Benefits of understanding the abstract world

Sera asked:

Theoretical philosophy seems like entertainment at best and a waste of time at worst, but I can’t stop seeking answers for this world.

If the physical world isn’t evidence of anything other than simply what we observe, is it all right to want to reach the abstract world? What are the benefits of understanding the abstract world; how would a complete understanding of the abstract world affect our lives here?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Sera.

Yes, theoretical philosophy can certainly seem this way. As you will see, however, if you read my article, ‘Is metaphysics a waste of time?’ in a recent edition of the Pathways Journal, my view would be that it does not have to be like this. Yes, there will always be a strong sense in which theoretical philosophy, the logical/ discursive analysis of philosophical problems, is mere entertainment and idle scholasticism. There can be no doubt that it is entertaining, it is all too easy to become addicted, and logical analysis can never tell us what is actually true in fact, only calculate the ‘best’ theory of what is true, so must always come second to empiricism. The thing is, though, that if an activity is entertaining this does not mean it is worthless. And having a best theory of what is true would be a necessary foundation for directed empirical research. If you seek answers for philosophical questions you will be lucky to find them if you have no best theory of where they might be found, and for this some theoretical philosophy would be required.

‘Abstract world’ may be a slightly confusing phrase here since the world of spacetime phenomenon, the world that you describe as ‘simply what we observe’, the ‘psycho-physical’ world, may in fact be an ‘abstract’ world, if by this we mean it is not concrete. Francis Bradley surveys the world as a whole in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality, and it is what you call the ‘abstract world’ that he calls Reality, not the world of our physical senses. Many others who see the world in this way. Perhaps ‘unseen’ or ‘unmanifest’ world would be better.

‘If the physical world isn’t evidence of anything other than simply what we observe, is it alright to want to reach the abstract world? This is one of those times that the answer can be found in the question. The physical world is conclusive evidence that we observe, that there is an observer. The psycho-physical world of our senses (let us include mind here as a sense) is precisely what we observe, no more and no less, not even by one iota, and it can never be any more or less than this. What we never observe in this psycho-physical world is an observer. We can search to ends of the earth but we will never observe such a thing. This is the phenomenon that is doing the observing, and it cannot be the subject of an observation. Hence we have in philosophy the problem of ‘other minds’. By observation alone, from an examination of the evidence that we simply observe, we can never be sure that we are not the only observer in the whole universe, the only being that is not a zombie. Still, this is enough for us to know that there is an observer, and thus to serve as a proof that there is an unseen or ‘abstract’ world. As to whether it is alright ‘to want to reach this abstract world’, this is not a choice you are free to make. As long as there is an observer and an observation, as long as you are aware that there are these two things, then there will be two worlds, the abstract and the concrete, and you will seem to be in both of them.

What would be the benefits of understanding this ‘abstract’ world? This would depend on who you want to believe. For some people there could be no such thing, and even if there were it would be inaccessible to knowledge and understanding. This cannot be proven, however, so other views survive. For the philosophy of the Upanishads we would have to say that although there are these two worlds, one seemingly abstract and one seemingly concrete, they would be emergent. This is relevant here because it is the claim that the world is a whole or a unity, that these two worlds are not fundamentally distinct. If we do some theoretical philosophy then we can work out, as did Leibnitz, that a whole or a unity cannot have parts. The claim of this philosophy is therefore that there is a level of existence, an unmanifest state of being, common to all human beings, a fundamental shared identity, at which level the distinction between abstract and concrete or observer and observed is transcended. At any rate, this would be Bradley’s ‘Reality’, not abstract or concrete, but real as opposed to apparent. If so, there would clearly be some benefit in knowing this.

So your abstract world is explained by the Upanishads as the original phenomenon on which the appearance of all other phenomena, mental or corporeal, depend for their moment-to-moment appearance. This would not be some barely accessible and distant scientific phenomenon that we must observe by looking through a telescope or microscope, but the very foundation of our being, inescapably ever-present for all sentient beings whether we like it or not,. ‘Closer to us than our jugular’ is how one Sufi master puts it. This would be an ‘abstract’ world in the sense that we would be unable to observe it, but it would be more real than the apparently ‘concrete’ world of observed appearances.

