Monday, 30 November 2020

Philosophy Q and A

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Academic philosophy woes
Agreeing to disagree
Atheism as the best explanation
Being in two places at one time
Capitalism and the poverty of desire
Choosing your own reality
Collingwood on absolute presuppositions
Definition of a solipsist
Degrees of agreement
Does knowledge entail certainty?
Eliminating the masses
Ethics and advertising
Ethics and suicide
Ethics of monetary interest
Exact meaning of 'philosophy'
Existentialism and advancing years
Explaining time to a 10 year old
Gifford Lectures Russell never gave
God, ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma
How our dreams can change us
How to prove your free will
Human test tubes
Instinct and epistemic luck
Is Socrates the wisest man?
Is anatomy destiny?
Is the world created by our minds?
Jobs for philosophers
Knowing the limits of knowledge
Knowledge and pragmatism
Life in a well-oiled machine
Making sense of the world
Metaphysical explanations
Morality of the moral philosopher
Nietzsche: If truth be a woman
Nothing is what it seems
On identity and belonging
On the existence of holes
On the idea of international law
On the obligation to testify
On the possibility of comparison
Origin of ethics and moral values
Personal survival
Philosophy as a process
Point of being a philosopher
Possibility of non-existence
Pragmatism, induction, and belief in God
Presentism and the cosmos
Proofs in metaphysics
Putting oneself before another
Quid est ergo tempus?
Realism, idealism, solipsism
Rescuing capitalism
Rewiring the brain
Selfishness as a virtue
Semantics of 'except'
Sophistry, wisdom and wonder
Suitable work for a pessimistic misanthrope
The benefits of war
The case for idealism
The egocentric predicament
The elephant in the room
The end of religion
The fear of death
The fierce urgency of now
The philosopher as entertainer
Thought and language
Uniqueness of the self
Uses for the dead
Vacuum of a posteriori thought
What a philosopher might think about
What any god can do or know
What is a goy? joke
What is the point of living if we're going to die?
Where ignorance is bliss
Why is the sky blue?
Why people die
Wiggins on the Ship of Theseus

The book cover is 'Socrates Teaching a Young Man' by José Aparicio Inglada (1811) housed in the Musée Goya, Castres, France. Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia.

With gratitude to anyone who
has ever submitted a question
to 'Ask a Philosopher'

Philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

Philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

About this collection

Ask a Philosopher was launched in 1999. In the beginning, I was the only philosopher answering questions. A year later, I had been joined by a panel of experts helping me out with answers on every conceivable philosophical topic. Since then we have seen numerous changes to the panel of Ask a Philosopher, but I have continued my regular contributions right up to the present day. For this collection, I have gathered together my answers posted between 2009 and 2011. The questions have been re-arranged in alphabetical order. In the text, there are references to my books The Metaphysics of Meaning, Naïve Metaphysics and Ethical Dilemmas. All are available on Amazon Kindle. There are also references to my blog The Glass House Philosopher. For the latest questions and answers, please visit the 'Ask a Philosopher' page at

Geoffrey Klempner

Academic philosophy woes

Andy asked this question:

I have spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of.

So I say the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.

I deserve this question. As someone who has in the past criticized contemporary academic philosophy - and put no small effort into laying out my alternative vision of how philosophy might be practised and taught - it is only poetic justice that I should be required to come to the defence of academic philosophers and 'Intro to Philosophy 101'.

When I was a Philosophy undergraduate at Birkbeck College London in the early to mid-70's there was a group of students who seemed to spend much of their time discussing 'what was wrong' with academic philosophy. They called themselves 'radical philosophers'. Things haven't changed much. Here's the blurb from the Radical Philosophy web site which I looked up today:

Radical Philosophy is a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy. It was founded in 1972 in response to the widely felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time (in Britain completely dominated by the narrowest sort of 'ordinary language' philosophy), with the purpose of providing a forum for the theoretical work which was emerging in the wake of the radical movements of the 1960s, in philosophy and other fields.

In the interests of historical accuracy, in 1972 (my first year at Birkbeck) the dominating interest in British philosophy was not ordinary language philosophy (J.L. Austin, John Wisdom, the later Wittgenstein). That was already on the way out. The new thing was W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson and truth conditional semantics.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition were once again looking at the great work of Frege and Russell and the early Wittgenstein, and showing an increasing preparedness to question the 'givens' of ordinary language. (Again, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that J.L. Austin did write a fine translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic which fans of ordinary language philosophy seemed to have largely ignored.)

I would argue that the new technical, semantic approach had something of the spirit of radical philosophy in that it raised the possibility that much of the time we don't really understand what we mean, that accepted linguistic forms hold our minds captive - an idea not so far away from the notion of 'false consciousness' which the Birkbeck radical philosophy group talked incessantly about.

