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Do you think that there are things humans cannot understand because our brains

Do you think that there are things humans cannot understand because our brains are limited? Philosopher Thomas Nagel was recently quoted as saying that there are surely truths that people cannot understand (and will never be able to understand), as "nine-year olds cannot understand Maxwell's equations". I don't think this is a good example: after all nine-year olds are very smart, and it seems to me that they just don't have the time and information to "understand Maxwell's equations" while they are still nine years old. Is there any reason why nine-year olds wouldn't understand those equations if they had a nine-year old brain (physically speaking) forever (always adding new information)? And what if such equations were explained to them? Anyway, I would like you to answer not about the example, but about the general issue. Of course there are things we will never know and cannot know (for instancel, many things that happened before humans existed, or in distant parts of the universe, or things people...

I'm inclined to think that there are, and perhaps must be, things that humans can't understand because of the limitations of our brains. Now, the term 'understand' might mean (i) 'understand at all (i.e., at least partly)' or (ii) 'understand completely'. On interpretation (ii), it's pretty clear that there are things we can't understand, because our finite brains can't grasp all of the infinitely many facts there are about even as ordinary a thing as my car. What's my car's exact mass right now? (No rounding allowed!) Even on interpretation (i), there may be things that humans can't understand.

The only organ with which we can hope to understand something is our brain. Why wouldn't our brain's finite capacity for information storage, calculation, and so on, be accompanied by a finite capacity for understanding things? Indeed, Colin McGinn has conjectured that some of the central problems of philosophy have endured for so long because, although they have solutions, our species lacks the ability to understand those solutions. See his Problems in Philosophy and this later paper. Jonathan Bennett sounds a similar theme in his article 'Descartes's Theory of Modality', Philosophical Review 103 (1994): 639-667, at 656.

Do philosophers consider psychology to be a science? If not, do they think

Do philosophers consider psychology to be a science? If not, do they think philosophy should inform personal life values or psychiatric treatment?

Interesting question! The field of psychology emerged in the 19th and early 20th century as a science; at least the early self-described psychologists first described themselves as developing a science of the mind, and later changed this to the science of behavior. In any case, I suggest that whether psychology is a science, it is difficult to avoid philosophy when addressing one's personal life or engaged in psychiatric treatment. Presumably, one's personal life will include some kind of philosophy of values or some ideas about what is good and healthy, bad and ill, what is kind or cruel, and so on. Some of the therapeutic communities I know in which persons seek recovery from mental illness involve a philosophy of health, responsibility, and care (see for example, Spring Lake Ranch in Vermont). They do not employ a philosophy course from Plato to Nato, but much of the dialogue is about wellbeing, the value of community, and living a philosophy of mutual respect.

Does intelligence imply obligation? That is, if you can understand a situation

Does intelligence imply obligation? That is, if you can understand a situation better than other people, or have a generally higher aptitude for solving problems, are you obligated to use that capacity to better help society? Are you held to a higher moral standard, say where crime (or harmful behavior) is concerned, if you have a demonstrably greater grasp of the values in play; are you more responsible to consider long-term consequences because you can anticipate them better? I'd be curious to know which, if any, philosophers addressed these sorts of questions historically.

Very good question! Those philosophers in the utilitarian tradition tend to think that such a gifted person ought to apply her intelligence in such matters if that would be the maximal way in which she might bring about the greatest happiness.

Formally, what is called 'act utilitarianism' is the view that an agent should do that act of which there is no other act that will produce greater utility (or happiness).

A Marxist approach to social roles (in which persons are assigned roles in accord with their abilities) would probably also deem the gifted person degenerate if she failed to help her comrades.

Philosophers who are in some religious traditions would also contend that one should use one's talents in ways that maximally benefits others. Christians, for example, offer a Good Samaritan ethic that obliges us to help the vulnerable. In that tradition, though, it is sometimes thought there is a difference between ordinary obligations, and the precepts of perfection. Ordinary virtue may not require heroic acts, but those seeking to be in perfect union with God's will may be called to exceptional duties.

Other philosophers (such as Susan Wolf and Bernard Williams) think that morality and ethical obligations need to be balanced by other goods. So, they would argue that even if the person of exceptional intelligence has a moral obligation to help others, the person may not be blameworthy if she decides to apply her intelligence to poetry rather than aiding others.

