash car, or is it just that you think people will think badly of you if you don't have those things? If the latter, do you really care? Certainly not everyone is so shallow as to measure people in those terms. I don't own a car at all, or indeed any nice suits, and someone who thought less of me for that would be someone whose opinion I didn't respect. It sounds like you would enjoy doing a PhD and would not enjoy a dead-end job. So why not do the thing you will enjoy the most? Of course you could always go for the dead-end job and the fast car after you've done a PhD — it's not as though a PhD precludes that kind of life (although you may have a bigger overdraft to pay off before you put the deposit on the car!). To answer your questions: No you don't need to publish papers before you apply; Yes you need to find some funding from somewhere; and yes you do need a good proposal (though you don't necessarily need to stick to it once you start the PhD). I would suggest that you talk over your suitability for PhD study and the practicalities of applying (and funding) with your MA teachers.

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(2) Lucy asked:

An example would best illustrate my question. There is an internet site called TheHungerSite. Whenever you click on a button a cup of food is given to a starving child. I clicked the button hundreds of times, then went to the theatre. Was doing this immoral when I could have saved lives? Is it immoral to buy a hot chocolate when I could donate that money to charity? Should I feel guilty?


You have asked two different questions. I will deal with the second first, because this is somewhat easier to answer.

Is it immoral to buy yourself a hot chocolate when you could donate that money to charity? No. It is not. If it were, in every case, then any action which was not scrupulously altruistic would be immoral. And that is simply not how we think of morality. At any rate, it is not a coherent way to think about it.

It is consistent with the demands of morality, heavy at times though they may be, to take reasonably good care for our own mental and physical well-being. That is not to rule out that an occasion might arise where you are required to put others first, even at a heavy cost to yourself.

Ethics recognizes a category 'supererogatory' actions, or in ordinary parlance, actions above and beyond the call of duty. We can't all be saints or heroes. However, you may through an unlucky series of events find yourself in circumstances where the only choice is between heroism and shameful cowardice, for example, where many lives will be lost if you do not act now.

The case of the Hunger Site introduces a new factor in this equation. It doesn't take much effort to click the button once. If you have clicked the button a certain number of times, then it does not take much effort to click the button once more. Wherever one draws the line between legitimate self-interest and moral obligation, it seems that we always have a moral obligation to do X, if X is within our power, and there are very positive benefits to others, and it costs very little to ourselves.

However, if you take all this on board, then you should click and click and never stop clicking. Each extra click 'has very positive benefits', each extra click 'costs very little to ourselves'.

What you have stumbled upon here is a version of the ancient paradox of the Heap. One grain of sand is not a heap. If you have N grains of sand which do not form a heap, then adding 1 grain cannot make it into a heap. Therefore no amount of sand can be a heap. Another version of the paradox is named after the mathematician Hao Wang. Every elephant is a small elephant, because if you add 1 ounce to a small elephant it is still a small elephant.

The conclusion? When faced with real-life examples of Wang's paradox, we draw the line. We decide, 'enough is enough', not because there is any special reason to stop here, but just because we have decided. I leave it to your imagination what would happen if we didn't respect this eminently practical rule.

Geoffrey Klempner

(3) L asked:

The statement 'shape-up' is said in order not to suffer any consequences. Would Sartre agree or disagree with this advice concerning a persons behaviour and why, referring to his views on existence and essence?


If understood as 'Shape up' and meet the demands or potentiality of your prior existing essence then Sartre would disagree with the advice. If I was a waiter and my boss told me to 'shape-up' it would only be in my role as a waiter. I could wrongly believe I am nothing but a waiter; wrongly as this would be an act of Bad Faith [Mauvaise Foi] — ignoring or being in denial about my freedom to be otherwise. For insofar as I adopt the role of a waiter, I have the choice not to be a waiter — I am the waiter in the mode of not being it.

So I can either 'choose' to adopt the being of the waiter and 'shape-up. Or, I can choose not to be the waiter and leave. In either option, my lived existence is actively and freely created: it is not a prescription following from a prior ascribed essence or role.

I could also query with the boss what the 'waiterness' of the waiter entailed, although this would probably entail my being sacked.

Martin Jenkins

(4) Gavin asked:

I am currently studying philosophy with the University of London. In the guidelines it outlines to following criteria for excellent marks:

— An excellent understanding of the philosophical issues raised in the precise area of the question

— An awareness of the relevant texts and arguments

— An understanding of the philosophical techniques used in the precise area of the question and successful attempts to apply such techniques.

— Independent critical thought about the question(s).

I have two questions, regarding the latter two of these criteria:

(1) What exactly is meant by the philosophical techniques? Does this refer to conceptual analysis, which I will show in my answer, or do I have to refer to specific techniques used by other philosophers?


(2) When showing independent critical thought is it enough to criticize the various theories and holes in arguments presented by philosophers, or do I need to go as far as developing my own theory(s) about the question itself?


I can't speak for the UoL — the best person to ask would be your tutor. But I'm pretty confident that the answers will be:

(1) There's no need to refer to specific techniques used by other philosophers; using the appropriate techniques is enough. (Conceptual analysis is one, but thinking up thought experiments, appealing to common-sense intuitions if that's appropriate, using good arguments, that kind of thing. Just doing what good philosophers do, basically.)

(2) I would say the former, though it would depend a bit on the length of the essay. If it's a big dissertation, just criticising other people's views with no suggestions about what a better view might look like might not be enough. But for a normal essay, being critical of others should be enough, if you do it well. What will be important is that the criticisms are your own — so you are genuinely demonstrating independent critical thought — and not simply lifted from some article or book that you have read and inserted at the appropriate point.

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(5) Jonathan asked:

I am studying Plato's Theaetetus and I have yet to find what an 'account' is. Can anyone clarify this for me? Thanks.


Plato's late dialogue Theaetetus is considered to be his most important work on epistemology, since it deals with the definition of Knowledge itself. After three attempts of definition the Dialogue ends in failure (aporia), since the knowledge has not been defined and the conclusion that really comes out is 'what is not knowledge'The three proposed definitions are: 'knowledge (episteme) is sensible perception' (aesthesis), 'knowledge is true belief' (doxa alethes) and 'knowledge is true belief with an account' (meta logou al'th' doxan).Theaetetus' third proposal is that 'knowledge is true belief with an account' (201 d) and Plato's strategy is to present and reject the three versions of account (logos) offered by Theaetetus. At first Theaetetus' suggestion is that things of which there is no rational account are not knowable, and that things which have a reason or explanation are knowable. Socrates' respond to that is the well-known Dream Theory.

The Dream Theory posits two kinds of existents, complexes and primary elements, and proposes that 'an account' means 'an account of the complexes, which explain how their primary components are put together'. Thus 'knowledge of x' turns out to mean 'true belief about x with an account of x that explains the structure of x made out of its simple components'. Plato is planning to attack this theory as follows:

The Dream's claim is that complexes and elements are distinguishable in respect of knowability. In other words, the complexes are knowable, while the elements are not knowable. Here is a direct allusion to Antisthenes' account, therefore 'dream of Socrates', which Plato examines, in order to prove its falsity. Following this account a syllable, is either (a) no more than its elements (its letters), or (b) something over and above those elements. Considering now the syllable SO, which consists of the letters S and O, we can infer:

a. If the syllable SO is no more than its elements, then if any complex is knowable, its elements will be knowable too.

b. If the syllable is something over and above its elements, which means that the syllable does not have the elements as parts, for if it did, that would compromise its singularity. So the syllable has no parts, which makes it as simple as an element. Thus if the element is unknowable, the syllable must be unknowable too. This result contradicts the Dream Theory too.

Finally, in 206a-c, Plato makes a further, very simple, point against the Dream Theory. Our own experience of learning letters and syllables shows that it is both more basic and more important to know elements than complexes, not vice versa as the Dream Theory implies. The thesis that the complexes are knowable, the elements unknowable, is false to our experience, in which 'knowledge of the elements is primary'.

The first version of the 'account' is that logos is simply a speech or statement, which everyone can make about a thing, however this version does not offer any distinction of the true from the false judgment.

The second version is the enumeration of the elements of the object of knowledge, in other words 'to go through the elements' of a thing. The objection to that is: supposing that someone could enumerate the letters of the word 'Theaetetus', who although has no knowledge of the syllables and of the principles of how letters form syllables and syllables form names, one could plausibly argue that this person has knowledge of the 'Theaetetus', although he has no understanding of these principles.

The third version of the 'account' is the mark or sign of difference, which distinguishes the thing in question from all the other of the same kind. Grasping the difference of a thing in question and not the common feature, which this thing shares in common with all the other of the same kind, is the third version of the account (208 d-e). The reference here is to the Megarians, (Euclides), who claimed that the grasping of the difference and not the common feature is what counts in knowing a thing.

However according to the third proposed version, he can only know Theaetetus, if he has a true belief about him plus an account, which shows the different quality that Theaetetus has in relation to other humans. But this different quality can either be perceived (a) or be known (b). The consequence is:

— If it can only be perceived (a) then the account is also true belief, which means: knowledge of Theaetetus is true belief about him plus true belief of his difference from the other humans.

— If can be known (b), then the definition of knowledge includes knowledge, so to say: knowledge of Theaetetus is, true belief about him plus knowledge of the difference, which leads to infinite regress of the knowledge definition.

In both cases, as we realize, the 'account' fails to define knowledge. However, in the first case (a), if the definition is not only focused on the characteristic that distinguishes Theaetetus from other humans, which can only be found through perception (e.g. snub-nosedness), there is a way out in that definition. For, if the common qualities and that Theaetetus shares with other humans, as well as the distinct ones, were well distinguished, then the definition of Theaetetus could be an 'account', which would have shown the knowledge of Theaetetus. Because the different qualities that Theaetetus has in relation to other humans are not only the face and the body features, but also his occupation of mathematics, he is the best disciple of Theodorus etc. Therefore Plato needed the Sophist to show how should be the 'account' of the knowledge of the defined kind (i.e. sophist).

Although Socrates rejects this suggestion, Plato returns to this point later in the Sophist, and begins the Dialogue with the Division of the things due to their different feature. However, there he introduces the five great kinds (eide), namely Being, Sameness (koinotes), Difference (diaphora), Motion and Rest, and he argues that the understanding of the five great kinds and of their ability of blending is the basis of Dialectic. This means that the 'account' of knowledge must include the relation of the defined thing to the Five Great Kinds, the common feature (kind, genus and other categories) and the different characteristic feature. In my opinion Plato is not convinced with his refutation of the last version of the 'account' in the Theaetetus, therefore he returns in the Sophist to make it clearer.

Nikolaos Bakalis

(6) Chai asked:

How can you further advance and especially, expand your mind? I feel that if I want to excel in the study of philosophy, I first need to find a way to clear my mind of the unimportant every day matters that consume it. Any suggestions?


I once wrote: 'Before you can start to philosophize, you need to create a space in your life, which cannot be encroached upon' (

The point of the lesson is that clearing a space for philosophy is important, but so is the rest of your life. You don't have to become an ascetic or a hermit in order to be a philosopher.

It is possible of course that the main problem is that your life at present has no space for philosophy, and that you will need to make drastic changes in order to create that space. In that event, be sure that this is something you really want before others get unnecessarily hurt.

Geoffrey Klempner

(7) Rebecca asked:

Why do some Philosophers and Scientists deny that there are colors in the world when everyone (unless they are color blind or blind) can see them? What is their reasoning?

Do all colors (pink, purple blue, etc.) exist?


These philosophers are thinking in terms of two worlds: a real world, described somewhat by theoretical science, and a phenomenal world consisting of perceptions. The real world causes the phenomenal world and, in particular, molecular properties in the real world produce, via electromagnetic radiation, colours to appear in someone's phenomenal world. These colours are sensations, manufactured in the retinas at the earliest, but more likely in the brain.

The common sense view is that the coloured objects that we see around us are external, public, and material, while the supposed phenomena are internal, private, and mental — so the coloured objects are real. This is fine for every day living, but it is an over-simplification and thereby false; so it is not good enough for philosophy and science. However, science and philosophy do need to explain how it is that phenomena that are internal, private, and mental, are experienced as external, public, and material

The explanation is logically simple but psychologically very difficult. I'll give you the bare bones, and let you think about it. Given that everything that you perceive is a phenomenon, a copy of something real, then it follows that your own perceived body is a phenomenal copy of your real body. All your phenomena are internal to your real brain but external to your phenomenal body; they are public by similarity to other peoples' phenomena, but private by identity to you, and they are really mental, but phenomenally material. If you need more, check my book 'Belief Shock' freely down-loadable from

Helier Robinson

(8) Graciela asked:

Nothing can be known.

What is a powerful objection to this claim?


The Sceptical Philosopher claims that 'Nothing can be known'. The Sceptic is coming from a particular concept of what the word 'knowledge' means. Let's call that concept 'knowledge(s)'.

The most powerful objection to the Sceptic's concept of knowledge — knowledge(s) — is that virtually everybody who speaks English (including the Sceptic when she is not being sceptical) virtually every day of their lives makes and relies on the validity of claims to 'know' things. George to Gracie — 'Where are my car keys?' Gracie to George — 'On the hall table where you left them!' Clearly Gracie is claiming to know where the car keys are, and George is relying on the validity of Gracie's claim.

The Sceptic's knowledge(s) is based on some epistemological or metaphysical premise that draws the Sceptic into concluding that all of our common every-day claims to know things are erroneous. There are many such premises that have been explored by different Sceptical philosophers.

But the bald fact that the Sceptic's conception of knowledge(s) is in direct pragmatic conflict with our normal every-day common sense use of the words 'knowledge' and 'know' is a clear indication that whatever it is that the Sceptic is talking about with 'knowledge(s)' it is not the same concept as is indicated by the word 'knowledge'.

By and large, most Sceptical philosophers realize that fact. Most are not in fact claiming that all of our everyday usages of 'knowledge' are truly mistaken. Usually what they are doing is putting forward some reasonable sounding premises as to what the word 'knowledge' actually means, and then following the logical consequences through until the reach the conclusion that IF their premises are correct, THEN nothing can be known. Hence their claim that 'nothing can be known' is nothing more than a wake-up call that there must be some sort of error in those very reasonable sounding premises with which the logic started.

For example: One of the common philosophical claims about the concept of 'knowledge' is that it implies 'certainty'. You ought not claim to 'know' something about which you are not certain. If you are not absolutely certain that George's keys are on the hall table, you should not suggest to George that you 'know' where his keys are. Instead, you should tell George that you only think (guess, have an opinion) that they are on the hall table. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But now add into this mix the fact that all of our information about the things in the world (like the location of George's keys) comes from our sensory perceptions of those things. And we can demonstrate that our sensory perceptions are sometimes faulty, in any of a number of common ways. Perhaps what is on the hall table is another set of keys that look superficially just like George's set. Are you absolutely certain that the keys you saw on the hall table were George's keys, and a closely similar set belonging to the neighbour who dropped by for a minute? How closely did you examine those keys you saw? Is it possible that they were not keys at all? And how do you know that you are not actually a brain in a vat in some scientist's laboratory, and being fed computer generated images of George's keys by some fancy super computer? In other words, there are an awful lot of potential sources of uncertainty that can infect any of your commonly made claims of knowing things. If 'knowledge' implies or requires certainty, then clearly, we can 'know(s)' nothing.

So, equally clearly, rather than concluding that truly we know nothing, we conclude that the common every-day concept of 'knowledge' does not in fact include the requirement or implication of certainty. And that is a very interesting and informative conclusion.

Stuart Burns

(9) James asked:

Respectfully, how do I know that you exist? How do I know that you, the keyboard I am typing on, the chair I am sitting on and the clothes I am wearing are not just figments of my imagination?


Why 'respectfully'? Are you afraid of giving offence? Why should I be offended if you doubt my existence?

More to the point: Why ask me? If you doubt whether I exist, what could I say that would persuade you? Suppose we were to meet face to face. My physical presence, so apparently real to me, would be in your eyes no more real than the keyboard or chair, experiences you are having at this moment.

Of course, this is not an intended argument against scepticism. 'You wouldn't bother to ask me the question if you didn't believe that I existed' is a sophistical response. What you are really asking me isn't about you, it is about me. How do I know that anyone else beside me exists?

The game, 'How do you know' is fun to play. How do I know that the world has existed for more than five minutes? (Russell asked that.) How do I know that I meant the same thing by the word 'know' in my last two sentences? How do I know that anything 'means' anything?

Obviously, one has to decide on sufficient standards of proof. But what evidence can one put forward, if every piece of empirical data is equally up for grabs?

My response would be to refuse to play that game (fun though it may be). If the question is, 'How to defeat the sceptic' then we might consider alternatives to winning which involve 'making the price sufficiently high'. I have already suggested the way this might go. The sceptic wants to be able to say stuff (e.g. like, 'I don't know that you exist'). However, if it turns out that there is no way to meaningfully say anything, then the only way to be a sceptic is to remain silent and wag one's finger. (But then again, a finger wag can mean anything.)

There are a few missing steps here. But hopefully I've said enough to enable you to fill in the gaps.

Geoffrey Klempner

(10) Jon asked:

Can 'information' be distinguished from the physical means of its transmission (for example, electronic or neuronal). And if so, does 'information' have a discrete nonmaterial reality?

(This is a better phrasing of my previous question). Can information cause events in the physical world, where 'information' cannot be wholly reduced to the physical means of its transmission?


'Information' is not the physical means of transmission. Information is the content of the message, not the medium of transmission. The same information can be transmitted by any medium.

Does that mean that 'information' has a discrete nonmaterial reality? That depends on just what you mean by a 'discrete nonmaterial reality'. A light bulb has a discrete material reality — it is a physical thing. As does the electricity that periodically flows through the filament of the bulb. And the photons that periodically radiate from the electrified filament. But whether the bulb is on or off at this instant is a piece of information that has, itself, no physical existence. It is, rather, a description of the state of the bulb. Not a material part of the bulb.

(One can get picky here. 'Data' is whether the bulb is off or on. 'Information' is what the state of the bulb means. If it does not have significance, it is not 'information', it is just 'data'.)

The presence or absence of a particular stimulus in some particular circumstance, can cause a physical device to undertake actions in the physical world. Consider a thermal detector in a household security system. It responds to changes in the pattern of thermal photons striking a sensor. The sensor is constantly inundated with infrared photons from the room under observation. When something warmer than the background noise enters the room, the sensor detects the change. The change in thermal radiation impinging on the sensor is information (which means that something warm has entered the observing field). That information causes the sensor to trip the burglar alarm, and phone the police. So, in that sense, information can cause changes in the physical world.

If you would like to pursue this question, check out 'Information Theory' on Google.

Stuart Burns

(11) Mark asked:

If 'Giving' is sooo special to most philosophies of life, then why do these so called Guru's always want money for their services? What's the secret? Oh, I'll tell you for 150.00. Seems to be contradictory to real giving.


Giving has nothing to do with philosophy. Philosophy is the disinterested pursuit of truth. Gurus are not philosophers, they are con-men. However people who think that there is someone who can tell them the secret of life so that they don't have to do any thinking themselves deserve all they get and are forever doomed to pay 150 for nothing. Serves them right!

By the way how much do you give to other people for nothing?

Shaun Williamson

(12) Amber asked:

What was the argument that Socrates makes to Euthyphro? What theory is Socrates criticizing? What are the main problems of that theory and how does Socrates make his point?


It might be a useful starting point to look at what is called the Euthyphro Problem

A central problem of divine command theory of ethics, that is, the theory that what counts as good or bad is whatever is stipulated to be so by God, or in practice, as written in an book of scripture that is authentic in the sense of derived from God

The dilemma:

Either a) x is right because God commands x or b) God commands x because x is right

Is an action (say, giving back what one owes) right because God commands it to be so or does God decree that the action is right because it is right in itself.

a) (the anything-goes objection) seems to make it possible that God might command anything, that God might arbitrarily issue decrees which seem objectionable from most moral standpoints:

Ralph Cudworth (1731) wrote:

Divers Modern theologers do not only seriously, but zealously contend..., That there is nothing Absolutely, Intrinsically, and Naturally Good and Evil, Just and Unjust, antecedently to any positive Command of God; but that the Arbitrary will and Pleasure of God, (that is, an Omnipotent Being devoid of all Essential and Natural Justice) by its Commands and Prohibitions, is the first and only Rule and measure therof. Whence it follows unavoidably that nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this Omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that Hypothesis forthwith become Holy, Just and Righteous.

The point here is that if God is omnipotent and the creator of all that exists, then there can be no morality except what is God-created. There can be no restrictions on what God might decree to be good or bad. So it is conceivable that God might decree to be good what to us seems reprehensible and, if good simply means whatever God deems to be good, then under divine command theory we would be obliged to obey that decree. A modern interpreter of Cudworth adds: 'If God were antecedently to intend that someone at some time bring about the torture to death of an innocent child, then it would be morally obligatory for that person at that time to bring about the torture to death of an innocent child' (Philip L Quinn in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory).

b) (the uselessness objection) on the other hand, seems to make God irrelevant to ethics since x is right for reasons independent of any commandment of God. For if God decrees an action (again, say giving back what is owed) to be good because it is good independently of God's decree, then it is quite conceivable that we might discover what is good without any recourse to God at all. Hence the charge of irrelevance. This is the line implied by Jeremy Bentham in his defence of utilitarianism:

We may be perfectly sure, indeed, that whatever is right is conformable to the will of God: but so far is that from answering the purpose of showing us what is right, that it is necessary to know first whether a thing is right, in order to know from thence whether it be conformable to the will of God.

