Can philosophy help me in my confusion?

Gaurav asked:

I was an agnostic 3 years back. After reading some scientific books against god I became completely atheist. This transition however has not been an easy one. On the bright side loss of superstitious belief made me more rational, more free, which I admire however lack of single unifying belief system has left me confused. Someday I admire individualism other day I am impressed by existentialism yet on other day some other philosophy. I don’t just want to read philosophy want to live with it. I want to live as close to true and rational practices as possible. I also want philosophy to help me evolve as a person. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. Different schools of thought, different authors/philosophers, vast subject matter makes it all most difficult.

I am not being trained in philosophy so I cannot really give much time to this. Still I want to end the state of confusion I am currently in. Do you think philosophy in spite of contradictions among different schools can be made a way of life? Can it be practised? Which books will you suggest in different branches of this subject? Should I choose a single philosopher and read what he has to say on different matters? If yes, who can he be? Have you ever been in such a state of confusion. How did you come out of it?

PS I don’t want to read ancient books of philosophy. In my opinion modern authors have considered such matters and are more comprehensible.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You are doing better than you think you are.

All of us feel the way you do some of the time, and some of us feel that way all of the time.

You have evolved, it’s just currently uncomfortable. You have relinquished some of the views you had, without yet replacing them all by other definite beliefs. Quite right, you are open to argument, holding some views as provisionally-all-things-considered, and staying uncommitted for now on others.

At risk of making you more confused, your talk of ‘scientific books against god’ and ‘loss of superstitious belief’ makes me wonder if you are suffering from an overdose of the New Atheists (Dawkins; Hitchens; Harris; Dennett; Hawking to some extent) They do not give a balanced account of the theism/atheism debate. Rather than engage with the philosophical arguments, they rather suggest that the only reasons people have for being religious are ignorance and superstition, and once people are science-savvy, such nonsense will fade away. I suggest that before leaving the agnostic camp and setting up your tent in the atheist one, you try the views of a philosophy-savvy scientist, say John Polkinghorne’s ‘Science and Religion in Quest for Truth’, and of a philosopher other than Dennett, say David Glass’s ‘Atheism’s New Clothes’. If you have already done this, fair enough.

Philosophy as a way of life? Yes. Some earn a living by it. Mostly in colleges and universities, occasionally by teaching outside the academic framework and/or by popular writing. More often, philosophy illuminates other lifestyles or jobs, and clearly this is what you mean. But I think the idea that you will come across one ‘system’ that will end your confusion and yield many of the answers you seek, is a mirage. Maybe a problem-orientated, rather than system- or philosopher- orientated approach would help. Pick a specific point or area where you are confused or uncertain, think, read and discuss round it trying to reach your own view on the matter.

For example my own views on morality-without-god owe something to Plato, to Aristotle, to Kant, to Hume, to notions in evolutionary psychology, and to other influences including my own life experience. I suspect that like most people you don’t have somebody who is further along the journey than yourself to discuss things with and bounce your ideas off (admitting to an interest in philosophy tends to be a real conversation-stopper down the pub or at the dinner table). The only way round this is to sign up for some formal study with supervision and feedback. I suggest looking at what Pathways can offer. I used Pathways support for my distance-learning BA and found it excellent value, both philosophical and financial, and you can sign up for less ambitious (but still pretty rigorous) modules. You say you can’t give much time. I understand this but it could be time well-spent.

You will already have appreciated that certainty isn’t among the contents when you open the philosophy box. If certainty is what you want, stick to maths/logic, but even there it may just be truth-in-the-story of maths/logic, rather than absolutely.

Finally, I too am keen on modern authors, imagining that philosophy is more like science than art, and that there has been progress. How we might measure progress in philosophy, and whether there has been any, are themselves nice points to reflect on. Whatever, many of the ‘ancient’ writers (I include what BA students still learn as ‘modern’ philosophy, namely Descartes onward) show terrific wit and wisdom, and are more than worth studying in their own right. A few write badly, but no more so than among moderns.

All the best in your quest.


