Recent Responses

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.

While reading <i>Nichomachean Ethics</i> and <i>Politics</i>, I found myself agreeing with Aristotle far more than I did with Plato when I read <i>The Republic</i>. Can you convince me otherwise? How would Plato have critiqued Aristotle's works?

I would first encourage you to see what is common to what the two philosophers say. Each one thinks that eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing) is what makes a human life good, and each one thinks that the best way to win that goal is to be virtuous. Each also thinks that being virtuous requires acting in accordance with reason. But there are differences, and there is nothing wrong in responding to these with a preference for one account in favor of the other!

Physically speaking, what is memory? What is a memory? If a memory is stored as a physical structure in the brain, is it possible that the human genome codes for the formation of one or more of these physical memory structures during brain development? In other words, could the genome, which we all share, include memories that are preloaded into the human brain during the brain's growth before birth? Could this be a physical manifestation of Jung's collective unconscious? EdHead

Most of these questions seem like empirical ones, and I'm not a neuro-scientist, so I'll skip them.

But let me ask a question back. Suppose Dr Jekyll performs an operation and, as a result, I seem to remember once sitting on a throne while some guy goes on about how, if I don't let his people go, there'll be plagues and pestilence and stuff. I don't see what that couldn't happen, as a matter of pure possibility. Would you want to say I remembered any of that? If all of us were born with that apparent memory, would it matter what we said to the previous question?

Recently a friend had an operation in which she was given medication to make her forget the operation (it was an eye operation done under local anaesthetic, and apparently the "scalpel coming at your eye" memory causes nightmare reactions). So, she must have had an instant of terror on seeing the scalpel cutting into her eye, but now has no recall. If so... was she ever terrified? If there is no memory of it whatsoever, can we call it terror? If so, how do any of us know that we haven't been similarly terrified?

I concur with Amy. We suppose that the eye operation itself took place, even th0ugh the patient forgot about it afterwards. It is natural to suppose that normally, in these cases, the experience of terror takes place at a specific time during the operation. So it is natural to suppose that the experience took place and was forgotten, just as the operation itself took place and was forgotten.

One unlikely alternative would be to allow for some sort of weird backward causation, whereby events that occur at one time can be undone by later events. Another, slightly less whacky, alternative would be to suppose that the properties of a person's experience at a given time are not fully determined by events that take place at that time, but rather are partly determined by their place in the overall pattern of the person's life.

How do any of us know that we haven't been similarly terrified? In typical cases in which an amnesic drug is administered, the subject will remember enough about previous and subsequent events to know that that had happened. However there might be exceptions. So I guess you'd only know for sure if you had a very detailed knowledge of your history.

I am due to have part of my right knee cap surgically removed, under general anaesthetic. There is a phenomenon called 'anaesthetic awareness', wherein the patient is paralysed but remains perfectly conscious. Apparently this is known to happen in about 1 in a 1000 cases. However I have heard it rumoured that amnesic drugs are standardly administered along with anaesthetics. So perhaps the incidence is higher. Should I be afraid?

Do philosophers really think that the problems they discuss are important in themselves, or does thinking about the problems merely serve as practice in analytical thinking? How does philosophy differ from puzzle solving (besides the fact that puzzles actually tend to get solved)?

As Richard states, there is considerable disagreement among philosophers about which philosophical questions are significant, and why. There is also considerable truth in your suggestion that studying the methods and texts of philosophy is itself a valuable way to develop one's analytical reading, writing, thinking, and communication skills.

So, as a teacher of philosophy I hope that my students will both gain useful insight by studying diverse philosophical questions and approaches and will also gain useful analytical skills. This is an extremely powerful combination, and this power is one reason why philosophy students tend to do so well in the professional job market and also tend to advance quickly within their chosen professions.

About puzzle solving: the difference that you touch on, that philosophical puzzles are rarely solved in definitive way that gain professional consensus, is the central one. I take this to mean that investigating a philosophical question is very different from solving a puzzle (and I'm very glad for this difference -- see more here: 155).

Recently I was debating with others the proposition that solving social problems in games enhances one's ability to solve real-world problems (my view was the negative: many excellent strategic gamers consistently make spectacularly foolish personal decisions in real life). This seems to generate the question: "Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average minimally-thinking individual?"

Jyl's response (in addition to reminding me why I could neveridentify with Socrates) suggests that philosophers are pretty good atworking out what they ought to do, or what is best, in daily life, butthen get over-powered by their appetites, to use Plato's term. I'm surethat happens sometimes, but here's another part of it. Like many areasof inquiry, philosophy often adopts a divide-and-conquer strategy. It'stoo difficult to gain a sharp understanding of mostthings that come our way on account of their sheer complexity.Often, if progress is to be made at all, it's by trying to isolate themany components that make up whatever one's trying to explain. (This issometimes what gives philosophy its air of abstractness orout-of-touchness with "real" problems. It's also what makes it easy togo off the rails in philosophy, for the concepts it seeks to teaseapart are often not happily separable.) A philosopher who achieves somegreater understanding of one strand of the complex whole might not beparticularly well equipped to work out the implications of this knowledge once thefloodgates are opened to the complexities of real world problems. Justas the greatest physicist might have a difficult time predicting wherethe leaf will fall, so the greatest of philosophers might stumble indetermining how best to live his life.

