Recent Responses

If science (i.e. evolutionary psychology) can explain why I have the morality I do, does that mean morality is subjective? If what I believe about morality is just a product of my evolution and my upbringing, can I still expect other people to live up to my principles even though they may have had a different upbringing? What about myself? Can I still hold myself to my own standards or am I being deceived by my evolution into thinking it would be wrong to do so?

It might be helpful to follow a strand of British empiricism and to think about 'morality' as a social phenomenon, involving various 'sanctions' such as blame, guilt, shame, and so on. (So in that respect it is rather like law, though the sanctions there are somewhat different.) Your worry is that some moral principle you accept -- that it's wrong to cause serious suffering merely for fun, say -- has emerged only because of the evolutionary advantage conferred on groups which accept something like that principle. So it seems quite contingent which principles we come to believe -- as you imply, in different circumstances we might accept different principles. But, to pick up Alex's point, we have the capacity to stand back from our 'morality' and assess whether we have independent reason to accept its principles. In which case, if you believe there is a reason not to cause suffering for fun, you may think that this justifies the moral principle which forbids it (as it would also justify a law forbidding it).

Since we all have a free will and since every sane human being prefers happiness over misery; how come we don´t choose to be good/kind/loving to each other all the time? J.T. Kumberg

It might be that every sane human being prefers their own happiness over their own misery; alas it doesn't follow from this that every sane human being always prefers other people's happiness over those people's misery. This comes to the crunch if promoting other people's happiness interferes with promoting my own happiness.

What is truth, and how can we know that it is not an illusion?

I'm with Richard here: the truth of a proposition cannot be an illusion. In an illusion, the proposition is false. But there might nevertheless be a sense in which truth could be an illusion, if we think that there are representations when in fact there aren't any. This is paradoxical territory, but for example there is a line of thought from Wittgenstein, articulated in Saul Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, according to which our thoughts do not have determinate content. No determinate content, no determinate proposition, so no truth. If that were the situation, but we thought that there was truth here, we might (truly?) say that truth is an illusion.

I was thinking about properties of objects. We say "sugar is sweet," but is it sweet in the absence of a mind to perceive that it is sweet? Could some other perception find that it is, say, sour instead? Or is it intrinsically sweet on its own, independent of an intellect to observe that it is sweet?

There are three main options here that philosophers have developed for properties like sweetness: sweetness is a sensation, it is a disposition in some things to produce a sensation, or it is an intrinsic property of sweet things (presumably to do with their molecular structure). On the first view, the same thing may be sweet to one person and sour to another (because it isn't really the thing that is sweet or sour, only the varying sensations). On the third view, what is sweet is sweet is sweet for everyone (because it isn't determined by people's reactions). One difference between the first and the second view is that only on the second view are things sweet when they are not being tasted.

At like an atomic level, like really small, is it possible to determine where one thing stops and another begins? Say like where my finger stops and a key on my keyboard begins? (This might be a bad example, because a plastic key and my finger probably have quite different atoms, but still the line between them would be hard to find right.)

I'm going to say something here that is way over-simplified, but perhaps it will do.

According to quantum mechanics, of which my knowledge is very limited, such things as atoms don't have distinct boundaries in the sense you have in mind. This is because their parts (protons, neutrons, etc) don't have completely determinate positions in space (except under certain exceptional assumptions). Rather, the location of a given particle is described in terms of the probability that it is in a particular location. In fact, the same is true of macroscopic objects. Even waiving the blurriness of my boundaries, my location is not completely determinate, either.

It therefore seems reasonable to say that, no, it isn't completely determinate where your finger ends and the key begins, even if we can say which particles constitute the one and which the other (another hard problem), because it isn't determinate where those particles are.

On what basis can we claim somebody is delusional? Assuming objective, True Reality(tm) exists, but is not directly knowable and is only knowable through mediation of our senses, how do we have any solid footing for deciding one person's senses are defective compared to another's? Two thought experiments to illustrate this idea: Assume I am alone in a room, and I see a purple monkey swinging from the lamp. I perceive this odd sight and may, or may not, decide that I'm hallucinating based on my previous experiences. If somebody else comes into the room, and I ask them what they see, if they agree with me, then odds are better that we are both seeing accurately, but if he disagrees with me, then he may be blind to the monkey, or I may be imagining it. Adding more people will get us a consensus view, but doesn't really prove anything in more than a statistical way. Who is delusional, and who is seeing truly? Or, assume I am the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Like the monkey-seeing fellow in the previous example, I perceive odd, starnge things those around me don't. From the previous statistical argument, I'm just as likely delusional as the monkey-fellow, but in this case, I'm actually seeing something my compatriots are literally blind to. This would imply that "group opinion" is insufficient to discern hallucination from enhanced perception. So, how should such a determination be made?

