Maurice asked:

What is love? Have philosophers anything useful to add to Plato’s discussion of this question in the ‘Symposium’?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophers have been discussing the idea of love and its implications for human affairs at least since Plato. Modern philosophers have proposed four different, though perhaps partially overlapping, conceptions of love that are significantly distinct from those of the ancients: (1) love as an emotion, (2) love as a ‘robust concern,’ (3) love as a union, and (4) love as valuing the other.

Let us start with the idea of robust concern. The defining feature of this kind of love is selfless interest in the other’s well-being, for his or her sake and not because we gain anything out of it. In the somewhat dry and formal words of philosopher Gabriele Taylor: ‘If x loves y then x wants to benefit and be with y etc., and he has these wants (or at least some of them) because he believes y has some determinate characteristics Ψ in virtue of which he thinks it worthwhile to benefit and be with y. He regards satisfaction of these wants as an end and not as a means towards some other end.’

All right, I promise never to quote a technical paper on the philosophy of love directly again, because this is the sort of thing that gives philosophers a bad reputation. Still, what Taylor is saying is that we don’t love the other (y) because her characteristics (Ψ) benefit us, but because they are worth cherishing in their own right. Although this idea of selfless love has some commonsense appeal, there also seems to be something clearly amiss. As another philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, put it (not a direct quote!), the idea is that robust love is neither a matter of feelings nor a matter of opinions, but a matter of will: we love someone in a robust fashion because she acts in accordance with a set of motives and preferences that we approve of.

A second modern philosophical view to entertain is that of love as valuing the other person. The basic idea is that love means to value someone in himself or herself, and that we do so because of an appraisal that centers on the dignity of that person. If this sounds a bit abstract and detached from the real world, well, it is. But there is an important kernel that philosophers who support the value conception of love are trying to get at: the idea that a love object (a person) cannot simply be swapped for another one with similar characteristics, because this would violate the dignity of both people. Think of the ‘robust concern’ view just discussed: there is nothing in that view that would preclude you from having the same ‘concern’ for (that is, loving) another object with the same characteristics as the one you are loving now. You could therefore swap gods or lovers, or even love many gods and many people at the same time, as long as they share the same set of characteristics (Ψ). Some people might be okay with this, but others feel that real love ought to be more exclusive and less subject to commodification. If you are in the latter group, then the value view of love might fit you well.

The third modern philosophical perspective is of love as a union. This is the idea that what is central to love is two independent individuals forming a third, collective union, a ‘we’ that becomes more important than and transcends each individual ‘I.’ Some philosophers speak of this ‘we’ entity in a clearly metaphorical way, while others seem to give a more serious ontological (pertinent to existence) status to the ensemble, almost as if it really were a new individual in its own right. As with the value view of love, the union conception tries to capture something that most people who have been or are in love can relate to: the creation of a new set of priorities as the couple as a unit becomes more important than the individuals who constitute it. But therein lies a problem as well: human beings are both social and fairly individualistic animals, and one can object that a union view of love puts too much emphasis on the couple at the expense of personal space, rights, and dignity. As we all know, it is precisely this tension between joint and individual needs that often is at the root of relationship problems in real life.

Finally, we turn to the emotional view of love. In philosophy an emotion is a combination of an evaluation of the object of the emotion and a motivational response to that object. For instance, if I’m afraid of you, that means I have evaluated you as somehow dangerous to my health, and it probably also means that I am prepared to take some action against you, either defensive or evasive. Of course, thinking of love as an emotion would hardly be surprising for the non-philosopher, but the question for us here is: What sort of understanding of the phenomenon can be gained this way? And what potential problems arise if we conceptualize love primarily as an emotion?

