Some Questions and Answers

(Part 3)


What are your proofs against Christianity? And how to you justify the COUNTLESS proofs (many undeniable, albeit a few undeniable) FOR Christianity?

I do not offer a proof "against" Christianity. I merely maintain that I have yet to encounter ANY valid justification FOR Christianity. And in the absence of sufficient justification in support of the hypothesis, it is simpler to reject the hypothesis as unproven.

I know you think that there are countless proofs for Christianity. And, in truth, many a writer has weighed in on the argument with great excesses of verbiage. I have read a number. But all of the so-called proofs that I have encountered so far commit one of three fundamental kinds of errors:

(a) Assuming the consequent. Many of the so-called proofs that I have encountered attempt to prove that God exists (or Christianity is valid) from premises that themselves assume the truth of the argument being attempted. (An overly simplified but typical sort of argument runs - "Christianity is valid because the Bible says so".)

(b) Simple errors of logical thinking. These sorts of argument were more frequent in the millennia before the Renaissance, as it was politically dangerous for a critic to point out logical errors in other writers' analyses. (An overly simplified example would be - "God exists because the Universe must have been created." It ignores the logical possibility that the Universe may not have been created, but is infinite.)

(c) Ignorance of, or conscious discounting of, the evidence from the various branches of science on the nature of Reality. These are the sorts of arguments seen most frequently today. An overly simplified example would be "God exists because of all of the intricate design demonstrated by nature." It ignores the evidence from evolutionary biology.)

If you do have an argument for Christianity that does not fall into one of these three categories, I would be most interested in seeing it.


How does one come to terms with consciousness and free-will scientifically? Quantum mechanics? Superstring theories involving a 10 dimensional "universe" partitioned into 4 and 6, with the space 6 somehow explaining consciousness? What?

And yes, I guess I'm expecting a counter-argument that the notion of free-will is merely an illusion and that everything is fated. I don't believe so however, even though it is impossible to prove one over the other.

I think you will find a very readable and tightly reasoned response to your question in "Elbow Room" and "Freedom Evolves" by Daniel C. Dennett.

Dennett argues that the concept of "Free Will" has (in the words offered by Jurgen Lawrenz) "given rise to more red herrings than any other philosophical topic". And once you really understand what you mean by the concept "free will", you will understand that most of those red herrings are just exactly that. Dennett is a "compatibilist" -- meaning that he argues that contrary to popular opinion, there is no incompatibility between a materialist's view of physics as deterministic, and the philosopher's concept of "free will" (properly understood).


I'm told that in order to have my union dues go to a charity rather than to the union (I am a newly forced union member), that I must give a philosophical reason for not wanting my dues to go to the union.

What can be more philosophical than "I don't believe in them"? How can I support something I don't believe in?

By "I don't believe in them", do you mean the dues, or the unions, or something else? I can't think of how you could argue that you don't believe in the dues. Associations of all sorts collect dues from their members in order to finance mutually beneficial activities. I think you would have a very hard time justifying the reasoning that you disagree with that activity. For similar reasons, I think you will have a hardtime justifying the reasoning that you disagree with unions in general.

I think where you need to focus is on the aspect of coercion involved in the membership in the union and the forced collection of dues. You can check out any of the Objectivist web-sites for pithy arguments on why coercion is morally unacceptable. The essence of the argument runs - the voluntary exchange of values always nets each party to the exchange a net profit. Any involuntary exchange is a sub-optimal solution. In your case, you might argue that you perceive no personal benefit that might be derived from participation in the union, and that therefore the coerced collection of dues is theft.


Who owns the genetic material of an aborted fetus? For example who owns the umbilical cord etc. The mother, foetus or hospital, for example? Does the foetus have rights or is it just a part of the mother? I have looked through a lot of web sites and found nothing very accurate that relates to this particular sort of question/ topic.

I think you need to think about providing a definition of "ownership" and "rights" before any answers to your question can be meaningful.

For example, if you define "ownership" as what the local laws provide, then who owns the aborted foetus (including its genetic material) will vary from one jurisdiction to another. Similar for the presence of rights. The legal rights of the foetus also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

But if you are seeking answers from a moral/ethical perspective, then it becomes important to understand just what you mean by ownership and rights. And those concepts vary from one system of ethics to another.


