Advanced Search

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...

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...

I am a starting my second year as an eleventh and twelfth grade global history teacher in the South Bronx this fall. In the spring I suggested that our school offer a philosophy course to some of our strong seniors and was told it would not fit into our curriculum. Much to my delight I was informed yesterday that I will be teaching the course. The only problem is that I am overwhelmed with the task of creating a curriculum. My class is set to meet for about an hour a day for a year. In addition to deep and thoughtful philosophical conversations I would also like them to read several original works of philosophy although not in their entirety. I need to be able to take my students to reading and uncovering meaning from the texts, to read and figure out Sartre for themselves. Finding resources to teach with has been very problematic. So often I find philosophy books explain philosophers well but fail to suggest reading Plato. While my students' literacy levels are not at the same level as most...

Best of luck to you in this worthy undertaking! I hope my colleagues will provide suggestions of their own; there are many possibilities. But I'd like to offer a general thought or two, as well as a couple of specific suggestions. Although I have great respect for the scholarly attempt to wrestle with texts by Plato, Locke, Kant and so on, there's a caution to keep in mind. Philosophy is primarilya problem- and question-oriented, and doing it well has more to do with a certain kind of careful thinking than with knowledge of texts by classic authors. A look at a typical philosophy journal bears this out. The articles may refer to the recent literature (though "recent" in philosophy doesn't just mean "last year"), but they often don't mention classic literature at all. I just glanced through the bibliographies of the articles in the Spring 2007 issue of a major philosophy journal. At most 5% of the references were to texts or articles before 1960. The old texts can be valuable, but they...

1. Cause must always precede effect. 2. You cannot be conscious of a thought before you think it. 3. Therefore, you cannot consciously cause thoughts. The logic seems infallible. However, it is intensely counterintuitive. It seems like common sense to say, "I consciously create my thoughts."

It may be that I'm missing the point (I haven't had my daily ration of chocolate yet), but what's wrong with this way of looking at it? Conscious or not, a thought can't be its own cause -- at least, not given our usual assumptions. That's what I take your premise 1 to entail. And it seems right: I can't be conscious of a particular thought X before I think it. (It may be, for all that, that I can think it before I'm conscious of it.) But why can't my conscious thought X be the cause of a later conscious thought Y ? For example, my thinking now about a jigger of gin might cause me to think, a moment later, that there's a bottle of gin in the freezer. Or maybe the issue is this: if I'm going to consciously cause a thought about Vienna, the content of that thought must already be part of the thought that does the causing. In that case, I'm conscious of the thought before I've thought it, contrary to premise 2. But then premise 2 ends up suspect, doesn't it? Couldn't I be sitting here...

How logically rigorous is the claim that neurochemical changes in the brain 'cause' mood or emotional disorders? Does a running nose cause a cold? In any case, before prescribing powerful chemicals to emotionally distressed patients shouldn't doctors use some sort of machine to test the chemical levels of their brains?

You're right: we shouldn't throw the word "causes" around too casually. Let's fix on depression as our example, and let's keep in mind that simply being sad isn't the same as being clinically depressed. On the one hand, neurochemicals probably aren't just symptoms of depression; they probably have something to do with causing the symptoms -- the listlessness or anxiety, or excessive rumination or protacted feelings of sadness. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that clinical depression is , at bottom, a malfunction in the neurochemical system, though this may be too reductionistic, and it also may turn out not to get the biology right. But perhaps what you're pointing to is that it still makes sense to ask what causes this malfunction in the first place. That's obviously a very good question. My impression is that sometimes life circumstances can trigger depression, but sometimes there's no clear external cause. The right answer here is likely to be very complicated. At the moment, far as I...

I want to compare the human mind to a computer program, for the sake of this question. In a computer program, if a circumstance occurs that the machine can not process due to a fault in the code, or a lack of processing power, or any number of reasons, the program will error out. It can have many symptoms: frozen program interface, the dreaded blue screen of death, or a simple restart. But either way the program ceases to function. (Of course their are nifty programmers out their that protect against simple errors by allowing a tolerated amount of them go unnoticed if they don't impede the overall abilities of the program.) What I want to know is how or mind deals with these errors. What stops us from running infinite loops that stalls out our minds and rends us slobbering piles of useless flesh. When we are confronted with something that our brain can not understand or grasp or comprehend, how do we cope? Or is there a limit to where we cease to function?

An intriguing puzzle. The first point is that insofar as it's a question about how our minds actually work, it's an empirical matter, and the answer depends on the facts. But there's a design-level issue here (which I'm hoping my better-informed colleagues might chime in on.) Suppose we have a complicated program that's broken up into sub-programs, or modules. And suppose that there is one module whose job it is to monitor what's going on in various other modules and stop them if they appear to be running amok. Perhaps, for example, this monitor module will kill a process if it has cycled through a million iterations without halting. You no doubt get the idea (and may well have thought of it yourself.) If a system is modular enough, and if it has enough safeguards, redundancies, monitoring modules and so on built in, then the chance that it will just go nuts might be small. And so if the mind is essentially a computer, it may be that millions of years of evolution have built it in this sort of...

Assume there is a God, who is the always-was, always-will-be Catholic version of a Supreme Being. If this is the first universe and the first earth (and, therefore, we are the first people) what in tarnation was He doing all that time before He decided to actuate the so-=called Big Bang?

I suppose She wasn't twiddling Her thumbs, since I believe God has no thumbs... But a bit more helpfully, there are two ways to think about God's relationship to time. On one view, God is eternal . That means that God is outside time and space altogether. On the other view, God is everlasting -- is in time, but has no beginning and no end. My sense is that the former view is the dominant one in Catholic tradition. And in that case, God wasn't doing anything "before" the Big Bang, since "before" and "after" don't apply to God. You might want to look at the entry on Eternity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see the link to the right) and you might also find the paper called "Eternity" by Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Journal of Philosophy, 1981) interesting, though that paper is a bit difficult. By the way: on one way of thinking about the Big Bang, "before" doesn't apply to it either. Time itself begins with the Big Bang. If that's the right way to think of it, then...

Does anyone know the national average number of Americans that will study philosophy in their lifetimes?

I'd like to know if my colleagues have any better information than I do. The best I have to offer is a not very reliable guess based on limited information. There is a graph at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/97trends/ea1-6.htm which, when extrapolated, leads to the estimate that perhaps as many as 70% of people in the USA who have a high school diploma will have at least some college education. And what's posted at http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/censusandstatistics/a/highschool.htm claims that 85% of adults 25 and over have a high school diploma. This suggests that perhaps about 64% of people in the US will have at least some college education -- a figure that I seem to recall being consistent with something I read elsewhere. But to complete our guesswork, we need an estimate of the percentage of people among those with at least some college education who take a philosophy course. Here I have nothing to offer but instinct. And my guess is that it is no higher than 20% and quite possibly considerably...

Pages