One thing that philosophers get out of emotional theories of love is being allowed to distinguish loving someone from simply liking someone. If love is a distinct and deeper sort of emotion than the emotions elicited by friendship or admiration, then we begin to see why those other experiences are so clearly not like love. According to several philosophers who support an emotional view of love, what accounts for much of this difference is that we share a unique narrative history with the beloved: regardless of how he or she will change throughout life, we keep accumulating common memories of events and situations that are obviously unrepeatable with anyone else. This, according to such philosophers, also explains why we don’t commonly ‘trade up’ at the first opportunity, why we do not switch partners as soon as we meet someone with even better characteristics (call them ‘ Ψ+’) than the one we are currently engaged with.


Taela asked:

We have to write an essay from this scenario:

A talented neurosurgeon removes Andrea’s brain and puts it into Beth’s body, and removes Beth’s brain and puts it into Andrea’s body. We end up with two living humans. Which of these is Andrea? Or is neither of them Andrea? Or are they both Andrea? Or is there no answer to the question? Or do you need more information about the case before you can answer? Explain.

I’m very confused as to what to write. I have talked about dualism and Descartes idea of a thinking thing, but this is not enough, and I am not sure if I am on the right track.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Descartes wont help much here. But Locke will.

The key text is the famous chapter (27) ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ in Book 2 of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (2nd edition 1694). Do read it, at least 27.8 to 27.29, it is one of the most important, influential, and still relevant parts of his philosophy.

Locke is concerned with fair praise/blame, both in this life and at the Last Judgment, what he calls ‘forensic’ issues. Clearly praise/blame can only be fair if the individual getting it is the SAME individual as the one who did the good/bad deeds.

So, what is it that makes me the same individual as yesterday or last year?

Locke distinguishes between being the same Human Being (‘same Man’ as he puts it) and being the same Person.

Being the same Human Being, like being the same plant or animal, is to be the same living, organized body, to be ‘the same continued life communicated to different particles of matter, as they happen successively to be united to that organized living body’ (27.8). In short, I am the same Man as twenty years ago even though none of the atoms constituting me then is part of me now.

Being the same Person is to have continuity of consciousness — one presently remembers one’s past experiences. Locke’s famous definition of ‘Person’ (27.9):

‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’

So, Personal identity is not identity of substance (a person could swap her material body, or, Locke feels, her immaterial soul, without loss of identity) No, it is identity (continuity or connectedness) of consciousness.

Of course, being the same Human Being and being the same Person usually go together. But not always, as in your brain-swap scenario, or in Locke’s analogous mind-swap thought experiment. He describes the mind of the Prince entering the body of the sleeping Cobbler (whose own mind departs). The individual who later wakes up is the same Man as was (the Cobbler) but a different Person (the Prince).

So in your scenario, if you think we are essentially Human Beings, Andrea and Beth get brain transplants. If you think we are essentially Persons, Andrea and Beth get body transplants.

Which is the more coherent view, Human Being or Person? You must make up your own mind.

On the Human Being view, YOU were once a zygote, then embryo, foetus, child, adult, and may sadly sustain brain damage and pass into a persistent vegetative state (PVS). If you were to get a brain transplant, you would be the same Man with a new brain, even though this brain thought as it did in the donor, just as a transplanted heart pumps blood as it did in the donor.

On the Person view, YOU were never a zygote or an embryo, nor could you be a human in a PVS, for none of these has consciousness, far less continuity of consciousness, and so can’t be a Person.

I favour the Human Being approach. I think I am essentially an animal, that I AM this individual sitting typing this answer, that I was once an embryo, and that if I enter a PVS it will still be me lying on the bed, and my relatives wont think I no longer exist.

Irrespective of whether we think Person or Human Being best describes our essence, Locke’s memory criterion for Personal Identity has problems.

First, discontinuities in consciousness such as an old man remembering nothing of his boyhood. According to Locke the old man is not the same person as the boy, but he clearly is. On the other hand, is it fair to punish a demented person for something she can’t remember doing?

Secondly, the definition is circular, begging the question. How do you know that the memories you have are genuine rather than false or quasi-memories? To suppose they are YOUR memories presupposes there is a YOU.

