Is there a way to confirm a premises truth? When I looked it up I found two ways suggested. The first was the idea that a premise can be common sense, which I can't compartmentalize from the idea that appeals to consensus are considered a fallacy. The second was that it can be supported by inductive evidence, which to my knowledge can only be used to support claims of likelihood, not certainty.

The answer will vary with the sort of premise. For example: we confirm the truth of a mathematical claim in a very different way than we confirm the truth of a claim about the weather. Some things can be confirmed by straightforward observation (there's a computer in front of me). Some can be confirmed by calculation (for example, that 479x368=176,272). Depending on our purposes and the degree of certainty we need, some can be confirmed simply by looking things up. (That's how I know that Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889.) Some call for more extensive investigation, possibly including the methods and techniques of some scientific discipline. The list goes on. It even includes things like appeal to consensus, when the consensus is of people who have relevant expertise. I'm not a climate scientist. I believe that humans are contributing to climate change because the consensus among experts is that it's true. But the word "expert" matters there. The fast that a group of my friends happen to think that...

There are certain kinds of moral belief that we view in a pluralistic manner, and others that we take to be absolute. For an example of the former, suppose that I'm a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is immoral. Most people would say that it's inappropriate for me to harangue meat eaters, since they are just as entitled to their beliefs about diet as I am to mine. By contrast, we don't reason this way about things like murder. I am not obligated to respect the beliefs of someone who thinks murder is permissible--on the contrary, I may be morally remiss if I don't try to stop or correct him. What explains the difference between these two kinds of moral belief?

It's an interesting question. Some thoughts. Suppose Rufus believes that murder is morally acceptable. If I know of a murder he's trying to commit, then most of us agree that I'm not just allowed but even obliged to do various things to prevent it. (Telling the police would be the most obvious.) But if I have no reason to think that Rufus is planning to kill anyone, then while it's perfectly okay for me to try to argue him out of his view, most of us don't think it's okay to harass and harangue him about this admittedly despicable view. One reason for this is a matter of keeping civil peace; more on that below. Of course, there may be gradations here. Suppose it's not just that Rufus thinks it's okay to commit murder; suppose he makes a career of trying to convince other people. We'd still think there are limits to how far we can go in protesting, objecting and so on, but the limits would be fewer than they'd be if he were just some random weirdo who wasn't likely to act on his views and also wasn't...

The Constitution may prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, but should common sense? After all, to give extreme examples, religions have advocated such things as cannibalism and human sacrifice. What stops people concealing any sort of immorality or false beliefs under the label of religion?

First a point about "discrimination." The Constitution prohibits government discrimination against religion, but it doesn't, for example, prohibit me from refusing to associate with known worshipers of the Great Spaghetti Monster. So we'll take it as read that government discrimination is what's at issue. With that in mind... Cannibalism is illegal whether or not it's done under the banner of religion. So is human sacrifice. More generally: various kinds of conduct are either illegal or could be made illegal if that seemed to be the right thing to do. That means it's not clear what's gained by outlawing religions that supposedly advocate such things. Maybe someone could say that advocating bad things should also be illegal, whether done in the name of religion or not. And depending on what we mean by "advocate," that's already true in some extreme cases. Conspiring to commit a crime is illegal. Inciting a riot is illegal. But the Constitution and American political mores give people very wide...

Hello! My question concerns the word, "theory". Can a theory be considered fact, and what gives one theory more credibility than another? I know that some theories are empirical, and can be tested scientifically for validity. So if a theory such as evolution seems a fact, why is it still called a theory? Should it not be fact? Obviously, some non-empirical theories, like String Theory, can't as yet be tested, and are questionable. But scientifically, do empirical theories get closer to truth, and can some be called true?

The word "theory" has a common meaning, which is something like "hypothesis" or "speculation." It also has a scientific meaning, which, close enough for our purposes, is "organized set of principles." When we call something a theory in that sense, we aren't saying anything at all about whether the principles are true or false. Keep in mind that the word "theory" even gets used in mathematics---for example, when mathematicians talk about number theory (roughly, the study of the properties of whole numbers.) The word "theory" here isn't meant to suggest that the principles number theorists use are suspect. The "theory/fact" confusion is unfortunate. Evolutionary theory is a theory in the scientist's sense: an organized collection of explanatory principles. As it turn out, those principles have been very successful tools for making sense of nature. So why not just call these principles facts ? We could, but theoretical principles tend to be abstract and general. We tend to use the word "fact" for...

Is it worse to break a promise in order to avoid telling a lie, or to tell a lie in order to keep a promise?

There's no all-purpose answer. Breaking some promises is worse than breaking others. Telling some lies is worse than telling others. But there's no good reason to think that every broken promise is worse than any lie or vice-versa. Telling some lies is worse than breaking some promises; breaking some promises is worse than telling some lies. If you really have to choose, the least bad choice will depend on the details.