Bentham is arguing that utilitarianism, an ethical philosophy that makes no appeal to God, can demonstrate the nature of goodness. Since he holds that God must share the objective of utilitarianism, that is to maximise happiness, then God will call good what we have independently discovered to be good by virtue of a secular philosophy.

So the Euthyphro problem apparently puts the apologist for divine command ethics in the position of having either to accept that God could have decreed what we consider abominable to be good or to accept that we can ascertain the nature of the good without any reference to God.

Oliver Leech

(13) Bryan asked:

Is a heliocentric solar system model a fact or a theory?


The short answer is neither, it is a model, whilst the older view, that the sun rotated round the earth is definitely wrong, the helio-centric model assumes that the sun is at rest. However this is not strictly true, as the sun is a star towards the edge of our galaxy. This galaxy is rotating about it's centre and is also accelerating away from the centre of the universe. For practical purposes, e.g. to calculate a particular planet's orbit, however, the motion of the sun can be ignored.

In general terms, a theory in physics provides a general framework, applicable to many phenomena. A model is an application of the theory to a particular situation. In terms of planetary motion, the general framework is Newton's laws of motion, which requires as inputs the masses of the particles and the nature of the forces involved (usually how the strength of the force varies with the distance between the particles). When applied to the solar system, the masses of the planets are input and the force is described by the inverse square of gravitation. Given these facts, it is possible to set up a model which can be used to predict the motions of planets with time. Depending on how many interactions (e.g. interplanetary interactions, as well as the sun's) are taken into account this model is more or less accurate. However, despite the general success of this model for most purposes, in the late 1880's, it was realised that Newtonian physics could not account for anomalies in the orbit of mercury. It wasn't until Einstein formulated his general theory of relativity that these anomalies were resolved.

Further Reading

A nice summary of where we are in relation to the Milky way is given in this wikipedia article:

Christopher Finlay

(14) Jordan asked:

If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?


This question has been around the internet for some time. Someone finally posted it on Ask a Philosopher.

The short answer is that the question is incoherent. You cannot 'try to fail'. If I intend to do action X, and fail to carry out my intention, then I fail. If I intend to do action X and succeed in carrying out my intention, then I succeed. Those are the only two possibilities.

You can, of course try to 'fail' by some external criterion which others have applied. The unwilling student can deliberately make a mess of an examination script so that they fail the exam. The army conscript can deliberately fail a medical. I can fail to make the appointment which I didn't want to make anyway.

Try to do any action, for example, throw a playing card into a basket. Now, 'try to fail' to throw the card into the basket. How is that different from trying to throw the card so that it doesn't land in the basket?

There are of course psychological theories according to which your conscious self can 'try' to do something while your unconscious self undermines your efforts. In effect, this scenario requires two agents such that A tries to do X and B tries to prevent A from doing X. If B succeeds then A fails. In response to the question, 'What have you done?' A and B would give different answers. A would say, 'I tried but I failed', B would say, 'A tried, but I succeeded in making A fail'.

Geoffrey Klempner

(15) Joseph asked:

A: Do natural systems inevitability conform to logic?

B: Can logic be subjective?


Logic is concerned with certain linguistic concepts such as entailment, implication etc. It does not deal with non linguistic things such as natural systems so they cannot be described as conforming to logic except in a metaphorical sense.

Logic is neither objective nor subjective. In the same way mathematics is not subjective or objective.

I suggest that you need to study logic in order to see what it is and why certain questions, like the ones you are asking, are not appropriate.

Shaun Williamson

(16) James asked:

Hi, I am a bit stuck on the question of 'In what cases, if any, is abortion morally permissible?'.

I have defined abortion and morally permissible and stated that the foetus does not become a person at conception, but around the 10 week mark. I have emphasized that this is the most debated aspect of this topic and continues to create difficulty.

I believe abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape, severely disabled foetus and early teenage pregnancy. Late abortions should only be morally permissible if the mother's life is endangered.

I am unsure on how to develop the depth of this argument further. I would be so grateful for any comments on how to really get to the centre of the main points of my examples and how to really make this a good piece of work.


One thing to bear in mind is that most people think that being human is a black and white affair: for example, a fertilised egg is human, and an unfertilised one is not. But if you think of being human as a matter of degree, so that the unfertilised egg is less human than the fertilised one, which is less human than a developing embryo, which is less human than a fetus, which is lees human that a newborn, which is less human that a toddler, all the way up to maximum maturity, and then down again through senescence and death — then the problem is only one of where to draw the line in questions of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.

Another thing to bear in mind is that in the past all our sources of morality were religious authorities, while today many philosophers believe that moral questions should be decided by taking surveys — and neither of these is satisfactory. My own view is that there are absolute values in reality, but we can only access them with difficulty because of ego-centricity; so find a very mature person and get their opinion.

A third point is that the world is at present grossly over-populated. All our environmental problems are due to over-population: the world has many more people than it can support. So questions of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia become a matter of necessity if we are not to abandon many, many, people to starvation, famine, and war. But it is extraordinary how many people are completely in denial about this over-population question.

Helier Robinson

(17) Tom asked:

I want to fond out a bit more about being alive. I am mundane, white collar, intelligent, but not enough to want achievement. I recently was in a boxing match which a lot of people watched, and during that time I felt more alive than I ever have done before it has spurred an urge to want to fight, (in controlled circumstances), a lot more why is this?


Well maybe there are things that you want to achieve that you don't know about yet. This boxing match revealed to you something about yourself that you didn't know. You need to open up and explore the possibilities of life. To start with you could join a boxing club.

Shaun Williamson

(18) Diogo asked:

There is a room with a mirror hanging on the wall. Facing the mirror there is a table with a jar with some flowers. If there is nobody in the room (ie, if there is no observer) will the image be reflected in the mirror? In other words: is the existence of light a sufficient condition for an object to be reflected in a mirror? Or is it a necessary condition but not a sufficient one (also being required the presence of an observer?)

Question discussed in our Philosophy class this morning (Lisbon, Portugal)


It all depends on just what you mean by 'image' in this context.

The photons of light will radiate from the light source, reflect off the flowers, and then bounce off the mirror — whether or not there was any observer present. The tracks that the photons trace (the 'rays') in bouncing off the mirror are coordinated such that if you should place an observing device (eye or camera) somewhere in the appropriate reflective field, a representation of the flowers would be collected. Note that a representation would be collected in any suitably placed observing device, even if no observer ever observed the data captured by the device, and even if the nature of that data is not pictorial. (A representation of the flowers might be rendered by a digital camera as a serial string of binary digits, for example.)

Now, what do you choose to call the 'image' involved. (a) The representation experienced in the mind of an observer; (You can't use the eye, the retina, or the retinal cells of the observer, because those are just another sort of observing device that should be indistinguishable from any other sort.) (b) The representation captured by an observing device (like a digital camera), whether or not it is ever viewed by an observer: or (c) The coordinated 'rays' that reflect off the mirror, even though no recording device or observer ever intercepts those rays to form a representation.

Most people, in general discourse, would claim that 'image' means (c). An image of the flowers is reflected off the mirror, even if no one is ever there to see it.

But you can choose alternate answers as suits your purpose at hand. Since the issue was raised in a Philosophy class, all you have to do is make plain which choice you make, and then provide the reasons for your choice. Have Fun!

Stuart Burns

(19) Bryan asked:

Is a heliocentric solar system model a fact or a theory?


It is both. In science the word 'theory' is used in a different way to the way we use it in ordinary life. In science a 'hypothesis' is an idea about how things might work (but we don't know if it is true or not). However a scientific theory is an idea about how things work that is supported by all the evidence that we have.

In ordinary life we sometimes say 'its just a theory', meaning that we don't know if its true or not. The scientific use of the word theory is completely different.

A scientist would recast your question into 'Is a heliocentric solar system a fact or just a hypothesis?' and the answer would be that it is a fact.

Shaun Williamson

(20) Tricia asked:

What Is Human Nature? What are its implications for human behaviour?


Generally, Human nature understood as the immutable and universal essence of what it is to be human and to behave as a human. It must be universal [i.e. Apply to each and every human being at all times and places] or it cannot by definition, constitute human nature. For if there are exceptions to the universal, it is not universal and therefore not human nature. Behaviour will follow out of this essence and will be predictable.

Specifically, different Philosophers/ Thinkers promulgate different natures of the human which then has implications for their ethical/ political philosophies. Plato maintained the human was innately and tripartly composed of the Passions, Ardency and Reason. The human worked best when each performed its specific function without interfering with the others. This division of the individual is mirrored in the constitution of the Community or polis, ensuring its harmony and justice. For ' morality is keeping one's own property and keeping to one's own occupation' [Republic 433. e] So, only those who could access Reason — the Philosopher Kings — should rule; the courageous and ardent would be the soldiers; the passionate would be the many — the hoi poloi — fitted to build, farm, trade and fish. The hoi poloi would be governed by the Philosopher Kings; the soldiers implementing the decisions and upholding the laws as decided by the Philosopher Kings. Plato's views on Human nature ground how a community should be and its people act or should act.

The same came Nature / Implications scenario can be found in the writings of other philosophers such as Aristotle, in Christian Theologians such as St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, political philosophers such as Adam Smith , Karl Marx and so on.

Interesting recent developments have occurred in both evolutionary anthropology and ethics. Here, assuming 'evolution' is correct, existing human nature has been selected by past environments. In Peter Kropotkin's Anarchist work Mutual Aid [1902], the co-operative and social characteristics of humanity denote its selected nature; these characteristics have enabled humanity to survive. Selfish, anti-social individuals who did not co-operate in group activities fell by the wayside. Their behaviour lessened their chances of survival and reproduction. As Kropotkin writes:

The fittest are the most sociable animals and sociability appears as the chief factor in evolution.' [P. 58]

Human nature thus implicates Anarchism as its natural, social-political correlate.

This social nature is evidenced in Fran de Waals' studies in Primate behaviour. [Good Natured. 1996]. The social, empathetic nature of primates translates into observed behaviour and 'codes' of behaviour which result in 'punishments if broken'. Again, the nature of a being carries explicit implications for its behaviour.

When the layperson dismisses an action as 'human nature' it is either tautologous or selective. Tautologous as 'Human nature' displays selfish actions, aggressive actions and acts of generosity, of solidarity and compassion. In other words, this merely describes human behaviour whereas 'nature' implies a 'grounding', a definition of what it is to be human. It is selective as 'human nature' is only associated with selfish etc actions and observed the acts of generosity etc are ignored.

Martin Jenkins

(21) Reginald asked:

Why are some people successful in their careers and others people who are as smart and hardworking are not?


It's not what you do its...


A) who you know


B) the way that you do it


C) some for those who do not have it unfathomable mastery of the social scene that helps influence who you know and what you are allowed to do by the way that you do it ('charisma', 'likeability', etc)


D) blind chance


E) birth luck


F) some other unsubtle combination of the above centering largely on C)

But honestly, whether there are facts here or not, the matter does not repay deep investigation, and those who are most equipped to investigate deeply here are those least equipped to profit from the investigation. So accept that there's 'nowts so queer as folk'. Just know that, in the words of the preacher, the race is not to the swift, nor yet bread to the wise. After all, if this is a plan, it's one only God could come up with.

David Robjant

(22) John asked:

Kant said that our synthetic a priori concepts such as space and time are imposed on our sensations of the world. So, we perceive objects in space and time. From this, he said that we cannot know the noumenon but only the phenomenon. Kant seems to be suggesting that objects can exist without space and time. If so, then does that mean objects exist without these two concepts when we are not perceiving them?


This is a good question to ask about Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and the sense in which objects in the phenomenal world may be said to 'exist'.

The main implication of Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' (from the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) is that to exist as an actual or potential object of empirical knowledge is to exist in space and time. (Let's not worry too much about what Kant means by his talk of 'space' and 'time' being 'imposed' on the world, which taken literally would imply that human beings wear spatio-temporal 'spectacles'.)

Statements about the phenomenal world become, in effect, statements of a theory. My system of beliefs is a theory about the world, which includes objects which I currently perceive, objects which I have encountered in the past, and objects which I have yet to encounter or may never encounter. A unified space and time constitutes the framework of the theory, in which objects are 'placed'.

But what exactly is the ontological status of these 'empirical objects'? My system of beliefs, qua theory of a world in space and time gives content to my experience, and indeed is the only way to describe that experience. The given, subjective experience or 'intuition' (Anschaaung) is, literally, indescribable as it is in itself. The only concepts we can apply are concepts which relate to a world in space and time. (That's why Kant is not a 'sense datum' theorist.)

When one adds the (for Kant, absolutely necessary) observation that there can be no world of phenomena or appearances without 'something that appears' — the world of noumena, or the referent of what Kant refers to at one point as 'the transcendental object X' — we introduce a second, outer layer of indescribable reality.

So, between indescribable intuition and indescribable noumena there is just my (or, question-beggingly, our) 'theory' of the world. The 'existence' of objects, perceived or unperceived is just a product of that theory. Everyday empirical objects become, in effect, theoretical entities like quarks.

It would not be going too far to say that for Kant, there is no such thing as the common-or-garden 'object' of pre-philosophical belief.

Geoffrey Klempner

(23) Geza asked:


I'm a 15 year old boy living in the netherlands, I'm an atheist but i grew up among religious people and i even still go to a christian school,.

My teacher taught me that god created the earth in six days and that he rested on the seventh day. He also taught me god's powers are infinite.

Soo my question was if god's power are soo great why did he rest on the seventh day? That makes him mortal, Why would an all powerful being take a rest? and if he's incapable of working seven days straight then he could also be incapable of doing other stuff like saving people for which several people pray for every day.

I don't believe in a 'god' but why do religious people never think about this kind of questions, it's like if you could reason with religious people then there weren't any religious people.


These are really good questions, but to offer you some reassurance that religion is not the result of stupidity or weak thinking, many religious people do think of these kind of questions and do engage with them in a reasonable manner.

To answer your question, resting does not make someone mortal — death makes someone mortal. God might rest but not die — he would then be immortal. Secondly, just because he took a rest it does not follow that he had to take a rest. Indeed, if you think that if he exists and is immortal and all-powerful then you would need to ask, as you do, why did he rest? It is clearly not because he was tired or unable to work for seven days (as he is all-powerful). A biblical theist might respond that god's resting is to demonstrate that the work of creation was complete — he needed to do no more creating (see Genesis 2:2 and Hebrews 4). If the bible is taken as the text (which in your case I imagine it is) then there is even a later passage that indicates that god is still resting, and this despite all the interaction with mankind after creation. Hence the rest does not appear to be the sort of rest that a mortal might enjoy.

Kevin Macnish

(24) Miss asked:

Why are people depend on other such as house maids to do their work ?


Women who have had a good education and who have qualifications, can often get jobs that pay a very good wage but the problem that they then have is that they don't have enough time at home to do the housework so it makes sense to hire someone else at a lower wage to do the housework for them.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. It helps to spread the work and the money around. However I have known women with good jobs who need to hire someone to do the cleaning in their homes but found that they just couldn't do this. It felt wrong to them.

On the other hand there are women who are wealthy and who have always had servants. If these women do nothing useful with their lives except wait around for servants to do everything for them, then they are pathetic worthless creatures who are not really worth thinking about.

Shaun Williamson

(25) Michelle asked:

'I think, therefore I am.' What is your opinion on the idea that this statement of Descartes' can be applied to the statement, 'I think there is an existence after life, therefore there is' ?


'I think there is an existence after life, therefore there is' is a dubitable statement, while Descartes' is indubitable. I have to exist in order to think, but there does not have to be an after life in order to think that there is. Of course, you could always shoot yourself; and then if you found yourself thinking you could say 'I think, and I am dead, therefore there is an after life' and this would be indubitably true. By the way, Descartes wrote in Latin, 'cogito ergo sum', and 'cogito' is best translated as 'I am conscious.'

Helier Robinson

(26) Suzie asked:

Is humor a philosophy?


No it isn't. The things we laugh at depend on who we are. Racists will find racist jokes very funny other people may not. Nazis will find jokes about Jews very funny but it is unlikely that the Jews will be laughing with them.

Wittgenstein once remarked that he could imagine a philosophy textbook that consisted entirely of jokes but that is a different matter.

Shaun Williamson

(27) Richard asked:

We are coming to the time when new technology, as perhaps in a new generation of computers, will require serious ethical thought, which it sees to me few people will be able to answer. There are some questions that are probably impossible to answer.

What is conscious thought and feelings beyond the mere experience of them?

What is conscious thought beyond the mere association of it with perhaps electrochemical events in the brain?

At what point will a computer modelled on biological processes acquire some degree of self-knowledge?

Will we know it other than by observation?

Will those responsible for the technology admit to that threshold being passed, or even wish to know that it has been?

Does the conscious mind in fact inhabit a 'dimension' or have characteristics beyond the associated physical processes?

Does anyone have even the faintest clue?


I will answer the last question first — Yes, some people do feel that they have a clue on this topic (I am one, for example). However, how one answers any of these questions will depend intimately on the metaphysical premises that are brought to the table.

For instance, anyone with a Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious bent, or at least a Cartesian belief in the separation of Body and Soul, will bring to the discussion a pre-commitment that human-like consciousness is impossible for a non-human entity that lacks a soul. Hence any such person will adopt as self-evident the position that the conscious mind (a.k.a. 'soul') does in fact inhabit a 'dimension' and does have characteristics beyond those associated with physical processes.

Whether or not such a 'Dualist' will accept the possibility that electro-silica devices might eventually develop the ability to closely mimic human consciousness, will depend on just how much of human consciousness they invest in the immaterial 'soul'. I know of one acquaintance who is adamant that an electro-silica device will never have a human soul, and hence never possess a human-like consciousness. Yet this person also admits that such a device might soon be able to mimic human behaviour so well that superficial observation would not be able to discern the difference. I have no idea how this acquaintance would answer some of the other questions on your list. But given a pre-commitment to Body/Soul duality, those other questions may be moot.

By comparison with the answers of a Dualist, would be the answers of a physicalist / materialist — such as myself. A physicalist / materialist (hereinafter simply 'materialist' for short) would argue that we have no evidence to suggest that the conscious mind has any characteristics beyond those entailed by (or that supervene on) physical bio-chemical processes, and that thought (conscious or otherwise) is but the consequence of certain electrochemical processes in the brain. Certainly, the Dualist's pre-commitment to dualism means that the meaning of the concept 'conscious thought' to a dualist is not the same as the meaning that a materialist would invest in that label. So any discussion between or about the two positions has to proceed very gingerly.

Even among materialists, however, just what does constitute 'conscious thought' at the electrochemical level is a matter of debate. Some suggest that we will eventually learn to associate certain patterns of brain neuron behaviour with certain conscious thoughts. Others (such as myself) argue that attempting such a reductive analysis is invalidly crossing boundaries of discourse. Discussing thoughts is like discussing the observable behaviour of a complex multi-tasking computer. No amount of electronic analysis at the electro-silica level will contribute any meaningful knowledge of the behaviour of the complex system of programs running on the device. Or to put it another way — you don't use quantum mechanics to understand plate tectonics.

As to what constitutes 'conscious thought and feelings', is there any (materialist) basis for establishing just what that label means other than by picking out the kinds of behaviours that are supposed to result from whatever it is? One can adopt the Solipsist's stance and argue that I am the only conscious entity, because I am the only entity that I know experiences the 'this' of subjective awareness. Otherwise, one can only rely on the behaviour of others, and their claims to also experience that subjective awareness.

The only way that I can tell whether you experience the subjective awareness of 'conscious thoughts and feelings' is the evidence I have of your behaviour and claims. If an electro-silica device (whether or not modelled on biological processes) also exhibits the same kinds of behaviour and claims, on what basis can I argue that such a device is not experiencing conscious thoughts and feelings?? That, after all, is the whole point behind the 'Turing Test'. If you can carry on a free-ranging conversation with both a computer and a human, and cannot tell which is the computer and which is the human, then you have no basis from which to argue that the computer is not just as conscious as the human. (Visual inspection is obviously cheating in this context.)

As to whether those responsible for the technology will admit that some threshold has been crossed, that will also depend on the metaphysical premises they bring to the table. Dualists may never admit that a threshold has been crossed, no matter how well the computer passes the Turing Test. Although some might admit that a behavioural threshold has been crossed, even they would not admit that the computer has exhibited consciousness. Materialists, on the other hand, would be raising the champagne glasses in celebration, and gathering to discuss the treat to the future of Homo Sapiens from the advent of Homo Electronicus.

Stuart Burns

(28) Sunshine asked:

I do not know if I have question or if you could term this to be a question.

