In order for something to be a punishment, must there be an ending to it? Hell, many say, is a punishment. But isn't the purpose of a punishment to try to make somebody learn that what they did was wrong and make them a "better person"? Many believe in eternity in hell, but how can this be? What is the point of "punishing" somebody forever, if they will never be able to do good again? If they will never be faced with another opportunity to be a better person?

A good question! As it turns out, not everyone agrees that the purpose of punishment is to reform people. In fact, some philosophers (Kant is perhaps the foremost) held that the only justification for punishment is that the person deserves it, and if we punish for the sake of making someone better, we fail to show proper respect for them -- we manipulate them for our own ends. Setting the question of Hell aside for the moment, we can see that the argument you raise, if correct, would also count against capital punishment. But whatever one's views on the rightness of capital punishment, the widespread support it has in some places makes clear that many people see punishment as a matter of giving people what they deserve rather than reforming them. This idea, fleshed oout and elaborated, is often called the retributive theory of punishment, though it's important not to confuse retribution with revenge. Retributive theorists would maintain that the punishment must always be proportional to the...

Why do most philosophers assume that there is one manner of justifying ethics? Couldn't it be that some ethical principles or rules can be justified by a consequentialist approach, others by an evolutionary approach, still others by a deontological approach and some are just relative to specific cultures?

In many fields there are what some people call lumpers and splitters. Douglas has given a splendid answer that reflects a lumper/unifier/hedgehog perspective. Here's a rather different take, from a splitter/diversifier/fox point of view. It's often held that ethical obligations trump all others. If something is right from a self-interested point of view, for example, but wrong ethically, then the ethical judgment wins. Another feature of ethical judgments (though not unique to them) is that ethical "oughts" satisfy a universalizability principle: if something is right for a person in a given set of circumstances, then it's right for anyone else in those same circumstances. The mere fact that that it's me rather than you is beside the point. If we accept these points, then we've said something unifying about the ethical, but it's only formal unity. It's consistent with very different views about what is actually right or wrong in particular cases. Your question reflects a suspicion that I share: there...

During free time at my place of work, the faculty often get together for some intense rounds of "Boggle". In case you're not familiar, this is a game where letters are randomly arranged in a square, and then the players are timed as they try to form words using only adjacent letters. Because the scores are often so close, much debate often arises as to what constitutes a fair word. For example, can "er" be added to any verb to make it a noun, such as to "dare" or "err" to make "darer" and "errer", one who dares, and one who errs, respectively? Also, would a word like "beated", which is not in the dictionary, be acceptable if someone had heard it used, say in the following case: "after the eggs are beated...". What about sounds like "purr", or "whizz"? What are the criteria for determining if something is a word? Whose say should be taken as authoritative? Thanks!

Let's start with "beated." On the one hand, it's a word as opposed to a punctuation mark or a pony. But that's not what you want to know. Your question is something like: is it a word in English? And so the more general question is: when does a potential word count as a "real" word in a language? What about this? It counts as a word if the people who use the language accept it as one. That's vague many ways over: Which people? (Presumably it needn't be all.) What's a language? (Can we do better than say that it's a dialect with a gun? What's a dialect?) Accept in what circumstances and for what purposes? We'd also have obvious circularity problems if we treated this formula as a serious definition of "word in a language." But the point is that there are no firm facts here; there are complicated, imprecise and often untidy conventions. We all have some say in what counts as a word in a language, because at the end of the day, how people speak and write settles the matter. But there are no simple...

Many thought experiments in ethics involve truly bizarre scenarios (Frances Kamm, for instance, talks about putting $500 into a machine which mechanically saves children). Do the panelists think that overly contrived examples, too far removed from ordinary experience, lead us in the wrong direction and should not be used? Or should a rigorous philosophy of ethics account for all scenarios, including ones which almost certainly will never occur?

