TJ asked:


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You might (or might not) be surprised to hear that we have received this question a fair number of times in the years Ask a Philosopher has been running. Usually, the question is ignored, or receives a more or less sarcastic answer. However, in your case I have a small extra piece of evidence — your registration form, in which you state, ‘I am trying to learn more about martial arts and philosophy… I need help.’

This gives me a clue, because there are in fact some people from a martial arts background in the ISFP and Pathways. Not a martial artist myself, I have a sense of what motivates someone to undertake study of a martial art.

Why do it? A person’s got to be able to defend themself. But that’s not usually the motivation. It’s more about the discipline, being able to face whatever life throws at you come what may and respond in good form, with practiced technique and presence of mind rather than haphazardly or in a panic, with courage rather than cringing cowardice.

One thing that life throws at everyone is death. For, sooner or later, your life will surely end and no martial arts defence has ever been devised against the grim reaper’s scythe.

In the Hagakure, the would be Samurai is advised to ‘consider himself as dead':

"Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, talling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master."

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates, in prison on the very last day of his life comforts his grieving friends while he awaits the hemlock:

"I want to explain to you how it seems to me natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished… Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. If this is true, and they have actually been looking forward to death all their lives, it would of course be absurd to be troubled when the thing comes for which they have so long been preparing and looking forward."

The other night I had a dream, in which I deliberately and without emotion set about ending my own life. The method was cyanide in orange juice. Why orange juice? I usually have this with my breakfast, so I guess it had to be something familiar. As I started to drink, I noticed neat rows of black dots floating in the liquid. The poison. Even though I had already taken a couple of sips, I could stop now and nothing would happen. But I chose to continue. ‘My death agony will come in a few moments,’ I thought, as I lay myself down. That is the point where I woke up with a start.

I had a good day.

Why? Why… all this? I’ll share a secret with you. It’s a question I’ve struggled with for decades. It isn’t a question about the world as such, but about my being in the world. Why am I here? Granted that one of the soon-to-be-dead living creatures populating this small planet (doomed to destruction in a universe which itself will eventually end) is the person writing these words. Why am I that person? Why did I have to be him? Why am I here at all?

The question is either unintelligible or it is a conundrum – a philosophical question that we can (somehow) make sense of but one which logically cannot be answered, not ever in the history of the human race, or indeed the history of the universe.

Many people (fortunately for them!) are never gripped by the question. And of those that are, most find a way to ignore or forget. They brush it aside and get on with their lives. The few of us who can’t ignore and can’t forget must battle on, knowing that at some indeterminate time in the future, there will be no ‘I’ asking, Why?

In some strange sense, that is the answer.


Grace asked:

My friend recently told me what hedonism is and that he believes it. I instantly thought that pleasure is not the highest good, but that happiness is. But I’m not sure if that really makes sense I guess. Could you tell me what you think about it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is an old philosophical puzzle, and you are right in your suspicions that happiness is not necessarily identical with pleasure. However, it is actually quite hard to say wherein the difference, if any, lies.

You may be thinking of pleasure as the experience of some kind of pleasurable sensation. However, there are other kinds of pleasures, say, pleasures involved in pursuing intellectual or social or artistic activities. We do things with pleasure. We can also be pleased — experience mental pleasure — in receiving news, say, of a friend’s good fortune, or an enemy’s misfortune. Although this mental pleasure might be accompanied by some sort of physical feeling (the proverbial tingle up the spine), it need not be.

John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism argued for a version of hedonism in which there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, the highest of all being those that require the exercise of those faculties that most distinguish us from non-human (non language speaking) animals, such as the pursuit of philosophy, or art, or literature. That, for Mill, is the essence of human ‘happiness’.

My case for being sceptical about this comes from common human experience. Speaking for myself, there are times when I feel happy, and times when I feel less happy or positively gloomy, and yet these periods do not always seem to coincide with the experience of pleasure, or displeasure, in any of its senses. In my happy state, things that annoy me or hurt me are still in some way just as hurtful or annoying — when I focus my attention on them — and yet they trouble me less, or not at all. In my gloomy state, things that I take pleasure in and enjoy are unable to lift me, even though the pleasure and enjoyment are real in themselves.

