Recent Responses

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.)

Why do people say that some things mankind does are unnatural? Isn't every human development natural because we are part of nature?

I agree with Nicholas that where we can take natural to mean 'conducive to human flourishing', in Aristotle's sense, there will be a connection between being natural and being good. But there are natural functions that do not carry this meaning. In biological cases, functions often correspond to 'selected effects'. Thus the function of the white fur of a polar bear is camoflage, and that coloration is the result of natural selection. Bears in that environment with white fur did better at reproducing than their more colourful cousins. Selected effects are in that sense natural: they are what the trait is for.

From a moral point of view, however, selected effects may be bad and unselected effects may be good. Thus we may have evolved a tendency to deceive other people in certain circumstances, even if this is not morally decent behaviour, and someone who decently resists this temptation may be bucking that evolved inclination. Selected effects may be conducive to what we might call 'reproductive flourishing', but as Nicholas emphasizes, this is not what Aristotle meant by 'flourishing' and it is not the same as what is morally valuable.

Why is it said that scientific results must be replicable? Is this also possible or should that also be the same for mathematics, history, arts or other natural or social sciences?

As David says, replication in science is a way of checking that a result is genuine. We can distinguishing two different senses in which a result may fail to be genuine. One is that it was made up. Replication is a good way of detecting (and discouraging) fraud. Here there is a parallel in the study of history. If one historian makes a claim about what has been found in a document in an archive, other historians may want to check that this is what the document really said.

But in science there is also another sense of 'genuine' that gives another reason for wanting replication. Scientific results are usually not just reports of what the meter said. They are often causal claims, like the claim that a certain drug reduces cholesterol. That claim may be based on an experiment where people on the drug ended up with lower cholesterol than people not on the drug. But that doesn't prove the claimed result, that the drug really does lower cholesterol. It might be that there is some other difference between the two groups of people that is the real cause of the difference in cholesterol levels and the drug had nothing to do with it. But if the experiment is replicated in diverse contexts, all with the same effect, that increases the probability that the causal claim is correct, that the drug really works.

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!

Dear philosophers, this is a question from a fresh mother who has a teenage kid. Every time she asks some questions about the truth of life and world, I feel cornered. I hope she could grow up into a person who has her own judgements and ability to reflect independently. I don't want her to be influenced by her mother's words as I was. What should I do?

When I first read our interlocutor’s question, I too was tempted torespond that mothers have no choice but to influence their children’svalues and beliefs. Every action, statement, and gesture of a belovedand respected parent signifies to young children who are desperate tomake sense of their world what it is reasonable to believe and how itis reasonable to act. Such signals in early childhood provide theultimate basis for what most children could even understand as a reasonfor action or belief during more sophisticated philosophical musingswith their parents when they are teenagers. To this extent, I think, itis impossible for children ever to gain complete cognitive independenceand distance from their parents, and for this reason and many others,the responsibility of parents often feels overwhelming.

But, ona second reading, I was struck by her description of herself as “afresh mother of a teenage kid”. I’m also a mother of a teenage daughterand I hardly feel fresh. I wonder whether our interlocutor has recentlyacquired the role of mother, perhaps as a result of becoming a newmember of a now blended family or as a result of having adopted ateenage child. Then, I would think, it would be quite difficult to knowexactly how to respond to a new daughter’s request for insight: as amother, one is expected to take on the role of a moral authority, butas a person who is new to this role, one hardly feels prepared for oreven entitled to take on this awesome responsibility. Perhaps, thistension accounts for our interlocutor’s feeling “cornered” by herdaughter’s questions about life and ethics– she feels at once requiredand not permitted to respond.

I was also struck by ourinterlocutor’s feeling ill-served by her own mother’s words. Was hermother’s failure really one of a lack of philosophical sophistication,of not explaining sufficiently her reasons for belief or action, or was her failure simply that the beliefs and values that sheinevitably promoted did not, in the end, serve herdaughter well? I wonder whether, as a result, our interlocutor now finds herself at aloss about what it is reasonable to believe and to do, in which casethe responsibility of a mother’s moral authority would seem even moreterrifying.

If I am right in my rather outrageous suppositions,then I think that our new mother’s anxiety can be somewhat relieved. Asa new mother to an almost adult child, one cannot, even if one feltprepared to, serve as the sort of moral authority that parents whosechildren grew up with them necessarily serve. A teenage child hasalready formed her most basic assumptions about the world and how tonavigate her way in it. While the ideal relationship of a new mother toan almost adult child is not the same as that between two friends, itseems to me that the ideal of friendship is a much more appropriate model for such relationshipsthan the more standard ideal that is held up for mothers and daughters.As in a relationship between two adult friends, new mothers and teenagechildren enter their relationship with separate histories and havingalready developed their own fundamental beliefs and values. To theextent that either is still baffled by the world in which they live,they can work together, as good friends do, to make sense of it all, bysharing their different perspectives and experiences that led them tohold the convictions that they do and to be perplexed by the puzzlesthat remain to be solved.

Why is it said that scientific results must be replicable? Is this also possible or should that also be the same for mathematics, history, arts or other natural or social sciences?

As David says, replication in science is a way of checking that a result is genuine. We can distinguishing two different senses in which a result may fail to be genuine. One is that it was made up. Replication is a good way of detecting (and discouraging) fraud. Here there is a parallel in the study of history. If one historian makes a claim about what has been found in a document in an archive, other historians may want to check that this is what the document really said.

But in science there is also another sense of 'genuine' that gives another reason for wanting replication. Scientific results are usually not just reports of what the meter said. They are often causal claims, like the claim that a certain drug reduces cholesterol. That claim may be based on an experiment where people on the drug ended up with lower cholesterol than people not on the drug. But that doesn't prove the claimed result, that the drug really does lower cholesterol. It might be that there is some other difference between the two groups of people that is the real cause of the difference in cholesterol levels and the drug had nothing to do with it. But if the experiment is replicated in diverse contexts, all with the same effect, that increases the probability that the causal claim is correct, that the drug really works.

