Recent Responses

I once read that, in the case of most scientific discoveries, if they hadn't been made when they were, and by who they were, the same discovery would have been made by someone else. Is this true? I also read that Einstein's general and special theories of relativity were such an original contribution that if he hadn't come up with them we would still be waiting for them. Do you think that's the case? What about philosophy? Are there determinate structures of thought which philosophers are just uncovering, or is theorising a significantly creative act?

I have heard this said as well. In the history of science, there are many examples in which several researchers independently came up with the same new idea. Schrodinger and Heisenberg independently came up with the same theory (quantum mechanics) and presented it in such different forms that someone else (Born) had to figure out that they were equivalent. Darwin and Wallace (both from reading Malthus!) independently came up with the theory of natural selection. Adams and LeVerrier independently predicted the existence of the planet Neptune. Lavoisier and Priestley independently discovered oxygen. The examples are legion. These cases of simultaneous discovery are good evidence that once a problem reaches a certain point, it is widely recognized as a problem and the same solution would soon have been found even if the actual discoverer had not found it.

Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are sometimes cited as exceptions to this general rule. One reason for this view is that the "problem" as Einstein saw it was not widely recognized. Of course, many scientists knew of the Michelson-Morley experiment and realized that it was an anomaly that had to be dealt with somehow. But Einstein was motivated to develop relativity not primarily by experimental results that needed to be explained, but rather by an "asymmetry" in Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. (See the majestic opening paragraph of his 1905 relativity paper for the "asymmetry" argument.) This "asymmetry" was widely known, but very few besides Einstein regarded it as a problem of any kind.

Another reason for the view that relativity would not have been found without Einstein is that relativity was not a modest solution to a narrowly confined problem. Rather, relativity was a sharp break from all of the physics that had gone before. It dispensed with absolute time, space, and motion -- the conceptual framework of Newtonian physics as it was then understood. It is therefore more difficult to say in the case of relativity that it would still have been discovered at about the same time, had Einstein not been there to do it.

Unlike scientific theories, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Eliot's "Middlemarch" would not still have been created, had Bach or Eliot not existed. What's the status of philosophical ideas? In general, I am inclined to think that philosophy is a discipline in pursuit of truth, like science. Although philosophers (unlike scientists) still derive insights from reading works written many generations ago, philosophy involves giving arguments that others could (and probably would) have discovered. After all, one can give the "basic idea" behind some philosophical theory or argument. Its most valuable elements be summarized, put into other words, extracted from its context and its other elements. In this respect, a philosophical work is unlike a work of art.

Are Scientists who hold strong religious beliefs, or 'faith' as it may be called, scientists of a lesser calibre? I ask this because traditional scientific method entails entering into scientific work with a clear and unbiased mind in relation to the subject. If there are two scientists, one of 'faith' and one of no religious persuasion both trying to prove a particular point in say, evolution, is the scientist of 'faith' not heavily inluenced by his need to prove his faith true in his method. While the other scientist may have a more reliable opinion as he relies on reason and scientific method alone?

I certainly do not agree that creationism is "utterly optional" for a good scientist, on the obvious ground that it is bad science (or else pseudo-science). That was my point.

On the other hand, I accept that someone who was religious could do exceptional work in evolutionary biology--either by partitioning in the way I noted, or by conceiving of evolution as part of God's plan, or (as Heck proposes) by seeing religion as no more related to science than poetry is. I would add, however, that most religions I am familiar with seem to have a great deal more intersection with science, in their putatively factual assertions about the world and how things work, than poetry does. Keeping these intersections from generating conflict, I continue to think, is the partitioning trick.

But look, some philosophers (Heck included) both defend and practice religion, in which case it is no surprise that these philosophers would think that all talk of conflict between religion and science (or reason) is just insult and ignorance. Plainly, this conclusion (and the judgment of others' dissenting views) is debatable!

I remember reading somewhere that either Socrates or Plato favoured the idea of a ruling elite as a system of government. What he meant by this was a group of, I think, around 7 philosophers who, due to their altruistic nature and philosophic ability, were selected for a lengthy period to make decisions, without vote or public ballot, for their city state. What my question is... is, If Plato (I think it was Plato) were to see how we govern today, what part would he favour, if any? And would he think his ruling elite system still to be workable?

In the Republic, Plato argues that there should be a ruling elite consisting entirely of philosophers. He never mentions that there must only be 7 of these, and I think it would also count as a serious misunderstanding (one often made in the scholarly literature, however) to say that these philosophers had to be "altruistic"; rather, they needed to understand well what is in everyone's interest, including their own, and they would have to (correctly) understand their own interests as including the interests of those with whom they lived, and upon whom they depended for goods and services.

