Shane asked:

What I am about to say is a desperate call for help. i am reaching out to you so that I may be assisted with this dear worry I have been plagued with for several years. Basically, I am paranoid about what will happen to me after I die. Because of argument amongst equally learned, intelligent capable philosophers, I cant figure out what the afterlife (if there is one) will consist of. The reason this is an obsession and highly alarming to me is because several different religions state you must believe such and such in order to escape hell (eternal torture). You can’t simultaneously be a follower of incompatible religions, so it’s like you’re taking an eternal chance in believing anything. Moreover, it seems the superiority of one religion over the other cannot be determined. Philosophers argue about this stuff night and day, and the arguments never end… nothing is ever decided for certain. No one can be sure of anything. Must I believe that when I die, I’ll more than likely go to some sort of hell? My morals aren’t terrific, you know. This is driving me mad. It is something I dwell on ALL the time. Life is so terribly fragile, and any of us could go at any time. I’m at a higher risk of death than a lot because of heart disease in my genes.

What is a man supposed to do in a predicament like this?

You probably have beliefs about the afterlife, but how can you be SURE of them when you are aware of the other equally knowledgeable minds that don’t believe as you do that have solid arguments for their own world view and against your own? You cant say that you’re somehow superior to a whole mass of intelligent minds!

Answer by Craig Skinner

I’m not sure I can help, but I’ll try.

You nail the problem nicely — ‘no one can be sure of anything’, but then ask ‘what is a man supposed to do?’ rather than identify the solution, namely to suspend judgment.

Uncertainty is the human condition. We cant even be absolutely sure about the existence of the external world, the self and causation (Hume), or the truth of science (no hypothesis can ever be proven true or false) or maths (incomplete, and consistency unprovable, as shown by Godel), never mind religion.

We can do no more than live with this uncertainty, proportioning our beliefs to the evidence, as Hume puts it, and suspending belief where evidence is absent or conflicting.

In the West, philosophical response to uncertainty has mostly been to try to formulate a Scheme of Things that aims to match up with The Way Things Are, such as idealism, materialism, dualism, panpsychism, with or without deism or theism. In the East (Buddhism) and for a few in the west (Pyrrhonists), the alternative view is that no Scheme is possible, we can know only appearances, there is no ‘deeper’ or ‘underlying’ reality, and we should suspend belief in anything beyond appearance. Even Kant held that the forms of our intuition and categories of our thought, necessary for any experience at all to occur, allowed knowledge only of appearances, although we might legitimately speculate about underlying reality, including matters such as free will, God and immortality.

Take your pick: a Buddhist/ Pyrrhonist going with the flow (which allegedly dispels illusion, gives peace of mind and reduces suffering), or a struggle to understand The Way Things Are that will be unending and forever uncertain, only probabilistic.

I have speculated on religious matters for over sixty years now. I grew up in a Christian home, but soon became atheistic. As a young man I read Whitehead’s (difficult) work on process philosophy, and was impressed with the idea of all of us, including God, together constantly engaged in an instant by instant process of becoming, so I was theistic for a while. Later I became agnostic. Then, in middle age some serious Biblical study made me an atheist again. More recently I returned to agnosticism, although I dislike the militant, dogmatic, and sometimes philosophically naive, ‘new’ atheism (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens).

But through all this I have been angst-free, unlike yourself. I can see two reasons for this.

First, my job (medical doctor) involved constant uncertainty (is the diagnosis this, that or the other, will she get better, how long has he got, what’s the best treatment) so I never had any problem living with uncertainty.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, I’ve never had your fears of hell. It’s not that I know the truth about the matter. But at least I can say (and so can you), that if there were a God who metes out infinite punishment to us, flawed, finite creatures as we are, with finite sins, such a being would not command our respect, never mind our worship. And you couldn’t trust such a god to treat you decently even if you feared it. My agnosticism doesn’t include such a horrible being: I definitely believe no such god exists. Maybe your own troubles will cease only when you do the same. It doesn’t mean you need be atheistic, or even agnostic. Religious belief is not contrary to reason, and many critical thinkers, including scientists and philosophers, are religious.

All the best. I hope you will be able to focus more on life before death and dispel your morbid fears.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t have a lot to add to what Craig has said. In my YouTube video, ‘What is death?’ I consider the very scary thought that death, interpreted as the permanent cessation of consciousness, is impossible to prove because ‘permanent’ implies all of infinite future time. No empirical evidence would suffice to establish that I will never, in some far future time, ‘wake up’. And what manner of terrifying things might happen to me when I do?

