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Is it legitimate to talk about "society" as an agent, when "society" is neither

Is it legitimate to talk about "society" as an agent, when "society" is neither a cohesive unit nor a uniform set?

I share your qualms in regard to common formulations about how society approves of this and condemns that. But most societies have some fairly determinate decision procedures that can result in collective decisions and actions, as when Danish society does not recognize polygamous marriages. In cases of this kind, a society can be said to act: to decide to recognize same-sex marriages, to declare war, to ban the use of pesticides. Saying this makes sense when there is a decision procedure which is widely recognized within the society and whose decisions are effectively enforced (insofar as they are not voluntarily complied with).

It has recently struck me that despite my interest in both physics (as a

It has recently struck me that despite my interest in both physics (as a qualified physicist) and philosophy (as a complete amateur), I have not encountered any philosophy regarding the 'origin' of the universe or indeed aspects of the Cosmos as a whole. While metaphysics is increasingly dealing with questions and dilemmas in modern theoretical physics, I have not seen anyone address the question of *why* the Universe/Cosmos exists. I raise this point purely from a metaphysical standpoint. (The religious aspect is irrelevant.) I am curious whether most philosophers would even think it is a valid question to ask *why* the Universe exists. That is, why not nothing? (I do not mean the Universe is a limited physical sense, as part of a great "Multiverse" perhaps, bus as the all-encompassing everything.) If it does not sound too strange: why does nothing not exist? The temporal problems that some consider; for example the "beginning" and "end" of time do not particularly bother me as a scientist, since time...

There is a considerable literature on this subject. As a place to start, I suggest "Why anything? Why this?" by Derek Parfit, reprinted in "Metaphysics: a guide and anthology" edited by Tim Crane and Katalin Farkas (Oxford University Press, 2004), as well as the discussion of this question in Robert Nozick, "Philosophical Explanations" (Harvard, 1981) -- a large book that touches on many other topics besides this one. Further references can be found in those places. Also relevant are several papers by Adolf Grunbaum and Dean Rickles. There is also a story that Sidney Morganbesser was asked why there is something rather than nothing and replied, "Suppose there had been nothing. You wouldn't have been happy then either!"

Is the concept of property a metaphysical concept?

Is the concept of property a metaphysical concept?

Hm, it's not quite clear where this question is coming from -- if by 'property' you mean something like 'attribute' or 'feature', the kind of thing that can be possessed by objects or substances, and if you mean by 'metaphysical concept' the kind of thing studied by people who say they are doing metaphysics, then yes! But that seems to simple an answer, as if you have some underlying issue that's motivating the question -- but I can't quite figure out what it is? What turns on answering this question yes or no?


It makes sense to me that there should be nothing rather than anything. I find

It makes sense to me that there should be nothing rather than anything. I find this issue rather mind boggling because obviously there is something. Fortunately I'm able to dismiss this issue and go on to other things. My only hope is that if there is an afterlife, and there are orientation sessions I will ask the lecturer (an angel?) about it. I'm just afraid that his reply will be a board with a bunch of incomprehensible formulae. My question is do philosophers deal with this issue or has it already been dismissed as undealable.

As your formulations nicely bring out, the problem here arises from the combination of two phenomena: that there is something rather than nothing, and that our mind finds it more natural (less surprising, less boggling, more sense-making) that there should be nothing rather than anything.

