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Jimi asked:

If philosophical zombies existed, would they talk about consciousness just like we do? Or, if you tried to talk to a philosophical zombie about consciousness, would they be fundamentally unable to understand what you mean? If the latter is true, would we then be able to tell if others were conscious just by talking about it?

One might argue that what a philosophical zombie ascribes to consciousness differs from what we do. They ‘think’ that a certain physical phenomenon is what we call consciousness, but they aren’t experiencing it like we are. This explanation is unsatisfying to me because it’s impossible to pinpoint what exactly they’re ascribing consciousness to.

Another possible explanation is that the philosophical zombie is physically ‘programmed’ to have a discussion about consciousness. If this were true, if there were a world of only p-zombies, where would the concept even come from? It would seem pretty random that consciousness, something so abstract and unheard of, would be such a common topic of discussion among p-zombies.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The definition of a philosophical zombie includes their readiness to speak of consciousness, ‘although they don’t have any consciousness’. That seems to answer your first question. However, p-zombies are (or should be) classed as thought experiments. No-one expects a p-zombie to be found walking on the streets. At bottom, this kind of philosophical enquiry revolves around the problem that we humans also speak of consciousness, as it were all plain sailing. But we don’t really know what it is. So like a p-zombie we go around believing we have a consciousness of self. It leaves the door open for researchers to wonder if it’s just a ‘necessary delusion’, as one writer put it.

It is an uncertain attribute in the sense that consciousness of self inevitably refers to a residual ‘I’. Therefore it relies wholly on ascription; the projection of the ‘I’ on ‘you’ and ‘they’, as the outcome of a recognisable phenomenology. As a concept, however, ‘self-consciousness’ suffers from an underdetermined description: it is not actually possible to give an all-inclusive definition.

We know from Kant and Hegel that our consciousness of self exhibits a well-rounded phenomenology, that it has structure and that there is an evolution behind it which combines the priming of our sensibility by the natural, but especially the social habitat.

It is an altogether different issue when we take note of the claims of an AI industry which has a stake in such discussions. It might (and perhaps should) leave us with an uncomfortable sense that this presupposes a quantitative and instrumental view of consciousness of self, i.e. the tacit assumption that this feature is ultimately reducible to (thus far unknown and wholly indeterminable) chemically engendered energy relations among our neuronal assemblies.

It is the supposition behind your word ‘programmed’. That word brings huge problems into the argument, because it insinuates an intentional agent implanting a faculty into zombies. You can see at once that this would have to be a human or superhuman intentional being. It is therefore an unsatisfactory proposition, as the program devised by a software designer does not drive a brain, but a logical inference device. A brain is a logical inference device to only a small fraction, as it has to cope with real-life situations and engenders the ‘residual I’ so as to facilitate physical navigation in the world and communicative interaction with other people. This cannot be reduced to rules, as the rules themselves emerge from unquantifiable situations. The intervention of a superhuman agent does not solve the problem, because consciousness is also unquantifiable, and therefore the superhuman agent would have to possess a total overview which is dubious on two counts: First, it runs into infinite regress (even for one person, let alone the population of the Earth of the past and future); and second because the superhuman agent has no human-type experience, intuition or self-consciousness. So the whole issue is ultimately self-contradictory.

The only avenue towards a resolution of your question would seem to be a biological approach. Unfortunately we don’t do anywhere near enough research on it. On the contrary, we are so obsessed with explaining consciousness as an emergent feature of physical or electronic processes that we are losing sight of the fundamental difference between intentional and ‘programmed’ (algorithm-driven) behaviour. Therefore we have nothing resembling a theory of intentionality, even though it could conceivably explain such things as consciousness of self in terms of the outcome of many intentional agents creating a ‘superintentionality’ for a body — whether it is the body of a human animal or the body of a corporation like ants and bees. But this is only a hint at something which we in our scientific presumptuousness have hardly even looked at.


Zach asked:

Is there conflict between being a good person morally and being a good friend? Explain why or why not by looking at what utilitarianism would say about our obligation to friends. If there is a conflict between being moral and being a good friend, are our duties to our friends stricter than those to others (strangers)?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Although you ask generally about the conflict between being a good person and being a good friend, I would like to look at this question from the point of view of consequentialism — utilitarianism in particular — but with a glimpse in the direction of duty based systems and virtue ethics. Do these latter systems do any better than utilitarianism?

The aim of being a good person usually is framed as ‘doing right’. But does this mean doing right on every occasion? On most occasions? Being a good friend is more difficult to define. If it means putting the friend first, and never letting anything else get in the way, then there will very often be problems with harmonising the concept of good friend and good person.