Why is Ayn Rand considered by some as a philosopher, if she is not a "good" philosopher? i.e. she seems to be one person in philosophy who is either loved or hated. Thus, no one hates Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle, is it because their ideas have stood the test of time or because of time their ideas are more historical and thus more neutral. Also, then can anything be gleaned or made usable in her philosophy of Objectivism?

I'll preface this response by admitting that I am a fan of Ayn Rand, so this response will be admittedly biased from some perspectives.

My own take is that there are two reasons why Ayn Rand is not considered a "good" philosopher, and is hated by much of the Philosophical world. First, Ms Rand proposed a system of ethics diametrically opposed to the Leftist / Socialist inclinations of the bulk of the intellectual (including Philosophical) elites of the 30's thru the 80's. As such, she was frequently dismissed out of hand as promulgating something that was "clearly wrong". And second, she made no attempt to earn the respect of other philosophers by studying for degrees, memorizing the works of numerous past philosophical thinkers, or playing the PhD game of publishing well footnoted articles in recognized learned journals.

It is a common failing of those who have labored hard for their PhD's (and not just in Philosophy) to dismiss as uneducated those who have not demonstrated the same depth of learning. In philosophical circles, this is most visible from the extent to which philosophical argument becomes a discussion about how past thinkers would interpret some issue. [Consider, for example, the high proportion of questions to this forum that are about the thoughts of such long dead thinkers.] Philosophical thinkers who choose not to study the past, are therefore too often dismissed as unworthy of the label "Philosopher". At least while the current generation of "properly qualified" PhDs still rule the roost. Future generations may take a different view of things.


Can we know something that has not yet been proven to be true?

Depends on what you mean by "proven".

"Proof" is usually considered to be absolute and binary. A proposition is either proven and is therefore absolutely true, or is unproven, and is therefore not true. This is, however, a logical or deductive concept inapplicable to inductive reasoning. In inductive reasoning, you accumulate sufficient evidence to justify a generalisation. You can never "prove" (in the logical sense) the generalisation. Although many people, in casual discourse, use the word to indicate that the inductive conclusion is sufficiently justified to be "almost certainly true". So the question is, in which sense are you using "prove"?

The usual philosophical understanding of "knowledge" is a justified belief in a true proposition. Therefore, if you are using the more logical sense of the word "prove", and you have sufficient justification to believe the proposition is true, and the proposition is in fact true, then you can know something that has not yet been proven to be true.

On the other hand, if you are using the more casual (inductive) sense of the word "prove", and you have sufficient justification to believe the proposition is true, and the proposition is in fact true, then your knowing something is the proof that it is true. So in this sense, you could not know something that is not proven (in the casual/ inductive sense) to be true.


Why are gay and lesbian relationships rampant not just in the US but all over the world?

Because, statistically speaking, about ten percent of the human population is gay/ lesbian. The percentage holds accurate (within sampling error) across cultures, races, and the sexes. It is one of the strongest arguments that homosexuality has a genetic basis.

Gay and Lesbian relationships only seem more rampant, because liberally biased popular media always seems to make such a fuss out of a minority struggling for "equal rights", or against big governmental biases.


Why is killing wrong? In terms of uncontroversially wrong kinds of killing of people. NOT controversial kinds of killing such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, killing in self-defense, killing of soldiers in war, suicide, assisted suicide, etc. Why is killing wrong in general in the more ordinary cases?

If you believe in one of the various religions that dictate that killing is wrong, then killing is wrong simply because God has told us that it is wrong. And if you don't like that answer, then you must tackle the conundrum that has challenged theologians for generations Is it wrong because God says so? Or does God say so because it is wrong?

On the other hand, you may be seeking a non-theistic answer. In that case, try this on for size killing is defined by the group as an unacceptable behavior, because it is detrimental to the achievement of the common goals of the group to have group members running around killing each other off. What makes it "wrong" is the fact that mankind has lived in groups for several million years, and we have evolved to recognize the group taboo against killing off members of the group.

Couch the same reasoning in terms of a rational morality, and you get killing another member of your own group is almost always detrimental to the attainment of your long term best interests.