Our disposition to find certain things disturbing is a feature of the mind we have, which developed through evolution and education. It's not hard to tell a story about why our mind should have developed this way: we do best concentrating our explanatory efforts on events and changes rather than where nothing it happening. So we reason with a maxim like "nothing happens without a reason" (meaning: whenever something happens, then there is a reason for it). But this useful maxim, deeply entrenched in even our more unreflective behavior, may not serve us best in all contexts. It may make us overlook that in some cases a non-event needs explanation (Sherlock Holmes' famous case of the dog that did not bark). And it may leave us stunned before the question of why there is something rather than nothing at all, because any reason we can think of (e.g., a creator god) would leave us equally at a loss to explain why he/it should exist rather than not exist. (This is how Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, expresses this mind-boggling experience: "Unconditioned necessity, which we so indispensably require as the last bearer of all things, is for human reason the veritable abyss. Eternity itself, in all its terrible sublimity ... is far from making the same overwhelming impression on the mind; for it only measures the duration of things, it does not support them. We cannot put aside, and yet also cannot endure the thought, that a being, which we represent to ourselves as supreme amongst all possible beings, should, as it were, say to itself: 'I am from eternity to eternity, and outside me there is nothing save what is through my will, but whence then am I? ' All support here fails us....")

As Kant also recognized, the only way to banish our anxiety is to recognize the contribution our mind makes to our sense of puzzlement, to recognize that we have no good reason for our disposition to find nothingness natural ("it makes sense to me") and somethingness mind-boggling or even terrifying. One could then add that, once we make the effort to suppress this disposition, then somethingness perhaps even becomes the less surprising outcome. There are countless ways for there to be something, after all, and only one way for there to be nothing -- so would it not be mind-bogglingly surprising, if there had been nothing at all? (Unsurprisingly, surprise occurs only if there is something rather than nothing, of course.)

As for philosophers having dealt with this question, I would also mention Hegel (the Science of Logic), Heidegger (Being and Time), and Nozick (Philosophical Explanations) -- plus see the entry "Nothingness" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Perhaps in the Western tradition the most useful approach to your sense of puzzlement is the kind of philosophy as therapy that Wittgenstein developed in his later work, most strikingly perhaps in his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. And then there is also a great deal of Eastern religion and philosophy to explore, though you would need a better guide for that literature and teaching than I could be.

Is it a common belief among philosophers that the external world does not exist

Is it a common belief among philosophers that the external world does not exist independently of consciousness? That consciousness creates the material world rather than the other way around? How can anyone believe this?

I'd say it's an extraordinarily uncommon view among philosophers. Very few philosophers have believed it throughout the history of the discipline (Bishop Berkeley is the most obvious exception) and I can't think of any contemporary philosophers who do, though I'm sure there are some somewhere. Berkeley was an idealist (that's the usual name for such views) because he thought the conception of matter found in Locke, Newton and other thinkers of the time was incoherent. If you read his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philnous, you may find some of his arguments more interesting that you would have thought.

We could add: orthodox theological views hold that not that our minds make matter, but that God creates the world. And accordng to that same orthodoxy, God isn't a material being. So the view that some mind may be the source of matter is actually not at all uncommon. And for various reasons, contemporary New Age and Magical thinkers often favor a view that puts mind first. If you want a sophisticated treatment of magical ways of viewing the world, I recommend Tanya Luhrmann's Persuasions of the Witch's Craft, still excellent 22 years after it was published.

There's a different sort of view that isn't quite as wild. It doesn't hold that minds make matter, but it does hold that mind brings something to the table. More particularly, the idea is that the world doesn't come pre-sliced into kinds of things; what gets grouped together with what depends on how we classify things. Traditionally, this sort of view was called "nominalism"; to varying degrees and in various ways it's still with us. You can find strains of it in Kantian philosophy, in post-modern thought, under the heading of "social construction," and in various so-called "conventionalist" views in philosophy. Within Anglo-American philosophy, Nelson Goodman was perhaps the staunchest defender of such a view; see his Ways of Worldmaking if you're interested.

So no: the view that mind makes matter is not common among philosophers. But the idea that knowledge has a "constructed" element and that in any case, the world doesn't simply sort itself by itself has a wide variety of defenders.