Thirdly, uncertainties about preservation of identity in split brain/fission/duplication cases (more thought experiments). We end up with more than one individual psychologically continuous with the original (who is no more). Which of these new individuals IS the original. Of course, on the somatic Human Being view, none of them. And I think this is the right answer. The original is dead but psychological continuity with her is preserved in the new individuals, so that survival (in this way) may be more important to us than identity, as Derek Parfit argues for.

I hope I’ve said enough to get you on the right track.


Gem asked:

What are examples of concepts and words? How do they differ from each other?

Answer by Helier Robinson

I begin by giving you the viewpoint called conceptualism. A concept is a bonding together of an abstract idea and a word. Not to be confused with a bonding of a concrete idea and a word. The concrete is any quality received through the senses, such as sounds, colours, and tactile qualities. The abstract is anything not concrete, such as relations and properties of relations. The imagination is concrete: it operates with concrete images or memories of concrete sensations. Thought is abstract: it operates with abstract ideas. Both imagination and thought are aided, and communicated, by language. So thought may be pure thought (abstract ideas alone) or normal thought (by means of concepts) or nominal thought (by words alone). For example, you might have an abstract idea of triangle, but no word for it; or you might have the concept of triangle — the abstract idea bonded to the word triangle — or you might know the word triangle without knowing what it means.

Conceptualism is one answer to the question of what the meanings of universal words are. Another answer in nominalism, in which it is claimed that there are no such things as abstract ideas: all thought is silent speech, words are the counters of the mind, there is no thought without language.

If you can discover abstract ideas in your mind you will be a conceptualist; if not, you will be a nominalist.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks at first like a trick question. How do you ‘give an example’ of a concept without giving a word? The concept of justice, for example. We have (it is alleged) a concept of justice. And we have a word for it. The word is, ‘justice’. Duh!

And yet we do, in ordinary speech, distinguish between something that is ‘just a word’ and something that is a genuine concept. The word ‘cool’, for example, as used in the statement, ‘I think your hat is cool.’ I don’t mean, ‘I think that your hat would be good for protecting your head from the heat of the sun.’ Is there a concept of ‘cool’? Books could be (and probably have been) written about this.

In his ‘Epistle to the Reader’ at the beginning of the Essay on Human Understanding, Locke talks about the need to be clear about which ‘ideas’ (concepts) our words relate to, and the need for an account of how these ideas arise. Initially, this isn’t a problem of epistemology or metaphysics so much as a problem of communication: establishing some kind of methodology for resolving disputes that arise because of the misuse, or misunderstanding, of words and how they relate to ideas or concepts.

Some words clearly denote entirely different concepts, like the English word ‘bank’ which can refer to the side of a river, or a place which looks after your money. Possibly, there is an etymological link between these two usages (you’d have to look this up). But, at least potentially, when you count concept words and count concepts, you are not necessarily going to get the same number, because the same word can be used for different concepts (i.e. with different ‘meanings’), and the same concept can be referred to by means of different words. (I’ll leave you to think of an example of this.)

So, maybe, this is all the question is really asking: Give examples of how the same word can refer to different concepts, or the same concept can be referred to by means of different words. That’s not a philosophical question, only a linguistic one.


Chun asked:

Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the 5th Meditation.

Lay out the structure of Descartes argument for Gods existence in Meditation 5. What is the crucial premise in the argument, and what evidence does Descartes provide for it? How might we object to the argument.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You refer to Descartes’ version of the Ontological Argument.

The existence of God is crucial to Descartes because in the sustained argument which is the Meditations, God is the bridge from the hyperbolic doubt of the Cogito back to knowledge of the empirical world and the abstract world of logic and mathematics.

On the other hand he seems to think that God’s existence is readily evident to any diligent meditator, and that arguments are just heuristic devices to help the slower meditator to the almost self-evident truth that God’s existence is known by clear and distinct perception.

He doesn’t set out his arguments in formal deductive terms (he antedates predicate logic and was no fan of syllogistic logic), and he uses unfamiliar scholastic terminology.

For all these reasons, the meditator has to do some work to penetrate the arguments.

