Mason asked:

Why isn’t death something one suffers from?

Helena asked:

Is it for the best that people eventually die?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m going to answer Mason’s and Helena’s questions together because they both concern the problem of our fear of death. (See my article Is it rational to fear death? and my YouTube video What is death?)

The short and boring answer to Mason’s question comes from from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: ‘Death is nothing to us … It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.’ To ‘suffer’ from something (e.g. a bee sting, an amputation) you need to be alive. Death as such, as opposed to the process — possibly long and agonizing — of dying isn’t something you suffer because at the very point where death begins, ‘you’ are no more.

So far as the danger that Malthus predicted of the world population increasing at a geometric rate is concerned, it is very definitely a good thing that people eventually die — good for everyone else on the planet! But how can it be ‘good’ for you? Wouldn’t you prefer to live forever if you had the choice? That’s Helena’s question.

Thomas Nagel has written a very good essay on this in his book Mortal Questions, 1979: ‘Death’ (posted at

One question that Nagel considers that has gripped me is the seeming paradox of the unappealingness of the thought that I might just go on for ever and ever, and the desire, at any given time, to go on living. Let’s say I’m convinced by the argument that life would get extremely boring and repetitive after, say, a thousand years. I would not want to live as long as that. And yet, as each new day begins, I sincerely hope that I do not die today.

In practice, as the centuries wear on, and you become increasingly aware of your miserable finitude and the limits of what you are able to achieve given your limited powers, the depression would increase to the point where you felt impelled to kill yourself. The maths of this situation (which is parallel to a thunder clap, or tearing a piece of paper) has been well researched: it’s called catastrophe theory. The point is that when you do finally turn the gun on yourself, you don’t do so for a ‘reason’ (which has existed possibly for hundreds of years). You just finally snap.

But what about this claim — possibly contentious — that even granted immortality, I am a limited being with limited possibilities? Surely (this is a point that has been made to me) if we are going into the realms of magic, and immortality is a magical notion (you even survive the death of the universe and the birth of a new universe!) then why couldn’t you magically acquire greater and greater intellectual powers, so that you were fully able to make use of your indefinitely extended life span?

Imagine what you like. The question is, are you imagining YOU? Are you still there, or has something over time taken your place (and perhaps fondly preserves your memories, as one keeps faded photographs in a family album). The god-lie entity that exists now, after hundreds of thousands of years, isn’t you. ‘It’ merely remembers another being’s ‘memories’, the being that you were.


Ngole asked:

How can human beings marries animals or marry fellow man?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

An intriguing question. First, we have to ask, What is marriage for?

Two individuals take a solemn vow to one another to be partners throughout their lives — ‘until death do us part’.

Marriage is typically consummated by sexual relations, but it need not be. According to, ‘You can annul a marriage if… it wasn’t consummated — you haven’t had sex with the person you married since the wedding (doesn’t apply for same sex couples).’

The parenthetical qualification seems to introduce two concepts of ‘marriage’, which may be acceptable in law in terms of the legal consequences of marriage for inheritance or tax purposes, but seems wrong in principle. The idea that consummation is essential to ‘real’ marriage (i.e. between a man and a woman) is archaic and has no place in a modern legal system.

The exception also gives the lie to the claim that gay couples in the UK can now call themselves ‘married’. They can use the word. The legal benefits are sorted out. Yet the law still states, archaically, that there are two kinds of ‘marriage’, not one, those that can and those that can’t be annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

Marriage may be for the sake of having children, or at least conducted with the prospect of children, but again this is not necessary, for various reasons which we need not go into. In the UK, you can’t annul a marriage on grounds of infertility, whether or not this was known in advance.

So why is it necessary that one marries another human being? Let’s say that I am a hunter, and I am in love with my seven year old mare whom I have owned since she was a yearling. We’ve been together through thick and thin. I want to get married and I think she would be happy with the idea — if only she could talk and understood my marriage proposal.

But there’s the rub. Marriage is a vow undertaken by two individuals to one another. You can’t make a vow if you lack the mental capacity to grasp what that means. My mare will never comprehend my feelings for her, even though I know in some way she appreciates the loving way in which I groom and feed her.

Of course this is ridiculous. But I sense, from the tone of your question, that you think that a man marrying another man is in the same category as a man marrying a horse.

If that is the case, poor you.


