Recent Responses

Dear philosophers: In my reading of Descartes's Discourse on Method, I am fascinated by his project of universal doubt and the promise it seems to give to eliminate the many presuppositions we have. However, it seems that Descartes meant whatever belief one has is not justified if it can be subjected to any doubt, including skepticism. Therefore it would seem that answering skepticism should be among the priority in philosophical research. But this is a very strict requirement - is it the case in current philosophy research? If not, how do philosophers justify not making it the priority?

Three points:

1. It's not clear that the project of eliminating all of our presuppositions even makes sense. For instance: Could we coherently try to eliminate our presupposition that eliminating a given presupposition is inconsistent with keeping that presupposition? I can't see how. Indeed, Descartes himself seems ambivalent about the possibility, or desirability, of eliminating all of our presuppositions, because in his work he frequently appeals to unargued-for principles that, he says, "the natural light" simply shows us must be true.

2. Your argument for the claim that "Answering skepticism should be [a] priority in philosophical research" relies on this premise: Descartes was correct to claim that no belief is justified if it can be subjected to any doubt. Most philosophers, now and in Descartes's time, would reject that condition on justified belief as far too strict. They would challenge Descartes to derive that strict condition from a recognizable concept of justified belief, rather than from some more rarefied concept he simply made up.

3. Even if Cartesian skepticism isn't the central priority of contemporary philosophical research that you think it ought to be, there are many philosophers who take it seriously enough to work on it. For recent and current examples, see the International Journal for the Study of Skepticism.

It's been said that the lottery is a "stupidity tax," and that people only buy tickets who fundamentally misunderstand the odds against them. However, I've seen people reply that, although they understand full well the infinitesimally small chance of winning, they view the lottery as a form of entertainment, and buy tickets with this in mind. Is this a sound rationalization for playing the lottery? Or is it just a way of laundering the same old irrationality?

Well, either it's not a way of laundering the same old irrationality or I'm irrational in this respect. I don't buy lottery tickets often, and even when I do, I don't spend much, but I do occasionally buy them, and it's for exactly the reason you suggest: it has a certain entertainment value.

Now I admit: there is quite likely an irrational corner of my psyche that holds out a stronger hope of winning than the probabilities warrant. But I know how the probabilities actually work, am reasonably self-aware about my lurking id, and haven't shown any tendencies toward compulsive lottery-ticket purchasing. That little irrational bit of me is no doubt what makes the "entertainment" possible. A certain sort of caution would would counsel that it's unwise indulge this benighted part of my nature, though I'd need more evidence to be convinced.

That said, my overall view is that government-sponsored lotteries are iniquitous because for many people they are indeed a tax on irrationality. It's a sleazy way for the State to feed its coffers, and I doubt that any lottery official could deny with a straight face that it's a way of preying on the desperate, the confused, and the superstitious. So I suppose I should admit not so much to irrationality but to a moral failing: my occasional purchases support an institution that I can't defend in good conscience. I now feel ashamed of myself.

But I bet I will still by an occasional ticket.

Hello! I have a question about a particular line of reasoning in a debate that, to me, only leads to a "do I care" conclusion. I have now encountered this reasoning in several debates and can't think of a better conclusion. There must be a name for this that I am not aware of. Most recently this happened in a debate about cults. We were chugging along on the topic of cults and what gets something labeled as a cult vs say a religion or a tribe or, more universally, just humanity. The conclusion, again to me, was that when you expand the definition of "cult" so far out, yes, the entire human race can be labeled a cult. That is to say that under that definition of the word "cult" everything can be labeled a cult and the only conclusion is "do I care". This did not help my friend who wishes to avoid all cults but seemingly proved they were in a cult called the human race. Is there a name for this type of semantic bloating? Is this perhaps a long established logical fallacy I'm not aware of?? Regards.

I don't know the name, though I like "semantic bloating." In any case, a couple of observations.

First, words mean what people use them to mean. Words in English mean what competent speakers use them to mean—or, at least, that's close enough for our purposes. Competent speakers of English don't use the word "cult" to refer to the whole human race.

