Jenny asked:

Will you please explain the importance and process of keeping a personal philosophical journal/ notebook?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you for this question, Jenny, I was hoping someone would ask!

Keeping a philosophical notebook is of paramount importance. — Will that do? Perhaps not without further explanation. I have to make the case for my claim that keeping a philosophical notebook is of paramount importance, just as one has to do for every claim in philosophy.

On the face of it, the injunction to keep a notebook is just a piece of practical advice, not a philosophical claim. If the advice works for you, then that’s OK, if it doesn’t then that’s also OK. But I think there’s more to it than that. Philosophy — the ‘art of reason’ as Jonathan Barnes calls it — is also the art of memory: ‘assembling reminders for a particular purpose’ (Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Para 126).

I just looked up the quote in Google to check the paragraph number (faster than picking up the book and searching through it) and came upon an old entry in my Glass House Philosopher notebook, the first time I had attempted to keep up a philosophical notebook online:

“One lesson that has been drummed into me from my years of study is that philosophy is about remembering. Socrates disdained the written word because it destroyed the skill of memory. With a text in front of you, you can go back to remind yourself of the key points in the argument. Listening to a philosopher speak, you have to concentrate. You have to keep your mind traversing a narrow ledge, taking in the words, thinking about them, mapping and re-mapping the structure of the argument. Wittgenstein said ‘The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose’. He was talking about the way problems arise because we don’t look at the whole picture. We look at one bit, then forget.” (Page 4, 23rd August 1999).

The context of that notebook entry is about a practical problem, how to ‘be a better husband and father’, which has implications for philosophy and philosophical counselling. That’s a discussion for another occasion. The point I was making is about the virtue of memory. Writing on a regular basis focuses the mind, makes you aware of connections that you might otherwise have forgotten. It’s not a substitute for memory, but rather a way of forcing yourself to put the scattered memory fragments together.

One piece of advice that I have taken from Wittgenstein is ‘don’t look back’. This is how he worked. Each time he opened a new page, he tried to think about the problem he was working on afresh. He didn’t constantly reference what he had written last week, or last month or year. But the evidence of the journey one has taken to get to this point is there, and there will come a time when you need to refresh your memory, or perhaps take something you wrote and argue against it.

Now let’s talk practical matters:

What sort of notebook? A cheap one, preferably. You don’t want to be too precious about it. Spiral bound, so that you can tear out a single page without other pages falling out. And not too thick, so that you have the pleasure of starting a new notebook more often.

The alternative is to keep a blog. I like to cover all bases, keeping up a blog (the latest are my Sophist and Metaphysical Journal) and carrying a notebook with me at all times. After various experiments, I hit upon the idea of using plain Filofax sheets (buy a six-hole punch) folded in a piece of leather or plastic and held together with a money clip. When you come home from your philosophical walk, you take out the page you’ve written on and put it in your Filofax. Job done.

 

Joyce asked:

Give three examples of how academic philosophy is useful in the contemporary world.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Let me begin by questioning the question (just like any good philosopher would do!). Why should academic philosophy be useful, and what do we mean by useful anyway? It is curious that the question of utility comes up in the context of philosophy, but not of most other — arguably equally ‘useless’ — academic fields. What is the usefulness to contemporary society of, say, studying literature, or music? Indeed, even much of the research in mathematics and science (those paragons of utility) conducted within the academy, is useless, in the sense of having no practical application. Yes, scientists’ excuse for getting multi-million dollar grants is that their research may, one day, as yet yield unforeseeable pragmatic payoffs. But as a matter of historical record, it doesn’t, and at any rate, that’s not why they do it (they do it because they are genuinely curious about one arcane question or another — just like philosophers). Besides, philosophers are much less expensive.

The concept of utility itself, incidentally, is a highly philosophical one, because it presupposes a certain analysis of what we care for and why. For instance, studying philosophy in college may be ‘useful’ in the sense that it contributes to form a whole person capable of critical thinking and self reflection; or in the sense that it increases one’s chances of getting into law school (it does, by the way); or because it provides a student with ‘portable’ skills that allow for more varied and flexible employment (again, true fact).

But I take the meaning of the question to be: what practical applications in society can possibly come from the academic field of philosophy? Very well, then, I shall briefly sketch three such applications.

Perhaps the most obvious practical benefits of academic philosophy can be seen in the field of ethics. Nowadays it is increasingly rare to walk into a hospital, for instance, and not find a resident ethicist (usually referred to as a medical ethicist, or a bioethicist). This is a philosopher trained (academically) in the complexities of moral reasoning, who helps doctors, administrators and hospital staff to think through very important, and often very urgent, ethical issues. The ethicist does this by deploying her understanding of standard ethical theories (consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc.), as well as of the vast recent academic literature in the specific field of medical ethics.