There seems to be a pattern of argument here that needs to be questioned. It is: (i) Method M for reaching judgements isn't completely reliable; therefore, (ii) method M can't be trusted. The conclusion simply doesn't follow. Method M might be very reliable, in which case it can be trusted to a high degree.

I doubt "group opinion" is the only method available to us for distinguishing hallucination and illusion from perception. (For example, in the land of the blind, there might be ways of correlating your apparent perceptions with facts on which you can all agree, e.g., that there is a boulder in such-and-such a location that wasn't there yesterday.) But it might be quite a good way of drawing the distinction even if it isn't a perfect way.

If evolution is true, isn't it likely that our capacity for understanding the world is limited to what is necessary for survival? And if Christianity is true, isn't it likely that we can know only what God wants us to? It seems a reasonable bet, at least considering only these two world views, that there is cognitive closure at some point, and that McGinn, for instance is very possibly right that the hard problem of consciousness will never be solved (not that we should stop trying to solve it). Bob West

I'm not sure that either of the claims you suggest are "likely" are likely. (I'm also quite sure that the conflict you implicitly suggest exists between evolution and Christianity is a mirage, but that's another matter.)

The theory of evolution in no way implies that human capacities are "limited to what is necessary for survival". Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin borrowed the term "spandrel" from architecture to describe what one might also call "side-effects", biological traits that were not themselves selected for but are necessary accompaniments of traits that were selected for. Any particular case will be controversial, of course, but perhaps I can mention one intriguing such question: whether female orgasm has any benefit of the sort that would lead it to be selected for. The philosopher of biology Elisabeth Lloyd has written several interesting papers on this question. There is also an answer in this same area to evolutionary arguments against the innateness of sexual orientation. (There are answers elsewhere, too.)

As for Christianity, I don't see why our knowledge would have to be limited to what God wants us to know. One might suppose God had given us certain kinds of cognitive capacities, and then it is up to us how to use them. Indeed, doesn't Genesis tell us that Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? I don't think God had that in mind. Hence the Fall and all that follows, right? (I'm not suggesting we read Genesis literally here.)

That said, I think the very abstract point, that there are things about the universe we simply aren't equipped to understand, is pretty plainly true. There are obviously things about the universe that my cats aren't equipped to understand. They've got some cognitive abilities, but those are limited in various ways. I don't see why we shouldn't be different. Indeed, surely it would be most remarkable if we were not. Whether the mind-body problem in particular is beyond us is, of course, another question.

What sorts of questions are considered in the philosophy of sex? Beyond questions of sexual ethics, it seems like most of the questions I can think of are better dealt with via anthropology or psychology.

I have but five things, now, to say in reply to this question. (1) Might you post several of the questions that you can think of that are not questions of sexual ethics and seem to you to be anthropological or psychological, not philosophical? Maybe I could show how they are, after all, philosophical, or could be approached philosophically as well as anthropologically, etc. (2) Here is a philosophical task for you: please define "sexual act" for me. I do not mean describe it ("it feels sooooo good"); I mean provide what some philosophers call an "analysis." What is it about sexual acts that make them sexual and that distinguish them from other kinds of acts? This task is not as easy as you might think (and it has practical import; recall Clinton and Lewinsky). (3) Might I suggest that the philosophy of sex deals with ontological, metaphysical, conceptual, historical/textual, and normative (ethical and nonethical) matters? If so, sexual ethics might be a rather small part of the terrain. (4) For a discussion of the various branches of the philosophy of sex, see my encyclopedia entry at -- however, this essay is slightly dated. For a more complete account, write to me for a pre-print of yet another essay on the subject, which won't be pubished until early 2006. (5) Even if the philosophy of sex were exhausted by ethical questions, we would not have world enough and time to explore or answer them all.

