Archive for June, 2010

Ask A Philosopher

I recently found a website that allows you to ask a philosophical question and (potentially) get it answered from a professional philosopher. It’s called They get a lot of questions so there’s no guarantee that you will receive a response. I have to admit that I’m sort of jealous for not getting to act as a panelist, but they can’t allow just anyone to respond. And I don’t mind being on the asking side of things. I have already received one response for one of my questions.

Just for fun, here are a few of the questions that have recently interested me and that I have posted:

1) Is there a case to be made for plural voting? In other words, are governments ever justified in giving more votes to some people than others? For instance, I think a good case can be made that those with higher educational status (say, a bachelors degree) should be given more voting power than those of lower educational status assuming that certain conditions maintain (e.g. equal educational opportunity)? This dovetails with a follow up question: what is the current status of such plural voting arguments among philosophers today (are they frequently defended)?

2) I find that a very common discussion that I have with friends and family is about which sport (baseball, football, soccer, etc.) is the “best” or which sport is “better.” As my quotations may indicate, I find this discussion rather fruitless. For instance, I love baseball (watching or playing) but dislike soccer. But I do not know of a way–and am skeptical that there even is a way–to objectively measure the quality of a sport. Although they may share the common, but rather vague and general, attribute “sport,” they nonetheless seem incommensurable with one another. At the same time, I am always wary of becoming a full-blown relativist, no matter the topic. So my question is whether or not there are fruitful ways to have an inner-sports dialogue that attempts to answer the question as to what sport is “better,” “more praiseworthy,” “more sophisticated,” and so on? Or is our conception of what makes a sport good so tied up with our culture and (perhaps) our own athletic abilities that, in this case, we would do well to accept relativism and halt the debate entirely?

3) Do (or should) public figures–professional athletes, politicians, film stars–have a moral obligation to serve as role models for society? Another way to ask this: do public figures have a moral obligation above and beyond that of a non-public figure to act in a morally permissible or morally good way? Take, for instance, the professional athlete who abuses his child or the politician who cheats on his or her spouse. Assuming that such actions are prima facie wrong (leaving aside scenarios in which, say, utilitarianism would morally allow or demand such actions), are there any extra moral obligations that a public figure has–or is there any extra moral weight to their actions–just in virtue of being a public figure?

The question I received an answer to is a rather technical one that probably wouldn’t interest most people, but I’ll post it and the answer anyways:

4) I find that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is as much a critique of empiricism as it is rationalism. Why then call it the critique of “pure reason” as if the focus of the critique is purely about the rationalist’s favored tool of inquiry?

Response by Thomas Pogge:

I agree that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is as much a critique of empiricism as it is of rationalism. But the title still makes sense if you understand two things about it. First, the word “Critique” here means not merely criticism but, more broadly, critical examination. The book draws limits to reason in some respects but also vindicates our reason in others. Second, the word “of” here means not only that reason is the object of critical examination, but also that reason is conducting this critical examination. So, in a nutshell, Kant promises in his title a critical self-examination of reason: an examination undertaken by reason of what reason can and cannot do.

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Justice with Michael Sandel

“When we came together some thirteen weeks ago I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers: about how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our settled assumptions. And I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance, it’s never quite the same again.

Why do these (philosophical) arguments keep going even if they raise questions that are impossible ever finally to solve? The reason is that we live some answer to these questions all the time. In our public life and in our personal lives, philosophy is inescapable even if it sometimes seems impossible.”

— The concluding remarks of Professor Michael Sandel in his lecture course Justice, given at Harvard University and offered freely on the World Wide Web at

What is Metaphysics?

As stated in the About section, one of my favorite areas of study is metaphysics. Many people have as clear an understanding as to what that means as they do philosophy in general, which is to stay they don’t know what it is.

