Advice on a philosophy self-study program

Claude asked:

I am retired and always have had an interest in philosophy, especially the period from Bacon to Kant. How I do I prepare a self-study program and what type of ‘support’ books do I need to read and understand these philosophers?

I have loads of history books (Kenny, Flew, Russell), but I don’t feel I’m getting anywhere (deep enough). I have no problem with difficult fiction, but it seems ‘philosophizing’ is harder, especially alone.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’ll need to frame some kind of agenda for yourself before you begin. Random reading is the worst kind; and starting with Flew, Kenny and Russell is tantamount to imposing a handicap on yourself because there is an implicit agenda already in those works that may not work for you.

You have to decide what you seek. Philosophy deals with many issues, and you need to find one that suits your temperament. For example, are you after ‘wisdom literature’? Or after philosophies which deal with the physical world (ontology), with the world of fundamental laws and principles (metaphysics), with human concerns (ethics, politics), with the principles of knowledge (epistemology), art and beauty (aesthetics)?

Another issue is: do you wish to read original texts or secondary works? Authors who write well, as literature? This is not a negligible issue. Apart from a few who are really difficult and obscure (Spinoza, Hegel), most of the important philosophers write well, but some are very dry and others quite lively.

As you can see, in order to profit from reading philosophy, you should make a list of your own desiderata first. Bacon to Kant is not really a guideline: there are at least four altogether different schools of thought in that era. It is better to say, e.g. I’m really interested in what thinkers believed makes the world tick’, and then you could read Aristotle and Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz and Kant in sequence, finding connecting links between them all. So let me encourage you to state your interests in your own words. When you’ve done it, write again and someone will be able to help you better.

Don’t forget in the meantime that Pathways is explicitly geared to people like yourself, and you could do worse than write to Dr Klempner, who might have a course just tailor made for you.

Why shouldn’t my father take his own plate to the kitchen?

Aakash asked:

We all are taught since our childhood that we should always obey our parents. But sometimes I get into an utter confusion.

Take for example,

My father is an obese.

He eats his dinner and asks me to take is plate to the kitchen. But I want him to take his plate on his own as I want him to get some exercise in the process.

But if I do not take his plate he would scold and criticize me.

What should I do in this condition?

Expecting reply.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Aakash, isn’t it such a shame that one’s parents can be such a disappointment sometimes? I wonder what your father’s side of the story might be?

Whilst at first sight this might not seem to qualify as a philosophy question, since it involves the issue of how one ought to behave, and since the issue of how one ought to behave is concerned with Ethics, and since Ethics falls under the rubric of Philosophy, it seems to me that this question is not only worth addressing for its own sake, but also for its wider ramifications.

Let me begin by saying that whilst there appear to be a number of ways of approaching this issue, I do feel that your dilemma might have been more easily addressed had you taken the time to present it in a fuller and more objective manner. For example, you say that your father is obese, but do not say why this is the case: is his obesity genetic, because his work schedule does not allow him time to take the type of exercise he needs to keep in the kind of shape that you would like him to be in, or is it caused because he has a large appetite? Moreover, you do not say that he asks you to take his cleared plate away because he is tired after his days toil, because you are younger and fitter than your old man, because presumes you may be prepared to show your appreciation to him for furnishing you with a roof over your head, food on the table, and a solid education, that he is punishing you in some way for some unacknowledged (by you) misdemeanour, or because he is just too damn lazy.

Anyway, to what you could do: (1) you could accept that it’s not about what you want, but what is best for domestic harmony, and take the plate to the kitchen; (2) you could ask your father to take it the plate away himself, and put up with the consequences, (3) you could follow the childhood advice and be an obedient, and even grateful, son, or (4) you could even find a place of your own.

Teacher help with biology practical

Anna asked:

I’m tutoring a practical class for first year biology (uni), and I have taken issue with something they are teaching the class regarding hypothesis testing, I would like a second opinion.


In their very first practical my students were given a hypothesis:

‘if red blood cells contain haemoglobin (which is purple), then the organ that red blood cells are stored in will be purple’

(Obviously this assumes that purple haemoglobin would turn an organ purple, but let’s just take this as a given).

After being given this hypothesis, they were then instructed to investigate by dissecting a toad and trying to figure out which organ contains the red blood cells from visual inspection, i.e look for the purple organ. The problem is (the root of the entire mess, which I will describe shortly) that a number of organs are purple, not just the organ that contains the red blood cells (the spleen), therefore it’s not immediately apparent from visual inspection alone which organ contain the red blood cells, unless you happen to know beforehand that the organ is the spleen and so can just look for the spleen and confirm that it is indeed purple (but they aren’t supposed to know that in advance). So due to this not being apparent, the head tutors are claiming that this hypothesis is not falsifiable.

