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Jerry asked:

I’m a 22 year old university student, double-majoring in philosophy and computer science, about to enter my senior year. I find my philosophy classes intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, my computer science classes somewhat difficult and tedious. Wary of the job market for philosophers, my original plan was to find work in the computer science field, but this prospect is becoming less appealing with each course. Can you offer any guidance for a would-be philosopher looking to make himself employable in the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wrote an answer on this topic a while ago (see That would have been before the ‘Ask a Philosopher’ WordPress site was launched, around 2011. So it’s worth looking at the question again.

You can compare this answer with the previous one. I said then, ‘There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option.’ However, let’s assume that you want a decent-sized family, not to mention a nice family car, a good standard of living, in other words a good income.

So far as employability is concerned you’d be surprised to learn that Philosophy is right up there with the wide range of jobs in computing. You’d have to make more of an effort to sell yourself to an employer, make the case why your training in Philosophy is useful to them. An ad agency, for example. Or commodities trading. Could you do it? Do you relish the challenge? All that’s required is self-belief and a modicum of chutzpah.

You’re not seriously considering an academic career, are you? Please, don’t. One of the great scandals of the academic world is the slag heap of wasted talent, Philosophy PhDs hired for a year, or two at the most, then unable to get a job because university departments are on a tight budget and either can’t commit to a longer-term post, or, more cynically, can get the pick of the latest crop of PhDs for less money.

Philosophy and computing looks like a promising combination for the AI field. Problem is, the AI people need ‘true believers’, they don’t want to hear all the reasons why their project might end in abject failure. The mentality, ‘If it walks and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck,’ prevails regardless of the fact that, in principle, a Turing Test can be beaten with a large enough look-up table or Eliza program.

Philosophy has always had a use for logic, but logic worshippers have no place in philosophy. Sad to say, the discipline is dying now because of a lack of imagination and a surfeit of ‘logic’.

I say, stick to your guns but put as much effort as you can into your computer science classes. Don’t look for an easy way out. It’s always good to have a second string!

Santi asked:

In my view, the most fundamental question is whether there is Mystery or not, by which I mean whether one believes that the closing of the circle of ‘perfect’ knowledge (Laplacian-style) is achievable, which is no less ‘perfect’ for including probabilistic or non-deterministic laws, and of course I mean achievable not just to us (humans) but to any conceivable intelligence with any conceivable technology.

I don’t think the closing of the circle of perfect knowledge is achievable. Thus, I believe in Mystery. I know this belief is an article of faith, based only on intuition, however ‘obvious’ this intuition may be to me. I am aware that it is just a personal preference. How could people holding the contrary view say their view is not based on ‘faith’ and believe in a theory of everything? What are the premises or axioms a theory of everything should be based on? Are they not articles of faith ultimately? Shouldn’t one have to ‘step outside’ of everything to be able to confirm it is everything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you are looking for something that can never be known, all you need to do is shake a pair of dice in a closed cup. Then shake them again. What was the number of that first shake? We know that it was between 2 (a pair of 1s) and 12 (two 6s). Beyond that, we enter the realm of the Unknowable.

Should we care? Yes, if the question is about the nature of Truth because what that simple experiment shows is that we are committed to a notion of truth that transcends all possible verification. ‘The dice fell on 7,’ I say, knowing that what I said might be true — or it might not. No-one will never know.

(If you want to imagine some improbable scenario about invisible aliens or miraculous angels, or a tiny video camera inside the cup go ahead but then you’ve changed the initial conditions of the experiment.)

A Laplacian Supermind is impossible if current physical theory is correct because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. So you can put that aside. But what about a Theory of Everything?

I’m on your side with this.

The theory Einstein searched for in vain, the theory that the thousands of CERN researchers still hope for, may be achievable — who knows? I wish them the best of luck. But suppose we had that theory. What could possibly explain YOUR existence? I don’t mean the person whose parents named them ‘Santi’, the person who wrote the interesting question about Mystery. I mean YOU.