An Ontological Argument tries to prove God’s existence from the very definition of ‘God’. Originally advanced By Anselm (his definition of God being the ‘greatest conceivable being’), this was declared invalid by Aquinas, and the argument lapsed. Descartes’ use of it surprised his contemporaries.

A fair construction of Descartes’ version is as follows:

P1: I have a clear and distinct idea of a most perfect being.

P2: This idea includes necessary existence.

P3: God’s necessary existence is part of God’s essence.

Conclusion: God exists.

You speak of ‘the’ crucial premise and evidence for it. I think all 3 premises are crucial.

What evidence does he provide for the premises?

P1: he gives no criteria for clear and distinct perception, either here or elsewhere in Meditations when he mentions it. No guide to recognizing slightly unclear or somewhat indistinct ideas which might be unreliable.

P2: no evidence given, but none needed, or indeed possible. We can accept that necessary existence is a feature of the being he has in mind.

P3: here he relies on Aristotelian and Scholastic thinking about essences: all things which come into existence have an essence (roughly a nature), but existence is not part of this essence — these things are contingently not necessarily existing, dependent on an essentially necessary being (God) to bring them into and sustain them in existence. Also in support, Descartes suggests a geometrical analogy, saying existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the fact that its three angles make two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle.

How might we object to the argument?

We can object to all three premises.

P1: I can deny that I have this idea. In any case, it’s quite common for people to have clear and distinct ideas which turn out to be wrong.

Also,the argument is circular (question-begging): the conclusion that a (non-deceiving) God exists is based on a clear and distinct idea, but the truth of clear and distinct ideas is guaranteed only by the existence of a non-deceiving God.

P2: this is fine if we mean that the conceived being can be thought of AS IF it existed necessarily. It doesn’t mean that any such hypothesized being actually exists, or indeed could possibly exist. To imagine otherwise is to confuse ‘God (necessarily) exists’ (correct, by definition, semantic claim) with the existential claim ‘(Necessarily) God exists’, a simple logical fallacy (changing the scope of the modal operator from de re to de dicto), as Aquinas pointed out. This allows us to ‘prove’ the existence of anything e.g. I have a clear and distinct idea of a necessarily existing perfect pizza, holiday, partner, etc.

P3: Two penetrating objections to the geometrical analogy were made by Gassendi (5th set of Objections to The Meditations).

(a) The comparison is unfair. Like is not compared with like. Essence is (correctly) compared with essence, but then existence is not compared with existence. Rather existence (of God) is compared with property (of a triangle). A fair comparison would not show God necessarily exists any more than that a triangle necessarily exists.

(b) Existence is placed among God’s, but not among the triangle’s perfections. Also existence is not a perfection, it is that without which no perfection (or other attribute) can occur. Here, Gassendi anticipates Kant’s view that existence is not a predicate.

The argument is invalid.

All we can really conclude is that if God exists his existence is necessary, if he doesn’t his existence is impossible, but we don’t know whether God exists or not.

In the Meditations’ dedication (to a Faculty of Theology, he hoped to get the Churchmen on his side) Descartes says that although faith suffices for the faithful, proof is needed by philosophers and for persuasion of infidels. Doubtless he was disappointed by criticism, rather than acclamation, of his arguments by theologians (and others) which he published as Objections and Replies along with the Meditations, and which are as worthy of study as the main text.

You might think the Ontological Argument died the death, but it just wont lie down. We find Plantinga in the 20th century championing the modal version:

P1: If God exists his existence is necessary

P2: If God doesn’t exist his existence is impossible

P3: Hence God’s existence is either necessary or impossible

P4: God’s existence is possible (not impossible)

P5: Hence God’s existence is necessary

Conclusion: God exists

I wont rehash the flaws, but notice the argument just as easily ‘proves’ God’s nonexistence, thus:

P1: If God is nonexistent his nonexistence is necessary

P2: If God isn’t nonexistent his nonexistence is impossible

P3: Hence God’s nonexistence is either necessary or impossible

P4: God’s nonexistence is possible (not impossible)

P5: Hence God’s nonexistence is necessary

Conclusion: God is nonexistent.


