I am a very ordinary art teacher, one who breaks into a rash at the merest glimpse of an equation, and one who is trying to get to grips with the quantum world. Can you answer me this question about the double slit experiment? In the Double Slit experiment, why is it assumed that the particle splits and then reconverges at a point in between the two expected points, rather than a single particle merely bending and curving its trajectory to arrive at the in between point? Yours, Keith

Hi Keith. A perfectly good question. The short answer is that any such assumption is, to put it mildly, controversial. There are respectable ways of thinking about quantum theory that look at it in more or less the way you suggest. Those ways, however, come at a price: they require us to assume that there are influences on the particile that propogate faster than light. They also go beyond what the theory itself has to say, and add some extra physical/interpretive machinery. That's not a criticism of such views; it's just a remark. Quantum theory, alas, is a topic that leaves us in a peculiar lurch. As physics, it's fantastically well-confirmed and scientists and engineers make use of it in a vast number of ways that give us things like cell phones, laptop computers, MRI machines and a good deal else. But there are weird things about the math of the theory (I'll spare you any equations) that make it quite different from "classical" theories in ways that are still enormously controversial. Just to...

My friend and I were debating about what is considered cheating and what would simply be considered unethical behavior. Suppose two people (call them A and B) were in a weight loss competition. Every Monday the two of them would weigh-in, and the first person to reach the target weight goal would win the contest. Let's assume that this is a friendly competition and the real objective for both participants was weight loss. Both of us agreed that the following would clearly be cheating: a) Prior to weigh-in, A alters the mechanics of the scale resulting in a win for himself. b) A slips some weight-gain contents into B's food without anyone knowing. And, we both agreed that the following would not be cheating: c) A tells B that he has been eating a lot of fatty foods and has not been exercising lately. A has actually been eating healthy meals and also has been hitting the gym daily. The lie was told with the intention of lowering the sense of urgency and reduce the effort put forth by B. Now, here...

There are two sorts of questions here, I think. The first is the one you're actually asking: does the trick with the barista count as cheating – as a violation of the rules that define the game – and not just as doing something wrong? The second question is what settles questions like this. On the first question, the cases you agree on suggest this: tampering is out by the rules of this game, but misleading your opponent about your own progress, etc. is okay. And if direct tampering is out, it's hard to see why getting someone to do the dirty work would be in. That means it would be cheating to hire someone to rig the scales, and it would be cheating to pay someone to lace the coffee in your opponent's thermos -- coffee you can assume he planned to drink anyway. But the case you describe is a matter of tricking him into doing something he might not otherwise have done and might decide not to do exactly because he knows that fibbing is part of the game. So what's the right answer? Is it cheating? ...

Human beings have evolved similar physical attributes over time. Though there is some genetic variation among individuals, we share many traits. But isn't it also possible that, as a result of our common evolutionary heritage, we share similar emotional and moral traits as well? If we all have basically similar emotional machinery, why couldn't we appeal to the general constellation of desires that most of us share, and use them to construct a universal ethics? If the good is what makes us happy, and happiness is the fulfillment of various desires, and if humans have similar desires because we share evolved mental traits, then why couldn't an appeal to those traits in the search for moral agreement? Just as medical experts can give general advice about physical health because most humans share similar physical bodies, why can't psychologists and ethicists give general advice about morality based upon our shared mental traits?

We do have a lot in common psychologically, and all of that matters when we're trying to decide what's right and wrong. And the more we know about the psychological effects of how we treat people, the more information we'll have to feed into our ethical decisions. Psychologists have relevant things to say, as do doctors and, for that matter, economists, massage therapists, and various other specialists. Whether or not knowing everything about what makes people happy would settle all ethical questions, however, is another matter. (Not sure if you were suggesting it would.) For example: suppose that there are things that would make me happy at your expense. Most of us don't think it's just a matter of comparing the sum of my potential pleasure to the sum of your potential pain. Questions about fairness, for example, will also matter, and psychologists have no special expertise in sorting out what's fair. (Neither do most philosophers, for that matter.) There's also room to argue about...