Off late for whatever I want to do or see what people do, I feel all this is just temporary and there is no point in doing what we have been doing. I feel millions of people have come and gone and have done some or the other thing. I feel there is no point in doing anything in life. All activities seems so silly to me of no value at all. I feel just to Be.

Not sure if you could help me why I feel that way since a year now.


Sunshine it seems to me that you are depressed and you need to find out why this is so. The things that you do in your life give your life a meaning. Whether there is any universal significance to our lives is a separate question.

Don't look for the point of your life in things external to you. Think about what you want to do and what you want to become and what would make you happy and what would make you laugh again.

You are right millions of people have come and gone, so don't waste your life make it mean something to you by setting yourself sensible goals and achieving them.

If you need help to overcome your depression then recognising this could be an important first step.

Shaun Williamson

(29) Gavin asked:

I am currently studying philosophy with the University of London. In the guidelines it outlines to following criteria for excellent marks:

— An excellent understanding of the philosophical issues raised in the precise area of the question

— An awareness of the relevant texts and arguments

— An understanding of the philosophical techniques used in the precise area of the question and successful attempts to apply such techniques.

— Independent critical thought about the question(s).

I have two questions, regarding the latter two of these criteria:

(1) What exactly is meant by the philosophical techniques? Does this refer to conceptual analysis, which i will show in my answer, or do I have to refer to specific techniques used by other philosophers?


(2) When showing independent critical thought is it enough to criticize the various theories and holes in arguments presented by philosophers, or do i need to go as far as developing my own theory(s) about the question itself?


1) In a general sense, yes, philosophical technique is going to include, but not be limited to, conceptual analysis. The stipulation is that the understanding is of the techniques used in the 'precise area of the question' and so an awareness is called for of which techniques have been employed by those writing in this field. Hence a utilitarian critique of a position might not be appropriate in an essay on metaphysics. So yes, if at all possible do refer to and use the specific techniques used by other philosophers. If you do so well then you demonstrate that you have thoroughly understood these techniques, and this is what is requested.

2) It is always better to engage with the question on a personal level and come to your own conclusion. Generally speaking, a balanced argument of the sides of a debate followed by a reasoned conclusion will earn you a 2:1. In order to get a 1st you need to show that you have engaged with the question personally and thought about problems and strengths yourself, rather than just copied out the critiques of others.

Kevin Macnish

(30) Geza asked:

I'm a 15 year old boy living in the Netherlands, I'm an atheist but I grew up among religious people and I even still go to a christian school,.

My teacher taught me that god created the earth in six days and that he rested on the seventh day. He also taught me god's powers are infinite.

So my question was if god's power are soo great why did he rest on the seventh day? That makes him mortal, Why would an all powerful being take a rest? and if he's incapable of working seven days straight then he could also be incapable of doing other stuff like saving people for which several people pray for every day.

I don't believe in a "god" but why do religious people never think about this kind of questions, it's like if you could reason with religious people then there weren't any religious people.


That's a great question about God needing a rest! I have no idea what a convincing answer might look like.

Of course, most Jewish and Christian people will say that they don't really believe that God created the world in 7 days anyway — it's just a story, like a lot of the stories in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, there are similar arguments that are based just on God's supposed 'perfections' and don't depend on particular claims made in the Bible about things God has done. The most famous is the 'problem of evil': if God is infinitely good and powerful and all-knowing, how come there is evil in the world? (Tsunamis and earthquakes, for example.) God is all-powerful so he could prevent evil, and he is infinitely good so he cannot want to cause suffering to entirely innocent people. And he is all-knowing so he can't claim that he didn't realise what was going to happen. Lots of theologians and philosophers of religion have tried to solve the problem, but I'm not sure any of them have done so satisfactorily. And in any case most ordinary believers in God don't have any idea how to solve the problem. In answer to your last question, that might be the reason why a lot of them never think about this kind of question!

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(31) Sarah asked:

I have a question about the frequency of things.

In Yoga we say that the different chakra's have different frequencies. The lower the frequency, the more stable the chakra is. The lower the frequency the more we associate it with the material things of this world. In Physics, we have the theory of waves/frequency as well. Or simply apply it to the frequency of a musical note. the higher the note the faster the frequency. Even colours have a frequency.

SO I can say the higher the frequency the more mobile and more unobservable it becomes, like a very high note that only dogs can hear or if the little dots of a tv move so fast that we can not observe them as separate dots anymore.

But here lies my question: if the dots of the tv move with such a high frequence they merge together and we see them as a picture, so it actually becomes something more stable again, that we can observe again. Is it then that is a thing moves with such a high frequency, at one point it merges with something else and the frequency drops again? Can it be seen as a circle?


No it can 't be seen as a circle. You are taking something that is relevant to a human observer and trying to give it some universal significance. If you show a film which consists of 24 still pictures per second to a human observer then they will perceive it as a continuous moving image. However a pigeon or an octopus will just see it as 24 still pictures. You would need to show the film at at least 50 frames per second before these animals see a continuous moving image. Dolphins however will be happy with 24 frames per second. These frequencies depend upon the construction of the eyes of different animals they have no universal significance.

Shaun Williamson

(32) Chandra asked:

I like to become as a philosopher.what are courses can i take? I am interested in psychology. I have been told to take engineering. What can I do sir?


There is an outline of the steps necessary to become a professional philosopher in the last batch of questions (43/110). Essentially you need a degree in philosophy, followed by a Masters Degree and then a PhD. Full time this would take about 6-8 years of study, part-time 10-12 years and it has to be admitted that unless you are really talented, the chances of becoming a professional philosopher are pretty slim. Thus I can understand your (parents?) concern that you may be unable to get a paid job with this qualification, which is why they recommend engineering.

However studying engineering or physics, need not preclude a study of philosophy and it would enable you to get a good understanding of the scientific method, and how science is used in every day life. If you study physics, instead of engineering, it is relatively easy to move into a career in engineering later on (as I have). Also one part of philosophy discusses the metaphysical implications of branches of physics such as quantum physics or relativity. Studying physics would enable you to understand these subjects and would lay the foundations for subsequent study in philosophy. In the mean time to supplement your study in physics or engineering, you can take advantage of distance learning courses in philosophy, such as the ones offered here, before going on to something a bit more formal such as the external London BA degree.

Christopher Finlay

(33) Jessica asked:

What are the distinctive features of Hobbes' account of Human nature that distinguish it from the classical e.g. Aristotle's explanations of nature?



Aristotle maintained that phenomena in nature can be understood and classed in a taxonomy based on their essence. This essence found its actualisation through teleology or goal oriented behaviour — i.e. What a particular thing does specific to itself. The essence of an acorn is to become an oak. The essence of man is to be rational in practical matter's [Phronesis] or philosophically [Theoria]. So the end of both natural and social phenomena is an actualised end and ordered state in an harmonious universe. Perhaps Theologically, applied Aristotle provided justification for the settled, 'natural' order of Feudalism. Each person was allotted a place or station in nature and society by God. Each had to remain there and actualise the potential of that position 'to conserve their nature in that place which is most proper for them'. [CH 2 Leviathan].


For Hobbes, when a thing is in motion, it eternally remains in motion unless another thing stays or hinders it. Contra Aristotle, Motion not rest, is the natural condition of things. This was postulated by Galileo in his Law of Inertia.

Human beings are subject to motion from external things. These become imprinted on our senses. The greater the impact of motion, they become memories — some stronger and longer lasting than others — depending on the impact of motion. Nevertheless, motion upon the senses stimulates internal bodily Endeavour. Endeavour is either toward things [appetite, desire] or away from things [aversion]; some of the former and latter are innate such as appetite of hunger, aversion to heat and cold; the rest are acquired from experience. The ability to satisfy appetites / desires depends on the amount of Power at one's disposal. Being either natural or acquired, Power grows just like heavy bodies in motion which the further they go, the faster they go. Appetites are

insatiable. Just as the senses are never still but constantly bombarded thereby perpetually exciting the imagination, so felicity is a continual progress of desire from one object to another, the former being a means to the latter. Power has to correspond to this continual progress not only to secure access to present objects of desire, but to assure access to other objects in the future. For Hobbes, felicity is the continuous gratification of the desires. Against Aristotle he writes:

The felicity of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For, there is no such Finis Ultimas [utmost aim] nor Summum Bonum [Greatest Good]. (CH XI Leviathan.)

The similar, natural abilities of men leads to conflict: two men desiring the same thing become enemies. To succeed in this competition, men seek to master and command as many other men as possible. This dynamic leads to the natural condition of mankind — a War of all against all: Bellum Omnes contra omnia.

For Hobbes, Motion is the natural state of things. Each thing is driven by Motion. This motion grows or, it is impeded by something else — also in Motion. There is no essence or purpose toward which, each thing must accord.

Motion does not lead to a settled state or end. Motion in desires and appetites is perpetual and insatiable.

The natural state of things is not ordered and harmonious, it is a clash of things in Motion. Accordingly, with human beings, their natural state is War.

Martin Jenkins

(34) Mike asked:

If we see stars from Earth as they were however millions of years ago due to their distance and the speed of light, if say we had a super telescope to see planets of that distance would we be seeing that planet millions of years ago? Is that the same as seeing the star's light or is it different?


It's the same. Nothing can travel faster than light, so even if your super telescope worked with something other than light the image of the planets could be no younger than that of the star. The planet might appear younger than the star if your telescope worked with something slower than light, but the only possibilities I can think of, such as x-rays or gravitons, travel at light speed anyway. Your problem is really in the speculative nature of your telescope. Assume that it works with light and seeing the planet would be the same as seeing the star. (Properly speaking, you really see neither, you only see images of them.)

Helier Robinson

(35) Lee asked:

Question: Is suicide wrong?

Just to give you some insights into my thinking process:

If life has an end, death, why live? So suicide is not wrong. This question cannot be compared to this question: If you are going to get hungry, why eat?

Because, to eat is not a choice; its more of an uncontrolled urge to fill the stomach. However, in the end despite religious and social obligations, to continue living is a personal choice. So, suicide is not wrong.

Is this analysis correct?


Just because it is a personal choice does not mean that it is right or wrong. Committing murder is surely a personal choice and yet most would consider it to be wrong.

Kevin Macnish

(36) Amanda asked:

I don't know what I did wrong... I feel like he doesn't love me anymore.. I feel like he has changed. Like, he just feel out of love with me. Did I do something wrong? Am I really not that great of a person? I knew I shouldn't of got back into a relationship, they never work for me... I always am the one to get hurt, or to get cheated on. But its not that he is cheating or he has hurt me... Cause he hasn't I just feel like he has falling out of love with me. I don't know why. I can't stop crying and im so confused. I don't know what to do. And I don't want to talk to him about it cause every time I ask him about cheating or if he really loves me he says I don't trust him and maybe we should just be friends. But I don't want it like that. Ugh i don't know what to do... Im sorry, I just needed someone to talk to. I know im crazy, you don't have to reply =(


Well of course you are crazy because love makes all of us crazy. This man doesn't love you, its not because you have done anything wrong, its just one of those things.

You have to learn to accept that and move on. Don't feel that its anything that you have done wrong or that you are always the one to get hurt. We all get get hurt. You can make relationships work for you but you have to realise that relationships are the most difficult thing that humans have to do, so it is worth while not rushing into them and thinking about what you are doing.

Never think that you are doomed to always be unhappy. You are going through a difficult time now but you can live through it and be happy.

Shaun Williamson

(37) Chris asked:

Need help developing a objectivist/ realist/ reasoned philosophy of the rights of sentient beings. Can anyone help?

The only right that nature bestows is the right to struggle for survival. Every living creature has the right to struggle for survival. This is the only inalienable right. It cannot be removed from a living creature. All other rights (human rights) are not inalienable, only responsibilities are inalienable, from the rights of men and governments.

Rights are not given.

All rights must be earned.

We have no rights except the just expectations we earn that are acknowledged by others. To kill takes away the right to live from another. To never kill or threaten to kill, earns the right to life. To injure takes away someone's right to live without pain. To never injure or threaten to injure earns the right to never be tortured. To steal requires the right of ownership be taken from another. To never steal or threaten to steal earns the right to keep your justly obtained property. The correct language should be... 'I believe I have earned the right to...' Never 'I have the right to...'


The first thing you need to do is to define your terms — just what exactly is a 'right' in the context you are using the term? In reading through your argument, I feel that you are unclear just what it is you are talking about.

You might consider starting with this — 'Rights' are a complex concept. Essentially, a 'right' is a prerogative granted by a group to individuals (more technically, it is a 'protected privilege'). To claim a right, is to claim that a relevant group has granted me a suitable prerogative. (Of course, this brief description is grossly over-simplified, but it should do as a starting point. In order to flesh out this brief statement, you should think about how moral rights relate to legal rights.)

If this is indeed an acceptable concept of 'rights,' then it is an abuse of this concept to suggest that 'nature' bestows the prerogative of struggling for survival. Since this is the starting point of your argument, I thing you need to address this difficulty. The need to struggle for survival is not a 'right' that is 'granted' by nature. It is a description of the reality of life. So every living creature does not have a 'right' to so struggle. Such struggling is a necessary prerequisite for continued survival. Nor is it 'inalienable', since any such right can be extinguished by the simple expedient of killing the individual — by intention, happenstance, or simple aging.

Given the complexity of your argument, and the flimsy basis of its beginning, you are clearly using the word 'right' in a manner quite different from that usually understood by that word. There are, as a consequence, several statements within your argument with which I would take strong exception — but since I cannot be assured that you intend what I interpret, I will hold my critique. Once you provide a clearer meaning for your use of the word 'rights', please feel free to resubmit your reasoning for further comment. I would be happy to see the argument developed more soundly.

Stuart Burns

(38) Michelle asked:

What is your opinion about the belief that just by putting enough mental effort into visualizing something to happen, that it will or can happen? For example, I read once in a book on Buddhism that the Masters can manifest a human being by thought power alone.


I think that in general this is a primitive, untrue superstition. However when you apply it to yourself then it can become a powerful motivational aid.Top class athletes are taught to visualize winning and this does improve their performance.

Shaun Williamson

(39) Marina asked:

What are the resultant implications arising for a psychiatric nurse if 'Berkeley's Idealism' theory is accurate or valid?


A science fiction writer who has exploited philosophical ideas around the theory of idealism as a way of exploring the dividing line between sanity and madness is Philip K. Dick, e.g. in his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.

We are not really talking about a 'valid' version of Berkeley. According to the most coherent version of Berkeley's theory, everything in the universe exists as an 'idea' in the mind of God. When you look out onto the world, you are looking at the inside of God's mind. The implications of this view are, as Berkeley claimed, realist and commonsensical, even if the theory itself might be difficult to believe. The table in the room really is there whether you perceive it or not. Anyone else who goes into that room will perceive the 'same' table.

However, it can be useful in psychiatry to explore what happens when public and private realities fail to match up, where each individual inhabits his or her own private 'Berkeleian world'. The blanket term 'schizophrenic' is used for patients whose worlds are filled with an inextricable mixture of the imaginary and the real.

I am not an expert on psychiatry, so I am not in a position to say for sure whether when confronted with a patient who introduces you to his friend Harvey the rabbit, whether you should politely shake Harvey's hand, or tell your patient bluntly that you see no rabbit. However, I would hazard a reasonable guess that the best way to win the patient's confidence is to humour them a little, while you look for ways to coax them back to normal reality.

Geoffrey Klempner

(40) Michelle asked:

'I think, therefore I am.' What is your opinion on the idea that this statement of Descartes's can be applied to the statement, 'I think there is an existence after life, therefore there is' ?


No it's not the same thing in any way. You might just as well say I think two plus two equals five, therefore it does.

Descartes idea was that I cannot doubt my own existence because in order to doubt anything I must exist. Descartes was pointing out that there is a contradiction in saying 'John thinks that he doesn't exist'. How can John think anything if he doesn't exist?

However there is no contradiction is saying 'John thinks there is a life after death but there isn't'.

Shaun Williamson

(41) Lauren asked:

How are John Locke and David Hume similar?


Primarily in being empiricists. 'Empirical' means known through the senses, and empiricism is the belief that everything we know is empirical. Locke expressed this by saying that we have no innate ideas: all our ideas come through perception. Hume expressed it by saying that there is no idea without an antecedent impression (i.e. perception). Hume also said that 'tis vain to speculate, meaning that if we do not have empirical knowledge of something then that something is speculative, and it is a waste of time talking about it. Empiricism is very popular among those who want to believe that reality is essentially simple, but it fails if you have even one idea that you want to say is true even though not known through the senses.

Helier Robinson

(42) Adam asked:

If a man stands in a forest and makes a statement, and there are no women around to hear.

Is he still wrong?


Yes of course he is, after all he is only a man. So grow up, become a real man and learn to accept that it is in your nature to be wrong except about football and the offside rule.

Shaun Williamson

(43) Lisa asked:

Please can you explain advanced empathy and phenomenology in counselling. In layman's terms please.


Firstly, the other person is to be unconditionally and positively regarded. The counsellor is dealing with a unique human being. Therefore, his/ her feelings, prejudices must be put aside as this would hinder the recognition of the other.

Secondly, by advanced empathy I understand trying to feel the others experiences, situation and issues. One's own similar issues, feelings and experiences may be employed as guides towards understanding the other; but as guides only — they do not replace the positive regard of that other. If they are used to replace the other, the counsellor is dealing with his/her own issues, feelings and not that of the other.

Finally, by Phenomenology, I understand how a person understands, perceives and values his/her world. A Worldview [Weltanschauung] in other words. By understanding a person's worldview, the counsellor can attempt to gain greater insight into the other's life, problems and issues. S/he can thereby counsel the other more effectively.

Martin Jenkins

(44) Fatima asked:

Can you tell me about the culture relativism, if you agree or disagree with culture relativism, and how universal principles and moral intuition are problems for culture relativism?


If you believe that the 'right thing to do' is a matter of personal or public opinion, then you believe in a 'Subjective Opinion' notion of Ethics. The ethical thing to do is whatever you 'intuit' is the right thing to do; or whatever you feel most emotionally 'good' about; or whatever you feel is the consensus of other people's opinions on what you should do.

Many different sources of opinion have been cited by various philosophers. The most obvious, of course, is the individual's personal opinion, feeling, or emotional attitude. This is the approach taken by A.J.Ayer, for example. But other approaches have included the Social Consensus, social customs, habits or thoughts, and cultural norms.

A key challenge for a Subjectivist notion of Ethics is that it is impossible to convince someone by rational argument that one source of opinion is any better than another. Any philosophical discussion approached from the perspective of a Subjective Opinion notion of Ethics will almost always degenerate into emotional posturing. In a social environment, therefore, 'persuasion' in ethical disagreements almost always degenerates into ad hominem attacks or outright coercion.

Adherents of any of the various flavours of Subjective Opinion Ethics also must deal with two additional challenges: (a) there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that requires the various opinions be logically consistent and not mutually contradictory; and (b) there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that guides the adherent in choosing which of a set of contradictory opinions to apply in any situation, or protects against a ludicrous misapplication of some opinion. It is impossible, therefore, to employ logical reasoning or rational analysis in an exploration of the consequences and implications of the relevant opinions. Consequently, in practical application 'Ethical' behaviour is almost always the result of a non-rational and non-logical subjective opinion as to which (or whose) opinion to apply when, where, and how.

Cultural Relativism

The most currently popular variant of Subjective Opinion Ethics is 'Cultural Relativism' (also called 'Social Consensus Ethics' and 'Democratic Ethics') wherein the 'the right thing to do' is determined by the consensus of public opinion. As but one highly visible manifestation of its popularity — in most modern Western political campaigns there is almost no discussion about 'What is the right thing to do?' Almost all discussion is about 'What is the popular thing to do?' The same is also true of most Western media coverage. Want to know what to do? Take a public opinion poll. Reasoning from, or measuring against, ethical standards is not a conceivable activity, since there are no such things as ethical standards.

There are a number of difficulties that must be properly managed if you choose a social consensus basis for your system of Ethics. The most significant ones are the same two your mother provided when, as a child, you pleaded for permission to do or have something because 'everybody else' has the requested permission or thing. Firstly, how do you know that 'everybody else' has it? And secondly, even if they do, how do you know that having it is good for you? (Although, of course, this latter challenge is begging the question — since within a 'social consensus ethics' if everybody else has it, it is by definition good for you as well.)

In order to provide a rational foundation for Cultural Relativism, a process must be provided for determining what the Common Values and Consensus of Opinion are, and translating them into the necessary definitions of 'Good'. And when that is accomplished, a rationale must be provided for the assumption that 'if it is good for everybody else, then it is good for me'. Even if on the surface it is true by definition, it is certainly not a self-evident truth — 'If all your friends were to jump into the sea, would you also?' Lemmings might (in myth at least) say 'Yes!'. But most people would not. So even if a logical proof is not required, some form of rationale certainly is. The logical answer does not appear to be a reasonable one.

Even when these basic difficulties are adequately addressed, Cultural Relativism implies some consequences that, initially at least, appear to be if not counter-intuitive then at least not normally expected:

Different societies will have different moral codes. No two social groups will have exactly the same set of Common Values. This is the natural result of the fact that the determination of what is socially customary will differ between any two such social groups because they will consist of separate sets of individuals each with their own individual sets of goals and priorities.

