Joshua asked:

Am always wondering: is every creative book a philosophical work? Since authors think before they write, are they not engaged in philosophy? For example, was Franz Kafka “thinking philosophically” when he decided to write “Metamorphosis”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Gregor is not a bad man. Like many millions of his fellow citizens, he has taken on the burden of supporting his family financially. His work as a salesman is thankless and hard — like so many millions of hard working men. He wakes up one morning to discover that he has undergone metamorphosis into a giant insect. His just reward?

In a version of ‘Metamorphosis’ made into a play which I saw years ago, the insect in question is a cockroach, which is how I always picture Gregor.

Yes, this is philosophy. But the question to ask is what exactly can philosophy be, if Kafka’s novel is an example of it. Ian Fleming, an author I have enjoyed, ‘thought before he wrote’. He has an eye for pungent detail. But you’d have to work hard to find philosophical ideas in his novels, or in the mind of his character James Bond. Stoicism perhaps. Belief in the absolute priority of serving his country, and the ability to withstand gruesome torture in pursuit of his aim.

(That’s one thing Kafka and Fleming have in common — a talent for describing the gruesome.)

For me, there can be only one answer: philosophy is concerned with the ultimate questions. What is reality? Why are we here? What is the point of living? Is anything really ‘good’ or ‘bad’ except in relation to our likes and dislikes?

Looking around the world of professional philosophy, I see relatively few ‘philosophers’ by this criterion. If the rest were to undergo metamorphosis, I imagine them turning into clouds of bluebottles, looking around for rotting carcasses to gorge themselves on. You can spend your entire professional life mining some narrow topic in philosophical logic. Become the unquestioned authority in three-valued logic, or backwards causation, or whatever.

Who cares?

Joshua, if you want to think about the ultimate questions, then, yes, you’re probably better reading novels. But that’s not the answer, because you really need to go back to when philosophy began, with the Presocratics, to feel, with them, the sense of urgency in trying to make sense of what sort of ‘world’ or ‘cosmos’ we live in, what is the right way to live, what are the capacities and limits of human reason, and so on. Then go forward from there.

I don’t spend all of my time thinking about the ultimate questions, because you have to have a balanced diet. Protein and carbohydrate (complex, preferably). And fat too, for the brain. I can debate the pros and cons of three-valued logic as well as anyone. I also have interests besides philosophy. But the question that really gets me going is, Why I am here? What insect would I be?

Jared asked:

Hello my question is about the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I personally do agree with the premises and the conclusion, however a person on YouTube said that you cannot say that an infinite regress does not make sense but an infinite being does. So my question is what is the difference between an infinite regress and an infinite being, can you say they are both absurd?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What is ‘infinite’? What does that word mean? Do you know?

It’s relatively easy to say what an ‘infinite series’ is in mathematics. The simplest infinite series is generated by the rule ‘plus one’ — the series of natural numbers. The series of natural numbers is the same ‘size’ (infinite) as the series of even numbers, even though you’d think there would be twice as many. That’s one of the interesting properties of the mathematical infinite.

To talk about ‘infinity’ or ‘infinities’ is to talk about rules. However, the real world, the world of material objects, has a different sort of existence from numbers or sets. The real world isn’t the product of a mathematical rule but the arena of cause and effect, and the sequence of events in time. I don’t know what it would mean to say that THAT was ‘infinite’, do you?

You can say, ‘For every time however long ago, there is an earlier time,’ or ‘For any object however far away, there is an object further away,’ but the question is what it means for those statements to be true. For example, if stars or galaxies go on ‘for ever’ then if half the stars or galaxies were snuffed out of existence there would still be just as many as there were before.

And that’s before we even get to the problem of the ‘infinite’ regress from effects to causes. Imagine a line of falling dominoes going back into the far distance. Just a moment ago, the cascade passed us by. The line of dominoes supposedly goes back for ever. In that case, how do you explain the timing if there was no first falling domino to start the cascade?

On the other hand, if the real world can’t be ‘infinite’ it must be finite — finite in size and finite in duration. It follows that there was a time when the world (we can drop the ‘real’) didn’t exist. Then there was a time when it did. Based on the only notion we have of cause and effect, that doesn’t make any sense either. The Big Bang banged but nothing caused ‘it’ to bang. First, there was nothing, then bang. How? Why?

