How does one know when is it acceptable to break a promise? Is there something special about a vow, or is it just a social construct? I can envision various scenarios involving onerous mortgages and starving children, and my conclusion seems to be: "Well, you'll just know it when you see it". But that seems to suggest it's just based on my present whim.

To begin with two very minor point (sorry if this seems "academic" in the negative sense!): Even if vows are social constructs, there might be something very special about vows. Second, you might well know when a vow should or should not be kept intuitively (a sort of knowledge from your gut feelings without knowing a precise principle), but this would not be a matter of whim. Someone might not have a definition of pornography, but it is not just a whim when they recognize porn on the internet. I need to defend some modest use of a "I know it when one sees it" principle due to the last line in this response. There is some reason to think that vows are special, explicit promises which makes them related to the implicit promise-making and breaking we do every day. So, when I say I will meet you for a coffee at 11:00, there is a sense in which I am making a promise to you and you have a right to find fault with me if I break the promise unless there are strong reasons to the contrary. Those reasons ...

Hello, What I am about to say is a desperate call for help. I am reaching out to you so that I may be assisted with this dear worry I have been plagued with for several years… Basically, I am paranoid about what will happen to me after I die. Because of argument amongst equally learned, intelligent, capable philosophers, I can’t figure out what the afterlife (if there is one) will consist of. The reason this is an obsession and highly alarming to me is because several different religions state you must believe such and such in order to escape hell (eternal torture). You can’t simultaneously be a follower of incompatible religions, so it’s like you’re taking an eternal chance in believing anything. Moreover, it seems the superiority of one religion over the other cannot be determined. Philosophers argue about this stuff night and day, and the arguments never end...nothing is ever decided for certain. No one can be sure of anything. Must I believe that when I die, I’ll more than likely go to some sort of...

Allen Stairs offers a spirited reply, and an amusing last line, but I am a bit more sympathetic with your worry. You might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on beliefs about the afterlife which I co-authored with William Hasker. There is a terrific book on hell by Jerry Walls called Hell: The Logic of Damnation and a good reference work published by Oxford University Press, A Handbook on Eschatology. Jonathan Kvanvig also has a good book on hell that carefully runs through the possible justifications for belief in hell. Minor point: for many religious traditions in which there is a hell, hell is understood to be self-created rather than created by God. This is colorfully and vividly represented in Milton's Paradise Lost. Philosophical arguments for belief in an afterlife (or life beyond life) are often developed in the context of the case for and against theism, though philosophers who are atheists have believed in an afterlife (e.g. Buddhist philosophers). The British...

Do you think that philosophy is too wordy nowadays and what was the case throughout the history of philosophy? I greatly appreciate the length of the responses on this site but digesting even one paragraph can take minutes so you can imagine how frustrating it would be if every panelist decided that philosophy is also a literary exercise! A lot of times it seems philosophers especially in articles and academic books add a lot of unnecessary verbiage that total pages upon pages trying to make a stab at answering a question by leaving self-refuting riddles and asking more questions.

I suspect it will probably totally annoy you that I begin a response with a question or two: is it so bad when philosophy is practiced in a way that is a literary exercise? Some of the great philosophers from Plato to Iris Murdoch, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir... present their philosophical reflections in the form of fictive narratives. Self-refuting riddles may be intentional and instructive: Plato's Republic and Thomas Moore's Utopia come to mind. And some of the great works of literature are forged on asking questions (look especially at Shakespeare's Hamlet; practically the whole play is in an interrogative mode, starting with the opening line), as one finds in the later work of Wittgenstein. In any case, I complement you with your implying that the best of philosophy is not given over to "unnecessary verbiage." I agree with what I think is your impatience with what might be called jargon. Where we might disagree concerns examples. Two sources of philosophy where I have not found any...

What's there to gain from romantic relationships, aside from sexual gratification? For it seems as though there is more pain and loss from attempting to find our ideal significant other, than there is actual gain from finding someone adequate enough to fulfill such an unobtainable goal. It seems more worthwhile to culminate our own happiness within ourselves, than to put our happiness at risk, especially given that females (and people in general) who are interested in philosophy seem to be on the decline; and interest in philosophy is a must for any viable partner!

Wonderful to learn that a viable partner for you would have to have an interest in philosophy. If you are super attractive (etc) you might give a lot of people an important motive to develop philosophical interests! Picking up on another point, though, I am not sure you are right about declining interests in philosophy among females or people in general. At least where I teach (St Olaf College in the USA) philosophical interests among young women and men (straight, gay, as well as among transgender folk) seems on the rise. But more to your point, I wonder if your worry about romantic relationships would work against any serious, non-romantic friendship. You write about having reservations about putting your happiness at risk, but that risk seems to arise in every case when you or I truly love another person with or without eros. I have great (Platonic) love for a couple of friends, Patrick and Jodi, and I realize there is no way for me to do so without risking my enduring great pain and...

Is there a book that looks at the Bible through the lens of philosophy? I know there are books like "Philosophy & Seinfeld", where a cultural artifact is subjected to philosophical analysis. Surely there must be something like that for the Bible?

The Bible has been subject to enormous philosophical attention. This is not only true for all the great medieval philosophers and the philosophers in late antiquity, but for many modern philosophers such as Pascal, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant --for Kant, the book of Job was of great significance-- Kierkegaard. Historically and today, some philosophers treat the Bible as a source for the philosophy of God or the philosophy of religion, exploring concepts such as divine revelation, the divine attributes, the relationship between God and the cosmos, and so on. The Bible has been used both for constructive philosophical work *see, for example, the collection Jesus and Philosophy edited by Paul Moser* as well as for advancing philosophical objections to theism in general or specific Biblical teachings. As a general source, check out the Routledge Companion to Theism. In the 20th century I think two of the most balanced philosophers who worked constructively on the Bible are A.E. Taylor and Austin Farrer. ...

