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Scott asked:

It is common knowledge that the USA was late in committing to a side in WWII. I wonder what the world would look like today had they chosen to support Hitler.

It seems too dogmatic to simply assume that the right side won: Further, that nothing but evil emerged from Nazi Germany. Clearly when the victors get to write history the first goal is to prevent an uprising from the defeated foe, but can we really be so sure that where the planet is at today is a better place?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There was never any chance that the U.S.A would enter the war on the side of Hitler. Hitler had a plan, after he had defeated Western Europe and the USSR he would wage war on America, the last of the democracies. Hitler frequently expressed contempt for the U.S.A. He despised all democracies.

The American public were against getting involved in any European war and this prevented the U.S. president from entering the war earlier. However he helped the British right from the start by selling them cargo ships and other equipment.

It may seem to you too dogmatic to assume the right side won but then I imagine that maybe you are too young to have any experience of real evil.

Making lampshades out of peoples’ skin, performing medical experiments on children, mass murder including the mass murder of handicapped German children. Killing German students who tried to protest about their loss of freedom. Maybe these things don’t matter too much to you.

The right side did win. Hitler was a madman who was stupid enough to think he could fight on two fronts at once and that he could annoy the Americans by signing a treaty with the Japanese. The Japanese were not so stupid. The Japanese Commander in Chief knew that if they couldn’t destroy the U.S. navy in the first six months of war, Japan would lose.

Hitler was stupid, he completely underestimated the industrial strength of the U.S.A. By the end of the War the U.S. was making a vast amount of weapons, ships, tanks etc. and supplying them to all the allies. Hitler drove out all the Jewish scientists including Einstein. This ensured that the Americans got the atomic bomb and Hitler didn’t.

In a democracy anybody can write the history and if they write truthfully and back up what they write with facts they will be believed. There was no conspiracy to make Hitler seem more evil that he was. The Nazis left behind lots of written records and vast piles of corpses. They tried to hide many of their crimes but they didn’t succeed. I suggest that you should read some history books with an open mind.

People who live in democracies should remember how lucky they are. They can protest, they do get to vote. When you protested in Nazi Germany they took you away and they killed you. Support your local democracy and be glad that you live in a democracy.

Pablo asked:

Dear Philosophers,

I would like to ask whether there is any reasonable explanation why many after/ today’s philosophers rather refer to Descartes than to Leibniz. Although Descartes had influenced significantly new modern era in philosophical thinking, so did Leibniz. Moreover, Leibniz proved some imperfections in Descartes metaphysics. I mean both of them deserve our attention, yet in my opinion Leibniz is somehow still in Descartes shadow. Why is that?

Thank you in advance for any tangible arguments or inspiring ideas.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There is a simple and a complex answer to this.

The simple one is that Descartes was in a sense the father of the modern scientific method. His mind/ matter dualism had the effect of enabling us to focus on matter (res extensa) as the appropriate substance for scientific research. Res cogitans (the mind) is on the contrary the instrument for ascertaining truths in relation to the material world, i.e. the instance responsible for segregating fact from fancy. This removed at one stroke a large number of dubious human preoccupations from the scientific scene, e.g. the clutter of superstitions, astrology, alchemy etc. that could not sustain the mind’s enquiry into their truth status. Thereby Descartes placed epistemology, reductive and mathematical methodology on the map, and these have occupied us ever since, leading among other things, to the triumphal march of science down to the development of digital computers.

In a word: he saddled western philosophy with so many difficult problems that we have not tired of trying to solve them ever since, and our technology has been the principal beneficiary.

In contrast, Leibniz became a victim of publications problems, both of his own doing and posthumously. The only books he ever published under his name were ‘News from China’ and ‘Theodicy’, popular tracts heavily soaked in religion. Most of his published papers are similarly circumspect and reveal very little of his authentic philosophy — in fact he once asked John Bernoulli, in whom he confided, not to reveal anything for fear of his thoughts being misunderstood! Understandable, because he was a diplomat by profession. He suffered enough mistrust on account of being a protestant working in mostly catholic countries.