Wittgenstein in the book he completed shortly before his death On Certainty considers the possibility that general anaesthetic works, not by producing a state of unconsciousness, but rather by causing complete paralysis and the subsequent erasure of the memory of the pain one suffered under the surgeon’s knife. The very thought of such an unquantifiable possibility, immune from empirical verification or falsification, might be sufficient to deter you from ever undergoing an operation.

Irrational fears aside, we have to live our lives according to what can be reasonably predicted based on what we know. But what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ is very much up for grabs if you allow religion into the equation.


Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

This is a famous metaphysical problem. A book that you might find helpful:

Samuel Scheffler Death and the Afterlife


Sarah asked:

What is direct realism?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Direct realism is the name given to naive realism by naive realists who do not like being called naive. Naive realism is the doctrine what we perceive around us — the empirical world — is real, in the sense of continuing to exist when unperceived. But it cannot be real, it can at best be images of reality, because it consists of secondary qualities and illusions. It is also sometimes called common sense realism.


Geoffrey Klempner

What is the difference between naive realism and direct realism? Russell has a nice quote on this:

“Thus, science seems to be at war with itself: when it means most to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will. Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore, naive realism, if true, is false, therefore it is false.” (Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940).

Naive realists, it is claimed, don’t realize (or don’t think about) all the physical processes involved in perception. I am not ‘looking’ at my computer monitor as I write these words, but at an image at the back of my retina which my brain ‘interprets’ as an object in an external world.

But why stop there? The image at the back of my retina is converted into electrical impulses in my optic nerve. So I am really not ‘looking’ at those impulses? How far do you trace the chain of causes and effects back? And who, or what, is this ‘I’ that is ‘perceiving’ these various kinds of entity or process?

The response of the direct realist is to cut the Gordian knot, avoiding the threatened regress. Perception, when it is successful, not subject to illusion, has an object in the physical world. The ‘I’ that does the perceiving is another object in the physical world, one which has mental as well as physical attributes.

Back in the 1920s, direct realism was called ‘New Realism’, a revolt against the prevailing idealist philosophy of Royce, Bradley and McTaggart. Two great metaphysical works, Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity (1920) and A.N. Whitehead Process and Reality (1929) epitomized the new realist approach to the fundamental questions of metaphysics.

In more recent times, direct realism was once again revived by philosophers influenced by the the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin. As academic philosophers tend to do, they thought they had ‘discovered’ it.


Jack asked:

I recently saw (YouTube) a very interesting discussion between Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci on the limits of science. One point that was not discussed adequately was that science sometimes turns to philosophers to help formulate the right questions. Dr. Krauss agreed apparently only if the physicist or other scientist runs out of questions to explore. I feel that the philosophy of science should play a larger role, but it intrigues me that scientists DO turn to philosopher to formulate the right question. That is, how does one know that they’re asking the wrong question? Is there a method for evaluating such, and for formulating the right question? I don’t expect Steps 1, 2 and 3, just some insights.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The relationship between science and philosophy is a complex and always evolving one. Physicist Lawrence Krauss is notoriously skeptical of any use of philosophy to scientists [1], while philosopher Dan Dennett has famously written (in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), that ‘There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.’

Then there is Einstein’s (no lightweight in matters of science!) opinion, as expressed to philosopher of science Robert Thornton in 1944:

"I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth."

None of this amounts to philosophers telling scientists which questions to ask, or how to formulate the questions they are interested in. The idea, rather, is that philosophers are good at stepping back from the nitty gritty details of everyday scientific investigation (because, you know, they don’t have to run labs or get grants funded), and are well trained in the logical analysis of concepts and their implications. Which makes philosophers valuable partners especially in those areas of science that are not well defined, either because they are not yet fully mature, or, at the other extreme, because they are at the cutting edge of what science can currently do.

For instance, much discussion between scientists and philosophers of science these days concerns the status of string theory in fundamental physics. Given that there is no currently foreseeable way of testing the novel predictions made by the theory, is it even science? The battle lines are drawn in somewhat unexpected ways, with for example philosopher of physics Richard Dawid openly calling for a ‘post-empirical’ science (which to me looks a lot like mathematically-based metaphysics), countered by physicist Lee Smolin advocating for a return to empirically verifiable theorizing and a move away from what he sees as increasingly unhinged (from the real world) speculation.

It is, I think, highly unfortunate that some high profile scientists and science popularizers (e.g., Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson [2]) have recently made disparaging remarks about philosophy, just as it is equally problematic that some philosophers (e.g., Jerry Fodor in his What Darwin Got Wrong, and Thomas Nagel, in his Mind and Cosmos) have made statements about science that are clearly ill informed and not carefully thought out.

