Some Questions and Answers

(Part 4)


"I would like to know if your body and soul are separated?

Is it your soul who feels and thinks? Is it possible that we reincarnate and keep our soul? Is it possible that we keep our wisdom in our soul and when we go to a sort of heaven when we're perfect? I mean with 'perfect', when we are one with everybody and have all wisdom, I don't mean knowledge."

The answer to your questions depend very much on just what you mean by "Soul".

If by "Soul" you mean the religious concept of the animator of the body, and the immaterial spirit that will eventually reside in heaven or hell, (the animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity;   the spiritual nature of human beings, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state;   the disembodied spirit of a dead human being) then your guess is as good as anyone else's.   As there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing, and absolutely no evidence either way on any of the auxiliary questions you have asked, you can make up your own answers to please your sense of emotional comfort, and no one will be able to dispute you.   The religious notion of a "soul"resides in the realm of religious faith, and not in the realm of science and evidence.   So there is absolutely no limit what so ever on what you choose to have religious faith in.

If, however, you choose to adopt a more scientific / materialist interpretation of the "soul", then the answer to your main question is "No!"The "soul"is the consequence of the biochemical operation of the brain.   As such, it cannot be separated from the brain.   So obviously, the soul dies when the brain dies, we don't go to heaven, and there is no reincarnation.


"Why, in a democracy which grants us virtual freedom, are we forced to receive an education?"

The answer is that no democracy really does "grant us virtual freedom". Despite the wording that appears in whatever (virtual or actual) "Bill of Rights" may apply to your jurisdiction, a democracy does not really grant individual residents much freedom at all. The laws, rules, regulations, and outright foolish restrictions imposed by a democracy on the average citizen's "freedom" fills rows of bookshelves in small print. And the list grows by a shelf or two every year. Take a look at any lawyer's reference library -- and you'll see just one small part of it. I remember seeing an estimate for the growth rate in Canada in the 1960's -- it was on the order of 50,000 pages per year. And surely that rate has increased in more recent times.

The fact that you think your particular form of democracy does indeed grant you a degree of freedom is a testament to the social propaganda that reigned during your formative years. The "public image"of a democracy is one that stresses the rights of the individual to do as s/he pleases. The suppressed reality of a democracy is that the individual is allowed by everyone else to do as s/he pleases, so long as whatever that is does not impinge on the demand of that alien majority to be unencumbered by the consequences. The net result of this conflicting constraint is that your "freedom"is strictly limited by the ways in which the majority of your fellow citizens feel they might be inconvenienced by whatever it is you might wish to do.

The maximization of personal freedom is not the proper purpose of a democratic form of governance. The proper purpose of a democracy is the maximization of the welfare of the citizenry through the cooperative efforts of those citizens towards mutually desirable goals. Recent history (since 1850, say) clearly demonstrates that central management of such efforts is not nearly as effective as local and personal management of such efforts. But, if your particular interests in "freedom"are to pursue non-cooperative efforts, or pursue goals that conflict with the mutually desirable goals of the majority, you will find your freedom severely limited. Any so called "Bill of Rights"that might supposedly constrain the majority in this regard, will not really constrain them at all.

Which brings us to your actual question about forced education. The majority has decided, for various reasons, that forcing you to get an education is in the best interests of the majority in their pursuit of their cooperative efforts towards their mutually desirable goals. Some of the rationales that have been offered for this decision include:

(a) modern society is both socially and technically sophisticated, and if you are going to contribute to society and not become a parasite on the majority, you will need a rather sophisticated education. You will need to learn a great deal that you cannot easily learn any other way, if you are to obtain a productive means to self-sustainment, and if you are to avoid falling foul of one of those myriad ways of pissing off the majority of your fellows, and if you are going to raise up your own children in a "proper" way..

(b) A democracy works most effectively when, to the greatest possible extent, every citizen firmly believes that it is the best way to ensure their own personal welfare. And the education system has proved most effective at suitably "socializing"the young into this convenient belief.

(c) Young people are in the poorest of positions to appreciate the importance of these two rationales -- they neither know enough yet (of history, sociology, and various technical fields), nor have been sufficiently "socialized"yet (to "properly"value things), to appreciate the longer range consequences of not having a "good"(ie. suitable to the interests of the majority) education.


"Does God love us?"

