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Skeptical theism states that if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist. However, I can't help but think that we can. The rules of probability tell us that that individual probabilities can be quite low, but their disjunction can be very high. For instance, there may be only a small chance that you will be involved in an automobile accident on a given day, but if you drive every day, the chances are pretty good that you will be in one on some day in your lifetime. Similarly, even if the chance that a given instance of a trillion cases of suffering is gratuitous is quite low, the chance that one of that trillion is gratuitous can be can be very high, and it only takes one instance of gratuitous evil to rule out the existence of God. Coming from someone who is not a philosophy major, am I right in my criticism of skeptical theism or is it too naive?

The theism part of skeptical theism, at least if it's classical theism, must say that the probability that God allows suffering without having an adequate moral justification for allowing it is well-defined and zero, just as you suspect.

But the skeptical part of skeptical theism, as I understand it, says that we can't properly assign any probability at all to the claim that a given case of suffering is in fact gratuitous (i.e., such that God, if God exists, has no adequate moral justification for allowing it). We can't, according to the skeptical part, because we can't presume to know the full range of justifications at God's disposal, if God exists. So we have to enter a "?" rather than a number (or range of numbers) into our calculation of the probability of the disjunction, which of course renders the calculation impossible.

I don't mean to suggest that I accept the skeptical part of skeptical theism, but that's what it says, if I understand it correctly.

Where does one draw the line between honoring the work of an earlier writer/scholar/artist and plagiarism or fraudulent re-use?

Surely intent to deceive has something to do with this. If I set out to use X's ideas in order to solve a problem, and I make it clear that is what I am doing, then that is honouring. If I don't make it clear that is what I am doing, nor could I reasonably expect that all my readers will know this is what I am doing, then that is plagiarism.

A slightly different version of your question would be this: "Where does one draw the line between honouring ... and merely rehashing old ideas?" (I love the word 'rehash', by the way, it being literally visceral.)

We are probably all tempted by the answer: "a work of philosophy (or art, or whatever) is not a rehash if it exhibits some amount of originality." So, suppose I use X's ideas (and I'm clear about what I am doing) to try to solve a problem that X did not consider, or to write a novel about a kind of situation that X did not. That is surely a sufficient degree of originality to avoid the accusation of rehashing.

But originality is not so easy a concept to define. As an educator, undergraduate students often try to produce original work, and end up inadvertently ... making a hash of things. Walking before running and all that. And yet, if the same student merely repeated back to me what some philosopher had said, that would also not be a good result. In this case, a sufficient level of originality is showing that one is able to understand, by putting into different words, explaining very clearly, using different examples, and so forth.

Such a level of originality might earn a very good mark on a undergraduate essay, but wouldn't get one published in a journal. So, again, originality functions differently.

A nice meditation on the concept of originality is the short story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote" by J.L.Borges. Look it up!

I really want to do a phd in philosophy and teach, but the society says I should not. I am 19 , but have got to go back to high school to finish up . A long way to go. How do I motivate myself? How do I ignore my other and unimportant desires/distractions to become what I want and is most meaningfull to me?

I think it is great that you know what you want at the age of 19 - I certainly didn't. If the goal of achieving higher qualifications in philosophy is a genuine goal for you, then it will stay with you for the next ten years or so, by which time with a bit of luck you will have arrived at your destination. If it turns out to be a genuine goal for you, then at worst what you call distractions will just delay you a bit. In fact, the philosopher who lived his or her life without distractions is just a myth, and certainly not a standard against which the rest of us should be judged.

"Life is short" is often said but, in fact, for most people life is quite long, at least in the sense of presenting more opportunities than one imagines.

Are there any philosophers who argue that novel experiences in themselves are good things, or do philosophers generally class some experiences as good and others as bad?

This is a great question that invites a long, thorough answer, but alas I'll be brief. It's easy to recognize that things, events, experiences, have many different properties, and rather than try to evaluate the whole package and say that "x is a good thing," we can evaluate x along its many different aspects, properties, etc. So we could say that, in general, novelty (of experiences) is a good thing (for whatever reasons), while recognizing that not all novel experiences are "good things" overall -- after all, being tortured may be novel but few except masochists would say their new experience of being tortured is a good thing. Perhaps insofar as it is novel, it is good (b/c it's good to learn new things, have new experiences, etc); but insofar as it is terribly painful, it is bad; and in this example, since the badness of the painfulness outweighs the goodness of the novelty, the experience overall is bad -- even if novelty is, in general, a good thing ...

hope that's useful!


Any comment the the fact that the expression "begs the question" is now used regularly in the U.S. media to mean "needs to be asked" rather that it's original meaning "Assumes the conclusion in the argument" ? Should Philosophers develop a new expression the capture the original meaning ? Thanks.

One of my biggest pet peeves, it drives me crazy! I don't know how feasible it is to develop new expressions etc., but we might consider this: when speaking to philosophers we can use the original latin term for the fallacy, petitio principi, and when speaking to the general public, use the term the way it's widely used. (When in Rome, speak as the Romans ....) This is painful to do for most philosophers, I imagine, but just slightly less painful than using the term properly and then either being widely misunderstood or taken by others to sound either arrogant or like an idiot .....

the worrisome thing is that so many who misuse the term in public discourse are educated, opinion-shapers, including journalists, politicians -- who (one would hope) might have taken some philosophy in college and should know better ..... but changing that practice (I think, sadly) is probably a losing proposition.

which begs the question: how should one use the expression 'begs the question'.... :-)

hope that's useful.


