Robert asked:

What’s the difference between a rule-utilitarian and a Kantian? Is there really a difference?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This question is really a big area for debate and a small article such as this one, will never do it justice. However, I will attempt to give the questioner a few helpful pointers.

At first glance, rule based-utilitarianism and deontology (of which Kantianism is a famous variant) may seem to be similar because they both seemingly need ‘rules’ to operate: but there are differences and a major one will be explained.

For me, the difference lies where each particular school of thought places value. For instance, the utilitarian, as a consequentialist, will wish to achieve an end-state which may require rules to achieve this. However, the Deontologist, who may value wholesome interactions between people in their daily life, would wish for codes of conduct to be applied continually. Hence, there may be both a noticeable time difference and a geographical difference when each of the valued goods is realised: the utilitarian’s goal may be realised eventually and distantly, whilst the deontologist’s goal should be realised universally and constantly.

When giving examples of how utilitarians and deontologist differ, often very ludicrous examples are offered; and self-confessed utilitarians or deontologists are prone to use such examples even though they are unlikely to face such dilemmas in their own lives. A typical example is as follows: Sharon wishes to kill Tracey and one may avoid an act of murder by pretending not to know Tracey’s whereabouts. Here, the utilitarian may lie about the matter without any qualms; viewing murder as a potentially wrongful end-state. Contrast this with the deontologist who may believe that one should always act honestly as lying to another person is reprehensibly using them as a means to an end (although it should be noted, that in these cases like this, some variants of deontology will allow some acts that save a potential victim’s life).

Examples like this are often aired and may be found to be quite irksome as they strictly define persons within a single philosophy and do not reflect reality: when faced with this situation the hardened deontologist is likely to momentarily become a utilitarian.

Concerns for realism aside, for me, the important point is what one values the most: an end-state or rightful behaviour. To this end, deontologists and utilitarians alike may construct as many ‘rules’ as they desire to ensure the attainment of their respective desiderata and so focusing upon ‘rules’ is relatively unimportant.

Here, I have attempted, in a very simplistic, manner to demonstrate an important difference of two schools of philosophy. For further reading, in a similar simplistic vein, the reader may like to refer to Ben Dupré’s 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (London : Quercus); which features a very good section introducing ethics. After this, the reader may like to peruse James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London: McGraw- Hill). I hope this helps.

Seymour asked:

Who, in your opinion, is the most important philosopher of all time?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In my opinion, Aristotle.

To see why, read my article at:

Jerry asked:

I’m a 22 year old university student, double-majoring in philosophy and computer science, about to enter my senior year. I find my philosophy classes intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, my computer science classes somewhat difficult and tedious. Wary of the job market for philosophers, my original plan was to find work in the computer science field, but this prospect is becoming less appealing with each course. Can you offer any guidance for a would-be philosopher looking to make himself employable in the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wrote an answer on this topic a while ago (see That would have been before the ‘Ask a Philosopher’ WordPress site was launched, around 2011. So it’s worth looking at the question again.

You can compare this answer with the previous one. I said then, ‘There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option.’ However, let’s assume that you want a decent-sized family, not to mention a nice family car, a good standard of living, in other words a good income.

So far as employability is concerned you’d be surprised to learn that Philosophy is right up there with the wide range of jobs in computing. You’d have to make more of an effort to sell yourself to an employer, make the case why your training in Philosophy is useful to them. An ad agency, for example. Or commodities trading. Could you do it? Do you relish the challenge? All that’s required is self-belief and a modicum of chutzpah.

You’re not seriously considering an academic career, are you? Please, don’t. One of the great scandals of the academic world is the slag heap of wasted talent, Philosophy PhDs hired for a year, or two at the most, then unable to get a job because university departments are on a tight budget and either can’t commit to a longer-term post, or, more cynically, can get the pick of the latest crop of PhDs for less money.

Philosophy and computing looks like a promising combination for the AI field. Problem is, the AI people need ‘true believers’, they don’t want to hear all the reasons why their project might end in abject failure. The mentality, ‘If it walks and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck,’ prevails regardless of the fact that, in principle, a Turing Test can be beaten with a large enough look-up table or Eliza program.

Philosophy has always had a use for logic, but logic worshippers have no place in philosophy. Sad to say, the discipline is dying now because of a lack of imagination and a surfeit of ‘logic’.

I say, stick to your guns but put as much effort as you can into your computer science classes. Don’t look for an easy way out. It’s always good to have a second string!