We are told constantly by Christians of various flavours that "God is Love". We often see hanging from upper bleachers during a ball game a banner which says "John 3:16," which, if you look it up, says the same thing. In the sacred writings of the Jews we find this lofty spiritual concept in Deut. 6:5 and Hos. 14:5.

To see if this means what it appears to mean, let us examine a representative sampling of passages from both Testaments (drawn from The Ways of an Atheist, by Bernard Katz. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1999).  

First, from the Old Testament:

God so "loves" us that He --

  1. created every living entity, declaring it was "good" (Gen. 1:21-22). Of course this included man-eating animals, the great white shark, flesh eating bacteria, and the AIDS viruses.
  2. wiped all living things off the face of the earth except Noah and his family and that which was preserved in the ark (Gen. 6). (Hmm. What about the things that lived in the sea, or the air? What about bacteria or viruses?)
  3. killed the first-born of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:29).
  4. sanctioned slavery (Exod. 21:2-3).
  5. ordered slave-raiding parties (Deut. 20:10-15).
  6. sanctioned the capture and deflowering of women, after which they could be thrown aside (Deut. 10-14).
  7. commanded the killing of those who were supposed to be witches (Exod. 22:18).
  8. that he commanded the killing of those who were supposed to be wizards (Lev. 20:6).
  9. ordered the death of anyone who did not worship Him only (Exod. 22:20).
  10. ordered death for anyone who practiced bestiality (Exod. 22:19).
  11. ordered death for anyone in a family who had a different religion, that is, worshiped other gods (Deut. 13:6-11).
  12. commanded death to any sabbath-breaker (Exod. 13:14-15).
  13. commanded that any uncircumcised male was to be outlawed from his kinfolk (Gen. 7:14).
  14. sanctioned death to anyone who blasphemed (Lev. 24:10-16).
  15. ordered death for any man caught having sex with a married woman, as well as death for the woman herself (Deut. 22:22).
  16. ordered both men and women to be outlawed from their kinfolk if the man had intercourse with the woman during her monthly period (Lev. 20:18).
  17. answered complaints by sending poisonous snakes which killed many (Num. 21:5-6).
  18. ordered the massacre of a whole nation (Deut. 2:34).
  19. ordered a pestilence which killed seventy thousand people because David had sinned by taking a census (2 Sam. 24:15).
  20. himself killed 102 men just to prove that Elijah was a true prophet (1 Kings 1:10-12).
  21. commanded vengeance upon the fourth generation of children for the sins of their fathers (Num. 14:8).
  22. commanded all worshipers of the Devil to suffer eternal torment (Rev. 14:9-11).
  23. condemned us all to torment because of our inheritance of the sin of Adam (Rom. 5:18). Since this goes way beyond the fourth generation as described in Num. 14:8, it is evident that God changed his mind.

And from the New Testament -

God so "loves" us that He --

  1. 24.   commanded that the great majority of mankind will go to hell (Matt. 7:13-14).
  2. 25.   condemned to everlasting destruction those who do not know the Father or his Son's Gospel (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
  3. 26.   condemned to hellfire those of us who call others fools (Matt. 5:22).
  4. 27.   damned anyone who does not believe in his Son (John 3:36).
  5. 28.   damned those who were rich (Luke 6:24). j
  6. 29.   damned even those who are well-spoken of (Luke 6:26).
  7. 30.   allowed devils to possess men (Matt. 8:16).
  8. 31.   sacrificed an innocent person for our sins (1 Pet. 2:24; Heb. 9:26).

If this is God's notion of "Love", I myself want no part of it!! The Bible's concept of "God's Love" is enormously different from the concept of "Love" employed by the average person. So different, in fact, that for Christians to call how God feels about us "Love" is to indulge in false and misleading advertising.

So what is "Love" according to how the average person uses the word?

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company), LOVE is "A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness."

We've been given the impression that to define love is near to impossible. Maybe there's a fear that if we define it, it would somehow be less powerful...less impactful...less exhilarating. Maybe we like the mystery of it. But is it really that complicated? Perhaps the complications surrounding love come from all "stuff"we add on to this powerful emotion. Perhaps the complications come from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim struggle to match what God does, with what the average person does under the aegis of "Love". Lets drop all the baggage surrounding relationships and define what it is we are experiencing in the moment of love.

