Recent Responses

Do philosophers really think that the problems they discuss are important in themselves, or does thinking about the problems merely serve as practice in analytical thinking? How does philosophy differ from puzzle solving (besides the fact that puzzles actually tend to get solved)?

As Richard states, there is considerable disagreement among philosophers about which philosophical questions are significant, and why. There is also considerable truth in your suggestion that studying the methods and texts of philosophy is itself a valuable way to develop one's analytical reading, writing, thinking, and communication skills.

So, as a teacher of philosophy I hope that my students will both gain useful insight by studying diverse philosophical questions and approaches and will also gain useful analytical skills. This is an extremely powerful combination, and this power is one reason why philosophy students tend to do so well in the professional job market and also tend to advance quickly within their chosen professions.

About puzzle solving: the difference that you touch on, that philosophical puzzles are rarely solved in definitive way that gain professional consensus, is the central one. I take this to mean that investigating a philosophical question is very different from solving a puzzle (and I'm very glad for this difference -- see more here: 155).

Recently I was debating with others the proposition that solving social problems in games enhances one's ability to solve real-world problems (my view was the negative: many excellent strategic gamers consistently make spectacularly foolish personal decisions in real life). This seems to generate the question: "Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average minimally-thinking individual?"

Jyl's response (in addition to reminding me why I could neveridentify with Socrates) suggests that philosophers are pretty good atworking out what they ought to do, or what is best, in daily life, butthen get over-powered by their appetites, to use Plato's term. I'm surethat happens sometimes, but here's another part of it. Like many areasof inquiry, philosophy often adopts a divide-and-conquer strategy. It'stoo difficult to gain a sharp understanding of mostthings that come our way on account of their sheer complexity.Often, if progress is to be made at all, it's by trying to isolate themany components that make up whatever one's trying to explain. (This issometimes what gives philosophy its air of abstractness orout-of-touchness with "real" problems. It's also what makes it easy togo off the rails in philosophy, for the concepts it seeks to teaseapart are often not happily separable.) A philosopher who achieves somegreater understanding of one strand of the complex whole might not beparticularly well equipped to work out the implications of this knowledge once thefloodgates are opened to the complexities of real world problems. Justas the greatest physicist might have a difficult time predicting wherethe leaf will fall, so the greatest of philosophers might stumble indetermining how best to live his life.

Hello, smart people! Okay, here's what I wonder about: why doesn't it seem to bother most philosophy types that all arguments eventually have to be based on unprovable premises? I mean, I liked the philosophy classes I took in college. I'm not just philosophy-bashing here. But I can't see how anyone writes philosophical works when the first requirement is to ignore something so fundamental. Yeah, I know this isn't an original question, but that's just the problem. Since there doesn't seem to be any good answer, why spend so much time thinking about all the questions that come after it? Oh, and if any of you has an extra minute, I'm also curious about the meaning of life and why time and space exist. :)

Philosophers do spend a good deal of time worrying about this matter. Indeed, it is characteristic of many areas of philosophy to be particularly interested in the "unprovable assumptions" with which arguments begin. Two examples:

  1. Perceptually-based beliefs---such as that there is a window in front of me---form the starting point for many of our beliefs. (Empiricists hold that all beliefs must be grounded there, but let's set that aside.) But it seems clear, at least to some of us, that these beliefs are not reached by argument from other beliefs. In that sense, they cannot be "proved" on the basis of anything else. How then should we understand how we arrive at such judgements? What is it for one of them to count as known? These are basic questions in the philosophy of perception.
  2. In mathematics, theorems are proven from axioms. Axioms, on the other hand, are accepted as true without proof. On what ground do we accept such axioms as, say, that, if there are two sets A and B, then there is a set that is their union? (Perhaps one thinks this claim can be proven from other assumptions, but then of course we can just ask the same question about those assumptions.) Is the assumption simply arbitrary? Can we start with any axioms we like? That doesn't seem plausible. So do we have reasons for it? If so, what kinds of reasons could those be? These sorts of questions are common in the philosophy of mathematics.

Maybe that's not the kind of thing you had in mind. Another thing you might have meant is: Why bother giving an argument for something if the argument has to begin with assumptions for which you can't argue? Answer: An argument is supposed to show that, if you accept certain assumptions, then you must (or, perhaps, should) accept a certain conclusion, on pain of being irrational. The argument will be effective against anyone who accepts the assumptions. Whether the assumptions can be "proven" is neither here nor there. Of course, there's another question to be asked about why one should rational, but that's another matter.