Plato was certainly no fan of democracy, as a form of government, and so he would not be much impressed with modern forms of government that were democractic by nature. He was also not at all in favor of oligarchy, or rule by the wealthiest citizens--which, I think it is fair to say, is how many present "democracies" end up. Plato counted tyranny as the worst possible form of government, moreover, so most of the alternatives to democracy we find in the modern world would look even worse to Plato.

So I think the upshot is that Plato would be deeply and strongly critical of every form of government now extant. In this, nothing has changed: the form of government Plato extolled as the best (as well as the one he regarded as second best) have never actually existed. And those that did exist in his time were forms he found deeply flawed.

Read the Republic (it really is quite readable, even for someone not highly trained in philosophy), and see what you think!

Is there any way to get published if you're not a professor in a university? For example, let's say I just pick up a philosophy magazine out of interest and want to respond to the article. Will I even be read or do I have to have a degree? Since people seem to agree that on the basic philosophy questions everybody asks them and has their own answers, it's theoretically possible that some non-professional has got a good answer right? And perhaps s/he wants to publish it. How might someone like this proceed? Separately, is it possible to know where philosophy presently is without being educated formally? I feel like the books in bookstores are mostly classics from at least 50 or so years ago. But can you get aboard of what's going on now without entering a university? For example, how would I proceed if I want to know the present state of deliberation on the...philosophy of mind, say? Thanks!!

Nearly all of the philosophy journals practice "blind review" of submitted articles. What this means is that those making the decision to publish or not to publish the contributed piece have no idea who the author is, or what his professional status (or lack of it) might be. So yes, it is certainly possible for someone who is not a professional academic to publish philosophical work where professionals will read it.

Even so, I think it will be difficult for someone without specialized training to get published in this way--the rejection rate at most philosophy journals is very high even for those with graduate training and years of experience, so getting one's work published can be quite challenging, and usually requires that the piece to be published demonstrates mastery of the field and the most recent work in thsi field.

As for how someone might keep up with what is going on now, many publishers (I would recommend Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Blackwells, who all publish such works) have excellent collections of work, selected by an editor who is presumably an expert in the field, who chooses articles to include on the basis of their special impact and current relevance to study in that field. Purchasing (or borrowing from a good library) books of this sort and reading the articles included in them is an excellent way to "catch up" with what is really important in the field right now. Obviously, reading what appears in the most competitive journals (such as The Philosophical Review or the Journal of Philosophy) would also be very valuable. One who has read and understood well the works in such recent collections, and has also read and understood well the recent work in several of the main journals in the field, who thinks that he or she has a contribution to make to the literature could then reasonably submit a paper to one of the journals in the field and know that the referee(s) will not be prejudiced by the author's lack of professional status, because of blind review.

Is global capitalism workable? That is, if capitalism is a system where most of the economic activity is based on self-interest, are the kinds of restricting factors like social welfare, laws, charity and human instincts enough to stop the polarizing of wealth, destruction of the environment and stuff that we see?

To take a different line, those defending capitalism would argue that despite its inequalities and inefficiencies, it nonetheless produces more overall wealth than any other economic system. There is no reason why that wealth should not subsequently be distributed in fair and sensible ways, provided that such an allocation does not interfere unduly with the production of yet more wealth. In fact, some capitalist societies have been rather good at doing this, and there seems no a priori reason why all could not. After all, it might strike people that what you call unbridled self-interest involves social security, protection of the environment and so on. It is not in most people's interests, after all, for the streets to be unsafe due to poverty or the ice caps to melt and drown us all.

Would an alien race, with a completely different understanding of the world and different values, rate our art and music the same? (Assuming they could comprehend it.) I don't think that they would. Would this call into question the objectivity of artistic value?

I agree that an alien race that differed considerably from us would be unlikely to rate our art and music the same.

However, this does not, by itself, show that there is no objectivity in artistic value. If one wished to defend the objectivity of artistic value in the face of such evidence, one might use one of two strategies. (I) One might argue that the alien race is simply mistaken in its value judgements; for some reason---which one would have to independently specify---the aliens get it wrong while we get it right (or vice versa). Alternatively, (II) one might argue for the conditional claim that if the alien race truly understood our art and music, then they would appreciate it; evidence that they do not appreciate should be interpreted as evidence that they do not understand it. Again, one would have to independently specify some reason why the aliens do not understand our art and music.

Without more detail on the aliens and their disagreement with us, it is difficult to say which, if either, strategy would be possible.

Let us assume that it is moral for people to act selfishly, and by this I don't mean in the empty sense that whatever you do is that which you have chosen to do. It seems right that long-run happiness is better (more selfish) than simply taking a lot of drugs, sleeping with random people, and just feeling a lot of pleasure rather than actually feeling satisfied by accomplishing goals. Yet for the life of me, I cannot logically justify why. Is there good reason to live a life of long-term planning rather than empty sensation? Thank you, Adam

There are really three questions here, worth distinguishing clearly.

