Why is it so difficult to accurately discuss consciousness? People have been fumbling around with strange thought experiments and neologisms like "qualia" for a while now, yet there still doesn't seem to be any clear language to use while discussing the "hard problem of consciousness". The closest I can get is to frame the question using a computer analogy. A computer can compute, and then it can provide output to show a human user what it's computing. Our minds seem to be providing "output" that we might call consciousness or experience; why isn't it just computing in the dark? Yet even this analogy seems clumsy and inaccurate. So what makes consciousness so uniquely impossible to discuss in a clear fashion? I've never come across any other topic where language itself failed to grasp the subject of discussion.

That's why it's called the "hard problem".... :-) And perhaps that's why some philosophers take an 'eliminationist' or materialist approach to the subject (eg Dan Dennett, Paul Churchland): the 'problem' itself is so ill-defined because there really is no such phenomena to be analyzed ... Words like "consciousness" are so vague and unclear that they cannot constitute a subject of scientific investigation, which will eventually dispense with them altogether ... That's not very helpful, of course, but then there is no real answer to your question ....! best, ap

If I discover someone is doing something unjust and ignore it, is it wrong for me to ignore it as 'not my business'?

good question, but i'm sure it's underdescribed -- there probably are cases of 'yes', cases of 'no', and cases of 'undetermined.' Depends precisely what you mean by justice etc. -- and the complex relationship between (say) justice and the law ... No doubt we have moral obligations to intervene when someone is doing something widely judged to be very unjust -- but when the action is less unjust, or when intervening itself might involve breaking a law or other moral obligation, then those latter constraints might outweigh the original injustice ... The thing to do, I think, is try to generate a number of different examples, and then restate the question in the context of specific examples! best, Andrew

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some have more it seems and some have less. My question is that in a language that has less words, is it limited in it's ability to conceptualize and describe and thus understand less about it's reality around it, or is it's simplistic view what gives a clearer view of things? Follow up: If you can't define a word without using another word, wouldn't words be subjective?

You may be referring (directly or indirectly, intentionally or not) to the infamous Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, in brief the idea that the structure of one's language constrains/determines one's conceptualization of and cognitive approach to the world. (If the Inuit genuinely have more words for snow than ordinary English speakers, then that reflects that they can make (say) visual distinctions between the kinds of snow than we can ....) I'm not particularly familiar with the literature except that I believe this hypothesis is no longer much in fashion at all -- while perhaps in some limited senses different languages (including their different vocabularies, number of words, grammatical structures) are able to express various thoughts differently, etc., far more people accept these days that the 'thoughts' themselves are roughly universally available -- and indeed the fact that languages CAN be translated into each others (even if not always perfectly) suggests that all languages are capable of expressing...

Does the Anglo-American tendency in philosophy to privilege clarity in words over a richness of meaning reflect a philosophical purpose or a culturally ingrained bias? I notice a lot of American analytic philosophers seem to disproportionately have names that suggest a British heritage. Is that a coincidence?

while there is somethign to the 'anglo-american' generalization, i'm not sure i accept the premise of your question -- i find analytic philosophy to have plenty of 'richness of meaning' in it ... (and certainly there's no explicit decision to privilege clarity at the cost of meaning ...) i think, anyway -- but hm, this is provocative. ap

When we learn something, generally speaking, we have acquired some kind of knowledge. But what about when we forget things? It seems intuitive to say that we don't know the thing in question anymore. Yet often, we will suddenly remember things we forgot without learning them again - spontaneously, so to speak. So during the period between the forgetting and the remembering, do we know the information and not have access to it, or do we not know it? How should we conceptualize spontaneous remembering in such cases?

great question. one small part of the answer would rely on how we conceptualize the non-forgotten, stored knowledge itself -- does it exist as propositions or discrete entities somehow tucked away somewhere in the mind (or brain)? if so, then if forgetting means deleting, then such things shouldn't count as known. But more plausibly stored knowledge would be conceived dispositionally -- as a disposition to re-create a given thought (and more generally beliefs shouldn't be conceived as individual units either ...) -- and once beliefs are conceievd that way then it's much easier to think of forgetting as just some (temporary) flaw in the mechanism that triggers the disposition -- in which case the way is more open to treating the 'forgotten' bit as 'really there, if temporarily inaccessible' .... hope that helps -- ap

I have an ethical question about buying milk at the supermarket. Supermarkets will usually have many rows of bottles of milk on their shelves – with milk that has the soonest use-by date at the front of the shelf, and milk that has more distant use-by dates nearer the back. Clearly the supermarket would like people to take milk from the front, so that the bottles which will go bad sooner are bought before those which will stay good for longer, so that they are not left with unsaleable bad milk. However, as the shopper, I also have an interest in the milk that I buy staying good for as long as possible after I buy it. My question, therefore, is: is there anything unethical about my reaching to the back row for the milk that I will buy? On the one hand, it is out and easy to access (I'm not breaking in to the store room), but on the other hand, they clearly intend the rows to be deplenished from the front. – Many thanks for your answers!

