Recent Responses

If a person who calls themselves a philosopher is not concerned to stay ecological (stay green) is that person still a philosopher?

What you're asking is whether there could be a philosophical perspective that argued against 'staying green'. Of course there could be. For example, someone might think that the predicted bad effects of climate change will mainly affect people who are not yet born, and that individual may additionally reason that we owe no moral duty to people who do not yet exist. In that case they will not be motivated to stay green - they may even think staying green is a bad thing all in all, since it means some short-term sacrifice of prosperity on the part of presently existing people. A bigger point is that philosophy is incredibly broad both in subject matter and range of views: that we find a view distasteful or morally wrong does not mean it cannot be a philosophical view. In fact, to the extent that the view *we* hold has philosophical underpinnings, opposing views are guaranteed to have philosophical underpinnings available as well. Whether either view has good philosophical reasons supporting it is another matter!

Some thoughts or ideas occur to me, and some do not, and that is important in all matters, from cooking at home to writing poetry. I wonder if there is some philosophy or psychology written on what occurs and does not occur to a person. I checked "creativity" in Wikipedia, but the article focus on only a small part of things that may occur to a person. This subject seems interesting to me because it seems that we cannot make a specific idea occur to us (we would already have it if we tried), but, on the other hand, the kind of things that occur to us seems to be an important part of what we are (different ideas occur to different persons in the same situations). Would you give me some guidance?

This is a very interesting issue. It seems clear on the one hand, as you say, that the thoughts that occur to us have a lot to do with who we are - many of the sorts of thoughts that occur to me won't occur to you and vice-versa. But on the other hand you're right to point to the involuntary aspect of how thoughts occur to us. So what seems to follow is that there is an involuntary part of the self - or some part of our mind that is out of our control, and that is a scary idea. It used to be said, and is sometimes still maintained, that creative inspiration actually comes from outside us altogether, perhaps from God.

The scary thought can be softened by distinguishing our conscious from our unconscious mentality, and considering the relation between the two. For a start it is plausible that the items that exist in your unconscious mind, e.g. your belief about what you had for breakfast before I just made it conscious by bringing it to your attention, or your memories of your first love, or your longstanding feelings about politics, or your interest in poetry, are in large part determined by where you have consciously directed your mind in the past. By consciously directing your attention and mind to certain topics or others, and by having the specific experiences you have had, you have it seems laid down a catalogue of unconscious mental states that are specific to you. They represent, perhaps help to make up, your long-term character, likes, dislikes, interests, viewpoints, etc., and what makes you the unique person you are at this point in time. So, the contents that are in your unconscious mind are not beyond your control: you have laid them down more or less consciously over time.

Next, it is plausible that the thoughts that 'pop' into consciousness are the result of the interactions among your unconscious thoughts (beliefs, desires, memories etc., a large catalogue of types of state) - these seem to be secretly churning, and producing new ideas by their combinations. Some of these new ideas and thoughts - e.g. the idea for a new recipe or line of poetry - then make their way above the surface of consciousness. This sort of process can be seen to be what is at work in creativity. Thus what pops into consciousness is the result of the interaction of contents you have added to your unconscious.

So, taking into account how the contents of the unconscious are produced, and considering the role of these unconscious contents in the production of new thoughts, we can account for the involuntariness of much of our thinking, while at the same time retaining the sense that our involuntary thinking is still *us*, a personal thing and a consistent expression of self.

I should add that the above is just my own pet theory - some philosophers won't accept the kinds of unconscious mental states this explanation relies on, for example. I think William James' 1890 book The Principles of Psychology is the best thing I've read on the stream of consciousness (he coined the phrase as far as I know), so I encourage you to dip into it (it is two large volumes). Galen Strawson also has a fantastic description of a short passage of conscious thought in his 1994 book Mental Reality, that may be of interest too.

Florida legislators will soon introduce a bill legalizing open carry for firearms. If the advance information is correct, it will be legal to carry even in government buildings where we conduct the public's business. Can't one argue that a person who is obviously armed may well intimidate others who hold positions different from him/her? Put another way, those who carry carry an advantage in an arena where everyone, in theory, aspires to a level playing field. Should the aforementioned corruption of the political process be part of the conversation?

