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Francisco asked:

I am interested in philosophy because I want to become a better critical thinker, which hopefully will result in me becoming a better debater. I want to beat others in arguments. What do you suggest I do to achieve this goal?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If you just want to beat others in arguments, being a better critical thinker isn’t too important. Far more useful would be a willingness to keep on arguing until you opponent gives up or backs down — or collapses from exhaustion — coupled the implicit belief that you are never wrong.

As a first step towards this goal, I would recommend that you take a course of assertiveness training. You need to give your ego a bit of a boost. Don’t let the bullies with more knowledge or higher IQs get you down. You can work on your voice, too. Lower the register a bit (it’s more manly) practice your auditorium filling, parliament filling ‘boom’.

Are you married, Francisco? The experience of many, or possibly even most husbands is that they regularly lose arguments with their wives. If this happens to you on a regular basis, you need to learn how to do so gracefully. It would be better in the long run. There’s a lesson to be learned there, on more than one level.

For the philosopher, there is one, and only one reason for wanting to win an argument: you want to establish the truth. The desire to win arguments when the truth is not on your side is the mark of a sophist. If you are wrong in your beliefs, then as a philosopher you should want to be proved wrong — as Socrates says on more than one occasion. When you prove to someone that they are wrong, you are benefitting them. When they prove that you are wrong they are benefitting you.

John Stuart Mill, in his brilliant defence of the liberty of thought and discussion in his book On Liberty (1859) describes truth as the outcome of a ‘contest of opinions’. Think of debate in those terms, rather than a contest between persons. When, as a result of a healthy contest of opinions, the truth wins out, we all — ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — have reason to celebrate.


Rondle asked:

Can you explain to me the meaning of this “Existentialist thinkers attempt to philosophize from the standpoint of an actor rather than from that of a spectator” and please elaborate thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion that ‘philosophizing from the standpoint of an actor rather than that of a spectator’ is something peculiar to existentialist thinkers is simply wrong. Just to give one example, there’s a book written by Lewis White Beck Actor and the Spectator (The Ernst Cassirer lectures, Yale 1975) which is not in the existentialist tradition. In his lectures, Beck offers a novel solution to the free will problem intended for an audience of analytic philosophers.

The British philosopher John Macmurray has been called the ‘English existentialist’ for his proposal, in The Self as Agent (Faber 1957) that Descartes’ ‘I think’ should be replaced by ‘I do’ — from which it allegedly follows that the form of a metaphysical theory should be a ‘metaphysic of action’ rather than a Kantian ‘metaphysic of experience’. However, the notion that Macmurray was an existentialist (alongside Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre) seems to me based purely on the erroneous notion just mentioned.

One of the most important philosophers in the analytic tradition, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy makes the strongest case for the primacy of the agent. An isolated spectator could never learn or understand a language. In order for there to be linguistic rules, there have to be individuals following a ‘practice’ embedded in a ‘form of life’. Our culture, our nature are inextricably involved in our ability to communicate with one another.

So what is peculiar to existentialist thinking that has to do with being an ‘actor’? I think there is a core idea, which has to do with the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. As an analytic philosopher, you can take on board the idea that human beings are essentially agents. For example, there are many working in the field of Artificial Intelligence who accept that a genuinely ‘intelligent’ machine would have to have a sense of its own identity as an agent in the world, interacting with other agents. To be an agent involves having a body that enables you to act in ways other than merely emitting sounds or printout or characters on a screen.

One element still missing from this picture is the sense that, as agents, you and I are more than just objects of scientific inquiry by other agents. For example, it is a widely accepted scientific fact that all living creatures eventually die. However, for an existentialist thinker (Heidegger, for example, or Levinas) our attitude towards our own eventual demise is of paramount importance. The question of what it means to ‘be in a world’ is not, and never will be, a question for science. To ‘philosophize from the standpoint of an actor’ in this sense, is to grasp the problem of what this means for my own existence rather than merely the existence of human beings generally. This is the challenge of authenticity which cannot be met simply by detached philosophic or scientific ‘understanding’.


