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Kim asked:

What is a metaphysical explanation of a phenomenon?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question contains two claims about metaphysics: both of them controversial.

The first claim is that metaphysics is concerned with giving explanations. Just as physics explains why the Earth goes round the Sun, or chemistry explains why copper dissolves in concentrated nitric acid, so metaphysics explains… what exactly?

The second claim is that metaphysics is interested in phenomena, that is to say, particlar things we experience, or discover about the world. Once upon a time, it was believed that earthquakes were caused by an angry god. Now, the accepted explanation is given by geology and the tectonic structure of the Earth.

Pick any phenomenon you like, and you will find a science to explain it, assuming it is capable of explanation. I wouldn’t like to be in the position of defending the view that some phenomena are intrinsically inexplicable, although there are many that we don’t yet know how to explain.

You can see the problem. One answer that has been given assumes that metaphysics does explain, but what it explains isn’t any particular phenomenon in the world. What metaphysics explains is the very existence of the world itself. A proof of the existence of God would be a ‘metaphysical’ explanation of the existence of the world. As a metaphysical proof, it doesn’t rely on empirical observations of phenomena, the way science does.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason argued that none of the ‘proofs’ of the existence of God are valid. All we can prove is the validity of principles, such as the principle of causality or the principle of the permanence of substance, which he regarded as a necessary condition for human experience. These principles apply to all phenomena equally, rather than to any particular phenomenon in the world. You could say that according to Kant, metaphysics explains the ‘phenomenon of causality’.

An alternative approach would be that metaphysics doesn’t offer explanations of any kind, although it is concerned with phenomena. What metaphysics seeks to do is describe phenomena, or offer a general framework for description, at a greater level of generality than is normally required for everyday life, or for science.

This is the view that I hold. What kinds of phenomena is metaphysics interested in? One example would be the question of what it is to be a subject of experience in a world, or what it is to be ‘I’. Chemistry, biology, psychology all contribute to our understanding of what human beings are, how we function as a part of nature. I am one of these human beings. What kind of ‘phenomenon’ is the experience of being ‘I’? It’s the most real phenomenon to me, but when I try to describe it, all I am able to describe are everyday facts about what it is to be a human being.

Metaphysics as I have just characterized it – which is interested in particular phenomena but not in explanation – doesn’t look a good candidate for a ‘science’. What metaphysics aims to do is to see what is already there, but from a greater height or a greater angle of view. We already know the basic truths of metaphysics, and yet we don’t know.

A truth of metaphysics is like the elephant in the room which we don’t notice because it is always there, or the wood we fail to see for the trees.

 

Craig asked:

While I understand the reluctance to allow anyone to answer questions on Pathways, and very informative it is, the simple question of academic qualification is a little strange. My question is does the study of philosophy create a philosopher or is it the random thoughts of a simple mind asking the most basic and important questions, then formulating the most striking and thought provoking answers.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Craig suppose you find a website called ‘Ask a doctor?’ and you post a question there. You would probably expect your question to be answered by someone who had a medical degree from a recognised medical school. You would feel cheated if the person who answered your question had no medical qualifications.

Suppose you find a website called ‘Ask a Psychic’ and you post a question. Well psychics are self appointed and there is no evidence that any of them are genuine so you would have to take what you get from such a website.

Suppose you find a site called ‘Ask a philosopher’ then your question will be answered by people who have some academic qualifications in philosophy. They may not be great philosophers, they may not even be good philosophers but at least they have taken the trouble to study philosophy. Now in general philosophy does not lead to lucrative jobs or great riches. People who study philosophy do so because they want to.

You seem to think that philosophy is about sitting around having deep thoughts about life. It isn’t and academic philosophers have no interest in such things. We have no interest in striking thoughts or simple minds with their thought provoking answers. We have no interest in such things because we are philosophers and we are only interested in philosophy. Philosophy is the continuation of something that first arose in ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago. It is a rational inquiry into the nature of truth, the scope of human knowledge and nature of logic.

I know that in general the word philosophy means the most basic and fundamental ideas about things but it doesn’t mean this to us academic philosophers. So in an agricultural college they might talk about the philosophy of animal husbandry and in medical or nursing schools they might talk about the philosophy of patient care. Neither of these things are dealt with in the university philosophy departments.

