What is philosophy?

Clinton asked:

What is philosophy?

Answer by Tony Fahey

The study of Philosophy is the study of ideas. That is, rather than advocating one worldview over another, Philosophy, ideally, as a discipline, should examine the dogmas, paradigms, worldviews or ‘philosophies’ : the ‘big ideas’, of other thinkers. Reflecting Socrates’ view that the unexamined life is not worth living, the position the philosopher is that no worldview should be exempted from the microscopic scrutiny of philosophical examination.

Philosophy, as any student of Philosophy will tell you, means ‘love of wisdom’. In its truest sense it is a desire to challenge, to expand and to extend the frontiers of one’s own understanding. It is the study of the documented wisdom — the ‘big ideas’ — of thinkers throughout the history of humankind. However, even in our most respected institutions, Philosophy is often presented as theology, psychology, spirituality or religion. Indeed, many exponents of these respective disciplines seem to have no difficulty in identifying themselves as ‘philosophers’ when in fact they are ‘dogmatists’ (sic). What can be said, however, is that Philosophy is all of the above and none. ‘All’, in the sense that it will certainly engage with the views advanced by the exponents of these disciplines. ‘None’, in the sense that Philosophy can never be constrained by views that do not allow themselves to be examined, challenged, deconstructed and demystified in the realisation that ‘wisdom’ or ‘truth’ is not something that can be caught and grasped as one particular ism.

For those really interested in Philosophy, it is important to draw a distinction between ‘a philosophy’ and ‘Philosophy’ itself. There are abroad today many colleges, institutions, societies, ‘schools of philosophy’ (and, for some reason ‘schools of philosophy and economics’), groups, cults and sects promoting the view that they ‘teach’ Philosophy, where in fact what they are doing is promoting a particular worldview that they claim is superior to other worldviews or ‘philosophies’. What has to be said is that when a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on other worldviews it cannot be placed under the rubric of Philosophy — it is dogma.

It is for this reason that those institutions that promote a particular religious ethos cannot, by their very nature, be said to teach Philosophy in any real sense: they are constrained by their own ‘philosophical’ prejudices to treat other worldviews impartially — particularly where these other approaches run contrary to their own. Moreover, by indoctrinating their students into a mindset that holds that it is their way or no way, these institutions show that their interest is not primarily in that which is best for the student, but that which is best in ensuring their own perpetuity. This approach (of using others as a means to one’s own ends), as Kant reminds us, is repugnant to Philosophy — the search for wisdom. What this means is that Philosophy cannot condone any body of knowledge that advocates a closed view on wisdom or truth — one cannot take an a la carte approach to Philosophy. Philosophy, then, must operate on the premise that its conclusions should ever be open to what Karl Popper calls, ‘the law of falsification’. That is where its conclusions are found to be questionable, it is imperative that these views are revisited, re-evaluated and, where necessary, either re-formulated or abandoned. Unfortunately, as history shows, many systems of belief either will not entertain such an approach, or, if or when they do, it is often so far in time removed from the initial discovery that much harm has occurred in the interim.

What should be realised is that the wisdom to which Philosophy aspires is not attained by the practice of uttering self-hypnotising mantras or prayers, nor by being initiated into some select group, sect or cult that promises that its ‘road less travelled’ is the one true road. Philosophy is not love of ‘a truth’ or ‘some particular approach to wisdom’, but a love of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth does not come pre-wrapped and packaged as one ism or another, rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage with, to challenge and to expand the boundaries of one’s own knowledge and experience. — one’s own wisdom.

Theory of evolution

Adam asked:

I’m very curious at the moment and have no strong views on this topic and would very much like to get your opinion.

The theory of evolution is a fairly wild claim by the looks of things. How can we assume that ancestors of monkeys/dolphins/ and humans were equal. Besides from the fact that we have free will and animals are driven by innate needs, (which I feel is an impossible extension of evolution) for evolution to occur, we are looking at probabilities of 1 in 1012000000 to 1 in 1024000000 (taken from John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s book). Most mathematicians would deem these numbers impossible. I do understand however that micro evolution is fairly prominent and commonly seen (moths changing colour due to predators etc).

