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These are answers that Jim.McGinness has provided in Philosophy

ttalady asked on 12/10/10 - Hello old friends... LOL

Just wanted to pop in and say hey! There are just some thing you never forget and answerway was one of them. We had plenty of well worthy discussions. Now 36 and a baby things have changed. He is wonderful, all you could ask for in life, forget the whole fairy tale no such thing, but the miracle of life is so there.

I miss you all. Purple, Hank, ...... John?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/11/10:

I'm pleased to hear things are going so well for you!

keenu asked on 07/07/09 - UFO Disclosure

Do you really think that humanity will unite as one when we know that there are others? Do you really think it will eliminate wars? I do not believe that there will be mass uprisings and chaos as we are told there will be but I do not believe that we will change that much, at least not immediately.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/08/09:

I suspect you're right not to expect immediate changes. War will not be eliminated, humanity will not unite. Chaos is always a possibility.

Whatever is disclosed about UFOs will be believed by some, disbelieved by others.

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keenu asked on 07/06/09 - Aliens, UFOs and Fears

I'd like to know what you all think of the impending disclosure of the fact that aliens do exist and UFOs do exist? Philosophically, how do you incorporate that into your world-view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/07/09:

I'm skeptical, of course.

We've all seen enough science fiction to grant that it's not impossible for there to be alien life forms, even intelligences. Their existence would not knock the foundation out from under a modern world view.

It would, however, be a vast change in many areas of our lives. A lot of our thinking contains the tacit assumption that the people in our society, other humans, are the only entities worthy of being considered persons. It's hard to believe members of an alien species would fit neatly into the same categories, in every respect. There would be a lot of mind changing required to distinguish human-only properties from the characteristics that are shared with these new acquaintances.

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tonyrey asked on 04/05/09 - What is the probability of revelation?

From a strictly philosophical point of view how likely is it that the Creator of the universe would communicate with human beings?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/07/09:

This seems like a question that can only be answered by the Predictor daemon from Newcomb's Paradox.

For believers, revelation is a certainty; it has already occurred.

For non-believers (non-believers in revelation), all of the existing documents claimed as revelation are discounted as the products of human authors.

From either point of view, your question contains a counter-factual and there's no basis in philosophy for assigning a probability.

I suppose there remains some middle ground. A hypothetical creator of the universe might, at some point in the future, choose to communicate directly with human beings. If someone were to give you a probability number for this happening, how could they know it?

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CeeBee2 asked on 02/24/09 - Ask Me Help Desk

Many of the members from here have gravitated to Ask Me Help Desk. We're trying to jazz up its Philosophy board. A new question is about the mind-body connection. Please register and join us. (I'm Wondergirl over there -- because I wonder a lot....)

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/25/09:

I can't claim to be too busy here. I've looked at AskMeHelpDesk before but felt insufficiently motivated to join. Maybe you've just supplied the necessary increment.

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tonyrey asked on 02/03/09 - What is your most fundamental assumption?

It seems obvious that all our reasoning is based on something we take for granted. It is not so obvious what that "something" is. Possibly that reasoning is occurring? But can reasoning occur without a reasoner?
And what is a "reasoner"?

In my opinion the existence of the physical world is definitely not our most fundamental assumption. What is your view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/05/09:

All assumptions should be held up for scrutiny.

Descartes tried this research programme, attempting to doubt everything that could be doubted. He achieved a very successful and influential result, but may have gone astray.

For a more modern approach, I'd suggest Robert Nozick's Invariances. I should take my own advice and read it (I own it, but haven't managed to open it yet).

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tonyrey asked on 01/26/09 - What is your concept of existence in hell?

...Belief in a place of eternal punishment has often been derided as puerile and incompatible with divine love. How could an infinitely good Creator inflict everlasting punishment on any of his creatures? Finite offences in this life can never deserve infinite suffering. If God is infinitely wise and merciful why would He create individuals knowing they are doomed to suffer forever without any hope of escape from their torment. Surely only a diabolical monster would cause such unnecessary remorse and despair.

What are your views?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/26/09:

Do these inconsistencies that you point out lead you to suspect that neither hell nor God exist, at least, not in the way you thought they existed?

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tonyrey asked on 01/03/09 - When did you come into existence?!


Jim.McGinness answered on 01/03/09:

That depends on what you mean. For various interpretations of exist there are corresponding claims:

  • I have always existed
  • I came into existence when one of my father's sperm cells united with one of my mother's egg cells
  • I really started to exist when my fetus achieved a certain stage of development, say at 22 weeks
  • My life started when I was born
  • My earliest memories date from age 5 or 6, I'm not sure I could assert that I existed before then
  • I experienced a life-changing spiritual awakening my first year of college, I was effectively reborn
  • life didn't really start for me until my first child was born
  • ...
  • perhaps my first instant of existence was when I woke up this morning
  • I don't really exist, I'm just a figment of your imagination
Philosophers still debate the problem of personal identity or personal continuity -- and determining when a person came into existence is not a settled matter.

Gratuitous Wikipedia reference:
I read it and it seems hung up on definitions rather than going into the details of various approaches. Perhaps the references at the bottom of the article would provide a good place to go deeper.

I've always liked Robert Nozick's discussion of this topic in his book Philosophical Explanations. It's probably time for me to re-read it.

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tonyrey asked on 12/19/08 - How did free activity originate?

.................... It never fails to astonish me how people can believe that free activity originated in quantum energy. Neither the determinist nor the indeterminist can explain our unique power to transcend our heredity and environment by making choices and decisions for which we alone are responsible. If the buck stops with us (and it must do if we are ever genuinely responsible for our behaviour) at least some of our choices and decisions originate with us, i.e. we are "prime movers". Although we cannot understand how this is possible it is an inexorable fact. Otherwise we are no more than cogs in the causal machine. We cannot have it both ways: either we make up our minds or our minds are made up for us!

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/19/08:

All of these questions where you've claimed to be astonished makes me think you haven't carefully considered the claims and arguments made by the other side. It's one thing to disagree on some fundamental principle or approach. We can grant that the disagreement remains while exploring other areas for possible agreement or perhaps common insight. To say you are astonished (that someone would believe such a thing) is similar in approach to saying that only an unthinking idiot could believe such a thing. I'm hoping you are just engaging in some rhetorical hyperbole to liven up the board.

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tonyrey asked on 12/06/08 - Can a person be rational without free will?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/06/08:

Possibly. Given the range of concepts that fall under the term free will and the definition you're using for rational, there need not be any association between the two. Free will applies more to our actions while rationality applies more to our thinking processes.

So this question falls apart into two separate philosophical discussions:

  • to what extent are human beings rational? or how rational can human beings be?
  • Do human beings have free will? Is the sort of free will that humans have compatible with physical causality and determinism?
After addressing those questions, it might be possible to try to make sense of your question here.

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tonyrey asked on 09/08/08 - Are there limits to what random events can achieve?

According to neoDarwinists both the origin and development of all living organisms including human beings are the result of random events. This implies that chance is more powerful than intelligence since there are many immensely complex natural phenomena that scientists cannot understand let alone emulate. It also implies that given enough time there are no limits to what random events can achieve: order from disorder, harmony from chaos and thought from matter!

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/09/08:


What you're describing as the Chance hypothesis is a straw man with no defenders. Poke as many holes in it as you like.

Random events are an inescapable part of the universe. As long as you ignore the role of selection and replication, you are not beginning to address the theory of evolution.

Here's the comparison: let's consider whether water droplets will go down or up. Your version of the "Chance hypothesis" wants us to wait until all of the molecules in a falling drop of water "suddenly" happen to align their velocities in an upward direction. And we're properly supposed to expect that this will never happen. On the other hand, if you arrange for the water droplets to fall on the lower half of a sponge, most of the water will continue to flow out of the bottom of the sponge but some of the water will diffuse upwards to eventually saturate the entire sponge.

The diffusion of the water upwards is a random process, but a different sort of random process that the absurdly unlikely alignment of molecular velocities.

What is the sponge? Does the genetic information space explored by evolution have some independent reality? I'm betting the answer is "no", but it's more a metaphysical question than a scientific one.

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tonyrey asked on 09/08/08 - Are there limits to what random events can achieve?

According to neoDarwinists both the origin and development of all living organisms including human beings are the result of random events. This implies that chance is more powerful than intelligence since there are many immensely complex natural phenomena that scientists cannot understand let alone emulate. It also implies that given enough time there are no limits to what random events can achieve: order from disorder, harmony from chaos and thought from matter!

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/08/08:

We've been through this before, haven't we?

Are there limits to what Chance can achieve?

There certainly are types of changes that are ruled out by a theory involving inherited characteristics with modifications. So there certainly are limits. But random events are just a small, but essential, part of the picture. Unless you consider the powerful role of selection, you're missing the important Darwinian synthesis. Hardly anyone outside of creationists speaks of the origin of life as if a complete living cell were assembled "by chance".

While there is no satisfactory scientific theory that completely explains the origin of life, there are quite a few things known about the likely precursors to the genetic code and certain molecular pathways:

What critics of critics of neo-creationists get wrong

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tonyrey asked on 09/05/08 - What explains the origin of purposeful activity?

The unique and outstanding feature of purposeful activity is that it is not restricted to the present. Unlike any other physical process it is directed towards the future. Inanimate objects are trapped in the present whereas living organisms are geared towards survival - which obviously lies beyond the here and now. What enabled them to traverse this immense gulf?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/06/08:

You have a faulty premise. Your river analogy is not a bad one: how does a river know which way to flow if it is trapped in the present? Why does it want so badly to get to the sea? What great determination and purpose it displays by wearing away canyons!

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tonyrey asked on 08/31/08 - What are your views on the value of life?

. How valuable is life? What is the basis of its value?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/02/08:

This an economics question as well as a philosophy question.

If you go by the way people make choices that affect whether other people live or die, you get a wide range of values; in some cases, we act as if a human life is worth only a few dollars and in other cases we act as if it was worth billions - both ends of the range are pretty absurd.

When people actually think about the value of human life as part of the decision, the range is a bit more reasonable: something like $150,000 up to several million. Still, we don't particularly like to think of the value of human life as an economic proposition -- it's very hard to get people to consider whether an action that would save many lives is worth taking if it involves deliberately taking one other life.

One example of this is the organ donor problem: what is the calculus that prevents us from harvesting the organs of a healthy person in order to save the lives of a dozen or so critically ill patients who could be saved by the transplants?

I think, in the end, the value of your life is the result of a negotiation between you and your society. It's not always a comfortable negotiation. How much are you willing to pay for life insurance? What is the limit on paying for medical care for the terminally ill? If a terrorist group takes you hostage, how far is your country willing to go to rescue you? If organized crime wants to take you out, how much will the hit man charge them to do you?

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tonyrey asked on 08/27/08 - Is it possible to live without any any values?

To continue living implies valuing your life - or at least your comfort. Otherwise you wouldn't choose to eat or drink or do anything. You might eat or drink from force of habit but would any reasonable person do everything from force of habit? Although we can choose to be unreasonable on occasion it is contrary to our nature to go against reason constantly. Doesn't this show that values are an integral part of a rational existence and not human constructs?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/08:

Of course it is possible to live without values. Living is something bacteria, single-celled algae, and all sorts of critters do without having any cognitive powers or values. We, as observers, may attribute goals, intentions, and purposes to the lives of these organisms, regardless of our belief that they are incapable of forming these concepts themselves.

For human beings, what we call values may be after-the-fact rationalizations, part of the narrative our brain puts together. They're an integral part of that narrative and an outgrowth of that part of us we call rational, but remain human constructs.

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tonyrey asked on 08/21/08 - How could we dispense with value judgments?

David Hume claimed that "ought" can never be derived from "is". In other words value judgments cannot be based on facts but depend on "sentiments", i.e. emotions. If that is true there is no place for value judgments in logic and science.

Yet to choose a logical conclusion implies that it is preferable to one that is illogical. To pursue science is to value scientific results. All Hume's reasoning implies that correct explanations are valuable. Philosophy, science and every branch of knowledge presuppose that the truth is worth more than falsehood. How then can we dispense with value judgments?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/22/08:

It seems to me that you have entirely mis-characterized Hume's statement. Unless, in some way, you intend to confound value judgements with decisions regarding ethics or something like that.

I'll refer to the Wikipedia article on this, since it illuminates the subject a lot better than I could.

Wikipedia: Is-ought problem (Hume)

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tonyrey asked on 08/17/08 - What is the foundation of the right to life?

Rights are regarded by some people as human conventions. Is it true that those who kill others are simply unorthodox? Is justice no more than expediency and laws solely the opinion of the majority?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/17/08:

When we speak of rights as something that arises out of human conventions, is that somehow bad?

Often, when someone speaks about rights, they want society to recognize a right as something that is constant and unable to be changed by mere human action. We see rights being discussed as natural or god-given. In the US, rights specified in the Constitution are held as semi-sacred.

I wonder if this is a good practice. The fact of arising from human convention does not mean the result is completely arbitrary. Many different systems of morals and ethics share conclusions in common, but there are fine gradations between justified killing (such as in self-defense) and first-degree murder where these different systems do not necessarily agree.

The legal system and codified laws are an approximation (through compromise) to some ideal of justice, but are produced through a political system that falls far short of ideal. In an open society, people have the option to seek changes in the law when they recognize situations that result in injustice. They won't always succeed, but I think their task is made more difficult by insisting that rights must be viewed as absolute.

Speaking of rights as something above the current set of laws has its place, though. It's a primary way to avoid tyranny by the majority.

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tonyrey asked on 08/10/08 - What are the distinctive features of a person?

It seems a mistake to define a person as a human being because there is no reason to assume that human beings are the only persons that exist. A more adequate definition is "a rational being who has the right to life, liberty and happiness". But that implies that mentally defective children are not persons. What is your view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/11/08:

We have enough trouble getting agreement on when a clump of human cells becomes a human being....

Your "more adequate definition" is no definition at all; according rights to a person is inherent in the legal notion of a person.

In imaginative fiction we can find any number of non-humans who might qualify as persons: whether the Star Trek android character Data qualified as a person was explicitly addressed in one episode. Races of space aliens are taken, as a matter of course, to be made up of persons -- so long as a sufficiently close analogy with humans could be made.

As a philosophical exercise, this is an interesting topic because it asks us to distinguish between characteristics that make us intrinsically human and characteristics that we might share with other (rational) beings with radically different biological or technological backgrounds.

You could also imagine whether gods or angels qualify as persons without being necessarily human.

Animal rights advocates consider the higher apes as deserving some qualified (or even full) consideration as legal persons. To what extent to we accord the rights of personhood to an individual based on their own capabilities and characteristics and to what extent should it be based on their membership in a group or species? We don't generally consider animals to be moral actors, but our ethical treatment of them may depend on the same sort of considerations that apply to our treatment of fellow human beings who are mentally incompetent.

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tonyrey asked on 08/03/08 - Do you believe the mind is located in the brain?

If the mind is located in the brain it cannot exist without the body nor can it be independent or responsible for its activity. If all our thoughts and feelings are produced by minute electrical currents we are not free to choose what to think or how to behave. We are no more than biological computers which function according to physical laws. Truth, goodness, justice, freedom, equality, friendship and love are merely terms derived from complex biochemical reactions. But if we cannot choose what to think we have no guarantee that any of our thoughts are valid. In fact "we" do not exist because there are only collections of brain cells which have evolved as the result of random mutations and combinations of atomic particles. Nothing has any purpose, value or meaning.

Does this explanation strike you as an adequate explanation of the mind?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/03/08:

We already have reason to suspect that the mind is an activity carried out by the brain. There is very little evidence for mind activity taking place without brain activity.

It's not just electrical currents, either. There are lots of other chemical interactions going on besides the ones that can be characterized as electrical current flows.

Freedom of choice and responsibility are mind constructs that may or may not be limited in the way you imagine by being constituted on biological computers following the laws of physics. It's a puzzle but not one that can be resolved by declaring that our brains cannot possibly be the locus for the mind.

Our minds can be very wayward in the thoughts that appear. We must use external tests to ascertain their validity. It takes much discipline to think in a way that might be characterized as rational.

Your gallop from materialism to nihilism is impressive. Your explanation does not strike me as an adequate explanation of the mind. I know of no adequate explanation of the mind.

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tonyrey asked on 07/22/08 - Simplicity versus complexity.................

It is always tempting to oversimplify but often it is a mistake. So it is with Darwinism which on analysis turns out to be inadequate, inconsistent, incoherent, infertile, imprecise, improbable, unintelligible and unverifiable. This is because it assumes that evolution is ultimately due to chance rather than design. Yet chance and design are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why they should not co-exist. Accidents have occurred and species have become extinct but the general trend of evolution has been towards greater complexity, sensitivity, consciousness, autonomy and control of the environment. Is it not more reasonable to believe chance events occur within a framework of design? The alternative is to attribute order, purpose and organization to random combinations of atomic particles...

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/29/08:

What you mean by simplicity and complexity is an ongoing mystery. There have been advocates of all sorts of explanations for evolution (notwithstanding the people who claim evolution does not occur). Darwin's explanation produced some excellent results and continues to be refined. None of the ones based on teleology, spiritualism, or supernatural influences has done as well.

[I still check the board every few days. Fortunately, with so little going on, it's only a small waste of time.]

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tonyrey asked on 05/23/08 - Is it reasonable to believe other minds exist?

We take it for granted there are other minds apart from our own. The problem is that we cannot communicate directly with others (unless you believe in telepathy). As with the physical world we infer other minds exist from the evidence of our senses. A solipsist believes only one mind exists and everything else is an illusion. How would you refute that argument?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/26/08:

We still have an unresolved question about the nature of mind and what sort of existence it may be said to have. It seems reasonable to me to have, as a working, tentative conclusion, that the people we encounter have brains that work in much the same way our own brains work; that their experiences of the world are not too dissimilar from our own, yet distinct.

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tonyrey asked on 05/20/08 - Do you think we are trapped inside our minds?

We believe things exist because we interpret stimuli received via our senses. Our only direct knowledge is of our thoughts and feelings. We alone know exactly what is going on in our mind. This means we cannot "get outside ourselves". We can speculate about the thoughts and feelings of others but we do not have the same intimate knowledge of them that we have of ourselves. We are in what has been described as the "egocentric predicament".
What is your view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/21/08:

I think it would be more respectful to reserve the idea of "trapped" for someone who has lost the ability to respond to the outside world or, worse, has also lost the ability to sense the outside world. Even someone with impaired senses and response capability is not completely trapped, though it may require heroic efforts to overcome these difficulties (Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, and the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby, come to mind as examples).

I would contest that we know exactly what is going on in our mind. There are certainly aspects that only we know (unless we reveal them to others), but we should not pretend complete knowledge of our inner workings.

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Mary_Susan asked on 05/14/08 - Einstein writes Philosopher Gutkind in 1954

LONDON (AFP) - "Albert Einstein described belief in God as "childish superstition" and said Jews were not the chosen people, in a letter to be sold in London this week, an auctioneer said Tuesday.

The father of relativity, whose previously known views on religion have been more ambivalent and fuelled much discussion, made the comments in response to a philosopher in 1954.

As a Jew himself, Einstein said he had a great affinity with Jewish people but said they "have no different quality for me than all other people".

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

"No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this," he wrote in the letter written on January 3, 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, cited by The Guardian newspaper.

The German-language letter is being sold Thursday by Bloomsbury Auctions in Mayfair after being in a private collection for more than 50 years, said the auction house's managing director Rupert Powell.

In it, the renowned scientist, who declined an invitation to become Israel's second president, rejected the idea that the Jews are God's chosen people.

"For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions," he said.

"And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people."

And he added: "As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them...."

We have Einstein coming down firmly on the side of atheism.

What do you think of his view that belief in GodAlmighty is "childish superstition" and "product of human weakness"?

Other comments welcome.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/15/08:

To claim that atheism is correct because Einstein basically agreed with it is to commit a fallacy of Argument from Authority.

The text of this letter may be helpful in counteracting claims that, because Einstein used the word "God" in various ways, he must have been a believer in whatever religion the arguer imagines applies. The logical counterargument should really be that Einstein's beliefs, all by themselves, are not a valid argument one way or another. That real argument has to be engaged on some other basis than celebrity authority.

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tonyrey asked on 05/12/08 - Is total scepticism intellectual suicide?

If there are no unassailable truths all our knowledge and beliefs are tentative and provisional. In other words we have no solid foundation for any reasoning whatsoever and must be completely in the dark. This is a preposterous view because the assertion that there are no assailable truths must itself be assailable.

This implies that all our knowledge may be an illusion! If nothing is certain even scientific discoveries and inventions may be figments of our imagination Yet we spend our whole lives relying on the very things the sceptic claims are open to doubt...

It would be interesting to know how anyone who denies there are unassailable truths justifies that belief. What is the point of denying anything if you are not sure whether anything exists? How would you know you are thinking, let alone exist? If we know nothing then it is pointless to try to draw any conclusions or make any statements. The rest is silence...

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/12/08:

I agree with the general idea that all of what we consider knowledge is tentative and provisional. Lack of a solid foundation is admittedly an ongoing problem, but hardly preposterous.

Are you not then on a tirade confusing reliability with certainty. We don't need absolute certainty in order to act. The actions we take -- in the absence of certainty -- can even inform us about how our decision-making process works in the face of large or negligible amounts of uncertainty.

Would it satisfy you if I said I had looked carefully at your list of unassailable truths and saw that all of them were open to skeptical questions, exceptions, or alternate points of view? I don't see that as something I have to justify. Total skepticism is not attractive but I'm probably just as averse to claims that some things are known with absolute certainty.

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tonyrey asked on 04/13/08 - Would it matter if we discover that ETs exist?


Jim.McGinness answered on 04/13/08:

I think the question is not whether it would matter — of course it would matter — but whether the impact on human life, for better or for worse, would be greater or smaller than, say, the "discovery" and later invasion of the Americas by Europeans.

Of course, it's all speculative at this point, but making the analogy gives plenty of reasons to think it would be both good and bad. Some elements of our culture would fight against any knowledge of the ETs. Others would be sycophantic about them, perhaps even to the extent of religious worship.

And there are different levels at which the discovery could take place: 1) we visit each other or one invades the other physically 2) we engage in a mutual dialog over impossible distances; 3) we detect their existence but find no evidence that they are aware of us; and 4) we think we detect their existence but the evidence is so sketchy that only a relatively few people are convinced.

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tonyrey asked on 04/07/08 - Would non-human persons have rights like us?

(assuming that they exist)

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/07/08:

Our legal system already defines corporations as legal persons and accords them certain rights. Peter Singer is out on the edge of arguing that we should accord rights to all sentient beings or at least recognize that we owe them certain duties of care.

How likely is it that an alien race from another planet will have developed a social and legal system with anything analogous to what we call rights? If you come at the question from an evolutionary psychology position (and perhaps from other positions as well), you might argue that some of these ethical underpinnings are necessary as a matter of survival and any species capable of social interaction will have developed something similar.

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tonyrey asked on 04/05/08 - Are we the only intelligent beings?

The Drake formula provides a means to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in a galaxy or in the universe. Essentially, the likelihood of a planet evolving biological life that has created sophisticated technology is tiny, but there are so many star systems, that there should still be many millions of such civilizations. Carl Sagan's analysis of the Drake formula concluded that there should be around a million civilizations with advanced technology in our galaxy, while Frank Drake estimated around 10,000. And there are many billions of galaxies. Yet we don't notice any of these intelligent civilizations, hence the paradox that Fermi described in his famous comment. So where is everyone?

According to most analyses of the Drake equation, there should be billions of civilizations, and a substantial fraction of these should be ahead of us by millions of years. That's enough time for many of them to be capable of vast galaxy-wide technologies. So how can it be that we haven't noticed any of the trillions of trillions of "needles" that each of these billions of advanced civilizations should be creating?

My own conclusion is that they don't exist. If it seems unlikely that we would be in the lead in the universe, here on the third planet of a humble star in an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, it's no more perplexing than the existence of our universe with its ever so precisely tuned formulas to allow life to evolve in the first place.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/06/08:

Your questions asks if we are the only intelligent beings but we have plenty of evidence of intelligence, albeit not of exactly the same variety as human intelligence, amongst other species on this planet. What kind of support do these other intelligences give to the notion that life, if it were to develop on other planets, would likely produce a species with intelligence comparable to human intelligence? Maybe that's why the factor for this feature in the Drake formula is as high as it is usually taken to be?

Frick's right about clarity. One has to follow the link to find that these are not your own words posted here. No quote marks, no obvious attribution. It's no surprise that other commenters have taken these to be your own words or your own opinions.

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tonyrey asked on 04/05/08 - Are we the only intelligent beings?

The Drake formula provides a means to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in a galaxy or in the universe. Essentially, the likelihood of a planet evolving biological life that has created sophisticated technology is tiny, but there are so many star systems, that there should still be many millions of such civilizations. Carl Sagan's analysis of the Drake formula concluded that there should be around a million civilizations with advanced technology in our galaxy, while Frank Drake estimated around 10,000. And there are many billions of galaxies. Yet we don't notice any of these intelligent civilizations, hence the paradox that Fermi described in his famous comment. So where is everyone?

According to most analyses of the Drake equation, there should be billions of civilizations, and a substantial fraction of these should be ahead of us by millions of years. That's enough time for many of them to be capable of vast galaxy-wide technologies. So how can it be that we haven't noticed any of the trillions of trillions of "needles" that each of these billions of advanced civilizations should be creating?

My own conclusion is that they don't exist. If it seems unlikely that we would be in the lead in the universe, here on the third planet of a humble star in an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, it's no more perplexing than the existence of our universe with its ever so precisely tuned formulas to allow life to evolve in the first place.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/05/08:

The Drake formula is a tool for more informed speculation, but it does not explain much. Several of its factors are guesses.

Ray Kurzweil could well be correct in his conclusion. It's a classic case of absence of evidence amounting to evidence of absence.

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tonyrey asked on 04/01/08 - The miracle of life...

Richard Dawkins has stated that "natural selection is the only theory so far suggested that could, even in principle, explain life on any planet". He has also described natural selection as the "non-random survival of genes". Yet survival presupposes life so how could natural selection possibly explain it?

"Where and how did the complex genetic instruction set programmed into DNA come into existence? The genetic set may have arisen elsewhere and was transported to the Earth. If not, it arose on the Earth, and became the genetic code in a previous lifeless, physical–chemical world. Even if RNA or DNA were inserted into a lifeless world, they would not contain any genetic instructions unless each nucleotide selection in the sequence was programmed for function. Even then, a predetermined communication system would have had to be in place for any message to be understood at the destination. Transcription and translation would not necessarily have been needed in an RNA world. Ribozymes could have accomplished some of the simpler functions of current protein enzymes. Templating of single RNA strands followed by retemplating back to a sense strand could have occurred. But this process does not explain the derivation of “sense” in any strand. “Sense” means algorithmic function achieved through sequences of certain decision-node switch-settings. These particular primary structures determine secondary and tertiary structures. Each sequence determines minimum-free-energy folding propensities, binding site specificity, and function. Minimal metabolism would be needed for cells to be capable of growth and division. All known metabolism is cybernetic – that is, it is programmatically and algorithmically organized and controlled."

In other words life entails an incredibly complex information system. Is it likely that it originated by chance?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/02/08:

Dawkins has written a great deal about evolution. If you were to read one of his earlier books (before he became so interested in promoting atheism), you would see him first explain mutation and natural selection as it ordinarily applies in biology. He then usually goes beyond that to show how the same basic principles will apply to any system involving things that replicate. When he is speaking about more general replicators, the term survival need not imply life.

The second paragraph you quoted appears to suffer from a similar lack of imagination and understanding. If you deny the power of mutation plus selection to generate new individuals from simpler predecessors, you will likely be unwilling to imagine tracking the process backwards to ever simpler and simpler predecessors. Nobody claims to know exactly how that path regresses to simple molecules. It's more a realm of scientific speculation than experimentation.

We've known for many years that organic "building block" molecules can form under conditions that have nothing to do with life. Most of the speculations I've heard of have been addressing the conditions under which mixtures of these compounds could have gotten together to take the first steps along the path to living cells. Floating freely in aqueous solution seems to be ruled out. The surface of certain minerals such as clay or between the sheets of mica have been suggested as possible first habitats.

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sirocco asked on 03/15/08 - existing and living

What is the difference between existing and living? Were you living or existing when you were a baby?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/16/08:

We can say "it exists" about things living and non-living. We would say "it lives" only about things that are alive.

When I was a baby, I both lived and existed. Before I was born (or conceived) I neither lived nor existed. When I die, I will no longer be living but my body may go on existing for a time.

Of course, if you wish to get metaphorical about existence or living, things can become more complicated. The topic of "quality of life" or "a life worth living" would go into more detailed examination of how we should desire to live.

In medical ethics, there is an ongoing discussion about when a patient can be considered "dead". Stopped breathing or a stopped heart can be restarted. Using the concept of "brain death" is to consider life to be over while the rest of the body is still obviously alive -- a decision that is critical in some cases of organ donation. It feels like a violation of the sanctity of life to others.

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tonyrey asked on 03/07/08 - Why do persons and things exist?


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/09/08:

Asked and answered:

Where do you start? asked by tonyrey 07/02/03

Was evolution inevitable? asked by tonyrey 12/04/03 (in an answer by Ken -- Jon1667)

Something asked by Nocturne 11/14/05

Why is there something rather than nothing? asked by tonyrey 02/13/06
Or perhaps "responded to" rather than "answered". But if the responses were unsatisfactory, you would probably get better results by refining your question or otherwise taking into consideration the previously supplied answers.

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sirocco asked on 03/03/08 - Philosophers

What do you want to achieve in life as a philosopher? Have you been successful so far?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/06/08:

Tony makes a very good point. I think few philosophers, people who devote their lives to philosophy, would agree that recognition should be the goal. If one comes to some philosophical insights, it may be a derivative good to write those down or otherwise promulgate them. And if recognition results, that's just gravy. But seeking recognition as the primary goal seems rather off.

Some people are attracted to the study of philosophy because they want greater understanding. Or even wisdom. Once they begin to study philosophy, though, some of their initial naive preconceptions about philosophy will necessarily drop by the wayside.

Socrates, who is an example if not the example of a philosopher, did not write anything. His student, Plato, wrote about Socrates and may have preserved some of Socrates's philosophy. We get a clear picture of the skeptical stance that Socrates took and his methods of questioning. Plato's dialogues present a puzzle for scholars who try to discern which ideas should be attributed to Socrates and which to Plato.

As an amateur, I don't expect to write anything more publishable than these board posts. Engaging in philosophy-related conversations is about all I expect, but it's an added pleasure when I can learn something new. I can't say whether it's the exploration or the endpoint that I value most.

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tonyrey asked on 02/27/08 - "P
Is physical reality is an illusion? Why (not)


Jim.McGinness answered on 02/27/08:

I can think of a couple of ways to support the idea that it is an illusion:

One is to take the fact that our senses can be fooled, that some of what we perceive are illusions, and conclude that it may all be an illusion.

Another stance to take is that, since modern physical theories show atoms to contain mostly empty space -- atomic nuclei are much, much smaller than atoms by volume and electrons are tinier still -- nothing is quite what it seems to be. Even nothingness is burbling with "virtual particles" that wink briefly into existence and then disappear before the energy of their existence exceeds the limit known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

So, for certain definitions of "reality" and "illusion", we can say that physical reality is an illusion.

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tonyrey asked on 02/22/08 - Are there limits to what Chance can achieve?

... The existence of human beings is sometimes attributed to a series of fortuitous events. Yet scientific discoveries continue to reveal the immense complexity of the ecosystem and the genetic code.

Professor Colin Blakemore, a leading expert in neuroscience, has recently stated that we may never fully understand how the human brain functions, so enormous is its complexity. It contains 100 billion neurons, each of which has 1,000 to 10,000 synapses, transmitting signals at up to 200 mph. Nevertheless
such astonishing organization is still regarded by some people as having originated accidentally.

Is it reasonable to believe there are no limits to what Chance can achieve? If there are limits what are they? If the limits cannot be specified then the hypothesis is untestable, irrefutable and therefore vacuous! It becomes an argument based on ignorance and ceases to be a rational explanation.

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/22/08:

Your question leads to a fruitful path of inquiry. If someone claimed to know the limits of what Chance can achieve, how would they know it?

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tonyrey asked on 02/19/08 - What are you?

.......................................... One answer is that we are highly complex molecular systems that have been produced by fortuitous events. The overwhelming difficulty with this hypothesis is that complexity alone does not explain the differences between persons and things. How can an atomic structure functioning according to physical and chemical laws become aware of itself, have abstract ideas, experience emotions, control itself and even destroy itself?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/19/08:

While I can't answer the question of exactly how a collection of atoms can become organized into a self-aware, thinking, and feeling being, it seems possible to me that these properties are "emergent", given the overall complexity of the system involved. That's not much of an explanation, either, but it's consistent with our other observations of the physical universe. A lot more is involved than "how many grains of sand do you have to gather together before you have a sandpile?" People who have studied insect swarming behavior, fish schooling, and flocks of birds in flight have begun to tease out ways in which fairly simple local behavioral rules, followed by the individuals in these collectives, yield overall behavior that seems complex and coordinated, even intelligent. This same kind of approach, looking at developmental biology, is starting to explain how genes, with their gene products, control other genes and their gene products -- often in other cells -- to work with chemical gradients, diffusion, and chemical reaction rates to produce organisms.

I would therefore have to reject your second sentence. We don't know enough to estimate whether some result is incapable of being achieved through sufficient organization and complexity. Your intuition may be misleading you.

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tonyrey asked on 02/15/08 - To what extent can random events be predicted?


Jim.McGinness answered on 02/16/08:

In common language, random implies unpredictable. That corresponds to a more technical meaning that states that, in a random process, the outcome of any one particular trial cannot be predicted in advance. The statistics of a great number of trials, however, can often be characterized with exquisite precision. The randomness of individual trials may then be inconsequential for the overall mechanism. Great enterprises such as the ones in Las Vegas can be built upon mechanisms that are, at base, random, but whose overall outcome can be predicted almost exactly. Uncertainty in the gambling business comes from unpredictability in the arrival of customers and the actions of regulators, not in whether or not the games will yield their usual house edge. Any slight deviation from expected statistics causes the gaming house to look for players or dealers who are cheating in some way.

In the same way, the operation of biological and chemical mechanisms depends, at the detailed level, on the random events of molecular motion. This random activity in detail yields very consistent and reliable behavior when the system is taken as a whole.

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tonyrey asked on 02/10/08 - Is there genuine academic freedom in the US?


"In 2001, biochemist Franklin Harold admitted in an Oxford University Press monograph that "there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”[9] Other scientists have gone much further.

Over 700 doctoral scientists have signed a public statement asserting their agreement that they "are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life."[10] But what are these scientists to do when the top scientific organization in the U.S. proclaims that evolution is as unquestionable as the existence of atoms or the heliocentric model of the solar system? Clearly the NAS’s statements threaten the academic freedom of scientists to dissent from Neo-Darwinian evolution."

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/10/08:

There are lots of ways in which Darwin's original formulation of his theory of evolution have been challenged and modifed by later scientists. Some of them have had to fight an uphill battle against the establishment. The fact that they have to convince their scientific colleagues that their ideas are worth considering is no failure of science or academic freedom.

The failure of the Discovery Institute to produce any credible scientific challenge to current theories of evolution seems mostly to be a matter of their focusing their energies in other directions: legal challenges, public relations, and propaganda. Incredulity about evolution is widespread, so I'm puzzled by why they've been so unsuccessful at capitalizing on it.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/30/08 - What of Duty?....................

In all its forms.

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/31/08:

Duty is a loaded word to be treated with a great deal of caution. It can be used to induce someone to do what they would otherwise not choose to do, whether in the moment or after full reflection. It may be used to excuse an action whose consequences are later found to be horrendous: "he was just doing his duty". Compare with "honor" and "loyalty".

There certainly are actions which we would approve as "dutiful", "honorable" and "loyal". Dishonest speakers will try to borrow that approval for other actions using these labels. My impression is that this tactic is used to get people to turn away from analyzing the suspect actions, to pretend that we can recognize a pattern of "duty" to turn an "is" into an "ought".

[Sorry if this post seems fuzzier than usual. I don't have time tonight to make it sharper.]

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tonyrey asked on 01/18/08 - To what extent do we let chance rule our life?


Jim.McGinness answered on 01/18/08:

Are you feeling lucky?

People differ greatly in their approaches to taking risks and being prepared for uncommon events. Some people buy insurance, some people believe they can't afford either the insurance or the insured-against event and simply hope. Our ability to assess risks is affected by a lot of psychological factors, some of which seem to be part of our evolutionary inheritance.

So what could it mean to "let chance rule our life?" Is the person who takes precautions letting chance rule? Or is it the person who doesn't want to think about the risks? Would you feel comfortable flipping a coin when making major decisions?

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/13/08 - Does Myth serve a useful purpose in society?


Jim.McGinness answered on 01/14/08:

Joseph Campbell made a living by studying and teaching others about myths. I don't think there's much question that myth plays a role in society and that some people consider it useful. Isn't the real question whether myth does more good than harm in society? We often see people driven to prove myths false, on the notion that it's better for people to know the truth about some matter than to believe some old, false story about it.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/01/08 - universal good .....................................

Is there a universal good and if so, what is it?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/01/08:

In the world of economics, there's a concept of Pareto optimality. About that, it might be possible to have a useful discussion. Without a more rigorous definition, whether there is a universal good is unkowable.

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/19/07 - thought-objects ..................................

Are thought-objects purely subjective phenomena?

Can concepts arise out of immediate, individual perception, or are they acquired by individuals through social practice.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/19/07:

It seems likely that novel thoughts and concepts originate with particular individuals who then communicate them to other members of their culture. Whether the idea goes on to spread from there or simply disappears is mostly a matter of whether other people adopt the idea, so there's a "social construction" aspect to transmission and survival of ideas.

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tonyrey asked on 10/30/07 - What are your views on idealism?

.........(The theory that mind is the fundamental reality).........

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/30/07:

With respect to questions about fundamental reality, I have to go with the original impulse of Thomas Huxley when he coined the term agnostic. While we can know a lot about reality, we cannot determine with certainty that any particular aspect is fundamental.

Variations of idealism have been around for a long time. In my estimation, they have been less fruitful than materialist (now physicalist) approaches.

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tonyrey asked on 10/24/07 - What are your views on materialism?

............(The theory that everything is derived from matter)......

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/24/07:

Materialism, as you've paraphrased it, is perhaps incomplete.

The ontology of physicalism ultimately includes whatever is described by physics — not just matter but energy, space, time, physical forces, structure, physical processes, information, state, etc.


Thus Physicalism has a somewhat open-ended rule for what to include in reality...anything which can be considered to affect material reality is treated as a part of the material universe.

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tonyrey asked on 10/02/07 - How would you show that everything is relative?

(Assuming you believe that everything is relative. Otherwise there is no need to do so!)

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/02/07:

There's a difference between a structured reality with no privileged points of reference and an unstructured reality amounting to chaos. People who use the phrase "everything is relative" often seem to believe that it refers to the completely chaotic situation.

I think I side with MicroGlyphics on this one. The traditional absolutes don't hold up to scrutiny, so some sort of relativism seems to be required. Cut off from absolutes, how can we hold that some arguments are better than others, some beliefs more likely to be true than others, some choices are morally better than others?

In physics, when Einstein first produced his theory of relativity, he did introduce the speed of light as a fixed quantity for all observers; in effect, an absolute standard. In philosophy, is there an analogous candidate?

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tonyrey asked on 09/25/07 - When should extreme suffering be permitted?


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/25/07:

I wonder if your question represents a different proposition than

When confronted by extreme suffering, what duty do we have to attempt to alleviate it?
In this formulation, there is at least an opportunity to raise the question of our capability to do anything about the suffering and our certainty that the measures we undertake do more good than harm.

So, based on this idea, extreme suffering has to be permitted:
  • when we don't know of it
  • when the suffering is caused by something we can do nothing about
  • when all known actions on our part will do more harm than good
What about the situation, you may ask, where spreading some suffering around to more people will alleviate the most extreme sufferers?

Ursula LeGuin has a story that seems relevant to this question "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". In that story, the happiness and welfare of the town depends in some mystical way on the extreme suffering of one individual.

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tonyrey asked on 09/01/07 - What are the merits and demerits of democracy?


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/01/07:

It depends on what you mean by democracy. You want a system that is responsive to the desires of the populace but has sufficent restraints to not abuse minorities. It's not an easy balance to achieve.

The best thing I've read on this subject in the past few days is a thread I saw at Q&O blog:


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Mary_Susan asked on 08/28/07 - The First Archer Principle

I couln't find out what the First Archer Principle is by a search on the net(not that I'm good at that sort of thing), anyway,

I think it has something to do with how religious inclined folks rig scientific experiments so they give results they want.

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/07:

I couldn't find anything suitable using the term "First Archer Principle" either.

What I think you may be after is the idea used in an old joke: A young archer meets a wiley old archer on the target range. Everywhere he looks, he sees arrows shot directly into the bullseye of their targets. In the punchline, the secret of such high precision is revealed: shoot the arrow first, then draw the target around whatever it hits.

That's more or less the idea used in the first couple of comments on this review of one of Michael Behe's books (

I don't know if the characterization is entirely fair. There are well regarded areas of science where the interpretation of experimental results is rather tangled up in the interpretation of the theory the experiment was intended to test. While troublesome, this marker can't be the sole basis for ruling something pseudo-scientific.

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Mary_Susan asked on 08/28/07 - Science and the Problem of Evil

I don't think that religion(monotheism) helps humanity address, clarify or answer the problem of evil in the world. In fact, I think religion HINDERS that understanding.

In what ways does science help us address, clarify and answer problems of evil?

In what way does religion fail?

[I'm reading a book about anti-social personality disorder(psychopathology, sociopathology)hence the interest.

Thanks, Mary Sue

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/07:

The classical Problem of Evil is a confrontation between the existence of what is called evil in the world and properties attributed to the diety that would prima facie be inconsistent with the existence of evil. It presents a puzzle for theologians and religionists, but not, I'd say, for secularists/atheists/nonbelievers - who do not attribute properties to a diety.

Either way, to dig deeper into the problem you have to assess whether there is actual evil in the world. Is every bad thing that happens a result of evil? Does the existence of an evil entail the existence of an evil-doer? An agent who intends for the evil to happen or who actively intervenes in the world to make bad things happen?

With respect to a person with a personality disorder, you have to ask both legal questions and quasi-medical questions: does the person recognize that what they are doing is wrong? Are they sufficiently competent to connect their actions with the consequences? Does it make sense to hold them responsible for their actions? Can we identify organic defects or lesions associated with the psychopathology?

Most religions have addressed the problem of evil and offer a sort of consolation -- many people believe they benefit from this sort of thinking. For some people, it provides no comfort. How would we decide that one group is "right" and the other is "wrong"?

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Dark_Crow asked on 08/26/07 - What is the difference between a quarrel and an argument?


Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/07:

The word argument has taken on a number of meanings, some of which overlap the meanings of the word quarrel. That is to say, certain arguments can validly be called quarrels, others do not.

In the realm of philosophy, argument has taken on the particularly refined meaning that others have pointed out. So we can say that an argument takes the form of a classic syllogism or a classic fallacy, but we would never characterize such a verbal exchange as a quarrel.

Don't forget that a quarrel can also refer to the ammunition or bolt of a crossbow.

Also, these pages about gender in arguing cover your general question rather well:

Language and Gender (p 101ff), by Sally Mac Connell-Ginet, Penelope Eckert

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tonyrey asked on 08/23/07 - How does truth fit into your view of reality?

... Does the fact that it is intangible mean it exists only in the mind?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/23/07:

Truth is not just one thing.

As an intangible, it has no material existence. And while we have rough agreement about what it means for something to have material existence, we don't have the same kind of agreement about the existence of abstractions, potentialities and fictions.

In the realm of mathematics and logic, truth has a different sort of existence than does truth about the material realm or in the realm of people's opinions.

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tonyrey asked on 08/17/07 - ?

........................................ The belief that justice is manmade increases the likelihood that people will act unjustly and tolerate injustice. How can a human convention be a solid bulwark against selfishness, greed and the lust for power?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/17/07:

You've phrased this question in an interesting way. We've already heard from Mary Susan about the unfortunate sound "manmade" has on her ears.

Point 1: Are there just two alternatives for justice? "Manmade" and something else? What might that "something else" be?

Point 2: Can you be any more specific about what you mean by justice? In most countries, there is a "justice system" and, these days, it most often operates as an arm of government - human government - but people generally recognize that human systems are susceptible to failure. Is there some ideal of justice, that we can agree on?

Point 3: You appear to be stating that our beliefs regarding justice can lead to changed behaviors: more unjust acts and more tolerance of injustice. How could we know that? Is there some natural background of unjust acts and toleration of injustice that would occur if we held no beliefs about this concept of justice? Or are you making a claim that people committed fewer unjust acts and tolerated less injustice when they more firmly believed, say, that justice was a divine institution.

I'll answer your final rhetorical question with one of my own: how can anything "be a solid bulwark against selfishness, greed and the lust for power?" In human cultures, you can usually find social institutions that attempt to address these traits. None are solid bulwarks. Can we show that cultures in which justice is declared to be "more than man-made" do a better job?

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tonyrey asked on 08/10/07 - What do you regard as the scope of science?


Jim.McGinness answered on 08/10/07:

As long as we have a difficult time distinguishing what is science and what is not, we won't be able to establish a bright line boundary delimiting the scope of science. For the most part, the methods of science work only on phenomena with regularities. There can be "historical" science, where the phenomena under consideration cannot be repeated or replicated.

In the example of paranormal research that we were just discussing, some of the methods of science can be applied without necessarily creating new science. The jury remains out on that one.

One of the great things about science and the scientific method is that even cranks and crackpots can potentially contribute to the cumulative body of knowledge. Successful hypotheses can start out as crazy-sounding ideas and gradually be incorporated into standard science, even if the original contributor had lots of other ideas that are discarded.

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tonyrey asked on 08/07/07 - Scientifically inexplicable events- your views?


Jim.McGinness answered on 08/07/07:

Inexplicable events are - by definition - inexplicable. Scientific explanations are the ones I generally prefer, but other people might have different preferences.

Are you suggesting that we ought to accept some other sort of explanation if science fails to explain something? Much of the time I'm willing to live with a lack of explanation.

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/23/07 - Do you see a connection between what Russell writes below; and what Dennett writes here:

Do you see a connection between what Russell writes below; and what Dennett writes here: "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." - Daniel Dennett

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.
- Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Sceptical Essays

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/24/07:

No, DC, I don't see a particularly close connection between the two. They are distantly related in that both seem to express the general notion that we should want our beliefs to be supported by good grounds, sound evidence, valid arguments, etc. This is a commonplace idea among rationalists, isn't it?

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tonyrey asked on 07/08/07 - Do you agree with the "selfish gene" theory?

Why (not)?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/11/07:


I have been persuaded that evolution is an unguided process. I don't just take it for granted, but I'm not scientist in the relevant discipline to claim that I am current in the latest theory, so I have to rely on things I've read that appear cogent and understandable.