Should we give this view any credence? Is there really an abstract world? Perhaps there is nothing to research, no answers to your questions. Unless you wish to take up the empirical practices of philosophy then like it or not theoretical philosophy would be the only method for deciding your question. You would certainly have to do a lot of theoretical philosophy in order to prove to yourself that it is a waste of time. I rather think it depends how we look at it, and would suggest that theoretical philosophy is immensely useful up the point where one realises it is not, by which time it has served its purpose.

How would a complete understanding of world affect our lives? Such a knowledge of the two worlds you characterise as abstract and concrete would, I suspect, make you a Buddha according to the Buddhist definition, someone fully awake to the relationship between the observed and unobserved realms. If you want to know what the benefits of gaining such a profound knowledge are then I regret to say that you will have to ask someone else. But it is possible to observe the behaviour, lifestyles and general demeanour of those who have come close to such knowledge and draw ones own conclusions.


The notorious case of Debora Rodriguez

Yanyan asked:

Twenty-nine year old Debora Rodriquez is a militant member of Brazil’s landless movement the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) which is battling for redistribution of under utilized land to as many as 4.8 million landless families. Recently Ms Rodriquez made a decision to appear in an upcoming Brazilian edition of Playboy, photographed in the nude. Many fellow members of the MST are highly critical of her decision, believing that it will tarnish the Movements image. Some other members (apparently) do not have this concern, but believe Ms Rodriquez should contribute a portion of the 18,000 she will earn to the MSTs efforts on behalf of impoverished Brazilian farmers. Ms Rodriquez says she will use the money to buy a home for herself and her two children, aged 11 and 9, as well as other things the children need. Currently Ms Rodriquez and her children live in a tent at a settlement organized by the MST.

Is Ms Rodriquez’s decision morally justifiable? If so, why? If not, why not?

Answer by Craig Skinner

An interesting story. I presume it’s true. If so, I applaud the efforts of MST and hope they achieve the redistributive justice needed to allow millions to lead a tolerable life.

As for Ms R, my conclusion is that she made 3 decisions, all morally justifiable, although the third showed tactical ineptitude and/or lack of generosity.

Let us deal with each decision:

1. To be a militant member of MST

I take ‘militant’ to mean uncompromising and outspoken (rather as Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist) rather than including terrorist activity. Presumably, she gives of her time and of herself to MST, and so MST has no right to demand more of her (though they might want more).

Her decision here is morally justifiable, indeed admirable.

2. To appear in Playboy

I applaud her. If I had the chance to appear nude in Playboy, and be paid for it, I would jump at it. Sadly, Playboy makes no such offers to old men. She has clearly kept her looks, despite her having two children, so good luck to her. As regards tarnishing the image of MST, I can say little since I don’t know what its image is. I belong to several respectable professional, business and leisure organizations, and none would have its image tarnished if a member posed for Playboy. I suppose if she were a nun, the image of the Catholic church might be tarnished, but even here the effect would be negligible compared to the severe tarnishing from revelations of paedophilia in clergymen. I imagine some of the many who are ‘highly critical’ are other women who are jealous because their looks aren’t good enough for Playboy, and some others are men complaining of exploitation of women and of pornography, but enjoying Playboy in private as much as anybody else.

She has not failed in any duty, contravened anybody’s rights, harmed anybody or disrespected her own humanity.

Her decision here, both to appear and to accept payment, is morally justifiable.

3. To keep all the money for herself and her children

Beforehand, she was a poor person asking for distributive justice. She stood to gain from redistribution. A rich person, who stands to lose by redistribution, but nevertheless campaigns for it, might be said to be more admirable. So we might ask, now that her earnings make her one of the ‘rich’, at least relatively so (enough for a house and other things), is she still keen on redistribution, which now entails her giving rather than taking? Apparently she has changed her tune, preferring to keep what she has rather than give it to poorer farmers.

But it isn’t clear that this is immoral.

She has (at least) two moral defences.

(a) she has special responsibility towards her nearest and dearest. Most people would agree that she has more responsibility for the welfare of her own children than for other children. We can anchor this ethically by saying that the fact that a child is well-treated by its parent is a moral good over and above the fact that it is well-treated. And of course the actual arrangements in most societies assume that parents, not others, have primary responsibility for children’s welfare. Ms R is such a parent.