While agreeing with everything in Thomas's characteristically clear-headed response, I would add just one note that may bear on your worry. There are philosophers who think that if a thought-experiment is too far from our ordinary experience, then our intuitions about what we should say about the case may be unreliable. For example, to take a case from Judith Thomson's famous paper on abortion, do we really know what our moral views would be if people seeds floated around in the air and could give rise overnight to embryos by lodging in the fabric on your couch? It's also been claimed that some of the more bizarre thought experiments in the personal identity literature suffer from this sort of flaw. We're being asked to decide what would be true if certain very strange circumstances held, when our usual range of experience may not provide us with a thick enough understanding of the relevant "possible worlds" to know what we should say. That said, as Thomas's reply points out, some apparently bizarre...

Can the "real world" provide evidence that mathematical knowledge is legitimate? I think its many peoples' intuition that the successful application of math to science and engineering (e.g., that we can use math to build bridges) shows that math is true.

The question is whether what we find in the physical world could tell us whether math is true. Let's consider two sorts of cases. One is what we might call mathematical laws -- 1+1=2 is a particularly simple example. An algebraic law like x 2 - y 2 = (x+y)(x-y) is another. The second sort of case includes things like Newton's law of gravitation -- F 12 = G(m 1 m 2 )/r 2 -- or some mathematical description of the characteristics of steel beams used for bridges. This may be closer to what you have in mind. Start with the first sort of case. Suppose we have two 1-liter beakers of water. We pour them together, measure the volume and find that it's two liters. Have we confirmed the mathematical claim that 1+1=2? If so, what do we make of the fact that if we put pure alcohol rather than water in one of those beakers, when we put the two together we get about 1.94 liters? Does that count against 1+1=2? It's pretty clear that neither experiment tells us anything about whether 1+1 equals 2;...

What exactly is the nature, scope, and origin of "methodological naturalism"? What are the most authoritative sources to learn about the origin and nature of methodological naturalism as it is employed in the sciences? I would appreciate any reply to this question. Thanks!

On the one hand... There's some controversy here, but a nice, readable paper by Bradley Monton argues that methodological naturalism neither is nor should be a presupposition of science. Monton provides further references to the literature. To see the paper, click here . I think Monton makes a case that we can't use methodological naturalism as a criterion of demarcation between science and non-science. But then there may not be much we can say by way of offering strict criteria of demarcation between science and other activities. Even if science isn't, as it were ,"by definition" naturalistic [aside: when someone says that something is so "by definition, you should be suspicious] it's not an accident that across the sciences, researchers almost always start with and end up with naturalistic hypotheses. That includes researchers who count themselves as religious believers. There's no one simple reason for this; it's partly a matter of history, partly a matter of shared intellectual values, partly...

I never loved my wife, but I married her. We have a child. I’ve been in Love with another woman for the past year, but now I’m moving soon and will lose her. Would it be wrong to have an affair? Doesn’t Love, by nature irrational, transcend my duty to my wife? What is right: to be true to my promise of fidelity, or to be true to myself, my heart, to love? I want to be an authentic person. Recently I read Soren Kierkegaard’s telling of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in his _Fear and Trembling_. He demonstrates that confrontation with the religious can, and often does, go beyond the ethical, the rational. All I know is that it feels right with this other woman, and time is short. It's not just about sex, I love her soul. I don’t know where it will lead. Is adultery always wrong?

You ask: "Doesn't love, by nature irrational, transcend my duty to my wife?" I answer: "Huh?" You say you want to be an authentic person. I'd suggest that reading Fear and Trembling as a source of rationalizations for infidelity isn't a good recipe for authenticity. I'd also suggest that being a person of integrity is worth more worry than being "authentic," by which you seem to mean "doing what I most want to do." You have a wife; you tell us you never loved her. How do you feel about your child? You say that you don't know where this potential affair might lead. Is one possible answer that it will lead to some harm and pain? If so, is it worth it? Is it the best thing all things considered? That's not a rhetorical question. I don't know anything about your situation beyond what you've said. Perhaps you and your wife should divorce. Perhaps you should stay together for your child's sake. Perhaps you could even come to love your wife. (And I'd add: love isn't just an "irrational"...