There can be no standard that can be used to judge one set of moral codes as better or worse than another set. To a modern Canadian, to suggest that is it morally correct to eat one's dead father would seem ludicrous. But to some former aboriginal tribes of Borneo, this would have been the proper moral thing to do. To suggest that they should cremate or inter their dead fathers would have been regarded as highly immoral and terribly irreverent. Therefore, the eating of the dead cannot be regarded as inherently right or wrong in and of itself. It is a matter of social attitudes, which will vary from culture to culture.

The moral code of your own social group has no special status. It is merely one among many equally acceptable standards of social behaviour. While a popular attitude among adherents of the 'Multiculturalism' school of social etiquette, it tends to become less comfortable as the differences in cultural practices become wider. Is female circumcision morally acceptable or is it morally unacceptable abuse?

There can be no 'Universal Truths' in Ethics. There can be no moral standards that hold for all peoples in all social units. Each social group will develop its own ethical truth, based on its own set of Common Values. If there are any congruencies between the ethical principles of two societies, it is coincidental or historical and not the result of any basic underlying Ethical Universal.

It is mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other cultures against our own moral standards. It was morally right for the Romans to keep slaves, and to hold jousts to the death in the Coliseum, and to indulge in infanticide of baby girls in favor of baby boys. That we regard these things as terribly immoral is irrelevant. The Common Values of their culture made these activities Morally correct.

While this approach to ethics may be the 'best' one, and certainly has some appeal to those with a liberal political bent, the difficulty in determining what the Common Values or Consensus Opinions are with any degree of accuracy; the problem of justifying the application of other people's opinions to individual behaviour choices; and the counter-intuitive consequences cited above, would suggest that there might be a 'better' approach.

Stuart Burns

(45) Thomas asked:

Do I need a degree to be a philosopher?

Or why does a philosophy degree even exist?

What does one do with a philosophy degree and why do you do it?

Does anything useful come out of the field of philosophy?

Useful for beings other than philosophers?

If we left world just as it is but removed the idea of philosophy from it how would it be different?


These are all great questions. No, you don't need a degree to be a philosopher, just as you don't need one to be a writer or a neurosurgeon. It certainly helps, though, and in the 20th and 21st centuries philosophy has become extremely technical and so some guidance is useful. To be recognized as a philosopher (as in the case of the neurosurgeon!) a degree is almost essential.

Philosophy degrees exist to help people study philosophy with the help of trained philosophers at a level beyond the basic introductory that one finds at A-level/ high school. Why do it? Either out of interest or out of a desire to go into philosophy as a profession. At undergraduate level studying for a philosophy degree is extremely useful at training one's mind to think logically and clearly, to write concisely and to argue articulately. What does one do with it? Practically anything — from politics and business to the media and charity work to being a diving instructor (to list some of my former classmates current occupations!)

Yes, plenty of use has come from the field of philosophy, although it is often transformed into a discipline in its own right when it does so — for example physics or political science were both subjects of philosophy well before they became their own disciplines. It is also sometimes difficult to see the impact of philosophy on broader society as it tends to take a long time to permeate down. However, philosophies of science that were predominant in the early twentieth century instructed many people's understanding of scientists (and still do) in a way that, academically at least, many would now disagree with.

A simple answer to the difference in a world without philosophy would be, 'impoverished'. Similar to a world without history or English literature. We could all function, but we would lack a profound understanding of ourselves or our environment. Philosophy encourages one to question all things at a basic level, and without such questioning human life would be more dangerous and worse off. It is not insignificant that in a dictatorship some of the first people to be disposed of by the regime are the philosophers. One has to question why that is.

Kevin Macnish

(46) Jess asked:

Logical fallacy question.

We live in an age in which it is common for people to try and evade responsibility for their actions.

Accusing a determinist of holding their position because he wishes to avoid responsibility for his actions is what logical fallacy?


There is no fallacy here. A fallacy is a defect in an argument and you haven't quoted an argument. What we have here is an argument ad hominem. Instead of finding a defect in the determinist's arguments for determinism, he is accused of being insincere and only believing in determinism because it is convenient for him.

An ad hominem argument is an attempt to blunt the force of an argument by attacking the character of the man who advances the argument.

Shaun Williamson

(47) Nick asked:

Is the USA's use of hightech weapons in a 'turkey shoot' manner unethical, i.e. they enjoy an unfair advantage, and if so why?


I recently watched the 1965 BBC Documentary 'The War Game' made by Peter Watkins, which chillingly depicts the aftermath of a nuclear attack on mainland Britain. Amongst the grippingly realistic scenarios of carnage and devastation, there were a number of interviews of ordinary British people in the street. Many were in favour of 'the Bomb'. 'If the Russians have it, we should have it.' 'If the Russians attack us, I say we should attack them in return.'

Watkins also interpolated quotes from a recent Anglican conference where one Bishop argued that there would be no objection in principle to using the Bomb, provided that it was in a 'just' cause.

I don't want to get bogged down in the ethical question whether any war can be 'just'. Nor do I want to make a case about any particular form of weaponry.

In the Battle of the Somme in World War I, British troops advanced at walking pace on heavily protected German heavy machine gun emplacements, and were mown down in waves. It is said that some of the German gunners stopped firing because they were so disgusted at this spectacle of needless carnage.

I don't think in principle that it is unethical to exploit an advantage in war. In this sense, no advantage is 'unfair'. It could even be argued that the basic principle of war is that you seek to gain an overwhelming advantage. The greater your advantage, the more speedily you win the day.

What apparently happened in the infamous 'turkey shoot' in the 1991 Iraq campaign was that a column of retreating Iraqi troops were very efficiently wiped out by a US air strike. There is an ethical question at stake here, but it is not about whether or not it is unethical to exploit a massive technical advantage. The ethical question concerns overkill. You do enough to win, enough to achieve your objective while to the best of your ability protecting the lives of your own troops.

It is not always possible to judge these things in real time. However, if the troops were in retreat, why not just let them go? There will always be the need to make ethical as well as tactical and strategic decisions. Yet even if we are thoroughly attuned to the ethical demands of the situation, men and women will still die in horrific circumstances; until someone invents a new way of waging war which doesn't involve death.

Geoffrey Klempner

(48) Lauren asked:

How are John Locke and David Hume similar?


Both of them were philosophers and both of them wore wigs. You need to ask a more explicit question. Read some books this will help you to ask a more sensible question.

Shaun Williamson

(49) Sarah asked:

What are the similarities and differences between innate knowledge and a priori knowledge.


Well, this is a distinction that wasn't very clear in the 17th/18th Centuries when philosophers were talking a lot about innate and a priori knowledge, and it led to a lot of confusion!

Roughly, innate knowledge is supposed to be knowledge we are born with. If we think of knowledge as justified true belief, innate knowledge would seem to require (a) that we are born with the relevant belief (say the belief that 2+2=4), and (b) that the justification for the belief is also in some sense something we are born with (whatever that might mean!). Critics of innate knowledge tended to focus on (a), and there are lots of reasons to think that (a) is false. For one thing, it looks like in order to believe that (say) 2+2=4, you have to have the concepts of number, addition, etc. But given that we are born unable to speak or to understand what other people say to us, it is unclear that we have any concepts at all — so we are not in a position to have any beliefs. So we can't have any innate knowledge. (Or to put it in the language of the time, innate knowledge requires 'innate ideas'. But since there are no innate ideas, there can be no innate knowledge.)

A priori knowledge, by contrast, doesn't require us to know or believe anything innately. All that's required is that the justification for the belief in question doesn't have to come from our experience of the world. So while we need experience in order to acquire number concepts etc., once we've got the relevant concepts we can tell, just by thinking about the concepts, that the belief is true. (You just need to run through some basic arithmetic to know that 17+38=55; you don't need to assemble 17 things and 38 other things and count them up in order to demonstrate that 55 is the right answer.) So for example David Hume thought that all our 'ideas' come from experience - he was an empiricist — so he rejected innate knowledge. But that didn't stop him thinking that some things (e.g. arithmetical truths) can be known a priori.

These days, questions about what is and isn't innate are mostly the province of psychology rather than philosophy: philosophers are interested in what we can know a priori, but they aren't so interested in empirical questions about what we are and are not born with. For example Noam Chomsky famously proposed that our ability to learn languages is due to our brains being hard-wired in such a way that we are able to grasp the syntactic structure of sentences. This is an 'innatist' position, in that it claims that our language-learning isn't merely due to our being exposed to lots of people talking to us and our trying sentences out to see what's well-formed and what isn't. On the other hand, it's quite a long way from 'innate knowledge' in the old sense, since the claim isn't that we are somehow born with some list of explicit beliefs about grammar ('every sentence must have a grammatical subject in it', or some such. Come to think of it, I don't think even now I can explicitly state any rules of grammar — but I can construct grammatically well-formed sentences without any trouble! So it would be very implausible to think that 'knowledge' of grammar is innate in anything like the old-fashioned sense.) Innatism in psychology is basically to do with what skills and capacities are 'hard-wired' in our brains, and not what propositions we are born 'knowing'.

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(50) Anonymous asked:

If actions are stronger than words, why is the pen mightier than the sword?


Many proverbs and aphorisms contradict each other. For example 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' and 'When the cat's away the mice will play.' You have just put your finger on another example. Generally each side of the contradiction is only partially true, thereby allowing the other side to be partially true also.

Helier Robinson

(51) Anonymous asked:

If actions are stronger than words, why is the pen mightier than the sword?


Saying you will do something is not the same as doing something. Writing something can be an action that can achieve more than violence. Not all writing is a promise of action, sometimes it is the action itself.

Shaun Williamson

(52) Nicola asked:

I'm terribly sorry, but i AM just looking for help with my homework! (maybe honesty's not the best policy??). I'm a 1st year anthropology student, dipping into a single module of philosophy, and would really appreciate any guidance as to how to set about answering the following question;

Is the existence of god logically consistent with the existence of evil?

I must confess I find it a challenge to 'think philosophically,' as it's just completely different to any mode of approaching things that I've ever encountered. Also, the terminology can be perplexing again, just because it's new and totally alien to me at the minute.

I appreciate that you're not in the business of simply 'doing peoples' homework', but any guidance at all would be much appreciated.


I've given my personal view on the general problem of evil in 43/28 where I admit that most of the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God, in the presence of evil leave me cold. However your question raises some general issues about how to think philosophically. The main thing to realise in a question such as the one you have been set, is that it is asking you to bring out the hidden premises behind the argument. As it stands, the argument needs fleshing out. The hidden premises are that God is omnipotent and that God is loving and kind. The argument then proceeds as follows:

1) God is omnipotent.

2) God is loving and kind.

3) If God is loving and kind and omnipotent, he would not permit evil, but evil exists.

4) Therefore God does not exist.

If you wish to maintain the existence of God, you have to drop the first or second premiss, but that would change the traditional view of God. Dropping the second premiss gives:

1) God is omnipotent.

2) God is evil.

3) Therefore as evil exists, God exists.

You are then left with the dilemma that if God is evil, then why worship or believe in him, her or it. However it would be consistent with the existence of an omnipotent God and authors such as Thomas Hardy came close to such a view. A more plausible argument arises from dropping the first premiss to give:

1) God is loving and kind.

2) God is not omnipotent.

3) Hence the existence of evil has nothing to do with the existence of God.

You might think it crazy to drop the idea that God is omnipotent, however it could be argued that the idea of God's omnipotence is just a projection of man's need for dominance and power, especially as enshrined in the State or most institutionalised forms of religion. Indeed the notion of an omnipotent God, sits uneasily with a God who is loving and kind, especially one who condemns most people to Hell because they don't believe in him, her or it. From a purely philosophical view then either God does not exist, or God is evil and omnipotent, or God is loving and kind, but not omnipotent.

In a more developed form, some Christian theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, come close to the last argument. However, that is when theology takes over from philosophy and whilst I personally find their theology moving, I would not wish to claim that their theology has any philosophical significance. The main reason their theology is not philosophical, is because it is centred around Christianity and so lacks universal appeal. Philosophers on the whole try to aspire to some form of universality for their ideas. Furthermore, you would not get extra marks in your philosophy essay, if you started to expound their theology in any great detail. However if you wish to pursue their theology in your own time, their main works are given in the references below.

I'll leave it for you to work out for yourself whether if mankind has free will an argument of Augustine gets round the problem, for further information on this topic see Hick's book, Evil and the God of love. A good little book which outlines the main type of philosophical argument by name and some of the fallacies that people fall into when arguing their case, is 'Thinking from A-Z' by Nigel Warburton. Armed with this book you can then go through any text and see if the arguments are sound or fallacious. Also, if you can get hold of it, the Open University module on the philosophy of religion, from their introductory philosophy course takes you through some of the main arguments for and against the existence of God and teaches you how to think philosophically about this issue. Hope this helps

Further Reading

Bonhoeffer D 1953 Letters and Papers from Prison SCM Press

Hick J 1966 Evil and the God of Love MacMillan

Moltmann J 1973 The Crucified God SCM Press

Brown S 1999 Destiny, Purpose and Faith Unit 6 of Open University Course A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation.

Warburton N 2000 Thinking from A - Z

Christopher Finlay

(53) Marrissa asked:

Hello, I am taking intro to philosophy and I'm having a hard time answering the following question asked by my philosophy teacher. If you have an idea please help me.

What is there between mind and the physical world around us? To what extent is one able to influence the other?


Unless your Professor is having you study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, these questions can be regarded as 'trick' questions.

Rene Descartes was a 'Mind-Body Dualist'. That means that he considered that the body and the mind were different and unrelated substances. To Descartes, the Mind was an unextended substance whose essence was thinking. While the body was an unthinking substance whose essence was extension. Descartes' approach to the Mind-Body dualism is laid out in his Meditations on First Philosophy. In that text, Descartes goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate that the Mind and the Body are two different substances, each with different properties. In fact they are so different, that Descartes faced the difficulty suggested in your questions — just how do Mind and Body interact, if indeed they do. Descartes actually proposed that whatever interaction did take place, occurred in the pituitary gland — he did not then have the necessary biological information to realize how foolish his proposal was.

To modern philosophers, Mind-Body Dualism has gone out of fashion. And that largely because of the difficulty of specifying how an immaterial Mind thingy can interact with a material Body thingy.

Most modern (non-religious) philosophers maintain some form of physicalism — the position that the Mind is but the behavioural manifestation of a physical brain. Mind-Body Dualism remains largely a position of religious philosophers, because of the need for separating the immaterial and immortal soul from the material and mortal body.

So if you are studying Descartes, or if your course is religious in orientation, then you need to become creative in coming up with some notion of what might exist between the Mind and the Body, and how such two diverse substances interact. Mind you, in the total absence of any evidence at all in support of any suggestions along these lines, you are free to speculate to your heart's content. Descartes offers no suggestions. Nor does the Bible. In the absence of any constraints, you can let whimsy be your guide. (Unless, of course, your professor has some favourite line of whimsy of his own that he expects you to parrot.)

On the other hand, if your course is not about Descartes, and not about religious doctrine, then the answers to your two questions are quite simple (and that is why I thought they might be trick questions).

What is there between mind and the physical world around us? — Nothing. The mind is part of the physical world around us. The mind is the active result of a physical process, in the same way that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the active result of an orchestra at work.

To what extent is one able to influence the other? — The nature of the orchestra affects all aspects of the music being played. The nature of music being played earns accolades and criticisms for the orchestra doing the playing. The nature of the physical world affects all aspects of the mind that is displayed by the body. The nature of the mind displayed affects the blame and praise awarded to the body doing the displaying.

Stuart Burns

(54) Richard asked:

Would you agree:

A person can believe in another Person as an authority, but only repeat their ideas as empty formulae.

Or he can believe in their Ideas because he has is given no access to alternatives.

But he can only believe in an Idea, to which there are alternatives, according to their virtue in his own opinion.

Would you also agree that the Protestant tradition, is belief direct from the idea, albeit originally that was purely attached to the Bible as published.

Authority in the Protestant church is about listening to those with knowledge of the ideas, as a source for that knowledge, and not in authority as a person.


No sorry I don't agree. I think you must be living in some Protestant never, never land that doesn't correspond to any historical reality. The Anglican church is England was the agent of oppression against both Catholics and dissenters. The present Anglican church is riven by bitter disagreement over homosexuality, women priests, fundamentalism etc. There isn't much tolerance of the individual conscience there. Presbyterian Churches in Scotland and Northern Ireland are renown for their intolerance and willingness to expel members who don't toe the line.

In America the protestant churches have always been divided on racial lines. Those wonderful white protestants didn't care to worship with their black neighbours.

You remind me of those liberal Muslims who talk about how tolerant Islam is while some teenage girl is being stoned to death in a town square in Iran.

Where is your wonderfully tolerant Protestant church located?

Shaun Williamson

(55) Laurens asked:

Why is empiricism a bad way to ground ethics for Kant? Why is a metaphysic of morals necessary?


Empirical practice is based on experience and consideration borne from it. Experience is fortuitous, capricious and subject to change. Hence empirically based ethics will be a hypothetical imperative in Kant's terminology. That is, experience teaches that if I want Y, I do X. If I want to get him into trouble, I tell the truth. Whether or not I should tell the truth becomes a means subject to the end.

Kant points out that this is obviously capricious and evades the core point of whether an act is right or wrong. For him, the metaphysics of morality is grounded in Will. So actions are made not through the hypothetical imperative and considerations borne of experience but the Categorical Imperative. 'Act only so that your Will is universalisable'. In other words, is it logically consistent devoid of contradiction thereby passed by Reason. Ethical action is justified in this way and not polluted by empirical considerations.

Martin Jenkins

(56) Jessica asked:

Hi, I'm trying to figure out if this quotation from Voltaire can really be considered an argument:

'Animals have these advantages over men: they never hear the clock strike, they are without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.'

If it is an argument, would that make the conclusion that animals have advantages over men and the premises everything after the colon?


This depends on your definition of an argument. If an argument is held to be a set of propositions arranged into premises and conclusion then yes, it would appear to be an argument in the format you suggest. The more interesting question that then follows is whether it is a valid argument (i.e. can the premises be true and the conclusion false?). As it stands it would, strictly speaking, seem to be invalid unless an extra premise is added stipulating that, 'it is advantageous to not hear a clock strike, to have no idea of death, to lack theological instruction, etc.' Doubtless Voltaire was appealing to an intuition of these things as implicit and he is obviously writing with his tongue in his cheek, and so to accuse him of an invalid argument in this case might be bit nit-picking and missing his main point.

Kevin Macnish

(57) Jon asked:

Can information cause events in the physical world, where 'information' cannot be wholly reduced to the physical means of its transmission?


Suppose Prime Minister Chamberlain sends a message to Herr Hitler saying 'Unless you remove your troops from Poland by midnight a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany'. Here we have some information that will definitely have an effect on events in the physical world (troop movements etc.).

However what does it mean to say that information cannot be wholly reduced to the physical means of its transmission. If it means anything then perhaps it means that Chamberlain's message could have been transmitted in any one of several physical forms and by itself causes nothing unless it is read and understood by Herr Hitler. Reading and understanding aren't physical things either.

Wittgenstein gives this example of a sentence that mixes the physical and the non-physical 'He suffered great torments and twisted and turned restlessly all night'. Now in general it does not trouble us that the torments are mental (i.e. non-physical) and the twisting and turning are physical. We understand this sort of sentence without any effort. It is only when we begin to think about it (philosophically) that it seems problematic. We start to think how can we mix the physical and the non-physical in this way. The only answer to this is, its easy humans do it all the time.

Shaun Williamson

(58) Jon asked:

Can 'information' be distinguished from the physical means of its transmission (for example, electronic or neuronal). And if so, does 'information' have a discrete nonmaterial reality?

This is a better phrasing of my previous question: Can information cause events in the physical world, where 'information' cannot be wholly reduced to the physical means of its transmission?


Yes, information in the technical sense, as defined by Claude Shannon, is not the same as the medium of its transmission. What is transmitted is energy in some form, and the information in it is the entropy of that energy. Entropy is a concept from thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and is usually explained popularly as being a measure of disorder. It is difficult to say whether it has a discrete non-material reality because the concept of material is vague. If by 'material' you mean non-mental then the non-material must be mental, and information is more than that. If by material you mean anything composed of atoms and molecules, then information is non-material (although it emerges out of the material). If by material you mean anything concrete in empirical perception, then the material is all secondary qualities; and information is not this, although this contains information.

The answer to your re-phrased question is yes. You can will you muscles to move, by sending information down your efferent nerves, thereby causing physical effects. It may interest you to know that the second law of thermodynamics requires that entropy may increase but not decrease. The similar law in statistical mechanics (which is theoretical thermodynamics) allows a tiny probability of decrease. That is, both require that entropy is not conserved. But quantum mechanics requires that entropy (information) is conserved! (See 'The black-hole Wars' by Susskind, published by Little, Brown, 2008.) The opinion of physicists on this (very contemporary) problem seems to be that the second law of thermodynamics must be due to illusion.

Helier Robinson

(59) Yunus asked:

In what sense is every man a philosopher?


