Recent Responses

Did Socrates believe that animals possessed souls? I come to a logical contradiction when I apply his teachings to the question.

I would be curious to hear what contradiction you arrive at. It's hard to guess from what you say just which aspects of his teaching imply that animals do have souls and which aspects imply that they don't. But I can summarize some of the things he says in Plato's dialogues and suggest one path to a contradiction.

By the way, I say "in Plato's dialogues" by way of making clear that I will talk about the Socrates we encounter in those works, not about a version of Socrates we get from other authors and not about the hypothetical, hard to pin down, "Socrates who really existed." The Socrates in Plato's dialogues says a lot more of a philosophical nature about souls than any other Socrates, so we should begin with him.

Although there are many dialogues in which Socrates does not discuss the soul, at some points Plato has him argue at length that it survives a person's death. Plato's PHAEDO is devoted to this question, but we also find arguments for immortality of the soul in MENO, PHAEDRUS, and REPUBLIC. And in addition to those arguments there are stories or myths about the afterlife in the GORGIAS, PHAEDO, PHAEDRUS, and REPUBLIC.

Finally Plato's TIMAEUS describes the passage of souls into and out of bodies; you may or may not want to call this a myth, but it probably shouldn't enter the discussion given that Plato makes Timaeus talk about souls there and not Socrates. Socrates is just present in that dialogue and listening.

The arguments for immortality presuppose or assert different conceptions of the soul. In one argument, the essential quality of the soul seems to be that it knows the Forms. In another one, it is the cause of life (alternatively, the cause of motion) in an organism that has a soul. Or the soul may be that which acts virtuously when healthy, viciously otherwise. In each case the conclusion that Socrates reaches is that the soul survives the death of the body and has some type of existence apart from the body it is now in.

And depending on which conception of the soul is being assumed, animals may have souls or may not. If a soul is the cause of life or cause of motion, then horses and fish and even trees and blades of grass ought to have souls. But if the essential property of the soul is that it knows the Forms (beauty as such, justice as such), souls in non-human animals would seem to be impossible. Nothing in any Platonic dialogue suggests that a squirrel has a conception of true justice, or that a spider knows what largeness as such is.

That is what we end up with when we come to the question through arguments about the soul. Stories about the afterlife are less ambiguous. Socrates generally presents some version of a theory of reincarnation such as the reincarnation associated with Pythagorean philosophers. The Pythagoreans apparently believed that non-human animals not only had souls, but could specifically have souls that had previously belonged to human beings. You are human now but you might come back as a dog, and then (it seems) come back from being a dog to a new human life.

Plato's REPUBLIC associates your next life with a life your soul would choose in the period between lives; and that myth (the myth of Er, told in the second half of Book 10 of the REPUBLIC) has some people choosing the lives of animals: an eagle, an ape. If this story is true, then the animals we encounter have formerly human souls -- although the myth does not specify that they all do. In other words, some eagles might have the souls of former humans while other eagles just have souls that had previously belonged to eagles. It's not clear whether you can tell from looking at an eagle which kind of soul it possesses.

We come back to the question of whether these human souls in animal bodies would know philosophical generalities as souls in human bodies do.

Some passages in Plato try to draw a distinction between the types of human souls that can wind up in animals. In the PHAEDRUS we are told that souls go into humans, in their first incarnation, if they have experienced the Forms during their otherworldly existence. So there's some qualitative difference between the soul to be found in a human and the soul found in another animal. The TIMAEUS (which again is not attributed to Socrates) makes reincarnation as a non-human the punishment for not being virtuous. Like the PHAEDRUS, this account at least makes human and non-human souls different. If you are flighty as a human you come back as a bird; and so on.

You asked for one answer and I gave several. That's because there are several answers available in the dialogues. Sometimes it has to follow from an argument about the soul that all living things possess souls, sometimes that only humans do. That's one kind of contradiction. If we go by what the myths say in the dialogues, we get the closest thing to a mixed answer, namely that humans have human souls and non-humans have a different kind.

To know what beauty is, shouldn't one observe examples of it? But if one doesn't know what beauty is in the first place, how can one tell if one is observing examples of it?

Nice question! Here's a quick reconstruction of your reasoning:
(1) In order to know what X is, you need to observe instances of X.
(2) But one could only know one is observing instances of X if one already knew what X is.
(3) Hence, one can neither know what X is nor know whether one is observing instances of X.