AI and the answer to the task of life

Keith asked:

The meaning of life…

Can an answer to that question then be used to give artificial intelligence developers a task for a computer program to execute? Such as robots build cars, computer programs create a better driving experience, is it that human life hasn’t been simulated by a computer program because the function of life/ the goal of life/ the meaning of life/ what life is out there doing/ life’s task is unknown? Hence if known, could then AI finally be able to be designed as that life like program.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It’s a good question to ask: why should anyone want anything or do anything? Writers of science fiction books and movies assume without even a moment’s thought that an android or AI would want to do stuff — that it would have a reason to obey our orders, for example, or fulfil its design function.

But that’s the whole point: human beings have been designed by evolution to pursue a range of tasks all hinging around survival and reproduction. But then we got conscious and discovered that we could give tasks to ourselves and pursue them. The result is human culture, and the history of philosophy.

In sci-fi comedies robots can get depressed (Marvin the paranoid android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but that would be the true test of success, much more appropriate than Turing’s easy option. You can’t get depressed unless life is a question for you. How does that happen? How did it happen?

There is no task. Any time you want you can get off the train of life. Provided, of course, that you understand that there will be no ‘you’ to hop on again later.


Answer by Stuart Burns

First of all, life’s task is known. The function of life, the goal of life, the meaning of life, what life is out there doing, is simply the ongoing continuation of life. So the answer to your question has to take that fact into consideration. If we haven’t built ‘life-like’ computer programs, it has to be for reasons other than not knowing the proper task to give the program.

Life is a chemical reaction. Or, more accurately, a complex interdependent network of chemical reactions. In most cases, you do not ask what the purpose of a chemical reaction is – it just is, or is not. When a lump of iron rusts, you do not ask what the purpose of the rusting is. When a lump of sugar dissolves in a glass of water, you do not ask what the purpose of the dissolving is. You thus have to be careful when asking what the purpose is of the complex network of chemical reactions that is life. It just is. On the other hand, unless those particular chemical reactions continue to take place in the proper networked sequence, they soon terminate. So the only meaningful sense in which there is a purpose to those chemical reactions, is the sense in which their purpose is to continue to take place in the proper sequence.

Applying this lesson to the realm of AI does not provide the answer you seem to think. You can setup a program to operate a robot to continue to build cars. This has been done. The difficulty is that a robot designed to build cars has no capability to withstand, or correct for, things that might interfere with its operation. Such a program for a car-building robot has no provision for reacting to a changing environment – either by modifying its behavior, or reproducing itself with modifications (ie. genetically). If you want an AI program that is ‘life-like’ then you have to provide the program with a means of adapting to the environment – either immediately like an animal, or through some kind of process of evolutionary adaptation like a plant.

As you can see, the challenge is not strictly a constraint on the AI programming. The challenge is coming up with a process that allows adaptation – either genetically or behaviorally. Whatever kind of robot the program is designed to operate, the robot has to have some means of reacting to the environment. Writing the program is not the hard part. Building a robot with the capability of reacting to the environment is the hard part. Mostly because it is expensive, and not economical for anything other than a research program. What car manufacturing company is going to want to pay for a car-building robot that can react to the environment in ways other than those useful to building cars. It is cheaper to design and build a made-for-the-robot relatively unchanging environment (model year changes aside).


What kind of animal is homo sapiens?

Lisa asked:

Is homo sapiens simply another species of animal?

Answer by Stuart Burns

The simple answer is ‘Yes!’

But I have to wonder if the impetus behind your question is the thought that Homo sapiens is not simply another species of animal. And the only reason I can think of that might ground that thought, is the religious notion that Man (also known as Homo sapiens) is a special creation of God.

Unfortunately for the religious believers out there (and I don’t know whether that includes you), the Vast majority of scientists (especially those working in the fields of medicine, biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology) agree that the evidence accumulated to date overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that Homo sapiens is just another evolved species of animal. To believe otherwise lumps you in with either the increasingly Vanishing proportion of educated persons who believe in Divine Creation or Intelligent Design, or the great bulk of the uneducated masses. (Note: to be uneducated is not to be stupid.)


