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Dana asked:

Is the nature of fundamentally understanding reality intrinsically illogical, and would this subsequently imply that reality itself is fundamentally illogical (since reality is defined by perception/understanding)?

Since a fundamental explanation for reality must explain itself (be a self-contained explanation), it would be, by definition, unsubstantiated by external means, and therefore without any external evidence supporting it. Thus, any final or fundamental explanation for what we call ‘reality’ must be unexplained by any external reasoning, thereby making it illogical as it would have no means of inference by which to prove such an explanation, and such the ability to make such an inference is essentially the means by which we define something to be logical, if I am not mistaken.

How could an ultimate theory or understanding of reality and everything possibly retain any sense of reason without continuing forever and reaching no definite conclusion (and therefore not truly being an ‘ultimate’ theory or understanding of reality and everything)? Is mankind’s quest for understanding inherently limited despite our greatest efforts? Because reality seems to contain an innate tendency to refute logic at its most fundamental level.

Also, this would lead to many consequences, such as the inability for science, or logic, to ever refute God, since logic itself breaks down at the essence of existence, and therefore the rules by which we govern any means of defining what explanations may or may not be sensible.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

In all such arguments or questions, you must examine your own presuppositions – especially where they come from. In this case, the idea of logical entailment. It is absolutely compelling, but at some stage you might listen to the little whisper in your ear which suggests that you are privileging a human faculty with God-like prescience without any evidence other than what this same faculty adjudges to be ‘real’ and ‘illusory’, ‘illogical’ and ‘proved’.

It is a fact, after all, that we cannot describe the nature and performance of this faculty in terms other than presuppositions about a reality that is independent of human input. But this depends in turn on a conception to which this faculty must first give birth! And so we go round in circles.

So you can see that understanding is prior to logic. This is supported by human history as well. Prior to Aristotle, we did not have much of an idea of logical entailment; hence logical thinking was a product of deliberations on how chains of demonstrations must be linked in order to have the understanding giving its consent to the compelling intellectual force of a logical argument.

It seems, indeed, that our notions of reality and our effort to apply criteria of logic to it, emanate from the Greek idea of the world as a cosmos, which is an ‘ordered’ entity. The problem conjoint to this notion is that we then proceed to distinguish what the mind conceives from what the senses perceive. We seem to be happy enough to declare that sensory perception is not characterised by logic, and is therefore not entirely trustworthy.

Yet this argument falls down on a quite fundamental issue – actually two of them. The first is, that in order to have a standard by which to measure the amount of reality conveyed to us by the senses, we must first collate all the knowledge they confer on us and then take note of the exceptions. This is why, e.g. Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt is an ultimately silly exercise, and as you know he suppressed this priority of sensory before logical knowledge. The second issue is, that ‘reality bites’, and if you ignore this by declaring your senses to be unreliable, then you may pay the consequence of having much pain or even becoming extinct.

This answers the first two parts of your question.

But you may still have the last arrow of solipsism in your quiver. Lacking external reasons, can we still claim existence for reality? There are two further indefeasible arguments against this.

First, that our knowledge of the work of the senses (under logical criteria!) shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that they do not work autonomously by ‘creating’ an external reality and projecting the same into your mind as imagery. The sensory system is responsive to stimuli received from beyond the periphery of the body; and in birth, there is a massive over-production of sensory fibres for the purpose of eliminating those which have found nothing to respond to in the external world. Therefore you end up, at a later stage in life, with a system that has been ‘primed’ by the world to report reliably to you the conditions of existence in your world. Therefore it is logically compelling to accept the existence of an external world and that its constitution corresponds to the possibilities of interpretation and understanding that is built into into our perceptive apparatus. Again this has adapted to reality, since extinction awaits those organisms who get the ‘wrong’ message.

The second argument is, that ‘matter’ (i.e. chemical elements) has no sensory or perceptive equipment, therefore the condition we call ‘life’ in the only means to establishing existence as a reality. Without the possibility of sensing existence, there is no existence!

On to your further questions with their ‘absolutist’ dimension. If you can smell smoke from a fire, and then calibrate an instrument which cannot smell, but can be designed so as to detect the molecules that comprise smoke, you have proved something. Namely that perceptions, understanding, reason and logical entailment do have a leg to stand on. That they argue convincingly and in concert for existence. The only difference between your nose and your fire alarm is the ‘consciousness’ of your nose. But this consciousness, as mentioned, is the decisive criterion for existence. Even supposing that a fire alarm could come into existence by itself, it would not report fire, but only the presence of certain molecules in its vicinity. The logical connection between smoke, fire and existence has to be performed by consciousness.