I am not now talking about mania or clinical depression, which are another thing entirely. All human beings experience happiness and unhappiness at different times. It is part of life. You can be happy while keeping your mental stability, or unhappy without being numbed by depression.

It is indeed a remarkable fact that people can be happy in the most extraordinarily bad circumstances, or unhappy despite an abundance of sources of pleasure.

As an example of the former, one might cite the Stoic maxim that ‘a good man can be happy on the rack’. For the Stoic, goodness, or virtue is its own reward. There is nothing more than a human being can desire, than to be a person of virtue. However, you don’t need to be a Stoic to recognize the joy that shines out of those lucky few who are able to remain cheerful no matter what misfortunes overcome them.

An example of the latter might be the sorrow and devastation brought about by the loss of a loved one, or to take a very different example, the overpowering boredom and anomie that is the permanent occupational hazard of the idle super-rich.


Christopher asked:

How is it that philosophy progresses, in regards to arriving at the truth? In science, for example, they experiment, then duplicate it, until eventually the theory is falsified with a new one taking its place, upon which they repeat the method. In philosophy it seems to me that what makes one philosophy or philosopher better than a contrasting one is the amount of followers it/he/she receives. If everyone believed Rorty then his philosophy would be considered to be true. I understand that people can find problems or exceptions to the rule in other peoples philosophy or find them to be logically invalid, etc… But, at least from my perspective, most modern philosophy seems to be logically equal with everyone else’s. I find myself basing my beliefs philosophically on a feeling or intuition or something that just happens to make sense to me personally. Everything is just opinion, but I don’t want to willfully suspend belief, I want to know. How do you determine who is great and who is not?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

By hard work and not giving up. Philosophy is a quest for the truth and philosophy is very very difficult.

The only thing that can make one philosophy better than another is, is it true. If you base your philosophical beliefs on fashion, feeling or intuition then you are no longer a philosopher. You are just a philosophical tourist!

There is nothing wrong with being a tourist but tourists never find out the truth about the places they visit and they have to content themselves with the conventional myths and fantasies.


Chris asked:

I would like to ask If I am understanding Kant correctly in the following manner? I am not going into Hume and unnecessary terminology.

I understand Kant in 3 steps.

Lets take for example that I see an apple in front of me and how it is that I can perceive it.

1. Our brain have innate ability to enforce upon the world the concepts of spatial temporal and cause and effect (this might very well differ for other animals) at this stage the apple is merely a thing in front of me and I know this because of my innate abilities (at this stage of reasoning I have no idea it is an apple)

2. The second step is the 4 main categories (this we also know innate?) this being (a)quantity I sense ‘one’ apple , instead of many.(b) Quality I sense that it is real and not just in my mind. (c) Relation I sense the object in relation to the “table” on which it stands? (d) modality (have no idea what this really is)

3. The third step is reason Here we give all the particulars linguistic terms and characteristics all by means of reason ergo the subjective nature.

In a nutshell the senses perceive raw data that (1) the brain structures in space and time and then (2) I apply the categories and (3) then I apply reason to explain what it is?

This is how I understand Kant.

Can anybody please explain Kant to me in three or four steps?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is not a good way of handling this problem. Kant understood something fundamental about our sensory and intellectual capacities despite not having our science at his elbow. He realised what we discovered scientifically much later: That the objects and events ‘out there’ in the world are not directly discernible in themselves (as Dinge an sich). What we apperceive is the energy they radiate. You touch and encounter resistive force. What you hear and see are electromagnetic waveforms. That’s nothing much to go by. Accordingly organisms like our brains evolved with the capacity of discerning the structure behind these packets of information.

