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Last night my 4 year old son asked me, "where was I before I was born (or in

Last night my 4 year old son asked me, "where was I before I was born (or in your tummy?) was I alone?" What should I tell him?

Kids do ask some amazing questions.

I am no expert on child psychology. I am just a philosopher who is also a parent. So please do not take what I will say the wrong way. I do not really mean to be giving parenting advice here.

To some extent, what you should tell your son depends upon your religious beliefs. Some traditions would hold that your son was with God, waiting to be embodied. Some would hold that your son may have had a prior life, about which you would not know very much. But I am guessing that none of these traditions is yours, since otherwise the answer to the question would be clear enough. So I will answer assuming that you believe that, prior to your son's birth, he did not exist. (Note that many religious traditions would hold this view. So this is not a religious vs non-religious issue.)

So, telling your son the truth would mean saying something like this:

We can make cookies, but before we make the cookies, there aren't any cookies. There is flour and butter and sprinkles, but they have to be made into cookies. Before we make the cookies, they aren't anywhere, are they?

Well, Mommy and Daddy made you, but before we made you, there was no you. So no, you were not alone, just like the cookies are not alone before we make them. And like with the cookies, before we made you, the stuff that we made you from was already there. Part of you was already in Mommy (the ovum), and part of you was already in Daddy. [OK, that's not really true if we go far enough back, but let's not be pedantic.] And then we made you, and we sure are glad we did!

I think something like that would be comprehensible to a four year old, and I'd be fascinated to hear how the discussion would continue. But you will have to judge if you think your child is ready for this kind of thing.

It's odd, by the way, how the idea of nothingness after death is so much more terrifying than the idea of nothingness before birth.

Kids do ask some amazing questions. I am no expert on child psychology. I am just a philosopher who is also a parent. So please do not take what I will say the wrong way. I do not really mean to be giving parenting advice here. To some extent, what you should tell your son depends upon your religious beliefs. Some traditions would hold that your son was with God, waiting to be embodied. Some would hold that your son may have had a prior life, about which you would not know very much. But I am guessing that none of these traditions is yours, since otherwise the answer to the question would be clear enough. So I will answer assuming that you believe that, prior to your son's birth, he did not exist. (Note that many religious traditions would hold this view. So this is not a religious vs non-religious issue.) So, telling your son the truth would mean saying something like this: We can make cookies, but before we make the cookies, there aren't any cookies. There is flour and butter and...

If, as Dawkins reminds us in "The God Delusion", our cellular self is completely

If, as Dawkins reminds us in "The God Delusion", our cellular self is completely renewed over time, should we absolve the criminal of his crimes after time has passed on the grounds that he is no longer the person that committed the crime - for example, the rapist who is not caught until decades after his crime, or the aging general who committed war crimes. If not, does this prove that there is more to the self-hood of a person than just a collection of cells?

And one might add that the cells themselves are hardly immune from "renewal" at the molecular level. So the short version is: If identity requires complete coincidence of matter, then essentially nothing but sub-atomic particles survive over any reasonable stretch of time. That does rather suggest, though the contrary view is certainly held, that identity over time simply does not require complete coincidence of matter. What it does require is not very clear, but that is no reason to despair.

Of course, the question didn't ask about complete coincidence of matter. But it's unclear why anything less might suffice. And, if it does, then you run into issues about transitivity: A might share much of its matter with B, which shares much of its matter with C; but A and C do not share much of their matter.

And one might add that the cells themselves are hardly immune from "renewal" at the molecular level. So the short version is: If identity requires complete coincidence of matter, then essentially nothing but sub-atomic particles survive over any reasonable stretch of time. That does rather suggest, though the contrary view is certainly held, that identity over time simply does not require complete coincidence of matter. What it does require is not very clear, but that is no reason to despair. Of course, the question didn't ask about complete coincidence of matter. But it's unclear why anything less might suffice. And, if it does, then you run into issues about transitivity: A might share much of its matter with B, which shares much of its matter with C; but A and C do not share much of their matter.