Excellent question. I am overwhelmingly sympathetic with the suggestion that this would count as illicit intimidation and there would be a presumptive case to ban guns in government buildings in which there are public forums, but I suspect this might put us on a slippery slope. I can imagine that persons might be threatened in government buildings by others who enter fully dressed up as black belt marshall artists or who come with military medals honoring them as expert killers (with knives, say, rather than guns) or simply a person comes into a building who has a huge reputation for physically harming (without using guns) those who disagree with him. Still, I think there are probably reasons for us to lower the standards of when a person might carry a firearm and be illicitly threatening (and perhaps subject to discipline, fine or expulsion). So, imagine that there is a debate on flag burning, and the person who wants to make flag burning illegal puts his hand on his gun and says something like "It would be a shame if something bad happened to those who want to legalize flag burning." I am inclined to think that such an act should be interpreted as a form of illicit intimidation, and even (technically) possibly a "terroristic threat" (in the legal sense) though it would fall short of an explicit, obvious threat. What I am suggesting is that, given the obvious function of guns, we should be more sensitive to when a person's carrying a weapon can be illicitly intimidating, as opposed to the other cases.

For the sake of protecting my suggestion from easy counter-examples, I can imagine cases of when someone carrying a gun in a public debate might be less intimidating and more welcome than a black belt, decorated killer who has a reputation for harming others. So, I would rather debate flag burning with someone carrying a revolver who tells us all that he would give his life for the sake of upholding the law and, with tears in his eyes, he professes to love free speech, the right to assemble and the full bill of rights versus debating with a black belt artist who, while talking, is constantly breaking rocks with his karate cuts, bragging about his silent killing as a mercenary, and he is shamelessly boasting about how he almost physically annihilated his neighbor in what he calls a "fair fight" when his neighbor tried to prevent him from setting his cat on fire. Lesson? Context is crucial. I still think that contexts that involve persons with guns should put us on automatic alert (and make us extra sensitive) about danger, but I recognize that cases can arise when persons without guns can be even more dangerous.

If I tell you that science cannot explain why that stone fell to the ground, you will say that I am a lunatic, but if I tell you that science cannot explain the ultimate laws of physics, you will say that perhaps I am right (a read it here, written by one of the panelists). But if science cannot explain part of physical reality, why is it only the ultimate laws of physics? Perhaps physical events that cannot be explained by science are happening all the time. Perhaps some of those events can be called "magic" or "miracles", no?

To add a few thoughts to my colleague's response:

We could use the following as a rough working definition of a miracle: a miracle is an intervention in the course of nature by the deity in which the usual regularities are suspended or over-ridden. There's lots of room to refine and polish that, but it gets around one objection to the very idea of a miracle, namely that laws of nature aren't really laws of nature if they have exceptions. Laws of nature would encode the way the world works when God doesn't intervene. But of course, even if we can come up with an intelligible notion of "miracle," it's a long ways from there to having reasons to believe that there actually are miracles, let alone that any particular occurrence is a miracle. The fact that we don't have an explanation for something at the moment provides more or less no reason by itself to think that it's a case of divine intervention.

"Magic" is a more complicated concept than "miracle," in my view. If you go back and look at how magic was discussed in earlier periods, you'll find that "magical" and "natural" aren't straightforwardly opposed. For example: some kinds of magic were understood in terms of the existence of what are sometimes called "demons." (The word "demon" here doesn't automatically entail that the beings were evil.) These beings had powers that we humans don't, but they were part of nature in a broad sense, and the powers they had were a matter of their own natures. The magician could use various means to get the demon to do his bidding. But all of this was understood against a backdrop of what sorts of things the physical universe consists of and what laws those things follow. The point is that if this sort of magic were real, it would still follow various principles and laws, and there would be what we might call a "science" of what its rules are.

