Recent Responses

Why do historians write as if Man were the pre-eminent factor in shaping events when so much is decided by scientific factors (and negative ones, like the absence of viruses and meteors)?

It seems to me that what we call "history" is largely concerned withthe description or explanation of past episodes in the social, political, military,artistic, intellectual, etc. life of humans. Study of past episodes of non-human activity, for instance, the movementof tectonic plates and the formation of stars, tends to go by other names, like "geology" or "astronomy". So perhaps it's no wonder that the doings of humans take center stage in what we call "history". (That said, plenty of histories do deal with the human consequences of natural events beyond our control.)

Many philosophers seem to believe that belief is involuntary. But if this were the case, wouldn't it be true that every human being, when presented with the right information, would automatically assume a certain belief? So when person A and person B are presented with information Y, the will always comes to believe X. Just as in other involuntary acts of the human body. If person A and person B are both given a chemical depressant, let's say a tranquilizer, they will always fall asleep. They have no control over it, it is just an involuntary chemical reaction in the body. It does not seem to me that belief works with this same type of involuntary, automatic, mechanistic quality. For example, we could take a sample of 100 Americans and show them all the evidence in support of Darwin's evolutionary process. About half would afterwards support evolution, and half afterwards would say it is phoey. Although I have not seen the results of such a study, I think it is safe to assume that this would be the outcome. Same information given to persons 1-100, with some having belief X and some having belief Y.

Uniformity does not follow from involuntariness: the tranquilizer example notwithstanding, different people sometimes have strikingly different reactions to the same drug. So different that a drug that cures one person kills another. Getting back to beliefs, I venture that even if two individuals were brought up in exactly the same environment, they would not end up with the same beliefs. But of course no two individuals are brought up in anything like exactly the same environment.

What is the definition of love? Can you define love without listing characteristics of love?

What a relief! Others have decided to add to this thread. The search for the fine gold thread of love -- the property "common to" and possessed by all types or forms of love -- has gone on for centuries. Another problem with Gert's succinct account is that it doesn't apply to our love for things, but only for persons (and perhaps animals: Equus). Hence either he hasn't uncovered the fine gold thread of all loves, but only of a subset; or if he has uncovered the fine gold thread of all loves, our "loves" for things are, after all, not really loves. Robert Nozick has proposed, "What is common to all love is this: your own well-being is tied up with that of someone (or something) you love" ("Love's Bond"). Does Nozick's fine gold thread distinguish love from both lust and liking? Does it "account for all of the [other] characteristics of love," whatever they happen to be? (Wasn't that our question?) Regardless, note that Nozick thinks that the fine gold thread of love also applies to our love for things. Could it be that my own well-being is tied up with, say, an automobile? Stranger things have happened in the universe of love. Many philosophers (from Plato to Tillich) have supposed, instead, that what is common to all love is a desire to form a union with the loved person or object. I once argued that the desire for union is the central ingredient of romantic love, and could explain all the other features of romantic love. But these philosophers go farther, claiming that the desire to merge with the other person or thing (or with God) is the mark of all types of love, including, say, my loving chocolate ice cream. I can merge with it by eating it, but I cannot take pleasure in its pleasure. Which reminds me that Aristotle might side with Gert here, if he wants to exclude things as proper objects of love. Another possibility is that in all types of love the lover is concerned for the well-being or flourishing of the person or thing loved (see Newton-Smith). Aristotle is relevant here, too, since we cannot wish wine well for its own sake. Further, there are tangles (perhaps, however, not insuperable) in thinking of the human love for God as a case of being concerned for the well-being of the beloved.

This is more like a comment to the question in Mathematics that starts with: "If you have a line, and it goes on forever, and you choose a random point on that line, is that point the center of that line? And if you ..." The answer provided by the panelist, as well as the initial question, assume that one can distinguish between points at infinity. As far as Math goes however, one cannot do that, and this is the reason the limit for cos(phi) does not exist, as phi goes to infinity. Revisiting the argumentation provided by the panelist, the error starts with the 'definition' of the distance between a fixed point and infinity - this distance cannot be defined, and therefore it cannot be compared (at least, as math goes). A somewhat similar problem can be stated, without the pitfalls of the infinity concept, for a point on a circle, or any closed curve.

It seems to me that you are reading things into the original question, and my answer to it, that were not there. I do not see, either in the original question or in my answer, any reference to "points at infinity". The orignal question talks about a line going on forever, and my answer talks about the line extending infinitely far in either direction from some point P on the line. But this just means that for every number x, there are points on the line more than x units away from P in either direction, not that there are points that are infinitely far away from P. I claimed that the parts of the line on either side of P are congruent, and you can see this by observing that if you rotate the line 180 degrees around P, each side gets moved so that it coincides with the other side.

My previous answer was based on a particular definition of "center". There is another, slightly different definition of "center" that could lead to the sorts of worries that you raise. Suppose we define the center point to be the point that is equidistant from the endpoints. This works fine for a finite line segment, and leads to exactly the same center as the definition I originally proposed. But for an infinite line, if you tried to apply this definition then you would, indeed, find yourself looking for endpoints of the line--points at infinity--and you would find yourself trying to compute the distances from those points at infinity to other points. So this definition of "center" would lead to the sorts of worries that you raise, but it is not the definition I was using in my previous post.

