Can philosophy be defined?

Col asked:

What is your definition of ‘philosophy?’

Do you see any possible objections to your definition?

How would you defend your definition against those objections? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I’m going to answer your question with another question: Why is it so important to ‘define’ philosophy? How does it help? What insight might such a definition give into the activity we call ‘philosophy’?

In a wide range of cases (and despite what Socrates repeatedly says in Plato’s dialogues) it is perfectly in order, in response to a request for definition, to cite a range of paradigm cases.

What is physics? Well, Newton’s laws of motion is physics. The structure of the atom is physics. The age of the universe is physics (or, if you want to be precise, the branch of physics known as ‘cosmology’). Still, it is useful to be able to say, with some degree of precision, how ‘physics’ chunks up physical reality in contrast to, say, chemistry or biology. That doesn’t seem too difficult a thing to do although although I won’t attempt that here.

What is science? is a more philosophically challenging question. Karl Popper in his 1934 book Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft (published in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959) proposed a ‘falsifiability’ criterion as a means to demarcate science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’. Astrology and astronomy both deal with the heavens, but whereas astronomy is a science — putting forward theories about the stars, planets and galaxies that can, in principle, be overturned by empirical observation — astrology is arguably not falsifiable in this way.

A similar challenge to separating science from pseudo-science arises in philosophy. A lot of things go under the term ‘philosophy’ in popular parlance that professional ‘philosophers’, regardless of their individual differences, would not wish to describe as such. ‘Pop’ philosophy isn’t really philosophy, they would say. Although here the boundaries are more blurred. An increasing number of books have been written by academic philosophers popularising philosophy, and to make a subject accessible you have to make short cuts, over-simplify, paint things in black and white which are more like shades of grey.

Another challenge comes from a different direction. One might say, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s psychology,’ or, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s history of ideas.’ I’ve heard student essays criticised on both of these counts. Presumably, the critic has a clear notion of the difference between psychology and philosophy of mind/ philosophical psychology, or between history of ideas and history of philosophy.

For both these reasons — philosophy versus ‘pop philosophy’, or distinguishing philosophy from other disciplines — it would be nice if we could find a formula that would demarcate philosophy, properly so-called, from other things that we would not call ‘philosophy’.

I might state that philosophy ‘uses reasoning to discover things about the world,’ but that won’t do because Sherlock Holmes does exactly that when he solves a case. Certain aspects of ‘the world’, then? Mathematical reasoning discovers things about mathematical reality, the universe of numbers, sets and so on. By contrast, when a philosopher thinks about free will, or the mind-body problem or the problem of scepticism they are thinking about the actual we live in, our life, our place in the universe, not merely a world of grey abstractions.

In the absence of a simple formula, what I propose instead is a more like a template: in philosophical thinking, two fundamentally distinct but connected faculties are deployed in close harness: the faculty of logic (as in Sherlock Holmes) but unlike that great detective the philosopher always employs logic in combination with a faculty of intellectual vision. Philosophy describes the actual world, our world, that’s all it does. But it does this in a way that makes no additional empirical claims.

In a not dissimilar way, an art critic describes a painting, enabling us to see what we did not see before. The ‘facts’, the patches of paint on canvas, are already known. What is more difficult to grasp is the meaning, or the value of what we are looking at, how it all adds up to make a statement, as intended by the artist.

I’m not putting forward an argument for God as the ‘artist’. That’s not the point of the comparison (although a theologian might disagree). The point is that philosophers seek to uncover things that matter in our lives, by using vision and logic to make sense of the world. I wouldn’t even attempt to put this forward as a demarcation proposal, in the spirit of Popper. So ‘objections’ and ‘replies’ aren’t really to the point. But I hope that what I’ve said does help to make sense of the activity we call philosophy.

On this account, ‘pop’ philosophy is philosophy, it just isn’t very good philosophy, because it is marred by illogical thinking as well as false factual claims. Psychology can be philosophy, given a suitable context (for example, Nietzsche’s psychology). History of ideas, done by an historian who is gripped by the ideas in question rather than taking the stance of a detached spectator, shades imperceptibly into philosophy.