The evolutionary theory I'm familiar with in no way attributes powers of hindsight, insight and foresight to a random assemblage of particles. While there is an element of randomness in how populations follow evolutionary paths, the greatest impact comes from the action of the environment, or natural selection. Natural selection is far from random, but it does not require a rational actor.

Disembodied rational activity is something that I'd need to see evidence for before I could use it as an explanation for anything.

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CeeBee2 asked on 07/10/07 - MarySusan is in a local hospital getting help

for a breathing problem. She sends greetings.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/10/07:

Thank you, Carol, for letting us know. I hope she gets back to us soon.

(Wasn't it the Politics Board that Mary Sue was planning to revitalize? Perhaps a note there would be in order.)

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tonyrey asked on 07/08/07 - Do you agree with the "selfish gene" theory?

Why (not)?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/08/07:

Dawkins's radical re-interpretation of this aspect of evolutionary theory has been quite influential and, I believe, mostly correct -- though it is a meta-interpretation of the evolutionary patterns we see rather than a first class theory. It may be a testable hypothesis in the sense that it argues against the possibility of "group selection", something that was once considered standard. Examples of group selection may now be considered suspect and should be re-examined to determine if there is a selfish-gene approach that provides a more satisfactory explanation.

Reading The Selfish Gene wasn't quite sufficient to convince me; I needed to read The Extended Phenotype to get all the way there.

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Dark_Crow asked on 06/15/07 - cultural elements of a civilization ..................

Would it be accurate to say that because certain cultural elements of a civilization are adopted by other civilizations, it means that the original civilization still lives?

For instance; Greek culture was amazingly rich and it was certainly adopted across most of Europe, but does it still live?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/15/07:

This is an identity through time question, isn't it? A bit like Theseus's Ship?

Cultures, being composed of a great many concepts and practices, are changing all the time, adopting and inventing new items and losing or abandoning old items, some of which may later be rediscovered and revived. If there's a coherent population that the culture can be identified with, then it's a lot easier to say that the culture continues to live with its associated population.

Greek, or Hellenistic, culture dominated the Mediterranean and East Asia areas where Alexander the Great conquered. Roman culture adopted many of its elements and spread them further with its empire.

With the fall of Rome, much was lost (some might argue that a lot had already been lost) -- or was precariously preserved only in remote Celtic monasteries and Arabic libraries. This break would make it hard to claim that Greek culture per se has been continuously in existence over the past 2600 years or that what we have now in the West is identical to Greek culture.

What about Egyptian culture or Babylonian culture? Elements of those cultures still persist today.

On the whole, I'd avoid trying to say that these inherited remnants are equivalent to the original culture still being "alive".

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Dark_Crow asked on 06/07/07 - Consider the possibility .........................

that blame for the world’s failing’s lies not with humans, but with the creator.

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/07/07:

Another Rorschach question?

Do you mean by "world" the natural universe outside of humanity's direct control?

What do you mean by "failings" (I assume that you were not intentionally making a possessive of the word)? Does the world outside of human control have some purpose which it is failing to achieve? How would we discern what that purpose is?

By "creator" do you intend to refer to the god of some religion in particular or would a Deist's or Einstein's meaning be equally good? Are these latter types of creators any sort of moral agent that it would make sense to assign blame to?

Tony is an expert on the Problem of Evil, which I think your question is related to. His profile says he has logged in today, but I can't recall seeing him post anything in the last couple of weeks.

In my opinion, the answer is "no". The world does not have the sort of failings for which it makes sense to place moral blame. It also doesn't have a creator onto which it makes sense to place blame, whether for the world's failings (whatever you meant by that) or for human failings.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/24/07 - I really need help………………………………………………….........

My first reaction: Hot..Dam, this is as beautiful an example of postmodern poetry as a person might come across.

But then I thought…perhaps I am wrong. So I thought I would see what others might make of it.

My position sides with Paine. Having seen and read the bulk of conservatism in all shapes and forms, I just come to the conclusion that it is all attachment to worn out symbolism, related to outdated systems and concepts.

As Alain de Benoist has prooven in a famous esay the French Revolution in it's most radical Jacobin or rather ultra-Jacobin Hebertist form, represented by Hebert and Chaumette's Cult of Reason, benefited the natural increase of the people the most.

In the downgoing demographic trend of France since the 17th century the French First Republic is a an anomaly. No doubt the abolition of celibacy and the utilisation of church properties for the common good, aspecially poor families, stimulated the increased birthrate. Nevertheless, Jacobin policies were extremely pro-family-values, at least the enrages faction represented by Chaumette c.s. as opposed to the more hedonistic faction that became the Directoire.

The destruction of part of the White Race by various revolutions is mostly predated by the strong decadence of larger sections of the ruling arostocracy. In general such revolution do not kill a new young entity but give eutanasia to a worn out geriatric parasite that lost it's functions. In the case of the French Revolution science had made the Church loose it's right of existence, and the modern armies and modern military technolgy and modern administration and modern trade and industry (to be further evolved in the comming industrial revolution of the 19th century) ended the use of the nobility.

History evolves and moves on to further technological and scientific perfection, and institutions that have lost their usefulness will be destroyed by time, by revolution or by evolution.

If seems to me also very benificial for White populations that a division in casts, legitimised by irrationalism and mythologies, is replaced by a rational unification. In this the American Revolution with it's great revolutionary egalitarionism among White men is very benificial for the abstract concept of the White Race. The Noble British White upper-cast would by nature look down upon the lower casts and classes, white and coloured, as one mass of inferiors. Such feelings are contrary to Scientific Racialism and unified White Racial Nationalism.

Indeed, the White Nation can not accept the existence of states in the state, with the meaning of state also it's old meaning of cast/class in the medieval body politic.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/24/07:

Obscurantism and obfuscation are not the sole property of postmodernism. I don't see this text as exhibiting many of the markers of postmodernistic thinking -- it seems more like 20th C racist theorizing/ranting and includes an unusually high density of spelling or transcription errors.

I don't find the original of this text online with Google. Is there additional context that you are not disclosing to us? What is it you want help with?

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/21/07 - Do you believe it right or wrong to use artificial insemination to prevent the transmission of sex l

For instance: A man who is colorblind can have his sperm separated out into separate male and female producing fractions. If he uses the male fraction to inseminate his mate then none of the children produced will be color blind.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/21/07:

Artificial insemination itself does not appear to me to present any kind of ethical problem as long as the donor and recipient are properly informed and consenting.

I can see where the technique you mention of sperm sorting could raise ethical issues. Where's the dividing line between allowing it to screen out undesirable sex-linked traits and simply using it to select the child's gender? A great many people, I believe, would be willing to consider the first use as okay, especially for traits more dangerous than color-blindness, but hesitate at gender selection. On the other hand, there are people who would welcome gender selection by sperm sorting as a much better alternative than elective abortion after amnio or abandonment/infanticide after birth.

Once you've settled this ethical question to your satisfaction, you'll need to consider the ethical issues of selecting embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization. There have been cases where a couple selected an embryo for implantation and pregnancy primarily to provide a tissue match for an older sibling. Was this going too far?

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MarySusan asked on 05/20/07 - Stunning Discovery

"Experts say they are "lost for words" to describe the importance of an extraordinary discovery found hidden in a medieval prayer book.

The prayer book was written in the 13th century by a scribe named John Myronas. Instead of using fresh parchment for the book, he used paper from five existing books by scrubbing off the original text and then writing over it. High-tech imaging has now been able to decipher those original words that Myronas thought he scrubbed away hundreds of years ago.

In 1996, researchers at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland found in the prayer book a unique work by the mathematician Archimedes, which caused them to name the volume the Archimedes Palimpsest. (A palimpsest is a manuscript page that has been written on, scraped off and then used again.) A few years later in 2002 using an improved imaging technique, they found in the prayer book the only known manuscript of Hyperides, an Athenian politician from the 4th century B.C.

Then in 2007, this same team used an even more advanced technique called multispectral imaging and made another stunning discovery: a commentary on the philosopher Aristotle. Using photographs taken at different wavelengths, this digital imaging technique enhances particular characteristics of the imaged area. Hidden words were suddenly visible. Project director William Noel of the Walters Art Museum told the BBC, "At this point you start thinking striking one palimpsest is gold and striking two is utterly astonishing. But then something even more extraordinary happened." He called it a "sensational find."

"Even though I couldn't read ancient Greek, just the fact that I could see the words gave me shivers," Roger Easton, a professor of imaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, told the BBC News. An international team of scholars who could read ancient Greek were called upon to analyze the text. Using a series of clues, such as a name written in the margin, they deciphered the subject. "The philosophical passage in the Archimedes Palimpsest is now definitely identified as a relatively early commentary to Aristotle's Categories," Reviel Netz, professor of ancient science at Stanford University told the BBC. Aristotle's Categories have served as the foundation for the study of logic throughout western history. The work is currently being translated.

The most likely author of this unique commentary is Alexander of Aphrodisias, an important ancient critic and analyst of Aristotle. "There is no more important philosopher in the world than Aristotle. To have early views in the second and third century A.D. of Aristotle's Categories is just fantastic. We have one book that contains three texts from the ancient world that are absolutely central to our understanding of mathematics, politics and now philosophy," Noel explained to the BBC. "I am at a loss for words at what this book has turned out to be. To make these discoveries in the 21st century is frankly nutty. It is just so exciting." "

--From the Editors at My ISP


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/20/07:

Palimpsests have always been fascinating, and we're so lucky that some ancient works have been recovered in this way. Even if the recovered text consisted only of laundry lists and grocery receipts, it would have some value.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/20/07 - What are the eugenic consequences of an unassimilated immigration?


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/20/07:

Eugenics is based on discredited ideas and has led to some horrific policies. Early in the 20th century it was used as (pseudo)scientific cover for institutionalized bigotry.

If a population of immigrants is unassimilated, does that mean there is no interbreeding between them and the present population? What sort of timescale are you contemplating?

Because of the malformation of your question, about the only thing I can offer as an answer is that the consequences are nil.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/17/07 - Is political correctness a new State Religion?......


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/17/07:

Political correctness is considered by many as a scourge and a barrier to effective communication. But it arises as a response to insensitivity and bigotry, so we need to at least consider whether its goals are something that should be supported, even if we don't agree with the current practices or their advocates.

Within the walls of some academic institutions, political correctness has certainly been raised to a level of dogma, enforced via speech codes or widespread social pressure.

I would not consider it a new State Religion. Is there a specific place or state you were thinking of?

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/10/07 - State should encourage ...........................

Do you believe that when young students display talent in a particular field, the State should encourage the child to pursue that line of study, then pay all university costs so long as he or she persists?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/10/07:

State bureaucracies generally do very poorly at this sort of thing, choosing winners and losers based on early promise. If there are particular barriers to the pursuit of useful careers and notable talents (discrimination, for instance), I might countenance the state instituting a remedy, but they can be ham-handed at that, as well, making the overall situation worse rather than better.

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tonyrey asked on 05/01/07 - How can we tackle "metaphysical probability"?

Not all metaphysical theories seem equally probable. It seems improbable, for example, that solipsism is true and very few people are solipsists. Materialists believe idealism is far less probable than materialism and idealists believe materialism is far less probable than idealism. But are their conclusions based on reason or emotion?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/01/07:

The theory of probability as it has grown up from describing games of chance to describing quantum mechanics and outcomes of chaotic processes does not always lend itself to metaphysical topics. Speaking of metaphysical theories being more or less probable would imply, would it not, that there might eventually be an "empirical" test that would show whether the theory is right or not. Or, following one thread of pragmatism, we could judge our theories based on their usefulness rather than on their -- inaccessible -- truthfulness. That's what I mean by saying that we would have to appeal to some other value that we share to assess these theories, since arguments about probability will not lead us to conclusions.

[A little later, I'll have to dig through the archives to find the last time we talked about this topic. There were probably some useful things said as well as some stuff we had to leave unresolved at the time.]

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/28/07 - What single person has most affected your thinking and your worldview?


Jim.McGinness answered on 04/30/07:

It's hard to pin down to just one single person. I think I'd choose Imre Lakatos over Robert Nozick as having had the most influence, but it's very close. Kai Neilsen, Plato, George Gamov, Isaac Asimov, Ian Hacking, Nicholas Maxwell, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Karl Popper, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Arthur Koestler, Robert Poole, Richard Landes, Barbara Tuchman, Jane Jacobs, ... that's just off the top of my head.

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tonyrey asked on 04/23/07 - Chance or Design... or both Chance and Design?

"Although the idea that each individual event in evolutionary history is purposefully intended or in conformity to some predetermined plan may have to be set aside, that does not at all eliminate the possibility that the evolutionary process as a whole might well be serving some comprehensive purpose. As an illustration, suppose there were a completely honest gambling casino in which pure randomness characterized every roll of the dice, every spin of the wheel, every turn of the card, etc. Nonetheless, the casino accomplishes its purpose of bringing a handsome profit to the bank at the end of each day. In fact, the owners of the casino depend on authentic randomness in their computation of payout rates in order to accomplish their goal of making a profit. Randomness at one level does not exclude purpose at another. Randomness can be purposefully employed."

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/23/07:

One common tactic in the argument about creationism seems to be coming up with quotes, often out of context, from the other side and employing some variety of rhetorical argument to establish, first, what the other side must believe, then refuting it. How can we tell when this tactic is committing the straw man fallacy?

Van Till, in the footnote you are quoting, is generously offering an aspect of purposefulness that theistic evolutionists can hold onto that atheistic evolutionists will presumably have a difficult time refuting. It's in a footnote rather than in the body because Van Till demonstrates that this approach is rejected by the primary advocates of the Intelligent Design flavor of creationism.

How does this Van Till quote correspond to your own views on design through chance?

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tonyrey asked on 04/19/07 - Is optimization by blind evolution credible?

"Stable systems are not very sensitive to disturbing influences. Chaotic systems however, are extremely sensitive to differences in the situation of origin. For example, in the computer models which Kauffman used to simulate the interaction between genes of the genome, or between the various species within an eco-system, it turned out that the system could either be stable or chaotic, depending on the value of certain parameters (such as the number of interrelations between genes or species). However, at certain parameter values, the system hovered between both extremes: the edge of chaos. This is the area where the ability to evolve, the evolvability, turns out to be the greatest. This is easy to imagine: an evolving system can benefit from stability (it needs to be strong) as well as from flexibility (it must be able to adjust). The border between stability and chaos provides precisely this compromise. Miraculously, the evolving systems of Kauffman's simulations turned out to assume precisely the parameter values which brought the system to this border between stability and chaos. The blind process of evolution appeared capable of finding the spot where the possibilities for further evolution are greatest! An amazing outcome indeed."

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/19/07:

As much as I respect Stuart Kauffman, his work remains at the fringes of science (almost metaphysics). The evolution of evolvability is an interesting, but not very well defined, concept. It's a concept that underlies much of the evo-devo field. The general system theory of self-organization has been around in a number of forms for several decades: Ilya Prigogine used to write about dissipative structures that arise when (whenever, even) an energy gradient becomes just a little bit steep, analogous to the onset of turbulence when a fluid flow exceeds a certain threshold. Chaos theory, when it is not subverted into mystical quasi-science, addresses the same area.

OSW is correct in pointing out that in real situations it's extremely difficult to prove optimality. With so many parameters and dynamics that involve feedback and recursion, mathematical models may be unable to represent reality in detail, or become computationally impossible, so we are forced to work with approximations and the sort of qualitative approaches we see in chaos theory.

In the field of evolution, we see sometimes see optimality used as an assumption rather than getting it as a result. If adaptation via natural selection is taken as indistinguishable from optimal, any adaptive changes we observe must be presumed to come in response to some external change in the environment, selective pressure.

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denberg asked on 04/17/07 - Can someone explain this phrase in simple english...

"...the feedback mechanism between human society and technology was a positive loop, and that growth was not exponential but hyperbolic."


Jim.McGinness answered on 04/17/07:

As I see it, the plain reading of this phrase is to express the notion that the growth of technology is "even faster" than exponential. Many natural processes follow an exponential growth pattern. Growth rates can be parameterized and one way to do this for exponential growth is to express a doubling time. I'm not aware that "hyperbolic" is actually used for talking about growth rates, but suppose we just say that the doubling time keeps getting shorter.

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HANK1 asked on 04/04/07 - Just wondering:

I am beginning to think that a multicultural society is not possible. How about you?


Jim.McGinness answered on 04/04/07:

I remain convinced that a society can be successfully multicultural in a cosmopolitan way. I don't believe it's possible to keep a society intact where two warring cultures are both seeking dominance over the other.

Another interesting question is how long can a society remain monocultural? We moderns often consider that a recipe for stagnation and eventual extinction. Can a society like that remain strong and survive when challenged by neighboring societies? Societies who have been exercising their cultural muscles in competing with each other at close quarters, inventing, adapting and adopting from each other?

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tonyrey asked on 03/30/07 - What are your views on the "biocentric universe"?

"The whole evolutionary process, both cosmic and organic, is one, and the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric". (Henderson)

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/30/07:

It's a stretch. Given that we have a sample of 1, statements such as this, which presume to know what a different, less-biocentric universe would look like, are hard to support.

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tonyrey asked on 03/23/07 - What does the pursuit of philosophy imply?


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/23/07:

Pursuit of philosophy can only occur in a situation where one has met the most critical needs for survival: air, water, food, shelter, etc. Does this mean that pursuit of philosphy implies having a certain amount of leisure?

There are certainly other directions one can go with leisure, so the choice to pursue philosophy also implies something about valuing mental activity over, say, athletic efforts or physical pleasures.

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MarySusan asked on 03/18/07 - Can the Absence of Proof

Can the absence of proof be proof?

Proof of what?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/18/07:

The formulation I'm familiar with is usually stated:

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In matters where evidence is in consideration, you're going to be talking about empirical proof, which has its problems.

So what are you really asking here? In the absence of proof, can you still proceed? With what degree of confidence?

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/15/07 - Do you think that mankind is living in its last days?

I do. Ever since the beginning of time, every form of life has faced challenges that threatened its survival.

For every new problem that our technology or inventions have created, mankind has somehow managed to develop another form of technology or ability to fix the problem. Up until now, that is.

In my humble opinion, man has reached a turning point. Unlike any time in history before, we are now capable of creating global disaster or chaos on an unprecedented scale.

Nuclear weapons are a prime example. We have reached the point were we are able to create more problems than we could ever possibly be able to fix.

In the past, all wars and battles were localized. By this, I mean that the effects of a war usually stayed within a certain region. If a war broke out in africa, people living in France would most likely be unaffected.

This, however, is no longer the case. With the push of just a few different buttons, countries are now capable of destroying a large percentage of the earth's population living thousands of miles away.

In conclusion, I give mankind no more than 500 years to live. People, today are all concerned about fixing Global warming, yet an even more immanent issue threatens us today. I personally do not think that mankind will be around long enough to see the negative affects of global warming. By that time, a huge portion of the earth will be unihabitable due to high levels of radition, or something such as that.

In addition, Terrorism is a new enemy, of which we are poorly equipped to deal with. Terrorism is on the rise. New epedemics(sp?) such as AIDS are still at record levels, and new strains of deadly diseases are popping up everyday.

To be sure, there have been many times in the past in which people thought that doomsday was knocking at the door (such as the Cold War era, etc). However, technology has made the world a more dangerous place to live with each passing day. And it will only get worse, at an increasingly faster pace.

So, what do YOU think? Do you really think that mankind will be around to witness the next Millenium?

.....and that, is my thought-of-the-week.

I came across this and wondered what your reaction might be.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/15/07:

The potential for the extinction of humanity is out there, whether it's an external, natural cause (impact of a sufficiently large asteroid, emergence of a sufficiently virulent strain of influenza or some other virus) or something we do to ourselves.

Evaluating how likely these scenarios may turn out to be is very difficult. The first step towards preventing them is to imagine that they are possible.

It takes a peculiar sort of pessimism to say that technology has increasingly made the world a more dangerous place. Objectively, technology has provided net benefits for human longevity and prosperity. It's certainly not an unalloyed good, there are many dangerous technologies. Considered in the balance, though, the net effect seems positive.

Betting that humanity will go extinct does not sit well with me. I believe we should be looking out for the dangers and attempting to address them, as best we can, and allow our planning horizon to extend out 500 years, 1000 years or more into the future.

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tonyrey asked on 03/15/07 - How would you explain the deepest emotions?

A friend of mine went into a coma and was apparently unaware of her surroundings yet she groaned when some one started playing a piano. Why does music evoke such powerful feelings?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/15/07:

When a person is in a coma, their brain is not working normally -- but that does not mean it is not working at all.

Although there is still a lot to be explained about how the brain works, one thing that is becoming fairly clear is that the brain has some specialized areas and that there exist connections between some of these areas. (Marvin Minsky calls them "agents", I think, but I don't know that this description is widespread.)

Some of the connections are via direct neural fibers. Some are indirect -- one part of the brain may notice something in the environment and activate the body's arousal system -- another part of the brain recognizes that arousal and then looks around to discover why arousal has occurred, generally placing an emotional context around it -- the original stimulus may remain inaccessible to the consciousness.

Since a person in a coma is generally unresponsive, it's common to assume that they are unaware of their surroundings. I think "unaware" and "unresponsive" are the relevant words here. It's common that certain responses can be evoked even from people with deeply impaired brain function. This became an issue in the Terry Schiavo case, for instance. Interpreting responses as if they occurred in a conscious person can be very misleading.

I hope your friend recovers.

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Rosekeeper asked on 03/14/07 - Insane People?

Define insanity?
Insanity is trying to do the same things over and over again and getting the same results. Does anyone know who made this up? I think their good words, just can't remember the way it goes?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/14/07:

The quote seems to be most often attributed to Albert Einstein, but sometimes to Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, or Mark Twain. I could not find a definite citation, so this could be an apocryphal -- someone may have made up the quote and slapped a wise person's name on it to give it more of an appearance of authority.


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Choux... asked on 03/12/07 - Religion as Adaptive

"To an evolutionary psychologist, the universal extravagance of religious rituals, with their costs in time, resources, pain and privation, should suggest as vividly as a mandrell's bottom that religion may be adaptive". Marek Kohn

Can you explain this quote more fully to me so I can understand it better??

Perhaps a good paraphrase would help.


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/12/07:

This is a slightly "old-school" perspective on seeing adaptation in whatever has survived. Daniel Dennet or Richard Dawkins or Robert Sapolsky would divide the possible explanations differently: certain aspects of religion are adaptive only for the religion itself -- it might be best viewed as a sort of mind virus that acquires and propagates characteristics that aid its own survival largely disregarding the survival effects on its host. Societies are susceptible to religion because it builds on a number of lower level adaptations: for example, here are some possible building blocks (still being investigated)

  • the ability to empathize or figure out what's going on in another person's mind based on their outward behavior [ability to impute agency]
  • a sensistivity to the environment including an ability to recognize potential threats from extremely faint clues, with some bias in favor of false positives [false positives just make you more nervous while false negatives can kill you]
  • kin- and tribe-oriented altruism
  • a tendancy for a small subset of the population to exhibit exceptional conceptual concretization of the imaginary world [these people become the healers and shamans, but a double-dose of the trait leads to schizophrenia]
  • culture-based survival improvements stemming from shamans' abilities to calm and comfort the hurt whether through psychological techniques [well, they probably don't conceptualize them like that] as well as incipient medical technology [herbs, primitive surgery, etc] as well as to serve as repositories of traditional "wisdom"
The mandrill's brightly colored face and behind may be the result of sexual selection gone wild (Dawkins termed the causes of these extravagancies a "genetic arms race"), so they may be adaptive only in the accidental context of the specific genetics of that species. Just as with the peacock's plumage, the benefits from mating success must apparently be sufficient to outweigh the costs from the otherwise maladaptive aspects.

In summary, the full expression of the traits (religion or mandrill behinds) can be considered adaptive only in the sense that the costs are offset by other benefits. In the full blown expression of the trait, the effects may be a net negative, but the less dramatic expression of the trait has enough benefits to sustain the allele in the population.

[Sickle cell trait is another oft-cited example: a half dose affords protection against malaria but a full dose is fatal.]

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Choux... asked on 03/10/07 - Previously Unpublished Article by Churchill

(AFP) - "The Second World War prime minister Winston Churchill argued that Jews were "partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer" in an article publicised for the first time Sunday.

Churchill made the claim in an article entitled "How The Jews Can Combat Persecution" written in 1937, three years before he started leading the country.

He outlined a new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe and the United States, which was followed by the deaths of millions of Jews in the Holocaust under the German Nazi regime.

"It would be easy to ascribe it to the wickedness of the persecutors, but that does not fit all the facts," the article read.

"It exists even in lands, like Great Britain and the United States, where Jew and Gentile are equal in the eyes of the law and where large numbers of Jews have found not only asylum, but opportunity.

"These facts must be faced in any analysis of anti-Semitism. They should be pondered especially by the Jews themselves.

"For it may be that, unwittingly, they are inviting persecution -- that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer."

The article adds: "The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is 'different'.

"He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed."

Elsewhere, Churchill praised Jews as "sober, industrious, law-abiding" and urged Britons to stand up for the race against persecution.

"There is no virtue in a tame acquiescence in evil. To protest against cruelty and wrong, and to strive to end them, is the mark of a man," he wrote.

The article was discovered by Cambridge University historian Richard Toye in the university's archive of Churchill's papers.

At the time, Churchill's secretary advised him it would be "inadvisable" to publish it and it never saw the light of day.

Churchill was voted the greatest Briton ever in a nationwide poll held by the BBC in 2002." Yahoo News


Was Churchill just another anti Semite based on his comments here?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/11/07:

With just these excerpts, Churchill does not appear to be an anti-semite. We don't know if the "inadvisability" of publishing it was based on a political expediency or if there was simply no way for Churchill to have avoided coming in for harsh criticism from both Jews and the anti-semite faction present in Great Britain.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/10/07 - what is real, from what is not........................

How do you determine what is real, from what not. How does Science determine between what is real, from what is not?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/10/07:

Science, as an institution, claims to deal only with material reality. Individual scientists or groups of scientists may have their own views, which may be different. The way to convince other people that what you're talking about is real is to demonstrate, via sufficiently convincing experiments or theory, that there is a connection between your stuff and the generally accepted physical world.

Most scientists do not get hung up on the details of ontological classification. There are some specialists who do, but I wonder if they're looking at the same question you are asking.

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HANK1 asked on 03/05/07 - Status:

Are the barbarian or alien aggressors who take advantage of the psychological climate of a universal state palpable and imposing?


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/05/07:

I suggest you end this question and ask a new question that makes some sense.

To this particular mess of a question, all I can say is
Yes, that's what they do!

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tonyrey asked on 03/03/07 - How would you define "Nature"?


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/05/07:

It's not easy to formulate a single definition that would garner general agreement. Based on the conversations we've been engaged in, I suspect what you have in mind by "Nature" (capitalized as a proper noun) is to refer to the notion or embodyment of that part of reality which is not made up of human produced artifacts or otherwise "spoiled" by human activity.

This division cannot be exact and comes with a built-in criticism that "hey, we're part of Nature, too!" Still, we think of Nature at its most prototypical when we speak of wilderness areas or when the environment appears to resist human interference.

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HANK1 asked on 03/04/07 - A New Beginning:

Hello, guys and gals. Leslie, my fiance, kicked my .... for leaving you. She hugged and kissed me for leaving the C .... Board. Anyway, I'm back! Let's go, go, go!


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/04/07:

Welcome back, Hank, and thank Leslie for us. I look forward to you posting something substantial on the philosophy board.

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/27/07 - Are there laws of Nature.......................

Are there laws of Nature; if so, it follows that there must be causal powers: Can we make sense of scientific claims if we allow that there are not real regularity-determining causal powers?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/27/07:

Laws of nature are arrived at by observation and induction. They summarize aspects of these observations and allow prediction of aspects of future observations. We surmise that they represent an unvarying regularity in the way the universe works.

If you could define "causal powers" a litte better, it might be possible to agree with or dispute your assertion that their existence must follow from the existence of laws of nature.

Scientific claims are subject to revision if it becomes apparent that the assumed laws of nature are not as invariant as prior observations had led us to believe.

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tonyrey asked on 02/22/07 - Is consciousness caused by brain processes?

..... If so, all our thoughts, feelings and decisions must be caused by physical events - and self-control and responsibility are illusions. Do you agree? If not why not?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/23/07:

Perhaps you are too hasty to go from the physical causation hypothesis to the conclusion that self-control and responsibility are illusions. Since we are continuing from the mention of John Searle in Mind, matter or x?, it makes sense to admit that nobody has yet found the NCC, neurological correlate of consciousness, that Searle speaks of. In looking for it, investigators will have to account for a number of problems in crossing between two different levels of description: the nitty-gritty neuronal view and the higher-level conceptual description; the difference between an extended process in the brain and the unitary, indivisible, first-person experience of consciousness or self-awareness; the in-principle determinism of physical processes and the notion of autonomy and self-determination. There's a difference between saying that we don't currently see how to bridge this gap and saying that we know the gap cannot possibly be bridged.

The burden for the alternative hypothesis is no lighter. How can we explain the process by which mind produces physical results? What's the difference between me thinking about moving my arm and me actually moving my arm?

I think what's missing in both cases is the mapping between the mental description and the physio-chemical activity. Bishop Berkeley and some other idealists would simply rule out the need to embed the concepts into physical reality, but the "illusion" of physical reality has a compulsion that requires more explanation.

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/19/07 - Does anything actually exist outside of culture?

Alan Sokal wrote a satirical paper full of the absurdities of some scientific howlers, pointing out the extreme relativism latent in the field of "science studies”. In actuality he only touched on the tip of the “iceberg”; that is, he left it to others to point out the absurdities of those who claim some knowledge; that is, some unearthly knowledge - - spiritual knowledge if you will. Have there been others who have written papers on the absurdities and extreme relativism latent in the field of “spiritual howlers?”

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/21/07:

Are you speaking of the original "Transgressing the Boundaries..." paper that Sokal published in Social|Text? Calling that one a satirical paper seems like a mischaracterization. What Sokal did with that paper was write a piece using the vocabulary and style of the deconstructionists purporting to be about Physics, a subject in which Sokal would be considered qualified. From Sokal's point of view, he had intentionally written nonsense, albeit artful nonsense dressed up in obscurantist language.

The results of this experiment were mixed. Sokal believed that his hoax paper demonstrated that the modern literary criticism cult has no content. From the other side, the editors thought Sokal's paper represented an interesting attempt to reach across the divide between science and the humanities, worthy of publication even if it was not easy to understand -- a demonstration, if you will, of the principle that what you get out of a text depends a lot on what you bring to the text as a reader.

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tonyrey asked on 02/18/07 - Mind, matter or x?

In explaining reality there seem to be only three reasonable possibilities: mind, matter or a third unknown factor (neutral monism) which produces mind and matter. Any other theory is both uneconomical and unsupported by evidence. Which explanation do you think is the most likely?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/18/07:

I think it would be delusional to believe we can explain reality. What we can do is choose the methods by which we prefer to investigate reality and perhaps back up those choices with reasons.

There's a certain foundational aspect of mind in that all of our conceptual furniture resides there and has only a notional or theoretical connection with external reality.

If we agree that there is an inter-subjective (i.e. shared) reality that exists "out there", we may begin to suspect that what we experience as mind may perhaps be a phenomenon growing out of the workings of material reality. With these two axioms in place, we can choose to make progress on the investigation, if not explanation, of reality in earnest. So far, this approach seems amply fruitful.

One can, of course, deny either of those axioms and arrive at various forms of idealism, dualism, solipsism, etc. You've made it clear in the past that you do not find it credible that mind can arise from matter and on that point we may just have to agree to continue to disagree.

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HANK1 asked on 02/16/07 - JUST WONDERING:

Is ATHEISM a religion or a philosophy?


Jim.McGinness answered on 02/16/07:

As has been said before, to call atheism a religion is similar to calling baldness a hairstyle. There are some contexts where filling in the word atheism in the religion blank makes sense. Various courts have ruled that, for purposes of the first amendment (to the US constitution), atheism may be considered a religion.

The noun philosophy is fairly flexible and has often been stretched to cover various worldviews and stances. In that sense, I suppose atheism can be called a philosophy.

From your question, though, it seems as if you are trying to set up religion and philosophy as disjoint categories, with no overlap. If you insist on doing this, I'd suggest you assign atheism to the philosophy category rather than to the religion category.

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/04/07 - If truth is independent of the observer,............

If truth is independent of the observer, and objective reality is independent as well, truth would be independently measurable and verifiable; therefore beliefs will have no effect on reality.

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/05/07:

If there was that sort of truth, we'd have to label it empirical truth. It would be truth about the observable universe, independent of the observer, verifiable by anyone who chooses to examine it. But being derived via induction, it would always be provisional.

Beliefs and reality need not be disjoint. Our actions, when derived from beliefs grounded in some way on a model of how reality works, are certainly capable of having real effects. We don't always get the results our model would predict, but that's as much a matter of an incomplete and imperfect model as it is of our actions being not quite what we intended.

What are you trying to ask here? Is this a challenge to materialist views? to dualist views? We generally consider beliefs to be in the category of abstractions and insubstantial -- so how can they have substantial effects?

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tonyrey asked on 02/01/07 - "Where there are no sentences there is no truth"...

"To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations."

What do you think?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/01/07:

Didn't we go through an exercise recently where it was said that propositions are either true or false and that it was a matter of interpretation whether a sentence expressed a proposition or whether two different sentences could express exactly the same proposition. From this, I would conclude that a sentence is true only to the extent it expresses a true proposition.

This leaves open the question of whether propositions have some sort of existence independent of the existence of human beings. They're clearly abstractions rather than material objects, but we've never been able (on this board) to nail down what ontological status to accord to them.

I read this quote as making (obliquely) the argument that humans entirely create the abstractions and that they are in no sense pre-existing and simply discovered.

Ah, I see this is Richard Rorty speaking.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/30/07 - Is the scientific study of religion possible?

If so, then is it worthwhile to pursue such a study?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/30/07:

One could study religious practices from a number of scientific viewpoints: sociological, psychological, even neuropsychological. The Transcendental Meditation advocates often adduce "scientific" studies to support some of their claims.

If you were asking to establish the "truth" of religion via scientific study, however, I'm pessimistic.

As Hume noted, very learned people can investigate miracles and come away convinced that something supernatural occurred...but that was an insufficient basis for concluding that a violation of the regularity of nature actually occurred.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/21/07 - Do you believe the aesthetic attitude is a useful concept, or should it be abandoned?

Is the process called, paying attention, any different when applied to a work of art than paying attention to anything else?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/21/07:

This goes back to an earlier discussion (no, I'm not going to try to find it and link to it) where we asked each other about our definition of art.

When we believe something to be a work of art, certain questions arise for consideration that would not apply if we thought we were looking at a natural object or some utilitarian artifact.

But nothing is fixed about art. Consider Duchamp's Urinal.

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tonyrey asked on 01/19/07 - Conscience is the root of all true courage.....

What is your view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/19/07:

Conscience is the root of all true courage; if a man would be brave let him obey his conscience

James Freeman Clarke, 1810-1888

Another quote of his was
A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.
Interestingly, these quotes are most often cited without specific reference to where or when Clarke said them or wrote them.

I remain suspicious of free-floating quotes about courage, since the speaker may possibly be trying to influence us into acting in a way that could get us killed.

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Choux... asked on 01/14/07 - DELETE QUESTION OPTION DOES NOT WORK

tony, I did the complete falerol to delete excess questions from the board, AND THE OPERATION DID NOT WORK per your experience, too. The question I ended and deleted on the Politics Board remains atop the question board, not deleted.

I didn't expect that Jim. would make a mistake about computer matters or I wouldn't have repeated his remedy, untried.


Jim.McGinness answered on 01/15/07:

The "End Question" button does two things:

  1. no additional answers or clarifications can be added to the question and
  2. the question no longer appears on "New Questions" lists.
I do not know of a way to delete the question so it no longer appears on the particular board where it was asked.

The "Remove" link takes the question off your personal list of previously asked questions.

I haven't experimented with the "Remove" link that appears next to answers.

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tonyrey asked on 01/13/07 - Why should our conscience be the final arbiter?

Are we morally infallible? When faced with difficult choices we may be uncertain about what is right and wrong. This suggests we may make the wrong decision - although not through our own fault. It also suggests everyone else is in the same boat, i.e. capable of making a mistake with regard to moral issues. So does it follow that for each one of us our conscience is the final authority?

If not why not?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/13/07:

In this question you speak of conscience as if it were a separate entity. There may be contexts where this is a convenient way of speaking about moral judgements, but that separation does not help here.

There is no separate "final arbiter" when we make a moral judgement, except perhaps in the case of someone who exhibits symptoms of something like schizophrenia.

In many cases, we end up being our own "final arbiter" after-the-fact. If we regret a decision we've made, it may be possible to examine the circumstances that led up to it and to correct that part of our judgement faculties which led to the mistake.

Uncertainty about right and wrong is natural in difficult situations. When two moral principles come into conflict, we often find there is no framework to reconcile them. Inevitably, placing one principle before the other turns out to be correct in some situations and wrong in other situations.

Moral principles are abstractions we draw by generalizing from specific cases. Their applicability is not necessarily universal.

I can't leave this subject without a Wikipedia link. I was trolling around under "ethics" and "morality" and finally found this interesting entry:

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alijan asked on 12/18/06 - Separationism or Integrationism

I am asked to write a five paragraph essay on the following question. I am totally clueless on the topic. Can you give me some basic information / idea in order to finish this essay? This is the question that I must write my essay on:
"Which of the 2 philosophies of black empowerment (separationism or integrationism) do you find most apprpriate for today? How would you decide the proper understanding of tolerance regarding both ethical and religious diversity in America today?"
I really depend on your ideas. Thank you!

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/12/07:

This question is a duplicate. In future, please post your question just once, in whichever topic you feel it most closely matches.

As the asker of the question, you can take them off the "unanswered questions" board by selecting the "end question" button. To get the "end question" button, you have to go through one of the links that gets you to your questions archive -- one of these links is the "Members" button in the Answerway banner at the top of the page.

tomder55 asked on 01/11/07 - Virtuos Atheists

Carol Iannone is editor-at-large for 'Academic Questions'at The Journal of the National Association of Scholars organization of professors, graduate students, college administrators and trustees, and independent scholars committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society .

She recently advanced this for discussion :

In the recent and ongoing flare-up of antagonism between believers and non-believers—especially common on campuses—some of the self-professed atheists claim that human beings do not need God and religion to be good, and they cite the sterling behavior of many pronounced atheists as proof. British Prof. Richard Dawkins, for example, amuses audiences by noting that the members of scientific academies are mostly atheists and yet exhibit exemplary moral behavior with nary a murderer or rapist among them. But this is a very low standard of proof. To be absolutely scientific about it, we would need about two millennia of purely atheistic culture in order to learn for certain whether human beings on their own would generate what we today consider moral behavior. Without that, we are perfectly justified in concluding, not scientifically of course, but in a common sensicalway, that the saintly behavior of today's atheists comes from their having absorbed the morality that mankind has developed through centuries of religious belief and that is part of the cultural oxygen we all breathe. As C.S. Lewis says, if you are challenging the Tao, or the idea of a transcendent moral law, it's because you have been cultivated within it. Someone outside of it could not even have the wherewithal to challenge it.

Interesting question . If we take it as a given that most atheists exhibit moral behavior ,then is it due to absorbing the cultural mores of a religious society ?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/11/07:

This is a very interesting argument to analyze.

I keep mentioning Plato's Euthyphro as the basis for questioning whether our sense of morality is in some sense prior to religious reasoning. While religions speak on the topic of ethics and morality, it's not possible for them to take all the credit.

Does the history of Buddhism, a system of religious beliefs usually considered to be non-theistic, give a long enough stretch to be considered an independent test of Iannone's hypothesis?

There's something of a gap between individual moral behavior and the ethical behavior of states, regimes, and other large organizations. Authoritarian organizations tend to go through phases where their power corrupts them, whether they are religious organizations (such as the Roman Catholic hierarchy) or nominally atheistic organizations (the USSR, for example). Attempting to suppress a religion by force, for example, is a immoral act against the freedom of conscience of that religion's adherents. Once an organization is corrupted by power, it matters little whether it is religious or non-religious -- organizations of both types have proven themselves capable of atrocities.

There is a paternalistic thread that runs through some arguments for religion: it acknowledges in a back-handed way that religion need not be true but insists that religion is nevertheless necessary (and hence deserves our hypocritical support) in order to keep the masses under control. I've seen Dawkins mention this in one of his essays; I don't know if it appears in his The God Delusion.

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tonyrey asked on 01/09/07 - When you harm others do you harm yourself?

If so, how?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/09/07:

Not necessarily. The world might be a better place if the harm you did rebounded back on you in a directly negative way -- but there's no real world evidence that this happens regularly.

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tonyrey asked on 12/26/06 - How can the risk of nuclear war be reduced?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/26/06:

What a wonderful question for the incoming new year!

We know that the risk of nuclear war has varied over the past 60 years, from times when it seemed a hair's breadth away (the Cuban missle crisis, for example) to the 90s, when it seemed that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would lead to a future relatively free of nuclear threats.

What actions taken by people over those 60 years led to increased or reduced risk of war? The campaigning of Linus Pauling and other anti-nuclear-war activists? The determined stance of President Ronald Reagan? The provocative actions of North Korea and Iran?

In some ways, the lessons are paradoxical. It seems that a willingness to engage in nuclear warfare was at times a key component to preventing it.

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tonyrey asked on 12/24/06 - A Christmas thunderbolt for Richard Dawkins!

Ive read your book, The God Delusion, which calls for the elimination of religion and belief in Me. I do not wish to berate you; after all, as a poet once wrote, hatred of God may bring the soul to God. For what many atheists loathe is not God at all but the false representations of Me.

But consider the wise warning of GK Chesterton. When people cease to believe in God, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything. Its that anything that concerns Me. You recommend in almost every line of the book that your readers should replace Me in their hearts and minds with you...

You define God as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence which deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This is typical of militant atheists who constantly define me purely in terms of the criteria of science alone, rather than in terms of a quest for spiritual contact that becomes a reciprocal loving relationship between creature and creator.

Hence you reduce Me by declaring that any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything (for that is what you think I do all day!) comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.

Richard, when theologians attempt to describe My reality (My Mind, say) they are all too well aware of the trap known as anthropomorphism: of treating Me as a human creature. Yet it seems pointless to remind you that thousands of studies have been published on this theme down the centuries. So your consistent image of Me resembles nothing so much as a megalomaniac designer-scientist. Should I say it? Your God resembles a Great Big Professor Dawkins in the sky!

THE sun has gone down and the monks are chanting vespers. Im reminded, Richard, that you were once a choirboy. Fancy.

The tradition of choral evensong, preserved in the churches and cathedrals of your islands, points back to the rhythm of the monasteries founded by St Benedict in the 6th century. While considering all the hateful things that believers have done down the ages supposedly in My name, you might spare a thought for the monks who lived, and still live, by Benedicts rule.

During the troubled period in Europe known as the Dark Ages, which resemble in many ways the barbarism and fragmentations of the world today, it was the monasteries that preserved civility, education, scholarship, moral intellectual life, care of the poor and the sick, the arts of husbandry, and community building. So. Why dont you occasionally slip into your college chapel for evensong to ponder that thought. It might make you less antagonistic towards religion. And it might help to relax you a little.

For now I bid you farewell. But be assured: you have not heard the last of Me.

Till then I remain yours affectionately, and faithfully


Your reaction?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/24/06:

Is not the author of this piece inviting a thunderbolt onto his own head for claiming to be God?

The most telling line is the quote from G K Chesterton:
When people cease to believe in God, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything.
Even when people do believe in God, they are capable of believing in anything. Belief in God or lack of belief in God has precious little to do with what people can be brought to believe in.

One reason there are so few limits on what people can believe is that our society generally gives religious beliefs an exemption from critical analysis. (When that exemption is lifted, you get the sort of things that have been going on in the Answerway Christianity Board.) Even in science, where there is an ultimate appeal to predictions and verifications against the natural universe, it's possible for models that are eventually discarded to have a long period of lively belief.

Up until recently, we would generally have agreed that religious tolerance is a virtue worthy of being included in our founding documents. Will it be possible to maintain the separation of civil power and religious belief?

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/22/06 - Metaphysical philosophy, the word "Being" and its essence.

The word being when used in the Western tradition as a verb of the, continuous present, in physical or ontological discourse does not give us much trouble; its copulative use, grammatical and semantic role is very clear. However, when employed as a verbal noun (gerund) being is cause for a great deal of confusion. What is the ontological difference between essence and existence? Should the verbal noun (gerund) being be discarded?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/22/06:

It's already part of English, so your question must be about whether this usage of the word should be avoided in philosophically careful writing. There have been movements within philosophy to eschew all forms of the verb "to be" as too hopelessly entangled in multiple meanings to permit meaningful discourse.

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/20/06 - How likely is divine revelation under any circumstances, aside from delusion?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/20/06:

I don't know how to parse your "aside from delusion".

If someone makes a claim to have received divine revelation, we, as observers, should consider it overwhelming more likely that they are suffering from a delusion (or are charlatans) than that they have had particular communication directly with God. For those of us who are not pure skeptics on the issue, I think you would want to evaluate the claims based on their consistency with prior "authenticated" revalations.

David Guterson's novel Our Lady of the Forest treats an example of this sort of phenomenon with a great deal of sympathy while remaining nominally skeptical.

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alijan asked on 12/18/06 - Separationism or Integrationism

I am asked to write a five paragraph essay on the following question. I am totally clueless on the topic. Can you give me some basic information / idea in order to finish this essay? This is the question that I must write my essay on:
"Which of the 2 philosophies of black empowerment (separationism or integrationism) do you find most apprpriate for today? How would you decide the proper understanding of tolerance regarding both ethical and religious diversity in America today?"
I really depend on your ideas. Thank you!

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/18/06:

You can look these terms up on the Internet pretty easily to see how they're defined and who some of the people are who have advocated each approach.

One way to treat this topic is to consider other situations where the approach of integration or separation has been tried. The splitting off of Pakistan from India, for instance, or the reconciliation process that has been tried in South Africa.

tonyrey asked on 12/18/06 - If God exists how likely is divine revelation?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/18/06:

Sometimes you ask the darnedest questions!

The likeliness of divine revelation depends on the characteristics you attribute to God. The existence conditional does not help to assess the likelihood.

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/07/06 - Set of beliefs.....................................

Is evolution a theory of science or a set of beliefs; that is, a system of beliefs? If science is not a set of beliefs, it follows that a person cannot believe in evolution- or does it?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/07/06:

Those aren't disjoint categories, are they?

A scientist may have a set of beliefs that encompass his or her understanding of the current theory (really, theories) of biological evolution. Most people would be willing to grant that this person is a holder of scientific knowledge, especially if they are an active researcher.

A layperson may have less detailed knowledge, of just the leading theory of evolution. If they are depending primarily on what they've been told, with only a partial understanding of the theory and the limitations on its applicability, we might refer to them as a "believer" in the theory of evolution. They are relying on authority for their belief rather than incorporating the full current state of scientific knowledge.

Do we need to discuss whether scientific knowledge, provisional as it is, is different from knowledge as it is argued about by philosophers? Is there a distinction you wish to make between justified and well-supported theories of science and other belief systems that may not be so rigorous?

