Recent Responses

If we built a computer that could analyse our minds, and it figured out how they work and explained it to us, would we be able to understand?

The great Austrian logician, Kurt Gödel, proved a remarkable theorem in 1931 that he thought was relevant to this question. His theorem wasn't about minds, but with a bit of license, it could be taken to have some implications about them. For instance, this one: Assume our minds are like powerful computers, devices that manipulate symbols according to well-defined rules. Assume, moreover, that these rules are consistent with one another, that is, that they do not yield conflicting results. Then it "follows" from Gödel's result that there is some basic fact about our minds that we cannot ever know, that we could not in principle access. I suppose you might put it, as Peter Lipton did, by saying that that basic fact is "too difficult" for us to understand. But just a slightly more powerful mind would be able to grasp the fact in question about our minds! And that slightly more powerful mind would, in turn, fail to be able to grasp the same basic fact about its own functioning! So, if all these assumptions could be made intelligible and were correct, it seems it would be right to say that there is something about the structure of our minds that makes them incapable of grasping some basic feature of that very structure.

Can Non-Being and Being occupy the same space at the same time or does Being displace Non-Being? Or Does Non-Being displace Being? Does Non-Being even exist?

How many hands do you have? Two? Or do you havethree? Your left hand, your right hand, and the non-existent third handthat's attached to your head? Obviously, that last "hand" shouldn'tcount. To say that you don't have a third hand isn't to say that youhave a hand that possesses the particularly stunting property ofnon-existence. We get ourselves into a real muddle if we take claims ofnon-existence to mean that there is some object that has the propertyof non-existence; for then that object must both exist (to have anyproperties) and not exist, and that can't be. So when we say that noone came to the party, we mean to deny that someone came to the party — not to affirm that at least one person did, namely "no one", the"non-person", the person with the rather anti-social property of non-existence.

This confusion becomes unavoidable if one assumesthat every noun in a language must refer to something. For if youassume that, then when you come upon a sentence like "Nothing beats aroyal flush" you'll be forced to conclude that something does after allbeat a royal flush, namely Nothing. This assumption is mistaken. Notall nouns contribute to the meaning of sentences in the same way. Inparticular, some (like "nothing") don't refer to anything while others(like "Manhattan") do.

So, to turn to your question, it's aconfusion to think of Non-Being as something that's jockeying Being forthe same space. In any given space, either there's something orthere isn't. And if there isn't anything there, if there's nothingthere, that doesn't mean that there's actually something there, namelyNon-Being.

Does the future exist in any knowable fashion? If so, can it be known in any absolute way? If not, why do so many of us believe it can?

On one view of time, the future is as real now as the present or the past, much as other places are as real as the place you happen to be; on another view the future is not yet real but will be. Either way, many philosophers would say that we can know some things about it, though Hume's great sceptical argument against induction attacks this idea. But Hume's argument is not especially about the future: it applies to any inference from what we have observed to what we have not observed, whether what we have not observed is in the future, present or past. In any event, it's not very surprising that we believe we can know something about the future, since we have so often formed expectations that we have subsequently found to be satisfied.

What, if anything, can you boil one's self down to, outside any notion of soul or essence?

Many philosophers, especially those in the Buddhist tradition (Nagasena, Candrakirti, Santideva,or see Hume for a Western sympathiser), have argued that there is nothing that one can "boil oneself down to," that is, that the self has no existence independent of convention. Others have argued that there is some basic subjective entity, either substantial (Descartes) or transcendental (Kant, Schopenhauer) that undergirds our identity.

Is it true that time has no end?

This is an open question, and one that will be decided in the branch of physics known as cosmology. Since time is best conceived as a dimension of the universe, and as we do not now know the long-term future of the universe, this cannot be answered at present.

What is the difference between analytical and continental philosophy? Is one better than the other? Is analytical philosophy more scientific than continental philosophy?

I agree that the two designations do not have much geographical significance, or significance in the nature of problems pursued or methods employed. I also don't think style is a very consistent indicator. Finally, the differences between philosophers within one of these very loose groups might be more important than any differences between groups. Perhaps, therefore, the distinction should be retired from the language. If there is a difference that is more than anecdotal, it is historical in character. Please see my answer to question 926.

However, for the moment, we're stuck with it. The distinction has been institutionalised in ways beyond your or my control -- for example, in publishers' catalogues, in journal readership and subscriptions, in the categories of work presented at national and international conferences, or for the British Research Assessment Exercise.

Why should I believe you?

Fair enough, Alan. Based on my experience of human beings, the more sociableand cheerful attitude that you suggest seems appropriate as ageneral day-to-day attitude toward others. I’m generally not worriedthat people are lying to me.

But I understood the question differently– not as directed to humanity in general, but at usin particular, the panelists on AskPhilosophers. I took the questionernot to be wondering whether we were lying but whether we knew what wewere talking about. There are a lot of people out there promisinganswers to life’s big questions, and skepticism seems to me to be aperfectly healthy response to these promises. It was for this reasonthat I tried to assure the questioner that we aren’t making any suchpromises.