Why is killing wrong? I cannot argue why I think killing is wrong using valid arguments with premises and conclusions.

Here are several alternative approaches for you to consider -

(1)   Some people maintain the absolute moral dictate that killing is wrong -- period, and end of reasoning!.   To them, it is a fundamental premise with no further background than the premise itself.   Hence -

(p1)   Killing is wrong.

(c)       Killing is wrong!

(2)   Some people maintain that whatever is commanded by God is the foundation of moral right and wrong.   Hence -

(p1)   Whatever God commands is a moral commandment.

(p2)   It is wrong for us to violate a moral commandment given by God.

(p3)   God commands that we do not kill.

(c)       Killing is wrong!

Note that the third premise is debateable.   In the King James version, the commandment (Exodus 20:13) is translated as "Thou shalt not kill".   But in the more recent New International Version, the commandment is translated "You shall not murder".   There is a fairly significant moral difference between these two translations.   (A distinction usually lost on the religious anti-abortion faction.)

(3)   Some people, following the reasoning of Kant, argue that moral behaviour is behaviour that respects the other individual as an end in him/herself.   Hence -

(p1)   To be morally right is to respect the other person as an end in him/herself.

(p2)   Killing another person is to treat that individual as a means to your end, and not as an end in him/herself.

(c)       Killing is wrong!

Note that both these premises can be debated.   Not all philosophers agree with Kant's "Categorical Imperative"approach to morality.   It is, for example, inconsistent with any of the consequentialist moral theories such as Utilitarianism or Evolutionary Ethics.   And while it is rather obvious that some killings involve treating the victim as a means to your end rather than an end in him/herself, it is not at all obvious that all instances of killing necessarily are such.

(4)   Some people will argue that it is wrong to break the law, and killing is (in most meaningful senses) against the law.   Hence -

(p1)   It is wrong to break the law of the land.

(p2)   Killing is (mostly) against the law.

(c)       Killing is (mostly) wrong!

Note that premise one would be debated by anyone who believes that the laws can sometimes be themselves "bad"laws that ought to be broken.   "Civil Disobedience"would be immoral by this argument, and most people would not accept that conclusion.

And here is my own personal favourite - the Evolutionary Ethics argument --

(5)   Some people argue that killing is wrong because it almost always interferes with the realization of the benefits to be had from social cooperation.   Hence (in over simplified terms) -

(p1)   Man is a social species who gains many individual benefits as the result of social cooperation.

(p2)   Killing other members of the social group is almost always disruptive to the realization of the benefits of social cooperation -- by both the individual doing the killing, and by the other members of the group should killing be tolerated.

(c1)   Social groups always establish norms of acceptable behaviour, and penalties to dissuade unacceptable behaviour.

(p3)   The standard of moral behaviour is the best interests of the individual, considered over the long term.

(c2)   It is almost never in the long term best interests of the individual to incur the wrath and punitive response of the society within which the individual is functioning.

(c3)       Killing is (almost always) wrong!


How is it possible that science keeps putting a theory forward about evolutionary biology when it doesn't seem to make sense? I mean, evolution seems to be a means by which organisms adapt to their changing environment, no harm in that, but to me it seems illogical that a sea-creature would acquire legs so that it can thrive on land because these would initially impair their movements under water and so make them more vulnerable in the sea. Let's assume that man is evolving at this moment to a creature that has the ability to fly, then we should be growing some sort of wings over time, so it would probably begin with stumps in the shoulder area, but these would hinder us in our daily tasks, and if we then follow the survival of the fittest theories.

To which John Brandon offered this response:

You appear to have latched onto one of the basic problems associated with Darwin's theory of evolution. The important point to note here is that you are referring to a theory and not a statement of fact. For over one hundred years science has tried from every angle open to it to prove the theory to be a material fact; unfortunately, all the alleged evidence has turned out to be rather flimsy.