(3) looks like a pretty powerful skeptical conclusion: It would seem like we can't know whether a certain thing is beautiful unless we know what beauty is, but we can't know what beauty is unless we know which things are beautiful. We certainly seem stuck -- and the same reasoning could be used to generate skeptical conclusions about other important philosophical concepts (such as goodness, virtue, and so on).

Is there a way out of this conundrum? There are a lot of complex issues here, so let me just mention some possible ways out and leave it to you to assess their plausibility:

Testimony Others might be in a credible position to tell us which things are beautiful or what beauty is. Accepting the testimony of such experts would allow us to break out of this circle. With testimonial knowledge of which things are beautiful, we could then figure out what beauty is; with testimonial knowledge of what beauty is, we could then correctly classify which things are beautiful. (Granted, others' testimony may not seem like a very promising solution. After all, we may reasonably wonder how those experts whose testimony we accept came to their knowledge -- how, in other words, did they break out of the skeptical circle with which we started?)

Reject (1): Platonic rationalism Plato (and many other philosophers dubbed 'rationalists') seem to hold that while we may need to have our attention drawn to something in order to understand its nature, we do not come to understand its nature through observing instances of it by through an intellectual grasp of its essence. Upon seeing a triangle, one perceives that it must also be trilateral. This inference, according to rationalists, involves an intellectual grasp of the nature of triangles. One comes to understand its essence (and one is thereby able to classify any future geometrical figures one encounters as triangles) not by forming a hypothesis (every triangle is trilateral) based on perceiving this triangle and then 'confirming' this hypothesis. Rather, perceiving the triangle led to an immediate acquisition of a priori (i.e., non-empirical) knowledge.

Reject (2): Empiricism: We might be able to learn what X is by observing instances of things we believe to be X and trying to suss out the essential features of X. After observing a number of seemingly beautiful things, we might frame the hypothesis that 'because all beautiful things are F, beauty = F'. We might then observe further seemingly beautiful things to determine they have property F. If so, then our hypothesis is confirmed; if not, it is disconfirmed. With a sufficiently large number of observations, we might come to be satisfied that we have hit upon the real essence of beauty.

Nominalism: Deny real essences: Your question seemed to assume that there is something real about beauty -- that beauty is or is based on properties all beautiful things share. But one might reject that assumption. 'Nominalism' about some notion holds that there is no real essence to it. Nominalism about 'beauty' would amount to saying that there is no 'universal' beauty -- only many things that we judge to be beautiful based on convention.

As a non physicist, non scientist, I have a question, which may be really stupid. If quantum mechanics expounds that at an atomic level matter can be in 2 places, at one point in time, does this matter have mass in these 2 different places? If this matter can have a mass in more than one place, at one point in time, how can we attempt to calculate the mass of matter present in the universe as surely it would depend on what proportion of matter was in what number of places at any point in time? Does that mean its unit of measurement would need to include number of atoms, the proportions of this matter in what numbers of places, at a fixed point in time? Is there some basic reading that might help me understand this a bit more? Thank you.

It's not a stupid question. The way that popular accounts "explain" quantum mechanics leads naturally to your question. The moral is that those popular accounts are not to be trusted.

Quantum mechanics is unusual in that on the one hand, we understand very well how to apply it and what we should expect to find in experiments if it's correct, but on the other hand there is sharp disagreement over what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of the things we use it to predict and explain. The problem you're raising comes from the superposition principle. A quantum system can be in a superposition of being in two different, non-overlapping places, for example. When that happens, there's some probability that if we "look" (make an appropriate measurement) we'll find the system in one of the places, and some probability that we'll find it in the other. However, we can't understand this as a simple case of ignorance --- as a case where the system really is in one place or really is in the other and we simply happen not to know which until we look. Quantum mechanics allows this latter sort of case, but if we perform other experiments, we find measurable differences between the superposition case and the mere ignorance case. It's superposition that leads people to talk as though the system really is in two places at once, but the math doesn't force any such thing on us, and if we thought it did we'd be left with questions like the one you ask.