You can become a philosopher without going to university but you have to read all the books and you have to study logic and you have to understand the books. When you have read all the books then you are ready to have your own original deep thoughts. Qualifications or book reading don’t make you a philosopher but they are a necessary stage on the road to becoming a philosopher.

I would contend that the most thought provoking questions and answers about life have been provided by the academic philosophers and not by simple minds sitting around waiting to have deep thoughts. Philosophers aren’t interested in deep thoughts we are interested in rational thoughts supported by logical rational arguments.

If you can’t be bothered to study the work of past philosophers, how will you know that your questions and answers are thought provoking and worthwhile. They might be shallow and worthless. or a mere repetition of work that has already been done.

Now I am sure that you will understand that we are not Psychics and we can’t allow just anyone who claims to be a deep thinker to answer questions on this website. We can’t set exams to find out who is really a deep thinker. Universities already do this. Their exams are called philosophy degrees.

 

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Study of philosophy does not create a philosopher. Academic qualifications have very little to do with it anyway. The academic pursuit of philosophy can have one of two targets: First, that the person may wish to pursue philosophy for the sake of getting a job in an institution. That’s common, and applies in exactly the same way to doctors, engineers, economists, lawyers and many other professions. These people, in other words, end up as teachers of philosophy, or as researchers into the history of philosophy. There is no reason to believe that they are philosophers, although a few undoubtedly end up that way.

The other reason to submit to academic study is that philosophy is not just a pack of personal opinions. Philosophical thought tries to find ways of making meaningful and long lasting contribution to the self-understanding of human beings, not only for thinking, but for political theory, for examining scientific principles and so on. For these purpose it is necessary to acquire a rigorous discipline of thinking. Academic study has a way of enforcing that discipline.

 

Lashiya asked:

Can our feelings be our sole guide to morality?

Answer by Stuart Burns

The answer to your question depends entirely on just how you choose to think about ‘morality’. In general, the answer is ‘No!’. But there is a possible ‘Yes!’ waiting in the wings.

According to many different surveys, most of the people on this planet self-describe themselves as ‘religious’ to some extent or other. What this means is that most people would self-describe themselves as adhering to a religious notion of morality – otherwise known as Authoritative Rule morality. And what that means, in turn, is that they supposedly think (or perhaps, more accurately, they want other people to think they think) that what determines whether some action is moral or immoral is the dictates of some Authority figure. For example, for those avowing adherence to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious faiths, that Authority figure would be God – with His dictates revealed in the sacred books of those faiths. There are lots of other religions in the world, and many quasi-religions. An example of the latter would be traditional Communism whose Authority figures include Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao (and perhaps Che Guevara).

The point of this initial focus on Authoritative Rule morality, is that most people, most of the time, think (or pretend they think) of the notion of morality in Authoritative Rule terms. And the thing is that all Authoritative Rule morality is couched in terms of absolute commandments – You must to this, you must not do that. The obvious example is the Ten Commandments – ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!!’ – No if, ands, or buts!! No allowance for circumstances. If this is the way that you think of morality, then the answer to your question is clearly ‘No!!’ Whatever your feelings might be, they cannot be your sole guide to morality. If you are ‘brought up right’, then your feelings ought to be in sync with the dictates of your morality. But your primary guide is necessarily the received Word of the Authority figure you have chosen.

On the other hand, regardless of what people say they believe, most people do not in fact actually adhere to the strict commandments of their religious notions of morality. In other words, most people most of the time actually behave as if they believed in a much less dogmatic notion of morality. And now we get into the possibility of a consequentialist notion of morality.

There are any number of different consequentialist notions of morality to choose from, if you wish to investigate and choose one that suits you. But all of them, by their very nature, consider the benefits and harm that actions might do to people. What separates the various members of the consequentialist group of moral theories, is the kind of things that are considered benefits and harm, and the scope of people for whom consideration is morally required.

Consider Utilitarianism, as one famous example. There are a number of different flavours of Utilitarianism available to choose from, but the ‘traditional’ version, due to Bentham and Mill, determines the moral worth of actions according to the extent to which they deliver the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’. In any situation, therefore, the obligatory moral action is the alternative that you expect to deliver the net greatest happiness – over all time, and over all people. Different flavours of Utilitarianism modify this principle by changing ‘happiness’ to some other notion like ‘economic welfare’, or ‘flourishing’, and so forth. They also sometimes change the time and population scopes to reduce the computation to more manageable levels.