I feel the issue is and why this theory is more evident within science as apposed to a theory like string theory, is this theory has apposed creationists. Its no more proven.

I think that it’s man’s need to explain his own existence, and the origin of it why most religions start, as well as such focus on the evolution/big bang theory model of life.

My question is for your views on the matter, and possibly for an explanation as to why humans have such a drive to find their origin as the fact is whatever religion says there is no way we will ever find the true origin of any of these theories. i.e. the obvious, where did the two huge masses in space come from that collided. Or if there were fish that decided to walk on land, there must have been a first fish who decided the water was not good enough and would have needed to develop legs and a whole knew body system to be land dwelling, furthermore he would need another fish to do the same to copulate with.

If you could shed some light for me that would be appreciated.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You quote from ‘Barrow and Tipler’s book’ (which I take to be ‘The Anthropic Cosmological Principle’), you mention two huge masses colliding (I take this to refer to colliding ‘branes’ producing a Big Bang), you mention string theory, and you question evolution. So you are clearly grappling with big and controversial ideas, which is excellent. Also you have ‘no strong views’ on these subjects, which is even better, open-mindedness is a real asset.

First, the probabilities. Yes, the probability of one-step development of say the human genome from simple chemicals is fantastically tiny, and can be disregarded. Fred Hoyle (another physicist/mathematician) likened it to a tornado hitting a junkyard and assembling a working 747 jet plane. But evolution proceeds by multiple small steps, each far less improbable, so that complexity arises very gradually through a series of intermediates, each stable. It’s as if monkeys typed randomly and every time a letter happened to be in the right place for the text of ‘Hamlet’, that letter was retained (others rejected): the text of ‘Hamlet’ would be produced in a remarkably short time. You seem to accept ‘microevolution’. It can become macro-, given enough time, it’s just that the human lifespan is so short compared to macroevolutionary timescales, that we don’t see it.

Secondly, as to theories being ‘proven’. They cant be. Only maths (and logic) involves proof (deduction from agreed axioms or premises). Scientific theories are our best explanations for observed data. Of course we aim to arrive at true theories, but cant be absolutely sure that any particular theory is true. We thought Newton’s theory of gravity true till Einstein came along, and now we know Einstein’s theory is incompatible with quantum mechanics so that one or both need to be modified in a new ‘theory of everything’ (enter string theory and other speculations). My view is that the theory of evolution by natural selection, as an account of the complex biosphere, is the most secure of all scientific theories. There have been countless observations which might have falsified it, and it has passed every test. Furthermore, I think it is the only conceivable mechanism for the natural (as opposed to supernatural) production of complex life forms from simple precursors, not only here on Earth but anywhere/anytime. Of course many details remain to be ascertained such as the relative importance of genetic drift and geographical isolation, of mutation and genetic mixing, and the responsiveness of genomes to the environment (epigenetics). But the fundamental idea, in my view, is far beyond reasonable doubt. There are many good accounts of evolution by biologists. The best by a philosopher is Daniel Dennett’s book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’.

Thirdly, your enterprising fish has no need of legs or new body systems to take the first steps on land. The mudskipper (and there are others) can survive for hours or days out of water (it has an air bladder for flotation which doubles as a proto lung) as it trundles along on its fins looking for a pool of water when conditions are dry. No doubt our ancestors did something similar.

Fourthly, I don’t see that ‘free will’ is an impossible extension of evolution. I don’t know what sort of free will you think you have. I think I have free will in the Humean sense of being able to do what I want (free of external constraints, but determined by events in my brain) but not in the Kantian sense of having alternative options than what I actually choose. But this is a whole other debate. However, I don’t see any clash with evolution.