Utilitarianism is often seen in an unsympathetic light by its enemies, partly because of the suspicion that a faithful utilitarian could never be a faithful friend. Utilitarians are often cast in the role of making calculated decisions which result in performing acts which would normally be regarded as intuitively unacceptable. Would it really be all right for us to shoot an innocent South American Indian dead, even if we knew that by doing so would we would certainly save many others? This example is taken from the papers of Bernard Williams, who is a good source of wisdom regarding consequentialism. In a similar vein, what sort of person would push a grossly fat man off a bridge, even if doing so would cause a railway truck to derail and thus prevent it from careering into a group of workers further down the line? This example is taken from Philippa Foot.

If you translate this type of extreme example into the case of friendship, you might begin to see the special problems that Utilitarianism has. The suspicion would be that such a person cannot be a true friend, because he/ she regards friendship as a means to an end of creating utility; you are only of interest to me because I can maximise happiness better as a result of the friendship. This may be unacceptable to us if we regard friendship as an uncompromisingly all-or-nothing type of relationship. Bernard Williams relates the thought experiment of passing a burning building where two people are trapped. You can go into the building and be certain of saving only one of these people, so you have to choose. What if one of these people is one’s beloved spouse? Applying strict utilitarian criteria would require us to be impartial, and consider who we should save. Even if we did do this and conclude in favour of saving our spouse, Williams would still argue that utilitarianism is guilty of having ‘one thought too many’. We should intuitively not have a second thought about saving our wife or husband. In the same way, we might think that a utilitarian will always have ‘one thought too many’ to be a good friend. If we were paranoid we might even suspect that our ‘friend’ might push us onto the railway track as a means to an end of saving others. Thanks very much; some friend you are!

So it is for reasons of this sort that we are suspicious of strict classical act utilitarianism. It seems to be unable to incorporate our personal life projects, including our relationships with friends into the area of ethical judgement. Is it always the case that we should strive to be impartial, and eliminate all personal considerations before we make a decision?

Before we condemn Utilitarianism too harshly, we should perhaps realise that no modern ethical theory of right action has handled friendship well. Would a theory of duty be any better? We could still argue that Kant tells us to put our maxims of duty before everything else, friendship included. Friendship was considered as a serious part of an ethical system by the ancients (consider Aristotle’s chapter in the Nichomachean Ethics.), but it has not been seriously dealt with in modern times. Perhaps because of the influence of Aristotle, a virtue ethics system might perform better, but even here, I might still argue that my friendship is being valued because of its contribution to the friend’s character and his path to virtue. My friendship is being valued as a stepping stone and not for its own sake.

Utilitarianism has been sensitive to these criticisms, and has produced variations to cope with them. We could note here that J.S. Mill himself had noticed (a claim made in his Autobiography) that he had more surely and certainly maximised good consequences by pursuing aims other than pleasure or happiness. These other aims would include valued friendships, and would be indirectly connected with happiness. If we adopted such a form of indirect utilitarianism, we would argue that we will not maximize happiness (generally speaking) if we intrinsically value happiness above all else. Those who in fact maximize happiness also intrinsically value particular people, such as friends, and projects; further, their allegiance to these other values is not always trumped by their commitment to happiness. So by all means value happiness, but value other particular people and projects as well. Choose decision principles in light of these values. You do not have to give up favouring these values just because it seems, at times, that they frustrate your ability to maximize happiness. It is just possible that you may think that such a moral system is so far removed from utilitarianism that it no longer be called as such.

Finally, I would like to make a mitigating plea on behalf of Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham was very much concerned with improving policy making processes in the arena of government. It seems to me that Utilitarianism was developed in order to provide some insights into better public decisions. This is why, as an ethical system, it seems to find it difficult to find a place for the more personal aspects of moral judgements, such as friendship, people, personal integrity and projects.


Seb asked:

Is philosophy required to be based upon scientific knowledge, at least partially?

Answer by Danny Krämer

This is a question that concerns the purpose of Philosophy. Since Descartes and especially Kant a lot of philosophers thought that the job of philosophy is to provide a priori knowledge that no science could achieve. Especially knowledge of the mind was thought as a priori and so as a field where many thought that philosophy could deliver new answers. But at least since Quine, many philosophers are naturalists. Quine for example believed, that what was called philosophy is just a branch of psychology and philosophy has no special a priori knowledge about anything. Some naturalists think that philosophy is a mistaken undertaking and should be abandoned. All we can know about the wide world we know by science.

