Infatuated with philosophy

Roy asked:

I’m writing this in hopes of getting a response, over the past few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in philosophy. Books from Socrates and Plato have captured my imagination, along with leaving me with more questions than I already had. As I dive down deeper into philosophy I find myself wanted to know more, wanting to read more into philosophy. My question is where should I start, how can I become more infatuated with philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You remind me of myself, Roy. Around 1971. I’d just left my job as a photographer’s assistant. I think the first book I picked up from the local library was ‘Volume something’ of the collected dialogues of Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett. As I wrote back in 1999,

“I discovered that philosophy and I were made for one another. It was a whirlwind romance. I revered Kant and idolized Plato. I went on endless philosophical walks. Instead of my beloved camera, I carried a notebook. In October 1972, I enrolled as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London. From day one, I had set my heart on becoming an academic philosopher.” (My Philosophical Life).

Things didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned, but that is another story. If you are very bright, then maybe a life in academia might suit you. But it can also be a recipe for heartbreak. A recent message posted to the Philos-L list described the suicide of a mid-40s member of the ‘academic precariat’ in Australia:

“John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.”

Where to start? It actually doesn’t matter too much. Follow up leads. Follow your nose. The Pathways Introductory Book List has some suggestions for reading. Or you could join Pathways to Philosophy and have the opportunity to have up to 30 essays reviewed — and shared with other Pathways students if they are up to the required standard.

The most important thing is to sort out your motivation. I once wrote:

“You can philosophize for sheer enjoyment. Or because you want to change the world. Or to develop and hone your mental powers. Or out of insatiable, childlike curiosity. Or because your very life depends upon it” (Pathways to Philosophy: Seven Years On).

Each of these alternatives (they are not mutually exclusive) will determine the approach you take to study. Infatuation is a great thing but will it last? How will you feel about this after four decades? The best advice I can give is don’t let your other interests fall by the wayside. Keep up a lively interest in the world around you. Don’t neglect your friends and your relationships. In other words, be as Normal as you can be — in a world where many of the good people you will meet don’t care too much about the ultimate questions of philosophy.


Rawls’ principles of justice

David asked:

I have a question about the implications of John Rawls’ two ‘principles of justice’ namely:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

My question concerns the second part of principle 2. Suppose there is a social or economic inequality which, if allowed, would reduce the wellbeing of the worst off 1 per cent of society by (say) 1 per cent, but would increase the wellbeing of everyone else by (say) 10 per cent. Suppose this inequality has not much to do with the principle 1. Would it be disallowed under Rawls’ theory?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The questioner here is focussing upon Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ which may be understood quite simply as a mechanism whereby any moves to benefit society must principally benefit the disadvantaged sectors of society. In A Theory of Justice (1999 Belknap Press) Rawls states that:

“An inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity” (p.  266).

Taken at face value, we should really consider the least advantaged to hold a veto over society. For any planned move, if least advantaged’s position does not improve, then the move should not go ahead.

Hence, the suggestion here would almost certainly be disallowed in any form of Rawlsian governance. The suggestion is seemingly grafting a form of utilitarianism onto the second principle whereby the whole stock of goods in a society increases and the average holding would increase. Rawlsian philosophising moved away from the existing utilitarian distributions of goods.

That said, actually measuring how the least advantaged’s position has improved may provide some practical problems and Rawls himself suggested at least two measures: In illustrating the difference principle via the ‘distribution of income’ (pp. 67-68), should it be gauged in terms of monetary improvement? Or should it be measured over  longer timescale where the ‘appropriate expectation in applying the difference principle is that of the long-term prospects of the least favored extending over future generations’ (p. 252).

An interesting essay by Christopher Heath Wellman entitled ‘Justice’, that differentiates between differing types of distributions in society, including Rawls and Utilitarianism, may be found in The Blackwell Guide to Social and Political Philosophy.


Is history of philosophy bunk?

