Recent Responses

Say the universe is natural (say it had 'natural' beginnings and there was no creator)... what should this mean for my life? If we took this a step further and said we are the products of some accidental RNA interaction and there is no soul or afterlife, what should this mean about an overall worldview? Am I to live happily? How am I to struggle through moments of toil - work hard in society - if there is no meaning?

The topic of the meaning of life is now very big among philosophers. Most non-theistic / atheistic philosophers would respond that even if there is no meaning or purpose OF or FOR life, there can be meaning IN life. So, even if all life is the result of purposeless, accidents, etc, there is no reason to not love other people, work as a doctor in society, be an artist, fight for justice. I agree, but it is worth considering that IF theism is true and the cosmos exists for goods (such as persons loving and caring for each other, etc) then perhaps life has even more meaning than if theism is false. This is a quick reply; for more nuanced reflection see T.J. Mawson's God and the Meaning of Life or The Purpose of Life by Stewart Goetz.

We've been pondering the Problem of Evil. How can a good God allow evil to exist? I think the solution is right there in opening pages of the Book of Genesis. According to the Bible, after six days' labor, God needed to rest to regain his strength. When God is enjoying some necessary down time, then evil takes advantage and spreads. Is this a convincing argument?

This argument is a variation on solutions that assume a non-omnipotent God. If God doesn't have the power to prevent all evil, then the fact that there is evil would be no surprise. This version's variation is just that God gets tired and sometimes has to rest.

For the moment, leave aside the point that this is far too anthropomorphic a conception of God for most theologians' tastes. And leave aside that at least some theologians would say that anything less than an omnipotent god doesn't deserve the label "God" to begin with. (I'm sympathetic to the first point, less so to the second.) Ask instead what patterns of evil we might expect if we accept this explanation. Suppose there's a flood and people are drowned. Is the idea that if God hadn't been napping, they would have been saved? Suppose some crazy person walks into a school with a gun and kills a bunch of people. Are we suppose to say that they would have been saved if God hadn't been tired?

It's probably safe to say that at every single minute of every single day, there's something bad happening somewhere. Is God always asleep? Or is the idea that, since thousands of years are but a blink of an eye to God, God has been asleep since humans appeared on the scene, though from the cosmic perspective, that's almost no time at all?

Assuming God exists, maybe there's something to be said for the idea that God is limited and doesn't have the power to prevent all evil. No reason to add the speculation that God needs to spend time chillaxin. But even if something like this idea has a place in a proper theodicy, some of the more traditional responses seem, well, more interesting. Suppose God is up and about when the flood crashes through the valley. Should we assume that in that case, God will suspend the laws of nature and save everyone in harm's way? Maybe. But maybe not. There's a lot to be said from a lot of points of view for a world with stable laws of nature. And again, if God is paying attention, is the idea that whenever any of us are about to follow through on an immoral decision, God will step in and stop us? If so, that would presumably mean that free choice is quite a bit more limited than one might think a God would want it to be.

It's a big topic. For those who believe, the limited God idea has some advantages. But for those who believe, there's also a point in approaching the problem of evil from the most challenging assumption: suppose that God isn't limited. On that assumption, what can be said about evil? Whatever the cosmic facts may actually be, my guess is that there's more to be learned if we start there.

Is it an implication of quantum mechanics that it's possible for information about the future to be available to the past?

There are interpretations of quantum mechanics that make related claims. There's the transactional interpretation, proposed by John Cramer and developed more recently by Ruth Kastner. It holds that quantum events such as measurement results occur when there is a "handshake" between an advanced wave, traveling from future to past, and a retarded wave, traveling from past to future. The so-called two-state vector formalism, pursued in recent years by Yakir Aharanov and Lev Vaidman, is in some ways similar. Huw Price has long argued that if we allow for backward causation, we can avoid having to posit faster-than-light action at a distance. Some people have argued that in certain cases, quantum teleportation involves information moving from future to past.

But all of this is controversial and it would be hard to argue that a consistent understanding of quantum mechanics requires backward causation. To which we should add: these interpretations do not claim that quantum mechanics can exploit any such backward causation to allow someone in the future to send messages to us in the present. In other words, if there's information from the future that impinges on quantum events in the present, it's not "available" in the sense of being something we can extract and make use of.

