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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.

Deb asked:

If someone is asking you to forgive them for their ‘failures’, is that too non-specific to actually forgive? I would respond that ‘failing’ at something is not something to forgive. I don’t want to ask for specifics but I don’t take forgiveness lightly and only want to extend it when I actually mean it. Your thoughts?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

If this was our rival web site — whose name I will not mention here — you would be treated to a long lecture on the ‘concept’ of forgiveness and its ‘logic’. The problem is, we are dealing with personal relationships, which are not necessarily governed by logic but what one might call dialogic. Dialogic focuses much more on nuance and context, then on the strict and literal meanings of words.

Let me give some examples:

A: “Forgive me for my failures.”
B: “Which failures are you talking about exactly? Your failure to remember my birthday? or your getting drunk and ruining last night’s dinner party? or not winning the contract that was a ‘dead cert’ and was going to pay for our Caribbean holiday? or…”

A.”Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Do you mean Robert, or Dennis, or Nigel, or Jeffrey, or…?”

A. “Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Well, I forgive you for being such a failure.”

Lacking further context, one’s judgement must be provisional, but my initial sympathies are with A in the first and third of these exchanges, and with B in the second.

Doesn’t it say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins…’? Imagine God saying in reply, ‘Tell me which sins you are talking about and I’ll tell you whether or not I forgive you!’

In the third case, a person who admits to having ‘failed’ on more than one occasion is certainly not admitting to being a ‘failure’. On the contrary, the implication may be that there are a lot of positive and good things to put on the other side of the scale to balance the bad.

If we were being logical, then one could make the point that not all sins/ transgressions are ‘failures’. In order to fail, you have to try. The problem with this is that it is a very human failing to be incapable of ‘trying’ when one needs to, lacking the will or motivation. ‘Try to pull yourself together!’ is not something that it is appropriate to say in many situations where we are tempted to say it. You have to bite your tongue and offer a strong hug instead.

‘Forgive me for my failures’ can be a way of saying that you wanted to be more, but this is the very best you can do. Or it can (as you say) be a way of evading responsibility by retreating into generalities. You can glory in your ‘failures’, be proud that you failed, or experience anguish at the self-knowledge that when the chips are down you have repeatedly failed those who depend on you.

All of these things can be forgiven in the appropriate context. Habitually evading responsibility is an unpleasant character flaw, one that can be difficult for others to address, whether sympathetically or unsympathetically. Whatever they say, you believe in your heart of hearts that ‘it isn’t my fault’. Even that may be forgiveable.

I am not going to spin this out into a long essay. The short answer is that the ‘specifics’ are always relevant. No philosophical pronouncement can decide the question, even when the external facts are known — because the two partners in dialogue know more than just the external facts. They are in a continually adjusting dynamic, each making the best effort they can — or not, as the case may be.

One generality one can offer with confidence is that when breakdown of dialogue does occur, most often both parties believe that they are the one who has been ‘wronged’.

John asked:

Precisely what is wrong with Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise argument?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Only some 200 words of Zeno survive. We rely on later commentators such as Aristotle and Simplicius. The latter first called Achilles’ opponent the Tortoise.

Zeno was a pupil of Parmenides, and the 4 paradoxes of motion (Achilles, Dichotomy, Arrow, Stadium) attempt to show that motion is impossible in line with the nothing-changes view taught by the great man.

Since motion clearly is possible, indeed actual, there must be something wrong with the arguments as you suggest.

I will briefly outline the Achilles and the Dichotomy, which are logically equivalent, and then suggest how they might be refuted.

The Achilles:

Achilles (A) is a good runner. He sportingly gives his slower rival, the Tortoise (T), a start. The race begins. By the time A reaches T’s start point, T has moved on to a new point. By the time A reaches that new point, T has moves again to a further point. By the time A reaches that further point, T has again moved ahead, and so on endlessly. A can never catch T.

The Dichotomy:

Version 1: To travel any distance, I must first reach the halfway point. Then I must reach the halfway point of the remainder, then the halfway point of the new remainder, and so on endlessly. I can never complete the journey.

Version 2: To travel any distance, I must first cover half the distance. To do this I first have to travel half of that half (first 1/4 ). Before that, half of that quarter (first 1/8), before that, 1/16, and so on endlessly. I can never start the journey.