Are the intentions of a speaker or writer relevant to determining the meaning of

Are the intentions of a speaker or writer relevant to determining the meaning of what they say or write? It seems common to suppose so. For example, people will often try to argue for an interpretation of a book by citing statements the author has made about her thought process in writing it. At the same time, it seems obvious that, even if there is merit to this approach, it can only be pushed so far. If J.K. Rowing said, " Harry Potter is really about a time travelling cyborg sent back to 1917 to intercept the Zimmerman telegram--that's what I intended," we wouldn't take her at her word. If she really meant to convey that "meaning" she simply failed. Considerations like this make me wonder if the intention of the author is relevant at all. (After all, it would be kind of weird to suppose that authorial intent bears on the justification of moderate, plausible interpretations, but not on extreme interpretations.)

I really dislike doing this, but variations on your questions have been asked before, and some good answers put up. Please see:

http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/3587

Other questions and answers pertain to your broader question, which is not about works of fiction, but about 'speakers and writers' more generally.

But I'll add, re your nicely absurd J. K. Rowling interpretation, that even this would have SOME bearing on how we read the Harry Potter books. We might suspect that Rowling was clinically insane, and scour the books for further evidence; we might suspect that she was a prankster, and again scour the books looking for meta-fictional jokes; we might suspect she was writing a time-travelling cyborg novel and looking to promote it, and again we might then return to Harry Potter using it to help us imagine what the new novel would be like. The point is, the author clearly has some connection to the book(s). Either, then, we ENTIRELY discount the author when interpreting -- 'moderate, plausible interpretations' regardless -- or we do not -- in which case anything the author says could in principle serve as evidence.

What, if anything, can it possibly mean to deny the existence of the soul--the

What, if anything, can it possibly mean to deny the existence of the soul--the one and only thing that we have direct experience of? I can see why someone might deny the existence of a physical universe: we can only experience it as part of the content of consciousness: that is, of the soul. And I can understand why one might question some aspect of the soul: is it material or immaterial, mortal or immortal. But I don't see how one can question its existence without making use of the very thing they're questioning. To deny the existence of the soul seems to require some special definition of "soul"--but what? What is being asked when questions of the existence of the soul are raised? monk Herman Hanover, NM

From what I can gather, you're treating 'consciousness' as synonymous with 'soul'. You write, "as part of the content of consciousness: that is, of the soul." But 'soul' is a much more loaded term than 'consciousness': people tend to use 'a soul' or 'the soul' to denote a metaphysical substance, as Descartes did, whereas they tend to use 'consciousness' to denote an activity, a property, or a state of some substance, even if the substance is a material one. So I think it's better to use the less loaded term 'consciousness' when talking about what it is that we directly experience.

I agree that it's hard to deny the existence of one's own consciousness, but there are philosophers who (claim to) deny it. They're discussed in this entry from the SEP (see especially section 3.3). It's a challenging article but worth the effort, I believe. I hope it's helpful. But let me emphasize that one can accept the existence of one's own consciousness without accepting the existence of what's usually meant by 'one's soul'.

I'm currently reading Simon Blackburn's "Think", in which he claims to use

I'm currently reading Simon Blackburn's "Think", in which he claims to use metaphysics to all but explain away the idea of Cartesian dualism. He claims that if it were true that the mind is distinct from the body, that it would create the possibility for "zombies" to exist who function just like us, but without a consciousness, and for "mutants" to exist, who have different mental responses to stimuli than most people. Because he believes that both of these conclusions are ridiculous, he rules out substance dualism. However, I don't see how the idea that the mind is not contained inside of the brain necessarily makes either of those options possible. As to the zombie theory, just because the two components of mind and body lie in different realms, it doesn't seem to make it necessarily true that the body would be able to function without the mind. The two could be separate but still rely upon each other in order to function. For the mutant idea, I don't see how that would be any less possible if the...

You raise excellent points. Blackburn is probably assuming Descartes' concept of what it is to be an individual substance which is, roughly, if S is a substance it may exist without other substances --or, as Descartes adjusted this concept, S is a substance if God can create and sustain A without creating and sustaining other substances. So if mind is a substance, it can exist without its body and vice versa. A zombie would be the body without a mind. HOWEVER, you raise excellent points. It may be that mind and body are distinct but the two cannot exist independently. Certain properties may be distinct but it is necessarily true that one cannot exist without the other: being the smallest perfect number and being the successor of five are distinct but it is necessarily the case that if one is instantiated (there is the number 6) the other is instantiated.

Your counter-example is also good, I think.

I believe it is also worth challenging whether the idea of a zombie is incoherent. B.F. Skinner's concept of what it is to be a human is throughly contrary to experience but if he were correct we would all actually be zombies.

