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Is modern philosophy too abstract? I mean when it asks questions about being

Is modern philosophy too abstract? I mean when it asks questions about being does it ask questions that about any kind of being when perhaps it could be asking question about the particular kind of being that we live in? I guess you could say the answer is no because philosophers deal with questions about science and science is about the world we live in. But is the kind of being of science the only "concrete" form of being that philosophers can ask about? I personally think that their is more to being than either physics or hyper-abstractions that only look at being in terms of temporarily, causality and quantity, etc. Is a disagreement about what we think is "being" perhaps one of the central splits between analytic and "continental" philosophy?

I tend to use the noun 'being' as a count noun: You and I are both beings; maybe the number seven is also a being (although of a different kind from you or me). I'll therefore use the words 'existence' or 'reality' for what you seem to refer to by 'being' in your question. When it asks questions about existence or reality, modern-day philosophy -- including analytic philosophy -- ranges as broadly as you like. Philosophy doesn't confine itself to the world described by natural science. Often philosophy asks about the existence or reality of non-natural beings such as abstract objects (maybe numbers, properties, propositions) or concrete, non-natural beings (maybe immaterial minds or souls, maybe God). It's true that analytic philosophers tend to respect natural science, but they shouldn't (and largely don't) think that all legitimate questions are questions for natural science. Furthermore, contemporary philosophy -- perhaps especially analytic philosophy -- asks about ways that reality could have been but isn't: for example, in analyzing counterfactual conditionals, identity, cause and effect, the concept of knowledge, the concept of merit or desert, and countless other things too. I think contemporary analytic philosophy is much less narrowly scientistic (i.e., uncritically science-worshiping) than you may have been led to believe. For just two of many examples of analytic philosophy venturing beyond the realm of natural science, see these entries in the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an online resource I keep recommending!):

SEP, "Abstract Objects"
SEP, "Transworld Identity"

Would it be accurate to say that the relationship between scientific theory and

Would it be accurate to say that the relationship between scientific theory and the material world is like the relationship between a map and the territory it represents?

This is an interesting analogy and it is one that some philosophers of science (e.g. Ronald Giere) have developed. It captures the idea that scientific theories represent the world by naming its objects and relations. But it is just an analogy, and like all analogies, the similarities only go so far.

The map analogy is good for illustrating how theories can be partial and not complete e.g. a map of the London Underground is partial, revealing topological relationships but not distances, and likewise classical thermodynamics reveals temperature/pressure/volume relationships but not magnetic forces.

The map analogy is less good for understanding the success of theories in quantum mechanics and particle physics, where theories are valued for their predictive power but not necessarily for their representativeness.

Maps are also more complicated than is assumed in the analogy: for example, different projections of 3D structures into 2D (e.g. the different projections of the earth's surface) may contradict each other and even misrepresent distances, angles, etc.

So--it's just an analogy, sometimes useful pedagogically, but not to be taken too literally.

Let's say I have a machine with a button and a light bulb where the bulb lights

Let's say I have a machine with a button and a light bulb where the bulb lights up if and only if I press the button. I don't know anything about it's inner workings (gears, computers, God), I only know the "if and only if" connection between button and light. Can I say that by pressing the button I cause the bulb to light up? (I would say yes). It seems to me that for the causal connection it doesn't matter that I don't know the exact inner workings, or that I don't desire the effect (maybe I press the button just because I enjoy pressing it, or because there is strong social pressure to press it, ...), and that I consider it very unfortunate that the bulb lights up wasting electric energy. Let's now change the terms: instead of "pressing the button" we insert "having a kid" and instead of "the bulb lights up" we have "the kid dies" (maybe when adult). I think the "if and only if" relationship still holds, and so does the causal connection. It would seem to me that parents are causally connected to...