This point is even clearer in the case of things like magnetism. At one time, magnetism was seen as an example of what was called "natural magic". ("Natural magic" was contrasted with "demonic magic.") Magnetism was "occult" in the sense that whatever made it work was hidden or invisible. It also involved what we might call action at a distance: a lodestone doesn't have to be in physical contact with what it moves. But we gradually came to believe, for good reason, that there are no demons, and that the phenomena attributed to them could be explained in the same sort of way that we explain things that no one would think of calling magical. The upshot is that nowadays, there's not much work for the concept of magic to do. There's not much in the way of good reasons for believing in anything like what the ancient world thought of as demons, and science has made piece with the idea that the forces of nature don't correspond to things we can observe.

The upshot is that if there's something we don't know how to explain, saying that it might be magic just doesn't say very much or else says something that just isn't plausible. It's not plausible if it calls for invoking the action of "demons." And if it's not a matter of talking about demons, to say that it's magic doesn't obviously come to much more than simply saying that we don't know how to explain it.

There are subtleties and side-roads that I've ignored here; spelling them out would call for an essay rather than a post. But the bottom line wouldn't change much if we added the subtleties. The most important take-home message is that even if we have clear concepts of miracle and magic, it's a long, winding road from the fact that we don't happen to have an explanation for something to the serious possibility that it might be miracle or magic.

Hi, I had a question about the nature of free will. Is it a fair interpretation to say that we actually do not have free will because we are limited in the choices that we can make? For example, say that I really want a blue book, and given complete freedom, I would buy myself one, but for whatever reason today there are only red and black books available in my price range. I can only choose from two options that I did not want, and so my selection of book is limited by my external choices. Is this a silly interpretation? Thanks, Hayley

Good question, Hayley. What the case you describe brings to light is that free will is best understood with respect to a set of alternatives and not with respect to an unlimited range of possibilities. Being free with respect to purchasing a red or black book (or make no purchase at all) is still a bona fide case of freedom, even though "you can't always get what you want" (the Rolling Stones were right on that point). Philosophers have sought to address such cases. Consider a case from Aristotle: imagine a sea captain in the midst of a storm throwing her cargo into the sea. Is she doing so freely? In a sense, she is, but in a sense she is not. She would prefer not to, but unless she does, she, her crew, and ship will sink. This is a case when we would hedge an easy reply to questioning whether the sea captain acted with (to use your term) "complete freedom."

Being that Christianity teaches that Jesus is Lord of all of our lives, and this therefore means that He determines how we should live, do you think that God could therefore ask us to stop studying or practicing philosophy? Could surrendering our lives to Christ entail the end of one's philosophical studies?

Being a Christian and a philosopher, I hope not! "Philosophy" comes for the Greek for the love of wisdom, and given that Christianity, like Judaism, supports a rich tradition of wisdom (see, for example, "The Book of Wisdom" in the Hebrew Bible), to think God / Christ would ask us to cease being philosophical seems as likely to me as being asked to stop breathing or to only listen to Bach. But you are on to a good point in asking about when traditions or institutions or when philosophy itself might limit or caution us about the practice of philosophy. Presumably there are all kinds of practical, common sense conditions when it would be good to stop doing philosophy in the sense of, for example, debating some point on how to interpret Kant when engaged in rescuing people who are drowning (unless you are rescuing a Kantian and discussing Kant will calm the person down). We also might allow that while Socrates is commonly praised for giving up his life for his practice of philosophy, sometimes even a great philosopher (like Aristotle) might elect to stop philosophizing in a place (like Athens) where he was likely to be killed. Probably one of the more famous cases of when a worry like yours was discussed was in the 19th century when some utilitarians worried that if utilitarianism is true, conditions might arise when they should believe utilitarianism is false. To overly simplify, what if utilitarianism is essentially the thesis that each agent should bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and believing that thesis is false would bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?