Makheu asked:

Discuss the claim that what historians of philosophy do is not philosophy, and that contemporary philosophers can learn little if anything from the history of their subject. Philosophers should concern themselves with real problems not with history.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a nice question. From my own experience of study, the heyday for the attitude you describe was the 50s, during the period of so-called ‘ordinary language philosophy’. There may well have been other times when this attitude was prevalent.

Inspired the later work of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, a parallel movement in Oxford headed by J.L. Austin saw the job of the philosopher as untangling the knots (for Wittgenstein, ‘therapy’) which our thinking gets into because we misunderstand our own language. We repeatedly fall victim to illusions generated by idiom and grammar.

On this view, the history of philosophy is the history of error. Undergraduates studied Locke or Berkeley, Descartes or Leibniz in order to learn to identify the points where misunderstanding of language led these thinkers astray. It was not considered important to understand historical context (as Russell had sought, brilliantly, to do in his History of Western Philosophy). Social milieu and history were irrelevant. The value of the study of history was as a source of useful examples for the philosopher to learn from.

This was a philosophy more radical that Marx, who believed in the importance of the history of philosophy, even though according to his ’11th thesis on Feuerbach’ all previous philosophers in his view had erred. The young Marx’s doctoral thesis on the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus was a model of scholarship.

As it happens, I subscribe to the Philos-L e-list for professional philosophy. From the constant stream of posts on the list, one gets the impression that every obscure aspect of the history of philosophy is now an object of intense study. There aren’t enough topics to go round, in contemporary philosophy or history of philosophy, to satisfy academic philosophers labouring to meet publishing requirements for tenure — not to mention the constant flow of new PhD students looking for original thesis topics.

Real problems? Ask a professional philosopher and they will tell you that all the problems they study are real. If some, or most of the problems seem too obscure to the layperson that is only because without the benefit of a doctorate one lacks the discernment necessary to see them. — Of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they?!

After forty plus years of study, I would be hesitant in identifying the ‘real’ problems of philosophy. My supervisor in my Oxford days, John McDowell, once told me that the main source of his motivation to philosophize was the things other philosophers said. (A few decades earlier, G.E. Moore had said something similar.) It’s a view and an approach that I can understand, even though my motivation is different. I find myself gripped by problems: that is the source of my impulse to philosophize.

On either of these two views, McDowell’s or mine, it isn’t necessary to be disrespectful to the history of the subject. For that one needs to be in the grip of an ideology, for example the ideology of ‘ordinary language philosophy’.

As a physicist, you can study the history of physics if that aspect of the subject interests you. There are always lessons to learn from the past. But you don’t do physics by studying what Newton or Rutherford said. You design and perform experiments, put questions to nature.

By contrast, there’s no equivalent in philosophy to the Large Hadron Collider. You have to look into your own mind. What philosophers said in the past is important because you don’t want to repeat their mistakes. On the other hand, any progress they did make with a problem that grips you is something you can build on. It’s not necessary to start from scratch. That’s pretty valuable, provided that you are not blinded by ideology.

As a postscript I would like to insert a plug. Our own Philosophical Connections on the site authored by Dr Anthony Harrison-Barbet gives a very good overview of the interconnections of 100 plus philosophers in the Western tradition, using a unique hyperlinked index. Look up your favourite philosopher and try it out for yourself. I warn you, it’s addictive!


Saying goodbye to religion

Kamyar asked:

I have two questions if it’s all right.

First of all, I want to know do humans really need god and in a bigger sense absolute faith in something other than the physical world (let’s call it religious beliefs).

And if we indeed need it, will there ever be a time that we can truly be free of every form of religion and religious beliefs?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Kamyar, first of all I want to say that it is brave of you to give your location as Teheran, Iran. You must know that Iran is one of the countries where ‘apostasy’, i.e. atheism, is punishable by death according to the Iranian state’s enforcement of religious law.

You must also know (unless you are very naive) that right now in Iran there are persons who spend their working days in darkened rooms in front of computer monitors, whose only job is to scour the internet for evidence of any Iranian national who expresses his or her belief in atheism. Iranian bloggers have been arrested, beaten up, subject to kangaroo ‘religious’ courts.

