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Per asked:

Dear experts,

I have been wondering for quite some time now. If I was conceived say a day or just an hour later than I actually was, what would become of ‘me’?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Wonder no more.

There would be no you. There would be somebody else, with your name (if of your gender), and he/she might be wondering what would become of him/her if conceived a day or an hour earlier.

The essential feature which individuates each of us as a particular human being is being the product of a particular sperm and ovum, thereby conferring metaphysical uniqueness, and genetic too (or co-uniqueness for identical twins). A being produced from a different sperm or egg would be somebody else.

So, YOU could not have been conceived at a different time or by a different parent.

This illustrates the huge improbability of your (or my) existence. Had a different sperm out of the millions competing to penetrate the ovum been successful on that fateful occasion, had your father been away on business on the day you were conceived, you would not exist. Also the huge fluke that your mother and father chose each other from all the alternative mates available to each. And it’s mind boggling to think that not a single one of your millions of forbears, going back over 3 billion years, failed to reproduce. If just one of your myriad fishy ancestors had been eaten by a bigger fish when young, you would not exist. But, like the national lottery, given that the jackpot has to be won, somebody wins it with millions to one odds against, so, given that you exist, somebody has to be you.

The uniqueness of each of us is stressed by Derek Parfit in his analysis of the effect of new policies on future generations. We often hear how future people will be adversely affected by our actions. But it is very doubtful that anybody will be affected. Changed policies alter behaviour, often in subtle ways, people marry later, or have children later, move around the country more, etc etc. And the upshot is that after 2 or 3 generations, all the people being born would not have existed under the old policies, whilst all those who would have been born had the change not been introduced, don’t get born. So nobody can be adversely affected, no matter how bad the future world is. Future people benefit by existing when they otherwise wouldn’t. And those who would have been born under a no-change policy suffer no adverse effect since nonexistent people can’t be affected in any way.

And the metaphysical uniqueness view is recognized in most accounts of possible worlds. Thus each of us is world-bound (to the actual world) and couldn’t exist in any other possible world. So that if I say that I might have been a good philosopher, putting it as ‘there is a possible world in which I am a good philosopher’, the person who is the good philosopher in that world is not me but my COUNTERPART.


David asked:

I’ve noticed that in some of the answers given here, there are sentences of the form ‘few philosophers now believe in Plato’s forms/ Moore’s intuitions/ the tooth fairy’. These survey claims are interesting. What weight, if any, should be attached to such preponderance of philosophical opinion, when thinking about the facts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Yesterday’s BBC TV News was dominated by the repercussions of the British Gas price hike of 8 per cent. Few energy consumers felt that this was justified. Or did they? The situation wasn’t helped by the calamitously bad decision by British Gas to give their customers the opportunity to vent their feelings online via Twitter — gold to BBC news editors, who picked out the choicest (and rudest) comments. I could have told British Gas this would happen, and so could you. How do we know something that the management of British Gas didn’t (apparently) know?

As a comparative outsider in relation to English-speaking academic philosophy (comparative, because I still consider myself to be working in the broad English-speaking analytic tradition) I am not very well placed to make observations about what ‘few’ or ‘many’ academic philosophers believe. What are the current views about the analytic/ synthetic distinction? Did Quine win the argument, or lose? I’m not sure. My own view on this doesn’t count for a lot, or at least, not as much as the view, e.g. of Saul Kripke or John McDowell or Tyler Burge. Ask them. (I have my view, which I’m saving for another occasion.)

Plato’s Forms is an interesting example. Iris Murdoch offers a robust defence of (something like) the Platonic view in Sovereignty of Good. If you asked me to explain further I would say that Murdoch doesn’t believe in in the literal existence of Forms as metaphysical entities. Her concern is to oppose subjectivism about ‘the Good’. But what does that mean? Does Plato believe in the literal existence of the Forms, or is it just a ‘useful myth’? (his ‘theory of recollection’, e.g.). When it gets to issues like Plato’s Forms (or Moore’s ‘intuitions’ about what is Good, another nicely chosen example) there isn’t a clear answer in terms of ‘belief’ because the position that we are discussing is deep, has hidden depths, you could say.