Thinking too much

Howzer asked:

How to stop thinking too much, but feel instead? I need inspiration and courage to do what I want.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

What do you really want?

In the TV series Lucifer https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4052886/ God’s son Lucifer has quit his job presiding over Hell and now owns a night club in Los Angeles. His one super-power (apart from being able to scare people by putting on his ‘devil face’) is asking that question. And when he asks, you can’t resist no matter how hard you try. You just have to blurt out what you really, really want. And some of the answers are pretty embarrassing, to say the least.

We’re in Freud territory, although Sigmund rarely gets a mention in the episodes. Another TV series Westworld https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0475784/ hits the nail on the head. Human beings are not more complicated than ‘hosts’ (artificial humans, androids). On the contrary, they’re much more simple. In a key episode, we learn that a human brain has only ‘a few thousand’ lines of code. All human human behaviour can be explained by reference to just a small number of unalterable basic drives. The rest is just calculation. Or calculation plus two or three millennia of culture if you want to bring in Freud.

I would say that in addition to inspiration and courage (things we all want) you need to trust yourself more. What you call ‘thinking too much’ is basically lying to yourself. For example, pretending that a situation is more complicated or challenging than it really is.

— You know this, don’t you?

Let’s get down to basics. There’s a girl that you really fancy. (I don’t want to be sexist, by all means substitute ‘boy’ if that’s more relevant to your case.) You can spend all night working out what the person in question would say if you said…, or if you said… . Or you can just walk up and start a conversation. Let the inspiration of the moment guide you.

Oh, I forgot, you don’t have inspiration. Or the courage. Well here’s a tip. Ask yourself what a courageous or inspired person would do, and do that. Pretend it isn’t a problem. You might surprise yourself. (I’m only repeating basic advice that you could find on a hundred web sites.)

Leaving aside basic wants that we all share, in various ways, there is something unique to you, that no-one else has. No-one else has lived your life. So in a way, your wants are unique too. Think of it this way: you are an artist and your life is your art. You are free to create anything that pleases you. Free to experiment. Forget the others, this is about you and only you.

You’re right that you need to avoid thinking too much. It isn’t necessary to work out everything in advance. Try something, and if that doesn’t work, try something else. If you keep going and don’t falter, you will get there — wherever it is you ‘really’ want to be.

A hundred years from now, you’ll be dead. And then it will be too late.

Advice to a newbie

Richard asked:

I’m just starting with philosophy non professionally so this site is an amazing help!

Sometimes I have a philosophical idea or question and I would like to research it and write it down. The point is I haven’t a clue how and where to start. You start with a question, ok, but how about the next step? Is there some sort of plan or standard to follow? For example ‘always start with logic’ or something? Maybe this question itself is to vague. Please let nne know if it is.

Anyway thanks a lot for this super website!

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Mmmm… fresh meat!

Well, I could tell you a thing or two, Richard. Recommend some book that you’ll find way too difficult, and then imagine you… squirming, despising yourself for your pathetic stupidity. Not what we do here on Ask a Philosopher? Well…

Ever see the 1955 movie, Kiss Me Deadly?

Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell… don’t… don’t open the box! 

Every single one of us has been there. The really clever ones don’t go in for philosophy because they tend to hate open-ended problems and questions. They get impatient. They want to solve the problem and move on. Are you like that? Hope not.

(Sorry, I forgot Bertrand Russell. No doubting he was clever. He suffered from a rare condition: he ran out of problems to solve.)

Find a book, or, better, find a philosopher. It could even be Russell. It’s worth taking the time to search. Someone you can admire, even wish to emulate (in your dreams). Put your heart and soul into it, be willing to endure the pain and disappointment of multiple false starts.

No-one just starts with a question. Actually, that’s not true, the Internet is crowded with people who think that all you need to do is think about some philosophical question for a day and then post your opinion on a forum.