What is the history of the belief that representation requires an intentional stance? I am a neuroscientist and we regularly use representation in what I believe is a very different sense: something like a 'token realization.' For example, I show you a bar of a particular orientation and a neuron in your cortex fires. Other bars fail to evoke that response. A typical neuroscience paper might say something like: that neuron's activity represents a bar of that orientation. Is there a difference here? I think this concept of representation as a 'token realization' (maybe a bad term) is central to the description of brain function by practicing scientists.

The term "representation" is a very slippery one in philosophy. The U.S. philosopher H. P. Grice ( some info can be found at ) distinguished two sense of the word "meaning," but his distinction has relevance to contemporary talk about "representation".

Grice asks us to reflect on the difference between sentences like these two.

1 -- Those spots mean measles

2 -- The "occupied" sign means that someone is using the lavatory.

He points out that if sentence 1 is true, then the occurrence of spots entails the existence of measles. Equivalently, if the occurrence of spots doesn't entail the existence of measles, then it's not correct to say that the spots mean measles. If, for example, the same sorts of spots can be produced by an allergic reaction to penicillin, then one should have said, "those spots mean either measles or an allergic reaction to penicillin."

On the other hand, the truth of sentence 2 doesn't entail that if the "occupied" sign is present, then someone is in the lavatory. "Occupied" means occupied, even if some practical joker has managed to trigger the sign on an empty toilet.

Grice calls the first kind of meaning "natural meaning," indicating that it's the sort of relation that exists when there is a natural connection between the sign and the thing signified, when it's a matter of natural law that the appearance of the sign is, as a matter of natural law, dependent on what the sign stands for. Because we have such relations in nature -- because smoke means fire, and bear scat means bear -- we can and do speak of "natural signs".

In the second case, however, the relation between the sign and the thing it stands for is not determined by any natural law. In fact, it was quite up to us human beings which sign -- which representation, which set of symbols -- to use to represent occupied-ness. We could have all used the sign the French chose -- "occupe" (with an accent). That is, the relation between "occupied" and being occupied is conventional -- a matter of social agreement, rather than natural law.

Now a really interesting question (to me, anyway) at the intersection of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind is this: is convention the only way to get non-natural meaning/representation? Because if it is, then we have a problem ab9out thoughts. The problem is this. Thoughts seem to be kinds of representations. When I think about Paris, I am representing the city of Paris in my mind. And when I think that Paris is lovely in the spring, I'm representing the situation of Paris's being lovely in the spring. But these representations have to be non-natural in Grice's sense. Why? Because it's perfectly possible for me to think about Paris even if Paris (alas!) isn't there, before me, in all its splendor. My Paris thought does not indicate the presence of Paris, in the way the spots indicate the presence of Paris.

But on the other hand, it can't be that the relation between my thought about Paris and the city itself is conventional -- it can't be like the relation between the English word, "Paris" and the city. Why not? Because to set up a convention, one needs to have thoughts that already have representational content. Suppose I want to use a certain neurological state as my personal symbol for Paris. To make that policy for myself, I'd have to form the intention to use that state to refer to Paris. But in order to form such an intention, I'd have to already have a way of representing Paris to myself -- and we're back where we started: with a representational state that can't have natural meaning, but that can't be conventional, either. The project of explaining how there could be this sort of in-between case -- a case of non-natural, but non-conventional meaning, or represntation, is one that has absorbed the energies of a number of prominent philosophers of mind, including Jerry Fodor, Fred Dretske, and Ruth Millikan. These philosophers all have theories purporting to show how a relation of non-natural, but non-conventional meaning could arise out of a natural world filled with merely natural signs.

Many philosophers want to reserve the term "representation" for items that have non-natural meaning. Some want to reserve the term "intentionality" (which in its broadest sense just means "aboutness") for the same purpose. Now the way in which the specialized neurons you speak of "represent" some specific orientation of a bar sounds to me like "natural" representation -- the firing of the specialized neuron is a natural sign of the presence of a bar oriented in that particular way. If that's right, then the philosophers alluded to above will balk at calling the neuronal firing a "representation" at all. But you don't have to argue with these philosophers about how to use words. Just ask them this: can non-natural mental representations (like my current thought about a bar oriented plumb to the plane of the earth) be somehow explained in terms of the neurological natural signs with which you are familiar?