Of course, much of the new stuff was coming from the USA, and this did get up the nose of many young British philosophers. But I think it would be fairer to say that the emphasis on formal logic and semantics seemed the epitome of the kind of thing Heidegger was warning against in his strictures about technology. And I do agree with this to some extent. (But then again, I'm not such a great fan of Heidegger either.)

I will accept that history is bunk. I've just told a story which touches on how things were back then which seems true, based on my own experience, and possibly is still true (or maybe more true) today. Other philosophers will tell the story differently. It doesn't matter. To my ear, one thing that grates more than boringly minute academic debates over the analysis of Russellian definite descriptions or the Davidsonian truth conditions for action statements, is boringly minute academic debates over Marx, Althusser, Marcuse etc.

In German Ideology Marx set the standard for emotively hyperbolic diatribe which to some radically minded philosophers seems to have provided the model of 'committed' philosophical discourse. Then again, some of the more convoluted passages in Sartre's Being and Nothingness possibly pip Marx for the prize for sheer muddy obscurity. Next to these examples, the clean, austere writing of the likes of Quine and Davidson seems like a model of how words ought to be used in the pursuit of truth.

But I'm digressing.

The question isn't, 'Which style or tradition of academic philosophy do you prefer?' (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, radical philosophy, process philosophy, eastern philosophy etc.) but rather, 'Why does philosophy have to be academic?' (Or, as a variant, 'Why does philosophy have to be so academic?')

The Pathways School of Philosophy which I run, offers courses in academic philosophy. It's called 'academic' philosophy because that's what you study if you enrol at an academic institution for a course in philosophy, anywhere in the world and regardless of the dominating tradition there. Philosophy has a history, or, rather, several alternative histories depending on which version best fits your tradition. If you don't like studying other philosophers or the history of philosophy remember, 'Those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it.'

The irony is that I am not academic. I've done my share of sitting at lectures and poring over books. But books and lectures bore me to tears. I like to talk. I talk with my students (admittedly, via email mostly). In partnership, we create something that, as I once wrote, 'is neither yours nor mine - something neither of us could have created by our own unaided efforts - the dialogue itself as it takes on an independent life of its own' ('Can Philosophy be Taught?'

Does Intro to Philosophy 101 bore you? Do you hate listening to professors droning on? Get over it. Don't mistake the style for the substance. The style is clunky, because clunky is what academic institutions do best. It doesn't have to be pretty so long as it works. Don't look to others to provide you with inspiration. That's what you've got to find within yourself. But don't think if you look into your own mind you will find philosophy there. Everything that's in your mind right now came from somewhere. And most of it is a cliché.

You want to follow Descartes' example and write your own 'Meditations on First Philosophy'? Fine. Start off by sitting through lecture after boring lecture by Jesuit priests. That's what Descartes did, and what provided him with the tools to pursue his own original philosophical investigations. That, and reading the great classics of philosophy that were available in his day.

This isn't a sales pitch so don't expect me to tell you how at Pathways we do things differently. Maybe we're a little less clunky, but that's just the beauty of the internet. A laptop can be your professor and your library. And when you've had enough of study, you can play games or DVDs on it too.

- Don't knock it, you academic philosophers: it's the future.


Agreeing to disagree

Vernon asked this question:

I know this question has been asked at least once before yet people still seem to use a term I think doesn't make sense.

Does the term 'agree to disagree' make sense? To me there are two problems with the term. The first is the structure of the phrase seems to be contradictory. Secondly, how is it that two can agree to disagree? Wouldn't that in fact remove the argument entirely?

Vernon's question has the air of a paradox: there's nothing philosophers love better than getting their teeth into a good paradox. The problem with viewing the question this way is that it tempts us to think that what we are searching for is a solution, something that would either tame the paradox or, better still, remove it entirely.

Bertrand Russell spent years trying to solve the paradox of 'the class of classes which are not members of themselves'. His solution was the Theory of Types. Various other solutions have been proposed to Russell's Paradox, but each like Russell's has its 'cost'.

Let's see if we can work something similar with Vernon's question:

A1. X and Y agree to disagree.


A2. X agrees with Y.

A3. X disagrees with Y.

A4. Contradiction!

I won't labour the point by offering a version of the mini-analysis that shows that by agreeing to disagree X and Y have 'removed the argument entirely'.

Anyone with a grasp of elementary logic can see the fallacy in the above 'proof'. The term 'X agrees with Y' is not a simple relation like 'X is taller than Y' or 'X is the father of Y'. People don't 'agree' or 'disagree' simpliciter, they agree about some question or topic. Therefore, the correct form of the argument should be:

B1. X and Y agree to disagree.