Kevin asked:

We’re going to have a oral defense in our philosophy class. However, the statement assigned for us to discuss or defend is, “Man is semi-autonomous.” How to defend this statement? Please help

Answer by Paul Fagan

Now political philosophy would have something to say on this matter. Particularly those philosophers who criticise liberalism and are often grouped under the umbrella term ‘communitarians’. Firstly, they may note that individuals gain their language, values and customs from a greater society around them: they don’t invent a society all by themselves! Secondly, they may say that individuals need a surrounding society in which to ground their own self-perception: it is therefore logically impossible to view yourself as fully autonomous. Thirdly, they may argue that it is society gives persons ’ends’ or goals to realise. (A three-pronged criticism of this type, aimed at the liberal notions of individuality, has been more thoroughly dealt with by Will Kymlicka in his book Contemporary Political Philosophy; particularly the chapter entitled ‘Communitarianism’).

In an attempt to deny that society restrains an individual’s life, the advocate of liberalism may remark that she has the rights to free political association; can listen to whatever music she likes and own property. Don’t these constitute autonomy? Possibly, but this all depends upon how we value and measure the concept of ‘autonomy’.

To demonstrate the communitarians’ argument and make it more tangible, a person may have the freedoms to buy a good such as a bicycle for instance. But that same person would need a surrounding society to teach her the skills to ride it; furthermore, that same person would need a society to build and supply a bicycle in the first place! Additionally, the society would give the person self-perception as a cyclist. But all along, society will have provided the notion that owning a bicycle is advantageous.

Hence, whenever we think or act we are constantly guided by a formative society. There may be some philosophers who would argue that as it is impossible to completely detach yourself from society, then a state of ‘semi-autonomy’ is all that the individual, who wishes to jettison the trappings of society, may hope to achieve.

Tom asked:

In claiming that Socrates was not concerned with the metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe (which led to many of these types of philosophers being called heretics), mainly because he simply did not know the answers to those questions and wasn’t good at discovering them, he did not want to be confused with… what?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Well, I hate to say it, but this is another pretty dumb instructor’s essay question. You really don’t need to read my answer, just read Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. (Try hard to suppress your tears when you reach the end. Plato really knew how to lard it on.)

Socrates didn’t want to be confused with the ‘physikoi’, the thinkers such as Anaxagoras who speculated about the nature of the physical universe. These were not ‘metaphysical’ questions (where did your instructor get that idea?).

If you are looking for ‘metaphysical’ inquiry, then the Presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus would the most relevant — but their theories were the precursors to Plato’s own theory of Forms, which he developed from Socrates’ teaching about the soul and the virtues.

Socrates’ concern is with ‘Man’. (Women, as distinct from men, weren’t really a topic.) However, his concern with human beings is not ‘humanistic’ in the modern sense. The soul of man is ‘akin to the Forms’ he says in the Phaedo, that is how philosophers are able to obtain knowledge of the Forms through the inquiry which Plato called ‘dialectic’ (again, modelled on the example of Socrates’ method of philosophical interrogation — the  ‘elenchus’).

This is metaphysics, in its most scary, full-blooded form!

In Aristophanes’ Comedy Clouds, the figure of Socrates is lampooned as a typical example of the ‘physical philosopher’, which shows how little the Athenians understood the revolution that was taking place. After the death of Socrates, Plato set out to set the record straight. He succeeded brilliantly, largely because of his immense literary gifts. (According to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book Plato’s Progress 1966, Plato’s dialogues were performed to live audiences.)

In the process, the great Greek Sophists, such as Gorgias and Protagoras — keen admirers of the physikoi — were abused and stigmatized, and forever banned from the Academy.

I’m sorry to say, the wellsprings of philosophy in the Western tradition are thoroughly fascist. (Karl Popper said it first, in The Open Society and its Enemies 1945.) Today, we have academic philosophy — fascism with a liberal face.


Colin asked:

What is the definition of ‘definition’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Ah, what a great question! I don’t recall anyone asking this (going back to when Ask a Philosopher was launched in 1999). However, earlier this year in an answer to a question on the difference between ‘real’ and ‘nominal’ definitions, Hubertus Fremerey states:

“My definition of ‘definition’ would be: A method of bringing some order into the boundless chaos of experiences — sensual and intellectual.”

This is a nice idea, but to my ear falls short of the requirements of a definition. Fremerey goes on to say:

“The whole concept of ‘real definition’ is a misnomer, and even ‘nominal definition’ is. What you have as primary givens are experiences, and then you first attach labels to them and if needed you re-define the (sensual or rational) objects in the context of a theory.”

This is Fremerey’s ‘take’ on the question. A take isn’t a definition, although the way you take something can be relevant to formulating a definition. A case could be made that when analytic philosophers ‘define’ concepts (the concept of a person, or causation, or event, or etc.) what they are really doing is offering takes or theories. What they are looking for is an insightful view of the concept in question and how it fits in to our conceptual scheme.

