Recent Responses

I recently thought something unsettling about claims of objectivity. It is customary to think that for a view to be objective is for it to be true independent of human opinions. My question then is this: isn't it the case that any view we have, even if we take it to be objective, will still have to pass through the human lens so that there is no view that can be completely independent of human perspectives? Is this a good argument? As an objectivist, I find this argument hard to refute so any help from you would be much appreciated. Thanks!

I think the wording of your question contains the answer. You define an objective view as a view that is true independently of human opinions. A view can satisfy that definition even if every view is someone's view. The fact that no view can be held without being held by someone doesn't imply that no view can be true independently of human opinions.

Take a simple example: If your view is that elephants are bigger than mice, your view can be true independently of human opinions even though it's held by a human and formed on the basis of human perception. It's a separate issue how you know that elephants are bigger than mice. But the objective truth of the view isn't threatened merely by its being your view.

Can something become nothing? In an absolute sense. It seems impossible intuitively speaking, but I have hard time figuring out a logically strict arguments. Thanks!

Merriam-Webster defines the relevant senses of the verb "become" as "come into existence"; "come to be"; and "undergo change or development." Given that definition, how about this argument?

(1) Necessarily, whatever comes into existence, comes to be, or undergoes (qualitative) change or development exists at the end of the process of coming into existence, coming to be, or undergoing (qualitative) change or development.
(2) Necessarily, whatever exists is not nothing.
(3) Therefore: It is impossible for something to become nothing.

If that argument is sound, then it's only in a figurative sense (rather than a literal sense) that something becomes nothing when it goes out of existence.

Hey so I'm actually writing a paper on the biological basis of morality and am taking an evolutionary standpoint on it. So my premise is based upon the fact that all living beings have the intrinsic need to survive and reproduce, which is what natural selection is based upon. Also, it has been researched that species (using the definition of organisms that can breed with each other and produce viable offspring) care for each other and co-operate with each other to ensure the survival of their own species. Now I believe that this would lead to one objective moral truth that we ought to care for the well being of our species. I know this commits the is ought fallacy but I believe it can be overlooked in this case since this behavior of survival and reproduction can be observed in all species that we know of to date. Do you think this Is a fairly viable standpoint to take or am I missing something essential?

When you say that " for each other and co-operate with each other to ensure the survival of their own species," I take it you're referring not to all species (including all plants, all microbes, all invertebrates, etc.) but only to those species whose members care for each other and cooperate with each other, which may be a minority of the species that exist.

Anyway, you ask whether something like the following argument is "fairly viable":

1. The members of all species [of the restricted kind referred to above] act so as to promote the survival of their own species.
2. Therefore: We humans ought to act so as to promote the survival of our own species.

As you seem to recognize, the argument isn't logically valid: The premise doesn't logically imply the conclusion. But the argument can be made logically valid by inserting a premise, such as

P. We humans ought to do what the members of all species [of the restricted kind referred to above] do.

One problem is that P itself is highly doubtful. The members of all species [of the restricted kind referred to above] engage in at least some of these behaviors: killing each other, eating their own offspring, killing the offspring of competitors, consuming their food supply until they're threatened by starvation, using physical violence to secure mating opportunities, and having sex by overpowering resistance. We humans are no exception. Yet you wouldn't argue that we humans ought to do any of those things.

In general, I think that arguing from biological facts to moral principles is an unpromising strategy.

Many theists appeal to certain facts about the world (objectivity of morality, laws of nature, existence of the universe) and infer that these facts must be grounded in God. One response that I found common to atheists is to argue that these facts are rather brute and need no explanation beyond themselves. My question then is this: What makes a particular fact a brute fact? To put it more specifically, are there any criteria for what would make a certain fact brute and also for what would make a certain fact necessarily grounded on something else?

As I understand it, the distinction between brute facts and other facts is that a brute fact has no explanation (not simply an explanation we fail to know) whereas any other fact has an explanation (even if we don't know the explanation).