What does the average human feel when you love someone? If distilled down to its core components, what would those be? Love is an emotion, a feeling, a wanting, and a "being". We know it feels good, but what specific feelings, wantings, and beings are present when we feel love? Here are some of the generally accepted common denominators of love...

  1. Love is Accepting. -- Acceptance is labelling someone as "okay" and having no particular desire to change them. Who they are is perfectly fine with you. You pose no condition on whether you will love them or not. This is call unconditional love. When your love IS conditional, the moment they step outside your set of conditions, love evaporates.
  2. Love is Appreciating. -- Appreciation is one step beyond acceptance. It's when your focus is on what you like about another. We look at them and feel this sweeping appreciation for who they are, their joy, their insights, their humour, their companionship, etc. When someone says they are "in love" with another, they mean their appreciation is so enormous for this person that it consumes their every thought.
  3. Love is Wanting Another to Feel Good. -- We want those we love to be happy, safe, healthy, and fulfilled. We want them to feel good in all ways, physically, mentally and emotionally.
  4. Love is Attention. -- Love expressed is when you give your attention, your time, your focus to someone. Webster defines attention as "the giving of one's mind to something." We don't always express our love. Love is a feeling and the expression of that feeling is separate. It's an action. There's a practical reason we don't always express our love for another. It's an issue of TIME. We only have 24 hours in a day (if you make it up that way). If the expression of love was a core ingredient to love, we would have to be stingy with who we loved, because there simply wouldn't be enough time to love everyone! If you see the distinction between the feeling and the expression, you can then love endless numbers of people. There are many ways in which we give our attention to another. We use our five senses. Our ears to listen. Being completely present with the one who is speaking. Our eyes, watching another, undivided attention. Tasting/smelling? (I'll let you figure that one out). Touching, giving a hug, holding a hand, a caress, or sexual expression. How you express your love depends on the type of relationship.
  5. Love is Selfish. -- You are with that person, accept, appreciate, want, and devote attention to that person, because they make you happy. Of course you desire to make them happy too, but that is the result of the fact that you love them. If love were a sacrifice, it would be a sacrifice to spend time with the person. But if you love someone, you enjoy spending time with them, therefore, it is selfish. The person you choose to love represents the things you value most in yourself. You do not love someone you consider worthless, but one who embodies values you consider to be of great worth. The values you consider to be of great worth are the values you strive to achieve in yourself.

"Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one's own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one's own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns, and derives from love." (Ayn Rand, and I can't remember the reference).

Whatever it is that God is, God is not "Love". None of the things that God has done (at least according to the scriptures) under the label "Love" can be considered to fit within the standard meaning of the word.


"I have to do a paper for English Comp 1 (it's extra credit so I don't have to do it but I'd like to). Our teacher asked us why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. He wants us to write a two page paper on it concentrating on something major in history (9/11, conquests, flu epidemics, black plague). Basically anything major in history that has happened to good people. any ideas? What is a good person anyhow, I for one don't believe anyone is good, but I told him that and he wasn't so "approving" of me writing a paper stating that. Any ideas or links you have about this would be much appreciated....one more thing...I'm not interested in a religious standpoint, I know why Christians think it happens, but that's not something I'm interested in writing or even considering."

Try this approach --

Things that happen to people can be generally classed as "good things"or "bad things"according to some unspecified standard of evaluation. People also can be generally classed as "good people"or "bad people"by a similar (but not necessarily the same) unspecified standard of evaluation. Specifying the standards of evaluation involved in these classifications is not necessary.

Now, assume as a trial hypothesis that whatever happens, is in some sense a random event. What I mean by this is that it is generally unpredictable what things will happen to which people. If that is the case, then it will be inevitable that the things that happen to people (whether "good people"or "bad people") will average out to 50% "good things"and 50% "bad things".

Empirical observation of what does in fact happen to people would strongly support two conclusions. First, that people generally expect "good things"to happen to "good people"(and "bad things: to happen to "bad people") and therefore dismiss such occurrences as "normally expected performance". The opposite occurrences ("bad things"happening to "good people"and "good things"happening to "bad people") are noticeable and memorable because they do not fit into our expectations. Hence there is an observational bias towards the "bad things"that happen to "good people"(and the "good things"that happen to "bad people").