In the same sense that every man is a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon i.e. not at all.

Most people have no knowledge of or interest in philosophy. The idea that just because you think about life then you are a philosopher is as silly as saying that because you sing in the bath you are a musician.

If you want to become a philosopher you must study philosophy and if your brain doesn't hurt while you are doing this, then you are not studying hard enough.

Shaun Williamson

(60) Glenda asked:

Three geniuses stand in a file (one behind the other). Each can see only to the front, so the rear person can see the middle and the front, the middle person can see the front, and the front person cannot see anyone. You have five hats. Two are white and three are red. You blindfold the three geniuses, who are utterly truthful, and put a hat at random on the head of each. Then you hide the other two hats and remove the blindfolds. You then ask each genius to name the color of his hat (which he cannot see). The rear one says I do not know, the middle one says I do not know. Then the front one says I know. What color is the front genius's hat? Probability is not a basis here.


This is way too easy!

Let's call the front guy 'A', and the back guy 'C', with the middle guy 'B'.

Consider C's position — if he can see 2 white hats, then he knows that he is wearing a red hat. If he cannot see 2 white hats, he can not know what hat he is wearing. Since C admits that he does not know what he is wearing, then he cannot be seeing 2 white hats.

Now consider B's position — Since C does not see 2 white hats, B knows that at least one of A or B is wearing a red hat. If he sees that A is wearing a white hat, then he knows that he (B) must be wearing a red hat. But B admits that he does not know what he is wearing. Therefore, he cannot be seeing a white hat on A.

Finally, A concludes that the only way that B and C can not know what hats they are wearing, is if A is wearing a red hat.


Stuart Burns

(61) Ranjeet asked:

Is it better to ask questions (as do philosophers) or is it better to ask nothing and let the mind answer without having posed a question (as do some Monks amp; Sages)?


Well since I am a philosopher I am bound to think that it is better to ask questions. After all would you want to do science or history or medicine by just waiting around until the answers came to you. Why should philosophy be any different? Monks and Sages are in the business of religion, not philosophy. Philosophical questions aren't answered by meditation or contemplation.

Shaun Williamson

(62) Yann asked:

The number 2 implies identity but there are no absolutely identical entities in the physical world. Does this mean that '2' can only represent a pair of abstractions (e.g. John and Mary are different but they are 2 'people', 'first names', 'words')? If so, are mathematical representations of the physical world nothing more than approximations? Can they tell us anything absolute about reality?


You have half-grasped an important truth here, which is that number concepts are not like the concepts which we apply to objects, such as 'red', 'square', 'heavy' etc. The mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege in his book, Foundations of Arithmetic, translated by J.L. Austin, explains that number concepts apply to other concepts (as you state) rather than to objects.

So, for example, if I have five red tomatoes on a plate, then each tomato is red but each tomato is not 'five'. That would make no sense at all. Rather, the 'second-order' concept 'five' is predicated of the 'first-order' concept 'tomato'. Or, in simpler terms, on this plate the concept of 'being a tomato' is instantiated five times.

If there are five tomatoes on the plate, then this is not an 'approximate' statement. Whereas 'there are five mashed potatoes on the plate' would be, if you couldn't tell for sure where one mashed potato ands and another begins. Number concepts apply as precisely as any concept can. All that is required logically is that we are able to identify 'objects' which have an identity. When you are dealing with mashed potatoes, or clouds, that's when you run into difficulties.

In this regard, number concepts might well be contrasted with geometrical concepts like 'square' or 'triangle', where it would be true to say that there is no 'perfectly square' or 'perfectly triangular' object in the world.

Geoffrey Klempner

(63) Lee asked:

Is suicide wrong?

Just to give you some insights into my thinking process:

If life has an end, death, why live? So suicide is not wrong. This question cannot be compared to this question: If you are going to get hungry, why eat?

Because, to eat is not a choice; its more of an uncontrolled urge to fill the stomach. However, in the end despite religious and social obligations, to continue living is a personal choice. So, suicide is not wrong.

Is this analysis correct?


For most people trying to stay alive is like eating. So the two things can be compared despite what you say. Suicide is not just one thing as you seem to think. There are many reasons why people choose to end their own lives. Some of these reason are admirable and praiseworthy. However in general suicides displays a childish neurotic inability to face up to life. So we can pity suicides but not admire them. Life is the end of life not death as you suppose. For any real human death is something that happens to them, it is not something they seek. In most cases suicide is wrong, so don't deceive yourself, cowardice is never praiseworthy, no matter how you try to dress it up.

Shaun Williamson

(64) John asked:

Kant said that our synthetic a-priori concepts such as space and time are imposed on our sensations of the world. So we perceive objects in space and time. From this, he said that we cannot know the Noumenal but only the phenomenal. Kant seems to be suggesting that objects can exist without space and time. If so, does that mean objects exist without these concepts when we are not perceiving them?


No. Objects as 'objects' can only exist in space and time. Without the prerequisite conditions of space and time which constructs the phenomenal, there remains the Noumenal of which, we can know nothing. Objects qua Objects can only exist in the phenomenal realm.

Space and Time, as expounded in the Transcendental Aesthetic are, along with the Categories [ Quantity, unity, plurality, totality; Quality reality, negation, limitation; Relation, substance, causality, interaction; Modality, possibility, impossibility, existence, non-existence, necessity, contingency ] are the conditions for the possibility of knowledge. Without these conditions, we can't know anything.

You seem to be touching on Berkeley's Immaterialism / Idealism. Kant maintained that his Critical Idealism was distinct from this. The section 'Refutation of Idealism' in the Transcendental Logic might be helpful in this respect.

Martin Jenkins

(65) Gavin asked:

I am currently studying philosophy with the University of London. In the guidelines it outlines to following criteria for excellent marks:

- An excellent understanding of the philosophical issues raised in the precise area of the question

- An awareness of the relevant texts and arguments

- An understanding of the philosophical techniques used in the precise area of the question and successful attempts to apply such techniques.

- Independent critical thought about the question(s).

I have two question, regarding the latter two of these criteria:

(1) What exactly is meant by the philosophical techniques? Does this refer to conceptual analysis, which i will show in my answer, or do I have to refer to specific techniques used by other philosophers?


(2) When showing independent critical thought is it enough to criticize the various theories and holes in arguments presented by philosophers, or do i need to go as far as developing my own theory(s) about the question itself?


One philosophical technique is analysis: of the meanings of words, of language, of perception, of introspection, etc. Another technique is synthesis: proposing underlying causes of phenomena in order to explain these phenomena, since description of causes is explanation of their effects. A third technique is logic and (if you are able) mathematics, although this is really part of the first two. For the past century philosophy has been only analytic, on the ground that synthesis is speculative and, according to David Hume, 'tis vain to speculate. An example of critical thought, independent of this view, is the claim that theoretical science is speculative (although in a very disciplined way) and highly successful at explaining empirical phenomena; and as long as philosophy is exclusively analytic it cannot account for this success, so cannot produce a good philosophy of science. As far as your second question is concerned, developing your own theory is good, but not essential.

Helier Robinson

(66) Richard asked:

Would you not agree that natural ethics and Christian ethics probably coincide.

'God' has given us 'freewill' and choice.

Therefore obeying a set of commands is inappropriate since it makes us mere machines.

We must choose by using our intelligence and deciding what the logical end values in Ethics are, and deciding what is logically moral.


The idea of Good and Evil is logically prior to the idea of God because in order to decide that God exists and God is good you must already have an idea of good.

When you say that natural ethics and Christian ethics probably coincide then it depends on which Christians you are talking about. Are the Jehovah's Witnesses Christian? Are all those strange Californian Christian cults Christian? Are all the strict Calvinist sects who regard the Pope as the Antichrist Christian? Is the Pope Christian? In ethics you must decide what is good and what is evil. Of course you must be logical as you must be in everything but logic has no special place in ethics.

Shaun Williamson

(67) Chris asked:

Why should we question the answers?


To see if they answer the questions.

Kevin Macnish

(68) John asked:

Is the statement "I have two kids" true if I actually have five kids? In other words, is the statement true even if it is a weaker claim than I could otherwise make?


That's quite a hard question. In general, the fact that there is a stronger claim you could make doesn't make what you actually say false. It's perfectly true to say that the nearest shop is less than a mile away, even though you know perfectly well (and could have said) that it's actually exactly 425 metres away.

The question is whether we think 'I have two kids' means 'I have exactly two kids' or rather 'I have at least two kids'.If the former, then what you said is just false.If the latter, then yes, you're saying something weaker than you might have said, and this doesn't make it false.But that doesn't make the suspicion that there is something wrong with saying 'I have 'two kids' go away. The question is whether we can give a story about what is wrong with it that doesn't amount to saying that it's simply false.

One way to do that is prompted by the work of Paul Grice on 'conversational implicature'. Yes, the statement (taken to mean 'I have at least two kids') is true — BUT there are going to be conversational contexts in which it is a misleading thing to say. This is because there are norms governing conversations — exchanges of information — that we expect and assume that people we're talking to will abide by. (Grice calls this the 'Co-operative Principle'.) For example, you should say the strongest thing you have good reason to believe, so long as it is informative and relevant.

So if we take 'I have two kids' to mean 'I have at least two kids', then it's true, but in many contexts it's misleading to say it, because you could just as easily have said exactly how many kids you have. For example, if someone asks you how many kids you have, it's clear that what they want to know is exactly how many kids you have. So when you say 'I have two', they are entitled to assume that you meant to convey the information that you have exactly two kids (after all, they know that you know how many kids you have, so why wouldn't you simply tell them?). The fact that in fact you only strictly speaking said that you have at least two (if that is what you strictly speaking said!) means that you've violated the Co-operative Principle. So you may speak the truth, but you are not a good person to have a conversation with!

On the other hand, we might think that 'I have two kids' really means 'I have exactly two kids'. So then the claim would simply be false. It's easy to think of other cases involving numbers that make this look like the right thing to say. If I ask a child how many apples there are on the bowl and she says 'six', when there are really eight, it looks like I'd think she's got the answer plain wrong.

So ... it's a hard question. There's something to be said for both answers ('yes it's true, but it's a deliberately misleading thing to say' and 'no, it's an outright lie'). Take your pick.

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(69) Richard asked:

Would you not agree that natural ethics and Christian ethics probably coincide.

'God' has given us 'freewill' and choice. Therefore obeying a set of commands is inappropriate since it makes us mere machines. We must choose by using our intelligence and deciding what the logical end values in Ethics are, and deciding what is logically moral.


Would I agree that natural ethics and Christian ethics probably coincide? Not in the least degree. Christian ethics is an Authoritarian system of ethics — that which is morally good is that which is commanded by God (and that which is morally bad is that which is condemned by God). Natural ethics is that which nature dictates. Now, unless you 'cheat' by claiming that whatever constitutes 'nature' was created by God, and adheres to his rules, then there is no necessary connection between that which 'nature' dictates, and that which 'God' dictates. And there is every reason to expect that the two sets of dictates will in no way coincide.

You use the term 'natural ethics' without providing any guidance on how to understand that term. So I am going to provide my own interpretation of the term. Hence I will understand 'natural ethics' as the specification of what is morally good and bad by way of the laws of nature. In other words, survival is good, and non-survival is bad. Or, in a more sophisticated interpretation — the proliferation of one's gene pool over the long term is good, and anything interfering with that Prime Directive is bad. (Given the nature of your question, this is probably not what you think of when you think 'natural ethics'. But until you provide the details of how you interpret that term, I will feel free to provide my own understanding.)

On this understanding of 'natural ethics', it is very obvious that Christian ethics does in no way coincide with natural ethics.

Natural ethics says that we have evolved an ability to reason. Therefore obeying a set of commands handed down by God is inappropriate since it makes us mere machines. We must choose by using our intelligence to decide how best to fulfill our purpose and achieve our goals. And that constitutes rationally deciding what is logically moral.

Christian ethics says that God has given us freewill and choice as well as a set of commands that defines Christian ethics. Therefore we must freely choose to obey God's commands in order to behave in a moral manner. We must deny our intelligence and subjugate our ability to decide what logical end values we should pursue. Christian ethics dictates that our purpose is to serve God, and to obey his injunctions. Violating that purpose or those injunctions is the definition of immorality.

Far from coinciding, these two systems of ethics share almost no overlap at all.

Stuart Burns

(70) Charles asked:

'Man is born tabula rasa.' Discuss.


Tabula rasa is a wax tablet wiped clean. Another metaphor for the same philosophical notion is that of a blank piece of paper.

This was a favourite concept of the empiricists of whom the most famous were the three British philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. They were opposed to the idea that when we are born we already have innate ideas and innate knowledge. They did not literally believe that babies could answer questions on Mastermind but their position was that, given some initial stimulus in our experience, we could gain access to truths that had been within us from before we were born.

This tradition goes back at least to Plato who claimed that there was proof of innate ideas that could be shown by experiment. In his dialogue The Meno, Socrates takes an uneducated slave boy, starts to draw some lines with a stick in the sand and asks the boy a series of questions. At the end of the questions the slave boy has come to an understanding about a geometrical theorem that he had no understanding of at the beginning of the questioning. This gain in knowledge, argues Plato, can only be understood on the assumption that the slave boy already contains within his mind the knowledge of the theorem. For Socrates had told the boy nothing; he has only asked questions and had drawn out of him, elicited from him, the answers from a hidden reserve of innate knowledge.

The empiricists' tabula rasa is directly opposed to this notion of innate ideas. Think of the tabula rasa as a way of describing the mind we have when we are born as completely empty of any ideas whatsoever. And think also of other metaphors that might be employed to describe this state, like the blank sheet of paper already mentioned. What about a mirror? Or a brick wall?

I can write on a piece of paper with a pencil. But pencil doesn't leave any mark on a mirror or much of a mark on a wall. If I breathe on a mirror, I leave an impression but breathing on paper or walls or wax tablets for that matter, leaves nothing at all. So what does this all mean? It means that the tabula rasa idea is more complicated than it seems. To some extent what is written on determines what can be written. And this means in effect that we are not just passive receivers of information about the world around us as empiricists had implied. The way we are constructed determines what we perceive.

This idea that the apparatus of our minds structures what we perceive is developed in great depth by the philosopher Immanuel Kant who was stirred in his thinking by the empiricists and responded to the challenge of their ideas.

Oliver Leech

(71) Michelle asked:

To what extent is real conflict? must we choose between reason and faith? must science and religion come into conflict in their explanation for things?


The purpose of science is to provide explanations for things by looking at the world and finding theories which are supported by all the available evidence. Science of course has many practical advantages. It has enabled the invention of vaccines and antibiotics to prevent and cure disease. It has led to the invention of electricity, the computer, television and countless other things. While science refines and changes its theories the well established theories will be refined as our knowledge increases but they will not turn out to be completely false. So the major scientific theories such as Relativity, Quantum mechanics and Evolution are all well established and will always survive.

The scientist is trying to find out how the physical world works As such science makes no reference to religion and it certainly does not seek to contradict or confirm religion. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.

However it is possible for religion and science to conflict since we cannot set a limit to religious belief because there are many bizarre religions.

So if some Christians and Muslims want to believe that God created all the species of animals and insects and fish on the same earth day and if those same Christians choose to believe that the world is only 4500 years old then there is bound to be a conflict. The scientist has to go by the evidence and for example all the evidence tells us that the earth is over 2 billion years old and all the species were not created on the same day. There were no men who existed at the same time as the dinosaurs for example and there is no evidence to show that they did. These Christians pretend that it is only the theory of Evolution that they object to. They fail to realise that you cannot throw away just one part of science without throwing away all of science. All the sciences are interdependent and support each other.

However only some Christians and Muslims have these strange anti-scientific beliefs. What you really have to choose between is grown up adult theology and naive fundamentalist childish theology.

Shaun Williamson

(72) Cathie asked:

Is it possible to know anything with absolute certainty?


At first sight, I'm tempted to say the one thing we can know for certain, is that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty. But that would lead to a paradox, so I would have to say I'm almost positive, that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty. This is of course a matter of dispute, the field of philosophy which deals with this question is called Epistemology and to cover all the aspects would require at least one book if not more. Some hints for further reading are given below.

In what follows, I will consider three claims to ground knowledge on absolute certainty:

i) The claim that absolute certainty can be guaranteed by our perceptions. ii) The claim that mathematics provides a path to absolute certainty. iii) The claim that physics is close to providing a theory of everything.

I will argue that all three attempts fail. Nevertheless, despite the failure of the quest for absolute certainty, I would argue that it doesn't really matter, the branches of knowledge we have are sufficient to solve the problems and puzzles that we need to solve on a day to day basis and mankind is able to gain and extend knowledge about the world around us. If we were to achieve absolute certainty, then there would be no more for us to discover and life would become boring. Furthermore the claim to absolute certainty about say the existence of God or a particular political system such as totalitarianism, is dangerous and leads to dogmatism.

In Plato's dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates engages Theaetetus (a promising young man, who went on to become a leading geometer) in a dialogue as to the nature of knowledge. The first part of the dialogue is concerned with Theaetetus's claim that knowledge is perception. The argument goes, I can be absolutely certain of my perceptions, therefore this counts as true knowledge. Towards the end of the first part (sections 184-186) Socrates asks the question do we perceive with our senses or through our senses? This is not just a grammatical distinction. Socrates points out that whilst the senses on the most part act individually, we do not hear a colour or see a sound (unless of course we are syneasthetic, such as the composer Scriabin who saw sounds as colours) we experience objects as a whole. In an insight which prefigures Kant some 2200 years later, Socrates argues that the mind (or soul) must play some part in synthesising the sense impressions to provide a unity. That is the mind must play some part in judgement which is above and beyond the pure sense impressions. Thus knowledge is not just perception and so our perceptions cannot guarantee absolute certainty. The Theaetetus is a remarkable dialogue, well worth studying, in that it anticipates many of the debates about knowledge that were to surface in later philosophy.

Given that our perceptions cannot form the basis for absolute certainty, is there another way? One such way was thought to be provided, by the analytic turn, that philosophy took towards the end of the 19th century. As a consequence of trying to put mathematics on a rigorous foundation Frege and Russell attempted to ground mathematics on logic. The hope was also made that language, could also be placed on a similar foundation. This attempt culminated in Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica. The cost of such rigour, is that it takes 300 pages of dense proof, to prove that 2+2=4 and a similar exercise, would have to be performed for a different arithmetic sum such as 6+3=9.

However this attempt to reduce mathematics to logic floundered, when Godel showed that any mathematical system sufficiently, complex to include arithmetic, could not be consistent or complete at the same time. By completeness is meant sufficient to prove all known theorems about arithmetic. The sting in the tail, is that whilst it is possible to formulate a consistent set of axioms, if an attempt is made to make the axioms complete, by adding as a new axiom, a theorem that hasn't been proven, but known otherwise to be true, then the original system becomes inconsistent. As consistency in mathematics is important, the implication is that we must accept a fundamental incompleteness in mathematics.

A glimpse of what is meant here can be considered by the Liar paradox. Consider the sentence:

Everything I say is a lie

If it is true, then I have uttered a truth which contradicts the claim of the sentence, on the other hand if it is false then what it claims is true thus the sentence is neither true or false. The problem is that such sentences are self referential and so far as yet no system of logic has been devised which can handle self reference in a consistent and complete manner. Thus we see that attempting to ground absolute certainty on the basis of mathematics or logic has it's problems. However this is not to deny the usefulness of mathematics in day to day life, just the claim that it is possible to place mathematics on an absolutely certain basis.

Finally I turn to the somewhat extravagant claims of some physicists (eg Stephen Hawking and Stephen Weinberg) that they are close to providing a complete theory of everything. As you are probably aware, physics is based on four fundamental forces, the strong interaction which holds nuclei together, the weak interaction which is responsible for beta decay and plays an important part in holding stars together, electromagnetism and gravity. Each of these theories has a separate coupling constant and it has been a quest of physicists to see if these separate forces can be replaced by a single coupling constant. If they can, the argument goes, we will have a single theory which can explain everything in physics, and as physics provides the foundations for all branches of knowledge then we will have obtained absolute certainty.

In the early 1970's with the development of a class of theories, known as gauge theories, a common framework was established whereby the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions could be described. Steps towards unifying the electromagnetic and weak interactions were achieved by Weinberg and Salam by placing these in the gauge framework, however in this model the electromagnetic and weak interactions still retain their separate coupling constants, so despite some claims, it is not true that the weak and the electromagnetic interactions have been unified. A genuine theoretical unification of the weak, strong and electromagnetic interactions was achieved by Glashow which was based on a symmetry known as SU(5). This contains the symmetry groups of the strong (SU(3)), the weak (SU(2)) and the electromagnetic interactions (U(1)) all linked by one coupling constant. However this theory, whilst attractive made a prediction that protons would decay within a certain life-time. Experiments in the 1980's showed, that if the proton decayed at all, it's lifetime was significantly greater than that predicted by the SU(5) theory. It remains a matter of conjecture as to whether or not a unification of the strong electromagnetic and weak interactions can ever be achieved, which is empirically testable by human beings. Some clues may emerge from the Large Hadron collider.