In an answer to a question about logic, Prof Maitzen says he is unaware of any evidence that shows classical logic fails in a real-life situation. Perhaps he has never heard of an example from physics that shows how classic logic does not work in certain restricted situations? A polarizing filter causes light waves that pass through it to align only in one direction (e.g., up-down or left-right). If you have an up-down filter, and then a left-right filter behind it, no light gets through. However, if you place a filter with a 45 degree orientation between the up-down and left-right filter, some light does get through. It seems to me that classic logic cannot explain this real-world result. Thanks!

I'm sure that Stephen Maitzen will have useful things to say, but I wanted to chime on in this one.

You have just given a perfectly consistent description of what actually happens in a simple polarization experiment that I use most every semester as a teaching tool. Classical logic handles this case without breaking a sweat. But there's another point. You've described the phenomenon in terms of light waves. That's fine for many purposes, but note that the wave version of the story of this experiment comes from classical physics, where (for the most part at least) there's no hint of logical paradox.

The classical explanation for the result is that a polarizing filter doesn't just respond to a property that the light possesses. It also changes the characteristics of the wave. Up-down polarized light won't pass a left-right filter, but if we put a diagonal filter between the two, the classical story is that the intermediate filter lets the diagonal component of the wave pass, and when it does, the light that gets past is no longer up-down polarized. Since diagonally polarized light has a component along the left-right axis, there's no puzzle about why some light is able to pass all three filters. The proportions are given by Malus's laws, which was formulated at the beginning of the 19h century.

Now there's a more intriguing phenomenon that emerges when we do the same experiment with an ensemble of single photons. Each photon either passes a filter or it doesn't; no "partial passage." On the simple standard story, if a photon gets past a filter, it emerges polarized along the axis of the filter. Note: if we accept this story, the filter changes the photon. There's no contradiction in saying that a photon that once was polarized in one direction is now polarized in another. The probability that a photon will pass a filter is a simple function of the angle between the incoming polarization and the orientation of the filter. Now we get the pattern you describe exhibited statistically. As the number of photons gets large, the proportions among the photon counts will mirror the intensities in the wave version of the experiment. But nothing I've said here conflicts in any way with classical logic.

All this said, there is a debate about whether quantum mechanics has implications for logic. The majority opinion, both among physicists and philosophers of physics, is that quantum mechanics doesn't conflict with classical logic. The issues are technical and subtle and beyond the scope of what can be said here. My take: quantum mechanics may call for enlarging the range of logical relations that we consider, but there is nothing like a knock-down argument for this conclusion, and in particular no simple example that could settle the case.

The last few years I've struggled with Nihilism - my work, games, activities really just have no fun or spark like they used to have. I have many sleepness nights where I'm wracking with existential thoughts and anymore I feel like just sentient matter waiting to die, and yet I dread that moment where my consciouness will no longer exist. My questions are - How do you break through Nihilism? How does one truly come to terms with impermanence and actually enjoy the short time they have left despite a meaningless, uncaring universe? I have read Camus and Sartre but I still struggle with the existential angst.

It's important sometimes to distinguish between intellectual problems and other kinds of problems. Many, maybe most of the people I know well are atheists. They agree with you: the world doesn't contain any meaning of its own, it doesn't care about us, and nothing is permanent. The difference between most of those people and you isn't that they've had some philosophical insight that you haven't. The difference, I would gently suggest, is that you are depressed and they aren't.

I'm not a psychologist, but the way you describe your state of mind sounds like a textbook depression. How we think about things is certainly relevant when we're depressed, but the way it's relevant isn't just about content. Two people can both think that the world is indifferent to us, but for one this isn't an intrusive idea. It doesn't stop her from enjoying her work and her friends and her pastimes. It doesn't keep her awake at night. The other finds himself perseverating about it, brain caught in a loop. Getting out of that loop isn't likely to come simply from reading Camus or Sartre or anyone else.

I'd suggest talking to your doctor. He or she may be able to help you find a therapist. Given the way you describe your state of mind, you might ask if s/he knows of someone who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy. It also might turn out that a course of medication will help reset the circuitry. Both of these things (I speak from experience) can be helpful. But it's worth saying again: even if a problem has a philosophical side to it, it may not really be a philosophical problem. This sounds to me like one of those cases.