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tonyrey asked on 12/05/06 - What are the effects of false beliefs?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/05/06:

A false belief leads one to make an error, essentially by definition. (Our failures may have many sources, but we do not consider a true belief to be capable, all by itself, of leading us into error.)

Some errors are of no or little consequence. This provides at most weak feedback to notify us that our beliefs may be false.

Some false beliefs can lead to immediate and dire consequences. "I'm a good driver, I can handle driving faster than the speed limit on this icy road."

Much more serious errors based on false belief are possible: "Saddam has WMD."

Among the most dangerous beliefs (I consider them false) are those that make us so certain of their truth that we willingly kill others over them.

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/01/06 - homework ......................................

Why do children have to do homework brought from school? They have just finished 6 or 7 hours in school, isn't that enough time?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/01/06:

Some education researchers believe that homework has no or only minor benefits for younger students but, for older students, devoting more time to math exercises has measurable benefits.

Help! Homework Is Wrecking My Home Life!

Of course, there's homework and there's homework. An hour spent reluctantly on rote drudgery is going to have a much lower payoff than an hour spent in eager study and exploration. Teachers and parents can strive for homework that fits the latter characterization, but it's a challenge.

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tonyrey asked on 12/01/06 - Should the state intervene in family life?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/01/06:

The state should accord a great deal of respect to parental prerogatives and decisions with regard to the care of children. There are, unfortunately, situations of neglect and abuse that cry out for intervention, where intervention by agents of the state can be justified.

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ttalady asked on 11/24/06 - Loosing Grace

... I have always been known for my kindness, however with deep problems you loose grace.

Those problems, not of yours that you just know you were ment to fix. To solve, and bring peace to those you love the most. You work and work, it is your destiny in life and you know it. No stopping it. Then you loose grace...

God love me for what I am and accepts me for what I am not. My challenge is so... very hard but I believe I can do it.

I will bring family back into this life. My sister will join us and once again we will be strong. Then I will go.... It is my relief, my destiny.

I was born to love and give love. I dream of real life, I am a fallen angel.

Support me on my journey!


Jim.McGinness answered on 11/24/06:

You have our best wishes. Just keep trying to make sense.

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Dark_Crow asked on 11/20/06 - proposition .......................................

What is conveyed by a declarative sentence used to make a statement or assertion. Each proposition is either true or false, though in a particular instance we may not know which it is.

Is it true or false that: Each proposition is either true or false

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/20/06:

By recognizing a distinction between propositions and sentences, you may be able to set things up so a proposition is either true or false. A part of this process is to deny that self-contradictory or otherwise puzzling sentences convey a proposition. For instance, you would have to deny that the following sentence conveys a proposition:

This sentence is false.
I wonder, however, whether your simplified universe of propositions would still run into trouble with the Incompleteness Theorem.

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Dark_Crow asked on 11/18/06 - Why Search for Truth?...........................

Many religious organizations claim to have the truth, and they offer it eagerly to others. However, between them they offer a dizzying profusion of truths. Is this just another evidence that all truths are relative, that there are no absolute truths?
In his book The Art of Thinking, Professor V. R. Ruggiero expresses his surprise that even intelligent people sometimes say that truth is relative. He reasons: If everyone makes his own truth, then no persons idea can be better than anothers. All must be equal. And if all ideas are equal, what is the point in researching any subject? Why dig in the ground for answers to archeological questions? Why probe the causes of tension in the Middle East? Why search for a cancer cure? Why explore the galaxy? These activities make sense only if some answers are better than others, if truth is something separate from, and unaffected by, individual perspectives.

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/18/06:

Ruggerio is being disingenuous (or sophistic). It is entirely possible to separate the notion that some answers are better than others from the idea of an absolute standard for truth that we can know and be certain about.

Some claims for truth contradict or are otherwise in conflict with other claims for truth. Without an overall framework to use for reconciling them with regard to truthfulness, we must fall back to judging them on another basis.

I was recently reading a blog post by John S. Wilkins that introduced (to me) the concept of bounded rationality.

Interestingly, it starts out with an apt quotation:

Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 611]

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tonyrey asked on 11/09/06 - How would you explain "collective wisdom"?

In winter a certain number of the birds in a particular area hibernate, a certain number migrate to a warmer climate and a certain number feed on food available through the winter. Birds rarely freeze to death. Somehow they know how many should stay, how many should go, and how many should sleep. What is the explanation?

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/09/06:

I don't know of any bird species that hibernate.

The traits for migration, including the details of when and how far, appear to be part of the birds' genetic makeup. In some species, such as black-capped chickadees, there is very little migration. In American robins, migration is very common (though apparently not universal). In the Canada goose, the birds sometimes migrate and other times take up residence in places where they can (mostly) survive all winter (much to the annoyance of golf course operators!).

There remain quite a few mysteries regarding bird migration, but I don't think "knowing how many should stay and how many should go" is one of them. Through adaptation, frequencies of the genes that control "migrate or not" behavior have been adjusted so that sufficient members of the species survive each year to keep populations relatively stable. Birds certainly encounter predation and starvation during the winter -- but migration has its hazards as well -- so the numbers of each year's surivors reflect, in part, the relative successfulness of the two different strategies and that mixture goes into the next generation.

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Choux... asked on 11/04/06 - All Religious People are Atheists.....

My last question was a flop, and I apologize for not framing the quote in a proper manner. I think that was why people didn't understand it. Here is a replacement question taken from a review of Richard Dawkins presentation.


"I think America is ready for a change," he said. "I saw Dawkins give an audiovisual presentation at an atheist conference in Iceland this past June. He opened with a photo of the Manhattan skyline [including the twin towers]. Over the bottom of the picture was written, 'Imagine a world without religion.' It was a breathtaking and powerful message."

....the most important message of Dawkins' book "is that science should be applied to supernatural claims. Every religious claim is a statement about reality. We can ... imagine a scientific test to prove or disprove almost every religious claim. ... **All religious people are atheists towards all gods except their own. Atheists just disbelieve one more god than the average person."**

......said the book "illustrates the deep frustration atheists feel in finding it impossible to have a public discussion of how religious beliefs impact society."This 'elephant in the room,' as Dawkins calls it, determines many of our laws and public policies," she said. "Yet we cannot talk about the fundamental role religious beliefs play in these areas. Our search for truth would be better served if religious beliefs could be discussed openly, just as political beliefs are." Pamela Miller


Do you agree with Dawkins in whole or in part?
Comments welcome...

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/04/06:

Dawkins does very well when preaching to the choir. I don't think there's much chance of his arguments changing the minds of those already committed to a religion.

That leaves a very large mass of "casual" believers, but they are pretty hard to reach. If the churches can't convince them that their souls are at risk, what will it take to convince them that they should move from being mostly apathetic about religion which everyone apparently considers relatively harmless to considering it something to be actively resisted?

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/31/06 - Do the less fortunate simply deserve their lot in life?

Social policies based on the naturalist and dualist conceptions of human nature do vary. For instance, there is the scientific view (Naturalist) that people don't create themselves, that there are no literally self-made men or women, and that people are the result of their genetic and environmental influences. This worldview influences a society in which programs are put into place to, "Level the playing field" so to speak, that is, progressive social policies that work to maximize opportunity for the disadvantaged. While social policies based on the duelist conception of free will and supernatural soul lead to to crime and economic inequality. Belief in free will, therefore, lets us off the hook with respect to others welfare, because, as freely willing agents, we alone are to blame for success or failure in becoming morally upright citizens. Those who are poor are therefore at fault for not having competed successfully when it comes to education, jobs, and careers. That those who end up in the criminal justice system are likewise the source of their offenses and so deserve all the punishment in life that they get.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/31/06:

Your post collapses a lot of argument into a few brief sentences telescoped, in fact, past the point where they may still be parsed apart to see where the support lies for your thesis.

The social institutions we have are not the sole productions of particular worldviews, however you choose to label them. They are a complex overlay produced by many competing interests. The political slogans used to promote various new laws or policies are often completely at odds with the results that are obtained once the law or policy is put into effect (sometimes called the "law of unintended consequences").

Crime and economic inequality are too widespread in differing types of societies to be said to be caused by one particular worldview. It's certainly the case that one's worldview will affect how one, at least initially, believes certain problems should be treated. Whether that initial approach survives closer inspection should depend on consideration of evidence regarding efficacy and those unintended consequences.

The criminal justice system, at least in the US, is a mess. I'll agree with anyone that it needs reform, but regarding most of the proposals I've seen, I would prefer to keep the mess we have.

I had to squint real hard to see a question in what you've posted. I guess you'll need to squint equally hard to read an answer in my response.

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Choux... asked on 10/30/06 - TOE

The purpose of science is to understand reality. The ultimate goal of physics is to understand everything by a single all-embracing principle called the Theory of Everything (TOE).


I read this somewhere.

Is this a correct assessment in your opinion?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/30/06:

We know, thanks to Captain O, that this is a quote from Jerry Wheatley. In what sense is it a correct assessment?

Do you want to argue about the first sentence? Strictly speaking "science" is a field of endeavor but not a person, so it cannot, itself, understand anything. I think most scientists would agree that they are trying to understand reality using the methods of science as a tool. (One of those tools is the "metaphysical naturalism" mentioned in your other question.) What they are trying to understand, however, is not "all of reality" -- which the phrase "understand reality" might lead you to suspect -- but some particular aspects of the natural world and the mathematical or theoretical frameworks that help us to understand it.

There have been a number of physicists (Albert Einstein was one) who have looked at the current state of knowledge and conjectured that there should be a theoretical framework that unifies the treatment of the four fundamental forces known to physics: gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces. This is sometimes called the Unified Field Theory or, as in Wheatley's usage, a Theory of Everything. The number of people working on this problem is a small fraction of all physicists. For them, of course, it's like the Holy Grail of physics and could be considered an "ultimate goal". For other physicists, it's an interesting thing to hear about occasionally, but they consider it a not-very-tractable problem and their interests lie in other directions.

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/25/06 - possibilities.....................................

Do you most often base your decisions on, probabilities, or possibilities? Have you sometimes found that you had made an assumplion that was based on possibilities.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/25/06:

Even the virtual certainties in our life (the sun will come up tomorrow) are still based on probability and possibility. Are you making a distinction between these two words? Is something that is more than 50% likely a "probability" while less than 50% it's a "possibility"?

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frick asked on 10/23/06 - Ayn Rand

Is Ayn Rand a philosopher? Is her "objectivism" objective? How much of her "objectivism" derives from her hatred of her Russian homeland after the Russian Revolution and her expulsion (her family) from a Czarist Russia?

The question comes from a recent viewing of "The Fountainhead" - a movie with dialogue so bizarre, it must be seen to be believed. Gary Cooper mailed it in for the check. "I love you because I hate you". "I want you to build my building because you are free, and I hate freedom because freedom is the greatest thing....." Et cetera. Rand was one very confused lady, and yet today she has followers (mostly earnest teenage boys) who live and die by her words.

Is this philosophy, or a weird pop culture?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/23/06:

In the absence of any sort of gatekeeper or licensing agency, Ayn Rand could certainly call herself a philosopher and her devotees can call Objectivism a philosophy. She and it fall pretty far outside the mainstream of "institutional" Western Philosophy. Some of the time, Rand critiqued earlier philosphers in ways that I thought entered into the ongoing conversation that is philosophy.

There is a genre of philosophically oriented novels of which Rand's can be considered members. Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is shelved by my local bookstore in the Philosphy section, not in the fiction section. Holding out the appearance that everything has been thought through, "here's a tidy explanation", particularly appeals to young people trying to make sense of a dynamic and ever-changing world.

Some of the oddity of The Fountainhead can be attributed to Rand's notions about storytelling and romantic characters. Rand's Objectivism and philosophical Marxism were the first places that I enountered the notion that aesthetics were an integral part of a philosophy indeed, Marxism and Objectivism seemed to be rivals in the race to become "the philosophy of everything", coming at it from opposite directions.

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tonyrey asked on 10/16/06 - What rights do animals have?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/16/06:

Considering what rights do animals have raises very interesting questions about what we mean by rights. Peter Singer is the philosopher who has most famously addressed this question.

If rights are divine institutions (as the American Declaration of Independence says: "endowed by the Creator"), the consideration of animal rights takes on a different aspect than if we consider rights as human convention or social constructs.

I am put off by the attribution of rights to animals but I am persuaded that we humans, as a matter of respecting ourslves and our fellow humans, owe certain duties of care to non-human life that we come into contact with, at least in some cases.

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Jon1667 asked on 10/12/06 - Genocide, again.

Reprise to last month, and whether philosophers should be interested in (mere) words. Think that's right?

PARIS (AFP) - France has sought to calm an uproar in Turkey and in the European Union after the French parliament approved a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the 1915-17 massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks constituted genocide.

The French foreign ministry insisted that Paris was still "very keen" on dialogue with Turkey and wanted its "strong ties" with that country to continue.

But a furious Ankara -- which strongly contests the use of the term genocide -- was in no mood to listen, saying that France had dealt "a heavy blow" to longstanding bilateral relations.

Turkish parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc called the vote "shameful" and said it reflected a "hostile attitude".

The European Commission also criticised the French bill, saying it would hinder efforts to heal the wounds caused by the Armenian carnage nine decades ago.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/12/06:

The meanings of words DO matter.

We should probably decry the French action as "thought control" and contrary to the Western liberal tradition of freedom of speech.

Our condemnation of the killings and destruction need not hinge entirely on the difference between intentional genocide and reckless disregard for human life. It would matter even less if it weren't for the fact that calling it a genocide applies a label to present-day attitudes between the peoples and casts disapprobation on those who are unrepentent about their country's role in the past conflict.

What were the proponents of this new law attempting to accomplish? Would ratcheting up the sense of international disapproval make it more likely that the Turkish government would change its position? Or is this another skirmish in the battle over admitting Turkey to the EC?

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tonyrey asked on 10/07/06 - Can there be science without evidence?

...........Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

(Richard Dawkins - The Blind Watchmaker)

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/10/06:


I am under the impression that Dawkins, elsewhere, presents evidence but Tony has chosen to focus on this metaphysical side of Dawkins's argument. It's only as a result of selective quotation that Dawkins is made to foolishly appear to dispense with evidence.

Whether this side-argument by Dawkins conforms to Russell's prescription, I cannot readily say. Dawkins is presenting a first-order case of scientific argument and Russel is presenting a generalization of how science works and can be justified.

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tonyrey asked on 10/07/06 - Can there be science without evidence?

...........Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

(Richard Dawkins - The Blind Watchmaker)

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/07/06:

I read The Blind Watchmaker so long ago that I have no recollection of this particular business. What it looks like is that Dawkins is engaged in some unusually fine word-splitting over the term evidence as if it applies only to experimental results. Observations, such as the "certain aspects of life" must fall into some other category.

The clause beginning "If I am right" is an important part of the overall statement, and modifies the bit you originally quoted so as to make it a legitimate part of an argument rather than a silly-sounding standalone statement.

Doing a little Google search, I find that the version of the quote that you originally posted is already famous as an example of "Creationist quote mining". See, for example:

After some more searching, I find that the second quoted paragraph in your clarification can be attributed to Anthony Flew:

The intervening two paragraphs don't seem to be in Google's index. They speak in support of a notion that Dawkins most likely intends to exclude from the category of "rival theories".

So what the heck is going on here? Your question title appears to attribute a belief that there can be "science without evidence" to Richard Dawkins based on a doctored, out-of-context quote while, when considered in context, there is no indication that Dawkins (or anyone) holds this belief.

I remember looking through some old Answerway questions where you and Ken were sparring and you accused him of erecting a straw man. This posting now has me wondering if you know what kind of fallacy that is.

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tonyrey asked on 10/07/06 - Can there be science without evidence?

...........Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

(Richard Dawkins - The Blind Watchmaker)

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/07/06:

It sounds like a provocative way to open up an argument. Where is Dawkins going with this?

It's certainly the case that evidentiary support for a theory is only one of the considerations that go into choosing which (of many possible theories that fit the evidence) we prefer. A theory may be preferred for aesthetic reasons or because it is considered simpler than other theories or because we judge it to be more fruitful.

The counter-factual assumption of this statement, however, looks alarming. A theory for which there is no evidence seems like an airy imagining that is hardler worth considering.

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/03/06 - objective truth..................................

How is it that one might reach an objective truth, from a subjective experience?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/03/06:

One can pose an argument where the conclusion, while known to be true in other ways, is reached from false premises or invalid reasoning.

Socrates is mortal.
All men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is a man.

That being said, I'm not sure what contrast you are setting up between objective truth and subjective experience. If I mention Kekule's dream of the snake with its tail in its mouth as a subjective experience and the cyclic structure of benzene as an objective truth, am I getting close to your intended meanings?

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tonyrey asked on 09/27/06 - How would you evaluate cumulative arguments?

Interpretations of reality such as materialism, idealism and dualism seem unfalsifiable but they are not all equally convincing. Solipsism - the view that only oneself exists - is generally regarded as false for a variety of reasons, none of which is conclusive by itself. This suggests that several arguments taken together are sufficient to establish the most rational conclusion. What is your opinion?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/27/06:

Solipsism, in its own context, is trivially true. From every other standpoint, it can't possibly be true. There's nothing inconclusive about this state of affairs.

In the cases I've seen, solipsism is rejected for being an unproductive interpretation of reality. A thoroughgoing solipsist has to adopt, albeit provisionally, one of the the other interpretations of reality in order to make sense of the productions of their own mind.

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MarySusan asked on 09/27/06 - Science v Religion

"The true essence of 'science' as a particular activity is systematic observation under the rules of reason. ......only observations under those rules yield 'knowledge.' It is almost redundant, then, to discuss the philosophy and method of science, since they are basically the philosophy and method of reason."
David Eller "Natural Atheism" pg 188.


Science is the only road to knowledge.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/27/06:

I'm not familiar with Eller's work in general. Since he's put "knowledge" in quotes, I could imagine he's referring to "scientific knowledge", which is a peculiar set of facts and beliefs not to be confused with other bodies of "knowledge". Tieing science as tightly as Eller does to reason smells of a rhetorical device. Presumably he's going somewhere with this argument.

What is labeled scientific knowledge is necessarily provisional, so it does not meet the standard for knowledge as it is usually discussed in the philosophical sense.

Does Eller make the provocative statement "Science is the only road to knowledge" in what follows this quote or are you rabble-rousing on your own initiative? There are certainly claims made about other kinds of knowledge that I generally discount. I can imagine that Eller is leading up to a discounting of some such claims.

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MarySusan asked on 09/27/06 - IQ and Personality

'People who are grouchy, grumpy, feisty and difficult to get along with in their youth and middle age are getting the last laugh. It turns out that people who have this personality type are the most intelligent senior citizens.

That's the word from Morgan State University psychology professor Jacqueline Bichsel, who co-authored a study that found when people reach age 60, those who are disagreeable maintain a higher level of intelligence than their more easy-going friends, reports The Baltimore Sun. "These individuals have a higher vocabulary," she told the paper. "They have a better use of words, a better knowledge of facts."

It doesn't end there. All those grouchy senior citizens are in many ways smarter than the young whippersnappers they probably spend a good portion of the day criticizing. And this has turned the world of psychology upside-down. Aren't we supposed to become more addled in our old age? Forgetful and a little goofy? Bichsel says not--provided you're a crab at heart. "People are just intrigued by the fact that disagreeableness can be a good thing, particularly in old age," she told Sun reporter Joe Burris.

The study: 239 women and 142 men ages 19 to 89, some of whom had only attended a few years of high school and others of whom held graduate degrees, were given two tests. The first was a personality assessment that measured experience, continuousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The second was an intelligence test.

The results: The researchers found that personality was a prime factor predicting general intelligence, that is knowing facts and vocabulary--the kind of intelligence that you would use to play "Jeopardy." Interestingly, those who were under 60 did not outperform those who were over 60 in any cognitive measure, but those who were over 60 and had disagreeable personalities had higher intelligence scores than the younger group. The study findings were presented at the American Psychological Association meeting in New Orleans."


I posted this on the Philosophy Board because this board has the most intelligent participants(my observation)at AW, and some of the eldest and most grumpy.

Grumps rule?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/27/06:

It's an interesting report, but it does not yet give us much to act on. It could be that disagreeable people need above average intelligence in order to survive to age 60. I'm certainly not going to take this study to heart and become disagreeable just because there might be some offsetting benefits in retirement.

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/22/06 - What Is Culture? ..................................

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.
Mahatma Gandhi

Like much of the postmodern world today, Gandhi, appears to believe all culthers are necessary and usefull.

On the other hand, Seneca, thinks of culture as a matter of "learned behavior" that is, systems of meaning i.e. "A system of meaning is a set of relationships between one group of variables (like words, behaviors, physical symbols, etc.) and the meanings which are attached to them. Relationships in meaning systems are arbitrary: there is no particular reason why the word "cat" should refer to a furry four-legged animal, for example. However, when a society agrees upon certain relationships between a certain class of variable (like words or behaviors) and their meanings, a system of meaning is established. Language is perhaps the most formal of human meaning systems. At the same time, we all know what it means to wink at someone or to give someone "the finger" this suggests that human behavior, like language, can be a part of a complex and established system of meaning".
Clifford Geertz

As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without cultivation, so the mind without culture can never produce good fruit.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/22/06:

I don't see this as a matter of opposed views. The view on culture attributed to Seneca attempts to define (an aspect) of what we call culture. (Some physical culture, artifacts whose use and meaning are now lost, can still be recognizably "culture" without necessarily fitting into a system of meaning.)

Cultures, thought of as systems of meaning, can overlap, evolve, and interact. Gandhi recognized that and accepted as good (if not inevitable) that other cultures could influence his.

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/18/06 - never get interested in words...........................

Karl Popper wrote:
"One should never get involved in verbal questions or questions of meaning, and never get interested in words. If challenged by the question of whether a word one uses really means this or that, then one should say: 'I don't know, and I am not interested in meanings; and if you wish, I will gladly accept your terminology.' This never does any harm. One should never quarrel about words, and never get involved in questions of terminology. One should always keep away from discussing concepts. What we are really interested in, our real problems, are factual problems, or in other words, problems of theories and their truth. We are interested in theories and how they stand up to critical discussion; and our critical discussion is controlled by our interest in truth."

Do you agree or disagree, and most of all why?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/18/06:

Getting into discussions with people who want to quarrel about the meanings of words is often fruitless. If that's what Popper has in mind in this passage, he's giving good advice.

At another level, though, this seems wrong-headed. We know from the studies such as George Lakoff has done that the choice of words and the framing of a discussion can very decidedly effect our ability to think properly about a subject. Being unaware and uncaring about the meaning of words seems ultimately like a recipe for disaster.

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frack asked on 09/04/06 -
Are we good or bad? Should all laws, from the

Constitution down to the lowest level municipal parking violation, bow to the philosophy 1) that all people are by nature good so fewer laws and regs are necessary, or 2) that all people are by nature bad and more laws and regs are necessary?

("All people" isn't absolute, but is more than the majority.)

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/04/06:

This raises the question: do we have the laws we do because a sufficient number of people thought they were necessary for a well-regulated society?

Laws are created and enforced for a whole multitude of reasons. You and I would probably disagree in some cases about whether the reasons were justified or whether the results are fair. But law has only an oblique relationship to the propositions that people are, by nature, basically "good" or "bad".

Through the process of socialization, young people are exposed to normative assertions about which behaviors are acceptable and which unacceptable. Without this training, it's likely that they would soon transgress a legal boundary -- so in this limited sense we could say that all people are by nature "bad".

On the other hand, in most societies this socialization process is successful in the vast majority of cases. The residue of "bad" people can be attributed as much to unassimilated subcultures ("their norms are not our norms") as to failures in socialization. If we consider socialization a natural process, we could then conclude that most people are by nature "good".

None of this helps us decide whether, on the whole, we need more or fewer laws. Some of the laws we currently have should almost certainly be re-examined and repealed or revised. Novel situations and developments will also continually arise giving cause to consider whether new laws might solve or reduce developing problems.

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HANK1 asked on 09/04/06 - COULD IT BE?

* I just posted this on the Christianity Board! I'd like your input as well.

You've heard me mention SPIRALS in past answers re: the Universe. For those that don't remember my definition, they are in all REALITY large groups of very distant stars. I feel that there is an INNER UNIVERSE and an OUTER UNIVERSE, per what I've mentioned about SPIRALS. We know nothing about the OUTER UNIVERSE except for very shady speculation. Therefore, I ask you, "Could this EXTRA-GALACTIC NEBULAE found in the OUTER UNIVERSE be the home of our Triune God?" "Could the SPIRALS or STARS in this OUTER UNIVERSE be ANGELS?

Perhaps the word FAITH can be substituted by the word REALITY when asked to prove that there is a Triune God.



Jim.McGinness answered on 09/04/06:


It is only recently that I discerned in your postings here that you have an interest in biblical interpretation. Since that interest fits more under the Religion heading than Philosophy, I'll stand by my suggestion that it would have been better to hold this discussion over there. On the other hand, if you, DC, don't read the Christianity board because you dislike the nature of the questions and answers over there, inviting more of that to happen over here on Philosophy would seem to be detrimental to your interest here. [Please consider me to be just expressing my preferences, however, attempting to influence but not dictate others' behavior.]

I did review the Genesis text before making my post and I realize that there are all sorts of interpretive glosses, some of which attempt to address my question: what about the situation required divine intervention, if the effort would never have succeeded anyway? (Your use of the plural for "cities" and "towers" makes me think you've consulted some of the same extra-biblical sources I saw.) I don't have any answers about what the biblical text really means and I can't make out what Hank actually means with his question here. All we can do is pick up one of the possible threads of meaning and run with it.
I give you credit for being on Isaac Newton's side regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.

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HANK1 asked on 08/26/06 - MINIMUM WAGE:

"These unhappy times call for the building of plans ... that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgottten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Should ethical MOTIVATION be mandatory for all those who 'pull our chains?'


Jim.McGinness answered on 08/26/06:

When a concept such as minimum wage has been around for 50 years, it begins to be possible to ask whether it works as advertised. The outcome of various economic studies comparing small differences in the minimum wage between adjacent states do not come out with strong evidence that the minimum wage decreases employment of low-wage workers even though that is the result first order economic considerations would lead you to expect. What also becomes clear in these studies is that those employed at the minimum wage include a large number of people who are supplementing family incomes or are, for example, teenagers working for spending money rather than subsistence.

When proposing an increase in the minimum wage, it's pretty common to present the image of breadwinners struggling to make a decent living at the minimum wage. Other measures, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, do a much better job of aiding these people than the minimum wage.

How would you propose to make ethical motivation mandatory? The best we can do is expect ethical behavior and ensure that we have checks and balances in place to detect unethical behavior and punish at least the most egregious cases.

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Dark_Crow asked on 08/20/06 - American political left began.....................

Why is the Soviet Union turning back to religion in its search for societal values, and too: why has not the American political left began.

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/20/06:

It's a mistake to overplay the sympathy between the "Left" in the USA and the USSR dictatorship. The resurgence of open practice of religion in post-USSR Russia is best regarded as a return to normalcy after long suppression. The dynamic in the USA is different.

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tonyrey asked on 08/19/06 - What is our best hope for a final explanation?

"Perhaps our best hope for a final explanation is to discover a set of final laws of nature and show that this is the only logically consistent rich theory, rich enough for example to allow for the existence of ourselves."

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/19/06:

That's a wonderful article by Stephen Weinberg that you've pointed to.

Note that Weinberg uses "perhaps". He's proposing some characteristics that a "final explanation" would have. If you don't consider it possible to show that a set of Laws of Nature are final or if you don't believe it's possible to specify a minimum richness or if you don't believe it's possible for a system to show itself consistent, you'd disagree with Weinberg's proposal.

Nozick visits some of these same "ultimate explanations" in his Philosophical Explanations and Invariances. You start by asking, if there were such a thing as an ultimate truth or final explanation, what are some of its characteristics? If these characteristics seem implausible or mutally contradictory, we have some basis for suspecting that the ultimate truth or final explanation may well not exist.

Is it through this sort of reasoning that Huxley-agnostics come to their assertion that ultimate truth is unknowable?

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tonyrey asked on 08/17/06 - What would be your reaction to the following?

"I cannot refute your argument but I know you are mistaken." In what circumstances do you think this defence would be justified?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/18/06:

Wouldn't that depend on what your goals are?

If you're trying to convince someone of something, it's sometimes necessary to crawl into their frame in order to find the right words or arguments that might possibly be used to change their mind. If your argument attacks or ignores the other person's fundamental beliefs, or frame, they're likely to ignore it or consider it a rhetorical trick.

Since few of us are complete masters of our worldview, it is a matter of survival to accept things that fit and ignore contrary evidence most of the time.

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tonyrey asked on 08/16/06 - Silence implies consent, confusion or contempt?

Often there are no replies to a clarification. It is unreasonable to expect discussions to last indefinitely but if an important point is ignored what conclusion would you draw?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/16/06:

Yes, you could infer one of those things from the lack of response, but without confirmation it could just as likely be lack of interest, not having an apt comeback, or someone writing off the discussion as not worth continuing.

Come on, Tony, you've been here long enough to know how the dynamics of threads work. You're also sophisticated enough to know that you cannot reliably draw a conclusion from someone's silence - heck, it's hard enough to figure out what some people mean when they are providing a response!

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tonyrey asked on 08/08/06 - Why is it normally wrong to kill a person?

Would killing a person in normal circumstances cease to be wrong if the majority decided it is not wrong? If not why not?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/08/06:

Reverse Euthyphro
It seems like you are approaching Plato's Euthyphro problem from the other direction. Socrates disabuses us of the notion that "what the gods command" is identical to "good" or "right" -- and shows that we have an ability to make moral judgements that is independent of or prior to "what is required by God".

Here, you are asking us to consider whence these independent moral judgements arise. If the world were otherwise than it is, and most people did not consider killing another person to be wrong, would it still be wrong?

I expect people who adhere to a system of moral absoluties will consider the wrongness of killing to be unmodified by whatever world-changing hypothetical assumption you've adopted.

For relativists and skeptics about moral absolutes, it's harder to answer. Why would a majority have come to the conclusion that killing is not wrong? What if, for instance, the "killing" was actually a biologically necessary step in reproduction and that the consequences of the "killing" were that one month later you got one or more copies of the person who was "killed"? Under those circumstances, the opinion of the majority is pretty reasonable. There are people who consider sex to be wrong, but the majority don't let that stop them.

Moral principles are cultural artifacts. They have arisen in part because they specify behaviors that have helped the culture survive. If the culture finds itself in sufficiently different circumstances, we should expect to see some modifications occur in moral principles.

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jackreade asked on 08/02/06 - Hubris

Why should some cultures that have contributed nothing much positive to the world or their people in the last few hundred years be allowed to be a world player just because they will blow up citizens of other cultures if not elevated?

Isn't this simple blackmail?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/02/06:

I hear your frustration, but wouldn't it be better to name names and state your position without making vague allusions?

The dynamic we seem to be embroiled in is one that has happened again and again in history. One culture that considers itself civilized is threatened by encroachment, infiltration, or outright attack by another culture (which also considers itself civilized but with different values). The culture that "wins" these confrontations is generally the one willing to be the most ruthless and uncompromising, but you can't always pick out the eventual winner at the beginning of the battle.

I see no similarity to blackmail. As to hubris, that's a diagnosis best applied after it has been settled whether the pride was truly misplaced and overreaching.

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Jon1667 asked on 07/30/06 -

Fighting with one hand tied behind your back

Unhappily, Israel seems to have taken an unfortunate leaf from the American book and decided to fight a war with one hand tied behind its back, against an enemy that is fighting with both arms, and using its feet too. Why they have decided on this unfortunate strategy is anyone's guess. They never had before. Something, no doubt, to so with compunction about the effects of doing so on civilians, and fear of world criticism. Of course, as America showed in Viet Nam, and now, in Iraq, this kind of thing never works and end up by causing far more suffering and death, than attacking at full strength and getting the matter over does. And, in addition, going to war half-heartedly, ends up causing more criticism and blame, than if it had been quickly done.

The Israeli military had learned to be as feckless as the American military. Perhaps, neither deserves to win. And as Hezbollah as just pointed out, reasonably enough, there is no reason for them to make any concessions for peace since no military victory has been scored over them. Sounds right to me.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/30/06:

You make me wonder if, in the cant of the Recovery movement, the US, Israel, heck, even Europe, must hit bottom before they'll begin to take necessary action?

tonyrey asked on 07/24/06 - How can nuclear conflict be prevented?


Jim.McGinness answered on 07/24/06:

I realize this isn't exactly what you were asking about, but one component of the era called "The Cold War" was a nuclear confrontation between, mainly, the USA and the USSR that did not, ultimately, result in the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. One lesson to be taken from this is that it is at least possible that nuclear warfare can be averted.

How can the lessons of the Cold War be applied to today's situation? Will applying those lessons work? Or will current-day misunderstandings of those lessons actually make nuclear explosions more likely?

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jackreade asked on 07/19/06 - A Challenge from Dershowitz

My argument is that by hiding behind their own civilians, the Islamic radicals issue a challenge to democracies: either violate your own morality by coming after us and inevitably killing some innocent civilians, or maintain your morality and leave us with a free hand to target your innocent civilians. This challenge presents democracies such as Israel with a lose-lose option and the terrorists with a win-win option. I challenge the readers of this post to recommend to Israel better ways of responding to this challenge. What would you do? What would America do? What should a democracy do?


How would you answer Prof. Dershowitz' challenge?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/20/06:

In practice, the US has not followed a policy of never placing civilians at risk. It is always a balance between targeting enemy combatants and materiel and accepting some collateral damage, whether it's an orphanage or a Chinese embassy. Over time, targeting precision has increased the percentage of time that they hit what they aim for to close to 100%, but errors still occur. The calculus used takes into account that hitting military targets is a plus and hitting anything else is bad publicity and does our side considerable harm.

What should we do? Continue to develop more precise and less indiscriminately lethal weapons. Imagine mosquito-sized gadgets that take a picture of a suspected bad guy and his surroundings, relay the photos back to headquarters for confirmation, then deliver an incapacitating non-lethal "sting".

Meanwhile, in the real world, we have to continue to accept that the consequences of military action will involve a level of civilian casualties (and friendly fire incidents) higher than we would ideally like. We cannot allow the use of civilian shields to completely incapacitate us.

Science fiction authors and other writers have occasionally considered the results of making war less terrible. One thing you'd expect is that political leaders would be less reluctant to enter into war. To what extent would we want to let off on the brakes?

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tonyrey asked on 07/18/06 - What was the origin of the genetic code?......

"One half of the modern system of coded chemistrythe genetic code and the sequences it conveysis, from a chemical perspective, arbitrary. The other half of the system of coded chemistrythe activity of the proteinsis, from a chemical perspective, necessary. In life, the two halves are coordinated. The problem follows: how did thatthe whole systemget here?...

The question, of course, is which of the two steps came first. Without life acquiring some degree of foresight, neither step can be plausibly fixed in place by means of any schedule of selective advantages. How could an ancestral form of RNA have acquired the ability to code for various amino acids before coding was useful?

Could the two steps have taken place simultaneously? If so, there would appear to be very little difference between a Darwinian explanation and the frank admission that a miracle was at work. If no miracles are at work, we are returned to the place from which we started, with the chicken-and-egg pattern that is visible when life is traced backward now appearing when it is traced forward."

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/18/06:

That David Berlinski article On the Origins of Life in the Feb 2006 issue of Commentary seems to be hidden behind a subscription wall.

One clue that we have regarding this issue and the chemical non-arbitrariness of the genetic code is that modern-day transfer RNA molecules bind specific amino acids while also binding quite specifically to their messenger RNA complement. That's just a clue, but it suggests that there might once have been very primitive replicators. It may be that we will never know much about the characteristics of the very first things that might be considered living.

Attempting to replace our lack of knowledge with a proposition that "a miracle must have occurred" is unsatisfactory to me: it substitutes one kind of not knowing for another. Berlinski also says these two are largely equivalent, but he seems more satisfied with the miracle than the frank admission that we don't know.

What's your stance on this, Tony? Are you an active supporter of the Discovery Institute's version of Intelligent Design? (One of Berlinski's affiliations is with the Discovery Institute.)

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/15/06 - Is a persons appearance a symbol of a persons moral character?

Is a persons appearance a symbol of a persons moral character?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/15/06:

Like in The Portrait of Dorian Grey?

Making an assumption about a person's moral character based simply on their appearance strikes me as an irrational act.

It's true that certain aspects of one's behavior will redound on a person's appearance. Those same results can easily be the result of factors outside the person's control.

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/13/06 - What keeps criminals under control in a society?

What keeps criminals under control in a society? Is it just laws, courts and Police? The answer seems clear enough, what keeps criminals under control is the majority. However, what if the society is not civilized? What then? Let us take for instance a suicide bomber of the sort like those who died on 9/11, or one who blows up a caf full of people in Israel, what is their ultimate aim, for apparently the actual destruction is not the goal, in a military sense.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/13/06:

Much crime has a rational basis, or can be treated as if the criminals were acting according to a rational plan to achieve some goal. As long as we view the behavior as completely irrational and unexplainable, we will be at a disadvantage in trying to stop the criminal behavior.

According to one study I've read about, terrorist acts are committed as a way to get a largely democratic country to change its "oppressive" behavior toward the group the terrorists consider themselves to be supporting. This has been successful in enough cases in the past (U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon is used as an example) that it continues as a useful strategy. In particular, it seems impossible to stop more than a fraction of individual suicide bombers from their attempted missions. The efforts to prevent this sort of attack have to aim for a higher level of organization that promotes the tactic, recruiting and supplying the suicide bombers -- or (to speak from the other side's point of view) to ameliorate the oppressive conditions and satisfy the complaints of the terrorists' sponsors.

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NCohen asked on 07/10/06 - Origins

Do you think that Art and religion come from the same human yearnings? Is religion a off-shoot of Art?

I think we can all agree that language is the greatest invention of mankind, what are the next greatest inventions? Medicine second? Art? God?

I am hopeful for your thoughts.


Jim.McGinness answered on 07/11/06:

Art and religion are both outgrowths of the human capacity for free-ranging symbol manipulation and speculation. While we often see religion and art connected, there is little basis to say that one comes prior to the other.

Language, medicine, art - these are not single inventions but cultural artifacts built up through long periods of time and from the efforts of countless contributors. Some religions trace their origins back to specific originators.

Speaking of inventions, did you know that the idea of making hay had to be invented?

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NCohen asked on 07/10/06 - Quality of Philosophical Arguments

The following quotation is taken from Russell's "History of Western Philosophy":

"There is little of true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or modern times."

Why it's so difficult to have a genuine philosophical conversation with someone who firmly believes in God? The Catholic Philosophy section in Russell's book demonstrates how philosophy was largely dead in the dark ages, and was only revived after the reformation.

While there are a number of theologians who did make some significant philosophical contributions, their philosophy was still essentially guided by faith and thus significantly 'tainted'.

Aren't atheists and agnostics the only people in an intellectual positon to philosophize about the nature and possibility of God?

Many thanks,

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/11/06:

It's an equal-opportunity activity. You could say that learning how to twist logic and learning how to detect twisted logic are two sides of the same coin. If we didn't have people engaged in both activities, philosphy would be too boring.

I question whether it is sensible to compare philosophers working in different eras in an ex post facto way. It makes sense to acknowledge the most outstanding thinkers of their times and to recognize the obstacles they had to overcome to make their contributions as well as the debt their thinking owed to predecessors.

In science as well as in philosophy, you don't reject a person's arguments because of their background or other beliefs. Those should be extraneous to the matter at hand. The arguments should be evaluated in their own right and on their own merits. The post-modernist critique, or any questioning of bias based on ulterior motives, may be a tool worth applying, but mostly as a way of locating ideas needing closer scrutiny before acceptance.

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cheriskae asked on 07/10/06 - Sociology

William Golding wrote "Lord of the Flies " after taking part in the bloody D-Day landing in France during World War II . Do you agree with his belief that violence is part of human nature?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/11/06:

Golding's novel extrapolates from everyday observations about how people treat other people (or, since everyone was male, how men treat other men). If a group of adolescent boys were set down in a situation with no direct control from greater society, why would we not believe them capable of committing acts that happen (thankfully much more rarely) even when society is exerting its best efforts at control?

The ability to commit violence certainly seems to be a part of our inheritance as human creatures. We also have a well developed capacity to work together in societies where that violence is kept largely in check. Even in Golding's story, you don't see a breakdown into completely chaotic, every-man-for-himself, fighting. There are leaders and followers; division into us-vs-them tribal groups; and nascent ritual practices. The elements that some see as constituting the means by which society keeps violence directed and in check are present. Whether these practices arrived by being essential to human nature or were carried in by the boys as part of their invisible cultural backpacks is left for the reader to decide.

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tonyrey asked on 07/06/06 - Evil and psychopathy

.........................................."A psychopath is defined as having no concern for the feelings of others and a complete disregard for any sense of social obligation. They seem egocentric and lacking insight and any sense of responsibility or consequence. Their emotions are thought to be superficial and shallow, if they exist at all. They are considered callous, manipulative and incapable of forming lasting relationships, let alone of any kind of love. It is thought that any emotions which the true psychopath exhibits are the fruits of watching and mimicking other people's emotions. They show poor impulse control and a low tolerance for frustration and aggression. They have no empathy, remorse, anxiety or guilt in relation to their behavior. In short, they truly are devoid of conscience." (wikipedia)

Do you believe all evil behaviour is caused by psychiatric disorders, e.g. psychopathy?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/06/06:

No, of course not!

The reduction of all evil behavior to one or another sort of psychiatric disorder is an enterprise in definition or labeling or extended metaphor; it does not tell us much that is new or useful.

To some extent, evil is in the eye of the beholder. It's not necessarily intrinsic in the act or in the person we are holding responsible.

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HANK1 asked on 07/02/06 - ART:

Its pretty difficult to come up with a good definition of art. A recent attempt from John Carey in "What Good are the arts" is this: "A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, for whatever reason."

Do you have your own definition of art?


Jim.McGinness answered on 07/03/06:

The definition for art that I once used: a thing is a work of art if:

  • it was made with the intention that it be a work of art
  • the maker was creating it as part of a conversation with other artists about what art was
While circular, this was intended to recognize the impossibility of defining what art is merely by referring to, say, the physical properties or appearance of the work. The definition also intended to exclude craft and folk art for the purposes of the conversation. Many of the paintings of old masters would not necessarily have qualified under this definition, though, since they were works of decorative craftsmanship made outside of (earlier than) the modern conversation about what constitutes art.

I don't think much of that definition any more, but I recognize in John Carey's statement the futility of trying to declare a boundary separating art and non-art. Between the Dadaists and some of today's performance artists, there's been a continual assualt on any line of demarcation even though there is little reduction in the common-sense notion that some things are art and other things are not.

I once objected to a (student) performance artist that by declaring everything they did as art, they were essentially destroying a useful concept in the English language. I've given up caring very much about the issue, since other artists I talked to -- who should be the ones most affected -- seemed uniformly unconcerned: there's no percentage in denigrating another's claims to art, it's hard enough for any artist to keep their own clientele interested in what they're doing (or selling), it's all a matter of taste (but taste can sometimes be educated).

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jackreade asked on 06/23/06 - Liberalism and Religion and Coulter's Book

"......the main thesis of her(Coulter's) book Godless: The Church of Liberalism is that liberalism professes hostility toward religion yet exhibits many of the practical attributes of religion, such as the acceptance of certain propositions mainly on faith.
But such faith, she continues, doesn't recognize a godhead, hence the liberal variant is a precarious and ultimately self-contradictory faith. The crux of her extended rant is that liberals are disingenuous about their tenets of faith: they pretend to be tolerant, and yet they impose their dogmas on others. They purportedly adhere to a wall of separation between church and state, and yet they enlist the state to promote their particular sacred cows. She takes liberals to task time and again for such hypocrisy, arguing, for instance, that the state-sponsored adherence to evolution in the name of scientific rationality actually betrays several unexamined core beliefs. The bulk of the book is an expos of others' blind spots. When she finally shows her own cards, she seems to be claiming that her faith is, by contrast, more admirable because it explicitly acknowledges that everything depends on the existence of God. God is her trump card.

If Coulter had done her homework (or if her publisher had held her to customary research standards), she might have realized that others have made such a case against liberalism in much more elegant and compelling terms. In fact, such an argument against liberalism has been a commonplace in democratic theory for some time, and thoughtful folks (left and right) have already moved two or three steps beyond it.

The case is hardly new. Karl Marx said much the same thing as Annie-Come-Lately Coulter in his famous essay, "On the Jewish Question." Liberalism in its public face feigns neutrality toward all worldviews, Marx argued, and yet it enacts insidiously, under a secular cover, many unacknowledged biases and pursues them with religious ferocity.

Likewise, John Stuart Mill, the foremost proponent of political liberalism in the 19th century, would provisionally agree with Coulter's definition of liberalism: "Liberalism is a comprehensive belief system denying the Christian belief in man's immortal soul." The central tenets of liberalism, liberty of thought and expression, require, for Mill, vigilant self-skepticism about dogma, especially religious dogma. Mill would thus challenge Coulter's haughty self-assurance about the truth of Christianity (albeit in a much more civil tone than she deploys to shatter others' presumptions of infallibility). Allow me to quote a passage from Mill's On Liberty at some length, because it seems to speak to Coulter's condition, if I may say so:

"By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects--the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable". (On Liberty, chapter 2).

John Rawls񟬣 classic, A Theory of Justice, which became the liberal bible (in academic and legal circles) for many decades, also seems quite vulnerable to Coulter's belated critique: Rawls, in good liberal fashion, maintained that the state ought to adopt a position of strict neutrality toward various religious views. Many post-Rawlsian commentators, from feminists to neo-conservatives, have pointed out that the liberal claim to state-neutrality is untenable and even duplicitous...." etc etc etc. Have to let the rest go due to Professor John Seely, from blogging.


Is it that these issues being played out in such an ugly manner today decided intellectually in the 19th Century?

That Christians don't practice what they preach(Mill's comments).

That Liberals are dogmatic and hostile to religionists?

What does Marx mean whe he says the "Jewish Question"?

Thanks in advance for comments about this.


Jim.McGinness answered on 06/24/06:

Let me address just one of your questions: Marx's essay On the Jewish Question.

At the time he wrote it, 1843, the status of Jews in most European states was one of restricted rights and some had begun calling for emancipation of Jews. How this could be accomplished was a tricky question in the face of explicitly Christian governments. Marx observed that the United States had a supposedly secular state, but that the population was overwhelmingly religious, hence secularizing the state was not a solution either.

Separating the religious aspects of Judaism from the cultural traits of the Jewish population in Europe and from the widely prevalent stereotypes of Jews was not so easy (Marx was an atheist, raised as a Lutheran), so a number of remarks appear in the essay that today are considered anti-semitic. (Not as vicious as Charles Dickens's caricatures from the same period.)

Marx developed several tenets of Communism in this essay, going well beyond the emancipation of Jews and secularization of the state. Achieving human emancipation requires, according to Marx, dissolution of the state, civic institutions, privilege and property.

