Recent Responses

Do we have moral duties towards institutions (like the Red Cross)? Do institutions have moral rights?

I often find the words "duty" and "rights" confusing outside of legal contexts, because they're weighted with theoretical overtones that don't always help us think clearly about how we should act and what we should do. So let me refocus the question: are the things we should and should't do when it comes to institutions? I think the answer is yes.

Suppose that I find a way to hack into the Red Cross bank accounts and steal money. I shouldn't do that. It's not just that it's against the law (though it certainly is). It's just wrong. It's not wrong just because it may hurt the CEO of the Red Cross, or any of the people who work for the Red Cross. Those people come and go, and it may even be that they aren't actually harmed by my act of theft. What I'm doing is wrong because (dare I say?) it harms the Red Cross itself. We could provide lots of related examples. And when it comes to the fundamental question, that's a pretty good way to answer it, I think. We can do things that help or harm organizations and institutions. Depending on the organization or institution's purposes, nature and so on, at least some of those are things we should or shouldn't do (say, not stealing from them) and some are things it might be good to do even if we aren't strictly obliged (say, donating money to them.) We could recast some of this in terms of rights and duties, and that might be just fine. I'm just skeptical about how much it will help to start with those more rarified concepts.

We also hold organizations responsible. It's true in law, of course: we can sue corporations. But we also make moral judgments. I might think that Doctors Without Borders is a commendable organization. I might think some shady organizations are despicable even if it they never break. the law. This reinforces the common-sense thought above that yes, there really are ways we should and shouldn't behave toward organizations.

We could have an interesting discussion about the metaphysics behind our moral attitudes here. I'd expect one of the conclusions to be that in some ways, organizations are a lot like persons. That's why in law we have a concept of legal personhood that includes things like corporations. I think we'd also come to the conclusion that persons are more like organizations tan we might have thought: they don't have some pure, unified metaphysical core. If that's right, it suggests that there's no good way to make a really sharp break between persons and organizations when we think about how we ought to act.

Do philosophers use computers to find logical proofs? Or are there good reasons the task of programming a computer to do so is difficult (perhaps because of the complexity of proof required, or perhaps because you need a human for some sort of creative step)? Just from my experience of undergrad logic, it seemed to me there was a lot of repetition in what I was doing, and that it was a task I could learn and get better in -- ie, it wasn't down to pure creativity, but there were learnable, repeatable methods of searching that perhaps could be codified, made systematic.

The short answer to your first question is "not usually". The short answer to your second question is: It is difficult because of the complexity of the proof. Verifying a proof is, indeed, "codifiable" ("computable" is the technical term) and relatively easy to program (with an emphasis on "relatively"!). Creating proofs is rather more difficult but can also be done, especially if the formula to be proved is already known to be provable. Finding new proofs of unproved propositions has also been done, but is considerably more difficult and is the focus much research in what is called "automated theorem proving".

One of, if not the, first AI programs was the Logic Theorist, developed by Nobel-prize winner Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, and Cliff Shaw, in 1955. So this is an area that has indeed been looked at. A rule of inference known as "resolution" is used in automated theorem proving and lies at the foundation of the Prolog programming language ("Prolog" = "PROgramming in LOGic").

When computers for the general public were first being made available in the 1980s, my colleagues and I wrote a logic textbook called "Logic: A Computer Approach" which showed students how to write programs that would verify and generate (simple) proofs.
It's out of print but used copies can be found online:

You can find more information on computational logic by doing a Google search or a Wikipedia search for some of the terms I used above. A classic textbook on automated theorem proving is Chang & Lee's "Symbolic Logic and Mechanical Theorem Proving" ( For recent AI research on the topic, go to AI Topics at

What might Socrates think of this year's presidential election?

I’ll focus on the Socrates we see in Plato, because that is the Socrates we know of who produces the most extended and theoretical discussions of politics.

In general the Platonic Socrates expresses very little affection for democracy. At his trial, as that is reported in Plato’s APOLOGY, he speaks insultingly toward the jury that represents that democracy. At many points he voices his respect for the very un-democratic enemy Sparta. References to “the many” (never in a good sense) appear throughout the dialogues.