YOU might not have existed, everything else in the universe remaining the same. Nothing could conceivably explain (and I include all ‘God’ stories and the like) why there is YOU rather than no-YOU.

I don’t hold this view as a matter of faith. It’s a matter of simple proof (as I remarked in a previous answer, a proof relying an Ancient Greek principle, ‘Ou Mallon’ or ‘Insufficient Reason’). Given two identical universes, there is no more reason why YOU should exist in one universe rather than the other universe.

Regardless of what we might one day know or not know about the universe, YOU exist without reason.

That’s what I call Mystery.

Joshua asked:

What is the philosophical Zombie? How does it apply to the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you want to read up on the literature for the ‘philosophical zombie’ a good starting point would be the Stanford Encyclopedia article by Robert Kirk.

I won’t venture into a summary or critique of that article. Instead, I will give my take on the zombie question and you can compare the two to see which you like better.

There are two connected points raised by the ‘zombie’ idea in philosophy. The first has to do with how I know that another person has an inner life or consciousness (the so-called ‘problem of other minds’). The second arises in an argument against the idea that consciousness is nothing more than a process in the physical brain, or ‘physicalism’ as this theory is called.

However, we need to not lose our bearings. In the ‘real world’ there are no zombies, philosophical or otherwise. It’s a fantasy notion. Dr Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s novel is a zombie, i.e. a reanimated corpse (strictly speaking, the monster is stitched together from several corpses but the difference isn’t important).

You know that you’re dealing with a zombie because its behaviour just isn’t normal. It walks in a jerky way. When you shoot it with your pistol (as in the classic Romero movies) it just keeps on coming. But does it have to be that way? If we’re into the realms of fantasy, couldn’t a zombie be very hard to tell from a human being? or maybe impossible? Maybe I am a zombie. Maybe you are a zombie.

If I am a zombie, how come I am writing this? Zombies can’t speak let alone write. Ah, but a philosopher will tell you that the point is that the ‘essence’ of zombiehood isn’t in abilities or behaviour but rather what’s going on inside.

If I can’t tell from behaviour or any physical signs whether or not a person is a zombie, then I could be the only human being with consciousness. Maybe everyone else on Earth is a zombie. Then again, there could be someone just like me on ‘Twin Earth’ orbiting on the opposite side of the Sun who is a zombie. Physically, we are the same but I have consciousness and my zombie doppelganger does not.

I think this is nonsense. Sheer piffle.

How do I know this? I am going to ask my zombie double on Twin Earth what he thinks. He and I are physically the same, behave exactly the same way, say exactly the same things. So, in response to my question, my zombie double will say, ‘I know I have consciousness but maybe you’re a zombie!’

We both say, ‘I know I have consciousness’, because our brains work in exactly the same way, producing exactly the same physical results. I can try as hard as I like to ‘point’ to my own inner state of consciousness while I am saying, ‘I know I have consciousness’, but in terms of cause and effect the words you hear have nothing to do with what I am trying to describe. They don’t come from ‘inside’, they come from my brain. Something (I have no idea what) in my physical brain makes them come. Whatever is going on ‘inside me’ is not playing any role in this story.

That doesn’t absolutely disprove the zombie idea, but it comes close. Close enough to say that any philosopher who bandies about the word ‘zombie’ doesn’t know what they’re saying. They imagine something, but what they imagine amounts to no more than a mute gesture, like pointing to your head with an urgent expression on your face. Inside! Inside!

I noted that if there could be a philosophical zombie, then physicalism is false. If there could be a zombie, then consciousness is something extra, on top of anything physical. However, it would be an obvious logical fallacy to conclude that because the idea of a philosophical zombie is nonsensical, physicalism is true after all. That doesn’t follow.

Let’s look again at my doppelganger on Twin Earth. He isn’t a zombie. He has consciousness just like me. But even though he is writing these very same words as I am writing at this very moment, he is not I. He is another ‘I’. That shows something. We have two identical physical beings, two ‘I’s. I could be one or the other. But why should I be either? What could possibly explain why one of these beings, but not the other, is I? It can’t be anything physical, by hypothesis. (The form of argument I’ve used here was known in Ancient philosophy as ou mallon, or the ‘no more reason’ principle.)