Having said all that, let me add strictly as an afterthought that you might find Mark Johnston's book Saving God interesting. I'm not suggesting it as a substitute for the things I said above, but Johnston has an interesting perspective that might appeal to you. He's a thoroughgoing naturalist; no hint of the God of classical theism. And he thinks that we are impermanent in the most obvious sense. But he doesn't think that this makes the world meaningless. The book isn't easy reading. I wrote a review that you can find at

and which you may find helpful in following Johnston's complex argument. But this isn't intended to set aside the point above: I don't think your primary problem is a philosophical problem. If you read Johnston, wait until you've made some progress with the background issue.

I can see how private language does not make sense in Wittgensteins eyes, in that a language in its true sense cannot be with one person, but I don’t see how this is relevant to mind/body dualism? I see lots of people saying that a ‘language’ that is ‘private’ suggests mind/body dualism is not real, but all I see is the feeling of senses cannot be described in a (soliloquised, for lack of a better word ‘language’) doesn’t mean anything except a private language is not possible. Note: I’ve never asked a philosophical question online before, and I’ve also had a couple of beers as England have just got to the QFs of the World Cup so if this makes no sense I will try to reword!

You should study Wittgenstein's arguments against a private language more closely, because I don't think that his view is quite that language "cannot be with one person", although that is really a wonderful way of putting it. It seems to suggest merely the view that the nature of language is that of a interpersonal communication, which is a bit uninteresting, and yet your phrasing is profoundly interesting. I also didn't quite follow why thinking that there can be a private language goes against psychophysical dualism. Surely it's the other way round. Descartes, for example, has to think he can give sense to his words privately, because he can intelligibly doubt the existence of everyone else. And Wittgenstein himself has been thought to be a behaviourist, or closer to behaviourism than to psychophysical dualism. I am very sorry about Croatia too. I imagine you had some more beers. I did.

Race and the history of slavery in the US is a highly sensitive topic (here in America). Recently, a news story came out about a town - Charleston, SC - that has officially apologized for its key role in slavery. According to the numbers, roughly 40% of all African slaves taken to the US were brought to Charleston. A lot of people are upset about this, and the main idea seems to be that no living persons are connected to and/or responsible for slavery (either directly or indirectly), and so no apologies should be made. The argument can probably be more formalized as follows: P1 - People should only apologize for those things which they are either directly or indirectly responsible for. (The 'responsible' party, here, being the causal antecedent of slavery) P1.2 - People should only receive apologies for those things in which they were either directly or indirectly affected by. P2 - No person alive today is either directly or indirectly responsible for slavery. C - There should therefore be no apologies made for slavery. How would you judge this type of response? The issue seems to be one of moral responsibility, and I guess that a further, possibly more difficult question can be posed - What is the status of our moral agency regarding actions committed by our ancestors?

Both in the law and in morality we have a notion of corporate responsibility. In the case of the law, "corporate" will include corporations and that's a good place to start. Suppose it comes to light that fifty years ago, Corporation X ignored environmental requirements and polluted the water in some town. As a result, people were harmed, including children who are now living adults.. Suppose a team of journalists uncover what happened. The authorities decide to take Corporation X to court. The law would not look kindly on the argument that there are literally no members of the Corporate board or management from fifty years ago who are still alive today, and therefore Corporation X can't be found liable. But it's not just the law. If we allowed this argument to succeed, Corporation X, which continues to do business and thrive today, would get off scot free. Many people, perhaps most, would think that this is unjust.

Someone could reply with a version of the argument you've outlined, but in the context, it would beg an important question. What the example of Corporation X suggests is that moral responsibility isn't restricted to individual human agents. The example suggests that our everyday understanding of morality includes the possibility of group responsibility, and that group responsibility isn't simply the sum of the individual responsibility of individual members of the group.

Someone might reply that we don't have a good philosophical account of group responsibility. That may or may not be true; it's a question outside my own area, though you can read a summary of the state of the discussion here:

However, even if we don't have a good theory, it's not clear what follows. Many philosophers would say that our considered moral judgments are data that moral theorizing has to take account of. This doesn't mean that moral theory has to accept all of our judgments. After all, a good scientific theory doesn't have to account for every data point. But if we have a well-developed practice of assigning collective responsibility, and if the practice produces results that we generally find plausible, then the moral theorist would need a strong argument to overturn the practice.

