Recent Responses

Some of the states of consciousness or physiological reactions that movies seem calculated to produce are arguably pleasurable in themselves (for instance, consider comedies and porn films), but there are some emotions that aren't as obviously pleasurable (for instance, fear, disgust, pity) but which still have a market, and there are some emotions that don't seem to have a market at all (for instance, anger). Have philosophers said much in the way of explaining the attraction of non-pleasurable emotions?

There's a large literature on this problem, going back at least four decades. The most oft-cited paper is Kendall Walton's "Fearing Fictions," Journal of Philosophy 75 (1):5-27 (1978). Walton's thesis, developed at length in his later book, is that when we are "frightened" by a horror movie, for example, our mental state isn't accurately described as fear/fright. Instead, says Walton, what's going on is a complex form of make-believe. We derive pleasure and, arguably, other psychological benefits from this way of making-believe, or so the theory goes.

Walton's view isn't the only one, of course. If you want to explore further, there's a recent collection of essays, Suffering Art Gladly: The Paradox of Negative Emotion in Art, edited by my colleague Jerrold Levinson.

Although I've never been convinced by the make-believe account, it does seem right that I'm not literally frightened of the monster when I watch the horror movie. After all: I don't believe there's any monster to be frightened of. But fear needs an object to count as fear. So Walton seems to be on to something: the emotions, if that's the apt word, elicited by a film or a novel aren't simply the same ones as their real-life counterparts. Something else is going on. The problem is to find the best way to describe it.

Of course it's complicated. Take your example of anger. I think we do watch some movies or read some books partly for the anger-like reaction they provoke. It's hard to read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath without finding yourself feeling something that feels a lot like anger. And while you may not be angry at any character in the book (since, after all, they're not real people), you might feel genuine anger about situations like the ones in the story that we know exist in real life. The fact that the novel brings you in touch with that anger is actually a pretty good reason to read it. The feeling of anger isn't pleasant, but feeling it may be a good thing. The same goes for other negative emotions in the right context, tied to the right beliefs. And the same may sometimes be true even for the simulacra of emotions ("fear," or "sadness"...) that fiction provokes.

Say that you join a "youth social and adventure group", where, while rock-climbing or bowling or hiking, its core members will begin, subtly, to sound out your religious beliefs and talk to you about God, is that at all morally problematic? Or in general, if any group has the main raison d'etre of recruiting for a church/political party/pyramid scheme, but initially conceals this motivation (for instance, through initially avoiding any mention of the parent organisation), is there anything wrong with that?

There is something plainly wrong with a group that conceals its real purpose, surely, and lures you in with a false front. But there is nothing wrong with members of a group that is visibly religious in orientation inviting someone to come along and join. 'Why not come and join our Catholic knitting group?' is fine. As to your first question, being sounded out seems OK, because if it get too intense or probing you can always leave. I do think there is something a bit off about a religious group targeting people who are a little lonely or isolated, but on the other hand if there's no expected quid pro quo where's the harm? The devil is in the details of how things are done, I think. Concealed pyramid schemes are another thing altogether, because here the element is deception is at the centre of what's going on.

How strong of an argument for theism is the fine-tuning argument, and what is the current opinion of it?

Great question!
"How strong" is a difficult question to answer precisely, and I'm sure different philosophers will have very different takes on this. The answer will probably have to be comparative (that is, compare how good this argument is to others), and philosophers disagree about how good the other arguments are. For example, some philosophers still think that the old ontological argument is great! Others think it is decisively refuted. In addition, there is disagreement about the merits of the fine tuning argument itself. So, I don't think there's consensus about either side of the comparison that determines how strong the argument is.
That said, I think most of us can agree that it is among the most promising versions of an a posteriori (or empirical) argument for the existence of god, since it has some advantages over the more traditional argument from design. The argument for design appeals to the apparent complexity in nature and posits an intelligent designer on that basis. A major objection to that argument is that evolution by natural selection explains that complexity, so there's no need to posit an intelligent designer after all. That's a pretty good objection (assuming all the details work out, which they seem to). But the fine-tuning argument cannot be refuted by appeal to evolution by natural selection. So that's a huge advantage. So we can say this: the fine-tuning argument is relatively strong in the sense that it resists a major objection to the more traditional empirical argument for the existence of god, namely the design argument.

