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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ask a Philosopher

Answers to Your Most Important and Most Unexpected Questions

Ian Olasov

Thomas Dunne Books


What Is Philosophy?

On the first day of class, when I’m trying to give my students a sense of what philosophy is all about, I give them a bunch of examples of philosophical questions. Inevitably, someone says something like, “Oh, you mean questions that you can’t really answer.” But I would resist this characterization. For starters, a lot of the questions that used to be considered philosophical (the question whether matter is infinitely divisible, for instance) have become scientific questions. Who’s to say that the questions in this book won’t become scientific questions eventually? (I think some of these questions are already settled science, but scientists themselves are reluctant to speak out about them for whatever reason.) But there’s something to this. There’s nothing like a consensus—among professional philosophers or the world at large—about the correct answers to philosophical questions. And this lack of consensus isn’t (just) due to the fact that some people haven’t thought things through carefully enough; in some cases, maximally reasonable, well-informed people can disagree about their answers.

Another suggestive but not quite right idea about what makes a question philosophical is illustrated by a funny thing that happens at the Ask a Philosopher booth. Usually, at some point over the course of the day, someone will see the sign and ask us a question about astrology or dream interpretation or astral projection or who shot JFK. It takes a bit of work to bring these discussions back to questions that I regard as philosophical. (What does the popularity of astrology tell us about the role of storytelling in our lives? What would make a dream interpretation correct? When is it reasonable to believe a conspiracy theory?) But why do people think that these questions are philosophical in the first place? In part, it’s just because philosophers as a whole haven’t put too much thought into how they communicate their work to the public. But I think it’s also because people have the sense, correctly, that philosophy is where you go to hear out ideas that aren’t taken seriously elsewhere. This is true in the sense that philosophical arguments often rely on artificial or outlandish thought experiments.

(<digression> Some of my favorites:

The Trolley Problem: If you saw a trolley headed toward five people tied to a track and you could flip a switch to divert it toward a single person, should you? If you saw a trolley headed toward five people, and you could push a large person in the path of the trolley to stop it, should you? Should the two questions receive the same answer, and if not, why not?

The Veil of Ignorance: Imagine that you temporarily knew everything you could ever want to know about the society you live in, except for who you are in that society. What changes would you make to the society’s basic laws and institutions? Since you couldn’t exploit any special bargaining power to advance your own interests, would these changes necessarily make for a more just society?

Twin Earth: Would “water” mean the same thing in a world that looked exactly like our own but where the stuff people called water was made of something other than H2O?

The Invisible Gardener: Is there a difference between a garden tended by a gardener who is impossible to detect and a garden tended by no gardener at all?

The New Riddle of Induction: If English had a word “grue,” which meant “first observed before 2030 and is green or not observed before 2030 and is blue,” would the fact that all the fresh grass you have ever seen is grue give you reason to believe that all grass is grue?

Gödel and Schmidt: If everything you believe about the person you call Kurt Gödel was actually true of someone you’ve never heard of named Schmidt, do you have a bunch of false beliefs about Gödel or a bunch of true beliefs about Schmidt?

The Knowledge Argument: If someone had lived her whole life in black and white, but knew everything there was to know about the physics and psychology and neuroscience of color perception, what, if anything, would she learn the first time she saw a red apple?

Freeze World: In a universe divided into three parts, one of which seems to outsiders to stand perfectly still for five minutes once every year, one of which seems to freeze for five minutes once every two years, and one of which seems to freeze every three years, does five minutes pass without anything changing once every six years?

The Floating Man: If you were born without any of your senses, would you still be aware of yourself?

The Ring of Gyges: If you had a ring that made you invisible when you wear it, would it make you an awful person? What would stop you from stealing, cheating, stalking, and generally doing all the selfish things you could get away with?

Dennett’s “Where Am I?”: If your brain remotely controlled the rest of your body through tiny radio transmitters placed on each of your nerve endings, would you be where your brain is or where your body is?

Gettier Cases: If, unbeknownst to you, someone has put your phone on silent and you hear your ringtone coming from another nearby phone, but at the same time, by complete coincidence, someone is actually calling you, do you know that you’re getting a call?