Does what I think affect what I do or does what I do affect what I think?

Does what I think affect what I do or does what I do affect what I think?

Both, surely. Is there any reason to think otherwise?

If I think there's a mugger around the corner, I won't go there. (What I think affects what I do.)

If I'm prejudiced against midwesterners and I end up working with several smart, interesting, friendly people from that part of the country, what I think about midwesterners is likely to change; what I do affects what I think.

We could multiply examples indefinitely, but this should do.

What characteristics essentially define an immaterial soul? I've heard

What characteristics essentially define an immaterial soul? I've heard philosophers define a soul as being an immaterial substance which possesses a range of mental capacities or dispositions, but they never really define its internal structure. Immateriality is merely a negative attribute, but I am looking for a positive characterization of the soul. Souls have the essential capacity to have consciousness (as souls can be unconscious or conscious), but what intrinsic feature(s) of the soul explains this?

The term "soul" is a sort of a place-holder for a certain kind of something-we-know-not-what that may well not exist. That's the reason why there's not much to be said. The "definition" you cite is really just a way of fleshing out what people have in mind when they use the word "soul." It's not a stab at a theory.

If there is anything fitting this "definition" of a soul, then what internal structure it might have is a further and puzzling question. Since souls are supposed to be immaterial, it's not clear what it would mean to say that they have internal structure. Internal in what sense? Structure in what sense?

If someone asked me what features souls have that explain their supposed capacity for consciousness, my answer would be "How the h*ll would I know?" By insisting that souls are immaterial and yet still have physical effects, we've put ourselves in a hard spot: we can't call on any of the resources we usually use when we try to explain the goings-on of things in the world. Physics, biology, neurology, chemistry... are all out. What's left is anyone's guess.

For pretty much these reasons, most philosophers don't talk much about "souls." Understanding consciousness is hard; positing a non-physical thing to do the explaining doesn't really help.

Although societal pressures do play a role, does atheism manifest itself mostly

Although societal pressures do play a role, does atheism manifest itself mostly due to an inborn lack of religious "sense" rather than hearing the logical arguments against God or a life force? Research has shown that autistic people are very unlikely to be religious. I don't know what phrase philosophers of mind use to describe this, but when we talk about people with a strong sense of humor, people with a weak sense of humor, or people with no sense of humor at all, are we talking about a non-physical and antimaterialist noumenon that can be enhanced with training?

I'll chime in just to say that the first question you asked is an empirical question and therefore not the kind of question that philosophers as such are any better-equipped than non-philosophers to answer. I'd be interested in seeing the empirical data myself. I would say, however, that your first question leaves out a possibility that strikes me as more plausible than the two you mention: as they grow and develop, children tend to imitate their parents and other authority figures, including in their attitudes toward religious matters.

I have been reading a recently published book about the existence of all things

I have been reading a recently published book about the existence of all things (e.g. addressing the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"), and am struck by an interesting issue I see in the book and others like it. The author interviews philosophers (among other professionals) who often speak about the existence of things based on what one can imagine (e.g. one imagining something about possible worlds). It seems to me that there should be some kind of theory about how thoughts relate to the universe before anyone can conclude things about its nature. I know there are philosophers who have raised the question that the "laws" that govern thought/logic may be very different than the physical laws that govern the universe (and hence whatever theories we have about the world may be nothing more than our own ideas); so why is there such emphasis placed on imagination when discussing metaphysical issues? Why is the intelligibility of an idea about the universe (e.g. whether there are many...

You asked, among other things, "Why is the intelligibility of an idea about the universe...a criterion for determining the truth-value of the idea?" I wouldn't say that an idea's being intelligible to us is a criterion for its being true: that would be thinking too highly of ourselves! But an idea's being intelligible to us is necessary for our determining (i.e., ascertaining) its truth-value and even for our entertaining the possibility that it's true. If an idea is unintelligible to us -- if we can't make any sense of it -- then we can't make sense of the assertion that the idea is true, or even possibly true, or false, or even possibly false. I think we can understand the claim that some unspecified aspects of reality are unintelligible to us. But we can't understand the suggestion that some particular unintelligible claim about reality might be true (or false, for that matter). That limitation applies to science just as much as to philosophy.

I suspect that the book you're reading is Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? If you're interested in a more scholarly approach to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" you might check out Tyron Goldschmidt's edited collection of essays, The Puzzle of Existence (Routledge, 2013). For what it's worth, I think the question is defective when construed in the way it's typically intended, as I try to show in my contribution to the collection.

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