Sam asked:

Hi, I’m struggling to understand what Heidegger means by ‘Dasein’ and it’s (our) relationship to nothing. What does Heidegger mean by ‘nothing’ in this context?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is trying to answer the question and is questioning the question of: What is Being? Philosophy has, since Plato, variously defined Being as presence, as substance, as subjective self-awareness and awareness and definition of those objects before human beings. Heidegger is trying to develop a language and thinking that radically departs from this previous Philosophy to ask the question anew to hopefully allow a non-appropriative relation with Being. Hence new terms like Dasein, the Nothing and the various structures of ‘Being in the World’ as found in Being and Time (1927) are used to create a new approach to the most fundamental question and issue of all.

For Heidegger’s contention is that Western Philosophy has drifted away from the insights of the pre-Socratic Greeks into Being. It’s trajectory has not only buried the question — a question borne of wonder, it has facilitated the ascendancy of technicist thinking and doing so much so, that Being and beings have been relegated to what merely can be utilised and exploited by human beings. So much so that modern humanity is threatened by the prospect of nuclear war and perhaps in our own time, ecological collapse. Moreover, scientistic narratives liken and limit human beings as little more than complex machines, that the brain is an ‘advanced computer’ , that we are our genes and the like. This thinking is, according to Heidegger, the consequence of Western Philosophy.

So from Being and Time onwards, Heidegger is attempting to rethink the question of Being. One approach is found in his ‘What is Metaphysics?‘ (1929).

The Nothing

Science dismisses Philosophy and the Nothing which is inherent to it. As the Nothing cannot be measured, cannot be placed in a test tube, cannot be subject to verification or falsification; Science dismisses it. Yet Nothing, nothingness is experienced as real phenomena by Dasein. Perhaps Nothingness arises from the negative, from negation as found and practiced in Logic? Heidegger counters that Negation in Logic is presupposed by Dasein’s experience of the Nothing. He explores situations when the Nothing arises. One such situation is that of Anxiety. In this state, one feels ‘ill at ease’ about something indefinite. Within this state, all things -including ourselves- melt into indifference; beings as a whole recede away from Dasein, yet Dasein remains to experience this receding of beings as a whole and their replacement by the Nothing. This ‘melting’ is the nihilating action of the Nothing. So contrary to the quantitative limitations of science, the Nothing is a definite state which presents itself to and is therefore lived by Dasein. The Nothing is not nothing. Consider Sam, the example of expecting something to be in a room you enter. When entering the room, that specific thing you’ve been looking forward to, is not there. It is conspicuous by its absence. The absence is the Nothing and its nihilating action. Yet experiencing the Nothing strangely brings you closer to the expected but absent object.

In experiencing the nothing, Dasein is simultaneously projected back toward beings. This acute contrast allows the appreciation of beings as a whole and, more importantly for Heidegger who is asking the question ‘What is Being? — it facilitates their disclosure or openedness.

The Nothing therefore brings Dasein closer to beings and allows them to reveal themselves, to disclose themselves anew or, perhaps in ways never experienced before. By being held out into the Nothing, Dasein transcends beings as a whole. This transcendence simultaneously compels Dasein back towards beings so as to appreciate beings, what they are, what they mean, how they disclose themselves and this is Being. This experience of the Nothing is one way, one path toward answering the question, What is being?

So contrary to the condescension of science, the Nothing is inherent to Being and to Dasein’s being within Being. As Heidegger writes, it is not about existing in a constant condition of anxiety so as to anticipate being by means of the nihilating act of the Nothing; the Nothing is encountered in other areas of life, of Dasein’s being. Unyielding antagonism, stinging rebuke, galling failure, merciless prohibition, bitter privation, in the creative process (writer’s block?) and a desire to complete the work: all these are examples of the nihilation of the Nothing.

