Recent Responses

Is there anything existing within or beyond the human body/mind that can be called "I"? If so, exactly where is "I" located?

We naturally think of the world as made up of things with properties. Take my black pen: the pen is the thing and being black is the property. But metaphysicians disagree about whether at the end of the day there are things entirely distinct from properties. Some say you need some kind of substance to have properties; others say that a pen is really just bundles of properties: its colour, weight, shape, composition, etc.

It's the same with our mental life. I have a headache: "I" is the thing, and having a headache is its property. But some philosophers would say that although we distinguish between the thought and the thinker, at the end of the day the "I" -- the thinker -- is really just a bundle of thoughts. (Insofar as it exists at all.) In that case, I suppose that the "I" would be located in the same place as those thoughts. Other philosophers may wish to insist however that the "I" must be distinct from the thoughts it has: it must be some kind of substance. It might be a physical substance or it might be a mental substance. So presumably a substance "I" would be in the same place as the body or the mind.

I often find myself to be impatient, often frustrated, when people claim something to be 'obvious', and never more than when I think that they are using it incorrectly. An example of this might be "obviously, Hitler was an evil man", or "obviously, it's better to be poor and happy than rich and sad" - this is because I wish justification for their claim, and do not want to simply accept it (in these cases because of popular opinion). I realise that both of these examples are ethical, but is there anything that is understood by philosophers to be obvious (and by obvious I mean without need of qualification or justification)?

If I may reply in terms of personal experience: when students start"doing philosophy", one of the first thing they (need to) learn isthat what seems obvious to x may be much less so to y. As soon as things become interesting, they stop being obvious. Yet I have noticed that this is not the only important lesson about "obvious". For once they have understood therelativity of "obviousness" then they also need to realize that no answer in terms of “obviously p” will ever convince anyonewho was not already convinced that p in the first place. Philosophy is not doneadverbially, as it were, since “obviously (clearly, truly, certainly…) 2 + 2 =4” is no more (nor less) convincing that “2 + 2 = 4” as a reply to someone whoshare a different sense of the obvious. So there are no obvious p on which philosophers agree (or they would not discuss them) and no obvious way (i.e. "obviously") to tackle them.

To which philosopher it may concern, I recently been perplexed by the following logical puzzle (or what seems to be, anyway): Working at a used bookstore, I and the rest of the staff are constantly asked about where to find books. One of my co-workers had the following exchange with a customer and couldn't make anything of it: Customer: "I am looking for a particular book." Co-worker: "Well is it fiction or non-fiction?" Customer: "Neither." So far, this is what I've come up with: (1) The customer is looking for a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction, which would mean that it can't be both fiction and non fiction (which is quite common, e.g., historical fiction). (2) If non-fiction is the opposite of fiction (and not considered as a separate entity), then was the customer contradicting himself and as a result saying absolutely nothing? (3) If fiction is defined as something that isn't true, and non-fiction defined as something that IS true, then the customer was asking for something that was neither true nor false. Can that happen? Can something not be true or false? And further more, what would that mean? (4) This whole problem is irrelevant because there ARE books that are not fiction or non-fiction--which I am unaware of. I think the big issue here is how you define fiction and especially non-fiction, then again, I don't know and would greatly appreciate your response. Thankyou, Haley

Your definition of fiction and non-fiction (your point (3)) seems flawed. For one thing, a lot of what commonly goes under the non-fiction heading is false, at least in part. Think of an book about the bombing of Pearl Harbor which, although marketed as an accurate historical account, is full of errors. So, what's characteristic of a work of non-fiction is that it presents its content to be a true account of something in the real world.

Correspondingly, fiction might then be defined as a work that does not present its content to be a true account of something in the real world. Not presenting its content as true, such a work thus cannot be false (in relation to the real world) either. Someone who claims that Mark Twain's book is incorrect in some of what it says about Huckleberry Finn hasn't understood that this was meant to be a work of fiction. Works of fiction are neither true nor false much like -- to use a favorite example of Sidney Morgenbesser's -- the number 3 is neither married nor unmarried. Morgenbesser's point was that, while it is indeed not that case that the number 3 is married, calling it unmarried would inaccurately suggest that it is the kind of thing to which the married/unmarried distinction applies, that things of its kind could be married. Similarly, calling a work of fiction untrue or false inaccurately suggests that it is the kind of thing to which the true/false distinction applies and that it could be made true through suitable corrections of the text.