In any case, I suggest to you that if philosophy is (essentially) the love of wisdom and a given tradition discourages such a practice, then that tradition is in some measure, suspect (it would be good to ask whether the tradition is, say, manipulative). But if in your reference to "the end of one's philosophical studies" you have in mind the foregoing of, say, graduate level or post-graduate studies of philosophy, then I can imagine cases (perhaps very rare) when religious or otherwise ethical reasons might offer reasons to stop formal philosophical study. Imagine you are highly gifted in both medicine and in philosophy, there is a shortage of medical doctors and unless you leave the field of philosophy and practice medicine there are dozens, perhaps hundreds who will suffer and die tragic, premature deaths. In such a case, it may be your ethical or even religious obligation (love of others) to forego philosophy for medicine. Who know, some of the people you rescue and heal may mature and become excellent philosophers under less stressful, dangerous conditions.

Using the term "determinism" un the philosophicall sense (not in a matemáticas sense) ....Is the decay of an atom a deterministic event?

I'm not sure what the difference between the philosophical and the mathematical sense of "determinism" is supposed to be, but I think that the answer will be the same in any case. And that answer is: it depends on how you think quantum theory should be understood.

On what we might describe broadly as the "orthodox interpretation" of quantum theory, the answer is no: the decay is not a deterministic event. Roughly put, this means that the state of the world before the decay doesn't determine whether the atom will decay. There are some complications here about relativity and about so-called entangled states, but we can leave them aside. On this way of looking at quantum theory, sometimes the "wave function" or "quantum state" changes unpredictably and discontinuously, and these changes are genuine chance events. Radioactive decay is a special case.

According to Bohmian mechanics, the most important of the so-called "hidden variable" views, quantum systems are thoroughly deterministic. What happens in the quantum world is completely fixed by the underlying configuration of particles and by the theory's equations. Radioactive decay will be unpredictable from our perspective, since the way the equations work implies that we will never be able to assemble the information we'd need to make the predictions. Nonetheless, there's no chance in the process; the configuration of the particles and the laws of nature settle whether and when decays will take place.

There's yet a third alternative: the "Many Worlds" or Everettian interpretation. This view is also deterministic. What makes it striking is that if it's correct, the universe is continually branching. If we observe a radioactive decay, there's another branch of the universe on which no decay happened. That branch is every bit as real as ours, but we don't have any access to it. The argument for the branching isn't direct observation of the branches; it's that according to the Everettians, the detailed version of the view makes the best overall sense of quantum theory.

There are other interpretations that we haven't mentioned, and what I've called the "orthodox interpretation" is shorthand for several quite different views, though all agree in understanding quantum mechanics indeterministically. There are yet other interpretations that we haven't described, but the point remains: there isn't any simple matter-of-fact answer to your question. Quantum mechanics is a theory that we know how to apply with exquisite precision. What exactly the world is like if quantum theory is true, however, is another matter and a controversial one at that.

Do these two sentences mean the same thing?- a) If I feel better tomorrow, I'll go out. b) Unless I feel better tomorrow, I won't go out.

I'd say that they have different meanings. I interpret (a) as implying that your feeling better tomorrow is a sufficient condition (all else equal, presumably) for your going out, whereas (b) implies that your feeling better tomorrow is a necessary but maybe not sufficient condition for your going out. That is, (b) seems more cautious, more hedged: (b) allows that you may not go out even if you do feel better tomorrow.

Compare: (c) If you feed your pet goldfish, it will flourish; (d) Unless you feed your pet goldfish, it won't flourish. Given how easy it is to overfeed a pet goldfish, (c) is doubtful: your pet goldfish may not flourish even if you feed it. Given that pet goldfish depend on being fed, (d) isn't at all doubtful.

The First Amendment says that the government protects the right of the individual of free speech. But, should the government protect the individual's hate speech?

According to the US Supreme Court, there are certain categories of speech or expression that are not protected by the First Amendment, for example "fighting words" or those that incite people to riot or cause a breach of the peace; the "fighting words" are also "insulting", and they are "those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace". These "have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem" (Chaplinsky v New Hampshire 1942). Slander is another example. "There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting words" those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality." It seems to me that hate speech could fit in nicely between "fighting words" and libel and slander. Philosophically this is interesting. You insult someone or instigate hatred towards them, by speech, on the basis of their race or color or whatever you hate. You are demeaning someone by suggesting that by being a member of a group they are somehow importantly the worse.