Can we perceive relations? For example, if I have a cup of coffee I can perceive

Can we perceive relations? For example, if I have a cup of coffee I can perceive the cup as white, round, hard, and shiny; and the coffee as liquid, brown, hot, and delicious; but the relation in has no color or visual size or shape, and I cannot touch it, hear it, smell or taste it --- so how can I perceive it? It's tempting to say that I cannot perceive it because it isn't real --- but if it isn't real then how could I drink the coffee? The similarity between two oranges, the direction of a train whistle, the relative brightness of the sun and the full moon ... There are countless empirical relations that can/cannot be perceived. How come?

I'd suggest that this puzzle is largely a linguistic one. Consider the relation being larger than. Can one perceive that relation? There's a temptation to say that one cannot perceive the relation itself, because the relation itself "has no color or visual size or shape", and so on and so forth. And maybe that's so. Ask a metaphysician. (Of course, what answer you get will depend upon which metaphysician you ask!)

But the examples with which you began suggest a different question. Can one perceive that one thing is larger than another? Here, it seems to me, the answer is clearly that one can. We perceive that kind of thing all the time. But how can we perceive the relation if we can't perceive the relation itself? The answer, I think, is that this question is just confused. What we perceive is that the objects are so related. Perception, as people sometimes put it, has propositional content, and relations figure in these contents. One might yet wonder how it is that we manage to perceive such things as that the coffee is in the cup. That, I take it, is a question for a psychologist more than for a philosopher, but certainly part of the story is that you can perceive where the coffee is and you can perceive where the cup is, and on that basis your brain might come to have a view about the relation between the coffee and the cup, which view is delivered to you in perceptual experience.

Perhaps someone else here would be able to recommend a place to start if you were interested in the empirical literature on such issues. There has, for example, been quite a lot of empirical work on the perception of causal relations.

I'd suggest that this puzzle is largely a linguistic one. Consider the relation being larger than . Can one perceive that relation? There's a temptation to say that one cannot perceive the relation itself , because the relation itself "has no color or visual size or shape", and so on and so forth. And maybe that's so. Ask a metaphysician. (Of course, what answer you get will depend upon which metaphysician you ask!) But the examples with which you began suggest a different question. Can one perceive that one thing is larger than another? Here, it seems to me, the answer is clearly that one can. We perceive that kind of thing all the time. But how can we perceive the relation if we can't perceive the relation itself? The answer, I think, is that this question is just confused. What we perceive is that the objects are so related . Perception, as people sometimes put it, has propositional content, and relations figure in these contents. One might yet wonder how it is that we manage to...

Does the word "universe" denote a really existing thing, or is it just a kind

Does the word "universe" denote a really existing thing, or is it just a kind generic term for all the things that exist? In other words: Is "universe" like the word "team" (because teams do not really exist, but only the individuals that make up a team can be said to really exist)?

Teams, surely, cannot exist without individuals to play on them, but it isn't obvious to me, anyway, that teams don't "really" exist. It was the same team that won the World Series in 2004 as had last wonit in 1918, so there has to be something more to a team than just acollection of players. Teams can gain and lose players, change locations and ownership, even change names, and yet it can be the same team.

The question you are asking can perhaps be clarified if we introduce the idea of a fusion, which is a notion from merology, the logic of parts and wholes. Suppose we have a bunch of objects, say, a shoe, a tennis ball, and a neutron star. The fusion of these objects is, by definition, simply the "sum" of these three objects. It's tempting to say that it is the object whose only parts are the shoe, the ball, and the star, but that's not quite right, because the parts of the shoe are also parts of the fusion. Moreover, the scattered thing consisting of half the tennis ball and the sole of the shoe is also a part of the fusion. (The sum of any parts of the original objects is part of the sum.) The right thing to say is that the fusion is the scattered thing every part of which "overlaps" at least one of the original objects. Some people find fusions to be really bizarre kinds of things, so bizarre that they deny that there are any fusions. But let's not worry about that question right now.

What I just argued, in part, is that a team cannot be identified with the fusion of its players at a single time. I didn't argue that a team isn't the fusion of all the players over time, though it will quickly become apparent if you try to work that idea out that it would need refinement. (Players move from team to team, all the more so since the rise of free agency, at least in American professional sports.) My own view is that this view won't work, in the end, either, but there are plenty of philosophers who like that kind of idea.