If physicalism can’t explain why I am I, then physicalism can’t be true. That’s the conclusion I came to in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways. There is more on this in my previous answer, below.

Chandler asked:

How is it that we say things are young but in reality when you think of it everything is as old as the earth itself. Besides the human example, a spoon may be five months old but the components that make it I’ve been in the ground for billions of years so wouldn’t it be a lot older than We think it is?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Before the atoms that make you up were in the ground, they were formed in stars (other stars than our Sun which is still busy converting Hydrogen to Helium). We are ‘stardust, billion year old carbon’ as Joni Mitchell sang in ‘Woodstock’.

There’s a simple answer to your question in philosophical logic, more specifically the logic of identity statements. You are not identical to the stuff that makes you up. Your identity, as a spatio-temporal ‘continuant’ (to use the technical term) is determined by the conditions under which you are you, and not atoms scattered around the universe waiting to be you, or a pile of ash in a crematorium which was once you.

This begs so many questions, I hardly know where to start. Is the universe very old? Are the particles that compose you very old? Compared to what? Your age? Older, yes, but the number (in years, say) is irrelevant. Just as it is irrelevant how large the universe is in miles or kilometres, or ‘light years’ (to use another technical term). We have to get rid of our naive anthropomorphic way of looking at things, where we stand amazed at the sheer immensity of the universe — a claim which handwaving boffins on YouTube or TV shows love to repeat ad nauseam. The claim is empty, meaningless in any absolute sense.

You are not incredibly young or incredibly small. You are simply the age and size that you are, as is every other physical entity in the universe. How everything works is the interesting part, the laws of nature, the actual process of scientific discovery. That’s something truly to be amazed by: that we are capable of gaining any knowledge at all of ourselves or the universe.

However, there is a bigger question still waiting to be answered, a question for metaphysics rather than for science.

According to science, you are just stuff, formed into a shape or system of interacting components that maintains its functionality over a given temporal period, say, ‘three score and ten years’, or more if you stay healthy. When you say, ‘I exist’, your statement is true if, and only if, that physical system is set up to work in the way that a human body does, in the surrounding physical environment in which it performs its various functions — like thinking about the size of the universe or submitting questions to Ask a Philosopher, or eating or sleeping etc.

I once believed this, but I no longer do. The claim doesn’t make sense.

Speaking for myself (the very same applies to you, and any other human being) I know, as an absolute fact, that I might not have existed. My existence is contingent, not necessary. But contingent on what? On the existence of a ‘physical system set up to work in the way that it does, etc. etc.’? Surely not. The physical system known as GK might have existed, in another possible world otherwise identical to the actual world, although I did not. The ‘GK’ in the identical alternative universe is an existing entity, just as I am an existing entity, but he is not I — even though we perform the same actions, think or write or speak the same words.

I don’t even know whether the entity I refer to as ‘I’ is the same age as my functioning physical body. Maybe a new ‘I’ comes into existence every time I wake up in the morning. Or maybe more frequently than that. Or maybe (as in Vedanta Hinduism) every living human being is one and the same ‘I” (only not realizing this, because we live in a permanent illusion of being separate ‘I’s). I don’t have an answer to this metaphysical conundrum, or even a notion of how one would settle the question one way or another. That realization leaves one simply awestruck. Maybe we will never know.

Regardless of that, if my argument is right then physicalism is false and A.I. is dead in the water. There’s more on this in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways, if you’re interested.

Kassidy asked:

Aristotle argues that reason should rule our soul (i.e. our mind). In other words, our ability to reason should monitor our emotional responses and keep the pursuit of satisfying our desires in check. Is he essentially right?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a typical instructor’s question. I imagine that your instructor already has in mind the kinds of answers they are likely to receive, for or against the proposition that ‘reason should rule our soul’. But I think it is selling Aristotle short and I’ll explain why.