B2. X and Y agree about P (where P is the statement 'X disagrees with Y').

B3. X and Y disagree about Q (where Q is anything you like).

B4. No contradiction!

If only things could be that simple. Vernon would no doubt be quick to point out that X and Y already know that they are in disagreement. This isn't something they need to agree about because it is patently obvious. What they more or less reluctantly agree to is to let the disagreement stand, or not make any further attempt to resolve it.

Vernon finds difficulty with this idea, and I agree. The difficulty isn't, as Vernon represents it as being, that the statement 'X and Y agree to disagree' is blatantly self-contradictory or meaningless. It's more subtle than that.

In order to take this further, we need to look at some actual examples of 'agreeing to disagree':

'We're not going to resolve our argument, so let's carry on because we've got work to do.'

'Let's call a truce; otherwise, we'll only end up fighting.'

'I think you're wrong, but I'm happy to wait until you discover that for yourself.'

'I don't see why you see things so differently from me, but, frankly, I don't care.'

'I love you, and I value the fact that we hold different beliefs.'

What is interesting here is that in each of these cases there is an extra dimension which we have so far not considered: the question of what is at stake in the disagreement.

1. We can't stand arguing all day if we need to get the job done. That's a good reason for agreeing to disagree provided that the disagreement isn't about how to do the job because then we can't proceed another step until the disagreement is resolved.

2. Other things being equal, human beings should try their best to resolve their disagreements, in the interest of truth. However, there is something worse than failing to agree, and that is going to war over the disagreement.

3. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. But I'm confident that in time you will anyway.

4a. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. However, the issue on which we disagree is unimportant, so I'll let it go.

4b. It would take too much effort to persuade you to change your mind. I am not going to try because you are unimportant to me. I couldn't care less what you believe.

5. I care greatly what you believe because your belief is important to you, and you are important to me.

- I'm certainly not claiming to have exhausted the range of possibilities. But already one can see that there is no simple logical structure common to all agreements to disagree.

Some beliefs have practical consequences; amongst these, some are ethical while others are not. But not all beliefs have practical consequences. For those that do not, there remains the 'interest of truth'. If it matters to you that your beliefs are true, then, other things being equal it should also matter to you whether what another person believes is true or false.

Religious beliefs are a different case again, especially when one of the disputants is religious and the other not. Atheists rarely get so worked up about theists as theists get about atheists.

No doubt in many cases, we agree to disagree when we shouldn't, where we should be doing our absolute utmost to reach an agreement because the stakes are so high. Equally, there are cases where we pursue disagreements needlessly, out of a belligerent desire to win the argument at all costs, or intolerance, or plain bigotry.

However, we in danger of losing sight of the problem now because you might well think that it is no big deal that we sometimes have to agree to disagree. In which case it would follow that Vernon is just wrong. But I don't think he is, at least not totally.

The real problem is about ethics. Surely, in ethics the stakes are always too high to allow disputants to agree to disagree. If we disagree about abortion, then one of us is a would-be 'murderer'. Maybe there are things that one holds as personal ethical belief - like vegetarianism - which one doesn't necessarily insist in foisting on everyone else. But even here, there must surely be some discomfort in the acknowledgement that you are prepared to let others indulge in a practice, eating meat, which you do not permit yourself to indulge in because you regard it as ethically wrong.

When I first considered this question, some years ago, I came up with a solution which worked for me at the time, the notion of an 'ethics of dialogue' (see my articles The ethics of dialogue and Ethical dialogue and the limits of tolerance). The idea is that true respect for the other requires that we are prepared to engage in earnest dialogue and debate, but also, for the very same reason, that we are prepared to accept the fact that arguments are not always resolved.

I still hold this: but I now see immense problems. The more seriously you enter into dialogue, the harder it is to accept failure to reach agreement. This looks like a real paradox: surely, agreeing to disagree means you're not taking the argument seriously enough? What is dialogue anyway, if it is not just two persons vehemently stating their own case, i.e. talking past one another?

Or maybe this should be seen as not 'agreeing to disagree' but rather the tragic acknowledgement of our human-all-too-human failings? - You can't agree to something like this, you can only sorrowfully accept.


Atheism as the best explanation

Kalyan asked this question:

I claim and proclaim to be an atheist as well as a skeptic rationalist. But then, my question, is it a contradiction in the sense that as a skeptic and a rationalist, I don't have enough evidence to prove my arguments as an atheist?

The short answer to Kalyan is that you can be an atheist while holding a reasoned skeptical stance ('reasoned' because your skepticism isn't either pathological or mere blind obstinacy) without believing yourself to be in a position to offer a proof that God does not exist. It suffices that you can offer arguments in favour of the view that atheism is the 'best explanation'.