I do know that something has gone wrong here (general flaw of induction perhaps?), I suspect that it’s something to do with the relationship between the aims (locating organ that stores red blood cells) of the study and the hypothesis. If someone can clarify where exactly things went wrong and how, thanks, my brain is just not getting there. However I don’t see it as being a problem of ‘lack of falsifiability’. Claiming that this statement isn’t falsifiable is (IMO) like saying ‘if coke is black, then a clear glass with coke in it will look black’ is not a falsifiable statement just because other black liquids in clear glasses will also make those glasses look black.

Am I right in thinking this or am I missing something?

Can I get some insight from some epistemologically savvy people think before I put my reputation on the line with the course co-ordinator? Apologies if I’ve totally muffed this up.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Anna you need to be clear in your head about what the hypothesis says and what would falsify it.

As far as I can see from your account of things the hypothesis says ‘Any organ in the body which contains red blood cells will look purple’. It does not say ‘All the purple organs in the body look purple because they contain red blood cells’.

If you find any purple organs in the body which contain red blood cells then this will support the hypothesis. If you find purple organs in the body that do not contain red blood cells then these organs will not support the hypothesis but they won’t falsify it either.

So what will falsify the hypothesis? If you find an organ in the body which clearly looks green or orange but which contains red blood cell then this would falsify the hypothesis.

You need to be clear in your head about two similar looking hypotheses which are logically very different.

1. All organs with red blood cells in them will look purple 2. All organs which look purple will contain red blood cells.

Your hypothesis is 1 not 2 So if you find a purple organ with no red blood cells in it. This will NOT falsify 1 but it will falsify 2.

If you find a green organ with red blood cells in it then this will falsify 1.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Your students might learn some interesting zoology, but they wont learn much about hypothesis testing from this exercise.

The ‘root of the mess’ isn’t that toads have more than one (externally) purple organ.That’s an interesting fact for your students to learn. Nor is it that your hypothesis isn’t falsifiable.

The problem is that you don’t have a clear hypothesis to test. Your ‘hypothesis’ can be construed either as a conditional (if….then…) or as an argument (RBCs contain Hb, which is purple; therefore RBCs are purple; therefore an organ storing RBCs will appear purple, internally and maybe externally). But it isn’t a hypothesis (conjecture).

In the light of what we believe about RBCs and Hb, and what we surmise about the RBC life-cycle including a storage phase, a hypothesis (conjecture) for testing might be:

‘The toad organ-set includes at least one which appears purple.’

(falsified if we don’t find one – maybe because 1. RBCs stored in bone marrow, bones appear white, only insides are purple, or 2. No RBC storage in toads, or 3. Stored RBCs change their colour)

In fact we find several purple organs (say spleen, liver, two kidneys). So hypothesis confirmed (for one or a few toads at any rate, we surmise most others are the same). One, or more, or none of these organs might store RBCs. So, a better, more specific hypothesis might be:

‘The toad organ-set includes at least one which appears purple due to stored RBCs.’

(falsified if either no purple organ or none contains stored RBC when examined microscopically) In fact we find spleen contains large numbers of RBCs but liver/kidneys contain other things and only a few RBCs inside their blood vessels, as with any organ. Hypothesis confirmed (for those toads examined at any rate)

I don’t think induction comes into your conjecture-and-testing exercise with toads, except that the move from ‘all toads examined have a spleen’ to ‘all toads have a spleen’ is inductive. Of course a few toads may well be asplenic, so the better inductive argument would be to ‘nearly all toads have a spleen.’

A personal note. I don’t mind carving up toad, human or any other sort of dead bodies. It’s the killing of them for this very purpose which I am unhappy about, even with toads. But that’s another debate.

Quid est ergo tempus?

Sergio asked:

My name is Sergio, I’m from Italy and I like spending time reading your page. During my studies I’ve got stuck in a real big problem:


It might look simple to answer but it isn’t for me, that’s why I need your help.

In Italian (and maybe in English too) we talk about time like if we are the owner of it (sorry I don’t have time for you, I don’t want waste my time, etc.)

Sometime we talk about time like if it’s negative for us (the time was bad with that girl, she is 30 but she looks like she was 40).

Or like the time is something far away from us, for example when we have a problem and we can’t find a solution (the time will bring the answers).

Or we talk about the relation between time and space.