Santi asked:

In my view, the most fundamental question is whether there is Mystery or not, by which I mean whether one believes that the closing of the circle of ‘perfect’ knowledge (Laplacian-style) is achievable, which is no less ‘perfect’ for including probabilistic or non-deterministic laws, and of course I mean achievable not just to us (humans) but to any conceivable intelligence with any conceivable technology.

I don’t think the closing of the circle of perfect knowledge is achievable. Thus, I believe in Mystery. I know this belief is an article of faith, based only on intuition, however ‘obvious’ this intuition may be to me. I am aware that it is just a personal preference. How could people holding the contrary view say their view is not based on ‘faith’ and believe in a theory of everything? What are the premises or axioms a theory of everything should be based on? Are they not articles of faith ultimately? Shouldn’t one have to ‘step outside’ of everything to be able to confirm it is everything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you are looking for something that can never be known, all you need to do is shake a pair of dice in a closed cup. Then shake them again. What was the number of that first shake? We know that it was between 2 (a pair of 1s) and 12 (two 6s). Beyond that, we enter the realm of the Unknowable.

Should we care? Yes, if the question is about the nature of Truth because what that simple experiment shows is that we are committed to a notion of truth that transcends all possible verification. ‘The dice fell on 7,’ I say, knowing that what I said might be true — or it might not. No-one will never know.

(If you want to imagine some improbable scenario about invisible aliens or miraculous angels, or a tiny video camera inside the cup go ahead but then you’ve changed the initial conditions of the experiment.)

A Laplacian Supermind is impossible if current physical theory is correct because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. So you can put that aside. But what about a Theory of Everything?

I’m on your side with this.

The theory Einstein searched for in vain, the theory that the thousands of CERN researchers still hope for, may be achievable — who knows? I wish them the best of luck. But suppose we had that theory. What could possibly explain YOUR existence? I don’t mean the person whose parents named them ‘Santi’, the person who wrote the interesting question about Mystery. I mean YOU.

YOU might not have existed, everything else in the universe remaining the same. Nothing could conceivably explain (and I include all ‘God’ stories and the like) why there is YOU rather than no-YOU.

I don’t hold this view as a matter of faith. It’s a matter of simple proof (as I remarked in a previous answer, a proof relying an Ancient Greek principle, ‘Ou Mallon’ or ‘Insufficient Reason’). Given two identical universes, there is no more reason why YOU should exist in one universe rather than the other universe.

Regardless of what we might one day know or not know about the universe, YOU exist without reason.

That’s what I call Mystery.

Gerald asked:

Do you believe plants are as aware as humans about their surroundings and themselves? If not, why not?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Personally, I do not believe that plants are as aware as humans about anything; whether this is their surroundings or themselves. For me, plants do not need to have such a highly developed faculty for awareness and this has been dictated by the survival strategy they have employed as organisms. In essence, their survival strategy requires them to produce many potential offspring to ensure their continuance; in turn this requires plants to have a facet, possibly what we may even call a quality, which we may refer to as ‘unawareness’. It should also be noted that this strategy is successful as plants continue to flourish and have existed for aeons.

Here, I will attempt to demonstrate how plants have benefitted from a level of unawareness. But prior to this, if we consider a concept such as awareness to be akin to consciousness, then it should be realised that many philosophers would consider it difficult to transfer the very subjective, human experience of consciousness to other organisms. That said, some would be tempted to ascribe senses, such as awareness to ‘animals’ rather than vegetation; just exactly where this defining line may be drawn is an area for debate and as a starting point the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for ‘Animal Consciousness’ ( Additionally, it may also be noted that a few philosophers are willing to entertain the possibility that plants and single-celled organisms possess a form of consciousness; notably Alexandra Nagel in his ‘Are Plants Conscious?’ ( Moreover, the reader may like to read the article ‘There is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence’ by Simon Worrall in National Geographic (

However, let us imagine a plant, whose seeds are distributed in the wind by whichever way the wind blows. Now, if the plant was aware that for its offspring to flourish, its seeds would need to be distributed to the west as the east was unsuitable, then it would only release its seeds to an easterly wind. But if the climate changed, and the west became unsuitable whilst the east became verdant, then all of its offspring would perish. Additionally, if plants repeatedly reacted to such events in their environs it may divert resources from a tried and tested survival strategy. Hence, it is in a plant’s interests to be unaware; but more than this, it may be argued that plants must have a necessary and sufficient level of unawareness in order to survive and procreate.