But if you have a question that really gnaws at you, then look for an author who has written a book on that topic that you like the look of. Difficult enough to set you a challenge but not too difficult to put you off philosophy for life. Your judgement is not necessarily reliable on this. But at least it’s your call. And that’s really important. Because your judgement is you rmost valuable asset.

Logic is more often than not a great excuse for bad judgement. ‘This follows from that… so it must be right.’ Or, worse, ‘My theory is free from any inconsistency except with the facts. So the ‘facts’ must be wrong.’

Believe me, I’ve heard almost exactly that from a professional philosopher.

Really glad you like our site. You could spend months — or weeks, anyway — just reading over twenty years worth of materials we have here. You could start with our home page https://philosophypathways.com and follow the links. Ask a Philosopher has been going nineteen years so there’s a pretty large backlog you could explore.

Amazingly, we still get questions that we’ve never been asked before. Maybe you can think up one…

Consciousness, nous and the demiurge

Theodore asked:

Our lungs do not produce the oxygen which we find necessary to breathe, so why should anyone think it unusual that our brain does not produce consciousness which we find necessary to think?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I am totally gobsmacked by this question, Theodore. Wow. So many possible lines of inquiry here.

Our lungs don’t produce the oxygen we need, as you well know. But if they did, their function could surely not be to oxygenate the blood. Because then it wouldn’t be necessary to breathe at all. We could produce all our own oxygen through the process of chemical reduction without having to take any from the outside world. Assuming that the oxygen is used to produce energy from food through the process of oxidation, fundamental laws of chemistry and thermodynamics would in tatters.

A more plausible theory is that human beings and animal life in general were created by the plant world in order to produce all the carbon dioxide it needs for photosynthesis. No fundamental laws broken here, but it would somewhat upset our view that human beings are higher than plant life. (It would make an interesting variation on the Matrix scenario of human beings as Duracell batteries designed to keep the computer world up and running.)

This is speculation, right? And as much as we know about human physiology and biochemistry, so little do we know about the nature of consciousness, how it ‘acts’ and how it is ‘produced’. So the field is open for any theory that sounds even a little bit plausible.

The Ancient Greeks were there first: the ‘Air’ of Anaximenes, the ‘Nous’ of Anaxagoras, and Xenophanes’ ‘One God’ who ‘sees all’ and ‘shakes all things by the thought of his mind’. The invisible substance that pervades all things has purpose. It is mind-like. Anaxagoras offers the most interesting version of this hypothesis. Unlike air, Nous is everywhere, it even pervades rock and solid metal. When Aristotle formed the metaphysical theory we know as ‘Hylomorphism’ to account for the ultimate nature of existence and change, it was the thought of Anaxagoras, out of all the Presocratics, that most influenced him.

So much for history. I take your idea to be this: the brain doesn’t ‘produce’ consciousness as material monists foolishly believe. Rather, its function is to interact with consciousness which is already ‘out there’. One well-know version of that story is the mind-body dualism of Descartes. The tiny pineal gland in the brain is the place, Descartes thought, where mental substance is able to move or be moved by the ‘animal spirits’ thus producing speech, action and perception. The problems with Descartes’ mind-body interaction theory are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.

However, here’s another theory, much closer to the Greeks, that you might like. Nous is everywhere. In the beginning, its powers were limited because it had so little to work with. All Nous can do, the sum total of its powers, is to alter probabilities, to make the relatively improbable probable. And so it was that the massive improbability of matter, energy and space appearing from nothing was conquered.

It was Nous that first nudged basic protein molecules together to produce molecules of DNA, that even today maintains the balanced processes in every living cell (a phenomenon that biologists have yet to fully understand), that in tiny stages pushed evolution all the way up the steep gradient of improbability ultimately to create human life. By manipulating quantum effects in the brain, you and I become its eyes and ears. We are the means to its end, which was simply, all along, to overcome its blindness and its solitude.

In the beginning Nous didn’t know what it was doing. It was not in any way ‘conscious’. Certainly not a ‘god’. It was just blindly thrashing about. But, gradually, as more and more order was created, it discovered its ‘purpose’. Through tiny steps, it transformed itself into the Demiurge of nature.

