Recent Responses

Many theists appeal to certain facts about the world (objectivity of morality, laws of nature, existence of the universe) and infer that these facts must be grounded in God. One response that I found common to atheists is to argue that these facts are rather brute and need no explanation beyond themselves. My question then is this: What makes a particular fact a brute fact? To put it more specifically, are there any criteria for what would make a certain fact brute and also for what would make a certain fact necessarily grounded on something else?

As I understand it, the distinction between brute facts and other facts is that a brute fact has no explanation (not simply an explanation we fail to know) whereas any other fact has an explanation (even if we don't know the explanation).

Contingent facts could have been otherwise: they could have failed to be facts. Noncontingent facts couldn't have been otherwise: they couldn't have failed to be facts. Given the history of scientific explanation, I see no reason to accept the existence of brute contingent facts. Many contingent facts that seemed to resist explanation were later explained. I see no reason to think that many of the facts that now seem to resist explanation won't themselves later be explained.

One way for every contingent fact to have an explanation is for there to be an endless regress of contingent facts. I see nothing wrong with such a regress. Assuming that the existence and nature of our universe are both contingent, they would be explained by an endless regress of contingent facts, none of them brute. What explains the existence of the entire set of such facts? Either that question is ill-posed, or else it's already answered by the facts in the regress. Traditional theism tries to explain the existence and nature of the universe by appealing to God's libertarian (i.e., undetermined) free choice. Even if libertarian free choice is a coherent idea, which I doubt, this theistic explanation leaves at least one brute contingent fact, namely, God's free choice to make the universe this way rather than some other way.

I'm not as sure that an endless regress will work for noncontingent facts. What explains the law of noncontradiction, the noncontingent fact that a proposition and its negation can't possibly both be true? My sense is that any explanation of that fact will eventually repeat the fact being explained, making the explanation circular. So if, for example, some objective moral principles are noncontingently true, their explanation might eventually include a noncontingent fact that's brute because it has no (noncircular) explanation. Here, though, I think that the brute noncontingent facts will make no reference to God, just as philosophers Wes Morriston and Erik Wielenberg have argued.

Hi! My friend tells me that our purpose in life can't be to be happy. Either one of the religions has got it right, and there is a deity or deities, in which case our purpose is to serve them, or there is no God, in which case we have no purpose other than one we arbitrarily decide for ourselves to follow. Does that claim hold water? Thanks in advance for your help!

I think your friend's argument by dilemma leaves out this possibility: we were made by a deity (or deities) principally in order to lead happy lives rather than principally in order to serve it (or them).

Even so, our having been made for the purpose of being happy wouldn't make being happy our purpose. Instruments made for a purpose thereby acquire that purpose (although, of course, they can later be repurposed). But people aren't instruments; I doubt that they're the kind of thing that can be given a purpose, even by their maker. Or at least, because they're autonomous, people can thwart any attempt by their maker to give them a purpose.

Hence I don't think there could be any such thing as "our purpose in life," if "our" refers to people in general. So I agree with your friend's conclusion (although for different reasons than your friend gave): our purpose in life can't be to be happy. Nor can it be anything else.

It is now known that perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible because of the Principle of Conservation of Energy. Now, suppose someone is able to create a perpetual motion machine. This would entail that a known law of nature has been violated. My question then is this: should that particular act be considered a miracle?

If someone figured out how to build a perpetual motion machine, this would mean that something formerly but falsely believed to be law of nature would have been found not to be. It wouldn't mean that a bona fide law of nature had been violated.

Or at least that's a reasonable thing to say. But I've assumed that God has nothing to do with the Ever-Whirling Whirligig. If there's a God, that complicates things.

There's a view that says there can't be miracles because by definition, miracles are violations of laws of nature and by definition, a false generalization isn't actually a law of nature, but that's a poor argument. If there is a supernatural God, then the reasonable way to understand laws of nature is that they're generalizations that hold true without special divine intervention. A good analogy (can't remember who offered it) is that the laws of nature are like the working of a clock when nothing messes with its mechanism. If God messes with the natural mechanisms and suspends them in some way or another, that could amount to a miracle.