The great weakness of the theory is its dependence upon accidental progress by chance genetic mutation. Unfortunately for this notion most mutations are usually degenerative, or even fatal to the organism; and even if this were the mechanism for progress it is difficult to visualise a series of fortuitous events appearing within the limited geological time scale obtaining since the Cambrian period approx 500m years ago, when life in great diversity seemed to burst forth from nowhere. If physics can boast a Big Bang for the origin of the universe, then biology can also boast a very significant Big Bang for the origin of advanced life forms in the Cambrian. Another very nasty thorn in the side for evolutionists. Also weighing heavily against the theory is the limited time for adaptation in rapidly changing environments, where dependence for survival is on chance mutations. There is a great deal of evidence in the geological strata to suggest that time and again the dominant life form of a geological period has been overwhelmed by rapid environmental changes which have pushed them into extinction. The dinosaurs being a case in point. Extinction rather than evolving into something else seems to be the order of the day.

There is also the great possibility that, even in the case of a fortuitous mutation, this would not be sufficient to overcome an environmental hazard; the major systems of physical bodies are controlled by complex series of genetic material, particularly where metabolic processes require huge numbers of complex enzymes working in sequence; each enzyme itself being a complex protein where one amino acid missing or out of place could be fatal.

Science would prefer to keep hammering at this old chestnut rather than admit that there could be some powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered. To most of them this smacks too much of religion. The man who pushed evolution was not Darwin but "Darwin's Bulldog" T H Huxley, a scientist looking for personal advancement and "an inveterate hater of religion". He saw evolution as a weapon with which to bring down the church. Unfortunately for him and his followers his premature attack has led to a disjointed, loosely woven, hotch potch of ideas, which require constantly shoring up against the advances of modern physics and biology. To give Huxley his due, he never accepted even to his death that the case for evolution had finally been proven.

 See The Rise of the Evolution Fraud, M Bowden, Sovereign Publications, Kent.

- - - - -

I am moved by the ideas contained in John's answer, into providing a counter balancing interpretation.

Firstly, is evolution just a theory? No it is not. John is quite incorrect. Evolution is a proved material fact, well supported by the evidence. In the words of one of the foremost biologists of the 20th Century.

In the American vernacular, "Theory" often means "imperfect fact" -- part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is "only" a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science -- that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory -- natural selection -- to explain the mechanism of evolution.  

                          (Stephen J. Gould, " Evolution as Fact and Theory"; Discover, May 1981.)

Second, does Darwin's theory of natural selection depend only, or even most importantly, on "accidental progress by chance genetic mutation"? No it does not. John has fallen into the traditional Creationist trap of ignoring the critical importance of genetic variation within populations, combined with differential reproductive success as a result of environmental pressures acting on those genetic variations. Yes, mutation plays a part. And yes, given the tremendous complexities of life chemistry, most mutations are detrimental. But that is irrelevant. Given the large numbers of individuals involved, and the large number of generations involved, an extremely small chance of a beneficial mutation is all that is required. And even the concept of "beneficial" is open to scrutiny. What may be deleterious to one individual, may turn out to be beneficial to another individual in different environmental circumstances.

Third, the Cambrian Period (specifically, 543 to 520 million years ago) marks an important point in the history of life on earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. This event is sometimes called the "Cambrian Explosion", because of the relatively short time over which this diversity of forms appears. It was once thought that the Cambrian rocks contained the first and oldest fossil animals, but these are now to be found in the earlier Vendian strata. Thus John is incorrect is suggesting that "life seemed to burst forth from nowhere". The Cambrian/ Precambrian boundary is no longer considered as the place where life suddenly appears. There is a continuum of life across this boundary. Grotzinger et al (Grotzinger, John P., Samuel A. Bowring, Beverly Z. Saylor and Alan J. Kaufman, 1995, "Biostratigraphic and Geochronologic Constraints on Early Animal Evolution," Science, 270:598-604) write:

Once held as the position in the rock record where the major invertebrate groups first appeared, the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary now serves more as a convenient reference point within an evolutionary continuum. Skeletalized organisms, including Cambrian-aspect shelly fossils, first appear below the boundary and then show strong diversification during the Early Cambrian. Similarly, trace fossils also appear first in the Vendian, exhibit a progression to more complex geometries across the boundary, and then parallel the dramatic radiation displayed by body fossils.