So for nearly 300 years his posthumous reputation suffered from the twofold malaise that his invention of the calculus was disputed by followers of Newton and that his philosophy was seen as pure metaphysics without effective connections to the problems of real life. It meant that historically we had to cope with the notion that Leibniz fell between two stools. As a scientist he was far advanced and proposed many brilliant new ideas especially in mathematics; but as a philosopher he was (supposedly) superseded by Kant. So there were two Leibnizes: the reactionary philosopher with his head in the clouds, and the scientist with both feet on the ground. In the result, his philosophy was read by philosophers, and his science by scientists, without either of these groups taking much notice of each other or of the Leibniz who was the author of both clutches of writings.

This is where the complex answer comes in.

Leibniz himself said that you cannot understand his philosophy without consulting his science, and vice versa. But his interpreters ignored this injunction. And so philosophers concentrated on a small handful of his papers (e.g. Monadology) as the full expression of his philosophy, which resulted in an impression that fundamentally his thinking on metaphysics looked backward rather than forward and was best regarded as a sort of idealism without any genuine importance to our modern understanding of the world. The hundreds of papers and letters that convey a totally different picture were left in the archives. No-one understood them anyway. Scientists curious about his philosophy were directed to these papers by their philosophical confreres and found nothing of value in them. As recently as 1945 Bertrand Russell (who admired Leibniz) repeated this mistake by telling his readers that Leibniz’s philosophy was nothing but a logical exercise, and that its impact on him was that of a philosophical fairy tale. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Yet when Einstein got to reading one of Leibniz’s less well-known papers, he said, if only I had known, it would have saved me years of struggling with relativity (some of his ideas were already hidden in Leibniz’s philosophy). Today a small handful of theoretical physicists like Julian Barbour or Lee Smolin have seen the light, but the underappreciation of Leibniz as a pioneer in philosophy persists. And if you pick up almost any one of the standard philosophical interpretations of Leibniz today, you will still find him categorised as ‘two Leibnizes’, of whom only one is genuinely relevant to us.

And so, to put it in a nutshell: Ever since his death, philosophers have read Leibniz’s philosophy in a certain light that is at least 50% the wrong way around — namely in disregard of Leibniz’s explicit injunction to read his companion papers on dynamics. Nothing of this kind ever happened to Descartes, who published very little and repeated himself constantly in those few writings. But although Leibniz’s pioneering papers have at last come to light in the last 30 years, the academic industry is still largely committed to the ‘old’ out of date Leibniz. The most recent student editions continue this tradition of narrow, selective readings of papers that all concentrate on his supposedly ‘idealistic’ frame of mind.

So there is your answer. I guess some day this lopsided point of view is going to be revised. I’ve written 2 books in the last 10 years on this state of affairs; but it would be over-optimistic of me to claim that they’ve made an impact. Yet ‘hope springs forever’. It is certainly high time that the study of Leibniz reveals the authentic greatness and importance of his thought for us today. If nothing else, Leibniz solved the philosophical problem of Descartes’ dualism 300 years ago; but we don’t know it yet and thus continue to invest billions of research dollars on projects that even on Descartes’ own say-so are not subjects of scientific enquiry.

Melissa asked:

I am in a philosophy college course and have to select an argument from George Berkeley’s ‘Of the Principles of Human Knowledge’. I want to make sure I have a legitimate argument (with premises and conclusions) before I start writing my paper. If you could confirm or add any suggestions to my argument it would be much appreciated.

Premise 1. Neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination exist without the mind.

Premise 2. Their esse is percipi, nor it is they should have existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them. Conclusion. The various sensations or ideas imprinted on the senses cannot exist otherwise than in a mind receiving them.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I take it you mean ‘Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’.

Your P1, P2 and Conclusion all say the same thing, namely that ideas (thoughts, passions, sensations) can only exist in minds. You simply assert something that everybody agrees with — Berkeley, his opponents, you, me, everybody. No argument is presented. What Berkeley contends is that minds (including God’s) and ideas are all that exist — matter doesn’t exist, the external world consists of ideas not matter. He is opposing the Lockean view that the external world consists of matter and we know about it through the senses which represent it to us as ideas of sensation (representative realism).

In support of his views he has several arguments. They are not formally presented with premises and conclusions. Two of them can be stated as follows.