(b) she earned the money honestly and it is hers to spend as she wishes (most people would do the same). She already gives her time and efforts to MST. How much giving is needed to be moral? Surely giving until one is as poor as those receiving is unrealistically extreme. At the very least the giver needs to keep enough to maintain her and her children’s health, and her work capability, so that she can carry on the good work. Some extreme consequentialist views (eg Singer) maintain that giving should continue so long as the gain to the recipient exceeds the loss to the donor. This would entail that donors and their children be reduced to half-starving so long as there are other children starving who could be helped.

I feel that Ms R can be defended on these grounds so that her action is not immoral.

Many poor people who win the lottery find that they lose their old, poor friends (who are envious of their new wealth and want some of it), whilst failing to make new friends among the rich (who look down on them). I suspect there is an element of envy in some members of MST.

However, you say there are calls for her to ‘contribute a portion’ of her cash. So people recognize that it is fair enough for her to keep some of it for herself and her children.

I think she has missed a trick here. Even on egoistical grounds, she might have been better to keep enough for a modest house and no extras, giving the rest to MST (shows solidarity, keeps her reputation, less bad feeling). Also, she might have been more generous of spirit, and given something simply because the others needed it.

In conclusion, I think Ms R’s decisions were morally justifiable, but could have been improved by an extra dash of generosity of spirit or tactical awareness.


How did Socrates break the conventions of Athenian society?

Mohamed asked:

How did Socrates break his society’s conventions? Was this what that led to his death?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Mohamed, this is an interesting question to which the answer to the second part is yes, it was in virtue of his going against Athenian society’s conventions that led, ultimately, to Socrates’ death. The first part of the question, however, probably needs a bit more explanation.

Plato’s dialogue Apology professes to be the speech made by Socrates in his own defence at his trial – or rather it is an account of Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ defines given some time after his trial. In a typical Athenian trial of that period the defendant was given a limited time (measured by a water-clock) to answer the charges and, although he had to defend himself, he could, if he so desired, buy a suitable speech from a professional speech writer – a Sophist. Socrates, of course, rejects this approach and declares that he will speak plain and unvarnished truth. It can be argued, of course, that his disavowal of any knowledge of rhetoric (rhetoric is the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively) and that his ambition is to tell nothing but the truth, is itself a form of rhetoric in that it implies that his statements can be trusted implicitly.

Socrates had been accused of being an ‘evil – doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and in the sky, and of making the worse seem the better cause, and of teaching all this to others’. In short, by going against society’s conventions, he was found guilty by a majority and was, in accordance with Athenian law of that time, to propose an alternative penalty to death. The judges had to choose, if they found the accused guilty, between the penalty of demanded by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence. Therefore, it was in Socrates interest to suggest a penalty that would be accepted as a reasonable alternative to death. However, he chose the sum of 30 minas. While this was much more than Socrates could possibly afford (the sum was guaranteed by Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus) it was considered insufficient by the court and he was sentenced to death. From this we can conclude that Socrates actively sought this verdict, since, to suggest an alternative penalty that would be acceptable to the court was tantamount to admitting that he was guilty of the charges against him – this of course he could not do for central to the charges made against him were that he was guilty of not worshipping the gods that the State worshipped, but of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the minds of the young by instructing them accordingly.

The Apology, then, is, according to Plato, Socrates’ answer to these charges. Socrates opens his defence by accusing his prosecutors of eloquence (what he means by this is rhetoric- the art off speaking persuasively), and rebutting the same charge which was made against him. The only eloquence he admits to, he says, is that of the truth. If this approach offends the court, he says, the court must forgive him for, not being familiar with the ways of the court: he is not familiar with its un-forensic way of speaking. Socrates goes on to relate the incidence where the Oracle of Delphi was once asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates claims to have been bemused by this statement, since he always claimed that he knew nothing. However, he also accepts that the god cannot lie so he set out to see if he could find someone wiser than himself. This sequence is central to the Apology because it is from here that Socrates infers his raison d’etre derives. That is, he regards the Oracle’s reply as a puzzle that has to be resolved.