Contingent facts could have been otherwise: they could have failed to be facts. Noncontingent facts couldn't have been otherwise: they couldn't have failed to be facts. Given the history of scientific explanation, I see no reason to accept the existence of brute contingent facts. Many contingent facts that seemed to resist explanation were later explained. I see no reason to think that many of the facts that now seem to resist explanation won't themselves later be explained.

One way for every contingent fact to have an explanation is for there to be an endless regress of contingent facts. I see nothing wrong with such a regress. Assuming that the existence and nature of our universe are both contingent, they would be explained by an endless regress of contingent facts, none of them brute. What explains the existence of the entire set of such facts? Either that question is ill-posed, or else it's already answered by the facts in the regress. Traditional theism tries to explain the existence and nature of the universe by appealing to God's libertarian (i.e., undetermined) free choice. Even if libertarian free choice is a coherent idea, which I doubt, this theistic explanation leaves at least one brute contingent fact, namely, God's free choice to make the universe this way rather than some other way.

I'm not as sure that an endless regress will work for noncontingent facts. What explains the law of noncontradiction, the noncontingent fact that a proposition and its negation can't possibly both be true? My sense is that any explanation of that fact will eventually repeat the fact being explained, making the explanation circular. So if, for example, some objective moral principles are noncontingently true, their explanation might eventually include a noncontingent fact that's brute because it has no (noncircular) explanation. Here, though, I think that the brute noncontingent facts will make no reference to God, just as philosophers Wes Morriston and Erik Wielenberg have argued.

Hi! My friend tells me that our purpose in life can't be to be happy. Either one of the religions has got it right, and there is a deity or deities, in which case our purpose is to serve them, or there is no God, in which case we have no purpose other than one we arbitrarily decide for ourselves to follow. Does that claim hold water? Thanks in advance for your help!

I think your friend's argument by dilemma leaves out this possibility: we were made by a deity (or deities) principally in order to lead happy lives rather than principally in order to serve it (or them).

Even so, our having been made for the purpose of being happy wouldn't make being happy our purpose. Instruments made for a purpose thereby acquire that purpose (although, of course, they can later be repurposed). But people aren't instruments; I doubt that they're the kind of thing that can be given a purpose, even by their maker. Or at least, because they're autonomous, people can thwart any attempt by their maker to give them a purpose.

Hence I don't think there could be any such thing as "our purpose in life," if "our" refers to people in general. So I agree with your friend's conclusion (although for different reasons than your friend gave): our purpose in life can't be to be happy. Nor can it be anything else.

It is now known that perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible because of the Principle of Conservation of Energy. Now, suppose someone is able to create a perpetual motion machine. This would entail that a known law of nature has been violated. My question then is this: should that particular act be considered a miracle?

If someone figured out how to build a perpetual motion machine, this would mean that something formerly but falsely believed to be law of nature would have been found not to be. It wouldn't mean that a bona fide law of nature had been violated.

Or at least that's a reasonable thing to say. But I've assumed that God has nothing to do with the Ever-Whirling Whirligig. If there's a God, that complicates things.

There's a view that says there can't be miracles because by definition, miracles are violations of laws of nature and by definition, a false generalization isn't actually a law of nature, but that's a poor argument. If there is a supernatural God, then the reasonable way to understand laws of nature is that they're generalizations that hold true without special divine intervention. A good analogy (can't remember who offered it) is that the laws of nature are like the working of a clock when nothing messes with its mechanism. If God messes with the natural mechanisms and suspends them in some way or another, that could amount to a miracle.

There's a further issue for some people. A supposed miracle could always just be a case of our having thought something was a law of nature, when in fact the natural regularities don't work that way in the first place. That, of course, is true. But some people go on to say that we could never have good reason to think the apparently miraculous events really were divine interventions. The reply to that is that surely it depends on the details. In most religious traditions, miracles aren't just weird events. They have significance—they're messsages from the Divine. We can at least imagine cases in which the meaning of the event should be clear even to the skeptic. (At least I can, and I'm a skeptic.)

In any case, a perpetual motion machine doesn't seem like a good candidate for that sort of status.