Your question could be put as: Is the universe just the fusion of everything that has, does, and will exist? Or is there something "above and beyond" all those things which is the universe? I'm not myself sure what's really at stake here. What makes me worry about the idea that teams (let alone people and aninals) are just fusions is their identity over time. But I'm not sure what point there would be in talking about whether we still have the same universe now that there was, say, 5 billion years ago. There's just the one universe, and that's kind of it.

Teams, surely, cannot exist without individuals to play on them, but it isn't obvious to me, anyway, that teams don't "really" exist. It was the same team that won the World Series in 2004 as had last wonit in 1918, so there has to be something more to a team than just acollection of players. Teams can gain and lose players, change locations and ownership, even change names, and yet it can be the same team. The question you are asking can perhaps be clarified if we introduce the idea of a fusion , which is a notion from merology, the logic of parts and wholes. Suppose we have a bunch of objects, say, a shoe, a tennis ball, and a neutron star. The fusion of these objects is, by definition, simply the "sum" of these three objects. It's tempting to say that it is the object whose only parts are the shoe, the ball, and the star, but that's not quite right, because the parts of the shoe are also parts of the fusion. Moreover, the scattered thing consisting of half the tennis ball and the sole of...

Why do many philosophers posit that there are no members in the set of necessary

Why do many philosophers posit that there are no members in the set of necessary beings? There seem only two explanations if they are correct: 1) Necessary beings are logically possible, but none exist in this world or 2) Necessary beings are logically impossible. Explanation 1 seems untenable since if a necessary being exists in one world (is logically possible), then it must exist in all worlds (and thus this one) by virtue of its necessity. But explanation 2 (which seems likely the more preferred one) seems to do no better, since the set of necessary beings is made a subset of the set of impossible beings. While perhaps this is merely a trivial case, it still seems unsettling, if not contradictory. Is the existence of at least one necessary being necessary? Or is there some other explanation for how none could exist?

There's another distinction that needs to be made here and that is relevant to the objection to explanation (1): We need to distinguishdifferent sorts of necessity. Nowadays, most philosophers and logicianswould agree that there is nothing whose existence is logically necessary, even the objects of mathematics, although their existence is mathematically and even metaphysically necessary. Even God's existence would not be regarded as logically necessary, even by philosophers who accept God's existence. Perhaps we should regard it as agreed, then, that, if God exists, God exists by metaphysical necessity. If so, then there is no contradiction in holding that it is logically possible that God should have existed. Whether it is consistent to hold that it is metaphysically possible that God should have existed depends upon whether one thinks the so-called Brouweresche axiom of modal logic holds for metaphysical necessity. (Axiom B says that, if it is possible that it is necessary that A, then A is true.) Most metaphysicians would, I think, accept B, but there is some controversy there.

In any event, as you speculate, the popular option is likely to be that it is not metaphysically possible that there should have been a metaphysically necessary being like God. (Many philosophers would suppose that there are plenty of things whose existence is metaphysically necessary: the natural numbers, for example.) As Alex says, there's no immediate contradiction in this view, and the apparent oddity of holding that the set of divine beings (say) is a subset of the set of impossible beings is merely apparent. The set of female US presidents is empty and so a subset of the set of impossible beings, but it doesn't even follow that there might not have been a female US president. It's just a reflex of the fact that the empty set is, in virtue of how the notion "subset" has been defined, a subset of every set.

There's another distinction that needs to be made here and that is relevant to the objection to explanation (1): We need to distinguishdifferent sorts of necessity. Nowadays, most philosophers and logicianswould agree that there is nothing whose existence is logically necessary, even the objects of mathematics, although their existence is mathematically and even metaphysically necessary. Even God's existence would not be regarded as logically necessary, even by philosophers who accept God's existence. Perhaps we should regard it as agreed, then, that, if God exists, God exists by metaphysical necessity. If so, then there is no contradiction in holding that it is logically possible that God should have existed. Whether it is consistent to hold that it is metaphysically possible that God should have existed depends upon whether one thinks the so-called Brouweresche axiom of modal logic holds for metaphysical necessity. (Axiom B says that, if it is possible that it is necessary that A,...

