Advanced Search

In war memoirs, there is sometimes talk about a feeling of invulnerability among soldiers new to combat: it never occurs to many people that they themselves might be killed. But then something punctures the feeling: it might be that a friend dies, or it might be the sheer quantity or awfulness of death, but at that point the recruit "sees the elephant" and gains a sense of their own mortality. Well, if someone "sees the elephant", how would philosophers characterise the change in epistemological status? For instance, would it be fair to say that the person has gained new knowledge, ie now knows that they're mortal, whereas they didn't know this before? Or is just a case of probability weightings of possible outcomes having changed in the light of new data?

It's a fascinating question. When the recruit "sees the elephant," as you put it, they seem to gain something that calls out for an epistemological characterization, but just what they gain is harder to say. The problem is that the obvious suggestions don't seem to work. The recruit already that s/he is mortal. Likewise, his or her probabilities haven't shifted. The recruit presumably already thought that death is certain. So what might the recruit have gained if not knowledge or improved probability judgments? One answer is salience. It's one thing to know something; it's another for it to figure significantly in your outlook. If something is salient for me, it plays a different role in guiding my actions than it does for someone who knows it's true but gives it little thought. On one model, our actions are guided by probabilities and judgments of importance or value/disvalue. But not everything that we know or believe plays a role in our decision-making, and likewise not everything we see as good or...

Hello, What I am about to say is a desperate call for help. I am reaching out to you so that I may be assisted with this dear worry I have been plagued with for several years… Basically, I am paranoid about what will happen to me after I die. Because of argument amongst equally learned, intelligent, capable philosophers, I can’t figure out what the afterlife (if there is one) will consist of. The reason this is an obsession and highly alarming to me is because several different religions state you must believe such and such in order to escape hell (eternal torture). You can’t simultaneously be a follower of incompatible religions, so it’s like you’re taking an eternal chance in believing anything. Moreover, it seems the superiority of one religion over the other cannot be determined. Philosophers argue about this stuff night and day, and the arguments never end...nothing is ever decided for certain. No one can be sure of anything. Must I believe that when I die, I’ll more than likely go to some sort of...

You likely won't like my answer, but here goes. You write "You probably have beliefs about the afterlife, but how can you be SURE of them when you are aware of the other equally knowledgeable minds that don’t believe as you do--that have solid arguments for their own worldviews and against your own?" Sorry, but I think this is just false. It's not a matter of my "worldview" (Not sure I have one of those.) It's that the supposedly "solid arguments" just aren't there. If you don't believe me, try to find anything like a good reason. The fact that some religious texts seem to say that non-believers face such a fate doesn't count. Saying something doesn't make it so and doesn't count as an argument. Trying to make the case that there's life after death at all is hard enough; adding unpleasant speculations about what such an afterlife might be like makes the overall package less likely, not more. Theologically, the case for Hell is (pardon me) God-awful. We're supposed to believe that a being worthy of...

If you allow someone to die when you are capable of saving they life, but do not kill them directly, are you a murderer?

In both the legal and the familiar sense of the word "murderer," the answer is no. You certainly wouldn't be charged with murder in a case like this, and if you were, successfully arguing that you didn't actually kill the person but merely allowed them to die would lead to a "not guilty" verdict. Murder, as it's usually understood, is unlawful killing or, in the non-legal sense, morally unjustified killing . That said, someone might argue that if you're in a position to save someone's life and you don't, then you're guilty of something just as bad as murder. No doubt we can come up with hypothetical cases where this might be so. For instance: Alex intends to kill Bob; he's got the means and the will. But on his way to do the deed, he discovers Bob unconscious and bleeding by the side of the road. Suppose it's clear that Alex could save him; calling 911 and staunching his wound until help arrives would do. But Alex does nothing except wait for Bob to breathe his last. In this case, we might say...

Does the expression "Lose your life" imply dualism? Consider the expression "to lose your life" and related ones, "to be robbed of your life", "to have the rest of your life stolen from you". To lose something makes a division of time into a 'before' and an 'after' the loss. The effects in terms of dismay, grief and pain obviously belong to the after. Experiencing this loss requires the presence of an affected subject. This is all quite clear for the loss of everything, from a key to a beloved spouse. Everything, except if the lost object is your own life. Because if you are a materialist, there is no experiencing subject in the after when life has ceased. This means that expressions like "losing your life", "being deprived of the rest of your life" etc, all seem to presuppose a dualistic attitude, creating images of an after-life spirit sitting on a cloud mourning its lost earthly life.