And secondly, it is empirically obvious that despite corrections for the above described bias, the distribution of "things"that happen to people does not seem to be balanced at 50-50 ("good"versus "bad"). It would appear that whatever qualities constitute being a "good person", they do in fact provide some insulation against a random distribution of "good things"and "bad things"happening. But however effective being a "good person"seems to be at tilting the distribution in a "good"way, enough "bad things"happen to "good people", that one cannot conclude that being a "good person"is totally effective.

Hence the conclusion that while the distribution of the occurrence of "good things"and "bad things"is not entirely random, it is not entirely determined by the "goodness"or "badness"of people. So we can conclude, in the words of Louis Pasteur "Chance favours the prepared mind."


"There is a point I do not understand about final causes and their applicability to physical systems.

Action guided by final causes (future conditions as cause of the event) are not considered as scientifically acceptable in the world of matter. Only actions guided by efficient causes (prior conditions as cause of the event) are considered as scientifically acceptable in the physical world.

However, simple robots like the cybernetic turtle orientating its movement in the direction of a source of light can have their action guided by a final cause (reach the source of light). So a simple robot built up with matter following only efficient causes seems to be in a position to obey final causes. How is this possible?"

In "The Intentional Stance"Daniel C. Dennett distinguished between what he refers to as the "intentional stance"and what he refers to as the "physical stance". These are two different ways of viewing and thinking about a physical system. Most of science deals with the world from the "physical stance". As such, only physical causation -- what Aristotle called "efficient causes" -- is relevant.

However, we can also view the same physical system from the "intentional stance"and bring in teleology (goals, Aristotle's "final causes") into the picture. The intentional stance views the system as an agent pursuing goals, and can understand the system from that perspective. Dennett's example was of a thermostat "wanting" to keep the room at a preset temperature.   The example you provide is the simple robot turtle "wanting"to reach the source of light. At the physical level, however, all is "efficient cause". Photons from the light source impinge on a photo receptor, and through appropriate circuitry, "cause"the robot to move in that direction. Physically, all is "caused"by photons impinging on photo receptors and electrons following an electronic circuit from one pole of a battery to another.

The "kicker"is that the electronic circuitry has to be designed in the proper way to get the robot to behave as if it "wants"to reach the light. In the case of the robot, the designer was a human engineer. In the case of a real turtle reaching for some lettuce, the "designer"was the trail and error consequences of natural selection.


What does the word "good"mean?

  From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992) we get the dictionary definition -

"Good - (adjective) 1. Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor. 2 a. Having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a particular thing. b. Serving the desired purpose or end; suitable 3 a. Not spoiled or ruined. b. In excellent condition; sound. 4 a. Superior to the average; satisfactory. b. Used formerly to refer to the U.S. Government grade of meat higher than standard and lower than choice. 5 a. Of high quality. b. Discriminating. 6. Worthy of respect; honourable. 7. Attractive; handsome. 8. Beneficial to health. 9. Competent; skilled. 10. Complete; thorough. 11 a. Reliable; sure. b. Valid or true. c. Genuine; real. 12 a. In effect; operative. b. Able to continue in a specified activity. 13 a. Able to pay or contribute. b. Able to elicit a specified reaction. 14 a. Ample; substantial b. Bountiful. 15. Full. 16 a. Pleasant; enjoyable. b. Propitious; favorable. 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright. b. Benevolent; kind. c. Loyal; staunch. 18 a. Well-behaved; obedient. b. Socially correct; proper. 19. (Sports) Having landed within bounds or within a particular area of a court."

And

"Good - (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. b. A good, valuable, or useful part or aspect. 2. Welfare; benefit. 3. Goodness; virtue."

  In case you didn't notice, if you disregard the circular definitions, there are 36 separately identified shadings of meaning here for the word "Good". All but a single one of these definitions (17a - Of moral excellence; upright.) will generate little philosophical disagreement as to what it means, and to what examples in Reality it refers to.

It is interesting to note that all but this single "moral"meaning of the word can be considered to be evaluations of how well some subject being judged fulfills its intended purpose. Look at the key words used in the definitions as "quasi-synonyms" - positive, desirable, distinguishing, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine. They all can be interpreted as an evaluation of how well the subject of the judgment measures up on the standard of fulfilling its purpose. You might say that there is a "functional" meaning of "good" that is usual, and a "moral" meaning of "good" that is the exceptional case. The "functional" meanings are by far the easiest to understand, the easiest to provide concrete examples of, and the bulk of the various shades of meaning. The "functional" meanings of "good" can be understood in terms of - "An X is a good X, if it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what an X is supposed to do."