Finally God. No, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. You should acquaint yourself with Kant on this issue, who solved this problem 200 years ago, though admittedly over the heads of millions of people who chose to disbelieve his proof. This is not logical behaviour; but as you know logic is too difficult in any case for many people.

The point (keeping it simple) is this: that all existents are forms of energy; but in your and my dimension these energies may be perceived in varying degrees of solidity. Thus to you a table top may be hard and impenetrable, a microbe however may crawl into the pores and right through it. This difference is covered by the term ‘phenomena’. We humans necessarily perceive phenomena and our sensory system must decide from their strength such questions as ‘can I walk through this wall or not?’ In other words, phenomena are species of vibration. But God, spirits, ghosts, as well as magic and sorcery do not fall into this class of existents. They do no ‘vibrate’. Accordingly they cannot be perceived. From which the logical conclusion of an either/or must be derived. Either, that they don’t exist (are impossible) or else that there are forms of energy or vibration which we cannot detect even with our most sensitive instruments.

It stands to reason under those circumstances that it is futile practically, theoretically and logically, to make claims for or against their existence. Some, like sorcerers, can be absolutely declared to be false conceptions since they are humans and cannot command the powers they are supposed to have. Ghosts because they project phenomena without a substrate, which is impossible. Gods and spirits? Well, you decide.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

I don’t understand any of the things you say, they paint pictures but what do they mean. How are we (or you) supposed to decide if they are true or false.

Here are two quotations from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. ‘Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.’ ‘How high the seas of language rise, lets get back to dry land’.

I would suggest that that you get a better understanding of logic by taking a course of study of symbolic logic i.e. propositional calculus, predicate calculus and the proofs of their consistency and completeness.

You talk about the inability of science or logic to refute God. Logic is about valid arguments, God isn’t an argument so it makes no sense to talk about refuting him.

Science studies and explains the physical world, science doesn’t refute things. God isn’t part of the physical world, scientists have nothing to say about God but then neither do physiotherapists.

Reality is neither logical or illogical (except in a metaphorical sense). People can be logical or illogical.

Mercy asked:

What are David Hume’s contributions to the debate on God, especially her/ his/ its attributes of first cause?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Religion holds that the world operates on cause and effect and that there must therefore be a First Cause, namely God. In Hume’s world view, causation is assumed but ultimately unknowable. We simply do not know there is a First Cause, or a place for God.

In his Natural History of Religion Hume argues that religious beliefs arise from Man’s propensity to attribute anthropomorphic attributes to unseen forces. In his Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion, he shows how the Argument for Design cannot survive careful application of the scientific standards.

According to Hume, God is a complex idea which we cobble together in our minds. Whilst he accepted that the degree of order evidenced by the universe suggests some kind of designing intelligence, he rejected the notion that this was proof of the existence God on the grounds that human reason was insufficient to provide such evidence.

Hume is generally believed to be an atheist, particularly given that his Dialogue concerning Natural Religion, notwithstanding its polite and careful ambiguity, was deemed to be powerfully anti-theistic. However, since he argued that the existence of God could neither be proved nor disproved, some philosophers, such as Jostein Gaarder, suggest that is more likely that was an agnostic. However, since Hume died without holding out any hope of an afterlife it seems there is no substance in this argument. Indeed, in his book, The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley tells us that Hume, responding to arguments in favour of the immortality of the soul, said, ‘By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise [no way] resembles any that was ever seen’. (2008, p.175)

Criss asked:

Why do people keep bearing children when life is so hard, ugly, and unfair?

Why to bring into existence a new life, when life is so much pain? why when anyway, most times, children bring more worries than happiness? why do parents look through ‘pink glasses’ while deciding to have children, hoping for a beautiful life for their children (and for themselves), and they don’t learn from the experience of their parents?

Why, when no-one thinks anyway that living his/ her life again (exactly the way it already was) does worth it?

I see children everywhere, new poor lives, it seems like their parents think that life is worth living. when they’re not happy anyway, why do they bring into existence a new life, that will suffer the same as they do?