Introduction to Metaphysics

In these above entitled lectures from 1935 but first published in 1959, Heidegger explores the fundamental question of metaphysics. The Nothing is again employed when Heidegger poses the question: ‘Why are there beings at all instead of Nothing?’ He writes that this question can arise in despair, arise in ‘heartfelt joy’ when things are felt and appreciated as if for the first time; and it can arise in boredom when a ‘wasteland of indifferent objects’ loom up before us. The import is again, the astonishment that works upon the fact that there is something in existence rather than nothing. Concentrating upon the contrast between Something and the Nothing makes beings and more importantly, Being explicit. The Nothing serves as a negation, as a springboard by which thinking is thrown back to Being and beings. By this action, it is possible for genuine thinking to be receptive to Being and to ponder it i.e. that there is Something rather than Nothing.


Elisabeth asked:

What is the definition of evil?
Where do you think it originated from?
Why do you think it continues?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wonder about the definition of evil. It seems to me that, in ordinary usage, we use the term ‘evil’ when we just mean, ‘very bad’ or ‘irredeemably bad’. Some things are good, and some things are very good. Some things are bad, and some things are very bad.

Why is there ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Because human beings make value judgements. If you sip a drink and it tastes nice, that’d good. If you sip the drink and it tastes nasty, that’s bad. But if the ‘nice’ drink is poisonous, then you shouldn’t drink it because poison is bad. If the ‘nasty’ drink is prescribed medicine, then you should drink it despite the nasty taste, because it is good for you. In this way, value judgements are generated and refined, as we learn more and more about the world.

The question ‘where evil originates from’ can only arise if you assume that the world somehow ‘ought’ to be good, for example, if it was created by a loving God. Then we have the ‘problem of evil’, which has been discussed in these pages. It is not a problem for me because I am an atheist. However, hypothetically, if God did exist then I see absolutely no reason why God should prevent all bad things from happening. How can human beings possibly be in a position to judge?

I once bought a car, an old Ford Capri with 3 litre engine which claimed (it had the decal) to be a special model, the RS3100. I called a classic car specialist round to look at it. When I phoned later, he said that the Capri was in a state which, in the second-hand car trade, is called ‘evil’. An evil car is one that is so badly corroded with rust, that it is not worth the time or expense to repair. If it had been an RS3100 (which it wasn’t, it was a fake!) it might have been worth the trouble.

The question, ‘Where do evil cars come from?’ would be judged silly. Rusting is a natural process, and cars that aren’t looked after, or kept in barns for years and years, are prone to rust away. ‘Where do evil people come from?’ is not a lot different from this. No new-born infant is evil. People go bad. It would probably be a lot easier to prevent any more cars from rusting away than it would be to prevent any more people becoming bad, or evil.


Melissa asked:

In order to answer the question, ‘What is the difference between good and evil in a person’, what would I need to know to answer this correctly?

Answer by Henk Tuten

I’ll answer your question from an evolutionary point of view. Evolution distinguishes no good and evil, it selects on effect. But in evolution of humans (very recent evolution) different cultures developed. The Roman Christian culture presumes reality as created, some sort of ‘intelligence’ behind Christian reality. Anything that doesn’t fit the interpreted design is considered as conflicting and labeled as ‘evil’. Obviously this a cultural matter.

So first you need to know who asked this question. More specifically: what is the culture of that person.

Good and Evil are cultural judgements. For instance in many cultures what is considered homosexuality, is judged as ‘evil’. Because it doesn’t fit the cultural ways of handling reality, and causes fear and anger

Evolution doesn’t judge. Homosexuality survived, so it is there. Point.

Now you can’t give this person an absolute difference between a good and an evil, but you can point out that in his or her culture some behavior is not accepted (labeled as evil). And give examples in his/her culture of culturally evil behavior, and of the cultural rules.

You can’t offer an ‘understanding’ of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ , but you can offer an insight in the workings of the cultural rules.

Distinguishing Good and Evil is a conflict way of treating reality. There are other ways, but Roman Christian Culture was quite effective in almost completely destroying them.



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