From my own experience, I know that there are many Iranians, both those of faith and those without faith, who are devoted to the pursuit of truth. In Iran, they keep a low profile. Whatever passes as study of ‘philosophy’ in Iranian universities is something that has no place in any genuine philosophical tradition.

Would we be better off getting rid of religion?

Karl Marx, looking forward to a time when religion would no longer be needed described religion as the ‘heart in a heartless world.’ Things are still so bad for so many people that I would not take away the comforts of religion from them, even though it is a false comfort.

The sad fact is that human beings are weak. Those of us who reject religion are tempted make a god out of something else. Even materialism, or science, have an innate tendency to be deified, so I would not even consider ‘faith in a physical world’ as free of the taint of religion.

That said, I believe that the time will come when gods are no longer needed, when human beings accept their finitude and the inevitability of death without recourse to fantastical fairy tales about punishment and reward, ‘holy’ texts whether of science or religion, obsessive-compulsive ritual — and judicial murder.


Greek philosophers on mathematical truth

Santy asked:

Were the Ancient Greeks correct in thinking that mathematics is an absolute truth?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Yes, definitely. But you have to understand that the truth that is absolute is mathematical truth, not empirical truth. All the mathematical truths that the ancient Greeks discovered are as true today as they were then — Pythagoras’ Theorem, for example. It does not matter what language a mathematics book might be written in, the mathematical statements proved in it will be true in any other language.

It does not matter what mathematician discovers a new mathematical truth, if he proves it then all other mathematicians will agree that it is true. It may be modified under special circumstances, but is otherwise absolutely true: for example, a right-angled equiangular triangle is impossible in Euclidean geometry, and that is absolutely true; but it is possible in spherical geometry. In spherical geometry, which is geometry on the surface of a sphere, the shortest distance between two points is a great circle; lines of longitude are great circles, as is the equator. One equilateral triangle is formed by the lines of zero longitude, longitude 90 west, and the equator — and this is a right-angled equiangular triangle, possible in this geometry because all triangles in this geometry have their interior angles sum to more than 180 degrees, unlike Euclidean triangles which sum to exactly 180 degrees.

The history of logic is interesting in this context. Formal logic was invented by Aristotle and developed by the medieval philosophers. It is a logic of classes (hence our word ‘classification’). Modern symbolic logic is a logic of truth-functions and, in quantificational logic, a logic of sets — and sets, basically, are classes. All of this is derivative from the logic used by mathematicians, which has never been formalised but which includes sets and functions and valid argument forms such as modus ponens and modus tollens and all the other valid argument forms of formal logic — as well as purely mathematical argument forms such as mathematical induction, and concepts not appearing in formal logic, such as numbers, shapes, equations, and algebraic and topological structures. So if you are interested in reasoning, study mathematics, not logic.


Deduction, induction and abduction

Polly asked:

I was wondering if there is any other way of thinking besides deduction and induction, and I want an example. 

I understand by “thinking” the action of being able to comprehend smthg, and explain it. I know that by “comprehend” you could think about many things (the same for explaining) but what I want to grasp is if there is any other method besides the ones named above but parallel to them. 

Could be an example from mathematics or chemistry or.. well…

Answer by Craig Skinner

There is indeed, namely abduction.

Put simply, the essential features of each are as follows.

Deduction: a conclusion necessarily follows from (is entailed by; is a logical consequence of) the premises. So, if premises are true, conclusion must be true. But deduction tells us nothing new, because the conclusion is implicit in, is already contained in, the premises.

eg  Premise 1.    All Scots are drunks

Premise 2.    Craig is a Scot

Conclusion: Craig is a drunk

Induction:  from “expect more of the same” or “the future will resemble the past” we infer a likely, but not guaranteed conclusion. Unlike deduction this is not logically watertight, it is only probabilistic, but on the other hand it tells us something about the world.

eg   Premise: the sun has risen every morning for as long as we can remember.

Conclusion: the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

Because the world has exhibited regularities for eons, evolution has hardwired induction into sentient species. My dog for instance, is right now looking expectantly for her walk because she has had one around this time of day for years.

Induction notes regularities but doesnt explain them eg why the sun rises.