At the moment, I'm particularly concerned about the 'personal heresy' in philosophy. Recently, Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, gave a speech in which he quoted several racist statements by key philosophers of Western civilisation. David Hume, for instance believed that "of all the 'breeds' of man, the darkest breed was inferior.."(quote from Mbeki's speech) and it's also believed that Kant believed black people were 'beasts'(again, Mbeki's belief). Whether these quotes are accurate or not, it's indubitable that the milieu in which these philosophers formed their various normative frameworks was a deeply prejudiced one. If philosophy proceeds from deductivism, i.e a set of axioms are laid out, rules of inference determined, and from these various judgements made, is it possible that inherent within western thought is a kind of racial prejudice? And if so, is it possible to account for it, using some kind of 'personal equation' of the kind invoked by Gauss in his work with astronomy?

I'll have to leave the bit about Gauss aside. All I know about the "personal equation" was that astronomers had noticed certain sorts of systematic variations among observers. But there was a different theme in your question that I'd like to address. A preamble: Yes, Hume, Kant and other western philosophers, no doubt all on this panel included, operate in a mileu that's saddled with various prejudices. I'd add that I'm not aware of any large cultural mileu that's exempt from this sad fact, and Africa, like the west, provides its own set of depressing illustrations. But I'm a bit uncomfortable with using a term like "Western Thought" (or, for that matter, "Eastern Thought" or "African thought" or even "South African thought") as an analytical concept. (I'm uncomfortable for similar reasons when my students write papers with sentences that begin "Society holds that...") As noted, the history of the west embodies a good many prejudices and false ideas. Some of these make their way into political and...

Is it emotionally difficult to be a professional philosopher? Sometimes philosophical questions and subject matter seem so disturbing and intense, that it must surely be taxing psychologically. Does non-philosophical subject matter become pale and boring in comparison? Are professional philosophers socially isolated because of boredom with the non-philosophical, concomitant with the disturbing nature of the philosophical (so that it may not be acceptable in non-philosophical company)? Thanks.

I'll have to admit that most of the Sturm und Drang in my life hasn't got a lot to do with what I think about professionally. Questions like "do quantum states support measurement counteractuals?" or "does indeterminism serve any real function in Professor X's account of libertarian free will?" or "is there an acceptable notion of objective probability that explains how probabilities can be action-guiding?" aren't exactly the stuff from which high monthly psychoanalysts' bills are made. All of those questions are very interesting (No. Really!) but they aren't high on the angstometer. And I have a feeling that if you thumbed through the typical philosophy journal, you'd find much the same for much of what you saw. This isn't a criticism of my chosen profession and first intellectual love. Many of the questions that philosophers wrestle with are deeply fascinating if you have the taste for them, but they often abstract, often not very closely connected with the things in the world that really worry...

It is generally accepted that certain intervals in music sound "harmonious", i.e. 3rds, 4ths and 5ths. Why is this so? Why do these certain intervals constitute a pleasant sounding harmony, as opposed to jarring, dissonant intervals like 2nds and 7ths? I do not believe it is a matter of taste - most people, even those with no musical training will uniformly identify a harmony as harmonious (or in tune) or dissonant (or out of tune, I suppose). However, I am open to being disproved on this point.

It's an intriguing phenomenon. And it turns out, so I gather, that it's not confined to humans. Various animals differ in their responses to what we label consonant and dissonant intervals. Why this should be isn't something that a philosopher, as such, is in a good position to say. It clearly has some physiological basis and seems to have something to do with the phenomenon of "beats" (something you can actually experience as pulses when two high-pitched notes that differ slightly in pitch are played together.) One study I discovered (by Jonatan Fishman et al. of Albert Einstein medical college) looks at the neural correlates of dissonance in macaques and in humans. If you're able to follow the neurophysiological details (I'm not) you can have a look at the link. There are also references to earlier work. There are still some things left over that a philosopher might want to puzzle about. One is the sort of thing that physiology might straightfowardly help us understand: why is it that...

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