Evidences of macroscopic life forms are now found as early as 680 million years ago in the form of worm burrows (Pagel, Mark, 1999. "Inferring the Historical Patterns of Biological Evolution," Nature, 401(1999):877-884). And several modern phyla are now claimed to appear in the Precambrian and thus are not part of the supposed 'Cambrian Explosion.' Here is a short list gleaned from the internet:

Phylum Porifera (Brasier, Martin Owen Green and Graham Shields, 1997. "Ediacaran Sponge Spicule Clusters from Southwestern Mongolia and the Origins of the Cambrian Fauna," Geology, 25:4:303-306)

Phylum Mollusca (Fedonkin, Mikhail A. and Benjamin M. Waggoner, "The Late Precambrian Fossil Kimberella is a Mollusc-like Bilaterian Organism," Nature, 388(1997):868-871)

Phylum Annelida (Cloud, Preston, and Martin F. Glaessner, 1982. "The Ediacarian Period and System: Metazoa Inherit the Earth.", Science, 217, August 27, 1982)

Phylum Cnidaria (Conway Morris, Simon, 1998. The Crucible of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p 9)

Phylum Arthropoda (Waggoner, Benjamin M., "Phylogenetic Hypotheses of the Relationships of Arthropods to Precambrian and Cambrian Problematic Fossil Taxa," Syst. Biol., 45(1996):2:190-222)

Current contenders for the cause of the Cambrian explosion include: 1) the Snowball Earth, specifically the genetic isolation associated with runaway icehouse conditions; 2) Oxygen Limitation, constraining animals to small size and/or limited exertion; 3) Nutrient Stimulus, inducing or accelerating animal evolution through an influx of nutrients; 4) developmental innovations allowing the construction of complex organization; and 5) ecological innovation, particularly that induced by complex multicellular organisms. (http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2001ESP/finalprogram/abstract_7355.htm)

My own favourite is the last one listed here. It seems reasonable to me that the advent of complex multi-cellular organisms would (at some early point in their evolution) rapidly broaden the possibilities for advantageous mutations. If the organism has a number of cooperating cells, it also has a number of "places" where a mutation could change its opportunities for finding an unoccupied and beneficial ecological niche. But once all those niches are filled with opportunistic mutations, further adventurous mutations face much greater competition. So, John is quite incorrect to suggest that the Cambrian explosion is a "Thorn in the side of evolutionists".

Fourth, John is also incorrect to suggest that mass extinctions are a problem for the theory. As John suggests, mass extinctions caused by rapid environmental changes, like the one that one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, have happened numerous times throughout the history of Life on Earth. And he is correct that extinction rather than evolving into something else seems to be the order of the day. But both these points are totally irrelevant to his thesis. It is the very fact of evolution -- differential reproduction resulting from environmental pressures on genetic variation within species -- that is the "cause" of Life surviving these mass extinction events.

Fifth, John has the attitude of science exactly backward. It is not the case that "Science would prefer to keep hammering at [evolution] rather than admit that there could be some powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered". It is the case that evolution is a proven fact. It is the case that the theory of natural selection a well tested and highly useful theory of how evolution takes place. And it is the fact that science does not generally waste much time looking for a "powerful driving force in the universe which we have not yet discovered" for which there is no evidence, or current need.

Sixth, John's characterizations of T.H. Huxley is correct (according to many histories of the early campaign to popularize Darwin's theories). But they are also totally irrelevant to his thesis. The scientific support for evolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection have far surpassed the rather inept attempts of Huxley.

Seventh, while I haven't read Bowden (the book is not in my local library), I would be curious how he distinguishes "The truth" from "a fraud". From my own methods of evaluation, on all but one means of distinction, evolution comes out as "The truth" and it is the anti-evolutionist argument that gets the epithet "a fraud". The only exception to this that I have encountered so far, is if one comes to the question with a pre-conceived notion that Darwin has to be wrong. And if one is going to recommend additional reading sources, I would offer as a counter to Bowden, the following works:

a.. Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett
b.. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins
c.. The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
d.. Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones
e.. Or start your online research here: http://www.fsteiger.com/urllist.html


Is euthanasia wrong? I am in need of reasons why euthanasia is morally wrong and why society should not accept euthanasia. Or why they should accept euthanasia.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition): "Euthanasia" means "The act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment." And it comes from the Greek euthanasi, meaning "a good death".

