Philosophical Questions and their Answers

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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It seems that many – most? – philosophers think that what philosophy is about is arriving at true positions on subjects ranging from morality, to knowledge, to reality, and the like. They think there is a determinate answer as to whether moral realism or anti-realism is true or whether the Internalists or Externalists get knowledge right or whether [or how] we retain our personal identity over time.

Indeed, suggesting that this is not what philosophy is about or can do makes a lot of philosophers really upset. Not too long ago, my friend Spencer Case approved a colleague’s claim that “moral anti-realism is more offensive than any first-order, normative view”; that is, taking an anti-realist position on morals is worse than, say, having the beliefs of an 18th century slaveowner regarding black people or of a member of the SA about Jews.

As I do take an anti-realist view on morals but also don’t want to upset fine, upstanding young philosophers like Spencer and others for whom It Is All About Truth and Who Is Correct, I’ve decided to just cut to the chase and give the correct answers to philosophy’s most fundamental and enduring questions, as well as some others. Admittedly, there won’t be much for philosophers to do after this, but they [or at least some of them] did ask for it. So, here we go!

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1. Why is there something, rather than nothing?

Why shouldn’t there be something?

2. Where do words get their meanings from?

People.

3.  Does God exist?

Of course not. Have you looked around?

4. What are the foundations of morality?

People care about things. A lot.

5.  What are the foundations of value?

People like and dislike things. A lot.

6. What is the supreme principle of morality?

There isn’t one.

7. What is the standard of beauty?

There isn’t one.

8.  How can we reconcile the subjectivity and normativity of taste?

We can’t, and the fact that some people want others to like what they like doesn’t change that.

9. Are values “mind-independent”?

No. Just imagine if there never were any people.

10. Is reality “mind-independent”?

No. Minds are part of reality. What else would they be a part of?

11. What justifies our beliefs?

Lots of different things. Depends on the context.

12. What are persons?

Friends; family; neighbors; compatriots; etc.

13. What is the standard of personal identity?

It depends on the context.

14. What is the nature of mind and body?

Ask the psychologists, neuroscientists, physiologists, anatomists, etc. What would philosophers know about it?

15. Is there Free Will?

No. There’s no “will,” so how can it be free?

16. What makes agency possible?

People have reasons for doing things.

17. What is the best system of government?

Liberal democracy.

18. What is Justice?

Sometimes it’s fairness. Sometimes it’s desert. Sometimes it’s something else. It depends on the context.

19. How do we know we aren’t brains-in-vats?

The same way that we know that we aren’t goats.

20. What determines the reference of an indexical?

Talking and pointing.

Comments

27 responses to “Philosophical Questions and their Answers”

  1. Jay Jeffers

    You think Hitler’s views were bad?? Wait’ll you see J.L. Mackie!

    lol

  2. John Rapko

    19/20–For the correct answer to #17, see the answers to #’s 6, 7, and 18.

  3. spencerjaycase

    What’s there left for me to do now that I have this cheat sheet? Mix up the puzzle pieces via postmodernism and try to put the puzzle together again, maybe.

    In all seriousness, thinking that absolute evil is morally obligatory is form of realism that’s even worse even than error theory. So there are even worse things than anti-realism. A few. Hitler and alcohol-free beer among them.

    But, as I said on Twitter, philosophy isn’t all about Truth. It’s also about being reasonable, and about enjoying our exercise of our rational capacities with friends, preferably with coffee or beer. Socrates had a good time.

  4. Richard Rapport

    If you have tenure, is the ipse dixit no longer a fallacy?

    Yes.

  5. I know it’s not a particularly serious list, but how can you have people, agency and reasons, but no will?

  6. Paul D. Van Pelt

    VERY good! I saw a thread of commonality running through your answers. I have held that people believe and do the things for which they have interests, preferences and motivations. This extends into what I have called contextual reality, or, as you succinctly put it: it depends.
    We have both been hanging ’round with attorneys too long. Your note on will was spot on: it is conspicuous in its’ absence. Exceptional people can muster it, in hard times.

  7. You’re right! How could I forget? It’s tucked between the cerebellum and the spinal cord!

  8. Well, it’s serious in the following sense: if you are one of the philosophers who thinks this way about the discipline, I’d suggest that my answers are just as good as any you’d like to come up with.

    In short, if you think my list is crazy, that’s exactly the point. Now, ask yourself: What are *you* doing?

  9. QED, that brevity is the soul of wit– and of clarity. Bravo!

  10. Rageforthemachine

    To paraphrase Whitehead:

    “All philosophy of the future will consist of a series of footnotes to Kaufman”

  11. Oh my god, this made me cough up coffee through my nose.

  12. Matt

    For Sidney Morgenbesser, the answer to anyone who asks question 1 is (paraphrasing lightly) that “if there were nothing, you’d still be complaining about it.”