For what reason should beliefs of others be honored or respected? That is to say, if something I say makes another uncomfortable because of their belief, what reason do I have to not say it? I have heard many times people say, "Don't say that, it will insult people because of their beliefs." Given this reason, if there were a person who was deeply insulted by the word "is" in any conjugation I would have to really tip toe around any speech! I suppose I am talking mostly about religious/superstitious belief. There doesn't seem to be any reason to respect beliefs in this regard when the belief may or may not be true. My second question: Did I just answer my own question?

Do people's beliefs deserve our respect? I'm not sure what this would mean. I think that often what people who offer this sort of advice mean is that one should be respectful to other people whose beliefs are different from one's own. But I don't think that a respectful attitude toward others requires us to pretend that we don't disagree or to refrain from saying anything that might lead them to question their beliefs. It's true that I can disrespectfully disagree. I can be condescending, abrasive, ordismissive. But equally, I think, I could disrespectfully agree (or at least not voice my disagreement). I might think that the other person is so irrational that neither of us could profit from a discussion of the basis for our disagreement.

This is a follow up on, whether the mind can understand how the mind works. In Alexander George's response, he said, "it 'follows' from Gödel's result that there is some basic fact about our minds that we cannot ever know, that we could not in principle access." But is that fact necessarily about the how the mind works, or could it be about some other aspect of mind? As a second question, if we were told what it was, we might not be able to prove it for ourselves, but what would keep us from understanding it in its stated form?

Very loosely and given all the assumptions of my original response, the "basic fact about our minds" in question is the fact that the rules that constitute our minds do not produce conflicting results. Is that a fact "about how the mind works" or "about some other aspect of mind"? That's too vague a question to answer, I think. The fact in question is (given all the assumptions, etc.) a basic property that our minds possess but one that we could not know that they possess. We could "understand" this property, in the sense that we could formulate the claim that says that our minds possess that property. But our minds would not have the means to establish that the claim is true.

Is it possible to deify an object, perhaps a penguin? If so, what qualities and/or properties would make it godlike? D.D.

In Chapter XII of Leviathan, Hobbes says that "there is almost nothing that has a name that has not been one place or another, a god or a devil....Men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek, [were] deified." Hobbes would probably say that somewhere, already, penguins have been deified. So it is certainly possible to deify a penguin.

The question is whether one would be justified in deifying a penguin. Hobbes--and most Christians--would say no, because only a being with all the attributes of the Christian God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) is justly worshipped, but no finite being has such attributes, and consequently, no finite being ought to be worshipped.

Perhaps other religious traditions would allow one to deify, and hence worship, a penguin. But I'm not familiar enough with other religious traditions to say.

Why are there no bad color combinations in nature? Colors in nature never clash. Why not?

Is this so? I don't know (I'm color blind). But assuming it is, shouldwe reach for evolution to explain this (I realize you didn't suggest this)? Somehow, one might hold,evolutionary pressures shaped our aesthetic sensibilities (for I takeit that that's what judgments about color clashes amount to) in justsuch a way that we find all color arrangements in nature pleasing. Butwhat possible evolutionary advantage would there be to that? In fact,you might have expected that there would be an evolutionary advantageto finding certain color combinations repellent: e.g., thatit would promote our survival if we were to judge that the colors ofthat dangerous carnivore's coat "just don't work together". Also,aesthetic judgments are, well, judgments. And as such, theyare sensitive to the rational give and take of reflection, experience,imagination, and so on. The judgment that these colors clash is not abrute, immutable reaction, but rather a judgment that is sensitive tomany considerations and hence beyond the reach of evolutionary shaping.Does this last thought point to a more fruitful direction ofexplanation? Might it be that our aesthetic judgments are shaped inpart by our experiences and hence it's no wonder that we judge thecolor combinations found in nature to be harmonious?

The notion of "free will" implies an agent can make its own choice independent of the deterministic laws of nature. However, within a causally closed system this is impossible. Why then would evolution endow agents with the feeling of control? Would it not be more efficient (and more expected) for evolution to produce automata without subjective (and superfluous) mental phenomena?

One way to respond to this question is to reconceive the notion of control at issue. Rather than accepting that the control that agents feel they have requires that they be able to make choices independent of the laws of nature, one might argue that all the control that agents need in order to be responsible for their choices is for their choices to be sensitive to their reasoning. On this conception of freedom, an agent would be responsible for her choices, and have control of them, because she chose for a reason. Rational control of this sort seems eminently compatible with determinism.

On such an account, the feeling of control that one has is not taken to indicate that one is exempt from the laws of nature, but rather reflects the fact that one's choices are up to one because they reflect one's reasons.

Critical thinking: We are bombarded with information all the time so I think it's very important to use "critical thinking" but it's not easy. So my question is: what are the basics in critical thinking?

I think it is also useful to think about the separate skills that are necessary for applying the concepts and techniques that Joseph described to complex real-life situations.

Alas, we often have the most need for critical thinking when confronting the situations where this is the hardest to do: situations that are really complex, that matter a lot to our lives, which involve complex emotional dynamics or serious interpersonal conflict, and so on.

So, to best use critical thinking in our own lives we need to be able to handle "messy" situations like those. For example, it is useful to understand your own and others' agendas and motivations, the emotional dynamics of a situation, how to act in ways that have the best chance of making a difficult discussion more rational and more constructive.

When I teach critical thinking, I prefer to teach the reasoning skills that Joseph describes together with serious reflection on the "messy real life" issues that I sketch out above. The best critical thinking text I've seen that does this is Douglas Walton's Informal Logic, which adopts an interesting dialogical approach (Amazon.Com link is here). Walton’s text is difficult for my students at first, but most come to love it and over the years many have told me that they have purchased copies for spouses, children, or parents.