1. Cause must always precede effect. 2. You cannot be conscious of a thought before you think it. 3. Therefore, you cannot consciously cause thoughts. The logic seems infallible. However, it is intensely counterintuitive. It seems like common sense to say, "I consciously create my thoughts."

It may be that I'm missing the point (I haven't had my daily ration of chocolate yet), but what's wrong with this way of looking at it? Conscious or not, a thought can't be its own cause -- at least, not given our usual assumptions. That's what I take your premise 1 to entail. And it seems right: I can't be conscious of a particular thought X before I think it. (It may be, for all that, that I can think it before I'm conscious of it.) But why can't my conscious thought X be the cause of a later conscious thought Y ? For example, my thinking now about a jigger of gin might cause me to think, a moment later, that there's a bottle of gin in the freezer. Or maybe the issue is this: if I'm going to consciously cause a thought about Vienna, the content of that thought must already be part of the thought that does the causing. In that case, I'm conscious of the thought before I've thought it, contrary to premise 2. But then premise 2 ends up suspect, doesn't it? Couldn't I be sitting here...

How logically rigorous is the claim that neurochemical changes in the brain 'cause' mood or emotional disorders? Does a running nose cause a cold? In any case, before prescribing powerful chemicals to emotionally distressed patients shouldn't doctors use some sort of machine to test the chemical levels of their brains?

You're right: we shouldn't throw the word "causes" around too casually. Let's fix on depression as our example, and let's keep in mind that simply being sad isn't the same as being clinically depressed. On the one hand, neurochemicals probably aren't just symptoms of depression; they probably have something to do with causing the symptoms -- the listlessness or anxiety, or excessive rumination or protacted feelings of sadness. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that clinical depression is , at bottom, a malfunction in the neurochemical system, though this may be too reductionistic, and it also may turn out not to get the biology right. But perhaps what you're pointing to is that it still makes sense to ask what causes this malfunction in the first place. That's obviously a very good question. My impression is that sometimes life circumstances can trigger depression, but sometimes there's no clear external cause. The right answer here is likely to be very complicated. At the moment, far as I...

I want to compare the human mind to a computer program, for the sake of this question. In a computer program, if a circumstance occurs that the machine can not process due to a fault in the code, or a lack of processing power, or any number of reasons, the program will error out. It can have many symptoms: frozen program interface, the dreaded blue screen of death, or a simple restart. But either way the program ceases to function. (Of course their are nifty programmers out their that protect against simple errors by allowing a tolerated amount of them go unnoticed if they don't impede the overall abilities of the program.) What I want to know is how or mind deals with these errors. What stops us from running infinite loops that stalls out our minds and rends us slobbering piles of useless flesh. When we are confronted with something that our brain can not understand or grasp or comprehend, how do we cope? Or is there a limit to where we cease to function?

An intriguing puzzle. The first point is that insofar as it's a question about how our minds actually work, it's an empirical matter, and the answer depends on the facts. But there's a design-level issue here (which I'm hoping my better-informed colleagues might chime in on.) Suppose we have a complicated program that's broken up into sub-programs, or modules. And suppose that there is one module whose job it is to monitor what's going on in various other modules and stop them if they appear to be running amok. Perhaps, for example, this monitor module will kill a process if it has cycled through a million iterations without halting. You no doubt get the idea (and may well have thought of it yourself.) If a system is modular enough, and if it has enough safeguards, redundancies, monitoring modules and so on built in, then the chance that it will just go nuts might be small. And so if the mind is essentially a computer, it may be that millions of years of evolution have built it in this sort of...

Assume there is a God, who is the always-was, always-will-be Catholic version of a Supreme Being. If this is the first universe and the first earth (and, therefore, we are the first people) what in tarnation was He doing all that time before He decided to actuate the so-=called Big Bang?