That said, it would seem that plants are aware, in some manner, that their immediate circumstances are not ideal: for instance, when they stretch and writhe to maximise their exposure to sunlight; in a similar manner, plants rejuvenate themselves after being predated by herbivores. But these local tribulations are probably a limit to their awareness and their survival strategy rests for its success upon many other compatriots germinating in suitable conditions and an abundance of plants that predators cannot deplete. Overall, it should be realised that plants easily accomplish all of the functions they need to survive but seemingly without the necessity of a highly developed faculty for awareness.

Joshua asked:

What is the philosophical Zombie? How does it apply to the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you want to read up on the literature for the ‘philosophical zombie’ a good starting point would be the Stanford Encyclopedia article by Robert Kirk.

I won’t venture into a summary or critique of that article. Instead, I will give my take on the zombie question and you can compare the two to see which you like better.

There are two connected points raised by the ‘zombie’ idea in philosophy. The first has to do with how I know that another person has an inner life or consciousness (the so-called ‘problem of other minds’). The second arises in an argument against the idea that consciousness is nothing more than a process in the physical brain, or ‘physicalism’ as this theory is called.

However, we need to not lose our bearings. In the ‘real world’ there are no zombies, philosophical or otherwise. It’s a fantasy notion. Dr Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s novel is a zombie, i.e. a reanimated corpse (strictly speaking, the monster is stitched together from several corpses but the difference isn’t important).

You know that you’re dealing with a zombie because its behaviour just isn’t normal. It walks in a jerky way. When you shoot it with your pistol (as in the classic Romero movies) it just keeps on coming. But does it have to be that way? If we’re into the realms of fantasy, couldn’t a zombie be very hard to tell from a human being? or maybe impossible? Maybe I am a zombie. Maybe you are a zombie.

If I am a zombie, how come I am writing this? Zombies can’t speak let alone write. Ah, but a philosopher will tell you that the point is that the ‘essence’ of zombiehood isn’t in abilities or behaviour but rather what’s going on inside.

If I can’t tell from behaviour or any physical signs whether or not a person is a zombie, then I could be the only human being with consciousness. Maybe everyone else on Earth is a zombie. Then again, there could be someone just like me on ‘Twin Earth’ orbiting on the opposite side of the Sun who is a zombie. Physically, we are the same but I have consciousness and my zombie doppelganger does not.

I think this is nonsense. Sheer piffle.

How do I know this? I am going to ask my zombie double on Twin Earth what he thinks. He and I are physically the same, behave exactly the same way, say exactly the same things. So, in response to my question, my zombie double will say, ‘I know I have consciousness but maybe you’re a zombie!’

We both say, ‘I know I have consciousness’, because our brains work in exactly the same way, producing exactly the same physical results. I can try as hard as I like to ‘point’ to my own inner state of consciousness while I am saying, ‘I know I have consciousness’, but in terms of cause and effect the words you hear have nothing to do with what I am trying to describe. They don’t come from ‘inside’, they come from my brain. Something (I have no idea what) in my physical brain makes them come. Whatever is going on ‘inside me’ is not playing any role in this story.

That doesn’t absolutely disprove the zombie idea, but it comes close. Close enough to say that any philosopher who bandies about the word ‘zombie’ doesn’t know what they’re saying. They imagine something, but what they imagine amounts to no more than a mute gesture, like pointing to your head with an urgent expression on your face. Inside! Inside!

I noted that if there could be a philosophical zombie, then physicalism is false. If there could be a zombie, then consciousness is something extra, on top of anything physical. However, it would be an obvious logical fallacy to conclude that because the idea of a philosophical zombie is nonsensical, physicalism is true after all. That doesn’t follow.

Let’s look again at my doppelganger on Twin Earth. He isn’t a zombie. He has consciousness just like me. But even though he is writing these very same words as I am writing at this very moment, he is not I. He is another ‘I’. That shows something. We have two identical physical beings, two ‘I’s. I could be one or the other. But why should I be either? What could possibly explain why one of these beings, but not the other, is I? It can’t be anything physical, by hypothesis. (The form of argument I’ve used here was known in Ancient philosophy as ou mallon, or the ‘no more reason’ principle.)

If physicalism can’t explain why I am I, then physicalism can’t be true. That’s the conclusion I came to in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways. There is more on this in my previous answer, below.

Books by Geoffrey Klempner

=== Solve this riddle ===


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