The question asks us to consider a person whose emotional responses are ‘monitored by reason’ at all times. That’s not a particularly inviting prospect. But then comes the qualifying word, ‘essentially’. This is supposed to make the pill easier to swallow. So we’re not talking about a person who is uptight and over-controlled — or controlling — but rather a man (or woman, although Aristotle doesn’t really consider women as a species) who has the practical wisdom or sophrosune (usually translated by our rather pallid word ‘temperance’) to reflect on his or her actions and emotional responses, interrogate them, seeking all the time to improve one’s performance as a rational agent.

Isn’t this what we should do? Well, again the thought comes that you wouldn’t really like such an individual, someone who ultimately sees himself or herself as pursuing the path of self-perfection as an actor on the stage of human life. There seems something fundamentally dishonest about such a person. Every action, every line of dialogue is honed and refined by rational reflection. To what purpose? You might well ask.

‘I love you.’ — Is that the best you can do? coming out with a cliched line like that?! Come on, use your imagination. Press the the Escape button and try that level of the game again. — And when our ‘rational man’ (or woman) has finally found the right line, it’s beautiful. Pure poetry. Except that, knowing the whole story, you don’t believe it. There can be something pure and honest about a cliche that you simply blurt out, overcome by the emotion of the moment.

However, I still think that this is a parody of Aristotle. It’s true that the Greek philosophers were into sophrosune in a big way. Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Symposium gives an almost comic (well, actually, it is comic) rendition of a man who sometimes has to struggle to keep himself in check when he sees a beautiful boy. Again, that’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Then the punch line: the emotion Socrates feels is channelled (or, as Freud would say, ‘sublimated’) in a more intellectual level towards ‘love of the Forms’, or ‘Platonic love’ as you and I know it. How insipid is that.

I think Aristotle saw something that Plato with his more rigid picture of a ‘divided soul’ missed. Aristotle posed the question what distinguishes human beings as a species from other animals, and his answer was: the capacity for reason. It must therefore, he reasoned, be this capacity which is central to what is ‘good’ for human beings, or what makes for a ‘good life’.

Reason isn’t just something you do in your study. It enters into every aspect of human life. Sport, for example (another thing the Greeks were into in a big way). I’ve never watched kangaroos ‘boxing’, but I object to the use of the same word as the word we use for that noble sport. Boxing is an art and a science. A man ‘boxing’ with a kangaroo is a disgusting spectacle and a parody.

The capacity for judgement is involved at every stage in boxing: in preparation, training for strength, suppleness and stamina, rehearsing punches and combinations as well as reflection on tactics and strategy; or making necessary adjustments to during a fight, which is always unpredictable; or afterwards, in post mortem analysis, whichever way the result went. Two mindless thugs laying into one another isn’t ‘boxing’. It is what it is. And, yes, it is necessary that when you box, you get hurt. Boxing without pain (calling up the courage and mental resources to ride the blows and strike back) would be fist fencing.

We don’t go through life monitoring ourselves. There is a higher game. In game theory, the most rational move isn’t always the best choice, because it’s easier for your opponent to predict than a more random move. In human relationships, you have to learn how to lose control, when that is the appropriate thing to do. Sometimes it is not. Rational reflection shows that we must get over, if we can, our tendency to over-intellectualize things, and learn to value the emotional responses of the moment, while at the same time not going so far overboard on the emotional thing that we end up doing something that we should not have done, causing another person unnecessary hurt. All of this is encompassed in Aristotle’s notion of ‘practical reason’.

‘At all times, remember what it is that makes you a human being,’ would be Aristotle’s recipe for living. That’s pretty difficult advice to challenge, in my view.