Looking for a first cause

Adam asked:

Everything needs a cause, right, or it couldn’t happen, right?

But, if everything needs a cause, how could anything happen?

Because the thing that would cause it to happen would also need a cause.

So does that means the universe can’t happen/could never get to now?

Or is time a cause in and of itself? And ‘drags’ things as time goes forward, like a replay in a video game? But then time would need a cause too, right?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Logically there are two possibilities, given your premise that everything needs a cause: either there is an infinite regress of causes, going back for ever, or else there was a first cause. I personally want nothing to do with infinity, on the ground that it is a weasel word: people use it when they don’t know the limits of something.

The first cause is usually called God, who is causa sui, or self caused; but it need not be: one could, like Leibniz, claim that the world that exists does so necessarily because it is the best of all possibles. That is, being the best includes its necessary existence as a predicate, so that it is self-caused. Leibniz was (and is still) much misunderstood on this. He was not referring to the empirical world that we perceive around us (which is clearly not the best of all possibles because there is so much evil in it), but to the world of underlying causes of empirical phenomena, the world that theoretical scientists say is described by theoretical science, an underlying mathematical structure.

Note that to say that the best possible being has necessary existence as a predicate is to invoke the ontological argument of St. Anselm. This is usually applied to God, but it can also be applied to the underlying world. The usual attempt to refute the ontological argument is to claim that existence is never a predicate (and this distinction is built into modern symbolic logic). But it is quite feasible to claim that existence is not a predicate except in the case of the best of all possibles. That is, the best of all possibles has, as part of its perfection, properties that nothing else has and one of these is intrinsic necessary existence. Another way of putting this is to argue that of all possible worlds, only one is actual. There must be a reason why this one is actual, rather than any other, and this reason cannot be extrinsic to this world, since nothing actual exists outside of it; so it is intrinsic necessary existence, which is part of its perfection. (If something has intrinsic necessary existence then it has to exist.)


One approach to the meaning of life

Connie asked:

What is the meaning of life?

Answer by Stuart Burns

Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one – especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, one will quickly discover that one has to be more specific about just what one means by ‘meaning’, ‘life’, and ‘meaning of life’. It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret this seemingly very simple question.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. By ‘What is the meaning of life?’ do you mean –

1. What is ‘life’? In the sense of how or why is ‘life’ different from ‘non-life’?

2. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of ‘why does life exist at all?

3. What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?

4. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human species?

5. What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?

6. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of my life? A much more specifically intended question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.

7. What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically intended question, posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by ‘Science’. (We each are one of seven billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe. How insignificant can you get?)

I am going to try to provide a brief answer to your question from the point of view of (6) above. And along the way hopefully approach a response to some of the other possible interpretations of your question.

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist / materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor.

The first step in answering your question, is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you.

The second step is to acknowledge that the ‘Thing’ that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother’s ovum and your father’s sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, and Daniel Dennett for further argument on this point.)

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation.

This is a general principle of all life. So the general answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is quite simply – for each individual organism to ensure that the genes that are encapsulated in each organism get transmitted to the next generation. Or, in a more general wording – the meaning of life is to ensure that life continues.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are gifted with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.


Scientific laws without a lawmaker

Turner asked:

Why do some people believe that there are scientific laws without a law maker?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

The word ‘law’ has different uses. In science it is used to mean a rule that material objects conform to. This is completely different from the idea of a law in a legal system. So for example one of Newton’s laws is ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Nobody gave Newton this law (there was no law maker), Newton discovered it himself.

For legal laws you need a legal system and a lawgiver or lawgivers. You shouldn’t found a philosophy or a theology on simple confusions about the different uses of words. So we don’t believe that there are scientific laws, we go out and discover which scientific laws are true and which ones are false, we don’t get these laws from any lawmaker. The scientific use of the word ‘law’ isn’t a cheap and easy route to a proof of the existence of God and no amount of wordplay will make it into a proof of the existence of God.