More broadly, moral philosophers have contributed and continue to contribute to major debates about right and wrong in society at large. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, as well as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia have been the reference points for discussions about justice for decades now, and philosophers continue to write about specific ethical problems (from LGBT rights to environmental issues), their papers making their way to public think tanks, policy makers and the US Supreme Court.

A second example is offered by academic research on logic, a philosophical field that has increasingly taken on an interdisciplinary connotation, with the most obvious bridges toward mathematics, computer science, and the field of Artificial Intelligence, but also law (for instance in discussions of informal logical fallacies and burden of proof). Perhaps one of the best known examples of practical applications of logic deriving from academic research is the burgeoning field of modal logic — i.e., the logics that deal with the workings of expressions such as ‘necessarily’ and ‘possibly.’ It has applications in computer science, particularly in the study of decidability (the problem of establishing whether a given formula is a theorem) and complexity (in the specific sense of estimating memory and time necessary to carry out certain computations). Another example of this sort is the applicability of linear logic to, again, computer science and mathematics, especially in areas such as analysis, algebra and topology.

My last example of usefulness of academic philosophy is the emerging field of philosophical counseling. Sometimes defined as ‘therapy for the sane,’ it is actually not a type of medical therapy (like psychotherapy, or psychiatry), but rather a set of tools to allow people with a variety of life problems (concerning meaning, planning for the future, or significant changes in life conditions) to draw on philosophical resources to rationally deal with such problems. Philosophical counseling requires a PhD in philosophy, and usually a certification by an accrediting body, such as the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Practitioners are often (but not always) academic philosophers who are also involved in research on the long terms effects of their approach. In a sense, philosophical counseling is a return to what Socrates was doing back in the streets of Athens two and a half millennia ago. But it does so while keeping up to date with the most recent developments in philosophical inquiry which may turn out to be beneficial to clients, including modern academic literature on ethics, metaphysics and aesthetics.

There are plenty of other examples of practical uses of academic philosophy (for instance the clarification of concepts pertinent to scientific research from the field of philosophy of science; or the contributions of philosophy of mind to cognitive science). However, we should always be mindful that plenty of human activities — from music to literature to philosophy — also have intrinsic value because they are the sort of thing that enriches our mental and emotional lives.

 

Jeffrey asked:

how does Locke solve the problem with personal identity?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

Hello, Jeffrey!

Let’s try to get clear about what ‘the problem with personal identity’ is; then, let’s look at Locke’s resolution of it.

By ‘identity’ we mean ‘numerical identity’ as opposed to ‘qualitative identity’. The difference could be illustrated like this: two cars that are indistinguishable with respect to model, parts, color etc. are said to be qualitatively identical to each other, while one of those cars at some time t is said to be numerically identical to the same car at some later time t’. And by the modifier ‘personal’, Locke is indicating that he’s concerned with the identity of a delimited class of entities, i.e. of persons. The problem, therefore, concerns the numerical identity of persons.

But what does Locke take a person to be? His stipulated answer is:

“[a person is] a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in di?erent times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and…essential to it…”

So, what is it about the numerical identity of persons that’s problematic?

There are actually many problems in this area, but Locke is primarily focused on one, viz. the problem of the identity of persons over time. Essentially, Locke’s problem concerns developing a criterion of the numerical identity of persons that clarifies in virtue of what a person at one time and a person at a different time count as the same person.

Here we should draw a distinction between ‘evidential’ and ‘constitutive’ criteria of identity. Evidential criteria provide us with reasonably reliable means of determining the numerical identity of persons; hence, we might conclude that Jones today is numerically identical with the Jones who robbed the local bank years ago because ‘both’ share the same fingerprints, DNA, appearance, etc. Constitutive criteria, however, concern what in fact makes Jones identical with the person who robbed the bank, and whatever that is, it need not be adduced to defend the claim that Jones (today) is the person who robbed the bank. Evidential criteria are thus epistemological (i.e. concern how we know), while constitutive criteria are metaphysical (i.e. concern what something fundamentally is).

We can now clarify Locke’s problem: What is the constitutive criterion of the numerical identity of persons over time?

Before we explain Locke’s answer, it would be helpful to understand what motivates it, for Locke’s proposed constitutive criterion is not merely metaphysical in nature, but forensic as well. That is, Locke is primarily interested in those aspects of persistent personhood in virtue of which one is properly blameworthy or praiseworthy (both morally and legally). So, if Jones today is the same person as the Jones who robbed the bank, then we can say that the today’s Jones is guilty of that crime.