Hi! I was wondering if I could ask a few moral questions related to Brett Kavanaugh. 1. Is it morally bad to profit from a crime; and, if so, why? It seems to me that most traditional moralities seem to proscribe against acts (like "Thou shalt not murder"), and sometimes against the emotional motivation for acts (greed, lust, pride), but that they aren't focused on the consequences of acts. It also seems to me that act utilitarianism wouldn't regard profiting from a crime as bad per se. If anything, the resulting happiness is a good: it's just that it needs to be weighed together with the resulting suffering. 2. In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, let's assume: (a) that he did commit assaults while drunk 40 years ago; and (b) that, after college, he went on to lead an unimpeachable life. In this scenario, would the assaults then constitute a moral reason not to confirm him to the Supreme Court? What does the panel make of the following claims? -- (a) He's a different person now, so there is no moral problem. 40 years says so. Convicted criminals need to do less than that to prove they deserve to have full citizenship rights reinstated. -- (b) Criminals can still be good Xs -- good doctors, good teachers, good judges, etc -- so there is no moral problem. There is no clear causative link between assaults then and judging ability now. -- (c) Assuming there are moral objections to profiting from a crime, Kavanaugh wouldn't be. Rather, he would be profiting from having got away with a crime, from not having it on his record.

You ask if it's morally bad to profit from a crime. Since the answer seems pretty clearly to be yes, I'm a bit unsure what would count for you as saying why, but let's try an example: Robin's spouse carries a large life insurance policy. Robin kills him—a morally bad thing, I hope you'll agree—and then gets the payout from the policy, thereby profiting from the crime. Sounds bad to me.

Consider two cases. (1) someone commits a crime—a theft, let's say— but they do it in order to help some desperate but otherwise innocent person. (2) Someone commits the same crime, but they do it simply because they want the money, which in fact they manage to get away with keeping and using. Most of us would say that the first case is less egregious, the wrongdoer of less bad character, and the act more forgivable.

Is there a deeper explanation? More than one, no doubt. If my profit flows from a crime, then I don't deserve the benefit I got, and we care about whether people deserve what they're getting. Also, if we don't have sanctions against profiting from crimes, we take away a reason for not committing them. No doubt there are other things to be said here.

As for your remark about act utilitarianism, it actually points to a reason for not being an act utilitarian. Suppose X and Y both murder innocent people, but unlike X, Y actually enjoyed the killing and savors the memory. Only someone in the grip of a bad theory could think that this makes it less bad overall that Y committed his murder than that X committed hers. On the contrary, the healthier thought is that Y's pleasure is worse than morally worthless; it's despicable. Someone who didn't see this is someone I wouldn't trust around sharp objects.

I am not going to offer any view on Brett Kavanaugh. In fact, set him aside entirely. Your broader question is this: if someone doesn't profit from their crime itself, but only from not being caught, should we care? Surely the question is whether we would think it was right to give them the benefit if we actually knew about the crime. Suppose that Z embezzled money from his law firm in a one-time act 20 years ago. (The statute of limitations is less than that, BTW.) Z is nominated for a judgeship. Don't know about you, but if I knew about the embezzlement, that would make a difference to whether I thought Z deserved the judgeship. And if Z served on the bench but it came to light after his death that he had embezzled from his firm, I expect my view would be that he didn't deserve his judgeship. Yes; he might have served honorably. But that's not the only thing we can care about.

Finally, on the bit about someone being "a different person." I think it's wise whenever we can to avoid making moral judgments on the basis of slippery metaphysics. I'd suggest that this is one of those cases.

Can philosophy prove/disprove anything or it is just inconclusive and useless?

One of philosophy's most important uses is in helping us to spot bad questions. It's better to diagnose the defect in a bad question than to try to answer a bad question straight up.

Take your question, for instance. Its defect is your false dichotomy: your assumption that any discipline either can prove or disprove things or else is inconclusive and useless. It might be neither of those. Historians of Tudor England can't prove or disprove things, if that means answering historically interesting questions with absolute certainty: their historical evidence doesn't allow them to do that. But of course that doesn't make the history of Tudor England a useless area of inquiry, and if it's not useless then it's not inconclusive and useless.