You've offered a literal reading of the phrase that does, indeed, seem to imply dualism or something like it. Whether the expression was originally intended that way would be something that calls for etymological digging. However, I think it's safe to say that these days, when many people use these words, it's simply another way of talking about death, with no commitment to anything like dualism. Indeed, it seems fair to say that whatever the words "lose your life" once meant, these days, the primary meaning is simply "die." Language is full of expressions whose "literal meaning" is not a good guide to what they actually mean. If I say "John blew his top," actual explosions or lost skulls aren't part of what I mean, nor what most users understand me to mean.

I recently read a story in the news about near death experience...People seeing dead relatives, bright lights etc. The article mentioned that the science community is currently researching and one of the things they are doing is placing objects in operating rooms and/or taping pictures to the ceilings to understand if this is purely something the mind makes up to deal with the situation it finds itself in or if this is an indication that conscienceless can survive outside the body. I've never had such an experience but it poses an interesting question... Does philosophy have a perspective on consciousness surviving outside the body and/or does it have an opinion on this kind of experience?

Lots of interesting questions here, and I won't try to do all the issues justice. But a handful of quick thoughts. First, philosophy doesn't usually have a perspective on a question because the questions philosophy deals with tend to be inherently controversial. Philosophers have views, but there's almost always disagreement amongst philosophers on almost all philosophical topics. This one is no exception. That said if you were to take a poll these days, I'm pretty confident that at least among philosophers in the "analytic" tradition (very roughly: influenced by formal logic, science, careful attention to language and meaning...), you'd find that most don't think there can be consciousness without a body to embody it. This is largely because the more we learn about the workings of the mind, the more we see that it's intimately connected with the functioning of the brain. Turning briefly to one of your examples: suppose a bit of information were taped to the top of a tall object in an...

If time is infinite does this give us any hope for life after death? After all if time is infinite, it is inevitable that all the cells in my body (my DNA etc) will be reconstructed in some far off day and age.

I'm not quite ready to go along with my colleague's answer, but my answer isn't any more hopeful. If time has the structure of the real line (as we usually think) then even if it's infinite, every moment is only a finite time away from now. (Compare: every real number is only a finite distance from 0.) But even if time is infinite in the way the real number line is, it doesn't follow that there will be a duplicate of you somewhere off in the future. To get that conclusion woud take a lot of extra and optional premises. More important, even if there will be a duplicate of you someday, there's no good reason to think it would be you , nor is there any good reason to think that you could look forward to its experiences. (These two aren't quite the same issue, as it turns out.) Clearly there's a lot in the background here. If you're interested in more reading on the core problem, i.e., the problem personal identity, you might have a look at Martin and Barresi's anthology, called Personal...

The issue of immortality is a tricky one, ethically speaking, since death has a stabilizing effect on our population and for everyone to be immortal would result in overcrowding and shortages far faster than would happen otherwise. However, if one were to look past the simple economics of immortality (say immortality is only possible for those who have no children, and that it implies permanent sterility), are there any other ethical problems related to it? What other ethical issues would crop up if we were to gain the ability to halt the aging process?

It's a lovely question. Let me start by recommending a couple of things to read. One is Bernard Williams' classic paper "The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality" (in his book Moral Luck .) Another is Larry Temkin's paper "Is Living Longer Living Better?" (in Journal of Applied Philosophy , 2008.) One of the interesting things about Temkin's paper is that he believes the question isn't merely idle. He believes there is at least a serious chance that we might learn to halt the aging process. Be that as it may, let me raise one issue among the various possible ones. It may seem that living forever would be an unmitigated good. But Williams argues forcefully that this isn't so. His argument has two parts, but I want to note just one of them: if we lived more or less as we find ourselves now, then eventually life would become unutterably boring. The title of his essay is taken from a play in which a woman (Elena Makropoulos) has been given a potion that lets her live...

Why is it thought morally right to kill an animal to end their suffering yet morally wrong to kill a human to end their suffering?

There's clearly an enormous amount that could be said about this, but here are a few thoughts. Suppose that some person is suffering, and to avoid certain complications, suppose that there's no "cure" for their pain. Now suppose that the person actually wants us to take his life. (Imagine that he isn't in a position to do it himself.) Then it's not just obvious that it is wrong, all things considered, to kill him. That's why there's a serious debate about euthanasia. That said, there are important differences between typical human beings and most other animals: humans don't just have immediate desires and aversions; humans have self-concepts which include plans, desires and values that bear on their own futures. Most animals, or so we believe, don't have any such things. We normally think that people's views about their own futures count -- that it's wrong simply to ignore them. In particular, if someone is suffering but doesn't want to die, we think that carries tremendous weight. Most...