There is a possible way around this. Say that the laws of physics, such as gravity, are ‘real’ regardless of whether a physical world actually exists or not. Starting with a timeless truth — the truth of the laws of physics — it is held to be logically possible for matter to come into being as a so-called ‘quantum event’. That’s not ‘something’ from ‘nothing’ because the laws of physics are not nothing.

By this point, you may have noticed that the ‘timeless truth of the laws of physics’ plays, or is alleged to play, exactly the same role as the ‘infinite being’ posited by the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Either would be sufficient to generate our spatio-temporal world.

However, there is one huge difference. The laws of physics may be true, but they can at most be contingently true. There is no logical contradiction in supposing that the laws of physics might have been different, in small or large ways. The infinite being, on the other hand, can only be what it is. It’s existence is necessary. It exists in all possible worlds, exactly the same. It is a ’cause of itself’.

From now on, let’s just call it the ‘necessary being’, so that we don’t have to use the questionable term ‘infinite’. An infinite regress and a necessary being might both be absurd as your YouTube commentator claimed, but if they are, it is for different reasons.

Kant argued in Critique of Pure Reason that you can only make sense of the idea of a necessary being — a being that is the cause of itself — if you appeal to the Ontological Argument. If there can be a being sufficiently ‘perfect’ that it is a cause of its own existence, then the existence of a such being is necessary. If such a ‘perfect being’ exists any possible world, then it must exist in all possible worlds.

Because there is a necessary being, our world came into being at some specific time in the past. That’s what the Kalam Cosmological Argument states. The alternative theory, the one that posits the truth of the laws of physics, can get away with asserting that there is a probability that matter will form at one specific time rather than another specific time. That’s an interesting difference. But it leads to a conundrum.

The conundrum was first proposed by the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides two and a half thousand years ago. Speaking of what ‘is’, he asks rhetorically:

“And what need could have impelled it to grow
Later or sooner, if it began from nothing?”

As scholars have noted, what is interesting about this particular argument, is that Parmenides throws it in as an extra point, which isn’t strictly required by his case for One unchanging reality. But the point is devastating to anyone who proposes a beginning for the world in time.

Here’s the alternative: Either we have a ‘necessary being’ or ‘truth of the laws of physics’. The first implies a conscious choice, a selection: the world should be thus-and-so, it should come into existence at such-and-such a time. The other implies an inexplicably contingent throw of the dice — the thing that so annoyed Einstein about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Either way, there is a problem.

A necessary being does everything for a reason, as Leibniz insisted (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’). But in empty time, there can be no sufficient reason for the world to be created at time t1 rather than time t2. All empty times are the same, there’s nothing to choose between them. On the other hand, if you’re relying on a throw of the dice — an inexplicable quantum contingency — you might as well chuck in the towel and just say that the world just came into existence for no reason at all.

In the case where we are relying on the truth of the laws of physics, one could claim that ‘time as we know it’ only begins with the Big Bang. So the notion of time ‘passing’ while one waits for the Big Bang to bang is meaningless. A similar move occurs with St. Thomas Aquinas’ version of the Cosmological Argument, where the necessary being timelessly ‘creates’ the temporal world from an eternal standpoint outside the temporal series.

However, we are still left with an impossible choice between implacable necessity and inexplicable contingency.

If a necessary being caused the world to come into existence, then it caused me — indirectly, through a massively long chain of causes and effects — to write this answer today. This world is the best of all possible worlds, and all the better for having my answer than not having it, Leibniz would say. If, on the other hand, the world began with a quantum event, then the only way to explain away contingency is to posit that all possible worlds are equally real. But if that’s the line we’re taking, then the problem of how or why the world began disappears altogether.

Aisha asked:

Hey so I am stuck on a Philosophy question that states:

What is Descartes argument for the existence of the soul?

I have looked everywhere online and cannot find a simple yet understandable answer — could you help?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Aisha, I am going to try to give a simple and understandable answer to your question. There is admittedly a problem with this, because what I find ‘simple’ or ‘understandable’ might not be so for you. I have to agree with you that many of the attempts I’ve seen are neither.