The distaste for democracy is not merely abstract. Pericles was by far the most successful and talented political leader of the Athens that Socrates lived in, and was repeatedly elected to the post of general; yet in Plato’s GORGIAS Socrates dismisses him as having corrupted the people of Athens and as accomplishing no more than to fill the city with “garbage” – evidently a reference to the Parthenon and other buildings.

So before asking Socrates’ opinion about our election, bear in mind that it will be the opinion of a non-democratic, even anti-democratic thinker.

That said, the analysis of democracy that appears in REPUBLIC Book 8 might seem to speak specially to the election at hand. It has been cited in that connection, for instance by Andrew Sullivan in the May 1 issue of NEW YORK MAGAZINE, in an article titled “America has never been so Ripe for Tyranny.” Sullivan appeals to Plato’s prediction that democracy becomes excessively democratic, to the point at which a strong man promises to lead the city, and thus establishes himself as tyrant. As others have recently done, Sullivan draws comparisons between the democratic spirit of US Presidential elections and ultra-democratic Athens, and then between the candidate Donald Trump and the REPUBLIC’s hypothetical tyrant who takes over democracy.

Those opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy might find Plato prescient in this passage. But aside from specific crucial differences between the Platonic tyrant and Donald Trump, there is the greater problem that the REPUBLIC is producing quite un-historical claims about democracy and tyranny, fueled no doubt by Plato’s antipathy toward democracy and every classical Greek’s antipathy toward tyranny. For starters, tyranny was a prevalent form of government in Greek cities some centuries before the first democracy appeared. How could tyranny arise out of democracy with all those examples of tyrannies that obviously did not?

While it may be tempting to use the REPUBLIC as a theoretical tool for understanding this year’s election, the main problem is that its picture of democracy is so distorted and so tendentious as to obscure more than it clarifies. Socrates may look at one candidate for the Presidency and see tyranny in the making, but only because he already finds democracy the closest thing to tyranny.

For a more elaborate analysis of the ways in which Plato distorts democracy in order to make it seem closer to tyranny, watch for Cinzia Arruzza’s book WOLF IN THE CITY (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).

It is worth adding that in dialogues other than the REPUBLIC democracy is not condemned in the same terms. For instance, Plato’s STATESMAN identifies two forms of democracy, a lawful one and a lawless one (mob rule). When democracy loses its respect for law it becomes mob rule, but in that dialogue no one says that it collapses into tyranny. Nor does the STATESMAN portray any political type that one could easily identify with a politician in the US today.

I'm 16 and have been studying philosophy for awhile. My question is when does a statement reach the point of 'absurdity'. For example, of the two statements, 1) My dog ran around the yard. And 2) My dog ran around the block with a big purple hat and green trousers. Number 2 seems the most likely not to have happened or seems 'ridiculous' by those who hear it. At what point does a statement cross the line of making logicalls sense to pure ridiculousness?

All else being equal, "My dog ran around the block wearing a big purple hat and green trousers" is far-fetched and unlikely to be true. But I wouldn't classify it as absurd in the logical sense, i.e., as making no logical sense. On the contrary, I think I can imagine (i.e., mentally picture) that amusing scenario.

Now, if you were to claim that your dog ran around the block wearing colorless, entirely green trousers, I would classify your statement as logically absurd in the sense that it's logically self-inconsistent: it's logically impossible for anything, including trousers, to be both colorless and entirely green. So I'd say that something like logical self-inconsistency is the mark of a statement that has crossed the line into genuine absurdity.

It's great to hear that, at 16, you've already been studying philosophy. I hope you'll keep doing so!

I have been duscussing lately with my friend about thinking. We both agree on what thinking can lead to. But, we disagree on wether or not you should think. Our theory is that thinking will often/most cases lead to unhappiness or depression because most question/problems are for the most part hard to solve. For example, what is the meaning of life? Not an easy question to answer, and the answer you do get may be sad. Therefore, I think not thinking will be good for a person so hin won't get to a stage where hin gets sad. However, my friend see this as fake happiness because you only hide sadness away instead of dealing with the problems. The problems are philosophical and not physical or physiological. So the question is, should people asks "why" questions more often and seek answers to find true happiness? Or is not thinking at all about philosophically questions just fine?