'Best explanation for what?' is the question. The existence of a world (rather than no world) is one possible explanans, or thing to be explained. Another possible explanans is the existence of a Moral Law (if you believe in such a thing). But there are many more, maybe as many as there are views on the nature of the godhead.

I have never undergone the experience of a religious revelation. But supposing I did, would I be in a position to consider theism and atheism as alternative explanations and, moreover, choose atheism on the grounds that it provided a better explanation for my experience than atheism? Well, yes, that is what one has to say as an atheist. But I admit it sounds rather odd to say it. I can see a case of arguing that an experience wouldn't be the experience of religious revelation if you regarded it as possibly illusory. But then again, that problem doesn't arise if the explanans is another person's (alleged) religious revelation.

The idea that a scientific theory is an 'inference to the best explanation' goes back to the American philosopher of science C.S. Peirce who distinguished what he termed abduction from the process of Baconian induction. The idea was more recently revived by British philosopher of science Peter Lipton, and has become part of the vocabulary of contemporary analytic philosophy.

My University of London external students taking the BA Philosophy of Science module have been sending me essays on this topic, along the general theme, 'Is inference to the best explanation a distinctive kind of explanation?' I find Lipton's idea somewhat hazy, and yet there seems undoubtedly to be a core notion, which the God question illustrates nicely. You wouldn't seriously claim to have inductive evidence for atheism. Yet it seems to make perfect sense to say that atheism is a better explanation for any alleged evidence that a theist might put forward than theism.

According to Occam's Razor, other things being equal the better explanation is the one that posits fewer hypothetical entities. God is an unnecessary posit. Any explanation that does any work, works just as well without God directing things behind the scenes. That would be the moderate atheist view.

Enter Dawkins. In 1976, in my first year taking the Oxford B.Phil, there was a rumour going round that the redoubtable Gareth Evans was offering his undergraduate tutees and graduate students a free hardback copy of The Selfish Gene (which had been published that year) provided they promised to read it. With such a great testimonial, I could never bring myself to indulge in the fashionable Dawkins-bashing, despite Dawkins' somewhat embarrassing reductive views of the nature of philosophical inquiry, as a mere illustration of the theory of 'memes'.

Apropos of the meme theory, the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes is the first recorded philosopher to employ a genetic argument against a religious claim:

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers §168, p. 169

As Xenophanes must surely have realized, this isn't an argument that God cannot be black and have a snub nose. What the observed 'coincidence' shows, in our terms, is that the Ethiopians' reasoning to the best explanation is likely to have been somewhat biased. Having said that, if you believe that man is 'made in God's image' and your only experience of human beings is of people who are black and have snub noses, then it is surely reasonable to infer that God is black and has a snub nose.

However, by the same token, someone who had travelled a bit and discovered that different races have different physiognomies, would realize that this inference was not reasonable, and that any claim of 'resemblance' between God, or the gods, and man must allow for racial variation.

What this shows, if anything, is that you can undermine a purported inference to the best explanation by either pointing out grounds for possible suspicion of bias, and/or showing that the explanation relies on an impoverished evidential base. At any given time, however, the explanation remains in place until either a better explanation comes along, or the grounds for putting forward that explanation are undermined.

I would therefore be quite happy to accept that the belief that atheism is the best explanation for the existence of the world, or the phenomenon of religion - or anything you like - is a 'meme', in Dawkins' sense, whose evolutionary history goes back to the great historic clashes between established religion and the emerging sciences. That doesn't decide the question whether atheism is or isn't in fact 'the best explanation'.

But doesn't our very sense of what makes one explanation 'better' than another depend on prior conditioning, on the memes that have been transmitted to us? Is there a fact of the matter here? Couldn't we be completely wrong about what is or is not a good explanation?

For Dawkins, the spectacular success of science is a major consideration. The kinds of criticism that any scientific claim is subjected to by other scientists do not vindicate themselves (because the same argument can be run with 'the kinds of criticism that any theological claim is subjected to by other theologians'). However, the advantage science has over theology, is in its results. Religious belief has 'results' too, but the results arise from the belief - its psychological effect on the believer - rather than the truth of the belief: a vital distinction.

As I've said, it all depends on the explanans. Here, there is a nice finesse in that the atheist isn't the one who has to state what the explanation is intended to explain. Atheism is not a claim, but rather the denial of a claim. The onus is clearly on the one who makes the claim - the one who asserts that God exists - either to offer a proof, or, failing that, to justify the view that God's existence is a better explanation for XYZ, whatever 'XYZ' may be, than any alternative.