Which leaves us with the single moral / ethical meaning   -- "Good - (adjective) 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright. (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. 3. Goodness; virtue."

Lets add to this mix the dictionary definitions of "moral"and "virtue", since these words appear key to understanding the moral meaning of "good".   Again from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992) we get the dictionary definitions -

"Moral - (adjective) 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character. 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior. 3. Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous. 4. Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong. 5. Having psychological rather than physical or tangible effects. 6. Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence."

And

"Virtue - (noun) 1 a. Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness. b. An example or kind of moral excellence. 2. Chastity, especially in a girl or woman. 3. A particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality; advantage. 4. Effective force or power."

  The problem with these two additional dictionary definitions is that they are, as you can see from the above, completely circular. A "good" (in the moral rather than functional sense) thing, choice, action or alternative is one that which is "morally good" or "morally excellent". And one that is "moral" is one that is judged "good". Relying on the dictionary meanings of "good" and "moral" provides absolutely no intelligible foundation from which to suggest that anyone's particular belief about what is "good" is in any way not correct and valid and proper. So the dictionary does not really supply us with much of a practical guide to morals.

Unfortunately, a dictionary tries to be a documentation of how people use a particular word. It is not trying to be a guide as to how words really ought to be used.   Which means, in practical day-to-day application by most people - "good"in a moral sense is whatever I choose to believe is good. And this is the essence of "Subjectivist" Ethics.

Unlike normal social discourse, in the realms of philosophical discussion, ethical alternatives cannot be publicly labelled as more or less desirable without some form of justification stronger than "Because I say so!"   It is perfectly acceptable to say, in the privacy of your own thoughts, "The moral good is whatever I choose to believe is the moral good." But it is almost always unacceptable to those with whom you deal in society to say to them that "The moral good is whatever I choose to believe is the moral good." To do so raises the probability that someone else will reply "I don't agree!" or "So what?" or "Who are you to tell me what to do?"

Unless, that is, all concerned are willing to relax the generally accepted philosophers belief that the practice of philosophy is more than merely the expression of personal opinion. Suppose we do change this, and accept as a starting position that the moral good is so just because someone says so. Since such a system of morality is based on the presumed validity of each person's subjective opinion, there is no logically valid rebuttal to another person's opinion. There is no basis upon which to found a claim that one person's opinion is any more accurate or correct or valid than another's.

If this is, in fact, an acceptable starting foundation, then the resulting system of morality will be useful and valid only for those who agree with some one particular individual's personal opinion that this moral good is indeed more desirable in some way than that. The ethical system that results from such a starting axiom is not likely to be consistent or logically coherent. There is nothing to require that the accepted opinion on any related subjects be consistent or logical. Adherents of such a system would not be able to converse on ethical topics with anyone who did not agree with the accepted judgments as to what is morally good. And, more importantly, there is only one avenue open to adherents of such a Code of Morality if they wish to indulge in any social interactions with people who do not agree with the judgments about what constitutes the moral good. The only practical alternative is - "Agree with us/me - or else!"

Of course, merely because Subjectivist Ethics appears to produce undesirable side-effects for some people, is not a legitimate argument against its validity. A rationale of "I don't like the results" is just as empty as a rationale of "Because I say so!". Once again, unless you are willing to stop all philosophical discussion with the rebuttal of "I don't agree!", persuasion and argument must extend into realms where both parties can agree with the ground rules. To successfully convince people that your opinions about what is morally good are correct and appropriate the discussion, argument, and persuasion must begin from a foundation that is mutually agreed upon. It is here where most systems of ethics have foundered, because the only alternative to voluntary agreement with someone else's unjustified opinion is "or else".

How are you going to convince me that the side-effects are undesirable? And how are you going to convince me that, even if they are undesirable, these side-effects are, in general or in particular, "Bad"? Appeals to the "Intuitively Obvious" suffer from the same deficiency as do the "Because I say so!" arguments discussed above. If I disagree with the obviousness of the statement, the argument founders.

