How could we distinguish facts and interpretations of facts? Some say that facts are given, others say that they are constructed by theories. Could we still say that facts are independent or previous to theories?

The tricky thing about this issue is to decide what the issue is. Some people seem to want to say that all facts are constructed, but I've never really understood what this is supposed to mean. Let me yank at a few threads and see if any of them are connected to the worry. Some facts depend on our conventions, institutions and so on. A well-worn example: I have a shiny round bit of metal in front of me. As a matter of fact, it's a quarter; it's worth $.25. That really is a fact, but it wouldn't be a fact if we didn't have certain practices, institutions and so on. In at least some sense of "constructed," it's a constructed fact. We also classify things in various ways. Some of those classifications grow out of our interests, beliefs and so on. Classifying music according to genre is relatively benign; classifying people according to the racial categories of apartheid-era South Africa or the antebellum American South is anything but benign. Sometimes we take our classifications to mark deep...

Many people reject the death penalty on the grounds of mistakenly taking the life of an innocent person. Why then do we allow abortion? If no one is certain when life begins, isn't to accept abortion an acceptance of mistakenly taking the life of a person?

I sometimes call this the "Ronald Reagan argument"; President Reagan was fond of a version of it that, as I recall, had to do with a man in a ditch who might or might not be dead. That also raises a preliminary issue. The question presumably isn't whether the fetus is biologically alive; it surely is. The question (or part of it anyway) is what this living being is. One common way of putting it is to ask whether the fetus is a person -- a being with the same moral standing as you or me. And so I'll put what follows in those terms. The first thing that strikes me is that there's a glitch in the analogy. In the execution case, the being we execute is unquestionably a person who is possibly innocent. In the abortion case, the being is possibly a person, though if a person, then an innocent one. This hardly settles the matter, of course. The reply might be that in either case, we run the risk of taking the life of an innocent person; the position of the word "possible" simply locates...

Does the study or the practice of Social Work raise interesting philosophical questions? If it does, would these questions be placed only in branches "more practical" like political philosophy and ethics, or also in branches "less practical" like epistemology and philosophy of science? There could be a "philosophy of social work", or would it have to be a smaller point in other discipline?

Since I don't know much about the training and practice of social work, I can't offer a direct answer to your question, but perhaps a couple of thoughts might help you decide what you think the best answer might be. Disciplines like physics, biology and psychology have a fair bit of theory that goes with them, and this theory is a source of philosophical questions. So one question to ask yourself: is there much in the way of theoretical discussion in social work? If so, the various theoretical perspectives may generate philosophical questions. Also, are there controversies within the discipline about just how it differs from related disciplines (e.g., perhaps, clinical psychology)? Are their interesting issues about what, if anything, unifies the various components of the discipline and its practice? If so, once again, there may be worthwhile philosophical questions to pursue. If there is enough such material, then when combined with the ethical and policy issues that social work confronts, it...

Anyone presently in college probably knows students who have take drugs like Adderall to help them study (I should add that whether all of these actually suffer from ADD is often doubtful). Should this be considered unethical? There's an obvious comparison between drug-use of this sort and steroid-use in professional sports, but I've always been suspicious of this analogy.

Let's set aside the case of people who really have ADD and who use properly-titrated doses of stimulant medication. It's hard to see what the ethical issue could be in those cases. What about people who don't have ADD, but use stimulants to boost attention? There's an amusing old quote from Paul Erdös: a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems. Erdös, I gather, drank a lot of coffee. He also proved a lot of theorems. Was that unethical? I have the impression that in the short term, a good shot of caffeine has about the same effect as Ritalin on one's ability to focus. Add a bit of chocolate, and who knows? So we could ask: is it unethical to eat chocolate and drink coffee before an exam? I think we'd probably agree that it isn't. What's different about Adderall and Ritalin? Intrinsically, the answer may be "not much." All the Adderall in the world won't help me pass a calculus exam unless I actually know the math. Adderall may help me concentrate, but...

We are often told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I wonder if this is not an over-simplification. Surely some things are beautiful regardless of our response to that beauty. Is there not a case to be made for completely objective beauty?

This much seems plausible: whether something is beautiful doesn't depend on the actual responses that anyone has. It might be that no one has seen the thing. It might be that everyone who's seen it so far doesn't have the discrimination to appreciate it. It may be that no one who's ever been born or even will be born will have that capacity. All of that could be true, and yet the object might still be beautiful. But does that mean that it's beautiful apart from all possible responses? I don't think so. Does this make sense? Object X is beautiful, but no sentient creature that the universe could possibly produce would find X beautiful. I have a bit of trouble understanding what it would mean here to say that X really is beautiful. And if that's right, it suggests (as many philosophers are inclined to think) that whatever exactly beauty may be, it has something to do with the kinds of responses that the right sort of creature would have upon contemplating it. That's not...

The concept of a homunculus suggests that there is an inner core in each of us, a "self" that makes functional and moral decisions. The emerging sciences of complex adaptive theory and network theory suggest there is no homunculus in complex living systems (from cells to the global economy). An identifiable self has not been located by neurobiologists and may never be located. The self appears to be a composite of many internal systems that interact with many external systems. If we cannot locate the self, if there is no homunculus to point to as the agent of a "good" or "bad" decision, if people are more than the sum total of their parts and cannot be reduced to a single part (such as the self), does morality still exist? That is, does the concept of morality exists if there is no concept of the self?