Are people and businesses misusing the word philosophy when they say, for example, "My philosophy is to always tell the truth," or "Our philosophy is that the lowest price is the best price?" Isn't that closer to a creed or an ideology?

Briefly, no. Words mean what people use them to mean, and words can have multiple meanings. Expressions like "My philosophy is..." are so common that they represent one of the meanings that the word "philosophy" has come to have in English. Of course it's not what professional philosophers usually have in mind when they use the word, but professional philosophers don't get veto power over usage. A further thought or two: I can't really get bent very far out of shape by this one, but it's a bit unfortunate in at least one respect: it gives some people the impression that philosophy is all about truisms and banal principles instead of being something that calls for rigorous thought. But the cure for that is not to complain about how folks use the word; it's for philosophers to do a better job of helping people understand what we do and why it's worth doing.

Not everyone who smokes gets cancer, but we still say things like "smoking causes cancer." How should we understand causal statements like this?

A good question, but as you no doubt guessed, one that people have thought about. The short answer is that we'll say that X causes Y if X raises the probability of Y, even if it doesn't raise the probability to 100% Let's be a bit more concrete. Think about clinical trials of a medication. Suppose we think that some new compound lowers blood pressure. We might test this by selecting a set of test subjects with hypertension, and then randomly assigning some of them to the treatment group and others to the control group. Ideally the test would be a double-blind test. That is, neither the people administering the treatment nor the people being treated would know if they were getting the actual medicine or a mere placebo. We'd measure everyone's blood pressure before the trial, and then after. And then we'd compare. Normally we wouldn't expect that everyone who received the actual treatment would have lower blood pressure at the end, and we also wouldn't expect that no one who got the placebo would end...

As a non physicist, non scientist, I have a question, which may be really stupid. If quantum mechanics expounds that at an atomic level matter can be in 2 places, at one point in time, does this matter have mass in these 2 different places? If this matter can have a mass in more than one place, at one point in time, how can we attempt to calculate the mass of matter present in the universe as surely it would depend on what proportion of matter was in what number of places at any point in time? Does that mean its unit of measurement would need to include number of atoms, the proportions of this matter in what numbers of places, at a fixed point in time? Is there some basic reading that might help me understand this a bit more? Thank you.

It's not a stupid question. The way that popular accounts "explain" quantum mechanics leads naturally to your question. The moral is that those popular accounts are not to be trusted. Quantum mechanics is unusual in that on the one hand, we understand very well how to apply it and what we should expect to find in experiments if it's correct, but on the other hand there is sharp disagreement over what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of the things we use it to predict and explain. The problem you're raising comes from the superposition principle. A quantum system can be in a superposition of being in two different, non-overlapping places, for example. When that happens, there's some probability that if we "look" (make an appropriate measurement) we'll find the system in one of the places, and some probability that we'll find it in the other. However, we can't understand this as a simple case of ignorance --- as a case where the system really is in one place or really is in the other and...

If I tell you that science cannot explain why that stone fell to the ground, you will say that I am a lunatic, but if I tell you that science cannot explain the ultimate laws of physics, you will say that perhaps I am right (a read it here, written by one of the panelists). But if science cannot explain part of physical reality, why is it only the ultimate laws of physics? Perhaps physical events that cannot be explained by science are happening all the time. Perhaps some of those events can be called "magic" or "miracles", no?

To add a few thoughts to my colleague's response: We could use the following as a rough working definition of a miracle: a miracle is an intervention in the course of nature by the deity in which the usual regularities are suspended or over-ridden. There's lots of room to refine and polish that, but it gets around one objection to the very idea of a miracle, namely that laws of nature aren't really laws of nature if they have exceptions. Laws of nature would encode the way the world works when God doesn't intervene. But of course, even if we can come up with an intelligible notion of "miracle," it's a long ways from there to having reasons to believe that there actually are miracles, let alone that any particular occurrence is a miracle. The fact that we don't have an explanation for something at the moment provides more or less no reason by itself to think that it's a case of divine intervention. "Magic" is a more complicated concept than "miracle," in my view. If you go back and look at how...

Using the term "determinism" un the philosophicall sense (not in a matemáticas sense) ....Is the decay of an atom a deterministic event?

I'm not sure what the difference between the philosophical and the mathematical sense of "determinism" is supposed to be, but I think that the answer will be the same in any case. And that answer is: it depends on how you think quantum theory should be understood. On what we might describe broadly as the "orthodox interpretation" of quantum theory, the answer is no: the decay is not a deterministic event. Roughly put, this means that the state of the world before the decay doesn't determine whether the atom will decay. There are some complications here about relativity and about so-called entangled states, but we can leave them aside. On this way of looking at quantum theory, sometimes the "wave function" or "quantum state" changes unpredictably and discontinuously, and these changes are genuine chance events. Radioactive decay is a special case. According to Bohmian mechanics, the most important of the so-called "hidden variable" views, quantum systems are thoroughly deterministic. What happens in the...

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