Recent Responses

Why should I believe you?

Fair enough, Alan. Based on my experience of human beings, the more sociableand cheerful attitude that you suggest seems appropriate as ageneral day-to-day attitude toward others. I’m generally not worriedthat people are lying to me.

But I understood the question differently– not as directed to humanity in general, but at usin particular, the panelists on AskPhilosophers. I took the questionernot to be wondering whether we were lying but whether we knew what wewere talking about. There are a lot of people out there promisinganswers to life’s big questions, and skepticism seems to me to be aperfectly healthy response to these promises. It was for this reasonthat I tried to assure the questioner that we aren’t making any suchpromises.

How should we view architects and their work? If we think of buildings as purely functional, then we seem to be thinking of architects as means to ends only, forgetting their concern for aesthetics. Conversely, if we see buildings purely as aesthetic objects, we are underplaying the technical - scientific - expertise of architects. Is there a middle ground of judgement here?

I’dlike to add a few points to Roger’s very reasonable remarks. First, thefact that works of architecture can be seen both functionally (i.e., interms of broadly utilitarian purposes) and aesthetically does notdistinguish them from many other works of art. Consider stained glasswindows, Native American pottery, woven rugs, masks used in tribalrituals, etudes—all of these may have both functional and aestheticpurposes. You might also consider artworks that are designed to promote political or ethical change. It might be thought that what is distinctive about architecture is that it is essentially functional. Is it the case that it is not possible for something to be a work of architecture unless it has a utilitarian function? This is tricky, but I would be hesitant to say yes. (Consider architectural follies.) Second, I wouldn’t put too much weight on the idea of an aesthetic object. Works of art may do a range of thing: represent, express emotion, express a view of the world, exhibit form, etc. They may also provide aesthetic experiences (or experiences of beauty), but this does not seem necessary for art status. Hence, a work of architecture may succeed artistically without being an aesthetic object or serving strictly aesthetic purposes. Third,even if a building only served utilitarian functions it wouldn’t followthat we would or should treat its designer as merely a means to someend. (Of course a building that only had utilitarian function might not count as a work of architecture.)

Should we philosophize about philosophy? Why?

Here is one reason. A central task of philosophy is to figure out how our knowledge-seeking activities work and what they achieve. That is epistemology and it is, for example, a big part of the philosophy of science. So if you think that philosophy is in the knowledge-seeking business, then it is natural to be interested also in how that activity works and what it achieves.

We are often told time is like a river. Are there other useful analogies for time? For example: Time is like a bowl of jello with fruit: time is the jello and events are the fruit stuck in it. I guess what I'm really asking is does time have to flow? Is there another way of thinking about time?

Thinking of time as flowing obscures far more than it clarifies, on my view, and I think that the river analogy is dangerous. Anything that flows flows at some rate. How fast does time flow? Sixty minutes per hour? The image raises the prospect of a supertime against which the flow of time occurs, and that raises a nasty regress. Better to think of time as a dimension of the universe, but one that is anisotropic,t hat is, one in which going in one direction is different from going in another, unlike, say, East-West travel.

I am a postgraduate linguistics student engaged in a programme of research in which much of the theoretical apparatus proposed by the majority of language scientists ("Words and Rules" - <i>à la</i> Pinker) is dismissed as epiphenomena of exemplar-based cultural learning. Lately, however, I have been struggling with the definition of the word "epiphenomenon". Any thoughts?

An epiphenomenon is something that is real and has a cause, but does not in turn go on to cause other things. A common simile is that it is like the smoke coming out of the locomotive. Thus in the philosophy of mind epiphenomenalism is the view that experiences are caused by physical states of the brain, but do not in turn cause anything: they are just the smoke the brain gives off while it is working.

Is faith in something intangible ultimately delusional?

Is this another way of asking whether belief in the existence of Godmust be irrational in light of God's intangibility? If so, I wouldanswer No. There are many things that I cannot touch in whoseexistence I believe. For instance, I believe in the existence of Mars,but I'll never touch it. You might think that's a bad example because,while I can't actually touch Mars, I could in principle touch it: intheory, I could build a space ship that will bring me to Mars. God, onthe other hand, seems to be something that I couldn't even in principletouch: according to many, God simply isn't located anywhere in thephysical universe. But don't we believe in the existence ofintangible things even in that stronger sense of "intangible"? Forinstance, most of us believe that the Equator exists, but it's nottangible (you can't trip over the Equator). Or, to take Richard's example, we all believe that the play A Comedy of Errorsexists, even though it can't be touched, ripped up, or burned. Orfinally, most of us think that numbers (like the number 8) existthough they don't seem to be at all located in the physical realm. Soif one is irrational to believe in God's existence, that's not becauseGodis something intangible.

Or perhaps you meant to be asking whether it's irrational to believe in an intangible God's existence on the basis of no evidence.If a person thinks the answer to that question is Yes, then God'sintangibility again seems irrelevant: that person would likewise holdthat it's irrational to believe in a tangible object's existence if one had no evidence at all for it. If there is irrationality here, its source is our lack of evidence and not the intangibility of the being that is believed to exist.

