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Stephen Hawking recently stated that we do not need God to explain where everything comes from. Theoretical physics can provide the answer. My question to Hawking is: How does he explain the laws that were functioning with the Big Bang? Where do these laws come from? Physical laws are predictable, orderly events on which we can rely. Science is about testing knowledge against stated criteria or laws. So why is reality knowable (having laws to uncover, to use to our benefit)?

I too have not read Hawking's book, but from reviews I've read Hawking's argument is based on a theory of multiple universes he develops as an application of brane cosmology, which is an application of membrame theory (or M-theory), which itself is a theoretical development from string theory. In extremely general terms, this theoretical perspective seeks to explain the physical constants and physical laws in our universe by appeal to the diversity of physical and constants throughout the set of universes within the "multiverse," which is conceived of something like a set of separate space-times each governed by a different physical laws and constants. Hopefully panelists with expertise in these esoteric areas can chime in with more details, but with respect to the "God question" the reviews I have read represent Hawking as arguing that the "structure" of the multiverse provides a satisfactory explanation of the existence of a space-time that contains the physical laws and constants of our...
To follow up on my earlier response: In the February 10, 2011 edition of the New York Review of Books , Steven Weinberg has an excellent review of Hawking and Mlodinow's book. The review, which is also published online at URL http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/feb/10/universes-we-still-dont-know , addresses some aspects of your question -- and also contains some good information about the theories that Hawking and Mlodinow are attempting to popularize.

Why does our society place more value on the degree than the actual learning? With Ivy league and esteemed colleges publishing their courses online, it is plausible to think that one could learn as much or more than a graduate, yet that knowledge would not be valued in the workforce or in the field of knowledge. This can also be seen in high school. Less knowledgeable students who earn the diploma are far greater valued than others who may have superior knowledge but did not complete.

I agree that there is some utility in this way of thinking about formal education, but I also think that this perspective is so shallow that individuals who learn to adopt a richer perspective may learn more and may be able to do more with their learning. First, I think it can be useful to reflect on the benefits of learning that have nothing to do with social status or employability. Is there intrinsic value in learning and in learning how to learn? Does a high-quality learning make one a better person in addition to increasing social status and employability? Understanding those benefits may improve motivation to work hard and effectively as a learner. Second, I think it can also be useful to reflect on a more sophisticated manner on the instrumental value of education: those who view a degree program simply as a means to a credential fail to internalize a narrative of self-development and growth (self-consciously directing one's education to increase skills, insight, and wisdom, for example),...

Why does it seem that everything that I read in philosophy always uses "she" or "her" instead of "his" or "he"?

To the questioner: My sense is that either you are reading a mis-representative sample of philosophical writing or you are exaggerating the use of 'she' and 'her' because you have internalized the normative use of 'he' and 'his' and so examples that resist that norm stand out and perhaps wrankle. When I was an undergraduate in the mid 1980s, there was pressure to resist that norm -- but I don't have a sense that this resistance was completely successful in either philosophical or most non-philosophical writing. Certainly I don't see widespread use of gender-neutral pronouns and Louise's suggestion still sounds ungrammatical to my ear. In my own writing, I simply try use a mixed balance of gendered personal pronouns.

How much do I need to give to charity before I can splurge on a new iPod and not feel guilty?

With respect to your feeling guilty or not, my first response is that you need to find a way to evaluate the regard that you show or don't show for others in a more holistic and comprehensive way -- all things considered, and in light of whatever obligations you think you have to assist those who are less fortunate than you are, have you lived your life in a way that you believe fulfills the obligations to those who need the assistance of charity? No matter how you treat this individual purchase, if (1) you recognize that you have a substantive obligation to help others and (2) you believe that you are not living your life in a way that meets that obligation, then you will probably experience guilt or shame or other significant discord about the way you are living your life. But, of course, all this is mute on the question of whether you properly understand the obligations to those who are less fortunate -- if it turns out that your own feelings of guilt are unreliable guides, then in the worst case...

This sounds like the kind of a question a first-year philosophy student would ask, but here goes... Why should anyone be interested in philosophy in the first place (i.e., why should I care about Cartesian knowledge, or Locke's primary and secondary qualities, or bother with questions about the meaning of life if I'm already happy)? It would be nice to get a rational response to some of these very introductory questions...

I don't know whether many people are interested in those philosophical topics before they start studying philosophy, and I don't have a strong sense that people ought to show that sort of interest -- I think it takes some effort and time to come to appreciate the philosophical point of celebrated doctrines from the history of philosophy, and I wouldn't expect the sorts of doctrines you mention to be of immediate interest to many. That said, I do think that more people ought to be interested in studying philosophy academically, which of course could cause them to become interested in those doctrines. The reason why I believe this is that studying philosophy is a superb way to gain knowledge, insight, and skills. With respect to knowledge, I think it is useful to understand some of the leading philosophical ideas and doctrines that have played important roles in the development of the cultures in which they were developed. I also believe that reflecting on philosophical topics and texts can help one to...