Regardless of the details, if you choose to think of ‘morality’ along consequentialist lines, then the answer to your question is also clearly ‘No!!’. Consequentialist notions of morality make the beneficial and harmful consequences of actions of paramount importance in judging their moral worth. Your feelings about the matter are irrelevant. Although, again, if you are ‘brought up right’, then your feelings ought to be in sync with the dictates of your morality. (The very definition of being ‘brought up right’.) But your primary guide is necessarily the notion of the Greatest Good that your chosen version of a consequentialist morality has deemed morally supreme.

Unfortunately, all consequentialist notions of morality put a strong moral emphasis on knowledge and thinking. You have to learn enough about the workings of the world to both be able to recognize what alternatives for action (or inaction) you have available in any circumstance, and be able to predict with reasonable accuracy the consequences of those alternatives. And, of course, you have to pay attention to your circumstances, and think (hard) about those possible consequences. A consequentialist notion of morality is not for the lazy. And feelings just get in the way of careful attention to detail. But look around you and you will see that when it comes to morality, most people are willfully lazy. They would much rather have someone else do their moral thinking for them. Or they would much rather ‘go with the flow’.

So if you don’t like the consequences-be-damned absoluteness of an Authoritative Rule morality, and you don’t like the effort demanded by a Consequentialist morality, there is an alternative. It’s called ‘Cultural Relativism’. The basic idea here is that what identifies actions as moral or immoral is the subjective opinion of a population. Morality is what a population says it is. If a population thinks that a particular act is moral or immoral, then it is. Of course, you are faced with the problem of figuring out just what the opinion is of the population of you have chosen. And you are faced with the challenge of choosing which population you are going to let set your moral standards. You can go all the way from ‘all human beings’ down to ‘myself alone’. There is no moral principle that will let you decide where on this scale you ‘should’ draw the line. It’s all subjective opinion anyway. Unless you choose to limit the population to yourself alone – what’s called ‘Subjectivist Ethics’ – then your own feelings are almost as irrelevant as with other forms of morality. You are, after all, only one opinion amongst many. Baring Subjectivist Ethics, if you think of ‘morality’ in a Cultural Relativist way, then the answer to your question is equally ‘No!!’ Your primary guide to morality (considered in a Cultural Relativist way), is the opinions (or feelings, if you wish) of your chosen population – assuming you can figure out just what those opinions actually are.

Only if you limit the relevant population of concern to yourself alone – choose to adopt Subjectivist Ethics – can you argue that your sole guide to morality is your feelings. But just remember, the problem with Subjectivist Ethics, as with all variations of Cultural Relativist Morality, is that you have no basis from which to disagree with anyone whose ‘feelings’ are different from those of your own. Morality comes down to a matter of taste. If I like pistachio ice cream and you don’t, neither opinion can be right or wrong. Any disagreement about what we are to have for dessert will necessarily be resolved on the basis of force of personality or force of arms. No reasoned debate is possible.

So there you have it. The general answer to your question is ‘No!’ Under most conceptions of morality, your feelings are not a proper guide to morality. Only if you choose to adopt Subjectivist Ethics can you argue that your feelings have any relevance.

 

Emmaculatha asked:

How would you distinguish between a person who is being philosophical in the popular sense of the word and the one who might justifiably qualify for the title philosopher?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Very easy really. Anybody can be philosophical but the philosopher is the one who has studied philosophy and read all the books. If you can’t be bothered to read the books you are not a philosopher. Reading all the books will not make you a great philosopher, it may not even make you a good philosopher but at least you are justified in calling yourself a philosopher.

 

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What is it to ‘qualify for a title’? Consider the circumstances in which this question arises. You want to know if someone qualifies for the title of ‘medical doctor’. You are putting your life in someone’s hands, and most countries have laws which state the appropriate criteria for calling oneself a ‘doctor’ and practising medicine.

Or consider what is required to be a ‘teacher’. In the UK, state schools will only employ people who have a teaching qualification, i.e. someone who has taken a teaching degree or postgraduate certificate. Non-state schools, like the great public schools of Harrow or Eton, don’t always have this requirement. They set other criteria, but don’t consider a teaching qualification to be necessary. For example, to teach French, or History, you have to have a degree in that subject. If you really know your subject, then the assumption is you can teach it.

