What is time?

Keith asked:

What is time?

Answer by Helier Robinson

This is probably the most difficult question in philosophy because there are two concepts of time and no way of reconciling them. One is time as we experience it. Passage of time, as it is usually called, seems to be a present moment, flowing out of the past and into the future. By means of it we experience change, since change is a dissimilarity in parallel with a duration. A particular problem with this concept of time is the question of how fast it flows; since rate of flow is measured relative to time, it does not make sense to ask how fast time flows. The other kind of time is a dimension, most clearly in Einstein’s four-dimensional space-time.

It is difficult to imagine four dimensions, but we can make do with a three dimensional space-time. Imagine that your life, from birth to death, is photographed in the old way, on to film. Each frame of the film is a two-dimensional you, and you can imagine the frames being separated and stacked together in the correct temporal order. You are then a three-dimensional space-time object. The relation between one frame and the next is a unit in the temporal dimension, and it has some degree of dissimilarity in parallel with it, so that there is change from frame to frame. But there is nothing traveling along that time dimension: no you, no soul, no ego, no self. From a god’s-eye view change is only a static part of the static structure of space-time. Einstein’s theories of relativity are as well established as anything else in science, so can only be denied by an ignoramus; but they require that our experience of passage of time is an illusion. Not only that, but if something basic in experience is to be declared to be an illusion, it is philosophically necessary to explain why we have that illusion, and no one has ever explained this one.

Closely connected with all this is the problem of identity and change, which arises out of a simple logical principle. This is the principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference, a principle that is easily proved, as follows. Whatever A and B may be, if there is a qualitative difference between them then there is some quality, Q, say, such that A is Q and B is not-Q, or vice versa. If A and B are one and the same then one thing is at once Q and not-Q, which is impossible, hence A and B must be two. Hence qualitative difference entails quantitative difference. We next define identity as unity, or oneness, and we define change as dissimilarity over time. Now if we ask whether it is possible for one thing to change over time and remain one, we find that it is impossible. Because in order to change, the earlier thing must be dissimilar to the later one, in which case they must be two, they cannot be one. On the other hand, if the thing remains one through time then the earlier must be exactly similar to the later, in which case it cannot change. Since this conclusion is both difficult to refute and flies in the face of common sense, it naturally concerns philosophers.

The ancient Greek philosophers were familiar with this problem. Heraclitus tried to solve it by declaring that the nothing is permanent except the fact of change, only change is real. He famously said that you cannot step into the same river twice: both you and the river have changed between the first step and the second step, so making two of you and two rivers. Parmenides, on the other hand, denied all change, on the grounds that it is illusion. “Only the One is,” as he put it. Plato tried to reconcile identity and change by having two worlds, the world of perfect Forms, which are unchanging, and the sensible world which is some sort of poor copy of the world of Forms. Being a poor copy it contains illusions, including the illusion of change. Aristotle did not like this and tried to come up with a solution more in line with common sense. He claimed that things are composed of substances, which are unchanging, and which have attributes, which can change. So one thing can change with time because its substance is one while its attributes can change. Most philosophers have gone along with this kind of approach ever since, even though it is a sophistry: it just states that common sense is correct in saying that one thing can change over time, and ignores the illogic of this.

Although most contemporary philosophers side with common sense on this question, scientists are slowly but surely moving to the Platonic view of two worlds. You can see this from the fact that in the mathematical sciences they distinguish between empirical science and theoretical science. Empirical science investigates what Plato called the sensible world, but which is now called the empirical world; they do this searching for all that is non-illusory in the empirical world that we perceive around us. And theoretical science explains what empirical science discovers by describing the underlying causes of empirical phenomena. (To describe causes is to explain their effects.) The underlying causes are theoretical, non-empirical, imperceptible; they may be said, not unreasonably, to be in Plato’s world of Forms. It is particularly interesting that Einstein’s four-dimensional space time is remarkably similar to Parmenides’ One.

The masochist problem in hedonistic utilitarianism

Walter asked:

The masochist problem in hedonistic utilitarianism.

The hedonistic utilitarian goal is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, but a masochist causes a problem since he equates pleasure with pain. I posed this problem to my philosophy professor and he sent me a long complicated reply based on a passage about masochism in Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the Good Life.

An alternative explanation, based on semantics, is much simpler. The word pain was chosen as the opposite of pleasure (like unhappiness compared to happiness, preferred to nonpreferred), but it is different in kind which causes the problem. Rather than go into why pain is different, instead consider pain replaced with unpleasure which we can define as the exact opposite of pleasure.

Pleasure (American Heritage Dictionary): ‘The state or feeling of being pleased or gratified.’