  13. nannus

    🙂

  14. “…between the cerebellum and the spinal cord.”: Well, if you’re willing to localize agency to the thalamus and reasons to the prefrontal cortex…

    “…philosophers who thinks this way about the discipline…”: I hope professional philosophers do have something slightly more to say about the questions that really matter to everyone (at least at some time in their lives). Even if it is to say that your guess is as good as mine with a certain amount of authority 😉

  15. In recent years, I’ve noticed myself reading a lot less philosophy and reading (with profit) a lot more in the “ology” fields: sociology, psychology, anthropology.

    I think part of the reason goes to what you say, Dan. A ton of philosophers proceed as if the goal is to get to the right answer of things that we can know as such. I guess I become less convinced of that goal by the year. Partly, it is because especially when dealing with human affairs (knowledge, justification, moral valuations) I simply see no reason to think that these are anything more than groups of people trying to find uneasy equilibria of uneasy agreement and mitigation of disagreement. If we disagree on moral values, figuring out the objectively correct answer assumes there is something more to morality than a great social coordination game between people of differing temperaments, and frankly, there aren’t good reasons I can see for making that assumption.

    Well, it turns out that anthropology, sociology, etc, generally does not seek to resolve, but explain. You will see sociologists or psychologists, for instance MUCH more likely to analyze in a way where “the answer” is that there are competing values/forces at play and that’s that. I find these answers much more satisfying than the philosophical ones (where there is a hunt for an overriding and therefore transhuman value that resolves things once and for all). Why? Because in many cases, not seeking a resolution allows for a thicker explanation.

  16. “11. What justifies our beliefs?

    Lots of different things. Depends on the context.”

    Some years ago, I decided that the best understanding of philosophy (at least from my view) must see it as a specie of rhetoric. Why? Because philosophy always comes down to “justification,” and when I really think about what justification is, it is a rhetorical term through-and-through. It means that something has convinced, but “has convinced” MUST be dependent on how an argument is presented relative to the person it is presented to. I can have a good case and present it poorly or in a way that would fail to meet the standards of the person hearing the case; in that case, a philosopher would often want to say that even though it did not convince, the argument is convincing and the person’s standards (or my argument for the case) is wrong. But all that means is that they, the philosopher, can inagine a situation where the case was packaged in a convincing way and did convince.

    Justification must always come down to how an argument is packaged relative to the person or people hearing the case and their standards. Philosophers who talk about justification in the abstract are, to my mind, a group of people who have their own distinct standards for justification (what should justify) and are so sure of those standards that they’ve wrongly taken them for objective standards.

  17. Regarding questions 9 and 10 about mind-independence, there is, to my mind, an obvious stumbling block. I see it treated by many as trivial, but I can’t see how it is. It is that any attempt to see the world involves a mind processing what it seen. That doesn’t lead to idealism, as some strangely claim, but simply a huge confound, that we cannot at any point disentangle the data presented to us from the minds processing that data. Therefore, as far as I can see, the question of whether values or reality or primary or secondary qualities are mind-independent is simply a useless question. And unfortunately, philosophers’ interest in a question often seems proportionate to the question’s uselessness.

  18. Kevin —

    I think I see what you mean here, and I agree mostly.

    But I still don’t quite understand one thing: Aiming for ‘thicker explanations’ as opposed to aiming for ‘transhuman value’ seems to me to be a comparative point you’ve arrived at philosophically. That is, haven’t you become a good anti-philosopher by means of doing lots of good philosophy?

    If not, fair enough.

    If so, however, then philosophy at least offers the potential to be a speech about the whole of being, as in the ‘Metaphysics’ (E1. 1025b). That is, it allows you the best way to sort and then rank all those other disciplines, disciplines which often do not ask about their own first principles, and which as a result don’t allow you to do that kind of sorting and ranking.

    What do you think?

  19. Jesse,

    Yes, that’s a fair point. I still read philosophy, but the philosophers who move me most and that I find most compelling are indeed the pluralists, relativists, and postodern-related folks. When I think on why that is, I think it is because in some sense, they are the ones who are more trying to explain tensions and maybe guide us on how we can live with them rather than figuring out ways to show that these tensions are apparent only.

    That’s fair, and surely, this is philosophy. But I would add that if you look at how much representation and philosophical respect these folks (Kekes, Berlin, Foucault, Mouffe, etc) get in the field, it is very little. And the reason seems to be that they aren’t really doing what philosophers tend to do and what most philosophers think philosophy should do.

