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Raheem asked:

If the universe and everything in it is consisted of matter, are my thoughts consisted of matter also? And if so, is anything and everything really possible? Does everything have a certain equation to make into reality? And if not, what are my thoughts, and why are Numbers infinite?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Materialism is a theory as old as philosophy itself — or at least Western philosophy. The Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed a picture of the universe as consisting entirely of ‘atoms and the void’. Human thought and perception are nothing but movements of atoms. (Aristotle in his critique of atomism remarks that thought atoms were held to be quick moving and slippery, like the mercury that Daedalus was fabled to have used to make his statues self-moving. Aristotle thought that was a hoot.)

The true diehard materialist takes the nominalist side in the nominalism-realism debate. In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), nominalism transmogrified into the ‘meaning is use’ theory, giving nominalism a whole new lease of life. Words are no longer just labels we pin on material things — always a rather implausible theory — but rather counters in the ‘language game’, and there are many games besides the ‘label-pinning’ game. Contemporary truth conditional semantics is the heir to Wittgenstein, dovetailing neatly into a worldview where all that exists is ultimately the objects of physics.

‘And if so, is anything and everything really possible?’ If you mean, can materialism account for everything we talk about — not just thought, but meaning, truth, possibility and necessity, numbers and abstract objects — the materialists would say, yes. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

‘And, if not… why are numbers infinite?’ It was the mathematical Intuitionist Brouwer whose 1928 Vienna lecture first provoked Wittgenstein to return to philosophy. Specifically, the problem of grasping propositions about the infinite led the Intuitionists — under the influence of Kant — to deny the validity of the Classical laws of double negation elimination and excluded middle. Numbers and numerical formulae are ‘free creations’ of the finite human mind rather than timeless Platonic entities to which mathematical propositions correspond.

I would have thought that a diehard materialist, on the other hand, ought to have no truck with infinities of any sort. If the material universe is infinite, then you could fit an infinite number of guests into an hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all occupied, just by getting each guest to move from room number x to room number 2x. (The thought experiment is known as Hilbert’s Paradox.)

Then again, if you think of a universal formula as a ‘rule’ which mathematical language users ‘follow’, then it seems you can have your cake and eat it. You can say that a universal formula is ‘true’ for all numbers (i.e. proved, justified) while at the same time denying that the rules we follow are ‘rails stretching to infinity’ as the Platonist believes.

‘And if not, what are my thoughts…?’ You don’t have be able to say what something IS, in order to be pretty sure what it is NOT. So, frankly, I don’t know. However, my present view inclines towards the notion that thought is mental action, and action is prior to everything else in the universe. The ultimate reality. What ultimately IS life, your life, my life, but the things one does, and the things the world does in response? The rest is just things ‘we’ say in our common discourse (as Heraclitus would have remarked). On this view, materialism is as unthinkable as solipsism.

— Raheem, I don’t know if this answers your question or not. (I wasn’t altogether sure what you were getting at.) I hope it helps, at any rate.

Tim asked:

My name is Timothy Fuller. I am a Philosophy and Economics B.A Graduate. I currently run my own business and continue to learn and research and aspire for Graduate Studies. Thank you for taking my question.

I am interested in the question of how physical inanimate objects can create an experience of being and living as something in real time. To take it further, how can the ‘electrical storm’, firing synapses etc, all physical create something it is to be something to be that INDIVIDUAL. To take further what would we say we are as an individual? We are not the cells of our bodies or any individual atom. We are the thing that experiences. What is that ‘thing’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Tim, as Morpheus says to Neo, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ It’s absurd, ain’t it, the very idea that the person called ‘Tim’, as an ‘individual’, just IS some physical thing, an object in the world, physical processes happening, causes and effects, all building up to make YOU?

It’s good that you took a joint degree. At least you’ve learned something useful. To pass Philosophy, you had to submit to ideological brainwashing, as all undergrads do. You learned what a ‘good argument’ or a ‘bad argument’ is, and how to tell the difference. You were punished (with bad marks) if you wrote essays that didn’t conform to the accepted view of a ‘good’ essay in philosophy, that is to say, an essay developed from, based upon the ‘correct’ assumptions and argued according to the accepted canons of ‘good’ argument.