It might sound depressive, but really, I rarely see people that enjoy their life and are happy they were born. most of them are only afraid to die and just go on… and keep struggling… keep suffering… and keep giving life…

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Well Criss it does seem as though you are a bit depressed and maybe seeing only the sad things in life. People have children because they have a very powerful instinct to have children. At the same time they also have a very powerful instinct to love, protect and care for their children.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all children are cared for and protected. Parents cannot protect their children against famine, disease or earthquakes but humans are not gods or saints and even if they do the best they can they may still fail.

Here is a poem from a British poet Christopher Logue. You have to try before you can succeed or fail. If you don’t try then maybe you don’t exist.

‘Be Not Too Hard’ by Christopher Logue

Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man
Be not too hard when he is sold and bought
For he must manage as best he can
Be not too hard when he gladly dies
Defending things he does not own
Be not too hard if he tells lies
And if his heart is sometimes like a stone
Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man

Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man
Nothing is given to man

Answer by Craig Skinner

A heartfelt plea.

And not the first. Consider:

Sophocles:

‘Never to have been born is best
But if we must see the light, the next best
Is quickly returning whence we came’

Heinrich Heine:

‘Sleep is good, death is better; but of course
The best would be never to have been born at all’

The old Jewish quip:

‘Life is terrible, it would have been better not to have been born.
Who is so lucky: not one in a hundred thousand’

Why then do we keep having children?

Explanation (how it comes about that we do this) is straightforward, justification (do we have good reasons for doing it) more problematic.

The explanation is that we are natural-born reproducers and optimists. These traits are inherited and have survival value. They are part of human nature. We are descendants of protohumans who were like this, whereas nonreproducers-cum-pessimists left no descendants. So in all societies we find unplanned and planned pregnancy, children being cherished, hopes for a better future invested in them, celebration of birth and mourning at death, rather than the reverse, and widespread overestimation of life’s quality (‘things could be worse’, ‘look on the bright side’, ‘chin up’ etc).

But can we justify having children and keeping the species going? Here are some attempts:

Religious justification:

Yes, life is a vale of tears, but it’s only a proving ground, and we (or some of us) will have a wonderful afterlife. If you believe this, no other justification is necessary.

Ethical justification:

There is an ethical necessity for good to exist, and this can only occur if there is a universe rather than absolutely nothing. Therefore, even if good must be accompanied by evil, it is better for these to exist than not to. Believing this is a bit like religious belief without gods, and without heaven to explain away evil.

Pragmatic justification:

Yes, life on Earth may well be a fluke in an unfeeling universe, it’s absurd, but let’s enjoy it if we can, and have children who can do likewise.

I don’t go, myself, for the religious or ethical justifications. I favour the pragmatic, but recognize that this may be no more than a ‘habit of the mind’, the phrase Hume uses when noting that philosophically we may be properly sceptical of the existence of the external world, of a persisting self, and of a link between cause and effect, but when we leave the study and join everyday life we all believe these things exist and act accordingly.

Note that even if it would have been better for me never to have existed, it doesn’t follow, now that I do exist, that it would be best to commit suicide. Not bringing a person into existence, and ending the life of an existing person, are two different things. A nonexistent person has no interests, no rights, no agenda, whereas an existent one has and usually has an interest in continuing to live.

In addition to the argument from the manifest suffering of most lives, there is another argument for nonexistence being better than existence, namely the Asymmetry Argument. It goes like this. Nonexistence prevents both suffering and joy. But, whereas this prevention of suffering is a good thing FULL STOP, the prevention of joy is not a bad thing because there is nobody who is deprived of it.

David Benatar’s Better Never To Have Been (OUP 2009) argues at length for existence always being a harm, procreation always wrong, failure to abort always wrong, and extinction of humanity (and other sentient life) desirable. Critics, rather than countering his arguments, mostly dismiss his conclusions as absurd, or misunderstand him as favouring mass suicide (rather than planned extinction), or misrepresent him as favouring selective abortion or euthanasia for the disabled. Although the conclusions seem grim, the book is engaging.

As for extinction, I doubt that planning for it well ever catch on, but unplanned extinction is a distinct long term possibility.

Bri asked:

What is a central aspect of Epictetus?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Bri, this is an interesting question about a philosopher of whom little is generally heard. What should be said is that, like many early philosophers, Epictetus (pronounce Epic-tee-tus) himself, as far as can be determined, wrote nothing down (or if he did nothing of his writings remain), and the little we do know of his philosophy is contained within by notes taken by his pupil Arrian.