Andrew asked:

Are there any circumstances in which a war of aggression is justified?

 Answer by Paul Fagan

For some persons, such as pacifists, any form of Warfare may be considered to be immoral. However, for many others a war of aggression may be justified, and here three types of justification are noted.

The questioner may find it surprising that for some political philosophies, war is considered an essential part of life. It keeps populations healthy and alert; and allows the evolutionary process of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to continue. For such political philosophies, a war of aggression requires very little justification. For instance, the Futurists, who were influential upon Italian fascism, proclaimed in article 9 of their manifesto of 1911: ‘We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene’ (

But what reasons would other philosophies need to justify a war of aggression? Christian philosophy, has had a role to play here, and would traditionally supply justification where a nation state could provide a ‘just reason to go to war’ or a jus ad bellum. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (OUP 1995) provides an insightful definition whereby, for a war to be just, it should be:

‘undertaken only by a legitimate authority, it may be waged only for a just cause, it must be a last resort, there must be a formal declaration of war, and there must be a reasonable hope of success’ (p. 905).

Hence, using this reasoning, nation states when acting aggressively, may argue that they had a just reason to go to war. A substantial body of work has been written in this area including definitions of what actually constitutes just conduct during warfare; and for further information the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which provides a very good summary of this area (

The reader may also like to look back into history and analyse any particular war of aggression of their choice. Now, if the war cannot be explained by a pugnacious political philosophy causing the aggression then one should query whether the aggressor felt it had a just cause. On the face of it, wars often fail to be explained adequately by either of these. This may lead one to ponder whether other processes of justification are at work and it is suggested here that a philosophical school of thought such as utilitarianism may be being used.  It is possible that the higher echelons of power, whether they are monarchs, governments or the establishment, carry out a utilitarian calculus either subconsciously or consciously, when deciding to go to war.  More bluntly, embarking upon a war may be explained by the tools provided by modern studies of business activity. It is possible that a form of cost benefit analysis is enacted, whereby the costs and benefits are weighed against each other before war is started. To explain, the costs of waging a war may incur: lives lost; taxation revenue required; and a diminished world standing. Whereas the benefits may include: gained resources; economic or military security; and the war may even divert the citizens’ attention from problems at home. Hence, after carrying out the exercise, if the benefits are deemed to outweigh the costs, then this may provide a justification for war in the eyes of the powers that be.

Varying philosophies, in their own way, may define whether a war of aggression is justified. Here, three have been noted, where: some will go to war quite readily; some will require the fulfilment of conditions; and some may calculate whether it is worthwhile. However, expounders of any of these philosophies would do well to bear in mind Machiavelli when he said ‘Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please’.


Bob asked:

There is a tenet still held by some philosophers which is: “Anything that can be imagined is possible”. This was, of course, the basis of Anselm’s ontological argument. My question: What is the formal name of that tenet?

Answer by Craig Skinner

This is called the conceivability argument.

Such arguments are advanced against physicalism, the doctrine that the physical world is all that exists, and that mental states are just physical brain states or aspects of these.

The two best known conceivability arguments are the inverted spectrum argument and the zombie argument.

The inverted spectrum argument says that, for all we know, the sensations you have when looking at colours are the inverse of mine. So, looking at grass, you have the sensation I have when looking at ripe tomatoes, and, looking at ripe tomatoes, you have the sensation I have looking at grass. Of course we both call grass green and tomatoes red, having been so taught, so that there is no communication problem. The argument assumes healthy humans, not people with colour blindness or jaundice.

The zombie argument says that we can conceive of an atom-for-atom duplicate of you, with exactly the same brain states as you, behaving exactly as you, but without any consciousness at all.