But the issue isn't really about the word. If your friend has a point, s/he ought to be able to make it by setting the word "cult" aside. What bothers us about the things we typically label cults is that they display a cluster of undesirable traits and tendencies. They make a rigid distinction between insiders and outsiders; they enforce membership conditions that alienate members from family and friends who mean them no harm; they insist on accepting dubious beliefs; they make it psychologically distressing for people to challenge or doubt those beliefs; they expect unquestioning obedience to the group's authority figures. All of these things show up in a variety of human circumstances, and if that's what your friend means, s/he's right, of course. But we can make that point without adding the unhelpful claim that the whole of humanity is a collective cult. The whole of humanity is a variegated patchwork, parts of which are highly cult-like and parts of which aren't.

Your basic insight is right: if we use the word "cult" with so few restrictions that humanity itself counts, we've robbed the word of its meaning. That means we've robbed ourselves of a useful way to make distinctions that are worth making. The Branch Davidians were a cult by any reasonable standard. The local PTA isn't. If we lump them together, we do ourselves no analytical favors. And if we broaden the net to include the collective everyone, we no longer have a net at all.

Is consequentialism utilitarianism?

The usual way of understanding their relation is that utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences — roughly, how good an act's consequences are. Utilitarianism offers an account of the relevant good, namely, well-being or happiness, so that, according to utilitarians, the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences for well-being or happiness. (Note that it is possible to be a consequentialist without being a utiltiarian: so long as one holds that there are consequences of an act unrelated to its consequences for well-being or happiness that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc.)

Is there any point in listening to sad music?

The best answer, surely, is yes. Whether we can say why the answer is yes may be another matter.

Here's an external reason: untold millions of sane, healthy people listen to sad music and find it rewarding. It's possible, I suppose, that this is a kind of pathology, but that seems hard to believe.

There's nothing special about music here. In literature, poetry, film, painting and dance, sad works abound. I found the ending of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day deeply sad. (Not the movie, by the way; in my view the ending missed the whole point of the story.) I'm also glad I read the book. Many others feel the same way.

Scary stories raise a similar puzzle. Many people read horror stories and watch scary movies. But why? Very few people want to be frightened in real life.

So far: art that deals with difficult emotions brings up the same sort of puzzle as sad music. If there's no point in listening to sad music, there's no point in any of these other cases. But too many people find such things valuable for it to be believable that they have no point.

We can still ask what the point might be. Catharsis is one possibility (think of the idea of having a good cry.). This is something Aristotle considered. Another possibility is that art dealing with difficult themes lets us explore important aspects of life at one remove from the real thing. Thinking about the character of Stevens might provide me with a sense of the consequences of ignoring vital emotional parts of oneself. It might help me empathize with the real-life analogues of someone like Stevens. It might enrich the available ways for me to think about the world.

Music isn't literature; music doesn't represent possibilities in the way that literature does. But there may be similar things to be said. Sometimes a sad piece of music seems to express something I'm feeling, and having it expressed may both provide a sense of relief (something like catharsis) and also make me feel less alone because it reminds me that there are others who have felt as I feel. There's also an undeniable beauty in some sad music, even if it's hard to say just what that consists in. I can appreciate the beauty without actually becoming sad myself.

However, there's a further and simpler thing to be said: something can be valuable, whether or not we can say why. The fact that we persistently find value in listening to sad music (or reading tragic literature, or...) gives those things a point. That's because, other things equal, there's a point in doing things that we persistently find valuable. This may be a truism, but it's still true.

What is the purpose of a college degree? If I teach myself a subject from reading books about it, how is it any different from paying expensive tuition to learn the exact same information?

There's not just one answer and others may add their own. But your question equates getting an education with acquiring information, and that's not a good way to think of it. I'll use philosophy as an example, but some version of what I'm about to say would apply to any discipline I can think of.

