Recent Responses

Astronomers routinely observe the most distant objects and the earliest events in the universe. If we had a telescope powerful enough, could we observe the Big Bang and if so, could it be observed whichever way we looked?

The following comment has been kindly sent in by Professor Kannan Jagannathan (Department of Physics, Amherst College):

"The best evidence we have for the isotropy andhomogeneity of space leads cosmologists to hold that the universe hasno center and no periphery. If the universe is infinite now, it was soat the Big Bang, and the bang occurred everywhere (in such a case, thedensity of the universe would have been infinite at BB); if theuniverse is finite (and unbounded) now, it was probably point-like atBB, but it is not to be thought of as embedded in some larger space. That was all there was as far as space was concerned; it was'everywhere' then, and is everywhere now.

In the standard model of cosmology, as well as inmost variants of it, the initial rate of increase of the scaleparameter (crudely, the radius of the universe, or the rate ofexpansion of space) would have been bigger, perhaps much bigger, thanthe speed of light. The combination of these two points would suggestthat if light was emitted at BB, we would still be receiving bits ofthat light from parts of the universe that had sped away too fast, andwe would continue to do so for the foreseeable future, particularly ifany of the inflationary scenarios is taken seriously.

The reason the earliest light is from something like300,000 years after the BB is because that is when the universe hadcooled enough to allow neutral atoms to form, and the universe suddenlybecame transparent to electromagnetic radiation. Prior to thisso-called 'recombination era' (a misnomer since it was the first timethat the 'combination' could have occurred), the universe was opaque toall 'signal carriers' that we can think of or detect easily; if onegoes a little farther back in time than 300,000 years, even theneutrinos would have scattered too much to be available as a faithfulimprint of events before."

Am I a direct result of all the events that preceded me?

If determinism is true then you are a direct result of events that preceded you, in the sense that everything about you is entailed by the laws of nature plus the state of the universe before you were born. If determinism is not true, as the most popular interpretation of modern physics suggests, then there is no such entailment; but even here it is not as if you are the result of anything else. Either way, the causes that made you, whether deterministic or probabilistic, are all among the events that preceded you.

Is it possible to philosophize about the human condition from a lofty philosophical viewpoint rather than gleaning humble wisdom through the experience of engaging with the messy experience of meeting, befriending and loving the mass of mere humanity?

Often when non-philosophers think of philosophy they think of an extremely abstract discipline with only tenuous connections to everyday life. As Jyl says, this isn't so: many if not most philosophical problems take off from a perplexity regarding some very mundane and ubiquitous feature of life. When philosophers get abstract, and they can, it's not because they're seeking some "lofty" ground, animated by a horror of the messiness of the everyday. lt's rather that they have no hope of getting the understanding they crave of the notions that make up the everyday without disentangling concepts from one another. And this process of disentanglement can result in abstractness.

Does it really matter if there is a God? And if you think so, why?

I'm not sure I understand what people mean when they ask, in adecontextualized way, "whether something matters". It seems likewhether something matters to you depends on what your project or goal is at themoment. If you're doing your laundry, it matters that you've gotdetergent, whereas that doesn't really matter if what you're trying to do is prepare dinner. Are there projects for which God's existence does matter? Some people think that if you're reflecting on how one oughtto act, God's existence matters a whole lot. Elsewhere here,DavidBrink argues that that isn't so, that God's existence doesn'treally matter as far as moral issues are concerned. Still, it seemsthat there are projects relative to which it doesmatter whether God exists. For instance, if I'm striving to devote mylife to theservice of God, then it should matter a very great deal to me whether Godexists; it matters enormously, for if He doesn't exist then that projectsimply cannot be carried out.

Is tiredness an emotion, and if not, why not?

There is nothing quite like a swift kick to the fanny to get one energized. I thank Professor Gentzler for arousing me from my stupor. All I did last night, of course, was to suggest that tiredness was not an emotion because it didn't look much like standard emotions such as anger, remorse, and fear. I did not explain the difference. But Professor Gentzler is too modest about her own contribution to this thread, and exaggerates my ability to improve its quality. What she taught us about Plato is superb, while I merely dabble in the theory of the emotions. Nonetheless, here goes. (Maybe another panelist can help by telling us something about the Solomon-Schachter experiments.)