However even if this were the case, gravity would not be included in this framework. It was found in the late 1970's that gravity could not be easily assimilated to the gauge theoretical framework and other approaches such as superstrings and loop gravity were developed. The problem with these approaches, is that so far no empirically testable hypothesis has been developed which could act as a test of these theories and so they are 'not even wrong'. Thus far from being close to a unified theory of everything, we are not even close, and it seems unlikely that we ever will be. Furthermore there remains the question, just what is the relationship between physics and other branches of knowledge, such as ethics and aesthetics. I for one find it difficult to make such a connection. Nevertheless physics has definitely helped us understand the world around us, most spectacularly in our understanding of cosmology and the origins of the universe (See 43/3) and within its domain of applicability remains a useful branch of knowledge.

Given that we cannot ground absolute certainty on our perceptions, mathematics or physics, does that mean we should counsel despair and claim that we cannot know anything at all? I would say not, these disciplines, along with many others are useful in enabling mankind to solve immediate problems and gaining knowledge about the world. Indeed spending all our time worrying about the foundations of mathematics, or physics, or other branches of knowledge, important though that is, fails to do justice to what can actually be done with these subjects given our present understanding.

Locke puts it most eloquently in the first chapter of his Essay concerning Human Understanding.

The candle, that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our purposes. The discoveries we can make with this, ought to satisfy us and we shall then use our understandings right, when we entertain all objects in that way and proportion, that they are suited to our faculties; and upon those grounds, they are capable of being proposed to us; and not peremptorily, or intemperately require demonstration, and demand certainty, where probability only is to be had, and which is sufficient to govern our concernments. If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do much what as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.

Locke An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingBook 1 Ch 1 paragraph 5 .

To conclude then I have argued that whilst there are problems in grounding absolute certainty on the basis of our perceptions, mathematics, or physics, this does not undermine what these disciplines and other branches of knowledge can offer. To paraphrase a certain slogan currently being displayed on London buses 'Absolute certainty probably doesn't exist, so stop worrying and enjoy life.'

Further Reading

The Theaetetus is discussed by Chappell in the Stanford encylopedia of philosophy

This also contains an overview of Epistemology as a whole.

An online version of the dialogue can be obtained from the Perseus Web Site.

A relatively accessible introduction to Godel's theorem is given by Nagel and Newman in their book Godel's Proof New York University Press 2001

A good overview of the development of gauge theories is given by Weinberg in his book Dreams of a Final Theory. Vintage 1994

Finally for a critique of superstring theory see Peter Woit's book Not even wrong Vintage 2007.

Christopher Finlay

(73) Joan asked:

Is there a moral responsibility to use and develop personal talent, bearing in mind that to do so for instance, writing a book may be very poorly rewarded. It may not be published; if it is published, the edition may be very small and so reach very few people, the publisher may not think it worthwhile promoting this book. You'll know you made the huge commitment to producing the book, attending to rewrites, publishers' requirements, etc. On the other hand, one's time could be used more profitably... both in terms of financial reward and possibly a sense of achievement and fulfilment (volunteer work, etc.).


What is a talent? Is it just the ability to do something very well, regardless of what that thing is? Here's an example of a talent: the ability to take any given sentence and make the precise sound that would be made if someone spoke the sentence into a recording device and then played the recording backwards. With this talent you could go on TV shows which showcase individuals with freak talents, and entertain people.

Most would think that refining such a 'talent' would be a waste of one's time. But if you appeared on the TV show regularly and entertained lots of people and made lots of money, why would that matter?

Our intuitions tell us that there is something wrong with this: that there can be 'good' talents as well as those which are less good or valuable. We only have a moral responsibility to develop our good talents.

You can see where this is going. The importance and value of human talents lies in the the activities or products which those talents make possible. You gave the example of writing. Good writing is something we value. However, not all good writing is recognized as such. It's sad when that happens but the publishing industry being what it is, genuine talent is not always rewarded.

The responsibility to develop one's talents does not override all other responsibilities. It is part of a package. We can choose to some extent what relative values we place on self development and promoting social goods, and each individual (as F.H. Bradley observed) will locate him or herself at a different point on the spectrum.

Geoffrey Klempner

(74) Richard asked:

Naturally there is still a religious rump that wants to believe in Creation as opposed to Evolution.

Are they not doing a great disservice to intelligent religion?

The real question is how seemingly inert matter not merely gives rise to life, such as plants, but to Sapient life. Explain how inert matter has the potential of intelligent self-knowledge. That is the real spirit in the machine.


This is an answer to your second question. How can inert matter give rise to sapient life. What makes you think matter is inert? Study organic chemistry, there is no mystery here about organic life, we know the chemicals that are involved in this. We may not yet be sure how it started but that is a historical question.

When it comes to sapient life doesn't the brain seem like the ideal material thing to give rise to this? Can you think of anything that might be better at giving rise to sapient life or intelligent self knowledge.

Where does this idea of inert matter come from. its certainly not a scientific idea. There are inert gases but that is all.

Shaun Williamson

(75) Thomas asked:

Do I need a degree to be a philosopher? Or why does a philosophy degree even exist?

What does one do with a philosophy degree and why do you do it?

Does anything useful come out of the field of philosophy? Useful for beings other than philosophers?

If we left world just as it is but removed the idea of philosophy from it how would it be different?


No, you do not need a degree to be a philosopher: the greatest philosopher ever was probably Plato, and he did not have a degree. However, a degree does help: you can stand on the shoulders of giants, instead of starting from scratch. (Mind you, if you are not temperamentally suited to philosophy you will find that you are crippled by giants standing on your shoulders.) If you like I will send you a penny for your question, just to show you that something useful can come out of philosophy; but it's better to regard the study of philosophy as a luxury that wealthy nations can afford, rather than as a utility. Finally, if we removed anything from the world then it necessarily would be different.

Helier Robinson

(76) Richard asked:

Naturally there is still a religious rump that wants to believe in Creation as opposed to Evolution.

Are they not doing a great disservice to intelligent religion?

The real question is how seemingly inert matter not merely gives rise to life, such as plants, but to Sapient life. Explain how inert matter has the potential of intelligent self-knowledge. That is the real spirit in the machine.


Well like most people you display certain confusions here. 'Creationism' has never been an official belief of the largest Christian churches i.e. the Catholic church and the Episcopalian and Anglican churches have never required their members to believe in Creationism or to deny the truth of evolution.

However Christians believe that God created the world and everything in it. This has nothing to do with 'Creationism' or 'Intelligent Design'. Science cannot tell us why the world is here nor does it try to do so. The truth of evolution which is a well established scientific theory supported by all the available evidence can in no way contradict the idea that there is a god and that god created the world.

By the way I am not a religious person, I am not a Christian and I am an agnostic.

Shaun Williamson

(77) Kate asked:

How would you compare J.S. Mill and Marx on the topic of social progress?


J.S. Mill

The removal of Tyrants and their replacement with democracy [most notably in the American and French Revolutions] led, or would lead, to another tyranny — the Tyranny of the Majority. The majority would suppress opinions and lifestyles of which they did not approve.

Mill held that Freedom of Opinion, of Discussion and Freedom of Individuality must be safeguarded. Freedom of discussion and opinion will prevent the tyranny of the majority by continually questioning prevailing dogmas, opinions and by developing alternative opinions which will surpass them. As long as opinion and discussion do not harm others, society has no grounds to interfere and suppress. So social progress will be determined by the removal of 'dead dogma' which cannot be intellectually defended and the level of free speech.

Regarding Freedom of Individuality, it is from the freedom to be an individual, of individualism that creativity in innovation, and invention are more likely to develop. From this follows diversity. Humanity becomes richer in its experiments in living. This richness will contribute to the social development of humanity. Individuality encourages the full development of human faculties. A person will think, reflect and construct his/her own plan of life. Blindly and unthinkingly following custom does not demand the greatest utilisation of the faculties — it dulls them. This is also a source of progress as it fulfils the potential of human beings. The opposite of mass conformity stifles individual creativity and neglects the development of human faculties.


Social progress would be measured on the macro or collective level of history. It is not so much about individuals but about mass social movements of history making proportions. That is, when the global proletariat overthrows the global Capitalist Ruling Class. This will be the final phase in the history of class struggle. Prior to this, the rising Capitalist Class overthrew the Feudal Ruling Class and its Social relations of Production just as the Feudal Ruling Class overthrew the Slave owning Ruling Class and its socio- productive relations. Slavery grew out of the original condition of humanity which was Primitive Communism. This historical process begins and ends with Communism. As such, social progress is determined by the progressive movement towards global Communism which necessarily entails the emancipation of the Proletariat.

Some [Hegelian] Marxist scholars note the Aristotelian teleology at work here. It is a causa finalis where, like the acorn becoming the oak, there is a pattern or process. This is informed by an essence of which the beginning is also in the end. Any attempt to understand or posit History in such a way is dismissed as Historicism by Philosophers such as Karl Popper. Here, history cannot be said to operate by laws, or patterns as these are not scientifically viable. Hence if any belief in progress is based on Historical laws , the foundational basis for its judgement is questionable.

Martin Jenkins

(78) Patti asked:

How does David Hume answer to the assertion that there is an 'enduring self'?


In his Treatise on Human Nature, in the section on Identity, Hume states very clearly that the notion of an 'enduring self' is but a fiction concocted by the mind, and that the 'self' has no basis in reality.

Hume maintains a very absolutist notion of identity. For Hume, all of our ideas are but copies (or complexes of copies) of our perceptions. If an idea is valid, there must be some perceptions of which the idea is a copy. Moreover, Hume argues that perceptions are individually distinct and unique. Hume suggests that the idea of 'unity' is derived from a sequence of perceptions that appear constant and unchanging. The idea of unity derives from the ease with which the mind transitions across the sequence of individual perceptions of some thing constant and unchanging.

The notion of 'identity' Hume argues is not a valid idea like 'unity', but is rather a fiction of the mind. There is no sequence of unchanging perceptions in the case of 'identity'. What the mind does is gloss over the gaps in the sequence of perceptions, and the changes in the thing(s) perceived to concoct the fiction of 'identity' of some unity over time. The mind puts together interrupted sequences of perceptions, perhaps slightly different in detail, in order to come up with the notion of 'identity'. To Hume, then, the notion of 'identity' must necessarily involve a thing perceived that does not change sufficiently between perceptions to interrupt the smooth and easy transition of the mind from perception to perception. In this respect, Hume is at odds with his predecessor Locke, who associated the concept of identity with a kind (material, living, conscious).

With this basic rigid notion of 'identity', Hume must now deal with the idea of 'personal identity'. Because he considers that the foundation of all valid ideas is located within the constant flow of individual, distinct, and unique perceptions streaming before the mind, Hume regards the notion of 'personal identity' as but a further fiction concocted by the mind out of that flow of perceptions. To Hume, the 'self' is but a collection or bundle of these individual perceptions. But the mind gathers a selection of these perceptions together and detects some sort of smooth and easy transition across this bundle of unique perceptions. It is this smooth and easy transition that is the basis for the fiction of 'personal identity'.

Yet, in his Appendix to his Treatise, Hume recognizes that this 'error theory' of personal identity involves a fundamental inconsistency. An inconsistency that he admits he is unable to resolve. The inconsistency arises in the requirement for a 'smooth and easy transition of the mind' across the relevant sequence of perceptions. Since we undoubtedly detect and assign 'identity' to a multitude of individual existents within our stream of perceptions, there must exist a multitude of sets of perceptions across which there is a smooth and easy transition of the mind, but between which there is a sufficient lack of such a smooth and easy transition to make the separation of multiple identities possible. If that is the case, then how can the mind also bundle together all those perceptions and find the smooth and easy transition of the mind that is the basis of the fiction of personal identity — the 'enduring self'.

So, Hume's answer to the assertion that there is an 'enduring self,' is that there isn't one. The 'enduring self' is a fiction of the mind, caused by the smooth and easy transition of the mind across the flow of perceptions that the self experiences. In reality, the 'self' is but a bundle of perceptions. And 'enduring' is not a necessary feature of such a bundle.

Stuart Burns

(79) Jessica asked:

We're discussing arguments in my logic and critical thinking class, and I can't decide for sure whether or not the following is an argument or, I suppose, an explanation or something. I'm in an independent learning class, so I can't ask my professor

'I shall pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now; let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.'


It's a moral argument. Now of course all moral arguments have to be logical as do all other type of arguments. It also has to be scientifically true. For example if it were true that we pass through this world at least twice then the argument would be no good.

Shaun Williamson

(80) Rebecca asked:

Why do some Philosophers and Scientists deny that there are colors in the world when everyone (unless they are color blind or blind) can see them? What is their reasoning?

Do all colors (pink, purple blue, etc.) exist?


The philosophers and scientists do not deny that colours exist, but rather claim that as properties of objects, colours have a different mode of existence from physical properties defined by the currently accepted physical theory.

The distinction goes back to Locke in his Essay on Human Understanding where he argued that 'secondary' qualities like colours are merely the power of an object to produce an experience of colour in a suitably placed subject. Although there are many aspects of Locke's 'theory of ideas' which would no longer be accepted today, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is still widely held.

What is a colour? One plausible view would be that colours 'exist' in virtue of the possibility of agreement amongst human (or other intelligent) subjects that an object has, or does not have that colour. This definition says nothing about physics or how the world works. If people are able to agree that a particular tomato is red, then it is red. That's just what being red is. (This definition is consistent with there being people who are partially, or fully 'colour blind'.)

You can see that this is not exactly the same as saying that colours, or the colour red, are 'in the world'. Nor is it saying that colours are 'in us'. Colour concepts are in some sense relational, involving both the subject and the object.

Could there, logically, be a world where physics did not apply, where there was no interesting explanation of how things work, 'behind' what we are able to see or touch or hear? Arguably, in such a world there would be no 'primary' qualities in Locke's sense. Weight, or size or shape would themselves become merely relational concepts like colours. The best empirical evidence we have, however, is that our world is not like that.

Geoffrey Klempner

(81) John asked:

Kant said that our synthetic a priori concepts such as space and time are imposed on our sensations of the world. So, we perceive objects in space and time. From this, he said that we cannot know the noumenon but only the phenomenon. Kant seems to be suggesting that objects can exist without space and time. If so, then does that mean objects exist without these two concepts when we are not perceiving them? Thank You.


As far as Kant is concerned all we can say is that we cannot know things as they are in themselves (noumenon). This also means that we cannot ask or answer questions about them. It makes no sense to ask can things exist without space and time. There is no way we can reason about such things as far as Kant was concerned the only thing we can say about the noumenon is that it exists. We perceive objects through our time and space spectacles but we can't ask how things would look if we took the spectacles off.

Shaun Williamson

(82) Nic asked:

How did the universe begin? Was it 'god' or the big bang?


Could god not have used the big bang? Arnold Penzias, one of the Nobel prize winners for discovering the background radiation echo that many consider to have been the moment of confirmation of the big bang, holds that the big bang is exactly what he would have predicted given the first five books of the bible. Many theistic philosophers will argue that something must have caused the big bang, and that that cause was god. Atheists will respond that we do not know what the cause is, and so to speculate the existence of god is unwarranted.

Kevin Macnish

(83) Simren asked:

Does the soul exist?


It depends what you mean by the word soul. For Aristotle the soul was a substance, the immortal part of a human being; and a substance was defined as that which is always a subject, never a predicate (logically speaking). But nowadays there is no use for this concept of substance, except in theology. It is never used in modern science, except loosely, as in 'chemical substances,' meaning matter (which is composed of atoms and molecules, not substance.) So the soul can only be supposed to exist if you believe in immortality, and as an Aristotelian substance it is not good grounds for this belief. But if by the word soul you mean mind and/or ego then yes, the soul may reasonably be said to exist; but as such it is not immortal.

Helier Robinson

(48) Jon asked:

Can 'information' be distinguished from the physical means of its transmission (for example, electronic or neuronal). And if so, does 'information' have a discrete nonmaterial reality?

A better phrasing of my previous question: Can information cause events in the physical world, where 'information' cannot be wholly reduced to the physical means of its transmission?


Information is an example of an irreal entity as identified in Chmielecki's Ontology. It is unable to act on its own. It cannot be seen or touched, but it is nevertheless something 'out there' in the objective reality. It is a distinct, objective entity. Chmielecki identifies four different modes of being, based on how the constituent parts of reality relate to one another. These modes are the Real, the Surreal, the Irreal and the Ideal. Together these comprise the objective reality known to Science.

REAL entities can both act and be acted upon.

SURREAL entities can act but cannot be acted upon.

IRREAL entities can not act but can be acted upon.

IDEAL entities can neither act nor be acted upon.

Chmielecki proposes that Information be defined in terms appropriate to the systems that it applies to, or to the systems that make use of it, both animate and inanimate. He argues that any definition should begin with what is already present in the physical world when the first systems that could access information emerged.

Shortly after the Big Bang different physical substances emerged — gases, liquids and solid bodies. These new entities had different structures and properties and were subject to various natural forces. Each physical substance that resulted from the Big Bang took on a different chemical form, as indicated in the Periodic Table. Such a difference in form is not information, it is proto-information. A difference in form only becomes information when it is registered by a system that can utilise it, whether a living system or an artificial intelligence.

Differences are not information but a difference becomes a potential source of information once animate systems have evolved. Information is the determining principle of all animate systems. It determines both their architecture and their operation. Information has no separate existence on its own, because no difference can exist unless there are real states of affairs between which there can be a difference.

The most fundamental feature of all animate systems (which are all informational systems) is their ability to discriminate differences and to select. From single cells to plants, animals and human beings, the behaviour of animate systems depends on what they can discriminate. What is important to animate systems is some detected difference between things, a difference that is able to be distinguished by the animate system. This difference can be the magnitude of physical parameters like temperature, humidity or shape, or variables such as the chemical composition or the degree of concentration of certain substances. 'Difference' and 'detection' are thus two key words in the enterprise of grasping what information is. Broadly speaking, any detected difference can comprise Information.

Anthony Kelly

(58) Richard asked:

Would you not agree that religion uses the term God as a pseudo explanation, which explains nothing.

If God breathes life into us, what is the breath of God, and what is that...

Also that the mechanics of the material world mask a remarkable fundamental quality of matter.

That is the non-'mechanical' quality of mind, of awareness.


It is possible to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics, the big bang, evolution and all the other scientific theories and still wonder why the world is here. Science does not and cannot tell you why the world is here. However the fact that we can ask a question doesn't mean that it has an answer. I'm not sure that God is a pseudo explanation, not in the way that the existence of phlogiston was a pseudo explanation for the process of burning.

Also I don't think anything masks the existence of mind except the use of terms like mind, matter and mechanical. These are all philosophical terms that mask the truth from us. We want to say things like 'How can mere matter give rise to mind or consciousness?' and in doing this we think of mind as a ghostly thing which is somehow miraculously produced by this mechanical material thing. It's all nonsense. What we have lost sight of is the connection between talk about brains and talk about minds so we try to understand them in terms of crude models. The brain is a material thing, consciousness is a similar ghostly non material thing. Or we try to reduce consciousness to chemical processes in nerve cells, something that is obviously false. Mind and matter are not two things, its best not to think of mind or consciousness as things.

Shaun Williamson

(86) Michelle asked:

To what extent is there real conflict between reason and faith? Must we choose between reason and faith? Must science and religion come into conflict in their explanations for things?


'Reason' is the label we give to our most effective means of cognitive understanding. In this respect, it is to be contrasted with 'emotion', 'perception', 'intuition', 'instinct', 'whimsy', and 'faith'. Reasoning is that particular mode of thinking in which the thinker transitions from some beliefs that are presumed to be true (premises) to a conclusion which is judged to be true because the premises are true. Using our reason, being rational, being reasonable, just means looking for reasons when making decisions, taking actions, and pursuing goals. We employ reason, we are rational, when we appeal to reasons as the justification for our beliefs — whenever we justify our belief that B because of our beliefs that (A1, A2, A3, ... An). By the very definition of rational and reasoning, we are being irrational and unreasoning when we form some belief B in the absence of any reasons (I will ignore, here, the causative theory of perceptual belief formation).

'Faith' is the label that we give to another means of belief formation. Faith is that particular mode of thinking in which the thinker accepts as true some belief (B) that some Authority has claimed is true. Faith is differentiated from reason in that the reason for a belief in the truth of B is simply that the Authority has claimed it to be true. A belief adopted on faith is the end of all reasoned thinking. No further search for supporting reasons is permitted beyond the assertion of Authority. By the normal standards of reasoning, a faith-based belief in the truth of B is quite independent of any of the reasons (A1, A2, A3, ... An) offered in justification for that belief. We accept that B is true because some Authority says it is true — end of discussion, end of investigation, and end of reasoning.

Our reasons for believing that B can be said to 'work' in the pragmatic sense, when we believe the truth of B is in some way dependent on whether (A1, A2, A3, ... An) are true, and in fact the truth of B is indeed dependent in some way on the truth of (A1, A2, A3, ... An). In other cases, our reasons for believing that B can be said not to 'work', when we believe the truth of B is, for various reasons, more or less independent of whether (A1, A2, A3, ... An) are true or not. Relying on the veracity of Authority as the warrant for believing that B has, over history, proven not to 'work' in the pragmatic sense. Over history, the assurances of Authority have proven to be quite independent of the truth of B.