Rather, science and philosophy should keep engaging in that continuous dialogue from which science itself, at the time characterized by practitioners such as Galileo and Newton as ‘natural philosophy,’ evolved from philosophy as an independent field of inquiry.

[1] See: Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, and Krauss does it again, so soon!.

[2] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy.


Fred asked:

When Newton said, ‘Hypotheses non fingo’ was he lying?

Answer by Helier Robinson

No, probably not: he almost certainly believed that he was being exclusively empirical. However, his first law — a body remains at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an outside force — is hypothetical, speculative: it could only be tested empirically by going into space, far from any gravitational fields.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

One of Isaac Newton’s greatest fans, Immanuel Kant, has a nice take on Newton’s claim in the Preface to the 1st edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:

"As to certainty, I have prescribed to myself the maxim, that in this kind of investigation it is in no wise permissible to hold opinions. Everything, therefore, which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.”

Surely, there’s a huge difference between Kant’s investigation and Newton’s? Kant is doing philosophy, and his conclusions are intended as necessary truths. Newton is doing empirical science.

This is an over-simplification. Newton’s First Law of motion is, in fact, an instantiation of Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, which is a necessary truth. There is no reason why a moving body would slow down or stop, unless a force acted upon it. It was Newton’s genius to see that what everyone observes to take place in the natural world — bodies ‘naturally’ slow down unless you keep pushing them along — has an explanation in terms of the First Law, because in our real world (discounting the far reaches of space) we always have to reckon with the forces of gravity and friction.

This is just one example of many where truths of reason are explicitly or implicitly appealed to in formulating physical theories. The theories can still turn out to be wrong. The alleged ‘truths of reason’ could themselves be incorrect or require radical revision. However, Newton was right in his faith that reason has a large part to play in discovering and formulating the laws of physics.


