Jess asked:

I just want some guidance on writing a philosophy paper on Crito! I have to basically write 3 paragraphs of:

1) Socrates argument

2) the counter argument

3) why i think Socrates’ argument overrules any counter argument.

I don’t know how to extend this to be 1200 words.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I would like to help you, Jess, but first I want to say something about this kind of question. I don’t mean questions about Socrates or the Crito, I’m talking about instructors who basically tell you all the steps you need to do to write your ‘paper’. Do this, do this, do this and you’re done. Easy.

Except that philosophy isn’t like that. The whole point about studying philosophy is learning to think for yourself. Maybe your ideas on the Crito don’t fit the instructor’s easy scheme. Why must Socrates win every argument? Is he a god? Didn’t he say that all he knew was how much he didn’t know? Can’t he ever be wrong?

Casting my mind back to this famous dialogue by Plato, I seem to recall that Crito visits Socrates in prison where the great philosopher is awaiting execution after being convicted by an Athenian court on a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the young. ‘Hey, Socrates,’ says Crito, ‘My friends and I can help you escape to a place where your philosophical ideas will be appreciated. You can live like a lord. Look what the Athenians did to you, you don’t owe them anything.’

And then Socrates says something to the effect that he couldn’t live with himself if he ‘harmed the laws of Athens’. Or some such putrid nonsense.

If Socrates had said, ‘I want to be a martyr to philosophy. I want Plato to write his greatest dialogue, the Phaedo, about how I bravely drank the hemlock discussing the immortality of the soul with my friends,’ one could understand. Martyrdom is a theme of contemporary politics. Everyone dies, so make your death count for something. Take a few dozen unbelievers with you and let them be dragged to hell.

Now, I can be wrong about this and often am. Maybe you disagree with my easy dismissal of Socrates’ argument. This is about what you think. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or write your paper for you.

As for the length, 1200 words is nothing. If you were talking about this with your friends, how many words would your conversation run to? Several thousand, I’d guess. So my advice is: forget that you are following a ‘how-to-do-it’ guide for writing a paper. Read the Crito at least twice. Then write what you make of it all. Let it all hang out. Risk being ‘wrong’. (You might still be in the right, but unfortunately regardless of how stupid they are, instructors are the ones who give the grades.)

Most importantly, argue with yourself. Don’t assume that the first thought that comes into your mind is valid or even relevant. Write your paper, criticize it, then rewrite it from scratch. I guarantee that the result will be something of which you can be justifiably proud.


Lorenzo asked:

I am a foreign high school student who intends to apply to a top american university, in order to major in Philosophy. What kind of extracurricular activities — related to philosophy — could I do and include in my applications, showing to the admissions officials my commitment to its study and improving my chances of being accepted?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Do they have this saying (or the equivalent) in Brazil, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’?

It’s unlikely that the admissions officer of a philosophy department would be looking specifically for extracurricular activities related to philosophy. What they want to know is: are you an interesting person or a boring swat? Will you be making an active contribution to the life of your university or college? For example, in sport, or the performing arts, or special interest clubs, or outreach?

What can you do besides philosophize?

On the site it says, ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ If I was an Admissions officer, you would also need to show me that you have genuine intellectual interests outside your chosen subject — in the physical sciences, or psychology, or history for example. Do you follow politics or does the news just bore you? What are your views on Third World debt? climate change? Where do you stand politically on libertarianism? socialism?

However, as you asked, I do think that there are philosophically related things you can do, like attending public talks by philosophers if there are any available, or contacting your nearest university philosophy department and asking them if you can sit in on some of their seminars. Does your school have a philosophy club? What contribution did you make to it? Have you ever talked to a professional philosopher?

Well, the fact that you submitted this question is a start. It’s something you can note on your application form.

So far as your philosophical abilities are concerned, you may be asked to submit a sample of your work — an essay or essays on philosophy. School grades are rarely enough to judge a candidate’s academic potential. The best advice I can give here is, don’t even think of cheating. Sweat it out, put everything you have into it. And hope for the best.

Good luck!

Ernest asked:

What was Bertrand Russell’s response to Pascal’s Wager?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that you did a search for “Pascal’s Wager” and “Bertrand Russell” and you were unable to find any quote from Russell responding to Pascal’s argument. Guess what, I did the same. Knowing how good search engines are these days, I would lay odds on that in his long career Russell didn’t, in fact, state any view specifically about Pascal’s Wager, although in his History of Western Philosophy he makes some pretty deprecating remarks about Pascal, going so far as to raise questions about his sanity.

(It’s best to read the original text of Pascal’s Wager rather than ‘Sweded’ versions. The original passage from Pascal’s Pensees is quoted here.)

Pascal as a philosopher doesn’t much interest me, although Russell does. ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ in Russell’s essay collection Mysticism and Logic deserves to be on the top shelf of any atheist book collection. (No need to buy the book, you can easily find Russell’s essay on the web.)

A quote from Russell that frequently surfaces is what he claimed he would say after death if he found himself confronted by an angry God, demanding, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?’ Russell replies, ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ or words to that effect. The point of this isn’t about evidence, it’s about God’s motives. The very notion that unbelievers should be punished for their unbelief, that human beings should make a sacrifice of their (supposedly) God-given powers of reason is monstrous, an atheist would say.

On the other hand, demanding that another person (a partner, say) ‘have faith’ in us is part of universal human experience. ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ is a very poor response to give to one’s spouse when after much travail his or her book is finally published — or when he or she is acquitted of a murder charge.

Arguments over this point are never going to be resolved. So making the argument depend on what is or is not a suitable object of ‘faith’ isn’t going to be helpful.