I suppose She wasn't twiddling Her thumbs, since I believe God has no thumbs... But a bit more helpfully, there are two ways to think about God's relationship to time. On one view, God is eternal . That means that God is outside time and space altogether. On the other view, God is everlasting -- is in time, but has no beginning and no end. My sense is that the former view is the dominant one in Catholic tradition. And in that case, God wasn't doing anything "before" the Big Bang, since "before" and "after" don't apply to God. You might want to look at the entry on Eternity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see the link to the right) and you might also find the paper called "Eternity" by Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Journal of Philosophy, 1981) interesting, though that paper is a bit difficult. By the way: on one way of thinking about the Big Bang, "before" doesn't apply to it either. Time itself begins with the Big Bang. If that's the right way to think of it, then...

Does anyone know the national average number of Americans that will study philosophy in their lifetimes?

I'd like to know if my colleagues have any better information than I do. The best I have to offer is a not very reliable guess based on limited information. There is a graph at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/97trends/ea1-6.htm which, when extrapolated, leads to the estimate that perhaps as many as 70% of people in the USA who have a high school diploma will have at least some college education. And what's posted at http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/censusandstatistics/a/highschool.htm claims that 85% of adults 25 and over have a high school diploma. This suggests that perhaps about 64% of people in the US will have at least some college education -- a figure that I seem to recall being consistent with something I read elsewhere. But to complete our guesswork, we need an estimate of the percentage of people among those with at least some college education who take a philosophy course. Here I have nothing to offer but instinct. And my guess is that it is no higher than 20% and quite possibly considerably...

Am I morally wrong if I can understand why my son took his own life? Am I wrong to see that his decision was a positive one, given the circumstances? Of course I am distraught, heartbroken and miss him terribly but the guilt I feel for understanding his reasons for ending his life seem to come from expectations of society. The acceptable moral viewpoints that society seems to have over suicide leave caring family members looking like we don't give a damn, when in fact the absolute opposite is true....the question in my head remains though...am I really morally wrong in understanding his reasons and believing he did the right thing for himself? To give some background:- My son was an extremely intelligent, gentle and kind young man, who had battled with schizophrenia for 7 years from the age of only 18. His hopes and dreams in life had to be abandoned through the terrible experiences of hallucinations and panic attacks. Despite the daily routine of taking drugs that left him with slurred speech...

Let me begin by saying that I'm sorry for your loss. This must be terribly hard. And your sense of guilt is understandable. It's hard to think the thought that one's child may have done the best thing in taking his own life. But as you point out, this thought doesn't come from lack of care or lack of grief, but from the very opposite: from deep caring and empathy born of intimate knowledge of your son's situation. There are some well-known theological and philosophical arguments intended to show that suicide is always wrong. Immanuel Kant offered one that strikes many readers -- it certainly strikes me this way -- as bordering on sophistry; I won't try to reconstruct it here, and won't recommend it as anything you need consider. Theological arguments against suicide often rest on dubious claims about the divine will and the way in which taking one's own life supposedly usurps God's perogative to decide when we die -- arguments that might well make a believer in a loving and merciful God shudder. But...

Most Christians would agree that God is perfect. She is the ultimate: Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent. Most Christians (and most people) would agree that humans are imperfect. Surely the mere act of a perfect being (God) creating an imperfect being (humans) is an act of imperfection in itself. In other words; how is it possible for a perfect entity to create something less than perfect? I’m sure my logic has flaws in it (that’s what happens when you’re imperfect), but I just can’t seem to see it; whether that’s because I’m not able to or just because I don’t want to, I’m not sure. Any comments would be appreciated.

It's a nice question. But let me ask another. Are you saying that it would have been better if God had not created creatures like us -- less than perfect beings? Suppose you think, as many theologians do, that there can be at most one perfect being. Then if God is going to create anything at all, s/he will have to create creatures that are less than perfect. And suppose you also think, as many theologians also do, that all things considered, it's a good thing for there to be creatures who can make free decisions, engage in moral effort, and love God and one another. That might be reason enough for a perfect being to create us. It may be that a truly perfect being wouldn't leave Reality populated by Itself alone. Whether the facts of the world really are compatible with the existence of a perfect being, of course, is a vexed and much-discussed question. Many people have argued that there's just too much evil for perfect-being theology to be plausible. But it's not immediately clear that only a...