Those things mean the we use the time, it’s our, but doesn’t really say QUID EST ERGO TEMPUS?

May you help me to find a solution?

P.S. I’m not really looking for Husserl or Kant or St. Augustine or what the other people say about time, I’d like to know what do you think about time.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You have to get away from the notion that time is something that exists independently of you. I am aware that this is widely believed, and the argument goes, ‘we can measure time, so there must be something that exists’. This argument is feeble. We do not measure time; but an arbitrary regularization of the various periodicities found in nature.

Time is the rhythm of events that you experience. Your heartbeat, the succession of day and night; the changes of weather patterns; the growth of your body; the passage of the seasons; the wobble of the earth as it rotates around the Sun, etc. This experience we have always wished throughout history to ‘objectify’, to regularize. Since day/ night alternation is the major influence on this pattern of experience, we subdivide it into convenient segments. But since days are longer in summer than in winter, we average these segments out and disregard the changing lengths of days. You know yourself that your personal sense of time is quite often at variance with clock time, depending on the intensity with which you experience an event. Waiting for a train that’s running late makes time slow down; enjoying yourself on holiday seems to make the days rush by. And so on.

So there is no objective time. Time is not a word that picks out a fact of the universe: it denotes a concept made by humans for humans and their convenience. The reduction of time segments to minutes, seconds, milliseconds is governed by the circumstances of our observations of nature’s rhythms. If you are a physicist, you need smaller and smaller segments; if you are an astronomer, you need bigger ones.

I hope you can see from this that ‘measuring time’ is not measuring time, but something else. Namely the duration of some fact in relation to your experience of events. The simplest way of doing this is to use a device that travels a distance–e.g. the finger of a clock. When the minute hand of your clocks has travelled (e.g.) 1 cm, 1 minute has passed. Or: 255 pulses of your electronic watch define 1 minute. Other devices are equally good: An egg timer gives you 4 minutes. So time here is a quantity of sand.

In short, forget the hypersophisticated philosophical and scientific arguments about time, as though time was some thing or process. It is always a rhythm, the periodical recurrence of some phenomenon. Our best current timekeeper is the beating of a Caesium atom–in a word, a recurrent regular pulse. All you need to conclude from this is that ‘time is a pulse’, according to present-day definition, the caesium’s pulse. And that’s all there is to it.

Answer by Helier Robinson

First of all the examples you give (‘Sorry I don’t have time for you, I don’t want waste my time, etc.’) are from ordinary language, which is a bad place to look for truth because ordinary language is geared to common sense. Common sense is fine for everyday activities but misleading when seeking to understand the Universe: just consider how un-common-sensical relativity and quantum mechanics are.

The nearest I can get to understanding time is that it is relational: it consists of relations between events, so that one event is earlier than another, which latter is later than the former. Relations give philosophers trouble for several reasons. One is that they are ephemeral: they come into existence and go out again very easily: if you put your hat on your head the on just pops into existence, and if you take your hat off again the on ceases to exist. Another reason is that we have difficulty explaining how we perceive relations, since they have no colours, tangible properties, or any other concrete properties. For example, we can see that this colour is brighter than that colour, but brighter than has no colour; or we can hear that this note is higher than that note, but higher than makes no sound; or this surface is rougher than, and warmer than, and harder than, that surface, but these relations cannot be felt. So how do we perceive them? Yet another difficulty with relations is their extravagant multiplication. If relations really exist then they are entities and as such may be terms of other relations. So if we take two relations of similarity we find that they are similar to each other, so that we now have a new similarity, and this third similarity is similar to each of the first two, so that we have two more similarities, and so on to infinity. These difficulties have led many philosophers to declare that relations are unreal, mere things of the mind. But it is very difficult to maintain this when considering space and time (or, better, space-time), causation, similarity and dissimilarity, logical necessity, and the like, all of which we want to say are real. So that is part of your trouble with time.

If you are interested, I have written a book on relations, called Relation Philosophy of Mathematics, Science, and Mind. It is somewhat technical, but may be of help to you. It is obtainable from

On presentism and the cosmos

Fred asked:

I’ve been thinking about presentism and the conditions of the cosmos. It is well known that when we look out into space we are looking backwards in time. If we look out far enough we will eventually see the big bang itself. Since this is true, even if I look out a fraction of a millimeter from my eye, what I am seeing is in the past. Even when I look at my body I am seeing it not as it is, but as it was. Thus everything that I perceive is not as it is, but as it was. If presentism is true, it seems everything I perceive does not exist. Really, only my mind exists and I am a solipsist. Is this argument sound? Please email a response.