One popular version of Subjectivist Ethics is more commonly called "Social Consensus Ethics". It has a wide following, especially among those of a more "liberal democrat" nature, because of the "democratic" consequence that the consensus of popular opinion is the determinant of what is morally good. "Good" (in its moral sense) becomes semantically equivalent to "Socially Blessed". From this perspective, Laws are the legal embodiment of the opinions of the consensus as to what is good. And the coercive powers of the police are the physical embodiment of the "or else".

Perhaps a more familiar kind of Subjectivist Ethics is "Absolute Rule Ethics" more commonly called "Religious Ethics". In this version the opinion of some accepted Authority figure - a God, or a Prophet, or a Wise-Man - is taken as the determinant of what is morally good. "Good" (in its moral sense) becomes semantically equivalent to "Authority Blessed/Commanded". From this perspective, the Word of Authority is the final and unchallengeable arbiter as to what is morally good. And the coercive power of the anger of the Authority (the "Wrath of God") is the physical embodiment of the "or else".

The alternative to basing a Code of Morality on personal opinion, is basing it on something in Reality that everyone can see, and independently examine. With this foundation as a starting point, when some philosopher proclaims what is morally good, a doubter can go out and form his own opinion based on the facts of Reality.

Many western philosophers have used the word "happiness" to define what constitutes the moral good. Their approach is based on the universally accepted observation that it is better to be happier than not (other things being equal). Any doubter can always make a personal evaluation of the happiness that will likely result from any alternatives. And the doubter can discuss with others their own experiences and appraisals of happiness.

The various "happiness" philosophies differ, of course, in their exact definition of what they mean by the word "happiness". The Hedonists, as one example, defined happiness to mean primarily physical pleasures. Others have defined it to mean spiritual contentment, or intellectual satisfaction. And different philosophers establish different realms where-in the individual reaps the reward of "happiness" for achieving the moral "good". In some, the "happiness" is achieved immediately, upon the execution of some act or thought that is "good" by their definition. In others, the reward is postponed to some form of after-life, or is experienced in some form of "other-life" that is separate and distinct from a Reality as usually understood.

But regardless of their particular definitions of what constitutes "good" versus "bad", or how the individual will reap the rewards for choosing the "good" over the "bad", their universal approach to justifying their approach and definitions is that the "good life" is purported to be better than the "bad life", and better than anything in between because the "good"delivers "happiness"and everybody is in universal agreement that "happiness" is better than "unhappiness".   In other words, "happiness"philosophies transform the moral sense of "good"into a functional one. A morally "good"thing, choice, action or alternative is "good"because it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what a ethical choice is supposed to do - deliver happiness."

This functional "transformation"results from the fact that all of the various "happiness" philosophies are based on the moral premise that the goal of human behaviour, and all ethical choices and judgments, is to increase in the amount of "happiness". With, of course, critical differences resulting from the different ways that these philosophies define "happiness", and different realms in which that "happiness"is to be realized.


"What is the relevance of philosophy to the contemporary scene?"

When viewing the contemporary scene, we all make value judgements about alternatives. We do this all the time, at all scales from the immediate and local (like whether to have coffee or orange juice or both for breakfast) to the distant and global (like what to do about global warming, if anything). We cannot look at any issue, question, alternative, or simple factual event without making value judgements about whether this or that is preferable.

Philosophy is the business and practice of investigating, identifying, questioning, and challenging the underlying assumptions upon which we base those value judgements.

The vast majority of people make their value judgements without ever realizing what underlying premises their judgements are based on. The vast majority of people never ponder the question of whether or not those underlying premises are reasonable or consistent (or what "reasonable"and "consistent"might mean in this context). The vast majority of people will assume that if you disagree with my value judgements, then there is something wrong with you. Something that needs to be corrected -- by force if necessary. They never wonder why we disagree, or from what underlying difference in premises the disagreement arises.

By identifying and challenging those underlying premises, philosophy and philosophers bring to people's attention (when they care to pay attention) the more fundamental issues that underlie the superficial disagreements over value judgements. And it is only through attention to those underlying differences in premises that differences in value judgements can be resolved without resort to force.