Why does fiction make us feel so emotional sometimes? Rationally, my mind knows that the stories I read aren't true and are all completely made-up, but even knowing this, I can't help but find myself tearing up at certain well-written stories. Is there any reason to feel this way at all or is it all just a waste of emotion?

This raises a concern that goes back to Plato and Aristotle! Aristotle thought the function of art should be to bring us into an emotive state that would be the kind of state we would be in if the events depicted truly took place. "The plot...must be structured... that the one who is hearing the events unroll shudders with fear and feels pity at what happens which is what one would experience on hearing the plot of the Oedipus." Aristotle thought that experiencing a performance of some tragedy --which we know is not a reflection of what took place historically -- can be a way of refining our moral or ethical character and judgment. He thought our ability to make and experience works of art involving possible events --that did not occur in our world-- is a reflection of our greatness as humans. One way to articulate what takes place when we emote over characters in fictions is that the fictional work can be likened to a world. So, there is the world of Oedipus in which the main character kills his...

Once in a while I read a philosopher's curriculum vitae on the Internet. Unfortunately, I usually don't find the philosopher's birth year, and most times not even the year of his or her first college degree. Don't you think curricula should have that information? Approximate age is so useful for readers to have "a picture" of the person they are interested in....

Interesting! I think you are probably right. Oddly, under the present circumstances, it is likely to be easier to discover the age of a philosopher after she or he has died than when they were alive and able to be on this panel! Maybe one of the reasons why *living* philosophers are reluctant to put down their age is professional. In job searches, I believe -but I could be wrong- the person or institute doing the hiring is not allowed to ask for the age of a candidate --just as we are not allowed to inquire into marital status, sexual orientation, physical health. Nor, I think, are we allowed to NOT hire someone because of their age. At least we are not allowed to do so in a direct fashion; at our institution I think we did not hire a candidate who was probably 70 years old on the grounds that the credentials of others were better but also because we judged that the person was not as likely to provide long-term leadership. Age was not THE deciding factor, but I suspect that we did have an *unstated*...

Do philosophers of history operate on any kind of different modes of thinking or inquiry as compared to professional historians? One question I'm struggling to understand is just when if ever does studying history lead to normative ethics for the present day on how to act towards certain groups?

Interesting! In order to practice and contribute to the philosophy of history, philosophers need to know both a wide range of works of history as well as to know about the methods employed by historians, but they do not need to be historians themselves. So, in your terms, philosophers of history need not use the same "modes of inquiry as compared to professional historians." The same is true in, say, philosophy of art in general or philosophy of biology. In philosophy of history general questions are raised about truth, testimony, the meaning of events, the nature of causation and historical explanation, and so on. Professional historians may presuppose a philosophy of truth (etc) but in constructing the history of the French Revolution (for example), they need not engage in any explicit reflection on alternative philosophies of truth, testimony, etc. As for history leading to normative ethics, matters are complex. Arguably the practice of history itself will rest on some value judgements (even if...

If theft is committed as a form of political protest or civil disobedience against capitalism, does that make it less immoral than if it was done solely for amusement?

Fascinating question. Off hand, it does seem that, in some cases, the motives you cite would make a difference. Imagine two people steal a sign advertising a bank that is involved with the unfair foreclosure of homes, leaving (let us imagine) many innocent persons homeless. A person who does the stealing as an act of protest and who, let us imagine, turns herself in to draw attention to this act of disobedience, seems (to use your terms) "less immoral" than one who steals the advertisement as a joke (perhaps using the sign as a tray to serve beer to friends while watching the world cup). In fact, we may find the person who did the theft out of matters of conscience heroic. The difficulty in weighing motives, however, emerges when we dig deeper into why the persons have the motives they do. Is the person who acts to protest capitalism doing *that* solely for the sake of amusement? I came of age in the early 1970s and was present protesting the inauguration of President Nixon. A good number of us...

From reading your site regularly, it sounds like many people confound the question, "does God exist?" with a different question, "does a particular kind of God exist?" From what I understand of quantum physics, everything is connected to some extent. The sum total off all interconnections among all energy and matter in the universe(s) could easily be an identity for a natural and holistic "God" that not only seems to "exist," but also seems NECESSARILY to exist. Yet this "God" would be unsatisfying to many since it/she/he would have very little interest in human beings and their day-to-day lives. Many of the arguments that so-called "atheists" make seem to come across more like "I don't like your particular version of God," and not at all an argument that "no God of any kind exists." It seems to me that the latter proposition: "no God of any kind exists" is just as unprovable and just as unverifiable as the argument that "God does exist, we just don't know how or in what form."

A very insightful point of view! As a panelist who has responded to lots of "God questions" on this site and who has published a bit in philosophy of religion, my overall impression is that when most users of this site (and here please note I may be off base) have theism in mind when they ask 'Does God exist?' or raise questions about the implications of the existence (or non-existence of God). Theistic views of God (for the most part) understand God to be the all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, essentially (that is, necessarily) good, everlasting or eternal (that is, either God is outside of time or in time and without temporal origin or end), necessarily existing (that is, God has aseity or self-existence and does not exist due to the power of another being) Creator and sustainer of the cosmos. This is (roughly) how God is conceived of in traditional Judaism, Christianity, Islam and in theistic forms of Hinduism. But there are lots of particular further beliefs about God that are not shared in...

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