Therefore he sees it as his life’s mission to expose false knowledge. The first person he goes to is a politician, who is thought to be wise by many people, and even wiser by himself. He soon discovers that the man was not wise at all, and as a consequence is hated by the politician for exposing his ignorance. Next he visits to the poets, and asks them to explain passages of their writings. When they were unable to do so, Socrates concludes that it is not in virtue of being wise that they write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration. Then he tries his luck with craftsmen, but he finds them to be equally unwise. They think they are wise, he discovers, because they know their own trade, but in reality that is all they know. Finally he concludes that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.

It is worth mentioning that the Socratic method of enquiry, by its nature, had the effect of undermining the basic assumption of ancient democracy – that is, that all men had the knowledge necessary for the conduct of public affairs. Therefore, by exposing the ignorance of those who were most powerful in Athenian society, not only to themselves, but, since these investigations were carried out in public, to all and sundry – particularly the young aristocrats who had nothing else to do but follow Socrates around all day.

The second part of Plato’s Apology concentrates on charges made against Socrates by Meletus, that he was guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and that he did not acknowledge the gods of the city, and even introduces new divinities. Since Meletus is in court, Socrates can question his charges directly – which is legally entitled to do. With regard to the first charge, Meletus is forced into the absurd position of claiming that every Athenian citizen improves the minds of the young and only Socrates corrupts them. The conclusions to this premise are self-explanatory. That is, the outlandish claim by Meletus shows that he had never thought seriously about the education of the young, that his charge against Socrates is not based on any concern for their welfare, and that even Socrates, regardless of his wisdom, was no match for the collective wisdom of the entire Athenian community.

The charge of introducing new divinities must be understood against the background of the official religion of the state. In contrast to monotheistic religions (one god religions), Greek religions were polytheistic (they had many gods) and undogmatic in the sense that they had no bible or set of orthodox beliefs that the faithful were obliged to accept. The only written accounts of the Greek gods were found in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, but these stories did not have to be believed by those who performed the prescribed rituals to appease these deities. However, while there was no set of orthodox beliefs, each city had its own pantheon of divinities – its own group of gods and goddesses – that had been gradually accepted over the ages. Athens, for example, was named after the warrior goddess Athena, who was born out of the head of Zeus. Many of the public buildings on the Acropolis were dedicated to her; the temple of Athena Nike was built to celebrate the defeat of the Persians, and her festivals would have been the most important in the Athenian official calendar.

All these public rituals had a profound significance, and Greek religion may be regarded as a kind of worship of their native city by its citizens. There was an officially sanctioned set of gods in each city, and their festivals were carefully regulated, since that was part of the political order. There was also a strict ban on blaspheming against the accepted divinities, and the introduction of new gods was strictly forbidden. This was the legal basis for the charge of impiety brought against Socrates who had often spoken in public about his personal daimon, describing it as it was a warning sign against any kind of wrongdoing. When Meletus is forced by Socrates to clarify the charge of introducing new divinities, he goes to the extreme of accusing him of not acknowledging any gods. Socrates is able to point out that he is being confused with Anaxagoras (one of the natural philosophers) whose book denied that the sun and the moon were gods. Furthermore, Meletus contradicts himself because he also accuses Socrates of introducing new gods (like his daimon) which implies that he does believe in some deities.


On an attempted critique of postmodernism

Marella asked:

While pragmatists would argue that how we construe the world is an outcome of social construction, they would also point to how an ontologically real external reality intervenes and imposes pragmatic limits on our discursive analyses… if you wanted to test this in relation to window glass, and we strongly advise you not to do this, you could try stepping through a window without opening it first and see if the postmodernist freeplay of signifiers allows you to remain unharmed!

Is this a legitimate critique of postmodernist views? Why?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Marella, I think this is a caricature of postmodernist views. It is the same as concluding from George Berkeley’s immaterialism that a person can stand in front of a bus and not be run over-on the grounds that it is only an idea. Berkley’s Immaterialism is an alternative take on how we understand ontology I.e. that it is immaterial and not problematic materialism.