You can read a translation of the essay at:

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Erewhon asked on 06/21/06 - Dali on Memories ... ... ...

"The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant."
-Salvador Dali, pixit (1904-1989)

Is Dali right about this or not, and why?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/21/06:

Dali's pithy statement is a reminder but not quite truth: with gemstones, there are several ways aside from mere appearance to determine whether a stone is false. Experts will not be misled by the fakes, at least not if they can use all of their tools and faculties.

Not so with memory. Memory is personal and subjective and notoriously unreliable. We cannot turn Dali's prescription around and run it in reverse: our most brilliant and real-seeming memories will most likely contain some truth and some falsehood, but so will all of the less brilliant and vaguer memories. One can train one's memory faculties to make them more reliable in certain respects, to reduce the amount of falsehood, hopeful reconstruction and plausible filling-in of details. If you choose to speak or write your memories, you cannot render them up whole. The story you tell will have been edited. An expert cannot assess your memory directly, only those parts which might be subject to independent verification.

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HANK1 asked on 06/20/06 - THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE:

Is English on its way to becoming the world's unofficial international language?


Jim.McGinness answered on 06/20/06:

In some situations it already is, but Mandarin has been often mentioned as a contender as well.

I wish our schools would offer more foreign language choices. Knowing just one language often means you have a very parochial view on what the whole world is about and a somewhat limited perspective on that one language.

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keenu asked on 06/18/06 - Why you don't know what you're talking about

Saw this today and thought some of you may enjoy it.

Why you don't know what you're talking about
Posted on Sunday, 18 June, 2006 | 11:08 | Comments: 13
Ken Korczak:
So, you think you know what youre talking about? Ive got news for you -- you dont know what youre talking about. The problem is that youre using words, phrases and sentences which have only their own meaning; that is, the words you use to describe a reality which is not the real reality. All reality is suspended in language. But human language is not reality. Language is an artifical invention. At best, language is only an approximation of reality. Human beings using language have essentially mistaken the road map for the road.So if youre not talking about reality when you speak, what are you talking about? The fact is, there can only be one answer: Nothing. Youre talking about nothing. You are enjoying your own self-invented game impregnated with its own artifical meanings -- meanings which inevitably circle and fold back on themselves, attached to nothing but themselves, and describing only themselves.The great physcist Neils Bohr realized this and found it deeply troubling. What led him to question the very nature of langauge itself were his attempts to describe the underlying nature of quantum reality. Bohr realized that quantum theory does not allow for the existence of independent elements of reality. Einstein objected deeply to this notion, saying: I refuse to believe that the moon does not exist when we dont observe it.

But Einstein argument could not stand upon the discovery and verification of Bells Theorem. Bell's Theorem states: No physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.But, of course, many will argue that language breaks down and becomes meaningless on the quantum level, but in the ordinary world -- the macro world regulated by classical Newtonian physics, language serves us just fine and helps us to not only model our reality, but actually represent reality. But what happens is, just as physics divides the world into objects in interaction so too the mind partitions experience into concepts that are bounded in thought. Our language grabs things and represents them as nouns or objects in our brains. But the model that forms in our brain is not that which is out there -- if there is anything out there at all. More on that in a minute.Think of a baby lying in a crib. The baby has yet to form language in its brain. A bird flies through the the window of the babys room. The baby goes wild with delight at the incredible miracle it is witnessing! It has no verbal definition for what is what this thing is! Its wonderful beyond imagining! But sooner or later, the babys mother will tell him: Thats a bird! A bird! At that point, the word bird become the dominant association with the former flying miracle, and it becomes something dull and known. But the word bird cannot possible describe the entire reality of what a bird really is, if at all.

From the that point on, the child becomes ensnared in a lesser, more artifical reality. When he or she thinks of a bird or says bird the child has a greater association with the definition and the word than with the reality. We believe that naming something makes it what it is. It does not. In fact, the definition is so far removed from reality as to become meaningless.But it gets even worse when we come to more abstract concepts -- internal words and thoughts that have no solid match in the exterior world. Think about the word the or spirituality or about. Theyre utter abstractions and have meaning only we invent for them. When we speak, we use all of our baseless, abstract words to tie together words that supposedly make acccurate representation of physical reality, which they dont. The result is -- meaningless babble -- about nothing. This is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was getting at when he concluded: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless".In his book, The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke writing about scientific knowlege, says: Knowledge acquired through the use of any structure is selective. There are no standards or beliefs guiding the search for knowledge which are not dependent on structure. Scientific knowledge, in sum, is not necessarily the clearest representation of what reality is ... Discovery in invention. Knowledge is man-made. And we are always working with a structure that is suspended in artifical language.So you might say: Okay, oaky, so our words amd meanings are not reflecting reality. Well, at least we have some meaning -- the meaning we invent for ourselves. But there is a huge problem with that to. This is an assumption based on Rene Descartes famous statement: I think; therefore, I am. The problem is that Descartes was wrong.

He made a whopping, unsupportable and false assumption. He assumed there was an I. But an I cannot be proven to exist. An I cannot be proven to not exist. And finally, an I cannot be proven to exist and not exist at the same time. So relying on Descartes is hopeless.In a previous column here at Unexplained Mysteries, I argued that all existence is an illusion, and that, in fact, nothing exists, and there simply is no reality. Part of the reason we have the persistent and extremely tricky illusion that something does exist is our suspension in the unreality of language. If we could somehow de-tangle ourselves from the trap of modeling everything we know through the use of language, we would find ourselves experiencing a much richer and greater reality. It would be like some kind of psychedelic, magical realm of infinite meaning. It would be marvelous! But yet, there is someplace further to go. And if we could go beyond that vast, magical realm of language-free reality -- we would ultimately experience what is beyond that -- the nonexperience of Nothing -- which is the ultimate experience.

Ken welcomes you to visit his Web page:

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/19/06:

Welcome back, keenu!

This is more fine nonsense from Ken Korczak, on a par with his earlier column which you posted in March

Once again, Korczak is making the unwarranted leap that if we can only have limited, provisional knowledge or approximate descriptions of reality, that we therefore have no knowledge and no description of reality. It's an absolutist approach little better than nihilism.

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HANK1 asked on 06/16/06 - PRETTY GOOD, HUH?

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved." - Helen Keller



Jim.McGinness answered on 06/16/06:

Character that has not been tried by difficult circumstances is unassessed. We simply cannot know what to expect from such a person. With no opportunity to show, through their actions, that what they say they believe in is any sort of guide to how they will act under pressure, we generally judge such a person to have an ill-defined character.

Trial and suffering certainly went into the formation of Helen Keller's formidable character. We've also seen people choose a path of asceticism and meditation who are considered to have a deeply developed character. So it seems there might be a peaceful or quiet way to strengthen the soul, contrary to what Helen Keller says.

It's puzzling to think how this statement of Helen Keller can be used in practice. People who intentionally subject themselves to suffering may have a character flaw. There are times when we have to decide whom to trust amongst people who have not been through trial by fire for which this quote gives no guidance.

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jackreade asked on 06/13/06 - Stephen Hawking

Today in the news, there was a story that states that Stephen Hawking thinks human beings should start colonizing other planets in order to survive as a species because he believes we have roughly 100 years before humans go extinct by destroing the earth as a fit place to live.

I have been thinking aobut this off and on today. There is a possibility that a person born this year could be alive at the end of the world. Stephen Hawking out and saying his views adds immediacy to all the problems everyone faces.

Anyway, I am filled with questions and concerns.

Would it be moral or ethical to forceably reduce human population in view of our dire straits(assuming that would be beneficial)?

Take other steps that might be considered extreme?

Is surviving as a species and saving the living inhabitants of earth an ethical must?

Should we just accept the inevitable?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/13/06:

Hawking was including natural disasters as well as human-caused disasters. I don't believe he was suggesting that reducing human population would help the problem.

It's good that Hawking has lent his star power to this idea, one that scientists and futurists (not to mention Timothy Leary) have been promoting for decades. Getting to the point where sustainable human populations exist in more than one star system, on more than one planet is an obvious necessary step for the long term survival of the species. Estimating the urgency of this step is difficult since some of the dangers we face are unknown and unquantifiable.

Encouraging others to join in pursuit of this lofty goal, on a voluntary basis, does not appear to have any ethical downsides except the ordinary one: what's advocated could be a mistake and people might misapply their resources by pursuing this goal rather than some other. Until we encounter evidence that life exists elsewhere in the universe, that merits our consideration, it's probably futile to argue what ethical obligations we might owe to such other life forms.

We certainly don't have the right to force others to support the goal of extraterrestial exploration and settlement, or the goal of species survival, and it's arguably immoral to spend tax dollars on these pursuits collected from citizens who don't support the goals.

Accept the inevitable? What sort of defeatist talk is that? A likely possibility is not inevitable.

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jackreade asked on 06/12/06 - Reality

What is the best way to investigate reality, or perhaps, combinations of ways? I am thinking of the following possible ways, but would like some input on how to think about it.

Ways To Discover Reality

1. Scientific Inquiry
2. Reality Testing (Therapy)
3. Cracking open a Bible
4. Reading reputable Non-Fiction Books
5. Go and experience life
6. Engaging in mystical experiences
7. Sitting and thinking about reality
8. Etc.

What is your opinion? Can you build a case for it?

Many thanks,

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/13/06:

Reality has many facets. I doubt that there is any one path that would allow you to comprehensively know all of them, though there are reports from people who claim that they do. My considered opinion is that they are deluding themselves by accepting a certain illusion as being all of reality when it is, if not completely illusion, just one aspect of the whole.

The warnings about captivating illusions serve as a caution about accepting a single-path approach. It's not as if the only alternatives are

  • a pig, satisfied
  • a human, dissatisfied
  • Socrates, dissatsified
  • a fool, satisfied
  • (paraphrasing a bit of Utilitarianism by J. S. Mill)

You have the choice to aspire to some lesser degree of satisfaction than the pig's and some greater degree of satisfaction than Socrates's.

None of the approaches you list is valueless. What most philosophically minded people will recommend is that you live your life in such a way that there is some room for contemplation. So I leave you with two pointers to contemplate:

The first contains a pair of excerpts, Mill and Nozick:

The second is a report on a speech given at Providence: which advocates a slightly different perspective.

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tonyrey asked on 06/10/06 - To what extent is (a)theism intelligible?

..............We do not fully understand the mind but we believe it exists because we have direct knowledge of our thoughts and decisions. We do not have direct knowledge of other minds but we deduce they exist from the evidence of rational and purposeful activity similar to our own. Although we do not fully understand the concept of a Supreme Mind we can deduce it exists from the evidence of rational and purposeful activity on a scale that far exceeds human activity.

We can understand the proposition that there is no Supreme Mind but we cannot understand how minds or purposeful activity originated in the absence of a Supreme Mind.

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/10/06:

Is intelligibility really what this question is about?

One way of explaining how our minds work is the homunculus theory: that there is a little man inside who pulls strings or pushes levers or whatever it takes to make the mind work. Similarly, one way to explain the regularities we see in the environment around us is the supreme being theory, that says there is a big mind or being that sees all and is responsible for all.

Both these theories simply defer the explanation of what we were seeking to explain. Instead of explaining how the mind works, we now need to explain how the little man works. And instead of learning how the universe works, we spend our time thinking up ways for the supreme being to be and trying to deduce properties for it from what we see around us. I find these approaches equally unsatisfactory and not to be preferred to simply admitting there are things we do not know.

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NCohen asked on 06/08/06 - A Question on Morality

Good evening, experts,

I have been reading various opinions about the assassination of al Zarqawi today, and I would like your comments about Alan Dershowitz'position. Specifically, addressing the moral topics of hypocricy and the morality of targeted assassination.

"As the civilized world justly celebrates the long overdue killing of Abu M al-Zarqawi, it must recall that his death was brought about by what has come to be known as "targeted assassination" or "targeted killings." This is the same technique that has been repeatedly condemned by the international community when Israel has employed it against terrorists who have murdered innocent Jews.
When Israel targeted the two previous heads of Hamas, the British foreign secretary said: "targeted killings of this kind are unlawful and unjustified." The same views expressed at the United Nations and by several European heads of state. It was also expressed by various Human Rights organizations.

Now Great Britain is applauding the targeted killing of a terrorist who endangered its soldiers and citizens. What is the difference, except that Israel can do no right in the eyes of many in the international community. Surely there is no real difference between Zarqawi on the one hand and terrorist leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other hand. If it is argued that Sheik Yassin was merely a spiritual leader of Hamas (a total lie since he explicitly authorized numerous terrorist acts), then it must be noted that one of the people targeted by the United States was Sheik Abd-al-Rahman, who was also described as a "spiritual advisor."

When the United States and British forces have engaged in targeted killings of terrorists, there have often been collateral deaths of non terrorists, as there apparently were in this instance as well. The military announced preliminary findings that a woman and a child were among the dead. Collateral deaths are inevitable when terrorists hide among civilians and use them as shields. Both Israel and the United States make great efforts to reduce the number of collateral deaths and injuries but they do not always succeed.

I applaud the targeted killing of Al Zarqawi. His death will save many innocent lives. But I also applaud the targeted killings of anti-Israel terrorists whose deaths save numerous lives. All decent people must insist on a single standard of judging tactics such as targeted killing. It is nothing short of bigotry to approve this tactic when used by the United States and Great Britain but to condemn it when it is used by Israel." A Dershowitz

Thank you.

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/09/06:

Dershowitz is correct regarding the double standard: the kind of targeted killing done by Isreal and the targeted killing of Zarqawi by the US should be held up to the same moral standard.

I found this paper ( to lay out a good historical background on the issues behind law-of-war restraints on assassinations. As is often the case in ethics, getting clear, bright rules to follow is sometimes tortuous and sometimes questionable. As it appears to me, one of the reasons for eschewing certain types of assassination and killings is so that the other side cannot legitimately do the same to you.

For my own part, I still have some moral qualms about his tactic. I think the bulk of my objection comes from the fact that targeting intelligence for these types of attacks has so often been wrong, so instead of killing the intended target we get a number of people killed as what is euphemistically called "collateral damage". I do not consider these killings to be justified nor should they be excused just because the intended target was a legitimate one.

Even though the dead are just as dead, I still see a difference between killings that occur in the heat of battle and attacks that come out of the blue. Giving surprise attacks a label of "sneaky", or otherwise somehow shameful, serves to regulate warfare so that the state of non-warfare can be safer and more secure.

Getting too hung up on the rules can have its own problems. Still, I wonder whether we benefit civilization if our response to barbarians' * violation of the rules is to immediately drop the rules that helped define us as civilized.

* I use the word barbarians with some trepidation, since it is a word that carries quite a load of baggage.

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tonyrey asked on 06/02/06 - The rival merits of Theism and Atheism..........

Metaphysical views can be assessed according to the following criteria:-

1. Economy: Atheism seems more economical than theism because it does not postulate a supernatural Being.

2. Consistency: Atheism is internally consistent because it consists of only one proposition - God does not exist. Whether theism is internally consistent is a matter of debate.

4. Intelligibility: At first sight atheism is more intelligible than theism because it simply denies that God exists. But a negation is unintelligible unless it is made clear what is being negated.

5. Precision: Again atheism seems more precise than theism but its degree of precision is directly related to the precision of what is being negated. If, for example, theism implies that evolution is designed atheism will gain in precision.

Adequacy: Atheism seems less adequate than theism because rationality, personality, morality and spirituality are beyond the scope of natural explanation.

6. Fertility: Atheism is less fertile than theism because it is negative and offers no scope for investigation into the supernatural and the purpose of life.

7. Verifiability: Atheism can be verified only if theism is falsified. Theism, on the other hand, can be verified by supernatural events such as miracles.

8. Falsifiability: Similarly, atheism can be falsified only if theism is verified. Theism, on the other hand, can be falsified by evidence of inconsistency, e.g. if evil can be shown to be unnecessary or excessive.

9. Simplicity: The simplest explanation is not necessarily the most economical. If economy is put before adequacy the result is incoherence. Atheism implies there is no purpose behind existence - including the existence of rational beings. Theism gives us reason "to regard all order in the world as if it had originated in the purpose of a supreme wisdom... to connect the things of the world according to teleological laws, and thus to arrive at their greatest systematical unity". (Kant)

What is your assessment?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/03/06:

Tony, this is a wonderful start!

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jackreade asked on 06/01/06 - Former Republic and Democracy

I tend to agree with Noam Chomsky that America is no longer a democracy.

Those running for election take much money from large donors so they must vote the donor's agenda or not get money for reelection. Their will is more important than the people's will.

Lobbyists write a lot of legislation and give away lots of money in order to further their agendas.

Most Republicans and Democrats are bought and paid for . Everyone knows that.

Therefore, the rich and powerful individuals and Corporations are able to use politicians to further their programs. A few manor corporations control the media, the newspapers and television media are primaily promote right wing agendas, there are only a few media outlets that promote a true left wing agenda. Lightweight Katie Couric is the new CBS 6 o'clock anchor. Fluff. Bill O'Reilly tells outright lies with a straight face. Most talking heads can't hold their jobs if they don't bash democrats.

Congress has been effectively rendered powerless. Bush can dismiss what they pass if he "doesn't agree with it". The executive branch can order the search of a Congressman's office in the middle of the night and seize his private Democratic election strategies there, I bet. Bush/Cheney can invade Iran if they want to.

WE have an Imperial Presidency with Dick Cheney at the head and George Bush as the genial but stupid spokesmodel.

So, do you agree with me?

If not, why not?

Regards, jack

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/01/06:

Chomsky's apparent agenda contains some elements that strike me as unbalanced and unwise, even if a number of his observations and critiques are on target.

The US has never been a pure democracy but it has institutions and a tradition that strive toward ideals that are usually thought of as democratic.

The corrupting power of money is always with us. The need to collect large sums (and to be beholden to the donors), just to be elected, is something many elected officials complain about. What has amazed some observers, considering the huge flows of money controlled by the federal government, is how cheap the corruption is. You'd expect the competing interests to bid up the price more.

[I have to agree with Ken, this question might have been more suitably asked in the Politics board rather than here in Philosophy.]

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HANK1 asked on 06/01/06 - JIM:

I have to use this Question Board to say what I have to say to you. The 'to everyone' (clarification utility) doesn't work for those who ask questions after you use it once.

1. "Another question is whether Hank is quoting some source he has not cited (it wouldn't be the first time) or if this is something he came up with on his own. A Google search on "virtue inflection locale" turns up no obvious hits, but that's inconclusive."

1. My question came from my book manuscript entitled "Never A Toadstool." I DO NOT LIKE INSINUATIONS.

2. I admit that I have been negligent in not using quotes on a very few of my questions and answers in the past. However, so have others but ... no harm, no foul. Everyone is allowed a few mistakes in over four years. Besides, it wasn't intentional.

3. What burns me is you just had to embarass me by using a clarification to expose my negligence. A note to me directly from my profile would have been the Christian thing to do ... don't you think? I have used this procedure a few times and I was thanked by the recipients after I did.

Christians forgive. You're forgiven! Hope you understand.


Jim.McGinness answered on 06/01/06:


Thank you. I'm sorry you felt burned.

I'd like to defuse this, but the medium of board postings will probably fail me. Please take what I say in the way that seems best for you - I bear you no ill will at all.

While I am often irked by postings on the boards here that are blatant violations of copyright, I like to think I'm somewhat restrained in only posting remonstrations occasionally. My preference is to see postings where people use their own thoughts and words.

I also prefer to see postings that are incisive rather than rambling, precise rather than vague, understandable rather than obfuscated. I like to think my preferences are widespread, but perhaps I'm fooling myself.

In your question GOD WANTS US TO BE FREE, you apparently were using your own thoughts and words. Thank you for that. But, to me, your question made no overall sense. The individual words were mostly okay. The sentences could be understood, for the most part. But the overall effect of the question was, as I described it, "quite disordered".

I, as Ken did there, have also used the analogy of comparing vague or obscure questions to "Rorshach (ink blot) tests": the question might mean anything to anybody. I'm not in favor of the deconstructivist claim that the meaning of a text is whatever the reader finds there. Communication via the written word is hard but possible. It's what I think we should be striving to do here.

Still, some participants choose to post questions containing their own or borrowed obscure expressions for, as best I can see, no other motivation than to see what interesting responses others have to what they imagine the question meant. I just don't find that sport entertaining. [In other contexts, this sport is sometimes known as "trolling"]

[Oh, yes, I'm also irked by the same question being posted in multiple places on Answerway. But I've learned that it's mostly futile to complain about that one.]

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/31/06 - Clarity and rationality

"SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel - a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not?"

Well, does the man go around the squirrel or not?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/31/06:

I'm not sure if James was just putting on an act of being the humble philospher or if he was setting up an advertisement for his favorite flavor of philosophy (with a certain degree of triumphalism). Astronomers use the two terms revolve and rotate to indicate something similar to the two notions of go round that James distinguishes. Why this counts as a metaphysical problem escapes me.

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Jon1667 asked on 05/25/06 - Morality which affects only you?

Is it possible for an action which affects only the agent to be a moral (or immoral) action?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/26/06:

This seems similar to the question of whether you have a duty to yourself.

Some codes of morality would certainly hold that an action can be immoral even if it has no external effects. Let's take Jimmie Carter's admission of "lusting in his heart" as an example. If it weren't for his speaking of it, we'd never have known about it -- it had no effects on anyone else, at least no direct effects (let's give him the benefit of the doubt that he never acted on these impulses). He nevertheless considered these thoughts as immoral, worth confessing in an interview (was it in Playboy? Maybe he just wanted to establish a rapport with the readership?).

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jackreade asked on 05/24/06 - Nativism

I was doing some research today in the interests of learning something new, and I ran across the word nativism. John McCain used it in a private speech in New York.

I'll post the definition from the on line dictionary:


1. A sociopolitical policy, especially in the United States in the 19th century, favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants.
2. The reestablishment or perpetuation of native cultural traits, especially in opposition to acculturation.
3. Philosophy. The doctrine that the mind produces ideas that are not derived from external sources.

Note, definition #3 as used in Philosophy. What is this? Isn't it accepted knowledge that individuals have minds that produce ideas not derived from extermal sources?

Any discussion and input appreciated.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/24/06:

In some ways, the philosophical question of nativism is one that is moving out of the realm of philosophy and into the realm of neuroscience or linguistics. Chomsky has persuaded an awful lot of people that the human brain inherits as a matter of biology certain linguistic components that support and limit the structure of human languages. There is lots of evidence against the "blank slate", but detecting something we could identify as an inborn idea still seems a bit elusive.

Can we assume that McCain was using the sense of definition 1?

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tonyrey asked on 05/24/06 - Truth and Materialism...........................

Truth is correspondence between belief and fact. According to materialism everything is derived from matter and is ultimately explained in terms of atomic particles. A belief is ultimately therefore the result of an arrangement of atomic particles and a fact is ultimately the result of another arrangement of atomic particles. So truth must be correspondence between two different arrangements of atomic particles. What is your reaction to this view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/24/06:

Are you not misrepresenting materialism to make it out to be absurd?

Let's take a somewhat different example, please. I take a photo of my cat with a digital camera and upload it a website like Flickr to share. Person A looks at it with a desktop PC with a traditional CRT monitor, person B looks at it on an Apple laptop with an LCD display, and person C prints it out on paper with a color inkjet printer.

The light photons arriving at the eyes of A, B, and C have been carefully contrived so as to assemble an image of my cat on their retinas. The arrangements of atoms involved in controlling those photons are wildly different. The correspondence between the arrangements is obvious to the eye, but to try to track down how the correspondence was achieved, in detail, involves a very large number of decodings of the many, many layers of "arrangements of atoms" intervening between the cat itself and the various image representations. To anyone with familiarity with technology, it might be possible to explain the general outline of how the correspondence in images was achieved. It would be a rare expert indeed who could explain the whole chain in detail. I think it would be impossible to explain if you were to insist that every sentence of the explanation refer only to "arrangements of atoms."

Trying to provoke incredulity in this way is poor technique.

Plus, I don't buy your premise that truth is correspondence between belief and fact. Given the entanglement between "fact" and "truth", what would that statement mean?

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jackreade asked on 05/18/06 - Puzzles

I was thinking, with the advent of sophisticated language(words for abstract ideas, say) and education(someone putting information and ideas into another's mind), long abo in the distant past, did a human life become more how to figure out and create "puzzles", instead of just enjoying life?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/18/06:

It sounds like you're asking about the socially constructed reality crowding out the natural reality. It's a process that has been going on for an awfully long time. It's hard to make a comprehensive evaluation, but I think the fruits of civilization are worth the hassles, even if it's just by a small amount.

If it feels like too much of a burden, I suppose one can still become a hermit.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/16/06 - Is there a connection between aesthetics and morality?....

What connection, if any, is there between the two.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/17/06:

Is truth beauty and beauty truth? As we discussed here a number of weeks or months ago, aesthetics does not connect up very well with logic and I don't see any connection with ethics, either. I have long been puzzled by both the Marxists' and the Objectivists' notion that their philosophies also dictated a certain aesthetic. Whether aesthetics can be objective seems very doubtful to me.

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jackreade asked on 05/14/06 - Argument from Hidden-ness

It's Sunday night, and I'm almost through cleaning up loose ends, so I have another question for the experts. :)

While reading a little in introductory comments on an atheist site, I found out that atheist philophical arguments were mainly made from Evil in the recent past, but now that arguments are made from hidden-ness. I didn't see where this argument was located.

Does anyone know what this argument consists of?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/16/06:

It's a surprise to me that the problem of evil was seen by some as the main atheist philosophical argument. It's an argument, certainly, but it has always seemed to me to be more like a puzzle or brain-teaser to see how slippery and convoluted the logic of theists can become than any sort of serious proof.

This argument from hidden-ness is more of the same. You make a naive but seemingly reasonable interpretation of what the God-entity must be like, then ask why that interpretation is inconsistent with what we see in the world.

Since there is no central atheist organization to determine what atheist dogma must be, and since people arrive at their stance of atheism from many different directions, I don't think it's possible to single out any single argument to typify the philosophy of atheism. It seems like a limitation on the power of logic and reason that very few people are swayed from religion to atheism or from atheism to religion based solely on these sorts of arguments.

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tonyrey asked on 05/15/06 - Can we know what is real? If so how?

........................ We all think we know what is real but there is good reason to think we are mistaken! In fact we don't even know what "we" are and what "thinking" is. "We" believe that there is "mental activity" but we only make that inference from what we call "thoughts". In fact, every word we use presupposes thinking yet we finish up in the bizarre situation where thinking is explained in terms of physical events which are inferred from our sensations...

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/16/06:

It's always possible for radical skeptics and mystics to point out ways that our everyday knowledge might be faulty. Their criticisms seldom come with an alternative one could use as a reliable base for effective action.

When we learn from science popularists about the small-scale structure of matter (it's nearly all empty space with just these tiny particles interacting) or the large-scale structure of the universe (it all started with the big bang, then this incredibly rapid inflationary stage, then a sort of froth of bubbles with galaxies and clusters of galaxies forming at the margins of the bubbles), we may be getting sensationalism or it may serve to caution us about limitations on our everyday knowledge.

We may be a bit mistaken about aspects of reality, but how big a mistake are we making? Are the mistakes so large and so common to merit all these scare quotes?

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jackreade asked on 05/14/06 - Quandry regarding Anonymous

I would like the opinion of expert philosophers about anonymity on the internet. I have posted poetry on the internet-most of it was trash, but there were a couple of gems.

Since I was an anonymous person, a username, if a student uses one of my good poems, how can s/he give me credit since I am anonymous(assuming s/he doesn't claim it as his own)?

Does this matter at all?
Opinions appreciated.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/14/06:

There are different degrees of anonymity. If I walked into a public library (one that does not require users to sign up or show ID to use their web-connected computers -- and one I've never visited before or since), I could post something that would be all but impossible to trace. You could also send something to a site along with identifying information about yourself, but request that your identity be withheld and the piece attributed to "Anonymous".

For the person using or citing your work, the fact that it is attributed to "Anonymous" is all they would be required to show. If they claimed the work as their own, you could potentially bring a copyright infringement action against them, provided that you could adequately demonstrate your original authorship.

Remember the Clinton-era political novel Primary Colors? That was originally published with the author listed as Anonymous. Lots of people knew that Joe Klein was really the author, but listing the author as Anonymous gave a certain amount of deniability if public reaction to the novel had primarily been to take offense.

So take heart. If one of your poems becomes sufficiently famous that there is a clamor to know the true author, you can modestly come out of seclusion and take your rightful place on Mount Parnassus.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/12/06 - Just society

By what reasoning might one justify that a society in which some people accumulate great wealth, while many others live in poverty, is just?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/12/06:

I see two possible paths to justify such a situation. I don't think this case has been well established, but they are two possible paths.

First, you would examine whether there was a sort of transactional justice. If the accumulation of wealth occurred under a system where parties freely bargained and invested according to their own willingness to take on risk, then there might well be a basis for calling it a just society.

Second, if you start off with something like John Rawls's theory of justice but add to it an economic argument. The economic argument would have to establish that only a society in which such large discrepancies in wealth and income are possible is capable of generating the material culture that would allow a majority of citizens to enjoy a satisfactory life. If demanding a more equal distribution necessarily implies that everyone would be worse off, most people would prefer the scenario in which the average person is fairly well off versus the scenario in which everyone is equal but starving from the economic scarcity entailed by that equality.

It's been a very long time since I read Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I think his argument (a sort of response to Rawls) mostly follows the first course.

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tonyrey asked on 05/09/06 - The Demise of Darwinism?......................

"The past five decades of research in genetics and molecular biology have brought us revolutionary discoveries. Upsetting the oversimplified views of cellular organization and function held at mid-century, the molecular revolution has revealed an unanticipated realm of complexity and interaction more consistent with computer technology than with the mechanical viewpoint which dominated the field when the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis was formulated...

How all of this modularity, complexity, and integration arose and changed during the history of life on earth is a central evolutionary question. Localized random mutation, selection operating "one gene at a time" (John Maynard Smith's formulation), and gradual modification of individual functions are unable to provide satisfactory explanations for the molecular data, no matter how much time for change is assumed. There are simply too many potential degrees of freedom for random variability and too many interconnections to account for...

First, then, all cells from bacteria to man possess a truly astonishing array of repair systems which serve to remove accidental and stochastic sources of mutation... It has been a surprise to learn how thoroughly cells protect themselves against precisely the kinds of accidental genetic change that, according to conventional theory, are the sources of evolutionary variability. By virtue of their proofreading and repair systems, living cells are not passive victims of the random forces of chemistry and physics....

The point of this discussion is that our current knowledge of genetic change is fundamentally at variance with neo-Darwinist postulates. We have progressed from the Constant Genome, subject only to random, localized changes at a more or less constant mutation rate, to the Fluid Genome, subject to episodic, massive and non-random reorganizations capable of producing new functional architectures. Inevitably, such a profound advance in awareness of genetic capabilities will dramatically alter our understanding of the evolutionary process. Nonetheless, neo-Darwinist writers like Dawkins continue to ignore or trivialize the new knowledge and insist on gradualism as the only path for evolutionary change."

What is your view?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/09/06:

It's an interesting question whether there are signs that biology and the theory of evolution are on the cusp of a scientific revolution as significant as the Einsteinian revolution in physics that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century.

So far, I'd say the signs are not so apparent. Shapiro is okay at undressing various evolutionary assumptions, but the core idea that Dawkins and Dennett are popularizing still seems very strong and can still be traced back to Darwin's insights. Replicators, interacting with their environment, subject to occasional errors (mutations), changing their prevalence because of selection applied to their phenotypic expression.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/08/06 - Do you have a natural right to medical care?

Do you have a duty to your government, or does your government have a duty to you?

How did natural rights come about, and what are they in relation to Duty?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/08/06:

It should be a clue that something is not a natural right when providing it to you involves taking from or enslaving someone else. Air, life, and certain kinds of freedom of choice qualify. Food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical care do not. They may be provided under other kinds of rights regimes, but are not natural rights.

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tonyrey asked on 05/07/06 - Atomism and Darwinism..............................

"In the first chapter of his recent book on The Construction of Social Reality, Searle states that it is necessary "to make some substantive presuppositions about how the world is in fact in order that we can even pose the questions we are trying to answer (about how other aspects of reality are socially constructed)." According to Searle, "two features of our conception of reality are not up for grabs. They are not, so to speak, optional for us as citizens of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century." The two compulsory theories are that the world consists entirely of the entities that physicists call particles, and that living systems (including humans and their minds) evolved by natural selection.

I think that Searle undermines his whole project by virtually ordering his readers not to notice that scientific materialism and Darwinism are themselves socially constructed doctrines rather than objective facts. Scientists assume materialism because they define their enterprise as a search for the best materialist theories, and this culturally-driven methodological choice is not even evidence, let alone proof, that the world really does consist only of particles. As an explanation for design in biology, Darwinism is perfectly secure when it is regarded as a deduction from materialism, but remarkably insecure when it is subjected to empirical testing. Given that what we most respect about science is its fidelity to the principle that empirical testing is what really matters, why should philosophers allow scientists to tell them that they must accept assumptions that don't pass the empirical test?

Searle is a particularly poignant example, because he is famous for defending the independence of the mind against the onslaught of the materialist "strong AI" program, and also for defending traditional academic standards against the corrosive relativism of the fact/value distinction. He is so skillful in argument that he almost holds his own even after leaping gratuitously into a pool of universal acid, but why accept the disadvantage? Searle could seize the high ground if he began by proposing that any true metaphysical theory must account for two essential truths which materialism cannot accommodate: first, that mind is more than matter; and second, that such things as truth, beauty, and goodness really do exist even if most people do not know how to recognize them. Scientific materialists would answer that they proved long ago, or are going to prove at some time in the future, that materialism is true. They are bluffing."

What are your views?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/07/06:

Johnson is a masterful rhetorician; he's built this argument so well it's hard to see where one could get even a knifeblade in between the blocks. But if his quote from Searle fairly represents what Searle is thinking, then Johnson is fighting a losing rear-guard action and the materialists have won. The odd thing about it is that most honest materialists will not try to tell you that materialism is true in some logical or legal sense. And for Searle to accept Johnson's advice would move him from the position of making a difficult but recognizably scientific argument to merely begging the question.

I consider anything written by Johnson to be potentially tainted. He may make some good points here and there (points that I think I could safely agree with) but the conclusions seem dictated from some ulterior motives that I distrust and that do not follow from how I would read the evidence.

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tonyrey asked on 05/05/06 - Atomism and holism.......

What is the philosophical significance of Aristotle's dictum that "The whole is more than the sum of its parts".

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/05/06:

Within some formal realms (arithmetic, perhaps), we can define pretty well what it means to take a sum and have that concept capture all or nearly all of the significance of the action.

In both the material world and in more abstract realms, we are often faced with situations where simple mathematical analogies are insufficient. When putting together a complicated object (or taking apart a complicated object), we quickly discover that, in this situation, there's a lot more than arithmetic summing going on. Aristotle's dictum acts as a reminder of this fact.

The gurus of holism and systems theory like to pick up this truth and run with it, usually bashing what they call reductionism along the way. The scientists and mathematicians (some of whom seem a bit too trendy) who study this often refer to emergent properties.

There's certainly a role for philosophical thought in all of this. The existence of these system properties is a worthwhile puzzle. What part does a mathematical model, in the abstract realm, have to do with the working out of physical properties in the material realm?

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/30/06 - Analyzing and interpret ting the available empirical data.

Is analyzing empirical data a purely objective and unprejudiced study, by anyone?

Viruses cause disease and therefore, if there is thinking and reasoning God, this God must be evil; or so it has been said. However, do virus's server any other purpose?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/01/06:

Observations are theory-laden There, I've said it again. I don't know exactly where that statement originated. Anyone else know?

The choice of experiment or what to observe and the interpretation of the outcome depends on assumptions and theories about what we are looking at and what we are looking for. Experimentalists go to great length to eliminate what are known as systemic errors. One of these measures is the double-blind, controlled medical study mentioned by Ken. Meta-analysis of the reports out of these studies occasionally shows that they may still be "cooked" by researcher/advocates and we've all been subjected to the distorted information that comes out through the press based on a biased view of the results. Some objections to research results are well-founded critiques of the experiemental design.

The second half of your questions seems to be an extremely truncated version of the problem of evil, the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with the properties generally attributed to God. Tony has correctly pointed out most of the ways in which this skeptical argument can be defeated.

My perspective is that the question of a virus's purpose is misconceived. The only sense in which a virus has "purpose" is to replicate. More precisely, the existence of viruses is an outcome that should be expected in an environment full of replication engines. The identification of viruses with diseases is secondary. Some viruses induce symptoms that aid replication, some viruses produce such severe symptoms that (by killing the host) they threaten the virus's own ability to replicate.

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/27/06 - Possible worlds

[I]f we say 'Humphrey might have won the election (if only he had done such-and-such),' we are not talking about something that might have happened to Humphrey, but to someone else, a 'counterpart'. Probably, however, Humphrey could not care less whether someone else, no matter how much resembling him, would have been victorious in another possible world. (Naming and Necessity , p.45.)

Are not possible worlds the same as ours?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/27/06:

In most discussions of possible worlds, the world in consideration can be completely different from ours or it can be identical in every respect save one detail (plus whatever consequences follow from that one different detail). What the quoted statement is talking about, I suspect, is that these possible worlds do not interact -- Humphrey from this world cannot trade places with the other Humphrey nor even learn any reliable lessons from considering the other Humphrey's possible success.

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tonyrey asked on 04/25/06 - Are we the same persons we were seven years ago?

......... Since we no longer have the same cells in our bodies why are we regarded as being the same persons?

If we are not the same persons why are we regarded as being responsible for what we did seven years ago?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/25/06:

For that matter, how do you know, when you wake up in the morning, that you are the same person as you were when you went to sleep the night before?

Nozick, in Philosophical Explanations, gives a pretty standard account of the various challenges faced by the notion of identity through time. His best explanation is that we have lots of criteria and strategies for recognizing when something is the same or different. For personal identity, we seem to look for the closest continuer.

Relating this to your question, of all the objects in the world today, you are one that is connected by a continuing thread of identity with the you of several years ago. Although we tend to give psychological continuity primacy over bodily continuity, you would still be considered to be you even if, through a tragic accident, you suffered brain damage and could not remember your former life or if you came down with demential and lost most of your current personality.

Only in a world where switching brains (or personalities) between bodies became common would we need to come up with some better conventions on how to handle shifting identities.

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kalicam2000 asked on 04/22/06 - Glaucon- the myth of gyges

how does gluacon argue for the claim that the only reason people obey the rules of society is because it is in their self interest?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/22/06:

The question raised by the Gyges story is a common one for ethics:

What are the limits on what you would do if, whatever you did, you would not be held accountable for it?
Your version of Glaucon's argument seems a bit twisted. Glaucon could better be claimed to have said the the only reason people obey the rules of society is that they lack the power to do otherwise. Anyone, Glaucon said, who had the powers afforded by such a ring, regardless of their own will to be just, would succumb to the temptations of being able to get away with anything.

This is very different from saying that people obey the rules of society because it is in their self interest. Even then, there are two ways to interpret the person's self interest:
  • to avoid punishment
  • to take advantage of the more prosperous and open society that results if nearly everyone acts honestly
The latter motivation seems too diffuse to actually be responsible for people's behavior, but it may be the most important factor.

Coup_de_Grace asked on 04/19/06 - Argument against Atheism

Here is a quote by C. S. Lewis in his book "Mere Christianity"(page 39). My wife used it to try to get me back in the fold of "believers".

"Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should have never found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning."

This argument seems strange, but I don't know how to refute it. Isn't the analogy like this...if there were no dogs in the universe, there would be no dog food?
And, isn't the first sentence a straw-man.

Help would be appreciated.


Benjamin and Susan Grace

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/19/06:

Lewis's argument looks to me like it could be restated as an analog of one of Aquinas's attempts to prove God through logic. First cause, first mover, first giver of meaning. To Lewis the universe has a meaning and he is trying to fix the source of that meaning someplace other than the social construction of human beings.

No living creatures appear to have receptors to detect cosmic rays or neutrinos. While the precise nature of cosmic rays or neutrinos may still be a matter of research, it would seem mere disputatiousness to say they are words without meaning.

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Coup_de_Grace asked on 04/19/06 - The Human Brain and Consciousness/Toughts

I have a question and it is basically a question of clarification of what a discussion is really about. Keep in mind that some(all) of us are amateur philosophers.

We were arguing about what is the relationship between the human brain and consciousness. A couple of guys said that thinking and consciousness and a "soul" were separate from the human beings physical body.

One guy said that consciousness and thinking and spirit, every mental process is based on the physical brain. We are just one physical body which includes consciousness. He offered this analogy. That consciousness is to the physical brain as flatulence is to the human bowels.

Is this a valid analogy?


Ben and Susan Grace

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/19/06:

Yes, most of us (including me) appear to be amateurs. Some are more serious than others.

I don't like this analogy very much, even discounting the rudeness. The gases that produce flatulence are generated not by our own tissues but, for the most part, by the action of bacteria living in the colon, digesting components from the food we eat, components that we do not digest very well ourselves. So flatulence is a fact of life, a necessary (unless we adopt radical diets and cleansing to prevent it) part of how we are constituted.

Beyond that, I don't see enough parallels to keep the analogy afloat.

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/13/06 - Education is a progressive discovery of ignorance.
William Durant

What do you think motivated Durant to say that? Academic knowledge is for the most part, not bad. A fact is that much of it is very interesting and can be used in many ways. Perhaps what moved him to say that is when all you learn is to know, and to repeat knowledge, progress is pretty much non-existent.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/13/06:

I don't know what Durant meant by this statement. Here's what I'd like for him to have meant:

For a person to be motivated to learn something, his lack of knowledge has to be uncovered in no uncertain terms. By disclosing the lack of knowledge and holding out the possibility of gaining the knowledge, a teacher may be able to teach.
Once a person can discover his own areas of ignorance, he reaches a self-starting point where he may be able to educate himself.

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/10/06 - Is it better to trust too much, than never to trust at all.

The Roman writer Phaedrus expressed the dilemma this way: To trust or not to trust is perilous.

Sometimes, we accept a thing as true because it is something we want to be true. That echoes the warning given by the famous Greek orator Demosthenes about 350 B.C.: The easiest thing of all is to deceive ones self, for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true. Trusting just in our feelings can be dangerous.

Is there anyone or anything, then, that you can trust totally, without any fear that your trust will be exploited or betrayed?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/10/06:

Francis Fukuyama, regardless of what you think about his End of History, also wrote an important book about Trust. In it, he tries to demonstrate the overall social benefits that arrive in a culture that has institutions that allow people to trust strangers, at least in some respects. Of course, according to Thucydides, Pericles of Athens knew this, too.

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tonyrey asked on 04/06/06 - Mind and Brain...............................

How did the mind and brain originate? Three possibilities:

1. The mind is derived from the brain.
2. The brain is derived from the mind.
3. They originated separately.

How are the mind and brain related? Again three possibilities:

4. The brain controls the mind.
5. The mind controls the brain.
6. They control each other.

1 and 4 are compatible, as are 2 and 5.
1 and 5 seem incompatible, like 1 and 6, 2 and 4, 2 and 6.
3 and 6 seem compatible but 3 seems the least likely.

What is your opinion?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/06/06:

I vote 1 and 4 with concepts like "supervenience" to refine the meanings of "is derived from" and "controls".

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/04/06 - In what sense do you make a choice?

Machines make choices, from instructions that they do not choose. What choices do people make, and on what basis do they make these choices?

It seems to me Freedom is to be free to be what you are. So, for example, if you are ultimately an "ABC," then free will means that any choice you make will ultimately be based on you being "ABC".
Free will is not freedom to be something that you are not.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/04/06:

Most of the computing machines we use have rigidly programmed instructions, so it seems natural to deny that they have anything resembling free choice.

People who study neural nets, however, leave a part of the programming to a "training" or "conditioning" phase. This causes the detailed behavior of the nets to be less rigidly predictable particularly if they are presented with an input stimulus that is far afield from what the net was trained with so it makes sense to wonder if our apparently free choices are similar.

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/03/06 - Is determinism compatible with the ability to do otherwise?

Is it possible that Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture,that is, in the same sense that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/03/06:

I've always had problems with the idea of determinism. I guess I must be a compatibilist of some sort.

The breakdown, for me, comes from the notion that some other person (or god) could know enough about a person's physical state and history to control or predict the person's future actions in situations where the person feels they have a free choice. If knowledge of this sort is impossible, there is no point arguing about determinism.

[This is related to my stance on Newcombe's Problem: it only presents a paradox because the (impossible) Predictor is posited.]

The parallels between memes and genes are only partial. After a couple of decades, the meme notion has gained a little bit of traction, but does not have sufficient explanatory power to suggest that more than a tiny fraction of the way our minds and culture work is affected by the characteristics of memes and meme replication and transmission.

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HerrAirhorn asked on 04/01/06 - Robots Full Members of Society?

New York Times International
SEOUL, South Korea

"South Korea, the world's most wired country, is rushing to turn what sounds like science fiction into everyday life. The government, which succeeded in getting broadband Internet into 72 percent of all households in the last half decade, has marshaled an army of scientists and business leaders to make robots full members of society.
Jupiter, is a robot built by a South Korean company for domestic use.

By 2007, networked robots that, say, relay messages to parents, teach children English and sing and dance for them when they are bored, are scheduled to enter mass production. Outside the home, they are expected to guide customers at post offices or patrol public areas, searching for intruders and transmitting images to monitoring centers.

If all goes according to plan, robots will be in every South Korean household between 2015 and 2020. That is the prediction, at least, of the Ministry of Information and Communication, which has grouped more than 30 companies, as well as 1,000 scientists from universities and research institutes, under its wing. Some want to move even faster.

"My personal goal is to put a robot in every home by 2010," said Oh Sang Rok, manager of the ministry's intelligent service robot project."

I was shocked by this article. How can robots be 'full members of society'? Robots are machines, for heaven's sake.

What are your philosophical thoughts about this?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/02/06:

Science fiction has been grappling with the questions of relations between humans and intelligent robots for quite a long time. I suspect a mistranslation may be responsible for the phrase that shocked you, but maybe it's just an ambitious marketing effort.

What particular aspect of treating a fully intelligent robot as if it were a human member of society causes you problems? How do you avoid falling into the trap that, in the past, caused people to deny women (they still do it in some societies today!) or members of certain races a right to participate in society as equals?

I wonder if we'll eventually have people trying to pass consitutional amendments to prohibit robot-human couples from getting married?

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DeckChair asked on 03/31/06 - Science or Pseudoscience?

The logical positivists proposed the verifiability criterion of meaning. According to this, a statement is meaningful only if there is the possibility that at least someday it can be verified through empirical evidence.

Along came Karl Popper, protesting that it's actually falsifiability that matters rather than verifiability. Popper said that it's impossible for science to verify anything. If science says "the table exists" based on observation, that can't be verified since it has to assume it's not a delusion or some sort of great new holodeck program. On the other hand, says Popper, if the scientist goes in there and finds no table and carefully examines the area to be certain the table isn't in the room, then science can indeed falsify the table. Thus Popper creates what amounts to a falsifiability criterion... he thinks the role of science is to systematically rule out possibilities and then leave us to take whatever's left as the possible truth.