There's a further issue for some people. A supposed miracle could always just be a case of our having thought something was a law of nature, when in fact the natural regularities don't work that way in the first place. That, of course, is true. But some people go on to say that we could never have good reason to think the apparently miraculous events really were divine interventions. The reply to that is that surely it depends on the details. In most religious traditions, miracles aren't just weird events. They have significance—they're messsages from the Divine. We can at least imagine cases in which the meaning of the event should be clear even to the skeptic. (At least I can, and I'm a skeptic.)

In any case, a perpetual motion machine doesn't seem like a good candidate for that sort of status.

Hi! I was wondering if I could ask a few moral questions related to Brett Kavanaugh. 1. Is it morally bad to profit from a crime; and, if so, why? It seems to me that most traditional moralities seem to proscribe against acts (like "Thou shalt not murder"), and sometimes against the emotional motivation for acts (greed, lust, pride), but that they aren't focused on the consequences of acts. It also seems to me that act utilitarianism wouldn't regard profiting from a crime as bad per se. If anything, the resulting happiness is a good: it's just that it needs to be weighed together with the resulting suffering. 2. In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, let's assume: (a) that he did commit assaults while drunk 40 years ago; and (b) that, after college, he went on to lead an unimpeachable life. In this scenario, would the assaults then constitute a moral reason not to confirm him to the Supreme Court? What does the panel make of the following claims? -- (a) He's a different person now, so there is no moral problem. 40 years says so. Convicted criminals need to do less than that to prove they deserve to have full citizenship rights reinstated. -- (b) Criminals can still be good Xs -- good doctors, good teachers, good judges, etc -- so there is no moral problem. There is no clear causative link between assaults then and judging ability now. -- (c) Assuming there are moral objections to profiting from a crime, Kavanaugh wouldn't be. Rather, he would be profiting from having got away with a crime, from not having it on his record.

You ask if it's morally bad to profit from a crime. Since the answer seems pretty clearly to be yes, I'm a bit unsure what would count for you as saying why, but let's try an example: Robin's spouse carries a large life insurance policy. Robin kills him—a morally bad thing, I hope you'll agree—and then gets the payout from the policy, thereby profiting from the crime. Sounds bad to me.

Consider two cases. (1) someone commits a crime—a theft, let's say— but they do it in order to help some desperate but otherwise innocent person. (2) Someone commits the same crime, but they do it simply because they want the money, which in fact they manage to get away with keeping and using. Most of us would say that the first case is less egregious, the wrongdoer of less bad character, and the act more forgivable.

Is there a deeper explanation? More than one, no doubt. If my profit flows from a crime, then I don't deserve the benefit I got, and we care about whether people deserve what they're getting. Also, if we don't have sanctions against profiting from crimes, we take away a reason for not committing them. No doubt there are other things to be said here.

As for your remark about act utilitarianism, it actually points to a reason for not being an act utilitarian. Suppose X and Y both murder innocent people, but unlike X, Y actually enjoyed the killing and savors the memory. Only someone in the grip of a bad theory could think that this makes it less bad overall that Y committed his murder than that X committed hers. On the contrary, the healthier thought is that Y's pleasure is worse than morally worthless; it's despicable. Someone who didn't see this is someone I wouldn't trust around sharp objects.

I am not going to offer any view on Brett Kavanaugh. In fact, set him aside entirely. Your broader question is this: if someone doesn't profit from their crime itself, but only from not being caught, should we care? Surely the question is whether we would think it was right to give them the benefit if we actually knew about the crime. Suppose that Z embezzled money from his law firm in a one-time act 20 years ago. (The statute of limitations is less than that, BTW.) Z is nominated for a judgeship. Don't know about you, but if I knew about the embezzlement, that would make a difference to whether I thought Z deserved the judgeship. And if Z served on the bench but it came to light after his death that he had embezzled from his firm, I expect my view would be that he didn't deserve his judgeship. Yes; he might have served honorably. But that's not the only thing we can care about.

Finally, on the bit about someone being "a different person." I think it's wise whenever we can to avoid making moral judgments on the basis of slippery metaphysics. I'd suggest that this is one of those cases.

Can philosophy prove/disprove anything or it is just inconclusive and useless?

One of philosophy's most important uses is in helping us to spot bad questions. It's better to diagnose the defect in a bad question than to try to answer a bad question straight up.