By contrast with these two cases, there are no criteria for qualifying for the title ‘philosopher’. It implies that the holder is worthy in some way, but how? It is important to be doctored by a ‘real doctor’ or taught by a ‘real teacher’. No country has a law stating who can or cannot be called a ‘philosopher’.

It’s a label, originally self-applied, devised at a time – in Ancient Greece – when thinking about general questions such as the nature of the universe was considered suspect or even dangerous. If you were against ‘philosophers’, the lovers of wisdom, then you were ‘against wisdom’, i.e. ignorant or stupid.

Is everyone who is philosophical a philosopher? It is good to be philosophical, to ponder the great questions or think about things more deeply. A philosopher is something that one aspires to be, which implies that considerable effort is involved. To be a philosopher is a vocation. If you are prepared to dedicate a significant portion of your life to the study of philosophy, even if you don’t earn a living as a teacher of philosophy, then you have every right to call yourself a philosopher.

 

Terrence asked:

What is the smallest point in time if such a thing exist? Or Is time infinitely divisible dose time have a frame (an instant or event that is truly distinct) or is all of time continuous? or is time an illusion that is just a property of matter and only exists with the realm of this existence?

Karan asked:

What is ‘real time’ or time according to philosophy? Is it a dimension or is it a continuous ‘fabric’ of the universe with all events ordered in it without any classification as ‘past’, ‘present’ or the ‘future’? Or is the relative concept of time the only reality?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you put the various prejudices about the objective existence of time aside the answer is very simple.

Time is what living creatures experience as the periodicity of natural phenomena.

We do not experience time as itself. Time for us is the impression conveyed by cyclic events like the daily sunrise and sunset, the way we articulate our days into activities, then also the lunar and solar cycles and the seasons.

Accordingly the smallest possible increment of time depends on the perceptions of which any creature is capable. The time experience of a fly will accordingly differ from that of a human being. For example there are one-day flies who cram the experience of a lifetime into one day. Therefore the sensation that they might have of one second would be a very much longer sensation than for you.

But you may now object that we human sense time as a continuum. It is not a problematic difference when you allow for the fact that human perceptions are more subtle than those of flies. But to illustrate this, let me point out to you that an old-fashioned movie on a strip of film holds a long series of stills. Plainly there is no time in each of the stills. But when the projector moves the film at the rate of 24 frames per second, you receive the impression of ‘time flowing’ because of the smooth motions of the scenes. Behind this technique is the simple realisation that a human eye working in consort with the mind connects these frames. The smoothness is a sort of ‘illusion’, because you already know that the motion depicted by the film is a cheat. But the point is that real life experience is not much different. Our nerves are living fibres; they cannot take up a continuous impingement of the radiant energy of light. Each takes up a certain quantity and then needs a rest period. So they work as a team, overlapping their sensations, and then leave it to the mind to stitch these impressions together.

Strictly speaking, therefore, the answer to your first question is: The shortest point in time for us humans is the gap between the frames of a film. I’m sure it has been measured, probably in terms of milliseconds. But whatever the number happens to be (which doesn’t tell you much anyway), this interval is the shortest that is meaningful to human beings. But a different, smaller number would apply to fleas. Indeed science works with an altogether different spectrum of times – physics in increments too small for any human to conceive of them, and astronomy with increments too large.

But the point in each of these examples is that time does not exist independently. Time for you, for flies, for physicists and for astronomers is in each case the intelligible uptake of the motion of objects and processes. We simply select from among them a handful to serve us as a standard. A day is an idealised stretch of time between two sunrises. You know this varies every day, yet we measure our hours, minutes and seconds by this phantom length. Similarly a second is standardised arbitrarily physicists who have determined on our behalf that 900 billion vibrations of a caesium atom is equivalent to one second. But this is a simple circular argument, as you will surely perceive.

In a word: There is no shortest point in time, the question has no object. Every answer must ineluctably refer to some object or process in motion that is being observed. Those observation facilitate an arbitrary incrementation of ‘time’. Accordingly every answer to such a question is necessarily also arbitrary.

 

Lina asked:

Are some acts morally obligatory regardless of the consequences for human benefit or harm?

Reply by Stuart Burns

The answer to your question depends entirely on just how you choose to think about ‘morality’.