For the purpose of this discussion, there are two aspects of this definition that need emphasis. Firstly, the "victim" involved is not leading a normal life. The implication of the definition is that the quality of life of the "victim" is deemed intolerably poor. And second, euthanasia is a positive action, unlike the passive inaction of the already socially sanctioned "removal of care", or "Turning off the machines".

Lets divide acts of euthanasia into a number of categories for further analysis:

(1) Voluntary Euthanasia

(2) Non-voluntary Euthanasia

(a) Where the "Victim" is conscious and rational

(b) Where the "Victim" is either unconscious or irrational

(1) Voluntary Euthanasia. This would involve actively ending the life of someone who wishes to end their life. Either directly through such specific acts as mentioned in the definition cited above, or indirectly through what has often been referred to as "assisted suicide". As long as the intended "victim" of the act is rational, and is reaching her decision to end her own life rationally, with reasonable justification, I can think of no rationale that would suggest that this kind of euthanasia is morally wrong. Of course, there are many people who hold what I consider to be an irrational belief that life is somehow "Sacred" and to be sustained regardless of costs or consequences. I can see where such a belief might prevent someone from participating in an act of voluntary euthanasia either as "victim" or as "assistant". But I can not fathom a moral basis from which such a belief would justify coercively restraining others from participating in such acts. Certainly, there are people who rationally judge that their continued life is intolerable, and death would be a welcome release. I can see no moral basis from which to coerce such people into continuing to tolerate the intolerable. Nor can I see any moral basis from which to coerce potential assistants into not assisting the chosen path of the "victim" in such cases.

I did mention one caveat, however, that really is the "kicker" when it comes to putting the theory into regular practice. How can we make sure that the "victim" in question has reached the decision rationally? We would want to ensure that such an irreversible decision is reached with proper justification, and is not the result of some transient emotional trauma. So the reasons why society might not want to sanction voluntary euthanasia do not stem from the morality of such acts, but from the practical problems of ensuring that the euthanasia is indeed voluntary.

To rephrase your question in those terms then if society were to sanction voluntary euthanasia, can we ever be assured that the decision to end one's life is reached intelligently, with proper justification and in the absence of transient emotional trauma? Personally, I think the answer must be, Yes. On a case by case basis, I think it is reasonable to think that we could take such measures to assure ourselves that the intended "victim" is making a proper decision. And although institutionalising the practice opens up the risk that the associated bureaucracy might get carried away (as most bureaucracies have a tendency to do), I think it is quite feasible that we can implement sufficient protections. The medical profession does, after all, have some experience in dealing with such troubling matters.

(2a) Non-voluntary Euthanasia of a Conscious and Rational Victim. Can actively ending the life of a conscious and rational "victim" who does not wish to die ever be morally justified? We must first set aside, as not really within the meaning of "euthanasia," any set of circumstances where society already recognises "justifiable homicide" (e.g. -- self-defence, capital punishment, acts of war, etc.). For the remaining possibilities, I can think of no rationale that would morally justify what essentially amounts to lethal coercion. (Which is why the protections surrounding voluntary euthanasia have to be thorough enough to ensure that the euthanasia in question is indeed voluntary.)

(2b) Non-voluntary Euthanasia of an Unconscious or Irrational Victim. Which leaves the remaining category of non-voluntary euthanasia of a "victim" who is either unconscious (with no prospects of becoming conscious) or irrational (with no prospects of becoming rational). Personally, I can think of no rationale that would render such acts of euthanasia morally wrong. As with voluntary euthanasia, protections must be implemented to ensure that the "no prospects" conditionals are, for all practical considerations, in fact "no prospects". And society might not wish to condone such acts on the basis of the practical costs and difficulties of implementing such protections. But as with the strictures on institutionalised voluntary euthanasia, that would be a social cost/benefit trade-off not a moral determination.

