Recent Responses

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.

Do you think it is a bad thing that musical genres are fragmenting? In the past there were clear movements in music, Baroque, classical, Romantic. As time goes on, movements seem to become more specialised, with the Beatles and rock then split into punk, metal, indie, dance, hip-hop, soul, nu-punk, nu-metal. Each movement seems to be targeted at a sub-section of the population, and so music is losing some of it universal themes. Music created with less artisic merit and effort is reaching the public. Is the inevitable result of new technology, or the rise of an instant gratification cuture that wants to listen and create without any serious effort?

I'm not convinced that European music ever had the clear periodisation that you describe. 'Baroque', 'Classical' and so forth tend to be descriptions applied by historians of music after the fact. In fact, at any one time, there were thousands of composers, working to specialised markets, with different players (large, small, amateur, professional, private, or public) and publishers in mind, with regional styles, and so forth. It may well be that the music scene you describe will, a generation from now, be seen as much more simple and homogeneous than it now appears. History naturally simplifies music just as it naturally simplifies philosophy. Is there more variety now, do genres ‘fragment’ more quickly? Probably, but this may be only a matter of degree, rather than an essential change.

Nor am I convinced by the argument that the pursuit of a public, or the employment of new technology, are new phenomena. There were, and still are, ‘artists’ more concerned with making music than with having it widely heard – and there were and still are artists who judge themselves by their public. There were, and still are, artists using the latest instruments, styles, and technologies, alongside traditionalists. (A good example would be the rapid evolution of the piano, and those who did or did not take advantage of it, during the period that we now see as homogenous: the classical.)

All this is philosophically interesting for at least two reasons. First, the simplification of a historical picture seems to be a condition of innovation: one must lump the past together in order to move on. The dependency of innovation and creativity on the act of repudiating the past is a principle that might be worth investigating. Second, it suggests that the concepts that aesthetics might wish to put forth such as ‘disinterest’, 'attention' (what you term 'serious effort'), ‘communication’, or ‘tradition’ do not easily accord with the historical record.

Is there any test in philosophy to verify or refute the philosophers' guesses/hypotheses?

There are data that philosophers aim to respect, and their guesses/hypotheses may either fail to fit, or succeed in fitting, this data.

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of consensus in the philosophical community on exactly what this data consists in. However, many philosophers would like to count (i) our best scientific data, and (ii) many of our common sense intuitions, as data that their hypotheses should respect.

One major difficulty is that it is often not possible to fit all the data at once: philosophical hypotheses may explain some data at the cost of ignoring others.

Another difficulty is that there can be more than one hypothesis that explains the data, and it can be difficult to tell which explains the data best.

Is there any test in philosophy to verify or refute the philosophers' guesses/hypotheses?

There are data that philosophers aim to respect, and their guesses/hypotheses may either fail to fit, or succeed in fitting, this data.

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of consensus in the philosophical community on exactly what this data consists in. However, many philosophers would like to count (i) our best scientific data, and (ii) many of our common sense intuitions, as data that their hypotheses should respect.

One major difficulty is that it is often not possible to fit all the data at once: philosophical hypotheses may explain some data at the cost of ignoring others.

Another difficulty is that there can be more than one hypothesis that explains the data, and it can be difficult to tell which explains the data best.

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.

I desire to produce a Great Work - the term I will use to avoid a lengthy, linguistically-bound dissertation on its specifics - but I find that, while I long to produce and offer a work (a work of art - writing, animation, film, or a combination) of Content (something with meaning and value beyond surface value; also, thought-provoking, e.g. the animated series <i>Neon Genesis Evangelion</i> or Franz Kafka's <i>Metamorphosis</i>,) I hate the thought of ignorant persons maiming the work, or enjoying it in a puerile manner for superficial reasons alone (e.g., thinking <i>Metamorphosis</i> was just some cool story because the guy turns into a bug, or <i>Evangelion</i> because it has giant robots.) This makes me reticent to create anything. Is this purely some sort of narcissistic elitism, or is it a legitimate concern? How have prior artists worked through misanthropy towards the ignorant to continue to create? Is there an established explanation of why myself or others feel this way about the full value of a work being discarded in favor of a small piece of it?