What is right and what is wrong? Who can say what is right and what is wrong? How can we know what it is? Does it really matter, does it make a difference to know what the right thing and what the wrong thing is? I'm talking about stuff like sexism, racism, money, society etc.

Well, things are wrong if we shouldn't do them; they're right if we should. As for which specific things, there are many. Some people think they can boil it down to a simple principle or two (e.g. things are right if they produce the largest balance of good consequences over bad.) Other people think right and wrong are too varied for anything more than rules of thumb.

Who can say what's right and what's wrong? If you mean who's qualified to pass judgment, then pretty much all of us are—at least about some things. It's wrong to mock people's infirmities. It's wrong to beat someone up because you're annoyed by something he said. It's wrong to kill someone so that you can collect on her insurance policy. And so on. You're in just as good a position as I am to make those claims.

(Of course if you're asking who can make something right or wrong by declaring it right or wrong, there's a pretty good case that no one can. What's right and wrong isn't up to us.)

Does it make a difference to know the difference between right and wrong? It does for the people on the receiving end. If I realize it would be wrong to take the cell phone you left on the table while you were buying your coffee, that might keep me from doing it. And you'll be a lot happier if I don't. It's easy to see how the same sort of point applies to racism, sexism, etc.

Does it make a difference to you? Depends on what sort of difference you have in mind. There are side benefits from acting rightly; people will trust you more, respect you more, think better of you. But the best reason for doing the right thing is that it's the right thing to do. Caring about that makes you a better person, though to understand this, you already have to care—at least a little—about doing what's right.

What is the key difference between philosophy and poetry? Can a quote be identified as poetic with a philosophical idea hidden within it? For example Albert Einstein once said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Could this quote be identified as a sort of poetry? Can it be described as something that describes a philosophical idea? This question arose as someone told me that this is his philosophy, but it sounds like a poetic piece that describes an idea to me. In addition, David Schmidtz once said that "Life is a house and meaning is what makes it home." This also sounds poetic, but does it also describe a philosophy in a single sentence? In general, can a poetic sentence/quote be used as a philosophy or to more generally describe a philosophy?

Plato's view was that poetry is a divine madness - theia mania - and that it is better avoided. He recommended philosophy instead. This seems a bit extreme, and a bit dull. Not all poetry is the product of any kind of mania, and many poets are perfectly sane. Some philosophy, on the other hand, is pretty mad, and does come across as a kind of poetry, though mostly bad poetry. Poetry is not all tall tales, as Plato thought, though some of it has an aspect of fiction. Take for example John Clare's "Autumn Birds", which begins,

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.

There is nothing maniacal about this. Imagination can rise to a kind of poetic description of fact, brilliant and accurate as a mere statement of fact could not be: "The wild duck startles like a sudden thought . . .", for example.

The quotation from David Schmidtz seems perfectly reasonable as a piece of philosophy, even if it sounds like poetry, or even if it is poetry as well as philosophy. The distinction between house and home and its alignment alongside the distinction between an empty life and a meaningful one works very well both at the level of imagination and at the level of commonness philosophy.

Again, Bertrand Russell wrote, 'Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.' This is poetic, if not poetry, but it also describes the tendency of Russell's philosophical work. Why not? Poetry is about imagery, passion, expression, sentiment, and so on, whereas philosophy is about reason, logic, argument and solutions to problems. Nevertheless, there is no reason why one should not be cast in the form of the other.

Is Privacy a form of lying? To keep something private is to regulate truth, it's deciding who should learn the truth and who shouldn't (whether it be on a personal scale or a larger collective scale such as a political organisation). Usually, things are kept private in order to prevent judgment from outside parties, but is it not right that people should be able to make judgments based on the truth? For instance, why do we usually keep our sexual encounters private? Should we not make judgements based on the real truth either of one's character or organisation as opposed to being kept from the reality by the mitigation of information? what if there were no privacy? what if humans were only ever completely honest about their situations? is privacy an arbitrary social construct? would a world without privacy be chaos? P.S is there any interesting reading on this topic you might recommend?

Here's a first-pass response. Lying is saying something that you know is false in an effort to get someone to believe it. If I don't say anything, and I don't try to mislead you about the facts, then I'm not lying. And so if I keep something private, I'm not lying.

