Recent Responses

If we all have personal biases (ie. every individual, being unique, perceives the same event slightly differently), how can we trust anyone to provide the real truth?

An incomplete answer, but relevant, I hope.

Suppose the question is: did Prof. Geisler show up for class on Monday? We ask students enrolled in the class. All the students who were there in the room at class time say yes: Prof. Geisler was there. In fact, she arrived on time, and taught a full class.

Let's grant that every person in the room had a slightly different take on exactly what went on in the room at that time. Let's also grant that some of what some people would say happened will be inaccurate, and may reflect their biases and psychological idiosyncrasies. The question, however, is whether Prof. Geisler showed up. There's no reason to think these differences in perception got in the way of judging that.

In one way this is a trivial example, but it reflects something extremely common. Even with our very real quirks and biases, there's an enormous amount of what we perceive and believe for which those quirks and biases are simply irrelevant. Individually, most of these facts may be inconsequential. But when we add them up, we arrive at a shared account of a great deal about the way things are. We don't all live in our own separate worlds. People who claim otherwise strike me as either not really thinking through what they're saying or else in the grip of a bad theory.

Don't many of us regard that "vision" is something like the headlights of a car, casting a beam of light on objects, originating inside the eye? Which is of course completely wrong and the truth is the opposite. Its fairly present in many cultures and even though it is just a mere figure of speech it feels wrong doesn't it?

Do the perceptual systems work from the environment in, or from the perceiver out? In English there are famously two very different groups of perceptual words, one active and one passive: look/see, listen/hear, touch/#feel, smell/smell (i.e. "smell" has two meanings, one for the activity of sniffing out - ('The dog was smelling my shoes'), and the other for a more passive kind of reception of some smell.) In his celebrated 1966 The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems J.J. Gibson argued that the active seeking out of "information" is more fundamental than passive sensing, and his famous cookie-cutter experiment showed this. If you actively move your hands relative to the object of perception, the percentage of correct identifications is very high. If the stimuli are given to you passively, the percentage drops to under half of what it was. The senses have to be active, and without activity even the passive sensation degrades. This was also shown by some early phenomenological experiments by Katz on grades of paper. It is even true in unobvious ways of vision, as can be seen by the disappearance of objects in the field of vision whose image is stabilised on the retina.

Is it fair for the government to impose something onto people that they did not want or ask for, while still expecting them to carry the burden of it? For example in 2015 the government mandated that all TV stations stop broadcasting in analog and broadcast exclusively in digital. The result of this was billions of dollars wasted in PSAs and handing out converter boxes, millions of portable TV sets ending up in landfills, and many low income families left without TV. The cost of all of this was ultimately left to taxpayers, while the government made 19 billion in spectrum auctions. In other words, the government gained a massive benefit at the expense of the citizens. Can one justify breaking a law that causes more harm than good? Lets say that I am operating a TV station in a rural area with a lot of mountains and bad weather, in which a digital signal would have poor reception. Would I be justified in broadcasting an analog TV signal in this area, even though I am legally prohibited from doing so? As consumers in a free market society, do we not have the right to make these decisions as the circumstances would necessitate. After all, we (more often than not) know the conditions we are dealing with more than the government.

Lots of questions there. I'll offer three comments.

The first is that if citizens simply get to pick and choose the laws they follow, then we don't have laws at all. The question of what makes government coercion legitimate is a big one, and I'm not a political philosopher. But if governments are ever legitimate, then it will also be legitimate to prevent people, by force if necessary, from simply ignoring laws they don't like.

The second comment is about this:

          In other words, the government gained a massive benefit at the expense of the citizens.

I'd suggest there's a confusion here. The government isn't a private corporation. Money that "the government" has is money that the State has, and, if the State isn't corrupt, the government (the institutional embodiment of the State) uses the money for the benefit of its citizens. It's not stowed in secret bank accounts that government officials can draw on for their own benefit.

Finally, is it ever justified to break a law that does more harm than good? It may be, though the State will still have a prima facie justification for prosecuting the lawbreakers. This goes back to the first point: some citizen may believe that some law does more harm than good. But a "state" that leaves these judgments up to individual citizens will not be a state at all. Some people may have enough faith in human nature to believe that anarchy is a better alternative than the State, even if the State is a functioning modern democracy. Most of us aren't convinced, however interesting and difficult problem providing a good theory of the State may be.