Hi,

Hi, My roommate claims that it is impossible for an omnipotent being to exist. His logic is that if a being can create a rock so big it cannot lift it, then that being is not omnipotent because its lifting power is not infinite. But also, if it cannot create the rock so big it cannot lift, then it's creation power is not infinite. And because of this paradox, an omnipotent being cannot possibly exist. My boss was a philosophy major in school. He claims that this explanation is completely wrong. However, I do not understand his explanation as he said it very quickly and with many names of old philosophers and theorems and such that I cannot remember. So who is right? Regardless of whether or not an omnipotent being does exist or not, can one exist? Thanks.

I'd like to add one further point to the two made so far. Many contemporary philosophers infer from the so-called Paradox of the Stone that omnipotence is not a matter of being able to do anything, but only a matter of *being able to do anything it is possible to do*. That observation suggests another possible insight. Consider the Problem of Evil. If God exists, then it might seem puzzling that God should permit the extent and kinds of evil that we can find. Now there are many things to say about this, but one pertinent to God's omnipotence is this: Certain moral virtues seem to require some evil, and in such a way that even God can't have one without the other. Even God, it might be remarked, can't make a world in which there is, for instance, forgiveness in the absence of any wrongdoing. (I can't forgive you unless you've wronged me in some way.) This is not to say that all virtues require evil, but just that some seem to, even if you're God. As it happens, contemporary philosophical theologians like Alvin Plantinga have made much of how God's powers might be surprisingly limited, while remaining omnipotent!

This is a version of an old problem, one discussed endlessly by theologians. In its simplest form, it goes like this: Can God make a rock both big and small? Obviously not. So God isn't omnipotent. If you think that's a cheat, I'm with you. It's not possible for there to be a rock that is both big and small, so it's not limit on God's power that God can't make a rock like that. We have to be more careful in how we understand omnipotence. It's a delicate question how we should understand it, but a first stab might be: A being is omnipotent if, whenever it is possible that p, that being can bring about that p. The puzzle your roommate presents you is of this same form. If Fred is omnipotent, then it simply isn't possible for a rock to be so big that Fred can't lift it. So it's no limit on Fred's power that he can't create a rock that big. Of course, maybe Fred isn't omnipotent, and maybe it's not even possible for there to be a being that is omnipotent. But the argument your roommate offered does...

Our son (8 years old) was stating yesterday that all things have opposites. He

Our son (8 years old) was stating yesterday that all things have opposites. He was discussing the matter with our daughter (10) and she argued that it cannot be so. The examples our son provided were of the kind light vs dark, day vs night, cold vs hot. I tried to explain the oriental idea of the TAO, the whole being composed of Yin and Yang, both opposites but complementary and each with a touch of the other. Another example I tried to make was the definition of a vase, or a bowl or any vessel that is defined by its content. An empty vase not being anything without just "nothing" inside. The question our daughter raised was then: What is then the opposite of a lion? Or a tree, or a rock?... I had a hard time trying to get a good answer for that one and settled for a non-lion, no-tree or no-rock (thinking of the vase allegory above). My question to you is then, what would your answers be? Is there really a duality in all things and if so, how does it apply to the lion case? Thank you.

There are many different conceptions of "opposite" at work in your question. One, with which your son seems to have been operating, is similar to what Aristotle would have called "contrary". Two properties are contraries if it is impossible for them to be present in the same object at the same time, and at least one of them must be present. A weaker conception would be that of a "contradictory", for which only the first clause applies: They can't both be present. The conception of a contrary that your example of the vase employs, however, is spatial or perhaps (to use a technical terms) "merological", that is, defined in terms of parts and wholes.

So let us ask: What is the opposite of you?Non-you? And what is non-you? The sum total of everything that is notpart of you? If that's counts as your "opposite", then, yes, everythinghas an opposite, but note that we are operating with the spatial or mereological sense of opposite, not the Aristotelian sense. It's not very interesting that everything has an opposite in that sense. And it does not seem that there is any reason to believe that you have an opposite in the Aristotelian sense: That is, that there is something that has every property you lack and lacks every property you have. Indeed, unless we can say much more precisely what counts as a "property", we will be able to prove that you have no contrary, in that sense. The same will apply to "lion", "tree", and "rock".

