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Hello! My question concerns the word, "theory". Can a theory be considered fact, and what gives one theory more credibility than another? I know that some theories are empirical, and can be tested scientifically for validity. So if a theory such as evolution seems a fact, why is it still called a theory? Should it not be fact? Obviously, some non-empirical theories, like String Theory, can't as yet be tested, and are questionable. But scientifically, do empirical theories get closer to truth, and can some be called true?

The word "theory" has a common meaning, which is something like "hypothesis" or "speculation." It also has a scientific meaning, which, close enough for our purposes, is "organized set of principles." When we call something a theory in that sense, we aren't saying anything at all about whether the principles are true or false.

Keep in mind that the word "theory" even gets used in mathematics---for example, when mathematicians talk about number theory (roughly, the study of the properties of whole numbers.) The word "theory" here isn't meant to suggest that the principles number theorists use are suspect.

The "theory/fact" confusion is unfortunate. Evolutionary theory is a theory in the scientist's sense: an organized collection of explanatory principles. As it turn out, those principles have been very successful tools for making sense of nature.

So why not just call these principles facts? We could, but theoretical principles tend to be abstract and general. We tend to use the word "fact" for the sorts of things that are closer to the ground---the kinds of things that people who disagree about abstract principles might see as evidence one way or another. But even if the theory's principles are beyond serious doubt, scientists will still call it a theory because given what they mean, that's what it is.

Is it worse to break a promise in order to avoid telling a lie, or to tell a lie in order to keep a promise?

There's no all-purpose answer.

Breaking some promises is worse than breaking others. Telling some lies is worse than telling others. But there's no good reason to think that every broken promise is worse than any lie or vice-versa. Telling some lies is worse than breaking some promises; breaking some promises is worse than telling some lies. If you really have to choose, the least bad choice will depend on the details.

Did Plato really believe in the plausibility of the "utopia" established in the Republic, or was his goal merely to formulate an argument?

The first thing I’ll say is important. Nothing in my answer will settle this question for everyone. This has long been one of the questions about Plato’s Republic that its readers debate the most heatedly, and it will likely that way.

As the question is stated, it has an ambiguity in it and a false dilemma. These are worth clearing up. The ambiguity appears in the phrase “the plausibility of the utopia.” To call a proposed form of government (whether utopian or not) “plausible” could mean 1) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government could come into existence, or 2) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government would work well if it did come into existence.

(While we are on that phrase, let me gently take issue with your word “utopia.” The Republic describes a utopia in Book 2: a peaceful, vegetarian farming community in which people eat roasted acorns and sleep on straw mats. That would be perfect, Socrates says, but Glaucon doesn’t want to hear another word about such an undesirable “city of pigs.” So they go on to explore the large developed economy and civil society that we think of as the Republic’s city. By the nature of the argument that gives rise to this city, it is something other than a utopia. It is the best city we can imagine instituting in the absence of utopia. That’s my view, anyway.)

Before returning to the ambiguity, let me identify what I consider the false dilemma in your question. Does Plato believe in the plausibility of the city, or “was his goal merely to formulate an argument?” He might be doing both. That is, he may well be formulating an argument precisely because he believes in the plausibility of the city. I say this not to criticize the question but to get clearer on what is at stake. For the question to pose a dilemma, you might mean: Was his goal merely to formulate an argument that he expected his readers not to believe, because he didn’t believe it either?

With that as the alternative, let’s go back to the ambiguous phrase. The Republic is repeatedly cautious about (1). Maybe a city like this would come about someday and maybe it wouldn’t. In Book 5 Socrates finally reveals what it would take to bring the city into existence, and the two options he proposes are both outlandish. Either people who rule cities today would have to become philosophers, or someone would have to grant philosophers the power that kings have. One way or other, you’d need someone with the expertise of a trained philosopher and the power of an existing absolute monarch. Rulers with great power tend not to be the types who set time aside to study philosophy deeply. But even the prospect of their doing so is more plausible than the thought of existing philosophers being granted strong executive powers sufficient for bringing the city into existence.

Along with that considerable practical problem, combining philosophers with rulers sounds as if it would violate the Republic’s rule that each person is best suited to performing a single task or job. Wouldn’t a “philosopher-king,” as we commonly all them, have two jobs at once? The Republic has an answer to this worry, but not everyone has accepted it. The answer is that ultimately the highest knowledge a ruler needs is the same as the highest knowledge a philosopher possesses. As I say, it would take some doing to convince everyone that this answer works.

