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Morgan asked:

Today, we think that slavery is wrong and barbaric although once it was considered perfectly acceptable. Is it possible that in the future something we think is OK now will be judged in the same way? any examples you can think of??

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The answer to this question hinges on the concept of moral progress, and hence on the whole discussion between moral objectivists and relativists. If one thinks that morality is entirely culturally relative and arbitrary — something, say, akin to etiquette — then one cannot possibly defend the idea that slavery is wrong in general. It may be considered wrong by our society today, but we have no grounds to think it wrong in any other society or at any other time.

Few philosophers, I surmise, subscribe to that sort of relativism. And most people today — philosophers or not — would probably agree that ‘slavery is wrong’ is a bit more powerful a statement than ‘the dinner knife ought to be placed on the right of the plate.’ The trouble, of course, is that it has proven remarkably difficult to unpack and rationally defend the idea of objective morality, at the least in the strong sense of the existence of mind-independent moral truths somewhere ‘out there’ (a position referred to in meta-ethics as moral realism).

But one does not need to go far to be able to agree that slavery is wrong in a robust sense of the term ‘wrong.’ Ethics, after all, is a way of thinking about the acceptability (or not) of certain actions within the context of human societies. That acceptability can be based on a number of criteria, but these usually include the utilitarian preference for reducing suffering and increasing ‘happiness’ (broadly construed), as well as the virtue ethical requirement to live virtuous (i.e., characterized by equanimity, justice, courage, etc.) lives and to put in place societal conditions that foster human flourishing (again, broadly construed — what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia).

In this context, then, ethics becomes a type of practical reasoning of the ‘if… then’ type, which begins with certain premises (if X is the case…) and attempts to arrive at logically entailed conclusions (… then Y will also be the case). For instance, from the premise that human flourishing is a valuable goal one can immediately derive that slavery is, therefore, wrong, because it clearly hampers the flourishing of the slaves, under pretty much any reasonable conception of flourishing.

Of course, as in any instance of logical reasoning, one could reject the premise — in this case, that we should value human flourishing. But that move would then require replacing it with some other acceptable premise from which to derive the conclusion that slavery is not morally wrong. For instance, someone could say that whoever can impose by force the subjugation of another human being has the right to do so, from which it would indeed follow that slavery is morally good. Notice first, however, that the same person would have then to allow the (logical) possibility that he himself may one day become a slave, if he encountered someone who had more coercive force at his disposal and used it to impose his will. Second, and fortunately, most of us actually reject this alternative premise and consider someone who would defend it as a sociopath (in the technical sense of the term: a person with a diminished ability to empathize with other human beings, especially the slaves).

The second part of the question concerns possible examples of behaviors that are currently deemed acceptable but will likely, in the future, be regarded just as immoral as we regard slavery to be. I think there is a number of such examples, but an obvious one that comes to mind is our treatment of animals for food consumption. I am not a vegetarian, and even less a vegan, but I do try to be what you could call an ‘ethical omnivore’: I potentially eat anything, but I do concern myself with where my food comes from, and in particular with its environmental and ethical impact.

If I were a utilitarian, like my colleague Peter Singer, I could justify my concern for the treatment of animals on the basis of the fact that it increases overall suffering in the world (namely, that of the animals in question!) while increasing overall happiness only marginally (through the pleasure experienced by those who eat the animals). As a virtue ethicist, instead, I think that it is a sign of a bad moral character to impose suffering on other sentient beings (be they human or not) for the sake of one’s own aesthetic and sensory pleasure. Either way, it amounts to the same result, and I am convinced that future generations will increasingly see it that way, and will therefore be surprised at our inability as a society to recognize the point, just like we are surprised at the inability of previous societies (or, indeed, of some current ones!) to recognize that slavery is wrong.


Sam asked:

Hi, I’m struggling to understand what Heidegger means by ‘Dasein’ and it’s (our) relationship to nothing. What does Heidegger mean by ‘nothing’ in this context?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I can understand your confusion, because there is no exact English equivalent to ‘Dasein’ and therefore it has to be reconstructed. Nevertheless there is a relatively straightforward way of grasping it.

‘Dasein’ is a conscious (i.e. intentional) form of existence, therefore it pertains in the main to living creatures such as humans. But humans exploit, use, change and consume non-living materials; thereby they bring the latter into the orbit of their own Dasein and confer a dependent Dasein on them. Our consciousness becomes affixed to these appurtenances and compels us to consider them as integral to the concept of Dasein.