But given that such protections can be implemented, keeping the incurably irrational or incurably unconscious alive is an inexcusable waste of someone else's resources. If it is your choice to allocate your resources to keep such a "victim" alive, that is your prerogative. The resources involved are yours. But if society proposes to coerce me out of my resources in order to keep your "victim" alive, I can think of no moral principle that would justify that coercion. If you are footing the bills to keep such a "victim" alive, on what moral basis could I, or society, justify the coercion necessary to prevent you from ceasing your benevolence? And if I am footing the bills for your "victim", on what moral basis can you justify coercing me to continue my benevolence? I can think of none. The victim's "right to life" ceases at the point where it requires coercion of others to sustain it.


Is the death penalty ever a legitimate punishment? or is killing always wrong?

To which John Brandon replied -

If the law of the state declares capital punishment to be the penalty for certain crimes, then the punishment is legitimate. Whether it is morally right or not is another question. There is a possibility that most civilized people consider killing to be a wrong. Most certainly, states claiming to establish justice based on the christian ethic ought to recognise and obey the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It follows that if this commandment can be disobeyed, then so can the other nine, faiths do not cater for selectivity. There is no proviso in the commandment which allows you to kill if you are a high court judge or a state executioner. However, legal systems based on some other faiths include the "Tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye and life for a life' concept.

To fully discuss the question of killing being always wrong would take us into the complexities of war. Is it more acceptable for the defender to kill the aggressor than it is for the aggressor to kill the defender? Should a conscientious objector allow himself to be killed rather than kill his opponent? Is killing in self-defence always acceptable?

Finally, there is the delicate question as to whether killing perpetrated by the state as justice is actually revenge.

- - - - -

Firstly, I do agree with John that if the law of the land declares capital punishment to be the penalty for certain crimes, then the punishment is legitimate, and whether it is morally right or not is another question. And I agree that the question is a delicate one whether killing perpetrated by the state is justice or is actually revenge.

I would just like to point out that when John refers to the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill", he is implying that justice based on the Christian ethic must necessarily employ the King James Version of the Bible. There are newer translations of the language in which the original has come down to us in (I don't remember whether the original script of Exodus comes to us in Greek, Aramaic, or some other ancient form.) For example, where Exodus 20:13 is rendered in the King James Version as "Thou shalt not kill.", it is rendered in the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version as "You shall not murder." And in The Amplified Bible, it is "You shall not commit murder." (You can go to http://bible.gospelcom.net to see any particular Bible passage as it is rendered in any of 18 different versions. That site will also route you to pages that describe the methods employed in translation.)

Now, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "murder" means - "(noun) The unlawful killing of one human being by another, especially with premeditated malice." And according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, "murder" means "(noun) the unlawful premeditated killing of one person by another." Or "(verb) kill unlawfully and with premeditation."

So, contrary to John's suggestion, there is indeed a proviso in the commandment which allows you to kill if you are a high court judge, or a state executioner, or even if you are defending yourself from an aggressor in your home, on the street, or in a war. None of those forms of killing constitutes "murder" according to current legal statues. Nor can they be viewed as immoral, if one is employing as one's moral standard, the more up-to-date translations of the Ten Commandments. (The Bible, of course, contains many contradictory admonitions, so it is entirely possible that other passages of the Bible may be found to render any killing "contrary to the commands of God".)


What is the difference between the following two (alleged) possibilities?

1. There might have existed someone physically just like me, who did not possess consciousness.

2. There might have existed someone physically just like me who possessed a consciousness just like mine WHO WAS NOT ME.

From the perspective of a realist/materialist, the very statement of the possibilities in question raises key additional questions. Just what does it mean to be "physically just like me"?

If what is intended is simple exterior physical appearance, then there is nothing strange about either possibility. Possibility (1) refers to somebody who might possibly have existed, who closely resembles me, and who is considered to be dead. And possibility (2) refers to somebody who might possibly have existed, who closely resembles me, and who is considered to be alive. This distinction is so mundane, that it is probable that the question is meant in a more difficult sense.

