Recent Responses

In the movie Patton, an aide consoles the general upon learning that Rommel was not present in North Africa for the tank battle. "If you defeated Rommel's plan, then you defeated Rommel." If evolution defeats God's plan known as intelligent design can we apply the same logic to conclude that for evangelical believers at least their God is "defeated". Can we use the triumph of evolution as evidence that God does not exist since intelligent design is presented as His work?

Defeating Rommel's plan amounted to defeating Rommel because there was something Rommel was trying to accomplish and defeating his plan kept him from doing that. Stopping someone from carrying out their plans is a straightforward case of defeating someone. But evolution isn't something that stops God from doing what he was trying to do and so it doesn't "defeat" God. If we can show that evolution is true, we've defeated a view about God, but God isn't a view.

In fact, however, I think your question really is the one in your last sentence: does showing that evolution is true show that there's no God? The answer is somewhat controversial, but I'd say no. It shows that a particular view of God is not true, but it doesn't show that there's no God. There are plenty of believers who think that evolution is true and that nonetheless, there's a God. Maybe no reasonable notion of God can be consistent with evolution, but this isn't nearly as obvious as it's sometimes assumed to be.*

* Of course, showing that evolution is consistent with belief in God is one thing; showing that there's a God is another.

Dear philosophers, I had two queries about Kantianism, and was wondering if anyone could assist. There's a letter of Kant's in which he says, essentially, that if a murderer comes to your door asking where your friend is, you may not lie to him, because the principle of allowing lies is not something that can be consistently maximised. I was wondering: (1) is there a problem of how to categorise an action? I mean, is the principle here, "It's OK to lie" or is it "One should not assist murderers"? How do you definitively characterise an action? (2) is there a problem of complexity of maxim? If one agrees that "It's OK to lie" can't be maximised, what about if exceptions are built in? "It's OK to lie to murderers who are likely to believe your lie" -- could something like that be maximised?

Thanks for your question.

Before my response, a brief observation: You speak of principles being "maximized". I suspect you're confusing Kant's notion of a maxim with some other idea from moral philosophy (perhaps the utilitarian claim that right actions are those that maximize well-being). A maxim, for Kant, is a justifying principle of action with the form "I will do act A in circumstances C to achieve end E". Kant's Formula of Universal Law requires that we act only on maxims that can be consistently universalized. There's a lot of controversy as to precisely what it means for a maxim to be consistently universalizable. Here's a description, provided by Robert Johnson in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Kant's moral philosophy, of the procedure to be used to evaluate whether a maxim can be consistently universalized:

First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If you could, then your action is morally permissible.

Back to your specific questions:
First, in the famous essay in which Kant discusses the murderer at the door example, he actually makes very little use of the Formula of Universal Law and its universalization test. But if we use that Formula to ascertain whether lying to the murderer is morally permissible, we must consider precisely what maxim is being tested. As you put it, there's a question of how to "categorize" an action, or in more Kantian terms, a question of what maxim a person considering lying to the murderer would be acting upon. Notice that "it's OK to lie" or "one should not assist murderers" do not even have the proper form of maxims. Neither are statements of reasons for action but instead moral statements about what a person may or ought to do. Again, we need a principle of the form "I will do act A in circumstances C to achieve end E". Notice that maxims often will be complex. And it is this complexity that has led many readers of Kant's essay to conclude that, Kant's remarks notwithstanding, his Formula of Universal Law does not necessarily disallow lying to the murderer. A maxim of the form "I will deceive a would-be murderer in order to prevent the death of his intended victim" seems like it could pass Kant's universalization test. (I'll leave that as an exercise to you.)

Long story short: Maxims are more complicated than is often recognized, and once this complexity is recognized, it is far from obvious that the conclusions Kant seems to draw in his famous essay are correct even by his own lights.

Representation of reality by irrational numbers. In the world there are an infinite number of space/time positions represented by irrational numbers. I should think that all these positions are real, even though they cannot be precisely described mathematically. Does this mean that mathematics cannot fully describe reality? What are the philosophical implications of this?

I would question your assumption that positions, magnitudes, etc., whose measure is irrational "cannot be precisely described mathematically." Consider a simple-minded example: In a given frame of reference, some point-particle is located exactly pi centimeters away from some other point-particle. I think that counts as a precise mathematical description of the distance between the two particles, even though it uses an irrational (indeed, transcendental) number, pi, to describe the distance.

