Recent Responses

In war memoirs, there is sometimes talk about a feeling of invulnerability among soldiers new to combat: it never occurs to many people that they themselves might be killed. But then something punctures the feeling: it might be that a friend dies, or it might be the sheer quantity or awfulness of death, but at that point the recruit "sees the elephant" and gains a sense of their own mortality. Well, if someone "sees the elephant", how would philosophers characterise the change in epistemological status? For instance, would it be fair to say that the person has gained new knowledge, ie now knows that they're mortal, whereas they didn't know this before? Or is just a case of probability weightings of possible outcomes having changed in the light of new data?

It's a fascinating question. When the recruit "sees the elephant," as you put it, they seem to gain something that calls out for an epistemological characterization, but just what they gain is harder to say. The problem is that the obvious suggestions don't seem to work. The recruit already that s/he is mortal. Likewise, his or her probabilities haven't shifted. The recruit presumably already thought that death is certain.

So what might the recruit have gained if not knowledge or improved probability judgments? One answer is salience. It's one thing to know something; it's another for it to figure significantly in your outlook. If something is salient for me, it plays a different role in guiding my actions than it does for someone who knows it's true but gives it little thought.

On one model, our actions are guided by probabilities and judgments of importance or value/disvalue. But not everything that we know or believe plays a role in our decision-making, and likewise not everything we see as good or bad in the abstract feeds into our internal computations. Our "decision-engines" are finite and limited; they can't take account of everything they would if they we more powerful or capacious. On this way of putting it, what happens when the recruit "sees the elephant" is that his/her decision-making processes will henceforth take something into account that it minimized or ignored before.

On the model just described, what changes isn't the importance we assign to things, but whether that importance actually figures in our cognitive processes. However, someone might argue that if I don't take something into account in guiding my life, I don't really think it's important. If that's the right thing to say, the difference between the recruit before and after "seeing the elephant" would be an evaluative shift rather than a shift in beliefs about the non-evaluative facts. The language of "seeing" would still fit nicely. If someone says "I see now that ____ is much more important than I realized," we all understand what they mean.

Of course, our evaluations shift constantly. The song I love this week may bore me next; the political candidate I disparaged before may now seem better than I thought. Cases like that don't fit the "seeing the elephant" metaphor, and so perhaps we might reach for a notion that's strangely neglected in philosophy these days. Perhaps what the recruit gains when s/he "sees the elephant" is a measure of wisdom. The wise person isn't someone who knows more than other people; the bits of "knowledge" that enter into wisdom are universal truths that no one really doubts. The wise person is someone who has internalized these truths and recognizes their importance in a deep way that's integrated into the way they live their lives. There's a nice paper from almost forty years ago by S. Godlovich that explores this point (see below), but it's an idea that would be recognized by many of the world's wisdom traditions.

Obviously there's a lot more that could be said here, but that's my best shot at a quick answer. These cases of "seeing the elephant" aren't cases of learning new things or revising one's probability judgments. They're cases of acquiring a modicum of wisdom. Wisdom doesn't always come by way of shocks or epiphanies, but sometimes it does. I think you're describing cases of that sort.

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The paper I have in mind is S. Godlovich (1981), "On Wisdom," Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. 11, no. 1

Is there any reason to believe that one sex is biologically superior to the other in a generalized sense? I've heard it said that men are inferior to women because they don't live as long and, in every age group are more likely to die than women. Add to that the fact that men's immune systems aren't as resilient as women's, they invest much less in reproduction, more boys than girls have ADHD or autism, and (it has been argued) men's sexual and aggressive urges are the cause of most violence and suffering in the world. As a man myself, I find these notions deeply troubling, not least because I am not a violent person, but also because though the above facts are scientific, I've read other arguments that evaluative notions of 'superiority' and 'inferiority' have no place in scientific discourse. So if it's not for scientists to say whether or not one sex is superior to the other, which type of expert should we appeal to, if at all? Philosophers such as yourselves, who presumably understand value better than most people? If so, do you think one sex can be considered superior to the other, in any all encompassing, generalized, meaningful way?

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli apparently didn't have much patience for what he saw as nonsense. More than once, it seems, he dismissed an idea by saying that it was "not even wrong."

I'll have to admit: the idea that one sex is superior to the other in any all-things-considered way strikes me as a plausible candidate for "not even wrong" status. Men and women are different. On average—though only on average—women may have some advantages compared to men, and vice-versa. I'm skeptical that there's some way to accumulate these sorts of on-average facts into some meaningful sense in which women are overall superior to men, or the other way around. And even if there were, there's way too much variation for this to tell us much of anything person-by-person.

In any case, the kind of superiority you're concerned about is, as you suggest, not a scientific notion. The kind of superiority you're worried about has to do with whether one sex is in general "better" or perhaps even "nobler" than the other. We can use scientific techniques to make judgments about average longevity, or physical strength or whatnot. But living longer or having stronger muscles or even having a higher I.Q. doesn't make someone a better person, and I think that's closer to what you're actually worried about.