The answer to the question about the meaning of life, of course, is "42".

This is a question about Hilary Putnam's twin earth thought experiment. After I read this thought experiment I was not convinced that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings. But most of the philosophers' intuitions are similar to Putnam (i.e., they think that Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have different meanings). I thought that there might be something wrong with me. So I told this thought experiment to different people with different origins but without exception all of them responded that both Oscar's and twin-Oscar's "water" concept have the same meaning. So I still do not understand, why do so many philosophers' intuitions work like Putnam's? Thank you, Deniz

The intuitions about the 'water' example that philosophers focus on are, as explained above, about reference. They are also about truth. It takes a little work to connect reference and truth to meaning. One line of thought goes as follows. Suppose that Oscar lands on Twin Earth. Both Oscar and Twin Oscar point to a sample of XYZ and say 'That is water'. What Twin Oscar says is true - he is speaking Twin English and Twin English speakers standardly call XYZ 'water'. But what Oscar says is false. He thinks that the stuff in front of him is water, the same kind of stuff he was familiar with on Earth. And that is the thought he is expressing when he says 'that's water'. But if what Twin Oscar says is true and what Oscar says is false, then their words must mean something different.

I concur with Deniz that non-philosophers often don't respond to the example in the way that many philosophers do - although as yet no seroious data on this have been gathered. Often they either don't share the intuitions about reference and truth or they do, but they remain convinced that what the Twins mean by their words is the same.

As Richard says (thanks for the mention, Richard), I am with the non-philosophers. I think that in 1750 the English word 'water' would have been true of XYZ as well as H2O.

For some discussion of how lay intuitions differ from those of philosophers' in respect of these matters, see my 'Reference, Causal Powers, Externalist Intutions and Unicorns' on my web page.

If one believes that God is an abstract and unknowable concept, then what alternatives are there for guiding a person or society's moral values?

Atheism and agnosticism are only two reasons not settle moral perplexity by trying to ascertain God's will (see below). Atheists and agnostics will try to find reflectively acceptable principles and rules to guide their actions. It makes sense to start with widely shared rules about nonmaleficence, beneficence, honesty, fidelity, and fair play. Different ethical systems justify and sometimes interpret these rules in different ways. Finding the right moral theory is a matter of finding an ethical system that interprets and justifies these rules in a reflectively acceptable way. In the meantime, most of us will try to regulate our affairs as best we can byapplying these secondary rules.

The interesting question is not so much how is morality possible independently of religion, but how is religion possible independently of morality. Even if we are theists, there's a strong case for thinking that morality is independent of religion. Socrates long ago asked whether something was right because God commanded it or whether God commanded it because it was right (the famous question asked in Plato's dialogue Euthyprho). Socrates reasoned that God's will could not make something valuable, because that would make his preferences arbitrary. Instead, Socrates concluded, the theist should say that God commands what he does, because he himself is good. On this view, God's commands are principled and track what is independently valuable. This also explains why thesists often feel compelled to resolve debates about what God has willed, and how we can ascertain his will, by appeal our moral ideas about what a morally good God could have willed.

But then there should be no deep puzzle about how there could be an objective morality without God, because plausible versions of theism must themselves recognize an objective morality -- that is, one independent of God's will.

It has always struck me that philosophy is not a subject that has made any real progress. A lot of elaborate constructs of when we perceive certain things to be piles and so forth seem to be problems that can be dealt with (eventually) by sciences such as psychology and neurology. Why waste time constructing elaborate theories that are not scientifically provable? Things like inconsistencies in how people act may be a result of people just not being perfectly logical creatures. Why waste so much time pondering questions where 1. progress is hard to judge 2. the resulting ideas do not really change the world in any significant manner.

I share Richard Heck's sentiments on this matter, and I would add that there is an additional sense in which a lot of philosophy is 'before science'. I'm thinking primarily about epistemology and metaphysics in the philosophy of science, where we are trying to work out how science works and what attitude we ought to take towards scientific claims. Insofar as one takes science seriously, it is natural also to take seriously these 'before' questions, however incomplete and inconclusive our answers to them may be.

When something disastrous happens, like Katrina, "logic" says: so much the worse for a loving God. But for the believer, what comes out, instead, are things like "God never gives us more than we can handle" and "We have to praise the Lord, and thank him, that <i>we</i> are OK." Why? (Or is this just a psychological or sociological question? Or did I watch too much Fox news?)

