Advanced Search

Can an omnipotent being truly want? Larry 16, New Jersey.

It's an interesting question. I'd just add this bit to what Nicholas had to say. Let's take the God of classical theism as our example. Assuming God exists, there are some things God might want, and yet can't simply bring about. God might want there to be creatures who freely love him (pardon the gendered pronoun) as much as he loves them. Now an omnipotent God can certainly make creatures who love him, but that's not the same as making creatures who freely love him. Put another way, God might want there to be creatures who love him, but weren't guaranteed to do so. In fact, many believers think that something like this is so. They would say that God has the power to make free creatures, but that if he wants them to love him freely, he can't guarantee, even in his omnipotence, that his desire will be satisfied.

Why do we enjoy the beautiful? Or, what is the nature of aesthetic appreciation (it seems like a special type of enjoyment)?

On the one hand, it seems safe to say that not all aesthetic appreciation is enjoyment. There are some works of art that are profoundly disturbing, and yet we still value them. An example: I remember vividly the first time I saw one of Ad Reinhardt's large black canvases. I was taken by surprise: I didn't expect to have much of a reaction, and yet I felt something for which the word "despair" is about the best label I can come up with. I found the experience moving, but it feels wrong to call it enjoyable. Still, there are other works of art that we do enjoy and that are beautiful. So let's turn to those. Take an example of some work that you find beautiful -- perhaps the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132 A Minor quartet. If someone asked "Why do you enjoy listening to that?" saying "Because it's so beautiful" would be a perfectly good answer, though there's a great deal more that one could add. If your friend then asked "But why do you enjoy beautiful things?" you might find the question...

Do you think cosmetic surgery performed by a surgeon is a form of art?

Yes and no, though perhaps most importantly no. Saying that something is an art is sometimes a way of saying that it's an exercise of skill, not least of a skill that isn't simply a matter of following a set of instructions. In that sense, cosmetic surgery is an art. Cosmetic surgery also has an obvious aesthetic dimension and no doubt calls on many of the same skills that a good sculptor needs. So all of that is on the "yes" side. But there's another obvious sense in which cosmetic surgery isn't an art, or better, perhaps, an Art . Painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. are Arts in this sense not just by virtue of being skills whose practitioners may have aesthetic goals. They also fit into a familiar set of cultural practices and institutions (museums, galleries, performances, reviews, critical studies, sales, auctions...) that determine what we count as "Art" with a capital "A." Cosmetic surgery isn't an "Art" in that sense, and this is almost certainly a very good thing.

If I say my hand is a parrot, is there anyway for you to prove me wrong with 100% objective data?

I just posed this question on your behalf to a colleague of mine. Here's what he said he'd tell you: "No!!! But you're wrong..." I suppose we could add: it depends on what you mean by "prove," "objective" and "data." In this case, it also seems to depend on what the meaning of "is" is. (Your hand is a parrot? ) but I think at the end of the day, my colleague's answer would still be more or less right. (Not that I think you really believe your hand is a parrot...) The more serious point: there's no airtight refutation of skepticism, or so many philosophers would agree. But many philosophers would also agree that this doesn't give us a reason to worry about skepticism. As my one-time colleague Dudley Shapere once put it, the possibility of doubt isn't a reason for doubt.

What is the source of philosophy's authority? Is simply tradition? Or logical deductions from some common-sense axioms? Or an appealing fit between reasoned arguments and our contemporary cultural preference? Or maybe a bit of all three, with the other two taking up the slack, when the first one looks inadequate?

I think the first thing we'd need to say is that philosophy doesn't have "authority" in the way that, say, physics does. It doesn't include a body of more-or-less well-established knowledge. Philosophy is all about the sorts of things that some people call "essentially contested questions." So it's a field where disagreement is built in at the ground floor. You may be asking about where premises in reasonable philosophical arguments come from. There's no one answer. Tradition per se isn't important, though what we might call "reflective common sense" -- the sort of thing that seems reasonable on sober reflection by an informed person -- does often figure in philosophical arguments. So do other things, including, sometimes, mathematical knowledge and things we've learned from science, as well as garden-variety common knowledge. But philosophical arguments are arguments , and as such, they're judged by the sorts of standards that we use to judge arguments in general.

On cloudy ethical questions, philosophers on this site have tended to say to questioners things like, "I detect that you feel guilty, hence deep down you know this activity is wrong." But if my parents were particularly quirky and instilled all sorts of silly taboos into me as a kid, then my conscience could trouble me when I broke those taboos but I needn't be doing anything objectively "wrong". Right?