    Moreover, there is, I think, a reason why many of these figures have bigger reputations outside than inside academic philosophy. Berlin is an intellectual historian, Foucault gets much more love in sociology and similar fields, etc. Because in some sense, their refusal to explain AWAY tensions means that in some sense, they are hardly doing the kind of work most philosophers recognize as philosophy.

  20. Kevin wrote:

    “[W]e cannot at any point disentangle the data presented to us from the minds processing that data. Therefore, as far as I can see, the question of whether values or reality or primary or secondary qualities are mind-independent is simply a useless question.”

    There are, however, serious points to be made — philosophical or not — which I think you (and some of the thinkers you appeal to) tend to gloss over by minimizing or blurring distinctions between different kinds of knowledge (or “knowledge”).

    “If we disagree on moral values, figuring out the objectively correct answer assumes there is something more to morality than a great social coordination game between people of differing temperaments, and frankly, there aren’t good reasons I can see for making that assumption.”

    Maybe so. But ethics operates quite differently from physics or chemistry or practical disciplines like engineering or plumbing.

  21. Animal Symbolicum

    I like this point. (I am currently writing something that makes a similar point about mathematical proof.)

    Something you said in a diavlog once — don’t ask me which one — resonated with me too.

    You said — I’m paraphrasing here, and forgive me if I’m putting words in your mouth — that the model we should look to when thinking about what justification is, is what judges do in justifying their decisions. Judges don’t justify by pointing to indubitables or by appealing to an ultimate reality or by invoking standards they pretend are inscribed in the cosmos. A judicial justification is tantamount to a making-one’s-basic-judgments-transparent.

    Judges draw upon a legal framework (of interpretation, of rules, of values, of ideals, of assumed competencies, of candidate audiences) in which any justification must bottom out, both if a judgment is actually to be issued and if what is issued is to be so much as intelligible as a justification.

    In brief, judicial justification is, and can only be, an insider’s game. Judges don’t pretend their decisions will speak to someone unfamiliar with or opposed to the legal framework within which they are meant to be made, and they recognize the silliness of crafting their decisions with such a person in mind.

    I take this earlier point of yours to be a sort of philosophical ground for your point here.

  22. Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate this. I like how you’ve put it. What I can’t shake — and this may come down to the temperament you’ve written about — is this.

    Back to your original comment, ie, ‘not seeking a resolution allows for a thicker explanation’: this seems slightly off to me. If the problem is the realm of disagreement, I don’t see why seeking a resolution to things can’t provide as thick an explanation as not seeking one, especially if the attempt at a resolution itself leads to further dialogue.

    I guess (and I’m not sure here), the realm of disagreement at issue here is itself something that all can agree on, or something that is intelligible to all, regardless of temperament. And this ‘something’, I think, can be talked about intelligibly only in a way that is at bottom philosophical.

  23. Reading philosophy can be like our immersion in the world of a novel in that we are released from our own views for a time and willingly accept the depiction of the everyday as strange, uncanny, prophetic and unwieldy.  Is there coherence, a plot that hangs together or does it fall from the wall like badly hung wallpaper? We look for a vision, the irruption of an insight and juggle the answers. How many truths can we keep in the air at the same time and they are not even the same weight?

  24. This is really, good. Thank you.

  25. Dan,
    you do enjoy your provocations. Mind you there is nothing wrong with that. They are enjoyable but most importantly they make us think. That jolt of cognitive dissonance is more powerful than an early morning fix of strong coffee.

    I’ve decided to just cut to the chase and give the correct answers to philosophy’s most fundamental and enduring questions, as well as some others. Admittedly, there won’t be much for philosophers to do after this

    My first reaction on reading your list was that the end of curiosity is the beginning of death.

    Living creatures are by nature explorers as it is vital to discovering the threats and opportunities necessary for survival. We differ in that the opening of the cognitive world has opened up a rich new world for exploration and we have explored that world in extraordinary depth and detail. We differ also in that our cognition has multiplied our curiosity.

    Why then does curiosity end and death begin?

    It seems that we exhaust the answers(seemingly) and we exhaust our enthusiasm. As we accumulate partial answers they clutter up our mind and this clutter slows progress and finally ends it. It ends because we lack the ability to push further through the clutter for more or better answers. The ‘been there, done that and seen it all’ syndrome sets in. The result is inertia and finally apathy.

    We all need a modicum of certainty in our lives and the search for answers is not only an expression of curiosity but is also an expression of the need for certainty. The problem is that once we attain a certain degree of certainty(whether justified or not) we tend to end our search there. And now the terminal stage sets in. This is where we devote our energies to defending what we have found so far. We become dedicated to preserving and defending our version of certainty. It is terminal because it is the end of progress.

    Is there any answer?

  26. Thanks Dan this was a real time saver.