Recent Responses

Does free will fare any better under a Dualistic or Deistic system than it does under materialism?

I don't think so. The central puzzle is to understand how, in the presence of impersonal and seemingly comprehensive causal processes, we humans can really make the free choices we think we do about largely (if not entirely) physical matters--whether to pick up the phone that's ringing, or where to go to lunch, for example. The problem is to say how my eating at Fatzo's was freely chosen if this action was caused by physical events in my body, including physical events in my brain, which in turn were brought about through a chain of events that traces back to hereditary or environmental features that are outside my control--factors that ultimately pre-date me, in fact. That some of these events might have arise from indeterministic micro-physical processes doesn't really help, since these processes are also out of my control.

One answer to this puzzle is to say (very roughly) that an action is free if the causal chain that brings it about goes through my character in the right way. There are many worries about the adequacy of this type of "compatibilist" answer, and some of these can be solved through illuminating accounts of "the right way" or "my character". But this isn't made easier by adopting the dualistic view that the mental is distinct from the physical. One of the most pressing problems for the dualist is to explain how a separate realm of minds or mental features can causally interact with things in the physical realm, as they surely can. The central problem of free will is that "mental causes", however these are understood, seem usurped by impersonal and purely physical causal processes (determinisitc or indeterministic) that are entirely outside our control.

Deism only seems to make things worse by introducing an additional causal factor, God, which potentially conflicts with the personal causal control that we take ourselves to have over many everyday concerns. I won't comment on this problem other than to say that as much wrestling has been done with it as with the "central" problem I described above.

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.)

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.

How can speciesism, be immoral for people, but moral for the animals that clearly prefer their own species? If animals are morally culpable for speciesism, can animals be held morally responsible for other things like murder?

I agree with John Moore's response. I'd add these two additional considerations.

First, it might be a bit strained to say that non-human animals are guilty of "speciesism" insofar as it may not really make sense to say that those animals possess the concept of "species," much less act upon it. To be a speciesist, I'd say, requires something like this: that "one use the concept of species to justify excluding certain beings from moral consideration" (one might add, I suppose, "in an indefensible way"). Other animals might in practice discriminate among prey and non-prey in ways that we can articulate through the ideology of species; but I don't think they themselves use that ideology to make their discriminations.

Secondly, I think it an interesting question as to the extent to which non-human animals might be initiated in meaningful ways into the moral world we humans inhabit. Vicki Hearne, I think, has some interesting thoughts along these lines. In my own work, I've used Hume's theoretical framework to address the issue. My sense is that the extent to which non-humans can be moral agents is rather limited but perhaps not entirely non-existent.

In a code of intellectual conduct in a truth-seeking argument between A and B for positions X and NOT X respectively, starting a new thread of attacking the person A either by B or by the some members of the audience is definitely a fallacious argument (Argumentum ad Hominem) for the context under discussion. What about glorifying tributes to person A by some members of the audience as a part of the SAME thread of discussion? It obviously is irrelevent to the argument or the issue under discussion. How far is it inappropriate, sinister, or otherwise in the code of conduct in an intellectual truth-seeking debate between two participants A and B in front of the gallery of audience? My strong gut sense is the behaviour is inappropriate because it does not contribute to the strengthening or weakening of arguments in favor or against X. What do the panel of distinquished philosophers have to say on this (not so much the irrelevance but the inappropriateness as an intellectual conduct)?

If you're after truth, it's often a big win to trust people. And in deciding whom to trust, the reports and evalutions of others can be of great value. So there's nothing specifically about truth-seeking that makes it inappropriate to support, or indeed to attack, the reliability of someone who claims to know the answers.

However, if a person is trying to establish something not by asking you to trust their word but by claiming to provide reasons which, independently of their source, ought to convince you, then you seem to be right that testaments to their character are as out of place as personal attacks. Similarly, there are two different ways to evaluate the validity of a mathematical proof: you might rely on the expertise and good will of the person who supplied it, or you might evaluate it step by step. In the former case evidence as to the person's character and track record is obviously relevant; in the latter, not.

But maybe that's too simple. Even if the propounder of an argument is relying only on the power of the reasons themselves to convince you, he might (intentionally or otherwise) be providing misleading reasons---feeding you a convincing but fallacious argument. Information as to the person's character and track record might well be relevant to weighing the odds of this and hence to whether you should rely on even what seems to be air-tight reasoning. Maybe this is no big danger in mathematics, but surely it can be, for instance, in economics.

And in philosophy.

I have a rather simple question. I am majoring in biology right now and am thinking of switching to philosophy. The thing is the advisor told me that there really aren't any jobs for that field. He said I would basically have to go to a prestigious school to get one of the few jobs out there. Is this true? Are there really not many jobs in the philosophy field? Thanks.

The answer depends a bit on the country you're in. I answer on the assumption that you are an undergraduate student in the US.

