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.

Emmanuel asked:

Invoking ideas from consequentialism non-consequentialism and/or virtue ethnics, what ethical issues are raised by the heart and stroke foundation endorsement of certain foods? Does it matter, ethically, that there is anything left to the buyer beware sentiment when it comes to advertising and endorsement? What are the responsibilities of the consumer to remain informed and vigilant when it comes to consumer issues and advertising marketing rubric?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s endorsement of certain foods would seem to be an educational act to enable people to make sensible life-choices. Now these sorts of choices would be applicable whatever personal philosophy one chose to follow in life; as such, I would consider this to be an act of meta-ethics, being influential upon the vast majority of philosophical schools.

Within any liberal society, all but the most incapacitated or children would expect to keep abreast of the latest information when purchasing the majority of foodstuffs. However, the most damaging foodstuffs would be expected to be prohibited or controlled: for instance, in the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are highly taxed and this is one measure by which their consumption is controlled; other measures include restricting advertising and restricting sales to adults.

With regard to the consumers’ interaction with the world of marketing, in this litigious age, the most erroneous claims may expect to be heard in court; or dismissed by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who may even refrain from buying the product. In the past, a notable confectioner claimed that eating one of its chocolate bars on a daily basis would help one to ‘work, rest and play’. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this type of claim would be unlikely to be made today.

Looking at how differing schools of philosophy may consider potentially harmful foodstuffs, three are briefly noted here; being utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.  The utilitarian, when attempting to maximise utility, by attempting to attain the maximum good for the maximum number of people, may discourage the consumption of the more harmful foods but possibly offer incentives to eat healthy foods. The deontologist may expect to live by a code of conduct, whereby the more harmful foods would not be sold or promoted to persons without their full knowledge of the product; hence, consumers would not be subjected to deceit or become a means to an end for unscrupulous manufacturers. The virtue ethicist would be educated and habituated to consume potentially harmful food on a moderate basis and perhaps a chocolate bar would comprise an occasional treat; in this manner, a virtuous society would collectively regulate their consumption.

It should be noted that the examples here would be expected to minimise potential harm but not ban a foodstuff outright; and this state of affairs may occur when it is realised that most foodstuffs may be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, using the example of a chocolate bar, if one considered chocolate bars to be harmful, because they may contribute to obesity; one should still appreciate that giving a chocolate bar to a starving person may assist that person immeasurably.

To conclude, philosophical schools may provide an ethos to control potentially harmful foods. And it is arguable that in certain western societies, an ethos is needed to control the rise of obesity. For that purpose, an example of controlling foodstuffs is already provided by the restraints placed upon the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Jamie asked:

Is it possible for contradictions to exist not in our beliefs but in “even though I know its a fuzzy word” our reality? Do the logical absolutes hold true in every world, universe, and existence?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Depends what you mean by ‘reality’!!

It was Karl Popper who argued that contradiction, being a Law of Logic, can only apply to Logic. To maintain there are contradictions in the actual world as Marxists do, was, in Popper’s view, to misappropriate the term and wrongly apply it. Many disagree with this analytic reductionism.

In his philosophy of Absolute Idealism, GWF Hegel maintained that contradictions exist in reality. There is no separation between the human subject and the object, or perceiving agent and the reality beyond it. This epistemological divide stumps empirical thinkers and leaves the reality beyond the subject to endless, inconclusive speculation, to a condition of aporia. For Hegel, there is a mutual interaction, a virtuous circle between the Subject and Object mediated by human consciousness. Further, the three Laws of Logic (Identity, Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle) cannot account for change or movement in phenomena.

For Hegel, contradictions in reality are real. They are recognised and overcome by the collective consciousness of a people (Geist) which is simultaneously, the historical progress of Reason and Freedom. This movement is central to Hegel’s philosophy, for he wishes to present human history as the dialectical movement of the Concept recognising tensions, or contradictions by means of Dialectical or Negative Reason. The contradictions are superseded (aufgehoben) by Positive, Speculative Reason and a new, higher level of Unity is thereby established until new contradictions arise. So for Hegel, yes, contradictions exist in a shared, intersubjective or phenomenological reality. There is no division between Subject and Object, as there is for empirical, analytical philosophy.

However, Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, as the odyssey of human consciousness, has been criticised as being precisely continuing Subjectivism and antropocentrism — which he ostensibly tried to overcome. Thought remains trapped in Thought so Humanity continues to create the world in its own image, yet the world may be different. In which case, any claim to objective, universal truth remains questionable.

Russell asked:

I am trying to do an analysis on the dualist essay of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was wondering if there are any tips to better understanding the large work? Depending on who sees this, Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Russell, Being and Nothingness is a difficult but rewarding read. The central issue for Sartre, is human Freedom. To explore this, he undertakes a phenomenological analyses of human ontology — what it is actually like to be a human being, being in the world. It is examining how the phenomena of the world (including ourselves) disclose themselves to us and how we interact, respond to them.

Unlike Descartes, who stands apart from the world to dispassionately ponders the existence of the world of objects to ask ‘What can I know? Or unlike a scientist who limits being to the quantitative measurements of things; for Existentialists, we are already in the world, living and practising many modes or ways of being in the world, of interacting with ourselves, others, objects and things. These are not limited to the reductive view that there are just objects in space and time but account for actual, lived human existence. It is these modes of being or structures that Sartre examines with a reference to human Freedom.

Unlike unconscious, inert things (a condition which Sartre terms Being-In-Itself), humans exist in a condition of Being-for-Itself. In other words, we possess Consciousness. This makes us distinct from ourselves, others and from objects. We can think about thinking, we can think about our actions, we are distinct from ourselves. In the jargon, we can ‘transcend facticity’. We are, an issue for ourself. My Being can be an issue for me — hence we are a Being-for-Itself.

Here arises an important point. If my Being can become an issue for me, I am not identical with it. I’m not in a condition of Being in Itself. I can transcend and thereby reflect upon my being. What is it that transcends? It is consciousness. But consciousness is not a thing, it is a Nothing. By so breaking with Being, Nothingness emerges.

Nothingness is at the heart of Being, there is an interplay between the two — hence the book title. Nothingness can arise in the world in many ways. It can arise from disappointment, from failure, from negations, from emotions and so on. Sartre gives the famous example of waiting in a café for his friend Pierre to arrive. Pierre fails to arrive and the café melts into disappointment, melts into Nothingness. We do experience Nothingness, it is a lived experience and phenomena. It is, as mentioned above, an existential structure of human being in the world.

With respect to ourselves, the existence of Nothingness in relation to consciousness guarantees Freedom. In so reflecting upon or transcending myself, objects etc, I am not identical with them. If not identical with them, I am distinct and free from them. Hence my Freedom emerges and this, is central to Sartre’s Existentialism. Existentialism is the philosophy of Human Freedom.

Yet, people can deny their Freedom by living in what Sartre terms ‘Bad Faith’. Here, the existence of Freedom, of Transcendence is denied or ignored. People conclude that they are their job, their occupation, their ‘nature’, their wealth and nothing else. (see the example of the Café Waiter). People in Bad Faith declare ‘I am what I am’ and cannot change. This, according to Sartre, is to ignore or wilfully deceive oneself to the phenomenological structures of human being — that there is Being and Nothingness.

Hope this is useful Russell.

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’.

Books by Geoffrey Klempner

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