Epictetus (c.55 AD–c.138 AD) was an exponent of Stoicism, one of the most popular philosophical systems in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It was founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 BC and named after the Porch or Arcade (Stoa) in which Zeno taught. The major late Stoics were Seneca (c. 5 BC–65 AD), Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Stoic ethics defines virtue as living in accordance with logos. It is intrinsically connected with logic and physics, in that only a clear grasp of reality allows a person to be virtuous. Evil is defined negatively as not living in accordance with logos, that is, a kind of ignorance.

As to the issue of the central aspect of his philosophy, it seems to me that one can say that it closely follows Aristotle in that it focuses primarily on eudaemonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’. However, again in the Aristotelian sense, this is not happiness of Utilitarianism, which closely associated with pleasure, but the happiness or flourishing one attains by achieving one’s true goal or telos: one’s true raison d’etre.

Probably what should be said at the outset is that philosophy, for Epictetus, was not just a theoretical discipline, but a way of life (a view which, I would argue, is shared by all true philosophers). According to Epictetus all external events are determined by fate, and thus beyond our control. However, whilst we cannot control external events, we can accept that which happens to us calmly and dispassionately, and, more importantly, we can control how we respond to these events. That is, for Epictetus, our emotions should only respond to things that we can control. Good and evil are exclusively involved in things under our control, not in external events. The events themselves are neither good nor evil, but these are in our view of events.

Individuals can, and should, take responsibility for their own of own actions which they can examine and control through rigorous discipline. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy (1991, p.271) tells us that, for Epictetus, every man is an actor in a play, in which God has assigned the parts; it is each person’s duty to perform his or her part worthily, whatever that part may be.

According to Epictetus, whilst individuals are prisoners in an earthly body, their minds are free. Like other Stoics, he also made a distinction between pleasure and happiness. For Epictetus, happiness actually arises out of a ‘freedom from passion and disturbance, [and] the sense that your affairs are in order’. Along with all other philosophers of the Hellenistic period, he saw moral philosophy as having the practical purpose of guiding people towards leading better lives. The aim was to live well, to secure for oneself eudaimonia (‘happiness’ or ‘a flourishing life’) (see ibid). Suffering, he claimed, arises from attempting to control that which is beyond our control, or by failing to control or put order on that which is within our power do so do.

Dana asked:

Is the nature of fundamentally understanding reality intrinsically illogical, and would this subsequently imply that reality itself is fundamentally illogical (since reality is defined by perception/ understanding)?

Since a fundamental explanation for reality must explain itself (be a selfcontained explanation), it would be, by definition, unsubstantiated by external means, and therefore without any external evidence supporting it. Thus, any final or fundamental explanation for what we call “reality” must be unexplained by any external reasoning, thereby making it illogical as it would have no means of inference by which to prove such an explanation, and such the ability to make such an inference is essentially the means by which we define something to be logical, if I am not mistaken.

How could an ultimate theory or understanding of reality and everything possibly retain any sense of reason without continuing forever and reaching no definite conclusion (and therefore not truly being an “ultimate” theory or understanding of reality and everything)? Is mankind’s quest for understanding inherently limited despite our greatest efforts? Because reality seems to contain an innate tendency to refute logic at its most fundamental level.

Also, this would lead to many consequences, such as the inability for science, or logic, to ever refute God, since logic itself breaks down at the essence of existence, and therefore the rules by which we govern any means of defining what explanations may or may not be sensible.

Answer by Julian Plumley

Your initial question is: ‘Is the nature of fundamentally understanding reality intrinsically illogical?’ There are a couple of problems with this: I am not sure what the nature of an understanding might be; ‘illogical’ has to be made more precise; ‘fundamentally’ does not really add anything except emphasis. So I think the question needs to be slightly modified as follows: ‘Is the notion of understanding reality self-contradictory?’

Your second question is: ‘Would [the notion of understanding reality being self-contradictory] subsequently imply that reality itself is fundamentally illogical (since reality is defined by perception/ understanding)?’ This question is already an abbreviated argument, which might be expanded as follows.

1. The notion of understanding reality is self-contradictory.

2. Reality is defined by perception and understanding.

3. Therefore, reality is self-contradictory.

Is the argument valid? No. Whose perception and understanding is this talking about, and of what? Presumably, mankind’s perception and understanding of reality. There is also an ambiguity between the use of ‘reality’ in 1 and in 2. In 1, I think ‘reality’ refers to everything, the whole world, so let’s say ‘Reality’ (capitalised). In 2, ‘reality’ means ‘the reality of a thing’ or it’s individual nature. There is also a hidden step getting from 2 to 3. So we can repair the argument as follows.