Finding a job as a professional philosopher after completing a PhD in this field is a good bit harder than the average for all careers. Still, the odds are not against success. There are somewhere around 25,000 professional philosophers in the US and only about 75 philosophy departments producing PhDs. So, much of the selection takes place already at the stage where people apply to graduate schools. Those who get the PhD normally find a job. In this job search, the quality and prestige of the university, of its philosophy department, and of the student's supervisor do indeed play a major role. You can find lots of information about these matters on and elsewhere.

All this suggests that a philosophy major aiming to be an academic philosopher should think seriously about other careers if s/he cannot get into a philosophy department that is in the top half, at least in his/her intended specialty. Choosing another career goal at this stage does not mean that the undergraduate study of philosophy was wasted. There are alternative careers in which undergraduate philosophy training is highly useful. A career in the law is one: many philosophy majors go on to law schools and do quite well there. But philosophy is good preparation for a wide variety of careers, and may well be the best major to choose for those whose career choice is still quite unsettled. Moreover, studying philosophy and learning to think philosophically has its own rewards which often last a lifetime (as I have been told many times when meeting people in other careers who had majored in philosophy).

In conclusion, if you are attracted to a career in biology, you should probably stay with it and satisfy your philosophical curiosity through an occasional course in philosophy. If you feel that a career in biology (or a related area) is probably not for you, then career worries should not keep you from majoring in philosophy.

What is virtuous about a partnership in marriage (not necessarily the legal construct - the idea of committing to a life together)? What characterizes what is virtuous in leaving such a partnership (even) when the partners love each other and want one another to flourish but one partner doesn't see the partnership as a whole flourishing? To put it another way: How is it that most of the parts of such a partnership can individually appear to be so esteemable, and even to outweigh the less esteemable parts, and yet the whole be judged lacking?

This is tough to answer in the abstract, but I'll give it a shot bysupplying a bit of hypothetical context. First, I think it matters agreat deal which specific parts of the partnership are esteemed, andwhich not, in the calculation of the value of the partnership as whole.For instance, it may be that both parties value highly going out toeat, discussing politics, spending time with family and working out atthe gym. Additionally, both parties like one another and there is peacein the home. However, as it happens, there isn't a lot to laugh aboutin a day either, within the partnership domain, i.e., not a lot of joy.How to assess the quality of such a partnership?

Here there isno objective standard, to be sure, for much depends upon thespecificity of the feelings, desires, and values of the individuals,along with their own idiosyncratic histories, much of which is not soeasily tracked by introspection. So: on one scenario, daily laughtermay be valued somewhat by both parties, and the value of the many othershared activities outweigh this attribute or lack thereof. On adifferent scenario, this ability to laugh at life's trials and at one'sown bloopers, and a capacity for joy regardless, may matter a greatdeal to one party, more than he or she realizes; in this case, it couldrender the partnership as a whole less esteemable, depite the many,many valued shared aspects AND the felt sense by BOTH parties that themany more positive parts outweigh the negative one(s).

This mayseem puzzling, but becomes less so if one sees that the character ofthe relationship between the different parts of a relationship (as wellas their weighting) is often less than straightforward. Thus, to staywith my hypothetical case, on the second scenario, it may be the casethat the attribute of laughter (or lack thereof) is something that"colors" or insinuates itself into all of the other activities(positive and negative), affecting the overall quality of the relationship, eventhough in discussion it is assigned a quite specific place in thehierarchy of valued aspects.

That said, I do believe that it canalso be the case that the worth of a partnership as a whole isstraightforwardly a result of a calculation of the value of differentparts of which it is made. It all depends upon the individuals involvedand the character of the parts that comprise their respectivepartnerships.

I am stuck on a decision that I hope one of you can help me with. I am graduating in June (2006) and everyone is telling me to go to college. I am currently protesting college - thinking that if I self-teach myself (by reading many books), then I could possibly gain more knowledge than if I am sitting in a classroom with many other students. I am stubborn with this idea. I assume that with a teacher in a classroom full of students, (s)he is teaching the subject, not the people. (I hope that makes sense.) I am not too sure if my thinking is something I should go by, or if I should just grow up and go to college. Any opinion would be great.

When college works as it should, it allows you to imagine alternate possible ways of living your life in the "real" world, as you experiment with different disciplines, and are thrust into the orbits of sometimes unlikely people who might serve as mentors and role models. These could be your teachers, or, more often than not, your fellow students.

It gives you a terrific opportunity to become acquainted with people from cultures very different from your own, to acquire a new repertoire of tastes from books to food to music.

But mostly, when college works as it should, it gives you that precious, precious time, in and out of class, to muddle through, and, in so doing, to figure out who you are and what you are like, first, for yourself, and then, crucially, in relation to the community to which you belong.

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.

Was the discovery of fire, by humans, a scientific discovery?

The discovery of ways to reliably produce fire was a great achievement in technology and engineering. The first observation of fire is not what I would call science (and presumably predates the existence of humans). But there is no sharp border between ordinary observation, inference and explanation and science, though there are clear cases on either side.