Metaphysics encompasses such a diverse set of topics that it can be difficult to define. In fact, the topics are diverse enough that one would be hard pressed to unify them by listing a series of non-trivial attributes shared by them all. The origin of the word itself gives us no insight as to its meaning. The origin of the word has nothing to do with being “above” or “beyond” the physical, even though it is occasionally understood that way. The origin of the world derives from the title of one of Aristotle’s texts, although he did not use the title himself. Rather, later scholars who read and titled his works did not know what to call the text that followed after his discourse on physics. So they called it Meta-physics or “after physics.”

While medieval philosophy considered metaphysics to be primarily the study of being (ontology), modern and contemporary metaphysics no longer shares this view. In a very broad and general sense, metaphysics can be defined as the search for or study of what is fundamentally true or, as Peter van Inwagen put it, the search for or study of “ultimate reality.” Ultimate reality here is taken to mean the reality that is behind the appearances or behind how the world appears to us as individuals or as humans. Of course, I must add one important caveat. Those philosophers who reject the appearance-reality distinction are understood, in today’s metaphysical parlance, to be proposing a metaphysical theory. Thus, to reject metaphysics or the possibility of metaphysics (as some have done) is now understood as doing metaphysics. Consequently, there are no obvious and uncontroversial definitions of metaphysics: to suggest an answer would be to partake in a metaphysical debate. With that said, here are ten examples of metaphysical topics that are still frequently discussed by philosophers. I will give brief remarks below each topic in an attempt to give a sense of what sort of questions are discussed in that area. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive and includes overlap.

1) Free Will and Determinism:

  • Is metaphysical determinism true: are all events (including human thought and action) the result of past events + the uncontrollable physical laws of nature?
  • Does free will exist? Even if determinism is false, that doesn’t logically entail that free will exists. An indeterminate (or random) universe does not appear to be any more accommodating to the thesis of free will than determinism. Which leads to the question…
  • What, after all, is free will? What conditions must hold for me to truly say that my particular action was free?

2) Personal Identity:

  • What makes a person (you) the same person over time? What makes it the case that you are the same person as that person you remember so long ago that went by the same name and was born to the same parents? Does it have to do with the fact that you have a body that is spatially and temporally continuous with that past person? Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that you have a mind or set of psychological traits (including memory) that is continuous with that past person?
  • Is your identity extinguished when your body dies or does it continue to exist? Is resurrection possible? Is immortality possible?

3) Realism vs. Anti-realism:

  • This debate is involved in various fields, from science to ethics to a more strictly metaphysical field. In science, the question revolves around whether or not our scientific theories can be true, especially when they involve unobservables (like electrons). An example of an anti-realist account of science is called Instrumentalism. Instrumentalism says that the value of a scientific theory lies not in whether or not it is true–i.e. corresponds to reality–but whether or not it helps us explain and predict phenomena.
  • In ethics the question is whether or not our ethical statements can be true. Some philosophers have thought that our ethical statements (“stealing is wrong” or “keeping  your promises is praiseworthy”) are nothing more than emotional grunts and groans (or “boos” and “hoorays”) that voice our approval or disapproval of a particular action. But just as grunts and groans cannot be true or false, neither can our ethical statements. For that reason this view has been called emotivism and is an anti-realist view of ethics.
  • In a more strictly metaphysical sense, the realism-anti-realism debate concerns the existence or non-existence of universals (e.g. whiteness). Paper is white and so is glue. They both share the property of being white or “whiteness.” But how do we explain this property agreement? Those who think “whiteness” (or universals) is a real entity that is distinct from the particulars that instantiate whiteness are called realists. Those who deny the existence of universals, instead claiming that properties like “whiteness” are simply convenient ways for us to talk about particulars are called nominalists (nomen is “name” in Latin) or anti-realists.

4) Essential vs. Accidental Properties:

  • The old question of Socrates: what is X (fill in the blank: justice, piety, metaphysics)? In order to define X, you must determine the essential properties of that thing while weeding out the properties that it just happens to have (the accidental or, we might say, irrelevant properties). For instance, to ask what a person is essentially is to ask what a person is after eliminating all contingent properties (like skin color, number of limbs, even the species of the person).
  • Certain philosophers are considered non-essentialists when they deny that certain concepts can be properly (essentially) defined above and beyond conventional usage.