1′. The notion of mankind’s understanding Reality is self-contradictory.

2′. The reality of a thing is defined by mankind’s [perception and] understanding of that thing.

3′. If the reality of a thing is defined by something self-contradictory, then that thing is self-contradictory.

Therefore 4. Reality is self-contradictory.

The argument is now sound if the premises are true, but are they? For 3′, if the nature (reality) of X is defined by Y, and Y is self-contradictory, does that make X self-contradictory? Arguably, yes. If we define the nature of the red Queen’s favourite rose garden arrangements as round squares, then those arrangements are themselves self-contradictory. For 1′ – this is argued for later. For 2′ – this is a highly controversial, irrealist viewpoint. It says, with Protagoras, that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. I will not take this point further, since there is ample literature on that subject.

So 1′ is the key to both of your questions. Is understanding Reality logically impossible? You offer an argument in its defence as follows.

5. A fundamental explanation for reality must explain itself (i.e. be a self-contained explanation).

6. So it [a fundamental explanation for reality] would be unsubstantiated by external means, and without any external evidence supporting it.

7. So there is no means to prove it [infer it] from anything else.

8. Anything that cannot be proved is illogical.

Therefore 9. It is illogical.

In this argument, you have shifted your ground from ‘understanding’ to ‘explanation’. But these are different notions. An explanation goes from an explanans to an explanandum, and these have to be two different propositions, or the explanation in not satisfactory. But ‘understanding’ is not the same – not everything we understand stands in need of explanation. And understanding is not always propositional: e.g. understanding what the colour red is like is knowledge-by-acquaintance, not ‘knowledge-that’. The argument also has some hidden steps and has to be repaired as follows.

10. If the explanation of something is self-contradictory, then the notion of understanding that thing is self-contradictory. [i.e. Something can only be understood if it can be explained.]

5′. Any explanation of Reality [by mankind] is included in Reality.

Therefore 6′. There is no explanans of Reality that is independent of Reality.

11. All valid explanation proceeds via logical inference from an explanans that is independent of the explanandum to the explanandum.

Therefore 7′. There is no valid explanation of Reality.

8′. Any non-valid explanation is self-contradictory.

Therefore 9b’. Any explanation of Reality is self-contradictory.

Therefore 1′. The notion of mankind’s understanding Reality is self-contradictory.

So how about the premises of this argument? As I stated above, I do not think 10 is true. Explanation and understanding are not connected in this way. 5′ seems true, since we are part of Reality. 11 is not true, since there are perfectly good inductive explanations. But the requirement for logical inference is superfluous. The core idea of your argument is that the explanation is internal, not that it is non-inferential. 8′ is not true, but this might be improved by translating your ‘illogical’ as ‘self-contradictory or meaningless.’

Overall, this argument for 1′ is going not going to work in this way. But your underlying problem is that you cannot see a way we can ever reach a final understanding of Reality, if we are embedded in Reality. So you ask: ‘How could an ultimate theory or understanding of reality and everything possibly retain any sense of reason without continuing forever…?’

To me, it looks like you are using a foundationalist theory of knowledge: we can only know things that we can logically infer from other things that we know. (And we can understand what we know.) But this cannot get us very far. There is very little about the world that we infer logically, as against inductively. And there is not enough self-evident knowledge to start from to build up foundationalist knowledge.

Mankind’s major project for understanding Reality is Science. (And you could add Theology, too, if you like.) Science uses mainly a coherence theory of knowledge. The main criterion is that the findings of science do not contradict one-another, or the observations. Logical inference is used to test this (see Popper) but science is not built up from some self-evident foundation. The whole thing could shift radically if a single law was shown to be false. (And this nearly happened recently with the putative discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos.) So in this way, the project of science cannot ever finish, it will always remain tentative. But this does not make it self-contradictory, nor does it refute logic.

Victoria asked:

How would Plato define ‘Eros’ in a couple sentences?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

‘Eros’ is the word for desire.

In Plato’s use, you will find many different kinds of eros, because we have many desires.

There is an eros for knowledge, for poetry, for travel, for science and so on. And, of course, for sex.

in the modern world, we only associate sex with eros, as in ‘erotic’.

But you can see from the examples I have given that there is another word which we use in replacement.

This is ‘passion’.

There is a passion for knowledge, for travel etc.

So Platonic ‘eros’ = modern ‘passion’.

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner

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