For example, a hammer does not have Dasein; it merely exists. But hammers don’t occur naturally, they are made with intention, and so the concept of Dasein must embrace them, not for their sake, but for the sake of conscious creatures. Accordingly Man + Hammer have a common Dasein. Dasein thus identifies the living and the non-living insofar as they form a purposeful and meaningful symbiosis.

Dasein is in that sense a special instance of existence. Beyond this symbiosis, we acknowledge the existence of things that have no intentional being and play no role in Dasein (e.g. stars, galaxies, gravity, electromagnetic radiation, quantum mechanical wavefronts, but also the unworked ore and wood of the hammer, etc.). They are ‘foreign’ to us, not in any way entangled in our actual Dasein.

Nevertheless, being aware of these things can create a sense that in their alienness they still ‘are’, even though they might ‘not be’. They represent a form of existence that is the opposite of meaningful and purposive Dasein, and in their mere existence provoke or evoke a feeling of ‘worried emptiness’ which we can scarcely articulate, because it is indefinite. Heidegger calls such worried states ‘Angst’ and ‘Moodiness’, which is not the fear of some particular thing, but just a fear without a specific object — in short a ‘Nothing’. Such a state can result in torpor, when everything seems to be equally void, vapid and meaningless. For example, you may look at the sky at night and be overcome by the senselessness of such huge, empty, useless Nothingness. Here it is the absence of a connection to your Dasein that brings forth the worry and may induce you to question whether your Dasein is perhaps merely an illusion, in a word, Nothing.

Heidegger is quite specific that we must not understand this in the scientific (empirical) sense. Science can interpret ‘Nothing’ only as a negation. But it is a psychological (or, in his terminology, ‘phenomenological’) state, because this feeling of Nothingness rests on precisely the absence of interpretable (meaningful) phenomena for a sensible creature.

From here we go on to the question of Being, which is the real mystery. But this is a problem for another day. Meanwhile stick to Dasein as ‘conscious existence’ and keep in mind that this consciousness is in the world of facts and things which belong to our collective experiences. Then the word should not hold any terrors for you. And then you can see that the ‘Nichts’ of Heidegger is everything in which consciousness is not directly entangled.


Nicole asked:

How do I explain moderation and human excellence as it relates to the Homeric tradition and the ancient Greek virtues? How does the concept of hubris relate to the difference between humans and the gods?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Nicole, I think a great deal of the ancient Greek attitude to virtue can be found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Of course, he was writing some time after the Heroic age usually associated with Homer, but nevertheless, he worked with the tradition and refined those traditions for practical use by educated fourth century BC Greeks.

It’s all very different from Christian principles of virtue. The term ‘arete’, usually translated as ‘virtue’ in modern English, meant something quite unique to an ancient Greek. Everything — objects as well as people, had their own specific purpose, the attributes which enabled them to carry out this function were virtues, and performing particularly well in this function was excellence. So the function of a knife was to cut, and its particular virtue or arete was to be sharp. The particular arete of a racehorse was swiftness. Of course, the Greeks would regard a human as more complex than an object or animal, so the arete of a human would be complex and multi-faceted.

An ancient Greek, even a Homeric hero like Odysseus could behave quite unethically from our point of view, yet still be considered virtuous, even to the point of excellence, by the Greeks. Odysseus famously hanged all of his household staff for disloyalty when he returned to Ithaca, in a passage from Homer which makes rather grim reading. Yet Odysseus still has arete because he is performing his function as a human well. For a Homeric hero, mercy and foregiveness, whilst virtues, competed with other characteristics considered as virtues, such as increasing ones honour and status, rewarding one’s friends and punishing ones enemies. Courage and love of honour would be regarded as important virtues by Homer, whilst later Christian virtues, such as humility would puzzle an ancient Greek. Pride, considered as at worst a sin, and at best a doubtful human attribute by Christian thinkers, was regarded as arete by ancient Greeks.

Of course, some of these qualities could be pursued to excess; the man searching for honour might become a vainglorious fool, the man of courage might err in the direction of either undue timidity or rashness. Hence the need for moderation. Aristotle attempted a fairly sophisticated development of this notion of moderation by his ‘doctrine of the mean’, whereby he divided the pursuit of many virtues into three parts;

– too much of the virtue,

– not enough of the virtue,

– an appropriate intermediate position.