Recently I was watching the famous "Powers of Ten" video which starts with a

Recently I was watching the famous "Powers of Ten" video which starts with a couple at a picnic and moves out to the far edges of the universe, moving ten times further out each second. After this the camera goes back to the couple and enters the hand of the man at the picnic, moving through layers of skin, blood cells, molecules, atoms and finally a haze of interacting subatomic particles. What struck me about this part of the video is that if the camera was to move beyond the boundaries of the man's hand we wouldn't be able to tell. There is no demarcation between the subatomic particles which make up the man's hand and the subatomic particles which make up the surrounding air. So, in what sense do seperate entities exist? Is seperateness an illusion inherent to the experience of beings at a macroscopic scale, similar to our illusion that objects are "solid" when in reality an atom is comprised mostly of empty space?

I love that video! Thank you for your excellent question.

Of course, you are correct in saying that there is no sharp demarcation between the hand and its air around it. A water molecule that is part of the hand may at some point evaporate into the surrounding air. There is no particular moment at which the molecule leaves the hand and becomes part of the atmosphere. Its chemical bonds to other "hand" molecules weaken gradually, its distances from those molecules increase gradually, and even if these quantities do not change continuously (in the mathematical sense), there is no magic bond strength or distance at which the molecule officially leaves the hand and joins the air.

That being said, the fact that there is no sharp distinction does not guarantee that there is no distinction at all -- that "separateness is an illusion inherent to the experience of beings at a macroscopic scale". After all, there is no sharp distinction between night and day -- yet night is not the same as day. It may not be illusory to think that some molecules do not belong to the hand, some do belong to the hand, and some occupy an intermediate zone (a "gray" area). Separate entities can exist even if there is such an intermediate zone.

Moreover, in the course of solving a given physical problem, we might have to make more explicit what the difference is between the hand and its surrounding air. We might have to stipulate that a molecule belongs to the hand if and only if it feels a force greater than x towards the interior of the hand. Such a sharpened-up distinction may be somewhat arbitrary in the specific x chosen. But it might be serviceable for the purposes of a given physical problem. There might be a range of equally good ways of demarcating the hand from the air for the purposes of that problem. I'm not sure that such a case is best characterized in terms of separateness being "an illusion".

To what extent is the virtual world in "The Matrix" not real? Those who live in

To what extent is the virtual world in "The Matrix" not real? Those who live in the Matrix without knowledge of its true nature go through life identically to those who live in our presumably "real" world today, without any difference at all, meaningful or not. So why isn't the Matrix real? Why aren't virtual worlds, to some primitive degree, also real? Or could they be so, and if so, what would they need to do to become reality?

Very good question. Most people just assume that Matrix worlds aren't real. But that assumption derives in part from our perspective--we take our world to be real and, relative to our world, the Matrix world is a replica created by computers in our world. But what reason do we have to believe our world is not a creation of intelligences (e.g., gods) in another world? And would our world be an illusion if that were the case? The creators of The Matrix blew a chance to make the sequels more philosophical (and less goofy) by raising the question of whether the "real" world Neo enters might be another Matrix. Of course, that possibility should seem even more likely to someone like Neo who has discovered that the world they thought was real was not, though he never seems to ask that question. But now I'm talking as if matrix worlds are not real, and I'm not convinced that's the way to talk.

What does "hand" refer to in the matrix? One plausible answer is that "hand" refers to the "projections" people perceive and use in the matrix, rather than the lump of flesh that sits in the "human battery" field somewhere. If so, then why aren't the matrix hands real? After all, the entities to which people are referring and are using (the "projections") are just what people are referring to and using. And the same seems true of matrix people's friends and jobs, toasters and colors, sadness and triumphs. In what sense are those not real in the matrix? To the extent the matrix world has consistent properties to which its inhabitants consistently refer and with which they consistently interact, those properties are arguably real, and they belong to real objects and entities.

One might visualize this way of thinking about the matrix by wondering what Neo would think (should think) if after taking the red pill, he emerged into a world which had few, if any, of the properties of the matrix world. He is a blob that experiences bizarrely different things in bizarrely different ways (I can't describe them in our language). Would he think that world was real? That body was real?