(I should say here in parentheses that works of fiction are often discussed in terms of truth and falsity. Thus, one Twain scholar may say to another: "You are quite wrong about Huck's feelings and motives on XYZ occasion..." Here the discussion is not about truth and falsity in relation to the real world, but in relation to the world of this work of fiction.)

Now let's think about your customer, and what s/he may have had in mind. I see three possibilities. First, and developing your point (4), one may think that the headings of "fiction" and "non-fiction" are not jointly exhaustive. Of course, this possibility is excluded if one of the headings is simply defined as covering everything not covered by the other. (My definitions work this way, as do yours.) But a plausible pitch can be made in favor of this possibility. Think of How-to books, for example, such as How to Live Well. This is not non-fiction by my definition (does not present its content to be a true account of something in the real world). But it's not really fiction either, in the sense in which this term is usually understood. So, employing a somewhat narrower definition of "fiction" than I have given, your customer may have thought that there is a third category of books covering (among other things, perhaps) advice about the aims and ambitions one should pursue in life.

Second, one may think that the two headings are not mutually exclusive. One could motivate this by saying that the fiction/non-fiction distinction is not binary (like odd/even, pregnant/non-pregnant), but scalar (like fast/slow). On this picture, books fall somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from a "fiction" pole at one end to a "non-fiction" pole at the other. You may object that the p/non-p terminology rules out this possibility. But ordinary language isn't so rigid. Think of the competitive/non-competitive distinction. I can easily imagine someone saying, in the context of a job search, that a candidate is not really competitive (in the sense of possibly being the most suitable candidate) and not really non-competitive (fit to be dropped from contention) either -- meaning that the candidate is somewhere in between and his application should be kept on hand for more detailed study later if more competitive candidates withdraw. In the fiction/non-fiction case, your example of a historical novel illustrates this possibility. Some of what's written in the book is, and some is not, presented as a true account of something in the real world. And the work is then a hybrid, somewhere between pure fiction and pure non-fiction. One could say about such a hybrid that it is both fiction and non-fiction (to some extent). But one could also (and perhaps in addition, thereby challenging what you write under your point (1)) say that it is really neither. This is analogous to how one might say that a hermaphrodite is neither purely female nor purely male, in a sense both, and in a sense neither.

The third possibility develops your point (4) in a different direction. It is another instance (one level up) of what I illustrated above with Sidney Morgenbesser's example. A predicate may be inapplicable to an object such that we should reject both the claim that the object is p and also the claim that it is not-p. The predicates even and odd are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive within a certain domain (natural numbers). But there are things outside this domain -- you and I, for instance -- and we are neither even nor odd (in the mathematical sense). So how does this apply to the fiction/non-fiction distinction? The number 3 would seem to fall outside the domain in which this distinction applies -- it makes no sense to ask whether this number does, or does not, present its content to be a true account of something in the real world. Of course, your customer was specifically searching for a book. So what books can we plausibly place outside the domain in which the fiction/non-fiction distinction applies? Well, notebooks containing only empty pages, presumably; and there are bound to be other examples.

Why are Picasso paintings so important? How can I appreciate the importance of Picasso paintings? Honestly, when I look at them I think that they are interesting but I never get the impression that they are produced by a genius. If understanding Picasso's paintings (and art in general) needs training (knowing Picasso's life, knowing the context in which the paintings are created, knowing Picasso's intentions, knowing the traditions in painting, etc.) why are they exhibiting art works to the public? Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" is one of the best and most influential articles in the history of analytic philosophy but nobody expects non-philosophers to appreciate its importance. There are no Quine exhibitions. Thanks.