Through some years of philosophical study I've become confused about what exactly it means for me to have knowledge. What was once a familiar and seemingly clear concept has now become unfamiliar and obscure. Can it be made clear again for me? Can I ever know whether or not I know? It seems as though the more I read about knowledge the more obscured it becomes.

I don't know the answer to your question, but since this topic interests you, I would recommend you take a look at the skeptical traditions generally categorized as Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism. One famous device you might use to think about these questions is called Agrippa's trilemma. An ancient chronicler of skepticism called Sextus Empiricus reports that one Agrippa posed the following problem: Justifications for knowledge claims seem problematic because knowledge claims must be justified by other claims, just as premises are needed to justify a conclusion. How are the justifying claims to be themselves justified? Either (1) they are self-evident and self-justifying--but this seems wrong and little better than making assumptions, which justify nothing. Or (2) the supposed justification starts an infinite regress where the supporting claims get justified by other claims and those claims get justified by still other claims, ad infinitum--but an infinite regress doesn't seem like justification. Or (3) the justifying claims run finally in a circle where one set justifies others, which are justified by others, which require the initial claim for justification--but arguing in a circle doesn't justify anything either. Since there's no alternative besides stopping with assumptions, an infinite regress of justifications, or arguing in a circle, and since none of those three offer adequate justification, then it seems that knowledge is impossible. For Sextus's formulation of this trilemma, see his book, _The Outlines of Pyrrhonism_, Book 1, Chapter 15, Line 164 (usually cited as PH 1.15.164). Do you see a way out of Agrippa's trilemma? I confess that as of this moment, I don't.

When you look at non-human animal communication, for instance birds and cats, you can explain what's going on simply in terms of cause and effect. Now, human language is more complex, but if you happen to have determinist beliefs, at some level you believe it's all cause and effect, right? So, when describing why and how people use words, would an ideal observer need to talk about the meanings of words at all, or would the concept of meaning drop out as unnecessary?

Since no one else has answered your question, I'll chime in. I confess that I find it hard to see how any explanation of human communication purely at the level of (say) sounds and scribbles, with no reference to the meaning conveyed by sounds and scribbles, could avoid leaving out something important. But I'm no expert on this topic, so all I can do is recommend reading the SEP entry on "Eliminative Materialism," found here. I'm going to read it now myself.

A common defense of an unethical act is to say, "If I didn't do it, someone else would." Let's say for the sake of argument that such a claim is true. Is it a credible defense? I wonder if a utilitarian in particular should be receptive to this line of thought.

Good question. Yes, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and, as the term suggests, the concern is with the net consequences of action. If some consequence is inevitable (imagine this involves an injury) and it cannot be prevented, then it may be an open question about who brings about the consequence. I note that this would be an "open question," because a utilitarian might still have good reasons to be very concerned about who does the act. Let's say you and I have applied for a job that will result in one of us (unfairly) injuring someone and, for some reason, this unfair injury cannot be prevented. I get the job and reason that, well, if I don't do it, you would. It still may be worse for me to do the act for, having done it, perhaps I have a weak character and am more likely to do far more unjust acts (than you). But, setting aside this additional way of measuring and comparing consequences, it is usually the non-utilitarian (the Kantian or advocate of virtue theory) who claim that it matters a great deal who actually does the harm. For some, it is a matter of integrity. For a classic case for integrity do a search for Bernard Williams on integrity against utilitarianism.

Not sure whether this question would fall under philosophy or psychology (both perhaps) but I was always curious why it is that children love video games but hate homework. Cognitively they are pretty much the same. They challenge the child to think critically to solve a problem, and provide a sense of reward when completed, so why is one cherished while the other despised?