I belong firmly to the camp that advocates more thinking rather than less, especially when the issue is philosophical. Take your sample question: What is the meaning of life? I would answer it this way: In the sense in which the question is probably intended, there isn't and couldn't possibly be any such thing as the meaning of life. (See this link for details.)

Should that answer make someone sad? I don't think so. When we come to see that the notion of the meaning (i.e., ultimate purpose) of life makes no sense, we can recognize that seeking the meaning of life is a logically misguided quest, like seeking the largest integer. I hope no one feels sad that there's no largest integer.

Really it's an empirical question whether thinking about philosophical issues makes people, in general, happier or sadder than they would otherwise be. I don't know the answer to that question, but in my own case I believe that philosophical thinking has greatly contributed to my overall contentment. But even if it hasn't, that wouldn't settle the philosophical question of whether I ought to engage in philosophical thinking or not. For John Stuart Mill may well be right that it's "better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied," by which I take it he means that philosophical reflection needn't provide contentment in order to be valuable.

Is this a decent argument (i.e. logical, sound)? If God exists, God is an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good being If God is wholly good, God would want humans to posess free will If God is wholly good, God could endow humans with free will But, if any being is omniscient or all knowing, such a being would know human choices and actions before they are chosen Under such conditions, free will would only exist as an illusion or in the mind as the human perception of having free will; true free will would not exist because God or some other power has predecided all human choices Therefore, God, if God exists, cannot be both wholly good and omniscient Therefore, God does not exist

When we look at arguments, we have two broad questions in mind. One is whether the conclusion follows from the premises, whether or not the premises are true. The other is whether the premises are actually true. So with that in mind, let's turn to the argument.

It's often possible by restating premises and adding other premises that are assumed but not stated to make an argument valid even if it's not valid as stated. Your argument is more or less this, I think

If God exists, then necessarily God is perfectly good, knows all, and is all-powerful,
Suppose God exists.
Since God is all-powerful, God can give us free will.
Since God is perfectly good, God wants us to have free will.
God does anything God wants to do.
Therefore, we have free will.
Since God knows all, God knows what we are going to do before we do it.
If God knows what we're going to do before we do it, then we don't have free will.
Therefore, we don't have free will.
Therefore, God doesn't exist.

We could clean things up a little more, but I take it that's the gist of your argument and it's valid-ish as I've stated it. What should we say?

Well, let's suppose free will really is inconsistent with Divine foreknowledge. If that's right, God is certainly smart enough to figure it out. But in that case, it's a bit odd to suppose that God wants us to have free will. After all, the structure of reality doesn't allow it. So the premise about God wanting us to have free will isn't so obviously true.

But it's also not obviously true that if God knows what we're going to do before we do it, that means we aren't free. This issue is part of an old debate about "logical determinism" or, under one understanding, about fatalism. The idea is this: God may know what we're going to do but that doesn't mean God or anything else makes us do what we do. Compare: suppose I know what you are doing at this very moment. That doesn't mean you aren't doing it freely. But on one view of God's relation to the universe, God's knowledge of the whole shebang is like my knowledge of what's before my eyes. On this view, the whole of history is before God's eyes, so to speak, even if God isn't responsible for everything that happens.

Of course, there's room to argue about this. But here's a different view. Suppose that God is in time, and that the future is open: there aren't any facts now about at least some future possibilities. For example: there's no present fact about when some particular atom will decay. In that case, God doesn't know when the atom will decay. But that doesn't mean God isn't omniscient. If we think the future is open about some things, then there aren't any facts about those things for God to know. An omniscient being only knows what's actually there to be known.

So there are lots of ways to argue with your argument. Of course, that doesn't mean the argument is worthless; philosophical arguments are pretty generally the kinds of arguments that people can argue with.

One more thing, though. Even if your argument works, the most it shows is that the God of traditional theism doesn't exist. Showing that wouldn't be trivial. But it's not the only way to think about God and, for some people, not even the most interesting or attractive way.