Let’s look instead at the very idea of a bet, and betting odds. A bet is a guide to action, and two factors come into play: your calculation of the likelihood or odds of a particular event occurring or not occurring, and your level of risk aversion — or, alternatively, your positive preference for risk taking.

Let’s say that having won your 450 horse power Japanese sports car on eBay, the first thing you plan to do is drive across Europe to Germany so that you can belt down the Autobahn at 200 miles per hour. Relying on your driving skills to dodge the slower traffic you are risking permanent injury or death but the thrill is worth it, isn’t it? Might be. If there wasn’t the risk, the thrill would be less.

Assume that we knew for sure that there is a Hell and some human beings are going there. (There are a few temporary escapees, that’s how we know.) Would that be sufficient reason for toeing the line and obeying God’s commandments? Not at all. The thought that evil carries a mortal risk might enhance the pleasure for some. Besides, in real life, no-one knows for sure what the right action is. A Mephistophelean anti-God might punish human beings for being good and reward evil.

The point, however, is that as a reason for action an argument from probability like Pascal’s Wager can never be compelling for all persons at all times. If you think that the likelihood of there being a God is no more or less than the likelihood of there being an anti-God then all bets are off. Whereas if you incline, for whatever seeming ‘reasons’, to the God alternative then it is possible that one day walking down the street you will experience the urge to walk in to your local Buddhist temple — or synagogue, or church, or mosque — just to experience the atmosphere of holiness and reverence, to give that a chance of working on you.

What a frightful prospect! Indeed. Knowledge doesn’t come into it. This is about betting and risk. For a few atheists, the risk of being converted away from atheism is so horrifying that they wouldn’t go near a place of worship. Other atheists might find it a breeze, and a bit of a laugh. And yet others, again maybe only a few, might be tempted by an argument from probability to give belief a chance.

It may seem a rather weak defence of Pascal’s Wager to say that it might be valid in some, maybe only a few cases. But this isn’t the same as simply saying that it is invalid. It is a rational argument from probability with a special application, valid, if and only if the relevant circumstances apply.

Robert asked:

Does a person who is sympathetic to panpsychism have a moral obligation to rocks?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the Pathways web site it says:

Remember: There is no such thing as a foolish question.
But also: Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.

(Following your Pathway)

So I am going to take Robert’s question seriously, even though at first sight it looks a bit facetious.

‘Of course, we don’t have any moral obligation to rocks!’ you will say.

What about Mount Everest? That’s a rock. Don’t human beings have a moral obligation to keep this great mountain in a decent state, and not foul it up with abandoned tents, food cans and used toilet paper? I think we do.

On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that a rock randomly picked up from Brighton Beach has even the slightest moral claim on me.

That of course is a different question from the one raised by the Brighton and Hove City Council Byelaw against pilfering attractive rocks from the beach for personal gain or to decorate your home, because you are harming other human beings who have a right to enjoy the beach in its unmolested state. The rock itself isn’t harmed if you or I break this Byelaw. (Perhaps the same argument applies to Mount Everest, but I would prefer to leave that question open.)

However, according to one version of panpsychism, every physical entity in the universe, from quarks to galaxies and everything in between has some degree or measure of ‘consciousness’. (In Whitehead’s Process and Reality the ‘actual entities’ that compose physical reality are events rather than spatio-temporal particulars, but I don’t think it would make any difference to this argument.)

Let’s assume, naively perhaps, that consciousness is a kind of ‘stuff’ that things can have in a greater or lesser amount. Humans have more consciousness than butterflies, and butterflies have more consciousness than pebbles.

Let’s also assume that if you harm anything that has consciousness, whether more or less, then that is something bad, perhaps in proportion to the degree of consciousness possessed by the entity in question. Catching and killing butterflies for your butterfly collection is less bad than killing humans for your shrunken heads collection.

The question, however, is how you can harm a rock. I don’t think that this is entailed by the panpsychist theory, and here’s why:

The amount of consciousness in a given rock is determined purely by the aggregation of its parts. That is because a rock, as such, has no internal principle of organization. In Leibnizian or Lockean terms, it is not a ‘substance’. It doesn’t have an ‘essence’ from which its properties flow, other than the properties that arise from composition, such as having a striped pattern, or being smooth or crumbly. On the panpsychist theory, if I break a rock in two, then there is just as much consciousness as there was before, only now distributed in two parts.

By contrast, the consciousness of a single living cell is more than the aggregation of the consciousness of its chemical constituents. On the panpsychist view, in parallel with the physical organization of the cell, there is a ‘mental’ organization of its conscious aspect. This is what Leibniz held about his ‘monads’. A human being has a ‘principal monad’, which is the self, which is something extra added on top to the descending hierarchy of organized structures, from limbs and organs, to cells and their ultimate physical structure.

It follows that if you destroy a living cell, you reduce the total amount of consciousness in the universe. Cells can be harmed. Causing unnecessary harm is bad. Ergo, we have a moral obligation — albeit rather small and easily overridden by other moral considerations — to every living cell on Earth, or perhaps in the Universe if there is life elsewhere.

A rock, on the other hand, as we have seen cannot be harmed. On the panpsychist theory, you cannot reduce the amount of consciousness in the universe by splitting the rock in two, grinding it down to a powder, or doing anything else to it. Even if you could convert all of its matter into energy, you would still have the same amount of consciousness but in a different form.

That disposes of one ground, at least, for thinking panpsychism absurd. Whether panpsychism is, or could be true, is an entirely different matter.


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:


Books by Geoffrey Klempner

=== Solve this riddle ===


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