If I fail — my bad.

First, we need to explain the idea of identity. Everyone understands the idea of identity. Here’s an example: Batman IS Bruce Wayne. They are one and the same individual. They are identical. (According to Wikipedia, Batman is a fictional character created by Bob Kane and Bill finger. Batman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, cover date May 1939, release date March 1939.) In real life, this kind of deception is pretty rare — that’s the only reason why I’m using a fictional example.

Let’s say that the Joker begins to suspect that Bruce Wayne is actually his hated enemy Batman. One night, the Joker ambushes Bruce Wayne and kills him. Shoots him full of holes, with no possibility of resuscitation. Let’s burn the body to ash, just to be sure.

The next day, ‘Batman’ foils a bank robbery. How do you and I know that the person who foiled the bank robbery isn’t really Batman? Because Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. If you kill Bruce Wayne, you kill Batman. If you kill Batman, you kill Bruce Wayne. The person who foiled the bank robbery can only have been someone wearing a ‘Batman’ costume, someone impersonating Batman. Because there IS no Batman. He’s dead.

So this was Descartes’ idea: can we imagine a possible scenario where my soul exists but my body does not exist? If I am just physical, then if my physical body dies then I cannot continue to exist.

Of course, we can always imagine some story about dying and going to heaven, but we’re trying to prove something. The story has got to be one that no-one could argue against. ‘I know I have a soul because when I die I will go to heaven,’ won’t work against an atheist who doesn’t believe in a place called ‘heaven’.

Here is the argument Descartes gave. It’s absolutely brilliant:

I know that I exist. That’s an absolute fact. I can’t think I exist when in fact I don’t exist, that would be nonsense. But I don’t know, not absolutely for sure, that I have a physical body. Maybe my entire life has been a dream. Maybe there is no physical universe. Maybe all there is, is just experiences, like the experiences I am having now, or the experiences you are having now.

You and I believe that we live in a physical world. Physical things exist. But the world might not have been a physical world. It is conceivable that there might not have been any physical things. But the thing I call ‘I’ would still exist in that non-physical world, and the thing you call ‘I’ would still exist in that non-physical world.

It follows that my ‘I’ and my body must be two things, they cannot be identical. Because if they were identical, then the very idea of my ‘I’ existing when my body did not exist would be absurd. It would be as absurd as thinking that Batman can exist even after Bruce Wayne has been murdered. As I have already explained, you and I know that if Bruce Wayne dies, Batman dies, and if ‘Batman’ subsequently appears, it can only be someone else wearing a Batman costume.

What is my ‘I’? We know that it is something that is not physical, because it can exist even in world where no physical things exist. Descartes calls it a ‘soul’.

But there’s a problem: if Descartes’ argument is so brilliant, why is it that most philosophers today aren’t convinced? Why do so many believe in the theory of materialism, according to which ‘I’ can only refer to something physical?

The biggest objection is to Descartes’ idea that it is ‘conceivable’ that the physical universe might not have existed and that all that existed was ‘just experiences’. That just doesn’t make any sense, these philosophers would say. It’s simply impossible. Or, if it isn’t impossible, it’s begging the question, by assuming that experiences can exist without physical bodies, brains, sense organs etc.

However, I still think there is mileage in Descartes’ idea, despite the objections. Because there is another way to run the argument about identity, which is in a way the reverse of what Descartes imagined. But it still relies on the same idea about identity.

Once again, the argument starts with the statement that I exist, and I know that I exist.

This time, instead of imagining that the physical universe might not have existed, I am considering the possibility that I might not have existed. The physical world could be just as it is now, with someone just like me answering this question on ‘Ask a Philosopher’, even though I did not exist and have never existed.

In other words, there’s a difference, an absolute logical difference, between me and someone exactly like me. But the difference isn’t a physical difference, it can’t be, because we are assuming that this person is physically like me in every detail, down to the fundamental constituents of matter. To make ‘someone exactly like me’ ME, something has to be added, something non-physical. In other words, a ‘soul’. Q.E.D.

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.

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