In fact, that's a bit too simple. Suppose there's something about me that would come as a big surprise to people who know me. Perhaps it's some unpopular opinion I hold, for example. I've never denied having this opinion, but I've never admitted it either. I just artfully avoid the topic whenever it comes up. I'm keeping my opinion private, but I'm doing it in a way that's meant to preserve the impression people have.

It's still not right to say that I'm lying, but it's plausible to say that I'm not being honest. I'm deliberately keeping information from people that would make a difference to them if they knew it. However, it doesn't automatically follow that I'm doing something wrong. Yes: ideally people should make judgments based on the facts. However, this doesn't mean they're entitled to all the facts. Sometimes it's fair to think that something about you is nobody else's business.

To develop our example a little further, suppose that if people knew my opinion, they'd shun me and treat me badly. But suppose that my opinion is well within the realm of things people can reasonably believe; it's just that in this setting, it's not considered acceptable. Maybe I'm an atheist living in a community of people with very strongly-held religious beliefs, for example. Let's suppose I bear these people no ill-will; I just don't want my life disrupted by a pointless conflict over religion. Why would I be obliged to tell them? Where would their right to pierce the veil of my privacy come from?

I don't know what things would be like if nobody kept anything private. That's a hard question about the dynamics of the social world, and I doubt anyone really knows. All I can say is that I have no desire to live in a world like that, and I don't think the people I know are behaving badly if they don't let me in on all the facts about their lives. For sure: withholding information about yourself is sometimes wrong. But from the fact that it's sometimes wrong, it doesn't follow that it's always wrong or even that it's routinely wrong.

In war memoirs, there is sometimes talk about a feeling of invulnerability among soldiers new to combat: it never occurs to many people that they themselves might be killed. But then something punctures the feeling: it might be that a friend dies, or it might be the sheer quantity or awfulness of death, but at that point the recruit "sees the elephant" and gains a sense of their own mortality. Well, if someone "sees the elephant", how would philosophers characterise the change in epistemological status? For instance, would it be fair to say that the person has gained new knowledge, ie now knows that they're mortal, whereas they didn't know this before? Or is just a case of probability weightings of possible outcomes having changed in the light of new data?

It's a fascinating question. When the recruit "sees the elephant," as you put it, they seem to gain something that calls out for an epistemological characterization, but just what they gain is harder to say. The problem is that the obvious suggestions don't seem to work. The recruit already that s/he is mortal. Likewise, his or her probabilities haven't shifted. The recruit presumably already thought that death is certain.

So what might the recruit have gained if not knowledge or improved probability judgments? One answer is salience. It's one thing to know something; it's another for it to figure significantly in your outlook. If something is salient for me, it plays a different role in guiding my actions than it does for someone who knows it's true but gives it little thought.

On one model, our actions are guided by probabilities and judgments of importance or value/disvalue. But not everything that we know or believe plays a role in our decision-making, and likewise not everything we see as good or bad in the abstract feeds into our internal computations. Our "decision-engines" are finite and limited; they can't take account of everything they would if they we more powerful or capacious. On this way of putting it, what happens when the recruit "sees the elephant" is that his/her decision-making processes will henceforth take something into account that it minimized or ignored before.

On the model just described, what changes isn't the importance we assign to things, but whether that importance actually figures in our cognitive processes. However, someone might argue that if I don't take something into account in guiding my life, I don't really think it's important. If that's the right thing to say, the difference between the recruit before and after "seeing the elephant" would be an evaluative shift rather than a shift in beliefs about the non-evaluative facts. The language of "seeing" would still fit nicely. If someone says "I see now that ____ is much more important than I realized," we all understand what they mean.

Of course, our evaluations shift constantly. The song I love this week may bore me next; the political candidate I disparaged before may now seem better than I thought. Cases like that don't fit the "seeing the elephant" metaphor, and so perhaps we might reach for a notion that's strangely neglected in philosophy these days. Perhaps what the recruit gains when s/he "sees the elephant" is a measure of wisdom. The wise person isn't someone who knows more than other people; the bits of "knowledge" that enter into wisdom are universal truths that no one really doubts. The wise person is someone who has internalized these truths and recognizes their importance in a deep way that's integrated into the way they live their lives. There's a nice paper from almost forty years ago by S. Godlovich that explores this point (see below), but it's an idea that would be recognized by many of the world's wisdom traditions.