Then, of course, there was the Quine-Duhem thesis and Putnam's arguments to say that falsifiability is no more possible than verifiability. The scientist who thinks he's falsified the table may actually be hallucinating the nonexistence of the table while the actual table is right there in the middle of the room. Via Quine, no experiment can confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis because it always relies on a system of auxiliary assumptions. If I release a ball and it falls to the ground, that cannot be said by itself to confirm that gravity pulls things down. I have to make various assumptions such as the floor and ball not being giant electromagnets and there not being an especially strong gust of wind coming through the window and there not being another force twice as strong as gravity which coincidentally pulls things down when gravity pulls things up... that sort of stuff.

It's clear that we have two methods to choose from even if neither works. We can try to verify things, or we can try to falsify things. Is one more reliable than the other? Specifically, which of them should be used in the demarcation problem -- the problem of deciding what's science and what's pseudoscience?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/31/06:

My thought on this problem is heavily influenced by reading Imre Lakatos...

I don't believe there is a local method to reliably distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Science can be advanced by people who are pursuing crackpot ideas using faulty methods, but that's not to say it's a preferred approach. They can get inspiration from dreams, from occult traditions, and from purely literary sources.

Some putatively scientific hypotheses can be argued down using the falsifiability criterion. In the somewhat longer run, you look at entire systems of observations and hypotheses and perhaps choose between theories based on some sense of their vigor whether the research programme is producing novel, interesting results or is mostly taking dispeptic potshots at its rivals. In the much longer run, you can judge whether a theory has entered the central core of scientific knowledge and fits well with the overall system, with lots of other solidly accepted theories and results dependent on it. There's still no guarantee that the status of a theory will not at some future time be demoted by either a "scientific revolution" or simply the gradual accretion of contrary results and inconsistencies.

Popper, I think, retained a proper sense of the inability to conform science with some philosophical notion of ultimate truth. The programme of the logical positivists to do this failed. I can't make much of your examples regarding falsification since they appear to misconstrue falsification with falsifiability and misunderstand the role critical experiments play in science. A successful experiment allows you to distinguish between two different theories because those two theories predict different results. While you might think that a single disconfirming result should be fatal to a theory, it usually takes an accumulation of contrary data and a more successful rival theory.

I better stop here, I see Ken's already posted something that's probably better than what I've written.

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omarjavaid asked on 03/31/06 - Time

Dear Sir

I would like you to ask you that what is the definition of and duration of present? The harder I try to figure out the answer the more clear it becomes that the present is just the most resent imprint of our senses on our consciousness. In a moment this imprint is transferred into our memories and it fads away. This gradual fading away of imprints from our senses gives us a feeling that time is passing. I think that the feel of time is a function of the fading process of our imprint on our memory. That is why in different situations we feel differently about the passage of time.

I think there is no duration of present. Future is directly converted into past. Some part of our consciousness is in future and some of it is in past.

Please comment on my thought

Thanks and regards

Omar Javaid

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/31/06:

It's fairly common to reckon time as passing continuously. The present is just a point on the continuum and has no duration.

As a practical matter, we can consider two separated events as happening simultaneously (i.e. both in the same present) if we cannot distinguish any interval between them. Our brain can distinguish very small intervals in some situations and is prone to smear out the differences in others for example, our ability to enjoy movies comes from the smearing that occurs in our visual processing and our ability to distinguish the direction a sound comes from depends in part on being able to sense quite tiny time differences in the sounds' arrival times at our two ears.

As for our consciousness, I think it represents a summary of the very recent past but may include anticipatory thoughts about what may happen in the future.

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jackreade asked on 03/28/06 - Some things independent of God

Spinoza said, I believe, that God exists, but only philosophically.

Leibniz accepted, and even endorsed, the fact that some things are independent of God. These are necessary truths, such as: all squares are not circles.

Are these views consistent with atheism?


Yeah, I'm back; nowhere else to go. :)

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/29/06:

I consider there to be a significant gap between the god or gods described in various religious traditions and the God of the Philopsophers that was distilled by scholars of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam while trying to reconcile the claims of religion with the methods of reason, logic, and philosophy.

I share Ken's question of your attributions to Spinoza and Leibniz could mean.

From the point of view of at least some religionists, both of the views described might well be considered atheistic. After all, we learned in an earlier thread here that some Catholic scholars appear to consider pantheism to be a form of atheism.

From the point of view of most atheists, propositions that God exists, philosophically or in any other way, are something they would not agree with. It's certainly useful in argument to be able to point out the Euthyphro argument that some ethical concepts appear to be independent of God; the square circles of your example are not nearly as useful.

Oh, and a hearty welcome back!

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/28/06 - three distinct category of philosophies.............

It appears we have on this forum three distinct category of philosophies. Baconian, Aristotelian and Theorist.

E.A. Poe was recently mentioned in the truth, as befits A and B philosophy.

Listen to what Poe says about the Hog and the Ram Philosophy, and tell me if it be true or false according to your experience.

"No man dared utter a truth for which he felt himself indebted to his soul alone. It mattered not whether the truth was even demonstrably such; for the dogmatizing philosophers of that epoch regarded only the road by which it professed to have been attained. The end, with them, was a point of no moment whatever: the means! they vociferated let us look at the means! and if, on scrutiny of the means, it was found to come neither under the category Hog, nor under the category Aries (which means ram), why then the savants went no farther, but, calling the thinker a fool and branding him a theorist, would never, thenceforward, have anything to do either with him or with his truths".

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/28/06:

Only three?!?

863 There are more things in heauen and earth Horatio
864 Then are dream't of in {your} {our} philosophie, . . . .
Hamlet (found in
For Shakespeare, this was a rhetorical device, since the ghosts and revelations were his fictional inventions.

We know that people can be quite bull-headed about following their own vision of truth, regardless of the field. In both Kuhn and Lakatos's version of how science works, you come to expect advocates of a theory to struggle to revise and restate it when it begins to face contrary evidence. The world systems constructed from the theories are not so easily thrown down. In philosophy, a similar thing can happen, but there is less of a reality check available to help winnow out the inferior paradigms.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/27/06 - All things...........................

All things which have a beginning have an end, all things which have an end have a beginning; all things which have no beginning have no end, all things which have no end have no beginning.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/27/06:

A pretty statement, but how could one tell if it were true? By things, are you referring to just material objects or do you intend to include some other types of objects?

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Coup_de_Grace asked on 03/25/06 - Ethics in the Twenty-First Century

Is It Ethical to Use Enhancement Technologies to Make Us Better than Well?

"Background to the debate: A variety of biomedical technologies are being developed that can be used for purposes other than treating disease. Such enhancement technologies can be used to improve our appearance and regulate our emotions, with the goal of feeling better than well. While these technologies can help people adapt to their rapidly changing lifestyles, their use raises important ethical issues".

What is your position on this issue?
Thank you.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/25/06:

Bioethicists have come up with some odd-seeming positions on a number of issues. I think my biggest problem with them is that they give way too much weight to the "it wouldn't be natural" complaint.

There are ethical issues in the experimentation on humans needed to develop enhancement drugs and technologies. Let's set those aside for the moment and assume that there was a pill available that promised a certain type of enhancement and had a range of side-effects. For the person considering taking the drug, I think two considerations should dominate:

    • Do I really need to be enhanced in this way?
    • Am I willing to accept the risks from side effects?
To my point of view, neither of these questions is particularly ethical. The closest I would come to an ethical consideration is:
    • What would be the consequences if everyone took this drug?
I would worry about a drug whose main effect was so attractive that people would start taking it despite serious deleterious side effects.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/24/06 - Does motion exist?

Suppose you intend to travel from point A to point B on a straight line. In order to do that you have to reach the midpoint C between A and B. In order to reach point C you have to reach the midpoint of A and C, say D, ad infinitum. Therefore it takes you an infinite amount of finite movements to reach point B which is in contrast with the notion of constant speed.

Therefore motion does not exist. Do you agree?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/24/06:

Channeling Zeno, I see.

By the time Newton and Leibnitz invented calculus, mathematics had advanced enough so that we could find the sum of an infinite number of finite intervals and determine whether the sum was finite or infinite. The paradox only works if one believes the sum must be infinite (hence never). Some series have bounded sums, some do not.

I see that I may be too hasty in crediting calculus with solving this puzzle. The Wikipedia article on Zeno's Paradox claims that there is some residue of a philosophical problem remaining.

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tonyrey asked on 03/24/06 - What is the nature of explanation?

............ Are there different types of explanation which are equally valid or does one of them have precedence? Are we bound to be ultimately confronted by that which cannot be explained? If so, how would we know we have reached that point?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/24/06:

Yes, there are different types of explanations. You should use the type of explanation that is appropriate to the context, since it is the aptness of the explanation to its circumstances that should be used to judge its validity.

For instance, if a young child asks "why is the sky blue?", you can't get into a detailed discussion of Rayleigh scattering. There's a chance you can connect your explanation to why the sun and the moon appear to be reddish when they are near the horizon, but you run the risk of losing the child's interest.

As to the bounds of possible explanation, it certainly appears that explanations grow harder to come by, the further we go from everyday experience. On this basis of diminishing returns, I suspect that we will never be able to explain everything. I do not believe these limits will be directly apparent: it's not that we will run into an unmistakable barrier, we will simply run out of time and resources to work out the explanation and verify it to any degree of satisfaction.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture. It's a projection into the future of the observed trend in the growth of scientific explanation and, to a lesser extent, the history of philosophy.

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Coup_de_Grace asked on 03/19/06 - Human Brain

Last night at dinner, we all got into a heated discussion about the capacity of the human brain. My wife posed a question...since so little of the human brain is used by most(all)human beings, why has it evolved into such a complicated sophisticated "mechanism" far more advanced than the use to which it is put now or ever was in the past? It seems at first glance that other bodily organs are adequate, not super-adequate like the brain.

Do you experts have any thoughts and speculation about this?

Thank you.


Benjamin and Susan Grace

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/19/06:

It's quite possible one once had to be a lot smarter than we currently are to survive in the inhospitable wild. I know I would want many years of training as a youth before I tried it.

The estimates of the small fraction of the human brain that are actually used in everyday life have always seem suspicious to me. I'm glad to see that at least one neuroscience site ( agrees with me.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/18/06 - conceptual distinction...............................

Is there a conceptual distinction that can be made between the terms, natural and physical reality, in contrast with social reality?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/18/06:

Sorry, I don't see these three terms

  • natural reality
  • physical reality
  • social reality
as constituting a clean division of all reality into neat sectors. Social construction implies it is the result of people interacting. The complement of the set of all things produced by people, however, is pretty odd, with even the concept of natural being a matter for interpretation.

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jackreade asked on 03/17/06 - Resign Board

I am resigning the board because it does not meet my needs for fun open and controversial discussions. I enjoyed my stay here.

Regards, Jack

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/18/06:

Speaking for myself, I am sad to see you leave. I recognize some of the many limitations this board has; for one, there are too few participants, so the number of different points of view that are represented is limited. Conversations become disjointed over multiple threads.

If you find a place that's better, I'd certainly appreciate it if you let us know about it.

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tonyrey asked on 03/18/06 - In what sense do facts, concepts and numbers exist?

Are they "real" in some sense other than that applied to material objects?

Truth, for example, is generally regarded as correspondence. It seems independent of time, space and human activity. It is intangible but not imaginary. We can hardly describe truth as a fiction! It cannot be linguistic convention because art can express truth.

Numbers present a similar problem. They are distinct from the symbols used to refer to them. They are abstract and intangible yet not fictitious. Otherwise why do we distinguish between "real numbers" and "imaginary numbers"?

What are your views?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/18/06:

The so-called imaginary numbers exist in exactly the same sense as the real numbers. The labels do not correspond to truly different ontological categories. And the sort of existence they share is different from material existence.

This is a subject I know too little about. I think the Wikipedia article on ontology may be a good place to start. I'm planning to read more about this subject later today.

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NCohen asked on 03/16/06 - Technology and Evolution

Is it possible that technology and evolution go hand in hand? Has technology slowed down evolution, or at least slowed the idea of "survival of the fittest" since with more advanced technology there are less requirements for one to adapt to their environment? I am concerned with people's thoughts about how technology has effected the rate of evolution. Could it actually be exponentiating evolution to the point where we may be able to notice it within our own lifetime?

Many Thanks,

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/17/06:

I'm guessing that you're thinking about the evolution of our species, homo sapiens.

Just the other day, there was a news release from a project that was using the data from human genome sequencing to try to determine which parts of the genome were still subject to selection pressure. I'm afraid I don't understand the whole statistical technique they were using, but some of the loci they identified seemed to be associated with the development of agriculture. One example was the enzyme that allows adults to digest milk (its absence is called "lactose intolerance").

On time scales shorter than 10,000 years, it's hard to say whether evolution is "slowing". If a new eugenics movement were to take hold, or if a civilization-collapsing plague or other catastrophe were to occur, it would have an effect on the prevalence of some alleles vs other alleles. Evolution will not have stopped.

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NCohen asked on 03/16/06 - Philosophy of Science

Sometime ago I was involved in a discussion concerning whether scientists should limit themselves (or not)in setting any limits on their investigations....because the decision on how to use (positively or negatively) the applications of their investigations are partly the responsibility of the politicians and corporations?

- Are scientists responsible negative consequences of their discoveries ?
- If so, should scientists limit their investigations?
- Are politicians and corporations responsible enough to apply new discoveries in a constructive way? Should this be a concern of scientists?

Many thanks.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/17/06:

Scientists have only a modest capability to predict whether they can make money with their discoveries. Asking them to make a good prediction regarding the more serious difficulties that may result from application of their discoveries, and to properly act on that prediction, is asking a lot.

(I'm thinking of the anecdote about the mathematician who went into number theory because it was "of no conceivable use". This was before World War II when number theory played an important role in cryptography.)

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tonyrey asked on 03/16/06 - Science and metaphysics..........................

Once again science is alleged to be more informative than metaphysics - which is said to be mere speculation. Yet if science is based on metaphysical assumptions how can it be a superior form of knowledge? Without solid foundations science must be a castle in the air...

What is science based on, if not the following assumptions (amongst others)? That the universe exists, that the universe is intelligible and fundamentally orderly, and that there are causal relations between objects. Are these scientific or metaphysical assumptions?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/16/06:

I think we're finally getting somewhere!

Yes, science is a castle built on air. It's a pretty solid castle, but if you dig down deep enough you find that it's based on induction and similar techniques, so it would not be considered to be based on a solid foundation of "truth".

We assume, for the sake of its investigation, that the material universe exists and that it exhibits certain reproducible regularities. We can marvel that it is as intelligible as it is and wonder whether the orderliness indicates something.

Science requires that some sort of reproducibility and causality apply, but does not essentially depend on their necessarily being true or that they even have exactly the form they seem to exhibit in this universe. It's still induction and has the limitations of induction.

I'm not a member of the party that claims science is a superior form of knowledge. The kind of knowledge sought in metaphysics is a rather different sort than the tentative, induction-based "knowledge" accumulated by application of the scientific method. Are clouds superior to freedom? Is ethics superior to quantum mechanics? The comparisons don't make sense to me.

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HerrAirhorn asked on 03/13/06 - Essentialism

Essentialism a belief in natural, immutable sex differences is anathema to postmodernists, for whom sexuality itself, along with gender, is a social construct (Wendy Kaminer).

Do you believe that sex differences are immutable?

Or, that sexuality itself along with gender is a social construct??

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/15/06:

It's not just postmodernists who are skeptical of the immutability of gender differences. Anyone who honestly investigates the actual behavior of human beings in different cultural situations will come away with an impression of the great variability in how different cultures and subcultures handle these roles.

It seems silly to deny that there are differences between the sexes, but delineating those differences and attributing them to innate vs socially determined isn't easy. Someone who wants to tell you what the differences are all one way or another is suspect.

Lawrence Summers, the outgoing President of Harvard, ran into one gang that has its mind made up.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/14/06 - in general......................................

Is it the scientist, or, the metaphysician who want to get closer than, in general, to what is considered knowledge?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/14/06:

Are you trying start an argument?

What is considered knowledge in these two fields is different. Conceptualizing a comparison of closeness is difficult, since it presupposes that there is some common measurement for the deviation between what we consider knowledge in each respective field and what? Some quasi-knowledge that we don't know or don't currently know but represents the target of where our knowledge should be? You might as well ask Whose knowledge is truer? The scientist or the metaphysician?

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Bradd asked on 03/13/06 - First Questions

How did it all begin? Not why (a subsequent question), but how?

Science has given us the Big Bang but seems stopped at that moment - ten to the minus 43rd power of the first second. the Planck time.

If one asks, "What about before that time"?, Science replies, "There is/was no 'before' - time did not exist. Or, the Universe arose from "quantum vacuum fluctuations". (Stephen Hawking).

In either case, Science being limited by what it observes, it ends the question essentially claiming that the question of origins is irrelevant since we can never observe it.

On the other hand, an unknowable "God" may be equally true, although Science will be quick to criticize this "God" notion as false or unscientific, while, in essence, maintaining the identical position.

This is not a question about religion or how religion can be misused for bad purposes, but is not a "God" as ultimately rational as "it's irrelevant" or "quantum vacuum fluctuations"?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/13/06:

To quote a famous philosopher, "By their fruits ye shall know them". This is a pretty good principle to use in science as well. For science to progress, it is as important to be asking the right questions as it is to be giving the right answers.

Your stance appears to be that we are entitled to an answer to any question we can think up. I don't know if you are so credulous as to believe anyone who steps up and says "I have an answer, believe in it!"

Hawking's reference to "quantum vacuum fluctuations" may sound obscure and esoteric. It is pretty obscure and esoteric. But it refers to a phenomenon that presumably exists all around us at this very moment and, although more a theoretical concept than a directly observable phenomenon, using the theory gives answers that are among the most satsifactory for explaining certain observable phenomena. That's the fruit.

To build a theory about origins, it helps to have a theory that excludes certain possibilities. The Big Bang theory was, in part, sparked by the discovery of background noise in the microwave spectrum. In working out the details, the theory had some implications that should be observable: the spectrum of the background radiation should have a certain shape and it should be the same in all directions. These predictions led to observations and the fit was good enough for cosmologists to say "hey, we have a new paradigm for how the universe must have started." If the spectrum had shown a different shape or if there had been a preferred direction to the radiation, it would have meant going back to the drawing boards.

The alternative of saying "God created it" doesn't say very much about what properties of the universe we should look for to verify the claim.

The voice of capitalized Science that you quote is barely recognizable to me. I think Dark Crow's quote from Russell may actually be applicable here. You've tried to translate the non-existent scientific answers to unscientific questions as if they were attempts to answer those questions. Some scientists will try to satisfy these kinds of questions with speculation, but they're usually venturing outside of what can be justified or they are being misunderstood when they try to stay carefully within bounds of the scientific. Or they tell you the question is irrelevant, which you take the wrong way.

For science to push back the boundary of the Planck time would require a theory with testable consequences about what happened in that first interval. It may be that something like "string theory" will do that at some point in the future, but perhaps not. And if the new theory only reduced this interval of "unknowableness" by 10 more orders of magnitude, you'd still be wanting to know what happened before the first 10 to the minus 53rd seconds.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/13/06 - Where does this desire to self-sacrifice come from?

Do you suppose it to be instinctual? Of course, not, so we can eliminate that from the start of the inquiry.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/13/06:

Evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists have proposed ways in which a trait for altruism might become common through the action of natural selection. In its inception, it's not truly altruism, it's more of a blind calculus of whether the individuals benefiting from our self-sacrificing behavior are sufficiently close kin. Once prevalent and presumably beneficial, the selection pressure decreases on the close kin calculation, so you get a more general "be kind to strangers" behavior.

Based on that, I think it's hasty to rule out the possibility that an impulse to self-sacrifice could be inborn. If you're talking about human beings, though, the role of instinct is usually submerged and indiscernable amongst the cultural influences.

I suspect it is extremely rare for the "desire" and the "self-sacrifice" to be directly connected within one individual. For most, the self-sacrifice is a hazard or price the individual is willing to risk in order to gain some more desirable end.

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/11/06 - Do we have a Self and do we know what it is?

What of people who do not have an original thought in their lives, or, who have no epiphanies?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/11/06:

Yes, probably, but no, we don't know exactly what it is.

A person who never has an original thought nor experienced any ephiphanies would be pretty much a non-entity to anyone outside their immediate circle of acquaintance. Within that circle, the judgement about their capability for independent thought might perhaps be less harsh.

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CeeBee2 asked on 03/09/06 - Moral phenomenology.

What is the phenomenological difference between the virtuous and the non-virtuous?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/09/06:

What does it feel like to be a moral person? I guess this fits in with the recent questions we've had about conscience.

I'm skeptical of there being a reliable way to distinguish, based on how it feels, between virtuous and non-virtuous living. Pangs of conscience may afflict both the righteous and the unrighteous or they may not.

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keenu asked on 03/07/06 - The grand illusion

Columnist: Ken Korczak

You don't exist, so don't worry about it
Posted on Tuesday, 7 March, 2006 | 15:07 | Comments: 45
Ken Korczak: What are you worried about right now? Well, its an almost guarantee that you are worried about nothing, for the very reason that you dont exist! You have no worries because you have no mind or body or life to worry with its all an illusion. No worries, but more significantly, no worrier. If you think this sounds like utter nonsense, some of the most brilliant scientists, philosophers and theological thinkers of our century would disagree with you.Science and math suggest that we humans dont exist, (even though there is really no math or science more illusions!)The advent of quantum mechanics and modern physics increasingly imply that our existence as human beings is a kind of persistent illusion. We are under the false assumption that were people, we only imagine we have bodies and brains, and minds functioning inside those brains.

Illusions, all of it. Listen to what one of the greatest physicists of the century, Authur Eddington said of quantum theories:In the world of physicsthe shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paperthe frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadow is one of the most significant of recent advances.

By shadow Eddington meant illusion. More than any other science, it is particle physics that is confronting the fundamentals of reality, and more and more, the evidence point to the fact there is no reality!For the past 300-some years, the world has been under the impression that everything is made up of atoms, the building blocks of the universe. It was the great Isaac Newton who solidified our impression that atoms were like billiard balls. Pile enough of them on top of each other, set them in motion and you get rocks, trees, animals and people.But in 1900 Albert Einsteins hero, the brilliant Max Planck, revealed some incredibly disturbing discoveries he made while trying to solve problems concerning the radiation of energy.To make a long story short, Planck was forced to conclude that matter at its most fundamental level is not continuous, not solid. There are no tiny billiard balls. When you break down an atom, you get an electron, a proton and maybe a neutron. But it turns out these are not the smallest units either. You can break things down further to bosons, quarks, W particles, tachyons and a lot of other shadowy things that just sort of wink in and out of existence.

Where do things go when they wink out? Nowhere! They cease to exist! Then they come back again.So what? you might ask. Well, as you know, the human body is made up from the fundamental elements of nature. We are mostly water, but we also have iron in our blood, calcium in our bones, and such. But each of those substances are made up of individual atoms, which in turn are made up of ghostly bits of nothing that just sort of come and go, in and out of reality.Scientists call this blinking process quantum fluctuation.So when the elements of your body fluctuate, so does your body, and so do you! So does you brain and the chemicals in your brain! In fact, you may be in a state of nothingness more often than you are in a state of somethingness (even though there really is no somethingness!)As the currently popular medical guru Depack Chopra points out, all of us our dead (nonexistent) for much of the time, yet we are all constantly afraid of dying, not realizing we are dead much of the time! (Oh by the way, theres no such thing as time either.

Einstein proved it was an illusion, but we wont get into that right now).Even at its most solid state, the atom turns out to be not very solid at all. Atoms are 99.999999 empty space. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a ping-pong ball, and if you were to place it in the center of a large football stadium, the electrons that orbit around the nucleus would be at the outer walls of the stadium.What is between the nucleus and the electron? Nothing! And what are the nucleus and electron made from? Smaller and smaller bits of energy which are not solid, but actually whirling fragments of light.Even a block of solid lead is nothing and light, acting as something. So is your car. So are the chemicals in your brain. So are you.Once during a long, boring drive from Grand Forks to southern Missouri with one of my graduate school professors, we became embroiled in a lengthy debate about the deep issues of the universe. I argued that all was illusion, and he argued for solid reality.

When I mentioned the unreal nature of fundamental particles, he said:That makes no difference! All this means is that these flucuating bits of energy are what we are made out of but we are still us, still the same, still real solid people. Are your saying is that we are more fundamental than atoms.He also said: If I whacked you with a baseball bat, I bet your pain wouldnt feel like an illusion!At the time, I was stumped to answer because that was before I understood the nature or more accurately the mechanics of illusion. I didnt realize that even our argument was an illusion!The fact is, my professor and I could have argued for years on end and neither of us would have convinced the other because BOTH of our aurguments were false! Why? Because neither of our arguments exist!The fact is, language is one of the primary ways in which we become deceived into believing in solid reality. Once a creature reaches the stage where it can manipulate symbolic language, you can bet that creature is deeply buried under many layers of illusion.I also should have quoted the Uncertainty Principle and the Incompleteness Theorm to my professor.

You see, the idea that language is all illusion is not a simple belief, but a fact which has been proved mathematically. Back in the 1920s, a German math genius by the name of Kurt Godel produced a rigorous mathematical demonstration which showed that all logic was ultimately self contradictory.Godels proof is known as Godels Theorm, but also as the Incompleteness Theorm. It states this:It is impossible to to establish the logical consistency of any complex deductive system except by assuming principles of reasoning whose own internal consistency is an open question as that of the system itself.

Whew! Thats just a fancy way of saying that, no matter what your viewpoint its wrong! You will never be able to convince someone of what you believe because all rhetoric is, by nature, fundamentally inconsistent.Thats why arguing politics and religion is so frustrating no one is ever right, literally! All arguments are rigged from the start!.But theres even more bad news for reality. Its called the Heisenbreg Uncertainty principle, suggested and later proved by one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, the great Werner Heisenberg. His principle states:The position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, not even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature.What this means is that physical objects cannot be pinned down to absolutely exist in any one place at any given time. Like Godels Theorm, this principle comes with a rigorous mathemetical proof.So not only are all verbal arugments fundamentally inconsistent, and therefore false, but physical matter ultimately cannot be measured.

As one physicist put it:Our conception of substance is only vivid so long as we do not face it. It begins to fade when we analyze it the solid substance of things is another illusion we have chased the solid substance from the continuous liquid to the atom, from the atom to the electron, and there we have lost it.Its amazing how complimentary Godels Theorm and the Uncertainty Principle are they both devastate the idea of a solid physcial world filled with ultimate truths. There are no objects, no people and no truth. Weve only been tricked into thinking so, as weird as this sounds.Who have we been tricked by? Ourselves! And we dont exist! Odd!You might ask: How does knowing that you dont exist help you with your daily troubles? Well, in fact, it helps a lot. Indeed, this knowledge can lead you to an extreme state of happiness, even bliss. How?By getting to work at realizing that you are buried under many layers of very tricky, persistent illusions, which because of their mathematical inconsistency, are driving you nuts! It seems like you can never find ultimate truth, true peace and the purest of love becaue you are trying to get these things under the false assumption that they exist in some real way.

They dont. And neither does pain, suffering and worry.The greater degree to which you become aware that you and your world is all sticky illusion, the greater your feeling of being happy, loving and truthful will become. Why this is so becomes plain when we give a more conventional example of how illusions cause pain.We all know someone who has mistaken money for what money represents, or mistaken money for happiness. Money itself is just paper, a symbol which rerpresents material goods. Some people fall under the illusion that money is an end it itself, so they mindlessly persue more and more of the green stuff until they have a heart attack and die.All would agree its good to be free of the illusion of money and materialism.Well, as it turns out, the more illusions we get rid of, the better off we are.

Getting rid of illusions like money, drugs and sex addictions is easy compared to getting rid of major illusions like death, time, language, and physical existence, but its far from impossible.I should warn you also, that the more you try to achieve happiness, the worse off youre likely to get because happiness is an illusory concept which does not exist. Youll get very frustrated, although frustration does not exist either. Sorry.So its better to work on getting rid of illusions themselves and let the rest take care of itself.The brilliant psychologist-philospher-author Ken Wilber describes seven layers of illusion in his groundbreaking book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. In this book, Wilber takes you step by step through the kind of illusions human are trapped within, from Nothing to the deepest layer of illusion, which he calls dualisms.The more you understand the nature of illusions, the various kinds of illusions, (especially language, time, the separation of objects in space) the more likely you are to find your way out.

This is what Zen and other forms of meditation are about to get you to stop thinking so that the ultimate silence of the greater reality of Nothing can be realized.But as any Zen master would warn you, the minute you start thinking that Zen meditation is going to help you, or that the Zen philosophy is going to help you, or any philosophy or any religion in that assumption you get lost again!Whats truly weird about illusion is that you have to use illusions to get rid of them, and its hard describe how this gets done. Remember Godels Theorm: all arugments based in language are fundamentally inconsistent, and therefore, just more traps.Even what you are reading here right now is a trap, though this article strives to point out the fact that you are trapped by illusions! But I think its at least better to know youre in jail, than being in jail and thinking this prison we call life is our true home.

Some might say: Okay, but its better to exist as an illusion that suffers than to be nothing at all!So let me throw you this bone: The big Nothing scientists and philosophers speak of is not so much the complete lack of anything, as it is a singularity of pure Virtual Potential. It does not exist, but has the potential to exist if it wants to. Its Nothing, but a kind of dynamic Nothing. Whatever. Words and labels are tricky.But the reason you have the illusion of being, along with its joy and suffering you want it. At the same time, you can have the bliss of realizing Infinite Potential without the suffering of the illusion of objective existence. In fact, this is your condition right now. You just dont know it. Its weird. A lot of people who read this article are going to say: Jeez! What a load of utter nonsense! And guess what? Theyre right!

Please take a moment to visit Ken's Webs site at:

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/07/06:

The article is some very fine nonsense, but not necessarily of the type Ken refers to in his last paragraph. The best gloss I can put on the problem is that he has used our inability to know Ultimate Reality to deny that we can know (in the usual, provisional sense meant by science) anything about reality. That's a crock!

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tonyrey asked on 03/06/06 - What is your concept of a perfect world?

........ Please indicate how it could be implemented.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/06/06:

Can a perfect world get better?

One version of a perfect world we've all heard of is Heaven. It's not something that particularly appeals to me, but there are some elements there that might be recycled.

Suppose your perfect world was inhabited by immortal, indestructible beings with no material needs? How about if, in addition, the inhabitants were bound by an obligation to not excessively annoy their neighbors? Would this be a perfect world or would it be perfectly tedious?

The transhumanists actually talk about ways some of us could eventually become part of such a "perfect" world. If our consciousness were uploaded into "undying" hardware, hardware with distributed redundancy so no local disaster affecting just a mere planet or solar system could actually destroy us, you'd be close to immortal and indestructible. Close enough?

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HerrAirhorn asked on 03/04/06 - Ethical Dilemma

Say a runaway trolley is heading down some tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley continues. You are on a footbridge over the tracks. Next to you is a stranger who happens to be very large.

The only way to save the lives of the workmen is to push the stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks in order to stop the trolley. The stranger will die, but the workmen will be saved. You cannot throw yourself onto the tracks because you are not big enough to stop the trolley.

What you think Kant would say should be done? It seems to me that the Categorical Imperitive would prevent me from pushing the man off of the tracks. It would be my will to do it to save the men but I could not want it to be a universal law. This is because I would not want someone else to push me onto the tracks if I were to take the place of the stranger.

It also seems Kant would say not to push the stranger because we are treating him as a means to some end. That end being to save the workmen.

NOW, Say that I am big enough to stop the train (second scenrio). Should I jump in order to save five lives?

Any input appreciated.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/04/06:

In the face of more realistic scenarios, the inability to be certain of whether one's efforts to avert the accident would be effective is sufficient excuse for failing to sacrifice oneself (or the big guy that's standing next to you). To the extent that you have a moral duty to act to prevent tragedy, that duty may be reduced or excused by any number of considerations - with failure to act (hesitation) generally being understandable as a normal human reaction.

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tonyrey asked on 03/03/06 - How would you define evil?

......................... In theory there could be as many types of evil as there are creatures, e.g. "canine evil", "feline evil" and "leonine evil"! Or even a type of evil for every individual: Jack's evil and Jill's evil since "one man's meat is another man's poison"... This is an absurd extreme but it does indicate that definitions often oversimplify the issue.

The traditional division into "moral evil" and "natural evil" is misleading because a so-called evil person may not be evil at all. A rapist or serial killer may not be responsible for his crimes, yet the crimes are undoubtedly evil in causing needless suffering and death. So there seems good reason to include "personal evil" in the list. What do you think?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/03/06:

extreme badness I'm going to agree with Ken here. Much of the time, people use the word evil without a more precise definition than that.

I don't see where it helps to create individualized concepts of evil.

To say something is evil is to make a moral judgement about it. I think it is helpful to make distinctions between different meanings of evil. Some evil is the intended outcome of the deeds of evil persons, some is the unintended (though perhaps predictable) bad outcome from the actions of ordinary people. Speaking of disease or other natural disasters, categorizing them as evil, one slips into attributing them to an agent, a master evil-doer. Reifying the concept of evil, as if it were a quantifiable and material substance, leads one to logical errors. I don't consider it useful to try to identify a single source for all that we consider evil.

There are arguable cases where attempting to compare the evilness of two alternatives leads reasonable people to different conclusions. Was the use of nuclear weapons on Japan evil or was it justified to avoid a greater evil? Do the benefits to humans outweigh the death and suffering of animals used for medical research? Animals used for food?

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/28/06 - what we see is so determined

The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no "things" at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James' words) only "a blooming, buzzing confusion." by Stephen L. Talbott.

But, what is a concept, where does it come from?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/02/06:

Observations are theory-laden.

Our visual perception apparatus is quite complicated. Some operations, such as detecting boundaries, take place quite early in visual processing, even in the retina itself. Some "concepts", it would seem, have been built into our nervous system by our biological nature. I'd have to say that these structures arose through evolutionary adaptation.

The very notion of cause-and-effect has been considered, by some investigators, as being innate.

But this starts to take us into the field of evolutionary psychology and perhaps leaves philosophy behind.

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/21/06 - U.S. ports in the hands of a state-owned Arab company

"It is not as if they will fire all the unionized workers at P&O's U.S. ports and replace them with Arabs."

"Powerful Washington lawmakers citing security concerns on Tuesday pushed emergency legislation to block a controversial deal that would place management of six major U.S. ports in the hands of a state-owned Arab company."

President Bush has stated we (America) are going forward and, "I will veto any legislation that stops us from going forward.

I am not up to date on this matter. Can anyone tell me why we would allow a foreign Corporation to manage our ports?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/21/06:

It takes some digging to get past the rampant scandal-mongering associated with this deal.

  • The operation of the ports is already in the hands of a foreign corporation.
  • The port operator must meet the security requirements imposed by both the federal government and the local governments
  • The main threat opportunities concerning ports need to be controlled through enhanced security of ships and containers at their port of origin and in transit.
There are nevertheless some areas of legitimate concern.
  • Dubai Ports World also operates many of the originating ports for shipments to the US.
  • While the official US position on Dubai is to consider it an ally in opposing terror, there are still some elements in Dubai who are sympathetic and supportive of Islamist organizations and their goals
  • The Bush administration is placed in a position where it must competently judge the friend-or-foe status of a government-operated company from the Middle East.
At this point, the furor seems to be fueled more by anti-Muslim prejudice than by a prudent evaluation of the actual situation. There also seems to be a reluctance to recognize that to accomplish our goals in the Middle East, it's necessary to develop trade ties with that part of the Islamic world which is opposed to terrorism.

Just one jumping-off-point link to get deeper into all this:

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/20/06 - The Problem of Knowledge (continued)..........

Taking in knowledge solely for the pleasure of doing so.

As one historian well observed: Intellectual pleasures give only a brief satisfaction, unless directed to a practical end. . . . Never should we stimulate the intellect merely to feed upon itself. Unless intellectual culture is directed to what is useful, especially to the necessities or improvement of others, it is a delusion and a snare.Beacon Lights of History, Lord, Vol. 5, p. 299.
To take in knowledge merely for the pleasure of it is like living to eat instead of eating to live. It calls to mind the ancient Epicureans, who gorged themselves and then took emetics to vomit out all they ate so they could again enjoy the pleasure of eating. Taking in knowledge merely for the pleasure of it is but little better. When such a one dies, that marks the end of his knowledge; it has neither profited others nor brought joy to them, nor does it continue on. One who does not translate into action the knowledge he takes in is deceiving himself by false reasoning.
Incidentally, even worse than taking in knowledge for its own sake is taking in degrading, depraved knowledge. Scandal sheets, pornographic magazines, sexy best sellers, whether classical or popular, and pseudoscientific works. A class of pseudoscience, Pseudoskepticism, refers to skepticism that is itself erroneously presented as scientific, and pander to a depraved craving for knowledge. Pseudoscience is distinguishable from revelation, theology, or spirituality in that it claims to offer insight into the physical world by "scientific" means.
Even as a good book is like a good friend, so bad books are like bad associations that spoil useful habits.

There actually is only one sound reason for taking in knowledge. All our taking in of knowledge should be for the practical application of it in our own lives and/or for the purpose of instructing others.

Or is it?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/20/06:

I recently saw a thought parallel to this one in the writing of Paul Graham, a sort of programmer-philosopher.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

How to Do What You Love

In your posting, however, you are using the phrase taking in knowledge as a sort of metaphorical consumption (hence the allusion to the vomiting Epicureans?).

What degree of "ought" are you trying to impose with this dictum? Are you giving advice for how someone can best make themselves happy? Are you suggesting that they will ultimately be happier with themselves and their lives if they do something productive and valuable with their time and their knowledge?

I'm asking this because I sense a puritanical gloss in your statement: that it is required of us that we sacrifice our own pleasures for the benefit of others. That is a sentiment I could not agree with.

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tonyrey asked on 02/19/06 - The Problem of Knowledge (continued)..........

What are your views on the following critique:

"At the beginning of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume, having argued that all ideas come from antecedent impressions, describes a test of his theory:

Those who would assert that this position is not universally true nor without exception, have only one, and that an easy method of refuting it; by producing that idea, which, in their opinion, is not derived from this source. It will then be incumbent on us, if we would maintain our doctrine, to produce the impression, or lively perception, which corresponds to it. [Shelby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1902, 1972, pp. 19-20]

Here the challenge and the burden of proof is clear enough: If we produce an idea that we contend is not derived from an original impression, or lively perception, then it is Hume's business to produce that impression or admit that his theory, his empiricism, is not correct.

The difficulty with this test for Hume is that he himself discovers many ideas which evidently have not been derived from an original impression. Thus, later in the same Enquiry, we find Hume saying:

There are no ideas, which occur in metaphysics, more obscure and uncertain, than those of power, force, energy or necessary connection.... [pp.61-62]

Now, in terms of Hume's own challenge, one might say that he has discovered several ideas that refute his empiricism. However, he has already protected himself against such refutation: Having proposed his test, Hume almost immediately took it back and shifted the burden of proof:

When we entertain, therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need to enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will serve to confirm our suspicion. [p. 22]....

Hume's empiricism, while ruling out various metaphysical entities (free will, the soul, God, etc.), to the applause of his many admirers, also ruled out many of the future developments of science, which few admirers this side of deconstruction are likely to applaud:

Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of bread; but neither sense nor reason can ever inform us of those qualities which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human body. [p. 33]

These ultimate springs and principles [of events in nature] are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature. [p. 30]

The course of science in the 19th and 20th centuries would have astonished Hume, as it certainly discredits the foundation of his predictions for the future of human knowledge. That proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, minerals, etc. explain the basis of human nutrition, and that electromagnetism and atomic, nuclear, and particle physics explain much of the fundamental behavior of matter, are not just things that escaped Hume's imagination -- they escaped everyone's imagination until the discovery of them was effected -- but they are things that occupy a cognitive space whose very existence Hume explicitly denied: They do not correspond to "impressions" any more than God or the soul do. By Hume's criterion they are "without any meaning or idea."

Thus, when Hume shifts the burden of proof to protect his empiricism, he shuts off any possible understanding, not just of metaphysics and religion, but of much of mathematics and science. That is a price some, like Wittgenstein and Rorty, are still willing to pay: That mathematics and science really tell us nothing about the world but are elaborate tricks we have devised that unaccountably produce results that we want in practical matters. Such a dismal aspiration can be found to have motivated few, if any, historic scientists."

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/19/06:

Most philosophies and most philosophical arguments are not indivisible wholes. Even if an argument seems unassailable at the time it is written, later developments may reveal flaws. Critical readers who come later then have to decide whether there is something to be salvaged from the original, now-seen-as-flawed argument or whether there is something to be learned: e.g. arguments that presume our continuing ignorance about some subject are susceptible to falling if that ignorance is reduced in the future. Or whether the whole thing really should be discarded.

In fact, the failures of past philosophical arguments can reveal fruitful ground anthropologists and sociologists will now zoom in on assumptions about human nature and dissect whether there is an intrinsic and genetic basis or socially-influenced aspect to the claimed property. The status of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, both the arguments and the advances, owes much to mining the ground laid down by earlier philosophical writings.

Based on what we've seen from this Friesian site before, I'd hazard a guess that there is a religious program operating against materialism and empiricism. Shooting holes in (abandoned) arguments by founding fathers of a philosophy or erecting elaborate strawmen to knock down is what I would suspect may be going on here.

Now that I've made that prediction, I'll post this and then go look at the site you referenced.

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NCohen asked on 02/14/06 - Introduction

I am new to Answerway. I have been looking around the various boards and found this active board. My name is Nigel Cohen, and I'd like to join all of you in stimulating conversation.


Jim.McGinness answered on 02/14/06:

All thoughtful contributions are gladly welcome! You can participate by posting questions, posting answers and clarifications, or simply sitting back and watching.

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tonyrey asked on 02/07/06 - The problem of knowledge (continued).............

As my quotation has given the impression that only philosophers are under attack I am adding the beginning of the article :

"The topic of the unity of science has something of a quaint air about it nowadays. Especially when the matter is raised by a philosopher, it is likely to conjure up all kinds of images from the past:

* ancient images of the Parmenidean One;
* mediaeval images of Thomistic metaphysics reigning as queen of the sciences;
* early 19th century images of the separate sciences as stages in the unfolding of the Hegelian Absolute Spirit;
* turn-of-the-century images of Machian science as the most economical organisation of sensations, with metaphysics as the greatest danger to the unity of science;
* early 20th century images of the stark anti-metaphysical zeal of the Vienna Circle for the unity of science movement resolutely reconstructing the sum of scientific knowledge on the model of a logical system of observation statements.

Very diverse images, to be sure: both idealist and materialist; both metaphysical and anti-metaphysical; both phenomenalist and physicalist; but they all have in common an unmistakable quality of quaintness. We recognise the sincerity and human striving underlying them, of course, but a musty air clings to them all.

It was all such a long time ago and we are so much more sophisticated now. We have come such a long way. We have come to know just how problematic is our knowledge. We no longer entertain such bright hopes for our science. We stand amidst the debris of discarded unities, the ruins of demolished systems. We do not talk nowadays about the unity of science.

But perhaps we should. Certainly, we should do something. We cannot go on pretending that all is well, chattering pleasantly about small and simple things, oblivious of the large and complex matters that are virtually crying out for our attention.

Of course, work is being done and progress is being made, certainly by scientists. Experiments proceed and the empirical data accumulates, but who knows how it all adds up, what it all means, what the overall shape of it is ?

But we really must know. We must know what are the implications of it all for forming a picture of what sort of a world it is in which we live and flutter about and what sort of creatures we are living and fluttering about in it.

But who is to know such things? And how? The scientists will say it is not their job. The separate sciences are in the grip of an escalating specialisation that makes it almost impossible for scientists to understand what is being said by other scientists within the subdivisions of their own discipline, let alone by scientists in other disciplines.

Gone are the days of the scientist who knew all of science or even of the physicist who knew all of physics.

But if scientists cannot make any sense of it, then who can? Certainly the philosophers don't seem very promising candidates. They have retreated for the most part into the subdivisions of their own discipline, sometimes becoming more technical, sometimes becoming more fuzzy, but always becoming more insular. Most of them know almost nothing about science anyway, unlike philosophers of the past, who in other eras were undifferentiated from scientists."

What say you?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/07/06:

Maybe there will come a time when people will stop imagining a mythical Golden Age and stop yearning to "return" to it or to what it represents. Despite the recounting of evidence that such a thing has slipped beyond our grasp (irretrievably?), the writer still insists that we must be able to know, that we must make sense of it all.

Some people will continue to be attracted to the prospect of synthesizing a view in which "it all adds up" and "it all makes sense". The bulk of us will have to put up with making only limited sense and arriving at a modus vivendi with each other and the material world. Keeping the limitations of our worldview in mind, we may avoid the more eggregious problems caused by those who think they have a privileged line on absolute truth.

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tonyrey asked on 01/29/06 - Consciousness and language

.................................What are your views on the theory that the evolution of consciousness was an outgrowth of the development of language?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/29/06:

It seems more reasonable to me to view the two as emerging together. If we watch a young child, the capability for language and the externally observable aspects of consciousness are tied. The initial language and the sorts of concepts the child seems able to entertain start off simple and grow in complexity. It's not really a rule that organism development recapitulates evolution, but it certainly makes more sense to me in this case.

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Jon1967 asked on 01/28/06 - What now?

After the Hamas electoral victory, what now?

No more road-map. No more road.

Too bad for those (few) Palestinians who actually did want peace. Too bad for the Israelis who did want peace. It is now a cold awakening, and the illusions (of those who had them) are now shattered. At least now Israel knows (or should know) what it is dealing with.

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/28/06:

While the dire prediction you are making could very well come true, I believe it is too early to tell what a Hamas government - one that is faced with the full responsibility for governing - will do. It is understandable that the voters would have wanted to rid themselves of the Fatah-led government for reasons of corruption and incompetence. There's going to be a lot of that same impulse to "throw the rascals out" operating in US elections.

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tonyrey asked on 01/27/06 - What are your views on monism?

.......................There is a tendency to reduce all phenomena to one principle (e.g. consciousness) or one kind of "ultimate substance" and to view reality as one organic whole. It is certainly economical to do this, yet mind and matter, to give two examples, both appear real enough and difficult to explain in terms of the other. That is why Bertrand Russell postulated "neutral monism" as a solution, mind and matter both being derived from one unknown source. Do you regard his theory as reasonable?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/27/06:

It's all one.

There are philosophical names for various stances regarding the cardinal number of fundamental entities. Just from zero, one, and two, you can get a good start. There are various variants of nihilism or "all is illusion" school. Then there's monism, which we're discussing here: it's always good to consider monism as an alternative to dualism when you can map the two dualistic poles onto the presence vs absence of a single entity or when it's convenient for reducing the supposedly "apparent" complexities produced by a dualist point-of-view.

For metaphysical as well as scientific theories, it is by their fruits that we would like to judge them. I don't think Russell's proposal produced much useful fruit in this case. There have been various insights into how minds might come about as the activity of brains (or other computational engines) I wouldn't call the issue entirely settled, but understanding of how the mind is the result of something brains do seems more within our grasp than the very deep proposals about how the whole universe is the result of how minds work.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/26/06 - What is mythology?