Hi, I'm a biology student who often uses biology as a framework for understanding thought. I've come to a really tough crossroads of thought. What differentiates cognitive biases from logical fallacies?

The difference between the cognitive biases and the logical fallacies is that the biases can be taken to be common built-in tendencies to error of individual judgements, whereas the fallacies, both formal and non-formal (so-called "informal", badly named because "informal" actually means "casual" or "unofficial" or "relaxed") are types of argument. The point is that the biases can be said to have causes, and are hence of psychological but not logical interest, whereas the fallacies do not have causes (though the making of a fallacy on a particular occasion may have) and the reverse is true. There is more to be said, of course, because a psychologist might take an interest in the fallacies.

Is it easier to love or be loved? I have tried to be loved by people, but I usually get pushed away. I guess I'll never be loved. All I can do is love and take care of other people.

When you write "I guess I'll never be loved," I think you might be able to change that right now. You can love yourself. You may already have proper self-love, but if not, self-love and acceptance can be an important means to finding love with others. I am pretty sure that if I lack self-love and instead hate myself, I am probably not in a good position of being in a loving relationship with another person: I might be baffled with thoughts like "why does she love me when I know that I am not worthy of attention, let alone love?"

Philosophers have come up with various philosophies of love and this site would not be big enough to fill all these positions out. But I can record an answer to your first question by a famous philosopher, Kierkegaard. He thought it was easier to love than to be loved. To love, you do not have to depend on how your beloved responds. You can love him or her without requiring or expecting love in return. Of course that can also be a hard, non-compensatory love. It is, though, in the mind of Kierkegaard and some others, something that can be beautiful.

What do we mean by the assurance, "It's not personal"? Why is that supposed to mollify us?

Great question! It might mean different things in different contexts! When a firefighter tells you this after rescuing you, she is probably trying to prevent you from thinking she is the new love in your life. "It's all part of the job" sort of thing. In the context of philosophy, the expression probably comes up when one philosopher is criticizing another. Aristotle says something like he has loyalty to Plato (his teacher for 20 years) but he loves truth more. He might have said: "Plato. My not accepting your theory of ideas and the soul is not personal." I suppose the expression conveys (on occasion) that mutual affection, even close friendship, is not a guarantee of agreement or loyalty to the views and arguments at issue. In that sense, while the expression may not "mollify" it might be intended to convey the message that disagreement does not mean personal disrespect or (even) lack of love for the persons involved.

Still, I am drawn to the (at least general) idea that philosophers should take their responsibilities personally. If I am a failure in class or seminar room and I realize I did not respect members of the class, I think I should take that personally insofar as it is a failure of myself as a person and in the practice I have devoted my life to. Perhaps one should "not be personal" in the sense that one should be "objective," but insofar as "being personal" means taking matters seriously as a person with commitments and practices, then I think it might be good if, in the course of a dialogue, someone said "it's personal" if they mean that they --as persons-- are invested in the dialogue. They are all in.

Not intending to mollify, but trying instead to stimulate further reflection.

Assuming that trees are not conscious, is there anything morally wrong with cutting down a tree that has survived for a thousand years?

It is most certainly not true that non-conscious things can be destroyed without reason, or just for the reason that they are not conscious. What is wrong with slashing or burning a Rembrandt painting? The answer is not that there is nothing wrong, because the painting is not conscious, but that there are many things wrong, including aesthetic ones, and historical ones, and the fact that the painting does not belong to to the slasher. Of course it would be even worse if the painting were conscious. And even if it belongs to the one who destroys it, it is unclear that he has the right to destroy it. A question might still arise. Is the painting part of the national heritage? This sort of consideration is relevant with Grade I, II* and II listed buildings in the U.K. Or what would be wrong with burning the only Penny Black remaining in the world just for kicks? About the 1000 year-old tree, now. The mere fact that it has survived for that long, for nearly 1000 years since the Norman Conquest, to put it in perspective, should give one pause. Then there is the fact that the tree may be a thing of majesty and beauty. There is also its place in the ecosystem. Is it a vanishing species? Or perhaps it is a home for many other species, and not just squirrels, which can be a pest, but birds, for example. What happens to such dependent species? There is also the general question of deforestation to consider. So the reasons for which it might be morally wrong to destroy it are virtually endless.

Dear Madam or Sir, this is not a question but a request: Is there an introduction into philosophy that you would recommend? Hoping to get an answer I remain sincerely yours Matthias

There are basically two kinds of intro philosophy texts: General intros and anthologies of "classic" papers. As Andrew mentioned in his reply to your question, a search on will turn up many good anthologies. But the two general intros that I heartily recommend are:

Nagel, Thomas (1987), What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

and an "oldie but goodie":

Russell, Bertrand (1912), The Problems of Philosophy, various editions and publishers