There is a criticism one could make that academic philosophers generally are rather too quick to offer their views about what ‘most’ of their brethren believe. But there I go again: how do I know that? It’s an impression. I wouldn’t call it knowledge. So have I the right to make that statement? Here’s where we get to the nub of the question. Making an assertion implies that you know. If you’re not sure, if you are only guessing, or expressing a feeling, then you should qualify your statement accordingly. But who does that? In everyday life, we don’t. It’s called idle chatter. The same applies to philosophers who indulge themselves in that manner.


Mehdi asked:

What is the best way to resolve a moral dilemma?

I am facing the greatest moral dilemma of my life; both sides of the dilemma have great material and emotional implications.

At one side there is chasing my lifelong dream of living independently in a free country and having the chance of being financially successful by emigrating and starting my own business there but at the cost of leaving my parents alone in their old age which gives me a massive crisis of conscience.

On the other side of the dilemma is to stay and forget about my dreams but avoiding the bad conscience and having a boring but easy and well paid job in a oppressive and not so civilised middle eastern society. My parents are quite well-off so by leaving them I will not be troubling them financially but emotionally. My only sibling left the country eight years ago and they really only have me.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You certainly face a moral conflict.

Either choice entails an inevitable loss. In the end, you just have to plump for one or the other, live with it, and, whatever happens, never say you should have made the other choice, the reason being that you can’t know whether the outcome would thereby have been any better.

In Kantian terms, you are torn between a duty to others (looking after parents) and a duty to yourself (realizing your potential using your talents). In Aristotelian terms, between two different ways of flourishing. In existential terms, between making yourself one or other sort of person.

Your conflict reminds me a bit of Sartre’s example of the young man torn between joining the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers who had killed his brother, and staying with his old mother whose only consolation he was. Sartre emphasises the radical freedom we have to make choices, the need to make some or other choice, the absence of a clear right or wrong choice, the total responsibility we have for the effects of our choices, the absence of any person, god or principle that can decide for us, the loneliness of the situation. It seems you feel all these things.

You don’t say what your parents think, or thought when your sibling left. Maybe they say or hint that you should stay, and perhaps this adds sadness or anger to your feelings, that they are selfish. Perhaps they say nothing, and this makes you feel guilty. Perhaps they urge you to go, wanting their beloved child to make his/her way in the world according to his/her own lights, and this just makes you feel more guilty.

Good luck whatever you choose.

Finally two general philosophical points, the first ethical, the second technical.

1. Whilst duty to family and freedom to live one’s own life both feature in Western and Eastern moral codes, the ranking of the two differs. In the West, individual self-determination usually comes first, and many Western people wouldn’t see a MORAL conflict in your situation. To be sure, those emigrating would miss their parents, but equally would miss their friends, and this can be a sadness, but without being a moral matter. I know a few old couples whose children are making their lives on the other side of the world, and they speak proudly about their children’s success, are sad never or rarely to see them, but don’t make a moral judgment about it. In Eastern cultures, duty to family ranks more highly than in the West. Also, historically in the West, and still so to some extent nowadays, more expectation is put on women than on men to look after the old or needy, but I don’t know whether that is so in your country.

2. Whilst their are moral conflicts, I don’t think that, strictly, there are moral dilemmas. According to standard formulation, a moral dilemma requires:

(a) each of two actions is morally required
(b) neither requirement overrides the other
(c) I can do either action but not both
(d) there is inevitable moral failure

When you measure actual conflicts against these standards, none is a dilemma. Two examples will illustrate.

In Sophie’s choice, there is a moral requirement that she protect both her children. But this, the only moral action she could take, is denied her by the cruel prison guard. So a choice to save one or other child, though heartbreaking, is not a moral choice, she may as well toss a coin to decide. And if she does save one child, she is not guilty of a moral failure (though she would feel she was all her life).

In your conflict, the choice is a moral one, there is an inevitable moral cost, but, unlike the options put to Sophie, neither of your options is morally required (mandatory), only morally desirable.