So obstacles exist to the implementation of the philosophical city. But it could come into existence with a bit of luck, Socrates says, and that’s enough for his purposes. We understand how our own souls ought to function best if we study the constitution of a perfect city, so the city has value even if we can only contemplate it as an abstraction. But with luck it would cease to be an abstraction and acquire existence in this world.

That is my answer if you mean (1) by “the plausibility of the utopia.” A city like that is possible, but just barely. The nice thing it that it’s worth studying even if it never comes into existence.

If you mean (2) however, that Plato thinks the city would not work, hence would not be a good city, if it did come into existence; then my answer is more definite. The Republic makes clear, on my reading of it, that a city like that would be preferable to any existing city if it could come into existence. Many people disagree with my reading (although many also agree). When they do disagree, they point to difficulties in the theory Socrates sketches out. These point to Plato’s own thought, they say, that the city could not exist. But most of the difficulties in the theory prove to be specious, or quite minor. And as a bottom line, I would ask you to think historically. In Plato’s time, no one had proposed an overhaul of a constitution to produce a city run by philosophers in which the governing class and the standing army owned no property. Nothing like this was on the horizon. I don’t see why Plato would write an elaborate dialogue to indicate in his sly way the impossibility of an institution that, in his time, not one person had proposed as possible. Why would he set out to refute utopias in a culture that wasn’t writing utopias?

As I said, there are many more arguments to be made on both sides of this question. But before I could be convinced of the view that Plato is questioning utopias, I would have to be shown not just this or that difficulty in the Republic’s proposal of a good city, but also the advantage of reading the Republic as skeptical. What do we gain philosophically by setting up the description of a city when our point is to deny its possibility?

I'm in a sticky situation right now. Within a month I have to choose if I want to study law, philosophy or take a year off so I can find out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to study law so I can hopefully make a lot of money and provide well for my hypothetically family. However, I don't know if that's worth it. Because I have to study a lot for 5 years then work hard until the day I'm too old to work, then I have to wait for the day I die. This seems meaningless to me right now, because I don't care about money at all. But I know I will need it to take care of a family. Anyway, I want to study philosophy so I can somehow change the problems humanity is facing. Somehow this makes more sense for me because I often ponder about everything wrong with this world, and why we don't do anything about it. Here is also why I don't care about money, because that's another factor that bring humanity down. And I don't think I can spend 8 hours everyday of my young and adult life, to work for money. That's not what I want to dedicate my life to at all. I would do anything if I had someone to love. But now I'm single and can't plan for that to happen. I can't just assume I will fall on love with someone that loves me too. Therefore, I kinda want to study philosophy and try to better understand what's wrong with us and how I can hopefully fix it. Or should I just take a year off and try to figure out what I should do for the rest of my life?

Many years ago I was in something like your position, (though my family was already real rather than merely possible), and I put roughly the same question to a very experienced and wise philosopher, who was also a friend. She was pretty elderly at the point, but her mind was still as sparkling as it was when she studied with Whitehead. She said to me, 'Well, Jonathan, reflect on the fact that it is better to be a third-rate philosopher than a first-rate anything else.' 'Of course! ' I said to myself. 'Why didn't I see that?' I became a third-rate philosopher, and I have been happy ever since.

Good morning, Please give me your perspective on the following topic Theological determinism and free will. Theological determinism seems to imply that I am not truly free if God is omnipotent and has infallible foreknowledge. After all, if God knows in advance that I will steal a car, it seems as though I am destined to do so, and that I am actually not responsible (God's fault, I am absolved of morally unacceptable behaviour). Some (Christian) Philosophers would probably argue to the contrary. They might say that God's foreknowledge does not imply that I am destined to act in a certain way, as God's foreknowledge only means that he knows what I will freely choose to do. Had I chosen to freely act in another way, his foreknowledge would have anticipated that as well. My own thought is that this argument merely implies that our Free-Will is an illusion. A simple thought experiment to support that is : If God decided to reveal some of his infallible foreknowledge to me, such as, for example, that I will buy a new red car tomorrow, then I would be free to act in a way that violates this foreknowledge; I may decide to buy a second-hand blue car instead. So Free-Will seems to imply that I can only be truly free if I could act in a way that violates God's infallible knowledge. There are of course many different permutations and views. Some answers resort to Modal Logic (about which I know nothing), suggesting that some sort of reconciliation between Infallible foreknowledge and Free-Will is possible after all. Your views will be greatly appreciated Kind Regards

Thank you for your excellent question and observations.