If we made contact with an alien species which was clearly intelligent/sentient, but at a very different level to us, for example, if in the future humans found a planet inhabited by a species which was approximately as intelligent as our distant ancestors (and ancestors which were less intelligent than us for genetic, not simply environmental reasons), should we consider one alien to be as important as one person? Whatever conclusion I come to seems to throw up problems: if we say yes, then should we consider the life of a chimpanzee to be as important as that of a human? If we say no, then presumably we would have to concede that if we met aliens more intelligent than us then we would be less important than them. Or perhaps there's a base level of intelligence above which all sentient beings are equal, but how would we determine that base level? On the other hand, if we move away from intelligence and look for something else like signs of a capacity for love or mourning to evaluate a species moral...

I think it is important to distinguish intelligence from sentience. As you suggest, it is possible that there exist beings that are much more intelligent than humans are just as, for example, humans are much more intelligent than, say, dolphins. On the other hand, I don't think it makes sense to treat sentience in this way: it isn't the case that a being much more intelligent than us is also much more sentient than us. Rather, I think it makes more sense to say of any being that it is either sentient or not -- and then perhaps also note that differences in mental lives, sensory apparatuses, etc. mean that different types of beings are "differently" sentient (but not more or less sentient). This distinction is important because sentience could be taken to be an important criterion for moral considerability: one might well believe that the moral claims of sentient beings are stronger than the claims of non-sentient beings. If this were the case, then all sentient creatures, no matter how intelligent,...

How to tell bad philosophers from good ones? How to determine the "value" of a philosopher and his work? How can we tell that e.g. Plato, Descartes, Kant or Marx were great philosophers while many around them weren't so great? I'll start with analogy from different field. When we look back at history of science, we (at least in a simplified view) can say that the "good" scientists were those whose predictions about the nature of the world matched the objective reality. In science, what is true, is valuable, and vice versa. Some other criteria could be though of as well. One could say that Newton's and Einstein's theories were regarded valuable because they matched with objective reality AND explained things that weren't explained before AND could be used to build other theories and reasoning on top of them. Now, what about philosophy? One could say that a good philosopher is a philosopher whose argumentation is good, i.e. convincing. But shouldn't in this case many lawyers be regarded as great...

I think there is no simple or objective way to determine this (say, by counting cites in Google Scholar) for the simple reasons, first, that what counts as a good work of philosophy depends on the exact reasons why you wish to read philosophy in the first place and, second, that there are many, many different reasons why someone might want to study philosophy in a serious way. As an example, let's consider the value of historical texts. One way to understand the value of a particular thinker or of a particular work is to understand its historical context (was the thinker or text addressing problems that it was important to answer at that time, and in a manner that engaged other significant thinkers and texts in important ways?) and historical legacy (did the thinker or text influence significantly future work on important philosophical issues). If you, as a reader, are especially interested in the "local history" of a particular philosophical concept or question or problem as it was understood at a...

I have been reading recently about Aristotle's "4 Causes" (Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final). Examples illustrate material as having to do with actual physical material. (E.g. the material cause of a table might be wood). What is the corresponding material cause of something "virtual"? For example what is the material cause of a file on my computer? Is it the magnetic medium that the file resides upon? This doesn't seem correct as the file simply has no material. Does material cause even apply to a file?

I'm not sure what Aristotle would say, but I note that many contemporary thinkers see nothing wrong with thinking that the matter that constitutes our brains and nervous systems is the "that out of which" our mental states are created. (If you want to know more about some of the extremely interesting contemporary work done on this and related topics, this encyclopedia entry on supervenience is a good place to start: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/ .) If those contemporary philosophers are right that, say, physical brain matter can cause immaterial thoughts, is it any more mysterious to say that the various components of a electronic storage device are the "that out of which" a computer file is created? Indeed, I think your example may be a lot less mysterious than mine. I note that you used scare quotes when attributing a non-physical ontological status to the computer file. Is it really the case that the information we store on physical electronic media has a non-physical...

Why are parents said to have the right to teach their children whatever they want? What are the underlying philosophical justifications and explanations for this right?

I don't know of any society where parents can teach their children whatever they want without regard to laws and social norms. With respect to laws, for example, a parent could not teach a child that it was okay to act out sexually in a way that the law would regard as involving incestuous sexual abuse. And, similarly, with respect to social norms I think that most people would say that parents have no right to teach their children a virulent racism that promoted the children to treat schoolmates horribly. Both of the examples I gave involved teaching extreme thought that led to unacceptable action, and these cases show that exist significant limitations to parents' rights to teach their children as they see fit. Are there cases where there are limits on what parents could teach their children to believe even when the children do not act on those beliefs? The incest case, I think, shows that there are strong social and perhaps legal limits on teaching "mere" thoughts -- the incest taboo is so strong...

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