This is an answer that you can expect from someone who thinks that philosophy is the search for the fundamental structure of the world or special domains by a priori methods. I am a naturalist too but I don’t believe that philosophy is a failure. I think the most important task for philosophy is to help us to understand how the things of the world hang together and how we fit into this world. The sciences tell us what things exist and how they work. So to understand how we fit into this world and how our theories of the world can be brought into a consistent view philosophy must be informed by science. One of the most important tasks is to tell us how our, like Wilfried Sellars would say,scientific image of the world — that means the world of quarks and DNA and so on — and our manifest image of the world — the worlds of tables, values, artworks etc. — hang together.


Kevin asked:

I’m an atheist. While challenging my indoctrination in my youth I came to this reasoning concerning infinity and god/s;

How is it logically possible for an infinite being in its perpetual existence to come to ‘thought’ let alone ‘create’ or ‘affect’, clearly the domain of a time governed universe?

An infinite being can never come to a point in time when fresh thought is formulated, because that would mean that an infinite being took X amount of time to come to that thought.

In perspective; How could an infinite being pick up time ‘X’ to formulate the thought to initiate the universe, and act upon it at time ‘Y’ as opposed to time ‘Z’ for instance.

Logically speaking, can the ‘creator of the universe’ be an infinite being?

Answer by Peter Jones

This is a great question. I feel that your reasoning is basically correct. Where the problem arises is in the assumption that an infinite being exists. If this phenomenon is limitless, as most people would claim for their God, then He cannot be limited by existence. He must have a reality, but to be limitless ‘He’ would have to transcend the distinction between existence and non-existence. Note that a transcendent being of this kind would be a way to make logical sense of existence, and thus logical sense of God, and that philosophers have so far failed to discover an alternative that works. This would be the God of such explorers as Meister Eckhart and Nicolas de Cusa, for whom ‘He’ would lie ‘beyond the coincidence of contradictories’, thus not only in but also beyond this world of opposites.

‘God’ may not be the correct word term here but some would use it in this way. More often, I think, this immanent and transcendent phenomenon beyond all distinctions and partial views is not called God. For instance, F.H. Bradley, whose essay Appearance and Reality you might like, would use the word ‘Reality’, and while referring to all that is finite, subject to change and dependent on conceptual distinctions would use ‘Appearance’. The Sufi sage Al-Halaj uses the word ‘Truth’ and claims ‘I am Truth’. Many mystics have claimed to be God and say it is unavoidable. All these claims would be equivalent.

An excellent and immediately relevant book exploring the consequences of your thinking would be Keith Ward’s God: A Guide for the Perplexed. Again, God would be beyond the existence/ non-existence distinction. Nothing else would be truly real. Lao Tsu explains that the laws of Earth and Heaven come from ‘Tao being what it is’. What it is would include Earth and Heaven. Here there is no intentional act of creation and no problems arise with events occurring in infinity. At the level of its ultimate or infinite aspect there would be no change, no movement and no time except for Now, or what Eckhart calls the ‘Perennial Now’. The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna long ago proved that nothing really exists and nothing ever really happens. If you can get hold of Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine, on pages 80 and 81 you will find good answers to your questions here.

As all of this indicates there too much to say about these issues to cover the ground here. There is a vast literature that describes this idea of a changing but changeless ultimate phenomenon, and I think you will find that it avoids the problems that you correctly identify with most ideas of God. You would need to explore apophatic theology, Sufism, Hermeticism, the Christian mystics, advaita Vedanta, Taoism, Buddhism and so forth.

How can an infinite and changeless being which enfolds the whole universe come to thought? This seems an extremely good question. Perhaps it would be good thing if more people asked it. If you give this question a lot of thought you’ll see that there’s only one way it could be done. He has to divide Himself up in the vast Web of Indra and then forget that He is doing this. Thus He cannot help but watch every sparrow that falls for He is not free to be absent. If God is limitless then it would be impossible to have a thought or experience that He cannot have, for this would represent a limit on His thinking and experience.

Like St. Augustine you cannot make sense of time or, more accurately, you can see that your idea of time does not make sense. I would suggest that you turn this problem on its head and start trying to make sense of the idea that time as a metaphysical phenomenon truly does not make sense, and that this is because it is unreal and you are assuming otherwise. Time makes perfect sense as long as we do not reify it in metaphysics. Time is a psychological phenomenon for the mystics and evaporates in their ontology. A fundamental phenomenon that is subject to time would be a very muddled and incoherent concept, so in the end time has to go the way of space.

It seems very sensible that you question your indoctrination and do not simply reject it. Indoctrination is not necessarily a pack of lies and may simply be education. You’ll find that God does not have to rejected if we award Him a definition that is not a straw man in philosophy and science. Such a definition is possible but difficult to understand.