Suppose there were a homunculus. Would it be like me? That is, would it have conflicting motives? Foggy beliefs? Occasional weakness of will? And while we're at it, would it make any difference if the homunculus were located in one compact region of the brain? Or woud it do just as well if it were distributed over different parts of the brain, and perhaps not even clearly confined to the brain alone? What would the homunculus have to be like to do the intellectual job that's at issue? And do we really need a lot of science to know that whatever we are, we aren't simple unities? An utter disunity isn't an agent. But think about the difference between my academic department and a random collection of professors. My department is made up of diverse individuals who don't always agree. But the department has a plan of organization, it deliberates and it acts. The members of the department co-operate to get things done, and the dissenters accept decisions of the department, once they're made, even if they...

I am a philosophy student and I have noticed that there are some days (rarely) in which I simply can not absorb. A lot of times I will work extra hard to concentrate but find that it is simply useless and a waste of times. Is it necessary to take breaks from intellectual work? I always just assumed the mind could handle whatever you could feed it, is this false? Are there things in which I can do to improve my concentration and productivity in situations like this? Or do I just need to slow down? Thanks, Josh

Brains, like the rest of us, need rest; I wouldn't be bothered by the occasional hazy day. Simple tips include getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, drinking tea or coffee in moderation -- all the obvious stuff. A little less obvious: some sort of meditation practice. Take a look at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1865567 or http://www.news.wisc.edu/13762 for some information on a recent study that might be to the point. You asked: is it necessary to take breaks from intellectual work? The answer I'd suggest is that, necessary or not, it's good. Intellectual activity is valuable, but so are many other things, and a well-rounded life would include a few of them. Listen to some music; socialize with friends; learn to play squash; volunteer at a soup kitchen; cook a tasty meal -- you get the idea. Things like that are valuable for their own sake, and who knows? Time away from thinking may bring you back refreshed and full of ideas. I bet none of this comes...

Rational or Antisocial? For the last few years I've focused solely on my own self-interest without regards to ethics or morality. Though I understand the importance of social restraint and exercise it regularly, it's never for an altruistic reason. The traditional Right/Wrong no longer makes sense to me. I've found that under this mindset, things like war, dystopia and all things negative don't seem to affect me on an emotional level as they normally would. I can rely on my ego to maintain mental stability under all negative situations and can then act in a rational manner to overcome them. And also under this condition, I can comfortably commit "wrong" actions towards other individuals if it results in my gain. Though I do view life as being under a constant struggle to overcome a very indifferent environment, I am glad to be alive with the ability to freely make my own decisions. So I guess what I'm asking is why would most consider this lifestyle/mindset wrong when I can live happily and function in...

You've pointed out that you're quite comfortable committing "wrong" actions if it suits your needs. That should already suggest a pretty clear reason why most people wouldn't be too happy about your outlook. If I were around you and I believed that you really look at things the way you say you do, I'd watch my back. I wouldn't trust you, and I'd be worried that you might do me harm if it served your purposes. Of course, as stated, that's not a reason for saying that your outlook is wrong -- not unless you're willing to admit that some things really are wrong, and the presupposition of your question seems to be that you aren't. But even here there's something strange about the way you press your point. You ask why people would think your way of looking at things is wrong when you are perfectly happy living that way. But what does that have to do with it? If I'm trying to decide whetheryour way of life is right, I'm not asking whether it makes you happy. If you want an argument that doesn...
Art

Can a work of art have value regardless of who creates it? Can, and should, we look past the character of the artist - however immoral we consider them to be - and simply experience and esteem the work itself?

Consider these lines; perhaps you know them: In a Station of the Metro The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough I first came across this poem 35 years ago. Though tastes may vary, it still works for me. But as you may well know, it's by Ezra Pound, who was a propagandist for Mussolini and a virulent anti-Semite. If I bring that to mind as I think about the poem, it leaves an unpleasant taste. But I don't think this shows that the poem itself is less valuable, and I also don't think it means that one can't legitimately take pleasure in it. Whether all cases work this way is another matter. Pound was trying to present a pure image. A good deal of art isn't like that. Outside the context of art, knowing how to interpret someone's words or gestures sometimes calls for knowing something about the person. It doesn't seem crazy to think that this could also be true for certain works of art, though there is a large and long-standing debate here. On the main...

Is time a philosophical concept or a scientific concept?

How about neither? Or both? (Or both neither and both?) Put another way... Time is just one of our many concepts. By far most people who use the concept of time aren't philosophers and aren't scientists either. And so the concept of time as such isn't a peculiarly philosophical concept, nor a peculiarly scientific one. That said, time has a special place in science as a fundamental parameter. We can do a lot of science without the concept of sex, for example, even though there's a place in science for the study of sex. (And of course, if there were no sex, science would grind to a halt in a few decades!) But outside of mathematics, we can't do much science without the concept of time. Moreover, physicists have things to say about time that are deep and surprising and were mostly beyond the imagination of the philosophers and the folk until relatively recently. Philosophers have long taken an interest in time as well, and have taken it as a special subject for philosophical analysis. They've...

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