Recent Responses

If you were sent back 100 years in time and met a fellow philosopher, what advances in the field since his or her time would you tell him or her of? Would you be able to convince him or her of what you said?

To my mind, the formulation, discussion, appreciation, and absorption of the work of Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V. Quine, Donald Davidson, and Saul Kripke have allowed for far deeper, sharper, and more sophisticated discussions in the philosophy of language than have ever been possible before. Could I convince someone of this after traveling back in time, you ask. Could I convince someone of that now?

A discussion with a philosopher friend got me all bewildered. He claimed that we cannot say that animals feel pain, because a mind is necessary to feel pain, and animals don't have a mind. My argument was twofold: 1. How do we know that animals don't have minds? 2. Pain is a result of stimulus to certain parts of the brain. If we assume that animals don't have minds, we can still see that their brains respond to pain stimuli the same way as ours. Even if they are unable to cognitively translate an external factor into a thought train like "I stuck my hand on a hot plate, it hurt, so I removed my hand from the hot plate", surely we can watch them pull back from things that we would experience as painful. I was wondering what your thoughts are on this subject. Thanks.

I know of no good argument for the conclusion that animals cannot feel pain, and given the behavioral and physiological similarities between us and some animals the evidence seems very strong that some do. A biologist friend of mine told me about an experiement with, yes, rats. These rats had severe arthritis, a condition very painful in humans. They were given a choice between plain water and water laced with a tasteless drug (tylenol, perhaps) that does nothing to improve the arthritis, but in humans reduces pain. The rats quickly came to prefer the water with the pain-killer. This is no proof that rats feel pain, but it is a telling argument. And remember that you have no proof, in the strong sense of that term, that people other than yourself feel pain either.

Presuming that it is impossible to write unbiased history, does that make the discipline invalid in that it can never be what it would ideally (at least for many) be: a completely truthful presentation of the past?

I'm not sure what you're presuming until you say what "biased" means. Do you believe that contemporary physics is biased? If not, then what is it about historical research that makes it impossible for historians to attain the same degree of rigor and truth that physicists do? And if so, then what would inquiry have to look like in order for it to be "unbiased"?

Why do many philosophers posit that there are no members in the set of necessary beings? There seem only two explanations if they are correct: 1) Necessary beings are logically possible, but none exist in this world or 2) Necessary beings are logically impossible. Explanation 1 seems untenable since if a necessary being exists in one world (is logically possible), then it must exist in all worlds (and thus this one) by virtue of its necessity. But explanation 2 (which seems likely the more preferred one) seems to do no better, since the set of necessary beings is made a subset of the set of impossible beings. While perhaps this is merely a trivial case, it still seems unsettling, if not contradictory. Is the existence of at least one necessary being necessary? Or is there some other explanation for how none could exist?

There's another distinction that needs to be made here and that is relevant to the objection to explanation (1): We need to distinguishdifferent sorts of necessity. Nowadays, most philosophers and logicianswould agree that there is nothing whose existence is logically necessary, even the objects of mathematics, although their existence is mathematically and even metaphysically necessary. Even God's existence would not be regarded as logically necessary, even by philosophers who accept God's existence. Perhaps we should regard it as agreed, then, that, if God exists, God exists by metaphysical necessity. If so, then there is no contradiction in holding that it is logically possible that God should have existed. Whether it is consistent to hold that it is metaphysically possible that God should have existed depends upon whether one thinks the so-called Brouweresche axiom of modal logic holds for metaphysical necessity. (Axiom B says that, if it is possible that it is necessary that A, then A is true.) Most metaphysicians would, I think, accept B, but there is some controversy there.

In any event, as you speculate, the popular option is likely to be that it is not metaphysically possible that there should have been a metaphysically necessary being like God. (Many philosophers would suppose that there are plenty of things whose existence is metaphysically necessary: the natural numbers, for example.) As Alex says, there's no immediate contradiction in this view, and the apparent oddity of holding that the set of divine beings (say) is a subset of the set of impossible beings is merely apparent. The set of female US presidents is empty and so a subset of the set of impossible beings, but it doesn't even follow that there might not have been a female US president. It's just a reflex of the fact that the empty set is, in virtue of how the notion "subset" has been defined, a subset of every set.

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.

Pages