So, as I understand it, Post Modernists would not advocate an ‘immaterialism’ where signifiers are substituted for ideas. They would not be averse to maintaining that there is a reality ‘behind’ the signifiers or, that signifiers are subject to change and modification. Signifiers are the mode in which ‘reality’ is understood and articulated-what Michel Foucault called the ‘irreducibility of consciousness’. This does not mean signifiers exist in suspended isolation; signifiers can be altered, modified or rejected due to the activity of other human and social forces. They are grounded in social practices-forms of life- and not free floating – thereby inviting the often made charge of relativism.

For Michel Foucault, signifiers would be part of ‘discursive regimes’. These are very much ‘real’ as they determine how human beings are categorised, instilled with norms and live their lives accordingly. In the ever present interests of freedom, the regimes are to be analysed and challenged.

For Jean-Francois Lyotard signifiers would be inherent to language. Different language games can come into conflict with each other or simply not be understood. Thus the signifiers of money, of finance, would meet opposition to the signifiers held by an ‘Occupy’ movement. They would be incommensurable with each other. Lyotard terms this situation a ‘differand’. If any solution is sought, it is to find new ways of communicating involving new or modified signifiers that can do ‘justice’ to both sides.

So signifiers are very real for Postmodernism.


What’s the use of philosophy?

Katrina asked:

Why do you think that philosophy today is no longer given serious attention?

Sally asked:

Of what use is Philosophy when we agree to disagree?

Answer by Peter Jones

It seems to me that these two questions belong together, or are essentially the same question, since it seems likely that the reason why philosophy is given too little serious attention these days is that philosophers spend most of their time agreeing to disagree rather than actually settling any arguments. As long as philosophers are content to go on doing this then the discipline can go nowhere. ‘Without contradiction there is no progress’, writes the Dalai Lama about philosophy, and clearly he is right. For as long as its practitioners go on agreeing to disagree philosophy will be of little use and will not receive the serious attention it deserves.

A good explanation for why the characteristically ‘Western’ tradition of philosophical thought is so remarkably tolerant of such a cornucopia of mutually inconsistent theories would have to be very long. I sketched out an answer in a recent article for the Philosophy Pathways Journal (Issue no. 171) but it is no more than sketch. Briefly, logical analysis fails to endorse any of the theories favoured or considered legitimate by philosophers in this tradition, or not if they want to stay in this tradition, and in fact refutes them all. This leaves us two options. One option would be to give up trying to decide between them and agree to disagree. Those who do this must enter Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’. Lots of hand-waiving but nobody gets hurt. The other option would be to recognise the futility of arguing back and forth for theories that can all be refuted and give some credence to theories from outside the tradition that cannot be so easily defeated.

For the philosophy of the Upanishads, which is the only world-view that is not refutable in logic as far as I am aware, these same two critical questions could be fairly asked but for entirely different reasons, and they would have entirely different answers. If you examine this philosophy you will find that you are expected to agree or disagree with it, and that it bluntly disagrees with the countless other theories that philosophers so often agree to disagree about. This philosophy receives a great deal of serious attention outside of the tradition to which these two questions are directed, and an ever increasing amount of it as more and more people see that the traditional philosophy of Western academia is bankrupt.

If you wish to dig deeper into these issues and can face a long slog then you might like to read my dissertation at I would suggest you go to this address to read it rather than to our good host’s site since this version has been much improved from the original. On very few points does it agree to disagree with anyone. This was deliberate, since I fully endorse the criticism of philosophy that your two questions imply.


Aren’t we happier not knowing that our ‘real’ world isn’t real?

Amber asked:

If you do suspect that Plato’s theory of the forms may be true, and that the ‘real’ world is in fact fiction (this is extending the theory a bit) then what is the point in living? If the world wasn’t real, then there must be an actual real world. What is better? Living in ignorance but being happy, or knowledge but never being able to go back to your original happy state?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’re making a fundamentally mistaken assumption (although it’s relatively common): What makes you think “ignorance is bliss”?

All of human history points in the opposite direction — in fact you can go back to Homo erectus, if you wish.

The pattern conveyed by this history is that searching for a better life, for fulfilment and meaning in life, is what drives human beings, time and again, to discover and invent, to create and to think.