A virtuous Greek would arrive at a decision after calm deliberation, whilst a Christian would probably consider herself virtuous only if she arrived at a decision after a considerable inner struggle. To use a phrase lazily employed by journalists today, the Christian virtuous man could only consider himself virtuous after a struggle with his ‘inner demons’. To a Christian, excellence in virtue is only achieved after torment, struggle against temptation, and final suppression of these temptations. To an ancient Greek, excellence in virtue would be arrived at after calm deliberation as to how particular courses of action benefitted ones own personal well-being (or eudaemonia), and contributed to life in the wider society.

Although ancient Greeks had a notion of hubris, it was somewhat different from the idea as developed by later Christian writers. For a Christian the chastisement of hubris is God’s punishment for the sin of pride. For an ancient Greek pride was not seen as wrong. Punishment by the Greek gods was generally reserved for those mortals who strayed onto their territory. If you tried to fly, your artificial wings would burn, and the gods would plunge you to your death. The gods might decide to punish you if you were too beautiful, handsome or noble, or were ‘too good’ at some particular activity. Sometimes, the transgress of humans was entirely unwitting. ‘The Lord thy God is a jealous God’, is a well known phrase in Judeo-Christian morality. For a Christian, this jealousy was directed at those who followed alternatives to the only true God. For an ancient Greek, the jealousy was a rather spiteful dislike of humans who became too godlike themselves. It was mean and capricious, and was a message to humans to keep out of immortal territory.


Nina asked:

In my Philosophy class we were asked to answer this question…

If you can’t prove that anything exists outside your mind, is it all right to go on believing in the external world anyway?

I am so confused with this whole external world concept!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your confusion is easily ameliorated. It is, in the first place, engendered by a stringent notion of absolute certainty. In the second place, by an unwarranted and indeed unprovable instrumental interpretation of existence. Once you put these aside as mere (though intriguing) speculation, you can plant your feet on the ground and prove, beyond the slightest doubt, that ‘nothing is in the mind that was not previously in the senses.’ This sentence was written 2500 years ago by Democritus and remains as true today as ever.

What it means is that the contents of your mind are like a flower that springs up from a seed and grows by exercising its capacity for self-nurture from nutrition in the environment, sunlight, water etc.. In technical lingo the mind’s nurture is called ‘priming’. Apart from a few survival skills passed on by the parents to their offspring, there is nothing in the mind at birth. But your mind has the capacity for responding to sensory information and to imprint these impressions on memory. As more and more stimuli accumulate, discrimination grows, judgements are formed and the infant acquires ‘knowledge’. You will not doubt understand that the pathway of this information is from the ‘outside world’, via the sensory conduits, to the appropriate neural cortices. Therefore an outside world has to exist prior to your accumulation of facts, features and knowledge of this world.

In fact, the only curious issue here is that the question in your statement is stated back to front. Rather than proving that an ‘outside world’ exists, you should ask if you can prove that any world can exist ‘in’ your mind. The answer is ‘No’. Every human being has a unique image of that world. We only know what’s ‘inside’ by the consensus of many people that your ‘inner’ world corresponds to everyone’s ‘inner world’, except in the trivial detail of their own location and environment.

In a word, don’t fall for assumptions that have no plausibility behind them. We are not inside the Matrix, but in a world that is real. Just think of all the other creatures whose evolution depends on them making correct inferences and judgements for survival. You are not unique or alone!


Answer by Helier Robinson

The external world concept is confusing until you understand its two meanings. One meaning is the empirical world that we all perceive around us, and which is external our heads. The second meaning arises with the claim, which may or may not be true, that everything that we are conscious of, including the empirical world, is in our minds, and our minds are in our heads; and everything empirical is an image of reality, not reality itself; and reality itself is the external world, also called the noumenal world.

To understand this you must recognise that if everything perceived — everything empirical — is an image of something noumenal, then your own empirical head is an image of your noumenal head. Your noumenal head contains your noumenal brain which contains your empirical world which contains you empirical head. So if you go out on a sunny day than beyond the blue sky is the inside surface of your noumenal skull. Very, very shocking to common sense, but logically sound. In the past knowledge of the noumenal world was metaphysical; now it is mathematical theoretical science. So the answer to the question in your philosophy class is yes, it is all right to go on believing in the external world — the noumenal world — because of the success of science. You can continue to be commonsensical about the external world in everyday living, but to do so in philosophy is over simplification.