Great set of thoughts, here. But maybe one quick mode of response is to remark that much depends on just what you take the word "cause" to mean. You could take it to mean something like this: "x causes y" = "y if and only if x", as you've suggested. Then, granting that both cases above are cases fulfilling the "if and only if", sure, giving birth would count as a cause of the later death. But now two things. (1) Why should "cause" mean precisely that? Wouldn't it be enough if the x reliably yielded the y, even if things other than x could yield the y too? (i.e. couldn't you drop the 'only if' part, so 'x causes y' would mean 'if x, then, y', even if it might also be true (say) that 'if z, then y'?) Going this route would preserve your intuition that both cases above are cases of causation, but focus on whether your particular definition is the best one. (2) Perhaps more importantly, though, one might examine the 'pragmatics' of causation -- how people actually use the word, different from how very precise philosophers or scientists might define it. So, for example, we often restrict the word 'cause' not just to every factor which may be necessary or sufficient or both for an effect, but to the most salient factors, the most explanatorily relevant ones, the most proximate ones, etc. So, you strike a match and it lights; strictly speaking many things are at least necessary for that (the presence of oxygen, the existence of the match, the laws of physics, etc.) but we often say 'the striking caused the lighting', even though all those other factors were necessary. Indeed the striking was neither necessary nor sufficient for the lighting -- the match could have been lit other ways, and striking on its own (without oxygen etc) wouldn't light. So our ordinary use of 'cause' is far looser than some technical philosophical definition. So the question for you is: how, ultimately, are you going to use the word 'cause', and are you justified in choosing that use in light of competing uses?

hope that's useful ...


Is religion the true enemy of freedom in a democratic society since it teaches

Is religion the true enemy of freedom in a democratic society since it teaches us that we have to think a certain way or is science since it teaches us that nobody is truly free but a product of deterministic forces?

Or another mode of reply: First suppose that science DOES suggest determinism. How would anything be different in our lives? Wouldn't democratic processes work precisely the same way as they have been? (After all, our behavior has been deterministic all along, so why would discovering/proving/merely believing that it is deterministic change anything?) Or since 'freedom' seems to be the larger concern for you, again, what would be different? All the cases where we've held people responsible for their behaviors, we still would hold them, wouldn't we? we'd still lock up bad people, teach our children to be good, etc.... So it isn't clear to me why scientific results would threaten anything, really. Ditto for religion: if we think religions are in the business of generating true claims about the world, then, where they succeed, we should be happy to endorse their claims (assuming we want the truth). Whichever dogmatic religions you're thinking of ARE dogmatic because they believe they have the truth which, I suppose, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Of course, greater humility about knowledge is probably more appropriate -- but then very little stops most people from believing their religious beliefs along WITH the humility of recognizing they may be wrong -- so it isn't religion itself which 'suppresses freedom (of thought)', but dogmatic bossy people (some of whom are religious, but many of whom are not) ....

hope that's useful! ...


I consider myself a (metaphysical) materialist or, to use the synonymous term

I consider myself a (metaphysical) materialist or, to use the synonymous term that is more fashionable nowadays, physicalist, and I'm familiar with the academic literature on contemporary materialism/physicalism. But in no paper or book did I find really satisfying, fully adequate definitions of the central concepts of a material/physical object and of a material/physical property. (A material/physical property certainly isn't material/physical in the same sense as a material/physical object.) Does this mean that there actually aren't any such definitions, and that materialism/physicalism is therefore a virtually vacuous doctrine? Material/physical objects (substances) could be defined in terms of material/physical properties: x is a material/physical object =def x has some (intrinsic) material/physical properties. But then the big problem is how to properly define the concept of a material/physical property. I've been trying to devise and formulate a fully adequate definition of it for several years...

This is indeed a difficult question. If we say that a physical object is an object with intrinsic physical properties, then you are right: we have left ourselves with the question of what a physical property is. If we say that a physical object is an object with spatiotemporal properties (such as position and velocity), then someone who believed in irreducible minds or souls that have spatial locations could presumably still count as a physicalist, which seems inappropriate. If we say that a material object is an object that is made of matter, then we need an account of what matter is. Are electric fields made of matter? They have mass, after all. Would Newtonian space be made of matter? It doesn't seem like it would be ... but its existence does not compromise materialism, does it?