The paradox is not that we must travel an infinite distance, or for infinite time. Clearly, knowing the speeds of A and T, and the length of T’s start we can easily calculate where/ when A catches T, or when the Dichotomy runner completes the run. The paradox is that an infinite number of actions (tasks) seems necessary — A has to pass every one of the unending sequence of points where T once was.

What’s wrong?

To refute the argument we must deny at least one of its 3 presuppositions, which are:

  1. In travelling a distance we must cross each and all of the intervening points.
  2. A line consists of an infinity of points.
  3. It is impossible to complete an infinite series of actions (tasks).

Aristotle denied 1., saying a line can’t consist of points, they have no size, whereas a line has. A point is potential, becoming actual only if we divide the line there. The paradox invites us to repeatedly divide the line at an infinity of potential points, but A does not have to touch an infinity of actual points to catch T.

Others deny 2., saying a line doesn’t consist of an infinity of points, rather space is not continuous but consists of tiny discrete units (quantized). In covering a distance we traverse a finite number of  space quanta. Motion is jerky but this is undetectable due to the fantastically tiny size of the quanta.

Yet others deny 3., saying that an infinity of tasks is possible. This is a subtle business, bringing in Aristotle and Dedekind cuts, and dealing with it would make this answer too long (ask me if you’re interested).

After 2500 years there is still debate, and no closure, especially about 2. and 3.

Some modern mathematicians offer as a solution that that the time/ distance till A catches T is the (finite) limit of an infinite convergent series (1/2 +1/4 +1/8 + etc). But this simply tells us what Zeno already said, that the distance is finite, just infinitely divisible, and doesn’t explain how we complete the task.

I hope this helps.

Jeff asked:

I am 65 years old and still struggling with philosophy.

I started with Father Copleston’s volumes on The History of Philosophy — struggled.

Thinking about taking a course with the University of Edinburgh — time is running out to decide. Please help me with a book that will help me to understand and help me progress with other books or courses. Please help!!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Every student starting out with philosophy is different, so I am not going to recommend a specific book for you to read. Age is not an issue. (Craig Skinner , one of the members of the Ask a Philosopher panel, gained his Philosophy BA in his 70s.) However, you could start by looking at our Pathways to Philosophy Introductory Book List. Use the comments as a guide and look up the reviews on Amazon — just to get a sense of a selection of books you might like.

I have never attempted to read Copleston, although this evening I did look up the article in Wikipedia which states:

“Throughout the eleven volumes Copleston’s Roman Catholic (Thomist) point of view is never hidden. All the same, it seems generally accepted that Copleston’s treatment is fair and complete, even for philosophical positions that he does not support.”

It’s not that I have anything against Jesuit Priests. Life is too short. Eleven volumes! But I totally understand the desire to tackle something ‘big’. I started off hunking Benjamin Jowett’s Collected Dialogues of Plato and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from Swiss Cottage Library, London.

I didn’t read the tomes. I dipped. I picked things that looked interesting. They gave me a sense of what an incredible, huge subject Philosophy is. Endlessly deep, seemingly impossible to master.

As I seem to recall, the first book I actually read all the way through was A.J. Ayer Language, Truth and Logic. It’s a young man’s book, published when Ayer was just 26. I was 21, so there was a connection there. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a book for you, but you might see it in a different light. (Still worth a look, though.)

But why even make the effort to tackle a subject, if you know in advance (or fear) that you will be struggling with it? Maybe you won’t be the best philosophy student or get a First Class BA, but would that be so bad? I have interests that I pursue, knowing I will never ‘get good’. But that doesn’t deter me from enjoying the challenge.

Take the University of Edinburgh course. You will not be the only one struggling, I promise. What you will gain is a sense of cameraderie that only philosophy students know. There is nothing better or more worth doing than philosophy. Without philosophy, all the learning in the world would not be worth a damn. (That was said by some famous Greek — I don’t remember who.)

Whatever philosophy book you pick, you will struggle. You had better struggle, because otherwise it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’re missing something. That’s why books that seem easy to read can sometimes be the hardest. You skate over the ideas, but none of them really grabs you.

As time is short, I would pick a shorter rather than a longer book. Something you can read in a week or two, if you make the effort. — Go for it!

Andrew asked:

When, if ever, should a terminal patient’s right to be told the truth about their condition — that they are dying — be overridden?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I dont think a patient of sound mind who asks for the truth should be lied to.