Being in two places at one time

Farnaz asked this question:

Is it possible that a person can be in different places at the same time?

The ability to be (or, alternatively, 'appear' - that's one of the questions we have to decide) at two different places at the same time is known as bilocation. This cropped up in a story I once wrote:

The giant out door auditorium was filled to capacity. Overhead, robot drinks and ice cream vendors darted about amongst the hovering TV cameras. On the podium a man in a blue tunic had just started to speak. Distorted images of his friendly features loomed on scores of giant video screens.

'...Some of you might remember me from the old television series, Star Trek. For the benefit of those who haven't seen any of the episodes, my name is Captain Kirk. And yes, I am a real Star Ship Captain. The series is substantially based on true events, though of course we had to simplify things to fit each story into a fifty minute slot. Followers of the series will be glad to hear that all your favourite characters are here. You might even get the chance to meet some of them. You will all have met Mr Spock of course...'

Captain Kirk's words were almost drowned in wild cheering. He paused to salute his Science Officer, who was seated behind the podium. Spock stood up briefly to take a stiff bow.

'...Like the rest of us here today, Spock has para-psychic powers. In his case it is the relatively rare but extremely useful gift of bilocation, the ability to appear in several different places at one and the same time. Some of the Catholic Saints were able to bilocate, I believe.

'Well that is by the way. The main question that seems to be on everyone's lips is, 'Where is Heaven?' That's a little difficult to explain. But if you give me a few minutes, I'll do my best to fill you in. Mr Spock has written a useful little book for those of you who've done a bit of maths and physics, complete with equations and flow diagrams, but I shall just try to keep things simple.'

Kirk paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts. The famous smile beamed down from scores of video screens. One thing you knew for sure. The maths and physics weren't above his head.

The Possible World Machine Unit 12: Space Hopper

In the story, a group of persecuted telepaths escape to an alternative universe existing in a different space from our actual universe (but not in a different time). The idea was to test Kant's claim that there necessarily can exist only one space using a thought experiment which doesn't rely, as Anthony Quinton's does, on a subject falling asleep and appearing to 'dream' of a life which is no less coherent than his 'waking' experience (Anthony Quinton 'Spaces and Times' Philosophy 37, pp 130-147 1962).

In my tale, there is said to be a fully scientific explanation of how there came to be two spaces. It's the 'simplest explanation' of the data. (There was a 'cataclysmic explosion', and a fragment of space 'split off' from the universe to form a space of its own.) There's no reason, in principle, why experimental evidence couldn't lead us to conclude that Kant was wrong about there being one space, just as Quantum Mechanics has shown that he was wrong about the a priori truth of determinism.

I don't know if that's acceptable as a response to Kant. It amounts to little more than stating the very thing that Kant denies. Unlike the case of QM, we don't have the least bit of scientific evidence for multiple spaces (ignoring things like the many-worlds interpretation of QM which seems to be a different thing entirely). It is pure speculation about what we would conclude if such alleged evidence turned up. In this case, we really need to consider the argument Kant gives (in the first part of Critique of Pure Reason), and whether the argument is in fact logically sound. (Many commentators agree - e.g. P.F. Strawson in Bounds of Sense [1966] - that Kant's argument for the necessity of determinism is over-ambitious: the most he can claim is that experience should exhibit sufficient regularity to enable us to make reliable predictions.)

If there were overwhelming logical objections to the very idea of a person being located at different places at the same time, then no amount of empirical 'evidence' would be sufficient to persuade us otherwise. We would have no choice but to offer an alternative explanation. However, it is worth pointing out, that at least some of the things said about the bilocating Catholic Saints can be understood in the weaker sense of the individual in question appearing to observers at a place (as a realistic apparition) as opposed to actually being there in the flesh.

But is genuine bilocation - actually being in two different places at the same time - such a nonsensical idea?

Before we can even consider that question, we have to address the prior question of what it is to be located at a space. For trees and rocks, or planets and stars, there is a simple and conclusive test. Spatial position is one of the criteria (or, indeed, the main criterion) for identity. If an object, say, a paperweight is seen at two places at the same time, then we have two exactly similar paperweights, not one paperweight. If I scratch the paperweight on my desk, and an identical scratch mark simultaneously appears on the matching paperweight on my coffee table, or if smashing one paperweight with a hammer immediately results in the destruction of the other, then the conclusion would be that some kind of unknown causal influence has occurred, not that this is proof that the 'two' paperweights were in fact one and the same object or entity.

Of course we are free to call the matching paperweights by a single name, describe it as an extended 'object'. This might even be a useful thing to do. (We might want to distinguish superficially matching paperweights from genuine pairs which exhibit this remarkable property.)

