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Hi; please, I would like a philosophy professor to answer this question for me: is religion an ideology? And if it's not, then what is the difference? Thank you

An ideology or politically organizing world view doesn't have to be about God, so ideology and religion are not the same thing. Is religion a false view that organizes society? (This is Mannheim's "particular" conception of ideology.) Well, you might think so, but you would then have to think that religion is false. You could study religion under the "general" conception, in which it "arises out of life conditions", but it seems to me that a religious person might not disagree with that, provided that "life conditions" is understood sufficiently deeply.

Dear philosophers: In my reading of Descartes's Discourse on Method, I am fascinated by his project of universal doubt and the promise it seems to give to eliminate the many presuppositions we have. However, it seems that Descartes meant whatever belief one has is not justified if it can be subjected to any doubt, including skepticism. Therefore it would seem that answering skepticism should be among the priority in philosophical research. But this is a very strict requirement - is it the case in current philosophy research? If not, how do philosophers justify not making it the priority?

Three points:

1. It's not clear that the project of eliminating all of our presuppositions even makes sense. For instance: Could we coherently try to eliminate our presupposition that eliminating a given presupposition is inconsistent with keeping that presupposition? I can't see how. Indeed, Descartes himself seems ambivalent about the possibility, or desirability, of eliminating all of our presuppositions, because in his work he frequently appeals to unargued-for principles that, he says, "the natural light" simply shows us must be true.

2. Your argument for the claim that "Answering skepticism should be [a] priority in philosophical research" relies on this premise: Descartes was correct to claim that no belief is justified if it can be subjected to any doubt. Most philosophers, now and in Descartes's time, would reject that condition on justified belief as far too strict. They would challenge Descartes to derive that strict condition from a recognizable concept of justified belief, rather than from some more rarefied concept he simply made up.

3. Even if Cartesian skepticism isn't the central priority of contemporary philosophical research that you think it ought to be, there are many philosophers who take it seriously enough to work on it. For recent and current examples, see the International Journal for the Study of Skepticism.

It's been said that the lottery is a "stupidity tax," and that people only buy tickets who fundamentally misunderstand the odds against them. However, I've seen people reply that, although they understand full well the infinitesimally small chance of winning, they view the lottery as a form of entertainment, and buy tickets with this in mind. Is this a sound rationalization for playing the lottery? Or is it just a way of laundering the same old irrationality?

Well, either it's not a way of laundering the same old irrationality or I'm irrational in this respect. I don't buy lottery tickets often, and even when I do, I don't spend much, but I do occasionally buy them, and it's for exactly the reason you suggest: it has a certain entertainment value.

Now I admit: there is quite likely an irrational corner of my psyche that holds out a stronger hope of winning than the probabilities warrant. But I know how the probabilities actually work, am reasonably self-aware about my lurking id, and haven't shown any tendencies toward compulsive lottery-ticket purchasing. That little irrational bit of me is no doubt what makes the "entertainment" possible. A certain sort of caution would would counsel that it's unwise indulge this benighted part of my nature, though I'd need more evidence to be convinced.

That said, my overall view is that government-sponsored lotteries are iniquitous because for many people they are indeed a tax on irrationality. It's a sleazy way for the State to feed its coffers, and I doubt that any lottery official could deny with a straight face that it's a way of preying on the desperate, the confused, and the superstitious. So I suppose I should admit not so much to irrationality but to a moral failing: my occasional purchases support an institution that I can't defend in good conscience. I now feel ashamed of myself.

But I bet I will still by an occasional ticket.

Hello! I have a question about a particular line of reasoning in a debate that, to me, only leads to a "do I care" conclusion. I have now encountered this reasoning in several debates and can't think of a better conclusion. There must be a name for this that I am not aware of. Most recently this happened in a debate about cults. We were chugging along on the topic of cults and what gets something labeled as a cult vs say a religion or a tribe or, more universally, just humanity. The conclusion, again to me, was that when you expand the definition of "cult" so far out, yes, the entire human race can be labeled a cult. That is to say that under that definition of the word "cult" everything can be labeled a cult and the only conclusion is "do I care". This did not help my friend who wishes to avoid all cults but seemingly proved they were in a cult called the human race. Is there a name for this type of semantic bloating? Is this perhaps a long established logical fallacy I'm not aware of?? Regards.

I don't know the name, though I like "semantic bloating." In any case, a couple of observations.

First, words mean what people use them to mean. Words in English mean what competent speakers use them to mean—or, at least, that's close enough for our purposes. Competent speakers of English don't use the word "cult" to refer to the whole human race.

But the issue isn't really about the word. If your friend has a point, s/he ought to be able to make it by setting the word "cult" aside. What bothers us about the things we typically label cults is that they display a cluster of undesirable traits and tendencies. They make a rigid distinction between insiders and outsiders; they enforce membership conditions that alienate members from family and friends who mean them no harm; they insist on accepting dubious beliefs; they make it psychologically distressing for people to challenge or doubt those beliefs; they expect unquestioning obedience to the group's authority figures. All of these things show up in a variety of human circumstances, and if that's what your friend means, s/he's right, of course. But we can make that point without adding the unhelpful claim that the whole of humanity is a collective cult. The whole of humanity is a variegated patchwork, parts of which are highly cult-like and parts of which aren't.

Your basic insight is right: if we use the word "cult" with so few restrictions that humanity itself counts, we've robbed the word of its meaning. That means we've robbed ourselves of a useful way to make distinctions that are worth making. The Branch Davidians were a cult by any reasonable standard. The local PTA isn't. If we lump them together, we do ourselves no analytical favors. And if we broaden the net to include the collective everyone, we no longer have a net at all.