As a young philosophy fanatic attempting to get to grips with the incumbent philosophical zeitgeist's obsession with logic as the source and answer to all its 'problems', I am having trouble finding any substantial reason for the unwavering authority and importance with which this analytic and logical character is treated within the whole of philosophical academia. Where is the incontestible evidence for such an incontestible reverence of such fundamental logical principles as the law of non-contradiction, other than within human intuition and common sense?

Before getting to your question, just an observation: all the philosophers I know believe that they should reason well and steer clear of contradiction, but I don't know any who think that logic is either the source of or the answer to all our philosophical problems. In any case, I'm not sure what would do the trick here. If I'm going to give you "evidence" for the law of non-contradiction, then presumably I'm going to have to reason from the evidence. And I don't know how to reason to the conclusion that one thing is so rather than another unless I take it for granted that contradictions can't be true. Unless you already assume the law of non-contradiction, you could reply to any argument I give for it by saying "I agree it's also true that sometimes a statement and its denial both hold. And in particular, even though the law of contradiction is true, it's also false." I don't really know what would count as "evidence" that the law of non-contradiction is true -- especially if I'm not allowed...

Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I no longer 'believe in science'. Many people have found this hard to understand, and I myself am struggling with the concept. Is it even possible to disregard something which so many hold in such high esteem? I feel that the basis for my beliefs, or lack thereof, lies with the question of infallibility. Upon broaching the topic with friends from my philosophy class, I was told that not believing in science was simply not an option. I had to believe in it, because it was all around me. My counter argument was that science was elitist, something for the select few, in that there are very few people who actually 'know the truth'. One friend in particular pointed out that I had to believe in gravity, as it was acting on me all the time, and that the clothes I was wearing and the dye I use in my hair were all products of science. I remain unconvinced though, as neither my friend, nor anyone I know, can actually prove these beliefs they regard so highly. Has no one...

My brief reply would be that I don't "believe in science" either. But I do believe that for many questions, science provides our best way of getting at the likely answers. And I also believe that in any number of cases, the most reasonable belief by far is that science has gotten it right. Are some illnesses caused by viruses? The evidence seems pretty overwhelming. Are there electrons? As some people like to point out, we've even learned how to manipulate them. Are water molecules made of hydrogen and oxygen? What reason is there to think not? The list could go on and on. Not everything that science says or has had to say is true. But then, I'm not aware of any infallible sources of knowledge, and science doesn't claim to be infallible. On the contrary, science takes much more seriously than people are usually inclined to that we are indeed fallible, and so we need to be careful when it comes to settling difficult empirical issues. But for a lareg range of questions, I can't even begin to...

If we imagine an intelligent alien race, could we also imagine philosophical questions they have come up with that have eluded us and vice versa? Or are all philosophical debates necessarily universal? My understanding of our application of philosophical analysis is that it is all-encompassing and would even have to apply to any god or advanced alien civilization (I mean the method not the conclusions). Or can something else be conceived? NB I write this as an arch-skeptic and atheist.

Hi, I'm not entirely sure what the "arch-skeptic and atheist" bit is about, since I'm not sure how it bears on your question. But here are a couple of thoughts. First, just what counts as philosophy and what sorts of questions belong to philosophy is a matter of dispute. Tjough meta-philosophy isn't a hot topic in my neck of the woods, it's still true that philosophers don't entirely agree about the nature of their discipline. That means that they don't entirely agree about method. Further, method and content may not be easily separated in all cases. (For example: someone doing phil of math may need to draw on methods that have to do with the particular nature of math, and that wouldn't be likely to come up in philosophy of art, for example.) Philosophy seems to me to be like most disciplines. It doesn't have an "essence," and it's not likely that there will be a useful "sufficient and necessary condition"-style account of what it is. It's another of the many cases of what gets called a ...