Science, writes Alexander Escobar, is a mythology just another way of understanding the universe."

He defines mythologies as the symbols and stories humans access to understand profound truths about themselves and the universe around them. "Given this definition, I believe that religions and philosophies including science) fall under the same umbrella. In Mythology, I use the example of the blind men that come upon an elephant each comes in contact with a different part of this large animal. One touches the trunk and describes the elephant as a snake, another touches a leg and believes the elephant to be like a column. In the end, it is the wise elephant that resolves the conflict by stating that each has a partial grasp of the truth. I believe the universe is a complexity that goes beyond our comprehension. Each tradition whether religion or science touches the universe in its own way, and so each has a truth to share with the other. By sharing our understandings, we will develop a perspective that is much more complete and clarifies the connections we share".

What do you think of his definition?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/26/06:

For someone shopping for mythologies, it is not hard to find people repackaging science as if it were simply another mythology. If you treat the results of science as merely another set of just so stories, you can comparison shop for qualities like "makes me feel good", "provides comprehensive explanations", "leaves no holes", etc. Other mythologies may seem preferable on those sorts of comparison scales.

The advocates of science make no idle claim when they say that scientific statements are to be judged based on their correspondence to how the material universe works. In particular, if you are looking for a mythology that does not change as new evidence comes in (indeeed, does not even encourage the seeking of new evidence), you should look elsewhere than science as your mythology.

Escobar sounds ecumenical, wishing to bridge the differences between all faiths. Coming from that sort of context, it makes sense to downplay any claims on possession of truth or at least on possession of the whole truth. If you try to take it beyond a ploy to get people with differing beliefs to talk to one another, though, it falls down pretty badly.

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Bradd asked on 01/20/06 - Morality and Religion

Is morality (or the social contract) feasible without religion?

Atheists, relatively few in number, say yes, but are they simply projecting an altruistic view which they, composed mostly of high-minded individuals, naively assume everybody else will accept?

From Socrates to Spinoza, religion, believed or not, is seen as the glue that holds societies together.

As religion declines in the affluent societies, and immorality increases, what will take its place? Social Darwinism?

By religion, I don't mean any particular creed, but rather the common mythos that all social groups tend to pass on to their children. Its strength is that it is not reduced by "science" - it transcends mere logic and resonates in the human psyche.

Could there be something of ultimate truth in such an a-rational aspect of the human condition?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/20/06:

Adherence to religious principles and morality are separable. Even early philosophical writing like Plato's Euthyphro explores the distinction between a diety's command and what is morally right. The concept of a moral, ethical, and even virtuous atheist is not, as a matter of definition, an oxymoron.

On the largest scale, the issue of whether a society can continue to exist in the absence of religion is an open question. Human children must go through a process of socialization as they grow up and one of the aspects of this socialization is training in ethical norms. A sufficient adherence to these norms must be maintained by the society to prevent disintegration.

On a smaller scale, you can point to such groups as pirates and outlaw bands where a degree of group cohesion is maintained in the face of behavior that is extremely anti-social to their victims and maintained without benefit of religion.

Pluralistic societies, where people with differing (but not hopelessly incompatible) religions coexist, seem to me like a better place to live than ones where adherence to one particular religion is enforced. Societies where religion is suppressed seem pretty miserable.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/19/06 - Bin Laden Makes Truce Offering

Bin Laden Makes Truce Offering On Latest Terror Tape
01.19.2006 5:47 PM EST

White house response:
"During his daily briefing, before the voice was authenticated, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said bin Laden was desperate and "clearly on the run," adding, "we do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business. The terrorists started this war and the president made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing.""

Is this a wise response?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/19/06:

Anything the White House says has to be considered in light of the different audiences it is said for.

In this case, there is nothing that could be said that would significantly change bin Laden's mind nor affect his actions. The political reading of the American public, however, indicates that a blustery and confident-seeming response is the best way to keep most of the pro-Bush people satisfied.

My guess, even though my own political sense is none too good, is that this is a correct reading.

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/11/06 - When a Fact Is Not a Fact

Ken in the previous post brought up the subject of "Dogmatism" that Choux thought was "super," and I agree. However, I would like to point out another "Dogmatism" that, I feel is a great mistake taught in our Public School system here in the U. S.- The theory of organic evolution.

A fact is something that exists beyond question. It is an actuality, an objective reality. It is established by solid evidence.
A theory is something unproved but at times assumed true for the sake of argument. It has yet to be proved as factual. Nonetheless, sometimes something is declared to be a fact that is only a theory.
The theory of organic evolution falls into this category.
ON September 30, 1986, The New York Times published an article by a New York University professor, Irving Kristol. His contention is that if evolution were taught in the public schools as the theory it is rather than as the fact it isnt, there would not be the controversy that now rages between evolution and creationism. Kristol stated: There is also little doubt that it is this pseudoscientific dogmatism that has provoked the current religious reaction.
Though this theory is usually taught as an established scientific truth, Kristol said, it is nothing of the sort. It has too many lacunae [gaps]. Geological evidence does not provide us with the spectrum of intermediate species we would expect. Moreover, laboratory experiments reveal how close to impossible it is for one species to evolve into another, even allowing for selective breeding and some genetic mutation. . . . The gradual transformation of the population of one species into another is a biological hypothesis, not a biological fact.
The article touched a raw nerve in Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, a fervent defender of evolution as a fact, not just a theory. His rebuttal of Kristols article was published in a popularized science magazine, Discover, January 1987 issue. It revealed the very dogmatism Kristol deplored.

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/11/06:

Is anything beyond question?

I thought that was one of the pleasures of philosophy: to ask questions about the ideas that everyone takes for granted.

Identifying Irving Kristol merely as a New York University professor is disingenuous: he is considered one of the founders of neoconservatism. Most of his writing needs to be considered in this light, as advocacy, not as some sort of non-partisan, objective authority.

Whenever someone says "evolution is just a theory", they are usually signaling not just a challenge to this particular theory but a general alignment with a social movement. It is a slogan that reflects a misunderstanding of both the theory of evolution and of what a "theory" is in the context of modern science.

During the advocacy wars with creationists a decade or two ago, some science popularizers, including Gould, were drawn into advocacy roles themselves. Gould had already made some fame as a critic of the standard gradualist, adaptionist view of evolution. I think it's telling that as an advocate he came across as dogmatic, but I can sympathize with the frustration he must have felt. Gould was an expert in the shells of snails. In his field, there are millions of "facts" i.e. individual fossilized and unfossilized shells. Viewed from within the context of the theory of evolution the currently best way to make sense of these millions of facts Kristol's doubts based on gaps in the evidence must have seemed completely ridiculous. It would be like complaining that you can't read a text because in the printing process each letter "a" is microscopically different from every other letter "a".

As philosophers of science like to point out, even "facts" are theory-laden. When Darwin (and Wallace) originally presented their ideas on evolution, they had no knowledge of Mendel's research on genetics and the detailed mechanisms of heredity. With the analysis of DNA and other biochemical discoveries, the underlying mechanisms for evolution the justification for Darwin's original leap of understanding from not much more than comparative anatomy are much better established than, say, our understanding of gravity. Is gravity a fact? We don't often hear that "gravity is just a theory".
Within the US system of public education, the outcome of years of anti-evolution activism has resulted in a lot of damage. The grand synthesis represented by the modern theory of evolution is powerful, deep, and not always easy to understand. Textbook publishers and science instructors trying to stay out of the line of fire from anti-evolutionists will often be found to have watered down the theory to make it more palatable or to have simply failed at making the case for evolution in a way that secondary (or even college-level) students can find compelling. The outcome of several lawsuits has declared evolution to be science, so some have even taken refuge in the approach of treating evolution as dogma. It would be a very uncommon high-school student whose understanding of evolution could withstand the sophistries of today's intelligent design advocates.

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CeeBee2 asked on 01/11/06 - Beauty or Truth

John Keats (1795-1821) wrote at the end of "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty-—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Is beauty truth and truth beauty? If not, why not? If you had to choose one or the other to rule your life, which would you choose and why?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/11/06:

Wouldn't it an interesting world if this were true?

While there is a certain beauty in most truths and a certain truth in most beauty, they remain quite different ideas. Neither is a reliable guide to the presence of the other.

In Gdel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter played with this notion in one of his dialogues. As I recall, the Tortoise proposed that there was a way to encode logical statements as a sequence of musical notes (and vice versa). Marvelously, the musical translation of a true logical statement always sounded beautiful and the musical translation of a false logical statement sounded ugly. Even more marvelous, the logical translation of a beautiful melody always turned out to be true while the logical translation of a dull or bad-sounding melody always turned out to be false.

My own prediliction seems to be to prefer truth over beauty. Put another way, I'd rather be right than happy, but I'll take happy when I can get it and I can't figure out what's right.

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tonyrey asked on 01/05/06 - What is the foundation of morality?

...........................I believe human life is valuable because it is a source of opportunities for development and enjoyment. That is why it is unreasonable to harm or kill a human being except in self-defence. Morality is not therefore subjective, relative and based on human convention but objective, universal and based on facts about human nature.

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/05/06:

You can construct ethical systems on a number of different foundations, but there is no general agreement on what foundation is best and no agreement that morality can be objective, absolute or universal. Claims made about human nature are empirical and, to this day, are often laden with ethnocentric motivations or unjustified generalizations.

Most cultures make a number of different allowances for when it is acceptable to kill another human being and when it is not, with possible shades between. Self-defense is not always a simple determination.

Making something other than life itself the basis for the value of life can lead you into tricky situations. Would the absence of the possibility of enjoyment or opportunities for someone make it permissible for that person to be killed? Some people might agree with that while others would consider it a monstrous position to take.

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Lukas asked on 01/04/06 - time/space


There is an expression "no time and space" that i came across a few times while reading different books. For example "there was no time and space for him" or " he was the enemy of time and space" How to understand this TIME and SPACE. Is it connected with some specific current in philosophy? What it may mean that there is no time and no space? Does it make sense?
thank you!

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/04/06:

As literary expressions, your examples simply express the idea that the normal limitations of time and of space did not apply: he could be anywhere or anyWHEN and travel between different points of time or space with ease.

Einstein's relativity theory uses time and space coordinates and shows time and space to be inter-related. Physicists (and people imitating the language of physicists) speak of space-time as a 4-dimensional continuum.

Dark_Crow asked on 01/01/06 - human knowledge

Is all human knowledge is derived from human experience.

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/01/06:

Can we ennumerate the possible origins of knowledge?

  • derived from our own experience
  • conveyed to us by communicating with others, based on their experience or communications
  • innate, born with us though some would argue that this inborn knowledge is derived from the experience of our forebearers
  • divine or supernatural inspiration
Were you thinking of some other possible sources?

Your use of the term human in your question has me wondering which sense of the word is supposed to apply if we were to run into a race of intelligent and communicative aliens. In our experience, is there any other type of knowledge than human knowledge?
I also feel like I'm letting you get away with something if leave the term knowledge unchallenged. Some people like to jack up the metaphysical truth aspect of knowledge in a way that is not justifiable, in my book. If we are unprepared to consider whether parts of what we consider knowledge may not be accurate, we can find ourselves out of sync with what is generally called reality.
Getting back to the question at hand, I'd answer your question with a qualified affirmative, if you'll agree that the contributions to or modifications of knowledge that stem from the way our brains and bodies work are derived from our ancestors' experiences.

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tonyrey asked on 12/29/05 - What is the evidence that God exists?

........ Amongst the reasons for my own belief are:

The upward trend of evolution in the development of rationality, consciousness, sensitivity, autonomy and spirituality.

The astonishing history of the Chosen People who believe in the Unknown God and the Messiah, and have suffered persecution throughout history culminating in the unparallelled horror of the Holocaust.

The life, death and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth whose moral code of love and unforgiveness remains unsurpassed.

The fact that life is a constant struggle between good and evil - which exist not simply in the minds of human beings but in the conflict between creation and destruction, integrity and corruption, nobility and degradation.

The fact that countless miracles have occurred in answer to prayer.

The exquisite beauty in art and nature.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/29/05:

Wow, what an excellent and stimulating question. Thank you for asking this one in this way!

The reasons you cite as evidence seem to be justifications for belief, but are they evidence? This is the point you and Ken were approaching in your What is wrong with atheism?! question of a few days ago: What would constitute evidence for God?

A lot depends on what concept you have for God. Some people who study God will say you can't have a comprehensive concept of God that would be too limiting. Their God is too inscrutable and ineffable to be confined to our puny conceptual frameworks. That turns out to be a good rhetorical game, but it makes it very hard to answer questions along the lines of "how does this or that feature of the world that we see about us inform us of the nature of God?", i.e. how can anything we perceive actually be evidence for God?

There is a tendency to attribute any phenomenon that we can't explain to the working of God. Let's consider what it means for there to be "countless miracles" in response to prayer. Are they really "miraculous" if they happen so frequently and reliably? Might there be a different explanation? Why do "miracle" cures seem to be limited to only certain types of maladies?

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tonyrey asked on 12/27/05 - What is wrong with theism?


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/27/05:

The word theism covers a multitude of different beliefs about supernatural beings and the spiritual realm. The diversity is consistent with the possibilty that people have just been making these beliefs up, perhaps to further some other agenda.

This series of questions about "what is wrong with ____________?" is generating fairly low-quality content for Answerway, in that there has been little cross-discussion and diminishing participation. Perhaps everyone's just too busy with the holidays?

I do appreciate your efforts to keep some activity going here. I know we're all doing what we can out of interestand my own level of interest seldom rises to the level of posting a question.

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Choux asked on 12/24/05 - What is the meaning of hope....

in the lives of human beings.

Is hope always positive?
Are there negative aspects of hope?

Definition of hope::: noun 1. A wish or desire accompanied by confident expectation of its fulfillment.
2. Something that is hoped for or desired: Success is our hope.
3. One that is a source of or reason for hope: the team's only hope for victory.
4. often Hope Christianity. The theological virtue defined as the desire and search for a future good, difficult but not impossible to attain with God's help.
5. Archaic. Trust; confidence.

Thoughtful comments appreciated.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/24/05:

The way we usually think about it, we parse expectations about the future into either hope or despair. The positive expectactions we label hope and the negative expectations we label despair.

Optimism, or a set of positive expectations about the future, seems to be an essential ingredient in sucessful outcomes for human beings. We know from experience that hopes are not always realized. Prudence suggests that we adopt a positive vision, work towards it as intelligently as we can, and temper our plans with appropriate provisions for the possibility that something may go wrong.

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tonyrey asked on 12/24/05 - What is wrong with atheism?!


Jim.McGinness answered on 12/24/05:

The main thing that seems to be wrong with atheism is atheists. They don't have a unified doctrine about what atheism is, so anyone can talk about atheism using whatever definition they privately think applies and declare that they know what atheists believe.

Amateur atheists, doctrinaire atheists, militant atheists they can all be as tedious or annoying as their religious counterparts. If someone's primary intellectual self-identification is atheist, it's probably a sign that you don't want to spend much time getting to know them. Substitute the name of just about any religion or other monomania in that sentencedo you agree?

As Brad points out, however, monomanias have their useful aspects. We can well predict that the world's societies will not soon settle down to peaceful and rational coexistence. What belief systems will be needed for humanity to survive the next round of social upheavals? How do you convince people their beliefs mean enough to them that they will make life-altering commitments based on those beliefs (even if some of the beliefs do not always seem adjusted to reality)?

As Yul Brynner said "Is a puzzlement!"

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tonyrey asked on 12/19/05 - Are all metaphysical theories equally probable?

... When investigating the nature of reality it seems desirable at the outset to avoid making any assumptions, e.g. that everything has its origin in matter (or mind). Is it reasonable to assume initially that all metaphysical theories are equally probable - provided they are intelligible, coherent and consistent?

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/19/05:

You would have to mean something strange by "equally probable" for that to even make sense.

We have to judge metaphysical theories by some other criterion than their probability or even their initial credibility. If the criteria are not simply a matter of taste, they become an aspect of a meta-metaphysical theory.

And your criteria are awfully stringent: if we could find just one metaphysical theory that was all those things (outside of solipsism or nihilism), it would be a great advance.

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Choux asked on 12/15/05 - Clarification: Jew-Christian

Ok, now look, Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, and the culture that developed in Europe is a result of years of the Christian(and Jewish) religion's influence.

Worldview....guilt, perfectionism, sin, legal mentality.....etc....etc...

In Asan culture...NOT sin and guilt mentality and whatever about passivity?

OK, what I wanted to know is what are ten or so qualities of Western Civ that can be traced back to the Jew-Christian religious worldview??

I am not making any value judgement of any kind.
This is just a question....

That's what I am asking...

Mary Sue

PS I was unable to make a clarification under the question due to something or other.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/15/05:

Clarification mechanics, then a possible example:

Yep, there are some views of the question where you can click on and post a clarification and it won't show up. I think I found that the view from the Question Board worked and the view from My Questions didn't but things may work differently depending on how you get there. If your first clarification seems not to take, try approaching from a different starting point.

The idea that the deity is a lawgiver lies pretty close to the foundation of the West Asian monotheism out of which Judaism arose. I think that may be a distinctive idea not present in ancient East Asian religious foundations. Identifying the monotheistic deity as somewhat separate from his or her creation allowed a "deanimation" of the world. Together, these allowed the rise of what we might now call a "mechanistic" worldview.

Is that the sort of thing you're looking for? What role are you thinking sin and guilt play? In what sense are you thinking of Asian "passivity"?

I'm quite concerned about engaging in stereotyping and chauvinistic generalizations. McNiel's The Rise of the West was infected with a sort of cultural imperialism that, in its more virulent forms in the previous few centuries, led to (or, at least, fed) a tremendous amount of war, violence, and suffering.

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Choux asked on 12/14/05 - Judeo-Christian

I don't know if anyone here knows, but what are, in general, say, ten characteristics of Judeo-Christian culture/society whatever as it developed throughout Europe. As opposed to Asian cultures. World view, qualities that led to science, etc. Thanks.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/15/05:

Questions like this seem to be based on a sort of cultural determinism. It becomes a historical or sociological exercise to pick out singular characteristics of one country, group, or culture and justify a claim that those particular characteristics are responsible for some eventual outcome. I find these sorts of arguments intellectually interesting, but I remain fundamentally distrustful of basing actions on their conclusions.

William McNiel's The Rise of the West is an example of this sort of approach, done better than most.

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/07/05 - What is the Natural State of Man?

It seems to me to boil down to two Doctrines; the one of Optimism, which says that the universe is constantly tending toward a better state, and Pessimism, the belief that the world and life are essentially evil. With strong arguments for both theories, the only way to settle the paradox seems to be Augustines most unsatisfactory conclusionthat everything in the universe is good, even things that appear evil.

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/07/05:

Doe this paradox result from a false dichotomy? Grand indifference seems as plausible as a tendency toward either good or evil. If nature and the greater universe take no particular stand on ethical issues, that leaves us free to make our own judgements.

As to what the "natural state of man" is, that's a theory-laden question. We have to assume the current state of man is not what the asker has in mind, but is the natural state one that has existed in the past? Or one that has never existed?

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Dark_Crow asked on 12/06/05 - How does first person experience arise?

Peirce seems to ascribe mind and thought even to the physical
world, when he writes Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects
are really there. (CP 4.551).

Jim.McGinness answered on 12/06/05:

I agree that Peirce seems to be saying he can see evidence of thought in the way nature operates. This view has ancient antecedents.

For a while in the 90s, there was a lot of talk about emergent order. I haven't kept up with this particular intellectual thread, but it is akin to Adam Smith's "invisible hand" in economics or some speculations about teleology in evolution. It may have been the spark of man's religious impulses and surfaces today in the controversy over Intelligent Design.

We have no difficulty in ascribing intentionality and thoughtfulness to other human beings; is our ability to do this in some way "leaky", so that we also see intention and thought, in varying degrees, everywhere? Are we projecting our own intentions onto these natural occurrences?

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tonyrey asked on 11/30/05 - Obscurity and Profundity

............................................ Apparently simple questions, like "What is goodness?" are among the most difficult to answer. Is obscurity and even a degree of unintelligibility to be expected in profound explanations?

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/30/05:

Philosphy Magazine, in the most recent issue I have though it is a few months old did a multi-faceted treatment of what it called the intractables. Profound questions, such as "What is Goodness?", "What is Justice?", and the Mind-Body problem, have been discussed for thousands of years.

Obscurity and unintelligibility are often signs that a purported explanation is no explanation at all. Because these questions have been around so long, the territory that an explanation must cover is known to have many traps for the unwary. By following a tortuous path around these pitfalls, some writers believe they are blazing a true path even though few readers can follow. If an explanation is sufficiently obscure, it becomes irrefutable.

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Dark_Crow asked on 11/27/05 - no amount of thought will reveal this knowledge

If a person does not attend to the meaning of terms, he may begin to sound absurd. Shall I explain this matter to you Darkcrow?
And explain he did That I had been in error on at least one account became apparent soon enough: that he was not a peasant! He traced his linage to the very near beginning of knowledge: to what is known to be a fact.
For it seems my guide is no less than a direct decandent of Hypatia the Philosopher Daugher of Theon and wife of Isidrus. Add to that Aristippus of Cyrenefounder of the The Cyrenaic school of classical Greek Thought. As it turns out Aristippus was home schooled by Arete of Cyrene, his mother and, the namesake of Timarte (Socrates claimed that arete is a kind of knowledge. Others believe that arete is more than a matter of knowing; it is, some people think, also a matter of willing.)
Timarte; too was home schooled and revealed to me that knowledge passes from father to father though one generation after another. Knowledge is not to be found dusty books the likes of Diodrus Siculus nor Friedrich Nietzsche or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel nor one G.E. Moore, or David Hume. Knowledge requires action and is not to be generated in ones mind. If you believe there is water in the cup you only need taste it, and if the thirst is quenched, it is water enough; no amount of thought will reveal this knowledge.

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/27/05:

One good thing coming from your series of posts is that Ken seems to be making more of an appearance. I learn more from watching the two of you spar than I do from reading the answers to my own questions!

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tonyrey asked on 11/20/05 - To what extent does language obscure thought?

For example, to define is to impose limits where they may not exist. Definitions tend to lead to an atomist view of reality and ignore the continuity of processes. Yet it is impossible to dispense with definitions...

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/20/05:

In one sense, your question is unanswerable. Language is the primary means by which we organize our thoughts internally and by which we communicate with others. It is certainly possible for thought to be expressed without language: music, drawing, dance are alternative modalities.

For thoughts that would lead to language-like expression, we have only the dimmest apprehension of those thoughts before they become embedded in language. It is through words words taken from a culturally developed stock with a history of utility that the thought can become meaningful and communicable. Words and their meanings become the garments in which thought is garbed the naked thought underneath is not revealed but must be inferred.

Dividing language into words is a reductionist approach that we seem to be born with. Words correspond, sometimes inexactly, with meanings. Only in debates are definitions considered to take primacy over the meaning of a word. The definition is some poor dictionary editor's best effort at capturing the meaning of one word in terms of other words.

The words and language we use do have an effect on what we think. We start to receive the language at a vulnerable age and, without specific training to defend against it, subtle messages can be taken in from our culture's use of language: certain assumptions held to be universal, certain topics not to be approached.

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Dark_Crow asked on 11/17/05 - Secondness of a mode of being.

100% pure doubtlessness is a property of habit and a habit is acquired by experience; that is, action taken with-out syllogism which has proved itself true; what CS Perice calls Secondness of a mode of being.
Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third.
A sign that stands for something to something i. e. object of the sign.
Note: A sign may refer to more than one object or group of objects

A proposition or a description is a sign which may be interpreted to refer to a factual existing object.

A syllogism is a sign of a general law or of a conclusion which leads to the truth.
And so it is that I can say the Bible has literal meaning, and syllogism is the proper means of investigation, not blind faith.
As now, as Christians, ought not, they be testing their words against the whole of the Bible. And if them, certainly all who wish to speak of it in any knowing way. If I want to know a man I listen to his words, not what others say about him and, the same with the Bible; how can one believe, that is, be with-out doubt unless they see for themselves.

Matthew 22:37
Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Faith by reason as opposed to blind faith.
My bold

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/19/05:

This question looks to be a small piece of a larger argument. What I find I cannot understand after several readings, I am tempted to label obscurantist.

At some level, you seem to be challenging believers in the Bible to follow some instructions you see the Bible as giving them. What, then, was all that stuff about doubtlessness and secondness?

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Nocturne asked on 11/14/05 - Something

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/15/05:

I don't know of a satisfactory explanation for why something is necessary. Does it seem more likely that nothing is the more common state? If we look out at the universe as we know it, there's still an awful lot of nothing out there.

If you like the Anthropic Princple, you could argue that the reason there is something is BECAUSE we are here to perceive it. This has some respectability as a philosphical idea but has not yet become a scientific hypothesis with fruitful predictions or successful tests.

Other Resources
This really is an old chestnut.

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HANK1 asked on 11/10/05 - WANT SOME WISDOM?

Thomas Merton wrote, "I will not permit myself to become emotionally involved in matters that should not be my concern. I will not interfere with the working out of another's difficulties, however dear and close we may be to each other. Detachment is essential to any healthy relationship between people. EACH OF US IS A FREE INDIVIDUAL WITH NEITHER ONE IN CONTROL OF THE OTHER. Although all men (and women) have a common destiny, each individual also has to work out his personal salvation for him (or herself). WE CAN HELP ONE ANOTHER FIND OUT THE MEANING OF LIFE. BUT IN THE LAST ANALYSIS, EACH IS RESPONSIBLE FOR FINDING HIMSELF." (This also applies to women, Chou. I didn't forget the female gender, per the equality bit)

Don't jump the gun. THINK about what Merton had to say and then answer truthfully. This will make your answer sincere.


Jim.McGinness answered on 11/10/05:

Merton was a wise man, but in this particular quote -- taken out of context -- it seems like only every other sentence is wise.

Detachment has its place and it makes sense to be circumspect about putting your nose in where it doesn't belong. But being close to someone is necessarily to become emotionally involved in their difficulties, at least at some level. It's a good view to have that we do not control one another -- but we certainly have an influence over one another. And there are things we can do to support our fellow beings in their search for meaning and purpose in their lives, even as they choose paths different from the ones we have chosen.

So I'm at a bit of a loss to know how to take the excerpt overall. It's partly wise, partly truism, partly saying something I heartily agree with -- but some of it can easily be misconstrued.

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tonyrey asked on 11/05/05 - Evolution and intelligent design..........

Are they necessarily incompatible?

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/06/05:

Naturally, it depends a bit on your definition of each. As currently proposed by several of its major proponents, the notion of intelligent design is intended to be a criticism of the mainstream neo-Darwinist theory. It is intentionally incompatible.

Thus far, though, the notion of intelligent design is more a political/religious movement than a scientific theory.

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Bradd asked on 10/31/05 - Logic Can Be Fun - Or Can It?

Read the following sentence.

"This statement is a lie".

Is the sentence a lie or not a lie?

If it's a lie, then the sentence is not a lie. If it's not a lie, then the sentence is a lie.

True or false, in place of lie, works too.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/31/05:

Bertrand Russell developed a whole theory of categories to try to get around this and other similar paradoxes. Based on this, and on Gdel's Incompleteness Theorem, the turn-of-the-century programme to reduce all philosophical statements to mathematical logic came to a stumbling point.

One way to resolve the problem is to say that self-contradictory statements, such as the one in your example, are neither true nor false. That's not really a solution, all by itself, because you can construct cycles or networks of statements that are individually not, in and of themselves, self-contradictory, yet the whole system contains contradictions.

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Choux asked on 10/19/05 - Crimes against Humanity

Saddam Hussein has objected to being put on trial for Crimes against Humanity citing that the court has no jurisdiction over him.

Since we have been speaking of justice, I wonder how any body has authority over the actions of a head of state. Is there a genuine authority?

I am aware of the Nuremberg Trials after WWII, and thr trial of Milosevic of former Yugoslavia.

Under what authority?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/19/05:

Saddam Hussein is making a technical legal point. If we are to be true to our principles, we can't merely snort and ridicule him. The basis in law for his being tried by this court is a question that cannot simply be waved away. In the end, it does not matter whether he agrees with the decision, but the rest of us must be convinced that the trial is legitimate.

To the extent that Saddam Hussein can claim that his actions were proper under his authority as head of state, a tribunal would want to weigh that claim against the principle of sovereign immunity. Would we want every state action of every other state to carry a similar risk of prosecution?

Some international trials and tribunals of the past have been held on questionable legal grounds. In the Western tradition, it would degrade the rule of law if a "show trial", disconnected from our normal jurisprudence, were used in an important case like this one. It is not a time to be making up the rules as we go along, just because we're playing from a position of strength. It would be a mockery of justice just as much as if the soldiers who captured him had simply shot him on the spot.

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HANK1 asked on 10/16/05 - PANTHEISM:

Rousseau, Einstein and Carl Sagan were Pantheists. Since Pantheism is non-theistic, is it atheistic?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/16/05:

The identification of Einstein and Sagan as pantheists is an overreaching by modern popularizers of pantheism. It's fallacious to argue that just because a few quotes from a person can be aligned with a few attributes of a belief system, the person would have been willing to agree that they were members, participants, communicants, or believers in that belief system.

From the point of view of certain theists, there is a definite element of atheism in pantheism. For example, we recently saw (in the Atheism section) a reference to an article on Atheism in a Catholic Encyclopedia which lumps pantheism with atheism some of the time, then says

...while it would be unjust to class agnostics, materialists, or pantheists as necessarily also atheists, it cannot be denied that atheism is clearly perceived to be implied in certain phases of all these systems.

For the theist, for someone who seriously considers their religion to be about something well-founded, it is sometimes convenient to label as atheist any other belief system that disagrees with or denies their founding premises.

Or, as the Raving Atheist has it:

... you are all yourselves atheists with respect to every god but your own.

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Oldstillwild asked on 10/13/05 - Reality

There is but one reality that really counts and thats spiritual reality.
Truthfulness is privileged to the spirit,no matter other kinds of reality.
People should reconsider reality in the light of so-called fellow-manship deficiencies.
All realities should be respected.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/13/05:

A materialist would flatly tell you you're wrong.

I would want to talk with you more to try to understand what you have to say. I know that for each person, the nature of their reality has some private aspects, not directly shared with everyone else.

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/11/05 - how

how is belief in the real to be distinguished from belief in fiction?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/11/05:

The distinction between belief in the real and belief in fiction cannot be a property of the belief itself. If there is a distinction, it must come from some correspondence that "belief in the real" has with reality. I don't think demonstrating that correspondence is necessarily easy.

If the reality we're talking about is the material universe, physical reality, then the tool that is most often used is science, an outgrowth of natural philosophy. It applies a discipline to rooting out fictions; whether everything that's left corresponds to reality or not is open to further investigation.

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tonyrey asked on 10/09/05 - Philosophical expertise?

What is your opinion of a member of this board who first resorts to verbal abuse and then makes derogatory remarks about another member of this board?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/10/05:

I'd have a low opinion of such member. When I see this happening, I make a mental note to try to ignore that person.

This is easier said than done. A few of the members who engage in this sort of behavior also say something interesting once in a while.

I'm also aware that my own remarks have sometimes been taken as derogatory or abusive, even though that was not my intention. So I'd call for a certain amount of forbearance on responding with anger to a perceived attack.

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tonyrey asked on 10/07/05 - On which beliefs is science based?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/08/05:

Science, as an enterprise, does not require that its practioners and contributors share a set of beliefs. Crackpots and nut cases are welcome, if what they say or produce has value.

Science Unfettered looks to be a good resource in this area. Possibly, it will be more to your taste than the philosophy of science books that I have read.

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/05/05 - The effect must have existed in some causal state.

It has been argued that, Cause cannot be what something is. Cause brings into existence, or into presence that which is, but as such it cannot ever be that "something". The morning is not the Sun and the rotation of Earth. The sun and the rotation of Earth is the cause of the morning (simplified) - but what the morning is is different.

It has also been argued that, In creation, a new thing is not created, because nothing can come from nothing. If a new thing is to be created, it must have been produced out of nothing. How can 'nothing' produce 'something'?

It seems to me that in Nature the effect is in the cause. The effect is in the cause and the cause exists in the effect. Cause and effect are essentially one

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/05/05:

Strict logical causality has some difficulties in the quantum-mechanical time- and size-scale. I think we can set that difficulty aside as it appears to have nothing to do with these quotes.

The distinction between cause and effect is a conceptionally useful one. In looking at any cause-and-effect situation, we can see that the system, as a whole, has a great deal of continuity. By saying that "cause and effect are ... one", we emphasize the commonality between the earlier state and the later state but we overlook or ignore whatever important distinction separates cause from effect. I suppose one could refuse to recognize this distinction, but it seems that would be so much the worse for your philosophy.

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Dark_Crow asked on 10/03/05 - Thought, we are in thought

Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body, we ought to say that we are in thought, and not that thoughts are in us.

-- Charles Peirce, Writings 2: 241,227,227n

Thoughts anyone?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/03/05:

Etymological arguments - ones giving the history of a word's meaning or that depend on details of a word's usage - have little philosophical weight, although they can certainly be of linguistic interest.

When we speak of thoughts, it's pretty common to use a variety of metaphorical allusions. Some of these may conform to Peirce's suggestion, others clearly do not.

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tonyrey asked on 10/01/05 - What is (are) the best test(s) of truth?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/02/05:

Within a logical framework, with axioms and operations well defined, etc, one can apply the techniques of proof to establish that some propositions within the system are "true". The notion of arriving at similarly rigorous "truth" in other scenarios is viewed as highly desirable, but I'd question whether it is fully achievable.

Some of the time, we can use testimony and argument to establish whether something is "true". This being the best we can do, we are generally willing to let this approximation to "truth" guide our actions. If we do this without confounding logical truth with this everyday, approximate "truth", we can avoid being surprised when, some time later, additional data becomes available that causes us to reconsider the original determination.

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Bradd asked on 10/01/05 - "Quantum Theory"--------------------------

Is it necessary to know "quantum theory" in order to understand reality?

What is "quantum theory"? What is its relationship to philosophy? If any.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/02/05:

What philosophers can learn from quantum theory is that neat categorizations and certain logical propositions do not necessarily hold for all of material reality. Of course, some "new age" quantum theorists have found the mysteries of quantum theory to be a profitable place to invest other mysteries. This sometimes makes it difficult for a layman to parse out which "quantum theoretical" propositions are scientifically suppportable, which are scientifically respectable speculation, and which are purely imaginary.

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/29/05 - The role of philosophy

It seems to me that from history we might draw some important conclusions; such as, philosophy is today what it has always been since the beginning of the development of human languagethe construction of a social reality, and of course the concept of a mind was essential to that purpose.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/29/05:

The Social Construction of What? is the title of a book by Ian Hacking. It is coincidental that I started reading it today (I bought it a couple of years ago).

Since developing language -- a social construction if I ever saw one -- humans spend a good proportion of their time and energy involved with symbols and concepts rather than directly manipulating material reality. This contemplation is only fruitful if it eventually manifests in some form of communication or material outcome.

Philosophy as a distinct discipline from, say, religion, has existed for a little more than 2500 years. In that time, a great body of literature has been built up that contains philosophical products that we can make use of today, if we undertake to do philosphy. Some of it we judge today to be obfuscatory nonsense, but other parts are shining examples of questions and arguments that exemplify the best thinking of their period. In this aspect, in this accumulation at least, philosophy today is not what it has always been.

Philosophers have never been so numerous or so influential as to play a large role in "the construction of a social reality". The society at large does that and societies in ancient times were doing it before philosophy could be said to exist. I see no justification for that conclusion, either.

Of course, I have a history of misreading your questions. If you'd care to explain more clearly what you're thinking, I'd be glad to carry on.

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tonyrey asked on 09/23/05 - Is any form of knowledge self-validating?

....... Can science, for example, claim to be the most fundamental form of knowledge? If not, what can?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/24/05:

The criticism that science would make of concepts like Absolute Truth, fundamental knowledge or self-validating knowledge is that they are idealized abstractions based on extrapolation from the provisional "truth" and "knowledge" of everyday life. If we examine them closely, we have to admit that the unidealized versions are hedged with uncertainty and are potentially subject to reinterpretation. The idealized versions may merely be ideas.

Scientists, if they're honest, will not claim that science is the most fundamental form of knowledge. If they're in a disputatious frame of mind, they may suggest that there are reasons to question whether other sources of knowledge are, either.

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Bradd asked on 09/23/05 - Clarification Requested

In a comment below, an expert stated that (paraphrased) we (humans, presumably) "choose" to be born.

This is probably not philosophy, more like New Age, but I would be interested to know where or from what this notion arises, if the person who made the comment is willing to reply.

I'm not expecting absolute proof, just an indication of the source. I hope also that the claim is not simply repeated in different words.

Philosophy being the love of wisdom tempered by logic, I trust we will not be served with a quasi-religious response.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/24/05:

However politely worded, your suggestion that Keenu take her beliefs elsewhere is not something I like to see.

Keenu's philosophy, to the extent we've been able to explore it in the many months she has been particpating on this board, appears to be her own creation, combining traditional solipsism with some New Age elements. While not mainstream or academic philosophy [I don't believe we have any academic philosophers left as regular partipants here], it represents an interesting perspective that I am loathe to see dismissed.

Solipsism has an internal consistency that makes it virtually unassailable from outside. All by itself, it has little content. [For example, in reading Mortimer J Adler, I was surprised to find him essentially argue that an idea that he demonstrated to be solipsism could therefore be disregarded as void and unworthy of further consideration.]

If the founding axiom of your philosophy is that Reality is a construct developed by some version of one's self, it follows as a logical consequence that all of the details, including when, where, and to whom one is born, are a matter for choice by that self.

Visiting philosophical questions from this perspective (as a hypothetical, whether or not you buy into the premise) is no stranger or un-philosophical than the "other worlds" perspectives or counterfactuals used to illuminate and illustrate conventional philosophical ideas. The "Brain in a Vat" scenario has long been a favorite, with popular offspring like the Matrix movies.

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hmghaly asked on 09/22/05 - Apology

sorry everyone for the last post, I put it by mistake here. Well, I've not been here for a while, but at least I'm alive if anyone is interested :)


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/22/05:

Apology accepted. We're looking desperate for content here, since nearly all of the questions appear to be asked by just a couple of the resident experts here.

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/12/05 - Is there one kind of paradigm, or are there many different kinds of paradigms?

There is no neutral observation language. And whatever is a scientific fact will be determined by the dominant paradigm.

If there is no neutral observation language does it follow that there is no independent and objective reality?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/12/05:

In my view, the lack of a "neutral" observation language is just a consequence of not accepting a "privileged" observation language.

The notion of an independent and objective reality is as hypothetical and liable to revision as any other axiom at the basis of modern science. It almost amounts to an "argument from consequences" to say that the best evidence we have for there being an independent and objective reality is the sort of scientific progress we've made by, in a sense, assuming that this is how reality works. Is it a fallacious argument in this case?

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tonyrey asked on 09/09/05 - What is your concept of an ideal society?

.........And to what extent do you think it could be implemented?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/11/05:

Ideal for me would not necessarily be ideal for you -- I've grown very skeptical of proposals for ideal societies. I'll state a preference for pluralistic societies with a largely market-based arrangement for allocating resources. Of course, someone will say that's what we have today -- it just needs this or that improvement.

There's the rub. If we have to start from where we are today, what are the acceptable methods for implementing improvements? Do you like how politics works? Is voluntary collective action enough?

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/06/05 - pseudo philosophy, or pseudo science

Which do you believe to be pseudo philosophy, or pseudoscience? That life can only come from life, or that living things originated from non-living materials. [spontaneous generation]? Doesnt basic biology teach by Pasteur's demonstration that one is wrong.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/06/05:

By mischaracterizing the science and philosophy involved, your question appears to create a logical box that, however entertaining, does not reflect the nature of reality very well.

The original principle of spontaneous generation held that living things appeared from non-living things (for instance, mice in a pile of old clothes or maggots on spoiled meat) as a commonplace, everyday occurrence. Pasteur's demonstrations were tests of this idea. By excluding potential parents of the supposedly spontaneously generated creatures, he showed that this principle of spontaneous generation was incorrect. We now generally believe that any living thing that we encounter is here because it is a descendent of an earlier living thing of the same kind. In the short run, this principle is well supported by the evidence and there remain few supporters of the original principle of spontaneous generation.

This general principle that you've stated as life can only come from life then leaves us a logical puzzle: What is the origin of life?

This is a question which is not scientifically settled. When the subject is treated scientifically, however, what you see is a proper application of the scientific method:

  • Dream up a hypothesis that is not (too) inconsistent with the existing evidence.
  • Develop the hypothesis to see what novel predictions it makes for life as we find it today.
  • Test the hypothesis to see whether its predictions are borne out in nature.
  • Compare the hypothesis with other, competing hypotheses to see if there are areas where they predict different outcomes to additional tests or observations that it's feasible to make.

This is a game that scientists from many disciplines can play. Recently there have been solid-state chemists and surface chemistry experts who have suggested that the surface of certain types of clay could have hosted self-organizing, pre-biotic structures that resemble cell membranes. Radio astronomers discovered that many "organic" molecules can be found already assembled in the sort of cosmic dust clouds from which our planet is thought to have formed.

None of these hypotheses has yet resulted in a generally accepted picture of how life arose on our planet. The various hypotheses continue to be criticized, compared, and tested. For instance, the original Stanley Miller experiments, where amino acids were shown to be created when an electric spark (simulated lightning) was passed through a mixture of gases thought to resemble Earth's early atmosphere, are now rather discounted because planetary scientists have a better, and different, understanding of the history of atmospheres on developing Earth-like planets.

From a scientific point of view, the rejection of the original princple of spontaneous generation does not necessarily mean that all hypotheses regarding the primordial origins of life must be summarily rejected. Conditions were different and very long time scales have to be taken into account. We don't conclude, about any of them, "yes, that's how it must have happened". Instead we have to say "well, maybe it happened that way. If it did, what would we expect to see today? In particular, what would we expect to see today that we have not already noticed?"

Well, I've gone on long enough. Here's my usual reference to Wikipedia for more extensive information:

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/04/05 - Pseudophilosophy and pseudoscience all rolled into one

How is it that those least in touch with reality know the most about metaphysics and the least scientifically literate the most about quantum physics? What I have in mind are books the likes of The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and Space time and Beyond by Bob Toben and Alan Wolf. Or another example, Space Time and Beyond, which purports such things as There is life in everything. Consciousness is the origin of space-time. We are intimately connected to every part of the universe. Matter, energy, space are the same thing.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/04/05:

As science advances, there is a market for people who can explain the concepts of science to the public. Some people do this in a very earnest and forthright way. Others, and I dare say this includes the authors mentioned in your question, find that there is a much larger market for their books if they go beyond merely explaining scientific ideas. By tapping into the public's appetite for mystical and esoteric knowledge, and by appearing to make valid connections between the frontiers of science and one or more schools of pseudo-science, they may be able to make quite a nice living.

Of course, some real scientists get into this game as well. The precise boundary between science and pseudo-science is not always discernable. Pursuit of pseudo-scientific ideas occasionally produces a result that becomes incorporated into accepted science. And every so often, there is a piece of generally accepted science that turns out to have been mistaken (look into the history of what's called the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, for instance).

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/04/05 - What is philosophy?

In the broadest sense the goal of any philosophy that does not aim at being scientifically literate is in fact, pseudo-philosophy. Scientific literacy means a broad understanding of basic concepts and not jargon-filled esoteric lingo.

I should note that professional scientists are often just as narrowly focused as any other group of professionals, so scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialty as anyone else.

True or false?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/04/05:

Philosophy qua philosophy need not necessarily be concerned with scientific matters. Just because it treats an area not subject to scientific investigation does not turn it into pseudo-philosophy.

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Jon1967 asked on 08/20/05 - On Truth

Here is a piece from the New Yorker Magazine that deserves wider distribution:

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/20/05:

I saw the Frankfurt book at the bookstore and was intrigued by it (but not quite intriqued enough to buy it).

In his review, Holt eventually commits a fallacy of the excluded middle by identifying only two camps on objective truth - the absolutists and the "anything goes" side.

I don't think it's that simple. The concept of truth, if accepted as an axiom at the foundation of metaphysics, eventually leads to instabilities. In science, the concept of truth has to be modified and qualified (Holt, and perhaps Blackburn, omitted Imre Lakatos from the list of philosophers skeptical about absolute truth). Scientific theories cannot be proven true. Scientific observations are "theory laden", so they are not simply facts.

What I think should emerge is a recognition that mathematical or abstract "truth" is a concept that applies only approximately or conditionally to statements about either the material world or in less formally conceptualized realms (e.g. politics). The deniers of "absolute truth" are not saying "anything goes" (at least, not the responsible ones), but that we must treat our certainty about putative truth with an appropriate amount of skepticism.

tonyrey asked on 08/19/05 - Does omnipotence entail predestination


Jim.McGinness answered on 08/20/05:

There is a range of definitions of omnipotence, as we've discussed in an earlier question. In more than one of these definitions, omnipotence is a sufficient condition for omniscience. At least some definitions of omniscience include having knowledge of future events with certainty. Would you not say this is the same as predestination?

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Dark_Crow asked on 08/17/05 - Which is more powerful, cooperation or the will to power

I believe cooperation to be the most powerful

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/17/05:

Power to do what?

The will to power doesn't seem to be an object in the same category as cooperation, so comparing them on a scale of powerfulness makes little sense, even if we could establish a powerfulness scale. Is the pen mightier than the sword? Is it an example or a counter-example that large segments of our world are run by voluntary aggregations of stockholders and employees in corporations whose internal organization has a strong tendency towards "authority from above"?

In a game theory sense, cooperation, as a strategy, is generally dominated by a mixed strategy that includes cooperation as one of its modes.

Had you found this article?

The Will to Power by Chris Lucas

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Nocturne asked on 08/11/05 - Is Culture Socially Constructed

Is all that we perceive to be cultural (whether popular, literary, Literary etc) socially constructed?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/11/05:

Language, for instance, is a socially constructed cultural artifact.

An individual popular or literary work which has an identifiable author, while resting on a foundation of language and other social conventions, is not "socially constructed" in the same way. The body of literature produced by a society, however, is considered to be part of its culture and might therefore be considered socially constructed.

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Dark_Crow asked on 08/06/05 - reality of evil in the world?

How do you conceptualize Gods relationship with the reality of evil in the world? Absent revelation.

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/07/05:

Theodicy is a term Leibniz coined in 1710, for the branch of theology that studies the reconciliation of a good god with the existence of evil. Also known as The Problem of Evil.

The Wikipedia entry seems like a good place to start. There is currently a menu with more than 20 of the most popular resolutions to this philosophical chestnut. I use the word resolutions advisedly.

My conclusion from this display of twisted explanations and answers is that the question is not well formulated. We use the word evil loosely and we dream up attributes for our gods from wishful thinking. You cannot reliably extract properties of supernatural beings from empirical observations of the material universe.

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Jon1667 asked on 07/25/05 - What do you think?
What do you think?