Plantinga writes, in the quoted passage, "what God sees as better is, of course, better. " Oh? Of course? Having solved to his own satisfaction the problem of evil, can Alvin also solve the Euthyphro-style dilemma that arises here? (1) A world is better because God sees it as better vs. (2) God sees a world as better because it is better.

In a recent discussion with friends about the existence or nonexistence of God, it soon became apparent that there are very different definitions of "existence" being used, and that this seeming hair-splitting is unavoidable if one wants to make any meaningful statement about God's existence. For instance, the Eiffel Tower exists because it is made up of atoms, but no one claims God is made of atoms, so God clearly doesn't exist in the same way the Eiffel Tower does. France, on the other hand, exists as a collective understanding; that doesn't mean that France is a figment of people's imaginations, but it does mean that without people there would be no "France" in any meaningful sense. Many atheists would concede that God "exists" in this sense. But then in what sense does "information" exist? It seems to be a combination of material (which holds the information), and an intelligence (which interprets the information), but I'm not clear on this. I can't say with certainty in what sense concepts like "information", "order", or "truth" exist, or in what sense God is thought to "exist" by various theists. Can you shed any light on this, or can you point me to philosophers who have expounded on this theme?

I wish I had something helpful to say about this, but I don't know if I do. We should, however, try to get a little clearer on what is at issue.

Let's consider something a little simpler, like plays. I think A Comedy of Errors exists. That is, I think there is such a thing as A Comedy of Errors. But that play isn't a physical thing. You can't tear it up, burn it, or spill your coffee on it, though you can tear up, burn, and soak printings of it. If one wants to say that A Comedy of Errors therefore doesn't exist in the same way that its printings do, I suppose that's all right. But that's not because there is some special sense of "exists" at work here. It's because a play is a very different sort of thing from a printing of one. I take it that the same is true of God. God (if God exists) isn't a physical object, so one wouldn't expect God to be made of atoms.

What is it that even atheists will concede about God? Let's look at what you say about France. If you are thinking of France as a country, with a political system and the like, then there is a very obvious sense in which there couldn't be such a thing unless there were some people (or other intelligent beings) around. You need people to have a political system. But that's very different from saying that France exists "as a collective understanding", if that is supposed to mean that France only exists because people think about it. We need to distinguish between our concept of France, which perhaps exists because and only because we think about France, and France itself, which could exist as a political entity even if people didn't have any concept of political entities. Consider a different case: Families and other social groups can exist only if there are organisms around to constitute them. But there were social groups, perhaps composed of gazelles, before anyone had any concept of a social group.

Once we make that distinction, we can see what atheists are and aren't conceding. They aren't conceding that God exists in any sense at all, even as a "collective understanding". What they are conceding is that we have a concept of God. And what's at issue is whether there is anything in reality that answers to that concept.

Hi, My roommate claims that it is impossible for an omnipotent being to exist. His logic is that if a being can create a rock so big it cannot lift it, then that being is not omnipotent because its lifting power is not infinite. But also, if it cannot create the rock so big it cannot lift, then it's creation power is not infinite. And because of this paradox, an omnipotent being cannot possibly exist. My boss was a philosophy major in school. He claims that this explanation is completely wrong. However, I do not understand his explanation as he said it very quickly and with many names of old philosophers and theorems and such that I cannot remember. So who is right? Regardless of whether or not an omnipotent being does exist or not, can one exist? Thanks.

I'd like to add one further point to the two made so far. Many contemporary philosophers infer from the so-called Paradox of the Stone that omnipotence is not a matter of being able to do anything, but only a matter of *being able to do anything it is possible to do*. That observation suggests another possible insight. Consider the Problem of Evil. If God exists, then it might seem puzzling that God should permit the extent and kinds of evil that we can find. Now there are many things to say about this, but one pertinent to God's omnipotence is this: Certain moral virtues seem to require some evil, and in such a way that even God can't have one without the other. Even God, it might be remarked, can't make a world in which there is, for instance, forgiveness in the absence of any wrongdoing. (I can't forgive you unless you've wronged me in some way.) This is not to say that all virtues require evil, but just that some seem to, even if you're God. As it happens, contemporary philosophical theologians like Alvin Plantinga have made much of how God's powers might be surprisingly limited, while remaining omnipotent!

Do you believe that freedom is just being able to do what one wants without constraint? If so, why and how?

Sean Greenberg rightly says that the absence of physical constraint does not guarantee freedom. Moreover, as Harry Frankfurt has plausibly claimed, absence of physical constraint isn't even necessary for free will, though it is necessary for freedom. If I start out with free will, you don't take it away from me just by putting me in prison, though you do take away my freedom.