More formally,there is a proof that a moral dilemma, as defined above, plus The Principle of Deontic Consistency (the same action can’t be both obligatory and forbidden) and the Principle of Deontic Logic (if, necessarily, doing A yields B, then if A is obligatory, B is obligatory) yields a contradiction. So, to hold on to moral dilemma, you must give up one or both Principles (unpalatable), or change the definition of dilemma, but this then blurs any distinction between dilemma and conflict. I find it simplest and least confusing just to refer to moral conflicts.


Lauren asked:

I have a question in my textbook that I was wondering if you could help. The question is:

How would Heraclitus have responded to the following statement? ‘Heraclitus’ theory is wrong because the objects we see around us continue to endure throughout time; although a person, an animal or plant may change its superficial qualities, it still remains essentially the same person, animal or plant throughout these changes. In fact, we recognize change only by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things. So permanence, not change, is the essential to reality.’

Answer by Helier Robinson

There is a fundamental principle that any qualitative difference entails a quantitative difference. It is easily proved, as follows: whatever A and B may be, if there is a qualitative difference between them then there is some quality, Q, such that A is Q and B is not-Q (or vice versa); if A and B are one, then one thing is at once Q and not-Q, which is impossible, so A and B are two. So Heraclitus would have responded that if something changes then the earlier thing is qualitatively different from the later thing and so the earlier and later things have to be two – in which case it is quite wrong to suppose that there is one, permanent, thing changing through time. (A change is a qualitative difference in parallel with a duration.) It does not matter how superficial the change is: the principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference applies to any qualitative change whatever.

There is another point that Heraclitus could have made: how do you know that empirical objects continue to endure through time? This is only a belief. To be sure, it is a belief of common sense, and so held by most of us, but there is an opposing belief that empirical objects are not real objects, they are only images of real objects, and as such they exist only for as long as they are perceived. Esse est percipi as Bishop Berkeley said: to be is to be perceived; and empirical objects are perceived objects. This view arises because the only satisfactory explanation of illusions is that since they are unreal they have to be misrepresentations (or false images) of reality, not reality itself.

Heraclitus could also have said that we do not in fact recognise change by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things, we perceive it directly. Look at clouds on a windy day: do you see them changing, or do you contrast them to their underlying (whatever that is) permanence?

It is worth noting in this context that Parmenides’ rejection of Heraclitus is based on the same principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference. For him, all change is illusion and so nothing really changes so only permanence is real.

And finally, this principle has some awkward consequences for philosophy. For example, your empirical world is qualitatively different from mine, so yours and mine must be two, they cannot be one. And by extending this argument, there must be as many empirical worlds as there are perceivers. And because each of these empirical worlds contains illusions, they are all qualitatively different from the real world, so none of them is the real world. It is perhaps because of such conclusions that you do not often find the principle that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference in philosophy textbooks.


Christopher asked:

This is a response to a question answered by Shaun Williamson that I asked about ‘intelligence/ consciousness and evolution’ In this answer, it was stated that ‘Being conscious means having sensory awareness of the world and to have sensory awareness of the world you need sense organs and a nervous system’. My question regarding this is does this mean that if you are blind you are only 4/5 or 80, conscious? Given that we have 5 senses and your assertion that sensory awareness of the world is needed in order to be conscious, it follows that there are levels of consciousness. Therefore if someone with 5 working senses would he have a higher level of consciousness than someone without 5. If this is so, then wouldn’t that also end the discussion about AI and other natural organisms having consciousness.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I think that, in this context, we should speak of varieties, rather than levels, of consciousness. And that it doesn’t end discussion about AI and other natural organisms.

Doctors routinely assess ‘level’ of consciousness, especially if brain damage is suspected, and typically class the patient’s conscious level as:

* normal (fully conscious)
* clouded
* stupor (unconscious but rousable)
* coma (unconscious and unrousable)

So a healthy blind person is typically fully conscious, while a dead-drunk man with perfect senses can be stuporose.

Clearly, a blind person’s consciousness is impoverished, but typically she enriches it by making much more of other senses (especially touch) than fully-abled people. Likewise deaf people learn to understand speech by sight (sign language) rather than by hearing. And those with anosmia are rarely connoisseurs of food (flavour depends on smell as much as taste). In short, sensory impairment leads to a different sort of consciousness.