Paul asked: Possibly this question is too broad, but what does it mean to say that ethical propositions do not refer in relation to Metaethics. Could you give a concise outline? Answer by Matthew Sims One thing that the claim ethical propositions, such as ‘X is wrong’ do not refer could mean is that the predicate ‘is wrong’ fails denote or pick-out an objective or real quality in the world. Now, in order for this kind of explanation to be of any value at all we must also analyze the notion of objectivity. Let’s for simplicity sake borrow from Michael Dummett’s definition of ‘real’ which crudely put states that something is ontological objective if it is such as to exist independently from our attitudes (our beliefs, thoughts, etc.) and from our theories or methods of verification. When we predicate, say ‘squareness’ to some object, such a property obtaining is not dependent upon our having certain beliefs about ‘squareness'; the quality is such that if some object indeed were square, it’s being so would not be affected by, say, the disappearance of all humans. That just wouldn’t matter. Furthermore, the property of being a shape that has four and only four right angles, could be referred to by some other word besides ‘squareness’ (think of the German ‘viereckig’) and yet this does not prove that such a quality is dependent upon our beliefs or attitudes but only that such an objective property can be referred to by many varying syntactic conventions or symbol constructions. Other properties that are normally not questioned as ‘real’ or ‘objective’ are those which Locke deemed ‘primary': extension, quantity, shape, motion, and solidity. More controversial are the objectivity of Locke’s secondary qualities: colour, sound, taste, temperature, and smell. So the claim that moral propositions do not refer might be just to say that moral predicates are not made true by objective properties — if truth apt at all. Such a claim immediately could be said to conflict with our intuitions. One may object, ‘It is beyond doubt that the act of burning babies is wrong and anyone who would see such an act would also see the wrongness.’ Is it really the case however that we see the wrongness like we see squareness? One might ask ‘where is the wrongness’ and demand that we point it out to them. In doing so, it seems difficult to discern what the wrongness consists in — particularly if it is to be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Is the look upon the offenders face, his ghastly smile or the sound of the screaming infant as it roasts. Would a person born blind never perceive the wrongness of such an act as they never perceive redness? Would they be limited to being informed about the wrongness of such an act? This seems highly unlikely if just not false. The same kind of thought experiment could show that a deaf person (or a person with the bare minimum sensory capacity necessary to detect the occurrence of the action) would nonetheless in this situation ‘sense’ the wrongness. But if this is the case, then wrongness is not seen, heard or sensed in any way similar to other objective properties that we come into contact with. How then is ‘wrongness’ (or rightness for that matter) sensed if not with our sensory organs? Here the moral realist, one who claims that moral properties are objective and that at least some moral propositions are true, faces a problem. If she claims that we have some kind of moral sense organ that is above and beyond our other sensory organs, then seemingly the need to posit such organs for the sake of arguing for the reality of moral properties dulls Ockham’s razor; there are certainly other theories that are available that do not involve positing strange moral sense organs that might explain our attributing moral properties to states of affairs. An epistemological argument very similar in nature was famously put forth by J.L. Mackie as part of his ‘Argument from Queerness’. His argument was in short that in order to become aware of moral properties, if indeed they are like other objective properties, we would need very special sensory organs other than those we do possess. An obvious reply to this is that might run, ‘It was only recently in our history that we’ve come to recognize proprioceptive and kinesthetic functions as kinds of perceptual features that are not tied to particular sensory organs. So why couldn’t there be a moral sensory feature of perception independent of any sensory organ?’ The answer to this is simply that both proprioception and kinesthetics play an independent explanatory role in various theories whereby their existence as perceptual features are justified and coherent with the features provided by particular sensory organs. However the mere hypothesizing of special sensory organs or that sensory organs are unneeded for sensing moral properties to merely justify the reality of moral properties is a move that should be advanced only if there is independent evidence for those objective moral properties other than our intuitions and linguistic habits. Additional to the epistemological tier of Mackie’s Argument from Queerness, is an ontological tier. Given the normative nature of moral claims, if moral properties were objective, then they would have a certain ‘built-in do be pursuedness’ that would necessarily accompany them anytime one would come into contact with such a state of affairs. This kind of moral motivational internalism can be dated back to Plato’s conception of the Form of Goodness. Mackie’s argument runs that it is just not the case that we meet such properties as evidenced by the fact that sometimes people do what they judge to be morally wrong and do not do what they judge to be good. One response to this which has fueled the contemporary debate on the objectivity of moral properties is that the Argument from Queerness as a whole presupposes that moral properties are analogous to primary qualities. This, it is argued by moral realists such as McDowell, can be conceded consistently with holding that moral properties are analogous to secondary properties; properties which are dispositional in nature but which we accept as being objective ontologically. What could such a theory mean by such a claim? In short, dispositional properties — taking the classical example of colour — like ‘redness’ — in order to obtain require appropriately receptive agents and suitable conditions. Where appropriate receptivity can be understood as being physically suited to causally respond to incoming light waves and having the appropriate brain structure (a functioning visual cortex), suitable conditions are often understood as being normal lighting conditions. If these conditions obtain, a dispositional property of some object will cause a response within the agent. This being the case however is not to say that such a property is not objective, but only that it is a kind of conditional property that ‘would cause a reaction’ if the correct conditions obtain. Similarly the realist claims moral properties are like secondary qualities and thus given suitable conditions such as an appropriately receptive agent, such moral properties are features of reality, poised to be recognized. In McDowell’s terminology, such moral properties ‘merit’ certain moral responses if an agent has been raised with certain Aristotelian sensibilities — in a sensitive to the underlying moral structure of reality. As a result of such a theory’s hold that the meriting relation is only partly causal unlike the purely causal relations which hold between non-moral qualities, it avoids having to posit moral sensory organs. Furthermore, such a theory has no problem with the ‘built-in to be pursuedness’ requirement given that dispositional qualities such ‘goodness’ do have such a built-in motivation and if the agent fails to be motivated then it can be said that they fail to be a suitable or appropriately receptive agent and thus are morally degenerate. One thing to ask immediately might be ‘just what is an appropriately receptive agent amount to?’ ‘What differentiates an agent that has an Aristotelian up-bringing from one that doesn’t?’ In answering this, the realist might just again say that such an agent is morally sensitive to certain objective features of reality. But if asked what such features, the realist cannot say that such an agent is sensitive to ‘goodness’ for if she does, her dispositional definition is forced into a circularity; that of defining moral properties as those that agents who are sensitive to moral properties would respond to. And if I am not mistaken, this is just the kind of answer that McDowell gives and thus such an account fails to convince. Now suppose that the realist who does hold that a secondary quality model is the correct account manages to come up with a way of analyzing the dispositionality of moral properties in such a way that avoids circularity. Is there anything else that might dissuade us from accepting that such an analogy is correct? One thing just might be the very phenomenology of moral experience that the realist attempts to use as justification for the intuitiveness of their position. This objection takes the form of a disanalogy; that unlike moral qualities, the objectivity of secondary qualities is supported by the fact that in order to experience them phenomenologically, there is no requirement in terms of having a pre-existing concept of such a quality. Children and even infants after a certain age experience ‘redness’. On the other hand, moral properties seem to require the possession of pre-existing moral concepts before any agent can experience moral properties (or more carefully — begin to attribute moral qualities to states of affairs). Does such a disanalogy entail that moral properties are not real? No! One of the salient points of McDowell’s analysis is that there is a difference between moral and non-moral properties. However, taken together what it does mean is that we must be on our guard for the kind importance we place upon the justificatory power of analogy as a general method for analysis. In other words, one can’t have it both ways — holding that nearness in analogousness justifies something as being objective and at the same time hold that disanalogy doesn’t matter to something’s being justified as objective. If both the secondary quality model and the primary quality model fails, doe this mean that moral predicates do not refer? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that both of these kinds of properties exhaust the kinds of properties that are accepted in physical theories and thus if moral properties are neither then they are not physical properties. No, firstly in that the realist can put up a fight and claim that moral properties are non-physical properties. Such a fight I am convinced is not worth fighting if she cannot additionally provide a plausible theory of how non-physical normative moral properties are casually efficacious upon a physically closed universe. Secondly, the realist rather than claim that moral predicates refer to properties can tell a story about moral objective facts; pointing categorical facts that act as truth makers for moral statements and avoiding outright ontological claims. Whether such a method works is beyond the scope of this answer. However, if you are interested in this approach, one place to look is in R. Joyce’s The Myth of Morality. The title of leaves very little room to guess the position Joyce hold’s on the matter.