With persons, on the other hand, an entirely new factor is brought into play. Persons have a point of view. If I have a twin on Twin Earth - or for that matter Doncaster - even if the same things appear to happen to my twin as happen to me and at the very same time, we are not the same person. I have my point of view and my twin has his point of view.

The problem with this intuition, as Daniel Dennett entertainingly shows in his piece 'Where Am I?' (originally in Brainstorms 1978, reproduced in Dennett and Hofstadter Eds. The Mind's I 1981 pp 217-229) is that if we assume the materialist hypothesis that the mind is a kind of program which 'runs' on the brain, then there are various science fiction scenarios where we simply don't know how to answer the question, 'where I am'.

I'm not going to pursue Dennett's idea of brains being simulated by computer programs. If the self is a program, and a program is (as it necessarily must be) a kind of thing, a set of instructions which can be written in any language, realized on any suitable hardware (or 'wetware'), if that's all it is, then it's hardly surprising that you can't 'find' the location of the self, or even decide whether you are dealing with one self or more than one self. The 'GK program' would be like Windows XP.

So I'm going to assume we don't know whether or not you could 'write' the program for GK. In other words, I'm assuming that you can be a materialist without being committed to Dennett's version of materialism.

The US flying drone which destroyed the alleged Al-Qaeda cell last Saturday was 'flown' by a GI operative sitting comfortably at a laptop. In World War II, the Japanese kamikaze gave their lives to achieve the same objective. But what exactly is the difference between being there, at the moment the high explosive detonates, and not being there?

Let's notch this up a bit. Instead of a metal and plastic flying drone, let's have a fully functioning robot which reproduces my bodily movements via a broadband radio connection. To make this really effective, I need the ability to feel when my robot is damaged. This is a very expensive piece of equipment, what better way to protect it than to give the operator a suitable jab of pain? As my robot engages in battle (presumably with other robots) I have the most vivid sense of 'being there'. Only, I am not there. It's just an illusion, isn't it?

Let's say that as a result of carelessness or lack of sufficient fighting skill, my robot gets destroyed, and I feel the pain of its destruction. After receiving a severe dressing down from my commanding officer, I'm issued with another robot with the warning not to let this happen again, or else. This time, I will not only feel the pain. I will receive the same injuries, in the same body parts that my robot receives. If it dies, then I die.

Remember that my robot doesn't have a brain, or a computer simulating my thought processes. It is just a sophisticated drone. And yet, in this extreme case, wouldn't it be correct to say that where my robot is - where the action is happening - there I am also?

If I put my hand into a fire, then the fire doesn't only burn my hand, it burns me. Whereas a drone under my control is just like an extended artificial hand. What puts me there, in the flames, is nothing other than the fact that it is my life that is at stake. I am where my vulnerable parts are.

It helps to have 'eyes' and 'ears' where your vulnerable parts are located otherwise you will injure yourself too easily. But merely having eyes and ears at a location (as in the case of the Al-Qaeda drone) isn't sufficient for being there.

If Dennett is right about the possibility of a brain program, then human beings do not, in principle, have any vulnerable parts. As noted above, the self program can be endlessly reproduced. On the other hand, if Dennett is wrong, and brain function cannot be duplicated in a program (more precisely, by a Turing Machine) then the living human body which I call 'mine', or at least that part of me (say the brain) whose destruction would lead to my death, is necessarily where I am.

I have noted that 'genuine' bilocation must be more than just appearing in a place. The appearance must correspond to reality. As we have also seen, it must be more than my manipulating a robot or simulacrum of me at that place, because the destruction of the robot or simulacrum does not entail my destruction. To be in a place is to risk death at that place. If I can do this in two or more places simultaneously, then I can bilocate, but not otherwise.


Capitalism and the poverty of desire

Kramer asked this question:

How can philosophy help in addressing a poverty of desire? Living in a capitalist society leads to spending most of my time towards earning a living and caring for my dependents. I feel I must try out different vocations to figure out the job I would like best but then you would not know if you really like a job unless you put in sufficient time. And I don't have much time and I don't know what I like. I just live and this causes a poverty of desire.

The claim that human beings in capitalist society work 'just to live' rather than to fulfil their 'human essence' was the criticism famously levelled by Marx originally in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. As a capitalist sympathetic to Marx's ideas about the human essence and the need to fulfil it, I feel sorry that so many people spend so much of their lives in dead-end jobs just working to make ends meet, I really do. It's something of which I have hardly any experience, not because I am capitalist living of the sweat of the working class, but because of my innate laziness. I lack the Protestant work ethic. You won't get me to work by threats or rewards. Only the prospect of fulfilling my human essence is sufficient to motivate me.

