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Denver asked:

Can water turn into wine?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

That’s a tricky one, Denver.

Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. Wine contains alcohol which is made up of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. So the first question would be: Where did the carbon come from? (And also the extra hydrogen, if you’re a chemist and know the formulae.)

Suppose you asked me: Can a Ford 3 litre Essex engine from an old Transit van or Capri produce 500 horse power? The answer would be, Yes, but you’d have to spend a lot of money. The end result would be hardly recognizable, with the cylinders re-bored, a large number of engine parts replaced or upgraded. In my opinion, you’d get better value buying a second-hand Porsche.

There’s a step-by-step process describing the Ford engine upgrade. Each step is capable of being performed by a reasonably competent mechanic. But ‘engineering’ water to convert it into wine (and not simply cheating by mixing in alcohol and wine concentrate, or fermenting grapes to make wine) requires an altogether different level of ‘expertise’.

However, let’s ask a different question: In what sort of world would a transformation of water into wine be possible? It looks like it would have to be a world which allowed for genuine magic, and not merely ‘magic tricks’, a world where — to quote Morpheus in The Matrix — ‘the rules can be bent’. In popular culture, you might be thinking of a sword and sorcery or Lord of the Rings type world, whose workings are more like a computer simulation (as in a 3d computer game) than the world we actually inhabit, where the laws of nature are what they are, fixed and immutable.

It’s taken two and a half thousand years — since the first speculations of the Presocratic Philosophers of Ancient Greece — to realize just what sort of world we inhabit. Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that mice were generated from dirty rags. You know what a ‘mouse’ is? those little grey furry things with tails that scamper about. Now we really know what a mouse is, the very notion seems ridiculous.

So magic won’t do. What you need to turn water into wine — as in the New Testament story — is a miracle.

There are two types of miracles: those where God plays about with the laws of chance, and those where He deliberately breaks the laws of nature He as decreed. An example of the first would be my praying that I win the lottery and then my number coming up. The water-wine trick requires a miracle of the second kind.

And that’s where things get difficult. You can say that, ‘God can do anything, don’t worry about the details,’ but then you are really talking about a sword and sorcery type world. The details, the ‘step-by-step’ process, matter. The description of wine as ‘red liquid you get from grapes that makes you drunk’ is about on the same level as ‘little grey furry things with tails that scamper about’. The more you get to understand what wine IS the harder it is to see how it would even make sense to talk of water literally ‘turning into’ wine.

(Maybe you’re thinking of re-arranging the protons, neutrons and electrons? Good luck with that.)

A lot of the academic discussion of miracles seems to me like speculating about what God could or couldn’t do, or second-guessing what God would or wouldn’t do. As an exercise, I don’t find that very rewarding. But if you want to pursue the arguments, any good Philosophy of Religion text book will provide you with what you need.

Bottom line is: to quote Morpheus again, ‘Believe what you want to believe.’ At least be clear about what it is that you actually believe.

Venessa asked:

In philosophy, we got a question and it was: what is a pen? then the second question how do you put a pencil, pen, digital pen in one definition to explain it to a person who has never seen a pen, like give all of these pens in one definition.

I don’t know how to answer it philosophically. I will be grateful if you helped me, thank you.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

You’re confused by the notion that the question, ‘What is a pen?’ might be a philosophical question. But I think what your instructor wants you to do is think logically and conceptually, in the way that philosophers do.

As an exercise. That’s all.

A pen can be a biro, but a biro can also be a weapon — as Jason Bourne brilliantly demonstrates in The Bourne Identity (2002). Does that mean there is really no difference between a pen and a weapon? What sorts of things can be weapons? or pens?

We once had a question, ‘People ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but can philosophers answer something as simple as, ‘What is the meaning of a spoon?” You can read Rachel Browne’s answer here:

https://philosophypathways.com/questions/answers8.html#66

Your instructor wants you to work the answer out for yourself, so I am not going to answer the question for you. But that should get you thinking.

Afser asked:

Is it morally permissible to jump the queue? The situation is: Ken wanted to take a mini-bus. When he reached the bus stop, he found that his friend was in the first position of the queue. His friend let him jump the queue. In fact, there were only ten people waiting for the bus. That is, no one missed the next bus because of Ken’s jumping the queue. Have Ken and his friend acted wrongly?