A notorious case would be the fruitless attempt to define ‘knowledge’, with ever more elaborate sets of conditions, designed to cope with every possible counterexample. A theory of knowledge is what one is after, but a theory doesn’t necessarily require that you give a set of conditions that uniquely identify the concept in question.

So let’s narrow the question and concentrate on definitions rather than theories. A definition of a term should give you sufficient information to be able to use that term successfully and correctly, provided only that you understand the terms used in the definition. The Oxford English Dictionary (‘on Historical Principles’) is a model of this approach, which offers examples of the use of the word in question, especially early or first uses, as well as a sketch of its etymology.

A popular question in English-speaking philosophy in the 50s or 60s would have been, ‘What is the difference between a philosophical analysis and a dictionary definition?’ Now that I know how, e.g., the English word ‘person’ is used in normal conversation, its derivation from the Latin ‘persona’, what more do I need to grasp the concept of a person?

Let’s stick with this example. Suppose that the predicted breakthroughs in AI come to pass, and the first intelligent creatures with artificial brains roll of the production line. Are they persons? Whom should you ask, a philosopher or a lexicographer?

Imagine a future dystopian society where AI creatures are exploited and abused because they are not regarded as ‘persons’ by the general public despite the objections of philosophers. Or, alternatively, a society which happily embraces these mechanical beings into the ‘human race’ despite the objections of philosophers. A lexicographer is interested in how a thing is regarded, without questioning too hard the basis for the belief in question. The philosopher is the one who asks, ‘But is it really?’

As stated above, the philosopher may only be able to offer a take, not a definition. But a take can be sufficient to defeat a false definition.

What is a definition of ‘definition’? There is more than one kind of definition. I have given two, for the sake of contrast, but there are probably more (consider, e.g. the use of definition in mathematics). If there are two kinds of definition, then there are two (or possibly four!) definitions of ‘definition’, and if there are three, then etc. The point, however, is to decide what kind of definition we (as philosophers) are primarily interested in.


Jasbir asked:

What are the strengths and weaknesses of logical determinism?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

A typical philosophy instructor’s question. You take any theory or view X, and then tack on, ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses of…’ without any thought to whether or not it makes sense to ask that question in the case of this particular X.

Logical determinism is not a thesis, theory or claim — true or false — although it appears to be one. Today, as I write this answer, it is Thursday. Let’s say that tomorrow, Friday, either Britain will declare war on Germany or it is not the case that Britain will declare war on Germany. It is not important how probable or improbable the two alternatives are. We can state, as a matter of logical necessity, that there is no other possibility. One of these two alternatives must be the case.

‘So what?’ you may very well ask. Have I given you any important information? No. One cannot deny the law of excluded middle ‘P or not-P’ without self-contradiction. It is irrelevant what proposition one substitutes for ‘P’ — whether, for example it is a past or future tense statement — the result is the same. If you exhaust all the possibilities then you exhaust all the possibilities. Nothing else is possible.

The reason for taking an interest in logical determinism is the false belief that it entails fatalism. If it is true that tomorrow Britain will declare war on Germany, then even if Germany agrees to all Britain’s demands and pays an extra 100 billion Euros to sweeten the deal, Britain will declare war on Germany. If it is true that tomorrow Britain will declare war on Germany, then even if a giant meteorite destroys the Earth before midnight, Britain will declare war on Germany.

Obviously, this is just silly.

Somehow, implicitly — and illicitly — a further move has been made that makes the claim ‘P or not-P’ seem to say more than it actually does say. The thought goes something like this. When I consider the statement, ‘Britain will declare war on Germany’ I am picturing a possible fact, that either exists or it doesn’t exist. The fact is ‘out there’, in the future, waiting to happen, one way or the other, like a statue waiting for the unveiling ceremony. It is as if the future history of the universe is written indelibly in marble or granite, just waiting to be revealed.

That is just a picture in the fatalist’s head. It has no meaning beyond that.

Let’s say that a row over the EU is boiling over, to the point where it is looking increasingly likely that Britain will declare war on Germany. War seems inevitable. Yet there is still the possibility that it can be averted. Britain’s declaration of war won’t be a fact until it happens. If you say, ‘Either war will be declared or not,’ you are not saying anything. If you say, ‘The decision is a fact now, which nothing can alter or prevent,’ then you are making a false metaphysical statement.


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' Kindle book by Geoffrey Klempner


September 2016
« Aug    

Ask a Philosopher home page

'Zombie with qualia' by Glyn Hughes
counter for wordpress