On a currently popular model of emotion (see Daniel Farrell and O. Harvey Green, for starters), emotions are composed of three elements: a belief (the cognitive feature), a desire (the conative), and a feeling (the affective). I believe that the animal is a hyena and that it is about to strike; I desire not to have my limbs torn off; I experience the feeling of fright. In addition, emotions have behavioral correlates: I run, or I draw my pistol (or, being stunned, frozen like a deer in headlights, I am mauled.) The point that Professor Gentzler makes, relying on Plato, is that emotions are about something; they are directed at an object (the ontology of which is a matter of some dispute); or they have "intentionality," at least in the sense of depending on beliefs and being eliminable in response to changes in belief. If I come to believe that the hyena is really my daughter in her halloween costume, my fear dissipates. (I had better be right.) A technical issue: when Professor Gentzler brings up, in Plato's account of emotion, "views about how the world should be," might we assimilate or equate that to the contemporary conative feature of emotion? Or did Plato not want to include desire in his account of emotion? (More about "intentionality": I am angry that something happened. But I cannot be tired that. . . . The thing about which I am angry is the "intentional object" of the emotion. Tiredness has no intentional object. There is nothing "about which" I am tired. I am just tired.)

Being tired seems not to exhibit intentionality: my being exhausted is not about something, a state of affairs; it seems not to depend on any beliefs which, if altered, would eliminate my being tired (getting sleep does that, with or without sweet dreams). Being tired seems to be only a feeling or sensation, or have only an affective dimension, brought on primarily by the biochemical state of our bodies (lactates, and so forth). It is not rich enough a phenomenon to rise to the level of an emotion.

Can animals have emotions? They can be tired, as we can, and from similar causes. But there is no intentionality in animal exhaustion. This is not to deny that some animals might have sufficient cognition and conation to exhibit emotions. A dog, for example, might show pride in having accomplished a task set for it.

One question in the theory of emotions is whether each emotion has it own distinctive or constitutive beliefs, desires, affects, and behaviors and, if so, what they are. We can, for example, distinguish fear from jealousy in terms of their respective beliefs, desires, and so forth. The model works well in many cases. Does it always? (See below, on hate versus love.) What would be the constitutive belief of being tired, such that without that belief one would not be tired?

Another question has to do with completing the taxonomy. There are feelings, sentiments, attitudes, moods, and emotions, all of which apparently have some things in common but also differ in various ways. For example, is being depressed a mood or an emotion? Some say it is a mood, when or because it lacks "aboutness." We cannot pin down the belief in which it is grounded, or the beliefs are too amorphous, or there are no beliefs at all involved, but only disturbed seratonin distributions. Does this mean that for a phenomenon to be an emotion, the beliefs must be conscious? Couldn't we have unconscious emotions? (Freud thought so.) Being tired might well put us in a bad mood or cause us to have an emotion (frustration-anger), but having this causal power doesn't make it an emotion. Further, being tired is sometimes phenomenologically indistinguishable from being depressed. But this should not make us think that being tired is either a mood or an emotion.

Yet another fascinating question about the emotions has to do with Professor Genztler's expression "answerable to reason." Some think that emotion is not the kind of thing that can be judged as being rational or irrational, or that reason has little to do with passion. Professor Genzler's account of Plato shows this to be weak. Emotions can be judged in terms of rationality at least in the sense that the beliefs underlying the emotion can be judged as being rational or irrational. If I believe irrationally (on the basis of poor evidence) that John is out to get me, then my fear of John is irrational. Whether emotions can be irrational also in virtue of a defect in the conative element is unclear. Might certain desires be irrational? In jealousy, I believe that a third party is drawing the attention of my lover away from me, and I desire my lover's exclusive attention. If my belief that the interloper is or might be successful is irrational, then so is my jealousy; and it should go away upon my finding out the truth. But could my jealousy be irrational, instead, because my desire for my lover's exclusive attention is irrational? Might someone talk me out of that desire and dispell my jealousy?