Plato recounts a conversation in his magisterial dialogue "Republic" (at lines 475e-476b) where a young man names "Glaucon" and Socrates discuss education and philosophy (the love of wisdom). A distinction is generated between "lovers of sights and sounds" and "lovers of truth." I suspect something of that explains the difference you've discerned. Some people find satisfaction in sensuous experiences (the "lovers of sights and sounds"). They like images and fictions, make-believe, movies, shows, representations. They enjoy vivid and delightful shapes, colors, movement, music, powerful sub-woofer explosions, etc. Others enjoy ideas, theories, concepts, arguments, principles, and the discovery of fundamental truths about what's real, actual, and factual. They're less interested in exciting moments than in enduring wisdom. There's also a discussion perhaps relevant in work by the quasi-Platonic philosopher, Augustine, about how people get caught up in the desires of their eyes and senses generally, rather than desires related to knowing ultimate truth. Finally, your question reminds me of the end of the novelist Herman Hesse's book "Steppenwolf" (from which the band took its name). It's a passage where the main character reflects upon Mozart heard on a lousy old radio and discovers that he can still appreciate the music even when badly conveyed. The sound reproduction of the radio is poor. It's not high fidelity. No deep, subwoofer base. No digitally remastered production values. But the extraordinary quality of the music is still discernible to him nevertheless. In contrast many people spend enormous amounts of money and invest substantial pride in their hi-fi "sound" systems, but the music they play is terrible. What delights the latter kind of listener (the ones with the great audio systems but stinky music), aside from the social status symbolized by their expenditures, are the sensuous elements of what plays (the sounds) rather than the intellectual dimensions of the music (the composition, harmonies, complex rhythms, its conversation with musical history). I don't know how much of this difference is inborn in people and how much is cultivated, but I suspect that the problem is that while lots of educational programs try to wrap learning in video game-like sensory experiences, they inadvertently teach students to love the sights and sounds but not the ideas and truths conveyed by them. They give students the medicine with a spoonful of sugar, but the students come to love the sugar instead of the medicine. (Lots of the rest of our culture also cultivates the love of sensuous experiences at the expense of the love of ideas). Good education must cultivate students loves and desires and direct them in the right direction. The distinction you're seeing is the result of inadequate education, or perhaps just the starting point from which all education must take up its work.

If two different truths exist that call for opposite actions, can both still be true? An ongoing trade case I am writing about is being pursued by four domestic wire rod producers that claim exported wire rod from 10 countries is unfairly priced so low that it threatens their businesses. They want antidumping penalties to be imposed. Domestic wire manufacturers oppose this action as they say it will mean higher prices for them, and that they will lose business to their counterparts in other countries that have access to the lower-cost wire rod. Both have voluminous details and arguments…yet their “findings” are the exact opposite. The only belief they share is that if they do not win, the results will be horrific. If both side speak the truth, can either side's truth be considered a greater truth, one that subordinates the now lesser truth? Or, is truth a concept unto itself, meaning that it either is or isn’t, and truths cannot compete for being most truthful.

I'd suggest setting the word "truth" aside, at least at first. You've given us a decision with two alternatives. There are reasons for and against each, and it's not clear that the reasons on either side have an edge. If, suppose, the case for imposing penalties was stronger overall, then we could say that that's what ought to happen, and we could even put this by saying it's true that penalties ought to be imposed. But saying that there are two different "truths" tends to confuse us.

Think about a less fraught case. You're trying to decide where to go on holiday and as it happens, there are two choices. If we want, we can model the decision-making process using the tools of what's called decision theory. There will be different considerations—say, expense, climate, quality of acomodations, sight-seeing possibilities... You could give each possibility a score on each dimension. You could also decide how much you care about expense, climate, etc. relative to one another. Putting all that information together, you could even come up with an overall score for each of your vacation possibilities. It's possible that the scores could end up dead even. This doesn't mean that there are two opposing "truths" about your vacation. It's just what we said: overall, the pros and cons even out.

In the case of the vacation, I'd probably flip a coin. In the case you have in mind, the law doesn't allow for coin flips, far as I know. I'd hope that the rules allow for hammering out compromise, though I'm completely naive about how such things actually work. But there's no paradox.

If I read your last question correctly, you're asking if things are simply true or false, or if there's room for incompatible claims to be true, with one being more true than the other. The standard answer in logic is that since nothing can be both true and false at the same time, incompatible things can't both be true, though one could be closer to the truth. (Simple example: you say that Al, Biff and Clancy robbed the bank. I say it was Al, Bart and Chuck. In fact, it was Al, Biff and Curley. We're both wrong overall, but you're closer to the truth than me.) This case isn't the same as your example, but laying out the differences would get tedious pretty quickly. My main suggestion is that in thinking about your question, we do well to lower the philosophical temperature. Talking about "Truths" as abstract Platonic thingees encourages us to leave more common-sense and, frankly, more nuanced description aside. We risk ending up trying to do our thinking on a level of abstraction where the air is too thin for keeping our focus.