Why have we such a drive to find our origins, the nature of the world and and our place in it ? I suppose because we are curious by nature (an evolved trait of survival value in our ancestors, also seen in many of our simian cousins), and are smart enough to have made some headway in our understanding.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Adam what you have written shows that you don’t understand the theory of evolution at all so your attempts to criticise it are nonsense. Fish don’t decide to walk on land, apes don’t decide to walk on two legs and then become men.

Forget my views on the matter and forget your views on the matter, what we are dealing with here are facts and scientific theories that explain the facts, views don’t come into it.

You really need to study the theory in detail before you think about it. Darwin didn’t just dream up his theory from nowhere, he spent years studying nature in great detail and studying the fossil record.

Like all good scientists Darwin looked at the facts (the evidence) and he tried to devise a theory that would explain the facts (in detail). Since Darwin’s time we have amassed an enormous amount of evidence from geology, fossil discoveries, radio carbon dating, physics, geography and from the unravelling of the genetic code. All of this evidence supports Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of Natural Selection’. It is one of most well established theories of science. No one who criticises it has come up with any believable evidence against it nor have they come up with an alternative scientific theory to replace it.

Now if you can come up with an alternative theory that explains all the known facts then you may be able to overturn Darwin. However you should remember that Darwin wasn’t a philosopher, he wasn’t trying to explain man’s origins, he wasn’t just dreaming up wild but interesting ideas. He was a scientist trying to explain facts and you need to know what the facts are before you can criticise his theory.

First you need to study the theory and the facts, in detail, and that is going to mean reading a lot of books. Science is not a philosophy and science is not a religion.

The last philosopher

Geoffrey asked:

Who will be the last philosopher?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Three scenarios: warm up; job done; footnotes forever.

I will describe three possible scenarios and suggest that a combination of the second and third is most likely.

Warm up

Sarah was the last to survive. The group had eked out their lives underground with food, tanked water and air conditioning, but the heat was inexorable. The scientists had been right about global warming, but wrong about its extent. Of course the experts, as ever, were ready with explanations after the event. There was talk of chaotic bifurcation, catastrophic progress to a new steady state, movement to a different strange attractor. But the upshot was that the Earth would only balance incoming short-wave solar heat with outgoing longer-wave radiation, impeded by the blanketing greenhouse gas, when the surface of the Earth reached 600 degrees C. Earth was going the way of Venus. Nothing could be done. The oceans would soon evaporate, all life would be destroyed. Sarah wondered what it had all been about, and whether life would continue elsewhere in the universe. As it happened, talk of an infinite universe or a multiverse, was just that. Talk. The universe was unique, big but finite, life on Earth a complete fluke, never to occur elsewhere. So Sarah, truly, was the last philosopher.

Job done

The artilects had long ago left the home planet, leaving it to their biological precursors. The smartest of the latter, humans, had realized that biological evolution couldn’t make them much smarter. Mere increase in brain size was no good – elephants were no smarter than men – problems of energy supply, waste removal and increased signal distances limited complexity. Smaller nerve cells would keep size down but meant more ionic leakage with huge rises in noise-to-signal ratio. Electronic web communication among humans was rich in information, but nothing more. The answer was artificial intelligence. After a slow start, there was soon talk of machines being smarter than humans. A few warned of, some even welcomed, the prospect of a ‘singularity’ when machines with suprahuman intelligence initiated their own cognitive evolution to unimaginable heights. And, of course, once the threshold was passed, this happened. The artilects’ projects and concerns soon became as opaque to humans as quantum mechanics is to dogs. They used the biosphere as needed, but humans were neither very useful nor a threat and were largely ignored. In time the artilects understood all of reality, and knew that they did, so metaphysics and epistemology were sorted. The primitive beginnings of convergence seen in 21st century human ethical theories, soon accelerated, and ethics, too, was sorted, evil no longer being a problem. Philosophy was complete, the artilects had done the job. They were the last philosophers.