Is there a relationship between predicate logic and computers? If so, what is the relationship?

I don't think that there is a special relationship between predicate logic, as opposed to any other kind of logic (propositional, modal, etc.), and computers. But there is often a special relationship between formal logic and computers. It is often possible to set up physical relations inside a computer to mirror (formal) logical relations. The computer can then take over a lot of hard work for us: it can be used to deduce logical consequences, and to check whether particular logical relations obtain. All one has to do is look at the subsequent physical states of the computer, and read off the logical relations that they embody.

Aristotle began studies at Plato's Academy at the age of 17. I have a few questions. 1) How smart was Plato compared to Aristotle? 2) Who would you say is as intelligent as Plato or Aristotle (preferably someone who is still alive)? 3) I am 17. Who can I go to in order to gain the same education that Aristotle did from Plato? 4) How did Aristotle go about becoming Plato's student? Did he have to pay to be his student in the same way people pay to become a student at a college? I pretty much got myself into philosophy, and upon finding out about the greater of ancient philosophers, I have been wondering how I might be able to gain knowledge compared to that of the aforementioned. Is this possible in today's society? Thank you, Steve

Your questions seem to focus on how smart people were (or are), and thus on how you can become that smart.

Maybe you mean something different than I do, when you use the word "smart," but I think the only honest answer one can give to many of your questions is "no one knows, and no one can know."

But I can say that Socrates (and Plato, and Aristotle) would all agree on the best thing you can do to get the best education you can have: Find others who have that same interest, and those credibly reputed to be able to serve that interest, and follow the inquiries that follow where they may. This does happen at universities (and at colleges, in the US--a "college" is not post-secondary education most other places), and I would also pick your college or university in the same way that Aristotle probably did. He found out that the most famous thinkers and educators were at Plato's Academy, and so he wanted to work with--and to think alongside--the best minds. So my advice is: Find out where the best minds are (or at least the best nearest to you, or at places you can be admitted to and afford), and then at those places find the best minds of those who work there to work with--and also find the best ones among your fellow students to discuss and hang out with.

On one point, I tend to disagree just a bit with Oliver Leamon: Ancient Athens was spectacularly good, I acknowledge. But thinkers today have the advantage of thousands of years of thinking that followed, and we now stand on the shoulders of those early giants, and on the shoulders of all of those who followed them. So when Oliver Leamon says that "we do our best," you can be sure that we do pretty well, indeed!

One virtue that I see in people I admire is curiosity. As far as I know, it was not a classical virtue, and its only appearances in the Bible resulted in someone being expelled from the garden or turned into a pillar of salt. What do ethical philosophers have to say about curiosity?

I agree that curiosity is a great virtue, but I disagree that it was not a classical virtue. You are simply looking at the wrong "classics"!

It is no surprise that curiosity is treated with suspicion (at best) in religious works whose whole goal is to get the reader to follow certain dogmas or patterns of thought. Curiosity is the very thing that overturns dogmas and questions all authorities, and those promoting dogmas and authority (usually their own) know this well.

But not all "classical works" were devoted to the promotion and maintenance of special dogmas or authorities. Have a look at ancient Greek philosophy, and see what they say about (and how much they exemplify) this great virtue of curiosity. Specifically, look through a book on the presocratic philosophers and ask yourself how curious they must have been, to come up with such theories to explain the world around them. Read Plato's Apology and find out how Socrates dedicated (and ultimately forfeited) his life in pursuit of his curiosity. Read Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus in which the curiosity that drives philosophy is characterized as powered by Eros, the most profound desire we experience. Have a look at Aristotle's Metaphysics I.2, in which Aristotle proclaims that "philosophy begins in wonder."

One of the best things about curiosity, I think--and what all of the ancient Greeks understood about it, often quite explicitly--is that it consists, in part, in the recognition of one's own ignorance. I wouldn't be curious about something if I already thought I knew everything I need to know about it. When Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, he means that philosophy begins with a sense that there is something to wonder about, which we don't do with things we presume ourselves already to know completely. This is why religious texts do not generally promote curiosity--because they are peddling their doctrines as already known and thus not to be questioned. But philosophy (including ancient Greek philosophy) begins in wonder-- in curiosity--which involves a recognition that we do not know. And because we do not, but want to, know, we begin to ask curious questions.

And some of us still wonder, just as Thales (the first Greek philosopher) did, just as Socrates and Plato did, and just as Aristotle did. Some of us are still curious, and we promote this great and deeply human (even wonder-ful) virtue every chance we get.

Why do people say that some things mankind does are unnatural? Isn't every human development natural because we are part of nature?

I agree with Nicholas that where we can take natural to mean 'conducive to human flourishing', in Aristotle's sense, there will be a connection between being natural and being good. But there are natural functions that do not carry this meaning. In biological cases, functions often correspond to 'selected effects'. Thus the function of the white fur of a polar bear is camoflage, and that coloration is the result of natural selection. Bears in that environment with white fur did better at reproducing than their more colourful cousins. Selected effects are in that sense natural: they are what the trait is for.

From a moral point of view, however, selected effects may be bad and unselected effects may be good. Thus we may have evolved a tendency to deceive other people in certain circumstances, even if this is not morally decent behaviour, and someone who decently resists this temptation may be bucking that evolved inclination. Selected effects may be conducive to what we might call 'reproductive flourishing', but as Nicholas emphasizes, this is not what Aristotle meant by 'flourishing' and it is not the same as what is morally valuable.

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