What quantum mechanics unarguably does is give us probabilities for experimental results. (I'm not saying that's all it does, but it at least does that much.) Those probabilities have some surprising features. They lead to experimental predictions that we can't squeeze out of classical theories or, perhaps more accurately, can mimic classically only if we make other assumptions that depart from our classical picture. The superposition principle is the source of the differences, and is what provokes people to talk in the ways that lead to your question. Unfortunately there's no way to set forth the superposition principle in a couple of sentences, but perhaps this will do for now: the mathematical basis for quantum probability is closer to adding the amplitudes of waves (which can interfere with one another) than it is to counting how often things happen. The lab data gives us counts (we find a particle "here" some percent of the time and "there" some other percent), but the counts come from talking amplitudes, which can be positive, negative or imaginary, and squaring. The probabilities don't come from garden-variety ignorance of exactly what's going on at the micro-level, and they also don't come from assuming that particles can be in many places at once.

At this point you're probably finding this maddeningly abstract and hard to picture. That's because it is. In fact, some of the earliest debates about the foundations of quantum mechanics were about this very issue of whether there's a way to "picture" the quantum world. Those debates haven't simply gone away, but we don't need to resolve them to take quantum theory seriously. Physicists learn how to think about quantum systems by learning how to connect the quantum math with what goes on in the lab. In order to do that, they don't need to think of superposition as a matter of contradictory things being true at once. Popularizers may think they do their readers a service when they talk about one thing being in two places at once, but my own sense is that in the long run this makes for more confusion than enlightenment.

As for basic readings, here are a couple of suggestions. One is a short little book by Valerio Scarani, called Quantum Physics: A First Encounter. The other is longer but still approachable. It's by David Z. Albert, and it's called Quantum Mechanics and Experience. Best of luck!

what is a perfect person? we all know that something that is perfect is impossible to find. Since there is no such thing as a perfect line, circle, machine even with all the technology in our current time. What makes a person perfect? symmetrical facial and body recognition? ones inner self is that it? maybe im too young to seek the answer myself.

We don't all agree that there is no such thing as a perfect line, and all the rest. A line, say from point P to point Q is easy to find, but we have to know what a line is. Take a comparison. A captain may instruct his helmsman to set a course to Q. It may be that the waves or the tides push the ship slightly off course here and there, but the course is set. Is it impossible for the captain to ask for the course to be set? Is it impossible to follow the course? And finally, is it impossible for the ship to arrive at the point Q? Maybe you think that there is no such point, because a point is not physical. But this isn't quite right. The thing that's important is that though the point does not extend into any of its dimensions, it can be located on a map using two dimensions, or in physical space using three.

Or again, compare the line to the direction. The fact that a direction is like a line itself is one-dimensional (though it is a vector not just a line) has no relevance to its reality.

The difficulty is that we allow distorting physical images to disrupt our thinking. To take a line from one point to another, as an architect might, is not a matter of painting a thick white line as on a tennis court. A line itself has only one dimension. But this concept of low dimensionality has nothing to do with whether or not the thing exists.

As to the perfect person, the usual sense given to such phrases is a moral one. And here the difficulty evaporates. There is nothing contradictory about a person who is without fault morally. In Christian theology there actually is such a person.

Aesthetic perfection is perhaps harder to understand, because it is harder to conceive of what an aesthetic flaw is. Still, we operate with the concept perfectly happily. 'What a perfect day!' we exclaim. We know what we mean, and it can be a true proposition. 'Hooray! This day is perfect!' or something that.

The origin of the word "perfect" is in the Latin perfectus, which is the past participle of perficere, to make perfect or whole. The sense of "flawless" is relatively new, appearing for the first time in the mid 19c with John Tyndall.

The idea you propose that the "inner self" is ones perfection or completion is a very interesting one. Is your thought that it is also flawless?

One point to bear in mind is that there is a sense of "perfect" in which it means a high order of excellence. Does perfection itself have to be perfect? Apparently not in all senses.

I am wondering if it is worth my time continuing to read philosophy. I have read quite widely in the hope of "broadening my mind", but lately I have noticed that while reading new material, I seize with pleasure on the points that confirm what I already believe--I am a practicing Roman Catholic--and sideline those I disagree with. I assume it would be the same, if I were a Marxist, Buddhist, agnostic, or nihilist, reading principally in search of what confirms my beliefs. I can see the point of reading philosophy, if you don't already have beliefs or opinions or simply need to produce an academic essay, but why bother when you know what you know? Have you had a different experience?

If you want to participate in the philosophy game, even passively, you have to pretend you have an open mind. Most philosophers don't, of course, but they do their best to pretend. And I have to say that the value system of the community (even among academics!) does seem to apportion the highest degree of respect and admiration to those who give the best appearance of having an open mind.