Jay asked:

Does a cloned human have soul?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Do souls exist? Do you have a soul? How do you know?

Descartes gave a famous argument for the soul: I know that I would exist, even in a possible world where there is no material objects or space. I ‘see’ my own soul, my own existence, in a way which is totally different from the way I ‘see’ external things. My soul is immediately present to me, in a way which cannot possibly be subject to deceit or illusion.

Descartes ‘knows’ that he has a soul. What would Descartes say about the cloned copy of Descartes? Descartes has a clear answer to this: The behaviour of human beings and non-human animals is fundamentally different in character. Non-human animals are just biological machines. Their behaviour can be fully explained by the activity of neurons, nerves, sinews, muscles. Human beings, by contrast, have the capacity for judgement and choice. This, Descartes believed, requires a non-physical, non-mechanical input: a soul which does the judging and choosing, transmitting its impulses to the physical body through a mind-body bridging mechanism (which for obscure reasons Descartes believed to reside in the pineal gland).

It follows that the cloned copy of Descartes must have a soul. This is assuming that it behaves in the way a human being behaves. If Descartes’ clone can debate philosophy with Descartes, then the two individuals are perfect twins in every respect, physical and non-physical. (How the cloned copy ‘received’ its soul is a mystery that need not delay us.)

Descartes’ model for animal behaviour was clockwork automata, which by this time had reached a remarkable degree of sophistication — for example, lifelike ‘birds’ twittering in cages. Despite this, the materialist Hobbes took a radically different view: we can’t know for sure that the brain does not work in a similar way, if you make the ‘clockwork’ sufficiently complex.

Sound familiar? The very same debate is taking place today, only with the allegedly more fertile model of computers (Turing machines) or neural networks replacing clockwork. One can only guess at the outcome of this ongoing debate.

To cut a long story short: it is logically possible that there is such a thing as a soul, which is required in order to be fully human. A cloned copy of you or me might, or might not have a soul, but there would be, in principle, a way of testing this. Perhaps a soulless ‘zombie’ clone could perform simple mental tasks, but fail at more complex tasks requiring imagination. (There’s a nice illustration of this at the end of the comedy movie Shaun of the Dead (2004) — I don’t want to give away any spoilers.)

However, there is another thought which runs counter to this. Maybe, the debate about computing and consciousness will be resolved in favour of the materialist response. A cloned copy of you or me would be physically identical in every respect, not lacking any mental capacity possessed by the original. What is scary about this is that your best friend could be a soulless zombie and you would never know.

Does that make sense? I am not sure that it does. Let’s say that I believe that there could be, in principle, an indistinguishable cloned copy of me which lacked a soul. For my cloned copy, ‘all is darkness inside’. However, if I believe in the possibility of a soulless cloned copy, then my cloned copy must ‘believe’ this too. That is to say, it must act in every way ‘as if’ it ‘believes’ that it has a soul. What is the evidential basis for this belief? The same as the evidential basis for my belief!

Something very wrong is going on here. Everything I say and do, including all my talk of ‘having a soul’ is fully accounted for at the physical level. That suggests strongly, to me, that such a belief would indeed be illusory.



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