Basically, all I’ve done is rehash the doctrine of the Upanishads with added baroque or filagree to give the impression of being ‘scientific’. In the words of Alan Watts, ‘We are all It.’ Like any theory, it deserves to be considered as possibly true. Why not? At this moment in our history, no-one knows ‘the truth’ — if there is such a thing. So if this is what you would like to believe, no-one has the right to contradict you.

On a purported objection to Hempel’s D-N model

Nana asked:

Let’s say that there’s a disease with a 2% mortality rate (2 out of 100 people who contract it die). Imagine that someone contracts the disease and dies (picture it as an evil dictator if that makes the example easier to bear). Why does the D-N model of explanation not offer an explanation for the dictator’s death? (think about the law that is involved, think about deductive arguments, think about the link between prediction and explanation).

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

This is what I would call a ‘chestnut’.

Someone, years ago, thought up your example as an objection to Carl Hempel’s ‘Deductive-Nomological’ model of explanation, and ever since philosophy instructors have routinely trotted these out.

Firstly, to get the historical perspective: it was the great Scottish philosopher David Hume who proposed ‘regularity’ as the basis for all causal explanation, in his book A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). As part of his analysis, he gave a list of ‘rules for judging causes and effects’. Cause-effect relationships aren’t something that you just see. They are something you have to judge, on the basis of all you see and know.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that not every perceived regularity is an ‘explanation’ or tracks ’causes’ and ‘effects’, and not every cause-effect relation can be defined precisely in terms of regularity, or ‘law’.

There are two points here: One concerns what is, or is not an adequate empirical explanation. The other concerns our notion of a cause. I don’t see any meaningful distinction here, and neither did Hume.

Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the leading 20th century British philosophers, gives the case of contracting a disease as a purported counterexample to the analysis of Humean causation in terms of regularity, in her 1971 lecture, ‘Causality and Determination’. What she was really objecting to, I surmise, is the over-optimistic use of Hempel’s model. There are so many times when we think we have offered a ‘full explanation’, when in reality the facts remain forever beyond our grasp.

Consider the following exchange:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘He contracted Blank’s Disease.’

‘But Jill contracted Blank’s Disease and she didn’t die.’

‘Well, Jill was lucky, Bill wasn’t.’

There you have a complete and adequate explanation of why Bill died, given what we know. You can elaborate on this, say, if you like, that Bill smoked and drank heavily, which increased his chances of dying from the disease, but there are heavy drinkers and smokers who survive.

In terms of Hempel’s D-N model:

1. If x contracts Blank’s Disease, x’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

2. Bill contracts Blank’s Disease.

3. Therefore, Bill’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

How’s that an explanation? There is much we don’t know and never will. The precise configuration of Bill’s immune system when the bacterium first entered his body, what he had for lunch that day, and so on. To track the actual causes and effects, you’d need a total scan of Bill’s body, down to microscopic detail, and then a supercomputer to analyse the results. And even after all that you could miss the crucial ‘regularity’ or causal link.

The fact is, we accept, in so many cases, that explanations are not just ‘relative to interest’ as Hilary Putnam famously claimed but also relative to what we can know.

Consider another example:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘Jill aimed at him with her high-velocity rifle and accidentally pulled the trigger.’

‘But Jill misses forty-nine shots out of fifty at that range.’

‘Well, Bill was unlucky.’

In this case, we can do better. Bill didn’t die just because Jill pulled the trigger, Bill died because a high velocity rifle bullet hit him straight on in the middle of his forehead as a result of Jill’s pulling the trigger, and everyone who is hit by a high velocity rifle bullet straight on in the middle of the forehead dies.

See the difference? Duh!

Your instructor’s example only looks like an objection to Hempel’s D-N model because it invites you to give the wrong explanandum (‘thing to be explained’). If you substitute for 3. above, ‘Therefore Bill dies’ then the conclusion doesn’t logically follow. Obviously. So what? Because human knowledge is necessarily limited, we can’t explain everything down to the finest detail. The rest is down to chance, or luck. We give, and accept, the kind of explanation that is available in any given case.