Finally: hate and love. In paradigmatic cases of hatred, it is an emotion, having cognitive, conative, and affective features. Even if the cognitive feature is difficult to state precisely, hate seems to be distinguished from other emotions by the sort of belief it involves, a negative judgment about the person hated, a dislike about certain characteristics of the person hated. We might say that hatred is reason- or property-dependent: something about the person hated instigates the hate or, better, something we believe about the person hated does so. That property we perceive or believe exists is or provides the reason we hate the person, and the hate can be judged rational (or not) depending on the accuracy of the perception or belief. Rational hate, on this view, should dissipate were the truth to be revealed.

Is love the same? If it is an emotion, and if the belief-desire-affect model is correct, then we should be able to say quite similar things about love: that it is instigated by the properties of the beloved, or at least by our believing he or she has those properties, and that love can be judged rational (or not) on the basis of the rationality of its underlying beliefs.

Many philosophers raise serious questions about this account of love. For one thing, they argue that it gets things backwards: I do not love Jane because (I believe) Jane is gorgeous and smart (as in Platonic eros); rather, I judge her gorgeous and smart (or attribute other values to her) because I love her. Second (as a corollary?), they claim that just because my beliefs about my beloved change, that does not mean (or should not mean) that my love should disappear. Quite the contrary. If I genuinely love you, I will continue to do so no matter what you are (or no matter what I believe about you). Love is constant: A love that changes in response to changes in the beloved was not love to begin with. (See one of Shakepeare's sonnets.) Third, it makes no sense (in contrast to hate) to speak of love as rational or irrational. If it is not grounded in beliefs, then it cannot be faulted for being cognitively irrational.

Whether we should conclude that love shows that the belief-desire-affect model of emotions is wrong, or that love is not an emotion at all (but a mood, like depression), or that love is an emotion about which we believe many silly things, I will leave to other panelists to ponder.

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 picked a new point, would that become the center of the line (since to either side of the point is infinity, and infinity is congruent to infinity)? Also if the universe has no middle and no end, am I, and everyone, at the center of the universe? (Of course the middle of the universe thing only works if you believe the universe has no middle and no end.)

As with so many questions in mathematics, the answer will depend on exactly how you define your terms. In this case, we will have to decide how to define the word "center". Now, you hint at a possible definition in your question, when you speak of the parts of the line on either side of a point as being congruent. Let's make this definition explicit. Suppose we define a center point of a line or a line segment to be a point with the property that the parts of the line or line segment on either side of that point are congruent. Then, for example, in a line segment of length 1 inch, the point that is 1/2 inch from each end will be the unique center point of the segment; the parts of the segment on either side of that point both have length 1/2, and are therefore congruent. But if we apply this definition to a line that extends infinitely far in both directions, then we find that every point is a center point, because, as you observe, the parts of the line on either side of any point extend infinitely far, and are therefore congruent to each other.

There is no contradiction or paradox here. With this definition of "center", an infinite line does not have a unique center point, it has many center points. I think what made this situation seem puzzling to you is that you were using a definition of "center" according to which a line has more than one center, but you also used the word "the", in the phrase "the center", which only makes sense if there is a unique center.

Is nothing impossible? Is it just that a lot of things have infinitely small probabilities of occurring?

(This evening, shortly after reading this, I had dinner at arestaurant in NYC — and there was Mayor Bloomberg at the next table. I heard someone say, "Nothing's impossible after all.")

I'm not sure what an infinitely small probability would be. Perhapsjust a probability of 0? But that sounds like an impossible event. Soperhaps you're asking whether all events have some finite non-zeroprobability of occurring — and whether the events we call "impossible"really just have a very small finite probability.

Philosophershave spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we're actuallysaying when we assign a probability to an event. Are we making someclaim about the world? Or are we making a claim about our degree ofconfidence in some judgment about the world? I won't go into that hereand instead will say a few words about impossibility.