Answer by Helier Robinson

No, the argument is not sound. It can be understood more clearly is a somewhat different form. If the Sun were to explode, we would not know about it until eight minutes afterwards, since that is how long it takes light to travel from the Sun to us. So if you are looking at the Sun, are you seeing the exploded sun, or not?

The point is that the real Sun has exploded, so what you are seeing is not the real Sun; so what you are seeing is either an image of the real Sun, or else it is a product of your mind. This argument applies to everything you see because light has a finite speed. Your argument left out the possibility of your seeing images of reality, leaving only the possibility that only your mind exists. (And note that everything you perceive does exist (you could not perceive it otherwise); what you should have inferred was that everything you perceive is unreal, merely mental.) So either solipsism is true, or else everything you perceive is an image of reality, not reality itself. You’ve got the makings of a good philosopher in you.

Taking 300 pages to say what can be said in one page

Wise asked:

Why do philosophers take 300 pages to say what could be said in one page?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Let me answer in one line – because their text is ‘one long argument’.

But, like them, I will take a page to say what I have already said in a line, because I want to explain, illustrate, convince.

It’s not just philosophers. ‘One long argument’ was how the famous evolutionary biologist, Ernest Mayr, described Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. This book (in my Folio edition, including index) is 298 pages long, uncannily illustrating your point. I could give the gist of the theory of evolution through natural selection, including a summary of evidence quoted by Darwin, in one page. But, in Darwin’s day the idea was new and controversial and upset many people. So Darwin was keen to explain it properly, to give detailed arguments with many examples, to anticipate objections and reply to them in advance, to consider and dismiss alternatives, to cite in detail all the supporting evidence. Result? A great work and one of the few science books of the past worth reading for its current scientific value, not just its historical value.

And so it is with philosophers. Especially if defending a controversial or counterintuitive idea. Thus Berkeley writes not one but two books defending his idea that matter doesn’t exist, only minds (including God’s) and ideas (ours and God’s), the external world being ideas in God’s mind (his prose is wonderfully spare and exact so that he gets the total text down to nearer 150 pages). More modern examples include David Lewis ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’, nearly 300 pages saying that possible worlds are real. Or Huw Price’s ‘Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point’, 306 pages about the block-universe view of time and it’s implications. Each of these books is ‘one long argument’, and part of learning philosophy is to follow a few of these arguments by reading such books and making up your own mind.

By contrast, reports of original observations or experimental findings only have to say what was done and found. Others can replicate the findings and thereby be convinced. So, for example, Crick and Watson’s famous 1953 paper on the structure of DNA is only a few pages long. Philosophy is rarely like that. However, one of the most famous and influential papers in 20th century philosophy, Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? ‘, is only two pages long. Other, famous, relatively short papers are Goodman’s 6-page ‘The New Riddle of Induction’ (the one about grue), and Quine’s 24-page ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’.

Having regard to the differences between science and philosophy, I doubt if philosophers are more prolix than scientists (or any other group of writers).

Answer by Tony Fahey

This is a good question, and similar to one I asked myself when I first embarked on third level studies. I should say though that I do think that arguing that philosophers can take 300 pages to say what can be said in one page might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in saying that, I do get the sense of what you mean. However, unfortunately, in philosophy, it seems that there is no political Ronald Reagan ‘one page man’ equivalent

One explanation why philosophers may seem so long-winded is that academic writing in general (not just philosophical dissertations or theses) demands that one’s argument(s) can never be reduced to sweeping generalizations: one can never state that such and such is one’s view and leave it at that. That is, one’s stated position must be supported by cogent, well reasoned, and, where possible, well supported argument.

For example, whilst Kant’s statement ‘Though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience’ might be seen to state his position in regard to Hume’s empirical stance, it takes considerably more than one page to set out what is meant in this short statement. Moreover, the full meaning of his much quoted view that the two things that sustained him were ‘…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’ could not be explained within the two or three paragraphs of one page. I could go on to consider similar cases of many other famous thinkers – Wittgenstein (‘whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence’), Vico (‘concepts arise from the ‘common-sense spontaneous judgements of the community’), Hegel’s ‘dialectic process’, Plato’s ‘theory of forms’, Husserl’s ‘transcendental ego’, and so on, and so on, but I think (or I hope) by now you may get my drift – I am also keen to show that, in this instance at least, what needs to be said can be said on one page or less.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

That is your opinion and you offer no evidence for it so it will just remain your opinion. It is likely that philosophy is just too difficult for you to understand. You think there are simple answers to philosophical problems because you fail to understand the problems.