A philosophy student may acquire a lot of information—for example, about who the Utilitarians were, and what compatibilism about free will is. But that's a small part of what she gets through her philosophical education. What she gets, if things works out, is the ability to think well philosophically. That comes from practice, from interacting with philosophers and, crucially, from getting feedback. It's hard to learn to do philosophy if all you have is a library of books that you read. In particular, it's hard to know whether you're learning to do it well. And—trust me on this—your own judgments about that may be way off the mark.

There are exceptions, of course, but they're just that: exceptions. You may be one, but your question itself suggests that you may not be. That's not meant as a put-down; very few people are exceptions in this way. I know I wasn't; I doubt that any of my colleagues were.

As I said, the point doesn't just go for philosophy. A great deal of what you learn when you study a discipline with people who've mastered it is tacit knowledge that can't be reduced to a collection of facts. A good deal of education is socialization. You learn how to think in the ways that people in the discipline think, do the kinds of things that they do. In every discipline I can think of, facts are in many ways the least of it.

Hi, wanted to know if Order & Reason are a part of Nature. or if this is simply how humans view things and try to make sense of things. Cheers

For myself, I think the traditions of philosophical skepticism have raised serious doubts about whether or not this question can be finally answered. It seems, given the apparent lessons of those traditions, that it wisest to suspend judgment on the question but nevertheless to keep inquiring and to remain open to the chance that we might figure it out. My own suspicion is that there is some independent and objective basis to our projections of order and reason, but I’m not convinced that any single formulation or projection in human thought or action can apprehend that basis in a complete or final way. That we can make projections and formulations about order and reason seems remarkable and suggestive in itself, but the problems skepticism has brought before us with those projections and formulations seem sufficient to give one serious pause before pretending to any final conclusion.

Would it be best for Earth if we all died right now? We are destroying her; or do you think our selfish race should stick around to fix our mistakes (as if)? At this rate, it's only getting worse and barely beneficial. So perhaps we should all drop dead?

Restricting consideration only to the qualification “best for the Earth,” where that means something like best for the well being of current eco-systems and current non-human populations, I think the answer is yes, it would be better if we all dropped dead, especially if “this rate” of destruction remains unchanged. But, of course, what is best for the current eco-systems and current populations must be weighed against other considerations such as what is “best for” certain projects and cultural formations we also rightly value—human communities, nations, literary, scientific, spiritual, and artistic projects. It is true, indeed, that those will disappear along with the rest of life on the planet if ecological destruction continues beyond the point at which human life or those projects can be sustained. It’s not clear, however, that the current rate of destruction will persist or that we will reach that point. It is not clear that it won’t or that we won’t, either. There seems to be a reasonable likelihood that the course we’re on is not only suicidal but also ecocidal, and so this question will remain meaningful and compelling. For myself, I think we face a serious obligation to reduce human impact upon the world both by reducing consumption per capita and by reducing population generally.

I generally believe to give birth to a child or not is completely a woman's own decision. Personally I never want to have a child. However someone recently said to me that to insist on that belief would be a little selfish when a woman is in a country threatened by rapid aging and declining population, which could in turn lead to far worse consequences like economic collapse. What do philosophers think?