In this more difficult sense, the meaning of "physically just like me" is taken to refer to the totality of the physical existence of me. And from this interpretation of "physically just like me", there is no difference between the two propositions. Neither is logically possible. It is not logically possible that there exists someone physically just like me that does not possess consciousness. To a materialist like myself, consciousness is a physical aspect of my physical existence. To be "physically just like me" therefore implies "possessed of a consciousness just like mine". Even in the "possible worlds" interpretation of "possibilities", therefore, it would not be logically possible for my doppleganger to exist both exactly physically like me, and not invested with consciousness. Even more strongly, it would not be logically possible for my doppleganger to exist exactly physically like me, and not be possessed of a consciousness exactly like mine. Which means that it would not be logically possible for my doppleganger to exist without being me. To a materialist, all that "I" am is the physical characteristics of matter that is my consciousness.

Finally, it is always possible to "Tweak" the intended meaning of "physically just like me" to logically permit the existence of any desired variation between the mundane and the difficult. There are so many potential variations on this theme, that a more detailed specification of meaning would be necessary to permit further exploration of the intended question. For example, what does the questioner mean by "did not possess" consciousness. Is the intended doppleganger imagined to lack a consciousness at the time of consideration, or is the doppleganger imagined to never have had a consciousness?

Of course, if the questioner does not like the materialist answer, then the next obvious question is - just what does it mean to be "me"?


I'm an ex-philosopher turned English (EFL) teacher. I have been trying to find some interesting philosophical texts that I could use with my students, but have failed to find anything suitable so far. Obviously the most important thing is clear and simple language, but containing interesting ideas (they are all intelligent post-grad students). I hope you can help! Thanks.

Given that you are teaching ESL, I would suggest "Culture Matters" by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P Huntington. It contains a number of philosophically interesting articles that you can cherry-pick through. In a similar vein, you might consider "Paradigms Lost" by John Casti. It also contains a number of shorter articles from which you can choose. For more intensive reading, I would recommend either "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, or "Darwin's Ghost" by Steve Jones. For a literary selection, you can do no better than "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand -- an easily readable story with a philosophical message sure to generate lots of discussion.


What is the meaning of life?

What is the meaning of life from your perspective?

Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one - especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, one will quickly discover that one has to be more specific about just what one means by "meaning", "life", and "meaning of life". It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret this seemingly very simple question.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. By "What is the meaning of life?" do you mean -

  1. What is "life"? In the sense of how or why is "life" different from "non-life"?
  2. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of "why does life exist at all?
  3. What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?
  4. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human species?
  5. What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?
  6. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of my life? A much more specifically intended question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.
  7. What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically intended question, posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by "Science". (We each are one of six billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe. How insignificant can you get?)

I am going to try to provide a brief answer to your question from the point of view of (vi) above. And along the way hopefully approach a response to some of the other possible interpretations of your question.

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist / materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor.

The first step in answering your question, is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you.

The second step is to acknowledge that the "Thing" that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother's ovum and your father's sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins for further argument on this point.)

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation.

This is a general principle of all life. So the general answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" is quite simply - for each individual organism to ensure that the genes that are encapsulated in each organism get transmitted to the next generation. Or, in a more general wording - the meaning of life is to ensure that life continues.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are gifted with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.

Finally, I offer some advice provided by John Brandon earlier in these questions - "My advise to a person who finds no meaning in life is to become a philosopher and share in the excitement of trying to discover what the world and what life is all about. We can either be depressed with our shallow view of the world, or we can be stimulated by seeking the deeper reasons for what we perceive around us. And be warned, the concepts we form in life constitute the world we live in." Amen!


After reading through the current answers section of this website I have noticed a trend toward agnosticism among nearly all of the respondents. It would seem to me that a belief in God supposes the intangible, which is therefore perceived by most high thinkers as illogical and therefore not a valid factor in any philosophical equation. Is agnosticism a prerequisite to being a logical thinker? I have to do something taboo and place an interesting Biblical reference here: 1 Corinthians 1:20.

You are not going to like this answer, but I would suggest that the consequence (not the prerequisite) of being a logical thinker is at least agnosticism if not atheism. Logical thinking demands that one examine one's premises. And challenge them for reasonableness and justification. A belief in God demands that one accepts the premise that God exists without question or challenge. Justification is an illegitimate issue. Unless one maintains a strict mental separation between one's religious thinking, and one's logical thinking, one cannot help but begin to question one's religious premises.


[Up] [Home] [Next]