If living creatures, such as ourselves, are evolved biochemical mechanisms, and should free will exist, what natural neurophysiologic phenomenon could possibly give rise to it (that would not be as deterministic as, say, any other chemical process)? And if we are indeed biochemical structures (as biologists in general believe), why might not appropriately designed future machines (advanced AI) likewise have the capacity to exercise free will (should free will exist)?

Don't forget the compatibilist account of free will (see the entry here), which says that we can make free choices -- i.e., choices for which we're responsible (including morally responsible) and properly subject to praise or blame -- even if our choices result from totally deterministic processes. In other words, free will doesn't require the falsity of determinism. I know of no cogent arguments against the compatibilist account of free will.

According to compatibilism, then, we can make free choices without needing any mysterious, non-causal, or indeterministic neurological goings-on. By the same token, an advanced AI machine could also make a free choice, provided it's advanced enough to be able to entertain, appreciate, and evaluate reasons for and against making (in its own right) some particular choice and able to choose in accordance with that evaluation. As far as I know, such machines are a long way off, but I see nothing in the concept of free choice that rules out, in principle, their making free choices.

I'm told it's arguable that when people say, "Water is H20", what they mean is, "The stuff from around here that we call water has the molecular structure H2O." Well, what about ethical claims? When people say "Killing is wrong", do they really mean "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places"? Or are they saying something more like, "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong"?

One might ask why people would hedge the original claim, "Water is H2O," and intend to assert only the presumably weaker claim "The stuff from around here that we call 'water' has the molecular structure H2O." Is it that they don't want to identify water with the molecule H2O but merely want to assert that water is constituted by molecules of H2O? Or is it that they want to hedge against possibilities like Hilary Putnam's Twin Earth, where what the residents call "water" is macroscopically just like H2O but is in fact identical to (or constituted by) a different molecule that Putnam abbreviates "XYZ"?

Either of those reasons for hedging the original claim seems to me to be too abstruse to explain the hedging (if any) done by ordinary speakers of the language. But I can't think of a third explanation. So I'm not sure how to compare this case to the assertion "Killing is wrong" or to the hedged version, "According to the normal values around here, killing is wrong."

My hunch about ordinary language is that people who assert "Killing is wrong" mean to assert a proposition that's weaker than "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places" but stronger than "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong." So neither the original claim, read literally, nor the hedged claim. Instead, I think they mean to assert that, according to standards that apply not just around here but everywhere, killing a person is presumptively (i.e., all else equal) wrong.

That assertion is weaker than "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places," because it allows that the moral presumption against killing a person can be overcome when all else isn't equal, such as killing a person in defense of one's own life. But it's stronger than "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong" because it dares to apply local standards not just locally but everywhere.

If it's possible for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time, or for a particle to be in two places at the same time, would that show there are at least some things about which one couldn't rely on "Either P or not P" as a sound step in reasoning?

Your question concerns the classical law of excluded middle (LEM): For any proposition P, either P or not P.

Because logic is absolutely fundamental, ceasing to rely on LEM will have ramifications that are both widespread and deep. In classical logic, we can derive LEM from the law of noncontradiction (LNC), so to give up LEM is to give up LNC or the equally obvious laws that allow us to derive LEM from LNC. We should be very reluctant to do that.

In my view, the alleged possibilities that you cite from physics are not enough to overcome that reluctance. First, they are possibilities only according to some, not all, interpretations of quantum mechanics. Second, even if we accept them as possibilities, rejecting LEM or LNC is more costly than (1) reconceiving "being dead" and "being alive" so that they name logically compatible conditions and (2) reconceiving "being here at time t" and "being elsewhere at time t" so that they name logically compatible conditions. It's less costly to mess with the meanings of those phrases than it is to mess with the laws of logic.