As a medic, I would say medical ethics revolves around 4 principles:

  • beneficence (do good)
  • non-maleficence (do no harm)
  • autonomy (patient’s right to truth and to decide)
  • justice (fair sharing of limited resources)

Your question relates to autonomy. Relatives often say the patient shouldn’t know the truth because she couldn’t cope with it — she would give up, wouldn’t fight any more. So, they say,  autonomy clashes with doing no harm, the latter should prevail, I should lie. Whilst I always take account of relatives’ views, I am not bound by them, and I have never agreed with this view. It usually means it is the relative who cant cope, won’t know what to say if mum starts talking about death. And if we go along with it, the outcome is bad: the patient soon realizes she is dying anyway, but can’t talk about it because her family don’t want to, and so she is alone and isolated just when she most needs family support. So, I explain all this to the relative, and tell the patient the truth.

Two caveats.

First, a patient’s right to the truth doesn’t mean I have a right to ram the truth down her throat, as it were, when she doesn’t want to talk about it. I am guided by the patient’s wishes. So, having examined her and got back test results, I will start in nonspecific terms — there’s a shadow on your x-ray we need to investigate further, say. Then, “Is there anything you want to ask?”, and now we find out how much the patient wants to know, at this stage anyway. Some say no, that’s fine, lets get on with the tests, others ask if it could be cancer. And so it goes as we investigate further. If it turns out to be a fatal condition for which little can be done, I will say so if asked directly, otherwise will talk of treatment which may help for a time. If a patient has, or probably has, a very serious condition, but one which may be curable, and decides to bury her head in the sand, keep clear of doctors and hope for the best, then I will make sure she knows the serious position even though she did not ask me to spell things out.

Second caveat. Docs know only too well that they often get it wrong, so we must always consider very carefully before pronouncing an illness terminal or being too exact or sure about life expectancy. Second opinions may be a good idea.

I hope this is helpful to you.

Hubertus asked:

In view of Hitler or Trump, by what criteria — if any — would you call a person or its ardent followers sane or insane? Or don’t you see any difference between, say, Jesus and his followers and Hitler and his followers? Are there no valid criteria?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, allow me to decline your invitation to share my views about Hitler, President Trump, or Jesus Christ. Except to say that there are readers of this page who are neither ardent or fanatical, who think that Trump is a good guy, and there are also readers of this page who think that Jesus was actually not such a good guy.

Seven decades after the end of WWII it is still politically incorrect to say anything good about Hitler or his followers. Few would doubt that Hitler was evil. But what is really scary is that many of his followers were ordinary people, decent folks who helped their neighbours and were kind to animals.

Sanity/ insanity is a much abused distinction — witness the Soviet treatment of dissidents. Anyone who objects to communism must be insane, mustn’t they? I would be very careful bandying that label!

Charles Manson, who died just a few days ago, would be a better example. Were his followers insane? If the answer to that is, No, then you really couldn’t have a better case. Were they brainwashed? Is being brainwashed a form of insanity? Certainly, if the result is that you become a jibbering idiot (as in the movie The Ipcress Files, 1965). But if it’s just another name for indoctrination, then you would have to call a large proportion of the human population ‘insane’.

Being ‘ardent’ or ‘fanatical’ isn’t a form of insanity. It’s one of the normal ways in which human beings express themselves. Normality is a spectrum. It is normal to be what some would term ‘irrational’ about some person or topic. Having the power of reason doesn’t entail that an individual is particularly good at reasoning, or that they are what you or I would call a ‘reasonable’ person.

And even if you are a ‘reasonable’ person who is ‘good at reasoning’, there may still be particular things — in fact, there probably are — which you are irrational about. (Call me irrational, but I won’t listen to any argument, however persuasive, for the view that Eric Clapton wasn’t the greatest rock guitarist of all time.)

What is the difference between the people who followed Jesus and the people who followed Hitler? Do I have to say? We admire those who preach love, and despise those who preach hatred. But don’t you hate Hitler and the Nazis? At least you can say you hate what they did, even if you are willing to extend to them Christian ‘love’.

If you are looking for criteria for sanity, there’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Evil isn’t listed in the manual because it isn’t a form of insanity. There’s a lot of evil about. Sad to say, evil and malice are natural human tendencies, a place on the spectrum of normality.


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