Obviously there's a lot more that could be said here, but that's my best shot at a quick answer. These cases of "seeing the elephant" aren't cases of learning new things or revising one's probability judgments. They're cases of acquiring a modicum of wisdom. Wisdom doesn't always come by way of shocks or epiphanies, but sometimes it does. I think you're describing cases of that sort.

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The paper I have in mind is S. Godlovich (1981), "On Wisdom," Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. 11, no. 1

Is there any reason to believe that one sex is biologically superior to the other in a generalized sense? I've heard it said that men are inferior to women because they don't live as long and, in every age group are more likely to die than women. Add to that the fact that men's immune systems aren't as resilient as women's, they invest much less in reproduction, more boys than girls have ADHD or autism, and (it has been argued) men's sexual and aggressive urges are the cause of most violence and suffering in the world. As a man myself, I find these notions deeply troubling, not least because I am not a violent person, but also because though the above facts are scientific, I've read other arguments that evaluative notions of 'superiority' and 'inferiority' have no place in scientific discourse. So if it's not for scientists to say whether or not one sex is superior to the other, which type of expert should we appeal to, if at all? Philosophers such as yourselves, who presumably understand value better than most people? If so, do you think one sex can be considered superior to the other, in any all encompassing, generalized, meaningful way?

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli apparently didn't have much patience for what he saw as nonsense. More than once, it seems, he dismissed an idea by saying that it was "not even wrong."

I'll have to admit: the idea that one sex is superior to the other in any all-things-considered way strikes me as a plausible candidate for "not even wrong" status. Men and women are different. On average—though only on average—women may have some advantages compared to men, and vice-versa. I'm skeptical that there's some way to accumulate these sorts of on-average facts into some meaningful sense in which women are overall superior to men, or the other way around. And even if there were, there's way too much variation for this to tell us much of anything person-by-person.

In any case, the kind of superiority you're concerned about is, as you suggest, not a scientific notion. The kind of superiority you're worried about has to do with whether one sex is in general "better" or perhaps even "nobler" than the other. We can use scientific techniques to make judgments about average longevity, or physical strength or whatnot. But living longer or having stronger muscles or even having a higher I.Q. doesn't make someone a better person, and I think that's closer to what you're actually worried about.

You ask which sort of expert we should turn to if we want to settle such matters. You ask if it might be philosophers, since, you write, philosophers "presumably understand value better than most people." But while some philosophers no doubt have a better theoretical understanding of broad questions about value, I've never seen any evidence at all that philosophers are better at making concrete value judgments than other people. Compare: being a brilliant linguist doesn't make it more likely that you'll be a good judge of poetry.

You say you're not a violent person, and I believe you. But you also say that you're troubled by the thought that there might be some broad sense in which one sex (women, you suspect) is superior to the other. Why be troubled? If you're a good and decent person, you're good and decent person whether or not anyone else is, and whether or not one sex has a higher average score on some scale of virtue. It's clearly possible for men to be good, and for women to be good. We know it's possible because there are good men, and there are good women. It also seems more than likely that there are things we can do to make it more likely that a person, male or female, will turn out to be good person. Perhaps that's a better place to direct our energy: doing what we can to make the world the kind of place where people are more likely to turn out good.

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There's another whole issue here: the distinction between male and female isn't as sharp and clean as is often assumed. In this context, however, the main thing this point would add is to make any superiority thesis even more problematic.

If I investigate the Goldbach conjecture by testing individual even integers to verify that they accord with it, do I have more reason to believe that the conjecture is true the more integers I verify? Or am I in just the same epistemic position regarding the conjecture whether I've verified one integer or a billion?

As you clearly know, no matter how many integers you have checked, that will always be a finite set, and so there will always be infinitely many integers you have not checked. Unless you had some reason to believe that a counterexample to Goldbach must be "low", then, it's hard to see why your checking a handful of cases should give you any more confidence that Goldbach is true. But there are some weird issues about how probability behaves in such cases, about which Timothy WIlliamson and others have written.

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