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Theodore asked:

Our lungs do not produce the oxygen which we find necessary to breathe, so why should anyone think it unusual that our brain does not produce consciousness which we find necessary to think?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I am totally gobsmacked by this question, Theodore. Wow. So many possible lines of inquiry here.

Our lungs don’t produce the oxygen we need, as you well know. But if they did, their function could surely not be to oxygenate the blood. Because then it wouldn’t be necessary to breathe at all. We could produce all our own oxygen through the process of chemical reduction without having to take any from the outside world. Assuming that the oxygen is used to produce energy from food through the process of oxidation, fundamental laws of chemistry and thermodynamics would in tatters.

A more plausible theory is that human beings and animal life in general were created by the plant world in order to produce all the carbon dioxide it needs for photosynthesis. No fundamental laws broken here, but it would somewhat upset our view that human beings are higher than plant life. (It would make an interesting variation on the Matrix scenario of human beings as Duracell batteries designed to keep the computer world up and running.)

This is speculation, right? And as much as we know about human physiology and biochemistry, so little do we know about the nature of consciousness, how it ‘acts’ and how it is ‘produced’. So the field is open for any theory that sounds even a little bit plausible.

The Ancient Greeks were there first: the ‘Air’ of Anaximenes, the ‘Nous’ of Anaxagoras, and Xenophanes’ ‘One God’ who ‘sees all’ and ‘shakes all things by the thought of his mind’. The invisible substance that pervades all things has purpose. It is mind-like. Anaxagoras offers the most interesting version of this hypothesis. Unlike air, Nous is everywhere, it even pervades rock and solid metal. When Aristotle formed the metaphysical theory we know as ‘Hylomorphism’ to account for the ultimate nature of existence and change, it was the thought of Anaxagoras, out of all the Presocratics, that most influenced him.

So much for history. I take your idea to be this: the brain doesn’t ‘produce’ consciousness as material monists foolishly believe. Rather, its function is to interact with consciousness which is already ‘out there’. One well-know version of that story is the mind-body dualism of Descartes. The tiny pineal gland in the brain is the place, Descartes thought, where mental substance is able to move or be moved by the ‘animal spirits’ thus producing speech, action and perception. The problems with Descartes’ mind-body interaction theory are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.

However, here’s another theory, much closer to the Greeks, that you might like. Nous is everywhere. In the beginning, its powers were limited because it had so little to work with. All Nous can do, the sum total of its powers, is to alter probabilities, to make the relatively improbable probable. And so it was that the massive improbability of matter, energy and space appearing from nothing was conquered.

It was Nous that first nudged basic protein molecules together to produce molecules of DNA, that even today maintains the balanced processes in every living cell (a phenomenon that biologists have yet to fully understand), that in tiny stages pushed evolution all the way up the steep gradient of improbability ultimately to create human life. By manipulating quantum effects in the brain, you and I become its eyes and ears. We are the means to its end, which was simply, all along, to overcome its blindness and its solitude.

In the beginning Nous didn’t know what it was doing. It was not in any way ‘conscious’. Certainly not a ‘god’. It was just blindly thrashing about. But, gradually, as more and more order was created, it discovered its ‘purpose’. Through tiny steps, it transformed itself into the Demiurge of nature.

Basically, all I’ve done is rehash the doctrine of the Upanishads with added baroque or filagree to give the impression of being ‘scientific’. In the words of Alan Watts, ‘We are all It.’ Like any theory, it deserves to be considered as possibly true. Why not? At this moment in our history, no-one knows ‘the truth’ — if there is such a thing. So if this is what you would like to believe, no-one has the right to contradict you.

Nana asked:

Let’s say that there’s a disease with a 2% mortality rate (2 out of 100 people who contract it die). Imagine that someone contracts the disease and dies (picture it as an evil dictator if that makes the example easier to bear). Why does the D-N model of explanation not offer an explanation for the dictator’s death? (think about the law that is involved, think about deductive arguments, think about the link between prediction and explanation).

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

This is what I would call a ‘chestnut’.

Someone, years ago, thought up your example as an objection to Carl Hempel’s ‘Deductive-Nomological’ model of explanation, and ever since philosophy instructors have routinely trotted these out.

Firstly, to get the historical perspective: it was the great Scottish philosopher David Hume who proposed ‘regularity’ as the basis for all causal explanation, in his book A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). As part of his analysis, he gave a list of ‘rules for judging causes and effects’. Cause-effect relationships aren’t something that you just see. They are something you have to judge, on the basis of all you see and know.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that not every perceived regularity is an ‘explanation’ or tracks ’causes’ and ‘effects’, and not every cause-effect relation can be defined precisely in terms of regularity, or ‘law’.

There are two points here: One concerns what is, or is not an adequate empirical explanation. The other concerns our notion of a cause. I don’t see any meaningful distinction here, and neither did Hume.

Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the leading 20th century British philosophers, gives the case of contracting a disease as a purported counterexample to the analysis of Humean causation in terms of regularity, in her 1971 lecture, ‘Causality and Determination’. What she was really objecting to, I surmise, is the over-optimistic use of Hempel’s model. There are so many times when we think we have offered a ‘full explanation’, when in reality the facts remain forever beyond our grasp.

Consider the following exchange:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘He contracted Blank’s Disease.’

‘But Jill contracted Blank’s Disease and she didn’t die.’

‘Well, Jill was lucky, Bill wasn’t.’

There you have a complete and adequate explanation of why Bill died, given what we know. You can elaborate on this, say, if you like, that Bill smoked and drank heavily, which increased his chances of dying from the disease, but there are heavy drinkers and smokers who survive.

In terms of Hempel’s D-N model:

1. If x contracts Blank’s Disease, x’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

2. Bill contracts Blank’s Disease.

3. Therefore, Bill’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

How’s that an explanation? There is much we don’t know and never will. The precise configuration of Bill’s immune system when the bacterium first entered his body, what he had for lunch that day, and so on. To track the actual causes and effects, you’d need a total scan of Bill’s body, down to microscopic detail, and then a supercomputer to analyse the results. And even after all that you could miss the crucial ‘regularity’ or causal link.

The fact is, we accept, in so many cases, that explanations are not just ‘relative to interest’ as Hilary Putnam famously claimed but also relative to what we can know.

Consider another example:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘Jill aimed at him with her high-velocity rifle and accidentally pulled the trigger.’

‘But Jill misses forty-nine shots out of fifty at that range.’

‘Well, Bill was unlucky.’

In this case, we can do better. Bill didn’t die just because Jill pulled the trigger, Bill died because a high velocity rifle bullet hit him straight on in the middle of his forehead as a result of Jill’s pulling the trigger, and everyone who is hit by a high velocity rifle bullet straight on in the middle of the forehead dies.

See the difference? Duh!

Your instructor’s example only looks like an objection to Hempel’s D-N model because it invites you to give the wrong explanandum (‘thing to be explained’). If you substitute for 3. above, ‘Therefore Bill dies’ then the conclusion doesn’t logically follow. Obviously. So what? Because human knowledge is necessarily limited, we can’t explain everything down to the finest detail. The rest is down to chance, or luck. We give, and accept, the kind of explanation that is available in any given case.

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:

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.


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