It's true that any physical measurement of that distance -- say, 3.14159 cm -- will be precise to only finitely many decimal places and therefore will be only an approximation of the actual distance. But the description "pi centimeters apart" is itself perfectly precise, despite the irrationality of pi.

People always say that one's action should not be aimed at disabling others to take their own actions, and the former is often subject of general denouncement. For example, when a pianist plays piano in his neighborhood at midnight and disturbs another person's sleep, people would say that playing piano is more of a disturbance than sleeping, and so one should avoid playing piano when someone else is sleeping. What is the intrinsic difference between the two? Cannot I say that the sleeping makes it inconvenient for the pianist to play piano, and so one should not sleep when someone else is playing piano? What is the logical basis of making any of such judgements?

There's no purely intrinsic reason, but there's still a reason overall. Here's a comparison. In the US, it's not just illegal but also wrong to drive on the left side of the road. In South Africa, the opposite is true. What makes it wrong to drive on the left in the US and the right in South Africa is that there is a widely-accepted practice --- in fact, a rule in this case --- about how we drive, and violating this particular practice puts others at risk.

Now in the case of the late-night piano-player, there may be no literal risk created by the disturbance the piano player creates. But there's still what's sometimes called a coordination problem here, and there's a way of getting on that solves the problem. Most people sleep at night. Most people also need a reasonably quiet environment to sleep. And so we have a combination of custom and, in many jurisdictions, law to make it possible for people to do things like practice the piano and for people to sleep. Since most humans are wired to sleep at night rather than in the daytime, this practice isn't just a matter of convention, but even if most people could easily adjust their sleep habits, we'd likely still need a convention to coordinate different needs and desires. The flip side of this, of course, is that if someone wants to play the piano at noon, I don't have much of a case for saying that they shouldn't just because I want to sleep when most people are up and about.*

If by a "logical basis," you mean something like a purely abstract argument that favors the sleeper over the pianist, there isn't one. But what counts as good behavior is more than a matter of abstract argument. It partly depends on people's actual customs, needs and expectations. The right perspective for considering a moral question isn't the perspective of an alien anthropologist. It's the perspective of a reasonable, thoughtful human being who knows what it means to live in the midst of life.

*Of course, this doesn't settle the matter. For example: if I have a job that means I have to be awake when most people sleep, or a raging migraine, and if my neighbor knows this, common consideration calls for him to try to take my needs into account. After all, that's what he'd want if the roles were reversed.

What do people mean, in a more philosophical sense, when we refer to predatory animals or apex predators as "strong" and to prey animals as "weak"? For instance, deer and elk can easily break the ribs of an attacking wolf, and deer and elk aren't necessarily easy to kill, but people think of wolves as strong while deer and elk are weaker. I'm not a science student, but I know enough science to know that apex predators are much more vulnerable than commonly thought and that it's more of a food web than a food chain. But wolves and lions are majestic and mighty while deer and rabbits are weak, easy prey. Can you help me to unpack the implied philosophies involved? Other than the Great Chain of Being, unless that's really what I'm looking for. I'm not looking toward the life sciences. Are there philosophical theories or schools of thought which consider strength and weakness in a sense that might be applicable to a predator/prey dynamic?

I am not familiar with any philosophical theory that uses the terms "weak" and "strong" in reference to predator/prey relations as such, and I doubt very much that such a framing is helpful to the development either of a sound ecological framework or to an adequate environmental ethics.

The only time I have come across philosophical discourses about "strength" and "weakness" in nonhuman species is in the context of either (a) Nietzsche's critique of Christian morality (as a "slave morality"), or (b) fascist ideology (Mussolini, Hitler, and their propagandists). In both instances, categories of the "strong" and the "weak" were used either directly or indirectly to justify social domination, i.e. the supremacy of certain "superior" types of humans over other, "inferior" types. Nietzsche, thus, viewed "will to power" as a natural and healthy drive in all life forms, and correspondingly argued that the strong, "noble type" of human being, the one who created his/her own values, was superior to "weak" types who were too timid or repressed to establish themselves in the world or to embrace their fates. Nietzsche also drew repeatedly on metaphors from the natural world--including stereotypes about nonhuman animal behavior and ontology--to justify his schema. (See, for example, his discussion of "lambs" vs. "eagles" in "On the Genealogy of Morals.")