There's much more to be said here, including lots of arguments on the other side (for the claim that the matrix world is not real). But I'll leave you with Morpheus' quote: "Free your mind" ... from assuming that our perspective on the matrix world is the truth.

Or Dumbledore (in the last Harry Potter movie): "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should thatmean that it is not real?"

David Chalmers has a nice paper on these issues here.

Why is there a universe, rather than nothing at all? Is this a question that

Why is there a universe, rather than nothing at all? Is this a question that shall never be answered by science?

Why is there something rather than nothing seems to me to be a quintessential example of a metaphysical question, one that cannot be answered by scientific investigation. It is logically possible that science might come to explain how the universe came into existence--although the information necessary in order to answer this question may well be inaccessible to us, so that the question is practically unanswerable, but even if we had that information, the question of WHY the universe came into existence seems to call for an answer beyond causes investigated by science and thus to lead directly to metaphysics (and religion).

Do all things exist?

Do all things exist? Nonexistence is the absence of existence, by definition. So, nonexistence does not exist. Therefore there is no such thing as nonexistence. To say that something does not exist thus seems to be a fallacy, since NOTHING does not exist. Everything, therefore, must exist. Is this right? If not, what is wrong with the argument?

Of course, in a perfectly good sense of "exist", existence doesn't exist either. Existence isn't a thing, and so there is no such thing as existence, though of course, bears, bells and BMWs exist, to mention but a few.

And yes: there is no such thing as non-existence, because "non-existence" isn't way of referring to a thing. But unicorns don't exist. Neither do square circles. And, according to some, neither do free lunches. No fallacy there.

Does everything exist? Well, if "everything" means "all the things that exist," then everything exists. (Though of course, this doesn't mean that there is a special thing, namely everything, that exists.) But since, as noted, unicorns don't exist, it's not true that "everything" in the sense of "everything that might have existed" actually exists. It's likewise not true that that every description (e.g., "round square") picks out something that exists. The conclusion of the argument comes partly from trading on ambiguity.

Related: 'existence' and 'nonexistence' are nouns. But that doesn't mean that they're meant to refer to things of a certain kind. Compare: I'm writing this post for the sake of answering your question. 'Sake' is a noun. But there aren't any sakes, even though I really am doing what I'm doing for the sake of what I said I'm doing it for. We use 'existence,' 'exists,' 'non-existence' and 'doesn't exist' to talk about what is and what isn't. Since there clearly are bells, bears, etc. and clearly aren't unicorns and square circles, we can equally clearly say that bears, etc. exist and that unicorns, etc. don't. Notice, however, that so far, we've used the copulative verb "exists" rather than the noun "existence." We can also say things like "the existence of bears is a fact about the world, as is the non-existence of unicorns." But it would be bad business to take the surface grammar here as a guide to metaphysics and to infer the existence of EXISTENCE and NON-EXISTENCE. We get ourselves into philosophical hot water when we turn accidents of language into ontological principles, and we bring the water to a boil when we slip back and forth between different meanings terms without paying attention to where we slide.

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist?

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist? Consider the Iliad. The original copy of the Iliad was lost long, long ago, yet the Iliad continues to exist through its copies. If all original-language versions of the Iliad were to disappear, leaving only translations, one would assume the Iliad would continue to exist. What if all copies of the Iliad in any language and in any material form were destroyed, and we were left with nothing but the memory of the Iliad? Would it then cease to exist, until someone (presumably with photographic memory) decided to write it down again? What if all memory and knowledge of the Iliad were erased, but copies still existed, lying around in old boxes where nobody remembered them? Would it still exist if this were the case? How can we conceptualize the existence of things, like an ancient epic poem, which exist in physical form yet are not dependent on these forms?

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for those of us in the Platonic camp, we think that the Iliad still exists even if all records of it fanish. In such conditions, there would still be truths about the Iliad. For example, in such a post-Homeric world, it would still be true that Achilles kills Hector in battle before his beloved city of Troy. Nicholas Wolterstorff has a good book on such topics called (I believe) Works of Art.