Take your question, for instance. Its defect is your false dichotomy: your assumption that any discipline either can prove or disprove things or else is inconclusive and useless. It might be neither of those. Historians of Tudor England can't prove or disprove things, if that means answering historically interesting questions with absolute certainty: their historical evidence doesn't allow them to do that. But of course that doesn't make the history of Tudor England a useless area of inquiry, and if it's not useless then it's not inconclusive and useless.

Your false dichotomy aside, philosophy does prove some things, such as the principles of logical reasoning. Less abstractly, philosophy often proves that some theory consisting of specific propositions A, B, C (say) is logically committed to some other proposition D that seems implausible. When that happens the theory in question faces a dilemma: revise away at least one of A, B, C; or explain why D isn't as implausible as it seems.

Yes, many of the most interesting claims in philosophy remain both unproven and unrefuted. But the same goes for many of the most interesting claims in any discipline, including physics. In the absence of proof, some claims are nevertheless better-supported by evidence and argument than others.

Why are non-material objects not causally efficacious? Or, why can’t non-material objects partake in causality? Is there a reason other than simply saying that non-material objects are as such by definition? Thank you!

The first point is that not everyone would accept the presupposition of your question. Most obviously, theists wouldn't. According to many varieties of theism, the First Cause of the material world is not a material thing. Needless to say, not everyone agrees. But you can deny that there is a non-physical First Cause without denying that the very idea is incoherent.

There are homelier examples. On at least some views, the fact that something was absent can be a cause. Absences, however, aren't material objects. (In fairness, they aren't non-material objects either.) So the first point is that it isn't simply agreed by the parties to the dispute that only material objects are causally efficacious. We could also add that even among materialists, broadly understood, most would say that events rather than objects are what do the causing, but it's at least arguable that events are in space and time and so even if they aren't material objects, they're physical in a broader sense.

The second point is that there are different theories of causation, and on one important approach, causation should be understood in terms of counterfactuals. This way of thinking about causation goes back to David Hume, although he didn't develop the idea in any detail. The most important recent defender of a counterfactual analysis of causation was David Lewis, and we can illustrate the idea with a simple case. Suppose that if a certain switch were flipped, a light would turn on. And suppose that if the switch were not flipped, the light would not turn on. Then on this sort of view, flipping the switch causes the light to turn on. The more general idea is this: suppose C1, C2,... Cn are mutually exclusive jointly exhaustive possible events (that is, no two can occur at one, and together they exhaust the alternatives.) Likewise, suppose E1, E2,...En are mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive possible events, all distinct from the C-events. Suppose that the following are all true:

If C1 occurred, E1 would occur.
If C2 occurred, E2 would occur
If Cn occurred, En would occur.

Then the E-family of possibilities depends causally on the C-family. But notice that this approach says nothing about whether causes are material or immaterial. True, as I've presented it, the story relies on the idea of something occurring. That at least invokes time. But there are ways to make the analysis general enough to include, for example, the possibility that the cause of the existence of the material world is the (timeless) fact that its existence is God's will. (Had it not been God's will that the universe exist, it would not have existed.)

Whether a counterfactual analysis of causation is the best way to go is a matter of debate. But the point is that there is a real debate here. You might find the discussion and references in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a good place to start.

Lots of science today (meteorology, cosmology) is based on computer simulation or modeling for those phenomena that are difficult to observe directly. If a computer simulation gives me a result consistent with what we can see (star distribution for two galaxies that collide) can we infer that the underlying process is the same in the simulation and in physical world? The simulation is just numbers (or symbols) input as data about the system(s) modeled. Are numbers the underlying "stuff" of objects, too, rather than atomic particles, etc.?

Suppose that instead of a computer producing a simulation, we have an army of thousands of worker-bee science grad students performing and assembling vast numbers of calculations matching all the steps that a computer simulation would call for. Suppose the results are consistent with observation. We wouldn't ask whether what's being simulated is really nothing but desperate grad students chained to desks doing tedious math.

Computer simulations are ways of finding out what our equations and assumptions entail. In an example where it would be feasible to calculate the behavior of the model by hand, we wouldn't doubt that the real target of the exercise is external-world stuff—particles or economic agents or pathogens or whatever. That doesn't change if we move to cases where there's no serious possibility of doing the calculations by hand. The computer simulation doesn't represent itself. It represents what it simulates. If we've done things right, the representation will be more or less accurate. But how we represent doesn't determine what's represented.