The theoretical questions here are interesting and deep; we've barely scratched the surface. But leaving theory aside, we can also make a couple of points about the actual case. It's plausible that many people living today have been indirectly harmed by slavery. That bears on your premise P1. And even though no one alive today is causally responsible for slavery, people alive today both benefit from the history of slavery and either know or should know that they do. Whether or not this underwrites an argument that the city of Charleston, considered as a corporate "person," is obliged to apologize for slavery, it provides at least the seeds of an argument for saying that there could be a point in doing just that, and that benefits might flow from doing it. The benefits wouldn't have to be material to be genuine. They might take the form of increased mutual understanding and respect. That could be worth more than getting the metaphysics right.

I have come to despise the society I live in. I find the people's "values" abhorrent and the things they do vile and misguided, but it seems clear that nothing will change the status quo, judging how those who speak out against these vile things are often met with hatred and anger. I do not want to live in my society anymore, I am so disillusioned with it, nor do I want to lend any skills I might have (by being in the workforce) for it to benefit from. I have sometimes considered moving to another country that might share my values more closely, but if there are any, I don't know if I'd be able to "survive" in it due to factors such as language barriers. After I really started to think about it, I began to realize that putting an end to my own existence may be the ultimate solution to this dismal problem. I am not happy in this life and this society. If I choose to live out my life but force myself to keep my mouth shut about the issues that bother me, it will mean a lifetime of misery as I slowly rot on the inside with anger and despair. But if I do choose to speak out against the issues that bother me, I will likely be ridiculed and ostracized (or worse). In other words, if I live, it will be a lose-lose for me, no matter what I do. However, if I die prematurely, I will be free of this abhorrent culture I live in and any servitude to it. My society will benefit as well, because it will not have an unwelcome "maverick" living on its resources and capital and it can continue doing whatever it wants in peace. A win-win. In today's day and age, suicide tends to be discouraged and is seen as a bad thing. However, in a situation like this, where both the individual and his society hate each other and neither will change, it seems like the perfect solution. There is no one in my life who is dependent on me for survival. And isn't death inevitable anyway? Still, it would be nice to have some nonjudgmental feedback from someone on this kind of situation and my proposed solution. Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Please do not feel obligated to provide an "alternative" solution if it's only out of a feeling of moral duty or fear of accountability. Thanks.

Before asking if something is a solution to a problem, it's worth asking whether we've gotten the problem right.

There's a sign I found a few years ago; it's on my office door. It reads "Don't believe everything you think." Almost everyone needs that advice from time to time; I certainly do. A lot of what our brains churn out, especially when we're unhappy, just isn't true. While I was reading what you wrote, that slogan kept coming back to me. The reason? An awful lot of what you say just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Yes: some people have abominable values. But there are also people who are decent, thoughtful, try to do the right thing and often succeed. I'm not guessing about this. I could make a long list drawn just from people I happen to know personally. This includes people who disagree with me about lots of things, including politics and religion. Furthermore, I'm not in any way exceptional. I'm completely comfortable saying that almost everyone knows a great many good people. There are quite literally millions and millions of such people. And while I don't know where you live, I'd be willing to bet large sums of money that plenty of good and even wise people live near enough to you that you wouldn't need to go to another country to find them.

We could talk about other things you write and the conclusions would be similar. I'm not saying this to insult you or make you angry. I'm saying it because of what I said at the beginning: if we want to know whether something is a solution to a problem, it matters whether we've gotten the problem right in the first place. I don't know anything about your circumstances, and so I don't know why it seems to you that pretty much all of what you call "society" is a pack of miscreants. But since you use the word "society" for a much broader group than your own circle of acquaintances, I think I can safely say that you're suffering from a kind of illusion.

What's the cure? Specifics matter, but some general points are likely to apply. The first is the slogan on my sign: Don't believe everything you think. Really; just don't. Detach from your judgments. When big, broad, negative generalizations intrude on your thoughts, don't fight with them, don't resist them, but observe them without judgment and let them pass on through. This is the technique behind what's sometimes called "insight meditation" (a contemporary name for Buddhist Vipassana meditation) and it can be quite powerful once you get the hang of it. There's nothing mystical or supernatural or cultish about it. You don't need to take vows or wear robes. It's just a technique that centuries of experience and a fair bit of recent research bears out. What you learn is that thoughts are just thoughts. You don't need to give them power over you.

Like any technique, it takes some practice and a good teacher can be helpful. There are also things worth reading. One book from a few years ago may be worth your time: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Well worth the few dollars it costs.

