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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.

Are there any books you could recommend about the concept of reality? The

Are there any books you could recommend about the concept of reality? The philosophical origins of reality that is. Thank you!!

You might try the first few chapters of Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy and see if that is relevant to what you have in mind.

This is a twist on the "If a tree falls in the woods" question:

This is a twist on the "If a tree falls in the woods" question: Certainly there lived in the past a person, but the person in question has some very typical attributes: Nothing was written about or by this person. The person in question made no lasting contributions or left any tangible artifacts. No-one living has any memory of this person, nor are there any stories, legends, or tales being told. Did this person ever exist even with no known qualities, age, timeframe, or attribute other than "a human in the past?" There may well have been the faceless masses that are written about and populate historical accounts and ancient Greek plays, but what about specific but unspecified persons? They must have existed, but did they exist as individuals or only as a type?

You exist right now, right? You have some specific number of hairs on your head, and your toenails are some definite shape, etc. Nobody's keeping track of any of these things, though. Now flash forward to the year 3000, when you've completely and totally faded into obscurity. There is no possibility whatever of retrieving any information about you. Did you every exist, with your specific attributes? I suspect you're going to say "of course." Ditto for all the people who preceded you. To be is not to be remembered!

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote:

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote: "A more abstract reason for disallowing suicide concerns the apparent contradiction in the idea that we can improve a life by ending a life. The suicide's thought that she will be better off dead seems to contradict the fact that, if dead, she will not be anything. Her desire to retain control over her life by ending it in the way she wants to end seems to contradict the fact that there is no control over a life that has ended. There are other ways to express a suicidal intention, though, that do not lead to such contradictions." This has been haunting me since I first read it. As suggested, I am unable to devise a non-contradictory logic of suicide (for argument, base this thought on life being a biomechanical phenomenon, no after-life, and really no proof that anything at all remains in existance if you (the contemplator) are not conscious of it. This has taken on a particular poignancy as a friend has recently killed himself. I see existence continuing...

I hope Jennifer Church will also answer this one. But I don't quite see why the decision to commit suicide must be based upon the fallacy of thinking that one will be better off. The value of eliminating something bad does not have to derive from some (other) benefit achieved in the process. (See step (C) in the argument below.)

(A) S's life now involves unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(B) If the life is ended, so will the pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(C) Ending unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort is at least sometimes a good reason to do something.

Hence, (D) There can be a good reason to end a life of unbearable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

I see nothing in this argument that presupposes the fallacy you mention--for example, it is not assumed that by ending the pain and/or suffering of some other sort that the one whose pain or suffering has been ended will be "better off." As you say, they won't be "better off," they will simply be gone. But the pain or suffering will also be gone, and that's not such a bad thing.

What is meant by the question "why is there something, rather than nothing?" Or

What is meant by the question "why is there something, rather than nothing?" Or rather, how can it be put into simpler terms so it can be more easily answered?

Or, more generally, "Why do philosophers ask such absurd questions?" The basic issue here is what philosophers have come to call the "Principle of Sufficient" reason. You might say, in the simplest terms, if it doesn't distort things too much, that the principle maintains that there must always be a reason--for each event, for the existence of each thing, and for everything as a whole. That might seem obvious, but some philosophers (David Hume, for example) have disagreed, holding that that there's nothing non-sensical in holding that things might just happen or pop into existence for no reason at all. Anyway, the question of why there is "something rather than nothing" might be understood as exploring the principle at its limit. It's pretty clear, for many, why baby's come to exist and why there are iPhones. But why does anything exist? Why does the universe exist at all? Is there an answer to that question? If not, perhaps the Principle of Sufficient reason does not really hold, or, anyway, holds only in a limited sense.

Two weeks ago, a caterpillar wove a chrysalis, and turned into a butterfly.

Two weeks ago, a caterpillar wove a chrysalis, and turned into a butterfly. There was no butterfly two weeks ago, only a caterpillar. Nonetheless, can I still point to the butterfly and say "that buttefly existed two weeks ago"?

This is one of those cases where as long as we're clear on what we mean, there's not much of an issue. It would be perfectly in order to say "that creature existed two weeks ago; it was a chrysalis then." It's like saying that you existed lo so many years ago, though you were a toddler at that time. Leaving aside more radical doubts about identity over time, there's no problem with talking this way. If you say "that butterfly existed two weeks ago" and you mean something like "that creature, which is now a butterfly, existed two weeks ago" then there's nothing to worry about. But obviously if you mean "two weeks ago, this butterfly was around, as a butterfly," then you'd be saying something false.

There are more subtler issues that a philosopher might raise, having to do, for instance, with whether the butterfly (or you, for that matter) is present at any one moment (as opposed to being a 4-dimensional being whose time-slices are present at various instants). But that question would come up even if the butterfly had not, as it were, changed at all over the two weeks.