More generally, materialism and physicalism seem to be motivated by the idea that the entities described by physics are all of the entities that there are -- or, more precisely, are all of the fundamental entities there are. Another way to put this idea (that avoids the presupposition that there are fundamental entities) is that physicalism is the idea that all of the facts (or, at least, all of the contingent facts) are determined by the physical facts. Now, of course, the question is: what is a physical fact? Any specification of the particular kinds of properties that can figure in a physical fact would seem to be hostage to the fortunes of a future physics. To avoid any commitment to the kinds of facts that might appear in a final physics, we could say that physicalism is the idea that all of the (contingent) facts are determined by the facts that would appear in the final, complete physics. However, that way of putting the point presupposes that we understand what counts as "physics." This seems to raise exactly the questions that we were trying to get around.

One place where these matters are discussed is early in Bas Van Fraassen's book "The empirical stance." Van Fraassen argues that materialism (physicalism, naturalism...) are stances rather than views that could be true or false.

Is the concept of backward causation coherent and is it really taken seriously

Is the concept of backward causation coherent and is it really taken seriously by philosophers? I doubt whether any scientist would accept the idea and I would like to know what you think.

Is the idea of backwards causation coherent? It seems not, as you could, for example, cause earlier events, such as your own birth, not to have happened. There is also the famous "bilking" (cheating) argument due to Max Black, according to which you can prevent the future cause of something that has already happened from occurring. All the same, philosophers, particularly Michael Dummett, have taken the idea perfectly seriously, and defended it. You write that you doubt that a scientist would take the idea seriously, but plenty of physicists, including Richard Feynman, have indeed used the idea for a variety of purposes, including the remarkable idea of positrons running backwards in time.

Are there any modern philosophers that still defend astrology as either a

Are there any modern philosophers that still defend astrology as either a legitimate practice or as a science?

I don't know of any scientist who takes astrology seriously. There are two problems with astrology (1) the lack of confirmatory evidence and (2) the implausibility of the theory, given what else we know about the universe. But your question asked whether there are "modern philosophers" who take astrology seriously. Depending on how broadly the community of philosophers is defined, there may well be philosophers who take astrology seriously. You might be able to find a scientist or two, also. However, I doubt that there are scientists seriously working in the area of astrology (making predictions and testing them).

Should philosophy be considered among the group of disciplines we consider

Should philosophy be considered among the group of disciplines we consider sciences or among the humanities? I understand that the answer to this is typically taken to be that philosophy is among the humanities but I also know that philosophers sometimes resist this categorisation. Obviously we'd need to refine our definitions of these categories first to see if we can produce a useful answer. And perhaps the answer is that there's a third category that philosophy should belong to all on its own?

It's funny you asked, as I have just been discussing with the Physics faculty at my university the possibility of having my course in Metaphysics count as an elective in their program. One might ask, I think, why there are categories at all. Why not just have disciplinary programs. The reason is often more administrative than pedagogical or theoretical. Universities need means of distributing budgets, committee assignments, and review procedures. Sure there is a background in the medieval division of the ancient liberal arts into two categories: the verbal studies of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quantitative studies of the quadrivium (music, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry). And there's a stream of division that extends out of nineteenth-century ideas about the human sciences. But I find very little theoretical consideration given to the division today. My hope, in fact, is that it will diminish somewhat in importance as interdisciplinary studies gain in prominence. And that's what I'd say about philosophy. It's trans-disciplinary, even meta-disciplinary, and itself not a single method or practice but a family of them. So, I think philosophy is properly located in both the sciences and humanities. Topics like logic, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science, are properly taught and researched among the sciences. Others like, philosophy of language, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and literary criticism are properly taught and researched among the humanities. Many, like courses in the history of philosophy, philosophical anthropology, and social political philosophy, are properly taught and researched in both.