Footnotes forever

My view is that, rather than a single finite universe, there exists either a universe infinite in extent with different domains or patches forever incommunicado with one another (the quilted universe), or an infinity of disconnected universes, as in the inflationary multiverse or in the string landscape. Whichever, there always have been and always will be creatures struggling to understand the world and their place in it, and we humans, scribbling our footnotes to Plato, are a typical example. There can be no last philosopher, the description is uninstantiated.

Of course, ‘job done’ and ‘footnotes forever’ can coexist, and I think they do.

No doubt I show species chauvinism and make a virtue of necessity when I say I’d rather be a footnoter than a job-done superintelligence for whom no new insight or surprize is possible. And, of course, the latter are as gods to us, and it is idle for us to speculate what it is like for a god to be a god.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Philosophy, like religion and mathematics is a natural tendency of the human mind. We would have to be very different creatures to lose our interest in philosophy. Of course this doesn’t mean that philosophy is a branch of human knowledge in the way that mathematics is. Philosophy is a branch of human ignorance and misunderstanding but it only when you come to understand that you are hopelessly confused that you have any change of reaching the truth.

There will always be some humans who want to know the truth and who are not content with mere belief. So there will never be a last philosopher.

Churchland’s eliminative materialism

Derek asked:

Hello, I am reading Paul Churchland’s eliminative materialism article and he talks about those who argue against eliminative materialism using Leibniz’s Law commit a fallacy, however I cannot determine that fallacy, can you help? Thanks.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I have not read Churchland’s article, but he had a run-in with Leibniz in his book Seat of the Soul, Engine of Reason, when the issue was also eliminative reductionism, so I will assume that the issue is similar or the same. In that book Churchland deals with sense impressions by vector analyses, e.g. computer models of the colour spectrum, taste sensations and so on, and utilises Leibniz’s metaphor of the mill to accuse the philosopher of fallacious thinking.

Leibniz’s used his illustration to show that the idea of making thoughts visible is based in a misapprehension of what thought ‘is’. His mill is a factory floor full of wheels, belts and pulleys, and he makes the perfectly reasonable point that you can see them turn, push and pull, but you will not see any immaterial (=metaphysical) outcome, such as thoughts.

Translating this metaphor into a present day situation, start your motor car engine and go to watch the pistons, carburettor, fan belt in operation. What you will not see is the energy being generated. We are so used to speaking of energy that we associate some real quality with it, but it is after all only a manner of speaking, in other words, something metaphysical. You only know that there is energy because it causes a certain motion in mechanical parts of the engine.

Now Churchland contradicts this by giving us a model of how the ‘mind’ analyses sense impressions. His device of ‘vector analysis’ can be seen in action any time you open the colour generator in your computer or when you enlarge a picture on your computer screen, when you can see how certain colours are produced by the juxtaposition of differently coloured pixels. These are examples of eliminative reductionism. In this case, it is white light being ‘reduced’ by the division into its constituent parts. Re-assembling them gives you white light again.

When you contrast these two procedures you can see at once where the fallacy lies. Not with Leibniz, but with Churchland. He completely ignores what you and I can experience any day, namely that there are common phenomena that cannot be reduced. Nor are they explicable in materialistic terms. You can’t have half a thought or half an energy. You can’t have material atoms adding up to a thought, and what energy really ‘is’ still remains anyone’s guess.

But Churchland is perfectly content with the thought that eliminative materialism is the one and only road to complete knowledge of just about everything. But until this can be proved with thoughts and energy (among many other irreducible phenomena), this position is philosophically untenable. So the boot is clearly on the other foot. If there must be a fallacy, it is altogether in the courts of those who push reductive materialism beyond its limits of applicability.

This is Leibniz’s point: eliminative reductionism implies the divisibility of the objects of research. If they are colours, mechanical vector analysis might be useful for computer programmers, but reveals literally nothing about the way a person has the experience of colour. You might take note of the fact that Churchland ignores (as he must) that human beings invariably associate other mental and emotional qualities with colour experiences, e.g. you might ‘like’ a particular shade of blue and be enraged by a purple spot in the middle of a green wall. Another person may have different likes and dislikes. How would you like to reduce those? (Some scientists of course attempt precisely this kind of reduction, babbling about (unproved) chemical processes at the back of every such phenomenon).