If everyone died, would Kansas still exist? Or does Kansas have to have someone

If everyone died, would Kansas still exist? Or does Kansas have to have someone recognizing it to exist?

The land mass that we call "Kansas" would still exist (unless, of course, the reason that everyone died was that the entire Earth blew up, or something like that). But Kansas the state is a "socially constructed" object (of the sort discussed by John Searle in his book The Construction of Social Reality) and would thus no longer exist. On the other hand, there might still be books and maps that refer to that land area as "Kansas", so extraterrestrials visiting Earth later on (or Earth animals that evolve to replace humans as intelligent residents of a future Earth) might be able to refer to it that way. Most artifacts are like this: The substance they are made of is human- or mind-independent; the use made of them is not---so, a flat tree stump would still be a flat tree stump after all humans die, but if it had been used as a table by some human, it would no longer be a table.

What does it mean to exist?

What does it mean to exist?

I agree with Jonathan Westphal that there's no simple answer to your question as you pose it.

One (no doubt overly simpleminded) way to approach an answer to the question is to make a list of things that exist and then see if they have any properties in common. But what would you put on this list?

You could think of beginning with a list of all of the kinds of individual things that exist: There are people, there are plants, there are animals, etc. That's going to be a pretty long list, but do these kinds of things really exist? Or is it better to say that only individual things of these kinds exist? So, instead, you should list all the individual people (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, ..., you, me), list all the plants (the rose on my desk, the rose on your desk, etc.), list all the animals (my pet cat Bella, your pet dog Fido, etc.). That's going to be an even longer list.

But are there such things? Consider any physical object. We know from physics that it's not really a single thing, but a complex thing consisting of atoms. But we also know from nuclear physics that it's really an even more complex thing that consists of quarks (etc.). So maybe people don't exist, only complexes consisting of quarks and other ultimate subatomic particles. (See Peter Unger's essay "Why There Are No People", Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1979).)

What about artifacts like tables or chairs? Do they exist in addition to such "natural kinds" as people, plants, animals, etc.? They, too, are such complexes of subatomic particles. But even if you want to consider all ordinary, medium-sized spatio-temporal objects as being the kinds of things that exist (instead of just the subatomic particles), artifacts depend on their users for their existence in the sense that something is a table if and only if someone uses it as a table. So, a suitably sturdy cardboard box or a flattened tree trunk could (also) be a table. So, maybe tables don't exist in addition to things like flattened tree trunks.

Instead of making a list (technically called an "ontology") of things, or kinds of things, that exist, you could give a criterion for existence. Two of the most famous are:

(1) Bishop Berkeley's proposal that to be (or to exist) is to be perceived (this is the source of the famous "if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, then it doesn't make a sound"): If x exists, then someone perceives x (and that someone might have to be God, just in case no human or animal perceives x but you want to maintain that x exists); and if someone perceives x, then x exists (but then what about dreams and hallucinations?).

(2) Willard Van Orman Quine's proposal that to be (or to exist) is to be the value of a bound variable. In other words, any theory (e.g., a scientific theory expressed in a language for first-order logic with variables and quantifiers) that says "there exists an x such that..." is committed to the existence of such x's. (See Quine's essay "On What There Is".)

For more on these topics, look at the articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Existence", "Metaphysics", and "Logic and Ontology".

I have been reading a little about realism and anti-realism which has left me

I have been reading a little about realism and anti-realism which has left me thinking that my metaphysical beliefs put me in both camps? Let me explain. I'm inclined to accept the correspondence theory of truth which, I think, puts me in the realism camp as to my ontology. However, while I believe there exists a world external to mind, I do not think we come to know that world directly. Our experience and knowledge of the world is mediated by the brain which uses conceptual frameworks to make sense of all the raw data we are bombarded with daily. So it would seem, ontologically I'm a realist but epistemologically I'm an anti-realist. Does this make any sense?

Let's make two initial comments to muddy the waters!

1) Accepting some version of a correspondence theory of truth -- e.g. accepting that a true proposition is made true by the existence of a corresponding fact -- doesn't ipso fact make you a realist in your ontology. It will obviously depend what you think about facts! (You could still be an idealist like Berkeley, and suppose the only facts are ultimately those involving God, other spirits, and their ideas.)

2) Accepting that our knowledge of the world depends on a lot of processing of data by the brain using built-in cognitive mechanisms doesn't make you an anti-realist in epistemology. You could still hold that when those processes are working reliably, they successfully give you epistemic access to facts that obtain independently of you and your cognitive mechanisms.

I'd say that talk of a "correspondence theory of truth", "realism about ontology", "conceptual frameworks", and "epistemological anti-realism" is all far too slippery to be very useful. As often in philosophy, it helps to try to frame the issues that might be bugging you in plain terms, without any such jargon, and certainly without any reference to "isms". Sometimes it turns out that it was the jargon that was tangling your thought, or greasing the slide into confusion: but even if you are left with genuine problems, it will at least be clearer what they are!

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