When considering whether to accept the truth of B, we always have a choice as to the reasons that we deem acceptable for that belief. We can choose to accept the truth of B based on the assurance of some Authority. Or we can choose to accept the truth of B because we accept the truth of (A1, A2, A3, ... An), and we believe that the truth of B is in some way dependent on the truth of (A1, A2, A3, ... An). Hence, when considering any arbitrary proposition B at all, we must always choose between a reason-based and a faith-based foundation for accepting the truth (or falsity) of B.

Must science and religion come into conflict in their explanations for things? — Yes!

The most fundamental claim of any religion is that there exists some entity, usually called 'God,' that is the Authority that assures the truth of some key propositions. Regardless of what those propositions are, they will have consequences that can be investigated by a search for nested and deeper reasons.

As a trivial example, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition posits a God that hears and sometimes answers prayers. A reason-based approach to belief formation can investigate whether prayer is an efficacious means of accomplishing anything. So far, the evidence is persuasive that it is not. This is a persuasive reason for believing that the entity posited by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition does not exist. Given the variety of propositions that various religious demand we accept on faith — assured true by Authority — a conflict between a reasoned-based and a faith-based approach to understanding how thing work is inevitable.

And so far, the track record is that the faith-based approach has proven wrong in every instance that has been challenged by a reason-based approach. If our goal is to find the reasons for things, explanations for things that are based on reasons rather than the assurance of some Authority, then the faith-based foundation for beliefs is inevitably going to conflict with a search for reasons. Given that a faith-based acceptance of some belief B is the end of all search for reasons, then the faith-based foundation for beliefs is inevitably going to conflict with a search for reasons.

Stuart Burns

(87) John asked:

Is the statement 'I have two kids' true if I actually have five kids? In other words, is the statement true even if it is a weaker claim than I could otherwise make?


There is a difference between the logical implications of a statement and the everyday meaning of the statement. So that if someone asks you 'Do you have two children?' then this should be logically analysed as 'Do you have two and no more than two children?'. If you answer yes although you have five children, then you should not be surprised if they regard your answer as deceptive.

In a similar way if someone says 'You can have the black one or the blue one' then this should be logically analysed as 'You can have the black one or the blue one but not both'. However in logic 'a or b' is true if a is true or b is true or if both are true.

Shaun Williamson

(88) Sean asked:

Do you think its reasonable to neglect to factor the happiness of an animal/ human that does not exist yet into a utilitarian equation?

More specifically are the preferences of not yet conceived life relevant?

I realize that to a certain extent the answer to this question can be relevant to whether you should maximize the happiness overall or over all existing beings.


This is a good question to raise about utilitarianism, because it leads us to ask what it is about 'animal and/ or human happiness' that is worth maximizing.

One view would be that the state of happiness is itself the one and only thing that ultimately 'counts' in the utilitarian equation. It is irrelevant whether the happiness is in Peter or Paul or Mary or Alice — or a chimpanzee, or a dolphin, or a mouse. Maybe there would be a lot of difficulty in calculating exactly how much chimpanzee happiness would 'equate' to the happiness in a human being, but in principle this can be done.

The alternative view would be that our ethical obligations are necessarily obligations towards existing beings. You can't have an ethical obligation to an 'being' who does not yet exist. This does not logically entail any particular view about abortion. It could be argued that a being ethically 'exists' at the moment of conception; or, alternatively, only at the moment when the foetus is 'viable'. Similarly, it leaves open how highly we rate the happiness of actually existing non-human animals.

You can construct thought experiments which would massage intuitions in favour of either alternative. The best way forward for the utilitarian would be to adopt a principle of 'weighting', whereby the happiness of actually existing individuals is regarded as more important than that of potentially existing individuals. The latter diminishes as the 'potential' recedes further into the distance, on the principle that 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'

Geoffrey Klempner

(89) Ross asked:

Do you consider it ethical, and hence decorous, to use cash when tipping restaurant servers with the express purpose of helping the server avoid paying income tax on the gratuity?


I have never thought about it, life is too short. When tipping restaurant servers with cash my main idea is that none of the money should end up in the hands of their greedy grasping employers. The IRS should concentrate on the Corporations who avoid large amounts of tax by directing their profits to tax havens.

Waiters who earn very little compared to the rich fraudsters who run our society are not worth chasing.

Shaun Williamson

(90) Clement asked:

What is the idea of Emmanuel Levinas?


In a nutshell, it is the irreducible Otherness of the Other which informs our ethical interactions.

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas announces how our phenomenological perceptions of/in everyday life are Totalising. We seek to categorise, label, limit and predict the behaviour of everything — especially each other — with a finalising, definitive status. Hence the totalising and limiting of all being in a self-reflexive Totality. In this manner of thinking, People will be treated as quantities: three million unemployed, over 1000 killed in air bombardment, 6 million annihilated. Levinas' idea is that people are not mere quantities; they are qualities, perhaps infinite qualities.

When interacting with an other, we can experience an event that appears to break with our usual metaphysical world views and practice of Totality. In fact it is profoundly disruptive to our complacent ways of being. The Face of the other allows an event, a signification without content which cannot be reduced to or explicable by our everyday, Totalised ways of thinking and being [save by committing the violence of insensitive indifference]. The other becomes truly Other. The content of this event remains Other to us [alterity]. As such it is Infinity. Levinas terms it an Epiphany.

He does link the infinity of the Other with God but not a personal God. It is a God of 'Illeity' or absent otherness. A God that is not present with, that cannot be captured by the Totality of description and definition.

The event of the alterity of the Other is so profound; it alters our responses and comportment to the person. The epiphany moves us to remain open and hospitable to the Other, establishing a truly ethical stance.

Martin Jenkins

(91) David asked:

Is there any way of predicting, formally, that the following deduction will be false, even though it is valid?

All men are mortal

a squirrel is mortal

therefore a squirrel is a man

(Is this a question for logic or for epistemology?)


The deduction is in the form called a syllogism, and it is invalid: it commits the fallacy of undistributed middle. I cannot explain this here, but a good introductory logic text, which includes traditional logic, will do so. Another examples is: All men are human, all women are human, therefore are all women are men.

Please note that arguments consist of propositions, which are either true of false; but arguments are not either true or false, they are either valid or invalid. An argument is valid if the propositions which are its premises are all true, and this plus the deduction require the conclusion to be true. If you have true premises and false conclusion then the argument is invalid. Your argument is invalid because its premises are true and its conclusion false. And this is entirely a matter for logic, not epistemology.

Helier Robinson

(92) Amber asked:

What was the argument that Socrates makes to Euthyphro? What theory is Socrates criticizing? What are the main problems of that theory and how does Socrates make his point?


In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates is on his way to the court at Athens to face charges of impiety he meets Euthyphro who is acknowledged as one of Athen's leading religious and pious men. Naturally (or ironically, you can never really tell with Socrates) given Euthyphro's reputation Socrates,in order to avoid the charges, asks Euthyphro as to what he thinks piety is. The matter is of some urgency because Socrates if found guilty will face the death penalty. Also Euthyphro, considered the exemplar of piety, is about to commit an act that most people at the time would consider impious. This act is to press charges against his father for murder against a slave who had killed some one during a drunken brawl. The father chained the man in a ditch whilst sending for a messenger to inform the authorities and left him without food or water and the slave subsequently died. The impiety of Euthyphro consists in bringing such a charge of murder against his father thus going against all notions of family honour. Socrates somewhat ironically says that if Euthyphro considers such an act to be pious then he must have a deeper understanding of what piety really is than most people.

After the usual banter, the crux of the dialogue occurs when Socrates asks Euthyphro the question 'Is the pious loved by the gods, because it is pious? or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?' As there was little distinction between the pious and the Ethical in Greek the question is a direct challenge to the notion that the Ethical (or moral) is dependent on the will of God or indeed that the concept of God is necessary for Ethics

The dilemma is thus, If what is Ethical is dependent on the free will of God then this could be arbitrary. God might sanction acts such as murder and rape as being Ethical. On the other hand if the Ethical is Ethical in itself then there is no need to ground our concepts of what is right or wrong on the concept of a God. Furthermore, that God is bound by what is Ethical and hence cannot be free. In Wagner's ring cycle Wotan brings about the downfall of the God's precisely because he commits unethical acts.

It is quite remarkable, that a dialogue written around 400 BC could pose such an awkward question for those who would seek to ground our notion of what is Ethical on the concept of the will of a theistic God.

Needless to say Euthyphro is forced by Socrates to admit he has no real answer and of course Socrates was condemned to die.

Christopher Finlay

(93) Deep asked:

My final exam will start soon but I can't concentrate on my study. What I do ?


Well the first thing to do is not to panic. Try to set aside a short fixed amount of time each day to revise, maybe just 30 minutes to start with, but gradually increase this.

The rest of the time do something relaxing that is fun. Don't revise the day before an exam or on the day when you will be doing an exam.

Shaun Williamson

(94) Darrell asked:

Should one continue to strive for Success if he knew it would be the cause of his death. If yes would you consider it suicide?

Is all murder morally wrong?


You have two separate questions here.

In answer to the first question, I would have to know just what you mean by 'success' as something to strive for. 'Success' is usually associated with the achievement of goals. And in that sense one should always strive to attain one's goals. Of course, it is necessary to choose the 'right' goals, or one's striving for 'wrong' goals will (as you suggest) undoubtedly result in either one's death, or at least some reduction in one's total welfare. We can perhaps stretch the point a little, and claim that striving for success towards the 'wrong' goals is (often? / usually?) suicidal — at least in trend if not in immediate fact.

So the question now becomes — what are the 'right' goals? And that is the province of Ethics. The wrong system of ethics will steer you towards the wrong goals — goals which are, in one fashion or another, somewhat or totally suicidal.. The right system of ethics will steer you towards the right goals — goals which instead of being suicidal, enhance one's survival probabilities or enhance one's overall welfare.

So in answer to your first question — one should not continue to strive for success, if that success (that achievement of some goal) will result in one's death, or in the reduction of one's overall welfare. (There are exceptions to this bald statement, of course — vis. a mother cat dying to save her kittens.)

In answer to your second question — 'murder' is a social concept, not a moral concept. Murder is defined as the taking of a life in a fashion that is against the law. All murder is, by definition, against the law. Taking a life in a fashion not against the law is, by definition, not murder. For example, however much you may find abortion morally repugnant (if in fact you do), it is not illegal. Hence, legalized abortion is not murder.

Except for some rare forms of ethics, the laws are not expected to dictate or generally mirror moral principles. So there is no necessary connection between a killing that is illegal and hence murder, and a killing that is immoral. It is, for example, readily conceivable that a killing could be legal yet considered immoral. I've already mentioned the abortion example. The Quakers, for another example, consider all killing immoral — even in situations of war where killing the enemy is not murder. Alternatively, a killing could be considered murder, and yet also considered moral. For example, if the only way to protect your children from a sexual predator is to murder the predator — many would consider that a moral killing, even though it is judged murder by the law.

In other words, not all murder is morally wrong. Most systems of jurisprudence recognize that fact by allowing for various kinds of legal defence against a charge of murder, and for various levels of 'social disapproval' short of murder. For example, an abused spouse is usually not charged with murder for killing the abusing partner.

Stuart Burns

(95) Janice asked:

My question is, is there any particular field of psychology in which logical fallacies is studied more in depth? If so, what field? In addition, what type of research has been performed in order to support the ideas of logical fallacy?


Logical fallacies are not studied by psychologists, they are studied by logicians. Psychology is a science which seeks to explain human (and possibly animal) behaviour. Psychology has no particular connection with the study of logic.

Logic and logically valid arguments are studied by logicians and so are logical fallacies. Logic is generally taught in the philosophy departments of universities. Perhaps you should start by trying to find a beginners book on logic in your local library.

Symbolic logic made great advances in the twentieth century and we now have a fairly complete idea of the nature of logic and the nature of logical fallacy.

Shaun Williamson

(96) Dave asked:

I have a very naive question. What do people mean when they talk about absolute vs. relative truth? I study math, and in math a statement is either true or not true. What would it mean for a statement to be relatively true or absolutely true?

What is an example of a statement that is relatively true but not absolutely true? In common usage, it seems that people use 'relative truth' to mean a statement P that is true only some of the time. But then wouldn't the statement 'P is true some of the time' be an 'absolute truth?' Thanks for your time.


A statement which is 'true only some of the time' would be, e.g. 'It is sunny today'. It is sunny today in Sheffield but it was not sunny the day before yesterday. However, it is easily seen that this is not an example of a 'relative truth' because the meaning is, 'It is sunny in Sheffield at 10.09 am on 8th May 2009.' This statement will still be true in 500 years time. Even if no-one in Sheffield (supposing the city is still here) on 8th May 2509 knows whether or not it was sunny here 500 years ago, it will still be the case that the sun shone.

However, this idea is not without its problems. The British philosopher Michael Dummett, in his article, 'The Reality of the Past' argues that we are seduced by the logic of 'truth value links' — the logical implication that if it is sunny today then in 500 years time it will still be true that it was sunny today — into thinking that any historical statement which we make has a determinate truth value, true or false, regardless of our ability to determine its truth value. Dummett calls this metaphysical belief 'realism'.

By contrast, the 'anti-realist', according to Dummett, does not think of truths (e.g. historical truths) being 'out there' but rather as 'coming into existence when we probe'. We like to think that 'God would know' whether it was sunny here exactly 500 years ago but that is just a picture, which has no meaningful application to our actual linguistic practice.

That is a kind of 'relativism'. If we follow the implications, then truth becomes a product of our 'probing', the procedures which we use to verify propositions. And that brings into play the idea that what counts as 'verification' might be specific to a historical time or culture.

You may be surprised to learn that Dummett in fact uses mathematics as his prime example of the debate between realists and anti-realists. Mathematical intuitionists argue against the classical idea that mathematical theorems exist as Platonic facts. They are a product of mathematical activity. The only difference from contested areas of knowledge such as history is that the 'culture' of mathematics has so far been without any major schisms. Even classical and intuitionist mathematicians can agree on whether a given proof is valid in classical, or in intuitionist maths.

Geoffrey Klempner

(97) Tom asked:

Since there seems to be order within reality, or at least some order, laws that govern how reality works, time and space, physics, and the constants, how is it that science can teach that all we observe, all we are, really is from or basically all random, or in reality accidental occurrences from a rather large explosion.or in reality can the so called big bang actually have been microscopic in relation is the actual size of the universe.its hard for me to accept that the meaning of life is nothing, because it was all an accident.


It is the task of science to find theories that tell us how the universe is and to find evidence for those theories. Science cannot tell us if the universe is an accidental occurrence or if the big bang was an accident or if God exists etc. Such things are outside the scope of science.

There is not (and never can be) any evidence that will tell us that the big bang was an accident. There can be evidence that tells us that the big bang occurred and that it occurred 28 billion years ago. There can also be evidence for the fact that the universe began as a singularity i.e. a minute point of almost infinite density.

Science does not teach us that everything is random. The notion that the outcome of certain experiments in quantum mechanics cannot be predicted exactly is not the same as saying that the universe is random. Science itself is based on the idea that the physical universe can be known and is therefore not random.

Science cannot tell you the meaning of life. Science has no philosophical implications and you should not be tempted to draw philosophical conclusions from scientific theories.

Shaun Williamson

(98) Katelyn asked:

I have to answer the question:

'What is the answer?'

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


The answer is the response to a question or a problem. It may be deemed right or wrong but for all intents and purposes there is no perfectly correct or incorrect answer. Even an answer of 2 to the question 'What does 1 + 1 equal?' is based on mathematics which in practice is a pretty sound theory, but who knows if our understanding of math and physics could change with the knowledge that has yet to be discovered.

Perhaps a true answer to any question or problem is not something that is even attainable. Maybe it's the pursuit of an answer that gives meaning to the question. So for example, 'What is the answer?' has no meaning unless one tries to answer it. And the meaning can change from person to person, because as objective as someone tries to be, he/she will always draw from past experiences, present feelings, and future wants and needs.

What is the answer? The answer is anything, and everything, and nothing. It's infinitely big and infinitely small. The answer just is, and any attempt to define it, including this one, will always fall short.

Kevin Becker

(99) Brenda asked:

Why do so many people ask questions that really don't have anything to do with reality? Who really cares about Plato or some 2000 year old person?


Do you know what reality is? And if you do, how do you know?

Helier Robinson

(100) Sihem asked:

How does Samuel Beckett perceive language in his 'not i'?


Sihem I can only answer your question by completely rejecting the question. 'Not I' is a play and a play is meant to be performed. A performance involves many things, the script, the authors instructions written in the script, the director, the actors etc. It is not a philosophical thesis about language. How are we supposed to know what Beckett wanted to convey?

However having said that we can look at the history of the thing. Firstly the words are meant to be spoken by a mouth, not a person. Beckett told the principal actress to say the words but not to act them. The words are meant to get on your nerves not to stir your emotions. Beckett claimed to have known women who wandered around uttering these speeches in Ireland. They convey a reality that we can't understand but at the same time it compels our attention. We cannot resist trying to relate it to our world. It reminds me of a Shakespeare quotation, 'Full of sound and fury but signifying nothing'. Now here it would be possible to say all sorts of things about the power of language and our need to make sense of the world. However everyone must have their own personal response to Beckett's plays. You can't turn poetry into philosophy and you shouldn't try to.

Shaun Williamson

(101) Jonathan asked:

Is there anything we can say is intrinsically good in these postmodern times? My friend and I were debating about why we do good, going into making the world a better place or for the future of our kids, but what one feels to be good and another feels to be good can be warring issues with each other. Would I not be stepping on someone's sense of good with my own sense of good? I don't know how to answer him, but does relative truth have to lead to anarchy?


A lot of things can be meant by 'postmodernism', but it seems from your question that you are centering in on the relativity of truth insofar as it applies to morality. In that case, then strong relativism would hold that morality is reducible to the individual and so yes, you do run the risk of stepping on someone else's sense of the good in fulfilling your own self-imposed moral obligations. A weaker relativism would reduce morality to the level of the community or possibly the nation-state. This gives scope for legal authority to hold sway over a nation but not every nation (take the example of sharia law in strong Islamic countries). So no, relativism doesn't have to lead to anarchy. However, one might ask why stop at weak relativism? What is there (other than the fear of anarchy) to prevent one going on to strong relativism if it is the logical conclusion of the argument? If weak relativism is an arbitrary restriction it would seem as if maybe all moral relativism does indeed lead to anarchy.

It also might be worth asking, what is wrong with stepping on someone else's sense of the good? If this is wrong then it seems to imply a sense of morality that transcends the individual.

Kevin Macnish

(102) Patrick asked:

As someone passionately interested in Darwin and evolution, I've become a bit perturbed by the objection that 'survival of the fittest' is a non-scientific idea. I've read in various places that it is a tautology, and therefore meaningless and 'devoid of explanatory power': since 'fittest' means 'most capable of surviving', it means 'survival of those most capable of surviving', or even 'survival of those that survive'. In the same way that 'all tables are tables' is circular reasoning, does this pose a serious challenge?

I find the points made in this webpage slightly scary:

(They do seem to refute the answers given on the TalkOrigins evolution site.)

Please could you save me from my quandary?


First of all, the phrase 'survival of the fittest' was first used by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Biology of 1864. Spencer drew parallels between his ideas of economics and Darwin's theories of evolution. It is a phrase that became shorthand for Darwin's concept relating to competition for survival or predominance. It is a metaphor, not a description of Darwin's theories, so it is not a subject for logical analysis. It is not generally used by modern biologists. The phrase has generally been replaced by the phrase 'natural selection' almost exclusively. More technically, evolution proceeds through the interaction of genetic diversity and differential reproductive success.

Thanks to the dedication of the Creationists and the Intelligent Design community, the Internet has a plethora of excellent sites available that can explain how genetic diversity and differential reproductive success result in the evolution of species. And there is also a plethora of web sites that will help you deal with the silliness raised by the Creationists. Unfortunately, the web-site you cite in your question is no longer available, so I cannot assist you by refuting any specific claims. Although I would be happy to assist you in finding sites that debunk any of the Creationism and Intelligent Design foolishness

You might start with these two sites:

Stuart Burns

(103) Patrick asked:

As someone passionately interested in Darwin and evolution, I've become a bit perturbed by the objection that 'survival of the fittest' is a nonscientific idea. I've read in various places that it is a tautology, and therefore meaningless and 'devoid of explanatory power': since 'fittest' means 'most capable of surviving', it means 'survival of those most capable of surviving', or even 'survival of those that survive'. In the same way that 'all tables are tables' is circular reasoning, does this pose a serious challenge? I find the points made in this webpage slightly scary:

(They do seem to refute the answers given on the TalkOrigins evolution site.)

Please could you save me from my quandary?


You need to separate the contents of a scientific theory from the slogans that were devised to popularise the theory. Remember that for Darwin the theory was simply a theory of the evolution of species by means of natural selection.