So, we can conceive brain states occurring with a mental accompaniment different from usual, or with no mental state at all.. Hence (goes the conceivability argument), whatever causes mental states, they are not wholly determined by brain states, hence physicalism is false.

I think these are poor arguments. I have two objections.

First, conceivability doesnt necessarily mean possibility. Our imagination can outrun possibility. So, the “tenet”, as you term it, is false. Right now, I can conceive my cat jumping up and typing the rest of this answer. But this is metaphysically impossible. There could of course be worlds in which cat-like creatures with superior intelligence do such things, but they would not be cats.

Secondly, advances in our understanding may show that the arguments contain conceptual confusions. Two conceivability arguments that might have been advanced in the 19th Century illustrate this:

  1. We can conceive of a container of gas in which the particles move faster and faster but the temperature of the gas doesnt rise. So, whatever temperature is, it’s nothing to do with particle velocity, right? Wrong, temperature just IS mean particle velocity.
  2. We can conceive of a world containing tiny, replicating, self-stabilizing bags of chemicals undergoing complex interactions (let’s call them ‘cells’) but these cells are not alive, just little bags of dead chemicals. So, whatever life is, it’s not explained by complex chemical interactions. Again, wrong. Life just IS complex interactions of dead chemicals in units drawing energy from outside, maintaining dynamic stability and replicating.

So, I think the spectrum and zombie arguments may likewise fall to advances in cognitive science as we learn how particular brainstates necessarily entail, say, seeing red or being conscious. Meantime, I would say these arguments imagine things that are not possible.


Lance asked:

Mill states that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. What reasons does he give for thinking this?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The reason he gives is that a wise man can experience the “higher” pleasures, whereas the fool experiences only the “lower” ones. And, since a small amount of a higher pleasure is worth any amount of a lower one, even if Socrates is not fully satisfied enjoying the higher pleasures, he is better off than the fool who is completely satisfied with the lower ones.

Why does Mill introduce the idea of higher and lower pleasures, and how does he distinguish between them ?

Mill frames utility in terms of pleasure (the best action to take is the one maximizing overall pleasure). In this he followed the example of his father’s friend Bentham. The latter thought all pleasures could be rated on a single scale and that “pushpin is as good as poetry” (pushpin was a simple pub game). But if pleasures can all be measured on a single scale (intensity multiplied by duration),  we get unwelcome consequences. One standard example is Haydn and the oyster: if an oyster were to  enjoy a tiny bit of pleasure for millions of years, this would outweigh the pleasure in Haydn’s 77-year life, and we would have to say that the oyster’s life was more worthwhile than that of the great composer. Indeed, in Utilitarianism (Ch.2) Mill refers to critics who say it is a “doctrine worthy only of swine”.

To avoid these consequences, Mill said there were higher and lower pleasures. Importantly, a small amount of a higher one was worth more than any amount of a lower one, thereby avoiding the eternal oyster and myriad contented pigs problems.

So, what are the higher pleasures, and how do know that they are ?

Well, the higher ones are distinctly human, whereas we share the lower ones with some other animals. He’s not very specific about the higher pleasures, and one gets the feeling these are just the pursuits he and his friends liked. And they are unnecessarily intellectual. I wonder what he’d make of today’s popular pleasures, like shopping, cooking, playing darts or poker, bungee jumping, jogging, watching people bake, dance or play football on TV.

As to how he knows the status of a pleasure, he says that those who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures prefer the higher, even in small amount, to the lower, even in large amount. But no detail is given as to this social survey, and again, I suspect he just echoes the view  of his friends and himself.

In addition to the higher/ lower distinction, Mill extended the notion of pleasure beyond sensation or feeling of wellbeing to something more like Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing, living and doing well).

He would have been better off, avoiding these problems, if he had abandoned the Benthamite narrow, hedonistic view of happiness, given up talk of higher and lower pleasures altogether, and instead framed utility (maximizing the good) in terms of welfare, benefit, satisfaction or preferences, as later Consequentialists have done.


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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