I've often thought about just this issue, even as I (without fail) always pick out the milk from the back row! But I cannot see what could be wrong with doing this -- unless the store sets out a customer policy forbidding it, the store has allowed it (even if it would prefer we take the milk in front) -- so we're not wronging the store in any way, which, in effect, has to accept the possibility of spoiled milk as one of the costs of doing business -- which it then, no doubt, passes on to the customer .... The deeper question here would be a kind of prisoner dilemma: if every customer agreed to take the milk from the front, thus reducing spoilage, the overall cost of milk might well go down, which would be good for everyone -- but if only *I* take it from the front then I increase my personal risk of spoilage without getting any benefit .... :-) best, ap

Why are philosophers concerned with the nature of time? Isn't this a scientific subject?

Good question. But why can't it be both scientific and philosophical? Much of the philosophy of time -- dating back long before serious scientific investigation on time (which I'll arbitrarily date to 17th century or so) -- involves reflection on our conscious experience of temporality -- and most of that reflection still is valuable and insightful even as science has progressed to very different understandings of the nature of time ... So there's still plenty of room to philosophize about time, about our experience of time, even INDEPENDENT of whatever's going on in science .... best, ap

It is clear that determinism can give a logically valid account of human behavior; it is a viable theory of human action. But it seems that if determinism, or at least a deterministic account of behavior that precludes free will, is true, much of what we hold very valuable in most if not all human cultures (e.g. love; trust; the value of the person; etc.) is all an illusion. I, for example, do not freely place a value on my wife and love her because of this value; my "love" is a product of my genes, or my psychological history. Similarly, it also seems to me that atheistic accounts of the origin of morality (e.g. a need to survive and get along better to propagate our genes) are plausible, but likewise seem to remove deeper meanings involved in moral behavior (e.g. I choose not to murder someone because I find it violates, in some sense, a universal moral law that I could be held accountable for at some point now, or perhaps even after my death). I am not sure what philosophers who have discussed these...

A great question, which deserves a longer response than I have time for now! But just a very general response: how could concerns about what we value give us a grounds for determining what's true with respect to determinism? Determinism seems, as you've sketched it, to be a kind of scientific thesis -- it's up to science to figure out whether there are deterministic laws of nature which govern our bodies and brains and behavior, I would think. The fact that we may not like the result -- that determinism might challenge our pre-existing set of values -- hardly seems relevant as to whether the result is correct. Where philosophers step in, of course, is in judging whether in fact the determinism revealed by science WOULD or NEED challenge our values, in the way you've sketched -- but it isn't obvious to me that the philosophical activity would be relevant to the 'scientific' question of whether determinism is true. best, ap

Hello philosophers, I have a question concerning experience. I have dreamt that I have had a French kiss. Although, I have never had such empirical experience in my real life. However, how have I managed to fell like it tastes in my dream? I mean, how have I managed to understand and feel the sense of it if I have never had it?

Hm, if you haven't *really* experienced it, then how do you know that what you dreamt was accurate? Moreover, even if you haven't had such a kiss exactly, isn't it possible that the specific sensory components of the kiss ARE all things you've experienced, if not exactly in that combination? (Why couldn't the mind rearrange sensory components to creat new overall arrangements -- as it does when we use our imaginations, say?) Most importantly, your question presumes we could never dream about something we haven't experienced while awake -- but why believe that, esp. when this very dream might well refute it? (No doubt your sensory organs have the capacity to detect far more tastes and smells and feels etc. than they ever in fact meet with during waking life; why can't the brain fire, during dreaming, so as to reflect those preivously unactivated capacities?) best, ap

What is an abstract concept, exactly? Is there any consensus regarding their definition among philosophers? What would be an example of a non-abstract concept then? And why? Thanks for your time (Juan J.).

good question. I might rephrase it slightly: which concepts are concepts of abstract things? then we offer one kind of definition of an abstract thing: a thing which (say) isn't located (or isn't the kind of thing to be located) in any one particular time or space. On this definition many concepts would not be of abstract things, such as the concepts of a chair, or a tree, or a building -- for each of these is the kind of thing, of physical material thing, which does enjoy locations. There may also be "mental things", "minds", which fit this definition, but then that depends on just what your concept of "mind" is! (Some philosophers think the mental is ultimately physical in nature, others not, which might affect how to classify it with respect to the 'abstract.') Then lots of other things would fall into the abstract category: concepts of truth, justice, freedom, many mathematical concepts, for example. Or to get very philosophical here: there is much debate whether we can have concepts of ...