Can we prove that it’s morally permissible?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Anyone who uses the phrase ‘morally permissible’ with me is likely to get a smack in the face. Who talks that way?

There are things that are fair or unfair, cruel or kind, or polite or impolite, or maybe just OK or not OK. Et cetera. Queue jumping can sometimes be unfair, and not just when the bus is nearly full. Maybe, because of Ken letting his friend go in front, I wasn’t able to get a window seat. I like a window seat and get annoyed when unfairly deprived of one.

Even when it’s not unfair to queue jump, it is seen as impolite. People have quite a refined sense of the etiquette of forming queues. At least in Britain, where you could almost describe it as a national fetish. However, in my experience, queues are not what they used to be.

Nowadays, maybe over the last decade or two, people have become much more conscious of their personal space. If one person is standing at a bus stop, and you stand right behind (forming the beginning of a queue) that would be seen as a bit creepy. No, what you do is stand somewhere in the middle of the bus shelter. When more people come, they slot themselves in. (Let’s say, it’s raining, so there is a strong disincentive to form a long straggly queue going way back past the bus shelter.)

But the amazing thing is (in Britain, anyway, I can’t speak for other countries) that people remember where they were in the queue. If I slot myself in front of someone who got there before me, I am expected to stand back and let them get on first when the bus comes.

In your story, the assumption is that no-one is harmed. That’s what makes you think that maybe queue jumping can sometimes be OK, even if it is not always OK. I’ve questioned the assumption that it is fair when the bus isn’t full (the window seat) but let’s assume there’s enough space on the bus for everyone to get a seat that they like. Speaking as a Brit, it’s still impolite and annoying. So it is not OK. OK?

Jess asked:

I just want some guidance on writing a philosophy paper on Crito! I have to basically write 3 paragraphs of:

1) Socrates argument

2) the counter argument

3) why i think Socrates’ argument overrules any counter argument.

I don’t know how to extend this to be 1200 words.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I would like to help you, Jess, but first I want to say something about this kind of question. I don’t mean questions about Socrates or the Crito, I’m talking about instructors who basically tell you all the steps you need to do to write your ‘paper’. Do this, do this, do this and you’re done. Easy.

Except that philosophy isn’t like that. The whole point about studying philosophy is learning to think for yourself. Maybe your ideas on the Crito don’t fit the instructor’s easy scheme. Why must Socrates win every argument? Is he a god? Didn’t he say that all he knew was how much he didn’t know? Can’t he ever be wrong?

Casting my mind back to this famous dialogue by Plato, I seem to recall that Crito visits Socrates in prison where the great philosopher is awaiting execution after being convicted by an Athenian court on a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the young. ‘Hey, Socrates,’ says Crito, ‘My friends and I can help you escape to a place where your philosophical ideas will be appreciated. You can live like a lord. Look what the Athenians did to you, you don’t owe them anything.’

And then Socrates says something to the effect that he couldn’t live with himself if he ‘harmed the laws of Athens’. Or some such nonsense.

If Socrates had said, ‘I want to be a martyr to philosophy. I want Plato to write his greatest dialogue, the Phaedo, about how I bravely drank the hemlock discussing the immortality of the soul with my friends,’ one could understand. Martyrdom is a theme of contemporary politics. Everyone dies, so make your death count for something. Take a few dozen unbelievers with you and let them be dragged to hell.

Now, I can be wrong about this and often am. Maybe you disagree with my casual dismissal of Socrates’ argument. This is about what you think. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or write your paper for you.

As for the length, 1200 words is nothing. If you were talking about this with your friends, how many words would your conversation run to? Several thousand, I’d guess. So my advice is: forget that you are following a ‘how-to-do-it’ guide for writing a paper. Read the Crito at least twice. Then write what you make of it all. Let it all hang out. Risk being ‘wrong’. (You might still be in the right, but unfortunately regardless of how stupid they are, instructors are the ones who give the grades.)