A fascinating question. Let’s first examine the question of whether one might have an obligation to reproduce. Under normal circumstances, we honor the autonomy of individuals in such matters, largely as an extension of the principle that one should have ultimate control over one’s body to the extent it does not harm others. Of course, that raises the questions of whether refusing to reproduce might harm or injure others, and what harm or injury is relevant. This is part of a larger question of whether not doing something can be understood to be a kind of harm. Are we obligated to save others in peril, for existence? It’s a big question, but I’m inclined to think that we do bear a limited obligation. If that’s true, I can imagine a scenario where someone with a terminal illness is the only person in the world with a certain genetic trait and that trait is required to produce a cure for a disease that will otherwise kill everyone else. The trait cannot for some reason be preserved in tissue samples. In that case, the person could be said to have an obligation to others to sustain the existence of that trait. But let’s face it, that’s an unlikely scenario. You raise a case where not having children would lead to economic collapse. Collapse of that sort would seem an injury or likely to produce injury, too. So, the logic of the question suggests we have an obligation to prevent that injury. But, practically speaking, I don’t think that’s so under present world circumstances. The world is already over-populated in my view, and so it would seem that there are plenty of people available to sustain economic activity. Really, a more relevant question today is whether we have an obligation to refuse to have children or at least to limit our reproduction to less than the replacement rate. I think that is so, because continued reproduction entails harm to others. Now, I can imagine that those who argue for the obligation to reproduce might argue for their point on cultural rather than economic grounds. It’s possible that negative reproduction rates in some parts of the world in conjunction with immigration from groups with positive reproduction rates will eventually lead to the elimination of a nation or culture. In that case, the question becomes whether or not we have an obligation to sustain the culture in which we live and have inherited. I think in that case the situation is rather like voting. Individuals are free to decide whether or not they wish their nation or culture to survive. The answer may be yes or no depending upon any individual’s judgment. So long as people are well informed about the risks to their culture’s survival and about the relevant qualities of their culture that will be lost, each individual gets a vote. Now, I think it reasonable from the point of view of cultural diversity and in light of an understanding of the treasures most cultures contain to start from the assumption that cultures should be conserved and sustained, but there is no a prior reason to think so in any particular case.

Hello. A roll of dice is supposed to be the perfect example of randomness, but it's easy to see how you might go about explaining why someone got a 1 instead of 6. The die was this way up when it hit the table at this angle, it had this amount of force, there were certain weight imbalances that caused it to spin this way rather than that, etc. So is there really such a thing as chance, or is that just the word we use for when something is too complex for us to disentangle all the cause and effect that goes into it?

Good question. In fact, most people who work on these matters wouldn't agree that a roll of a die is a perfect example of randomness. And you are quite right: we believe that if we knew enough about the prevailing conditions when the die was rolled (and if we could do the calculations!) we could figure out how the die would land. That convinces many people that dice rolls aren't really chance events at all, though not everyone agrees. The issues about "deterministic chance" tend to get technical, but they have partly to do with the amount of complexity involved in disentangling the causes and effects.

But your question still stands whatever our view on whether determinism and chance can somehow fit together. That question is: are all apparent examples of chance cases where a complete account of the details would determine the outcome of the supposedly "chance" process? The answer is a solid "Maybe not." The reason is quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, as you may know, is a theory in which probability is the order of the day. For example: suppose we prepare a beam of photons (light quanta) so that each of them is certain to get past a filter for polarization in the vertical direction. But suppose that instead, we set up a filter at 45 degrees to the vertical. Quantum mechanics says that for each photon, there is a probability of 50% that it will get past the filter. But it says no more, and given the mathematics of quantum theory, there's no way to make it say more without adding extra assumptions.

It's possible to do that. There are theories that posit an underlying deterministic story. One important example is Bohmian mechanics. It's deterministic but it calls for faster-than-light action-at-a-distance. Some people think that the experimental and theoretical arguments more or less force us to accept that; others disagree.

Another way to recover determinism is to adopt the Everettian or "many worlds" account of quantum mechanics. That story doesn't call for faster-than-light signals, but it tells us that when we perform a polarization experiment like the one we described, the world branches. Both outcomes occur; in one set of branches, the photon gets past the filter; in another set, it doesn't. Some researchers think that this is the best, most natural way to understand quantum theory. It would amount to determinism with branching. For others, this is the least attractive alternative.

To make matters worse, in virtually any realistic scenario both Bohmian mechanics and Many-Worlds quantum mechanics make the same experimental predictions as more orthodox views . Simply making more measurements is extremely unlikely to settle the debate.

Where does this leave your question? Unsettled. Some people believe that quantum processes are deeply random, with no underlying deterministic process. Others disagree and believe that there is an underlying deterministic story, though they disagree about what the story should be like. If I had to pick, I'd side with the non-determinists, but there's a whole lot of room to argue.