This is defined from the viewpoint of the subject or one experiencing the feeling, basically something he likes rather than dislikes. By definition it is impossible to hate pleasure.

Unpleasure (opposite of the above): ‘The state or feeling of being unpleased or ungratified.’

Again defined from the viewpoint of the subject or one experiencing the feeling, basically something he dislikes rather than likes. By definition then, one cannot like unpleasure.

Now if the goal is to maximise pleasure and minimise unpleasure, the masochist is no longer a problem since for a masochist, pain is pleasure and not unpleasure.

Is this explanation right?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I have to say that I dislike these hair-splitting arguments intensely. They do not strike me as philosophical, but as templates for arguments about words and concepts, and they habitually leave the complexity of human reactions out of the picture in order to arrive at one “fundamental” criterion. Who is being satisfied by such reductions of human impulses and motive to a common denominator I cannot say.

There are two issues embroiled in this that are not reducible in any such way. Pleasure on the whole (in general) is preferable to pain; and on the whole humans will seek a pleasurable state of being in preference to a painful state of being. But this depends on the person and what their sense of personal gratification involves. A masochist, for example, does not enjoy pain as such, but the gratification of having pain inflicted on them for all sorts of motives including the desire to be punished or dominated etc. The general pleasure seeking or pleasure maximisation drive is nothing other than the cheap and easily acquired sense of being untroubled–not necessarily actual pleasure, but the absence of displeasure, discomfort, responsibility and so on. The colossal entertainment industry and the bulk of our industrial output which is designed to gratify consumers with mostly useless trinkets, serve those lukewarm desires.

The really more important issue is that gratification very often involves a great deal of pain which the pleasure seeker takes on board in order to achieve their goal. Take performance sports people, who punish their bodies for the purpose of achieving an Olympic medal; or the ordeals of mountain climbers; or the desire of religious people to flagellate themselves to please their divinity. I think you can multiply instances of this self-inflicted pain or displeasure without any troubles. There are no “solutions” to be found here, no reductions to simple pain/pleasure dichotomies. On the observe side you find people who hate easy gratification by e.g. pop singers and film stars or pulp novels because they are bored or disgusted by them. So they will make themselves slaves to immensely hard work to gratify their intellect, their deeper sensibilities etc. Philosophers can be instances of this; or creative artists; or explorers, inventors, missionaries, or indeed any person who takes their life’s calling seriously.

If this was at the back of your mind when you wrote your question, I’m happy to agree that you’re on the right track in criticising the arguments you found deficient.

Philosophical advice to a yoyo dieter

Qian asked:

I have been an yoyo dieter for 5 years.

Somehow I cannot shake off the feeling of defeat and deep guilt every time after I eat something enjoyable and indulge my id.

Is abstinence really has the moral high ground compare with indulgence? Or I am just misguided by the other?

(I hope the question make sense… my English is not that good)

Answer by Shaun Williamson

How the hell are we supposed to help you? You tell us nothing! We don’t even know if you are overweight!

You are not addicted to dieting you are addicted to failing to diet. Like a compulsive gambler who has to keep on gambling until he has lost everything, you are addicted to the guilt and defeat the comes with failure. Your dieting is not about losing weight, it is about punishing yourself. You really crave the feelings of failure and guilt.

There is nothing moral about dieting or abstinence. The only reason to diet is to try to keep to a reasonable weight because it is better for your health. Being obese is bad for your health, if you are just overweight then that is unlikely to effect your health.

This is what you should do if you really are overweight, you go and join a weight watchers group. This will cost you some money but not that much. You go to the weight watchers group every week. When you fail to keep to the diet then don’t make a great drama out of it. Nobody is interested in that. You keep going to the weight watchers group and when you grow bored with failing and stop pretending that your failure is some great drama then you will be able to control your weight in a way that you are happy with.

If you are not overweight then get some help from a counsellor or psychiatrist.

What is a possible world?

Bakor asked:

What is a possible world?

Answer by Craig Skinner

It’s a way the world might have been eg I might have been a pop star, so we can say that there is some possible world in which I (or my counterpart in that world) is a pop star.

Possible worlds (PW) talk is a way of expressing modal talk: the way (mode) in which a proposition can be true or false, namely necessarily, contingently, impossibly.

* necessity = occurs at all PW (eg 2+2=4)

* impossibility = occurs at no PW (eg 2=2=5)

* contingently = occurs at some but not all PW (eg Obama is USA president).

Talking about modality in this way started with Duns Scotus, continued with Leibniz, and really got going in the 20th Century.

In addition, PW talk elucidates counterfactuals (= occurs at close PW), supervenience and causality.

