Recent Responses

In 1907 William James gave his Lowell Lectures on Pragmatism at Harvard and later at Columbia. I believe that <i>Pragmatism</i> was intended by WJ to complement his book <i>Varieties of Religious Experience</i>. 2007 will be the Centennial of Pragmatism. Will this event be observed by philosophers? Universities? Or by the literate public -- which is the audience William James often tried to reach. Bill DeLoach The University of Memphis

I can't imagine there won't be conferences and the like, what with the resurgence of American pragmatism over the last couple decades. You might want to contact Harvard and ask them if they have any plans. If not, perhaps your letter would suggest to them that they should make some.

Can you disprove the statement, 'Truth is relative'?

The most familiar challenge to relativism is straightforward and, to my mind, has never been adequately answered. It is that the truth of "Truth is relative" had better not be relative. But we can spell the argument out a little more.

Question: Relative to what? Now, whatever you tell me, I will introduce an explicit statement of the alleged condition. So, if it's "relative to cultural standards", I'll ask you to consider something like: Lying is impermissible, according to the predominant standards of culture X. I can't even make sense of the claim that that is true only relative to cultural standards. It's like trying to make sense of "It's warm in Texas in Oklahoma". (Afficionados will note the similarity of this argument to Quine's criticism of conventionalism. That's non-accidental.)

Note that no such argument could show that truth was not in some interesting sense relative in some particular area. The foregoing does not show, for example, that moral claims are not true only relative to cultural standards, since "Lying is impermissible, according to the predominant standards of culture X" is not an ethical claim. What the argument does purport to show is that there must be a level at which the truth is not relative to anything.

That said, I should probably mention that certain positions people have taken to calling forms of relativism are enjoying a bit of a resurgence nowadays. See, for example, some of the work of John MacFarlane, who is at Berkeley. For what it's worth, though, my own view is that such positions are not plausibly regarded as relativistic, in any interesting sense.

Is self-contradiction still the prima facie sign of a faulty argument? How do we tell an apparent contradiction from a real contradiction if the argument is in words? (Most of us don't know how to translate arguments in words into symbolic logic.)

It is perhaps worth adding that self-contradiction is not the only sign of a faulty argument. An argument can be faulty but not lead to a contradiction. For example, suppose that you know that some number x has the property that x2 = 4. If you claim that x must be 2, you have engaged in faulty reasoning. The conclusion x = 2 does not contradict the hypothesis that x2 = 4; the two statements are perfectly consistent. But your reasoning is faulty because you haven't taken into account the possibility that x might be -2.

I am born into a faith which has an overtly stated principle belief that it is irrational to believe in the existence of a supernatural or a divine power/intelligence. Does that make it a rational or irrational religion? Since it is an organized and practiced religion, am I an atheist, agnostic or religious in the conventional sense. (Jainism and to some degree Buddhism have similar notions.)

As you note, there are plenty of religious people who are atheists, since there are large segments of Buddhism that do not posit the existence of a divine being. The identification of religious belief with belief in God, however, common in the United States and, perhaps, other western countries, is therefore deeply misleading and exclusionary. In the serious study of religion such an identification is not taken terribly seriously.

One might well go further and suggest that the emphasis upon "belief"in the popular understanding of religion in the west is itselfinappropriate. Much of the emphasis in religious studies nowadays is on "lived religion" or "lived faith", the idea being that what it is to be religious surfaces in not so much in what one says or even believes but in how one live's one's life.

Hello. Why is it so that when it's night and my mom tells me to go to bed, I never want to. I want to stay up and not sleep. But then in the morning when my mom tells me to get out of bed, I never want to. Then I just want to remain in bed. Please, why is this so?

You might try testing Peter Lipton's suggestion. You could ask your mother to tell you to stay up one night, or to tell you to stay in bed one morning. If it turns out that you then find it easy to do what she says, then Peter's suggestion sounds like it's on the right track. On the other hand, if you find yourself then wanting to go to bed early and to wake up early, we need another explanation.