As a result of this, I am poor. If I had been more 'responsible', my family would be better provided for but at least we have a roof over our heads and we don't starve. I have spent two thirds of my six decades doing more or less what I do now. I reckon I'm pretty good at my job - philosophizing on a point. I don't get a lot of praise, but then I never needed other people's approval to motivate me either.

This morning, I knew that another answer was overdue. I looked forward to the prospect with a mixture of apprehension, nervousness and slight annoyance at myself for not having written my weekly answer last week so that I could spend the rest of my day watching the clouds go by as I love to do.

But then, part of being lazy is not doing a task at the first opportunity, but rather on the deadline when you absolutely know that you can't postpone it another day.

What advice can I give Kramer?

First, about Marx. It is absolutely wrong to think that the need to work at a task you don't like is a criticism that Marx laid at capitalism's door. Not at all. How much work is required and what kind depends to a large extent on things out of our control. In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust the survivors will be working their guts out just to stay alive. In a future super-technological age of plenty, perhaps very little work will be needed at all, maybe just a couple of hours on a Friday.

But let's just tackle things as they are.

Regardless of how society is organized or what political system human beings live under, work will be necessary. Marx understood this. Doing what is necessary, pulling your weight, making your contribution to society is part of what is required to fulfil one's human essence. There are some jobs that only a masochist would enjoy, and there are not nearly enough masochists to go round. But the jobs have to be done, nonetheless. Say, it's your turn to clean out the lavatories. The point, however, is that provided everyone pulls their weight (and barring the nuclear holocaust scenario) you have sufficient time time to do things that you enjoy, which enhance you and express your individuality.

The young Marx's criticism of capitalist society was that the very best of the worker is used up in the daily grind. The worker's only pleasures the animal pleasures of eating, sex and sleeping. Then the whole thing starts again. Marx believed that to sell your labour rather than give it freely out of the joyful desire to make a useful contribution (including cleaning out lavatories) already condemns you. You're nothing better than a prostitute. But then so are the all those talented people who choose wealth and comfort over artistic integrity. In a world that runs on money, we sell our souls because we lose our sense of value - regardless of whether the general standard of living is high or low.

Criticism of materialism is nothing new. Gloomy Diogenes was there before Marx (see Pissing and shitting in the street, begging coins of passers by in return for a caustic philosophical discourse, that's not my idea of the good life. But freedom to express your human essence has a value, and that's one way to be free if you can accept the discomfort. Be a bum. - But I forgot, you have a family.

(This reminds me of a beautiful short novel Knulp - actually three short stories - written by Herman Hesse in 1915, which makes a good case that the life of a tramp isn't that bad if you are one of those rare people who has the right qualities.)

This isn't the place to launch into a criticism of Marxist philosophy. I will just say that a society of brotherly and sisterly love, where we are all just one happy family and everyone does the work required without needing to be motivated by material reward isn't something that anyone has ever believed possible, apart from maybe the early Christians. That's what you would have to achieve in order to get rid once and for all of the evil of money.

Kramer, your problem isn't about the evils of capitalism, real though they may be. Accept that you may need to choose between jobs you don't like, and that the best choice you can possibly make is more likely than not a job you won't enjoy doing - at least not too much. But still, there's the pleasure of social contact, work mates, the various compensations that help you get through the day. Be prepared to take a cut in pay, in order to work for someone human rather than a bastard (as many bosses unfortunately are). You have obligations to your family but those obligations don't include self-sacrifice. If you sell yourself into miserable wage slavery, your value to them reduces to the money you earn.

(Which reminds me of another novel, or novella, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis coincidentally also written in 1915.)

Find an interest in life, outside work or family. You can probably guess what I'm going to say. You found the Ask a Philosopher web site searching for sites related to philosophy. Take a philosophy course. Develop your mind. Don't do it because of the super-slim chance of making philosophy your career. The chances are, you're not cut out for it. Do it because it is one way - very satisfying, as I have discovered - to realize your human essence.

And do other things. Don't forget your friends, keep yourself fit, engage in something artistic, look after your garden. Whatever talents you have, exploit them. Accept the necessity for work but have a life as well.


Choosing your own reality

Ruth asked this question:

(I apologise for asking such a basic question, but I have googled and googled and... nothing.)

I was reading a discussion online the other day and one of the participants posited that 'all experience essentially takes place in the mind'. My question is, if there is no such thing as 'objective' reality, are people altered by the things they experience and change because of outside stimulus, or do they 'change' the things they experience to suit their own framework? Which choice is preferable?

At first glance, Ruth's question looks like a question about idealism. But I don't think it is. The idealist doesn't say that 'there is no such thing as 'objective' reality'. On the contrary, Berkeley's immaterialism, Kant's transcendental idealism, or Hegel's objective idealism are all theories about the nature of objective reality. In these theories, mind plays an important role, but it is not your mind or my mind but Mind (with a capital 'M').