Is consequentialism utilitarianism?

The usual way of understanding their relation is that utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences — roughly, how good an act's consequences are. Utilitarianism offers an account of the relevant good, namely, well-being or happiness, so that, according to utilitarians, the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences for well-being or happiness. (Note that it is possible to be a consequentialist without being a utiltiarian: so long as one holds that there are consequences of an act unrelated to its consequences for well-being or happiness that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc.)

Is there any point in listening to sad music?

The best answer, surely, is yes. Whether we can say why the answer is yes may be another matter.

Here's an external reason: untold millions of sane, healthy people listen to sad music and find it rewarding. It's possible, I suppose, that this is a kind of pathology, but that seems hard to believe.

There's nothing special about music here. In literature, poetry, film, painting and dance, sad works abound. I found the ending of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day deeply sad. (Not the movie, by the way; in my view the ending missed the whole point of the story.) I'm also glad I read the book. Many others feel the same way.

Scary stories raise a similar puzzle. Many people read horror stories and watch scary movies. But why? Very few people want to be frightened in real life.

So far: art that deals with difficult emotions brings up the same sort of puzzle as sad music. If there's no point in listening to sad music, there's no point in any of these other cases. But too many people find such things valuable for it to be believable that they have no point.

We can still ask what the point might be. Catharsis is one possibility (think of the idea of having a good cry.). This is something Aristotle considered. Another possibility is that art dealing with difficult themes lets us explore important aspects of life at one remove from the real thing. Thinking about the character of Stevens might provide me with a sense of the consequences of ignoring vital emotional parts of oneself. It might help me empathize with the real-life analogues of someone like Stevens. It might enrich the available ways for me to think about the world.

Music isn't literature; music doesn't represent possibilities in the way that literature does. But there may be similar things to be said. Sometimes a sad piece of music seems to express something I'm feeling, and having it expressed may both provide a sense of relief (something like catharsis) and also make me feel less alone because it reminds me that there are others who have felt as I feel. There's also an undeniable beauty in some sad music, even if it's hard to say just what that consists in. I can appreciate the beauty without actually becoming sad myself.

However, there's a further and simpler thing to be said: something can be valuable, whether or not we can say why. The fact that we persistently find value in listening to sad music (or reading tragic literature, or...) gives those things a point. That's because, other things equal, there's a point in doing things that we persistently find valuable. This may be a truism, but it's still true.

What is the purpose of a college degree? If I teach myself a subject from reading books about it, how is it any different from paying expensive tuition to learn the exact same information?

There's not just one answer and others may add their own. But your question equates getting an education with acquiring information, and that's not a good way to think of it. I'll use philosophy as an example, but some version of what I'm about to say would apply to any discipline I can think of.

A philosophy student may acquire a lot of information—for example, about who the Utilitarians were, and what compatibilism about free will is. But that's a small part of what she gets through her philosophical education. What she gets, if things works out, is the ability to think well philosophically. That comes from practice, from interacting with philosophers and, crucially, from getting feedback. It's hard to learn to do philosophy if all you have is a library of books that you read. In particular, it's hard to know whether you're learning to do it well. And—trust me on this—your own judgments about that may be way off the mark.

There are exceptions, of course, but they're just that: exceptions. You may be one, but your question itself suggests that you may not be. That's not meant as a put-down; very few people are exceptions in this way. I know I wasn't; I doubt that any of my colleagues were.

As I said, the point doesn't just go for philosophy. A great deal of what you learn when you study a discipline with people who've mastered it is tacit knowledge that can't be reduced to a collection of facts. A good deal of education is socialization. You learn how to think in the ways that people in the discipline think, do the kinds of things that they do. In every discipline I can think of, facts are in many ways the least of it.

Hi, wanted to know if Order & Reason are a part of Nature. or if this is simply how humans view things and try to make sense of things. Cheers

For myself, I think the traditions of philosophical skepticism have raised serious doubts about whether or not this question can be finally answered. It seems, given the apparent lessons of those traditions, that it wisest to suspend judgment on the question but nevertheless to keep inquiring and to remain open to the chance that we might figure it out. My own suspicion is that there is some independent and objective basis to our projections of order and reason, but I’m not convinced that any single formulation or projection in human thought or action can apprehend that basis in a complete or final way. That we can make projections and formulations about order and reason seems remarkable and suggestive in itself, but the problems skepticism has brought before us with those projections and formulations seem sufficient to give one serious pause before pretending to any final conclusion.

Would it be best for Earth if we all died right now? We are destroying her; or do you think our selfish race should stick around to fix our mistakes (as if)? At this rate, it's only getting worse and barely beneficial. So perhaps we should all drop dead?

Restricting consideration only to the qualification “best for the Earth,” where that means something like best for the well being of current eco-systems and current non-human populations, I think the answer is yes, it would be better if we all dropped dead, especially if “this rate” of destruction remains unchanged. But, of course, what is best for the current eco-systems and current populations must be weighed against other considerations such as what is “best for” certain projects and cultural formations we also rightly value—human communities, nations, literary, scientific, spiritual, and artistic projects. It is true, indeed, that those will disappear along with the rest of life on the planet if ecological destruction continues beyond the point at which human life or those projects can be sustained. It’s not clear, however, that the current rate of destruction will persist or that we will reach that point. It is not clear that it won’t or that we won’t, either. There seems to be a reasonable likelihood that the course we’re on is not only suicidal but also ecocidal, and so this question will remain meaningful and compelling. For myself, I think we face a serious obligation to reduce human impact upon the world both by reducing consumption per capita and by reducing population generally.

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