And one of the things you were taught is that materialism — the materialist view of the self — is a perfectly reasonable theory, and that any arguments based on your subjective sense or intuition that ‘it just can’t be true’ are irrelevant, or just an expression of your mental incapacity. I know how you feel, because I went through this too.

First, let’s get rid of the aura around ‘electricity’. (‘Elastic trickery,’ as I remember it being called in some TV comedy program.) Ever since Galvani succeed in making frog legs twitch when he applied a current, electricity and electrical processes have had an inexpressible mystique. Electricity goes its own way invisibly up and down silver wires and round and round printed circuits. Nothing moves, yet everything is happening.

I was once the proud owner of an original Sony radio with nine transistors. Nine! A marvel of the modern age. That was the 60s. (Wish I’d kept it, it would be worth a fortune on eBay.) Today, an ordinary desktop computer contains hundreds of millions of transistors. The mind boggles.

Get rid of all that. Put it out of your mind. Numbers are just numbers. Imagine instead that the thing you call ‘you’ was made of wooden cogs and pulleys, twisted rubber bands, paper, plasticine et cetera. It’s long been an accepted axiom of AI that the ‘program’ is all that matters.

Neural networks are the latest thing, but they are just a minor variant. It was always suspected that computers could do a better job of programming themselves than we can do, using our limited human knowledge. Hence the remarkable success of AlphaZero. If the supercomputer running AlphaZero was made of wood and rubber, etc. how big would it have to be? How long would it take to calculate a chess move? As I said, numbers are irrelevant.

I am not going to repeat arguments I’ve given in other posts on this topic. (Just do a search through these pages.) There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!

Joshua asked:

Am always wondering: is every creative book a philosophical work? Since authors think before they write, are they not engaged in philosophy? For example, was Franz Kafka “thinking philosophically” when he decided to write “Metamorphosis”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Gregor is not a bad man. Like many millions of his fellow citizens, he has taken on the burden of supporting his family financially. His work as a salesman is thankless and hard — like so many millions of hard working men. He wakes up one morning to discover that he has undergone metamorphosis into a giant insect. His just reward?

In a version of ‘Metamorphosis’ made into a play which I saw years ago, the insect in question is a cockroach, which is how I always picture Gregor.

Yes, this is philosophy. But the question to ask is what exactly can philosophy be, if Kafka’s novel is an example of it. Ian Fleming, an author I have enjoyed, ‘thought before he wrote’. He has an eye for pungent detail. But you’d have to work hard to find philosophical ideas in his novels, or in the mind of his character James Bond. Stoicism perhaps. Belief in the absolute priority of serving his country, and the ability to withstand gruesome torture in pursuit of his aim.

(That’s one thing Kafka and Fleming have in common — a talent for describing the gruesome.)

For me, there can be only one answer: philosophy is concerned with the ultimate questions. What is reality? Why are we here? What is the point of living? Is anything really ‘good’ or ‘bad’ except in relation to our likes and dislikes?

Looking around the world of professional philosophy, I see relatively few ‘philosophers’ by this criterion. If the rest were to undergo metamorphosis, I imagine them turning into clouds of bluebottles, looking around for rotting carcasses to gorge themselves on. You can spend your entire professional life mining some narrow topic in philosophical logic. Become the unquestioned authority in three-valued logic, or backwards causation, or whatever.

Who cares?

Joshua, if you want to think about the ultimate questions, then, yes, you’re probably better reading novels. But that’s not the answer, because you really need to go back to when philosophy began, with the Presocratics, to feel, with them, the sense of urgency in trying to make sense of what sort of ‘world’ or ‘cosmos’ we live in, what is the right way to live, what are the capacities and limits of human reason, and so on. Then go forward from there.

I don’t spend all of my time thinking about the ultimate questions, because you have to have a balanced diet. Protein and carbohydrate (complex, preferably). And fat too, for the brain. I can debate the pros and cons of three-valued logic as well as anyone. I also have interests besides philosophy. But the question that really gets me going is, Why I am here? What insect would I be?