It is fair to say that the current philosophical climate is predominantly realist rather than idealist. Yet even the staunchest realist would agree that our point of view is not the 'View from Nowhere' as Nagel terms it (Thomas Nagel The View From Nowhere 1986). The way we gain knowledge about the world outside us, our ability to access the 'objective' facts, depends on many factors including our mental constitution, sensory capacities, concepts and linguistic resources. Human beings differ from one another in this respect, although there is a also sense in which there exists a specifically 'human way' of perceiving and gaining knowledge of the world, by contrast, e.g., with that of a whale or a bat.

So in response to the question, 'Do we change because of outside stimulus, or do we 'change' the things we experience to suit our own framework?' my answer is, both.

I am writing this answer today because when I checked my 'Questions In' mailbox I found Ruth's question there. If there hadn't been a question that interested me, I might have been doing something else. When Ruth clicked the button at Ask a Philosopher to submit her query, that action in a small way changed the course of my life.

Yet it is also true that the things I experience, the way the world impresses itself on me and stimulates me to action, depends on my desires, attitudes, moods. By working on myself, by reflecting on the way I feel and think, I effectively change my world. The world is the world, the same world for all of us; but I can choose where to live in that world, my intellectual habitation - be it high or low, austere or lush. In a very real sense, it is up to me to create my own reality.

Which choice is preferable? How do you choose when to open yourself up and let the world impress itself on you, and when to work on yourself in order to make the world - or your world - different? That's a fair question. Each person, I would argue, differs in this respect. It is a particularly tricky question for the philosopher.

As a seeker after truth, my aim is or ought to be to make my subjective contribution as small as possible so that I can accurately reflect the nature of objective reality. It isn't up to my free choice whether to be a materialist, or a dualist, a realist or idealist. I have to let the arguments impress themselves upon me, and then decide. I am nothing and reality is everything. That attitude is often taken as definitive of the 'philosophical standpoint'.

And yet, truth seeking would be a pointless exercise, if it were not part of a strenuous effort to make sense of things. It's not as if any 'truths' will do. A philosopher is only concerned with ultimate or universal truths, truths which would remain true even if the actual world as we find it was different in so many different ways. But that's still too many. My world is meaningful, or meaningless, depending on choices I make, for example, choices about which truths to focus upon, which questions to live with.

As regards 'how to live' in a practical sense, there don't seem to be many choices open to me, given my resources and ongoing commitments, my place in society. And yet as regards making sense of things intellectually, all the work is yet to be done. As I remarked last time, the world seems to me like a puzzle that doesn't add up. That impression, that feeling: is it an accurate reflection of reality, or is it rather the reality I have merely chosen to inhabit?

It feels like a choice. I have chosen to be gripped by a question which, if the reactions of students, colleagues, friends are anything to go by, not many people nor even many academic philosophers find puzzling. I don't have to spend all my time thinking about it. I don't have to slip into this mood. But I do, because that is what I will.

I don't find much comfort in the thought that the thoughts I am thinking now are merely the product of two and a half thousand years of the history of philosophy. That somehow I am merely 'continuing a tradition'. The past is the past, water under the bridge. It's true that 'those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it' (as I often tell my students). After nearly 40 years doing this, I think I know enough about the history of philosophy to get by. (Not nearly as much as the late Anthony Harrison-Barbet, author of Philosophical Connections but I doubt whether many working academic philosophers do.)

I said last time that 'to hold the entire universe 'in question' seems liberating, in a strange sort of way'. Why do I need to be liberated? liberated from what? The idea that philosophy has its 'consolations' is as old as Boethius, or older, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I chose philosophy all those years ago because I needed it, because it seemed to be the only way I could stop my world from falling apart. And it's done a pretty good job ever since.

Some will sense that the G-word is in the background to all of this. The theist says, 'Of course the world has a purpose, the purpose given to it by God.' My response: If it turned out that God did exist (don't ask me how we would know), it would be our duty to kill him, or her (don't ask me how we would achieve this). If it turned out that God didn't exist (don't ask etc.), it would be our duty to create him, or her (don't ask etc.).

This isn't some mad idea; better minds have been here before me. But I'm not really interested in the God question, I see through all these facile moves. This isn't where the answer is going to be found. (Like philosophy, religion is a life choice. I just don't think that it is a very good choice, but I'm here speaking for myself not for you.)

So, in my own mind, I have found something better than religion. I've spent two thirds of a lifetime creating my world, and the job is not done yet. When it is, I'll let you know.,, (Continued)