Betty asked:

Hello! I am a philosophical Luddite so please excuse my lack of correct language or whatever…

I’ve been doing some rather tangential research for an art project and I keep hitting things like — the cosmic egg and Phanes, Ouroboros, cosmological pessimism, anthropocentrism etc. This had led to me to marvel at the idea that, the two most solid truths for an anthropocene are Birth and Death, conversely, the two most popular unanswered queries when investigating the cosmos or non-human existence is; the Big Bang and the Black Hole. I’m interested in the symmetry and wondering if there is a particular tract of study that examines these things as a unity of opposites or sumfin sumfin? I’m not sure if this makes sense…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion of a ‘unity of opposites’ first appeared in Presocratic philosophy with the thinker Heraclitus. Hegel’s dialectic is distantly inspired by Heraclitus, and in turn inspired Marx’s dialectical materialism and — possibly most interesting from your point of view — the Dialectics of Nature (1883) of Friedrich Engels. That may be what you are looking for.

I’m not really into that stuff (dialectics, dialectical logic etc.) but like you I do see the idea of a birth and death of the Cosmos, and the birth and death of the individual as being linked, although I wouldn’t use the term ‘identity’ or ‘unity’.

Whatever else you say or believe about it, the Cosmos, our ‘universe’, is contingent. The idea of a ‘beginning in time’ as this is normally conceived may be a red herring (if time comes into existence along with the Cosmos, see Hawking A Brief History of Time) but two things we do know are that: (1) assuming a Big Bang, there is the contingent possibility if not the necessity of a Big Crunch (or ‘Black Hole’ as you call it), (2) the Big Bang could have banged differently, it is a contingent fact that it banged in exactly the way it did — in order to produce this Earth, your question, my answer etc. etc.

For anyone with a sense of reality, contingency is anathema. Einstein, commenting on Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, famously said that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. Whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be intrinsically random. That, in essence, is the motivation for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

As an atheist, I’m not the least bit tempted by the God theory. But nor do I think that Einstein was necessarily appealing to the existence of God when he made his comment. Even if he was a believer, that was not the point. Einstein was expressing an intuition: the intuition that whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be contingent and must be necessary.

According to the God theory, this universe is necessary because, in the words of the philosopher Leibniz, it is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good could not have created any other universe than the one He did create. On the no-God theory, the only candidate I can see for a ‘necessary universe’ is the sum total of all possible worlds. All possible worlds are equally real, and this world of ours is just one of the uncountably many possible worlds. (See David Lewis On the Plurality of Worlds.)

Problem is, that doesn’t get us off the hook of contingency. And this is where you and I come in. Your existence is an extraordinary, fantastic accident. As is mine. Even if we assume the extraordinary accident that a habitable planet came into being and moreover life evolved eventually leading to the evolution of homo sapiens, the fact remains that in order for you or I to have been born, our parents had to meet — and their parents had to meet, and their parents and their parents all the way back to the emergence of life itself.

But here you are! and here I am!

If all possible worlds are real, one might well come to the conclusion that someone exactly like me — someone satisfying the totality of descriptions that apply to me — had to exist in some possible world. But why did I have to be that person? Why is there I in the world, rather than no I? That question is impossible to answer — or even coherently express — because I am the very one asking it.

What do you or I know about reality or ‘necessary existence’? I know that I exist, and whatever ways the world might have been (whatever possible worlds exist) this world is the actual world because I am in it. Full stop. And you can say the same. We are unutterably contingent, you and I. There is no link back to what is ultimately necessary, no possible explanation why there is I rather than no I, or you rather than no you.

Being contingent, there is nothing to prevent this universe, the actual world, coming to an end. And the same applies to you and me. Whatever discoveries may be made in the future that lead to the extension of human life, possibly its indefinite extension, you and I will die. Maybe sooner, maybe later.

But if you really think about it, the fact that you were born at all is as scary as the fact that you are going to die. Your two states of non-existence — before birth and after death — are indeed ‘the same’.

The mythical creature Ouroboros is a powerful, pungent image of self-sufficiency, the idea of a being that is not dependent on anything outside itself. It is, perhaps, the first or at least one of the earliest depictions of a neccessary being. It is also the stark opposite of what you and I are. We are fragile, contingent, dependent on external conditions, utterly unnecessary. There is no reason why we are here, just as there is no reason why our world is the way it is.

Learning to deal with that realization is the beginning of philosophy.

Books by Geoffrey Klempner

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