Jared asked:

Hello my question is about the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I personally do agree with the premises and the conclusion, however a person on YouTube said that you cannot say that an infinite regress does not make sense but an infinite being does. So my question is what is the difference between an infinite regress and an infinite being, can you say they are both absurd?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What is ‘infinite’? What does that word mean? Do you know?

It’s relatively easy to say what an ‘infinite series’ is in mathematics. The simplest infinite series is generated by the rule ‘plus one’ — the series of natural numbers. The series of natural numbers is the same ‘size’ (infinite) as the series of even numbers, even though you’d think there would be twice as many. That’s one of the interesting properties of the mathematical infinite.

To talk about ‘infinity’ or ‘infinities’ is to talk about rules. However, the real world, the world of material objects, has a different sort of existence from numbers or sets. The real world isn’t the product of a mathematical rule but the arena of cause and effect, and the sequence of events in time. I don’t know what it would mean to say that THAT was ‘infinite’, do you?

You can say, ‘For every time however long ago, there is an earlier time,’ or ‘For any object however far away, there is an object further away,’ but the question is what it means for those statements to be true. For example, if stars or galaxies go on ‘for ever’ then if half the stars or galaxies were snuffed out of existence there would still be just as many as there were before.

And that’s before we even get to the problem of the ‘infinite’ regress from effects to causes. Imagine a line of falling dominoes going back into the far distance. Just a moment ago, the cascade passed us by. The line of dominoes supposedly goes back for ever. In that case, how do you explain the timing if there was no first falling domino to start the cascade?

On the other hand, if the real world can’t be ‘infinite’ it must be finite — finite in size and finite in duration. It follows that there was a time when the world (we can drop the ‘real’) didn’t exist. Then there was a time when it did. Based on the only notion we have of cause and effect, that doesn’t make any sense either. The Big Bang banged but nothing caused ‘it’ to bang. First, there was nothing, then bang. How? Why?

There is a possible way around this. Say that the laws of physics, such as gravity, are ‘real’ regardless of whether a physical world actually exists or not. Starting with a timeless truth — the truth of the laws of physics — it is held to be logically possible for matter to come into being as a so-called ‘quantum event’. That’s not ‘something’ from ‘nothing’ because the laws of physics are not nothing.

By this point, you may have noticed that the ‘timeless truth of the laws of physics’ plays, or is alleged to play, exactly the same role as the ‘infinite being’ posited by the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Either would be sufficient to generate our spatio-temporal world.

However, there is one huge difference. The laws of physics may be true, but they can at most be contingently true. There is no logical contradiction in supposing that the laws of physics might have been different, in small or large ways. The infinite being, on the other hand, can only be what it is. It’s existence is necessary. It exists in all possible worlds, exactly the same. It is a ’cause of itself’.

From now on, let’s just call it the ‘necessary being’, so that we don’t have to use the questionable term ‘infinite’. An infinite regress and a necessary being might both be absurd as your YouTube commentator claimed, but if they are, it is for different reasons.

Kant argued in Critique of Pure Reason that you can only make sense of the idea of a necessary being — a being that is the cause of itself — if you appeal to the Ontological Argument. If there can be a being sufficiently ‘perfect’ that it is a cause of its own existence, then the existence of a such being is necessary. If such a ‘perfect being’ exists any possible world, then it must exist in all possible worlds.

Because there is a necessary being, our world came into being at some specific time in the past. That’s what the Kalam Cosmological Argument states. The alternative theory, the one that posits the truth of the laws of physics, can get away with asserting that there is a probability that matter will form at one specific time rather than another specific time. That’s an interesting difference. But it leads to a conundrum.

The conundrum was first proposed by the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides two and a half thousand years ago. Speaking of what ‘is’, he asks rhetorically:

“And what need could have impelled it to grow
Later or sooner, if it began from nothing?”

As scholars have noted, what is interesting about this particular argument, is that Parmenides throws it in as an extra point, which isn’t strictly required by his case for One unchanging reality. But the point is devastating to anyone who proposes a beginning for the world in time.

Here’s the alternative: Either we have a ‘necessary being’ or ‘truth of the laws of physics’. The first implies a conscious choice, a selection: the world should be thus-and-so, it should come into existence at such-and-such a time. The other implies an inexplicably contingent throw of the dice — the thing that so annoyed Einstein about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Either way, there is a problem.