I have been intrigued by the theory expounded by the MIT physicist Max Tegmark that the universe is composed entirely of mathematical structure and logical pattern, and that all perceived and measured reality is that which has emerged quite naturally from the mathematics. That theory simplifies the question of why mathematics is such a powerful and necessary tool in the sciences. The theory is platonist in essence, reducing all of existence to pure mathematical forms that, perhaps, lie even beyond the realm of spacetime. Mathematics, in fact, may be eternal in that sense. The Tegmarkian scheme contains some compelling arguments. One is that atomic and subatomic particles have only mathematical properties (mass, spin, wavelength, etc). Any proton, for example, is quite interchangeable with any other. And, of course, these mathematical particles are the building blocks of the universe, so it follows that the universe is composed of mathematical structures. Another is that the vastness of the universe is not so vast if composed of math, which can outpace any physical greatness with ease, even when all specie of multiple multiplying universes are in the mix. Tegmark's theory coexists happily and cozily with Hugh Everett's famous many-worlds hypothesis. Dr. Tegmark, by the way, explains our conscious-being status as being the result of the evolution of "self-aware mathematical structures". I have taken a liking to Max Tegmark. His ideas somehow make a lot of sense to me, and I find his theory actually liberating and satisfying. However, it just about makes the case that reality itself is illusory (which in my heart I'm quite okay with). Anyway, given the power of his theory, and it's potential utility, I am surprised it has not been a more visible subject of inquiry and reflection among philosophers. I would be delighted to know the place that such theory has in the philosophy of existence, the philosophy of mathematics, the theory of knowledge, or the philosophy of science. Is Tegmark's theory an active and common subject of debate? (I think it should be.)

I will confess that I don't see the charm of Tegmark's view. I quite literally find it unintelligible, and I find the "advantages" not to be advantages at all.

You suggest a few possible attractions of the view. One is that "atomic and subatomic particles have only mathematical properties (mass, spin, wavelength, etc.) and hence we might as well see them as nothing but math. Any proton, for example, is quite interchangeable with any other." But first, the fact that we only have mathematical characterizations of these properties is both false and irrelevant insofar as it's true. It's false because knowing something about the mass or the spin or whatever of a particle has experimental consequences. It tells us that one thing rather than another will happen in real time in a real lab. If that weren't true, we'd have no reason to take theories that talk about these things seriously; we'd cheat ourselves of any possible evidence. Of course, we may not know what spin is "in itself," and perhaps to that extent, we only have a mathematical characterization of it. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out roughly 100 years ago, it doesn't follow that spin has no intrinsic character; it only follows that we don't know what spin is "in itself."

As for the fact that electrons and whatnot are interchangeable, all that this means is that as far as quantum theory is concerned, they have no intrinsic properties that distinguish them; all electrons have the same mass, the same charge and the same total spin. But they don't all have the same position nor the same momentum, nor the same spin state. (Alice's electron might have spin-up in the vertical direction; Bob's might have spin-down, to take just one possible difference.) And in any case, how would the existence of intrinsically indistinguishable objects count in favor of the view that it's math all the way down?

As for the vastness of space (or space/time), why does this need an explanation? Is it puzzling that the universe is vast and possibly infinite as opposed to finite and small? Why is small less puzzling than big? And in any case, is the view the the universe is nothing but number and the like less puzzling than the idea that the apparently palpable things around us are really timeless mathematical abstractions? How do we account for the unshakeable appearance to the contrary? Something about consciousness, maybe? I don't think we get any help by talking about "the evolution of "self-aware mathematical structures." I'll confess that I have no idea at all how this is supposed to explain consciousness, let alone what it actually means. (Do self-conscious mathematical structures sleep with colorless green ideas? And what are their offspring like?)

I suppose someone might say that my reaction is a sign that I'm hopelessly intellectually conservative. No doubt I'm not the best judge of that. But I think there's a difference between not getting excited by new ideas that really do explain things and pseudo-explanations that give us the illusion of insight without delivering the real goods. Except in my case, I don't even experience the illusion of insight when I'm told that really, everything is nothing more than abstract mathematical structure. I'm inclined to think that we're in the realm of Pauli's "not even wrong."

Finally, please don't take my pique personally. I first encountered a view like Tegmark's roughly 25 years ago, when it was offered by the physicist Frank Tipler. I had much the same reaction then, in spite of my genuine admiration for Tipler's imagination. But nothing I've heard in the intervening two and a half decades has looked like a reason to react differently to the latest incarnation.