With all the necessary ground clearing out of the way, we can (finally!) present Locke’s response to the problem, viz. it is in virtue of possessing the same continuous consciousness, with its attendant memories and self-awareness and inner sense of continuity, that persons are numerically identified. But what reasons does Locke provide to support this conclusion, and should we accept them?

Locke argues that the criterion of numerical identity will vary according to what it is we’re considering. So, if we take atoms to be indivisible (as he did), then, since any particular atom is identical to itself at any point in time, it will remain the same atom as long as it exists; and, since this holds for individual atoms, it also holds for combinations of atoms, which remain the same as long as no atoms are subtracted or added to the particular combination. But living things seem to exist continuously while undergoing changes in the matter that composes them. Hence, Locke argues that it is their organization and structure, coupled with their continuous life, that serve as the constitutive criteria of the numerical identity of living things.

Since human beings are living things, they’re numerically identified as other organisms are. But can we identify the person (recall Locke’s definition above) with the human being? Locke argues that we cannot, for we can conceive of cases in which the two notions come apart. So, suppose that the consciousness, memories etc. of a criminal are somehow transferred from the criminal’s body (A) to the body of a saint (B), and vice versa; would we say that A is still the criminal, and B the saint? Locke argues that we would not, for A would lack the criminal’s memories and dispositions, and would instead be possessed of a consciousness continuous with that of the saint, with its attendant memories and dispositions; rather, since B would now be possessed of the criminal’s continuous consciousness, we’d want to say that B is now the criminal, and A the saint. But then it follows that the person is distinct from the human being, and that the former, not the latter, is the locus of moral responsibility (for although the crime was committed ‘with’ A, we would not now judge A to be the criminal, but B).

Indeed, Locke argues that the person cannot be identified with any substance, for we can similarly conceive of the same consciousness (say, the criminal’s) moving among different particulars of the same substance (e.g. from one body to another), or even among particulars of different substances (e.g. from a body to a soul). Hence, the person is to be identified with continuity of consciousness alone.

So, did Locke get it right?

Reid famously raised a problem with Locke’s account of personal identity: suppose a man at 80 can remember what he did at 40, and at 40 could remember what he did at 10, but at 80 cannot remember what he did at 10. On Locke’s account, it follows that the 10 year old and the 80 year old are identical with the 40 year old (since, in both cases, they share one continuous consciousness), but that the 10 year old is not identical with the 80 year old (since the latter has no memory of the former). Can Locke’s account handle this objection?

One response (by Quinton) involves supposing that memories count as the memories of the same person if they stand in an ancestral relation to one another, i.e. if the 80 year old remembers what he did at 40, then as long as the 40 year old remembers what the 10 year old did, the 80 year old and the 10 year old are the same person (i.e. the memories of the 10 year old are ancestors of the memories of the 80 year old via the memories of the 40 year old).

Another problem was raised by Butler: If a crucial element of Locke’s criterion of personal identity is memory, then the account seems circular, since one could only identify past memories as the memories of the same person if one presupposes that it is indeed the same person who is in possession of those memories; yet that is precisely the claim — i.e. that is the same person — that the appeal to memory is supposed to support.

Shoemaker’s response is to redefine the relevant notion of memory in an attempt to rid it of the elements that lead to the circularity. He suggests that we instead appeal to ‘quasi-memory’, which could be understood as memory sans one’s awareness of having personally experienced the recalled event. Hence, the memorial element of Locke’s account of personal identity can be redefined in terms of quasi-memory to avoid the circularity objection.

But these are standard objections with their standard responses. Again, did Locke get it right? It seems to me as if there’s one sense in which he did.

Suppose Jones not only (somehow) lost all his memories, but also the dispositions that made the act of robbing a bank possible; instead, he is now, unlike his former self, a kind, caring and law abiding person. Would you be inclined to think that the new Jones is the same person as the old Jones? One way to answer this question is to answer another, decidedly Lockean one: Would you hold the new Jones responsible for the old Jones’s actions? I suspect that you wouldn’t; but then, at least in one relevant sense, you wouldn’t take the new Jones to be the same person as the old Jones. So, while Locke may not have provided us with the necessary and sufficient conditions of persistent personhood, he seems to have developed a sufficient condition, at least in cases that directly concern moral and legal responsibility.

