Recent Responses

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.

In order to be as 'good' as possible and lead a life that benefits others as well as yourself, is it better to follow a particular religion or a particular philosophy?


Let me explain: Identification with some group (religious, especially, but also philosophical) extends your ability to make a difference in the world by adding your efforts to those of others, rather than limiting your efforts to the confines of whatever you can do on your own. By joining Habitat for Humanity, for example, you will find you are much more effective in building homes for those who cannot otherwise afford them than if you go out and try to build such homes all by yourself and without others' help. On the other hand, you might also find that Habitat for Humanity did things in ways with which you could not entirely agree or be comfortable.

I am not at all religious (indeed, I would say I am the opposite of religious, at least insofar as that involves believing in dieties and such things), but even I can't miss the fact that many churches are associated with very significant and very well organized charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs, as they are generally known) that do a great deal of good in the world. As they do this good, they also peddle their religious views, of course, and some of these (for example, when they oppose safe and legal abortion or birth control) do as much harm as the NGOs do good, and so such religious charities often seem to me to have mixed results, at best. But no one can deny the power that institutions can have to organize and collectivize the efforts of well-intentioned people.

Philosophical positions, by themselves, are plainly not as effective in mobilizing, organizing, and aggregating human efforts. But obviously some philosophical positions are far better than others, in terms of motivating good action. Just to make the point obvious: Consider the case of solipsism--the view that one is the only real independent consciousness there is; others who are apparently conscious are not really so, their movements and behaviors are just "programmed" and performed without genuine consciousness. It is difficult to see how this philosophical position could motivate much in the way of good work!

So I guess the gist of my response is this: In the first instance, it is better to join with others, to get the most of one's efforts. In the longer run, it is best to lead others in a concerted effort, which involves little or no "added burdens" (such as unhelpful religious doctrines) that sacrifice any of the effects of the good work. And as for philosophies, those that mandate good works are (obviously) better than those that do not, or (far worse) mandate evils!

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!

Is a poem about nature beautiful because of its form, or is it beautiful because it reminds us of the beauty inherent in nature? Philosophers tend to equate aesthetic beauty with the form of a work of art and our 'interests' get in the way of appreciating the form. However if this is the case why is there not more beautiful poems about rubbish dumps and oil spills.

A great question! There may be a middle ground to the answer. Beautiful natural objects, and beautiful poetic objects, might both be considered beautiful because of complex or harmonious formal properties that evoke certain responses (this is, roughly, Kant). If this is the case, the a beautiful poem about something ugly would function differently from a beautiful poem about something beautiful. In the former case, the beauty would be purely formal; in the latter, it would be in part representational.

Again, a great question, although I suspect it might also be misleading. Many well-known poems about nature are not actually about nature in a straightforward sense. Poems are rarely like landscape paintings. (Come to think of it, neither are landscape paintings.)

Why can't philosophers agree? In the natural sciences you seem to find disagreements at the frontiers of new research, but after a sufficient time has elapsed, agreement is reached and the frontiers advance to new areas of enquiry. The research takes place in professional journals, then the final story makes it into textbooks, with undergraduates in the natural sciences reading only the textbooks. In philosophy, undergraduates read journals as much as anything else, and the textbooks are as controversial as the journals. In what does progress in philosophy consist?

Philosophers don't all agree because they won't listen to me! Just kidding! In fact, I would really hate it if everyone's reactions to my views were: Oh, right. Well, that's it, then! That would be the end of philosophy, and I would not want to contribute to that!

There are lots of differences between what science does and what philosophy does, and one of these difference has to do with what I would call the domain of "appropriate responses." In science, the appropriate responses include (but are not entirely limited to): accept the theory and the data offered in its support, or hold the theory in suspence while one seeks to replicate (or fail to replicate) the data offered in support, or reject the theory because one has some other data that are incompatible with the theory.

Much of what happens in philosophy (both where progress is made and where it is stalled) happens because we do not have access to the sort of data that clearly confirm or disconfirm our theories. Our process is far less neat and far less orderly than that--we are still playing by the same rules the ancient philosopher Socrates worked with. One philosopher declares some theory, and then the rest of us, acting like Socrates, try to come up with reasons for thinking the theory is false, flawed, or incomplete. In a way, then, the highest honor and attention one philosopher can give to another's work (though it doesn't always feel this way, mind you!) is to attempt to refute the other's work, because most philosophical attention is critical attention--someone devoting the time and intellectual resources to refuting my work is announcing to the world that he or she finds my work important enough to merit such attention, rather than best forgotten in silence. Best friends in the field are often one another's philosophical critics in the profession--and that is because we understand the ethos of philosophical activity, and philosophical progress: We kind of back into the future, by refuting present theories and then trying to figure out what that shows us for any future theoretical attempt.

So one reason philosophers never seem to agree is that we're not supposed to agree! Our job is to disagree, to a very substantial degree, because in that way, we do our best to test whether the theories before us are true. If the best minds in the field can't find a way to disagree...well, then, maybe that would be The Final Answer. But whole careers in philosophy are made by coming up with new disagreements, and so we are very disinclined to agree with one another's theories--because by agreeing, we are, in effect, acknowledging that we are not clever enough to have found whatever flaws might be there.

But this does not mean we do not make progress. There certainly are philosophical theories that have been given up for good (and for good reasons), and by practicing our critical form of "quality control," it is very plain that our theories now are a great deal more sophisticated (and less easily refuted) than those whose flaws we have studied, and learned by heart in our training.