Recent Responses

Why should society put such a high value to the act of taking an oath. Oath to say the truth, Oath to become a Citizen, Oath to take an office, Oath to serve a commission, etc. Oath is only as good as a person taking the oath, so what is different about a person expressing an opinion or a belief and doing it under oath? Is our society correct in accepting a higher level of integrity or commitment because of the ceremonious nature of it? After all, it is not difficult to act out an oath as a matter of convenience and not have any sincere feelings about the act.

One way to think about oaths would be to regard them as a ritualized form of promise. If so, then one aspect of these questions is: What's the significance of promises? There's a difference between saying that one plans to do something, which can certainly create reasonable expectations and moral obligations secondary to those expectations, and promising to do it, which creates moral obligations that are not secondary to and do not require any such expectations. So one purpose of oaths might be simply to create the sorts of moral duties a promise would. Whether one who makes a promise, or takes an oath, takes those duties seriously is, of course, another matter.

Another aspect of the questions is: Why should promise-making be ritualized as an oath? I can think of two kinds of answers worth exploring. One might be that the public and ritual character of oath-taking might encourage taking it seriously. (Perhaps that used to be true more so than it is now.) Another might be that the ritual form creates legal obligations as well as moral ones. It's one thing to lie and another to lie on the stand, and part of the point of the witness's oath might be (i) to create the difference and (ii) to make that difference vivid.

Loyalty. Is it unethical to move loyalty to another sports team just because the current team you're rooting for isn't doing well?

Most fans of the New Orleans Saints (football team) remained loyal to 'dem Saints even though the Saints were almost always a losing team. Loyalty in The Big Easy for the Saints was fierce. But now that Katrina has destroyed much of New Orleans, the team's owner, car franchise hot shot Benson has decided to move the team to San Antonio or California permanently -- at precsiely the time when New Orleans dramatically needs the team to stay, for both financial and spiritual reasons. For all the loyalty shown to the Saints by the N.O. community, Benson returns a kick in the testicles.

Update February 14, 2006: Benson seems to have come around. But the Hornets -- who have been playing in Oklahoma City (Oklahoma????), except for 3 games in New Orleans this season -- are now the culprits. They plan to play all of six games in N.O. next season, and N.O. might get the NBA all-star game as compensation. Big deal.

How widespread is the use of deontic logic? Hrafn Asgeirsson, Iceland

So far as I know, deontic logic has never entered mainstream work on moral philosophy. One of the key ideas of deontic logic is to allow for impossible (combinations of) obligations. My sense is that, while there have been proponents of the idea that there could be such things (notably, Bernard Williams), most have rejected the idea. The argument I have usually heard (this is going back to grad school, so it's been a while) is that the relevant notion of obligation is one of all things considered obligations, and these cannot conflict. Perhaps deontic logic would be of more interest, however, if regarded as a logic of prima facie obligation. But then the deep question is how conflicts between prima facie obligations are supposed to be resolved, and, so far as I know, that's not really the focus of work on deontic logic. Perhaps more recent work than is known to me has addressed that question.

(1) What is a question? (2) Are there sentences that have the grammatical form of a legitimate question, yet nevertheless fail to be legitimate questions? (3) Does this sentence (i.e., (3)) have the grammatical form of a legitimate question, yet fail to be a real question?

The word 'question' has several senses. In one sense it is a grammatical term referring to sentences of interrogative form. In another sense it is a semantic term, referring to the sort of thing that could be the content of an interrogative sentence - as in "The question that 'What is the meaning of life' is really asking". In the latter sense there can be sentences that have the form of a legitimate question yet nevertheless fail to pose legitimate questions - e.g. "Why has no dog ever barked?" or "Why have more people been to Berlin?". The answer to (3) is 'no', so the answer to (3) is 'no'.

The mathematical examples used to support the notion of chaos in nature (e.g., fractals resembling coastlines) seem at times to have more the force of analogy than scientific persuasiveness. Is there currently a philosophical debate over the veracity of chaos theory?

I'm not a philosopher of science, so I have no first-hand knowledge here. But a search of Philosopher's Index turned up a review by Jeffrey Koperski, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 2001, of Peter Smith's Explaining Chaos. I also found a few papers on the relation between chaos theory and quantum mechanics, in which there is, apparently, no room for chaos. See, for example, Gordon Belot's "Chaos and Fundamentalism", Philosophy of Science 67 (2000), 454-465.

Oddly enough, most of the references I discovered were to papers in philosophy of religion....

Astronomers routinely observe the most distant objects and the earliest events in the universe. If we had a telescope powerful enough, could we observe the Big Bang and if so, could it be observed whichever way we looked?

The following comment has been kindly sent in by Professor Kannan Jagannathan (Department of Physics, Amherst College):

"The best evidence we have for the isotropy andhomogeneity of space leads cosmologists to hold that the universe hasno center and no periphery. If the universe is infinite now, it was soat the Big Bang, and the bang occurred everywhere (in such a case, thedensity of the universe would have been infinite at BB); if theuniverse is finite (and unbounded) now, it was probably point-like atBB, but it is not to be thought of as embedded in some larger space. That was all there was as far as space was concerned; it was'everywhere' then, and is everywhere now.

In the standard model of cosmology, as well as inmost variants of it, the initial rate of increase of the scaleparameter (crudely, the radius of the universe, or the rate ofexpansion of space) would have been bigger, perhaps much bigger, thanthe speed of light. The combination of these two points would suggestthat if light was emitted at BB, we would still be receiving bits ofthat light from parts of the universe that had sped away too fast, andwe would continue to do so for the foreseeable future, particularly ifany of the inflationary scenarios is taken seriously.

The reason the earliest light is from something like300,000 years after the BB is because that is when the universe hadcooled enough to allow neutral atoms to form, and the universe suddenlybecame transparent to electromagnetic radiation. Prior to thisso-called 'recombination era' (a misnomer since it was the first timethat the 'combination' could have occurred), the universe was opaque toall 'signal carriers' that we can think of or detect easily; if onegoes a little farther back in time than 300,000 years, even theneutrinos would have scattered too much to be available as a faithfulimprint of events before."

Am I a direct result of all the events that preceded me?

If determinism is true then you are a direct result of events that preceded you, in the sense that everything about you is entailed by the laws of nature plus the state of the universe before you were born. If determinism is not true, as the most popular interpretation of modern physics suggests, then there is no such entailment; but even here it is not as if you are the result of anything else. Either way, the causes that made you, whether deterministic or probabilistic, are all among the events that preceded you.

Is it possible to philosophize about the human condition from a lofty philosophical viewpoint rather than gleaning humble wisdom through the experience of engaging with the messy experience of meeting, befriending and loving the mass of mere humanity?

Often when non-philosophers think of philosophy they think of an extremely abstract discipline with only tenuous connections to everyday life. As Jyl says, this isn't so: many if not most philosophical problems take off from a perplexity regarding some very mundane and ubiquitous feature of life. When philosophers get abstract, and they can, it's not because they're seeking some "lofty" ground, animated by a horror of the messiness of the everyday. lt's rather that they have no hope of getting the understanding they crave of the notions that make up the everyday without disentangling concepts from one another. And this process of disentanglement can result in abstractness.