While I am inclined toward what is known as open theism (in accord with work by William Hasker) which essentially denies that divine omniscience includes truths about future free action (referred to sometimes as future, free contingents), I am (for the most part) agnostic about whether omniscience of the future would indeed show free will to be an illusion or provide evidence for fatalism. The reason why I am inclined to open theism is because I suspect that what you and I as free agents will do tomorrow is under-determined. It has not yet happened that tomorrow you will (freely) buy a red car. HOWEVER, if we adopted some form of 4 dimensionalism, according to which all times are equally real, and it is true that (say) in 2018 you are freely buying a red car (and so the event of your free action is the result of your free action at that time), then I suggest God's knowing that would not violate your free action.

Your point about what would happen if you were informed by an infallible, omniscient source about what you will do is very interesting! Arguably, your point rests on what seems right, that when we deliberate about what to do freely in the future, we do not already know what we will do. If I KNOW I will buy the car, it would be odd for me to deliberate on whether I should or should not make the purchase. This reasoning might, then, give us reason for thinking that God's revealing (assuming 4 dimensionalism, etc) to you now in 2017 what you will do in 2018 (freely?) would compromise your freedom or at least lead to paradox. But if we take the thought experiment to its natural conclusion, on this schema, all the factors would enter into what takes place in 2017 and 2018. So, what you do in 2018 might involve this: "It was revealed to me a year ago I would buy a red car. I want to defy this to back-up a claim I made on the blog Askphilosophers, but then again, I have a chance to buy that Italian racing car and, while it happens to be red, I will paint it blue just after the purchase." As you make the purchase, you hear a divine voice: "You raised a good point in Askphilosophers in 2017, but keep in mind I revealed to you that you would purchase a red car in 2018. I did not fill you in that you would paint it blue after the purchase."

I don't quite understand why people put so much time and effort into conversing with other people about their internal "belief systems." To me, the only thing that really matters is how other people behave: whatever they believe is secondary to how well or how poorly they act. If one person believes "treat others well because Jesus says so," while another person believes "treat others well because Krishna says so," wouldn't they then both agree with each other that the over-riding priority here is to treat others well? How much "should" it really matter WHO says so?


Your view reminds me a bit of what used to be called "Christian atheism". The idea was that to say for example that God is our heavenly Father is to adopt and proclaim a policy of behaviour towards other men, namely one of brotherhood. The problem with ruling out religious faith as such, "without works", so to speak, is that as a matter of fact for many if not most religious believers it is not the case that religion is just ethics and that "the only thing that really matters is how people behave". That may be what matters to you; then you are saying, 'Ethics matters to me; religious faith doesn't.' And if your view is stated impersonally, that the one ought to matter and the other not, we have to consider the fact that it might be the case that people came to be behave in a brotherly way, but without any affection or love. Would that be as good as people behaving well towards one another and loving their neighbours? And that is the heart of the matter. Behaviourism (your view) is I am afraid to say false.

People often take pride in things that they don't have control over, or events and accomplishments in which they were not involved. For example, an American might be proud of the United State's role in World War 2 even though it occurred long before he was even born. Much the same could be said of pride of one's race, university, local sports team, extended family or ancestry, and so on. How can this kind of pride be justified?

Standardly, philosophers think of pride as closely related to deservedness. Pride, on this view, amounts to taking pleasure in one's excellence or accomplishments. To have proper pride therefore requires that one have an accurate appraisal of one's excellence or accomplishments. To take more pleasure than one's excellence or accomplishments merit is to exhibit vanity. To take less pleasure than one's excellence or accomplishments merit is to exhibit excessive modesty or a lack of self-respect. (This analysis of pride owes much to Aristotle's discussion of pride in the Nicomachean Ethics.)