According to many different surveys, most of the people on this planet self-describe themselves as ‘religious’ to some extent or other. What this means is that most people would self-describe themselves as adhering to a religious notion of morality – otherwise known as Authoritative Rule morality. And what that means, in turn, is that they supposedly think (or perhaps, more accurately, they want other people to think they think) that what determines whether some action (or inaction ) is moral or immoral is the dictates of some Authority figure. For example, for those avowing adherence to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition, that Authority figure would be God – with His dictates revealed in the sacred books of those faiths. There are lots of other religions in the world, and many quasi-religions. An example of the latter would be traditional Communism whose Authority figures include Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao (and perhaps Che Guevara).

The point of this initial focus on Authoritative Rule morality, is that most people, most of the time, think of the notion of morality in religious terms. And the thing is that all Authoritative Rule morality is couched in terms of absolute commandments – You must to this, you must not do that. The obvious example is the Ten Commandments – ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!!’ – No if, ands, or buts!!. No allowance for circumstances. If this is the way that you think of morality, then the answer to your question is ‘Yes!’ Authoritative Rule (Religious) morality is not consequentialist. And it does not allow a choice. All moral acts are obligatory regardless of consequences – good or bad.

On the other hand, regardless of what people say they believe, most people do not in fact actually adhere to the strict commandments of their religious notions of morality. In other words, most people most of the time actually behave as if they believed in a much less dogmatic notion of morality. And now we get into the possibility of a consequentialist notion of morality.

There are any number of different consequentialist notions of morality to choose from, if you wish to investigate and choose one that suits you. But all of them, by their very nature, consider the benefits and harm that actions might do to people. What separates the various members of the consequentialist group of moral theories, is the kind of things that are considered benefits and harm, and the scope of people for whom consideration is morally required.

Consider Utilitarianism, as one famous example. There are a number of different flavours of Utilitarianism available to choose from, but the ‘traditional’ version, due to Bentham and Mill, determines the moral worth of actions according to the extent to which they deliver the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’. In any situation, therefore, the obligatory moral action is the alternative that you expect to deliver the net greatest happiness – over all time, and over all people. Different flavours of Utilitarianism modify this criteria by changing ‘happiness’ to some other notion like ‘economic welfare’, or ‘flourishing’, and so forth. They also sometime change the time and population scopes to reduce the computation to more manageable levels.

Regardless of the details, if you choose to think of ‘morality’ along consequentialist lines, then the answer to your question is ‘No!’. Consequentialist notions of morality make the beneficial and harmful consequences of actions of paramount importance in judging their moral worth. No single action, divorced from context, is obligatory. What is obligatory is the effort to find the most consequentially approved alternative in any circumstance, and to follow that alternative.

Unfortunately, all consequentialist notions of morality put a strong moral emphasis on knowledge and thinking. You have to learn enough about the workings of the world to both be able to recognize what alternatives for action (or inaction) you have available in any circumstance, and be able to predict with reasonable accuracy the consequences of those alternatives. And, of course, you have to pay attention to your circumstances, and think (hard) about those possible consequences. A consequentialist notion of morality is not for the lazy. But look around you and you will see that when it comes to morality, most people are willfully lazy. They would much rather have someone else do their moral thinking for them.

So if you don’t like the consequences-be-damned absoluteness of an Authoritative Rule morality, and you don’t fancy the effort demanded by a Consequentialist morality, there is an alternative. Its called ‘Cultural Relativism’. The basic idea here is that what identifies actions as moral or immoral is the subjective opinion of a population. Morality is what a population says it is. This is a very popular notion of morality amongst people who call themselves ‘social liberals’. If a population thinks that a particular act is morally obligatory regardless of the consequences, then it is. So if you think of ‘morality’ in a Cultural Relativist way, then the answer to your question is ‘Maybe!’ It depends on which population you wish to poll for their opinion. Of course, you are faced with the problem of choosing which population you are going to let set your moral standards. You can go all the way from ‘all human beings’ down to ‘myself alone’. And you are faced with the problem of determining the opinion of the population you choose on the moral issue at hand. But there is no moral principle that will let you decide where you ‘should’ draw the line. It’s all subjective opinion anyway.

So there you have it. The answer to your question is either ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’, or ‘Maybe!’ depending on how you choose to think about morality.

There are other notions of morality out there apart from the Authoritative Rule, Consequentialist, and Cultural Relativist notions I have mentioned here. But this response is getting too long as it is, and these other alternatives are somewhat obscure. I am sure that Google will provide you with answers, should you be interested in following up. Or you can check out this essay: http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0405.htm.

 

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