I have a friend who is an Atheist because he claims that the burden of proof

I have a friend who is an Atheist because he claims that the burden of proof (for the existence of God/other practices and belief's) is on religion and he has not been satisfied with any proof set forth. He says, "if you propose the existence of something, you must follow the scientific method in your defense of its existence. Otherwise, I have no reason to listen to you." Should one believe in God or practice religion only if it can be proven by the scientific method? What do you think of his reasoning? Is it rational to believe in a God/Religion without the SM? Thanks and I'm a huge fan of the site!

It would be interesting to draw your friend out a bit more on what he means by the scientific method. Is he including non-behaviorist psychology, in which it is permissible to describe and explain people's subjective experiences, employing introspection? Does he include history? Or is his domain only the natural sciences? Even addressing these questions will, I believe, bring to light that your friend is operating on something that goes beyond the "scientific method"; he is employing a philosophy of science. Science alone (physics....) will not tell you that it is the only reliable basis of knowledge, and if a physicist says this, then she is being more than a physicists; she is a philosopher of physics or science. In any case, questions about ethics, religion, and meaning go beyond science (I suggest) and in fact science as a practice must presuppose some ethics (minimally one must be trustworthy / not falsify data, etc) in order to be practiced at all. Questions about whether or not there is a God or objective values, etc, seem to me to be the sorts of things that require a philosophical investigation, an assessment, for example, of why it is that there is a cosmos in which science is so successful. To make one further observation that I hope is helpful: these days, philosophers rarely speak in terms of "proofs." It is very difficult even to prove that radical skepticism is wrong (do I know that I am not in the Matrix? ). In most contexts, we refer instead to good or bad arguments. So, I am sympathetic with your friend it is good to discuss the reasons for and against theism but I suggest you do so, drawing on, but not limited to science alone. Good wishes to you both!

Video games cause violent behavior. Is that an example of a baseless speculation

Video games cause violent behavior. Is that an example of a baseless speculation or is it a reasonable but vaguely founded idea? It seems somewhat plausible but its plausibility seems kind of vague so I can kind of sympathize with the ultra-logical "Reason Magazine" types dismissing it out of hand. On the other hand that kind of dismissal which says that if you can't think of a definite reason for an opinion then it's wrong seems kind of glib, because their does seem to be something to it. After all as general psychological rule we tend to think that encouraging a behavior leads to a behavior and some people might see imaginary violence as a form of encouragement.... but it really does seem like a kind of reasoning that lies somewhere between gut instinct and reason doesn't it? I guess my question is really more epistemological than directly pertaining to the question of whether or not images cause violence. Is this simply a case of balancing human social instinct over pure reasoning or is there a more...

The question whether video games cause violent behavior is an empirical one. That is, it's one that has to be decided by looking carefully at the evidence, not by reflection on what seems plausible and what doesn't, and anyone who would "dismiss" such a claim "out of hand" is not being very reasonable at all. Nor is someone who bases such an opinion on a vague feeling that "imaginary violence [is] a form of encouragement" being very reasonable.

Fortunately, the social scientists who study these sorts of things have other tools. That is not to say, of course, that the tools are sufficient to answer the question, and of course it continues to be controversial whether video games, or other sorts of "media violence", lead to increased violence in practice. It's difficult to account, in practice, for all the variables. That said, I think most researchers would agree that exposure to media violence does tend to make one less sensitive to the real suffering such violence causes and so does tend to make one more likely to be violent.

In some ways, the debate is reminiscent of the one on global warming. Surprise, surprise, the big oil companies think there's no global warming! Surprise, surprise, the manufacturers of violent video games think they have no ill effects! And both sides can wheel out studies (funded by them, in many cases) to back up their opinions. It's sad.

I recommend this article for some sanity.