Being a non-religious person I do not believe in 'Intelligent design', I am a strong adherent to evolution. Yet I still wonder 'What is the meaning of life'. After much thought and some reading/learning I have come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to pass one's ('one' being anything alive, plant or animal) genes or DNA along to the next generation thereby renewing the cycle of life. What are your thoughts on this subject? Another question - If my meaning of life is true, do you think that man, with his science, can surpass this meaning and redefine the meaning of life? David D.

Frankly, I've never understood what "the meaning of life" issupposed to mean. It's an odd phrase. I take it that the question issupposed to be what the purpose or point of life is, but that's an oddway to ask the question, and I'm not sure I really understand it then,either. Why think that life, as such, that of plants or animals,bacteria or gnus, has any uniform point or purpose? What differencewould it make if it did or didn't?

I think people who have asked what "the meaning of life" is have wanted some understanding of what they were supposed to be doing with their lives: If we knew what the meaning of life was, the thought is, then we'd have some idea what the goalof life was, and that would give us some sense of what a well-livedlife would consist in. Then we'd have some idea what we ought to bedoing here. The cover of Killing Joke's second album shows a young ladlooking up at the sky and screaming, "What's this for!?" That's thefeeling behind the question.

But note that the real question isjust this one: What ought one to do with one's life? Or simpler still:How ought one to live? (The Greeks were a big fan of that question.)It's just not obvious that there has to be some goal everyoneis supposed to be trying to reach for there to be some sensible answerto the question how one ought to live. But ultimately, of course, thequestion is a personal one: How ought I to live? What do I wish to do with mylife? These are profound questions with which we all have to struggle,and I pity the person who does not struggle with them. Moreover, I verymuch doubt that the theory of evolution has much to tell us about theanswer, and I doubt that intelligent design does, either. And I'm notsurehow much philosophy as practiced today, or for that matter ever, has toteach us here, either. Frankly, when I find myself puzzled or troubledaboutwhat I'm doing with my life, I'm not very likely to turn to Kant oreven to Plato, let alone Frege or Quine! I'm much more likely to turnto fiction, to poetry, orto music. Or to the Bible, but not because I think it will answer my questions for me.

If one understands the question what the meaning of life is in thisway, then I think the answerat which you're arrived is pretty unattractive. Of course, that's nothow you were understanding the question. But then your answer is beside the point, because youweren't answering the question that was actually botheringpeople.

What are the limits of language in determining the truth of things? Is Philosophy going to be reduced to equations and answering questions no one cares about? Thanks for your time, Frank

Often when people talk about the "limits of language" they have in mindthe claim that there are some truths that cannot be articulated intheir language, or perhaps even in any language at all. There aretruths, some contend, that transcend the expressive capacity of some,or even of all, languages. This is a hotly contested claim. I am notsympathetic to it. If you claimed to have got hold of such aninexpressible truth, how would I know? You certainly couldn't convey itto me (if you could, it wouldn't be inexpressible). It seems like the world would look just the same whether youhad actually got hold of such a truth or whether you were under themistaken belief that you had. And that shakes my confidence that I evenknow what's being claimed when you say you have got hold of aninexpressible truth. Imagine that a friend of yours tells you that hehas a parrot on his shoulder with the special property of beingcompletely and forever undetectable. How would you respond to such aclaim? Two rather recent books that explore this subject are A.W.Moore's Points of View and Graham Priest's Beyond the Limits of Thought.

I'mnot quite sure what you mean when you ask whether philosophy will be"reduced to equations". Nobody could confuse philosophy andmathematics. Also, it bears saying that equations are not meaninglessscribbles: they express thoughts, sometimes very important thoughts.

Itcan't be that philosophers answer questions "no one cares about" assurely the philosopher doing the work does care! And many other peopledo too — it's not for nothing that philosophy has been a thrivingbusiness for thousands of years. But the more important point is thateven if philosophical work led to the clarification of, and possiblyeven to the truth about, some important issues that aren't at theforefront of most people's minds, it would still be worthwhile. Thereare more things in heaven and earth than are cared about in men's dailylives.

Truth for the sake of honesty, or lies for the sake of harmony - can there be situations where dishonesty is morally sound?

Different general approaches to ethics may provide different answers to this question. Speaking very broadly, there have been three basic approaches to ethical theory. Kant (and others like him, called "deontologists") will argue that the correct way to view ethics is by formulating rules that may be applied universally. In this approach, dishonest will always be bad--though in some cases it might be the lesser of two evils. J. S. Mill (and others like him, called "consequentialists" or more narrowly "utilitarians") will approach ethical questions with a view to what consequences will flow from the act in question (or else from the rules they formulate that will tell us how to act). In this approach, lying can sometimes be good because it will have consequences that have greater utility, all things considered, than telling the truth. Aristotle (and others like him, called virtue theorists) will say that the primary bearer of value is the character of the agent, and not the actions the agent performs. For a virtue theorist, lying would be OK (or even the right thing to do) when and if a virtuous person would lie in that situation. A good example of a discussion on this very point--from a virtue theoretical point of view--can be found in Plato's Republic Book I (331a-c). Plato claims there that it would be wrong to tell the whole truth to someone who was out of his mind (and who might, therefore, react to the truth in an irrational or possibly dangerous way). For a virtue theorist, one-size-fits-all moral principles will always have exceptions, and the sort of case you seem to be worried about may be of this sort. For such exceptional cases, according to virtue theory, good ethical judgment will always be required and can only come from adequate training and habituation.

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