Abduction: here we infer the best explanation for the facts, so that abduction is also called “inference to the best explanation (IBE)”. It may not always be the right explanation, so that the conclusion, as with induction, and unlike deduction, is not guaranteed. However, unlike deduction and induction, it explains things, and is widely used in everyday life, in science, in medical diagnosis. Most of Sherlock Holmes’s “deductions” are actually abduction eg

Premise 1: the dog didnt bark in the night

Premise 2: dogs dont bark at friends

Best explanation: the intruder was known to the dog

We can update our estimate of the likelihood of our explanation in light of new evidence, and this iterated process can be systematized using Bayesian analysis. Abduction and Bayesian analysis are widely used in the field of Artificial Intelligence.


What’s so bad about an infinite regress?

Robert asked:

Why does an infinite regress have to be terminated?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that what you mean by your question is what is so bad about a regress that is NOT terminated, and hence infinite.

An infinite regress which is considered bad is sometimes called a ‘vicious regress’.

An example of an argument that uses the idea of an infinite regress is the Cosmological argument for the existence of God. If we trace chains of cause and effect back far enough we either get to a Big Bang (the beginning of the universe) or the causes and effects go back for ever.

If the series terminates with the Big Bang, then that would be an event without a cause, contrary to the belief that every event has a cause. If the series doesn’t terminate but just keeps going back further and further in time, that would be an infinite regress.

But why is the regress vicious?

First, I need to explain the difference between an infinite regress — for example, a regress of causes and effects, or of explanations — and an infinite series.

In mathematics, there are examples of an infinite series that is terminated at one end and and not the other, e.g. the series 0, 1, 2, 3… which terminates at 0, or the series 0, -1, -2, -3… which also terminates at 0. Or you can have a series that is infinite in both directions, e.g. … -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3… . It doesn’t terminate anywhere. Nothing bad or vicious about that at all.

What is infinity? In mathematical terms,

“An infinite set is a set whose members can be put into a 1-1 correlation with a proper subset of itself.”

What that means in layman’s terms is that if you remove half of an infinite series, you still have the same ‘number’ of items. E.g. 0, 1, 2, 3… can paired off with 0, 2, 4, 6… That’s just one of the weird properties of the infinite.

In mathematician David Hilbert’s story of the Grand Hotel (cited by George Gamov in his book One Two Three Infinity, 1947 — the inspiration for there is still room for an infinite number of new guests even though each one of the infinitely many rooms is occupied — the old guests are simply asked to move to the room which was double the number of the room they were in before, leaving an infinite number of empty rooms. Job done.

Back to the cosmological argument. We have a problem — or so it is alleged. Identifying the cause of an event is supposed to supply a reason or explanation why that event happened. The event occurred because of the cause. Going back in time, that cause occurred because of another cause and so on.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In an empty field, you discover a magnificent chandelier on a chain going up into the sky and through the clouds. Each link in the chain holds the link immediately below it. Then you are told that there’s no ‘ceiling’ the chain is attached to, no first link. The chain just goes up for ever to infinity. But if there isn’t a first link then what’s holding the entire chain up?!

The problem of a vicious regress, in short, is a problem of dependency. A required explanation is indefinitely deferred. An indefinitely deferred explanation is no explanation at all.

Theists hold that God from a vantage point outside time is responsible for the entire physical series of causes and effects — the entire ‘chain’ — which is either finite or infinite, depending on whether or not the Big Bang theory is true. God is the ultimate, non-temporal ’cause’. If the series of ‘links in the chain’ is infinite, God can still be there outside of space and time to ‘hold it up’.

Is that a good argument? If you don’t believe in God, then the alternative is to say that there is no ‘ultimate cause’. Things just are the way they are rather than some other way. The existence of the universe is contingent, but it is not contingent ON anything. It just IS.

Say that if you like, but there is still a question, a problem. Maybe a singular event without a cause, or alternatively an infinite regress of effects and prior causes is bearable, but there is some discomfort there that indicates that there is something that we do not fully understand about the nature of our world.

That’s not a problem for physics but for metaphysics.