Can water turn into wine?

Denver asked:

Can water turn into wine?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

That’s a tricky one, Denver.

Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. Wine contains alcohol which is made up of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. So the first question would be: Where did the carbon come from? (And also the extra hydrogen, if you’re a chemist and know the formulae.)

Suppose you asked me: Can a Ford 3 litre Essex engine from an old Transit van or Capri produce 500 horse power? The answer would be, Yes, but you’d have to spend a lot of money. The end result would be hardly recognizable, with the cylinders re-bored, a large number of engine parts replaced or upgraded. In my opinion, you’d get better value buying a second-hand Porsche.

There’s a step-by-step process describing the Ford engine upgrade. Each step is capable of being performed by a reasonably competent mechanic. But ‘engineering’ water to convert it into wine (and not simply cheating by mixing in alcohol and wine concentrate, or fermenting grapes to make wine) requires an altogether different level of ‘expertise’.

However, let’s ask a different question: In what sort of world would a transformation of water into wine be possible? It looks like it would have to be a world which allowed for genuine magic, and not merely ‘magic tricks’, a world where — to quote Morpheus in The Matrix — ‘the rules can be bent’. In popular culture, you might be thinking of a sword and sorcery or Lord of the Rings type world, whose workings are more like a computer simulation (as in a 3d computer game) than the world we actually inhabit, where the laws of nature are what they are, fixed and immutable.

It’s taken two and a half thousand years — since the first speculations of the Presocratic Philosophers of Ancient Greece — to realize just what sort of world we inhabit. Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that mice were generated from dirty rags. You know what a ‘mouse’ is? those little grey furry things with tails that scamper about. Now we really know what a mouse is, the very notion seems ridiculous.

So magic won’t do. What you need to turn water into wine — as in the New Testament story — is a miracle.

There are two types of miracles: those where God plays about with the laws of chance, and those where He deliberately breaks the laws of nature He as decreed. An example of the first would be my praying that I win the lottery and then my number coming up. The water-wine trick requires a miracle of the second kind.

And that’s where things get difficult. You can say that, ‘God can do anything, don’t worry about the details,’ but then you are really talking about a sword and sorcery type world. The details, the ‘step-by-step’ process, matter. The description of wine as ‘red liquid you get from grapes that makes you drunk’ is about on the same level as ‘little grey furry things with tails that scamper about’. The more you get to understand what wine IS the harder it is to see how it would even make sense to talk of water literally ‘turning into’ wine.

(Maybe you’re thinking of re-arranging the protons, neutrons and electrons? Good luck with that.)

A lot of the academic discussion of miracles seems to me like speculating about what God could or couldn’t do, or second-guessing what God would or wouldn’t do. As an exercise, I don’t find that very rewarding. But if you want to pursue the arguments, any good Philosophy of Religion text book will provide you with what you need.

Bottom line is: to quote Morpheus again, ‘Believe what you want to believe.’ At least be clear about what it is that you actually believe.

Define a ‘pen’

Venessa asked:

In philosophy, we got a question and it was: what is a pen? then the second question how do you put a pencil, pen, digital pen in one definition to explain it to a person who has never seen a pen, like give all of these pens in one definition.

I don’t know how to answer it philosophically. I will be grateful if you helped me, thank you.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

You’re confused by the notion that the question, ‘What is a pen?’ might be a philosophical question. But I think what your instructor wants you to do is think logically and conceptually, in the way that philosophers do.

As an exercise. That’s all.

A pen can be a biro, but a biro can also be a weapon — as Jason Bourne brilliantly demonstrates in The Bourne Identity (2002). Does that mean there is really no difference between a pen and a weapon? What sorts of things can be weapons? or pens?

We once had a question, ‘People ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but can philosophers answer something as simple as, ‘What is the meaning of a spoon?” You can read Rachel Browne’s answer here:

https://philosophypathways.com/questions/answers8.html#66

Your instructor wants you to work the answer out for yourself, so I am not going to answer the question for you. But that should get you thinking.