Radical Translation: If you are with someone speaking a language that is, as far as you know, completely unrelated to any language you speak and they point to a rabbit and say “Gavagai,” how do you know that “Gavagai” means rabbit, rather than undetached rabbit part, or rabbit time-slice, or the property of being a rabbit?</digression>)

It’s also true in the sense that some conclusions widely held among philosophers (that no one has conscious experiences, that the passage of time is an illusion, that no one knows anything) are ideas that we refuse to entertain in everyday life. In philosophy, at least when it’s relevant, it’s not enough just to dismiss these ideas out of hand; you have to reason about them.

Here’s a way of thinking about philosophy that works pretty well: if there’s no consensus about what methods or sources of evidence we should use to study some question, it’s philosophical. This is true of all the philosophical questions discussed in this book I think. It would also explain why people have the sense that philosophical questions are unanswerable, why questions leave philosophy over time, why there are philosophical questions to ask about every subject, and why open-mindedness is such an important virtue in philosophy.

Still, this isn’t quite right. There are pretty established methods for doing research in logic and the history of philosophy, which are part of philosophy if anything is, and there is no consensus about how to study some difficult problems in physics and history and psychology. But it’s the best I’ve got. If you know a better way of explaining what philosophy is, send me an email.

When we set up the Ask a Philosopher booth, we put out a bowl full of philosophical questions, a bowl full of thought experiments, and a bowl of candy. Toward the end of a hot summer day at the booth, the candy dish ran dry. A visitor looked at the empty candy bowl and asked, “Is this some kind of metaphor for philosophy?” That one hurt.

Why Is There Anything Instead of Nothing?

When I was a toddler, I had a memorable temper tantrum. I wanted fried eggs for breakfast, but I thought fried eggs were called scrambled eggs. So I asked for scrambled eggs, got them, and had a fit. When my parents offered me fried eggs, my fit continued. I didn’t just want fried eggs; I also wanted fried eggs to be called scrambled eggs. I was, perhaps not for the last time, asking for more than it was possible for my parents to deliver.

So why is there anything at all? On its face, this appears to be a request for a causal explanation. So you could paraphrase it as: what caused the first things to exist? It’s logically possible that the first things caused themselves to exist or that something that came after them caused them to exist. But let’s set those possibilities aside. (One reason to do so is that they stretch the concept of causation, perhaps to breaking. Another is that if things could cause themselves to exist or be caused to exist by later events, it’s unclear why this doesn’t happen all the time.) In that case, the only direct answer we’re left with is that something preceded the first things and caused them to exist. But that’s absurd. If something preceded the first things, they wouldn’t be the first things. It’s like asking, “What’s the name of Bill Clinton’s third son?” The question has no answer, not because it’s hard but because it assumes something false.

Of course there’s no causal explanation for the beginning of the world. But that’s not what I’m interested in.

It’s true that causal explanations aren’t the only types of explanations. We can explain mathematical facts (like the fact that 2 + 2 = 4) by deducing them in a humanly intelligible way from intuitive axioms (like the axioms of Peano arithmetic1); we can explain special laws of nature (like Kepler’s laws of planetary motion) by showing how they follow from more general laws of nature (like Newton’s law of gravity and laws of motion); we can explain an action or belief in terms of the reasons in favor of it; we can explain a trait of an organism in terms of its function; we can explain hard-to-understand ideas by rephrasing them in familiar terms or by using vivid analogies or examples. But the question evidently isn’t asking for the fact that stuff exists to be deduced from mathematical principles or laws of nature or rephrased in a way that makes sense—or anything like that. So it’s asking for an explanation, but not any kind of explanation, anyone has heard of or could recognize. Like asking for a fried egg that’s called a scrambled egg, this seems to be asking more than anyone could deliver.

That said, if the fact that there is anything at all can’t be satisfactorily explained in any of the ways we explain other things, that’s interesting. If the question just draws us toward that conclusion, it’s worth asking.

Lastly, one thing that explanations do is provide people peace of mind or the feeling of understanding. We ask for explanations when we feel confused or lost. The question might just be a request for something that gives you the feeling of understanding the fact that stuff exists. In that case, the question doesn’t have a single correct answer: what gives your neighbor the feeling of understanding might not do the same for you. And of course, I can’t tell you what’s going to give you the feeling of understanding here, because I don’t know who’s reading this. You’ll have to find it on your own.

This discussion has conspicuously left out any mention of God, who’s often invoked in this context. I don’t think God will help us answer the question, in part for the reasons I gave above. But there’s another big reason I’m leaving God out of the picture.…

Copyright © 2020 by Ian Olasov.