'These people have to be torn to pieces," he said of those responsible for the attack. "They should be brought to a public square and slaughtered." '

Muhammed Mansour, an Egyptian, who was badly injured in the attack by terrorists on the Ghazal Gardens Hotel in Sharm El Sheik

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/25/05:

The people who carried out the attack should be brought to justice. Would that be enough?

If we consider this action to be a part of an ongoing world war, it's not. Locating the people who planned the attack, provided funding and incited the attackers is equally necessary. Only then is there a chance that future, similar attacks can be prevented.

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Jon1667 asked on 07/24/05 - "Terrorism" and the BBC

"The BBC has re-edited some of its coverage of the London Underground and bus bombings to avoid labelling the perpetrators as "terrorists", it was disclosed yesterday.

Early reporting of the attacks on the BBC's website spoke of terrorists but the same coverage was changed to describe the attackers simply as "bombers".

The BBC's guidelines state that its credibility is undermined by the "careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments".

Consequently, "the word 'terrorist' itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding" and its use should be "avoided", the guidelines say."

Do you think that the application of the word "terrorist" to terrorists is a "careless use of words...which...can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding"? How, do you suppose, could anyone believe such a thing?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/24/05:

The Memory Hole

This is another example of the BBC being clueless about which of its actions undermine its credibility.

We would have to grant the BBC that, in the time frame immediately after the bombings, when little was known about the overall picture, labeling it a "terrorist attack" would involve jumping to a conclusion. It's an understandable jump and I think all of us would have been ready to excuse the BBC if they had let the original text, written in the heat of the moment, stand.

Going back, after the fact, to alter the language, calls to mind Winston Smith's job in George Orwell's 1984: he would rewrite history books, newspaper articles, etc. The new versions would be printed and sent to replace the existing version in libraries or collections everywhere. The old versions were consigned to the incinerator, called the memory hole.

This action by the BBC will most likely be interpreted as a denial of the existence of terrorism. That's likely to undermine their credibility much more than any small taint of prematurely labeling terrorists as terrorists.

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Oldstillwild asked on 07/13/05 - Life is about contemplating

I am convinced,that the one and only most important talents of mankind is majorly overlooked by most if not all people.
As a consequence mankind developed all kinds of skills in stead.Skills that wouldnt be meant to be,but nevertheless.
If one (as I am ) is searching for the "moment" where it "all went wrong",one has to take an intellectual and emotional journey to the point of conclusion about what life is really about and why in reality it is not.
I am convinced,that life is about eating,breeding and feeling well.Just as in the rest of nature.And that the rest of the day,apart from sleeping,is meant to be used for contemplation in order to reach that very state of feeling well,feeling high,reaching enlightment,you name it.And incorporating the results of that(and even the contemplating itself)in daily social life.
I know what I am talking about.
What do you think,you know youre talking about with regard to the very meaning of life(what it should be)?

The odds are,that your risk isnt particularly remote,that I'll use comments like"You dont know what youre talking about".

Where are my hero's?


Jim.McGinness answered on 07/15/05:

I very much like one thread emerging from your posts: what we learn from contemplation should be applied to our daily social life. In some traditions, they speak of mindfulness, which I consider to be a similar impulse, as bringing an inner, spiritual aspect to our everyday actions.

This is an excellent beginning.

Do you have any examples you can share?

I find that I have the most need for this sort of mindfulness in dealing with my children. Often, in the moment, we have to make decisions and judgements. If we can anticipate common problems, pre-position some resources, settle on some preferred strategies, it can take the stress out of a hectic daily situation.

Doing this does more than simply alleviate the momentary problem of stress, though. It leads to noticeably better outcomes for the child and for me. I'm simply amazed at the benefits from a little thinking ahead and a modicum of clarity about where we're trying to get to.

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tonyrey asked on 06/24/05 - What are your views on this quotation?

"Seven Blunders of the World"

1. Wealth without work

2. Pleasure without conscience

3. Knowledge without character

4. Commerce without morality

5. Science without humanity

6. Worship without sacrifice

7. Politics without principle

Mahatma Gandhi

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/25/05:

Gandhi was a wise man.

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Dark_Crow asked on 06/23/05 - The critic maintains

The critic maintains the very notion of a thing with no properties is absurd: Agree or disagree?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/23/05:

Once you set up a categorization system for "things", it's certainly possible to imagine an idealization of that category -- the Platonic Ideal, as it were -- as a "thing with no properties". Of course, since we can always dream up the "property" of having "no other properties", the contemplation of such a thing can tie our conceptual system into knots.

The problem with questions like this is that they are cut loose from the axiomatic foundation that gives meaning to their terms. Whether or not the proposed sort of object can be (in some sense of existence) will depend on the axiomatic scheme.

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Dark_Crow asked on 06/15/05 - survival of the fittest

Psychologist Herbert Spencer coined the term survival of the fittest," and I wonder, is the theory behind that, which says defective persons procreate more rapidly and breed more readily than normal and the result being that society is flooded with inferior and unproductive people?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/15/05:

How do you detach the notion of "fittest" from an observation of who survives?

Naive application of scientific notions like Darwinian evolution to social situations has produced much error and terrible suffering. Any classification of current populations into "defective persons" or "inferior people" calls upon a human judgement that may, but probably does not, align with the eventual evolutionary outcome. It's simply too early to tell what traits will be most common in the future.

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tonyrey asked on 05/29/05 - What is wrong with atomism?

... (The theory that everything is derived from atomic particles)

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/30/05:

The atom is the fundamental structure of matter:

All things are made of atoms - little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.
That was how Richard Feynman summed up the single most important statement of modern science -- quoted in:

Although the early Greek philosophers' version of atomism has been superceded, an echo of their idea remains today. Atoms are no longer considered indivisible, eternal, or indestructible; there are a lot more elements and variations on atoms than the original four elements -- earth, air, fire, water; we still don't have a good final explanation of what atomic particles are made of .... In other words, nearly every specific detail of Democritus's theory is now rejected. The idea remains that a relatively small number of different types of tiny particles, and their interactions, are the substance out of which come all of the varied material objects and phenomena we encounter in everyday life.
We'll have to take up the relationship between atomism and materialism at a later time.

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tonyrey asked on 05/23/05 - Why are moral rules (un)necessary?


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/23/05:

Necessary for what?

Since this question appears to be a sort of continuation of the discussion we were having in "To what extent can the mind control the body?", I'm curious that you worded the question this way.

Ken has deftly pointed out a way we use moral rules: to inculcate certain behavioral norms in our offspring or other new members entering our society.

I wonder if our point of departure in the earlier question centers around the Culture Wars topic of Moral Relativism.

I had expressed concern about your claims

"that certain standards of behavior are necessary for personal and social development and success" and "that moral conventions stem from insight into the nature of existence and are indeed a full-fledged part of reality rather than arbitrary constructs.
because they came across to me as the sort of moral absolutism that has been used in the past to rationalize imperialism and exploitation.

We observe the human beings exist within social groupings and note that all social groupings seem to have their own set of behavioral norms. It makes sense to suppose that communicating these norms to new members of the social group (e.g. children, immigrants) is an essential activity that helps ensure the continued coherence and even the existence of the group. Conversely, we can see violations of these behavioral norms as threatening the continued existence of the social group, either because the members leave or because they kill each other.

It's possible that there are a small set of behavioral norms that form the "necessary and sufficient" conditions for a cohering social group and, if we were to discover that all social groups had some norms in common, we might be tempted to consider these particular norms as universal.

Two problems arise. The set of norms observed by all social groups appears to be extremely small. No surviving social group operates with such a small set of norms without being embedded in a larger social group with a larger set of norms.

The necessity aspect of some set of norms also makes it enormously attractive for other candidate behavioral norms to piggyback on the most basic ones. These, however, tend to exhibit tremendous variety from one cultural group to another. They are used almost like "product differentiation features" to help establish group identity; group coherence may be as dependent on there being a sufficiency of these sorts of behavioral norms as it is on the more fundamental "no unlawful killing" type norms.

The dangerous situation I see arises when one successful, powerful social group makes the erroneous identification of its full set of socially determined moral rules with universal moral rules. If the members of the society consider their success and power to arise to some significant extent from their superior "insight into the nature of existence" rather than from accidents of history or even from past transgressions against their own moral codes, they may see it as justified to commit horrible acts against "benighted" people of other cultures with different norms.

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Choux asked on 05/21/05 - Thinking

Doesn't any attempt to examine/ think about/ whatever *anything* with the conscious mind require that first one must understand the underlying scientific principles involved. That any conclusions or opinions a person may have *cannot be contrary* to the science that underlies that conclusion?

Specifically prompting this question, below, "To what extent can the mind control the body?" This question cannot be answered in any seriousness unless a person understands the science of the human body.

If the science is not the base of the opinion, what are we engaging in? Doesn't this mean that the opinions of a person who is not educated are worthless?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/21/05:

Old philosophical chestnuts are constantly reappearing on this board. I don't believe we should find that too surprising.

As participating experts at Answerway, it could be seen as our duty to offer connections between these old chestnuts and the rich intellectual history they have accumulated. Too often, though, it seems we make some quick response while failing in this duty.

A discussion uninformed by the insights and discoveries of the past is all too likely to crudely rehash those issues and, if any conclusion is reached, fail to place those conclusions in their proper context.

Science is just one source of perspectives on a belief. It's a powerful perspective because of the breadth of phenomena that are connected together with supporting evidence, but it can also fail to satisfy some questioners because it recognizes certain limitations.

At the current time, I'm not aware of any politically-charged movement to dictate how philosophy is taught in schools or discussed in public. There's a fairly neutral article at Wikipedia on the Mind-Body Problem at

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keenu asked on 05/21/05 - Are we improving or not?

What do you think?
Since the dawn of man, do you think that we are evolving into more intelligent beings or transgressing into idiots?
Personally I see many reasons to go with the idiots theory.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/21/05:

The notion of "progress" is a gloss placed on history by looking at it with a particular viewpoint. While you are in the midst of things, it's nearly impossible to tell which direction is most likely to yield the optimal outcome.

So the vast majority of us just muddle along. It's probably always been that way. One consequence of our technological society may be that we've created an environment where "idiots" can survive. Whether this is a fatal flaw or merely an annoyance only time will tell.

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Choux asked on 05/21/05 - Rights

Do individuals have the right to believe anything they want to believe if they act on their beliefs and thereby cause problems for society?

For example, if a person "believes" that American judges are terrorists, talks about it on television and with others....does a person have a "right" to believe what is intrue and act on it?

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/21/05:

In the USA, there is a strong tradition that says individuals may believe any damn nonsense they wish to believe. They are also held to be free to discuss those beliefs and try, by peaceful means, to convince others to believe similarly.

When it comes to acting on the basis of beliefs, there are limits. Beliefs that stray too far from the norm along with actions that threaten others may become a basis for criminal prosecution or civil commitment (i.e. involuntary psychiatric treatment).

Your example describes some extreme political rhetoric, which has become all too common lately. Words and ideas have consequences, but it's unlikely that much will be done to muzzle extremist advocates until actual harm can be shown. Meanwhile, it's worth noting some beliefs now considered mainstream that started as extremist beliefs that people in authority attempted to stifle: abolition of slavery and voting rights for women.

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Dark_Crow asked on 05/19/05 - need or value of metaphysics

Particularly in Philosophy the question as to the need or value of metaphysics comes up. I would like to give one example and view the thoughts of others.
The metaphysical answer to why the sun rises and sets is clearly different to the question; for instance, the physics answer to this question is likely that the sun only appears to rise and set and is actually stationary relative to the earth, our planet's rotation creating the perspective from the earth's surface that the sun is moving across the sky. But, is that the only meaning, or only important one? While another answer may well be that the Sun rising and setting is the timekeeper by which we may mark and assess actions and ambitions past present and future.
Perhaps it is better to say that while science speaks to mechanisms, metaphysics speaks to meaning.

Jim.McGinness answered on 05/20/05:

Metaphysics is meaningless, according to some philosophers. I'm having difficulty reconciling my notion of the word metaphysics with the way you are using it.

You can get a scientific explanation for why the sun appears to rise and set relative to the horizon. An understanding of the earth's rotation suffices for a simple version of this, but it won't be immediately clear why that's a better explanation than the Greek myth of Helios's fiery chariot. Only after you begin looking for the answers to certain further questions does the overall coherence of the scientific explanation become apparent.

It would not be unscientific to speculate on whether the periodicity of light and darkness has effects on the creatures that live on earth or, more particularly, whether the inconsistency of the length of daylight might have been one of the sparks that set intelligence alight in our distant ancestors.

As I understand the term, philosophical metaphysics deals primarily with questions of being and existence. There are sub-branches that approach the question of meaningfulness and meaning. No comprehensive philosophy could omit consideration of these issues.

I can see someone questioning the value of typical discussions labeled "metaphysics", though.

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tonyrey asked on 05/14/05 - To what extent can the mind control the body?


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/14/05:

Doesn't the answer to this question depend on accepting some sort of dualist model that separates mind from body?

The interaction between body and mind occurs at multiple levels. We know about nerve impulses originating from brain activity traveling down axons to stimulate muscles, some under conscious control, some under unconscious control, some mixed. There are also less direct chemical/hormonal signals whose effects are not as well known.

The experience of adepts at meditation and experiments with biofeedback indicate that many body activities can be affected by conscious control that are, in most people, totally unconscious.

I don't know what the limits are. To me, it's amazing to see someone juggling 3 balls -- I can't do it. But just about anyone who puts a little time into it can master this skill and, with some persistence, get to 4, then 5 balls. What's the limit?

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Dark_Crow asked on 04/14/05 - same thing to be living or dead

You cannot step twice into the same river. Everything flows and nothing abides.
Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool.

The moist dries, the parched becomes moist. It is by disease that health becomes pleasant: By evil that good is pleasant.
By hunger, satiety; by weariness, rest. It is one and the same thing to be living or dead, Awake or asleep , young or old.

The former aspect in each case becomes the latter, And the latter again the former, By sudden unexpected reversal.
It throws apart and then brings together again. All things come in their due seasons.
~by Heraclitus

Can anyone tell me how the quote could be said to be truy?

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/15/05:

This poem is a hymn to change.

It shares with other early Greek philosophy a certain odd blindness to the differing rates or probabilities of various things happening. Change is simply change. If something once went from dead to living, it justifies balancing that with the much larger number of things that go from living to dead. Because things change, because no thing always remains as it is, he claims it is philosopically impossible to predict what is more likely in the future or to see constancy (even if it is temporary constancy) amidst the changes.

Despite its problems, the philosophy of Heraclitus is one of the building blocks of Western Philosophy. We can still ask: What is the basis of identity through time? Is the future determined? How do we allow for the unexpected and unpredictable?

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Choux asked on 04/05/05 - What Should America

do to help out in third world countries that we aren't doing now?

Name a country(s) and explain in detail.

Jim.McGinness answered on 04/05/05:

This is a harder question to answer than it at first appears.

One unintended (at least, let's hope it was unintended) side effect of food aid to 3rd world countries has been to so lower the cost of food that the domestic agriculture sector of the recipient country is disrupted or even destroyed.

The people who deliver aid have some awareness of this problem, e.g.

and -- while there's little doubt that some lives have been saved -- finding the right balance between rescue and imposing dependence remains elusive.

So why is this not a question for Politics rather than here in Philosophy?

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/27/05 - If reasonable people hold different views

If reasonable people hold different views, then we are dealing with opinion, not fact. Given a need to act in the absence of fact, we have no choice but to act upon an opinion. But doing so, does not convert the opinion selected to fact. It remains only the best opinion available at the time action was taken.

Is the above fact or opinion?

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/28/05:

It is impossible for a reasonable person to be in error about something? You leave fact and opinion as the only two possible classifications, but that sets up a false dichotomy.

This thread on Google Answers is too good not to share:
Google Answers: "Everyone is NOT entitled to their own opinion."

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tonyrey asked on 03/19/05 - Are there valid non-scientific explanations?


Jim.McGinness answered on 03/22/05:

This question puzzles me. The others who have answered obviously have formed an idea of what you meant to ask, but I seem unable to grasp it.

Validity is a judgement I expect people to make about arguments, not explanations. The purpose of an explanation is to fill in the gap separating what a person already knows from some new item that they, presumably, do not already know. We can tell an explanation has been successful when it enables someone to begin using the new concept in a way that is integrated with the rest of their knowledge and beliefs.

It may seem odd, but this formulation does not require an explanation to be correct, valid, rational or true.

Explanations based on science are appropriate for discussing the material world. But our experience includes many realms where science does not apply, but where explanations may still be required. Even now, when I'm talking about what an explanation might be about, I'm discussing a philosophical concept that need have no material representation, no scientific basis.

But suppose we are talking about two different explanations being applied to a situation which is amenable to a scientific explanation. In that case, what I would expect is that 1) there may be more than one scientific explanation if this is a subject on the frontiers of scientific knowledge, 2) the scientific explanation(s) will be largely consistent with the more established parts of science, and 3) we will tend to value more that explanation which yields interesting predictions that can be tested and whose predictions turn out to be right. Their proposers will likely scramble to change them if they predict things that, when tested, don't seem to fit.

What characteristics would you expect for a non-scientific explanation in this context?

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Dark_Crow asked on 03/21/05 - Are names arbitrary

Are names arbitrary and not accurately reflective of reality or are they supposed to describe.

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/21/05:

The correspondence between names and reality seems to be nearly, but not completely, arbitrary convention. Some words and names are onomotopoetic so contain something more of a concrete connection to the thing referred to. And names and words will sometimes carry with them a linguistic expression of other kinds of connections, such as compound words or words borrowed from other languages.

Some linguists seem to believe in a deeper connectedness that is somehow more than can be explained by the gradual development of words and languages from predecessors.

It seems that this is a very old question. Here's an article that discusses some of the history:
Iconicity in Language

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tonyrey asked on 03/01/05 - What is wrong with utilitarianism?

............. (The view that we should aim at the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people"

Jim.McGinness answered on 03/02/05:

Ursula K LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is one answer to this question...suppose that the explicit price placed on happiness for almost everyone was unutterable suffering by one poor innocent victim.

Whether you call it happiness or utility, the inability to measure it and compare values between different people renders the concept suspect.

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tonyrey asked on 02/25/05 - Does it matter which moral code we choose?

.......If so why?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/26/05:

Yes and no!

When faced with a situation requiring a moral decision, it is not automatic that we follow the direction of whatever moral code we previously thought applied to the situation. The actual situation may cause us to re-examine the choices from many different angles, with some outcomes being moral under certain codes while not considered moral under other codes. Consistent adherence to a particular overall moral code is itself a moral choice.

If you observe someone's actions, but didn't ask them to explain their actions, would you be able to discern what their chosen moral code was with any certainty? Would you be able to tell if and when they switched? If you asked them for an explanation of why they switched, would you expect to get a rationalization or would they base the switch on some meta-ethical consideration?

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/26/05 - Is consciousness a physical entity

Is consciousness a physical entity or simply a social ontology? I am talking about the mode of existence of social objects such as the United States of America, social facts, such as the fact that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper that I hold in my hand is a twenty dollar bill, and that France is a member of the European Union.

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/26/05:

Consciousness is insufficiently understood for it to be possible to identify it as a material entity.

As best I can determine, the ontological status of mental states remains a topic of philosophical discussion and no generally accepted resolution exists.

To declare that consciousness is a social ontology similar to the examples you give seems to require more knowledge than we have about how consciousness occurs. There are multiple ways of restating the concepts of countries, citizenship or membership, and monetary value that would allow you to place them in various ontological frameworks, whether you were starting from a materialist point of view or one with more support for abstract entities.

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Dark_Crow asked on 02/24/05 - what would the world be with-out consciousnesses,

what would the world be with-out consciousnesses, what would a human be with-out consciousness?

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/24/05:

As always, the answer depends quite a bit on the meanings attached to the words of your question.

Consider the earth of 75 to 100 million years ago. There were a few small mammal or proto-mammal species and a great flowering of reptile and dinosaur species. The world operated in a natural way back then, without benefit of anything that could readily be called consciousness, in the sense that we humans have it.

A lot of what we see around us in the modern world seems to us to be the result of consciousness. How strange it would be if we visited another planet and found a species with a similar degree of technological development to what we have but, when we attempted to communicate with them, we found it impossible because they lacked anything resembling what we call consciousness.

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tonyrey asked on 02/15/05 - Do all moral defects have ill effects?!


Jim.McGinness answered on 02/16/05:

Yes, more or less by definition.

Are all moral defects equally bad? I'd have to say no. The effects of murder are worse than the effects of gluttony.

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Jon1667 asked on 06/08/03 - To Dark Crow

Please tell me how you got from me saying,------------------ I prefer to define self-interest as being interested in my well being. I would venture to say everyone does that when their thinking is rational.
to what you say here------------The notion that people never do anything except what they believe to be in their own self-interest is just one of those theories which is constantly belied by the facts.
Talk about a strawman fallacy, you completely redefined what I said!
I was testing your view that people act rationally only when they act in their self-interest. Here (I said) is a case of someone who is _not_ acting in his self-interest (who is not interested in his well-being, as you put it) but who seems to me to be acting rationally. Namely, a soldier who sacrifices his life for his comrades (or a mother who chooses to die so her child can live)
Those, it seems to me are cases in which someone acts rationally, but is not interested in his own well-being since it is not in the interest of any person's well-being to die.

So, I reject your straw-man accusation. I did not ascribe to you a view you did not hold, and critisize it. I ascribed to you a view you did hold, namely that only if you are self-interested (which you defined as interested in your well-being, are you rational). And I gave a case in which someone is rational, and who is not interested in his own well-being. Therefore, if I am right, then you are wrong.

You can argue you are right only if you can show that the self-sacrificing soldier, or the self-sacrificing mother, is being irrational. I hope you will not argue that by saying that they are irrational because they are not interested in their well-being. For, if you did that, you would be engaging in a circular argument.

So, now, I have shown that I did not commit the straw-man fallacy. And I am now awaiting your reply to my objection that here are two cases of people who are not interested in their own well-being, but are rational.

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/07/05:

Interesting. Dark Crow recently criticized me for committing a straw-man fallacy.

In this case, it seems to me that Dark Crow at one point identified "my self-interest" with concern for "my well-being". His comment about rationality was ambiguous and you tried to clarify it or challenge it. In the end, he seems to be back pedaling on the identity he himself proposed. An act where one sacrifices ones life is clearly contrary to ones well-being...I think you have that part exactly right...but Dark Crow is now not so sure that self-sacrifice is ipso facto contrary to self-interest.

[Yes, I know that this is a very old question!]

Dark_Crow asked on 02/02/05 - a dictionary is not an authoritative guide for meaning


Many people think that a dictionary is an authoritative guide to reportive definitions. This is actually a misconception, for various reasons.
First, many words in the language are difficult, if not impossible to define. This includes for example color words which we learn from examples. A dictionary might explain "red" as the color of ripe tomatoes, but obviously this is not what "red" means. "Red" does not mean blue even if all tomatoes suddenly were to become blue when they ripe. Explaining 'red' as 'a certain shade of colour' is of course not enough to distinguish the colour red from other different colours.
Lack of clarity in meaning can hinder good reasoning and obstruct effective communication. One way to make meaning clearer is to use definitions. .
The noun "context" has 2 senses in WordNet.

1. context, linguistic context, context of use -- (discourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation)
2. context, circumstance -- (the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event; "the historical context")
Do you agree or disagree and if not why??

Jim.McGinness answered on 02/03/05:

In the limit, communication is impossible. In the interest of time, we have to get along with imperfect communication.

The dictionary definitions are an attempt at capturing the meanings of words, but only by means of other words. A dictionary is an authority but we must apply judgement to decide whether to call it authoritative.

Working from a set of common definitions can reduce the uncertainty about what a message means. When involved in interactive communication, the parties involved can check in with each other to try to determine whether meaning has been sufficiently communicated. When in non-interactive communication, such as analyzing a pre-existing text, we don't usually have that luxury.

As for the definitions of context that you found, I'm wondering what the source of your discontent (if not discontent, why post this question?). The two definitions address two different ways in which the word context is used, one more specifically linguistic and the other more figurative and abstract. Is there another meaning that you have in mind that is not covered by these two? Or would you prefer that it be expressed in such a way that these two different usages were covered by a single definition?

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Dark_Crow asked on 01/25/05 - WHAT IS BASIC STRUCTURE OF AN ARGUMENT?

At my bank we have the positions manager, cashier and teller, held by Sam, Sally and Castro, though not respectively. Sally is the only female and Sam is the only one who is unmarried among the three. The manager is the president's daughter and is married to the teller. Who is the manager, who is the cashier and who is the teller?

By what means did you reach your decision?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/25/05:

This looks like a logic puzzle rather than an argument!

This one's pretty simple, since you can quickly identify Sally as the female (daughter) bank manager (by inspection). On larger logic puzzles, it's usually helpful to set up a grid to record the facts given and their implications.

I typed up a grid for this problem, but let's see if I can get it to display properly...

Name Sam Sally Castro Female Unmarried Position:
Manager X X 4 Cashier X 3 X Teller 3 4
Female 1 X 1 Unmarried X 2 2

1. Only Sally is female.
2. Only Sam is unmarried.
3. Manager is a daughter (hence Female).
4. Manager and Teller are married

That almost looks right in preview...we'll see whether it survives to Answer view.

I've filled in the various grid positions with the number of the fact that excludes that intersection. I've put an X where all the other possibilities have been excluded.

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picassocat asked on 01/20/05 - Legislating Morality

Is it possible to legislate morality?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/20/05:

Of course you can pass laws that incorporate moral dictums.

What happens when such a law is passed, however, often departs significantly from the original moral purpose. Perhaps the real question is whether, using the mechanisms of law and law enforcement, we can effectively force people to be 'moral'. My impression is that such an effort may be successful in changing the behavior of a few people, but it will ultimately be a failure.

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picassocat asked on 01/15/05 - Meaning

Do we find meaning in life or make it up?

Jim.McGinness answered on 01/17/05:

The make it up alternative in your question implies that the meaning we create for ourselves is in some sense arbitrary and could be anything. I don't think it quite works that way.

For most people, we take much of our meaning where we can find it: from our culture, from our religion, from our work, from our family and friends. In our culture, at least, there is a widespread belief in self-determination, that we can make of ourselves whatever we would like to become. In this limited sense, we may be able to make it up but our feelings about what makes life meaningful are still going to be heaviliy influenced by our surroundings; it's a process of discovery as much as it is a process of creation.

And if you're talking about ultimate meaning, I think the jury is still out on that one. Adherents of some religions claim to know the answer, but they appear to disagree in signficant ways.

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tonyrey asked on 11/11/04 - What are your views on the following theory?

"In the beginning organization, purpose or consciousness did not exist; only atomic particles existed. Nothing had any value. There is no reason why life has emerged or development has taken place. Atomic particles could have remained as they were without producing a universe in which there is knowledge, control, value and fulfilment."

Jim.McGinness answered on 11/14/04:

Is it a theory?

I find it odd to use the word exist as if it had the same meaning for material objects, such as atomic particles, and immaterial concepts like "organization, purpose, consciousness". Ken mentioned Hume's fork recently and its distinction applies here between these two very different categories of existence.'s_fork

The statement you've quoted sounds as if it's an opening claim in a discourse by a naive materialist. We exist in a material universe that contains beings with intelligence who can hold concepts, knowledge, and values. It's a matter of speculation as to whether another universe might have developed differently, given similar starting conditions -- and rhetoric appealing to the incredulity of the audience about how likely or improbable to consider the universe we currently inhabit has so far proved persuasive to only a few people. Similarly, arguments that a universe with conditions similar to our own must inevitably develop life and intelligence do not work for very many people. For those people who attribute our existence to a Creator, none of these arguments resemble contrary evidence. I don't see this opening claim as likely to lead somewhere useful.

Would we be surprised at the identity of the author of these statements?

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tonyrey asked on 10/25/04 - To what extent is the future predetermined?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/26/04:

"The time of our death is fixed in advance"

It's certainly an ancient belief, between the Norse Norns, the Greek Moirae, and other traditions' stories about fate. As a metaphor, it perhaps provides some palliative for the cruel-seeming reality that death eventually takes us all and sometimes does so unexpectedly. Without an ability to discern in advance when a death is "meant to be", however, we are left with applying this belief to deaths that have already occurred or seem inevitably close. If accepting this belief makes it less likely that we will expend futile effort in trying to change what cannot be changed or in damaging self-recrimination, then it's a good thing, right?



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tonyrey asked on 10/25/04 - To what extent is the future predetermined?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/25/04:

Let's consider possible answers:

YES the future is predetermined. How could we know this to be true? If there existed an entity that accurately foresaw the future, would that be evidence for the predetermination?

NO the future is not predetermined. Using our abilities to project what will happen in the future under various assumptions, we can effectively change the future.

What I think is interesting about this question is the effects upon the believer of a belief in either a positive or a negative answer. In one extreme, you have the phenomenon of Calvinist Predestination and other similar stances which can be taken to say that it is futile to try to change. Why bother?

At the other extreme you get denials of causality: that the future is not caused by the past and present. While there are some areas of physics where the notions of causality and locality won't both fit into an explanation of how nature works, the observable universe does not leave a lot of room for these curiosities to operate.

In practice, I see very little difference between a determined future that we can predict with only limited reliability and an undetermined future that we can predict with only limited reliability. Predicting the future remains hard, whatever you believe about predetermination.

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tonyrey asked on 10/06/04 - When does science cease to be science?

..........How can one decide whether a statement is scientific?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/11/04:

Some interesting responses...

Widely accepted scientific theories that are not falisifiable it would be good if Tonyrey gave at least one example of what he was thinking of in this category. It is certainly the case that in the hands of ill-trained or over-enthusiastic proponents, the content of a scientific theory may be portrayed in a way that is unsuitable for falsification. Freudian psychology, Marxist economics, and Darwinian evolution have all fallen into this state at times, i.e. being widely accepted in a form that resisted all challenges by "explaining away" any potentially contrary evidence as if it were supporting evidence of an auxilliary part of the theory. It may be the case that most scientific theories go through a phase where coming up with fanciful explanations for seemingly contradictory evidence is just the right sort of activity to spur the growth of that field of knowledge. Worrying overmuch about falsifiablilty at this stage may stifle imagination and progress.

I can't tell exactly what Tonyrey meant when he used the word scientific, so I tried to offer a possible refinement. I do not agree with Ken (Jon1667) that this definition sets up an implication that only true statements are scientific. One of the things I retained from reading Lakatos is the idea that all scientific theories are logically false and incapable of being proven true. You choose between theories (or, really, research programs) not because one is true and another is false, but based on available evidence because one appears to explain more and suggests more interesting experiments by which it can be tested.

Let's go back to the original question: when does science cease to be science? I'll maintain that there is not a clear dividing line, at least not a dividing line that can readily be discerned by a participant in the process of doing "science". Later, after-the-fact, it may be possible to go back and examine the process by which a theory was developed and see where the people involved strayed over the line into thinking or behaviors that we would not characterize as scientific. Science nevertheless has a history that includes advances that were arrived at through accidents, serendipity, imaginative creativity, and stupid mistakes.

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tonyrey asked on 10/06/04 - When does science cease to be science?

..........How can one decide whether a statement is scientific?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/07/04:

One could say that a statement is scientific if what it says about nature actually corresponds with how nature works. This is a hard criterion to meet, so people often look for a shortcut, a way to rule out certain statements as clearly unscientific.

Popper's famous falsifiability criterion is often useful in this respect. If you study the history and philosophy of science, though, you'll find that your question is a central topic and Popper's notions about falsifiability are only a fraction of the answer.

The body of knowledge we call science continues to grow, but that growth takes place within groups of people who pursue research programs. Some research efforts are fruitful and productive. Others are sterile and unproductive. The people working on the advance of knowledge in these programs exhibit all sorts of behaviors, many of which we would consider dogmatic, fanciful, unimaginative, or irrational. They'll make all sorts of statements under the color of science that will eventually turn out to be false and unreliable. It's maddening, but you generally cannot know which of the statements are valuable until after they've been corroborated and withstood considerable criticism and testing. Even then, they may in their turn be shown to be incomplete and be superceded by later theories.

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tonyrey asked on 05/14/04 - Moderation in everything except...?


Jim.McGinness answered on 05/15/04:

"Moderation in all things, nothing to excess" is a piece of advice about how one might best achieve happiness. I suppose it might seem sensible, but it's possible to view it as an almost tautologous instruction: "If it makes you happy, do it -- but don't do it so much that it makes you unhappy". Translating this into everyday action remains a hard problem for most people.

I've always been troubled by attempts to try to turn excess, all by itself, into some sort of moral failing.

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tonyrey asked on 10/30/03 - Is there more than one type of reality?

...............Please elaborate.

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/30/03:

Yes, in a qualified way.

People often mean different things when they use the term real. Often, they're referring to existence in the material universe as a physical object. But it's also common to apply the word to abstract entities. Perhaps the most trivial example of this are the so-called real numbers.

When speaking of the social construction of reality, there's more to it than the effects a society has on its material environment. A concept such as money exists in a reality that is not fully encompassed by its material counterparts of coin and currency.

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Jon1667 asked on 10/28/03 - The rating system

Do we rate to boost the ego of those who reply, and to let them know that we think their answers are both heartfelt and sincere; or because we think their answers are well-thought out, and even, imagine, right!

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/28/03:

My approach to rating is pretty simple. I only rate answers that I feel are worth both 5 stars and a comment. The comment will sometimes indicate disagreement with the answer. If I disagree strongly enough, however, I'll post an answer of my own where I try to show by example how I thought the question should better have been answered.

Ratings, without any sort of comment, aren't a currency of much value on this site. They tell you that someone read your posting, most likely, but, in the absence of comments, it seems foolish to read anything into the 5-star vs 3 star ratings. A 1 black star rating always indicates someone is unhappy, but without comments, we can't tell what they objected to with any reliability.

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Jon1667 asked on 10/16/03 - To tolerate intolerance.

Ought intolerance to be tolerated by the tolerant? For instance, ought a tolerant person tolerate racism? Or should we (as it seems we are) tolerate the blatant recent anti-Semetic speech by the Malaysian Prime Minister?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/17/03:

Let's just consider religious tolerance for a moment. Religious tolerance is held to be almost absolute in my country insofar as what people wish to believe regarding spiritual topics, but slightly less so when it comes to religious practices and considerably less so when it comes to interactions with the secular world such as owning property, operating institutions such as schools, lobbying to influence public policy, or proselytizing.

Does this degree of tolerance reflect a conclusion that religious beliefs do not matter?

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Jon1667 asked on 10/16/03 - To tolerate intolerance.

Ought intolerance to be tolerated by the tolerant? For instance, ought a tolerant person tolerate racism? Or should we (as it seems we are) tolerate the blatant recent anti-Semetic speech by the Malaysian Prime Minister?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/16/03:

When I was a know-it-all college student, I held tolerance to be an overarching value. I suspect I may have made a fool of myself at a Herbert Marcuse lecture because of my oppostion to his criticism of tolerance.

Now, much older though possibly no wiser, I wonder whether my youthful concept of tolerance was even coherent. What does it mean to tolerate something? The dictionary says it means to permit without protest or interference. That could be said about things we ignore as well as things we tolerate, so there's a active component of tolerance not quite captured by the dictionary definition.

What do we do when we encounter an instance of hatred, bigotry, or dangerous intolerance such as this? Do we have a duty to attack the speaker? Not physically, I think. Confront him? Perhaps, but not if doing so would place one in danger. We can certainly criticize from a safe distance, but will that be sufficient?

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tonyrey asked on 10/15/03 - How can one know which is the best society?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/16/03:

I don't think one can.

One can observe differences between different existing societies. One can make a judgement about each of these differences, but it's not a simple judgement; does the difference result in a better society? for whom? are there internal or external effects from this society trait that we should deplore or wish to avoid?

There will be a number of cases where the comparison results in nearly unanimous agreement that one society is better than another; but for most cases, there will be legitimate disagreement and it will be impossible to find one society that is better than every other society, i.e. best.

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tonyrey asked on 10/15/03 - A question a day keeps mental decay at bay!

.... What is the relative importance of asking and answering philosophical questions?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/15/03:

What would it mean for one to be more important than the other?

Most truly thoughtful answers involve rephrasing the question in various different ways or asking clarifying questions back. Even so, the way a question is phrased helps to shape the answers it can have.

In this venue, a certain primacy is given to the asking of questions. Without posted questions, good ones, there is not much opportunity to come up with excellent answers.

But in general, philisophical discussion can start without being phrased as question-and-answer, though that is a time-honored form.

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tonyrey asked on 10/07/03 - Are thoughts electrical currents?


Jim.McGinness answered on 10/07/03:

Thoughts are not identical to electrical currents.

We have reason to suspect that thoughts may correspond to electrochemical activities amongst brain cells, but the connection is not well understood. It's believed more by a process of elimination of other possibilities.

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Jon1667 asked on 10/07/03 - Looking and hanging

Wittgenstein has pointed out that we can look for someone that does not exist, but we cannot hang someone who does not exist. Why is that?

Jim.McGinness answered on 10/07/03:

An interesting contrast. But just because two sentences have apparently parallel structure, it does not mean they have the same semantics.

Let's consider the intermediate version: can we find someone who does not exist?

To look for someone is a task that does not necessarily result in success. If we succeed, we'd say we found them. If we do not succeed, it may be because such a person does not exist.

Failure when we hang someone is different. The person might survive the hanging or we may ultimately discover that the person we hanged was not who we thought they were. In all cases, there was a specific, existing person whose neck was in the noose.

Does this relate to Quine's referentially opaque contexts? Is it because looking for is mentalistic and hanging is not?

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benjamin1985 asked on 09/28/03 - See through

I'm used to listening to Slow Pop songs. There's one sentence I hear pretty much and that's: "You see (right) through me." I've checked my dics pretty much but found nothing concise or even something that matches the rational procedure of a poem. I appreciate all your responses.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/28/03:

Are you asking what it means to "see through someone"?

The one-word version of this concept is "transparent". It means that a person's actions and motivations are easily understood, or, where deception is attempted, it is readily detected.

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Jon1667 asked on 09/27/03 - To clarify my comment:

If the Shakespearean principle is true, then why is it not true, by substitutivity of identicals for each other ("sustitutivity of identity") that if Romeo hopes that his present of a rose will please Juliet, that he need not (and probably does not) hope that a member of the Rosaceae family of flowers will please Juliet?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/27/03:

No longer games, this is getting interesting.

Do you necessarily believe everything which is entailed by what you believe?
Now we go back to Plato. In the dialog Meno Socrates puts one of Meno's slave boys through an exercise in geometry. Supposedly, the slave knows the truth of the geometrical propositions in some latent way and Socrates's questions merely cause the slave to recollect this knowledge.

I think the problem with this particular opaque context is that the shorthand language in which you've been stating it leaves out some necessary bits. Because we are talking about Romeo's beliefs, rather than some objective statement, Romeo's absence of knowledge about roses being members of the Rosaceae means that the relabeling is not truly equivalent. The proposition about Romeo's beliefs has some entaglement with how far Romeo's beliefs and knowledge extends.

Jon1667 asked on 09/26/03 - The Shakespearean Principle

Is it true, as Juliet said it was, that "a rose by any other name smells as sweet?"

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/26/03:

In a limited way, we have real-world examples of this principle. Roses are called by different names in other languages with no effect on how they smell.

Still, there's a meta-poetical wish in many people's hearts that the words in their language have a deep connection with the things that they are symbols for. Change the symbol in some arbitrary way and you lose this connection.

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Dark_Crow asked on 09/26/03 - What Hitler and Bertrand Russell had in common

Well of course we like to think ourselves on a much higher plane of Morality than the Nazis were; but if we examine ourselves in the light of history, were we any better?
As Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, a founder and sponsor of the Eugenics Society of Northern California and Pasadena's Human Betterment Foundation, noted in 1929, the Mexican is "eugenically as low-powered as the Negro. He not only does not understand health rules: being a superstitious savage, he resists them." Goethe -- for whom a public park on the Sacramento State University campus is named -- tirelessly campaigned to restrict Latin American immigration and to increase sterilization of the "socially unfit."
... that proponents of eugenics were not obscure cranks or fringe right-wingers, but the best and brightest civic reformers and professional leaders. In southern California, the Human Betterment Foundation enjoyed the active support of banker Henry Robinson, as well as social scientist William Munro and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan---.
Its interesting to note the famous philosopher, peacenik and anti-nuclear camapaigner, Bertrand Russell spoke in favor of it.
"President Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey's sterilization law, and one of his deputies descended to greater fame as a Nazi collaborator at Buchenwald. Pennsylvania's legislature passed an 'Act for the Prevention of Idiocy,' but the governor vetoed it .... Other states, however, joined the crusade. ... Eventually, the eugenicist virus found a hospitable host in Germany. There... it led to the death chambers of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Thanks to the Nazis, highly praised by eugenicists here, the movement eventually collapsed. But not before nearly 50,000 Americans were sterilized."

From------Mr. Platt, emeritus professor of social work, California State University

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/26/03:

It's a little sobering to think of what popular notions today will fall into this same status a few decades into the future. When people wrap up political agendas in scientific trappings, they can produce a lot of suffering. I wonder what medical therapies in common use today will, in time, to be seen as quaint or as wrongheaded as the eugenicists'.

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ttalady asked on 09/24/03 - The cow and the coward

How I came up with that title, well I just did. Honestly I do not know where this posting belongs, relationships, spiritual, farming, ect.

I watched the most beautiful site in the world today. A calf being born. It was early morning on my way to work and witnessed a miracle. I had to pull over and just watch. I did not want to leave but time soon ran short for "punching" in.

I came back the same way to notice the baby feeding off the Momma, the calf on all fours and just knew where to get the food and not too far from that Momma and baby was yet another Momma and baby. This baby having been born not all that long ago by the looks of it's coat. They must have some sort of communication or is it beyond that?

Tomorrow both babies shall be gone. On the other side of the road, in the same pen as the other babies, as the Mothers just look at them and wonder why? The hardest yet was seeing the baby in the pen on the back of a gulf cart and the Momma crying out following the baby.

I know why this happens, I understand why this is done, however I question myself on what is right and wrong in this. I am a hyprocrit to feel as I do yet practice as I do. I can drink milk, more than I should, however I could never take the baby away from a Mother. I eat meat (filet mignon, yummy) however could never butcher the cow. I even eat veal however temor when seeing a young bull tied to the side of a barn. I love venison however could never have the guts to shoot one myself, bf does the dirty work on that. I catch fish, help in cleaning them, however feel bad for them before their end.

Is it not possible that what we do in life, how we live life, how we preceive life to be all for the fact of finding ourselves and living with ourself? To accept others as they are however to finally accept ourselves as we are? Or am I just a hypocrit?

I know I could never live on just lettuce, even so that is killing a living thing. I am just having a hard time understanding how I can relate to such and give fact, reason to such. Then again, can you give reason?

BF always tells me, "You think too much", but is that possible? I am so easy to find the obvious however this is one I can not find, only an excuse!

Any help out there?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/24/03:

You could read some of the work of Peter Singer. He covers many of the same subjects that you have touched on here.

Think more, think more deeply.

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Jon1667 asked on 09/24/03 - The d' Souza article again.

Dear Concerned Citizen,
We have always had atheists among us, the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, but now they have grown turbulent and seditious. It seems that in our own day some prominent atheists want to galvanize their fellow unbelievers into a powerful political and social movement. In this connection, leading atheist thinkers have been writing articles declaring that they should no longer be called atheists. Rather, they want to be called brights.

Yes, brights, as in I am a bright. In a recent article in the New York Times, philosopher Daniel Dennett defined a bright as a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. Dennett added that we brights dont believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny or God. Dennetts implication was clear: brights are the smart people who dont fall for silly superstitions.

Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, a leading defender of Darwinism, also identified himself as a bright and called on other atheists and agnostics to embrace the term. Like Dennett, Dawkins defined a bright as one who espouses a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism. Dawkins couldnt help mentioning that most scientists and intellectuals are brights. Religious people, he implied, can be found among the ranks of the less intelligent.

Clearly Dennett and Dawkins, like many atheists, are confident that atheists are simply brightermore rationalthan religious believers. Their assumption is: we nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith. But Dennett and Dawkins, for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy. This may be called the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, and it was first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics, and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. To understand what Kant is getting at, consider the example of a tape recorder. A tape recorder, being the kind of instrument it is, can only capture one mode or representation of reality. It can only capture sound.

Tape recorders can only hear, they cannot see or touch or smell. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are completely and forever beyond the reach of a tape recorder.

The same, Kant argued, is true of human beings. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. If a tape recorder represents reality in a single mode, human beings can perceive reality through five different modes: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, that simply cannot be apprehended by, our five senses?

Kant persuasively insisted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?

Kant isnt arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kants argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings will simply never know. Notice that Kants argument is entirely secular: it does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kants philosophy opens the door to faith, as the philosopher himself noted.

If Dawkins and Dennett have produced refutations of Kant that have eluded the philosophical community, they should share them with the rest of us. But until then, they and other like-minded atheists should refrain from the ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. Rather, as Kant showed, reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is fully capable (at least in principle) of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/24/03:

Kant knew about tape recorders?

Camcorders use much the same sort of magnetic tape as tape recorders. They manage to record two senses. It doesn't take much extrapolation to get to the sort of recorder envisioned in the movie Brainstorms (Natalie Wood's last film) that tapped into the sensory system and recorded all of the senses.

Kant's argument does not work for me. I cannot deny that there are parts of reality which are imperceptible; the imperceptibility of those hypothetical parts of reality is a strong claim that those "supernatural" aspects of reality can be ignored. If you try to claim that the "supernatural" aspects of reality have effects in the material universe, they become susceptible to scientific inquiry and are not imperceptible.

The merits of the "brights" designation has been discussed here before. I don't expect it to work, but I have to stand back and quietly applaud the effort.

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ElizabethOrient2000 asked on 09/22/03 - Hypothetical Speaking

What do you think was the first philosophical question?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/22/03:

Every child recapitulates the history of early philosophical questions even as they learn to speak. What we don't know, because there is no oral history from the period of interest, is when there first came to be a distinction between philosophy questions and religious questions. In reading the pre-Socratic philosophers, for instance, you can tell that they are responding to questions about the nature of things that had already been knocked around for centuries.

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Jon1667 asked on 09/21/03 - Why do bad things happen to good people?

There is a fairly well-known book by Harold Kushner published in 1980 called, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," which tries to answer the question, "why do bad things happen to good people?" But why is this an issue? It is, no doubt, unfortunate and sad that bad things happen to good people, but why should it be assumed that there is some one, general, answer to this question? Why is it puzzling that bad things happen to good people? Is it the only reason that if there is a good and omnipotent God, that it should not be so?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/21/03:

I actually read that book, many years ago.

I don't remember anything in particular about it, though, which is too bad.

Only Andiri has so far mentioned the idea of fairness or justice. This concept lies at the heart of the question being asked and perhaps qualifies it for being a philosophical question rather than a religious one.

When we discuss the possibility of a supernatural agency, omnipotent or not, we can question whether something that happens to a person is caused by that supernatural agent. We normally have a stronger sense of whether a situation is just or not when there is someone we consider responsible for the action.

So is it our sense of justice that is faulty? Or is there something to the age-old notion that when something bad happens to a person "they musta had it coming"?