A necessary being does everything for a reason, as Leibniz insisted (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’). But in empty time, there can be no sufficient reason for the world to be created at time t1 rather than time t2. All empty times are the same, there’s nothing to choose between them. On the other hand, if you’re relying on a throw of the dice — an inexplicable quantum contingency — you might as well chuck in the towel and just say that the world just came into existence for no reason at all.

In the case where we are relying on the truth of the laws of physics, one could claim that ‘time as we know it’ only begins with the Big Bang. So the notion of time ‘passing’ while one waits for the Big Bang to bang is meaningless. A similar move occurs with St. Thomas Aquinas’ version of the Cosmological Argument, where the necessary being timelessly ‘creates’ the temporal world from an eternal standpoint outside the temporal series.

However, we are still left with an impossible choice between implacable necessity and inexplicable contingency.

If a necessary being caused the world to come into existence, then it caused me — indirectly, through a massively long chain of causes and effects — to write this answer today. This world is the best of all possible worlds, and all the better for having my answer than not having it, Leibniz would say. If, on the other hand, the world began with a quantum event, then the only way to explain away contingency is to posit that all possible worlds are equally real. But if that’s the line we’re taking, then the problem of how or why the world began disappears altogether.

Aisha asked:

Hey so I am stuck on a Philosophy question that states:

What is Descartes argument for the existence of the soul?

I have looked everywhere online and cannot find a simple yet understandable answer — could you help?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Aisha, I am going to try to give a simple and understandable answer to your question. There is admittedly a problem with this, because what I find ‘simple’ or ‘understandable’ might not be so for you. I have to agree with you that many of the attempts I’ve seen are neither.

If I fail — my bad.

First, we need to explain the idea of identity. Everyone understands the idea of identity. Here’s an example: Batman IS Bruce Wayne. They are one and the same individual. They are identical. (According to Wikipedia, Batman is a fictional character created by Bob Kane and Bill finger. Batman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, cover date May 1939, release date March 1939.) In real life, this kind of deception is pretty rare — that’s the only reason why I’m using a fictional example.

Let’s say that the Joker begins to suspect that Bruce Wayne is actually his hated enemy Batman. One night, the Joker ambushes Bruce Wayne and kills him. Shoots him full of holes, with no possibility of resuscitation. Let’s burn the body to ash, just to be sure.

The next day, ‘Batman’ foils a bank robbery. How do you and I know that the person who foiled the bank robbery isn’t really Batman? Because Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. If you kill Bruce Wayne, you kill Batman. If you kill Batman, you kill Bruce Wayne. The person who foiled the bank robbery can only have been someone wearing a ‘Batman’ costume, someone impersonating Batman. Because there IS no Batman. He’s dead.

So this was Descartes’ idea: can we imagine a possible scenario where my soul exists but my body does not exist? If I am just physical, then if my physical body dies then I cannot continue to exist.

Of course, we can always imagine some story about dying and going to heaven, but we’re trying to prove something. The story has got to be one that no-one could argue against. ‘I know I have a soul because when I die I will go to heaven,’ won’t work against an atheist who doesn’t believe in a place called ‘heaven’.

Here is the argument Descartes gave. It’s absolutely brilliant:

I know that I exist. That’s an absolute fact. I can’t think I exist when in fact I don’t exist, that would be nonsense. But I don’t know, not absolutely for sure, that I have a physical body. Maybe my entire life has been a dream. Maybe there is no physical universe. Maybe all there is, is just experiences, like the experiences I am having now, or the experiences you are having now.

You and I believe that we live in a physical world. Physical things exist. But the world might not have been a physical world. It is conceivable that there might not have been any physical things. But the thing I call ‘I’ would still exist in that non-physical world, and the thing you call ‘I’ would still exist in that non-physical world.

It follows that my ‘I’ and my body must be two things, they cannot be identical. Because if they were identical, then the very idea of my ‘I’ existing when my body did not exist would be absurd. It would be as absurd as thinking that Batman can exist even after Bruce Wayne has been murdered. As I have already explained, you and I know that if Bruce Wayne dies, Batman dies, and if ‘Batman’ subsequently appears, it can only be someone else wearing a Batman costume.