If you are an ‘instinctive’ theist but merely sceptical, and also new to mysticism, then for reading matter I can confidently recommend Keith Ward as a starting place. After this it would depend on which writers and approaches happen to work best for you. It might be Plotinus, Alan Watts, the sayings of the gnostic Jesus or the poetry of Kabir. The philosophy of Buddhism may be the easiest place to start and many Christians claim to have re-discovered and better understood the religion of their birth by studying this.

Good luck on what may turn out to be a surprisingly exciting journey.


Gabrielle asked:

A recent investigation into universities in Northville reveals that the percentage of philosophy prefessors who are female was 11.2486102% in 2012, 10.9399783% in 2013 and 10.6400161% in 2014. This is very alarming because it tells us that in only 37 years , 6 months and 15 days, female philosophy professors will constitute less than 0.33333333% of Northville teaching force. Identify two main problems.

The CIA World Factbook is one of the most reliable sources for worldwide statistics. According to it only 99% of germans are literate — with a population of 80.716 million people, this means a straggeering 807,160 germans cant read! But working from the same source , we see that only 351,100 canadians have trouble reading, clearly Canada’s education system is superiror at teaching is citizens to read? Is there a problem with this question?

Answer by David Robjant

The abuse of statistics is a political art-form practiced by Governments and campaigners alike. It is all the more effective for the general ignorance of the population. It is possibly a worthwhile research project to find out whether we philosophers are also among the ignorant. You might suspect so, because philosophy isn’t primarily about numbers, but on the other hand the abuse of statistics is mainly about the careful handling of definitions and deductions, which is right up our street.

1. The Canada v. Germany question is pretty easy, once you realise that the total population of Canada is less than half that of Germany. It’s not at all surprising, therefore, that Canada has less than half the number of illiterate adults. Nothing here suggests that Canada’s ‘education system is superior at teaching it’s citizens to read’.

There are more complex kinds of statistical swindle. Like:

2. Pretending that a conclusion or hypothesis is proved by the data, when it is merely consistent with it. Firstly, you can’t deduce anything about gender representation in 10 years time from three years of data. If 2010 and 2011 are lower figures, the 2012 figure could be purely anomalous and no evidence of a trend. Secondly, you need to know how many universities and university professors there are in Northville, before you could work out what would be statistically significant here. In connection with that, you need to work out if there are temporary factors. If the sample size is small enough, the retirement of one staff member could be enough to suggest a trend in a three year run of figures.

It’s not really the case that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Typically the statistics are correct, but the problem is that it’s too easy to fool the ignorant by pretending that statistics imply something that they don’t.


Beth asked:

I can’t think of any philosophical questions. Is there something wrong with me?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There may be many things wrong with you but since I don’t know you I can’t say what they are.

If you want to know about some philosophical questions then read a book about philosophical questions. Try Bertrand Russells History of Western Philosophy.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In Bertrand Russell by A.J. Ayer (1972) there is the following interesting comment about the divergence in the views of Russell and Wittgenstein after the publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

"Wittgenstein coupled Russell with H.G. Wells as men who had run out of problems, and Russell, though he retained great affection for Wittgenstein, could see little merit in his later work." (p.16)

Obviously, if you have never been gripped by a philosophical question, you are missing out on something. As a philosopher, I would have to say that, wouldn’t I? But what does it mean to ‘run out of problems’? Is it possible that your thinking could take you to a place — as Wittgenstein thought it had done with Russell — that you were no longer able to believe that there are any philosophical questions to answer?

This is an occupational hazard for philosophers who search for, and think they have found, the Big Theory. Russell’s ‘Big Theory’ was logical atomism. The theory furnished him with an epistemology, a metaphysics, a complete methodology for philosophical analysis, in short, a way of breaking down and resolving any philosophical problem. Ergo, there were no real problems left.

This view is ironic, given that Russell, more than most philosophers who had attained his level of prominence, was not afraid of changing his mind about answers he had previously given. (He makes a remark about this somewhere.) True, he didn’t see what the later Wittgenstein was getting at in his ‘philosophical therapy’ but this is a common issue with philosophers. ‘You do not appreciate the problems I am working on’ does not equate to ‘You have lost the ability to appreciate philosophical problems.’

This is of special interest to me because, like Russell, I have, or had, a ‘Big Theory’. The difference is that while logical atomism had an answer to practically everything, my theory of subjective and objective worlds merely redescribes the problems of philosophy, leaving things largely as they were before — apart from ‘one big thing’ which is all I really know. In terms of Isaiah Berlin’s classification, I am a hedgehog rather than a fox.

I see lots of philosophical questions. I fear that some of these questions, those which are the most fundamental, have no answer even in principle. They are conundrums. Wouldn’t it be better if one could just let these go? What is the point of continuing to ponder questions which have no answer? The only reply I can give to that question is simply that this is what I have to do.


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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