Right. Being wrong isn't the same thing as troubling the conscience. People can have troubled consciences when they needn't, and people can do awful things without a flicker of guilt. That said, it could be true (and seems at least somewhat plausible) that people's consciences are often reliable. We often do have pangs of conscience when we do something wrong, and sometimes bringing this reaction into awareness can be useful.

In order for something to be a punishment, must there be an ending to it? Hell, many say, is a punishment. But isn't the purpose of a punishment to try to make somebody learn that what they did was wrong and make them a "better person"? Many believe in eternity in hell, but how can this be? What is the point of "punishing" somebody forever, if they will never be able to do good again? If they will never be faced with another opportunity to be a better person?

A good question! As it turns out, not everyone agrees that the purpose of punishment is to reform people. In fact, some philosophers (Kant is perhaps the foremost) held that the only justification for punishment is that the person deserves it, and if we punish for the sake of making someone better, we fail to show proper respect for them -- we manipulate them for our own ends. Setting the question of Hell aside for the moment, we can see that the argument you raise, if correct, would also count against capital punishment. But whatever one's views on the rightness of capital punishment, the widespread support it has in some places makes clear that many people see punishment as a matter of giving people what they deserve rather than reforming them. This idea, fleshed oout and elaborated, is often called the retributive theory of punishment, though it's important not to confuse retribution with revenge. Retributive theorists would maintain that the punishment must always be proportional to the...

Why do most philosophers assume that there is one manner of justifying ethics? Couldn't it be that some ethical principles or rules can be justified by a consequentialist approach, others by an evolutionary approach, still others by a deontological approach and some are just relative to specific cultures?

In many fields there are what some people call lumpers and splitters. Douglas has given a splendid answer that reflects a lumper/unifier/hedgehog perspective. Here's a rather different take, from a splitter/diversifier/fox point of view. It's often held that ethical obligations trump all others. If something is right from a self-interested point of view, for example, but wrong ethically, then the ethical judgment wins. Another feature of ethical judgments (though not unique to them) is that ethical "oughts" satisfy a universalizability principle: if something is right for a person in a given set of circumstances, then it's right for anyone else in those same circumstances. The mere fact that that it's me rather than you is beside the point. If we accept these points, then we've said something unifying about the ethical, but it's only formal unity. It's consistent with very different views about what is actually right or wrong in particular cases. Your question reflects a suspicion that I share: there...

During free time at my place of work, the faculty often get together for some intense rounds of "Boggle". In case you're not familiar, this is a game where letters are randomly arranged in a square, and then the players are timed as they try to form words using only adjacent letters. Because the scores are often so close, much debate often arises as to what constitutes a fair word. For example, can "er" be added to any verb to make it a noun, such as to "dare" or "err" to make "darer" and "errer", one who dares, and one who errs, respectively? Also, would a word like "beated", which is not in the dictionary, be acceptable if someone had heard it used, say in the following case: "after the eggs are beated...". What about sounds like "purr", or "whizz"? What are the criteria for determining if something is a word? Whose say should be taken as authoritative? Thanks!

Let's start with "beated." On the one hand, it's a word as opposed to a punctuation mark or a pony. But that's not what you want to know. Your question is something like: is it a word in English? And so the more general question is: when does a potential word count as a "real" word in a language? What about this? It counts as a word if the people who use the language accept it as one. That's vague many ways over: Which people? (Presumably it needn't be all.) What's a language? (Can we do better than say that it's a dialect with a gun? What's a dialect?) Accept in what circumstances and for what purposes? We'd also have obvious circularity problems if we treated this formula as a serious definition of "word in a language." But the point is that there are no firm facts here; there are complicated, imprecise and often untidy conventions. We all have some say in what counts as a word in a language, because at the end of the day, how people speak and write settles the matter. But there are no simple...

Many thought experiments in ethics involve truly bizarre scenarios (Frances Kamm, for instance, talks about putting $500 into a machine which mechanically saves children). Do the panelists think that overly contrived examples, too far removed from ordinary experience, lead us in the wrong direction and should not be used? Or should a rigorous philosophy of ethics account for all scenarios, including ones which almost certainly will never occur?

While agreeing with everything in Thomas's characteristically clear-headed response, I would add just one note that may bear on your worry. There are philosophers who think that if a thought-experiment is too far from our ordinary experience, then our intuitions about what we should say about the case may be unreliable. For example, to take a case from Judith Thomson's famous paper on abortion, do we really know what our moral views would be if people seeds floated around in the air and could give rise overnight to embryos by lodging in the fabric on your couch? It's also been claimed that some of the more bizarre thought experiments in the personal identity literature suffer from this sort of flaw. We're being asked to decide what would be true if certain very strange circumstances held, when our usual range of experience may not provide us with a thick enough understanding of the relevant "possible worlds" to know what we should say. That said, as Thomas's reply points out, some apparently bizarre...