1. Basic argument

P1. We perceive ordinary objects
P2. We perceive only ideas
Concl. Ordinary objects are ideas

Comment: valid, but flawed due to equivocation — ‘perceive’ has different senses in P1 (indirectly, mediately perceive)and P2 (directly perceive)

2. Better fit with common sense

Berkeley takes common sense to be,

(i) things are as they seem
(ii) things exist mind-independently

Comment: Berkeley says (correctly) that the Lockean view denies (i), holding that we cant know things in themselves, only indirectly as represented by our ideas of sensation. accepts (ii).

Berkeley says his view accepts (i) (clearly ideas are as they seem), accepts (ii) with an amendment allegedly not contrary to common sense, namely (ii*), things exist independently of any particular finite mind’s awareness of them. Nice try, but he skates over the common sense view that things exist independently of all minds.

His basic argument and his fit-with-common-sense argument are difficult ones to write about at length. And his argument against the existence of matter based on his rejection of abstraction, is even more tricky.

However, God is essential to Berkeley’s metaphysics, and you might like to deal with his argument for God’s existence. He says that his text is intended to combat scepticism and atheism by defending common sense and religion. He thinks materialism keeps God hidden behind, rather than revealed by, his creation.

His argument for God’s existence is two-part, but with no strict separation in the text Part 1. Causal argument for existence of other spirit(s) causing my ideas. Part 2. Design argument that this spirit is the biblical (eternal, omnipotent, infinite, benevolent) God.

Part 1. Causal argument

P1. My sensory ideas are not caused by me
P2. My sensory ideas are not caused by other ideas
Concl. My sensory ideas are caused by some other spirit

Comment: P1 is basic tenet for B: my sensory ideas are involuntary, ‘given’ to me, not chosen by me. Fair enough, you cant choose what to see when you look out of the window (only hallucinations and compulsive ideas are recognized by B as caused by me). P2. Also basic tenet — ideas are inert, have no causal power Argument is valid only if idealism is assumed. If we don’t assume this, we can say our sensory ideas are caused by a material external world. But even if we charitably agree with B’s idealism, allowing the argument as sound, it only establishes the source of or ideas as a mind, not as God. B. needs Part 2.

Part 2. Design argument

P. The world shows ‘grandeur, order and complexity of ideas’
Concl. There is a single, infinite, omnipotent, benevolent spirit (God) who designed/ supports it.

Comment: Design argument lost its force after Darwin. But weak even in B’s day. The P. focuses on the good aspects: we might equally well stress the bad (natural evil), drawing different conclusions. B. deals briefly, and conventionally, with natural evil (due to need for nature to work by simple general rules) and moral evil (due to our abuse of free will). But even if we grant a designer, it doesn’t follow there is a single designer, an omnipotent or infinite one, a benevolent one, one with any interest in us, even one with any self-awareness that it causes my ideas. B. thinks a spirit lacking understanding is incoherent, but this seems a psychological not a logical objection. To assume that an external mental source of our ideas is interested in what it does as it affects us is to beg the question.

B. fails to establish the existence of a god sufficient to support his metaphysics, let alone the biblical one.

CCS asked:

If someone has a question about a religion, why do you feel like you can answer it? Someone asked ‘Is There A God’ and the response was I don’t really think so. What gives you authority?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

If someone asks you a question then you can give a definite answer or you can give your opinion.

The answer ‘I don’t think so’ is obviously an opinion and you don’t need any authority to give an opinion. If the answer had been ‘No there can’t possibly be a God’ then we would expect a philosopher to back up that answer with convincing rational arguments.

However philosophy is the attempt to find truth by means of rational thought. Philosophers don’t recognise ‘Authority’ and we don’t believe anyone has or needs authority to answer questions. Questions about the existence of God are not religious questions, they are just questions.

The pope may have authority to answer questions about Catholic theology but he has no special authority to answer the question ‘Does God exist?’.

In general religious people BELIEVE that God exists but they don’t have any convincing arguments to PROVE that God exists, nor do they have any special authority to answer such a question.

Answer by Tony Fahey

It seems to me that it is the same authority or, perhaps, the same right that allows one to state that one thinks there is a God. Particularly when this statement derives, not in virtue of the fact that one is born into and/ or indoctrinated into a belief system that insists that one’s own position on such things is unquestionable, but from one’s genuine search for the truth in such a matter.