There are many different conceptions of "opposite" at work in your question. One, with which your son seems to have been operating, is similar to what Aristotle would have called "contrary". Two properties are contraries if it is impossible for them to be present in the same object at the same time, and at least one of them must be present. A weaker conception would be that of a "contradictory", for which only the first clause applies: They can't both be present. The conception of a contrary that your example of the vase employs, however, is spatial or perhaps (to use a technical terms) "merological", that is, defined in terms of parts and wholes. So let us ask: What is the opposite of you?Non-you? And what is non-you? The sum total of everything that is notpart of you? If that's counts as your "opposite", then, yes, everythinghas an opposite, but note that we are operating with the spatial or mereological sense of opposite, not the Aristotelian sense. It's not very interesting that...

In a recent discussion with friends about the existence or nonexistence of God,

In a recent discussion with friends about the existence or nonexistence of God, it soon became apparent that there are very different definitions of "existence" being used, and that this seeming hair-splitting is unavoidable if one wants to make any meaningful statement about God's existence. For instance, the Eiffel Tower exists because it is made up of atoms, but no one claims God is made of atoms, so God clearly doesn't exist in the same way the Eiffel Tower does. France, on the other hand, exists as a collective understanding; that doesn't mean that France is a figment of people's imaginations, but it does mean that without people there would be no "France" in any meaningful sense. Many atheists would concede that God "exists" in this sense. But then in what sense does "information" exist? It seems to be a combination of material (which holds the information), and an intelligence (which interprets the information), but I'm not clear on this. I can't say with certainty in what sense concepts like ...

I wish I had something helpful to say about this, but I don't know if I do. We should, however, try to get a little clearer on what is at issue.

Let's consider something a little simpler, like plays. I think A Comedy of Errors exists. That is, I think there is such a thing as A Comedy of Errors. But that play isn't a physical thing. You can't tear it up, burn it, or spill your coffee on it, though you can tear up, burn, and soak printings of it. If one wants to say that A Comedy of Errors therefore doesn't exist in the same way that its printings do, I suppose that's all right. But that's not because there is some special sense of "exists" at work here. It's because a play is a very different sort of thing from a printing of one. I take it that the same is true of God. God (if God exists) isn't a physical object, so one wouldn't expect God to be made of atoms.

What is it that even atheists will concede about God? Let's look at what you say about France. If you are thinking of France as a country, with a political system and the like, then there is a very obvious sense in which there couldn't be such a thing unless there were some people (or other intelligent beings) around. You need people to have a political system. But that's very different from saying that France exists "as a collective understanding", if that is supposed to mean that France only exists because people think about it. We need to distinguish between our concept of France, which perhaps exists because and only because we think about France, and France itself, which could exist as a political entity even if people didn't have any concept of political entities. Consider a different case: Families and other social groups can exist only if there are organisms around to constitute them. But there were social groups, perhaps composed of gazelles, before anyone had any concept of a social group.

Once we make that distinction, we can see what atheists are and aren't conceding. They aren't conceding that God exists in any sense at all, even as a "collective understanding". What they are conceding is that we have a concept of God. And what's at issue is whether there is anything in reality that answers to that concept.

I wish I had something helpful to say about this, but I don't know if I do. We should, however, try to get a little clearer on what is at issue. Let's consider something a little simpler, like plays. I think A Comedy of Errors exists. That is, I think there is such a thing as A Comedy of Errors . But that play isn't a physical thing. You can't tear it up, burn it, or spill your coffee on it, though you can tear up, burn, and soak printings of it. If one wants to say that A Comedy of Errors therefore doesn't exist in the same way that its printings do, I suppose that's all right. But that's not because there is some special sense of "exists" at work here. It's because a play is a very different sort of thing from a printing of one. I take it that the same is true of God. God (if God exists) isn't a physical object, so one wouldn't expect God to be made of atoms. What is it that even atheists will concede about God? Let's look at what you say about France. If you are thinking of France as...