Nigel asked:

This is a puzzle about the way human memory works. If I’m listening to a tune, how is it that I can hear it as a tune without replaying it over and over in my head every second? How does memory keep alive the sequence of notes and the time gaps in between?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The answer to this is fairly simple. The same as you can remember the toothache you had yesterday, the strong coffee you drank, or the lines of a poem you memorised, so the sensory stimulation of that experience is imprinted on your memory and available for recall. There is nothing mysterious about it: All these events push a pathway through the ensemble of neurons which are responsible for their evaluation. Remembering is to re-run that pathway, using a specific trigger.

Sometimes your memory may fail; which may be the case when the trigger for the association of one tune is identical to another and confounded, so that a different tune pops into your head. In part, it depends on how much reinforcement you applied to the tune, or else how powerfully you were affected by it.

The more intriguing issue, however, is your emotional involvement. In the living environment, the physical as well as sensory impact is usually strong and unfiltered — you are having an aesthetic experience. The recall of your toothache, coffee or tune, however, is emotionally quite weak. This is because the qualitative features (‘qualia’) can be remembered, but not ‘played’. You are not having an aesthetic experience; and your emotion belongs to the present, not the past when the occurrence actually transpired. It is why we can reliably (for some time) compare the taste of yesterday’s coffee, but not experience it. Also why we go repeatedly to concerts to hear the same tunes sung by different artists. It is why (finally), attending a concert, listening to a recording, or remembering one or the other, are four qualitatively different kinds of experiences. That’s where the real mystery lies!


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The question is basically the same, whether we are talking about listening to a tune, or watching a football match (English or American). Remembering a sequence of events (musical notes, or movements on a football field) is more than just the ability to recall any particular event. You have to ‘hear’ the notes or ‘see’ the movements as part of a single extended sequence, with each event in the sequence gaining its ‘meaning’ from the whole.

This is a question Husserl considered in The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Here’s a short extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Edumund Husserl:

“Finally, we should note that on Husserl’s view there is a further important dimension to perceptual experience, in that it displays a phenomenological deep- or micro-structure constituted by time-consciousness (Husserliana, vol. X, XXXIII; also see Miller 1984). This merely seemingly unconscious structure is essentially indexical in character and consists, at a given time, of both retentions, i.e., acts of immediate memory of what has been perceived ‘just a moment ago’, original impressions, i.e., acts of awareness of what is perceived ‘right now’, and protentions, i.e., immediate anticipations of what will be perceived ‘in a moment’. It is by such momentary structures of retentions, original impressions and protentions that moments of time are continuously constituted (and reconstituted) as past, present and future, respectively, so that it looks to the experiencing subject as if time were permanently flowing off.”

To me, this does not do much more than label the problem. But the thing to note is that the question about listening to a tune is wrongly posed, in that it seems to imply that there is a special problem in this case, whereas in fact human memory is fundamentally temporal (in its ‘micro-structure’) and thus different from the way that a tape recorder or computer ‘remembers’.


Nathan asked:

When we carry out a thought experiment, we can’t test the underlying philosophical hypothesis with any empirical data. So, besides logical flaws, what are the criteria for evaluating a philosophical hypothesis? And how can we benefit from thought experiments in our daily lives?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Thought experiments are a type of argument, inviting us to consider the logical, and sometimes the empirical, implications of certain premises. They tend to invoke vivid images, and are therefore often memorable, but they are certainly not limited to philosophy, since scientists have also proposed a number of them, some of which have become famous instances of the genre.

Consider, for example, Galileo’s imagining what would happen if we dropped a heavy object from the height of a tower, tethered to a less heavy one. According to the then dominant Aristotelian physics, the heavier object – on its own – should fall more rapidly than the lighter one. But once the two are connected, Aristotelian physics predicts both that they should go faster (the combined objects are heavier than either of the two considered separately) and that they should go slower (the lighter one acting as a drag on the heavier one). This engenders a logical contradiction, showing that there must be something seriously wrong with Aristotelian physics (indeed, there was! And Galileo’s efforts paved the way for Newtonian mechanics).

Or think of Einstein’s famous thought experiment in which he imagined himself riding a wave of light, which led to his formulation of the theory of Special Relativity. And then, of course, there is quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat, who is neither dead nor alive until an observer interferes with the experimental apparatus. And so forth.

While scientific thought experiments are meant to bring about insights ultimately concerning empirical matters (the behavior of falling bodies, the speed of light, or what matter does at very small scales), philosophical thought experiments are more concerned with conceptual issues, and are therefore constrained more by coherence than by empirical evidence. (This, incidentally, is a major distinction between science and philosophy.)