Your Point 1 is therefore something totally different. Namely, first, the brain’s capacity to identify a spatial location for some coherent strands of this information in relation to other strands. Second, a capacity based on memory to identify its temporal relation to other strands, which are either earlier or simultaneous. Third, a capacity to engender in your consciousness a sense of the three-dimensional coordination of these impressions, e.g. ‘there’ in space, ‘now’ in time. This does not mean that either space or time are independent realities, although we conscious creatures developed such an intuition.

Next, the brain has the capacity of grouping those energy strands into different kinds of impressions, such as aural, tactile or visual. This permits you to identify the source as a tangible object, a sound or a colour. Again, you must understand that the colours or sounds or the hard/soft feel of things are your impressions. An ant would not gain the same impressions from the same phenomena, so they are not objective, but related to your possibilities for perceiving them.

The categories also come in; and again they are a capacity of the brain which is necessary to make sense of what you perceive. So you grasp from this the meaning of ‘a priori’. Certain conditions have to be met in order to understand the impulses which affect your sensory apparatus. The senses and the brain must have a prior capacity to unravel the information, before any of it can be become meaningful to you as a conscious being.

But now complications arise for which we cannot rely on science any more, as your intellectual capacity becomes involved. You may easily perceive quantity, but differentiating between contingent and necessary is unlikely to be possible to apes or crocs.

Once all these conditions have been fulfilled, it is possible for a judgement to be formed. All told, the premise underlying this is of a world external to your consciousness, which your senses explore and relay the information they collect for the brain to manipulate into sensible conscious impressions.

But now, do not lose sight of the fact that this is continuous and simultaneous. The responsibility of the brain is to produce stable impressions in your consciousness, so that you can orient yourself in the world and navigate with reasonable assurance that your impressions reflect an accurate picture of your surroundings. Reality, however, is seamless, hence mistakes are possible and frequent.

Even this account is a simplification of a very complex process. But I hope it helps you over the hump of your travails with the basics of Kant’s theory.


Answer by Henk Tuten

The influence of Kant on the Western way of handling reality is huge. I’ll try to evade difficult words, and I’ll try to pinpoint the essence.

You write: ‘This is how I understand Kant.’ In fact the idea ‘understanding’ or ‘intelligence’, that we western people got so acquainted to, is made believable by the complex conceptual scheme that Kant created around it. It originated already from the ancient Greeks (especially Aristotle) and was revived in Catholicism (Roman Christianity).

But Kant became godfather of western reality. His prestige was made so big, that for ages no serious scientist dared to contradict Kant. ‘Intelligence’ or ‘understanding’ presumes a ‘mind’ that is preprogrammed with Natural Law (whatever that is). This is Kantian belief. The preprogramming tells us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘wrong’.

Looking at things from an evolutionary standpoint we human animals have sense experiences, that our body made into behavior. The most effective behavior was archived in DNA (hardware). DNA can change, but very very slow (many thousands of ages). On shorter term and locally we have cultural realities that compete in offering parts to DNA. The criterion is simple: behavior that survives for many hundreds of ages makes a good chance.

Our western dual reality (mind and body) was extremely succesful, but finally now is in deep crisis, so most of this view will fade.

Behind what enters DNA is not ‘intelligence’ but only effectivity. If killing all competitors would have been effective for millions of ages, than earth would by now be inhabited by 1 or 2 species, so obviously such behavior is not effective. We can try to design a logic behind DNA, that might make it a fine tool, but in the end the only logic is effectivity (what works on earth).

Kant’s view: natural law (eternal) exists, and is preset in ‘mind’. And ‘mind’ (the capacity to ‘reason’) is spiritual/ abstract. You have to believe in it.

Kant obviously was very clever (convincing), but in the end only offers his own version of the hypothesis, ‘metaphysics’ that became base of Western Science.

Take care: this is only my interpretation of Kant’s views, it’s easy to find different ones on Google, with much higher ‘scientific’ ratings (authors with more ‘intelligence’). The only thing that matters is: which view will survive?