So the correlation between ignorance and being happy, which you put into your question, has not the flimsiest foundation. I believe, in fact, that you are mistaking the few escapists, drug addicts and fatalists as representing all of mankind. Although there have been episodes when whole cultures went into a slump of escapism, they also do not represent the trend that is typical of human history. They are retarding episodes in a general upward thrust.

Accordingly I cannot make head or tail about your question on Plato. What if Plato’s theory were true? Well, perhaps it is. So what? Do you think that Plato wrote 350 pages of the Republic to be misunderstood as meaning there is no real world? Isn’t that book on the contrary the clearest evidence of his worry that we are apt to fall into just the kind of delusion that you falsely attribute to him? Do you believe that the State which Socrates is constructing in its pages — his ‘kallipolis’, or beautiful city — is a dream or something he wanted to see in the real world? Near the end he tells you — perhaps you should read this a little more carefully! My city, he says, is a paradigm, a model; and I don’t expect anyone in the world to adopt it holus bolus. But everyone can take a little from it, which can only improve their society. Especially (which is the real point Socrates wanted to make) to improve human justice, which plays such a poverty stricken role in most societies, when it should be the first and most important criterion in the foundation of a community.

Now that’s not a dream. It is hope, and realisable, if only we wish.

But to accomplish this, you must cast off the delusions to which we humans are chained, such as (for example) today’s rampant consumerism. That is ignorance indeed, but not bliss!


Is there such a thing as darkness?

Bryan asked:

Is there such thing as darkness?

Answer by Nathan Sinclair

This question reflects one of the earliest and most divisive disputes in philosophy: the existence of universals. When we conduct an inventory of the things in the universe we will find red things, tall things, just things(/people), courageous things(/people), but will we find in addition to those things also redness, tallness, justice, and courage.

Plato and Aristotle are the best known proponents of each side of this dispute, with Plato taking the side of those who believe in universals (also known as platonic forms), and Aristotle taking the side of those who deny the existence of universals.

Plato’s main argument (though he doesn’t seem to feel the need for much of one) is that we could not perceive things as having any common characteristics unless we were acquainted with the relevant universal.

Aristotle’s bets known argument is the third man argument. If two things are both men, and resemble each other in this respect only because they both instantiate the universal MAN, then what of the universal itself? It would seem that it could only resemble particular men if there was another universal (a third man) which they all instantiated. If not and the universal and the particular men can resemble each other without participating in higher universal, then surely the original individuals can resemble each other (and all be men) without the need of a universal MAN at all.

In Aristotle’s argument he relies on the assumption that universals are true of themselves: that the TALL will itslef be tall, that COURAGE will itself be courageous and so on. To modern eyes this seems ridiculous, but it was accepted by the vast majority of Ancient Greek philosophers. Still, the relationship of instantiation itself seems to need a universal (if any relationship does at all) and so some form of the argument still seems good.

In modern times the dispute turns on two problems:

On the skeptical side no one has a workable account of when two universals are the same. Merely being true of the same things isn’t enough (consider creature with a heart, and creature with a kidney, these two properties are surely different, everything with a heart has kidneys and vice versa).

On the positive side there seem to be some statements (such as “Humility is a virtue”) that seem to unavoidably rely upon the existence of universals. Those against universlas must either give a plausible re-interpretation of such claims which doesn’t rely upon universals, or abandon such statements altogether.

Putting aside the general issue of universals and looking at darkness are there any reason to suppose DARKNESS is particularly implausible?

Yes, it is both subjective and seemingly inessential to our claims about the world. Not only is darkness relative to particular visual equipment (what is dark to you ro I is not dark to an owl or a frog), and hence it would seem not a key feature of the worlds functioning. Moreover it would seem we could replace talk of DARKNESS with talk of ‘receiving insufficient light to form a visual image’. This might still leave us with a universal to deal with but it wouldn’t be DARKNESS. More generally we seem to have perfectly adequate and successful theories of the world which don’f use the term darkness at all. We could surely paraphrase claims about darkness in terms of average number of photons being received per square meter per second.

For my part I find (a modern version of) Aristotle’s argument pretty convincing, and I don’t believe in universals at all.