For instance, John Searle proposed the famous Chinese Room thought experiment, in which he invites us to reflect on what exactly produces meaning, suggesting that there must be more to it than the manipulation of symbols of which a computer – as currently understood – is capable. Then there is the Experience Machine thought up by Robert Nozick, meant to question the idea of ethical hedonism (if all that matters in life is pleasure, would it be all right to just spend all your existence inside a machine that gives you pleasure?). We also have Hilary Putnam’s ‘twin earth’ experiment, which is concerned with the relationship between meaning and reference in philosophy of language, and John Rawls’ idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ characterizing an imaginary original position from where we get to debate how to structure a just society.

How do we test a philosophical thought experiment? We don’t, because they are not meant to be equivalent to scientific hypotheses. They are, as I said, arguments, that is examples of reasoning from certain premises to certain conclusions. Arguments can be accepted or rejected following two criteria: the soundness of their premises, and the validity of their structure. With respect to the first, a premise may be unsound, meaning that it is false. If so, even if the argument is well constructed (i.e., it is formally valid), its conclusions have to be rejected. With respect to the second, one can have an invalid argument (i.e., its form is incorrect) based on sound premises; also in this case the conclusion ought to be rejected.

Even when a thought experiment succeeds, because its premises are sound and its structure is valid, we may still not buy into its conclusion. That is because philosophical thought experiments are concerned with conceptual (or logical) coherence, and there often is more than one conceptually coherent way of describing reality. If so, only empirical data can tell us which of a number of logical scenarios actually happens to be true. (That said, it is still instructive to consider logically coherent alternatives, because they tell us how things could have been.)

As for relevance to daily life, that depends. Einstein’s thought experiment, or Schrodinger’s cat, are hardly going to be helpful in paying our bills or deciding whether to take a new job or not. But they are still crucial to enhance our understanding of the world. Some philosophical thought experiments are even more remote from daily preoccupations, for instance when they deal with issues of metaphysics. But a number of them concern very practical matters indeed, such as ethics, justice, and the sort of life we ultimately want to live.


Answer by Craig Skinner

I enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s stimulating and informative answer, and agree with nearly everything he says.

But I have one grumble.

As with nearly all commentators since Galileo, he gives Aristotle’s physics an unfairly bad press.

Speaking of Galileo’s thought experiment of the fall of a heavy object tethered to a lighter one, he says:

‘Aristotelian physics predicts both that they should go faster and… slower… a logical contradiction….something seriously wrong with Aristotelian physics’.

Not quite.

Aristotle’s physics is a coherent system of fluid mechanics within the then accepted frame of reference (movement in a system of concentric spheres of increasing density towards the centre). Thus, earth moves down in air and water; water moves down in air, air moves up in water, intermediately dense things move up in one medium and down in another eg wood falls in air, rises in water, rests on earth. A bigger object will fall faster than a smaller of equal density (and shape) because the smaller one’s greater surface/volume ratio produces more drag, impeding its velocity. He had a go at quantifying all this but maths was not his strong point.

And so, were Aristotle to return and hear of Galileo’s thought experiment, he would, on learning also that we had invented flying machines, invite us to simultaneously drop, from a height of 50 stadions, a big metal sphere and a smaller one. He predicts that the bigger one hits the ground first. And he is right. And if the two spheres were tethered together, but stayed separate objects, each subject to the drag effect of the air, the smaller one would indeed retard the bigger. Aristotle also predicts that an object falling through air or water will reach a maximum speed, and indeed things dropped from a great height do just this. It’s no good Galileo complaining that he meant falling in a vacuum. Aristotle simply replies that his physics was about the real world where things fall through air or water. Also, he would add, the idea of a vacuum is incoherent because, in it, a falling object would reach infinite speed. Right again — an object accelerating in vacuo in a gravitational field indefinitely would reach arbitrarily high speed. It’s just that in the empirical world, as opposed to the idealized situation, the object must ultimately hit the body which is gravitationally attracting it.

Aristotle’s physics lasted 2000 years, not because of dogma slowing science’s progress, but because it was a good theory, until Kepler, Galileo and Newton came up with better. Their framework, absolute space and time, in turn, eventually gave way to Einstein’s relativistic spacetime. And Einstein’s theory doesnt work below the Planck scale, and will give way to yet better theory, stringy, loopy or otherwise, in due course.

Aristotle has a place in the line of succession of great physicists. Just read Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning Two Sciences to see how deeply indebted Galileo is to him. And for a modern physicist’s view try Rovelli C (2014) Aristotle’s Physics: a Physicist’s Look. PhilSci Archive (on line at



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