What is my ‘I’? We know that it is something that is not physical, because it can exist even in world where no physical things exist. Descartes calls it a ‘soul’.

But there’s a problem: if Descartes’ argument is so brilliant, why is it that most philosophers today aren’t convinced? Why do so many believe in the theory of materialism, according to which ‘I’ can only refer to something physical?

The biggest objection is to Descartes’ idea that it is ‘conceivable’ that the physical universe might not have existed and that all that existed was ‘just experiences’. That just doesn’t make any sense, these philosophers would say. It’s simply impossible. Or, if it isn’t impossible, it’s begging the question, by assuming that experiences can exist without physical bodies, brains, sense organs etc.

However, I still think there is mileage in Descartes’ idea, despite the objections. Because there is another way to run the argument about identity, which is in a way the reverse of what Descartes imagined. But it still relies on the same idea about identity.

Once again, the argument starts with the statement that I exist, and I know that I exist.

This time, instead of imagining that the physical universe might not have existed, I am considering the possibility that I might not have existed. The physical world could be just as it is now, with someone just like me answering this question on ‘Ask a Philosopher’, even though I did not exist and have never existed.

In other words, there’s a difference, an absolute logical difference, between me and someone exactly like me. But the difference isn’t a physical difference, it can’t be, because we are assuming that this person is physically like me in every detail, down to the fundamental constituents of matter. To make ‘someone exactly like me’ ME, something has to be added, something non-physical. In other words, a ‘soul’. Q.E.D.

Richard asked:

I was wondering if you know how to give a good reaction on arguments like these, when debating over the claim that scientists need philosophy to interpret their data.

1. Philosophy is great at asking questions. Science is great at answering them. (From Lawrence Krauss.)

2. Philosophy is dead. (From Stephen Hawking.)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Professor Stephen Hawking is on record as stating, ‘Philosophy is dead.’ I’m not sure whether your statement in 1. is a direct quote from Krauss. Maybe, it’s some commentator’s gloss on what he claims. (The quote was not in Google when I searched.)

On the face of it the two claims seem to be in flat-out contradiction. If philosophy is dead then surely it can’t be ‘great’ at anything, or for anything. However, the distance between these is less than first appears. Science is the place you go to answer questions, not philosophy. The notion that philosophy can be a source of knowledge has, in Hawking’s view, been exploded. Whatever questions they may raise, Philosophers don’t discover new knowledge. Ergo, philosophy is useless. In other words, dead.

If you are looking for places where interesting questions are raised, science fiction has always been a great resource. No need for philosophers there. (Although some of the best writers had a strong inclination towards philosophy, e.g. Philip K. Dick.) Anyone can raise a question, can’t they? Why are philosophers even needed, if that’s all they’re good at?

Philosophers of science would say they are not attempting to do science from an armchair. Their questions have a different character. While physicists and cosmologists formulate theories and discover laws, they ask what is a ‘theory’ or a ‘law’. Philosophy makes progress, not by discovering new ‘facts’ but by deepening our understanding, clarifying the concepts that pass as common currency in the pursuit of empirical knowledge.

— Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is the still popular conception first expressed by John Locke back in the seventeenth century, when he said in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ‘It is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.’

The problem is that it’s not much fun being a lowly underlabourer. I don’t think Locke really thought that of himself. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a classic contribution to the foundations of empiricism, a bold, epoch-making theory about the scope and limits of human knowledge, which has things to say about the foundational building blocks of existence itself: how we are to conceive of the very nature of reality. In other words, a metaphysic.

As a metaphysician, I can appreciate the empiricist Locke. I can also appreciate the contribution of the physical sciences to our knowledge of our world and its innermost workings. But, for me, there are other questions that simply do not fit in this picture. Seemingly unanswerable questions, but no less important (to me, at any rate) for all that.

What is the point of asking unanswerable questions? What does the term ‘unanswerable question’ even mean? I could say, ‘read my books’, or watch my first YouTube video, Why am I here? But maybe you would be more impressed if I told you, simply that this is my life. The unanswerable questions are the only questions that really grip me. Everything else — philosophy of science included — is merely humdrum. Just waiting.


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