My friend and I were having a discussion about racism. He made a claim to me that he would never date a black woman, but that he wasn't racist. Now, to me, that seems like a racist comment. But he says that I am misunderstanding him. These are his arguments: "I do not find black women attractive, and so I would not date one. You might call me racist then, but if I said I didn't like women with brown hair, or women with gray eyes, does that necessarily mean that I am discriminating against women with those attributes? It would just mean that I wouldn't consider a woman with gray eyes or brown hair a prospect for a sexual relationship. Furthermore, I could say that you don't wish to have sex with men, and by your logic, that would make you sexist against men." His arguments are persuasive, but I find something very wrong with them. It seems to me that if someone is otherwise compatible with you, it shouldn't matter what race they are (or, in fact, if they had freckles or blond hair, et cetera). ...

Your friend represents you as offering a bad argument: people who saythey're unattracted to people with characteristic X are prejudiced;your friend says he's unattracted to black women; hence, your friendsays, you conclude that he's prejudiced. But that doesn't strike me asa plausible diagnosis of what's going on. The problem isn't that you are relying on the bad argument your friend accuses you of. The problem is that yourfriend's supposed preferences are awfully hard to credit. The obvious question to put to your friend is this: does he find all women with dark complexions sexually unattractive? If he says yes, then he might be telling the truth, but it's not easy to believe. If he says no, then things are equally puzzling: among people conventionally labeled "black," there is a wide, vast variety. Could it really be that there's something that all black women have in common that makes them unattractive to your friend? What could it possibly be? And so we have a puzzle. Your friend...

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Would my life be less valuable if I chose not to examine it? If I simply did everything according to the conventions and mores of my society, would my life be less valuable than someone who questioned these things deeply?

A good question! In the most important sense, the answer is no. But theterritory is a bit complicated. Start with the famous quote from Socrates. If we think about it, we'rebound to say that many unexamined lives are unquestionably worth living.Socrates' comment is hyperbole at best and perhaps something much worse. Somepeople just don't have the temperament for reflection. But that doesn't meanthey can't be kind, generous and decent, it doesn't mean that they can't leadsatisfying lives, it doesn't mean that the world would have been better withoutthem, and it certainly doesn't mean that they might as well not have lived atall. Of course, we're all obliged -- insofar as we're able -- to do some localthinking. At the least, we're sometimes obliged to think about the consequencesof our actions for others. We're sometimes obliged to ask whether our motiveswould stand up to scrutiny. More generally, we're obliged to do what's right,and that sometimes calls for a certain amount of self...

What, precisely, is requested when the question "What is X" is asked?

It depends, doesn't it? If the question is "What is that funny-looking gizmo?" it's likely that the person simply doesn't recognize the sort of thing s/he's seeing. The answer might be "It's a pressure cooker weight" or "it's a memory chip." Sometimes "What is X?" is a way of asking for an explanation of the meaning or reference of a word, as in "What is a basilisk?" (Answer, as any Harry Potter reader knows: it's a giant lizardly sort of beast that can kill you simply by staring into your eyes.) Perhaps what you have in mind is a question about the "essential properties" of something -- about the nature of some kind of thing or stuff. A sample question might be "What is water?" and the candidate answer might be "Water is H 2 O." The idea would be that this is the nature of water -- the kind of stuff it is. If this really is the nature or water, then nothing could count as water unless it was H 2 O, and for reasons that aren't simply linguistic. However, philosophers won't all agree about...

Is religion based around God or can people have a religion without believing in God?

Religion seems to be what is sometimes called a "family resemblance" concept. If we try to tie it up in a neat definition that draws sharp lines between religions and non-religions, we're likely to fail. Instead, what we find is that there are various things we refer to as religions that resemble one another in a variety of ways. For example: although it would be a mistake to say that Buddhism avoids all notions of the supernatural, the idea of a creator God simply isn't part of any form of Buddhism that I've ever heard of. But Buddhism in its various forms is usually counted as a religion. There are many Unitarians who don't believe in God, but think of themselves as religious and as belonging to a religion. Even within familiar theistic traditions there are some interesting variations. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wasn't a theist by any conventional accounting; his notion of the "Ground of Being" is not much like what most people thinnk of when they think of God. So the answer seems to be...

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