From a philosophical point of view, your complacent attitude toward your own observations about yourself ("lately I have noticed" etc. -- without the slightest twinge of any critical impulse toward yourself) puts you outside the pale. If you really think it's just too much trouble to change that comfortable attitude, you should give up any interest in philosophy. It is not worth your time, or anyone else's.

But before you settle into your comfortable ignorance, you should perhaps review, once again -- with care and attention, though -- the earliest Socratic dialogues, including especially the Apology of Socrates. He was the original critical intellectual, the inspiration for Voltaire and Diderot and all who followed. You reject their -- our -- attempts to replace traditional lore with better knowledge. If you're unwilling to consider even the possibility you might be wrong, you can't be helped. You're going into philosophy with the conviction it's a waste of time before you even start. What would be the point?

Hi! I wonder what "knowledge" is. I heard the JTB argument that says knowledge must be a justified, true belief. Then there is the Gettier problem in which JTB is not sufficient to describe knowledge. But I suppose, to say that "JTB is not enough for knowledge", one must have a definition of knowledge in the first place which is not "justified, true belief". So I was so curious what the definition of knowledge, about which philosophers have been discussing so long, actually is?

You're right that according to the JTB analysis of the concept of knowledge (it's really an analysis rather than an argument), propositional knowledge is identical to justified, true belief. Gettier cases, as you say, are meant to show that knowledge requires more than justified, true belief. But Gettier cases don't proceed by assuming a different analysis (or definition) of knowledge than the JTB analysis: if they did that, they would be guilty of begging the question against the JTB analysis.

Instead, Gettier cases involve scenarios in which intuitively the subject lacks knowledge of a proposition despite having a justified, true belief of the proposition. We're supposed to agree that, intuitively, Smith doesn't know the proposition Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, even if we don't have in mind any specific definition of "knowledge."

Compare: If I propose an analysis of the concept of a lie on which a lie is nothing more than a false utterance, you can refute my analysis by pointing to any case in which someone innocently misspoke and got the facts wrong. You can do so without having in mind a specific definition of "a lie."

What, then, is the correct analysis of knowledge? Good question. See this SEP entry for an excellent discussion of the topic.

Ethics of procreation: Consider a scientist that could grow humans knowing that two thirds of them would die after suffering short lives of terror and extreme deprivation, but one third of the lives he could produce in this manner would survive to a productive adult life. We would think that if he were to create extremely bad lives rather than good lives, he would be committing Mengalian atrocities, or at least, that is what I think the general intuition would be. But there are conditions in which people procreate knowing that their children will suffer short and extremely bad lives, in subsistence conditions, where two thirds of the children they produce will suffer in this way. To ensure the two cases are analogous, suppose that the scientist creates these lives only to ensure his genetic continuation, his security in old age, or out of economic necessity, and will stop producing lives only when he has two viable children to support him and work in his lab. Can one context of procreation be plausibly justified without this justification extending to the case of the scientist, which I assume nobody believes may be justified? If so, how? Is there anything about the natural context of sexual procreation that serves to justify what would ordinarily be beyond excuse?

Based on your description of the scenarios you're envisioning, I'm not seeing any inherent moral difference between the scientist and those who procreate children in the 'ordinary' or 'natural' way. Whatever moral reasons seem to weigh either for or against procreating children knowing that there is a high probability they will have "short and extremely bad lives" apply equally to the scientist as to anyone else who procreates under the same conditions. Perhaps you're seeking to highlight that the scientist 'grows' humans outside of a "natural context" as a morally significant factor that makes his procreative acts morally worse. There I'd have to say that while his creating the offspring in some sort of artificial or 'unnatural' way adds to the 'ick' factor, but it's hard to see how there's any moral difference there.

No doubt many people attach some moral significance to 'naturalness' when it comes to procreation. They might argue that somehow natural procreation isn't subject to the same moral standards that other procreative acts are. But again, I don't see any rational basis for that view. Put differently: It's difficult to see how procreating naturally rather than artificially can make otherwise morally objectionable procreative acts morally unobjectionable.