All throughout our educational careers, we are taught not to divide by zero. Death upon he who divides by zero. If you punch it into a calculator you get an error or undefined. But, what I want to ask is if we can display this error. In reality we can divide by certain amounts. If I have four apples, and I want two 'divide by two,' I must split the apples into even groups. I can do this for any real number. But is there a realistic model that we can divide by zero? If I get the error on a calculator, can I get that error in real life? So that this apple will simple vanish, or, God forbid, time and space unravel? I think there has to be some realistic model to divide my four apples into zero baskets.

A couple of thoughts. The first is that even though arithmetic may have been inspired by things that we do when we arrange objects like apples and baskets, arithmetic isn't "about" those concrete operations. On the contrary: suppose we "add" one rabbit to another and get 10 rabbits. Then we simply don't count what we did with the rabbits (or what the rabbits did) as the arithmetic addition operation. Likewise, if I "add" one drop of water to another, I'll get one drop. But that doesn't give us an exception to "1+1=2". Rather, we say that the sort of "adding" we do when we plop one drop on top of another isn't arithmetic adding. We could give some more or less arbitrary "operational definition" of some kind of real-world "dividing" of four apples into zero baskets, but it wouldn't tell us anything about arithmetic. There's another point. If dividing 4 by zero is going to make any sense, then the result can't be a real number (i.e., member of the set of reals). Why not? Because no matter how big a...

What are the arguments for and against a universal health care system?

It's a really big question, and I'm not going to pretend to offer an adequate answer. It's hard to argue with the idea that it would be a good thing if everyone had decent health care. That said, not everyone thinks that it's legitimate for the State to try to bring it about. (I don't share this view, but that's an aside, not an argument.) But suppose, for argument's sake, that we agree: it's fitting for the State to step in and help ensure that everyone is covered. We can still ask what the most effective way to get close to that goal actually is, and here we run into questions of fact. Perhaps some variation on, say, the Canadian system is the best way to go. Perhaps some largely market-based scheme, with subsidies and/or credits for the less well-off will produce the best result. Or perhaps some innovative market/State solution is what's called for. These are questions that philosophical thinking can't settle by itself. Insofar as they're part of the "arguments for and against," they'll call for...

I am a Zimbabwean student studying in South Africa and like many, am distressed quite deeply by the events of Zimbabwe's recent past. I am particularly opposed to the blinding lights of patriotism and nationalism-and the inextricable fetters it places upon human thought. However, at the moment I feel that much of my disgust and my desire for change in Zim is motivated by that very patriotism I tend to abhor. Is nationalism ever justified? Or does it always form the pretext for the ideologies of hate that grip the world so voraciously? Also, is the use of force justified in opposition to the government's fierce crackdown on civil protest? Is civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi's brand the only justified response to tyranny?

Others who spend more time thinking about such issues may well have more to say, but your question struck a chord with me because even though I'm not a Zimbabwean, I find the situation in Zimbabwe particularly distressing. The reason is partly personal: there are people I care about who have family and friends in Zimbabwe. And that fact lets us make a link with questions of patriotism and nationalism. We have obligations to people we don't know. At the very least, we are obliged not to do certain things that would harm them. And we may very well have more positive obligations to provide aid, for example, or defense. My point isn't to try to sort all that out. But virtually all of us take ourselves to have special obligations toward people with whom we have special relationships. Other things equal, I take my obligations to my friends, my family and my colleagues to be stronger and more extensive than my obligations to strangers. Indeed, these sorts of relationships are an imporant part of what makes...

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