As regards other animals, don’t confuse consciousness with intelligence. Some animals have much better vision than us – birds of prey spot a mouse in a field from hundreds of feet up, some birds display with (to us) drab grey feathers that are seen in colours we can’t imagine by their potential mates with vision extending to the ultra-violet. And echolocating bats presumably have conscious experiences we can’t imagine. So some animals have consciousness richer than ours in some respects. The distinctive feature of human consciousness is self-consciousness, of which only glimmerings seem apparent in some other animals.

As regards AI, yes, sensory input was ignored for decades as ‘good-old-fashioned AI’ strove to produce ever more elaborate algorithms for digital computers. But now, AI is focussing on units which have sensory input, act in the world, learn and develop with time as we do, and in due course I see no reason for these not to be conscious.


(a) is consciousness possible without sensory awareness, without a body at all say? Theists think so. Descartes thought so: he considered thought (reasoning, deciding, believing, willing etc) was confined to immaterial substance (res cogitans), so that God and angels think, but emotion has a bodily component (racing heart, sweating, faster breathing, whatever) so that animals have emotions, and humans, being an intermingling of the two substances, have both thought and emotions. I am inclined to think consciousness is necessarily embodied, whether carbon based, silicon based or whatever, but you must form your own view.

(b) would AI lack emotion? We are inclined to think only flesh and blood creatures can have real feeling, whereas androids like Mr Data, even aliens like Mr Spock, are strong on logic, lacking in feelings. I don’t think so. As Descartes held, emotions have a bodily component, specifically (we now know) chemicals such as adrenaline, testosterone or serotonin affecting brain function, and I don’t see why analogous hormonal/endocrine effects couldn’t be built in to suitably developed AI.


Answer by Shaun Williamson

No it doesn’t follow that there are different levels of consciousness only that there are different sorts of consciousness. Suppose your blind man is a super taster (ten percent of people are super tasters) then in some ways he is more conscious than me because I am not a super taster. So how would you access his percentage of consciousness now. Many birds have superior eyesight compared to humans. Does this mean they are more conscious than us. They certainly see more than us but perhaps they make less use of what they see.

The discussion about AI is a rather different discussion. Dogs like us have eyes so it is reasonable to think that they see. They also have ears so they must hear. Machines don’t have eyes or ears or brains because eyes and ears and brains are organic things that arise naturally. Like us dogs can be made unconscious by a blow to the head. So it is not clear what would be needed for us to describe a machine as conscious.

Wittgenstein said ‘Our languages contain the sum total of distinctions that men have found useful it to draw. So contrary to what most philosophers think (because philosophers fantasize about language and think language was made by God not by men) the question ‘Can a machine be conscious really reduces to the question ‘Will we ever find it useful to describe certain machines as conscious?’.


Tiffany asked:

Kant’s theory is categorized as one that focuses on and evaluates ‘intent’ rather than consequences because consequences of our actions cannot always be controlled by us. Consequently, if someone dies as a result of one of our actions and it wasn’t our intent to kill is it still morally wrong because circumstances and contingencies do not provide excuses when following Kant’s categorical imperative.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Tiffany.

I find your question muddled. If we did not intend to kill then the deed was not murder. It may have been carelessness, but intent would be everything. If we intend to help someone but end up hurting them then this would be a morally sound act, just a rather unskilled one.

If we intend the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people then our actions will always be morally sound for Kant. But a problem arises when we think that we know the consequences of our actions. This is hubris and arrogance. We can know our intentions, but in their overall context we can have no idea of the consequences. They will reverberate through history long after we are gone.

There is therefore a slight complication with the categorical imperative. We may intend to live according to it, but we can still cause a great deal of misery due to our limited knowledge of the situation. No doubt some people would say that invading Iraq was intended to create the greatest good. But taking a guess at what action would create the greatest good while knowing for certain that such an act will cause widespread misery is a strange approach to morality and a crime against Kant.

It seems to me that circumstances and contingencies are all we have to work with. They are what decides what action we should take. Take away the circumstances and contingencies and what is left?


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


October 2013
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