Hello, smart people! Okay, here's what I wonder about: why doesn't it seem to bother most philosophy types that all arguments eventually have to be based on unprovable premises? I mean, I liked the philosophy classes I took in college. I'm not just philosophy-bashing here. But I can't see how anyone writes philosophical works when the first requirement is to ignore something so fundamental. Yeah, I know this isn't an original question, but that's just the problem. Since there doesn't seem to be any good answer, why spend so much time thinking about all the questions that come after it? Oh, and if any of you has an extra minute, I'm also curious about the meaning of life and why time and space exist. :)

Philosophers do spend a good deal of time worrying about this matter. Indeed, it is characteristic of many areas of philosophy to be particularly interested in the "unprovable assumptions" with which arguments begin. Two examples:

  1. Perceptually-based beliefs---such as that there is a window in front of me---form the starting point for many of our beliefs. (Empiricists hold that all beliefs must be grounded there, but let's set that aside.) But it seems clear, at least to some of us, that these beliefs are not reached by argument from other beliefs. In that sense, they cannot be "proved" on the basis of anything else. How then should we understand how we arrive at such judgements? What is it for one of them to count as known? These are basic questions in the philosophy of perception.
  2. In mathematics, theorems are proven from axioms. Axioms, on the other hand, are accepted as true without proof. On what ground do we accept such axioms as, say, that, if there are two sets A and B, then there is a set that is their union? (Perhaps one thinks this claim can be proven from other assumptions, but then of course we can just ask the same question about those assumptions.) Is the assumption simply arbitrary? Can we start with any axioms we like? That doesn't seem plausible. So do we have reasons for it? If so, what kinds of reasons could those be? These sorts of questions are common in the philosophy of mathematics.

Maybe that's not the kind of thing you had in mind. Another thing you might have meant is: Why bother giving an argument for something if the argument has to begin with assumptions for which you can't argue? Answer: An argument is supposed to show that, if you accept certain assumptions, then you must (or, perhaps, should) accept a certain conclusion, on pain of being irrational. The argument will be effective against anyone who accepts the assumptions. Whether the assumptions can be "proven" is neither here nor there. Of course, there's another question to be asked about why one should rational, but that's another matter.

The answer to the question about the meaning of life, of course, is "42".

This is a question about Hilary Putnam's twin earth thought experiment. After I read this thought experiment I was not convinced that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings. But most of the philosophers' intuitions are similar to Putnam (i.e., they think that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings). I thought that there might be something wrong with me. So I told this thought experiment to different people with different origins but without exception all of them responded that both Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have the same meaning. So I still do not understand, why do so many philosophers' intuitions work like Putnam's? Thank you, Deniz

The intuitions about the 'water' example that philosophers focus on are, as explained above, about reference. They are also about truth. It takes a little work to connect reference and truth to meaning. One line of thought goes as follows. Suppose that Oscar lands on Twin Earth. Both Oscar and Twin Oscar point to a sample of XYZ and say 'That is water'. What Twin Oscar says is true - he is speaking Twin English and Twin English speakers standardly call XYZ 'water'. But what Oscar says is false. He thinks that the stuff in front of him is water, the same kind of stuff he was familiar with on Earth. And that is the thought he is expressing when he says 'that's water'. But if what Twin Oscar says is true and what Oscar says is false, then their words must mean something different.

I concur with Deniz that non-philosophers often don't respond to the example in the way that many philosophers do - although as yet no seroious data on this have been gathered. Often they either don't share the intuitions about reference and truth or they do, but they remain convinced that what the Twins mean by their words is the same.

As Richard says (thanks for the mention, Richard), I am with the non-philosophers. I think that in 1750 the English word 'water' would have been true of XYZ as well as H2O.

For some discussion of how lay intuitions differ from those of philosophers' in respect of these matters, see my 'Reference, Causal Powers, Externalist Intutions and Unicorns' on my web page.

If one believes that God is an abstract and unknowable concept, then what alternatives are there for guiding a person or society's moral values?

Atheism and agnosticism are only two reasons not settle moral perplexity by trying to ascertain God's will (see below). Atheists and agnostics will try to find reflectively acceptable principles and rules to guide their actions. It makes sense to start with widely shared rules about nonmaleficence, beneficence, honesty, fidelity, and fair play. Different ethical systems justify and sometimes interpret these rules in different ways. Finding the right moral theory is a matter of finding an ethical system that interprets and justifies these rules in a reflectively acceptable way. In the meantime, most of us will try to regulate our affairs as best we can byapplying these secondary rules.

The interesting question is not so much how is morality possible independently of religion, but how is religion possible independently of morality. Even if we are theists, there's a strong case for thinking that morality is independent of religion. Socrates long ago asked whether something was right because God commanded it or whether God commanded it because it was right (the famous question asked in Plato's dialogue Euthyprho). Socrates reasoned that God's will could not make something valuable, because that would make his preferences arbitrary. Instead, Socrates concluded, the theist should say that God commands what he does, because he himself is good. On this view, God's commands are principled and track what is independently valuable. This also explains why thesists often feel compelled to resolve debates about what God has willed, and how we can ascertain his will, by appeal our moral ideas about what a morally good God could have willed.

But then there should be no deep puzzle about how there could be an objective morality without God, because plausible versions of theism must themselves recognize an objective morality -- that is, one independent of God's will.