In short, eliminative reductionism is a method, nothing else. As such it has limitations. To ignore those and seek to bowl readers over with blunt assertions of ‘fallacy’ is neither courteous nor supportable from actual knowledge.

Let me give you one more example to clinch this point. How can you detect the chemical processes that give life to a blade of grass? Easy: you rip it out of the soil and crunch it up. Then you can see all the chemical elements neatly lined up for scrutiny. Except for one thing: the grass is now dead. So the very element you were looking for has disappeared. Lesson: life is an irreducible quality. In this, as in many other indivisible features of existence, reductive materialism is an inappropriate method of study.

Nature of philosophy and the purpose of Plato’s guardians

Sam asked:

I have two questions.

1. I have recently taken an interest to philosophy and in doing so become curious about many things such as religion and the point of life. I have read many ‘beginner’ titles which have lead me to have a rather dry view on the world. It could be explained better by me saying that if you take a step, try to avoid emotion and look at the world, it comes across as just something that is with no great reason behind it. Is the world just a ‘thing’ that is made up of material objects that evolve and are things such as emotions merely just a reaction in the brain that stimulate certain movements which make us feel emotions?

Sorry if this sounds a bit silly and deep, I am rather new to the idea of actually considering these questions and have been left confused and a little dry. What I am looking for is some suggestions, whether through recommended readings or personal opinions.

The second question I have is this (not so deep),

2. What exactly was the primary goal of the guardians in Plato’s Republic, was it for people to be happy or the desire for knowledge and truth?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I want to encourage rather than discourage you; but questions like yours cannot be answered in a short summary, nor by reading a library of philosophy books.

What Plato taught us, which is perhaps the most valuable advice I can give you (especially since in a bookish culture like ours it happens too rarely): Philosophy is dialectic, in other words: debate, dialogue, discussion. You cannot ‘solve’ problems on your own. Your experience of life is likely to be insufficient for this. You need to think and test your thinking constantly against other points of view. Some of them may change your way of thinking. So don’t read alone. Find friends who may wish to share your interest, or enrol in a University and find some companions for your quest.

However, one issue of philosophy is exactly the opposite of what you seem to have believe. Philosophy has no concern with religion (even though some philosophers have), for the simple reason that it seeks to discover the truth without imposing presuppositions on its quest. Religions always know what the truth is before they indoctrinate you. So if you wish to pursue religion, go to religious teachers. No philosopher can truly help you with this.

Second: it may seem that philosophy has an ‘objective’ agenda. Academic study will reinforce this belief. But learning without emotion is impossible. I expect that you’ve made that experience, but perhaps not thought about it. No discovery has ever been made in the history of mankind without the discoverer or inventor being driven (sometimes to absolute despair or raging obsession) by the desire of wanting to find a truth, a new land, a new technique, or a work of art. Just because philosophy tends to be shy of involving the emotions in its texts, don’t for a moment think that you can do philosophy without embroiling your entire being — your psychology, desires, ambitions, anger, etc etc.

I hope this will help you a little bit. As I said, I can’t write a manual for you, only to give you something to mull over while you do the rest.

On the last question, about Plato’s guardians: Their ‘purpose’ in life is truth and knowledge. But this is for the benefit of the people they are appointed to govern. Because the upshot of this studious life is supposed to just laws for the community.

Descartes’ argument for mind-body dualism

Marie asked:

My question is about Descartes’ dualism, Mind-Body Problem, I don’t quite understand it; I don’t get how he came to the conclusion that mind and body are two different substance. I’m hoping that you would be able to explain it to me please. Thank you!

Answer by Helier Robinson

My own opinion is that Descartes postulated two substances because he was both a devout catholic and a keen scientist, and the church was at loggerheads with science because of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. According to Descartes the substance he called thought (mind) was the domain of the Church and the substance he called extension (matter) was the domain of science. And since these two substances could not interact there was no basic for a dispute between science and religion. Of course this left him with the problems of how mind could alter matter through muscular action and how mind could perceive matter.