In a reply to a question about the sorites paradox, Professor Maitzen writes: "Logic requires there to be a sharp cutoff in between those clear cases -- a line that separates having enough leaves to be a head of lettuce from having too few leaves to be a head of lettuce. Or else there couldn't possibly be heads of lettuce." However, there is no justification that clearly leads from his premise to his conclusion: obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place! The premise as he presents it sounds like a tautology, not a logical argument. What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap." You could take a head of lettuce and separate it into its individual leaves, but then you'd no longer have a head of lettuce. So you can clearly have a head of lettuce without knowing the exact number of leaves required, since we can easily validate that assertion through an appeal to empirical experience. The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number. His answer does not address that consideration at all, but merely insists that a heap "must be" determinate in number or else it could not exist.

What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap."

Agreed! Even so, there must be a sharp cutoff between (a) enough grains to make a heap of sand if they're arranged properly and (b) too few grains to make a heap of sand no matter how they're arranged. An instance of (a) would be 1 billion; an instance of (b) would be 1.

Why must there be a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b)? Because otherwise (a) can be shown to apply to 1 (which clearly it doesn't) or (b) can be shown to apply to 1 billion (which clearly it doesn't). That's what the sorites argument shows.

...obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place!

You seem to be saying that the sorites paradox is simply that we have heaps of sand without knowing the smallest number of grains that's enough, if arranged properly, to make a heap of sand. I don't see why that gap in our knowledge would itself be paradoxical, any more than it's paradoxical that the moon exists but we don't know its exact mass in grams. Plenty of exact measures elude our knowledge without thereby being paradoxical.

The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number.

The sorites argument doesn't impose a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b) that can't exist; instead, it reveals that a sharp cutoff must exist. As I suggested in my previous reply, the everyday sorites-prone concepts aren't designed to be indeterminate. They're not designed at all. We're taught those concepts by being shown clear positive cases; our teachers simply don't comment on the other cases. The indeterminacy results from omission rather than by design.

I recently watched a tv show that produced a line of questioning in my head on the virtue of reality. How do we define reality? What's the difference between reality and a world that is the perfect replication of reality? What would be the difference between the two worlds? Is it truly possible to know when we are living in reality? I guess I'm mostly asking if there is work form past philosophers that I could read on the subject?

A perfect replica of reality would be like reality in all respects. It would contain trees—real trees. It would contain people—real people. It would contain fake butter—real fake butter. And if it were a perfect replica, everything in reality would be in the replica. So in every sense that matters, it would be real.

But I have the feeling you're worried about how you can know that you're not systematically deluded or deceived about more or less everything. This was Descartes' question in Meditations. He thought that there was one thing he couldn't be deceived about: that he was having doubts and therefore that he, the doubter existed.

From there to anything substantial, like trees and people and electrons and burritos is a long way. Descartes thought that just by reasoning about it, he could prove that there's a God who is not a deceiver, and therefore that even though he was no doubt wrong about some things, he wasn't systematically wrong.

Most philosophers don't think his argument was very good. Most philosophers also think that if what you're looking for is some irrefutable philosophical proof, then you're out of luck. And yet most philosophers—none that I know personally— worry about this. There doesn't seem to be much of a reason to take wholesale skepticism about the external world seriously. It could be true, in some weak sense of "could," but that goes for a lot of things that no one takes seriously. (Bertrand Russell's example was the possibility that the work came into existence five minutes ago, looking for all the world as though it had been here since the non-existent-under-that-assumption Big Bang.)

Questions about reality tend to be better the less far they float into the stratosphere. Is that a real Gucci bag or a knock-off? Is that actor in that movie scene really Eksie McWhy or is it her stunt double Aybee Dee? Is the grape flavor in the punch real or a laboratory concoction? Is that a real diamond or a piece of costume jewelry? Questions like that get their grip because they're set against the backdrop of the (perfectly sensible) assumption that we typically know what's what—at least about ordinary stuff and middle-sized dry goods. The farther our questions float away from this sort of grounding, the bigger the risk that there won't be enough air beneath their wings to keep them afloat.