You ask which sort of expert we should turn to if we want to settle such matters. You ask if it might be philosophers, since, you write, philosophers "presumably understand value better than most people." But while some philosophers no doubt have a better theoretical understanding of broad questions about value, I've never seen any evidence at all that philosophers are better at making concrete value judgments than other people. Compare: being a brilliant linguist doesn't make it more likely that you'll be a good judge of poetry.

You say you're not a violent person, and I believe you. But you also say that you're troubled by the thought that there might be some broad sense in which one sex (women, you suspect) is superior to the other. Why be troubled? If you're a good and decent person, you're good and decent person whether or not anyone else is, and whether or not one sex has a higher average score on some scale of virtue. It's clearly possible for men to be good, and for women to be good. We know it's possible because there are good men, and there are good women. It also seems more than likely that there are things we can do to make it more likely that a person, male or female, will turn out to be good person. Perhaps that's a better place to direct our energy: doing what we can to make the world the kind of place where people are more likely to turn out good.

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There's another whole issue here: the distinction between male and female isn't as sharp and clean as is often assumed. In this context, however, the main thing this point would add is to make any superiority thesis even more problematic.

If I investigate the Goldbach conjecture by testing individual even integers to verify that they accord with it, do I have more reason to believe that the conjecture is true the more integers I verify? Or am I in just the same epistemic position regarding the conjecture whether I've verified one integer or a billion?

As you clearly know, no matter how many integers you have checked, that will always be a finite set, and so there will always be infinitely many integers you have not checked. Unless you had some reason to believe that a counterexample to Goldbach must be "low", then, it's hard to see why your checking a handful of cases should give you any more confidence that Goldbach is true. But there are some weird issues about how probability behaves in such cases, about which Timothy WIlliamson and others have written.

Why does God not relieve the acute suffering of a child? This example incites the jury. The child's suffering and mine during a flu episode only differ in degree. The question is why God allows suffering at all. In a world of inevitable death suffering is unavoidable and is therefore as natural as elliptical orbits. Suffering (like its twin pleasure) is morally neutral and a by-product of sentience--cruelty and indifference are not neutral. For God to intervene would be to change the natural order, thus depriving humans of a full range of experience, freedom to act, and full responsibility for those actions. The terms of existence are non-negotiable. God's moral law is the architect's plan for living with these conditions. Does my argument hold any water?

I think your argument has holes that prevent it from holding much water:

1. Our world need not have been a world of inevitable death. Any God capable of creating the universe from scratch is capable of creating its physical laws, so nothing forced God to make our universe one in which everything dies. The creation of a universe having that feature is entirely God's choice. Nor could any sin we humans later committed force God to institute death as a response. That response is not dictated to God by any law; it is likewise entirely God's choice.

2. "For God to intervene would be to change the natural order..." But, again, it's a natural order that God chose to institute in the first place.

3. "...thus depriving humans of a full range of experience, freedom to act, and full responsibility for those actions." As it is, humans don't have the full range of experience: there are things (including pains and pleasures) that we can't experience but other animals can. If the freedom to act is highly valuable in itself, and if the freedom to act makes suffering inevitable, then the doctrine of a blissful heaven is incoherent, for either agents in that exalted state lack that highly valuable freedom or else they experience suffering and not just bliss. Being fully responsible for one's actions is relevant to the problem of evil only if one is fully responsible for one's wrong actions. But being fully responsible for one's wrong actions is obviously not a good in itself, or else (a) God must lack that good, since God never acts wrongly, and (b) agents in heaven must lack that good (or else must act wrongly). So a good world need not contain that kind of responsibility.

4. "The terms of existence are non-negotiable." Nothing dictated those terms to God. If there are terms of existence, then God chose them. God is not forced to live with those conditions, and God need not force others to live with those conditions.

Is it possible to answer a question with another question? is that what we called a Socratic questioning?

It seems that the word "answer" is being used in two senses in the question that you ask. Plainly, it can happen that someone asks, 'Is the tomato a fruit?' and someone else answers thus: 'What do you think?' That might well happen. But it is not the end of the story. One could count that as an answer, or as a failure to answer, or as both, but then in two different senses. It is a verbal response or reply, and "response" is one sense of "answer". There is a narrower sense of "answer", in which it means something like, "State the correct (or what the respondent takes to be correct) solution to the problem posed by the question", or something like that. This is closer to the legal sense of "answer", in which one "replies" or "makes answer" to a charge or accusation, by offering a defence. Asking a question as an answer would not work in these contexts. So if I am asked, 'What is the solution to 7x9?', what is meant is "the correct answer", and it is the answer to the question what the product of 7 and 9 is. 'What is the product of 7 and 9?' has an answer (63), and it is in this second sense no answer at all or not an answer to ask, 'What do you think?' The answer to the question, 'Is it raining' in this second sense is 'Yes' or 'No' or 'Sort of' or 'It's drizzling,' and 'I don't know' is an answer only in the first sense, a response.