Paul asked:

Why do you think the problem of phenomena and noumena has baffled great
philosophers up to today?

Answer by Helier Robinson

The words phenomena and noumena are old fashioned words meaning the same as the modern theoretical and empirical. The empirical or phenomenal is known by the senses, and the theoretical or noumenal is known by the mind because it cannot be known through the senses, only evidence for it can be so known. The noumenal is invoked when trying to explain the phenomenal, by describing underlying causes. Explanation is causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects. For example, to explain why the wires in an electric toaster are hot, we invoke the underlying cause of an electric current in the wires; the toaster and its wires, and the heat, are phenomenal, and the electricity is noumenal. Or, in modern language, the toaster and the hot wires are empirical and the electricity is theoretical. As David Hume pointed out, there are no empirical causes, only correlations; all causes are underlying — noumenal — or theoretical. Theoretical science tries to describe the noumenal world, and thereby explain the findings of empirical science. Everything you read about molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, the curvature of space-time, black holes, the Big Bang, etc. is about noumena. Theoretical scientists, unlike most metaphysicians of the past, work it out by paying very careful attention to empirical science. The empirical science provides the evidence for the noumenal knowledge; in particular, theoretical prediction of empirical novelties is a potent form of verification of theoretical science.

A second reason for postulating noumena is that they are what are sometimes called the thing in itself. If you think carefully about empirical objects, you find that they are structures of sensations; indeed, that is why they are called empirical objects. (This leads to difficulties because sensations are manufactured in the brain of the perceiver and are thereby internal to the perceiver s head, mental, and private, while to the perceiver everything empirical is outside his/her head, material, and public; but these difficulties can be resolved.) Also, all empirical objects are somewhat illusory, and to this extent, unreal. So some philosophers argued that empirical objects are representations, or images, or copies, or reproductions, of real objects, and these real objects became known are things in themselves, or noumena.

So now we can come to your question. The problem of noumena and phenomena is the problem that noumena are, according to empiricists, radically unknowable. For empiricists, all knowledge is empirical: our only source of knowledge is our senses. So we cannot have any noumenal knowledge whatsoever. However, it is incorrect to say that this problem has baffled great philosophers up to this day. It has only baffled minor philosophers.

Noumenal knowledge is speculative knowledge. Speculation can be wild and rash, as it often was with bad metaphysics (although not all metaphysics was bad: consider Leibniz, for example) but speculation can be disciplined and careful and lead to genuine noumenal knowledge. Theoretical science, in particular, is disciplined by empirical fact and by mathematical rigour, and is highly successful; much more successful than other explanatory attempts, such as myth, theology, metaphysics, and common sense.

On Thur, Apr 28, 2011 at 01:06:49

Dylan asked:

According to St. Anselm the very idea of god is proof that god exists. explain what he means by this.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Anselm’s famous ontological argument for the existence of God appears in chapters two and three of his Proslogion. Very roughly, his argument goes like this: God is the most perfect being; it is more perfect to exist than not to exist; therefore god exists. It should be said that Anselm was a monk and bishop of Canterbury who held that faith is prior to and provides the context for understanding. Thus, for Anselm, it is not the case that we understand first in order to believe, rather it is that we believe in order to understand. According to Anselm, if God is defined as a being than which nothing greater can be conceived or thought, then God must exist, since it is greater to exist in reality than just in the mind as notional or conceptual.

One of the earliest critics of Anselm’s ontological proof was his contemporary Gaunilo (also a monk), who, in his Liber pro Insipiente, opposed Anselm’s argument on the grounds that humans cannot pass from intellect to reality. According to Gaunilo, Anselm’s’ argument would imply that anything, no matter how fictitious or chimerical, which was thought in the mind, would have to exist in reality. To prove his point Gaunilo uses the example of an ‘island more blessed than any other, a perfect island… greater than which nothing greater can be conceived’. Given Anselm’s ‘proof’, he argues, if one can conceive of such an island in this way, then it follows that such an island must exist in reality as well as in the mind – this, of course is absurd. In his defence, Anselm claimed that his argument applied exclusively to God.


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