Suppose tomorrow that all the continents of the world were submerged in water, then humans would find life difficult. Or suppose the oceans started to dry up then the fish would find life difficult. This wouldn't mean that one was more fit to exist than the other. It would just mean that the weather had changed.

Evolution is a theory about the complex interactions between living things and their environment. It does not have any philosophical implications. Some species may go out of existence because the environment changes and they can no longer find food. Other species may evolve and fill a gap in the food chain. However the theory is not primarily about extinction or survival although it explains both of these things.

Forget the slogans 'Nature red in tooth and claw', 'The survival of the fittest', 'The selfish gene', 'The struggle for existence'. These are just slogans, they are not part of the theory of evolution. The theory is about the complex connections between living things and the world e.g why does a particular moth have a tongue that is 40 cm long.

Shaun Williamson

(104) Daniel asked:

At which point does any process become a valuable one? So far I have tried breaking down the process into parts, but can find no inherent value in any one. Conception of idea is not something we can control ideas seem to merely arrive in our heads so the idea alone is not something that has any real value. Carrying out the process doesn't give it value otherwise every idea carried out would be equal. The length of time given to the process doesn't control value as hammering a brick with a hammer for a hundred years has no more value than doing it for 30 seconds. And the culmination or product of the process... well. This is just the product of a process. It is nothing alone. if the process was worthwhile the result will be useful but only as part of a new process? I'm not sure. I know this is a rather muddled question, but im hoping for some philosophical clarity. Even just thoughts on redefining my methods if investigation.


The first question you need to ask is, When is a process (better, 'activity' because we are talking about things human beings do) considered valuable in itself and apart from or in addition to the value of the products of that process? Today, I am catching up on my backlog of questions from Ask a Philosopher. The outcome is valuable, insofar as the questioners value the answers they receive and also because the posted answers add value to the Pathways web site. However, the process itself is something I value as a way of exercising my mind on philosophical questions.

There are activities whose only value comes from the end product. Consider, e.g. the many laborious hours spent by the gold prospector panning for gold. On the other hand there are activities which only nominally have an outcome and which we engage in purely for the sake of the activity, for example, going for a Sunday walk.

We invest time in our activities. I think this is one possible place where your idea that an activity or process 'becomes valuable' might come from. If you have only been doing something a short time, say, studying French or weight training, then if you abandon the activity you won't consider your time has been 'wasted'. On the other hand, if you have put many hours and weeks into the activity then you will not so easily give it up.

Geoffrey Klempner

(105) Bill asked:

In the Tractatus, does 'World'=nature (the world of science) or does it mean 'reality', i.e. EVERYTHING which may exist whether we know about it or not. Seems to me that if World is construed as = Nature, this is a flawed, dogmatic start (epistemologically speaking).


It is neither of these things. Tractatus is an abstract discussion about logic, language and the world and how these three things are connected.

1. Start with the idea of a proposition. A proposition is (very approximately) a statement about the world which is either true or false.

2. Now take the set of all possible propositions.

3. From this set extract the set of all true propositions. This set of true propositions is a COMPLETE description of the world. 'The world is all that is the case'.

This makes no reference to the world of science or to any other sort of world or to our knowledge of the world. It does not even presuppose that there is a world. However if there were no world the set of true propositions would be empty.

In his later work (Philosophical Investigations), Wittgenstein treated The Tractatus as a good example of how not to think when you are doing philosophy.

Shaun Williamson

(106) James asked:

Is not the obvious answer to what is cause, that it is presence, is not all human action in fact reaction. Human motivation would indicate that this is so. If the world is of a relational nature, is it not reaction which establishes these relations?


No, cause is not presence. A cause has to be present to be a cause, but not all presence is cause. The presence of all causes is only a part of all presences. Compare your question with the claim that to be a woman is to be female: not true, since some females (such as cows) are not women. All human action would be reaction if it were true that no human ever initiates a new causal chain, since such initiation would not be a reaction, it would be an action; but who is to say whether or not there are such new causal chains? I would claim that you are correct in saying that the (real) world is of a relational nature, but I do not see why these relations have to be established by reactions.

Helier Robinson

(107) John asked:

Is the inevitable always impossible to escape?


Yes it is. By definition the inevitable = the inescapable and you cannot escape the inescapable.

The question you should be asking is: 'Is anything inevitable?'.

Shaun Williamson

(108) Tom asked:

Since there seems to be order within reality (or at least some order — laws that govern how reality works — time and space, physics and the constants), how is it that science can teach that all we observe, all we are really, is all random, or in reality accidental occurrences from a rather large explosion? Can the so called big bang actually have been microscopic in relation to the actual size of the universe? It's hard for me to accept that the meaning of life is nothing, because it was all an accident.


You raise a number of issues with your question. Lets start with the simpler and work towards the more complex.

Given that the current theories of Gravity and Quantum Mechanics are reasonably correct, then yes it is possible that the Big Bang started out as infinitely small relative to the current size of the Universe. But one must be careful how one goes about understanding that statement. Since the 'Universe' — by definition — includes all that there is/was/will-ever-be, one cannot properly imagine standing outside the Universe and watching it explode from a sub-microscopic lump into the vast Universe we know se around us. Popular television images not with-standing, this gives the wrong image. To grasp it properly, one has to imagine being inside the exploding Universe as it explodes. And from that perspective, you would not see it as microscopic. What you would see would be quite different from what you see today, of course, but you would no more be able to 'see' the size of the micro-Universe than you can currently see the 'true' size of the current Universe. In fact, on some interpretations of the physics, the Universe would come out as appearing to be infinite in extent no matter when measured. It remains an interesting open question whether we could ever tell if the Universe is infinite in spatial extent or not.

You suggest, in your question, that you view our existence as the result of random processes. This is an interesting metaphysical point. Some people believe in what is called 'Determinism.' Determinists maintain that nothing is truly random, if that means totally unpredictable. Determinists believe that contrary to the theory of Quantum Physics, things that look random to us are really determinate when seen at a more detailed level. If the Determinists are correct, then the appearance of Mankind on Earth was a necessary consequence of the initial starting conditions of the Big Bang.

On the other hand, most scientists are Non-Determinists, agreeing with Quantum Physics that at the small scale there are absolutely unpredictable events and outcomes. And if that position is correct, then we are indeed the product of an unbelievably long sequence of random and unpredictable events. But in your question you interpret this as entailing that 'the meaning of life is nothing'. I do not see that this follows. Perhaps you could expand on this conclusion??

Perhaps you mean that because our existence is the result of chance and accident, then there could be no 'Guiding Hand' directing and guiding our lives, giving some 'purpose' to our lives? But that is simply a false conclusion. It is a conclusion that you are drawn to out of a cultural environment that stresses the existence of some Supreme Being that guides existence and provides us with purpose. The truth of the theories of physics, and a random origin of our existence, would certainly invalidate the need for any such Supreme Being. But it would certainly not invalidate the existence of a meaning and purpose to our lives.

If we assume that the laws and rules proposed by science is all the order there is in the universe, along with the consequence that our (and in particular your) presence on this planet is a pure accidental result of random chance, then it is clear that life (and your in particular) does indeed have a very clear meaning and purpose. A meaning and purpose that are free to give or deny yourself.

Evolutionary genetics very clearly indicates that the purpose of life is the continuance of life. Life very quickly ceases to exist as life if it ceases to struggle to continue life. As an individual, as a group, as a species, as life in general — if we cease to struggle to acquire the necessary resources to maintain and propagate life, then we die out.

You, individually, are the descendent of a long line of predecessor life-forms who have been successful at continuing and propagating life. If you voluntarily cease to continue that struggle, you deny whatever meaning your own life might have had, and you are making their existence to have been in vain, denying the meaning they gave to their own lives, and frustrating the purpose they lived for. If, for whatever reason, you involuntarily cease to continue that struggle, then you have failed in the purpose given to you by your ancestors, and failed to give meaning to your life.

So you cannot claim that the meaning of life is 'nothing'. The meaning of life is 'everything'. Life is the meaning of life. But it is a meaning an purpose that you have to choose. It is not a meaning and purpose that is simply 'there'. Amusingly, even the Bible can be used to support that claim — (Genesis 9:7) 'And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.'

Stuart Burns

(109) Mark asked:

Should the financial stimulus plan be passed, or are we just sending good money after bad ?

Shouldn't the responsible parties be PROSECUTED?


I am going to assume that you mean the U.S. financial stimulus package and not the British one.

The main question would be what are the alternatives? If we allow the banks to collapse then the pension funds will collapse and so will the insurance companies. Then the major manufacturers will collapse. Do you really want to see ten years of people lining up at soup kitchens. Would people accept that or would there be riots and revolts? Would you like to gamble your life on that?

Unfortunately it is impossible to prosecute the responsible parties because they haven't broken any laws. What I find interesting is that the same people who are against the stimulus package are also the people who won't allow laws to be passed that would require the markets to act in a responsible way. They are of course mainly republicans and it is their deregulation of the markets that made the recent meltdown possible. All financial bubbles require fraud but not all fraud is illegal. Reckless and deceptive lending in order to make big commissions isn't illegal. It should be.

An unregulated market will always lead to meltdown because some people who want to be rich will always cheat if they can. That is the lesson that history teaches us over and over again but it is a lesson that Wall Street has become skilled in denying. 'Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it'.

Money doesn't grow on trees but many people want to believe that it does and other people want to profit from their gullibility

Shaun Williamson

(110) Ruth asked:

I am a music student studying for an MMus. I have to deliver a lecture recital on arrangements of music for other instruments other than the original and I would like to have a quote from Plato on his Theory of Ideas. I am interpreting an arrangement of a piece of music as 'coming from the same mold' as the original, but as the 'idea' of the piece is elsewhere, it should not make a difference which instrument it is played on. Could you please advise me on a suitable quote or just where exactly I can find one as I have read a lot of Plato and don't seem to be able to find what I need. After the recital, I do however, intend to read a lot more Plato!


The first thing you should know is that Plato didn't have a great opinion about music, or artists generally. Here are Plato's words — quoted on the website — which has been widely interpreted to mean that Plato sees music as having a merely utilitarian function:

Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or on the other hand, when he is expressing his willingness to yield to persuasion or entreaty or admonition, and which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.

A piece of music as such does not have a corresponding Platonic idea, although it would not involve too great a stretch to see an analogy between, say, the form of Horse which expresses what is somehow essential to being a horse — that which remains the same despite all the variations in types and breeds of horse — and a musical 'idea' which can be expressed using different instruments and instrumentation. This is not something Plato claimed so you won't find a quote. If you have a copy of Republic, it shouldn't take too much trouble to find the place where Plato introduces the theory that there exists a Form of Man, or Horse. That's all you need for your quote.

Geoffrey Klempner

(111) Alexis asked:

What does it mean when I am described as living my life in the subjunctive?


It means that you are too concerned with 'what might have been' instead of being concerned with 'what is'.

Shaun Williamson

(112) Ryan asked:

If reality is perceived by each person slightly differently because we are unable to all have the same experience, what purpose is there of society which tries to force one view onto us?


I don't accept your basic premise. We often have the same experience and it is because of this that language and communication are possible. I say 'Hand me the book with the blue cover'. You can do this because your experience is the same as mine.

Society doesn't try to force one view onto us. Certain groups in a society such as politicians may try to get us to accept their view of things. However in a democratic society we are free to resist this and to form our own view of things. We have different views of thing not because we perceive things differently but because we draw different conclusions from the same perceptions.

Shaun Williamson

(113) Ryan asked:

If reality is perceived by each person slightly differently because we are unable to all have the same experience, what purpose is there of society which tries to force one view onto us?


The word 'view' has two meanings in your question. First is the perceptual view, or viewpoint, which, as you say is different for everyone. Second is a belief or belief system, which society may try to force onto everyone if it is totalitarian. This switch of a meaning of a word to another meaning is called the fallacy of equivocation.

Helier Robinson

(114) Ronan asked:

If a chariot is disassembled but you are still in possession of all of its component parts, is it still a chariot?


Who knows? Why does it matter? Suppose you have a car and you disassemble it into all its parts. Do you still have a car? Most people would say no. However you have a complete set of parts to make a car. Not every question has an answer. It is up to the person asking the question to ensure that they are asking a sensible question. You have failed to do this perhaps because you were concentrating too much on being clever by asking an unanswerable question.

Its only worth asking a question if you really want to know the answer. Anything else is a waste of time.

Shaun Williamson

(115) Dan asked:

Is the statement 'there is no absolute morality' a moral statement?


Yes, it is.

On the face of it — it is also self-contradictory. It appears to make an absolute statement to the effect that there are no absolute moral statements.

In order to make the statement meaningful, one would have to add to this an additional premise extracted from the context of discourse. Perhaps the statement should be interpreted as 'There is no absolute morality, except this statement'. Or perhaps it should be interpreted in a relativistic context as 'Given my moral premises, there is no absolute morality. Everything is relative.'

In other words, one would need to understand more about the context of utterance in order to completely understand what the sentence is attempting to say.

Stuart Burns

(116) Alfonso asked:

RE: Philosophy of Religion

From the movie 'Contact' based on Carl Sagan's book.

How can a skeptic refute the analogy made by Joss to Dr Arroway regarding proving the love for her mother as compared to proving the existence of God? I have heard people use the same question when engaged in arguments of God's existence.

Providing proof for loving a human being is not the same as proving the existence of an abstract concept.

Any help will be appreciated.


'Abstract concept' is not quite correct, because to have a concept X does not entail that X exists. The ontological argument claims that the one exception to this principle is God. But you don't have to hold that the ontological argument is valid in order to believe in God.

Maybe the idea is that belief in God is not comparable to belief in the existence of an entity. To 'believe in God' is to love God. In other words, it is to have a certain attitude to the world rather than hold that a particular proposition ('God exists') is true.

The problem with this is that it seems to make all the difference whether the object of your love exists or not. You can 'love' a character of fiction, but that is necessarily a different kind of love from loving an existing person.

Geoffrey Klempner

(117) Ryan asked:

If reality is perceived by each person slightly differently because we are unable to all have the same experience, what purpose is there of society which tries to force one view onto us?


You are obviously labouring under some kind of belief that the operation of a society (and one that tries to force one view of reality on us) has some necessary connection to the nature of reality and our experience of it.

I would be curious as to what those beliefs happen to be. I myself see no such necessary connection.

The purpose of a society that tries to force one view of reality on us is to benefit the power elite of that society. Those who manage the social organization such that it does attempt to force on us a particular view of reality are working from the belief that doing so is to their benefit. Sometimes, they have the belief that we also will benefit from a 'proper' view of reality.

To a certain extent, I can see their point. Some views of reality are clearly detrimental to others. And it behoves any social grouping that collectively wishes to achieve some mutually beneficial goals to prevent unwarranted disruptions by those with 'aberrant' views of reality. Natural questions follow — what is 'aberrant'? and how far are you willing to go?

A more interesting question to ask is — what is the purpose of a society that does not attempt to force one particular view of reality on anyone?

Stuart Burns

(118) Ronan asked:

If a chariot is disassembled but you are still in possession of all of its component parts, is it still a chariot?


No, it isn't. Think of what a chariot is and does: it's a horse-drawn war cart, used for routing the enemy. You cannot rout the enemy with just all of its component parts. More clearly, a disassembles clock does not tell the time, a disassembled bicycle cannot carry you anywhere, a disassembled gun cannot shoot, and a corpse cannot talk to you. An old way of making this point is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The excess of the whole over the sum of the parts is the relations between the parts, the structure of the whole — which disappears when you disassemble. Or die.

Helier Robinson

(119) Diarmuid asked:

Why do people respond to the question 'does god exist' with something like 'god is said to have made the world in seven days and we know it look millions of years to evolve' or 'I have a problem with the good and evil situation' or 'the story of creation indicates that the world is only 5,000 years old' or suchlike. All of that is about religious doctrine and probably has nothing to do with god.

Why do we not look at the universe, the construction of life, the very many things we do not know and against those things ask the question does god exist?


Well, you've got a point about religious doctrine, and quite a lot of people who hold religious beliefs would at least partly agree with you: a lot of card-carrying Christians don't believe that God created the world in seven days, for example.

On the other hand, one can't completely separate out religious doctrine from belief in God. After all, belief in God has to amount to a belief in something that has some distinctive characteristics that have something to do with some sort of religious doctrine, otherwise it's hard to see why it would count as belief in God at all. Quite how many, or what kind of, distinctive characteristics one would have to attribute in order to genuinely count as believing in God is of course a difficult question to answer! For example, would a being that simply set the Universe going, without any concern at all about how things turned out or how people behaved, and then retired, count as 'God'? You could call such a being 'God' if you like, but your God will then be so irrelevant to the traditional concerns of religion (how ought we to live? is there an afterlife? etc.) that nothing much hangs on whether your God exists or not. (One of the characters makes more or less this point at the end of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which are well worth reading. They're hard going because they were written in the 18th Century, but there is a nice 'translation' of them at

You ask why we don't look to the many things we do not know and against those things ask the question, does God exist? I'm not sure whether your suggestion is that the existence of God might somehow provide an answer to questions that we don't have answers for. But what sort of answer would the existence of God provide? And why should we think that God is the answer, rather than just accepting that there are some things we don't yet have answers for, and probably some things that humans are simply incapable of finding out?

Helen Beebee

The British Philosophical Association

(120) Roland asked:

Link between Human Nature and State in Hobbes' Political Philosophy.


The natural life of humanity is 'solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short' struggling precariously in an unsettled 'Condition of War'. According to Hobbes, this is grounded in human nature.

Cause Finalis vs Motion

The nature of nature is not how Aristotle described it. He argued that each thing has an essence and its purpose [telos] was to realise this essence. The ultimate goal was harmonious rest. Hobbes disagreed with this maintaining the nature of nature is Motion. Objects will continue in motion until hindered by something else.

Human Nature

Applied to human beings, this means that our passions and desires do not seek satisfaction and rest. Life is motion and therefore can never be without desire [which is motion toward an object].The satisfaction of one desire enables felicity, felicity requires the satisfaction of more desires; which means the acquisition of more objects. Acquisition of more objects requires the means to do this — Power — strength, wealth, friends, reputation; by any means necessary. Prior to the establishment of a Political Society, existing in its natural state or State of Nature, the motion of human nature leads to a war of all against all. The causes of this are human nature itself as per above [its restless desire for power]; natural physical equality [the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest]; the scarcity of goods and resources [inviting competition to possess] and diffidence [fear, insecurity] requiring pre-emptive strikes against others.


The only way to escape this endless war is to transfer all natural and artificial power to one person by means of a Covenant or Social Contract. This person or Sovereign has been given absolute power. The subjects owe him obedience and unless he fails to protect them; there is no right of disobedience and rebellion.

Martin Jenkins

(121) Yann asked:

The number 2 implies identity but there are no absolutely identical entities in the physical world. Does this mean that '2' can only represent a pair of abstractions (e.g. John and Mary are different but they are 2 'people', 'first names', 'words')? If so, are mathematical representations of the physical world nothing more than approximations? Can they tell us anything absolute about reality?


Interesting question, although I'm not sure what you mean by 'the number 2 implies identity'. Identity is usually the claim that a = b. A more obvious example to illustrate how a mathematical concept cannot correspond to anything in the real world is given by Pythagoras's theorem. Consider the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle who's other sides are length unity. As I'm sure you are aware for a right angled triangle with sides of length a and b the length of the hypotenuse = the square root of (a squared + b squared).

If a and b = 1, then the length of the hypotenuse is given by the square root of 2 which is an irrational number (i.e. one which cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers m and n). This means that it's decimal expansion continues forever. If we were to attempt to measure the length of such a hypotenuse, we would never be able to measure it accurately enough although we could get arbitrarily close. Thus the concept of a right angle triangle, whose sides are unity can only be an abstraction and will never correspond to any triangle that a person can draw in real life.

Given this problem philosophers such as Plato claimed that the world of mathematics is the 'real' world of which the empirical world we live in is just a pale reflection. In the philosophy of mathematics there are two main schools of thought. The first school named Platonism, sees mathematical concepts as existing in some sense. For Platonists when a mathematician proves a new theorem he or she is discovering something about an independent reality. Modern Platonists include Roger Penrose and David Deutsch. Of course Platonism has a number of absurd consequences. For example in quantum physics, taking the mathematical object known as the wave function, as corresponding to something real, means that every time a measurement is made a new universe is created. In this crazy world when a coin is tossed in one world it will come heads and in another world it will come out tails, both worlds will suddenly come into existence. When a draw for the lottery is made, according to this view 49 million new worlds would be created. Somewhat surprisingly philosophers such as David Lewis argue for the existence of all possible worlds.

An alternative view, starting with Kant sees mathematics as a construct which we impose on the world around us. This means that mathematics is seen not as the gate-way to some hidden reality or absolute truth, but rather as a useful tool which enables us to make empirically adequate predictions about the world. However mathematical concepts such as multi dimensional vector spaces, infinity, irrational and complex numbers have no ontological significance. Given the absurdities associated with Platonism I prefer the constructive empiricist view outlined above, although that does not seem to be the preferred approach of those who write popular text-books.

Christopher Finlay