 

Harvey asked:

Is there free will?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

It very much depends on what one means by ‘free will.’ I don’t actually like the term ‘free will’ at all. It traces back to a theological concept of contra-causal (i.e., independent of any cause) ability to make decisions, which supposedly is the get-out-of-jail-free card available to theologians who are embarrassed by the problem of evil and how to reconcile it with the alleged existence of an all-powerful and all-good god. I’m a scientist and naturalist philosopher, so I think the idea of contra-causal anything is just plain silly. I think that a much better way to talk about the subject at hand is by using the preferred term among cognitive scientists: volition, i.e. the ability of human beings (and possibly other animals) to make autonomous (not contra-causal!) decisions exercising their agency.

Either way, classically there are three fundamental ways to think about free will/ volition from a philosophical perspective: compatibilism, deterministic incompatibilism, and libertarian incompatibilism. Each comes in a variety of flavors, but we’ll stick to the fundamentals. Beginning with the second one, deterministic incompatibilism is the idea that — since the universe is deterministic (meaning, it behaves according to the laws of physics, without exceptions) — then humans are not ‘free’ to do anything at all. We have the mistaken impression that we make autonomous decisions, but that’s just an illusion. There are neither free lunches nor free will.

Libertarian incompatibilism has nothing to do with the political meaning (in the US especially) of the term ‘libertarianism.’ Rather, it affirms our sense that we are agents capable of autonomous decision making, and concludes that if this is incompatible with determinism, so much the worse for determinism. (As it turns out, though, even if the laws of nature were irreducibly stochastic — as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics — one still couldn’t have free will independently of such laws). Relatively few philosophers, and even fewer scientists, hold to this bold position, because it seems to flatly contradict much of what we have learned from science about how the world works.

Which leaves us with compatibilism. This is the idea that we can have our cake and eat it too, in a sense. Compatibilists accept that the universe is a deterministic system, but they also agree that human beings are agents with the ability of making their own decisions. How is this possible? Think of your brain, at the least in part, as a type of evolved biological machinery to make good enough decisions about your survival and reproduction. A functional human brain makes better decisions than a less functional one (e.g., compulsive gamblers, or people with different types of severe neurological damage). It also makes better decisions than the less sophisticated brains of other species, largely because we seem to be unique (on this planet) in our ability — under ideal circumstances — to reflect on the available options before actually taking a particular course of action.

In recent years I have been developing a fourth position, which you won’t find in philosophy textbooks, but here it is anyway. I call it epistemological agnosticism. It basically says that the conclusion that the universe is deterministic is metaphysical in nature, and — currently at the least — not really in line with scientific epistemology, i.e., it cannot actually be confirmed or falsified on the basis of empirical evidence. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, the most fundamental physical theory we have so far, quantum mechanics, is both incomplete (we know this for a fact) and amenable to either deterministic or stochastic interpretations. So, determinism, contra popular conception, is not a theoretical necessity dictated by fundamental physics, yet.

On the other hand, even if physicists did come up with a fundamental deterministic theory, they still wouldn’t be able to deploy it to contribute anything meaningful to the understanding of a huge range of complex phenomena, from biological to social ones. These phenomena, of course, are compatible with fundamental physics (they better!), but it is an open question whether fundamental physics is all that is needed to explain them.

How could that possibly be? Because it is possible that there are true ‘emergent properties,’ i.e., properties of natural systems that manifest themselves only at certain levels of complexity, and which cannot be reduced to lower levels of explanation (again, while being compatible with them). True, or ‘strong,’ emergence is rather unpopular these days among physicists and philosophers, but biologists and other scientists have been considering it for the simple reason that in order to explain the phenomena they are interested in they need to deploy concepts and theories at a much higher level than quantum mechanics (e.g., the theory of evolution, or a number of principles in ecology).

So, on the one hand we have a strong metaphysical claim: the universe is a deterministic system. On the other hand we have the epistemic need to deploy different theories at distinct levels of explanations of sub-systems of that very same universe (like biological organisms, ecosystems, etc.). In other words, at the moment, metaphysically speaking we are making a claim that does not align with our current epistemology. Since I think it is always a good idea to have one’s metaphysics go hand in hand with one’s epistemology, I remain agnostic about true emergence, and therefore about ‘free will’ (because human volition could be yet another example of emergent properties of matter, like phase transitions in solid state physics; or ecosystem functions in ecology). Notice that this is not an argument in favor of emergent properties, but only of their possibility. And it certainly isn’t an argument in favor of contra-causal free will: even if true emergent properties exist, they still govern causal interactions among components of a system, and still represent a type of natural law.

 

Sara asked:

Is Baudrillard a philosopher?