5) Modality: the Necessary vs. the Contingent:

  • What, if anything, is necessarily true in all possible worlds? That is, what, if anything, has to be the case? For instance, is it necessarily true that you had to exist? Or is your existence only contingently true? What about the existence of minds or certain mathematical relations?
  • Does our universe necessarily exist? If not, does something else (God, multiverses) necessarily exist?

6) Truth:

  • What does it mean for something to be true? Many theories have been proposed (truth as correspondence, truth as coherence, pragmatic theories of truth)? Is there a correct theory of truth? If so, what is it (i.e. what is the essence of truth)?

7) The Mind-Body Problem:

  • How do the mental and the physical interact? How does your mind (a mental substance) tell your body (a physical substance) to move?
  • What fundamentally exists: mental phenomena (minds) or physical phenomena (matter-energy)? Or both? In other words, is one reducible to the other (monism) or are they both equally irreducible (dualism)?

8.) The Nature of Objectivity:

  • Discussions about objectivity permeate multiple disciplines, from logic to science to ethics to aesthetics.
  • Are there objective or mind-independent (logical, scientific, ethical) principles or properties? Is human logic/reason or human morality a local phenomena instantiated only in the human species or are they fundamental to how the universe actually functions? Is morality or beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Are the principles that underlie our logic, our science, our ethics, and our views on beauty contingent upon us existing or did they exist prior to our existence and will they continue to exist after we are gone?

9) Time and Space:

  • What is time? Does it exist as a fundamental property of the universe? Or is it an illusion created by our mind interacting with the universe?
  • What is space? How does it relate to time?
  • Is time travel possible?

10) Consciousness:

  • Subsumed under the Mind-Body Problem but a large enough topic in its own right.
  • What is consciousness?
  • Can we account for it in a physicalist theory (a monist theory that says all mental phenomena are reducible to physical properties) of the universe? If so, how?
  • The problem of other minds: are other humans conscious? Are non-human animals conscious? If so, what sort of evidence would count in favor of this hypothesis? If not, what sort the evidence would count against this hypothesis?
  1. Time and space (what are they?; is time travel possible?)

Evaluating A Life

There are two different ways to evaluate the quality of a life: from the outside and from the inside. On the one hand, we can look at the external circumstances of any particular individual and ask ourselves whether or not that is the sort of life we would want to live or be satisfied with living. There are various aspects of value that we might consider when determining whether a life is good as seen from the outside: financial security, general bodily health, family relations, educational opportunity, vocational status, social reputation, and so on. Any individual who scored highly on many or all of these areas could be said to have a good life. But this sort of good life will always have to be qualified by “as it appears to us.” For no amount of external evidence can ever guarantee that a life is good as seen from the inside or as it appears to that person. An individual may, on all external accounts, live a life of luxury and yet have a bad life, the sort of life that we would reject for ourselves if given complete knowledge of what that life is like. This makes sense of general wisdom idioms that have long taught us that a person may have it all yet live an unhappy life.

What counts as good from the inside is quite different than what counts as good from the outside. As opposed to external states, internal states have a predictably mental character. They can manifest themselves in external ways but do not always do so. Even if they do, there is a limit to what language can convey. A subject could describe to us in detail what their life looks like from the inside, but without a way to measure or compare the quality of internal states (or what philosophers call qualia), language will be insufficient in giving us a full account of those states. A description of a person’s internal states will allow us to judge the general quality of a person’s internal life–“this person is happy,” “this person had fun,” “this person is depressed”–but the specificity runs out quickly. We will not be able to distinguish between the internal states of a person who says he has been having a rough year and a person who claims to be depressed; worse still, we will not be able to distinguish between two people who give us the same exact description. This is because there is no guarantee that a descriptor will map onto any given internal state.  “My marriage is excellent” or “my life is great” may mean something quite different if said by you than if said by your friend and may have been produced by very different mental states. As a result, a full account of how good a life is does not seem within our grasp.