I'm no expert on art, just someone who enjoys it, but I certainly would agree with you that Picasso can be hard to understand. Most of his painting (and sculpture) isn't what one would describe as "beautiful", though there are paintings of his that are beautiful: For example, "Child with a Dove" (see it here). But what's beautiful about paintings like this one, to my mind, is what they convey emotionally and less anything to do with sheer physical beauty. And one finds a similar sort of emotional intensity in many of Picasso's other works. His portrait of Gertrude Stein (here) is just brilliant.

Now, to be sure, Picasso's later works can be more challenging. It can be very hard even to see what's happening in paintings like "The Guitar Player" (here) or "Afficionado" (here). And, in this case, I think it can help a great deal, as one tries to learn how to see these paintings, to learn something about the aesthetic that lies behind them. Picasso did not decide to paint in the ways he did simply out of perversity. He was looking for a way to express things he could not otherwise express. (Schoenberg makes similar remarks about the reasons for his invention of the twelve-tone method of composition.) How much success Picasso had is presumably for the viewer to judge. But once one opens one's mind, and better one's heart, to what Picasso is trying to do, one can come to see a painting like "Portrait of Maya with a Doll" (here) as, indeed, quite beautiful.

For me, though, the proof of Picasso's genius is the single painting "Guernica" (here). No more powerful comment on the horrors of war has ever been produced, and I can't even begin to see how Picasso could have produced such a powerful piece of work except by marshalling everything he had done beforehand. If you are ever in Madrid, you really must see it. It's exhibited along with many of the studies Picasso did as preparation, and it is fascinating to see the vision finally emerge.

A couple of years ago I read an article about an experiment where the genes of a jellyfish were spliced into a rabbit - the result: a rabbit that glowed in the dark. My question is, science aside, is this a rabbit?

Good question.

I'm not sure that there's any answer "science aside", since the notion of being a member of a given biological species (in this case, some sort of rabbit) is a scientific concept. It is up to science to tell us what species are, whether there are any such things, why they arise and go extinct, and so forth.

One popular conception of a biological species is that a species is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups. In other words, members of the same species form a united gene pool, so that a beneficial adaptation appearing in that pool could spread throughout it, whereas barriers prevent its spreading outside of the species.

On this view, which is obviously motivated by evolutionary considerations, the mere fact that the creature you have mentioned differs from all (other) rabbits in possessing certain genes that allow it to glow in the dark does not rule out the possibility that it is a rabbit. After all, rabbits differ from each other in a great many respects. This variation is the raw material for natural selection. Perhaps the experiment merely introduced a new sort of variation into rabbits.

On the other hand, it could be that this gene would prevent the creature from being able to interbreed with rabbits. Perhaps a rabbit would be too frightened by the glow to mate with it. Or perhaps the gene for glowing also makes the creature sterile. If so, then the creature you have mentioned would not qualify as a rabbit by the above conception of what a biological species is.

Another point: You haven't said whether the creature was returned to the wild after it was experimented upon. If not, then it belongs to no "natural population" (though it once did) and so is not a rabbit (or a member of any other biological species), by the above conception of what a biological species is. That's a tough break for zoos, don't you think?

Of course, the above definition is not the only conception of what a biological species is. However, if the creature was born from rabbits, and if its offspring would be rabbits, then it would be difficult to deny that it is a rabbit.

I often find myself thinking what really distinguishes Humans apart from other animals. If it is intelligence (high or low is irrelevant, it is still an inelegance) then this statement isn't true since we know that there are numbers of highly intelligent species including birds (non-mammal). So I came to conclusion that the only thing that does separate us is art, or perhaps understanding the value of art. But to contradict myself I keep flashing back on various images and video clips of cats or other animals "painting" on the canvas. Do you think in your philosophical opinion do these animals go through similar (high or low is irrelevant) process of appreciating art.

A fascinating question. I suspect that art appreciation might well be important, although perhaps only as a symptom of an underlying difference.

Let's look at the question more generally. It is important for us to know what are the essential differences between humans and other animals for two reasons. First, because it is an important part of understanding who we are. Second, because we eat animals, wear their skins, keep them in zoos, experiment on them and so forth -- all things that we tend to feel are morally wrong with respect to human beings.