One other thing: Tara Brach's book talks a lot about compassion: compassion for others, but also compassion for ourselves. The world could use more of that—the world and everyone in it.

Dear philosophers, Professor Stairs recently addressed a question about the difference between 'immoral' and 'impolite' where, if I understand him correctly, he basically said that there's a fact of the matter about morality, whereas norms of politeness are society-relative. But I think it's worth pointing out that there are a variety of other views about morality: for instance, relativism, error theory, and even some views where moral claims aren't considered truth-apt (as in logical positivism). May I ask Professor Stairs a potentially more interesting question: assuming relativism, or some similar view where there is no universal moral fact of the matter, is there a bright-line difference between the immoral and the impolite?

Perhaps not a bright line. But let's take relativism as our foil, where we understand relativism to mean that standards of evaluation are relative to norms, traditions, etc. of societies or groups. (I'm paraphrasing a definition from ). If that view happens to be correct, notice that it doesn't leave us without a distinction between morals and manners. Even if relativism is the right meta-ethical view, we still make a distinction within this society (US society for the sake of example) between matters of politeness and matters of moral right and wrong. Close enough for our purpose, we Americans agree that stealing is wrong and not just rude. We also agree that showing up to a wedding in ragged shorts and a T-shirt is rude but not really a moral wrong (though see below). The line between the two cases seems to be something like this: we can imagine, though we might not find it an attractive prospect, that fashions might change and showing up to a wedding "badly dressed" might come to be acceptable. Nothing in the kinds of reasons we appeal to in moral argumentation provides a basis for treating the rudeness of ragged shorts at a wedding as anything deeper than custom. When we offer moral arguments, we appeal to considerations of such things as harm and fairness that we don't treat as matters of fashion. Those sorts of reasons don't get much of a grip in arguments about what to wear to weddings.

The general idea is that even if relativism is the correct metatheory, there is a set of norms, rules and reasons that limn what the group takes to constitute morality. Appeals to those kinds of reasons are what makes an argument about how to behave a moral argument. Other cases, such as whether it's okay to slurp your soup or wear white to a wedding if you're not the bride, don't appeal to those sorts of reasons.

This still doesn't give us a bright line. For example: in the US (and in lot of other places!) it's rude to constantly interrupt people when they talk. Some cases of interrupting don't bump up against the boundary of what we count as moral transgressions. Some people are just socially clueless. But in other cases, constant interruption amounts to not showing respect for the person you're interrupting; it may count as an affront to their dignity. However, we don't just count respect and dignity as matters of manners; they're moral issues too.

So it's doubtful that we'll find bright lines, but we do find not-altogether-blurry ones. In fact (as my earlier answer indicated) this will be so whether or not we're objectivists. The rude can sometimes amount to a wrong.

I have a mother with alzheimer dementia in a very advanced stage and she is unconscious about anything is happening around her. I think she is alive phisically but not a conscious being, she acts by instincts, grabbing a piece of bread or crying when she needs something, like a baby or an animal. Cant talk, dont know who she is or anything... I cant stop asking myself wether she is "alive", alive here meaning as a conscious human being. If I was religious I would ask where did her soul go?? Is it still there? Is it only her body what is left? Is all mad people also "alive"under this terms? What about very young children (who hasnt developed self awareness yet)? What about people who lives in auto pilot all their life and never question ther existence? Actually when do we start being "alive" under this concept? "I think therefore I am" Sorry for the long lines, I hope I explained myself. Thank you in advance. Juan C.

It is very sad to hear your story. I can give a guess about the awfulness of what you are going through, but I am more certain that I cannot appreciate the full daily horror for you.

Your question is a most reasonable one. Is your mother "alive"? It is interesting that you feel obliged to put this word in scare quotes. It is something that "you can't stop asking yourself". So there is something very important here, an important issue. But you have also answered your own question, or part of it. Let us distinguish between the mental and the physical. Is your mother alive physically? Her body is not dead, if we can put it that way. Is she alive "as a conscious being"? Here you give your own answer: ' . . . she is unconscious about anything [that] is happening around her.' I think perhaps you should say that she is conscious only of the most immediate and restricted domain. That perhaps is part of the reason the question is difficult. She is conscious, but not in a full sense. The whole difficulty about this kind of condition is that it seems to be a kind of living death, and we have not fully developed ethical concepts to match its metaphysical complexity.

I hope this answer does help with your question. You should ask more questions if they present themselves.

All the best to you.