Music is comprised of sound waves. Waves can be modeled mathematically using a Fourier series. So, could we then write music in terms of mathematics by using a Fourier series to represent the sound waves? Would it be worthwhile to do so? Would it have any benefit over traditional music notation?

Music is composed of sound waves, but that's only part of the story. A Fourier analysis would run the risk of including too much information, overlooking the fact that there can be very different interpretations of the same piece.

It might be possible to fudge that point. (After all, compression schemes rely on Fourier analysis, but don't include every detail.) The real point is that to be useful, musical notation has to be something that musicians can efficiently read. To make the case that Fourier analysis would be useful for that purpose would be a pretty heavy lift, I suspect. Compare: it would be possible to give a Fourier analysis of a speech in a play, at least as performed by some actor. But I'd be willing to bet that any actor would find it a lot easier just to have the words written down. Musical notation, like written words and dance notation, is able to do its job precisely because it vastly, massively underspecifies the full detail of what any performance will actually be like. The point here isn't just about leaving room for interpretation. It's about what we can reasonably expect a human brain to process.

 Are there any rationally compelling reasons to believe in a god or gods, which created the cosmos and the things in it?

Nope. But what of it?

"Rationally compelling" is too high bar. If a position really were rationally compelling, a rational person who understood it would have to be convinced. But there's very little in philosophy that meets this standard. There are rationally acceptable ways to believe in God, rationally acceptable ways to believe that there's no God, and rationally acceptable ways to be agnostic.

As for what the reasons are, that's a long story, though I'd caution against thinking they can be reduced to slogans. Of course, the same point goes for more or less all claims that philosophers debate. But somehow, some people seem to think the case of religion is different.

A friend of mine committed suicide recently, and I find myself instinctively trying not only to understand why she did it and the cause and effect of how it happened, but trying to impose meaning -- trying to work out what the "significance" of her death is, and looking to sum up her whole life the way a funeral celebrant might, and say these are the patterns and themes and shape of it, this what it amounted to, this is what it represented, these are the takeaway ethical messages for your own life. But is there really any significance in suicide, is there any point to asking what it means, or is it senseless, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or any other physical event or act? And is it disrespectful to try to interpret meaning into someone's life or death or reduce their life to a moral lesson? The process not only feels a little bit like a lie, but also like it objectifies them and takes away from their humanity.

You are obviously grappling with your friend's death, and I appreciate the sophistication and sensitivity evident in your question.

I think it's crucial here to distinguish the meaning or "significance" of suicide from the meaning or significance of your friend's suicide. It's important that we resist what I think of as the easy mystification of suicide. There is an unfortunate tendency to infer from our inability to understand a particular suicide or to imagine ourselves engaging in the act ourselves that suicide is unfathomable, incomprehensible, or beyond reason. The truth is we understand a fair bit about the causes of suicide, have growing knowledge of how to prevent it, and so on. We should not let our emotional reaction to suicide -- whether it be shock, dismay, anger, whatever -- lead us to treat suicide as a "senseless" or trivial act.

That said, what we know about suicide in general can be difficult to extrapolate to particular people and cases. Individual people are in certain ways more complex than our theories about human nature can sometimes capture. I don't think that it's necessarily wrong for you to interrogate why she engaged in this act and to evaluate it morally. But as you say there is the risk that in so doing, you "objectify" your friend or reduce her to her suicidal choices or acts. And that, I agree, you ought not do. She, like anyone, had a history: as someone's daughter, your friend, and so on. Trying to see her suicide as a part of her life, and trying to draw lessons (moral or otherwise) from it, need not require you to reduce her to 'a suicidal person.' Quite the contrary: her suicide can probably only be grasped against the totality of her life. In this respect, your duty to her is the same duty I suspect we have to everyone as we attempt to understand them — to sympathetically, compassionately, and fairly appraise them as the complex wholes as they are, and not distort those wholes only by reference to a single choice or episode in their lives.

Best wishes to you as you work these matters through.

If we all have personal biases (ie. every individual, being unique, perceives the same event slightly differently), how can we trust anyone to provide the real truth?

An incomplete answer, but relevant, I hope.

Suppose the question is: did Prof. Geisler show up for class on Monday? We ask students enrolled in the class. All the students who were there in the room at class time say yes: Prof. Geisler was there. In fact, she arrived on time, and taught a full class.

Let's grant that every person in the room had a slightly different take on exactly what went on in the room at that time. Let's also grant that some of what some people would say happened will be inaccurate, and may reflect their biases and psychological idiosyncrasies. The question, however, is whether Prof. Geisler showed up. There's no reason to think these differences in perception got in the way of judging that.

In one way this is a trivial example, but it reflects something extremely common. Even with our very real quirks and biases, there's an enormous amount of what we perceive and believe for which those quirks and biases are simply irrelevant. Individually, most of these facts may be inconsequential. But when we add them up, we arrive at a shared account of a great deal about the way things are. We don't all live in our own separate worlds. People who claim otherwise strike me as either not really thinking through what they're saying or else in the grip of a bad theory.

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