So what of those who (as you ask) are 'proud of' their nation's past accomplishments, or in the victories of their favorites sports teams, etc.? On its face, pride seems unjustified in these cases. For these are not the person's accomplishments but the accomplishments of others. It would, I agree, be a form of noxious self-flattery for someone born well after the Second World War to take literal pride in the US' role.

But this suggests that "pride" here is being used in a different or looser sense. In being 'proud' of the US role in the War, I am not taking pleasure in what I did. (After all, I didn't do anything!) I would speculate that 'pride' here is a mixture of admiration and identification. It would be strange for (say) Swedes to 'take pride' in the American war effort, precisely because they do not identify as Americans or see themselves as contributors to the ongoing lineage of American history and culture. Swedes could thus admire the American war effort but not really 'take pride' in that effort. Contemporary Americans, in contrast, can both admire that effort and identify with those responsible for that effort. This isn't pride in the classical Aristotelian sense. It's a bit like pride at one remove: a kind of taking pleasure in admirable things done not by oneself but by those one identifies with. Its justification, in turn, depends on (a) whether (as the classical Aristotelian conception has it) these accomplishments are worthy or admiration, and (b) the admirer stands in a sufficiently strong relationship of identification with those responsible for these accomplishments.

Are people and businesses misusing the word philosophy when they say, for example, "My philosophy is to always tell the truth," or "Our philosophy is that the lowest price is the best price?" Isn't that closer to a creed or an ideology?

Briefly, no. Words mean what people use them to mean, and words can have multiple meanings. Expressions like "My philosophy is..." are so common that they represent one of the meanings that the word "philosophy" has come to have in English. Of course it's not what professional philosophers usually have in mind when they use the word, but professional philosophers don't get veto power over usage.

A further thought or two: I can't really get bent very far out of shape by this one, but it's a bit unfortunate in at least one respect: it gives some people the impression that philosophy is all about truisms and banal principles instead of being something that calls for rigorous thought. But the cure for that is not to complain about how folks use the word; it's for philosophers to do a better job of helping people understand what we do and why it's worth doing.

I've often heard people make the following argument about the n-word. It is self-defeating to insist that it is offensive for people, especially white people, to use the n-word. This taboo is precisely what empowers the word and makes it harmful; if we let people say it freely, it will lose its effect, which is what those concerned about racial invective should really want. I was wondering if the panelists are convinced by this theory of the meaning of the n-word and slurs more generally.

I am in my sixties, and I used to hear the N-word uttered quite freely and frequently by whites. The term still retained its poisonous power, which comes from a bloody history of oppression. It is true that some words like "sucks" lose their potency and connection with their original meaning as they come into common usage, but I see no reason to believe that this would hold for racial slurs. Moreover, I suspect that some taboos, some limits on expression are healthy. It would not be salutary for the psyche for people to feel relaxed in the use of terms that landed like stones on some people's ears. Thanks for your question.

Acts of "kindness": I do things in my life for others like; hold doors, pick up liter and carry groceries. I have been under the assumption that I was doing these things for others. After making this a way of life, I find myself feeling guilty when I don't pick up trash or hold the door for someone. So my question is: Are my actions as well intentioned and selfless as I once believed or do I do those things to feed my ego to make myself think I am a good person? This has really got me thinking about my motivations for "doing the right thing". Am I secretly trying to make the unconscious case for my moral/socital superiority? Thanks for listening. Kai

Is there any reason at all to think your motivation is selfish? It seems like an abstract possibility that you are trying "to make the unconscious case" for your moral and social superiority, but where is the evidence? There is the deliverance of your own heart to be considered too. If you catch yourself thinking, 'I wish I didn't have to open all these doors for people. It is so annoying. Why don't I just shove through first? - Oh, but then people will not think I am a good person.' Suppose you suppress the thought. Then there is a question to be answered. But in the absence of any evidence of this sort, any thoughts of this kind, and in the presence of a good-hearted or kindly feeling towards the people for whom you open doors and carry groceries, why on earth would you think that there was anything sinister and egoistical going on in the unknown depths of your soul? For one thing, ex hypothesi these things are unknown. Maybe they are there and maybe they are not. But that is a tautology from logic, not an argument. So there is no reason to draw any conclusion other than the one to which all the evidence points, namely that you are a kind and thoughtful person who takes seriously the responsibilities we have to others. To repeat, if the evidence positively suggests you are selfish, that's one thing. But the evidence as you have described it is nil.

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