I've known some professors to ban laptops from their class. Students often complain about this, and one argument they make is based on a kind of transactional view of higher education. They argue that, since they are paying tuition for their courses, it is their right to conduct themselves as they wish (to use laptops, perhaps even to send text messages on their phones or take naps) so long as they do not disturb others. For similar reasons, many students complain that things like attendance requirements are also illegitimate. Is this reasonable? Do professors have a right to enforce a more demanding classroom ethic?

I don't know about this "transactional" model of college education -- for one thing, tuition doesn't begin to pay for the cost of higher ed, so a student is deluded if he or she thinks higher ed is a straightforward economic exchange -- but let's leave aside my scruples about that and examine the major premise here, which is that if one has contracted for something, one is not subject to any regulation in one's use of that thing.

This premise is obviously false. For one thing, it might be part of the contract that there are "terms and conditions" governing both the provider of the good or service, and the consumer. So in downloading a movie or some music, you agree not to show the movie or play the music for any commercial purpose. Similarly, a student who enrolls in a college agrees to abide by the regulations set by the school -- generally encoded in a student handbook. (Faculty, similarly, are required to abide by the regulations in the faculty handbook). I expect that, for almost all colleges, the faculty are given the right to determine some of the rules for their particular classes -- like whether or not students must raised their hands before speaking, and whether or not they are allowed to use electronic devices when class is in session. (An exception -- colleges and universities generally require faculty to permit the use of such devices if they are needed to accommodate a student's disability.)

Another reason the premise is false is that individual contracts cannot invalidate general, background laws. So for example, a professor has a copyright on any of the materials he or she produces for the classroom, unless he or she explicitly waives those rights. That means that if a student gives copies of a handout or an exam to a note-taking company, who then sells the materials, the company (and possibly the student) are liable for suit for copyright infringement. This may hold as well for photos of slides or chalkboards.

Maybe the students who make this argument would find their professors more receptive if they asked them, respectfully, whether they would consider a change of policy, and gave some pedagogical pertinent reasons for doing so.

In a primary school in South Korea, a teacher asked the students to think how happy they are when watching a video of children with famine in Africa. The teacher meant that they must be happier compared to poor children. Then one of the students responded "It's wrong that one feels happy to know other's unhappiness." When I read this article, I deeply agreed with the student. I think most of the NGOs for children in need are using that kind of way to move people and to encourge them to donate. That is, the organizations make people compare themselves to the poor and feel happier and sympathy for the poor. Then they would be willing to donate for the poor. I think this method is effective but wrong. I wonder if those organizations take the wrong method or I am wrong. Could you please let me know your opinion on this issue?

Consider the situation in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. When I think about the people on that island, I don't feel happy; I feel distress. Imagining myself in their situation is painful. That distress is an in-the-moment feeling. If I shift my focus to something else, the feeling abates or disappears. If I turn my attention back to Puerto Rico, the distress returns.

That said, I'm also glad that I'm not living in the midst of that devastation. I am glad even in those moments when I feel distressed about the plight of people living on the island. This "gladness" isn't so much an in-the-moment feeling as a recognition that I have something to be thankful for. In fact, it seems odd to say that I'm happy not to be struggling in the way that the people of Puerto Rico are, even though we sometimes talk that way. Insofar as I'd put it that way, it would be another way to say that I'm relieved or thankful. To whatever extent there's a feeling that goes with that gratitude, it sits in a complicated relationship with distress.

Emotions aren't just "raw feels." Emotions have a cognitive component, and describing them sometimes call for a subtlety that's beyond the reach even of otherwise articulate people. What primary-school children have to say is unlikely to get it right. Do the children feel happy with then think about starving African children? If we looked for the physiological signs of pleasure or contentment, would we expect to find them? I'd guess not.

Charities do try to make us feel sympathy for victims of disasters. But if I feel sympathy for someone, I am at least somewhat moved by their plight. The word "moved" is an interesting one because it suggests motivation. I may give to a Puerto Rican relief fund precisely because thinking about the terrible situation Puerto Ricans find themselves in motivates me to do something. I'm not donating because thinking about people's distress makes me feel happy. I'm moved to donate partly because I don't feel happy when I contemplate the devastation.

There are problems here. Decisions about charitable giving shouldn't simply be a matter of which things I feel worst about. That leaves too much to chance. But that's another issue. The point for now is that NGOs and relief organizations aren't trying to make us feel happy. They're trying to get us to recognize and respond to desperate situations. Accurate descriptions of the emotions that go with the recognition are complicated, and "happiness" is an odd word to use in trying to get it right.

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