The "classical" fascists, meanwhile, justified national conquest, war, and racial policies (including genocide) by implicit and sometimes explicit reference to "strong" and "weak" animals or species--with the terms "strong" and "weak" corresponding to fascist conceptions of superiority and inferiority, hence to totalitarian notions of political right. Similar usages can be found today in racist and neo-fascist depictions of non-white peoples or groups, and even in US military nomenclature, as in the case of the "Predator" drone made by General Atomics, in which American military-technological might is symbolically rendered "predatorial" in the sense both that drones are designed to "prey" upon much weaker (indeed, defenseless) opponents, and in the sense that overwhelming US military strength corresponds to moral, and not merely military, superiority in the "war on terror."

You are therefore right to emphasize a "food web" rather than a "food chain," and not merely for sound scientific reasons! As you note, the notion of a "food chain" indeed calls to mind the Great Chain of Being, which, apart from being metaphysically bogus, for millennia provided a neat ideological prop for various forms of social hierarchy and oppression, including slavery and genocide.

To conclude, then: the notion that some beings are "strong" while others "weak" only seems intelligible in the context of highly specific situations and relations among individuals, not at the level of entire species. And talk about "strong" vs. "weak" natural types is, anyway, a politically fraught enterprise.

I read a fascinating article about free will the other day. The first premise seems unremarkable to me: we initially make our decisions based on emotion, and then rationalize those decisions after the fact by reason. That premise seems well-correlated to me with empirical evidence in many cases; though there might be a small subset of cases in which people actually reason something out first before acting. However, the author then asserted that, because our decisions are primarily driven by emotion, that we only have the illusion of free will. I am not quite sure I completely followed the logical chain from the premise (emotions drive most decisions) to the conclusion (we feel like we have free will even though we actually do not). My questions to the panel are, (a) is the initial premise as reasonable to you as it seems to be to me, and (b) how does the conclusion follow logically from this premise? Thanks very much!

I have to admit: I'm as puzzled as you are.

Let's suppose I'm trying to decide which flavor of ice cream I want. My choices are chocolate and rum raisin. I like them both, and there's nothing unreasonable about eating either. What would make the author of the article treat my ending up with rum raisin amount to a free choice? That I did an exhaustive utility calculation? In the circumstances, how is this better than picking rum raisin because at that moment I'm feeling nostalgic and I'm struck by a warm memory of the big scoops of rum raisin I used to get from the ice cream shop in my home town when I was a boy?

More generally, what's the issue? Did my momentary emotion compel me to pick the rum-raisin? That doesn't seem plausible. What reason was there for not giving in to my emotion? I'd go a bit further. In a case like this, wouldn't it be a bit unreasonable to second-guess my urge? What's the issue?

If it's supposed to be that there's an explanation for how I came to pick what I picked, then that's true, but why does it matter? Suppose I made a utility calculation. No doubt there would be a reason for that too. (It would probably bring in features of my psychology that are a lot less reasonable than this "rational" calculation.)

Of course, picking between flavors of ice cream is trivial enough that it doesn't make great fodder for the free will problem. If we consider a more momentous decision, the premise that it's merely emotion is a lot less plausible; I'd be amazed if the evidence even came close to showing that serious decisions are always emotion. But in that case, the premise doesn't apply and doesn't give us a path to the conclusion.

There's another issue. It sounds as though your author assume that decisions have to be rational to count as free. In some sense of "rational," that may well be true. But it also sounds as though s/he is equating "rational" with "ratiocinative" --- with being the outcome of explicit reasoning and calculation. If so, that's a problem. It assumes a strongly non-cognitive view of emotion, and a cramped conception of what counts as rational.

So I'm not impressed yet. Maybe if I read the essay I'd find something that would change my mind. But given what you've said, my worry about the premise is not just that it's not true in a wide enough range of cases, but that it carries extra assumptions about emotions that are open to doubt. Those assumptions would be needed to get us from the premise to the conclusion --- those assumptions and, I suspect, a whole lot more.