Philosophers, then, tend to be divided into three very general camps. 1. Those who believe that there are morally significant differences between human beings and animals. 2. Those who believe that there are not such differences, and thus tend to argue for animal rights. 3. Those who feel this is the wrong question to be asking. Here, we'll ignore the third group, for simplicity.

The most common distinctions given by philosophers in the first group are: reasoning, especially abstract reasoning; language use; moral reasoning and action. The 18th Century philosophy Kant argued that the third of these was the most important, because only this difference could itself be a morally relevant difference. We have obligations to humans, partly because humans are capable of having obligations. The fact that a cow (say) cannot speak would have to be supplemented by an argument that this lack is morally significant, and I am permitted to eat it.

Art appreciation, as a capacity, is much less commonly proposed. It is also very difficult to determine whether a cat, for example, appreciates or even makes art. The capacity for abstract thought seems much easier to decide.

One final point: you say that the difference between low and high intelligence is irrelevant. However, significant differences in intelligence may not be simply a question of quantity, but rather of type. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that a human brain is structured pretty much the same as a cat’s, but has 20 times the number of neurons. Now, does this mean the human is 20 times as intelligent, or rather that the increase in neurons yields a different kind of intelligence, which is not on the same scale? The smartest cat ever could not take an IQ test; not because it is not smart enough quantitatively, but because its intelligence is of a different qualitative type. This different type of intelligence might also be what is manifesting itself in the capacity to make and appreciate art. However, even if we accept this, again another argument would be required to show that it was morally significant.

In international law, we have a right to leave our own countries (and come back) but not to enter other countries. Say I leave my home country A and try to enter B. There are some circumstances when, intuitively, it would seem unjust for B to refuse me entry, for example, if in turning me away, my life would be cut short, or if in entering B my life will be enriched and no harm will be done to the citizens of B. However, what principles should apply apply across borders to this type of issue?

I think you are asking whether international law ought to be revised so as to avoid the two intuitive injustices you assert.

With regard to your first intuitive injustice, international law already recognizes a right to asylum and a duty of non-refoulement. But many states implement this right in arbitrary and quite ungenerous ways, with the result that many desperate people are either returned to a situation where their life or health are at risk or else confined for long periods in inhumane detention centers. Here a modification of international law -- involving a consistent and efficient international process for determining refugee status as well as a fair allocation of recognized refugees among suitable asylum countries -- would indeed be a great improvement.

As for your second intuitive injustice, it may not be an injustice at all. Imagine a million Europeans eager to move to the Solomon Islands. Their presence would not really harm the locals -- in fact, it might greatly boost their per capita income. Still, with two-thirds of the citizens now Europeans, there would be a dramatic change in the local culture, a change the natives might regret. And one can then ask: Should it not be their prerogative to decide whether to invite (even harmless) Europeans into their community, and in what numbers? If so, then international law seems fine as it is, in this regard: A national population is free to decide about non-emergency admissions of foreigners into their country.

There may be a third intuitive injustice inherent in the status quo, which has to do with economic inequality. Here my concern is not with people who want to immigrate because they face life-threatening poverty back home. Such people -- currently routinely rejected as "economic refugees" unworthy of asylum -- ought to be protected under the revised asylum procedures suggested two paragraphs back. Rather, I am now thinking of poor people who want to build a better life in a more affluent country. In an economically just world, countries should perhaps be entitled to turn such people away (as I suggested in the preceeding paragraph). But in the present context of international economic injustice, one may doubt whether the more affluent countries may keep such people out (and formulate international law so that it entitles them to do so) . Among the relevant international economic injustices, I would mention the fact that some national populations appropriate hugely disproportional shares of the world's resources, such as land as well as air and water used for the discharging of pollutants. One could also mention unfair trading rules that allow wealthier countries to protect their producers through quotas, tariffs, anti-dumping duties, export credits, and huge subsidies, all of which greatly impede poor-country producers in those sectors (agriculture, textiles, footwear) where they would otherwise be globally most competitive. But in this case a reform that would compensate people impoverished by protectionist trade barriers by allowing them to immigrate into countries imposing such barriers would seem to make less sense than an alternative reform that would instead abolish rich-country protectionism.