Many among the alt.right aren't white supremacist as such, but separatist. For instance, instead of claiming that there is such a thing as a white race and that it's superior, it might be claimed that the benefits of diversity aren't obvious, that intermingling of races leads to various social problems, and that therefore a government ought provide the opportunity for people, if they choose, to live lives free from racial diversity. There is some degree of precedent for governments actively providing space for people to live particular lifestyles: for instance, Indian reserves in America, or acknowledgement of Quebec as having a special status within Canada. What I wanted to ask is -- are there good moral philosophy or political philosophy objections against this sort of separatism? Is there anything philosophically meaningful to say to a white separatist; or, given that "racial diversity leads to discord" is an empirical claim that might be true or false, is this more a matter for sociologists? I've been looking at arguments against segregation from the '60s, and by and large what I've found isn't on point -- the concern was more to do, basically, with black people being treated as second class citizens, not with whether there's anything wrong, morally or otherwise, with the idea of racially distinct communities in itself.

There are a variety of problems here, I think, in the way you have framed the question. But that is less your fault than it is the fault of the debased and confused nature of our conversation about race and racism in the US (and elsewhere).

The distinction between a white supremacist and a white separatist seems to me and to others who study hate groups to be entirely specious. Remember that the Ku Klux Klan also advocated racial "separation," but what they were really opposed to was miscegenation and racial contamination. Jim Crow laws supposedly existed to ensure "separate but equal" institutions and social spaces in the South. In reality, though, they existed to enforce white supremacy, i.e. a de jure white race hierarchy (upheld through terror and violence). Contemporary white separatists don't want to "mix" with other races because they hate them and see them as genetically and culturally inferior to whites. There is therefore nothing innocent about the desire for a separate white homeland--it's the old racism poured into new bottles. White racism, meanwhile, is not a "lifestyle"--it is an ideology of supremacy rooted in a socio-economic structure of power and inequality. As such, it is very hard to see why it would or should be the duty of a democratic state to "provide an opportunity" for the flourishing of white supremacist enclaves. In any event, it is neither the function nor the formal purpose of a democratic state to promote or to guarantee "lifestyles," as such, but to conduct commerce, secure the public welfare, and protect the constitutional order (among other things). Recall, in this connection, that Native peoples in North America were forced onto reservations at gunpoint, not to promote their lifestyles but in recognition of Native sovereignty. In fact, the reservations system was itself an artifact of racism: that is, colonial genocide and the wholesale destruction of Native peoples' societies and ways of life.

If we adopt a liberal perspective, it is perhaps not clear why white separatism should be different from, say, black separatism. That's because liberalism is unable to address the social context that is prior to political discourse. As this case suggests, however, we cannot think through the question of white separatism without a prior understanding of the history and practice of white racism as a system of domination. Since "race" is itself a bogus scientific concept, and since the white obsession with racial purity, racial separation, racial inferiority and superiority, etc., has been shown to be a form of pathology, a force destructive both to individuals and to civil society as such, it is probably better to "out" separatists as racists, rather than to lend credence to their supposedly rational intentions. A good touchstone here is Jean-Paul Sartre's book, "Anti-Semite and Jew." As Sartre points out, the arguments that racists put forth are shot through with bad faith, and as such are not to be taken at face value.

With regards to the recent events in US and European politics — Trump's triumph, Brexit, etc. — Is populism an *inevitable* consequence of democracy, or is it avoidable by means such as educating the people?

Populism, however understood, may not have been the only thing behind "Trump's triumph".

And Brexit was not just an exercise in populism. There were genuine issues of national sovereignty with Brexit, in a narrow legal sense, unlike with Trump, about which there were genuine differences of political opinion. The parliamentary monopoly on law-making in the UK is guaranteed by the Coronation Oath, but denied by EEC and then EU legislation from 1972 on. In addition, there were plans ("Dokument UE-2", co-authored by the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France), in the event of a "Remain" vote, for a common European Army and police force, though the plans were concealed before the referendum. It is hard to imagine too many of the United States wanting a common army with Mexico and Canada, say, or a common legal system. The EU executive, though appointed by elected legislators, is not itself elected. Yet it has the power to issue "directives" having the force of law in the member states with no oversight or control by the elected bodies such as the Parliament in the UK. From the UK point of view there are very profound difficulties with these and the other proposals in "Dokument UE-2".

"Educating the people" might have produced an even bigger margin for Brexit!

As to the substantive question, it would be a sweeping generalization to say that all democracies end in mob rule. The history of government in the UK, France, and Germany since 1945 are obvious counterexamples. The changes go in all sorts of directions. Thatcher was later than Atlee, for example. If your generalization were true, it would be odd that the US government since 1782 did not until now produce a populist government as you mean it. But then, why not say that FDR's government was populist? It was certainly believed at the time, by his Republican opponents. And what about LBJ? There was no inevitability about their elections.

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!

Pages