Our son (8 years old) was stating yesterday that all things have opposites. He was discussing the matter with our daughter (10) and she argued that it cannot be so. The examples our son provided were of the kind light vs dark, day vs night, cold vs hot. I tried to explain the oriental idea of the TAO, the whole being composed of Yin and Yang, both opposites but complementary and each with a touch of the other. Another example I tried to make was the definition of a vase, or a bowl or any vessel that is defined by its content. An empty vase not being anything without just "nothing" inside. The question our daughter raised was then: What is then the opposite of a lion? Or a tree, or a rock?... I had a hard time trying to get a good answer for that one and settled for a non-lion, no-tree or no-rock (thinking of the vase allegory above). My question to you is then, what would your answers be? Is there really a duality in all things and if so, how does it apply to the lion case? Thank you.

There are many different conceptions of "opposite" at work in your question. One, with which your son seems to have been operating, is similar to what Aristotle would have called "contrary". Two properties are contraries if it is impossible for them to be present in the same object at the same time, and at least one of them must be present. A weaker conception would be that of a "contradictory", for which only the first clause applies: They can't both be present. The conception of a contrary that your example of the vase employs, however, is spatial or perhaps (to use a technical terms) "merological", that is, defined in terms of parts and wholes.

So let us ask: What is the opposite of you?Non-you? And what is non-you? The sum total of everything that is notpart of you? If that's counts as your "opposite", then, yes, everythinghas an opposite, but note that we are operating with the spatial or mereological sense of opposite, not the Aristotelian sense. It's not very interesting that everything has an opposite in that sense. And it does not seem that there is any reason to believe that you have an opposite in the Aristotelian sense: That is, that there is something that has every property you lack and lacks every property you have. Indeed, unless we can say much more precisely what counts as a "property", we will be able to prove that you have no contrary, in that sense. The same will apply to "lion", "tree", and "rock".

Problem with the Problem Of Evil I've read here a few references to the Problem Of Evil and it brings to mind a small philosophical statement which I hold dear - Beauty in all things. To use the Katrina example for sake of continuity, is it not a short term and narrow view to say people have suffered? Let's assume anybody who has died in the event is not suffering. Those left behind probably are suffering but ultimately their life and those of onlookers may be bettered because of the experience; they may continue to lead more fulfilled lives than what they otherwise may have appreciated. Happiness comes from within and is not determined by what we have, what we've lost, or what we've been through. I concede that beauty in all things is partly just a psychological state, but I also believe rationally that positives can be found in the seemingly most negative situations. We have all experienced this in life first hand. Btw: wonderful website, thanks to all who contribute.

The problem of human suffering is indeed an instance of the problem of evil: it's the problem of physical evil (as opposed to the problem of moral evil, or sin, which arises from the fact that God allows agents to make bad choices and commit immoral acts). It is not clear to me that theists do respond to the problem by denying the reality of human suffering. Indeed, early modern philosophers, such as Leibniz and Malebranche, who grapple with the problem, admit the reality of human suffering, but deny that God is responsible for it.

Leibniz, for example, argues that although God creates the world, he does not will that suffering takes place, but he rather wills the existence of the best possible world, a world that includes suffering, which he does not directly will, but merely permits. According to Leibniz, the suffering that takes place in this world is a necessary component of this world, the best possible world, which God creates because it is the best world.

Sometimes this point is put in terms of beauty. It is said that just as shadows contribute to an artwork, and dissonance helps set off a musical harmony, so too is suffering a necessary part of the perfection of the world. I find the analogy with art somewhat dubious. The point, however, is simply that the suffering in this world is a necessary component of this world, and therefore is not something that God chooses as such when He chooses to create the best possible world.

So Leibniz need not admit that such suffering, as such, is beautiful, and he can fully admit the reality of human suffering. Yet he can explain why suffering is compatible with God's existence, thereby justifying the ways of God to man.

The question is, however, whether such an explanation is satisfying. Is this world the best possible world? Leibniz offers arguments for this claim, but they have satisfied few philosophers.

If one is interested in looking at a contemporary response to the problem of human suffering, Marilyn McCord Adams has written a very interesting work on this topic, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.