Most of us think these PW are just a convenient way of thinking — they are abstract or fictional entities in the actual world, and can be variously construed as sets of propositions, or states of affairs, or uninstantiated properties, or stories, or different sets of occupied/unoccupied spacetime points.

A few people think PW really exist, notably the late David Lewis. He argues that all PW are real, the actual world (for us) being one of them. Actuality is indexical like ‘here’ and ‘now’ — every world is actual to its inhabitants (if any). PW are spatiotemporally and causally unrelated. An individual is world-bound. Thus, you exist only in the actual world, but your counterparts exist in other PW. What makes ‘John McCain might have been USA president’ true, is that PW exist in which McCain (our McCain’s counterpart) is USA president.

These PW are the primitives reductively explaining modal talk non-circularly, and dissolving difficulties in modal logic. But the cost of ideological economy is commitment to the reality of all possibilities — talking donkeys, unicorns, ghosts, myriad counterparts of each of us doing all possible things. Few buy into it, but Lewis’s ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ (1986) is compelling, and after reading it, I felt rather sorry at not quite being able to believe it.

Separately, the term is sometimes used for the many universes posited by modern cosmology (the inflationary multiverse; the quilted multiverse — our visible universe is just one patch in an infinite quilt; the braneworlds of M-theory; and, less convincingly, the constantly splitting worlds posited by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics). But ‘parallel’ or ‘alternate’ ‘universes’ tend to be the preferred terms here.

Ethics for nonbelievers

Barry asked:

Is there a well recognised philosophical term for the point of view that morality is nothing more than a set of guidelines which evolved to facilitate social life?

Supplementary question:

Is it your impression that this point of view is not uncommon among nonbelieving philosophers?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Morality is a human activity which is our way of trying to facilitate human life. It is not a set of rules which is concerned with how you should behave at parties or a set of rules that tells you how to be polite to other people.

I suggest you look at the films of the Nazi concentration camps which were taken after they were liberated. Then you see what morality is about and what good and evil is about. Its not much of a party is it?

When you talk about non believing philosophers do you mean philosophers who aren’t fanatical Jews or fanatical Christians or fanatical Muslims.

Just because someone is a believer that doesn’t make them a moral person. Being moral is a question of how you act not what you believe in. There are many believers who are evil people and the things they believe in are also evil.

Chomsky and Plato compared

Lisa asked:

The philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky argues for the existence of innate mental structures that provide for the potential of language development. In what ways do you think that his concept of these structures is similar to Plato’s theory of innate ideas? In what ways do you see his conception as a departure from Plato’s theory?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Lisa, this an interesting question in that Chomsky calls his treatise on language Cartesian Linguistics, thus inferring that there is a connection between his approach to language and Descartes ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as expounded in his Discourse on Method and Meditations, and yet, for anyone who has taken time to study both these works and that above mentioned theory of Plato, it is evident that what seems at first reading to be similarities between all three theories, in fact Chomsky can be said to follow Kant more than Descartes or Plato.

Let me explain. For Plato, as it would be for Descartes, the mind contains ideas that do not derive from sensory experience but exist in the mind before or apart from any engagement with the world outside the mind. In a similar way, but not the exactly the same, Chomsky holds that the mind contains, as you say, ‘innate mental structures that provide the potential for language development’. Thus, one can say that where all three thinkers find common ground is in their conviction that there is, within the mind, certain, let’s call them, ‘properties’ that are not sensory dependent.

However, where Plato and Descartes hold that the mind possesses innate ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, it must be understood that Chomsky only argues that the mind possesses an instinct to structure language in an ordered and grammatically correct way. It is in this way that Chomsky can be seen not alone to depart from Plato and Descartes, but to echo Kant. Remember, for Kant, whereas he agrees with Hume that ideas derive from sensory experience, he argues that it because the mind holds a priori (innate), not only the intuitions ‘space and time’, but also ten categories which were meant to define every possible form of prediction: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, possession, action, and passivity. These categories are reorganised to consist of four types: quantity, quality, relation, and modality. In short, everything we, as humans, experience we can be certain will be imposed within the a priori framework of the intuitions space and time, and subject to the law of causality – the law of cause and effect.

Thus, it can be said that whilst both Kant and Chomsky, in that they argue that the mind holds, a priori, certain ‘mental ‘properties’, it must be argued that in both instances, the mind does not operate in isolation but depends on empirical experience to make sense of, or put order on, that which it perceives. Whilst Chomsky’s argument that the contribution of experience is somewhat superficial, it should be stressed that, like Kant, he does accept that there is a correlation between that which is a priori and a posteriori.