So you think that global warming, abortion, capital punishment, Republicans, Democrats, the war in Iraq, George Bush, Islam's treatment of women, the West's disrespect of women and family, Western decadent culture, pornography, the local zoning regulations, the tax rate, this TV show, that restaurant, this book, that girl/boy is "good"or "bad"? Why do you think so? Against what standard of measure do you proclaim that this or that is "good"or "bad"? What do you actually mean by "good"and "bad"? If such value judgements are simply a matter of personal opinion, then there can never be any reasonable justification for employing force to impose one set of opinions on others. The powerful can impose their value judgements on those they will simply because they can. But if such value judgements are more than simply personal subjective opinions, then it must be the case that some of those conflicting judgements must be wrong, and can be corrected by education rather than by force.

Look at the extent of the differences in value judgements in the contemporary scene -- such wide differences, over so many issues, at so many different scales of relevance to individuals. And look at the extent to which force is being employed to "correct"what are perceived to be other people's wrong headed value judgements. Don't you think that some careful attention to the underlying premises that generate these differences might be worth the effort?

Personally, I feel that philosophy has greater relevance to the modern scene than it has ever had before -- if only because the issues over which we disagree are so all encompassing and important for our future. It is unfortunate that so few in positions of public influence pay any attention to philosophy.


"What is death?"

To this question, Geoffrey Klempner responded:

This may seem obvious, but if I 'die' that means that I lose consciousness and 'never wake up'. If I did wake up --at any time, even billions of years, in the future --then I didn't really die, I merely lost consciousness for a long while.

But think of what that means. To assert, 'GK has died' implies a statement about all future times, to infinity. There is no finite length of time such that, if 'you' were to reappear after ceasing to 'live', that person could not, as a matter of logic, be you. The problem is that I don't know what 'infinity' means. I don't understand, I can't get my mind around, the notion of infinite future time. But understanding the notion of infinite future time is a necessary condition for grasping what it is to 'die'.

If, like me, you do not understand the notion of infinite future time then, like me, you have no alternative but to admit that you do not know 'what death is', and no amount of talk about mind and body or the criteria for personal identity can make good that deficiency.

Because I disagree with his last statement, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation to that offered by Geoffrey.

Geoffrey states that the assertion "GK has died" implies a statement about all future times, and that becuase he does not unerstand the concept of infinite future times, he therefore does not understand what death is.

But this reasoning is dependent on a particular notion of what constitutes a particular "person", an individual "identity", an "I". In particular, Geofrey's response presumes that the "physical plant" that is the "I" at this time/place has no significant connection to what constitutes the "I" in question. His suggestion that it is logically possible that "I" might wake up "at any time, even billions of years, in the future" presupposes that whatever it is that wakes up - the particular "person", the individual "identity", the "I" in question - has no necessary connection with the physical plant that initially lost consciousness - died.

It is, of course, not very clear from his brief comment just what notion of "I" he does hold. But if he can conceive of his "I" awaking some billions of years into the future, I think it is quite reasonable to assume that he is conceiving his "I" as independent of the material of which his current body is constructed. Otherwise, I would have expected him to mention something about the maintenance of that physical body over the intervening gap in consciousness. And he does close with that problematic statement "no amount of talk about mind and body or the criteria for personal identity can make good that deficiency".

The alternative I would like to offer takes the view that what constitutes the particular "person", the individual "identity", the "I" in question is intimately connected with the "physical plant" in which that particular "person", individual "identity", or "I" currently finds itself. On this view, what "I" am is a consequence of the biochemical processes that are taking place within the physical plant that is my body and brain. On this materialist view of personal identity, the problem of what consititues death becomes quite comprehensible.

What constitutes "life" is notoriously hard to define. But one way to do so is to notice particularly the way in which whatever life is, it effectively maintains a local state of lower entropy (higher energy content, greater informational content, more organized) than its environment. And the processes, actions, and behaviours of living things are directed towards the maintenance of this relatively lower level of local entropy. Death then is understandable as the cessation of the processes that maintain this lower level of local entropy, and the return of the physical constituents of life to the average entropy of the environment.

All of this is but a fancy way of saying that unless you do something to keep yourself alive, you will die. And death is the absence of the processes that keep you alive.

Which means that if you adopt my suggested interpretation of what constitutes a particular "person", an individual "identity", an "I" then death is permanent. The materialist view of personal identity leaves no opening for a logical possibility that you might wake up at some time in the future, if the processes that keep you alive have ceased. So Geoffrey's concern over the problem of knowing what "infinity" or "all future times" means does not arise. And understanding the notion of infinite future time is *not* a necessary condition for grasping what it is to 'die'.


[Up] [Home] [Next]