Gerard asked:

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Gerard and am originally from South Africa, currently residing in Belfast. I am really interested in philosophy, I thoroughly love the way the subject requires one to think very hard about what they are investigating or analysing. Alas I am an amateur, here goes my question:

Does the human body posses a soul?

I personally think that humans do not posses a soul and here are my amateur thoughts. If humans are borne with a soul then is that soul equally an infant? I would assume so and if so then as the human being grows and experiences the external world and thus memories then it follows so to does its soul. And if this continues to the end of life then the soul would know who it is, that is it/he or she would still have thier memories and thus thier ID. However how then do memories transfer from the biological human being, a state that is within science that is quantifiable, to the soul which is purportedly spiritual which is a non quantifiable state, a state that has no physical substance. The two states then are impossible to unite thus the transfer of memories which is fundamentally the manner of ones ID is impossible And if memories are not able to transfer to the soul then it follows that the soul would not know wht or who it is? I like to akin this to a ‘floating baloon’

Do send me your thoughts.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your problem, Gerard, is too many unexamined presuppositions. For example you assume that one can ‘possess’ a soul, which is highly dubious. Further that ‘soul’ has one unequivocal meaning (which is incorrect). You also assume that memories are kinds of entities that can be re-located from Point X to Y (also incorrect). Which in turn implies that soul and memory have defined locations (in the brain, I suppose? But in any case untenable).

Accordingly your question is not really a question. It is a request for a short summary of the beliefs of every religion, of the whole plurality of competing scientific doctrines on the matter, as well as the various perspectives held by philosophers and theologians over the last 2500 years. It can also be understood as a combative position on the concept of soul, in which you don’t believe. But as mentioned, until you specify which concept of soul you have in mind, and what kind of entities you suppose memories to be, it is not possible (I’m sorry to say) to respond with any intelligible thoughts.


Christopher asked:

Why do you think it is that everyone tries to convince or convert others to believe the same way/ thing they do? Personally, I think that we inherently need/ desire to conform in some way or another. We seek others who are like us, and if we don’t find any then we try to make others like us. Or maybe we are unsure/ insecure of our own beliefs so we seek confirmation in others, sometimes proactively seek it. Any other ideas that make more sense than mine?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Well I think this is what Bob Dylan called, in one of his songs, trying to get everyone down in the same hole that you’re in.

There is a natural human tendency to try to convert others to our own beliefs and the more unsure we are of our own beliefs the more we need to convert others.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sense a paradox here, in that in one sense if you have a factual belief then that is inconsistent with saying that it is perfectly OK for another person to have a contrary belief. You can’t believe something without thinking that you are right in believing it. And if you are right, and the other person doesn’t believe as you do, then they are wrong.

This isn’t anything to do with forcible conversion or planting bombs or waging war in order to get other people to believe as you do. People are, or should be (as Mill argued in On Liberty) free to believe whatever they want to believe. However, as a matter of logic, two factual beliefs that contradict one another cannot both be true.

If you believe that someone you know has a false factual belief, you may or may not depending on the circumstances feel an ethical obligation to persuade them to change their minds. Let’s say a friend has been diagnosed with a serious illness but refuses medical treatment because, ‘doctors don’t know anything.’ That’s a belief that could lead to a very unhappy outcome. On the other hand, if you vote for the Blue party, and your friend leans towards the Red, you might enjoy an argument over a drink over the economic policies proposed by the Blues and Reds, but there is no urgency to convince them.

Not all beliefs are like factual beliefs. The question of religious belief is more complex. Not all religions (just to consider the three main traditions in monotheism) are the same in this regard. Christianity and Islam both have articles of belief, things you must believe to be a true Christian or a faithful Muslim. In Judaism, the emphasis is far more on things you must do, if you call yourself a Jew. Despite these differences, great progress has been made in inter-faith dialogue. As an example of this, I would cite a book which appeared recently: Beyond the dysfunctional family: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue with Each Other and With Britain edited by Tony Bayfield, Alan Race and Ataullah Siddiqui



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