Most importantly, argue with yourself. Don’t assume that the first thought that comes into your mind is valid or even relevant. Write your paper, criticize it, then rewrite it from scratch. I guarantee that the result will be something of which you can be justifiably proud.

Lorenzo asked:

I am a foreign high school student who intends to apply to a top american university, in order to major in Philosophy. What kind of extracurricular activities — related to philosophy — could I do and include in my applications, showing to the admissions officials my commitment to its study and improving my chances of being accepted?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Do they have this saying (or the equivalent) in Brazil, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’?

It’s unlikely that the admissions officer of a philosophy department would be looking specifically for extracurricular activities related to philosophy. What they want to know is: are you an interesting person or a boring swat? Will you be making an active contribution to the life of your university or college? For example, in sport, or the performing arts, or special interest clubs, or outreach?

What can you do besides philosophize?

On the PhiloSophos.org site it says, ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ If I was an Admissions officer, you would also need to show me that you have genuine intellectual interests outside your chosen subject — in the physical sciences, or psychology, or history for example. Do you follow politics or does the news just bore you? What are your views on Third World debt? climate change? Where do you stand politically on libertarianism? socialism?

However, as you asked, I do think that there are philosophically related things you can do, like attending public talks by philosophers if there are any available, or contacting your nearest university philosophy department and asking them if you can sit in on some of their seminars. Does your school have a philosophy club? What contribution did you make to it? Have you ever talked to a professional philosopher?

Well, the fact that you submitted this question is a start. It’s something you can note on your application form.

So far as your philosophical abilities are concerned, you may be asked to submit a sample of your work — an essay or essays on philosophy. School grades are rarely enough to judge a candidate’s academic potential. The best advice I can give here is, don’t even think of cheating. Sweat it out, put everything you have into it. And hope for the best.

Good luck!

Joshua asked:

Sir, I will like to know what it will look like when at the end of the world, we got to know that none of the religions is the way to salvation, but rather something else? I mean not Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism or the others? Isn’t that a possibility?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Yes, Joshua, in answer to your question it is indeed possible that no existing religion, nor any that is yet to exist, is the way to salvation.

There are many scenarios for the ‘end of the world’, but unfortunately in most if not all it will be too late to find out which way was the true ‘way to salvation’ because the human race will be long gone.

Salvation is a peculiarly Christian concept. Even if you are a sinner you can still be ‘saved’ if you ‘repent’ and acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only ‘way’ to God. The concept of salvation presupposes the doctrine of original sin. We all need to be saved because we are all sinners.

However, there is a way of understanding salvation in a broader sense. Human beings are finite and imperfect. There is happiness and fulfilment to be had in this life but also much suffering, some of which we cannot avoid but much that we bring on ourselves — through stupidity, negligence, cowardice, venality and all the other habitual failings of the human mind and character.

The great tradition of Stoicism, which traces back to the eminent example of the philosopher Socrates, is one example of a philosophical school offering an ‘eschatology’ or way to salvation through reason and mindfulness, as an alternative to the dogmatism of the religious faith. Stoics understand the meaning of the seeming paradox that a ‘good man can be happy on the rack.’ For the true Stoic, so long as you tread the narrow path of Socratic virtue, nothing truly bad can happen to you. ‘It is worse to do evil than to suffer it,’ said Socrates.

Most important of all, the true Stoic does not fear death. As Epicurus remarked, ‘Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.’ By contrast, the exaggerated promises of religion trade on the fear of death and what might come after. There is no crime so great that it cannot be committed in the name of religion for the sake of eternal reward, no human achievement so worthy that it cannot be punished by eternal damnation for defying the ‘will of God’.

You have to laugh. Because otherwise you would give up this life in despair. Ridicule is the best response to the claims of religion.

Looking to the way of the philosopher, it has to be said that the hard road of Stoicism is not for everyone. However, as a recipe for self-improvement, there is nothing better than the study of philosophy. Philosophy won’t protect you from the worse that can happen to you, but it can at least save you from mendacious, mind-poisoning ideologies — and not just those of the various religious ‘faiths’.

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PHILOSOPHIZER by Geoffrey Klempner on Amazon

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