Hi! I'm someone who strongly dislikes Trump, but I also feel that I ought be loyal to whomever is President. What I wanted to ask is -- should loyalty be considered a virtue, or is it inherently a silly, irrational thing, and closer to being a vice? Could it, for instance, be responsible for partisanship and disunity? I've read that 90% of people who identified as Republican and voted, voted for Trump: is unthinking loyalty to a political party (if indeed that was one of the factors here) an evil?

Tough question(s). There is a recent book with Cambridge University Press by Simon Keller, The Limits of Loyalty (2007), that is highly critical of loyalty. While I am not as critical of loyalty as Keller, he highlights enough cases (real and imaginary) in which loyalty goes wrong that I suggest loyalty should be seen as having secondary value. That is, if some person or good or cause is good, then being loyal to that person or good or cause is itself good, but if some person or ill or cause is wicked, then loyalty would be bad (or a vice). On this view, unthinking loyalty to a political party is (minimally) at least risky (if, it happens that the party is good, great, but it could be awful, if the party is terrible).

As for being loyal to (soon to be) President Trump, you might think that you are not so much loyal to the person, as you are loyal to the United States of America or to the democratic process or to the ideals of the Constitution or to the office of the Presidency.

Are there good reasons to believe in God?

I believe that there are. I find versions of the cosmological and teleological arguments convincing, as well as an argument from religious experience. You might check out on the free online Stanford Encyclopedia the entry The Cosmological Argument and the entry Philosophy of Religion. The latter will also go through arguments against the reasonability of believing in God. At the risk of being horrifically self-promoting, you might look at the 2016 book Contemporary Philosophical Theology I co-authored with Chad Meister. It is not apologetics; that is, it is not written to convince readers of theism. It seeks also to present reasons behind atheism, non-theistic forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, secular naturalism. But we also advance reasons for thinking that theism (belief that there is a God) is a live option that reasonable, intelligent persons may reject, but also reasonable, intelligent persons may accept.

Hello. I'd like to ask about proof of miracles and of God -- and, in particular, what the standard of proof is. Arthur C Clarke said something like, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Well, if a voice booms down from the heavens, tells you that it's God, parts the Red Sea and gives prophecies that come true, are there no other explanations for these events except "miracles", and would the unusualness of these events be strong enough to establish that the voice in fact is God?

Interesting! The way you frame the question, it appears you may be assuming that explaining an event in terms of God is only feasible if all other explanations (that we know about or can imagine) are exhausted / untenable. I suggest that a lower standard of evidence may be fitting --for the record, contemporary philosophers rarely appeal to proofs, and thus "standard of proof"; the concern, rather, is with good or bad arguments. Allow me to change your example slightly: let's imagine that many of the contemporary theistic arguments establish good grounds to believe that there is a maximally excellent, omnipresent, omnipresent Creator and sustainer of the cosmos (imagine, for example, that some version of the ontological, cosmological, teleological arguments, the argument from fine-tuning and arguments from the emergence of consciousness are credible) and that vast numbers of persons (maybe even over half the world's population) report having experiences in which they feel called to be just and compassionate by what appears to them to be from some transcendent, sacred power. Imagine the experiences are systematic, cross-cultural, sustained and coherent. Even if such experiences may be explained by naturalistic causes (imagine that the experiences can be explained along Freudian lines as the result of wish-fulfillment), I suggest it would still be reasonable (though not proven or known with certainty) to believe the experiences are veridical. After all, we might have justified beliefs in all sorts of domains and yet this is not undermined by our wishing that such beliefs are true. So, I suggest it might be reasonable to believe in an act of God even if there is some (in principle) naturalistic explanation.

I have sought to address a case that is a tad less dramatic than the one you imagine. I do so, to suggest that the framework for our assessing the explanation of events is pivotal. So, in my example, I ask you to imagine a case in which there is independent reason for thinking there is a God who *might* be revealed in human experience. But, to go to your example yet changing it slightly, would it be reasonable to believe in a mighty Rabbit if there was a voice from heaven "I am a great Rabbit" and the apparent rabbit then seemed to offer great prophecies, part the Red Sea, and so on? Because of the absurdity of believing in a mighty rabbit of that sort, we might never come to believe in the great furry, powerful creature. So, I suggest (in closing this overly long response, sorry), assessing such hypothetical cases involves frameworks. To some highly critical atheist philosophers, to believe in God might appear no different from believing in a mighty rodent, but for those of us who think theism is more reasonable than either naturalism or mighty rabbits, matters differ.