Answer by Sanja Ivic

Yes, Jean Baudrillard is a philosopher, although he rejects fixed forms of identifications. Jean Baudrillard is often considered as a postmodern philosopher, whose work combines philosophy, social theory and cultural metaphysics. Although Baudrillard was associated with postmodernism, he didn’t identified himself with any particular discipline. The same can be argued for some other postmodern philosophers, who reject all kinds of classifications and sharp distinctions. Baudrillard’s work was influenced by Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Marshal McLuhan, Marcel Mauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Mikhaiylovich Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx.

Jean Baudrillard studied for a PhD in sociology and taught sociology at the University of Paris X in Nanterre. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of his work, Baudrillard is often characterized as both philosopher and sociologist. However, his work is closer to philosophy of culture than to sociology. In the later period of his life he was a Professor of philosophy of culture and media criticism at the European Graduate School.

In his earler works The Object System Baudrillard supplements Marxian critique of political economy by semiological theories of sign. In his later works Baudrillard has developed philosophy of the symbolic realm, which has the power to create and recreate the world. He develops this philosophy in his works: The Mirror of Production; For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign; Simulations; America; Symbolic Exchange and Death; The Transparency of Evil; Simulacra and Simulation; Seduction; The Illusion of the End; The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; The Perfect Crime; The Vital Illusion and Impossible Exchange.

“What Baudrillard calls ‘the symbolic’ (…) puts an end to all disjunctions between life and death, soul and body, humans and nature, the real and non-real. ‘The symbolic’ refers to a mode of thought beyond the binary oppositions of the terms of Western metaphysics and rationality, and in symbolic operations. These terms lose their distinctiveness and penetrate each other (…) He claims that all such metaphysical divisions contain the projection of an imaginary by its opposite by the privileged term. Thus, in the partition human/nature, nature (objective, material) is only the imaginary of the human thus conceptualized. (…) Each term of the disjunction excludes the other which becomes its imaginary.”[1]

Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy is based on the two main concepts ‘simulation’ and ‘hiperreality’. He coined the word ‘simulacrum’, which blurs the sharp distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’. This distinction cannot be made in postmodern realities.

Reference

1. Kellner, Douglas, 1989, From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, Polity Press: Cambridge, p. 105.

 

Cassie asked:

Is it wrong to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality?

Answer by Graham Hackett

By ‘discriminate’ I take you to mean different treatment of people on the basis of some real or perceived differences between them. This treatment could range from different distributions of goods to different people, all the way to denying the right to certain groups to live freely, or even to live at all.

You also ask ‘Is it wrong…’ which suggests that you are asking if there is any valid ethical justification for such discrimination. This would automatically rule out any defences of discrimination based on political or social convenience. It has never been easy to defend an argument for discrimination against a group on the basis that this would please those who are not members of the group.

You may remember the UK court case which was bought by a gay couple refused accommodation by a hotel owner who disapproved of homosexuality. In this case, the gay couple desired a service (a hotel room) which they were refused on the basis of their sexual orientation. The court upheld their claim that they were discriminated against, and that religious objections were not a valid reason for the different treatment.

There is nothing inherently wrong in the idea of discrimination. For example, it would not be difficult to construct an argument for discrimination in favour of a certain group (such as gays or blacks) on the grounds that this is a kind of restorative justice to compensate for past inequalities. This is the so-called ‘positive discrimination’. It is controversial, because discrimination in favour of group A might be interpreted as discrimination against group B, if we view the problem in a zero sum sense.

Nevertheless, an argument can be made that such positive discrimination is ethically justified.

It is difficult to see how a valid ethical argument could be made for discrimination against a group on the basis of sexual orientation (or colour). Those who discriminate often seem to tacitly acknowledge this by quoting other reasons for the discrimination (that homosexuals are prone to be pedophiles, or that black people are less intelligent and capable than non-blacks, etc). Bernard Williams wrote , in connection with colour discrimination

“If any reasons are given at all, they will be reasons which seek to correlate the fact of blackness with certain other considerations… such as insensitivity, brute stupidity, irreducible irresponsibility etc.” (The Idea of Equality, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society LVI 1955-6).

We could easily rephrase this comment and make a similar observation for homosexuality. So many expressed views in favour of discrimination often masquerade behind spuriously concocted reasons. To quote Williams again;

“[T]he Nazi anthropologists who tried to construct theories of Aryanism were paying, in very poor coin, the homage of irrationality to reason.”

If we are to defend discrimination then we must be prepared

(a) To find, for every difference in the way people are treated, a reason for this difference;

(b) To say why the reason quoted is relevant to the case.

This is the approach suggested by Bernard Williams in the work cited. Clearly, it would be unacceptable just to say ‘I support discrimination against these people because their sexual orientation is different to that of the majority’, without also saying why this is a relevant reason for the difference in treatment. I believe that arguments for discrimination against gays would fail the relevance test.

 

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