Question 1 is whether pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the sole ends of human life or whether we rather have reason to value and seek other ends (as well). Here you may think about whether the value of pleasures is unaffected by the fact that they rest on false beliefs (e.g., the belief that you are loved and admired when in fact you are despised, etc.). An extreme case of this is Nozick's experience machine which, attached to your brain, stimulates in you the most wonderful experiences. Also, think about the burden of proof here. Why should it be somehow obvious that pleasure is worth pursuing while other ends (knowledge, wisdom, love, artistic excellence) stand in need of justification? It seems more plausible to start with a very general notion of well-being and then to examine with an open mind what one's well-being might consist in.

Questions 2 and 3 were perhaps most interestingly (though not flawlessly) discussed by Derek Parfit in Part 2 of his Reasons and Persons. Question 2 is what good reason there might be to give weight, in deciding how to act, to one's well-being in the future. Here one possible answer is this: If each time-slice of me (one hour, say) attends only to its own well-being, then nearly every one of these time-slices would fare worse in terms of well-being than it would fare if these time-slices cooperated through intelligent planning. For example, if each time-slice cares only about itself, then nearly all of them are likely to be broke (none will want to leave cash to its successor). In this way, such narrow care is (or comes close to being) directly collectively self-defeating (Parfit's expression).

Question 3 is what good reason there might be to give weight to how one has conceived one's well-being in the past and to how one will conceive one's well-being in the future. Suppose you have reason to believe that you will conceive of your well-being quite differently in 20 years from how you conceive of it now. Should you promote that future self's well-being as you conceive it (leave him many frequent flier miles to tempt him away from the sedentary life which he will like and which you despise)? Should you promote that future self's well-being as he conceives it (buy a piece of land near a dull village to ensure that he will be able to build a cottage there even if real estate prices go through the roof)? Insofar as you see some merit in the latter answer, you come around to what your question explicitly assumed at the outset: that it is moral for people to act selfishly. When your future self conceives his well-being quite differently from how you conceive it, then your reasons for promoting his well-being as he conceives it are similar to your moral reasons for promoting any other person's well-being as s/he conceives it.

I frequently hear physician's voice the following argument with respect to sexual disorders and anxiety/depression, and I wonder of its validity: If there's a chemical treatment (e.g. pharmaceuticals) and it's successful, then the problem is physiological, not psychological. The argument appears invalid to me, because it seems to assume too large of a rift between one's psychology and one's brain. More exactly, if a chemical treatment works, and if one's psychology (i.e. thought-patterns and emotions) can have an effect on one's brain chemistry (and vice versa), then couldn't the problem still have a psychological source? It seems as if these physicians view psychology as having a basis in a something (a soul perhaps) that is causally independent of the brain. But that seems like an odd view for a Western physician to hold. I'd greatly appreciate any thoughts on this.

I agree that this reasoning seems strange. However, here's one possible justification for it. Any cause can be described in a large number of different ways. For example, a brick thrown at a window can be described as: (i) a brick thrown at a window, or (ii) the movement of a bunch of molecules through space.

Which way we choose to describe a cause depends on our interests in the case. If we are interested in atomic physics, we may prefer description (ii); if we are interested in the movement of bricks in the area, we may choose description (i).

Suppose that in medicine our interests are primarily to explain and treat disorders. For some disorders, it may be easier to explain and treat them by describing their causes in purely psychological language. For other disorders, it may be easier to explain and treat them by describing their causes in purely physiological language. There may also be difficult mixed cases, as you mention, in which the best strategy is to describe the causes in a mixed psychological and physiological language.

However, none of these three options commits one to the view that you mention: that there is a soul that is causally separate from the brain. A physician could say that it is just the same thing (the brain) that is being described in different language in each of the three cases, in much the same way as the case of the brick.

Are there any great literary stylists in philosophy? Its analytical nature would seem to militate against this i.e., trying to express difficult ideas as intelligibly as possible. Some may have (but the only ones I can think of are in translation and far from what the panel go in for) and are usually aiming for a 'felt' response such as Nietzsche, Kierkergaard, Plato's account of the death of Socrates, and so on. Wittgenstein seemed to like portentous statements (again I only know him in translation and couldn't really understand him) such as 'The world is all that is the case' and 'Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must pass over in silence'. Was he trying to sound gnomic and literary while conducting philosophical analysis? I teach English and use Russell's lay writings as models of concision and eloquence in style. I also use extracts from Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' to show how not to write! Someone told me Sartre had had no training in logic hence his tedious verbosity. I also consider Martin Heidegger's written style an incomprehensible and impenetrable joke (but maybe it works in German). I am not referring to any philosopher's literary work here, just their 'factual' texts. I would value your thoughts on this and would also like to thank you for this site.

Two mention just two further wonderful writers in English:

J.L. Austin has a very powerful voice. And W.V. Quine has an extraordinary style about which much could be said. (And I would not call Wittgenstein's style "portentous". Pitch perfectly resonant, yes.)