Hello! My question concerns the word, "theory". Can a theory be considered fact, and what gives one theory more credibility than another? I know that some theories are empirical, and can be tested scientifically for validity. So if a theory such as evolution seems a fact, why is it still called a theory? Should it not be fact? Obviously, some non-empirical theories, like String Theory, can't as yet be tested, and are questionable. But scientifically, do empirical theories get closer to truth, and can some be called true?

The word "theory" has a common meaning, which is something like "hypothesis" or "speculation." It also has a scientific meaning, which, close enough for our purposes, is "organized set of principles." When we call something a theory in that sense, we aren't saying anything at all about whether the principles are true or false. Keep in mind that the word "theory" even gets used in mathematics---for example, when mathematicians talk about number theory (roughly, the study of the properties of whole numbers.) The word "theory" here isn't meant to suggest that the principles number theorists use are suspect. The "theory/fact" confusion is unfortunate. Evolutionary theory is a theory in the scientist's sense: an organized collection of explanatory principles. As it turn out, those principles have been very successful tools for making sense of nature. So why not just call these principles facts ? We could, but theoretical principles tend to be abstract and general. We tend to use the word "fact" for...

Is it worse to break a promise in order to avoid telling a lie, or to tell a lie in order to keep a promise?

There's no all-purpose answer. Breaking some promises is worse than breaking others. Telling some lies is worse than telling others. But there's no good reason to think that every broken promise is worse than any lie or vice-versa. Telling some lies is worse than breaking some promises; breaking some promises is worse than telling some lies. If you really have to choose, the least bad choice will depend on the details.

Are people and businesses misusing the word philosophy when they say, for example, "My philosophy is to always tell the truth," or "Our philosophy is that the lowest price is the best price?" Isn't that closer to a creed or an ideology?

Briefly, no. Words mean what people use them to mean, and words can have multiple meanings. Expressions like "My philosophy is..." are so common that they represent one of the meanings that the word "philosophy" has come to have in English. Of course it's not what professional philosophers usually have in mind when they use the word, but professional philosophers don't get veto power over usage. A further thought or two: I can't really get bent very far out of shape by this one, but it's a bit unfortunate in at least one respect: it gives some people the impression that philosophy is all about truisms and banal principles instead of being something that calls for rigorous thought. But the cure for that is not to complain about how folks use the word; it's for philosophers to do a better job of helping people understand what we do and why it's worth doing.

Not everyone who smokes gets cancer, but we still say things like "smoking causes cancer." How should we understand causal statements like this?

A good question, but as you no doubt guessed, one that people have thought about. The short answer is that we'll say that X causes Y if X raises the probability of Y, even if it doesn't raise the probability to 100% Let's be a bit more concrete. Think about clinical trials of a medication. Suppose we think that some new compound lowers blood pressure. We might test this by selecting a set of test subjects with hypertension, and then randomly assigning some of them to the treatment group and others to the control group. Ideally the test would be a double-blind test. That is, neither the people administering the treatment nor the people being treated would know if they were getting the actual medicine or a mere placebo. We'd measure everyone's blood pressure before the trial, and then after. And then we'd compare. Normally we wouldn't expect that everyone who received the actual treatment would have lower blood pressure at the end, and we also wouldn't expect that no one who got the placebo would end...

As a non physicist, non scientist, I have a question, which may be really stupid. If quantum mechanics expounds that at an atomic level matter can be in 2 places, at one point in time, does this matter have mass in these 2 different places? If this matter can have a mass in more than one place, at one point in time, how can we attempt to calculate the mass of matter present in the universe as surely it would depend on what proportion of matter was in what number of places at any point in time? Does that mean its unit of measurement would need to include number of atoms, the proportions of this matter in what numbers of places, at a fixed point in time? Is there some basic reading that might help me understand this a bit more? Thank you.

It's not a stupid question. The way that popular accounts "explain" quantum mechanics leads naturally to your question. The moral is that those popular accounts are not to be trusted. Quantum mechanics is unusual in that on the one hand, we understand very well how to apply it and what we should expect to find in experiments if it's correct, but on the other hand there is sharp disagreement over what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of the things we use it to predict and explain. The problem you're raising comes from the superposition principle. A quantum system can be in a superposition of being in two different, non-overlapping places, for example. When that happens, there's some probability that if we "look" (make an appropriate measurement) we'll find the system in one of the places, and some probability that we'll find it in the other. However, we can't understand this as a simple case of ignorance --- as a case where the system really is in one place or really is in the other and...

If I tell you that science cannot explain why that stone fell to the ground, you will say that I am a lunatic, but if I tell you that science cannot explain the ultimate laws of physics, you will say that perhaps I am right (a read it here, written by one of the panelists). But if science cannot explain part of physical reality, why is it only the ultimate laws of physics? Perhaps physical events that cannot be explained by science are happening all the time. Perhaps some of those events can be called "magic" or "miracles", no?