Philosophersoften distinguish between different kinds of impossibilities. Somesituations would conflict with the laws of logic: for instance, thestate of affairs in which I am over thirty years old and not overthirty years old is one that conflicts with the law of logic that saysthat "A and not-A" is false for every statement A. We might say thatthat state of affairs is logically impossible, or impossible relative to the laws of logic.By contrast, some situations conflict only with the laws of physics:for instance the state of affairs in which I am moving faster than thespeed of light is not a possible one according to contemporary physics.It's one that is logically but not physically possible, one that is impossible relative to the laws of physics.Likewise, we might have situations that we would describe as impossiblerelative to the laws of chemistry, and so on. And perhaps, when someonesuggests that your spouse is having an affair you will find yourselfexclaiming that that's impossible, meaning not that such perfidy isinconsistent with the laws of logic or physics, etc., but that it'sincompatible with what you believe to be true about your spouse.

If this is the right way to think about impossibility, then nothing is impossible — tout court. A situation is possible or impossible only relative to certain assumptions. And relative to any given body of assumptions, many situations will be impossible.

To what extent does belief preclude speculative thought? If to believe is to accept a proposition as being true (as my dictionary claims), do we undermine our belief by testing the proposition? To what extent does testing a proposition imply doubt. I attend a private Christian university, so I find this question extremely important. I have given up using the word "believe" completely because it seems to undermine my need to question things. When people ask if I believe in God, Jesus-as-Christ, the Trinity, I feel I have to say, "no." Would proclaiming belief in those things while questioning their validity undermine what we mean by "belief"? Did this question even make sense?

Traditional discussions of this question suggest that thereare two ways of understanding the relation between belief and knowledge. On theone hand, there is a tradition (tracable to Plato) which says that havingbelief about something precludes having knowledge about that thing. (Plato usestwo different words for these notions: belief is “doxa;” knowledge is “episteme.”He suggests that the things we can know belong to a special class of abstractentities called “Forms;” with respect to everything else, all we have isbelief.) At the same time, there is a tradition (which can also be traced toPlato) according to which knowledge is a special kind of belief: roughly,belief that is both true and justified. So there are two traditional answers toyour question: the first says that if you know something then you don’t (just)believe it; the second says that if you know something, then you must alsobelieve it.

Suppose that I'm working on a medical treatment for a project with no known cure or even treatment. My subjects report that they feel much better after receiving the treatment, but subsequent study shows that the treatment is, in fact, ineffective and all that I'm seeing is the placebo effect. Can I ethically tell them the truth and thereby make them feel worse subjectively? Would that violate the "do no harm" principle of medical ethics?

The injunction “Do no harm” is hard to follow unless one knows whatcounts as harm, and there is no clear consensus about this issue. Itdoes seem that by making a person feel worse, I am harming her. Feelingbad is in itself a bad thing, and it might also lead to other badthings. If I feel bad, then I may not be able to do other things that Iwould otherwise enjoy, things that I might believe have value inthemselves. At the same time, it seems that I could be harmed if I amprevented from learning the truth about my situation. If I have falsebeliefs, I might make choices that I would otherwise not make, choicesthat lead me to feeling worse than I would otherwise have felt. Could Ibe harmed by being led to believe something false about myself even ifthis false belief never leads to any decrease of good feelings or anyincrease in feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, or discontent? Let’simagine that I believe about myself that I am widely admired and deeplyloved by my friends and family and that this belief gives me deepfeelings of contentment and satisfaction. But let’s imagine also that Iam completely deluded: I am ridiculed behind my back and privatelydespised by my friends and family who are hoping to achieve a biginheritance from me. Let’s suppose further that their secret is safe,unless you tell me the truth. Would I be made better off by learningthe truth about myself?

But returning to your particularcase. Even if one has figured out what counts as genuine harm, it'soften a tricky matter in any particular situation to figure out whichcourse of action will cause the least harm. For example, whether agiven patient would be most benefitted were he to learn that his deathis imminent (so that he could make wise decisions about what to do withthe rest of his life), or whether he would be most benefitted by being"blissfully ignorant", will depend on the nature of the person and whatchoices he has. But in any case, most of us value knowing the truthabout our situation, and even if we know that we tend to screw up ourown lives and even if we believe that others could make betterdecisions forus, we still prefer to make informed decisions for ourselves. For allof thesereasons, it has seemed to many that physicians should always discloseto their patients information about their medical condition (including,it would seem, what effect a given drug is having on the patient'shealth).