Please note, however, that this psychological explanation is speculative: there is little scholarly evidence for it.

Kant on acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty

Adrian asked:

What is the difference between acting in accordance with duty, and acting from duty, and what is the relevance of the distinction for Immanuel Kant’s argument in book 1 of the Groundwork?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Good question.

I’ll deal with the difference, its relevance, and a common misunderstanding.

The difference:

In acting from duty, and in acting in accordance with duty, the action is the same. The difference relates to the motivation of the act (my will).

Thus, in acting from duty, I perform the action because it is my duty, irrespective of whether or not I am inclined to do it, or of whether or not it is in my interests.

Contrariwise, in acting in accordance with duty, whilst I do perform the action that duty commands, I don’t do it for that reason. Rather I do it because I am inclined to – it pleases me or is in my interests.

Kant’s examples illustrate.

(1) A shopkeeper is honest with a naive, easily duped customer, not because it is his duty to be honest, but because it will help build his good reputation, and his business. He acts in accordance with duty (he is honest) but not from duty (ie not because honesty is right whether or not it helps his reputation and business).

(2) A philanthropist helps the needy, not because this is his duty, but because it pleases him – he finds ‘inner satisfaction in spreading joy’. Again, he acts in accordance with, not from, duty.

(3) The philanthropist is going through a really bad time in his life. He no longer has any inclination to help the needy, and it gives him no pleasure. Nevertheless he does it because it is the right thing to do. Now he acts from duty.

Relevance of the distinction:

Only acting from duty has genuine moral worth. Recall that for Kant, morality is something that all rational beings can self-prescribe simply because they are rational. No desire or inclination can underpin morality because not all rational beings will, necessarily and universally, have these desires (the unhappy philanthropist, for example, has no desire to help the needy). Furthermore a desire can conflict with duty eg a desire to help a man at dead of night struggling to lift a statue into his car boot outside the back door of the museum.

In disconnecting morality from desire, Kant is opposing Hume’s passion-based (rather than reason-based) account of moral motivation.

Common misunderstanding:

That we act morally only if our inclinations are opposed to the action ie only if we do it with a long face rather than with pleasure.

This view is captured in the words of Kant’s contemporary, Schiller:

‘Gladly I serve my friends, but regrettably I do it with pleasure. Thus I am often troubled by the fact that I am not virtuous,’

with the riposte,

‘The only advice for you is to try to despise them. And thus to do with repugnance what duty commands.’

This misrepresents Kant. His message is that action has moral worth when motivated by duty, not by inclination. There is no need for any opposition. Indeed he says that inclination can aid the good will. He is saying that acting from duty is more readily evident (‘more manifest’) when it clearly goes against inclination.

He is sometimes accused of holding a contrary view to Aristotle who says that the fully virtuous man acts rightly desiring to do it, and is morally superior to the less virtuous person who is merely self-controlled (‘continent’) and acts contrary to inclination. But Kant’s target is Humean benevolence, not Aristotle.

We might think that the judgment on the happy philanthropist is a bit harsh: surely he is at least as appealing a figure as the unhappy philanthropist. He is. But this only shows, on a Kantian view, that moral actions are not the only good ones. Indeed, most of us would prefer a friend to visit us in hospital because she wants to, because she is a friend, because she cares about us, rather than because it is an unpleasant duty ie we prefer actions (in accordance with duty) from love rather than from duty.

As to whether it is more admirable to act well when it is hard to do so, the late Philippa Foot clarified this nicely by pointing out that it depends on what makes it hard, circumstances or character.

If circumstances, then more admirable. Example: a very poor person sees wallet dropped by rich man and returns it unhesitatingly. She acts more admirably than a comfortably-off finder would – she is tested (she could really do with the cash) but comes through.

If character, then less admirable. Example: finder sorely tempted to keep wallet, dithers about it but eventually returns it.