Your false dichotomy aside, philosophy does prove some things, such as the principles of logical reasoning. Less abstractly, philosophy often proves that some theory consisting of specific propositions A, B, C (say) is logically committed to some other proposition D that seems implausible. When that happens the theory in question faces a dilemma: revise away at least one of A, B, C; or explain why D isn't as implausible as it seems.

Yes, many of the most interesting claims in philosophy remain both unproven and unrefuted. But the same goes for many of the most interesting claims in any discipline, including physics. In the absence of proof, some claims are nevertheless better-supported by evidence and argument than others.

Why are non-material objects not causally efficacious? Or, why can’t non-material objects partake in causality? Is there a reason other than simply saying that non-material objects are as such by definition? Thank you!

The first point is that not everyone would accept the presupposition of your question. Most obviously, theists wouldn't. According to many varieties of theism, the First Cause of the material world is not a material thing. Needless to say, not everyone agrees. But you can deny that there is a non-physical First Cause without denying that the very idea is incoherent.

There are homelier examples. On at least some views, the fact that something was absent can be a cause. Absences, however, aren't material objects. (In fairness, they aren't non-material objects either.) So the first point is that it isn't simply agreed by the parties to the dispute that only material objects are causally efficacious. We could also add that even among materialists, broadly understood, most would say that events rather than objects are what do the causing, but it's at least arguable that events are in space and time and so even if they aren't material objects, they're physical in a broader sense.

The second point is that there are different theories of causation, and on one important approach, causation should be understood in terms of counterfactuals. This way of thinking about causation goes back to David Hume, although he didn't develop the idea in any detail. The most important recent defender of a counterfactual analysis of causation was David Lewis, and we can illustrate the idea with a simple case. Suppose that if a certain switch were flipped, a light would turn on. And suppose that if the switch were not flipped, the light would not turn on. Then on this sort of view, flipping the switch causes the light to turn on. The more general idea is this: suppose C1, C2,... Cn are mutually exclusive jointly exhaustive possible events (that is, no two can occur at one, and together they exhaust the alternatives.) Likewise, suppose E1, E2,...En are mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive possible events, all distinct from the C-events. Suppose that the following are all true:

If C1 occurred, E1 would occur.
If C2 occurred, E2 would occur
If Cn occurred, En would occur.

Then the E-family of possibilities depends causally on the C-family. But notice that this approach says nothing about whether causes are material or immaterial. True, as I've presented it, the story relies on the idea of something occurring. That at least invokes time. But there are ways to make the analysis general enough to include, for example, the possibility that the cause of the existence of the material world is the (timeless) fact that its existence is God's will. (Had it not been God's will that the universe exist, it would not have existed.)

Whether a counterfactual analysis of causation is the best way to go is a matter of debate. But the point is that there is a real debate here. You might find the discussion and references in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a good place to start.

Lots of science today (meteorology, cosmology) is based on computer simulation or modeling for those phenomena that are difficult to observe directly. If a computer simulation gives me a result consistent with what we can see (star distribution for two galaxies that collide) can we infer that the underlying process is the same in the simulation and in physical world? The simulation is just numbers (or symbols) input as data about the system(s) modeled. Are numbers the underlying "stuff" of objects, too, rather than atomic particles, etc.?

Suppose that instead of a computer producing a simulation, we have an army of thousands of worker-bee science grad students performing and assembling vast numbers of calculations matching all the steps that a computer simulation would call for. Suppose the results are consistent with observation. We wouldn't ask whether what's being simulated is really nothing but desperate grad students chained to desks doing tedious math.

Computer simulations are ways of finding out what our equations and assumptions entail. In an example where it would be feasible to calculate the behavior of the model by hand, we wouldn't doubt that the real target of the exercise is external-world stuff—particles or economic agents or pathogens or whatever. That doesn't change if we move to cases where there's no serious possibility of doing the calculations by hand. The computer simulation doesn't represent itself. It represents what it simulates. If we've done things right, the representation will be more or less accurate. But how we represent doesn't determine what's represented.