Do you believe in all of the UFO stories like sightings, seeing little weird people, being abducted, etc.? I know that my mother-in-law and 2 daughters have sworn on a Bible that they witnessed the landing of a UFO in central Iowa. They didn't see any people but saw the space ship come out of the sky and land in the road ahead of the car. They just continued to watch it and after an hour or so they turned around in the road and headed back home.

I don't believe in them myself, though I'd be quite willing to be convinved that some of them are true. However, the story you tell illustrates a typical difficulty of these accounts: we might grant that your in-laws saw something , but what was it? The acronym "UFO," of course, stands for " Unidentified Flying Object." And that's what we have if we take your in-laws' story at face value. We certainly don't know that whatever it was came from outer space, as they used to say. Of course, some stories say more. As you point out, we get tales of abduction, strange beings and the like. Apparently many of the people who make these reports seem otherwise sane and normal. Do we know that what these people say isn't so? I wouldn't say that we do. After all, it's surely possible that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and that some of it has made it to where we are. But many of the cautions that the 18th-century philosopher David Hume applied to miracle stories seem to apply...

I am an Atheist, and a teacher of mine, got me to meditate on a paper-clip, his point being, that if you don't believe in an upper power, then unlike the paper-clip, which has a purpose, the human race is ultimately pointless. You live to die basically. What I want to know is, how would I combat such an argument? Thanks. Mark S.

Your teacher seems to have some argument such as the following in mind: 1) Things have a purpose only if some being gives them that purpose. 2) Therefore, humanity ("the human race") has a purpose only if someone gave it that purpose. 3) Only an "upper power" could give humanity a purpose. 4) Therefore, if there is no upper power, humanity has no purpose. 1) isn't as obvious as it seems, but let that pass for now. It would be odd to think that the human race has some purpose quite apart from anyone's intentions, and so 2) may be alright on its own. Even at that, 3) isn't altogether obvious. Groups can adopt purposes without someone imposing them, and so it could be that humanity -- the human race -- sets its own purpose, though there are some puzzles here. But of course, even if we grant the whole argument, all that follows is a hypothetical: if there is no higher power, then humanity as such doesn't have a purpose. If not, it's not clear that believing otherwise is a good thing. ...

Can an omnipotent being truly want? Larry 16, New Jersey.

It's an interesting question. I'd just add this bit to what Nicholas had to say. Let's take the God of classical theism as our example. Assuming God exists, there are some things God might want, and yet can't simply bring about. God might want there to be creatures who freely love him (pardon the gendered pronoun) as much as he loves them. Now an omnipotent God can certainly make creatures who love him, but that's not the same as making creatures who freely love him. Put another way, God might want there to be creatures who love him, but weren't guaranteed to do so. In fact, many believers think that something like this is so. They would say that God has the power to make free creatures, but that if he wants them to love him freely, he can't guarantee, even in his omnipotence, that his desire will be satisfied.

Why do we enjoy the beautiful? Or, what is the nature of aesthetic appreciation (it seems like a special type of enjoyment)?

On the one hand, it seems safe to say that not all aesthetic appreciation is enjoyment. There are some works of art that are profoundly disturbing, and yet we still value them. An example: I remember vividly the first time I saw one of Ad Reinhardt's large black canvases. I was taken by surprise: I didn't expect to have much of a reaction, and yet I felt something for which the word "despair" is about the best label I can come up with. I found the experience moving, but it feels wrong to call it enjoyable. Still, there are other works of art that we do enjoy and that are beautiful. So let's turn to those. Take an example of some work that you find beautiful -- perhaps the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132 A Minor quartet. If someone asked "Why do you enjoy listening to that?" saying "Because it's so beautiful" would be a perfectly good answer, though there's a great deal more that one could add. If your friend then asked "But why do you enjoy beautiful things?" you might find the question...

Do you think cosmetic surgery performed by a surgeon is a form of art?

Yes and no, though perhaps most importantly no. Saying that something is an art is sometimes a way of saying that it's an exercise of skill, not least of a skill that isn't simply a matter of following a set of instructions. In that sense, cosmetic surgery is an art. Cosmetic surgery also has an obvious aesthetic dimension and no doubt calls on many of the same skills that a good sculptor needs. So all of that is on the "yes" side. But there's another obvious sense in which cosmetic surgery isn't an art, or better, perhaps, an Art . Painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. are Arts in this sense not just by virtue of being skills whose practitioners may have aesthetic goals. They also fit into a familiar set of cultural practices and institutions (museums, galleries, performances, reviews, critical studies, sales, auctions...) that determine what we count as "Art" with a capital "A." Cosmetic surgery isn't an "Art" in that sense, and this is almost certainly a very good thing.

If I say my hand is a parrot, is there anyway for you to prove me wrong with 100% objective data?

I just posed this question on your behalf to a colleague of mine. Here's what he said he'd tell you: "No!!! But you're wrong..." I suppose we could add: it depends on what you mean by "prove," "objective" and "data." In this case, it also seems to depend on what the meaning of "is" is. (Your hand is a parrot? ) but I think at the end of the day, my colleague's answer would still be more or less right. (Not that I think you really believe your hand is a parrot...) The more serious point: there's no airtight refutation of skepticism, or so many philosophers would agree. But many philosophers would also agree that this doesn't give us a reason to worry about skepticism. As my one-time colleague Dudley Shapere once put it, the possibility of doubt isn't a reason for doubt.

What is the source of philosophy's authority? Is simply tradition? Or logical deductions from some common-sense axioms? Or an appealing fit between reasoned arguments and our contemporary cultural preference? Or maybe a bit of all three, with the other two taking up the slack, when the first one looks inadequate?

I think the first thing we'd need to say is that philosophy doesn't have "authority" in the way that, say, physics does. It doesn't include a body of more-or-less well-established knowledge. Philosophy is all about the sorts of things that some people call "essentially contested questions." So it's a field where disagreement is built in at the ground floor. You may be asking about where premises in reasonable philosophical arguments come from. There's no one answer. Tradition per se isn't important, though what we might call "reflective common sense" -- the sort of thing that seems reasonable on sober reflection by an informed person -- does often figure in philosophical arguments. So do other things, including, sometimes, mathematical knowledge and things we've learned from science, as well as garden-variety common knowledge. But philosophical arguments are arguments , and as such, they're judged by the sorts of standards that we use to judge arguments in general.

On cloudy ethical questions, philosophers on this site have tended to say to questioners things like, "I detect that you feel guilty, hence deep down you know this activity is wrong." But if my parents were particularly quirky and instilled all sorts of silly taboos into me as a kid, then my conscience could trouble me when I broke those taboos but I needn't be doing anything objectively "wrong". Right?

Right. Being wrong isn't the same thing as troubling the conscience. People can have troubled consciences when they needn't, and people can do awful things without a flicker of guilt. That said, it could be true (and seems at least somewhat plausible) that people's consciences are often reliable. We often do have pangs of conscience when we do something wrong, and sometimes bringing this reaction into awareness can be useful.

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...