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Jon1667 asked on 09/18/03 - Cliche's Galore

"In harm's way" instead of "in danger."
"impact" instead of "effect." (If things go on like this, we'll be talking of the the problem of cause and impact, instead of cause and effect.)
"Anticipate" rather than "expect" (Although there are times when "anticipate" is right. When you do something as a result of expecting something, as in, "he anticipated the blow by putting up his arms."

There are lots of others. Care to add? (I think this is called diction)

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/19/03:

In testing a person's vocabulary, there are always a few words at the outer edges of competence where their firm notion of the meaning is opposite the right meaning. One consequence of this is that the words will be used inaccurately and, if so used by sufficient numbers of people, actually acquire the opposite meaning. I think the best example of this I came across recently was fearsome, but the words ennervate, enormity, and fulsome are examples where misuse has become accepted.

When a word or phrase (such as beg the question) acquires confusing meanings through misuse, a careful writer must take extra care to either avoid it or supply enough context to ensure that a competent reader will not mistake the intended meaning. It becomes much more difficult to be concise. We all lose something.

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ttalady asked on 09/19/03 - Psychology

So, I find it hard being a woman working with 45 and 3 males. I find it hypocritical to "bitch". However I wonder in my adventures in a company that I could not do good for such, and so-called, to "fix" things.

I was "once" low on the totem pole. Considered a slave to a job and ones above me. Now I am "asked" not "told". I am respected for my mind yet feel and think that my highers wish more from me.

To explain, I am a happy person. I deal with stress, never putting it on another, I deal with my life, and take on challenges. As my bosses tell me, I am a dream as an employee. Good, maybe, however is that not asking something more that I am seeing?

My life will never be my career/job, my job never my life. They know this and respect this. To a point!

My idea is to get fired. Just joking, not on purpose however my idea entailes saying it like it is. Hear me out!

An A/P clerk I once was. I did my job as all around me, some lacking in spots as I did. I was blessed with good mentors in my job. My personality helped much however many did not know how to react to the demand that was given. To really know another that was higher up than them, and just be standing ones grounds unless "proven" wrong.

Therefore now I am that person however I never be-little the one that does the work. I correct, only for what I know needs to be, but no punishing as others do. The only way to learn in life is to make your own mistakes and hope no ones points them out, just see them.

Ok the point. In my new field with 6 other women in meeting I am trying not to lash out and point out there faults in general as they do the ones under them. I understand their jobs rely on data from such however data and work is only good when the environment is good. One makes it hell, second guessing all the time, then work is nothing more than $$ and not pride.

This is a very philosophical question in that the only thing stopping me from lashing out based on my beliefs, morals, ethics, is that of keeping a job. Plus that fact that my upper mentors I believe are just waiting for me to bring in new light.

Does it ever say in philosophy to go with a gut feeling and know that it was right? I do not have to tell another their job, I just over see it. RESPECT is in understanding, not controlling!

Will it be right do lash as I feel? It may be the end of one job but the creation of a work place and that of me in a sense! Lash = to say!, not to punish!

What would you do?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/19/03:

There are many different ways to be a successful manager and having a lot of flexibilty in how you deal with people makes success more likely. In a humane workplace, there is no need to lash out in anger nor to belittle people. In the long run, these behaviors will harm your business.

Consider each situation carefully, on its merits. Identify the strengths a person has and try to see what style of communicating with them will be most effective. Be sure to tie in with the other's personal motivations and your overall business goals. Find some common ground and build from there.

[Sorry if I sound platitudinous, but I do not see any details in your description that allow me to make more specific suggestions.]

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Jon1667 asked on 09/16/03 - Proverbs

And love conquers all, and a stitch in time saves nine.
And, oh yes, many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth.

Let's get down to real philosophy!

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/16/03:

Idle hands do the devil's work. -- That's always been my favorite, with it's dual meaning.

HANK1 asked on 09/15/03 - DISCONTENT!

"Wealth is the parent of luxury and indolence, and poverty of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent." In Plato's "Republic"

Any comments?


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/16/03:

Hank: Much philosophy is outdated!

Is that what you really think? I certainly wasn't saying that.

Plato and Socrates were asking questions that almost always remain vital philosophical questions today. To the extent that they offered answers, we still debate what they really meant and how they could have been so blind about this or that. This has happened over much of the last 2500 years or so since the Greeks began philosophy as a discipline. Eventually some of the old puzzles are laid to rest: I don't think anyone now considers Zeno's Paradox to be much more than a historical novelty once Newton and others attacked it with the methods of calculus. Some of the topics considered under ancient philosophy have now been subsumed under disciplines of science and mathematics. But there is still plenty of philosophical grist left over.

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HANK1 asked on 09/15/03 - DISCONTENT!

"Wealth is the parent of luxury and indolence, and poverty of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent." In Plato's "Republic"

Any comments?


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/15/03:

The word luxury seems like a translator's "force fit", or else the translation is old enough [it's Jowett's from 1901] that the word has shifted quite a bit in meaning since then.

I suspect the underlying meaning is better captured by Thorstein Veblen's term "Conspicuous Consumption" in Theory of the Leisure Class [1899, contemporaneous with Jowett's translation]. Leisure and indolence are still pretty much the same.

Discontent arises at all levels of income and society, but may well be caused more by rising expectations that outrun what life is presently handing out than by any particular unsatisfied wants.

These words that Plato attributes to Socrates are just a rhetorical trope concluding his guiding of Adeimantus through a discussion of how being rich or being poor makes a man worse at what he does. But this discussion is unanchored from any sense of incentives or rewards for work well done or the likely effects of zero or negative marginal return on extra care and effort.

If we look around at our society today, we can find reasons to question all of Plato's (Socrates's) associations and assertions. There may be some truth in the observations, but on the whole they are blanket generalizations or stereotypes that do not withstand careful scrutiny.

Aside: If we consider Bill Gates as an exemplar of the wealthy, which attributes are we more likely to associate with him? Indolence? I don't think so. Despite the public interest in his mansion, he is hardly noted for an extravagant lifestyle. There are, however, many people who consider his business's practices to exhibit "meanness and viciousness".

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tonyrey asked on 09/10/03 - When, if ever, is torture justified?

This question is prompted by the following remarks:

Remembering al-Qaida's attacks on America tomorrow, many will wearily note that the world did indeed change that day two years ago and that our newspapers are still full of the reverberations. Without 9/11 there would have been no Iraq war. Without Iraq there would be no Hutton, and without Hutton, TB wouldn't be looking quite as weak as he is.
The American press betrays the same pattern, but there is one important and - to me - astonishing absence. Weeks go by without serious newspapers investigating or commenting on human rights abuses by the American government. At home and abroad, hundreds, maybe thousands, of men are being held in camps and prisons by the military, by the CIA and by the justice department, incommunicado, without legal representation or hope of release, there to endure prolonged and terrifying interrogation. Alone, this is enough for the US government to place itself in contravention of the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which it is obligated to uphold. But that is not all. There is evidence that the US authorities have encouraged the use of torture and may indeed have participated in the torture of those men they believe to hold information on past and future terrorist attacks.

We surely didn't imagine two years ago that this would be an outcome of 9/11 and yet it has happened with such ease, the once rights-conscious American public turning its gaze the other way, along with the self-regarding worthies of the American newspaper industry. The one exception has been the Washington Post, which alone has pressed the US government on the legality of Guantanamo Bay and the processes instituted there, not by lawyers, but the jesuitical neo-conservative mandarins of the Pentagon, and it has gone some way to exposing the "stress and duress" techniques applied to prisoners at the US base at Bagram in Afghanistan.

Researching my book Empire State, a novel set against the background of these abuses, I discovered that the information is not terribly difficult to come by. In March, prisoners at Bagram reported being beaten, deprived of sleep and made to lie naked on a sheet of ice. The same month, US military coroners ruled that the deaths of two prisoners in mysterious circumstances were homicides. Just before the invasion, I met an American who is attached to a shadowy military/espionage operation; I asked him about the rumours of torture. He replied with a look of astonishment, "Are you crazy? Of course. That's the war we've got on our hands. We didn't ask for it this way."

By far the most disturbing development is the American practice of handing over recalcitrant prisoners to be tortured by compliant regimes in Jordan, Morocco and particularly Egypt, where beating, drowning and even electric shock treatment are used.

When a man is transported bound and blindfolded - in the American parlance "packaged" - it is said that he has been "rendered" to a foreign service, and from the unutterable hell of his subsequent experience come "extreme renditions". The desired result of this process is a complete set of answers to questions drawn up by US intelligence that are then fed into a database which, without a trace of irony, has been codenamed Harmony.

Naturally, the CIA officers are not themselves applying the electrodes to genitals or rubber truncheons to the soles of the feet, but in the case of prisoners being tortured in Saudi Arabia, they are on hand, in the words of CIA director George Tenet, to "share the debriefing results".

All of the above may make you think that I have become violently anti-American. I have not - I still love the place and the people - but it is profoundly disturbing that our closest ally has slipped so easily into methods which begin to match the theocratic savagery that launched the 9/11 attacks in the first place.

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/10/03:

Torture is never justified.

We look back on the torture chambers of medieval Europe with a special dread because we now realize how unreliable torture is at obtaining a true or just result; what it most powerfully demonstrates is the uncanny abilities torture victims have at discerning what the torturer wants to hear. Between the torturer and the victim, a whole false reality can be constructed.

The role, if these allegations prove to be true, that the US has in the continued use of torture is reprehensible. Torture is not rare, but little remains as officially approved government conduct. The covert use by governments and the private use of torture should be opposed whereever they are encountered.

Amnesty International - Campaigns - Stop Torture

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Jon1667 asked on 09/08/03 - Knowledge

Is knowledge a mental state? Here is an argument to show it is not:

1. If knowledge were a mental state, then the subject could determine by introspection that he had that mental state. (For instance, if pain is a mental state than if I am in pain I can determine by introspection whether I am in pain)
2. But I cannot determine whether I know by introspection. (For instance, I cannot determine whether I know that Quito is the capital of Ecuador by introspection since whether I know that depends on whether Quito _is_ the capital of Ecuador, and I cannot determine _that_ by introspection. I can determine that only by, say, reading an Atlas)

Therefore, 3, knowledge is not a mental state.

(I might also point out that another necessary condition of knowledge is adequate justification, but I cannot judge whether my justification for a particular proposition is adequate simply by introspection. So this is another (similar) argument against the view that knowledge is a mental state.)

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/09/03:

I almost recognize the game you are playing.

Knowledge is an idealization of something we all experience. When philosophers attempt to define it, they have trouble because it is all too easy to hypothesize some greater context in which what we "know" is not really so: we could be floating in a tank with sense impressions being fed to our brain (The Matrix has made this idea very accessible) or we may be just dreams floating in the imagination of God.

Don't most definitions of knowledge include both a mental state (a belief) and a correspondence between that mental state and the way the world really is? Introspection is insufficient, all by itself, to establish whether a belief is true. For purposes of dealing with laypeople, the shorthand of justified true belief gets at the essential connection. But drilling down on any one of those three words gets you into philosophically interesting territory where we laypeople should watch quietly for a while before trying to say anything.

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tonyrey asked on 09/05/03 - Is the truth important? If so, why?


Jim.McGinness answered on 09/05/03:

Beware the Truth Meme!

Richard Brodie has written on memes and mind viruses and is on a bit of a campaign (perhaps somewhat crackpot) to warn people about the Truth Meme or, as I find it often referred to now, the Absolute Truth Meme.

When people become convinced that they are in possession of the Absolute Truth, they can sometimes become very dangerous.

Here's one person's attempt at explaining the problem


  • There is no "absolute truth"
  • Truth IS objective and can be decided with sufficient work
  • But TRUTH is relative to the sum total of our knowledge at any moment in history and will change as we continue to develop our understanding
  • However, that does not make our previous "truth" now "false" it only acknowledges that "truth" is contextual and changes as we do.

I think this advice runs against the grain of the majority of experts here (I'm basing this on what some of you have said), but puts another slant on whether truth is important.

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hedgehog1204 asked on 09/04/03 - how to write right
I have many ideas on philosophical and other themes and I dont know wha

how to write right
I have many ideas on philosophical and other themes and I dont know what to do with them and how to represent them like in books. Those ideas are short and I want to expand them and to write a lot. For example I have an idea on how to optimize educational process for children, so they develop all their talents on their own pace and dont study too much what they dont need. But I am not sure how to write this idea out using smart words, how to prove it. When I read philosophical books I like some of the ideas, I have my own opinion, but it is short, so I can use it in dinner conversations to show my intelligence, like in those movies, where smart people talk about their opinions on this and that. I want to be a philosoph like Socrat etc. When and what people should I contact? How can I know whether my ideas are publishable? How can I improve my philosophical creativity, thinking and writing?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/04/03:

Undertake an apprenticeship here in this forum for a while. Make a point of writing the best response you can to every question. As you interact with some of the real experts and some of the wiseacres here, you'll have a chance to exercise your philosophical vocabulary and subject your thoughts to the sorts of challenges they need before they can develop into the kind of ideas that people will respect and pay attention to.

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denberg asked on 09/02/03 - Is Marxism rubbish?

I've already tried out this question in the business/economics section and the consensus seems to be Yes, it is. No one can think of any uses for it in the business world or the world's economies.
Can anyone think of any other uses for it?

Jim.McGinness answered on 09/02/03:

Marxism is not just one thing;

Using Marxism as a perspective, it creates some interesting critiques. When trying to apply it as if it were a scientific approach to economics (or history) it fails (and has failed in some spectacular ways).

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ethical_reason asked on 08/28/03 - Do you think AIDS exists?

So, a friend of mine at work has AIDS (or maybe not =)
He was diagnosed with AIDS like 9 years ago and for 2 years did nothing about it. And then for 5 years he took AZT. Then he did a bunch of research and decided it was all a hoax and stopped taking AZT for 2 years now. He has never felt better in his life and he's never been healthier and never looked better. That's not proof or anything. =)

Anyhow, so he gave me a video which was as biased as pro-AZT videos are and any video that insists the existence of AIDS is true. So, it's hard to trust it. But if they are telling the truth it is hard to deny. Who knows if they are telling the truth?

One of the biggest pieces of evidence by Peter Duesberg was that HIV is a retrovirus and a retrovirus has never and can never damage t-cells. In fact they would have the opposite effect. Another idea is that the proof of AIDS in the system is
Pneumonia - HIV = pneumonia
Pneumonia + HIV = AIDS

If that's true it's bullshit scientific method. But who knows if it is true.

This Dusberg fellow says that the normal association of AIDS making one sick is actually a lifestyle issue more often than not. The AIDS affect of one being sick actually often comes from people using drugs that lead to what would be seen as the sickness from the AIDS infection. So, giving people ready access to needles is therefore making things worse.

And obviously the motivation is big business for the drug companies.

Anyhow, there's a lot more info on these sites:

So, what do you guys think? Does AIDS exist or is it a huge hoax?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/03:

Sorry, but I don't remember the details of the retrovirus argument. In looking at Duesberg's site, I see something that looks like it might be the argument you are referring to, but it's too sketchy for me to say it is conclusive. Retroviruses themselves are, after all, a violation of what had once been pronounced the Central Dogma of molecular genetics -- that information flows from DNA -> RNA -> Protein and never in reverse.

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ethical_reason asked on 08/28/03 - Do you think AIDS exists?

So, a friend of mine at work has AIDS (or maybe not =)
He was diagnosed with AIDS like 9 years ago and for 2 years did nothing about it. And then for 5 years he took AZT. Then he did a bunch of research and decided it was all a hoax and stopped taking AZT for 2 years now. He has never felt better in his life and he's never been healthier and never looked better. That's not proof or anything. =)

Anyhow, so he gave me a video which was as biased as pro-AZT videos are and any video that insists the existence of AIDS is true. So, it's hard to trust it. But if they are telling the truth it is hard to deny. Who knows if they are telling the truth?

One of the biggest pieces of evidence by Peter Duesberg was that HIV is a retrovirus and a retrovirus has never and can never damage t-cells. In fact they would have the opposite effect. Another idea is that the proof of AIDS in the system is
Pneumonia - HIV = pneumonia
Pneumonia + HIV = AIDS

If that's true it's bullshit scientific method. But who knows if it is true.

This Dusberg fellow says that the normal association of AIDS making one sick is actually a lifestyle issue more often than not. The AIDS affect of one being sick actually often comes from people using drugs that lead to what would be seen as the sickness from the AIDS infection. So, giving people ready access to needles is therefore making things worse.

And obviously the motivation is big business for the drug companies.

Anyhow, there's a lot more info on these sites:

So, what do you guys think? Does AIDS exist or is it a huge hoax?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/28/03:

I've read Duesberg's book and found it to be an intriguing argument. Parts of the argument hold up better than others: Duesberg is fighting against a politically entrenched opponent and resorts to rhetoric rather than science some of the time; he has more questions than answers.

The other issue where I've seen this sort of controversy is on the issue of human-caused global warming. The establishment clearly believes something that may possibly be true but for which there are nagging counterarguments and contrary evidence. It is easy to perceive political motivations for suppressing the inconvenient data and avoiding rather than addressing the hard questions.

But it is not at all easy for a layperson to discern whether a naysayer is really onto something or if they are a crackpot. Both Newton and Einstein had some notions that would qualify as crackpot, but they are properly honored and remembered for their scientific contributions. The notion of continental drift was long considered fringe or crackpot, starting from the "eyeball" evidence of looking at how today's continents have complementary shapes. Once bolstered by some additional evidence and theoretical underpinnings, it has become the very fruitful field of plate tectonics.

What makes something crackpot?

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hmghaly asked on 08/24/03 - Evil as an absence of Good??

Can we think of evil as the absence of good, like darkness being the absence of light, and ugliness as the absence of beauty?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/24/03:

You've picked words that are antonyms, opposites in meaning. It would be more than just a radical simplification of language, however, to simply eliminate one half of each antonym pair and replace it with "the absence of" the word that remained. Often two antonyms represent extremes of a spectrum. We have lots of words that represent non-extreme points on the spreads separating these antonyms, some of which drift in meaning to pick up connotations (and antonyms) of their own.

When you describe someone as plain-looking, wouldn't that be an absence of both beauty and ugliness? If someone is merely pretty, is that a complete absence of ugliness and a partial absence of beauty?

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tonyrey asked on 08/23/03 - What is the origin of purpose?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/23/03:

Did purpose start out as an illusion?

There is one school of thought that says consciousness is a process of observation more than a process of intention. Just as we discover purposefulness in linking the actions of some plant or animal to the results, when we observe a connection in our own minds that lead to a result, we call it purpose but the underlying mechanism remains obscured.

[I'd cite George Mandler as my source; if I could provide more specific details, I would.]

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Dark_Crow asked on 08/23/03 - a economic conservative and a social liberal?

Did anyone else see the hannity & colmes comedy show last night, I never miss it, always great laughs.
Anyway to the point. There was a discussion about Arnold and his political position. Hannity, I believe said of him, he seems to take a conservative position on spending and taxes, but a liberal position on social issues. That is, he is a economic conservative and a social liberal. A guest on the show, another Republican candidate, or was it Democrat, countered, that cant be true, because as a economic conservative he could not get the money for the social programs with-out, spending and raising taxes.

Is that reasonable?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/23/03:

Libertarians have often been frustrated by the uni-dimensional classification of political positions on a conservative-liberal line. By casting the political debate around this single polarizing orientation, you exclude much of the thinking process about what it is that a person, candidate, or group really favors or opposes - and why.

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tonyrey asked on 08/09/03 - Materialism?

A question prompted by Jim McGinness:
Why should materialism be endowed with a preferred sort of reality or existence?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/11/03:

What follows what?

Tony, you said:

I agree with you regarding the independent reality of the physical universe but it doesn't follow that the physical universe must have primacy or be the basis of everything that exists.
The materialism we're discussing is a viewpoint. It is not an argument with the force of proof. You adopt the viewpoint because you find it useful, or it appeals to you, or it is what you grew up with.

Or were you misreading me to be saying that the independent existence of the physical universe somehow implies materialism? It's perhaps a rejection of a certain kind of immaterialism (though I'm not able to read Bishop Berkeley well enough to know if it's a rejection of his flavor of immaterialism; as I understand it, he resolved the independent existence of the physical universe by tying it to omnipresent observation by God).
[This answer is also a test to see if one can convince Answerway to accept an answer even when the viewques page does not offer it as a choice. I'm beginning to see why people sometimes complain about not being able to answer or followup.]

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tonyrey asked on 08/09/03 - Materialism?

A question prompted by Jim McGinness:
Why should materialism be endowed with a preferred sort of reality or existence?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/10/03:

Giving primacy to the physical universe ties materialism to science. This has a few important consequences. If the physical universe is not in some weird way dependent on us for its existence, and if all real things interact with each other via the physical universe, then we reach a useful sort of closure. Theories about how the universe works can be tested by looking for how well the universe's behavior matches what is predicted by the theory.

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tonyrey asked on 08/09/03 - Materialism?

A question prompted by Jim McGinness:
Why should materialism be endowed with a preferred sort of reality or existence?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/10/03:

What I actually said:

The whole point of materialism is to carve out a preferred sort of reality or existence for the physical universe. Immaterial things like facts or truths don't qualify, but there is another sort of discourse in which they may be discussed.

In later tries at writing about this, I've used the word "distinguished" instead of "preferred". You've collapsed materialism and the physical universe into one another and loaded up the word "endowed".

Dark Crow has added some useful history (it would be more useful to me if I understood what "ontological" meant at more than a dictionary level).

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hmghaly asked on 08/08/03 - Materialim assumptions

Is the assumption that everything that exists can be observed and/or measured justifiable?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/10/03:

I tried to qualify the sort of existence which the materialist stance denies to things "which have no observable effects on the physical universe". If, despite that, what I said seems to you merely to be a grammatical inversion of what you originally said, I doubt that piling on more words will help.

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hmghaly asked on 08/08/03 - Materialim assumptions

Is the assumption that everything that exists can be observed and/or measured justifiable?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/08/03:

I think you've turned the scientific stance on its head in order to try to make it say something it would not agree with.

As best I can put it, the scientific materialist model says that if some postulated entity has no observable effects on the physical universe, it is not worth talking about whether or not it exists, in a physical sense.

But we sometimes mean something other than this material, physical existence when we use the word "exist".

[I should shut up now, because it looks like Ken has already ably explored the other meanings we may have.]

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Jon1667 asked on 08/07/03 - Philosophy Experts

We are all self-appointed philosophy experts. But what I wonder is whether being an expert in philosophy would be any different from being an expert in (say) physics, or in history, or in any other field or subject? If so, then how?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/08/03:

Where did I say anything that was confined to "experts" on this site? Many of us on this site are "experts" only because that's what the site calls people who answer questions; some of us even put specific dislaimers of "expert" status in our profiles.

The characteristic of experts that I was after was their ability to determine whether or not they could give an authoritative answer to a question: our expectation that they know what they know [which has it's own philosophical complications...but I'm just trying to speak ordinary English, not some technical jargon].

There certainly are people who have areas of expertise that lie within the subject matter we usually classify as "philosophy". And there are zero people whose expertise encompasses everything that we might reasonably call philosophy, just as there are zero experts whose expertise covers all of any sufficiently broad subject.

In this respect, it's my opinion that philosophy is not qualitatively different from physics, history, or other similarly broad subject areas.

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Jon1667 asked on 08/07/03 - Philosophy Experts

We are all self-appointed philosophy experts. But what I wonder is whether being an expert in philosophy would be any different from being an expert in (say) physics, or in history, or in any other field or subject? If so, then how?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/08/03:

When we ask an expert a question, we expect to get either an authorative answer or a response indicating that the answer to the question lies outside of the expert's area of expertise.

Is an authoritative answer necessarily correct? I don't think so. If we present the question and answer from one expert to another expert, it seems likely that for some questions, the second expert will disagree with the first expert.

[It certainly happens here on Answerway!]

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tonyrey asked on 08/07/03 - The article in question

Masters of deceit

Convicted felons responsible for thousands of deaths are calling the shots at the White House

Isabel Hilton
Thursday August 7, 2003
The Guardian

The announcement that Admiral John Poindexter's latest brainwave - to encourage betting on the likelihood of a terrorist attack - had been terminated was characteristically bland. It began: "The Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced today that DARPA's participation in the Futures Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP) program has been withdrawn"
The language does not betray the repugnant nature of the project, but then Poindexter is expert at disguising repugnant projects in bland language. He came to prominence in the Reagan administration, where the word "freedom" was used to justify renewed support for Latin American military dictatorships guilty of some of the most egregious human rights abuses on the planet. President Jimmy Carter had frozen them out, but Ronald Reagan's election meant a renewed round of invitations to Pentagon cocktail parties for Latin American torturers.
The tiny, impoverished countries of central America were, to the Reagan White House, the most pressing threat to the United States, through their impertinent insistence on trying to change their internal political arrangements, first through the ballot box and later through resort to arms. But in those days, even a president was not free to do exactly what he wanted. The US constitution gave the right to declare war to Congress, and Congress was cramping the Reagan administration's style in central America.
In El Salvador, there was a leftwing insurgency that needed to be repressed, but there were congressional restrictions on the numbers of US military personnel the president could send. Old friendships, though, are worth a lot. The Argentine generals were happy to lend some spare killers to help out in El Salvador. (Washington was so grateful that the generals thought it would not object to their invading the Falkland Islands - but that's another story.)
In Honduras a local band of killers was doing a good job under the protection of John Negroponte, then US ambassador in Tegucigalpa, now US ambassador to the United Nations. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had overthrown the US-backed Somosa dictatorship and had gone on to consolidate their power by winning an election. The problem was that Congress had voted the Boland amendment, which banned the administration from funding their favourite Nicaraguan terrorists, the Contras, who had been engaged to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
Poindexter, by then national security adviser, proved his worth with a breathtakingly simple scheme. The administration would sell arms to Iran and divert the proceeds to the Contras. Since both ends of the operation were highly illegal - Iran was also under a US arms embargo - it had to be secret.
It worked for a while. The euphemistically named Office of Public Diplomacy planted articles in the US press depicting the Contras as democrats and freedom fighters and put the frighteners on any one who tried to report otherwise. But still journalists reported on the affair. By late 1986, it had begun to leak.
In September 1996, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica - a small central American country noted for its decision to abolish its army - found that the US was using his country as a supply base for the secret Contra operations. When he decided to call a press conference, Oliver North, a marine working for Poindexter, swung into action. As he reported to Poindexter in an email they later tried to destroy, North called President Arias to "tell him that if the press conference were held, Arias [one line deleted] wd never see a nickel of the $80m that McPhearson had promised him earlier on Friday". Oliver Tambs, another conspirator, "then called Arias and confirmed what I had said and suggested that Arias talk to Elliott (Abrams) for further confirmation. Arias then got the same word from Elliott. [one line deleted ] At 0300 Arias called back to advise that there wd be no press conference and no team of reporters sent to the airfield."
But just a month later the Nicaraguans shot down a CIA supply plane. A month after that, a Lebanese newspaper reported Reagan's arms deals with Iran. A frenzy of shredding and the destruction of emails broke out, and it took a congressional investigation - during which Poindexter, Elliott Abrams, Caspar Weinberger, Colin Powell (now secretary of state) and Richard Armitage (now deputy secretary of state) lied - and a specially appointed independent counsel to get the full story. By then, though, as the independent counsel reported, the administration's web of deceit had achieved its objectives - to protect Reagan, vice-president George Bush and the rest from the consequences of their conspiracy. As the independent counsel put it, Poindexter and North were made "the scapegoats whose sacrifice would protect the Reagan administration in its final two years".
Poindexter, North and two others were indicted on 23 counts of conspiracy to defraud the US and Poindexter was convicted on five felony counts of conspiracy, false statements, destruction and removal of records and obstruction of Congress. His conviction was reversed on the technicality that he had given immunised testimony to Congress.
Elliott Abrams later pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. George Bush senior pardoned him; and Bush junior appointed him director of the National Security Council's office for democracy, human rights and international operations and then to his current job as director of Middle East affairs in the White House. The wars these men promoted had left 75,000 dead in El Salvador and 30,000-40,000 dead in Nicaragua, not to mention many thousands dead in Guatemala and Honduras.
Poindexter, having fallen on his sword to save Reagan and Bush, moved into the private sector to pursue his passion for electronic surveillance. In the 1980s, Poindexter had pioneered electronic sur veillance in the US through a 1984 initiative known as National Security Decision Directive 145. This gave intelligence agencies the right to trawl computer databases for "sensitive but unclassified information", a power Poindexter later expanded to give the military responsibility for all computer security for both the federal government and private industry.
It would be wrong to argue that convicted felons should not get a second chance. But this usually requires payment of a debt to society and even remorse, something Poindexter has never shown. Under this President Bush, Poindexter expanded the surveillance of US citizens to unprecedented levels, designing programmes that would not only track trillions of emails, text messages and phone calls but even send agents into public libraries to compile information on what Americans were reading.
Back in Argentina, though, where the festering sore of crimes that were never cleansed through judicial procedures has haunted politics for decades, the new president, in a bold and surprising move, has removed legal obstacles to the extradition of more than 40 military officers wanted for torture, kidnapping and murder of various foreign citizens in the Dirty War. Lies and deceit, as they have learned in Buenos Aires, are enemies of freedom and democracy and generate more lies and deceit. President Nestor Kirchner's actions may yet put an end to a culture of past impunity that has poisoned the politics of the present. In Washington, under this administration, the crimes of the past have been the passport to power; the methods, far from being discarded, have merely been refined.

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/07/03:

Projects like FutureMAP represent an interesting intersection between operations research, economics, and mathematical game theory. It's hard to explain why they might be valuable when it's so easy for the press to latch onto negative slogans about them, starting with the always appalling "putting a price on a human life". It's nearly impossible for an outsider to judge whether the project really was a stinker or if has merely been torpedoed for appearances.

In my view, this particular article falls into the category of biased vituperation rather than news. The Iran-Contra mess is old news; many of the people who "perpetrated" it are still around and some are once again in positions of influence; there's a whole industry surrounding Washington, DC, of consultants and agencies who figure out legal, quasi-legal, and illegal-but-we-can-almost-certainly-get-away-with-it ways to accomplish various policy goals. It's just one of the forms of rot that sets in as government attains more power and attracts interests that wish to direct that power. I just don't find adopting unprincipled ways of fighting this rot as a useful path to reform.

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CeeBee asked on 08/07/03 - Life after this one --

I posted this on the Christianity board, and several experts told me that the Philosophy board would give me REALLY GOOD answers!!:

We all know the Bible verses that support this. I don't want to read those in answer to my question. (I can find them in my Bible as fast as you can in yours lol.) What I REALLY want here is non-religious or even logical reasons to support the idea that there is an afterlife. (These would be lead-ins to testifying to a person who is an atheist or agnostic or at least someone who is sort of interested.)0

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/07/03:

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gained prominence in the 1970s with her collection of near-death experiences, including her speculations on what the common threads in those experiences might mean about an afterlife.

The interest in her work as a scientific body of evidence on an afterlife is completely contaminated by the interest from people who wish to see their religious beliefs justified, but it remains the forerunner of any serious studies in this field.



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tonyrey asked on 08/04/03 - Intelligibility...

It seems generally agreed that the purpose of explanation is to increase our understanding, i.e. to make something more intelligible. But our understanding is like a spark in the dark. We cannot understand extremely complex subjects nor extremely simple ones. (The most difficult questions in philosophy are often deceptively simple, e.g. "What is a fact?"). So where do you think our understanding begins?

Jim.McGinness answered on 08/04/03:

Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, cited a number of rules for philosophical discussion that he developed in his early twenties:

I was charm'd with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continu'd this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

[For the whole Autobiography see]

So, instead of beginning a statement with the possibly provocative "It seems generally agreed", if you start instead by saying "It seems to me ...", you invite people who disagree with your view to put forth their point of view (some will be led to couch their views in similarly gentle tones).

To seek comprehensive understanding is probably ultimately futile, but I don't believe it is fair to compare our understanding to a spark in the dark. Our minds can encompass a great deal, but the coverage is admittedly limited. Extrapolating from what we are able to accomplish is what leads some of us to contemplate omniscience.

Any area where our understanding is strong is necessarily surrounded by areas where our understanding can be challenged and found to be weak. This makes it look, sometimes, like our understanding is unanchored, not based on a sound foundation.

In my view, scientific knowledge is a specialization of the sort of common sense anchoring in reality that characterizes our initial understanding about the physical world we live in. But I think it's a matter of ongoing investigation what role biology plays in our abilities to apprehend and put structure to reality beyond the mechanics of perception.

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Choux asked on 07/27/03 - I Believe America

has an ethical and/or political responsibility to help Liberia rescue itself from total barbarity.

Am I wrong in my thinking?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/28/03:

You haven't really exposed what your thinking on this issue is.

No one will disagree that the situation in Liberia is quite terrible.

Many will agree that the US may have a special relationship with the nation of Liberia that would not apply to its neighbors, several of whom have also been experiencing difficulties.

Your belief apparently includes two main elements. One is that the US has an ethical duty to 'help' Liberia. The other is that the US has some politically-based obligation to 'help' Liberia. One can infer from your question that you believe that an increase in support over what currently exists is needed.

Some of the questions that remain unanswered are:

1. What form should US help take? I'm guessing you mean a decisive military presence.

2. How deep must the US be willing to go? Into Liberia's (sovereign) neighbors, where some of the combatants receive shelter and support? How much are you willing to see sacrificed, in lives, and in increased deficit spending?

3. What international precedents should apply to this intervention? Must this be a new precedent? Would we be happy with the results of applying these precedents to other situations?

4. Must the US do this in coordination with other nations or is there a reason it must do it alone? Why is the obligation to do something greater for the US than for other nations?

As an individual, you can undertake obligations and duties for yourself. When you attempt to undertake obligations and duties for a whole nation, we can reasonably ask that you support your arguments.

I am wary of increased US involvement in trouble spots around the world, particularly where we are not readily able to get the nations neighboring the trouble spot to take on a significant role. US military force remains a rather blunt instrument. While it works very well for accomplishing certain types of objectives, it is extremely expensive and totally incapable of (and inappropriate for) certain other types of objectives. I believe we will like the future better if nations remain extremely reluctant to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, for suitable definitions of 'internal'.

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/27/03 - Ken----let me give you an example of a subjective thought

Ken you say___
And now you have introduced the idea of subjective and objective evidence. But I do not know what that is, either.

Well Ken as I was once informed,--- words have meanings--- and that is what dictionaries are for. I will give you an example: ______you said_______: Well of course words have meanings. Just go to the dictionary and you will find the meanings of words. And also----- According to my dictionary: Definitions are statements of the meanings of words

In view of this, although, ---I find it silly to say, but, words have meanings and you claim to know where to find them.

But before I finish let me give you an example of a subjective thought---Jim.McGinness is a twittle who doesnt have the twat to get into the exchange but feels comfortable as a lurking kibitzer.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/28/03:

I have been following these posts with interest, but my longstanding policy is to write only when I actually have something useful to contribute. That policy does not apply to my rating comments: I don't believe in comment-less ratings but I don't always have much useful to say, so sometimes the rating comments verge on the inane.

That was not the case for the rating comments I posted in this series, though. I really am interested in how this turns out.

I was absolutely floored to see my name being used in such negative terms both here and in Chou's response to one of your earlier questions. I can't tell if you want me to go away or if you really want me to offer up more of my own comments.


The part which piqued my interest is this notion that Answerway is an appropriate stage for debates. I see people picking fights over on the religion boards, some truly strange bickering on the Spirituality topic and all sorts of expert-baiting going on here in Philosophy. For a site that intends to attract askers of interesting questions from the web at large, displaying a lot of internal squabbling between regulars seems like a poor showing.

If nobody is watching, the habitus will make of this place whatever they can. There's nothing like a bull session, exchanging war stories and outrageous speculations, to forge a community out of what would otherwise be a motley, unconnected group of participants.

Here's a paragraph I wrote a few days ago in the Expert Forum that seems to be worth repeating:

"I view the exchange between you and Datheus as a curiosity but it does neither of you much credit. Communicating via message boards works best when there is a spirit of generosity amongst the posters. When two people choose to go after each other, with no restraint on the impulse to take offense or find fault, what you get are flamewars, of which this was a fair example."


I can't really add much to Ken's thoughtful engagement of the questions you've raised. I grant that you probably think what you're saying is something which should have meaning to us, but up to this point, I still can't make sense of your "inherited knowledge", "subjective views", "absolutes", or "subjective evidence". Ken has much more experience than I at extracting meaning from obscure philosophical talk - while he's working with you I will only muddy the waters by trying to put my oar in.


If I had a notion of what I had done to excite animosity from you and from Choux, I would apologize and try to refrain from doing it in the future. It has never been my intention to offend.

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chekhovToo asked on 07/20/03 - Is the Western Mind Closed?

Is the Western mind closed in the sense of an awareness and indeed understanding of the nuances of other cultures, ideas, politics, religion etc. I think the West can learn much from an engagement with the rest of the world and their ideas. What do you think?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/21/03:

Can we debate your question? The very concept of "the Western Mind" is so squishy and unspecific, that you and your respondents can easily have completely different concepts in mind while they disagree about its attributes. But I deny that there is some monolithic "Western Mind".

Many people in the so-called "West" have been and currently are closed-minded. So-called "Western Civilization" has gone through periods of extreme chauvinism and ethnocentrism. You can easily find examples where these two facts have led to horrid results.

On the whole, though, the tradition we call "Western" includes so many examples of reaching out and absorbing ideas from other parts of the world that it would be impossible to sustain the notion that it is closed. It is often selective in what it picks up from other traditions, but so is every other culture.

Is there some specific idea, political practice, or religion that you currently think more people in America should be aware of? More people in Europe? There is a whole sub-industry of "trendspotters" who are always on the lookout for things that they can be the first to introduce to the rest of the world's mass markets. They are, for better or worse, one component in globalization and homogenization of the world's economy and culture.

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/18/03 - Jim.McGinness or anyone else

Jim.McGinness-------perhaps you can answer another amateur question, since Ken did not address it-----is there any knowledge that could be called Inherited knowledge, and if so what can be said of it or if not why?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/19/03:

Sorry to arrive late to the party. I was out of town for a couple of days and my only Internet access was to borrow a terminal at a small town's public library. As you may know, public libraries in the US have differing interpretations of their obligation to protect the public and our children from nasty web sites and this one appears to have had a DNS-level block on Answerway and PointAsk, so I could not get in.


I apologize if you took offense at my characterization of some of the questions here as "amateur". I'm an amateur, too, at philosophy, so I wasn't looking down my nose at you in any sense. I just wanted to recognize that there's a difference between us amateurs asking philosophy questions using ordinary language and the sort of academic philosophy which has had all looseness of language squeezed out of it and is fully cognizant of the centuries of past philosophical discussion of many of these same topics.


Ken, by his profile, is a professional and I am grateful that he is willing to deal with us amateurs at all. Of course, having to teach philosphy to undergrads is just the sort of preparation needed to deal with the kind of discussion that we mostly see on this board.


I think Stephen Pinker's works are the best popular expostion of this overlap area between evolutionary psychology and philosophy that would be covered by your question on Inherited Knowledge. If you are speaking of biological inheritance, there are examples within the field of linguistics that point to some biological basis for language structure that supports language acquisition. Some people would define these inborn structures and tendancies as more instinct than knowledge, but your question deserves more than a doctrinaire definitional answer. Someone has already mentioned capabilities within our visual processing systems that, for instance, mean that our brains know what a face looks like at a much deeper level than, say, we know what a Jackson Pollack painting looks like.

Some people also describe a phenomenon of "memetic inheritance", where certain ideas, categorizations, distinctions, etc (memes) are transmitted from one person to another by methods that include rational argument, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, certain flavors of education, etc. Would you want to make a distinction between knowledge that is received rather and independently discovered?

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tonyrey asked on 07/06/03 - What is our starting point?(3)

I'm obliged to ask another question to answer Andiri's answer!

The very distinction between subjective and objective presupposes thought and belief in its validity. Your most basic belief, Andiri, is that you are capable of mental reflection - a belief on which you (usually implicitly) rely to reach any conclusion whatsoever. If thinking is not fundamental what is?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/07/03:

Are you feeling some resistance from us? What possible reason could we have for not agreeing with your assertion that thinking is fundamental?

One possible reason for the resistance is that you've been somewhat arrogant in trying to tell some of us what our beliefs are. That's not really consistent with the spirit of free inquiry.

Descartes and his argument, while raising some interesting points along the way, have been discussed for a long time. The program of taking this a priori stance that some one thing, and only that one thing, is fundamental has been fairly well milked of its useful results.

My experience tells me that fundaments are elusive: mathematical logic, particle physics, cosmology, and neuropsychology are fields of study that have partaken of what was once a purely philosopical pursuit.

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tonyrey asked on 07/05/03 - Where do we start? (2)

I get the impression that Descartes was correct in regarding thought as our initial datum. What else could it be? And how can we establish the reality of the physical world?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/05/03:

Or infant brains were not bootstrapped with some idea "I am". That sort of thinking can only develop years later. Whatever you are talking about as an initial datum, you have to realize that you are talking about a philosophical reconstruction or speculation about how the mind develops rather than a scientific statement about how thinking develops in human brains.

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tonyrey asked on 07/02/03 - Where do you start?

Suppose that, a la Descartes, we begin by doubting everything. It is theoretically possible that nothing exists but I think that is a view no sane person has ever held. So the question arises as to what you believe is more probable than anything else. In other words, what is your most basic belief?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/02/03:

Nihilists have it easy. Everyone else has to work hard.

We don't yet know what the most fundamental questions are, but one likely candidate is "why is there something rather than nothing?". You may not be able to answer it right away, but you note it as an interesting question and move on to others.

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Dark_Crow asked on 07/01/03 - Do words have meaning?

I agree with your first sentence ER
But you have some explaining to do here Knowledge can exist without words..

Jim your links dont work. You say To go on to qualify them as things that "cause knowledge" raises too many questions.. Indeed, because I dont believe they are things or that they cause knowledge.

Ken--- If I look up something I did not know before in an Encyclopedia, then the words I read can cause me to know something..

I am surprised Ken that you believe that. To imply that words have meaning raises the question as to what "meaning" is. Is meaning a property of words in the same way that a cat has four legs and a tail? I think a word is a relational entity which lacks the power to do or to cause anything. The person who hears or sees the word must already know what it means to be able to understand it.

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/01/03:

A few days ago I wrote, speaking about morality:

Reasoning about an evolved, cultural artifact like this is bound to be difficult. Compare it with language.

So now you're considering language.

We communicate meanings by using words and other signs. Although we do it every day, there are some deep mysteries about how this process works. The success of the communication depends on the context of the people involved. If you've ever seen one of those cartoons labeled "What we say -- what they hear", you've probably laughed at how apt the joke is. The receiver does not necessarily pull all the same meanings out of the words that the utterer thought they were putting into them.

We know from trying to communicate with speakers of other languages that the words themselves are (almost, but not quite) arbitrary conventions. The meanings associated with words do not inhere in the words themselves. If you don't know the conventions and a good deal of the cultural context, little or none of the particular meaning intended by the speaker of the words comes through.

The science of semiotics is fundamentally about just this question: How is it that we can use words (or other signs) to communicate?

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Dark_Crow asked on 06/30/03 - are words "things"

are words "things" which cause knowledge?

Jim.McGinness answered on 07/01/03:

You've worded this in a very curious way.

From the question title I initially thought you were asking about what category of reality words inhabited. Are they physical or material objects? Are they observable? Are they part of our shared mental construct (the Matrix)?

To go on to qualify them as things that "cause knowledge" raises too many questions. There is a discussion in several fields of study of the Conduit Metaphor for language, also known as the Container Metaphor. In this metaphor, we package our thoughts (and knowledge) into words, which we convey by writing or by speech to a listener, who unpacks the thoughts from the words and thereby "gets" the knowledge. Although widely criticized as an oversimplification, there is definitely a role that words have in the spreading of ideas from one person to another.

Your question is close to, but falls a little outside of, this common metaphor, which is why it seemed so strange to me.

For further reading:

it says subscribers-only but it worked for me

Writings by George Lakoff, who is the first person I heard about this particular academic dispute from, and Michael Reddy.

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Jon1667 asked on 06/29/03 - An immoral question?

Following on the question about The Ring of Gyges: Is the question, does morality pay off (or as Socrates put it, is justice profitable) an immoral question? Doesn't it suggest that the only reason for acting morally is that it pays off ("Honesty is the best policy.")? With the corollary that if it does not pay off, or, worse, if it is detrimental to the doer, then he is under no obligation to act morally? (By the way, this is one of the questions that professors of philosophy often ask in class.)

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/29/03:

What makes a question immoral? Let's grant the assumption that some questions are immoral. What would an immoral question look like?

Can we, merely by asking a question, cause somone else to convert from a moral to an immoral person? Incite them to commit an immoral action? There are certainly questions that fit into the rhetoric of "dares" and peer pressure: "Who would care?" "Who would it hurt?" "What are you afraid of?" Participating in the hazing or daring, asking questions like these, certainly seem like they could be considered immoral acts, the questions immoral questions.

What can we say of questions that probe ones beliefs, in a non-threatening way? Are belief systems to be left unquestioned, just because they are someone's sincere belief? To question a person's beliefs, to get them to examine what they really believe and why, can be very unsettling and uncomfortable. Do we do a person a disservice by putting them through this questioning, or are we helping them by causing them to bolster their beliefs or turn from them to "truer" beliefs?

What I have seen happen in some educational situations is a sort of Socratic Nihilism: a person is badgered with questions until they give up admitting their belief. After they are torn down this way, they are left to pick up the pieces without any guidance. I don't think that practice is a good way to teach, I might even call it immoral. But I would not agree that a single question like this, in isolation, is itself an immoral question.

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Jon1667 asked on 06/26/03 - The Ring of Gyges

In Platos Republic (II, 359b-360d). Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a poor shepard, who discovered the ring which had the power of making its owner invisible, and used it to kill the King, marry the Queen, and usurp the throne. Glaucon claims this as an illustration of his view those who behave morally do so only because they lack the power to act unjustly. If they could avoid paying the penalty of immorality and, like Gyges, get away with it, Glaucon argues that everyone would be immoral.

This story raises the central issue of _The Republic_. Why be moral?

What is your answer?

Jim.McGinness answered on 06/26/03:

The use of imaginary stories has a long history in philosophy. I leads to interesting philosophical puzzles but the simplification made available by assuming something that is impossible renders the conclusions suspect.

We each have a sense of morality, more or less well developed. Given opportunity, nearly all of us are able to act against that sense of morality, when the benefits seem great enough or the harm done seems sufficiently small.

The benefits of acting in accordance with our sense of morality accrue both to ourselves (to the extent that moral actions are less likely than non moral actions to excite censure or worse from those around us) and to the society we live in. Another way to look at this is to say, the culturally acquired sense of morality that we have is a functional adaptation -- societies that manage to acquire this trait and pass it along to their young simply survive better than societies that do not. It is not mere convention; it is convention that survives and is passed down by virtue of the success it provides to a society or culture.

Reasoning about an evolved, cultural artifact like this is bound to be difficult. Compare it with language.

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