Great works--and also not-so-great works--are a bit like children to us. We bring them into being as a result of our desire, we do our best to nurture and to preserve them, and to advantage them in the world as best we can...and then we turn them loose into a world that may love or hate, may celebrate or destroy them. Once our children (fleshly and otherwise) are "out there," we have little to no continuing control over how things will go for them. And the surest thing of all, I'm afraid, is that not everything will go well for them.

I will venture to advise you that so long as you are fixed on how your work will be received by others, you need not worry about producing anything Great. Indeed, the greater the work, the less likely it is, I think, that the work will be received or understood both completely and very generally. If there is true greatness within you--or if some great Muse (take that any way you will!) elects to speak through you--then the Great Work will be created only because of the greatness that motivates it. It will be celebrated, scorned, or treated with indifference--each reaction showing something only about the one so reacting, and signifying nothing at all about the work itself. Do not concern yourself with such things, for you have absolutely no control over them. If you will produce some Great Work, then first find the greatness--and then fasten your seat belt as it shows you where it must go.

When philosophers try to answer a question like 'is it right to do X?', or 'do I have a soul?', they are asking the same questions which we all ask, and answer for ourselves, in everyday life. If philosophers research these questions intensively (perhaps for many years) before publishing their findings, and if even then there will be some counterarguments, how can we ever hope to find approximately true answers in our less formal, everyday musings? Thank you.

I very much like your expression, "approximately true answers." That, it seems to me, is all that any of us can realistically hope to achieve in our thoughts about many things. So, perhaps, the only difference between the musings of the best philosophers and the most ordinary of people would be the degree of approximation they strive for--and in the best of cases, achieve.

One of the things that has always concerned me on this sort of issue is the worry that our questions themselves betray us in their presumptions. Let me give you and example of a blatantly presumptuous question: Have you stopped abusing your lover?

Blatantly presumptuous questions, of course, are fairly easy to deal with, because we can spot their false presumptions so readily. But might some of our most basic questions also have flawed presumptions? Let me use the ones you mention as examples. "Is it right to do X" obviously presumes that there is such a thing (or, if not a "thing," at least some applicable concept) as being "right." But we might worry about what the options are here. Are they simply "right" and "wrong"? Or do they include "neutral," as well? Is "neutral" the same as "permissible," or is that a different option, closer to "right," but not necessarily precisely the same thing as "right"? And are there degrees of any or all of these (such that the lowest degree of "right" might still leave a bad taste in the mouths of those with the highest standards). Or is "right" even the best way to think of what we're really after here? Does it change the question if we substitute "good" for "right"? How about "advantageous," or "beneficial," or "virtuous" and all of the alternative options they might provide?

How about "Do I have a soul?" Exactly what would be required to "have a soul"? Is consciousness enough? Or does there have to be some thing that is somehow "within" or "attached" to one--perhaps an immortal thing--in order for one to have a soul? People have been talking about souls (and what has and what doesn't have them) as long as there has been philosophy, but do we really have any clear idea of what we are talking about here? If not, the presumptions of our questions in this area are ones we can't possibly be clear about.

"Approximately true answers"...yes, indeed. If you are deliberating about some specific course of action, then perfectly ordinary minds can go through the process of surveying the options that appear to be available, and considering the values of each. Better minds will find more options, and will do, perhaps, a more disciplined (less merely impulsive or merely emotional) job of evaluating those options. The best minds will find options the rest of us would never have found, without their help (and we hope they will help by publishing their discoveries, if they are generally applicable!), and may also provide the clearest and best thought-out evaluations of these options. But given that our questions themselves (no matter how learned and brilliant the minds that seek to answer them) are likely to be flawed from false presumptions, I think we will only ever arrive at "approximately true answers," and I suspect that those reached by even quite ordinary folks, when they do their best, have proven to be entirely adequate to live by. So your question, in a way, becomes, "just how much more than 'adequate' is good enough for me?" The answer to that question, I think, will tell you whether you are a philosopher or not!