To add a few thoughts to my colleague's response: We could use the following as a rough working definition of a miracle: a miracle is an intervention in the course of nature by the deity in which the usual regularities are suspended or over-ridden. There's lots of room to refine and polish that, but it gets around one objection to the very idea of a miracle, namely that laws of nature aren't really laws of nature if they have exceptions. Laws of nature would encode the way the world works when God doesn't intervene. But of course, even if we can come up with an intelligible notion of "miracle," it's a long ways from there to having reasons to believe that there actually are miracles, let alone that any particular occurrence is a miracle. The fact that we don't have an explanation for something at the moment provides more or less no reason by itself to think that it's a case of divine intervention. "Magic" is a more complicated concept than "miracle," in my view. If you go back and look at how...

Using the term "determinism" un the philosophicall sense (not in a matemáticas sense) ....Is the decay of an atom a deterministic event?

I'm not sure what the difference between the philosophical and the mathematical sense of "determinism" is supposed to be, but I think that the answer will be the same in any case. And that answer is: it depends on how you think quantum theory should be understood. On what we might describe broadly as the "orthodox interpretation" of quantum theory, the answer is no: the decay is not a deterministic event. Roughly put, this means that the state of the world before the decay doesn't determine whether the atom will decay. There are some complications here about relativity and about so-called entangled states, but we can leave them aside. On this way of looking at quantum theory, sometimes the "wave function" or "quantum state" changes unpredictably and discontinuously, and these changes are genuine chance events. Radioactive decay is a special case. According to Bohmian mechanics, the most important of the so-called "hidden variable" views, quantum systems are thoroughly deterministic. What happens in the...

Speaking philosophically rather than legally, should there be limitations on freedom of speech in the case of president-elects, or public officials in general, making unsubstantiated or even false claims? Saying, for instance, that millions of illegals voted. I think many people think that there's a public interest in false claims -- if made openly, they can be openly discredited. But in this particular case, while there is no evidence for the claim, there is also no evidence against it, so it can't, for the time being, be definitively refuted. Meanwhile, there are potentially big negative consequences -- eroding confidence in the electoral system, inflaming racial tensions, etc.

A couple of thoughts. First, lying is bad, and it's not any less bad when it's done by a politician trying to whip up his supporters. No need for philosophy here. That's not the same as saying that it should be against the law for politicians to tell bald-faced lies, but there are moral limits on what people should say. Donald Trump hasn't given evidence that he cares much about those limits. Second, you write that there's no evidence against the claim that millions of ineligible aliens voted. If you mean that no one has done an extensive view of the voting records, then perhaps that's true. But that doesn't mean it's reasonable to suspend judgment until someone decides to do a review. The evidence in general is that voter fraud is rare. Even when zealous politicians go looking for it, the pattern is that they don't find it. ( Of course there are isolated cases, but that's not what's at issue here.) So we have a general reason to be very suspicious of what Donald Trump has said, and no...

In the movie Patton, an aide consoles the general upon learning that Rommel was not present in North Africa for the tank battle. "If you defeated Rommel's plan, then you defeated Rommel." If evolution defeats God's plan known as intelligent design can we apply the same logic to conclude that for evangelical believers at least their God is "defeated". Can we use the triumph of evolution as evidence that God does not exist since intelligent design is presented as His work?

Defeating Rommel's plan amounted to defeating Rommel because there was something Rommel was trying to accomplish and defeating his plan kept him from doing that. Stopping someone from carrying out their plans is a straightforward case of defeating someone. But evolution isn't something that stops God from doing what he was trying to do and so it doesn't "defeat" God. If we can show that evolution is true, we've defeated a view about God, but God isn't a view. In fact, however, I think your question really is the one in your last sentence: does showing that evolution is true show that there's no God? The answer is somewhat controversial, but I'd say no. It shows that a particular view of God is not true, but it doesn't show that there's no God. There are plenty of believers who think that evolution is true and that nonetheless, there's a God. Maybe no reasonable notion of God can be consistent with evolution, but this isn't nearly as obvious as it's sometimes assumed to be.* ---------------------...

People always say that one's action should not be aimed at disabling others to take their own actions, and the former is often subject of general denouncement. For example, when a pianist plays piano in his neighborhood at midnight and disturbs another person's sleep, people would say that playing piano is more of a disturbance than sleeping, and so one should avoid playing piano when someone else is sleeping. What is the intrinsic difference between the two? Cannot I say that the sleeping makes it inconvenient for the pianist to play piano, and so one should not sleep when someone else is playing piano? What is the logical basis of making any of such judgements?

There's no purely intrinsic reason, but there's still a reason overall. Here's a comparison. In the US, it's not just illegal but also wrong to drive on the left side of the road. In South Africa, the opposite is true. What makes it wrong to drive on the left in the US and the right in South Africa is that there is a widely-accepted practice --- in fact, a rule in this case --- about how we drive, and violating this particular practice puts others at risk. Now in the case of the late-night piano-player, there may be no literal risk created by the disturbance the piano player creates. But there's still what's sometimes called a coordination problem here, and there's a way of getting on that solves the problem. Most people sleep at night. Most people also need a reasonably quiet environment to sleep. And so we have a combination of custom and, in many jurisdictions, law to make it possible for people to do things like practice the piano and for people to sleep. Since most humans are wired to sleep at...

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